Exclusions: 'Out of sight, out of mind, out of funds'

31 August 2019

Boris Johnson plans to get tough on behaviour – but what will happen to all those excluded pupils, asks Bernard Trafford

Between Ashes drama and what many are describing as a Boris Johnson coup, much other news and comment was eclipsed this week. Nonetheless, Tuesday produced what seemed to me to be three particularly significant items.

I was struck first by a powerful column in The Times, in which Rachel Sylvester described her experience of how “atrocious, unregulated schools have become a dumping ground for problematic pupils”. 

She reports that, since 2016, Ofsted has investigated more than 500 unregistered schools, where some 6,000 children are being educated – or, rather, not being educated. More shocking than her description of disgusting, insanitary and hazardous premises was, to my mind, the fact that more than a quarter of such places were offering alternative provision (AP) to pupils excluded from mainstream schools. 

Sylvester joined the Ofsted investigations team at an unlicensed West Midlands school, now subject to an Ofsted investigation that may lead to criminal charges. Astonishingly, this school is run by the local authority, an arm of government ignorant of, or ignoring, the fact that it’s sending children for whom it is responsible to an illegal institution. 

Alternative provision in unregistered schools 

But is it really surprising? When schools, cut to the bone by this government, struggle even to keep their classrooms running coherently, it’s small wonder that such less-visible “fringe” operations as AP are in chaos. Out of sight, out of mind, out of funds: a form of neglect as old as government itself. 

Still, surely the Johnson government’s new focus on education, as leaked this week, is welcome? 

A one-off £2.8 billion extra for schools and higher salaries for teachers are not to be sneezed at, even if Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton wondered whether this “isn't simply part of a strategy for a forthcoming general election”, while NEU’s Mary Bousted declared the whole package bogus. I suspect both are right.

And what of the other (as yet unconfirmed) pledges in the leaked document? “This government backs headteachers to improve behaviour and will support them to create safe and disciplined school environments.” 

The Get Tough message is as obviously a Tory crowd-pleaser as it is perpetually unconvincing. Showing my age, I recall Michael (now Lord) Howard, then home secretary, was cheered to the rafters at the 1993 Conservative Party conference when he insisted: “Prison works." Like it’s working currently, presumably.

The risk of more school exclusions

Schools have been blamed for excluding difficult pupils, and even for rising knife crime. Tory voters might welcome this push for stronger discipline, but even the Department for Education is nervous of government making it easier for headteachers to exclude pupils, let alone restrain them physically, while simultaneously looking to reduce the number of teaching assistants

Given that double-whammy, the four “behaviour tsars” (somehow evocative of those Marvel Comic superheroes) might struggle to hold – let alone reduce – the number of children excluded from school.

Where will those lost pupils end up? The few successful examples of AP achieve fantastic results. Sylvester claims that it would cost relatively little to give all excluded children a fair deal, because their number is small. But I fear it won’t happen: the leaked document makes no mention of AP. 

Tough on wellbeing

Set all this against the grim background painted by the third document I encountered on Tuesday, The Gregson Family Foundation’s report “Why we need to measure student and teacher wellbeing in every secondary school in Britain." 

While governments around the world increasingly recognise that a happy child is a learning child, this report declares it unacceptable that the UK allows its children “to be so unhappy and educated so poorly”.

It deplores the fact that Ofsted assesses children’s progress only through academic attainment, and implies that it should systematically monitor child and teacher wellbeing. I confess I can’t help smiling at the ironic thought of government’s Rottweiler being tasked with getting tough on wellbeing, but I get the point.

Since 2010, we’ve had a bellyful of education ministers boasting of their determination to “reform” the system and “drive up standards”. We may argue about how successful they’ve been. But they would achieve a great deal more for the least fortunate if, instead of political machismo, they displayed a measure of compassion.


Pupils can't be anything they want to be...

24 August 2019

... and it's dangerous to tell them that they can – we must encourage realistic aspirations, says Bernard Trafford

On BBC Radio 3 this week, breakfast presenter Petroc Trelawny revealed that Josef Strauss, brother and son of the two more famous Waltz Kings, both named Johann, was both a composer and engineer/inventor. In addition to writing that celebrated waltz, Music of the Spheres, the multi-talented Josef also invented Vienna’s first rotating-brush street-cleaner. In 21st-century parlance, one might say that someone so versatile "could have been anything he chose to be".

Aspiration was arguably an appropriate quality to ponder in the period between those A-level and GCSE results days on which many hopes are fulfilled, some dashed, much parental and teacher sleep is lost, innumerable results-survival guides are published, and much hot air is wasted discussing whether standards are rising or exams are getting easier (or, indeed, made too difficult).

This year we heard few accusations of dumbing down, apart from a shriek from some quarters about “only 33 per cent will secure you a C in maths A level”. Indeed, the loudest complaints were directed at the new Michael Gove-directed style of many exams, GCSE maths in particular being accused by teachers of being unfit for purpose. 

Realistic aspirations 

Meanwhile, Channel 4 has been running a fly-on-the-wall series called The Secret Teacher, following four millionaire entrepreneurs working undercover as volunteer support staff in secondary schools. They didn’t prosper at school themselves (or there wouldn’t be much of a story) but later found the determination and chutzpah to achieve significant success in their chosen area of business.

They returned to school to see if they could mentor teenagers who appeared as lost and demotivated as they’d been at that age: then, at the carefully orchestrated moment of televisual truth, each used their wealth and influence to offer an opportunity (by fixing apprenticeships, funding courses, promising future jobs) to two of those youngsters, who, notwithstanding their troubles in school, displayed entrepreneurial flair and promise for the future.

The deus ex machina dénouement and the pupils’ incredulous joy made great TV. More important, though, the first two programmes shone a harsh spotlight on the paralysing effects on two schools of the swingeing funding cuts they’re suffering. Both tycoons were visibly shocked by the requirement of staff to work miracles with totally inadequate resources. So in programme two, businesswoman Kate Stewart also promised to fund a support worker to replace one lost to cuts: in the first, media mogul Paul Rowlett pledged £10,000 a year for that school’s run-down business department.

In a further revelation regarding our current bleak reality, the impressive head of Sheffield’s Parkwood E-Act Academy – featured in the programme – acknowledged the fact that our monolithic schools system requires her to push the square pegs that are some pupils through the round holes of GCSE: in some cases impossible for school and child alike, it does neither any favours.

The importance of hard work

I have no problem with such heart-warming stuff: better to help two kids in each school than none, and those generous financial offers will have wider, lasting effects. Nonetheless, one piece of naivety grated, when Kate Stewart told her protégé: “You can be anything you want.” At that point I cried, “Whoah!”, because such talk is dangerous.

Don’t get me wrong. Schools must raise, not dampen, pupils’ aspirations. But none of us – not even Josef Strauss, Kate Stewart or Paul Rowlett – can be anything we want: to kid ourselves that we can is to adopt the shallow instant-fame-and-riches mindset of those Big-Island’s-Got-X-Talent-Bake-Me-Out-of-Here television shows.

We should encourage pupils to recognise their strengths and interests, and be honest about the amount of work and determination required to develop them and fulfil their goals. Ambition’s fine: but recognise that hard slog is required. Malcolm Gladwell’s influential book Outliers reminds us that both the Beatles and Bill Gates put in the necessary (if arbitrary) 10,000 hours’ hard slog developing their skills before achieving their respective phenomenal success.

The Secret Teacher series so far reminds us that schools are still places of hope, despite government’s scandalous underfunding. Nonetheless, hope and aspiration must be tempered: not with defeatism, but with healthy realism, objectivity, counsel and support. Then aspirations, even lofty ones, may indeed be achieved, and ambitions and potential simultaneously fulfilled.


Why schools are not fundamentally about exam results

17 August 2019 

There is so much more to what schools do than cold results – they prepare young people for adulthood 

Thursday’s A-level results day was the first in 29 years on which I had no responsibility for what a cohort of students achieved. To be honest, it was a pleasant feeling. I used to hate results day.

I was privileged to run pretty high-achieving schools, and the morning would invariably start well: lots of happy 18-year-olds getting the places they craved at university, the anxious wait over, their hard work rewarded, smiley pictures taken.

By mid-morning, school had fallen quiet: those with cause to celebrate had left in order to do so. Those left behind were in no mood or position to party, because they hadn’t got the grades they needed. Some were on their mobiles, desperately hanging on in the digital queue to see whether their university might be persuaded to take them after all, or whether another would consider an application through the clearing process. Others, generally with an anxious parent or two in support, desperately sought advice and comfort from a teacher, desolate as their dreams had turned to ashes, weeping as they tried to plan a way forward.

Surely it doesn’t have to be like that? If only students could apply for university after they’d received their A-level results!

It’s a no-brainer. So much so, indeed, that this week saw a pledge from Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, to introduce a post-qualification application system (PQA). It sounds great, except that…well, Twitter quickly explained. Tes’ own Ann Mroz ironically tweeted a prophetic piece she’d written in 2011 about how PQA was imminent. Her colleague Ed Dorrell commented that this happens cyclically: someone suggests PQA, it’s greeted as a great idea till all the difficulties become apparent – then it’s invariably shelved.

Mary Curnock Cook, former boss of Ucas (the body that handles the whole mechanism of university applications) mourned wasting a year planning PQA: her scheme ran into the sand, yet again, because schools and universities alike reckoned they couldn’t squeeze the process into the summer months.

They can’t. One or other would have to move the start or end of their academic year, and only government could create and fund the consequent massive (and costly) disruption. But it can’t, or won’t, so every new plan for PQA goes nowhere.  

I can’t remove the strain and pain of results day: but I can offer teachers and school leaders a healthy distraction. After a tough results day (and a restorative gin, perhaps), pause to remember what you’re ultimately there for. It’s not fundamentally about A-level (or GCSE) results, important as they are. Schools are there to prepare children for the whole of adult life: you and they are in it for the long game.

I was reminded of this, education’s bigger picture, last week at the Edinburgh Fringe. There I saw, among other acts, a former student of mine. In his hilarious hour-long solo stand-up session, comedian George Fouracres charts his bewildered and bewildering journey from working-class Black Country lad to Fringe performer. 

A working-class boy rendered irretrievably middle class by a posh school and even smarter university, he now belongs entirely to none of the various worlds he now inhabits. He writes and speaks as the classic outsider: side-splittingly comical, inspirational and moving all at the same time (there were tears at the end). He observes, analyses, treasures and mocks both what he’s experienced and achieved and the crazy but fulfilling life his education and upbringing have equipped him to lead. He also notes that, educated far beyond his three siblings, he’s by a long way the lowest earner of his family. He’s honestly and achingly funny about all of it.

I cite George to remind us all that, in the long run, each individual’s life, hope, humanity and love are much more important than those exam results which (as ASCL leader Geoff Barton tweeted on Thursday) don’t define who we are.

(If you want your educational vocation given a boost and can make it to the Fringe, go and see George Fouracres’s show Gentlemon at The Pleasance every afternoon at 3.30pm)


Watch out, Rees-Mogg: schools have style guides, too

10 August 2019

Jacob Rees-Mogg has issued a draconian style guide, which he expects staff members to follow. Bernard Trafford sees why schools might be tempted to do the same

Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq., M.P. (as he prefers to be addressed), is a Marmite politician. While ardent Brexiters and ERG sympathisers find his urbanely combative style endearing, his opponents declare it intolerable. Whether this is down the man or to his politics is perhaps hard to identify, but there appear to be few who, when asked about him, aren’t ready to get off the fence one way or the other.

Rewarded with a high office of state for his loyalty to the cause of no deal (oops, revealing my Remain bias here), his first act as leader of the Commons was to issue to his department a draconian style guide, delightfully described by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker as “a list of irrational, arbitrary and linguistically obtuse personal peeves”. 

I’m indebted to Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera (a former pupil of whom I’m massively proud) for the Pinker quote, and also for a splendid piece in the paper’s business section that lambasted JRM for breaking his own rules on numerous occasions, and concluded that all the corporate buzzwords and jargon in the world are as nothing compared with the awfulness of such political mantras as “global Britain”, “taking back control”, “turbocharge the economy” and “the liberal elite”.

Remarkably pompous

My reaction to the news was echoed across the Twittersphere: it was a remarkably pompous start to his new job, he had proved himself an arrogant ass, and he should sod off back to the 19th century where he belongs.

I mean, fancy telling highly skilled professionals how to write documents! It’s patronising and insulting. As a headteacher I would never have done that, I declared. Then a small, reproachful voice whispered inside my head, “What about those staff guides for writing reports, then?” Ah, that’s different – surely? Still, just in case it isn’t so very different after all, I’d better confess.

Obvious traps

For many years, I did issue guidance at report-writing time. I’d remind colleagues to avoid the obvious traps: it’s/its; there/their; practice/practise. Next, I’d urge the correct punctuation of that old chestnut of an ending: “Well done, Jimmy. Keep it up!” instead of the excruciating, but common, “Well done Jimmy keep it up”. Academic deputies would generally add encouragement to cover particular aspects of learning, attitude, progress and advice for improvement (we didn’t do levels or targets).

Of course, typos were rife, notwithstanding the wonders of spellcheck technology. They were maddening, I admit. But it was important to remember that teachers were under pressure of time, and that two written reports a year for every child represented a colossal collective undertaking and an almost unimaginable number of words typed.

I hope my guidance wasn’t patronising. Moreover, I never believed that the schools I was privileged to lead had any need of an enforced house style, either in the classroom or in their communications with parents. And, if the latter weren’t always perfect, despite huge proofreading efforts, parents (if they stopped to think about it) probably appreciated both the scale of the undertaking and the benefit of teachers’ individual modes of expression.

