Bernard's pieces for the National Education Trust

Vacuum at the top?

23 September 2016

I fear that, whenever anyone sees my name at the top of a blog nowadays, they’ll assume I’m about to embark on a rant about the latest government initiative or policy. To be fair, I do it a lot.

But here I want to raise a slightly philosophical question about school leadership and, more specifically, headship: not about its nature, but about what happens when it becomes remote. The question concerns me, because we all too easily become so entangled in discussing structures and rationalisations that we risk overlooking an intensely human aspect of leadership.

The current government thrust is towards creating Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). A powerful driver behind the Academies programme was successive governments’ suspicion of Local Authorities: many ministers found them unresponsive to Westminster’s agenda for school improvement:  hence the move to so-called independent academies (not a description I like, since I run a private – genuinely independent – school).

Successive governments have quickly realised that single stand-alone academies can find themselves isolated and that schools tend to fare better when collaborating. Moreover, they were also swift to appreciate that academy chains - in effect, MATs - bring with them not only mutual support but economies of scale: administrative functions can be centralised, both streamlining the staffing and arguably giving them more muscle in keenly-priced procurement.

Critics of the growth of MATs might suggest wryly that they now resemble Local Authorities, but without the democratic accountability. Simultaneously the enormous salaries commanded by top executives in some large academy chains, whether they are called chief executives or executive principals, have attracted media opprobrium.

The economies of scale are undeniable. With an executive principal at the top (however highly paid), there’s no obvious need to pay heads’ salaries to those running the individual institutions: they receive support from the centre, and don’t carry the ultimate burden.

Many functions related to improvement, quality assurance, even recruitment and marketing that might have been taken by deputy heads are now handled at the centre, so Senior Leadership Teams in each academy can be slimmer – and thus cheaper.

I’m not questioning the logic of all this. But, as I said at the start, it leaves me with a philosophical dilemma about the nature of headship.

It’s always seemed to me that parents must have access to the head, the final arbiter, the person who has the last say (pace the Governing Body) and sets the tone in the school. In practice, I can’t claim that, in my fairly large independent school (1300 pupils), parents beat a path to my door. If they did, I couldn’t cope: but they can (and do) get to me almost immediately if they need to.

Moreover, in (you might say) the traditional style of education’s private sector, they know the head’s there, not out running a couple more schools. They like to see the head in the old-fashioned way - at the school gate, taking assembly, just being around. The head is supposed to articulate the vision of the school, to walk the talk: it’s a rare independent head who runs more than a single institution or site.

Parents relish that visible leader-figure. They know the head cannot possibly know the name of every child, nor personally guide his or her development, protecting each individual from whatever storms that may come. Nonetheless they enjoy a sense of reassurance: not promised by the school, certainly - but, well, assumed.

I’m not seeking to denigrate the excellent work done by heads in MATs where there is an executive principal above them. But in my traditional world, parents and students like to know where the buck stops: I wonder how the lack of clarity in multi-institution structures really sits with those vital constituencies.

Accountants won’t justify the expense of a highly-paid head in each constituent unit of a MAT. Yet as a model it has worked for a long time: Tony Blair insisted he could judge how good a school was just from meeting the head.

I’m not having a go at MATs: nor at those highly effective professionals running individual academies; nor at their bosses, the executive principals. But if my kids were starting school again, I suspect I’d want to know that the head really ran the school, and to be able to see him/her in their office if I needed to.

Education ministers in the Blair government used to talk about sectors of society that were “hard to reach”. Though we might easily picture who they had in mind, I loved the riposte from someone speaking for the dispossessed: “It’s not us who are hard to reach: it’s the b*ggers at the top!”

Whatever the prevailing structures and systems, schools are essentially neighbourhood institutions, located within and serving a community. They are all about people, reaching out to, and working with them.

If the real power in the school/academy is elsewhere - at the MAT’s offices, with the executive principal directing at arm’s-length and making periodic, if regular, visits - I wonder how the institution can claim really to operate on a human scale, to be immediately approachable, truly at the service of parents and children.

I’m sure some MATs manage it. I doubt whether all do. I fear that the question is rarely, if ever, asked.

Yet humanity must, surely, always come before efficiency. Or it should do.


Read the question!

Posted online 11 May 2014

Okay, I admit it. When I first read on Twitter that a new English A level was to study the work of Russell Brand, my heart sank. He's not my type of celebrity: I think his "noise-to-signal ratio" is high (ie loads of noise, but very little substance); and, when he tries to become serious and political, I find him specious and trite.

He hasn't done anything to me, to be fair. I just don't like that kind of "I'm a celeb so I'm a guru" style. So should I be outraged by his inclusion in an English A level syllabus?

I might be, if he were part of an English literature syllabus (sorry, in the reinvention of language that is exam-speak these days, I should call it a specification). I should be worried if he were being put alongside the works of Charlotte Bronte, George Orwell and William Shakespeare (who will also, I am assured, be included in this particular new A level).

Before jumping to conclusions, however, we should call to mind that age-old advice about sitting exams: read the question carefully.

Perhaps the DFE source who was so quick to brand the proposed new exams "rubbish", adding that it was "patronising to young people [to suggest] that they will only engage with English Language and Literature through celebrities such as Russell Brand", should have worked out the context first. Isn't that something expected in English exams?

I suspect (and I haven't checked the small print yet) that context is all here. This planned syllabus is for the OCR's new English Language and Literature A level. This increasingly popular qualification does what it says on the tin: the course studies Language as well as Literature. So powerful is the hold on the national psyche of literature as the medium through which we should study our own language that many schools (including mine) are for good reasons nervous of offering an A level course in Language alone (though they exist). Accordingly the hybrid exam has gained in popularity.

 And it is a good hybrid.

Now, I'd like to think education officials at the Department for Education would have more sense than to jump in with that kind of scathing comment before they've even found out the detail. In fact, that quote from the "source", whoever it might be, tells us quite a lot about the kind of bias and narrow-mindedness in the DFE nowadays. Perhaps a student of language could spot from its somewhat arch tones the attitude and personal bias of the commentator.

Because that's one of the things that the study of English Language does. Context is all. Is Russell Brand a deep thinker full of original and challenging ideas, as he presents himself? Or is he (as I suggested earlier on) merely fond of the sound of his own voice, all noise and no substance - an empty vessel, indeed?

My point is that I'm in as much danger of sounding off and making judgements on limited information as the DFE source was (and did). A well trained student of English Language should see beyond that. They might deduce from my tone that I'm a middle-aged head teacher of rather traditional views who dislikes the present-day celebrity culture.

I hope they'd also be able to analyse the utterances of someone like Russell Brand and make a much more reasoned and valid judgement of their worth and substance than I have. The advanced study of English as a language opens up realms of understanding that weren't tackled at all when English was regarded only as being worthy of study when written down.

So let's go for context. Let's look at and listen to language in a whole range of contexts - and, since it's a global tongue nowadays, that should include settings all over the world.

Perhaps then students of OCR's A level English Language and Literature course will be equipped - better equipped than many of us - to spot when they are being patronised: identify the verbiage and flannel; see through the bias and nail the lies; and be very much wiser than so many of us who are too quick to criticise.

