Tes blogs and columns to August 2016

Student self-esteem is being sacrificed on the altar of ministers' obsession with standards

31st August 2016

GCSE results day last Thursday brought, as usual, joy to a great many exam candidates. For the most part boys and girls work immensely hard these days, and in school their teachers bust a gut to ensure that they get good results. So the obligatory media pictures of 16-year-olds jumping for joy, while always somewhat forced, weren’t inappropriate.

But there were some receiving their results of whom we saw little or nothing, a group which I think gets a raw deal and on whose behalf I am angry.

For the past year, government has required all 16-19-year-olds who stay in full-time education but have failed to gain at least a C grade in English Language and maths to re-sit those exams.

You can see the logic. Schools Minister Nick Gibb – nowadays officially in charge of standards (though I don’t think he has a sophisticated view of what standards might actually mean) - sounds more than ever like the robotic spokespeople the DfE puts up to repeat its tedious mantras. Gibb is convinced that, to win jobs and take their place in a highly trained workforce, all young people need basic skills. The first trap he falls into is that of believing a minimum C grade is actually related to employability.

Some people just find maths too hard (that’s true of English too.) Their failure to achieve a C aged 16 is not attributable to lack of effort on their part, nor on that of their school. Simply to insist that they go round again, re-sit and pass next time, or the time after that, is naïve. More to the point, any sense of failure they felt the first time round will simply be reinforced time after time.

Statistics tend to support my case. Nationally it seems only some 20-25% (at best) of those re-sitting maths GCSE gained a grade C or better. On a regional news programme I saw one FE College (see below) celebrating (with some justification) a one-in-three pass rate on re-sits: even there some 66% suffered a second failure.

Government policy is riven with contradictions. To policymakers, the fall in overall pass rates demonstrates that the oft-claimed “dumbing down” of exams and results has ended. The macho Tory approach is thus vindicated: more failures mean higher standards.

But politicians are simultaneously reluctant to accept that some people won’t pass! How many times over my quarter-century as a head have I heard complaints that too many children in schools are “below average”? The lamentable John Patten, Education Secretary 1992-4, made a high-profile speech about the scandal of below-average achievement: several successors have made similar errors.

To raise standards by making more children fail exams is Tory policy, as is requiring children to pass those exams in order to enter the workplace. How that is supposed to work is beyond me, but I know the damage it’s doing.

Let’s be honest. A GCSE in maths is no particular indicator of an ability to do the kind of sums you actually need in life and the average job. To be sure, a chartered accountant or an engineer will need significantly high levels of maths skills: but most 11-year-olds could read a balance sheet or tot up a bill with little guidance.

Moreover, there are accredited qualifications that will suggest a potential employee has the skill level that that might be justifiably required: Functional Skills are, well, functional.

Older students, those continuing in education later in their lives at Further Education Colleges, always the poor relation and abysmally ignored by politicians and funders, can follow those courses. But government requires that 16 to 19-year-olds have their noses rubbed in repeated GCSE failure.

I call it victimisation of that minority who just can’t do examination maths. They are forced to fail again and again in an exam that isn’t even designed to prove the competence for work that ministers claim it does.

They, their self-esteem and their confidence are being sacrificed on the altar of a ministerial obsession with standards based neither in reality nor in statistical accuracy.

I seem to end my columns more and more frequently with this same angry, despairing statement: young people deserve better. Well, they do.


School leaders may not need to be certified. But they must have a chance to reflect and critique themselves 

 23rd July 2016

I was interested to read, in TES Breaking Views (21st July), education consultant Joe Nutt assert confidently that "there is no robust evidence that professional qualifications make a difference to the quality of leadership".

He’s persuasive. Pause to take stock of the leaders we’ve known, and we’re more likely to recall examples not of shining inspiration (though we might hope to experience a little of that in the course of a career) but of disastrous people in senior positions who boast certificates or letters after their name and use all the management-speak, but (a) irritate and alienate those they work with and (b) appear incapable of organising any kind of festivity within a brewery.

Let’s not convince ourselves, though, that leaders are only born, and cannot be made: if that were true, we’d always be short (take a look at Parliament right now!). We must believe that we can indeed identify, develop and train potentially great leaders.

It’ll be done not by creating huge lists of "competencies" (horrible word) which unimaginative candidates tick off, box by box, in the manner of the juvenile birdwatcher going through the book and marking every species he [sic] has encountered (I was once one of those).

That's not training.

Leaders of the future need to be given opportunities to reflect on their own experience of being led and on their current practice, at whatever level, of leading others: to reflect critically and have that reflection challenged.

For me, it’s ancient history: I was lucky to encounter the right opportunities at the right time. I became a head in 1990, and was very young: so how did I convince the governing body that I was the person to lead their school?

At the time, I was half-way through a part-time MEd at Birmingham University. I’d spent four of the required seven terms going to the University every week, hearing lectures, joining seminar discussions and producing an essay at the end of term. To gain the qualification in Education Policy and Management, I’d started with a two-term course in organisation theory and management. Perhaps I didn’t really need to understand the ins and outs of Weberian Bureaucracy: more to the point, however, sharing the course and travel with a colleague, we could argue all the way home (and in the pub) about how those theories related to our real practice.

I’ve never been a fan of NPQH, the government-overseen framework for the development of potential head teachers. Ministers were sceptical, too, because too few senior teachers who completed it actually took up headships. When the Coalition came to power, I joined a panel reviewing the qualification.  Inevitably, when government gets involved, it creates lists of standards: actually, the national standards for headship are pretty good, but government control systems invariably result in a tick-box approach to prove standards are met. That's where it goes wrong.

Overall, I’m with Joe Nutt. We don’t require alliterative mnemonics for leadership success, slogans like “Three Cs for success” (“Command, Cooperation, any other old Cobblers?”). And we certainly don't want, as he opined, talks from ex-detergent salesmen about how they honed their leadership skills by observing Masai warriors.

We can learn from other leaders, however. If you've ever heard Greg Dyke, BBC Director General from 2000 to 2004, and (according to him) thrown to the wolves by the Governors after the Weapons of Mass Destruction scandal, you may have learned much from a man who has turned failure, however you define it, into wisdom.

Joe Nutt quotes Claudio Ranieri: to Leicester’s hugely successful boss we might add Eddie Jones, who has transformed the England rugby team. Both have been sacked after ignominious failures: both have learned from the experience, and triumphed.

Nutt is right, but is also wrong. We don't need leaders with paper qualifications or glib mantras: they’re about management rather than true leadership, in any case. But we must require them to have been through a process of powerful thought, reflection, challenge and critique.

If we readily reject certification without insisting on developing leadership’s essential soft skills, we risk throwing yet another baby out with the bathwater, something which we've made quite an art form in UK education.


For all his Clint Eastwood gun-slinging, Sir Michael Wilshaw had walked the walk as a headteacher

13th July 2016

Recent developments at the Department for Education and Ofsted have been overshadowed by more momentous events. Sadly, I don’t mean two Brits winning Wimbledon titles. 

While the leadership of our political parties has been generally in meltdown, the battle of one Secretary of State against a Commons Select Committee is small beer in comparison. Nonetheless, the standoff between Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and the Commons Select Committee on Education over the appointment Amanda Spielman as the next Chief Inspector is a significant issue for schools and children’s services.

Normally the Committee interview of a minister’s chosen candidate is a formality, a polite rubber-stamping to furnish a veneer of democratic practice.

But the Select Committee refused to endorse Spielman. Though she has executive experience both in academy chain Ark and as the Chair of the exam regulator OFQAL, they reckoned she lacked not only passion but also understanding: of the “complex role”; of the need to build bridges with all the professions inspected; of Ofsted’s overriding responsibility for child protection; of any sense of Ofsted’s future direction.

Morgan was combative in response, insisting that Spielman “will be a highly effective leader who will be unafraid to do the right thing and where necessary challenge schools, local authorities and government where education and social care services are not meeting the standards our children deserve”. Same old tired message, alas.

Elsewhere Morgan was reported as observing, somewhat bitterly, that Spielman would not be creating newspaper headlines: we know where she’s coming from. Both DfE and Secretary of State now see Sir Michael Wilshaw as “going native”, grinding personal axes, using his last months in post to lambast government for its failings.

The man who has frequently called for more mavericks in education is himself a maverick. Very much a one-man band, likening himself (or at least his job) to Clint Eastwood’s righteous but ruthless lone gunslinger, he’s constantly rattled cages. Yet one thing has always given his voice authority. 

He’s been there, a head in tough schools, fighting tirelessly and unequivocally for the children in his care, driven by a powerful moral purpose. Even though he is excessively intolerant of human frailties and impatient with any suggestion that heads and schools can be simply ground down by constant pressure (including that from the organisation he leads), even his greatest critics concede that he knows what he’s talking about.

That’s the great necessity for leaders: to know the territory, to have walked in the shoes of those at the mercy of Ofsted’s judgement or whim. At root it is all about authenticity. Every teacher, from head to rookie, needs to know the Chief Inspector understands what it's like to deal with the family that will not engage: the child who refuses to learn despite school’s best efforts; even the hours teachers continue to put into preparation and marking in those mad last few weeks of term.

I don’t know Amanda Spielman. The jury may be still out as to whether she did a good job at Ofqual: but she’s an able leader and administrator who won’t be bamboozled by bogus statistics or irrelevant facts. Yet she hasn’t led a school, has lived neither with those very particular and incessant pressures, nor with the sheer burden of command.

It’s hard to imagine many school leaders in the country feeling anything but sympathy for the views of the Select Committee with regard to Ms Spielman’s appointment. They know what we feel so deeply in schools: if the inspectorate is to make judgements that have a such powerful, crucial effect on livings and careers as well as on the opportunities for children, its leader must have authenticity. 

It’s clear that Nicky Morgan distrusts and dislikes that kind of authenticity, fearing that the next HMCI might follow Wilshaw into his recent pattern of holding government to account, instead of extending its arm of control. 

I don’t know what Morgan will do now, though I fear she may simply exercise her will unilaterally in a style reminiscent of the disastrous Jeremy Hunt’s failure to engage with the medical profession.

But I hope the Education Secretary realises just how high the stakes are.


As we recall the Somme, I fear the policymakers of my generation are wilfully blind to the lessons that should be learned from it 

1st July 2016

My last blog, written just before the EU vote, ended by saying that our democracy was diminished by the campaign.

As events transpired, it was a kind of prophecy, but a colossal understatement! Notwithstanding my concern about the result, which I consider disastrous for the UK, since the announcement our democracy has taken still more of a battering.

We have a lame duck Prime Minister, a dead man walking, while his party and its leadership hopefuls resemble more than ever the disintegration of Rome as depicted in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

In any sane country the opposition would have been having a field day, making hay at the expense of the government’s disarray. Not our Labour Party. If the Tories are reminiscent of Julius Caesar, Labour’s front bench is more like the final scene of a Quentin Tarantino film, corpses littering the scene and only one or two left standing, Corbyn presumably among them (though currently one can never be sure: in the time it’s taken to write this far, another dozen shadow ministers will probably have resigned).

Our European neighbours, friends and allies have been deeply offended not merely by the decision to leave the EU, but above all by the negative and xenophobic tone of the prevailing arguments that have been reported in their own countries. And don’t get me started on Nigel Farage’s display of sneering disdain and spleen in Brussels this week!

There is an irony in the fact that we are currently commemorating the centenary of one of the most costly battles of all time, in a European war. The Somme started on 1 July 1916: 57,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day; During the whole length of the Battle there were a million casualties on both sides.

The War to end all Wars: so it was dubbed - wrongly. An unjust peace left resentment and anger that helped to lead to a second war. But there has been no global conflict since 1945, notwithstanding terrible localised wars ever since, including the fighting against ISIS in the Middle East right now.

Marking the memory of the Somme should surely cause us to pause and reflect. The creation of the EU has been a central element in maintaining peace on our continent: that aspect was hardly discussed during the campaign, apart from one hyperbolic threat from David Cameron (unconvincing at best) that to leave the Union was to risk a Third World War. Exaggeration ruled on both sides: Boris Johnson accused the EU of having Hitler-like plans for domination by a super-state.

As we recall the terrible loss of life during The Somme, I fear the leaders and policymakers of my generation are wilfully blind to the lessons that should be learned from it. 

I place my hope in the young. Angry at present, most feeling betrayed by the vote to leave the Union, by the possible breakup of our own UK that may follow, by economic and political uncertainty and the threat of recession, they are the generation who will – who must - ensure future peace. I am hopeful of them because it is not they, in general, who pander to nationalist and xenophobic sentiments. It is not they who attempt to disguise repulsive views by prefacing them, "I'm not racist but…"

We are nearly at the end of the academic year: but, if politicians continue to fail us as hopelessly as at present, schools will have more than ever to do to ensure that our young ignore the shameful examples emanating from Westminster and the broader shambles that masqueraded as a referendum debate. We and they must remember and promote the values that drive a just a fair society, a country at peace with itself and its neighbours, as they progress through school and take their place in adult life.

I have lost just about all faith in our institutions of government: mercifully, I retain my belief in the young.


Politicians urge schools to promote compassion. What decency or compassion has there been in the EU debate?

24th June 2016

Brexit or Remain? Leave or stay? The opposing concepts have been dominating the news for months. The debate may have provided fascinating material for teachers of government and politics: maybe for economics lessons, too. But what impression has it made on the students in our schools?

I’m sure many are bored to tears, since there’s so little else talked about in the news (Question: how many schoolchildren listen to or watch the news anyway?).

No, I’m not asking what impression the arguments on each side of the EU debate have made on children, what reasoned or overwhelming arguments they have heard on either side. 

What concerns me is the opinion they are left with of our politicians, our democracy and the way it functions: because to my mind, at present, they all stink. And fof those of us working in schools there are significant ironies in the way politicians have behaved throughout the whole sorry saga. 

Schools have a moral purpose: through assemblies, tutorial and other pastoral sessions and, one would hope, across the entire warp and weft of school life, we encouraged and train children to be honest, to tell the truth, not to lie, exaggerate or distort. 

Beyond that we insist that any argument, whether it’s about the causes of the First World War, the characterisation of Desdemona in Othello or even the process of titration in chemistry, is backed up by evidence – from contemporary writers, from the script, from what we actually observed in the course of the experiment. 

In the GCSE and A level years, and more particularly the submission of coursework of any sort, we preach endlessly to our pupils about the need to be scrupulous about presenting only their own work, acknowledging any reference or borrowed ideas and never, never plagiarising.

For the past 20 years governments and politicians have been urging schools to promote citizenship, British values, the importance of engagement in civil society and, indeed, the need to show compassion to, and to look out for, our fellow human beings. Yet what decency or compassion has there been in this debate? 

From the start, when the Prime Minister’s erstwhile friends stabbed him in the back in a staggering display of disloyalty, to the present when both sides signally failed to resist the temptation to bicker over the capital they could make from the murder of a serving MP, Jo Cox: from the so-called Project Fear of the Remain camp to Nigel Farage’s despicable reworking of a Nazi image designed to stir up fears of immigration; the young people in our care, the voters of the future, have been shown politics at its worst, principle and decency abandoned in favour of manipulation, distortion and the determination to win at any cost.

I’m consciously writing this for publication before the votes are counted. I hope the vote will be to remain in the EU, with my fervent added wish that we’ll make Europe work better by engaging in it properly instead of carping and criticising. If the vote goes for Brexit, I will have to live with that: that’s how democracy works. 

Whatever the result, however, politics has sunk to a new low: as adult, voter and educator I’m ashamed of what my generation has made of politics and of our democracy. 

Perhaps the children we’re teaching now will make a better of job of it in the future: I sincerely hope they will, and (fortunately) find the youngsters in school now so impressive and committed that I’m quite optimistic. But they won’t learn or achieve anything in politics by following the example set them in recent months. 

We are all the poorer for this experience: our democracy is diminished. 


Give schools a break. They’re doing their best: less blame and a lot more support would help

19th June 2016

From media reports this week you’d think schools are actively promoting harm. Reporting on an enquiry by the Women and Equality Committee in Parliament on sexual harassment and sexual violence in school, The Telegraph said MPs heard that “sexist name calling and lifting skirts is ignored in some schools because some still regard sexism as acceptable behaviour”. 

Even an NUT representative was critical. Rosamund McNeil, the union’s Head of Education and Equality, urged government to issue guidance to schools which must “understand that sexism is as important as racism and the harm and negative consequences are just as serious as racist stereotypes”.

Meanwhile, Susie McDonald, Chief Executive of healthy relationships charity Tender, complained: “many teachers are victim-blaming at the moment. They are looking at sexual harassment as horseplay or something that’s just going on in the corridors”. And OFSTED’s Jane Millward said teachers aren’t reporting low level sexual harassment against girls, thus creating a culture where it is “seen as the norm”.

Yes, we have an enormous problem with sexual harassment and sexism in society at large: and society is mirrored within the small communities of schools. As Ms McNeil said, “We have a country where we still have levels of rape and sexual harassment because unfortunately we haven’t won the battle that all of this is sexism and all of this is unacceptable”.

I fear that, whereas many children will nowadays not dream of using racist language, there isn’t the same taboo concerning sexist terms. But are schools really doing so badly? 

To be sure, teachers cannot oversee student behaviour every second of the day (though some try): but I can’t imagine the teachers I mix with, not just in my school, simply ignoring blatant sexual harassment of girls when they see it – or even suspect it. 

Society is ambivalent about this. Sexism creeps into schools from outside. Parents, too, may abhor racist abuse: but some I have had to deal with, having disciplined their child for using offensive sexual language, have suggested that I’m overreacting over “mere words”.

I’ve no doubt that we need to do more, though I’m surprised by someone from a teaching union requesting more government guidance: schools are drowning under the stuff.

In short, it’s probably true that teachers need more skill, confidence and therefore training in dealing with issues around sexual harassment: government should provide it. It should be of the highest quality, hard-hitting and intelligent, not the usual low-level, banal rubbish that accompanies every new government agenda. And then schools need the time and funding for training and for implementing the strategies that result.

Schools should not be blamed for society’s ills. Even a recent call for parenting lessons from government included a sideswipe at schools. John Ashton, outgoing President of the Faculty of Public Health, proclaimed (to quote The Times) that “parents needed help to prevent the next generation being crippled by conditions such as anxiety, anorexia and obesity. One in ten children have a mental health problem, and a poor relationship with parents is among the main causes”.

We might well agree with this, though his reason for demanding state intervention was unhelpful: today’s young people, Professor Ashton asserted, are being neglected by “sweatshop” schools as well as bad parents.

Well, thanks. It’s our fault again, apparently.

I’m not wallowing in a slough of victimhood. I just don’t accept the caricature of ineffectual teachers consciously ignoring sexual harassment: and I don’t recognise our schools as sweatshops. 

Nonetheless, teachers are under pressure, school leaders suffering the cosh of floor-targets and inspection: of course pressure is sometimes passed on to children (hence the sweatshop crack), and teachers just don’t have the time or energy to be always out on the corridors, spotting wrong behaviours and intervening to stop them.

Schools are, and should be, a microcosm of society. That means they have to deal with the community’s intractable problems as well as its strengths and joys. 

But give them a break! They’re doing their best: less blame and a lot more support would go a long way to helping them do the job that’s too often required of them – curing in miniature the sicknesses of a greater society.


Teachers are flocking to teach overseas to escape a brutal accountability and inspection system

12th June 2016

Another teacher recruitment crisis looms – or, perhaps, the same one made worse. To be fair, Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw predicted it some months back. It’s estimated that over the next ten years some half million UK teachers will be required to teach in British-style international schools overseas.

That sector is proving a great British export. Whatever our turmoil and travails back home, and however much we worry about our own national system, they can’t get enough of traditional UK education abroad. It’s not all about pretending to be like Eton, Harrow or any of the other great names: solid, traditional British-style, English-medium teaching, either leading to A levels or to the International Baccalaureate, is now what people want all over the world. Teachers will be needed.

So will these burgeoning overseas schools be attractive to British teachers? Undoubtedly. What’s not to like? They’re an attractive prospect, especially for young teachers. In general the pay’s good, housing is provided cheaply or free, and it’s a great bit of life experience.

Will Michael Wilshaw be proved correct? Will we find our own schools denuded of teachers as they all scramble abroad to get a bit of this exciting, international jet-set kind of teaching? We may. 

We already face a teacher recruitment crisis. Government’s intense dislike of university departments has led to the somewhat chaotic pattern of teaching schools across the country. That’s something I’ve never understood, because I think in recent years university PGCE courses been turning out fantastic new teachers. 

Many teaching schools are doing a great job: but government has devolved the training so far down the line that it seems to have no central grasp of supply and demand, of take-up, or even of whether (to take one crucial example) we’re producing enough maths teachers (we aren’t).

So does this make the international schools the villains of the piece? No. They’re a useful British export, and do our image no harm around the world: all the more if they encourage increasing numbers of overseas students to come to UK universities, a vital source of income despite the fact that the visa system is now so labyrinthine and hostile that it’s bound to deter many such applicants.

Besides, a bit of international experience would be fantastic for teachers returning home to continue and complete their careers in UK schools, enriched all the more by getting a sight of the world beyond the shores of our little country. No, a change is as good as a rest, and these teachers will come back from abroad refreshed and infinitely stimulated. They’ll be good for the teaching force.

There’s an elephant in the room, isn’t there? The threat of losing half a million teachers abroad is a significant one. And is it such a threat because government is failing on two counts. First, as I’ve written above, it’s failing to grasp and take action on the issue of supply and demand of teachers.

Second, and more damaging long term, is government policy, heavy-handed, brutal accountability and a hostile inspection system which more often than not leave teachers feeling bullied and devalued, especially if heads under the relentless pressure of floor targets and their own accountability pass that pressure on to them. Teachers will surely see that spell abroad as a blessed relief from the grind of teaching in UK schools.

I never try to deter any potential teacher from entering the profession. It remains, despite the pressures, rewarding and generous, and a vital thing, a real vocation to open up life opportunities to the young, whatever the age-group we teach, whatever the setting or type of school.

But government has ground the joy out of it, replacing the pleasure with such a burden of accountability and relentless criticism that I can’t blame any teachers for reckoning the grass is very much greener – not on the other side of the fence, but beyond the sea or across the world.

This should be a good news story, one of both exporting the best of British and of giving our great teachers irreplaceable experience abroad.

But it has all the makings of a crisis. And government only has itself to blame.

This one was apparently removed from the TES website after parents claimed The Sunday Times had misquoted them in using the word "ghetto": worth a read!
around 7th June 2016
An intriguing story about special educational needs popped up in The Sunday Times on 29th May. Academy chain The Dean Trust was accused of segregating disabled and special needs pupils, bussing them from its top academy to what angry parents termed a “ghetto school”. 

Looking beyond the hype and emotive language, the outstanding school, Ashton-on-Mersey School, serves an affluent Cheshire suburb, is sponsored by Manchester United Football Club and is rated outstanding by OFSTED. However, the Trust told the parents of two dozen children that it would send them to Broadoak School in Partington, one of the most deprived areas of Greater Manchester, claiming it was due to “limited resources” at Ashton-on-Mersey.

Parents are up in arms. They chose Ashton for their children, not the other school: now they’re being taken down the road. There’s also a 40-minute journey between the schools.

