Bernard's pieces for Conference and Common Room

 

Blowing the HMC trumpet

Summer 2013

The old Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” seems to have been visited upon education’s independent sector recently. Still, one might argue, it’s better to be interesting than boring.

For it has been a little boring. Independent schools in general, HMC schools no less nor more than the rest, have been suffering pressure and hostility from government since long before I became HMC’s Chairman-elect in 2006. We had been fighting off a Labour government, viscerally opposed to everything we stand for.

Secretaries of State had changed with monotonous regularity: even worse seemed Ed Balls staying rather longer, implacably hostile to everything we stand for. Lord Adonis offered an olive branch of a kind – but only if we followed his very particular agenda.

That agenda dealt with our somehow earning our respectability by singing from his academies-related hymn-sheet. The populist media still jumps on that bandwagon, suggesting with monotonous regularity that can earn the “spectacular tax-breaks” we’re alleged to enjoy only by contributing to the master-plan of saving English education (as distinct from provision in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Would things improve with a change of government? Until the 2010 Election it seemed they would: aspirant education supremo Michael Gove applauded the high standards we stand for and maintain, and wanted us to be part of a national educational turnaround.

But has anything really changed since the election? Sadly, similarities to our dealings with the old regime outnumber positive developments with the new. Our Prime Minister and his immediate circle are embarrassed that they went to the best school in the world, and never mention it by name. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, never gives Westminster School credit for the flying start it gave his education and career: he describes the effect of our sector as “corrosive”, but then reveals that he may send his own children to private school.

So well done, HMC’s Chairman-elect! Tim Hands lambasted Clegg publicly, simultaneously grabbing some useful headlines in February. Next Anthony Seldon gained column inches with his complaint of bias against our pupils at Oxbridge: discrimination in those universities is not something I perceive to be a problem, as it happens, but Anthony’s claim that such bias has become "the hatred that dare not speak its name" was a powerful sound-bite picked up by the newspapers. And finally Chairman Chris Ray took the government to task more generally for its complete lack of clarity in its thinking about, and attitude to, our sector.

There was, in truth, nothing very new about those messages: but for once they seemed to be heard. The Chinese curse seems to be taking effect: our times are certainly challenging, but at last they are interesting, too. Chinks of light are showing. In late February the Daily Telegraph even published a hard-hitting editorial criticising the government for its ambivalent attitude to the UK’s independent schools:

“Politicians on both sides of the divide seem almost paranoid about speaking the truth, which is that the financial autonomy of the independent sector has made it into a beacon of excellence. Its academic results are superb – last summer, almost a third of privately educated teenagers gained straight A grades at A-level – and its contribution to Britain’s culture profound (more than a third of British medal winners in the 2012 London Olympics were from private schools)…

“There is nothing elitist about parents following their ‘fundamental instincts’ and trying to get the best education for their child. A survey conducted last year found that 57 per cent of the public would send their child to a private school if they could afford it. This is not necessarily a judgment on the state sector, which continues to see exam results improve. Rather, it is an endorsement of the high quality of private schools, their small class sizes and their emphasis on building confidence in young people.”

In fine finger-wagging form, the Telegraph ended its Leader column by admonishing politicians:

“Rather than ignoring or disparaging these great British institutions, politicians should hold them up as an example to learn from. Especially if the politicians in question happen to have attended one.”

Wow! Not quite job done, then, but it was at least a start. Our sector, and HMC in particular, does need to change public opinion which has been coloured and tainted by misinformation, envy and a basic lack of honesty about what the real issues are. “Only in Britain”, as all of us say who have travelled abroad and seen other education systems, “only in Britain would politicians conspire to distance themselves from the best schools in the world.” And those, remember, are precisely what HMC represents.

So where was former Chairman Martin Stephen coming from, then? Just when the Telegraph had finally weighed in on our side, Martin was in the Times Educational Supplement (and picked up by the Daily Mail), predicting disaster for us. We’re too expensive and becoming increasingly the realm of the super-rich. And HMC in particular doesn’t have a sufficiently powerful voice, because we insist on changing our Chairman every year.

Let me try to tackle both those arguments. The financial one is tricky. No one can pretend the sector’s cheap. Senior day schools charge an average of £11,709 a year, boarding schools £26,340. That’s a big whack of after-tax income. No wonder, say commentators, boarding schools increasingly look abroad to attract students.

But is overseas recruitment such a bad thing? Our schools are bringing millions into the UK economy - hence our frustration when the UK Border Agency makes things difficult. Moreover, parents have a wide range of choices in the independent sector, and some of Martin Stephen’s concerns are frankly South-East-centric.

Those of us who work in the wilds of the North, for me a full three-hour train journey from London, find many of our sector’s alleged concerns and developments pretty alien. Unsurprisingly our fees, both boarding and day, tend to fall below that national average. Incomes are lower, for sure: but so is the cost of housing. I cannot be the only head who, for the first time in his long career, has in the last couple of years worked with governors to set an annual fee increase based not on what we’d like to spend in the coming year, but on what we believe parents can afford.

Then there’s the sector-wide commitment to bursary help, to the vast numbers of boys and girls in HMC schools who wouldn’t come without huge levels of financial support. It makes business sense, it brings in bright students, and it also keeps us all in touch with our historical mission.

We are charities because most of us started in a small way, often lost in history, where a benefactor (in my case, probably the Freemen of the City) wanted to provide low-cost education to local children, founders often recognising that their own wealth and success had come from the humblest of beginnings.

Here again the Telegraph’s Leader supported our schools:

“Many independent schools engage with their local communities and next year Eton will sponsor a non-fee-paying school. Far from being the preserve of ‘toffs’, many also provide financial support for poorer pupils; in 2012 one third of Oxford University’s bursaries to undergraduates from low-income backgrounds were distributed to students from independent schools. Some parents make huge financial sacrifices to send their children to a private school.”

Thank you! Clearly we’re getting our message across at last. It’s significant that HMC now has a Communications Director, and a Communications Sub-Committee refining our message, assuring a level of consistency and coherence that used to be lacking. I was the first Chairman (2007-8) to enjoy the support of that Sub-Committee’s precursor, in those days a somewhat self-selecting group of heads who had perceived that very need for coherence of message. It certainly informed and shaped my year of Chairmanship, and has gained in expertise and influence ever since. I’m satisfied that HMC’s current success in the media stems from that work over years.

So I don’t accept Martin’s criticism that HMC is weakened by having only an annual Chairman who just starts to learn the ropes and then is put out to grass. To assume that the Chairman of HMC is in some way all-powerful and runs (and speaks for) the organisation as a kind of one-man [sic] band is, one might suggest, a somewhat headmagisterial view.

Churchill took the view that “headmasters are possessed of a power of which we politicians can only dream”: but life has moved on, and few of us, I hope, now lay claim to or even desire the awesome potency that Churchill would surely have craved!  The HMC Chairman rightly inherits a pair of somewhat clipped wings.

Frankly, we neither want nor need personal agendas at the top of HMC. We want a head of stature – and we need more women there – to speak for an organisation that really does, through its committee structure and the hard work of members, achieve a consensual and coherent view clearly expressed. The Chairman is not the driver. Instead the driver is the General Secretary, an increasingly authoritative figure over the past decade and now the professional and continuing voice that speaks for HMC.

To see us as pushed hither and thither by a succession of chairmen is thus to misread the HMC of 2013. It is a highly professional organisation which chooses to have a “lead professional” as its figurehead: but it is a figurehead, not an executive leader. Persuasive, high-profile heads are welcome: mavericks are not. Personal agendas have no place. What is needed is precisely a personal commitment to supporting and spreading the message of what HMC stands for.

I’m so long in the tooth now, with 23 years of headship under my belt, that I could be forgiven more than most if I were to take a backward-looking or historical view of HMC. But I don’t. We need to avoid doing what we accuse the Press of doing: painting a picture of independent schools as set in aspic, those same century-old pictures of top hats and boaters trotted out to illustrate our sector. Remember, even the Telegraph has started to understand what we are about!

So we HMC members need to move on from our own prejudices. It’s not dominated by a few big names, the heads of “great schools”, whatever they may be. It’s run with an efficient committee structure by highly committed and experienced professionals.

It’s represented by both elected members with hands-on experience of running good schools and a professional staff, between them all with great skills in understanding the big issues, in networking, in quietly influencing policy-makers and grabbing the chance to do so whenever possible. Most frequently and appropriately that tends to be on academic and examination issues, and matters of university entrance – but we can always go further.

Running an independent school is! It’s not going to get any easier while the economic situation is so dire. But one of the astonishing features of our sector is that we continue to perform and, overall, to thrive (just look at the ISC census), even against such a challenging backdrop. Indeed, it seems that, when times are so hard and prospects for the young increasingly bleak, parents are more anxious than ever to invest in their children’s future by choosing independent schools - when they can.

We need to be honest and realistic, but optimistic and positive too. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about this: we really are doing a great job. And we need to get together and get behind HMC to shout about it rather more loudly than we have done in the past - because we might just start to win a few battles in the war of words.

 

From boy jest to beau sabreur

 Summer 2012

Let’s get one thing straight. I like sport. I’m no good at it, and a decade or three of failure put me off it. But now I love it. One of the joys of being a head –too often interrupted by other things – is watching school sport. As a dad I have always loved watching my fanatical hockey-playing daughters.

Given my atrocious hand-eye coordination, it’s always been a mystery how I could ever learn to play the organ and synchronise hands and feet in Bach preludes and fugues, despite combining a natural clumsiness with size 12 shoes.

I guess this article is going to be critical of school sport, or at least its effect on me (so, dealing with a period between 40 and 50 years ago, it can be largely discounted as ancient history). I must also confess that, for most of my school years, I was keener on avoiding sport than playing it. Even now, maintaining my astonishing physique by running three times a week, I derive little pleasure from it. It’s just that if I didn’t run I’d have to sort out the eating and drinking thing.

