Bernard's pieces for The Daily Telegraph

Should teachers advise children on their social lives and relationships?

26th April 2017

If you’re mother or father to a teenager, you may feel you can never get it right. Parents are, by definition, hopelessly out of touch, says Dr Bernard Trafford.

Parents get plenty of stick nowadays. If they don’t keep their children in order, they’re accused of being feeble, trying to be their children’s friends. But if they’re tougher and more aspirational, they’re labelled as pushy.

As a head, I find most parents manage to chart quite a successful course between the perils of Scylla and the hazards of Charybdis.

But it’s getting harder for them all the time.

At the same time, the role of teachers is coming under increased scrutiny. What should we do to help pupils navigate the choppy waters of social media, difficult friendships or the effect of non-stop 18th birthday parties? Are we being neglectful if we sail carefully into these areas for fear of being accused of telling parents how to parent? Or is teaching how to deal with anxiety as much a part of the job description as dealing with algebraic equations?

It’s clear we also need to move on to parental worries about children’s social lives, says Dr Bernard Trafford

Most of my fellow heads recognise that schools are getting more and more requests from parents for help with social issues, and that’s one reason why the leading independent schools in the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) has taken it upon itself to find out more about what’s going on. Only then, we reason, can we have informed conversations with pupils and parents which help calm the nerves and change behaviours in a positive way.

In our most recent survey of parents, we have discovered those aspects of their children’s lives they most want help with from schools.

Work pressures and exams came high, of course: a huge amount of effort is already going on there. But it’s clear we also need to move on to parental worries about children’s social lives, their relationships, their mental health and the need for a healthy lifestyle. One parent commented that ironically children seem to be conducting their social lives from in isolation from their bedrooms. This inevitably leads to a stronger sense of adult/child disconnection and a need to uncover what is happening in children’s lives in a variety of safe spaces – both classroom and round the kitchen table.

In another survey of 5,000 parents and pupils across a range of state and independent schools, HMC and Digital Awareness UK asked children what they think about their parents’ digital habits, as well as the other way round.

The main things troubling both groups were unsurprising. Children’s biggest worry about being online (and they’re online a lot!) is lack of sleep: parents’ biggest concern about their children being online is the impact on their social skills. Surprisingly, although teachers are deeply anxious about the risks that children face online - grooming, sexting, cyberbullying - parents seem relatively unworried.

Astonishingly, we discovered that a third of children surveyed have asked their parents to stop using their mobile devices - for example, at mealtimes. A paradox emerges: parents are concerned about their kids’ apparent addiction to digital devices, yet set a poor example themselves.

Parents know their job is to act as role models. To walk their talk in the way they demonstrate courtesy, politeness, sensible, moderate and balanced living habits. For the most part, parents still do so.

But the digital revolution has created a new world for which no one has yet written the rules. How should parents model their digital behaviour, so as to instil good habits in the young?

The digital revolution has created a new world for which no one has yet written the rules

All that and more is being discussed today at HMC’s Spring Conference under the title, Putting ourselves in parents’ shoes: new ways of working between schools and families. As well as getting advice from experts, we will show a new video which we’ll use to reflect back to teenagers what an healthy and unhealthy life online looks like. “Tech Control”, it asks them – control the technology rather than the other way round.

In this new and sometimes terrifying world we need to develop a new way of working with parents. Not a contract: I don’t like those coercive home-school agreements. Rather a, new parent-school pact a real commitment from parents and schools to work together to protect our children, to act uniformly in the behaviours we model and promote, and make sure that between us both education (as provided by schools) and upbringing (what parents do) are consistent.

It’s a challenge: but it’s eminently achievable. And there’s a real will to do it.


Addressing mental health at school is one thing, but preventative care must also be at the top of the agenda

11th January 2016

When Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Monday that she would put an end to the “hidden injustice” of the stigma that surrounds mental health, I guess she was gratified by the reaction. At last, people said, government’s taking the issue seriously. With the promise of better training going into secondary schools and the trial of a more joined-up system and a review led by Mind Chief Executive Paul Farmer and mental health campaigner Lord Stephenson, the school sector certainly felt listened to at last. After all, we’ve been complaining for years about the ticking time-bomb of mental illness – or, rather, of successive administrations’ failure address the problem.

