The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Learning Relationships’ and throughout the day we explored and discussed these relationships, which are fundamental to effective learning. I have linked some further reading at the end of this blog for those who would be interested to read more from some of our speakers.
It was Mike Grenier, the opening keynote speaker, who really touched a note with me. Mike has been a House Master at Eton College since 2004 and in 2012 he co-founded the Slow Education Movement in the UK. The ultimate aim of the ‘Slow Education’ movement is to slow down the frenetic pace of school life – giving time to build relationships with the pupils, parents, staff and the community in general. Our school community is rich in relationships and this has been an area of focus for me as the new Head to ensure that I am building my relationships with everyone.
Mike also highlighted such things as wellbeing amongst the staff, ensuring that staff wellbeing is a priority in schools to enable them to fulfil the crucial role that they have. This, too, has long been a priority at St. Helen’s College. Something fun we have been doing each month this year is the ‘Healthy Teacher’ initiative in all three staffrooms – this month is ‘Mindful/Minty May’, during which staff have been encouraged to be more mindful of how they are feeling, taking some time to reflect. To add a bit of fun we have had an array of minty treats available, including mint imperials, mint tea, fresh mint and mint chocolates, to name but a few!
The importance of meal times with children is also an aspect of the ‘Slow Education’. Social interaction at meal times, both at school and at home, can be such an important opportunity to build positive relationships. At St. Helen’s College, our little Ducklings start their meal times with a prayer and the interactions and routines being developed are key to their personal development. The Lower School children are surrounded by an incredibly devoted and caring lunch staff and in Upper School staff eat with the pupils every day, chatting as we would with our families at home and encouraging healthy eating and good table manners! We pride ourselves on building relationships with the children at the lunch table and I do hope that family meal times are also a highlight at home.
Mike highlighted, with caution, how schools can become martyrs to assessment systems. Sadly, many schools are using assessments, scores and grades as the driver in education, so that our centres of education become results driven, actually ignoring the point of schools. Interestingly, at the conference, we were all asked to list the point of schools….and nobody in the room even mentioned exams or results!
Our pupils from Year 1 to Year 6 have all recently taken a range of standardised assessments. All schools are required to do this in some form or other but it should not be the be-all-and-end-all and must be kept in perspective. These assessments are merely our tool for tracking the progress of our pupils; they are a snap shot of performance at a certain time, on one day and merely support all the other formative methods of assessment that teachers and pupils are carrying out on a daily basis to ensure that learning is taking place and to help the children make progress. It really upset me when I heard some pupils discussing their scores at the lunch table as though that number defines who they are as a person and reflects all that they have been learning throughout the school year. I hope that I explained to them successfully that it does not!
Parents often over-worry about the 11+ Grammar school entry assessments without realising the damage that this can cause children. Pupils can become disengaged at this young age if the message they are receiving at the tender age of 10 is that a score will determine their futures. I will not get into a political debate now, but I do hope that, as more parents engage in some of the research which has been done on how pupils learn, we may continue to keep our learners motivated and connected in their learning.
Over lunch at the conference, I was able to continue the conversation with Mike as we shared our views on how we can ensure that our schools embed that element of ‘Slow Learning’. We are in a very fortunate position at St. Helen’s College in that our curriculum is designed to give pupils opportunities to make connections between subjects, to ensure that the learning is useful and functional and to allow plenty of time to build relationships with our pupils.
I also attended a workshop delivered by Drew Thompson, Head of Science at St. Alban’s High School for Girls, whose session made us examine and discuss the ways in which we can maximise the impact of those around us through building and maintaining effective learning relationships with our colleagues. Continuous professional development is key in teaching and at St. Helen’s College we have passionate staff who are constantly reflecting and sharing best practice.
Kevin Squibb, an expert linguist, focused on how we can make learning visible in the classroom and how to develop independent learners – many of the strategies and ideas he shared are already having an impact on your pupils at St. Helen’s College as they build their meta-cognitive skills using the structures they have been given in class to allow them to transfer what they have learnt from one situation to another.
#GrowingGrit by David Rogers was a superb session, during which we discussed and shared our ideas on how to develop academic resilience and develop the qualities needed for academic success. David is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and sits on their Education Committee. It is no surprise that many of the characteristics of a Gritty Learner are associated with those outdoor learning experiences we already offer as part of your children’s educational journey. This year particularly we have embraced ‘Learning in the Outdoors’ as part of Miss Walker’s professional development study and will continue to embed this in our curriculum alongside our programme of day and residential trips.
Professor Sophie Scott, the Head of the Speech Communication Group at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, delivered a very entertaining talk on the science of laughter. Sophie is also a comic and TED-talker and her talk emulated the focus of relationships as she explained to us that laughter is the only known positive sound that is recognised cross-culturally. There are many negative sounds which are cross culturally shared but we can share laughter and it draws people together. Next time you walk across the playground at St. Helen’s…take time to hear the laughter; it can be contagious – enjoy!
I was sad to have missed one speaker, Matt Pinkett, but thankfully Matt has published his session to share on his website (linked at the end of this blog). Matt uses anecdotal evidence, personal experience and research to argue that there is a masculinity crisis in schools that teachers are failing to address. I will be urging all teachers and parents to read this; it may have more relevance to secondary schools, but is an interesting concept which some schools may need to address.
The closing keynote of the day was Dr. Jill Berry, educational consultant with over 30 years experience in education and the ex-Head teacher of an independent school in Bedfordshire. Jill works with school leaders but highlighted to the audience that no matter who we are in education, whether a classroom teacher or the Head, we are all leading learning – the primacy of learning is embedded in relationships. Trust, honesty, fairness and integrity are all key to building trust and relationships. As Head of St. Helen’s College, my learning is also continuous, so I do not regard myself as the Head Teacher but rather the Head Learner just as the ‘Head’ of English, Geography, Computing, Art and so forth are all Head Learners of their subject areas…inspiring your children in their learning relationships with them.
Mike Grenier – Slow Education