Bernard's pieces for the Tes

20 years and out: So long and thanks for all the fish

05 June 2020 

Bernard Trafford takes a bow on two decades as a Tes writer and columnist - and calls on Douglas Adams for some final sage advice

Way back in 1978, when I was doing my teacher training, the first radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast. 

It starts with the scheduled demolition of planet Earth by a Vogon space-fleet to make room for a new Intergalactic Space Highway. 

Our hero, Arthur Dent, escapes, with his alien friend Ford Prefect. 

But they’re not alone. 

It’s later revealed that the global population of dolphins, those supremely intelligent mammals, left the planet in the nick of time, leaving a message for humanity: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

My generation still delights in such cultural references as “knowing where your towel is”. 

Moreover, at times of crisis (such as the present), we know that the rallying cry of “Don’t panic” relates not so much to Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones as to the large, friendly lettering on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Meaningful advice

Fast forward from 1978 to 2020 and I’m being sent some touching messages of thanks from two former students, long-established professional musicians to whom I taught music variously between 1978 and 1984.

Both are elite performers: you’ll have seen one regularly on TV, backing top artists, while the other conducts regularly and inspirationally in major concert halls.

I presume both are freelance and self-employed so, unless their normal patrons or employers are especially generous, they’ll be receiving no income. My heart aches for the performing arts, and for those who work in them.

I worry about them, and about performing artists in general. Alas, so many things and so many people demand our concern in this unprecedented time: and there’s little advice one can usefully give.

Advice, experience and criticisms

That’s something new. When I retired in 2018, I reckoned 28 years of headship qualified me to keep writing regularly about education. 

I could claim to have encountered most problems likely to confront someone brave (or unwise) enough to try running a school. And, if I hadn’t, I surely knew someone who had, not least because I’d served on the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)’s Council for many years and done a lot of work across sectors and phases.

Thus I’ve felt able to sound off where I’ve thought my experienced voice might help. I’ve lambasted successive governments for underfunding, micromanaging, messing with structures, failing to listen to teachers and school leaders: for bullying parents as well as schools, talking tosh about standards and, too often, trying to drag education backwards to a mythical golden age that never existed. 

I’ve criticised bodies and quangos for too readily bowing to government pressure: exam boards and Ofqual for perpetuating bureaucratic and mechanistic systems that discourage creativity and originality; safeguarding authorities for creating labyrinthine procedures that spread more confusion than light; and Ofsted for adding to the problem of over-accountability.

By contrast, I hope I’ve sufficiently praised and encouraged teachers, school leaders and support staff: those wonderful people who work miracles day in, day out, create opportunities for their pupils and share their joy when they surprise themselves and their parents with what they achieve.

However, I’m not convinced that any of my long experience actually equips me to advise teachers or their leaders on how to “do” school in the current pandemic. 

Don't panic

The principles and values that drive us remain unchanged and must never be compromised, but the “how to” is an area in which I’d be arrogant to claim expertise.

Although, I guess I could simply repeat that helpful mantra, “Don’t Panic!”

Thus I must conclude that the bell has finally rung to mark the end of school for me: after many years of writing for Tes (I’m not sure how many, but possibly 20, on and off), and the last four or five contributing a weekly blog, it’s time to call a halt.

I’d like to express my thanks to anyone who has been able to face reading me more than once, and heartfelt gratitude to the great people at Tes who have put up with me, badgered me to meet deadlines and knocked my writing into shape.

Above all, good luck to everyone who continues to serve that noblest of purposes: the education of the young.

Finally, since I’m bailing out while my erstwhile colleagues battle with the most difficult of periods in education, I’ll close with Douglas Adams’s dolphins to say: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”


Lack of morals in government undermines teachers, again

30 May 2020

The Dominic Cummings saga is just another example of government actions undermining attempts to impart morals to pupils

How are you coping with those mind-numbing coronavirus briefings from Number 10? 

You know – the ones where hapless ministers trot out the latest set of dodgy figures? 

They boast of X zillion tests carried out (with less certainty on how many were analysed successfully) and billions of sets of PPE circulating in the country. 

Then the medical experts give us details of travel, hospital admissions and deaths (although we’re now no longer allowed to see comparisons with other countries) and talk us through unlabelled graphs that wouldn’t be acceptable in a Y6 maths class.

While the latest escapades are perhaps some of the most egregious many of us can recall, it’s hardly the first time I have written about glaring examples of government hypocrisy or dishonesty: usually involving a glaring lack of moral leadership.

Undermining key messages

In school, such instances are keenly felt: not personally, but on behalf of students. One of the functions of a school – a prime purpose, surely – is to provide a moral framework within which children can learn and grow. 

Without that, all those achievements – exam grades, even university places – are of limited worth. 

I always felt that those of us who occupied the assembly platform, for example, had a duty to remind everyone (not just the children) of the values that drove the school.

By contrast, successive Westminster scandals, lies or cover-ups have always seemed to me to undermine the positive moral messages that schools have a duty to promote. 

No change there, then, as current events are demonstrating. The senior advisor to the prime minister breaks the spirit (and, some three-quarters of the population reckon, the letter) of a law he helped write. 

When it becomes public, he won’t resign, the PM won’t sack him and ministers are obliged to perform moral and rhetorical gymnastics in supporting the insupportable.

They always do.

Ill-judged advice

Meanwhile, that same government insists that schools must reopen: defies scientific opinion; provides incomplete guidance; airily announces target dates; specifies which year-groups should start back when; and adds inexplicable instructions like “no rota-system”.

Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb declares that clinically vulnerable staff are in no danger and should turn up to school: they merely need to maintain distance.

I’d suggest maintaining a 260-mile distance: I’m given to understand that’s both safe and legal.

While policymakers are confused about the reasons for reopening schools (they never closed, remember), fail to identify their priorities (real education, or just childcare so parents can get back to work?) and remain hazy on details (just how do we do real school when socially-distanced?), there’s one fact on which they, however much they bumble and dissemble, can rely.  

Schools will make it work, while government flounders. Teachers, support staff, school leaders: all will come together and somehow achieve the impossible, for the sake of the children. 

And, at the same time, they’ll continue to give kids a moral compass when government creates only a vacuum.

They always do. 

And for those of you who work those miracles, on the educational front line: you have my continued admiration. 

You always have.


School reopenings: '1 June looms but questions abound'

22 May 2020

Bernard Trafford runs through the issues still casting doubt on the reopening of schools. There are a few, to put it mildly

As I write this, the government remains committed to reopening primary schools for some year groups in England on 1 June.

Now, though, it’s softening that message, recognising that it won’t happen in some areas as it seeks to de-escalate its standoff with the teacher unions, while councils and mayors jump both ways. 

Although, by the time you read this, things will probably have changed again, right now we have school leaders caught planning to reopen (while pointing out they never actually closed) but begging for guidance on how to do it (which children, how many?) and safely (what about protecting staff? To PPE or not to PPE? Can children socially distance in school?). 

Teachers want to get back to teaching but rightly demand safety, on which medics (“we’re all following the science”) remain split. Meanwhile, Boris’ promise of “world-beating” test-and-trace system sometime soon is less than convincing.

There are so many more issues still to be resolved – probably at the school (or local) level while largely ignoring the government’s airy blandishments.

The needs of children

Children are missing out too – on the whole experience of school, even where they’re receiving a lot of online teaching. 

All accept the urgent need to pull back into school the children who most need it: the vulnerable, disadvantaged, neglected, looked-after; those at risk of abuse or of being drawn into crime.

Alas, the latter groups frequently fall into the category of being “hard to reach”: the ones who, even in normal times, struggle to attend school regularly. 

During lockdown, figures suggest that few of those for whom schools were kept open took advantage of this fact. 

It’s naive to assume that will change when, during partial reopening with many parents unwilling to send their children in, school attendance will not be enforceable.

Rearranging rooms

Next, there’s the whole question of the socially distanced classroom: children two metres apart, no sharing of equipment, books or indeed anything. 

Michael Gove, former education secretary, suggested it will require a “traditional” approach. I might substitute more negative adjectives 

How will schools organise 15 children to a class, when the norm is 30? Presumably, with only some year groups in school, one class can be taught in two classrooms. 

But who teaches the other half? Won’t the teachers whose classes aren’t in school be busy teaching them remotely, as at present? Schools don’t have spare staff to double up.

Or will half the class be in school and the other half receiving the lesson online? That calls for a big step up in tech provision.

Should pupils come into school in shifts? Tough for a class teacher teaching the same programme twice in a day. Moreover, for working parents fitting childcare around their jobs, late starts or early finishes are maddening at the best of times. And this isn’t the best of times.

And what about deep cleaning between teaching sessions?

Those left at home

Beyond all that, this isn’t really about whole schools. Next year’s exam groups may cling to the PM’s promise of some kind of face-to-face contact with their teachers before the end of the summer term. 

Otherwise, the majority of the nation’s schoolchildren will remain at home for a while yet, coping with remote teaching that is variously reported as ranging (according to the level of resource that schools and parents enjoy) from five hours a day on Zoom or Microsoft Teams (pretty intense for teachers and students alike) to the desultory provision of worksheets.

Are teachers still meant to be delivering these lessons as normal, or will the workforce split in two between in-school and remote staff?

Will work be graded the same between the two groups or require new expectations and allowances for the circumstances of each learning environment?

A simple plea

Above all, the reopening of schools, whatever form it takes, must be done properly, something in which schools, school leaders, teachers and their unions can all rejoice and take pride.  

It must constitute real education that offers children valuable learning: not a quick fix, not a fudge to get parents back to work, not an economic convenience for policymakers to notch up as a success in blatant contradiction of the reality on the ground.

So much to resolve. 


Book review: The Three Minute Leader

15 May 2020

Bernard Trafford finds much to admire in this pithy leadership book crammed with ideas and insights - even if it doesn't have anything to say about going to the pub

The Three Minute Leader

Author: Roy Blatchford

Publisher: John Catt Educational Ltd 
Details: 68pp, £10
ISBN: 9781912906901

Remember those management and self-help books perched, in pre-downloading days, next to Word Processing for Dummies in airports and stations? 

Many were arrant tosh, but among the good ones was Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager

That clever how-to book distilled Blanchard’s lifetime’s management experience into bitesize nuggets of wisdom, including his now-famous dictum of “catching people doing things right”. 

So I was intrigued to come across Roy Blatchford’s book, The Three Minute Leader. It appeared he was treading familiar ground. 

But despite the similarities in the title, there’s nothing derivative about the content of Blatchford's book.

Short and to the point

Roy Blatchford is a former head, HMI and founder of the National Education Trust and Blinks. Among much else, he wrote The Forgotten Third, that recent, crucial report into the proportion of 16-year-olds condemned to GCSE failure. 

Hold on! Does anyone need a leadership book when, right now, all school leaders are firefighting, working miracles in keeping education going during national lockdown? 

Yes, they do. When things went crazy, I used to look in the metaphorical mirror and take stock of my efforts at school leadership. 

In fact, that's where this book really shines by offering a useful, accessible, window into the myriad elements that comprise leadership in schools in the form of 101 topics, each occupying only a half-page, making it a quick and easy read, yet packed with insights and ideas.

A numbers game

Themes recur and develop, if serendipitously. For example, leaders must communicate a vision (number 54), be ambitious (24), dream (97) and maintain high expectations (98). 

While you can tighten systems to create a good school, you must loosen them to be excellent (53): excellence, we’re reminded, is a habit (81), recalling an inspirational chapter from Blatchford’s 2014 publication The Restless School

It’s done by talking and listening to colleagues and children (3, 4), knowing your community and setting (7), grabbing opportunities to compliment (2) and praise (62). Unlike most politicians, good leaders talk about what “we” achieve, not “I” (44), remembering that they are both servant (78) and enabler (36).

There are contradictions to be found, though. Leaders must grasp nettles (5), yet avoid diving in (33) and learn to live with grey areas, seeking “and/and” rather than “either/or” solutions (77). 

Similarly counterintuitive is the need for leaders to thrive on accountability (22) and take the rap “when the s**t hits the fan” (32), while simultaneously taking risks (19, 96), confronting authority (18) and reassuring colleagues that the customer isn’t always right (51).

Intellectual school leadership requires encouraging colleagues to read, research and write (73), while wise leaders (following Machiavelli, the author might have added) appoint people smarter than them (74). 

And, just as a reminder of the tough bits, they have to live largely without thanks or praise (42), care more than others think is wise (95) and, humbly, look in that mirror and periodically ask themselves by what right they lead anyone (99).

Missing elements

So what’s missing? To discussions of the balance between judgment and luck (50) and trusting your instincts (15), I’d add leaning on and learning from others’ experience. 

Keep in touch with an old friend and/or former colleague who’s trodden a similar career path. Above all, phone them when the solids really hit the air conditioning (see 32).

The book is maybe light on the subject of changing institutions, a hard topic to render bitesize. Leaders who know change is essential often have to be tough and brave, dodging “harpoons” (89), but should beware the temptation of pushing through change for the sake of putting their personal stamp on the place.

Finally, I always thought taking colleagues to the pub was important. My retirement bash was actually held in a brewery: I didn’t organise it, but it furnished endless staff jokes.

Leadership is a complex matter but it rests on simple, basic truths, which this excellent little handbook presents in easily digestible form without becoming glib or cosy.

It’s disturbingly prophetic. Even the current crisis is effectively addressed in the closing section, which quotes sci-fi author William Gibson, who cannily observed that “the future is already here, but it’s just not very evenly distributed”. 

“Schools risk realising too late that they are cooked – marooned in a different age,” Blatchford concludes, though “astute leaders have started their preparations”.

Astute leaders will buy and read this book, too.


Two harsh realities schools, and government, must face

09 May 2020

Planning for the 'new normal' must acknowledge two tough truths: that the curriculum will be irrelevant, and the attainment gap will be even wider

The current coronavirus buzzwords have moved from “unprecedented times” to planning for the “new normal” – whenever that may be.   

But what of the present “normal”?

Tes’ recent survey found that 86 per cent of schools kept their doors open for some pupils last week, while busting a gut to maintain teaching for all in one form or another. 

Many are teaching face-to-face online, digitally replicating traditional classrooms. Sixty-nine per cent of schools claim they’re remotely teaching more than three hours a day. 

This didn’t satisfy Tony Blair’s former schools minister: Lord Adonis infuriated teachers by snitching to Ofsted, denouncing “poor practice” where state schools were not providing a “full teaching programme”. 

Yeah, right. Schools had all of a couple of days to completely redesign the nature of teaching. 