The Trust’s chief executive was quoted as saying the move was necessary because of the high number of special needs and disabled children already in Ashton-on-Mersey: he stated that Broadoak was “well-equipped with outstanding support” and that many pupils already split their education between the two schools.

I have no knowledge of the schools, the area or the trust in question. But it seems to me that this story shines a spotlight on some of the intractable problems surrounding support for children who are disabled or have special needs.

Since time immemorial parents of disabled and special needs children have had to battle to get the support they need. Being married to an expert in SEN – dyslexia in particular – I’ve heard too many stories over the years of desperate parents reaching the very door of a tribunal before the Local Authority (LA) caved in agreed to provide the particular help their child needed. 

I’m told some LAs even now deny the existence of dyslexia. Cunning arguments are formulated to prove that dyslexia is not a single problem, but an “unhelpful umbrella term” for many different specific learning difficulties. Such evasion is also a handy way of declining to take responsibility for (or fund) children with the condition. 

Given the onward march of academisation – forced or otherwise – one might be tempted to think that, if LAs have so often been the ogre with regard to special needs provision, the problem will soon be in the past. In future, surely, academies and their controlling trusts and chains will provide the support.

Not quite. As I understand it, one of the few educational responsibilities left to LAs will be the coordination and provision of special needs support. Moreover, as we know, LAs are in desperate financial straits, councils as a whole being required to trim tens of millions off their budgets, year on year. Special needs will not be immune: just as schools and academies alike are already taking the hit, exposing broken government promises on protected funding. 

There isn’t enough money in the system: the rationing will continue, as will the refusal of responsible bodies to take on the burden of special needs support, because doing so involves them in significant cost.

That Sunday Times story casts Dean Trust as the villain of the piece: but it’s not as simple as that. The Trust claims to have good provision in one of its academies: why would it go to the expense of duplicating or extending that in another one? We’re frequently assured that one advantage of academy chains lies in economy of scale. Centralised resources: specialised services located in particular institutions, not spread across the whole.

A trust makes its decision and allocates its resources thoughtfully. Logical: job done. Just what government ordered.

But it’s not good for the children.  Their families want them, special needs notwithstanding, to attend that outstanding school close to home. Instinctively, one’s heart is with them: the rational head, by contrast, concludes that the trust is using its resources sensibly and appropriately, as required.

In our brave new educational world, special needs and the concept of inclusion remain too often an area of complexity, obscurity and conflict.  That desperate parents still have to fight the system to obtain necessary support for their child’s disability or special needs is something that shames us all.

Sir Michael Wilshaw might want more mavericks, but nonconformism has been ground out of the system

26th May 2016

It takes one to know one. Outgoing Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw says we need more mavericks running schools.

When he was a school head he undoubtedly qualified as a maverick. He gave no quarter when fighting to get the best for the children in his care. Not by accident was he the head of Mossbourne Academy, which rose phoenix-like from the ruinous history of Hackney Downs School. I know and respect several people who worked for him at deputy or similar level: they hold him in admiration and awe.

In a speech on Wednesday, he complained that our “very ordinary” education system needs mavericks in it to bring in something of the extraordinary. There aren’t enough in the state sector: there are more of them in the independent, he claims (he was speaking at the determinedly free-spirited and independently-minded Bedales School).

We used to love mavericks in schools, and not just as heads: the eccentric chemistry teacher who had the knack of enthusing the most unscientific pupil with the subject, and whose leadership qualities would enable him to drag children to the top of mountains in the summer holidays; the music teacher who inspired children to sing in their hundreds, somehow overwhelming their natural reluctance to do so; the geographer who got kids to stay all hours after school to build a hovercraft.

We remember them fondly, and call them mavericks, or eccentrics: but they stand out in our memory really because they were inspirational, and different, teachers with a genuine passion for leading young people in extraordinary directions where they could discover themselves and learn that they could succeed. They were unafraid to bend the rules, so certain in the rightness of their passion and inspiration that meaningless red tape was simply something to be circumvented. As a Danish head once said to me, “I’ve always found it easier to receive forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand.”

Note my use of the past tense. How can such mavericks hope to survive nowadays? I hope I’m still sufficiently strongly motivated to insist when necessary on doing the right thing, rather than the convenient one. Yet I’m no maverick, and guess I must have become risk-averse: not with age, but with the constant pressures of regulation and of grinding, unreasoning accountability.

The Independent Schools Inspectorate tells me that my school (independent of government, remember) is obliged to comply with more than 400 regulations. Before any Brexiteer bleats about excessive red tape from Brussels, let me emphasise that I’m not aware of a single one of those emanating from the EU. Independent School Regulatory Standards are entirely Westminster-generated: and, pace Boris, the size of bunches of bananas don’t feature any more than they’re stipulated by the EU.

The educational world in which we nowadays operate is suspicious of mavericks. The profile of Safeguarding has become so enormous (sadly, with good reason over many years) that there is an almost inevitable confusion in people’s minds between those who push the boundaries to do things in different, even wacky ways and those who might prove a threat to children. The system is inimical to those reluctant to fill in the forms. Inevitable, perhaps: but don’t hope to see inspired eccentrics in the classroom in future.

As for mavericks, Sir Michael himself, while sympathetic to them, leads a major section of the government machinery that has steadily ground nonconformist heads out of the system through the relentless pressure of inspection, floor-targets and league-tables.

There is little space now for any school leader who wants to do things differently or even take risks (risk-taking: the basis of all entrepreneurialism). Wilshaw may be off-message in the government’s terms nowadays, as he develops a sense of gate-fever, but the Inspectorate – notwithstanding his apology for its apparent previous demand for a particular style of teaching – has rendered any deviation from a safe norm, from the “ordinary” that he deplores, the action of a dangerous lunatic. The individual can’t risk it: nor can the school.

If you must enforce conformity and crush divergent views – as successive governments have with your help, Sir Michael – don’t blame schools or their leaders for lacking the courage to be wacky or different. 


The British disease of not trusting “foreign” has infected students deciding against taking languages

22nd May 2016

Sometimes I despair of my fellow-countrymen: really, I do. No, I’m not talking about the latest lows to which the Brexit debate has sunk, a choice (one might think) between Hitler-like domination if we remain and economic isolation plus untrammelled terrorism if we leave. No, abysmal as what passes for debate has become among politicians has begun, I’m not on about that.

Mind you, I can’t help fearing that our very ambivalence and indecision about Europe and our place in it has something to do with this week’s TES headline, the latest nail in the coffin of modern foreign languages in English schools. 

Last Monday, TES revealed that OCR, England’s third-biggest school exam board, will not offer reformed French, German or Spanish GCSEs and A levels, new specifications that schools are due to start teaching in September. Experts are warning, says TES, that the move could be “the thin end of the wedge and lead to other exam boards stopping qualifications that are loss-making or where a board has a small share of the market”.

Should we be concerned about a shift towards a position where only one exam board offers a particular subject? Some voices suggest we will only improve marking if each individual subject is offered by only one board. Economies of scale: ability to recruit sufficient examiners; expertise all in one place; these are cited to justify a move to one-exam-one-board system.

To me it’s wrong. Having little faith in exam boards, I fear the loss of the one weapon we have against them (OFQAL having proved itself toothless), the competitive market that allows dissatisfied schools to move to another board. Franchising sounds to me like the worst of all monopolies 

The news that OCR is effectively pulling out of European modern foreign languages presages a greater doom. Numbers taking GCSE and A level languages are plummeting: only the independent sector is effectively keeping them alive at A level (that’s not a sectoral boast, just a fact). Yet even independent schools are concerned that relatively few A level students choose French, German or Spanish, let alone other languages.

Their decisions are frequently pragmatic. For the ambitious A level student aiming for a top university, a language A level can appear a high-risk option. Boards award fewer top grades in languages: the range of live oral and aural tests within the qualifications provide a greater scope than other subjects for coming a cropper in the exam; and there have been numerous concerns about the quality of marking. Given that young people, particularly the most ambitious, are canny in planning their trajectory towards higher education, they may eschew languages in favour of subjects whose outcomes are more predictable.

The problem goes deeper still. 47.6% of GCSE pupils took a language in 2015: in 1998 entries peaked at 85.5%.  Introduction of the EBacc, with its compulsory language, has clearly failed to halt the decline, notwithstanding a claim from the DfE’s spokesman (my robotic friend Robert), that “the number of pupils entering for a modern language GCSE has risen by 20% since 2010, reversing the severe decline between 2000 and 2010.” 

If my maths is right, 20% added to a small number remains a pretty small number, n’est-ce pas?

As usual we can blame government inaction for this latest grim news – and grim it is, whatever DFE claims.

At base I suspect the decline is linked to that strange relationship between the Brits and Europe. We like Europe to go on holiday in: but we don’t want to do politics with it. We love to go to Spain and order dos cervezas, por favor, but we’re damned if we can be bothered to learn the language properly. 

Not all of us, I know: and please, language teachers, don’t write and protest, because I feel your pain and, believe me, do everything I can to support you in my school.

It’s the British disease, that dislike and distrust of “talking foreign” and belief that shouting loudly in English is sufficient for communication with neighbours we don’t much care for in any case. 

So I begin to despair. It will take more than franchising out exams or fiddling statistics to solve this one.


All these U-turns and contradictions are enough to short-circuit the DfE’s army of automatons

15th May 2016

I’m worried about Robert. Really, I am. 

I’m referring to the robot of indeterminate gender who acts as the Department of Education’s spokesman on all matters. When I first divined his/her existence, I was reminded of two great writers of mid-late 20th Century science fiction. 

Arthur C Clarke posited in 2001, A Space Odyssey, a computer that saw the humans as the weak link in its programmed mission and sought to eliminate them. By contrast, Isaac Asimov’ Laws of Robotics prohibited a robot, however powerful its AI, from ever harming a human being. A command given to a robot that required it to do so would identify a contradiction within it, resulting in paralysis or shut-down

Recently we’ve been seeing Robert the DfE robot similarly perplexed when required to comment on ministerial climb-downs and U-turns. SATs and floor-targets have really taxed the hapless android. When parents led a boycott of the exams Robert was unbending: 

Tests are in pupils’ own interests and help teachers and parents identify where additional support is needed so we can make sure all children leave primary school having mastered the basics of literacy and numeracy.

Notwithstanding the fact that 89% of teachers abhor SATs, in reply to criticism by the President of the Independent Schools Association, Robert commented:

We value teachers’ feedback on tests and work with them in the development process, through expert review and trialing of potential questions. 

That was hardly consistent with the response to a survey that

56 per cent of pupils themselves do not mind the tests, which help teachers understand how pupils are doing and identify where additional support is needed.

There’s genuine confusion about the suggestion that the number of primary schools falling below floor standards could rise by a fifth this year: yet Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had promised the NAHT annual conference that no more than one per cent more schools would fail, a number in single figures.

Poor Robert was programmed to clear up the misunderstanding:

It is misleading to speculate on numbers at this stage, but we can say the proportion will not rise by more than one percentage point.

The TES observed baldly: “a rise to 6 per cent would mean an extra 149 schools judged as failures”.

On the U-turn that wasn’t a U-turn with regard to forced academisation, Robert was called in to back up a boss who was in danger of becoming robotic herself.  Nicky Morgan was emphatic: “I am today reaffirming our determination to see all schools to become academies. However, having listened to the feedback from Parliamentary colleagues and the education sector we will now change the path to reaching that goal.” 

They’ll do it anyway: they just don’t need to legislate to do it. Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the Nation Union of Teachers, was in no doubt: it was “quite clear that the Government intends to press ahead with their academy programme”.

Robert was conciliatory at first, allegedly still responding to a question about academisation: 

We want to work constructively with the sector, supporting the school-led system to better develop and train the next generation of strong leaders.

When someone in Sanctuary Buildings turned up the hard-line knob, Robert’s message got tougher: 

We have been clear that our ambition remains to see all schools to become academies and we welcome this analysis on how that could be achieved. We will be consulting with the public and the wider education sector on the threshold of underperforming and unviable local authorities in due course.

Robert then began to emit sparks and regurgitate nuts and bolts before being whisked back indoors for repair. 

All this contradiction is just too much for the poor machine. Statements about how the Department has sacked mental health champion Natasha Devon MBE, er, while still keeping her on board as a full member of the DfE’s mental health steering group, which will be making recommendations this summer has really over-heated Robert’s circuit-boards. Moreover, it’s clear that someone will have to programme a whole new app to produce announcements and excuses following such strings of cock-ups as leaked SATs papers. 

But hey! That’s robotics for you! Coming next: Robert learns to drive.

How Claudio Ranieri’s leadership shows us there’s another way for schools

5th May 2016

As the shortened week got underway after the bank holiday, I spotted a sharp contrast between two news stories. First, the group of parents (a lot of them) who took their children out of school on Tuesday in protest at the Year 2 Sats. The weather was kind, and they enjoyed a pleasant day at museums, out in the woods and fields: doing, well, perhaps what children should be allowed to do more of instead of wading through the complexities of spelling and grammar.

It wasn’t their protest that struck me, however, so much as the reaction of their critics.

There were thundering voices of disapproval, blaming the parents for being irresponsible and blaming schools for administering the tests irresponsibly so that they put pressure on the children. In a BBC interview it was claimed that, if teachers did their job, these tests wouldn’t be necessary anyway.

Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb admitted live on radio that the government isn’t much interested in the individual scores of children: the tests are actually about testing schools. We should be grateful, I guess – at least he admitted it. Then he got one of his own grammar questions wrong.

This row falls broadly along political (but not necessarily party-political) lines. The parents’ action stemmed from frustration that government doesn’t listen to them, not from a political stance: their most strident critics were avowedly Right-wing, keen teacher-bashers who can’t believe that any child can make progress without regular testing.

Contrast that sourness with the euphoria of Leicester being crowned Premier League champions. You don’t have to be a football fan to feel affinity with the triumphant underdog.

A confident prophet of such things, I declared some years back that no club like Leicester could ever win the title: money talks so loudly in football nowadays that only the biggest four or five clubs could hope to jostle for position at the top.

I am still largely right, except with Leicester as a wonderful, wonderful exception.

I was fascinated by the generous compliments paid to Leicester’s manager, Claudio Ranieri. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich had a low opinion of him and fired him; a little while later the Greek national team sacked him too after they were felled by a minnow

Yet Ranieri has proved this season that there is still a place for magic in leadership

There’s plenty of cod leadership theory about: books and courses based on Shakespeare (especially Henry V); The One-Minute Manager; I suspect somewhere there’s even a Bake Off-based leadership course.

Now we can surely await the Leicester City/Ranieri management programme. In fact, make me an offer and I’ll write it!

One radio commentator observed that the team under Ranieri was humble: they wanted to do better all the time. In return, he didn’t criticise them in public: nor can I believe he tore them apart in private. He built belief, he communicated passion.

As for rewards, when the team first kept a clean sheet, he didn’t seek to pay bonuses on top of what were pretty decent salaries, even if they look paltry compared with those paid by the great clubs. No, he promised he’d teach them to make pizza: the charm of the Italian kitchen; the warmth of the communal dining table; the pleasure and camaraderie of cooking and eating together. What a secret weapon!

When journalists tried to rattle him in the later stages, he could all too easily have been goaded or entrapped. Yet he remained relaxed. Even at the weekend, as fans and players waited to see whether Spurs would concede the championship by failing to win, he wasn’t glued to his radio or TV, he flew home to celebrate his mum’s 96th birthday.

Let’s sum that up: no extravagant praise or harsh public criticism, but honest comment; no bonuses or performance-related pay, but esteem and camaraderie; no public blaming or shaming, but lots of quiet confidence; no extravagant promises, but plenty of quiet satisfaction.

Could this be a model for political leadership in education in 2016?

Sadly, it seems, the powers that be don’t think so. Tests, league tables, inspection, performance-related pay, constant pressure from above: those are the tools for getting results. It’s the only language they understand. That soft-centred approach, it would never work.

Except that it can – and Claudio Ranieri has proved it. I think I’ll go and make my staff a pizza.


The government constantly falls into the old trap of valuing most that which can be most easily measured

22nd April 2016

It’s widely accepted that the best way to learn something is to teach it: so perhaps, by the time I’ve unpacked and explained what the National Union of Students is up to, I might have got my head round it.

At its annual conference this week, the NUS voted to “mobilise students to sabotage or boycott” the National Student Survey (NSS). This is a tactic in the Union’s battle to prevent government from raising tuition fees even further.

You can hardly blame students for that aim: anything else would sound like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Government has developed the bright idea of creating a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Universities will be judged by their teaching, and only those judged excellent will be allowed to put up their fees. That seems reasonable: except for the assumption that those institutions judged excellent will therefore certainly do so, boosting their income. 

Government sees NSS scores as one of the main pillars of the TEF, alongside graduate employment rates. The latter are measured by the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DHLE), again established by a survey: students are being urged to ignore that one too. 

So students find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. If they complete the survey and give a high rating for the teaching they receive, let alone tell government that graduate recruitment is good too, they’re likely to find the university with which they’re happy sticking up their fees (for their younger sibling or friend, if not for them). 

So why not play safe instead, and give only a cautious “satisfactory”? Sadly, if they do that, government will cut funding to the university, so they risk seeing that course axed.

I can’t blame students for thinking this way, even though I suspect the tactic is flawed. It’s based on the presumption of a chain of consequences that would require more coherent action from government than any has displayed hitherto. Westminster is more likely to flounder as usual from one initiative to another, all the while seeking to raise fees and reduce its outgoings: I wouldn’t expect any more joined-up thinking than that.

I can imagine the howls of outrage that will greet students’ refusal to rate the teaching they receive. Schoolteachers are rated by Ofsted: why should academics be permitted to carry on in their ivory towers? We know that there’s some poor teaching in universities: too many academics prefer research to dealing with the messy inadequacies of undergraduates.

But do we know that? Or is it just a kind of Daily Express reader view, oft-repeated? Moreover, the fact that schools have suffered inspection and the crude scoring of teachers for two decades and more doesn’t mean we should wish it on universities. Teachers’ lives are blighted, stress levels are raised, careers sometimes ruined – and if it’s not on the basis of the teaching, it’s because the school as a whole doesn’t hit particular government targets. 

Worse still, government constantly falls into the old trap of valuing most that which can be most easily measured.

In our eagerness to foist a parallel regime of misery onto academics we risk sounding like angry teenagers: “It’s not fair! I’m having a lousy time, so they should too!”

The last thing we should do is give the job of rating university teaching to government: it always messes it up.

Besides, this government and its predecessors have already created a mechanism to improve university teaching. Given the amount students are now paying, either up-front or in debt, they won’t put up for long with poor levels of contact time or inadequate teaching. They’re now purchasers, and they can wield their power as such to ensure good value. 

I don’t believe for a moment that the NUS has it all right: its thinking is very confused. But I think this proposed boycott of surveys might just be a good thing for UK university education.

Teachers need space away from targets, planning and marking to pursue extracurricular activities with pupils

15th April 2016

The Easter holiday, and perhaps the space for thought and rest it affords, gave rise to more than usually optimistic headlines in last week’s TES magazine. How cheering it was to read Tom Bennett: “Paper trails hide what truly makes a school”.

He reminded us that the accumulation of knowledge and (too often) regurgitation of facts are but parts of education.  What makes us truly human is the host of personal interactions: and all those wonderful opportunities beyond the classroom. 

The best schools have always taken education beyond the formal end of the school day: unconsciously I constantly echo Bennett’s message to my pupils: there’s so much more to schools than schooling. 

That brings us to the government’s latest wheeze for extending school hours. Jonathan Simons, former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, warned that it’s “a drawn-out affair”. He noted the difficulties of spending the offered funding on third-party providers if schools aren’t in walking distance from one another or from those providers: “beneath the treasury largesse,” he concludes, “it’s things like hall space, insurance and school buses that make policy fly or sink”. 

But let’s not be downhearted! How wonderful it was to read Kris Boulton, Head of KS4 Maths at King Solomon Academy, stating boldly that “no one utters the word Ofsted in my school”. The secret to a school that makes a difference is finding a meaningful common purpose rather than striving to fulfil an imposed set of ideals in order to be great: “If your vision for your staff and school is to be Ofsted outstanding, shame on you.”

Kris would be critical, then, of schools fingered by another report: “Ofsted to penalise schools for gaming league tables.” Shame on them! What a betrayal of educational purpose!

Well, maybe. But what if you are under Ofsted’s cosh? What if you have a cohort of students who start so far back that to achieve the progress measures demanded is simply impossible? “Poverty is no excuse”, the policymakers parrot. Ministers and the Department are unyielding and intolerant as they seek to drive up standards and make everything world-class.

Of course we must share that aim: but massive structural reform through academisation; unrelenting pressure from government; even the dismal failure of Education Secretary Nicky Morgan to inspire or offer comradeship to NASUWT, choosing instead to lecture conference delegates; all combine to push schools, teachers and their leaders into making the wrong choices that are so easy to criticise in print. 

“Who cares what Ofsted thinks?” asks Kris Boulton. A hell of a lot of people and every one of them under pressure.

Even funding an extended school day in order to help schoolchildren to develop “character” or “grit”, terms used too crudely and too interchangeably by the Secretary of State and her staff, misses the point. Not every school will get the money, nor be able to make use of it, as Simons explains in his article. 

It’s a piecemeal, sticking-plaster, headline-grabbing stunt.

Schools succeed in extending the offer to children both in terms of hours in the day and the range of activities available only when teachers go the extra mile. That old tradition, somewhat unique to the UK, continues still in places. It’s a distinctive feature of independent schools: but it must not become their exclusive preserve. 

In their professional, let alone their personal, lives, teachers need space from chasing targets, planning lessons, marking work and chasing targets again: then they can find time and energy to pursue their extracurricular enthusiasms with their pupils. It is powerful beyond words when pupils see their teachers in different guises: the maths teacher who runs a football team; the English teacher who doesn’t just teach Shakespeare, but puts him on stage; the science teacher who helps the kids build a car. 

Have such role models disappeared into the mists of some legendary golden age? Not all, not yet: but their number won’t grow with swingeing cuts on school budgets under which, contrary to government rhetoric, teaching staffs shrink, teachers feel harried and driven and children’s opportunities are crushed.

Fortunately, there are great human beings working in schools who yet defy government’s utilitarian pressure and paper trails. 

But it’s getting harder for them all the time.


In other sectors customers aren’t permitted to become aggressive or abusive to staff: Why do we accept it from parents?

8th April 2016

On Tuesday The Times reported from the ATL’s recent annual conference that independent school teachers find themselves on call to parents 24/7. Claire Kellett from Somerset claimed teachers “are in thrall to a culture of the customer always being right”.

Perhaps she works in a boarding school. That relatively small minority of teachers might too easily be dismissed as getting what they are paid (and parents pay a fortune) for.  That would be wrong. The phenomenon spreads: neither independent nor maintained day schools are immune. 

Nowadays everyone has ownership, client-power. On trains we’re termed not passengers but customers, welcomed as if personally to “your 08.05 service”. 

Aside from removing the requirement that maintained schools appoint parent governors, government constantly restates its commitment to parent power. Parental complaints can trigger OFSTED inspections. And suggestions regularly emanate from Westminster that dissatisfied parents should be able to remove heads or even governors.

I like parents. They’re not the bane of teachers’ lives, or shouldn’t be: but some are prone to getting things out of proportion. Occasionally such parents enter my modest Head’s Office, politely thanking me for seeing them. When I know they’ve behaved foully to people lower down the chain, I remonstrate with them: the conversation seldom goes well.

