Bernard's pieces for the Tes

Why students should be included in teacher recruitment

12 January 2019

The practice of having a pupil panel at an interview is up for debate again – and Bernard Trafford knows on which side of the fence he sits 

Who’d have thought that old chestnut could still arouse strong feelings? I’m referring to the suggestion by Shaun Fenton, head of the independent Reigate Grammar School and current chair of HMC, that schools should involve students in the appointment of teachers.

Regular education tweeters, including Katharine Birbalsingh, Michaela Community School’s high-profile headteacher, and researchEd founder and government discipline tsar Tom Bennett, were swift to denounce the notion. The old battle lines, once drawn up, are familiar and unchanging.

The argument against runs that pupils are children, and can’t be trusted to make wise judgements (note the summer’s Tes piece about Ms Birbalsingh and Michaela “I don’t trust them – they’re kids”): they’ll simply vote for the teacher they like most. Moreover, it’s suggested, it’s not their place to choose who teaches them or how: it’s their job to be taught and get on with learning.

In the other corner stands the view that, when it comes to teaching, pupils don’t favour teachers who are a soft touch or try to be nice: surveys tend to consistently suggest that they dislike weakness and want “strict but kind” teachers who are in control, and know their stuff.

As a young head in the early 1990s, I adopted an open management style that embraced the views of both teachers and students. The term pupil voice hadn’t been coined then: pursuing action research in the field, I referred to participation, school democracy, engagement. My PhD thesis, completed in 1996, linked the growth of democratic practice to school improvement (value-added measures were in their infancy back then).

By the turn of the century, everyone was talking about pupil voice. I did some work with government on harnessing the energy of students as a powerful contributor (one of several) to school improvement, not least in the successful London Challenge.

It’s curious how the suggestion of involving pupils in teacher appointments still raises hackles. It’s the head’s job (not governors’) to appoint teachers, but it’s a foolish head who doesn’t listen to colleagues: senior leaders, the head of department/section, colleagues they’ll work with, even the first impression from the school receptionist.

Why not ask the kids too? I often used a student panel: possibly uncomfortable or unfamiliar for applicants, their response can be revealing. Why not, at the very least, ask the pupil guinea pigs in the essential trial lesson what they thought of it?

I never appointed without gaining consensus from those involved in the process: occasionally I failed to secure my favoured candidate, though in most cases the best fit was obvious and agreement easily reached. Within those rules of engagement I see little reason not to seek pupils’ views.

There’s a deeper justification for involving pupils.  Education is about growth. Even in the toughest setting and strictest regime, schools don’t (I hope) deny their pupils any opportunity to take genuine responsibility before chucking them out into the grown-up world – and then expect them to function as effective adult citizens.

I always found that the pupils involved in teacher appointments were acutely aware of the depth and limits of their responsibility, painstaking in questioning and deeply thoughtful in analysis. It offered them valuable learning beyond the normal curriculum, and an insight into the nature of teaching and school management. The trust placed in them fed back into the wider student body, doing nothing but good.

Oh, and don’t worry about confidentiality. I’m sure I over-preached on that score: if any leak occurred, it wasn’t from the students.

By the way, Shaun Fenton’s suggestion was about wider student engagement: it was The Sunday Times that headlined giving pupils a role in appointing teachers. Have we now gone full-circle, so that empowered (rather than tokenistic) pupil voice is once more regarded as dangerous? My work on it all those years ago took me from lunatic fringe to fleeting guru-status: but maybe the current climate of control in education frowns on the concept of pupil empowerment.

If so, I’m once more on the wacky edge. That’s fine: it’s nice out there.

There’s absolutely no evidence that IGCSEs are easier

05 January 2019

It's unfair to accuse independent schools of cheating the GCSE system with IGCSEs, writes Bernard Trafford 

Here we go again! Private schools stand accused of “cheating the GCSE system. Labour MP and former shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, professed herself outraged to learn, in answer to a parliamentary question, that 90 per cent of IGCSE entries in core subjects in 2018 were from private schools.

Like the Tory chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, she proclaims that the government’s new GCSE exams set a higher standard for the 16+ exam. IGCSEs are by implication easier: thus, by using them (when state school pupils are no longer allowed to), Ms Powell claims private schools are “cheating the system to inflate their results”.

This is a non-story, because it’s baseless. The Department for Education’s spokes-robot burbled predictably: “International GCSEs have not been through the same regulatory approval and quality control as the new gold-standard GCSEs, which is why we no longer recognise international GCSEs in school performance tables.” To be sure, it’s government’s privilege to choose which qualifications it recognises.

But a new exam doesn’t become “gold-standard” just because the DfE says it is: not even when it’s created by decree from Michael Gove, and given a brand-spanking new grading system to boot. Just repeating something over and over again doesn’t make it true: and no evidence – not a shred – has been produced to demonstrate that IGCSEs are easier than the new GCSE.

The widespread UK use this century of the international alternative to GCSEs grew out of dissatisfaction with the old exam. Increasingly criticised for its formulaic, tick-box approach, its content gradually shrank and challenge diminished. The private sector, exploiting its freedom from government stricture, found a better alternative in the range of international qualifications that entrepreneurial exam boards were offering abroad. By repute they were significantly more challenging than the domestic GCSE, demanding greater depth, relying less on coursework and sitting most or all exams at the end.

As its own schools increasingly moved towards IGCSE, government set out to create its own new GCSE – which, apart from the new grading system, resembles many IGCSE exams.

Independents, cautious and painstaking in their choice of qualifications, are continuing to make significant use of IGCSEs: not in order to “game” any system but because subject specialists, given the freedom of independence, regard their challenge and content as providing a solid platform for subsequent A-level study. The introduction of the new domestic GCSE was rushed and, while doubts persist about marking quality, many independents are staying with the trusted IGCSE while the new exam beds in. Nonetheless, as GCSE gains credence, independents will switch to it in numbers.

Some critics appear to feel that everyone should be forced immediately to jump into government’s new system. I’ve never liked state monopolies and wouldn’t welcome one in regard to exams. If it’s unfair that independents have a choice when state schools don’t (though they can choose between exam boards), I’d recommend that government revert to recognising IGCSE, restoring to its own maintained schools and academies the choice they used to enjoy.

I’m unconvinced that those allegedly “more easily gained” IGCSE grades would in any case advantage university candidates from private schools. Sifting through applicants’ academic records, Higher Education institutions routinely differentiate between courses, boards, exams, grades and even school-types. The current problem, if indeed one exists, lies not in the choices independent schools make, but in Westminster’s control-freakish demand for conformity which, notwithstanding its rhetoric of granting schools' freedoms, insists that its new exam becomes the only show in town.

Before we can readily accept its repeated assertions that GCSE is truly the new “gold-standard”, government should commission scientific research to establish the facts. While they’re at it, they should also check that the content is at least as challenging as IGCSE and provides an equally effective platform for further study beyond 16.

Until there is reliable evidence, self-appointed armchair experts should avoid accusing any group of schools of cheating.


Councils blocking SEND support can learn from the Christmas story

20 December 2018

The special educational needs and disabilities support system requires a root-and-branch review, says Bernard Trafford

How did your Christmas assembly go? Now retired, I didn’t have to prepare one this year. But in my time I did 27 of them.

I’m not talking about a formal carol service, nor a nativity play (with or without lobsters at the manger, as with Love Actually). I mean that end-of-term school gathering where a couple of carols or Christmas songs might be sung, and the headteacher or another well-intentioned colleague attempts to attach some relevant present-day meaning to the Christmas story

I recall my deputy tactfully observing that I’d over-stressed the physical discomfort of a nine-month-pregnant mother travelling from Galilee to Bethlehem on donkey-back. I forget now why I’d set off on that particular empathetic track. 

