Bernard's pieces for SecEd

CPD: a good teacher is like a magpie

11th October 2017

Funding’s tight: savings have to be made. An early casualty is frequently CPD, the continuing professional development of staff. When tough choices are made, CPD’s frequently a soft target, understandably cut this year in the hope of putting it back in the budget next.

It rarely works like that, of course. Moreover, letting CPD slip is as damaging long-term as neglecting to service your car – or ignoring that leak in the school roof.

On-going school improvement, the thirst for making our schools better in every respect all the time, is rightly a constant. We needn't berate ourselves (or our teachers) for not being perfect (growth mindset: not perfect yet!): but we can and must always strive for progress. At the heart of that quest lies CPD.

School leaders are bombarded by emails offering expert advice on whatever new aspect has been squeezed into the OFSTED framework: or how to boost scores in a particular area. Such consultancy doesn't come cheap: much is best ignored.

At secondary level, subject specialists can be tempted to regard as the only valuable CPD those briefings from the exam board on the latest specification. Yes, it’s necessary to keep up to date, though I suspect boards are finding such events a "nice little learner". (Don’t try complaining about lack of clarity in the spec if you haven’t already sent colleagues on several of them).

There are high-profile practitioners “out there” who will address your staff on a training-day. They have to make a living, and are thus expensive by the day (though arguably better value than sending individual teachers out separately to hear them). I cannot have been the only head who would book someone reportedly excellent, only to find them misjudge their brief. I’ve known warmly recommended speakers who didn't do their homework on the nature and style of the school: who promised to talk about one thing but, actually, were so carried away with their latest research that they and talked about that instead. On such occasions, already anxious, I would look around, see the teaching body start to switch off, and groan in anguish.

We can spend a lot of money, then, yet fail to tackle the most important focus of CPD, non-subject-specific reflection and concentration on excellent teaching.

I’m not about to suggest anything glib or cheapskate: nor will I echo that infuriating suggestion from government that everyone needs to “do more with less”. But it’s easy to squander large sums on staff training: conversely, by employing resources and talents already in the school, great results can be obtained from minimal financial investment (though not forgetting the time committed).

I'd start with two rules. First, remember that there's more potential within your staff than outside for changing practice and galvanising staff to move in new directions. Second, teachers are at their most imaginative and creative when working together and learning from one another. And they are more reflective, I think, working in a group with their colleagues than as a static audience listening to the visiting “big name”.

Teachers can be excessively modest. Everyone in the staffroom knows which colleagues are doing exciting, ground-breaking things with their pupils, but they’re often the last to acknowledge it: “Oh, I just do a few things that work for me. There's nothing I can share with colleagues.”

There's a charm in that self-deprecating response, but how wrong it is! The process of learning begins immediately they start analysing what they do. Sometimes cannot really explain what they do: but working with colleagues to dissect it collectively is a dynamic and productive activity.

Collaboration is key. A pitfall of collegial presentations is that those teachers who are reluctant to change (we all have a few in our schools) may concede that it works for their colleague, but claim: "I get that. But it’s not applicable to my subject. 

Over the years I've come to reckon that few excellent teaching strategies are truly specifically subject-related: they can always be adapted to a different context. So cross-subject collaboration is a powerful and empowering process within staff training. We can all picture stereotypical differences between teachers of the humanities and scientists: so, in your training session, mix them up!

Given that teachers are by-and-large pretty biddable, it’s the recognition of differences and of how techniques can be shared and adapted that is most powerful and probably leads to the deepest levels of productive reflection. The last thing you want in a training session is all the scientists or all the English teachers sitting together in a clan. They'll ask for it: resist the pressure! Alternatively, get those scientists and English teachers to work together on a collaborative project – with feedback and sharing with the whole staff.

Naturally teacher-driven training and joint working don’t have to be confined to a single school. There are great examples of sharing excellent in-house training across clusters or Multi-Academy Trusts: I’d nonetheless insist it must start within the individual institution: there’s a question of ownership and buy-in.

I’ve mentioned the perils of modesty: there’s fear too. Where self-esteem is low (how often we see this in our pupils, but fail to spot it in ourselves!), teachers can be reluctant to believe that they can take on board new ideas: understandably but self-defeatingly, they prefer to stick to what they know – even if it isn't all that good.

The advantage of the in-school approach is that it is non-threatening, collaborative and collegial. I’ve frequently heard teachers generously confess that they hadn’t appreciated what great work was happening in another department: often effusive praise followed for a particular teacher who had shared a teaching idea.

It grows. I was delighted when a group of teachers asked senior staff to keep out of organising CPD sessions, preferring to run them themselves. My role was merely to provide tea and cake for hour-long twilight meetings (never underestimate the motivational benefits of cake!), which my colleagues termed "magpie sessions".

Good teachers are like magpies, identifying little snippets, ideas and techniques that attract their attention: like the thieving bird, they steal, adapt and use them in their own nest.  It's an attractive metaphor, and it works. Magpies don't steal one huge object (or teaching idea): they accumulate lots of small, shiny things. For teachers none of it is high-stakes, intimidating or overwhelming: as a result, over time more and more teachers are willing to shyly take that first step and share an idea.

In one school, I witnessed these magpie sessions spawn a staff learning blog. At first teachers assumed that a formal, rather learned, research-type piece was required. But, as they relaxed into “magpie mode”, some simply contributed links to useful pieces of work from outside the school (often found on Twitter): and others would share in only a couple of hundred words a wrinkle for getting a lesson underway purposefully.

This was no instant, magic-wand solution. Discussion was stimulated, ideas were shared and respected, and growth was organic. In a few years reflective discussion became commonplace in offices and even over coffee or lunch, simply as the professional way to behave.

I offer this in the spirit of the colleagues I’ve known who – perhaps unwillingly at first, but later with generous enthusiasm - have been ready to share. As they’d say: “I don't know what you make of this, but it's something that’s worked for me…”

Leadership: start as you mean to go on

7th September 2017

The long weeks of holiday are over, as is that frenetic build-up to the beginning of term. Now it’s underway, what priorities must school leaders address in this first phase of the new school year?

It's all about ensuring that you start on the right note and (to stretch the musical analogy) in the right key. You know your aims for the coming year: there will be a particular focus, specific tasks and targets (I don't mean government-imposed ones) that, as a team, you'll have planned. Whether you drew them up as head, a member of the senior leadership team, a subject leader or coordinator, or in any other leadership role, and however collaboratively or democratically you did it, this is the time for you, as a leader, to be very active in leading their implementation!

It’s not all about improving grades – though getting the best for every individual student is central to any school’s purpose. The messages you need to impart will involve increasing well-being, strengthening pastoral support. They may include promoting fitness, language across the curriculum, resilience. Indeed, schools pursue many and complex objectives: but, at the start of the year, they need to focus on two or three core aspects.

In my long years of headship I used to start the new school year with something of a sermon to the teaching staff (though I never ran a faith school!). Sometimes I feared I was becoming preachy. But, I reasoned, if the head doesn't remind everyone what they're there for, what the school’s aiming for in both the short and the long term, who else will?

Some teachers, especially the old lags in the corner of the staff room might mutter, " We know all that ethos staff. We know what we have to do. Give us a break!” A decade ago, newly in a school and facing some cynicism, I realised a "jargon bingo" game was being played among some of the staff. I like to think no one managed to win a line or full house, because I avoided the management-speak my silent critics feared, instead using real language about real issues.

Teachers are not the only adults in school. I’ve never placed faith in corporate strategies that demand all staff, regardless of role, sign up to (and parrot) institutional mission statements. On the other hand, I never quite cracked the challenge of truly engaging all support staff in the complexity of the school’s mission.  Still, it’s those in leadership positions who truly spread those messages to the staff who work shifts or in different sections of the school, and are less easily gathered together than teachers. They do it in the way they conduct themselves and, above all, how they act.

Don’t forget the pupils! To them the message will be couched in different terms: but they need to hear, and clearly, where the school is aiming this year, where the particular focus lies and (above all) how it will affect their behaviours, their attitude to school and what is expected of them.

If the first step is about reinforcing core messages, the second is must be concerned with helping new arrivals to settle in.

Of course your induction programmes will have been planned long ago and will, by the time you read this, be well underway. I'm thinking of something deeper than those necessary organised activities, icebreakers and social events that furnish information to new teachers and pupils alike. In addition there’s a need to help them understand that school is about more than routines, rules and timetables: underneath lies a complex and unique culture.

"This is how we do things here" is not merely a reasonable thing to say: it’s vital! Once again, this calls for leaders constantly to talk the talk, and explicitly spread the message.

This will probably include the particular way your school seeks to achieve excellence. Excellence is by definition unattainable: but as an aim you can't fault it!  So if your school really believes that nothing is done just for fun or merely because it’s required, but rather because everyone seeks to do and be the best they can, that message must be broadcast.

Similarly, if your school believes (as I hope it does) that every individual is different but equally valued, that message must be promulgated consistently and thoroughly. Even teachers need to be reminded of it: and every message put out to children must help them to believe it.

This question of belief, of embedding the ethos in the school’s bloodstream, is vital. Children already some steps down the road towards alienation from school will readily convince themselves that teachers don't like them, that no one cares about them, that the same happened at their last school. So positive messages require reinforcement not merely by talk but also through particular actions.

All adults in the school should be encouraged to seek opportunities to show individual pupils that they are indeed recognised and valued. Staff who serve school dinners need to care about the children, and show that they do: even to take an interest in their food choices. Tiny, generous gestures count hugely: but their absence does great damage.

