Tes blogs September 2017 to August 2018

Education’s madness has an unnerving coherence

26 August 2018

It all makes sense once you remind yourself of the constant buffeting by politicians and the media obsessed by academic standards, failing schools, naming and shaming, and league tables.

Then she spoilt it by claiming that “a few simple changes” could make a difference. Heads should retain responsibility for the grades of any pupils they exclude, and there should be a register for all children who are homeschooled to make sure nobody has fallen through the net.

Her proposed solutions are simplistic, superficial and, as it happens, insulting to those who home-educate on principle, let alone to children excluded by schools. She suggests mere treatment of symptoms: the sickness lies deeper, in what she identified, in fairness, as “perverse incentives… forcing desperate headteachers towards cynical measures”.

Only this week Tes published a damning indictment of the way Progress 8 measures unfairly damn some schools. Manchester head James Eldon describes how the phone call from the regional commissioner (not a friendly one) comes as soon as those figures appear to dip. Under such pressure, can we really sit in judgement on a school that succumbs to the temptation to behave unworthily?

It’s madness: but the madness possesses an unnerving coherence. The inevitable is happening: chickens are coming home to roost – and they are, to coin a phrase, headless.

Unsurprisingly, it’s now revealed that three exam boards are producing GCSE-style tests for Year 7 children; great practice for the real thing four years down the line. One board, AQA, has produced an 85-minute Year 7 English language paper complete with mark scheme and assessment objectives.

Who’s surprised? Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman has complained for some time that the GCSE curriculum is creeping ever earlier, now squeezing out breadth even from Years 7 and 8 in some schools’ quest for better GCSE grades and Progress 8 scores.

Disingenuously, exam boards protest that they’re not heaping pressure on kids. These aren’t real, high-stakes exams, just practices, useful for teachers’ day-to-day, week-to-week assessment. By contrast, to many teachers (and, I hope, parents) this appears a cynical money-making exercise at the expense of children.

Up to a point. It surely is a cash-cow, and we can indeed argue that children may suffer additional stress: but it’s a logical development, however loath we might be recognise the logic. Exam boards are businesses. How do businesses thrive? By grabbing every sales opportunity. (That could be a good Business Studies question, come to think of it – except it’s not an EBacc subject). Boards know these tests will sell.

So who do we blame for this? First, I fear, ourselves. As a society we’ve let ourselves be bamboozled over the past quarter century by politicians and noisy sections of the media obsessing about academic standards, failing schools, naming and shaming, league tables, you name it. Successive administrations have accelerated the process, but it’s been going on since John Major was prime minister, if not longer.

For how many years have school leaders and their representatives deplored the unremitting pressure from government to get better and better at doing wrong things? How many more schools, underfunded and demoralised, must cut subjects and scratch around for teachers? How many more teenagers must descend into depression and anxiety, before we wake up and drain the poison so deeply embedded in our system?

How long, indeed, before education becomes an election issue, as it was (fleetingly) in 1997?

Don’t expect answers from government. In a recent letter to TheTimes, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon and Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham (presumably both retired from their respective services) bewailed the standard Defence Ministry response to a problem they cited: “No one who follows MoD press releases will be surprised … denial being the default position of both the MoD and the government about defence matters.”

Substitute Education for Defence, and you have our precisely parallel situation in a nutshell. “Crisis? What crisis?” as former PM Jim Callaghan famously never said.

Plus ça change.

A-level results day: 'Celebrate success, not grades'

15 August 2018

Instead of obsessing over league tables and grades, let's take pleasure in seeing our students get where they want to go

Who’d have thought it? The Department for Education and Ofsted are falling out over the importance attached to exams.

According to a leak to The Sunday Times, Ofsted is proposing to downgrade the use of exam results as a measure of school quality. A source within the inspectorate believes: “The culture of cramming children has to stop…schools where teachers just think about how you get exam results and not what is best for the children to learn will be marked down. The chief inspector wants to shift a culture that is betraying a generation.”