Come on, let's give it a go.


Pride in the profession

Posted online 17 January 2014

On Friday 17th January I won’t be in school. My younger daughter – nowadays a geography teacher – is receiving her Master’s degree from Durham University. Just as I hope most parents do (or should do) when their children reach such milestones, I’m taking the day off to go and be a proud dad.

This isn’t about the Trafford family bragging: but it is about being proud. Proud of my daughter and her achievement, of course: but also proud that the profession takes so seriously the linked functions of teaching and learning (the heart of what teachers do, of course) that this relatively recently-conceived degree has come into being.

My daughter’s not unique. A lot of recently qualified teachers (including some of the younger colleagues in my own school) are now doing it. The PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) in which they learn the craft of teaching after their specialist subject degree gives them some credits towards this Master’s (Qualified Teacher Status) in Educational Research: over their first two years as teachers they continue to research and analyse both their own practice and that of others, finishing off with a dissertation.

What a brilliant idea! Nowadays we really do have a profession that, from the moment its training starts, encourages its members to reflect on their role, to think deeply, to compare, research and share good practice, and (if they want to get the Master’s qualification) write it all up.

How uncomfortably that great example of professional self-development jars with this week’s announcement that Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt wants to licence all teachers.

Once my blood pressure had settled after reading the headline, I was struck by how skilfully a senior opposition MP had succeeded in alienating a chunk of its potential electorate (probably more teachers vote Labour than Conservative). But maybe I was wrong: the odd commentator I’ve read since suggests cynically that there are more parent votes from bashing teachers than teacher votes from being nice to them. There’s a thought.

I’ve been surprised by the reaction of the teacher unions. I thought they’d be up in arms, but maybe they’re too canny for that. Instead they’re busy “welcoming the fact that Tristram Hunt is putting the development of teachers at the heart of his policy”, and then quietly (rather too quietly, in my view) expressing the hope that the licensing won’t be used as some kind of stick with which to beat teachers.

Of course it will, though. And it will also create a further monumental paper-chase, yet another tsunami of bureaucracy to swamp the desks of school leaders.

Hunt’s comment to the BBC started well: “If you are not a motivated teacher, passionate about your subject, passionate about being in the classroom, then you shouldn’t really be in this profession.” Amen to that.

Then he spoilt it. So if you’re not willing to engage in re-licensing, to update your skills, then you really shouldn’t be in the classroom”.

No, no, no, no, no, Mr Hunt. We all want a profession that shares best practice, constantly analyses itself and seeks to do better, and never forgets that it’s there for the children in its charge. But you don’t make a workforce better by making it jump through hoops. Teachers don’t need to fill in another form to prove to some faceless bureaucrat (even if that bureaucrat’s the Head!) that they have carried out a prescribed number of development activities and been on a certain number of courses. Actually, that’s been tried in other areas of teaching (for example, in Further Education) and later abandoned.

Nor do you improve the profession by imposing a hostile form of performance management linked to pay, as Michael Gove has done. And you certainly don’t get the best out of your teachers by scaring them rigid with a Rottweiler-like inspection system. So many schools which find themselves under pressure of one sort or another simply live in terror of the next OFSTED inspection: under those circumstances, you’re not going to see any innovation, experiment, excitement or risk. On the contrary, you’ll get the steady decline of playing safe, taking no chances, ticking the boxes. And all those three elements short-change children.

It isn’t as if licensing professions has been proved to work. I’ve yet to meet a doctor who thinks that their regular licensing adds anything at all: they tend to be dismissive of it. But there has been one unintended consequence: because of the burdensome nature of keeping themselves licenced, doctors who retire, instead of doing some part-time work (and easing the pressure in so many parts of the NHS), simply pack their bags and go. And that has hurt the health service.

It sounds so good. It makes politicians feel so powerful. And it’s tosh. It’s the worst of macho posturing: look at me, says Tristram Hunt. I can be even tougher than Gove.

And then OFSTED boss Sir Michael Wilshaw had the cheek on Wednesday, at the North of England Education Conference, to complain about teachers moaning! Well, teachers do moan at times: so do most workers. As a Head, yes, I confess I don’t like griping when it comes to my ears. But of all the people to have a go about teachers moaning, the head of this incredibly antagonistic inspectorate should be the last: whose work and pronouncements are the focus of most of that moaning?

It’s basic human psychology. As I’ve said above, you don’t get the best out of people by scaring them rigid or by making them prove by ticking boxes that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. You get the best by trusting, by encouraging, by rewarding.

Yes, there must be oversight: but real, appropriate (rather than obsessive) accountability to and from school leaders is ensured by people managing and supporting at the same time, and closely rather than remotely. What we don’t need is the madcap paper chase we live with nowadays where nothing is deemed to happen or to be achieved unless it’s written down: in that Looking-Glass world, as in our creaking qualifications system, nothing is valued unless it can be measured –and nothing is valued that can’t be simplistically measured.

I’m not taking about financial rewards, either. Teachers go into the profession out of a sense of vocation, because they want to make a difference, not because they expect to get rich. They want job satisfaction: they want to get the buzz from changing children’s lives.

There is immense joy in teaching, and satisfaction too: but those emotions are fragile, and all the pleasure in the world is easily demolished by the sort of treatment teachers get from government and its agencies. So I’m sorry the unions were so cautious in their response. They’ve learnt to be: politicians and governments are petulant, and slam the door on you if you disagree with them. The unions have to play a careful game: but they shouldn’t have given Hunt’s absurd idea the courtesy that they did. It didn’t deserve it.

Wow! I really am angry about this. And I think it’s because, on Friday, I shall be enjoying that pride, not only in my child but also in the profession I love. I admire teachers and the work they do: that’s why I so often say it’s a privilege to lead a great team of them. It’s why I write so much of this stuff, and try to spread my view of good sense beyond the confines of my own school.

The whole point is that this Master’s degree where young teachers continue to develop their own skills, taking responsibility for that and improving as teachers, is a model for a profession that is really putting its house in order.

Sadly, all Sir Michael Wilshaw can manage to say is that he’s sorry he hasn’t been tougher on teacher training establishments. He complained on Wednesday that 40% of teachers leave the profession in their first five years. He blames the teacher training institutions.

Clearly he hasn’t got a mirror to hand. But then, it never was part of policy-making to reflect professionally on what government or the inspectorate might be doing wrong, on what unintended consequences or perverse incentives their latest wheezes may give rise to.

They prefer to blame the poor bloody infantry, as the saying is. I’ve said it before: I’ll say it again. Teachers deserve better. They do better: they do better all the time, driven by a real thirst for self-improvement. That’s true professionalism. We don’t need a daft regularly renewed licence, yet another layer of burdensome yet essentially spurious accountability, to prove that.

So hang on, teachers! Believe in yourselves and the proud profession to which you belong. We’ve weathered storms before, and many more will come. Our education system isn’t good enough: we all know that. It never will be, but we are making great strides. We mustn’t allow idiotic pronouncements by politicians desperate for votes to knock us off course.


