Bernard's pieces for Headlines

(The Journal of the Secondary Heads Association until its name-change to ASCL in 2004)

So Farewell Then, Headlines

November 2004

As Headlines bows out with this edition, SHA Publications Officer Bernard Trafford pays tribute to what it has achieved and looks forward, not without trepidation, to the future and to Headlines’s successor.

So farewell then, Headlines.

You did your job,

And we loved you.


But now it’s time

For a change.

Maybe you went past

Your sell-by date.


I hope your replacement’s

As good.

If not better.


Thus might the satirical magazine Private Eye’s poet, E J Thribb (Age 13 ¾), describe the end of SHA's house magazine as we know it.  As the Association's Publications Officer, I guess it falls to me to emulate that young bard (by his age, just starting in Year 9, a February birthday, and clearly an appreciative recipient of the benefits of the Literacy and Key Stage Three Strategies) and write a eulogy.

Headlines, the Journal of the Secondary Heads Association, was first published in 1990.  Its founder editor was former SHA President Michael Duffy.  In its infancy, the magazine inevitably mirrored the youth and the gradual growth and development of the association.  To our eyes now, those early editions of Headlines look staid, safe – and perhaps rather male-dominated and even clubbish. I recall the phrase, ‘The president’s beautiful Georgian house....’ To be fair, former and long-standing members recall that SHA was a bit like that in those days. Both Association and its journal were of their time – and, even then, there was radical thought in plenty behind what may have seemed a very traditional mask.

SHA has developed rapidly over its 26 years, and its house journal has done likewise in its 14.  The content has changed, too, as the education world from 1989 onwards experienced enforced change at an unparalleled pace.  To take just one example, when Headlines was in its infancy the term ICT meant nothing, because the term had hardly been invented: I’m not sure we were even talking of IT yet.   Computers or the new technology still meant to most people those half-dozen funny BBC machines with their clumsy square television screens hidden in an out-of-the-way room and guarded by the school's first-ever Computer Coordinator.  Nowadays those first pioneers have moved out of school, gone into business on their own and now make a fortune advising government on the use of ICT in education and elsewhere. Meanwhile the technology creates headaches for, and rules the lives of, all school leaders, so we need regular columns and explanations in Headlines to enable us to move beyond booting up our Amstrads to more sophisticated stuff.  (More truthfully, we read the articles and then plead with the self-professedly harassed and overworked technician to help us out when we get in a mess).

More subtle

Headlines moved on as the world moved on.  That was its role. After all, its purpose was to be the mouthpiece of SHA, to state its policy, to enable members and non-members alike to identify and follow what SHA stood for and what battles it was losing and winning for members against bureaucracy, political pressure and other forms of lunacy. 

Or was it?  One might have thought so but, in the event, and more through evolution than by design, Headlines has developed over the years a function that is much more subtle.  Of course the General Secretary and President have always written pieces to inform SHA members and the wider world alike of the thrust of their work at the time. That goes without saying. But the rest of the magazine, while possibly confronting some of the same issues, has tended to tackle them from very different angles or simply to go its own way.

Neither Michael Duffy nor his successor, Irene Dalton, has seen it as their job to speak on behalf of the Association, nor at its behest.  They have been sensitive, of course, to opinions and strongly held beliefs within the Association, but they have not felt required to promulgate any one initiative or to follow any particular line, wherever it came from. Quite the opposite: many times over the years they have set up debates between writers holding two completely contradictory views, and such exchanges have provided some of the best reading in the many editions of Headlines.  A member with an educational axe to grind has been able to find a platform, even a soapbox, in Headlines: and, if a strongly expressed view in one edition has provoked a robust response in the next volume, so much the better.  Publications Committee has kept a benevolent eye on the journal, but the editors have been able to set the tone and assemble the content – with sensitivity, of course, but with intellectual and political freedom too. Thus, in many ways, it is the unfettered independence of Headlines's writers and editors that has set the journal apart and made it special. 

Other factors have helped to establish and maintain its considerable reputation.  Its quality was high at the start and has simply got better over the years: recent editions have looked and felt superb as print technology has advanced and the growing numbers in membership have made ever higher print values affordable.  The higher the journal’s stock has risen, the readier policy-makers and QUANGO bosses have been to write for it: not by accident have we heard in recent issues from ministers, mandarins, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector and representatives of the National College for School Leadership.  Indeed, many have been keen to get into SHA print and get their (too often bland and predictable) message over to the 11,000 members who between them represent just about every secondary school in England and Wales: and there were some that both editors steadfastly refused the ‘oxygen of publicity’!

Why the change?

So why has Headlines reached the end of the road?  More than anything the culprit is that relentless change to which I referred earlier.  Every new administration that comes into government - indeed, every new Secretary of State - promises to back off, to allow schools and colleges time to consolidate and embed changes already underway. And every one breaks that promise.  SHA’s officers and professional staff alike are thus under enormous pressure to keep ahead, and to ensure that the Association avoids becoming purely reactive to what government throws at us and leads the way on at least some issues. It is also true, sadly, that under the pressure of leading schools and colleges in the 21st Century members are finding it increasingly hard to deliver on their generous intentions to write articles and share their ideas and experiences with their peers.

The lead-time involved in producing each thick edition of Headlines, with a part-time editor dragging articles out of volunteer writers, has been some three months. Inevitably, then, the journal has lacked immediacy, whatever its other undoubted qualities.  And in the rat-race that is working with government, such a time-lag has, in time, become injurious to SHA and its efforts to maintain its place as a player on the national educational stage.

Immediacy will thus be at the heart of the replacement for Headlines (and for ShaPenned).  It will be published nine times a year, going from proof-stage to mail-out in just three weeks. It will be shorter, but will enjoy similarly high production values.  A full-time, in-house writer/editor will be appointed, combining that role with an overall communications brief for SHA: in this, above all, lies the difference.  By moving into the realm of full-time, professional writing SHA will ensure that the successor to Headlines is up-to-the-minute. The writer-editor will act as reporting journalist at Council and other SHA events: where national figures – or, for that matter, hard-pressed members – have things to say to SHA, but can’t find the time to get them written down, he or she will be able to conduct and write up an interview. The result should be a new journal that tells members what SHA is doing on their behalf almost as it happens, that attracts comment from policy-makers (and, it is to be hoped, influences them!), continues to share ideas and good practice, and is attractive, punchy and contemporary.

My task

It will be my task as Publications Officer in the coming year to see those lofty ambitions achieved.............and to avoid any risk of the new magazine’s becoming like those publications from government organs that are so often shallow, glitzy and transparently – demeaningly - ‘on-message’.  You know the kind of thing (I’m too tactful to mention names, but they hit our desks with depressing regularity).  They contain lots of mercifully short articles about how wonderfully their particular brand of government-sponsored work is ‘turning schools around’, with colourful pictures to prove it. My pet hate is those shining examples billed as ‘sharing good practice’ - good practice that just happens to be a puff for the latest government initiative.  Anybody can write one: try this at home. Just find something your school does half decently (half is enough). Describe it in glowing terms; add a liberal (actually, quite a right-wing) sprinkling of the buzz words of the moment (right now try partnership, behaviour, extended school, competitive sport and, for double bonus points, ASBO); attach a photo of some smiling kids with their ties done up smartly - preferably meeting Kelly Holmes - and you’re there.

I believe SHA is safe from that!  We do know what we need to do for this new magazine.  We shall need to take care that it has a breadth of content and styles that will appeal to all of the ‘broad church’ that is SHA’s membership. I’ve always preferred the reflective, thoughtful articles in the pages of Headlines: equally I know that others strongly favour ‘how to’ articles.  We need a similar mix in the successor publication.  We must use the advantages of more frequent issue to create debates and dialogues that continue from one edition to another. While telling members what SHA is up to, we must at the same time allow those with strong views to challenge current orthodoxies and dogmas, to speak uncomfortable truths. The range and mix of voices in SHA that have been such a strength in Headlines must be allowed and encouraged to continue to find expression.  We shall need to be thoughtful, not merely factual; critical, not accepting; challenging, not preaching. If we can do this, the new magazine will be distinctively of and for SHA, reflecting its diverse and independent-minded membership (and readership).  And if we achieve it, we shall indeed have created a worthy successor for Headlines.

So I call on all current or budding writers out there to think what you can contribute to your Association and colleagues through your new magazine.  And, as we await its first edition in the New Year, I salute and thank Headlines, its two editors Michael and Irene, the publications team at Headquarters and everyone who, by writing for it, commenting on it or just reading it, has made it so successful over so many years.


Stating the Blairingly Obvious

July 2004 

At SHA’s Annual Conference in Harrogate, Minister for School Standards David Milliband caused a stir by referring to the ‘Blair generation’ of schoolchildren.  Bernard Trafford wonders why.

First it was Blair’s Babes, a term coined by the media to describe all the female MPs who joined parliament amid New Labour’s landslide 1997 victory.  It was a patronising and sexist way to describe a category of MP that the Commons desperately needed, considering what a boys’ club parliamentary life was (and still is).  But journalists need to label things, and we get used to their antics.

SHA members were shocked when they heard David Milliband’s reference to the Blair generation.  Why?  What was it that felt so wrong?  That kind of terminology has been used before without provoking a reaction.  People talk of Thatcher’s children, a tag identified still with a generation conditioned to regard material gain as the aim of work and education; to reserve admiration for those who got rich quick; to accept incessant cuts in public and welfare services; to be indifferent to the three million out of work who were told to ‘get on their bike’ as the solution to their troubles; to an attitude of ‘I’m all right, Jack’, and devil take the hindmost.

Thatcher’s Children is a derogatory term, not one that Maggie’s acolytes would have made at the height of her power: but there’s nothing wrong with someone looking from outside, after the event, and giving an era a name.  There’s at least a hint of distance, of history being allowed to judge a political period.

What sticks in the throat about the Harrogate statement is seeing one of the PM’s intimate circle attempting to define a generation in the image of his current leader. It smacks of – what?  Presumption? Certainly.  It’s claiming too much, without the benefit of perspective or posterity. To claim to have owned or created a generation would be egotistical on the part of an entire cabinet, let alone its PM. There’s an additional hint of denying individuals the free will to be themselves, implying that they must accept the label: ‘Sorry, mate, you’re one of Blair’s.’ Perhaps it’ll go on their shiny new ID card.

Although Milliband’s a bright spark who doesn’t need to suck up, because he’s well enough regarded on his own merit, this seems like toadying.  Or perhaps it’s another term coined since 1997: Tonyism, a kind of cronyism tinged with adulation.  There was a suggestion of (false) modesty about it, as if to say, ‘Tony couldn’t possibly say this, but I will….’

It was the calculated attempt to establish the cult of personality, to canonise the leader, that so jarred with the SHA audience.  So why did Milliband or his speech writers do it?  One would like to think that he is too smart for such a trick (though apparently not smart enough to omit it from his text).  I put it down to the overweening arrogance of the spin doctors, the culture of manipulation that came in with New Labour in 1997 and has never left it, despite the departure of spin’s chief architect.  This reference to the Blair Generation was a pebble deliberately dropped in the pond.  As the Bellman says in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark: ‘What I say three times is true.’

The spinners did Tony Blair a disservice at Conference. I don’t believe he himself would seek to attach his moniker to a generation.  One would hope he has more decency - and a sense of literature, if not of history: that kind of label is more likely to be a millstone round the neck than a halo.  As Shakespeare observes, the evil men do lives after them.  The good that Tony has achieved will probably be interred with his political bones, but the Blair Generation seems likely in future to define an era in which the Muslim and Christian worlds learned new depths of mutual fear and hatred; when, despite all the promises, a million British children still lived in inadequate housing (Shelter report) and 3.6 million grew up in poverty (Work and Pensions Select Committee); when the country couldn’t find enough teachers to provide an adequate education for its children but still insisted on testing the arses off them; when spin ruled and the electorate finally lost all trust in its politicians.

