Writer, musician, educationist
Writer, musician, educationist
Bernard's writing for The Leader
(Journal of the Association of School and College Leaders)
Say what you mean
Maybe it’s my age, but nowadays I frequently receive email messages that I can’t make head or tail of. Generally they come from hi-tech companies selling 21st Century services I neither understand nor want: but a recent one had me completely stumped.
It offered me “a free event to learn how to make your enterprise mobility deployment a future-proof success.” It also promised that I would “learn how mobilising company information traditionally retained within the confines of a SAP infrastructure can now empower frontline workers.”
My first instinct was, like Basil Fawlty confronted by a German speaker, to respond, “I’m sorry. I thought there was something wrong with you.” To be fair, I did work out that it was something to do not with electric scooters for the elderly but with mobile phones, mainly because the picture (I guess I should say a graphic) gave it away. Now, although I’m a head I’m not yet entirely out of touch, and I frequently do understand what the young people in my care are talking about: but I still don’t know what this unsolicited e-mail was trying to sell me.
Was it just marketing twaddle? Or was it genuinely the language of the telecoms industry? (“Telecoms”: get me!). I guess I may never know, since I didn’t sign up. But it was certainly gobbledygook.
When it comes to gobbledegook, we teachers aren’t blameless: we communicate among ourselves in jargon incomprehensible to outsiders. When I meet fellow heads we quickly slip into discussing the SEF and analysing the CVA before the SIP arrives; using the CAF with the SENCo; checking the EVC knows all about HASPEV (there will be a test later). What a PEST!
The trouble is, it gets out of hand: when the solution to the enormously complex human problem of bad behaviour in schools was reduced to a BIP, I knew we were in danger. “Put not your faith in acronyms”, whispered a still, small voice in my head. “It only encourages them.”
The danger is that we allow politicians and policy wonks to disguise their latest daft initiative with some neat, memorable initials or a slick acronym. Thus that cuddly word PANDA attempted to conceal another step along the road of reducing the myriad intricate interpersonal operations of a school to a set of bald figures. That fluffy animal gave way to RAISE, which never had the same magic.
Abbreviations are bad enough. But where we have missed a trick (once again!) is in the way language itself has been used to change emphasis and subvert meaning. We should have been prepared for it: George Orwell wrote about Newspeak more than sixty years ago.
Take one simple example of educational Newspeak. It’s more than a decade since we lost the words suspension and expulsion. Those terms, unloved but necessary, had a meaning in the educational world: they were redolent of the agonisingly-taken human decisions that lay behind them. Their replacement, the impersonal term exclusion (temporary or permanent), somehow distanced the decision from schools, taking it into the hands of the bureaucrats and Local Authorities who consistently overturn and undermine the authority of heads.
Other single words have been adopted to imply a brisk efficiency, only to gain a common currency with loaded meaning. The Blair government was obsessed with “delivery”. It even set up a PM’s Delivery Unit which, it turned out, was not some kind of replacement for the Post Office (though ironically that might have proved of more use). Nowadays schools and teachers lapse into talk of “delivering the curriculum” and “delivering diplomas”. The implication that you make your plan, “deliver” a lesson and Bob’s your uncle is as spurious as it’s sinister. It reinforces the sausage-factory view of education prevalent ever since the National Curriculum was wished on us more than 20 years ago: raw materials and funding in, predictable outcomes delivered at the other end. It sounds convincing but we know it isn’t like that at all. The truth is more like stuffing random ingredients into the front end of a pig: we all know what comes out the back end.
The sort of management-speak that, to add gravitas, uses several words where one would suffice - so that window-cleaners become Fenestration Visibility Solutions and dustmen Refuse Processing Operatives – has combined with that politically loaded language to form a new Edubabble. It turns report-writing into Summative Assessment and Target-Setting, and keeping order into Behaviour Management Strategies. Then there was the new Academy built without a playground: asked how the children would get a drink without playtime it declared that pupils would “hydrate during the learning experience”.
This kind of language is highly infectious, viral even. We rarely notice ourselves lapsing into Edubabble: it’s just too easy. The current regime at the DCSF simply repeats mantras in response to any criticism: dare to complain about excessive safeguarding paperwork and a spokesman (who forgot his or her own name years ago) merely echoes in a mechanical monotone: “The safety of children is paramount”.