New teachers need the same care, and love a senior leader to stop them in the corridor and ask how it's going. I tended to use a tired old joke about how the first week is the worst – but the next few weeks are pretty tough, too! The joke’s shared, the individual has been noticed and encouraged, and goes on their way feeling a bit better about themselves and their place in the school.

Finally, people are welcomed and valued, and ethos and aims are being constantly reinforced: job done! So the next task for the SLT is to ensure that the necessary routines and practices are operating smoothly. From the very first day teachers and students alike need to see senior staff on the corridors at lesson changeovers, checking that people are on time, letting teachers whose lessons overrun know that they’ve been spotted!

A bit of good-natured chivvying is important: a reminder that all the teachers need to attend assembly or be in a particular place at a specific time: above all, senior staff out and about - and visible. Management guru Tom Peters asserts that being mobile allows leaders to "catch people doing things right".

The opportunities this approach affords are enormous. Colleagues and pupils encountered, gently applauded, encouraged and supported don't just feel better in themselves. The knowledge quickly spreads that their contribution is noticed, that leadership is looking out for them. As a result the need for criticism or reproach is minimal, because the positive reinforcement is so powerful.

Two or three weeks further on, I hope you will be enjoying a school enthusiastic about the new year and its opportunities, settled into its routines, remembering and doing what’s important.

It is not rocket science, of course: indeed, this may seem all rather obvious. But it's not enough for all the participants merely to know what needs doing. Leaders need constantly to remind them and, gently, positively but relentlessly, reinforce. Good habits well established tend to last: and bad ones will creep in more slowly! 

Enjoy it – and good luck!


Are you a "moany" teacher?

29th June 2017

Teachers are too “moany”: that’s the view of Heath Monk, Executive Director of the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham.  According to reports, the former English teacher reckons, “I got a bit sick of teachers, actually. I love teaching but I think teachers can sometimes be, maybe not as appreciative of how good their job is. They are quite moany places, staffrooms. And also quite political, with a small p, and cynical”.

Feeling like that, perhaps he was right to get out of school, becoming a civil servant in 2000 and Deputy Schools Commissioner for England until 2007. He joined the King Edward VI Foundation as its first Executive Director in 2016.

I’m not about to take issue with Mr Monk, but his comments made me think. Are we teachers particularly “moany”? And are our staff rooms really political and cynical?

Perhaps they are: but perhaps it’s just regular workplace behaviour.

As workplaces, however, schools are distinctive. How many personal interactions take place in one school every day? Tens of thousands, I’d guess. And each is, in effect, a negotiation. Teaching isn’t just a matter of telling kids what to do. Good teachers are focused on every individual learner: a separate transaction with each child ensures that all are maximising their learning.

Then there are those distracting or easily distracted pupils. For each there will be a different approach: teachers routinely play small-scale mind games with them to keep the group on task. Cunning interpersonal strategies are in play in every lesson: we should we be surprised that teachers think politically?

A workforce that is berated more often than praised by both policymakers and the press is bound to become cynical. Too many incoming Secretaries of State (maybe not the present one) have started by lavishing praise on teachers - and ended by putting the boot in with yet another hostile system of accountability.

Throughout this extended period of austerity, teachers have suffered either pay freeze or salary cap. Not only is their own pay constrained: resources are desperately short, too. Schools currently face a funding crisis: so redundancies within schools are commonplace; classes get bigger; minority subjects are axed. All a recipe for cynicism, surely?

Nonetheless, many school staffrooms are neither cynical nor political. Where vision is shared, where there’s a real sense of purpose in the school, negative attitudes are less common.  Moreover, when teachers get a positive response from their pupils, they experience the buzz they crave, an intellectual and emotional reward that’s a powerful antidote to cynical tendencies.

I’ll confess. In June, heads do find teachers moany. During the last full month of the school year, schools swelter in the heat that occurs too rarely to warrant investing in air-conditioning (as if there were the money!). Teachers soldier on and, with energy levels low, they moan: discipline’s slipping, kids won’t work, management’s doing nothing…. Yes, sometimes I go home cursing moaning teachers.

There’s one more reason for teacher moaning.

Teaching’s a vocation. We join the profession from a desire to make a difference, nursing an ambition to affect children’s lives positively. Vocational jobs make no one rich: there are no bonuses or share options to assuage the pain of the hard moments. We didn’t go into teaching expecting those: and even in tough times we don’t bewail their absence.

But we do moan.

I wish we didn’t. Yet it is only moaning. When there’s a real crisis, the moaning stops: teachers get stuck in. When, five years ago, millions of gallons of rainwater swept through my school, teachers set to work with buckets and mops, under the direction of domestic staff.

When children are bereaved, hurt, distressed, teachers ungrudgingly surrender hours of their time providing consolation, support and encouragement.

Perhaps we should just accept that teachers’ whingeing is no more than human nature, and live with it.

Meanwhile I promise to try, really try, not to moan for the rest of this term.


Ten Top Tips for Headship

21 June 2017

As I approach retirement, I’m frequently asked how I’ve done the job – or, at least, survived it - for 27 years! So here are my ten tips for successful headship (or survival, depending on your fancy). They seem to get longer as the list progresses and the headings become increasingly philosophical: perhaps that’s inevitable.

  1. Listen! I might not have put this first – until the recent General Election. But I should have. A school is small enough for everyone to feel they have access to the head: and no head should be too grand to listen, even if you don’t want to hear it. Theresa May famously ignored to her MPs, nor to the public: instead she relied on a small coterie of advisers and shut the rest out. As a result, not only did she alienate supporters: she also misjudged things disastrously, misread the mood of the country and is now a lame duck PM. She can serve as an object lesson for all school leaders.
  2. Remember what you’re there for. Never forget your values, what the school and all the staff are there for. The school exists only for, and because of, its students. So everything should be done for their benefit, and for their education. This doesn’t mean that they’ll always like what you do: and you will sometimes feel unappreciated. But you need to maintain your principal motivation and, indeed, always keep your eye on your vocation, on the reasons why you went into teaching in the first place.Bill Clinton famously didn’t say, “It’s all about the money, stupid”. This is the second aspect of ensuring that you and your school are values-driven. It’s right and proper to run a school in a business-like way, efficiently and without waste: but it’s not a business, in pursuit of a profit, however small. The balance sheet with its positive bottom-line appears vital in those difficult budgeting meetings, but it’s only part of a function, a cog in the system that allows us to deliver on the school’s core purpose – education and life chances for children.
  3. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Sometimes such advice is about as helpful as Humpty Dumpty who, in Through The Looking Glass, deliberately infuriates Alice and then instructs her to keep her temper! But heads do need patience. It will take time to see your labours bear fruit. So be determined and steadfast, and see things through. There is a silver lining! The process invariably feels like wading through treacle – but, when you do pause to look back from time to time, you’ll find things have moved on much further than you realised.
  4. Don’t just do something: sit there. This was quoted to me once as the Zen commandment; it’s vital for heads. Everyone’s in a hurry. If there’s a disaster or a disciplinary situation, your colleagues will be hopping up and down and demanding action now. Dithering or prevarication won’t win you friends: but don’t be bounced into precipitate action, extreme responses or kneejerk reactions. They can do huge and lasting damage. Where it’s possible, and it almost always is, give it time. Insist on everyone sleeping on it before diving in. Even if it’s a sleepless night, things do look better in the morning, and ways forward are easier to spot.
  5. Be yourself. Authenticity is key to any leadership role. (There’s room for that old joke here: “Authenticity is the key: if you can fake that, you can do anything.”) Be yourself, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing: in school, on the platform, at your kids’ bath-time, down the pub, at the football (watch your language!).  People see through an act, and hate any hint of falseness in a leader.If you’ve got a difficult conversation to have, or an awful job to do, it’s okay to show your pain.  But be sure to give the bad news yourself, and certainly don’t leave it to HR. We’re paid to do the tough things when necessary.  There’s a leader’s dictum that’s good to follow: say the bad things, but write the good. Harsh words spoken are more quickly healed than written ones: and you might be surprised how many decades later teachers or pupils still treasure that note of congratulation from the head.
  6. Spread the magic. No one wants an arrogant head. Humility is an essential personal quality - but don’t overdo it! If you’re the head (and you are), then look and sound like one. Heads have to tread carefully. You dignify an event by being there: you really do spread the magic just by turning up. But don’t steal people’s thunder: I cringe if, at the end of a school show, the head gets up and makes a speech and spoils – even cuts short – the spontaneous applause that the cast has earned.  No false humility, though: if the head turns out to support the under-12 tiddlywinks team in a gruelling match, they notice it and value it, and they tell their parents. The teacher in charge appreciates it too. Don’t demand a formal welcome. But don’t hide either, nor insist that nobody makes a fuss: it may be important to them to do so.  Use the assembly podium, and the bit of headship magic it provides, to honour and add lustre to the achievements of those who deserve it. Kids remember that for the rest of their lives. They also harbour resentment for not being recognised.
  7. Take one for the team. Lao Tzu, founder of the Daoist school of philosophy, wrote: “Of a great leader, the people say ‘We did it ourselves’.” Notwithstanding what I say about not being afraid to use your status to affirm people and their achievement, it’s vital to build the teams around you. You must share knowledge, power, responsibility and accountability with your senior team, and give them the credit (without false modesty). Heads nowadays are rightly concerned to devolve power to, and increase the efficacy of, middle leaders. It’s all about power-sharing, trust and empowerment, even if those have become buzz-words.   Get the detail right! Nothing is more infuriating to staff than people at the top having great ideas, even splendid visions - but then seeing it all go wrong because the detail isn’t there and things just fall apart. You don’t want to hear that damning comment on your failed initiative, “It wasn’t thought through”. Naturally heads mustn’t get so bogged down in detail that they lose sight of the big picture: besides, colleagues hate being micro-managed, so this is all about balancing leadership with trust! Nonetheless, airy statements and grand visions alone won’t do it: the detail must be in there and must be right.   And, if you do mess up, have the greatness of heart to admit it and apologise. Keep a picture of Theresa May nearby to remind yourself…
  8. “Of course I can give you a moment.” I know, I know. It’s a nightmare Friday, the emails are rolling in, Year 9 are kicking off, there’s an angry parent outside and Bill from Geography pops in to ask if you’ve got a couple of minutes. You have: you must have! He wouldn’t ask (probably) if he weren’t worried about something, possibly desperately so: so don’t tell him to make an appointment for next week (or month)!  There are times when our colleagues really need us, and we owe it to them to give them those two minutes that turn into twenty while the inbox continues to fill up. Always greet colleagues by name when you pass them. I’d never thought about that until one day, very busy, I failed to acknowledge a colleague in the corridor; I was preoccupied and just didn’t notice him. I received an anguished email from him late that (Friday) evening. (No, of course I shouldn’t read work emails on Friday evening – but thank goodness I did that day). “Have I upset you?” he asked, in an alarmingly anxious message. Yes, he should have been more resilient. But some teachers aren’t, and need to know we notice them. Crazy – but it goes with the territory.
  9. Get out more. In both senses. No one likes to see the head completely immersed in office work: don’t expect any sympathy for the number of emails you deal with every day, and certainly don’t moan about it. Get out and about in school, spread a bit of confidence and maybe stand on that busy corner during lesson changeovers. You don’t have to big it up by calling it a “learning walk”, though you will learn a lot.  It was management guru Tom Peters who coined the term MABWA: MAnagement By Walking Around. Seeing the boss out and about doesn’t just keep people on their toes: more important, it gives you the opportunity to “catch people doing things right”. My theory of PALP takes MABWA one step further: Poncing About Looking Pleased works for me.  It’s important to get out of school, too. You need to meet fellow heads at cluster groups and conferences. It’s not from formal sessions or agendas that you learn most: ideas appear, sometimes from nowhere, while you’re listening to a speaker and your mind runs on. Or you’re chatting over lunch with a couple of colleagues and something falls into place. I’ve had a few great ideas in my time (not many: the best were other people’s), but they never occurred within school, which is just too busy.  You’ll also make friends, find people facing the same problems and gradually develop that vital network of colleagues/ fellow-sufferers you can phone when you don’t know where to turn and there’s no one in school or at home that you can talk to. Building that support is perhaps the single most important survival strategy for a head.
  10. Stick with Machiavelli. Machiavelli got a bad name after his death. People like Shakespeare used him as a symbol of everything malign and scheming. But the Machiavelli of The Prince is entirely pragmatic. Okay, so you might not take his advice to eliminate all your enemies, tempting as it might be. But, by contrast, one of his gems is to declare that wise leaders surround themselves with the brightest and best people they can find, not dullards who make them look clever.  Don’t feel threatened by really talented colleagues: you need them around you, working for you and with you. Then you’ll have a fantastic team. They won’t make you look stupid by comparison: on the contrary, the whole team – and the school - will shine.