This momentous proposal for change emerges amid concern that this year’s A-level results will drop, and not because of harder new exams. It’s believed that the large rise in unconditional offers made by universities (some 20 per cent of all offers) has encouraged some applicants to take their foot off the pedal, and thus miss those top grades.

One might wonder where the harm is in that. When reports emerged in January of the rise in unconditional offers, I wrote in favour of the development: anything that reduces the horrendous pressure on young people is a good move, in my view. By contrast, powerful voices were raised condemning the trend.

A levels are all about winning university places: if they’re won, why should we worry about the number of top grades achieved nationally? To be sure, A levels will appear on a person's CV for the rest of their life, but will the difference between an A* and an A, or even a B, have significant impact for anyone after the age of 20? I doubt it.

The DfE, obsessed by exam results, is seemingly unsettled by Ofsted's apparent conversion. Its spokes-robot (a variant of sophisticated AI, but with the intelligence omitted), claimed Ofsted had no need to move its goalposts: “a broad, balanced and grounded education” is required for all children, and “the Ofsted inspection framework already requires schools to demonstrate this”.

All very liberal, but don’t miss the weasel words: “exams and assessments have always been one of several measures to judge schools’ performance and this will continue”.

For sure, it will. The DfE wants results to rise year-on-year. Until, that is, some miserable secretary of state decides too many top grades are being awarded and exams have been dumbed down: witness the new grading system at GCSE where the top grade is 9, leaving scope for further grades to be added.

The DfE has finally come clean: exams are about measuring and pushing schools. Moreover, “our exams are on a par with the world’s best education systems”. There you have it. Exam results, and above all performance tables, have little to do with individual attainment and everything to do with measuring and putting pressure on schools, not least so the government can boast that its schools are doing as well as the rest of the world (if not better).

Set against that backdrop, to see Ofsted championing a broad and rich education, and refusing to let that aim be sacrificed on the altar of exam grades, is little short of astonishing. To be fair, Amanda Spielman made no secret of her intent when she took over as HMCI.

Will the artistic and creative subjects, so dangerously marginalised by recent pressures, therefore see a new lease of life? Some commentators think/hope so. I reckon the jury’s out. Moreover, will Ofsted’s desire to take a broader, qualitative view create still more work for schools and teachers required to produce evidence? That’s certainly a risk, on past form.

Exams should be about young people striving and excelling, to be sure, but not at any cost. Let’s take pleasure in seeing our students get where they need to go, rather than obsessing about the grades they achieve, or about where our schools sit in the league tables.

Meanwhile, we can sit back and watch the fun as the DfE and the inspectorate slug it out.


Save us from the avalanche of edu-speak

11 August 2018

It's not hard to see the real meaning behind all of the educational jargon coming from the DfE, writes Bernard Trafford 

“I learned a new word today.” This phrase occurs repeatedly in JG Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, based on his childhood internment in China by the Japanese during World War II. The trope runs throughout the book (or, at least, through Steven Spielberg’s powerful movie adaptation) as the young eyes of his fictional hero, Jim, are opened to the world. Towards the end, as Hiroshima is struck and the war ends, he exclaims, “I learned a new word today: atom bomb”.

I learned a new word this week: "over-aiding". This is how the Harris academy chain described the maladministration of some SATs papers in its North London primary Harris Academy Philip Lane. Those who had fought the takeover of the former Downhills Primary School enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude. Governor and campaigner Fiona Millar couldn’t resist pondering how academies, so often held up by government as models of excellence, achieve their great results: through unethical behaviour, she suggests.

As for me, I had to smile at the euphemism employed to describe the malpractice – in common parlance, cheating. “Over-aiding” was worthy of the Newspeak that features throughout George Orwell’s 1984.

New words, new euphemisms, new bluff and bluster. Following the over-aiding story, the Department for Education’s spokesman, the human element long since replaced by a spokes-robot, was quick to issue its usual bland, meaningless reassurance for parents, saying that although several papers were annulled “this will not, however, adversely affect any of the pupils as the school can provide teaching assessment data to show the pupils’ progress in the subject”.

