Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

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Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

As teachers working in today’s hugely challenging educational landscape, how often do we get chance to pause and reflect on the positive impact we are having on the lives of young people in our classrooms?

For me, with the relentless balancing act of term time, leaving me juggling work emails, marking sets of books meaningfully, adapting planning and lesson resources for the next lesson in a series of work, developing intervention timetables and resources, attending meetings both in school and out of school, delivering staff training, I could go on, I am often left unable (or is the word, unwilling!) to spend any considerable length of time stopping and reflecting on the positives of a job well done. However, as this half term holiday rolls into its sixth day of quiet relaxation, I have had chance to reflect on one particularly positive impact I was able to have this half-term thanks to the collaborative nature of working for Ad Astra Academy Trust. More on that in a moment; but, first, some thoughts on transition.

Transition: Out of the frying pan, into the fire- ‘If you think SATs are hard, wait ‘til you get to secondary school!’

As a Year 6 teacher, I spend a considerable amount of my time and energy not only teaching children in a way that hopefully allows learning to be deep, worthwhile and enjoyable, I also spend a lot of my year reassuring my class about concerns they may have linked to their transitions to secondary school (a massive change for all 11-year-olds!) and helping them to begin to make the mental shift from life as a primary school pupil to life as a secondary school pupil.

In my experience, over the past four years, feeder secondary schools with whom I’ve worked are getting better at bridging the transition from the nurturing environment most pupils experience in primary school to the vastly different surrounds of a secondary school and all of the additional challenges that go hand in hand with that change; for example, in the last two years, I have had considerably improved communication working with my secondary colleagues so that they have a greater understanding of the learning conditions within a successful primary school.

That said, however, transition from Year 6 to Year 7 remains a massive obstacle to learning over which far too many pupils still struggle to climb. There has been nothing as disheartening in my career, as hearing about that child who we taught in year 6, who made vast progress in reading, writing and maths to have regained parity with his peers on his own merit in his SATs tests, only to be removed to alternate provision within the first two weeks of being at his secondary school.

Of course, I am not claiming in this blog post that if I had been working in that secondary school, I would have been able to meet the considerable needs of this pupil within an entirely new setting, with five lessons per day, moving round school of their own accord, having to self-regulate their behaviours more effectively and independently at breaks and lunchtimes. What I am saying, though, is that pupil was failed in the transition process and his future educational prospects hampered.

Over and over again, I am led in my head to one question regarding transition- namely: are children simply taught poorly once they leave primary school? It is not without warrant that I ask such a question. Just this weekend, the national media were bemoaning the current state of secondary education in the north of England.

Anne Longfield- the children’s commissioner for England- told The Times  that she believes schemes to attract the best and brightest teachers and head teachers to the north should be introduced to emulate the success story in London secondary schools. This followed statistics regarding university applicants to Cambridge and Oxford, which showed that between 2010 and 2015 ‘the west London borough of Richmond sent eight times as many students to Oxford (333) as Salford, Middlesbrough, Stoke, Hartlepool and Blackpool combined.’ ­­­­1

(Now this kind of statistic immediately sets many alarms bells ringing in my head, as well as stoking my inner northerner to rise to the surface with proud indignity and immediate rebuttal of the facts.

  1. What is the obsession of mainstream media with sending applicants to Oxbridge? It is perfectly clear that to lead a happy, fulfilled, economically-stable life one does not need to go to Oxbridge- indeed one does not need to go to University at all. (Is it perhaps something to do with the fact that so many men and women on Fleet Street are in the ‘Oxbridge bubble’.)
  2. It is quite probable that many other areas of the country, including areas in the South East- our much lauded ‘economic powerhouse’- also sent fewer applicants to Oxford as all of those northern towns named. The only thing is those other towns don’t fit with the narrative of the overall piece that northern secondary schools are weaker than those in London and the South East generally.)

Despite my reservations on the statistic, it still stands as a shocking fact for any primary school teacher working in Hartlepool or Middlesbrough that our pupils have such a slim chance, statistically speaking, of attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world, compared to their peers in Richmond- who, let’s not forget, are currently being taught a broadly similar curriculum to face identical statutory tests at the end of Key Stage 1 and 2.

Further research by the children’s commissioner just further reinforced the scale of the problem faced by young people in the north, while also praising the work of primary schools in this region. Research found that ‘a young person leaving school or college in London was 57 per cent more likely to go to a top university than a school leaver in the north. However, at primary school, children in the north have been shown to do as well as in the south.’ 1 Depressing, or what!

So before we all start filling our now-empty half-term wine glasses with tears and descending into a cumulative misery not witnessed since the cinematic screenings of the end of Titanic, let me explain why, despite these statistics, I believe Ad Astra Academy Trust is having such a positive impact on the life chances of young people in our schools.