Posterity is a harsh judge, and both history and literature teach us that leaders’ attempts to achieve immortality are generally doomed to failure. Tony’s cronies’ efforts on his behalf are more likely to gain him the fate of Shelley’s Ozymandias :

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

We can’t judge, of course, because we’re too close.  The members of the Blair Generation will have to do that, 20 years or so from now.  If they have the time, that is.  They may be too busy fighting to repossess the remains of their children’s schools and hospitals from the firms to whom the Blair Government mortgaged them under PFI all those years ago.



March 2004

Manju is 12.  She was rescued in the spring of 2003 from a Rajasthan stone quarry in which she had spent her entire life. She had never received any education. She had never seen a book, nor a flower.  She was a bonded labourer – as were her parents and her grandparents.  It was the latter who had been forced by poverty into that form of bondage, so Manju was the third generation effectively owned by the quarry boss.

A third-generation slave in the twenty-first century? One might have thought that was a thing of the past, or a freak circumstance, a rarity. Sadly not: until recently Manju was one of a million bonded child labourers in India, and one of an estimated 60 million Indian children who work full-time – for a pittance – instead of receiving an education. 

The sole and direct cause is poverty.  Children go to work to supplement the pitiful income of families in desperate need.  And for the very poor who are already in debt there is the additional trap of bonded child labour.  A family living in poverty cannot get a bank or government loan.  But a moneylender will help.  He makes a loan in exchange for the child’s labour.  The child is legally bonded, and matters are usually rigged so that the child’s earnings are always less than the accumulating interest.  The child can only be released after a lump sum payment - which is, of course, impossible for the family to find.  Thus the bonded child remains bonded, even into adulthood and to the next generation.

But this isn’t an article about child servitude, rather about the amazing work being done by a refuge for the pitifully few children who escape from slavery, and about the things that we prosperous Westerners might learn from, and contribute to, it.

In November 2003, Kevin Riley and I accepted an invitation to speak at a major education conference organised in New Delhi by the Delhi Public School Society which runs 122 schools across India and other parts of the world where there are Indian communities.  The host was the founder school, R K Puram, which educates 6,000 pupils on one site, 500 in each of the twelve grades.  (Actually, it teaches more than that.  In the morning, a long morning, R K Puram is a fee-paying school: in the afternoon the same facilities are thrown open to a school for Delhi’s under-privileged). 

The conference was portentously entitled Listen: the first world conference on children’s concerns.    Perhaps the word first was an ambitious claim, but listen was no idle boast.  The conference was attended by teachers and students from 300 schools across India: some had made train journeys of 18 hours or longer to get there.  Others had come from the Middle East, and a small party from a school in Siberia! 

And the students were certainly involved.  At the end of every session there was a queue of them wishing to ask questions - coherent, courteous but very searching.  So many wanted to ask questions that we wondered if they’d been rehearsed or prepared by teachers.  That was disproved by Kevin’s session.  He was speaking about extra-curricular activities, something of a burning question in India at the moment because there is growing concern that pressure of testing and demands for ever-higher grades are squeezing out valuable sporting and other activities (now, where have we heard that before?).  Kevin’s was the last scheduled session, so he steadfastly refused to produce a written paper in advance (as speakers had been asked to do).  Having soaked up three days’-worth of discussion, Kevin spoke from notes, elegantly wove the main themes of the conference into his own topic and received a tremendous response, as rich and spontaneous as his talk had been - so much so that the questions ran on into the tea break and made the final closing ceremony start late!  Our suspicions of prior preparation were confounded.

For us, though, the high spot of our flying five-day visit to Delhi was not the conference, impressive as it was, but our brief visit on the Friday afternoon to Mukti Ashram, a refuge for children rescued from servitude.  Kevin had been to the Ashram before.  Three years ago, during a hockey tour of India, he and a group of students from Bristol Cathedral School had visited and had pledged themselves to raise money for a new boys’ boarding house, so this time Kevin was able to go back and see the fruits of that fundraising.  For me it was an entirely new experience.  For the two of us to be able to compare and discuss first and second impressions made the visit still more powerful in effect.

We were collected from the hotel by the Ashram’s founder and matriarch, Suman, and had a hair-raising drive round the infamous Delhi ring road.  It’s not so bad when it’s snarled and almost stationary: the periodical bumps at front and rear of the car are something you get used to quite quickly.  But when we reached the edge of the city and the speed was increased, our feeling as the driver locked all four wheels to avoid a cow crossing the road was one of alarm.  Out in the country the road was only single-lane, and we appeared to play a regular game of chicken with oncoming vehicles, which was still more worrying, if curiously exhilarating.  (The return drive in the dark was even more of an experience as we sped along these narrow roads between pavement fires, bicycles, cycle-rickshaws and craftsmen working crouched over candles in the entrance to their workshops).

The Ashram was quiet and peaceful, an oasis of calm after the bedlam that is Delhi.  We had chai and spring rolls and then looked around the new boys’ boarding house.  We saw the garden, tended by the children, and the workshop where they learn trades and skills after they’ve been rescued from slavery.  We saw the little hut that is a classroom when it rains, and the dingy dining room, a bulb dangling from a wire, where the boys were sleeping throughout the construction of their new boarding house: the old lean-to shelter where they used to sleep, more like a bike shed, had to be demolished to make room for the new building.

After the sightseeing, we learned what the Ashram is really about.  We were led to a dais on an open area of concrete, an outdoor classroom, where the children sit in on carpets on either side of a central gangway.  No informality here: if we’d wanted to mix as equals and sit among the children we weren’t allowed to. We were honoured guests, and there was a chair for each of us on the dais.  Every child we met bowed, fingers together, and greeted us in the traditional way, murmuring Namaste.  And then, as darkness fell, the mosquitos started to bite and a rat emerged from the roof of the office and started eating the straw, the children told their stories. 

Suman translated and explained, a running commentary in English weaving in and out of the constant stream of Hindi as one child after another told us how they came to be at Mukti Ashram.  One little boy, about 7 years old, described how his uncle had taken him from his village to a hotel in the big city run by a friend of his.  His parents were desperately poor (he is now an orphan), and the boy was assured of food, shelter and the opportunity to learn the hotel trade.  In a short space of time he was working sixteen-hour days, scrubbing, washing plates and carrying trays of tea to the factory next door.  When he dropped a tray he was beaten – on top of the scalding he received from the hot drink that fell on him.  From other children, whether it was in the weaving industry, catering, quarrying or a host of other areas, the story was much the same: absurdly long hours, regular and savage beatings (even with iron bars), danger, injury through work, neglect, complete lack of education, constant fear, sometimes sexual abuse – in short, exploitation and the abolition of childhood.

When Suman and her helpers rescue these child slaves, they have to take them to a magistrate.  The child makes a statement about being denied an education and/or being ill-treated, and the bond (a legal agreement) is declared void – as long as the magistrate is not a friend of the employer!  Suman told us she has to spend a surprising amount of time at Delhi’s Supreme Court when magistrates are afraid or unwilling to act.

Children arrive at the Ashram severely damaged.  The unconditional love and care they receive there work miracles: it was extraordinary to hear such happy, confident children describe the terrible things that had been done to them in the past – often quite recently.  Initially the children are rehabilitated, helped to reach a position where they can cope with going to school.  Then they will go home to their villages, if they have families to return to: the orphans stay in the Ashram.

And this is where Suman and her helpers do work that is truly extraordinary.  Since poverty is cyclical, there would be a grave danger that children returning to their still poor family might be drawn straight back into the circumstances which led to their initial servitude.  Suman is keenly aware of the danger, and the main focus of the Ashram’s work is on empowering the children.  They are encouraged to talk about what they have been through, and they are helped to understand not only the wrongs that have been done to them but also the social and economic circumstances that led them into that position.  They are highly articulate about the nature of poverty, about the problems and desperation that lead families and their children into the hands of moneylenders and exploitive employers.  They quote the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  They know that their own country has passed laws entitling every child to a free education – and they appreciate the extent to which the state is simply unable to meet its commitment. 

They act out dramas describing the ways in which children are drawn into servitude: they sing and they dance, chanting refrains such as Education for Liberation: Liberation for Education.  Slogans on the wall read (in Hindi and in English) Give tiny hands toys and books, not tools.  They stand tall and speak passionately, and with real knowledge, about the wrongs that are done to them and other children.  They assert their rights fearlessly. and they are ambitious for the future – for their own futures and for that of their country.  Manju wants to be a politician: we were in no doubt that, if she still wants to when she’s older, she will be.

If ever I wondered what we really mean by the term empowering children, a phrase I use a lot in relation to school councils and school democracy, I know now.  These children truly are empowered.  They will indeed go back to their villages, and I am quite certain that they will not be dragged back into slavery.  They are too articulate, too eloquent to allow it to happen.  More than that, they are going with a mission to empower the other children whom they will meet back in their village, and in school.  They will pass on the powerful message about their entitlement, about their right to be free from abject poverty and from those who prey on the poor.  We really felt that we were meeting children who can, and will, change India.

They are few.  There are only between 70 and 100 children in Mukti Ashram. However well trained they are politically, however confident they are, will they really make a difference?  Most of us school leaders, we guess, went into teaching with a desire to make a difference.  And when we read or see TV programmes about child slavery, most of us will burn with indignation.  But what can we do? 

Age and experience teach us that we cannot change the world.  But in our own schools we try to make a difference and in doing so, we’d hope, manage to change a small part of it. It’s the same with Mukti Ashram, and with the link that the pupils of Bristol Cathedral School have forged with it.  The new boarding house cost £10,000, no great sum for secondary school pupils to raise over a few years in prosperous Britain.   But the difference it will make to the refuge is enormous.  And what we saw at Mukti Ashram convinced us that those few children in one little refuge have the ability, and are fired up, to make an enormous difference in their country. 

Just in their country?  Much more widely, I expect.  There will be a host of impediments in her way, but having seen Manju and her peers in full flow we could clearly imagine her – any of them - in the future, leading a UN mission and shaming a state president somewhere into outlawing and taking action against child slavery. 

The fruits of such international links can be felt here, too.  It needs another article, perhaps, to talk about the benefits for UK schools of linking with other, very different places around the globe: but Kevin’s students at Bristol Cathedral School, who have visited Mukti Ashram once and will do so again, received a salutary lesson, a vivid learning experience – and found ways in which they too can ‘make a difference’.

It works for grown-ups too!  My world-view and my life were changed that day.


Don’t let this one get away

November 2003

We’re well into a new school year and the opportunity for change is afoot in GCSE, AS and A2.  About time.  Most of us agree that our 16-18 year-olds are over-examined.  For the past four years I’ve been dad as well as head watching my two daughters, one school year apart, grind their way through three summers of exams – oh, and there were two January sessions too (it might have been four, but they only did January modules in the A2 phase).

The first (progress) report of the Tomlinson has been published and consultation carried out. Hurrah!  There is a real chance that some sense may be made of the current madness.  Tomlinson’s brief is broad.  His committee is looking at

  • the coherence of 14-19 learning programmes
  • 14-19 assessment arrangements
  • a unified framework of qualifications, including the possibility of developing some kind of baccalaureate system.

I’m not a curriculum buff.  Somehow I blagged my way to headship without ever having major responsibility for matters curricular, and as a head I’ve always been more interested in ethos and the way we do things (and treat people) than in what we actually do. So I’m not going to set myself up as an expert and give a detailed analysis of what Tomlinson should and shouldn’t do: there are plenty of people already doing that. Besides I’m pretty confident that what Mike Tomlinson eventually comes up with will be visionary, future-orientated and workable. At least in theory.

That’s what worries me.  In the last decade and a half we’ve had a number of similar opportunities to grasp nettles and plan a better shape and future, particularly for secondary education.  And one way and another we’ve let them slip through our fingers.  I’m using the word we rather loosely, but in general I mean we the teaching profession who have got excited about some of the curricular and examination changes that have been promised over the years, only to find that in implementation they seem to have got away from us, become cumbersome and bureaucratic and failed to achieve what we desperately hoped for.

