Achieving social justice starts with the students

Andy Williams, Senior Education Lead for SSAT, highlights the impact that leadership and collaboration can have on student success, and the benefits that could come from additional funding and resources allocated towards the education system as a whole.

How long have you been a Senior Education Lead for?

Six years.

What got you into working with schools in this way? What drives you?

I was involved with the Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme, TEEP, quite early on in my teaching career, around 2008, which is now part of SSAT’s offer. That got me involved with working with other schools on school improvement and development, teaching & learning and so on. That’s the basis of my role now at SSAT.

I was also involved with the local authority in bringing in the diplomas to our schools, and that was very much led by SSAT back in the day. That was my first meeting with SSAT, and first being aware of what SSAT was all about – its moral purpose of improving schools so children get a better deal, essentially.

It was when I was working in a school at the time as a senior leader in 2013 that an opportunity came up to work directly with SSAT on TEEP and teaching and learning in general. That’s what brought me to SSAT.

As a senior education lead, what aspect of change/development within the school system is considered top priority to you?

The biggest issue here is the fact that it’s constantly changing. One of the most important aspects of all of that is leadership. Schools have to be really clear about their purpose and their vision. I often talk about vision, mission and values… it’s not just about the vision and the values, but it’s also the mission – where you’re headed and why.

There’s a really great book by Simon Sinek, Start with Why. It’s about how leaders need to really grasp this idea of why they’re on this course or journey, so they can inspire others. It’s not just about attainment, for instance, it’s not just about children doing well in assessments and exams. It’s about that holistic picture and I think sometimes it’s really easy to get lost in all of that.

I think the fundamental problem with some of the initiatives around schools is that there is just so much change, so much that school leaders need to think about… and teachers as well, for that matter. Gone are the days when you close your classroom door and just get on with teaching. It’s much bigger than that. I think there’s so much that we need to think about in terms of where we’re headed and if we’re doing the right thing for all the children that we have in our care.

I think that’s the hard thing because we get something like the new draft Ofsted framework and immediately we start thinking, “Oh, we’ve got to concentrate on curriculum,” where we’ve always had to concentrate on curriculum as well as always having had to concentrate on assessment, on teaching and learning, on consistency… making sure that you have a really clear purpose in mind.

That’s where SSAT comes in strongly in terms of the support we offer to schools. We are that moral backbone that helps you do your job. It’s not just about one thing, it’s not just about curriculum and ignoring data and all these other things we’ve had to consider over the years in schools. It’s about all of those things together and it’s about making sure you’re offering the right thing for your staff and the children.

You have done some work on Lead Practitioner principles. Why do you think it’s important for teachers to continuously improve their engagement with research?

It’s about evidence-informed practice… the bottom line is that there’s a real danger, I think a propensity for teachers to try to find the silver bullet of education, like the one strategy or process that is going to be the thing which makes the difference to their teaching and subsequently childrens’ learning.

The danger with that is that we know in our heart of hearts… if we just verbalise it, we know it’s just not true. Teachers have to be adaptable. They have to have that teacher toolkit, that huge bank of research, processes and strategies that they have to apply as the need arises.

I think that’s where Lead Practitioner is ideal because not only does it develop a community of evidence-informed practitioners, but it gives teachers the process and principles behind how they should be engaging with academic research, and also engaging with research with their colleagues, with parents, with anyone who has a vested interest in the education and wellbeing of a child. That’s not just academically, but also all those enrichment activities that they would do as part of the extended curriculum.

Can you identify one (new) particular way in which you and SSAT are now aiming to help schools manage the challenges they are facing at this time?

One of the biggest growth areas for Lead Practitioners is the Lead Practitioner Learning Centres, and the idea behind Lead Practitioner Learning Centres is that they will become a hub of professional development in their area. It’s something that we’re going slowly with, it’s certainly not a case that we’ll recruit just anyone, although every school is potentially eligible because there’s so many other factors to take into account such as capacity of the staff, the expertise, the experience of the staff, the training and support side of an LP Learning Centre… but what it effectively does is it establishes a school as a hub of professional development, a hub of excellence for becoming more engaged with research, evidence-informed practice and building communities of support, guidance and a professional learning network that is vital to school improvement.

Can you describe an occasion when your advice and collaboration with school leaders and/or teachers has made a big difference to them, and to you?

I just had a case study this morning from Bristnall Hall Academy. They have just been announced as our latest Lead Practitioner Learning Centre in Sandwell borough which is one of the category 6 local authorities, an under-performing local authority with a number of challenges.