They’re attempting the impossible, and deserve praise, not brickbats. Back in March, secretary of state Gavin Williamson himself admitted that keeping schools open was “largely about providing safe spaces” and that “they’re not going to be teaching the national curriculum”. 

However, since lockdown, many for whom continuing attendance was planned – children identified as vulnerable – are not turning up. It’s hardly surprising. 

When it comes to virtual classrooms, even the most highly organised, best-resourced schools, whose staff are teaching their digital socks off, can’t ensure 100 per cent attendance.

Some reluctant teenagers require a parent to drag them out of bed and get them logged on: note the sweeping assumption made there.

To misquote Star Trek: “It’s schooling, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Now, as another new normal is set to take shape in schools, two harsh realities must be confronted.

1. Forget the curriculum

I’m not reigniting the knowledge-rich vs skills-based debate but, seriously, it’s not the important thing right now.

The curriculum is too easily characterised as a huge, unstoppable juggernaut slowly lumbering past, onto which children must clamber aboard – or be left behind. 

The reality is different. The curriculum doesn’t exist physically. It’s just a concept, a plan of things that government (too often) and schools (when they’re allowed) reckon they’d like children to learn, experience and do at particular ages and phases. 

If, in this crisis, kids with supportive homes and a measure of cultural capital behind them miss out on a term or two of that fairly arbitrary content, they’ll still survive and thrive – as many do if serious illness forces them to miss a period of schooling. 

Since GCSE and A-level candidates have lost time on syllabus (sorry, specification) coverage, Ofqual and exam boards should agree to slim down content for 2021. They can do that without compromising standards. 

Candidates can still demonstrate subject knowledge and competence, just with a bit less “stuff” learned. Sats, too.

2. Mind the gap

Did you spot my omission? Of course you did. You’re already shouting at your screen: “What about the children who lack significant support and cultural capital at home?” 

For many well-documented reasons, disadvantaged children are less likely to be benefiting from remote teaching. 

While the fortunate kids I described above will tick over even if they do little more than learn their times tables and read at home, their less-favoured peers are missing out on the acquisition of necessary learning and skills.

As the Sutton Trust keeps warning, the gap’s real, and growing. This is the single greatest challenge facing schools. While lockdown continues, the hardest to reach will remain the hardest, for all the technology that works so well with those readily in touch. 

When we finally return to the “antediluvian, archaic, 19th-century” model of having all pupils in school together (I’ve probably used all those adjectives in the past), most teachers and students will rightly sigh in relief: its absence has demonstrated its worth. 

But the breadth of the disadvantage gap will be revealed as both glaring and alarming. 

Former HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw proposes pulling these children into school at weekends and through holidays. To me, that sounds divisive and potentially demotivating. 

Yet a solution must be found. This is an educational emergency. 

All planning for education’s “new normal” at both national and institutional levels must position the gap at its very heart. 


10 things that will be better after the lockdown

18 April 2020

Teachers trusted, scientists respected, kindness in fashion and seven other improvements 

Last week, even as the PM was going into intensive care, journalists and commentators were already demanding details of the strategy and timing for exit from lockdown. And the clamour has only grown since then. 

Such silly speculation comes far too early. Nonetheless, this unprecedented (that word again) period has already changed many societal attitudes. So, here are 10 things that may feel very different for schools and teachers at the other end of the tunnel. 

1. Parents complain less and…

Parents obliged to take up the burden of teaching their own have discovered that it’s not easy. Perhaps that inflexible teacher wasn’t the problem after all? Maybe it was their offspring kicking off? 

2. …do a bit more

Meanwhile some, quick to complain about online teaching, made the uncomfortable discovery that the teaching would have been fine, albeit different, if they’d only got the little darling out of bed and logged on.

3. Home education isn’t just for weirdos

No longer branded the escapist ploy of hippies, weirdos and abusers, it’s now respected as a brave and tough option. 

4. Tech vs face-to-face teaching

Use of technology for learning has taken a great leap forward during the crisis. But, before policymakers decide to save zillions of pounds by abolishing school buildings, let’s be clear: children need both/and, not either/or. Pupils currently miss the human dimension, face to face, in the same room; and they miss the in-school care, pastoral and physical, that’s been too often undervalued – until now. Hats off to the heroes keeping that going through lockdown.

5. Teachers are trusted and…

Trusted? It’s almost impossible to believe, after three decades of governments mistrusting teachers, checking up on them and taking exam responsibilities off them. But, with this year’s public exams cancelled, candidates can gain qualifications only if teachers are trusted to grade them. Teachers may have to relearn habits and practices removed from them – but, hey, they’re professionals. This could usher in a brave new world in which they can once more innovate and experiment, and in which…

6. …inspection is paused and reset

The law of perverse incentives declares teachers cannot grade candidates objectively if their own jobs depend on those marks. This is a game changer. Ofsted won’t judge schools on 2020 results, while calls are growing for inspection to be paused in 2020-21. This is a need and a real chance, long overdue, to review and reset the accountability regime. 

7. Science and scientists are valued

Government has wisely surrounded itself with experts in this crisis: another turnaround. Scientists and the medics we applaud weekly are now respected instead of being rubbished. So maybe more kids in school will want to study science and follow careers that “make a difference”. Particularly if science teachers are trusted and resourced to do practicals and all the exciting stuff again – those smells and explosions never did us oldies any harm.

8. Handwashing is de rigeur

When norovirus swept the country a few years ago, schools pushed kids (and adults) to wash and sanitise their hands. If good habits learned during this much more severe health crisis persist, infections and bugs will be reduced in schools and public places.

9. We love the BBC again

Before Covid-19, the pernicious campaign against the BBC and its licence fee was gaining traction at an alarming rate. Auntie has provided more objective information about the virus and responses to it than, I reckon, any other network, and produced unprecedented (that word again!) quantities of educational materials. Hey, it even advanced screening of its adaptation of Malory Towers! Public-service broadcasting has received the fillip it desperately needed.

10. Kindness rules

Children writing letters to isolated strangers and neighbours. Young people in supermarkets surrendering their hard-won pasta to old folks, saying, “You need this more”. Acts of generosity to key workers from people of all ages. All those worthy, uplifting assembly talks are coming true! In contrast to the past few miserable years of political backbiting and societal division, this surely furnishes hope for the future, and for our children above all.  


Parents now realise what a tough gig teaching is

05 April 2020

One of the side-effects of the lockdown is that parents are gaining new respect for teachers, says Bernard Trafford

How quickly things change. 

As recently as three weeks ago, schools were unsure whether they would all closed by coronavirus (although some were already struggling to continue normal operations as staff became ill or were obliged to self-isolate). But today teachers and other education professionals are two weeks into providing in-school tuition and care to children of key workers and to those judged vulnerable and attempting to organise such things as food vouchers. 

There are thousands of teachers setting and marking work by email, even teaching lessons “live” via such software as Zoom (which Downing Street uses to link journalists to its daily briefings). That group overlaps with the former, of course: and all are simultaneously concerned for their own health, and that of partners and children, parents and elderly friends.

Social media is not awash with appreciation of these educational heroes: their role is less obviously “frontline” than that of health workers. Worse, there have been depressing reports of some schools expecting staff to tick boxes and complete task-lists, apparently to prove that they’re keeping busy when their schools are (largely) closed. 

Coronavirus: Parents show their appreciation of teachers

Sadly, that kind of mean-spiritedness still survives in dark corners of the system. It echoes similar strictures that some small-minded micro-managers (hopefully a tiny minority of school leaders) imposed on teachers when, not that many years ago, schools began employing exam supervisors in the summer term. 

I confess I was surprised in Tes to see Harris Federation boss Sir Dan Moynihan describing the pandemic as a “golden opportunity” for schools to “use the [current] down time for a lot of curriculum development work” with the aim of reducing teacher workload for the long-term. Forgive me, but if I were still working in schools, right now I’d be concentrating on simply getting through this period, not describing it as “down time”. But, then, I was never superhuman: nor, indeed, a superhead. 

By contrast, teachers have received a big thumbs-up from parents in this crisis. Forced to keep their children at home and to attempt at continuing their education, with varying degrees of input from school, they have suddenly realised what a tough gig teaching is.

Some swots were on top of it from the start (though you might argue that they’re in the trade anyway). Tes’ own North of England reporter, John Roberts, observed wryly on Twitter that his wife was: “Showing massive enthusiasm for home-schooling. Already doing a timetable. Expect us to have a motto and curriculum intent statement by the end of the week.”

For most parents, though, it’s been a tough learning experience. As one parent tweeted: “After 1 week with a seven and nine-year-old, my admiration for primary school teachers is off the scale... To keep kids that age fully focused and deliver the work they do.... Totally amazing.”  

Another kept it simpler: “After 30 minutes of trying to teach my six-year-old, I think teachers should all be paid £1m a year.”

Yet another quoted a hyper-critical nine-year-old daughter, who wrote: “Now we are at home being taught by unqualified teachers.” The parent added: “I think she means me. I am trying my best.”

This dismay was echoed in an essay by a Year 8 pupil tweeted by a North-East school. “Lockdown is dreadful. I am so bored and fed up already... It is far worse than I expected it to be: I wish I was back at school. I have unending amounts of work which feel like they will go on forever.”

I don’t think this crisis will lead to million-pound salaries for teachers any time soon: but we might hope that this new-found respect for teachers and schools will persist.

Indeed, when it’s all over, let’s ensure that parents and policymakers (particularly those who are parents) remember that teaching and learning are easy for neither teachers nor pupils. As Dickens’ Mr Bumble wished (in vain) for The Law, their eyes have been opened by experience. 

Don’t let them close them again.


Is this the moment to throw off our political chains?

28 March 2020

The coronavirus epidemic presents an opportunity to completely reimagine the education system’s age-old priorities

Buzz word of the week? "Unprecedented."

Overused as it is, it remains le mot juste. Nothing in my experience compares with what school leaders (and teachers) are coping with in the coronavirus crisis: so I won’t even begin to offer clever advice.

Instead, I’ll look to the future. A situation so challenging and entirely novel, in which people and institutions – whole nations, indeed – have to devise whole new ways of operating, cannot help but change attitudes and assumptions. Above all, priorities may be radically altered, and things hitherto taken for granted valued in entirely different ways. 

In education, the first assumption rocked to its foundation was the very purpose of schooling, which took on a different aspect as soon as schools became, well, unavailable to most families.

When I used to challenge my own pupils about why they went to school, and/or my school in particular, they’d invariably answer, with depressing utilitarianism, that it would get them good qualifications and jobs. Parents might add a hope for happiness along the way, while a (very) few sought the development in their child of a particular cultural or sporting strength.

Shifting priorities

How differently things appeared as soon as every school in the country closed! Government insisted that they must stay open not only for the children of key workers but also for vulnerable children. Additionally there was consideration of provision, of food at any rate, for children from poor homes.

At a stroke the priorities of schooling shifted. Remove the obvious stuff about learning subjects and skills and preparing for exams, and what’s left? Care, both physical and pastoral: providing a safe space, protecting and supportive, for those who cannot manage robustly on their own, or even in their homes and families (if they have them).

In a radio interview, LBC's Eddie Mair tried to get ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton to admit that there wouldn’t be “proper” teaching (my quotes), and that schools would effectively be “child-minding” (his word). Geoff wouldn’t accept the label: but the thought was out there. Yet simultaneously came the tacit acceptance that schools do, indeed, mind children, protect, safeguard and even feed them, as well as teach them stuff. 

No what's left?

With exams suspended, no clear idea yet as to how A levels and entry to university will be managed (the two are inextricably linked) and GCSEs disappearing into a black hole, what’s left for this year’s 16- and 18-year-olds to consider the achievements of their school careers? Heads and their leaders are, rightly, quick to point to all that they’ve achieved, experienced and learned through the course of their schooling.

Of course, they’d be right: there’s much more to education than mere qualifications. There’s the whole range of subjects and experiences to be undergone – Ofsted’s rich and varied curriculum, indeed – and all those sporting and cultural opportunities, outdoor education, service and volunteering, every one of them a chance for personal growth and for learning to work, and enjoy engagement, with others. But now this crisis has revealed care as the headline activity.

Don’t try that one, pupils might well respond. Throughout their schooling they’ve been fed the line that those GCSEs and A levels are all that really matter. Those grades are essential, they’ll get nowhere without them, so they must attend all those revision and booster classes: the messages are reinforced by very public inspection, league tables, performance management of teachers, the whole panoply of accountability.

The unforeseen yet inevitable collapse of the familiar framework has removed all the old certainties: and those youngsters are caught in the middle. 

However those exam uncertainties are resolved, when this “unprecedented” period ends, and schools are open as normal again, let’s make sure we honestly review what’s important, as opposed to what isn’t, and reset our systems not to follow political dogmas or bureaucratic convenience, but to achieve genuine priorities that offer the best to all our children.


Coronavirus is making us rethink school exams? Good

14 March 2020

If the pandemic stops the exam juggernaut in its tracks, perhaps that’s because it wasn’t fit for purpose in the first place, says Bernard Trafford

One thing about coronavirus: it makes us rethink things. Some weeks back, we were blaming China’s authoritarianism for failing to control its spread. Now, that regime’s ability to impose draconian containment measures receives praise.

Nearer home, Italy – a country usually gloriously laid-back and individualistic – is locking down cities and closing everythingOggi chiuso (closed today) is now the ubiquitous sign.

Speculation rages about what will happen to this summer’s exams if – and it remains a big if – schools and universities close. End-of-year and final exams in higher and further educationA levelsGCSEs and SATs at all levels – senior and primary – are set to be not so much disrupted as rendered impossible.

The situation has prompted renewed calls for revision of our exam system. Jenny Brown, head of City of London School for Girls, suggests scrapping GCSEs. The Times’ columnist Alice Thompson goes further, demanding root-and-branch change. That’s the better solution. 

Wrestling with a bloated system

Almost my whole career in education – spanning more than 40 years – seemed to involve wrestling with exam revisions. Yet all were tinkering at best, while inexorably adding to the exam burden. 

How many times have commentators (including me) noted that our bloated exam system hangs together only by a miracle, wrought by teachers and schools, and that it wouldn’t take much to cause it to implode? Coronavirus may prove to be that final straw.

Only the other week, I wrote about a suggestion from Jisc that we do away with pen-and-paper tests. Since then, at least one TV journalist has suggested glibly that, if schools were to close, exams might have to be done by computer. 

If only! The current system is designed to prevent candidates from using the benefits of modern technology. Even dyslexics and those with other difficulties related to writing, although permitted to use a laptop, are forbidden such basic modern aids as spellcheck.

Our exam system is so firmly rooted in 19th-century (or, as I suggested recently, 3000-year-old) practices that this country is entirely unequipped to move it online.

