Tes blogs September 2016 to August 2017

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

27th August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then I started to think.

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

Cool versus sensible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

20th August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Pupil Voice can help

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

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

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

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

An old-school approach

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

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

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

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


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

13th August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Turmoil and chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ofsted 'part of the problem'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Focusing only on school data is a dangerous obsession

7th August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More thinking in education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

30th July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberal with a little 'l'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not too much to ask. Is it?


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

23rd July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

9th July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

25th June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making sense of a confused world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

19th June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

11th April 2017                

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

27th May 2017     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

20th May 2017          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

13th May 2017 

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

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

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

Rhyme and reason

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

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

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

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

Still, some aspects cause me unease. I’m uncomfortable with some of the reasons cited for devising this cultural canon.

Inspiration Trust boss Dame Rachel De Souza claims a passion to deliver “an education as good as the education kids get at Eton and Harrow...our children need to know what people in the club know”.

Catherine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School in North London, adds, “If you do not have cultural capital you can’t...hold conversations with the kind of people who hold top jobs or go to top universities”.

Dancing to a new tune

I find those poor justifications for developing children’s cultural capital. I doubt that many of the über-confident young products of top private schools are conversant with 100 poems, books or compositions, and implying that such knowledge defines “the club” (whatever that is) is misleading. If it’s dilettantes and name-droppers you want to create, buy those hilarious Bluffer’s Guides, still in print. Social capital is rather deeper.

I’m unconvinced by Burbalsingh’s justification for including William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, a ponderous piece of Victoriana to my mind, just because it inspired Nelson Mandela. But perhaps I’m completely wrong. Perhaps it’s worthy of inclusion precisely because of its connection to a man who changed the world.

That’s the point: defining cultural capital is fraught with pitfalls. Teaching music, I didn’t meet children part-way (an approach commonly suggested) by playing them familiar music: the classics I introduced them to were new and strange to most.

Should I have identified works that have since become modern classics? Back then, Morrissey, U2, Abba, Queen and others were building global and lasting reputations, but I didn’t cover them in class: did that matter?

In multi-cultural 21st century Britain, we tread a tightrope between two risks: those of cultural imperialism (“This is the Western European canon you must absorb”) and of patronisingly paying superficial lip-service to every other cultural tradition that we encounter in Britain – now innumerable.

Observing how many cultures and backgrounds my pupils inhabit simultaneously, I’m jealous: a middle-class white Anglo-Saxon, I’m a pretty boring guy by comparison.

Heart over dread

We need to be careful here, and ensure we’re clear about our motivation. Nonetheless I rejoice in this opportunity, at long last, to debate sincerely and self-critically what we mean by the cultural capital schools seek to pass on to pupils.

The Sunday Times piece left the last word to John Sutherland, emeritus professor of English literature at UCL: “I’m in favour [of children learning poetry] – with the proviso that they call it “learning by heart”, not “rote”: the heart matters where poetry is concerned.”

Where all of cultural capital is concerned, surely the heart matters above all.


Just what teachers need: another school yard craze - Fidget Spinners

5th May 2017

They might be so annoying that they risk the professions’ collective blood pressure, but keep your cool: fidget spinners will soon be forgotten, says one headteacher

As if teachers needed any further annoyance. They’re fuming over Tory party statements that about funding, grammar schools, the Ebacc and the rest. Key Stage 2 Sats and the summer season of GCSE and A levels are around the corner, heralding the pressures of targets and benchmarks on top of a rather old-fashioned-sounding concept that still drives us: that of busting a gut to do our best for and with our pupils.

Parliament has packed up for the election, providing perhaps one small form of relief to those sweltering in the sweatshop that is education: until 9 June there can surely be no more initiatives or directives winging their way from Westminster to schools.

Nonetheless, if you thought things might be quiet for a while, think again. Another form of annoyance is arriving from an entirely different direction: a new craze is sweeping schools.

Fidget spinners: have you seen them? Brightly coloured and triangular, with bearings in a finger-hole at each corner, they offer children endless opportunities for fiddling, whirling them round and, for the most skilful operators, showing off their skills with them to impress their mates.

I can almost hear teachers’ teeth grinding up and down the country as they encounter the latest thing to tell their pupils to stop doing.

Conflict is inevitable. “But, miss/sir: it’s known that fidget spinners help people with anxiety, stress, and possibly those with ADHD and other SEN.” Some marketing whiz will have concocted such a justification: but don’t be fooled. Their raison d’etre is to annoy.

Keep calm and remember clackers

So what should we do about it? If you can manage it, my advice is to do nothing – because if we don’t, the collective blood pressure of the profession will reach hitherto unforeseen heights.

We’ve been here before. Crazes such as these are as old as the hills. (For example, I go back to the days when mobile phones were new – and very noisy.)

Who remembers clackers? Some three decades ago (I guess) they were the must-have for kids. With two balls on the end of plastic arms, I could never work them: but they clacked and whirred and spun, and were noisy, distracting and hugely irritating.

Against all the odds, one child somewhere succeeded in fracturing their wrist as a clacker flicked backwards. The Health and Safety risk these toys posed was enough to get the profession up in arms.

The more we worry about health and safety issues, the more they seem to be encouraged.

Similarly, I’ve never banned conkers, though nowadays that ancient, innocent pastime is almost forgotten in most schools case. I always suspected that arguments against conkers had less to do with hazard than with cleaners driven to screaming point by horse-chestnut shards all over every floor. With that, one must sympathise.

Forget the banning orders

Some will not be able to restrain themselves. Instruct your pupils to put their fidget spinners away. Confiscate them, if you must: even take a heavy hammer to them. But don’t waste time inventing reasoned arguments for banning irritants.

They’re distracting, they interrupt learning, and the kids are using them to annoy us. Keep it simple, keep your temper and retain your sanity.

Until the next craze.


All politicians too often identify something that works in one school and insist on replicating it everywhere

30th April 2017

There is no universal solution to policymakers’ demands, writes one headteacher. Diversity in schools must be encouraged: but legislating to make it happen won’t work 

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has concluded that “the system for funding new [free] schools and new places in existing schools is increasingly incoherent and too often poor value for money”. It reckons secondary free school places cost 51 per cent more than places provided by local authorities (LAs), primaries 33 per cent.

In some ways, those figures are misleading. New schools are expensive: until they’re full, the cost of building or converting premises and even of management is disproportionate to the small number of pupils.

The government has set itself a target of creating 500 free schools by 2020, based on an estimate that 420,000 new school places are needed. New schools are required, and the government is wedded to its free schools programme as the means of delivery.

Meeting the shortfalls

Historically, LAs provide their communities with education services within a democratic framework: nowadays they’re permitted to do very little. The Blair government started slashing back LAs: the Tories continued it.

Thus LAs, though busy (panic-stricken, even) trying to address the shortage of school places, aren’t actually allowed to build new schools. They have to persuade established schools and/or Multi-Academy Trusts to open free schools.

A small number of free schools and university technology colleges (UTCs) have made headlines (understandably) after failing to attract enough pupils to be viable: a few others have spectacularly failed, OFSTED damning and even closing them. At such times, free schools’ opponents crow and deplore wasted money.

But there’s a disconnect between the PAC’s national overview and successful individual examples.

I’m privileged to be involved with a single-form-entry primary free school in Benwell, one of the poorest wards in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (where I run an independent school). I witnessed the fragile early stages of a fledgling school, housed for four years in temporary buildings while government, national and local, squabbled over the site for a new building.

The visionary founder-chair of West Newcastle Academy (WNA), Shelagh Keogh, a senior lecturer in computing at Northumbria University, emphasises the freedom the free school’s status gives it to pursue a distinctive vision (having convinced the DfE of that vision):

“We now have 102 pupils across four year groups and are probably full for September. Much of that is because parents, staff and governors are all encouraged to fully support, engage and contribute to our school. Word-of-mouth publicity and the visual evidence of our success, observed by visitors, have embedded us in the community.  

Free schools are permitted to break the circle of practice: we don’t just reflect on good practice from around the world (we draw on Reggio Emilia principles), but capture it and put our beliefs and values into actions that produce results for children.  

Free schools can make a significant difference to communities trapped in social stagnation and low aspirational life goals. Good free schools that are making a difference should be encouraged and given the resources to booster the passion that’s too easily squeezed out by processes and politics. The challenge for the future of free schools will be to demonstrate differences and impact on children’s achievements.”

Now firmly established and about to move into its own new building, WNA is ready to play its part in addressing the shortage of school places, form a MAT and open further primary schools. Its expertise lies in the kind of deprived areas where there is a transient population of needy families and refugees and children come with few home advantages.

It’s not a unique formula for success: but it’s proven to work. As a school in its own right, WNA is a joy to work with, its busy, engaged, articulate children desperate to come to school in the mornings and reluctant to leave at the end of the day.

Politicians of all complexions too often identify something that works in one place and insist on replicating it everywhere: but there is no universal solution to policymakers’ frustration. Blanket approval or condemnation from government committees is similarly unhelpful.

This administration claims to support diversity in educational provision. But it’s almost impossible to legislate for diversity: legislation naturally tends to enforce uniformity.

Those seeking solutions to the shortage of school places are caught in the midst of this contradiction: that’s helpful to no-one.


I'm convinced: mental health must be on the curriculum and teachers need to realise their essential role in teaching it

23rd April 2017

Yes, we try to cram too much into the curriculum, writes one celebrated head. But mental health isn’t just anything: it’s essential

Perhaps I only follow nice people on Twitter, but I’m struck by how often tweeters combine sympathetic humanity with mischievous humour. Take Tuesday: Prince Harry, with his brother and sister-in-law, launched their bid to improve mental health among young people.

The day after a bank holiday is normally a quiet news day – ideal for breaking a big story, so they chose well. Unfortunately, the prime minister chose the same day for her announcement of a general election. As a tweet I enjoyed noted, “that worked well, then.”

Actually, it did. The royals succeeding in making waves. The mental health agenda is a bandwagon starting to roll. It needs to.

Indeed, there’s an aspect of this powerful imperative on which I’ve been forced to change my mind. Hell, if Theresa May can u-turn, it's no big deal if a long-in-the-tooth headteacher has a change of heart.

I have signed the petition launched by the Shaw Mind Foundation demanding that the government makes mental health education compulsory in primary and secondary schools.

Fighting the stigma

I didn't do that lightly. Anyone who reads my Tes blogs will know that I am driven to fury every time government or a pressure group decides that schools should take on the task of tackling yet another social ill. I disapprove strongly of cramming more and more into the school curriculum.

With mental health, though, it all comes together. For too long our society, of which schools are a reflection, has been frightened to go there. The stigma remains powerful: and if students and parents have been frightened to talk about such issues, teachers have been equally reticent in engaging with them.

It’s changing, finally. Prince Harry's statement – that he had suffered such distress because he had never talked about the loss of his mother when he was 12 – is important because bereavement is something that can strike any of us.

We may convince ourselves that other mental issues – anxiety, lack of self-esteem, eating or behavioural disorders, the whole gamut indeed – are things that “only happen to other people”, but bereavement is part of the human condition. So Prince Harry, in talking so honestly about his troubles, has engaged with every member of the human race – an important step.

Presumably it was orchestrated: but significantly recently The New York Times published an open letter from 35 clinical psychologists and clinical psychiatrists calling for compulsory mental health education in schools.

The founder of Shaw Mind Foundation, Adam Shaw, is a businessman who has huge success despite significant mental health difficulties. It is his passion, above all, that has led to the petition gaining well over 60,000 signatures already. Adam and I met a couple of months ago, and we argued. I was rehearsing my old grievances, listed above, about things being shoehorned into the school week.

After all, schools are already concentrating hard on, for example, helping children to build the resilience necessary to render them successful learners and, ultimately, adults who can cope with life’s slings and arrows. So do we need that petition 

We could be heroes

It wasn't Adam alone who convinced me. The government's initial response to the petition was the kind of answer I might normally be pleased to read:

“We want mental health to be an everyday concern in all institutions. Schools should decide how to teach pupils about mental health developing their own curriculum to reflect the needs of their pupils.”