Other parents are as objectionable to me as they are to my colleagues. There’s a measure of fairness in that.

In other walks of life customers aren’t permitted to become aggressive or abusive to staff. Witness the signs on station platforms, in airports and hospitals, stating the fact explicitly. That message doesn’t seem to have reached those parents who scream down the phone at school receptionists or send those late-night emails after “supper with a glass or two of wine [when] they’ve heard about a child’s day and its injustice”, as The Times’s Nicola Woolcock reported.

Some schools publish teachers’ email addresses, even phone numbers. In a boarding environment, this might appear essential: perhaps a houseparent must be contactable. In other settings I’d call it unwise. Nonetheless, parents can work out how the school generates email staff addresses, so we couldn’t prevent them from sending a message direct, even if we wanted to.

Thus, to protect teachers, we need to lay down clear ground-rules. Even someone running a boarding house is allowed time off: there must be emergency phone contact, but there can be no absolute requirement of staff to take phone calls at any hour of the day or night. Schools should lay down firm guidelines as to when it is acceptable to phone boarding staff: and stipulate what constitutes the emergency that would render extraordinary contact acceptable.

Is that pushing it, when parents are shelling out £33,000 a year? I don’t think so.

We have no control over when emails arrive. But we can be individually strong and decline to read them when they come at night. I know. I succumb to temptation and, too often, read them even at 10pm on a Friday. I shouldn’t.

Let’s make be clear with ourselves and to parents. No parent should demand an instant reply to an email, nor even by a certain time. Usually any complaint (that’s what we’re talking about) requires a measure of investigation before a satisfactory reply can be issued.

The first discipline needs to come from teachers themselves: don’t read those things at night!

Second, at an institutional level, schools should discourage colleagues from emailing one another outside an agreed set of hours: and school leaders, the SLT, should lead by example and never break that rule.

Sometimes I feel the need to remind the whole staff that, say, I’ll be out all day at a meeting. I use my phone to send that email from the train at 7am as I hurtle towards London, rather than the night before: the head shouldn’t send even dull, routine emails to colleagues at night.

I know some parents simply won’t be trained. But the majority will, as long as we tell them what we can do: what we shouldn’t be expected to; and then avoid breaking our own rules.

Such guidelines won’t solve all the problems: but they will help.


Abysmal grammar, newspeak and doublethink: it’s a brave new world we teach in

28th March 2016

Remember 1984? I don’t mean the year, but George Orwell’s dystopian novel. In his vision of what, back then, was the future (I know: it’s confusing), Orwell coined two fantastic new words: newspeak and doublethink.

Newspeak was the practice of creating new language to define the prescribed way of doing things under the totalitarian regime predicted by Orwell in his imaginary future. Doublethink was a little harder: that was something that citizens needed to do in order to rationalise the contradictions inherent in government announcements, and believe in its benign intentions.

We can see plenty of examples of both words currently emanating from government. Government newspeak has invented the term academisation. This new word is remarkable for its grotesquely ungrammatical creation of a noun from a verb from a noun (an American known for massacring the English language once famously proclaimed, “The noun ain’t been invented yet that I can’t verb”).

As any fule kno (as Molesworth used to say), academisation means forcing a school that doesn’t want to be an academy to become one anyway: more than that, nowadays it entails joining a MAT, a multi-academy trust. Where it leaves an existing stand-alone free school or academy I’m uncertain.

The most recent example of doublethink concerns the position of parents. Obsessed with “parent power”, Tory think tanks (surely a contradiction in terms) constantly devise mechanisms to allow disgruntled groups to trigger an inspection, demand an emergency governors’ meeting, sack the head or, even more important, set up a parent-run committee to pick the under-10 football team (okay, I made that one up).

But the White Paper proposes to remove the requirement that academies have parent governors. Supporters of local democracy used to feel  parent governors furnished some protection for academies from outside interference. No longer.

This isn’t the first government to hate Local Authorities. The coalition did, and but the Blair government detested them even more: they got in the way of their vaunted reforms.

At first I wondered whether this was a pragmatic decision not to require the impossible: some schools (or academies in difficult settings) find it hard, even impossible, to recruit parent governors. Besides, anyone experienced head has suffered that parent governor who uses the position to grind their personal axe rather than looking to the good of the school as a whole.

My charitable view was dispelled, however, when I saw the wording: “As we move towards a system where every school is an academy, fully skills-based governance will become the normal across the education system.”

More abysmal grammar: some shocking thinking, too. Skills-based governance? Governing bodies are constantly advised to recruit all the accountants, lawyers and management experts that they can. Why would government pay – or ask schools to use their ever-dwindling budgets – for professional advice when it can twist arms and get it for nothing?

Have you ever tried to get a lawyer to give you free advice? Even supposing they were willing (if you can imagine it), they would say they couldn’t because acting outside their official position would mean they weren’t covered by their professional indemnity insurance. And someone might sue them.

Hell, they might end up having to sue themselves. No, that’s the stuff of fiction: except that real life with this government becomes ever closer to fiction.

Government doublethink: “we want schools – sorry, academies – to serve their communities and to raise standards, with a ruthless focus on improvement.: but we don’t want you parents going soft and messing it up.” This legislation will prevent parents from blocking the change from school to academy.

This government insists it’s setting teachers, school leaders and governing bodies free to make the decisions. Well, free apart from OFSTED, floor targets, Progress 8 measures, regional commissioners breathing down their necks, and the fact that parents don’t get a say.

Otherwise, business as usual. Come to think of it, Orwells’ vision of 1984 was surprisingly accurate after all.

This is what we are hearing from the DfE robots: monotonous, meaningless, triumphalist claptrap

20th March 2016

AI: it’s all the rage now. Artificial Intelligence, as exemplified by Google’s DeepMind computer has just beaten – no, wiped the floor with – Go grandmaster Lee Sedol. Using the AlphaGo programme the computer, which cleverly learns as it plays, thrashed the expert 4-1.

That’s some AI: not to be mistaken with the agricultural use of those initials – which, according to the old joke, is when the farmer does it to the cow instead of the bull.

In my youth I read a lot of science fiction. Isaac Asimov tangled with the issue of computers and robots, Asimov developing his concept idea of the Law of Robotics which would prevent robots from seeing the human race as a problem. By contrast Arthur C Clarke’s novel 2001 A Space Odyssey hypothesised that computers that can learn, true AIs, are a threat to mankind.

This is important again now. In my very early years one of my favourite television programmes was Fireball XL5: it even pre-dated Thunderbirds whose co-founder, Sylvia Anderson (the model for Lady Penelope), died this week. One of my clear memories from that show, amid the hilariously bouncing puppets, was Robert the Robot. I often wondered what happened to him. Was he scrapped, or stuck in a museum like those early puppets?

No. He has been secretly developed and reborn in the DfE: he is now the Department for Education’s spokesperson.

You think I’m making it up? Consider for a moment any recent DfE pronouncement. Monday’s Times published a headline (admittedly a small one) on its front page: Maths Crisis Puts British Pupils at Back of the Class. There followed a predictable outline of concerns that British pupils are falling behind the rest of the world in maths: in the most recent global rankings Britain came 26th out of 65, behind Poland, Estonia and Vietnam. The CBI’s Director of Employment and Skills, Neil Carberry said: “the system in England encourages teaching to the test, and only a fundamental review of the 14-18 curriculum can address this.”

Fair point, you may think. But how did the DFE respond? A spokeswoman was reported as saying: “the quality of maths teaching is improving dramatically in this country because we have reformed the curriculum, bringing maths teaching into line with international standards, ensuring young people can compete with the best in the world regardless of their background”.

Business as usual at the DfE, then. It’s bland, doesn’t answer the question at all and, indeed, says nothing, following the standard DfE pattern: “We’re right. We’re solving it. Shut up”.

This happens all the time. Remember that spat last autumn about whether independent or state schools were scoring more highly? I’m not picking at that scab again, but must quote another robotic DfE line in response: “we think the data is hugely welcomed and we think that it vindicates that our reforms are working and the next step should be to turbo-charge those reforms.” That quote would not score highly in any government grammar test for 11-year-olds.

Whether presented as male or female, the DFE spokespeople are now, I am convinced, one single robot. As for the voice, imagine Stephen Hawking’s mechanical tone, but without the genius and sense of humour that drive it. Think of a dalek with the warmth and humanity removed.

That is what we are hearing consistently from the DfE: monotonous, meaningless, triumphalist claptrap. On every issue, the department simply says: “we’re right. Anyone else is wrong. And now I’m putting my fingers in my ears and going naa naa naa naa!”

You think I’m making it up? Just watch it. In this blog I’ll be keeping an eye on the DfE and tracking Robert’s progress. You see, I think he’s the opposite of an AI. Far from learning and becoming more intelligent, he is programmed to become steadily more bland and less informative.

Sad, really. When Robert was a character in Fireball XL5, I was rather fond of him.


Education’s political landscape needs more conciliation and less Jeremy Hunt


11th March 2016


History of a kind will be made at the end of this month when, for the first time in 19 years, the NASUWT will welcome a serving Conservative education secretary to its conference. In recent years the platform has been graced by a cardboard cut-out of Michael Gove (I guess it made a good dart-board), an ironic comment on the fact that secretaries of state have refused to attend ever since Gillian Shepherd was, they say, booed and hissed by union delegates in 1997.


I can see that such conferences constitute a daunting audience to a minister, given that unions are invariably opposed to the policies they are “driving forward” (a common ministerial phrase). Mind you, Gillian Shepherd could give as good as she got. Sharing a table with her at an educational dinner (with fellow heads), I once remarked mildly that a more child-centred approach might help to raise standards in schools. She replied airily, “I’ve been hearing rubbish like that for years …” Attempts at further discussion on the topic fell flat.


It’s reported that NASUWT is in shock: I guess the usual invitation was sent expecting the customary rebuttal. Nicky Morgan may arrive in combative mood, and she may expect to be challenged: but she’s accepted the invitation. Good for her!


This is important. We’ve experienced too much over the years of governments refusing to talk to unions that disagree: not just Tory or coalition governments either. I recall a discussion about promoting student voice with Lord Adonis when he was Schools Minister. When I mentioned involving the NAHT, he responded curtly, “We’re not talking to them at the moment”: the union had taken its bat home at the time.


I served for some 11 years on the Council of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), back in the years when it was still called SHA. There were stormy meetings when delegates felt the executive should be doing battle with the Blair government, instead of conciliating.


The response was both candid and chilling: “Governments are petulant: if you disagree too strongly, they slam the door on you.” The closed door has been the experience of several unions over the years, with a number of successive governments.


It shouldn’t be like that. Looking beyond education, Jeremy Hunt has behaved disgracefully in his dispute with the junior doctors, and continues to do so. Refusal to talk: unilateral imposition of a contract; arrant lies from the government side; these do nothing to build confidence in policy-makers.


Should the BMA have done a better job for the people it represents? Probably. Me, I’d advocate the medieval method for electing a pope: lock the parties in a room and steadily reduce their food and drink until they come up with an agreement.


So what might the NASUWT expect from the Education Secretary? They should probably not hope for too much. Usually when secretaries of state appear (they’re pretty regular at ASCL), they bring a present: a concession; agreement to the association’s current demands; sometimes something more dramatic, a rabbit out of the hat.


That’s window-dressing. As are the flowery compliments about the quality of schools, teachers and their leadership which form the preamble to the ministerial kicking that generally follows.


Even if there is anger at NASUWT about various current policies, they should give Nicky Morgan a courteous hearing: but she’ll need to be good. I was at the ASCL conference in 2005 which was infamously reported as booing and hissing the hapless Ruth Kelly. Actually, no one booed or hissed: but we did mutter and grumble, because she parroted incoherent rubbish at us for 20 minutes.


It takes two to tango, as they say, and it certainly takes both sides to listen, negotiate and build consensus. Full marks to Nicky Morgan for accepting the NASUWT’s invitation: I hope she and they use the opportunity positively.



Here’s an unworthy thought: you don’t think she’s seizing the opportunity in order to push her line on Brexit, do you?Be warned: the next Ofsted Rottweiler to be appointed will come with even sharper fangs

24th February 2016

Once he was the great white hope for government – or, at least, for enforcing the Gove mission on education. Now, it seems, he’s suspected of “going native”, as Westminster terms it.

I’m talking of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. Sir Michael Wilshaw talks tough, but recently it appears he’s started to sympathise with schools and their leaders. I hear whispers that, even if floor targets and the figures don’t satisfy government requirements, supportive letters have come from HMCI recognising that the school is doing its best in difficult circumstances. 

If that’s true, no wonder Education Secretary Nicky Morgan reckons the next Chief Inspector, when Sir Michael retires, should be more aligned with the government’s approach. Pundits suggest that she’s setting her sights on the US: the frontrunner is reckoned to be American Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP public charter group which set up a network of 183 high-performing schools. He’s frequently described as the “scourge of the unions”.

Wilshaw has himself been a scourge of heads and schools that (he feels) let things slip and don’t pull students up on every laxity in uniform and behaviour. Yet, though I’ve disagreed with many of his most hard-line statements, all must concede that he’s done the business himself, with spectacular success, in the toughest settings. He knows what must be done, and also appreciates that it takes time: hence this recent manifestation of increasing humanity, perhaps.

Time is the enemy of politicians, however. They’re in a hurry, impatient. I’ve occasionally spoken to ministers or their close advisers and discovered two statements guaranteed to lose their interest: “it’s not as simple as that” or “it will take time”. If Sir Michael is starting to show that measure of understanding, no wonder he’s falling out of favour at Sanctuary Buildings: and it’s suggested there’s no one in Britain able to take over the job – at least, no one in line with government thinking. So they’re searching abroad.

Ministers in the last three administrations have spent time travelling the world finding education systems that work. Finland was regarded as the shining example: a little tarnished currently, perhaps. More recently Shanghai and Korea (not the one with the nuclear weapons, the other one) were held up as the places that really know how to do maths, hard work and (don’t overlook this) that particular skill of teaching classes of 90 students and more: goodbye, teacher-shortages!

I’m not just embarking on another rant about governments viciously enforcing their own agenda. But I don’t believe that someone, however successful in the American system, will necessarily understand how Britain works (the bad bits as well as the good). Moreover, an imposed approach imported from outside never works: I thought we all understood this by now.

My anxiety goes deeper than that: the danger was outlined by Eric Bolton. Remember him? I do, though I was a very young head when I heard him speak. 

Eric Bolton was the senior HMI from 1983 to 1991, back in the days when we revered Her Majesty’s Inspectors. They would visit schools and make measured, considered judgments, offering wisdom and advice for improvement while also taking their notes back to headquarters so they could disseminate examples of excellence and of difficulty, and plan the solutions.  There were no high-stakes inspections then: none of the simple pass-or-fail so beloved of ministers since those days. It was an inspectorate respected by the entire profession, and hugely influential. 

In a letter to The Times last Monday, Eric Bolton described the function of inspection as being “to give professionally independent advice about the state of the education service”. If the remit has changed, so as to be aligned with the government’s approach, as Nicky Morgan suggests, then every single educational goalpost in the country has been moved.

Of course it has. No government nowadays wants independent advice. Rather it requires its own prejudices and agendas to be reinforced and enforced by its own tightly-controlled inspectorate. 

I’ve always dubbed Ofsted the government’s Rottweiler: if ministers feel it’s lost its teeth as Wilshaw has mellowed, then to most of us it’s improved. But be warned.  The new Rottweiler they import will come with extra-large fangs. 


This idea that the state and independent sectors are in a death match does no one any favours

 11th February 2016

Dear Lord Lucas

I’m afraid you and I have fallen out, although we’ve never met, and haven’t discussed the matter that has angered me: but then, it appears you didn’t discuss your opinions of the position of independent education with representatives of the sector before sharing them with the media.

You were under no obligation to do so: but I’d have hoped you were sufficiently media-savvy to realise that your comments would inevitably be presented beneath such headlines as “Private Schools in Crisis” in Saturday’s Times.

You’ve done both sectors a disservice. In characterising state schools in the past as rife with pot-smoking and indiscipline, you’re peddling as tired an old stereotype as the press adopts when illustrating independent schools with that constantly-recurring 1920 photo of Etonians.

Though you credit them with enormous improvement, maintained school heads might feel patronised by the suggestion that “the understanding that you can run a school to high standards in the state sector … is there”. That’s neither new nor a blinding revelation.

As you concede, all schools have improved over the last few decades. I admit league tables and inspection have played their part: though that doesn’t excuse the concomitant bullying of schools and teachers by government over the past quarter-century.

Instead of rejoicing for all, you see state school improvement as a problem for independent schools which, you claim, “are on the wane”. You predict “a serious bleed out of the independent system”, and “slow shrinkage”. By contrast the Independent Schools Council reports rising numbers in the sector, this year even in the north.

Next you describe as a weakness “increasing homogeneity and conformity” in the way independent schools teach. I’d respond that both sectors have learnt to share best practice: is that dull conformity or the relentless pursuit of excellence?

You reckon independent schools (such as the one I run) will survive only by offering quirky things like polo teams: I think they thrive by being excellent in everything. That’s what parents rightly demand from both sectors.

You describe the private sector, curiously, as being both fragmented and conformist, but academy chains as a source of strength, allowing leaders of those school groups “real time and space to innovate rather than just having to firefight”. Do they feel that sense of space, I wonder, when OFSTED’s gunning for their school, or after the whole chain?

Following your comments, I’ve read more media nonsense about the private sector than for a long time. Journalists researched no further afield than Barnet and Hampstead and barely reached beyond the few top selective state grammar schools: all a rather South-Eastern perspective.

Your Good Schools Guide seeks out schools’ individuality and writes nice quirky thumbnail sketches about them. Your reviewer’s write-up of my school, published last year, was amusing, perceptive and uncovered no tedious conformity, a judgment borne out by a recent (January) inspection report from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI).

Both your recent comments and the consequent “crisis” reports describe a world that doesn’t exist for the vast majority of state or private schools. Independent schools are pragmatic and adaptable. During tough economic times they shrink: sometimes they merge or sadly close. When things recover, the sector’s still there, and strong.

When I collaborate across the sectors to share experience, ideas and best practice, I work with professionals who certainly understand what it takes to do well (your phrase). I’m pretty sure my maintained sector colleagues don’t encounter many oligarchs or the super-rich on my patch.

Maybe it’s different in London: up in Newcastle upon Tyne, at any rate, we independents do real life. We don’t charge eye-watering annual fees, recognising that £12,000 is a significant sum. We raise and spend £700K each year on bursaries, because we don’t want to become the exclusive preserve even of the relatively rich.

The Good Schools Guide celebrates good schools even-handedly, doesn’t it? What a shame that, when the two sectors are working more closely together than ever, offering success to all children, you chose to create division by offering evidence that was spurious at best to those in the media who seize every opportunity to knock the independent sector.

All schools deserve better from you.



Cuts to support for disabled students: it’s callous – cynical even – and it’s wrong

5th February 2016

Are you working in Special Education Needs in, say, a secondary school or academy? Are you struggling, as usual, to put in place the support (let alone the targeted funding) for that child with multiple needs?

At such times you might in the past have looked jealously at the provision available in Higher Education. How come that dyslexic student you never managed to get a laptop is handed one on the first day at university? The grass on that side of the fence used to look very green in comparison.

No longer, I’d suggest. The Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) system is about to undergo a radical shake-up that government boasts will make it more efficient (hm!) and (ah, here’s the real reason!) save some £29 million a year. Envy is not the appropriate emotion any more: Schadenfreude would be unhelpful.

It looks as if help for those with particular needs post-18 faces meltdown.

I know. Everyone says that about their particular area of interest when cuts threaten: though here I declare no interest (apart from being married to someone working in SEN in FE) beyond that of an intense dislike of seeing injustices perpetrated, even more when they are presented as improvements.

Government carried out a consultation last autumn: some 200 organisations and individuals working in the field contributed. Its response made a few concessions, but not many. Now Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have a year to plan how they will support students from their own resources, discrete funding having been withdrawn: yes, government’s done it again, pushing the problem down to the institutional level, and claiming they’re given enough money to solve it.

Information from DnA (Diversity and Ability), a social enterprise formed by former DSA recipients, suggests that DSA will no longer fund key forms of support including adjustments to accommodation on campus; provision of some equipment associated with laptop use; and many forms of support work including library assistance, scribing for exams and note-taking. They will however be able to appeal through a new “Exceptional Case Process”. As DnA’s Adam Hyland (a former NUS Disabled Students Officer) commented: “this risks leaving students caught up in a bureaucratic funding tug of war.”

It may sound as if this is all about equipment and facilities. It isn’t. A profound effect will be felt in the provision of Non-Medical Helper support, which comprises all those tutors (I’ll stick to that title) who help with scribing, reading, note-talking and dealing with the various Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) that include things like dyslexia. These vital cogs in the machine of DSA provision (many represented by ADSHE, the Association of Dyslexia Specialists in Higher Education) are already feeling the cuts.

Government’s cunning plan to reduce costs masquerades as a form of quality assurance. Students deemed to qualify for such support must obtain tenders from at least two registered providers (there’s a fee for registering). They will be under pressure to go for the cheaper quote. Already rates of pay for tutors are being slashed, for example, by Randstad, a big provider of NMH services.

It’s hard to predict what will happen, and this isn’t my area of expertise: but it’s hard to see how students who need learning support will cope with a requirement to embark on a bureaucratic process to get it. I suspect many will just not apply, or lose heart and give up on it.

Moreover, as pay rates fall, it seems to me inevitable that tutors operating as individuals will first be squeezed out by the big providers: next, even the agencies will be unable to recruit quality staff because, having participated in reducing fee-levels, they will have played their part in driving such people out of the field.

I’m not entirely anti-austerity: I don’t think society should live beyond its means. But this is the mean-spirited choice of a soft, largely invisible target for cuts which threaten to blight the education and thus the life-chances of a significant number of needy students.

It’s callous, even cynical: and it’s wrong.


Forcing home-educated children into schools for child protection won’t work – and it’s not the job of teachers anyway

29th January 2016

Tragic stories of child deaths arouse powerful emotions: too often, they also attract wrong targets for criticism.

Eight-year-old Dylan Seabridge collapsed in his Pembrokeshire home in December 2011, later dying in hospital – of scurvy. His parents were charged with child neglect: the Crown Prosecution Service subsequently dropped proceedings.

An official report into his death, never published but finally leaked, records that there had been concerns about his welfare. Newspapers suggest that the authorities had no powers to insist on seeing the child because he was being educated at home. But this wasn’t about Dylan’s education: surely they had powers to see him on the grounds of health and welfare?

Unfortunately, whenever it’s suggested that home education is involved in such tragic stories, a witch-hunt against it invariably ensues. In Wales (whose education system is separate from England’s) this story has given rise to calls for a registration system for children taught at home, and even mandatory inspection.

There’s nothing wrong with either suggestion, as long as such moves do not become as means of limiting or suppressing the human right of parents to educate their children at home: that right is enshrined in UK law (where, since 1944, children must be educated “at school or otherwise”), but is denied in some European states.

Home education rarely hits the press except in response to tragic cases like Dylan’s. Frequently it’s claimed that, if the child had been in school, their injuries or neglect would have been spotted and reported. It didn’t work for four year-old Daniel Pelka in 2012, who was in school, though beaten and starved at home.

