Bernard's pieces for the Tes

The solution to the endless uniform debate? Ditch it

14 July 2018

Strict uniform rules sees girls dressed in boys' clothing and pupils stripped of individuality – let's end the madness

It was back in my school days when, reading Voltaire’s Candide, I first learned the Latin tag reductio ad absurdam (aka, "reduction to absurdity").

As it was explained to me, Voltaire was savagely attacking the Utopian view, expounded by his character Dr Pangloss, that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Candide and Voltaire’s other unfortunate characters experience torture, famine, mutilation, earthquake, and near-death by burning at the stake as he demonstrates the absurdity of that philosophy.

That brings me to skirts, of course. Schools are banning skirts as part of school uniform, because of the trouble they cause. Some commentators reckon that ban should become nation-wide.

Skirts create problems for school uniform regulations. Girls have a habit of following fashion by rolling their skirts up until they’re very short – in the eyes of some, indecently so. But what is an acceptable length? How should the rule be enforced? By a return to the bad old days when schoolgirls were made to kneel on the floor so their skirt length could be measured? It’s tricky.

Then there’s the lobby that insists transgender pupils should wear skirts if they wish to. Some schools find this difficult: so removing skirts from the uniform list offers an easy way out. Let all wear trousers instead.

An easy way out? It’s a lazy way. To be sure, countless women and girls wear trousers from choice. Add the blazer (traditionally a male garment, few uniform manufacturers providing a more feminine cut), frequently a tie and a buttoned-up collar, however, and you’re forcing girls into male clothing.

I fear such insistence on “keeping things simple” with school rules risks making wrong decisions about the way we treat children. There’s something almost medieval in the idea of rendering uniform so prescriptive there can be no individuality or choice, apart from hairstyle: and, Lord knows, some schools are tough on that, too!

The danger was outlined this week by former DFE director-general Jon Coles, addressing a Teaching and Learning conference and criticising “no excuses schools”.

He described a “trend for a sort of ‘back to the workhouse’ view of education, where things that I would not think are OK for my children are being promoted as necessary for poor children.” He commented that private schools are often praised for turning out children with good social skills: “Why do they know how to behave well… where the rules aren’t very clear and there is a degree of ambiguity? …Because they have to deal with that ambiguity every day”. And they learn from it. He concludes that a “clear culture” is necessary for learning, but not an inflexible, inhuman one.

If we wish to conclude this seemingly endless debate, we face a choice. Either we decide that uniform, essentially a 19th and 20th Century phenomenon, has had its day and should now be ditched. Or we tighten up, remove gender-specificity and all opportunity for personal interpretation and put every schoolchild in Guantánamo Bay-style jumpsuits. Okay, they’re trousered: but otherwise, they’d be featureless and, well, truly uniform.

See what I did there? It was a reductio ad absurdam. Clever, eh?  But then, we are discussing a system that’s rapidly becoming absurd.

It’s up to individual schools to set their uniform rules, though I wouldn’t send my child to one that took a draconian line. We don’t need politicians or journalists jumping on the bandwagon: we certainly don’t need Piers Morgan telling us he wouldn’t trust such teachers as far as he could throw them.

I’d hope schools would listen to their parents on such topics: but they must be free to make their own decision, even if I don’t like it. As Voltaire is alleged to have said, I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Even, alas, on uniform.


Why I'm banging the drum for more music funding

01 July 2018

The power of music is transformational – it needs to be at the heart of the curriculum, writes Bernard Trafford

As I frequently comment, it’s always pleasing to read a piece of research that reinforces what you’ve known intuitively. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), reported this week on inews, “learning the piano can improve children’s language skills and could even be more beneficial than extra reading lessons”.

More specifically, the MIT research found that nursery school-age children receiving piano lessons develop an enhanced ability to distinguish different pitches and therefore to discriminate between spoken words. I noted that the children studied were Mandarin-speaking inhabitants of Beijing. This is probably of significance because, as we all know, Chinese is a tonal language, a higher or lower tone when spoken giving a word an entirely different meaning.

So impressed was the target school by the results that it determined to continue with the children’s piano lessons. Wow! If only primary schools in the UK could afford such a luxury.

No early years teacher will be surprised by this news. Concern about children being stuck in front of iPads or constantly playing on their phones, instead of talking (and listening) to their parents and siblings, is as old as the hills – or as Thomas the Tank Engine, at any rate. Teachers knew back in the old days (the 80s) that children whose parents used video-players as child-minders (nowadays it would be Peppa Pig online, I guess) were more likely to display deficient language skills.

It’s all about listening. You can’t do anything in music without listening, making it one of a variety of ways (and a particularly powerful one) of enhancing listening – and thus of growing language.

Music improves language skills

Though I’m a fan of piano lessons, it naturally doesn’t have to be the piano: any musical instrument or activity will help. It could be singing: it could be just responding (singing, clapping, moving, dancing) to music: people of my generation fondly remember those old BBC Radio Music and Movement programmes. Music is thus a particularly powerful tool for developing listening skills in the young, but it doesn’t have to take any one form.

The great thing about listening skills is that they don’t merely aid language. More generally, they support communication and socialisation: by that I mean children learning to listen and respond to one another; in other words to build social skills, to get on, to be aware of each other, to develop (dare I go this far?) empathy.

Would you believe, more developed listening skills might even help kids with phonics? It’s all about making and recognising sounds, whether or not one sees phonics as the Holy Grail in the teaching of reading in this country (I don’t, though I concede they have their uses for some readers, struggling with particular difficulties).

We’re back, once again, to the value of music. It’s not just a question of the billions that the music industry helps to create for this country. Nor is it about the need for creative thinking in the workforce of the future, and indeed for adults in their leisure time. Music isn’t the sole subject that helps to develop creativity in the young, but it’s an important one.

The evidence of music’s contribution to language acquisition underlines once more the need for well-taught music in schools, properly within the curriculum. Not as an adjunct but centrally, because (surely to the delight of policymakers?) it adds to the hard-edged, measurable outcomes of language and reading ability.

So, just in case those who make policy and starve the arts of funding in schools have missed the point, let’s bang the drum for this one. Who knows? Perhaps even ministers will find it music to their ears.


The school system is based on fear

24 June 2018

The pressure of accountability means schools, teachers and pupils are fearful of taking risks, warns Bernard Trafford

So much for the brave new world of computer science GCSE. On Monday I caught a radio news report saying that only 12 per cent of GCSE candidates have opted for the new, tougher and more technically demanding GCSE, which replaced the largely dull and repetitious computer studies/ICT qualification. The reason for the low take-up? Apparently, the new qualification is just too difficult.

How tempting it is to bewail the fecklessness of today’s youth. Are those youngsters declining to take an exciting new coding-based GCSE course just too feeble and lacking in resilience to tackle a subject that is now, at last, properly intellectually demanding?

I don’t see it that way. Indeed, today’s teenagers appear readier than their predecessors to rise to a challenge when something has piqued their interest. Besides, new subjects or programmes of study are frequently slow to catch on: students (more than we might choose to admit) follow the lead of older year groups. That’s not the real reason, however.

Is the new GCSE really too difficult? I doubt it. But it is harder than its predecessor, and candidates nowadays are canny about the subjects they choose. They need to bank good GCSE grades for when they come to apply for whatever they do after school, whether university, an apprenticeship or employment. That makes them cautious. They don’t want to take a chance on a subject whose structure and marking may not be safely established: they don’t want that element of risk in their portfolio of expected results.

Today’s exam candidates are risk-adverse, then. But that’s no surprise: so are their schools.

Nearly three decades of unremitting government pressure – in the form of inspection, benchmarks, floor targets, Progress 8, EBacc and countless other crude measures – has engendered a similarly risk-averse atmosphere in schools. If the kids want to avoid a less-than-glorious grade at all costs, so do their schools. For the institution as for the child, the stakes are too high.

'The stakes are too high'

Giving the National Education Trust’s Mike Baker lecture last Tuesday, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, bemoaned this fact. He can sympathise with school leaders who, feeling themselves under the cosh, understandably succumb to the temptation to play safe, to focus on those safe, middling grades that satisfy whatever government demands this year.

Such anxiety and caution are inevitably transmitted, in turn, to pupils, even when it comes to choosing subjects. In vain, we urge children to take subjects that fascinate them. In the current climate, they’re more likely to choose those in which they feel there is a relatively easy win. If nothing else, it will keep the pressure from school off their backs.

Barton is unwavering in his message. Time and again he urges school leaders to rediscover their courage, not to be pushed around by government measures like EBacc that add value to neither school nor candidate. Instead, we should fight to retain a broad, civilised, challenging curriculum for all – including the creative subjects. 

It’s loss of courage that does the damage. Young people are perhaps diffident about choosing this new, challenging subject. Perhaps schools and their leaders are timid in their turn. But the lack of courage starts at the top, with government.

Government ministers distrust teachers, constantly requiring them to produce data, track progress and “deliver” (that word I detest) results. In consequence, teachers are routinely discouraged from being brave, inventive or original in what they teach or in the subjects they encourage children to take.

The infamous Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty is said to have announced: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” His voyage didn’t end well.

If government would only find the courage to trust its educators instead of driving them, then, in turn, it would engender greater courage in the pupils. Then our education system would begin to blossom.


The season of endemic tension is nearly over

 16 June 2018

Exam season heightens tensions throughout a school community – we must all remember to stay calm, writes Bernard Trafford

Tuesday saw a live screening of The Royal Ballet’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake from The Royal Opera House, relayed to more than 1,000 cinemas. On-screen compère Dame Darcey Bussell, former principal of The Royal Ballet, described how arduous it is to be one of the many swans in the corps de ballet. While the audience focuses on the principals, the swans stand agonisingly still before launching into a demanding sequence of ballet moves. The only way to prevent cramp, she said, is to keep breathing: but when you’re so anxious not to move, you stop doing so.

That image of keyed-up people needing to breathe but lacking the nerve to reminded me of exam season. In senior schools, it’s been going on for the best part of six weeks. Students, for whom the end is now in sight but still a few papers away, are tired and fed-up with the protracted ordeal. Parents are at the end of their tether trying to handle the anxieties at home. As for teachers: well, in schools we feel we’re constantly picking up the pieces.

Even with the gradual demise of AS levels (and thus of examining in Year 12), schools are still negotiating the quick-sands and whirlpools of a monstrous, sprawling system that threatens to suck the lifeblood out of school by taking half a term out of young people’s lives, a period in which they might otherwise be still learning, gaining in experience and wisdom and, frankly, having a life. 

Moreover, nowadays the pressure is on young people to an extent never experienced before. The pre-exam season is characterised, in many subjects, by the completion of coursework. It’s arguably less pressured for children than actual exams – until several deadlines collide. Super-organised candidates handle it: but normal human beings get in a mess, and there are tears, late nights and added worry.

Then there’s the imperative to do well. GCSE results may or may not be life-changing for our students, but those with university ambitions must notch up a string of top grades, while schools themselves have a vested interest in getting children to achieve the best they can. Those league tables, benchmarks and Progress 8 performance measures mean that middling candidates in particular risk being pushed relentlessly to turn that 4 into a 5. 

Anxiety rising

University offers are now so stratospherically high that even those candidates for whom A levels might have been a breeze (they do exist!) are required to gain such a crop of A* grades for their top university course that they are under as much pressure as the rest.

Add to that pupils’ well-publicised shocks on encountering the new, tougher style of exams (widely reported in the media this year), and the cauldron of anxiety is well and truly bubbling.

Against this backdrop, candidates (and particularly their parents) may seek out every possible chance of winning a concession. Children troop to the GP’s to get that note about hay-fever, a host of other conditions and, indeed, anxiety, while parents constantly phone school insisting that they send in that special consideration form. Bless them, they forget that (if I remember rightly) even the loss of a limb allows only an extra 5% - or is that apocryphal?

On top of all that, we have yet to see how this year’s marking regime, let alone that increasingly deterrent re-mark and appeal process, pans out.

Instead of chopping off its head and starting again, we only ever tinker with the exam monster. There’s neither political will, energy nor money to do anything radical. For example, those of us who have passed a career dreaming of a system in which students apply to university after A levels (PQA) will be forever disappointed.

So don’t blame schools, parents or students for anxiety in the air: it’s endemic. And don’t hold your breath awaiting change, because none will come quickly. On the contrary, take Dame Darcey’s advice. Breathe deeply: at least the pain won’t get worse.


Let them eat cake! In the classroom...

09 June 2018

If there's one thing that can bring a community together more than patriotism, it's cake, writes Bernard Trafford

The State of Bavaria has just passed a law requiring public buildings to display a crucifix over the door, a move intended (we’re told) to cement the region’s sense of statehood and of identity: presumably a Christian identity.

I have no idea as to how “Christian” Bavarian society actually feels. It might be interesting to learn what proportion of the population regards itself as Christian, let alone goes to church on a Sunday. Hmm.

Such a law is alien to the psychology of the average Brit. To be sure, when the World Cup is on cars and houses will sport St George’s Crosses in support for our national team (mercifully, without the white racist overtones that, some years back, threatened to tarnish that particular flag). Nonetheless, on the whole we Brits don’t do the saluting-the-flag thing that some countries favour.

Does that make us an unpatriotic race? According to recent research, young people in England have never felt so un-English: they simply don’t feel a strong allegiance to their motherland. I can hear "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" (that mythical defender of traditional values) gasping in outrage: yet I’m not sure it’s vital for the nation’s youth to feel deeply, let alone parade, its Englishness. 

On the other hand, I do think it important that they develop a sense of community, of duty of care to those around them in their school, at home and in wider society. Indeed, among the young people I’ve worked with over decades, I’ve sensed an increasing sense of social responsibility and readiness to get off their backsides and do something.

Cake isn't bribery

And few things are more positive than cake as an effective fundraiser and an effective social lubricant – and it's popular with me by dint of gluttony.

Cake is a good thing in many ways: and now it appears it may add value to learning. German research, due to be published in the journal Medical Education and already reported on by Tes, has found that “to be a good teacher you could plan inspiring lessons, work to understand the needs of each student and pass on a passion for your subject that lasts a lifetime. Or you could just bribe the class with biscuits.”

No, really. It continues. “Although students of all ages would reckon they are above succumbing to bribery, when they give a view on the effectiveness of their teachers, those who bring biscuits or chocolate invariably receive a higher evaluation.”

Chocolate, biscuits, cake. I suspect there’s deep psychology at work here.  The longer I’ve been a head, the more aware I’ve become of the effectiveness of cake in the classroom. It’s not bribery: nor about courting popularity with the kids. But, somehow, that discursive lesson on the causes of the First World War goes so much better (my historian colleagues assure me) when there’s cake.

Do the sharing and enjoyment of cake help to lower students' inhibitions about voicing their theories? Is everyone a little more tolerant? Does cake simply generate a different kind of interaction in the formal classroom? I’m prepared to accept funding for research into the benefits of cake in the classroom (and don’t start on the obesity agenda!).

Try it yourself. Even if cake proves not to improve learning, it will make you feel better – stop you worrying if your pupils don’t feel awfully English.

They’re probably still nice people. Nice people who like cake. Like you. 


Focus too hard and things slip through your fingers

03 June 2018

Like Liverpool's goalkeeper, if teachers give their entire attention to one thing, others get missed

I was intrigued to read in the Times a clever piece by Matthew Syed about the performance of hapless goalkeeper Loris Karius, who embarrassingly let in three goals during the Champions League final, allowing Real Madrid to beat Liverpool 3-1.

While most commentators have accused the keeper of losing focus and thus making howling errors, the journalist and former Olympian table-tennis player (and Commonwealth champion) reckons the opposite is true. So focused was Karius on following his instructions to spread the ball wide, Syed suggests, that he failed to observe six-foot striker Karim Benzema bearing down on him, and gifted Real Madrid a goal.

In support of his argument, Syed cites the example of armed police making an obvious and potentially fatal error, fortunately in training. Hearing shots around the corner, out of sight, they charge down a corridor, failing to notice (and even kicking out of the way) such hazards as pipe-bombs and other improvised explosive devices. So focused are they on intercepting the supposed gunman, they fail to remember the basic rule of observing any other hazards.

My friends will laugh at my assumption of deep knowledge of international football: my sporting ignorance is legendary. But I couldn’t help observing in Syed’s analysis an analogy for school leaders. How many times, after all, have I written about perverse incentives imposed on schools and their undesirable effect on children or families?

In the news at present, as every year, there is yet more discussion of SATs. Even now, these are billed by the government – and remember, the previous Labour government was as messianic about them as the current administration – as a useful opportunity for parents to see how their children are doing in core subjects, as well as a means of measuring both institutional and individual teacher performance.

Some schools, feeling the pressure to score highly, focus so strongly, Karius-like, on the sole aim of raising Sats performance levels that they sacrifice breadth of curriculum by adding booster classes and a host of other euphemisms for grinding kids through practice and revision.

Excessive concentration on the exams ignores the miserable Year 6 experience it creates; it also raises levels of pressure and stress in children at an early age when wishy-washy liberals like me think they should be enjoying a rich and varied curriculum and spending time on sport, art, drama and music.

Beware unexploded bombs

Witness also the travails of St Olave’s School last autumn, pilloried in the media when one of the country’s top-scoring state schools at A level was revealed to be excluding pupils who “underperformed” in Year 12. Arguably, laudable ambition was focused on so tightly that the school’s leadership and governors apparently overlooked the fall-out, inhumanity and hurt caused – until the story hit the press, at any rate.

This coming September will, I guess, see the usual round of uniform scandals. We’re often told how keen parents are on schools insisting on smart uniform: until, that is, their own child is sent home for breaking uniform regulations. The resulting resentment and anger is out of all proportion to the ostensibly praiseworthy aim of getting pupils to wear uniform, well, uniformly.

As school leaders know, the return to work from this half-term heralds a whirlwind of planning for the forthcoming academic year. As we devise yet another round of improvement strategies, let’s pause to recall the values that drive us, and remind ourselves why we are doing what we plan. And while we focus on those all-important goals and targets, watch out, like the police in the training programme, for the mines and unexploded bombs hidden in our path.

If we can succeed in doing so, the coming academic year will be easier for all of us.


Schools see diversity wins – Oxbridge should too

26 May 2018

Years of leadership have taught headteacher Bernard Trafford that the greater the diversity, the better a school will be

In a week when campaigning MP David Lammy crossed swords with Oxford University about the tiny number of black students admitted to its dreaming spires, it was interesting to see the publication of a piece of research that demonstrated the benefits of increasing diversity. The BBC headlined it: “Ethnically mixed schools lessen hostility.”

London School of Economics and University of Bristol surveyed the attitudes of 4,000 teenagers in English maintained schools. They found that pupils in secondary schools with a more diverse racial mix are much more positive about people of different ethnicities. The more diverse the school, the less hostility to other ethnic groups: the most common groups were white British, Asian British and black British.

Crucially, perhaps, the views of white British pupils were particularly likely to shift when they were at school with other ethnicities. Nonetheless, even in a completely integrated school, a core of 20 per cent will still hold negative views of other groups.

Bristol’s Professor Simon Burgess commented: “Encouragingly for policymakers, our results show that even small moves away from largely mono-ethnic schools towards more mixed ones produce positive changes… it is not the case than anything short of full integration is pointless."

So, no wringing of hands and claiming there’s nothing to be done. Nor, by contrast, any commandment for the wholesale bussing of students from one community into another: last-century experiments in both the USA and the UK demonstrated the weaknesses inherent in that policy.

The power of diversity

Clearly, though, there’s a challenge for schools whose setting renders them near-enough mono-cultural. Let’s not forget the 2014 row over Ofsted’s clumsy criticism of Middle Rasen Primary School, Lincolnshire: “Pupils’ cultural development is limited by the lack of first-hand experience of the diverse make-up of modern British society."

A tough situation for the school wasn’t helped by The Daily Telegraph’s inaccurate reporting: “School marked down by Ofsted for being ‘too white’… parents angered after Lincolnshire primary school marked down by inspectors for not having enough black or Asian children.”

That fuss was unhelpful, because there is a real issue. Much as I love to visit the remoter corners of Britain, I’ve always been pleased that my family grew up in Wolverhampton, a multicultural city very much at ease with itself and where I worked for 27 years.

When, a decade ago, I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, I expected to find a less mixed student body. But my academic city-centre school sat between three teaching hospitals and two universities: although the proportion of students from ethnic minorities was smaller overall, the diversity within that minority was broader, not least because academics and medics come to Newcastle from all over the world.

My experience as a head reflects the LSE/Bristol research. We humans are, if left to ourselves, intrinsically wary of difference: but, where we encounter difference routinely, most of us (80 per cent, according to the research) not only get used to it but welcome it in our peers, colleagues and neighbours.

To be sure, teenagers can be unpleasant to one another. Bullying, still the scourge of schools and society, frequently singles out difference for its target (ask any redhead): so taunts are as often racist as sexist or homophobic. Nonetheless, a community’s diversity helps it to combat such nastiness.

The specialist music school I currently run draws a quarter of its talented musicians from more than 20 overseas countries, funded not by wealthy parents but by the government’s Music and Dance Scheme or its own bursaries. Diversity is thus a fact of life, undoubtedly seen by the students themselves as a major strength of the school.

In such a diverse setting, they recognise difference, to be sure: but they value it, and make the most of it. At the end of my long learning journey as a head, that fact has contributed to one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences I’ve enjoyed.

Another reason for Oxford University increasing its diversity, then: it will probably make its achievements even greater.


Finally, proof that league tables are damaging

20 May 2018

What started out as healthy competition between schools has turned sour – and now we have the evidence, writes one head

In my blog last week, "It's obvious: learning outside the classroom works", I identified some research that proved what we already knew, but was welcome nonetheless.  A few days later, blow me if some more examples didn’t come along. 

The front page of Wednesday’s Times proclaimed: “Switch off mobiles at 10pm to stay happy." A “huge” study by the University of Glasgow, reported in The Lancet Psychiatry, “links late phone use with poor sleep”.

Come on, medics: keep up with schools! For once, the education world is ahead. For the past few years the amazing @DigitalSisters, Emma and Charlotte Robertson, founders of Digital Awareness UK (DAUK), have been travelling the country to educate schools, students and parents alike about taking control of technology, instead of being ruled by it.

Among their top tips: leave the phone outside the bedroom and no screen-time for an hour before bedtime. Parents should set an example by doing likewise.

Yes, it’s good to see what we already knew proved by large-scale scientific research. Here’s another example. Academics at LSE, who published their work in the Economics of Education Review and were the subject of a Tes report by Charlotte Santry on Tuesday, have discovered that school choice leads to unhappy pupils.

Choice itself doesn’t lead to unhappiness, but the competition created between academies, faith schools and the independent sector does. It’s not about school types, but competition.

Schools have always competed up to a point, without causing harm. Independent schools, by their nature inherently competitive, readily work together, sharing practice, experience, and advice: though I confess that, at recruitment time, the gloves tend to come off.

That particular brand of superheated league-table-driven competition leads to a syndrome identified by the LSE study, which declares that schools competing for pupils:

“are more likely to adopt teaching methods which, although academically effective, are not necessarily inspiring or enjoyable for children…. These methods include ‘boring’ teaching styles including drill and repetition, more homework, hierarchical pupil-teacher relations and increased pressure from parents.”

League tables started it. Such pressure was unknown before them, in an era that I can recall. When league tables first appeared in the early 1990s, schools suddenly realised that they were perhaps exposed – or that their complacency was, at any rate – and that they needed to put their houses in order.

Inspirational learning becomes 'too risky'

What perhaps started healthily swiftly turned sour, as the LSE study proves. Where schools – independent, comprehensive, selective, academy, faith or free – feel under pressure for pupils, their first recourse is to raise exam results: much the same as when they feel under pressure from Ofsted or government benchmarks.

At that moment, the liberal, inspiring, student-centred, self-directed learning that great teaching aims to achieve becomes suspect: canny school leadership and governance view it as a high-risk strategy. Rather like St Augustine of Hippo, they may still vow nonetheless to become good, not to say progressive – but not yet. Thus, as the LSE study describes, those regressive, dispiriting approaches take root once more.

I’ve always clung to the belief that challenging, inspiring, open-ended teaching is what gives rise to the highest-quality learning: but I’ve felt the pressure. And I’ve seen too many schools succumb, schools in both sectors and of every type.

The LSE study may thus have uncovered a problem, but many will refuse to recognise it as one. Indeed, some schools, some academy chains and all too many parents will see drills, repetition and more homework as a badge of honour: such “traditional” methods are often cited as constituting “real” education.

Not many cheers for this piece of research, then. It’s accurate, and it uncovers an unsightly underbelly that exists in education. But, in its audience, there are none so blind as those who don’t want to see.


It's obvious: learning outside the classroom works

13 May 2018

At last, evidence for what we already knew – teaching beyond the classroom is essential, writes one head

The older I get, the more I resemble Basil Fawlty. I often find myself reading some research and marvelling at how much must have been spent on what that infamous hotelier would have called “the bleedin’ obvious”.

Don’t get me wrong, though: I believe in research! Indeed, sometimes we really need scientific proof of something that we practitioners already understand, both viscerally and from experience, so that we can try to convince influential sceptics in politics or the media.

One such necessary piece was published this week by Gordonstoun School, the Scottish independent school founded by Kurt Hahn and famously committed to valuing what happens outside the classroom as much as what is learnt within.

Simon Beames of the University of Edinburgh led a team or four researchers over some 10 months. Their work included an online survey completed by 1,183 former Gordonstoun students and 235 parents of current students. It also included focus group interviews with 100 students, 50 former students, 30 current parents and 22 staff. In the introduction, Dr Beames makes the powerful statement: “It is undeniable that Gordonstoun’s out-of-classroom experiences feature a powerful mix of novel and demanding challenges that require high levels of resolve in order to overcome.”

Commenting that the research report “is located within a body of outdoor education literature that is remarkably thin on investigations into its long-term influences”, Dr Beames notes that “an astonishing 94 per cent of respondents claimed that out-of-classroom learning experiences had an overwhelmingly positive influence in their personal growth”.

Well (as Mandy Rice-Davies once said), they would say that, wouldn’t they? But it’s true. The challenge for ethnographic research is to gain enough personal views from a cross-section of stakeholders to form a reliable, consistent picture: this research undoubtedly did so. It would have been nice if the researchers had been able to link this strong perception of personal growth and character development gained from out-of-classroom learning to hard-edged exam results or even career advantages and salaries earned. But that would have been beyond the scope of a single-school study.

Nonetheless, the correspondents were in no doubt of the impact on their later lives. As one commented, “You come out of it thinking, ‘I just managed to get through that – I think I can get through other stuff’.” Most powerful for me was a former student who remembered being appointed the school’s head of service: “I was suddenly in charge of this whole system and it was great confidence-building…because I was given responsibility that I didn’t expect.”

Learning leadership

The research may be recent, but the ideas are far from new. Kurt Hahn built it into the very fabric of Gordonstoun: he also founded Outward Bound. The same philosophy drives the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, now 62 years old.

Charles Rigby, founder nearly 30 years ago of the expeditions and leadership-training organisation World Challenge, has always sought the same goal. He frequently reminds me that getting children outside into different, unfamiliar and challenging situations allows them to develop leadership skills. When a group is cold, wet and lost in the hills, the youngster who adopts the leadership role at a vital moment is the one who raises spirits by cracking a joke.

The best schools have always seen it as part of their role to afford myriad opportunities for children to develop resilience and character. Some recent education secretaries have got (briefly) excited about character education – sometimes called grit. Sadly, when both funding and time are in short supply, priority invariably goes to the things the government values more: stuff it can easily measure through data analysis and inspection.

Gordonstoun’s research is all about soft skills, but those vital personal qualities are largely unmeasurable in terms of impact. We know it happens, as this research shows. But we can’t demonstrate its effect with figures on a spreadsheet.

That’s a pity because when policymakers value only what is easily measured (as they have for decades), they overlook what is really important: the personal growth of the next generation of adults.

What makes it all the sadder is the fact that it’s so bleedin’ obvious.


Artificial intelligence can be transformational for education – if teachers are involved in the development

06 May 2018

If we want AI to reduce teacher workload, transform our classrooms and enhance our pupils' learning experience, teachers need to be consulted from the very beginning, writes Bernard Trafford

It’s been swings and roundabouts for technology in education this week. HMC, that grouping of leading independent schools, debated artificial intelligence at its Spring conference on Wednesday.  A great proponent of AI in education, and co-author of a new book on the topic (The Fourth Education Revolution: will artificial intelligence liberate or infantilise humanity?), is Sir Anthony Seldon. He’s excited by the possibilities of where AI can take the place of a teacher, "individuating" (a new word to me) learning for every child. 

Wow. The fact that every child in a classroom can constantly enjoy individual attention and guidance renders even the most active classroom practitioner slow by comparison.

But technology doesn’t supply all the answers. Sir Anthony also warned that the overuse of some apps can actually de-skill people. Many people of all ages are losing the ability (if ever they had it) to read a map. Whatever sat-nav system you have on your phone or in the car, it talks you through the route to your destination.

But do we need that map-reading skill anymore? It’s debatable. A survivalist might be outraged: how would we cope after the Apocalypse? The rest of us, however, are content to reach for the smartphone. It will tell you how far it is, and you don’t need study the map-book to calculate how long it will take. Indeed, the days are past of forever finding that your destination is precisely on a page-turn.

Another speaker at HMC, UCL’s Professor Rose Luckin, has previously declared that perpetuating a knowledge-based curriculum is "naïve": we can find the whole corpus of human knowledge online. That’s not a new thought. Albert Einstein used to say he needed to remember only his name: anything else he could look up.

Can robot teachers inspire pupils?

So does this brave new world offer us creative, free-ranging brains like Einstein’s, uncluttered by facts, figures, addresses and phone numbers? Those are all available at the touch of a button. We can leave huge, empty, fertile spaces in our brains for developing new insights and great ideas.

But snags remain. Professor Luckin warned that the tech companies developing AI for education aren’t involving teachers in the process, the very people who know about what happens in young minds and how children learn best. We shouldn’t be surprised: teachers are rarely involved in policy formation, so why should anyone think to ask them about software designed to help children learn?

Meanwhile, former government adviser Tim Oates, writing a blog for the Council of British International Schools (COBIS ), has issued a warning about personalised learning, under which heading we might include computer- or AI-led learning. The problem with personalising, individualising or individuating a child’s learning lies, Oates claims, in the very advantage of (as the saying is) “starting where the child is at”. The danger is that the child is likely to stay there: the very starting point can reflect low expectation and thus become a limitation.

That image contrasts with inspirational, challenging teaching. The best teachers have always captured their pupil’s interest, so that they want to find out more. But it’s more than that. Excellent teaching encourages children to ask themselves (not their teacher or the computer) hard questions, to seek original solutions, to move on from the “how” and “why” to the “what if?” 

Will AI do that for us? It certainly won’t unless we involve the very best teachers in the development of education-based AI.

AI is frequently cited as the solution to teacher shortages. I can’t disagree that a brilliantly-programmed computer would be better than an inadequate teacher – or no teacher at all 

Nonetheless, I’m still unconvinced. Call me a dinosaur, but I can’t shake off my belief that no artificially-created intelligence will ever stimulate and guide deep learning in the way the very best teachers do.


Amid all the gloom around teaching, we must try to hang on to the wonderful moments

29 April 2018

Every teacher will remember the moments when students surprise themselves with what they can achieve - it's what strengthens our vocation, writes one celebrated head

Every problem has a solution: at least, it would be good to think so. As the chorus of concern continues to grow about the teacher recruitment crisis, David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, writing in The Guardian this week, offered at least a part of the solution.

The headline read: “Want to stop teachers leaving? Help them develop their careers.”

The logic is indisputable. Treat your teachers as professionals, working to guide and develop their careers. Not only do they get better at their job, they grow new areas of expertise. They may decide to climb the career ladder and help to solve that other growing problem, the dearth of people willing to take on senior leadership roles.

Above all, though, a serious concentration on continuing professional development, in the sense both of improving performance and planning career progression, is a potent demonstration that the teacher is valued.

How this contrasts with a recent headline in Tes about the way teachers are too often regarded in FE. Was the headline to George Ryan’s report an exaggeration? "'Staff are seen as a cost, not as professional stakeholders'".

Sadly, I don’t see it as a caricature. I have too often heard discussions – never, I promise, in an institution I’ve run – regarding employees (and sometimes particular subjects) as a problem for the institution, as a sadly unavoidable cost, not as something that enriches. Such attitudes inevitably lead to wrong and anti-educational decisions.

So I’ll respond to a recent exhortation tweeted by Tes’ own Ed Dorrell that we should take note and celebrate the positives of teaching. With so many problems out there, we should occasionally remind ourselves why so many gifted and generous people still commit themselves to the vocation.

Last autumn I thought I was retired: 27 years of headship had been enough. But I failed to resist a request to step back into harness for a while, filling a gap at The Purcell School, one of the UK’s few specialist music schools. This extraordinary day-and-boarding school of just 180 children aged 10 to 18, takes students from some 28 countries.

They’re a diverse, wacky bunch: but all share both a prodigious musical talent and a passionate commitment to developing their gift. This elite music school in no way serves an economic elite. On the contrary, almost all come from modest homes and could not hope to develop their talent without funding from the government’s Music and Dance Scheme (MDS) or from sponsorship or bursaries.

But here I want to focus on the teachers I’ve encountered. My school is fortunate in being close to London. In consequence, some of the finest instrumental teachers in the country (if not the world) give up time from their regular teaching at the London conservatoires to come and teach Purcell’s youngsters. They don’t get rich doing it: there’s precious little money in the system, as all who work in the arts know.

These world-class teachers come because they want to play their part in developing the outstanding musicians of the future. They know that, if they don’t, the next generation will not come through. Their work is supported, of course, by the full-time teachers in the school, teachers of music as well as all the other academic subjects.

Every time I see even Purcell’s astonishingly gifted students amazed by what they achieve in performance, individual or collective, and witness the joy and sense of fulfilment on their faces, I am reminded of why so many of us play our part in education.

The experience is not unique to a specialist school, of course. Every teacher who has created that lightbulb moment for a child, or seen students surprise themselves with what they can achieve, gets the same buzz and finds their vocation strengthened.

Amid the undoubted gloom around schools and the system, let’s try to hang on to that.


Citizenship shouldn't be confined to a subject, it should be lived and practised

22 April 2018

Instead of having it on the curriculum, students should be encouraged to take part in active service in their communities, writes one experienced leader

Peers are upset because the government has allowed citizenship education in schools to“degrade to a parlous state”. 

Wednesday saw a report published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, entitled The ties that bind: citizenship and civic engagement in the 21st CenturyMembers of the committee include David Blunkett and Estelle Morris, both of whom proved enthusiastic supporters of citizenship during their stints as education secretary.

As Martin George reported in Tes during the week, their lordships have blamed the neglect of citizenship on the low esteem in which it’s held. They identified a fall in the number of trained citizenship teachers, complained that the subject had been downgraded in the national curriculum and criticised the government’s confusion of “fundamental British values” with its counter-terrorism policies.

Citizenship, as a subject and as a focus, has disappeared from many schools. But should we deplore that fact?

Here, I depart from the usual orthodoxies about citizenship. I’ve never believed that citizenship should be designated a “subject”, let alone taught in formal lessons. On the contrary, it should be lived and practised.

Here, I risk giving offence. I’ve met some great citizenship teachers (not many: they are a rare breed); they’ve impressed me with their passion and commitment to citizenship. Nonetheless, I think we’re going the wrong way about it.

Some 15 years ago, while attempting to advise the government on citizenship, I heard an Ofsted representative bewail the fact that teachers weren’t taking citizenship seriously as a subject. “Of course they aren’t,” I replied. “It’s been shoehorned into the national curriculum; people don’t yet know what it is, and it simply hasn’t gained acceptance.”

The reply was astonishing: “But it’s statutory: they have to take it seriously!” 

If in doubt, legislate and inspect! The lords fell into that trap this week, claiming Ofsted should not judge "outstanding" a school that doesn’t demonstrate good citizenship provision. That’s a blunt instrument, lousy policy and poor education.

So what is citizenship? The government’s statement of fundamental British values gives us a start.

Citizenship is important. But it’s a concept, a state of mind and a vital element of ethos; it shouldn’t be distorted into a discrete subject to be taught in the classroom.

Here’s my blueprint: instead of requiring schools to stick citizenship into the subject timetable, the government should encourage every school to appoint a teacher to be in charge of "service".

Where I’ve seen it done well, this approach has led to altruism, and generosity has become a part of the school's heart. Students in schools with active service programmes do much more than, for example, encouraging sixth-formers to help primary pupils with reading, or even visiting lonely old people. Those activities are fine, but service should go further and deeper.

Imaginative, challenging service programmes stimulate young people to become agents of change within their local communities and more widely. They may choose to lead cultural or health initiatives, or create gardens in green spaces where there is dereliction and decay, thus restoring a local environment.

Braver still, they may work with homeless people, addicts or those suffering abuse, even in challenging settings. Moreover, encountering people in dreadful circumstances may spur them to become politically active and fight for necessary societal change. The sky’s the limit.

Active citizenship is about participation, engagement, altruism, political activism and courage. How much better than devising a pseudo-academic subject for Ofsted to check.

I don’t seek to offend committed and hardworking citizenship teachers, but they’re not helped by politicians’ narrow view of citizenship.

You can’t claim to be an active citizen without being engaged in service. So why not start there?


Teaching is a pastoral activity, and pastoral work is a function of teaching. They are indivisible

14 April 2018

This fact is often overlooked by those who want to regulate or mechanise the process of teaching: it’s not simply about delivering lessons

I spotted a great headline on Tuesday: "Crime chief attacks tick-box culture that made bank grill grandmother".

Having banished from my mind the unfortunate image connecting an elderly lady with a barbecue, I read the detail. The head of Europol, Rob Wainwright, was furious when his 74-year-old mother was “interrogated for 20 minutes by her bank when she wanted to transfer £5,000”.

It was a money-laundering check. Mr Wainwright told The Times: “This compliance-led culture has taken over – this tick-box thing that forces banks to do A-Z on every transaction.”

I know. It’s annoying. In schools, we spend our lives not just doing things right, but following precise processes and recording them simply in order to demonstrate that we’re doing them.

The aggrieved Mr Wainwright summed up this dilemma: “The act of compliance has become the end in itself, rather than what it was always meant to be, which was compliance to stop dirty money going through.”

I was fascinated to see a top enforcer lambasting an organisation, in this case, a bank, for turning off its brain and behaving like a machine instead. That’s what compliance rules tend to do to us.

How interesting, then, to see (in last week’s Tes magazine) a suggestion from Henry Warren, formerly director of learning and innovation at Pearson, that we should increasingly allow computers to take over the task of teachers, delivering (a word I hate) scripted lessons via electronic tablets: “Can we take lesser-trained people and use them effectively? Then it comes down to that big conversation about what does technology do better than humans? I suspect what you end up with is teachers taking a much more emotional role and leaving the content delivery to the computers.”

To be fair, Mr Warren wasn’t just talking about crowd-control by those lowly-skilled humans: he did say he was referring to “proper pastoral care”.

Since AI is gradually taking over the world, why not apply it to teaching? The idea’s been mooted ever since I became a head in 1990. After all, schools teach largely the same programmes of study: why not have a common script for everyone, delivered (that word again) efficiently and consistently via a computer, while the human in the room checks that the kids are coping and staying on task? It’s a logical, 21st-century-tech application of the concept of a national curriculum. Besides, Tes reckons we are 47,000 teachers short: computers can fill the gap.

In effect, it’s Arthur C Clarke’s prophetic novel (and movie) 2001: A Space Odyssey coming true. The computer will do the job better: it will be totally consistent in the message/scheme of work it provides, not absent-mindedly teaching the wrong topic, never omitting sections because it feels a bit tired or hungover. Actually, it’s better than 2001 because, in this case, rather than eliminating the humans (unkind), it will keep them on board to do the useful and un-computerish job of being nice to kids (cuddly).

This suggestion chimes with Mr Wainwright’s story illustrating how mechanistic behaviour renders human interactions inhumane. How much truer is that peril when applied to teaching.  Teaching involves much more than passing on knowledge and skills, even if our traditional school model has too often been slow to recognise the fact. Teaching is a pastoral activity: pastoral work is a function of teaching. The two elements are indivisible, and we should not seek to sunder them.

Thus, great teachers through the ages have always used their subject to inspire, to spark curiosity and lead and encourage the development of the whole child. Those who say “I’m only here to teach x” merely regurgitate information: they don’t teach in the true sense and should have no place in schools.

Moreover, the model of computer-as-expert assisted by a kind of Neanderthal low-skilled sub-teacher is one we should swiftly shun before some policymaker gets hold of it and decides it’s an idea we should pursue.


It's the teachers at the chalkface who should get the big salary, not the CEOs cocooned in their offices

7th April 2018

Who deals with the angry parents and children in desperate need of mental health support? Not the CEO. So, Bernard Trafford asks, why the excessive salary?

Powerful sentiments were expressed at the last conference of the old NUT teaching union – or was it the first of the new NEU? It was both, of course. One of many challenges to government, denounced in a conference resolution, was the immensity of salaries paid to the chief executives of some multi-academy trusts.

Take the Harris Federation, by many measures the most successful MAT in the country and undoubtedly making a real difference for children. It would be hard to deny that it’s well run. But how is the reward for its boss calculated at more than £500k? What is a "fair rate of pay" in that context?

Executive pay is a universal conundrum. In recent decades we’ve increasingly seen spotlights being shone on the pay of CEOs of large businesses. Should one person (usually a man) earn many multiples of what the firm’s lowest-paid employee gets?

In commerce, the boss of a vast widget-making firm may relate their leadership directly to the number of widgets manufactured and sold, and subsequent profit derived. Similarly, no one complains about the earnings of musicians who sell millions of albums, nor of a novelist like J. K. Rowling whose books are outsold only by the Bible. Such fortunes are directly linked to sales (but don’t get me started on male footballers...).

Education is different. It certainly produces, in a wonderful, indefinable and, in the best sense, immeasurable way. Yet, despite many governments’ attempts to the contrary, it’s impossible to quantify that intangible output in the manner of sales and profit margins.

Indeed, education’s always short of dosh. One Whitehall justification for forcing academies into chains is the savings to be achieved. Economies of scale mean that one finance manager can control the budget of a dozen schools, instead of having one in each. We’re assured that the buying power of chains ensures that they can buy in resources, even supply teachers, at the lowest possible cost.

It’s a mantra still echoed by former education secretary Michael Gove in his new role at agriculture, apparently convinced that only big farms are economical and ignoring smaller family-run concerns. Yet, is big really beautiful?

Teachers on the frontline deserve rewards

Reports of increasing numbers of academy chains running deficits suggests that scale may not provide economy: are those central organisations just too big, too heavy and too costly? One executive head may, indeed, run several schools, and do so with great acumen: yet each individual school must still be managed on the ground, at least one senior figure taking charge day-to-day.

Who earns the “danger money”, then? Does the multi-academy CEO, cocooned at the centre of the larger organisation, really carry the can? Do they take the flak for individual results in individual schools? Do they deal on the ground with the effects of overworked, demoralised teachers whose pay and support are cut year-on-year?

Who handles the angry parents, or tries to help the mentally ill child waiting nine months for support from child and adolescent mental health services? Not the CEO, I suspect. It seems to me that the people facing those difficulties on the ground, day in, day out, should receive the big salary.

Last autumn, Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and previously an independent school head, criticised excessive pay in both sectors. How, he asked, can university lecturers worried about their pensions observe with equanimity the salaries of their VCs? Similarly, hard-pressed teachers are unimpressed by the executive principal sweeping into school in a huge BMW.

Schools work best when there is a sense of collegiality, of shared toil, shared challenge, shared achievements: and some fairness in pay structures. If the money and power are concentrated at the MAT’s head office, and the school workforce feels both remote and insulted by the salary differentials, it’s no wonder things aren’t going well.

This wasn’t a union conference having a rant. It was an expression of deeply felt pain and injustice. It deserves a hearing.


The government will rue the day it let the education of its young decline

24th March 2018               

The pay rise for NHS staff deserves two cheers. But, one experience leader asks, what about teachers?

Well, there’s an offer on the table! National Health Service staff are set to receive a pay rise of at least 6.5 per cent, if all the unions agree the deal. The lowest paid, it’s suggested, might get as much as 29 per cent: and all because ministers have finally listened to some powerful messages – not just from those working in the NHS, but from a sense of public outrage that the country is underpaying and undervaluing those vital people.

The £4.2 billion the government has found may sound like riches: but while the austerity pay squeeze has continued, public sector workers have seen their take-home pay devalued by a lot more than 6.5 per cent. I’m no mathematician: but 29 per cent looks right for those left behind at the bottom of the salary heap.

I really hope it ends up a better deal for those working in the NHS. After all, any of us who have witnessed a friend’s or family member’s life being saved or materially improved by the medical services are fairly unanimous in our praise of those who work in them. Indeed, such endorsements tend to outweigh the also frequent moans about time spent in A&E, elderly relatives parked on trollies in corridors and the like. When the chips are down, when it’s really serious, the NHS delivers.

Two cheers for this decision then. But not three. What about workers in the rest of the public sector? Specifically, since this is Tes, what about teachers?

Education 'isn't a matter of life or death'

Trouble is, education doesn’t have the same pull. To be sure, strikes by teachers or teaching assistants – rare enough, since they’re a conscientious bunch – make life awkward for families. Parents of 14- or 16-year-olds are angered when their school cuts the choice of subjects because they can’t afford to run them: but other options remain. It’s an irritation, not a matter of life or death. The constant squeezing of school resources has a steadily depressing effect: but it never quite reaches crisis point (though many headteachers currently warn that soon we won’t have enough teachers to put in front of children.)

By contrast, the absence of doctors in A&E, lack of beds in hospitals, cancellations of urgent operations: these focus the mind. Most of the nation will fight tooth and nail to maintain the NHS. I’m not sure they’d go to the wall for education.

I don’t object to health workers being first in the queue, but I’m worried that there even is a queue. I suspect any Cabinet discussion of this new NHS cash has more to do with a government running scared of public opinion than any wider consideration or prioritisation of public services.

Our weakness, when arguing in favour of better teacher pay, better resourcing for schools, a protected place for the arts and all the other victims of the financial squeeze, is that now we see only early symptoms of what will become terrible damage further down the line. We who are working in schools know that it will be irreparable in the end: but for now there are only preliminary signs of decay, of a gradual withering – the earliest indications of what we must describe as the slowest of slow, yet inevitable, deaths.

The inspirational Malala Yousafzai said recently: “[Leaders] talk about eradicating extremism and ending poverty and then they ignore education.”

She’s right. In years to come, this country will rue the day it allowed something as central and vital to society’s functioning as the education of its young to decline. But by then it will be a different government, which will blame the last administration… and so the predictable, negative political cycle will continue.

Wow, that’s gloomy. Must be nearly the end of term. Cheer up! Nearly there…


Only by trusting teachers to get on with their job will we tackle workload and stress

17th March 2018               

School leaders have a responsibility to do what they can to reduce workload, but, ultimately, the government must end its obsession with data, writes one experienced leader

It’s been all about workload this week. Last weekend’s Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference saw secretary of state Damian Hinds tackled head-on about it. I guess I contributed to the discussion in this piece about marking. Though that generated plenty of comment, few disagreed with my observation that teachers should do less and sometimes need to be rescued from themselves, and from their generous instinct of wanting to give the best possible feedback to their students.

Suggestions flew around the Twittersphere that Ofsted should monitor schools’ efforts to reduce teacher workload. Though no irony was intended, it made me smile nonetheless. I pictured the forms teachers would be required to fill in so that schools could present inspectors with comprehensive data demonstrating how they’re reducing the requirement of teachers to fill in... hold on! I’ll have to think it out again.

Thus it was timely this week to read, on Tes online, Emma Kell commenting that: “Most teachers feel overworked – but that doesn’t stop them from finding the joy in teaching. The biggest problem is the lack of trust and professional integrity from senior leaders.” I’d disagree with little of that fine analysis, though perhaps it’s inevitable that, as a senior leader myself, I wouldn’t focus all the blame in that direction. True, we hear too many stories of gung-ho heads, or CEOs of multi-academy trusts, driving teachers ruthlessly to raise attainment in their school, often making what appear unreasonable demands.

I would never defend that approach, though I might feel a twinge of sympathy for the head under the cosh from the MAT boss, or indeed from government targets. Countless times I’ve written how wrong commentators are to blame schools for transmitting pressure to teachers or students. Most leaders I know try desperately not to: but sometimes they fail because they are under such stress themselves.

'A balanced diet of marking and assessment'

As Emma Kell wrote, it comes down to a lack of trust, from the very top – downward to the teacher at the chalk face. Successive administrations, regardless of political complexion and despite promises to avoid the pitfall, have been obsessed with the need to see proof that something is happening, “evidence of impact”.

It’s true for teachers. It’s true for senior leaders. It’s true for the head, and for the CEO of the MAT. Schools cannot claim to be achieving anything without a paper trail to prove it, the requisite boxes all ticked. Consider all those safeguarding regulations and requirements, for example – all required to be meticulously charted.

We need to tackle workload from both ends. As I wrote last week, teachers, as professionals, need to take charge of this for themselves. They would do well to study Dylan Wiliam’s recommendation of four quarters marking: teachers should mark in detail 25 per cent of what students do; skim another 25 per cent; monitor students self-assessing about 25 per cent. Finally, peer assessment should be the other 25 per cent. As he says: “It’s a sort of balanced diet of different kinds of marking and assessment.”

It makes sense: sampling is a good method – unless you’re data-obsessed. As our government is.

In my long years as a head, I have witnessed constant creeping regulation, an incessant demand for ever more data to feed into the Department for Education computer (once claimed to be the most powerful in the world, beating even Nasa’s calculating ability). That insatiable, data-gluttonous machine should go on a diet: and teachers, like other professionals (health-workers, for a start), should once more be trusted.

We must get back to an assumption that they are doing their job, and doing it well, unless there are indications to the contrary. Only thus can we hope truly to tackle pressure, stress and workload.


Teachers and parents will have to be brave – it’s time to consign most marking to the dustbin

10th March 2018

Homework marking is one of the key reasons why teachers are struggling with their workloads. We have to ask ourselves: what is this marking for? And is it worth all the effort?

Some 40 years ago, driving home from school, I was stopped by a police officer. After a conversation about how the rusty corners on my battered Ford Cortina might prove a hazard to pedestrians, he asked “So, are you a teacher?"

In those days, new cars were expensive, old cars rusty, and teachers were, with inflation raging, even harder-up, I think, than nowadays. Feeling sorry for myself, I replied, “How can you tell? Is it the crappy old car?”

“No,” he responded. “It’s those exercise books on the passenger seat.”

Back then, many male teachers still wore tweed jackets with leather elbow-patches. That’s changed: but, even now, the trademark of countless teachers of both genders travelling between home and school remains the pile of books they carry in one kind of receptacle or other.  

Researchers and educational visionaries frequently observe (accurately) that the fundamental nature of the classroom has barely changed in a century, notwithstanding the occasional whiteboard: the same is largely true of marking. It is the teacher’s bugbear: while lesson preparation involves some inspiration and creativity, as teachers devise original ways of tackling thorny topics, there’s little in marking except sheer grind. 

Nonetheless, it’s hard to move on. We humans are creatures of habit, and marking is something that we’re used to, as teacher, school leader, parent or student. It’s a kind of comfort blanket, too. Each constituency knows there’s some check being made on what’s being learned, even though everyone knows a simple mark out of 20 is pretty crude and uninformative.

Get out of the marking mindset 

Thus those who think deeply about feedback have long preached that children need encouragement, constructive criticism, targets for improvement: all true, all adding to the teacher burden. Surely there’s a 21st-century solution to the problem of assessing students’ understanding, learning and progress and reporting back? Enough work has gone into the long search.

The problem has to be tackled from both ends. For a start, all of us, including parents who take solace in that mark on the page, should abandon the mindset that only a fully and regularly marked book can demonstrate progress. Moreover, we need to be cleverer about the homework we set, and be clear about what it’s designed to achieve. 

I can see the logic in setting some (not too many) questions testing a new maths topic learned in the lesson. But I see limited value in sending children away to research something from first principles, let alone those tasks that involve the parents of conscientious pupils spending all Sunday, and shedding tears, getting that big project done for ‪Monday morning. How many metre-high papier-mâché volcanos do we really need, filling up geography cupboards or parental lofts?

Let’s also tackle the problem from the other end. What is homework for: and is it worth the marking burden it engenders?

Next, we need to pause as a profession, take a deep breath and – instead of tinkering, or indeed jumping on particular bandwagons which come along even more regularly than government initiatives, query how we assess, and even why. There’s great research out there and Professor Dylan Wiliam has long led the way. 

There are exciting alternative approaches out there, and some fantastic practitioners promoting them. By contrast, marking is a treadmill: instead of leaving alternatives to a (relatively) few visionaries, the teaching profession as a whole should seek ways of assessing understanding and progress and feeding it back to students (and their parents) that actually justify the effort required. In short, to quote an irritating cliché, to work smarter, not harder.

Let’s try to stop teachers from allowing themselves to be suffocated under that constant pile of marking. In 2018 that pile should be consigned to the dustbin of history.


The blame and claim culture now reaches deep into schools. It’s a brave headteacher who defies it

3rd March 2018                 

This week’s inevitable brouhaha about snowball fights only serves to highlight how tricky it is for schools and teachers to break free of the constraints of health and safety and risk assessments

Remember conkers? Kids would gather those fallen horse-chestnuts littering the ground in their spiny green cases. Holes were drilled, strings or laces threaded, and battle commenced.

You don’t see conkers much nowadays. Perhaps children prefer more sophisticated digital battles on screen. But only a few years ago, newspapers of a particular persuasion regularly lambasted primary headteachers for banning conker-fighting on grounds of health and safety.

My childhood was punctuated by crazes for conker-fighting or making paper aeroplanes: I remember being constantly told off and warned, "You’ll have someone’s eye out with that!" Health and safety culture was yet to be born: but there was a lot of adult telling-off about the potential for ocular injury – not that I ever witnessed an eye poked out.

You’ll see where I’m going. Snowballing. Where does your school stand?

I’m with ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton on the subject. Like him, I never presume to tell heads what to do: but, also like him, I reckon snow, the cause of miserable journeys to school and work, conversely offers endless fun for kids. Perhaps I was lucky (again like Geoff), having sufficient space to turf students outside to enjoy snowman-building and epic snowball fights.

Some colleagues would disapprove, warning of eye-damage (plus ça change) and observing (accurately) that, by the end of lunchtime, everything gets a bit out of hand. Little ones would be reported as cold, wet and tearful: so I’d don hat and coat, venture onto the field and break it up. But, hey, it only lasted a couple of days: the fun was over for another year.

That was my choice – and heads must be allowed to make those choices.  So I felt sorry this week for Ges Smith, a headteacher in Dagenham, East London, who didn’t want his pupils snowballing, on health and safety grounds: keeping the rule simple, and therefore enforceable, he forbade pupils even to touch the snow.

BBC Radio 4’s PM programme put Mr Smith up against a primary head with the opposite view. For all his cogent reasons for his ban, she saw snow as an opportunity for fun and exploratory learning. The media like a confrontation: these two were too wise for that. They disagreed courteously, having made their own professional judgments.

One similarity struck me powerfully, however. In their first sentences, both mentioned health and safety and risk assessment. Indeed, Mr Smith, at pains to stress the adventurous learning opportunities his school affords, proudly cited his pupils’ tobogganing down a Venezuelan mountainside. That was impressive: but he spoilt it for me by outlining the need for thorough risk assessment – and a medical team on standby.

And that’s my point. Any statement we heads utter nowadays (I’m as guilty as any) tends to list risk, health and safety, regulation and compliance. We’ve been beaten into line, finally cowed and henceforth compliant.

And not only heads. When I liberally permitted snowballing, some teachers complained that I was putting those on snowy playground duty in an impossible position. “Would I be held responsible?” came the query. Fair question. When anything goes wrong, in today’s world someone must be blamed. (Where there’s blame, there’s a claim!) Whatever the word accountability once meant, nowadays it also includes carrying the can and the final destination of the buck.