So, if progress data is available anyway, why do we need the tests? Because SATs were never about individual pupils’ achievements, being concerned entirely with measuring school performance. 

There's more of this edu-Newspeak heading our way: of that I'm sure. Take, for example, our recently-appointed education secretary Damian Hinds riding to the rescue on technology in schools – or Ed Tech, to employ the trendy new word we’re all using now. Damian Hinds, always a tech fan, is grumpy that schools have failed to use it in new or imaginative ways (he should read Ann Mroz’s editorial in this week’s Tes about the time and money that have been wasted over the years in schools on tech that doesn’t work).

He announced five “key opportunities" where the tech sector, if only schools would work more closely with it, could “create a step change in education, improving teaching and slashing workload". Three struck me in particular:

  • EdTech will improve teaching practices to support access, inclusion and improved learning outcomes. Mr Hinds reckons that virtual reality can give kids amazing experiences of the rainforest or of programming robots. Why didn’t we teachers think of that?
  • It will make assessment more effective and efficient. (Gosh, it will do tests!)
  • EdTech will improve “administration processes to reduce the burden of ‘non-teaching tasks’.” He’s also spotted that technology can make it easier for schools to keep in touch with parents on their children’s progress, and vice versa. At last, we can pension off those old carrier pigeons we’re still using.

Above all, though, the education secretary is convinced Ed Tech will reduce teacher workload. That’s it, then. Job done. And a bonus for him: if technology makes admin so much easier, the DfE will be able to demand still more complex, unintelligible and ultimately meaningless data from teachers. Don’t scoff! It’s happened before.

Oh, brave new world! More change coming our way! And, clearly, new jargon to accompany them.

I invented a new word today: "eduballs". I wonder if it will catch on?


Let teachers and kids slob about if they want to

06 August 2018

Teachers deserve to do nothing in the holidays – and pupils shouldn't have to get holiday jobs, says Bernard Trafford

How are your summer holidays going? Not too much work done yet, I trust: and no popping into school.

There is something disingenuous in this admonition. After all, in the midst of the holiday period, here I am writing about education. Even at the tail end of my career, perhaps I’m still so entirely a teacher that I can’t quite switch off.

Why, otherwise, would I get embroiled in the small row that developed, barely a week into the school holidays, about children and holiday jobs? Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey declared in The Daily Telegraph that children should get holiday jobs: “a ‘drastic’ decline in the number of teenagers taking holiday jobs is leaving the nation’s youth ill-prepared for the workplace,” she claimed, adding that, “holiday jobs give young people ‘essential skills’ that make them more employable and better-paid in adulthood".

BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme brought on Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and previously master of Wellington College, who pleaded that we allow young people a proper break and rest over the holidays: they do so much during term time, he insisted.

The debate continued. Max Hastings wrote in The Times about his youthful summer holidays. He hated his school days (I don’t need to name his alma mater here), so he longed for the holidays. For him, “From the age of 15 onwards, my own happiest holidays were spent selling ice cream for Lyons at Olympia’s exhibitions and Bertram Mills’ circus.”

I wish employment ministers would get over their obsession with “workplace experience”. My children were, indeed, grateful for their school work experience – but only for putting them off the careers they’d been considering. There’s only so much photocopying and coffee-making that a 16-year-old can stand, and such periods are frequently far from reflecting real working life.

Give the pupils a break

So what are school holidays for? Academically minded sixth-formers may be devoting time this summer to working on their EPQ submission: the Extended Project Qualification is worth half an A level and, we’re assured, valued by universities, because the EPQ is based on university-style research (though few are yet making offers including it). Indeed, the work is judged more on the quality of the research and of the methods adopted than on the content of the final piece.

Other kids will spend some of their holidays working, perhaps taking badly paid work in catering or tourism. Some jobs are tedious and can attract only teenagers to do them, albeit for a short period: nonetheless, they’ll hopefully enjoy their foray into temporary work.