Besides, there are easier parallels for that heroic assembly taker to identify. Mary and Joseph, ordered by an occupying power to travel to Joseph’s birthplace to complete the census: it’s curiously comforting that, even 2,000 years ago, a sprawling empire spawned such bureaucracy. The couple failing to find anywhere to stay in Bethlehem resonates amid the current, shocking level of homelessness in the UK and offers many moral lessons. Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, obliged to flee King Herod’s wrath (cue feeble jokes about the flight into Egypt being captained by Pontius the Pilot): there are endless parallels to be drawn with present-day migrants and refugees.

I suspect my Christmas homilies were painfully predictable. On the other hand, trying to be trendy or different in a season so tradition-bound tends only to irritate.

So in the spirit of such assemblies, let me compare the account of the Bethlehem baby with another group of children – one that has been excluded, disadvantaged, and which is suffering official prejudice. A report in the Times last Saturday described how “Councils put illegal blocks on help for special needs pupils”. The paper’s investigation found “unlawful or misleading information about the criteria for applying for an EHCP [education, health and care plan] on the websites of 12 local authorities or in letters written by the authorities to parents”.

It makes alarming reading; sadly, no one working in education will be surprised. Working in special needs for 20 years, much of that time as a special educational needs and disabilities coordinator, my wife frequently battled local authorities who seemingly went out of their way to deny support to children who were entitled to it.

Bureaucratic barriers

The Times article cited Shropshire council as requiring schools applying for an assessment for a child “to provide 12 pieces of information, including a report from an educational psychologist”. None of these is required by law so why is that council setting its bar so high?

Of course, councils are in dire straits, with funding for all services slashed. Yet, people working in the field invariably describe council officials reacting as if they’re being asked to dip into their own pockets to fund support for children with SEND, prevaricating and blocking for as long as they can. Occasionally my wife would give evidence at tribunals, which invariably found in the family’s favour. More often, though, officials settled the dispute at the last second, at the door of the courtroom. 

Nowadays mediation is the preferred route: less expensive, but not cost-free. Again, it seems it’s only at that formal process that councils finally agree to do their duty.

This behaviour, by the way, bears no correlation to councils’ political complexion. Horror stories emerge from those controlled by right and left alike.

The education secretary Damian Hinds' £350 million Christmas handout to support SEND is welcome. Such a sum must surely help. But the system doesn’t just need more money. To function properly, and to meet its moral and practical obligations, it requires root-and-branch review to ensure that the processes act for the benefit of the children who need support, not as a means of delaying action and leading desperate families a frustrating and harrowing procedural dance. 

Above all, what’s needed is a genuine change of heart; maybe listening to our heart is another thing the Christmas story can teach us.

Merry Christmas!



Universities are damned if they do and damned if they don’t

15 December 2018

The HE sector is castigated as elitist and castigated as lowering the bar when it makes unconditional offers

I never thought I’d find myself feeling sorry for universities. For many years of headship, I was actively involved in helping students into higher education: and, as often as not, was driven to screaming point. That’s just the nature of being part of the assembly line that seeks to send many 18-year-olds on to the courses and institutions that suit their personalities, talents and aspirations: like it or not, that’s a major (but far from the only) part of secondary schools’ work.

So, over the years, I may have cursed universities at times: but, now that they’re on the receiving end of criticism from all quarters, they have my sympathy. They’ve been slated for the surprisingly large number of unconditional offers made to students: at the same time, Oxford (among others) is in the firing line for the lack of diversity of its entry.

And on Thursday The Times reported, “Fee-hungry universities lower bar to entry”. The thrust of this story is that many candidates are now scraping into university with no more than three D grades: apparently, 80 per cent of those relatively low achievers won places.

Of course, the media – or, at least, the subs who pen the headlines – frequently adopt the tone that the world is going to hell in a handcart. Since the current state of Brexit suggests we’re indeed heading in that direction, who can blame that sense of doom from permeating education stories too?

Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring the implication that there’s something wrong with DDD candidates going to university. Wasn’t it once an ambition that 50 per cent of school-leavers were doing so? Or is that just another Blair mantra that we now reject?

The Times piece was balanced, citing students who achieve disappointing A-levels – usually because non-school elements conspire against them – but succeed in their degree course.

Isn’t one of the purposes of higher education to allow young adults to continue in education and equip themselves academically and intellectually for the rest of their lives? For many years there have (rightly) been alternative access routes for those who don’t get it right aged 18. One is via Further Education, now battered by government and insanely starved of funds.

When it comes to unconditional offers, I regret to disagree with my many erstwhile fellow heads who criticise their growth. The argument is that, having received them, young people take their foot off the accelerator (as I would have done at that age) and saddle themselves with poor grades that, it’s suggested, mar their CV forever.

I’m sorry to irritate those colleagues just before Christmas, but we can’t have it both ways.  We’ve spent the last few years bewailing the pressure put on applicants by holding high university offers. Indeed, if we’re honest, those offers were frequently beyond their reach: but schools have known that most universities (not the top selectors, perhaps, but most) nowadays allow latitude for candidates falling short.

So we rightly deplore that particular pressure - but opponents of unconditional offers perversely insist on allow that pressure to build through to the summer of Year 13. As for criticisms of universities “lowering the bar”, it’s surely contradictory to promote life-long learning through HE and beyond and then complain if universities, driven by government policy to pursue student numbers, are prepared to take a punt on those who haven’t done so well at age 18.

There’s an answer to this contradiction. Government, universities and schools should get round the table and plan a workable strategy for students to apply to university with their A levels under their belt. But PQA (Post-Qualification Application) would demand wholesale structural change, and the collective will to embrace it has been lacking for forty years, to my knowledge.

Besides, such change would require consensus which, in the current political climate, isn’t at all the modus operandi: on that, at least, we can all agree.

All schools want for Christmas is more money and less lying

08 December 2018

Ministers' comments about schools having enough funding show how removed they are from reality, says Bernard Trafford

As anyone who’s read my blogs more than once will know, I’ve long suspected that the Department for Education employs as it spokesperson a robot, whom I christened Robert. I made this assumption on the basis that no human being – at least, none with any sense or conscience – could constantly repeat its mindless mantra in response to the funding crisis. "There is no crisis," Robert droned, "and funding is at record levels." The bot reiterated the message so frequently that even ministers found themselves parroting it: or was it the other way round?

I was wrong. My attribution of this repetitive drivel to a machine was, if anything, an insult to the miracle that is artificial intelligence. The spokesperson isn’t an AI, nor even a lowly human functionary. These pronouncements come from the top.

How do I know? In a headline last week, Tes’ Martin George reported,“‘We’re not on the verge of a funding crisis,' says DfE schools tsar”. The potentate in question is Dominic Herrington, interim national schools commissioner, who, unlike his predecessors in the post, is not a former head but a career mandarin.

He assured the Commons Education Select Committee that there was “no evidence” that cuts are affecting the quality of education. It’s true, of course, that Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman has reported no correlation between loss of funding and any falls in results: to be fair, nor has she claimed that schools aren’t having a tough time.

I don’t know what’s worse: Mr Herrington’s denial of a problem or his euphemistic admission that “there is a huge efficiency challenge across the school sector”. It’s not about slashing and burning, he implies: schools just need to be more efficient (I’ve written before: “efficiency savings” is usually code for sacking people).

NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted commented to Tes: “I’m not really bothered whether Dominic Herrington agrees or not: the facts don’t support his insouciance.”