Don’t expect any change there, then. But what of the Brave New World offered by the Tories? They’re all geared up for Mending Our Broken Society. In their education manifesto they’re promising “increased choice and accountability, rigorous standards and greater prestige for the teaching profession.” See what I mean? They’ve caught it too.
There’s no escape. I’m off to a provider of Liquid Relaxation and De-stressing Solutions.
That’s right. I’m going down the pub.
One step beyond
It was former US President Bill Clinton who famously empathised with the unemployed, saying, "I feel your pain." Whether that utterance was a moving expression of shared sorrow or merely mawkish sentimentality for the media, in writing this to express fellow feeling with colleagues in the maintained sector, I can't do better than start by quoting Bill. I do feel your pain. Let me explain.
It’s a personal story. I represented independent schools on ASCL’s Council for 11 years. I always remembered John Dunford's admonition (as SHA President then, not General Secretary of ASCL) that we worked for all the members, not just one constituency.
So I served variously as Equal Opportunities Officer and ran Publications (with the delightfully descriptive shorthand, PubOff). Throughout that time, school leaders suffered unrelenting government pressure. The dying Major administration starved schools of funds and created its very own Rottweiler, OFSTED, to bully schools into raising standards.
Tony Blair's landslide election of 1997 brought threats to independents, but none could fail to be swayed by his passionate commitment to education, education, education. Heady days: but how swiftly hope and anticipation turned to interference, micromanagement, ill-thought-out initiatives, strings attached to every element of funding – not to mention target-setting and inspection regimes of a degree of hostility way beyond Tory dreams.
At Council meetings I marvelled how my colleagues battled on in a Looking-Glass world of contradictions and frustrations. I frequently returned to my independent school hugely relieved that I could stand aside from most of those government-inspired lunacies.
But now, right at the tail end of a floundering government, madness has finally caught up with the independent sector. An obsession with regulation and abhorrence of anyone acting independently has given rise to one piece of legislation after another, enforced by a tightly OFSTED-controlled inspection system by than in the past. Independent schools now have to meet around a hundred regulatory standards.
The overwhelming majority of ASCL members work in the maintained sector: please don't think I'm asking for your sympathy. As the song goes, “Don’t cry for me, poor school leader.” You’ve been living with all this for ever. But I can now say I understand what you're going through. Like Bill (and I mean this most sincerely, folks), "I feel your pain."
Moreover Sanctuary Buildings constantly changes the same old regulations - just enough to be really awkward so that we have to keep checking the newest guidance and tweaking our policies. I confess that my statutory Complaints Policy bears a striking resemblance to that of the school I left eighteen months ago. In 2007 that policy sailed through inspection. Now, if I didn’t change it, it would fail three regulatory standards: it didn't state the precise timescale for each stage. Not did it say where the written outcome would be filed. I’ve some colourful ideas for where to stick it: but I've never had to go to a formal complaints process anyway. Maybe I've been lucky, or maybe reasonable people can find better ways of sorting out a disagreement.
My school secretary produced, with an air of triumph, the DCSF's instructions for the format of the Admissions Register dated June 2008, all ticked off because she’d met every requirement – er, but they differed from the 2007 regulations quoted in the 2009 Handbook! Up the short ladder: down the long snake.
You couldn't make it up. Well, maybe we did once upon a time, but you wouldn't dare now.
None of this affects the quality of education for my boys and girls. Nor their safety. As I write this the Independent Safeguarding Authority’s bewildering new rules (still more regulatory standards) are on hold while Sir Roger Singleton reviews them. In my view registering a quarter of the adult population is logistically so mind-boggling that I’d put a tenner on the whole system collapsing in the first three months.
Teachers have always suspected it, but the lunatics are now clearly running the asylum. Having had a real taste of the world my maintained sector colleagues have inhabited for so long, I am fuller than ever of admiration for the way you keep the show on the road despite the meddling of ministers, mandarins and LA minions.
Does it have to be like this? Panic is spreading in the major parties as the election looms. Yesterday's proposed policy is denied today as an irresponsible rumour: today's wacky idea is tomorrow's new manifesto. Notwithstanding politicians’ limitless capacity to shoot themselves in the foot, it seems the next government will be Conservative. Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove has promised to slash back bureaucracy and regulation and to set schools free. But, if he wins, will he? The track record of new governments suggests not. History shows that they're so busy rushing their bright ideas into place that they simply build a new, incredibly complex edifice on the crumbling remains of the old labyrinth.