Exams, league tables and the arts under pressure

Posted online 20th September 2013

It was good to be at NET’s Annual Gathering 2013, this year at the National Gallery to talk about the arts. They are undoubtedly being squeezed in schools, but we heard some fantastic case studies of successes: Sir David Winkley drawing on his time as primary head at The Grove School, Handsworth and working with Sir Tim Brighouse on the Birmingham Entitlement Curriculum; Ali Mawle on the National Gallery’s excellent Take One Picture programme working – mostly – with junior schools; Kevin Jones describing astonishing cross-curricular creativity at St John’s College School, Cambridge.

These presentations might have hoped to convince the audience that, where there’s a will, there’s a way: there is some great practice still being achieved. But opinions around the room were fairly unanimous: Government bench-marks and league tables don’t rate the arts; the new National Curriculum barely mentions them; and schools and teachers generally are under too much pressure doing the subjects and hitting the targets that Government and Ofsted do value to devote much time or energy to anything that has become as peripheral as the arts have.

But those examples given by the speakers were encouraging, surely? At least at primary level? Well, yes, but that’s the point. In secondary schools things are even worse for the creative subjects.

I perceive that same pressure and decline even in the privileged setting of the large, highly academic independent school I run. Art has traditionally been a very powerful subject. It’s still strong, but numbers opting for A level have fallen. We do great extra-curricular drama and music: but only one student in the whole sixth form is doing A level theatre studies, collaborating with a neighbouring school to make  it possible (they have to work in groups!).  Music has an A level set in each sixth-form year, but both are small.

So, while the creative arts are in no danger of losing their place in the overall curriculum, and are popular in the years where they are part of the core, when there are choices to be made they are losing out.

In my school, where aspirations are high and students routinely aim for top courses at leading universities, there is an unspoken pressure that hurts the creative subjects. It really is unspoken! Teachers of the so-called “hard” subjects aren’t whispering that their charges should stay away from the arts: but the word is “out there”, in the press, in misleading generalisations from policy-makers, and frequently in unhelpful misinformation form the institutions themselves.

There was a new and strange measure quoted in the January 2013 government league tables: the proportion of candidates at A level gaining grades AAB or better in subjects drawn from the UCL/Russell Group’s published list of "facilitating subjects". This list of subjects seems to have been drawn up in response to (grossly exaggerated) media reports of schools boosting their results by persuading candidates to take lightweight or "easier" subjects: the facilitating subjects are by contrast "proper", old-fashioned hard subjects.

The subtext was also misleading: it suggested that it is only those subjects that will get students into top universities – into, for example, the 24 members of the Russell Group, the well-known universities. This kind of misleading rubbish does real damage to students in terms of limiting their choices (if they believe what they are told by these lists and tables): it also risks equally severe damage to the richness of the country's education and higher education systems.

Because it's a fairly arbitrary list of subjects (though not quite as arbitrary as Mr Gove's EBacc), students choosing their A levels who aren't fortunate to receive balanced and well-informed (I mean really well-informed) advice might be in danger of being put off an astonishing range of subjects including art, design and technology, theatre studies, music, film studies, PE, economics, philosophy, psychology and politics (those are just the ones not on “the list” that my particular school offers: there are lots more!).

There's a real risk that students will be panicked into thinking that all their A levels must be drawn from that painfully narrow list of facilitating subjects. There was, in the event, quite a backlash to the Russell Group from strong academic schools, and some backtracking: but, frustratingly, that inaccurate message had been broadcast once again.

I don’t have access to national statistics, so I have to become parochial here. In my own school - or in any other where they are aiming seriously at Russell Group universities and the like - there is barely an sixth former who doesn't do at least one of those facilitating subjects: the majority do two. But the majority don't do three: in fact, as the government table confirmed, in 2012 only 33% of our sixth formers gained AAB or better in three of those facilitating subjects. Yet 74% of last year's sixth formers went on to top Russell Group universities (another 4.5% to such fine but non-Russell Group institutions as Aberdeen and Bath and 5% to design-based courses at Northumbria - another excellent design school). Moreover, we frequently have candidates studying A level art who get plentiful offers to read medicine: this year one did just that and is currently packing his bags to start in Edinburgh, his medical school of choice .

In other words, when candidates strike a good balance between the scientific/technical/mathematical/literature-based and creative subjects, they invariably prove attractive candidates to the best universities. Long may that state of affairs continue!

In the light of so much misinformation, here’s my advice (too late for 2013 starters) on choosing A levels to study:

  • Choose subjects you reckon you are good at and can score highly in at A level.
  • Don't choose subjects because you think they’re important or high-status: you must have enough of a passion for them to spend a third or a quarter of your whole working week on them. They need to be enough to light your fire and get you out of bed in the morning.
  • Do your research very carefully about any of the subjects that you might want to read at university so that you are not closing off any choices by choosing the wrong subjects (this applies to relatively few university courses, but would naturally include things like medicine and veterinary science). A few (a very few) medical schools, for example, are more narrow-minded about subject choices than others: it's really important to check those if you have a particular institution in mind.
  • If you don't know what you want to do at university (lots don't at the age of 15/16, and it doesn’t have to be a problem), keep your options open as far as you can - but remember at all times the importance of the first bullet point.
  • Don't choose maths (or any other subject) just because you think it's a good thing to do: you must have a passion and real flair for it, a flair that goes beyond an A or A* at GCSE. A level maths is hard, great for those who thrive on it, tough for those who don't: too many students choose maths for the wrong reasons and probably underperform at A level compared to their other subjects.
  • Start your research early, and do a lot of talking to experts.

The Russell Group universities aren’t trying to put off good candidates, but their pronouncements on facilitating subjects, taken up with excessive and naïve enthusiasm by government and press alike, has proved a classic case of policy-on-the-hoof creating unintended consequences. If you read the small print, Russell Group advice is actually detailed and sound: but, because it's pretty complex, it's consequently oversimplified, taken out of context and misinterpreted.

A level candidates can keep doing the broad range of subjects that they've always done, following the advice above, and those heading for top grades will still be among the strongest candidates competing for Russell Group places. So they need to keep their nerve and not be bounced into wrong decisions.

All that sounds so logical: it is! But perceived subject hierarchies, such as those recently created by Government through the invention of the EBacc at GCSE and that silly new league table at A level, do real damage to those more vulnerable subjects. Meanwhile, numbers of maths A level students are soaring, boys and girls breaking my second rule and doing maths because they think they should, not because they are particularly good at or interested in it.

In my own school I’m considering requiring all our sixth formers to do maths A level – simply in the hope that such a crazy headmagisterial edict might ignite a rebellion that results in twenty fewer taking it than at present! Even my Head of Maths agrees it could be worth a try…

It’s all too easy to ridicule the situation: but it’s serious. Currently students are making wrong choices as a result of wrong advice emanating from the centre. The arts aren’t the only victim of such wrong-headed pressure, but they are a significant one, and one this country can ill-afford to damage further. Why? That’s been covered elsewhere and better than I can do it, not least by Sir David Winkley (click here to read his paper). So I’ll stop.