Prep school sport first taught me about sporting failure. New to rugby with all my peers, I was picked for my year-group’s first U10 match. I had to ask the teacher what the term “flanker” meant: I had only picked up “wing-forward”. Nor was I aware that my job was to whip round the scrum and nobble the opposing scrum-half. I’m not convinced anyone had told me.

Indeed, my recollection of school sport is that people rarely explained anything. You either grasped it instinctively, were picked for the team, intensively coached and became some kind of hero in the eyes of the school and its pupils: or you missed the point and were quickly dropped from the team (as I was after the second fixture at the age of 9), and never played competitively again. You were an outsider, excluded from the marvellous world of those who could do sport with apparent ease.

Just as children who have difficulty with reading or maths learn to duck and dive and hide their inadequacies, so the kids who are swiftly labelled as being no good at sport learn avoidance strategies. During the remainder of my years of compulsory rugby I was generally screamed at for not trying (I probably wasn’t). And when teachers were really exasperated they would make me run round the pitch while proper players learned to improve their scrum technique.

It was only at the age of 14, at senior boarding school, that I finally got a choice as to the sport I played: I took up fencing, for two reasons. First, my elder brother had done it and enjoyed it (I think he was quite good). Second, the sport is done indoors, out of the rain and in relative warmth.

The latter strategy wasn’t entirely successful. It was decided that fencers should get fitter, so I may have endured almost as many wet, drizzly cross-country runs as other people. I became a sabreur and even represented the school once or twice (my only representative honours): but I was quite small and a bit chubby by then, and seldom troubled serious opponents. Still, full marks to the fencing coaches who taught the technique from scratch, never let me get through a session without someone checking my progress and, well, coaching.

Memory plays tricks, of course. Is it really true that no one ever told me how to do anything in any of those ball games? Or even how to hit a ball with any kind of bat or racket? I think it is. I remember prep school cricket for two things. First of all, those of us who had shown no natural aptitude occasionally got to bat at the end of a long afternoon of fielding. The best bowlers would come on and we would face a few balls. The first would leave a thigh hurting. The second a thumb or hand. The third would generally remove a stump.

I still remember the confidence-building conversation: “Trafford, you’re useless at cricket but good at maths. You can be scorer.” I even scored for practices, so I’m not convinced I ever held a cricket bat from the age of 10. In fairness, my mother reminds me that I was particularly keen on the cricket teas: I probably set records in demolishing those.

As a pupil of sport, then, I was neither apt nor keen. But the hierarchy of sports was another turn-off.  I could fence for the school, enthusiastically if not well, but that never had the esteem accorded to rugby teams. And, of course, all the senior prefects in a school in those days were rugby-players. Exclusively.

I was forty when I finally learned to do a rugby drop-kick. In the park with a rugby-playing friend’s young sons, he taught me to do the drop-kick. It had never occurred to anyone in school to teach me that basic skill that, for whatever reason, had never come naturally to me. As for the tactics of the great winter game, everything I know was learnt from watching televised internationals with the same friend.

It’s always assumed that one naturally understands these things. Twenty years ago I was a very young head, and had to beg my sports teachers to explain both the strategy and what was happening in an individual game. It simply didn’t occur to them that I might not work it out intuitively.

The other day I was talking about school sport with a group of sixth formers. One, as it happens an international fencer, has decided to branch out into pentathlon. Leaving aside the fact that he hasn’t yet got a horse, he is relishing the challenge of broader sporting activity. In many ways he’s in tune with the Zeitgeist: we seem to be seeing increasing numbers of school athletes training for biathlons, triathlons and other multiple sports.

This is wonderful. I admire above all such sports-people as heptathlete Jessica Ennis. These phenomenal all-rounders truly model the old Olympic ideal: they’re not mean human machines honed and crafted for one activity, but true athletes capable of excelling in several disciplines.  So I was pleased to hear about my student’s decision to diversify, and struck by his passion for it.

He thinks schools should be more active in encouraging that approach. By contrast, he feels that schools in general are over-eager to specialise. To be sure, most of us are proud that higher up the school we offer a wide range of sports: but 11-year-old boys are invariably required to play rugby for a whole term, or perhaps for the whole winter: a football school may go the other way. Round- and oval-ball rivalries aside, generations of sports teachers have always said that boys (this may be a gender thing) must concentrate on the one sport and develop the skills early on.

This discussion made me question all this. The skill for life is not how to scrummage or kick penalties – but to take control of one’s health and fitness and ensure a balanced, well-exercised, healthy lifestyle that is truly life-long. Do we teach that in games lessons? Not much, I suspect. I am sure we deal with it in PSHE, but sport in schools is still frequently focussed on developing high-achieving teams in the sports of choice, for girls as for boys. Reasonably enlightened schools make sure that they run plenty of teams, so even a D-team rugby player gets a match now and then. But is that really the purpose?

My experience as a head has been of working with committed, passionate sports teachers who generally succeed in maintaining a sense of balance and have the best interests of their pupils at heart. They balance that commitment to the sports they love with an understanding that they are only part of children’s lives.

So I like to think that my successor, the little chubby boy who even by the age of eleven has received the message that he’s no good at sport (as I had by the late 1960s), gets a better deal. Girls, too! I’d hope that sports teachers out there are finding things that they can do, modest ways in which they can achieve (I don’t mean refereeing for 10 minutes!), and finding the joy of participation and teamwork as well as of setting themselves real but realistic challenges, and learning from tackling them.

Nonetheless, when I read about some of the fanatical focus on single sports in schools and in the wider world, not to mention in professional sport, I wonder if we still risk losing both the educational and the Olympic ideal, chasing gongs and glory instead of real personal fulfilment.

I don’t have any neat answers. But I hope that in schools we are at least starting to ask ourselves the right questions.

 

Green guilt

Autumn 2011

Experience of headship rapidly trains one to live constantly with feelings of inadequacy. Most heads get to the hot-seat after a successful spell as a specialist in a subject department, followed by a few years getting a bigger view somewhere in senior management.

When we reach the top, however, we quickly discover just how much we don’t know. As with baboons, the higher we climb, the more obvious our unattractive parts become, fuelling that sense of being a fraud, of being constantly on the point of being uncovered as such, exposed to ridicule and, in some unquantifiable way, rejected.  I assumed, when I joined HMC, that I would be the only member who wasn’t at least 6’ 6” tall and possessed of an Oxford or Cambridge Blue in rowing or rugby or both. In truth we are an eclectic bunch, and even sissies like me have always been made to feel welcome: but that sense of inferiority persists.

My therapist assures me that such paranoia is perfectly normal in heads: after all, they are out to get us, even if we don’t quite know who ‘they’ are! And the feeling is constantly reinforced. Notwithstanding my twenty years as a head, I am constantly reminded of the gaps in my knowledge – more than ever, perhaps. When conducting a curriculum review, for example, I am forced to confess that I blagged my way to headship without ever having constructed a timetable. So, when a serious-minded head of department looks me in the eye and says, “It will never work, headmaster,” producing endless spreadsheets to demonstrate how the loss of 20 minutes’ teaching in Year 8 will make it impossible satisfactorily to cover the GCSE syllabus three years later, I am generally at a loss.  In response I can only cling to my tiny patch of moral high ground, mutter darkly about choice and breadth, and call to mind the old naval signal, “Am making smoke and retreating”.

The point is, I suppose, that heads are expected to be omniscient. Only the other day, walking over to school lunch, I was accosted by dozens of students who had spotted an enormous pall of smoke in the sky, and demanded to know what it was. I hadn’t even noticed it. Quick on my feet, I suggested one of them use their android phone to check the local news, and we were instantly informed that the smoke was coming from a nearby scrapyard on fire (we’re gritty in northern city schools).

I could have found that out for myself. Actually, I couldn’t: my clever phone apparently has more memory and apps than my brain has accumulated in a lifetime, while I can barely handle emails. But the point is that my pupils assumed I would know what was going on. A useful life-lesson was learned there, that those in charge are seldom up to speed with reality: for me it was a reminder that omniscience is another of those expectations that we can’t hope to live up to.

As a result, we leaders spend a great deal of time papering over the cracks: bluffing, indeed. I’m not sure what my strengths as a head are overall, though I think I have a keen appreciation of my weaknesses. But one strength I can boast: I know unequivocally that I am a bluffer par excellence. So, in common with all who regularly skate on thin ice, I’ve learned to live with that constant sense of insecurity and don’t allow it to overwhelm me.

Now, alas, I seem obliged to live with a new burden. All of us are nowadays assailed by a new form of guilt which is thrust on from all sides. It comes from the media. It comes from government. It comes from scientists (and whoever used to listen to them before?). Worst of all, it comes, powerfully, incessantly, and sometimes shrilly, from the boys and girls I teach. This new phenomenon I shall term green guilt.

I’m used to living with a more general sense of guilt. Comedian Billy Connolly used to say that, if you are born a Roman Catholic, you are born with an A level in guilt. I was so born, and I guess I do carry that religio-genetic inheritance. Fortunately, more than half a century has helped me learn to live with it.

But this new green form of guilt gets my goat. I guess I should call it sustainability awareness. We all know nowadays that we shouldn’t use old-fashioned light-bulbs, that we must double-glaze our windows and stuff our roof spaces with insulation. It’s logical and makes life cheaper, so why object? We all know why we have to do it: fossil fuels; greenhouse gases; ozone layer; environmental damage (this latest wheeze of setting off explosions underground to release shale gas scares me out of my wits); nuclear disasters, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. We all know the hazards, and we know we need to change the way we live. But, though we know it all, we don’t do as much as we should.