Nonetheless, acting as society’s watchdog is not the prime purpose of schools, and forcing children into school just so they can be kept an eye on is not their job: that’s for social services. 

There’s resentment of home educators “out there”, some stemming from a feeling that, if all must suffer the mainstream system, it’s not fair that some don’t.  It’s not a tenable argument.

Critics next suggest that home-educators fall into three camps: abusers hiding their children away; nutters embracing an alternative lifestyle; (occasionally) the wealthy middle-classes who can afford for one of the parents not to work and do the education instead. All three, including the last, attract general disapprobation.

There’s sloppy thinking in such stereotypes. Lazy media reports of child deaths (from abuse or neglect) too often suggest that the children’s injuries weren’t observed in school because they were “home-educated”. The detail of a case such as Victoria Climbié (killed in 2000) reveals that the five year-old was missing school: yet authorities failed to investigate her absence.

That wasn’t home education, but concealment. Inaction and dithering by social and medical services, not spurious parental claims of alternative education, were found to have failed to identify the abuse and protect Victoria.

As for the other two categories, whether you think those seeking an alternative lifestyle are strikingly original or off-the-wall-loony, they’re parents exercising their right to provide an education that they believe better-suited to their child than the mainstream.

Perhaps the most famously home-educated 21st-Century figure was violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. Developing that prodigious talent, practising for several hours a day, fitted better with home education than school. It was “an appropriate education”, provided “otherwise”. He didn’t have “social problems”, by the way.

I declare an interest. For a few years in the primary phase we home-educated our children, a positive and happy period in our family life where our kids forged ahead with maths, English and all the normal “core” subjects, while enjoying enormous amounts of music and gymnastics. Then they went into secondary school: their choice.

The right to choose the mode of education of one’s child, as long as it is adequate and appropriate, is a democratic and human right. Some may feel registration and inspection in no way compromise that right. In theory, that’s true, though I mistrust government’s propensity for heavy-handed application of both mechanisms.

Any measure that constrains the ability of home-educating families to take on that vital task freely, creatively and positively risks perpetrating a great wrong.

We don’t scapegoat schools for these tragedies. Don’t hound home-educators either.


Professionalism is diminished and teacher morale destroyed: all in the name of school accountability

21st January 2015

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” So said Henry IV (Part 2), according to William Shakespeare whose quatercentenary we celebrate this year. It’s true also of school heads (I should know after a quarter of a century!), and equally descriptive of senior leaders and countless teachers.

It’s all about our commitment to the job – and to the children we teach. This is the third (and, for the time being anyway, last) blog I’ve written concerning about accountability in schools. My oldest friend, a lawyer, once asked how, considering the weight of the burden I’m paid to carry, I could sleep at night. With his legal head on he could see only the countless responsibilities we heads bear for all the things that could possibly go wrong.

I replied that I supposed it was about keeping it all in proportion and finding ways of switching off. I think I’m pretty good at both of those, though perhaps you should ask my wife and family. Nonetheless I wouldn’t advise anyone who really values their eight hours a night to go into headship. There’s just too much going on to allow one really to empty the brain out before going to bed, so it often happens that things, usually the unresolved matters, lodge themselves in the mind and banish sleep.

Indeed, ever since reading Harry Potter (and, even better, seeing the films where the spell was spectacularly demonstrated), I’ve fancied a device like Albus Dumbledore’s pensieve, author J K Rowling’s brilliant invention for the Headmaster of Hogwarts by which he could pull memories out of his (or someone else’s) head with his wand and store them in a bottle. That would certainly save brain-overload and create space for tranquillity and sleep.

In any case, at my age sleep just isn’t what it used to be, even without the countless human interactions of the previous day spinning round in the head. But this isn’t just a middle-aged thing: nor is it about someone who can’t sort out their work-life balance.

I’m not complaining. I still regard my job as demanding but fairly rewarded, and (above all) immensely rewarding. It still gets me out of bed in the morning, eager to get on with it. And while it’s true that the head (in both senses) lies uneasy, the reason for this borderline insomnia is at the same time simple and real. What my head is full of is important: it’s stuff that matters. And it’s about people.

I don’t believe what I’m describing differs much for all school leaders, even if I’m now a bit older than most and have fewer reserves of energy nowadays. We are our own harshest critics, and our own taskmasters. We accept the responsibility we bear for every young life in our charge, and we don’t complain about it (except in the pub, when anyone will listen – which they don’t). We can’t even enjoy those August results days because, no matter how many delighted candidates there are, we feel much more keenly the disappointment of the few who have missed out.

My lawyer friend was, after all, at least half right. School leaders feel their true accountability – to pupils and their parents - every minute of every working day (and most of the rest of the time). That’s why we don’t need successions of tests designed by government solely to check that schools are doing what they should be doing; nor progress measures; nor benchmarks, unrealistic targets or arbitrary floor-standards that, even after all these years, betray a bureaucratic mindset still unable to grasp the fact that some children must be below average. Indeed, all those risk pushing us into setting wrong priorities - going for points rather than the best options for the children we teach.

Making people prove they’re doing what they’re already doing, and creating additional tasks purely for that purpose, diminishes professionalism, creates helplessness and destroys morale: yet it happens constantly in schools and is justified in the name of accountability.

I once lectured to some Chilean teachers. They couldn’t get their heads round the word accountability. The closest Spanish word they could find was responsibilidad.

Therein lies the difference. Meanwhile we are stuck with the wrong word, poorly applied.


Forget league tables, targets and tests – teachers and schools know that our real accountability is to our pupils and communities

14th January 2016

The new term seems to have encouraged a greater-than-usual tsunami of junk emails from firms offering educational services. Occasionally taking control of my inbox, I click on the “unsubscribe” link. Some respond courteously: “You are now unsubscribed from Education”.

I often feel like that: more than ever nowadays. Last week I wrote about times-tables: my point was that children should learn them and schools should test them, but we don’t need government adding heavy-handed tests. Twitter indicated support, though one Tweet accused me of whining, on the grounds at such tests are essential, so government knows what’s going on.

It’s the accountability argument: the older I get, the more it irritates me.

No school is perfect: desperately proud as I am of mine and what it achieves with its students, we sometimes get things wrong. I try to be honest and open with parents, and I have little difficulty in admitting errors: yet knowing we’ve hurt or disappointed a child tears me up.

That is true accountability: the responsibility to every individual child (and parent) for giving them the best we can in terms of opportunities and support.

We heads also feel a powerful responsibility (you can see I prefer that word) for, and duty to, the institution as a whole and for the staff whom we employ and with whom we love to work. We understand and empathise with the difficulties and challenges of teaching, as well as its satisfactions: we need to.

We also acknowledge that we are answerable to our communities and to society as a whole. No school (or academy) is an island. It has a context, however it might labelled as independent. Truly independent (by which I mean fee-paying and free from government control) schools are nonetheless conscious of their settings: notwithstanding Corbynite mutterings to the contrary last week, private schools are keenly aware of their situation, of the needs of their neighbours and communities, and of their moral duty: but I don’t have space to expand on that here.

Academies, when a new idea, were described as independent by government, which quickly found that total independence is unhelpful. Just as private schools form alliances and associations, so academies increasingly cluster and form chains. Yet it is not to trusts or government that schools/academies or heads owe their first allegiance: it is to people. In a difficult or deprived setting, that responsibility, that true accountability can appear crushing: sometimes the challenges are just so enormous.

The great myth peddled by policymakers and by hawkish observers and commentators is that government benchmarks, targets and tests (which always measure the institution, never the child) are essential to rendering schools and heads accountable. If only such people spent enough time within schools to see where the true accountability lies, they might talk and write less tosh about the need to “hold school leaders to account”. We already are so held – by the children, parents and communities we serve.

I’m not writing this to share my pain. I’m in my twenty-sixth year of headship, and run a school in a privileged position. But, when I try to stand up for my fellow heads and speak out against absurdly onerous accountability regimes, I grow weary of being accused of being soft, seeking to create some kind of secret garden, or being plain pathetic and ducking responsibility. I know where my responsibility lies – and it’s with the community and children my school serves.


Ministers call it cracking down on poor performance. I call it persecution of a once noble and now beleaguered profession

8th January 2016

All right, I confess. Having read online the Daily Mirror report from a few days ago about Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and her new tests on times tables for 11-year-olds, I tried the paper’s “quick-fire tables quiz”, billed as “fiendish”. When I scored 10/10 (hurrah!), I couldn’t resist sharing the result on Twitter. How childish!

I don’t normally regard myself as competitive, so I’m not proud of my showing off. But I am quite good at mental arithmetic. I was well taught in primary school, learning my tables up to 12 long before the age of 11. The good teaching I received went further: when planning budgets (something school leaders do a great deal these days), I always calculate percentages in my head - and get the decimal point in the right place! Useful stuff.

Of course I agree that primary schools should insist on children learning their times tables: and if that involves the old-fashioned method of chanting them, let alone more “modern” classroom strategies such as times tables bingo, or last one standing, so be it.

So am I supporting Education Secretary Nicky Morgan? No.

This week’s Mirror article harked back to her refusal (on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in February 2015) to answer maths questions. Sensibly she had observed that, if she just got one sum wrong, the entire story would focus on that rather than on the policy she was announcing:  good TV, but lousy politics!

We’d do better to forget that non-story, and concentrate on the idea of compulsory times tables tests for 11-year-olds. Schools test pupils’ knowledge of tables all the time, and have done for years. The NUT’s General Secretary, Christine Blower, commented: “As primary school pupils already have to learn their times tables by the end of Year 4, Nicky Morgan’s announcement is clearly not about educational attainment but about the introduction of yet another test”.

She’s right! The Daily Mirror’s story was merely trying to imply hypocrisy in the Education Secretary’s demand that all children manage 12x12 by Year 6 while herself refusing to answer the questions. What they might have expanded on more usefully was Morgan’s subtext mentioning “action against teachers who don’t come up to scratch”.

Yes, we’re back to that again. It’s important to remember, as we start another year, that compulsory government tests have little to do with children’s achievements (despite the stress that it puts them and their families under: Christine Blower also reminded us that our pupils are also the most tested in Europe). On the contrary, they are all about testing schools: league tables; Progress 8; benchmarks; tests are all about nailing down schools.

Or worse: I don’t know whether Nicky Morgan threatened action specifically against teachers, or more generally against schools: but government talk on standards is up-close and personal nowadays. Ministers call it cracking down on poor performance: I term it persecution of a once noble and now beleaguered profession.

One senses a rift forming even between OFSTED’s boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, and government on the constant pressure over targets and baseline measures. Wilshaw has been writing to encourage some schools that are battling hard in difficult circumstances and yet are slated because they don’t hit particular pass-rates. It’s a generous gesture, but somewhat futile: we are still seeing schools battered and their leaders sacrificed on the altar of “intervention”, interference that makes policymakers feel tough and plays to the right-wing Press without necessarily having any positive impact on the life-chances of children.

Times tables are just another element in this persecution: and schools are teaching them anyway! But if you hoped there might be more support and fewer brickbats for schools from government in 2016, you’ll be disappointed.

Fortunately, teachers are intrinsically optimistic: how else could we do the job? So I won’t lose faith: but I hope we’ll work together to expose the lunacies and viciousness of government’s bullying and overregulation of schools in 2016.

Happy New Year!


Stress may be the yin to well-being's yang

13th July 2015

There’s no doubt about it. The buzzword du jour is wellbeing. Right now it’s everywhere in the press and across the Twittersphere, mainly courtesy of the return of David Cameron’s former right-hand man Steve Hilton from exile in California.

It’s been big news in education for the last few years, too. Sometimes it feels like we’ve talked of little else. In times past we paid more attention to physical health as a way of trying kindly, if inexpertly, to ensure that children were relatively happy. It wasn’t entirely wrong-headed: mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) remains a pretty useful motto. I guess you can have a healthy mind in a body that isn’t well: but I reckon it’s hard to achieve.

But this approach wasn’t perfect, we now see. It’s only in (very) recent years that schools have begun really to understand the need for promoting emotional wellbeing (EW) in in a bid to reduce the presence of low self-esteem, distress, anxiety and mental illness.

When we talk about wellbeing nowadays we are constantly aware of both the physical and emotional sides. Schools are doing good work on this: they need to. More and more children are feeling the pressures of modern society, surely never greater than nowadays. One benefit of such universal concern over mental health and illness both in the media and within schools is that children are now more readily seeking help. So that’s progress, although it’s stretching resources.

What isn’t helpful is the way in which so many loosely-related words are bandied about in connection with emotional wellbeing. If I had a fiver for every time I heard a fellow school leader say, “I don’t understand all this wellbeing and mindfulness stuff. Isn’t it all just the same?” I’d be rich.

It isn’t all the same. Wellbeing is as I’ve defined it above, something we strive to ensure for every child in our care.

By contrast, mindfulness is “merely” a technique, generally consisting of building periods of calm into the school day (arguably easier in some of the boarding schools that promote it), and encouraging relaxation, reflection, an opening of the mind and a willingness to appraise oneself in an honest way. It’s good stuff: but it is not a goal; simply an approach.

Next comes resilience. This is neither a fundamental aim nor an approach. It is, however, a desirable quality. Just to make it more confusing, resilience is one of those words that enjoys a range of acceptable synonyms. The word grit seems to have crept across the Atlantic to us: one advantage is that you can run conferences or seminars with snappy movie-derived titles such as True Grit.

Character is a more splendidly English word, and one I prefer. It takes character (resilience or grit) to deal with failure, to use it as a learning experience rather than regarding it as a catastrophe. Indeed, character (grit or resilience) allows people to bend in the winds of misfortune, not to snap:  that wonderful metaphor I’ve stolen from the Charlie Waller Trust’s Dick Moore, a powerful voice in focusing schools on EW.

(It’s worth adding, by the way, that neither homework nor importing rugby stars into schools will help children develop character as the Secretary of State thinks it will. Nor will, for example, getting kids to do hard sums while someone chucks buckets of water over them: it is a quality whose development requires more subtle and planned approaches.)

The flipside of this obsession with character and grit is its similar glee for stories, especially at this time of year, about pupil stress.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s out there. But we need to take a measured view. Decades ago, when as a young teacher driving himself pretty hard, I was struck by the opening line in a book I’d been given called Managing Stress: “The absence of stress is death”.

We need some stress in order to live at all. Stress (dare I say it?) is essential to exam success.

Stress is to EW what avocado is to dieting (no, really!). Avocado is the fattiest fruit known to man: but doctors now (finally) concede that it’s “the right sort of fat”. In moderation, it’s good for us.

Stress makes the adrenalin flow. Candidates need the right level of stress for an exam: they must be keyed up, focused and sharp.

Of course, when stress overwhelms us: when children get that feeling of helplessness; when they revise too much and sleep too little: at those times stress is out of control and has become bad.

Two leading independent school heads clashed (politely) over this issue just recently. Eve Jardine-Young of Cheltenham Ladies’ College is reducing homework and increasing breaks to reduce her pupils’ stress and increase their wellbeing. Wellington College’s Sir Anthony Seldon demurred. The school day doesn’t need to be changed, he claimed: instead pupils should be encouraged to develop greater resilience.

Embracing stress and wellbeing: The ying and the yang of the same argument. Both are right, and both wrong. Perhaps a little bit of emotional wellbeing helps the stress goes down.

In September my own school will host a conference, ReTHINK, a year on from an event focused on character. Teachers and school leaders alike are anxious and willing to share experience and learn from one another.

The fact is problems of mental illness in the young are daunting. But schools really are getting together and attempting to tackle the issue.

A problem shared? Sharing it won’t halve it: but it will ensure that it is at least addressed. Compared to times past, that’s significant progress.


One thing worse than a politician not interested in education is one who is

 24th April 2015

The longer I work in schools, the more frequently I misquote Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism about being talked about (or not). There is only one thing worse in the world than politicians not being interested in education: and that is politicians being interested in it, (let alone discovering they have a passion for it).

How well I remember Tony Blair proclaiming in 1997 that he had three priorities: education, education, education. With a rare touch of humour, David Cameron countered in 2010 that his priorities were the same, but not in that order.

Both elections saw hopes for education raised and dashed. Following Blair’s victory successive Secretaries of State for Education (however many of them were there?), far from clipping the wings of the inspectorate, strengthened it and harassed and harried schools: they gave rise to one initiative after another, arbitrarily imposed; Ed Balls proved to be uninterested in education at all, caring much more about children so that Every Child Mattered, while education maybe mattered less; and Lord Adonis, a visionary in many respects, launched Academies.

Post-2010, the Tories’ Lib-Dem coalition partners proved toothless in any attempt to curb the exuberance of Michael Gove who was on a very personal mission. To be sure, the Academies programme continued (I haven’t a problem with that): free schools came along, too. But the bullying of schools and teachers continued, driven by Gove’s messianic approach that eclipsed the zeal of all previous education secretaries and, in the end, alienated so many people that David Cameron identified him as a liability rather than a vote-winner and moved him out.

And now, here we are again. Another five years, another election. Education is not the political football in this election that it has been in the last couple: I guess we should be grateful for that. But still it rears its head. 

Both Labour and Conservatives claim to be protecting the funding of schools, using two different formulas, both ambivalently worded and open to interpretation (that’s a posh way of saying they leave space for reneging on promises when money gets tight). There’s no clarity from Labour on exam reform; no U-turns on that topic from the Tories; and no party going near a sensible or fair funding formula for maintained schools.

Still, if you want some clarity, look no further than the Greens and UKIP. The Greens will dismantle all the remaining grammar schools and absorb them into a totally comprehensive system: they’ll pull the independents in, too, or close them. By contrast, UKIP will create selective grammar schools wherever anyone wants them. There’s a clear choice, then: only neither of those parties will end up running the country (at least, I hope not!).

Where does the electoral murk leave children, and those who try to educate them despite the interference of our political masters? It’s hard to say. Last week saw an elephant in the room, a pachyderm of such hugeness that the failure of any party to recognise it leaves me breathless. 

Primary school places were announced: some families will be happy, while many won’t. More to the point, it’s clear that the next few years will see a quarter of a million additional children needing primary school places, and there appears no strategy in place to deal with it. Oh, and it’s clear we won’t have enough teachers in any case as recruitment is in meltdown.

Call me old-fashioned, but I thought we had governments (local or national) to sort such things out: to look ahead, see challenges approaching, plan the solutions and then implement them. We pay our taxes, our council tax and everything else, and should be able to rely on government to do something about it, to expand schools or open new ones. But they don’t.

They talk grand schemes. They talk about opportunity for everyone. And they’re very hot on ensuring working people are rewarded for their hard work – while somehow we also pay off the deficit (by the way, I think we should pay it off, and fast). But is anyone going to do anything about that simple, rather tedious and tiresome problem, the mere fact that some parents can’t find schools for their children? I await enlightenment.

Politicians in charge of education? We’re plagued by personal missions, U-turns, dogmas and sheer ignorance: and central government remains ineffectual. 

Against that backdrop, one proposal struck me as a powerful one. The National Education Trust produced a manifesto (weeks before the major parties produced theirs) recommending that education should be run by a director, free from political interference, in the way that the health service is.

No one can pretend the NHS is free of problems. But there is at least an overall National Director who is able to speak out (as his predecessor did last week, declaring that the NHS is approaching a catastrophic funding crisis).

The presence of a National Director won’t solve all the problems in education, just as it doesn’t in health. But it might prevent Secretaries of State rom treating the service as their personal train set, because they would be faced by a lead professional, knowledgeable in the field and able to tell them precisely what the reality is.

It’s an idea, isn’t it? If we could prevent the demagogues, the fanatics and/or the lunatic fringe from dictating education policy we just might afford some protection to schools and colleges, to the education of the young, to the very future of our country.  

Why not give it a try? 


Jury is out on whether the new GCSEs will demand more than their international rivals

12th February 2015

The most recent spat over GCSE league tables furnished so fine an example of government doublethink that George Orwell would have been proud of it.

Only a few years ago former education secretary Michael Gove was keen to persuade maintained schools to take the international alternative, the IGCSE, following the independent sector which had turned to it in a big way. IGCSEs were, in general, felt to be more appropriate to more able candidates: more traditionally content-heavy than the GCSE; assessed by a single terminal examination; and free of the coursework that bedevilled GCSEs, taking children out of subject teaching for weeks at a time while they completed it under strict supervision in school time.

Honesty requires me to note that independents also made the move because smaller exam boards promised (and generally delivered) better and more reliable marking: thus while most schools up and down the country gnashed their teeth over the 2013 English language marking debacle, those that had moved to IGCSE were smiling – and not marked down.

Here’s the doublethink. Government is now pouring scorn on IGCSE. In a cunning bit of wording, current education secretary Nicky Morgan (echoed on numerous occasions by Department for Education spokespeople) proclaimed that she had rid the government’s performance tables of "valueless qualifications". Cleverly she didn't mention IGCSE specifically, lumping it instead with other perhaps unlamented qualifications while simultaneously, and rightly, removing opportunities for endless re-sits.

In the removal of recognition from some of those English or maths IGCSEs, espoused in great numbers by the independent sector, there was a subtle (not that subtle, actually) implication that they no longer had currency. The message was that the newly government-beefed-up GCSE is the answer: all other qualifications are inferior.

As spats go, it was a minor one. It was also an own goal by government. So absurd is it to see Eton College at the bottom of the league tables that the DfE’s changes have effectively rendered its own performance tables meaningless. And not before time, those of us would say who have questioned their value ever since they first evolved.

But is IGCSE now easier than the new GCSE? And is that a turnaround from the position where independent schools first, and then many maintained schools, chose it precisely because it was that bit (not a lot) more challenging?

I think the jury is out. Schools won’t start teaching the new “new” GCSEs, all linear courses, until September 2015. the much-vaunted "toughening-up” of last year’s GCSE results was mere tinkering.

Among the new specifications for examinations in 2017, the new maths GCSE looks as if it may indeed be more demanding than IGCSE. I can envisage many academic schools (including my own) being attracted to it. Currently my maths department is looking hard at it, but has made no decision yet.

The way I choose to run my school, I allow subject departments, as the specialists, to decide what qualifications they enter their students for, whether it's GCSE, IGCSE, A level, international A level or Pre-U (my history department is about to adopt the latter).

It may be that, as the new schemes of work appear, some departments in my school will say that they prefer the new GCSE specification for their subject: if they do, they'll be free to choose it.

In any case, it's not really about allegedly "easier" or "more difficult" exams. My colleagues are looking for courses that will give their students a good grasp of the content and grammar of the subject, provide appropriate ranges of stretch and challenge, furnish a strong basis for further study at A level, and be reliably assessed and efficiently marked. Therefore the decision depends partly on our impression of the efficiency or otherwise of the exam board.

Maybe the independent sector will swing back towards the government's favoured GCSEs: if so, that will be a feather in Nicky Morgan’s cap, because it will have decided that they are indeed the better exam. If it doesn't, then she will fail to fulfill her lofty claim of having a monopoly on the better courses and qualifications.

Perhaps she has grounds for that supreme confidence, though I don’t share it. In truth, I'm surprised her current Sir Humphrey didn't sidle up to her and quietly say, "That's a courageous comment, secretary of state". And we all know what happens to politicians unwise enough to be courageous.


Dicing with Death

 9th January 2105

 Do I feel a frisson of Schadenfreude on hearing that the madness of performance data is being extended to surgeons? No, I merely despair.

