Bernard's writing for SCHOOLS NorthEast

New school term, new calendar year: what will it bring?

19th January 2017

We already know what is on the agenda. There’s the whole of the Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone: and there’s a new boss at OFSTED, pledged to working with us to improve schools (well, that’s what she said!). We’re still phasing in new exams at GCSE and A level, and it’s anyone’s guess how much or little chaos will ensue in that quarter. And all of this is set against a backdrop of funding cuts in state schools.

There is, of course, the promise of a national (fair) funding formula: but, even if areas like the North East get a better deal, there still won’t be enough money to go round. Government cuts are biting deep, schools are hurting and it’s children who get the raw deal. Not only children, though: it’s a rough time for those who give their lives and careers to education and receive a lousy deal from government in return.

Our spirits might have lifted a little when we heard that Theresa May announced a new focus on mental health. She promised that, in 2017, teachers in a third of secondary schools will receive Mental Health First Aid Training. Something’s better than nothing, of course: but there’s nothing specific on the money for that training, nor any idea of how many members of staff in each school will be trained. Then there’s the bizarre idea that the need is only in secondary schools: primary colleagues across the North-East know the issues are almost as numerous and certainly as pressing in younger children as in adolescents.

So there are plenty of issues on which we might wish to do battle with government. Given that even the mental health initiative seems to be a lightweight solution to a very heavyweight problem, we can be pleased that our own SCHOOLS NorthEast Mental Health Commission is getting down to work this month: perhaps some of our findings will render government better informed about the scale of the issues and difficulties to be faced, and the size of the response that is required.

We’re robust in the North-East and accustomed to “speaking truth to power”: but power can be petulant. Over the years I’ve learned that, if you disagree too loudly with government, the door slams, and dialogue comes to an abrupt halt. I see nothing different in this current administration.

Indeed, perhaps there’s a warning to us in education from the PM’s response to doctors. The near-meltdown being experienced in A&E across the country is, according to policymakers, nothing to do with lack of resources: it’s all because those lazy GPs are closing up early. Patients unable to see their doctor they go to A&E, causing overload there and crisis.

I was interested to hear medics, the people who know how it works, identifying as one of the underlying causes the lack of care for elderly patients well enough to leave hospital but not to cope on their own at home.

But there’s no response from government. Merely a big stick
threatening to hit GPs financially if they don’t move towards providing a seven-day service.

Medicine’s problem is arguably not education’s: but the two are analogous. This government isn’t just looking for a “hard Brexit”: it’s planning hard-nosed dealings with health and education services alike. There’s a job for SCHOOLS NorthEast to do, certainly: we must keep being honest and forceful about the problems and make our demands of government coherently and rationally.

I once had a boss who boasted that his door was open to anyone who wanted to talk to him. The problem was, we said, that there was an open door, but a closed mind. The same’s true of government at present.

Fortunately schools exist on a huge fund of dedication and optimism: but both may wear thin if government doesn’t wake up soon. I’m not gloomy, not completely despondent: but I think this year will be tough going.

Have a good one!


Head’s subject? All subjective

11th February 2016

While I was enjoying time with the family over Christmas, and, obviously, eating and drinking too much, The Times reported a Good Schools Guide survey identifying the subject specialisms that seem to produce the best headteachers of independent schools (I don’t know why only independent).

It came out in favour of historians, just ahead of English teachers: predictably, the letters page was full of particular heads or their supporters taking issue with the conclusion and singing the praises (mainly) of chemists and physicists.

I refrained from joining in: but then, I get my chance here. And don’t worry: I reckon it’s about more than merely education, but about leadership myths in general.

In my 25 years as a head, I’ve certainly seen my slice of the profession dominated by historians. They seem to climb the hierarchy with relative ease compared to the rest: I guess their subject training lends them a particular skill in attributing to trends, social attitudes and dissent the sort of anxieties that most of us put down to plain paranoia.

“Infamy! Infamy: They’ve all got it in for me!” as comedian Frankie Howerd used to say. Many of us heads frequently echo that cry: historians might claim to do so less.

My background in music makes me an uncommon head: music teachers have an image problem. The ebullient and enthusiastic music teacher is viewed indulgently as “terribly enthusiastic, but you can’t see him/her running a school”. Meanwhile the contrastingly thoughtful, cerebral musician is seen as too intense, and equally unappointable.

This makes me smile, since leaders of organisations are often compared to the conductor of a professional orchestra who, standing at the centre of activity, is described as pulling together the collective effort, tweaking and adjusting it, focussing the sound and thus, by implication, the vision of the orchestra.

That image is largely tosh: ask any professional musician. And remember, I did a lot of conducting in my time.

Most see conductors as tyrannical, unreasonable, overpaid and frequently useless. Half will admit (only in private) to watching the conductor only rarely: they’re more likely to keep an eye on the leader of the violins, the person who really holds the band together (the equivalent to the Deputy Head in schools, perhaps?).

Next, ask the players who sit at the back of the band. Professional conductors spend much of their time telling the brass instruments, the trumpets and trombones, to play more quietly. For them it becomes a way of life, and a dispiriting one, being forced to play pianissimo all the time, whatever the composer’s instructions in the printed music. One of my oldest friends, studying the trombone at music college years ago, was carpeted by the Principal when, fed up with being instructed by a world-renowned conductor to play quietly, more quietly still, then even more quietly, he and his mates stopped playing altogether.