No wonder we’re risk-adverse in schools. Shining examples remain of heads who, despite the pressures, offer fantastic adventurous and outdoor education, high-level contact sports, even building cars and racing them.

But it gets more difficult every year. Even if a head wants to be brave, their teachers’ representatives may block them. It’s not about the kids, but about what happens to us if something goes wrong. The threat is real, and rather depressing.

So don’t knock the head who bans snowballing: nor criticise the one next door who encourages it. Heads have to make their choices, and should be supported, not pilloried.


The prevailing mood in the schools music community? Despair

24th February 2018

You can shout all you like about British success in music and the arts, but the fact is that education ministers don’t want to listen

On the day when the president of the United States suggested that American schools would be safer places if teachers carried concealed handguns, the problem I shall focus on seems trivial in comparison. Nonetheless, in UK education it is a matter of grave concern to those who care – and should be to everyone.

Thursday found me at publisher Rhinegold’s annual Music and Drama Education Expo at Olympia. Schools minister Nick Gibb was due to give the keynote speech, but couldn’t make it. These things happen: ministers are busy people and he was needed at the Commonwealth education ministers’ conference in Fiji.

Absence spared the minister some possible embarrassment, nonetheless. As I entered the auditorium where he was due to speak, on every seat there was a card proclaiming “Bacc for the future: help save creativity in schools”. It proclaimed the increasingly brilliant campaign:

Up for the fight

The other politician on the bill, who did turn up, was Lib Dem Baroness Bonham-Carter, a member of the House of Lords Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports. She was certainly up for the fight, urging her audience to contact their MPs and exert any influence they could to ensure that government insistence on the EBacc doesn’t further squeeze creative subjects in schools.

Unsurprisingly at that event, her audience was receptive, so there was little disagreement. Questions and discussion broadened the topic to include consideration of diversity in the creative arts, and the problems of curricula and exam specifications that downplay or ignore it.

Even if there was broad agreement, I was struck by the contrast between that session’s sombre, not to say downbeat, mood – unsurprisingly, you may say, given the nature of the debate – and the buzz that suffused the Expo itself. The whole industry was there, every service, supplier and manufacturer you can imagine with a connection to music and drama education. Teachers, coaches and representatives of major arts institutions and colleges crowded the exhibition stands and the refreshment stalls – particularly where young musicians were performing. Noisy conversation, excitement and commitment abounded.

So which emotion was most strongly in evidence at that keynote session? Certainly there was anger: that was to be expected. But to my mind, the prevalent feeling was one of despair. Of course, there are always a few enthusiasts and visionaries who keep fighting the battles: overall there was a sense of ennui, of weariness in the face of endless struggle. 

Mixed feelings about music

The Baroness put a brave face on it: this is a democracy, after all, and we are at liberty to lobby MPs, opinion-formers and policymakers. But, while manufacturing and high-tech seem to easily gain access to Downing Street and the ears of senior ministers, the creative industries and those involved in creative education appear unable to gain traction.

I came away with mixed feelings. It was great to soak up innovation going on in the hall. I’m long in the tooth, so for me there was wonder in the technical wizardry on show in so many stands, combining what I think of as traditional instruments with startling technological innovation. 

But all that kit, all those amazing aids to creativity, will be underused and even obsolete if the thrust and focus of government policy – and consequent levels of investment – continue to downgrade the creative subjects. The EBacc is an obvious current peril: I fear still more the inexorable, pernicious policy-bias of successive governments towards the utilitarian.  

You can shout all you like about the wealth generated by creative industries, about the investment needs to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in many aspects of music, dance, and film: those pleas fall on deaf ears. 

As the saying goes, there are none so deaf as those that don’t want to hear.


The government is micromanaging with the new times tables test – for goodness' sake, leave teachers to get on with their job

17th February 2018

Of course pupils should know their times tables, but the level of interference from the government is inappropriate, obsessive and, frankly, laughable, says experienced leader Bernard Trafford

When I find myself feeling sorry for a government minister, I fear I’m starting to go soft.

But on Wednesday I pitied schools minister Nick Gibb on Good Morning Britain, in an interview that subsequently hurtled around the Twittersphere. Talking about his new quick five-minute tables test for primary school children, he was put on the spot about his own knowledge of the topic. Resolutely he refused to answer, observing that he knew that trap all too well: he wasn’t going to be sidetracked from the main issue. Damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t – the interviewers had turned the tables on him.

I was interviewed on local radio station that same morning and was miffed not to be asked to recite my eight-times table, which I’m good at. At primary school in the early 1960s, we would happily chant around the class: “Once two is two, two twos are four,” right up to, “Twelve twelves are 144.”

My best maths teacher, a former colonel of artillery in World War Two, taught the 10-year-old me how use a slide-rule (remember those?), to round up or down and apply times tables to gain a rough estimate of the correct answer, if only to ensure the decimal point was in the right place 

I remember every one of those tables and still employ those solidly-learned estimation techniques while obsessively calculating how long the next 8 miles will take me when I’m traveling on the motorway at 70 mph.

Times tables furore

While I still find it easy to translate those chanted tables into mathematical applications, the same is not true of every learner. Merely teaching the tables by rote will not solve this country’s mathematical woes. Teachers must still assess their pupils’ understanding and intervene when the scaffolding of learning, of which tables are indeed a useful part, isn’t coming together as it should.

Policymakers wouldn’t deny that fact: nonetheless, this tables test has caused a furore. Supporters wonder why someone such as the NAHT headteachers’ union's Nick Brook has come out against it. What harm is there in a simple five-minute test? Surely it’s good to know how one’s pupils are doing?

The trouble is, however, that we Brits invariably fetishise tests. Brook reckons Ofsted will be keeping an eye on the results. Oops! Too easily it moves from a simple matter of seeing whether the kids know their tables to assessing the performance of the school: or checking whether the school is doing tables in the “approved way”. I don’t spend my life looking for conspiracies, but I’m afraid I don’t trust the government not to use this mechanism to enforce the orthodoxy they demand.

Government micromanagement

We’ve already had government insisting that the only way to teach reading is through phonics, rather than using them as one (admittedly valuable) approach of several available. This latest test smacks (not for the first time) of Emperor Napoleon’s centralised approach to education: in 1802 it was said that he knew what every schoolchild in France was learning at any particular time.

Do sanctuary buildings mandarins seek similar control of our school system? I frequently fear they do. This tables test, small enough in itself, is symbolic of government micromanagement: the level of interference is inappropriate, obsessive and, frankly, laughable.

It’s the role of government to set standards – and to support (rather than to bully) schools in working to achieve them. It should treat maths teachers as professionals, supporting and funding the best of training and continuing professional development so that they may constantly hone and develop their skills 

But first, for goodness sake, it should stop telling them how to do their job.


No, to more tests: 'We have created a world in which every formal examination has become a source of anxiety’

10th February 2018 

One headteacher makes the case against comments from schools minister Nick Gibb that children would benefit from more tests

There’s an old story about a mean farmer who reckoned he could train his horse to eat less every day and save him money. After three weeks of decreasing feed day by day, the poor beast died. “That’s a shame,” commented its owner. “I’d almost got it used to living on nothing.”

I was reminded of that old metaphor for futility when I read of schools minister Nick Gibb’s suggestion that we could reduce the risk of young people suffering mental ill-health by getting them to sit not fewer exams, but more.

It goes like this: children get stressed about exams, but if exams become habitual, anxiety levels will be lowered. Job done: major cause of mental illness removed.

On one level it may appear logical. In my schooldays, I had exams every summer, plus regular tests throughout the year. I suppose we got used to them. It’s hard to judge whether that reduced anxiety levels, because we weren’t particularly stressed about exams in any case: back then, the stakes were so much lower than they are today.

Tests to measure

In my distant youth, schools weren’t judged by their results as they have been for a quarter of a century. Now those regular exams are called Sats – or baseline tests – and essentially measure schools, not children. Even with the public exams from which the candidate gains some certificated validity (GCSE, A level), pressure is added by the fact that the school is also measured by the results, by value-added calculations, Progress 8, EBacc scores – the whole gamut. The pressure is on schools – and when pressure is exerted on schools, sadly and regrettably it is passed on to students.

It shouldn’t be, cry the critics. Schools should be robust and not pass the pressure on. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve explained how only a superhuman school headteacher manages to avoid passing the pressure down the line.

With nearly 50 per cent of school leavers aged 18 going on to university, we now have half the school population worrying about their A-level grades because they are so crucial to the next stage of their education. They know, too, that universities look at their GCSE grades: so there’s anxiety at age 16. As a result, we see both institutional pressure on pupils to perform highly and individual anxiety as they enter an ever-more-competitive market for places at university.

I may appear to talk of my childhood experience as old buffers frequently do of their schooldays: “It never did me any harm." I tended to do pretty well in exams: I don’t think I worked very hard and I was fortunate that it all came to me relatively easily. But what about the kids who never did well in those exams? They experienced an annual, termly or even half-termly humiliation, always at the bottom of the heap, often publically ridiculed by seeing their exam and test results posted on noticeboards for all to see.

Adverse effects

No. I won’t sign up to Mr Gibb’s idea. As teachers have been saying since the advent of the national curriculum – to the despair of hawkish ministers – you don’t fatten a pig by constantly weighing it. Given the pressure on young people from so many directions, practice will not make exams perfect: nor will it render them innocuous. 

The adverse effects of frequent testing on young people’s mental health are evident to every teacher. We have created a world in which every formal examination has become an ordeal or a source of anxiety. Multiplying them will not somehow dilute that pressure. On the contrary, it is far more likely to ramp it up still further.

Not many marks out of 10 for that idea, I’m afraid. Could do better.


The children of the North deserve better from our government – and that includes those beyond Leeds

4th February 2018

It's no surprise that the education of teenagers in the North of England is suffering, writes Bernard Trafford – they're simply too far away for the DfE to take proper notice of them

Too many children in the North are not getting the education they deserve. What we’ve known for a long time is now official: this week, Tes reported, “Disadvantaged teenagers in the North of England score around a grade lower on average in their GCSEs compared to their better-off peers, according to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) study.”

Unsurprisingly, the demand follows that “Someone should do something!” But don’t blame the North for wringing its hands and doing nothing: people there are more likely to complain that it’s Westminster that’s burying its head in the sand.

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme interviewed former chancellor George Osborne, now editor of the Evening Standard, who insisted the key to raising productivity and wealth in the North East is education. Doomed to be remembered forever as the chancellor who crafted austerity, but nowadays mellowing amid the metropolitan media, he denied that the problem stemmed partly from the financial squeeze he initiated: then he added insult to injury by lecturing the current regime on the need to put more money in.

Falling on deaf ears

A decade ago I took up an independent school headship in Newcastle upon Tyne and quickly encountered an organisation run by the region’s heads for its schools, SCHOOLS NorthEast. Back then it was urging the government to launch a North East Challenge school improvement programme to emulate the successful London model. Indeed, the first SCHOOLS NorthEast meeting I attended had Department for Education officials present. Sanctuary Buildings appeared to favour some kind of challenge: but the mandarins insisted there would be no money to fund it.

There still is none. In response to current pleas, new education secretary Damian Hinds and anonymous DfE officials alike parrot: “There’s more money in the education system than there has ever been.” That may be true in cash terms: but there are also more children in the system than there have ever been, so there’s less cash per head. The more schools howl their pain, the more the DfE resembles a troublesome child sticking its fingers in its ears and yelling, “La la la! Can’t hear you!”

It won’t do. While designing that North East Challenge (it was a good plan), we researched the London trailblazer. It was about building capacity. Led by the charismatic Tim Brighouse, schools collaborated: there was whole-school, cross-school, whole-staff commitment to improvement and training. Teachers shared twilight sessions to raise their game and thus that of their pupils. The energy unleashed was enormous.  

North isolated

Two additional elements were central to London Challenge’s success, however. First, £30 million was injected, to fund all those training and improvement programmes.

Second was the sheer proximity to the seat of power. London could easily prise MPs out of Parliament to visit, launch, support and encourage new initiatives. Yes, ministers put themselves about: but, hey, they could pop out to Poplar, wander off to Wandsworth and still be back in Westminster for lunch.

The North is, it appears, far beyond policymakers’ ken and comprehension: out of sight, out of mind. Westminster thinks the North is Leeds, so it’s designed HS2 to stop there: Newcastle lies 100 miles further north, while England continues 75 miles beyond it to Berwick-upon-Tweed. 

Though I still maintain a toe-hold in the North East, I am now an exile, working down South. Frequently missing the glories of Northumberland I feel, all too keenly, how far North the North lies.

I’m neither blind nor deaf to the problems, but I don't make policy. It’s not me spouting platitudes while withholding the money essential to improve matters. 

Nonetheless, I’m furious on behalf of my former colleagues still fighting educational battles in the Northern Poorhouse.

The children of the North deserve better.


Why do we choose to teach? Because of the glory that shines throughout every single school

28th January 2018

There's the glory in the creative and extra-curricular activities, the glory in school sport, and the glory of watching our pupils achieve, writes experienced leader Dr Bernard Trafford

One of my favourite passages in literature is the encounter between Alice – not in Wonderland, but on her second journey into a dream world, discovered through the looking glass – and Humpty Dumpty.  After an unfortunate misunderstanding as to whether the garment he wears around his waist is a belt or a cravat – he is, after all, an egg – he proclaims: “There’s glory for you!”

When Alice confesses that she doesn’t know what he means by “glory” in that context he concedes kindly that of course she doesn’t, until he tells her.

I was randomly reminded of that scene when, on Twitter, I came across a picture of a piece of student writing. In answer to the question, “What is a teacher?” a childish hand proclaimed: “The teacher is a person that guides you to glory.”

Amen to that. Had that child been in my school, I would have felt obliged immediately to give them a prize, promote them to head boy or girl and even make them prime minister – if, that is, I weren’t properly and professionally sceptical about the value of extrinsic motivation. 

The meaning of glory

But, seriously: glory? Some might question whether that’s the apposite word: but, then, I’m with Humpty Dumpty, who boasts, “When I use a word, it means just what I chose it to mean – neither more or less!” Frankly, in all my years of writing, I’ve felt the same way.

Glory. There’s glory in so many of the things that occur in schools: the lightbulb moment when, with a sense of wonder, a pupil suddenly understands a principle or a technique that had been eluding them; the child who, convinced that they can’t do something, finds, suddenly and to their astonishment, that they can. There is glory in high achievement, in competition success, in exam results, in places won at university – and there’s glory equally in those small personal triumphs, stepping stones mastered and challenges conquered.

I confess that, for me, the real glory of education lies in the creative and the extra-curricular, those areas too often downgraded by an education policy that  focuses on the utilitarian. In my current role, running a specialist music school, you’d expect that I’d hear glorious performance day in, day out: believe me, I do. Yet, even in an environment where breathtaking standards of performance might be unsurprising, I’m constantly astonished by the sheer beauty and levels of attainment I witness. 

Solid foundations

Oddly, that is entirely in keeping with all my experience in running schools. There may be a difference of concentration and intensity – yet, when the arts are properly supported and flourishing in a school, pupils constantly astonish with the artwork they produce and in play performances or music that, when you close your eyes, could be mistaken for adult and professional delivery.

It’s true in sport, too. There’s glory in watching boys and girls alike in a close-run match or competition, when sheer guts, belief, and resilience – character, indeed - bring them that hard-fought win, perhaps at the last gasp.

I’m sure my pupils, over the years, have got fed up with me wishing them luck before some big undertaking and then spoiling it by observing, “Of course, you make your own luck.” But they do. It’s in the preparation, the hard work day in, day out, that achievement is forged.  There may be flashes of brilliance on the day: but those have any real effect only when the foundation is solid.

There’s glory for you. Glory for us teachers: not for ourselves, but in our pride in what our pupils achieve. As the winter months grind on, let’s try to remember that.

After all, it’s what we went into teaching for.


There is a lesson from Carillion and from the early academy chains: big is not necessarily beautiful 

21st January 2018             

Outsourcing simple tasks to large organisations: hopefully this is a fad that will soon be out of fashion

There’s an old expression; what goes around comes around. Over the years, I’ve seen many, many, circles completed: countless strategic pendula swinging back to where they started.

Currently, big is no longer beautiful: that’s clear. Schools up and down the country will feel the effects of the collapse of the gigantic service provider, Carillion. First to hit the headlines was the school meals service in Oxfordshire,  where children’s dinners are could be delivered by the fire service instead.

As a constructor, Carillion was involved in Private Finance Initiative (PFI) funded school builds: I came across a hopeful tweet that, if Carillion disappears, the PFI debts will be written off. Alas, you can bury a company but I fear the debt will live on as one of the commodities up for grabs in the administrators’ fire sale.

PFI was the brainchild of the Major and Blair governments: getting new schools and hospitals built quickly but kicking the issue of the repayment burden (currently, according to an NAO report this morning, in the region of £200 billion) into the long grass.

Going the way of Carillion

I’ve never understood why successive governments have insisted on outsourcing swathes of administrative functions to firms such as Carillion. I’m baffled by huge building companies turning their hands to running prisons, providing school meals, holding and processing data: what happened to cobblers sticking to their last, always a good rule in business? 

In truth, I don’t shriek in dismay at the thought of the state employing private contractors for some functions. A hospital doesn’t need its own painter on the payroll: get a local business in to redecorate! Schools buy stationery, computers, laptops, phones and everything else from commercial firms: it would be crazy to do anything else. As for school cleaning and meals, I have worked with both in-house and contracted-out arrangements. Both have strengths, both have weaknesses.

But governments convince themselves that big is beautiful – the bigger the contract the better. In the name of efficiency, they commission megafirms for tasks that used to be done by civil servants or local authority officials: the contractors tender so low to win the contract that they risk going the way of Carillion, and else ratchet up their income by means of extra-contractual additions. Any PFI-suffering headteacher will recognise that.

Large chains in difficulty

Academy chains were also the Blair government’s invention, subsequently pursued with vigour under successive Tory administrations. The current government no longer likes stand-alone academies: established single academies and free schools are pressured to form or join chains. Yet some of those large chains are in difficulty. The early ones grew way too fast and were subject to financial mismanagement and educational underachievement. The recent collapse of the Wakefield multi-academy trust (MAT) has been followed by recent suggestions of MATs asset-stripping schools and even of their CEOs – some paid vast sums – taking pay cuts to balance the books.

Are we finally waking up? Big is not necessarily beautiful. We’re assured that procurement is better on a large scale, such as through a MAT. Yet in individual independent schools, both large and small, I’ve found I can command sharper prices from suppliers merely by paying swiftly. In contrast, a MAT or Local Authority (or, by all accounts, Carillion) may take 30, 60 or even 100 days to settle the account. That’s no way to haggle.

Give me small and nimble, any day. Admittedly, small organisations go wrong, too: but when they fall they do less damage – and rarely encompass others in their ruin.


How can it be, that in 2018, pupils are having to pay to study music at GCSE?

14th January 2018

The introduction of the EBacc is having disastrous consequences for music – each and every child should have full access to it at GCSE, writes one school leader

It’s not often that music hits the educational headlines – more’s the pity. 

To be sure, last autumn saw some discussion about the place of music in schools when, first, Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman bewailed the decline of nursery rhymes in junior schools (a claim hotly contested by many): next, French president Emmanuel Macron suggested that French school children should be made to sing the national anthem for two hours a week (surely a bit of overkill in even the most patriotic institutions!).

The poet Roger McGough returned to the topic of nursery rhymes in last week’s Tes magazine; but, nonetheless, among the creative subjects, art and drama tend to have a louder voice in the education press than music. But not this week.

West Yorkshire’s Bingley Grammar School hit the headlines when it emerged that it had taken music GCSE out of the curriculum, offering it instead as an after-school extra. Luke Weston, the school’s headteacher, told The Times, "Last year, we had two or three kids in class and now, having moved to our new system, we’ve got 25, which is more than we’ve had in the last five years. We have had no complaints from parents."

It’s a bright idea, then, surely? Not so fast: critics, led by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), denounced the plan as "shocking and deeply troubling".

What’s upset people, is fact that the school is charging students a nominal £5 a week for these after-school classes, the income helping to cover the cost of two professional musicians who come into to do the teaching. Predictably the argument came that poorer families would be put off from paying that admittedly small fee, putting music in greater danger than ever of becoming the preserve of the better-off.

People my age remember the glory days when lessons on the whole range of instruments were offered to children free in schools. Well-resourced music centres in local authorities up and down the land created astonishing developmental structures whose outstanding county youth orchestras wowed audiences at home and abroad: sadly, they’re nowadays as rare as hens’ teeth.

Maintaining my new year resolution to be contrary, however, I’m not particularly offended by that £5 charge per se. It’s not a vast sum and I see little reason to take issue with the head’s statement that it doesn’t appear to be putting students off studying GCSE music.

But I am offended by the notion that this particular subject, always a part of the school curriculum and almost always on offer as a GCSE choice, should be removed from the options on offer to children. Of course, there is an argument that, by putting it outside that range of choices, the school spares children that kind of arbitrary choice between false alternatives which all options involve – choosing between, say, music and history, geography and drama. But I can’t help suspecting that underneath lie two unworthy motivations. 

Firstly, children are increasingly likely to choose those subjects elevated by the government to the status of being part of the EBacc: the bogus hierarchy that should never have been created, let alone form a basis of a means of judging school performance, effectively constrains choice.

Secondly, there is a suggestion that doing an extra GCSE outside school enables pupils to cut another notch on their educational belt. Mercifully, there is no intrinsic or measurable advantage to them to boast 8, 10 or even 15 GCSEs: indeed, some universities suggest that a candidate who applies with 15 GCSEs should “get out more”, but students are still frequently encouraged to do more and more exams.

Serving as interim head of a specialist music school, I might be accused of special pleading. But, although this subject is close to my heart, I’d feel the same about any creative (and all too often undervalued) subject being treated thus. I don’t seek to judge or criticise the school, and apologise if it seems that I am. But I do think this is a wrong decision stemming from the hierarchy of subjects created by the EBacc.

It’s another of those perverse incentives created for schools by excessive government pressure and interference. In 2018, we should know better.


What our students need is more unconditional offers from universities, not fewer

7th January 2018

The increase in unconditional offers isn't something to boo at, writes Bernard Trafford. It shows a heroic move from universities to give a few candidates the break they need

Christmas is over, but the pantomime season continues for several weeks yet. In education, a few stage villains (boo! hiss!) have emerged even since New Year.

First, there’s the appointment to the Office for Students of Toby Young, controversial not only on account of his political views but also because the Office of Students board boasts just two people actively involved in education, a single student and the principal of a drama school.

Other sinister figures creeping out of the stage-contrived smoke include the prime minister and – it’s suggested – the ghost of Michael Gove, amid rumours of the imminent sacking of Justine Greening, the only education secretary in recent years whom teachers have felt able to work with.

Unconditional offers furore

A very different villain infuriated regulators and academics alike just before the festive season: the universities. Forget their hikes in fees, vice-chancellors’ excessive salaries and the failure of top institutions to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This scandal arises from the unconditional offers they’re making, where candidates are offered a place regardless of the A-level results they gain in the summer: The Times cites a 40 percent rise.

Isn’t this a good thing, though?  Surely taking the pressure off students by not requiring them to gain stratospheric grades is progress?

Oh no, it isn’t! Universities are accused of a cash-grab, nailing down applicants (worth £9,000 each) ahead of the competition. Moreover, Ucas reckons that, with no grade target, students exert less effort, underperform at A level and are unattractive to future employers.

So is it a disgrace? Oh no, it isn’t – not in my book. This furore is misdirected.

The entire educational world appears to agree that students’ mental health is paramount and that exam pressures contribute significantly to mental problems. Yet responsible bodies are now deploring universities reducing that pressure through unconditional offers.

Escalating requirements

The subtext of this criticism is that we should instead keep pushing students to get top grades. Yet for years, universities have been escalating their grade requirements: from several top universities, candidates will soon be holding offers requiring A*AA or even A*A*A.

By way of research, I contacted a former student of mine who, I remembered, was given an unconditional offer from Cambridge. By coincidence, Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera replied to say he had just written about it for the paper’s Notebook opinion section:

“Thinking about my student days, I don’t think I have ever been as stressed out as I was during my A-levels. My sister was having a breakdown. My father wasn’t well either. My mum was struggling to keep things together and, as the first member of my family to aim for university, I was pole-axed by confusion and guilt.

“Thank God, then, for an unconditional offer from Cambridge University, which meant that I only had to get two E grades to take up my place rather than three A grades, and which eased the pressure when I most needed a break.”

Beyond doubt a potential three-A candidate, Sathnam “underachieved” that summer, gaining ACC. In his article, he was too modest to mention both his first-class degree and his subsequent accolade of Young Journalist of the Year. Two decades on, he’s a highly-regarded journalist and novelist: his autobiographical memoir, The Boy with the Topknot, was screened by the BBC in November. Not a failure in the long run, then...

Flawed application process

The university application process is deeply flawed in any case: but current critics unconditional offers appear to demand that, if it’s miserable for some, it must be miserable for all. Equity, social mobility and reduced pressure on candidates will only be achieved through post-qualification application (PQA – candidates applying to university after they have A-level results). But that change would cost both government and universities: I see no political will or courage to make it.

Boo and hiss all you like – but for me, just this once, the universities aren’t the villains. They’re the heroes, in sequins and boots, giving a few candidates, just a few, a break.

Oh yes, they are! 


If your head suggests you might stay in touch over Christmas, tell them (politely) where to stick the holly

21st December 2017 

It is profoundly important that everyone in school, from the headteacher down, knows when to turn off their emails and embrace their lazy alter-ego

That’s it, then. Term has finally ended for everyone: and Christmas has arrived. But, after the long haul of the autumn term, how easy is it for teachers truly to unwind, slow down and (after that frantic period of writing Christmas cards, buying presents and laying in copious amounts of food and drink) enjoy the festive season?

One teacher gave Tes’ own Ed Dorrell their personal solution in an out-of-office email reply: “Hi. Am now hibernating. Normal service will be resumed in New Year. Joyeux Noel.”

Now, there’s someone with the answer! I love the image of hibernation that it conjures up: why does it suggest to me being curled up in a warm bothy in the Scottish Highlands, snow and wind outside, fire, whisky and rich food within? I mean, you might find the answer obvious: but I actually hate being hidden away hundreds of miles from anywhere with no access to a pub or shop except by helicopter (when the blizzard abates).

The Twittersphere – or, at least, the educational section of it – has been providing teachers with plenty of advice about how to manage the Christmas break. Educational consultants RSAcademics tweeted this week (aimed at school leaders): “Do you have a policy on checking emails during the holidays? …It’s important for your staff and pupil performance.” The linked blog suggested, at the very least, a rota of people available in turn so that everyone gets a rest.

My family and friends would complain that, until my summer retirement from headship at any rate, I’ve always been fanatical about checking emails. And, since I belatedly discovered Twitter some three years ago, I’ve remained pretty addicted to keeping up to date with that, even after throwing in the towel (or the mortar board? What do teachers throw in?).

I confess they’ve got me bang to rights: one of my oldest friends, for many years a fellow head, tweeted a somewhat acerbic comment about pots and kettles when I responded to RSAcademics: “Surely in this holiday of all – apart from a day or two at each end – policy is ‘don’t’!”

Don't fall into the 'just looking at emails' trap

This raises two questions, I think. How do teachers evade the trap? And how do school leaders avoid creating it?

First, there’s a matter of self-discipline – the quality I patently lack. You don’t need to check your work email over Christmas: so, er, don’t! Over-conscientious as so many teachers are, you may have offered to mark work that over-eager exam candidates want to send you. It can take a degree of hard-heartedness to say no – for, say, 10 days or a whole two weeks. But, remember, your pupils need a break, too. We can forget, when we worry about the hard-to-motivate, that some try too hard, and fall prey to anxiety. Be strong. They might not thank you right now: but sometimes they need the particular brand of tough love that says, “Stop! Take a break.”

The same advice applies to school leaders. Yes, January will be upon us all too soon, but not yet. Bribe yourself; bully yourself; whatever it takes. Maybe, like me (honest!), you can find inside yourself a lazy person trying to get out, a character I do succeed in finding and engaging with over family Christmas, if not at other times. Anxiety spreads top-down: it’s your duty not to be a carrier.

As for the basic rule of survival, here’s my advice, for what it’s worth: don’t do it to yourself or to other people. And if a governor, head or school leader (depending on your position in the hierarchy) tells you to keep in touch over Christmas, tell them (politely) where to stick the holly. Then pour a drink (if you indulge) and help yourself to another mince pie.

 Happy Christmas!


The idea of banning mobiles in schools is as daft as Canute attempting to hold back the tide

17th December 2017

We should recognise that tech such as mobile phones are now part of school life – now, how best to get some use out of them in the classroom?

I’ve never been a fan of banning things in schools. Naturally, there are moral wrongs or illegalities we can never accept: bullying, intolerance of every sort, alcohol, sex and drugs for a start.

But I’ve always been cautious when dealing with things that are, well, irritating more than anything else. For example, I never banned snowballs, to the chagrin of some colleagues. The temptation to children to enjoy that seasonal phenomenon is irresistible. Better to control it as far as possible, ensure it’s not used as a cover for bullying or victimisation and – once snow becomes icy and hazardous – call a halt.

Predictably, perhaps, I can’t let President Macron’s proposal to ban mobile phones from French schools pass without comment. It made headlines. Giles Whittell, chief leader writer at The Times, went for it in a big way on Tuesday, applauding M Macron’s “progressive” leadership and asserting that, “A blanket phone ban might be just what French schools need...That it couldn’t happen in Britain is entirely our loss”.

It couldn’t happen in Britain, he implies, because the current “failing Conservative government is desperate to ingratiate itself with the teenagers who will be first-time voters at the next election”. He also states that “educationalists and teachers’ union officials are telling the president he is mad".

Problematic and impossible

Far be it from me, a mere educationalist, to presume to disagree with The Thunderer, but we who work in schools can claim to know something about it. Banning stuff is problematic: all the more when it’s impossible. A wise and experienced headteacher, Jane Prescott of Portsmouth High School, wrote to The Times, observing that “children…get round such rules by either using other devices that are not technically phones…or quite simply ignore the regulation. Too much time is then spent policing what becomes an unenforceable rule.”

Amen to that! Life is too short to set rules in schools that we can’t enforce.

Of course I accept that mobile phones create myriad problems in and out of school. Not only are they potentially a distraction in class: they can also lead to bullying on a horrific scale – I note that’s the third time I’ve mentioned bullying in this piece – and children easily lead themselves into the danger of falling prey to grooming both by adult perverts and even by their own age-group bent on similarly abusive behaviour.

Phones out the bottle

But mobile phones – and a host of alternative devices are like a genie set free from its bottle: impossible to recapture. Better, surely, to attempt to educate – that’s our job, isn’t it? – and control, but not to outlaw what’s now a universally-used tool.

I applaud schools that promote acceptable use and negotiate with the student body about phone-free periods. In the same way, boarding schools rightly forbid the use of phones after a certain time – as parents should. But an outright ban dictated from the lofty heights of a president or leading newspaper is inappropriate and unproductive – and far from progressive.

What a shame, by the way, that nearly all the coverage of Macron’s decree centred on phones. He also suggested that every schoolchild in France should sing for two hours a week. When the arts seem constantly squeezed out of UK school curricula, in pursuit of an ever-more-utilitarian view of education, I congratulate M le President on promoting something so creative, positive, cooperative and conducive to wellbeing, except...

Except…this unrepentant liberal still believes in encouragement rather than compulsion – notwithstanding my passion for singing.

As for banning phones, King Canute demonstrated long ago that you cannot hold back the tide. Neither Macron nor The Times will stop this one.


The Ofsted chief inspector might want us to shut up about the absurd pressures that come with inspection…

10th December 2017

 but this headteacher blogger has no intention of going quietly

It’s that time of year. Schools and teachers are working flat-out to get that nativity play, carol service or Christmas concert on stage on top of all that end-of-term admin. To cheer them up, there’s the staff Christmas party and secret Santa, not to mention whatever the consumable goodies that come from grateful pupils and their parents.

All of this, of course, is par for the course in December.

Except that, even now, there will be many colleagues, in both sectors, still dreading the phone call from Ofsted or – for private schools – the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). No one wants inspectors in at this stage of term.

The notion that no-notice inspections save schools worry and teachers sleepless nights is as ludicrous as hoping that Harry and Meghan‘s spring wedding in Windsor will be just a quiet family affair.

Disappointing Ofsted

Having your school inspected is like that necessary visit to the dentist: you know it’s got to happen, and you’re pretty sure it’ll hurt, but sometimes you’d rather just get it over with. So colleagues who were sure that the phone-call would come this month, and then found it didn’t, will be torn between relief at having an easier run up to Christmas and frustration that they’ll come back in January still waiting for it.

Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman says they shouldn’t get in such a state about it. At the Girls’ School’s Association (GSA) conference last month, she blamed headteacher bloggers – like me, I guess, though I’m retired – for cranking up anxiety.

Disappointing. Over this last term, Ms Spielman has made some measured and sensible pronouncements. I wrote the other week supporting her advocacy of nursery rhymes in schools. She’s criticised formulaic so-called Ofsted-style lessons and schools using inappropriate exams or multiple entries to “game” results. I believe her to be sincere in seeking to develop an inspectorate that avoids tick-box approaches and instead identifies and celebrates good practice.

But it’s a pipe dream to imagine that inspection will ever be anything other than the huge ordeal it’s always been. The verdicts in both independent and state sectors are too high.

Underlying nastiness

Don’t blame people like me for flagging up the problem. It’s not we who are cranking up the pressure. We have all known headteachers who have lost their jobs because of Ofsted – and it’s still happening.

Ms Spielman’s predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, betrayed the inspectorate’s underlying nastiness when he savaged the Further Education sector last week. Did he bang the drum for FE? Or castigate a FE funding gap that makes maintained schools appear generously resourced by comparison? No, he chose instead to say FE colleges need to get off their backsides and do a bit of work.

The whole system of accountability via inspection has become irretrievably poisonous. It should be ended forthwith. And before some politician devises another, equally pernicious, accountability system on the back of a fag packet, the nation should first decide what accountability means in its education system.

Meanwhile, I shall keep writing about the damaging effects of inspection as I observe and hear about them with depressing regularity from my colleagues.

Oh, and good luck with the nativity play!


Vive la assessment revolution! Out of widespread confusion, might we find clarity?

3rd December 2017

Most teachers don’t really understand assessment, a new report has found. Good thing too, writes one leading head. It’s time we rethought the whole thing

So, teachers don’t know what to do about assessment: let’s be grateful for that.

Let me explain. This story, reported widely (and, in the Tes, by Eleanor Busby on Thursday) suggests that there is a crisis in assessment. I would argue that a crisis in assessment is precisely what we need.

Educational thinktank LKMco reports that a fifth of teachers don’t know where to look for information on assessment, and only a third feel “very confident“ in their ability to assess pupils’ work and understanding. Moreover, the majority of teachers received no training in undertaking assessments as part of their initial teacher training 

You might think that should be worrying: but it isn’t, necessarily. Research over the last decade or two – especially that led by Professor Dylan Wiliam at the UCL Institute of Education, though Durham University's Professor Rob Coe has more recently been hard at it too – has cast doubt on most elements of traditional assessment methods.

I’m normally quick to rush to the defense of teachers: but, on assessment, I concede that the profession has frequently been resistant to reflection and new thinking. It’s taken decades to persuade teachers as a whole to admit that a mark out of 10 plus comment (“satisfactory“ or “could try harder”) is of negligible use either to them or to their pupils and their parents.

Wiliam’s work has made great strides, yet he readily bewails the fact that the detailed and considered approach encapsulated in Assessment for Learning (AfL) is far too often caricatured by teachers as “that traffic-light thing”. Worse still, they go on to claim that, on AfL, they’ve “been there, done that”.

Assessment is linked, of course, to the whole question of reporting. Many parents still love nice, simple effort and attainment grades: they feel they know how their child is getting on. The message that such judgements are both arbitrary and unscientific is only now starting to filter through to them. I hope to see a day when no teacher at the end of November feels obliged (generally an internal, self-generated command) to set every class they teach a test: “otherwise, how can they write their end-of-term reports?” But we’re not there yet.

The profession’s view of assessment has grown far beyond those early thoughts and misunderstandings around AfL. There remains much confusion and doubt: but that’s something we should welcome. At last, it seems, minds are opening and there is a willingness to put assessment under a microscope. Teachers (rather than policymakers) need to work with researchers to understand not just what can and cannot be usefully assessed, but also what should (and should not) be taken into consideration: the two things are different.

Then there’s the question of workload. It appears that education secretary Justine Greening might be more open to consideration of it than most of her predecessors: any future directions for assessment must take into account the demands made of teachers.

There is thus much to welcome in LKMco’s report, though I deplored its simplistic recommendation that there should be “a test on assessment that trainee teachers have to pass before qualifying”. It’s symptomatic of education policy in this country that everything has to come down to a test – even when it’s concerned with testing (sorry: assessment). Perhaps those who make the policies and design the courses should pass that test first – er, when we finally decide what assessment looks like.

So let’s rejoice that teachers are confused about assessment. The moment is right and the profession is ripe for a root-and-branch review and the development of a new consensus on the nature and purposes of assessment.

Who knows? We might even get it right this time…


With a lack of joined-up thinking about education, schools are forced to deal with the fall out from the DfE's magic bullets

26th November 2017

Teachers are right to be dismayed by the lack of funding – and common sense decision making – for schools in the Autumn Budget, writes Dr Bernard Trafford

By and large, this has not been a good week for education.

Take the Autumn Budget. If health service workers were disappointed by a less than generous settlement from the chancellor, those working in education were dismayed. Not a penny of new money was offered: pay-caps seem to have no prospect of being lifted, leaving new teachers (according to forecasts) £3,000 worse off by 2020.

Philip Hammond did promise money to boost maths learning and computer science teaching. An extra £600 is promised for every additional A-level maths student. But additional to what? And where will they come from?

This country might like to boast more mathematicians: yet maths is already the most popular A-level subject and many teachers complain – not unreasonably: the evidence supports them – that too many pupils opt for the subject. It’s seen as high-status, opening doors to university and employment, while employers bang on about their need for a more mathematically skilled workforce. But A-level maths is hard and many who start the course find the step up too great and don’t complete it.

Autumn Budget promises

Mr Hammond also promised cash to help teachers re-train or up-skill to teach computer science. I can’t help feeling that we need graduate specialists – of which we are not producing enough at present – to teach the next generation properly. Perhaps that purist view is a luxury: if we haven’t got enough, we have no alternative but to retrain and, in that sense without intending to patronise, muddle through until enough specialists finally emerge through the pipeline.

I found these hand-outs and glib statements from the chancellor somewhat at odds with his detailed plans to tackle the current housing crisis. In that area he recognises that it’s not enough solely to dish out money, nor to help buyers, nor even to ease planning restrictions: he seems to appreciate that there are chains of consequences that have to be addressed, though he offered little enough, in truth: just sufficient to keep his own backbenchers quiet, yet judged “deeply unimpressive by the Daily Telegraph.

No such joined-up thinking for schools, however: beyond the Treasury’s reach, schools continue to labour under politicians’ personal bandwagons and piecemeal “solutions”. It was interesting this week to see Dr Andrew Davis, honorary research fellow at the University of Durham, take schools minister Nick Gibb to task for his deeply unscientific insistence that synthetic phonics, often a useful way to teach reading, is the only way.

“The legitimate authority of [science] has been extended to domains where it has no place,” Dr Davis complained, continuing deliciously: “If a health minister professed to know how to use a scalpel, the government might decide to put in place a ‘scalpel effective use’ check, to be taken by all would-be surgeons. Those failing the check might be obliged to retake it. Meanwhile, patients would continue to die. 

Political problems

As so often in politics, the way the politicians convince themselves that they have found a magic bullet is almost comical – if the results weren’t disastrous.

A knee-jerk reaction is another thing that plagues education. Former government mental health tsar Natasha Devon fell foul of the nasty-minded anti-PC brigade when she was misleadingly reported in the media as “instructing“ independent girls’ school heads, at their annual conference, to stop calling girls, er, girls. Her message was, of course, for more nuanced than reported: yet predictable parts of the press shrieked “PC gone mad”, and Natasha suffered the nowadays predictable rape and death threats. In a Tes piece recounting that experience, and putting the record straight, she ended by saying, “The important thing is to try to be kind”.

That was a good note on which to end the week: but, charmingly, she gave the last word to “a self-described ‘straight, white middle-aged man from Wales’ who commented simply: ‘All you’re really proposing is good manners’.”

At last, some perspective, common sense and decency. Thank you.


When it comes to teacher recruitment, the DfE has been found wanting

17th November 2017

Policymakers are painfully short on workable solutions to England’s intractable educational problems, writes one leading educationalist

The writing has been on the wall for the Department for Education. But even so, the timing of the decision to shut the National College for Teaching and Leadership and take its functions into the DfE, just as it’s becoming clear that the crisis in teacher supply is deepening, was extraordinary.

You know what the famous biblical writing on the wall (from where the expression comes) spelled out? “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

The government has indeed been found wanting, and seems painfully short of solutions for the problems it faces (and frequently creates). Take as evidence this week’s appearance before the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) of the DfE’s permanent secretary Jonathan Slater, who admitted that the government needed “to focus more on bread-and-butter issues of teaching supply and standards”.

Yet it appears it isn’t. To take just one example, almost as Mr Slater was speaking, it was being reported that more than half of schools do not offer computer science GCSE and that years of missed recruitment targets mean we have an under-supply of qualified teachers. The situation is so bad that a powerful and necessary rewrite of the computing curriculum, designed to meet the country’s needs by putting coding and creativity at its heart, appears doomed to failure.

As I followed the stream of tweets reporting that PAC session, I almost felt sorry for the permanent secretary as, on teacher recruitment, he was obliged to confess to a string of failures, including the National Teaching Service, which flopped because it was “done in a hurry”.

Mr Slater also admitted: “There’s a workload issue here that we have to make progress on.”  Funny: ministers, ever since Estelle Morris, have known that, though few have acknowledged the fact.

Who, apart from the DfE, is surprised that the money offered to relocate teachers to difficult areas was insufficient? Besides, it’s not just about the money, nor even workload. In Thursday’s Guardian, Cat Scutt, director of education and research at the Chartered College of Teaching, commented that the recruitment and retention crisis won’t be solved merely by cutting workload, though it might help. She wrote: “Teachers need to be given the time, autonomy and professional development and collaboration opportunities that will help them to keep making a difference – as well as recognition of how good a job they do.”

I have no space here to dwell further on the predictable and dismal DfE decision to take recruitment in-house. Suffice to say that with ministers and civil servants in charge of managing the failure to recruit sufficient teachers, no one else can be blamed.

Finally this week, I enjoyed the delicious irony (observed by Tes editor Ann Mroz) of Nick Gibb stating, “It’s not right for schools to be asking parents to pay for the basics”, on the day that Tes reported that Robert Piggott CofE Primary School, in the prime minister’s constituency, was requesting a voluntary contribution of £190 (£1 a day) to buy pens, pencils and books.

Writing on the wall? I fear policymakers are blind to it, or aren’t themselves proficient readers. Instead, I’ll fall back on the old Laurel and Hardy line: "Here’s another fine mess you’ve got us into." Only this educational mess won’t be solved by a custard pie, a bucket of water, a ladder and a belly laugh. Prepare to cry instead.


The importance of music and singing in early development cannot be underestimated

11th November 2017

The Ofsted chief inspector is right: nursery rhymes are hugely important, writes one educationist. But they’re also just the tip of a developmental iceberg

Jack and Jill still have a role to play, according to Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, who bemoans the fact that children aren’t learning nursery rhymes anymore – neither, it appears, at home nor in school. Ms Spielman’s views were reported in a light-hearted piece in The Sunday Times, which also dedicated an editorial to amusing updated versions of old favourites.

It was all good fun and, to be fair, The Sunday Times also quoted Amanda Spielman’s serious point on the topic: “Humpy Dumpty may seem old-fashioned, but children who can sing a song and know a story off by heart aged four are better prepared for school. Nursery rhymes provide a collective experience – and teach a little bit of social history to boot.”

Amen to that! People such as Ms Spielman and me aren’t nostalgically hankering after some kind of half-remembered golden childhood when we all sang songs at our mother’s knee in lush meadows in the summer sun and then headed indoors for cake and lashings of custard. We’re deploring the loss of a powerful contributor to children’s early learning.

I suspect that, like me, Amanda is old enough to remember those wonderful BBC Music and Movement radio programmes, which did precisely what the title suggests. They brought those two elements together: just as, in that “golden age” of childhood, parents would sing catchy, often nonsensical but always strongly rhythmic songs and encourage their infant to clap hands, stamp feet – at root, to respond physically to the rhythm of the music.

'Music used to teach'

There’s science underlying this. Called Eurhythmics (not to be confused with Annie Lennox and David Stewart’s pop duo) and expounded by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, it is “a system of rhythmical physical movements to music used to teach musical understanding or for therapeutic purposes”. I can only assume that Professor Dalcroze remembered and later codified how he had himself learned in his infancy from music and rhythm.

Funded by National Lottery money around the Millennium, my wife ran some after-school Eurhythmics courses for five-year-olds. The differences she observed in children in only a matter of weeks, while they learned to respond and move to music, were remarkable: she (SEN-trained, as it happened) also reckoned she could spot, among those who found such responses difficult, children likely to encounter a range of Specific Learning Difficulties. Sadly, after two seasons the lottery money ran out and the local authority in question declared itself unable to continue the courses.

Why do children respond physically to music? Because they listen to it. And the more they enjoy such response – and the better they get at it – the better they get at listening. In 2017, when too many young children are perhaps entertained and pacified by being given screens to watch, that is arguably of vital importance. We have much work to do on children’s listening skills.

Nor do the positives end with rhythm and response. There is the whole business of singing in the first place. There’s copious and still growing evidence of the contribution of singing to wellbeing: why not catch children and give them the habit young, before they get into the nonsense of either copying whining pop divas or deciding it’s uncool to sing at all?

Can just singing a few nursery rhymes with young children really make so much difference? Well, yes. Simple input, huge returns: that’s not a bad educational formula, is it? 


We are faced by a once-in-a-generation chance to raise the status of teachers

4th November 2017

It's just possible we might be able to achieve one unified, successful body that leads on CPD

One thing you’ve got to give teachers nowadays: they’re really committed to improving their classroom practice. For every old lag lurking in the grumpy corner of the staffroom (we’ve all known a few!), there are several happy to spend their well-earned coffee or lunch time discussing how a lesson went, or seeking advice on how to tackle the next one.

Two factors have influenced this change over time. One is, sadly, the relentless pressure on teachers to improve – not from their internal professional drive but from government, the inspectorate, benchmarks and targets. The other, more positively, has been social media. The internet is awash with tweets and blogs, creating virtual communities of teachers committed to developing and sharing best practice.

To be sure, there has always been the opportunity to develop one’s skills in isolation. I recall how a part-time MEd in education policy and management at Birmingham University, started in 1988, informed and changed my practice and my career. The great step forward stems from the ease with which teachers can these days share what emerges from any training course, conference or personal reading. 

So all that’s needed now, surely, is some kind of body to pull all that personal improvement together, to lead the way and somehow to acknowledge and badge excellence.

That Holy Grail has been hovering in front, yet tantalisingly just out of reach, of the profession throughout my long career. We have never had a single national college of teachers/teaching to represent the profession and maintain standards.

Sure, we have unions, and associations of types of school: but these represent different and frequently conflicting interests. Tony Blair gave us the General Teaching Council (GTC), which swiftly became little more than a regulating and barring body and never gained the respect of the profession. (Funny that: Blair’s other brainchild, the National College for School Leadership became politicised from the start, lost its way and is now, ironically, the latest mechanism for disciplining and barring teachers).

Nonetheless, even after those bad experiences I believe most teachers would rejoice in a nationally respected institution that recognised and celebrated their work through a credible framework, maintaining standards not through disciplinary hearings but through accreditation.

Step up the recently formed Chartered College of Teaching. Directed by the impressive Dame Alison Peacock, a former head tirelessly travelling the country spreading the word, the CCT is piloting Chartered Teacher Status, gained by examination: moreover, to retain that status teachers will be required to demonstrate continuing commitment to their own development. It’s wisely started small, but early signs are encouraging: is this the single institution that will finally establish some kind of standing of the profession?

There’s always the danger of others muscling in. On Friday education secretary Justine Greening attended the official launch in Manchester of the Institute of Teaching. Founded by a group of school alliances, hosted by Ark Ventures and headed by Teach First alumnus Matthew Hood, this new “specialist graduate school for teachers” aims to address a growing need to improve the training and development of teachers - since, at present, “most of it isn’t helping teachers to get better”. It will offer a master’s and fellowships in expert teaching, and run the DfE’s Transforming Teaching programme.

I confess I was alarmed, but am delighted to report that there’s no conflict between what the Institute and the Chartered College offer. Matthew Hood assures me that the Institute sees itself as a provider, and is working with the CCT on that basis. 

This is encouraging: the CCT needs providers and other organisations prepared to work with it. Indeed, dare one hope even that Ark, currently supporting the Institute, might throw its wealth and influence behind the College?

I’m no fan of monopolies, but I reckon that, in the CCT, we finally have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop a single body - a flagship, indeed - speaking for, and setting standards, in teaching: one that will finally raise the status of teaching.

Let’s grab it while we can.


Briefly mainstream, Student Voice has again been pushed to the fringes – but we need it now more than ever

28th October 2017

We applaud Malala for her pupil activism, yet we actively seek to diminish Student Voice. What a contradiction this represents, writes one leading educationalist

I found mischievous pleasure this week in reading about an American Cub Scout, Ames Mayfield, who tackled Colorado state senator Vicki Marble about her support for a bill that would seemingly allow domestic-violence offenders to continue to own a gun. “Why,” asked 11-year-old Ames, “would you want somebody who beats his wife to have access to a gun?”

His mum was proud of him. Less so his local Cub Scout pack, which expelled him for raising the “politically charged” topic of gun control.

It wouldn’t happen here, would it? We’re accustomed nowadays not only to heeding the views of children, but indeed, actively encouraging their expression.

Except when we fail to do so.

BBC News reported recently that children are routinely excluded from custody hearings. Family court judge Sir James Munby told a conference that judges often don’t see so much as a photo of the child whose future is under consideration, let alone meet them. The item continued: “The government promised in 2014 to change the law so children could meet the judge who was making fundamental decisions about their life, but this hasn't yet happened.”

Still, we’re OK in schools, aren’t we? We still give pupils a voice, don’t we?

I was a headteacher before the term student voice had been coined. Nonetheless, I got busy in the 1990s researching and promoting what we called pupil participation or school democracy. Out on what was then the lunatic fringe, I encountered such pioneers as Teddy Gold who, as founder in 1993 of School Councils UK, changed the educational landscape.

Giving children a stake in decisions about their school education swiftly developed from being regarded as a dangerous and subversive notion to acceptance as a powerful contributor to school effectiveness. Moral arguments for empowering children cut little ice with policymakers. But once the growing body of research linked it with school improvement, the Blair government quietly approved and supported it.

Behaviour management, issues of uniform, development of ethos, even involving pupils to play a (carefully managed) role in teaching observation in the context of the London Challenge: it became rare to see blueprints for transformational school improvement in which student voice was not integral.

Formerly viewed with suspicion, people like me briefly became gurus. Eventually we aged and, feeling “our work here was done”, headed off like the Lone Ranger of old, into the sunset.

Student (or school) councils are, I think, still commonplace in schools. Yet, while academy chains and their superheads nowadays continue to lead the charge, at the government’s behest, in turning around struggling schools (as the process is characterised), I have little information as to what part student voice is permitted to play in practice – though it rather seems that it has once more been pushed out to a fringe activity.

This is a shame.

As a nation, we applaud Malala Yousafzai for speaking out for girls’ education in Pakistan, and take joy in her place won at Oxford University. Yet uncomfortable messages are not always welcome.

Lola Olufemi, women’s officer at Cambridge University Students' Union, was pictured this week on the front of the Telegraph with an article that the paper later (grudgingly) admitted was inaccurate about an open letter that she co-authored, recommending that the university extend its literary canon to include black and female authors. She complained that the paper “chose to place a photograph of me, a… highly visible young, black woman student… and make me into a figure that people could attack”. Ms Olufemi learned that, nowadays, you put your head above the parapet at your peril.

Similarly, schools have long been ready to applaud pupils who exercise their voice – but only, perhaps, until that voice challenges them. Institutions, political and educational alike, rarely take criticism well.

But that’s democracy, folks: now more than ever, we undermine it and fail to embed it in our schools, at our peril.


A variety of unworthy motivations appears to be putting the study of English literature at risk

21st October 2017            

We must not shield the "snowflake generation" from disturbing, or difficult themes in literature – preventing them from taking GCSE English literature does so, writes one educationist

Somehow it seems bad form to write a sequel to a blog only a week old. Yet, I cannot resist it.

Last week I wrote that historical prejudice in classic literature should not be erased: instead, we should teach our children to challenge it. It’s not exactly a controversial position to take.

Yet, in the 24 hours between my writing the piece and its appearance, The Guardian revealed that a Mississippi school district has removed that literary staple To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum because "it’s too upsetting". Has that state chosen to duck, rather than confront, its history of slavery and racism?

Next came reports that Cambridge University’s English faculty is warning undergraduates that they might find the content of some Shakespeare plays "distressing": according to The Independent, “work on Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors would include ‘discussions of sexual violence’ and ‘sexual assault’”. 

OK, so they’re not banning those tough plays: but this “trigger warning” seems mealy-mouthed and unnecessary, given the often twisted violent and sexual content that frequents modern television crime thrillers after the 9pm watershed, introduced with only minimal caveats. Besides, don’t bright Cambridge students have an inkling already of what’s in those works of the nation’s greatest playwright? If not, how did they get in?

Value of literature

I could leave it there. After all, I made my point about the value of the study of literature, and of all the challenges, prejudices and injustices that it addresses.

Except that this wave of philistinism seems to be spreading. I learned this week – though it was announced back in the spring – that in Wales only the most-able students are likely to be permitted to take English literature GCSE, which is not obligatory in the Principality, according to Rajvi Glasbrook Griffiths, writing for the Institute for Welsh Affairs (IWA):

“If the fifth GCSE can be something perhaps less challenging than English literature, it raises pass percentages. It… may even aid the school in a move from one colour rating to the next. Nationally, schools in Wales can be reported as improving… and so a key Welsh Government educational priority is being met.”

Who cares about the quality or content of the education provided, as long as the figures improve?

I don’t believe that there’s a plot across the English-speaking world to downgrade the study of literature, or at least to shield our young people – not only children, the snowflake age-group extends into higher education – from its disturbing influences. But a variety of unworthy motivations does appear to be putting it at risk.

Wilful ignoring

Is our civilization actually heading backwards? The wilful ignoring in our times of literature and its soaring, if difficult, themes stands in sharp contrast to my discovery in the summer of the wonders of Ancient Greek Sicily, where every city dating back to the fifth century BC boasted a theatre.

In Syracuse, I marvelled at the spectacular remains of the theatre where the playwright Aeschylus (c.525-c.455 BC) premiered some of his greatest tragedies. The Greeks understood how engaging in a fictional context with the emotions and wickedness that drive humanity to its finest and worst achievements had both an educational and healing effect.

Their philosophers debated the nature and impact of catharsis in a civilization which, apparently unlike ours, was willing to engage with upsetting themes. Our modern world has moved light years – though not far enough – in confronting sexism, slavery and other ills to which the ancient world was blind. Yet, while we readily embrace such noble goals as education for all – still a long way off in some parts of the world – some of the most developed societies appear willing to set limits as to what their young may learn and confront, for fear of jolting them out of what is nice, comfortable and above all, complacent.

Surely we can do better than this?


Historical prejudice in classic literature should not be erased – we should teach our children to challenge it

14th October 2017

Quality literature doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but weaves them into great stories – and we shouldn't shelter our pupils from these awkward texts, writes Dr Bernard Trafford

At the beginning of September, the US celebrated National Read a Book Day. On which, Melania Trump sent a gift of books to elementary schools in 50 states – the bundle included works by Dr Seuss which, she said, she had enjoyed reading to her own son.