The government has proposed that surgeons’ success rates should be published – in fact, some data has already been released, including mortality rates for individual specialists. Does the government dislike surgeons? I don’t know. But I do know that if I were to be opened up by one, I’d rather their hands did not shake – and this doesn’t seem a good way of reducing the nerves of the person with the carving knife.

I’m surprised NHS boss Sir Bruce Keogh was so positive about this wheeze when he was interviewed at the end of last year. He claimed that surgeons themselves would determine what data was collected. Well, that would be a first: governments rarely trust professionals to make their own rules. Politicians regard professions with suspicion – they talk darkly of secret gardens and do everything they can to flatten their walls and plough up the flower beds.

That this is a disaster waiting to happen is amply demonstrated by what league tables have done to education. Of course all schools should publish their exam results to parents, but as soon as the figures are out in the open they’re turned into league tables. Attempts to make the data sensitive to context are doomed to fail: politicians and journalists alike want something simple – and entirely misleading.

Then policymakers insist on using the data to set benchmarks, so a school’s aspiration to high achievement is replaced by the need to meet an arbitrary government floor target. Under intolerable pressure from the government and its Rottweiler-like inspectorate, schools have no choice but to play the game.

If it’s all about the C-D boundary, that’s what schools will focus on. If the sheer number of GCSEs counts, they’ll invent courses that allow children to notch up the equivalent of five GCSEs in one area of study. These are perverse incentives, but they’re not the fault of schools. They are the fault of the structure in which they operate.

But how will this play out in the world of surgery? We’ve already seen a huge rise in the number of Caesarean sections in the US, which is widely attributed to gynaecologists playing things ultra-safe. So I guess surgeons will stick to operations on bunions and moles, or other procedures that need only a local anaesthetic, because a general one comes with a greater risk. As for cardiac or cancer interventions, forget it: they’ll just stick a drip in you. They’d be daft to risk their careers by taking the knife to patients.

I know, I know. People will say I’m exaggerating: the government hasn’t even threatened league tables for surgeons. But if the data exists, tables will surely follow. Then we’ll get more idiotic comments such as the one uttered by that most lamentable of education secretaries, John Patten, who served in the early 1990s: he apparently declared himself furious that so many children were below average.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Independent schools don't need lessons from politicians on how to work with state schools

25th November 2014

So the Labour Party is having another pop at independent schools. No surprises there. Independently-educated Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has given up on playing the Charity card, demanding instead that schools like mine earn their “significant tax-breaks” by supporting neighbouring maintained schools.


Let’s start with the implication, oft-repeated, that independent schools are wallowing, like pigs in muck, in tax concessions. It’s true we pay only reduced business rates and corporation tax. As charities we make no profit, merely a prudent modest surplus, so the latter would represent only some two per cent of our annual turnover even if applied. As for the former, that reduction represents less than the same again.


Oh, and while we’re at it, stop thinking we don’t pay VAT. True, VAT is not chargeable on school fees: that’s European law (applying to universities too). But we pay VAT on everything we buy. My school is in the process of paying a whacking £1.4 million to the government, 20% VAT on the cost of a current building programme.  


Hunt wants independent schools to send expert or shortage-subject teachers into maintained schools to help out or to share best practice. Well, we already do: and we help with advice and even interview practice for top universities. There must be few independent schools that don’t share experience with their neighbours, and we all know this works in both directions: my school has plenty to learn from the schools it has contact with. All this is just “what we do”, and we don’t need lessons from politicians in how to do it.


But can we actually second, say, a maths teacher to another school that’s short of one? My teachers are fully deployed: they don’t have spare time on their hands. If they are in another school, who covers their teaching? By opting for independent education parents pay for the maintained system through their taxes and then pay school fees on top, post-tax. If I start lending out my teachers, they might wonder why they are expected to subsidise the other sector a second time.


There is, of course, an assumption that independent schools have vast resources to spare. This impression is reinforced by suggestions that even day schools are now the exclusive preserve of the children of oligarchs. If that is indeed so, it’s a Home Counties problem that we don’t recognise in the North-East. We charge annual fees of around £11,000 (not cheap, but not oligarchic) and apply only modest annual increases: head to the North-West and you can find top independents charging a thousand less. And don’t forget just how many children from low-income families receive bursaries to attend: see the Independent Schools Council’s statistics.


Both the Coalition and Labour want to twist the arms of independent schools to sponsor Academies.  One of the carrots offered with that stick, perhaps to offset the huge commitment of time and resource that full-blown sponsorship requires, is that our schools can stamp our brand on the Academy. That may suit some: for others that is no inducement at all. We have no desire to become some kind of national or global brand.


There is a wonderful and innovative new primary free school in the poorest part of my city, the West Newcastle Academy: I can honestly claim that, without my school’s support, its bid would not have succeeded. We still help now that it’s up and running, more than ever: but it’s not a formal sponsorship, and neither school wants it to be. We do it informally because we believe in it, and it works for us both.


That’s the trouble with the heavy hand of politicians. Hunt is talking about setting “partnership standards”. As with every other government initiative, we can be pretty sure that a simplistic and/or inflexible tick-box scheme will be imposed, constraining the ability of schools to partner as suits them best – and to be able to say with realism and honesty, this much we can do, but more we cannot.


Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr Hunt repeated told the ISC’s Barnaby Lenon that ISC risks sounding like a trade union, reacting with predictable scepticism and attempting to block his proposals.


He and his party might be well advised to avoid union-bashing. I thinkl he should avoid sector-bashing too. Labour’s deep-seated antagonism is betrayed by such gratuitous comments as, “Earn your keep. Because the time you could expect something for nothing is over.”


Something for nothing? Despite exam bungling under this administration and the last, and despite nearly two decades of undisguised hostility to the sector, the UK’s independent schools are still the best group of schools in the world. Some 50% of Oxbridge students come from independent schools: yet 30% of the poorest have also come from independent schools, helped there by bursaries.


Finally, Dr Hunt demands that independent schools throw open their sports facilities and opportunities to avoid what he described on radio as the “embarrassment” of so many top sportspeople coming from independent schools.  He and his fellow politicians should look to their own actions.


Successive governments have sold off playing fields. They exert such pressure on maintained schools to hit exam targets that we see sports fixtures against their Year 11 teams cancelled because pupils cannot miss extra GCSE classes. And they lean on their teachers so hard that there is little incentive to coach teams after school or on Saturdays: those who continue to do so are little short of heroic.


There’s something very British about the way we treat success with suspicion and envy instead of rejoicing in it. Independent schools don’t have all the answers: but this very demand that they intervene in the maintained sector demonstrates that we have quite a lot of them. On that basis we are part of the solution, not the problem.


It’s time for our politicians, and particularly Tristram Hunt, to stop resenting our success and instead learn from it, to stop threatening and trying to squeeze us but genuinely engage with us.


But I fear we are still a long way from that.


It’s all very well educating children about finances, but when will someone teach bankers to behave?

17th November 2014

It’s the sort of announcement that creates pleasurable headlines, such as this from The Times: “Jesus saves and so will children under CofE plans”. It's the most enjoyable play on those words since the 1980s catchphrase "Jesus saves – but Keegan scores on the rebound".

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, vowed on appointment to put the payday lenders out of business by competing. His plan was to set up credit unions based in churches: people would be encouraged to save and borrow in small, structured, protected ways without being ripped off. It’s a proper, moral social enterprise, balancing good sense with Christian care for one’s fellow human beings.

Now the idea has been extended and credit unions will be a presence in a few primary schools. The hope, according to a spokesman on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week, is to set up a pilot of 100 such partnerships. If that is successful, it could be rolled out across England, not least because a quarter of all primaries are church schools.

This scheme is designed to help the poor, the struggling, those who too easily and frequently fall prey to the payday lenders (who have now had their wings clipped by government) or, worse, unlicensed loan sharks. It’s about education.

Schools are now being urged to educate children about money and how to handle it. The primary school credit union savings clubs will be another way of teaching students to care of the pennies so that the pounds look after themselves.

I have reservations about many activities that claim to reflect or practise for real life: mock elections, for example. Kids make speeches and listen but their votes change nothing.

Like motherhood and apple pie, this credit union scheme is hard to argue with. It is the children’s own money, it’s real and it does accumulate. But they are not required to put money aside for electricity or gas out of a limited income; to fund and control their mobile phone bill; to work out how to buy nutritious but inexpensive food. Nor should nine-year-olds, for example, be expected to make those important life decisions.

I am not against this plan: I just don’t believe it will really change our nation or even its attitude towards money. The realities of earning, of unemployment, of tax, rent and interest on loans are harsh things which we can’t (and shouldn’t) replicate for children.

Those are the very things, of course, that politicians in the media keep saying schools should teach. Yes, of course we must, like all the other things that society fails dismally to manage without good old schools doing the job: sex and relationships; obesity; alcohol and drugs; smoking. Stick economic awareness and handling money on the end of the list, why don’t you?

I only half-heard the credit union news item when it first came on the radio. I was shaving and my wife had the hairdryer going. So it took us a while to take the story on board. We looked at each other and knew we were thinking the same thing.

“It’s all very well to talk about educating children about handling money,” Mrs Trafford commented. “But when will anyone teach the bankers to behave honestly or politicians to handle the nation’s finances sensibly?”

Good question.  If I were the archbishop, I’d keep praying on that one.


Trust the crust

Friday 7th November 2014

There’s something special about the North East of England. We who live there have always maintained this, of course, but it was also clearly demonstrated at the Schools NorthEast annual summit held in Newcastle recently.

The region has many distinctive features, but one in particular struck me over lunch. We were, at first sight, enjoying the usual conference buffet, with delegates balancing as many spring rolls and sandwiches on their plates as they could. But then came the pies. And next, the chips.

It was a marvellously northern menu – although hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to see at an education conference given how concerned everyone is about obesity in the young.

I have a confession to make. At my resolutely northern school we offer quite a lot of pies at lunchtime. We still serve chips on some days. And jacket potatoes, rice and pasta are always among the choices.

Outrageous and unhealthy? In the context of our fairly middle-class setting, where very few of the children are overweight, I don’t think so. Indeed, I’ve frequently heard teenagers saying that they “aren’t allowed McDonald’s” at home.

I’m not being smug. I’m not against healthy eating. Nor am I attempting some casuistic justification for my own passion for pie and chips. (Actually, this middle-aged man resolutely sticks to salads at lunchtime as I desperately try to battle the expanding waistline.)

The conversation about pies is a reminder of the danger of catch-all remedies. This country certainly has a problem with childhood obesity. But it is not going to be solved by imposing ruthless carb-free regimes regardless of catchment, setting or student age.

My pupils are ridiculously active. Many leave home very early in the mornings. They play sport and maybe do music and drama during our long lunch break. They need a slug of carbohydrate, that quick release of sugar, to get them through the afternoon.

It doesn’t make them overweight, it keeps them working, concentrating and active. Our students don’t suffer an attention dip or sleepy reluctance to work when classes resume at 2pm.

Horses for courses? My little food parable is really a metaphor for the way education is too often run. Ministers and policymakers are invariably unable to resist the temptation to issue blanket pronouncements. Moreover, if they don’t actually pronounce on the detail, plenty of people will be ready to interpret their wishes for them, jumping on the bandwagon afforded by that particular initiative and employing the threat of inspection to enforce their particular prejudices: healthy food; synthetic phonics; times tables; British values – whatever is the educational flavour of the month.

The conclusion is this. Keep away, as much as you can, from the seat of power. Treat with scepticism all those government diktats and unresearched, arbitrarily imposed blanket “solutions” to ill-defined problems.

Oh, and while I’m about it, if you want a good pie, go North.


Let’s sing the praises of our school shows

Friday 11th July 2014

Performances are invaluable for students’ development and bring a touch of magic to school life – let there never be a final curtain

The curtain falls. The audience rises to its feet as one, a feat made easier because it is an audience of one.

That old joke is rarely true of school shows: parents generally flock to them. As the spring term ended, I, like many other secondary headteachers, was still reeling from that last big show before we were forced to concentrate almost exclusively on the long summer exam season. But for many staff in primary schools, the last few weeks of the year are the time to watch children take to the boards. What fun.

We in secondaries have felt an absence during the past term. When there isn’t a production in preparation, our schools seem the poorer. A sense of purpose, excitement, joie de vivre and trepidation pervades even the largest institutions in the run-up to a performance. This is true of musicals more than straight plays (the musicals always sell out, while we have to drag audiences to Shakespeare productions).

Shows generate a magic that permeates school life. When I pass cast members in the corridor, we share banter about how tired everyone is, last night’s comical near miss and how we think tonight will go.

Pantomimes and musicals are a distinctively Western phenomenon. Not long ago I was describing my school’s performing arts programme to our partner school in Tangshan, China: my hosts struggled to understand because their culture doesn’t have an equivalent.

Nonetheless, British-style schools overseas rightly insist on exporting that bit of Western culture. A friend of mine was amused to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs performed as a Christmas show at a British school in Thailand. How would Aladdin go down at a school in the Middle East, I wonder?

The more demanding the show, the narrower the boundary between ambition and disaster: pitfalls are abundant. When I was a music teacher in the 1980s I co-wrote a musical. At the climax of the opening night, as the heroine prepared to shoot dead her unfaithful lover, the gun jammed. A painful silence was broken only when my co-author slammed the handle on the fire door, cursing as he rushed out into the night air. The leading man eventually sank to his knees and died of an apparent heart attack – not the denouement we had planned.

The following night we had a contingency plan in place. For a moment the gun seemed about to fail once more. At last it worked, but not before the drummer had rapped out a shot and several stagehands had added their own substitutes. As a result, the villain appeared to expire in a burst of machine-gun fire.

Losing the plot

I still occasionally contribute to my school’s shows by playing in the band, although I don’t overestimate any credit I might gain. One oblivious actor complained after a week’s run, “You’d have thought the headteacher might come to the show just once!”

Musicians are also at risk of theatrical disaster. In a recent West Side Story, during the scene where Riff and Bernardo are stabbed, the bald head of the drummer in the pit below was sprayed with artificial blood. When we did Les Misérables, the director insisted on a West End-style turntable: whenever it spun, it sprayed the band with chewed-up plywood.

Then there’s the issue of subject matter. Grease is a curious hit, hugely popular despite a questionable storyline that suggests a girl becomes acceptable to her peers only when she dresses and behaves in a way that schools would deem entirely unsuitable.

The car is a major focus of Grease. We loaned our school theatre to a neighbouring secondary and there was heartbreak when their beautifully constructed Cadillac wouldn’t fit through the stage doors. By contrast, another production demonstrated the ultimate low-budget solution: the cast formed the car, rear fins and all, using their bodies. It was inspired.

Similarly, Cabaret is a powerful musical, but school productions invariably give rise to conflict when directors insist on dancing girls’ costumes that are little short of indecent. (When my great-aunt saw an early production, she remarked drily, “In my day we’d have called that a leg show.”)

Why do we put ourselves through it? I had to restrain a colleague at a fraught final rehearsal when one of his actors asked, “But, Sir, what’s my motivation?” He replied through gritted teeth, “It’s this: if you don’t do it, I’ll throttle you!”

We do it because it matters. Few collective school undertakings are so utterly creative in preparation and execution.

Even relatively modest shows can have a huge impact on school life. Recently a colleague of mine staged Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, a full-length play but a two-hander. It was extraordinary to watch two teenagers bring disillusioned university lecturer Frank and naive, irrepressible Rita to life. The play was an education in itself. That’s the point. We make great demands of our young actors, and the route to the performance is a learning, even life-changing, experience.

I still put myself through the pain. In 2012 some colleagues generously staged another musical I had written, set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Britain reshaped by rising sea levels, where displaced children were regarded as a problem to be eliminated. Fittingly, the school was struck by a major flood two days before opening night. Staff and students pulled together heroically and the show went ahead – better than I dared hope.

No, I simply can’t do without the agony and the ecstasy. And I’m quite sure schools can’t either.


 Emulating Asia risks crippling childhoods

 28th February 2014

Lazy, politicised use of global comparisons is dangerous - and looking to Shanghai for the educational holy grail is a grave error

A few weeks ago I read a piece in this publication that went beyond the headlines about the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and asked some probing questions.

The article reported on an analysis by Cambridge Assessment researcher Tom Benton that looked at whether Pisa’s vast data set provided any evidence for or against the idea of school autonomy.

There was, Benton found, “no statistically significant association between the amount of freedom given to schools over how to spend their budgets and their academic results”.

Tellingly, England’s Department for Education - which loves the idea of giving more freedom to schools - refused to comment specifically on the details of Benton’s conclusions, simply restating “the importance of school autonomy”.

As the headteacher of a private school, of course I believe in giving school leaders as much autonomy as possible. But just as importantly, I don’t like dogma.

I most certainly agreed with another senior Cambridge Assessment official, Tim Oates, when he said: “There is not much point in people bashing [each other] over the head over the top-line Pisa findings…it doesn’t really work.”

In essence, it is time that policymakers stopped cherry-picking nuggets from international studies to prove their pet theories.

Politicians the world over, upon publication of the latest Pisa figures, insisted that we learn from the East and South East Asia, lauding Shanghai teachers who visited children’s homes in the evenings to set yet more homework. Move over Finland, former educational envy of the world, there’s a new kid on the block.

The politicians who promote the simplistic idea of mimicking the Chinese and Far Eastern systems overlook several things. First, education leaders in those countries don’t claim to have all the answers. Their maths scores may be stellar but there’s widespread concern about their young people’s lack of childhood. All too often, Asian students go from school to evening classes, finally getting to bed at 2am before rising at 6am for the next school day.

Is this really a great educational success worthy of admiration and even replication?

It has been suggested that if we in the West only grew a bit of backbone we could work our children and teachers as hard as our Asian competitors do. In rejecting that notion, I am not pleading cultural difference: I am saying that it is not the right way for children anywhere.

Second, many education leaders in China worry about a lack of creative teaching and too much chalk and talk. Chinese colleagues I meet are eager to learn from us about reversing that situation. They are very clear that they don’t have all the answers any more than we do.

Third, there seems to be an undercurrent in much of the West that the teaching profession in the developed world is not up to the challenge of catching up with higher-performing countries.

Scarcely human

This picture is at odds with what I see at this time of year, interviewing students for their first teaching posts. I am amazed by the candidates I meet: they are well-prepared, enthusiastic, highly and broadly skilled and very professional.

Among my own children, nephews and nieces there are several teachers. I meet their friends and colleagues, too. There is no lack of resilience. But too many have a growing sense of despair. They want to teach. They want to instil discipline in the classroom. They want to inspire and give life chances to young people. What demoralises them is the feeling that they are not permitted to deal with children as children.

Politicians insist that poverty (or any other home circumstance) is no excuse for underachievement. They are right. But that ruthlessly reiterated message means that, where schools are remorselessly pursuing the standards agenda, no allowance is made for the fact that the learners are children, bringing to school a whole host of experiences, problems, ambitions, fears, worries and obstacles.

To be sure, some exceptional schools manage to avoid this paradox. But teachers under pressure for any reason (and there are so many) would be scarcely human if they did not give in to fear and anxiety - and these are the enemies of creativity.

Scarcely human: that’s the point. Young teachers want to make a difference, to treat their students as individuals and help them to develop according to their own needs and abilities.

I risk being attacked as a dinosaur, a remnant of the 1970s and of what is currently, cynically, portrayed as misconceived child-centred idealism.

But education is about children and must be centred on them. I’m angry that the idea of starting with the child is so frequently caricatured as being anti-standards - of pandering to ill-discipline and to low achievement. It is, apparently, the reason we are unable to keep up with our global competitors.

I know about standards. Having run schools for more than 20 years, I’ve worked consistently to render those institutions more creative, more imaginative and above all more humane, while simultaneously raising aspirations and attainment.

We forget all that when we allow data to drive us. Data should certainly inform us, so by all means analyse the Pisa numbers. But please remember that those figures tell us only about measurable outcomes. They communicate nothing about children’s characters, fears or aspirations. And, when the data is used clumsily or simplistically, it does real harm.


 Forget the bleak educational midwinter and summon the spirit of teaching

TES Blog posted 19th December 2013

Listen! What do you hear? Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh bells in the snow, the clip-clop of reindeer (do they clip-clop?), carol singers?

Probably not. At the end of a long, hard term, we may perceive little of that Christmas-card glitter-and-tinsel feel in our world – the world of education.

Chaos looms, as ever. Facing still more savage budget cuts, schools are tightening belts, cutting subjects and teachers.  Meanwhile the National Audit Office reports hundreds of millions lost on student loans.

Opponents of Free Schools are making hay. Since a couple have got into trouble, the scheme’s enemies are vociferously (and erroneously) tarring all with the same brush.

Cheer up, Cinderella! Help is at hand. A network of Commissars (a Soviet-era term) will provide structure, coherence and regional oversight of Free Schools. Quite how that structure fits with the autonomy and freedoms allegedly at the heart of the Free Schools programme isn’t clear.

Will we end up with two parallel structures, local authorities and regional commissars’ offices performing much the same function? Like the pigs and humans in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we might gaze, bewildered, from one to the other, unable to tell them apart.

Mr Gove’s sending OFSTED into academy chains, much as it inspects local authorities at the moment. Why do I have such a powerful sense of déjà vu? Free Schools deserve better. All schools deserve better

But surely 2014 will bring clarity to exam reform? All must be revealed in the next few months: we’ll start teaching new specifications in 2015. What do you mean, fat chance? Where’s your sense of purpose and optimism

Teachers’ unions, at loggerheads with government, would say optimism and sense of purpose are entirely absent – ground out of the profession by Gove’s hostility and his intransigence in driving through performance-related pay.

It’s educational midwinter, then, and a bleak one at that. We teachers might have been forgiven for being reluctant to turn out to the school carol service, nativity play, pantomime or staff bash, preferring to stick a log on the fire and sip mulled wine in front of the TV.

That would be, in truth, a bit miserable. However full of conflict the political world of education is, when we see children performing, giving their all for sheer love of it and surprising themselves with what they achieve and what pleasure they give, then we begin again to recall the buzz and sheer vocation that drew us into teaching

So I hope you managed to summon up that last remaining scrap of energy! Crawled into school, decked the hall with boughs of holly, and allowed yourself to be reminded, not just of what Christmas is about, but of what the whole of education is about and why we fell into it in the first place.

And, if you have a moment, call to mind the words of the carol: “Oh hush the noise, ye [sic] men of strife: and hear the angels sing”.

A happy Christmas to all.


Ignore the GCSE fuss, bank the grades and move on

TES blog posted 22nd August 2013

Exams are in a state of turbulence. Grade inflation’s rampant. Independent schools choose the tougher International GCSE alternative. Gove promises to reform GCSE. Toughening up on top grades has halted the rot. IGCSE is easier. Independent schools slam Gove’s indecent haste.