Amen to that. We don't a Westminster apparatchik telling us what to teach and how.

But in this case, absolutely against the usual thrust of my thinking, I believe that, however we determine best to teach the necessary knowledge and understanding of mental health to the children in our individual schools, there should be a degree of compulsion which insists that we don't just sit there and discuss it, but (me as much as you) get off our backsides and do something.

Adam said on Tuesday’s BBC News: “Teachers need to be our heroes in this.” He was right 

We can argue later about the details of how we frame any compulsion and satisfy its requirements. For now, please just sign the petition.


For just a few days this Easter, dear teachers, please step away from the workload

13th April 2017

One thing I’ve learned recently about writing and blogging on education. If you want to be widely quoted and vigorously retweeted, make a strong traditionalist statement: and if possible, sound exceedingly grumpy about it.

I should know! A couple of weekends ago my Tes blog applauded recent research debunking the idea of delaying the start of the school day in order to accommodate teenagers’ sleep habits. Okay, so my advice to youngsters took the tone, “That’s life. Deal with it!” But I wasn’t actually irritable. Nonetheless, my piece was accompanied by a stock picture of me looking uncharacteristically miserable, and the piece gained a fair bit of traction.

I thought it would be amusing to see what the senior end of my school thought of the idea in an assembly on the following Monday morning. I based my homily on the presumption that at least half of them, being teenagers, would naturally be in sympathy with the idea of starting later. Hardly a hand went up when I asked they question. I should be gratified, I guess, that they’re apparently so keen to get to school: but it wrecked a talk (not my most inspired one, I confess), which was designed to be relatively challenging on the topic but still light-hearted.

The Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon (a former Headmaster of Harrow School) fared better in many ways when interviewed about his forthcoming book, Much Promise. In it he apparently castigates dads who want to be their son’s best friend instead of instilling discipline and structure in his life.

Boys should also spend less time on their digital devices, according to another quote from the book. In response, Neil Roskilly (General Secretary of the Independent Schools Association) mischievously tweeted: “My 10-year-old has just emailed me to say he disagrees [with Lenon]”.

It's unsurprising, perhaps, that such stern criticism from a high-profile ex-head who now leads the umbrella group for all independent schools was picked up in many other media outlets. Who can blame them? My only resentment arises, I suppose, from the fact that his was a much more combative message than mine: yet media reports adopted a cheery picture of him grinning broadly and sporting a brightly-coloured college scarf. By contrast the Tes currently seems to pick an old and grumpy picture of me to accompany my blogs.

Neil Roskilly’s comment reminded me that wrongful use of devices by youngsters is not an entirely new thing. One afternoon some 16 years ago, if I calculate correctly, I received a text at about 2.45. It was from my younger daughter, enquiring when I was taking her home that day. I replied giving a time, and then enquired, “How come you’re texting? Aren’t you in a lesson?”

“Yeah”, came the response. “But it’s only maths. And it’s boring.”

It wouldn’t be so bad, I guess - but for the fact that I was the Head of her school.

Still, the story ends well: she ultimately became a teacher.

So, for this week, you’ll get no sermons from me on the importance of good quality sleep, nor of early bedtimes and early rising. Nor another criticism of swingeing government cuts, nor yet of all the other perils and pressures facing schools up and down the country.

So now we’re well into April, and even the hardier schools (including mine) have finally finished term. This is the single week in April when, I think, all English schools are on holiday.

So for a week, colleagues, forget about feckless parents, digitally-addicted teenagers, new GCSE grades and funding crises. Get some sun, get some rest, and have a good one!


To confuse truancy with the odd holiday seems to me heavy-handed and even oppressive'

8th April 2017

Our legislature deciding on the nature and style of exams or parents' rights to take their child on holiday during term-time represents grotesque misuses of function and time

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Jon Platt – who took his daughter out of school in order to take her on holiday – finding that the Isle of Wight Council was correct to fine him.

On 24 April, MPs will debate the new closed-book exams for GCSE literature after more than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for texts to be allowed in the exam room.

This democratic country is ruled and governed by the MPs whom we elect. Their excesses in turn can be curbed by the presence of the Supreme Court. I have no problem with either of those facts.

But should the legislature determine the nature and style of an exam for 16-year-olds? Is it the place of the highest court in the land to decide on parents’ right (or not) to take their children on holiday in school time? To me, both represent grotesque misuses of their function and time.

The law has, since 1944, obliged parents to see that their children are educated (not necessarily in school, by the way): again, I’ve no reason to disagree with that law. Nor do I object to local authorities prosecuting parents who fail to ensure their children’s attendance at school: we must protect the right of the child to a proper education.

But to confuse truancy with the odd holiday seems to me heavy-handed and even oppressive.

Call me a wishy-washy liberal (I’m proud of being one): but these are quite different and separate issues, which should not be lumped togeth

You could argue that the Supreme Court’s judgement (if you read the small print) merely upholds the fact that the Isle of Wight Council issued the penalty notice properly: it didn’t actually tangle with the rightness or otherwise with the law lying behind the penalty notice.

Mr Platt commented that the verdict would mean “that regularly attending school means attending every day whenever the school demands it – 100 per cent attendance”.

That government’s natural tendency towards nanny-statism is turning into Big Brother authoritarianism disturbs me.

Indeed, it worries me almost as much as the thought of parliamentary time being given to debate how we sit an English Literature exam.

By no stretch of the imagination should our legislature determine a small detail like this: so, if the scale of that petition imposed a legal obligation on Parliament to debate that issue, the law has become an ass.

Time was when exam boards used to listen to the professionals, the teachers and school leaders who prepare children for those exams. Now boards are browbeaten by ministers and civil servants.

That’s bad enough: but what do MPs know of the detail of exam procedure, let alone the study of English Literature?

What will follow? MPs debating the size and shape of scalpels that surgeons use?

Let’s invite their views (which might be legally binding) on other issues of public service: how long should a fireman’s hose be? Should every police officer be trained to say “’Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello!” and bend their knees three times before accosting any suspected criminal?

We could go further: once they’ve debated it, hold a referendum on the detail. Let’s ask the people what they think about open- or closed-book exams. If there’s a narrow result, we can argue about it for ages.

When I was first a headteacher in 1990, Ken Clarke (now the poster-boy for Remoaners) was education secretary. He proved a bully-boy, but mercifully moved rapidly on to health where he complained that doctors treated the NHS as a “secret garden” whose gate he quickly kicked open.

It’s been downhill ever since. Yet another former previous education secretary, Michael Gove, derided “experts” during the Brexit campaign. Government scorns professionals: it wants apparatchiks.

It’s been a bad week for education: the implications for the future of such interference in exams and denial of parental responsibility will be severe and damaging.

It might have been better if MPs had debated a history exam instead. But then, politicians never learn from history.

Letting teenagers start late? Routine is something they have to learn – deal with it

2nd April 2017

New research finally debunks the myth that a later school start time would benefit teenagers' learning, writes one headteacher 

Well, that’s a relief. The Center for American Progress, a US thinktank, was the latest body (in 2016) to propound the theory that teenagers would learn better if they started school later.

I confess that I was worried as the evidence appeared to mount up: my gut feeling was that it was spurious science, and that we would do our pupils a disservice if we decided to fit the school day around kids who can’t get out of bed.

So I welcome the publication of new research, far more authoritative, which finally debunks that myth.

According to a TES article earlier this week, “academics from Surrey University and Harvard Medical School … argue that delaying school times would simply cause most teenagers’ internal clocks to drift later, and in a matter of weeks they would find it just as hard to get out of bed”.

I’m sympathetic to those who aren’t natural early risers. I’m not one who catches the worm, and find the winter grind of arriving at work before it’s light pretty depressing, particularly when it’s dark again by 4pm (which just goes to show how gritty and resilient we Northerners are).

I’ve never been one of those macho school leaders who’s first into school and last out. I reckon I put the hours in: but not by being at my desk at sparrow’s fart.

Conversely, at my advanced age, I don’t actually sleep well: at this late stage of term (schools are still working up in the North East), my brain’s so overloaded that I feel I spend half the night awake: when the alarm goes off, I’m asleep again, trying to catch up.

They'd just go to bed even later...

I’m sharing my middle-aged angst only to show that I can empathise with those who hate getting up. Nonetheless, my instinct chimes with this new research: starting late would mean finishing late, so teenagers would simply go to bed even later.

Adolescents, fighting hormones and who knows what else, are unlike other beings: but they are not so different from the rest of us that we should feel obliged to create a discrete timetable for them.

Currently anticipating the joy of retirement, I’ll enjoy liberation from the tyranny of the alarm-clock and work schedule: after 39 years at the chalk face, I think
I’ve earned that luxury. But the routine of work (and, come to that, school) is something we just have to live with. Deal with it.

I’m susceptible to light. I was starting to wake up early, with the dawn, until the clocks went forward last Sunday: Monday morning suddenly felt dark and cheerless again.

As it happens, the Surrey/Harvard researchers had something interesting to say about light. The later teenagers stay up, the more they use lights, and stare at screens. They would do better, say the researchers, to have brighter illumination during the day and turn the lights down (and screens off) at night.

As Tes reported: “The analysis took into account factors such as whether someone is naturally a morning or evening person, the effects of natural and artificial light on body clocks and the typical time of an alarm clock."

Even accounting for variables, they found that too much light and screen time in the evening adversely affects sleep. That matches precisely the growing body of research into sleep and mental health: poor sleep is linked to poor mental health.

“An hour before midnight is worth two after,” my old Mum used to say. Have scientists carried out all that research just to prove the bleedin’ obvious?

Maybe: but it’s true and, if nothing else, they’ve nailed a silly lie based on dodgy science.

If they get enough sleep at the right time, teenagers indeed can get up and into school – and learn better, too. So that’s the next challenge for schools and parents!

QED. I’m a whole lot happier.

Still, come the weekend, it’ll be good to have a lie-in…


To euphemistically use the term "efficiencies" is insulting to those desperately trying to square the education funding circle

26th March 2017

If government keeps demonstrating how little it values teachers by encouraging cost-cutting and underpaying, we'll see an acceleration of already declining recruitment

Writing from my privileged situation in the independent sector, I find my heart bleeds for my colleagues in the government’s schools up and down the country who are facing a funding crisis.

As this allegedly fairer new national funding formula comes into play, some schools will get more: just about everyone I meet seems to be expecting to get less.

The government’s spokesrobot as usual issues platitudes, reminding us that there will be winners and losers.

This is far too serious an issue to be likened to a gameshow. Moreover, even the alleged winners are still being asked to do the impossible, to run schools successfully without sufficient funding to do it. It’s not helpful to insist you’re cutting the cake more fairly when the cake isn’t big enough in the first place.

Commentators pile in to add their twopenny-worth. One letter in The Times roused me to fury. Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute observed that the government had a choice: either to “find additional funds” or to “ask schools to find significant efficiencies”.It’s time we nailed the lie behind the oft-repeated euphemism “efficiencies”.

This insidious use of language, consciously employed by policymakers, avoids the ugly word cuts, with all its emotive connotations.

“Efficiencies” suggests that there’s always fat that can be trimmed: that schools can manage more efficient procurement; that they’ll always be overstaffed somewhere; and that senior staff are wasting money on first class travel, expensive training or other fripperies.

But it’s not true: to refuse to tell the truth, employing instead that silly euphemism, is insulting to those desperately trying to square the funding circle.

Is cutting the number of subjects available “an efficiency”? To offer fewer choices to young people is an option presented almost as a virtue. Who needs creative subjects? Go utilitarian and get back to basics: we Brits just love the basics.

Now that academies aren’t bound by teachers’ national pay scales, it’s surely “efficient”, even virtuous, to see how low a salary they can get away with: screw the workforce down and pay them as little as possible.

One of the cunning plans already creeping into some schools and colleges is to drop the term teacher and talk instead about trainers or coaches. Change the name, and you don’t have to pay them as proper professionals. Forget the fact that some institutions cannot find maths teachers, not for love nor money.