Three cheers for the PM, then? Well two, certainly: the third will ring out when schools and families are equipped to work together and prevention becomes as important as cure.

In recent years, government has appeared deaf to schools’ pleas for support. There is real frustration. In the North-East, where I work, local primary heads describe the profound difficulties that their pupils, even the youngest, have with anxiety, depression and other mental illness, all stemming from the deep-seated social problems in severely deprived parts of the region. A promise of action on mental illness from David Cameron a few years ago proved empty: meanwhile schools have been stretching resources to provide counselling or other therapies where their pupils are struggling.

Independent schools are, of course, generally better placed to find resources to meet the massively increased demand for counselling and other services. In 2015 the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) had the courage to face down the inevitable consequent “mental health crisis in private schools” headlines and publish its research into mental health problems across its 280 UK independent schools and what is being done to tackle them, kicking off a long-overdue debate about promoting good mental health in all schools, in every kind of setting.

That debate has told us that schools in both sectors find they are having to do more and more to help children while health services, particularly CAMHS, face cuts and ever-longer waiting times for desperate young people.

There’s much to be learnt from this innovative work, whether it’s training up pupils to teach each other about wellbeing or implementing early intervention due to better tracking of changes to pupils’ attitudes and behaviours. Or even Mental Health First Aid Training, which the Prime Minister promises for secondary schools. Again, independent schools have arguably led on this up-skilling of teachers for several years, including in my own school: those of us with a proportion of staff (and, in some schools, senior students) now trained up, know how excellent and cost-effective (but still costly) such training is - though we would argue that the need for this extends to junior schools. 

This isn’t a sectoral issue, however. The reason why some independent schools have been able to move more swiftly will lie in the greater resources they have at their disposal. There are mountains to climb in all schools to tackle these problems: the most important thing is that schools of all kinds work together to share what has and hasn’t worked. Money for programmes and practitioners is needed, for sure. But so are sharing and cooperation between teachers and parents who know the children concerned: that can come far more cheaply.

Speaking of money, Theresa May has earmarked an extra £15m for community care. There is clearly a hope of providing diagnosis swiftly (and, crucially, cheaply) via expanded online services. Some schools may find this useful, but personallyI’m sceptical: to me it smacks of seeking cheaper alternatives to what’s needed most, genuine face-to-face help.

Moreover, government cannot ring-fence that £15m for mental health services alone: cash-strapped NHS health trusts may find other priorities still more pressing. Besides, in the massive scale of the NHS, £15 million will be butter spread very thin.

What children and their schools need above all is an enormously increased level of resource that can provide swift and effective intervention when mental health issues arise. Government needs to mount a massive programme to promote good mental health – including looking in the face some of the criticisms made of its education policies by its own former mental health tsar Natasha Devon.Perhaps the Farmer/Stephenson review will lead into this, though I fear government’s response may be to place an excessive emphasis on workplace policy and enforcement.

So how should schools work better together, especially when the state sector is facing overall funding cuts and constant changes to curriculum and exams? As part of grasping the nettle, HMC and individual schools such as my own host major regular conferences, share speakers, knowledge and expertise with maintained sector colleagues in order to develop and spread those proactive approaches and develop resilience in the young.

In the end, schools can only do so much. There is a chronic shortage of health professionals available to engage swiftly and effectively with children troubled by mental illness. Current waiting times for a CAMHS appointment, a matter of months, are simply unacceptable in a young life.

Theresa May has recognised the problem: I hope she’s recognised the scale on which any solution will have to be planned. I’m saving my third cheer for the time when independent schools’ experience is seen as a force for good, and we see real change: in Paul Farmer’s words, “in the differences made to people’s day-to-day experience”.


Exam boards: outrage, but no one is surprised

8th December 2011

It’s an old cliché that we get the government we deserve. The Daily Telegraph exposé of examiners coaching teachers in how to get their pupils top grades indicates that we’ve created the exam system we deserve.

For two decades and more we’ve been demanding total predictability. We insist that a grade B candidate gains that B (though we don’t complain if they get an A). We challenge any odd results. We challenge exam boards to squeeze out every last mark.