Learning all the time

January 2013 

At New Year my wife and I sneaked off to Amsterdam for a few days. Back in school this week I found myself in Assembly talking about our trip. It wasn’t just a matter of “what I did on my holiday”! Amsterdam is a remarkable artistic and cultural centre, and I was sharply reminded of the current concern back in Newcastle about the swingeing cuts about to hit the arts. It’s something unimaginable in Amsterdam, I reckon, while back home “doing a Newcastle” appears to have become media shorthand for slashing arts funding and creating a new age of barbarism.

Katherine and I were powerfully struck by the Van Gogh exhibition at the Hermitage, actually a temporary show of the best works from the Van Gogh Museum which is currently undergoing restoration. The way the exhibition was laid out gave us a new insight into Van Gogh’s late work. In his last three years he painted almost one picture a day, an astonishing output. With the bold, sometimes wild-looking, brushstrokes he employed as he tried to find new ways of interpreting and capturing light, his great preoccupation in his painting, it’s sometimes tempting to link that apparent wildness to the mental illness that plagued him and induced him to take his own life in 1890. 

I’m now convinced that there’s no insanity whatever in his painting. Indeed, it was when he was concentrating on that work he was at his most focused and lucid, the paranoia and depression (I think) that led to his untimely end largely banished from his consciousness. To be sure, his sorrows brought an added piquancy to his work: he wrote to his brother Theo about some of his paintings of the garden of the hospital where he found himself in 1888, explaining that the starkness with which he portrayed the light and shadow under the trees helped to portray the loneliness and contrasting moods of his fellow patients. 

Van Gogh was constantly experimenting and learning. As he wrote with passion to Theo, he was still trying new things, learning from the effects he achieved, observing the light and frantically, almost obsessively, trying to capture it through new and bold techniques with paint and brush. 

So there we could see a man at the height of his powers, creating extraordinary new works which are nowadays instantly recognisable to us, a fully defined style, yet one always pushing boundaries and finding new modes of expression. He was learning right to the end, and doing so consciously. All that great work was a process of exploration and experimentation. 

What an example to follow! And, of course, Van Gogh wasn’t alone in that. Seeing some of Rembrandt’s greatest works, also in Amsterdam where he lived and worked for so long, one has the same sense of an established, ageing master still trying new, ever bolder experiments with light and shade, applying remarkably thick layers of paint to create an impression of light and depth – and that, remember, is back in the mid-17th Century. 

Those great painters, so different, and two centuries apart, can serve as models for teachers and students alike. They were never satisfied, always seeking to be better. I hope that we teachers do that, just as we expect our pupils to do. It’s at the heart of what we do in the classroom, of how we inspire and stimulate, push and cajole at need (let’s be honest, we have to do a bit of that!); at the centre, indeed of how we organise and run a school so that it is caring and adaptable, aspirational and demanding, challenging, loving and supportive. We have to keep learning, experimenting, trying new things, getting better all the time. 

That’s a pretty good message with which to start the New Year, so I’ll stop there!

A very Happy New Year to all, and every success in 2013.


Guilt, duty and professionalism

October 2012

It was comedian Billy Connolly who famously observed that to be born a Roman Catholic was to be born with an A level in guilt. I was raised in that heritage, and I know what he means.

Guilt is, I suppose, the flipside of duty, and duty is another of those things that drive so many of us. You might call it an adjunct to the Protestant work ethic. Call to mind Churchill's wartime speeches that rallied a nation. The mastery of much of his great rhetoric lay in his mingling of down-to-earth realism ("It is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end...") with his vision of what might be achieved, the light of freedom, the glory of Empire (okay, that dates him!), the sunny uplands of democracy.

Between the two, Churchill always inserted the conditional. The people were promised they could indeed battle their way from tough present reality to that visionary future, but only "if": if we persevere; if we believe; "if we do our duty". He was strong on duty: it seemed to do the trick.

Winston was following a powerful tradition. Nelson famously expected everyone to do his duty at Trafalgar. Gilbert & Sullivan subtitled their hilarious Pirates of Penzance "The Slave of Duty".

So teachers like me have grown up, I suppose, with a solid, genetically-programmed streak of guilt and duty up our backbones. It's something of a curse, to be honest. I'm not sure I often relax as much as I should or could, because there's always work that could be done, something that could be finished off, even another article to write: in truth, I should confess that I don't really relax on a Friday evening until the gin and tonic kicks in.

I'm not convinced that I'm alone, though. In fact, if those traits are (notwithstanding my opening comment) a kind of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) work ethic, they are prevalent all over the United States too. In fact, The Daily Telegraph on 16th October informed me that the University of Pennsylvania has been doing some research into that area. It found that most people find it hard to be selfish.

We are so trained, educated, programmed – call it what you will – not to be selfish that we find it very difficult, alien even, to be so. Trials demonstrated that people could only be comfortable behaving selfishly when they were actually required to do so – when it became their duty.

I came across the word duty in another context recently. Dominic Lawson, in The Sunday Times (14th October), was fulminating about the fact that no one – sorry, no teacher – writes an honest report any more. He was commenting on the Nobel Prizewinner, scientist Sir John Gurdon. Gurdon was castigated by his science master at Eton in 1949, who wrote, "I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist … this is quite ridiculous". The Press had a field day at the teacher's expense, but Gurdon is generous. He keeps that damning report in his office to remind him of the need for self-criticism, a rather charming example of humility.

By contrast, Lawson thundered: "The teacher is perpetually concerned not to offend over-protective parents or a child with unknowable private anxieties; but this is education as therapy".

Anodyne, if kind, reports: nothing useful; nothing critical. Lawson describes them (and, to be fair, those meaningless reports, every head's nightmare, that are digitally cut and pasted) as "a dreadful dereliction of duty".

Yes, of duty. That made me think. To my surprise, I found myself cheered by it. I had some sympathy with Lawson's view. He was writing about a teacher's duty to a child. We don't hear that word very often. Much more often strictures on teachers are all about requirements that they meet particular standards: that they follow regulation; that they tick o bureaucratic box after another.

But - duty? What is duty, anyway? It's the imperative to do something and, in the teacher's situation, to put the child's welfare first. That means the welfare of the child: not the demands of the school or the parent; not the exigencies of OFSTED or government; but what the teacher sees as being in the best interests of the child.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could do that all the time?

Well, good teachers and good schools do. Heads do their best to keep government and OFSTED, let alone the local authority, RAISE online, league tables, benchmarks and the EBac, all at arm's length. They do that tirelessly – and tiringly – to leave those good teachers relatively free do their job, to do their duty to the children in their care.

So where does that leave guilt? In the end, there's room for a bit of guilt, too, and I don't mind that. Guilt is what makes us go the extra mile when we're a bit weary and tempted to call it a day, to skimp on the effort, to rush through the marking, to cut and paste reports instead of writing something meaningful about a real child.

I rather hope that, when I finally retire, I can put the guilt and duty away in a drawer and forget them. I don't know if I shall, but I'd like to.

In the meantime, they are perhaps the things that drive us: the duty starts us, making the spirit willing, and the guilt keeps us going when the flesh is weak.

Perhaps that's how it always was. And how it has to be. Actually, we generally call it professionalism: seeing and doing what's needed; carrying on till the job's done; taking responsibility, rather than leaving it to someone else; not watching the clock. But the term in a sense merely puts a gloss on the deeper reality of those two complementary underlying qualities that really drive us.