We’re frequently assured that the “gig economy” is the way forward. We shouldn’t pay people salaries to laze about in school holidays: just pay them for hours worked. It’s direct, a proper concentration on value for money. And when you cut subjects you naturally get rid of swathes of expensive teachers.

There are both a practical and a moral dilemma here. If, by encouraging cost-cutting and underpaying, government keeps demonstrating how little it values teachers, we will witness an acceleration of already declining recruitment, storing up a massive problem for the future.

The moral problem concerns me still more. By claiming some kind of virtue in squeezing down teachers’ pay and reducing the quality of their terms and conditions, the nation will show that it no longer regards teaching as a profession to join and in which to grow.

Career teachers don’t do the job just for love, though it is a vocation: they have homes and families and work to put food on the table.

If we really want dedicated teachers to prepare lessons, to mark and to go beyond the mechanical delivery of pre-packaged lesson plans (a dismally utilitarian option sometimes suggested by policymakers), we need to provide career pathways – and security.

Just as teachers have a duty to their children, their employers have a duty to them.

We read much about the current prime minister’s desire to ensure that the rights of workers are protected and enshrined: that their employers treat them decently. At the same time, there is a significant danger that the government’s own schools are being pushed in quite the opposite direction.

Teachers deserve better. So, above all, do the children in their care.

The scale of mental health issues in young people is not quite a crisis. But it will be if the government doesn't reach into its pocket.

19th March 2017


Mental health counsellors should not be a "luxury" that can be axed as the funding cuts in the state sector bite

Once again this week I was asked by local media to give a quote on mental health in schools: once again I was asked, “Is there a crisis?”

I’m always nervous of sounding like Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan who famously didn’t comment, “Crisis? What crisis?”  But such emotive vocabulary is unhelpful.

There are significant problems with mental illness among young people, and many schools are struggling to cope. A BBC report this week trumpeted: “Schools must do more on mental health, say School Reporters”. Half of teenagers with mental wellbeing issues try to cope alone: and a third said that they were insufficiently confident to speak to a teacher.

That makes hard reading: but it’s not all bad news. The BBC’s researchers found that, of 1000 11-16-year-olds questioned, 70% had experienced negative feelings in the past year: nonetheless 86% described themselves as happy overall.

As for finding someone trustworthy to talk to confidentially, while 18% described the help schools offer as poor, 66% reckoned it was good, and half said there was an allocated teacher they could talk to.

Almost three quarters of teachers (700 were polled) said they would often or occasionally worry about a particular pupil’s wellbeing in their free time. Over a third said they had received no training on how to deal with pupils’ mental health issues, and a quarter said they wouldn’t know what to do: but that suggests that a two-thirds to three-quarters feel neither untrained nor helpless.

Panic or kneejerk reactions are counterproductive. We need to keep things in proportion, identify the scale of the problem with more accuracy than hitherto and plan responses.

Back in January, the Prime Minister announced plans to transform attitudes to mental health, particularly among the young: her plans (sketchy at best at this stage) include better links between schools and health professionals, and the provision of mental health first aid training for every secondary school. It’s progress, though the target of reaching a third of teachers with training in the first year is modest.

A Green Paper, Children and Young People’s Mental Health, is due in the autumn: it’s important that education and health professionals make their voices heard in its formulation, long before the consultation stage. There are plenty of players in the field, and it seems at present that No. 10 is prepared to listen.

Here I must, as ever, declare an interest, in that I head an independent school: but my sector has a great deal to contribute to this work. Parts of the independent sector are leading the way in devising not only interventions for children suffering from mental ill health but also effective approaches to character education and helping young people to develop resilience.

While we can never entirely eradicate mental illness (because illness of every sort will always be with us), we can equip children and young people to cope better with the slings and arrows of outrageous adolescent fortune, so they can take failure and knock-backs in their stride rather than allowing them to become triggers for depression, anxiety or other illness. As my friend Dick Moore of the Charlie Waller Trust tirelessly says, it’s about helping them to dance in the rain or, even more vividly, to bend in the hurricane rather than snapping in the gale.

I currently chair HMC’s Wellbeing Working Group, an assortment of member heads guiding the association’s response to this very live issue. Recent HMC conferences have tackled mental health issues head on, even braving and facing down the inevitable media headlines about “Private Schools’ Mental Health Crisis” (that word again!). We know that solid work, proactivity and the sharing of best practice are helping us to lead the way.

The better resources of the independent sector allow us the time, space and ability to employ our own professionals (such as counsellors), “luxuries” (which shouldn’t be so designated) that the government’s own schools, struggling with swingeing funding cuts, are hard pressed to match.

There isn’t a crisis – yet. But the problem is undoubtedly out there, and is not getting any smaller. Concerted action is vital and government will have to reach into its pocket if together we are to find solutions.


Learning outside the classroom builds character and helps children thrive - it can't become the preserve of independent schools

11th March 2017 

'Real education' is about developing rounded, resilient individuals who also happen to score best when it comes to those necessary certificates

I coined a new educational term this week: entwiculum.

I know: it won’t catch on. It’s a rubbish portmanteau word (pace Lewis Carroll), but will serve for the purpose of this blog.

It was inspired by two things happening in quick succession. First, earlier this week Warwick Mansell was writing in the TES about how he prayed he would never have to applaud the kind of alleged “hero head” who goes into a struggling school and gains plaudits for the single task of turning around its exam results.

I share his view. The danger in concentrating solely on results is that we too easily forget what real education is about. “Real education” – I’ll stick my neck out and use that term.

For education is about the whole person, not about qualifications gained.

Moreover, it’s rounded, resilient individuals who score best when it comes to those necessary certificates.

There: I’ve said it. It’s about resilience and building the whole character.

Earlier this week, at a fundraising bash on the 28th floor of Millbank Tower, I was listening to the charismatic and visionary founder of The Challenger Trust, Charlie Rigby.

Heads as long in the tooth as I am will remember Mr Rigby as founder of World Challenge Expeditions, an organisation that, a quarter of a century ago, set the standard for character-building expeditions.

Young people were expected to raise the cost themselves for the expeditions by getting stuck in and working to do it. And, as well as facing personal physical challenges on Kilimanjaro, in the Himalayas or the jungles of Malaysia, they were required to complete a service element, working in orphanages and other needy spots.

Mr Rigby sold on that business many years ago. Now, his Challenger Trust is a multi-academy trust (MAT), and he’s also busy helping to provide what he describes as the glue between independent and state schools as they seek (regardless of current government pressure) to engage in really meaningful joint working.

Mr Rigby’s vigour and sense of mission are undiminished: this is scarcely surprising, since the imperative driving him is as powerful as ever.

If Charlie’s expeditions once involved exotic trips, his work with the Challenger MAT seeks to give children life-changing experiences outside the classroom at very modest cost.

And now he’s out actually to prove that what’s learned outside the classroom builds the character that helps children to thrive in it.

The curriculum and extracurricular life are inextricably entwined, he said: hence my suggestion (not an entirely serious one) that we might usefully start talking about entwiculum.

Mr Rigby has enlisted the help of the Relational Schools Foundation’s executive director, Dr Robert Loe, to produce a report that makes compelling reading.

Studying outcomes from a trip to the Pyrenees in which Challenger Schools’ children learnt to ski, drive dog-sleds and get about in snowshoes (new experiences to all), they found on average a 50 per cent increase (my rounded figure) in such aspects of character as children’s sense of the importance of working together; their trust and comradeship in their peers; their working relationship with their teachers (an important thing to note: their teachers were with them). In short:

"The expedition had a very positive impact on the quality of student to student, and student to teacher relationships … students felt they were more likely to be listened to and understood, more likely to feel acknowledged, appreciated and supported by their teachers and that they could trust others in the class more than before …

"The teachers themselves reported having more respect for individual students, more of a sense of loyalty and commitment to them as a group …"

These findings are powerful: but will the proof stand up?

Yes, but only (for now) to those of us who already believe in the central importance of building character.

Nonetheless, the evidence grows.

One day policymakers must accept that government cannot leave this vital task to the better-resourced independent sector, to generous donors supporting such operators in the field as The Challenger Trust, and to those visionary heads who are Warwick Mansell’s true heroes.

At the last, government will have no option but to put entwiculum at the heart of education and fund it properly.


Like Nero, the government fiddles (and publishes a Green Paper) while the schools system burns

4th March 2017

Schools face funding crises while there are insufficient places to go round – the government’s Green Paper does nothing to resolve this

While the public row rumbles on about education, private schools, charitable status and the Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone, a new angle makes uncomfortable reading for policymakers. As parents in England and Wales receive news of the school places offered (or not) to their children for September, a Teach First analysis reveals that 43 per cent of pupils at England’s outstanding secondaries come from the wealthiest 20 per cent of the population.

At the same time, a Sutton Trust study finds poorer children much less likely to gain places at the top 500 comprehensives: over 85 per cent of schools in that top 500 took a smaller proportion of disadvantaged pupils than actually lived in their immediate areas. The Trust blames “social selection” through faith school status or house prices.

I’m about to have a pop neither at those schools nor at the “sharp-elbowed middle classes” (an unpleasant Cameron phrase) who readily colonise them.

This is a confused picture, and it’s unhelpful for the government robot – sorry, spokesperson – to repeat glibly: “We plan to create more good school places in more parts of the country by scrapping the ban on new grammar schools, as well as harnessing the expertise and resources of our universities, and our independent and faith schools.”

Government reiterates its mantra that a good school is a selective school. But is the reverse true? Does it follow that a selective school is of its nature good, but a non-selective school less likely to be good? The sloppy thinking behind the Green Paper continues.

Next government leans on universities, independent and faith schools to solve a problem – more than half a million school places to be found in the next few years – that is far beyond the resources of those three groups to tackle. It should be the government’s job.

I must declare an interest as an independent school head. However I’m committed to ensuring that my school does its bit in its area to share expertise and resources where it reasonably can and to play its part in the system as a whole.

I’m not attempting some feeble self-justification, merely observing that many independent schools like mine do what they can: we wrangle with government about the Green Paper because we don’t think diktat or benchmarks the right way to go encourage our collaboration. Nonetheless, my school and sector can make little impact on these enormous national needs, and government is both disingenuous and dishonest to attempt to portray us as the villains in this piece.

After Michael Gove sought afresh in The Times to spread hot air and confusion about charitable status and “tax breaks” (on the latter, his polemic was startlingly short on accuracy and detail), it’s worth revisiting the whole idea of education as a charitable purpose, something enshrined in English statute since 1601. Elizabeth I’s law-makers drew up a splendid and far-sighted list of charitable purposes:

“… the relief of aged, impotent, and poor people; the maintenance of sick and maimed soldiers and mariners; schools of learning; free schools and scholars in universities; the repair of bridges, ports, havens, causeways, churches, sea banks, and highways; the education and preferment of orphans; the relief, stock, or maintenance of houses of correction; marriages of poor maids; support, aid, and help of young tradesmen, handicraftsmen and persons decayed…”

Though the 1601 Act was repealed in 1888, Lord McNaughten preserved the concept of the advancement of education as a charitable purpose, something still defined on the government’s website as “to promote, sustain and increase individual and collective knowledge and understanding of specific areas of study, skills and expertise.”

What all schools do, private and state alike, remains a charitable activity, as does the work of universities. We can and do strive to work together effectively and to contribute to one education system.

Above all, we advance education. Yet, Nero-like, government fiddles (and issues platitudinous statements) while Rome burns, schools face funding collapse and great injustice is done in the allocation of insufficient school places. It’s our rulers, not we bit-players, who risk failing to advance education, thus betraying its charitable, its central and sacred purpose.


Just 1% of the population prioritises education. We should really ask what sort of country we’re creating

18th February 2017

In a Brexit, fake news, Trump world, education matters more than ever. And yet no-one seems to care that it’s being ravaged

I’m depressed. No, not clinically. This isn’t going to be a piece about mental health.

But I’m gloomy after reading that an Ipsos MORI poll has found that “education and schools are less likely to be named as important than unemployment and housing”. Reporting these findings in the TES, Charlotte Santry added that “only 1 per cent of the public considers education to be the most important issue facing Britain today”.