Such blatantly contradictory statements (and more) have dominated the media recently. What are schools, students and parents, to make of them?My answer? On GCSE day particularly, little or nothing. Ignore the fuss. Bank the results. Move on.I’m not being flippant. This feeding frenzy is deeply unhelpful to candidates who must be assured that their qualifications still have currency. They do.Moreover, with AS set to disappear, GCSEs will become the only certified qualification for universities to base their selection process on.Do falling A* rates conversely guarantee standards? I don’t buy that. The steady rise in A*s over time was not “dumbing down”. Schools and students work harder than ever year on year: they get better at working the exam system. So grades rise. Knocking all that endeavour in an attempt to sound tough is a cheap and mean trick.Will this year’s tiny fall in top GCSE grades rule thousands of kids out of applying for medical school or Oxbridge? No. Candidates won’t suddenly find themselves with two A*s instead of the required eight: but they might drop to seven, so universities should appreciate the ground’s shifted, and be flexible. If they don’t, the various heads’ associations (ASCL, NAHT, HMC, GSA) should lean on them.In the end exam structures are only as good as the people running them: there aren’t enough good people in our bloated, sprawling system that continues to over-examine young people. So we’ll keep encountering problems.I never believed in structures anyway: it’s the people who count.The only solution is to trust schools and students. The profession must kick doors down to gain the leading say in exam reforms; challenge pundits and policy-makers when they strut and spout rubbish; take on exam boards and Ofqual when results aren’t right; and tackle universities when they’re out of order.Not much to do then! Congratulations on another great year.


"Strom", "quigh" and others - the nonsense of the phonics nonsense words

TES blog posted 5th August 2013

I’m not a great fan of systems in education: by inclination I’m a cherry picker, nicking the best bits (in my view) from all the ideas and methods around, to the despair of those who package and market them.

So you won’t be surprised to know that I’m not sold on the prevailing government view that, in teaching reading, synthetic phonics are The Great Way Forward. Actually, as an approach I think it’s fine, if it works for you as a teacher. It’s when the government decides to base national tests on it that I start to worry.

In these tests, five-year-olds have to read a list of words, including made-up ones. There was one word in each of last year’s pilot tests and in this year’s real one that caused schools heartache.

Last year’s was “strom”. Many fast readers misread it as “storm”. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? We subliminally correct misspelling, which is why proofreading remains an art even in the days of spellcheck. I’m always typing memos about the “sixth from” instead of the “sixth form”: spellcheck doesn’t pick it up, and I read what I expect to read, not what’s there, so I miss my mistake. A reader who quickly skims “strom” and sees “storm” is relatively advanced and quick: bad news for the school (not the pupil), though, as its score dips.

How would you pronounce this year’s dodgy word, “quigh”?  I believe that the five-year-old candidates should have read it to rhyme with “high”. By contrast, my first instinct was to say “quig”, “queeg” or similar. I don’t know why. But it’s a fake word, so surely there is no right or wrong?

In the non-nonsense world of government tests, there is no room for such philological debate, notwithstanding the great learning experience it offers. Always an easy reader, a musician by training and a natural auditory learner, I would still have failed, and pulled my school’s score down. It’s either right or it’s wrong – even if it’s unreal and completely arbitrary.

Still, it was never about the child was it? It was just another target for a school to hit – or miss. And woe betide the school that misses.


I’m still standing, barely

Friday 19th July 2013

When I was a young teacher, and was developing my passion for jazz, I read George Melly's colourful autobiography Owning Up. It is a lurid depiction of 1950s life on the road with Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band. At one point, Melly describes a "knee-trembler" with a groupie in the alley behind a venue: hysterical sexual ecstasy at the point of exhaustion.

My life in jazz has been very much quieter, but teachers can readily identify with the concept of near-hysteria on the verge of exhaustion.

At my school, we recently held our staff summer dinner and disco. It was tinged with the kind of frenzy that Melly describes: we partied furiously, feverishly, when the sensible thing in terms of end-of-term survival would have been an early night with a mug of Horlicks. When I called it a day at 11.15pm, a few hardy souls were still going.

Something about school life dictates that, although it would be logical to spread major events evenly across the term, we don't. That big concert/musical/sports day/leavers' prom requires a whole term of preparation. So we conclude with a frenzied week, after which we all collapse, too knackered to really appreciate the long holidays that people so begrudge us.

Spare a thought for our students: they suffer, too. Rehearsals invariably hit their peak just as sporty children are playing competition finals: they are simultaneously sitting end-of-term/year/module tests.

At our sports day, I chatted to some 14- and 15-year-olds who, the night before, had performed not one but four Moliere farces. They looked utterly washed out, but one was nonetheless about to run the 1,500m. "What I like about you guys," I said, "is that you look even more tired than I feel." I wasn't exaggerating.

I'm not convinced that we can solve this dilemma. Whenever some bright spark (usually an out-of-touch politician) suggests that we should have four, five or six terms in a year, I argue that it would just make things worse. Three ends of term in a year are bad enough - I'm not sure I could handle more.

No, I'm with Melly (on the subject of exhaustion, not back-alley fornication). In a strange, masochistic way, we teachers actually like the terminal madness. It's there, on the brink of collapse, that we achieve - or help our students to achieve - those great performances on stage, on the sports pitch, wherever.

At such times, I guess we do not teach as sharply as we did at the start of term, and I'm not convinced that the homework is as good. But, hey, that's all part of life's rich tapestry. Time management and immaculate organisation aren't the answer. Nor, necessarily, is getting everything done ahead of deadline. Sometimes it's simply about coping, achieving the miracle and, yes, surviving without enough sleep for the last week or two of term. We do it, so why shouldn't children learn the skill? And, as I say to my youngest colleagues, surviving without sleep is very good training for parenthood.

I'll stop now: I'm about to fall over. Have a great summer.


A world of ideas

Friday 10th May 2103

I was in New Zealand when I had one of my best ideas for improving learning at my school. In 2007, I was at the International Confederation of Principals in Auckland, listening to Sir Ken Robinson, the creativity man. It wasn't anything in particular that he said. Rather, his inspirational talk set my mind running. I'm not sure I heard all of his session - I was scribbling too furiously as my own, barely connected, concept grew.

What the idea was doesn't matter. But the experience poses an important question: do you really have to travel to the other side of the world to have a good idea?

Of course not. But it's true that I've never had my best ideas in school - it's just too busy. Both the joy and the frustration of school leadership stem from the fact that your day never goes according to plan. You're constantly interrupted by the stream of people and issues arriving at your door or on your computer screen. Accordingly, I always advise newly appointed school leaders to "get out more".

It's not obligatory to travel abroad for new ideas, but it helps. When rubbing shoulders with educators from other systems, cultures or traditions, you are struck first by the differences. But, invariably, over a few days you discover that you share infinitely more hopes and fears, aspirations and frustrations. From that interaction, you can start to develop your own ideas; solutions appropriate to your setting.

International benchmarking has its dangers. We are plagued by policymakers deciding that, for example, Finland's high level of attainment means it has all the answers for other education systems. Clearly it has many, but you cannot transplant one country's approach wholesale into another. Sadly, politicians try to do just that: their heavy-handed, cherry-picking and imposed "solutions" give international comparison a bad name.

For teachers and school leaders, however, there's no such danger. Generally, the best ideas that we develop for our schools are part stolen, part adapted. The successful approach at the school 10 miles down the road won't quite suit us, but we like the basic premise. So we borrow the concept, mould it to our particular context and make it work for us. If we look internationally, we find more inspiration from which to borrow, adapt and create anew.

Opportunities abound to attend conferences overseas or to study abroad, so volunteer and ask your school governors to fund it. The experience is encouraging, too: when we compare notes with people from other systems, we often find that we're not doing so badly.

I'll come clean. The great idea I had in New Zealand was one I never saw through. Instead, against expectation, I got a new job. Perhaps that trip was the catalyst; I don't know. But I'm certain that the international dimension has helped both me and the schools I've led. Think about it - and get out more.


Blurred vision

Friday 29th March 2013

He hasn’t been in the post long, but schools minister David Laws is making his mark. When I heard him speak recently to the National Education Trust (NET), colleagues said they’d heard him three times in two days. It’s good for the new boy to outline his vision, though, surely?

I guess it depends what you call a vision. The mission belongs to Michael Gove  and Laws’ vision is entirely based on statistics. He reels off the percentage of children “ready for secondary education” – or not. He will save UK education by raising floor targets (yawn) and imposing a new, far more sensible (how many times have we heard that?) accountability regime.

Laws praises outstanding school leaders who set themselves much higher targets than the government floor level. Of course they do. But policy-makers always miss the fact that the best school leaders aren’t target-driven: their aspirational vision for a school, their never-slaked thirst for improvement, is visceral, vocational and professional – nothing to do with figures.

Nonetheless figures drive the system now. In his NET speech, Laws barely mentioned teachers, only the Neanderthal leftist irresponsibility of their unions (that’s how he and his boss characterise those who disagree with them). He spoke of trust and autonomy just once – in answer to a question. Then he returned to the required levels and what OFSTED will do to schools that miss them.

How can you feel trusted or autonomous when the OFSTED gun’s pressed to your temple?

Earlier that week I’d been in East Durham, coincidentally on the day Michael Gove castigated that area’s “smell of defeatism”. Although I’ve lived in the North-East for five years, I hadn’t been to East Durham before. I drove around Peterlee and Easington Colliery, real Billy Elliott country. More than two decades after the miners’ strike and the death of its mines, the area is still blighted. New businesses and enterprises haven’t rushed in. There’s a gap where the major employer used to be.

Of course schools need aspiration, hope and ambition. But, frankly, up in the North-East we find the policy-makers a long way south: Mr Gove has no idea of the reality of East Durham, an area tenaciously battling to improve – but with no focus, help or understanding from central government. Indeed, our local councils are suffering worse cuts than more affluent parts of the country.

When Laws spoke of outstanding leaders, he forgot the most important aspect of great leadership: when something goes wrong, good leaders don’t blame someone down the line, they take it personally.

Government knows no such response. I’ve spent 23 years of headship trying to mitigate the worst effects of successive education secretaries. They take no responsibility. They blame schools; ineffectual heads; lazy teachers; communities. No blame for ministers who turn a blind eye, introduce their latest daft initiative without thinking it through, and leave teachers and school leaders to pick up the pieces while they move on and up.

Different faces, different administrations, same old messages.  Our children deserve better.  And so do those who work incredibly hard to give them the life chances they need.


Start talking to the enemy

 Friday 11th January 2013

It's war. As we were winding down to the end of last term and looking forward to the season of peace and goodwill, Michael Gove announced he was putting the department on a war footing. He'll confront the unions over pay, strikes and sacking teachers. No more Mr Nice Guy (when was that?): he's getting tough.

Gove is a man in a hurry. But, climbing into the turret of his Panzer (sorry, Chieftain), he risks making himself look ridiculous.

Leading change is tough. The job of headship - my job - is about improving schools: they can always be better and we should never be satisfied. As chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw reminds us, we're talking about children's futures.

The flip side is that most workers dislike change. Even the best innovations push them out of their comfort zones, requiring them to think afresh and work harder while they get used to the new way of doing things. Of course they're resistant: it's human nature. Leaders must persuade and cajole, then lick their wounds after the encounters.

Secretaries of state, like heads, should accept the reality of that very human resistance to change. But in Gove's case, any contradiction of his plans is characterised as wilful obstruction.

Those who dislike the changes are not necessarily blocking progress or improvement for its own sake. When Gove and his cronies characterise their opponents as being against standards - as favouring lousy opportunities for children - it is offensive and silly.

However, I don't think the teaching unions have got it right. Their work-to-rule and strike plans are wrong-headed. Parents will neither support nor forgive them.

I suspect that union fears that the changes will usher in regional pay are unfounded. The outcome will actually resemble an arms race rather than a cut in pay, with the strongest schools increasing pay rates to attract the best teachers.

But Gove's pay plans aren't just about shortening incremental scales. He's the latest minister convinced that performance-related pay is the only way. So how do you measure performance? You can argue that on a production line you could pay workers for the number of widgets they produce in a day. Clear and fair.

But it isn't. What happens when something goes wrong further up the production line? Does everyone take a hit? If that rudimentary example is trickier than it first appears, how do you measure the complex set of interactions that constitute a teaching day? There is no simple solution.

Another battleground for Gove is the old chestnut about sacking poor teachers. People have employment rights and teachers are people, too. There's a human rights issue here but this government isn't keen on those.

It's not easy running a school: to run a whole education system must be hell. But you don't do it by behaving like Hitler. War? The unions cannot just be smashed: this isn't the 1980s.

Besides, in war the first casualty is truth, as Aeschylus wrote: we don't want to lose any more of that. So here's a New Year's resolution for Gove. Stop regarding anyone who doesn't agree with you as the enemy: start talking instead. The only way we'll move forward is by reason and compromise, and reason, surely, is at the heart of education.

 Beyond the smokescreen

Friday 9th November 2012

“Critical to reform is ending an examination system that has narrowed the curriculum, forced idealistic professionals to teach to the test and encouraged heads to offer children the softest possible options,” said education secretary Michael Gove when he announced his plans for a English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) to replace GCSEs.

Gove has an obsessive conviction that the left has been systematically and deliberately lowering standards, dumbing down exams and wrecking the education of the young in this country. This bizarre “reds under the bed” attitude is best ignored. He gives three reasons why GCSEs aren’t working. There are, in fact, lots of reasons why they aren’t working and they do need to be scrapped. But those three are none of them. Gove created an outrageous smokescreen which needs to be challenged.

First, he says that GCSEs have narrowed the curriculum. They haven’t. In fact, there is a wide range of subjects and pupils can benefit from of a very broad curriculum. The narrowing comes when someone like Gove interferes. A couple of years ago, for example, he decided that some GCSEs were more important than others. His new system perpetuates that hierarchy.

I have no objection to the concept of a core curriculum: the damage is done only when government insists on league tables that are based on them. At that point, the core becomes the only part that’s valued.

Any alleged narrowing has nothing to do with what schools do, what children choose or what teachers teach. It’s all to do with the pressure on schools to meet targets. They are pushed to get a certain number of C grades in a certain number of exams. The government dishes out no brownie points for getting pupils A*s. What keeps Ofsted off your back is a minimum number of C grades in a prescribed range of subjects.

That pressure is what creates the three problems outlined by Gove. It narrows the curriculum because schools, under the Ofsted cosh, concentrate on them. Consequently, teachers are obliged to take a tick-box approach to teaching.

We are moving towards the tick-box style exams that will get candidates over the tick-box hurdle of government benchmarks. For any minister of the past 20 years to present himself as liberating teachers and allowing them to be creative is a fairly grotesque kind of posturing.

Gove castigates those who push children towards easier exams. But if you’re a leader and your job, your teacher’s jobs and much else depend on hitting those targets, wouldn’t you be tempted in some cases? I might. I never judge heads in those positions, because I’m lucky enough not to live with that.

Ministers should know better. They do. But Gove wilfully opened his statement with a political red herring. His three reasons are indeed national problems, but they are not problems with GCSEs, merely with the way government uses and abuses them.

I wish I could feel optimistic about the GCSE replacement, and about the reform of A levels that will follow. But the new structure is proposed on the basis of solving a bogus and politically contrived set of problems. 

Without root-and-branch reform, our exam system faces collapse. But the proposed EBC system is a house built on sand: as the scripture says, “mighty was the fall thereof”.


Double-speak rules in post-Olympic world

Friday 14th September 2012

Comment in the great summer of 2012 starts and finishes with sport, I guess. GB’s Olympic success (or, rather, the route to it) provides a host of metaphors for success in life in general and, at this time of year, exams in particular.  The athletes’ personal stories of commitment, sacrifice, dedication and sheer dogged hard work are awe-inspiring. As we move into the Paralympics we’re seeing those qualities manifested even more starkly.  

The parallels are plain as a pikestaff – but that won’t stop heads like me from plundering them shamelessly for assembly fodder as we try to galvanise our pupils at the start of the new school year. Why overlook such a gift horse? The nation, and especially its youth, has been electrified by Olympian examples of endeavour and, above all, of triumph over adversity.

Think of Jessica Ennis, excluded by injury from the Beijing Olympics, returning to devastating form in her sevenfold discipline. Or Somalian-born Mo Farah - who left his family to train in Ethiopia and America but whom everyone in Hounslow knows nonetheless as the bloke from down the road as he works out round the park - tearing the opposition apart to win both the 5,000m and the 10,000m. Even the least inspired among us assembly-takers can at last cast aside that old 1950s Boys’ Book of Heroic Tales and use this summer’s experience for the Ultimate Start of Term Motivating Speech.

Let’s remember, we can also use the achievement of this year’s exam candidates as the model to hold up for the next cohort. They done good, as football managers say. Moreover, this year we’ve all been spared the customary mealy-mouthed congratulations from education ministers while the usual dinosaurs roar and posture about dumbing down and falling standards. Both groups were unusually muted this year.

Sadly, they’ve kept schtumm because top grades fell this year for the first time since (according to the dinosaurs) educationists (or, according to Michael Gove in The Times, the Left) started deliberately lowering standards to the point where an A level today is worth about what a Cub Scout’s knot-tying badge was in 1969. So no triumphalism, just a quiet satisfaction at the fact that, because 0.4% fewer candidates got the top A* grade at A Level, standards are declared to have risen. Something similar appears to have occurred at GCSE.

Hang on! Just run that past me again, will you? Even in the parallel universe that UK education inhabits, it takes some puzzling out. George Orwell’s 1984 has finally arrived! Under Big Brother’s iron rule, people have to learn to speak the contradictory, to believe the incredible: doublespeak and doublethink. For those exam candidates, who prepared as immaculately as Olympic runners, making this last-minute grade change is like moving the finishing tape after the race has started. Doublethink it, though, and this year’s results make perfect sense. People did (marginally) less well. So it must have been harder. So standards must have risen. Job done.

The other element in GB’s Olympic success was a spectacularly effective combination of investment, infrastructure, support and strategic development over years. We’ve moved from the old days of a few plucky Brits occasionally winning against the odds to a professional machine designed and resourced to build champions.

Hence the current furore about assuring the Olympic sporting legacy: the silly row about selling off playing fields is a smoke-screen. What we should be discussing is not the loss of a few badly-maintained strips of grass but how, if we want to build our pyramid of success higher in future, we can broaden the base: because broaden it we must. Grass-roots participation (and national levels of fitness) and elite sporting achievement are indivisible parts of one enormous strategic decision for the government. But scoring silly inter-party points about who flogged off more land, and when, won’t get us anywhere.

Nothing succeeds like success. Even before the Games ended the Prime Minister conceded that earlier plans to cut spending on sports development after them would have to be reversed. Now we need to put pressure on ministers and seize the opportunities created by the post-Olympic zeitgeist. Me, I’d start by sticking a specialist sports teacher in every primary school in the country.

But I’m not a sports expert. I can’t even catch a ball. Government needs to change its usual practice and listen to experts – both those with deep experience of grass-roots and elite sport alike, and those who really know what works in schools and what doesn’t. Maybe in post-Olympic GB we can move beyond political smoke and mirrors, capitalise on a remarkable level of national consensus and enthusiasm - and really achieve something.

And will government acknowledge in education policy the indisputable correlation between levels of resourcing and Olympic success? Perhaps that’s an Olympic dream too far.


Double-speak rules in post-Olympic world

Friday 14th September 2012

Comment in the great summer of 2012 starts and finishes with sport, I guess. GB’s Olympic success (or, rather, the route to it) provides a host of metaphors for success in life in general and, at this time of year, exams in particular.  The athletes’ personal stories of commitment, sacrifice, dedication and sheer dogged hard work are awe-inspiring. As we move into the Paralympics we’re seeing those qualities manifested even more starkly.  

The parallels are plain as a pikestaff – but that won’t stop heads like me from plundering them shamelessly for assembly fodder as we try to galvanise our pupils at the start of the new school year. Why overlook such a gift horse? The nation, and especially its youth, has been electrified by Olympian examples of endeavour and, above all, of triumph over adversity.

Think of Jessica Ennis, excluded by injury from the Beijing Olympics, returning to devastating form in her sevenfold discipline. Or Somalian-born Mo Farah - who left his family to train in Ethiopia and America but whom everyone in Hounslow knows nonetheless as the bloke from down the road as he works out round the park - tearing the opposition apart to win both the 5,000m and the 10,000m. Even the least inspired among us assembly-takers can at last cast aside that old 1950s Boys’ Book of Heroic Tales and use this summer’s experience for the Ultimate Start of Term Motivating Speech.

Let’s remember, we can also use the achievement of this year’s exam candidates as the model to hold up for the next cohort. They done good, as football managers say. Moreover, this year we’ve all been spared the customary mealy-mouthed congratulations from education ministers while the usual dinosaurs roar and posture about dumbing down and falling standards. Both groups were unusually muted this year.

Sadly, they’ve kept schtumm because top grades fell this year for the first time since (according to the dinosaurs) educationists (or, according to Michael Gove in The Times, the Left) started deliberately lowering standards to the point where an A level today is worth about what a Cub Scout’s knot-tying badge was in 1969. So no triumphalism, just a quiet satisfaction at the fact that, because 0.4% fewer candidates got the top A* grade at A Level, standards are declared to have risen. Something similar appears to have occurred at GCSE.

Hang on! Just run that past me again, will you? Even in the parallel universe that UK education inhabits, it takes some puzzling out. George Orwell’s 1984 has finally arrived! Under Big Brother’s iron rule, people have to learn to speak the contradictory, to believe the incredible: doublespeak and doublethink. For those exam candidates, who prepared as immaculately as Olympic runners, making this last-minute grade change is like moving the finishing tape after the race has started. Doublethink it, though, and this year’s results make perfect sense. People did (marginally) less well. So it must have been harder. So standards must have risen. Job done.

The other element in GB’s Olympic success was a spectacularly effective combination of investment, infrastructure, support and strategic development over years. We’ve moved from the old days of a few plucky Brits occasionally winning against the odds to a professional machine designed and resourced to build champions.

Hence the current furore about assuring the Olympic sporting legacy: the silly row about selling off playing fields is a smoke-screen. What we should be discussing is not the loss of a few badly-maintained strips of grass but how, if we want to build our pyramid of success higher in future, we can broaden the base: because broaden it we must. Grass-roots participation (and national levels of fitness) and elite sporting achievement are indivisible parts of one enormous strategic decision for the government. But scoring silly inter-party points about who flogged off more land, and when, won’t get us anywhere.

Nothing succeeds like success. Even before the Games ended the Prime Minister conceded that earlier plans to cut spending on sports development after them would have to be reversed. Now we need to put pressure on ministers and seize the opportunities created by the post-Olympic zeitgeist. Me, I’d start by sticking a specialist sports teacher in every primary school in the country.

But I’m not a sports expert. I can’t even catch a ball. Government needs to change its usual practice and listen to experts – both those with deep experience of grass-roots and elite sport alike, and those who really know what works in schools and what doesn’t. Maybe in post-Olympic GB we can move beyond political smoke and mirrors, capitalise on a remarkable level of national consensus and enthusiasm - and really achieve something.

And will government acknowledge in education policy the indisputable correlation between levels of resourcing and Olympic success? Perhaps that’s an Olympic dream too far.


A little trust would go a long way

Friday 20th July 2012

It’s that taxi-driver thing again. “I learnt me twelve-times table by the time I was nine. We got the stick if we didn’t know our tables. It didn’t do me no harm!”

If you overlook the tick in his right cheek and the rictus grin, the certainty of the apocryphal London cabbie is reassuring. I suspect it was he who told Michael Gove how maths should be taught.

People of my generation learnt our tables by rote when we were in junior school. It didn’t do most of us any harm. Indeed, I still do a lot of mental arithmetic. I often find myself doing a quick calculation in my head, checking the feasibility of some budgetary plan. I think I was well taught: I round up or down and use my times tables to reach a rough total or percentage.