That’s what you’re trying to achieve, isn’t it? Best of luck.


The far-reaching power of music

14th June 2017

Research showing the impact of learning a musical instrument on pupils’ wider educational outcomes comes as no surprise to Dr Bernard Trafford

Learning a musical instrument boosts academic results: its official! Passionate musicians (including former music teachers like me) have always maintained this. But recent research, reported in the Times recently, has sought to demonstrate just why such lessons help classroom attainment.

Daniel Müllensiefen, music psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, found that children “learn to be clever” by developing new skills and, above all, a growth mind-set. They are less likely to be defeatist and give up – in other words, to suffer from a fixed mind-set.

Is this just another piece of research proving the bleeding obvious? No. Even acknowledging my bias and my wish to believe it, I think finding the proof was worth the effort and cost (£250K).

Learning a musical instrument involves linear progression par excellence. As students’ skills develop, they tackle increasingly difficult material: without building technique, they can’t progress. Thus, the benefits of something intrinsically dull like learning scales can be seen when the resulting greater facility enables a student to tackle more advanced pieces.

Given that the young focus readily on short-term goals, the link between hard work put in and tangible progress - for example, through Grades I to VIII - is clearer than in most fields of activity.

Students of instruments have another advantage. Normally taught one-to-one, except at the most basic level, they have a teacher modelling their learning. All self-respecting music teachers will have their own instrument to hand (be suspicious of one who doesn’t!) and demonstrate correct technique. More than that, they can actually help physically with the bow-hold, the touch on the piano, posture, embouchure or wrist action: indeed, such essential hands-on modelling corresponds closely to what we currently term scaffolding in classroom practice.

Listening is a vital element, too - and with a critical ear. That’s another highly transferable skill. Then there’s the creative and interpretative aspect. If you can’t play the notes, adding all the feeling in the world won’t compensate for inaccuracy: but once you can play them, a good teacher can again use a mixture of advice, modelling and questioning to develop the expressive interpretation of even a relatively simple piece.

It’s not as simple as that, of course, and linear learning is not unique to music. In maths, pupils learn a technique and, through regular practice, gradually master it: regular assessment and other opportunities allow them to judge how they’re doing. Indeed, a mathematician might claim that a student’s successful elegant solution to a simultaneous equation is as aesthetically pleasing (and creative) as a 14 year-old’s performance of a Haydn Sonata movement.

Moreover, my musical examples imply that all teachers of instruments are excellent: that they do indeed model; and that their pupils are all diligent. What about the indolent student who only practises for 10 minutes before the lesson, having neglected to do so all week? Progress = nil. We might argue that too many instrumental teachers have permitted that pattern, long outlawed from the classroom, to persist for too long.

Nonetheless, this research furnishes, if you like, the scientific underscoring of what music teachers have always known. It’s why I believe in a broad and balanced curriculum, bang the drum for creative subjects and am vehemently opposed to their downgrading by the EBacc’s creation of a hierarchy of subjects.

Nonetheless, the fact isn’t blindingly obvious to everyone: least of all to successive governments which, over the past 30 years and more, have overseen a gradual dismantling of music services across Local Authorities. Where are those amazing county youth orchestras which, in the 1970s and early 80s, used to amaze at festivals at home and abroad? The current administration’s vaunted music hubs are but a shadow of the music schools where my generation of youngsters experienced fantastic musical opportunities.

Apologists for the creative arts have long promoted their commercial value for UK PLC. This research provides hard-edged proof of music’s intellectual value too.

Will anyone take notice?


Low-cost private schools?

24th May 2017

Suggestions that firms are keen to set-up low-cost private schools in the UK has raised a few eyebrows. Dr Bernard Trafford is sceptical

Low-cost private schools might become reality in the UK according to recent press reports. The trailblazer for this is the proposed £2,900-a-year Independent Grammar School Durham, awaiting approval to open this September with 100 pupils.

As head of an independent school in the North East, I have a view! But I won’t huff and puff. Charging fees, although not-for-profit and a registered charity, my school operates in a commercial marketplace: it’s not for me to complain if another school sets out to undercut mine. 

The average secondary day-school fee is £13,500: London day schools appear this year to be touching £20,000, while boarding tops £30,000. In the interest of openness, I’ll add that my school’s fees are £12,160.

I have read that investors in profit-making private schools across the world are encouraged by the UK’s free schools programme to look at possibilities here. By contrast, others reckon that even charging £6,000 a year, companies “would struggle to deliver better educational outcomes for pupils than parents could get free in a local UK state school”.

To understand how the low-cost for-profit school movement has grown across the developing world, it’s worth reading The Beautiful Tree by Professor James Tooley. He uncovered a flourishing below-the-radar education economy where even the poorest parents scrape together the few coins needed to send their children to a school where they would learn the three Rs. Without exception they reckoned their children received a better education than in underfunded government schools, which too often turned a complacent blind eye to laziness and the diversion of funds into the pockets of grasping local officials. 

Prof Tooley found such schools even in China, which provides universal state education and officially denies their existence. He describes a government school in Africa where only one of five teachers turn up for work and largely ignore the 120 children packed into one class. Moreover, if corruption doesn’t do the damage, in other poor countries there simply isn’t the money to fund education properly. The UK government spends about £4,800 on each primary pupil and £6,200 on secondary: a decent sum in global terms, notwithstanding the current funding crisis in schools. So how can a low-fees UK school offer a “traditional grammar school education” at less than £3,000?

The suggestion is that low-cost private schools will reduce staff costs and use technology, pupil-centred learning and a tablet for every child. 

Is that what’s meant by “no-frills education”? When UK parents pay school fees, at the levels they do in this country, they don’t only demand academic results, they want the whole package: excellence in pastoral care; extra-curricular activities; facilities; individualised attention to their child. Parents want it all: and why shouldn’t they if they are paying their taxes to the state and then paying school fees in addition? If those are indeed frills, they want them: and they want excellent, properly qualified teachers.

Can all that, plus all the regulatory standards on safeguarding and the rest be achieved on £2,900? I cannot see how. Teachers in every kind of school understand the meaning of a broad education, and recognise that the purpose of education is to help children to grow into sensitive, compassionate, flexible, tolerant and adaptable adults. It’s proving harder than ever to do it on what government pays to its schools: to claim to do it at half the price is, to my mind, a fantasy.