Take the National Curriculum itself.  Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, mercilessly lampooned by Ted Wragg as Mr Bun and by Private Eye as ‘the self-basting Kenneth Baker’ won’t be remembered fondly by the teaching profession: but, to be fair to the guy, all he wanted (so he now says) was some kind of minimum entitlement, particularly (he now says) where ‘poor’ schools weren’t giving children a good or fair deal – I won’t even start on that bit of his agenda here.

So what went wrong? What produced the sprawling, bloated monster that even now, fifteen years after GERBIL (the Great Education Reform Bill that ushered in a new ERA), creates more problems than it solves and requires both schools to ‘disapply’ youngsters (one of many hideous new words it’s spawned) and government itself to enact legislation to get round the bits that still don’t work? 

To some extent, we did.  We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it, because lots of other people were to blame too. The bureaucrats (I suppose I blame the Civil Servants in the then DES) insisted that you couldn’t have programmes of study prescribed by law without ‘accountability’ – which to them meant (and still too often means) not just doing the job but ticking boxes and producing figures to prove that you’re doing it (this notion of accountability does away with that tiresome, soggy thing that we used to call variously professionalism or trust). 

But we teachers, out of loyalty to our specialist subjects, got our powerful subject associations to lobby government to ensure that our particular love got its slice of the cake that became the National Curriculum. And that cake, in a gloriously mixed metaphor, rapidly became far too large to fit into the pint pot that was the teaching week (with little thought given at that time to the learning week). And ever since then we’ve been struggling with ‘curriculum overload’, insisting on giving all children an academic diet – one that effectively grew out of the old grammar school curriculum - whether or not it’s appropriate for them, and obliging creative, expressive and vocational options to fight for space and ‘parity of esteem’ almost as hard as they did decades ago.

So that one got away from us.  Then came AS and A2. We, the professionals, were keen that there should be a half-way stage in the journey to A level, providing a certificated exit point for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t go all the way.  Good idea. There were too many students struggling for two years and emerging with nothing.  There was already a model for how it might be done. Modular A levels had become popular as a means of spreading the testing load over the two years and reducing the pressure of the terminal exams. 

Curiously, those modular courses never attracted the allegations of excessive assessment that most of us now level at AS and A2.  They seemed to operate in a spirit of continuous assessment (a Good Thing) as opposed to the subtly different but powerful impression of non-stop pressure of the current system (a Bad Thing). Maybe this was because the bureaucrats (QCA this time) hadn’t got at those modular courses in the way that they did when all AS/A2 courses had to be assessed through twelve modules, with ruthless standardisation, insistence on that synoptic paper and endless arguments about the relative standards of AS and A2 combining to ensure that the whole thing was hard enough to preserve the famous (and largely meaningless) Gold Standard of A level.

So that bit slipped away from us, and we ended up with the present situation of young people sitting exams every summer for three years and losing weeks of learning in order to be thoroughly tested. 

Still, we got breadth, didn’t we? That was the other thing we wanted from AS.

Up to a point, Lord Copper.  The usual inadequacy of school funding meant that very few schools even considered giving pupils the opportunity to do five AS levels in Year 12, so that for most sixth formers four AS courses replaced the old pattern of three A levels and some kind of general sixth form enrichment.  As for Year 13, the possibility that any but a few would continue with four subjects to A2 was blown out of the water by the universities: admissions tutors, through a mixture of intransigence and sheer ignorance of the changes underway, announced that they would continue to offer places on the basis of three A2 grades, so that was the end of breadth in the final year of school or college.

Sorry about the history lesson.  But if I ever learnt anything about history, it was that history repeats itself.  I have this gnawing fear that Tomlinson could do all the good work we hope for, only to see it negated by the same reactions that I’ve just described.  I’m all for ‘coherence’ in teaching programmes from 14 to 19, and the idea of some kind of over-arching diploma or bac is an attractive one.  But in this country (in England: I’ll leave the Scots and Welsh out of this) we have this knack of killing good ideas in the way we put them into practice.

It works like this.  As soon as some kind of structure is proposed all the usual lobbies will come out of the woodwork and we’ll be told that it would be monstrous to conceive of a baccalaureate without including a compulsory element of… well, take your pick.  Government will insist on ICT and numeracy.  It might have demanded a modern foreign language but probably realises now that it can’t find enough to teachers to do it. The English lobby will be in there, history tends to be pretty strident, and the scientists will be out in force.  Of course they will. They all will. Who can blame hem for fighting their corner? And if they all get their way, instead of being the flexible, individualised and motivating framework that so many of us have been dreaming of, the English Bac will be a rigid, unappetising academic straitjacket with some vocational, creative or simply wacky elements bolted on round the edges.

Rubbish! I can hear the cries of outrage that I should suggest such a thing. But we’ve been there before. It always happens if you allow a hierarchy of subjects to develop.  I accept that we need young people to leave full time education able to count and communicate, to use technology and to understand the physical, technical, social and emotional worlds in which they’ll have to operate as adults - but we don’t have to jam up every stage of education by always insisting on a core of the subjects that we think (or someone else thinks) are important!

Take maths – sorry, numeracy.  Of course people must be numerate.  Life’s very difficult for those who aren’t, so maths (sorry, numeracy) is vital.  I enjoyed maths at school. I even did the old additional maths O level, and though nowadays I can’t recall now how or even why I integrated or did differential calculus, at the time I found the intellectual challenge satisfying.  But like most people I find in adult life that I rarely use any mathematical skills that I learnt after the age of 11.

The same argument exists for and against any subject that makes a claim to be in the core of a curricular structure.  It may be crucially important, but it doesn’t have to be there at every stage.  In fact, it can’t be. But our history of curricular change suggests that we fall into the same trap every time. We design a big, arbitrary core and then, in order to achieve some measure of choice and variety, we have to expand outwards from that core to create a huge mechanism that lacks the very flexibility we set out to achieve.  We’ve been there before.

I fear another trap when it comes to assessment.  SHA and other sensible bodies urge policy makers to adopt more internal assessment in any new examination structure.  It’s pure commonsense.  I guess Tomlinson will accept what SHA proposes: but what is there in our educational history to suggest that teachers and schools will be trusted?  I fear that the profession will be caught out again.  We’ll campaign to reduce the examination burden for our pupils – and the demands of ‘accountability’ will impose a raft of bureaucratic checks and systems of moderation which will burden teachers still further.  Last May my head of music spent between 30 and 40 minutes compiling a separate tape or minidisk for each of his GCSE candidates so that the exam board could mark the performance and composition: fortunately he had ‘only’ some 35 candidates, so he just had to find an extra 20 to 24 hours to package everything neatly for the exam board.  How big will the administrative burden be, I wonder, if he is to do the marking himself and then provide evidence for a moderator of some sort?  Somehow I can’t see it shrinking.

I just don’t believe they’ll trust us. They never have before.  In my school, in the early days of GCSE, we did the 100% coursework option in English Language and English Literature.  That really did reduce the pressure on candidates: during Years 10 and 11 they produced some 10 formal pieces, in the normal run of homework, from which the best few were selected for exam assessment.  Problems with plagiarism (admittedly before the Internet) weren’t great in our experience: people are human and don’t tend to keep up a pretence over a period of time. It was certainly good education.  But John Major, then Prime Minister, decided that it was too easy for people (children or teachers?) to cheat, so demanded a terminal exam in all subjects. 

They didn’t trust us then, and they won’t now. Not without a panoply of checks and balances.  More work for teachers, workforce remodelling notwithstanding.

I don’t trust the universities to support whatever Tomlinson might propose for 14-19. Early in the summer holiday (how long ago that seems now!) I heard on the radio news that Tomlinson is likely to recommend PQA (post-qualification application): in other words, candidates would apply to university after they’ve got their A level and other results.  University spokespeople were dismissive: it would be very hard to do in the timescale.  Of course it would.  What it would require is central government to act decisively and change the very shape of the school (or university) year.  Maybe we could even move exams out of the (brief) hot, hay-fever-ridden season and into a sensible time of year.  There’s nothing sacred about either the start or the shape of our school year.  But governments don’t operate like that, whatever their complexion, and whether their style is bureaucratic or presidential. They fudge, and nowadays they seek progress through the coercion of targets, not by exercising leadership.  So I fear no one will prevent the universities from blocking that necessary change.  They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again. 

Despite all this, I’m not gloomy.  Tomlinson is too good for that.  He’s seeking to retain what’s good in the current system. He’s pledged not to rush change but to insist on a five to ten-year implementation.  All that is optimistic, so I don’t want to be a prophet of doom. 

But too often in the past we’ve reached out to grasp a bright future and let the forces, lobbies and desires I’ve described, laudable and unworthy alike, snatch it away from us at the last.  Time after time the great idea has failed in implementation.  Another opportunity is coming, and we mustn’t let this one get away!


Now for the next 25

July 2003

SHA can look back over its first quarter of a century with satisfaction.  Its membership has never been so large, nor its national and political profile so high.  Secretary of State Charles Clarke’s tribute to SHA’s importance and influence at the Annual Conference in March wasn’t just good manners: he was acknowledging the fact that it is now an unwise government which will force through too many initiatives without consulting SHA first, or will ignore trenchant criticism from the Association.  For example, it was only after Mr Clarke received complaint after complaint from the Conference floor about this year’s funding fiasco that government realised it had to take the problem seriously.  There were rumours that he was furious about our members ‘whingeing’ at him. But he realised that he had to do something: hence the subsequent banner headlines in the press, accusation and counter-accusation between national and local government.  Remember, it was the SHA conference that started the ball rolling.

So that’s all very pleasing.  Is this kind of result the main purpose of having a professional association?  If so, we can congratulate ourselves that SHA is doing very well.  But SHA is actually a members’ association, not a political pressure group.  Why do people join?  What do they want from their professional association or trade union?  And what will they want over the next 25 years?

I guess we all join up in the first place out of self-interest, not to become part of a political lobby.  When I started teaching 25 years ago, I was advised to join a union.  ‘You need the insurance’ they all said.  Insurance is an inadequate word now, but at the time it meant that, if some malicious student smashed my car up, it would probably be covered: and if I got in a mess there would be some legal help.

Nowadays I guess it’s the legal help that comes to mind first.  The legal and professional support provided by SHA is second to none.  I’m not sure that many of us worry much about loss or damage to our property, because this other concern is so much greater.  SHA’s hotline and field officers are immensely busy but fortunately the website, with its section for Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s), provides easy answers to the predictable, routine yet nonetheless worrying issues that confront members every day.  But the big things still get personal attention.

There are certainly more allegations of abuse levelled against members nowadays: this is a problem for all teachers nationally, causing concern to all the unions.  But the unrelenting pressure on schools, school leaders and governors to hit targets has also spawned a whole new range, or at least scale, of problems for members.  So when things get tough in school, heads find themselves being sniped at by governors, and deputy and assistant heads experience the same treatment from heads.  Some of it is just bad management of people, but a great deal of misery is created by that savage government pressure, the flames fuelled and fanned by league tables and other media exposure. 

Am I exaggerating?  I don’t think so.  When Charles Clarke sends out a circular asking LEAs how many heads they’re targeting for sacking using the Leadership Incentive Grant, school leaders may be permitted to become defensive without facing accusations of paranoia.  This isn’t accountability.  It isn’t even ‘football manager syndrome’.  We are back to the bad old days of the Navy shooting Admiral Byng – as Voltaire remarked dryly, ‘pour encourager les autres.’  I know many SHA members who have hit difficult times and who, without exception, have been eloquent and heartfelt in their gratitude for the quality of support they’ve received from SHA.  Not only do the field officers know their stuff: the humanity and encouragement they provide, at a time when a member feels completely isolated, are as valuable as the legal knowledge and the steely determination with which they confront an unreasonable or bullying head (not a SHA member, one presumes!), LEA, or governing body.

So, in that regard, let’s have more of the same in the next quarter century!