Light touch

The advent of school management software, nearly three decades ago, brought with it a revolution in reporting to parents. Remember those famous comment banks, designed to make the teachers’ task easier? If the concept was brilliant, its application was clunky. Reports instantly became as bland, mechanical and impersonal as a modern Ofsted report (ouch), allowing no flexibility beyond combinations of stock phrases. My wife, then a peripatetic violin teacher, complained that she couldn’t find any way of commenting on her pupils’ bow-holds, a significant element in making progress on that instrument.

Nowadays, many schools will issue style guides for report-writing. I hope most keep it light touch, though I fear that in 2019 the micromanagement of which countless teachers complain, whether through the pressure of government accountability systems or sheer MAT/SLT control-freakery, has probably infected that vital personal communication with parents too.

As for a final judgement on Rees-Mogg, J (Esq., M.P.), I can offer only the glorious (but almost certainly apocryphal) subject report attributed to a crusty schoolmaster: “I expected little from him. I have not been disappointed.”


Does school uniform still perform any useful function?

03 August 2019

They're expensive and have no measurable effect on outcomes. So why persist with school uniforms, asks Bernard Trafford

Remember those old “Back to School” displays once common in BHS and M&S windows? While they featured small mannequins in painfully smart uniforms, WH Smith pushed pens, rulers and protractors. These promotions would appear, irritatingly, just when teachers, having caught up on sleep, were getting stuck into some serious holidaying.

Everything has its season. The time for children being suspended from school for having dyed hair, excessively tight or short skirts or trainers instead of proper shoes should be early September, the start of the new school year.

This year, by contrast, uniform-based skirmishes have started early.

Affordable school uniforms? 

The Welsh government declared that uniforms in its schools must be more affordable, accessible and gender-neutral. Schools are expected to consider whether uniform should vary for summer and winter, and ask themselves whether school logos are “strictly necessary”. 

Back in England, Emma Hardy, MP for Hull West and Hessle, accused academies, in particular, of effectively excluding poorer children by “prescribing prohibitively expensive uniforms” beyond the financial reach of their families, including blazers that mimic grammar and private schools.

According to the Children’s Society, families spend £340 a year on secondary-school uniforms, and £255 on primary uniforms. Wales offers parents a pupil-development grant of £125 for uniform, sports kit and equipment, while Scottish councils and English local authorities or academy trusts “may choose” to provide grants.

Bitter conflict

Then we read about the 11-year-old boy currently obliged to choose between cutting off his waist-length hair and taking up the place offered at a prestigious Essex grammar school in September.

Wow. How does the simple idea of wanting kids in school to look broadly similar and smart and to identify with their particular institution become the source of such bitter conflict?

As with many educational conundrums, the problems stem from society’s (and schools’) confusion about the purpose and function of uniform.

School pride

Brits tend to think schools cannot be good without uniform (despite notable exceptions). The early rebranding of schools into academies was frequently signalled by the adoption of bright ties and blazers (strident purple was de rigueur 15 years ago): such garments were pricey, though digital advances nowadays render logos and badges cheap additions.

School uniform is said simultaneously to prevent both individual displays of fashionableness and the comparisons between poor and wealthier children’s clothes that encourage bullying (though this is not a problem in the non-uniform-wearing schools I’ve come across). It’s further claimed that a traditional formal uniform fosters both pride in school and a sense of belonging.

Inconveniently, however, many boys decline to tuck their shirt in or do their tie up, while social and fashion pressures urge girls to wear extremely short skirts, extravagant make-up or jewellery, all in defiance of school rules. In response, some schools ban skirts: trousers for girls are easier to regulate. Girls are denied a “feminine” choice. Meanwhile, in a June heatwave, boys want to wear shorts (or, in protest, skirts).

Groundhog day

Many schools have replaced blazers and ties with branded shirts and pullovers. In Wales, they’re urged to reduce cost further by specifying colour but not style, and by ditching logos.

These well-intentioned proposals will both remove formality and reduce flexibility for girls. When parents shop around, uniform will become neither formal/traditional nor strictly “uniform”. Separate summer and winter uniforms will probably add cost, while “gender-neutral” uniform means trousers.

Hair’s even harder. No rules about colour, length or style are entirely immune from interpretation: parents previously supportive of uniform rules quickly fall out with school when their children are deemed to have transgressed them.

Expensive formal uniform unique to the school excludes poor children. Made cheap and informal, it’s hardly uniform any more. Children demanding flexibility and individuality defy or bend the rules, and find themselves in constant conflict with their school.

So does uniform still perform any useful function, and does it have any measurable effect whatever on education outcomes?

Uniform is schools’ Groundhog Day: a hamster-wheel that, while we remain so confused about it, we cannot get off. So why not start an intelligent conversation about the nature and purpose of uniform in the 21st century? Then, finally, we might get somewhere.


Will this government of glib promises really care?

27 July 2019

Teachers feel undervalued and demoralised - and Boris Johnson is unlikely to improve things, writes Bernard Trafford

In the old joke, a billionaire’s son requested a train set for his birthday. His father bought him Network Rail. Next year, the boy asked for a set of golf clubs – and received St Andrews, Royal Lytham and St George’s. Another year on, the lad wanted a cowboy outfit: so his father bought him the UK Parliament.

OK, I fell out of my cradle chortling at that one. But how else to describe the current state of our government? Except that the comparison demeans the beef-rearing community.

I’m not about to embark on a wholescale analysis of our democracy’s shortcomings, merely to observe how our government’s numerous deficiencies are exemplified in its handling of education.

The school funding crisis

This week, prime minister Theresa May stepped down. Anxious to leave some – any – kind of positive legacy, she wanted to pump £27 billion into the nation’s cash-starved schools: a figure that would have more than reversed the catastrophic funding cuts imposed since 2010.

The figure was rapidly revised downwards. Nonetheless, experts have calculated that even £7 billion per annum might restore schools' funding to pre-austerity levels. How about that, then?

No. Now-ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond hadn’t budgeted (note that: we’ll return to it) for catch-up payments for education, so the proposal was blocked. No golden goodbye to schools from TM, ex-PM: PH, ex-CoE, wouldn’t countenance it.

Empty promises

Meanwhile, candidates jostling to replace Ms May offered all kinds of largesse to education. Michael Gove promised a £1 billion increase to schools' budgets, while Boris Johnson, eventual winner of the Tory party’s private It’s a Knock-out, promised an extra £4.6 billion for schools by 2022-23.

Whether he’ll honour that pledge remains to be seen. In his first speech, the new PM confirmed that, “We have already announced that we will level up per-pupil funding.” Levelling up sounds closer to his earlier derisory pledge of £5,000 per pupil in every school, a feeble £200 increase on the national average.


Still, empty promises and half-truths are par for the course. Only a week ago, our new PM brandished a mail-order Manx kipper at his party’s faithful, lambasting the EU for its silly rules that make the packaging and delivery of such food prohibitively expensive. That regulation, it emerged, is entirely a UK device, without any connection to Brussels.

The revelation didn’t touch Johnson. Like his mate Donald Trump, he’s Teflon. He creates his moment, enjoys the adulation of his baying supporters: falsehoods, once exposed, are briskly dismissed as fake news or pettifogging detail.

Former (as of Wednesday) education secretary Damian Hinds used to boast of fighting behind the scenes to get teachers a decent pay deal. He and the DfE were delighted, just as term finished, to award teachers a 2.75 per cent pay rise: the figure recommended by the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB). Time for general rejoicing, then?

Hardly. The profession (those members of it who, on their knees with exhaustion on the last day of the school year, had the strength to care) regarded it as an insult. It’s the usual government con-trick: the Department will bankroll just the 0.75 per cent, declaring the first 2 per cent “affordable for schools”.

Undervalued and demoralised

All this just when the school year has ended. Budgets are set, harsh choices already made as to where the axe must fall, given insufficient money to go round. Unlike Philip Hammond, and out of time as well as cash, school leaders and governors must recalculate to find that extra 2 per cent in order that, in the mechanically patronising words of Robert, the Department’s spokesrobot, “teachers and heads can receive a pay rise above current rates of inflation and have more money in their pockets”.

Another reason for teachers to feel undervalued and demoralised, then. I don’t foresee Gavin Williamson, Hinds’ successor and the fifth secretary of state for education in five years, doing much to change that situation.

Our new government, elected by its party on glib promises, flip comments and dodgy statistics, is unlikely to worry much about how many contradictory demands it makes of those who labour in public services, nor how often or how deeply it pisses them off.


If schools don't promote moral values, who will?

20 July 2019 

Assembly is no one's favourite part of the school day. But, in a world of intolerance, it's up to schools to spread vital moral messages, says Bernard Trafford 

The end of the school year approaches, and with it a break from all that marking and planning. There’s also a pause in preparation for those teachers and school leaders who take assemblies – for a class, a year cohort, the whole school.

I regularly took assemblies for 28 years as a head (and for a few before that). I took care over my little homilies, the best-crafted short and pithy, the less successful compared by senior colleagues to the game Mornington Crescent on the long-running BBC Radio 4 comedy, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue: “We wondered if you’d find your way back from that red herring,” they’d comment. My daughters, who generally coped heroically with having me as their head, banned me from “trying to be amusing in assembly, Dad. It’s embarrassing”.

Looking back, my talks were somewhat predictable. I tried to leaven them with anecdotes, references to current events, anniversaries, those days or weeks themed to particular causes or commemorations. Undoubtedly, a thread ran through them about the need for kindness, patience, altruism, resilience, compassion, the valuing of difference and individuality. I blundered through those themes as well as a privileged middle-class white male of a certain age could hope to, and long before David Cameron labelled them “British values”.

No one's favourite

When asked about their favourite aspect of school, not one student (or teacher) ever cites assembly. Nonetheless, when challenged I used to respond that, if the head didn’t promote the institution’s values to staff and students alike, it was unlikely that anyone else would. 

A number of things brought assemblies to mind this week. It wasn’t just Donald Trump’s undeniably racist suggestion that four Democrat congresswomen “go back [to the] places from which they came” (three are US-born). Even more concerning is that, the more extreme and hate-filled his statements become, the more his ardent supporters love him. One such champion (ruining an otherwise pleasant Italian restaurant meal) assured me that Trump “tells it how it is”. (Unbidden, he then recounted how his wife runs Bible classes while he campaigns for the retention of the death penalty. We ate up and left.) 

Oops! Did I mention religion, that other topic anathema to polite dinner parties? Monday’s BBC Panorama documentary dived into the complex and vexed question of the inclusion of LGBT issues in sex and relationships education (SRE or, increasingly, RSE). Following parental objections to the No Outsiders programme taught in Birmingham’s Parkfield Primary School, similar protests are now affecting more than 70 schools nationwide, according to NAHT national secretary, Rob Kelsall. 

Bogus honesty

These aren’t mere squabbles: the Commission for Countering Extremism’s Sara Khan characterised them as “mobs intimidating” teachers and schools. Watching Panorama I was perhaps most disturbed by assertions from a range of traditionalist religious groups that schools dealing sensitively with the undeniable fact that gay relationships and same-sex marriage and parenting are both legal and increasingly common are seeking to “teach their children to be gay”. The same intolerant argument, Trumpian in its falsehood, led to the shameful decision by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988 to introduce the infamous Clause 28, not repealed until 2003. 

Bogus “honesty”, masquerading as the freedom or courage to speak hard truths, spreads suspicion and hatred, and not just in America. Populists and nationalists around the world adopt the same tactic. Here, Boris Johnson does it (remember his burqa comments?). Nigel Farage demonises fictitious “political elites” at home and in Brussels; Ann Widdecombe sets out to cause offence in Brussels; Islamophobia and antisemitism are permitted to flourish in the two major parties. And social media spreads viral fake news and messages of hate in an instant.

Hearing truth

Notwithstanding the pressures from outside, school is still a place where children hear truth, as they surely must. Happily, teachers’ inbuilt moral compass still compels them to promote and defend honesty. In spite of the strenuous efforts of pressure groups and devious demagogues, I believe it will continue, if teachers will hold their nerve. 

So, assembly takers, enjoy your break. But, on return in September, don’t give up on those vital moral messages of honesty, fairness, and the welcoming (not mere tolerance) of difference. If schools don’t promote those qualities, right now I don’t know who else will.


Invoking the untrainable Ofsted dragon

13 July 2019

New children's laureate Cressida Cowell has talked about the importance of school libraries. But beware the dangers of bringing libraries under Ofsted's remit

It was cheering to read this week that Cressida Cowell, author of the best-selling How to Train Your Dragon series, has been named the new children’s laureate. 

Waterstones' biennial literary honour gives its nominees a platform; invariably, recipients seize the opportunity to exercise their ephemeral influence on education, to promote reading and creative writing and, frequently, to lambast government for squeezing creativity out of schools. 

Such high-profile writers, speaking from outside the education system, can shame government for its more negative policy outcomes. According to TesCressida Cowell has “a gigantic to-do list”, including campaigning to make school libraries a statutory requirement. 

Elephant trap

But will even statutory protection ensure that libraries survive and thrive when there’s just not enough money in the system? I doubt it.

One tweet in response to Ms Cowell's statements suggested that school libraries should be specifically part of the Ofsted inspection. Now, as far as I know, Ms Cowell did not make that suggestion, and I won’t put words into her mouth. Nonetheless, using Ofsted as a lever to force schools to do things is an oft-repeated trope: but it’s an elephant-trap that catches many well-meaning agents of change. 