That is why, I guess, we are so often required to go on a green guilt trip. When I fly from Newcastle down to see my aged parents in Somerset, people look reproachfully. The fact that my flight time to Bristol is just under an hour, instead of nine on one of those painfully slow trains that meanders from Inverness to Penzance, counts as nought: my carbon footprint is judged to be even bigger than my size 12 shoes. A green crusader recently lambasted me for the number of halogen spotlights I have in my home. No matter that I can’t stand the gloom of low energy bulbs: apparently I should inhabit a perpetual twilight, waiting ages for bulbs to warm up and reading my book by the glow of self-satisfaction at my fuel thrift. Have you seen those new low-energy spotlights to replace halogen bulbs? Take my advice: try a candle.

It’s so dispiriting. Just five years ago we were doing some building work on our country cottage. It’s bright and windy there so, with our neighbours, we thought we would put solar panels on the south-facing roofs and install a wind generator. The renewable energy expert was enthusiastic. For a mere £7,500 we could have a five-metre-high windmill – oops, sorry, Guv: the government subsidy has just been cut on those – which would supply a significant amount of electricity. How much power? we asked. Would we be able to go all electric and clean, and heat the house and water from wind-power?

The engineer looked shocked. Of course not, he said. You can’t get that much from one small turbine. But you could run six low energy bulbs and your laptop off it. Dismayed, we opted for oil-fired central heating.

Okay! I stand condemned as an unreconstructed old gas-guzzler. But I’m busy, and I need my creature comforts; warmth and a decent quantity of light for a start. Why is it that the sustainable alternative is so often so disappointing?

It gets worse. As a teacher I preach what I don’t practise. All right, so I don’t personally teach lessons on sustainable energy, but my geographers and physicists do, incessantly. Children nowadays know everything there is to know about renewable, biomass, biofuels and green politics. And they enquire accusingly about the way we run the school. My bursar is regularly quizzed, mercilessly, by the school council, grilled about the energy efficiency of our buildings. He adopts a hunted look. It’s a 1906 building in a conservation area, he explains. Yes it is still single-glazed and, no, he doesn’t know when we are going to double-glaze the whole blooming building – when we win the lottery presumably! No, a big hollow space like the school hall is not energy-efficient. Yes, the old radiators with six-inch wide pipes are wasteful, but they are original and still working. And so it goes on. Polite yet firm, and tirelessly judgemental, his inquisitors look him in the eye and even an experienced bursar, builder of many buildings and unparalleled expert on the intricacies of drainage and waste removal, is abashed.

The young are, as always, so very demanding. No matter that we have those tri-coloured recycling bins all round school: they still want to know how many cubic metres of cardboard we have crushed in the past month. The City authorities are so green now they send a man on an electric motorbike to talk to the children in the Junior School. The bike disappoints. Somehow the sewing-machine noise as he speeds away at the end doesn’t match the thrill of a big Ducati opening up on the straight: and it’s all a little smug.

Actually, i’s all so damned virtuous. The path of righteousness is not so much a hard or stony one as dreadfully dull! I’m reminded of the man who asked his doctor how he could live to be a hundred. “Don’t drink, don’t smoke and don’t consort with women,” he replied.

“And then will I live to be a hundred?”

“No, but it’ll seem like it.”

There’s a parallel with the saints of old, the early Church Fathers. Virtue is never enough. However many energy saving-devices we install, however much we lag and insulate, turn things down or accelerate gently, the green guilt-trippers are never satisfied. Just as those early saints fasted still more fiercely, scourged themselves or stood on pillars for years at a time in their unfulfilled quest for holiness, green guilt drives us to ever greater extremes of… moderation.

It’s all so unfair. Those local council eco-warriors don’t seem to do much about turning off the blaze of street lights that allow real darkness to descend on the UK only in Kielder or the Scottish Highlands. And the kids who look so disapprovingly at the school’s energy figures are slow to ask the DJ to turn down the volume or reduce the disco’s dazzling light-show. And no one tells the footballer who lives round the corner from me, less than half my age, that his Ferrari with the Newcastle United number plate is noisy, garish and drinks spirit even quicker than George Best ever managed.

I’m sorry. I will keep trying. But just stop making me feel so bad about it all the time. I will join the green revolution, honest. But first just let me take the roof off the car one last time, put my foot down and see if the acceleration is as blistering as it used to be. Allow me to bank up the coal fire, turn all the lights on and have a party. Better still, fire up the patio heater and have one last barbecue.

Then I will finally retire to my yurt (made entirely of renewable and ethically-sourced materials); culture my own yoghurt; grow my own mung beans; weave my own socks; and live in harmony with my world. When the fossil fuels have run out, when you can’t see the hills for wind farms or the sea for curiously clanking wave-machines, and when everything seems dark and cold, I’ll wrap myself in my home-spun alpaca-wool duvet, close my eyes and dream the dreams of the old days.

My, how we used to live!

 

Do you feel lucky?

Spring 2011

It is official.  My long-standing hero, Clint Eastwood, is now a role model for heads.  At the February meeting of the 100 Group of schools, the super-head of Mossbourne Academy, Sir Michael Wilshaw, revealed that Clint is also his hero, and should be a model for all of us.  We’re not talking about his embittered San Francisco cop character, Dirty Harry (“Magnum .45, the most powerful handgun in the world: do you feel lucky, punk?” I have to quote him when I’m given the pistol to start the House cross-country competition: the runners look at me in bewilderment). It is the character Clint played in the spaghetti westerns (where he generally had no name) who is, according to Wilshaw, a lone warrior fighting for righteousness; fighting the good fight; powerful and autonomous.

It was just as well he explained.  Sir Michael has quite a reputation for ruthlessness so all of us in his audience were, perhaps, a little afraid that he would attribute his hero-worship to the fact that Clint’s character shoots first, always kills his man, and is without hesitation or remorse. In few of the movies does he show any softer side, generally being too busy killing people, for example, to fall in love.

Eastwood furnishes some dubious models for headship in these westerns.  In my favourite, The Outlaw Josey Wales, he advises that you should always shoot with the sun behind you: sadly, no matter how I try, I cannot arrange my study to give me that solar advantage in the event of a showdown. The same film provides a useful message about the loneliness of headship.  When he thinks he’s lost one of his party, the eponymous outlaw observes with regret, “Whenever I get to liking someone, they ain’t around very long.” His native Indian associate, brilliantly played by Chief Dan George, comments wryly: “I notice that, whenever you don’t like someone, they ain’t around long either.”

Wilshaw, if not Josey Wales, had a point, though it was one that was entirely missed when the Times Educational Supplement decided to have a field day at his expense.  There are indeed times when we heads are out on our own, fighting what can seem a lonely battle for what is right.  I guess that, even after two decades of headship, I reach a situation every six months or so when I have to annoy most or all of my staff because something needs to be put right.  I know it will upset people, that I will lose sleep and that there will be conflict: but my conscience, or whatever it is that stirs me, tells me I must do it. 

At such times, do I look to a poster of Clint on the wall (or even one of Michael Wilshaw?) to give me strength and inspiration? No.  I’m not that far gone.  But I could do with some kind of support, because the path of righteousness is a stony one.  At such times I remember (but try to avoid) another Josey Wales homily.  Training the two women who have settled in his remote ranch to repel an Indian attack, he shows them how to load the guns and deal with wounds: then he adds, “When the fighting starts, you’ve got to get just plum mad-dog mean.”

The Eastwood model works for Wilshaw. In the setting of his school - rather tougher than that inhabited by any members of HMC, I suspect - he says he gets results by running it like a grammar school with a comprehensive intake: “a tale of high expectations, and no excuses,” according to Rebecca Fowler in the Telegraph on 23rd February.

It’s not my place to judge him.  But I am a head, and an opinionated one, so I will nonetheless. Where I part company with him, and where the TES was roused to fury, was in his insistence that heads should use the word “I”, rather than “we”. This takes the cult of the lone warrior too far.

Surely all heads nowadays are surrounded by a senior management/leadership team. Good school leadership must be about teamwork, always working to reduce the “them” and “us” between top management and the rest of the staff, fostering instead a productive blend of collegiality, mutual respect and mutual support.  Schools try to promote that same sense of co-operation and teamwork, let alone trust, with their: that is the zeitgeist of the second decade of the 21st Century. At least, it should be.

The hero image of headship is persistent, however.  Tony Blair was insistent that a school’s success was all about the head.  Irritatingly, there was a grain of truth in what he said: it’s impossible to imagine an excellent school with a poor head, yet the head is not the be-all-and-end-all of that school’s success. Still, one-man bands (I wonder why the gender is so necessarily specific here?) are dangerous and, even if they do no harm with their untrammelled power while in post, are impossible to replace, so at the very least there are serious succession problems.

When Wilshaw insisted on the use of the first person singular, I spotted another reason why politicians love him: they do it themselves.  In the run-up to the last election, and even during the horse trading over the formation of a coalition, there was a great deal of talk of “we”.  And, indeed, when we are obliged to take nasty economic medicine, we’re frequently reminded that “we are all in this together”. 

But politicians, once in power, invariably use the first person singular, and education ministers are no exception.  It is now one man’s (sic) vision and mission.  They’re strong, they’re in charge, and they’re tough: when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

The word for it is egotism. Egotism cuts in when self-confidence turns to arrogance and self-criticism is overwhelmed by terrible certainty. At that point people who get in the way of the egotists get hurt: but what I want to talk about here is the damage done by lack of doubt, by that terrible certainty.

We have a new government which, when it comes to education, is determined to sweep away the interference and bureaucratic nightmare of the previous regime.  All of us can applaud that: even in the independent sector we felt beleaguered and cramped by regulatory and other interference.  Government mustn’t micromanage, said incoming Secretary of State Michael Gove.  It must set schools free, give them power and autonomy.  The people on the ground know best how to do the job. 

We all cheered when we heard that.  But then what happened?  Gove started using the first person singular, and was in no doubt as to what History should consist of, and which Shakespeare should be read at which age. Schools Minister Nick Gibb is entirely certain that reading must be taught using synthetic phonics.  No matter that, as I once suggested to him mildly, different approaches work in different cases: no, the only way is his.  He knows.

When Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and a highly educated man, lambasts the country’s top universities – among the best in the world, remember – for being “élitist”, we should be very afraid. If it weren’t so dangerous to Higher Education’s future, it would be laughable. This is sinister stuff.

Gove is also certain about what is needed to make a school good.  There must be uniform, house and prefect systems, good discipline, good attendance, plenty of competitive sport.  All these things, they know, constitute the DNA of the independent sector, and that is why they want us to be involved in partnership with their schools. Those features, after all, are also what make Mossbourne Academy so successful.

But they aren’t!  They are merely symptoms of something much deeper.  The unquenchable thirst for excellence and unflaggingly high expectations that characterise our sector come from a deep contract; not the bit of paper that parents sign, but a visceral emotional engagement. Pupil, family and school sign up together to a pact that leads to the child’s success.  When the engagement is right, success is almost inevitable. 

That contract is undoubtedly strengthened by the sacrifices that parents make: they make a very significant financial commitment.  But that’s a tricky one for politicians, and I’m sure they don’t want to go there.  I wrote a pamphlet about this back in the autumn: published by the National Educational Trust in its series of Counterblasts, it was called “Desperately seeking our DNA: what independent schools bring to the free schools debate”. It made no waves.  It barely made a ripple.  Perhaps its message was rather obvious. Or perhaps it’s just not comfortable or useful reading for those, politicians and other egotists, who want quick and easy answers.

Back in January the Guardian reported a piece of research that perhaps should have made waves (“School uniform does not improve results – discuss”, Stephanie Northen, 18 January 2011): again, though, the message was uncomfortable, and didn’t fit in with the grand vision, so it went nowhere.  Professor David Brunsma of Missouri-Colombia than University declared himself “utterly flabbergasted” by reports that tried to link high achievement and the wearing of school uniform: outraged by such “superficial glossing over of complex social, democratic, cultural, material and political issues”, he embarked on serious research. He found no demonstrable link between uniform and achievement: “the results, although surprising to many, simply cannot be ignored.  Uniforms do not make schools better.”  Yet politicians bang on about it still.  It’s not enough just to have a uniform policy now: last year’s white paper urges all schools to introduce not just uniform, but blazers and ties.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against uniform.  Like just about every independent school – but, significantly, not every one – mine is a traditional uniform-wearing school where students from age 7 to 16 wear a prescribed uniform, and sixth formers wear office dress. The UK is somewhat uniform obsessed, and I would be foolish to do away with it.  Nor have I any desire to.

But I do object to sloppy thinking, and to politicians lecturing the profession in the belief that putting a few relatively superficial features in place in school will assure quality.  Running a good school is an immensely complex matter and has more to do with consistency, vision and hard work over many years than a few quick-fixes.  All of us who work in schools know that.  What drives me to fury is the way that politicians simply don’t engage with us and talk about those deep issues: they come along with their first-person-singular bright ideas and demand our endorsement of them.

I guess I’m lucky.  My school starts at age 7, so I don’t have to tangle with all the year Early Years stuff, let alone the teaching of synthetic phonics. But I will miss out, as a result, on the excitement of all these made-up words - zort, koob, dar, gax, grint - that are due to be part of the new six-year-old reading tests.

Nonetheless I think I’ll get some fun out of dreaming up some of the words I would like to use when I’m next faced by a first-person singular politician suffering from a doubt-bypass. He may not understand when I tell him his ideas are a load of ploob, and that he should stick them up his pronk, but at least I’ll feel better.

Or I may draw inspiration from my hero, get the sun behind me, pull out my gax, take aim and ask, “Do you feel lucky, minister?”

 

Not Ascham but ASCL: Tribute to John Dunford

by Geoff Lucas and Bernard Trafford

 

Autumn 2010

Comparing notes, we find we have known John Dunford (between us) for 35 years! Geoff first met John when working for various Government quangos (NCC, SCAA and, later, QCA). John was SHA’s expert on the 14-19 curriculum and, though still a serving head at the time, it was obvious that he had a passion for, and real expertise in, the wider national debate outside his own school. When the old horizontal AS level was being designed, Geoff shared drafts of AS guidance with John: he was the only representative of the professional associations who commanded that degree of trust and respect, and ensured that the guidance published was clear, accessible and comprehensible in non-technical terms.

It was no surprise, then, that he became SHA’s President, where Bernard first met him as a rookie member of Council. That first Council might have been daunting but for the way in which John scooped up new arrivals, took them to dinner on his table so they weren’t left alone and quickly ensured that they felt able to play a full part.

John has a knack for bringing people together and finding common ground on which to build, minimising or marginalising differences. As President and subsequently General Secretary of SHA (later ASCL), he would occasionally warn members not to allow divisions to grow. He ensured that such highly-charged issues as grant-maintained status, specialist schools, the independent/ maintained divide, national challenge and even the creation of academies were not permitted to split an immensely strong professional body.

Other unions decided to fall out with the Blair/ Brown government. For ASCL John maintained a position as an advisor and expert whom politicians could not ignore. A concept he pushed unremittingly - “intelligent accountability” - is nowadays quoted back to conferences by ministers. They haven’t quite got the idea yet, of course, because politicians are slow learners: but John embedded it.

John’s has always seen the wisdom of a close alliance with HMC, all of whose members are in any case members of ASCL, but the relationship goes much deeper than mere coalition. John’s passion is for education, for schools and for working with school leaders. He is warm and unfailing in his recognition of the quality of HMC schools: he is also (rightly) ready to remind HMC of the part it should be playing in the whole educational picture. The two associations have worked together closely on many issues and, at times, have managed even to change ministerial minds.

That is John’s gift and genius. He never abandons principle and is always quick, in any setting, to remind us why we are doing what we are doing: for the children of this country and for its and their future.

We cannot close without remarking on John’s easy urbanity and panache. He is a good man to put in charge of the wine list at a gathering, though the bill may come a little heavy. He has panache: Geoff loves to recall a train journey they shared back to the Midlands from London. Finding that he had a First Class ticket and the HMC secretary could only travel Second Class (such is the surprising humility of HMC!), John exercised leadership in persuading Geoff to join him in his First Class carriage. When the ticket inspector arrived John flourished his First Class ticket, proclaiming with great authority, “We’re together”. A blind eye was turned to Geoff’s inferior ticket and he continued the journey with John, sharing the luxury of his superior seating, free wine and nibbles.

John will be a hard act to follow. Those of us in HMC who know his successor, Brian Lightman, see a worthy successor and greatly look forward to working with him. We are quite sure that we haven’t seen the last of John: such a colossus on the educational horizon is unlikely to disappear entirely. But he deserves a quieter life, more time at home, and we wish him and Sue every happiness and joy in retirement.

 

The future of inspection: is there one?

Autumn 2010

It was good, in the last edition of C&CR, to read Ian Power questioning the current over-inspection of schools in general and the independent sector in particular.  He looked to a future, under a new government, where regulation might be hacked back - surely a reasonable aspiration now that new government, if a wobbly one, is here. Ian also speculated whether the next cycle (ISI4 in shorthand, but actually the fifth version of inspection our schools have faced) will resemble the first, with time-consuming but thorough inspection of teaching and scrutiny once more of individual departments.

He might be right, and teachers and department heads might welcome a return to that: in recent inspections they have experienced the same anxiety and pressure as ever (teachers as a breed being both conscientious and conversely insecure) but then felt excluded from the process as the teaching observed became merely a sample to validate the exam data and written work that have already been scrutinised.

I don’t think we want or need any such return. Those days, when an inspector camped in a department for two to three days, certainly moved our schools on: above all, perhaps, they made us all recognise that subject heads must plan coherently and ensure quality within the school’s strategic priorities, rather than just holding the key to the stock-room and controlling the photocopying quota. But we’ve been there, done that - and paid vast sums for the T-shirt!

Similarly, I’m unconvinced by arguments about ‘proportionality’.  It’s suggested that schools whose exam data demonstrates that they are performing well should be less inspected than others. It’s a comforting thought, but serves to underline still more strongly the wrong-headed vision of inspection as intervening and sorting out poor performers. It does nothing of the sort. Nor does it drive school improvement. And it shouldn’t try to. Intervention and support, not the process of inspection, are what solves problems. Inspection’s role is to validate schools’ own evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses and to identify the problems. To me, this confusion of purpose simply demonstrates that we don’t really know what inspection is for. Maybe we never did.

Why do we do inspection at all in 2010? For nearly twenty years the mantra has been accountability and, whenever I ask that question, it’s trotted out as the answer. Okay, schools and school leaders are accountable, but their accountability is multiple and complex. Schools are accountable to the children for whom the school exists, and to their parents. For independent schools the accountability arguably stops there. Maintained schools, by contrast, have other areas of accountability, and we may choose the extent to which our sector accepts a measure of them:

  • The community the school serves: immediate; area (Local Authority); region (Regional Development Agency - RDA)
  • Society as a whole
  • Government as the
    • guardian/representative of society
    • paymaster
    • protector/determiner of standards
    • the ultimate determiner of the purposes of schools and assessor of the extent to which those purposes are fulfilled

Are schools, in both sectors, accountable for the same things to all these stakeholders, or for different things to different groups? I think the layers and levels of accountability are hugely complex, yet our simplistic and quasi-disciplinary inspection system seems to be the sole mechanism. If it was ever appropriate, it isn’t any longer.

Even if we accept the dubious catch-all ground of accountability as the reason for inspection, what does the process actually do? Ofsted does indeed inspect standards, but arguably it acts more as the enforcer, checking that the government’s agendas (healthy eating, safeguarding, H&S etc) are being followed. ISI largely shadows this process. Is that a proper use of the inspectorate? Should it not stick to a truly educational (not community/health/social work) focus? Besides, to what extent can inspectors themselves be sufficiently expert in so broad a range of issues to be both reliable in judgment and able to advise? The Baby Peter scandal in Haringey demonstrated the limits of the ability of inspection to ensure high standards in complex services.