The second reason for joining an Association is to gain opportunities for networking.  All ‘professionals’ (whatever we mean by that word) tend to have access to organisations through which they can compare notes, share worries and experience – or just enjoy the congenial company of fellow sufferers from time to time.  With its 11,000 members all in secondary schools and all at leadership group level, SHA constitutes an enormous network of peers with whom members can mingle.  The fact that the annual conference continues to get bigger year on year suggests that networking is still a valuable and valued opportunity, and ‘virtual’ networking of a different kind is provided in a sense by the sharing of practice, experience and even laughs through SHA’s range of publications, most notably Headlines.  The fact that nearly a third of its members have now registered their email addresses with headquarters means that in addition SHA can network directly with nearly 4,000 members.

Nonetheless, it is sad but true that the amount of face-to-face networking that goes on through SHA’s branches has declined over the past decade.  The health and organisation of the Branches is now causing concern at headquarters and is frequently on the agenda at the meetings of Association Committee.  ‘In the old days’, as they say, both Branches and Areas (the latter now replaced by Regions) were vibrant and busy sub-organisations of the Association as a whole.  When I was newly a head 13 years ago, Area 10 (West Midlands) was proud of being one of the most active: it even held its own annual conference in September.   It is possible that local life within the Areas was extinguished by the (necessary) change in regional structures effected in the mid-1990s, but the Branch structure was already becoming weakened by then. 

It may be that at Branch level SHA didn’t succeed in broadening local participation to include deputies (and later assistant heads) in the way that it did nationally.  Deputies have long been well represented at Council and on Executive: since the creation of the post of assistant head, and its inclusion into SHA membership, that category has rapidly made its mark at national level too.  It may be, though, that for too long Branches have remained somewhat head-centred: maybe only heads went out to Branch meetings, leaving deputies to run the school (perish the thought!).  And it’s possible that, since LEAs tend to have heads’ cluster groups (and smaller authorities simply get all their secondary heads together), head teachers don’t feel the need for SHA Branches.  I fear that it’s deputies and assistant heads who are most missing out as a result of this weakening of the Branches, though those heroic individuals who carry on as Branch Secretaries may justifiably complain that members don’t attend meetings even when they are offered. 

Another reason possibly lurking at the root of these problems with the Branches is once again the sheer pressure that everyone is under.  School leaders are so busy attending school meetings, LEA sessions and interminable briefings about the latest government initiative that they have little time or energy left to attend another meeting, even one that is designed precisely for them as SHA members.

In contrast to this gloomy picture, SHA’s Roadshows and Information Conferences are well attended, so that what the Association is able to offer in terms of both information-giving and networking in these forms is greatly appreciated.  But another aim for the next quarter century must be either to breathe new life into the Branches or to find a new kind of format which more closely matches the needs and desires of members.

Discussing networking inevitably takes us onto the third reason for membership of a professional Association, that of sharing good practice.  SHA members expect – and, I think, receive – the best of information of that kind.  I’ve already mentioned Headlines and Information Conferences, but SHA’s other seminars, books and guidance documents are all immensely valuable and well received.  Publications Committee, which I chair, always tries to be alert to the next emerging major issue on which guidance will be needed, and the General Secretary – like all the secretariat, officers and chairs of committees - is quick to spot these things and pass the word to Publications.  This is why members so often receive a guidance document or even a book just as an issue, and therefore the need for information about it, becomes pressing.

But although I personally enjoy being involved in producing material that shares good practice, I do find myself wishing that we were able to talk and write a bit more about education!  Don’t get me wrong!  This isn’t a complaint about SHA: on the contrary, I think the Association does an admirable job in keeping the flow of advice and guidance going to members.  Mine is a personal sense of disappointment that so much of our material is by necessity concerned with helping members to deal with the management of government initiatives and other problems (sic), and only rarely focuses on what we actually do with and for children, and why.  When I can, I use or abuse my position as PubOff (and I have a great ally in Headlines editor Irene Dalton) to ensure that we publish at least some material that is reflective, even philosophical: articles or books that stop to ask why we are doing some of the things we do in schools and colleges, and even compare them with what we should be doing for children and young people.  If you stop to think about it, you will find that most information you receive from SHA is about how to manage funding crises; how to seek and work with all kinds of other partners outside your school or college; and how to stretch inadequate resources so that ends just about meet, so that most of the things we want to do somehow get done.  What a shame that it all leaves so little time to talk about education!


This worry leads me to the fourth and final reason why, in my opinion, people join an association in general and SHA in particular.  SHA’s work on behalf of its members and its political work combine at the same time with a deeper purpose, that of constantly seeking to improve educational opportunities for children and young people in this country.  Of course it represents the interests of its members, and provides help and support for them: but much of its work is about allowing and helping members to achieve the best they can for the young people in their care.  SHA isn’t unique in this, of course: all the other teachers and heads’ unions would claim to do the same, though I don’t feel that any represent the interests of pupils as strongly as SHA does.  Nor is this a purpose unique to education: one might argue that the BMA does the same in supporting, representing (and in the case of that association, policing) the medical profession, all with the aim of improving services to and care of patients.

SHA does it well.  It makes me proud as a member, and as an officer of the Association, when we see just how much influence SHA now has with government.  It was pleasing to witness even the blunt and bullish Charles Clarke getting a shock and being forced to stop, pause and take some action because he could not simply ignore or railroad SHA opinion.  Such is the nature of our democracy and government (don’t get me started on that!) that we don’t have power, but we do have enormous influence.  For that we must be grateful not only to the present General Secretary and his predecessor, who have done so much to put SHA on the political map, but to all the Presidents, other officers and members who give their time to make sure that SHA is represented at DfES committees, government consultations and the like – sometimes so many of them that it is impossible to get representatives to every one.  SHA is indeed a political force in the land, as it must be.  And it will keep making me proud of it while it manages to maintain that balance between the interests of members and those of the young people for whom we work.  It’s a powerful message: no government can safely ignore the strident Dunford voice stating unequivocally: ‘school leaders cannot provide x or y (the latest requirement) for pupils if the government doesn’t fund or support it…’

I was proud of Council’s decision last year to ballot on industrial action about the management of the Upper Pay Spine: I was equally relieved that it became unnecessary.  If we really believe in what we are telling government about the damage it sometimes appears ready to do to the profession, and therefore to the education of young people, we have to be prepared to take that kind of action, however desperately we hope that we won’t have to.  Last year the threat was enough: we were so determined that government simply had to listen. 

Writing about SHA’s Silver Anniversary in the TES, John Dunford outlined his ambition for SHA in the next 25 years, that government would never make educational policy without first consulting the Association. In many ways, John’s dream is already a long way towards becoming reality. The amount of contact between ministers, DfES and SHA during this year’s funding chaos has been considerable. The combined expertise and experience of members and secretariat, our collective deep knowledge and our ability in extremis to flex our muscles give SHA real power to influence education policy, and government knows it can’t do without us. It just forgets from time to time.

We shouldn’t use that power lightly, but I do think we can use it more where we need to.  Recently I met a primary head from just outside Sydney.  She told me how the three unions of primary and secondary heads and teachers  (conveniently few, perhaps) got together and refused to countenance the publication or use of league tables. They faced down the New South Wales government on the issue and blocked alternative flows of information to the press.  Now that State has no league tables. (And, you know, education still goes on, and keep improving. Amazing!)

Can’t we do that here?  I reckon we could, though it would be harder. Let’s be confident:  SHA has a great track record.  So between now and 2028 (!), I’d like to see still more political toughness from SHA.  More nailing of lies.  More refusing to let ministers off the hook when they swear black is white and simply don’t want to hear the unpleasant truth that their latest bright idea isn’t producing the results that they are convinced it should.  I’m happy to see Charles Clarke red-faced and angry.  Let’s see more discomforted politicians.  It’s about time they started listening when they’re wrong – or preferably before they make mistakes!  And if we have to work more closely with other unions and associations in order to rattle more cages, so be it: the voice of the profession is seriously weakened at present by being a seven-part choir.

I have one additional hope.  Despite what I have written above, I hope and pray that in the years to come we might reach the point where we can make SHA’s work less political and more educational.  Ironically, if we are to achieve that, in order to take the political interference and fudge out of education SHA’s work may have to be still more political in the short term.

If it is, it will get my continued support.


Those top-up fees

March 2003

My prediction for 2003.  Education will continue to furnish many of the hottest political potatoes.  Top-up fees will head the list.  They are a vexed question that raises the blood-pressure of the parents of teenagers, drives university academics to despair or drink or both, has a curiously mixed effect on the young, the university applicants of the future, but leaves those who aren’t or won’t be affected by the issue either unmoved or cynical.  It makes it hard to get a serious debate going.

The cynical might well agree with Margaret Hodge’s observation ‘Why should the dustman pay for the doctor?’ which has already been denounced for its crass stupidity by sharper commentators than me.  But it was a telling comment that, rather like many school reports, says more about its originator than its subject matter

Of course, at its deepest level it denies the whole concept of the welfare state, of the idea that we all contribute according to our means (through taxation) to the whole range of services – health, education, emergency, public services, law, protection, support in hardship and the rest. We may hope not to use some of them, but we know that they’ll be there, and used to expect that they’d be first-rate if we hit bad times – or if we find that we have the sort of gifts that can be developed through higher (or other) education and need the opportunity to do so.  The welfare state is not only about coping with crisis: it’s surely also about creating opportunities for developing and growing.

Behind Margaret Hodge’s mean-spirited view lurks the spectre that even the most loyal traditional Labour supporters are now coming to fear; that the current administration is keener on the crude meritocracy of winners and losers and on buying votes through low taxation rather than on the much more subtle view that motivated the creators of the welfare state.  The ladder and the safety-net, with easy access from the latter to the former, used to allow ‘winners’ to win, but expected everyone to give according to their means in order to ensure that ‘losers’ (these aren’t helpful terms) were supported. 

When our self-styled modernising leaders try to abolish what is often disparagingly described as the old culture of dependency, they seem to lose sight of the interdependency that should characterise a successful and humane society.  Margaret Hodge chooses to forget that the dustmen need doctors as much as medics need their rubbish removed (in sterile yellow bags, of course).  And if doctors earn more than dustmen, so they contribute more to the deal by paying more tax.

Mind you, we have ourselves to blame to some extent. As an electorate we’re fickle.  We demand better public services, but when it comes to election time, we invariably vote to pay less in tax.  (The ‘we’ to whom I refer is, of course, a minority of the population. It’s ironical but unsurprising that New Labour, so strongly committed to proportional representation when in opposition, now finds the first-past-the-post system most satisfactory). 

To be fair, the tendency to vote for lower taxes isn’t entirely motivated by meanness or greed.  When one government after another, whatever its colour (they don’t vary much nowadays…), fails to make any perceptible difference to public services as far as most of us can see, apart from adding extra layers of interference and bureaucracy, the electorate can be forgiven for wondering why it should trust any wannabe new administration with extra tax revenue.  This government is no different from its predecessors in boasting about hugely increased investment ‘in real terms’ in public services: the widespread perceptions that the money just isn’t getting through or that it’s making little or no difference to the delivery of services are no different either.

There is a new layer of initiatives with New Labour.  Politicians are obsessed by targets – a motivational/management/control tool now largely discredited in commerce and industry and soundly rubbished by the Audit Commission last autumn – and become panic-stricken when they don’t meet their own. (When organisations lower down the chain of command - schools or hospitals - don’t hit theirs, politicians simply become nasty).  In the face of so many missed targets, and of a realisation that eventually comes to all governments that achieving real change is much harder than they thought, the current administration has moved on to a new obsession with strategy and delivery.  So No. 10 has a Strategy Unit, and a couple of months ago I saw an advertisement for two £100K-plus jobs as deputy directors of the new Delivery Unit: dynamic people were sought to work ‘under immense pressure’ to oversee delivery of the Strategy Unit’s great ideas.  It all makes sense.  If the existing (enormous, expensive but really rather professional) Civil Service departments can’t ‘deliver’ (that word again) what the government wants, then new parallel methods will have to be created.