A labyrinth of centralised tests

University finals, institution-based rather than part of a national framework, may be relatively easily adapted in a crisis. 

If we were only talking about A levels, perhaps the scope of any solutions implemented might be manageable. This would be particularly true if papers were less obsessed with testing every part of every syllabus or specification, and instead sampled candidates’ knowledge as happened in the “good old days”, which so much other policymaking tends to hark back to.

Instead, though, we have a labyrinth of centralised national school tests at five age levels. So let’s not kid ourselves: these cannot operate this summer if schools close.

In those halcyon days to which I referred (though they were no such thing), children who missed even an entire exam through illness or bereavement might be awarded a grade based on judgements by their teachers of their progress over the preceding months or years. 

That was back when we trusted teachers. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s and John Major’s ministers (Lord Baker, Kenneth Clarke, John Patten et al) busted open what they calculatedly caricatured as the “secret gardens” of medicine and teaching, trust in professionals (and “experts”) has been undermined, and their decisions and judgements open to challenge.

Pause before jumpstarting the machine

Moreover, amid stringent targets and – in schools at least – the dire consequences of missing them or failing inspections, an argument can be mounted for suspecting that teacher judgements won’t be impartial or objective. The stakes are too high for those involved. 

So now we live with this exam behemoth, a monster of over-testing that we can’t control and which constantly grows. 

However, this year, in which it might not be able to function, could demonstrate that so extensive and overly complex a system is not fit for purpose, not least because it is relatively easily disrupted.

I’m not pretending that the pandemic, which is entirely undesirable, is any kind of blessing in disguise. 

But, if coronavirus does indeed stop the exam juggernaut in its tracks, policymakers must pause before jumpstarting it and setting it rolling again. They must return to fundamentals, determine the very purpose and function of examining, reject what is superfluous or irrelevant. 

Only after doing all that should they seek to reconstruct the structures and systems fit for a 21st-century exam system. 


When Ofsted takes on MATs, doublethink reigns

07 March 2020

Ofsted isn't climbing down in the row over three-year GCSEs – but it will. The MATs aren’t right, but they’re not wrong. Bernard Trafford raises an eyebrow

Commenting this week on the Priti Patel bullying scandal (I think it qualifies as one), education campaigner Fiona Millar tweeted: “These people hold schools to account for how heads and teachers deal with bullying. 

“Rather than provide exemplary role models, they show us how it is done.”

She has a point. The behind-the-scenes puppetmaster pulling all the Tory government’s strings – the democratically unaccountable, unelected Dominic Cummings – sets the tone for ministers. It’s almost a boast that he terrorises his teams of advisers and civil servants, firing some, driving others out. 

According to reports, Cummings’s regular end-of-week parting comment is “See you next week. Some of you.” 

And, in his advertisement for “weirdos” to work with him, he’s happy to say that if these brilliant misfits he seeks don’t fit in, he’ll bin them. It’s bullying, under the flimsy figleaf of “getting the job done”.

Performing contortions

Naturally, the PM declared his support for Ms Patel, saying he was “sticking by her”.

Momentarily, I dared hope it was the kind of statement of “complete confidence of the board” that used to herald the sacking of a football manager. So far at least, that hope has proved unfounded.

In fact, Number 10 bent over backwards – performed contortions, indeed – to back the home secretary without damning the senior civil servant driven out of his job, Sir Philip Rutnam. 

Indeed, in the Commons, Michael Gove was at pains to describe Sir Philip several times as “distinguished”. (Meanwhile, “government sources” rubbished Sir Philip’s work and listed a litany of failures in his “distinguished” career through unattributable quotes to the right-wing press.)

George Orwell would immediately recognise this contradictory posturing as what he termed doublethink

Attitudinal gymnastics

This is relevant here, because the Department for Education appears to be indulging in similar attitudinal gymnastics over the continuing row between Ofsted and a number of leading multi-academy trusts, who reckon their schools are being penalised for running GCSEs over three years and shortening key stage 3.

What renders this spat interesting is that the trusts in question have been doing unquestionably great work in challenging settings. Their CEOs have fallen out with the inspectorate because they reckon children from underprivileged backgrounds need those three years to produce great GCSE results

By contrast, Ofsted wants to have its cake (its new framework, demanding a broad and balanced school curriculum for the three years of key stage 3) and eat it (the excellent GCSE results it expects). 

Into the fray stepped the right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange. It reckons Ofsted overstepped its brief by attempting to develop educational policy through its “de facto preference” for that three-year key stage, damned by the MATs as “a middle-class framework”.

According to Tes reporter John Roberts, chief inspector Amanda Spielman is expected to receive a ministerial letter telling her that exam results matter. Roberts reckons she’ll reply that she knows they do.

The leopard won't change its target-hitting spots

That’s OK, then: for a second I feared the government’s rottweiler might be going soft on results. It was hard to picture that particular leopard (to mix animal metaphors) – famed for ending the careers of leaders whose schools don’t hit the required target – changing its spots.

Policy Exchange wants Ofsted to rewrite that bit of its handbook. But it looks as if the DfE won’t insist on that. 

In what appears some mutual peacemaking (or fudge, if you prefer), Ofsted won’t be characterised as climbing down, merely ironing out issues in the implementation of its new framework.

When an influential thinktank flexes its muscles, it appears things suddenly start to happen. Ofsted isn’t setting policy instead of judging outcomes, even if it is. It’s not climbing down, but it will. The MATs aren’t right, but they’re not wrong. 

What’s in a word? Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, whose Through the Looking Glass world reflects UK politics in so many ways, famously declares that words mean precisely what he chooses them to mean, “neither more nor less”. 

In this uneasy truce, the fundamental questions raised over the purpose and future of inspection are ducked.

Everything as normal in educational Wonderland, then. It must be the rest of us who are mad. 


Squandering money? Our politicians are the experts

 01 March 2020

The government has squandered millions on non-existent Brexit ferries and HS2. Yet it's headteachers who are told they can't manage money, says Bernard Trafford

Remember the Fawlty Towers episode in which the hotel inspector recites a catalogue of faults to the hapless owner? After the fourth damning criticism, Basil interrupts, suggesting he’s got the message.

The inspector remorselessly continues his tally of failures to its dismal conclusion, at which Basil enquires brightly: “All right otherwise?”

I once tried that response on a parent who had nothing good to say about my school. It went badly.

A similar litany of misery has exploded across the press and social media around Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman’s outspoken blog (swiftly taken down) about school funding. 

She concedes, if cautiously, that there is a “tightness of funding”, citing three areas adversely affected as a result: SEND provision(demand for which has grown exponentially), curriculum breadth and education quality, and teacher workload.

The straw that broke the camels' backs

When the financial decisions schools make have an “impact on the overall quality of education a school provides”, she observes, “that is clearly something Ofsted needs sight of”. 

She notes that “staff cuts are inevitably a major way in which schools cut costs”, but bewails the widespread loss of experienced subject teachers. The average teacher age in England is now the lowest in the OECD.

Sadly, Ms Spielman went on to spoil it by criticising “poor decision-making in response to financial pressure”, adding that “funding can still be squandered [even] when it is plentiful”.

That straw was too much for the backs of many educational camels. The Worth Less? Campaign demanded that HMCI apologise or resign,condemning her “unsubstantiated and derisory personal views”, which feed a consistent Whitehall narrative “that highly-skilled headteachers cannot manage their budgets even after we have put up with 10 years of real-terms cuts and still kept our schools afloat”.

Leaping to his members’ defence, ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton pointed the blame firmly at the government for shortchanging schools and pupils, “while insisting that they have never had it so good…But Ofsted”, he added, “wouldn’t be Ofsted without having a swipe at schools”.

Warning against overreaction 

Policy Exchange’s Jonathan Simons praised Ms Spielman’s “tough messages for government about the consequences at the coal face”. 

In a carefully worded piece, he applauded her for giving it to the government hot and strong, while deploring the fact that the consequences mentioned above have been widely ignored and “conveniently disavowed” by the Department for Education

Then, by contrast, he warned against overreaction. He supported HMCI’s view that some schools, admittedly under pressure, are making poor decisions in money-saving. He reckoned that former academies minster Lord Agnew was right to push greater efficiency and transparency, “but wrong in the way he often spoke about it”. 

I’ll say. Lord Agnew’s champagne wager was crass and insulting. But I was surprised that Simons saw nothing controversial in the use of the word “squandered”, and criticised headteachers for arguing “that there is no inefficiency in the system”. 

I don’t think so specific a denial was issued. Moreover, as cuts have bitten ever deeper, school leaders have, in Geoff Barton’s words, “agonised…to the point of putting their own health at risk” in trying to square that impossible circle. 

Under those circumstances, any human being, with the usual amount of human vulnerability, would struggle not to be outraged by the choice of language. 

Extreme reactions

Simons concluded: “Outrage is not – and must not be – a substitute for reasoned public policy debate.” 

He’s right. It isn’t, and it mustn’t be. But extreme reactions become inevitable when government blandly denies any problem exists. It’s government that’s refusing to debate, not school leaders. 

School business manager Hilary Goldsmith returned to that calculated government message of heads and business leaders “wilfully wasting public money on overpriced projects and contracts, without due care or protocol”. 

Is this not the same government that nodded through multibillion-pound overspends on HS2? That squandered £13 million on non-existent ferries for use post-Brexit? Whose DfE failed to carry out background checks on the unqualified CEO of a MAT that lost millionsand let down 6,500 children?

It’s the same one. People in glass houses…well, you know the rest.

Nonetheless, government blunders on, Fawlty-like, as ever. All right otherwise?


'Myopic politicians are risking our musical future'

23 February 2020

Policymakers' decisions are threatening children's access to quality music education. It's our country that will suffer, says Bernard Trafford

In a telling – if chilling – column, The Times arts editor, Richard Morrison, discussed the threat posed to the BBC by the proposal that its licence fee be replaced by voluntary subscription: he fears this country will “sleepwalk into cultural catastrophe”. 

Morrison fears that we might drift into losing the BBC’s professional, salaried orchestras, “because the politicians and media grandees who will negotiate how the BBC is funded [haven’t] thought about the wider implications of ending the licence fee.”

Wider implications are often missed in educational policy shifts, too.

Take music. Grassroots learning of musical instruments, in schools and communities, has been squeezed for three decades. 

When the gradual process of devolving funding from local authorities directly into schools began in the late 1980s, such centrally provided services as special educational needs and disabilities and music were overlooked. 

Empty hopes

The naïve hope, 30 years ago, that individual schools, tight on funds, would buy into music centres, peripatetic teachers and local youth orchestras, bands and choirs was swiftly proved empty. 

Free-to-all instrumental tuition – including the free loan of expensive instruments – rapidly disappeared, and that door to glorious cultural opportunity was closed to the poor.

The government will claim that it’s addressed this problem by creating “music hubs”. 

Some are working well. But few – if any – offer opportunities to children from all backgrounds on the scale or in the quantity they enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, in hindsight a golden era for music. 

Like all educational services, music hubs are struggling for cash, and for long-term government support. 

Recently, they waited anxiously for months to hear whether their funding would continue: reassurance (if any) about their future will not be published until the autumn. 

Whatever future unfolds for them, music hubs will not alone undo the damage of decades, wrought through the blindness and overly simple solutions of policymakers.

Not a problem, but a success

Did I mention blindness? In the same edition of The Times appeared a report that “Oxford misses target for state-school pupils”. 

I don’t need to go round that block again. But – slipped in almost as an afterthought – came the concern that: “Despite their small numbers, the biggest proportional gaps [between state and privately educated students] were at some conservatoires.” The Royal Academy and Royal College of Music were cited.

Of course, those gaps exist. But such lazy comment misses the point.

I don’t have precise figures, but am pretty certain that the majority of UK conservatoire students come from the country’s few specialist music schools, all independent charities, but largely state-funded. 

That’s not a problem, but a success. The UK’s music conservatoires are the best in the world.

To win places in them, even prodigiously talented candidates need time for learning and practising unavailable in mainstream schools, notwithstanding the considerable extracurricular opportunities afforded by the same conservatoires’ junior sections on a Saturday. 

England’s four specialist music schools – Purcell, Yehudi Menuhin, Wells Cathedral and the recently televised Chetham’s Schools – enable their pupils to concentrate on developing the unusual talent that, far too often, makes them the target of bullying in mainstream schools. 

Gloomy conclusions

These are not privileged children, except in the musical gift that nature gave them. 

More than 80 per cent have their fees paid, if parsimoniously, by the government’s Music and Dance Scheme

Almost all the rest are bursary-funded. Only tiny numbers come from homes that can afford fees. 

Pupils know that their chosen career won’t make them rich. They desperately seek scholarships to help them through conservatoire, and compete to win the loan of an instrument, whose value is beyond their means.

This country needs to develop its elite musicians. As in the provision of much Send support, specialist private schools do the required job for the government, and provide excellent value. 

To see these schools as a problem is myopic and dangerous, ignorant and prejudiced – yet all too common. 

Richard Morrison saw such ignorance at a recent meeting: “I saw a few MPs…and the potential threat to five orchestras and the Proms came as news to them.”

Whether it’s through ill-informed threats to specialist independent schools or to the BBC, Morrison’s gloomy conclusion is right: “Our future as a premier-league musical nation has rarely seemed so clouded.”


Handwritten exams? We may as well bring back the quill

16 February 2020 

Our method of examining is 19th century at best – and impervious to any attempt to adapt it to digital technology, says Bernard Trafford

Written exams should be phased out by 2025: so says a report by not-for-profit educational-technology body Jisc

You’d expect Jisc to promote the concept of computerised examinations, though you might have difficulty swallowing its extravagant claim that they’d be more “authentic”, encouraging “the learner to integrate knowledge and skills, and act on knowledge”. 

Nonetheless, I can’t disagree with Jisc’s central tenet that pen and paper tests “can appear irrelevant outside the academic world”.

Nowadays I rarely pick up a pen (no longer a fountain pen, either, but the ubiquitous ballpoint: never bought, always provided at meetings, hotels, wherever). 

I use one to do crosswords (dinosaur that I am, I dislike doing them online). I still scribble shopping lists and scrawl my name on birthday cards. 

Otherwise, I physically write only in a letter or card expressing deepest sympathy.

Sitting candidates down with pen and paper

As long as 20 years ago, I recall a former pupil complaining that, at Cambridge, he was required to word-process (as we called it, back then) every single essay, but to handwrite his exams.

He was frustrated by that mismatch, and particularly by the impossibility in exams of doing his usual painstaking redrafting. 