There are many problems with inspection as currently performed by both Ofsted and ISI. Pass/fail approaches tend to encourage compliance and perverse incentives, rather than creativity or genuine commitment to quality for its own sake. Moreover, because the stakes are so high even for the strongest schools, inspection is an ordeal to be survived and hopefully passed, rather than any kind of useful professional conversation or process of improvement

Data-driven inspection is simplistic, misleading and (given the impact and consequences of failure) unjust.  Reliance on raw figures (or even CVA) on the grounds of rigour is spurious: even in our sector we’ve been suffering from this. Rigour should be based in reality. Data should form the basis of a detailed discussion between inspector and school where it is analysed in relation to its context.

Some critics say that inspectors should concentrate on observing lessons. I think they hope for too much. Even if inspectors spent all their time in classrooms, they could still only sample teaching (or, rather, learning). Such  sampling can hope to do no more than test the school’s own judgments on internal observation and its quality control over time: why not accept that fact, and leave it to the school?

Self-evaluation is the only sensible way forward, with the inspectorate providing some kind of check and validation of the school’s judgments. But currently the Ofsted SEF is cumbersome and just too big, as is the ISI equivalent, 55 pages long. Schools must be allowed to get on with the job of education, not be forced to prove that they’re doing it. In the maintained sector, there’s a logic in every teacher feeding into the department SEF which feeds into the school’s SEF: but it is burdensome and must be cut back. Currently it is yet another way in which, thanks to government initiatives, schools get better and better at doing the wrong thing.

Next we get into the kind of language used. The devil is in the adjectives. Independent schools are troubled by ISI’s use of ‘excellent’, which appears harder to get than Ofsted’s ‘outstanding’: at least we don’t have the concern that ‘satisfactory’ isn’t what it says! Meanings become loaded – because the stakes are so high. What’s sad about this is that truly descriptive language is now outlawed: inspectors and schools alike are required to stick to a limited, loaded vocabulary, and as a result reports are drearily bland.

With ISI we are spared a single overall judgment, unlike our maintained colleagues, but we nonetheless home in on that one descriptive word for each aspect, which is derived from inspectors’ grades 1 to 4: is our teaching excellent or merely good? It’s all high-stakes stuff.  Simplistic judgements should be unnecessary in an intelligent system. They are actually a little childish, like the boy who doesn’t look at the teacher’s helpful comments on his homework, merely at the mark out of ten. We need professional dialogue, analysis, judgment and support, not silly quibbles over arbitrary grades. The inspectorate should act as a mentor, not to the head but to the school as a whole. Then loaded comment need occur only when a school’s own analysis fails to recognise a weakness, professional dialogue with the inspectorate produces no agreement and an inspector is reluctantly obliged to note the disparity of views.

So what should inspection look like? It’s easy to criticise what we have: to devise something better is difficult. Still, if we assume that the hard questions above are answered, if we know and agree what sort of accountability is required and to whom, and how inspection fits in with that, I’d propose the following principles for independent school inspection:

  • All compliance/tick-box matters should be removed from inspection which should be a qualitative/validating process. Regulatory standards for teaching, welfare, personal development etc should not be part of the same regulatory check list as floor loads, toilets and safeguarding. If government wants regulatory compliance checked, it should use an audit process that leaves teachers free to teach.
  • Schools should evaluate themselves, but only on the central core elements of education areas. Such evaluation must not turn into a laborious bureaucratic process: school leaders as much as teachers must be allowed to spend time creating, inspiring, walking the patch.
  • The inspectorate should behave as an excellent mentor would (like the best School Improvement Partners – SIPs – in the maintained sector). A small team visits the school, samples (accepting and admitting the limitations of sampling) and holds a professional dialogue with the school leadership team. Data is considered in context: that demands reality, not excuses for underperformance.
  • Progress is acknowledged, challenges outlined, future planning analysed.
  • There will be no ‘inspection report’. The inspection will be a validation visit where the school’s own annual self-evaluation of key issues (including hard-edged data), published on its website, is commented on by the inspector(s): their comments are also published.  This accords professionals the respect of allowing them to make their own analysis (trusting them, indeed!) but with periodic external, objective validation. Any relevant parent and student surveys would be included here, but note the danger: the SEF must not be allowed to grow into a monster.
  • In truth, some schools may be unwilling or unable to recognise their weaknesses. Where need for improvement and appropriate support is not recognised or accepted by the school, the inspectorate will deal with the appropriate Heads’ association (as at present) and government department as/if required. However, required publication of the inspectors’ comments on the school’s website may prove the more powerful driver of change.
  • Inspectors should be drawn from excellent current or recent senior teaching professionals, as at present (for the most part) in ISI.

We have passed the time when inspection teams needed to burrow into schools and turn over stones looking for problems. If we truly believe that independent school inspection is about ‘helping good schools to get better’ (HMC’s claim in the first round of inspection), the new role should be for the inspectorate merely to validate from time to time a simple, non-cumbersome regular process of self-evaluation, a process in any case shared publicly with parents and any other stakeholders via the school’s website.

That’s if we want inspection at all. There may be – must be - a better way. So let’s start with accountability, sort out the underlying principles, and stop tinkering with a process that we perpetuate just because we’ve always done it.

This is just one person’s view, and no one has to agree with me. But if I can produce a reasonable coherent alternative vision - and if only HMC, ISC and indeed ISI itself can persuade government to see sense and back off - surely it must be possible for sector-wide consultation and open-minded negotiation to devise something better than the current system which turns somersaults to satisfy Ofsted, but gives little satisfaction to the schools that pay for it.

 

Rs longa, vita brevis

Summer 2010

This is not the time to be writing a prophetic article! I'm tapping away in the mists and fog that followed January's snow, and you won't read this until after the General Election. So all I can do is look at what is now (to you, back then) the draft education manifesto of the party most likely to win that election, the Conservatives, and attempt a critique of the document, one chapter of an overall manifesto entitled Mending Our Broken Society, launched with a speech by David Cameron at the Walworth Academy.

Both speech and manifesto contained fine words and grand promises: but they were unconvincing.

After nearly 13 years of disappointment that 'education, education, education' had become pressure, diktat and control-freakery under Blair and Brown and their acolytes, we might have hoped for something better from the Tories, at the time of writing still (though less certainly) a government in waiting. There were lofty phrases to encourage the (educational) troops: restoration of a 'noble profession', 'attracting the best', giving Academies (but not schools?) 'vital freedoms', authority 'one hundred percent with the teachers'. Heady stuff! Bring it on!

Bureaucracy became a dirty word (hooray!): they will 'stop heads being overruled by bureaucrats over exclusions' and 'free schools from regulatory restrictions'.

But in such a vision there was plenty of scope also for nonsense. No bureaucracy, maybe, but a beefed-up inspection system and league tables: what's all that if not bureaucracy? They will 'establish a free online database of exam papers and marking schemes’. Actually, the facility is already there, so that’s a neat bit of repackaging, but its wider dissemination is a recipe for even more demands to teach to the test and, inevitably, even more simplistic exams that tick boxes either literally or metaphorically. To encourage parents and candidates to check every question against the marking scheme will be to drive the final nail into the coffin of open-ended, searching questioning, because examiners will lose the last vestiges of discretion in marking. That does not square with the pledge to 'reform our curriculum and qualifications, showing the most ruthless, relentless and uncompromising commitment to rigour' - whatever that means. Still, that new take on the Three Rs (Ruthlessness, Relentlessness, Rigour) made a good soundbite.

To raise the status of the profession the manifesto proposed better pay, golden hellos (student loans paid off for core/STEM teachers) and a ban on anyone with a third–class degree or dodgy GCSEs being allowed to teach.  This will exclude, of course, some of those brilliant teachers who themselves didn’t make a great success of their own educational youth (or were just unlucky) and have dedicated their career to inspiring children and keeping them on track through their education. We’ve all known them: our schools employ quite a lot of them. It won’t happen, of course, being largely unenforceable, but it was the sort of silly posturing that betrayed the lightweight nature of this document. And it failed to engage at all with the challenges of attracting, training, developing and retaining excellent teachers that are (or should be) the real issue here.

There were grand statements about protecting teachers from false allegations, and allowing them to use reasonable force 'without fear of legal action'. More fine words: no detail of how they would do that without infringing children's legitimate (and vital) right to protection and fair treatment.

And that’s the problem. Lots of it sounded great. The manifesto was described as a discussion document, so we could all enter into dialogue and put flesh on the bones. I hope that's true: too often even shadow ministers have been showing themselves to have pretty fixed ideas - SATs, league tables and phonics to name but three examples. That 'discussion' notion was also a useful mask to disguise just much was mere rhetoric, thin on detail, unlikely to be put into place and probably unworkable if it were.

I still don't understand how the Tories propose, if elected, to make it easier to sack poor teachers - who are covered by employment law, surely, like every other employee. Perhaps they intend to lean on Local Authorities (if they still exist) to support heads in pursuing competence procedures instead of blocking them: that would be a start. Colleague heads in the maintained sector tend to find the teacher unions anything but difficult in such matters, since it's not in their interest to protect incompetence: it's that strange reluctance in the town/county hall which they find so frustrating.

There were weasel words, too, balancing those ringing statements with (in the speech) 'greater transparency so parents can hold teachers to account'; (in the manifesto) 'reform school league tables so that schools can demonstrate they are stretching the most able and raising the attainment of the least able' ; and 'a more rigorous and targeted inspection regime... more unannounced inspections and failing schools will be visited more often'. Same old New Labour/Old Tory stuff there, then (so hard to tell the difference nowadays).