I’m becoming a cracked record on this topic (nice to revive that metaphor, now vinyl’s cool again). But here’s how the trap works. Identify a perceived societal/educational problem. Form an influential pressure-group to demand action. Declare education the best way to change, inform or improve behaviours/outcomes. And, to ensure it happens, oblige schools to adopt the new strategy by getting Ofsted to inspect it. Schools will do it because they can’t risk a poor grading: the stakes are too high. Job done. 

Not the villains

How many times have I written about the unintended swings-and-roundabouts consequences of high-stakes accountability? Schools aren’t the villains here: they’re squeezing or losing their libraries because they haven’t the money for them. If libraries become an Ofsted priority, something else will lose out. Sport, probably.

Sport? Hold on! Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s boss, recently deplored physical education being squeezed out of the curriculum as a result of funding cuts and excessive focus on exam results”. She’s right: it is. We may rejoice that the HMCI is at last raising funding issues. But surely we must lay the blame for schools’ excessive focus on exam results at her door?

Yes, but it’s an unwished-for, unintended consequence. Her pronouncements frequently suggest that, like many people at Ofsted, she possesses a right-headed view of what a broad and enriching education should be. If I met her in a conference bar (which I won’t, being retired), I’d hope to buy her a drink and have a long and fascinating discussion about the deep and ultimate purposes of education. 

With her, I’d deplore schools responding to the new framework’s focus on curriculum by writing statements of intent (I know about those: for years, regulations have required independent schools to publish largely meaningless curriculum policies that include such specific words as “broad and balanced”, or to risk non-compliance). I’d share her concern about sport being squeezed out. We’d agree on many things.


But not on the damaging effects of high-stakes inspection. This week, Stephen Petty wrote a wickedly clever Tes piece about the new image of Ofsted inspectors as “deep-sea divers”: “new” Ofsted, he declared, “is still too controlling…and…is still going to grade.” 

The framework may be new, but Ofsted grades retain the potential to blight schools and wreck careers. So long as ‘requires improvement’ judgements bring further pressure rather than support, and few or no additional resources, schools will continue to regard Ofsted as warmly as heretics viewed the Spanish Inquisition. They’ll jump through hoops and perform contortions. They’ll rob Peter to pay Paul. Most (85 per cent, according to ministers) will play the game, survive the experience and emerge ‘good’ or better, which they’ll stick on a banner at the school gate. 

But they won’t necessarily make right, values-based, ethical, visionary educational decisions: not until the policymakers who control our hostile accountability system throw away the stick, reject its destructive side-effects and ponder instead how to design a truly effective carrot.


SEND: 'Timpson will force round pegs into square holes'

06 July 2019

Holding schools responsible for excluded pupils will have a negative impact on the vulnerable, warns Bernard Trafford

This time last year, I found myself passing a primary school sports day. There was the usual air of delightful chaos. Parents were chatting, and not being over-competitive for their children or in the dads’ race. It was one of those happy, informal school events that are a joy to behold.

Until I recognised one little boy, Jason, whom I knew a little through his mum. Aged 8, and autistic, he’s one of those children who cannot cope with noise, and certainly not with the merry mayhem of a sports day. 

Jason was cowering behind his mother, as uncomfortable as any child could be, short of throwing a tantrum. 

“Well,” we might say, “at least he was there, being part of it.” 

But he wasn’t part of it. He was inhabiting his own private hell, and entirely excluded. He was present (a tick in the attendance register), but experiencing only misery. 

Isolated in school

Jason frequently wasn’t at school, partly because of his refusal to attend (which I’d term his inability to cope with school) and partly because, when he wasn’t coping or, indeed, whenever the school was short of a teaching assistant to mind him (which was effectively all they did), the rural primary school would ask mum or dad to come and collect him. It wasn’t a formal exclusion, just “better if he has some time at home today”. 

Jason’s parents had been battling to get adequate cognitive assessments done. He seemed academically able: he could do calculations, but didn’t know where to start when faced with pages full of similar sums. There was a fight to get a proper Education, Health and Care Plan and, when that was finally achieved, another to persuade the school to act on even some of the recommendations. Meanwhile, meetings called by the school – with the Sendco, headteacher, class teacher, local-authority attendance officer, team around the family – would be arranged and then abruptly cancelled. 

Before I moved away and lost touch with that family, I think things were improving. But I’m not betting that school will work out for Jason long-term.

Lack of training in SEND

Though I instinctively spring to schools’ defence, I cannot do so on occasions when pupils like Jason are badly treated. That real example, under a pseudonym, is replicated up and down the country. Many of these shortcomings stem from underfunding and lack of alternative provision, and some from the fact that too many schools still lack skills and training in SEND

I was reminded of Jason while reading about Edward Timpson’s recent session with the Commons Education Select Committee. The admirable Timpson family know more than most about the plight of excluded and vulnerable children, having fostered them for decades. The Timpson Review is authoritative, and the government has promised to implement all of its 30 recommendations.

The demand for earlier intervention is welcome, but I worry about holding schools responsible for the results of any children they exclude, their outcomes forming part of their performance tables. 

It sounds logical enough. However, like the whole of our benchmark-related accountability system, it presumes that all children should achieve the same, if we just level the playing field. 

Vulnerable children

Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that we should remove all challenge from the lives of children with SEND, or lower our expectations for them.

Nonetheless, requiring schools to hold on to those children who find it so hard to fit in, and to record their results, risks seeing more Jasons forced into situations more inimical than sports days. Square pegs will be not so much squeezed as hammered into round holes. The misery currently heaped on post-16 students obliged to keep resitting maths GCSE, reinforcing their failure and successive results decline, gives a hint of what we might see more widely. 

Our high-stakes, results-driven accountability system creates perverse incentives that lead some schools to behave unethically: off-rolling “problem” pupils, for example. I fear that the Timpson suggestion, entirely well-intentioned, will load still more pressure on to schools. Rather than preventing wrong behaviours, past history and the law of unintended consequences suggest it’s more likely to create further perverse incentives, and give rise to more problems than it will solve.


The state school that's working private-school miracles

29 June 2019

The London Academy of Excellence offers academically rigorous education to disadvantaged pupils. Can its model be extended across the country?

Independent schools are getting a media kicking again. What sparked the feeding frenzy this time round was the publication of a report by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission. Entitled Elitist Britain, it studied the school and university backgrounds of 5,000 high achievers and concluded that, in this country, "power rests with a narrow section of the population – the 7 per cent who attend private schools and the 1 per cent who graduate from Oxford and Cambridge".

Sutton Trust founder Sir Peter Lampl appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday to discuss the implications for social mobility and for the life chances of less advantaged young people. Sir Peter’s motivation is neatly summarised in his Wikipedia entry: “On his return from America, Lampl was appalled to discover that nowadays ‘a kid like me had little chance of making it to Oxbridge’, noting that his old grammar school was now "all fee-paying" and his old Oxford college ‘used to have lots of ordinary Welsh kids, but they're not coming through any more.’”

Sir Peter doesn’t seek to abolish private schools, rather to share and replicate their strengths. On the radio, he stressed that what pupils receive from independent schooling goes beyond good exam results: its rich extra-curricular, sporting and cultural programmes also teach children, he said, “the vital social skills: articulacy, confidence, ambition”. Those should be available to all state school pupils, too.

Eton of the East End

Indeed they should, and in one state school they certainly are – thanks to a group of independent schools. With Sir Peter on Radio 4 was Scott Baker, head of the London Academy of Excellence (LAE), the sixth-form college in Stratford nicknamed the Eton of the East End by the press: it gets more teenagers into Oxbridge than most independents, even some of its high-powered sponsor institutions – among them, Eton, Brighton College and Highgate School.

LAE works its miracle in a tough area rife with gangs and drugs, seeking out students from the poorest backgrounds. It mirrors an independent-school model, its excellent specialist teaching (some provided by the partner schools) complemented by a rich co-curricular programme.

There’s one aspect some might dislike about LAE: it’s academically selective. Ambitious 16-year-olds can’t just walk in there: they must prove their intellectual mettle and win a place against competition.

LAE’s curriculum is, according to its website, “academically rigorous and challenging”. Not every student will cope with its demands, so applicants for places must achieve at least five 9-7 GCSE grades (A*-A in unreformed subjects), grade 6 or above in maths and English, and at least a GCSE 7 grade in subjects they wish to study at A level. That steep threshold is tougher than all but the top academic end of the independent sector: most private schools would generally require five or six 5-6 GCSE grades (C in old money), or not stipulate at all.

Beyond the South East

So will we see the successful LAE model emulated beyond the relatively prosperous South East, in the cities of the North, on the coastal fringes, in remote rural areas? Not without some creative thinking, perhaps.

LAE’s location allows it to select an academic elite from among the capital’s least advantaged, and help them to fly. In other areas with less density of population, entirely new, free-standing selective sixth-forms might not be feasible. But government could work with and expand established independent sixth-forms, creating and funding ground-breaking new provision in real two-way partnership with the (not-for-profit) independent sector.

The sector has declared itself ready to explore such ideas. But, far from pursuing it, government is eroding even LAE’s success. With post-16 funding slashed by 20 per cent since 2013, Scott Baker says LAE cannot maintain its successful model. Last week’s Sunday Times reported that the sponsor schools are asking their parents to donate £3,000 to bridge the gap. Generously, some are responding even when shelling out £40k in boarding fees for their own child. Nonetheless, if sufficient donors aren’t forthcoming (it’s a huge ask), I can’t see any government increasing per-pupil funding by £3,000 in a hurry 

The very success of the London Academy of Excellence throws down a challenge to government. Will it rise to it and extend the model across the country? Or will it succumb to its own soft bigotry, refuse to increase funding, decline to engage fully with the independent sector – and allow this spectacularly successful socio-educational experiment slowly to wither away?


Please save us from politicians' ed policy half-truths 

22 June 2019

As the race to be the next PM heats up, we're exposed to any number of lies about spending and performance in education

Further corroboration appeared this week of the fact that ministers and Department for Education spokespeople have been fibbing to us all this time. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) declared that UK schools have experienced such swingeing cuts for a decade that it will take £4.9 billion of new money to get them back to 2009 funding levels and protect them until 2023. 

But we already knew that: the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) reckoned earlier this year that the constant squeeze on schools left them currently £3.4 billion short; project the requirement forward and the ASCL and IFS figures match closely.

These calculations reappeared as a result of the Conservative leadership election. Tory poster boy Boris Johnson was airily bandying around his usual mix of empty promises and inaccurate criticism. He pledged to end the “postcode lottery on school funding” which, he said, sees per-pupil funding vary between £4,200 and £6,800. He was out of date: those geographical vagaries largely ended with the common funding formula in April 2018. Meanwhile, Boris’ guarantee of £5,000 for every school pupil in the UK made a slick soundbite – but represented only an additional £200 per student, a paltry boost to the starved system of £40-50 million overall.  

That’s Boris for you: bluff, hearty, firing from the hip and so essentially misleading that no one in their right mind takes his blandishments seriously (apart from the Boris-supporting Tory right, which voluntarily surrendered its right mind long ago). Besides, he’s not the only would-be PM throwing largesse in the direction of education. Michael Gove, himself a former education secretary, pledged a cool £1 billion to education before he was ejected from the race.

That was a more serious figure, but it’s not enough. The shortfall identified by ASCL is more than three times Mr Gove’s offer, or a fifth of what’s needed to plug the gap for the future. Better than nothing? Or yet another insult, further salt rubbed into the very significant wounds suffered by schools and teachers and by the children they struggle to serve?

At least those two are offering more cash, you might argue, even if it’s not enough. During Tuesday night’s excruciating televised debate between the candidates, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt slipped in the Daily Mail-style accusation that a quarter of children leaving primary school can’t read.

His assertion was unfounded, a lie no more forgiveable than ministers’ oft-repeated assurances, when tackled on funding, that government is putting record sums into education: that monstrous untruth has been called out more than once by government’s own auditors.

Does it matter anymore? After all, we’ve become accustomed to living with exaggeration, double-counting and obfuscation from the political classes.

I think it still matters. The thank-you letter to teachers from education secretary Damian Hinds on Wednesday was an illustration of the way such evasion has become endemic. The letter’s tone was warm and appreciative, but it lacked any honesty about the problems confronting them every day. Mr Hinds deplored the fact that, according to OECD’s latest Talis (Teaching and Learning International Survey) report, UK teachers are working longer hours than most in the world; he sympathised with their frustration that so much work is not directly related to teaching, and applauded schools and school leaders who are trying to reduce it.

But he failed to acknowledge that his own accountability system is most to blame. Relentless pressure to perform, convoluted machinery to prove that they’re performing, and insufficient resource to support their efforts: these are driving teachers out of the profession.

But still Mr Hinds avoids all mention of funding and offers no other relief on the issues making teachers’ lives so hard, beyond the customary politician’s assurance that technology will help – er, somehow 

So now I’ll add my own thank you. Thank you, teachers, for doing all that incredible work for the nation’s children: for remaining (generally) good humoured and always ready to help the kids who need you; and for putting up with the empty promises and half-truths that, sadly, are all you get from government. 

You deserve so much better.


Tinkering with Ofsted won’t help. It needs to go

15 June 2019

You can't reduce complex schools to a single adjective – that's why Ofsted will never work, argues Bernard Trafford

A couple of weeks ago, Ofsted’s Sean Harford said this at a CurriculumEd conference in Lichfield: “Personally, I don’t believe that 90 per cent of schools in the country have good or better behaviour across the school."