The stakes are so high. For candidates every mark is crucial: top universities demand astronomical GCSE and AS-level grades, let alone at A2. Sixteen-year-olds without seven GCSE A*s know on the grapevine (though not officially) that the door is likely to be closed at the most sought-after institutions.

For schools the pressure is more intense than ever to climb league tables and keep Ofsted off their backs. As a result, everything is open to challenge. We complain about ambiguous questions. If we are not happy with outcomes, we pay for a teacher to attend an exam board briefing. We demand to know what constitutes an A-grade answer.

Moreover, we over-examine. Curricular change and government distrust of teachers means that little is marked within schools. As a result, far too many papers are sat and boards have too few people to mark them. What are they to do? Keep the criteria formulaic and give markers a tick-box approach. Aware of this, we want to know what those boxes are that need to be ticked.

The result of this vicious circle was described yesterday. The public are outraged, but no one in education is surprised. This won’t be solved by a monopoly of one board: it goes much deeper than systems. Michael Gove promises “nothing is off the table”. I can’t help doubting whether he will have the courage truly to take the lid off this Pandora’s box.


How we have risen to the challenge

Bright dyslexic children can study on equal terms when they have the right support

By Bernard Trafford and Ian Tyler

13th March 2004

Why is dyslexia still seen as a problem for schools and a battleground for worried parents?  One school has found that admitting dyslexic pupils has turned from a problem to an opportunity, while the rewards for the school as a whole have surprised everyone.

Time after time we read about parents fighting schools and the system to get a fair deal for their dyslexic children.  Often it seems dyslexic children are too expensive or awkward for schools or local authorities to deal with: and selective schools may worry that they will pull them down in the league tables.

This is frustrating.  We believe that schools which take a positive and informed approach to dyslexic children can see them add to the quality of education in the whole school. The key is flexibility.  And the bottom line is cost.  At Wolverhampton Grammar School, an independent selective co-educational secondary day school, we've been running a programme called OpAL (Opportunities through Assisted Learning) for five years. We launched the OpAL programme with a question: ‘why should a bright dyslexic child be denied an academic education?’  This was a radical departure for us.  It was also potentially risky for a selective school because the students, who joined the Programme, though obviously able and articulate, would not have passed our ordinary entrance test because of their dyslexia. So we did some lateral thinking. How could we assess potential without disadvantaging dyslexic pupils? We devised an entrance by interview and assessment that included a full Educational Psychologists report, a school visit, a parental interview, further testing and a whole team discussion. In the end we had piles of information to make decisions. It is detailed and personal, plays to their strengths, measures potential and takes away some of the terror these kids would feel when faced with a timed exam. 

What do we mean by bright dyslexics? Crudely, we’re looking for those individuals who, we believe, have the potential, personally and intellectually, to be successful in a traditionally academic environment. Dyslexia is not a simple condition and can present from the mild to the severe depending on a variety of factors, some of which overlap with related conditions such as dyspraxia and ADHD: but it always seems to involve some degree of phonological difficulties and problems with short-term memory and organisation, all of which significantly disadvantage a child in a school. We look for those who have literacy levels that allow them to cope with the volume and pace of our school while benefiting from intensive support. So by bright we mean those with the same abilities to understand and deal with information as other students - except that they are dyslexic.  It’s a fine judgement based on what we think is best for each learner.  It seems to work. Our students are happy and succeeding. Parents are supportive and working with us. All teachers have received training, are aware of these students’ needs and work closely with specialist dyslexia teachers.

 Many of our OpAL students still struggle to read and write at a level appropriate to their intellectual ability, but it is no longer the main issue in their lives and is not holding them back. And of course with success come the self-esteem and deep confidence to allow these youngsters to challenge themselves even further. They are all individuals and central to our understanding and treatment of these bright youngsters is the appreciation that they are all different. So flexibility in what and  how we teach is vital, and we try to take the failure (or, rather, the fear of it) out of the learning. Literacy levels may not match understanding but in the end, we reason, which is more important in this age? These students have spirit and talents which should be protected and nourished by educators. That’s where real self-esteem comes from: self-knowledge and success. These students are, or can be more than, the equal of their peers in class, on the playing fields, on the stage or in the common room. It can work; that’s why these tales of fear and failure frustrate us.