And now, having said enough, I've done my duty: so I'll stop.

And I feel good about it.


Truth stranger than fiction

17 May 2012

Truth is stranger than fiction. So wrote the master of aphorism, Mark Twain, who went on to explain. Fiction has to remain within the bounds of possibilities if it is to be credible: the truth has no such limitations.

We've seen some strange truth recently. At the Leveson Inquiry, News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch swore he'd been misled. That the mega-corporation's all-powerful driving force had been kept in the dark about its illegal hacking operations.

Murdoch denied seeking to influence political life in the UK, though he admitted he was more hands-on in directing the political stance of The Sun than of his other papers.

Really? Did he honestly have nothing to do with The Sun's 1992 headline, "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights"? The Sun certainly thought its personal attacks on Kinnock had destroyed him: famously its headline on 11th April 1992 read, "It's the Sun wot won it"- a political catchphrase ever since.

Fast-forward to 1997, The Guardian mocking Murdoch: "It’s The Sun wot's switched sides to back Blair". Tony Blair had convinced Murdoch's empire that his New Labour was the side to back in that election: The Sun told its readers to vote for him

You couldn't make it up, as they say. Coincidentally, I’ve been making up some fiction recently. Back in February I wrote about the hell of finishing off a musical wot I wrote (to misquote comedian Ernie Wise): we're now rehearsing for performances of Flotsam in my school on 30th June and 2nd July.

The story's set in the near future: the Day After Tomorrow, you might say, but without Hollywood ice-effects. Imagine a Britain hit by fuel crisis, rising sea levels, tsunami or other catastrophic weather events, resulting food riots and society in meltdown. Under those circumstances feral children live on the streets, surviving by scavenging or stealing.

My central character's a politician with an ambitious but ruthless vision for rebuilding society. I started writing the show in the late 1990s, stuck it in a drawer for ten years, and came back to it twelve months ago. By then it was ready for a great deal of updating and rewriting: that's inevitable.

But the politician at the centre has changed little in a decade. In 1998 I positioned him as running on a "New Morality" ticket. Back then, Blair famously "didn't do God": my character does so shamelessly, and likes to be seen going to church with his family. But otherwise he's (with hindsight) painfully Blair-like, constantly stressing the need both to "Give a hard edge to goodness" and, adopting tabloid language, to get tough on scroungers and welfare-spongers.

In my recent revisions further political sound-bites have crept in. "We’re all in this together," he preaches: "We must roll our sleeves up and get on with it". My character gets too close to the Press – and, at the end (without giving too much away), discovers that all the wrongdoing, including persecution and abduction of street-children, is done in his name.

At times I've feared I'm over-exaggerating that politician, the ambition and vanity that blind him as he claws his way to power. Over-exaggerating? Now I fear I've drawn him too mild. It's clear a present-day politician would have been significantly blinder, greedier - and certainly cosier with business and the media than I've painted mine.

I haven't dared push that character too far. He simply wouldn't be believable. Only in real life, apparently, are politicians' behaviour, vanity and myopia so mind-bogglingly beyond belief. Mark Twain was right: fiction just can't compare with truth.



Independent schools are not ivory towers

January 2012


It hasn't been said in so many words; but the writing's on the wall. If independent schools wish to be "acceptable", to bask in the favour of politicians, they would do well to sponsor an Academy.

Note that I said "politicians", not government. This issue has apparently united all three parties. No longer in office, Lord Adonis nonetheless continues to preach the message of Academies as the route to raising standards. Ed Miliband is convinced, so they remain Labour policy.

David Cameron says his alma mater, Eton, should run one. And even Deputy PM Nick Clegg appears able to overlook the élitism that allows Westminster-educated youngsters to sail into Cambridge - as long as such schools play their part in supporting the state sector.

Final proof of that clear, if unspoken, message came in a September Academies conference at Wellington College, where Lord Adonis introduced a message from Michael Gove. Or was it the other way round? Like the humans and the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm, politicians all look the same now.

It is as if, in the eyes of all three parties, there's now something dirty about independent schools - unless we dance to their tune. We face powerful moral pressure: get stuck into the Academies programme, or endure the weighty disapproval of the political establishment.

Hold on, some schools might say. Doesn't the Charity Commission expect us to concentrate on providing bursaries? It may still do so, but the political agenda has changed. We may believe independent schools broaden access to the less well-off and aid social mobility through the bursaries we offer, but politicians have decided they're irrelevant. Quite how that shift will sit with the Charity Commission's unrescinded demand for bursaries is a question yet to be addressed.

Political zeal may be laudable, but such tunnel vision undervalues just how much the sector is already contributing. Independent schools are not ivory towers. Whenever schools cross sectors to work together they discover the benefits of shared experience, and learn from similarities as much as differences. It's mutually invigorating, win-win all round.

We already work closely with our neighbours. We collaborate in ways that are right for our schools and for those with whom we partner, and for the children in our area. Academy sponsorship is great for some, and rightly applauded: but it cannot be imposed on all. Government would be unwise to put pressure on us to follow one required pattern in order to justify our existence in some undefined way. That kind of rhetoric has already gone too far and wilfully overlooks the difficulties inherent in sponsorship.

Advocates of cross-sector Academy sponsorship characterise independent schools as the single model for success in all schools: "sharing our DNA" has become a flattering if irritating mantra. Those of us who retain a degree of scepticism(and humility) question how much we can really offer on discipline and standards in the much more difficult setting of a failing school.

My school's ethos is distinctive: but the image frequently portrayed (tight discipline, smart uniforms, prefects and house systems) is not our DNA. Those are superficial, if helpful, symptoms of something much deeper - at root a viscerally liberal approach to education markedly at odds with the "tough love" frequently boasted by Academies. Moreover, government targets and simplistic Ofsted judgments are both alien and inimical to our modus operandi.

Involvement is not without cost. I lose sleep about finding the capacity in my professional life, let alone my colleagues' lives, to take spare energy from my school into another. Some schools have indeed found it: in my kind of school I can see none, nor spare money either. We charge parents the lowest fee compatible with excellence. We're parsimonious, spending their money on excellent staff and facilities, to be sure, but rarely on non-core activities - nor on consultants, in sharp contrast with government.

Academies are not yet popular everywhere. Just up the road from my school last autumn there were teachers striking and a community up in arms about a top-achieving comprehensive school's plans to become an Academy. It's hard to see how my high-profile independent school would be welcome wading into that highly-charged local political atmosphere.

The biggest of several elephants in the room is the question of selection. The majority of independent schools are academically selective at age 11 or 13, to a greater or lesser extent. Some claim to be "fairly comprehensive", but the adverb "fairly" is significant. Few are genuinely or wholly so. What our schools do so well is mostly achieved with a relatively narrow ability range, even where we support a variety of special needs.

Under David Cameron selection is no longer Tory policy, notwithstanding traditional party support for grammar schools. The change creates a gap that will be hard to bridge. With their grand talk and broad-brush vision, Academy advocates are quick to overlook this significant aspect of our DNA. But true co-operation and partnership demand honesty, not coy avoidance of the difficult topics.