The NHS was the top concern, followed by Brexit, immigration, the economy, housing and unemployment: education crept in at ten.

Those other issues are pressing: and the people polled are likely to list either topics in the news right now (like the health service) or things that perhaps impact on them (economy, housing and unemployment).

It doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t care about education: just that other things preoccupy them.

It should go without saying that I think education is important. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced I’d want to go back to education being top of the government’s agenda. Ever since Tony Blair announced as his 1997 election priorities, “education, education, education” people like me have had reason to regret our field of work becoming one where politicians want to make headlines.

Blair built a lot of schools, something long overdue (even if the Private Finance Initiative – PFI – proved dodgy).  But schools suffered one wave after wave of change as successive education secretaries (who rarely stay long) imposed ill-informed personal agendas and quick-fixes. With hindsight, misquoting Oscar Wilde, there’s only one thing worse than government ignoring education: when it takes an interest.

Of course people won’t cite education as their top concern. There’s not a crisis: unless you happen to be running a school and the new national funding formula leaves you shorter than ever. Still, when the first school, academy chain or local authority implodes due to inadequate funding, education will make such headlines as “School funding in meltdown”. Then it may get closer to the top spot in people’s consciousness.

Education shouldn’t need crises to gain attention. It will rarely be a burning topic, because it’s always with us. But that’s the point: it is always with us and is vital for every generation, every year-cohort that  receives it.

The TES report closed with a quote from Sarah Kitchen, research director in the Children and Young People Team at NatCen Social Research: “the findings may be down to the fact that education has a direct impact on fewer people”.

Excuse me? Education has an impact on every individual life. It also furnishes a future for the country. We aren’t producing enough skilled workers, engineers, technologists, computer programmers, doctors, nurses. Only the education system can provide the solution. That should be a massive area of concern for the country, and for government which, for all the improvements it constantly trumpets, has failed for decades to address those skills shortages.

Why I begin to despair is still more basic. Go to any developing country: talk to any refugee seeking entry to this country; all will agree. The route out of poverty and ignorance is education. But ordinary people take it for granted here: it’s so far down our priorities that we meekly accept that it’s not meeting our national needs, and we don’t complain loudly enough that it’s chronically underfunded.  

In a post-truth, fake news world, where leaders of huge powers think it’s acceptable to lie to their people and to the rest of the world: where a tyrant holds on to power by assassinating his closest relative; where our country voted on whether to leave the EU but, because it wasn’t election, was fed lies and falsehoods on both sides; in such a world and country, shouldn’t we push education up the agenda a bit?

I don’t blame Ipsos MORI, nor the people questioned: I’m sure the findings are accurate.

But, dear God, I do worry about what sort of country we’re creating.


'The best thing about the teacher-bots of the future is that they won't accept the "blame-poverty-or-a-broken-home" defeatism'

11th February 2017

The airlock hissed as the glass doors closed on either side of us. Panic rose in my throat as I recalled that scene in Spooks (was it Ros? Jo? possibly even Tom?) where a similarly transparent box filled with water or poison gas – or both.

Don’t be absurd, I told myself. This isn’t a spy drama: it’s a school.

Indeed it was. My colleague Bill, Executive Principal and CEO of the Shiny New Toy Multi-Academy Trust, was welcoming me to what he described as the “whole new reception experience” at AIM (Ambition, Innovation, Excellence) Academy, the latest addition to his chain.

A disembodied voice greeted us. “Welcome to AIM Academy. Enter your birth date, gender, the first letter of your surname if you can remember it, and whatever piffling excuse you have for being late.”

Bill laughed nervously. “The computer seems to be stuck in its Late Registration programme. Let me show you how it works.”

A virtual screen shimmered before us. “See?” he said. “Before it’ll admit late pupils, they have to give the reason: the usual excuses are there in a drop-down.”

Before us flickered the whole gamut from “dog ate my homework” to “an unconscious cow was blocking the road and the bus-driver had to give it mouth-to-mouth.”

“Of course”, continued my host, “I’m meant to have a personal system override, but we haven’t ironed out all the bugs yet. I’ll just punch in the excuse Alarm didn’t go off. That’ll get us in.”

The inner door slid open as the voice commented tonelessly, “That’s not a very grown-up excuse for a girl your age. Report to the robot supervisor for your lunchtime detention. Have a nice day!”

“So that’s it?” I enquired. “The pupil’s registered and goes to class now?”

“Precisely. This is the brave new world, Bernard. Did you read that think tank report? Reform says chat bots should replace 90,000 school administrators and receptionists. It’s the way forward.”

I confess it was impressive. The enormous school atrium was sparklingly clean and devoid of adults or children to make it untidy – but for one machine resembling a large vacuum-cleaner that glided past us and up a side corridor, the claw of its metallic arm clamped on a twelve year-old boy’s neck.

“Don’t worry about him”, prompted Bill breezily. “Jimmy’s always running out of class. The corridor-sweeper bot will seal him safely into an isolation unit until a senior member of staff can see him at lunchtime.”

“One of your assistant heads?” I asked. “Have I met him – or her?”

Bill shifted uneasily. “It is one of my assistant heads. We call it Disci-bot.”

“You mean a robot’s in charge of discipline?” I was aghast.

“Of course. Bots don’t allow themselves to be clouded by emotion. No excuses for failure here, none of that ‘blame-poverty-or-a-broken-home-smell-of-defeatism’ rubbish.” He paused. “Disci-bot was arguably a little inflexible at first, but Artificial Intelligence is amazing. It’s learning at an exponential rate. The other day I found it crying over a girl who was late because her dog had died. Actually,” his tone became confidential, “We had to send it for reprogramming.”

My imagination flashed to 2001, A Space Odyssey, in which Hal, the spaceship’s AI, sets out to eliminate the human crew who pose a risk to the success of its mission.

“But surely,” I pushed the question. “Surely you need the human touch to deal with an upset parent or an injured child?”

“Nonsense! You old-timers always mistake sentimentality for efficient care. Look at the medicentre over there. A child with a grazed knee inserts the injured limb in the socket. It’s irradiated, sprayed with antiseptic, and a layer of plastic skin is added. No need for them to be out of class for more than two minutes. To be fair, it smarts a bit: and one pupil nearly asphyxiated when the machine covered his entire face with artificial skin. But he shouldn’t have stuck his head in the wrong hole. It was clearly marked.”

Back at my own school, colleagues asked, “How was the future, then? Were the pupils happy?”

Blimey! I’d forgotten about the kids. But for Bill and his robots the future was clearly, well, rosy.


Regulations are unintentionally killing the French exchange and our students will be all the poorer for it

Monday 6th February 2017

Not long ago, schools would send many, many students on exchange trips to France but new red tape makes this unfeasible, writes one leading headteacher 

It’s funny how often laws or regulations collide. Perhaps the most famous absurdity can be found in Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22: airmen couldn’t be discharged from the American army in the Second World War unless proven mad. Yet to seek discharge was the only sane thing to do in an insane conflict.

This is, of course, the law of unintended consequences. A great example is this country's shortage of doctors. Many among the refugees arriving in the UK are qualified doctors but, as refugees, they’re forbidden to work.

Another example is a regulation now hitting schools, creating what I’d describe as another unintended consequence – unintended because, if it was spotted, then it’s crazy.

Ever more stringent safeguarding requirements, recently reinforced in the latest version of Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE), make it all but impossible for schoolchildren on a language exchange to stay with host families in, say, France, Germany or Spain.

According to Annexe E of KCSIE, “such arrangements could amount to ‘private fostering’ under the Children Act 1989 or the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, or both”.

Thus, if a school makes an arrangement with, for example, its opposite number in France, so that the English children stay with French families and vice versa, they’re setting up “private fostering”. Because the school is a regulated activity provider, all adults in the host home must have a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.

In the heyday of language exchanges, schools might have sent 50 or more children to France or Germany. Calculate the DBS checks required for the return visit, estimating two adults over 18 in every house (not necessarily parents): 100-plus. I guess they’d be free, being for volunteers, but the cost in office time of that paper-chase is colossal – as well as dragging parents in for their identity checks and the like.

Even if we can navigate that bureaucratic labyrinth, what about the parent who feels that such a check is intrusive or just plain wrong? If they stand on principle and refuse to be checked, they cannot host a child from the exchange school.

This regulation is surely the death knell for such activities as language exchanges. Even with all parents in both schools willing to be checked, sheer administrative workload makes the task impracticable in a busy school.

Those who devise the complex and demanding safeguarding regulations under which we operate will insist that, if they save just one child from being abused, they are worth all the pain. That’s fine in principle but it has left the path of pragmatic reality, of what is workable.

Our society’s lack of trust is now so great that the regulations we create will kill off another strand of our struggling modern language learning. Post-Brexit vote, maybe that matters less, though I doubt many in education (children or staff) voted to leave.

I still believe in the legal concept of “reasonableness”. I’m sure we could have devised a degree of checking that maintained a reasonable level of assurance and still allowed language exchanges and sports tours to go ahead.

In some places they still will. But children will stay in hostels and hotels, lessening the vital cultural interaction of living in people’s homes and adding so much to the cost that such trips will become unaffordable to many schools and families.

Over-anxiety has, in the famous words of Basil Fawlty, “closed off another avenue of pleasure” – a valuable path of learning, too.

Our children will be the poorer for it.

Hiring an artist-in-residence was a transformational experience for my school

28th January 2017         

We should rejoice, not complain, if some schools are using their freedom and resources to invest in creativity, writes one head

Monday’s The Times featured a piece with the headline: “Artists are schools’ latest big draw”, in which it was reported that many independent schools nowadays employ artists-in-residence to work with their students.

Ashford School in Kent was cited, where the head, Mike Buchanan, is current chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC): his school currently has a photographer-in-residence.

St Paul’s Girls’ School employs a poet-in-residence, South Hampstead High School boasts a playwright/novelist-in-residence, while Putney High School has gone all out for an orchestra-in-residence.

By contrast Oundle School in Northamptonshire makes use of an engineer-in residence, while Surbiton High School claims to be the first in the world to have appointed entrepreneurs-in-residence.

So far, so good. What soured for me an otherwise light-touch story was the implication that such appointments are frivolous and extravagant. It started with a suggestion that “a decade ago fierce competition between private schools escalated into an arms race over facilities”.

I forget (fortunately, perhaps) who among my fellow independent school heads originally coined the term, but “arms race” has returned to haunt the sector year on year.

Grittier and tougher?

I don’t accept it. In my decades heading two schools (far from the affluent South-East) I’ve spent many millions on buildings: not for any other reason except to provide our students with the best facilities we could afford without unduly loading the school fees.

When Tony Blair made education, education, education the priority of his first government, he embarked on an immense programme of building new schools. The PFI (Private Finance Initiative) route he took to fund it was controversial: but few criticised him for giving children decent premises in which to learn and grow up.

Is there some kind of implication here, whether directed at the independent schools or the multi-million pound school and academy buildings still gradually (perhaps too slowly) spreading across the country? Is there an attitude that says, “I learned in a classroom with three buckets in it to catch the leaks and no heating in winter: and it never did me any harm”? Should we Brits be grittier and tougher?

Does this negative view stem from envy of the independent sector? Parents pay fees in addition to tax for the state education they’re not taking up for their child: should they not expect excellent and state-of-the-art facilities in which to learn 21st-century subjects?

The Times story continues: “Since the financial crash, battle lines have been redrawn and are about people. The must-have thing for independent schools has become hiring an artist-in-residence.”

Must-have? Are artists–in-residence just icing on the rich student’s cake, then? That’s a false picture. As the article describes, they “paint, draw, sculpt, cast or sew themselves into the fabric of school life … oozing energy and creativity as role models for budding artists”.

Transformational experience

That’s the point exactly. I employed an artist-in-residence some 20 years ago. It was precisely about helping boys and girls to get beyond the arguably limiting perception of art as an exam subject by following a creative professional into exploratory, exciting and original realms. The experience was transformational: the art department became second to none.

If resources were unlimited, would I employ in my school those other in-house “creatives”? Orchestra-in-residence, entrepreneur-in-residence, engineer-in-residence, writer-in-residence? Of course I would.