When governments don’t want to do something (for example, to help the English Cricket Board out of an unfortunate situation in which to play in Zimbabwe would furnish a PR coup to a wicked and corrupt regime), they describe that course of action as not being a good or acceptable use of taxpayers’ money.  They don’t seem to apply that criterion to the creation of a plethora of quangos, initiatives, innovations, advisors, blue-sky thinkers, spin-doctors and No. 10 Units: nor to the apparently inevitable need to go to war with Iraq.  No, in these important cases I guess we’re expected to shut up and pay up.  HM Gov (with a whacking majority) knows best.

Interestingly, taxpayers’ money is one element that has been largely excluded from any debate about university top-up fees.  When, during the autumn, cabinet ministers started airing their ‘purely personal’ views about the issue, there was a kind of helplessness in the arguments.  Universities are chronically under-funded: that was accepted. A crisis is approaching: yes.  (Whose fault is this?  That wasn’t discussed).  How should they be properly funded?  Who should pay? Students? Their parents?  Graduates  after the event by means of a graduate tax?  Even more helplessness followed that last suggestion: how can universities be funded in the years before a new graduate tax comes on stream?  I can’t remember now which minister finally agreed that taxation was indeed one of the several options that must be considered.  But the suggestion came late, and grudgingly. 

Clearly the T word remains a big problem for politicians.  Yet it seems to me that top-up fees may (and should) become the big test-case, the barometer by which we need to measure what our society thinks now of the welfare state, of the commitment by the state to provide universal services.

This may seem an odd argument, coming as it does from the head of an independent (yes, fee-paying) school, and I confess that I haven’t yet wriggled my way through all the moral, economic and sociological ramifications of what is a complex issue.  Some of them are beyond me.  But I have no problem in working in the independent sector while we can reasonably claim to

  • provide an alternative to the government-directed education agenda and demonstrate      the benefits of relative freedom from government diktat
  • show government (to what should be its shame) what level of funding should be put into schools
  • play our part in working to ensure that state-provided education is not a second-best to      the private sector and that both sectors work together to improve education opportunities for all
  • help  significant numbers of children who cannot afford all or any of the fees to attend our schools.

So I have no right to object in principle to the concept of a private, fee-charging university: but this country has no recent tradition of a private university sector.   Since 1944 (until the 1998 introduction of fees) there has rightly been open access to Higher Education, even if arrangements for grants/maintenance have varied.  Thus I worry about the creeping privatisation implied by the suggestion that our existing ‘public’ universities should be allowed to charge fees: the idea mooted in some papers that UCL might want to charge £15,000 a year (because that’s what a science-related course costs) fills me with horror. 

When people talk airily of ‘endowments’ to help students from less affluent homes, they seldom understand the realities of raising the vast sums needed.  The independent schools that provide financial help to the greatest numbers of pupils tend to be ancient charitable foundations which still rely very heavily on the generosity and goodwill of their alumni.  To suggest that even Oxford and Cambridge could rapidly accumulate endowments of the scale of Yale and Harvard (which provide great numbers of scholarships) is to underestimate both the difficulty of raising that kind of money from a low base and the huge cultural difference between the USA and the UK when it comes to giving to education. 

Increasing universities fees will exclude applicants from poorer homes. Even the current fee is being shown to do so: while young people nowadays seem in general less frightened of debt than my generation, we are regularly seeing research that demonstrates that young people from homes which have lived with shortage and debt are unlikely to be prepared to take on a student loan, even where they may not be liable for the current university fee.  Higher fees will simply bring more young people into the bracket that makes university a bridge too far, rather than a proper and reasonable aspiration.

So maybe that just leaves a graduate tax.  The beauty of this idea is that graduates only start to pay back their university costs when they are earning what policy-makers deem a good living and can afford to do so.  I can see lots of opportunities here for government to encourage more graduates to become teachers, or nurses, or whatever we’re short of at the time, by offering simply to cancel their debt.  It’s only another kind of golden hello.  But all those other greedy, parasitic graduates, the lawyers, bankers, accountants – they can jolly well pay what they owe.

But who decides?  We are rapidly back to making arbitrary judgments about whose work is necessary and valuable – and more so than somebody else’s. Actually, we’re back to the dustman and the doctor.

So here’s a radical thought.  Why don’t we just cancel all university fees and give universities enough money to do the job?  Why don’t we try to find fair and equitable ways of widening access to Higher Education without creating silly targets and quotas?  Why don’t we stop wasting vast sums of money on over-complex inspection, excessive assessment, quality assurance schemes and target-obsessed bureaucracy and instead plough that money into the universities themselves, trusting and helping them to do a decent job with it.  And then let’s expect those who earn high salaries as a result of their university education to pay through tax for the next generation of undergraduates.  In the end, it’s a more honest, less divisive way: it’s an ‘acceptable use of taxpayers’ money’. 

I fear my suggestion won’t be taken up.  After all, governments don’t usually abandon a lousy idea just because it doesn’t work.


Too important not to

November 2002


My throat hurts and I can’t swallow. I'm shivering. I think I'm running a fever and, God, I'll have to pack it in, make my apologies and slink off home.  Wimp out? Surely not. Well, actually, right now I don't care what anyone thinks or says. I think a day at home in my warm bed is about the nicest thing I can imagine.

No, I'm not in a bivouac half-way up a Himalaya. And, yes, I have only been away from home for about 16 hours. And I know it’s Derbyshire in June, but I've spent a wet, miserable night and I don't think I've ever been so cold in my life.

Let me explain.  It was a great idea to take Year 7, all of them, on an expedition.  Two nights under canvas, outdoor activities, team-building games, and an expedition element so that, after getting soaked building, sailing (and sinking) rafts, we walk on to the campsite for the night.  It’s an introduction, the first step along the road to those epic expeditions that take youngsters all around the world, trekking through jungles, climbing huge peaks.  You know the sort of thing: they go away as kids and come back men - and that’s just the girls.

Educationally this is a great idea. We're really trying to build up our outdoor activity programme (I’m sure we're years behind other schools), and this is the first time we've taken a whole year group away.  So I draw on my memory of the leadership course and say, ‘I’ll show we're committed to this as a school.  I'll go as one of the accompanying staff.’

That was then.  It all seemed a good idea.  After all, I’ve done this camping thing.  I can cope. 30 years ago I survived a thunderstorm in Ljubljana with my sister, so there’s nothing I do’t know about camping in adverse conditions.

I didn’t think much of the Leadership Challenge kit list. I mean, who needs a woolly hat and gloves in June? 

I did.  Buxton and Whaley Bridge are around 300m above sea level (that’s metres, not miles, they told me, but I’m not sure I believe them now). We left Wolverhampton in bright summer sunshine, all the staff in shorts and tee-shirts, looking the part.  Ten minutes after arrival in Buxton, the long trousers and the first layer of fleeces were on.

Lunch was good (‘Sir, there’s chips!’), and the first team building exercises were fun. Then my group was off to the reservoir.  It was cold and grey by now, and we teachers huddled together while the students built their rafts, launched them, splashed each other and finally insisted on jumping into the water, even if they didn't fall in.  ‘Sir, will they dry our clothes for us overnight?’ Er, no. This is an expedition. You put dry clothes on and try not to get them wet. So don’t.... Ah. Too late. Still, they might dry off at the campsite.

Fat chance. At least, after the hour’s trudge to the top of a wind-blasted hill (the youngsters do the navigating: ‘Sir, haven't we been past that house once already?’), their tents are mostly up when the rain sweeps horizontal across the Peaks. Who needs waterproof trousers in June? I did, especially as I hadn’t got the hi-tech tent up yet.  But that was another thing I’d saved weight on. After all, it’s summer.

By midnight, or 12.30 anyway, the students are mostly quiet.  Though few of them seemed to have the sense to get into their tents when the storm hit, the wet hasn't      dampened their spirits. Mine are frankly low.  The wind is whipping across the field, the plumbing is three portaloos and a tap (why did the kit list tell us to bring ‘toiletries’? I believed that bit). I'm wearing a damp tee-shirt under all my other clothes (in order to dry it - my bag leaked in the rain so my spare clothes are wet) and I'm still cold.

My hearty colleague Simon, never happier than when clinging by his fingertips to the sheer face of an Alp, tells me the only way to dry my trousers is to wear them in my sleeping bag.  So I do.  By 3.30am (when it’s already starting to get light) I’m very cold.  I have all my clothes on in the sleeping-bag, my throat is behaving oddly and I’m sure I’m ill. Which is where I started. 

By 5.30, when I'm thinking I might live, if someone would just be kind enough to get a helicopter and airlift me out to the nearest intensive care unit (or alternatively a warm pub with a roaring fire and full English breakfast), the first few Year 7s are stirring. By 6am a full game of football is going on, about 25-a-side by the sound of it. I decline even to stick my head out of the tent. Someone else can supervise. I just want to die quietly.

By 7.30 I decide to go in search of aspirin: no one seems to have any. They’re all too damned tough, clearly.  Still, by about 9 o’clock there's enough hot water to make tea, and the first gallon has a reviving effect.  There's some muttering among the troops: ‘Wot, no toast?’ No.  Weetabix and bread ‘n’ Nutella.   (‘Don’t worry,’ Simon whispers. ‘We’re bound to pass a greasy spoon and load up on bacon sarnies.’)

But we don’t: our heartless leaders make sure of that. After a final squally shower, just to remind us that the weather is firmly in control of our destinies, we’re bussed up to Windgather Rocks.  They live up to their name.  By the time it’s my turn to rock-climb, I reckon I’ve got it sussed, having been anchor man on the rope, shouting encouragement to the kids who swarm up the rockface like lizards.

It’s not as easy as it looks.  My fingers are numb with cold, and there’s something wrong with my power-to-weight ratio. You got it: too little of the former and too much...  As I completely lose it for the second time and, dangling helplessly from my harness, splat myself against an incredibly hard and knobbly rock, I think I hear someone mention Spiderman.  Aren’t they a little young to be mastering irony?

From this point on, the day becomes a little surreal.  As my group prepares to hike the seven miles (arrgh!) to the next campsite (or field, as such places are more accurately described), BBC Midlands are on the mobile wanting to get my views on Estelle’s bargepole comment.  They fancy filming an interview with kids climbing in the background.  But we’re further from Birmingham than they thought, so they decide to get a meal somewhere (a hot one, I’ll bet - curse them) while we trek down to a reservoir. So we do.

At this point a miracle happens.  We drop down into a deep valley, lose the wind, and the sun comes out.  Off comes one layer after another, and I’m down to a tee-shirt when, two hours later, we arrive at the rendezvous, a grassy sward overlooking a huge stretch of water, glorious sunshine rendering the scene idyllic.  I don my waterproof again so as to look a bit more hunky, but it’s a fruitless gesture. The BBC crew won't believe how much we’ve suffered, so warm is it now. I offer to show them my bit of thigh with no skin on (my rock-climbing injury), but they decline.

The youngsters show their greatest fortitude of the trip as they play a team-building game for the cameraman, play it again while the leader explains what it is, and then play it a third time in the background while I'm interviewed. Their enthusiasm at being on the telly wanes when they learn that it will be broadcast... er, on BBC2 during the World Cup Final.  Dreams of TV fame crash in ruins.

After four filmed takes of us trudging onward, we trudge onward.  Just another three miles or so to go, only the leader won’t admit to that, and we are still in the slightly wayward hands of our student map-readers.  I'm given the very last leg to navigate, and notice that we’re going past a farmstead called Round the bend. Hmm.

It’s about 7.30 as we crawl into camp, the last group to arrive. And have to put the tents up again.  But at least it’s dry. The wind howls across this field too, but there is a hint of sun, and my colleague John is sporting a pair of shorts - unnecessary bravado, I feel. 

Another massive football game keeps people busy until food’s ready.  Pasta again, but the kids are too hungry to complain much.  A neat ploy for getting the washing up done: no one gets their chocolate miniroll (=pudding) until they've presented a clean pasta bowl, mug and fork.