Ministers must face up to funding crisis

Insouciance: a wonderful choice of word implying a mixture of blindness, insensitivity, naivety, wilful ignorance and lack of empathy. Former PM Jim Callaghan was alleged to have said, “Crisis? What crisis?” about 1976's famous Winter of Discontent, and even though he never actually said it, the electorate never forgave him. Similarly, notwithstanding Mary Bousted’s measured if damning reaction, I don’t foresee educational professionals readily extending forgiveness to the (temporary?) NSC. Insouciance? More like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

While playing the violin, Mr Herrington’s in tune with his bosses. SincLord Agnew smugly claimed that his officials could find £50,000 of waste in every primary school, and crassly bet school leaders a bottle of champagne that he could do the same in any school he visited, it’s been revealed that the Department itself squandered some £54 million on a proposed move from glitzy Sanctuary Buildings (now apparently inadequate: DfE staffing is clearly mushrooming while schools slash theirs) to the old Admiralty building. According to reports, these millions were committed by Michael Gove but now the DfE isn’t moving, even though the expensive Admiralty refurbishment has been completed: I guess other departments are vying for that magnificent new accommodation.

Curiously, there may be a grain of truth behind Lord Agnew’s assertion. It’s possible schools could negotiate better contracts for utilities, printing and other functions: but they can’t do that when they’re already administratively understaffed, when primary heads and business managers are too busy mending roofs and unblocking toilets to implement complex tendering processes. Lord Agnew, yet another wealthy ministerial escapee from the world of business, chooses to forget that time costs: when money’s short, there’s not time even to plan strategic savings.

It’s pots and kettles at DfE: or, to become biblical, ministers and mandarins alike are too busy examining the speck of dust (mote) in schools’ eyes to notice the beam in their own.

“All I want for Christmas,” the song goes. All schools want for Christmas is adequate and fair funding. In the meantime, though, more truth and fewer lies emanating from DfE might help morale.


Want to ease the teacher retention crisis? We must change the nature of the job

01 December 2018

If Lucy Kellaway's suggestion is that teachers can only cope with a three-day week, then it's the job, not the timetable, that must change

The amazing Lucy Kellaway, former Financial Times journalist and founder of Now Teach, has reached the conclusion that teaching is “unendurably hard”. Why, she asks, can’t we engineer things so that teachers can work three-day weeks? Having achieved that change herself, after her full-time training year, she’s now loving her job – and is, I’m sure, a better teacher for it.

I admire Lucy and would love to meet her. Her widely-shared experience has shone a spotlight on the harsh realities of teaching. What follows isn’t intended as criticism, merely comment on the unanswerable questions she raises.

On one level you can’t argue: most teachers would cope better with a three-day week. They’d be less exhausted, escaping from the marking-preparation-and-admin treadmill and, hey, be allowed a life. 

The first problem is financial. Most ordinary teachers would struggle on three-fifths of a £25K salary. By contrast, in her revealing BBC Radio 4 series, aired in the summer, Lucy quoted a Now Teach colleague who took a 90 per cent pay cut to follow her lead: she had similarly left a highly-paid job.

Of course, the genius of Now Teach lies in recruiting such people. It’s right that government, now clutching at straws when it comes to teacher supply, has agreed to fund it – though you might argue that, at £10.7m, the straw is a costly one.

Next, schools have always been grateful to recruit experienced part-time teachers, but could they operate with a majority of part-timers? The difficulty is not so much about constructing a timetable around fragmented staff availability (though that shouldn’t be underestimated) as about giving children continuity.

This year Lucy Kellaway has changed subject, now she teaches economics and business studies. I suspect those will be offered as options, only at the top end of secondary, so her pupils will cope with not seeing her on two days in the week. By contrast, it’s widely felt that younger children – 11 to 13-year-olds, say – best learn maths (which Lucy taught last year) through frequent lessons, absorbing and practising the vital basic principles, preferably on a daily basis.

So, if teachers taught three days a week, would pupils have to share two teachers in core subjects? How good would planning and liaison have to be to achieve effective team-teaching? Superhuman, if you ask me.

Besides, though I might stand accused of harbouring a sentimental, old-fashioned view of teaching, I’ve always seen the teacher’s role as much broader than merely “delivering” a subject (I hate that verb). The best teachers – those empathetic, approachable professionals who run tightly-organised and positive classrooms – have always been the first resort for children who are worried, lost or distressed.

A recent survey demonstrated, yet again, that teachers are among the most trusted members of society, and are thus heavily relied on by children and parents. Even supported by good non-teaching pastoral staff (we’ve seen them sacrificed to swingeing funding cuts in BBC2’s current fly-on-the-wall series, School), it’s the teacher whom pupils see every day and to whom they naturally go when in need. In an adequately-funded system, teachers would perform those traditional pastoral roles as well as teaching, and they’d be given sufficient time out of the classroom to do it.

It comes back, as ever, to the workload with which teachers are burdened – unendurable, says Lucy Kellaway, and damaging to their mental health according to a study by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. If Lucy’s right that teachers can only cope with three days’ work, then society is requiring too much of them, and should stop.

The government has a moral obligation to recruit and retain sufficient teachers to allow them to teach their specialism, give additional time for the pastoral and extracurricular work that were so long a strength of our system, and do it all without killing themselves – indeed, to render the job not just endurable but enjoyable and rewarding.

With due respect to Lucy’s observation, it’s the nature of the job, not the nature of the contract, that needs a fundamental redesign. 

Ministers, get back to Brexit and leave teachers alone

17 November 2018

It’s a colossal waste of money and many schools do them already, so what's the point of the new times-tables test?

A quick maths test:

Q1. The Year 4 times-tables test the government plans to introduce from next year will cost £5 million. How many children are there in England in Year 4? So to calculate the cost per child, divide by 5. No…hold on. Is it the other way around?

Q2. If the new times-tables test prioritises the 6, 7, 8, 9 and 12 times tables, and gives children six seconds to answer each question, what is the price per second per question per child?

Stop, stop, stop! This is more pointless than Pointless. What’s going on?

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, has branded these new tests an enormous waste of money. Worse, he complains, not only will they take teachers and children away from learning, but “the results will be used by Ofsted to hold schools to account”.

For sure they will, though the tests’ architect, standards minister Nick Gibb, merely reiterated his usual tedious mantra: “Leaving primary school with a fundamental grasp of basic numeracy is as important as leaving [while] being able to read. And just as the phonics check has helped more children learn to read, this will ensure more pupils know their times tables.”

I’m never sure whether the old habit of children chanting times tables in class really died out. Perhaps it did and needed to return. I don’t think it hurt anyone, and may have done them good (though simply reciting something from memory doesn’t necessarily mean children know how to apply it).

Perhaps we should feel grateful that anyone found time to speak on this important subject, while the government – indeed, the whole of Parliament – is in meltdown over Brexit. Who knows? At the current rate of resignations, Mr Gibb might be Brexit secretary by Monday, and prime minister by Wednesday.

'It stinks'

Beyond the colossal waste of money, when schools are already desperately short of cash, there’s only one point to make about this times-tables test: what’s the point of it? Nick Gibb himself declared how easy the check would be to do, “as most schools already do some kind of multiplication check anyway”. So why add one?

We know why. Some years ago, Mr Gibb insisted that all schools teach phonics: to ensure he got his way, he forced a test on schools. Now he asserts that “the phonics check has helped more children to learn to read”. Does he have research evidence for that? Or does he just “know it”, as politicians so often do?   