This worthy, if perhaps naïve, gesture promoted a response.  

One school librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took exception to the gift and published a long open letter (hastily disowned by the school board). She sneered at the cost of postage and suggested more deprived schools than hers had a greater need: then she came to her real point.

Dr Seuss’s work, she continued, is “a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. Dr Seuss’s illustrations (he was foremost an illustrator) are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures and harmful stereotypes.”

And in The Times some weeks ago, the redoubtable Libby Purves acknowledged that Seuss was an illustrator of his time, though he also moved with the times.

But, she accuses that librarian of betraying her own prejudices when she produced another list of books about “children who stand up to racism and oppression” and have “parents who are incarcerated simply because of their immigration status”: take, for example, Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation.

Awkward moments

Libby Purves insists that there’s plenty of established, historical and modern fiction dealing with children battling and overcoming trials, not least Harry Potter. Dr Seuss’s style grates with me, but I’m not about to outlaw him from the canon of children’s literature, which – as the Times columnist insists – is gloriously broad and offers ample opportunities to children for “entering into other lives and attitudes past and present”. 

To be sure, there are awkward moments and issues in classic literature: but the use of the “n word” in Mark Twain's work is surely something to be challenged and argued about, not hidden away as if it were never written.

For many of my 60 years, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has been a rarity on stage, its sexist basis presumably regarded as too tricky to tackle. Now it’s being done again, the theme (I presume) tackled head-on. Similarly, both Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin present problems for today's actors and directors but, in our hopefully enlightened age, we can surely engender an understanding of the prejudices that helped form their character without weakening them as the villains (to the extent that they are) of their respective stories.

We are modern adults, and we can help our children to tangle with the complexities of historical prejudice rather than hiding such issues away.

A colleague once said to me, “I hate agenda drama!” We don’t need books or plays that preach at us. Quality literature doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but weaves them into great stories.


Too many teaching methods are based on myths and assumptions – it's time to wake up to reality

7th October 2017

While teaching is a rewarding profession, there is always room for improvement, argues one former head. And here's where we should learn from John Hattie

I always take pleasure in seeing teachers being celebrated for their hard work and contribution. Although I was travelling for much of World Teachers Day on Thursday, I made sure to scan the media for what was being said about the noble but (in the UK, at least) perpetually beleaguered profession.

I came across a piece by Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne. Hattie looked at thousands of studies involving millions of students to analyse a number of myths versus reality in regards to teaching and learning outcomes. Assumptions that too often lure education systems up unproductive blind alleys.

Harris’ latest summary, Dispelling Educational Myths, which was recently published in the Queensland’s Nature Partner Journals Science of Learning Community website, does what it says on the tin.

I can’t list here all the myths he explodes, but I must be honest here and confess that it was good to have many of my own beliefs, based on long personal experience, confirmed by someone who has studied the issues in greater depth.

According to Harris, forcing struggling pupils to repeat a year would have a negative effect on achievement. He also dismisses the notion that ability grouping is effective and that reducing class size makes no difference. He says: "What really matters is that the teacher is effective and having an impact". 

He explains how diet and even sugary additives are not linked to hyperactivity and misbehaviour and can be attributed to the parental or teacher expectations as well as the attitudes of children.

Hattie supports my stance on school uniform, revealing that there’s no link between uniform and high standards and that the endless conversation surrounding this subject is a waste of energy. Remember, he’s been through the research. 

Over the years, I’ve also spoken out about the single-sex-versus-co-ed debate (interesting to see diamond schools receiving a puff in the press this week). Hattie says performance has nothing to do with the gender or separation issue.

However, (balm to this former music teacher’s ears), extra-curricular activities have a powerful effect on children’s outcomes. Let’s bear that in mind when time and resources are squeezed and ministers (and the media) insist focusing solely on the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic).

Having spent most of my career in the independent sector, I support Hattie’s refutation of the myth that “teaching in private schools is better than teaching at public [state-funded] schools”.

We shouldn't be sending young kids off to do a project of their choosing, particularly under the guise of homework (which should briefly revise and recap what’s been learned that day). I support the idea of independent learning, as long as it is guided and purposeful, which Hattie appears to agree with. 

He criticises teachers for doing most of the talking in class: “Research shows students are more engaged and learn more when teachers talk around 50 per cent of the time, or even less.”

We can always seek to improve our teaching by taking charge of the classroom, planning and directing, this remains at the very heart of learning, which is essential, valued and invaluable.

Hattie’s piece represents a resounding hurrah for teachers, thanks for that. The last word lies with Sir Ken Robinson, British author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts, who tweeted: “Education doesn’t happen in committee rooms…it’s what goes on between learners and teachers.”

I hope you had a good World Teachers Day.


Workload issues may differ between state and private schools, but its effect is equally malign

1st October 2017

We need to create a more realistic working environment for teachers – their mental health and general wellbeing will improve as a result, and that will trickle down to their pupils, writes one celebrated head

Well, the honeymoon’s over.  The start-of-term energy and optimism are wearing thin. Books are piling up, older pupils’ first major pieces of work awaiting marking.

No one goes into teaching assuming it’ll be easy. But now it’s getting darker earlier, the light’s shorter while days become longer: and half-term’s too far off yet to be counting down the hours.

Teacher workload is a problem, and teachers’ representatives are rightly more exercised about it than ever, while politicians largely ignore their concerns.

Having spent nearly all my career in private schools, I’m often asked how the independent sector tackles workload issues. My customary answer is that it's much like the maintained sector: some schools manage them well, others work their staff into the ground, and all should look at the (frequently excessive) demands made of teachers.

From outside the sector, it must be tempting to assume that private school teachers have it easier: there’s no Ofsted, performance-related pay is rare, pupils are probably more biddable and motivated, their parents more in sympathy with the aims and practices of the school, there’s likely to be a lower proportion of pupils with learning or behavioural difficulties (though the independent sector includes schools specialising in precisely those areas), and what information is available points to better pay, a generous teacher-to-pupil ratio, and significantly less weekly contact-time.

Careful, though: the independent sector’s so diverse that few of these generalised descriptions will be recognisable in any single school. Indeed, periodic campaigns by teacher unions have highlighted the outrageously poor conditions suffered by teachers in some less reputable private schools.

Indeed, a fairly recent ATL teaching union survey revealed that state school teachers are more likely to take a lunch-break than their independent counterparts, who will be giving pupils extra lessons or running the myriad extra-curricular activities that are a boast of the sector: for this and for long hours, ATL found, most receive little or no extra pay.

Nonetheless, to the majority of quality institutions in memberships of various associations under the umbrella of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), much of what I wrote above will be credible. Yet there are few independent schools where workload is not a concern.

Both sectors recognise the stresses engendered by the ongoing national thirst for raising attainment. Most independents would also suggest that the feeling of entitlement (from parents and pupils alike) stemming from the fee-paying relationship nowadays puts their teachers under pressure as great as, if different from, that exerted by Ofsted and government targets.

Some fee-paying parents believe that their child must automatically achieve top grades and a top university place: others demand monthly or even fortnightly reports on their child’s progress – and lots of homework fully and regularly marked.

Parents sometimes assume a right to contact their child’s teachers at any time they choose. Boarding-school staff, in particular, live in dread of the late-night (too frequently alcohol-fuelled, alas) email or phone-call expressing anger, accusation – even abuse. Many schools nowadays publish protocols in an attempt to protect their teachers from such exchanges.

Different pressures between the sectors, then: but arguably the same negative results for teachers.

Unsurprisingly, school leaders are the target of much criticism over workload. In their defence, I reckon most strive to absorb pressure and protect their staff, though notable exceptions occasionally make headlines.  Perversely, conscientious teachers – the overwhelming majority of the profession – can also be part of the problem, readily creating work to fill perceived gaps.

In my time I’ve battled with teachers in order to simplify and reduce their reporting load.  Then there’s homework. Even in 2017 many teachers feel they’re not doing their job if they don’t fully mark every pupil’s book at least once a week. Thus the work of Professor Dylan Wiliam and others on feedback, what works and what isn’t worth the effort, is vital.

Schools in both sectors must take these emerging themes on board, debate them and persuade teachers, often innately conservative and addicted to hard work, to discipline themselves and work “smarter, not harder” (an irritating phrase, I know). Parents will need to be persuaded, too.

The causes of excessive workload both overlap and differ between the two sectors: but its effects are equally damaging in both, demanding cross-sector work.

By creating a more realistic working environment for teachers, all schools will improve their mental health and general wellbeing – and, as a result, improve those of their pupils, too.


You can demand any curriculum innovation you want, but if it’s not on the EBacc, you’re wasting your time

16th September 2017

Calls for an agriculture GCSE are all well and good, but the system isn’t set up for such change, says Bernard Trafford

Television's “face of the countryside”, Countryfile’s jovial farmer-star Adam Henson, made headlines last weekend when he called for the introduction of a GCSE in agriculture.

The Sunday Times devoted a leader to his suggestion – but chose to poke fun at it. Of four joke GCSE questions, the first was "What is slurry? (a) liquid manure? (b) anyone after five pints of cider?"

I don’t mind a laugh: we educators frequently become over-serious and forget to engage our sense of humour. Still, on reflection, I reckon Adam's suggestion deserved fuller consideration than the paper accorded it.

As you’d expect, there are already qualifications in agriculture. Northern Ireland actually already has a GCSE in it. England doesn’t: but an online search swiftly located Pearson’s new BTEC in agriculture, ready to start teaching in 2018. Yes, BTEC! All these years on, BTEC, the great survivor, is still doing a great job in vocational education, even while we take axes to, and build bonfires of, myriad other qualifications.

The Independent Schools Council (which produces a useful daily digest of education in the news, by no means restricted to private schools) took the suggestion seriously and called for a debate: should children learn more about valuing where their food, water and fuel come from?

Teachers of biology, geography and PSHE will claim they’re already learning a great deal. They are: perhaps the ISC should have asked, instead, should children be more aware? Aware of elements of health, nutrition and the causes of obesity, for a start: not when they’re in the classroom, but when they’re spending their money at the corner-shop on the way to school.

Understanding where food comes from

More-aware children might also seek a deeper understanding of food production: and be better equipped to make ethical decisions about the foods they choose to eat (I’m a carnivore, so this isn’t a piece of hidden proselytising for vegetarianism).

They might wonder, as I do, why this country is so complacent about the fact that it’s so far from becoming food self-sufficient. It seems irresponsible to me that we make so little effort to ensure that we can feed and clothe ourselves – even if we choose to export much of what we produce and, to add variety and boost trade, import a balancing quantity.

Finally, there is the threat that, post-Brexit, we shall be short of farmers. I don't suggest that a farming GCSE would encourage hordes of 16-year-olds to go to work in the fields. Nonetheless, when we no longer admit labourers from Europe, who will pick the crops, vegetables and fruits that we do grow?

We’re still falling woefully short in terms of producing a technically advanced workforce, and are failing properly to value the apprenticeship route into skilled work: but let’s not overlook the need also to train the people who will feed us. They too will work in an industry becoming more scientifically and technically complex all the time (have you watched harvesting done by GPS-guided machinery? It’s an awesome sight).

A GCSE in agriculture could be a great addition to the choices available. But this is a purely academic discussion (no pun intended). This government won't permit farming to enter the GCSE canon: even if it did, few pupils would choose the subject because of the pressure on schools to focus tightly on the EBacc subjects that policymakers regard as exclusively worthwhile and valuable.

In a letter to The Times (11 September) about the narrowing of subjects in Year 9, NAHT’s deputy general secretary, Nick Brook, could equally have been talking about Adam Henson’s proposal:

“We want to see a change in the system where a broad and balanced curriculum, as well as a broad range of skills and knowledge, are valued by government in the same way that they are valued by students, parents and employers.”

Amen to that: but the change won’t come quickly. Pupils choosing GCSEs and hoping to see agriculture on the menu are in for a long wait.


The argument for school uniforms is weak: but we’re stuck with them. So tuck your shirt in

9th September 2017

Schools are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, writes one educationalist. But it doesn’t matter, because school uniforms are here to stay

The new school year’s a week old at most, but the inevitable annual fuss about uniform is already well underway. Indeed, even before term started, newspapers were running a story about schools revising their uniform policies to cover such challenges as transgender issues or girls wearing the niqab.

This week saw a North Tyneside School reported as putting 100 pupils in isolation for the day when (despite clear prior warnings, according to the head) they turned up for the start of term not wearing uniform correctly.

Uniform causes a great deal of trouble and work for schools: so, is it a blessing or a curse?

In theory, uniform identifies pupils with their school and is egalitarian. There’s no competition to be fashionable, nor (to the relief of parents) hours spent every morning in deciding what to wear. Uniform is, well, uniform.

Except it isn't. Once the 11-year-old’s pride in a new school uniform has worn off, teenagers can’t resist pushing the limits of uniform rules. There's the need to appear cool: so boys’ shirts must be untucked while ties (if worn) hang loose or tied with an absurdly large knot, leaving only a couple of inches of fabric dangling.

A girl’s skirt may be of regulation knee-length: but, on the way to school, she may roll the waistband over to satisfy the teenage requirement for mini-skirt length.

Why do we perpetuate this battleground? Many education systems operate satisfactorily without uniform: yet the British psyche connects the idea of educational standards indissolubly to a smartly worn uniform. The rare shining exceptions, schools that eschew uniform and provide a great education, are few: I’ve heard even some of those exceptions agonising about such issues as piercings.

There's a received wisdom that a school cannot be good if it’s not strong on uniform, and, in supporting that belief, schools are both saints and ogres. Parents applaud a tough stance…until their children fall foul of the rules. Then a school that dares to measure a girl’s skirt-length or judge a boy’s hairstyle is characterised as petty and bullying. 

When it disciplines pupils, a media-storm ensues. Invariably, the pictures appear unremarkable: I tend to suspect the hair, skirt or footwear looked rather more outrageous when school staff first confronted it.

Schools enter a minefield when publishing uniform policies. Some schools have tied themselves in knots over accommodating the needs of transgender pupils: others have trumpeted their gender-blind regulations as a triumph. Meanwhile, primary schools permitting the niqab have found themselves accused of sexualising young girls, on the basis that the garment should be worn only post-puberty, and of denying them a choice.

I’m with the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who advises that schools shouldn't specify the niqab in their policies, instead inviting dialogue and flexibility. You can broaden that view to encompass many eventualities.

I've never been convinced of the claimed link between uniform and standards. However, I chose to play the same uniform game as everyone else, for fear of damaging my school’s standing.

Now out in the adult world (retirement), numerous former pupils probably still resent my inflexibility. I used to argue that my rules, such as forbidding boys to wear earrings or insisting shirts be tucked in and skirts be a certain length, mirrored formal adult dress codes. Nonetheless, in 2017, few employers require men to wear ties or ban earrings while, outside uniformed services, women have never worn ties or been constrained with regard to skirt, trousers, makeup or ear-piercings.

School uniform has more to do with public perception than with genuinely maintaining standards. Most benefits claimed for it could arguably be gained in other ways. But let’s be realistic: we’re stuck with it.

Nonetheless, perhaps we should be more open about these contradictions so that, when a school sticks to its guns on uniform, pupils, parents and the media might be slower to pillory the professionals who are just trying to do their job.

But then, that wouldn't be a story.


The thirst for top league table positions has more to do with heads' egos than the best interest of schools

2nd September 2017

Education is for pupils, not the school. Results belong to the student, not the institution – preventing students from continuing to A level because of their grades is wrong, writes Dr Bernard Trafford

"You only want to get rid of my child to make the school look good!"

I don't think I was ever so hurt as by this parent’s comment, some years ago now. Her child was in Year 12, which I still tend to call the lower-sixth: there were real problems with behaviour and attendance and, yes, a refusal to do any significant work. The chances of the student gaining any A-level grades the next year were zero, and the time had come to part: but not in order to improve the school’s league table position.

Yet the accusation was made.                                   

You'll have spotted where I'm coming from. St Olave's Grammar School, in Oprington, south-east London, is in the news, accused of giving the push to 16 Year 12 students who, it’s alleged, gained less than B grades in summer assessments. A sense of universal outrage followed. 

In theory, students should be permitted to finish any course or phase they start – unless unacceptable behaviour makes that impossible. Such behaviour might, in my view, include outright refusal to do the necessary work. Such intransigence in a sixth-former can harm both the cohort and the school’s desired ethos of commitment and hard work.

I suspect, though, that the 16 in question weren’t work-shy: a C grade’s a long way from failure. When I last looked, A-level pass grades ranged from A* to E. To be sure, the bottom grade’s an unlikely passport to a top university: but it’s still a pass.

Let's be honest. This kind of culling has always gone on. It is unique neither to selective state schools nor to academically high-powered independent schools, occurring regardless of school type or sector. At A level, just for once, I can't blame the government. I’ve written many times about the perverse incentives created for schools by the sheer pressure of government targets. But A levels aren’t part of that.

Here the motive is not to get Ofsted off the school’s back, merely to make it look better than the opposition.

An era has just ended, one in which almost every student took AS levels as a half-way step – a useful indicator of A2 success. Ever since Curriculum 2000 was born, I’ve heard of schools refusing to allow sixth-formers to continue with the subject beyond AS if they scored less than a B, or perhaps a C.

So schools preventing students from continuing after lower AS results were manipulating their results and thus their league table position. At least, you might argue, they didn't kick the kid out! Though doing so is arguably a little less dishonest than the other pernicious practice of refusing to enter for the final exam any candidate unlikely to achieve a top grade.

Competition 'engenders wrong behaviours'

Asked about such behaviours 15 years ago, a jocular fellow head remarked to the press, “Top-scoring schools have always shot a few to encourage the others." Clearly, such tactics didn't die with Admiral Byng.

I’m not naive. Though I've never regarded competition between schools as an especially worthy or moral policy for driving up standards, it does have a certain driving force. But it engenders wrong behaviours – such as preventing students continuing to the end of the course following mediocre performance at a half-way assessment point.

Does a school really have to achieve a particular position in the league tables? I can understand the allure but cannot accept it: I fear the thirst for top positions has more to do with the egos of heads and governing bodies than with any competitive necessity for the school.

It’s wrong. Education is for pupils, not the school. Results belong to the student, not the institution: though the school may rightfully bask in the reflected glory of what its candidates achieve.

Perhaps we need a statement from the education secretary to that effect, so that the temptation for schools to achieve stratospheric results at such human cost is proscribed in the public and educational mind.

I might help us to reset our collective moral compass. 


Students need to explore what it means to be popular at school

27th August 2017

Being popular at school doesn't always lead to success in later life, according to new research – and this is something that students should consider, writes Dr Bernard Trafford

August is traditionally the silly season for newspapers, with few real news stories emerging. (August 2017 might prove an exception, with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un appearing all too ready to plunge us all into a nuclear winter. And don’t get me started on Charlottesville and The Trump’s reluctance to condemn racism...)

By contrast, at this stage of the month education news becomes serious and mainstream once more: A-level and GCSE results are in and, after this bank holiday weekend at least, the work of starting the new term gets underway.

Mercifully, this week I came across a story that seemed gloriously irrelevant – till I thought further about it.

“The kinds of skills it takes to be popular are not necessarily the ones that adults need." So reports Rachel Narr, a researcher at the University of Virginia, in the journal Child Development. In brief, kids who are popular at school are not necessarily those best equipped for success in adult life.

Popularity, says Ms Narr, is often achieved by teenagers who adopt "mildly deviant behaviours”. She’s right: be a rebel; drink cider in the park; or, indeed, be good, but something of a maverick, at sport; then you'll be the most popular kid on the block. Nonetheless (and here’s the catch), it won’t equip you for a successful and fulfilling adult life.

On the contrary, Ms Narr reassures us, "Having the experience of a close and trusting relationship is likely to be more meaningful than just having status or being liked by others."

At first sight, this piece of research seemed to me about as revealing as one that conclusively defines the Pope’s denomination, or what bears get up to in the woods.

But then I started to think.

Maybe there is something here that we can usefully remember in schools. I'm not about to identify yet another societal problem and then load it on to schools to solve. But, given the justified current focus on children’s emotional intelligence and resilience, perhaps there is an element in here that schools could afford to stress more strongly.

Cool versus sensible

It's easy, perhaps too easy, for teachers to criticise those who court popularity: we regularly deplore the “get-famous-and-get-rich-quick” celebrity culture (though I doubt pupils pay much heed on that score). We can even quote Shakespeare: Jacques (As You Like It, in his Seven Ages of Man monologue) scorns those who seek attention in crazy ways:

“Seeking the bubble reputation
/ Even in the cannon's mouth."

Perhaps there is indeed something here that we can bring into those personal growth/PSHE sessions. What about getting the students to do a bit of analysis, both in school and at home? To ask, why are some kids popular? Because they’re "one of the lads", pretty, risk-takers, or just cool? How many close friends do those characters have?

Next, why not find older people (parents, grandparents, family friends) settled in a happy and stable relationship? And try to discover: were they the popular, crazy guys at school? Or were they lucky (and sensible) enough to concentrate on forming a few close friendships and relationships? Those are what last and seem to build success in the future.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. We’ve all known “golden students” who are clever, good at sport, good-looking, loved by everyone and well-balanced: sickening. 

Still, the research concluded that the popular characters who display deviant/attention-seeking behaviours are significantly more likely to suffer depression in later life than the “sensible” ones who built a small, lasting circle of close friends. Perhaps these findings might add some strength to that worthy, if unexciting (“boring”, in teenage terms?), argument.

So this research intrigued me, after all. And I can’t resist a provocative afterthought. Shakespeare skillfully nails the ephemeral nature of the “bubble reputation” on two fronts. He both predates this research by more than four centuries and furnishes a potent argument for protecting the teaching of both drama and English literature. 


Pupil Voice is fine if you’re into it. Just don’t make it mandatory for all teachers

20th August 2017

The job of teaching is already tough enough without forcing teachers to treat their pupils like consumers who give 'secret shopper'-style feedback

As the educational world concentrated on A-level results and the effects of changes to exam structures were debated, I found myself struck by something quite different.

Tes reported last Friday on a school where pupils are acting as “mystery shoppers” to report on teachers.

In a balanced piece, Susan Johnson, headteacher of Longfield Academy in Darlington, County Durham, was quoted as saying that staff had nothing to fear and that the “secret shopper” technique was part of a whole-school strategy aiming to “celebrate success and promote sharing of good practice”. She claims that staff feedback has been positive, not least because pupils tend to applaud the quality of the teaching strategies they receive.

In contrast, staff have taken the matter to their unions, which describe the practice as “corrosive”. Tom Bennett, founder director of ResearchED and the DFE’s behaviour management guru, similarly describes such practices as “unhelpful and unhealthy”.

Two (understandably anonymous) Longfield teachers scorned the reassurance from senior staff that there was no pressure, observing that “the minute you hear the words ‘observation’ or ‘secret shopper’…you’re terrified”. There followed some less convincing arguments about how children aren’t experts and can’t identify why a teacher might do something.

So who’s right? And what about “celebrating good practice and taking pleasure in it”? We all know some teachers are so infuriatingly brilliant that any pupil feedback they receive will be uniformly glowing. Life’s not as simple as that for everyone, however. Most of us are less than perfect and have off-days, too.

How Pupil Voice can help

I’m not against using pupils to help improve practice. Back in the days of the London Challenge, School Councils UK – of which I was a trustee – ran a fascinating and valuable piece of work involving Pupil Voice in which pupils acted as observers with the entirely positive aim of helping their teachers.

They discussed beforehand what aspect the teacher wanted them to watch. “How much do I pay attention to every individual student?” was a common one. Other tasks involved simply tracking the teacher’s movement around the classroom. These negotiated collaborations, carefully pre-planned, proved highly successful and contributed to the general improvement in, and sharing of, best practice, that characterised the success of the London Challenge.

Of course, there were difficulties. When the scheme was launched in one particular staff room, a few teachers were indignant. “I’m not having kids watching me teach!” one exclaimed.

Notwithstanding the irony of that complaint, therein lies the difficulty. Pupils watch us all the time and they have a right to expect great teaching. They certainly judge their teachers, but should that judgement be formalised into some kind of performance assessment? That appears inevitable – to teachers, at any rate – when organised by a school’s senior leadership.

An old-school approach

Some teachers are brave enough to ask their pupils to complete questionnaires, asking how well their teaching works for them, what strategies would help them more, what doesn’t add value. It’s splendid when teachers have the confidence to do that, but is it fair to require every teacher to do that?

I think not. I certainly wouldn’t advise that such questionnaires, essentially dialogues between teacher and class, be shared with senior leaders. The process then becomes a form of assessment, performance management, arbitrary judgement and control.

I confess I’m old-school in this. I can already hear my critics warming up and am bracing myself for the consequent Twitter-storm. “Stop mollycoddling these snowflake teachers!” they’ll insist: “Tell them to “man up!” I disagree. The job’s already tough enough without adding further pressure.

The philosophy that’s always worked for me is one based (I hope) on understanding people and being compassionate. We get the best out of teachers – and any other employees – by understanding their human frailties as well as applauding their great strengths. We forget that at our peril.


It’s no longer good enough to do what’s right in your school: you must signpost it, so Ofsted can see

13th August 2017

The all-powerful Ofsted drives a compliance culture in schools, writes one headteacher. You have to be seen to be ticking the pointless boxes, too

It’s that time of year. Secondary school heads, relaxed and bronzed after a summer break, have to start focussing on the day job again. Non-teachers reckon they’ll be enjoying three weeks’ more holiday: we know the truth.

Next week brings A level results: the week after that, GCSEs. Heads and teachers alike will be focussing on the achievements of individual students, hoping they gained much needed and deserved grades.

If only it were that simple! Heads and senior staff will also be urgently considering their overall statistics, hoping they’ll secure their desired position in newspaper league-tables – also that Progress 8 and any other arbitrarily-imposed government measure will suffice to keep Ofsted and government off their backs.

Yes, for heads the holiday is over, any moment now. The pressure swiftly builds once more.

Turmoil and chaos

There will be turmoil, something we’re accustomed to nowadays. At A level, schools and candidates alike are still dealing with the bizarre mix of modular and linear A levels caused by their hopelessly messy phased introduction, thanks to government (really, Gove's) intransigence, plus sheer incompetence.

There will be chaos at GCSE, with new gradings that few understand and, a mix of numeric and letter grades.

Ed Dorrell pointed out on Friday that this year’s results should be something for government and politicians to worry about, rather than schools. If only that were really possible. I reckon schools will still look over their shoulders, wondering what new Ofsted data-quest will come their way.

Back in June, the new Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, issued some strident comments that smacked of common sense. She promised to take a hard look at schools that appear to be chasing exam scores rather than choosing best outcomes for children. Then last weekend she accused schools of becoming too risk-averse, adding that dressing children on a school trip in hi-vis jackets makes them look like mini-construction workers.

She stirred up lively professional debate about the latter. Something in me dislikes the whole idea. On the other hand, children in most schools wear uniform in any case. Moreover, when I was a music teacher in the 1980s, we dressed touring bands or choirs in bright T-shirts: they were easier to spot in the airport or on the ferry. As ASCL’s Geoff Barton commented, I wish I’d thought of the hi-vis solution.

Are schools really risk-averse nowadays? Of course they are. They’re risk-averse when it comes to exam results, too, always mindful of government’s targets, benchmarks, progress measures and its inspectorate.

Ofsted 'part of the problem'

It’s too easy for Ms Spielman to condemn schools that chase points and certificates: but points, remember, don’t only mean prizes. They can also mean survival.

In the 1990s, some schools began developing qualifications that they persuaded government to equate to multiple GCSEs, boosting their GCSE scores enormously. Did they boost children’s employability? Or entry to Higher Education? I doubt it – apprenticeships had just about died back then – but they counted in league tables, and kept Ofsted at bay.

So, while it’s welcome to hear Ofsted’s boss condemning nonsenses, she needs to recognise that Ofsted is part (much?) of the problem.

It remains the enforcer. As if to demonstrate the fact, also at the end of June, Ms Spielman said her inspectors would be checking that schools are doing their bit with regard to the Prevent strategy, genuinely promoting British values rather than merely paying lip-service.

Her unintended message to schools, then?  Don’t just do stuff: make it so obvious that the blindest Ofsted inspector can see what you’re doing. Remember, in 21st century UK education, it’s not good enough to do what’s right: you must signpost it, so everyone knows and Ofsted can check.

Until she can change that state of affairs, I’m unconvinced that any of Ms Spielman’s pronouncements, however well-reasoned, will bear fruit.

Meantime, teachers and heads, enjoy these last few days of freedom.


Focusing only on school data is a dangerous obsession

7th August 2017

Judging schools solely on easily measurable data downgrades other vital aspects of education, writes one celebrated educationalist

Former Liberal Democrat schools minister David Laws believes education policymakers should think things through more, according to a recent interview.

Mr Laws remains a centrist. It’s a relief nowadays to encounter any politician or commentator occupying the middle ground: it’s no longer cool or sexy territory.

Presumably to his surprise, he found himself part of the coalition government, and he claims to have mitigated some of the wilder legislative urges of David Cameron’s first government. He comes across as a pragmatist.

Moreover, given both the general impression that he is well thought of in political circles and the fact that he now heads the Education Policy Institute (EPI, which aims to do for education what the Institute for Fiscal Studies does in its field), he might bring some positive influence to bear.

In that Guardian interview, headlined "The quality of education policymaking is poor", the former minister complained that politicians tend to make decisions based on ideology. The EPI aims to put that right.

Party thinktanks are, almost by definition, an oxymoron: if they’re allied to one school of thought, the thinking is unlikely to be open-minded.

By contrast, theme/subject-based thinktanks are fine: we should welcome the sight of people doing some actual thinking about policy, shouldn’t we? As long as they don’t ally themselves too closely to any particular political school of thought, which they have an unfortunate habit of doing.

Mr Laws boasts that his institute’s research demonstrated that Theresa May’s grammar schools policy would have no significant impact on social mobility: it proved persuasive even with Tory MPs.

He’s also proud of a recent report “which concludes that, while New Labour’s sponsored academies had excellent results, the Tories’ ‘convertor academies’ have failed to raise attainment except where they already had outstanding ratings.”

Any of us working in schools can explain that phenomenon. Those early academies were launched by successful leadership teams and go-getting sponsors: they were well funded, too – spectacularly so in some cases.

Examine every successful early academy, and you can find similar reasons for why they succeeded: rolling the programme out and obliging schools, particularly failing ones, to convert could not hope to have the same effect. But that harsh reality didn’t and doesn’t fit the political rhetoric of “academy good: school/local authority bad”.

More thinking in education

Perhaps government will listen to the EPI. There’s scope for more thinking in education, and I wish the institute and its head every success.

One word of warning, though. David Laws insists that the EPI will be “data-driven, influencing debate by the quality of its analysis and its quantitative skills”. OK, but he’s the man who claims to have devised the schools’ performance measure known as Progress 8.

Mr Laws believes that Progress 8 “incentivises schools to help every single pupil instead of prioritising just a few on the [GCSE] C/D borderline”. He has a point, but judging all schools by inflexible, hard-edged accountability data is a heavy-handed way to run a national system.

Schools, squeezed like toothpaste tubes, may indeed produce figures that satisfy Progress 8 and provide juicy material for the EPI to prove stuff with. But as a result they are too often obliged to downgrade other vital aspects of education.

To take but one example, research for the NUT by King’s College, London (November 2016) found that the English Baccalaureate, combined with the double-weighting of English and mathematics in Progress 8, “is having a profound effect on the hierarchy of subjects within schools, with creative, vocational and technology subject teachers reporting a decrease in examination entry rates, reduced resources and less time being allocated to their subjects” 

My plea to David Laws, then, is this: don’t allow the EPI to convince itself that valuable information about schools lies only in scientifically quantifiable data. If it does, you’ll ensure that policy is based only on what can be easily measured, and that only what is measurable is valued.

We’ve been there so many times; let’s not fall into the trap yet again.


People who disagree with powerful people are demonised – this needs to stop

30th July 2017

I criticised the government's new 'face of teaching' last week, and felt the force of a Twitter backlash – but all I wanted was an informed, courteous and rational debate, writes one celebrated educationalist

Last week, I criticised the new “face of teaching” in the government's recruitment drive – IT teacher Calvin Robinson – for claiming that all teachers are lefties, forcing their views onto their pupils and effectively brainwashing them.

Unsurprisingly there was a Twitter backlash. Describing Mr Robinson as making a gross and unfounded generalisation, I was accused of hypocritically generalising in my turn.

I can take criticism: it’s how social media operates. I was just pleading for reasoned comment and sensible debate, as well as restating my belief that the overwhelming majority of teachers do a thorough and professional job and, despite the many reasons they may have at present for disliking the Conservative government, have no desire to brainwash their pupils. If that was indeed a generalisation, I’m afraid I stand by it, and by my rejection of such denigration of a proud profession.

There’s a history of political machineries singling out particular bodies for vilification.

Way back in early 1990, I attended my first conference on a “future of education” theme: at the time, I’d been appointed to headship, but wasn’t yet in post.

The day was chaired by a then junior education minister, nowadays a senior member of the cabinet. In his opening remarks, he asserted: "Educationalists have been systematically lowering standards for decades." I was gobsmacked to hear an MP speak in those terms, but he clearly felt himself among friends: I twigged (too late) that the event was a right-wing caucus. I was young and naïve back then.

Did power encourage such chutzpah? Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister, the Tories felt fireproof and there was a move among ministers to “take on” the professions and break their power. A few years later I recall Ken Clarke, who moved from education to health secretary, vowing to destroy the medics’ “secret garden”.

Liberal with a little 'l'

OK, the objects of these particular criticisms are Tories. But my long career as a head spans 27 years – including 11 years spent on the council of ASCL, representing school leaders.

Dealing with the Blair government wasn't all plain sailing following its 1997 landslide. Successive (and rapidly-changing) education secretaries – kept “on-message” by what Tes’s great satirical commentator Ted Wragg dubbed “Tony Zoffis” – were keen to talk as long as no one crossed them. Dare to disagree, and the mood turned petulant, the door slammed shut.

Mr Blair’s administration wasn’t above generalisation. Not about teachers, perhaps. But its spin doctors loathed the BBC for its “establishment bias” and, following the Iraq WMD affair and the “dodgy dossier”, put such pressure on BBC governors that they lost both their nerve and their director general, Greg Dyke.

Worthily exposing humbug and incompetence (though hopeless on its own salary structure), the BBC is currently succeeding in upsetting both Left and Right (including Donald Trump): perhaps it’s doing its job correctly, then.

I’m no lefty, nor a Tory. Essentially a centrist, I guess I’m a “small l” liberal (it’s not cool to be that nowadays). A decade ago, Mr Blair and Mr Cameron were fighting for votes over the middle ground: now that’s abandoned in favour of extremes. 

As a result, I belong to that lonely bunch who, choosing a leader for the country in June (though the ballot paper furnishes no such option), would have preferred a box to tick saying "none of the above".

Back to last week’s blog. All I was asking for was an end to the gratuitous demonising of particular groups with whom powerful people disagree. Instead, I was begging for the kind of informed, courteous and rational debate that the best teachers demand of their pupils.

It’s not too much to ask. Is it?


Despite what the right-wing media say, I know of few teachers likely to shout "F*ck the Tories"

23rd July 2017

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of teachers just want to inculcate the spirit of independent-minded criticism in their students, writes one celebrated educationist

Calvin Robinson, an IT teacher in North London recently became the face of government’s new teacher recruitment drive. Unfortunately, his first public statement (presumably not uttered in any official role) was to claim that all teachers are lefties, forcing their Corbynist views onto their pupils and effectively brainwashing them.

Mr Robinson has thus identified himself with the kind of right-wingers who accuse the BBC of consistently peddling left-wing ideologies: rather like those leftists convinced the BBC is a serial broadcaster of fake news and staunch supporter of the Tory establishment.

Mr Robinson’s assertion is one of those airy prejudicial generalisations that, though untrue, is widely accepted because it is oft-repeated by sections of the media.

Before the last election, polls suggested that a majority (though not an overwhelming one) of teachers were likely to vote Labour: hardly surprising. Austerity has bitten under the Coalition and subsequent Tory governments: even Justine Greening, who had appeared more empathetic toward the profession than most education secretaries, failed to stand up to the Treasury last month and has stuck teachers with yet another 1 per cent pay rise.

Nonetheless, sensible teachers understand the need to balance the country’s books. They are probably sceptical of repetitive claims from the left that the deficit is attributable exclusively to vastly rich tax-dodgers: or that taxing the top 5 per cent more heavily will solve the problem. But few “ordinary, hardworking, just-about-managing” teachers (to borrow Theresa May’s adjectives) will readily accept messages about austerity delivered in the crisp, posh tones of successive Tory chancellors.

Good teachers are driven by a desire to develop the young minds in their care – but not to control them. They encourage their pupils to think critically: given the shambles in which this country currently finds its entire political class and system, there’s plenty to think critically about. The teachers I come across up and down the country, in all kinds of schools, aren’t the sort of people who think shouting “F*** the Tories” is an appropriate or valuable form of debate. They’re encouraging their pupils to argue rather more effectively.

When teachers have done their job, which is in the overwhelming majority of cases, their pupils leave their care independent-minded and capable of forming their own opinions: they won’t believe uncritically every single thing their teachers tell them.

Moreover, at a time of teacher recruitment crisis, that kind of nasty denigration being spouted by Mr Robinson, especially from someone who is supposed to be doing something about it, helps no one.


The sheer weight of regulation that schools labour under poses a constant risk to resources for teaching and learning

9th July 2017

The process of retiring (of which I’m in the throes at present) gives rise to such guilty thoughts as: "That’s one problem I won't have to deal with."

I really try not to think that way: it's unfair to those I shall leave behind at the chalk-face. But, as my colleagues prepare to grapple with complex new data protection regulations that come into force next May, I confess to a sense of relief that I’ll be out of it.

I find a mischievous irony in the fact that these are EU regulations. We’re assured that Brexit will give us back control of our own laws and regulations: yet the same data protection regulations will remain in force after our separation from Europe, because our regulators think they’re appropriate and should continue to bind us.

This isn’t about the EU, then, but about the sheer weight of regulation that schools labour under. Take Safeguarding. We all agree we must keep children safe: but doing so involves a significant administrative burden. Concerns about terrorism and radicalisation have led government to devise the Prevent strategy. Who could object protecting children from being brainwashed into following extremist ideologies? But there’s a cost.

Government constantly pushes more responsibilities onto schools. It can slim down its central bureaucracy – as it claims to have done – because it shuffles the administrative burden on down the chain. As government (rightly) sets out to protect employees’ pensions, every school in the country now has responsibility for the pensions of all those employees outside Teachers’ Pensions, involving complex and time-consuming work.

Private schools are nowadays hedged about by regulation. I think the Independent Schools Standards now involve more than four hundred measures. As a result many have appointed full-time compliance officers in recent years. It's a logical step, one you might say independent schools can afford to take.

But it illustrates the direction of travel.  The government’s own schools don't have to satisfy a set of standards in that form, but still bear similar responsibilities for Safeguarding and Health and Safety, not to mention production of copious data for the DfE – and, from next year, Data Protection.

I want my personal data kept safe. I bank online and pay nearly all my household bills in the same way. I have no idea how many firms or websites hold my personal data, so I want to know it’s secure. But at any cost?

Most regulations that bind schools carry with them a duty not only to do what is required but also to prove via a paper-chase that they are doing it. As a result there is a constant risk that resources will be taken away from teaching and learning in order to conform to new, additional requirements. When the new data protection regulations come into force next year, schools will have somehow to find the resources to satisfy them. Otherwise they will face colossal fines, up to four percent of turnover.

It gets worse. This heightened administrative responsibility hits schools at a time when funding is shrinking. If I hear Robert, the DfE’s spokesrobot, monotonously reiterate the statement just once more that government spending on schools has hit record levels, I shall scream.  The figure is higher than ever because there are record numbers of children in schools: nonetheless, cash per pupil in real terms is still shrinking. A financial crisis is growing in our schools.

It is a fault endemic to government that it constantly imposes new measures, structures or regulations on its schools: and it never puts in the additional resources necessary to meeting them. Each has thus the effect of another hidden cut.  

Meanwhile, government turns its blind eye to the funding situation and, as former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan famously didn't, blithely repeats, "Crisis, what crisis?"


In these troubled times, the business of schools must be teaching the young about healing divisions

25th June 2017

Schools have a responsibility to teach the young about supporting one another and show them that it is compassion that really makes the world go round

What a wicked world we inhabit currently. There’s a catalogue of gloom facing us “out there” at present.

We’ve witnessed a spate of terrorist attacks by radical Islamists, and then the attack on Muslims in Finsbury Park by an alleged right-wing white extremist.

Then there was the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a tower block blaze claiming a shocking toll of lives and homes alike, and giving rise to understandably angry questions about corporate greed, austerity and penny-pinching: the disregard for the poor and failings in regulatory enforcement within both local and national government was profound.

Wednesday saw calls for a “Day of Rage” from the Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary. This organisation jumped on the bandwagon of the Grenfell Tower inferno (largely in defiance of the wishes of victims and local inhabitants alike, it would seem), hoping to see a million people take to the streets in order to “bring down” Theresa May’s government. Perhaps the tiny turnout was a reflection of the temperature in the capital that day: a more likely reason, I think, was the fact that ordinary people accept that the election result is legitimate, even if deeply unsatisfactory.

For unsatisfactory it is. We have a minority government or hung parliament (delete according to your political opinions). An arrogant, overconfident prime minister and government called a snap election, only to discover that they had lost the sympathy of a large swathe of the electorate, receiving a political bloody nose as a result. Weakened and lame, the new government cut all the tricky bits out of its Queen’s Speech. Some even seem to believe that the Tories have lost their mandate to govern – which isn’t constitutionally correct, as it happens.

Making sense of a confused world

How can we in schools make sense of this confused world for our pupils, let alone point them towards ways of making it better? A colleague tangled with that very challenge in a school assembly this week.

The first angle to take on all the lies, perhaps, is the observation that we’re not entirely helpless in the face of these difficulties.

From mayhem, murder and disaster emerge stories of great human courage: the heroism of the firefighters in Grenfell Tower; the outpouring of support, kindness and goodwill from local residents there, and from bystanders and witnesses at Westminster, London Bridge and Manchester. Add to that the amazing medics dealing with the casualties (if you missed Tuesday night’s BBC2 programme about how St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, saved lives and worked medical miracles around the clock, I suggest you catch it on iPlayer).

I can’t be the only person irritated by headlines (mostly from observers abroad) describing panic and terror in London. On the contrary, we Brits, moaners and complainers as a rule, tend to prove ourselves stoic in the face of real disaster: resilience, generosity and heroism have been the qualities most in evidence following these tragedies. Above all, though, what has shone through is a determination to get on with normal life – which perhaps explains why so few were prepared, notwithstanding public anger, to join in political agitation or riot.

We shouldn’t underestimate that strength of character, demonstrated not least by the way life carries on as normal. Even the cut-down version of the Queen’s State Opening of Parliament, short of planning time, remained a piece of pageantry and ceremony that few nations can match.

Meanwhile, life goes predictably on. As the south swelters in an unprecedented heat wave, the north suffers thunderstorms and potential floods. And Britain’s (and the world’s) top tennis player goes out in the first round of a major tournament (OK: that was a joke, if true).

Business as usual? Yes. And the business of schools must involve teaching the young about healing divisions, not widening them: supporting one another; giving help and even putting our own safety on the line when others need us; and always appreciating that, as ever, compassion and thoughtfulness for others are what really make the world go round as we would want it to.

It’s not rocket science – creating a humane and caring society never was – it’s both way more simple and much more complicated than that.


Ministers look at the school system like a trainset – and then start meddling

19th June 2017

We can but hope that the latest set of ministers will listen to advice from the sector

My family enjoys a longstanding joke concerning doctors. With many medics among my relations, the rest of us constantly observe how rarely doctors act decisively. “Wait and see!” is more-often-than-not the advice provided – and don’t expect to get an antibiotic unless you are at death’s door!

We churn the old joke out year after year when we’re together. But, of course, it’s not bad advice. I often repeat the so-called Zen Commandment to new heads, Don’t just do something: sit there! People are always keen to bounce us into precipitative action.

It would also be excellent guidance for the Department for Education, now Theresa May’s recent reshuffle has left Justine Greening at the DfE. We might regret the disappearance of former children’s minister Edward Timpson, who lost his seat, a gifted and deeply caring man for whom the vocation to care for children took precedence over party-political lines. Robert Goodwill will take his place, and Anne Milton takes over skills and apprenticeships, replacing Robert Halfon, sacked by the PM.

Milton is a former health minister and Goodwill has previously done transport and immigration: so what do those two bring to education?

That question is always asked when new ministers arrive. What do they know about their new brief? To be fair, they don’t need to be experts on education: but we’d all like them to listen to experts.

Ed Dorrell wrote on Thursday about schools minister Nick Gibb, a long-term DfE fixture. He’s not famous for listening: he has strong views on teaching maths (learning times-tables) and reading (absolute adherence to phonics), and seeks to push those methods onto schools.

They’re not daft ideas in themselves. The problem lies in imposing them as the single desirable solution: they aren’t, not for every child.

Therein lies the danger. Ministers get their train-set to play with, but some are better than others at resisting the temptation to pursue their own pet projects. Did I say pursue? I guess I meant drive through.

It is worth noting that Justine Greening has, as secretary of state, demonstrated a willingness to listen, and appears  to work from the point of view of improving life-chances for children rather than following political dogma. She will be relieved not to be obliged to push through the controversial grammar schools programme:  given the parlous state of Theresa May’s government, that scheme must surely be relegated to the back burner (or further).

Above all, let’s do all we can to ensure that professionals and experts are there to guide and advise these ministers when this weakened government finally accepts that it needs them.

And when they do, let’s hope they pause, listen to our advice and don’t do anything rash.


If younger citizens cast their vote with altruism in mind, they deserve our respect

11th April 2017               

After so much searing political negativity, it’s uplifting to think young people might have renewed hope for a more just society

There’s nothing new under the sun. This General Election seems to have rolled out the same old arguments, accusations and counteraccusations by the major parties. But it has seen two departures. The first, Jeremy Corbyn’s personal triumph, is rolled up with the second, the way in which the campaign reverted to an old-fashioned argument between left or right. The centre ground, skilfully colonised first by Tony Blair and subsequently by David Cameron, was largely abandoned.

I thought I spotted something new a couple of weeks ago in a report about a recently-published book, 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good.

The charity 80,000 Hours is an ethical careers advisory service founded by Oxford University students in 2011: it also boasts links to a Silicon Valley start-up. The book acknowledges – indeed, takes as its starting point – that young people seem increasingly to be seeking jobs in which they can make a difference, improve the lot of others, give something back.

Such aims risk sounding glib and clichéd nowadays: but 80,000 Hours appears to respond to a concern that bright young people (the authors were Oxford students!) are turning away from traditional high-powered professions in order to pursue more philanthropic and ethical goals.

80,000 Hours identifies four strands of work that people can pursue, all of which can attain those noble ends, but not necessarily in the ways people have thought of them conventionally: 

  • earning to give
  • advocacy
  • research
  • direct work.

The fourth strand, direct work, is the one with which the book takes issue. Sure, idealistic young people can go directly into not-for-profit, charitable or social work: but, it poses the question, are you irreplaceable? Will you be any better at it than anyone else? The pathway is contrasted with the first idea, that of earning to give.

Examples are cited of bright young people entering careers like medicine or high finance: these furnish considerable earning power, and the ability to give significant, even substantial, sums on a regular basis to good causes. One 28-year-old doctor is quoted as giving a quarter of his salary to charities. Author Roman Duda recommends, “Some graduates spend a few years working in the corporate sector before they transition into roles with more direct social impact”.

All this makes sense, and is rather cheering, given its positive and altruistic starting point. Moreover, it reflects the zeitgeist, particularly among the young. The swing towards Jeremy Corbyn in recent weeks saw those pledging allegiance to Labour, particularly among younger voters, voting (as ITV’s Robert Peston observed) for an additional £46 billion in higher taxes: though the promise of abolishing university fees cannot be discounted.

Nonetheless, that spirit of altruism is nothing new. The concept of the affluent (and, frequently, the powerful) using their wealth in acknowledgment and fulfilment of their civic duty is as old as the hills.

From my school in Newcastle upon Tyne, I’m two minutes’ walk from two fine examples of altruism. On the old Great North Road there’s a fine 19th Century drinking fountain, erected by public subscription with acknowledgement to the movers and shakers who got it going.

A hundred yards away stands a dedication in the brickwork of a school for the deaf. Again, 150 years ago civic leaders in Newcastle built it by public subscription. To this day the building houses young people with a range of learning difficulties and disabilities, educated under the umbrella of the Percy Hedley Foundation.

Philanthropy is not a new thing, then: but, too often in recent times, society as reflected in the media has appeared ready to praise get-rich-quick desires based on a vapid celebrity culture. Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of creating a more just society failed to impress the majority of the electorate: but, if younger citizens cast their vote in the hope of doing so, they deserve respect.

Similarly, an organisation providing careers advice to some of the country’s brightest students that promotes altruistic approaches even (or particularly) to highly-rewarded careers is impressive. Indeed, after so much searing political negativity, it’s uplifting.

As we wait to see how society fares with an unclear election result, I doubt we shall see much that is either uplifting - or new.


We shall live to regret the EBacc. The damage to other subjects is already being wrought.

27th May 2017     

The Conservatives may have watered down their EBacc target. But it's still too high and other subjects are already feeling the effects, argues one celebrated headteacher

It’s a curious time for anyone working in health or education. In many ways, our public services (like everything else government-run) are on hold, certainly holding their breath and awaiting pronouncements from whichever government is elected on 8 June. In the meantime, public servants such as medics or teachers are frustrated and frequently ham-strung by ministerial and departmental silence while the machinery of government is in “purdah”.

I’ve complained often enough about governments’ insistence on pushing through one initiative after another in education. But, right now, maybe I need, not for the first time, to misquote Oscar Wilde: there’s only one thing worse than government running every aspect of education – and that’s government not running it.

One of the results of this political stasis is that we’re all subject to speculation about what will follow the election. If the Tories win, their manifesto promises to water down the EBacc target from 90 per cent of pupils entering by 2020 to 75 per cent by "by the end of the next Parliament", with 90 per cent of pupils by 2025. This might sound like an improvement, but it’s still way off the mark.

I’ve sounded off about this so many times: I must be at risk of repeating myself. But don’t forget that the shape of this curricular imposition was not determined by experts meeting to negotiate the relative merits of different areas of study. The EBacc was, according to possibly apocryphal rumour, drawn up by Michael Gove and his advisers one Saturday evening, because he needed an idea to impress Andrew Marr with on the Sunday. I’ve never had reason to disbelieve that story.

As it happens, as an example of a balanced range of subjects, EBacc is not bad. The damage is done only when it becomes mandatory, curtailing flexibility and choice. In truth, most of that damage has already been wrought, because government has no need to enact legislation to get its way. It’s already close to achieving its goal merely through imposing benchmarks and floor-targets (through Progress 8) on schools so that few will dare not to put their students through the EBacc. There’s more than one way of skinning a cat, as policymakers know.

Unsurprisingly predictions now suggest that there’s going to be soaring demand for teachers in EBacc subjects, but anticipate the requirement for those in other subjects, particularly the creative ones, dwindling.

Who’s surprised? I’m not: but I am dismayed. The dire predictions of the defenders of creative subjects will indeed come to pass. Scarce resources are being diverted from them to those deemed more important by virtue of their inclusion in the EBacc. Thus is a subject hierarchy effortlessly but arbitrarily created, to the detriment of those at the bottom of the heap.

I fail to understand how any UK government can consciously relegate creative subjects.

The creative industries are bringing vast sums into Britain. Pinewood and other studios, plus British CGI wizards for special effects, now constitute a major centre for filming Hollywood blockbusters. London’s art galleries and theatres provide a richer and more varied cultural life than, I think, any other city in the world. London remains, by the skin of its teeth, the musical capital of the world: though, with funding slashed and fewer and fewer opportunities for children outside the independent sector to become high-level performers, it must soon forfeit that accolade.

Both the potential earning power of creative subjects and their vital role in children’s emotional and expressive education will be sacrificed on the altar of an ill-conceived notion of “standards”. The EBacc was born from a narrow old-school/grammar-school view of the academic, from a sentimental attachment to a bygone model of education long abandoned by the best schools.

We shall live to regret this. But, by the time policymakers wake up to the fact, the damage will be done: the road back will prove arduous, if not imposible.


As teachers we complain about parents – but most are doing the best they can in a difficult world

20th May 2017          

Parents can't it get right – either they want too much for their children, or they don't support enough. But, as teachers we need to cut them some slack, writes one headteacher 

Parents can drive us mad in schools. The trouble is, they just can’t get it right.

They either want too much for their children, or they don’t support them enough. They don’t back us when their child has done something wrong, or by contrast, they insist there is bullying and wickedness involved where a friendship group has simply dissolved.

Ask any adolescent, and you’ll get the same answer – parents haven’t a clue.

But this simply isn't true. I've found the overwhelming majority of parents are committed, well-intentioned and often worried about the pressures, influences and temptations that their children face.

Although you wouldn't believe it from some reports, most are simply doing the best job they can.

In Thursday’s Daily Telegraph: “Are you an accidental pushy parent?” Grant Feller provided a confessional piece concluding that “despite best intentions the urge for children to over-achieve can take over”. 

“We have become a middle-class society riven by guilt, split between those who feel they are not pushing their children enough and those willingly pushing them too hard.”

Really? Naturally, we are concerned about pressure on young people, whether exerted by schools, society, their own ambitions and anxieties or their parents. Young Minds is an organisation doing particularly good work on the mental health agenda and the dangers posed by exams and exam pressures.

We should try not to blame parents for everything. If I look back over the last few years, it seems that every passing criticism from a headteacher of the shortcomings of parents is immediately blown up into a media story.

It’s not just about pushy parents, either. A primary head near me advised parents that they really shouldn’t attend school events such as nativity plays in their pyjamas. She made a fair point – they shouldn’t. For months afterwards she became “The head who banned pyjamas”. She wasn’t indulging in parent-bashing, but you might have got that impression from the reporting of her very measured letter.

As schools become increasingly concerned about children’s addiction to digital devices, a consensus is emerging that right use of the technology starts in the home, with devices banned from the bedroom, a shared charging point elsewhere, and parents themselves surrendering their phones at the dining-table.

It’s just good parenting. But when we promote such an approach, let’s avoid suggesting that all parents are currently setting a bad example.

Then there are the other types of parents lambasted in the media, again picking up on comments by headteachers. So we castigate “helicopter parents” who, as soon as there is a problem in school, arrive like a SWAT team to do battle: overbearing parents; feckless parents; parents who, amid affluence, neglect their kids. It seems none of them can get it right.

Let’s return to the Telegraph piece. To be sure, there’s a story of attempted suicide and self-confessed pushy parents who realised they must step back and stop being so ambitious for (and demanding of) their children. Overall, it’s a balanced, well-judged piece: nonetheless the headline screams “pushy”.

As another generation of parents deal with this year’s intensive exam period, can we back off and cut them a bit of slack? Even afford them some credit for the good that they do, and the well-meaning and selfless ways in which they support their children through a difficult time?

Maybe we should, and simultaneously avoid cranking up the pressure on them.

Finally, a note to the Telegraph: was it necessary to insert into the article an information box with six “exam tips to tell your teenagers”? Not one of them, by the way, was about reducing pressure or stress. They were all about assuring more successful exam performance. 

At least they can’t blame that bit on the parents.


There's more to cultural capital than just teaching kids to hold their own in "the club"

13th May 2017 

Developing a child's cultural awareness is important, but we shouldn't be doing it just so they can hold conversations with the 'top-job' people from the 'top universities', writes one headteacher

Under a clumsily-contrived headline in last week’s Sunday Times, State schools mount charge of the poetry brigade, it was reported: “Some of England’s leading state schools are creating lists of up to 100 great poems and books that all pupils must study, 100 pieces of classical music they should listen to and key dates and narratives in British history to memorise”.

