No one wins an individual gold in the relay

No one gets an individual gold in the relay.

A relay team’s success depends on the success of all. No matter how well you run your own leg or how perfect your own technique or fast your time, ultimately you still get no medal unless all the legs of your race are run well.

There are obviously race specific choices; it is very different running a bend to running an anchor leg and each runner will need their own specific strategies and techniques but also, fundamentally, all runners need to be the best on the track in order to succeed as a team.

Education is a relay.

Ultimately we are seeking the gold standard for all of our pupils as we pass the educational baton from key stage hand to key stage hand. So, why is there so much seeming dissent and arguing within the relay team about who is individually better or best? Why is there not a recognition that each leg is both important and unique?

It is simply a fact that secondary voices make up the bulk of educational writing (both within a  classroom and leadership focus), guest speakers, keynotes at events and the bulk of presenters at many large education events. I have learnt a huge amount from secondary colleagues and am truly grateful for the constant gifts of wisdom and expertise from the experienced teachers and leaders in these phases.  It is also a fact that many of the new NPQs, the ECF, the CCF and the Ofsted inspection framework itself are more easily aligned with secondary practice and secondary organisation both in terms of leadership, curriculum and classroom teaching. If you read any of those documents and their research bases, there is very little which underpins effective early years and primary practice but much of what underpins secondary teaching. This means that the national narrative is secondary skewed. This is not the fault of secondary teachers themselves but what it does mean is that primaries can feel under pressure to become “mini secondaries” in their approaches and organisation which is neither helpful nor appropriate.

It could be argued that more primary and EYFS voices should put themselves forward for speaker events or in publishing and I would champion any primary colleague wanting to do this. But this needs to be recognised that this happens against a skewed national backdrop. I have seen dozens of secondary practitioners on training days and primary events speaking to groups of primary colleagues about everything from curriculum design to aspects of teaching and learning to behaviour. And this is a gift. But, where is the reciprocity? Where are the secondary schools inviting primary practitioners into secondary to discuss these aspects? If we are a relay team whose individual legs make up the overall success then we cannot simply all focus on the anchor leg. The baton handover will only be sleek and slick if there is a truly nuanced understanding by all of the running of each leg.

Yes, it can feel hugely frustrating as a primary practitioner to enter a session at a national event to listen to a session generically entitled to link with “curriculum” for it to only mention key stages 3 and 4. It can be hugely frustrating also to look at the bestselling education books and see the huge predominance of secondary voices. It can be frustrating again to open a book which is meant to cover a generic aspect of research or practice and to find it only contains examples drawn from secondary settings.

But frustration is not productive. So if primary is under represented we need to ask why and what we can do about it.

Firstly we need to recognise that not all practice is transferrable. Some is, some isn’t. It’s simply a fact (again) that teaching children at 5 or 6, the bulk of whom are yet to become fluent readers and writers and who are still novices not only in the classroom but in all aspects of life, requires a very different approach to teaching students at post sixteen or at age 12. We cannot pretend, and nor should we, that there is one generic central narrative or homogenous approach that will fit all ages at all stages in all organisational structures in all subjects. Just as there are subject specific approaches within individual subjects in secondary which work differently, so too is there the need for a recognition of phase specific approaches. We need to, as a profession, ask ourselves a few questions before launching into an unhelpful relay team undoing of “anchor vs bend” arguments.

We need to ask:

  • How much do I know about teaching and learning in EYFS/Primary/Secondary?
  • How much direct experience do I have in both/all phases?
  • If I am going to share my thinking more widely, how do I know my practice is transferrable to other phase(s)?
  • Does this event I am running/attending represent all phases within the sector (EYFS, Primary, Secondary, FE/HE)
  • How am I deliberately broadening my understanding of other aspects of the sector?
  • Where does the bulk of my educational reading come from? Is it balanced?
  • Do I actively flag up to event organisers when there is a mismatch?
  • Do I attend sessions led by teachers from phases other than my own with a deliberate focus on broadening my understanding of the bigger picture?
  • If I am sharing writing through blogs, books etc and it is designed to be used by teachers in all phases, do I ensure I include examples from all phases?
  • If my writing or session is designed to be phase specific and unlikely to include examples from or be relevant to other phases, do I signpost this in the title?
  • If I am asked to speak at an event, do I ask about phase balance and representation?

These questions should hopefully prompt publishers, event planners and those involved in constructing CPD programmes to recognise that the national skewing towards secondary is not necessarily the most helpful team structure if we are to run that relay effectively together.

I trained initially as a KS2/3 Science specialist teacher. Later in my career I worked as a DfE National Strategy Consultant on a large scale project across our region looking at the effects of our 10+ high school system in Leicestershire and what we could learn from cross phase practice. This meant a sustained period of time teaching and researching in multiple primary and secondary settings. Then, in Y6 and headship, I worked extremely closely with our High schools and their staff to develop practice which ensured a true understanding of the approaches within both key stages – working and teaching in both settings throughout the project over a number of years. In my current role in my Trust I work with and within primary, secondary and special settings so I am extremely fortunate in that throughout my career over the last 24 years in schools I have seen the many differences and similarities across the phases. Understanding the journey of the children through primary into secondary has been an absolutely fascinating aspect of my practice development throughout my career; the subsequent championing of all phases as a means of truly understanding how pupils learn and develop will therefore always be at the heart of my approach to all CPD whether as a provider, speaker or attendee.

It is from that sustained range of experiences over almost a quarter of a century now that I would encourage all colleagues to proactively explore and develop their understanding of the rich variation of approaches across the sector. No one phase is best. No one phase has it licked. No one phase is right. And no one phase should dominate the race. We are a relay team and we only win when we really understand what is going on in each leg. The only way we do that is by actively pursuing the understanding of each other’s work.

Pass the baton not the buck.

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