There was from the start a nasty slant in that title, Mending a broken society. There are certainly major problems in society - but 'broken'? I don't think so.  Most of us sleep safe and nights. In Newcastle upon Tyne, where I live, I feel safe wherever or whenever I walk or travel by public transport. The North-East is suffering significant problems, especially post-credit crunch: but it's not broken. That's the danger of the grand over-statement. Cameron was talking up a crisis so he can arrive on his white charger and fix it. That's dishonest, and frankly a bit childish. It was unwise, too: he may live to regret it.  When you read this you may know whether he’ll get the chance to try.

One aspect showed no change, rather the same old misery. Both speech and manifesto talked down schools and teachers, as politicians of all hues seem to do constantly. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, was spot-on when she said: "Teaching will never generally be recognised as the high status profession it is while politicians keep making announcements which implicitly or explicitly denigrate and cast doubt on the quality of teachers currently in service.” It's hard to believe Cameron's promise to create a 'noble profession' when by implication and by direct criticism he clearly doesn't think much of it at present. He undoubtedly thinks some teachers are too stupid to be there.

I might nonetheless be temped to vote for Cameron's new three Rs, but only if I could believe him. So much of this is eyewash and soundbite. Education isn't all broken: but it is in a difficult and dangerous situation. Schools face huge problems, and to solve them they don't need micromanagement, they don't need more 'accountability' (which means more pressure and more people banging them over the head with their alleged faults), and they don't need grand statements or empty promises: they’ve had those for decades. They do need a colossal injection of both support and freedom from the next government: the teaching profession needs above all the trust and belief of politicians, something absent for over twenty years and under four prime ministers.

The Labour government, bereft of vision, integrity and even commonsense, has to go. It hasn't even delivered on education, its central promise. It's negated the positive effects of its huge and welcome additional investment by interference, labyrinthine bureaucracy and complete lack of trust. But Cameron's grand plan falls into the same trap: lofty vision, talk of freedom, but an accountability regime that threatens to be still more constricting and stifling than the current one.

And the whole lot of them are ignoring not one but two elephants in the room. They're so enormous that there's barely room to sit down and the floor's getting covered with elephant dung. One of these pachyderms has a collar with the name tag Independent Sector; the other has Selection painted on its flank in large, unmissable letters. But both major parties close their eyes and pinch their nostrils and refuse to acknowledge their presence. 

The man who may well be the next prime minister would like to airbrush out of his CV the fact that he went to one of the finest and most famous schools in the world, Eton. His opponents, who generally fail to acknowledge the existence of independent schools, use Cameron’s school to whip up class hatred by implying that his good fortune and undoubted talent are unfair, undeserved and set him apart. Seeking to distract the electorate from their educational provenance, the Tories badge their ’free’ schools as an eye-catching Swedish Model, ignoring the homely charms of the domestic version and the fact that the finest schools in the world - the world, mind you – are academically selective. Selection is, understandably, a highly charged, emotive issue, which means it’s politically inconvenient, so it’s swept under the carpet. With such breathtaking lack of honesty on both sides, one might feel there’s little hope of anything being mended by government. In this sense society is indeed broken - but from the top, not from the bottom. It will take more than a few fine words and superficial promises to put the parliamentary Humpty Dumpty back together again.

In war, it is said, truth is the first casualty: in an election it’s shot before it even starts. Whoever wins, we in independent schools must remember politicians’ promises; hold them to their words; point out the contradictions and nonsenses; and call them to account, if they fail to deliver, with Ruthlessness, Relentlessness and Rigour.

 

Education, education, education

Spring 2010

We all remember Tony Blair’s 1997 election mantra: education, education, education.  I recall the sense of excitement that a new government might really take education to its heart – notwithstanding the palpable threat to the Assisted Places Scheme which was subsequently sacrificed on the altar of appeasing the new regime’s left wing. Schools and teachers are unlikely to feel so strongly wooed this time around. The last decade of politics has rendered us more cynical, less eager to believe, simply because we've been let down so badly and so often.

Education was indeed central to the New Labour agenda.  Where it all went wrong was in the lack of imagination with which they applied that new focus.  Given the undoubted additional funding, did it unlock in the maintained sector a tide of creativity, innovation and excitement?  A new belief in what children could achieve and in what teachers and schools could do for and with them?

Did it hell!  It gave rise to a flood of government legislation, interference and micromanagement unparalleled in the history of UK education.  Time and again ASCL General SecretaryJohn Dunfordhas given the statistics of the extraordinary stream of initiatives and requirements that hit the maintained schools day after day.  This is the government that set up not one but two new working groups to deal with duplication. One of them, WAMG, also got the job of monitoring the amount of paper thrown at schools.  The bureaucrats got round that one, though: they started sending it all by e-mail instead. 

I used to come away from ASCL council meetings feeling guilty. The guilt stemmed from my sense of relief that, having spent a couple of days hearing about the latest government lunacies that they were dealing with, I could go back to my independent school knowing that I could ignore most of them. 

How things change!  By the time you read this, my school will probably have been inspected under the new framework.  To be honest, it will be a relief to have got to that point, to have some human beings poking around and trying to find whether the school really does what it says on the tin.  That is what inspection is for.

But the lead up to it has been nightmarish.  My previous school was inspected in 2007 under the second cycle.  All the paperwork was in order: at the time we were entirely compliant with the 12 pages of regulatory requirements.

It will come as no surprise to colleagues if I confess to ‘borrowing’ a few of those policies for my new school: plagiarism, outlawed from the classroom, is alive and well in policy-writing circles! I could have saved myself the trouble. The material I was so pleased with two-and-a-half years ago has become spectacularly out of date.  With over 100 regulatory standards now to meet, most policies required a total rewrite.

As for writing a new anti-bullying policy, don’t get me started!  The regulations call for a policy ‘which is short, succinct, and written in language everyone understands’. That described our previous policy perfectly. It it was down-to-earth, written in very plain language and in the second person, aimed directly at students.  It didn't mince words.  It was a useful and helpful working document, defining bullying as anything that made someone else feel hurt or humiliated. 

New regulations require us ungrammatically but specifically to list all the forms of bullying ‘including racial, religious, cultural, sexual/sexist, homophobic, disability, and cyber.’  And we have to include details of how members of staff record instances of bullying; how they are trained; even how we raise collective awareness of where and when bullying is likely to occur. 

Our policy is now in the third person. It’s less personal and direct. It’s half again as long as it was, and will be less effective. But it meets the standard.

In the eyes of policymakers education has become regulation and regulation has become education.  Like the animals observing the pigs and humans at the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm, we can't tell the difference any more. Currently we await the roll-out of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, an additional paper-chase whose complexity will make all previous rules a stroll in the park by comparison. 

Its inventors have fallen into the fundamental error of policy-wonks. Regulation doesn't make things better for children.  It just means that organisations get better at ticking boxes to keep government off their backs.  What begins to count is not what you do: it’s getting the paperwork right. It’s all about compliance: and, my, how compliant we have become!

I've said it before.  If the next government is Conservative (a betting certainty right now) we have to keep banging the table, insisting that Michael Gove and his colleagues slash back the sprawling bureaucracy as they have promised to.

Why don’t I trust them to do it? Because recent history teaches us that they won’t, however much they want to. Their advisers and bureaucrats have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and will tell them they can’t impose change. And then we'll simply get the incoming administration’s shiny new edifice built straight on top of the crumbling remnants of the old regime. 

John Dunford issued a demand to government a year ago: ‘One in, one out.’ No new initiatives without the same number of old ones being removed.

We should insist that the new government goes further. This crazy   over-regulation must go.  Our schools are independent, and must be allowed to be independent. We should be judged on what we do and what our pupils achieve, not on our ability to manipulate the required wording on pieces of paper which, for all that we make them ‘available’ to parents as required, are seldom read.

Why would parents spare them more than a passing glance? They know, as we do, that the proof of the pudding is in the eating – not in the ingredients or health warnings printed on the packet.

 

No sound of the S-word

Autumn 2009

A year agoHMCforegathered in London against the backdrop of the most extraordinary economic crisis in living memory. We watched the complete ineffectiveness of politicians in the face of the Credit Crunch: and this after they had turned a blind eye for years to the excesses that caused it. Chickens were coming home to roost, and, as the Bishop of Durham memorably toldHMCin Westminster Abbey, they were headless chickens at best.

As the MPs’ expenses scandal unfolded, we witnessed the culprits wriggling and twisting themselves into extraordinary contortions to avoid any mud - whether from a moat, a floating duck house or elsewhere - sticking to them. Their posturing degenerated from the laughable to the downright contemptible.  Some even tried the disingenuous defence that they had only followed the rules. I don’t recall that plea cutting much ice at Nuremburg: it didn’t impress the public here.

If the disregard for honesty and forthrightness were breathtaking, how much more so was the disloyalty displayed? A Labour Party which had fawned all over Gordon Brown as its new leader was swift to turn on him. Only the Wildean realisation that to have him as leader was unfortunate, but to lose him would be carelessness, kept him in power. And when Parliament elected a new Speaker, ostensibly to clean up its act, members of his own party were briefing against him and his downfall even before he took office. Conspiracy, betrayal and stabs in the back: Shakespeare meets the Borgias.

And no one said sorry, or not till forced to. It’s a word politicians find almost impossible to articulate.

At least there hasn’t been much illicit leg-over amongst the political community recently, merely porn on expenses. Nonetheless, the more politicians duck, dive and weave plots all at the same time (quite a physical feat when you think about it), the more they demand that school citizenship and sex education programmes put a bit of sticking plaster on the spots of society where any other leadership or role modelling is lacking. Thus next year PSHE will become compulsory in state schools, following the outrage that followed the twelve-year-old who was supposed to have fathered a child. (He didn’t of course: it turned out that it was the fourteen-year-old up the road).

So what will the future bring? Presumably a Conservative Government, so pronouncements from Shadow Education Minister Michael Gove have been closely scrutinised. David Laws has been out and about for the Liberal Democrats, too, and he may be worth listening to in case (though it seems unlikely) there is a hung parliament and some kind of coalition.