The 14 schools in the Inspiration Trust, based in East Anglia, have drawn up these must-know lists. It’s a reasonable strategy: nearly 40 years ago, I was a music teacher and my department religiously covered some 50-60 seminal classical works with all our Year 7-9 pupils. Our argument was: if we don’t cover this element of our Western European cultural history, who will?

Rhyme and reason

There’s nothing wrong with getting kids to learn poems by heart: Jeremy Corbyn’s criticism reference in response, of “rote learning” was ill-judged: there’s a difference.

Moreover, this scheme chimes with current Ofsted thinking. According to Amanda Spielman: “What matters for most young people isn’t grade stickers from exams but the substance of the education they receive. Education is the great force for human advancement and the advancement of civilisation”.

Amen to that: I hope she reminds the government of it when policymakers insist on cranking up academic benchmarks 

There will be inevitable disagreements about inclusions and omissions in such lists of “must-knows”. I’m not concerned about them, and agree with Jo Saxton, CEO of the Turner Schools academy trust: “It almost does not matter as long as we are all exposing children to work that has stood the test of time”.

Still, some aspects cause me unease. I’m uncomfortable with some of the reasons cited for devising this cultural canon.

Inspiration Trust boss Dame Rachel De Souza claims a passion to deliver “an education as good as the education kids get at Eton and Harrow...our children need to know what people in the club know”.

Catherine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School in North London, adds, “If you do not have cultural capital you can’t...hold conversations with the kind of people who hold top jobs or go to top universities”.

Dancing to a new tune

I find those poor justifications for developing children’s cultural capital. I doubt that many of the über-confident young products of top private schools are conversant with 100 poems, books or compositions, and implying that such knowledge defines “the club” (whatever that is) is misleading. If it’s dilettantes and name-droppers you want to create, buy those hilarious Bluffer’s Guides, still in print. Social capital is rather deeper.

I’m unconvinced by Burbalsingh’s justification for including William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, a ponderous piece of Victoriana to my mind, just because it inspired Nelson Mandela. But perhaps I’m completely wrong. Perhaps it’s worthy of inclusion precisely because of its connection to a man who changed the world.

That’s the point: defining cultural capital is fraught with pitfalls. Teaching music, I didn’t meet children part-way (an approach commonly suggested) by playing them familiar music: the classics I introduced them to were new and strange to most.

Should I have identified works that have since become modern classics? Back then, Morrissey, U2, Abba, Queen and others were building global and lasting reputations, but I didn’t cover them in class: did that matter?

In multi-cultural 21st century Britain, we tread a tightrope between two risks: those of cultural imperialism (“This is the Western European canon you must absorb”) and of patronisingly paying superficial lip-service to every other cultural tradition that we encounter in Britain – now innumerable.

Observing how many cultures and backgrounds my pupils inhabit simultaneously, I’m jealous: a middle-class white Anglo-Saxon, I’m a pretty boring guy by comparison.

Heart over dread

We need to be careful here, and ensure we’re clear about our motivation. Nonetheless I rejoice in this opportunity, at long last, to debate sincerely and self-critically what we mean by the cultural capital schools seek to pass on to pupils.

The Sunday Times piece left the last word to John Sutherland, emeritus professor of English literature at UCL: “I’m in favour [of children learning poetry] – with the proviso that they call it “learning by heart”, not “rote”: the heart matters where poetry is concerned.”

Where all of cultural capital is concerned, surely the heart matters above all.


Just what teachers need: another school yard craze - Fidget Spinners

5th May 2017

They might be so annoying that they risk the professions’ collective blood pressure, but keep your cool: fidget spinners will soon be forgotten, says one headteacher

As if teachers needed any further annoyance. They’re fuming over Tory party statements that about funding, grammar schools, the Ebacc and the rest. Key Stage 2 Sats and the summer season of GCSE and A levels are around the corner, heralding the pressures of targets and benchmarks on top of a rather old-fashioned-sounding concept that still drives us: that of busting a gut to do our best for and with our pupils.

Parliament has packed up for the election, providing perhaps one small form of relief to those sweltering in the sweatshop that is education: until 9 June there can surely be no more initiatives or directives winging their way from Westminster to schools.

Nonetheless, if you thought things might be quiet for a while, think again. Another form of annoyance is arriving from an entirely different direction: a new craze is sweeping schools.

Fidget spinners: have you seen them? Brightly coloured and triangular, with bearings in a finger-hole at each corner, they offer children endless opportunities for fiddling, whirling them round and, for the most skilful operators, showing off their skills with them to impress their mates.

I can almost hear teachers’ teeth grinding up and down the country as they encounter the latest thing to tell their pupils to stop doing.

Conflict is inevitable. “But, miss/sir: it’s known that fidget spinners help people with anxiety, stress, and possibly those with ADHD and other SEN.” Some marketing whiz will have concocted such a justification: but don’t be fooled. Their raison d’etre is to annoy.

Keep calm and remember clackers

So what should we do about it? If you can manage it, my advice is to do nothing – because if we don’t, the collective blood pressure of the profession will reach hitherto unforeseen heights.

We’ve been here before. Crazes such as these are as old as the hills. (For example, I go back to the days when mobile phones were new – and very noisy.)

Who remembers clackers? Some three decades ago (I guess) they were the must-have for kids. With two balls on the end of plastic arms, I could never work them: but they clacked and whirred and spun, and were noisy, distracting and hugely irritating.

Against all the odds, one child somewhere succeeded in fracturing their wrist as a clacker flicked backwards. The Health and Safety risk these toys posed was enough to get the profession up in arms.

The more we worry about health and safety issues, the more they seem to be encouraged.

Similarly, I’ve never banned conkers, though nowadays that ancient, innocent pastime is almost forgotten in most schools case. I always suspected that arguments against conkers had less to do with hazard than with cleaners driven to screaming point by horse-chestnut shards all over every floor. With that, one must sympathise.

Forget the banning orders

Some will not be able to restrain themselves. Instruct your pupils to put their fidget spinners away. Confiscate them, if you must: even take a heavy hammer to them. But don’t waste time inventing reasoned arguments for banning irritants.

They’re distracting, they interrupt learning, and the kids are using them to annoy us. Keep it simple, keep your temper and retain your sanity.

Until the next craze.


All politicians too often identify something that works in one school and insist on replicating it everywhere

30th April 2017

There is no universal solution to policymakers’ demands, writes one headteacher. Diversity in schools must be encouraged: but legislating to make it happen won’t work 

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has concluded that “the system for funding new [free] schools and new places in existing schools is increasingly incoherent and too often poor value for money”. It reckons secondary free school places cost 51 per cent more than places provided by local authorities (LAs), primaries 33 per cent.

In some ways, those figures are misleading. New schools are expensive: until they’re full, the cost of building or converting premises and even of management is disproportionate to the small number of pupils.

The government has set itself a target of creating 500 free schools by 2020, based on an estimate that 420,000 new school places are needed. New schools are required, and the government is wedded to its free schools programme as the means of delivery.

Meeting the shortfalls

Historically, LAs provide their communities with education services within a democratic framework: nowadays they’re permitted to do very little. The Blair government started slashing back LAs: the Tories continued it.

Thus LAs, though busy (panic-stricken, even) trying to address the shortage of school places, aren’t actually allowed to build new schools. They have to persuade established schools and/or Multi-Academy Trusts to open free schools.

A small number of free schools and university technology colleges (UTCs) have made headlines (understandably) after failing to attract enough pupils to be viable: a few others have spectacularly failed, OFSTED damning and even closing them. At such times, free schools’ opponents crow and deplore wasted money.

But there’s a disconnect between the PAC’s national overview and successful individual examples.

I’m privileged to be involved with a single-form-entry primary free school in Benwell, one of the poorest wards in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (where I run an independent school). I witnessed the fragile early stages of a fledgling school, housed for four years in temporary buildings while government, national and local, squabbled over the site for a new building.

The visionary founder-chair of West Newcastle Academy (WNA), Shelagh Keogh, a senior lecturer in computing at Northumbria University, emphasises the freedom the free school’s status gives it to pursue a distinctive vision (having convinced the DfE of that vision):

“We now have 102 pupils across four year groups and are probably full for September. Much of that is because parents, staff and governors are all encouraged to fully support, engage and contribute to our school. Word-of-mouth publicity and the visual evidence of our success, observed by visitors, have embedded us in the community.  

Free schools are permitted to break the circle of practice: we don’t just reflect on good practice from around the world (we draw on Reggio Emilia principles), but capture it and put our beliefs and values into actions that produce results for children.  

Free schools can make a significant difference to communities trapped in social stagnation and low aspirational life goals. Good free schools that are making a difference should be encouraged and given the resources to booster the passion that’s too easily squeezed out by processes and politics. The challenge for the future of free schools will be to demonstrate differences and impact on children’s achievements.”

Now firmly established and about to move into its own new building, WNA is ready to play its part in addressing the shortage of school places, form a MAT and open further primary schools. Its expertise lies in the kind of deprived areas where there is a transient population of needy families and refugees and children come with few home advantages.

It’s not a unique formula for success: but it’s proven to work. As a school in its own right, WNA is a joy to work with, its busy, engaged, articulate children desperate to come to school in the mornings and reluctant to leave at the end of the day.

Politicians of all complexions too often identify something that works in one place and insist on replicating it everywhere: but there is no universal solution to policymakers’ frustration. Blanket approval or condemnation from government committees is similarly unhelpful.

This administration claims to support diversity in educational provision. But it’s almost impossible to legislate for diversity: legislation naturally tends to enforce uniformity.

Those seeking solutions to the shortage of school places are caught in the midst of this contradiction: that’s helpful to no-one.


I'm convinced: mental health must be on the curriculum and teachers need to realise their essential role in teaching it

23rd April 2017

Yes, we try to cram too much into the curriculum, writes one celebrated head. But mental health isn’t just anything: it’s essential

Perhaps I only follow nice people on Twitter, but I’m struck by how often tweeters combine sympathetic humanity with mischievous humour. Take Tuesday: Prince Harry, with his brother and sister-in-law, launched their bid to improve mental health among young people.

The day after a bank holiday is normally a quiet news day – ideal for breaking a big story, so they chose well. Unfortunately, the prime minister chose the same day for her announcement of a general election. As a tweet I enjoyed noted, “that worked well, then.”

Actually, it did. The royals succeeding in making waves. The mental health agenda is a bandwagon starting to roll. It needs to.

Indeed, there’s an aspect of this powerful imperative on which I’ve been forced to change my mind. Hell, if Theresa May can u-turn, it's no big deal if a long-in-the-tooth headteacher has a change of heart.

I have signed the petition launched by the Shaw Mind Foundation demanding that the government makes mental health education compulsory in primary and secondary schools.

Fighting the stigma

I didn't do that lightly. Anyone who reads my Tes blogs will know that I am driven to fury every time government or a pressure group decides that schools should take on the task of tackling yet another social ill. I disapprove strongly of cramming more and more into the school curriculum.

With mental health, though, it all comes together. For too long our society, of which schools are a reflection, has been frightened to go there. The stigma remains powerful: and if students and parents have been frightened to talk about such issues, teachers have been equally reticent in engaging with them.

It’s changing, finally. Prince Harry's statement – that he had suffered such distress because he had never talked about the loss of his mother when he was 12 – is important because bereavement is something that can strike any of us.

We may convince ourselves that other mental issues – anxiety, lack of self-esteem, eating or behavioural disorders, the whole gamut indeed – are things that “only happen to other people”, but bereavement is part of the human condition. So Prince Harry, in talking so honestly about his troubles, has engaged with every member of the human race – an important step.

Presumably it was orchestrated: but significantly recently The New York Times published an open letter from 35 clinical psychologists and clinical psychiatrists calling for compulsory mental health education in schools.

The founder of Shaw Mind Foundation, Adam Shaw, is a businessman who has huge success despite significant mental health difficulties. It is his passion, above all, that has led to the petition gaining well over 60,000 signatures already. Adam and I met a couple of months ago, and we argued. I was rehearsing my old grievances, listed above, about things being shoehorned into the school week.

After all, schools are already concentrating hard on, for example, helping children to build the resilience necessary to render them successful learners and, ultimately, adults who can cope with life’s slings and arrows. So do we need that petition 

We could be heroes

It wasn't Adam alone who convinced me. The government's initial response to the petition was the kind of answer I might normally be pleased to read:

“We want mental health to be an everyday concern in all institutions. Schools should decide how to teach pupils about mental health developing their own curriculum to reflect the needs of their pupils.”

Amen to that. We don't a Westminster apparatchik telling us what to teach and how.

But in this case, absolutely against the usual thrust of my thinking, I believe that, however we determine best to teach the necessary knowledge and understanding of mental health to the children in our individual schools, there should be a degree of compulsion which insists that we don't just sit there and discuss it, but (me as much as you) get off our backsides and do something.

Adam said on Tuesday’s BBC News: “Teachers need to be our heroes in this.” He was right 

We can argue later about the details of how we frame any compulsion and satisfy its requirements. For now, please just sign the petition.


For just a few days this Easter, dear teachers, please step away from the workload

13th April 2017

One thing I’ve learned recently about writing and blogging on education. If you want to be widely quoted and vigorously retweeted, make a strong traditionalist statement: and if possible, sound exceedingly grumpy about it.

I should know! A couple of weekends ago my Tes blog applauded recent research debunking the idea of delaying the start of the school day in order to accommodate teenagers’ sleep habits. Okay, so my advice to youngsters took the tone, “That’s life. Deal with it!” But I wasn’t actually irritable. Nonetheless, my piece was accompanied by a stock picture of me looking uncharacteristically miserable, and the piece gained a fair bit of traction.

I thought it would be amusing to see what the senior end of my school thought of the idea in an assembly on the following Monday morning. I based my homily on the presumption that at least half of them, being teenagers, would naturally be in sympathy with the idea of starting later. Hardly a hand went up when I asked they question. I should be gratified, I guess, that they’re apparently so keen to get to school: but it wrecked a talk (not my most inspired one, I confess), which was designed to be relatively challenging on the topic but still light-hearted.

The Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon (a former Headmaster of Harrow School) fared better in many ways when interviewed about his forthcoming book, Much Promise. In it he apparently castigates dads who want to be their son’s best friend instead of instilling discipline and structure in his life.

Boys should also spend less time on their digital devices, according to another quote from the book. In response, Neil Roskilly (General Secretary of the Independent Schools Association) mischievously tweeted: “My 10-year-old has just emailed me to say he disagrees [with Lenon]”.

It's unsurprising, perhaps, that such stern criticism from a high-profile ex-head who now leads the umbrella group for all independent schools was picked up in many other media outlets. Who can blame them? My only resentment arises, I suppose, from the fact that his was a much more combative message than mine: yet media reports adopted a cheery picture of him grinning broadly and sporting a brightly-coloured college scarf. By contrast the Tes currently seems to pick an old and grumpy picture of me to accompany my blogs.

Neil Roskilly’s comment reminded me that wrongful use of devices by youngsters is not an entirely new thing. One afternoon some 16 years ago, if I calculate correctly, I received a text at about 2.45. It was from my younger daughter, enquiring when I was taking her home that day. I replied giving a time, and then enquired, “How come you’re texting? Aren’t you in a lesson?”

“Yeah”, came the response. “But it’s only maths. And it’s boring.”

It wouldn’t be so bad, I guess - but for the fact that I was the Head of her school.

Still, the story ends well: she ultimately became a teacher.

So, for this week, you’ll get no sermons from me on the importance of good quality sleep, nor of early bedtimes and early rising. Nor another criticism of swingeing government cuts, nor yet of all the other perils and pressures facing schools up and down the country.

So now we’re well into April, and even the hardier schools (including mine) have finally finished term. This is the single week in April when, I think, all English schools are on holiday.

So for a week, colleagues, forget about feckless parents, digitally-addicted teenagers, new GCSE grades and funding crises. Get some sun, get some rest, and have a good one!


To confuse truancy with the odd holiday seems to me heavy-handed and even oppressive'

8th April 2017

Our legislature deciding on the nature and style of exams or parents' rights to take their child on holiday during term-time represents grotesque misuses of function and time

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Jon Platt – who took his daughter out of school in order to take her on holiday – finding that the Isle of Wight Council was correct to fine him.

On 24 April, MPs will debate the new closed-book exams for GCSE literature after more than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for texts to be allowed in the exam room.

This democratic country is ruled and governed by the MPs whom we elect. Their excesses in turn can be curbed by the presence of the Supreme Court. I have no problem with either of those facts.

But should the legislature determine the nature and style of an exam for 16-year-olds? Is it the place of the highest court in the land to decide on parents’ right (or not) to take their children on holiday in school time? To me, both represent grotesque misuses of their function and time.

The law has, since 1944, obliged parents to see that their children are educated (not necessarily in school, by the way): again, I’ve no reason to disagree with that law. Nor do I object to local authorities prosecuting parents who fail to ensure their children’s attendance at school: we must protect the right of the child to a proper education.

But to confuse truancy with the odd holiday seems to me heavy-handed and even oppressive.

Call me a wishy-washy liberal (I’m proud of being one): but these are quite different and separate issues, which should not be lumped togeth

You could argue that the Supreme Court’s judgement (if you read the small print) merely upholds the fact that the Isle of Wight Council issued the penalty notice properly: it didn’t actually tangle with the rightness or otherwise with the law lying behind the penalty notice.

Mr Platt commented that the verdict would mean “that regularly attending school means attending every day whenever the school demands it – 100 per cent attendance”.

That government’s natural tendency towards nanny-statism is turning into Big Brother authoritarianism disturbs me.

Indeed, it worries me almost as much as the thought of parliamentary time being given to debate how we sit an English Literature exam.

By no stretch of the imagination should our legislature determine a small detail like this: so, if the scale of that petition imposed a legal obligation on Parliament to debate that issue, the law has become an ass.

Time was when exam boards used to listen to the professionals, the teachers and school leaders who prepare children for those exams. Now boards are browbeaten by ministers and civil servants.

That’s bad enough: but what do MPs know of the detail of exam procedure, let alone the study of English Literature?

What will follow? MPs debating the size and shape of scalpels that surgeons use?

Let’s invite their views (which might be legally binding) on other issues of public service: how long should a fireman’s hose be? Should every police officer be trained to say “’Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello!” and bend their knees three times before accosting any suspected criminal?

We could go further: once they’ve debated it, hold a referendum on the detail. Let’s ask the people what they think about open- or closed-book exams. If there’s a narrow result, we can argue about it for ages.

When I was first a headteacher in 1990, Ken Clarke (now the poster-boy for Remoaners) was education secretary. He proved a bully-boy, but mercifully moved rapidly on to health where he complained that doctors treated the NHS as a “secret garden” whose gate he quickly kicked open.

It’s been downhill ever since. Yet another former previous education secretary, Michael Gove, derided “experts” during the Brexit campaign. Government scorns professionals: it wants apparatchiks.

It’s been a bad week for education: the implications for the future of such interference in exams and denial of parental responsibility will be severe and damaging.

It might have been better if MPs had debated a history exam instead. But then, politicians never learn from history.

Letting teenagers start late? Routine is something they have to learn – deal with it

2nd April 2017

New research finally debunks the myth that a later school start time would benefit teenagers' learning, writes one headteacher

Well, that’s a relief. The Center for American Progress, a US thinktank, was the latest body (in 2016) to propound the theory that teenagers would learn better if they started school later.

I confess that I was worried as the evidence appeared to mount up: my gut feeling was that it was spurious science, and that we would do our pupils a disservice if we decided to fit the school day around kids who can’t get out of bed.

So I welcome the publication of new research, far more authoritative, which finally debunks that myth.

According to a TES article earlier this week, “academics from Surrey University and Harvard Medical School … argue that delaying school times would simply cause most teenagers’ internal clocks to drift later, and in a matter of weeks they would find it just as hard to get out of bed”.

I’m sympathetic to those who aren’t natural early risers. I’m not one who catches the worm, and find the winter grind of arriving at work before it’s light pretty depressing, particularly when it’s dark again by 4pm (which just goes to show how gritty and resilient we Northerners are).

I’ve never been one of those macho school leaders who’s first into school and last out. I reckon I put the hours in: but not by being at my desk at sparrow’s fart.

Conversely, at my advanced age, I don’t actually sleep well: at this late stage of term (schools are still working up in the North East), my brain’s so overloaded that I feel I spend half the night awake: when the alarm goes off, I’m asleep again, trying to catch up.

They'd just go to bed even later...

I’m sharing my middle-aged angst only to show that I can empathise with those who hate getting up. Nonetheless, my instinct chimes with this new research: starting late would mean finishing late, so teenagers would simply go to bed even later.

Adolescents, fighting hormones and who knows what else, are unlike other beings: but they are not so different from the rest of us that we should feel obliged to create a discrete timetable for them.

Currently anticipating the joy of retirement, I’ll enjoy liberation from the tyranny of the alarm-clock and work schedule: after 39 years at the chalk face, I think
I’ve earned that luxury. But the routine of work (and, come to that, school) is something we just have to live with. Deal with it.

I’m susceptible to light. I was starting to wake up early, with the dawn, until the clocks went forward last Sunday: Monday morning suddenly felt dark and cheerless again.

As it happens, the Surrey/Harvard researchers had something interesting to say about light. The later teenagers stay up, the more they use lights, and stare at screens. They would do better, say the researchers, to have brighter illumination during the day and turn the lights down (and screens off) at night.

As Tes reported: “The analysis took into account factors such as whether someone is naturally a morning or evening person, the effects of natural and artificial light on body clocks and the typical time of an alarm clock."

Even accounting for variables, they found that too much light and screen time in the evening adversely affects sleep. That matches precisely the growing body of research into sleep and mental health: poor sleep is linked to poor mental health.

“An hour before midnight is worth two after,” my old Mum used to say. Have scientists carried out all that research just to prove the bleedin’ obvious?

Maybe: but it’s true and, if nothing else, they’ve nailed a silly lie based on dodgy science.

If they get enough sleep at the right time, teenagers indeed can get up and into school – and learn better, too. So that’s the next challenge for schools and parents!

QED. I’m a whole lot happier.

Still, come the weekend, it’ll be good to have a lie-in…


To euphemistically use the term "efficiencies" is insulting to those desperately trying to square the education funding circle

26th March 2017

If government keeps demonstrating how little it values teachers by encouraging cost-cutting and underpaying, we'll see an acceleration of already declining recruitment

Writing from my privileged situation in the independent sector, I find my heart bleeds for my colleagues in the government’s schools up and down the country who are facing a funding crisis.

As this allegedly fairer new national funding formula comes into play, some schools will get more: just about everyone I meet seems to be expecting to get less.

The government’s spokesrobot as usual issues platitudes, reminding us that there will be winners and losers.

This is far too serious an issue to be likened to a gameshow. Moreover, even the alleged winners are still being asked to do the impossible, to run schools successfully without sufficient funding to do it. It’s not helpful to insist you’re cutting the cake more fairly when the cake isn’t big enough in the first place.

Commentators pile in to add their twopenny-worth. One letter in The Times roused me to fury. Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute observed that the government had a choice: either to “find additional funds” or to “ask schools to find significant efficiencies”.It’s time we nailed the lie behind the oft-repeated euphemism “efficiencies”.

This insidious use of language, consciously employed by policymakers, avoids the ugly word cuts, with all its emotive connotations.

“Efficiencies” suggests that there’s always fat that can be trimmed: that schools can manage more efficient procurement; that they’ll always be overstaffed somewhere; and that senior staff are wasting money on first class travel, expensive training or other fripperies.

But it’s not true: to refuse to tell the truth, employing instead that silly euphemism, is insulting to those desperately trying to square the funding circle.

Is cutting the number of subjects available “an efficiency”? To offer fewer choices to young people is an option presented almost as a virtue. Who needs creative subjects? Go utilitarian and get back to basics: we Brits just love the basics.

Now that academies aren’t bound by teachers’ national pay scales, it’s surely “efficient”, even virtuous, to see how low a salary they can get away with: screw the workforce down and pay them as little as possible.

One of the cunning plans already creeping into some schools and colleges is to drop the term teacher and talk instead about trainers or coaches. Change the name, and you don’t have to pay them as proper professionals. Forget the fact that some institutions cannot find maths teachers, not for love nor money.

We’re frequently assured that the “gig economy” is the way forward. We shouldn’t pay people salaries to laze about in school holidays: just pay them for hours worked. It’s direct, a proper concentration on value for money. And when you cut subjects you naturally get rid of swathes of expensive teachers.

There are both a practical and a moral dilemma here. If, by encouraging cost-cutting and underpaying, government keeps demonstrating how little it values teachers, we will witness an acceleration of already declining recruitment, storing up a massive problem for the future.

The moral problem concerns me still more. By claiming some kind of virtue in squeezing down teachers’ pay and reducing the quality of their terms and conditions, the nation will show that it no longer regards teaching as a profession to join and in which to grow.

Career teachers don’t do the job just for love, though it is a vocation: they have homes and families and work to put food on the table.

If we really want dedicated teachers to prepare lessons, to mark and to go beyond the mechanical delivery of pre-packaged lesson plans (a dismally utilitarian option sometimes suggested by policymakers), we need to provide career pathways – and security.

Just as teachers have a duty to their children, their employers have a duty to them.

We read much about the current prime minister’s desire to ensure that the rights of workers are protected and enshrined: that their employers treat them decently. At the same time, there is a significant danger that the government’s own schools are being pushed in quite the opposite direction.

Teachers deserve better. So, above all, do the children in their care.

The scale of mental health issues in young people is not quite a crisis. But it will be if the government doesn't reach into its pocket.

19th March 2017


Mental health counsellors should not be a "luxury" that can be axed as the funding cuts in the state sector bite

Once again this week I was asked by local media to give a quote on mental health in schools: once again I was asked, “Is there a crisis?”

I’m always nervous of sounding like Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan who famously didn’t comment, “Crisis? What crisis?”  But such emotive vocabulary is unhelpful.

There are significant problems with mental illness among young people, and many schools are struggling to cope. A BBC report this week trumpeted: “Schools must do more on mental health, say School Reporters”. Half of teenagers with mental wellbeing issues try to cope alone: and a third said that they were insufficiently confident to speak to a teacher.

That makes hard reading: but it’s not all bad news. The BBC’s researchers found that, of 1000 11-16-year-olds questioned, 70% had experienced negative feelings in the past year: nonetheless 86% described themselves as happy overall.

As for finding someone trustworthy to talk to confidentially, while 18% described the help schools offer as poor, 66% reckoned it was good, and half said there was an allocated teacher they could talk to.

Almost three quarters of teachers (700 were polled) said they would often or occasionally worry about a particular pupil’s wellbeing in their free time. Over a third said they had received no training on how to deal with pupils’ mental health issues, and a quarter said they wouldn’t know what to do: but that suggests that a two-thirds to three-quarters feel neither untrained nor helpless.

Panic or kneejerk reactions are counterproductive. We need to keep things in proportion, identify the scale of the problem with more accuracy than hitherto and plan responses.

Back in January, the Prime Minister announced plans to transform attitudes to mental health, particularly among the young: her plans (sketchy at best at this stage) include better links between schools and health professionals, and the provision of mental health first aid training for every secondary school. It’s progress, though the target of reaching a third of teachers with training in the first year is modest.

A Green Paper, Children and Young People’s Mental Health, is due in the autumn: it’s important that education and health professionals make their voices heard in its formulation, long before the consultation stage. There are plenty of players in the field, and it seems at present that No. 10 is prepared to listen.

Here I must, as ever, declare an interest, in that I head an independent school: but my sector has a great deal to contribute to this work. Parts of the independent sector are leading the way in devising not only interventions for children suffering from mental ill health but also effective approaches to character education and helping young people to develop resilience.

While we can never entirely eradicate mental illness (because illness of every sort will always be with us), we can equip children and young people to cope better with the slings and arrows of outrageous adolescent fortune, so they can take failure and knock-backs in their stride rather than allowing them to become triggers for depression, anxiety or other illness. As my friend Dick Moore of the Charlie Waller Trust tirelessly says, it’s about helping them to dance in the rain or, even more vividly, to bend in the hurricane rather than snapping in the gale.

I currently chair HMC’s Wellbeing Working Group, an assortment of member heads guiding the association’s response to this very live issue. Recent HMC conferences have tackled mental health issues head on, even braving and facing down the inevitable media headlines about “Private Schools’ Mental Health Crisis” (that word again!). We know that solid work, proactivity and the sharing of best practice are helping us to lead the way.

The better resources of the independent sector allow us the time, space and ability to employ our own professionals (such as counsellors), “luxuries” (which shouldn’t be so designated) that the government’s own schools, struggling with swingeing funding cuts, are hard pressed to match.

There isn’t a crisis – yet. But the problem is undoubtedly out there, and is not getting any smaller. Concerted action is vital and government will have to reach into its pocket if together we are to find solutions.


Learning outside the classroom builds character and helps children thrive - it can't become the preserve of independent schools

11th March 2017 

'Real education' is about developing rounded, resilient individuals who also happen to score best when it comes to those necessary certificates

I coined a new educational term this week: entwiculum.

I know: it won’t catch on. It’s a rubbish portmanteau word (pace Lewis Carroll), but will serve for the purpose of this blog.

It was inspired by two things happening in quick succession. First, earlier this week Warwick Mansell was writing in the TES about how he prayed he would never have to applaud the kind of alleged “hero head” who goes into a struggling school and gains plaudits for the single task of turning around its exam results.

I share his view. The danger in concentrating solely on results is that we too easily forget what real education is about. “Real education” – I’ll stick my neck out and use that term.

For education is about the whole person, not about qualifications gained.

Moreover, it’s rounded, resilient individuals who score best when it comes to those necessary certificates.

There: I’ve said it. It’s about resilience and building the whole character.

Earlier this week, at a fundraising bash on the 28th floor of Millbank Tower, I was listening to the charismatic and visionary founder of The Challenger Trust, Charlie Rigby.

Heads as long in the tooth as I am will remember Mr Rigby as founder of World Challenge Expeditions, an organisation that, a quarter of a century ago, set the standard for character-building expeditions.

Young people were expected to raise the cost themselves for the expeditions by getting stuck in and working to do it. And, as well as facing personal physical challenges on Kilimanjaro, in the Himalayas or the jungles of Malaysia, they were required to complete a service element, working in orphanages and other needy spots.

Mr Rigby sold on that business many years ago. Now, his Challenger Trust is a multi-academy trust (MAT), and he’s also busy helping to provide what he describes as the glue between independent and state schools as they seek (regardless of current government pressure) to engage in really meaningful joint working.

Mr Rigby’s vigour and sense of mission are undiminished: this is scarcely surprising, since the imperative driving him is as powerful as ever.

If Charlie’s expeditions once involved exotic trips, his work with the Challenger MAT seeks to give children life-changing experiences outside the classroom at very modest cost.

And now he’s out actually to prove that what’s learned outside the classroom builds the character that helps children to thrive in it.

The curriculum and extracurricular life are inextricably entwined, he said: hence my suggestion (not an entirely serious one) that we might usefully start talking about entwiculum.

Mr Rigby has enlisted the help of the Relational Schools Foundation’s executive director, Dr Robert Loe, to produce a report that makes compelling reading.

Studying outcomes from a trip to the Pyrenees in which Challenger Schools’ children learnt to ski, drive dog-sleds and get about in snowshoes (new experiences to all), they found on average a 50 per cent increase (my rounded figure) in such aspects of character as children’s sense of the importance of working together; their trust and comradeship in their peers; their working relationship with their teachers (an important thing to note: their teachers were with them). In short:

"The expedition had a very positive impact on the quality of student to student, and student to teacher relationships … students felt they were more likely to be listened to and understood, more likely to feel acknowledged, appreciated and supported by their teachers and that they could trust others in the class more than before …

"The teachers themselves reported having more respect for individual students, more of a sense of loyalty and commitment to them as a group …"

These findings are powerful: but will the proof stand up?

Yes, but only (for now) to those of us who already believe in the central importance of building character.

Nonetheless, the evidence grows.

One day policymakers must accept that government cannot leave this vital task to the better-resourced independent sector, to generous donors supporting such operators in the field as The Challenger Trust, and to those visionary heads who are Warwick Mansell’s true heroes.

At the last, government will have no option but to put entwiculum at the heart of education and fund it properly.


Like Nero, the government fiddles (and publishes a Green Paper) while the schools system burns

4th March 2017

Schools face funding crises while there are insufficient places to go round – the government’s Green Paper does nothing to resolve this

While the public row rumbles on about education, private schools, charitable status and the Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone, a new angle makes uncomfortable reading for policymakers. As parents in England and Wales receive news of the school places offered (or not) to their children for September, a Teach First analysis reveals that 43 per cent of pupils at England’s outstanding secondaries come from the wealthiest 20 per cent of the population.

At the same time, a Sutton Trust study finds poorer children much less likely to gain places at the top 500 comprehensives: over 85 per cent of schools in that top 500 took a smaller proportion of disadvantaged pupils than actually lived in their immediate areas. The Trust blames “social selection” through faith school status or house prices.

I’m about to have a pop neither at those schools nor at the “sharp-elbowed middle classes” (an unpleasant Cameron phrase) who readily colonise them.

This is a confused picture, and it’s unhelpful for the government robot – sorry, spokesperson – to repeat glibly: “We plan to create more good school places in more parts of the country by scrapping the ban on new grammar schools, as well as harnessing the expertise and resources of our universities, and our independent and faith schools.”

Government reiterates its mantra that a good school is a selective school. But is the reverse true? Does it follow that a selective school is of its nature good, but a non-selective school less likely to be good? The sloppy thinking behind the Green Paper continues.

Next government leans on universities, independent and faith schools to solve a problem – more than half a million school places to be found in the next few years – that is far beyond the resources of those three groups to tackle. It should be the government’s job.

I must declare an interest as an independent school head. However I’m committed to ensuring that my school does its bit in its area to share expertise and resources where it reasonably can and to play its part in the system as a whole.

I’m not attempting some feeble self-justification, merely observing that many independent schools like mine do what they can: we wrangle with government about the Green Paper because we don’t think diktat or benchmarks the right way to go encourage our collaboration. Nonetheless, my school and sector can make little impact on these enormous national needs, and government is both disingenuous and dishonest to attempt to portray us as the villains in this piece.

After Michael Gove sought afresh in The Times to spread hot air and confusion about charitable status and “tax breaks” (on the latter, his polemic was startlingly short on accuracy and detail), it’s worth revisiting the whole idea of education as a charitable purpose, something enshrined in English statute since 1601. Elizabeth I’s law-makers drew up a splendid and far-sighted list of charitable purposes:

“… the relief of aged, impotent, and poor people; the maintenance of sick and maimed soldiers and mariners; schools of learning; free schools and scholars in universities; the repair of bridges, ports, havens, causeways, churches, sea banks, and highways; the education and preferment of orphans; the relief, stock, or maintenance of houses of correction; marriages of poor maids; support, aid, and help of young tradesmen, handicraftsmen and persons decayed…”

Though the 1601 Act was repealed in 1888, Lord McNaughten preserved the concept of the advancement of education as a charitable purpose, something still defined on the government’s website as “to promote, sustain and increase individual and collective knowledge and understanding of specific areas of study, skills and expertise.”

What all schools do, private and state alike, remains a charitable activity, as does the work of universities. We can and do strive to work together effectively and to contribute to one education system.

Above all, we advance education. Yet, Nero-like, government fiddles (and issues platitudinous statements) while Rome burns, schools face funding collapse and great injustice is done in the allocation of insufficient school places. It’s our rulers, not we bit-players, who risk failing to advance education, thus betraying its charitable, its central and sacred purpose.


Just 1% of the population prioritises education. We should really ask what sort of country we’re creating

18th February 2017

In a Brexit, fake news, Trump world, education matters more than ever. And yet no-one seems to care that it’s being ravaged

I’m depressed. No, not clinically. This isn’t going to be a piece about mental health.

But I’m gloomy after reading that an Ipsos MORI poll has found that “education and schools are less likely to be named as important than unemployment and housing”. Reporting these findings in the TES, Charlotte Santry added that “only 1 per cent of the public considers education to be the most important issue facing Britain today”.

The NHS was the top concern, followed by Brexit, immigration, the economy, housing and unemployment: education crept in at ten.

Those other issues are pressing: and the people polled are likely to list either topics in the news right now (like the health service) or things that perhaps impact on them (economy, housing and unemployment).

It doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t care about education: just that other things preoccupy them.

It should go without saying that I think education is important. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced I’d want to go back to education being top of the government’s agenda. Ever since Tony Blair announced as his 1997 election priorities, “education, education, education” people like me have had reason to regret our field of work becoming one where politicians want to make headlines.

Blair built a lot of schools, something long overdue (even if the Private Finance Initiative – PFI – proved dodgy).  But schools suffered one wave after wave of change as successive education secretaries (who rarely stay long) imposed ill-informed personal agendas and quick-fixes. With hindsight, misquoting Oscar Wilde, there’s only one thing worse than government ignoring education: when it takes an interest.

Of course people won’t cite education as their top concern. There’s not a crisis: unless you happen to be running a school and the new national funding formula leaves you shorter than ever. Still, when the first school, academy chain or local authority implodes due to inadequate funding, education will make such headlines as “School funding in meltdown”. Then it may get closer to the top spot in people’s consciousness.

Education shouldn’t need crises to gain attention. It will rarely be a burning topic, because it’s always with us. But that’s the point: it is always with us and is vital for every generation, every year-cohort that  receives it.

The TES report closed with a quote from Sarah Kitchen, research director in the Children and Young People Team at NatCen Social Research: “the findings may be down to the fact that education has a direct impact on fewer people”.

Excuse me? Education has an impact on every individual life. It also furnishes a future for the country. We aren’t producing enough skilled workers, engineers, technologists, computer programmers, doctors, nurses. Only the education system can provide the solution. That should be a massive area of concern for the country, and for government which, for all the improvements it constantly trumpets, has failed for decades to address those skills shortages.

Why I begin to despair is still more basic. Go to any developing country: talk to any refugee seeking entry to this country; all will agree. The route out of poverty and ignorance is education. But ordinary people take it for granted here: it’s so far down our priorities that we meekly accept that it’s not meeting our national needs, and we don’t complain loudly enough that it’s chronically underfunded.  

In a post-truth, fake news world, where leaders of huge powers think it’s acceptable to lie to their people and to the rest of the world: where a tyrant holds on to power by assassinating his closest relative; where our country voted on whether to leave the EU but, because it wasn’t election, was fed lies and falsehoods on both sides; in such a world and country, shouldn’t we push education up the agenda a bit?

I don’t blame Ipsos MORI, nor the people questioned: I’m sure the findings are accurate.

But, dear God, I do worry about what sort of country we’re creating.


'The best thing about the teacher-bots of the future is that they won't accept the "blame-poverty-or-a-broken-home" defeatism'

11th February 2017

The airlock hissed as the glass doors closed on either side of us. Panic rose in my throat as I recalled that scene in Spooks (was it Ros? Jo? possibly even Tom?) where a similarly transparent box filled with water or poison gas – or both.

Don’t be absurd, I told myself. This isn’t a spy drama: it’s a school.

Indeed it was. My colleague Bill, Executive Principal and CEO of the Shiny New Toy Multi-Academy Trust, was welcoming me to what he described as the “whole new reception experience” at AIM (Ambition, Innovation, Excellence) Academy, the latest addition to his chain.

A disembodied voice greeted us. “Welcome to AIM Academy. Enter your birth date, gender, the first letter of your surname if you can remember it, and whatever piffling excuse you have for being late.”

Bill laughed nervously. “The computer seems to be stuck in its Late Registration programme. Let me show you how it works.”

A virtual screen shimmered before us. “See?” he said. “Before it’ll admit late pupils, they have to give the reason: the usual excuses are there in a drop-down.”

Before us flickered the whole gamut from “dog ate my homework” to “an unconscious cow was blocking the road and the bus-driver had to give it mouth-to-mouth.”

“Of course”, continued my host, “I’m meant to have a personal system override, but we haven’t ironed out all the bugs yet. I’ll just punch in the excuse Alarm didn’t go off. That’ll get us in.”

The inner door slid open as the voice commented tonelessly, “That’s not a very grown-up excuse for a girl your age. Report to the robot supervisor for your lunchtime detention. Have a nice day!”

“So that’s it?” I enquired. “The pupil’s registered and goes to class now?”

“Precisely. This is the brave new world, Bernard. Did you read that think tank report? Reform says chat bots should replace 90,000 school administrators and receptionists. It’s the way forward.”

I confess it was impressive. The enormous school atrium was sparklingly clean and devoid of adults or children to make it untidy – but for one machine resembling a large vacuum-cleaner that glided past us and up a side corridor, the claw of its metallic arm clamped on a twelve year-old boy’s neck.

“Don’t worry about him”, prompted Bill breezily. “Jimmy’s always running out of class. The corridor-sweeper bot will seal him safely into an isolation unit until a senior member of staff can see him at lunchtime.”

“One of your assistant heads?” I asked. “Have I met him – or her?”

Bill shifted uneasily. “It is one of my assistant heads. We call it Disci-bot.”

“You mean a robot’s in charge of discipline?” I was aghast.

“Of course. Bots don’t allow themselves to be clouded by emotion. No excuses for failure here, none of that ‘blame-poverty-or-a-broken-home-smell-of-defeatism’ rubbish.” He paused. “Disci-bot was arguably a little inflexible at first, but Artificial Intelligence is amazing. It’s learning at an exponential rate. The other day I found it crying over a girl who was late because her dog had died. Actually,” his tone became confidential, “We had to send it for reprogramming.”

My imagination flashed to 2001, A Space Odyssey, in which Hal, the spaceship’s AI, sets out to eliminate the human crew who pose a risk to the success of its mission.

“But surely,” I pushed the question. “Surely you need the human touch to deal with an upset parent or an injured child?”

“Nonsense! You old-timers always mistake sentimentality for efficient care. Look at the medicentre over there. A child with a grazed knee inserts the injured limb in the socket. It’s irradiated, sprayed with antiseptic, and a layer of plastic skin is added. No need for them to be out of class for more than two minutes. To be fair, it smarts a bit: and one pupil nearly asphyxiated when the machine covered his entire face with artificial skin. But he shouldn’t have stuck his head in the wrong hole. It was clearly marked.”

Back at my own school, colleagues asked, “How was the future, then? Were the pupils happy?”

Blimey! I’d forgotten about the kids. But for Bill and his robots the future was clearly, well, rosy.


Regulations are unintentionally killing the French exchange and our students will be all the poorer for it

Monday 6th February 2017

Not long ago, schools would send many, many students on exchange trips to France but new red tape makes this unfeasible, writes one leading headteacher

It’s funny how often laws or regulations collide. Perhaps the most famous absurdity can be found in Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22: airmen couldn’t be discharged from the American army in the Second World War unless proven mad. Yet to seek discharge was the only sane thing to do in an insane conflict.

This is, of course, the law of unintended consequences. A great example is this country's shortage of doctors. Many among the refugees arriving in the UK are qualified doctors but, as refugees, they’re forbidden to work.

Another example is a regulation now hitting schools, creating what I’d describe as another unintended consequence – unintended because, if it was spotted, then it’s crazy.

Ever more stringent safeguarding requirements, recently reinforced in the latest version of Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE), make it all but impossible for schoolchildren on a language exchange to stay with host families in, say, France, Germany or Spain.

According to Annexe E of KCSIE, “such arrangements could amount to ‘private fostering’ under the Children Act 1989 or the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, or both”.

Thus, if a school makes an arrangement with, for example, its opposite number in France, so that the English children stay with French families and vice versa, they’re setting up “private fostering”. Because the school is a regulated activity provider, all adults in the host home must have a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.

In the heyday of language exchanges, schools might have sent 50 or more children to France or Germany. Calculate the DBS checks required for the return visit, estimating two adults over 18 in every house (not necessarily parents): 100-plus. I guess they’d be free, being for volunteers, but the cost in office time of that paper-chase is colossal – as well as dragging parents in for their identity checks and the like.

Even if we can navigate that bureaucratic labyrinth, what about the parent who feels that such a check is intrusive or just plain wrong? If they stand on principle and refuse to be checked, they cannot host a child from the exchange school.

This regulation is surely the death knell for such activities as language exchanges. Even with all parents in both schools willing to be checked, sheer administrative workload makes the task impracticable in a busy school.

Those who devise the complex and demanding safeguarding regulations under which we operate will insist that, if they save just one child from being abused, they are worth all the pain. That’s fine in principle but it has left the path of pragmatic reality, of what is workable.

Our society’s lack of trust is now so great that the regulations we create will kill off another strand of our struggling modern language learning. Post-Brexit vote, maybe that matters less, though I doubt many in education (children or staff) voted to leave.

I still believe in the legal concept of “reasonableness”. I’m sure we could have devised a degree of checking that maintained a reasonable level of assurance and still allowed language exchanges and sports tours to go ahead.

In some places they still will. But children will stay in hostels and hotels, lessening the vital cultural interaction of living in people’s homes and adding so much to the cost that such trips will become unaffordable to many schools and families.

Over-anxiety has, in the famous words of Basil Fawlty, “closed off another avenue of pleasure” – a valuable path of learning, too.

Our children will be the poorer for it.

Hiring an artist-in-residence was a transformational experience for my school

28th January 2017        

We should rejoice, not complain, if some schools are using their freedom and resources to invest in creativity, writes one head

Monday’s The Times featured a piece with the headline: “Artists are schools’ latest big draw”, in which it was reported that many independent schools nowadays employ artists-in-residence to work with their students.

Ashford School in Kent was cited, where the head, Mike Buchanan, is current chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC): his school currently has a photographer-in-residence.

St Paul’s Girls’ School employs a poet-in-residence, South Hampstead High School boasts a playwright/novelist-in-residence, while Putney High School has gone all out for an orchestra-in-residence.

By contrast Oundle School in Northamptonshire makes use of an engineer-in residence, while Surbiton High School claims to be the first in the world to have appointed entrepreneurs-in-residence.

So far, so good. What soured for me an otherwise light-touch story was the implication that such appointments are frivolous and extravagant. It started with a suggestion that “a decade ago fierce competition between private schools escalated into an arms race over facilities”.

I forget (fortunately, perhaps) who among my fellow independent school heads originally coined the term, but “arms race” has returned to haunt the sector year on year.

Grittier and tougher?

I don’t accept it. In my decades heading two schools (far from the affluent South-East) I’ve spent many millions on buildings: not for any other reason except to provide our students with the best facilities we could afford without unduly loading the school fees.

When Tony Blair made education, education, education the priority of his first government, he embarked on an immense programme of building new schools. The PFI (Private Finance Initiative) route he took to fund it was controversial: but few criticised him for giving children decent premises in which to learn and grow up.

Is there some kind of implication here, whether directed at the independent schools or the multi-million pound school and academy buildings still gradually (perhaps too slowly) spreading across the country? Is there an attitude that says, “I learned in a classroom with three buckets in it to catch the leaks and no heating in winter: and it never did me any harm”? Should we Brits be grittier and tougher?

Does this negative view stem from envy of the independent sector? Parents pay fees in addition to tax for the state education they’re not taking up for their child: should they not expect excellent and state-of-the-art facilities in which to learn 21st-century subjects?

The Times story continues: “Since the financial crash, battle lines have been redrawn and are about people. The must-have thing for independent schools has become hiring an artist-in-residence.”

Must-have? Are artists–in-residence just icing on the rich student’s cake, then? That’s a false picture. As the article describes, they “paint, draw, sculpt, cast or sew themselves into the fabric of school life … oozing energy and creativity as role models for budding artists”.

Transformational experience

That’s the point exactly. I employed an artist-in-residence some 20 years ago. It was precisely about helping boys and girls to get beyond the arguably limiting perception of art as an exam subject by following a creative professional into exploratory, exciting and original realms. The experience was transformational: the art department became second to none.

If resources were unlimited, would I employ in my school those other in-house “creatives”? Orchestra-in-residence, entrepreneur-in-residence, engineer-in-residence, writer-in-residence? Of course I would.

I write this on the very day that ballerina Darcey Bussell and veteran filmmaker Lord Puttnam launch a report in the House of Commons stressing how participating in the arts boosts both children’s academic achievement and their social skills.

I can understand envy, though I cannot applaud it. Free from many government straitjackets, and able to fund themselves at a level that seems appropriate to them and their parents/clients, independent schools are not hamstrung – certainly not in the way maintained schools are currently as funding levels crash.

As the government’s approach to education becomes ever more utilitarian, perhaps we should rejoice, not carp, if at least some schools are using their freedom and resources to invest in creativity.


Children in independent schools are “mentally tougher” because their schools are almost as focused on character as results

21st January 2017

Independent schools know that development of resilience is not only a good selling-point but also brings greater success in hard-edged exam results, writes one head

It’s official, then: children in independent schools are “mentally tougher” than their state-educated peers.

AQR International, described as “the leading psychometric test publisher”, employed a mental toughness model called MTQ48. Its study, An Analysis Of Mental Toughness At UK Independent Schools, tested 9,000 children of all ages from 58 schools in England and Scotland, comparing results with 32,000 state school pupils.

Defining mental toughness as “the mind-set that every person adopts in everything they do”, the study examined four categories: control, commitment, challenge, confidence. Independent school pupils scored 4.26 overall, higher than state schools’ 3.94.

What does this mean? It doesn’t merit any triumphalism from the independent sector. But it should give policymakers food for thought: for, while the study only tests outcomes, the different contexts that create them are significant.

Throughout my 27 years as an independent school head, I’ve worked one way or another with colleagues in the state sector.

And it’s fair to say that, almost without cease, I’ve seen those colleagues driven and harried by government agendas and demands: excessive accountability; Ofsted snapping at their heels; government initiatives imposed without thought or testing; floor-targets, benchmarks and every other pressure imaginable.

In that time, all heads have seen accountability increase while trust and even respect in society have declined: but the state sector has been forced to concentrate, not (as Tony Blair famously pronounced) on “education, education, education”, but rather on “results, results, results”.

I’m not exaggerating.

While all schools should naturally seek to improve year on year, day by day, excessive government pressure has too often obliged its schools (I point no finger of blame at heads or teachers) to concentrate narrowly on C/D borderlines, on hitting particular targets, on chopping and changing exam courses in order to jump through government hoops.

Nicky Morgan, during her limited tenure as education secretary, acknowledged the need, articulated from many quarters, for schools to focus not simply on results but on “character education”.

It’s not a term I favour, but identifies the area around the mental toughness this study described: resilience, developing the personal qualities to allow children to thrive both in youth and in adulthood and to cope with the slings and arrows they’ll face, learning from setbacks and appreciating their good fortune.

We’ve heard no more of it from Theresa May or Justine Greening.

By contrast, the independent sector knows that development of character and resilience is not only a good selling-point: such a concentration also brings greater success in hard-edged exam results.

Opponents of independent schools might characterise this measure of greater mental toughness as yet another symptom of the sector’s success in instilling sheer arrogance and excessive self-confidence in its pupils. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, our sector has perhaps been slower to adopt in the classroom the kind of growth mind-set principles that develop resilience and toughness in the classroom.

But we have long promoted the rich extracurricular life that parents and students value: busy programmes of extracurricular sport running through the weekend; Duke of Edinburgh and other expeditions; debating competitions; drama and music; and a host of community activities; all contribute strongly to the four Cs that the AQR study investigated: control, confidence, commitment and challenge.

I’d add a fifth C, one we’re promoting in my school: compassion.

Policymakers should take note of AQR’s study. It’s not about the undeniably greater resources available in independent schools: nor the extent to which their teachers are often as busy with their pupils outside the classroom as they are in it. It’s simpler than that.

Independent schools, while similarly under pressure to perform academically, are not chained to the results treadmill: notwithstanding the ambition and aspiration of so many of our pupils, we retain the space to see the bigger picture, devoting (almost) as much effort and focus to developing personal qualities as to the pursuit of exam results.

The independent sector’s formula is not a magic bullet: but if, as Einstein said, education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school, it’s certainly an element of crucial importance.


How much credibility do teachers have with their young audiences when it comes to sex education?

14th January 2107

There can’t be many serving teachers about nowadays who remember a gentle BBC radio comedy from the 60s and 70s, The Men from the Ministry. Two bungling but genial bureaucrats got into all kind of scrapes through their own incompetence which was exemplified when one applied for a job at the Labour Exchange (as we called Job Centres back then).

“We’ve got a right one here,” remarked an interviewer: “In the box marked sex he’s answered ‘very seldom’!”

Sex and Relationships have always bewildered my generation: and there was no Education in those topics in my youth. So blokes my age describe learning about the birds and the bees “behind the bike sheds, fnar! fnar!” When a teenager, feeling lost and inadequate on the topic, even I knew those contemporaries who claimed to know it all were lying.

The current generation of teenagers has it no easier. If what we “learned” was largely myth, youngsters nowadays can “find out everything about sex” online: unrestricted, uncontrolled porn gives many young people distorted, dangerous and even perverted ideas of what sex involves.

With young men (in particular) still embarking on adulthood with only the haziest ideas of what constitutes, for example, genuine consent, we should be worried. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the suggestion that Education Secretary Justine Greening will make Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) compulsory have been greeted with acclaim.

By contrast, my somewhat flippant opening presages a warning.

Given so much sexual violence at large (taking place in all of society including, if you believe the press, in schools), there is an undeniable need for us to educate our young people: they need to appreciate that it is the relationship, not sex, that is important and that building and maintaining relationships takes effort and emotional commitment.

But I must question whether schools can do that effectively, and whether teachers are the right people for the job.

This isn’t a criticism of the teaching profession: on the contrary, I just think that, before making SRE compulsory in schools, we need to think how we can possibly on such a requirement.

SRE is usually taught through Personal, Social, Health, Emotional and Economic Education (PSHEEE … with any number of Es you want to add). Yet in schools, there are precious few with a fully-trained specialism in that broadest of subjects. On the contrary, in secondary education our almost-entirely graduate profession is rightly built on subject specialisms related to our degree.

Graduate historians teach history, though they might add some politics. Chemistry graduates teach chemistry, though they may broaden into other sciences. Even if they’re expert on the physical aspects of sex, does a biology teacher of a certain age necessarily have much to say convincingly to young people about relationships? I recall a conversation about SRE with a crusty biologist who said bluntly, “I’ll do the plumbing: but I’m not doing all the other stuff”.

Such conversations made me despair: I’ve always believed we’re teachers foremost, and subject experts only second. But two questions remain.

First, how credibility do teachers have in SRE with our young audience? What connection do I, a sexagenarian male, have with a 15-year-old girl coming to terms with her young-womanhood? Why should she believe a word I say?

Second, SRE faces the same problems as those raised by other politicians’ demands. Take lessons in personal finance. If we’re not careful these can prove astonishingly tedious. Partly because, to a 13-year-old audience, such things have no relevance – yet: by the time they do need to think about personal finance, the lesson will probably be long forgotten. Similarly, the moment when young people, or young couples, need to consider responsible and safe behaviour with regard to sex and their relationship is likely to be a long way from that school classroom on a wet Monday afternoon.

There are many questions here, and few answers. Society needs to think about how it helps young people to grow into adults and to form a responsible attitude to sex and to relationships. But until we can find some of those answers, I’m not convinced that compulsory SRE in schools will prove an effective solution.


The offer from the independent sector on school places, while undoubtedly a well-timed and slick move, is both sincere and achievable 


The proposal to bring state and independent schools together makes more sense than creating entirely new selective schools, parachuting grammars into areas of deprivation, writes one celebrated head  

I thought I’d signed off for Christmas, then, as the consultation period for the Green Paper Schools that Work for Everyone drew to a close, the independent sector stole the headlines by making its big offer to find 10,000 “good school places” if government would buy them at private schools at its national level of funding. 

Even the sector’s enemies agreed it was smart footwork. 

I must declare an interest. I’m head of one of the independent day schools that the government reckons should be helping out by opening free schools. However, two things enable me to stand slightly aside to view the situation. 

First, I shall retire in the summer: my successor has been appointed and so I have now become yesterday’s man. 

Second, for more than 20 years I have been routinely working with the leaders of state schools: for more than a decade I was on the council of the Association of School and College Leaders (back when it was still called SHA); and for eight years I’ve been on the board of SCHOOLS NorthEast, a regional organisation that brings together heads from across all age-groups and sectors. 