That job done, Mr Gibb’s latest enthusiasm is for tables – with the same test-based enforcement. Like so many ministers before him, he is viscerally incapable of trusting teachers to do a good job so he imposes a test to check up on them, adding the threat of Ofsted as belt and braces. It stinks.

Time for a simultaneous equation:

Ministers’ trust in schools = 0

Teacher morale = 0

Thus we can prove that ministers’ trust = teacher morale. When trust is low, so is morale. If ministerial trust is high…well, that’s never been tested.

I guess, having moaned so often, I’m off Mr Gibb’s Christmas-card list. Come to think of it, I was never on it. Besides, when he’s the only minister left, he’ll be too busy handling five or more portfolios to worry about sending cards – or about times tables.

There is a serious point here, though. In a democracy it’s not the role of ministers to micromanage from a great height (it’s bad enough when heads do that). Their part should be to set strategic direction, then support and resource it (remember resourcing?) and monitor the outcomes.

Ministers should stop telling teachers what to do and how to do it. They should leave the professionals to do the job and, given the current state of government, get back to rearranging the deckchairs while the ship of government sinks.


I understand why home educators feel threatened

13 November 2018

Home educators are widely misrepresented, including on the Tes Podcast – and they have the right to react vocally

Oh dear, oh dear, Ed Dorrell. What were you thinking?

In this week’s Tes podcast, discussion touched on Amanda Spielman’s proposal this week that home educated children should be registered.

This suggestion, said the podcasters, invariably provokes a strong response. Home-educating parents, Ed declared, are “like the gun lobby in America: when they feel threatened they go absolutely mental…They go ape-shit.”

There’s been a fair old backlash. To be fair to Tes’ content editor, he wasn’t comparing home educators themselves to US gun nuts, only their reaction: both become vocal when what they regard as a fundamental right is under threat.

To be honest, I was surprised that four education journalists, undoubtedly better informed than me, believed that response to be so strong. I know of two umbrella/support groups, Education Otherwise and the Centre for Personalised Education, that (as a former home educator) I’ve had a previous connection with: I’m sure other groups have grown up since. But it’s never struck me that such alliances make enough noise to be termed a lobby (apologies if I’ve underestimated them: I’m out of touch).

I understand why home educators feel threatened: calls for a register, (nothing new) betray a deep distrust of such parents and their motives. That suspicion, stemming in the current climate from fears of radicalisation, becomes confused in the popular psyche with unregulated private schools. Previous demands for registration emerged amid fears of abuse, where children (Victoria Climbié and Baby P were two notorious cases) had been removed from school by abusive parents/guardians who subsequently murdered them.

But they weren’t being educated at home. Frequent loose use of language smears parents who home educate not to avoid scrutiny, not to hide abuse or indoctrination, but because they believe they can offer their child something better – or, rather, more suitable. The 1944 Education Act still applies here, requiring that children receive suitable education. Home educators assert their right to determine what is suitable, not leaving it to local or national government.

I was also surprised by Ed’s subsequent assertion that the home education lobby has a strong hold on the Right of the Tory party and on “hard-core Brexiteers who are headcases for home education”. Most home educators I’ve known lean to the Left, and a moderate Left at that: more extreme governments of left or right are authoritarian, curtailing freedoms, not increasing them

Caught in the crossfire

Home educators reject conventional schooling not from some ultra-Right survivalist ideology, but from grave reservations about the structured nature of school and what they see as regimentation or lack of freedom and choice. They’re alarmed by prominent academies’ boasts of tough, no-nonsense discipline and strict uniform rules, and by press stories about bullying. In such settings, they fear for their children who may be delicate, live with disability or a learning difficulty, or have suffered bullying in the past.

Of course, not all home-educating parents take that path out of dislike of conventional schooling. For many, it’s a positive decision: it’s hard for a child to develop a prodigious, specialised talent within the confines of a full school day. That’s true for outstanding musicians, for example, if they don’t attend a specialist music school where their programme can be tailor-made. Violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin was home-educated, as was Olympic and World Champion gymnast Simone Biles. You can see why.

Currently, home educators risk being caught in the crossfire of yet another societal problem, schools condemned by Spielman for off-rolling underperforming or problem pupils and pushing them into a semblance of home education. By all means register or track such children: similarly, rigorously investigate suspicions of abuse, neglect, indoctrination or unregistered schooling. But such cases shouldn’t be confused with true elective home education.

State mechanisms tend to be clumsy in operation and, while tackling a perceived problem, incidentally harm those who are themselves blameless: the old trap of unintended consequences. Instituting a register for all children not in school risks fuelling suspicion of the motives and actions of genuine, dedicated, sincere and inspirational home educators.

So please don’t blame them for reacting vocally when they feel they’re being demonised: and maybe, Ed Dorrell, play down the analogies with gun-toting nutters.


I hope Mr Hammond watched BBC2's School

11 November 2018

The show's a stark reminder of schools' financial struggles – ideal viewing for the chancellor, writes Bernard Trafford 

I’m sorry to go on about it, but I have to wonder what planet Philip Hammond thinks he’s on. Unable to see how his distinctly modest budget handout to schools for the “little extras” gave offence, his pique was evident when he remarked to the Education Select Committee that, if one school didn’t want the £50,000, he was sure one down the road would.

There’s something schoolmarmish about that reaction. I can picture the archetypal classroom dragon of yore, when a child refuses the Liquorice Allsorts she’s handing out at Christmas, commenting tartly, “Well, if Billy’s so fussy, I expect Jemima will like to have his sweet as well.”

The chancellor’s blindness stems from his belief – widely shared in Whitehall, in Ed Dorrell’s view – that school funding is adequate. Okay, that mindset concedes, perhaps they’re having to tighten their belts a little. But, hey, this is a time of austerity. We’re all having to do our bit.

Except that we’re not. Apparently it’s okay for Crossrail to run £1 billion over budget, not to mention several billions more on our two new aircraft carriers. Such overspends betray bungled commissioning and lousy brief-writing, yet government silence suggests it will simply fund the shortfalls without comment, while squeezing public services until the pips squeak. 

I imagine most people with a professional interest in education watched Tuesday’s first episode of BBC2’s new series, School. This excellently produced fly-on-the-wall documentary avoided labouring issues and didn’t seek to preach. Nonetheless, the harsh realities of underfunded education shone throughout.

Overstretched and undersupported

The charismatic Mr Street, science teacher and Year 11 tutor at Castle School, introduced a revision class with the happy news that “I’ve managed to get the revision textbooks today”. Politicians and ordinary citizens might assume that there are always enough textbooks in schools. But here was just another piece of evidence: teachers have to take turns with the books their classes need.

Dr Grant, running Year 7, overstretched and undersupported, commented: “All the children want is teachers’ time – and that’s gone.”

Surely it can’t be that bad, a viewer might protest. But it is. My heart ached for the Castle School staff when the interim head (note that: interim) protested that the only way to save some £400,000 on teachers’ salaries was to remove status and pay from middle management (heads of department, in old speak). 

Over the next three years, then, such teachers will see a salary cut of some £6,000. I don’t criticise the school – its governing trust has to square an impossible circle. Yet, middle managers, here downgraded and slapped in the face, are the very people held up to school leaders, a few years ago, as lying at the heart of school improvement, with National College courses aimed specifically at their development. 

Mark of so-called failure

As for the final twist in the guts of such teachers, the inspirational Mr Street, just avoiding tears, as he says goodbye to his tutor group (all teachers know that feeling), was reasonably pleased with his pupils’ GCSE results; then he observes drily that he’s missed his own target. After all that human interaction, anxiety, sorrow, hard work, in the data-driven world of teaching it will be a black mark for him.

