Freedom means something different to all of us. For me, it’s definitely outdoors: wide-open spaces; no-one for miles; ideally at the first crack of dawn.
Freedom is often a tale of two halves in teaching. On the one hand, walk into that classroom and those thirty eager young minds are your’s for the moulding. You have the freedom to take that learning where you want; deliver it the way you want; respond and discuss the ideas that are raised how you want. Equally, there are few professions so over-policed. Continual learning walks, observations, work scrutinies, planning scrutinies, School Improvement visits, OFSTED, data analysis etc, etc. The challenge we have faced as a school, and continue to face, is when do we need ‘control’ and when do we need ‘freedom’.
In the early days of my time at Kensington, we felt control was definitely more necessary. There wasn’t much of a curriculum to speak of. Planning, marking and teaching were of very varied quality. Being directive felt like the best and quickest way to bring about change. As a result, that’s what we did. There were strict guidelines on how and when to mark. Clear formats for planning. Set criteria for teaching – which were monitored through (extremely) extensive observation forms: 2014-15 Evaluation of Quality of Teaching and Learning, that listed a myriad of areas you would want to see covered in a lesson. It all seems like a certain kind of madness now but the school was in a very different place and, ultimately, we got to where we needed to.
As the school has progressed, so has our thinking. One of our most considered topics, in many different guises, has been where do we provide greater freedom and where do we need to retain control? It’s an ongoing conversation. Our monitoring has gone through a number of different iterations and, today, we no longer carry out formal observations but, instead, gather our information through regular learning walks, conversations with children and staff, and a variety of other mechanisms. The forms we gather this on are simplified too – General scrutiny 17-18 – with the ‘+’ for listing everything that is positively impacting on learning and the ‘-‘ anything that is detracting from or stopping learning. Teachers are encouraged to plan however they see fit. There is a Word template but, equally, they can plan on flip charts or using other methods if that suits them better. Marking is guided by a policy – Marking and feedback policy 2017-2018 – but the policy asks teachers to, ‘use your professional judgment to decide when is the right time to surface mark, when it needs highlighting, or when a next step comment is the right approach.’ Equally, there is no set way to teach. No didactic rules about LO/LI/WALT or success criteria.
Philosophically, we believe this is the ‘right’ way: teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. They should be able to make professional judgments and do as they see fit. Learning is not one size fits all and a one size fits all approach is unlikely to ever be as successful as one that can be adapted and moulded by a professional who knows their children best. Nevertheless, it brings challenges. This is fine where teachers are experienced and doing well; more difficult when they are newly qualified or struggling with the demands of the job.
So too with the monitoring. Whilst we want to reduce this, we also have a responsibility to ensure our children are getting the standard of education they deserve. It would be wonderful to be able to leave this to trust, but also irresponsible. Irresponsible as much to our staff as our children. For many, if they are struggling they won’t want to come forward or may not even realise before it’s too late. Monitoring helps to identify who needs our help and support so it can be provided in a nonjudgmental way, and as quickly as possible.
As ever, it is not clear cut – and, as ever, we are not ‘there’ yet. Whilst the Utopian vision may be one of all teachers having the freedom to develop learning in their classroom, unfettered by the chains of ‘control’ and ‘monitoring’, the reality is different. As it stands, we have a relatively ‘free’ approach, with light touch monitoring – although still very regular in the context of other professions – supported by an extensive programme of CPD to help all staff develop skills and knowledge. Feedback aims to focus on the positives: bolstering confidence and motivating staff further. Next steps are aimed at being manageable and on key areas of development, not the minutiae. I would like to think that this is something we can continue to develop.
All of this is possible because of where the school is now. As leaders, one of the many challenges, is deciding when a ‘freer’ approach is appropriate and when greater control is required. Whether here or in another school, the future may demand a different approach and philosophical beliefs may be outweighed by current realities.
For Kensington over the next year or two, Utopia may not be attainable…but we could at least reach the outer walls.