Finally, and sadly, a real illness strikes.  One lad has been running a temperature, and is feeling very rough.  He’ll need to go back to the Centre, and a member of staff will have to go too.  I seem to get voted in. Actually, everyone’s got into the spirit of this, and none of my colleagues wants to miss out, so they stitch me up.  It's clear our patient is quite poorly, and won’t be up to joining his group rafting (!) tomorrow. Rather than both have a lonely night in the Centre, I decide to take him home: it’s only a 90-minute journey.  As we drive out of the field, another ominous cloud is racing in overhead...

So about 11.30pm I turn up at home to sleep.  My daughter lets me in, turns up her nose and observes, ‘Dad, you smell.’  Welcome home, wanderer.  Even a shower doesn’t warm the extremities and, as I slip into bed, my only greeting is a sleepy ‘Your feet are cold.’  I could tell my wife a lot about being cold, but she doesn’t appear ready for it.

Next morning I’m up early and on the road back to Derbyshire, rejoining my group for orienteering and low rope work.  But I’ve become disconnected, and the magic has gone.  I haven’t survived another freezing night with them, nor witnessed the leaders get their revenge by waking them all up at 7.30 (a bit more sleeping was done the second night): nor witnessed the renewed complaints about the lack of toasting facilities. The bond of fellow-suffering has been broken.

And that’s the point, I guess.  As I whisk two young colleagues back to school, ahead of the coaches, for an evening event, they are full of the experience - until they fall asleep. I drive on, listening to their snoring.

I’m reminded of what my friend Kevin Riley wrote about extra-curricular activities in a recent SHA book (Two sectors, one purpose), ‘I came to understand [that]...all of the most vital and meaningful moments of my teaching career had arisen from extra-curricular activities. My memories, and often those of former pupils when we meet, cohere around events that took place outside of the classroom rather than within it... If part of our mission as teachers is to help young people to become forces for good in the world (and I passionately believe it is), then extra-curricular activities have a vital role to play in that development.’

We planned our Year 7 trip to be more than an outdoor activities holiday. The expedition element was important. There were deliberate hurdles: arriving at the end of a long walk after a long day (made longer by not sleeping the first night!) and having to put tents up, rather than collapsing into a warm bunkhouse; coping with life under canvas, whatever the weather; working out what to do with wet clothes in a small tent when it’s raining outside.  All these are additional (and perhaps more telling) challenges than the obvious ones of climbing rocks, abseiling, rafting and the like.  To be sure, these youngsters weren’t carrying all their clothes and equipment, and they weren’t cooking for themselves: they’re still too young and too inexperienced. But they coped with cold, wet and extreme tiredness, kept smiling, cheered one another along, and learnt things about themselves.  Some of them will never do another such trip, but others will have caught the bug and end up as 17-18 year-olds climbing in the Andes, building schools in Nepal - whatever.

I have a nasty feeling that, if we’d had two balmy June nights under the stars instead of arctic conditions and horizontal rain, we wouldn’t all have come home with the same sense of achievement.  So I may convince myself that I’m far too busy to suffer again, but I know that I’ll send Year 7 off to do something similar next year. It’s too important not to.


What price integrity?

Bernard Trafford 

First the good news.  Who would have expected that letter from Ofsted saying that teachers would no longer be individually graded during inspection?  In many schools teachers didn’t believe it: they read it and re-read it, assuming there must be some mistake.  A big cheer for Mike Tomlinson for starting to move the inspectorate out of the Jurassic period into the 21st Century!

Then came the furore over the Audit Commission’s announcement in mid-December that senior managers in nine health trusts had manipulated figures (i.e. lied) about their waiting lists.  The tone of moral outrage on Radio 4’s Today programme was delicious.  Jowls quivered audibly in righteous indignation.

I loved it.  No, I’m not in favour of cheating.  Nor do I condone the deplorable fact that some patients had to wait even longer for their treatment as a result of that manipulation of the figures.  What cracks me up is the fact that anyone is surprised.  What do people expect?  We see the same in education, in those sad cases, for example, where primary schools lost their sense of proportion and fiddled children’s SAT results.  They did it because they wanted the children to do well, or the school to look good when it was in difficult circumstances, or for a host of reasons that got confused and jumbled in the minds of conscientious people under too much pressure.  Let’s face it: they may not cheat, but countless schools succumb to the pressure by practising SATs over and over again: there’s no educational benefit – quite the opposite – but it makes the results that bit more dependable.  And under the pressure faced by some schools, that matters.

That’s what it’s about – sheer unreasoning pressure.  A Radio 4 interviewee, describing the health trust scams, talked of ‘a culture from ministers downwards of fiddling figures to try to make them look better…’ Now, why haven’t we spotted that before?  Politicians, with their short and vulnerable political lives, demand instant change and improvement. Results have to be quick and measurable so that the minister can stand up in the Commons and take the credit for such an astonishing turnaround. They always resort to bullying.  Ofsted may have moved on under Mike Tomlinson, but his predecessor’s dictum - ‘fear is a great motivator’ - lives on.  No teacher will have been surprised to see David Blunkett, on arrival at the Home Office, immediately set up an inspectorate to check up on the police service.  It’s the only language they understand – politicians, I mean, not the police. 

The pressures exerted on public services by governments are enormous.  They are financial, professional, institutional – but they impact on individuals.  The pressure on hospital administrators or school leaders is communicated downwards, however hard they may try to avoid it, to the people working on the wards or at the chalkface, coping with the day-to-day situations - and all the time being required to keep records, to fill out forms, to be measured and monitored.  The trouble is that public services work with people.  People are awkward.  They don’t conform to the profiles of the perfect pupil or the ideal patient.  They do disruptive things like demanding our time; having a bad day; not wanting the particular service that’s on offer.  In real life they just don’t fit into neat boxes on a form – so the temptation becomes overwhelming just to tweak the figures a little.  Anything to relieve that pressure.

In education, as in medicine, those peccadilloes are sometimes discovered.  And heads roll, though I notice health service managers who are caught out seem to receive thumping pay-offs, while teachers and school leaders are lucky to get early retirement. 

For several years now, the chief weapon of governments has been targets.  Tell people what you want them to achieve, and then check that they do.  Simple. Logical. Fair.  Or is it?  For those at the point of delivery (schools and hospitals), targets are a treadmill.  Don’t do too well in your targets this year, or they will set you an unreasonably high one for next year.  So we learn to play a game of achieving targets only  ‘up to a point, Lord Copper’: get close, but don’t achieve too spectacularly.  So one of the effects of the infamous ‘five A*-C’ GCSE target is that many schools are obliged to focus their efforts on making sure that as many children as possible get that vital C grade.  Where the school’s efforts have to be rationed (and they generally do, because there is not enough money and not enough teachers to do all the things we need to do), the children who should be encouraged to be looking to A*, A or B are easily overlooked.  The school is forced to focus maximum effort on those children who can be turned from a D into a C so that the target will be met.

Of course, we have to feel sorry for the politicians, too.  Really?  Well, perhaps for a moment or two.  They too are under enormous pressure to deliver (that word again) improvement.  So in education there is never complete honesty about the teacher supply crisis or the shortage of doctors and nurses.  They cannot admit to failure.  It all has to be getting better all the time.  Was that Beatles song a hymn for our times?  Don’t you believe it!  OK, so lots of new money are going into public services, but it’s not enough, and we don’t seem to see it at the sharp end. Besides, we lost faith in this government’s boasts of additional funding when, in its first term, it kept announcing the same sum as if it were new money each time.  Now, that was cheating, if you like – a bit like those health trusts and their waiting lists.

In a sense, there will never be truly enough money in the system, so it has to be rationed.  The method of rationing developed over the last decade is the bidding culture: in education this means a host of new initiatives and a bewildering variety of little new pots of money - including specialist status.

I’ve met very few school leaders who have applied for specialist status out of the conviction that their school really should become a technology college, language college, arts college … you name it.  Almost everyone has gone for it because they can’t afford not to apply for the extra funding.  I don’t blame them, and I wouldn’t criticise them for a moment.  But I do question the system that makes people jump through these hoops not because they believe in them but in order to get extra money where it is inadequate.  It is usually a very tricky hoop for a very small reward.

But it’s the name of the game now. Pragmatism, not principle.  Survival, not service.  The line between what is right and wrong, what is fair and what is cheating, becomes blurred – or just unimportant.  People are fighting for their school or their hospital.  They are desperate to get the money or the staff which they need but which are in short supply.  At the very least, they act out of necessity, not out of conviction or principle. At worst they cut corners or bend the rules. 

The means have become the end, and indicators of progress towards goals have become confused with the goals themselves.   Mantra-like, ministers and officials reiterate the jargon of standards and inclusion, and instead of debate we hear only echoes of the Bush/Blair anti-terrorist rhetoric: either you are for the government’s standards agenda, or you are against education. The ‘just get on with it’ message is pervasive.  My pleasure at reading, in the report from the think tank of the National College of School Leadership, that ‘school leadership should be infused with a moral purpose’ turned to despair when even that group went on to declare that ‘the contemporary moral purpose of school leadership’ is raising standards of learning and achievement.  No, it isn’t.  The purposes of education are many, too complex to list here, and all truly moral: but raising standards is merely a function of school leadership, not its moral purpose.

When government becomes functional rather than principled, when Parliament denigrates and finally shafts its own Commissioner for Standards, it is no wonder that, lower down the ladder, integrity slips.  So health statistics will go on being fiddled by managers desperate to protect their hospital.  Schools will be tempted (or driven) further to manipulate exam entries or outcomes, or admissions, or exclusions, or special needs – or whatever will improve their figures.  They will follow new initiatives because they need the money so desperately, not out of any principled commitment to an educational benefit.

While government is less than honest about teacher supply; while it insists that Learning Support Professionals, video-conferencing or interactive whiteboards can replace teachers in the classroom; while it creates an upper pay spine without funding or a framework for implementation; while it blames excessive workload on school management rather than on its own obsessive requirements; while it continues to tackle problems piecemeal and provide patronising prescriptions for addressing under-achievement; in short, while it refuses to treat teachers as professionals and trust them to do the job,  we will continue to see demoralised staff more concerned with their own unhappiness than with the needs of the children they teach.  New entrants to the profession will judge their worth by their rarity as subject specialists rather than according to their quality as teachers.  Teachers will leave the profession in droves.  And the education system will remain more concerned with short-term measures for survival than with long-term vision.

It wouldn’t take much to change it.  If we started with honesty at the top we could make some progress.  If politicians would be frank about what they can’t do, instead of proclaiming everything a success.  If they were prepared to accept responsibility for some of the failures, instead of always blaming them on people further down the line.  If they trusted professionals, in health or education, to do the job in an efficient and principled way instead of applying pressures that push them in precisely the opposite direction.  If they would just begin with people and principles instead of mechanisms and measures. 

If we could make a start on any of those things, faith might be restored in the system that governs our public services.  We might see more decisions at all levels taken on the basis of what is right, rather than on expediency and what we can get away with.  And we might see public services concentrating on people - those who are served by them and those who work in them - rather than on statistics. 

If Ofsted can change, perhaps the whole system can.  Fingers crossed.




In a glass darkly

July 2001

Looking in the mirror

I was originally asked to write about a view from outside.  I work in an independent school and, to some people (depending perhaps on their own experience, setting and politics), that might appear to set me apart from the majority of SHA members. I couldn’t get on with this idea of being outside:  I just don’t feel that I am, especially when I’m working on SHA’s behalf.  Quite the opposite.   

When I compare the maintained and independent sectors – which I do a lot – it’s more like looking in a mirror. Sometimes it’s a distorting mirror such as one used to see at fairgrounds (inevitably colleagues in maintained schools will connect that distortion with funding: I wouldn’t disagree and will come back to that). More frequently the mirror is simply cloudy and muddled.  As that great letter-writer St Paul promises of his dark glass, though, the reflection has a way of becoming suddenly clear, and the two sectors can be seen to match one another very closely.