This time they’re on the back foot. None of the parties and few politicians have come out of credit crunch and expenses scandal smelling of roses. They have a mountain to climb to regain public trust and respect. Isn’t now the time we really can demand honesty from politicians? Force them to keep their word instead of breaking promises? Hold them to account? Maybe. It’s certainly worth a try.
And ASCL is the organisation to do it for schools. It has clout, expertise and reputation. It needs to be in there banging the table. And, if there's anything I can add and you ask me along, I'll be there too.
Remember. I feel your pain.
It’s a curious thing how in one period a person can be regarded as a loony, and in another a guru. I’ve just had an inkling of that recently. In the 1990s I was researching into, and then writing about, School Councils, the process of democratising schools and school management. About how to ensure that all the members of a school feel valued as individual human beings; that they are treated fairly and with dignity whatever their age, status, background; and that their opinions about their school are accorded respect.
Back in the 1990s, that kind of thinking was dynamite! People like me were regarded as dangerous lunatics, threatening to undermine the very fabric of school authority and discipline. How will we keep order, it was asked, if kids can just do or say what they like?In the school year 2007/8 that kind of agenda seems pretty obvious and unlikely to rouse any but the most die-hard right-winger to complain about ‘political correctness gone mad’ or (heaven help us!) the iniquities of European Human Rights legislation.
How things change! I’ve progressed from the lunatic fringe to the heart of right-on thinking in less than a decade. Now School Councils are at the top of the agenda. As Chair of School Councils UK I shared in September a platform with no lesser figures than Education Minister Lord Adonis, Sir Al Aynsley-Green (Children’s Commissioner), university professors and the media to the launch of not one but two important pieces of research into the beneficial effects of School Councils.
It is now widely accepted that Pupil Voice is not just a valuable, but a vital component in school improvement. It makes a powerful contribution to learning and teaching. The recent report School Councils – School Improvement launched in September suggested that, the braver schools are in involving pupils in working on behaviour issues, on observing teaching and learning, in getting stuck into the very fabric of school and its work, the greater the benefits will be (even if one teacher, when asked if she’d like to join a pilot scheme of pupil-observers, retorted in outrage, ‘I’m not having a pupil watching me teach!’ Hmm).
It works. In many ways, the argument has been won. So, job done, then?
It is true that more and more schools are seeing the value of advanced uses of Student Voice. It moves beyond the old School Council discussions of toilets and how soggy the chips (remember those?) are or were in the canteen, and gets into the heart of school improvement. It impresses Ofsted, too.
But there are pitfalls here, too. It’s very easy to concentrate on these new, ‘advanced’ uses of Pupil Voice and overlook the time-consuming business of trying to run a representative, elected School Council efficiently, with meeting times to find, agendas to produce, minutes to circulate. I’ve heard school leaders say, ‘We’ve got a School Council. We’ve done all that. We want to move on.’
Move on, by all means, but don’t move away. There’s a real danger that schools will get so engrossed in getting children beavering away on focus groups, behaviour panels and T&L teams that they'll neglect the fundamental mechanism from where that sense of involvement came, the elected School Council.
If they do neglect it, the processes of school improvement in which these children are engaged will become detached from the student body. The school may be scrupulous in choosing (oops! there's the catch) a good range of genders, cultures, backgrounds, abilities. They may be enlightened enough to get some tricky customers onto behaviour panels, to let them see that sometimes intractable problem from the other side. But if those participants, however willing, aren't both validated by the school council and answerable to it (not just to the school's senior management), the school hasn't got Student Voice anymore: it's just created a prefect or monitor system by another name.
Pupil Voice has become such a powerful contributor to school improvement because, where it is successful, it has grown out of a burgeoning school democracy. So where students have committed themselves to these new ways of working - or, come to that, where there is just a good, solid, hard-working and effectively managed School Council - all their voluntary extra effort comes because children have a sense of contributing to what they see as "our school". When school democracy is good, it is visceral. Pupils feel deep down a sense of belonging; that the school is there for them; and that they have the opportunity - and, yes, the duty - to do what they can to make it better; for themselves and for others; for their peers and for the children who will follow them.