Still, the market will win. If these schools can do it, they will thrive. If they cannot, in the private sector, unhappy parents will simply stop paying the fees, remove their children and claim an education from the state without further payment. I just hope we don’t see dodgy, poorly staffed institutions damaging children’s education and life chances along the way.


Mental health: A major step forward?

10 May 2017

The recent Select Committee report on mental health is welcome, but has one glaring omission and one worrying inclusion, says Dr Bernard Trafford

Last week, the Education Select Committee published its long-awaited report on children and young people’s mental health. There were no surprises. Nor should there have been: the matter is too pressing and too important to be delayed by prevarication or political in-fighting.

The report warns government about the effect of its own policies on children’s wellbeing: “Achieving a balance between promoting academic attainment and wellbeing should not be regarded as a zero-sum activity. Greater wellbeing can equip pupils to achieve academically. If the pressure to promote academic excellence is detrimentally affecting pupils, it becomes self-defeating. Government and schools must be conscious of the stress and anxiety that they are placing on pupils and ensure that sufficient time is allowed for activities which develop life-long skills for wellbeing.”

Elsewhere government is also admonished about the “adverse impact of funding pressures on mental health provision in schools and colleges, including the ability to bring in external support”. A Green Paper is promised for later in the year.

The report applauds the success of the recent pilot scheme linking CAMHS and education providers more closely, adding that “the variation in access for children and young people to timely assessment and support for mental illness is unacceptable”. It also urges the inclusion of mental health training in initial teacher training and on-going CPD, another crucial piece in the jigsaw.

The report also welcomes government’s commitment to making PSHE a compulsory part of the curriculum. Though I frequently deplore ministers’ propensity for shoehorning additional elements, however desirable, into the curriculum, PSHE needs to be there. Moreover, as the report also states, it should include “education on social media”.

This report should prove a major step forward. But I take issue with one unfortunate omission and also another damaging inclusion.

First, the committee makes little or no mention on the funding essential to effecting change. Yes, the report deplores cuts in funding. Nonetheless, it demands that schools achieve more without demanding the necessary resources. With teachers allowed ever-decreasing marking and preparation time, it’s hard to imagine how those already in post will find time to receive the envisaged training let alone to support children suffering from, or at risk of, mental illness. Indeed, nothing useful can happen without proper resourcing, training – and encouragement.

Second, the report falls into an old trap: “We welcome the inclusion of the personal development and wellbeing criteria in the Ofsted inspection framework. However, it seems that insufficient prominence is being given to it by inspectors. 

Same old story. The committee asks itself “how can we ensure this happens?” It places no strictures on government: because it’s powerless, it cannot require ministers to deliver. Instead, it proposes using Ofsted as the stick to beat schools with.

It’s not merely crude and demoralising: it could prove worse than useless. As the report implies, this country doesn’t need one more pressure placed on its schools, driving them to pay lip-service to wellbeing issues or adopt quick fixes (sharp entrepreneurial operators out there will surely spot the business opportunity in supplying wellbeing services or training).

Mischievously, I could suggest disbanding Ofsted and devoting the space and money saved to wellbeing, its abolition alone contributing to quality of life in schools. That won’t happen: but it’s indicative of the state of education policy that a Select Committee has no more inspired idea of how to embed change than to employ Ofsted as its enforcer.


Time for an early night

29 March 2017

Sleep and education go hand-in-hand, says Dr Bernard Trafford. We can’t teach them if they haven’t slept well…

It’s a funny old world we inhabit nowadays, one in which everyone is an expert – and no-one.

Take, for example, former chancellor George Osborne who, it turns out, has discovered a talent for journalism and will edit the Evening Standard: its owner, Evgeny Lebedev, was reportedly over the moon at achieving such a catch.

Clearly this is part of a pattern. Now my forthcoming retirement in the summer is common knowledge, I’m expecting offers to flood in: from Arsenal, perhaps, to replace Arsene Wenger (after all, he’s six years older than I am); then there’s deputy director of MI5 (the current holder’s moving to GCHQ): and is there still an opening for a new ambassador to the US given that Nigel Farage was deemed unsuitable?

Education is an odd sphere, too, as illustrated by some random press stories a couple of Sundays ago. The Sunday Times reported: “Parents have to pay up to £19,000 extra for a house near a good primary school and £16,000 more for one near a good secondary, according to government figures.” Prices near the best secondaries are 6.8 per cent higher than the area average.

Education minister Nick Gibb said: “This sheds a light on how selection by house price is restricting parents’ access.” Which was surely the point of the article. He omitted to say how he’d solve the problem: presumably by parachuting one of his vaunted new grammar schools into the poorer area just down the road. Until that boosts house prices, too – and the cycle continues.

Next I read about schools using a company’s software to track children’s digital behaviour. By following keystrokes and searching for particular vocabulary (from a vast dictionary it has created), the firm will be able to spot youngsters in danger of being groomed, radicalised – or, presumably, those that are cooking up a story for their parents that they’re all round at Jimmy’s house when they’re actually up the pub.

My mockery is only gentle. I share the concerns of schools and parents alike about the dangers children court through careless use of the internet. But I’ve never been keen on spying on kids, and I’d like to hope that education, rather than snooping, will give us the long-term answer.

Frankly it’s enough to make one lose sleep. At my age it’s hard enough to get a solid night’s kip in any case, without all these additional issues to worry about.

So it was good to see my friend and colleague Sean Fenton, head of the independent Reigate Grammar School, going strong on the fact that lack of sleep fuels child mental illness. His school’s doing its utmost to educate both students and parents about the need to turn screens off at least an hour before bedtime, thus allowing the brain to slow from its fevered pitch, the body to create melatonin, and kids to arrive at school next day properly refreshed and invigorated.

How good it is to see someone promoting an old-fashioned homespun remedy. No offence! It’s no more than sensible age-old wisdom to insist that kids get a regular bedtime and enough sleep.

There are numerous causes of mental illnesses and up and down the country: many of us, me included, are working in networks, groups and organisations to devise solutions to the myriad problems and conditions that lie behind children’s mental ill health.

But let’s start simple. Listen to Sean: heed the words of a head of great experience and deep wisdom. Turn the damn things off: have a quiet hour; even read a book; get to bed on time; and have a good night’s sleep. You’ll feel a whole lot better for it.

Parents, too: they need to lead the way on digital self-denial and set an example.

As for me, the end of term beckons. I’m planning to devote myself to serious sleeping: in order both to survive to the last day and to speed subsequent recovery.

Time for an early night, then!


Business: stay out of the classroom

15th March 2017

As we are again urged to learn lessons from business, Dr Bernard Trafford says industry should not be teaching us how to teach...

I’ve always had time for Lord Nash as schools minister – a political outsider who, following a successful City career and undoubtedly with an eye to public service and altruism, chooses to serve in government. His feet are firmly on the ground and he’s a man of his word. But he lost me recently when he urged schools to take a leaf out of business’s book and stop giving underperforming teachers the benefit of the doubt.

He was speaking on “What is relevant in business to education” at the Challenge Partnership National Conference. Given his background, one might feel few people could be better placed. Describing occasions on which he wasn’t sure whether someone would really measure up to the job, he would perform “a risk-reward analysis”: “how much better can this person get and then what’s the downside and the upside of letting them go?”.

Mind you, it’s easy for people on a conference podium to talk tough. We can always sound smart by talking (not that he did) about how to “fire to inspire”: but workers have rights, even teachers! – and proving underperformance is rarely straightforward.

Next he urged teachers to embrace “standardisation” instead of “individuality”. Curriculum content and lesson-planning should be far more standardised: why give new teachers the task of planning lessons? Better to give them ready-made content.

“Being a professional,” he continued, “means embracing accountability, standardisation and consistency, although of course we want our teachers to be inspiring.” 

Standardised content would allow teachers to focus on delivery and differentiation: it would even reduce workload. He added that it’s impossible to “run an organisation of any size and diversity, efficiently and effectively if you haven’t got consistent procedures”. Amen to that. Anyone who’s spent any number of years in school leadership knows that achieving consistency of approach (for example, to discipline and pastoral care) is really hard. Teachers have to follow enormous numbers of consistent instructions and procedures, not least in the legal requirements to register children, to follow safeguarding procedures, to mark, to report and all the rest. The greater consistency we can achieve in those, the more efficiently the school will run. Business-like, indeed.

But Lord Nash’s notion of “standardisation” won’t do. We need teachers to show their individuality, to be honest and personal about the way their subject touches them: only in that way can they inspire. 

I’m not reminiscing about some golden age (that never existed) where teachers were mavericks, doing their own thing and inspiring children in exotic and extraordinary ways. There were inspiring mavericks in the old days: there were also incompetents, nutters and those who were a danger to children. Schools have moved a long way – and needed to.

Yet even that scourge of softness, Sir Michael Wilshaw, claimed the best heads are mavericks. They’re not intimidated by the system: they tread their own path, put children at the heart of their purpose, and if what local or national government requires of them doesn’t meet their purpose, they subvert or reject it.

It was US Admiral Grace Hopper who said: “It’s easier to obtain forgiveness after the event than permission before it.” She was right.

Thank goodness the classroom remains teachers’ domain, where they can draw on what turns them on about their subject to spark similar enthusiasm in the pupils they teach. Yes, the more teachers can share material and avoid constantly reinventing the wheel, the more we can reduce workload and sheer exhaustion. But teaching is a personal interaction between teacher and pupils, not a matter of content delivery: to deny that fact does a disservice both to the professionalism of teachers and to the value of the job they do. Business can teach us much: but not about the chemistry that happens in the classroom.