Our greatest strength is our independence, which government pressure threatens. If policy-makers seek the involvement of independent schools (identified by OECD as the best in the world, remember), they should woo us, not preach at us; offer real advantages rather than mere withdrawal of disapproval; and strenuously avoid constraining the independence that truly defines our DNA by prescribing an approved mode of engagement.

Nonetheless, and despite my many reservations, I may yet work with a school in difficult circumstances: I may end up supporting HMC's Primary Academy Group and bringing to a maintained junior school what my school can realistically offer in a spirit of humility - though the time and resource has to be found from somewhere.

If I do, shall be obliged to negotiate robustly. If I find myself pushed down a path inimical to my school, required to bend my principles or mired in bureaucracy, I shall be out of it like a shot and heading for the hills.

Under such circumstances, I don't think I'll be alone.


Here endeth the homily – and starteth the term

September 2011

What does a head say to the staff at the start of the school year? If there has been a good set of summer results – A levels, GCSEs or SATs according to age and setting – the first comment (after welcoming new colleagues) is one of congratulation. It’s closely followed by a quick outline of the priorities for the coming term and school year. Where things have been less good, this must include planned changes and solutions.

Heads must challenge complacency, even (or particularly) at this first meeting. However well things went last year, the school must seek to improve this time round: an organisation that isn’t improving is going backwards.

And to finish, the cherry on top of the cake, a reminder that everything we do is for the children. That’s not sanctimonious tosh: it’s a necessary reminder because schools are so driven by the need to produce great results and satisfactory data, to satisfy the demands of parents, an insatiable Government and its hostile Inspectorate, that the achievement of targets - the measurement of everything that can be measured (and a lot that can’t or at least shouldn’t be) – could lead a school to forget why it’s there. So to finish, let’s hear it for the children.

Well, that’s easy, then. You can have my formula for nothing. To be fair, that’s not such a generous offer because it’s all pretty obvious. Still, I think these things need to be said. I have known heads who felt that teachers don’t want to be bored with long meetings at the start of term: a quick session on nuts and bolts for 15 minutes and that’s enough.

But it isn’t enough. I often say, admittedly in defence of my obsessive mission to explain, that it’s the head’s job above all to remind everyone in the school – teachers, support staff, children, parents, anyone else I’ve missed out – what the vision is, what direction we are going in and what we must do together to get there.

If the head doesn’t remind staff and children about the ethos of the school, what drives (or should drive) its very existence, who will? Some 20 years ago I remember a priest complaining that bishops don’t give leadership any more. They are so busy espousing social causes and speaking out against all kinds of manifestations of injustice, unfairness or prejudice (all worthy enough) that they forget to preach - to their clergy as much as to their congregations.

That was about the time I first became a head. If that priest doesn’t remember the conversation, I certainly do, and sometimes apologise to my colleagues for the fact that I am about to embark on something of a sermon. But again, if I don’t say those vital things, who will? Some might reply, “We know what we are here for. It’s understood.” I seem to remember learning bits of Latin where certain words weren’t necessary because they were said to be “understood”’. It works for Classicists, but not in school ethos: what is merely taken as read is too easily forgotten and eventually lost.

So what did I say to my staff this term? Let me start by putting it in context. We are very lucky. Mine is a large co-educational, academically selective independent school in the North East of England. And we came back to school celebrating a fantastic set of exam results, the best-ever at A level and GCSE, the latter by a long way, and our junior school’s SATs results were as pleasing as ever, though not a record.

So what should I say? I didn’t annoy my colleagues by warning them to avoid complacency: to be fair to them, there has been no hint of that in the past year, such a successful and productive one. Actually, I told them that we just needed more of the same: which means less of the same!

Let me explain. Over the last couple of years we have been trying – arguably, way behind the maintained sector – to concentrate not on teaching but on learning. The profession has perhaps been somewhat late in appreciating the basic truth that teachers may be teaching like fury, but their pupils are not necessarily learning.

Looking through the telescope the other way hasn’t brought about colossal changes in my colleagues’ teaching styles: they have a pretty successful formula. But it has led to their finding the confidence to take risks, to try new things, to do things a different way.

I spend a lot of time urging teachers to take risks. We are not talking about taking chances with a child’s future: the worst that is likely to happen is a duff lesson. But even then it won’t be that bad, because teachers are such thorough professionals: they make sure that the preparation is immaculate, that there is a safety net, even if it doesn’t go to plan. A fair bit of learning will be salvaged and the whole experience won’t be a complete waste of time.

But experimenting, taking risks, throwing away the revision sheets and the practice papers in my highly academic school and concentrating instead on real quality of learning: all that calls for courage. We don’t have government or OFSTED breathing down our necks: but we have highly ambitious parents and aspirant students who, at A2, are holding incredibly high offers for top university courses and, at GCSE, know that they need to be gaining in excess of six A*s in order to be looked at for the most selective courses two years hence.

It’s a dreadful pressure, and I regret it hugely, doing everything I can to mitigate it: but our students know the harsh realities of their ambitions. Their parents, too, know just how tough it’s going to be to ensure those top grades: so it would be very easy to give in to the pressure. Spoon-feeding, the kind of teaching that can be very effective in getting kids through far too many tick-box exams, would be welcomed. It takes real bravery in my colleagues to hold out and say, “No: we are doing education.”

I am convinced that this year’s record number of top grades – A* at GCSE and A level – stems from our refusal to spoon-feed and our insistence instead on encouraging, challenging, requiring our students to fly intellectually. (It’s a message I spread a lot: my head of science is threatening to shoot me if I say it again in the start of term assembly. Alas, he may have to carry out his threat. As a head I’m a bit like Lewis Carroll’s Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark: “What I say three times is true,” he insists, and the technique to work for school leaders. We have to repeat things more than once before they get into the bloodstream of the school.

Okay, I haven’t said anything very original here: but what I’ve said is important. We must continue to be courageous, brave, trusting our own judgement and strength. Contributing to a book on school leadership for ASCL (years ago, when it was still called SHA), I wrote a short chapter called Bluffing. The editorial team wouldn’t allow that at all. “You can’t call it bluffing,” they said. “Call it exercising judgement based on experience.”

I let them have their way: what’s in a name? The point about bluffing, or exercising judgement based on experience, requires the same confidence I am demanding of my teachers. “Trust your judgement, your expertise, your thoroughness, your excellent qualifications and your understanding of the way young people learn: thrust those qualities to inspire your students to explore and to push themselves further than they thought they could go. It will work, as long as you don’t allow yourself to be tied down, trammelled by the exam requirements.”

Confidence is all. Not blind confidence – which would be arrogance - but justified confidence rooted in preparation and professionalism. In my school we have been agonising from time to time about the choice of 16+ exams: rather more than half of our departments have now moved to iGCSE, getting rid of the burden of coursework and its horrific successor, controlled assessment, and returning largely to terminal exams which seem to suit our clientèle. Whenever a department has made a change, however, they have done so with trepidation. What if the exam results slip as a result? That is the fear.