School democracy is so beneficial because it's both a morally right and a pragmatic way of operating a school. New initiatives in Pupil Voice should only increase that benefit. But we humans are quick to take short cuts. There's a real temptation to cut corners here: and there's a real risk that, far from strengthening the democratic, co-operative ethos that a school with a successful council enjoys, we will dismantle what we have achieved.
So, yes, let’s push Student Voice. It’s great. But let’s make sure it grows out of real school democracy where everyone’s voice is heard and respected, not just those in the room at the time.
When I was an undergraduate at Oxford30 years ago, the prison was just that, a forbidding old jail. Now it's a luxury Malmaison hotel at the heart of a glitzy new development, in one of whose restaurants my wife and I ate the other day. By coincidence, the second episode of ITV’s recent Inspector Morse spin-off, Lewis, was set there: the writers were clearly as amused by the transformation as we were.
Oxford was looking grey and damp, but during the afternoon we nonetheless wandered the ancient streets, not least because we wanted to find somewhere for a cup of tea before taking in a college Evensong (we’re at that difficult – our children would say sad - age when tea, cake and choral music appeal). British cities are full of trendy coffee bars nowadays. In a recent piece about his home town, Wolverhampton, Financial Times columnistSathnam Sanghera (Young Journalist of the Year 2002) described a corner-sited Starbucks as an essential indicator of any right-on modern city. Oxford is stuffed with joints offering espresso, latte, Americano or cappuccino. But could we find anywhere that would offer us a pot of tea?
It is the pot that is at issue here. Starbucks, Costa, Caffè Nero: I have tried them all, and I love their coffee. Everyone of them will deliver any small aggressive espresso that takes the skin off your throat, an experience almost (but never quite) as searingly delightful as you can get inItaly. But they can't do tea. They seem to think it acceptable to fill a cup with boiling water - which by definition is immediately no longer boiling - and hand you a tea-bag to dunk in it at your leisure, inviting you to “help yourself to milk from over there". That might do for the strange herbal infusions that are becoming so popular nowadays: but it's not how you make tea.
20 years ago a colleague of mine, not normally given to prophecy, accurately foretold the demise of the dining table. Experts now tell us that families no longer sit together around the dinner table and share their experiences of the day. Instead they snack or graze and, if they eat together at all, they do so in front of television. This, we are told, is one of the symptoms of the breakdown of families and of transmitted family values. Add to that dangerous mix the lack of fathers or other male role models for teenaged boys and, these same experts tell us, the direct result is gang culture and that recent UNESCO report in which theUKcame top – for teenage misery.
Where the dining table has gone, the teapot has clearly followed. With their dozens of varieties of coffee and panini stuffed with roasted Mediterranean vegetables and mozzarella (and generally labelled panini’s, displaying a breathtaking disregard for both English and Italian grammar), these chains possess a veneer of sophistication. But beneath that shallow overlay there is a gaping void, a lack of real understanding. Tea cannot be an instant creation, fluffed up with milk, steam and chocolate flakes. It needs four minutes - five for a very delicate tea - for the leaves, or even a tea bag, to absorb the water and release their flavour: four vital minutes of anticipation, of relaxation, of conversation.
It seems our rushed culture nowadays finds it hard to accept that pleasurable pause. InStaffordstation buffet I was recently poured a (sadly paper) cup of tea from a large and friendly teapot. When I expressed my delight, the young lady serving me said, "I'm glad you like it. I had a customer yesterday who complained. He thought it was old-fashioned."
We face a stark choice. Either we act now, turn the clock back and restore the teapot to our society and culture or we face a future where teapots, dining tables and the other building blocks of civilisation are consigned to the theme park of quaint archaic customs – and where taking the dog for a walk becomes about as relaxing a pastime as strolling through Baghdad dressed as Uncle Sam.
There is a happy ending to my little story. InOxford’s famous indoor market there is an unpretentious cafe called Morton's. It served decent tea in a pot, and a lemon cake to die for. New College Evensong was near-perfection,Victoriaand Palestrina sung immaculately in eight parts. Call me an old git, but I think there is still hope for humanity.