It's all our fault, apparently

1st March 2017

Dr Bernard Trafford wishes that some ministers and education commentators would just ‘shut the hell up’…

As half the country was returning to school after half-term last week, I was just beginning mine. On February 18 I picked up a copy of The Times. On a single page there were no fewer than three reports about the damage school is doing to children.

A British Psychological Society conference about physical contact concluded that refusing to touch pupils “is abuse”. So afraid are teachers and schools of dealing with allegations of inappropriate touching that heads now (we’re told) prohibit any physical contact with children. But this is psychologically damaging; touch is absolutely essential: “Denying it is like denying a child oxygen.” So we’re messing this one up.

Then there was the suggestion that schools are probably behind the national rise in eating disorders. Clinical psychologist Tara Porter said that “a militant fixation with healthy eating in schools is fuelling anorexia and obesity”. 

There we were, thinking we were doing the right thing, persuading kids to eat healthily and doing our bit to combat obesity. But by being too assertive about it, we’re apparently driving kids into anorexic obsessions with healthy or minimal eating. 

Dr Porter concluded that restriction inevitably leads to bingeing and that “there should be no good or bad foods. Slim and healthy people eat chocolate or fried food, and this is okay, as long as portion sizes are reasonable”. Our fault again. 

But surely teaching’s improved over the years? It appears not. We’ve been gullible in schools, swallowing daft ideas like learning styles and brain gym. According to that expert on teaching, schools minister Nick Gibb (speaking to postgraduate teaching students at Buckingham University), teacher training colleges have been peddling “neuro-myths” about children’s brains and their so-called learning styles. He criticised the “myth of too much teacher-talk”, slamming schools and teacher training institutions for forbidding teachers to address the class for more than 20 per cent of the lesson: “As if listening to a knowledgeable adult would harm the education of pupils.”

There we were, thinking we were being helpful, and all the time we’ve been screwing up children’s lives! So next time government and/or the health lobby tells us to do something about teaching better or reducing obesity, let’s ignore them. It’ll just be a silly bandwagon, as Mr Gibb says.

He likes old-fashioned teaching. So let’s push kids around when they’re naughty and enfold them in warm cuddles them when they’re unhappy: who cares if the odd child or parent wrecks a teacher’s career by making an allegation? 
Moreover, schools should have ignored Ofsted’s insistence on structured lessons. The minister says we should talk at kids. In fact let’s do nothing but talk. Bore the pants off them early in life: it’ll train them for the rest of their lives so, when they’re older, they can listen to ministers talking claptrap without fidgeting. 

The confused thinking that led some schools to insist on a visual, audio or kinaesthetic label against every child’s name (so teachers could systematically address all three learning styles in every lesson) is no more ludicrous than Mr Gibb’s insistence that we ignore it. Teachers know children learn in different ways: we need to help auditory learners to get better at dealing with purely visual stimuli: kinaesthetic learners who prefer to use their hands must learn to sit and listen. But they still need variety – and to bore them to tears by talking at them endlessly won’t help.

If the minister no longer wants schools to go overboard on the latest “bright idea”, his minions should stop pushing them to adopt it. Stop demanding that schools cure all society’s ills and blaming them when they don’t. And end hostile accountability measures that drive undesirable types of conformity and perverse incentives. Oh and, by the way, could we ask ministers who don’t know what they’re talking about just to shut the hell up?


Are we happy with Progress 8?

1st February 2017

Is Progress 8 a better way of ranking schools? As the dust settles, Dr Bernard Trafford offers his view

A new year, and a brave new world of government league tables. This month has seen the new official Progress 8 (P8) scores that the Department of Education has created for English secondary schools.

Rather than just counting those who achieve at least five A* to C grades, as has been the measure until now, Progress 8 is designed to take into account the achievement of all children in year 11, not just those who attain those particular grades.

Sounds good. Critics of league tables, me included, have long claimed that, if we must have such tables at all, simple measures of exam results are misleading and inequitable. If we must have them, we’ve suggested time and again that they should be more useful and fairer to all types of schools by measuring the value the school has helped students to add to their attainment.

That’s what P8 claims to do. Take children’s prior attainment as measured in the key stage 2 SATs, list whatever GCSEs they attain five years later, and measure the progress made. Simple! Sadly, as always, there are unintended unfortunate consequences.

Schools find that lower-ability pupils risk doing as much damage to their scores as under the old system. Those who make little progress through lack of ability or who underperform because of because personal, emotional or mental difficulties (often rooted in poverty, in defiance of minsters’ assertions to the contrary) will drag down their school’s results – sometime disproportionately.

Schools generally bust a gut to keep struggling students in school. But if one is in danger of falling below floor-standards, how great will be the temptation, with government and Ofsted breathing down its neck, to “lose” some of those problematic pupils who will drag its scores down? Once again the insidious effect of constant government pressure will be to encourage wrong behaviours.

The pressure this new measure will add to some schools will, sooner or later, be transmitted to pupils. I know: it shouldn’t be. But it will take superhuman qualities from school and staff to resist.

That there is something of a mental health timebomb ticking away in schools was recognised by the prime minister recently: it’s surely immoral to ramp up anxiety levels among young people by driving their schools so hard.

Some schools will have rejoiced at their P8 figures. A school in a tough area which never got credit for what it was achieving in terms of A* to C grades may have seen its P8 score surpass its rival in a more affluent middle-class area, perhaps even out-scoring the nearest selective school. Winners and losers, then: perhaps it’s high time that things were shaken up?

Except that progress is easier to maintain in a comfortable rather than in a challenging setting. In some of the primary schools serving desperate areas in my part of the country, the North East, heads describe how far back children start in school. They work miracles with kids from the most alienated, deprived, “hard-to-reach” families. But, notwithstanding the miracles worked earlier, in key stages 3 and 4, with all the difficulties that adolescence brings, such children’s progress scores are unlikely to improve a school’s overall figures. It is just too hard for them, and thus for their schools, to make significant progress.

This is not about the smell of defeatism. No-one’s giving up on these children: quite the opposite. But I have yet to meet any secondary school leader happy with P8. It’s fraught with risk: and the consequences to schools and heads when the data doesn’t satisfy government are severe indeed.

It’s all about the data. The strengths and weaknesses alike of P8 tables demonstrate yet again why policy-makers should not employ simplistic figures to drive policy and judge schools. Education is a sophisticated and complex business: reducing it to a single figure demeans both its nature and purpose while doing huge damage to schools. 

Our schools, and the children in them, deserve better measures.


Mental health: empty rhetoric or real action?

18th January 2017

The prime minister’s focus on mental health can only be welcomed, says Dr Bernard Trafford. But will the government back up the rhetoric with proper funding?

Prime minister Theresa May is on a mission to tackle “some of the burning injustices that undermine the solidarity of our society”. Earlier this month, she made a major speech to the Charity Commission: but her target audience was the whole nation.

There was a big statement on mental health. Her plan is to seize a “historic opportunity to right a wrong, and give people ... the attention and treatment they deserve”. She pledged to remove the stigma of mental illness and devote resource and treatment equal to that given to other health problems.

Secondary school staff will be offered Mental Health First Aid training. There will be new trials (unspecified, but led by the Care Quality Commission) to strengthen links between schools and local NHS mental health staff. Mental health campaigner Lord Stephenson and Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind, will carry out a review on improving support in the workplace. There will be an extra 

£15 million towards a focus on community care, with less emphasis on patients visiting GPs and A&E and expanded online services to allow symptom checks before patients seek a face-to-face appointment.

Mr Farmer told the BBC that it was “important to see the prime minister talking about mental health” but warned: The proof would be in the difference it made to the day-to-day experience of people experiencing mental health problems.

Naturally we must welcome the fact that the PM has raised the issue: but it’s not time yet to pop the champagne corks. Her predecessor, who always struck me as a compassionate man, similarly professed a determination to raise the profile of, and increase support for, mental illness. Nothing materialised. 

This time round, there’s no new Treasury money for any of these plans and, according to the BBC: “NHS providers ... predict that the share of local NHS budgets devoted to mental health will fall next year.”

I want to believe this is a real step forward, that it will make a difference. I accept the PM is sincere in her desire to stop mental illness being a hidden, stigmatised problem that is not addressed or treated: but, as with all political speeches, the rhetoric is strong while the detail is thin.

Training validated by Mental Health First Aid England is excellent (my school has made great use of it), and could provide a powerful resource in schools.

But why only secondary schools? To see mental illness as purely a teenage/adolescent thing is a trap into which too many of us fall. Primary heads in the tough parts of the North East insist their children are facing as many mental health issues as those in secondary, stemming from intractable social issues: poverty, unemployment, poor parenting, attachment disorders. Whatever government aims to do about tackling those roots of injustice and inequity, it must recognise that young children too suffer mental illness.

Ms May’s vow to use the state as a “force for good”, within her vision of a “shared society”, is strong stuff: but if she’s sincere, as Alistair Campbell tweeted, why have mental health services gone backwards in the last six months?

More online diagnosis and better trained teachers in schools will make some difference: but what is needed above all is the funding necessary to provide services run by properly qualified experts. There is no mention of that. Indeed, when I read that the review will be into “workplace practice”, I start to fear an onslaught of government legislation to require schools – indeed, all employers – to prove they have wellbeing policies and procedures in place: another government-required paper-chase. Ms May should remember this above all: all the policies and websites in the world cannot replace the mental health professionals who are so desperately needed. Satisfying that need will require hard cash, not mere promises.


Please start listening to the experts

4th January 2017

Dr Bernard Trafford urges the government to adopt a new approach to education in 2017

A new year, a new school term: inevitably, it’s time to consider those new year resolutions.