In another time, such “failure” might have cost him a pay rise, through performance management. But I guess there won’t be any pay rises in his school, what with a £400,000 shortfall to plug.

The programme appeared measured, balanced, and showed the joys and the dedication of teachers, as well as the challenges and disappointments. I hope Mr Hammond observed the reality on the ground.

Or will he, cocooned in his personal wealth and with the trappings of power around him in Whitehall, continue to sulk at schools’ rejection of his £50,000 largesse in the face of their vastly bigger financial black holes? Will he applaud schools’ agonising decisions and convince himself that, surely, they could cut a bit more if only they’d really try?


Mouthy politicians who think offensive noise is all...

03 November 2018

…will suffer when it comes to the vote. Ministers who speak in insulting soundbites do so at their own peril, writes Bernard Trafford

Is there, I wonder, a course ministers go on, some kind of training programme that encourages them to broadcast gratuitously offensive statements at the drop of a hat? If so, I guess it’s titled something like "Self-aggrandisement at the expense of others" or, in the vernacular, "How to look tough by pissing off everyone below you in the food chain."

I cite, as my first piece of evidence, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond who, in his Budget speech this week, allocated something between £10,000 and £50,000 per school for “those little extras”.Was he seeking to offend? If so, he certainly succeeded: though Tes’ own Ed Dorrell reckons he betrayed a government view that, in terms of funding, schools are doing just fine.

Maybe Fiscal Phil thought heads would splash his unexpected largesse on some cheeky nice-to-have like a new minibus or a trolley-full of tablets (the digital sort, not the tranquillisers this announcement might have called for). By contrast, given their pain throughout the period of austerity, we can be sure most schools will use their “little extra” to retain a teacher or assistant post that would otherwise have been cut.

If that casual aside, after thought even, was guaranteed to upset the whole of the maintained sector, the independent sector suffered two insensitive comments from junior ministers this week.

First, schools minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested that every independent school should admit five looked-after children, a reasonable suggestion that I’d foresee the sector welcoming.

Then he spoilt it by adding a two-edged threat. First, the current government might look (again) at the question of public benefit and the tax-breaks (always overstated) that educational charities receive. Second, he observed that a Corbyn-led government would find it a lot harder to attack a sector with significant numbers of looked-after children thriving in it.

I’ve always found persuasion and exploring mutual benefit a better way to build cooperation than either pointing or looking down the barrel of a gun: schools should do things because they’re right, not because they’re demanded.

Moreover, in the independent schools I ran for 27 years, I had several conversations with representatives of local authorities, pursuing precisely the initiative that Mr Zahawi proposes. Each time, the meeting happened at my instigation: on each occasion, the LA team wasn’t sure how it could work for children in their care, went away with a vague promise to look into it – and nothing happened. Partnerships have to work in both directions, a fact ministers frequently overlook.

Finally this week, Ben Wallace, minister for security and economic crime, accused private schools of being actively involved in money-laundering. Listing “the purveyors of luxury goods, the public school, the sporting institutions”, he claimed they “pretend their hands aren’t really dirty and profit from moving dirty money and knowingly conspire…” His sweeping condemnation, and his casual assertion that independent schools, like the other areas of activity he listed, are willfully engaged in money-laundering, was beyond rude – it was slanderous.

Actually, to characterise private schools as a bunch of wide-boys grabbing dirty cash is more laughable than anything else. I remember being (rightly) warned by government of the need to spot possible money-laundering, and what to do about it – years before the expression was even in regular use. Anyone who walks into the average independent school finance office will immediately spot the painstaking attention given to all regulatory matters, including fraud and money-laundering.

But hey, who cares about accuracy, if it’s a good soundbite? Mouthy politicians, from Trump and Boris downwards, know that noise is all.

Politicians (generally male ones) will continue to feed their fragile egos by talking big. Still, when they need the help of those routinely on the receiving end of their threats and innuendos, such sound biters shouldn’t be surprised if they receive less cooperation than they hoped for.


Stop revision sessions – they don't help anyone

27 October 2018

Extra revision sessions only ramp up pupils' anxiety – they don't help learning or memory, warns Bernard Trafford

It was good to read a powerful argument against the revision classes that impact on the lives of both pupils and teachers. Adam Riches, a specialist leader of education and lead teacher in English, said in Tes that he won’t do them any more.

Hurrah! Early in a school year, when concerns about teachers’ workload are only growing, with no sign of government ever finding the will to reduce pressure on schools, and when evidence of the mental harm caused to children by exam pressure is mounting alarmingly, it’s right to reconsider revision classes.

In some primary schools, those euphemistic “booster classes” will already be underway in Year 6, seeking to crank up a few extra marks for next summer’s Sats. Meanwhile, some secondaries may be well into “extended days” for Year 11, shoehorning extra hours into the week to push those borderline grade 4/5 candidates in English and maths GCSE over the edge to what government regards as a “good pass”.

Many years ago, I became head of an academically successful school and found hard-working, over-conscientious teachers giving up (in my view) too many lunchtimes, after-school sessions and even chunks of holiday to help similarly over-conscientious students with that last bit of revision.

The trouble was, it was the conscientious, hard-working pupils who attended these voluntary sessions: they’d have been better off soaking up the sun, kicking a football around, chatting with their friends – anything to give them a break. Meanwhile, those who should have been taking advantage of them were – you’ve guessed it – soaking up the sun, kicking a football around, chatting with their friends.

Extra revision sessions so often hit the wrong target – or, if compulsory, simply ratchet up the pressure. That’s because they stem, above all, from anxiety.

'Anxiety is the enemy of good education'

Anxiety is the enemy of good education. Yet it’s so human, so understandable. It’s about much more than just wanting to do well. Schools are under immense pressure: some leadership teams see it as their role to pass that pressure directly on to teachers. I wish they didn’t: but some do. Others, I think the majority, do all they can to absorb pressure and avoid communicating it to teachers and to pupils. But it’s hard: with the best will in the world, they don’t always succeed.

Hawkish commentators claim teachers shouldn’t be such snowflakes. That’s unfair: they’re too often leant on and still, even in 2018, rated and scored on their pupils’ grades.

Then there are the kids, constantly told how vital their GCSEs will be to their future: meanwhile, university candidates hold stratospherically high offers (mostly) to win their university place. And they learn anxiety young: this week The Times’ Nicola Woolcock reported a survey finding that primary school children were “coming home stressed about the pressure put on them by exams and the amount of homework [often five hours a week] they had to complete”.  

Revision sessions improve neither learning nor memory. To be sure, some pupils will feel a virtuous glow after putting in those extra hours: for others, these sessions will serve merely to ramp up their anxiety levels.

There are alternative and better approaches. I’m not an expert, and I have no space to list them here. In short, though, school leaders need to encourage their staff, as ever, to think about best teaching methods: to ensure consistency, as they go along, that their pupils have understood, absorbed and learned. Better that than miserable periods of cramming at the end: invariably too much, too late.

As I suggested above, I don’t see government being about to loosen the ratchet on schools any day soon. Nonetheless, the Association of School and College Leaders' Geoff Barton constantly urges that teachers be strong, refuse to succumb to pressure and temptation to cram and act as professionals in the best interests of the children they teach.

Let’s applaud teachers like Adam Riches for leading the way.



Rayner is wrong - free schools CAN be empowering

20 October 2018

Angela Rayner's claims about free schools are unfair – I've seen the huge success of one school, says Bernard Trafford

Free schools receive a mixed press, and failures are readily greeted with glee. At its recent party conference, Labour displayed its dislike of free schools, with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner claiming that they “neither improve standards, nor empower staff or parents”.