Perhaps Cambridge was (and is still?) clinging, as most of our entire public-examination system does, to the apparent belief that sitting candidates down en masse with pen and paper somehow injects rigour. 

That formality hasn’t changed in centuries: China’s imperial civil service first held written entrance exams two millennia ago. Tradition affords a satisfying hint of, well, standards

Still, tradition to one person is old-fashionedness to another. In Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, a feisty young teacher says, “Headmaster, I think you’ll find your standards are out of date.” 

The sage replies (preferably in a Sir John Gielgud voice), “Of course they’re out of date. That’s what makes them standards.”

Ballpoint pens: the pinnacle of technology

At least, you may say, we’ve moved beyond quill pens and parchment. Indeed we have. Nowadays we’re so high-tech that ballpoints are allowed – indeed compulsory. 

But the ink must be black, and all answers must be written within the box on the answer sheet: requirements imposed to ensure that exam boards’ far-from-flexible technology can scan them and ping them around the examiners, who must nowadays mark and annotate handwritten answers on a computer screen.

That’s a far cry from using technology for the actual task of examining: it’s merely a mild updating of photocopying and faxing to speed up the marking process. For all the difference it makes to them, candidates might just as well use a quill.

But that’s the point. The real problem here lies in the fact that our method of examining is 19th-century at best, and unsuitable for administration with 21st-century tools. 

The Jisc report envisages a very different approach to assessment, which would be (to use their five principles) authentic, accessible, appropriately automated, continuous and secure.  

Jisc would arguably take us back to a previous age, in which teachers – those who know the student best – would make dispassionate and objective judgements over time (continuous assessment, anyone?).

These would then be validated (or questioned) by minimal formal testing, which might indeed be operated via technology. 

Impervious to attempts at adaptation

But that brings us to the fundamental problem. We’ve lost all trust in schools and teachers, the trust on which Jisc’s model would have to rely.

By contrast, we have a system where every aspect of every subject course must be examined. The resulting exam structure is demonstrably close to collapsing under its own weight, while the pressure on everyone involved is colossal. 

The entire system is impervious to any attempt at adapting it to the digital technology with which we routinely run every aspect of our personal lives and of our institutions. 

These institutions include the very schools in which we perpetuate an assessment ritual that would be recognisable – indeed familiar – to the chief of staff to Emperor Wen of Han in 165BC.

Hell, we might as well go back to quill pens. At least they’d add a bit of quaint character to the whole dismal process.


Oxbridge, look at pupils' backgrounds – not school

09 February 2020 

If the government funded places for bright, poor pupils at private schools, it might help combat claims of discrimination at university level, says Bernard Trafford

My bookcase houses a beautifully bound copy of Longfellow’s poetical works, bearing the embossed gold seal of the City of London School for Girls

Though there’s no bookplate inside, the family’s always held that it was one of several prizes (others were labelled) won by my grandmother, Patience 

At that time, the school, founded in 1894, must have been in its second decade, still under its founder headmistress, Miss Alice Blagrave. 

According to the school history on its website, Miss Blagrave “was keen to encourage and aid her pupils in getting into university”. 

But my grandmother never got that chance. When she was about 13, her mother died. So Patience left school to keep house for her father and siblings.

Impossibly tough

I was reminded of that story by a recent Daily Telegraph piece: “Was my son rejected by Oxford because he went to a private school? 

The anonymous writer, granddaughter of a Welsh coalminer pulled out of school aged 15 to work down the pit, describes herself as middle-class, just able to afford a modest (my word) independent school for her very bright son. 

Disappointed for her son, she reckons that schools like Eton and Westminster remain an Oxbridge assembly-line. So too are the new selective state sixth-forms backed by independents. 

But, as the top universities bow to pressure to increase diversity, she now subscribes to the “growing murmur in the press” that things are becoming impossibly tough for middle-class high-achievers. 

Harder in the middle

So are they? The few statistics available suggest that Oxbridge, to name but two top destinations, has a way to go before it can boast a truly diverse intake. But it’s working at it. 

Meanwhile, Eton’s headmaster, Simon Henderson, declared in Monday’s Times that giving more top university places to poor pupils will change things for the better, even if entry gets tougher for Etonians (boys attending the best school in the world, by most measures). 

Perhaps that mother’s prophecy is right, then: it’ll get still harder for those in the middle.

In the middle of what, though? We’re talking about the admission of an elite academic cohort to a small top end of unbelievably selective institutions. 

Nonetheless, that elite is growing. More children in more schools are achieving top results, and therefore aiming high when it comes to higher education. But still too few come from poorer homes.

Looking for potential

While I guess there could always be more outreach – familiarisation visits and summer schools – aimed at those likely to be deterred by their sheer reputation (including that for excellence), top universities are doing their best to remedy the situation

They don’t rely on raw A-level results to select their elite, employing a raft of pre- and during-interview aptitude tests. They look (or should look) foremost at applicants’ potential, and make lower A-level offers where appropriate. 

How they judge such appropriateness is key: not done, I hope, by a crude division between state and independent schools.

They have sufficient information to discriminate between the state-educated child of a wealthy family and one from a deprived family on a private-school bursary, and should not fear to do so. 

Barriers still exist

Nowadays no one is forced, as my grandmother and the Telegraph author’s grandfather were, to leave school early to support a family (though poverty still exerts myriad negative impacts). 

But barriers still exist. Government should confront honestly the fact that student loans – even with bursaries available – remain a potent deterrent to students from homes familiar with the misery of debt. 

Moreover, since private schools are indisputably repositories of expertise in Oxbridge preparation, government shouldn’t merely support them in advising and guiding state school pupils (which many do already) but actually fund bright disadvantaged pupils to attend them.

And it should lean on Oxbridge to review and reverse its refusal to expand.

Such measures will indeed render it harder for Etonians to get to Oxbridge. This is only fair, the school’s head concedes. 

More importantly, they would crack open what’s too often portrayed as a bastion of privilege. It would blur the distinction between school types, and remove suspicions that some face discrimination. It would increase fairness. 

And it would foster ambition and opportunity in the world’s finest group of universities.


Why headteachers should ponce about looking pleased

02 February 2020

If you're a headteacher walking around school, the important thing is to show your appreciation, says Bernard Trafford

It was good last week to read a Tes piece by Simon Creasey, asking how often school leaders should walk the school corridors in order to strike a desirable balance between being visible around the school and appearing to micromanage.

Mythologies have grown up around such activity. I’ve never liked the expression “learning walk”, which seems too often to describe informal observation and assessment of teacher performance, though I may be doing it an injustice. 

Nonetheless, I was a great believer in getting out of the office and around school. 

Creasey cites the well-known approach “management by wandering about” (I prefer the more purposeful “walking”). MBWA gets the leader out of the office into the territory of the school’s core activity.

Creasey suggests that, for MBWA to achieve anything, it must have a purpose. Primarily, I’d say, this would be to see and feel the atmosphere. Hopefully, you would witness the institution’s ethos and sense of order at work.

The wandering headteacher

However, the wandering leader might encounter anything. The eruption of a class or teacher, or both, may not require intervention, but it won’t hurt for whichever party was at fault to realise that the head was nearby. 

I used to come across the occasional shamefaced student sent out of class for a minor misdemeanour. Sometimes I’d have a stern word, on other occasions I'd raise a scornful eyebrow. But it was noticed. And I hope the teacher felt supported.

(It didn’t always work. I once witnessed a teacher ejecting a boy he’d caught eating in class. When the lad’s classmates reminded the teacher that he was diabetic and needed to eat, one of the nicest teachers I’ve known rocketed out of the class, full of remorse and apologising profusely to the boy in question. There was nothing to do but laugh with him about it.)

Poncing About Looking Pleased

Still, MBWA isn’t foremost about discipline. Nor do you wander the corridors to lecture teachers on how they could do things better. Creasey warns heads (I’d hope unnecessarily) “not to be a bore”. 

Whether you actually enter classrooms or merely pause, note and pass on, MBWA should be what One-Minute Manager author Ken Blanchard labelled “catching people doing things right”. 

In fact, in my years as a head, I developed my own concept: PALP, Poncing About Looking Pleased.

Most perambulation in an orderly school will uncover a strong sense of purpose and focus.

The school going about its ordinary business furnishes ample opportunities for teachers or pupils to observe that you’ve spotted something “done right”: the basis for a quick, reinforcing word next time you bump into them.

It’s no different from the way watching children involved in sports fixtures, plays, concerts, debates, offers an icebreaker: “Tough game last Tuesday. You guys did well to pull that goal back.” They know they’ve been noticed. 

The magic in being noticed

For teachers and pupils alike, there remains, even in 2020, a magic in being noticed and appreciated by the head. As PALP indicates, in most cases there’s need for little more than looking pleased. 

Creasey finishes by discussing how frequent and how regular such walks should be. If they’re predictable, teachers might start to time things so as to show you something great. And excessive regularity or frequency might suggest a lack of trust. 

At one stage, when the school I was running became (fortunately) very full, we felt obliged to adopt a walk-on-the-left rule in some corridors at lesson changeovers. That furnished another excuse to be out and about – even if students complained that I habitually stood on the wrong side and confused matters. I never was very good at left and right.

Did I get out and about enough, though? I used to think I did pretty well…

…until, a couple of years after I left one school: a friend who had a niece there said she complained that the new head was always walking into lessons (irritatingly, she claimed, especially when the teacher didn’t even notice). 

“At least Dr Trafford didn’t wander about annoying people,” she concluded. “He was always stuck in meetings.”

Damn. And I’d tried so hard. Perhaps my next piece should be about humility.


Why must Ofsted dictate what key stage 3 looks like? 

26 January 2020

The inspectorate has been at pains to point out that there's no 'Ofsted model'. Yet they're dictating what key stage 3 should look like, says Bernard Trafford

The battle continues between Ofsted and the multi-academy trusts(MATs), led by Harris Federation boss Sir Dan Moynihan. 

Whispers suggest that Number 10 may have more sympathy with the schools than the inspectorate. The PM and his famously maverick chief adviser like to claim they’re not afraid to make bold, even wacky decisions (how about moving the House of Lords, for a start). 

Nonetheless, with education secretary Gavin Williamson promising the World Economic Forum that there would be no let-up in “driving up standards” (that awful mantra again), one just cannot see him risking drawing the teeth of his pet Rottweiler.

The problem is this. Ofsted’s new framework focuses on curriculum, assessing how schools’ decisions on this enrich – or otherwise – the educational experience of children.

Rebel MATs

Early inspections within this new framework demonstrate the presence of an agenda. The inspectorate is convinced that key stage 3 should be three years long, and that Year 9 (the third of that phase) should be as rich and broad as the other two. 

These rebel MATs have been moving towards making Year 9 effectively the start of key stage 4, giving their academies a three-year run in to GCSEs. 

This approach may be argued to narrow the curriculum offer in Year 9. But its proponents claim that children in disadvantaged settings need that extra year of specifically GCSE-focused work, citing as evidence the excellent progress and strong results attained as a consequence.

The whole idea of the academies programme is about giving schools nowadays – within the preferred government structure of MATs – the freedom to make decisions that work for them and provide the best opportunities for children in their settings. 

Sir Dan’s allies are standing together on this issue because they reckon they’re doing just that. They’re tackling disadvantage by tweaking a single year out of the 14 years kids spend in school. And they’re getting great results, as the figures prove 

Hollow grades

Ofsted’s head, Amanda Spielman, is having none of it. The notion, she says, is “wrong-headed”. Those good grades “are hollow if they don’t reflect a proper education”. 

Meanwhile, her number two, Sean Harford, characterised designing a separate curriculum for deprived children as “Victorian”.

The conflict raises questions about who runs schools, who makes curriculum decisions and what specific outcomes they (whoever “they” are) are seeking for children.

Already schools have been marked down by the inspectorate, with at least one high-profile and much-lauded head driven out of the profession as a result

Curiously, Ofsted has spent much of its 30-year life denying that there is an “Ofsted model” for anything, claiming its role is solely to check that children receive a good education. Now, by contrast, it seems to have developed a precise and preconceived picture of what a Year 9 curriculum should look like. That sounds like a model to me.

I’m not alone. Former schools commissioner Sir Andrew Carter tweeted this week: “The regulator should be praising great thinking, not wrapping its own view of the world around judgements.”

Who knows best? 

In seeking to resolve this impasse, why not revisit the 1944 Education Act, still (unless someone knows otherwise) the basis of our national education provision? Chapter 31 instructs local authorities [sic] to provide “full-time education suitable to the requirements of […] pupils”.

The key word, surely, is “suitable”. It’s regularly quoted in tribunals by families battling for provision suitable for a child with SEND. 

Around the turn of the century, schools were routinely using that same reason for “disapplying” pupils from some aspects of the then rigid national curriculum, their particular needs calling for flexibility. 

Arguably, what Sir Dan and his colleagues are providing in their particular settings is suitable for those children.

So who will be deemed to know best on this use? That powerful alliance of experienced leaders of high-achieving schools? Or will the government’s enforcer of standards (standards set, in this case at least, by the enforcer itself) prevail 

I’d always leave it to the professionals to make such decisions, and back them. But that’s not the way governments generally operate, whatever their political complexion. Watch this space.


Dear Dominic Cummings: So, you want radical thinking? 

19 January 2020

Fix the accountability system, trust teachers to do their jobs, and fund schools properly. Dominic, are these suggestions weird enough for you, asks Bernard Trafford

Dear Dominic Cummings,

I would like to apply for one of those jobs you’re advertising for weirdos and misfits to help run the country.

I believe I’m well-suited to join your team because, from the government’s point of view, I am indeed weird.

My field is education. I could provide some radical thinking there: my vision diverges wildly from current government policy. For a start, I believe perverse incentives should be foreseen and avoided before policies are enacted.

So we need to fix an accountability system where the stakes are so high that, in order to avoid criticism, schools feel pressured to do things that aren’t necessarily best for children, in order to keep an inspectorate off their backs.

A catch-22 situation

For example, just this week Ofsted advised primary schools not to teach phonics before Reception. It’s no advantage, said a spokesperson: learning phonics is simply a “short, sharp” process to help them along the road to reading.

It’s like Catch-22. In Joseph Heller’s famous novel, a Second World War US pilot cannot escape flying missions by pleading insanity, because getting out is the only sane response to the madness of war. 

Similarly, knowing pupils will be tested on phonics at the end of Year 1, schools won’t do a “short, sharp” job on them: they’ll start them as soon as possible, so that the kids score highly in the later test.  

The catch is that such schools are then criticised for drilling children when they should be learning through exploration and play.