I’ve made one. Having announced my decision to retire this summer, I shall resolutely remain positive. I have vowed not to utter the words: “It won’t be my problem.” I just don’t think it’s acceptable. 

Even in retirement, I’m not convinced teachers can entirely divorce themselves from their lifetime’s work. Moreover, if teaching is a vocation (and it is), we can’t help but live out the belief that education is something for all of us, for the whole of society, for the nation as a whole. As active citizens, we cannot turn our backs on it and say: “Nothing to do with me.”

Meanwhile, I’d like to ask the government to make some resolutions. In 2017, government should resolve listen to professionals in general, and educationists in particular. The malaise that has so long infected politicians in charge of public services was laid bare when Michael Gove famously derided experts during the Brexit campaign. It was disgraceful: as he’s admitted while he’s experiencing the repentance of the recently humbled. Credit for honesty? 

Perhaps. But the arrogance that led him to publicly despise those with specialist knowledge remains unpardonable.

Under the current regime, with Justine Greening running education under PM Theresa May, policy-makers’ ears appear deafer than ever. It’s worrying, because if they adopted my first suggested resolution, they would be compelled to adopt my second, which is to take greater care of teachers.

All of us have at least one friend (in my friendship circle, it’s generally me) who always contrives to say the wrong thing. 

Justine Greening is the tactless guest par excellence. Just when teachers are at their weariest, in early December, she announced that she cannot foresee teachers getting more than one per cent as a cost of living increase to their salaries.

Next she compounded it by explaining, sententiously, that even one per cent will cost the country £250 million. The implication is that it’s tiresome for teachers to complain of their incomes being eroded: the fact that even the modest rate of inflation of recent years has outstripped government’s feeble attempts to keep pace with it is disregarded. 

We do indeed have problems with our national balance of payments: but it’s time governments stopped blaming public servants for costing too much!

Government must make the profession more attractive if it wishes to attract great teachers, not to mention school leaders. Beyond that, it needs simply to get its act together. Figures released on teacher recruitment at the end of November made grim reading. Recruitment targets were hit in only four secondary subjects, overall targets being missed by the Department for Education (DfE) for the fourth year running. Predictably, perhaps, geography, biology, history and PE over-recruited at secondary level: by contrast, maths saw only 84 per cent recruited against the target, physics 81 per cent, computing 68 per cent, and design technology 41 per cent.

Government strategy for teacher recruitment is in disarray. Michael Gove’s distrust of experts led him to take teacher-training (ITT) out of the traditional, well-organised and more easily managed realm of higher education, instead creating hubs of teaching schools across the country. I know many of these consortia are doing an excellent job and, notwithstanding government distrust of universities’ involvement in education, you’d struggle to find any Teaching School that wasn’t involved with a university because it would be perverse not to be. 

Nonetheless, by delegating what should be a central function of the DfE right down to school level, government has forfeited any clear oversight. The result is predictable, dismal and presents serious problems for the future.

Just to reiterate. My new year’s (educational) resolutions for government are these: “Listen to the teaching profession, make it more attractive, and organise ITT properly!” Is it so much to ask?


Putting food on the table

30th November 2016

Last Thursday, 24th November, was designated “stamp out casual contract day of action” by the University and College Union (UCU) that represents academic lecturers. An investigation by The Guardian revealed that, among universities, the 24 members of the prestigious Russell Group rely most heavily on academics working on insecure contracts.

The UCU has accused Vice-Chancellors of “importing the Sports Direct model” into British universities. According to The Guardian, Birmingham University has 70% of its teaching staff on insecure contracts. The Guardian describes a “two-tier academic workforce”, those at the bottom living hand-to-mouth, some requiring benefits to help them to live, while those at the top are generously remunerated: Birmingham’s VC, Sir David Eastwood, received over £400,000 last year.

Birmingham claimed that the figures are extremely misleading: those lecturers on non-standard contracts are visiting experts working only a fraction of a full-time equivalent. Covering only 7% of the university’s teaching, it insisted, they “enhance the learning experience of our students”.

Whether or not one believes The Guardian more readily than Birmingham, the paper appears to have uncovered a world where significant numbers of academics work on precarious and parsimonious terms. By contrast VCs might argue it’s the only way to make ends meet: everyone in education, from nursery to university, is short of money.

Rationing is everywhere, and efficiency is today’s mantra. At school level, multi-academy trusts (MATs), which control chains of academies, boast economy of scale. It’s more efficient to have one superhead directing operations in a number of schools.

A MAT can have a single central HR and finance department, and can move teachers between schools entirely legally if their standard contract says so.

Elsewhere, we hear plenty of stories about teaching assistants who are paid on term-time only contracts. Why stop there? Catering or cleaning staff, if not already contracted-out, generally work term-time-only: why not put them on zero-hours contracts? One can imagine the temptation to do the same with teachers in minority subjects.

The obsession with efficiency (and “efficiency-savings”) leaves me deeply uneasy. When efficiency is king, we risk viewing the employment our institutions provide merely as a transaction, forgetting that it provides a living. Wherever the money comes from to fund them – from government local or national, or from individual parents, according to their status and sector – schools are rooted in a neighbourhood and channel money into their local economy.

The employment they provide puts the food on people’s tables: slashing jobs or pay to reduce expenditure removes it. For institutions constantly to seek “efficiencies”, while refusing to acknowledge the cost to those who depend on them for employment, seems to me morally inexcusable.

Schools are communities, and are firmly embedded within the wider community: a school contributes huge sums to its local and regional economy in the salaries it pays and in the services it buys.  Indeed, in 2014 the Independent Schools Council (ISC) produced a report on the sector’s contribution to the economy, the Independent Schools Economic Impact Report

Using the assessment tool ISC produced, we calculated that my independent school paid nearly £7m in salaries in 2014, thus feeding the local economy. To the Exchequer we were paying more than £2m in income taxes, National Insurance and VAT, while to local suppliers and services we contributed over £4m. Directly and indirectly, we reckoned we put some £12 million into the economy, locally and nationally.  

Perhaps society needs to choose which altar it want to worship at. Should we continue to sacrifice people’s livings and wellbeing on the altar of efficiency and cost-saving? Or should we instead enshrine an attitude of remembering that the significant running costs of education provide livings, welfare and indeed hope in our communities.

Obsessed with efficiency, we risk forgetting the benefit that our expenditure spreads.  If we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the balance-sheet, I fear we may next lose sight of what and who our schools exist for.


Misleading and unfair article overshadows wellbeing debate

16th November 2016

My colleague Henry Price, Head of Wellington School in Somerset, has every reason to feel offended. He blogged a fortnight ago about his school’s new Department of Sport and Wellbeing which intelligently brings nutrition, mindfulness and leadership together with the traditional elements of sport.

Wellington School still plays old-fashioned team games. As Mr Price says, “Girls and boys still thrive in a team environment and I would not wish to see an element of competition removed from school sport, as long as it is tempered by sportsmanship and a sense of perspective”.

Mr Price was as surprised as his students and parents to see the headline in The Sunday Times on 6th November: Zumba puts team games on the bench at top school. The opening sentences of the report by Sian Griffiths and James Gillespie were hilarious: “If the Duke of Wellington believed that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, he would have been dismayed by the latest move at a leading private school that bears his name. Wellington School in Somerset has abandoned traditional PE lessons, which included competitive games such as rugby and hockey, and replaced them with ‘wellbeing’ classes”.

By the way, the Iron Duke (like the school) took his title from the Somerset town, called Weolingtun in Saxon times, not the other way round. It’s Wellington College in Berkshire that “bears his name”.

I’ve been misrepresented often enough: usually I’ve asked for it. Twenty years ago I told a reporter in the pub, in a fit of youthful naivety and exuberance, that I’d told my staff they must avoid being boring. All lessons should be interesting: and if teachers really had to cover something dull, they should at least be honest with their students. The resulting article was inevitably headed Lively head bans the school bores.

Wellington’s Henry Price’s reasoned blog didn’t invite such treatment, however. It was a model of balance: not to mention that it didn’t mention Zumba.

As it happens, this bizarre story – the distortion, I mean, not the original blog – raises an interesting question. Zumba and yoga can be valuable additions to a school’s repertoire, whether under the heading of PE or wellbeing.  At my school Pilates and yoga are generally available for senior students as alternatives to traditional team games. And I’m delighted that nowadays we boast a full-time dance coach so that dance is not pursued merely in lunchtime or after-school clubs for volunteers but built into a wide-ranging PE curriculum for all within the timetable.

All that is good: as are our occasional Wellbeing Days, with year-groups taken off timetable, part of the Health Education that joins Personal and Social Education to form PSHE.

We do all that: but no one’s yet suggested that my school is turning its back on traditional team sports. Parents and children alike nowadays want it all: fitness, dance, health and nutrition sit comfortably alongside the traditional team games, and all appear more than ever to thrive.

It’s a far cry from my school days where, hopelessly inept at rugby, I felt as if I spent my life jogging around the touchline in the cold and rain, as punishment for not making enough effort. Eventually I took up fencing, having twigged that it was an indoor sport: it was just my bad luck that the fencing coach decided that we should start cross-country running to improve our fitness. When my memoire - Bernard Trafford, my life in sport - is published, it will be a short, sad volume.

Well done, Wellington School! And Henry Price, too. The blog was an elegantly-phrased endorsement of excellent practice, and deserved better treatment by the press.

More power to your elbow! Now I think of it, a spot of Zumba would help with that…


The architect heads 

3rd November 2016

How nice it is to be proved right! I was surprised, however, to find myself the other day in the rare position of agreeing with Sir Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing boss of OFSTED.