Fear of what? Of whom? It’s not fear of me (I hope!), nor particularly of their students or their parents. It’s a kind of institutional fear that affects all of us teachers if we are not careful. “They”, whoever “they” are, will be on at us: “they” expect us to get these miraculous results. Fortunately, this year I could safely assure my colleagues that they mustn’t be nervous of trying a different exam board, or even a different qualification. The proof within our excellent results was that the teaching still works, the learning still happens, and the students still surprise themselves with what they can achieve.

That is perhaps this year’s small triumph: maybe we are gaining the confidence to insist we (teachers, students, parents) can do the educating together. And the exam results come along the way, a by-product as much as a goal. It’s an exaggeration, of course: but it’s not a bad state of mind to achieve.

I forbore to add a possible postscript to the issue of exam choice, because I didn’t need to sour what was a very positive start. But I have been grinding my teeth ever since GCSE results came out a couple of weeks ago. This year we heard no politicians complaining about dumbing down: fortunately the steady national rise in exam results has slowed a little, so we were spared the usual accusations of dumbing down.

Instead, one or two newspapers, egged on by a few politicians, decided to rant about the disgraceful disservice done to pupils by schools that either enter them early for GCSEs or choose softer subjects to boost their results.

Okay: where it’s true, there has been a lack of the sort of confidence that I have been describing. But whence comes that loss of confidence? We must and can only blame the policy-makers, and the media who jump on their various bandwagons. Pressure on many schools to reach particular benchmarks has been intolerable: we know that, when targets are missed or inspections go against schools, heads and senior staff suffer illness, breakdown or the sack. If those school leaders experience such pressure that they cannot absorb it all, it is passed on to the staff as well.

I have always considered it a vital part of headship to absorb that outside pressure in order to protect the teachers and allow them to do their job freely and confidently. None of us can work well looking over our shoulders: yet that is what government has been demanding for the two decades in which I have been a head. The perverse choice of subjects, the entering of children early in order for the school to gain extra points which are of no value to the child; these are pernicious distortions of our purpose. And they are entirely the creation of the bullying machinery of government.

The coalition government, in power for only a little over a year, is quick to condemn these unforeseen effects of the barmier initiatives introduced by its predecessor. But we already have too many hares started by ministers driven by quirky personal agendas. The EBacc, or rather the bizarre omissions from its stamp of approval, will produce its own twisted curriculum over the next few years.

Schools, where confidence and courage thrive and leaders feel they can cope, will mitigate the worst effects, and hold out against the pressure. In others, for understandable and human reasons, courage will falter, and wrong decisions will be made, to the detriment of children’s education. And they, not those who made the airy pronouncements from on high, will get the blame.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, as ever, that wonderful body of teachers, the poor bloody infantry, will make it work for the vast majority. They always do. They will again.

“Have a great term – and make sure you and your students have fun along the way.” That’s what I said to my staff: I wish it to everyone, young and less young, starting the new school year.


Do you feel lucky?

June 2011

It is official. My long-standing hero, Clint Eastwood, is now a role model for heads. The super-head of Mossbourne Academy, Sir Michael Wilshaw, revealed that Clint is also his hero, and should be a model for all of us.

We're not talking about his embittered San Francisco cop character, Dirty Harry ("Magnum .44, the most powerful handgun in the world: do you feel lucky, punk?"). It is the character Clint played in the spaghetti westerns (where he generally had no name) who is, according to Wilshaw, a lone warrior fighting for righteousness; fighting the good fight; powerful and autonomous.

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

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

 guess that, even after two decades of headship, I reach a situation every six months or so when I have to annoy most or all of my staff because something needs to be put right. I know it will upset people, that I will lose sleep and that there will be conflict: but my conscience, or whatever it is that stirs me, tells me I must do it.

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

The Eastwood model works for Wilshaw. In the setting of his school - rather tougher than that inhabited by any members of HMC, I suspect - he says he gets results by running it like a grammar school with a comprehensive intake.

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

Surely all heads nowadays are surrounded by a senior management/leadership team. Good school leadership must be about teamwork, always working to reduce the "them" and "us" between top management and the rest of the staff, fostering instead a productive blend of collegiality, mutual respect and mutual support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That contract is undoubtedly strengthened by the sacrifices that parents make: they make a very significant financial commitment. But that's a tricky one for politicians, and I'm sure they don't want to go there.
Earlier this year the Guardian reported a piece of research that perhaps should have made waves ("School uniform does not improve results – discuss", Stephanie Northen): the message was uncomfortable, and didn't fit in with the grand vision, so it went nowhere.

Professor David Brunsma of Missouri-Colombia University declared himself "utterly flabbergasted" by reports that tried to link high achievement and the wearing of school uniform: outraged by such "superficial glossing over of complex social, democratic, cultural, material and political issues", he embarked on serious research. He found no demonstrable link between uniform and achievement: "the results, although surprising to many, simply cannot be ignored. Uniforms do not make schools better." Yet politicians bang on about it still. It's not enough just to have a uniform policy now: last year's White Paper urges all schools to introduce not just uniform, but blazers and ties.

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

But I do object to sloppy thinking, and to politicians lecturing the profession in the belief that putting a few relatively superficial features in place in school will assure quality. Running a good school is an immensely complex matter and has more to do with consistency, vision and hard work over many years than a few quick-fixes. All of us who work in schools know that.

What drives me to fury is the way that politicians simply don't engage with us and talk about those deep issues: they come along with their first-person-singular bright ideas and demand our endorsement of them.

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

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

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


Finding novel ways to measure things we value 

May 2011

I was taught A level French by a gifted, overweight eccentric who combined an inexhaustible capacity for anecdote with an infectious passion for the language and its literature. So, though we were required to study just one Molière play for the exam, we read all of them. Was it necessary for context? Did we really need to read all of Racine just in order to understand the five acts of Bérénice? Of course not. It wasn't done to satisfy exam requirements: it was education.

In my traditionally academic school we didn't speak languages much: we concentrated on writing proses (English into French), unseens (French into English) and literature. Chalk and talk and a lot of reading were the order of the day, and that regime suited my learning style. It was good for me.

But I was a highly dependent learner. I wanted - demanded - to be spoon-fed with digestible gobbets of knowledge. Only twenty years ago, when I started a part-time Master's course in education, did I learn to explore, to make connections, to take risks, to apply new learning to the experience I had already gathered: it was exciting and radicalising. I'm horrified, in retrospect, that it took me so long to start.

I don't blame my school or university. Around me in both institutions there were plenty of original, wacky, free-thinking individuals: it was the 1970s, after all! But I was able to sail through the academic route without ever leaving my comfort zone. Intellectually I was complacent and probably dull.

Were I following the same route now, I don't think current approaches would allow me the same level of complacency or dependency: quite the opposite. Present-day critics who bewail the loss of standards at A level hark back to an alleged rigour which I remember as frequently dull. If students nowadays are accused of committing too little solid fact to memory, in my day we did too much. I regurgitated formulae to pass O level maths without understanding how or why: I just did it, but never understood why.

Defenders of examination 'gold standards' too often confuse tedious rote-learning with genuine wisdom. But we should also avoid denigrating high-quality intellectual, academic study: that is one of the towering achievements of the human mind – though only one. Our education system keeps getting in a mess because we treat the academic with excessive reverence and undervalue other forms of learning.