Can't have it both ways

The same paradox was highlighted at secondary level recently, when MAT bosses, led by Harris Federation’s Sir Dan Moynihan, lambasted Ofsted over its insistence on a broad curriculum in Year 9. Dan and his mates say that Ofsted can’t have it both ways: not in schools in deprived areas, at any rate. 

Where kids have little significant cultural capital on which to build, the MAT bosses claim, they need an extra year (Year 9) in which to build the scaffolding for success at GCSE two years later.

These schools are getting their pupils impressive GCSE results by slimming down what’s learned in Year 9 – in effect running three-year GCSE programmes

“No, no, no!” shrieks the inspectorate, as yet another head is lost as a result of precisely this judgement. “Year 9 must be broad!” 

I’d like to share that view, but my experience was gained in relatively privileged settings, and I won’t tell those guys how to do their job in theirs. 

Weird about funding

Schools shouldn’t have to choose between upsetting Ofsted by narrowing the curriculum or pleasing it with great GCSE results. 

Is that view weird? If so, here’s another thing I’m weird about. 

It’s right that an education, health and care plan gives a child with special educational needs and disabilities the statutory right to receive appropriate additional help in school. But I’m puzzled by the fact that help is then so often unforthcoming. 

Hampered by lack of funding, people, resources and time, schools lack the capacity and, too often even now, the capability to give those kids the support they need. 

But then, I’m weird about funding. By 2022, we’re promised billions more flowing into schools from central government. But I just can’t see how merely regaining the funding levels of a decade ago is real progress. 

Like the boy sticking his finger in the hole in the dam, this cash injection prevents the problem worsening, but doesn’t improve it.

The wrong sort of weird

Improving: that’s why I’d like to join your team. My 40 years’ experience in the field could be useful.

I believe in giving schools and school leaders the tools to do the job (ie adequate resources). And I believe in giving them the freedom to use these tools as they see best, in their unique setting, not harried by ministerial diktats and contradictory pressures from an oppressive accountability system. 

It’s about trusting professionals, valuing them and giving them freedom. 

You’ll agree that view’s weird. But I fear it’s not the sort of weird you want. 

Somewhere you say (without irony?) that, if your misfits don’t fit in, they’ll be rapidly binned. So, on second thoughts, perhaps I’m better staying on the outside, with the other misfits. It’s friendlier out there.

Sorry to have taken up your time.

Yours etc,



An Oxbridge lottery? It's a barmy idea 

12 January 2020

Making the elite unis offer places at random to suitably qualified candidates would help no one, says Bernard Trafford

This month saw those two elite universities, Oxford and Cambridge, issuing their offers for undergraduate places. The lucky candidates must now buckle down to achieve the stratospheric grades most will need to take up their places.

No easy ride, then. But at least they’re spared the dual pain of those who, turned down, subsequently gain the three A*s demanded of their successful rivals. “Why them,” they might ask, “and not me?” 

Such questions lend strength to the recent proposal in a Higher Education Policy Institute report that elite universities should allocate places at random among suitably qualified candidates to help disadvantaged students. 

Superficially, it may appear persuasive. Closer scrutiny reveals that it’s a barmy idea.

Only the start

First, the practicalities. It’s implied that the elite universities offer places solely on the basis of qualifications. Yet currently most students apply while still at school. They’re not yet qualified at all (except at GCSE), let alone equally. 

So a lottery system could only be implemented if candidates applied after the publication of A-level results. That approach – post-qualification application – would actually be a vast improvement for many reasons, but not for this one. 

Next, a factual correction. For Oxford, Cambridge and other top destinations, A-level results or predictions are only the start. 

These universities not only interview candidates who produce strong applications (based on GCSE results, personal statements, school references and predicted grades), but also make them sit specific tests, some to gauge their subject knowledge, others their aptitude for their chosen course. 

As a result, applicants are not “equally qualified”, but graded and ranked in considerable detail. The interview is a powerful discriminator and is nowadays (if not in the past) systematically conducted to be as informative as possible.

Identifying potential

But here’s where the lottery idea becomes a nonsense. Top selector universities are just that: selective. They employ a raft of measures to identify not the strongest A-level prospects, but the applicants who will go furthest in their degree studies: in other words, those with the greatest potential. 

Moreover, with so much pressure on them to widen access to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, these universities already leave no stone unturned to find them. When they do, and reckon they’ve spotted the promise they’re looking for, they routinely lower the hurdle of the conditional offer as appropriate.

The universities aren’t daft: they acknowledge the political, social and moral imperative. But they’re frustrated by not getting enough bright applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’re not claiming they don’t exist, but they’re not seeing them. 

Heather Hancock, the new master of St John’s College, Cambridge – a top destination by any measure – blames schools, complaining that pupils are being put off from applying to Cambridge by their teachers, who tell them it's "not for the likes of you".

She’s wrong, harking back to a former dark age: one that may once have existed and in which she perhaps grew up. But present-day schools are all about aspiration and I refuse to believe that teachers are discouraging pupils from aiming high.

Clumsy social engineering 

Nonetheless, there remain influences that act against children’s own ambitions and those of schools for them, mostly stemming from a continuing lack of hope within disadvantaged families and communities. 

Schools probably cannot overcome these difficulties on their own. Universities can help. But the government is best placed to improve matters by looking at financial support for the most deprived. 

However, just as it doesn’t help for the government to bang schools over the head with messages about expectations, so too would tying the hands of some of the best institutions in the world (Oxford is ranked top) do nothing but harm.

The academic path is not the only route to health, wealth, happiness and the nation’s intellectual richness and economic prosperity. But it is one of them, and it is important. 

Preventing top universities from selecting the very strongest candidates – the intellectual elite, indeed – is not the right way to widen access. 

Such a clumsy form of social engineering risks doing damage to higher education in this country and its academic standing in the world.

And playing lottery games with young people’s chances is unpardonable.


'Groundhog Day in education would be a disaster'

22 December 2019

The government has to deliver change in education – state and private schools must work together, says Bernard Trafford

The election’s over. Will the result bring Christmas to schools and colleges? Or a rather miserable Groundhog Day?

Given the freedom of action afforded him by so thumping a majority, Boris Johnson can now “get Brexit done”. Then, as he says repeatedly, he can tackle the nation’s other imperatives.

So, what of his alleged leaning towards liberal one-nation Toryism? He no longer needs the support (always equivocal) of the DUP. Nor is he necessarily obliged to appease the Right-wing ERG headbangers. Will he now go his own way? 

Or will education just see more of the same? Hopefully not. As Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, wrote to his members this week, more of the same will mean precisely that. And it’s not good enough.

Education priorities

In a Tes article, "What must the new education secretary’s priorities be?", Geoff outlines five key areas for change.

These are: more funding; teacher supply when pupil numbers in secondary education surge; a rethink of an accountability system that currently drives teachers out; tests and exams that consign a third of 16-year-olds to failure; qualifications, especially T levels.

Commentators – not least defeated Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn – were quick to challenge the prime minister to live up to – and deliver on – his election promises. In truth, when it came to education, there weren’t many. Beyond funding, that is. 

I’ve lost track of how many billions of pounds schools were promised. Nonetheless, experts calculated that, by 2023, funding will only be at 2010 levels in real terms. Better than at present, then, but not enough. Not by a mile.

Groundhog Day

So far, there are few indicators of other change coming. Just as the Cabinet is almost identical to its pre-election manifestation, so too the ministerial team at the Department for Education is unchanged. Groundhog Day appears the likeliest outcome.

That would be disastrous, even with a bit of extra cash in the pot. Geoff Barton observes that we won’t become an educational world leader through “arcane performance measures”, structural reforms, “policy tourism” and jumping on political hobby horses, nor even by arbitrarily scrapping Ofsted or Sats. 

He calls for a national strategy for education. Amen to that. 

How to plan it, though? Geoff rightly calls for involvement from “government, education and industry”, but let’s make sure that all of education is around the table.

The NEU, currently fearing (with good reason) that it might wither on the vine, must stop trying to politicise education and teachers, and work instead to the professional benefit of both – by being part of the discussion.

Decry, ignore, destroy 

Next (admitting my interest) I must mention the independent sector. Seen as the enemy by both Labour and strident voices within the NEU, it has also been largely ignored and excluded by the recent Tory and coalition governments, which appeared to pretend it wasn’t there. 

It’s a curiously British trait to decry, ignore or even destroy something uniquely good.

British private schools are identified by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) as the best group of schools in the world. A global byword for quality, in this century they’ve spread the UK’s soft power around the world, bringing significant sums back into this country.

The election arguably demonstrated that “the people” (as we’re nowadays called) don’t want a government-led class war, which demonises sections of society. 

Rather than seeking to tear down the independent sector (which is overwhelmingly not-for-profit, by the way), let’s seize an opportunity, welcome and bind it into genuine partnership with government, as part of a national strategy 

Startling and positive change

Government can both bridge the divide and (partially) address the impending shortage of school places, by taking up the sector’s offer to buy places in independent schools. 

The devil would surely be in the detail. But how much better to explore possibilities and challenge entrenched opinions than to exclude, deny and oppose.

Consideration of radical strategies should begin, with all parties bringing open minds to the table.

Doing this could engender startling and positive change. By contrast, failure to do so risks continued tinkering, by fits and starts, and little real progress: Geoff Barton’s “more of the same”, indeed. 

That outcome would indeed be a Groundhog Day. And it would be one this nation could ill afford.


Why teachers must have the freedom to teach their way

15 December 2019

It is incontrovertible that if you trust teachers and schools to behave creatively, the results will follow. So why does it feel like whistling in the wind?

It’s nice when you find people agree with you. Right now, of course, consensus is a rare beast, on political issues at any rate. But this piece has been written before the election outcome was known, and must therefore ignore the elephant in the room.

I’m referring to my oft-stated view that the major problem besetting schools and teachers – and therefore the education of the young – lies in society’s (or government’s) refusal to treat teachers as professionals and afford them the trust they deserve and need.

My criticisms of Ofsted (mainly of the perverse priorities and intense pressure that inspection generates) infuriate those in the inspectorate who notice, while comments on Twitter and the Tes webpages suggest that they strike a chord, if a quiet one, across the profession.

Culture of mistrust

But now a big beast has joined the throng. None other than Pisa boss Andreas Schleicher was headlined last week as declaring that “Mistrust of teachers holds England back”.

To be honest, Schleicher didn’t say: “That Bernard Trafford’s had it right all along.” For a start, he’s never heard of me.

Nonetheless, he echoed many of my complaints when he blamed teachers’ heavy workload on that mistrust, observing that the workload problem was identified a decade ago and initially addressed by employing more teaching assistants. Though there are now more people working in the system, the workload issue is unresolved.  That went well, then.

Schleicher explained: “Lack of trust creates bureaucracy...and the need to control. For public accountability, you have to give records for everything… [the] price is teacher workload.”

Enter my fellow Tes columnist Yvonne Williams, expressing concern this week about the proposal for no-notice Ofsted inspections: “[Teachers] will teach their classes with one eye on the students and the other on the phantom inspectors who could drop in at any time. 

“Data-gathering, already excessive, will become routinely urgent, to ensure that it’s fully up to date when inspectors call. ‘Every lesson counts’ – and this will take an unbearable toll on overstretched teachers.”

Let’s be clear. The real problem is lack of trust in teachers: Ofsted is an effect, not the cause. Meanwhile, Estonia, celebrating its spectacular rise in the Pisa table (compared to the UK’s merely modest progress), has, in Schleicher’s words, “a very light culture of inspection”, as opposed to our “heavy bureaucratic, intrusive kind of inspection regime”.

Time for a creative approach

Schleicher says schools should be saying to themselves: “Here are the challenges – we are going to solve them.” In his vision, schools are the cutting edge, and don’t wait for “any government or social service” to direct them. That sounds to me like an encouragement to ambitious schools to act independently and to develop creative approaches.

Creative approaches are what we all want, aren’t they? Well, yes: but not, apparently, at the price of allowing schools the freedom and teachers the trust necessary to achieve them.

The paralysing caution that gives rise to our heavy-handed accountability regime renders policymakers incapable of releasing the tight grip that constrains schools’ creativity. Ever seeking to perfect a production-line model, without variable outcomes, ministers’ timidity demands entirely predictable and rigorously measured results. Unsurprisingly, the DfE has declined to participate in Pisa’s new measure of creative thinking.

Those of us in the business know that the best, bravest teachers and schools succeed, despite all that pressure, in subverting the accountability straitjacket, in being creative in their teaching and in fostering creativity in their pupils. Who knows? They might lead us to score rather well in the Pisa creativity table – but they won’t get that chance.

Of course not. Perpetuating their antipathy to trusting teachers, policymakers fear that creative thinking will not emerge as a strength of our schools.  Entirely risk-averse, they won’t chance it.

Schleicher is fantastically well-informed, as well as visionary: but when it comes to influencing UK education I fear that, along with the rest of us, he’s whistling in the wind.


Hey, politicians. Don't promise us unicorns

08 December 2019

The election campaign has given rise to extravagant promises, from all parties. It will only harm teachers, says Bernard Trafford

The 19th-century wit Sydney Smith, when asked what he thought heaven would be like, is said to have replied “trumpets and clotted cream”.  

Given my fondness for both jazz and that West Country delicacy, I’d love to believe Smith. But I can’t. 

If there is indeed a heaven, I don’t think it will be that simple. For a start, jazz heaven for me might be sheer hell for another. Or have I missed a theological-philosophical Sartrean contradiction, l’enfer, c’est les autres (hell is other people)?

This question is currently pertinent, because the election campaign is giving rise to extravagant promises from those who would win our votes. It seems that all our political parties, not just the largest two, are promising the earth: heaven on earth, indeed, with unicorns thrown in. 

Public-spending splurges

They promise spectacularly higher levels of funding for schools and the NHS – even if some cash, like the extra staffing, appears to include figures already in the pot. 

After a decade of austerity, I’m puzzled how public-spending splurges on so colossal a scale can possibly be afforded. The Institute for Fiscal Studies shares my scepticism 

Still, proper funding for schools is indeed essential – and is on the table from all the main contenders, if you can believe them. So what other policies might separate them for voters? 

One issue might be Ofsted. Labour and the Lib Dems have promised to revise or abolish the inspectorate (hurrah!), and to lighten up on testing (hurrah again!). Most teachers, weary of labouring under those burdens, would welcome that, so the proposals might win those parties some teacher votes.

But don’t rejoice too soon. Even before the election was announced, Tes’ own Ed Dorrell pointed out that the proposal is a vote-loser “out there”. Fed (and, too often, swallowing) the line that inspection, tests and league-tables furnish useful information when choosing a school for their child (until they fail to win their first-choice school, at any rate), most parents apparently like them. 

