The importance of being outstanding

Do you know how some things just hang in the air? You can feel them coming, building up that suspense. You have the feeling that it’s going to influence your life quite a lot, but you’re not quite sure if it’s for better or for worse. That’s how I think many teachers feel about Ofsted. Ofsted, that government entity of inspectors that set the standards for teaching, inspect the schools in England and rate them on a scale from inadequate (1) to outstanding (4)[1]. In Finland, inspections have not existed since 1990. Here they still haunt teachers’ lives. And maybe they should, because who wouldn’t want to be outstanding?

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Diversity at Central

You are going to find this hard to believe, just like I did when I first heard it during my job interview, but that’s exactly why I’m going to tell you this. Here it goes:  92% of the children at Central Primary school speak another language than English at home. Yes, you read correctly. Let me say it again in a different way. Only 8 % of children that go to our school speak English at home as one of their mother tongues [1]. We have children arrive into our classrooms, who know only one or two words English. One might be “hello”, one might be “toilet”. It takes a while to get your head around that fact and then to imagine what other things relate to language: religions, customs, festivities and traditions. Central Primary really is diverse.

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How to teach a five-year-old?

“They are so young!” I kept thinking to myself when I finally started teaching my own Year 1 class. Children in England start school after they turn five. By law children need to be in education by the September after their fifth birthday although many children enter the reception class already at the age of four. The current school starting age was introduced in the 1870 Elementary Education Act and made compulsory in 1880[1].  So starting school at five is the norm and has a long tradition for a Brit, but not so much for a Finn. We tend to take pride in the fact that in Finland children go to school only at the age of 7 and until then “children are let to be children”. At the same time Finland relies on a compulsory and professional pre-education system to lead the children to primary education at a later age. I still see a lot of value in the later school starting age, but in the past year I have started to see that just because children go to school at the age of five, it does not mean that they are not let to be children.

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Culture Shock

Rainbow awards, house points, superheroes, ladders, reading records, guided reading groups, casting off and peeling off, phonics, SEN and ten other acronyms, new behaviour policy not to forget the national curriculum with fourteen subjects to be internalised. My head was spinning.

I thought I had some idea what to expect when I walked into the school on my first day in July, but in the weeks that followed I was reminded that a school in a different country with a different language and a different culture could still give a significant culture shock.

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First visits

Before accepting the job as a Year 1 teacher in Central Primary, I visited three other primary schools in England. I had lined up the interviews for the week of my arrival, so the very first morning of living in Watford I set off to visit the first school. For full disclosure I have to admit that I have lived in England before. I spent three years studying for a BA in Development Studies and Politics at SOAS in London. So some of England was familiar to me and therefore the cultural shock was quite mild. Or so I thought.

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How it all started

It’s been less than a year that I’ve been working as a primary school teacher in Central Primary school in Watford, England. It’s the only school I’ve worked in England, but I think that I am very lucky that I ended up here. Central Primary school is something else, something quite hard to explain. Ask anyone who has worked there.

It was a year ago when my partner and I decided to move to England, more precisely to Watford after his new job. We were living in Helsinki, Finland where I’m originally from and I had no objections when my partner accepted his job since for years I had longed to live abroad again.

For a split second I was worried about my own career.  But being a primary school teacher with a Master’s degree in Education from Finland I had a feeling that I would find a job. So we decided to go along with the plans to relocate to Watford and I put a lot of time and effort into finding a new home but not so much into finding a job.

All of a sudden it hit me that it was only a month before I was meant to back my bags and move abroad. With no more time to waste I started going through websites that advertise teaching positions in Hertfordshire, the county where Watford is located. Names of schools I had never heard of in areas near Watford I had no idea what they were like appeared in the screen and honestly I had no idea where to start.

The open positions advertised for “NQT – Key Stage 1” or for “Class teacher – EYFS”, which in the beginning meant absolutely nothing to me. The English education system was a complete mystery to me with all the different types of schools (public vs. state-funded and academy vs. foundation vs. community) but also with the structure of the grades in the system.

After a little bit of research I decided to apply for KS1 positions (Year 1 and Year 2), mainly because I figured that learning the system would be easier for me with younger students and that the content of curriculum in KS1 would be easier to internalise. I also had 2 years of experience of working as a 1st grade teacher in Finland (although the children start school in Finland only at 7 years old) so I felt that Year 1 would be the place to start in England.

So I chose some schools in areas close to Watford, read the applications that were all looking for an enthusiastic teacher to join their hard working team, that all promised a good work environment and possibilities for professional development. That was the first difference that I came across because I felt that the job advertisements were actual advertisements of the schools, which was very different to how the teaching positions in Finland would be announced.  Randomly I picked a few schools and started looking into them.

Some would say it is destiny, I’m not sure what it is, but one of the schools I came across was the Central Primary school in Watford. I opened the website and in the middle of the website there is a slideshow of pictures with children dancing and making art and around the slideshow is written “welcome” in eleven different languages, one of them being Finnish. Finnish! I could hardly believe it.

I looked a little deeper and noticed that many teachers in Central Primary were bilingual, including the head teacher and that the school seemed to be very multicultural. The school was situated in the city centre and seemed very accessible so I applied for the position immediately. I applied for several other positions as well and after the initial fear that no one would be interested in hiring me I started getting replies from different head teachers, including an email asking for an interview with the head teacher of the Central Primary school.

Now just a year later I am proud to admit that I have become a completely different teacher in the last year. The experience of working abroad and especially at Central has completely shifted my perception of teaching and made me realise how profoundly planning and teaching can and should be done. I wish to share with you the experience of working as a foreigner in the English educational system and more precisely the experience working at Central Primary school.

I will explore some of the qualities of Central Primary school that I have come to think of as the reason why this diverse primary school in a beautiful old Victorian building in the city centre of Watford is not only an outstanding school for children but also a fantastic place for professional development of teachers. Even for teachers who were educated in Finland, which is considered as one of the most prestigious countries in the world in regard to their teacher training.