The complaints from the unions’ Easter conferences about the threats and violence suffered by many teachers suggest that Mr Harford’s scepticism is well-founded. But he speaks as the inspectorate’s national director of education. What should we make of his statement? If a very senior member of staff at Ofsted lacks confidence in its judgements, we should worry – as we might about his proposed solution to such under-reporting.

Knowing that children and teachers will "hold things together for a day" when inspection comes, he reckons inspectors should talk individually to lunchtime/breaktime supervisors and NQTs/trainees. So will they then make their judgement on the basis of what those people (who also might "hold it together") say? Such information may offer useful triangulation, but it’s surely not first-hand, observed evidence, and thus no reliable basis for possibly critical judgement.

How does Ofsted make reliable judgements? Indeed, does it? Mary Bousted, joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union, stressed this week in Tes the size of the challenge Ofsted has set itself in its new framework, “not only to inspect the breadth and balance of a school’s curriculum, but also its quality”. She queried how this can be adequately achieved in a two-day inspection.

'Ofsted is as welcome as a plague of boils' 

Ofsted’s boss, Amanda Spielman, protests that, if the swathes of data now commonplace in schools are still produced, she’ll ask who did it: was it worthwhile use of their time? An implication, perhaps, that the teacher who did so should have been in the classroom? That particular salary is likely nowadays to go to a non-teaching data-manager.

Yet it will be a rare and brave school that backs off on data collection, let alone avoids a new paperchase, as it accumulates evidence for inspectors that teachers’ “resources… clearly support the intent of a coherently planned curriculum, sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment”. They can’t take the chance. 

Mary Bousted explains. It’s all about the “high stakes for heads and teachers whose careers are… ended by a poor Ofsted judgement. And high stakes for those pupils who… too often see their school spinning into a cycle of decline”. 

That’s why Ofsted remains government’s Rottweiler, frankly as welcome a guest in school as a plague of boils. I’ve met Amanda Spielman, and debated with Sean Harford on a conference platform: both are humane, civilised and deeply committed to education. I’ve encountered impressively experienced HMIs, not to mention heads leading or forming inspection teams in the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). How good it would have been simply to welcome such experts into school and use their wisdom and judgement to help my school improve.

That remains impossible when the complexity of what happens in school every day (effectively acknowledged by Sean Harford on behaviour) is ultimately reduced to a single Ofsted adjective, always with the possibility of professional or institutional damnation.

Despite the efforts of many good people in the system, inspection has long been causing more harm than good. Mary Bousted demands both “an inspection system that is fair, valid [and] reliable” and “a new deal for education professionals.” 

I disagree – but only slightly. Tinkering with Ofsted won’t help. It needs to go.


If schools don’t teach LGBT+ acceptance, who will?

06 June 2019

Schools must set a moral standard by embracing LGBT+ issues and stress that it's not about tolerance, but true acceptance

I’d never witnessed one of these events before, but last Saturday I decided to go and see Oxford’s Pride March. I didn’t make a huge effort: it was only a 20-minute walk from my home. I set out merely to witness it, but it wasn’t possible to observe dispassionately. It caught up everyone present: immediately, we bystanders weren’t spectators but supporters.

I’m rather visibly (and boringly) a middle-aged white heterosexual retired head. But I didn’t buy the overpriced rainbow garland in order to climb on anyone’s bandwagon, nor in an attempt at virtue-signalling: once there, I really felt the need to demonstrate my support.

It was loud, raucous, in-yer-face, full of laughter and joy: shameless, indeed – in the sense that these marches are about LGBT+ people refusing any longer to be shamed. My heart swelled with pride that they and their supporters could in 2019 publicly express their pride in who they are 

I don’t think I’d have done that twenty or thirty years ago. I fear that, in a stuffy, bourgeois kind of way, I’d have found such stridency (stridency in any cause, to be fair) inappropriate and irritating. “Just argue the case calmly and rationally,” I’d have said. But I was wrong, wasn’t I? Because the people affected were so excluded, so cut off from the channels occupied by the straight and censorious that it took courageous campaigning organisations like Stonewall to lead the way and fight the fight.

On Saturday, I enjoyed sharing the collective Pride in those marchers and in the organisations who support them. But my joy was not unalloyed. Indeed, the more I looked at the banners being carried, and the more I’ve considered their messages since, the more I feel that society’s pride in how far we have travelled is hollow at best.

Underlying that celebration of progress and mutual support lay the deep hurt suffered by the LGBT+ community. Most striking, perhaps, were the banners carried by religious and ethnic groups. I liked the alliteration of a Queer Quakers banner, and derived savage amusement from seeing a twice-life-size effigy of Jesus with his arms open to welcome all, a more inclusively Christian message than the Tweet issued by a Roman Catholic bishop the same day reminding his flock that they should not join or condone Pride marches.

Religions aren’t alone in allowing or even promoting prejudice. One banner proclaimed that at the University of Oxford, 60 per cent (if I remember rightly) of gay people suffer homophobic bullying. 60 per cent of some of the brightest young people in the country – in the world, indeed. 

Cleverness doesn’t preclude prejudice. One must conclude, then, that the only answer is education. Yet education is itself embroiled in a battle against prejudice. As children and teachers at a Birmingham school have to run the gauntlet of hostile protests against its teaching of LGBT+ issues, public figures have weighed in – frequently both unwisely and ignorantly.

Former cabinet minister Esther McVey opined that parents should be able to decide what kind of sex and relationships education (SRE), if any, their children receive. I doubt she’d advocate such choice about maths, history or even children sitting Sats. Others have argued (as I have many times, in other contexts) that schools shouldn’t be asked to solve all society’s ills. Spiked Online’s Joanne Williams observed that teachers will be better at teaching maths or science than SRE, which is almost certainly true, and should keep out of it – which, I think, is wrong.

Protesters refuse even to negotiate and instead issue death threats, Ann Widdecombe, now an MEP-elect, repeats her repulsive view that people should be treated for being homosexual. At the same time, faith leaders defend homophobia and misogynism. At that point schools must set a moral standard by teaching (with sensitivity) both understanding of difference, embracing LGBT+ issues as well as gender and race, and stressing the need not merely for tolerance, but for welcoming and true acceptance.

Because, if schools don’t teach children those essential values, I don’t know who will. And a nation can’t afford to take that risk.


Could the Lib Dems make schools happier places?

01 June 2019

If Layla Moran's views are anything to go by, the party's schools vision would be about wellbeing, culture and changing the world, writes Bernard Trafford

 “Schools are a place of expression,” stated Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Layla Moran, writing for Tes this week. “We must encourage pupils to explore their aspirations and individuality,” she continued.

This MP’s message is striking. She says: “I want to tear up the rule book when it comes to our education system; the relentless testing, the archaic standards structures, but most importantly, how we measure the success of our schools. Our focus should be on wellbeing, culture and on building individuals ready to take on and change the world.”

That makes a change from the usual policy-maker blather about EBacc, standards, targets and employability, and the ostrich-like ministerial insistence on propping up a creaking and inhuman accountability system. Ordinarily this might have made for a diverting utopian read, but otherwise have been of no practical value. After all, what chance do the Lib Dems have of exercising power?

The last time Vince Cable’s lot had a sniff of it, it ended badly. When that small party formed the coalition government in 2010, optimists like me saw a pattern for the future. Sadly, in 2015 voters decided that the Lib Dems’ willingness to compromise on university tuition fees represented not the necessary give-and-take of consensual government, but betrayal. They were wiped out.

Now they’re back. After their triumph in the recent Euro-vote they’re leading the Westminster polls. A sizeable chunk of the electorate has lost faith in the major parties, riven as they are by differences over Brexit while simultaneously so polarised that only the Lib Dems appear to occupy the middle ground (the electoral battleground for most of the 21st century). So maybe it would finally be useful to look at what a Lib Dem government might do for education if given power, or at least a share of it. Would Moran (who happens to be my MP) have her views echoed by the rest of the party?

And would she, I wonder, share in turn the educational outlook of Thomas’s Battersea, the school at which Princess Charlotte will join her brother Prince George in September? On their website they state: “Whilst we are proud of our record of senior school entrance and scholarship successes, we place a greater emphasis on a set of core values, which include kindness, courtesy, confidence, humility and learning to be givers, not takers. We hope that our pupils will leave this school with a strong sense of social responsibility, set on a path to become net contributors to society and to flourish as conscientious and caring citizens of the world.”

Following the announcement of family Cambridge’s school decision all those years ago, I scoured the web for articles tearing into the £21,000-a-year establishment. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough, but I found not a single commentator decrying that fuzzy mission statement drawn from the school’s website, which also proclaims that “art, ballet, drama, ICT, French, music and PE [are] all taught by specialist teachers from a child’s first day”. 

Lucky Charlotte and George! What’s not to like? But I can’t help feeling that, had this story concerned an “ordinary” child, and had Thomas’s been a state school, some commentators might have criticised a school that professed such wishy-washy aims instead of concentrating on the serious business of standards, literacy and numeracy, and baulked at the allocation of significant resources to such non-core activities as art, ballet, drama and music.

Perhaps those harsh voices are silent because they take for granted that such an expensive fee-paying school also achieves awesome academic standards, another assumption generally withheld from the state school down the road. But two questions strike me.

First, why is such a rich and wonderful educational offer apparently the preserve of the mind-bogglingly rich? Second, why does the system make it so hard for ordinary schools to set such “soft” outcomes – happiness, wellbeing, culture, generosity, aspiration and individuality – as their fundamental educational goals for their pupils?

Maybe, just maybe, an opportunity will emerge from the current political chaos for Layla Moran to lead the way in envisaging a kinder and happier educational offer for our children: not just for those up the posh end of Battersea, but for all.


Performance-related teacher pay: it simply does not work

25 May 2019

Simplistic judgements and inflexible pay structures hurt everyone. When will the DfE wake up and recognise this, asks Bernard Trafford

You could argue that this has been a week of bad news in education (as it has in the ongoing Brexit omnishambles).

Following on the heels of Stephen Tierney, another blogger and leader of school leaders, Ros McMullen has had enough. She’s retiring early, not least because she “has simply had enough of having to do more with less, unintelligent and damaging accountability systems, constantly moving goalposts and supporting outstanding headteachers who are treated as the whipping boys for all the failings of social policy”.

Next came the revelation that the UCL Academy in Swiss Cottage withdrew a number of students from their chemistry A-level exam after they did badly in their mock exams before Easter.

Closer to home, I was chatting last weekend with my friend Jim, who teaches a Year 2 class in a village primary school. Notwithstanding several years’ experience under his belt, he’s currently anxious about his class’ Sats results. He’s worked out that, if just one of his weaker students scores less than 80 per cent overall, he’ll miss his performance target. And the consequence? No move up the pay scale.

Heads are under pressure, if not actual compulsion, to operate performance-related pay (PRP) within robust management systems. In the hard-nosed, cash-strapped world of UK education in 2019 (where two-thirds of teachers have not received the government’s promised 3.5 per cent pay rise after a decade-long freeze), most academies have introduced PRP, using financial rewards, or penalties, as “motivation” for teachers.

Jim is a committed teacher and so hard-working that I find myself, newly enjoying the freedom of post-headship retirement, telling him off (as only friends can) for doing too much. But even Jim, enthusiastic and still idealistic, knows he probably won’t get the pay rise – a slap in the face for someone who can’t do more – and certainly cannot do the impossible.

At whole-school level, there was the primary head who told me she couldn’t hope to hit the required government target of 96 per cent attendance after a flu epidemic swept through her early years section. Will the new Ofsted framework continue to require such misses to limit any overall judgement to less than good? I’m not hopeful of change.

'Defending the indefensible'

Simplistic judgements and inflexible, absurd targets hurt individual teachers, as well as whole schools and their heads. A teacher like Jim is hit in the wallet; schools are labelled and shamed, and heads roll. Small wonder that not only frontline teachers, but even successful, high-profile and widely admired heads like Stephen and Ros are getting out – tired of, in the words of the latter, “defending the indefensible”, as the school’s figurehead and public face is required to do.

Alas, the indefensible sometimes includes heads under the unbearable twin pressures of accountability and underfunding succumbing to temptation and taking the line of least resistance.

Despite widespread professions of outrage, who is really surprised when yet another school withdraws from exams a group of pupils who might pull down its overall exam score? Like the off-rolling loudly condemned by Ofsted, policymakers and media, we all know it’s wrong. But critics aren’t necessarily living with the pressure that begets those perverse incentives to behave in that way.

How many heads, trying to stretch an inadequate budget, are tempted to set their staff unattainable targets to prevent the salary bill from growing (or even to shrink it, as is happening in many primaries)? How often might individual teachers “help” their class in their Sats, if next year’s salary depends on it?

I applaud multi-academy trust CEO Jane Millward, who is scrapping PRP in E-Act’s schools, acting on her knowledge that it doesn’t work. Hats off, too, to all those heads who continue to fight the fight, and to those who finally decide they can’t go on, but find the courage to speak out. When will ministers and their advisers pull their heads out of the sand and heed those persistent and consistent voices of genuine concern? Not soon, it seems.


The best way to revise? Keep it simple

18 May 2019

When it comes to revision, pupils should ignore the swathes of wacky advice, and keep it sensible and simple, writes Bernard Trafford

 “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it!”  That chorus comes to mind with monotonous regularity each May.

It’s that time of year again. Sats are over for another year (hurrah!), but A levels, GCSEs, and university finals are in top gear. And don’t forget end-of-year exams for almost every other learner from the age of 12 (or less) to 20 during June.

Media channels eagerly churn out revision advice. Some focus on specific techniques for checking all that required knowledge has sunk in, filling in gaps and practising retrieval/regurgitation on demand. Health experts cover the physical angles, sleep, exercise, fresh air, healthy diet, balance, de-stressing techniques, mindfulness: blimey, so much coping activity leaves little time to revise the blooming notes.