Zombie policy

Parents might even like the notion, trotted out yet again in the Tory campaign, of no-notice inspections. Ed describes it as a “zombie policy”: it’s regularly proposed, then deemed unworkable (most recently by Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman herself) and ultimately rejected, but it never entirely dies. 

Nonetheless, pushing it will help the Tories gild their pledge to increase funding with a claim to be driving up standards, while the opposition parties are going soft on standards.

Proponents of “dawn raids” claim that inspectors simply turning up one morning will remove the fear and expectation that surround an Ofsted visit. It won’t. 

Schools can work out when they’re due an inspection. Currently, they’re given half a day to produce the reams of required information. That task’s hardly less impossible than no-notice, so schools anticipating Ofsted’s arrival already stockpile data, all created by teachers chasing paper instead of focusing on kids’ learning 

Cynicism or blind stupidity? 

Lurking behind the dawn-raid plan is the suggestion that, given notice, schools will somehow game the system. After all, it’s sometimes claimed, food-hygiene inspections occur without notice: the kitchen should be up to scratch every day without fail.

Fair enough. Rules and regulations for kitchen hygiene are numerous, but essentially procedural. By contrast, schools and schooling comprise thousands or millions of personal interactions in every school each week, and “outputs” are subjective, individual and variable. They cannot (or should not) be reduced to a tick-list.

Nonetheless, the Tories will try, once again, to do that very thing. Are they proposing this cynically? Possibly: they may pick up votes that way. 

More likely, though, my friend and former colleague Sir Anthony Seldon, now vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, nailed the truth this week. In a dramatic plea to turn education on its head (including a rather impressive headstand), he declared that “education ministers are fundamentally stupid”. Conservative Party HQ is currently proving Sir Anthony right. 

Whether it’s cynicism or blind stupidity in command, this kind of get-tough rhetoric will deliver not educational trumpets and cream – or even unicorns – but merely further harm to teachers and schools.


Sarah has been teaching for 10 years and has had enough

01 December 2019 

Too many classroom teachers experience the sharp end of the accountability regime - something has to change

Recently, I was talking to someone about achieving a balance between accountability and responsibility in the school system: I frequently extrapolate those terms to mean micromanaging versus trusting teachers. The conversation reminded me of talking, years ago, to some visiting teachers from Chile, who told me that Spanish has no direct translation for accountability, only responsibilidad. If only that were true of my mother tongue, I thought at the time, and still do.

This train of thought called to mind, in turn, a conversation the other week with Sarah, a young maths teacher whom I first met 10 years ago when she was just starting out on her career. At this last encounter over a restaurant meal, she confessed, somewhat ruefully, that she felt somewhat wicked and daring going out on a weeknight: it’s something she does only rarely, making an exception in honour of my visit. Ten years on, teaching in one of those tough settings nowadays described as a “left-behind/ deprived coastal area” she hasn’t time for evenings out.

The situation will be familiar to countless teachers. A committed teacher, modelling and demanding high standards, Sarah has all the preparation and marking to do, always strongly motivated to present exciting challenges to her pupils: to those keen to learn, those rewarding ones who hang on her every word (they exist in every school), but also those resistant to the allure even of her excellent classroom style.

Those demands are made of teachers in every setting. But there are many too many aspects of the current school system that make it harder than it should be for her to do her job.

For example, Sarah teaches a Year 10 bottom set. For many of these 14-year-olds, the most basic mathematical concepts remain impenetrable, despite her best efforts. Nonetheless, there’s the matter of their exercise books. Book scrutiny will affect Sarah’s performance management: if it’s deemed inadequate, she won’t be able to move up to the next point on the pay scale.

Having been denied a pay rise by a book scrutiny a couple of years ago, Sarah has learned that it’s necessary to fill the pages of even the most challenged pupils with lots of material. Now she uses templates, ready-made materials which can be stuck into their books to reassure the scrutineer that her pupils are busy, even though such information on its own furnishes no indication of their level of understanding.

Cynical, perhaps: but what’s Sarah to do? An absurd accountability mechanism requires her to achieve the impossible: meanwhile, failure to work that miracle will hurt her salary.

It gets harder. Recently an extra pupil has been added to that set, admittedly with a teaching assistant to help. Checking with the academy’s Sendco, Sarah found that this Year 10 child has the mathematical age/ability profile of a six-year-old.

She does her best with this new arrival, as she does with all her pupils, and understandably relies on the TA to do nearly all the individual work one-to-one, since the child cannot begin to tackle the work of the rest of the group.  But now she’s told that this pupil’s progress will form part of her performance management. That’s hardly fair, she suggested: after all, the TA does most of the work.

“Yes,” came the reply, “But someone must be held responsible for every pupil, whatever their learning difficulty. It’s a question of accountability.”

There it is again, the wilful confusion between responsibility and accountability. As her school’s leadership team bows to an obsessive government accountability system, Sarah is not responsible (ie, taking a professional and painstaking lead in the child’s development) but accountable, judged on arbitrary measures of their progress.

Senior staff, she reports, open most meetings with “Of course, it’s not all about Ofsted…” As a linguist might say, the “but” is not spoken, but is understood.

Small wonder that Sarah’s workload is increased by having daily to settle in an endless stream of supply teachers, since staff absence is high: another responsibility, then.

After 10 years, she’s had enough and is looking to leave teaching. Hands up who’s surprised.


I don’t begrudge any head a six-figure salary

24 November 2019

It’s the school leaders on the front line who should command the big bucks – not the Mat CEOs in their comfy offices

You’ve got to hand it to Sir Dan Moynihan. The chief executive of the Harris Federation is not afraid of defending his gargantuan remuneration package nor of suggesting that some academy heads are being paid too much.

It suggests a fair degree of self-confidence but, then, he has a lot to be confident about. By any measure, Sir Dan runs a good multi-academy trust, with a remarkable record of turning around failing schools. Moreover, he points out, last year he made savings of £5 million at Harris. A MAT of the size of Harris, with its 48 academies, is near-enough a corporation: judge Sir Dan as a businessman, and maybe his half a million-plus whack doesn’t look unreasonable.  

But then he spoilt it by suggesting that heads earning anywhere near the oft-quoted prime minister’s salary (£167,000) for running only a small trust, or a single school, are being overpaid. Quite apart from the obvious comment about people in glass houses, I think he’s got it completely wrong.

Just rewards

It’s not the people in a central office who should command huge salaries for making corporate decisions about savings on photocopying or catering contracts, or even masterminding strategic interventions in struggling schools: those who deserve the big reward are those at the sharp end, what we used to call the chalk-face.

Just for once, I’m not talking about teachers in general, but specifically heads, since they were in Sir Dan’s firing line. The MAT chief executive may decide where savings (that’s the posh word for cuts) must be made every time government funding is further squeezed, and may even come into the school to make the announcement. But then it’s back to HQ, away from the immediacy and impact of real school life.

It’s the leader on the ground who has to deal with the fall-out, the tears, the hurt, the recriminations, and the sheer wear and tear on all the staff who have to work even harder to fill the gaps created.

It’s the head, not the MAT boss, whose heart sinks when a teacher gets it horribly wrong and repair work or disciplinary processes must follow. And who has to deal with the difficult or embittered colleagues who might make hay with staffroom gossip during such episodes.

It’s the head who knows when a necessary sanction against a pupil will bring a combative parent into school with all metaphorical guns blazing. That most redoubtable of heads, Katharine Birbalsingh of Michaela School, complained in The Daily Telegraph last week that the default reaction of too many parents nowadays is to leap to their child’s defence, suggesting that the teacher has picked on them, or is racist. Even after 28 years of headship, I still found myself surprised on occasions by the readiness of some parents to assume that any blame must attach to the school, not to the immaturity of a child who needed to learn how to behave. I was never threatened by a parent (except with legal proceedings): but plenty of heads have been.

Rock solid

And then there are the children. To be sure, in-school heads have the privilege of witnessing and marking achievements (a joy remote CEOs may miss from their former life). But they must also help youngsters to deal with disappointment, failure, loss and bereavement. And with the tragic bombshell, a student or staff death: while the school finds itself on an emotional roller-coaster, the head is required to stand firm as a rock, providing support for everyone while, frequently, receiving little in their turn.

That’s the hard bit, which deserves what you might call danger money, payment for the relentless and lonely demands of the job. Dealing with all the challenges that colleagues, parents and children bring to the head’s desk every day is, I’d suggest, rather tougher work than implementing corporate strategies, achieving miraculous money-savings and presenting shiny spreadsheets to the board.

Well paid for it in my day (though not in excess of the PM) I wouldn’t grudge six figures to any school head. Nor should the country’s highest-paid education professional. To do so is insensitive on his part – and frankly insulting.


We must resist the urge to assess pupils' character

17 November 2019 

Character is caught, not taught – and different pupils pick it up in different times and in different ways, says Bernard Trafford

People expect everything from schools. Politicians and social engineers want basic levels of literacy and numeracy, plus narrowed attainment gaps and ever-improving results. Oh, and they want every form of social ill, threat or temptation tackled in school, too. 

Parents, for the most part, desperately want their kids to get top grades, notwithstanding the fact that, when formally interviewed, they frequently claim that they “just want them to be happy”.

Ambitious students often feel pressured to do (and, again, get top grades in) whatever subjects that latest research says will attract a better salary, or maybe win them a place at the better class of university – one that will, er, earn them a better salary. Not what turns them on intellectually, then, but what’s “useful” and (did I say this before?) earns them more long term 

Employers regularly call for well-qualified, literate, numerate, self-reliant, autonomous yet compliant wunderkinder, who can slot into a job after minimal induction or training, and get straight down to being productive. That’s not what they say, but it’s frequently what they mean. Then they moan that schools don’t prepare kids for the world of work.

An all-round education

Schools themselves want to give children an all-round education. That’s not just skills in traditional core subjects, plus appropriate levels of intellectual and exam achievement in chosen areas.

Schools also see as their mission the development of those less-measurable but vital additional qualities that all the pressure-groups above (except perhaps the kids themselves) also demand from time to time: empathy, compassion, generosity, altruism, teamwork, cooperation, ability to listen, self-confidence, initiative, resilience, flexibility, adaptability.

I could keep adding to that already long list – as could you – until we create a fascinatingly complex compendium of interrelated themes, all of which we consider vital to pupils’ personal growth. 

Alternatively, we could stop trying to include every individual aspect comprehensively, and just roll them all up in a single collective word. “Character” is now the buzzword. Former education secretary Damian Hinds and his successor Gavin Williamson have a departmental advisory group to work on it. But the task is full of pitfalls.

Defining the indefinable

For a start, can you actually define character in education? It’s all of it, really, the whole end-product of schooling. But government is unlikely to base any framework or programme it devises on anything so vague or subjective, when all its success criteria are based on measurable outcomes. 

Ofsted’s new handbook summarises character rather neatly as: “A set of personal traits, dispositions and virtues that informs their motivation and guides their conduct so that they reflect wisely, learn eagerly, behave with integrity and cooperate consistently well with others.” 

Fine. But, within our high-stakes accountability system, how will schools ensure their development of character is judged good? I foresee the emergence of a character equivalent of the mercifully now-abandoned “Ofsted lesson plan”, deplored by the inspectorate but almost inevitable given the pressure it engenders.

Modelling values

Moreover, can you actually teach character? In a recent Tes piece, Julia Harrington and Jonnie Noakes observed that some (me included) argue you can’t: it’s something that’s “caught”.

That doesn’t mean such vital learning happens by accident. On the contrary, a school can achieve it by consistently promoting and modelling a coherent set of values and by ensuring that, both within and beyond the formal core curriculum, it offers a calculated and plentiful range of opportunities for creative, expressive, voluntary, altruistic, sporting, outdoor, team-based challenges. Challenges, not mere experiences, is the realm where character is most easily and reliably learned. 

Trouble is, it’s messy. You can’t run a test at the end to see if the desired lessons have been learned: pupils will “catch” character learning in different ways and situations, at different times, when they’re ready. 

Still, the signs are positive. The necessary conversations, research and sharing of ideas across the profession are already well underway. 

But let’s not allow rigid government guidelines or clumsy accountability structures to straitjacket – and thus strangle in infancy – this most desirable, and important, of developments. 


Teachers will always work overtime. Now pay them more

10 November 2019

Caring teachers will always work beyond their contracted hours, says Bernard Trafford. In return, the government must stop controlling and exploiting them.

Guy Doza wrote eloquently last week about teachers working overtime. It’s nothing to be proud of, he tells teachers, and it leads to a “culture of unmanageable expectations”. 

Teachers are overworked, he says, and underpaid (both true). They’re expected to work long hours, to such an extent that failure to “go above and beyond” brings their work ethic into question.

But he’s critical of those who succumb to the pressure or willingly give up time to market their school through open evenings, or catch up on work at weekends, because of the impact it has on the people around them. 


Such pieces inevitably stimulate some soul-searching. Did I ask too much of my colleagues in 28 years of headship? I ran highly pupil-centred schools, with busy extracurricular programmes and very dedicated teachers (I can sense Mr Doza grinding his teeth), who worked hard. I don’t think I demanded too much of them – though, for an objective view, you’d have to ask them. 

Did I say objective? That’s tricky. Mr Doza deplores teachers doing anything outside contracted hours. But what constitutes a reasonable, even a contractual, teacher workload? 

When I was a young teacher (I started in 1978), teacher workload was an ill-defined thing, though teacher unions repeatedly initiated work-to-rule campaigns for better pay. (We really were badly paid back then.)

In the late 1980s, Kenneth (now Lord) Baker decided to end the argument, asserting that teachers must work 1,265 hours in a year. This created immense ill-feeling. I knew fantastic teachers, who had long exceeded that figure, who responded by ceasing to run school sports teams, choirs or play productions. “If that’s what he thinks of us,” one told me, “he can stuff it.”

Removing professional trust 

It was the first miserable – but significant – step in the Thatcher and Major governments’ process of removing professional trust from public services and introducing micromanagement, enforced by an oppressive accountability regime. 

Thirty years on and, regardless of who’s in power, it seems impossible to row back from it. Actually, I’m amazed that any goodwill remains in the profession. Astonishingly, it does, even if it attracts Mr Doza’s ire. 

He insists a coffee-shop barista wouldn’t say, “I don’t mind staying late to share the drink that I love.” But what about a crisis? Wouldn’t a committed employee stay on when the espresso machine blows up five minutes before the end of their shift? Maybe the employer would find some overtime pay, maybe not. But isn’t staying to help the natural, human thing to do, expressing both loyalty to customers and pride in the job?