The government proclaims its urgent mission to increase the number of “good school places”. We might argue about what is meant by that term, and bridle at the implication that school places already on offer aren’t good. 

But the imperative isn’t really about different types of school places: by 2025 it’s estimated that the country will need 570,000 more sixth-form places than it has now. That gap is a colossal one to bridge, and there’s little sign of any coherent government plan to deal with it. 

Why not create those additional places in independent schools? The offer from the sector, while undoubtedly a well-timed and slick move, is both sincere and achievable. 

Private schools tend to be flexible: and, after several lean years, many independent schools probably have spare capacity. 

Moreover, independent schools genuinely don’t seek to be exclusive: on the contrary, their enormous bursary schemes and links with state school neighbours (the latter are far more extensive than government acknowledges) demonstrate their desire to be inclusive. 

From their side of the divide, it is not they who are constructing barriers: successive governments have resolutely refused to consider any initiatives to bring the two sectors together. 

Frankly, this proposal makes more sense and is easier to achieve than trying to create entirely new selective schools, parachuting grammars into areas of deprivation. 

New schools don’t happen overnight or easily: anyone who has opened a free school (I’ve been part of that process) knows how tortuous it is: finding premises as local and national government wrangle with one another is an unbearably slow process. 

The free school with which I am associated – West Newcastle Academy – is four years into its life: yet only in the last few months has building work begun to give it a proper home. 

As opponents of independent schools have lined up arguments to confound the proposal, the same old chestnuts have been rolled out. 

It’s claimed that the assisted places (AP) scheme was demonstrated not to have increased social mobility. Really? The evidence of that is at best selective. 

Besides, those of us on the ground where we had significant proportions of pupils on APs (40 per cent in my Midlands school at the time) know the opposite to be true: they truly did change lives and make our schools more inclusive. 

Next, a false statistic generated a couple of years ago was trotted out: state school pupils do better at university than their independent counterparts. 

This spurious research from 2013 was quietly allowed to fade away when the independent sector authoritatively challenged it. 

The same fate befell claims that children of equal ability do no better in independent than state schools. Incomplete figures, selectively quoted: the lie gained traction for a while. 

A country short of school places: the independent sector’s offer at neutral cost to government. What’s not to like? 

To his credit, schools minister Nick Gibb (on last Friday’s Any Questions) agreed that government would consider the proposal. 

That’s better than a straight no. But pragmatism and a desire to put the needs of children first will need, for once, to trump political dogma. We’ll see. 


Most of us find the child buried within to get through the intense Christmas period on goodwill - plus a fair intake of Prosecco and mulled wine, perhaps

 10th December 2016

Drag the old manger out of the stock cupboard and don’t be embarrassed to shed a tear of nostalgia, affection, relief, or just plain knackerdom, writes one celebrated head

I’m writing this as I move between handing out Christmas crackers and, burdened by rubbish bags, picking up the debris they create on the dining-tables. You know what this is: the day of the school Christmas lunch.

No one in school is too old or grown-up to enjoy that crazy annual mealtime which overruns into the lessons after lunch and lends a sense of benign seasonal chaos to the school as a whole. This applies to the staff too.

There seem to be many Christmas jumpers around already, teachers indulging in a bit of festive eccentricity.

It makes a break from the relentless pressure of the approaching end of term.

I’ve never been a fan of the idea of going for a four or five-term school year, not for any sensible or proportionate reason: I’ve always acknowledged the logic of spreading terms and holidays more evenly (and possibly discouraging holiday companies from doubling prices at peak times – though I doubt that will ever change).

It’s simply that I’ve always found three manic ends of term in a year as much as I can stand: the thought of adding a further one or two strikes me as unbearable.

These festivities have to fit around all the other things we have yet to accomplish by the end of term: those meetings we haven’t quite fixed yet but must happen before we close; the endless reports for parents to be signed off; replies to government consultations; and, finally, all the things we are desperate to plan for next term.

We still have carol services to come: three of them in my case, since we’re an all-through school.

There’s no pantomime this year: but we’ve only just finished a huge and busy charities week from which we are still recovering.

It’s tough going. But is it actually an ordeal?

Of course not! The child in us all can enjoy the bubbling excitement among staff as well as children (notwithstanding the incipient exhaustion) as Christmas approaches.

So the final hockey practices of term are played in Santa hats: takeaway pizzas magically appear at the end; sport/games becomes fun and games.

How many teachers are also dealing with that essential Nativity play? Not I.

We start at Year 3, and I guess the Nativity play is particularly connected to what we used to call infants’ school. My colleagues with young families have been doing deals on cover so they can slip out and see their offspring perform.

They return with marvellous tales of the way their children’s schools bust a gut to ensure the whole procedure is inclusive. One colleague’s daughter was cast as third innkeeper: third, you ask?

Yes, apparently Mary and Joseph went round no fewer than four innkeepers before they were offered a stable to stay in. Let's be fair: Bethlehem has always been busy at Christmas time.

Seriously, you have to multiply the characters in order to give every child a go.

Hence that wonderful line in the now-perennial Christmas film Love Actually: “You’re fourth lobster?” asks the mother figure, Emma Thompson. “I didn’t know there were lobsters present at the birth of Jesus.”

Her daughter gives her a pitying look: “Duh!”

As we totter from one school Christmas function to the next, the Scrooge in us is inevitably tempted to exclaim: “Bah! Humbug!” But the teacher in most of us still manages to find the child buried within our hearts, and we get through the intense period on goodwill (plus a fair intake of Prosecco and mulled wine, perhaps).

So don’t stop now. Drag the old manger out of the back of the stock cupboard and dust it off: glue the head back on the Baby Jesus; iron those tea towels for the shepherds’ heads; tart up the Kings’ crowns and the angels’ wings with a bit of glitter; and don’t be embarrassed to shed a tear of - what? Nostalgia? Affection? Relief? Or just plain knackerdom?

It doesn’t matter, really: it’s Christmas! Have a great one!


Great teaching is eclectic. False dichotomies about what "works" do everyone a disservice

3rd December 2016

The best teachers employ a huge variety of classroom strategies to engage interest, to challenge and to inspire, writes one celebrated head

Close to the end of the long autumn term, I wonder if the press is entering silly season.

Earlier this week, The Times had the headline Hands down! School warns pupils who try too hard on its front page. Apparently, Barry Found, principal of Samworth Church Academy in Mansfield, has pronounced that simply allowing eager children to put their hands up when they wanted to answer questions doesn’t fit with modern values, educational methods and teaching techniques. The paper claimed he had angered teachers and parents alike.

Maybe, if I were him, I wouldn’t have made a big deal of it.

Good teachers don’t simply take answers from the keen pupils sitting at the front of the class. They identify the one who is daydreaming or disengaged: find opportunities to encourage the reticent one to speak; and employ a host of strategies to give a voice to those reluctant to put their hands up. Then there are teachers who espouse the tactic of writing every child’s name on a lollipop stick, picking them at random.

Which technique is right? All, of course, and none on its own.

The best teachers never slavishly follow one approach: they employ a huge variety of classroom strategies to engage interest, to challenge and to inspire.

It’s just good practice

It’s as wrong to characterise this school’s announcement as groundbreaking as it is for parents to complain about their children being caused anxiety, or for unions to claim that teachers’ professionalism is being circumscribed. It’s just good practice.

I can’t be the only member of the profession tired of seeing so much in education characterised as black and white.

Self-study isn’t "1960s-bad": nor is sheer chalk and talk "knowledge-good". Such false dichotomies do everyone a disservice.

By contrast, as professionals, teachers are at their best when they do both/and rather than either/or – when they’re like magpies stealing, adapting and transforming ideas so that they work for them in their individual classrooms.

Great teaching is eclectic, embracing a wide variety of styles.

If we must explain our methods to parents, tell them that their children should expect a variety of styles and teaching techniques in the classroom, because that’s the best way of developing independent and adaptable learners who also soak up and use facts.

Please let’s stop going on about the 1960s. And lose the silly labels.


What next for education? In the post-Brexit world, almost anything bonkers seems possible

 26th November 2016

With wild ideas about privatising education being promoted, it’s hard to know where to start, writes one celebrated head

Whatever I may be known for, it’s probably not my discretion. I’m not a blabbermouth, but my readiness to pronounce or Tweet on almost any subject gets me into trouble from time to time.

Someone who seems even happier rattling cages is the former government adviser Sir Andrew Carter, chief executive of an academy trust in Surrey and a former primary head.

Speaking at the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) conference this week, he suggested that schools should demand a £500 contribution from every parent for the activities they offered that weren’t covered by government funds. He asked: "Why don’t we make the whole of education private? Now, maybe schools could work for profit. We could therefore legitimately ask parents for a contribution."

Wow! That’s a big move: "basic" education would still be state-funded, but any "extras" (my quotes) would be things we could charge for.

Where do I start? Some developing countries impose a charge, at least for secondary education: but in the sixth biggest economy in the world? It’s hard to countenance.

Teachers working too long

Perhaps Sir Andrew chose his audience, hoping for a relatively easy ride, because he then went on to suggest that teachers were overworking, and that those who complained (or even boasted) of working 12-hour days and more were setting a bad example to new teachers.

How stupid of those teachers, allowing themselves to be harried by targets, by the pressure of Ofsted breathing down their necks, by the unrelenting drive to get them to do more and more with – as his other comment suggested – less and and less resourcing behind them!

Yes, it’s clearly teachers’ fault.

Sir Andrew also placed some blame at the door of school leaders. Well, we must look after teachers’ wellbeing and he’s right that issues of work-life balance should be built into teacher-training programmes. Teachers do need to look after themselves and their own wellbeing, and must take responsibility for a proportion of that.

Yet many teachers are now on 90 per cent contact time or more, while full and regular marking is still required. Given government’s continuing insistence on copious data and the tracking of pupils’ progress, Sir Andrew’s thoughts seem to come from a planet that is alien to most of the workforce.

All this is pretty standard in a world where national policy on education, as on Brexit, seems to be worked out on the hoof, on the back of a fag packet.

You couldn’t make it up.


Education needs a robust, independent leadership college that keeps government at arm’s length

19th November 2016

Anthony Seldon, Michael Wilshaw and Toby Young might just be on to a good idea, writes one leading headteacher

When my friend Sir Anthony Seldon, together with outgoing HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw and Toby Young (now appointed boss of the New Schools Network), announced the plan for a school leadership college, the headlines were all about fast-tracking new teachers to headship in as little as two or three years. I took exception to what appeared to me inappropriate, almost indecent haste. Though I have no problem with fast-tracking as such, there are limits! I confess I was critical.

The project has received approval - and, I guess, funding – and the University of Buckingham is ready to open its National College of Headship in Milton Keynes. In an excellent Thunderer piece in The Times the other day, Sir Anthony gave a reasoned and forceful outline both of the training the College will be offering and of the crying national need that it aims to meet. What little metaphorical weight I have, I throw behind his brainchild: I can argue about the pace of acceleration later!

Not only is this the right idea: it’s set in the right place. Let me explain.

At the 1997 election, Tony Blair had as his priority slogan “education, education, education”. Visiting schools, he famously claimed that he could tell whether a school would be any good before he even entered it – just by meeting the head. Perhaps it takes the arrogance of a head to say this: he was right. It would be a hell of a senior team that could maintain excellence in a school while carrying the head.

Blair established the National College for School Leadership. Ever one for a grand gesture, he sited it on a university campus (Nottingham), spending £28m on what was hailed as “Sandhurst for teachers”.

Extravagance? Gesture politics? I don’t think so. He saw the need to develop the next generation of school leaders and up-skill the current one: if the NCSL was a statement, it was a powerful and necessary one.

Sadly, it lost its way when politicians and bureaucrats got hold of it. First, it became not a training institution per se, merely an umbrella which licenced (and housed) providers of the required courses and qualifications. Thus it became bemired in frameworks and standards.

Though it oversaw some high-quality training (I followed a few excellent courses), even the landmark National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) became too often the kind of box-ticking process we’d all sworn we didn’t want: bizarrely it emerged that many senior teachers who gained the NPQH had no intention of applying for headship.

Thus it never operated as a staff college in the old-fashioned sense, teaching (let’s use that word!) its own unrivalled programmes of leadership development, drawing on the best leadership research and experience available (and there’s plenty). Instead, almost overnight NCSL became seen by Westminster as the machinery for delivering the government’s politico-educational agenda.

All too quickly, for example, it was running programmes to train School Business Managers. It was not wrong to identify the need to develop middle leaders, the senior leaders of the future: the massive Leading from the Middle programme did useful work.  Worthy but wordy, sound but dull, such developments combined to dilute the vital focus on the top job, on headship, the College’s original raison d’être.

Finally, it lost its status independent of government, becoming an executive agency in 2012. Since 2013 the rebranded National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) has had a broad remit including that of policing the profession, awarding Qualified Teacher Status, hearing disciplinary cases and, where necessary, barring teachers from the profession.

These may all be necessary functions (I’m not convinced): but they don’t belong in a National College of Headship. Government interference and control-freakery messed up the last one: fortunately, policy-makers will find the private Buckingham University harder to mess with.

We must hope that the new College will avoid peddling formulaic quick fixes: that it will produce “architect heads” (see recent research by the Centre for High Performance in the Harvard Review), not surgeons, soldiers or plain butchers; and that, keeping government at arm’s-length, it will maintain a robust, visionary and inspirational passion for its mission.

With the redoubtable Sir Anthony behind it, I’d say the outlook’s good.


In these uncertain times, teachers must encourage common sense and humanity in pupils

12th November 2016

As educators, we musn't reinforce the impression of a "smug liberal elite" who always claim to know best, writes one leading headteacher

On 9 November 1989, I was appointed to my first headship.

That evening, after the chair of governors had shaken my hand, we were at home celebrating with friends and family. Nonetheless, we turned on the television for the BBC Nine O’Clock News to see the Berlin Wall coming down: it was that important.

They were heady days. We watched the Soviet Communist Bloc collapse. It wasn't all easy, and there was some bloodshed. But countries where freedom of expression and human rights had been long suppressed started to breathe again. People in Eastern Europe were free and eagerly embraced a positive, democratic future.

It was a thrilling time to be moving into a leadership role. As a head, I was committed to an open style of management (not the norm back then).

In the following years, I developed my ideas on giving not only teachers a voice, but students, too. These were relatively early days for school councils, somewhat ahead of the curve.

It fitted the zeitgeist: the walls of communist oppression were coming down, even if (by contrast) the national curriculum, inspection and league tables were starting to get their claws into schools and to invade the lives of teachers.

Now, 27 years later, on the same date, America has elected Donald Trump to be its next President.

I’m not a Trump fan, and have many concerns about his presidency, but please don't think I fear a new wave of oppression from that quarter.

Nonetheless, all those years ago we saw walls come down, but now it seems new barriers are being erected. It will be interesting to see whether Mr Trump carries out his threat to build one on the border with Mexico. There is already an infamous wall in Israel, and has been for some time. And while there are no physical walls separating us from Vladimir Putin's Russia, that country's relations with the West are frosty; his stance is bellicose and his political opponents are cowed.

Back home, the Brexit vote implies the creation of barriers between the UK and Europe, though the Channel obviates any need for a wall. Brexiteers will howl with anger at that last statement, claiming that the UK will be open to all the world – though not (obviously) to economic migrants or refugees.

'We must tell our pupils to counter injustice'

It appears that young American voters supported Clinton and the Democrats, whereas older (and probably wealthier) ones elected Trump.

The British young felt similarly disenfranchised by the Brexit vote. Meanwhile, people of my age and liberal disposition are currently vilified, for unspecific reasons, as smug and unpatriotic.

After this 9 November, I’m looking forward not to a new job, but to a new phase of my life: I shall retire next summer.

I won't pretend that there’s no sense of impending relief from the burden of headship after 27 years, but I’m not feeling the heady optimism I felt in 1989 and 1990, when the world was apparently hurtling towards a better future.

I can't see where the world, my world, is going. The rhetoric around Brexit was about “getting our country back” or "making Britain great again”: the Trump mantra was similar.

It’s all nonsense, of course: no one has diminished or stolen our countries.

So what will we tell our young people, our pupils? It’s not our role to preach, and certainly not to reinforce that impression of a "smug liberal elite" who always claim to know best. We should encourage our pupils to do three things.

First, never accept the claims, promises or blandishments of politicians at face value, but examine them carefully.

Second, never accept the denigration or demonisation of particular sections of society.

Third, when you see injustice, be vocal and determined in naming it and countering it.

If we can do that as educators, we won't go too far wrong. Common sense and humanity can rule, whatever the complexion of government or the particular ideology of its leaders.

There’s a postscript to my recollection of 1989. I was an internal appointment to headship, something that can arouse strong feelings. A disapproving colleague had been heard to say, “It’s absurd. They’ll never appoint Bernard. The Berlin Wall will come down first!”

He was wrong: but only by three hours.


Policy-makers continue to ignore the deep-seated systemic problems that are the causes of the leadership crisis 

5th November 2016

Education is not a business, though in a loose sense, it should be run in a business-like manner, writes one leading headteacher

Headship, someone once said to me, is like watching the gestation of a baby elephant: it takes two years before you see any result, and then you risk being trampled to death.

The pachyderm’s wisdom is legendary, its memory long: important attributes for a head. But to me the gestation metaphor is attractive because achieving change takes time and is of necessity slow and steady.

By contrast, the new boss of the New Schools Network (NSN), Toby Young, is a man in a hurry.

Though his main job is to promote and spread free schools, he also proposes a solution to the current (and future) shortage of headteachers.

He’s just the latest prominent figure to call for schools to recruit leaders from business.

He admits it won’t be popular with teachers: I reckon it’s a quick fix that won’t work.

Most professionals consider their particular trade special in some way, and complain that outsiders don’t understand it: that predictable prejudice is perhaps one to discount. But I take issue with the suggestion that leaders who have mastered the pressures and drives of commerce can similarly seize the reins of education and drive the chariot to success.

Business and education alike depend on people. Productivity in manufacturing still depends more on the quality and consistency of its human workforce than on the robots which do much of the construction.

Human inspiration achieves wonderful things: human frailty brings about multiple disasters.

But in the factory, in the chain of supermarkets or betting shops, even in construction giants, the materials that go in at one end of the process are defined, and what comes out the other measurable. Yes, even betting shops leave little to chance: skilful mathematicians calculate the odds so carefully as almost to remove any risk of loss.

I’ve spent a quarter of a century complaining that policy-makers still view education as a sausage factory: raw material in one end, educated children out the other. Predictable output is demanded: but what output?

Is it all about exam results? Or is it about the development of a skilled and qualified work force? In the 1990s a chilling Department for Education and Employment/Department of Education and Science mission statement (under the Blair government, I think) focused entirely on creating the workforce of the future.

If, more sanely, we are to see the desirable outcome of education as “producing” compassionate, flexible, responsible citizens (as we should), the very qualities we see as most important are largely immeasurable. What price then the business approach and the ruthless analysis of outcomes?

I could go on to discuss the need for authenticity in those who lead teachers: the experience that allows them to understand the complex and demanding nature of the teacher’s job; the ability to inspire; even the requirement to be a parent-figure to children and teachers alike. But I have no space here.

Education is not a business, though it should, in a loose sense, be run in a business-like manner.

A central rule for successful business is to concentrate on what you are good at, on what works for your organisation. Jim Collins’s book Good to Great calls it the Hedgehog Principle: I prefer the old proverb of the cobbler sticking to his/her last.

Collins identifies the best leaders of great firms as those grown from within, not parachuted in from outside. Here’s where my metaphorical elephant comes in. Lasting change is organic and steady: evidence of this was provided by research into headship styles by the Centre for High Performance, recently published in the Harvard Business Review.

The favoured style, the “architect head”, is measured: it crafts and puts the bits and pieces in place methodically and thus sees improvement achieved and sustained over time. No need to fear the elephant stampede, even.

Almost by definition, the architect head, like Collins’s top leaders, must be an insider, someone who knows the patch and is prepared to take the time needed.

Toby Young and his allies may nonetheless find business leaders who can move into education and become architect heads. But I doubt it.

And, while they pin their hopes to yet another quick-fix solution, policy-makers will continue to ignore the deep-seated systemic problems that are the causes of the leadership crisis.


Why isn’t the government prepared to have an open and frank conversation about teacher pay and school funding?

29th October 2016

The government has an astonishing ability to pretend that the profound funding problems in education aren’t really there, writes one leading headteacher

Many years ago, when a very young school leader, I heard a talk from a distinguished head, who has long since departed this life. His style was famously autocratic, so his audience was somewhat surprised when he embarked on a homily on the importance of listening to one’s colleagues.

"I asked my senior team: ‘Tell me honestly, what do I get wrong?’ As one they replied,” he recounted the tale with glee; ‘You're not a team player.’

"That was nonsense, of course," he continued. " I told them so. I emphatically am a team player."

So that was all right, then. It’s all too easy for heads to behave like Lewis Carroll's Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark, who constantly asserts: "What I say three times is true."

It’s like that when you deal with government spokesmen. I’ve written previously about Robert, the Department for Education’s robotic spokesman. He seems to be in overdrive at present, more bland, repetitive and inflexible than ever.

We might have been hoping that Robert might be re-programmed after a change of education secretary. Recently I heard Justine Greening speak at the annual Summit of that fantastic regional organisation, SCHOOLS NorthEast. She was pleasant, committed, passionate about education: moreover – a rarity among recent education secretaries – she didn't lecture her audience!

On the contrary, she spoke from the heart, and subsequently gave the impression of listening, even to those inevitable interventions from the floor that prove to be personal statements disguised as questions. She heeded concerns about assessment in primary schools, rightly refused to commit herself at the time, but promised to make a statement a few days later, which she did.

This week, sadly, we seem to have returned to that familiar old territory. Too vehemently this week, the education secretary has asserted that teachers’ annual pay increases must be limited to 1 per cent per year for the next four years.

We’ve heard it all before. Yes, money’s tight, and workforce morale is not all about salary. But pay is something of central importance to even the most committed teacher. Mary Bousted of the ATL union pointed out in the TES this week that, since 2010, teachers have seen their pay eroded by the equivalent of £2,273. A loss of value on that scale should not be glossed over by a government robot – sorry, spokesperson.

Robert the robot remains unshakeable on this, and other very important issues, however. Sixth form colleges describe a funding crisis, for example, with 58 per cent of them cutting extracurricular activities in music, drama and sport and 39 per cent cutting A-level modern language courses. Yet Robert merely responds with bland assertions:

“Every young person should have access to an excellent education and we have protected the base rate of funding for all post-16 students until 2020 to ensure that happens.

"We've also ended the unfair discrimination between colleges and school sixth forms and we now ensure funding is based on student numbers rather than discriminating between qualifications.”

Ah, yes: that “base-rate of funding” is protected. So why is the Sixth Form Colleges Association complaining that increased employer costs (pensions and National Insurance) will leave each college on average £189.982 worse off per annum, in addition to paying £385,914 in VAT from which sixth form colleges are not exempt (or refundable), while schools and academies are?

This is all about government responding (or not) to concerns about the nation’s education system. I choose to picture the DfE’s spokesman as a robot: frequently it sounds more like a big kid sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting, “Na, na, na! Can’t hear you!” Whatever the form of its spokesperson, however, government continues in dishonest and reprehensible denial of the crisis facing education.

I knew another head, decades ago, who forbade anyone to raise the issue of stress at a staff meeting. “Start talking about stress,” he stated firmly, “and everyone will claim they’ve got it.” So we didn’t.

That was antediluvian management: but not all too different to where the teaching profession finds itself in the modern world. Education funding and teacher pay are both elephants in the educational room. And government won’t admit to the presence of either.


Wellbeing must be moved up the agenda for schools but inspection is entirely the wrong way to go about it

16th October 2016 

This country has been brainwashed into thinking that schools and teachers must be held accountable exclusively through data, inspection and league tables, writes one leading headteacher 

Mental health is climbing inexorably up the agenda in schools. While I don’t subscribe to the view that we’re facing a national crisis, we must all be concerned both about the prevalence of depression, self-harm and other forms of mental illness among the young and the inadequacy of health services to help deal with them.

The average wait for troubled (I use that anodyne word loosely) teenagers to access support from the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) ranged from 14 days to 200 days. If such youngsters then, understandably, fail to attend that delayed first appointment, they are frequently discharged without notice or query.

All this suggests that society as a whole is failing to take this pressing and genuinely medical problem seriously.

Schools are working hard to train their staff, rendering them both better equipped and more confident in recognising and dealing with pupils’ mental health issues. But they also know that they must work on the positive flipside, the active promotion of wellbeing and resilience among children and adults alike.

As in all fields of medicine, prevention of illness is as important as finding the cure when it occurs. Thus wellbeing, the classic mens sana in corpore sano (healthy mind in healthy body), goes hand in hand with resilience.

In schools we want – in the words of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust’s associate trainer Dick Moore – to help our young people to be able to “dance in the rain” – or, in one of Dick’s more graphic metaphors, to bend in the wind, rather than snap in the hurricane.

Schools have moved a long way: they need to go still further.

One of the leading figures in the promotion of wellbeing in schools, when he was master of Wellington College, was my friend Sir Anthony Seldon. Now vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, he continues to advocate its vital centrality. To ensure that wellbeing really does lie at the heart of schools’ work and purpose, he now recommends that Ofsted make it a major strand of the inspection process. At that point I part company with him.

His suggestion was discussed at a gathering of mental health and education professionals this week, dealing with precisely those coupled themes of children’s mental health and wellbeing. As I snorted my opposition to the suggestion, a good proportion of those present felt that the specific inclusion of wellbeing in the inspection process would indeed help to push it up the agenda for all schools.

One colleague supporting Sir Anthony’s proposal added the caveat that the inspection process would have to change to become more a mechanism for sharing best practice than an enforcer. She admitted that, given Ofsted’s current role and modus operandi, it was a little hard to envisage.

That is, of course, why I am strongly opposed to the idea. The process of inspection demands that its subject be quantified and summarised in order that a judgment can be made. There is thus a danger that schools, under pressure as always, will see the task of satisfying Ofsted’s demands as yet another box-ticking exercise, distracting them from the real work of spreading wellbeing.

Wellbeing tangles with questions of ethos, care, feelings, emotions and relationships: I cannot see how any measurable indicators could be devised that would actually improve practice in this area or in any way accurately reflect what is really happening in terms of children’s wellbeing in school. 

Given the power (and potent threat) of an Ofsted inspection, it would be unreasonable to permit merely subjective judgments to be made, published and acted upon. I don’t believe wellbeing is measurable: any attempt at constructing statistical measures would inevitably be misleading – and lead to box-ticking, thus completing the vicious circle.

This country has become brainwashed over the years into thinking that schools and teachers must be held accountable exclusively through data, inspection and league tables. Valuing only what is measurable, we convince ourselves that change must be achieved (or enforced) by building the required outcome into inspection criteria.

We do indeed need to move wellbeing up the agenda for schools: inspection would be entirely the wrong way to go about it.


Teachers and heads in large part have the liberal values that Ms May is pillorying

9th October 2017

I’ve spent this week in Stratford-upon-Avon at the annual meeting of HMC, the organisation of leading independent schools in the UK and abroad. We were sharing both best practice and current anxieties, trying to map the future and to deal with an uncertain present. Business as usual, then?

Not really. Something changed this week. In nearby Birmingham, new Prime Minister Theresa May was laying out her vision, in many ways one with no place for people like us.

I’m not referring to my sector’s spat with her over charitable status in the Green Paper, but to something much deeper.  Our conference, as ever, encompassed a broad view of education as creating opportunities for all: but our tone differed entirely from the PM’s. 

Representatives of universities are anxious about the future: will they be permitted to take students from overseas? As for researchers and university teachers from overseas, the whole thrust of government policy seems set to put at risk the sharing of knowledge, research and university teaching across Europe (regardless of the rest of the world). 

Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s  pronouncement on limiting foreign students to the “best courses” is already causing hostile waves in India. Without a sense of irony Mrs May claimed to reach out to  “ordinary hard-working people” whose wages are forced down by low-paid unskilled immigrants. 

I listened twice: UKIP’s Nigel Farage couldn’t have been clearer. And this from a PM who wants us “to be a country where it doesn't matter where you were born."

As Amber Rudd’s speech created such headlines as The Times’s "firms must list foreign workers", even a Tory MP was aghast. Neil Carmichael commented: 

This unsettling policy would drive people, business and compassion out of British society and should not be pursued any further. People moving to the UK to work hard, pay their taxes and make a contribution to our society should be celebrated, not shamed. This kind of divisive politics has no place in 21st Century Britain.

This is about much more than Brexit. With Labour furnishing no discernible effective opposition, we might have expected the ruling party to seize and firmly occupy the centre. Yet the political centre-ground the PM boasts of redefining has lurched to the right: as commentator Hugo Rifkind Tweeted, not one policy outlined was remotely centrist.

We educationists talk a great deal, at conferences and elsewhere, about school values, including that of compassion for the unfortunate, immigrants too. Teachers’ values, not merely in the private sector but shared by the colleagues I meet across both sectors, are essentially liberal, based fundamentally on respect for the individual and care for others. 

Suddenly we find these values being pilloried. We are now the “liberal elite”, educated, internationalist, and slammed by Theresa May for our "smugness". We’re accused of “sneering” at the patriotism of ordinary hard-working people (clearly education professionals are regarded as neither ordinary nor hard-working), and deriding their concerns about immigration.

In schools we teach children about human rights, not least in history lessons on Nazi Germany. Yet this week the Tory faithful booed human rights lawyers: moreover, according to Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, part of "getting our country back" will involve axing bits of the European Convention on human rights that he doesn't like.

Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera was right to Tweet:

Increasing fear “We need to accept results and make Brexit work” = “We need to sit back and accept bigotry, hatred, division, intolerance.”

What sort of country can seriously propose in a party conference, that of the party of government, no less, that we disengage from an international convention on human rights? What price compassion now?

You might ask, why am I writing this here? Surely the larger political picture has, or should have, nothing to do with education? 

If only. Educators cannot claim it’s nothing to do with us when we see bigotry applauded and accorded standing ovations at the annual conference of the party in power. If we are indeed, the “liberal elite”, we must create debate and challenge intolerance. 

Normally optimistic, I retain a trust in old-fashioned British compromise and inertia. We're not at heart extreme, so I’d hope that few of those extravagant, rabble-rousing promises to the party faithful will be fully enacted. 

I really do hope so.


After 26 years of headship I am calling time. What will I miss most? The pupils.

 23rd September 2016

I will truly miss the banter, writes this top headteacher. Teachers and children are hilarious – quick to see the funny side of things and to poke irreverent fun at school life

Ten days ago I told the staff, students and parents in my school that I’m planning to retire next summer. It was a novel, not to say unique, experience.

Some people expressed surprise, though I had made no secret of my 60th birthday back in May: on the contrary, I celebrated it quite noisily. I should be flattered, perhaps, that people haven’t thought I’m already past it!

My announcement cannot have been a shock: I’ve completed eight years in my current headship, having managed 18 in the previous one – a long enough stint for anyone.

Some ask, “Was it a difficult decision?” Is there a compliment hidden in the question, an appreciation of my commitment to the school? Perhaps people cannot help wondering how big a wrench it will be to leave the school community after 39 years in the trade.

I don’t feel it will be a wrench. But, of course, I’ll miss the people: my amazing colleagues; occasionally infuriating, often demanding, always inspiring and humbling in their dedication to their pupils. Above all, I'll miss the students, the very reason for going into teaching.

When you move out of the classroom into school leadership, you tear yourself away a little. Not for heads those lovely “lightbulb” moments when you suddenly see your teaching take effect: instead it’s a deferred pleasure, a great set of results (never forgetting the importance for each individual), those lovely moments of presenting in assembly some trophy, prize or other mark of distinction, congratulating not just high achievement but all the work, commitment and sheer grit that went into it.

Then there’s the banter at all levels. Teachers and children are hilarious, quick to see the funny side of things, to poke irreverent fun at school, its institutions and its people, without forgetting the respect and love they feel for them.

So why is it time to go, now? When does one decide to give up the joys, the privilege but also the indisputable burden of headship?

I don’t feel a need to get out. As I fulminate against the latest daft government initiative, I’m now resisting the temptation to say, “It won’t be my problem." Matters of education are something for all of society, working or retired, so that’s not an acceptable view.

'It won't be a wrench'

Nonetheless, in every job there are dull bits – I won’t miss these: not least writing and revising my share of the endless policies that expand and multiply year on year.

Will I miss the sheer number of meetings in a week? I don’t find them burdensome: at their best, meetings with colleagues, and even those with anxious parents, involve focusing on making the future better for the young people in my charge.

No. It won’t be a wrench, but a welcome change. I do want to go while I’m still anxious to get to work. But a demanding job takes its toll, and I think perhaps one more winter will be enough. My wife and I try to go running, just a couple of miles, three times a week: notwithstanding the undoubted benefits to my health, I do find it miserable both to set out on a morning run and to return in darkness. It will be nice to see my home in daylight from Monday to Friday. That’s true for everyone: but I can now get off that particular treadmill.

We’re both fit and well, another indication that we should enjoy this good period while we can. I won’t do nothing: that’s for sure, although it’ll be good to read the newspaper in the morning, rather than in bed at night –perhaps in a coffee shop, a pleasure I’ll relish. I’ll certainly keep writing, even if I veer away in blogs and columns from education towards broader social commentary. I might even finish that novel.

In the end, the best advice about this decision came from my wise brother-in-law: “Better to go too early than too late.”

When I broke the news to my senior team, I breezily passed on that aphorism. There was a pause: then one of my colleagues replied (mischievously, I hope): “Who said anything about too early?”


How on earth can a 100 per cent faith school hope to encompass pupils from a variety of backgrounds?

18th September 2016

The faith school proposal in the Green Paper will only succeed in making schools work for fewer children than they do now

So the Green Paper is called Making schools work for everyone. Hardly something one can find fault with.

One of the ways in which the Prime Minister wants to achieve that lofty goal is by allowing faith schools to fill up exclusively with pupils from its own faith group. That would abolish the old 50 per cent cap - created, of course, to ensure diversity and to prevent any sense of “ghettoisation”.

We’ve seen proof of the peril of allowing faith to come before education, particularly when it is a narrow or intolerant interpretation of the belief-set: the so-called Trojan Horse episode in Birmingham schools was regarded by many as a vivid illustration of that very risk.

Theresa May’s plan contains a safeguard: any school seeking to fill itself entirely with adherents of that faith will be obliged to ensure a mix of pupils from different backgrounds.

Pupils won't qualify for places 

Quite how this will work is hard to puzzle out, however. It will call for tighter wording than merely “different backgrounds”, or we could spend years with court cases and parliamentary enquiries wrangling over its interpretation. Alternatively, we might witness faith free schools doing entirely as they please: but, notwithstanding their many freedoms, they remain subject to government controls and are certainly not absolved of their moral obligations to their setting and wider community.

Yet how can a 100 per cent faith school hope to encompass pupils from a variety of backgrounds, even if it wants to? It might, to be sure, be able to boast a range of socio-economic backgrounds (though critics of faith schools would seldom credit them with that virtue).

Yet how can, for example, a Catholic primary school in a culturally diverse city reflect its setting? If, as in many UK conurbations, there is a significant minority of Indian or Pakistani origin, those families will most likely be Sikh, Muslim or Hindu, and will thus not qualify for a place at that uniquely Christian school.

Picture the reverse: a 100 per cent Muslim school in Bradford or Birmingham will struggle to attract more than a minute proportion of Muslim pupils who are not of Asian provenance.

It’s obvious, isn’t it? But perhaps not to politicians. Either the required safeguard is meaningless – or, if enforced, makes an impossibility (rightly, in my view) of composing a school entirely of pupils of one faith.

As the storm rages simultaneously about grammar schools and selection, and government speaks piously of its desire to achieve social mobility and the best opportunities for all, it seems to me that its faith school proposal could be still more divisive.


Perhaps the best we can hope for is that these wheezes simply won’t work: most of the Green Paper’s ideas are daft (and I haven’t space here to get on to universities and/ or independent schools being coerced into opening new state schools). The raft of new initiatives is reminiscent of a bunch of kids in a sweet shop: our policymakers are indulging themselves with a pick-and-mix of all their favourite ideas – ideas, moreover, designed specifically to appeal to the Tory heartland.

Most of the research into social mobility that we are presented with tends to stem from a particular political or sociological viewpoint. Politicians don’t like research: they merely assert that “they know what works”. Michael Gove, it seems, is not the only politician who despises experts.

I’ve written in the past about “policy-based evidence”: politicians and their allied think tanks are prone to sifting out any research or evidence that doesn’t agree with what they want to believe. As a result, we constantly face piecemeal and contradictory policy proposals that fly in the face of reason – but appeal to the gut-instinct of the party faithful.

Making schools work for everyone is indeed a laudable aim, as I said at the start. Like most ideals, it is probably unachievable in full: but these particular proposals will succeed only in making schools work for fewer children than they do now.


The recruitment crisis won't ease until the government stops harassing schools and increases teacher pay – ministers are courting a national disaster 

7th September 2016

Teacher supply is topping the agenda again: not before time. New education secretary Justine Greening is bombarded with the same advice from all quarters: she must recruit and retain enough high quality teachers to meet the nation’s needs.

Reports highlight one recruitment problem after another. Last week Helen Ward reported in the TES that “highest-achieving A-level students are least likely to apply to teach”. No one will surely be surprised that fewer A level candidates who achieve three A* grades apply to teacher-training courses than any other category of pupil given the conditions

Teacher supply expert Professor John Howson of Oxford Brookes University feels attracting students with the highest grades doesn’t matter – the opposite view to Michael Gove who, when education secretary, wanted only applicants with a 2:1 or better, a level also required by Teach First.

When Gove made that announcement with his customarily airy assurance, plenty of heads disagreed. Leaders of a number of the country’s most highly performing schools lined up to say that some of their best teachers had got it all wrong at university, but had learned from their failure. They reeled off anecdotes of inspirational teachers with third-class degrees.

They could always be exception that proves the rule, of course, and maybe we shouldn’t overstate it. But, just as I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that anyone with a lower second or third-class degree, or even without one, is incapable of being a teacher, we shouldn’t either overlook the gloomy fact that so few of our very brightest university graduates apparently want to go into teaching. So, why?

Prof Howson observes that candidates with first-class degrees “have got a wide range of choices. Attracting them is a difficult problem to solve, but what we shouldn’t do is make it more difficult – when you impose a pay freeze, reduce salary increases – that is making the problem worse”.

He’s now wrong. The language from government remains negative and critical of teachers. The rhetoric of school improvement too frequently adopts a tone of “not good enough”. Ministers’ occasional (too occasional) words of admiration to the profession cut no ice when schools’ commissioners take hostile action against schools that miss the latest government examination floor-targets, and when teachers, support staff, school leaders and governors alike suffer sleepless nights when Ofsted comes to call.

Bright graduates know that government recruitment adverts speak truth about the privilege of inspiring children and being inspired by them in turn. But in addition they’ll want an employer who pays them well, trusts them to use their gifts and doesn’t demand spurious accountability through targets and the ticking of boxes.

If government continues to drive and harass teachers while also holding their pay down, it won’t see recruitment figures rise.

And that courts a national catastrophe.


Student self-esteem is being sacrificed on the altar of ministers' obsession with standards

31st August 2016

GCSE results day last Thursday brought, as usual, joy to a great many exam candidates. For the most part boys and girls work immensely hard these days, and in school their teachers bust a gut to ensure that they get good results. So the obligatory media pictures of 16-year-olds jumping for joy, while always somewhat forced, weren’t inappropriate.

But there were some receiving their results of whom we saw little or nothing, a group which I think gets a raw deal and on whose behalf I am angry.

For the past year, government has required all 16-19-year-olds who stay in full-time education but have failed to gain at least a C grade in English Language and maths to re-sit those exams.

You can see the logic. Schools Minister Nick Gibb – nowadays officially in charge of standards (though I don’t think he has a sophisticated view of what standards might actually mean) - sounds more than ever like the robotic spokespeople the DfE puts up to repeat its tedious mantras. Gibb is convinced that, to win jobs and take their place in a highly trained workforce, all young people need basic skills. The first trap he falls into is that of believing a minimum C grade is actually related to employability.

Some people just find maths too hard (that’s true of English too.) Their failure to achieve a C aged 16 is not attributable to lack of effort on their part, nor on that of their school. Simply to insist that they go round again, re-sit and pass next time, or the time after that, is naïve. More to the point, any sense of failure they felt the first time round will simply be reinforced time after time.

Statistics tend to support my case. Nationally it seems only some 20-25% (at best) of those re-sitting maths GCSE gained a grade C or better. On a regional news programme I saw one FE College (see below) celebrating (with some justification) a one-in-three pass rate on re-sits: even there some 66% suffered a second failure.

Government policy is riven with contradictions. To policymakers, the fall in overall pass rates demonstrates that the oft-claimed “dumbing down” of exams and results has ended. The macho Tory approach is thus vindicated: more failures mean higher standards.

But politicians are simultaneously reluctant to accept that some people won’t pass! How many times over my quarter-century as a head have I heard complaints that too many children in schools are “below average”? The lamentable John Patten, Education Secretary 1992-4, made a high-profile speech about the scandal of below-average achievement: several successors have made similar errors.

To raise standards by making more children fail exams is Tory policy, as is requiring children to pass those exams in order to enter the workplace. How that is supposed to work is beyond me, but I know the damage it’s doing.

Let’s be honest. A GCSE in maths is no particular indicator of an ability to do the kind of sums you actually need in life and the average job. To be sure, a chartered accountant or an engineer will need significantly high levels of maths skills: but most 11-year-olds could read a balance sheet or tot up a bill with little guidance.

Moreover, there are accredited qualifications that will suggest a potential employee has the skill level that that might be justifiably required: Functional Skills are, well, functional.

Older students, those continuing in education later in their lives at Further Education Colleges, always the poor relation and abysmally ignored by politicians and funders, can follow those courses. But government requires that 16 to 19-year-olds have their noses rubbed in repeated GCSE failure.

I call it victimisation of that minority who just can’t do examination maths. They are forced to fail again and again in an exam that isn’t even designed to prove the competence for work that ministers claim it does.

They, their self-esteem and their confidence are being sacrificed on the altar of a ministerial obsession with standards based neither in reality nor in statistical accuracy.

I seem to end my columns more and more frequently with this same angry, despairing statement: young people deserve better. Well, they do.


School leaders may not need to be certified. But they must have a chance to reflect and critique themselves 

 23rd July 2016

I was interested to read, in TES Breaking Views (21st July), education consultant Joe Nutt assert confidently that "there is no robust evidence that professional qualifications make a difference to the quality of leadership".

He’s persuasive. Pause to take stock of the leaders we’ve known, and we’re more likely to recall examples not of shining inspiration (though we might hope to experience a little of that in the course of a career) but of disastrous people in senior positions who boast certificates or letters after their name and use all the management-speak, but (a) irritate and alienate those they work with and (b) appear incapable of organising any kind of festivity within a brewery.

Let’s not convince ourselves, though, that leaders are only born, and cannot be made: if that were true, we’d always be short (take a look at Parliament right now!). We must believe that we can indeed identify, develop and train potentially great leaders.

It’ll be done not by creating huge lists of "competencies" (horrible word) which unimaginative candidates tick off, box by box, in the manner of the juvenile birdwatcher going through the book and marking every species he [sic] has encountered (I was once one of those).

That's not training.

Leaders of the future need to be given opportunities to reflect on their own experience of being led and on their current practice, at whatever level, of leading others: to reflect critically and have that reflection challenged.

For me, it’s ancient history: I was lucky to encounter the right opportunities at the right time. I became a head in 1990, and was very young: so how did I convince the governing body that I was the person to lead their school?

At the time, I was half-way through a part-time MEd at Birmingham University. I’d spent four of the required seven terms going to the University every week, hearing lectures, joining seminar discussions and producing an essay at the end of term. To gain the qualification in Education Policy and Management, I’d started with a two-term course in organisation theory and management. Perhaps I didn’t really need to understand the ins and outs of Weberian Bureaucracy: more to the point, however, sharing the course and travel with a colleague, we could argue all the way home (and in the pub) about how those theories related to our real practice.

I’ve never been a fan of NPQH, the government-overseen framework for the development of potential head teachers. Ministers were sceptical, too, because too few senior teachers who completed it actually took up headships. When the Coalition came to power, I joined a panel reviewing the qualification.  Inevitably, when government gets involved, it creates lists of standards: actually, the national standards for headship are pretty good, but government control systems invariably result in a tick-box approach to prove standards are met. That's where it goes wrong.

Overall, I’m with Joe Nutt. We don’t require alliterative mnemonics for leadership success, slogans like “Three Cs for success” (“Command, Cooperation, any other old Cobblers?”). And we certainly don't want, as he opined, talks from ex-detergent salesmen about how they honed their leadership skills by observing Masai warriors.

We can learn from other leaders, however. If you've ever heard Greg Dyke, BBC Director General from 2000 to 2004, and (according to him) thrown to the wolves by the Governors after the Weapons of Mass Destruction scandal, you may have learned much from a man who has turned failure, however you define it, into wisdom.

Joe Nutt quotes Claudio Ranieri: to Leicester’s hugely successful boss we might add Eddie Jones, who has transformed the England rugby team. Both have been sacked after ignominious failures: both have learned from the experience, and triumphed.

Nutt is right, but is also wrong. We don't need leaders with paper qualifications or glib mantras: they’re about management rather than true leadership, in any case. But we must require them to have been through a process of powerful thought, reflection, challenge and critique.

If we readily reject certification without insisting on developing leadership’s essential soft skills, we risk throwing yet another baby out with the bathwater, something which we've made quite an art form in UK education.


For all his Clint Eastwood gun-slinging, Sir Michael Wilshaw had walked the walk as a headteacher

13th July 2016

Recent developments at the Department for Education and Ofsted have been overshadowed by more momentous events. Sadly, I don’t mean two Brits winning Wimbledon titles. 

While the leadership of our political parties has been generally in meltdown, the battle of one Secretary of State against a Commons Select Committee is small beer in comparison. Nonetheless, the standoff between Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and the Commons Select Committee on Education over the appointment Amanda Spielman as the next Chief Inspector is a significant issue for schools and children’s services.

Normally the Committee interview of a minister’s chosen candidate is a formality, a polite rubber-stamping to furnish a veneer of democratic practice.

But the Select Committee refused to endorse Spielman. Though she has executive experience both in academy chain Ark and as the Chair of the exam regulator OFQAL, they reckoned she lacked not only passion but also understanding: of the “complex role”; of the need to build bridges with all the professions inspected; of Ofsted’s overriding responsibility for child protection; of any sense of Ofsted’s future direction.

Morgan was combative in response, insisting that Spielman “will be a highly effective leader who will be unafraid to do the right thing and where necessary challenge schools, local authorities and government where education and social care services are not meeting the standards our children deserve”. Same old tired message, alas.

Elsewhere Morgan was reported as observing, somewhat bitterly, that Spielman would not be creating newspaper headlines: we know where she’s coming from. Both DfE and Secretary of State now see Sir Michael Wilshaw as “going native”, grinding personal axes, using his last months in post to lambast government for its failings.

The man who has frequently called for more mavericks in education is himself a maverick. Very much a one-man band, likening himself (or at least his job) to Clint Eastwood’s righteous but ruthless lone gunslinger, he’s constantly rattled cages. Yet one thing has always given his voice authority. 

He’s been there, a head in tough schools, fighting tirelessly and unequivocally for the children in his care, driven by a powerful moral purpose. Even though he is excessively intolerant of human frailties and impatient with any suggestion that heads and schools can be simply ground down by constant pressure (including that from the organisation he leads), even his greatest critics concede that he knows what he’s talking about.

That’s the great necessity for leaders: to know the territory, to have walked in the shoes of those at the mercy of Ofsted’s judgement or whim. At root it is all about authenticity. Every teacher, from head to rookie, needs to know the Chief Inspector understands what it's like to deal with the family that will not engage: the child who refuses to learn despite school’s best efforts; even the hours teachers continue to put into preparation and marking in those mad last few weeks of term.

I don’t know Amanda Spielman. The jury may be still out as to whether she did a good job at Ofqual: but she’s an able leader and administrator who won’t be bamboozled by bogus statistics or irrelevant facts. Yet she hasn’t led a school, has lived neither with those very particular and incessant pressures, nor with the sheer burden of command.

It’s hard to imagine many school leaders in the country feeling anything but sympathy for the views of the Select Committee with regard to Ms Spielman’s appointment. They know what we feel so deeply in schools: if the inspectorate is to make judgements that have a such powerful, crucial effect on livings and careers as well as on the opportunities for children, its leader must have authenticity. 

It’s clear that Nicky Morgan distrusts and dislikes that kind of authenticity, fearing that the next HMCI might follow Wilshaw into his recent pattern of holding government to account, instead of extending its arm of control. 

I don’t know what Morgan will do now, though I fear she may simply exercise her will unilaterally in a style reminiscent of the disastrous Jeremy Hunt’s failure to engage with the medical profession.

But I hope the Education Secretary realises just how high the stakes are.


As we recall the Somme, I fear the policymakers of my generation are wilfully blind to the lessons that should be learned from it 

1st July 2016

My last blog, written just before the EU vote, ended by saying that our democracy was diminished by the campaign.

As events transpired, it was a kind of prophecy, but a colossal understatement! Notwithstanding my concern about the result, which I consider disastrous for the UK, since the announcement our democracy has taken still more of a battering.

We have a lame duck Prime Minister, a dead man walking, while his party and its leadership hopefuls resemble more than ever the disintegration of Rome as depicted in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

In any sane country the opposition would have been having a field day, making hay at the expense of the government’s disarray. Not our Labour Party. If the Tories are reminiscent of Julius Caesar, Labour’s front bench is more like the final scene of a Quentin Tarantino film, corpses littering the scene and only one or two left standing, Corbyn presumably among them (though currently one can never be sure: in the time it’s taken to write this far, another dozen shadow ministers will probably have resigned).

Our European neighbours, friends and allies have been deeply offended not merely by the decision to leave the EU, but above all by the negative and xenophobic tone of the prevailing arguments that have been reported in their own countries. And don’t get me started on Nigel Farage’s display of sneering disdain and spleen in Brussels this week!

There is an irony in the fact that we are currently commemorating the centenary of one of the most costly battles of all time, in a European war. The Somme started on 1 July 1916: 57,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day; During the whole length of the Battle there were a million casualties on both sides.

The War to end all Wars: so it was dubbed - wrongly. An unjust peace left resentment and anger that helped to lead to a second war. But there has been no global conflict since 1945, notwithstanding terrible localised wars ever since, including the fighting against ISIS in the Middle East right now.

Marking the memory of the Somme should surely cause us to pause and reflect. The creation of the EU has been a central element in maintaining peace on our continent: that aspect was hardly discussed during the campaign, apart from one hyperbolic threat from David Cameron (unconvincing at best) that to leave the Union was to risk a Third World War. Exaggeration ruled on both sides: Boris Johnson accused the EU of having Hitler-like plans for domination by a super-state.

As we recall the terrible loss of life during The Somme, I fear the leaders and policymakers of my generation are wilfully blind to the lessons that should be learned from it. 

I place my hope in the young. Angry at present, most feeling betrayed by the vote to leave the Union, by the possible breakup of our own UK that may follow, by economic and political uncertainty and the threat of recession, they are the generation who will – who must - ensure future peace. I am hopeful of them because it is not they, in general, who pander to nationalist and xenophobic sentiments. It is not they who attempt to disguise repulsive views by prefacing them, "I'm not racist but…"

We are nearly at the end of the academic year: but, if politicians continue to fail us as hopelessly as at present, schools will have more than ever to do to ensure that our young ignore the shameful examples emanating from Westminster and the broader shambles that masqueraded as a referendum debate. We and they must remember and promote the values that drive a just a fair society, a country at peace with itself and its neighbours, as they progress through school and take their place in adult life.

I have lost just about all faith in our institutions of government: mercifully, I retain my belief in the young.


Politicians urge schools to promote compassion. What decency or compassion has there been in the EU debate?

24th June 2016

Brexit or Remain? Leave or stay? The opposing concepts have been dominating the news for months. The debate may have provided fascinating material for teachers of government and politics: maybe for economics lessons, too. But what impression has it made on the students in our schools?

I’m sure many are bored to tears, since there’s so little else talked about in the news (Question: how many schoolchildren listen to or watch the news anyway?).

No, I’m not asking what impression the arguments on each side of the EU debate have made on children, what reasoned or overwhelming arguments they have heard on either side. 

What concerns me is the opinion they are left with of our politicians, our democracy and the way it functions: because to my mind, at present, they all stink. And fof those of us working in schools there are significant ironies in the way politicians have behaved throughout the whole sorry saga. 

Schools have a moral purpose: through assemblies, tutorial and other pastoral sessions and, one would hope, across the entire warp and weft of school life, we encouraged and train children to be honest, to tell the truth, not to lie, exaggerate or distort. 

Beyond that we insist that any argument, whether it’s about the causes of the First World War, the characterisation of Desdemona in Othello or even the process of titration in chemistry, is backed up by evidence – from contemporary writers, from the script, from what we actually observed in the course of the experiment. 

In the GCSE and A level years, and more particularly the submission of coursework of any sort, we preach endlessly to our pupils about the need to be scrupulous about presenting only their own work, acknowledging any reference or borrowed ideas and never, never plagiarising.

For the past 20 years governments and politicians have been urging schools to promote citizenship, British values, the importance of engagement in civil society and, indeed, the need to show compassion to, and to look out for, our fellow human beings. Yet what decency or compassion has there been in this debate? 

From the start, when the Prime Minister’s erstwhile friends stabbed him in the back in a staggering display of disloyalty, to the present when both sides signally failed to resist the temptation to bicker over the capital they could make from the murder of a serving MP, Jo Cox: from the so-called Project Fear of the Remain camp to Nigel Farage’s despicable reworking of a Nazi image designed to stir up fears of immigration; the young people in our care, the voters of the future, have been shown politics at its worst, principle and decency abandoned in favour of manipulation, distortion and the determination to win at any cost.

I’m consciously writing this for publication before the votes are counted. I hope the vote will be to remain in the EU, with my fervent added wish that we’ll make Europe work better by engaging in it properly instead of carping and criticising. If the vote goes for Brexit, I will have to live with that: that’s how democracy works. 

Whatever the result, however, politics has sunk to a new low: as adult, voter and educator I’m ashamed of what my generation has made of politics and of our democracy. 

Perhaps the children we’re teaching now will make a better of job of it in the future: I sincerely hope they will, and (fortunately) find the youngsters in school now so impressive and committed that I’m quite optimistic. But they won’t learn or achieve anything in politics by following the example set them in recent months. 

We are all the poorer for this experience: our democracy is diminished. 


Give schools a break. They’re doing their best: less blame and a lot more support would help

19th June 2016

From media reports this week you’d think schools are actively promoting harm. Reporting on an enquiry by the Women and Equality Committee in Parliament on sexual harassment and sexual violence in school, The Telegraph said MPs heard that “sexist name calling and lifting skirts is ignored in some schools because some still regard sexism as acceptable behaviour”. 

Even an NUT representative was critical. Rosamund McNeil, the union’s Head of Education and Equality, urged government to issue guidance to schools which must “understand that sexism is as important as racism and the harm and negative consequences are just as serious as racist stereotypes”.

Meanwhile, Susie McDonald, Chief Executive of healthy relationships charity Tender, complained: “many teachers are victim-blaming at the moment. They are looking at sexual harassment as horseplay or something that’s just going on in the corridors”. And OFSTED’s Jane Millward said teachers aren’t reporting low level sexual harassment against girls, thus creating a culture where it is “seen as the norm”.

Yes, we have an enormous problem with sexual harassment and sexism in society at large: and society is mirrored within the small communities of schools. As Ms McNeil said, “We have a country where we still have levels of rape and sexual harassment because unfortunately we haven’t won the battle that all of this is sexism and all of this is unacceptable”.

I fear that, whereas many children will nowadays not dream of using racist language, there isn’t the same taboo concerning sexist terms. But are schools really doing so badly? 

To be sure, teachers cannot oversee student behaviour every second of the day (though some try): but I can’t imagine the teachers I mix with, not just in my school, simply ignoring blatant sexual harassment of girls when they see it – or even suspect it. 

Society is ambivalent about this. Sexism creeps into schools from outside. Parents, too, may abhor racist abuse: but some I have had to deal with, having disciplined their child for using offensive sexual language, have suggested that I’m overreacting over “mere words”.

I’ve no doubt that we need to do more, though I’m surprised by someone from a teaching union requesting more government guidance: schools are drowning under the stuff.

In short, it’s probably true that teachers need more skill, confidence and therefore training in dealing with issues around sexual harassment: government should provide it. It should be of the highest quality, hard-hitting and intelligent, not the usual low-level, banal rubbish that accompanies every new government agenda. And then schools need the time and funding for training and for implementing the strategies that result.

Schools should not be blamed for society’s ills. Even a recent call for parenting lessons from government included a sideswipe at schools. John Ashton, outgoing President of the Faculty of Public Health, proclaimed (to quote The Times) that “parents needed help to prevent the next generation being crippled by conditions such as anxiety, anorexia and obesity. One in ten children have a mental health problem, and a poor relationship with parents is among the main causes”.

We might well agree with this, though his reason for demanding state intervention was unhelpful: today’s young people, Professor Ashton asserted, are being neglected by “sweatshop” schools as well as bad parents.

Well, thanks. It’s our fault again, apparently.

I’m not wallowing in a slough of victimhood. I just don’t accept the caricature of ineffectual teachers consciously ignoring sexual harassment: and I don’t recognise our schools as sweatshops. 

Nonetheless, teachers are under pressure, school leaders suffering the cosh of floor-targets and inspection: of course pressure is sometimes passed on to children (hence the sweatshop crack), and teachers just don’t have the time or energy to be always out on the corridors, spotting wrong behaviours and intervening to stop them.

Schools are, and should be, a microcosm of society. That means they have to deal with the community’s intractable problems as well as its strengths and joys. 

But give them a break! They’re doing their best: less blame and a lot more support would go a long way to helping them do the job that’s too often required of them – curing in miniature the sicknesses of a greater society.


Teachers are flocking to teach overseas to escape a brutal accountability and inspection system

12th June 2016

Another teacher recruitment crisis looms – or, perhaps, the same one made worse. To be fair, Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw predicted it some months back. It’s estimated that over the next ten years some half million UK teachers will be required to teach in British-style international schools overseas.

That sector is proving a great British export. Whatever our turmoil and travails back home, and however much we worry about our own national system, they can’t get enough of traditional UK education abroad. It’s not all about pretending to be like Eton, Harrow or any of the other great names: solid, traditional British-style, English-medium teaching, either leading to A levels or to the International Baccalaureate, is now what people want all over the world. Teachers will be needed.

So will these burgeoning overseas schools be attractive to British teachers? Undoubtedly. What’s not to like? They’re an attractive prospect, especially for young teachers. In general the pay’s good, housing is provided cheaply or free, and it’s a great bit of life experience.

Will Michael Wilshaw be proved correct? Will we find our own schools denuded of teachers as they all scramble abroad to get a bit of this exciting, international jet-set kind of teaching? We may. 

We already face a teacher recruitment crisis. Government’s intense dislike of university departments has led to the somewhat chaotic pattern of teaching schools across the country. That’s something I’ve never understood, because I think in recent years university PGCE courses been turning out fantastic new teachers. 

Many teaching schools are doing a great job: but government has devolved the training so far down the line that it seems to have no central grasp of supply and demand, of take-up, or even of whether (to take one crucial example) we’re producing enough maths teachers (we aren’t).

So does this make the international schools the villains of the piece? No. They’re a useful British export, and do our image no harm around the world: all the more if they encourage increasing numbers of overseas students to come to UK universities, a vital source of income despite the fact that the visa system is now so labyrinthine and hostile that it’s bound to deter many such applicants.

Besides, a bit of international experience would be fantastic for teachers returning home to continue and complete their careers in UK schools, enriched all the more by getting a sight of the world beyond the shores of our little country. No, a change is as good as a rest, and these teachers will come back from abroad refreshed and infinitely stimulated. They’ll be good for the teaching force.

There’s an elephant in the room, isn’t there? The threat of losing half a million teachers abroad is a significant one. And is it such a threat because government is failing on two counts. First, as I’ve written above, it’s failing to grasp and take action on the issue of supply and demand of teachers.

Second, and more damaging long term, is government policy, heavy-handed, brutal accountability and a hostile inspection system which more often than not leave teachers feeling bullied and devalued, especially if heads under the relentless pressure of floor targets and their own accountability pass that pressure on to them. Teachers will surely see that spell abroad as a blessed relief from the grind of teaching in UK schools.

I never try to deter any potential teacher from entering the profession. It remains, despite the pressures, rewarding and generous, and a vital thing, a real vocation to open up life opportunities to the young, whatever the age-group we teach, whatever the setting or type of school.

But government has ground the joy out of it, replacing the pleasure with such a burden of accountability and relentless criticism that I can’t blame any teachers for reckoning the grass is very much greener – not on the other side of the fence, but beyond the sea or across the world.

This should be a good news story, one of both exporting the best of British and of giving our great teachers irreplaceable experience abroad.

But it has all the makings of a crisis. And government only has itself to blame.

This one was apparently removed from the TES website after parents claimed The Sunday Times had misquoted them in using the word "ghetto": worth a read!
around 7th June 2016
An intriguing story about special educational needs popped up in The Sunday Times on 29th May. Academy chain The Dean Trust was accused of segregating disabled and special needs pupils, bussing them from its top academy to what angry parents termed a “ghetto school”. 

Looking beyond the hype and emotive language, the outstanding school, Ashton-on-Mersey School, serves an affluent Cheshire suburb, is sponsored by Manchester United Football Club and is rated outstanding by OFSTED. However, the Trust told the parents of two dozen children that it would send them to Broadoak School in Partington, one of the most deprived areas of Greater Manchester, claiming it was due to “limited resources” at Ashton-on-Mersey.

Parents are up in arms. They chose Ashton for their children, not the other school: now they’re being taken down the road. There’s also a 40-minute journey between the schools.

The Trust’s chief executive was quoted as saying the move was necessary because of the high number of special needs and disabled children already in Ashton-on-Mersey: he stated that Broadoak was “well-equipped with outstanding support” and that many pupils already split their education between the two schools.

I have no knowledge of the schools, the area or the trust in question. But it seems to me that this story shines a spotlight on some of the intractable problems surrounding support for children who are disabled or have special needs.

Since time immemorial parents of disabled and special needs children have had to battle to get the support they need. Being married to an expert in SEN – dyslexia in particular – I’ve heard too many stories over the years of desperate parents reaching the very door of a tribunal before the Local Authority (LA) caved in agreed to provide the particular help their child needed. 

I’m told some LAs even now deny the existence of dyslexia. Cunning arguments are formulated to prove that dyslexia is not a single problem, but an “unhelpful umbrella term” for many different specific learning difficulties. Such evasion is also a handy way of declining to take responsibility for (or fund) children with the condition. 

Given the onward march of academisation – forced or otherwise – one might be tempted to think that, if LAs have so often been the ogre with regard to special needs provision, the problem will soon be in the past. In future, surely, academies and their controlling trusts and chains will provide the support.

Not quite. As I understand it, one of the few educational responsibilities left to LAs will be the coordination and provision of special needs support. Moreover, as we know, LAs are in desperate financial straits, councils as a whole being required to trim tens of millions off their budgets, year on year. Special needs will not be immune: just as schools and academies alike are already taking the hit, exposing broken government promises on protected funding. 

There isn’t enough money in the system: the rationing will continue, as will the refusal of responsible bodies to take on the burden of special needs support, because doing so involves them in significant cost.

That Sunday Times story casts Dean Trust as the villain of the piece: but it’s not as simple as that. The Trust claims to have good provision in one of its academies: why would it go to the expense of duplicating or extending that in another one? We’re frequently assured that one advantage of academy chains lies in economy of scale. Centralised resources: specialised services located in particular institutions, not spread across the whole.

A trust makes its decision and allocates its resources thoughtfully. Logical: job done. Just what government ordered.

But it’s not good for the children.  Their families want them, special needs notwithstanding, to attend that outstanding school close to home. Instinctively, one’s heart is with them: the rational head, by contrast, concludes that the trust is using its resources sensibly and appropriately, as required.

In our brave new educational world, special needs and the concept of inclusion remain too often an area of complexity, obscurity and conflict.  That desperate parents still have to fight the system to obtain necessary support for their child’s disability or special needs is something that shames us all.

Sir Michael Wilshaw might want more mavericks, but nonconformism has been ground out of the system

26th May 2016

It takes one to know one. Outgoing Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw says we need more mavericks running schools.

When he was a school head he undoubtedly qualified as a maverick. He gave no quarter when fighting to get the best for the children in his care. Not by accident was he the head of Mossbourne Academy, which rose phoenix-like from the ruinous history of Hackney Downs School. I know and respect several people who worked for him at deputy or similar level: they hold him in admiration and awe.

In a speech on Wednesday, he complained that our “very ordinary” education system needs mavericks in it to bring in something of the extraordinary. There aren’t enough in the state sector: there are more of them in the independent, he claims (he was speaking at the determinedly free-spirited and independently-minded Bedales School).

We used to love mavericks in schools, and not just as heads: the eccentric chemistry teacher who had the knack of enthusing the most unscientific pupil with the subject, and whose leadership qualities would enable him to drag children to the top of mountains in the summer holidays; the music teacher who inspired children to sing in their hundreds, somehow overwhelming their natural reluctance to do so; the geographer who got kids to stay all hours after school to build a hovercraft.

We remember them fondly, and call them mavericks, or eccentrics: but they stand out in our memory really because they were inspirational, and different, teachers with a genuine passion for leading young people in extraordinary directions where they could discover themselves and learn that they could succeed. They were unafraid to bend the rules, so certain in the rightness of their passion and inspiration that meaningless red tape was simply something to be circumvented. As a Danish head once said to me, “I’ve always found it easier to receive forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand.”

Note my use of the past tense. How can such mavericks hope to survive nowadays? I hope I’m still sufficiently strongly motivated to insist when necessary on doing the right thing, rather than the convenient one. Yet I’m no maverick, and guess I must have become risk-averse: not with age, but with the constant pressures of regulation and of grinding, unreasoning accountability.

The Independent Schools Inspectorate tells me that my school (independent of government, remember) is obliged to comply with more than 400 regulations. Before any Brexiteer bleats about excessive red tape from Brussels, let me emphasise that I’m not aware of a single one of those emanating from the EU. Independent School Regulatory Standards are entirely Westminster-generated: and, pace Boris, the size of bunches of bananas don’t feature any more than they’re stipulated by the EU.

The educational world in which we nowadays operate is suspicious of mavericks. The profile of Safeguarding has become so enormous (sadly, with good reason over many years) that there is an almost inevitable confusion in people’s minds between those who push the boundaries to do things in different, even wacky ways and those who might prove a threat to children. The system is inimical to those reluctant to fill in the forms. Inevitable, perhaps: but don’t hope to see inspired eccentrics in the classroom in future.

As for mavericks, Sir Michael himself, while sympathetic to them, leads a major section of the government machinery that has steadily ground nonconformist heads out of the system through the relentless pressure of inspection, floor-targets and league-tables.

There is little space now for any school leader who wants to do things differently or even take risks (risk-taking: the basis of all entrepreneurialism). Wilshaw may be off-message in the government’s terms nowadays, as he develops a sense of gate-fever, but the Inspectorate – notwithstanding his apology for its apparent previous demand for a particular style of teaching – has rendered any deviation from a safe norm, from the “ordinary” that he deplores, the action of a dangerous lunatic. The individual can’t risk it: nor can the school.

If you must enforce conformity and crush divergent views – as successive governments have with your help, Sir Michael – don’t blame schools or their leaders for lacking the courage to be wacky or different. 


The British disease of not trusting “foreign” has infected students deciding against taking languages

22nd May 2016

Sometimes I despair of my fellow-countrymen: really, I do. No, I’m not talking about the latest lows to which the Brexit debate has sunk, a choice (one might think) between Hitler-like domination if we remain and economic isolation plus untrammelled terrorism if we leave. No, abysmal as what passes for debate has become among politicians has begun, I’m not on about that.

Mind you, I can’t help fearing that our very ambivalence and indecision about Europe and our place in it has something to do with this week’s TES headline, the latest nail in the coffin of modern foreign languages in English schools. 

Last Monday, TES revealed that OCR, England’s third-biggest school exam board, will not offer reformed French, German or Spanish GCSEs and A levels, new specifications that schools are due to start teaching in September. Experts are warning, says TES, that the move could be “the thin end of the wedge and lead to other exam boards stopping qualifications that are loss-making or where a board has a small share of the market”.

Should we be concerned about a shift towards a position where only one exam board offers a particular subject? Some voices suggest we will only improve marking if each individual subject is offered by only one board. Economies of scale: ability to recruit sufficient examiners; expertise all in one place; these are cited to justify a move to one-exam-one-board system.

To me it’s wrong. Having little faith in exam boards, I fear the loss of the one weapon we have against them (OFQAL having proved itself toothless), the competitive market that allows dissatisfied schools to move to another board. Franchising sounds to me like the worst of all monopolies 

The news that OCR is effectively pulling out of European modern foreign languages presages a greater doom. Numbers taking GCSE and A level languages are plummeting: only the independent sector is effectively keeping them alive at A level (that’s not a sectoral boast, just a fact). Yet even independent schools are concerned that relatively few A level students choose French, German or Spanish, let alone other languages.

Their decisions are frequently pragmatic. For the ambitious A level student aiming for a top university, a language A level can appear a high-risk option. Boards award fewer top grades in languages: the range of live oral and aural tests within the qualifications provide a greater scope than other subjects for coming a cropper in the exam; and there have been numerous concerns about the quality of marking. Given that young people, particularly the most ambitious, are canny in planning their trajectory towards higher education, they may eschew languages in favour of subjects whose outcomes are more predictable.

The problem goes deeper still. 47.6% of GCSE pupils took a language in 2015: in 1998 entries peaked at 85.5%.  Introduction of the EBacc, with its compulsory language, has clearly failed to halt the decline, notwithstanding a claim from the DfE’s spokesman (my robotic friend Robert), that “the number of pupils entering for a modern language GCSE has risen by 20% since 2010, reversing the severe decline between 2000 and 2010.” 

If my maths is right, 20% added to a small number remains a pretty small number, n’est-ce pas?

As usual we can blame government inaction for this latest grim news – and grim it is, whatever DFE claims.

At base I suspect the decline is linked to that strange relationship between the Brits and Europe. We like Europe to go on holiday in: but we don’t want to do politics with it. We love to go to Spain and order dos cervezas, por favor, but we’re damned if we can be bothered to learn the language properly. 

Not all of us, I know: and please, language teachers, don’t write and protest, because I feel your pain and, believe me, do everything I can to support you in my school.

It’s the British disease, that dislike and distrust of “talking foreign” and belief that shouting loudly in English is sufficient for communication with neighbours we don’t much care for in any case. 

So I begin to despair. It will take more than franchising out exams or fiddling statistics to solve this one.


All these U-turns and contradictions are enough to short-circuit the DfE’s army of automatons

15th May 2016

I’m worried about Robert. Really, I am. 

I’m referring to the robot of indeterminate gender who acts as the Department of Education’s spokesman on all matters. When I first divined his/her existence, I was reminded of two great writers of mid-late 20th Century science fiction. 

Arthur C Clarke posited in 2001, A Space Odyssey, a computer that saw the humans as the weak link in its programmed mission and sought to eliminate them. By contrast, Isaac Asimov’ Laws of Robotics prohibited a robot, however powerful its AI, from ever harming a human being. A command given to a robot that required it to do so would identify a contradiction within it, resulting in paralysis or shut-down

Recently we’ve been seeing Robert the DfE robot similarly perplexed when required to comment on ministerial climb-downs and U-turns. SATs and floor-targets have really taxed the hapless android. When parents led a boycott of the exams Robert was unbending: 

Tests are in pupils’ own interests and help teachers and parents identify where additional support is needed so we can make sure all children leave primary school having mastered the basics of literacy and numeracy.

Notwithstanding the fact that 89% of teachers abhor SATs, in reply to criticism by the President of the Independent Schools Association, Robert commented:

We value teachers’ feedback on tests and work with them in the development process, through expert review and trialing of potential questions. 

That was hardly consistent with the response to a survey that

56 per cent of pupils themselves do not mind the tests, which help teachers understand how pupils are doing and identify where additional support is needed.

There’s genuine confusion about the suggestion that the number of primary schools falling below floor standards could rise by a fifth this year: yet Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had promised the NAHT annual conference that no more than one per cent more schools would fail, a number in single figures.

Poor Robert was programmed to clear up the misunderstanding:

It is misleading to speculate on numbers at this stage, but we can say the proportion will not rise by more than one percentage point.

The TES observed baldly: “a rise to 6 per cent would mean an extra 149 schools judged as failures”.

On the U-turn that wasn’t a U-turn with regard to forced academisation, Robert was called in to back up a boss who was in danger of becoming robotic herself.  Nicky Morgan was emphatic: “I am today reaffirming our determination to see all schools to become academies. However, having listened to the feedback from Parliamentary colleagues and the education sector we will now change the path to reaching that goal.” 

They’ll do it anyway: they just don’t need to legislate to do it. Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the Nation Union of Teachers, was in no doubt: it was “quite clear that the Government intends to press ahead with their academy programme”.

Robert was conciliatory at first, allegedly still responding to a question about academisation: 

We want to work constructively with the sector, supporting the school-led system to better develop and train the next generation of strong leaders.

When someone in Sanctuary Buildings turned up the hard-line knob, Robert’s message got tougher: 

We have been clear that our ambition remains to see all schools to become academies and we welcome this analysis on how that could be achieved. We will be consulting with the public and the wider education sector on the threshold of underperforming and unviable local authorities in due course.

Robert then began to emit sparks and regurgitate nuts and bolts before being whisked back indoors for repair. 

All this contradiction is just too much for the poor machine. Statements about how the Department has sacked mental health champion Natasha Devon MBE, er, while still keeping her on board as a full member of the DfE’s mental health steering group, which will be making recommendations this summer has really over-heated Robert’s circuit-boards. Moreover, it’s clear that someone will have to programme a whole new app to produce announcements and excuses following such strings of cock-ups as leaked SATs papers. 

But hey! That’s robotics for you! Coming next: Robert learns to drive.

How Claudio Ranieri’s leadership shows us there’s another way for schools

5th May 2016

As the shortened week got underway after the bank holiday, I spotted a sharp contrast between two news stories. First, the group of parents (a lot of them) who took their children out of school on Tuesday in protest at the Year 2 Sats. The weather was kind, and they enjoyed a pleasant day at museums, out in the woods and fields: doing, well, perhaps what children should be allowed to do more of instead of wading through the complexities of spelling and grammar.

It wasn’t their protest that struck me, however, so much as the reaction of their critics.

There were thundering voices of disapproval, blaming the parents for being irresponsible and blaming schools for administering the tests irresponsibly so that they put pressure on the children. In a BBC interview it was claimed that, if teachers did their job, these tests wouldn’t be necessary anyway.

Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb admitted live on radio that the government isn’t much interested in the individual scores of children: the tests are actually about testing schools. We should be grateful, I guess – at least he admitted it. Then he got one of his own grammar questions wrong.

This row falls broadly along political (but not necessarily party-political) lines. The parents’ action stemmed from frustration that government doesn’t listen to them, not from a political stance: their most strident critics were avowedly Right-wing, keen teacher-bashers who can’t believe that any child can make progress without regular testing.

Contrast that sourness with the euphoria of Leicester being crowned Premier League champions. You don’t have to be a football fan to feel affinity with the triumphant underdog.

A confident prophet of such things, I declared some years back that no club like Leicester could ever win the title: money talks so loudly in football nowadays that only the biggest four or five clubs could hope to jostle for position at the top.

I am still largely right, except with Leicester as a wonderful, wonderful exception.

I was fascinated by the generous compliments paid to Leicester’s manager, Claudio Ranieri. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich had a low opinion of him and fired him; a little while later the Greek national team sacked him too after they were felled by a minnow

Yet Ranieri has proved this season that there is still a place for magic in leadership

There’s plenty of cod leadership theory about: books and courses based on Shakespeare (especially Henry V); The One-Minute Manager; I suspect somewhere there’s even a Bake Off-based leadership course.

Now we can surely await the Leicester City/Ranieri management programme. In fact, make me an offer and I’ll write it!

One radio commentator observed that the team under Ranieri was humble: they wanted to do better all the time. In return, he didn’t criticise them in public: nor can I believe he tore them apart in private. He built belief, he communicated passion.

As for rewards, when the team first kept a clean sheet, he didn’t seek to pay bonuses on top of what were pretty decent salaries, even if they look paltry compared with those paid by the great clubs. No, he promised he’d teach them to make pizza: the charm of the Italian kitchen; the warmth of the communal dining table; the pleasure and camaraderie of cooking and eating together. What a secret weapon!

When journalists tried to rattle him in the later stages, he could all too easily have been goaded or entrapped. Yet he remained relaxed. Even at the weekend, as fans and players waited to see whether Spurs would concede the championship by failing to win, he wasn’t glued to his radio or TV, he flew home to celebrate his mum’s 96th birthday.

Let’s sum that up: no extravagant praise or harsh public criticism, but honest comment; no bonuses or performance-related pay, but esteem and camaraderie; no public blaming or shaming, but lots of quiet confidence; no extravagant promises, but plenty of quiet satisfaction.

Could this be a model for political leadership in education in 2016?

Sadly, it seems, the powers that be don’t think so. Tests, league tables, inspection, performance-related pay, constant pressure from above: those are the tools for getting results. It’s the only language they understand. That soft-centred approach, it would never work.

Except that it can – and Claudio Ranieri has proved it. I think I’ll go and make my staff a pizza.


The government constantly falls into the old trap of valuing most that which can be most easily measured

22nd April 2016

It’s widely accepted that the best way to learn something is to teach it: so perhaps, by the time I’ve unpacked and explained what the National Union of Students is up to, I might have got my head round it.

At its annual conference this week, the NUS voted to “mobilise students to sabotage or boycott” the National Student Survey (NSS). This is a tactic in the Union’s battle to prevent government from raising tuition fees even further.

You can hardly blame students for that aim: anything else would sound like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Government has developed the bright idea of creating a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Universities will be judged by their teaching, and only those judged excellent will be allowed to put up their fees. That seems reasonable: except for the assumption that those institutions judged excellent will therefore certainly do so, boosting their income. 

Government sees NSS scores as one of the main pillars of the TEF, alongside graduate employment rates. The latter are measured by the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DHLE), again established by a survey: students are being urged to ignore that one too. 

So students find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. If they complete the survey and give a high rating for the teaching they receive, let alone tell government that graduate recruitment is good too, they’re likely to find the university with which they’re happy sticking up their fees (for their younger sibling or friend, if not for them). 

So why not play safe instead, and give only a cautious “satisfactory”? Sadly, if they do that, government will cut funding to the university, so they risk seeing that course axed.

I can’t blame students for thinking this way, even though I suspect the tactic is flawed. It’s based on the presumption of a chain of consequences that would require more coherent action from government than any has displayed hitherto. Westminster is more likely to flounder as usual from one initiative to another, all the while seeking to raise fees and reduce its outgoings: I wouldn’t expect any more joined-up thinking than that.

I can imagine the howls of outrage that will greet students’ refusal to rate the teaching they receive. Schoolteachers are rated by Ofsted: why should academics be permitted to carry on in their ivory towers? We know that there’s some poor teaching in universities: too many academics prefer research to dealing with the messy inadequacies of undergraduates.

But do we know that? Or is it just a kind of Daily Express reader view, oft-repeated? Moreover, the fact that schools have suffered inspection and the crude scoring of teachers for two decades and more doesn’t mean we should wish it on universities. Teachers’ lives are blighted, stress levels are raised, careers sometimes ruined – and if it’s not on the basis of the teaching, it’s because the school as a whole doesn’t hit particular government targets. 

Worse still, government constantly falls into the old trap of valuing most that which can be most easily measured.

In our eagerness to foist a parallel regime of misery onto academics we risk sounding like angry teenagers: “It’s not fair! I’m having a lousy time, so they should too!”

The last thing we should do is give the job of rating university teaching to government: it always messes it up.

Besides, this government and its predecessors have already created a mechanism to improve university teaching. Given the amount students are now paying, either up-front or in debt, they won’t put up for long with poor levels of contact time or inadequate teaching. They’re now purchasers, and they can wield their power as such to ensure good value. 

I don’t believe for a moment that the NUS has it all right: its thinking is very confused. But I think this proposed boycott of surveys might just be a good thing for UK university education.

Teachers need space away from targets, planning and marking to pursue extracurricular activities with pupils

15th April 2016

The Easter holiday, and perhaps the space for thought and rest it affords, gave rise to more than usually optimistic headlines in last week’s TES magazine. How cheering it was to read Tom Bennett: “Paper trails hide what truly makes a school”.

He reminded us that the accumulation of knowledge and (too often) regurgitation of facts are but parts of education.  What makes us truly human is the host of personal interactions: and all those wonderful opportunities beyond the classroom. 

The best schools have always taken education beyond the formal end of the school day: unconsciously I constantly echo Bennett’s message to my pupils: there’s so much more to schools than schooling. 

That brings us to the government’s latest wheeze for extending school hours. Jonathan Simons, former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, warned that it’s “a drawn-out affair”. He noted the difficulties of spending the offered funding on third-party providers if schools aren’t in walking distance from one another or from those providers: “beneath the treasury largesse,” he concludes, “it’s things like hall space, insurance and school buses that make policy fly or sink”. 

But let’s not be downhearted! How wonderful it was to read Kris Boulton, Head of KS4 Maths at King Solomon Academy, stating boldly that “no one utters the word Ofsted in my school”. The secret to a school that makes a difference is finding a meaningful common purpose rather than striving to fulfil an imposed set of ideals in order to be great: “If your vision for your staff and school is to be Ofsted outstanding, shame on you.”

Kris would be critical, then, of schools fingered by another report: “Ofsted to penalise schools for gaming league tables.” Shame on them! What a betrayal of educational purpose!

Well, maybe. But what if you are under Ofsted’s cosh? What if you have a cohort of students who start so far back that to achieve the progress measures demanded is simply impossible? “Poverty is no excuse”, the policymakers parrot. Ministers and the Department are unyielding and intolerant as they seek to drive up standards and make everything world-class.

Of course we must share that aim: but massive structural reform through academisation; unrelenting pressure from government; even the dismal failure of Education Secretary Nicky Morgan to inspire or offer comradeship to NASUWT, choosing instead to lecture conference delegates; all combine to push schools, teachers and their leaders into making the wrong choices that are so easy to criticise in print. 

“Who cares what Ofsted thinks?” asks Kris Boulton. A hell of a lot of people and every one of them under pressure.

Even funding an extended school day in order to help schoolchildren to develop “character” or “grit”, terms used too crudely and too interchangeably by the Secretary of State and her staff, misses the point. Not every school will get the money, nor be able to make use of it, as Simons explains in his article. 

It’s a piecemeal, sticking-plaster, headline-grabbing stunt.

Schools succeed in extending the offer to children both in terms of hours in the day and the range of activities available only when teachers go the extra mile. That old tradition, somewhat unique to the UK, continues still in places. It’s a distinctive feature of independent schools: but it must not become their exclusive preserve. 

In their professional, let alone their personal, lives, teachers need space from chasing targets, planning lessons, marking work and chasing targets again: then they can find time and energy to pursue their extracurricular enthusiasms with their pupils. It is powerful beyond words when pupils see their teachers in different guises: the maths teacher who runs a football team; the English teacher who doesn’t just teach Shakespeare, but puts him on stage; the science teacher who helps the kids build a car. 

Have such role models disappeared into the mists of some legendary golden age? Not all, not yet: but their number won’t grow with swingeing cuts on school budgets under which, contrary to government rhetoric, teaching staffs shrink, teachers feel harried and driven and children’s opportunities are crushed.

Fortunately, there are great human beings working in schools who yet defy government’s utilitarian pressure and paper trails. 

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


In other sectors customers aren’t permitted to become aggressive or abusive to staff: Why do we accept it from parents?

8th April 2016

On Tuesday The Times reported from the ATL’s recent annual conference that independent school teachers find themselves on call to parents 24/7. Claire Kellett from Somerset claimed teachers “are in thrall to a culture of the customer always being right”.

Perhaps she works in a boarding school. That relatively small minority of teachers might too easily be dismissed as getting what they are paid (and parents pay a fortune) for.  That would be wrong. The phenomenon spreads: neither independent nor maintained day schools are immune. 

Nowadays everyone has ownership, client-power. On trains we’re termed not passengers but customers, welcomed as if personally to “your 08.05 service”. 

Aside from removing the requirement that maintained schools appoint parent governors, government constantly restates its commitment to parent power. Parental complaints can trigger OFSTED inspections. And suggestions regularly emanate from Westminster that dissatisfied parents should be able to remove heads or even governors.

I like parents. They’re not the bane of teachers’ lives, or shouldn’t be: but some are prone to getting things out of proportion. Occasionally such parents enter my modest Head’s Office, politely thanking me for seeing them. When I know they’ve behaved foully to people lower down the chain, I remonstrate with them: the conversation seldom goes well.

Other parents are as objectionable to me as they are to my colleagues. There’s a measure of fairness in that.

In other walks of life customers aren’t permitted to become aggressive or abusive to staff. Witness the signs on station platforms, in airports and hospitals, stating the fact explicitly. That message doesn’t seem to have reached those parents who scream down the phone at school receptionists or send those late-night emails after “supper with a glass or two of wine [when] they’ve heard about a child’s day and its injustice”, as The Times’s Nicola Woolcock reported.

Some schools publish teachers’ email addresses, even phone numbers. In a boarding environment, this might appear essential: perhaps a houseparent must be contactable. In other settings I’d call it unwise. Nonetheless, parents can work out how the school generates email staff addresses, so we couldn’t prevent them from sending a message direct, even if we wanted to.

Thus, to protect teachers, we need to lay down clear ground-rules. Even someone running a boarding house is allowed time off: there must be emergency phone contact, but there can be no absolute requirement of staff to take phone calls at any hour of the day or night. Schools should lay down firm guidelines as to when it is acceptable to phone boarding staff: and stipulate what constitutes the emergency that would render extraordinary contact acceptable.

Is that pushing it, when parents are shelling out £33,000 a year? I don’t think so.

We have no control over when emails arrive. But we can be individually strong and decline to read them when they come at night. I know. I succumb to temptation and, too often, read them even at 10pm on a Friday. I shouldn’t.

Let’s make be clear with ourselves and to parents. No parent should demand an instant reply to an email, nor even by a certain time. Usually any complaint (that’s what we’re talking about) requires a measure of investigation before a satisfactory reply can be issued.

The first discipline needs to come from teachers themselves: don’t read those things at night!

Second, at an institutional level, schools should discourage colleagues from emailing one another outside an agreed set of hours: and school leaders, the SLT, should lead by example and never break that rule.

Sometimes I feel the need to remind the whole staff that, say, I’ll be out all day at a meeting. I use my phone to send that email from the train at 7am as I hurtle towards London, rather than the night before: the head shouldn’t send even dull, routine emails to colleagues at night.

I know some parents simply won’t be trained. But the majority will, as long as we tell them what we can do: what we shouldn’t be expected to; and then avoid breaking our own rules.

Such guidelines won’t solve all the problems: but they will help.


Abysmal grammar, newspeak and doublethink: it’s a brave new world we teach in

28th March 2016

Remember 1984? I don’t mean the year, but George Orwell’s dystopian novel. In his vision of what, back then, was the future (I know: it’s confusing), Orwell coined two fantastic new words: newspeak and doublethink.

Newspeak was the practice of creating new language to define the prescribed way of doing things under the totalitarian regime predicted by Orwell in his imaginary future. Doublethink was a little harder: that was something that citizens needed to do in order to rationalise the contradictions inherent in government announcements, and believe in its benign intentions.

We can see plenty of examples of both words currently emanating from government. Government newspeak has invented the term academisation. This new word is remarkable for its grotesquely ungrammatical creation of a noun from a verb from a noun (an American known for massacring the English language once famously proclaimed, “The noun ain’t been invented yet that I can’t verb”).

As any fule kno (as Molesworth used to say), academisation means forcing a school that doesn’t want to be an academy to become one anyway: more than that, nowadays it entails joining a MAT, a multi-academy trust. Where it leaves an existing stand-alone free school or academy I’m uncertain.

The most recent example of doublethink concerns the position of parents. Obsessed with “parent power”, Tory think tanks (surely a contradiction in terms) constantly devise mechanisms to allow disgruntled groups to trigger an inspection, demand an emergency governors’ meeting, sack the head or, even more important, set up a parent-run committee to pick the under-10 football team (okay, I made that one up).

But the White Paper proposes to remove the requirement that academies have parent governors. Supporters of local democracy used to feel  parent governors furnished some protection for academies from outside interference. No longer.

This isn’t the first government to hate Local Authorities. The coalition did, and but the Blair government detested them even more: they got in the way of their vaunted reforms.

At first I wondered whether this was a pragmatic decision not to require the impossible: some schools (or academies in difficult settings) find it hard, even impossible, to recruit parent governors. Besides, anyone experienced head has suffered that parent governor who uses the position to grind their personal axe rather than looking to the good of the school as a whole.

My charitable view was dispelled, however, when I saw the wording: “As we move towards a system where every school is an academy, fully skills-based governance will become the normal across the education system.”

More abysmal grammar: some shocking thinking, too. Skills-based governance? Governing bodies are constantly advised to recruit all the accountants, lawyers and management experts that they can. Why would government pay – or ask schools to use their ever-dwindling budgets – for professional advice when it can twist arms and get it for nothing?

Have you ever tried to get a lawyer to give you free advice? Even supposing they were willing (if you can imagine it), they would say they couldn’t because acting outside their official position would mean they weren’t covered by their professional indemnity insurance. And someone might sue them.

Hell, they might end up having to sue themselves. No, that’s the stuff of fiction: except that real life with this government becomes ever closer to fiction.

Government doublethink: “we want schools – sorry, academies – to serve their communities and to raise standards, with a ruthless focus on improvement.: but we don’t want you parents going soft and messing it up.” This legislation will prevent parents from blocking the change from school to academy.

This government insists it’s setting teachers, school leaders and governing bodies free to make the decisions. Well, free apart from OFSTED, floor targets, Progress 8 measures, regional commissioners breathing down their necks, and the fact that parents don’t get a say.

Otherwise, business as usual. Come to think of it, Orwells’ vision of 1984 was surprisingly accurate after all.

This is what we are hearing from the DfE robots: monotonous, meaningless, triumphalist claptrap

20th March 2016

AI: it’s all the rage now. Artificial Intelligence, as exemplified by Google’s DeepMind computer has just beaten – no, wiped the floor with – Go grandmaster Lee Sedol. Using the AlphaGo programme the computer, which cleverly learns as it plays, thrashed the expert 4-1.

That’s some AI: not to be mistaken with the agricultural use of those initials – which, according to the old joke, is when the farmer does it to the cow instead of the bull.

In my youth I read a lot of science fiction. Isaac Asimov tangled with the issue of computers and robots, Asimov developing his concept idea of the Law of Robotics which would prevent robots from seeing the human race as a problem. By contrast Arthur C Clarke’s novel 2001 A Space Odyssey hypothesised that computers that can learn, true AIs, are a threat to mankind.

This is important again now. In my very early years one of my favourite television programmes was Fireball XL5: it even pre-dated Thunderbirds whose co-founder, Sylvia Anderson (the model for Lady Penelope), died this week. One of my clear memories from that show, amid the hilariously bouncing puppets, was Robert the Robot. I often wondered what happened to him. Was he scrapped, or stuck in a museum like those early puppets?

No. He has been secretly developed and reborn in the DfE: he is now the Department for Education’s spokesperson.

You think I’m making it up? Consider for a moment any recent DfE pronouncement. Monday’s Times published a headline (admittedly a small one) on its front page: Maths Crisis Puts British Pupils at Back of the Class. There followed a predictable outline of concerns that British pupils are falling behind the rest of the world in maths: in the most recent global rankings Britain came 26th out of 65, behind Poland, Estonia and Vietnam. The CBI’s Director of Employment and Skills, Neil Carberry said: “the system in England encourages teaching to the test, and only a fundamental review of the 14-18 curriculum can address this.”

Fair point, you may think. But how did the DFE respond? A spokeswoman was reported as saying: “the quality of maths teaching is improving dramatically in this country because we have reformed the curriculum, bringing maths teaching into line with international standards, ensuring young people can compete with the best in the world regardless of their background”.

Business as usual at the DfE, then. It’s bland, doesn’t answer the question at all and, indeed, says nothing, following the standard DfE pattern: “We’re right. We’re solving it. Shut up”.

This happens all the time. Remember that spat last autumn about whether independent or state schools were scoring more highly? I’m not picking at that scab again, but must quote another robotic DfE line in response: “we think the data is hugely welcomed and we think that it vindicates that our reforms are working and the next step should be to turbo-charge those reforms.” That quote would not score highly in any government grammar test for 11-year-olds.

Whether presented as male or female, the DFE spokespeople are now, I am convinced, one single robot. As for the voice, imagine Stephen Hawking’s mechanical tone, but without the genius and sense of humour that drive it. Think of a dalek with the warmth and humanity removed.

That is what we are hearing consistently from the DfE: monotonous, meaningless, triumphalist claptrap. On every issue, the department simply says: “we’re right. Anyone else is wrong. And now I’m putting my fingers in my ears and going naa naa naa naa!”

You think I’m making it up? Just watch it. In this blog I’ll be keeping an eye on the DfE and tracking Robert’s progress. You see, I think he’s the opposite of an AI. Far from learning and becoming more intelligent, he is programmed to become steadily more bland and less informative.

Sad, really. When Robert was a character in Fireball XL5, I was rather fond of him.


Education’s political landscape needs more conciliation and less Jeremy Hunt


11th March 2016


History of a kind will be made at the end of this month when, for the first time in 19 years, the NASUWT will welcome a serving Conservative education secretary to its conference. In recent years the platform has been graced by a cardboard cut-out of Michael Gove (I guess it made a good dart-board), an ironic comment on the fact that secretaries of state have refused to attend ever since Gillian Shepherd was, they say, booed and hissed by union delegates in 1997.


I can see that such conferences constitute a daunting audience to a minister, given that unions are invariably opposed to the policies they are “driving forward” (a common ministerial phrase). Mind you, Gillian Shepherd could give as good as she got. Sharing a table with her at an educational dinner (with fellow heads), I once remarked mildly that a more child-centred approach might help to raise standards in schools. She replied airily, “I’ve been hearing rubbish like that for years …” Attempts at further discussion on the topic fell flat.


It’s reported that NASUWT is in shock: I guess the usual invitation was sent expecting the customary rebuttal. Nicky Morgan may arrive in combative mood, and she may expect to be challenged: but she’s accepted the invitation. Good for her!


This is important. We’ve experienced too much over the years of governments refusing to talk to unions that disagree: not just Tory or coalition governments either. I recall a discussion about promoting student voice with Lord Adonis when he was Schools Minister. When I mentioned involving the NAHT, he responded curtly, “We’re not talking to them at the moment”: the union had taken its bat home at the time.


I served for some 11 years on the Council of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), back in the years when it was still called SHA. There were stormy meetings when delegates felt the executive should be doing battle with the Blair government, instead of conciliating.


The response was both candid and chilling: “Governments are petulant: if you disagree too strongly, they slam the door on you.” The closed door has been the experience of several unions over the years, with a number of successive governments.


It shouldn’t be like that. Looking beyond education, Jeremy Hunt has behaved disgracefully in his dispute with the junior doctors, and continues to do so. Refusal to talk: unilateral imposition of a contract; arrant lies from the government side; these do nothing to build confidence in policy-makers.


Should the BMA have done a better job for the people it represents? Probably. Me, I’d advocate the medieval method for electing a pope: lock the parties in a room and steadily reduce their food and drink until they come up with an agreement.


So what might the NASUWT expect from the Education Secretary? They should probably not hope for too much. Usually when secretaries of state appear (they’re pretty regular at ASCL), they bring a present: a concession; agreement to the association’s current demands; sometimes something more dramatic, a rabbit out of the hat.


That’s window-dressing. As are the flowery compliments about the quality of schools, teachers and their leadership which form the preamble to the ministerial kicking that generally follows.


Even if there is anger at NASUWT about various current policies, they should give Nicky Morgan a courteous hearing: but she’ll need to be good. I was at the ASCL conference in 2005 which was infamously reported as booing and hissing the hapless Ruth Kelly. Actually, no one booed or hissed: but we did mutter and grumble, because she parroted incoherent rubbish at us for 20 minutes.


It takes two to tango, as they say, and it certainly takes both sides to listen, negotiate and build consensus. Full marks to Nicky Morgan for accepting the NASUWT’s invitation: I hope she and they use the opportunity positively.



Here’s an unworthy thought: you don’t think she’s seizing the opportunity in order to push her line on Brexit, do you?Be warned: the next Ofsted Rottweiler to be appointed will come with even sharper fangs

24th February 2016

Once he was the great white hope for government – or, at least, for enforcing the Gove mission on education. Now, it seems, he’s suspected of “going native”, as Westminster terms it.

I’m talking of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. Sir Michael Wilshaw talks tough, but recently it appears he’s started to sympathise with schools and their leaders. I hear whispers that, even if floor targets and the figures don’t satisfy government requirements, supportive letters have come from HMCI recognising that the school is doing its best in difficult circumstances. 

If that’s true, no wonder Education Secretary Nicky Morgan reckons the next Chief Inspector, when Sir Michael retires, should be more aligned with the government’s approach. Pundits suggest that she’s setting her sights on the US: the frontrunner is reckoned to be American Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP public charter group which set up a network of 183 high-performing schools. He’s frequently described as the “scourge of the unions”.

Wilshaw has himself been a scourge of heads and schools that (he feels) let things slip and don’t pull students up on every laxity in uniform and behaviour. Yet, though I’ve disagreed with many of his most hard-line statements, all must concede that he’s done the business himself, with spectacular success, in the toughest settings. He knows what must be done, and also appreciates that it takes time: hence this recent manifestation of increasing humanity, perhaps.

Time is the enemy of politicians, however. They’re in a hurry, impatient. I’ve occasionally spoken to ministers or their close advisers and discovered two statements guaranteed to lose their interest: “it’s not as simple as that” or “it will take time”. If Sir Michael is starting to show that measure of understanding, no wonder he’s falling out of favour at Sanctuary Buildings: and it’s suggested there’s no one in Britain able to take over the job – at least, no one in line with government thinking. So they’re searching abroad.

Ministers in the last three administrations have spent time travelling the world finding education systems that work. Finland was regarded as the shining example: a little tarnished currently, perhaps. More recently Shanghai and Korea (not the one with the nuclear weapons, the other one) were held up as the places that really know how to do maths, hard work and (don’t overlook this) that particular skill of teaching classes of 90 students and more: goodbye, teacher-shortages!

I’m not just embarking on another rant about governments viciously enforcing their own agenda. But I don’t believe that someone, however successful in the American system, will necessarily understand how Britain works (the bad bits as well as the good). Moreover, an imposed approach imported from outside never works: I thought we all understood this by now.

My anxiety goes deeper than that: the danger was outlined by Eric Bolton. Remember him? I do, though I was a very young head when I heard him speak. 

Eric Bolton was the senior HMI from 1983 to 1991, back in the days when we revered Her Majesty’s Inspectors. They would visit schools and make measured, considered judgments, offering wisdom and advice for improvement while also taking their notes back to headquarters so they could disseminate examples of excellence and of difficulty, and plan the solutions.  There were no high-stakes inspections then: none of the simple pass-or-fail so beloved of ministers since those days. It was an inspectorate respected by the entire profession, and hugely influential. 

In a letter to The Times last Monday, Eric Bolton described the function of inspection as being “to give professionally independent advice about the state of the education service”. If the remit has changed, so as to be aligned with the government’s approach, as Nicky Morgan suggests, then every single educational goalpost in the country has been moved.

Of course it has. No government nowadays wants independent advice. Rather it requires its own prejudices and agendas to be reinforced and enforced by its own tightly-controlled inspectorate. 

I’ve always dubbed Ofsted the government’s Rottweiler: if ministers feel it’s lost its teeth as Wilshaw has mellowed, then to most of us it’s improved. But be warned.  The new Rottweiler they import will come with extra-large fangs. 


This idea that the state and independent sectors are in a death match does no one any favours

 11th February 2016

Dear Lord Lucas

I’m afraid you and I have fallen out, although we’ve never met, and haven’t discussed the matter that has angered me: but then, it appears you didn’t discuss your opinions of the position of independent education with representatives of the sector before sharing them with the media.

You were under no obligation to do so: but I’d have hoped you were sufficiently media-savvy to realise that your comments would inevitably be presented beneath such headlines as “Private Schools in Crisis” in Saturday’s Times.

You’ve done both sectors a disservice. In characterising state schools in the past as rife with pot-smoking and indiscipline, you’re peddling as tired an old stereotype as the press adopts when illustrating independent schools with that constantly-recurring 1920 photo of Etonians.

Though you credit them with enormous improvement, maintained school heads might feel patronised by the suggestion that “the understanding that you can run a school to high standards in the state sector … is there”. That’s neither new nor a blinding revelation.

As you concede, all schools have improved over the last few decades. I admit league tables and inspection have played their part: though that doesn’t excuse the concomitant bullying of schools and teachers by government over the past quarter-century.

Instead of rejoicing for all, you see state school improvement as a problem for independent schools which, you claim, “are on the wane”. You predict “a serious bleed out of the independent system”, and “slow shrinkage”. By contrast the Independent Schools Council reports rising numbers in the sector, this year even in the north.

Next you describe as a weakness “increasing homogeneity and conformity” in the way independent schools teach. I’d respond that both sectors have learnt to share best practice: is that dull conformity or the relentless pursuit of excellence?

You reckon independent schools (such as the one I run) will survive only by offering quirky things like polo teams: I think they thrive by being excellent in everything. That’s what parents rightly demand from both sectors.

You describe the private sector, curiously, as being both fragmented and conformist, but academy chains as a source of strength, allowing leaders of those school groups “real time and space to innovate rather than just having to firefight”. Do they feel that sense of space, I wonder, when OFSTED’s gunning for their school, or after the whole chain?

Following your comments, I’ve read more media nonsense about the private sector than for a long time. Journalists researched no further afield than Barnet and Hampstead and barely reached beyond the few top selective state grammar schools: all a rather South-Eastern perspective.

Your Good Schools Guide seeks out schools’ individuality and writes nice quirky thumbnail sketches about them. Your reviewer’s write-up of my school, published last year, was amusing, perceptive and uncovered no tedious conformity, a judgment borne out by a recent (January) inspection report from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI).

Both your recent comments and the consequent “crisis” reports describe a world that doesn’t exist for the vast majority of state or private schools. Independent schools are pragmatic and adaptable. During tough economic times they shrink: sometimes they merge or sadly close. When things recover, the sector’s still there, and strong.

When I collaborate across the sectors to share experience, ideas and best practice, I work with professionals who certainly understand what it takes to do well (your phrase). I’m pretty sure my maintained sector colleagues don’t encounter many oligarchs or the super-rich on my patch.

Maybe it’s different in London: up in Newcastle upon Tyne, at any rate, we independents do real life. We don’t charge eye-watering annual fees, recognising that £12,000 is a significant sum. We raise and spend £700K each year on bursaries, because we don’t want to become the exclusive preserve even of the relatively rich.

The Good Schools Guide celebrates good schools even-handedly, doesn’t it? What a shame that, when the two sectors are working more closely together than ever, offering success to all children, you chose to create division by offering evidence that was spurious at best to those in the media who seize every opportunity to knock the independent sector.

All schools deserve better from you.



Cuts to support for disabled students: it’s callous – cynical even – and it’s wrong

5th February 2016

Are you working in Special Education Needs in, say, a secondary school or academy? Are you struggling, as usual, to put in place the support (let alone the targeted funding) for that child with multiple needs?

At such times you might in the past have looked jealously at the provision available in Higher Education. How come that dyslexic student you never managed to get a laptop is handed one on the first day at university? The grass on that side of the fence used to look very green in comparison.

No longer, I’d suggest. The Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) system is about to undergo a radical shake-up that government boasts will make it more efficient (hm!) and (ah, here’s the real reason!) save some £29 million a year. Envy is not the appropriate emotion any more: Schadenfreude would be unhelpful.

It looks as if help for those with particular needs post-18 faces meltdown.

I know. Everyone says that about their particular area of interest when cuts threaten: though here I declare no interest (apart from being married to someone working in SEN in FE) beyond that of an intense dislike of seeing injustices perpetrated, even more when they are presented as improvements.

Government carried out a consultation last autumn: some 200 organisations and individuals working in the field contributed. Its response made a few concessions, but not many. Now Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have a year to plan how they will support students from their own resources, discrete funding having been withdrawn: yes, government’s done it again, pushing the problem down to the institutional level, and claiming they’re given enough money to solve it.

Information from DnA (Diversity and Ability), a social enterprise formed by former DSA recipients, suggests that DSA will no longer fund key forms of support including adjustments to accommodation on campus; provision of some equipment associated with laptop use; and many forms of support work including library assistance, scribing for exams and note-taking. They will however be able to appeal through a new “Exceptional Case Process”. As DnA’s Adam Hyland (a former NUS Disabled Students Officer) commented: “this risks leaving students caught up in a bureaucratic funding tug of war.”

It may sound as if this is all about equipment and facilities. It isn’t. A profound effect will be felt in the provision of Non-Medical Helper support, which comprises all those tutors (I’ll stick to that title) who help with scribing, reading, note-talking and dealing with the various Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) that include things like dyslexia. These vital cogs in the machine of DSA provision (many represented by ADSHE, the Association of Dyslexia Specialists in Higher Education) are already feeling the cuts.

Government’s cunning plan to reduce costs masquerades as a form of quality assurance. Students deemed to qualify for such support must obtain tenders from at least two registered providers (there’s a fee for registering). They will be under pressure to go for the cheaper quote. Already rates of pay for tutors are being slashed, for example, by Randstad, a big provider of NMH services.

It’s hard to predict what will happen, and this isn’t my area of expertise: but it’s hard to see how students who need learning support will cope with a requirement to embark on a bureaucratic process to get it. I suspect many will just not apply, or lose heart and give up on it.

Moreover, as pay rates fall, it seems to me inevitable that tutors operating as individuals will first be squeezed out by the big providers: next, even the agencies will be unable to recruit quality staff because, having participated in reducing fee-levels, they will have played their part in driving such people out of the field.

I’m not entirely anti-austerity: I don’t think society should live beyond its means. But this is the mean-spirited choice of a soft, largely invisible target for cuts which threaten to blight the education and thus the life-chances of a significant number of needy students.

It’s callous, even cynical: and it’s wrong.


Forcing home-educated children into schools for child protection won’t work – and it’s not the job of teachers anyway

29th January 2016

Tragic stories of child deaths arouse powerful emotions: too often, they also attract wrong targets for criticism.

Eight-year-old Dylan Seabridge collapsed in his Pembrokeshire home in December 2011, later dying in hospital – of scurvy. His parents were charged with child neglect: the Crown Prosecution Service subsequently dropped proceedings.

An official report into his death, never published but finally leaked, records that there had been concerns about his welfare. Newspapers suggest that the authorities had no powers to insist on seeing the child because he was being educated at home. But this wasn’t about Dylan’s education: surely they had powers to see him on the grounds of health and welfare?

Unfortunately, whenever it’s suggested that home education is involved in such tragic stories, a witch-hunt against it invariably ensues. In Wales (whose education system is separate from England’s) this story has given rise to calls for a registration system for children taught at home, and even mandatory inspection.

There’s nothing wrong with either suggestion, as long as such moves do not become as means of limiting or suppressing the human right of parents to educate their children at home: that right is enshrined in UK law (where, since 1944, children must be educated “at school or otherwise”), but is denied in some European states.

Home education rarely hits the press except in response to tragic cases like Dylan’s. Frequently it’s claimed that, if the child had been in school, their injuries or neglect would have been spotted and reported. It didn’t work for four year-old Daniel Pelka in 2012, who was in school, though beaten and starved at home.

Nonetheless, acting as society’s watchdog is not the prime purpose of schools, and forcing children into school just so they can be kept an eye on is not their job: that’s for social services. 

There’s resentment of home educators “out there”, some stemming from a feeling that, if all must suffer the mainstream system, it’s not fair that some don’t.  It’s not a tenable argument.

Critics next suggest that home-educators fall into three camps: abusers hiding their children away; nutters embracing an alternative lifestyle; (occasionally) the wealthy middle-classes who can afford for one of the parents not to work and do the education instead. All three, including the last, attract general disapprobation.

There’s sloppy thinking in such stereotypes. Lazy media reports of child deaths (from abuse or neglect) too often suggest that the children’s injuries weren’t observed in school because they were “home-educated”. The detail of a case such as Victoria Climbié (killed in 2000) reveals that the five year-old was missing school: yet authorities failed to investigate her absence.

That wasn’t home education, but concealment. Inaction and dithering by social and medical services, not spurious parental claims of alternative education, were found to have failed to identify the abuse and protect Victoria.

As for the other two categories, whether you think those seeking an alternative lifestyle are strikingly original or off-the-wall-loony, they’re parents exercising their right to provide an education that they believe better-suited to their child than the mainstream.

Perhaps the most famously home-educated 21st-Century figure was violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. Developing that prodigious talent, practising for several hours a day, fitted better with home education than school. It was “an appropriate education”, provided “otherwise”. He didn’t have “social problems”, by the way.

I declare an interest. For a few years in the primary phase we home-educated our children, a positive and happy period in our family life where our kids forged ahead with maths, English and all the normal “core” subjects, while enjoying enormous amounts of music and gymnastics. Then they went into secondary school: their choice.

The right to choose the mode of education of one’s child, as long as it is adequate and appropriate, is a democratic and human right. Some may feel registration and inspection in no way compromise that right. In theory, that’s true, though I mistrust government’s propensity for heavy-handed application of both mechanisms.

Any measure that constrains the ability of home-educating families to take on that vital task freely, creatively and positively risks perpetrating a great wrong.

We don’t scapegoat schools for these tragedies. Don’t hound home-educators either.


Professionalism is diminished and teacher morale destroyed: all in the name of school accountability

21st January 2015

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” So said Henry IV (Part 2), according to William Shakespeare whose quatercentenary we celebrate this year. It’s true also of school heads (I should know after a quarter of a century!), and equally descriptive of senior leaders and countless teachers.

It’s all about our commitment to the job – and to the children we teach. This is the third (and, for the time being anyway, last) blog I’ve written concerning about accountability in schools. My oldest friend, a lawyer, once asked how, considering the weight of the burden I’m paid to carry, I could sleep at night. With his legal head on he could see only the countless responsibilities we heads bear for all the things that could possibly go wrong.

I replied that I supposed it was about keeping it all in proportion and finding ways of switching off. I think I’m pretty good at both of those, though perhaps you should ask my wife and family. Nonetheless I wouldn’t advise anyone who really values their eight hours a night to go into headship. There’s just too much going on to allow one really to empty the brain out before going to bed, so it often happens that things, usually the unresolved matters, lodge themselves in the mind and banish sleep.

Indeed, ever since reading Harry Potter (and, even better, seeing the films where the spell was spectacularly demonstrated), I’ve fancied a device like Albus Dumbledore’s pensieve, author J K Rowling’s brilliant invention for the Headmaster of Hogwarts by which he could pull memories out of his (or someone else’s) head with his wand and store them in a bottle. That would certainly save brain-overload and create space for tranquillity and sleep.

In any case, at my age sleep just isn’t what it used to be, even without the countless human interactions of the previous day spinning round in the head. But this isn’t just a middle-aged thing: nor is it about someone who can’t sort out their work-life balance.

I’m not complaining. I still regard my job as demanding but fairly rewarded, and (above all) immensely rewarding. It still gets me out of bed in the morning, eager to get on with it. And while it’s true that the head (in both senses) lies uneasy, the reason for this borderline insomnia is at the same time simple and real. What my head is full of is important: it’s stuff that matters. And it’s about people.

I don’t believe what I’m describing differs much for all school leaders, even if I’m now a bit older than most and have fewer reserves of energy nowadays. We are our own harshest critics, and our own taskmasters. We accept the responsibility we bear for every young life in our charge, and we don’t complain about it (except in the pub, when anyone will listen – which they don’t). We can’t even enjoy those August results days because, no matter how many delighted candidates there are, we feel much more keenly the disappointment of the few who have missed out.

My lawyer friend was, after all, at least half right. School leaders feel their true accountability – to pupils and their parents - every minute of every working day (and most of the rest of the time). That’s why we don’t need successions of tests designed by government solely to check that schools are doing what they should be doing; nor progress measures; nor benchmarks, unrealistic targets or arbitrary floor-standards that, even after all these years, betray a bureaucratic mindset still unable to grasp the fact that some children must be below average. Indeed, all those risk pushing us into setting wrong priorities - going for points rather than the best options for the children we teach.

Making people prove they’re doing what they’re already doing, and creating additional tasks purely for that purpose, diminishes professionalism, creates helplessness and destroys morale: yet it happens constantly in schools and is justified in the name of accountability.

I once lectured to some Chilean teachers. They couldn’t get their heads round the word accountability. The closest Spanish word they could find was responsibilidad.

Therein lies the difference. Meanwhile we are stuck with the wrong word, poorly applied.


Forget league tables, targets and tests – teachers and schools know that our real accountability is to our pupils and communities

14th January 2016

The new term seems to have encouraged a greater-than-usual tsunami of junk emails from firms offering educational services. Occasionally taking control of my inbox, I click on the “unsubscribe” link. Some respond courteously: “You are now unsubscribed from Education”.

I often feel like that: more than ever nowadays. Last week I wrote about times-tables: my point was that children should learn them and schools should test them, but we don’t need government adding heavy-handed tests. Twitter indicated support, though one Tweet accused me of whining, on the grounds at such tests are essential, so government knows what’s going on.

It’s the accountability argument: the older I get, the more it irritates me.

No school is perfect: desperately proud as I am of mine and what it achieves with its students, we sometimes get things wrong. I try to be honest and open with parents, and I have little difficulty in admitting errors: yet knowing we’ve hurt or disappointed a child tears me up.

That is true accountability: the responsibility to every individual child (and parent) for giving them the best we can in terms of opportunities and support.

We heads also feel a powerful responsibility (you can see I prefer that word) for, and duty to, the institution as a whole and for the staff whom we employ and with whom we love to work. We understand and empathise with the difficulties and challenges of teaching, as well as its satisfactions: we need to.

We also acknowledge that we are answerable to our communities and to society as a whole. No school (or academy) is an island. It has a context, however it might labelled as independent. Truly independent (by which I mean fee-paying and free from government control) schools are nonetheless conscious of their settings: notwithstanding Corbynite mutterings to the contrary last week, private schools are keenly aware of their situation, of the needs of their neighbours and communities, and of their moral duty: but I don’t have space to expand on that here.

Academies, when a new idea, were described as independent by government, which quickly found that total independence is unhelpful. Just as private schools form alliances and associations, so academies increasingly cluster and form chains. Yet it is not to trusts or government that schools/academies or heads owe their first allegiance: it is to people. In a difficult or deprived setting, that responsibility, that true accountability can appear crushing: sometimes the challenges are just so enormous.

The great myth peddled by policymakers and by hawkish observers and commentators is that government benchmarks, targets and tests (which always measure the institution, never the child) are essential to rendering schools and heads accountable. If only such people spent enough time within schools to see where the true accountability lies, they might talk and write less tosh about the need to “hold school leaders to account”. We already are so held – by the children, parents and communities we serve.

I’m not writing this to share my pain. I’m in my twenty-sixth year of headship, and run a school in a privileged position. But, when I try to stand up for my fellow heads and speak out against absurdly onerous accountability regimes, I grow weary of being accused of being soft, seeking to create some kind of secret garden, or being plain pathetic and ducking responsibility. I know where my responsibility lies – and it’s with the community and children my school serves.


Ministers call it cracking down on poor performance. I call it persecution of a once noble and now beleaguered profession

8th January 2016

All right, I confess. Having read online the Daily Mirror report from a few days ago about Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and her new tests on times tables for 11-year-olds, I tried the paper’s “quick-fire tables quiz”, billed as “fiendish”. When I scored 10/10 (hurrah!), I couldn’t resist sharing the result on Twitter. How childish!

I don’t normally regard myself as competitive, so I’m not proud of my showing off. But I am quite good at mental arithmetic. I was well taught in primary school, learning my tables up to 12 long before the age of 11. The good teaching I received went further: when planning budgets (something school leaders do a great deal these days), I always calculate percentages in my head - and get the decimal point in the right place! Useful stuff.

Of course I agree that primary schools should insist on children learning their times tables: and if that involves the old-fashioned method of chanting them, let alone more “modern” classroom strategies such as times tables bingo, or last one standing, so be it.

So am I supporting Education Secretary Nicky Morgan? No.

This week’s Mirror article harked back to her refusal (on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in February 2015) to answer maths questions. Sensibly she had observed that, if she just got one sum wrong, the entire story would focus on that rather than on the policy she was announcing:  good TV, but lousy politics!

We’d do better to forget that non-story, and concentrate on the idea of compulsory times tables tests for 11-year-olds. Schools test pupils’ knowledge of tables all the time, and have done for years. The NUT’s General Secretary, Christine Blower, commented: “As primary school pupils already have to learn their times tables by the end of Year 4, Nicky Morgan’s announcement is clearly not about educational attainment but about the introduction of yet another test”.

She’s right! The Daily Mirror’s story was merely trying to imply hypocrisy in the Education Secretary’s demand that all children manage 12x12 by Year 6 while herself refusing to answer the questions. What they might have expanded on more usefully was Morgan’s subtext mentioning “action against teachers who don’t come up to scratch”.

Yes, we’re back to that again. It’s important to remember, as we start another year, that compulsory government tests have little to do with children’s achievements (despite the stress that it puts them and their families under: Christine Blower also reminded us that our pupils are also the most tested in Europe). On the contrary, they are all about testing schools: league tables; Progress 8; benchmarks; tests are all about nailing down schools.

Or worse: I don’t know whether Nicky Morgan threatened action specifically against teachers, or more generally against schools: but government talk on standards is up-close and personal nowadays. Ministers call it cracking down on poor performance: I term it persecution of a once noble and now beleaguered profession.

One senses a rift forming even between OFSTED’s boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, and government on the constant pressure over targets and baseline measures. Wilshaw has been writing to encourage some schools that are battling hard in difficult circumstances and yet are slated because they don’t hit particular pass-rates. It’s a generous gesture, but somewhat futile: we are still seeing schools battered and their leaders sacrificed on the altar of “intervention”, interference that makes policymakers feel tough and plays to the right-wing Press without necessarily having any positive impact on the life-chances of children.

Times tables are just another element in this persecution: and schools are teaching them anyway! But if you hoped there might be more support and fewer brickbats for schools from government in 2016, you’ll be disappointed.

Fortunately, teachers are intrinsically optimistic: how else could we do the job? So I won’t lose faith: but I hope we’ll work together to expose the lunacies and viciousness of government’s bullying and overregulation of schools in 2016.

Happy New Year!


Stress may be the yin to well-being's yang

13th July 2015

There’s no doubt about it. The buzzword du jour is wellbeing. Right now it’s everywhere in the press and across the Twittersphere, mainly courtesy of the return of David Cameron’s former right-hand man Steve Hilton from exile in California.

It’s been big news in education for the last few years, too. Sometimes it feels like we’ve talked of little else. In times past we paid more attention to physical health as a way of trying kindly, if inexpertly, to ensure that children were relatively happy. It wasn’t entirely wrong-headed: mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) remains a pretty useful motto. I guess you can have a healthy mind in a body that isn’t well: but I reckon it’s hard to achieve.

But this approach wasn’t perfect, we now see. It’s only in (very) recent years that schools have begun really to understand the need for promoting emotional wellbeing (EW) in in a bid to reduce the presence of low self-esteem, distress, anxiety and mental illness.

When we talk about wellbeing nowadays we are constantly aware of both the physical and emotional sides. Schools are doing good work on this: they need to. More and more children are feeling the pressures of modern society, surely never greater than nowadays. One benefit of such universal concern over mental health and illness both in the media and within schools is that children are now more readily seeking help. So that’s progress, although it’s stretching resources.

What isn’t helpful is the way in which so many loosely-related words are bandied about in connection with emotional wellbeing. If I had a fiver for every time I heard a fellow school leader say, “I don’t understand all this wellbeing and mindfulness stuff. Isn’t it all just the same?” I’d be rich.

It isn’t all the same. Wellbeing is as I’ve defined it above, something we strive to ensure for every child in our care.

By contrast, mindfulness is “merely” a technique, generally consisting of building periods of calm into the school day (arguably easier in some of the boarding schools that promote it), and encouraging relaxation, reflection, an opening of the mind and a willingness to appraise oneself in an honest way. It’s good stuff: but it is not a goal; simply an approach.

Next comes resilience. This is neither a fundamental aim nor an approach. It is, however, a desirable quality. Just to make it more confusing, resilience is one of those words that enjoys a range of acceptable synonyms. The word grit seems to have crept across the Atlantic to us: one advantage is that you can run conferences or seminars with snappy movie-derived titles such as True Grit.

Character is a more splendidly English word, and one I prefer. It takes character (resilience or grit) to deal with failure, to use it as a learning experience rather than regarding it as a catastrophe. Indeed, character (grit or resilience) allows people to bend in the winds of misfortune, not to snap:  that wonderful metaphor I’ve stolen from the Charlie Waller Trust’s Dick Moore, a powerful voice in focusing schools on EW.

(It’s worth adding, by the way, that neither homework nor importing rugby stars into schools will help children develop character as the Secretary of State thinks it will. Nor will, for example, getting kids to do hard sums while someone chucks buckets of water over them: it is a quality whose development requires more subtle and planned approaches.)

The flipside of this obsession with character and grit is its similar glee for stories, especially at this time of year, about pupil stress.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s out there. But we need to take a measured view. Decades ago, when as a young teacher driving himself pretty hard, I was struck by the opening line in a book I’d been given called Managing Stress: “The absence of stress is death”.

We need some stress in order to live at all. Stress (dare I say it?) is essential to exam success.

Stress is to EW what avocado is to dieting (no, really!). Avocado is the fattiest fruit known to man: but doctors now (finally) concede that it’s “the right sort of fat”. In moderation, it’s good for us.

Stress makes the adrenalin flow. Candidates need the right level of stress for an exam: they must be keyed up, focused and sharp.

Of course, when stress overwhelms us: when children get that feeling of helplessness; when they revise too much and sleep too little: at those times stress is out of control and has become bad.

Two leading independent school heads clashed (politely) over this issue just recently. Eve Jardine-Young of Cheltenham Ladies’ College is reducing homework and increasing breaks to reduce her pupils’ stress and increase their wellbeing. Wellington College’s Sir Anthony Seldon demurred. The school day doesn’t need to be changed, he claimed: instead pupils should be encouraged to develop greater resilience.

Embracing stress and wellbeing: The ying and the yang of the same argument. Both are right, and both wrong. Perhaps a little bit of emotional wellbeing helps the stress goes down.

In September my own school will host a conference, ReTHINK, a year on from an event focused on character. Teachers and school leaders alike are anxious and willing to share experience and learn from one another.

The fact is problems of mental illness in the young are daunting. But schools really are getting together and attempting to tackle the issue.

A problem shared? Sharing it won’t halve it: but it will ensure that it is at least addressed. Compared to times past, that’s significant progress.


One thing worse than a politician not interested in education is one who is

 24th April 2015

The longer I work in schools, the more frequently I misquote Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism about being talked about (or not). There is only one thing worse in the world than politicians not being interested in education: and that is politicians being interested in it, (let alone discovering they have a passion for it).

How well I remember Tony Blair proclaiming in 1997 that he had three priorities: education, education, education. With a rare touch of humour, David Cameron countered in 2010 that his priorities were the same, but not in that order.

Both elections saw hopes for education raised and dashed. Following Blair’s victory successive Secretaries of State for Education (however many of them were there?), far from clipping the wings of the inspectorate, strengthened it and harassed and harried schools: they gave rise to one initiative after another, arbitrarily imposed; Ed Balls proved to be uninterested in education at all, caring much more about children so that Every Child Mattered, while education maybe mattered less; and Lord Adonis, a visionary in many respects, launched Academies.

Post-2010, the Tories’ Lib-Dem coalition partners proved toothless in any attempt to curb the exuberance of Michael Gove who was on a very personal mission. To be sure, the Academies programme continued (I haven’t a problem with that): free schools came along, too. But the bullying of schools and teachers continued, driven by Gove’s messianic approach that eclipsed the zeal of all previous education secretaries and, in the end, alienated so many people that David Cameron identified him as a liability rather than a vote-winner and moved him out.

And now, here we are again. Another five years, another election. Education is not the political football in this election that it has been in the last couple: I guess we should be grateful for that. But still it rears its head. 

Both Labour and Conservatives claim to be protecting the funding of schools, using two different formulas, both ambivalently worded and open to interpretation (that’s a posh way of saying they leave space for reneging on promises when money gets tight). There’s no clarity from Labour on exam reform; no U-turns on that topic from the Tories; and no party going near a sensible or fair funding formula for maintained schools.

Still, if you want some clarity, look no further than the Greens and UKIP. The Greens will dismantle all the remaining grammar schools and absorb them into a totally comprehensive system: they’ll pull the independents in, too, or close them. By contrast, UKIP will create selective grammar schools wherever anyone wants them. There’s a clear choice, then: only neither of those parties will end up running the country (at least, I hope not!).

Where does the electoral murk leave children, and those who try to educate them despite the interference of our political masters? It’s hard to say. Last week saw an elephant in the room, a pachyderm of such hugeness that the failure of any party to recognise it leaves me breathless. 

Primary school places were announced: some families will be happy, while many won’t. More to the point, it’s clear that the next few years will see a quarter of a million additional children needing primary school places, and there appears no strategy in place to deal with it. Oh, and it’s clear we won’t have enough teachers in any case as recruitment is in meltdown.

Call me old-fashioned, but I thought we had governments (local or national) to sort such things out: to look ahead, see challenges approaching, plan the solutions and then implement them. We pay our taxes, our council tax and everything else, and should be able to rely on government to do something about it, to expand schools or open new ones. But they don’t.

They talk grand schemes. They talk about opportunity for everyone. And they’re very hot on ensuring working people are rewarded for their hard work – while somehow we also pay off the deficit (by the way, I think we should pay it off, and fast). But is anyone going to do anything about that simple, rather tedious and tiresome problem, the mere fact that some parents can’t find schools for their children? I await enlightenment.

Politicians in charge of education? We’re plagued by personal missions, U-turns, dogmas and sheer ignorance: and central government remains ineffectual. 

Against that backdrop, one proposal struck me as a powerful one. The National Education Trust produced a manifesto (weeks before the major parties produced theirs) recommending that education should be run by a director, free from political interference, in the way that the health service is.

No one can pretend the NHS is free of problems. But there is at least an overall National Director who is able to speak out (as his predecessor did last week, declaring that the NHS is approaching a catastrophic funding crisis).

The presence of a National Director won’t solve all the problems in education, just as it doesn’t in health. But it might prevent Secretaries of State rom treating the service as their personal train set, because they would be faced by a lead professional, knowledgeable in the field and able to tell them precisely what the reality is.

It’s an idea, isn’t it? If we could prevent the demagogues, the fanatics and/or the lunatic fringe from dictating education policy we just might afford some protection to schools and colleges, to the education of the young, to the very future of our country.  

Why not give it a try? 


Jury is out on whether the new GCSEs will demand more than their international rivals

12th February 2015

The most recent spat over GCSE league tables furnished so fine an example of government doublethink that George Orwell would have been proud of it.

Only a few years ago former education secretary Michael Gove was keen to persuade maintained schools to take the international alternative, the IGCSE, following the independent sector which had turned to it in a big way. IGCSEs were, in general, felt to be more appropriate to more able candidates: more traditionally content-heavy than the GCSE; assessed by a single terminal examination; and free of the coursework that bedevilled GCSEs, taking children out of subject teaching for weeks at a time while they completed it under strict supervision in school time.

Honesty requires me to note that independents also made the move because smaller exam boards promised (and generally delivered) better and more reliable marking: thus while most schools up and down the country gnashed their teeth over the 2013 English language marking debacle, those that had moved to IGCSE were smiling – and not marked down.

Here’s the doublethink. Government is now pouring scorn on IGCSE. In a cunning bit of wording, current education secretary Nicky Morgan (echoed on numerous occasions by Department for Education spokespeople) proclaimed that she had rid the government’s performance tables of "valueless qualifications". Cleverly she didn't mention IGCSE specifically, lumping it instead with other perhaps unlamented qualifications while simultaneously, and rightly, removing opportunities for endless re-sits.

In the removal of recognition from some of those English or maths IGCSEs, espoused in great numbers by the independent sector, there was a subtle (not that subtle, actually) implication that they no longer had currency. The message was that the newly government-beefed-up GCSE is the answer: all other qualifications are inferior.

As spats go, it was a minor one. It was also an own goal by government. So absurd is it to see Eton College at the bottom of the league tables that the DfE’s changes have effectively rendered its own performance tables meaningless. And not before time, those of us would say who have questioned their value ever since they first evolved.

But is IGCSE now easier than the new GCSE? And is that a turnaround from the position where independent schools first, and then many maintained schools, chose it precisely because it was that bit (not a lot) more challenging?

I think the jury is out. Schools won’t start teaching the new “new” GCSEs, all linear courses, until September 2015. the much-vaunted "toughening-up” of last year’s GCSE results was mere tinkering.

Among the new specifications for examinations in 2017, the new maths GCSE looks as if it may indeed be more demanding than IGCSE. I can envisage many academic schools (including my own) being attracted to it. Currently my maths department is looking hard at it, but has made no decision yet.

The way I choose to run my school, I allow subject departments, as the specialists, to decide what qualifications they enter their students for, whether it's GCSE, IGCSE, A level, international A level or Pre-U (my history department is about to adopt the latter).

It may be that, as the new schemes of work appear, some departments in my school will say that they prefer the new GCSE specification for their subject: if they do, they'll be free to choose it.

In any case, it's not really about allegedly "easier" or "more difficult" exams. My colleagues are looking for courses that will give their students a good grasp of the content and grammar of the subject, provide appropriate ranges of stretch and challenge, furnish a strong basis for further study at A level, and be reliably assessed and efficiently marked. Therefore the decision depends partly on our impression of the efficiency or otherwise of the exam board.

Maybe the independent sector will swing back towards the government's favoured GCSEs: if so, that will be a feather in Nicky Morgan’s cap, because it will have decided that they are indeed the better exam. If it doesn't, then she will fail to fulfill her lofty claim of having a monopoly on the better courses and qualifications.

Perhaps she has grounds for that supreme confidence, though I don’t share it. In truth, I'm surprised her current Sir Humphrey didn't sidle up to her and quietly say, "That's a courageous comment, secretary of state". And we all know what happens to politicians unwise enough to be courageous.


Dicing with Death

 9th January 2105

 Do I feel a frisson of Schadenfreude on hearing that the madness of performance data is being extended to surgeons? No, I merely despair.

The government has proposed that surgeons’ success rates should be published – in fact, some data has already been released, including mortality rates for individual specialists. Does the government dislike surgeons? I don’t know. But I do know that if I were to be opened up by one, I’d rather their hands did not shake – and this doesn’t seem a good way of reducing the nerves of the person with the carving knife.

I’m surprised NHS boss Sir Bruce Keogh was so positive about this wheeze when he was interviewed at the end of last year. He claimed that surgeons themselves would determine what data was collected. Well, that would be a first: governments rarely trust professionals to make their own rules. Politicians regard professions with suspicion – they talk darkly of secret gardens and do everything they can to flatten their walls and plough up the flower beds.

That this is a disaster waiting to happen is amply demonstrated by what league tables have done to education. Of course all schools should publish their exam results to parents, but as soon as the figures are out in the open they’re turned into league tables. Attempts to make the data sensitive to context are doomed to fail: politicians and journalists alike want something simple – and entirely misleading.

Then policymakers insist on using the data to set benchmarks, so a school’s aspiration to high achievement is replaced by the need to meet an arbitrary government floor target. Under intolerable pressure from the government and its Rottweiler-like inspectorate, schools have no choice but to play the game.

If it’s all about the C-D boundary, that’s what schools will focus on. If the sheer number of GCSEs counts, they’ll invent courses that allow children to notch up the equivalent of five GCSEs in one area of study. These are perverse incentives, but they’re not the fault of schools. They are the fault of the structure in which they operate.

But how will this play out in the world of surgery? We’ve already seen a huge rise in the number of Caesarean sections in the US, which is widely attributed to gynaecologists playing things ultra-safe. So I guess surgeons will stick to operations on bunions and moles, or other procedures that need only a local anaesthetic, because a general one comes with a greater risk. As for cardiac or cancer interventions, forget it: they’ll just stick a drip in you. They’d be daft to risk their careers by taking the knife to patients.

I know, I know. People will say I’m exaggerating: the government hasn’t even threatened league tables for surgeons. But if the data exists, tables will surely follow. Then we’ll get more idiotic comments such as the one uttered by that most lamentable of education secretaries, John Patten, who served in the early 1990s: he apparently declared himself furious that so many children were below average.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Independent schools don't need lessons from politicians on how to work with state schools

25th November 2014

So the Labour Party is having another pop at independent schools. No surprises there. Independently-educated Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has given up on playing the Charity card, demanding instead that schools like mine earn their “significant tax-breaks” by supporting neighbouring maintained schools.


Let’s start with the implication, oft-repeated, that independent schools are wallowing, like pigs in muck, in tax concessions. It’s true we pay only reduced business rates and corporation tax. As charities we make no profit, merely a prudent modest surplus, so the latter would represent only some two per cent of our annual turnover even if applied. As for the former, that reduction represents less than the same again.


Oh, and while we’re at it, stop thinking we don’t pay VAT. True, VAT is not chargeable on school fees: that’s European law (applying to universities too). But we pay VAT on everything we buy. My school is in the process of paying a whacking £1.4 million to the government, 20% VAT on the cost of a current building programme.  


Hunt wants independent schools to send expert or shortage-subject teachers into maintained schools to help out or to share best practice. Well, we already do: and we help with advice and even interview practice for top universities. There must be few independent schools that don’t share experience with their neighbours, and we all know this works in both directions: my school has plenty to learn from the schools it has contact with. All this is just “what we do”, and we don’t need lessons from politicians in how to do it.


But can we actually second, say, a maths teacher to another school that’s short of one? My teachers are fully deployed: they don’t have spare time on their hands. If they are in another school, who covers their teaching? By opting for independent education parents pay for the maintained system through their taxes and then pay school fees on top, post-tax. If I start lending out my teachers, they might wonder why they are expected to subsidise the other sector a second time.


There is, of course, an assumption that independent schools have vast resources to spare. This impression is reinforced by suggestions that even day schools are now the exclusive preserve of the children of oligarchs. If that is indeed so, it’s a Home Counties problem that we don’t recognise in the North-East. We charge annual fees of around £11,000 (not cheap, but not oligarchic) and apply only modest annual increases: head to the North-West and you can find top independents charging a thousand less. And don’t forget just how many children from low-income families receive bursaries to attend: see the Independent Schools Council’s statistics.


Both the Coalition and Labour want to twist the arms of independent schools to sponsor Academies.  One of the carrots offered with that stick, perhaps to offset the huge commitment of time and resource that full-blown sponsorship requires, is that our schools can stamp our brand on the Academy. That may suit some: for others that is no inducement at all. We have no desire to become some kind of national or global brand.


There is a wonderful and innovative new primary free school in the poorest part of my city, the West Newcastle Academy: I can honestly claim that, without my school’s support, its bid would not have succeeded. We still help now that it’s up and running, more than ever: but it’s not a formal sponsorship, and neither school wants it to be. We do it informally because we believe in it, and it works for us both.


That’s the trouble with the heavy hand of politicians. Hunt is talking about setting “partnership standards”. As with every other government initiative, we can be pretty sure that a simplistic and/or inflexible tick-box scheme will be imposed, constraining the ability of schools to partner as suits them best – and to be able to say with realism and honesty, this much we can do, but more we cannot.


Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr Hunt repeated told the ISC’s Barnaby Lenon that ISC risks sounding like a trade union, reacting with predictable scepticism and attempting to block his proposals.


He and his party might be well advised to avoid union-bashing. I thinkl he should avoid sector-bashing too. Labour’s deep-seated antagonism is betrayed by such gratuitous comments as, “Earn your keep. Because the time you could expect something for nothing is over.”


Something for nothing? Despite exam bungling under this administration and the last, and despite nearly two decades of undisguised hostility to the sector, the UK’s independent schools are still the best group of schools in the world. Some 50% of Oxbridge students come from independent schools: yet 30% of the poorest have also come from independent schools, helped there by bursaries.


Finally, Dr Hunt demands that independent schools throw open their sports facilities and opportunities to avoid what he described on radio as the “embarrassment” of so many top sportspeople coming from independent schools.  He and his fellow politicians should look to their own actions.


Successive governments have sold off playing fields. They exert such pressure on maintained schools to hit exam targets that we see sports fixtures against their Year 11 teams cancelled because pupils cannot miss extra GCSE classes. And they lean on their teachers so hard that there is little incentive to coach teams after school or on Saturdays: those who continue to do so are little short of heroic.


There’s something very British about the way we treat success with suspicion and envy instead of rejoicing in it. Independent schools don’t have all the answers: but this very demand that they intervene in the maintained sector demonstrates that we have quite a lot of them. On that basis we are part of the solution, not the problem.


It’s time for our politicians, and particularly Tristram Hunt, to stop resenting our success and instead learn from it, to stop threatening and trying to squeeze us but genuinely engage with us.


But I fear we are still a long way from that.


It’s all very well educating children about finances, but when will someone teach bankers to behave?

17th November 2014

It’s the sort of announcement that creates pleasurable headlines, such as this from The Times: “Jesus saves and so will children under CofE plans”. It's the most enjoyable play on those words since the 1980s catchphrase "Jesus saves – but Keegan scores on the rebound".

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, vowed on appointment to put the payday lenders out of business by competing. His plan was to set up credit unions based in churches: people would be encouraged to save and borrow in small, structured, protected ways without being ripped off. It’s a proper, moral social enterprise, balancing good sense with Christian care for one’s fellow human beings.

Now the idea has been extended and credit unions will be a presence in a few primary schools. The hope, according to a spokesman on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week, is to set up a pilot of 100 such partnerships. If that is successful, it could be rolled out across England, not least because a quarter of all primaries are church schools.

This scheme is designed to help the poor, the struggling, those who too easily and frequently fall prey to the payday lenders (who have now had their wings clipped by government) or, worse, unlicensed loan sharks. It’s about education.

Schools are now being urged to educate children about money and how to handle it. The primary school credit union savings clubs will be another way of teaching students to care of the pennies so that the pounds look after themselves.

I have reservations about many activities that claim to reflect or practise for real life: mock elections, for example. Kids make speeches and listen but their votes change nothing.

Like motherhood and apple pie, this credit union scheme is hard to argue with. It is the children’s own money, it’s real and it does accumulate. But they are not required to put money aside for electricity or gas out of a limited income; to fund and control their mobile phone bill; to work out how to buy nutritious but inexpensive food. Nor should nine-year-olds, for example, be expected to make those important life decisions.

I am not against this plan: I just don’t believe it will really change our nation or even its attitude towards money. The realities of earning, of unemployment, of tax, rent and interest on loans are harsh things which we can’t (and shouldn’t) replicate for children.

Those are the very things, of course, that politicians in the media keep saying schools should teach. Yes, of course we must, like all the other things that society fails dismally to manage without good old schools doing the job: sex and relationships; obesity; alcohol and drugs; smoking. Stick economic awareness and handling money on the end of the list, why don’t you?

I only half-heard the credit union news item when it first came on the radio. I was shaving and my wife had the hairdryer going. So it took us a while to take the story on board. We looked at each other and knew we were thinking the same thing.

“It’s all very well to talk about educating children about handling money,” Mrs Trafford commented. “But when will anyone teach the bankers to behave honestly or politicians to handle the nation’s finances sensibly?”

Good question.  If I were the archbishop, I’d keep praying on that one.


Trust the crust

Friday 7th November 2014

There’s something special about the North East of England. We who live there have always maintained this, of course, but it was also clearly demonstrated at the Schools NorthEast annual summit held in Newcastle recently.

The region has many distinctive features, but one in particular struck me over lunch. We were, at first sight, enjoying the usual conference buffet, with delegates balancing as many spring rolls and sandwiches on their plates as they could. But then came the pies. And next, the chips.

It was a marvellously northern menu – although hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to see at an education conference given how concerned everyone is about obesity in the young.

I have a confession to make. At my resolutely northern school we offer quite a lot of pies at lunchtime. We still serve chips on some days. And jacket potatoes, rice and pasta are always among the choices.

Outrageous and unhealthy? In the context of our fairly middle-class setting, where very few of the children are overweight, I don’t think so. Indeed, I’ve frequently heard teenagers saying that they “aren’t allowed McDonald’s” at home.

I’m not being smug. I’m not against healthy eating. Nor am I attempting some casuistic justification for my own passion for pie and chips. (Actually, this middle-aged man resolutely sticks to salads at lunchtime as I desperately try to battle the expanding waistline.)

The conversation about pies is a reminder of the danger of catch-all remedies. This country certainly has a problem with childhood obesity. But it is not going to be solved by imposing ruthless carb-free regimes regardless of catchment, setting or student age.

My pupils are ridiculously active. Many leave home very early in the mornings. They play sport and maybe do music and drama during our long lunch break. They need a slug of carbohydrate, that quick release of sugar, to get them through the afternoon.

It doesn’t make them overweight, it keeps them working, concentrating and active. Our students don’t suffer an attention dip or sleepy reluctance to work when classes resume at 2pm.

Horses for courses? My little food parable is really a metaphor for the way education is too often run. Ministers and policymakers are invariably unable to resist the temptation to issue blanket pronouncements. Moreover, if they don’t actually pronounce on the detail, plenty of people will be ready to interpret their wishes for them, jumping on the bandwagon afforded by that particular initiative and employing the threat of inspection to enforce their particular prejudices: healthy food; synthetic phonics; times tables; British values – whatever is the educational flavour of the month.

The conclusion is this. Keep away, as much as you can, from the seat of power. Treat with scepticism all those government diktats and unresearched, arbitrarily imposed blanket “solutions” to ill-defined problems.

Oh, and while I’m about it, if you want a good pie, go North.


Let’s sing the praises of our school shows

Friday 11th July 2014

Performances are invaluable for students’ development and bring a touch of magic to school life – let there never be a final curtain

The curtain falls. The audience rises to its feet as one, a feat made easier because it is an audience of one.

That old joke is rarely true of school shows: parents generally flock to them. As the spring term ended, I, like many other secondary headteachers, was still reeling from that last big show before we were forced to concentrate almost exclusively on the long summer exam season. But for many staff in primary schools, the last few weeks of the year are the time to watch children take to the boards. What fun.

We in secondaries have felt an absence during the past term. When there isn’t a production in preparation, our schools seem the poorer. A sense of purpose, excitement, joie de vivre and trepidation pervades even the largest institutions in the run-up to a performance. This is true of musicals more than straight plays (the musicals always sell out, while we have to drag audiences to Shakespeare productions).

Shows generate a magic that permeates school life. When I pass cast members in the corridor, we share banter about how tired everyone is, last night’s comical near miss and how we think tonight will go.

Pantomimes and musicals are a distinctively Western phenomenon. Not long ago I was describing my school’s performing arts programme to our partner school in Tangshan, China: my hosts struggled to understand because their culture doesn’t have an equivalent.

Nonetheless, British-style schools overseas rightly insist on exporting that bit of Western culture. A friend of mine was amused to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs performed as a Christmas show at a British school in Thailand. How would Aladdin go down at a school in the Middle East, I wonder?

The more demanding the show, the narrower the boundary between ambition and disaster: pitfalls are abundant. When I was a music teacher in the 1980s I co-wrote a musical. At the climax of the opening night, as the heroine prepared to shoot dead her unfaithful lover, the gun jammed. A painful silence was broken only when my co-author slammed the handle on the fire door, cursing as he rushed out into the night air. The leading man eventually sank to his knees and died of an apparent heart attack – not the denouement we had planned.

The following night we had a contingency plan in place. For a moment the gun seemed about to fail once more. At last it worked, but not before the drummer had rapped out a shot and several stagehands had added their own substitutes. As a result, the villain appeared to expire in a burst of machine-gun fire.

Losing the plot

I still occasionally contribute to my school’s shows by playing in the band, although I don’t overestimate any credit I might gain. One oblivious actor complained after a week’s run, “You’d have thought the headteacher might come to the show just once!”

Musicians are also at risk of theatrical disaster. In a recent West Side Story, during the scene where Riff and Bernardo are stabbed, the bald head of the drummer in the pit below was sprayed with artificial blood. When we did Les Misérables, the director insisted on a West End-style turntable: whenever it spun, it sprayed the band with chewed-up plywood.

Then there’s the issue of subject matter. Grease is a curious hit, hugely popular despite a questionable storyline that suggests a girl becomes acceptable to her peers only when she dresses and behaves in a way that schools would deem entirely unsuitable.

The car is a major focus of Grease. We loaned our school theatre to a neighbouring secondary and there was heartbreak when their beautifully constructed Cadillac wouldn’t fit through the stage doors. By contrast, another production demonstrated the ultimate low-budget solution: the cast formed the car, rear fins and all, using their bodies. It was inspired.

Similarly, Cabaret is a powerful musical, but school productions invariably give rise to conflict when directors insist on dancing girls’ costumes that are little short of indecent. (When my great-aunt saw an early production, she remarked drily, “In my day we’d have called that a leg show.”)

Why do we put ourselves through it? I had to restrain a colleague at a fraught final rehearsal when one of his actors asked, “But, Sir, what’s my motivation?” He replied through gritted teeth, “It’s this: if you don’t do it, I’ll throttle you!”

We do it because it matters. Few collective school undertakings are so utterly creative in preparation and execution.

Even relatively modest shows can have a huge impact on school life. Recently a colleague of mine staged Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, a full-length play but a two-hander. It was extraordinary to watch two teenagers bring disillusioned university lecturer Frank and naive, irrepressible Rita to life. The play was an education in itself. That’s the point. We make great demands of our young actors, and the route to the performance is a learning, even life-changing, experience.

I still put myself through the pain. In 2012 some colleagues generously staged another musical I had written, set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Britain reshaped by rising sea levels, where displaced children were regarded as a problem to be eliminated. Fittingly, the school was struck by a major flood two days before opening night. Staff and students pulled together heroically and the show went ahead – better than I dared hope.

No, I simply can’t do without the agony and the ecstasy. And I’m quite sure schools can’t either.


 Emulating Asia risks crippling childhoods

 28th February 2014

Lazy, politicised use of global comparisons is dangerous - and looking to Shanghai for the educational holy grail is a grave error

A few weeks ago I read a piece in this publication that went beyond the headlines about the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and asked some probing questions.

The article reported on an analysis by Cambridge Assessment researcher Tom Benton that looked at whether Pisa’s vast data set provided any evidence for or against the idea of school autonomy.

There was, Benton found, “no statistically significant association between the amount of freedom given to schools over how to spend their budgets and their academic results”.

Tellingly, England’s Department for Education - which loves the idea of giving more freedom to schools - refused to comment specifically on the details of Benton’s conclusions, simply restating “the importance of school autonomy”.

As the headteacher of a private school, of course I believe in giving school leaders as much autonomy as possible. But just as importantly, I don’t like dogma.

I most certainly agreed with another senior Cambridge Assessment official, Tim Oates, when he said: “There is not much point in people bashing [each other] over the head over the top-line Pisa findings…it doesn’t really work.”

In essence, it is time that policymakers stopped cherry-picking nuggets from international studies to prove their pet theories.

Politicians the world over, upon publication of the latest Pisa figures, insisted that we learn from the East and South East Asia, lauding Shanghai teachers who visited children’s homes in the evenings to set yet more homework. Move over Finland, former educational envy of the world, there’s a new kid on the block.

The politicians who promote the simplistic idea of mimicking the Chinese and Far Eastern systems overlook several things. First, education leaders in those countries don’t claim to have all the answers. Their maths scores may be stellar but there’s widespread concern about their young people’s lack of childhood. All too often, Asian students go from school to evening classes, finally getting to bed at 2am before rising at 6am for the next school day.

Is this really a great educational success worthy of admiration and even replication?

It has been suggested that if we in the West only grew a bit of backbone we could work our children and teachers as hard as our Asian competitors do. In rejecting that notion, I am not pleading cultural difference: I am saying that it is not the right way for children anywhere.

Second, many education leaders in China worry about a lack of creative teaching and too much chalk and talk. Chinese colleagues I meet are eager to learn from us about reversing that situation. They are very clear that they don’t have all the answers any more than we do.

Third, there seems to be an undercurrent in much of the West that the teaching profession in the developed world is not up to the challenge of catching up with higher-performing countries.

Scarcely human

This picture is at odds with what I see at this time of year, interviewing students for their first teaching posts. I am amazed by the candidates I meet: they are well-prepared, enthusiastic, highly and broadly skilled and very professional.

Among my own children, nephews and nieces there are several teachers. I meet their friends and colleagues, too. There is no lack of resilience. But too many have a growing sense of despair. They want to teach. They want to instil discipline in the classroom. They want to inspire and give life chances to young people. What demoralises them is the feeling that they are not permitted to deal with children as children.

Politicians insist that poverty (or any other home circumstance) is no excuse for underachievement. They are right. But that ruthlessly reiterated message means that, where schools are remorselessly pursuing the standards agenda, no allowance is made for the fact that the learners are children, bringing to school a whole host of experiences, problems, ambitions, fears, worries and obstacles.

To be sure, some exceptional schools manage to avoid this paradox. But teachers under pressure for any reason (and there are so many) would be scarcely human if they did not give in to fear and anxiety - and these are the enemies of creativity.

Scarcely human: that’s the point. Young teachers want to make a difference, to treat their students as individuals and help them to develop according to their own needs and abilities.

I risk being attacked as a dinosaur, a remnant of the 1970s and of what is currently, cynically, portrayed as misconceived child-centred idealism.

But education is about children and must be centred on them. I’m angry that the idea of starting with the child is so frequently caricatured as being anti-standards - of pandering to ill-discipline and to low achievement. It is, apparently, the reason we are unable to keep up with our global competitors.

I know about standards. Having run schools for more than 20 years, I’ve worked consistently to render those institutions more creative, more imaginative and above all more humane, while simultaneously raising aspirations and attainment.

We forget all that when we allow data to drive us. Data should certainly inform us, so by all means analyse the Pisa numbers. But please remember that those figures tell us only about measurable outcomes. They communicate nothing about children’s characters, fears or aspirations. And, when the data is used clumsily or simplistically, it does real harm.


 Forget the bleak educational midwinter and summon the spirit of teaching

TES Blog posted 19th December 2013

Listen! What do you hear? Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh bells in the snow, the clip-clop of reindeer (do they clip-clop?), carol singers?

Probably not. At the end of a long, hard term, we may perceive little of that Christmas-card glitter-and-tinsel feel in our world – the world of education.

Chaos looms, as ever. Facing still more savage budget cuts, schools are tightening belts, cutting subjects and teachers.  Meanwhile the National Audit Office reports hundreds of millions lost on student loans.

Opponents of Free Schools are making hay. Since a couple have got into trouble, the scheme’s enemies are vociferously (and erroneously) tarring all with the same brush.

Cheer up, Cinderella! Help is at hand. A network of Commissars (a Soviet-era term) will provide structure, coherence and regional oversight of Free Schools. Quite how that structure fits with the autonomy and freedoms allegedly at the heart of the Free Schools programme isn’t clear.

Will we end up with two parallel structures, local authorities and regional commissars’ offices performing much the same function? Like the pigs and humans in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we might gaze, bewildered, from one to the other, unable to tell them apart.

Mr Gove’s sending OFSTED into academy chains, much as it inspects local authorities at the moment. Why do I have such a powerful sense of déjà vu? Free Schools deserve better. All schools deserve better

But surely 2014 will bring clarity to exam reform? All must be revealed in the next few months: we’ll start teaching new specifications in 2015. What do you mean, fat chance? Where’s your sense of purpose and optimism

Teachers’ unions, at loggerheads with government, would say optimism and sense of purpose are entirely absent – ground out of the profession by Gove’s hostility and his intransigence in driving through performance-related pay.

It’s educational midwinter, then, and a bleak one at that. We teachers might have been forgiven for being reluctant to turn out to the school carol service, nativity play, pantomime or staff bash, preferring to stick a log on the fire and sip mulled wine in front of the TV.

That would be, in truth, a bit miserable. However full of conflict the political world of education is, when we see children performing, giving their all for sheer love of it and surprising themselves with what they achieve and what pleasure they give, then we begin again to recall the buzz and sheer vocation that drew us into teaching

So I hope you managed to summon up that last remaining scrap of energy! Crawled into school, decked the hall with boughs of holly, and allowed yourself to be reminded, not just of what Christmas is about, but of what the whole of education is about and why we fell into it in the first place.

And, if you have a moment, call to mind the words of the carol: “Oh hush the noise, ye [sic] men of strife: and hear the angels sing”.

A happy Christmas to all.


Ignore the GCSE fuss, bank the grades and move on

TES blog posted 22nd August 2013

Exams are in a state of turbulence. Grade inflation’s rampant. Independent schools choose the tougher International GCSE alternative. Gove promises to reform GCSE. Toughening up on top grades has halted the rot. IGCSE is easier. Independent schools slam Gove’s indecent haste.

Such blatantly contradictory statements (and more) have dominated the media recently. What are schools, students and parents, to make of them?My answer? On GCSE day particularly, little or nothing. Ignore the fuss. Bank the results. Move on.I’m not being flippant. This feeding frenzy is deeply unhelpful to candidates who must be assured that their qualifications still have currency. They do.Moreover, with AS set to disappear, GCSEs will become the only certified qualification for universities to base their selection process on.Do falling A* rates conversely guarantee standards? I don’t buy that. The steady rise in A*s over time was not “dumbing down”. Schools and students work harder than ever year on year: they get better at working the exam system. So grades rise. Knocking all that endeavour in an attempt to sound tough is a cheap and mean trick.Will this year’s tiny fall in top GCSE grades rule thousands of kids out of applying for medical school or Oxbridge? No. Candidates won’t suddenly find themselves with two A*s instead of the required eight: but they might drop to seven, so universities should appreciate the ground’s shifted, and be flexible. If they don’t, the various heads’ associations (ASCL, NAHT, HMC, GSA) should lean on them.In the end exam structures are only as good as the people running them: there aren’t enough good people in our bloated, sprawling system that continues to over-examine young people. So we’ll keep encountering problems.I never believed in structures anyway: it’s the people who count.The only solution is to trust schools and students. The profession must kick doors down to gain the leading say in exam reforms; challenge pundits and policy-makers when they strut and spout rubbish; take on exam boards and Ofqual when results aren’t right; and tackle universities when they’re out of order.Not much to do then! Congratulations on another great year.


"Strom", "quigh" and others - the nonsense of the phonics nonsense words

TES blog posted 5th August 2013

I’m not a great fan of systems in education: by inclination I’m a cherry picker, nicking the best bits (in my view) from all the ideas and methods around, to the despair of those who package and market them.

So you won’t be surprised to know that I’m not sold on the prevailing government view that, in teaching reading, synthetic phonics are The Great Way Forward. Actually, as an approach I think it’s fine, if it works for you as a teacher. It’s when the government decides to base national tests on it that I start to worry.

In these tests, five-year-olds have to read a list of words, including made-up ones. There was one word in each of last year’s pilot tests and in this year’s real one that caused schools heartache.

Last year’s was “strom”. Many fast readers misread it as “storm”. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? We subliminally correct misspelling, which is why proofreading remains an art even in the days of spellcheck. I’m always typing memos about the “sixth from” instead of the “sixth form”: spellcheck doesn’t pick it up, and I read what I expect to read, not what’s there, so I miss my mistake. A reader who quickly skims “strom” and sees “storm” is relatively advanced and quick: bad news for the school (not the pupil), though, as its score dips.

How would you pronounce this year’s dodgy word, “quigh”?  I believe that the five-year-old candidates should have read it to rhyme with “high”. By contrast, my first instinct was to say “quig”, “queeg” or similar. I don’t know why. But it’s a fake word, so surely there is no right or wrong?

In the non-nonsense world of government tests, there is no room for such philological debate, notwithstanding the great learning experience it offers. Always an easy reader, a musician by training and a natural auditory learner, I would still have failed, and pulled my school’s score down. It’s either right or it’s wrong – even if it’s unreal and completely arbitrary.

Still, it was never about the child was it? It was just another target for a school to hit – or miss. And woe betide the school that misses.


I’m still standing, barely

Friday 19th July 2013

When I was a young teacher, and was developing my passion for jazz, I read George Melly's colourful autobiography Owning Up. It is a lurid depiction of 1950s life on the road with Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band. At one point, Melly describes a "knee-trembler" with a groupie in the alley behind a venue: hysterical sexual ecstasy at the point of exhaustion.

My life in jazz has been very much quieter, but teachers can readily identify with the concept of near-hysteria on the verge of exhaustion.

At my school, we recently held our staff summer dinner and disco. It was tinged with the kind of frenzy that Melly describes: we partied furiously, feverishly, when the sensible thing in terms of end-of-term survival would have been an early night with a mug of Horlicks. When I called it a day at 11.15pm, a few hardy souls were still going.

Something about school life dictates that, although it would be logical to spread major events evenly across the term, we don't. That big concert/musical/sports day/leavers' prom requires a whole term of preparation. So we conclude with a frenzied week, after which we all collapse, too knackered to really appreciate the long holidays that people so begrudge us.

Spare a thought for our students: they suffer, too. Rehearsals invariably hit their peak just as sporty children are playing competition finals: they are simultaneously sitting end-of-term/year/module tests.

At our sports day, I chatted to some 14- and 15-year-olds who, the night before, had performed not one but four Moliere farces. They looked utterly washed out, but one was nonetheless about to run the 1,500m. "What I like about you guys," I said, "is that you look even more tired than I feel." I wasn't exaggerating.

I'm not convinced that we can solve this dilemma. Whenever some bright spark (usually an out-of-touch politician) suggests that we should have four, five or six terms in a year, I argue that it would just make things worse. Three ends of term in a year are bad enough - I'm not sure I could handle more.

No, I'm with Melly (on the subject of exhaustion, not back-alley fornication). In a strange, masochistic way, we teachers actually like the terminal madness. It's there, on the brink of collapse, that we achieve - or help our students to achieve - those great performances on stage, on the sports pitch, wherever.

At such times, I guess we do not teach as sharply as we did at the start of term, and I'm not convinced that the homework is as good. But, hey, that's all part of life's rich tapestry. Time management and immaculate organisation aren't the answer. Nor, necessarily, is getting everything done ahead of deadline. Sometimes it's simply about coping, achieving the miracle and, yes, surviving without enough sleep for the last week or two of term. We do it, so why shouldn't children learn the skill? And, as I say to my youngest colleagues, surviving without sleep is very good training for parenthood.

I'll stop now: I'm about to fall over. Have a great summer.


A world of ideas

Friday 10th May 2103

I was in New Zealand when I had one of my best ideas for improving learning at my school. In 2007, I was at the International Confederation of Principals in Auckland, listening to Sir Ken Robinson, the creativity man. It wasn't anything in particular that he said. Rather, his inspirational talk set my mind running. I'm not sure I heard all of his session - I was scribbling too furiously as my own, barely connected, concept grew.

What the idea was doesn't matter. But the experience poses an important question: do you really have to travel to the other side of the world to have a good idea?

Of course not. But it's true that I've never had my best ideas in school - it's just too busy. Both the joy and the frustration of school leadership stem from the fact that your day never goes according to plan. You're constantly interrupted by the stream of people and issues arriving at your door or on your computer screen. Accordingly, I always advise newly appointed school leaders to "get out more".

It's not obligatory to travel abroad for new ideas, but it helps. When rubbing shoulders with educators from other systems, cultures or traditions, you are struck first by the differences. But, invariably, over a few days you discover that you share infinitely more hopes and fears, aspirations and frustrations. From that interaction, you can start to develop your own ideas; solutions appropriate to your setting.

International benchmarking has its dangers. We are plagued by policymakers deciding that, for example, Finland's high level of attainment means it has all the answers for other education systems. Clearly it has many, but you cannot transplant one country's approach wholesale into another. Sadly, politicians try to do just that: their heavy-handed, cherry-picking and imposed "solutions" give international comparison a bad name.

For teachers and school leaders, however, there's no such danger. Generally, the best ideas that we develop for our schools are part stolen, part adapted. The successful approach at the school 10 miles down the road won't quite suit us, but we like the basic premise. So we borrow the concept, mould it to our particular context and make it work for us. If we look internationally, we find more inspiration from which to borrow, adapt and create anew.

Opportunities abound to attend conferences overseas or to study abroad, so volunteer and ask your school governors to fund it. The experience is encouraging, too: when we compare notes with people from other systems, we often find that we're not doing so badly.

I'll come clean. The great idea I had in New Zealand was one I never saw through. Instead, against expectation, I got a new job. Perhaps that trip was the catalyst; I don't know. But I'm certain that the international dimension has helped both me and the schools I've led. Think about it - and get out more.


Blurred vision

Friday 29th March 2013

He hasn’t been in the post long, but schools minister David Laws is making his mark. When I heard him speak recently to the National Education Trust (NET), colleagues said they’d heard him three times in two days. It’s good for the new boy to outline his vision, though, surely?

I guess it depends what you call a vision. The mission belongs to Michael Gove  and Laws’ vision is entirely based on statistics. He reels off the percentage of children “ready for secondary education” – or not. He will save UK education by raising floor targets (yawn) and imposing a new, far more sensible (how many times have we heard that?) accountability regime.

Laws praises outstanding school leaders who set themselves much higher targets than the government floor level. Of course they do. But policy-makers always miss the fact that the best school leaders aren’t target-driven: their aspirational vision for a school, their never-slaked thirst for improvement, is visceral, vocational and professional – nothing to do with figures.

Nonetheless figures drive the system now. In his NET speech, Laws barely mentioned teachers, only the Neanderthal leftist irresponsibility of their unions (that’s how he and his boss characterise those who disagree with them). He spoke of trust and autonomy just once – in answer to a question. Then he returned to the required levels and what OFSTED will do to schools that miss them.

How can you feel trusted or autonomous when the OFSTED gun’s pressed to your temple?

Earlier that week I’d been in East Durham, coincidentally on the day Michael Gove castigated that area’s “smell of defeatism”. Although I’ve lived in the North-East for five years, I hadn’t been to East Durham before. I drove around Peterlee and Easington Colliery, real Billy Elliott country. More than two decades after the miners’ strike and the death of its mines, the area is still blighted. New businesses and enterprises haven’t rushed in. There’s a gap where the major employer used to be.

Of course schools need aspiration, hope and ambition. But, frankly, up in the North-East we find the policy-makers a long way south: Mr Gove has no idea of the reality of East Durham, an area tenaciously battling to improve – but with no focus, help or understanding from central government. Indeed, our local councils are suffering worse cuts than more affluent parts of the country.

When Laws spoke of outstanding leaders, he forgot the most important aspect of great leadership: when something goes wrong, good leaders don’t blame someone down the line, they take it personally.

Government knows no such response. I’ve spent 23 years of headship trying to mitigate the worst effects of successive education secretaries. They take no responsibility. They blame schools; ineffectual heads; lazy teachers; communities. No blame for ministers who turn a blind eye, introduce their latest daft initiative without thinking it through, and leave teachers and school leaders to pick up the pieces while they move on and up.

Different faces, different administrations, same old messages.  Our children deserve better.  And so do those who work incredibly hard to give them the life chances they need.


Start talking to the enemy

 Friday 11th January 2013

It's war. As we were winding down to the end of last term and looking forward to the season of peace and goodwill, Michael Gove announced he was putting the department on a war footing. He'll confront the unions over pay, strikes and sacking teachers. No more Mr Nice Guy (when was that?): he's getting tough.

Gove is a man in a hurry. But, climbing into the turret of his Panzer (sorry, Chieftain), he risks making himself look ridiculous.

Leading change is tough. The job of headship - my job - is about improving schools: they can always be better and we should never be satisfied. As chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw reminds us, we're talking about children's futures.

The flip side is that most workers dislike change. Even the best innovations push them out of their comfort zones, requiring them to think afresh and work harder while they get used to the new way of doing things. Of course they're resistant: it's human nature. Leaders must persuade and cajole, then lick their wounds after the encounters.

Secretaries of state, like heads, should accept the reality of that very human resistance to change. But in Gove's case, any contradiction of his plans is characterised as wilful obstruction.

Those who dislike the changes are not necessarily blocking progress or improvement for its own sake. When Gove and his cronies characterise their opponents as being against standards - as favouring lousy opportunities for children - it is offensive and silly.

However, I don't think the teaching unions have got it right. Their work-to-rule and strike plans are wrong-headed. Parents will neither support nor forgive them.

I suspect that union fears that the changes will usher in regional pay are unfounded. The outcome will actually resemble an arms race rather than a cut in pay, with the strongest schools increasing pay rates to attract the best teachers.

But Gove's pay plans aren't just about shortening incremental scales. He's the latest minister convinced that performance-related pay is the only way. So how do you measure performance? You can argue that on a production line you could pay workers for the number of widgets they produce in a day. Clear and fair.

But it isn't. What happens when something goes wrong further up the production line? Does everyone take a hit? If that rudimentary example is trickier than it first appears, how do you measure the complex set of interactions that constitute a teaching day? There is no simple solution.

Another battleground for Gove is the old chestnut about sacking poor teachers. People have employment rights and teachers are people, too. There's a human rights issue here but this government isn't keen on those.

It's not easy running a school: to run a whole education system must be hell. But you don't do it by behaving like Hitler. War? The unions cannot just be smashed: this isn't the 1980s.

Besides, in war the first casualty is truth, as Aeschylus wrote: we don't want to lose any more of that. So here's a New Year's resolution for Gove. Stop regarding anyone who doesn't agree with you as the enemy: start talking instead. The only way we'll move forward is by reason and compromise, and reason, surely, is at the heart of education.

 Beyond the smokescreen

Friday 9th November 2012

“Critical to reform is ending an examination system that has narrowed the curriculum, forced idealistic professionals to teach to the test and encouraged heads to offer children the softest possible options,” said education secretary Michael Gove when he announced his plans for a English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) to replace GCSEs.

Gove has an obsessive conviction that the left has been systematically and deliberately lowering standards, dumbing down exams and wrecking the education of the young in this country. This bizarre “reds under the bed” attitude is best ignored. He gives three reasons why GCSEs aren’t working. There are, in fact, lots of reasons why they aren’t working and they do need to be scrapped. But those three are none of them. Gove created an outrageous smokescreen which needs to be challenged.

First, he says that GCSEs have narrowed the curriculum. They haven’t. In fact, there is a wide range of subjects and pupils can benefit from of a very broad curriculum. The narrowing comes when someone like Gove interferes. A couple of years ago, for example, he decided that some GCSEs were more important than others. His new system perpetuates that hierarchy.

I have no objection to the concept of a core curriculum: the damage is done only when government insists on league tables that are based on them. At that point, the core becomes the only part that’s valued.

