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Endings and beginnings

June 22, 2013 Leave a comment

In the last few weeks I have had opportunities to reflect on endings and beginnings. One week before the end of the school term we moved house. In amongst all the activities of a school term ending it has made for a busy few weeks.
The house moving preparations began about a month before we actually moved house. There were two clear strategies in place. I was applying a pure energy to moving everything from one house to the other. With two weeks overlap where we had keys to the new property and were invited to move what we wanted prior to the official moving day, time around my working hours was filled with physically moving as much as possible to facilitate the final move. This was my strategy. It involved getting up at five thirty most mornings and taking a car load of hastily filled boxes from the old house to the new house. I succeeded in moving at least two car loads each day, one before work and one after work. My wife meanwhile was applying her own strategy to the moving preparations. It began in her own wardrobe with each item of clothing being reviewed, tried on if necessary and then a decision made as to whether it was to be packed, or put into a black bin bag and thrown away.
Both strategies for a new beginning in a new house are valid but arguably the strategy employed by my wife is more deserved of the ‘new beginning’ title.
And so we come to the end of the term. The last task for me was to deliver the whole school assembly to our primary pupils. The school has just received the data relating to the pupils completing their final year and again is sitting considerably above the best of the rest in the region. I started the assembly by inviting three final year A’ Level students to explain their own aspirations and then provided the link between hard work and the options that are available to us in our lives.
The assembly went well with input from our Year 6 pupils moving to secondary and time to say goodbye to the departing deputy head. As is customary we talked about ‘moving on’ and ‘new beginnings’.
Next week we have two non-pupil days to wrap up the term. In talking about ‘new beginnings’ in respect to a new school year I think we have the same two strategies available to us as we did when I moved house a week ago. We could blindly pack up all we have been working on this year and unwrap it all to start afresh in September. However, as with moving house, I’m not certain that would give us the energy that comes with a ‘new beginning’.
The other option is that favoured by my wife when moving house. To review each item before carrying over. I think my house move has taught me that the second option is more refreshing in creating that ‘new beginning’ and therefore at the start of next week I am going to invite an open feedback on what should be in the boxes that we pack for September. Which of our whole school strategies and systems have been effective and which do we need to review or discard before we move into the new academic year. With the School Development Plan reviewed in January this should provide an opportunity to check that we are moving in the right direction and that our plans are having the intended impact on teaching and learning. Hopefully, September will bring a new academic year that provides a genuine fresh start. Strategies that are effective in enhancing teaching and learning will be strengthened and those that are not having the desired impact will be left behind in the move.

The Telefonica customer service treatment

May 21, 2013 1 comment

It is an accepted part of life in Spain that eventually everybody will have a negative Telefonica/Movistar experience. It took a full four years of living in Spain for my turn to arrive but here is the ongoing saga of my current Movistar experience. Movistar own O2 in the United Kingdom as well as in many other countries across Europe. I think I understand how considered incompetence has given them the financial strength to buy so many national telephone companies.

In October 2010 I moved house. The chalet I moved to had never had a fixed telephone line installed but a call to Movistar (Telefonica as it was then) revealed that a fixed line was available. The installation, although much later than originally promised, was carried out and the telephone line worked. I had rejected the offer of Internet with the same company. Movistar had assured me that the Internet available in my area was upto 10Mb. I was surprised therefore when the company delivering the Internet provided my high speed ADSL service at speeds of only 3Mb. I should add that the Internet installation was considerably slower with the Internet company accusing Movistar of deliberately stalling the process.

I should warn that at about this point my conspiracy theories began to service. Within a few weeks of the telephone installation Movistar began a regular contact offering me an Internet service of either upto 10Mb or upto 6Mb depending on the day. Each time I politely declined despite the sales calls becoming ever more persistent.

Eventually in autumn of 2012 I went to make a telephone call only to find the line was dead. When I called Movistar the conversation went more or less as follows.

