A Year in Review – The #Nurture 14/15 Challenge

This year’s #nurture1415  blog challenge involves listing 5 highlights of the year and 5 hopes for the next.

Right, well… here goes.

The Highlights

FOI selfie with Helen Lewis (my official 'court friend'). It was the end of the day. And we did ask before we took it.

FOI selfie with Helen Lewis (my official ‘court friend’). It was the end of the day. And we did ask before we took it.

1. Being opposed in court by the Department for Education

That sounds weird, I know. It didn’t feel particularly good either. But the farcical situation of defending my simple ask that the DfE publish information about free school applicants and decisions, was one of the best learning curves of my life.

I spent months reading and writing court documents, and becoming conversant in Freedom of Information law. There were endless sleepless nights worrying about it all. Family and friends were bored to tears with me going on about it (and did an amazing job of turning up to support me on the day).

Lots of things about the day were awful. And I didn’t even win. (Well, I half did. Read why here). But I walked away a thousand times more knowledgeable about the legal system and I now get emails from people all over the place, trying to use the Freedom of Information act to access files the public has an absolute right to see – and it is wonderful being able to help them.

The tribunal also introduced “The Yellow Jacket” that I wore, on the day, as a symbol of shining light on the truth. It has since become a bit of a motif for me, and has the neat advantage of helping people find me easily at events. There’s now a hunt on for more – so if you ever see a nice yellow jacket in a tiny size – do please tweet me. I will likely run and get it if I can.

2. Launching Academies Week

I never thought I’d be a journalist. Frankly, I still struggle with the idea. But becoming Deputy Editor of education newspaper Academies Week, and steering it through the initial launch has been like a dream. It’s a bit like being a blogger, but with other people, who are all interested in the same things as you – and you get paid for it.

I’m so proud of the stories the team have produced. Our first investigation revealed that Trinity Free school in London had only 17 pupils. This fact is now dropped casually into news stories all the time. But it wasn’t easy to find out. The lack of transparency on frees is so bad that we literally had to send a reporter to count the pupils as they went into the gates. That’s ludicrous, but having the ability to do it, and write about it, means we now have this information – and I think that’s vital. It’s what gets me up in the morning.

Going into this second term, I want us to become better at deeper reporting, doing more investigations, and being a place for full and frank debate. So do keep telling us what you are finding interesting; what you are reading and what you aren’t. It’s a paper for the whole school sector, whether that’s teachers, governors, school business managers, teaching assistants – whoever! – and we want to write what people want to read.

I am also constantly thankful for the people around me who have helped me start in something I don’t have any real clue how to do. Reporters from other papers have helped me find press rooms, been kind enough at events where I blatantly looked out of my depth to come and shake hands and ask how things are going, and make me feel welcome in a world that I know – but also, don’t. Also, and this will sound really weird given my first point, that goes for many DfE staff too. It’s a tough job being a civil servant, with few outlets for letting off steam and no easy way to defend yourselves. I get that, and I appreciate the kindnesses that many have shown.

3. Seeing my former students starting their own lives

In July I attended the christening of a child born to two of my former students. One had a particularly harrowing time as a teenager, but is now at university and is raising the most wonderfully cared for little boy. Sitting among her friends (mostly from my one-time form group), it was an honour to see these young people making their way in the world, helping each other, flourishing in jobs, and some even becoming teachers themselves.

As the old adage goes, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived – this is to have succeeded”. I don’t know about them breathing easier simply because I lived. It was bloody hard work with that group sometime. But to know that they have got where they are, in some way, because of our collective hard work does make you feel uniquely alive.

4. Attending an Education Select Committee

Hard at work.

For the past two and a half years I have live-tweeted education select committees. It’s a niche interest, I know, but it has a surprisingly cult-like following, and I started it when I finished teaching because it used to get on my nerves when I was teaching that I could never watch the darn things – and I wanted to be able to read a quick summary (like this one) at the end of the day just to catch me up.

During my two years in the US on scholarship I got up, each week, at 3.30am to live-tweet them. (Missouri time is six hours behind London). Back in the UK, in September, I was able to go along to my very first one – in person! – and be in the same room as my MP committee heroes, such as Graham Stuart, Ian Mearns and Pat Glass. It was quite surreal, but also wonderful.

