The Interview - 'I'd abolish league tables'

20th February 2009 at 00:00
Bob Sawyer revamped the management of the school where he was a pupil and has harnessed the power of ICT to transform lessons.

How did you come to All Saints?

This is my childhood school, my children have just left the sixth form and I first worked as a maths teacher here in 1980. I've been head here since 2003. But I've had a lot of time out of school, as an adviser, as senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and as regional director for mathematics for the National Strategies. My career path is the opposite of many heads, but I'm happy to be in school now.

Why did you want to come back?

Our management structure has five senior "strategic subject leaders", responsible for standards in a group of subjects. Those subjects are not the leaders' specialism (a history teacher leads maths and science, for instance), so that they don't try to protect subject-specific practices. Subject co-ordinators are responsible for the curriculum and leaders use data to raise standards.

What's the role of ICT in all of this?

We've looked at everything afresh - for instance, we started a successful vertical pastoral system (catering for pupils of different ages rather than along year group lines) which has reduced bullying. Still, I think we don't fully realise how much children can progress with ICT. As part of Building Schools for the Future we are gutting an old building to create learning suites. Groups of teachers can work with up to 200 pupils.

Won't that adversely affect the teaching relationship?

It's a triangular relationship between learner, teacher and content: a child should have a closer relationship with what is being learnt than with the teacher. If we want to change, we have to help pupils take more responsibility for achieving.

How do you help teachers?

Our teaching and performance management is based on "Plan, Do, Study, Act" (PDSA). Subject leaders use action research to try out new approaches. In performance reviews, we use lesson observations and live coaching to help staff pick their own focus for CPD. We have two learning observatories with cameras and microphones, to record and discuss lessons afterwards. The recording serves two purposes: if I enter a classroom, the teacher may behave differently and the pupils never misbehave, so it's false. On film, it's a record. We use an earpiece to talk trainee teachers through problems. For instance: "Did you notice, you've asked five questions and only the same three have their hands up? What else can you try?"

Isn't that a bit Big Brother?

Actually, it's the opposite. Of course, everyone has to give consent: there's a red light to show when recording is live. The coach has to be sensitive and stick to protocols balancing positive and negative comments. And we put video vignettes of good teaching on the school's virtual learning environment (VLE), so there are rewards in the system too.

How does this feed into teaching?

Once staff have agreed a focus - trying out large-group lecturing with small-group follow-up tutorials in maths - they work out a short-term strategy. For six weeks, they try it, while collaborating on study - maybe assessing progress against a parallel group. Then they act. For example, we've successfully trialled "teaching without telling" for bottom-set maths classes. The teacher silently enacts algorithms on the board, for example, in a fractions question writing one number or sign at a time. The solution slowly builds up, like a puzzle.

How does your maths background affect your job?

Maths education gives a perspective on using and evaluating data constructively. Technology personalises learning and encourages collaboration. Our VLE allows pupils to access assessments and feedback, write blogs, find resources. We've got our 66 club, where children from Year 11 work on English and maths online. It's an open resource for teachers' learning; we can link to higher education, the GTC's teacher learning academy and other bodies such as the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. CPD is integral to pupils' learning and ICT is the link.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?

I would abolish league tables, review the inadequacies of contextual value added scores and remove the quango Partnerships for Schools from the Building Schools for the Future programme.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

The worst excuse was from a parent who did not send their child to school because it was Take Your Child to Work Day and as she was jobless, the child stayed at home to help with the housework.

Curriculum Vitae

2003-date: Headteacher, All Saints RC School, Sheffield

2001-2003: Regional director, Department for Children, Schools and Families

2000-2001: Acting headteacher, Thistley Hough School, Stoke-on-Trent

1999-2001: Head of advisory team, Stoke-on-Trent

1996-1999: Adviser, Barnsley local education authority

1993-1996: Senior teacher, Ryles Park School, Cheshire

1990-1993: Senior lecturer, Sheffield University

1988-1990: Advisory teacher, Sheffield LEA

1986-1988: Assistant head of maths, Ashleigh School, Sheffield

1984-1986: Newfield School, Sheffield

1980-1984: All Saints RC School, Sheffield.

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