I write this on the very day that ballerina Darcey Bussell and veteran filmmaker Lord Puttnam launch a report in the House of Commons stressing how participating in the arts boosts both children’s academic achievement and their social skills.

I can understand envy, though I cannot applaud it. Free from many government straitjackets, and able to fund themselves at a level that seems appropriate to them and their parents/clients, independent schools are not hamstrung – certainly not in the way maintained schools are currently as funding levels crash.

As the government’s approach to education becomes ever more utilitarian, perhaps we should rejoice, not carp, if at least some schools are using their freedom and resources to invest in creativity.


Children in independent schools are “mentally tougher” because their schools are almost as focused on character as results

21st January 2017

Independent schools know that development of resilience is not only a good selling-point but also brings greater success in hard-edged exam results, writes one head

It’s official, then: children in independent schools are “mentally tougher” than their state-educated peers.

AQR International, described as “the leading psychometric test publisher”, employed a mental toughness model called MTQ48. Its study, An Analysis Of Mental Toughness At UK Independent Schools, tested 9,000 children of all ages from 58 schools in England and Scotland, comparing results with 32,000 state school pupils.

Defining mental toughness as “the mind-set that every person adopts in everything they do”, the study examined four categories: control, commitment, challenge, confidence. Independent school pupils scored 4.26 overall, higher than state schools’ 3.94.

What does this mean? It doesn’t merit any triumphalism from the independent sector. But it should give policymakers food for thought: for, while the study only tests outcomes, the different contexts that create them are significant.

Throughout my 27 years as an independent school head, I’ve worked one way or another with colleagues in the state sector.

And it’s fair to say that, almost without cease, I’ve seen those colleagues driven and harried by government agendas and demands: excessive accountability; Ofsted snapping at their heels; government initiatives imposed without thought or testing; floor-targets, benchmarks and every other pressure imaginable.

In that time, all heads have seen accountability increase while trust and even respect in society have declined: but the state sector has been forced to concentrate, not (as Tony Blair famously pronounced) on “education, education, education”, but rather on “results, results, results”.

I’m not exaggerating.

While all schools should naturally seek to improve year on year, day by day, excessive government pressure has too often obliged its schools (I point no finger of blame at heads or teachers) to concentrate narrowly on C/D borderlines, on hitting particular targets, on chopping and changing exam courses in order to jump through government hoops.

Nicky Morgan, during her limited tenure as education secretary, acknowledged the need, articulated from many quarters, for schools to focus not simply on results but on “character education”.

It’s not a term I favour, but identifies the area around the mental toughness this study described: resilience, developing the personal qualities to allow children to thrive both in youth and in adulthood and to cope with the slings and arrows they’ll face, learning from setbacks and appreciating their good fortune.

We’ve heard no more of it from Theresa May or Justine Greening.

By contrast, the independent sector knows that development of character and resilience is not only a good selling-point: such a concentration also brings greater success in hard-edged exam results.

Opponents of independent schools might characterise this measure of greater mental toughness as yet another symptom of the sector’s success in instilling sheer arrogance and excessive self-confidence in its pupils. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, our sector has perhaps been slower to adopt in the classroom the kind of growth mind-set principles that develop resilience and toughness in the classroom.

But we have long promoted the rich extracurricular life that parents and students value: busy programmes of extracurricular sport running through the weekend; Duke of Edinburgh and other expeditions; debating competitions; drama and music; and a host of community activities; all contribute strongly to the four Cs that the AQR study investigated: control, confidence, commitment and challenge.

I’d add a fifth C, one we’re promoting in my school: compassion.

Policymakers should take note of AQR’s study. It’s not about the undeniably greater resources available in independent schools: nor the extent to which their teachers are often as busy with their pupils outside the classroom as they are in it. It’s simpler than that.

Independent schools, while similarly under pressure to perform academically, are not chained to the results treadmill: notwithstanding the ambition and aspiration of so many of our pupils, we retain the space to see the bigger picture, devoting (almost) as much effort and focus to developing personal qualities as to the pursuit of exam results.

The independent sector’s formula is not a magic bullet: but if, as Einstein said, education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school, it’s certainly an element of crucial importance.


How much credibility do teachers have with their young audiences when it comes to sex education?

14th January 2107

There can’t be many serving teachers about nowadays who remember a gentle BBC radio comedy from the 60s and 70s, The Men from the Ministry. Two bungling but genial bureaucrats got into all kind of scrapes through their own incompetence which was exemplified when one applied for a job at the Labour Exchange (as we called Job Centres back then).

“We’ve got a right one here,” remarked an interviewer: “In the box marked sex he’s answered ‘very seldom’!”

Sex and Relationships have always bewildered my generation: and there was no Education in those topics in my youth. So blokes my age describe learning about the birds and the bees “behind the bike sheds, fnar! fnar!” When a teenager, feeling lost and inadequate on the topic, even I knew those contemporaries who claimed to know it all were lying.

The current generation of teenagers has it no easier. If what we “learned” was largely myth, youngsters nowadays can “find out everything about sex” online: unrestricted, uncontrolled porn gives many young people distorted, dangerous and even perverted ideas of what sex involves.

With young men (in particular) still embarking on adulthood with only the haziest ideas of what constitutes, for example, genuine consent, we should be worried. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the suggestion that Education Secretary Justine Greening will make Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) compulsory have been greeted with acclaim.

By contrast, my somewhat flippant opening presages a warning.

Given so much sexual violence at large (taking place in all of society including, if you believe the press, in schools), there is an undeniable need for us to educate our young people: they need to appreciate that it is the relationship, not sex, that is important and that building and maintaining relationships takes effort and emotional commitment.

But I must question whether schools can do that effectively, and whether teachers are the right people for the job.

This isn’t a criticism of the teaching profession: on the contrary, I just think that, before making SRE compulsory in schools, we need to think how we can possibly on such a requirement.

SRE is usually taught through Personal, Social, Health, Emotional and Economic Education (PSHEEE … with any number of Es you want to add). Yet in schools, there are precious few with a fully-trained specialism in that broadest of subjects. On the contrary, in secondary education our almost-entirely graduate profession is rightly built on subject specialisms related to our degree. 

Graduate historians teach history, though they might add some politics. Chemistry graduates teach chemistry, though they may broaden into other sciences. Even if they’re expert on the physical aspects of sex, does a biology teacher of a certain age necessarily have much to say convincingly to young people about relationships? I recall a conversation about SRE with a crusty biologist who said bluntly, “I’ll do the plumbing: but I’m not doing all the other stuff”.

Such conversations made me despair: I’ve always believed we’re teachers foremost, and subject experts only second. But two questions remain.

First, how credibility do teachers have in SRE with our young audience? What connection do I, a sexagenarian male, have with a 15-year-old girl coming to terms with her young-womanhood? Why should she believe a word I say?

Second, SRE faces the same problems as those raised by other politicians’ demands. Take lessons in personal finance. If we’re not careful these can prove astonishingly tedious. Partly because, to a 13-year-old audience, such things have no relevance – yet: by the time they do need to think about personal finance, the lesson will probably be long forgotten. Similarly, the moment when young people, or young couples, need to consider responsible and safe behaviour with regard to sex and their relationship is likely to be a long way from that school classroom on a wet Monday afternoon.

There are many questions here, and few answers. Society needs to think about how it helps young people to grow into adults and to form a responsible attitude to sex and to relationships. But until we can find some of those answers, I’m not convinced that compulsory SRE in schools will prove an effective solution.


The offer from the independent sector on school places, while undoubtedly a well-timed and slick move, is both sincere and achievable 


The proposal to bring state and independent schools together makes more sense than creating entirely new selective schools, parachuting grammars into areas of deprivation, writes one celebrated head  

I thought I’d signed off for Christmas, then, as the consultation period for the Green Paper Schools that Work for Everyone drew to a close, the independent sector stole the headlines by making its big offer to find 10,000 “good school places” if government would buy them at private schools at its national level of funding. 

Even the sector’s enemies agreed it was smart footwork. 

I must declare an interest. I’m head of one of the independent day schools that the government reckons should be helping out by opening free schools. However, two things enable me to stand slightly aside to view the situation. 

First, I shall retire in the summer: my successor has been appointed and so I have now become yesterday’s man. 

Second, for more than 20 years I have been routinely working with the leaders of state schools: for more than a decade I was on the council of the Association of School and College Leaders (back when it was still called SHA); and for eight years I’ve been on the board of SCHOOLS NorthEast, a regional organisation that brings together heads from across all age-groups and sectors. 

The government proclaims its urgent mission to increase the number of “good school places”. We might argue about what is meant by that term, and bridle at the implication that school places already on offer aren’t good. 

But the imperative isn’t really about different types of school places: by 2025 it’s estimated that the country will need 570,000 more sixth-form places than it has now. That gap is a colossal one to bridge, and there’s little sign of any coherent government plan to deal with it. 

Why not create those additional places in independent schools? The offer from the sector, while undoubtedly a well-timed and slick move, is both sincere and achievable. 

Private schools tend to be flexible: and, after several lean years, many independent schools probably have spare capacity. 

Moreover, independent schools genuinely don’t seek to be exclusive: on the contrary, their enormous bursary schemes and links with state school neighbours (the latter are far more extensive than government acknowledges) demonstrate their desire to be inclusive. 

From their side of the divide, it is not they who are constructing barriers: successive governments have resolutely refused to consider any initiatives to bring the two sectors together. 

Frankly, this proposal makes more sense and is easier to achieve than trying to create entirely new selective schools, parachuting grammars into areas of deprivation. 

New schools don’t happen overnight or easily: anyone who has opened a free school (I’ve been part of that process) knows how tortuous it is: finding premises as local and national government wrangle with one another is an unbearably slow process. 

The free school with which I am associated – West Newcastle Academy – is four years into its life: yet only in the last few months has building work begun to give it a proper home. 

As opponents of independent schools have lined up arguments to confound the proposal, the same old chestnuts have been rolled out. 

It’s claimed that the assisted places (AP) scheme was demonstrated not to have increased social mobility. Really? The evidence of that is at best selective. 

Besides, those of us on the ground where we had significant proportions of pupils on APs (40 per cent in my Midlands school at the time) know the opposite to be true: they truly did change lives and make our schools more inclusive. 

Next, a false statistic generated a couple of years ago was trotted out: state school pupils do better at university than their independent counterparts. 

This spurious research from 2013 was quietly allowed to fade away when the independent sector authoritatively challenged it. 

The same fate befell claims that children of equal ability do no better in independent than state schools. Incomplete figures, selectively quoted: the lie gained traction for a while. 

A country short of school places: the independent sector’s offer at neutral cost to government. What’s not to like? 

To his credit, schools minister Nick Gibb (on last Friday’s Any Questions) agreed that government would consider the proposal. 

That’s better than a straight no. But pragmatism and a desire to put the needs of children first will need, for once, to trump political dogma. We’ll see. 


Most of us find the child buried within to get through the intense Christmas period on goodwill - plus a fair intake of Prosecco and mulled wine, perhaps

 10th December 2016

Drag the old manger out of the stock cupboard and don’t be embarrassed to shed a tear of nostalgia, affection, relief, or just plain knackerdom, writes one celebrated head

I’m writing this as I move between handing out Christmas crackers and, burdened by rubbish bags, picking up the debris they create on the dining-tables. You know what this is: the day of the school Christmas lunch.

No one in school is too old or grown-up to enjoy that crazy annual mealtime which overruns into the lessons after lunch and lends a sense of benign seasonal chaos to the school as a whole. This applies to the staff too.

There seem to be many Christmas jumpers around already, teachers indulging in a bit of festive eccentricity.

It makes a break from the relentless pressure of the approaching end of term.

I’ve never been a fan of the idea of going for a four or five-term school year, not for any sensible or proportionate reason: I’ve always acknowledged the logic of spreading terms and holidays more evenly (and possibly discouraging holiday companies from doubling prices at peak times – though I doubt that will ever change).

It’s simply that I’ve always found three manic ends of term in a year as much as I can stand: the thought of adding a further one or two strikes me as unbearable.