Working together works

I had been asked to write this post for the trust blog, on a topic of my choice, several months back. I had an inkling that I wanted to write something on transition and the wider purpose of teaching beyond the curriculum but it turns out having an idea is a lot easier than either finding the time to sit down and write, or confining my myriad thoughts on these issues to logically formed sentences.

As the song goes, there’s no better place to start than at the very beginning, so during this half term, resisting my natural urges to put all the work away and revel in the bliss glory of freedom, I began by sitting down and having a read over some of the documents on the trust website. Whilst reading the trust’s ‘Welcome’ document I came across this paragraph and the idea to formulate what I have been wanting to say struck me like a thunderbolt.

‘The core function of the Ad Astra Academy Trust and the schools within it is to provide an outstanding education for all children irrespective of their background; equipping them with the skills and abilities to go on to not only be ‘secondary ready’ but also to be able to continue to develop and lead fulfilling lives with meaningful employment opportunities. The Trust also believes in offering children an enriched diet that encompasses not only the academic skills and knowledge but also provides opportunities for wider interests and experiences and the promotion of life skills such as moral values and resilience.’ 2

Ad Astra Academy Trust is about so much more than just teaching the requirements of the curriculum, either across schools, or, even worse just within the narrow scope of individual year groups. Ad Astra Academy Trust is about teaching our children to become the happy, fulfilled, successful adults of tomorrow. I think this is something we should be very proud of indeed.

It is so easy as teachers with performance management always looming to become solely focussed on the individuals in our classroom meeting narrowly defined targets, within the scope of the National Curriculum or, at least, in order to prepare our students for those ‘all-important’ (for schools, not pupils!) cut-throat assessments at the end of Key Stages; however, this is something I believe we should avoid. (There are probably now at least a thousand more blog posts that could be written to expand on this but, for now, that is beyond the remit of what I am trying to get across here.)

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
– W.B. Yeats

I believe that the fact the Trust has this wider view of education at the heart of its core function is a massive positive, encouraging us, as Yeats said, to light the fire for our pupils. This half term has proven to me that at Ad Astra, we don’t only talk the talk; we can also walk the walk.

In October, I was privileged to take 10 Year 6 pupils from West View Primary School to Hart Biologicals- a company based in Hartlepool and set up by one of Ad Astra’s trustees, Alby Pattison. It was a fantastic opportunity for these pupils to raise their aspirations by showing them a ‘real-life’ business in action, whilst also allowing them to see cutting-edge science and technology being created, tested and applied, therefore promoting interest and engagement in science.

Towards the end of the last academic year, Mr Pattison took time to meet myself and a colleague to discuss the possibility of taking a group of Year 6 pupils to the company headquarters. As we walked around the site, I marvelled at each of the laboratories filled with scientists hard at work, musing to myself that it appeared more like a scene from a James Bond movie than a Tuesday morning in Hartlepool. I was hugely impressed as Mr Pattison explained how community and local employment was of huge importance to his company and himself and how he valued collaboration between the education sector and local business to help forge those vital skills of resilience and self-reliance so valued in the work place. Hart Biologicals hadn’t previously had children from the primary sector come to work with the team but they were very open to work collaboratively with us as teachers to meet the need of our pupils.

As such, at the start of this year, I dropped Alby an email, he put me in touch with another member of staff from Hart Biologicals, who was incredibly helpful with organising the trip, and within a month, a group of 10 and 11-year-olds had their very first taste of the workplace. A highly-dynamic, modern workplace, filled with the technologies of tomorrow. It was one of my proudest moments as a teacher, as I stood back and allowed the enthusiasm of the pupils pour forth, asking questions ranging from the sublime to the blissfully-ignorant ridiculous (‘What would happen if you got locked in the industrial freezer?’ I believe it was!) The children had a fantastic afternoon and we were fantastically hosted by the team at Hart Biologicals.

So, what has this taught me about Ad Astra Academy Trust? What has this taught me as a teacher? In answer to both questions, I have learnt the vital importance of collaboration in our rapidly changing world. A quick email from an Ad Astra trustee, expressing interest in working with primary schools, has led- with a dash of hard work- to 10 young people from Hartlepool getting their first taste of the wider world into which they are growing up. If it even inspired one of those pupils to further develop their skillset as they prepare for the challenges of an unknown future, it will have definitely been worthwhile.

As our trust continues to grow, as new strengths and interests are introduced and new ideas intermingle through collaboration, it is guaranteed that further opportunities for positively impacting on children’s life chances will only present themselves.

APPENDIX:

1 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/north-needs-top-teachers-to-close-the-oxbridge-gap-6q9z3xz2s

2Ad Astra Academy Trust website; Welcome to Ad Astra document; http://www.adastraacademytrust.com/goverance-page/#1481796367727-fa81d15a-b991

 

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