Before proposing ideological systemic change, however, policymakers should remember that systems and governments don’t make a difference to education in individual communities: on the ground, it’s schools with fantastic, dedicated teachers, supported by visionary governors and appreciative parents. Given those elements, and a degree of individual freedom, schools can concentrate on their core purpose and principles.

Politicians should avoid generalising from single examples, so I must, too. But I want to write about a free school I know well, having had a hand in its creation. At the heart of a deprived community, it’s doing precisely what Angela Rayner claims it cannot – improving standards and empowering both staff and parents.

West Newcastle Academy opened its doors to its first cohort of early years pupils in September 2014, housed in a group of temporary buildings in a nature park. Four years on, it occupies a bespoke building high above the River Tyne in Benwell, one of Newcastle’s poorest areas. It affords views stretching 20 miles to the south: more importantly, it serves as a beacon of excellence and aspiration in a community that has too often lacked opportunity for either.

You feel something special as soon as you walk in. You don’t have to be a visitor (as I was this week) to be greeted by founder headteacher Susan Percy: every child enjoys the same warmth. The fact that pupils feel valued is demonstrated by their obvious confidence. Classrooms are calm, but not because silence is imposed. Indeed, children are anxious to answer questions and propose solutions to problems: but the level of their engagement in their learning is striking, with the air of concentration aided by teachers’ quiet recognition of pupils’ level of focus and effort.

Free schools for the community

This unflaggingly happy, relaxed atmosphere of a school at peace with itself stems from a steely focus on the needs of every individual child, underpinned by research and experience. The school draws heavily on the Reggio Emilia and Danish approaches to children-centred learning. In addition, it’s committed to outdoor learning: every year-group, rain or shine, spends one or two whole days every week out of doors. Exploring learning in small groups and in many different contexts – the city, forest, beach, the adjoining nature park, school or home – affords children multiple opportunities to learn in ways that best match their interests. Their confidence grows exponentially.

The sense of community is palpable. Lunchtime is a delight: half a dozen children and a member of staff sit around a table: the food (a delicious-looking curry, the day I was there) arrives in dishes and is served out. Extra helpings are shared out till it’s all gone: all plates are empty. Surely, though, some children are fussy and don’t want that one choice on offer? Not so, it appears: they love the food.

The school is full, with 164 on roll. Some 15 pupils are flexi-schooling, learning at home on one or more days in the week. The head is happy to facilitate these arrangements, noting that these children are making particularly strong progress. Progress is a major focus for all staff. In a seriously deprived area, many children start in school a long way back: WNA finds time and again that, in a year or two, they have caught up compared with their cohort.

WNA was set up by a local charity which, working with alienated families, decided to establish a long-term legacy by using the then recently-enacted legislation to create a free school. It sought allies: I was targeted, as head of a local independent school with a strong academic reputation. Above all, the founding group won the support of parents, who needed school places in that area and valued the exceptionally nurturing ethos offered. Their current anxiety centres on where their children might find secondary schooling to equal what they’re receiving now.

Could this unique school have created or maintained its distinctive character if it were not a free school? Perhaps. But Angela Rayner should pause and consider: the country needs more schools like West Newcastle Academy, not fewer.

It's shameful to mock the headteachers' march

08 October 2018

The heads' march on Downing Street was criticised as 'too polite' – but ministers need to listen, says Bernard Trafford

Those two tweets encapsulate the reaction of the media to last Friday’s (28 September) protest march on Downing Street by more than 1,000 headteachers.

The hint of scorn from the ITV News political editor was patronising and lazy. Worse, an unnecessarily vicious little dig came from a talk radio host, whose Tweet sneered at heads taking time out of school and wondered if they’d fine themselves as they do parents who take their children on holiday in term-time.

If some in the media chose to downplay that necessary, heartfelt protest, the two most recent party conferences simply ignored it. Labour’s Angela Rayner expressed solidarity with the march: but her grand vision focused not on funding but on still more systemic and structural change (heads have faced too much of that over the years).

Secretary of state Damian Hinds played to the gallery, or at least to his audience, and carefully avoided mentioning five major issues currently confronting schools, top of those being the funding issue as Martin George outlined in Tes this week.

How often do teachers hear, when they come in on Monday morning, “I saw you in Sainsbury’s on Saturday, Miss,” or, when they are on the beach in August, the dreaded “Hello, Sir!”? When heads take on that enormously responsible role, they accept society’s even higher expectation: always available, always on show, rarely, if ever, able to hide away.

Headteachers deserve respect

Just as you won’t readily see heads photocopying their bottoms at the staff Christmas party, you’ll rarely spot them in the street waving placards or shouting. They don’t do demonstrating. Making a fuss, drawing attention to themselves goes against their unwritten professional code. And when they are obliged to make a point, as they were last Friday, they’ll do it politely – as they did.

It goes against the same code to take time out of school, even to make a point to the seat of government. The constant tsunami of demands for urgent attention makes them reluctant to leave their desk – even for a morning, even when there’s a national crisis.

So this demonstration was bound to be unmilitant, courteous. It wasn’t even union-organised. The two heads’ unions (NAHT and ASCL) supported, but the event wasn’t their brainchild; rather (and tellingly), it was arranged by heads for heads. It was carried out quietly and professionally, reflecting the way heads do their jobs. To underestimate the seriousness of the gesture is wilfully to ignore the financial plight of the nation’s schools.

Contrast that dignity with the shameless obfuscation in the government’s response. Minister for school standards Nick Gibb’s parroted claim that school funding is at record levels was cynically misleading. The BBC has confirmation from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that his oft-cited “record figure” – globally the third highest in 2015 (not 2018) – includes such non-school costs as university spending, students’ personal outlay (billions of pounds) on tuition fees and even the fees parents pay for private schools.

Politicians may peddle fibs and half-truths. Headteachers don’t. When they raise their collective voice, quietly, moderately, firmly, they should be heeded and granted the respect they earn day in, day out.

These are dedicated professionals committed to making a difference and forced, on this occasion, to speak unwelcome truth to indifferent power. For politicians to ignore them, or media figures to mock, is shameful. 


Working together, state and private schools can save education

30 September 2018

Let's break down the barriers between state and private schools to ensure all pupils receive the best education

Melissa Benn’s piece in last week’s Tes magazine on why we need a national education service opened with: “In [my] research…I was genuinely surprised to discover the degree of consensus that exists regarding the key problems facing English education.”

Towards the end of this well-reasoned piece, she commented: “And perhaps most important of all: how, over the next few decades, can we resolve the historic barriers between private and state education, in order to build a common school system used by all families?”

In that potent question lies perhaps the lowest degree of consensus: yet, with the caveat that, for 28 years, I was an independent school head, I’m convinced we must address it.

Ms Benn calls for something far more creative than the predictable tax-based attacks on the independent sector currently proposed by both Labour and the Lib Dems: Look at those countries that have successfully reworked their education system, often in dramatic fashion: such reform was usually preceded by years of honest reflection and debate. What’s stopping us from imagining, and discussing, a common system – a genuinely 'national’ education service?”

What’s stopping us? I’d suggest governments obsessed with control and systems, hampered by politicians’ short-termism and desire for quick fixes and hamstrung by dogma and lack of courage.

Seeing the independent sector as a “problem” is a prevalent but willfully jaundiced political and media angle. Far from being pleased that international studies such as PISA identify it as a group of the best schools in the world, our nation’s skewed political lens sees something dirty in it.

By contrast, the recent joint understanding between the Independent Schools Council and the DfE (endorsed, if quietly, by education secretary Damian Hinds) demonstrates a willingness to work together. Schools up and down the country are rightly proud of the excellent cross-sector partnership work that, through teacher-training, CPD, sporting, cultural and a host of other shared activities, are achieving significant local, regional and national impacts for children. 


