An interview with … Matthew Read, Principal, Prospect Primary School (2 of 3)

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Editor’s Note: In the ‘An interview with …’ series, we speak to education leaders on a range of issues, and publish the discussion in an edited Q+A.

Matthew Read is intent on strengthening Prospect Primary School‘s ties to the community and building on its track record as one of government’s top-performing schools. Read is responsible for about 360 students and a staff of about 35 at Prospect Primary, which opened in 2004 and is one of the government’s three International Baccalaureate schools.

In the first part of this interview, Read talked about Prospect Primary’s response to the COVID-19 closure, and the challenges and opportunities that arose from virtual learning.

Matthew Read, Principal, Prospect Primary School

In this part, Read discusses the return to in-person classes, the school’s strengths and its areas for improvement.

In the final instalment (to be published this week), he talks about ongoing initiatives at Prospect Primary.

Bio: Read arrived in August 2016 to become Principal of Prospect Primary. He has 20 years of experience as a teacher in London government schools. His most immediate past position was Principal of a government school in West London. He holds a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and several UK teaching qualifications.

— What are some benefits or lessons from COVID, or things that have carried over that you wouldn’t otherwise have accomplished?

One of the really big impacts of the closedown was on behaviour. When you go into the classrooms it’s very settled, and it was very settled from the first day of term. I think that is because the children and parents have really got the idea that, ‘by the way it’s your responsibility’.

That intrinsic motivation became much more embedded than it had been. Behaviour has always been good, but when they came back it was better — in terms of that children now knew that they were taking ownership of their learning.

Certainly in our Years 4 and 5, who became our 5 and 6, the children came back much more language-rich, and in a metacognitive sense, much more able to speak about their learning and to articulate what they were doing.

Of course that’s not every single child because you’re always going to have some children who find that very difficult. But more children are able to speak more about their own learning and are able to take responsibility for their learning.

We got over a big hurdle: I don’t think prior to COVID — yeah, everyone had IT lessons every week; we were using computing and all of the rest of it — but I don’t think we were using enough, and that’s reflected in the OES report that we had. I don’t think we were using ICT enough to support that learning in terms of homework and in terms of learning that’s going on in class.

There’s now much more confidence in teachers going, “Right, you need to get one of those laptops from the trolley.” The student will come with a question. “Well how are you going to empower yourself and find that rather than me feeding you that information?”

They’ve become far more literate ICT-wise, and the teachers have become far more confident with IT.

There was always sort of an existential fear with IT. “Oh, they’re going to be playing games. They’re going to be distracted. They’re not going to do their work.” … No. Their discipline is way better, in terms of, “This is a tool for learning, and we’re going to use it in that respect.”

We’ve learnt about tools like Seesaw, where even our youngest children in Reception are taking photographs and uploading their own work, taking films of themselves counting or doing an activity to show their teacher that they understand a concept. And that’s quite mind-blowing.

In the past, you almost had a sense of, “Well they’re too young for that, really.”

We had to find ways of doing it, and that’s carried on, and coming back everyone’s got that. We need to make sure that we stay on top of this because if we have to close again we don’t want to have to go through that big, steep learning curve. We want to make sure that we are regularly using IT and that it’s a regular part of the mix with what we’re doing.

We’re seeing a lot more homework being done on IT and being sent back. We’ve got classes regularly sending out stuff on [Microsoft] Teams and work coming back right away.

Teams is fantastic because, like WhatsApp, you’ve got a conversation tool there, a test messaging tool. Really high-order conversations about learning and improving work are going on through Teams with the kids that way. That’s really forcing thinking, and the teacher saying to the student, “I’m not doing it for you.” We’re able to give children their objectives and they have a go at it themselves in a much more real way than perhaps what was happening before.

One of our superstars that came through from COVID was Rachel Klein, who’s our computing teacher. As a pet project she set up the Klein Academy, and she’s taken the curriculum that we’ve got for IT and she’s pushing it through the Klein Academy and also through her own online tools.

For example, she’s been doing coding with the children this week, and one of the things that she’s talked about is the fact that computers actually work in machine code, and it’s very similar to something like Morse. She’s been having Morse translated, and then talking about the history of Morse Code as one of the earliest forms of electronic communication.

We’ve been receiving emails from children in Morse Code. Oh, for goodness sake.

I had a rather panicked parent contact me saying, “This was posted on Facebook. I don’t know what it is. What is it?” … “It’s a warning to parents to say that the children are learning about Morse Code.”

— My kids really got into tools like, Kodable and Scratch.

We were seeing something similar with the older children with Scratch. That was a real win. The students were getting hooked on coding. So we gotta watch out for that.

It really has demystified a lot of IT and how it’s used and the communications going on. COVID absolutely forced that issue, not just here in school, but right across the system.

I’ve been looking forward to the students having their computers and being able to have more English classes, maths classes where the teacher says, “Right. Get your laptop out. It’s going to be a laptop day today … Right. Your homework’s going out on Teams and I expect it coming back that way.”

As an IB school, self-study projects are key to the work we do. You’ll see as you go through the school throughout the year, you’ll see tables set up outside the classrooms. There’s the most incredible projects coming back. Going forward, a lot of those projects are going to be far more IT-based — “Alright, we’re going to design a website today” — instead of designing a flier and having posters going up. “We’re going to be designing a webpage with levels of interaction.”