These festivities have to fit around all the other things we have yet to accomplish by the end of term: those meetings we haven’t quite fixed yet but must happen before we close; the endless reports for parents to be signed off; replies to government consultations; and, finally, all the things we are desperate to plan for next term.

We still have carol services to come: three of them in my case, since we’re an all-through school.

There’s no pantomime this year: but we’ve only just finished a huge and busy charities week from which we are still recovering.

It’s tough going. But is it actually an ordeal?

Of course not! The child in us all can enjoy the bubbling excitement among staff as well as children (notwithstanding the incipient exhaustion) as Christmas approaches.

So the final hockey practices of term are played in Santa hats: takeaway pizzas magically appear at the end; sport/games becomes fun and games.

How many teachers are also dealing with that essential Nativity play? Not I.

We start at Year 3, and I guess the Nativity play is particularly connected to what we used to call infants’ school. My colleagues with young families have been doing deals on cover so they can slip out and see their offspring perform.

They return with marvellous tales of the way their children’s schools bust a gut to ensure the whole procedure is inclusive. One colleague’s daughter was cast as third innkeeper: third, you ask?

Yes, apparently Mary and Joseph went round no fewer than four innkeepers before they were offered a stable to stay in. Let's be fair: Bethlehem has always been busy at Christmas time.

Seriously, you have to multiply the characters in order to give every child a go.

Hence that wonderful line in the now-perennial Christmas film Love Actually: “You’re fourth lobster?” asks the mother figure, Emma Thompson. “I didn’t know there were lobsters present at the birth of Jesus.”

Her daughter gives her a pitying look: “Duh!”

As we totter from one school Christmas function to the next, the Scrooge in us is inevitably tempted to exclaim: “Bah! Humbug!” But the teacher in most of us still manages to find the child buried within our hearts, and we get through the intense period on goodwill (plus a fair intake of Prosecco and mulled wine, perhaps).

So don’t stop now. Drag the old manger out of the back of the stock cupboard and dust it off: glue the head back on the Baby Jesus; iron those tea towels for the shepherds’ heads; tart up the Kings’ crowns and the angels’ wings with a bit of glitter; and don’t be embarrassed to shed a tear of - what? Nostalgia? Affection? Relief? Or just plain knackerdom?

It doesn’t matter, really: it’s Christmas! Have a great one!


Great teaching is eclectic. False dichotomies about what "works" do everyone a disservice

3rd December 2016

The best teachers employ a huge variety of classroom strategies to engage interest, to challenge and to inspire, writes one celebrated head

Close to the end of the long autumn term, I wonder if the press is entering silly season.

Earlier this week, The Times had the headline Hands down! School warns pupils who try too hard on its front page. Apparently, Barry Found, principal of Samworth Church Academy in Mansfield, has pronounced that simply allowing eager children to put their hands up when they wanted to answer questions doesn’t fit with modern values, educational methods and teaching techniques. The paper claimed he had angered teachers and parents alike.

Maybe, if I were him, I wouldn’t have made a big deal of it.

Good teachers don’t simply take answers from the keen pupils sitting at the front of the class. They identify the one who is daydreaming or disengaged: find opportunities to encourage the reticent one to speak; and employ a host of strategies to give a voice to those reluctant to put their hands up. Then there are teachers who espouse the tactic of writing every child’s name on a lollipop stick, picking them at random.

Which technique is right? All, of course, and none on its own.

The best teachers never slavishly follow one approach: they employ a huge variety of classroom strategies to engage interest, to challenge and to inspire.

It’s just good practice

It’s as wrong to characterise this school’s announcement as groundbreaking as it is for parents to complain about their children being caused anxiety, or for unions to claim that teachers’ professionalism is being circumscribed. It’s just good practice.

I can’t be the only member of the profession tired of seeing so much in education characterised as black and white.

Self-study isn’t "1960s-bad": nor is sheer chalk and talk "knowledge-good". Such false dichotomies do everyone a disservice.

By contrast, as professionals, teachers are at their best when they do both/and rather than either/or – when they’re like magpies stealing, adapting and transforming ideas so that they work for them in their individual classrooms.

Great teaching is eclectic, embracing a wide variety of styles.

If we must explain our methods to parents, tell them that their children should expect a variety of styles and teaching techniques in the classroom, because that’s the best way of developing independent and adaptable learners who also soak up and use facts.

Please let’s stop going on about the 1960s. And lose the silly labels.


What next for education? In the post-Brexit world, almost anything bonkers seems possible

 26th November 2016

With wild ideas about privatising education being promoted, it’s hard to know where to start, writes one celebrated head

Whatever I may be known for, it’s probably not my discretion. I’m not a blabbermouth, but my readiness to pronounce or Tweet on almost any subject gets me into trouble from time to time.

Someone who seems even happier rattling cages is the former government adviser Sir Andrew Carter, chief executive of an academy trust in Surrey and a former primary head.

Speaking at the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) conference this week, he suggested that schools should demand a £500 contribution from every parent for the activities they offered that weren’t covered by government funds. He asked: "Why don’t we make the whole of education private? Now, maybe schools could work for profit. We could therefore legitimately ask parents for a contribution."

Wow! That’s a big move: "basic" education would still be state-funded, but any "extras" (my quotes) would be things we could charge for.

Where do I start? Some developing countries impose a charge, at least for secondary education: but in the sixth biggest economy in the world? It’s hard to countenance.

Teachers working too long

Perhaps Sir Andrew chose his audience, hoping for a relatively easy ride, because he then went on to suggest that teachers were overworking, and that those who complained (or even boasted) of working 12-hour days and more were setting a bad example to new teachers.

How stupid of those teachers, allowing themselves to be harried by targets, by the pressure of Ofsted breathing down their necks, by the unrelenting drive to get them to do more and more with – as his other comment suggested – less and and less resourcing behind them!

Yes, it’s clearly teachers’ fault.

Sir Andrew also placed some blame at the door of school leaders. Well, we must look after teachers’ wellbeing and he’s right that issues of work-life balance should be built into teacher-training programmes. Teachers do need to look after themselves and their own wellbeing, and must take responsibility for a proportion of that.

Yet many teachers are now on 90 per cent contact time or more, while full and regular marking is still required. Given government’s continuing insistence on copious data and the tracking of pupils’ progress, Sir Andrew’s thoughts seem to come from a planet that is alien to most of the workforce.

All this is pretty standard in a world where national policy on education, as on Brexit, seems to be worked out on the hoof, on the back of a fag packet.

You couldn’t make it up.


Education needs a robust, independent leadership college that keeps government at arm’s length

19th November 2016

Anthony Seldon, Michael Wilshaw and Toby Young might just be on to a good idea, writes one leading headteacher

When my friend Sir Anthony Seldon, together with outgoing HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw and Toby Young (now appointed boss of the New Schools Network), announced the plan for a school leadership college, the headlines were all about fast-tracking new teachers to headship in as little as two or three years. I took exception to what appeared to me inappropriate, almost indecent haste. Though I have no problem with fast-tracking as such, there are limits! I confess I was critical.

The project has received approval - and, I guess, funding – and the University of Buckingham is ready to open its National College of Headship in Milton Keynes. In an excellent Thunderer piece in The Times the other day, Sir Anthony gave a reasoned and forceful outline both of the training the College will be offering and of the crying national need that it aims to meet. What little metaphorical weight I have, I throw behind his brainchild: I can argue about the pace of acceleration later!

Not only is this the right idea: it’s set in the right place. Let me explain.

At the 1997 election, Tony Blair had as his priority slogan “education, education, education”. Visiting schools, he famously claimed that he could tell whether a school would be any good before he even entered it – just by meeting the head. Perhaps it takes the arrogance of a head to say this: he was right. It would be a hell of a senior team that could maintain excellence in a school while carrying the head.

Blair established the National College for School Leadership. Ever one for a grand gesture, he sited it on a university campus (Nottingham), spending £28m on what was hailed as “Sandhurst for teachers”.

Extravagance? Gesture politics? I don’t think so. He saw the need to develop the next generation of school leaders and up-skill the current one: if the NCSL was a statement, it was a powerful and necessary one.

Sadly, it lost its way when politicians and bureaucrats got hold of it. First, it became not a training institution per se, merely an umbrella which licenced (and housed) providers of the required courses and qualifications. Thus it became bemired in frameworks and standards.

Though it oversaw some high-quality training (I followed a few excellent courses), even the landmark National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) became too often the kind of box-ticking process we’d all sworn we didn’t want: bizarrely it emerged that many senior teachers who gained the NPQH had no intention of applying for headship.

Thus it never operated as a staff college in the old-fashioned sense, teaching (let’s use that word!) its own unrivalled programmes of leadership development, drawing on the best leadership research and experience available (and there’s plenty). Instead, almost overnight NCSL became seen by Westminster as the machinery for delivering the government’s politico-educational agenda.

All too quickly, for example, it was running programmes to train School Business Managers. It was not wrong to identify the need to develop middle leaders, the senior leaders of the future: the massive Leading from the Middle programme did useful work.  Worthy but wordy, sound but dull, such developments combined to dilute the vital focus on the top job, on headship, the College’s original raison d’être.

Finally, it lost its status independent of government, becoming an executive agency in 2012. Since 2013 the rebranded National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) has had a broad remit including that of policing the profession, awarding Qualified Teacher Status, hearing disciplinary cases and, where necessary, barring teachers from the profession.

These may all be necessary functions (I’m not convinced): but they don’t belong in a National College of Headship. Government interference and control-freakery messed up the last one: fortunately, policy-makers will find the private Buckingham University harder to mess with.

We must hope that the new College will avoid peddling formulaic quick fixes: that it will produce “architect heads” (see recent research by the Centre for High Performance in the Harvard Review), not surgeons, soldiers or plain butchers; and that, keeping government at arm’s-length, it will maintain a robust, visionary and inspirational passion for its mission.

With the redoubtable Sir Anthony behind it, I’d say the outlook’s good.


In these uncertain times, teachers must encourage common sense and humanity in pupils

12th November 2016

As educators, we musn't reinforce the impression of a "smug liberal elite" who always claim to know best, writes one leading headteacher

On 9 November 1989, I was appointed to my first headship.

That evening, after the chair of governors had shaken my hand, we were at home celebrating with friends and family. Nonetheless, we turned on the television for the BBC Nine O’Clock News to see the Berlin Wall coming down: it was that important.

They were heady days. We watched the Soviet Communist Bloc collapse. It wasn't all easy, and there was some bloodshed. But countries where freedom of expression and human rights had been long suppressed started to breathe again. People in Eastern Europe were free and eagerly embraced a positive, democratic future.

It was a thrilling time to be moving into a leadership role. As a head, I was committed to an open style of management (not the norm back then).

In the following years, I developed my ideas on giving not only teachers a voice, but students, too. These were relatively early days for school councils, somewhat ahead of the curve.

It fitted the zeitgeist: the walls of communist oppression were coming down, even if (by contrast) the national curriculum, inspection and league tables were starting to get their claws into schools and to invade the lives of teachers.

Now, 27 years later, on the same date, America has elected Donald Trump to be its next President.

I’m not a Trump fan, and have many concerns about his presidency, but please don't think I fear a new wave of oppression from that quarter.

Nonetheless, all those years ago we saw walls come down, but now it seems new barriers are being erected. It will be interesting to see whether Mr Trump carries out his threat to build one on the border with Mexico. There is already an infamous wall in Israel, and has been for some time. And while there are no physical walls separating us from Vladimir Putin's Russia, that country's relations with the West are frosty; his stance is bellicose and his political opponents are cowed.

Back home, the Brexit vote implies the creation of barriers between the UK and Europe, though the Channel obviates any need for a wall. Brexiteers will howl with anger at that last statement, claiming that the UK will be open to all the world – though not (obviously) to economic migrants or refugees.

'We must tell our pupils to counter injustice'

It appears that young American voters supported Clinton and the Democrats, whereas older (and probably wealthier) ones elected Trump.

The British young felt similarly disenfranchised by the Brexit vote. Meanwhile, people of my age and liberal disposition are currently vilified, for unspecific reasons, as smug and unpatriotic.