Ms Benn, by implication, urges more: she’s right to do so but, on their own, schools cannot do more. Yet government can. Australia’s education system funds and blurs both state and independent sectors: the system appears to work well.


A year or two back, the UK’s independent sector offered 10,000 places in its schools, if the government would fund them at its national per capita rate. At a stroke this would have started to bridge the perceived divide, open up the private sector and help address the impending national shortage of school places.


That offer was unfairly caricatured in much of the media as the sector trying to fill its empty places. The urban independent schools I have run represent a powerful segment within the sector. The former city and/or direct grant grammars are frequently oversubscribed: nonetheless, always mindful of their historical mission, they grieve that their strenuous efforts at fundraising rarely stretch to financing even 10 per cent of their places for children from deprived backgrounds.

Politicians should recognise that three-quarters of independent schools are charities, like multi-academy trusts (MATs), making no profit and ploughing all earnings, any surpluses, back into the education provided.

They generally boast excellent facilities: but then, so do many academies. Melissa Benn praises the spectacular building designed by Norman Foster for Capital City Academy in Brent: “It is a stunning structure, testament to one of the foundational stones of the National Education Service: our disadvantaged children deserve the best.”

Melissa Benn laudably avoids grinding any political axe, rather calling for open-minded, visionary discussion and planning. Like her, policymakers should stop seeing independent schools as a barrier to social mobility and equity, overcome their myopia, prejudice and short-termism, get around the table with their representatives and explore ways of turning what’s branded a problem into a solution.

My experience (and my past efforts) suggest they would be pushing at an open door: thus disadvantaged children might indeed gain access to that “deserved best”. 

Forcing pupils to "volunteer" is self-defeating'

23 September 2018

Young people should choose to volunteer or join sports teams – making it compulsory won’t work, says Bernard Trafford

Really, you might begin to despair of kids. This snowflake generation folds up when things get tough; spends its life swapping inanities on social media; gets upset when anyone says something nasty; won’t wear school uniform properly (the customary annual headlines about uniform-related school exclusions are already proliferating); and then bleats about mental illness when it should man up.

No wonder, then, that opinion-formers seek to tackle this problem (forgive my ironic identification of it). The summer holidays gave rise to a plethora of advice for keeping children busy. Rather than slobbing around for six weeks, they were urged to be up and doing, and getting holiday jobs. 

Hopefully, back in school now, they are being kept busy. Not busy enough though, according to Tory peer Baroness Brady of Knightsbridge. Karren Brady, a judge on BBC One’s The Apprentice, and by definition a successful entrepreneur, sets out a three-point plan, according to The Sunday Times, dedicated to getting youngsters off their backsides and doing something useful.

She reckons that by the age of 16 all children should have completed at least 25 hours of volunteering, had a part-time job and been a member of a sports team.

In itself, that’s not a bad outline. Youngsters should, indeed, have an opportunity to give freely of their own energies and talents to help others – and arguably to learn that, whatever their problems, there are others less well off. As for part-time jobs, earning is good experience and rewarding, too.

Give teenagers the choice

Sport is important: not for the acquisition of ball skills (which have notably eluded me for 60-plus years), but because of what’s learned from being in a team: reliance, trust, interdependence, cooperation and, at crunch-time, stepping up to take responsibility. Sport in childhood provides great practice for adult life.

Baroness Brady noted that only one in six young people are involved with the good work of the National Citizenship Service (NCS). Her comments rattled the cage of that organisation’s National Youth Board, which responded: “Alongside nearly half a million of our peers, we have used our school holidays to build vital skills for work and life, take on new challenges and make friendships across social divides. Through NCS, we have given nearly 12m hours in social action and experienced first-hand how we can create positive change.”

They’re right: as is Karren Brady – up to a point. But I confess I detest any insistence on prescribed solutions to social ills. Good schools and active communities between them offer all those opportunities described above: service/volunteering, sport and (an unfortunate and perhaps revealing omission by the Baroness) the creative and performing arts, including participation in choirs, orchestras, bands, plays and dance.

The trouble with Grand Plans is that they always recommend quotas. Twenty-five hours of service is mooted: but a serious sportsman/woman, with all the training that is required (in school or outside), may struggle. The Baroness (rightly) praises her children, who did part-time jobs and also volunteered: by contrast, my teenage daughters were so involved as both musicians and hockey players that we agreed part-time jobs were ruled out.

Besides, what about GCSEs and A levels? Let’s not forget exams: not to mention the pressure on young people (whether self-imposed, or driven by school or parental expectations) to achieve highly. The homework load threatens both volunteering and other commitment over the weekend.

My family example is as irrelevantly anecdotal as Baroness Brady’s: which is why we avoid dictating “what kids should do”.

We must indeed offer all those opportunities to young people: but, although teachers or parents may give them a nudge, we should stop trying to squeeze them into niches or moulds of our adult design. Let’s instead make it attractive, and offer experience in performing arts, sport and volunteering that is high-quality, worthwhile and challenging, not merely tokenistic. 

But then, please, leave it to kids to choose what they do, and how much. It’s their life, not ours.

It’s time to put Ofsted out of its misery

16 September 2018 

Schools need to be accountable, but the current system doesn’t sharpen accountability – it muddles and confuses it 

Few teachers will have resisted a feeling of schadenfreude on reading how Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman “disappointed” MPs, according to a report published by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

Little appears to please the honourable members. Short of cash and inspectors, Ofsted is struggling to maintain its inspection programme. The committee report says the inspectorate’s lost 52 per cent of its funding in real terms since 2000. Currently, it has a mere £44 million (from its overall budget of £151 million) to spend on schools.

Far be it from me to suggest that those millions might be more usefully employed in providing three additional classroom assistants in every school (even shared among some 20,000 English schools, £151 million is a tidy sum), or that inspectors might cover the shortfall by behaving like teachers in underfunded schools, working ever longer hours for no additional pay.

MPs disapprove of the fact that schools previously rated outstanding are not re-inspected, and are unhappy that one-day short inspections provide insufficient information. Above all, they complain that Ofsted is “not providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need".

There’s more grief for Ms Spielman. MPs want her to use her position more to “speak freely, without fear or favour”. By contrast, her predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was seldom short of an opinion, frequently to MPs’ chagrin.

She says it’s not her role to generalise. Sticking rigidly to the HMCI brief – to make judgements based solely on evidence rigorously (we’re assured) gathered by her teams of inspectors – she declined to offer broader views about the effectiveness of the school system or the effects on schools of the funding squeeze.

This week saw the publication of NAHT’s Accountability Commission report. This important and welcome document urges a complete rethink of inspection. But for me, it doesn’t go far enough.

Ofsted is failing in its mission. Its schedule is slipping. MPs reckon one-day inspections aren’t delivering the goods: and schools know that such snapshot judgements are dangerous when the stakes are so high. The Inspectorate and the Department for Education are at loggerheads about both the narrowing of the curriculum and the very nature of inspection.

It gets worse. MPs’ insistence that inspections must give “valuable information to parents” is founded on the deeply flawed assumption that it’s possible to do that in the required shorthand, that one-word overall judgments have any useful meaning. The NAHT commission rightly deplores the use of “outstanding”.

The early 1990s saw huge teams of inspectors diving into every aspect of schools’ operation. Laudable thoroughness, perhaps, but it was clear such massive operations would quickly collapse under their own weight. The cumbersome system was saved by the exponential growth of computerised data-collection, though that technological breakthrough brought a damaging consequence in its wake. Over-reliance on data created intolerable pressure on schools and teachers: in Tes this week ASCL’s Geoff Barton rightly complains that Ofsted has become synonymous with teaching, rather than learning.