The Tories talk the talk of deregulation, of rolling back the state, of giving professionals the freedom they need to do their job. According to the stereotypes, the Left always over-regulates, and the Right deregulates. But who can chart this political landscape? New Labour moved sharply to the right so long ago that even dyed-in-the-wool right-wingers now look with affection on the likes of Frank Field and Tony Benn, regarding them (rightly) as men of principle who have kept the faith.

We rarely know what anyone stands for nowadays. So, while Michael Gove preaches the gospel of school freedom, his sidekick Nick Gibb went public last year in insisting that there is only one way to teach reading, through synthetic phonics. Gove’s plan to “set primary schools free” in curriculum terms earlier this year was counterbalanced by an insistence that they must concentrate on basic literacy and numeracy, an interesting contrast with Ed Balls’s summer announcement of the removal of the National Literacy Strategy. Gove promised to remove SATs for 11 year-olds: but will move them, in some as yet undefined form, into Year 7. No reduction in pressure, then, rather the likelihood of still more exam chaos. That particular piece of double-think may not affect us, but it illustrates the naivety of politicians who talk tough in Opposition, yet deliver little when they gain power.  Our sector must demand, and keep on insisting stridently, that promises made to remove (not merely lighten) the compliance burden are fulfilled. Otherwise history teaches that one layer of bureaucracy will be removed only to be replaced by another.

Conservatives and Lib Dems are enthusiastic about the Swedish model: not a leggy blonde called Helga, or even Sven, but a system of allowing not-for-profit organisations to open chains of schools in response to parental demand. Their advocates describe a heady mixture of freedom, enterprise, parental choice and independence. They talk about cash following the pupil, and a pupil from a deprived home or with learning difficulties will have a bigger cash sum stuck to his or her head.

“Shall we be part of that?” asks the independent sector. “We can contribute to that vision.” The answer is always negative. It’s not that we aren’t charitable. It’s not that we are grasping, profit-making companies. It’s just that so many of us adhere to the dreaded word, selection.

It remains the last taboo. Another word politicians can’t bring themselves to say. Children learning with their intellectual peers, amid an atmosphere of aspiration: we know the recipe works. Opponents of selection counter that they jolly well should be good, if they select. Yes, they should be: the point is, they are.

The independent sector with its extraordinary diversity of shapes, sizes, age ranges and types; with its unshakeable commitment to excellence; with its almost fanatical belief in a breadth of education that goes way beyond exam syllabuses into intellectual adventure and levels of achievement in sport, the arts and every other extracurricular activity to die for; with all that, it is the future of successful schooling. Selection is a big part of it: not for all independent schools, but for a lot.

I wonder if any of our ministers-in-waiting really have the courage to come clean and embrace that hard truth? They’d like to, I think. But they won’t dare. In the end, the opportunity for real change will be sacrificed on the altar of bogus egalitarianism.

Independent schools will continue to go their own, excellent, way. And this S word will remain unspeakable, unthinkable.

Like the other one.

Sorry.

 

Hot under the collar

January 2009

It is inevitable perhaps that those who govern us appear devoid of any sense of irony.  I suppose they wouldn't be able to live with themselves if they had one.  Over Christmas Tony Blair was reasserting the rightness of invading Iraq.  In breathtaking defiance of the lessons of history (not least that of Vietnam), he ignored research and advice, mounted his white charger and went to war.  Only someone blind to irony, having alienated almost the entire Muslim world, could accept the brief from a similarly myopic cluster of nations to bring peace to the Middle East.  How's it going so far, Tony?

Government agencies have similar blind-spots.  Thus one of the first education stories of the New Year was OFSTED bewailing the fact that so many lessons are boring.  We in schools didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  Sir Tim Brighouse, that tireless believer in teachers, suggested that OFSTED wasn't getting a true picture:  "It's a very brave teacher who takes risks when OFSTED comes calling."  Some might say foolhardy rather than brave. Moreover, because the cost of failure is so high, I suspect most school leaders, if asked, would discourage risk-taking when the inspectors are in.

Worthy but dull teaching is the enemy of good education.  And who drilled inflexible, predictable approaches into the profession?  Why, OFSTED, of course.  The three-part lesson model, with learning objectives made explicit at the start and revisited at the end, has taken root in classrooms throughout the land.  The insistence that every pupil knows at the start of the lesson what he or she is supposed to learn during it inevitably negates any sense of a voyage of discovery, of a journey into the unknown followed by the revelation and sense of "wow" that characterise truly memorable learning.  Yet safe, predictable outcomes have become holy writ.  Politicians demand them: and OFSTED, the government's Rottweiler, checks up on them.

Have these people no shame?  Christine Gilbert, HMCI, expressed concern in her first annual report (2006) that exam preparation was hindering pupil development.  Did she pause to wonder why schools might be concentrating so obsessively on exams?  Could it possibly be the pressure of league tables, of naming and shaming, of OFSTED coming to call and the consequences of failure? How many more Haringey-style failures do we have to witness before policy-makers accept that measuring only the measurable and inspecting only the inspectable doesn’t, in the end, guarantee the outcomes they want – and actually lowers expectations?

In the UK education systems we are witnessing the depressing result of two decades of de-professionalising teaching, of telling teachers what to do in ever greater detail and persecuting them when they don't.  The long-term effects on the profession are really starting to show.  Huge numbers of qualified teachers are leaving the profession after only a few years.  And the abandonment of Key Stage 3 SATs gave rise to sad little stories in the educational press where, it was suggested, teachers just don't know what to do now that those compulsory exams have disappeared.  Depending on their age and experience, they have lost or never had the ability to design and create their own curricula.

I really don't know whether, in the maintained sector, the pressure is worse in the classroom or for headteachers.  Concern about the supply of headteachers keeps growing, and recent suggestions that deputies should somehow be forced to take on headship are both symptomatic and laughable.  The fact that some of the best salary packages in the world still fail to attract headteachers of calibre should be telling policymakers something.  Even a six-figure sum is poor recompense for a tough job that has never been less secure, particularly in a difficult school. 

One of the best heads I’ve known took over an underperforming junior school in a culturally deprived area.  She told me, "The teachers were teaching like mad, but the children just weren't learning."  She instituted a focus on learning that transformed the school - so much so that I sent teams of teachers in from my (independent) school to learn from her staff.  So hard were they working that, as she herself admitted, they had perhaps taken their eye off one particular ball: their next OFSTED inspection found that writing was not good enough.  The result?  Automatic special measures.  The governing body lost confidence.  My friend is now a professional artist, and teaching has lost an outstanding leader.

Brighouse was right: the best teachers have always taken risks.  But in this pressure-cooker world, which teacher in their right mind would do so?  A very special, and unwise, one. The system insists on predictability and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the government wants school leaders who keep noses to grindstones and punish non-conformity.  It’s a style of leadership that I would generally call bullying: the government calls it transformational - and rewards it.

No room for irony, then.  The enforcer of this risk-averse regime criticises the lack of creativity and excitement that should be part of teaching and learning. Government and its agencies will continue to deny responsibility and blame the profession for the mess we are in.  And Mr Blair, one of its architects, will carry on saving the world.

So it’s business as usual in 2009.

(This is an expanded version of a letter published in the TES on 16.01.09) 

 

Inside the Looking Glass House 

Summer 2008

The world of education is now so full of contradictions that it resembles Lewis Carroll's Looking Glass House.  When Alice peeped to it from her drawing room, everything looked normal.  But when she slipped through the mirror to the other side she found that everything that had been out of sight was as different as it could possibly be, a world of surprises and complete opposites.

It's getting much the same in education.  The Sutton Trust raised blood pressures in January when it reported that maintained school teachers routinely discourage pupils from applying to Oxford and Cambridge, reckoning that they won't fit in.  The prevailing myth that the oldest universities charge higher fees also demonstrates that such teachers are ill-informed, but it is the lack of aspiration that is troubling.  I'm often suspicious of some of the Sutton Trust's research, because it tends to look social agenda driven rather than "pure", but this rings true.

"Something should be done about it!"  we all want to cry.  But maybe we ought to ask why teachers (not all of them, I hasten to stress) are fearful of putting their heads above the parapet, and are apparently so ready to discourage their pupils from doing so.  Could it be something to do with a climate in which we now find parliament debating legislation, again in January, that will place an unprecedented legal requirement on schools to give independent, even-handed advice about careers in higher education? The example seized on by the media was that teachers will be forbidden to promote A-levels over the government's new darling, the Diplomas.

It's another own goal, and another slap in the face to the profession.  Government can't even bring itself to trust teachers to give children objective advice.  In this blatant attempt to pressure teachers into plugging its latest flagship, the government is ensuring that in future advice given to students will become bland and meaningless.  We have seen it happen in other spheres.  Lawyers are nowadays so scared of being sued - they should know!  - that they tend no longer to give advice on a course of action, merely outlining a range of options (though I haven't noticed their fees going down).  Financial advisers are so constrained by regulations to be even-handed in their advice that we might as well choose investments, pensions or loans by chucking darts of the Sunday papers’ money sections.

So if the Sutton Trust thought that its shock headlines would produce results, it is likely to be disappointed.  With legislation putting the frighteners on schools and their careers advisers, there's not going to be a lot of aiming high going on.  Pressure never produces aspiration.  In the short term it may increase productivity, but in the long run it always leaves people playing safe, keeping their heads down.  It always has, and everyone knows it - except apparently politicians, whose bright ideas for public services, educational, health or social, invariably involve the equivalent of a cattle-prod being applied to the backsides of the poor old professionals who have to make it work.

