As part of a team that achieved outstanding English and maths results in 2018-19, I was recently asked to give a presentation at the Association of Colleges' annual English and maths conference to share our successful strategies. Suffering, as most leaders do, from an acute case of imposter syndrome, I sat about drafting and redrafting a coherent presentation and realised that I was essentially making the same two points repeatedly:
1. Be consistent.
2. Everyone must be accountable (and know what their accountability is).
As you can imagine, I was very proud of myself for coming to these earth-shattering conclusions.
Bu simple as it is to write them down, and proclaim them at the beginning of a conference, what does consistency and accountability actually need to look like for English and maths success?
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Honestly? Probably the exact opposite of my first six to 10 months (some would argue longer) in further education. Simply put, I wasn’t very good. Having made the move from secondary education, I initially made some poor decisions (admittedly followed by some much better ones), which were poorly communicated.
Accountability for GCSE resits
Against this backdrop, as a leader in FE, I was immediately accountable for data, achievement, progress and a range of other measures. As strange as it may seem, I quickly improved immeasurably, admittedly mixed with some superb mentoring and coaching – irrefutable evidence that the right accountability leads to outstanding outcomes.
But what is the "right" accountability? In English and maths, this means making sure not only that everybody in the building knows their responsibility for improving English and maths, but also that they are well supported in this. And when I say everybody, I mean everybody.
We are all teachers of English and maths
From entering the building first thing in the morning to leaving work that evening, every single person we encounter must know their accountability in supporting English and maths achievement if we are to succeed.
Receptionists must be accountable for collating and communicating absence, librarians are accountable for requesting revision guides when we have sold out, the principal must be accountable for ensuring cross-college standards (amongst other things!) and leaders have to be accountable for supporting attendance and behaviour standards.
We are all teachers of English and maths.
Accountability within the English and maths team is much simpler. Never easy, but very simple: we are accountable for delivering outstanding teaching, learning and assessment. We all know outstanding practice when we see it. However, it's never easy because what is "outstanding" is very much open to interpretation.
And it is this interpretation which can lead to difficult conversations. These conversations shouldn't just be with English and maths practitioners about meeting and exceeding expectations, but also with cross-college practitioners and leaders. When I had these, many of them involved standing firm in discussions to make sure a student's best interests were served (whether they agreed or not) and make sure that everything discussed was in the best interests of that same student.
Essentially, do something because it is the right thing to do, not because it is easier for practitioners or students. A student states they will only attend a session if they are moved to a class with friends? No. They must attend existing sessions first, and then we’ll consider a move. A vocational leader wants to move a timetabled session? No. The session was decided in February, it is now June: the leader must find another way.
I was recently cautioned against overstating the above (by someone I have enormous respect for), and I have edited and redrafted this section of my presentation many times to try to soften the wording or the tone, but I can’t. What I learned from my first year in FE was that it is important to be friendly, but you don’t have to be friends to be successful, and the difficult conversations played a vitally important role in this.
In time, the accountabilities and consistency became fully embedded, it became clear what the department and I stood for, and friendships did blossom. All staff knew what they had to do, and the difficult conversations became fewer and fewer as staff were supported to meet and exceed their accountability.
Again, this sounds very simple when typed out. It is. It’s just not easy.
Jonny Kay is head of English and maths at a college in the North East