It’s all about headship styles. New research, produced by the Centre for High Performance and being published in the the Harvard Business Review, has found that there are five types of heads. I was intrigued by the main three.

Those characterised by the research team as “philosophers”, the largest group, are heads who try to avoid appearing as managers, leading instead by example, as senior teachers. They emphasise pedagogy above all. In terms of improvement, over time their schools are only middling performers and, in the longer term, some of the least improved. So we’ll leave them!

The fascinating thing about this research, carried out in 160 academies in England, and covering the tenure of 411 head teachers, is the stark difference between other two leading types.

“Surgeons” are brought in (parachuted, as frequently termed) to turn around schools in a hurry. They exclude an average of 25% of final-year students (approaching GCSE) to push up the results and fire 10% of staff. Their impact, says the research, is immediate and dramatic.

When the surgeon head leaves, however, improvement falters: three years on, it’s merely average. Lots of pain, swift gain: but little impact long-term.

That brings us to “architects”. Described as careful planners, architects work on improving standards - first of behaviour, then of teaching. They work with parents, expel children only when behaviour is unacceptable, and replace weaker staff slowly.

Improvement is less dramatic than that achieved by surgeons: but it’s sustainable and, three years after the head has left, improvement is continued: architects’ schools are the best performers in the long run.

It’s good to see this research: but it’s not rocket science. For two decades I’ve been deploring the pressure from government and, indeed, from academy chains to send in “superheads” to kick change into place. They call it decisive management: I call it bullying.

Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight on 20th October,Sir Michael Wilshaw was in sympathy with the research. He supports architect heads: following tough inspection outcomes, he writes them a letter saying, “ I know the school isn’t good enough yet, but you’re putting the pieces in place. Have courage: keep going”. Receiving such a letter must be odd but gratifying for heads who feel their school has had a kicking from OFSTED.

Slow and steady wins the race, then. As a head, I can see the attraction of the “philosopher” approach: I like to talk about pedagogy, because there is a craft to teaching. But lasting school improvement is about being an architect: putting the small pieces in place; making sure behaviours (of students and teachers alike) are right; engaging with parents; making sure the school – whatever its type – is in sympathy and harmony with its setting and community.

Moreover, a school must be at peace with itself, something hard to imagine when a surgeon head is taking the scalpel to its guts.

The architect head’s role approach is certainly not a soft one: but it is humane. It is, perhaps, the iron fist in the velvet glove. It demands careful judgement, kindness and a long view: but it is the right way.

It’s rather like the old joke, how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb must really want to change. You can kick change into place as the surgeon head does, but it doesn’t work long-term.

How good to see good sense being talked at last! Yet this research also reveals a deep injustice. Those successful long-term, softly-softly architects are the least well rewarded heads. They are not spectacular, they are not high profile: they do a fantastic, solid, lasting job. But they don’t get the honours, the gongs, and they don’t get the salary: an average of £86K, rather than £154K for superheads.

More wrongheaded policy enforcement: more unfairness to people doing a great job. I wonder if this research will change any minds?


The school photograph

5 October 2016

Last week our school managed briefly to step aside from the rush of purposeful activity that characterises September, and even from the continuing flurry of reactions to the government’s Green Paper (which I won’t mention again here!). Instead we looked inward to a pleasurable and intensely traditional event, the quinquennial whole-school photograph.

This term my school is the biggest it’s ever been, with more than 1,300 pupils aged 7-18 and the best part of 200 teaching and support staff. For the team of photographers, then, it was no small undertaking to get so many people safely onto the enormous eleven-level gantry they’d been erecting for a couple of hours (and off it again).

For us teachers, it was only 90 minutes lost, so efficiently were we organised by the professionals. Still, it called for a lot of work from my deputy who undertook the thankless task of getting class teachers to organise their children, a chain of command that is at best loose-linked (“What do you mean you put it in an email? I haven’t got time to read all those…”). To be fair, everyone did their bit very effectively and with good humour.

We awoke to a grey morning: and rain threatened throughout. The weather forecast offered a 50% chance of rain, so I guess we were lucky to get away with it. I wandered round encouraging the troops and commenting brightly that a grey day is so much better for photography than full sun - sun which perversely broke through just as we were ready to take a shot, obliging us to wait for it to disappear behind the next cloud.

So all went well. But you might ask, was it worth all that effort? After all, in this digital age children and parents alike are arguably overwhelmed by pictures of themselves, their friends and everything else. Is there still a place in a 21st Century school for a highly formal, metre-long, expensive framed print where you need a magnifying glass to spot yourself?

I think there is, although the proof may yet lie in how many parents bother to buy prints this time round. I’ll buy a copy, of course, and find one final additional slot on the wall in the spare bedroom - with all the other pictures from my 26 years (so far) as a head in two schools. But that’s just me.

I don’t believe those pictures will be hanging on my students’ walls until they reach my advanced age. But most will hang onto them. There is something in such pictures about that sense not just of community but of institution: of being all in this joint venture together and (though it’s not cool to go on about it) really rather proud of our school.

Years or decades later, people occasionally dig out those old pictures, play the game of trying to identify everyone, laugh at how that old friend who had so much hair back then seems to have so little now, and begin reminiscing.

It’s all about the present, current friends and colleagues: it’s also about the future, because it’s a record to be kept for then; and, when the future comes, it’s about happy shared memories. While we waited, a colleague described searching for his father-in-law’s 1938 school photo for a montage to celebrate a diamond wedding anniversary. It’s what people do.

We sacrificed a lesson-and-a-half. If you add up everyone’s time, you might reckon we lost 2,250 man-hours: I don’t think I’ll go there! School days are full of memories, hopefully happy and positive ones. Things like last week’s picture help preserve them.

It’s a moment in time: although the students are in uniform or following the sixth-form dress code, appearances, hair fashions, even the way boys’ ties are knotted will reflect the period and quickly render the picture a historical document.

Was it worth it? I think so.


Green Paper: A dog’s dinner

22nd September 2016 

Now, there’s a title for a green paper: Schools that work for everyone.

Personally, I can’t see it. What I’ve seen so far of this hastily-unveiled plan resembles a dog’s dinner, a cobbling together of a few Tory obsessions plus a swipe at independent schools (no longer popular with the party) and a scam for getting something for nothing from universities!

Let’s take the four key points in turn, reversing the order in which summaries have listed them.

The fourth proposes to allow new faith-based Free Schools to select up to 100% of pupils based on their faith. Lest we fear the religious focus creating cultural or racial ghettos, we’re assured that schools will be required to include pupils from different backgrounds. How that will be achieved is unclear.

Such loose wording could involve years of wrangling. How, for example, can a Church of England primary attract a good range of children from Indian or Pakistani backgrounds, who are more likely to be Sikh, Hindu or Muslim?

Next up, selection. Existing grammar schools will be permitted to expand and new selective schools to open: but they will be obliged always to help non-selective schools - the schools, I guess, from whom they’ll take the kids who would have gone to them.

This is bizarre. If we’re going to have selection, there must be provision for those who don’t pass that 11+ exam: the alternatives must be excellent. Take a genuinely comprehensive, all-ability school system in an area: simply lob in a grammar; result, turmoil and injustice. To be sure, I run a selective school: but it’s independent, sitting outside the boat which this plan will rock

Next comes the wheeze of allowing universities to charge higher fees only if they commit to sponsoring or setting up new schools. Now, universities are full of awfully brainy people, brilliant at post-doctoral standard astrophysics, higher degree English literature or even first degree maths.  But what do they know about teaching five-year-olds to read in a deprived setting, where kids never see a book at home?

This is a scam! Government wants more schools: if universities commit resources (not necessarily academic: they could be administrative, legal, HR and everything else), thus saving Whitehall money, they’ll allow the universities to charge higher fees. That’s blackmail in my book - or bribery anyway.

Finally, in order to “justify their charitable status”, government will require independent schools to support existing state schools: most of us do anyway, not in a patronising way, but through useful and mutually beneficial joint working. As an independent head I declare an interest: but this is just another stick with which to beat us.

Government also wants us to open new state schools. I feel as I do about asking universities to do the same: it would be presumptuous of me to tell the state school down the road how to get off the ground or to improve.

In addition, we’re required to offer funded places to children whose families can’t afford to pay fees: we already do that, too.

Is this actually a vote of confidence from government? Have Theresa May and Justine Greening been listening to what we’ve been saying about all the good work we do! Because we do: consistently, widely, invariably.

I doubt it. Tory politicians have taken against the independent sector.  They love to cite all those “tax breaks” which they claim charitable status brings us, but which puzzle me.

Yes, my school pays only 5% VAT on utilities bills: it pays no corporation tax and enjoys reduced business rate. In a good year this saves us some £300,000. Set against that the VAT we pay on supplies and services: £600,000. Government statements conveniently omit to mention the fact that independents are liable for VAT.

Before complaining about our four-centuries-old charitable status, people should get their facts right.

Political point-scoring: arm-twisting to get something for nothing; meaningless tokenism; and a recipe for chaos in the system; that’s the green paper.

Schools that work for everyone? I fear most people, if not everyone, will be disappointed.


An era of hyper-accountability

8th September 2016

Results days bring with them success and failure, joy and disappointment. At my A-level-heavy school, the overwhelming majority of our students still eschew online checks and come in to pick up those paper statements. Within the first hour, those who have achieved what they needed - or, even if a little short, have nonetheless been accepted by their university of choice - are on their way, celebrating.

Those left behind are dismayed, disappointed, uncertain. They’ve missed the required grades and, notwithstanding unprecedented flexibility from universities these days, are unplaced.