When you’re young and start a job, there’s pride and satisfaction in earning a pay packet, even if it doesn’t amount to much. And there is something essentially grown-up about working alongside adults. It’s essentially “real world”, and exciting to a youngster.

Visiting a former colleague the other day, my wife bumped into her 15-year-old son, who towered over her. “What are you doing this week?” she enquired. He answered with a huge grin: “Nothing!” Good for him! There is still room for childhood, even in the teenage years, and a virtue in simply unwinding and doing very little.

Neither tiger parents nor over-eager employment ministers should badger children to use every second of their downtime productively. We all need to relax: even (or especially) teachers on holiday should by this stage be concentrating on lazing about and generally vegetating. Yes, we can visit family, tackle the garden and read the books we’ve been meaning to read all year: but mere slobbing around is important, too.

Please don’t wish ceaseless purposeful activity on children this summer: nor forbid them to get a job. Let them choose! In short, give them, and ourselves, a break.


Strong leaders always put the children first 

28 July 2018

Strong leaders don't place exam results and Ofsted gradings before their pupils – they work collaboratively to drive up standards 

On Monday, columnist Claire Foges gained considerable media traction from a piece in The Times entitled, “Our timid leaders can learn from strongmen”.

It’s important to remember that she doesn’t write her own headlines: that’s the sub-editors' job. Nonetheless, I feared an apologia for these tough guys who seem globally to be in the ascendant. As the subtitle declared: “Trump, Putin, Erdogan and Duterte are unpalatable demagogues in many ways but at least they get things done”.

Inevitably, Ms Foges did refer to the “old chestnut” about Mussolini making the trains run on time: but her message was no rant in favour of dictators. On the contrary, this intelligent piece described how Trump’s confrontational style, making peace more readily than the sweet reasonableness of an Obama, poses difficult questions for democratic leadership.

“Unfettered by the need to compromise, unburdened by doubt”, strongmen do indeed get things done. By contrast, we democrats procrastinate feebly, kicking difficult decisions (such as a third runway for Heathrow) down the road or, indeed, into the long grass.

I always tried to run the schools of which I was head in an open, consultative manner, frequently employing the term democracy even if as the head, I was paid to have the final say. But that approach has arguably been unfashionable for the last 20 years.

From the Blair era onwards, politicians have loved to see a strongman style in headship: it’s comforting for governing bodies, too. Nor is it even gender-specific: men and women are equally capable of impressing interview panels by professing a no-nonsense approach and a determination to sort out pupil behaviour and teacher performance alike.

Project this forward into the current decade, and leaders (whether or not you call them superheads) who take no prisoners are at the forefront of forced academisation, moving into a struggling school and “turning them round” with ruthless efficiency.

So far, so good. But, while I was reading about strongmen as leaders, the media were reporting renewed concerns about the sheer number of children excluded from schools. We can’t blame academy chains for all of this: nonetheless, it’s widely known that time after time management brought into a newly-created academy starts by emptying out the most difficult pupils.

Invariably the local authority, however vestigial, is left to pick up the pieces and deal with these children, while the MAT sails on to government plaudits – if somewhat muted nowadays.

Just as ardent Brexiteers assure us that having to stockpile medicines and even food is an acceptable cost of regaining our nation-statehood, perhaps passionate supporters of academisation, so much less accountable then LAs, see the rising level of exclusions and of teachers leaving the profession as acceptable costs in the drive for school improvement.

As a school leader, always troubled by doubt, I found it impossible to discount those “casualties” that would result from a particular hardline policy. I used to say, only half in jest, it takes courage to be wishy-washy. I wouldn’t have been a good war leader: but that wasn’t my job.

Seductive as is the vision of strongman (solo) leadership, strong leadership in a democratic society involves embracing doubts and doubters, working with them and building consensus. Belligerent Brexiteers and willful wreckers even in the Prime Minister‘s own party suggest that consensus is unattainable. But it is they who are wrong. It is not a dictator this country needs, but someone strong enough to bang together the heads of the warring factions and demand compromise. And the wreckers need to be voted out at the next election.