This time round, there seems to be particular focus on music. The Times recommended Mozart as the backdrop of choice. Meanwhile, on Classic FM in recent weeks, numerous presenters have offered “the perfect soundtrack to your revision programme”. Such implied personalisation rouses me to fury, like those train announcements welcoming me onto “my” 11.15 service to Addlestrop. “I don’t want a ‘personal soundtrack’,” I yell at the radio. “Just music that I choose to listen to. Or not.”

Or not: that’s an important distinction. Music to aid concentration is a fine idea: but, if you’re really focusing, you’ll gradually ignore it. It’s not like pumping driving upbeat tempos through your headphones as you go out running (something I never do – run in headphones, I mean. All to do with where the sweat runs, and being put in a temper by running anyway). So by all means stream your choice of Mozart, Celtic fringe or thrash-metal to get you in the working mood: but, trust me, if the revision’s going well, you’ll soon blot it out.

Enough, though. Give candidates a break. Stop trying to micromanage their lonely labours. Give them a modicum of peace so they may suffer in blessed solitude.

I’m guilty too. In my long years as a head, I naturally issued sage advice to exam candidates – or to their parents, partly to keep them off their children’s backs.

In essence my advice to students was: keep it simple, and don’t kid yourself. You’re not going to become a different person overnight, nor be able to maintain the transformation for several weeks. So, if you normally take a lot of exercise, keep doing it: if you don’t, now is not the time to start half-marathons. Eat healthily and don’t overdo the coffee or sugary drinks: but if you normally eat lots of meat, don’t suddenly embrace veganism.

Talking of exercise, I always deplored committed sportsmen and women dropping team sports as exams approached: sometimes from their own volition, but too often through parental worry about the time wasted. The independent schools’ association HMC recently published, with some glee, research that demonstrated team sport actually boosts exam outcomes. Amen to that: but I’m not sure it will win over anxious parents.

Don’t pretend you can revise for six hours at a time: nor that you can work till 4am and be alert for the 9am exam. Allow yourself breaks, and rewards. A solid two-hour session earns a break, maybe even some chocolate or screen time (phone off while revising!). When you feel you need to scream, go for a walk instead: though screaming is admissible, too, as long as it’s not a displacement tactic, replacing actual work.

As for revision techniques, do what’s worked for you before: I say that with some trepidation, aware (no offence) that the teaching of study skills is somewhat variable in schools.

As for parents, be there, feeding, encouraging, loving and caring. Helping by testing them for knowledge carries risks: we were ignominiously sacked from helping with a daughter’s Chemistry A level when we proved ourselves scientifically illiterate. Better perhaps to remain that invisible, non-interventionist, non-judgemental supportive presence.

On second thoughts, I was wrong at the start. Actually it is both what you do, and the way that you do it. Good luck!


Be wary of what the DfE tells you about Sats

15 May 2019

No matter what the government may say to parents, Sats are harmful and must be abolished, writes Bernard Trafford

On holiday in Scotland last week, I heard a hotel waiter explaining to a party of American visitors that some local custom had been going “for donkeys’ years”. After a pause, one of his customers drawled, “I get the history, but what’s that stuff about the donkey’s ears?”

It depends how you hear things: and in politics, at any rate, how you choose to see or hear them. Take Sats. Jeremy Corbyn assured himself of a warm welcome when he told the NEU conference over Easter that he would abolish Sats.

He’s right that Sats should go: they do little discernible good but significant harm – much like school inspection, then. Forget the oft-repeated assertions and pure doublespeak from Department for Education mouthpieces that say Sats are helpful to parents: I suspect that, actually, relatively few parents are fooled.

Sats are no more than a means (a dubious one, at that) for measuring the progress of the whole Year 6 cohort in a school, so that one school can be judged against another. That was verified to the NEU (somewhat surprisingly, given his day job) by Ofqual chair Roger Taylor, who asserted, “The purpose… is not to assess the children, it is to do that in order to understand how the schools are doing in delivering education.”

Well, thanks for your honesty. To be fair to Mr Corbyn, he declared that a Labour government would consult on how to separate assessment of children (which is fine and necessary, by the way) from assessment of schools. Alas, he didn’t appear about to back off on the latter function: that’s a shame, because it’s the excessive accountability regime that is hurting schools and, through its mechanisms (including Sats), children.

Bland reassurances from government 

I’ll explain yet again. Schools are judged and ranked in league tables by their pupils’ Sats scores. If a pupil is struggling and unlikely to achieve a satisfactory grade, it’s not simply a problem for them, requiring some support to help them learn, achieve and thrive as an individual: it becomes one for the school, which then pushes and shoves them towards the collective level in order to keep Ofsted and government off its back. That’s why Sats exert pressure on children, why they should be abolished, and why policymakers should stop lying to parents about their alleged value to their children.

While in Scotland, I encountered another example of government doublespeak. The thinktank Reform Scotland has discovered that the number of subjects taken by pupils in S4 – loosely called standard grades – has fallen in many schools from eight to six. Its research director, Alison Payne (writing in The Times on 3 May), quoted the Scottish government’s assertion that it doesn’t matter what’s studied in S4: the focus should be on the totality of qualifications pupils obtain.

OK – perhaps. Better, arguably, to study fewer subjects and gain higher grades in them. Or is it? Six looks a narrow curriculum to me, and Ms Payne’s concern is that some schools are still offering eight, creating an “opportunity gap”. Significantly, Scottish independent schools are sticking with eight. The private sector is never slow to spot a marketing advantage: more kindly, one might suggest that it’s leading the way in maintaining a standard.

However that shift is presented to parents (and they’re currently short of information, according to Ms Payne), it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there’s a resourcing issue here, too. If six subjects becomes the norm, schools short of cash will almost inevitably narrow the curricular offer overall, saving a bit on staffing.

Hold on! Isn’t that what’s happening in England with EBacc? Once some subjects are designated more important than others, the current funding crisis dictates that those will be protected at the expense of – well, the arts for a start. The DfE may monotonously deny it, but we all know it’s true.

Donkeys’ years or donkey’s ears? Parents should be careful what messages they take from government, whether north or south of the border, and be doubly suspicious of its bland reassurances.

Three Ds to a first at uni should be celebrated

29 April 2019

Instead of saying universities are dumbing down, praise students for turning their grades around, says Bernard Trafford

I’ve been trying to get my head around the reactions to the recent Times report that a lot of people who scored less than three D grades at A level are emerging from university with first-class degrees.

Predictably, some commentators saw this as further evidence that universities are dumbing down their degrees: the percentage of students awarded firsts has risen from 16 per cent to 27 per cent in the past six years. (You can hear the harsh voices: “In my day, it was fewer than 10 per cent”).

Allegedly cheap-as-chips first-class degrees (“unjustified”, in the words of secretary of state Damian Hinds) are not the only target of this story, however. Remember the Augar review’s recent suggestion that A-level candidates achieving low grades shouldn’t be permitted to go to university? There’s no point, it was argued: they won’t make a success of a degree course, they’ll accumulate unnecessary debt and waste three years. Unless, others might insinuate, they go to a university that awards Mickey Mouse degrees.

These parallel trains of thought appear to flow easily from one conclusion to another: but they’re about as correct as adding 2 + 2 to make 5. So let’s stop it right 

Is grade-inflation rampant in universities? Well, perhaps it deserves a look: but let’s not automatically assume it represents a decline. When I was an undergraduate, some 45 years ago, those of my contemporaries universally regarded as being sure-fire first material frequently missed out. I guess the university (Oxford, in my case) was jealously guarding its first-class portal. But I recall brilliant people with huge intellects crushed by the outcome on results day: just missing the coveted first removed any chance of a grant (remember those?) to continue to a PhD, almost inevitably denying them the opportunity of pursuing an academic career.

Credit to these A-level students

My favourite line in an Alan Bennett play comes (unsurprisingly, perhaps) from the headmaster in Forty Years On. Challenged by a thrusting young teacher who suggests that the standards he’s always banging on about are out of date, he replies (preferably in a John Gielgud voice): “Of course they’re out of date. That’s what makes them standards!"

When it comes to educational standards, we Brits remain hung up on the notion that only what is scarce can be valued. As schools get better and better at helping pupils to pass exams, the consequent rise in pass rates, far from being a cause for celebration, is seen as a problem. Exams must be made harder, we’re assured, so fewer pass: demand must exceed supply if results are to be valued.

There’s nothing wrong with overhauling exams from time to time, by the way: but when Michael Gove, as education secretary, introduced harder GCSEs, he also created the new 1-9 grading. This allows for higher, tougher grades to be added at the top end. Perniciously, it includes three grades at the bottom: designated worthless, they are nonetheless currently awarded to a third of 16 year-old English and maths candidates. Even a 4 is iffy: in our national psyche, there must be failures – the contrast serving to highlight the successes.

As for those A-level candidates gaining three Ds or less, currently they’re still permitted to proceed to higher education, where, to the horror of those self-appointed guardians of eternal standards, a quarter are winning firsts.

Before leaping to accusations of dumbing down, why not ponder how such success might occur? Few candidates achieving three Ds are likely to be overjoyed by the result, unless they’re keenly aware of having overcome significant hurdles to get even that far. Can we not give credit to those who then achieve highly at university, seizing what might constitute a second chance to fulfil their potential?

As we celebrate the 50th birthday of that beacon for lifelong learning, the Open University, it surely requires only a modicum of generosity of spirit to regard such candidates’ achievement not as a disaster, but as a triumph.


Not all schools can sing hymns. But if not hymns, then what?

19 April 2019

Singing brings schools together. But be wary when compiling your assembly playlist, warns Bernard Trafford

Schools should bring back singing in assembly, concludes a report from the Royal Society. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, one of its authors, reckons singing together – like dancing, playing physical team sports and storytelling – triggers the endorphin system and helps a community to bond. I wholeheartedly endorse his ambitious claims for the whole-school benefits of collective singing.

In a Tes piece, Zofia Niemtus recalls: “Hundreds of students sat cross-legged on the cold floor of the school hall, singing their hearts out about creatures great and small, keeping their oil lamps burning and imploring Jesus to shine.” Alas, she says, that tradition is fading out.

There are valid reasons why. In her halcyon vision, children were singing hymns – Christian songs of worship. Nowadays, unless your school boasts an explicitly Christian foundation and mission, let alone a chapel, foisting those texts on children of other faiths, or of none, is arguably hard to justify.

As a head in Wolverhampton in the 1990s, I wrestled with that problem. The school had a strong singing tradition, and students generally joined in heartily. Yet, reflecting its setting, the school was composed of nearly 30 per cent children from Indian Sikh backgrounds. Singing Fight the Good Fight seemed no longer appropriate.

Actually, the similarities between that hymn’s theological militarism and Sikhism’s khalsa might have intrigued my Sikh head boy at the time, Sathnam Sanghera. He’s now a high-profile journalist and author, currently educating the nation about racial awareness, past conflict and above all, about the white supremacist myopia that convinces many that they’re not apologists for Empire, and not racist at all. Even Sathnam cannot know quite how much he taught me about the life of a young British Indian whose Punjab-born parents had sought a better life here. They might have found it, but not without also encountering hardship and prejudice.

In short, my school abandoned hymns and The Lord’s Prayer in assembly. It was morally essential, but as a consequence, we lost the habit of singing together. And here’s the problem for school singing: if you reject hymns, what do you replace them with?

Getting several hundred people to sing together requires suitable music. Hymns are designed to be sung by crowds – congregations in that context. Sporting crowds furnish secular examples, good and bad. Watch Liverpool play at home, and you’ll hear the Kop crowd roaring out You’ll Never Walk Alone. It’s a strong tune, but its enormous range makes it nearly unsingable: schools would/should hope to do better than mere shrieking. Tellingly, Twickenham’s repertoire involves hymns of a sort, the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Jerusalem, Blake’s poem set by CHH Parry.

Songs from musicals remain popular: but Les Misérables is pitched extremely high. By verse two of Do You Hear the People Sing, most people will be croaking. Similarly, Queen’s We Are The Champions is extraordinary precisely because Freddie Mercury could scream top Cs: most can’t. Pop music (let’s not get hung up on styles) is, with few exceptions, written for a small group or solo voice and doesn’t adapt well to communal singing.

This isn’t about my middle-aged musical tastes or prejudices. Much as I love the Blues, classics recorded by Bessie Smith or BB King would transfer to the assembly hall even less readily than will Ariana Grande’s or Ed Sheeran’s latest hit. As a child, I sang songs from the National Songbook: I doubt Hearts of Oak or The Ashgrove would hack it in a 21st-century assembly.

For schools to rediscover the joy (it was a joy) of communal singing, they’ll need new non-religious material, purpose-written or arranged with punchy words and rhythmic melodies. Good examples are few: by contrast, hymn books offered hundreds in one volume. I reckon a school repertoire of 30 to 50 suitable songs that actually “work” (the oft-overlooked musician’s concern) would balance variety and familiarity.

How about a 21st-century National Songbook to bond communities of young people, helping them create common cause and enthusiasm to work together? Maybe, in a nation currently so divided, it is, as the Royal Society suggests, just what’s needed.

How to stop everyone cheating their way to university

06 April 2019

Everyone’s gaming university admissions – the only solution, says Bernard Trafford, is post-qualification applications

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," and I’ve always agreed with him.

But I was disappointed to learn that, last year, Ucas found hundreds of university applicants glibly using this quote to open their personal statements. I guess you can take one of two views on that. Either it’s so powerful and famous that applicants naturally adopt it: or they’re cheating and copying.