Bristnall Hall Academy are at the centre of all of that and they want to do the very best for their children. I don’t think that would be any surprise to anybody, but they’ve been incredibly proactive. They’ve gone out to seek initiatives to support teachers and children and Lead Practitioner is just one of the things they’ve embarked upon in a bid to make sure that they can turn around the fortunes of some of the children that are in their region. It’s all about that deep social justice agenda. It’s that opportunities should be there for all children and not just for the privileged few. Here is a school with significant challenges and yet their enthusiasm, their passion for doing the right thing for their children is just palpable. You walk into the school and you feel it in your gut. There’s nothing like it.

Aside from Lead Practitioner, simple things like last time I was there, I was training the trainers for the LP Learning Centre and they introduced me to Dexter, the six-month-old puppy, who was part of the team. There’s a little black Labrador puppy and children are reading with the puppy and the empathy that they feel for him and the emotional intelligence that it elicits in the children is just fantastic. That’s just one example of where the school has said, “This could be a good idea, and let’s do it, let’s just make it happen.”

The rigmarole involved in actually getting a puppy as part of your school staff is huge. You have so many other things to consider, and in their heart, they understand exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. It’s about that moral purpose, that commitment to wanting to do the very best… that’s where the Lead Practitioner Learning Centre has flown. They’ve included the guys at the local authority, they’ve opened out the Lead Practitioner Accreditation for a number of schools and not just their own, they’ve got cross-phase working with primary schools working with secondary and so on. As a model of support, collegiality, collaboration, it’s perfect. They have aspirations to then make this even bigger and I am confident they will achieve this.

What projects/tasks are you working on in relation to your role right now?

Lead Practitioner is a big part of my role and gives me the opportunity to work with a lot of school staff. TEEP is another one which occupies a lot of my time. The big thing about TEEP is that we have many expert trainers who deliver on our behalf from many different backgrounds and a wide range of expertise. I’m also doing a lot of work internationally at the moment, and that’s really fascinating.

Dan Belcher, Senior Education Lead at SSAT and I went to Peru at the end of last year. We were expecting there to be some fundamental differences between the education system and there were. There were schools with really high deprivation and incredible challenges. We think we’re poorly off, but some of the schools out there actually have nothing at all. And yet, the similarities were greater than the differences. The similarities were things like the enthusiasm, the inspiration… the teachers and the leadership out there were just phenomenal. It comes right back to having the child, the learner, at the heart of everything that they do. We saw things like displays from the children on the walls about being employable, about caring for others, that whole picture of what a child should be, and some of those social skills they should possess, and how the schools are encouraging this. It’s not just about the attainment, it’s about the achievement of them being valuable members of society. So much so that we were talking to one headteacher in a really deprived area and she was saying that she was retiring in a year’s time. As she was describing her retirement, she actually had tears in her eyes, because she just couldn’t face the thought of who was going to look after her children. It was incredibly moving, and I think that it says it all. That’s the similarity, that’s what you see when you talk to teachers in the UK and when you talk to teachers in Kenya, in Spain, in Peru… it’s the passion they have for doing the right thing for children that is really heart-warming and reminds me why I do the job that I do. The fact that SSAT can support those aims and that mission, that’s what fills my heart with this job.

If you could be the instrument of one major social justice change for schools, what would that be?

It has to come down to funding. We’ve got schools who have been incredibly creative and inventive, and doing a lot with very little. It’s not an equitable system. We’ve got some real disparities between the funding arrangements in the UK and I think that’s something we desperately need to address. I come from a fairly disadvantaged background myself and I know how much harder it was at school to achieve and I think we’ve got to take away some of those barriers. It’s been really fascinating looking into things like social mobility, social justice and so on… it’s not a simple solution.

It’s not just about funding. It’s also about opportunities that those funding arrangements can elicit. It’s not enough to say to Oxford or Cambridge, “Let’s make sure that you offer places to disadvantaged children.” There’s also social elitism that takes over and those children have to struggle for years to just blend in with the others. It’s about opening childrens’ minds to the opportunities that are out there, giving them the aspirations of being able to achieve more and like it or not, we can’t do that without the necessary funding in place. It needs to be the right level of funding in the right places.

Andy Williams
Senior Education Lead

Andy is co-writing a pamphlet as part of SSAT’s Fighting for deep social justice campaign with Corinne Settle, Senior Education Lead, SSAT. The publication – due to be published Summer 2019 – focuses on deep learning and has four key themes:

  • Literacy, numeracy and oracy: and how reading is vital from an early age
  • Metacognition: thinking about how we learn (both teachers and learners)
  • Self-determination: becoming more self-aware and self-regulating as a learner
  • Formative assessment: knowing where we are and where we need to get to in learning (and how do we know).

While exploring these themes, the pamphlet identifies the real need to ensure teachers are given the right professional development to ensure they flourish and in doing so enable their children to flourish – particularly those children who don’t normally get the opportunities others do. The pamphlet touches on the concept from the African proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’; that it is whole-school community involvement in providing a better offer, a better ‘daily lived experience’ for all children.

Find out more about the campaign.

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