5. Being asked to write a 2,000 word piece for the Guardian

I blame a few people for me having the confidence to become a writer, but maybe no one more so than Alice Woolley, the Guardian Education editor – who is incredible. Seriously, I am in awe of her most of the time. Not because she gave me the chance to write (although I will thank her for the end of time for that) but because she has been so relentlessly supportive about it. (I’m not a natural writer; I am a natural worrier – she deals with both gracefully).

She also asked me, earlier this year, to write a full-length feature about US charter schools and their similarity to free schools. 2,000 words, she wanted, and a photographer to go with me to get shots of a St Louis school. I was besides myself. Both in a good way, and a bad one.

I went into panic mode. I didn’t know how to interview politicians. What are the rules? Can I record it? WHY DON’T I KNOW SHORTHAND? Also, how the hell do you fill 2,000 words in an actual newspaper? Can you use headings? Must it be funny? How many points can you realistically make without boring the reading, but also not-boring the reader?

These were all things I didn’t know. And yet, she believed. And also, she was right. The piece got done, it read well, and it gave me confidence to believe that maybe I could do this writing shiz properly after all. (As long as I have amazing editorial advice, and a small army of friends to look over my drafts).

Bonus +1: The LKMCo Pirate event was amazing and I was so very sad to leave LKMCo this year. That’s why it’s not a ‘highlight’ but I wanted to recognise that working with them has been an honour and they don’t get to escape too easily as Eleanor, who wrote a column very quickly for us a few weeks ago, found out!

 

 So, what are the hopes for 2015?

1. Retain a link to blogging – and try to blog a bit about journalism  

One of the problems of become a ‘professional writer’ is that I’ve found blogging a bit odd. What’s the point of it? With teaching I could convince myself that other people might be going through the same thing, and that I might learn from their perspective (or they, from mine). What’s happening now is a bit more unusual – so it’s lost that purpose. However, I think openness about edu-journalism might still help. I used to hate journalists and was incredibly wary of talking to them. I didn’t really understand what they did – or why. It was only the cautious patience of edu-reporter heroes, such as Chris Cook, Richard Vaughan and Warwick Mansell – each of whom spoke with me when I was teaching, and gave me some insight into what they were doing – that I ever spoke to journalists at all. Without teachers speaking with reporters, though, their voices get missed completely. So if I can help break down the mystery a little, that’s worthwile.

Also, I don’t want to get too far away from the blogging community. It’s my stomping ground. It’s where I feel comfortable, and where I learn so much. When I finished teaching I kept writing monthly #blogsync challenges about teaching practice to keep my hand in. Over the past year I always wrote a blog about the experience of doing my Guardian column that month, and what I learned from the reaction. In 2015 I want to find a way to keep talking about what’s challenging, or funny, or interesting, in this new world I inhabit.

2. Read and comment on more blogs

This is vital for two reasons. One, I’m always looking for good stories to highlight in my Guardian column and the paper. But also because blogging is scary, and having people comment on your ideas is a good way of getting feedback and improving. Back in my early blogger days (pre-twitter) I had a rule when commenting that I would always try to find something to agree with a person about, and also ask one question. I want to get back to doing that – it was a good way of bringing out ideas.

3. Raise voices of groups that need to be heard

The last few years of education policy have focused on traditional subjects and ‘mid-to-brightish’ kids. Many other groups have been ignored. Special needs schools are regularly missed in conversations. So are the needs of young carers, children educated in hospitals or exclusion units, or those who have just arrived into the country. Many are getting a raw deal and in 2015 I want to talk about them more. If you have any ideas, do get in touch.

4. Get more subscribers and brand awareness for Academies Week

For Academies Week to survive we will need subscribers, and given that I’m enjoying myself, I want people to buy in. But the real reason for wanting people to get the paper is more schmaltzy than that. (Get your vom-bags ready). In school, I tried to make every lesson worthy of the time kids were giving to. At Academies Week, we do the same with content. Each week, when we create the paper, we try to pack it with stuff that, if you’ve read it, then you’ll have learned something, and you’ll be able to discuss education more knowledgeably, and maybe even do your job better, because of it. That’s why I want people to read it. A maximally informed world is my nirvana – this is our step towards making it happen.

(If you fancy taking a look at Academies Week – here’s a pdf of edition 11).

5. Upper Tier Tribunal at the end of January

I haven’t written about this anywhere so far, but I’ve been granted an appeal for my free school FOI tribunal, and will be going to court again at the end of January. The parameters of the case are quite technical and more to do with the law than schools, so it’s not something I plan to write lots about until we get the judgement and I know if there are any actual implications for the education community. My hope is that it will undo some of the problems of the judgement last year and will hurry in a sorely needed era of transparency around free schools. When the public give you their kids and their taxes, the least you can give them is honesty in return.

Obviously I also hope to eat well, exercise often, sleep ten hours a night and have lots of holidays with family and friends. But I already do all those things already. Right?

Happy 2015 all. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

 

 



Categories: UK Education Policy

10 replies

  1. Laura, it has been a delight following you this year. Good luck with the FOI

  2. Laura, really enjoyed reading about your year. You got me into tweeting the Ed Select Committee sessions! I think blogging can serve as a medium where one can debate ideas or road teat them before getting a final version ready for publication. Do keep writing for the papers and your blog. You have fans who would miss you if you stopped either!
    (Thank you for the comment you left on my post. Made my day!)

  3. Really enjoyed reading this, Laura. Although you say you’re not a natural writer, I think you write so well – and I always learn from and am entertained by your blogs and articles.

    Good to hear your resolve to read and comment on blogs, too, and to be both positive and probing/constructively critical. I love the world of blogs and Twitter but sometimes feel concerned that there are so many voices speaking at once – perhaps we’re not really listening and responding to each other. But I know I have more time than most of those I connect with to read and comment, and I’ll keep doing that when I can.

    Very well done on all you’ve achieved with Academies Week so far – and GOOD LUCK with the appeal in January.

    Hope to get to meet you in 2015 – will look out for the yellow jacket….

  4. Great post Laura! If you’ve read any of my blogs you will know I am passionate about the needs of excluded children and feel that they often get a raw deal from schools and policy makers alike! However there is a wider debate to be had about these casualties of the relentless drive to raise standards and move the goalposts. This year I am determined to highlight the way in which the system fails some of our most vulnerable children and the shocking truth is exclusions are rising! This is an issue you could really get your teeth into ! Mainstream schools are struggling more than ever with behaviour and mental health issues are rising amongst some very young children! PRUs are the poor relation of special schools….yet the work we are doing is fantastic! We are tireless in giving help and advice to colleagues in mainstream primaries….one to one support for children, whole school INSET, group work, weekly SENCO surgeries, half termly twighlights on SEMH, behaviour, SEND….all free! TV producers like to focus on the kids in the unit in terms of showing bad behaviour but there’s so much more to us than that! I really feel we give and give to our local community in order to try and prevent exclusion! The children in the school are cared for and they feel safe in our nurturing environment but there are many more out there who need our small provision! However we only have 32 places! Covering 160 schools!!!

    I would be pleased to help if you decide to look into this area of provision! I hope you do because it is a national scandal how many kids are casually written out of the system. Certain high profile tweeps think it is OK to label young kids as ‘toerags’ and sadly your paper highlighted a recommendation for a blogger who did just that, before changing it after a backlash! (Quirky Teacher). So- called bad behaviour has many underlying causes and we need to work together to sort it out. Kids lead increasingly difficult lives and families are under pressure in both economic and moral terms. This is not going to go away. Some schools in our area are struggling to cope with large numbers of troubled youngsters and schools who traditionally don’t have behavioural problems are finding that they now do and often reach for the exclusion paperwork.

    I feel I am on a moral crusade here but I am small fry ; I think you are just the person to investigate the state of play as you are passionate and have high integrity. Only the other week there was a story about secondary academies excluding children in the pursuit of excellence….one has excluded 8 children already this school year! The story focused on the LA wanting to charge the schools! And so they should! It’s disgraceful! However the system is steering schools down that path! OFSTED aren’t helping either with no-notice behaviour inspections! We’re not talking about cartoonish Bash St- style behaviour but behaviour that is a cry for help!

    I was fortunate to meet with Mike Cladingbowl in Manchester so got some points across about the inspection of PRUs….I would love to talk to policy makers in the DfE to discuss the above issues! I really hope you will take up the cudgels on my behalf and on the behalf of schools, parents and children on the fringes of society! We need you!

  5. Eh, you were like a teacher for a few years. “Life changing” I’m sure…. Least you got a career being paid occasionally for a guardian article or 2 – pretty dry though and not light on the rhetoric. New year new career?

    • Bearing in mind that children are only in school a few years themselves, it’s entirely possible to change lives in that time. In fact, there are teachers people will say who never taught them – and they still changed their lives.

      Glad that you read the Guardian articles, even if you don’t like them. Always good to have people challenging me on what I write. Would be interested in any more specific issues you have about things I’ve written.

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