According to last week’s Sunday Times, the thinktank Policy Exchange reckons the latter. Joanna Williams (its head of education) questions “the time and effort spent on personal statements in the last year of sixth form and how they are being used by universities.”

It’s been a few weeks since the media last indulged its penchant for claiming that someone’s gaming the university admission system. Universities are lambasted for skewing the playing field by making unconditional offers, and schools are accused of cheating by inflating predicted grades, writing hyperbolic references or being too cosy with Oxbridge admissions tutors. This latest suggestion (part of Policy Exchange’s forthcoming report on university admissions) blames students – or their parents – for plagiarising, exaggerating or buying in their personal statements.

That’s the full set, then. Everyone – schools, students, parents and universities – is at fault for, in the immortal words of Oliver Hardy, the fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. It seems everyone’s playing games with the process.

Applicants from low-performing state schools are urged to stress that fact in their personal statements, in the hope of receiving preferential offers. In the same vein, The Times’ Andrew Billen, writing on Tuesday about poet and English teacher Kate Clanchy, slipped in a snide jibe at the “famously good” comprehensive in Oxford to which youngsters switch from their independent schools after GCSEs: another slick bit of gaming, perhaps.

University admissions: a level playing field?

My experience in independent schools suggests Billen’s accusation is grossly exaggerated. Nonetheless, universities are increasingly making lower A-level entry offers to applicants from ethnic minorities and poorer households or postcodes. This may appear fair practice, but it worries independent schools whose bursary students from low-income homes benefit from full-fee remission: universities’ filter systems seem unlikely to pick up such subtleties.

But how do we build a fair system? Given that Tony Blair’s target of 50 per cent of 18-year-olds proceeding to university has resulted in a mass market for HE, any wish to hark back to those less inclusive days where applicants could expect a face-to-face interview at the university of their choice is a hopeless pipe-dream.

Schools knew years ago that some university admissions tutors were ignoring their references, barely glancing even at the grades they predicted. Now we’re told that pupils’ own personal statements are being plagiarised, distorted and exaggerated, so should be ignored.

And that leaves what, precisely, for universities to base their judgements on? Only candidates’ GCSE results provide evidence of prior attainment, and maybe a hint of potential – though potential is largely a matter of guesswork. Universities really want to gauge how applicants will perform at degree level: at the time of application, GCSE results are already two years old.

I know what I’d do.

I wrote about university admissions some months ago; the last time they were under fire. I’ll repeat my recommendation from then. The only fair and sensible time for universities to select candidates is when they have their A-levels already under their belt. Yes, folks: we’re back to post-qualification application (PQA). It will be tricky, requiring a lot of work, including aligning the timing of academic years between schools and universities.

Still, if we’ve ruled out all the other elements as being vulnerable to cheating, what other approach remains?


Forget a new framework – we need to revisit accountability 

30 March 2019

The problem of paralysing schools lies in inspection itself, not the framework in use at any one time, writes Bernard Trafford 

An old friend of mine was obliged to retire from journalism by the onset of leukaemia. He survived it, but occasionally the disease returns. Fortunately, he’s an optimist; asked how a recent battle was going, he replied, “At least the latest recurrence has killed off my diabetes!”

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and we might apply that old adage to Ofsted’s proposed new framework. One might hope that any new look at inspection would bring about improvements, and this new focus may do so – but it threatens to create as many problems as it solves, if not more.

In a thorough and trenchant critique of the new framework, the Headteachers' Roundtable group and the WorthLess? campaign listed many of the problems that those redoubtable school leaders anticipate, and with good reason. Three stood out for me.

Their view of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) as a problem accords with mine. That arbitrary selection of “more worthy than other” GCSE subjects has become a government benchmark, and the basis of the league tables that exert such a powerful (and malevolent) influence on what schools do.

However, it’s not part of a regulatory requirement, merely a Govean whim now set in stone. I’ve written previously about the damaging effect of creating a hierarchy of subjects – the fears of Roundtable-WorthLess? that the EBacc’s establishment as a quasi-official measure will see Ofsted become its official enforcer, compromising the inspectorate’s independence.

The next concern is workload. As many commentators have observed, many schools are already labouring to review their curricula. Previously satisfied with their offer, they’re now examining what they need to change. Why? Not for the good of pupils and their educational experience, but because they’re trying to second-guess what Ofsted’s expectations will be. Forget children, pupils or local community, it’s all about feeding the insatiable rottweiler of inspection.

I can already hear robust right-wingers pouring scorn on any headteacher so craven as to be pushed hither and thither by every change of direction by Ofsted. But such critics lack any concept of the pressures on schools and their leaders not merely to achieve certain measurable standards, but additionally now to demonstrate the curricular pattern that they think/hope the inspectorate will expect to see. When reputation, funding and jobs may all depend on the outcome, it’s a rare institution that’s strong-minded enough to be totally unswayed by the threat of an impending Ofsted visit.

The threat remains potent. Ofsted is no one’s friend – but neither is it a truly impartial judge of school quality or performance, since it is essentially an arm of government. Thus the Roundtable-WorthLess? verdict is also against the proposed short-notice visit from the lead inspector in advance of full inspection the following day: it’s a dangerously short step from that position to no-notice inspections.

Again, those harsh voices may ask, what’s the problem with no-notice inspection? Health inspectors come without notice to inspect kitchens (in schools, as in the finest restaurants in the country). And so they should. But it’s a very simple operation to examine absolutely measurable standards of cleanliness, food preparation and storage – and a “failure” is easily rectified. Judging the performance of a school, with its millions of personal interactions every day, and its kaleidoscope of pupils’ backgrounds and circumstances that powerfully affect the way school works for them, is a very different matter.

No-notice inspections can conceivably work. After all, restaurant critics do it (back in 2011, I wrote an only slightly tongue-in-cheek piece advocating an AA Gill approach to school inspection). More seriously, former HMI Roy Blatchford has pioneered so-called “blink” inspections. Light touch, a swift in-and-out, an impression formed and advice given founded in huge experience.

All useful stuff – but you can’t do it when the stakes are as high as our accountability system renders them. The problem of paralysing schools lies in inspection itself, not the framework in use at any one time. It’s time to revisit and revise the purpose and nature of school accountability. Until we do, we’re merely rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

Unexamined subjects deserve a place on the curriculum

23 March 2019

Pupils must be given the time to explore subjects they won't be tested on such as PSHE and political engagement

“My kid loves all this cricket/netball/acting. But it’ll have to stop in Year 11 when GCSE work clicks in.”

How many times as a head did I hear that sentiment from parents, while preaching the opposite? I’d insist: “Youngsters learn more about resilience, and about themselves, when cold, wet and lost in the hills on an expedition than they will in a lifetime of maths lessons.”

Any subject could replace maths in the example, but you get my point.

In the last of this mini-series of blogs about designing a 21st-century curriculum, first of the “must-haves” is the imperative of leaving room, not only for pupils to make valid choices and pursue their own interests and passions, but also for all those other opportunities for learning that may not be strictly termed “subjects”. 

Moreover, the curriculum must no longer be dictated by rafts of qualifications (see last week’s piece). Indeed, without the tyranny GCSE, key stage 3 could revert (as Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman constantly urges) to being a broad, generalist phase instead of a pre-GCSE push.

If the accountability regime were rendered sane (try to imagine it), the curriculum really could purposefully create the best opportunities and lead to the best individual outcomes for young people. It would be broad until at least age 14, if not longer, truly educating pupils instead of driving towards and through exams.

Some independent schools bravely exploit their independence to enrich the curriculum. Bedales School’s minimal core of iGCSEs leaves space for its own suite of BACs (Bedales Assessed Courses). Wimbledon High School recently announced that its girls will take fewer GCSEs in order to follow its home-grown PPE (politics, philosophy, economics) course. Such plans work for individual schools because they’re driven by the distinctive pedagogical inspirations and strengths of their staff. Maintained schools must be given the same creative freedom to ensure their pupils gain a suitable level of understanding in a wide range of unexamined subjects.

At secondary level, discrete specialist subjects retain a place: we need the expert passion of their teachers to take pupils as far as they can go, deep into the subjects that inspire them, to become the next generation of experts. Where they want to specialise, they must be permitted to.

A 21st-century curriculum shouldn’t seek to do away with discrete subjects, but it should demonstrate and exploit better than hitherto the links between them, allowing pupils to comprehend its overall coherence.

That’s not easy. So often I’ve heard dedicated, enthusiastic teachers at training days vow to work more closely with other departments in future. But, when the daily grind reasserts itself, little changes.

That’s the challenge for schools and policy-makers: give teachers the time to make it happen, the outcome differing from school to school. We don’t need “mandatory” teaching of climate change or relationships. Committed, professional teachers appreciate and will meet those shifting (and constantly growing) needs: just give them the space and opportunity to work together.

Similarly syllabuses, rather than being set in stone by rigid exam specifications, must more readily allow students to pursue their interests. A potential artist/designer should be able experience paintbrush, pencil, photography, textiles, sharp-end digital design, 3D, engineering and all the other potential elements of that subject that I’ve overlooked. Then be encouraged to explore in depth the area that most stimulates them, with no false divide between “academic” and “vocational” labels. Schools already employ the subject experts to teach all those areas, but the current regime rarely offers the flexibility to make it work.

Finally come PSHE, creative and sporting opportunities, out-of-school learning, community/civic/political engagement, work experience, all the activities that develop the “soft skills” employers demand (generally in frustration). Forming the glue that holds together all the formal, traditional elements, they require still more space, flexibility and teacher-time: yet the draconian testing and accountability regime squeezes all, inexorably narrowing and ossifying the education offered to pupils instead of broadening it.

There is a better way, then, which I can only sketch here. Is there the collective courage in Westminster – and more widely – to seek it? 

What if we gave pupils control of their curriculum? 

16 March 2019

It’s impossible for schools to do everything curriculum-planners envision them to. What if we left it up to the pupils to decide?

“I don’t know why everyone’s making such a fuss about curriculum overload,” a department official told me wearily. “If schools and pupils did a proper nine-to-five working week, 48 weeks a year, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

It must be a quarter of a century since I had that conversation with a young chap from whatever the DfE was called back then. We were meeting at the SCAA (Schools’ Curriculum and Assessment Authority), which must help to date the encounter. My interlocuter is probably now a top mandarin in a unrelated department: the worst I can wish him currently, I guess, is a role in Brexit negotiations, a particular kind of hell.

By the standards of that time, he wasn’t out of step: indeed, he was implementing government’s self-appointed mission to “sort out” education via an imposed National Curriculum, with Ofsted invented as policy-enforcement. Such suggestions were commonplace back then: a tougher, more job-like school experience would, it was argued, better equip children for the rigours of adult life – or, more precisely, of work. To ask, “What price a childhood?” was to invite accusations of displaying the “namby-pamby, child-centred feebleness that had got us into this [perceived] mess”.

Since then the dangers of overloading the curriculum have been recognised in one sense, at least: the school week has been stretched to some extent in many schools, but holidays have not been outlawed.

However, the curriculum has not been permitted to sprawl, in terms of the number of subjects followed in secondary schools, and demands nonetheless continue unabated for schools to provide the solution for every new social ill (and many ancient ones, too). Even schools minister Nick Gibb, while resolutely denying that schools are starved of funds (like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, he’s trained himself to believe impossible things), conceded on television that “schools are being asked to do more”.

In a blog about designing a 21st century curriculum last week, I listed three things it mustn’t seek to do: overloading it comes top. Anyone designing a new curriculum must accept the reality that children simply cannot do everything that curriculum-planners, let alone crusading ministers, might wish them to.

Still, surely there must be some subjects that every child must study in order to be “educated”? We might all agree that literacy and numeracy lie at the centre. Then we add science – that’s vital. And, given current concerns, a modern foreign language. Young people should know where they stand in the world, and how they got there. So geography and/or history need to go in. And exercise/sport, naturally…

Stop! We’ve nearly filled up the week, and we haven’t squeezed creative/arts subjects in yet, let alone any computing/coding or technical/vocational learning. Actually, we’ve recreated the EBacc, a subject hierarchy that arbitrarily limits choice, promotes the status of some and devalues others. A logical notion in theory, any core curriculum gives rise to as many problems as it solves.

As I wrote last week, basic measures of competence in core skills (literacy and numeracy) should not be confused with English and maths GCSE, which are academic exams. Besides, the CBI and many others reckon it’s time we ditched an outmoded exam taken at 16: that might both stop 11-16-year-olds’ curriculum being dictated by it and allow space and equal value for vocational education.

And then we might indeed envisage a curriculum that allows young people maximum choice in the subjects they choose, with minimal restraints or requirements imposed.

Not just at age 16, either: the dangers are identical at 18. In last week’s piece, I admitted my suspicion of baccalaureate-style exams: their insistence on breadth and/or balance, however defined, inevitably creates similar problems to those I’ve described above.

By the way, I haven’t forgotten the imperative to leave space for development of all the (non-examined) soft skills, competences and qualities that are so vital. But that’s for next week’s piece – on the “must-haves” of a 21st century curriculum.

Here’s my plan for a truly 21st-century curriculum

09 March 2019

It's time for a new curriculum, says Bernard Trafford, but what should be included and what should be cast aside?

There's one thing – just one – that most right-thinking educationalists seem to agree on: we need a new schools’ curriculum, one fit for the 21st century.

The message resounds loud and clear, most recently from Pisa’s Andreas Schleicher, who probably alarmed the education select committee by commenting that arts subjects will be more important than Stem in the future. Meanwhile, arguments rage between adherents of a “knowledge-rich” curriculum and those who want it to be “skills-based”.