We began the programme as a matter of passion and principle: Ian has two dyslexic sons and knows the hurt and frustration that children and their parents suffer. We also spotted a business opportunity: there is no conflict between good education and good business. OpAL widens access to the school while maintaining our core principles and brings in boys and girls who might not otherwise come to WGS. Last summer we had our first set of GCSE results and the five students on the OpAL programme achieved 100% A*-C with 82% at A*-B. This compares with an overall figure for the year of 87.8% A*-B. There were lots of smiles: now A Levels have begun and the work continues. We think it's a fantastic result for our first cohort.  In overall pass rate and in terms of sheer work ethic the OpAL candidates have helped to raise the school’s game and it would be perverse to see their ‘difference’ as presenting the school with a problem.

We now have over thirty students on the full OpAL Programme (five to six per year). The OpAL students are full members of the school in every way but they follow an adjusted curriculum: in Years 7 to 9 they are withdrawn from languages (20% of the week’s teaching) and spend three-quarters of that time in one-to-two work covering literacy remediation, study skills, subject support, organisational strategies and time to catch up in what can be an exhausting day for dyslexic kids. They work immensely hard on the humdrum (but often, to them, immensely hard) business of mastering formulae, technical language, maths and, of course, spelling. In the other quarter most start learning Italian, which other students take up as an optional second or third language in Year 9. Some students carry on until GCSE with Italian and others find it too much - it depends on them.

Our OpAL department has become our Research and Development Department, bringing about a sea-change in teachers’ understanding of children’s learning – and thus of the range of teaching styles they need to adopt.  Our whole-school screening programme has identified more than 10% of the school as having mild dyslexic tendencies.  So now we’re flexible in how we structure teaching, learning and the curriculum to an extent we never dreamed of – and to everyone’s benefit.  We’re getting better all the time at giving all our students the best opportunities we can and at being more, not less, inclusive.

Thus flexibility and support seem to work: but even that limited amount of small-group work has a significant cost.  The parents of our OpAL students s pay an additional 33% (in effect, an additional term’s fees) for at least the first three years.

And that’s the point.  Helping dyslexic children is expensive.  Many who have the same difficulties as our OpAL students, but may not be fortunate enough to have the same level of compensating intellectual/creative strengths, will tend to need much more small-group or individual help.  There are schools that can help them too: indeed, there are schools up and down the country which, between them, provide for the whole range of dyslexia.  Some are residential.  They do wonderful work with children that our modest OpAL Programme could not begin to help.  But most are private, and pitifully few of the children who attend them are funded by Local Education Authorities: it helps, if you are dyslexic, to have affluent parents. 

There is a scandal here that is largely hidden. The nation should accept that dyslexia is expensive – in the short term. The long-term cost to society in lost potential is much greater:  it is not by chance that more than half of the prison population is dyslexic.  Currently the education system doesn’t accept these hard facts and parents of dyslexics, like those of children with a host of other difficulties, often spend years of heartbreak and frustration fighting a system that knows their child needs help but cannot or will not officially recognise the fact for fear of having to write what is in effect a blank cheque. 

Under-funding is a fact of life in maintained schools.  This leads to a rationing of time and resources, and those who lose out most are too often those whose needs are greatest.  They become awkward, a ‘problem’.  School special needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) end up fighting their own Local Authorities for funding for their pupils: what they win for them is invariably too little, too late.  The lives of many dyslexic children are wrecked by an institutionalised unwillingness to recognise their difficulty, an unwillingness that stems from a national refusal to fund its solution adequately.

Our OpAL Programme is demonstrating on a small, specialised scale – yet nonetheless scientifically and effectively - that targeted, appropriate and flexible support can help dyslexic children to compete on equal terms.  It starts by accepting the realities of the cost.  But it is proving that, like all other children, dyslexics thrive on challenge and, when given it on fair terms, succeed.  These children deserve better than they often get.

Bernard Trafford is Head of Wolverhampton Grammar School. Ian Tyler is Senior Tutor in charge of learning and founder Director of the school’s OpAL (Dyslexia) Programme.



Girl power is working – but there’s no need to panic

27th September 2000

So girls have beaten boys at A level.  That’s torn it.  I mean, when they did better at GCSE, we could blame it on the style of the exam.   As long as the boys won the long race to A level, degrees and jobs, there was no real problem.

But now the girls are doing better at A level too (and I hear they’re getting first class degrees at Oxbridge).  Suddenly we’ve realised there is a crisis after all.  Boys are underachieving. ‘I’m sorry, girls.  You didn’t do well really. It’s just that the boys did badly.’

I’m puzzled.  There’s something mean-spirited in this furore. Why can’t we just take pleasure in girls doing well?  Do boys have to outscore them?  I know glass ceilings still block women at work, but in school girls really are getting an equal chance now. They are even encouraged to do science!  I hate that girl-band music, but after æons of male repression, Girl Power is working. Hooray!

Where does this leave the boys? I’m not convinced boys are underachieving at A level. Their results haven’t slipped: the girls have simply cracked an exam that has long been suited to (and aimed at) the male learning style and have caught up. In any case, A level is not designed for all 18 year-olds, so linking it to a national problem has little meaning. 

Girls have been doing better at GCSE for years. They tend to like two years’ steady work, painstaking coursework and a straightforward exam.  Boys prefer a burst of frantic revision and the chance to take a few risks in the big paper at the end. Gross generalisations, of course, but maybe we should take a critical look at the nature of public exams.  Or just stop worrying, because in the end the boy/girl difference is pretty small.

There is a problem of boys underachieving, but it comes earlier.    Several years ago the Secondary Heads Association produced evidence that boys’ reading standards were falling at age 11, when most enter secondary school.  Government meanwhile reckons that disaffection sets in at Year 9 (13-14 year-olds).  Nationally we’re seeing a swathe of boys with low aspirations and a disinclination to commit to education, in case they fail. We all agree on the problem, but not its solution.

What will not solve it is the wholesale return to single-sex teaching that people have been shouting about this summer.  I don’t accept that boys’ reluctance to commit to their education is simply rooted in their fear of failing in front of the girls in their class, nor that their disruptive behaviour is designed to impress them.  My experience is that lack of aspiration and motivation goes much deeper than boy/girl posturing. When the class dynamic is against work, I haven’t found that it is connected with boys distracting girls or vice versa.  Attention-seekers (boys and girls) generally want the teacher, not their peers, to take notice. Good teachers try to treat all children as individuals and challenge them to learn in the way that best suits them and their abilities.  That’s why class size matters.

We won’t tackle the ‘lad culture’ by teaching boys separately.  Instead we should be addressing issues outside school as well as inside; for a start, male unemployment, the lack of male role models for boys and the perception that drinking 14 pints is cool.  In school we need to generate an atmosphere of high expectation for all children. There is no reason why boys and girls cannot work hard in the same classroom: being human, though, some boys and some girls won’t work as hard as they should. That’s a challenge for the teacher, but a well-managed co-educational classroom adds enormously to confidence and self-esteem in both boys and girls.

Since my school became co-educational in 1992, I’ve watched life become richer, happier and more exciting for everyone, in the classroom and outside. Neither boys nor girls feel obliged to conform to stereotypes any more than their counterparts in single-sex schools – though in a mixed school girls are perhaps less pressured and a little kinder, and the boys less inclined to sexism. The five 11 year-old boys who travelled with the school choir to Prague this year (outnumbering the girls at that age) don’t think there’s anything sissy about singing. Nor did the girls give up when it hurt or worry about their hair when (with the boys) they ran a 180-mile coast-to-coast relay in May. Doing things together is ‘real life’, as the boys and the girls describe it enthusiastically.

Oh, and don’t be fooled by claims that league tables ‘prove single-sex schooling is best.’  They don’t.  Top-performing schools earn their position, not because they are single-sex but thanks to long traditions of high expectations and excellent teaching – and ferocious competition for places in them. Most of these fine schools are single-sex because, when they were founded, no one thought about teaching boys and girls together – or, for a few centuries, about teaching girls at all.

Girls have come a long way and shattered the stereotypes. So let’s celebrate their great A level achievement and give the boys credit for maintaining their performance. Coeducational congratulations to all!