I don’t know why the rote-learning of times tables apparently disappeared from schools. It worked for me.

That’s the point, though. It worked for me – but it didn’t work for everyone. Since my Sixties childhood we’ve become more subtle and flexible in our approach. Teaching methods, approaches to tackling tasks and building blocks of fundamental learning: they work differently for different children.

Constant government pressure over the past two decades has forced teachers to teach specified schemes of work, in specified ways, so children reach specified levels at specified ages. We all know the result of using prescription to “drive up standards” (a favoured ministerial phrase): one searing proof lies in the fact that too many children get to secondary school age with unsatisfactory levels of literacy or numeracy.

Constantly under the cosh from ministerial interference and hostile inspection, schools and teachers are invariably characterised as lowering standards, notwithstanding the flowery compliments politicians pay (to some) when they address conferences. In truth the lowering is more frequently caused by banal government prescription, benchmarks and floor targets. Teachers, like schools, come in all shapes and sizes, and some are better than others.

But a teacher who really cannot be bothered to help children to grow and make something of their potential: that’s a rare beast indeed.

Nonetheless yet another Secretary of State is micromanaging - yet again. He’s telling schools precisely what to teach when, and how. How hollow now ring those early promises of freedom and choice for schools!

There was dissent within Mr Gove’s working group. Andrew Pollard, its leading academic, describes the proposals as “fatally flawed”, and “overly prescriptive”. They’re based on a misguided principle of linearity that insists children learn “first this, then that”.

It’s misguided because they don’t. Children learn at different speeds and in all kinds of different ways. Gifted teachers have always seen that, and differentiated accordingly.

In 22 years of headship I’ve lost count of the “new strategies” based on a simplistic ministerial assumption about how children learn. Gove’s proposed new National Curriculum goes one better, cherry-picking elements from all the highest performing systems in the world.

Great idea: hopeless in practice. Sure, smart schools have always nicked ideas from others: the posh term for it is “sharing good practice”. But you have to assimilate those ideas into what works for your school, with your children. A small group of advisers and a politician can’t do that for a whole nation, and shouldn’t try.

There’s nothing wrong with getting children to learn poems by heart. Nor to chant tables as in the “old days”. But why must Michael Gove insist that every child at a particular age has to do it? In a politician’s hands the joy of poetry and the excitement of maths alike will rapidly become the drudgery of tedium. And narrow prescription will, as always, force teachers to teach uniformly, to the middle, so the brightest and those who are struggling alike will get a raw deal. Again.

Here’s a funny thing about the proposed new National Curriculum.  Government’s flagship schools, the Academies, don’t have to do it: because they are (allegedly) independent. This suggests the great new plan is directed specifically at those schools that haven’t converted. Are they the bad boys and girls, the slow learners in school terms? I think we should be told. The knives are out for those who don’t climb aboard the Academy Express.

Will any politician ever find the courage to trust schools? To set the broad direction and then trust the profession to be creative, demanding, challenging, inspiring, in travelling it? I fear not.

From the quarter-century history of the National Curriculum teachers have learnt the lessons of over-prescription, and of curricular overload. They’ve learnt the hard way, by having to deal with the fallout.

I’ve always believed people should learn from history. I hope my pupils do. But I fear politicians never will. They’re always so sure they know better.

You say you trust us, Mr Gove. Now prove it

Friday 15th June 2012

At last, a ministerial olive branch. At the recent NAHT conference Secretary of State Michael Gove drew back from the threat of no-notice inspections. He said it appears that schools and their leaders don’t feel trusted by government: OFSTED is seen as arriving, dreaded and unannounced, like the Spanish Inquisition. “That was not the intention”, he assured delegates.

Well, I guess that’s a start. In my twenty-plus years of headship there’s been precious trust shown in the profession by the many Secretaries of State who have come and gone, their lieutenants or their civil servants: you don’t feel much warmth about teachers or their leaders in the leafy offices of Sanctuary Buildings.

Ernest Hemingway said: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”.

Not a bad dictum: so will Gove call off the Rottweilers? Not yet, it appears. Since taking up post OFSTED’s newish boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has done little but utter dire threats against complacency in schools. He’s hard to fathom. He models the headship role on Clint Eastwood, the lone warrior fighting wrong: scary guy. By contrast, people who have worked with him (I’ve met several) cannot praise him too highly. He was totally committed to his pupils, they say, and a fantastically supportive and empowering colleague. As heads’ halos go, his is very shiny.

Indeed, Wilshaw ceaselessly proclaims his mission to give all children a fair chance, to ensure they’re not let down in their life choices by lousy opportunities offered in school, a personal mission with which we all empathise and which we applaud. Schools will – and, in a sense, should – never be “good enough”. We mustn’t ever be satisfied. We all want to see our schools get better, all the time. That’s a given.

But if it’s at odds with his real, generous persona, why does Wilshaw become Mr Hostile when he dons his OFSTED hat?

If ministers claim the current inspection regime is anything but threatening, they’re being wilfully disingenuous. I’m at an age where my pension’s almost complete: they can’t nick much of it, and I guess I could take a risk. But, given the present timescales with regard to “schools in categories” (a curious euphemism), I would feel obliged to advise any head asked to take over a failing school - either as a sole headship or as a group executive principal (very much an in-title) - not to touch it with a barge-pole.

Small wonder, then, that NAHT predicts a headship crisis: why would a bright, youngish school leader crave the hot seat when there is so much risk attached? They may have a vision and a social mission, both laudable: but they may also have a family to feed, a mortgage to pay and a pension to build at an increased rate of contribution. With those monthly outgoings, even the prospect of making a real difference in a school whose setting clearly makes the raising of floor targets problematical and far from quick is unlikely to appear the chance of a lifetime. Gove promised: “No school or head will be penalised for moving in the right direction.” I suspect NAHT members will be waiting to see the proof.

Of course, all this takes place against a background of ministerial insistence on giving schools the power to make their own decisions. Academies are “independent state schools”: the description, calculated to try to grab ground from the private sector, is a calculated half-truth. Academies, free of local authority control, are more in thrall to central government than ever: just witness the budget cock-up some are currently dealing with.

Whatever schools’ status, all suffer government micro-management. Schools Minister Nick Gibb has got his way on forcing phonics teaching, and testing, on schools.

The synthetic phonics approach is well-respected, effective for many children. But the effect of ministerial micro-management will be one more step in de-skilling the profession. Teachers will be pressured to use phonics: and viable alternative or parallel approaches will be discouraged.

Is that a problem? It is in the case of a seven-year-old girl I met recently. She has auditory problems, discovered a little late: she hasn’t heard the sounds clearly, and cannot relate them to what she sees on the page. She struggles with Mr Gibb’s made-up phonic words - zoot, kloob, gax.

Presumably such words have a use for some children – though I haven’t thought of one. But they won’t help this little girl. She’s beyond the age of five where Gibb wants to have his tests, so she won’t embarrass the school. But what will happen to her? My hope is that she’ll get the speech and language therapy she needs, connected (in a coherent and joined-up way) to help with reading.

I wish I felt confident. I fear she’ll be left behind while her school, under more pressure than ever, concentrates on the majority it can get to the next target level, as government pressure always forces schools to.

Still, we can stop worrying. The Secretary of State says he does trust schools. Any suggestion to the contrary was unintentional.

So prove it, Ministers.Stop ramping up your threatening “or else” language; tone down the damning descriptors and implied penalties from OFSTED; stop interfering and attempting to micro-manage; and make the department get its sums right.

That would be a start. Then schools might trust to you to trust them.


Heads won’t be roped into partnership

Academy sponsorship is not for us all

Friday 6th January 2012

It hasn't been said in so many words, but the writing's on the wall. If independent schools wish to be "acceptable", to bask in the favour of politicians, they would do well to sponsor an academy. Note that I said "politicians", not government. This issue has united all three main parties. It is as if there is now something dirty about independent schools: get stuck into the academies programme, or endure the disapproval of the political establishment. But some independents might say, "Don't we already broaden access to the less well-off and aid social mobility through bursaries?" Unfortunately, politicians have decided they're irrelevant.

Such tunnel vision undervalues just how much the sector contributes. Independents are not ivory towers. We already work closely with our neighbours (if I hear mention of the inter-sector Berlin Wall once more, I may kill someone!). We collaborate in ways that are right for our schools and for those we partner, and for the pupils in our area. Academy sponsorship is great for some, and rightly applauded, but cannot be imposed on all. Government would be unwise to put pressure on us to follow one required pattern to justify our existence. That rhetoric has already gone too far and overlooks the difficulties inherent in sponsorship.

Advocates of cross-sector academy sponsorship characterise independents as the single model for success in all schools. "Sharing our DNA" has become a flattering, if irritating, mantra. Those of us who retain a degree of scepticism (and humility) question how much we can really offer on discipline and standards in the more difficult setting of a failing school. My school's ethos is distinctive, but the image frequently portrayed (tight discipline, smart uniforms, prefects and house systems) is not our DNA. Those are superficial symptoms of something much deeper - a viscerally liberal approach to education markedly at odds with the "tough love" frequently boasted by academies. Moreover, government targets and simplistic Ofsted judgements are alien and inimical to our modus operandi.

Involvement is not without cost. I lose sleep about finding the capacity in my professional life, let alone my colleagues' lives, to take spare energy from my school into another. Some schools have found it, and I admire them for it. In my school I see none, nor spare money. We charge parents the lowest fee compatible with excellence. We spend their money on excellent staff and facilities, but rarely on non-core activities - nor on consultants. Nor would I want my high-profile independent school to wade into a highly charged political atmosphere: academies are not popular everywhere and have even provoked the odd strike.

The biggest of several elephants in the room is the question of selection. The majority of independent schools are academically selective at age 11 or 13. Some claim to be "fairly comprehensive", but the adverb "fairly" is significant: few are genuinely or wholly so. What our schools do so well is mostly achieved with a relatively narrow ability range, even where we support a variety of special needs. With their grand talk and broad-brush vision, academy advocates are quick to overlook this significant aspect of our DNA. But true partnership demands honesty, not coy avoidance of the difficult topics.

Our greatest strength is our independence, which government pressure threatens. If policymakers seek the involvement of independent schools, they should woo us, not preach at us; offer real advantages rather than mere withdrawal of disapproval; and strenuously avoid constraining the independence that defines our DNA by prescribing an approved mode of engagement.

Despite my many reservations, I may yet work with a school in difficult circumstances, after assessing what my school can realistically offer in a spirit of humility. I shall be obliged to negotiate robustly. If I find myself pushed down a path inimical to my school, I shall be out of it like a shot and heading for the hills. And I don't think I'd be alone.


Forget Ofsted. What schools need is AA Gill

Friday 7th October 2011

As Sunday Times food critic AA Gill left the River Café in Glasbury-on-Wye he tried to be funny. He said the food was disgusting. Bad joke, wrong place: distraught, the chef punched a (human) dish-washer, and ended up in court.

Unsurprisingly, newspaper columns jumped on the story to ask why we need food critics, if all they do is stir up trouble.

Gill wrote a piece in defence of his profession: “Our job isn’t to be constructive, however much those who have been criticised whine. It is a fact that a collectively robust, unpartisan, argumentative body of critics improves and invigorates the medium it criticises... public eating has improved immensely.”

Making his point strongly, he put me in mind of school inspection. Inspection hasn’t of itself raised standards in schools - teachers and schools do that – but, though we dislike it, it has given a push in the right direction.

I am in no doubt that it’s lost it way now, however. In a fanatical quest for the Holy Grail of accountability, it has become over-complex, bureaucratic, inhuman. When stakes are high – failure involving removal of governing bodies, sacking of school leaders and school closures – those on the receiving end have demanded judgments backed by terabytes of data. The result? Ironically, not sophisticated, reasoned findings: rather, simplistic, formulaic conclusions in the blandest of language.

Such crudity is damaging, and is spreading. Many heads nowadays define themselves by their school’s banal OFSTED judgment. Can you imagine Heston Blumenthal proudly announcing to his clientele that the Fat Duck is “good with outstanding features”?  Yet people describe schools in those terms, with a straight face. My heart bleeds for them: the hard-earned praise of the “outstanding” label is so paltry, so cold, so grudging.

Such a judgement is almost meaningless, belying the countless human interactions that take place in schools day after day. It studiously ignores the hopes, the fears, the aspirations, the frustrations, the achievements of the individuals in the school and demeans them by reducing the entire massive undertaking to a single grade. Accountability? Maybe. But does it achieve anything at all? I don’t think so.

An official inspectorate enforcing the government’s agenda (as it must) demands conformity. It cannot avoid putting pressure, however indirectly, on schools to conform to a preferred “best practice” model or agenda. As such it will inevitably negate over time what the Coalition sees as the benefits of the freedoms granted to academies and free schools. It’s the nature of the beast.

So humour me for a moment. Look through the telescope the other way. Why don’t we extend the AA Gill model to schools? An experienced, civilised, cultured person, the educational equivalent of a food critic, would simply walk in and get a feel for the place. His report – with no agenda, and unconstrained by pseudo-scientific jargon – could create an elegant and vivid a word-painting of the nature, ethos and feel of the school. Yet if one of David Cameron’s allegedly “coasting schools” tried to hide behind merely satisfactory data, a sharp-eyed critic would surely spot it.

I can already hear the screams of outrage at this proposal. We can’t have any old nutter turning up! What about professional expertise? What about objectivity?

Hold on. What, if not a nutter, is the inspector who fails an otherwise good school because its fence is not high enough? What is professional about a “limiting judgement” that damns a school on a single aspect, however good the rest? And what else but lack of objectivity lies behind a framework driven by government obsessions of the moment? In comparison the school critic would be unpartisan, open-minded, objective – and very sharp-eyed, merciless with jargon or flannel. That’s its nature.

Government is obsessed with no-notice inspections. It wants to catch schools unprepared, so they can’t ship out the naughty kids for a day or mount elaborate subterfuges to hide their weaknesses. But the inspectorate can’t get its machinery rolling quite that easily, and it needs the data: thus schools are seldom if ever caught on the hop.

By contrast AA Gill accepts that reality: a show is put on for him: “The instant I am recognised in a restaurant everything gets worse. The wait between courses gets longer… the chef goes ‘Oh God, we’re not serving him that. Make it again.’ … Do you really imagine, having done this for two decades, that I don’t notice?”

To be fair, there is already a schools’ equivalent to Egon Ronay or Michelin. I recently rediscovered the Good Schools Guide. It’s grown. The 2011 version is of house-brick weight and costs £39.99.

The publishers aren’t paying me to say this, but it’s attractive, informative - and far more illuminating than any inspection report I’ve read. In the manner of a good food guide, schools don’t pay, but are invited to be included. The contributor (generally an ex-head) visits the school. (Two years after the Guide last visited me, I’m find I’m still portrayed as a recently-arrived, noisy but amiable eccentric: they’ve got that wrong, so they don’t always get it right!). The school’s stated aims and strengths are critiqued and parental views are discreetly garnered.

The result is entertaining, if slightly quirky. OK: admittedly it’s all a bit cosy. But the picture drawn is vivid.

So remove the cosiness. Try my plan. Get the genuinely lone warrior in, the school critic. He arrives, maybe unannounced, maybe not. He samples. He sees through the smokescreens and makes a judgement. He departs.

Don’t listen to what he says as he leaves: you might be tempted to punch the deputy head. But the printed report will be measured; careful; critical where criticism is due; elegantly phrased; and, well, objective. Is it such a barmy notion after all?

Inspection’s had its day.  Bring on the school critic!


Carol counts down to extra maths

Friday 16th September 2011

Remember the Möbius strip, that clever paper loop with a twist in it? If you draw a line along it, you come back to where you started having drawn on both sides – and discover that there is in fact only one continuous side.

It’s a satisfyingly intriguing concept, giving rise to myriad questions and ideas beyond the mere functional mathematics which dominates school life and has recently been exercising the mind of Carol Vorderman and her team: they have just published the findings of their enquiry into maths education.  I’ve nothing against Vorderman: it’s good to see a TV personality who makes being clever cool.  But my heart sinks when ministers import yet another celebrity brain (albeit one whose university degree wouldn’t meet Michael Gove’s requirement for entry to the profession) to tell us what to teach.

Happily, her report is clear, tough and doesn’t pull any punches. It’s critical of the damage done by regulation and inspection: schools are pushed by targets, OFSTED and tick-box National Curriculum approaches into drilling children in pedestrian mathematical routines.  Vorderman deplores both the shortage of secondary maths specialists and the low level of primary teachers’ maths skills. Far from the creative, mind-opening experience she desires, school maths thus becomes a mind-numbing, dreary process. A third of pupils make no progress in their first year at secondary school and 90% of children “who have failed to reach the target in the SAT at age 11… fail their GCSEs and leave school functionally innumerate”.

The problems are starkly outlined. Mercifully, for the answer Vorderman doesn’t look overseas for a magic bullet: “we cannot merely import a system… and expect it to work”.

As I read the report my spirits started to lift.  Then came the fatal flaw: the recommendation of “a route map for introducing compulsory mathematics for everyone post-16”. My heart sank again.

That’s the danger. All but one of Vorderman’s panel are mathematicians, and specialists tend to focus on their subject to the exclusion of others. One thing teachers have to learn when they move into senior management is to broaden their subject-focused view to a whole-school vision.

Let’s be clear.  Young people should leave school functionally numerate.  We must improve primary maths teaching so that children don’t find themselves adrift aged seven and never catch up.  But once the required level of competence has been reached – and there is a huge debate to be had about what that level of competence should be – we shouldn’t keep banging children over the head with more maths if they don’t want to specialise in it.  We should give young people real choices instead of constantly telling them what is good for them. 

Maths is vital and can be fascinating: but it doesn’t have to rule everyone’s school life until they are 18. Experts should define the minimum requirement and then back off.  Prescription, assessment, targets and inspection should not be permitted to distort or wreck it. And beyond that minimum point maths should be an option like every other subject. 

The Vorderman report charts an illuminating and important journey, but sadly gets lost at the end.  Like every single-subject enquiry since Ken Baker first devised the National Curriculum, Vorderman’s solution involves increased compulsion. Same old same old. It’s the Möbius strip again: we’re back where we started. 

Baker presided over the feeding-frenzy when subject lobbies clambered on board and carved up the new curriculum. They created a sprawling, over-prescriptive monster. Two decades on, you’d hope we’d learned the lesson:  but it seems we risk going round the loop once more.


The deep end is never the best place to learn

Friday 5th August 2011

Holiday advice for teachers: don’t tell strangers of a certain age what you do. You’ll be lectured on (falling) educational standards and poor teachers, then hear some home truths about discipline; including, probably, “The cane never did me any harm”. It’s possible the occasional thrashing did them no lasting damage – though it’s worth checking for a twitch or other sign of instability.

Government ministers indulge their moral certainty in similar style. They pursue personal crusades with the same tenacity as the holiday bore: unfortunately they also have the power abruptly to turn gut-feelings into policy. We’ve seen examples in the past year with the EBacc, widening access to “élitist” universities, synthetic phonics and the 50% GCSE pass rate - to name but a few.

One issue, Teaching Schools, troubles me. Forget the irony of the suggestion that connecting schools with teaching is something new! The proposal is that the serious business of training the next generation of teachers should be removed from the ivory towers of university departments and put entirely into schools.

Schools must be centrally involved in teacher-training: the most important element has always been teaching practice. Indeed, though my school doesn’t qualify to apply for Teaching School status, we are happy to be a strategic partner in a number of bids. Why wouldn’t we?

Teaching Schools may give the country what it needs in terms of future teacher supply. But why must they run the programme? The government’s rather too public scorn for the old university-based PGCE is based on prejudice and ignorance.

I am fiercely proud of my 25-year-old daughter who, after three years’ post-university working in the City, decided she wanted to teach. She didn’t want to follow the GTP route. She wanted a structured course with significant periods of classroom practice, but within the PGCE framework of reflecting on practice, learning about the bigger picture of educational purposes, research and philosophy, and finding time to compare notes with tutors and fellow students.

I am awestruck by what she has done and learned this past year. Her preparation for every lesson has been meticulous and immensely time-consuming. She has soaked up the research on learning, assessment, behaviour and classroom management and put it all into practice: by comparison, my own preparation for teaching nearly 35 years ago was pitiful. And, having completed that apprenticeship with a well-judged balance of college course structure and excellent school experience and support, she is more than ready to start a job in September. Parental pride apart, I see a superbly prepared new entrant to the profession.

We (nearly) all went to school, so we are all self-professed experts: opinionated certainty is as attractive to politicians as to holiday bores. “Learning on the job” is now to be the only viable way for teachers. The idea of chucking people in at the deep end apparently appeals to the baser instincts of British voters, suspicious of intellectuals, of those who think, analyse or question. Following the same dubious logic, soldiers are tough, disciplined guys: so let’s take them straight into teaching when they leave the army.

The assumption that the deep end is the best route in is deeply flawed. Teachers without that year’s teacher training tend to adopt the style of teaching they experienced as pupils. In the independent sector, where QTS isn’t required, many heads (though by no means all) nonetheless prefer candidates for jobs to come with a period of training under their belt. Though there are exceptions (oft quoted to prove the rule), on interview and when teaching a demonstration lesson PGCE or teaching BA/BEd graduands are invariably readier for the job than their rivals coming straight out of a degree course or other employment.

Schools make a central and indispensable contribution to the effective training of teachers. They know what works, and what doesn’t. But they also have to deal with relentless government pressure and follow its constantly shifting agendas. Moreover, their primary task is to teach children, so there is a risk of loss of focus, even mission-drift, over time. Capacity could become an issue: with an annual offer of £40-50,000 to Teaching Schools, I am doubtful whether an independent school like mine – acutely aware of the sacrifices parents make to pay fees and parsimonious in the way we spend them – could find the spare capacity to take the lead in a consortium. We cannot be alone in that.

Research and objective evaluation over time are the territory of Higher Education, better placed than busy schools both to plan and structure teaching-training programmes and to remind trainees of the theoretical and moral frameworks that underlie the teaching vocation. To deny HE’s contribution to the process is narrow-minded and anti-intellectual. Fortunately, would-be Teaching Schools know this, and many included university departments as strategic partners in their bids whose outcomes were announced in July.

This “forget all that theory and get on with the job” attitude is not shared by the successfully bidding Teaching Schools themselves: but stated as a national policy it betrays government’s low opinion of the real craft and challenges of teaching. We face a tragedy if, despite everything we have learned about preparation and training, not least from international competitors, teachers are regarded – unlike brain surgeons, plumbers, engineers and even computer programmers – as low-skilled technicians who can learn on the job and pick up a few necessary skills along the way. We should be very wary.

Have a good one – and avoid the holiday bores.

Quieten down, ministers, time to listen properly

April 2011

“I was talking to this chap in the pub, and he said…”

I don’t know how my governors would react if I started basing my vision for the school on the basis of the odd conversation en passant, but I suspect they’d be unimpressed. They might hope I listen to parents but would be dubious if I based a massive policy shift on the comments of one vociferous dad who bent my ear in the interval of the school play.

Yet I fear that we are seeing just that kind of background to national policy, where change seems to be dictated by a minister’s gut-feelings or by those of someone with “access”. The trouble with education, of course, is that everyone is an expert. We all went to school and, whether the experience was good, bad or indifferent, we have a view. So the man in the street, or the pub, will always know what ought to be done in the manner of the apocryphal London cabbie: “Them bad teachers, I’d string ‘em up!”