Commitment: doing the impossible

In recent months I’ve mixed with a lot of teachers and school leaders in a variety of meetings, conferences and seminars: it is as clear to me now as it has always been that we are all similarly involved in working for the education of children in the best way we can - individually, institutionally in our schools and collectively through working groups, professional associations and the like.  ‘Involved’ is too weak a word for it.  The colleagues I meet in and through SHA are totally committed to their work for and with children.  They are so completely bound up in it that the cost to their personal and family lives is huge, yet they pay the price, mostly without complaint, and their families are remarkably tolerant.

If only politicians and the media would see that. Sadly they only listen when we have to take a hard-nosed professional line and tell them where something has to stop.  And when the teaching profession – represented by any or all of the unions or associations - says that it can do no more, that too much is being demanded of it, the pronouncement is invariably represented by others as a selfish, ‘jobsworth’ attitude that appears to put children last. 

Of course, professions always make themselves unpopular when they deliver unwelcome messages. In April 2001 the Shadow Education Secretary accused the NAS/UWT of ‘representing the last bastion of unreconstructed trades unionism’, though her speech was so daft as to be more laughable (and laughed at) than offensive.  Even David Blunkett, making yet another of his valedictory speeches to a union he might have regarded as friendly, lost his cool.  And all sorts of commentators got hot under the collar when Northamptonshire LEA said it could not force three Wellingborough foundation schools to take in twenty additional pupils because they were full.  Outrageous!  Why couldn’t they just pack ’em in and pile ’em a bit higher?  Our politicians and newspapers don’t like it when we don’t simply roll over and work the miracle that they want. (In that case, of course, the schools did make room).

Wanted - miracles

Schools and teachers do work miracles all the time.  Teachers in both sectors share the capacity for doing the impossible – or at least for meeting unreasonable demands - with monotonous regularity. Consider how schools and colleges everywhere have made the AS/A2 reforms work in spite of late information – or none at all.  For the maintained school teacher the typical miracle is still (notwithstanding all those promises) one of routinely teaching huge classes in poor buildings with inadequate resources and lack of local or government support with regard to pupil behaviour, all the while coping with a welter of bureaucracy which is not diminishing, despite weasel words to the contrary: government does not send as many circulars as it did, but the facts, figures and targets are still demanded (and now we download and print all the guidance at our expense).

The independent sector has the freedom – of incalculable value - to set its own level of funding, within the very real constraints of market forces, so that the whole operation is properly resourced out of fee income and class sizes are manageable.  Parents expect nothing less of course: if they are making the very considerable sacrifices that many do (independent schools are not the preserve of the super-rich, despite the image often painted), they expect small classes, no sharing of books and gleaming facilities. On the whole, they get them. A single school may be hard pushed to match the government’s sudden, massive injection of computers and interactive whiteboards into some parts of the maintained sector, but steady upgrading over the years tends to make that comparison only temporarily disadvantageous to the independents.

There is a flip-side for independent school teachers, though.  Parents expect even more miracles than they do of state schools, precisely because they feel that is what they are paying for.  So those working conditions make the independent sector teacher a privileged being, but the expectation that all children will achieve highly (sometimes miraculously so and regardless of the child’s innate ability) puts pressure on the teacher that is often palpable.  Reporting and contact with parents is close, frequent and time-consuming.  After-school activities, not to mention meetings with parents, run far into the evenings and weekends (not just in boarding schools), and are simply ‘expected’.  Parents demand that a wide range of sports, drama and music are pursued in great breadth and at a high standard.  An independent head dare not appoint a teacher who will not sign up to a plethora of extra-curricular activities – and the marking still has to be done, swiftly and fully, and exam grades achieved.  If not, parents (or, in some parts nowadays, their lawyers) are on the phone.  The expectations are very high, and accountability sharp and direct.

I’m not sure that one sector works harder than the other.  I am sure that miracles are expected of both and that, the higher the level of resourcing, the greater are the miracles expected.

Independence and freedom

Although the independent sector enjoys freedom from central and LEA control, the additional curricular scope that this allows is probably less than many observers think.  Newspapers like to print shock-horror headlines about Private Schools Shunning New Exams, but the truth is that the majority of us have to keep closely in line with national trends.  A few very prestigious institutions may stand alone – and perhaps they should, if we are to avoid total grey uniformity – but most parents, whatever their manifold reasons for choosing the private sector, want to be sure that their children will be in (and preferably winning) the same race as everyone else, not on a completely different track.  So for most independent schools, the trick is to be different… but not too different.

Nonetheless, I feel strongly that the independent sector is privileged and should use its independence for the good of all.  That measure of freedom brings with it a duty.  For example, if the very real fears are proved right (they are completely discounted by the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, but what’s new there?) that extending the literacy and numeracy strategy into the secondary phase will make it harder than ever to keep alive creativity and inspiration, the independents will have a duty to ensure that good examples of innovation and excitement are shared and spread, if only to demonstrate on behalf of the profession that prescription is not the right medicine for professionals, that treating teachers as curricular technicians delivering (aaargh! who invented that use of the verb?) a pre-fabricated subject course will be disastrous for education in the long term – that is, disastrous for future generations of schoolchildren. 

The race for places

As we approach a General Election, there are two areas which are of crucial significance to the maintained sector and which will impact on the independent, but not till later.  The first is admissions; the second, teachers’ intolerable workload.  A good friend who is a comprehensive head, when talking honestly of his reservations about independent schools, said to me recently, ‘I don’t have a problem any longer with the idea of people paying for education.  After all, it’s now routine that parents who can afford to simply buy a house in the catchment area of the school they want for their kids.’  A recent survey suggested that in many parts of the country parents are likely to pay a premium of £20,000 for a house in the neighbourhood of a favoured school. 

But proximity may not nowadays guarantee a child that place.  Look at Wellingborough last April.  The schools in question would normally be praised for being popular and full: but there’s a censorious tone in the media reporting.  Are those hard-working schools to be damned either way?  Whose problem is it, anyway?  The school’s?  The LEA’s?  The Government’s?  Radio 4’s Today programme had difficulty with that question.

In my area children are vying for places at state grammar schools and a City Technology College (I guess around 10 applicants per place at these).  There are highly regarded church schools, which probably turn away more applicants than the two-for-one at my modestly selective ex-grammar school:  and ten miles away a popular boys’ comprehensive offers boarding education at a bargain £3K-or-so a year.   I feel bad about those children I reject, and worry still more about those who did not even apply because of the price tag: then my governors and I set to and work harder than ever to ensure that we can fund still more scholarships for children in some of the tough areas on our doorstep. 

At least, I console myself, my school’s method of selection is based on clear academic criteria measured by an exam, with an interview if we think we need more information, and the whole process is over in three weeks dead: we don’t prolong the pain.  Then I wonder how the government’s promised extension of specialist and church schools will help those children who are already failing in sizeable numbers to get into the school of their choice.  If I am a parent looking for a secondary school, what will happen if my local (rural?) school is an Arts College and my daughter is a sports whizz?  Or if the best school in my part of town is Church of England and we are a Hindu family?   Come back, Sir Ron Dearing, on your white charger!  The job isn’t finished.

35 hours – Nirvana or nervous breakdown?

Finally, we return to the miracles teachers are asked to achieve by accepting a crazy workload.  Teachers’ unions are saying they’ve had enough, and we can’t blame them.  Heads think about the implications of a 35-hour week and wring their hands in despair.  This could be worse than Kenneth Baker’s 1265 hours.  For an alienated workforce a notional minimum can too easily become a maximum:  many aspects of school life, not least sport, became casualties of 1265, and it is hard to see how Football Academies and the current administration’s first faltering steps towards paying teachers an hourly rate for some out-of-school work can ever replace the goodwill and sheer dedication to breadth of education that were torn apart by that sour, mean-spirited move from that sour, mean-spirited Tory government. 

The same danger of accommodation and grudging acquiescence instead of goodwill properly rewarded lies in the 35-hour week.  Of course we shouldn’t be exploiting teachers: they must be given decent working conditions. But the unions are angry enough and politicians and civil servants (an unholy alliance when they actually work together) sufficiently stroppy for a real mess to come out of this.  There is still an entrenched view in government - it surfaces from time to time – that neither children nor teachers work hard enough; that if schools did a proper working week and year they could raise basic standards and do all the subjects they want.  Can we redesign education into a properly ordered nine-to-five day, five-day week, 47-week year, with teachers and pupils doing a precisely prescribed number of hours’ work so we all know what’s what?  It would mean abolishing both childhood and inspiration, I guess, but hey! that’s okay if it raises standards!  And nails down those blooming teachers once and for all: no overtime, but no undertime either! 

My big fear is that some kind of deal will be struck, in the lowest-denominator manner of 1265, that will further de-professionalise teaching.  Maybe the independents do have a lesson to teach here.  They have long accepted that both formal extra-curricular activity and the sheer concept of going the extra mile for children is essential to their ethos and, indeed, to their economic survival.  Teachers move into the sector knowing the score, but they tend to be rewarded for that level of commitment, either because the school has a more generous pay scale or because it uses its independence (and relative affluence) to find extra responsibility or retention payments.  And teachers are given, in general, freedom as to teaching styles, less bureaucracy, smaller classes and probably greater respect by parents. 

I’m not saying that independent school teachers are harder-working than their state sector colleagues: to suggest any such thing would be crass, insensitive – and untrue.  But they are currently treated more as professionals, trusted and rewarded as such, and they give great benefit in return.  All is not perfect for teachers in the sector.  They feel part of one profession with their colleagues in the maintained sector and they too are cruelly hurt by the constant sniping at the profession and the implication that all is wrong in education.  But morale is higher.  The crisis of teacher supply has not yet hit the independent sector.  Could these facts be related?  Are policy-makers looking at this?

Rather than coming to a damaging and grudging accommodation with the teacher unions, will the next government find real, significant money?  Back in April Tony Blair told the ATL that he would like (‘in time’) all schools to be as well funded as the independents.  Amen to that, for the sake of everybody.  Money is not the answer to all problems – but it would tackle most of them!  Frankly, I don’t believe the PM will get there.  Only the Lib Dems are prepared to stand up and promise more tax for better services, and their share of the vote is not growing.  It seems we Brits are still willing to sell our votes to promises of low tax, and then complain about declining services.

Without a total change in mindset, it is hard to see how the government can hope significantly to improve both working conditions and pay for teachers, so as to make a real difference, because both will cost a fortune.  Currently maintained schools are still chronically under-funded and teacher recruitment is still desperate.  The glass is indeed dark.  Will any party or politician find the courage to get out the Windowlene and shed some real light?  Till then, I’ll keep staring into the bottom of my glass.  And maybe refill it.


Much more than soggy chips

November 2000

‘Why do you bother to ask us what we think if you don’t listen to what we have to say?’  It’s Friday morning, and I’m shown this blunt message by Trisha, the Chair of the Student Council.  It is scrawled angrily on the Observers’ Questionnaire by a Year 9 student (I recognise his distinctive writing), clearly frustrated by my feeble response to complaints about coursework deadlines and exam revision tripping over one another, and stimulated by the question on the form, ‘How could the meeting have been improved?’

My automatic first reaction to stinging criticism (loud and voluble attempts at self-justification) gives way to serious discussion with Trisha about the way the meeting has just gone.  She’s kind to me and says I didn’t do a bad job of that there is not a great deal I can do and that we genuinely have staff working on the problem.  So is our critic wrong?  No.  We may be doing our best, but we are not convincing the students.

It’s not a major difficulty, and I could make my life easier first thing on a Friday by not inviting questions that lead me into challenging debate. In one of last year’s toughest sessions I was called to justify a mild disciplinary response to a drugs incident which the student reps thought was inconsistent with previous actions. It was hard to explain my action while respecting confidentiality, and it was curious in hindsight for a head to be on the back foot defending a liberal position to his students:  but that exchange led to some valuable insights into student opinion of the quality and structure of our drug education programme, even if (not for the first time) it did not fully satisfy them on the main question.

To tell the truth, these Friday meetings of the Student Council are about the most stimulating of the week, really one of the best bits of the job. I am asked to explain why something is done - or why I can’t change it. Frequently we plan together a significant improvement that will benefit everyone.  I think it important that the head is only accessible but also accountable: at these meetings, I am both.  It is also important that I hear what students really think – and they are very frank – about the facilities, the support, the opportunities, the whole education that school provides for them. We busy school managers can easily lose touch with our students: a weekly session with the Student Council certainly reminds me of the reality, of why we are all in the school every day. It is a very direct, ‘in-yer-face’ experience!

Please don’t think these sessions are just therapy for the head!  They really do serve to empower the students.  The democracy doesn’t work perfectly, of course. Two representatives are elected from each class, with a different electoral system in the sixth form, and some are better than others at doing the job. Some are more interested than others. Not all class tutors are eager to give due time to discussing the minutes (which are posted in every classroom) and raising issues for the reps to take to the next meeting.  But the students have a voice in their education.  They know it, and for the most part they relish it.

The least rewarding sessions are, of course, those when questions fail to rise above the smell in the toilets or the sogginess of the chips at lunch. Teachers who may be cynical about this ‘empowerment’ are often amused to see those same old chestnuts come round again in the minutes:  ‘They haven’t got much to complain about if it’s only food, lockers and lavatories.’  Perhaps they haven’t, and I hope they’ve got less to complain about than they used to.  But these issues are as important to this generation of students as they were to the last – pretty fundamental, indeed.  Besides, since we have had an effective student council the food has been better and the loo doors actually lock.  Even the drains have been improved so there isn’t a bog alley smell anymore.  Every student has a good sized, locking locker, even if we still have discussions about over-cramped locker rooms.  The issues may be cyclical, but they still matter, and the Council sees to it that they are addressed. Besides, dull meetings are rare.  Most Fridays there is at least one topic which sparks lively and useful debate.

(By the way, I find that my Biology department nowadays sets a piece of investigative GCSE coursework on soggy chips.  If that isn’t relevant to pupils’ experience, as we know education should be nowadays, I don’t know what is.  Personally I’d prefer to see a practical project on yeast and brewing beer: I’d be willing to test the results, but with yeast the department stops at baking bread – which Health and Safety regulations forbid the students to eat).

Every two or three years our Student Council (they chose to call it that rather than School Council, arguably a significant decision with regard to ownership) tends to become anxious about its own operation.  This usually happens when few big issues seem to be coming up and discussion becomes desultory: these periods come, in turn, after spells of hectic activity and significant change.  Again, after ten years of headship and nine of attending Council meetings, I can see a cycle repeating itself.  But each review has led to real improvements: the latest soul-searching gave rise to the Observers’ Questionnaire mentioned at the start.

There have been times when we have had to debate at length how some types of issue should be addressed.  How should we handle complaints about an individual teacher, for example?  This stirs natural and real teacher fears.  In the event, a rule was easily agreed that no individual, student, teacher or other, may be named in Council: but students are made aware of proper and accessible channels to use in such cases. Indeed, the Council was central in deciding the form of counselling that the school nowadays provides.  There are also nominated reps who take charge of queries about, for example, food, sport or general teaching matters: they go direct to the staff who can actually solve the problem, saving time in full Council.

The Council is pretty effective, then, in identifying problems and exploring solutions - or explaining where none can be found. But the benefits are much greater than this.  The mere existence of an effective Council makes a statement about the school and its attitude to its students.  The principle of open management and the right of children to express their views and concerns, while respecting the rights of others not to be damaged by such expression, are both enshrined and made real by the presence of an active Council.  The right to a voice in the way the school operates is real for staff and students, and permeates the fabric of school life. The school stresses the right of anyone, staff or student, to talk to anyone about what is worrying them, rather than being sent through ‘proper channels’ - which, though they do exist, can too easily seem to a worried individual like being fobbed off.  We have consciously worked for a decade to make the school essentially student-centred and the development of the Student Council has been an important symbol of this. There is no doubt that alienation and disaffection have been reduced and that there is an enormously increased sense of ownership and shared endeavour among students.

Some years ago, with every other school, we were developing a child protection policy.  One of the key pieces of advice we received was to analyse the school ethos and ask a series of questions:

Do children feel safe and valued?

Are they encouraged to talk and be listened to?

Is there a range of appropriate adults whom they should feel confident to approach if in difficulties?

The presence of a Student Council contributed much to the positive answers we were able to give.

I am usually reluctant to generalise much about what should exist and work in every school, because generalisation is dangerous.  I can’t resist the temptation here.  There are many different models and patterns for School Councils, and ours is just one that works in this school – not perfectly, but well.  I have listed only a few of the benefits here.  The great thing is that a School Council can work and bring about positive change in any school.  There are only gains, and no drawbacks: it really is a risk-free development.

When I meet the Council every Friday, we invariably end the meeting with an increased sense of shared purpose, of why we are all together in this place called school.  It certainly reminds me that, like the school and staff as a whole, I am here for the students.  I am convinced that, after vigorous debate and agreement on some improvement, the students feel the same. If they really do, that’s an excellent use of half an hour of our time every week!


Never glad, confident morning again

October 1999

So Summerhill seems finally set to close.  72 years after its visionary founder A S Neill set it up in Leiston, Suffolk, and after many a battle with the Establishment in the intervening years, it seems that OFSTED will not wear it any more.  The sticking point appears to be the central principle of the school, the fact that pupils are allowed to choose whether or not to go to lessons:  well, it would be.

Summerhill has always been the school we love to hate.  The (probably apocryphal) story of the vicar who, on ringing the door-bell, was met by a small child, stark naked, asking, ‘What the **** do you want?’ has delighted critics and assuredly grown in the telling.  The school has scandalised, caused furious argument, yet always survived till now.  Even the last administration, which set up the whole OFSTED process, backed off from closing Summerhill, despite a dreadful report:  a ministerial pronouncement recognised its uniqueness and saved it.  Perhaps they felt it was not doing much harm, that little school of a few dozen children, many from overseas, a private boarding school to which no one is forced to go and which is so far out of the way – three miles further east, out past Sizewell B, and you are in the North Sea.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that anyone has deliberately set out to nail Summerhill, as if to rid the educational scene of a turbulent and dangerous challenge to orthodoxy.  The inspectors have applied the same standards to Summerhill as they do to every other school. Fair play. Level playing field.  Summerhill has been found wanting according to the standards by which we are all measured. 

So why am I left feeling uneasy?  Not because I owe any personal allegiance to Summerhill.  I like Suffolk;   I’ve wandered around Leiston Abbey, a spectacular brick and flint ruin, and watched marsh harriers hunt along the hedgerows; I’ve drunk Adnam’s superb Southwold-brewed beer and eaten delicious lobsters (do shellfish grow especially large and tasty around Sizewell?). But I’ve never been to Summerhill and what I have read about it makes me as uneasy as the next boring, conformist educator. I count myself a passionate supporter of giving children a say in their education, but what Summerhill calls choice and pupil power sound to me more like mob rule or anarchy: or do I just like my school democracy too tidy and safe?

There’s my difficulty.  I am uncomfortable with much that I have learnt about Summerhill.  But I am profoundly disturbed to think that, because a small, wayward institution that deliberately sets out to be different does not measure up to the mass of schools that are the mainstream, it must close.  To me this starts to sound like the medieval approach to heretics:  burn them.  Better to silence the dissenting voice than to debate with it.

A S Neill was an educational heretic par excellence.  He challenged every educational  assumption and was infuriatingly successful in defending his views and discomfiting his critics.  His books are very persuasive.  One can watch television programmes about Summerhill and hear the children effing and blinding (yes, of course it happens in our schools, more than we’d care to admit, but at least it’s against the rules!).  We can be rightly and righteously scandalised: but Neill’s writing puts it all in a reasonable – a frustratingly  reasonable - perspective.  And at the root of it – here’s the difficult bit to swallow – many of us, perhaps most of us, agree with Neill’s first premise:  that adults have no right to tyrannise children, to decide what is best for them and to deny them a voice or the ability to make decisions about their education and their lives.  We may differ from Neill in degree, but not in principle.  We may even be forced to ponder whether his thinking has influenced the way we run all our schools and children’s institutions nowadays.  It has.

It was Neill who coined the expression, ‘There is never a problem child:  there is only a problem parent.’  Nowadays in schools we don’t blame everything on the difficult pupil, but try to work in partnership and dialogue with home:  recent government initiatives urge us to understand the whole context and to find ways of reducing children’s feelings of alienation, not to force them into a mould that they will never fit.  At the back of this ‘modern’ thinking lurks… Neill, insisting that we regard children as individuals, not as ingredients in an educational sausage factory.

Neill and Summerhill are often accused of confusing freedom with licence.  In his writing, though, he is clear about the distinction:  ‘In the disciplined home, the children have no rights.  In the spoiled home, they have all the rights.  The proper home is one in which children and adults have equal rights.’  At the opera one night a friend, irritated by a chattering child in the row in front, challenged Neill:  ‘What would you do if one of your kids from Summerhill did that?’  Neill’s answer was simple: ‘Tell him to shut up.’ He was clear about the balance between rights and obligations, even if the practice was seen (or presumed?) not to live up to the ideal.

‘Children should be heard’;  the slogan from the NSPCC’s recent One Minute’s Noise campaign.  Children who have no voice, who are denied the opportunity to speak up for themselves and to be heard, are those most at risk of ill-treatment.  NSPCC’s strong message echoes the findings of the Utting report (1997) into abuse in children’s homes.

Neill was advocating giving children responsibility for their school lives back in the Twenties but, although in schools we often pay lip-service to the principle, professional resistance to empowering children is deep-seated. (Indeed, Utting found that some staff in homes resented the protection given to children by the Children Act which ‘prevented them from doing their job properly).  Nonetheless we have been hearing the message for at least 20 years: rules which are negotiated, in which students have a say, are the best kept, and children who are given responsibility are better motivated and, as a consequence, work and behave better.  It started with Rutter and his team researching Fifteen thousand hours (1979) and was echoed by the Elton report Discipline in schools (1989).  The DfEE’s recent guidance on Pupil inclusion (1999) says much the same, and the school effectiveness literature is littered with references to it. 

Yet teachers, heads and policy makers alike remain reluctant to loosen their grip on the school reins except in peripheral areas - not least, perhaps, because there is an element of risk in doing so.  We all feel the pressure to ensure the smooth and dependable delivery of curriculum content and standards.  So government continues to issue edicts with regard to subjects, skills and their assessment, and schools follow them, but how children are treated in school and what their rights should be are issues left merely to the most general of advice. The proposed framework for Citizenship in the revised national curriculum simply suggests that pupils be given ‘opportunities to participate -  for example, in the decision-making process of the school’ and ‘to make real choices -  for example, on those which affect their health and well-being…’  After all these years there is still no requirement that children be given any real power over their education, nor that they learn participatory democracy by practising it in school.

And that’s why I worry about the fate of Summerhill.  We are currently seeing more, not less, prescription about what happens in schools.  Regulation tends to deal with content and with what is measurable:  to be fair, how else can government monitor it all?  What worries me is that the continuing flood of well-intentioned initiatives focuses mainly on the utilitarian and the mechanistic, and little on the (less easily assessed) inter-personal or spiritual. I hope the new National College for School Leadership will give a lead in keeping vision and inventiveness - indeed, sheer personality and humanity - at the heart of school management.  But national regulation, bench-marked assessment, standardised inspection, even teacher appraisal and salary threshold criteria - all devised to ensure consistency - inevitably risk imposing a grey uniformity on our education system and squeezing out experiment. If we lose the space and freedom (and courage) to be different, to try things that might at first seem off-the-wall, we will stifle creative innovation, despite government’s stated desire to do the opposite.  That is why we need the outsiders with the wacky ideas.  Love Neill or loathe him, years after his death we still cannot ignore him. If we cannot tolerate the Summerhills of this world, I fear we may come to despise all truly original thinkers for their lack of orthodoxy.  And then we shall be very much the poorer.