It might be, look at Plastic Free Cayman, within the context of the work that they’re doing on mangroves in Year 5. How can we spread that message, that one of of the things that’s damaging mangroves is the pollution, the rubbish, that’s getting washed up in the mangroves? How do we raise awareness of that and take ownership of it?

— What things does the school do really well, and how are you working to strengthen those areas?

We’ve got a core of very strong teachers, who make sure that the fundamentals are taught, and taught well. Reading is a strength across the board. That love of reading is something that’s communicated an awful lot of the time.

OK, it’s one of those areas that you’re always going to be looking for ways to make it even better, to get them reading sooner. You don’t want the students just reciting text; you want them comprehending what they’re reading. You want them reading more challenging texts.

One of the things that the PTA did, is the fundraising they did last year was about putting more high-level readers and more challenging texts and more attractive books in the Year 5 and 6 classrooms. The second half of the year was going to be about putting more free readers and things like that into the Years 3 and 4 classes. Obviously we had the closure, but that’s going to be the project for now.

You’re not just going to have access to those books in the school library. You’re going to have them in your classroom, lots of really attractive books, so that we’re encouraging them … Don’t get me wrong, ‘Captain Underpants’ and ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ are wonderful, and they’re a great way to hook kids into reading when they’re into Years 3 and 4. But actually, we want to wean them off that and get them onto things like ‘Skellig’ and ‘The Subtle Knife’, and books that are going to challenge them conceptually as they move up through the schools.

I’m not a massive fan of ‘Harry Potter’, but when you look at what it did in the UK in terms of hooking kids on reading, you can’t question it. It got a whole generation of people hooked on reading.

‘Captain Underpants’ and the like, they’re gateway books. The children love them, and they will just devour those books. They’ll sit and read that entire series.

They love them, but we’re saying, “Yeah, that’s great, in Year 3. And it’s great in your spare time as your downtime book, but what we need to do now is start pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves with other books.” That process of weaning them off and making that reading experience far richer, is what we’re doing at the moment.

The team are brilliant at that. They push and support that, and they’re real advocates for reading, and also holding parents’ feet to the fire in terms of, “You have to be reading with your children every single night.”

There are the basics, like making sure the timetables are there, the spellings are learnt. We’ve got a parent community that really supports that. Going back to IT, parents are sending you the text at 7 o’clock at night: “What’s my child’s class’s spelling list for tomorrow?” … It’s like, “You should have been asking this question earlier in the day and earlier in the week, but here’s your child’s spelling list.”

It’s about having that constant communication where everyone’s open to being partners in the children’s learning.

The staff has great respect from the parent community, and the parents support what the teachers are doing. That’s about them building that relationship with families over very many years. Because of the profile of our staff, we’ve got teachers here who taught the parents, and now the parents are putting their children through those teachers’ classes. That might have been when they were in George Town before they moved to Prospect, but that real sense of community is there.

The fact is that the teachers are part of that growing up, and part of that family for those children. We’re not separated. We’re absolutely part of it. I think that’s a real strength of our community.

Just mentioning the teaching of writing — oh my goodness, if you ever sit in a writing lesson or a moderation of writing, it’s absolutely mind-blowing the technical expertise the staff have in terms of dissecting a piece of writing and saying, “These are the strengths of that piece of writing. Now here are the bits that we’ve got to move forward with.” And how that feeds back into subsequent lessons, and the verbal feedback that the students get in terms of improving their writing, is just awesome.

As an IB school, the cross-curricular teaching and the richness of the curriculum is absolutely amazing, but it’s the basic fundamentals first, and then we move outward from there.

— What challenges does the school face, and how are you going about addressing those challenges?

I suppose this is a challenge and a compliment at the same time: We have a lot of students coming in with quite high level of needs because we’ve got a really good reputation for supporting them, both behaviorally and if your child comes in here dyslexia, of getting those students to a point where not only can they survive in high school, they can thrive in high school, and they can access the learning there.

We’re not just passing those children through the system. We’re addressing those needs, and we’ve got a strong team in terms of supporting special needs. The job that the teachers do and the assistant teachers do to support those lower-ability children is absolutely phenomenal.

Now I’m not going to pretend that it’s ‘no child left behind’. We’re not there yet. The challenges, the number of kids coming in, just the level of resources that we would love to be able to put to support those children, and stretching the more-able at the same time, that’s the challenge.

When you’ve got class sizes of 28, and you’ve got one teacher for the 28 students, and you’re sharing an assistant teacher between the 2 classes, that’s a big ask of the teachers. Then when you combine that with the fact that they’re doing lunch duty and other tasks as well … But they’re doing it.

They’re throwing themselves at it. We saw this during closedown; teachers are putting in long, long hours to make it happen and to make it work. But it asks a huge amount of our teachers to do that.

They all jump in and support each other. They’ll seek advice from each other. It’s very impressive. But just, the sheer class size, the number of students, the staff ratio is always going to be a challenge.

I am pleased to say the Department of Education Service are working hard to secure us additional help.

We’re solution-focussed and what the staff do is say, “Yep, this is an issue, but let’s see what we can do about it. Let’s find a way of making it work.”

But we know that there’s more to do, and we’d love more resources to make that happen.

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