April. Paris. Gare Montparnasse. The early morning train from Le Mans pulls into the metropolis. Forty two very excited children plus eight equally excited adults arrange themselves for disembarkation. The doors open and the group flows onto the platform. A yell from the boy immediately behind me. I turn and look down to see the upper half of a disoriented T above the platform, his lower half, not visible, down between the train and the platform. I helped him up. T, being T, brushed himself down, turned to an astonished assortment of onlookers and laughed it off. I gulped, took control of myself, and we headed for our first stop, the Eiffel Tower.
I was asked a few weeks ago if I would consider hosting #SLTchat on Twitter. I said yes, I would welcome the opportunity. Last week I was asked if I was available to host on the upcoming Sunday. Of course I would. What a wonderful opportunity to encourage and broaden a debate that receives far too little airtime, in my opinion; Community Engagement. I did not appreciate just how challenging hosting ‘chats’ actually is; trying to track and contribute, in the moment, to a myriad of conversation threads. That aside, it was an exhilarating experience. What I did not anticipate was the footprint that is left behind after these events. A rich source of responses, opinions, thinking and ideas contributed by all participants.
Prior to the event, #SLTChat participants are encouraged to help shape the debate by voting for one of three given options. The 25 character limit for each of these is restrictive but I pitched three distinct areas into the mix. The poll results (263 votes) were as follows:
- Hard to reach schools? 20%
- Closing gaps together? 47%
- More than learning? 33%
I was required to set two questions. I thought long and hard about what they should be. I thought about language (admittedly, UK parlance) and what it was I hoped to achieve and where I hoped the debate would go, whilst leaving it open enough to encourage broader contributions. I settled on the following:
- Does a focus on the attainment gap limit what is possible through partnership?
- How do we listen to one another for the benefit of our children and young people?
This blog focuses on Q.1. I will blog on Q.2 in due course. I largely avoid directly quoting participants. Rather, I will pick out key themes that illuminate the debate.
The first question…
Every word selected with good reason; four very deliberately used key words and one key phrase: ‘attainment’, ‘gap’, ‘limit’, ‘partnership’, and ‘attainment gap’.
20:00 hrs, Q.1 posted… And they’re off, at a fair old gallop!…
Words used have meaning. Particular words used in this sentence (question) resonated with some more than others, foregrounding responses given. I have attempted to winkle out key themes and ideas, acutely aware that my choice of words might impact on any given reader’s receiving of them. I make no attempt to anonymise, as such. Rather, I paraphrase or use my own words.
- If partnership is desirable then that should be the focus, over emphasis on the attainment gap detracts from partnership potential.
- Knowledge of the gap offers a desired comparator for parents to know where their child is placed overall, and so future progress be gauged.
- Use of such language (gaps), along with such a strong focus, by schools, and then deliberate sensitising of such language in conversation with parents serves to widen the gap between families and school.
- If we become too fixated with comparisons/attainment/gaps etc then the individual child can get lost. It’s why the challenge of parents is a good thing. It grounds us and reminds us that these are children, not numbers on a spreadsheet.
- Knowledge for parents is essential so they can advocate for their children and use information to inform decisions such as changing of setting.
- Transparency around school knowledge sharing with parents empowers and respects parent right to advocacy.
- Knowledge of any gap is a right for parents and it is wrong to think otherwise.
- Focusing on ‘gaps’ just promotes more deficit models of development rather than the positives that exist with true partnerships.
- If the focus for schools is the attainment gap, with parents an afterthought, that needs challenging.
- Our children and young people are growing up in a world where comparison is made as a matter of course and we need to prepare them for that.
- Encouraging our children and young people to be aware of and celebrate their uniqueness, what they have to offer, and how they relate to others, should trump how they compare to others.
- Securing parental engagement and contribution is critical for closing gaps.
- Working in partnership on progress and potential is just as important as the addressing of any academic attainment gaps.
- Whole child development must be the partnership focus so that they have the social as well as academic competence to face a challenging world.
- Working in partnership promotes different thinking on how we go about closing gaps.
- Schools serve communities so they must factor partnership in when setting priorities such as closing of attainment gaps.
- Working in partnership with parents pastorally too – expectations on community behaviour, online presence, attitude to culture etc. – is equally important.
- Academic and social ‘gaps’ are present prior to a child starting or attending any one school. Schools cannot address these alone and should not be “scapegoated” through accountability measures.
- Our best resource in securing better learner achievement and attainment, outside the school, is parental and community engagement.
I have absolutely avoided categorising statements in any sort of ‘for’ and ‘against’ way. The conversation is riddled with nuance and, so, exceedingly complex. It is clear that some responses come from a parent perspective, others from a school perspective, some from teacher/parent perspective. Other participants, indeed, flip between the two.
In the interests of a more complete record and a resource for anyone interested I have attempted to capture all tweets tagged #SLTChat, from all participants here. I have made no attempt to categorise, they are listed in the order they came through. Where tweets are in response to a tweet, the earlier tweet is shown. I apologise now if I have missed any. I may also have duplicated some.
I will not draw any conclusions or attempt to project my own thoughts or experience on what has come from the first part of this Community Engagement debate. I think that would be an abuse of privilege. The privilege being that so many participants gave up their time to engage in this debate, addressing an agenda set by myself, and myself having a special interest in this field. More on my interest and what I offer here.
I welcome challenge on anything missed out or misconstrued. I very much welcome further comment and opinion on what I have pulled out of the rich data generated by Sunday evening’s conversation, courtesy of #SLTChat @SLTChat. If you could post that as a comment on this blog, for all to see and think on, then so much the better. To do so, click on ‘Leave a comment’ at the top of this blog, just below the title. Maybe we can extend the debate still further.
Returning to Paris. T was there as a result of him closing his personal gap. He was a long way from meriting a place on that train alongside his peers. Let us just say that challenging behaviour featured. Zero tolerance has never been in my lexicon. I worked with T, his mother, and extended family, over a significant period of time. T did very well in the SATs a few weeks after we returned from France. He made a very successful transition into secondary school.
One evening during the week spent in France, I played T at Pool; fulfilment of a promise made many months before, should T make it. Best out of three. I was the victor, two frames to one. None of that ‘It’s the taking part that matters’, nonsense for me!
Fast forward to the final day of term. T approached me holding out a glittering trophy. He handed it to me and said, quite simply, “Thank you, Mr Feasey.” The trophy was engraved with, ‘I will beat you at Pool one day!’ and his name. Mother stood in the background, smiling. Proud of her boy.
Thinking on T, his mother, and our partnership in supporting T with his needs, I will finish with a comment made by Chris Chivers (Twitter: @ChrisChivers2) in response to Q. 1. Does a focus on the attainment gap limit what is possible through partnership?
The focus should be on the child, aware of current and future needs, to fine tune the journey, coaching and mentoring as needed to encourage and guide.
I hope you will find the time to comment on this blog post. To do so, click on ‘Leave a comment’ at the top of this blog, just below the title. I will post a further blog, reporting on the second half of the Community Engagement #SLTChat debate in the next few days.