Me: Hello, my telephone line doesn’t seem to be working. Could you possibly check it for me please?
(After checking name, social security number etc)
Movistar: We have cut the line Sir because you have not paid your bill.
Me: I’ve paid every bill you’ve sent. Can you check that please?
Movistar: (After a short pause.) The problem Sir is we don’t have an address for you so we are not able to send the bill.
Me: But you’ve always sent me a bill. Why would you not have an address now?
Movistar: Your address doesn’t exist Sir so we can’t send the bill.
Me: The address does exist. I’m calling you now from the address. The chalet is exactly where it was when you sent your engineer to install the line two years ago. It is in the same place as where you have sent bills for the last two years.
Movistar: It isn’t on our database Sir.
Me: OK, so what do I need to do to get my telephone working again?

The answer is that a late payment of a bill (plus an expensive and unavoidable reconnection fee) can only be made in cash at a post office. After paying the bill the line was soon activated. This whole process repeated two months later. Against all the odds I then managed to convince Movistar to send the bills to an address that although not available on their system I could vouch, did in fact exist.

Fast forward to January 2013. At the end of January 2013 I received a double bill. I assumed something must be outstanding from the time of my address not existing soaked the bill in full. On Tuesday 26th February the line was cut. The following is the edited highlights of my last week of communication with Movistar.

Tuesday 26th February: The telephone line is cut at about 7pm. I know this is true as we were using the Internet after work and the service cut early in the evening.

Wednesday 27th February: I called Movistar to be told that the bill they had sent in January that I had paid in full was not in fact my full bill. There was an outstanding balance of just under thirty nine euros from November when they were unable to send me a bill excuse the address did not exist. If I went to the post office and paid the bill the line would immediately be reactivated. I paid the bill but the line was not reactivated.

Thursday 28th February: I called Movistar to ask why the line has not been reactivated. They told me it is because they have deleted my number. I will now need to apply for a new number. After protesting they confirm my old number is available and will be immediately activated.

Friday 1st March: The line is still dead so I phone to ask why. I am assured that the line will be activated immediately.

Saturday 2nd March: The line is still dead so I phone to ask why. I am told that when I had been informed yesterday that the line would be activated immediately this actually meant the process of reactivating the line would begin immediately. The process will take 24 hours and therefore on Sunday afternoon the line will become active.

Sunday 3rd March: The line is still dead.

Monday 4th March: The line is still dead so I phone to ask when it might be reactivated. The customer services lady informs me that the line was cut on the 7th December because a bill had not been paid. I tell her this is wrong, but also out of date information. I relay the conversations of the previous days. She tells me that it is not possible to connect me to the landline department because they are not answering the telephone and because she works in the mobile department she is not allowed to access my account. She takes my mobile number and assures me I will receive a telephone call very soon from the landline department.

Tuesday 5th March: The line is still dead. Tonight’s telephone conversation confirms that the information about being able to reinstate the line in 24 hours was false. I will need to raise an order for a new line and that process can take from 7-10 working days. Combining gets me nowhere except more frustrated so I raid the order the new line.

Finally, in the middle of March after many difficulties, the line was reconnected using the original number. The magical way of getting the reconnection ‘fast-tracked’ turned out to be to accept the Telefonica Internet package and drop my current Internet Service Provider. This then elevated me to the position of priority customer as I was new to the Telefonica Internet solution. Of course, the promise of doubling my Internet speed to 6Mb was a hollow one but with that accepted my Telefonica nightmare has ended and all is once again normal.

Fighting an overly complex system is one of the challenges of living in Spain. It seems as though there are numerous opportunities for simple processes to be made more complicated, often with a complete disregard to customer service. That said, it is May and Spanish summer will soon be here with long warm evenings and the opportunity to forget the obstinance of Telefonica and enjoy the fresh air.

If I call a Ford Fiesta a Lamborghini Gallardo does it then go faster?

January 12, 2013 Leave a comment

If I am disappointed with the speed my car moves will it go faster if I call it a Lamborghini Gallardo? Perhaps if I get it a shiny new badge that covers the old badge and maybe even give it a re-spray?

Over six hundred failing primaries in England are to be converted to academy status. That will be six hundred schools with the same children to educate, on the same sites, with often the same staff, teaching the same curriculum. Or will it? One academy in Bristol managed to dramatically increase the standards despite having the same site, staff and one would think the same pupils. However, a little scratching of the service reveals an admissions policy taking 80% of pupils from a more affluent neighbouring post code. The result I suspect is that those children who used to attend before the academy nameplate was nailed up are now being pushed out into LEA maintained schools and are disproportionately reducing the LEA results. Clearly then, academies work because in this area of Bristol the academy is considerably out performing the nearby LEA schools. Except, of course, nothing has changed. Taken as a big picture the standards in this area of Bristol have most likely not changed at all. Children are in different schools. Children working against social disadvantage aren’t affecting the statistics of the flagship academies, but they are still there, hiding below the surface, missing out on education because the real cause of low attainment was ignored in favour of a headline winning national strategy that now publishes the improvement that the local community wanted, even if that community are now prohibited from attending their local school.