Still, those of us who work in independent schools are told we have the solution, or some of the answers at any rate.  As all of HMC knows, Lord Adonis wants our DNA for the Academies programme.  Above all he wants us to bring to the party our culture of high expectation, of robust, sturdy independence and almost bloody-minded determination to do things our way and to do them well. Perhaps that is a pretty good description of our DNA, but I become less and less convinced that it will satisfactorily transplant because of the contradictions that it will encounter.

For all the messianic fervour of my friend Anthony Seldon, I'm not convinced that the "educational apartheid" he is so keen to end between the two sectors is a gap that can be easily bridged - and not because the private sector is stand-offish, either.  When I'm talking with a potential partner about some joint work, my first reaction as an independent school head is, I hope, one of genuine humility.  I ask, "What makes you think that our formula, however successful in our privileged setting, will work in a school in challenging circumstances? in an area of deprivation? of low expectations? of alienation from education?"  I want to appear neither naive nor arrogant: I really do still need to be convinced that the answers which work for me will work there.

Because then we hit the contradictions, most of which stem directly from government's obsession with direction, with data, with targets.  Independent schools generally don't do all the tests government demands of its own schools.  Of course we use data to track and even predict pupil performance, but we're not target-driven.  Maintained schools, on the other hand, are controlled (and too often stifled) by government: it's an unusually confident school head who will find the courage to exploit the limited flexibility that he or she is allowed.  Stories and columns in the TES have described how a school can be praised for good teaching by OFSTED one day but dammed by government figures the next - for example, because the Department’s cold, calculating databank reckons that the school isn't adding enough value.  Bristol University research published at the start of the year slammed the newest Contextual Value Added (CVA) tables as "unreliable and misleading" - but government remains wedded to them.

By contrast, many leading independent schools turned their backs entirely on league tables this year.  Preferring the educational opportunities offered by the so-called (but not government-approved) International GCSE, these schools entered their pupils for iGCSEs in Maths and Science knowing that, while they suited their pupils better, those qualifications excluded them from the league tables. 

Thus it became almost a badge of honour not to figure in the January tables.  That outcome perhaps appealed to the mischievous side of our schools’ sturdy independence, but it wouldn't be allowed for a moment in the government schools with which they partner, notwithstanding the early talk (now downplayed) of Academies’ "independence". 

For all its desire to be radical and innovative, government always undoes the good it plans by tying schools down with bureaucracy and with its insistence on what is measurable, not what is valuable.  So most state schools are forced to concentrate their limited resources on pushing children over target thresholds; for instance, focusing particularly on children on the C/D borderline to try to ensure they get the Cs that count in league tables.  As a result schools’ efforts, and children’s subject choices, are distorted.  This kind of thing is, in the main, alien to independent schools, which is why so many were happy to drop out of the league tables this year: they don’t believe in them anyway.

A letter to the Guardian on 14th January cursed league tables precisely because, the writer claimed, all they do is to make the independent schools look good.  He was clearly no fan, but failed to spot the irony, in this back-to-front world, of the fact that the new one-upmanship for independent schools is not to feature in the tables.

I’m not sure I relate any more to a world in which I heard, twice in one week, that, “It is official government policy to encourage teachers to teach to the test.”  Moreover I doubt that many of our Heads of Geography recognize the OFSTED criticism that the teaching of their subject is become dull and un-motivating because schools aren’t doing field trips any more.  The reason cited was the pervasive fear of Health and Safety that is keeping teachers tied to their school desks, and the Prime Minster responded by setting up yet another quango to monitor the situation (so that’s all right, then).  I don’t believe it. I suspect that schools are so focused on teaching to tests and easing pupils over grade thresholds that they’re nervous of the teaching time they lose by allowing field trips in school time. That pressure not to miss lessons is one to which the independent sector is by no means immune, and one on which all heads need to keep a watchful eye: grind versus enrichment, or proper concentration on syllabus (sorry, specification) coverage versus fringe activity? It’s a hard balance to strike in 2008, I think. 

If so much of this makes me so uncomfortable, how then can I really convince myself (let alone potential partners) that I have much that I can usefully contribute to the majority sector? So many of the strengths of the independent sector lie in the aspects that by their very nature separate us from the maintained, a fact (as I see it) that is a criticism not of my hard-working, visionary and courageous colleagues there but of the way they are harried and controlled, directed and simultaneously knocked off course by government. Local authority strictures undermine diktat from the DCFS or vice-versa, and OFSTED and the inhuman, data-driven accountability regime snap at their heels all the while.   Am I painting a melodramatic, self-indulgent picture? I don’t believe so: not when my friends and indeed close relatives working in the state sector really open up and say how they feel.

I want to work with my neighbours, with the other 93%. I want my school to contribute what it can reasonably and usefully. I don’t want to be stuck in an ivory tower, and am offended whenever anyone suggests that I am.  But the contradictions “do me head in”, as they say. And then I find myself thinking, if this is the topsy-turvy educational world we have to inhabit I’ll go along with Sam Goldwyn and say, in masterly self-contradiction, "Include me out!" 

Maybe I would be happier if I could move into the Looking Glass house; where the clock, instead of inexorably ticking away my life, has a jolly, smiley face; where one is troubled not by horseflies but by rocking-horse flies; and where the flowers talk.  Mind you, I’d have to deal with the Red Queen, a fearsomely bossy woman.  And with the White Queen, who boasted to Alice, "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!"

Hang on!  This talk of believing the impossible sounds uncomfortably like the educational world I’ve been describing. Perhaps I’ll wake up and find it was all a dream. Dream on.

 

Punching above our weight

Autumn 2007

Taking on the Chairmanship of HMC is, I suppose, a bit like starting your first headship.  It’s flattering to be asked to do it; you have a feeling that you can do it; but you have little or no idea of what it will really be like!  (I'm just finding out, rather to my surprise, that the prospect of taking on the second headship is a scarier one.  To employ a Wildean aphorism, the only thing worse than having not a clue as to what’s awaiting you round the corner is knowing far too clearly what to expect!)

The long lead times involved in publishing a magazine means that I am writing this while still Chairman-Elect, but it won’t be in print until I have become HMC Chairman.  As you read this, HMC may be gathered at the Annual Conference in Bournemouth. If so, I will be operating in much the same mode as I adopt to survive prizegivings, open days and the like in my own school: smiling benignly, greeting people affably, looking relaxed and in charge - yet with my fingers firmly crossed behind my back and praying (no, assuming: one must trust people!) that everyone is doing what they should because, just for the moment, my mind has gone completely blank and I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to do next.

HMC members can be demanding at times, reminding me of those parents from whom we dread receiving the insistent phone call demanding instant action.  But collectively they and their schools comprise a powerhouse, a mind-boggling repository of prodigious talents and wisdom.  And how on earth does anyone, politician, commentator or journalist, seriously consider (as they sometimes do) how our nation would fare without HMC’s schools, let alone the independent sector as a whole?

That is a drum, then, which needs banging as loudly as ever, and I'll try to do that.  When I stepped down from ASCL’s Council in 2006, I had spent eleven years working closely with fellow school leaders from the maintained sector.  I have nothing but admiration for the work they do and gratitude for the way in which my colleagues and I who represent the minority sector are always welcomed into that larger fold (now 12,000 members).  But it is still a uniquely British thing that, in educational gatherings where the two sectors come together, we independents have to tread so carefully and tactfully. 

Of course there are sensitivities, not least because independent schools generally enjoy incomparably better resources and greater freedom from ministerial interference, government diktat and sheer unremitting DfES (or OFSTED) pressure than our maintained school colleagues have to live with.  Yet all that does not fully explain the strange climate in the UK where an inverted perception of a nonexistent (or long-finished) class war suggests even now that the independent sector is not quite fair, decent or clean.  I’m sometimes left feeling as if I have been found guilty of something unspecific but rather nasty, at least until I have the chance to prove that I do the same kind of job and that my vocation and prime commitment are just the same too - to look after the interests of children and give them the best life chances I can.

A few months ago, I found myself with a junior government minister who said, "I'd like to meet you.  I need to know more about independent schools."  I expressed my willingness and, the next day, fired off a letter with a renewed expression of interest.  The phone never rang.  I'm sure the minister is a very busy man: but maybe he wasn't quite as interested in us as he claimed. Sadly I find that the more government pushes the idea of partnership - particularly when it tries to exert pressure as the Secretary of State did, rather clumsily, back in June - it tends to emphasise rather than bridge the gap between us.  We actually get on best when government keeps out and when we work together school to school, head to head, teacher to teacher and, above all, student to student. So, association to association, I shall be doing my bit to remind ASCL and HMC - let alone HMC and GSA; indeed, HMC and all the ISC member associations - how strong we are when we work together.

Curiously, when I go overseas (for example, to the International Confederation of Principals or, as I have done recently, to do some work on Citizenship with the Council of Europe), I rarely encounter prejudice of the kind I have just described.  In such gatherings we meet as educators above all, and any differences in accountability, funding and degrees of government control are very much of secondary importance.

Of course, whatever the circumstances in which we meet, we find as soon as we break the ice and start talking that the differences between the jobs we do and the challenges we face are massively outweighed by the similarities.  Later than our maintained sector colleagues, for example, we in the independent sector have become keenly aware of the need to work actively to develop the school leaders of the future.  I'm delighted that it is under my Chairmanship that the cross-association initiative will get underway led by Joy Richardson as project officer.  Nor is it by accident that Steve Munby, Director of the National College for School Leadership, will be one of speakers at Conference. And, as a final example of cross-association co-operation, members will receive in their conference packs a flyer for the successor to Head to Head, first published some 15 years ago by John Catt Educational Limited.  The new book will provide valuable advice from serving Heads to their peers and is co-edited by my predecessor, Nigel Richardson, and former GSA President, Brenda Despontin.

Supporting and representing my fellow heads in doing, enjoying, surviving the job: that’s what I hope my Chairmanship will be about. Hence the sub-theme of the Conference. And I’ll try to keep HMC punching above its weight, too. That should be enough to keep me busy!