After this 9 November, I’m looking forward not to a new job, but to a new phase of my life: I shall retire next summer.

I won't pretend that there’s no sense of impending relief from the burden of headship after 27 years, but I’m not feeling the heady optimism I felt in 1989 and 1990, when the world was apparently hurtling towards a better future.

I can't see where the world, my world, is going. The rhetoric around Brexit was about “getting our country back” or "making Britain great again”: the Trump mantra was similar.

It’s all nonsense, of course: no one has diminished or stolen our countries.

So what will we tell our young people, our pupils? It’s not our role to preach, and certainly not to reinforce that impression of a "smug liberal elite" who always claim to know best. We should encourage our pupils to do three things.

First, never accept the claims, promises or blandishments of politicians at face value, but examine them carefully.

Second, never accept the denigration or demonisation of particular sections of society.

Third, when you see injustice, be vocal and determined in naming it and countering it.

If we can do that as educators, we won't go too far wrong. Common sense and humanity can rule, whatever the complexion of government or the particular ideology of its leaders.

There’s a postscript to my recollection of 1989. I was an internal appointment to headship, something that can arouse strong feelings. A disapproving colleague had been heard to say, “It’s absurd. They’ll never appoint Bernard. The Berlin Wall will come down first!”

He was wrong: but only by three hours.


Policy-makers continue to ignore the deep-seated systemic problems that are the causes of the leadership crisis 

5th November 2016

Education is not a business, though in a loose sense, it should be run in a business-like manner, writes one leading headteacher

Headship, someone once said to me, is like watching the gestation of a baby elephant: it takes two years before you see any result, and then you risk being trampled to death.

The pachyderm’s wisdom is legendary, its memory long: important attributes for a head. But to me the gestation metaphor is attractive because achieving change takes time and is of necessity slow and steady.

By contrast, the new boss of the New Schools Network (NSN), Toby Young, is a man in a hurry.

Though his main job is to promote and spread free schools, he also proposes a solution to the current (and future) shortage of headteachers.

He’s just the latest prominent figure to call for schools to recruit leaders from business.

He admits it won’t be popular with teachers: I reckon it’s a quick fix that won’t work.

Most professionals consider their particular trade special in some way, and complain that outsiders don’t understand it: that predictable prejudice is perhaps one to discount. But I take issue with the suggestion that leaders who have mastered the pressures and drives of commerce can similarly seize the reins of education and drive the chariot to success.

Business and education alike depend on people. Productivity in manufacturing still depends more on the quality and consistency of its human workforce than on the robots which do much of the construction.

Human inspiration achieves wonderful things: human frailty brings about multiple disasters.

But in the factory, in the chain of supermarkets or betting shops, even in construction giants, the materials that go in at one end of the process are defined, and what comes out the other measurable. Yes, even betting shops leave little to chance: skilful mathematicians calculate the odds so carefully as almost to remove any risk of loss.

I’ve spent a quarter of a century complaining that policy-makers still view education as a sausage factory: raw material in one end, educated children out the other. Predictable output is demanded: but what output?

Is it all about exam results? Or is it about the development of a skilled and qualified work force? In the 1990s a chilling Department for Education and Employment/Department of Education and Science mission statement (under the Blair government, I think) focused entirely on creating the workforce of the future.

If, more sanely, we are to see the desirable outcome of education as “producing” compassionate, flexible, responsible citizens (as we should), the very qualities we see as most important are largely immeasurable. What price then the business approach and the ruthless analysis of outcomes?

I could go on to discuss the need for authenticity in those who lead teachers: the experience that allows them to understand the complex and demanding nature of the teacher’s job; the ability to inspire; even the requirement to be a parent-figure to children and teachers alike. But I have no space here.

Education is not a business, though it should, in a loose sense, be run in a business-like manner.

A central rule for successful business is to concentrate on what you are good at, on what works for your organisation. Jim Collins’s book Good to Great calls it the Hedgehog Principle: I prefer the old proverb of the cobbler sticking to his/her last.

Collins identifies the best leaders of great firms as those grown from within, not parachuted in from outside. Here’s where my metaphorical elephant comes in. Lasting change is organic and steady: evidence of this was provided by research into headship styles by the Centre for High Performance, recently published in the Harvard Business Review.

The favoured style, the “architect head”, is measured: it crafts and puts the bits and pieces in place methodically and thus sees improvement achieved and sustained over time. No need to fear the elephant stampede, even.

Almost by definition, the architect head, like Collins’s top leaders, must be an insider, someone who knows the patch and is prepared to take the time needed.

Toby Young and his allies may nonetheless find business leaders who can move into education and become architect heads. But I doubt it.

And, while they pin their hopes to yet another quick-fix solution, policy-makers will continue to ignore the deep-seated systemic problems that are the causes of the leadership crisis.


Why isn’t the government prepared to have an open and frank conversation about teacher pay and school funding?

29th October 2016

The government has an astonishing ability to pretend that the profound funding problems in education aren’t really there, writes one leading headteacher

Many years ago, when a very young school leader, I heard a talk from a distinguished head, who has long since departed this life. His style was famously autocratic, so his audience was somewhat surprised when he embarked on a homily on the importance of listening to one’s colleagues.

"I asked my senior team: ‘Tell me honestly, what do I get wrong?’ As one they replied,” he recounted the tale with glee; ‘You're not a team player.’

"That was nonsense, of course," he continued. " I told them so. I emphatically am a team player."

So that was all right, then. It’s all too easy for heads to behave like Lewis Carroll's Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark, who constantly asserts: "What I say three times is true."

It’s like that when you deal with government spokesmen. I’ve written previously about Robert, the Department for Education’s robotic spokesman. He seems to be in overdrive at present, more bland, repetitive and inflexible than ever.

We might have been hoping that Robert might be re-programmed after a change of education secretary. Recently I heard Justine Greening speak at the annual Summit of that fantastic regional organisation, SCHOOLS NorthEast. She was pleasant, committed, passionate about education: moreover – a rarity among recent education secretaries – she didn't lecture her audience!

On the contrary, she spoke from the heart, and subsequently gave the impression of listening, even to those inevitable interventions from the floor that prove to be personal statements disguised as questions. She heeded concerns about assessment in primary schools, rightly refused to commit herself at the time, but promised to make a statement a few days later, which she did.

This week, sadly, we seem to have returned to that familiar old territory. Too vehemently this week, the education secretary has asserted that teachers’ annual pay increases must be limited to 1 per cent per year for the next four years.

We’ve heard it all before. Yes, money’s tight, and workforce morale is not all about salary. But pay is something of central importance to even the most committed teacher. Mary Bousted of the ATL union pointed out in the TES this week that, since 2010, teachers have seen their pay eroded by the equivalent of £2,273. A loss of value on that scale should not be glossed over by a government robot – sorry, spokesperson.

Robert the robot remains unshakeable on this, and other very important issues, however. Sixth form colleges describe a funding crisis, for example, with 58 per cent of them cutting extracurricular activities in music, drama and sport and 39 per cent cutting A-level modern language courses. Yet Robert merely responds with bland assertions:

“Every young person should have access to an excellent education and we have protected the base rate of funding for all post-16 students until 2020 to ensure that happens.

"We've also ended the unfair discrimination between colleges and school sixth forms and we now ensure funding is based on student numbers rather than discriminating between qualifications.”

Ah, yes: that “base-rate of funding” is protected. So why is the Sixth Form Colleges Association complaining that increased employer costs (pensions and National Insurance) will leave each college on average £189.982 worse off per annum, in addition to paying £385,914 in VAT from which sixth form colleges are not exempt (or refundable), while schools and academies are?

This is all about government responding (or not) to concerns about the nation’s education system. I choose to picture the DfE’s spokesman as a robot: frequently it sounds more like a big kid sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting, “Na, na, na! Can’t hear you!” Whatever the form of its spokesperson, however, government continues in dishonest and reprehensible denial of the crisis facing education.

I knew another head, decades ago, who forbade anyone to raise the issue of stress at a staff meeting. “Start talking about stress,” he stated firmly, “and everyone will claim they’ve got it.” So we didn’t.

That was antediluvian management: but not all too different to where the teaching profession finds itself in the modern world. Education funding and teacher pay are both elephants in the educational room. And government won’t admit to the presence of either.


Wellbeing must be moved up the agenda for schools but inspection is entirely the wrong way to go about it

16th October 2016 

This country has been brainwashed into thinking that schools and teachers must be held accountable exclusively through data, inspection and league tables, writes one leading headteacher 

Mental health is climbing inexorably up the agenda in schools. While I don’t subscribe to the view that we’re facing a national crisis, we must all be concerned both about the prevalence of depression, self-harm and other forms of mental illness among the young and the inadequacy of health services to help deal with them.

The average wait for troubled (I use that anodyne word loosely) teenagers to access support from the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) ranged from 14 days to 200 days. If such youngsters then, understandably, fail to attend that delayed first appointment, they are frequently discharged without notice or query.

All this suggests that society as a whole is failing to take this pressing and genuinely medical problem seriously.

Schools are working hard to train their staff, rendering them both better equipped and more confident in recognising and dealing with pupils’ mental health issues. But they also know that they must work on the positive flipside, the active promotion of wellbeing and resilience among children and adults alike.

As in all fields of medicine, prevention of illness is as important as finding the cure when it occurs. Thus wellbeing, the classic mens sana in corpore sano (healthy mind in healthy body), goes hand in hand with resilience.

In schools we want – in the words of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust’s associate trainer Dick Moore – to help our young people to be able to “dance in the rain” – or, in one of Dick’s more graphic metaphors, to bend in the wind, rather than snap in the hurricane.

Schools have moved a long way: they need to go still further.

One of the leading figures in the promotion of wellbeing in schools, when he was master of Wellington College, was my friend Sir Anthony Seldon. Now vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, he continues to advocate its vital centrality. To ensure that wellbeing really does lie at the heart of schools’ work and purpose, he now recommends that Ofsted make it a major strand of the inspection process. At that point I part company with him.

His suggestion was discussed at a gathering of mental health and education professionals this week, dealing with precisely those coupled themes of children’s mental health and wellbeing. As I snorted my opposition to the suggestion, a good proportion of those present felt that the specific inclusion of wellbeing in the inspection process would indeed help to push it up the agenda for all schools.

One colleague supporting Sir Anthony’s proposal added the caveat that the inspection process would have to change to become more a mechanism for sharing best practice than an enforcer. She admitted that, given Ofsted’s current role and modus operandi, it was a little hard to envisage.

That is, of course, why I am strongly opposed to the idea. The process of inspection demands that its subject be quantified and summarised in order that a judgment can be made. There is thus a danger that schools, under pressure as always, will see the task of satisfying Ofsted’s demands as yet another box-ticking exercise, distracting them from the real work of spreading wellbeing.

Wellbeing tangles with questions of ethos, care, feelings, emotions and relationships: I cannot see how any measurable indicators could be devised that would actually improve practice in this area or in any way accurately reflect what is really happening in terms of children’s wellbeing in school. 

Given the power (and potent threat) of an Ofsted inspection, it would be unreasonable to permit merely subjective judgments to be made, published and acted upon. I don’t believe wellbeing is measurable: any attempt at constructing statistical measures would inevitably be misleading – and lead to box-ticking, thus completing the vicious circle.

This country has become brainwashed over the years into thinking that schools and teachers must be held accountable exclusively through data, inspection and league tables. Valuing only what is measurable, we convince ourselves that change must be achieved (or enforced) by building the required outcome into inspection criteria.

We do indeed need to move wellbeing up the agenda for schools: inspection would be entirely the wrong way to go about it.


Teachers and heads in large part have the liberal values that Ms May is pillorying

9th October 2017

I’ve spent this week in Stratford-upon-Avon at the annual meeting of HMC, the organisation of leading independent schools in the UK and abroad. We were sharing both best practice and current anxieties, trying to map the future and to deal with an uncertain present. Business as usual, then?

Not really. Something changed this week. In nearby Birmingham, new Prime Minister Theresa May was laying out her vision, in many ways one with no place for people like us.