Schools need to be allowed to focus on their core purpose, teaching and learning. Rebranding, even if it comes with a new letterhead, school badge, uniform or multi-million pound privately financed building can’t improve standards, at least not without a little behind-the-scenes manipulation, such as an admissions policy. Focussing on teaching and learning is what will improve standards.

It is refreshing to be able to sit back and watch developments in UK education with a critical eye before adopting them into school. Certainly I oversee the National Curriculum being taught in the schools that I lead but with the facility to dictate the ‘how’ from a basis of sound teaching and learning as opposed to needing to respond immediately to non-educators stipulating ‘how’ the education should happen.

Most effective strategies for school improvement focus on the process of learning and move away from the product. Why then is the UK determined to try and find a just method of measuring affectiveness of schools based on product. We can talk about value added, contextual value added, mix in some poverty factors, employ teams of mathematical graduates to crunch the numbers and convert the raw statistics into pie charts for the tabloids, but the real measure of schools comes from an evaluation of the teaching and learning. For that, the inspecting body needs to turn the focus away from judging teachers and look more closely at the learning taking place in school. I can make a judgement on the standards within a classroom fairly accurately and fairly quickly by talking with the pupils about their learning. I don’t need an analysis of how many are claiming free school meals, how many are diagnosed with a behaviour problem or what proportion of those pupils appear to move two percentile points when I look at the teacher assessment data. The teachers are responsible and must be held to account for the quality of their teaching but to improve schools we need to focus on the aspects of teaching and learning that have the most impact and not be pushed into manipulating statistics to attempt to demonstrate improvements.

It will be interesting to watch in a generation’s time and see whether or not the millions poured into the rebadging of ‘community primary schools’ as ‘academies’ has made a real difference to the educational attainment of the nation. We won’t be able to see that until a generation of pupils has been through their education and then we will discover the truth not by looking at the output of the academies in comparison to the remaining maintained schools, but by looking at all pupils and comparing to the previous generation.

In the meantime, I am happy to sit outside the direct influence of state controlled schools and lead learning that makes a real difference. Positions available in September for anybody needing to get back to real teaching. In the meantime, I am off to paint my car and rebadge it, just in case despite my cynicism, it can make a difference.

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Myself a learner

November 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Myself – a learner

The sun already felt hot this morning as I drove to work. The oranges are ripening on the trees and the harvest is imminent.The air has been superbly clear for the last few days and the views extended for tens of miles. Wind farms and centuries old castle ruins littered the peeks of distant mountains, the ancient and the modern taking the most prominent positions side by side. The drive from The village of La Barraca to Xativa takes about half an hour. Even if leaving home has felt a rush the drive itself is quite calming. A single carriage road winds through the orange groves and from ten minutes outside of the town, Xativa castle can be seen looking down on the town. A rural area with dominant industries mainly based on the land, Xativa is a historical town with the claim to fame of being the first town in Europe to manufacture paper.

Today, school contained all of the usual management issues that make the day feel full: an 8.00am call from a teacher who was too ill to come to work, a concern about upcoming observations, issues with the school Internet and Intranet and two different staff meetings to prepare and deliver.

The highlight of my day though was to spend the afternoon in class with pupils from Year 5 and Year 6. In partnership with the school psychology team I am planning and delivering a course of lessons called by the school ‘Study Skills’, although I personally prefer the title ‘Learning to learn’. Apart from being more a more accurate description of what takes place ‘Learning to learn’ can be abbreviated to ‘L2L’ which seems to carry a certain SMS style kudos with the pupils.