Any alleged narrowing has nothing to do with what schools do, what children choose or what teachers teach. It’s all to do with the pressure on schools to meet targets. They are pushed to get a certain number of C grades in a certain number of exams. The government dishes out no brownie points for getting pupils A*s. What keeps Ofsted off your back is a minimum number of C grades in a prescribed range of subjects.

That pressure is what creates the three problems outlined by Gove. It narrows the curriculum because schools, under the Ofsted cosh, concentrate on them. Consequently, teachers are obliged to take a tick-box approach to teaching.

We are moving towards the tick-box style exams that will get candidates over the tick-box hurdle of government benchmarks. For any minister of the past 20 years to present himself as liberating teachers and allowing them to be creative is a fairly grotesque kind of posturing.

Gove castigates those who push children towards easier exams. But if you’re a leader and your job, your teacher’s jobs and much else depend on hitting those targets, wouldn’t you be tempted in some cases? I might. I never judge heads in those positions, because I’m lucky enough not to live with that.

Ministers should know better. They do. But Gove wilfully opened his statement with a political red herring. His three reasons are indeed national problems, but they are not problems with GCSEs, merely with the way government uses and abuses them.

I wish I could feel optimistic about the GCSE replacement, and about the reform of A levels that will follow. But the new structure is proposed on the basis of solving a bogus and politically contrived set of problems. 

Without root-and-branch reform, our exam system faces collapse. But the proposed EBC system is a house built on sand: as the scripture says, “mighty was the fall thereof”.


Double-speak rules in post-Olympic world

Friday 14th September 2012

Comment in the great summer of 2012 starts and finishes with sport, I guess. GB’s Olympic success (or, rather, the route to it) provides a host of metaphors for success in life in general and, at this time of year, exams in particular.  The athletes’ personal stories of commitment, sacrifice, dedication and sheer dogged hard work are awe-inspiring. As we move into the Paralympics we’re seeing those qualities manifested even more starkly.  

The parallels are plain as a pikestaff – but that won’t stop heads like me from plundering them shamelessly for assembly fodder as we try to galvanise our pupils at the start of the new school year. Why overlook such a gift horse? The nation, and especially its youth, has been electrified by Olympian examples of endeavour and, above all, of triumph over adversity.

Think of Jessica Ennis, excluded by injury from the Beijing Olympics, returning to devastating form in her sevenfold discipline. Or Somalian-born Mo Farah - who left his family to train in Ethiopia and America but whom everyone in Hounslow knows nonetheless as the bloke from down the road as he works out round the park - tearing the opposition apart to win both the 5,000m and the 10,000m. Even the least inspired among us assembly-takers can at last cast aside that old 1950s Boys’ Book of Heroic Tales and use this summer’s experience for the Ultimate Start of Term Motivating Speech.

Let’s remember, we can also use the achievement of this year’s exam candidates as the model to hold up for the next cohort. They done good, as football managers say. Moreover, this year we’ve all been spared the customary mealy-mouthed congratulations from education ministers while the usual dinosaurs roar and posture about dumbing down and falling standards. Both groups were unusually muted this year.

Sadly, they’ve kept schtumm because top grades fell this year for the first time since (according to the dinosaurs) educationists (or, according to Michael Gove in The Times, the Left) started deliberately lowering standards to the point where an A level today is worth about what a Cub Scout’s knot-tying badge was in 1969. So no triumphalism, just a quiet satisfaction at the fact that, because 0.4% fewer candidates got the top A* grade at A Level, standards are declared to have risen. Something similar appears to have occurred at GCSE.

Hang on! Just run that past me again, will you? Even in the parallel universe that UK education inhabits, it takes some puzzling out. George Orwell’s 1984 has finally arrived! Under Big Brother’s iron rule, people have to learn to speak the contradictory, to believe the incredible: doublespeak and doublethink. For those exam candidates, who prepared as immaculately as Olympic runners, making this last-minute grade change is like moving the finishing tape after the race has started. Doublethink it, though, and this year’s results make perfect sense. People did (marginally) less well. So it must have been harder. So standards must have risen. Job done.

The other element in GB’s Olympic success was a spectacularly effective combination of investment, infrastructure, support and strategic development over years. We’ve moved from the old days of a few plucky Brits occasionally winning against the odds to a professional machine designed and resourced to build champions.

Hence the current furore about assuring the Olympic sporting legacy: the silly row about selling off playing fields is a smoke-screen. What we should be discussing is not the loss of a few badly-maintained strips of grass but how, if we want to build our pyramid of success higher in future, we can broaden the base: because broaden it we must. Grass-roots participation (and national levels of fitness) and elite sporting achievement are indivisible parts of one enormous strategic decision for the government. But scoring silly inter-party points about who flogged off more land, and when, won’t get us anywhere.

Nothing succeeds like success. Even before the Games ended the Prime Minister conceded that earlier plans to cut spending on sports development after them would have to be reversed. Now we need to put pressure on ministers and seize the opportunities created by the post-Olympic zeitgeist. Me, I’d start by sticking a specialist sports teacher in every primary school in the country.

But I’m not a sports expert. I can’t even catch a ball. Government needs to change its usual practice and listen to experts – both those with deep experience of grass-roots and elite sport alike, and those who really know what works in schools and what doesn’t. Maybe in post-Olympic GB we can move beyond political smoke and mirrors, capitalise on a remarkable level of national consensus and enthusiasm - and really achieve something.

And will government acknowledge in education policy the indisputable correlation between levels of resourcing and Olympic success? Perhaps that’s an Olympic dream too far.


Double-speak rules in post-Olympic world

Friday 14th September 2012

Comment in the great summer of 2012 starts and finishes with sport, I guess. GB’s Olympic success (or, rather, the route to it) provides a host of metaphors for success in life in general and, at this time of year, exams in particular.  The athletes’ personal stories of commitment, sacrifice, dedication and sheer dogged hard work are awe-inspiring. As we move into the Paralympics we’re seeing those qualities manifested even more starkly.  

The parallels are plain as a pikestaff – but that won’t stop heads like me from plundering them shamelessly for assembly fodder as we try to galvanise our pupils at the start of the new school year. Why overlook such a gift horse? The nation, and especially its youth, has been electrified by Olympian examples of endeavour and, above all, of triumph over adversity.

Think of Jessica Ennis, excluded by injury from the Beijing Olympics, returning to devastating form in her sevenfold discipline. Or Somalian-born Mo Farah - who left his family to train in Ethiopia and America but whom everyone in Hounslow knows nonetheless as the bloke from down the road as he works out round the park - tearing the opposition apart to win both the 5,000m and the 10,000m. Even the least inspired among us assembly-takers can at last cast aside that old 1950s Boys’ Book of Heroic Tales and use this summer’s experience for the Ultimate Start of Term Motivating Speech.

Let’s remember, we can also use the achievement of this year’s exam candidates as the model to hold up for the next cohort. They done good, as football managers say. Moreover, this year we’ve all been spared the customary mealy-mouthed congratulations from education ministers while the usual dinosaurs roar and posture about dumbing down and falling standards. Both groups were unusually muted this year.

Sadly, they’ve kept schtumm because top grades fell this year for the first time since (according to the dinosaurs) educationists (or, according to Michael Gove in The Times, the Left) started deliberately lowering standards to the point where an A level today is worth about what a Cub Scout’s knot-tying badge was in 1969. So no triumphalism, just a quiet satisfaction at the fact that, because 0.4% fewer candidates got the top A* grade at A Level, standards are declared to have risen. Something similar appears to have occurred at GCSE.

Hang on! Just run that past me again, will you? Even in the parallel universe that UK education inhabits, it takes some puzzling out. George Orwell’s 1984 has finally arrived! Under Big Brother’s iron rule, people have to learn to speak the contradictory, to believe the incredible: doublespeak and doublethink. For those exam candidates, who prepared as immaculately as Olympic runners, making this last-minute grade change is like moving the finishing tape after the race has started. Doublethink it, though, and this year’s results make perfect sense. People did (marginally) less well. So it must have been harder. So standards must have risen. Job done.

The other element in GB’s Olympic success was a spectacularly effective combination of investment, infrastructure, support and strategic development over years. We’ve moved from the old days of a few plucky Brits occasionally winning against the odds to a professional machine designed and resourced to build champions.

Hence the current furore about assuring the Olympic sporting legacy: the silly row about selling off playing fields is a smoke-screen. What we should be discussing is not the loss of a few badly-maintained strips of grass but how, if we want to build our pyramid of success higher in future, we can broaden the base: because broaden it we must. Grass-roots participation (and national levels of fitness) and elite sporting achievement are indivisible parts of one enormous strategic decision for the government. But scoring silly inter-party points about who flogged off more land, and when, won’t get us anywhere.

Nothing succeeds like success. Even before the Games ended the Prime Minister conceded that earlier plans to cut spending on sports development after them would have to be reversed. Now we need to put pressure on ministers and seize the opportunities created by the post-Olympic zeitgeist. Me, I’d start by sticking a specialist sports teacher in every primary school in the country.

But I’m not a sports expert. I can’t even catch a ball. Government needs to change its usual practice and listen to experts – both those with deep experience of grass-roots and elite sport alike, and those who really know what works in schools and what doesn’t. Maybe in post-Olympic GB we can move beyond political smoke and mirrors, capitalise on a remarkable level of national consensus and enthusiasm - and really achieve something.

And will government acknowledge in education policy the indisputable correlation between levels of resourcing and Olympic success? Perhaps that’s an Olympic dream too far.


A little trust would go a long way

Friday 20th July 2012

It’s that taxi-driver thing again. “I learnt me twelve-times table by the time I was nine. We got the stick if we didn’t know our tables. It didn’t do me no harm!”

If you overlook the tick in his right cheek and the rictus grin, the certainty of the apocryphal London cabbie is reassuring. I suspect it was he who told Michael Gove how maths should be taught.

People of my generation learnt our tables by rote when we were in junior school. It didn’t do most of us any harm. Indeed, I still do a lot of mental arithmetic. I often find myself doing a quick calculation in my head, checking the feasibility of some budgetary plan. I think I was well taught: I round up or down and use my times tables to reach a rough total or percentage.

I don’t know why the rote-learning of times tables apparently disappeared from schools. It worked for me.

That’s the point, though. It worked for me – but it didn’t work for everyone. Since my Sixties childhood we’ve become more subtle and flexible in our approach. Teaching methods, approaches to tackling tasks and building blocks of fundamental learning: they work differently for different children.

Constant government pressure over the past two decades has forced teachers to teach specified schemes of work, in specified ways, so children reach specified levels at specified ages. We all know the result of using prescription to “drive up standards” (a favoured ministerial phrase): one searing proof lies in the fact that too many children get to secondary school age with unsatisfactory levels of literacy or numeracy.

Constantly under the cosh from ministerial interference and hostile inspection, schools and teachers are invariably characterised as lowering standards, notwithstanding the flowery compliments politicians pay (to some) when they address conferences. In truth the lowering is more frequently caused by banal government prescription, benchmarks and floor targets. Teachers, like schools, come in all shapes and sizes, and some are better than others.

But a teacher who really cannot be bothered to help children to grow and make something of their potential: that’s a rare beast indeed.

Nonetheless yet another Secretary of State is micromanaging - yet again. He’s telling schools precisely what to teach when, and how. How hollow now ring those early promises of freedom and choice for schools!

There was dissent within Mr Gove’s working group. Andrew Pollard, its leading academic, describes the proposals as “fatally flawed”, and “overly prescriptive”. They’re based on a misguided principle of linearity that insists children learn “first this, then that”.

It’s misguided because they don’t. Children learn at different speeds and in all kinds of different ways. Gifted teachers have always seen that, and differentiated accordingly.

In 22 years of headship I’ve lost count of the “new strategies” based on a simplistic ministerial assumption about how children learn. Gove’s proposed new National Curriculum goes one better, cherry-picking elements from all the highest performing systems in the world.

Great idea: hopeless in practice. Sure, smart schools have always nicked ideas from others: the posh term for it is “sharing good practice”. But you have to assimilate those ideas into what works for your school, with your children. A small group of advisers and a politician can’t do that for a whole nation, and shouldn’t try.

There’s nothing wrong with getting children to learn poems by heart. Nor to chant tables as in the “old days”. But why must Michael Gove insist that every child at a particular age has to do it? In a politician’s hands the joy of poetry and the excitement of maths alike will rapidly become the drudgery of tedium. And narrow prescription will, as always, force teachers to teach uniformly, to the middle, so the brightest and those who are struggling alike will get a raw deal. Again.

Here’s a funny thing about the proposed new National Curriculum.  Government’s flagship schools, the Academies, don’t have to do it: because they are (allegedly) independent. This suggests the great new plan is directed specifically at those schools that haven’t converted. Are they the bad boys and girls, the slow learners in school terms? I think we should be told. The knives are out for those who don’t climb aboard the Academy Express.

Will any politician ever find the courage to trust schools? To set the broad direction and then trust the profession to be creative, demanding, challenging, inspiring, in travelling it? I fear not.

From the quarter-century history of the National Curriculum teachers have learnt the lessons of over-prescription, and of curricular overload. They’ve learnt the hard way, by having to deal with the fallout.

I’ve always believed people should learn from history. I hope my pupils do. But I fear politicians never will. They’re always so sure they know better.

You say you trust us, Mr Gove. Now prove it

Friday 15th June 2012

At last, a ministerial olive branch. At the recent NAHT conference Secretary of State Michael Gove drew back from the threat of no-notice inspections. He said it appears that schools and their leaders don’t feel trusted by government: OFSTED is seen as arriving, dreaded and unannounced, like the Spanish Inquisition. “That was not the intention”, he assured delegates.

Well, I guess that’s a start. In my twenty-plus years of headship there’s been precious trust shown in the profession by the many Secretaries of State who have come and gone, their lieutenants or their civil servants: you don’t feel much warmth about teachers or their leaders in the leafy offices of Sanctuary Buildings.

Ernest Hemingway said: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”.

Not a bad dictum: so will Gove call off the Rottweilers? Not yet, it appears. Since taking up post OFSTED’s newish boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has done little but utter dire threats against complacency in schools. He’s hard to fathom. He models the headship role on Clint Eastwood, the lone warrior fighting wrong: scary guy. By contrast, people who have worked with him (I’ve met several) cannot praise him too highly. He was totally committed to his pupils, they say, and a fantastically supportive and empowering colleague. As heads’ halos go, his is very shiny.

Indeed, Wilshaw ceaselessly proclaims his mission to give all children a fair chance, to ensure they’re not let down in their life choices by lousy opportunities offered in school, a personal mission with which we all empathise and which we applaud. Schools will – and, in a sense, should – never be “good enough”. We mustn’t ever be satisfied. We all want to see our schools get better, all the time. That’s a given.

But if it’s at odds with his real, generous persona, why does Wilshaw become Mr Hostile when he dons his OFSTED hat?

If ministers claim the current inspection regime is anything but threatening, they’re being wilfully disingenuous. I’m at an age where my pension’s almost complete: they can’t nick much of it, and I guess I could take a risk. But, given the present timescales with regard to “schools in categories” (a curious euphemism), I would feel obliged to advise any head asked to take over a failing school - either as a sole headship or as a group executive principal (very much an in-title) - not to touch it with a barge-pole.

Small wonder, then, that NAHT predicts a headship crisis: why would a bright, youngish school leader crave the hot seat when there is so much risk attached? They may have a vision and a social mission, both laudable: but they may also have a family to feed, a mortgage to pay and a pension to build at an increased rate of contribution. With those monthly outgoings, even the prospect of making a real difference in a school whose setting clearly makes the raising of floor targets problematical and far from quick is unlikely to appear the chance of a lifetime. Gove promised: “No school or head will be penalised for moving in the right direction.” I suspect NAHT members will be waiting to see the proof.

Of course, all this takes place against a background of ministerial insistence on giving schools the power to make their own decisions. Academies are “independent state schools”: the description, calculated to try to grab ground from the private sector, is a calculated half-truth. Academies, free of local authority control, are more in thrall to central government than ever: just witness the budget cock-up some are currently dealing with.

Whatever schools’ status, all suffer government micro-management. Schools Minister Nick Gibb has got his way on forcing phonics teaching, and testing, on schools.

The synthetic phonics approach is well-respected, effective for many children. But the effect of ministerial micro-management will be one more step in de-skilling the profession. Teachers will be pressured to use phonics: and viable alternative or parallel approaches will be discouraged.

Is that a problem? It is in the case of a seven-year-old girl I met recently. She has auditory problems, discovered a little late: she hasn’t heard the sounds clearly, and cannot relate them to what she sees on the page. She struggles with Mr Gibb’s made-up phonic words - zoot, kloob, gax.

Presumably such words have a use for some children – though I haven’t thought of one. But they won’t help this little girl. She’s beyond the age of five where Gibb wants to have his tests, so she won’t embarrass the school. But what will happen to her? My hope is that she’ll get the speech and language therapy she needs, connected (in a coherent and joined-up way) to help with reading.

I wish I felt confident. I fear she’ll be left behind while her school, under more pressure than ever, concentrates on the majority it can get to the next target level, as government pressure always forces schools to.

Still, we can stop worrying. The Secretary of State says he does trust schools. Any suggestion to the contrary was unintentional.

So prove it, Ministers.Stop ramping up your threatening “or else” language; tone down the damning descriptors and implied penalties from OFSTED; stop interfering and attempting to micro-manage; and make the department get its sums right.

That would be a start. Then schools might trust to you to trust them.


Heads won’t be roped into partnership

Academy sponsorship is not for us all

Friday 6th January 2012

It hasn't been said in so many words, but the writing's on the wall. If independent schools wish to be "acceptable", to bask in the favour of politicians, they would do well to sponsor an academy. Note that I said "politicians", not government. This issue has united all three main parties. It is as if there is now something dirty about independent schools: get stuck into the academies programme, or endure the disapproval of the political establishment. But some independents might say, "Don't we already broaden access to the less well-off and aid social mobility through bursaries?" Unfortunately, politicians have decided they're irrelevant.

Such tunnel vision undervalues just how much the sector contributes. Independents are not ivory towers. We already work closely with our neighbours (if I hear mention of the inter-sector Berlin Wall once more, I may kill someone!). We collaborate in ways that are right for our schools and for those we partner, and for the pupils in our area. Academy sponsorship is great for some, and rightly applauded, but cannot be imposed on all. Government would be unwise to put pressure on us to follow one required pattern to justify our existence. That rhetoric has already gone too far and overlooks the difficulties inherent in sponsorship.

Advocates of cross-sector academy sponsorship characterise independents as the single model for success in all schools. "Sharing our DNA" has become a flattering, if irritating, mantra. Those of us who retain a degree of scepticism (and humility) question how much we can really offer on discipline and standards in the more difficult setting of a failing school. My school's ethos is distinctive, but the image frequently portrayed (tight discipline, smart uniforms, prefects and house systems) is not our DNA. Those are superficial symptoms of something much deeper - a viscerally liberal approach to education markedly at odds with the "tough love" frequently boasted by academies. Moreover, government targets and simplistic Ofsted judgements are alien and inimical to our modus operandi.

Involvement is not without cost. I lose sleep about finding the capacity in my professional life, let alone my colleagues' lives, to take spare energy from my school into another. Some schools have found it, and I admire them for it. In my school I see none, nor spare money. We charge parents the lowest fee compatible with excellence. We spend their money on excellent staff and facilities, but rarely on non-core activities - nor on consultants. Nor would I want my high-profile independent school to wade into a highly charged political atmosphere: academies are not popular everywhere and have even provoked the odd strike.

The biggest of several elephants in the room is the question of selection. The majority of independent schools are academically selective at age 11 or 13. Some claim to be "fairly comprehensive", but the adverb "fairly" is significant: few are genuinely or wholly so. What our schools do so well is mostly achieved with a relatively narrow ability range, even where we support a variety of special needs. With their grand talk and broad-brush vision, academy advocates are quick to overlook this significant aspect of our DNA. But true partnership demands honesty, not coy avoidance of the difficult topics.

Our greatest strength is our independence, which government pressure threatens. If policymakers seek the involvement of independent schools, they should woo us, not preach at us; offer real advantages rather than mere withdrawal of disapproval; and strenuously avoid constraining the independence that defines our DNA by prescribing an approved mode of engagement.

Despite my many reservations, I may yet work with a school in difficult circumstances, after assessing what my school can realistically offer in a spirit of humility. I shall be obliged to negotiate robustly. If I find myself pushed down a path inimical to my school, I shall be out of it like a shot and heading for the hills. And I don't think I'd be alone.


Forget Ofsted. What schools need is AA Gill

Friday 7th October 2011

As Sunday Times food critic AA Gill left the River Café in Glasbury-on-Wye he tried to be funny. He said the food was disgusting. Bad joke, wrong place: distraught, the chef punched a (human) dish-washer, and ended up in court.

Unsurprisingly, newspaper columns jumped on the story to ask why we need food critics, if all they do is stir up trouble.

Gill wrote a piece in defence of his profession: “Our job isn’t to be constructive, however much those who have been criticised whine. It is a fact that a collectively robust, unpartisan, argumentative body of critics improves and invigorates the medium it criticises... public eating has improved immensely.”

Making his point strongly, he put me in mind of school inspection. Inspection hasn’t of itself raised standards in schools - teachers and schools do that – but, though we dislike it, it has given a push in the right direction.

I am in no doubt that it’s lost it way now, however. In a fanatical quest for the Holy Grail of accountability, it has become over-complex, bureaucratic, inhuman. When stakes are high – failure involving removal of governing bodies, sacking of school leaders and school closures – those on the receiving end have demanded judgments backed by terabytes of data. The result? Ironically, not sophisticated, reasoned findings: rather, simplistic, formulaic conclusions in the blandest of language.

Such crudity is damaging, and is spreading. Many heads nowadays define themselves by their school’s banal OFSTED judgment. Can you imagine Heston Blumenthal proudly announcing to his clientele that the Fat Duck is “good with outstanding features”?  Yet people describe schools in those terms, with a straight face. My heart bleeds for them: the hard-earned praise of the “outstanding” label is so paltry, so cold, so grudging.

Such a judgement is almost meaningless, belying the countless human interactions that take place in schools day after day. It studiously ignores the hopes, the fears, the aspirations, the frustrations, the achievements of the individuals in the school and demeans them by reducing the entire massive undertaking to a single grade. Accountability? Maybe. But does it achieve anything at all? I don’t think so.

An official inspectorate enforcing the government’s agenda (as it must) demands conformity. It cannot avoid putting pressure, however indirectly, on schools to conform to a preferred “best practice” model or agenda. As such it will inevitably negate over time what the Coalition sees as the benefits of the freedoms granted to academies and free schools. It’s the nature of the beast.

So humour me for a moment. Look through the telescope the other way. Why don’t we extend the AA Gill model to schools? An experienced, civilised, cultured person, the educational equivalent of a food critic, would simply walk in and get a feel for the place. His report – with no agenda, and unconstrained by pseudo-scientific jargon – could create an elegant and vivid a word-painting of the nature, ethos and feel of the school. Yet if one of David Cameron’s allegedly “coasting schools” tried to hide behind merely satisfactory data, a sharp-eyed critic would surely spot it.

I can already hear the screams of outrage at this proposal. We can’t have any old nutter turning up! What about professional expertise? What about objectivity?

Hold on. What, if not a nutter, is the inspector who fails an otherwise good school because its fence is not high enough? What is professional about a “limiting judgement” that damns a school on a single aspect, however good the rest? And what else but lack of objectivity lies behind a framework driven by government obsessions of the moment? In comparison the school critic would be unpartisan, open-minded, objective – and very sharp-eyed, merciless with jargon or flannel. That’s its nature.

Government is obsessed with no-notice inspections. It wants to catch schools unprepared, so they can’t ship out the naughty kids for a day or mount elaborate subterfuges to hide their weaknesses. But the inspectorate can’t get its machinery rolling quite that easily, and it needs the data: thus schools are seldom if ever caught on the hop.

By contrast AA Gill accepts that reality: a show is put on for him: “The instant I am recognised in a restaurant everything gets worse. The wait between courses gets longer… the chef goes ‘Oh God, we’re not serving him that. Make it again.’ … Do you really imagine, having done this for two decades, that I don’t notice?”

To be fair, there is already a schools’ equivalent to Egon Ronay or Michelin. I recently rediscovered the Good Schools Guide. It’s grown. The 2011 version is of house-brick weight and costs £39.99.

The publishers aren’t paying me to say this, but it’s attractive, informative - and far more illuminating than any inspection report I’ve read. In the manner of a good food guide, schools don’t pay, but are invited to be included. The contributor (generally an ex-head) visits the school. (Two years after the Guide last visited me, I’m find I’m still portrayed as a recently-arrived, noisy but amiable eccentric: they’ve got that wrong, so they don’t always get it right!). The school’s stated aims and strengths are critiqued and parental views are discreetly garnered.

The result is entertaining, if slightly quirky. OK: admittedly it’s all a bit cosy. But the picture drawn is vivid.

So remove the cosiness. Try my plan. Get the genuinely lone warrior in, the school critic. He arrives, maybe unannounced, maybe not. He samples. He sees through the smokescreens and makes a judgement. He departs.

Don’t listen to what he says as he leaves: you might be tempted to punch the deputy head. But the printed report will be measured; careful; critical where criticism is due; elegantly phrased; and, well, objective. Is it such a barmy notion after all?

Inspection’s had its day.  Bring on the school critic!


Carol counts down to extra maths

Friday 16th September 2011

Remember the Möbius strip, that clever paper loop with a twist in it? If you draw a line along it, you come back to where you started having drawn on both sides – and discover that there is in fact only one continuous side.

It’s a satisfyingly intriguing concept, giving rise to myriad questions and ideas beyond the mere functional mathematics which dominates school life and has recently been exercising the mind of Carol Vorderman and her team: they have just published the findings of their enquiry into maths education.  I’ve nothing against Vorderman: it’s good to see a TV personality who makes being clever cool.  But my heart sinks when ministers import yet another celebrity brain (albeit one whose university degree wouldn’t meet Michael Gove’s requirement for entry to the profession) to tell us what to teach.

Happily, her report is clear, tough and doesn’t pull any punches. It’s critical of the damage done by regulation and inspection: schools are pushed by targets, OFSTED and tick-box National Curriculum approaches into drilling children in pedestrian mathematical routines.  Vorderman deplores both the shortage of secondary maths specialists and the low level of primary teachers’ maths skills. Far from the creative, mind-opening experience she desires, school maths thus becomes a mind-numbing, dreary process. A third of pupils make no progress in their first year at secondary school and 90% of children “who have failed to reach the target in the SAT at age 11… fail their GCSEs and leave school functionally innumerate”.

The problems are starkly outlined. Mercifully, for the answer Vorderman doesn’t look overseas for a magic bullet: “we cannot merely import a system… and expect it to work”.

As I read the report my spirits started to lift.  Then came the fatal flaw: the recommendation of “a route map for introducing compulsory mathematics for everyone post-16”. My heart sank again.

That’s the danger. All but one of Vorderman’s panel are mathematicians, and specialists tend to focus on their subject to the exclusion of others. One thing teachers have to learn when they move into senior management is to broaden their subject-focused view to a whole-school vision.

Let’s be clear.  Young people should leave school functionally numerate.  We must improve primary maths teaching so that children don’t find themselves adrift aged seven and never catch up.  But once the required level of competence has been reached – and there is a huge debate to be had about what that level of competence should be – we shouldn’t keep banging children over the head with more maths if they don’t want to specialise in it.  We should give young people real choices instead of constantly telling them what is good for them. 

Maths is vital and can be fascinating: but it doesn’t have to rule everyone’s school life until they are 18. Experts should define the minimum requirement and then back off.  Prescription, assessment, targets and inspection should not be permitted to distort or wreck it. And beyond that minimum point maths should be an option like every other subject. 

The Vorderman report charts an illuminating and important journey, but sadly gets lost at the end.  Like every single-subject enquiry since Ken Baker first devised the National Curriculum, Vorderman’s solution involves increased compulsion. Same old same old. It’s the Möbius strip again: we’re back where we started. 

Baker presided over the feeding-frenzy when subject lobbies clambered on board and carved up the new curriculum. They created a sprawling, over-prescriptive monster. Two decades on, you’d hope we’d learned the lesson:  but it seems we risk going round the loop once more.


The deep end is never the best place to learn

Friday 5th August 2011

Holiday advice for teachers: don’t tell strangers of a certain age what you do. You’ll be lectured on (falling) educational standards and poor teachers, then hear some home truths about discipline; including, probably, “The cane never did me any harm”. It’s possible the occasional thrashing did them no lasting damage – though it’s worth checking for a twitch or other sign of instability.

Government ministers indulge their moral certainty in similar style. They pursue personal crusades with the same tenacity as the holiday bore: unfortunately they also have the power abruptly to turn gut-feelings into policy. We’ve seen examples in the past year with the EBacc, widening access to “élitist” universities, synthetic phonics and the 50% GCSE pass rate - to name but a few.

One issue, Teaching Schools, troubles me. Forget the irony of the suggestion that connecting schools with teaching is something new! The proposal is that the serious business of training the next generation of teachers should be removed from the ivory towers of university departments and put entirely into schools.

Schools must be centrally involved in teacher-training: the most important element has always been teaching practice. Indeed, though my school doesn’t qualify to apply for Teaching School status, we are happy to be a strategic partner in a number of bids. Why wouldn’t we?

Teaching Schools may give the country what it needs in terms of future teacher supply. But why must they run the programme? The government’s rather too public scorn for the old university-based PGCE is based on prejudice and ignorance.

I am fiercely proud of my 25-year-old daughter who, after three years’ post-university working in the City, decided she wanted to teach. She didn’t want to follow the GTP route. She wanted a structured course with significant periods of classroom practice, but within the PGCE framework of reflecting on practice, learning about the bigger picture of educational purposes, research and philosophy, and finding time to compare notes with tutors and fellow students.

I am awestruck by what she has done and learned this past year. Her preparation for every lesson has been meticulous and immensely time-consuming. She has soaked up the research on learning, assessment, behaviour and classroom management and put it all into practice: by comparison, my own preparation for teaching nearly 35 years ago was pitiful. And, having completed that apprenticeship with a well-judged balance of college course structure and excellent school experience and support, she is more than ready to start a job in September. Parental pride apart, I see a superbly prepared new entrant to the profession.

We (nearly) all went to school, so we are all self-professed experts: opinionated certainty is as attractive to politicians as to holiday bores. “Learning on the job” is now to be the only viable way for teachers. The idea of chucking people in at the deep end apparently appeals to the baser instincts of British voters, suspicious of intellectuals, of those who think, analyse or question. Following the same dubious logic, soldiers are tough, disciplined guys: so let’s take them straight into teaching when they leave the army.

The assumption that the deep end is the best route in is deeply flawed. Teachers without that year’s teacher training tend to adopt the style of teaching they experienced as pupils. In the independent sector, where QTS isn’t required, many heads (though by no means all) nonetheless prefer candidates for jobs to come with a period of training under their belt. Though there are exceptions (oft quoted to prove the rule), on interview and when teaching a demonstration lesson PGCE or teaching BA/BEd graduands are invariably readier for the job than their rivals coming straight out of a degree course or other employment.

Schools make a central and indispensable contribution to the effective training of teachers. They know what works, and what doesn’t. But they also have to deal with relentless government pressure and follow its constantly shifting agendas. Moreover, their primary task is to teach children, so there is a risk of loss of focus, even mission-drift, over time. Capacity could become an issue: with an annual offer of £40-50,000 to Teaching Schools, I am doubtful whether an independent school like mine – acutely aware of the sacrifices parents make to pay fees and parsimonious in the way we spend them – could find the spare capacity to take the lead in a consortium. We cannot be alone in that.

Research and objective evaluation over time are the territory of Higher Education, better placed than busy schools both to plan and structure teaching-training programmes and to remind trainees of the theoretical and moral frameworks that underlie the teaching vocation. To deny HE’s contribution to the process is narrow-minded and anti-intellectual. Fortunately, would-be Teaching Schools know this, and many included university departments as strategic partners in their bids whose outcomes were announced in July.

This “forget all that theory and get on with the job” attitude is not shared by the successfully bidding Teaching Schools themselves: but stated as a national policy it betrays government’s low opinion of the real craft and challenges of teaching. We face a tragedy if, despite everything we have learned about preparation and training, not least from international competitors, teachers are regarded – unlike brain surgeons, plumbers, engineers and even computer programmers – as low-skilled technicians who can learn on the job and pick up a few necessary skills along the way. We should be very wary.

Have a good one – and avoid the holiday bores.

Quieten down, ministers, time to listen properly

April 2011

“I was talking to this chap in the pub, and he said…”

I don’t know how my governors would react if I started basing my vision for the school on the basis of the odd conversation en passant, but I suspect they’d be unimpressed. They might hope I listen to parents but would be dubious if I based a massive policy shift on the comments of one vociferous dad who bent my ear in the interval of the school play.

Yet I fear that we are seeing just that kind of background to national policy, where change seems to be dictated by a minister’s gut-feelings or by those of someone with “access”. The trouble with education, of course, is that everyone is an expert. We all went to school and, whether the experience was good, bad or indifferent, we have a view. So the man in the street, or the pub, will always know what ought to be done in the manner of the apocryphal London cabbie: “Them bad teachers, I’d string ‘em up!”

This form of vox pop politics is a relatively recent phenomenon. One can barely imagine old-fashioned High Tories venturing into in the street, let alone meeting people. John Major’s soapbox was an embarrassingly futile gesture. Tony Blair, a self-confessed “pretty straight guy”, indulged a little: but it was David Cameron, during the last election campaign, who insisted on telling the country what the ordinary chap in Bristol thought about the health service.

I’m all for politicians being in touch with what people think: it would be a novelty. It’s the selective nature of their opinion-harvesting that is so dangerous. Even when ministers find a guru on a particular topic, they tend to seize on that view without any attempt at triangulation - and, even then, only heed the bit they want to hear.

Take Sir Michael Wilshaw, celebrated Clint Eastwood fan and tough-guy head of Mossbourne Academy. Politicians of all complexions are in awe of his uncompromising line on discipline, attendance, uniform and commitment to school and praise to the skies his pupils’ achievements, including the 10 places offered at Oxbridge this year. So they should.

Thus when Sir Michael has anything to say on the above issues, policy-makers listen. But when, from his position of unassailable authority, he observes that Michael Gove’s planned new (old post-grammar-school) curriculum will be unsuitable for as many as half the children in his or any other comprehensive school, it seems ministers become selectively deaf.

In recent months we independent school heads have heard the Secretary of State urging us to share our DNA, and Lord Adonis complaining that we never did when he asked. But neither of them has ever analysed that DNA. They think that our success is all about smart uniforms, House and prefect systems and competitive sport: but these are merely symptoms of a deeper contract, an almost visceral agreement between pupil, home and school to cooperate obsessively in the quest for success. Moreover, parents are making a financial commitment to their child’s education: where angels fear to tread, even politicians won’t rush in, so they stick with the superficial.

All teachers know that the way to push through an innovation is to persuade the head that it was his or her idea all along. Unions, associations and pressure groups have to play the same game with politicians, I guess: but shouldn’t politics be more grown up? Meanwhile the Secretary of State is unnervingly certain about what History should consist of. And the Schools Minister is convinced the only way to teach reading is through synthetic phonics: end of discussion.

All this sits uncomfortably with the Coalition’s stated aims. After thirteen years of Labour rule, schools were drowning under the remorseless tide of paperwork, bureaucracy, targets, benchmarks, strategies and micromanagement more often connected to social issues than to education. “Initiativitis” was a disease paralysing the education system: the heroes of a period of unparalleled interference were the teachers and school leaders who withstood that unremitting pressure and carry on giving the very best to the children in their care, day in, day out.

The new government promised to end all that. Michael Gove castigated the 500-page National Curriculum – it felt like more – promising a slimmed-down core. He said he would set schools free, give them autonomy and real power to make choices, manipulate budgets and devise curricula that suited them and their pupils. All this was vital, and long overdue.

I’m grateful to see a government with the courage to do what is needed. Its opponents characterise the cuts in public spending as demonstrating Tory hatred of public services. That’s unworthy: the country had long been living beyond its means. The notion of spending (“investing” – sounds better) our way out of recession is foolhardy. More than a decade ago I had to cope with falling rolls in a school: we had to cut back and make redundancies. It was a truly awful time: but we did what was necessary and we emerged from it strong and ready to move forward again.

So tough is good: but then I despair when ministers lose the courage to trust schools and instead start micromanaging again. Politicians, lacking a sense of irony, seldom see how close they are to repeating their predecessors’ mistakes, and not just education ministers. When Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and a highly educated man, lambasts the country’s top universities – among the best in the world, remember – for being “élitist”, we should be very afraid. If it weren’t so dangerous to Higher Education’s future, it would be laughable.

I hope these knee-jerk reactions are just teething troubles while the coalition government finds its feet. But the profession must keep telling politicians what they need, not what they want, to hear. And let’s put an end to vox pop policy-making.

I had that Ken Baker in the back of my cab once...


Battery-hen teachers must overcome fears of Coalition’s free-range farmyards and seize creative freedoms

Friday 29th October 2010

Years ago we bought a country cottage and decided to keep chickens. Long-standing townies with liberal sentiments, we fancied getting ex-battery hens. We had visions of these newly-liberated creatures scratching ecstatically around our large garden and repaying us in their gratitude with glorious, golden-yolked eggs.

Our neighbour, a real countryman, swiftly put us right. All rescued fowls ever do, he said, is crouch in a miserable huddle, intimidated by open spaces and pining for the safe confinement of their tiny cage. (In truth he used more robustly agricultural terms). We bought bantams instead, but the idyll didn’t last, because we couldn’t stand the cockerel crowing at four in the morning.

Some reactions to the Coalition’s plan to free up schools, slash back bureaucracy and ignite a bonfire of the quangos remind me of those battery hens. Released from the numbing constriction of government prescription and regulation, we teachers seem to be finding our new free-range farmyard both draughty and threatening.

I’m not blaming anyone for this learned behaviour – anyone except the last two governments, that is. The National Curriculum was brought in more than twenty years ago to nail schools down: Tory Education Secretary Ken Baker trusted neither schools nor teachers. Testing and inspection followed because Baker’s civil servants couldn’t conceive of creating regulations without checking they were being followed. So the monster was created.

New Labour took it further – so far, indeed, that by 2010 no school or college, state or independent, was trusted by government to do anything important (such as teaching or protecting children) without producing mountains of paperwork to prove that we’re doing it.

Teachers have thus been harried and pressured for two decades. Small wonder, then, that the profession has developed a victim mentality. Things have been done to us or demanded of us unremittingly: moreover, those targets, benchmarks and myriad rules have changed constantly. Until this year’s election there had been six Education Secretaries and eight Schools Ministers in ten years: so schools had to deal with at least six new sets of initiatives, and countless additional knee-jerk reactions to events.

Over time, being told what to do by government became a habit. And local authority schools could always look to the LA for back-up or reassurance as to what was required: after all, every new government initiative came with countless PowerPoint presentations ‘delivered’ (awful word) worthily and with spectacular dullness… er, by the person who last visited our school to outline the previous initiative. Thus the straitjacket became almost a form of support: there was comfort in that tight constriction. We knew where we were.

A couple of years ago, finally, the first cracks appeared in the monolith: even the great centralist Ed Balls agreed to end Key Stage 3 SATs. We’d all moaned about the exams which got in the way of useful learning and progress at age 14. But, instead of rejoicing, there was a surprising response. Sections of the profession were at a loss: “How will we know what to teach now?”

Those of us old enough to have taught in the 1980s recall an era when adventurous schools designed their own curricula and even got their homemade syllabuses approved by examining bodies. Younger teachers have been brought up instead on a monotonous diet of delivery (that word again) of Ofsted-style tripartite lessons with Learning Objectives (drawn from the detailed Programme of Study and departmental Scheme of Work) displayed at all times.

The recent ending of the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) – or at least of the requirement that schools use it - brought similar expressions of alarm. We knew where we were with that, too, and it gave Ofsted a framework to work from. Driven to distraction by intrusive, frequently hostile inspection, we sought the relative (but only relative) safety of a pre-designed framework to keep inspectors on-piste. Similarly we got used to the GTCE being the profession’s policeman, carrying out disciplinary procedures. Drowning under the sheer volume of safeguarding regulations, we found it convenient to have a body to ban the rotten apples from our barrel.

Prescription and regulation saved us doing a number of awkward jobs, then, but they made us dependent. This is Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages develop an emotional bond with their captors. The dependency culture in schools is insidious: it grows without realising it, and becomes very, very hard to break out of. That’s where we are now.

We have been demanding freedoms, insisting that big government shrink and back off: but when the tide turns and leaves that empty ground in front of us, we feel lost.

It’s scary out there, for sure. But how exciting that scariness can be, if schools and teachers feel themselves free to apply their creativity and inspiration as they judge best: those qualities are still there, in a workforce that’s better than it’s ever been, but buried and, like hidden treasure, ready to be brought back up into the light. We need to rediscover the confidence to devise our own curricula; to make our own decisions about those whom we employ or sack; and press government to put Ofsted back in its box, inspecting only what is needful and stopping inspectors pursuing idiosyncratic personal agendas.

If politicians keep their word, increase the freedoms they have promised to schools and resist the temptation to tell us (as they are currently threatening to) precisely what should be taught in History or English lessons, that empty ground will only grow. Will that new horizon prove exciting virgin territory, ripe for exploration and exploitation, or a hostile wasteland full of snares and pitfalls? Will we stride out boldly and seize the opportunities? Or huddle together like battery hens?

It will, of course, be what we choose to make it. As long as we can find the courage.


I stormed out of class - into a cupboard (Personally Speaking, TES Magazine)

Friday 24th September 2010

Bernard Trafford’s first job was as a music teacher: he has been a head for 20 years, since 2008 at Newcastle upon Tyne’s Royal Grammar School.  He gained his PhD in 1996 following research linking student voice and school improvement.  He was Chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in 2007-9.

Biggest influence

Three people. My music teacher at school, Roger Bevan, gave me my life-long love of choral music. My first head of department, Geoffrey Holmes, taught me what music can be in a school. And Professor Roland Meighan, famous advocate of student voice, home education and de-schooling, taught me on my MEd course 20 years ago and always asked the challenging questions about what we do and why: he still does when we meet!

Career high

Different things at different career stages. When teaching music, great adventures such as conducting Elgar’s epic The Dream of Gerontius with 150 children forming the chorus, school Jazz Spectaculars and choirs touring the USA and Italy. Making it to headship – twice, and hardly able to believe it either time. As a head you don’t experience the same individual highs: instead, always, the incalculable privilege of running schools where young people constantly excel and surprise themselves.

Worst moment

Periods of conflict with children or colleagues, where doubt gnaws, confidence fails and sleep is elusive: not ones to talk about. In a celebrated pratfall I stormed into a Chemistry lesson to tell off a naughty class. I did it magnificently, turned on my heel and exited – unfortunately into the stock cupboard from where I had to reverse rapidly and scuttle out the door.  The kids politely tried not to laugh: the teacher nearly injured herself suppressing hysterics!

Pupil most proud of

No one name. Always the ones who have turned round an awful experience and triumphed. I’m also very proud of those who (like my younger daughter) have the courage to give up lucrative City careers and become teachers, chasing purpose and values rather than money.

Best piece of advice

The Zen commandment: ‘don’t just do something, sit there’. We’re always being pushed to the Action Man [sic] approach, to intervene and sort things out immediately. It’s rarely the best way.

Most outrageous thing

A colleague forcibly held open the doors on the Underground to allow a party of 70 pupils to get on the rush-hour train, in defiance of the driver who kept trying to slam them on him. It was Samson vs. TfL. Heroic, magnificent, hilarious.

If I hadn’t become a teacher

A musician, perhaps a composer/arranger or theatre MD.  I wouldn’t have been very good. I was always better at getting other people to do it.

Friday evening

We’re both so tired that, if there’s no school-related event on (and there seem to be a lot), my wife and I split a nice bottle of wine, enjoy some TV therapy and have an early night.


My midlife crisis is a 1997 Mercedes SL320, a classic soft-top and (I’m rather proud) a credit crunch bargain bought for next to nothing in 2009. Now all we need is a summer…


In April, a few days in Strasbourg combined with some work for Council of Europe: maybe that’s a bit sad. Last summer, Tuscany: sun, food, drink, scenery, Italians. Love them all.

Last book

Philip Kerr If the dead rise not. I’m addicted to detective fiction: Kerr’s brilliant creation is Bernie Gunther, a cop with a conscience spanning Nazi and post-war Germany. Genius.

Tech savvy or Luddite

Not a technical whiz, but an email junkie. I love gadgets. I think I need an iPad…


Together or apart, it’s good teaching that matters

Friday 11th December 2009

Co-education generates more heat than almost any other issue - among schools, that is.

Single-sex schools can find co-eds infuriatingly smug when they talk airily about being closer to "real life"; meanwhile, the co-eds can get wound up by claims from single-sex supporters who insist that adolescents always end up more interested in each other than in learning.

Similar arguments are repeated endlessly. Girls get a raw deal if they are forced to learn alongside noisy, attention-hogging boys, the single-sex supporters argue.

The gender pressures deter girls from learning physics and maths, and the boys lose out too since they are too busy showing off to the girls. In turn, the co-eds stress the importance of preparing boys and girls to work together in the modern world. Stereotypes are dangerous, yet arguments around co-education always stray into them.

It is generally agreed that children learn best among peers of similar ability - hence the high popularity of setting in secondary schools, state and independent. The separatists take that argument further, claiming girls and boys learn in different ways, so should be taught separately.

Back comes the counter-argument: are they not then disadvantaging those boys and girls who don't conform to the stereotype? Plenty of boys have a "feminine" preferred learning style - careful, painstaking preparation and lots of hard, neat work - while some girls prefer to work in the "masculine" way: flying intellectual kites, taking risks, leaving things to the last minute, relying on inspiration.

That focused, conscientious, hard-working all-girl environment can behave like a pressure cooker. Similarly, boy-only schools are too easily dominated by a laddish, macho culture which at its worst values only sport and gives rise to all kinds of bullying.

Any sane teacher will snort at those outrageous descriptions and say: "That doesn't happen in a well-run school." And they're right. It doesn't.

Perhaps the only reliable view was outlined in a piece of research published in 2008 by professors Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson.

They looked into the relative success of pupils from single-sex and co-eds. When all the other variables were removed, these two eminent researchers found no significant differences. "A good school," they concluded, "is a good school."

I'm a passionate co-educationist. I don't shrink from confronting gender issues. I think my school's decision to go mixed was the most important change it has made in nearly five hundred years.

But that's just my view, and I won't force it on others: we heads should shut up and let parents decide.


If lessons are boring, it’s Ofsted we have to thank

 Feature letter in TES Friday 16th January 2009

 Ofsted has bewailed boring lessons ("A third of schools bore their classes", TES, January 9). We in schools didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Sir Tim Brighouse said: "It's a very brave teacher who takes risks when Ofsted comes calling." Some might say foolhardy.

Who drilled inflexible, predictable approaches into the profession? Ofsted. The three-part lesson, with objectives made explicit at the start and revisited at the end, has taken root in classrooms throughout the land. The insistence that all pupils know at the start of the lesson what they are supposed to learn in it negates any sense of discovery or consequent "wow" factor that characterises truly memorable learning. Yet safe outcomes have become holy writ.

Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, expressed concern in her first annual report that exam preparation hindered pupils' development. Did she pause to wonder why schools might be focusing so obsessively on exams? Could it be the pressure of league tables, naming and shaming, and of Ofsted coming to call?

One of the best heads I've known took over an underperforming junior school in a deprived area. She told me: "The teachers were teaching like mad, but the children just weren't learning." She transformed the school so much that I sent teachers from my (independent) school to learn from her staff. So hard were they working that they had perhaps taken their eye off their next inspection, which found that writing was not good enough. The result? Automatic special measures. The governing body lost confidence. My friend is now a professional artist, and teaching has lost an outstanding leader.

The Government wants school leaders who keep noses to grindstones and punish non-conformity. It's a style of leadership I would generally call "bullying": the Government calls it "transformational".



Diplomas threaten our independence

Friday 28th November 2008

The independent sector has been accused of rubbishing the new Diplomas.  It has been critical. In its defence, post-14 Diplomas were predicted by Ed Balls to become in time "the only show in town" or, in his words, “the qualification of choice”.  Trouble is, as currently designed they threaten many of the aspects of education that we independents hold most dear.

We are worried about sheer academic challenge being diluted by the emphasis on vocational education: that’s fine for those who want and need to follow the vocational route, but is not something that should be forced on those best suited to a purely academic diet. The five Diplomas already underway - health, media, information communications technology, engineering and construction - are practically based. A recent comment by Schools Minister Jim Knight only fuelled our fears: "They're not vocational qualifications, but a mix of theoretical and work-based learning which will break the old divide between academic and vocational learning."

Only a tiny minority of independent schools are super-selective, but all are concerned about reducing academic challenge for the most able.  At the same time, those who would welcome a really good vocational routes are discouraged by the sheer complexity of diplomas.

The government encourages schools to collaborate, a sensible move: but sharing the delivery of post-14 programmes requires them to sacrifice individuality of provision to create common timetables. This  may bring them other benefits in compensation - including a greatly increased curriculum offer - but independents are, well, independent. We are defined above all by ability to go our own way, so such a surrender is unacceptable.

From the sidelines we see how a consortium’s painstaking planning is easily frustrated by basic but predictable failings of infrastructure.  I have heard woeful tales from youngsters who suffered from buses regularly failing to appear or, travelling from a non-uniform-wearing sixth form to another that retained uniform, were berated for their appearance.  They repeated the year at an independent school or left schooling altogether.  Too many loose linkages: too many things to go wrong. 

Obligatory work experience is a worry for us.  We all send students out on work placements.  It gives them a (fairly superficial) taste of a possible career.  Nor does it hurt them to practise turning up smartly dressed and on time.  But diplomas demand subject-related work experience: potential engineers are required to spend time in engineering. 

In truth, if that could be done well, it might be fine:  students get a lot out of the established Engineering Education Scheme which links them with manufacturers. But if we really want to produce world-class engineers, sixth formers need to do a hell of a lot of work at "hard" subjects including maths and physics.  Ironically, although theUKis not producing enough engineers, winning places at the top engineering universities is incredibly competitive.  Candidates need top grades, and they work like fury to get them.  Significant time spent away from academic study will damage their chances.

Moreover, any teacher who has arranged work experience quickly learnt that, first, a nervous breakdown lay just around the corner because, second, it is a logistical nightmare.  Government proudly announced that the CBI was right behind Diplomas. The Confederation’s ardour has since cooled.  Perhaps employers realised that they simply could not provide work experience on the scale politicians envisaged.

So what would make the independent sector jump at diplomas?  We would require a structure that

  • allows seriously academic students to be seriously academic;
  • doesn't dress up vocational routes as something spuriously academic;
  • clearly differentiates between the two but
  • allows a well-defined “mix of theoretical and work-based learning” for those who want it;
  • allows candidates to choose what matches their intellectual and vocational needs, not following programmes driven by a bureaucratic assessment process or an      obsession with enforcing breadth;
  • permits a single institution to teach the qualification;
  • does not require work placement;
  • is recognized by all universities, as well as employers, as a mainstream admission route to even the most selective degree courses;
  • ensures that the Extended Project is intellectually challenging and demands      high-quality thought and research.

Ah, yes, the Extended project.  In general, independents love the idea, as long as universities take it seriously and OFQUAL does not allow any watering down. It must involve university-style high-quality research where the process, preparation, methods and final presentation are all rigorously assessed: worthy, thorough yet dull verbiage must not gain high marks.  To meet the challenge of the Extended Project, schools will have to look at teaching learning, research and reporting skills earlier and on a scale never achieved before: that would be a massive step forward.

Keep the Project pure; make Diplomas simple, flexible and demanding; and who knows?  We might find both sectors working towards a common qualification, surely the best outcome for all.


Oxbridge Entrance case study: independent school head

Friday 22nd September 2002

Oxbridge. That portmanteau name redolent of days when chaps moved on effortlessly from Public School to The Universities.  Either of them. I confess I did. My boarding school told me which college to apply for. There was no ‘grooming’, no lesson in How to Impress.  I was well prepared: I knew that Oxbridge was actually two quite separate places, having once fallen off a punt on a school trip to Oxford. I got in. Others didn’t, I guess. I wasn’t really aware. That was just how it worked.

I started teaching in a big state grammar school which sent huge numbers to Oxbridge every year.  They weren’t groomed either, but were formidably clever, the intellectual cream of a ferociously selective school. 

I changed sectors.  In a former, newly independent, city grammar school, much smaller than my previous school, we couldn’t compete in numbers: but ‘obvious’ Oxbridge candidates still tended to get in pretty safely.  In preparation for ‘seventh term’, the post-A level selection process, high-powered, inspiring teaching took candidates far beyond A level: here the traditionally academic schools gave their students an enormous advantage.

By the late 1980s I was head of sixth form and preparing pupils for a very different Oxbridge system. Seventh-term application had gone, and Oxbridge started estimating candidates’ potential, rather than their previous attainment (they might argue they always did).  Oxbridge entrance had changed, mostly for the better. Certainly more can now realistically dream of the Dreaming Spires, but competition becomes more intense every year.

It’s hard to find extra time for Oxbridge preparation in the first term of a very pressured Year 13. In my school some departments fix extra sessions with Oxbridge candidates: lack of flexibility in the timetable since AS and A2 came along means that these are usually at lunchtime. In other subjects teachers will routinely give their brightest students extra ‘extension’ work.  We offer a practice interview, usually with someone unknown to the candidates (such as a governor), and often share that service with a nearby comprehensive. 

But it’s tough.  Nowadays I tell Oxbridge applicants that they need to be brilliant and lucky: still, every year several strong candidates whom I am sure would have won a place years ago are disappointed. That’s the luck of the draw, perhaps: but these are students who I know would have thrived at Oxbridge, both academically and socially.  Their rejection often feels unjust, notwithstanding our understanding of the nature of the competition.

If we’re confident that Oxbridge really does base its decisions on candidates’ potential there’s no cause for complaint.  If more comprehensive school candidates are successful as a result, that’s great. I wish I felt confident.  I’ve never sensed any bias against my pupils because they come from a private school: but for two decades I have suspected that their pervasive West Midlands accent and natural reticence disadvantage them: but in dreaming up an image of the successful candidate (obviously a Southern smoothie), I’m probably as prejudiced as the tabloids that hurl invective at colleges which turn down a bright youngster from a Northern comprehensive.

Oxbridge certainly interviews and tests far more rigorously than any other university.  So if it is so certain about the efficacy of that process, does it really need then to rely on A level grades for the final sorting?  Why say, ‘We think you’re good enough,’ and then snatch the place away when a candidate just misses that third A grade, often in a subject unrelated to their planned degree course?  Is it because they can’t actually make their minds up, despite their vaunted selection systems? 

Besides, grades are crude boundaries applied to bands of marks. Nowadays the actual A level marks are published, so why don’t colleges require an overall mark in a subject, or a points total across all the subjects?    Harsher, perhaps. Unforgiving - but more precise, less arbitrary.

If all that searching interviewing and testing pre-A level still doesn’t provide enough information to make a decision, why not go all the way?  Forget all these interviews: just look at precise A level marks and take the top 200 candidates as a faculty, sharing them out among the colleges. Faculty-based selection would save candidates the lottery of picking colleges because they think they’re a Trinity or St John’s type of student – or because ‘maybe there won’t be too many trying for English there this year’. 

Neither interview nor A grades are enough for Cambridge mathematics candidates:  they have to get top grades in STEP (Sixth Term Examination Paper) too. I’ve seen candidates notch up four A grades but lose their place because they ‘dropped’ to a STEP grade 2.  Maths dons tell me the maths tripos is so tough that they need this extra discriminator, or candidates just won’t cope at Cambridge. 

Schools might wonder what ivory tower these people are locked in. Additional tests and top grade hurdles can only serve to disadvantage state school candidates who are less likely that their independently educated rivals to get extra coaching for them. Why does Oxbridge not put its trust in its ability genuinely to gauge candidates’ potential before A level? After all, even the top universities are there to teach the raw material they admit: or are they in truth only prepared to take candidates so bright that they don’t need to bother too much?