Moreover, conductors aren’t there all the time. Even an orchestra’s resident Musical Director constantly jets around the world doing other gigs, while guest conductors come in to work with the home team.

I reckon the best classical concert I attended in 2015 was in the Sage Gateshead, where the Royal Northern Sinfonia played a superb programme without any conductor at all: instead they followed their truly inspirational lead violinist, the amazing Bradley Creswick.

That example in itself might appear also neatly to prove my point, but it goes further. The Leader helped to guide the music, certainly: but he was also playing the first violin part (generally accepted as containing more notes to play than any other part), so he couldn’t control every moment. Without someone waving a stick for them to keep half an eye on, the players were obliged instead to listen to one another: my goodness, how tangibly they did listen and respond, and what a performance they produced as a result! That way of performing is probably a far better metaphor for leadership and for the good operation of a school than relying on the person on the podium, so obviously directing the entire operation.

Returning to the question of which subject background makes the best head, the answer is, of course, none. It all depends on the personality, leadership skills and personal acumen of the individual. When we become school leaders, we should actually step aside from our subject specialism and become (academically) both generalist and agnostic. I cannot possibly comment on how or whether I measure up: that’s for others to say.

I like musicians, even if I’m wary of over-praising conductors. Naturally some of the latter are truly inspirational, notwithstanding my comments above, and at their best can bring new insights to the performance they direct that allow an audience to experience even a very familiar piece as if hearing it for the first time. But I still don’t think they provide a useful model for school leadership!

There’s an old story about an orchestra suddenly finding itself in trouble when its conductor was struck down with illness just before a major European tour. One of the violas (the instruments hidden in the middle of the string section) volunteered to step in. He did magnificently throughout the tour, the concerts attracting great critical acclaim. When the regular conductor returned, the viola player modestly returned to his seat at the back. “Nice to have you back,” said the musician who shared a music-stand with him. “Where the hell have you been these last few weeks?”


If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about…
(in SCHOOLS NorthEast weekly newsletter 11th September 2013)

In this new feature a local Head imparts lessons learnt throughout their Headship. This week we spoke to Bernard Trafford, Head of Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about - dealing with a crisis…it’s not to be rushed. Schools are always in a hurry. Situations blow up: teachers and/or parents immediately dash around demanding an instant solution NOW.
It’s seductive for heads. Nothing like swift crisis management to make you feel good! Firm action: cut through the confusion. Colleagues respect the boss’s confident, decisive intervention. It’s “proper” leadership.
But too often the solution is simplistic. The problems we encounter in schools are complex. We’re dealing with people, actually young people who are unlikely to share our rational, adult world-view.  Whatever the issue, just ten minutes of denials and counter-accusations disabuse you of the hope that any satisfactory resolution will be found swiftly.
Now I’m getting long in the tooth I refuse to jump in. Ignoring the baying from colleagues or mums and dads for (usually draconian) action, I follow the Zen commandment: don’t just do something – sit there. I calm things and people, but insist on delaying the sorting-out.
A night’s sleep: a phone call to an experienced fellow head; a run; the pause does the trick. A considered response, not a dramatic or heroic one, is the one that works long-term.”


(SCHOOLS NorthEast post-summit handbook)

November 2010

The Tories promised to slash red tape and light a “bonfire of the quangos”. LibDems pledged themselves to cut the sprawling National Curriculum to a brief guidance document. With not one but both of those parties now in power, the Coalition must by definition negotiate and compromise in order to function. And since both were unequivocal about their desire to trust schools and teachers more, we might surely expect to see paperwork indeed recede and school and college leaders permitted once more to do their jobs with the latitude and trust that should be accorded to professionals.

Forget for now about the free schools initiative, and even the spread (slower than predicted by the victorious Tories) of Academies. There will be storms ahead there, for sure, but right now we need to ensure that all schools are set free as promised, and that freedoms grow and multiply with increasing speed.

Early signs are promising. A significant recent announcement was that of ending the notorious SEF (Self-Evaluation Form). According to the Department’s press release, the decision is “the next stage in a rolling programme of reducing bureaucracy for teachers and trusting them to get on with their jobs.”

This is good news. To be sure, ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders) advises that the SEF should be retained, though in a drastically reduced form, in a framework of “intelligent accountability”. To my mind, however, a clean sheet is preferable – or, better still, no sheet at all! The Government holds the figures: let it and its agents analyse them and, if they are unconvinced, come and ask what’s going wrong. For two decades schools have been forced to maintain enormous paper trails just to prove that they are doing what they should. That situation must be turned round. The onus must be on government and its watchdogs to prove that a school isn’t doing what is required: only that is intelleigent accountability.

Nor will I mourn the expected end of the GTC, one of the 177 threatened quangos. Like many others I used to believe we needed a single body to be the guardian of professional standards, visibly standing for excellence and representing the profession to government. But my idealism, shared with many others, blinded me to the fact that unity is elusive at best, and is often achieved only by clinging to the relatively tiny pieces of non-contentious common ground that can be found between all the various interests.  Thus there was little power or range in the GTC’s bland voice. As for upholding standards, that aim degenerated into a Star Chamber which wasted time banning teachers who for the most part wouldn’t get a job in a school in any case, and got in a mess when it overreached itself.

So far, then, a major paperchase gone, a quango on the way out, and Safeguarding madness on hold: not a bad start. Let’s encourage this Coalition to keep going – and demand they deliver all the freedoms they promised.