I’m not referring to my sector’s spat with her over charitable status in the Green Paper, but to something much deeper.  Our conference, as ever, encompassed a broad view of education as creating opportunities for all: but our tone differed entirely from the PM’s. 

Representatives of universities are anxious about the future: will they be permitted to take students from overseas? As for researchers and university teachers from overseas, the whole thrust of government policy seems set to put at risk the sharing of knowledge, research and university teaching across Europe (regardless of the rest of the world). 

Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s  pronouncement on limiting foreign students to the “best courses” is already causing hostile waves in India. Without a sense of irony Mrs May claimed to reach out to  “ordinary hard-working people” whose wages are forced down by low-paid unskilled immigrants. 

I listened twice: UKIP’s Nigel Farage couldn’t have been clearer. And this from a PM who wants us “to be a country where it doesn't matter where you were born."

As Amber Rudd’s speech created such headlines as The Times’s "firms must list foreign workers", even a Tory MP was aghast. Neil Carmichael commented: 

This unsettling policy would drive people, business and compassion out of British society and should not be pursued any further. People moving to the UK to work hard, pay their taxes and make a contribution to our society should be celebrated, not shamed. This kind of divisive politics has no place in 21st Century Britain.

This is about much more than Brexit. With Labour furnishing no discernible effective opposition, we might have expected the ruling party to seize and firmly occupy the centre. Yet the political centre-ground the PM boasts of redefining has lurched to the right: as commentator Hugo Rifkind Tweeted, not one policy outlined was remotely centrist.

We educationists talk a great deal, at conferences and elsewhere, about school values, including that of compassion for the unfortunate, immigrants too. Teachers’ values, not merely in the private sector but shared by the colleagues I meet across both sectors, are essentially liberal, based fundamentally on respect for the individual and care for others. 

Suddenly we find these values being pilloried. We are now the “liberal elite”, educated, internationalist, and slammed by Theresa May for our "smugness". We’re accused of “sneering” at the patriotism of ordinary hard-working people (clearly education professionals are regarded as neither ordinary nor hard-working), and deriding their concerns about immigration.

In schools we teach children about human rights, not least in history lessons on Nazi Germany. Yet this week the Tory faithful booed human rights lawyers: moreover, according to Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, part of "getting our country back" will involve axing bits of the European Convention on human rights that he doesn't like.

Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera was right to Tweet:

Increasing fear “We need to accept results and make Brexit work” = “We need to sit back and accept bigotry, hatred, division, intolerance.”

What sort of country can seriously propose in a party conference, that of the party of government, no less, that we disengage from an international convention on human rights? What price compassion now?

You might ask, why am I writing this here? Surely the larger political picture has, or should have, nothing to do with education? 

If only. Educators cannot claim it’s nothing to do with us when we see bigotry applauded and accorded standing ovations at the annual conference of the party in power. If we are indeed, the “liberal elite”, we must create debate and challenge intolerance. 

Normally optimistic, I retain a trust in old-fashioned British compromise and inertia. We're not at heart extreme, so I’d hope that few of those extravagant, rabble-rousing promises to the party faithful will be fully enacted. 

I really do hope so.


After 26 years of headship I am calling time. What will I miss most? The pupils.

 23rd September 2016

I will truly miss the banter, writes this top headteacher. Teachers and children are hilarious – quick to see the funny side of things and to poke irreverent fun at school life

Ten days ago I told the staff, students and parents in my school that I’m planning to retire next summer. It was a novel, not to say unique, experience.

Some people expressed surprise, though I had made no secret of my 60th birthday back in May: on the contrary, I celebrated it quite noisily. I should be flattered, perhaps, that people haven’t thought I’m already past it!

My announcement cannot have been a shock: I’ve completed eight years in my current headship, having managed 18 in the previous one – a long enough stint for anyone.

Some ask, “Was it a difficult decision?” Is there a compliment hidden in the question, an appreciation of my commitment to the school? Perhaps people cannot help wondering how big a wrench it will be to leave the school community after 39 years in the trade.

I don’t feel it will be a wrench. But, of course, I’ll miss the people: my amazing colleagues; occasionally infuriating, often demanding, always inspiring and humbling in their dedication to their pupils. Above all, I'll miss the students, the very reason for going into teaching.

When you move out of the classroom into school leadership, you tear yourself away a little. Not for heads those lovely “lightbulb” moments when you suddenly see your teaching take effect: instead it’s a deferred pleasure, a great set of results (never forgetting the importance for each individual), those lovely moments of presenting in assembly some trophy, prize or other mark of distinction, congratulating not just high achievement but all the work, commitment and sheer grit that went into it.

Then there’s the banter at all levels. Teachers and children are hilarious, quick to see the funny side of things, to poke irreverent fun at school, its institutions and its people, without forgetting the respect and love they feel for them.

So why is it time to go, now? When does one decide to give up the joys, the privilege but also the indisputable burden of headship?

I don’t feel a need to get out. As I fulminate against the latest daft government initiative, I’m now resisting the temptation to say, “It won’t be my problem." Matters of education are something for all of society, working or retired, so that’s not an acceptable view.

'It won't be a wrench'

Nonetheless, in every job there are dull bits – I won’t miss these: not least writing and revising my share of the endless policies that expand and multiply year on year.

Will I miss the sheer number of meetings in a week? I don’t find them burdensome: at their best, meetings with colleagues, and even those with anxious parents, involve focusing on making the future better for the young people in my charge.

No. It won’t be a wrench, but a welcome change. I do want to go while I’m still anxious to get to work. But a demanding job takes its toll, and I think perhaps one more winter will be enough. My wife and I try to go running, just a couple of miles, three times a week: notwithstanding the undoubted benefits to my health, I do find it miserable both to set out on a morning run and to return in darkness. It will be nice to see my home in daylight from Monday to Friday. That’s true for everyone: but I can now get off that particular treadmill.

We’re both fit and well, another indication that we should enjoy this good period while we can. I won’t do nothing: that’s for sure, although it’ll be good to read the newspaper in the morning, rather than in bed at night –perhaps in a coffee shop, a pleasure I’ll relish. I’ll certainly keep writing, even if I veer away in blogs and columns from education towards broader social commentary. I might even finish that novel.

In the end, the best advice about this decision came from my wise brother-in-law: “Better to go too early than too late.”

When I broke the news to my senior team, I breezily passed on that aphorism. There was a pause: then one of my colleagues replied (mischievously, I hope): “Who said anything about too early?”


How on earth can a 100 per cent faith school hope to encompass pupils from a variety of backgrounds?

18th September 2016

The faith school proposal in the Green Paper will only succeed in making schools work for fewer children than they do now

So the Green Paper is called Making schools work for everyone. Hardly something one can find fault with.

One of the ways in which the Prime Minister wants to achieve that lofty goal is by allowing faith schools to fill up exclusively with pupils from its own faith group. That would abolish the old 50 per cent cap - created, of course, to ensure diversity and to prevent any sense of “ghettoisation”.

We’ve seen proof of the peril of allowing faith to come before education, particularly when it is a narrow or intolerant interpretation of the belief-set: the so-called Trojan Horse episode in Birmingham schools was regarded by many as a vivid illustration of that very risk.

Theresa May’s plan contains a safeguard: any school seeking to fill itself entirely with adherents of that faith will be obliged to ensure a mix of pupils from different backgrounds.

Pupils won't qualify for places 

Quite how this will work is hard to puzzle out, however. It will call for tighter wording than merely “different backgrounds”, or we could spend years with court cases and parliamentary enquiries wrangling over its interpretation. Alternatively, we might witness faith free schools doing entirely as they please: but, notwithstanding their many freedoms, they remain subject to government controls and are certainly not absolved of their moral obligations to their setting and wider community.

Yet how can a 100 per cent faith school hope to encompass pupils from a variety of backgrounds, even if it wants to? It might, to be sure, be able to boast a range of socio-economic backgrounds (though critics of faith schools would seldom credit them with that virtue).

Yet how can, for example, a Catholic primary school in a culturally diverse city reflect its setting? If, as in many UK conurbations, there is a significant minority of Indian or Pakistani origin, those families will most likely be Sikh, Muslim or Hindu, and will thus not qualify for a place at that uniquely Christian school.

Picture the reverse: a 100 per cent Muslim school in Bradford or Birmingham will struggle to attract more than a minute proportion of Muslim pupils who are not of Asian provenance.

It’s obvious, isn’t it? But perhaps not to politicians. Either the required safeguard is meaningless – or, if enforced, makes an impossibility (rightly, in my view) of composing a school entirely of pupils of one faith.

As the storm rages simultaneously about grammar schools and selection, and government speaks piously of its desire to achieve social mobility and the best opportunities for all, it seems to me that its faith school proposal could be still more divisive.


Perhaps the best we can hope for is that these wheezes simply won’t work: most of the Green Paper’s ideas are daft (and I haven’t space here to get on to universities and/ or independent schools being coerced into opening new state schools). The raft of new initiatives is reminiscent of a bunch of kids in a sweet shop: our policymakers are indulging themselves with a pick-and-mix of all their favourite ideas – ideas, moreover, designed specifically to appeal to the Tory heartland.

Most of the research into social mobility that we are presented with tends to stem from a particular political or sociological viewpoint. Politicians don’t like research: they merely assert that “they know what works”. Michael Gove, it seems, is not the only politician who despises experts.

I’ve written in the past about “policy-based evidence”: politicians and their allied think tanks are prone to sifting out any research or evidence that doesn’t agree with what they want to believe. As a result, we constantly face piecemeal and contradictory policy proposals that fly in the face of reason – but appeal to the gut-instinct of the party faithful.

Making schools work for everyone is indeed a laudable aim, as I said at the start. Like most ideals, it is probably unachievable in full: but these particular proposals will succeed only in making schools work for fewer children than they do now.


The recruitment crisis won't ease until the government stops harassing schools and increases teacher pay – ministers are courting a national disaster 

7th September 2016

Teacher supply is topping the agenda again: not before time. New education secretary Justine Greening is bombarded with the same advice from all quarters: she must recruit and retain enough high quality teachers to meet the nation’s needs.

Reports highlight one recruitment problem after another. Last week Helen Ward reported in the TES that “highest-achieving A-level students are least likely to apply to teach”. No one will surely be surprised that fewer A level candidates who achieve three A* grades apply to teacher-training courses than any other category of pupil given the conditions

Teacher supply expert Professor John Howson of Oxford Brookes University feels attracting students with the highest grades doesn’t matter – the opposite view to Michael Gove who, when education secretary, wanted only applicants with a 2:1 or better, a level also required by Teach First.

When Gove made that announcement with his customarily airy assurance, plenty of heads disagreed. Leaders of a number of the country’s most highly performing schools lined up to say that some of their best teachers had got it all wrong at university, but had learned from their failure. They reeled off anecdotes of inspirational teachers with third-class degrees.

They could always be exception that proves the rule, of course, and maybe we shouldn’t overstate it. But, just as I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that anyone with a lower second or third-class degree, or even without one, is incapable of being a teacher, we shouldn’t either overlook the gloomy fact that so few of our very brightest university graduates apparently want to go into teaching. So, why?

Prof Howson observes that candidates with first-class degrees “have got a wide range of choices. Attracting them is a difficult problem to solve, but what we shouldn’t do is make it more difficult – when you impose a pay freeze, reduce salary increases – that is making the problem worse”.

He’s now wrong. The language from government remains negative and critical of teachers. The rhetoric of school improvement too frequently adopts a tone of “not good enough”. Ministers’ occasional (too occasional) words of admiration to the profession cut no ice when schools’ commissioners take hostile action against schools that miss the latest government examination floor-targets, and when teachers, support staff, school leaders and governors alike suffer sleepless nights when Ofsted comes to call.

Bright graduates know that government recruitment adverts speak truth about the privilege of inspiring children and being inspired by them in turn. But in addition they’ll want an employer who pays them well, trusts them to use their gifts and doesn’t demand spurious accountability through targets and the ticking of boxes.

If government continues to drive and harass teachers while also holding their pay down, it won’t see recruitment figures rise.

And that courts a national catastrophe.