Moral, humane school leadership is values-driven, never compromising on giving the best to every child in school, even if the exam results won’t be quite as good as the governors, MAT or government want. Children come first: teachers a close second.

It’s not easy: but it is strong leadership.


What will this retiring head miss most? The kids

21 July 2018

And what is he most looking forward to? Relaxing into a sense of anonymity 

I’ve just been struck by a memory from my junior school days. There was a boy there, called Toby, who looked uncannily like me: in those days we all sported the same pudding bowl haircut.

We’d play a game with new or naive teachers, impersonating one another. In a small school we never managed entirely to assume each other’s identity, but we enjoyed causing confusion. 

I’ve no idea why that episode came to mind, any more than I know why last night I dreamed I was writing an essay in Latin about a jazz barbecue I was attending. It’s perplexing: besides, anachronistically, what is the Latin term for jazz – or even barbecue?

This mental disturbance is probably all connected with the process of retirement. This time last year I gleefully announced my exit from the profession. By January I was back in harness: not because I wasn’t enjoying retirement, but because something needed doing, and duty called.

Job done, I’m off again: and this time, as they sometimes say of movie sequels, it’s serious!

I won’t miss the political battles, particularly those about funding. Although my recent temporary post was in an independent school, as a specialist music school The Purcell receives more than three-quarters of its income from places funded by the government’s Music and Dance Scheme (MDS). The scheme has been squeezed to the same degree as maintained schools.

Thus the school shares the current wider anxiety about an unfunded teacher pay rise. We’re told the Department for Education is wrestling with the Treasury but it’s hard to picture the department heroically battling on schools' behalf. Governments are always tight-fisted: this one, ostrich-like and dysfunctional to boot, endlessly bleats about spending record sums on education (it is: because there are more children than ever in it), while the evidence of chronic underfunding remains indisputable.

In truth, I won’t miss the minority of parents who stroppily blame the school for their child’s wrongdoing, but I’ll miss the appreciative majority, who are wonderful.

I will certainly miss that distinctive camaraderie with hard-working teacher colleagues. They go far beyond what employers have any right to demand – and, I’m convinced, beyond policymakers’ dreams. I wasn’t an unreasonable boss for 28 years: nonetheless few jobs are as incessant and unremitting. Ask any teacher who has left the profession and moved into a regular nine to five: commonly they can’t get their heads around being free of the job when they leave the office.

Above all, I’ll miss the children. The great privilege of teaching is working with young people. Even (especially?) for heads, after a torrid morning in the office it’s a pleasure to mingle with students over lunch: perhaps to supervise the lunch queue, and be reminded briefly what the “real” job is.

As for those moments when children, drawing on their hard work and possibly overcoming fears or difficulties, so often and in so many fields surpass their own expectations, astonishing themselves, their parents and their teachers: the look of joy and fulfilment on their faces is what I’ll miss most.

Still, it’s time to move on, let others take the reins. Like the Lone Ranger, I can say, “My work here is done”: press my imaginary spurs to the flanks of my mythical white charger; cry, “Hi-ho Silver, away!” and head into the sunset.

So what’s my erstwhile double Toby got to do with it? Not much, really. Except that being a head means you’re always on show, frequently recognised, sometimes accosted. “Saw you in Sainsbury's on Saturday, Sir!" guffaws a 15-year-old, convinced I should have been stored in the school cupboard with the rest of the staff until Monday morning. 

I won’t have a Toby doppelgänger covering for me in retirement, but I shall enjoy the novelty of not being “important”. My family disagree and reckon I relish notoriety, but, for a while at least, I think part of the joy in retirement will be sinking into a pleasurable anonymity.

Have a lovely summer.


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 Century. Members 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: www.Baccforthefuture.com

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.

It might help us to reset our collective moral compass.