My next-door neighbour is a sixty-year-old joiner. He served his time as an apprentice, and his work is beautiful. I'm in awe (and envious) of the way he uses his hands to work wood into objects of both practical use and beauty. He and I laugh together about my manual ineptness. We can do this because there is mutual respect for each other's skills - and honesty about our limitations.

Why can't our education system find that same respect? One vocational initiative after another gets sunk by well-meaning yet myopic attempts to give a well-designed programme of skill development an aura of 'respectability' by adding an essay-writing element to it. The modern-day teenaged counterpart of my joiner neighbour is likely to be asked to write pages about why he designed it in that way; why she chose that material rather than another; why that shape is more effective in this context than another.

It's good to ask students questions about the work in which they are engaged: the problem lies in our insistence, time after time, on regarding the physical and manual skills, however effectively used and executed, as having validity only when something formal has been written about them.

This creeping academicism is often characterised as a form of intellectual snobbery: but I would describe myself as an academic, and I don't think it comes from people like me. It's the ongoing national obsession with assessment that leads us to value most those things which can be measured, rather than finding novel ways of measuring those things that we value.

Yet anyone who pays the plumber's bill, the decorator's fee, the architect's percentage or even the car salesman's discounted price knows whether the work is good, the cost fair, the value satisfactory. Sadly the education system (or government) just doesn't trust people - professionals - to make those judgments.

The usual response to these problems is to make examination systems ever more prescriptive. Such complex systems always betray the obsessions of their designers. Thus an element seen as essential to a vocational course is work experience, the skills acquired in the workplace. A cold, logical look at that assumption shows it to be deeply flawed: it is perfectly possible to develop the skills and then learn to go and use them in the marketplace - by, er, getting a job.

If we are ever to overcome the divide between the academic and vocational routes; if we are to offer a flexible range of educational experience that really meets the needs and aspirations of every learner; if we truly believe in allowing every individual learner to fulfil his or her potential and to go out into adult life able to continue learning and developing; if we really aspire to these lofty aims, we need to stop designing complex mechanisms.

We need instead to develop a minimalist view of what is a core of knowledge and skills that young people should acquire in school or college. And we should put into the system the resources, energy and imagination necessary to provide genuine, unfettered choices for all learners. Until we loosen up to that degree, the old baggage of dogma, structuralism and obsession with assessment will remain a straitjacket on the development of all learners, wherever their true strengths lie.


Cloning success? Education's search for independent sector DNA 

December 2010

Question: Who started this talk about independent schools' DNA?

Answer: Lord Adonis, Schools Minister in the Blair government, spoke passionately to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) in October 2007, asking top independent school heads to share our DNA with his new Academies. Three years later, Coalition Education Secretary Michael Gove consciously repeated the plea.

It makes sense. Increased independence of government, local or national, freedom to take their own curricular, staffing and other management decisions: those are things that the Coalition wants to give its schools.

We have expertise in those very things. We adapt readily to circumstances and mould our schools to our setting. Despite the recession, only a tiny number of independent schools have closed or merged.

This is not the first time a minister has sought a "magic" solution. In 2000 David Blunkett wanted to "bottle" the ethos of successful faith schools. Clarity of ethos and purpose are strengths in those schools. They are part of independents' DNA too.

But what precisely is our DNA?

It isn't an obsession with smart (even fancy) uniform, prefect systems, prize-givings and house systems. Those features, often perceived as our hallmark and frequently copied, are merely symptoms or manifestations, not causes, of the good order and discipline we prize.
For the DNA we need to look deeper. At its heart lie the choice that parents make and the contract between home and school. Independent school parents have a real choice. There is always another good fee-paying school "just down the road". That is not necessarily the case in the state sector where it is perhaps more likely that the best school in the area is over-subscribed while the less popular has empty places. That parental choice often leads to the opposite, to lack of choice for some, where children are allocated to schools by "the office" - or even by lottery.

That's not real choice, merely a parental statement of preference which may or may not be fulfilled. Moreover, there is an element of condescension in the way the over-subscribed school or academy graciously concedes a place to the child.

By contrast, from the child's first day at private school the relationship between home and school is different. The parent has made a significant financial investment: in return, expectations are great. That expectation is in itself an enormous motivation not only to the parent, but also to the child – indeed, to the whole family. Indeed, the whole family in effect signs up to the quest for success.

The school signs up in return. As an independent head I'm under constant pressure to provide the best for my pupils – but that pressure comes from within, from my visceral feeling for that contract and my belief in it, not because a governor or a pushy parent is demanding it of me. The motivation is intrinsic, as much for a front-line teacher as for the head.

There is thus "buy-in" from both sides. This is a "perfect contract" between home and independent school. It works because there is a close or perfect match between the aims of family, school and child. All want the same end, and all enjoy the journey. Those are the overriding motivations. The buy-in is not merely financial: money is, in a sense, the indicator, not the driver, of the commitment.

In his book The Beautiful Tree, Professor James Tooley describes how, from Africa to India and China, he has gone into deprived areas and found that, in astonishing numbers, even the poorest families scrape together paltry sums to buy places in small freelance private schools, frequently eschewing the free state-provided schools. In the latter they see complacency and lazy teachers. But in these tiny private schools the same contract pertains, driven by aspiration and expectation: expectation, because if they didn't deliver, such small schools would quickly go out of business. But they don't, because they do deliver.

Spokey Wheeler is an experienced maintained school head, founder principal of Burlington Danes Academy. In his quasi-retirement he is CEO of UM Gurukul, an Indian Education Company setting up small schools in newly developed Indian rural villages. Parents pay school fees of around £30 a year, approximately one-fifth of a worker's earnings: there is no universal funding. The same formula of commitment and expectation works there.

As Wheeler and Tooley discovered, and as the UK independent sector affirms, the ‘perfect contract' between parents, home, family, child and school is the central force in the assurance and perpetuation of quality. In the poorest parts of the world, parents value education enough to sacrifice chunks of their tiny incomes for it. By contrast, in difficult parts of this country, and despite the ceaseless efforts of schools and teachers, too many children and families fail to value education.

Successful schools enjoy "buy-in" from parents, children, whole families. In that "perfect contract", home is working as hard as school to ensure success, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: a virtuous circle is created. Cash is involved only in the private sector, but forms of buy-in also occur (less uniformly) in the most successful state schools.

Was Blunkett right about the best faith schools? Are Adonis, Blair and Gove on the right track? Is independent school DNA truly not about uniform and prefects but all about deep commitment? A recent debate (December 2010) held by the National Education Trust suggests a powerful "yes" to all.

So is it now time to reconsider the concept, so long kept on ice, of school vouchers? Moreover, does all this have any relevance to the current outcry over university fees? Are protesters wrong to refuse to put a value, a price even, on a university education?

Above all, can we transfer these various forms of buy-in, spreading or replicating the conditions that create the "perfect contract", across all schools in all settings?

There are no easy answers. But in 2011, with funding shortfalls and wholesale educational change on the agenda, these are questions that we can no longer afford to duck.