We have just completed a series of lessons exploring our own barriers to learning and how we can manage these effectively to ensure that learning can take place. The pupils were incredibly astute in recognising their own barriers to learning. They have now developed a range of strategies to overcome these barriers with the emphasis on maintaining a positive and happy approach to learning. Today we were introducing the next unit of this work ‘Myself – a learner’. The children will be exploring themselves as learners which will give an opportunity to think about how we learn and to develop an awareness of different learning styles.

We began with the following fascinator:
“If your best friend scratched your father’s new car with his bike what would you do?
Pretend you knew nothing about it? Tell your father it was you? Tell your father what your friend had done? Something else?”
That provided a five minute energy filled discussion!
(Thanks to John Turnerfor introducing ‘fascinators’ as a way of hooking children in at the start of a lesson.)

We then used the BASIS questionnaire resource from Alistair Smith and Nicola Call’s ‘The alps approach – accelerated learning in primary schools.’ (ISBN: 9781855390560).
To those not familiar with the alps resources, BASIS is an acronym for:
Belonging
Aspirations
Safety
Individuality
Success

These aspects of a child’s self-concept are important if they are to be willing to learn. As a teacher it is an opportunity not so much to diagnose issues but more to create a conversation about the class and school environment.

As we were working helicopters and planes were fighting a fire that had developed on a nearby mountain side. We could see the flames and smoke through the classroom window and watch the planes dropping their water. Ringing in my ears were the words of Hywel Roberts from our recent training event. In demonstrating how as teachers we can sometimes squash the energy that pupils bring to school he gave the example of an elephant walking past the classroom. Clearly there have been times when at such a point we have been guilty of demanding the children’s attention with lines such as “Look at me! Haven’t you seen an elephant before. You’re not going to learn anything by watching the elephant!” I decided to resist the temptation to fight for attention with the mountain fire and instead we all took a couple of minutes out to watch and discuss what was going on. In a classroom where pupils have English as a second or third language it is incredible how much great language and vocabulary development can take place discussing an exciting event that wouldn’t normally be a part of our classroom curriculum.

Myself today, I learned something about Guy Fawkes. Caught totally unawares by questions that a teacher had hoped to answer using the currently non-functioning school Internet, a colleague instead went online using her mobile telephone to find the answers. I had always thought, I’m sure from some mis-guidance in a classroom when younger, although it is possible I just wasn’t listening, that Guy Fawkes (aka Guido Fawkes) was a Spanish catholic intent upon destroying the protestant British parliament. It turns out though that he was a home grown terrorist, born in York and that his name ‘Guido’ was only given to him when he opted to fight with the Spanish catholics. My own learning style today was to listen to a colleague reading from Wikipedia. I think probably “Let’s Wiki it!” is my current dominant learning style.

Spanish Sundays

November 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Spanish Sundays

Sunday always seems like the embers of the weekend. I think the fact it was a four day weekend due to the All Saints’ Day Holiday only adds to that feeling. How do teachers secure a work life balance? I would suggest that the aspects of both work and life should be condensed into those things that matter most.

Somehow getting that balance seems easier working in an international setting. We took the dog for a trip to the beach this afternoon. He does love the beach and never tires of swimming to retrieve a stick. The dog, Rusty, is a rescue dog with certain abandonment issues. Having been found by the bins near a beach he never strays far from us even when out. Today the Mediterranean Sea looked just too enticing to leave only to Rusty so when his stick ventured too far for his usually brave retrieval instincts I waded in and joined him in the water. The day was hot but the water was cool – maybe 17 degrees. After splashing around for twenty minutes or so and avoiding a jellyfish the size of a basketball I dried off within five minutes of standing on the beach. It was one of those warm pleasant winds from inland and the views back towards the mountains were spectacular.

We were home barely an hour before it was time to take my daughter to her weekly horse riding session. We finally sat down at home at about half past seven this evening. Of course, all of those activities are available in the UK although the idea of swimming in the sea in November may take a little more courage in the UK than it does here in Spain. The difference is that with the bright sunshine here one is actively encouraged to go out for the day. The four day weekend was coupled with all the usual work of a teacher. Writing the Christmas nativity script, editing music for the Christmas production, marking assessments, planning for the week ahead. It is just that I genuinely do feel that in comparison to my UK work commitments as a teacher I do now find more time for family and relaxation and that the work and life are far more evenly balanced than they were when teaching in the UK.

How do you get your work life balance correct and if it is out of balance, how can you put it right?

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