That’s a trivial example. Commentators on the Tes webpage cited health workers who go the extra mile to save lives. The remarkable numbers of off-duty doctors and nurses who reported unbidden to London hospitals after the Westminster and London Bridge terrorist attacks didn’t ask about overtime before getting down to work. 

Similarly, I suspect safety and repair workers up and down the country turn out to keep road and rail networks open when emergencies strike. And they keep at it till it’s done because, well, it matters.

Openness, flexibility and humanity

As a head, I tried to protect my staff from outside pressures. I sought change and improvement, naturally, but on a basis of reasonableness, openness, flexibility and humanity. (Nor did I expect teachers to read or send evening or weekend emails.) True, the greater freedoms and resources of the independent sector made this easier. But don’t underestimate how demanding private-school parents can be.

I cling stubbornly to a vision of teaching as a caring and people-focused profession: one which accepts that those whom it serves are unpredictable and demanding and will, at times, desperately need it go the extra mile. 

But, if such generous professionalism is desirable, as I passionately believe it is, government must in return treat teachers as professionals: pay them better; stop micromanaging, controlling, exploiting, bullying and overworking them; give them time and trust; genuinely value them. 

Until it does that, ministers’ claims to be “tackling workload” will remain mere empty rhetoric. 


Without LAs, how can we open schools where most needed?

03 November 2019 

Free schools should open where the need is greatest, says Bernard Trafford. But remote multi-academy trusts won’t do this 

In The Times’ Thunderer column on 17 October, former minister of state for education David Laws wrote about a detailed analysis of official data for free schools by the Education Policy Institute, which he chairs. The headline, “New free schools cannot neglect left-behind areas”, summarises his and the EPI’s concern.

Secondary free schools achieve the best learning progress of any school type, he says, but free primaries don’t. Free primaries tend to be located where the need for additional school places is greatest, but not secondaries. 

Mr Laws’ worry is focused less on the siting of free schools than on the nature of the children who attend them. To be sure, the poorest children are as likely as any others to attend free schools.

But he fears they tend to come from poor but aspiring, high-achieving ethnic and immigrant groups, who do very well in school. Those from “challenged white” and “hampered” communities (his quotes) are seriously underrepresented. 

Model and challenge

His conclusion? Secondary free schools do well because they’re mostly in areas where all the schools do well: there aren’t enough free schools in “left behind” white working-class areas. His demand of government is to tackle the latter problem.

I don’t have access to official data, but I know one primary free school very well, because I helped to found it. It offers both a model and a challenge for the future development of the free-schools programme.

West Newcastle Academy (WNA), founded seven years ago in Benwell, one of the poorest wards in Newcastle upon Tyne, is a thriving one-form-entry free primary, now housed in a fine new building high above the Tyne river. An innovative curriculum, outstanding outreach and pastoral care and a child-centred, positive can-do attitude have rendered this recent arrival a prized choice of school for parents, which could provide a model for others. 

Even when shipbuilding, engineering, coal and steel were booming on the Tyne, West Newcastle was always the poor end of the Toon. Nowadays, Benwell provides homes for refugees and for a significant immigrant community, but remains significantly both “left-behind” and “challenged white”, in EPI’s terms. 

Supporting disengaged children

Nowadays I live five hours’ drive from WNA, but still visit when I can. Last week I watched children leaving at the end of the day, and would say at a glance that they reflected the school’s setting.

Moreover, from my experience of working with the headteacher, I know that WNA’s admissions policy answers David Laws’ concern. The policy prioritises need and proximity; the school is popular in its community and is full every year. Together, these two points ensure that it really does reach out to the educationally – not merely economically – disadvantaged.

So how did this particular free school come into being? The inspiration came from a charity, Kids and Us, long-established and deeply embedded in Benwell, with the aim of supporting disengaged children and their families. Kids and Us saw the free-schools programme as an opportunity to create a school that would connect and support these families. 

WNA is thus both the charity’s creation and its legacy. It shrewdly recruited local expertise: then running a large independent school in the city, I was brought on board, along with two other experienced heads, and the project became a reality. 

It’s hard to see how a group of parents, working on their own in a disadvantaged community, could achieve that aim. It’s almost as hard to picture a remote MAT having the reach and local knowledge to do so.

Where they are most needed

Local authorities might usefully replicate the local focus that Kids and Us provided in the creation of WNA. Sadly, they are no longer permitted to create new schools, and must instead ask MATs and federations to do it for them. 

David Laws rightly urges the government to site future free schools in areas where they are most needed, not only “where education reformers decide to pitch their tent”. 

But, by squeezing local authorities out of its educational vision, government is excluding the one structure best placed to deliver on his challenge.


Telling pupils they can fly will lead to crash landings

27 October 2019

Urged to set their sights high, pupils feel the need to achieve excellent grades. No wonder they feel stressed, says Bernard Trafford

More than 80 per cent of teachers reckon that focus on exams has become so “disproportionate” that exams are now valued more than wellbeing. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of pupils claim that exam pressure is adversely impacting on their mental health. 

Two major findings from research by the Health Foundation link concentration on academic outcomes to inadequate mental health support for pupils in schools.

The Health Foundation, The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and the Centre for Mental Health are calling for a review of the impact of the UK’s exam systems on young people’s wellbeing and mental health. They also want the inspectorates, Ofsted included, to look beyond attainment and assess schools on their efforts to promote a “whole-school approach”. 

It would be easy to blame it all on government pressure and lack of funding. They are certainly a significant part of the problem. I’ve discussed on innumerable occasions how schools feeling the squeeze of government and inspectoral pressure to get top results will inevitably transmit anxiety to pupils

And there’s no money for mental-health support. Thus the accountability and funding regimes need a review as much as the exam structure does 

Exams are doing harm 

Nonetheless, children are pretty resilient: note how readily most adapt to the whims and vagaries of individual teachers (to the despair of schools that demand teacher conformity). 

Yet four out of five pupils say they’re stressed. The sheer size of that proportion suggests that the effect is not felt by any single social, ethnic or ability group. It must be, one concludes, right across the board.

So, rather than lambast government yet again, on this occasion I’ll explore another – less structural, more cerebral and emotional – reason why exams are doing harm to young people’s wellbeing.

Here’s my question, then: a theory untested and maybe a little weird. Could a major culprit be a tendency to promote excessive aspiration?

For decades we (and I include myself) have rightly been battling to raise pupils’ aspiration. “Just good enough” is no longer good enough: students must “be the best they can be”. Aspirational epigrams adorn school walls, urging kids to remember that, if they believe in themselves, they can fly – almost literally, although such overweening self-confidence ended badly for Icarus, I recall.

Outside rigid hierarchies

I’m not having a go: inculcating aspiration and ambition is an essential part of education. Gone (and not before time) are the days when children were expected to know their place: one allotted to them by birth and a rigid social hierarchy. Nonetheless, I sometimes fear that assuring kids they can “be anything or anyone they want” is a step too far.

Thirty years ago, we worried that teenagers were abandoning Stem subjects in order to follow “easier” courses en route to highly paid jobs in finance and a yuppy lifestyle. Nowadays we’ve become so messianic about Stem (coining the term rather successfully in that quest, not least when you see how girls are finally turning to physics) that languages and the arts are now in near-meltdown.

I don’t believe anyone’s actually saying: “If you’re ambitious, you mustdo maths and other (allegedly) hard subjects,” yet that’s the message aspirational young people seem to receive. The creation of subject hierarchies by silly ideas, like the Russell Group universities’ list of “facilitating subjects” and Michael Gove’s painfully arbitrary and utilitarian EBacc, haven’t helped.

But the rush away from “creative” (forgive the over-simple label) subjects to Stem, and the continuing failure of vocational pathways to win widespread esteem, appear to be fuelled by something unspoken and indefinable, yet omnipresent in education’s bloodstream.

A perfect storm of pressure

Constantly urged to set their sights high, ambitious students need excellent GCSEs so that they can go on to tackle those tough A levels and be in contention for university offers, which will in turn demand stratospheric grades. Result: a perfect storm of pressure – even before taking into account the ways in which the government leans on schools.

Now four-fifths of teachers and pupils alike believe that an overemphasis on exams is putting wellbeing at risk. If that isn’t a wake-up call and a demand for serious review and change, I don’t know what is.


Why education is in a (very English) spot of bother

20 October 2019

Understatement is typically British. But describing school funding as 'a bit tight'? It's not on, says Bernard Trafford

Understatement is an endearingly British trait. Battle of Britain heroes, for example, would routinely talk self-deprecatingly about participating in “a bit of a scrap” or being in “a tight spot”, when in fact they’d been fighting for their lives and country against enormous odds.

The tradition of describing life-and-death moments in the manner of episodes from Winnie the Pooh continues to this day. When a colleague is late for a meeting, murmuring, “Sorry, bit of a difficult morning,” we know that description could signify anything from the car refusing to start to a major gas explosion demolishing their house at the same time as a web-scammer empties out their bank account.

Colourful colloquialism is arguably more attractive than the routinely robotic utterances from government spokespeople, such as those at the Department for Education, who repeat with monotonous regularity the mantra that government is pouring record funding into schools.

You’ll see where I’m going. There’s charming understatement – and there’s plain crass insensitivity.

School funding: 'A bit tight'?

This is an inappropriate time for Gavin Williamson, questioned about the schools funding crisis, to emulate a latter-day Biggles, downplaying the moment when the balloon went up. 

But he did. The education secretary told the BBC that, having a wife and brother who are teachers, he does “occasionally get it in the ear… that things have been a bit tight in schools and they’ve needed a little bit of extra money”.

bit tight? Even Dad’s Army’s Sergeant Wilson, played by the gloriously laconic John Le Mesurier, would have balked at describing a £14 billion shortfall as needing “a little bit of extra money”. 

Sadly, Mr Williamson is not alone in displaying out-of-touch political blindness. As Amy Gibbons reminded us in Teslast year former Chancellor Philip Hammond found schools an additional £400 million for “the little extras they need”. 

So what are those “little extras”, and why does it feel “a bit tight” in schools? I’ll highlight some recent examples. Just this week The Timesreported that councils were “siphoning off” (I quote the term pejoratively while acknowledging that it’s done in desperation) £400 million of precious money from schools in order to fund special-needs support

No money in the system

Some 354,000 children have bespoke education and health care plans (EHCPs), the successor to statements of special educational needs. These require schools and local authorities to provide individually tailored support: for example, 15 hours per week of one-to-one, in-class support from a teaching assistant. All in the system would agree that such targeted aid is essential, if the child is to be able to gain access to the curriculum and thrive in mainstream school.

Schools don’t always cover themselves in glory in this area. SEN training for teachers remains insufficient, to be sure. But, above all, there isn’t the money in the system. There’s growing evidence that even those legally required hours of support frequently aren’t provided. 

Attempting miracles with inadequate resources, headteachers are understandably resentful. The description by one of EHCPs as a “golden ticket” made me uncomfortable. Yet it was logical in context, since the concentration on ECHP funding (insufficient in itself) has left schools shorter than ever of cash, making impossible a range of earlier interventions that might render an EHCP unnecessary in the long term.

Bad show

In desperation, and sometimes because (unworthily) schools lean on the parents of children likely to pull down their vital exam or progress scores, increasing numbers are opting to home-educate. This is not done out of a philosophical search for an alternative, but out of sheer weariness at battling a mean and inflexible system.

Meanwhile, we learn that 70 per cent of teachers are working way beyond their contracted hours. No wonder unsustainable numbers are still leaving the profession: too much is being asked of teachers and TAs alike.

These are just recent snapshots of what’s regularly termed a serious situation, even a crisis. But the one thing it shouldn’t be called, in gung-ho understatement worthy of the myopic Captain Mainwaring, is “a bit tight”. 

All I can say to the education secretary, in similar style, is, “Bad show! Bad egg!” Or, in old school-report terminology, “Must do better."


Why am I so negative about Ofsted? I can do no other

12 October 2019

Unlike Labour, Bernard Trafford does not want to see Ofsted abolished. But he feels compelled to criticise the effect it has on schools and teachers

When, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle church, he set himself on a collision course with the might of the Roman Catholic church. Tradition, now disputed by scholars, has it that he declared: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” The rest is history – and the Reformation.

Luther was brave: he was taking on a potent and ruthless opponent, a fact undiminished by the old schoolboy howler that mistakes the word “theses” 

Less formidable than the power of 16th-century Rome, though nonetheless vocal, is reaction to the Labour Party’s conference (that’s Lib Dem policy, too).

Why so negative? 

Tes deputy editor Ed Dorrell shrewdly points out that the proposal could render education an election battleground (arguably no bad thing). But it will cost Labour votes, since parents like inspection reports when choosing schools for their children. 

I don’t blame parents for valuing Ofsted. Nor do I take issue with the decision to end the exemption of schools previously rated "outstanding" from further inspection. So why, as I was asked rather sharply the other day, is everything I write about Ofsted so negative?

It’s true that I tend not to shower the inspectorate with praise: I’m swifter to criticise its effects on schools and teachers

In my defence, I don’t do hatchet jobs on its people or their professional work. Ofsted’s senior executives without exception impress me, and the inspectors I’ve met (particularly HMI) have invariably been outstanding educationalists, generally with distinguished experience in school leadership.

I’ve given Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s chief inspector, credit for: speaking out about physical education being squeezed out of the curriculum; for confirming to a House of Commons select committee that, although she had no firm proof (yet), funding cuts were likely to wreak demonstrable damage over time; for expecting inspectors presented with reams of data to question whether their creation was a worthwhile use of teacher time; and for urging schools not to respond to Ofsted’s new focus on curriculum by producing endless paper policies, concentrating instead on useful discussion with inspectors about what their curriculum offers pupils.

Neither have I denied the importance of having an inspectorate that can enter unlicensed schools, and prosecute if necessary. Similarly, I welcome the prohibition on admitting pupils recently issued to several dodgy private schools, none of them members of the recognised associations that would provide a level of monitoring. 

We need mechanisms both to investigate causes for concern and to tell government candidly how its education policies are working out.

Arbitrary measures

Alas, it’s not the information gleaned that’s the problem, however professionally it’s collected. The problem is the way it’s then used to create arbitrary measures. Ofsted inspections form part of an accountability regime so burdensome and so high-stakes that its very existence – let alone the impending arrival of a team of inspectors – cranks up the stress. It’s an inevitable consequence.

Inevitable, too, is the intensification of pressure that stems from policymakers’ insistence that the infinitely complex mechanisms and interactions of a school should be reduced to a single adjectival grade. Meanwhile, the encouragement of competition, notwithstanding contradictory pleas for collaboration, renders even the fine difference between "good" and "outstanding" judgements crucial for schools: witness the banners hung on school gates.