These are false dichotomies, about as useful as those medieval theological arguments about how many cherubim could fit on the head of a pin. But Schleicher is right to throw down the challenge. Any new curriculum must equip the next generation of adults for the creative, flexible, entrepreneurial and open-ended challenges that their multiple careers will throw at them.

That’s easy to say: but what would my ideal curriculum look like? I can’t answer that in a single Tes blog, but I know I must start by laying out what a curriculum both must and shouldn’t seek to achieve. Here goes.

The must-nots

  1. The curriculum mustn’t be determined by the exams children take at 11,16,18 or any other age, and certainly not by government measures or benchmarks based on them. The EBacc skews curriculum/subject choices by creating a subject hierarchy, as do universities identifying “facilitating subjects” at A level.

    I have similar reservations about Baccalaureate systems (even, dare I whisper it, the IB), which inevitably enforce particular choice-ranges through their chosen model for achieving breadth.
  2. If young people need to demonstrate competence in basic skills – and I think they do – a suitable test must be devised. The curriculum mustn’t allow GCSE to act as a measure of functional competence in, for instance, literacy and numeracy: it’s an academic exam, not such a measure.  The 30 per cent of children who don’t achieve a Grade 5 may nonetheless have a basic level of competence, but gain little from GCSE apart from humiliation and misery.
  1. The curriculum mustn’t be a drawing-board to indulge the whims or ambitions of adults, not even of politicians. Nor a list of everything that we think it’s good for kids to learn. Old hands will remember how, in the late 1980s, the newly-devised National Curriculum couldn’t fit into the week: every subject pressure-group had jumped onto the bandwagon and demanded its slice of the cake.

    Any realistic curriculum plan must value vocational/technical learning equally to academic and acknowledge that not everything can be squeezed in, that choices must be made – by children where possible, not adults.

The musts

  1. The curriculum must create the best opportunities and lead to best outcomes for young people.
  2. The curriculum must have space for discrete subjects as we currently know them, but there needs to be coherence. Students who want to must be able to go into great depth (A level and beyond) in their chosen subjects: otherwise schools won’t produce doctors, musicians, artists, scientists, architects and all the other specialists society needs. Secondary education still needs expert teachers with great subject knowledge able to stretch and inspire pupils.
  3. Last, and crucially, the curriculum must make and protect space for all the other stuff, the overview and the glue that hold all that classroom learning together and help make sense of it. PSHE is essential, with all that it embraces, and all other forms of guidance and support including careers advice and experience.

    But equally vital are those other activities, often (misleadingly) called co-curricular (and, worse, extra-curricular): singing, playing or acting in a group, team sports or competitions, outdoor education, voluntary service. These and a host of other activities are the elements that build character, resilience, altruism, appreciation of community and social responsibility.

I guess now I’ll have to write further pieces to unpack some of this and answer the howls of rage that come in response.

But we have to start somewhere: and not, above all, with every interest-group bending the ears of ministers and officials and fighting for market – sorry, curriculum – share.


The biggest threat to ethical school leadership? Control-freak ministers

02 March 2019

Intense pressure from government can be a catalyst for unethical behaviour from leaders, warns Bernard Trafford

I’m forever bewailing the shortcomings of government and policymakers. I know, it’s easy to criticise and much harder to suggest viable solutions to perceived problems. So it was inspiring, back in January, to see the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) produce the report from its commission for ethical leadership in education.

This admirable panel has defined a framework for ethical leadership – a number of qualities essential to leaders: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty.

Taking them out of order, the need for honesty and openness is self-evident. Nonetheless, they must be listed in case they’re overlooked. I once heard a minister insist that the primary duty of a school leader was to balance the books – mercifully not a skill listed in the ASCL framework.

Next come objectivity and integrity – the requirement for leaders to be impartial and fair, avoid discrimination or bias in all decisions and be entirely open about possible conflicts of interest, relationships, obligations to people or organisations that might influence them. Right.

"Accountability" reminds leaders that they are accountable to the public and must submit themselves to necessary scrutiny. One can see how pressure to get results might create conflict with "selflessness" (top of the commission’s list), which requires leaders to act solely in the interests of children and young people.

To support these necessary qualities, the commission lists seven personal “characteristics or virtues”: trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism.

The last two can be a challenge. How many times are school leaders obliged to pluck up the courage to fight government, parents, even a governing body or trust that doesn’t understand what’s really going on? They go into battle for what is right – to give the children in that school the best opportunities, both now and into the future, the best as they know them, not as imposed by the policymakers in power at the time.

So what’s this framework for? It won’t solve all the problems, but it does provide a basis on which to consider how, and even why, school leadership needs to be applied, evaluated and supported.  

'Genuine freedom rather than the illusion of it'

Recent years have seen (very few) senior multi-academy trust executives disciplined or prosecuted for improper financial practices, having confused personal gain (even running businesses on the side) with reward for a high-pressured job. If this stems from greed, other wrongdoing grows out of temptation and weakness.

A minority of schools and/or their leaders have excluded – covertly or shamelessly – pupils who were likely to have pulled their results down or, not to mince words, have cheated to improve the school's results. Why? From excessive ambition for the school or fear of job loss (not just at leadership level) if results slip.

This week, Andreas Schleicher, of Programme for International Student Assessment fame, shared with MPs his vision of educational challenges for the future. Arts could become more important than maths, Schleicher said, amid suggestions that we needed a new curriculum fit for tomorrow’s world.

Two more of his suggestions may have shocked the Education Select Committee members. High-stakes testing was bad for teachers in schools, he asserted; what we should do instead is raise the stakes (I’d prefer to say the aspirations/ambitions) for pupils. Next, he claimed UK private schools were better at 21st-century skills than maintained/state schools.

You could lay the latter issue at the door of better resourcing or even pushy parents. But I’d look beyond both of those old chestnuts. If you accept Schleicher’s view, I’d suggest that independents “do character” and raise aspirations so well because they concentrate on them.

They can do so because they aren’t harried, pressured or overburdened in the way state school leaders are.

Notwithstanding labyrinthine regulation, independent school leaders are able to maintain just enough distance from government to allow them to remember their own vocation and mission, driven consciously or instinctively by those very qualities, characteristics and values identified by the ASCL commission.

It’s that space that makes the difference: genuine – if not unlimited – freedom rather than the illusion of it that is oft-trumpeted in the rhetoric of control-freak ministers.

The government should embrace the commission’s framework, and create the space for it to be an effective and inspirational driver in all schools. 

Time and again schools are asked to solve all of society's ills...

...but with no extra funding. The government can't have its educational cake while eating it at the same time

23 February 2019

“You can’t have your cake and eat it.” That once-common expression is currently out of favour. EU representatives used it to warn the UK that we couldn’t both Leave and retain the advantages of membership. Ardent Brexiteers, most famously Boris, famously assured us that we could indeed do both. As the machinery of government stumbles into ineffectual meltdown, political cake, in general, has taken on a sour flavour.

Sorry to mention this in half-term, when weary teachers can actually sit down and enjoy their cake, rather than grabbing a mouthful on the move. But the image is pertinent to education right now.

UK society has always demanded crazily wide-ranging, even contradictory, outcomes from its schools, too frequently requiring them to solve all its ills. Currently, the accountability regime, never more rigorous, and the financial squeeze – so tight that even the pips lack the space to squeak – together make it finally impossible to maintain the pretence of having our multi-layered, multi-purpose educational cake and eating it.

This week education secretary Damian Hinds was taken to task for urging state schools to prioritise character education in the way independent schools do, equipping them with “public school confidence and resilience”. The idea is all well and good but if it's to be done properly, it will come with a very large bill attached. Time costs: if schools are to tuck into the cake of character, they’ll have to pay for it.

Next came a plea from MPs, reported by Rosemary Bennett in Tuesday’s Times, to give children a legal right to 75 minutes’ break-time in the school day. This echoes the chief medical officer’s view that children should be active for at least 60 minutes a day, but contrasts with Ms Bennett’s observation that “many schools believe that a shorter day and less time spent having breaks reduces bad behaviour”. 

If we want kids really to be active during the lunch break, we’ll need more staff on duty, not merely supervising but leading activities. Yet, with government and Ofsted breathing down their necks, how many schools will divert scarce resources to that? Who’ll fund that piece of cake?

Private schools have always known that the out-of-classroom life of schools is as important to children’s development – to their character, grit and determination – as what they learn in the classroom: their aim, by the way, is to build rounded personalities, not engender swaggering entitlement. They do it rather well, on the whole: but it costs – as they and their fee-paying parents know.  

Meanwhile, voices are raised for other changes – such as a later start to the school day for teenagers. To implement that would be hugely difficult, given the pattern of adults' jobs, how many parents do the school run on the way to work and the (inevitably) inflexible structures of school timetables. 

The latter problem also faces suggestions that we should tackle teacher shortages by making schools more open to flexible working. In the recent past I’ve criticised both calls as impractical, but nowadays I confess I suspect we need the courage to think the previously unthinkable. (I know, I know! I can hear the voices: “It’s easy for you to say now you’re retired.”)  

There’s so much we could and should improve. But when (a) there’s no money to implement change and (b) government won’t reduce its relentless pressure on schools, we can’t pause even to consider significant reform.

Harried and underfunded, schools have neither time, money nor energy to plan and implement root-and-branch change: the most they can achieve (and are constrained too frequently by policy-makers to attempt) is mere tinkering. Under these circumstances, society simply cannot have its educational cake and eat it. 

Brexit is distracting us from the impact of austerity

16 February 2019

The policing crisis may turn government heads away from Brexit and force them to acknowledge that austerity is biting across the public sector, writes Bernard Trafford

British policing is “on its knees and facing extinction” according to a Police Federation report. Slashed budgets have almost eradicated neighbourhood “bobbies on the beat”.  Officers, frequently dealing single-handedly with situations that require two, are under stress. As a federation spokesperson commented wryly on radio, officers don’t need wellbeing sessions to help them cope: they need more colleagues on the job.

This latest doom-laden forecast hasn’t dominated the media yet, but, notwithstanding Brexit, I’m pretty sure it will. After all, the public wants to feel protected: if police patrols are rarely seen, and crime figures rise, the electorate is unhappy. I suspect government will eventually be forced to act – beyond the recent permission given to police commissioners to add an extra 20 quid or so to council tax bills from April in order to boost the budget a bit.

Law and order generally gets to the top of the queue. When crime kicks off in the streets, everyone’s aware, TV cameras are swiftly on the spot, senior ministers dragged into studios to be grilled, and government has to respond – though I wouldn’t bank on it doing so quickly.

Police officers I know are indeed demoralised, holding things together by the skin of their teeth: achieving the impossible, day after day, while their leaders’ bizarre fear of criticism seems, to those on the front line, timorously readier to encourage complaints against them than to support them in their challenging roles.

Anyone working in education can see how this situation is mirrored in schools. Yet, somehow, education loses the battle for column inches in the media. Perhaps the effects of cuts are less immediately obvious. Or do schools paper over the cracks even more skillfully, their strenuous efforts furnishing a fig-leaf for government parsimony?  

Still, on 4 March Parliament will finally debate schools’ chronic underfunding, in response to a petition signed by 70,000 people. Yet will even that win change? Government’s predictably robotic response suggests not, repeating its mantra that more money’s going into schools than ever before. It concedes: “We do recognise that budgets remain tight.”  Then spoils it: “That is why we are supporting schools and headteachers to make the most of their budgets and reduce costs…”

It’s scarcely worth engaging with such contemptible complacency. Teachers, true professionals, have always tightened their belts as governments squeeze. In the end, though, they can spread the butter only so thin before the gaps show. (The same is true, of course, of the health service. I hope its overworked and undervalued staff will forgive me for only this brief mention of them – I can’t tackle all society’s problems in one piece).

Whether you think austerity was necessary will depend on your political viewpoint. As it happens, I don’t think a nation should wantonly incur debt upon debt: eventually, it must balance its books if it is to achieve lasting prosperity for all. Nonetheless, it’s not true that there’s no money, though we’re often assured that’s the case. There’s £2bn for HS2, and still more to bankroll overspends on that and on Crossrail. The hapless Chris Grayling fleetingly found £13m for a contract with a ferry-less ferry company. Michael Gove squandered £15m before not moving the DfE from Sanctuary Buildings. Two aircraft-carriers are costing billions. There is money.

There will never be enough money to fund everything we might like to. But there is money in the world’s sixth-largest economy, and politicians are elected (and paid) to set priorities and make choices, hopefully good ones, not to utter blandishments, evasions, lies.

So will the 4 March education debate bear fruit? Come to that, will the Police Federation report prove the more powerful voice, and shine a spotlight on all the current underfunding of vital services.

I fear that, by contrast, those respective ministries and their political bosses will continue, ostrich-like, to bury their heads in the sand while they blunder on with Brexit.

No change there, then. 

Don’t tarnish all home educators with the same brush

09 February 2019

Some kids thrive in home education, others are crying out for a proper education – it’s too complex to generalise, writes Bernard Trafford 

Questions are finally being asked in parliament about schools “off-rolling” pupils who are likely to pull down their results. Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on MondaySkipping School: Britain’s Invisible Kids”, followed Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield in search of some of them, with the Radio Times claiming: “As the number of children who receive home education rather than going to a mainstream school grows, this Dispatches investigation looks into the reasons behind this rise and the impact it is having on the young people who are being taught in this way.”