Ms Spielman wants to turn the clock back and revert to a broader, more qualitative judgement of schools. We’ve been there before: the proposal would merely rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic once more. How many times must we go round the same loop before someone has the courage to admit that inspection itself will never be made to work satisfactorily?

Make no mistake: schools must be accountable – accountable above all to the pupils and parents they serve. But our centralised and expensive top-down mechanism doesn’t sharpen accountability, it muddles and confuses it, promotes the measurable over the important – and pushes schools in directions they shouldn’t take.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee appears to have glimpsed this truth momentarily but remains stubbornly blind to the fact that it is scrutinising what Boris Johnson might term a turd – one which, moreover, will not be improved by any amount of French-polishing.

Schools know the truth: it’s time to put Ofsted out of its – and their – misery.

The teacher pay 'rise' is a slap in the face

08 September 2018

As if the inadequate pay rise wasn't insulting enough, the DfE now want struggling schools to cut costs further – it's outrageous 

In all the 59 years I knew my Mum, I rarely saw her angry, but one occasion sticks in my mind. She was entertaining some visiting Americans, a nice enough family, who displayed their somewhat complacent, if understandable, ignorance of what ordinary people here lived through during the Second World War (Mum was 17 in 1939).

She went rather pink, drew herself up to her full 5’ 3” and declared: “We were hungry. For six years we went without, made do and mended. We didn’t waste anything: and what we couldn’t eat went in the pig bin at the end of the street.”

I don’t recall what precisely touched that nerve: but it connects in my memory with that oft-repeated Dad’s Army rhetorical question: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

In his recent Tes interview, secretary of state Damian Hinds adopted a similar tone, albeit in a 21st-century austerity-era context: “Within the financial constraints that we had, and we did have financial constraints, and you saw that not just in the Department for Education but across the government departments in terms of having to have some continued restraint on pay…”

Crikey! There I was thinking that the DfE’s monotonously robotic spokesperson was some lowly functionary (or machine), not the boss!

Having justified the government’s meanness, Mr Hinds slapped school leaders in the face by defending what is, in effect, a pay-cut.Sanctimoniously he observed, “it was most important to focus more of the money on those in the lower half of the pay distribution”.

Now, on one level that might be fair. If, in a tight spot, we have only one cake to share, presumably an equitable division would give more to those most in need. But there’s a willful disingenuousness in the education secretary’s utterances.

To be sure, ministers have to fight their corner with Treasury, and the push for austerity continues. But that doesn’t render the decision just –there should be more money!

“Don’t you know there’s austerity on?” Mr Hinds didn’t quite cry, Corporal Jones-like, but his own government determined the size of the cake.

To claim some kind of virtue in giving that inadequate sum to lower-paid teachers is dishonest. All teachers should have received 3.5 per cent: that’s the collegial approach. Anything else is insulting to those excluded.

It’s smoke and mirrors. The government says it will find the extra money in October, but schools must find the first 1 per cent of the cost of living increase when they are already cutting staffing and subjects.Adding insult to injury, the department has recently issued guidance on money-saving and fundraising, as if schools hadn’t already tried everything! Some 4 per cent of school turnover is currently achieved through extra income raised by such activities as renting out facilities.


But it’s the classic Catch-22. Try telling politicians you can’t manage, and you get a pretty dusty response. Add to that 4 per cent with some creative income-creation or cost-cutting, and you’re congratulated – but you’ll be required to do still more with even less in future years.

Besides, it’s not raising the last 4 per cent that’s the problem: it’s making do with 96 per cent of an inadequate 100 per cent.

I burn with resentment on behalf of my former colleagues in schools, academies and, still more, FE colleges who do the impossible and, when it comes to their own salaries, get a slap in the face, with mealy-mouthed justification from the minister in charge.

Perhaps Westminster doesn’t know the story of the farmer who, fearing his horse was costing him too much to keep, gave it a little less food each day. When, after a couple of months, the horse died, its owner commented: “That’s a shame, it had almost got used to living on nothing at all.”

No. They wouldn’t get it.

Differential pay won't make teaching great again

1 September 2018

Increasing salaries for maths and science teachers in a bid to attract more graduates into teaching is unlikely to work

 “There are no great schools without great teachers.” So proclaims education secretary Damian Hinds. But there’s a teacher shortage.

We’ve been saying it for years, decades even: now the Education Policy Institute reports that maths and physics are being taught up and down the country (mostly outside London) by people who haven’t got a degree in them.

Of course, responding to a Times report on Thursday, the Department for Education issued its usual bland, robotic half-acknowledgement (and, inevitably, half-denial), quoting Mr Hinds’ dictum and reminding us that his “top priority is to make sure teaching remains an attractive and fulfilling profession”. No mention of how.

The EPI (Education Policy Institute) proposes paying more to teachers in shortage subjects. I’m unconvinced. The past few years have seen golden hellos offered, tuition fees waived and other wheezes tried: yet the crisis persists.

Perhaps the commercial world can indeed attract talent by accepting the reality of the market and paying more where shortages occur. But teachers don’t expect to get rich, and research demonstrates time after time that the decision to teach – or not – is not about money. Teachers are certainly driven by a sense of vocation: so why do too many who might go into teaching decide not to? Or leave soon after?

There are many answers, all of them partial. One lies in recent debates about exam malpractice, schools off-rolling pupils and other dirty tricks employed to improve exam results. An ex-headteacher myself (ex for just a few days), and appreciating the pressures they feel, I can understand why some school leaders succumb to such temptations, though I can’t excuse them.

Understandably, other viewpoints condemn such heads, believing that they should find the moral strength to withstand both pressure and temptation.

Arguments on both sides serve to illustrate the pressure in the system, in itself another answer. Great headteachers absorb pressure, trust their staff as professionals and thus grow great teachers and get great results. But where the pressure is transmitted downward, teachers feel it and suffer the resulting workload.

Media messages may deter would-be teachers.  How often do you read anything that would encourage them? The same (Thursday) edition of The Times that reported “half of maths and physics teachers quit in five years” included other education-related headlines: a proposed government ban on children buying energy drinks (hyperactivity and behaviour issues); girls put off careers in science by books telling them that space will ruin their hair (arguably a silly-season story); pupils aged five sent to a Pupil Referral Unit where a boy was stabbed; and, on the same page, repulsively, “one child in every classroom has received a naked image online”.

I know. Many other professions would similarly complain that only bad news makes headlines about them. But when the DfE and the Inspectorate fall out about the very nature of accountability through inspection; when even the education secretary fears Ofsted’s proposals for more qualitative judgement of schools risks increasing workload (which it does, on past form); when that same minister glibly claims that technology will reduce workload (we’ve heard it so many times…); and when his department’s two-page priorities document fails to mention producing altruistic, generous, creative adults prepared to play their part in society…

Add all these things up, and it’s small wonder that working in education appears, in the end, a less-than-attractive career choice for many.

Fortunately, many people of all ages still feel that vocation and, notwithstanding government pressure, insensitivity, interference and parsimony, they view teaching as a job they must do.

But there aren’t enough of them: and no quick fix, not even a backhander for mathematicians, will put that right.

Great teachers, like great schools, need vision, strategic planning and generous resources from government, not utilitarianism, micromanagement, tinkering and headline-grabbing.

To misquote a Trumpian mantra: “Let’s make teaching great again.” Trouble is, I can’t see anyone in Westminster about to do it.