Euphoria evaporates: a gloom descends on me while I watch my fantastic colleagues provide advice and support as students are obliged to recalibrate and perhaps change life-plans.

We live with all that. But this year another element dismayed me: and it wasn’t to do with the candidates.

Via Twitter, two school heads, one high-profile, the other anonymous, recently wrote heartfelt and disturbing pieces about the pressure of GCSE results.

We all feel our responsibility for our students’ results keenly. When things go well we rejoice: we share pain, too, as I’ve just described. But these two heads – undoubtedly speaking for many colleagues – discuss the pressure that the system, government above all, places on them.

The Guardian featured a “secret headteacher” writing After Thursday’s GCSE results, will I still have a job? The writer (gender concealed)  admitted to having no idea what his/her students would get in their GCSEs. Not because the school was sloppy: on the contrary: “There simply is nothing more my staff could have done”. He/she blamed “changes to grade boundaries made at whim, structural changes to questions and papers, and some frankly ridiculous questions this year” Moreover, “There are serious concerns about the quality of markers.”

He/she continued: “One of my good friends was sacked from his position of head teacher in a large academy chain after only two years … the gap [between his estimates and the actual results] suggested to his academy chain bosses that he didn’t know what he was doing. He has three children, is brilliant and hasn’t secured a permanent job since.”

As for the secret headteacher’s health: “My blood pressure shot up so high just before Christmas that it wasn’t on any of the charts, and I thought the doctor was going to handcuff me to his chair to stop me going into work.”

Highbury Grove School’s Tom Sherrington, Tweets as @headguruteacher. In a blog just before GCSE results, he wrote: “It’s been a strange and difficult few days. I woke up last Thursday night at 2.00am with the worst headache of all time … this was stress, pure and simple.” In what he describes as “this age of hyper-accountability” he points out that results “assume meaning far beyond the limits of their validity and reliability as measures of our students’ experience.”

This year his school’s results will be “at the lower end of the range I’d expected.” Again the goalposts have been moved, boundaries shifted, uncertainty created throughout the system.

And now there are those misguided compulsory English and Maths resits.

When, last May, complaints spread about the anxiety SATs create in primary school children, hawkish commentators blamed schools which, they insisted, should absorb pressure, not communicate it.

It can’t. Headteachers soak up all they can, but pressure nonetheless leaks inexorably down through their senior teams into “ordinary” teachers, and affects children too. The wrong lies not in schools, but in the way they’re driven from above.

A mad blindness possesses government and the academy chains it drives alike. Wilfully, pig-headedly, they insist on confusing pupils’ individual exam achievements with statistics they believe they can employ as measures - and as sticks to beat schools.

Grades cannot perform both functions.

Professionals deserve better leadership. The nation’s children a deserve better deal all round.

Dare we hope that new Education Secretary Justine Greening might add a degree of sanity and humanity to the system?

If she doesn’t change direction, unrelenting pressure will cause school improvement to stall, and the profession will continue to haemorrhage teachers and school leaders who can’t take any more.


Ashamed to be counted English

6th July 2016

Astonishingly, almost unimaginably (to those of us working in education at any rate), the nation has voted to leave Europe.

Oh dear! Already I might be accused of inaccuracy: dealing with this whole issue of the referendum and its result we find ourselves walking on eggshells and playing with the niceties of language (what rich pickings there are for English teachers: examples of hyperbole, polemic, contradiction, mixed metaphors; I guess downright lies don’t count). 

Britain overall voted for Brexit: the English and Welsh nations certainly voted Out; but Scotland and Northern Ireland didn’t do so by any stretch of the imagination.

For students of politics (not enough of them in our schools), there is also plenty of learning material in the whole saga. Most pundits agree that the Leave majority came as a result of large swathes of the electorate, especially those Labour supporters in disadvantaged areas, choosing to give Westminster a kicking. To Cameron and Corbyn alike they were saying, with Shakespeare’s Mercutio, “A plague on both your houses! 

Nigel Farage characterised the outcome as “ordinary, decent people” registering a protest. I like to think of myself as decent and fundamentally ordinary, but it seems I’m disbarred from his club: I belong to the educated élite that currently stands accused of ignoring and despising ordinary people.

Now for the next uncomfortable fact. Young people (aged 24 and below) voted overwhelmingly to Remain. Had English voting rights extended in age down to 16-year-olds, as in Scotland, it seems there would have been a narrow majority in favour of Remain instead of Leave. Young people in my school, as well as my own family and younger relatives, are for the most part outraged that my generation (to their mind) stitched them up, pulling them and their country out of Europe and blighting their chances of free movement of labour, employment, trade and wealth-creation inside Europe. They have every right to be angry.

To the rest of Europe, England (I mean England, rather than Britain) appears nasty. Arguments about immigration – despite numerous shrill denials from the more rational Brexiteers – assumed an unpleasantly racist tone. This vote is hostile and xenophobic: at the very least, that is how it appears in Europe. 

I recall, at some stage in the campaign, Boris Johnson protesting, “I love Europe and Europeans. I just don’t want us to be part of that political system.” If he was sincere in that view, he made little effort to promote it in the debate which centred on anxieties about immigration and loss of jobs – or, more precisely, Little Englander views playing on irrational fears.

We should never have got hung up on immigration, nor on wild claims from both sides about what would happen to the economy in the event of a Leave or Remain vote. The debate should have been conducted on a rational and philosophical level: trying to analyse what it means to be both British and European; the very nature of our place in Europe; how, in truth, our sovereignty has never been under threat, and how arguments to the contrary were entirely spurious. 

Perhaps we got it wrong in schools. I’ve always felt that my role as a Head is not to tell young people how they should vote, nor to influence my colleagues: as a regular columnist, I believed I had no business to persuade, though I was ready enough to point out lies and distortions presented by both sides of the argument.

Maybe I was mistaken.

Edmund Burke is alleged to have said (there is some dispute about its authenticity): “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

Have we Remainers, particularly those of us who are teachers, remained silent and allowed evil in? 

I hope it’s not that extreme, but I know one thing for certain: right now I feel ashamed to be counted English.


Ofsted: still the DfE's rottweiller?

22nd June 2016

The next Ofsted chief looks set to be someone with no teaching experience. Dr Bernard Trafford warns of the dangers of this decision

So Amanda Spielman is set to follow Sir Michael Wilshaw as the chief inspector of schools. The move is unlikely to be welcomed in some educational circles because Ms Spielman – the current chair of Ofqual – has not previously worked as a teacher. She began her career in corporate finance.

What should schools and school leaders make of her? I’ve heard her in person on occasions, dealing adroitly and honestly with criticisms fired at her by conference delegates about the shortcomings of the exam system. She impressed with her willingness to listen and take views on board.

But what else has she done in education? She spent a decade developing the powerful and successful academy trust, Ark. But that’s all really.

Before all that she was a million miles (and, arguably, zillions of pounds) from education, working as a specialist in high finance. I guess, then, that she can do the sums and won’t be frightened of a big organisation. She must have a grasp of how large outfits run, of the achievement and maintenance of quality, and of value for money. So far, so good.

Ms Spielman’s tenure as Ofqual chair has ended controversially. Schools’ associations, particularly in the independent sector, have been critical of the watchdog’s failure to insist on and maintain reliably high standards of marking: the recent decision to make it harder to demand re-marks has been widely condemned as masking rather than tackling the problem, sweeping it under a spectacularly large carpet.

It’s not so much her Ofqual experience that will fill many schools and their leaders with dismay, though, as a concern about the authenticity of the leadership she can offer to Ofsted.

I frequently caricature Ofsted as government’s rottweiler. The accountability system becomes more aggressive and onerous year-on-year (the process has been going on for more than two decades). Ofsted is its enforcer. You won’t find any school or college in the land treating inspectors’ arrival with equanimity. However high-achieving or well-prepared they are, they will be deeply nervous. The stakes are too high, and for too long Ofsted has been too unreliable for anyone to feel comfortable.

In recent years, with the inspectorate’s intensified focus on governing bodies, even those noble volunteer guardians of schools now suffer anxieties similar to those of the professional staff.

Ever since the late Chris Woodhead was appointed as Ofsted’s first boss, there has been a concern about lack of humanity and understanding in its operation. Following his retirement, all his successors have been former school leaders, so could claim some empathy with the pressures of running a school, let alone the added burden of dealing with the inspection process. Indeed, even when Sir Michael was at his most critical of heads, his most vociferous critics had to admit that he’d been there, had walked the walk in tough schools.

Ms Spielman has no actual school experience. Ministers and policy-makers will probably see this as an advantage, fearing no contagion, no danger of her going native, and expecting her to bring objectivity, directness and powerful analytical skills to the job.

But, schools and their leaders will ask, where is her authenticity? Can she hope to understand what they deal with every day? Without that appreciation, it is hard to see how she can claim credibility or build trust. Yet the trust of the profession is just what Ofsted needs if it is to form any kind of partnership with schools in the on-going quest for school improvement.

If Ms Spielman fails to build that trust, Ofsted will remain the government’s rottweiler: and she will become merely its latest dog-handler.


Testing: flogging a dead horse

19th May 2016

During a particularly difficult battle at the school of which I was then head, a wise Chair of Governors once said to me, “If it hurts too much, you can always stop banging your head against the wall!”

I wonder if politicians ever feel like that. Last week saw yet another leak of SATs papers, calling their security into question while their validity and usefulness were also under attack. Having expressed widespread dissatisfaction and concern about the stress put on children by these government tests, parents next witnessed their children in tears because the new, tougher SATs last week were just too difficult.

Are the wheels falling off? