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Primary Education News
News Connecting the dots: experiences of headship in all-through schools
Primary head Liz Astley discusses the importance of early years and foundation stage and responds to Elizabeth Truss's comments about "chaotic nurseries"
Did you always plan to go into headship?
Yes, I did. I realise this might be an unusual experience but I was helped along the way by an Ofsted inspector when I was at Great Meols primary in the days when individual teachers still got Outstanding certificates. The lead inspector was a really lovely man and made an effort to come and talk to me at the end of the week. When he found out I was about to go to Abu Dhabi he advised me to stay away for only short amount of time if I wanted to go further in my career as it was such a time of change in primary education.
Tell us about your career to date
I'm now three years into my second headship, as head of nursery and junior at Streatham and Clapham High School. At the start of my career I worked in three very different schools and in each of them I was lucky to have heads that encouraged me to take chances and develop my true potential. My first job was as a key stage 2 teacher specialising in science and PE at Great Meols primary school in the Wirral, where I'm from. Then I managed to combine my love of travelling and other cultures with my passion for teaching at Al-Khubairat Community school in Abu Dhabi. I came back to the Wirral to Gayton primary school where I ended up being deputy head. Heather Enson, my head and mentor at Gayton, and was a total inspiration to me. She gave her staff the scope to lead in major initiatives and also offered support for when thing didn't go quite right.
How do you think your time at an international school impacted on you?
Well, I'd certainly recommend working abroad to any teacher. It's such an opportunity to see how things are done in a different country and the children are brilliant. In Abu Dhabi it's all about oil, so there were children who'd travelled all around the world - they really were outstanding at geography. My first headship, after Gayton, was also at an international school, this time the British School of Houston in Texas.
There aren't many heads who have to deal with the effects of a hurricane five weeks after they arrive, but it was a fantastic job. What I found particularly interesting was working in a through-school, we went from aged three to 18. I was head of primary but we had the opportunity to share expertise across the age range – and primary has a lot to offer secondary schools in terms of good practice. At a through-school you can avoid that year 7 dip which hits so many students. Some authorities have fantastic schemes to deal with this in non-through schools and Wirral is a case in point – it's an outstanding authority which has developed really helpful transition projects to make sure primary and secondary schools work together.
How important is creativity in learning?
It's vital and I'm a huge supporter of the creative curriculum. It was a breath of fresh air in 2004 when the Excellence and Enjoyment agenda was launched and I really think it made a difference. Before that we'd gone on a bit of a treadmill, especially with the literacy and numeracy hour. But when the creative curriculum was brought in (again) it certainly inspired me in my teaching. I think it brought back the passion in primary teachers and the opportunity to use our imaginations again.
You are head of nursery and junior at Streatham and Clapham High, how much attention do you need to pay to the nursery side?
It's of prime importance. Early years and foundation stage (EYFS) really does lay the foundation of child's entire education and at this age they develop so very quickly, mainly through structured play. You can definitely tell children who have had that experience from those who come straight into reception in almost every area, from listening skills, to social to physical.
What did you make of Elizabeth Truss's comments earlier this week about chaotic nurseries where children are running round with no sense of purpose?
I would say come and have a look at some more nurseries, as that is certainly not the case in the schools I have worked in, state or independent. The work I see in EYFS is outstanding. I think nurseries often look more chaotic than they actually are. Sometimes it looks as though the kids are running around and having fun, not that fun is a bad thing. But this is really structured fun. Teachers do plan carefully for each individual child to make sure they reach their goals. Even though we are a girls school we have boys in our nursery and children are children, they will test boundaries at this age and they will be noisy.
How important do you think it is to have qualified nursery staff?
Well I think there's a difference in nurseries attached to schools. All our lead teachers are qualified members of staff. You do need leaders to be passionate about educating children with a sound awareness of early learning goals. A big concern is new proposals on adult/child ratios in nurseries. Lowering those ratios does raise alarm bells. It really makes no sense to relax ratios if we want to raise standards in schools.
How does the new EYFS framework impact on your school?
This came in in September 2012 and most of it is very welcome, particularly the new status of language and communication skills. With 34% of children struggling with speaking and listening in year one, you can see this is exceptionally important. Physical development and fine motor skills have also been given new emphasis, and that is through play and the creative curriculum. If we can get that right, we can help children develop their potential.
However, there are concerns. One is over reporting arrangements for the end of foundation stage. Here we are in April, and we need to report in July, but it's still not clear what form the reporting will take. It is still being worked out by those in charge, but schools want to get the reporting right and need to know. There's been an introduction of new technology to help in assessments but another worry is levels of paperwork. Despite promises that paperwork would be cut there are now seven areas of assessment so in fact the level of paperwork remains the same.
My concern is we do need a period of stability now to allow the foundation stage time to digest changes, and for leaders to be able to properly support for their staff.
Liz Astley is head of nursery and junior at Streatham and Clapham High School. The school is part of the Girls Day School Trust. In May, Liz is holding an EYFS professional development day to discuss the seven areas of learning, the new inspection framework and collection of evidence.