Remember Victoria Wood on careers advice at school? "Our careers teacher was way ahead of her time. She was finding girls badly-paid dead-end jobs years before YTS." Present-day careers (sorry, Connexions) advisers should be warning young people against becoming Education Secretary. Long-term prospects are dodgy: four Secretaries of State have now received the PM's strong personal backing and almost immediately jumped or been pushed.
For women the DfES appears a political graveyard (maybe someone can explain Ruth Kelly's new Cabinet job to me - one hopes she’s not required to win over conference audiences). The men move on to great things at the Home Office but, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun and fall. Mind you, Icarus succumbed to technical failure whereas poor Clarkie was undone by a departmental shambles. Cock-up rather than conspiracy, then. As for Blunkett's fall from grace… On second thoughts, don’t go there.
Alan Johnson comes back to education from the exciting world of trade and industry (remember, he introduced university tuition fees, a measure as unforgivable now as it was then). On reshuffle day the BBC website described him as "a rising star, a Blairite and a confident media performer," and invited us to click on the link to read a profile of our new boss. It didn't work. Nothing moved, nothing changed. Not an omen, one hopes.
Further excitement unfolded on local elections/reshuffle day. A Labour rebel felt Blair should go now in order "to allow the new leadership to bed in before the next election." Given John Prescott's troubles, it was an unfortunate choice of metaphor.
The dismal news that the repulsive BNP won 11 seats in a London borough was slightly tempered by the knowledge that it was Barking, so at least that was an appropriate setting. All the more comforting when one remembers that, in the later Thatcher years, inner-circle Tories used to refer to the Iron Lady by the codename Upminster - because (in tube terms) it’s two steps beyond Barking.
In April I contrived to mingle with ASCL representatives at the International Confederation of Principals (ICP) in Iceland (the country, not the freezer store) and with a Council of Europe meeting in Romania. At both I was amazed, not for the first time, by the ease with which delegates from other countries speak spontaneously and fluently in English (and, in Europe, frequently switch with equal ease into French). How poor we Brits are in comparison. I struggle with a bit of French, Italian and German, and always try to welcome our exchange visitors into school in their native language. I wonder why, as I fumble for words, I can’t speak in a foreign language and smile at the same time? This may be a male inability to multi-task, or maybe my face just doesn’t smile readily when getting the tongue round foreign sounds. Whatever the reason, whenever I utter my pedestrian words of welcome, I feel I must be exuding all the warmth of a funeral oration.
I was startled to see on the front of Conference and Common Room, the HMC house magazine, a picture of Prince Charles under the strapline Gifted and Talented. That's not the usually expressed media view of the Heir’s academic record. Fortunately all was revealed. He was talking to some girls from North London Collegiate School, a regular top scorer in the (pernicious) league tables, and the title justifiably referred to them and to the Prince’s Trust Summer Schools held at their school.
It was good to read Deborah Duncan's excellent ASCL book on work-life balance (over Easter, of course, when I shouldn't have been doing anything education-related). I fully agreed about the necessity for school leaders to have a hobby. Gardening, for example: but then I was alarmed to hear on Radio 4’s Today programme that the theft of plants from gardens is becoming commonplace. No-one has nicked anything from mine, and frankly I feel left out. Okay, I don't get out in the garden much, not through lack of work-life balance but because I'm lazy - and I'm a lousy gardener. But I still feel excluded from this. Why isn't any plant thief interested in my front garden? In the one remaining pansy (the others faded away one by one) sheltering under the wonky flowering cherry? (I hurt my back so I got the little boy next door to dig the hole - he'd taken a shine to my daughter at the time - and never did get the supporting stake to stand vertical). Okay, so it's not much: but all I'm saying is, I feel slighted. I demand my right to have my plants taken seriously by burglars.
A Year 7 student was chatting to my deputy at the bus stop: "I live just round the corner from the Head. I saw him out walking with his wife on Sunday." As my colleague murmured something about my efforts to keep fit (and maybe work-life balance), the lad continued. "You’d think, with a big school to run, he’d have better things to do with his time!"
It was a roller-coaster end of term, the euphoria that greeted London’s victory in the 2012 Olympics tempered immediately by the shock of the London suicide bombings the next day. Even in theMidlands, a cosy distance from the capital, both feelings resonated among the young people in my school. It’s curious how a school can prove itself a microcosm of ‘real’ life outside. Amid a busy end of term, my school was facing its own local tragedy, a greatly-loved teacher gravely ill and in a coma. Life, particularly the life of the young, goes on as it must, but hurt and grief remain nonetheless. I always marvel at the way children work their way through that conflict of raw, clashing emotions. I felt proud and comforted by the way they enjoyed a couple of weeks full of cricket, athletics, concerts and other good things: but they didn’t allow that deep level of pleasure and fulfilment to jar with their own concern for a desperately ill teacher – nor for the hurting of others. That’s emotional intelligence. We teachers are never too old or experienced to learn from our pupils.
I found myself enduring yet another PowerPoint presentation where the speaker, failing to get the slides to change when he wanted, bemoaned ‘the trouble I have with different mouses – er, mice – er, mouses.’ Isn’t it time some authority – perhaps the OED, or even BECTA – made a definitive statement as to the plural of a (computer) mouse? At the same time they might like to find ICT technicians a form of words, when complaining that ‘pupils have been nicking the balls from the mice again’, that doesn’t make half the staff room (the male half?) smirk instead of sympathising.
The Guardian reported that the new Children’s Commissioner, Al Aynsley-Green, had rattled the cage of at least one teachers’ union within three weeks of taking up his post on 1st July. Al was proposing that children be involved in the selection of teachers: he said that children had played a part in his appointment – they set him a written test and then interviewed him – and that he believed it was a beneficial process. NAS/UWT General Secretary Chris Keates disagreed: ‘It is ridiculous, when people are being tested on the basis of their experience, their attitude and approach to teaching, to have children on the interviewing panel… It will become subjective about whether they take to the person or not.’
Surely we all end up making subjective judgements, however objective the process we set up? How many of us have ever appointed people we don’t take to? Not me. There is something about involving children in the appointment process that seems to touch teachers’ deepest fears (though some schools have done it successfully for years). I can remember a superb and otherwise supremely confident teacher saying anxiously to me, ‘What if I wanted to refer to a learned pedagogical paper? The pupils would be completely lost.’ I answered her (with complete honesty): ‘That would be the first time in fifteen years of interviewing that anyone’s quoted a paper!’ Only the other day I heard a teacher say it was ‘quite inappropriate…professional relationship…blurring boundaries’. Then he remembered that he’d been interviewed by pupils for his current post.’ How was it, I asked. ‘Oh, it worked very well.’ Then there was the teacher who asked, ‘Wouldn’t it put some teachers off applying, if they knew pupils would be involved?’ ‘I hope so,’ I replied…
Long live the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It may sound like Jim Hacker’s fictional department from Yes, Minister, but it really does exist, and recently sent 30 copies of the Citizenship Foundation’s Young Citizen’s Passport to every secondary school. Aimed mainly at 16 year-olds, this amazing little book tells youngsters their rights, the laws and regulations that affect them, how to keep out of trouble and what to do when they’ve got into it. Hold on: if it’s so brilliant (and it is), then why isn’t one going to every Year 11 student in the country? Simple. It would cost £1m or more: so it can’t be done. Schools, inspired by those 30 copies, will have to buy the rest themselves. Only 5/10 to DCA after all, then - though it’s not their fault that rationing is still alive and well in education.
In Rugbystation I caught sight of a Virgin Train named after Thunderbirds character Virgil Tracey. Is the truth out at last? When we scream in frustration at another cancelled train and join that dispirited group of travellers taking the alternative bus service laid on to Wyre Piddle (by way of Weymouth), is it because the network is still run by sixties puppets who just aren’t up to speed with 21st Century travel?
It was good to see the TES wade into ministerial (and prime ministerial) nonsense in the last issue of the summer term. In the face of justified ridicule on radio, Ruth Kelly quickly retracted her pronouncement that parents should have to stay at home to mind children excluded from school, having overlooked the impact on those same parents of the consequent loss of earnings, or even of their jobs (perhaps she and her boss thought the nanny would actually look after them). Thank goodness, said the TES editorial, for the ‘eminently sensible’ Sir Alan Steer, the hugely experienced and successful head who is running the discipline taskforce ‘and not the headline-grabbing comedians at the top’. Amen to that.