This form of vox pop politics is a relatively recent phenomenon. One can barely imagine old-fashioned High Tories venturing into in the street, let alone meeting people. John Major’s soapbox was an embarrassingly futile gesture. Tony Blair, a self-confessed “pretty straight guy”, indulged a little: but it was David Cameron, during the last election campaign, who insisted on telling the country what the ordinary chap in Bristol thought about the health service.

I’m all for politicians being in touch with what people think: it would be a novelty. It’s the selective nature of their opinion-harvesting that is so dangerous. Even when ministers find a guru on a particular topic, they tend to seize on that view without any attempt at triangulation - and, even then, only heed the bit they want to hear.

Take Sir Michael Wilshaw, celebrated Clint Eastwood fan and tough-guy head of Mossbourne Academy. Politicians of all complexions are in awe of his uncompromising line on discipline, attendance, uniform and commitment to school and praise to the skies his pupils’ achievements, including the 10 places offered at Oxbridge this year. So they should.

Thus when Sir Michael has anything to say on the above issues, policy-makers listen. But when, from his position of unassailable authority, he observes that Michael Gove’s planned new (old post-grammar-school) curriculum will be unsuitable for as many as half the children in his or any other comprehensive school, it seems ministers become selectively deaf.

In recent months we independent school heads have heard the Secretary of State urging us to share our DNA, and Lord Adonis complaining that we never did when he asked. But neither of them has ever analysed that DNA. They think that our success is all about smart uniforms, House and prefect systems and competitive sport: but these are merely symptoms of a deeper contract, an almost visceral agreement between pupil, home and school to cooperate obsessively in the quest for success. Moreover, parents are making a financial commitment to their child’s education: where angels fear to tread, even politicians won’t rush in, so they stick with the superficial.

All teachers know that the way to push through an innovation is to persuade the head that it was his or her idea all along. Unions, associations and pressure groups have to play the same game with politicians, I guess: but shouldn’t politics be more grown up? Meanwhile the Secretary of State is unnervingly certain about what History should consist of. And the Schools Minister is convinced the only way to teach reading is through synthetic phonics: end of discussion.

All this sits uncomfortably with the Coalition’s stated aims. After thirteen years of Labour rule, schools were drowning under the remorseless tide of paperwork, bureaucracy, targets, benchmarks, strategies and micromanagement more often connected to social issues than to education. “Initiativitis” was a disease paralysing the education system: the heroes of a period of unparalleled interference were the teachers and school leaders who withstood that unremitting pressure and carry on giving the very best to the children in their care, day in, day out.

The new government promised to end all that. Michael Gove castigated the 500-page National Curriculum – it felt like more – promising a slimmed-down core. He said he would set schools free, give them autonomy and real power to make choices, manipulate budgets and devise curricula that suited them and their pupils. All this was vital, and long overdue.

I’m grateful to see a government with the courage to do what is needed. Its opponents characterise the cuts in public spending as demonstrating Tory hatred of public services. That’s unworthy: the country had long been living beyond its means. The notion of spending (“investing” – sounds better) our way out of recession is foolhardy. More than a decade ago I had to cope with falling rolls in a school: we had to cut back and make redundancies. It was a truly awful time: but we did what was necessary and we emerged from it strong and ready to move forward again.

So tough is good: but then I despair when ministers lose the courage to trust schools and instead start micromanaging again. Politicians, lacking a sense of irony, seldom see how close they are to repeating their predecessors’ mistakes, and not just education ministers. When Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and a highly educated man, lambasts the country’s top universities – among the best in the world, remember – for being “élitist”, we should be very afraid. If it weren’t so dangerous to Higher Education’s future, it would be laughable.

I hope these knee-jerk reactions are just teething troubles while the coalition government finds its feet. But the profession must keep telling politicians what they need, not what they want, to hear. And let’s put an end to vox pop policy-making.

I had that Ken Baker in the back of my cab once...


Battery-hen teachers must overcome fears of Coalition’s free-range farmyards and seize creative freedoms

Friday 29th October 2010

Years ago we bought a country cottage and decided to keep chickens. Long-standing townies with liberal sentiments, we fancied getting ex-battery hens. We had visions of these newly-liberated creatures scratching ecstatically around our large garden and repaying us in their gratitude with glorious, golden-yolked eggs.

Our neighbour, a real countryman, swiftly put us right. All rescued fowls ever do, he said, is crouch in a miserable huddle, intimidated by open spaces and pining for the safe confinement of their tiny cage. (In truth he used more robustly agricultural terms). We bought bantams instead, but the idyll didn’t last, because we couldn’t stand the cockerel crowing at four in the morning.

Some reactions to the Coalition’s plan to free up schools, slash back bureaucracy and ignite a bonfire of the quangos remind me of those battery hens. Released from the numbing constriction of government prescription and regulation, we teachers seem to be finding our new free-range farmyard both draughty and threatening.

I’m not blaming anyone for this learned behaviour – anyone except the last two governments, that is. The National Curriculum was brought in more than twenty years ago to nail schools down: Tory Education Secretary Ken Baker trusted neither schools nor teachers. Testing and inspection followed because Baker’s civil servants couldn’t conceive of creating regulations without checking they were being followed. So the monster was created.

New Labour took it further – so far, indeed, that by 2010 no school or college, state or independent, was trusted by government to do anything important (such as teaching or protecting children) without producing mountains of paperwork to prove that we’re doing it.

Teachers have thus been harried and pressured for two decades. Small wonder, then, that the profession has developed a victim mentality. Things have been done to us or demanded of us unremittingly: moreover, those targets, benchmarks and myriad rules have changed constantly. Until this year’s election there had been six Education Secretaries and eight Schools Ministers in ten years: so schools had to deal with at least six new sets of initiatives, and countless additional knee-jerk reactions to events.

Over time, being told what to do by government became a habit. And local authority schools could always look to the LA for back-up or reassurance as to what was required: after all, every new government initiative came with countless PowerPoint presentations ‘delivered’ (awful word) worthily and with spectacular dullness… er, by the person who last visited our school to outline the previous initiative. Thus the straitjacket became almost a form of support: there was comfort in that tight constriction. We knew where we were.

A couple of years ago, finally, the first cracks appeared in the monolith: even the great centralist Ed Balls agreed to end Key Stage 3 SATs. We’d all moaned about the exams which got in the way of useful learning and progress at age 14. But, instead of rejoicing, there was a surprising response. Sections of the profession were at a loss: “How will we know what to teach now?”

Those of us old enough to have taught in the 1980s recall an era when adventurous schools designed their own curricula and even got their homemade syllabuses approved by examining bodies. Younger teachers have been brought up instead on a monotonous diet of delivery (that word again) of Ofsted-style tripartite lessons with Learning Objectives (drawn from the detailed Programme of Study and departmental Scheme of Work) displayed at all times.

The recent ending of the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) – or at least of the requirement that schools use it - brought similar expressions of alarm. We knew where we were with that, too, and it gave Ofsted a framework to work from. Driven to distraction by intrusive, frequently hostile inspection, we sought the relative (but only relative) safety of a pre-designed framework to keep inspectors on-piste. Similarly we got used to the GTCE being the profession’s policeman, carrying out disciplinary procedures. Drowning under the sheer volume of safeguarding regulations, we found it convenient to have a body to ban the rotten apples from our barrel.

Prescription and regulation saved us doing a number of awkward jobs, then, but they made us dependent. This is Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages develop an emotional bond with their captors. The dependency culture in schools is insidious: it grows without realising it, and becomes very, very hard to break out of. That’s where we are now.

We have been demanding freedoms, insisting that big government shrink and back off: but when the tide turns and leaves that empty ground in front of us, we feel lost.

It’s scary out there, for sure. But how exciting that scariness can be, if schools and teachers feel themselves free to apply their creativity and inspiration as they judge best: those qualities are still there, in a workforce that’s better than it’s ever been, but buried and, like hidden treasure, ready to be brought back up into the light. We need to rediscover the confidence to devise our own curricula; to make our own decisions about those whom we employ or sack; and press government to put Ofsted back in its box, inspecting only what is needful and stopping inspectors pursuing idiosyncratic personal agendas.

If politicians keep their word, increase the freedoms they have promised to schools and resist the temptation to tell us (as they are currently threatening to) precisely what should be taught in History or English lessons, that empty ground will only grow. Will that new horizon prove exciting virgin territory, ripe for exploration and exploitation, or a hostile wasteland full of snares and pitfalls? Will we stride out boldly and seize the opportunities? Or huddle together like battery hens?

It will, of course, be what we choose to make it. As long as we can find the courage.


I stormed out of class - into a cupboard (Personally Speaking, TES Magazine)

Friday 24th September 2010

Bernard Trafford’s first job was as a music teacher: he has been a head for 20 years, since 2008 at Newcastle upon Tyne’s Royal Grammar School.  He gained his PhD in 1996 following research linking student voice and school improvement.  He was Chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in 2007-9.

Biggest influence

Three people. My music teacher at school, Roger Bevan, gave me my life-long love of choral music. My first head of department, Geoffrey Holmes, taught me what music can be in a school. And Professor Roland Meighan, famous advocate of student voice, home education and de-schooling, taught me on my MEd course 20 years ago and always asked the challenging questions about what we do and why: he still does when we meet!

Career high

Different things at different career stages. When teaching music, great adventures such as conducting Elgar’s epic The Dream of Gerontius with 150 children forming the chorus, school Jazz Spectaculars and choirs touring the USA and Italy. Making it to headship – twice, and hardly able to believe it either time. As a head you don’t experience the same individual highs: instead, always, the incalculable privilege of running schools where young people constantly excel and surprise themselves.

Worst moment

Periods of conflict with children or colleagues, where doubt gnaws, confidence fails and sleep is elusive: not ones to talk about. In a celebrated pratfall I stormed into a Chemistry lesson to tell off a naughty class. I did it magnificently, turned on my heel and exited – unfortunately into the stock cupboard from where I had to reverse rapidly and scuttle out the door.  The kids politely tried not to laugh: the teacher nearly injured herself suppressing hysterics!

Pupil most proud of

No one name. Always the ones who have turned round an awful experience and triumphed. I’m also very proud of those who (like my younger daughter) have the courage to give up lucrative City careers and become teachers, chasing purpose and values rather than money.

Best piece of advice

The Zen commandment: ‘don’t just do something, sit there’. We’re always being pushed to the Action Man [sic] approach, to intervene and sort things out immediately. It’s rarely the best way.

Most outrageous thing

A colleague forcibly held open the doors on the Underground to allow a party of 70 pupils to get on the rush-hour train, in defiance of the driver who kept trying to slam them on him. It was Samson vs. TfL. Heroic, magnificent, hilarious.

If I hadn’t become a teacher

A musician, perhaps a composer/arranger or theatre MD.  I wouldn’t have been very good. I was always better at getting other people to do it.

Friday evening

We’re both so tired that, if there’s no school-related event on (and there seem to be a lot), my wife and I split a nice bottle of wine, enjoy some TV therapy and have an early night.


My midlife crisis is a 1997 Mercedes SL320, a classic soft-top and (I’m rather proud) a credit crunch bargain bought for next to nothing in 2009. Now all we need is a summer…


In April, a few days in Strasbourg combined with some work for Council of Europe: maybe that’s a bit sad. Last summer, Tuscany: sun, food, drink, scenery, Italians. Love them all.

Last book

Philip Kerr If the dead rise not. I’m addicted to detective fiction: Kerr’s brilliant creation is Bernie Gunther, a cop with a conscience spanning Nazi and post-war Germany. Genius.

Tech savvy or Luddite

Not a technical whiz, but an email junkie. I love gadgets. I think I need an iPad…


Together or apart, it’s good teaching that matters

Friday 11th December 2009

Co-education generates more heat than almost any other issue - among schools, that is.

Single-sex schools can find co-eds infuriatingly smug when they talk airily about being closer to "real life"; meanwhile, the co-eds can get wound up by claims from single-sex supporters who insist that adolescents always end up more interested in each other than in learning.

Similar arguments are repeated endlessly. Girls get a raw deal if they are forced to learn alongside noisy, attention-hogging boys, the single-sex supporters argue.

The gender pressures deter girls from learning physics and maths, and the boys lose out too since they are too busy showing off to the girls. In turn, the co-eds stress the importance of preparing boys and girls to work together in the modern world. Stereotypes are dangerous, yet arguments around co-education always stray into them.

It is generally agreed that children learn best among peers of similar ability - hence the high popularity of setting in secondary schools, state and independent. The separatists take that argument further, claiming girls and boys learn in different ways, so should be taught separately.

Back comes the counter-argument: are they not then disadvantaging those boys and girls who don't conform to the stereotype? Plenty of boys have a "feminine" preferred learning style - careful, painstaking preparation and lots of hard, neat work - while some girls prefer to work in the "masculine" way: flying intellectual kites, taking risks, leaving things to the last minute, relying on inspiration.

That focused, conscientious, hard-working all-girl environment can behave like a pressure cooker. Similarly, boy-only schools are too easily dominated by a laddish, macho culture which at its worst values only sport and gives rise to all kinds of bullying.

Any sane teacher will snort at those outrageous descriptions and say: "That doesn't happen in a well-run school." And they're right. It doesn't.

Perhaps the only reliable view was outlined in a piece of research published in 2008 by professors Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson.

They looked into the relative success of pupils from single-sex and co-eds. When all the other variables were removed, these two eminent researchers found no significant differences. "A good school," they concluded, "is a good school."

I'm a passionate co-educationist. I don't shrink from confronting gender issues. I think my school's decision to go mixed was the most important change it has made in nearly five hundred years.

But that's just my view, and I won't force it on others: we heads should shut up and let parents decide.


If lessons are boring, it’s Ofsted we have to thank

 Feature letter in TES Friday 16th January 2009

 Ofsted has bewailed boring lessons ("A third of schools bore their classes", TES, January 9). We in schools didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Sir Tim Brighouse said: "It's a very brave teacher who takes risks when Ofsted comes calling." Some might say foolhardy.

Who drilled inflexible, predictable approaches into the profession? Ofsted. The three-part lesson, with objectives made explicit at the start and revisited at the end, has taken root in classrooms throughout the land. The insistence that all pupils know at the start of the lesson what they are supposed to learn in it negates any sense of discovery or consequent "wow" factor that characterises truly memorable learning. Yet safe outcomes have become holy writ.

Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, expressed concern in her first annual report that exam preparation hindered pupils' development. Did she pause to wonder why schools might be focusing so obsessively on exams? Could it be the pressure of league tables, naming and shaming, and of Ofsted coming to call?

One of the best heads I've known took over an underperforming junior school in a deprived area. She told me: "The teachers were teaching like mad, but the children just weren't learning." She transformed the school so much that I sent teachers from my (independent) school to learn from her staff. So hard were they working that they had perhaps taken their eye off their next inspection, which found that writing was not good enough. The result? Automatic special measures. The governing body lost confidence. My friend is now a professional artist, and teaching has lost an outstanding leader.

The Government wants school leaders who keep noses to grindstones and punish non-conformity. It's a style of leadership I would generally call "bullying": the Government calls it "transformational".



Diplomas threaten our independence

Friday 28th November 2008

The independent sector has been accused of rubbishing the new Diplomas.  It has been critical. In its defence, post-14 Diplomas were predicted by Ed Balls to become in time "the only show in town" or, in his words, “the qualification of choice”.  Trouble is, as currently designed they threaten many of the aspects of education that we independents hold most dear.

We are worried about sheer academic challenge being diluted by the emphasis on vocational education: that’s fine for those who want and need to follow the vocational route, but is not something that should be forced on those best suited to a purely academic diet. The five Diplomas already underway - health, media, information communications technology, engineering and construction - are practically based. A recent comment by Schools Minister Jim Knight only fuelled our fears: "They're not vocational qualifications, but a mix of theoretical and work-based learning which will break the old divide between academic and vocational learning."

Only a tiny minority of independent schools are super-selective, but all are concerned about reducing academic challenge for the most able.  At the same time, those who would welcome a really good vocational routes are discouraged by the sheer complexity of diplomas.

The government encourages schools to collaborate, a sensible move: but sharing the delivery of post-14 programmes requires them to sacrifice individuality of provision to create common timetables. This  may bring them other benefits in compensation - including a greatly increased curriculum offer - but independents are, well, independent. We are defined above all by ability to go our own way, so such a surrender is unacceptable.

From the sidelines we see how a consortium’s painstaking planning is easily frustrated by basic but predictable failings of infrastructure.  I have heard woeful tales from youngsters who suffered from buses regularly failing to appear or, travelling from a non-uniform-wearing sixth form to another that retained uniform, were berated for their appearance.  They repeated the year at an independent school or left schooling altogether.  Too many loose linkages: too many things to go wrong. 

Obligatory work experience is a worry for us.  We all send students out on work placements.  It gives them a (fairly superficial) taste of a possible career.  Nor does it hurt them to practise turning up smartly dressed and on time.  But diplomas demand subject-related work experience: potential engineers are required to spend time in engineering. 

In truth, if that could be done well, it might be fine:  students get a lot out of the established Engineering Education Scheme which links them with manufacturers. But if we really want to produce world-class engineers, sixth formers need to do a hell of a lot of work at "hard" subjects including maths and physics.  Ironically, although theUKis not producing enough engineers, winning places at the top engineering universities is incredibly competitive.  Candidates need top grades, and they work like fury to get them.  Significant time spent away from academic study will damage their chances.

Moreover, any teacher who has arranged work experience quickly learnt that, first, a nervous breakdown lay just around the corner because, second, it is a logistical nightmare.  Government proudly announced that the CBI was right behind Diplomas. The Confederation’s ardour has since cooled.  Perhaps employers realised that they simply could not provide work experience on the scale politicians envisaged.

So what would make the independent sector jump at diplomas?  We would require a structure that

  • allows seriously academic students to be seriously academic;
  • doesn't dress up vocational routes as something spuriously academic;
  • clearly differentiates between the two but
  • allows a well-defined “mix of theoretical and work-based learning” for those who want it;
  • allows candidates to choose what matches their intellectual and vocational needs, not following programmes driven by a bureaucratic assessment process or an      obsession with enforcing breadth;
  • permits a single institution to teach the qualification;
  • does not require work placement;
  • is recognized by all universities, as well as employers, as a mainstream admission route to even the most selective degree courses;
  • ensures that the Extended Project is intellectually challenging and demands      high-quality thought and research.

Ah, yes, the Extended project.  In general, independents love the idea, as long as universities take it seriously and OFQUAL does not allow any watering down. It must involve university-style high-quality research where the process, preparation, methods and final presentation are all rigorously assessed: worthy, thorough yet dull verbiage must not gain high marks.  To meet the challenge of the Extended Project, schools will have to look at teaching learning, research and reporting skills earlier and on a scale never achieved before: that would be a massive step forward.

Keep the Project pure; make Diplomas simple, flexible and demanding; and who knows?  We might find both sectors working towards a common qualification, surely the best outcome for all.


Oxbridge Entrance case study: independent school head

Friday 22nd September 2002

Oxbridge. That portmanteau name redolent of days when chaps moved on effortlessly from Public School to The Universities.  Either of them. I confess I did. My boarding school told me which college to apply for. There was no ‘grooming’, no lesson in How to Impress.  I was well prepared: I knew that Oxbridge was actually two quite separate places, having once fallen off a punt on a school trip to Oxford. I got in. Others didn’t, I guess. I wasn’t really aware. That was just how it worked.

I started teaching in a big state grammar school which sent huge numbers to Oxbridge every year.  They weren’t groomed either, but were formidably clever, the intellectual cream of a ferociously selective school. 

I changed sectors.  In a former, newly independent, city grammar school, much smaller than my previous school, we couldn’t compete in numbers: but ‘obvious’ Oxbridge candidates still tended to get in pretty safely.  In preparation for ‘seventh term’, the post-A level selection process, high-powered, inspiring teaching took candidates far beyond A level: here the traditionally academic schools gave their students an enormous advantage.

By the late 1980s I was head of sixth form and preparing pupils for a very different Oxbridge system. Seventh-term application had gone, and Oxbridge started estimating candidates’ potential, rather than their previous attainment (they might argue they always did).  Oxbridge entrance had changed, mostly for the better. Certainly more can now realistically dream of the Dreaming Spires, but competition becomes more intense every year.

It’s hard to find extra time for Oxbridge preparation in the first term of a very pressured Year 13. In my school some departments fix extra sessions with Oxbridge candidates: lack of flexibility in the timetable since AS and A2 came along means that these are usually at lunchtime. In other subjects teachers will routinely give their brightest students extra ‘extension’ work.  We offer a practice interview, usually with someone unknown to the candidates (such as a governor), and often share that service with a nearby comprehensive. 

But it’s tough.  Nowadays I tell Oxbridge applicants that they need to be brilliant and lucky: still, every year several strong candidates whom I am sure would have won a place years ago are disappointed. That’s the luck of the draw, perhaps: but these are students who I know would have thrived at Oxbridge, both academically and socially.  Their rejection often feels unjust, notwithstanding our understanding of the nature of the competition.

If we’re confident that Oxbridge really does base its decisions on candidates’ potential there’s no cause for complaint.  If more comprehensive school candidates are successful as a result, that’s great. I wish I felt confident.  I’ve never sensed any bias against my pupils because they come from a private school: but for two decades I have suspected that their pervasive West Midlands accent and natural reticence disadvantage them: but in dreaming up an image of the successful candidate (obviously a Southern smoothie), I’m probably as prejudiced as the tabloids that hurl invective at colleges which turn down a bright youngster from a Northern comprehensive.

Oxbridge certainly interviews and tests far more rigorously than any other university.  So if it is so certain about the efficacy of that process, does it really need then to rely on A level grades for the final sorting?  Why say, ‘We think you’re good enough,’ and then snatch the place away when a candidate just misses that third A grade, often in a subject unrelated to their planned degree course?  Is it because they can’t actually make their minds up, despite their vaunted selection systems? 

Besides, grades are crude boundaries applied to bands of marks. Nowadays the actual A level marks are published, so why don’t colleges require an overall mark in a subject, or a points total across all the subjects?    Harsher, perhaps. Unforgiving - but more precise, less arbitrary.

If all that searching interviewing and testing pre-A level still doesn’t provide enough information to make a decision, why not go all the way?  Forget all these interviews: just look at precise A level marks and take the top 200 candidates as a faculty, sharing them out among the colleges. Faculty-based selection would save candidates the lottery of picking colleges because they think they’re a Trinity or St John’s type of student – or because ‘maybe there won’t be too many trying for English there this year’. 

Neither interview nor A grades are enough for Cambridge mathematics candidates:  they have to get top grades in STEP (Sixth Term Examination Paper) too. I’ve seen candidates notch up four A grades but lose their place because they ‘dropped’ to a STEP grade 2.  Maths dons tell me the maths tripos is so tough that they need this extra discriminator, or candidates just won’t cope at Cambridge. 

Schools might wonder what ivory tower these people are locked in. Additional tests and top grade hurdles can only serve to disadvantage state school candidates who are less likely that their independently educated rivals to get extra coaching for them. Why does Oxbridge not put its trust in its ability genuinely to gauge candidates’ potential before A level? After all, even the top universities are there to teach the raw material they admit: or are they in truth only prepared to take candidates so bright that they don’t need to bother too much?