As additional targets and benchmarks are constantly imposed by government, every new tweak of the inspection frameworksimultaneously increases workload, as schools identify new hoops through which they feel they must jump.

Over my long career, I learned what motivates teachers and gets the best out of them, for the benefit of their pupils – and what doesn’t. 

So I’m not lining up to endorse the Labour or Lib Dem plans to axe Ofsted, because more is required. The entire accountability system, of which Ofsted is but a part, is at fault. Root and branch revision is needed to remove intolerable pressure and return joy and satisfaction to the job – to the vocation – of teaching.

So, sorry Ofsted, but I have to keep writing in this vein. Like Martin Luther (if less grandly, and with infinitely less personal risk), I can do no other.


How pupil banter becomes the toxic maleness of politics

06 October 2019

Tackling classroom banter will not only stop bullying – it will also prevent the racist and sexist trolling of public figures, says Bernard Trafford

Three cheers for Duncan Byrne, head of the independent Loughborough Grammar School, who declared last week that he was banning classroom banter in his all-boys’ school. 

He claims that this isn’t mere do-gooding in the age of snowflakes, but part of a coherent strategy to counter what Mr Byrne terms “toxic masculinity”. His Great Men programme aims to encourage boys to open up more readily, to express their feelings, to know and accept that it’s OK to cry.

Some might argue that there’s little that’s novel here. In education, as in most things, there’s arguably nothing new under the sun

The scourge of toxic masculinity

But this initiative, whether innovative or not, is nonetheless important and deserving of wider discussion. For toxic masculinity remains a scourge in our schools and in our society, and so-called banter – which may start harmlessly enough, but too easily becomes cranked up into something destructive – provides a conduit by which it spreads.

Looking back to my early years as a teacher, 40 years ago, I still shudder when I recall allowing banter to run on. Young, probably wanting to be popular but, above all, ignorant (or at least naive) about how mild leg-pulling concealed or developed into bullying, I know there were too many occasions when I failed to step in and put a stop to it.

Schools and teachers are very much wiser and better-prepared nowadays. Far more aware, and hopefully trained to spot it, they will tend to take action, and perhaps even initiate discussion about why such behaviour is wrong

On the other hand, teachers are busy. They have lessons to teach and, besides, if verbal bullying has reduced in the classroom, its digital equivalent has multiplied exponentially through social media.

Eager to be in the online chat group or active on the latest trending platform, children reveal too much of themselves (both physically and emotionally, alas) and are hurt and bewildered when those revelations are turned back on them with intent to hurt. We adults struggle to keep up: witness the latest bizarre craze of “sadfishing”, where kids (perhaps self-indulgently) share online descriptions of how low they’re feeling today. Why do they do it? People of my generation are generally baffled by what appears a wilful courting of harm.

The sour maleness of present-day politics

This is not a problem confined to boys, of course. If I appear to have strayed from my opening topic, I’d merely comment that such bullying, undermining of physical and emotional confidence – those extensions of banter at its most vicious – is fed by toxic masculinity, which is in turn fuelled by the dreadful examples set by those who should know better.

The sour maleness of present-day politics becomes ever-more toxic as the Brexit row continues. I simply cannot comprehend the prime minister scribbling “girly swot” about David Cameron in a meeting note and apparently mouthing “big girl’s blouse” as a term of abuse directed at the leader of the opposition in the Commons. Worse still, the hyperbolic language of those ardent Brexiters who liken the wrangling over Brexit to a war (“which we won last time”) is, while indubitably absurd, simultaneously macho and dangerous. 

Meanwhile female public figures, from the Duchess of Sussex through MPs and MEPs to anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, routinely suffer sexist, racist, threatening and vile trolling online and, frequently, verbal abuse and threat in the street. Commentators reckon nearly all of it comes from men. 

So, yes, there’s a job to be done. Boys and men who get better at talking about and analysing their own feelings will inevitably see their levels of – and capacity for – empathy increase similarly. Programmes like Loughborough Grammar School’s Great Men won’t solve all the problems besetting us with regard to toxic masculinity, but they’ll certainly help.

There’s plenty of knowledge and experience to be shared, so let’s support such initiatives by getting the discussion going, and broadcasting it by means of the very digital technology that is causing us so many headaches. 


How a constant sense of threat feeds teacher workload

21 September 2019

The problem of teacher workload is less about hours worked, and more about excessive accountability and surveillance, says Bernard Trafford

I don’t often get cross these days: after all, I’ve been retired for over a year. Nonetheless, on Wednesday I was stirred to ire by the findings of the 15-year research project by University College London (UCL), which revealed that one in four teachers works more than 60 hours a week

Astonishingly, this is the first study to have tracked workload over such a long period of time. Full marks to UCL for doing it, and to the Nuffield Foundation for funding it. 

But no more than two cheers, please, because it (a) should have been done long before, and (b) demonstrates something the entire profession has long known, but policymakers have wilfully overlooked for 25 years, by the Department for Education’s own admission.

Lead author Professor John Jerrim was quoted as saying: “Bolder plans are needed by the government to show they are serious about reducing working hours for teachers.” 

Driving people out

The NEU teaching union's Kevin Courtney added: “Government is doing a far better job of driving people out of teaching than they are in retaining them.”

The DfE says it “will continue our work with the sector to drive down on these burdensome tasks outside the classroom so that teachers are free to do what they do best – teach”.

Sadly, as NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted describes, most “burdensome tasks” are generated by the government’s excessive accountability regime. Every new Ofsted angle on inspection spawns a fresh round of policy-writing and recording mechanisms. Teachers labour to create for their schools the evidence that assures the inspectorate they’re doing what’s required 

I know: school leaders should be more robust. But we all know the consequences to schools and heads of a poor Ofsted inspection, so forgive their human frailty. Blame the government-driven system, not the links in the middle, which sometimes crack under pressure.

'What teachers do best'

As for “what teachers do best” – teaching – what does that really mean 

To policymakers, it means merely “delivering” learning in the classroom; to pupils and parents, it means much more.

In order to change children’s lives, providing the springboard from which they may leap into challenge, personal growth and fulfilment, teachers must indeed be freed from “burdensome” tasks. But the problem won’t be solved by locking them in the classroom for a number of hours set by contract or diktat. 

Great teaching and consequent workload are about more than hours. While many great teachers establish a fantastic rapport with their pupils within the teaching timetable, more do it beyond the 21 hours’ weekly contact time cited by Mary Bousted. They do it through extra one-to-one help at lunchtime or after school. They work wonders with and for children through sportmusicdrama or outdoor education. 

Teams, concerts, plays, musicals or expeditions are created, by definition, almost entirely outside the timetable. They’re the parts of their education that former pupils generally recall most fondly: the challenges, experiences and soft skills gained prepare them for adult life rather more than most classroom learning can. 

Field trips add vital additional learning, and aren’t confined to sciencesor geography. At a touring production of Macbeth in Oxford this week, two-thirds of the audience comprised school parties. I suspect those generous teachers supervising would be heartbroken if such trips (a traditional strength of UK schooling) were deemed to breach a set-hours limit. 

Constant threa 

Writing as a former teacher and head who worked, I’d say with hindsight, excessive hours for 40 years, I’ll nonetheless risk censure by suggesting that the problem of teacher workload lies less in hours (within reason) than in its nature and intensity, above all in excessive accountability and consequent record-keeping, the constant sense of threat and surveillance, inadequate resourcing and support, over-large classes, unremitting pressure to perform, and lack of appreciation. 

These truths are inconvenient for policymakers – which is why nothing has been done about them despite promises from successive secretaries of state. 

What they should do is stop controlling, measuring and threatening teachers. Trust, value, support and appreciate them, pay them better (and less grudgingly), and many of the things currently driving teachers out of the profession would start to disappear. 


The case for keeping GCSEs is dubious at best

14 September 2019

Tougher GCSEs have been devised when there’s no need for a national qualification at that age, says Bernard Trafford

The new, “tougher” GCSE is already proving insufficiently challenging for the very brightest.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, reports that leading selective independent schools are finding that students gain far more top grades than expected: he cited one where 57 per cent of grades awarded were 9. He’s not advocating it, but reckons there may soon be calls for an additional grade 10.

It’s no surprise. The same happened previously at A level and with the old GCSE, as a result of either rising achievement or grade inflation, according to your point of view. In both cases, A* was added above A, not to mention the A-double-star (A^, “A hat”) in further maths GCSE. 

GCSE is the successor of O level, CSE and, far back in time, the School Leaving Certificate. Nowadays education (not necessarily in school) theoretically continues for all young people beyond 16. So it could be argued that exams at that age provide little useful information, except for the government to compare one school with another. 

Moreover, as currently constituted, they tell the “forgotten” third of 16-year-olds – those gaining less than a grade 4 in maths and English – that what they’ve worked for is worthless.

GCSEs: Cranking up the pressure

We’re assured that GCSE helps universities to discriminate at the top end. Indeed, it may allow selector universities to identify potential in candidates from less-favourable backgrounds as they (rightly) seek to ensure that disadvantage doesn’t prevent talented students from winning places. 

I’ve never been convinced by universities’ claims that any single qualification is essential to their selection processes. When Curriculum 2000 ushered in the AS level as the halfway point to A level, universities declared that they would be of no use whatsoever for selection. 

By contrast, when AS levels were phased out recently, universities lamented the loss of a vital indicator. 

I guess they’ve now returned to looking at GCSEs, so ambitious students will continue to aim for maximum top grades at GCSE. And when someone decides that the brightest are gaining “too many” 9s, the demand will come for a 10 (or 11, or even 12), cranking up the pressure on them a full two years before they’ll progress to university.

Selector universities do need some measure of prior attainment, but only while they perpetuate our barmy system of candidates’ applying before A level and holding conditional offers – except when some institutions drive a coach and horses through their own system by making unconditional offers

Applications to university after A levels

That problem could be solved at a stroke by a system of post-qualification application – in other words, letting candidates apply for university after they’ve got their A-level results, as students do successfully in the rest of the world. 

Policymakers and admissions tutors will throw up their hands in horror: how can they possibly get it all done between exams in June and university term starting in October? They can’t, of course, which is why they need to find the collective courage and vision to stretch that period by rethinking the entire academic year. That calls for big change, not mere tinkering.

But, until that happens – and I’m not holding my breath – the race for top GCSE grades will continue. 

The problem lies in the GCSE itself. A new, tougher exam has been devised for 16-year-olds when there’s no longer any clear reason for a national qualification at that age. It’s the wrong age and the wrong purpose for that exam, and the wrong exam for that unclear purpose.

So, before we consider revising or adding to the grades awarded at GCSE, we should revisit the whole rationale for the exam’s existence at that age. It’s dubious at best. 

Designing and introducing the new GCSE before even asking whether the qualification is still needed has been a matter of putting the cart before the horse. Let’s not now further tinker with the horse’s harness, nor buff up the brasses, when we don’t even know where it’s going.


Ofsted now does more harm than good

07 September 2019

Many social campaigners see Ofsted as the government's enforcer - but this benefits no one, says Bernard Trafford

A new school year and, as night follows day, fresh announcements from Ofsted

First came the news that schools previously rated "outstanding" will lose their exemption from further inspection

Responses were generally positive. There’s the obvious equity view: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” Why should some schools, however good they were on a particular day, be treated differently from the rest? Meanwhile, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, observed that newly appointed heads find their attempts to achieve change blocked by the argument that “we’re already outstanding”.

Ofsted: Conflict and misery

Next, the inspectorate dropped all reference to homework from its new school inspection framework, on the grounds that: “It is up to schools to decide whether or not they set it for their pupils… Inspectors will assess the wide range of work provided to pupils to ensure it supports and reinforces what is taught in the classroom and the wider curriculum.”

Here responses were more varied. From the parental lobby that finds homework a source of conflict and misery at home (one led by such influential figures as Kirstie Allsopp and Romesh Ranganathan), there was joy – though I’d guess that ditching homework entirely is not what Ofsted has in mind. 

By contrast, from other, predictable, quarters emerged only fury. Chris McGovern, chair of the Campaign for Real Education (CARE) and a former Ofsted inspector to boot, told The Sunday Times: “This is a retrograde step… Many teachers will take the easy way out and not set homework from now on… This has been done to appease teachers who are complaining about their workload…”

Policy enforcers

To picture my perfect Ofsted inspector would be a bit like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen imagining five impossible things before breakfast. But I can’t imagine Mr McGovern having much in common with my ideal.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for his intemperate tirade, which, while betraying a deep distrust of teachers, also illustrates clearly what too many people – including most of the media, policymakers and thinktankers – regard as the inspectorate’s purpose: to ensure that schools do what the government (along with the media, policymakers and thinktanks) wants them to do. Because, if left to themselves, they cannot be trusted to. In other words, to enforce policy.

CARE believes it. Well-intentioned social campaigners believe it. Every call for schools to address the latest pressing social issue – knife crimeobesity, fitness, sleep, healthy eating, screen time, internet safety, tolerance, intolerance, diversity, extremism – brings a concomitant demand that Ofsted check that schools are doing it. Otherwise, it’s argued, they won’t. Trust has long been in short supply.

To be fair to Ofsted’s boss, Amanda Spielman, she and her senior staff are as powerless against those demands as the schools they inspect, though they suffer less than those on the receiving end. Whenever an element is added to the inspection framework, schools feeling themselves under the cosh (a lot of them) write policies to address it, despite Ms Spielman’s pleas not to. And, if an element is removed or downgraded…well, witness those reactions to that decision not to mention homework. 

Catastrophic damage

So what of this week’s suggestion that Ofsted inspect schools’ financial management? Perhaps Ms Spielman’s next annual report could tell the government how schools are doing the impossible with inadequate budgets? 

But she can only do so when the damage is so catastrophic as to be clearly demonstrable. Last year, she was (genuinely) unable to demonstrate scientifically to the Commons Education Select Committee that swingeing cuts were affecting levels of achievement, though she said it was likely. Effects become measurable only slowly, so in the meantime government can ignore them. And did, in this case.

As for the latest proposal that Ofsted should report on schools’ transmission of “cultural capital”, I guess we’ll rapidly see a nation’s entire artistic, literary, spiritual and social heritage reduced to policies two sides of A4 in length.

Ofsted holds schools accountable. Schools, in their turn, are able to hold neither inspectorate nor government to account for failing to support them adequately. Simultaneously a blunt instrument and a double-edged sword, Ofsted now does more harm than good. 

We must find a better way of assuring schools’ accountability – and inspection needs to go.