“Home education/home schooling”. The loose use of this term dangerously lumps together all children not in conventional formal schooling, too readily implying their parents are somehow neglectful, sinister or abusive. Dispatches barely avoided doing so.

So what is real home education? And what isn’t?

True elective home education occurs when parent and child choose on principle to adopt an alternative to formal schooling: they remain committed to education, but take an unorthodox approach. Sadly, some don’t choose but are forced into that alternative route (with varying degrees of success) after bad experiences in school: typically bullying, a learning difficulty, special need or disability renders them unable to cope with school – and, critically, school unable to accommodate them. Made miserable by their school ordeal, and at risk of emotional or mental harm, such children are sometimes labelled school refusers.

Other children with similar problems don’t refuse school but either cause the institution so much work and trouble (victims of serial bullying possibly lashing out) or (if they are, for example, seriously dyslexic) risk pulling down the school’s results. In the classic off-rolling scenario, a conversation is held with parents that they would be better taking them out of school.

Notwithstanding the many pressures on schools, let’s not excuse this: off-rolling is a euphemism for constructive exclusion.

More-easily justified reasons for off-rolling might include behavioural difficulties or, indeed, sheer bad/aberrant behaviour (knife possession, perhaps) that renders the child a danger in school. Such actions may be necessary: but the children excluded are not being “home-educated”.

Nor are children whose dysfunctional households who can’t or won’t get them to school being home-educated, nor yet children deliberately concealed from all authority by genuine abusers. Nonetheless such cases are constantly generally included in statistics alongside both elective home-schoolers and those on whom it is forced.

Ever-reliable headteacher Vic Goddard, star of Educating Essex, went to the heart of the problem: the system lacks the resources (and, I would add, the flexibility and humanity) to do right by those square pegs that don’t fit neatly into mainstream schooling’s round holes. Given the squeeze on SEND funding, they’re often woefully under-supported in school: outside it, there’s nothing for them.

As for children in unregistered (usually religious-fundamentalist) and thus illegal schoolsDispatches found Ofsted powerless to gain entry. No surprise there: time and again the system is proved toothless when it should intervene. Enquiries following the high-profile, tragic cases of children who died of abuse or neglect (Victoria Climbié, Dylan Seabridge, to name two) found the victims were known to Children’s Services despite not being in school: but they failed to act.

The programme evinced sympathy for the (uncharacteristically illiberal) German law that forbids home-schooling, and echoed calls for a register of all children not in mainstream school.

However, as with most calls to “get tough”, the proposal is over-simplistic and risks tarring all the families of children not in school with the same brush of implied neglect and abdication of parental responsibility. Its likely outcome would be to demonise genuine, principled home-educators and, given the inadequate resources in schools and past ineffectiveness within children’s services, entirely miss both the children crying out for education and those purposefully neglected or abused.  

History is a victim of Gove's back-of-an-envelope policies

02 February 2019

In this age of political duplicity, pupils need to learn history – but it is being squeezed out, says Bernard Trafford

History at GCSE is in danger of slipping out of the reach of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to a new report.  As schools seek to ensure that new, tougher GCSEs don’t cause their results to slip, the report (written by researchers at Reading and Oxford universities) concludes: “There is a danger that some schools’ decision-making processes prioritise meeting accountability measures, rather than the needs of some students.”

Ouch. Is this another of those allegations of schools “gaming” the system to improve their league-table positions? Stephen Rollett, speaking for the Association of School and College Leaders, commented: “Government reforms to GCSEs have placed schools and pupils under a great deal of additional pressure, but schools are working incredibly hard to ensure that these changes do not disadvantage children in any way.” I share his view: nonetheless, heavy-handed government intervention invariably has unintended consequences, and creates perverse incentives.

History is perhaps too easily seen as a wordy subject requiring research, reading and detailed analysis. Pupils bringing a measure of cultural capital from home will be undaunted by that challenge: those without may well be. Students and schools alike will be looking to ensure the greatest number of safe/good passes, so… it’s easy to see how other options might appear to provide a surer route.

As the report notes, history is one of those subjects much favoured by Russell Group universities. Less advantaged pupils deterred from taking history GCSE will be discouraged, even feel disbarred, from applying to those top institutions. Thus social mobility, or the chance of increasing it, is halted.

The EBacc is forcing history out

Pointing fingers of blame is in fashion: so who can we blame for this situation? First, the excessive accountability regime: stakes are too high for schools, and the pressure on them to avoid failure transmits to pupils making subject choices. In other words, it’s not necessarily an individual school dissuading them from doing history: education’s failure-averse culture does the job, too.

Second, the EBacc was the back-of-an-envelope invention by Michael Gove, when he was education secretary – and (I’m told) in need of a new wheeze to present to Andrew Marr one Sunday morning. He produced a highly subjective and arbitrary list of subjects that he thought 16-year-olds should follow, pronouncing that only those would henceforth count in government tables. We’re already seeing take-up of creative subjects (art, music, drama) hit by their omission from Gove’s little list. Now this recent research (2010-14) shows that even history learning has become patchy, weighted towards the upper end of the ability range.

Does it matter? After all, no student can do every subject. But, right now, it’s particularly unfortunate that history should be the latest subject to fall victim to government pressure, EBacc and league tables – and the wrong choices that stem from them.

It was probably the Spaniard George Santayana who coined the aphorism “those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it”. In the vicious, confrontational context of the current Brexit storm, too many loud voices wilfully ignore the lessons of history.

When one in 20 of the population is reported as not believing that the Holocaust happened. When virulent Brexiteers shamelessly link their desire to leave the EU to the fight against Nazi aggression nearly 80 years ago. When lies and exaggeration are routine components of politicians’ and commentators’ toolkits. When those calling out individuals or organisations for anti-Semitism or other forms of intolerance are vilified, threatened or even (in the case of MP Jo Cox) murdered. When powerful lobbies and foreign nations devote colossal digital resources to the creation and promulgation of fake news. At such a time, if those currently in school are to be equipped to identify and reject political machination and deliberate falsehood, they arguably need to learn more history.


Indeed, if we blithely permit them to learn less, we do so at our, and their, future peril.

Fining parents for school absences doesn't work

26 January 2019

Holiday fines only result in animosity – perhaps, Bernard Trafford says, travel firms could stop hiking the prices up...

According to The Times this week, Lancashire County Council is trying to raise the level of fines levied on parents who take their children out of school during term-time to a massive £1,000. But it appears that the council (which holds the record for fining parents) might be breaking the law: 2013 legislation set a maximum of £120. Ironically, that figure represents a fraction of the money families can save by taking holidays in term time, and avoiding peak-period prices.

Predictable comments emerged from Lancashire and, indeed, from the Department for Education. The former is considering “any possible action that could be taken to reduce unauthorised absences”. Meanwhile, the DfE claims it has “put schools back in control by supporting them – and local authorities – to use their powers”.

Hmm. The fact remains that, despite parents in England and Wales being fined a total of £24 million in the past three years, unauthorised absence in England is apparently at its highest since records began. One in six students missed at least half a day of school in 2016-17.

It is, of course, infuriating for teachers, doing their best to work the daily miracle of education with their pupils, to find some missing their classes on the flimsiest of (or no) excuses. Absence damages learning: besides, schools are chasing not just targets for pupil attainment but also for attendance, the latter data taking no account of levels of illness, let alone actual truancy.

Holiday fines damage school-parent relations

Moreover, let’s not pretend that all parents are on-side and supportive of schools’ attempts to maintain punctuality, uniform and good behaviour. The average level of such support, impossible to gauge accurately, is probably at an all-time low, as school leaders know from the painful experience of parental reactions when they attempt to discipline a child.

I would never condone children missing school without good reason. Yet, as an unrepentant liberal, I’m uncomfortable with this system of fining, and particularly with schools being part of its mechanism.  

First, there’s the law of unintended consequences, which inevitably operates when government adopts heavy-handed measures. Draconian regulation invariably catches and hurts people who were never its initial target.

Parents seeking to take their children out in term time aren’t necessarily feckless or irresponsible, though the legislation assumes they are. Many parents holding down jobs have little, frequently no, choice about their holiday dates. Others, short of cash, view with despair the prices trebling the day school breaks up: they’re tempted to make a significant saving by pulling their child out on that last couple of days when end-of-term fever is taking hold and learning is (dare one suggest?) maybe not in top gear. I wonder how many of the days missed in that ostensibly shocking statistic are accounted for by that example.

I’m not excusing such parental actions: just trying to understand them.

At a time when we’re seeking to strengthen schools’ relations with parents, and engagement in both directions, outright bans and swift progression to imposing fines must have a negative impact. A school’s authoritarian stance on holidays can only render it forbidding to parents. Indeed, I’ve known highly supportive and responsible families too fearful to ask permission for their child to attend important family celebrations – for example, a grandparents’ diamond wedding.

Such consequences of that conflict between schools’ functions of care and (effectively) policing are among the reasons why I don’t think the responsibility should lie with heads: though, while it does, I respect their duty (and determination) to do so.  

In the end, though, the figures (and Lancashire’s hawkish bid to increase the fine) suggest the tactic isn’t working. While it fails, and the tourist industry continues grotesquely to jack up holiday prices, I’m reminded of the statement apocryphally attributed to Captain Bligh of the Bounty: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Getting tough didn’t work for him, either.

We can save the dog's dinner that is uni admissions

19 January 2019

How? Listen to the UCU and introduce post-qualifications applications, writes Bernard Trafford 

Consensus is a rare phenomenon nowadays, but one could finally be building among those who send students on to university (schools and colleges), and those accepting them.

The many problems besetting higher education’s application system could be solved by a single change: shifting to a system of Post-Qualification Application (PQA). In other words, changing the pattern so that students apply to university when they already have their A-level results.

A report published by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) notes that “the current system simply isn’t fit for purpose. It was designed in the 1960s, when only about 5 per cent of school-leavers went on to study at university, and there is an urgent need for reform and greater transparency.”

Amen to that. The past year, in particular, has seen it throw up one problem after another. Most recently universities have been under fire from schools and colleges for making unconditional offers to nearly a quarter of all applicants. There is concern that pupils holding unconditional offers will take their foot off the academic gas, and under-achieve at A Level.

By contrast, and less often cited as an issue (though it worries me), there’s the sheer pressure on candidates holding high conditional offers: they work their socks off to get top grades (too often beyond their ability), and their anxiety continues until results are published in mid-August.

The Sutton Trust reckons that schools and colleges predicting grades for high-achieving applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be over-cautious and to under-predict, thereby ruling them out of top institutions and courses.

Any visitor from Mars, reading the press on this issue, would wonder why we have persisted with such a dog’s dinner for so long. Yet it’s clear that, notwithstanding what UCU claims as 70 per cent support for PQA among admissions staff, the union has a fight on its hands.

One influential voice raised against the switch this week was that of the boss of Ucas, the organisation that centrally administers just about all of the nation’s university applications. The most vulnerable pupils (those without significant support at home, for example) will, says Clare Marchant, be left alone without school advice from mid-August until September: “Where you’ve got to make the biggest decision of your life to date… your teachers will not be around. So you’re just going to be left.”

I’ll overlook the crude assumption that teachers would simply leave their students stranded: and, indeed, any new system should be designed not to encroach on teachers’ hard-earned holidays. But it’s not difficult to picture how the timings of exams and even terms might be tweaked (not turned upside down) in order to make this work. The UCU report suggests pulling the exams forward and starting the university term later. Opponents have been quick to create obstacles to implementing the proposal, but far too slow to acknowledge the need for change and therefore profess their willingness to plan and negotiate a way forward.

Ms Marchant asks whether schools and universities are ready for major changes in their cycle. “I would argue,” she continued, “that they’ve got other much more important things to deal with.” 

More important? We all know the deep-seated problems in the current system and that change must come. Are we really prepared collectively to throw up our hands in despair, wailing feebly that to improve matters would just be too difficult? If so, shame on us.

This is about so much more than a mere shift in timetabling, even in the shape of the academic year. The UCU report states: “A higher-education system should be… a set of support structures that enables students to make decisions about their higher-education courses and institutions.”

It should be, but right now it isn’t. If we fail, at last, to address the problem, our lack of courage will go down in history as – what? The educational equivalent of parliament’s incompetent dithering over Brexit, perhaps. And who’d want that kind of epitaph?

Why students should be included in teacher recruitment

12 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s absolutely no evidence that IGCSEs are easier

05 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Councils blocking SEND support can learn from the Christmas story

20 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bureaucratic barriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!



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

15 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All schools want for Christmas is more money and less lying

08 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ministers must face up to funding crisis

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

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

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

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

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


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

01 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ministers, get back to Brexit and leave teachers alone

17 November 2018

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

A quick maths test:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'It stinks'

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

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

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

Time for a simultaneous equation:

Ministers’ trust in schools = 0

Teacher morale = 0

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

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

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

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


I understand why home educators feel threatened

13 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caught in the crossfire

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

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

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

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

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


I hope Mr Hammond watched BBC2's School

11 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overstretched and undersupported

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

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

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

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

Mark of so-called failure

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

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

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

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


Mouthy politicians who think offensive noise is all...

03 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stop revision sessions – they don't help anyone

27 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Anxiety is the enemy of good education'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Rayner is wrong - free schools CAN be empowering

20 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free schools for the community

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

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

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

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

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

It's shameful to mock the headteachers' march

08 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headteachers deserve respect

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

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

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

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

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

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


Working together, state and private schools can save education

30 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Forcing pupils to "volunteer" is self-defeating'

23 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give teenagers the choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time to put Ofsted out of its misery

16 September 2018 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

No. They wouldn’t get it.

Differential pay won't make teaching great again

1 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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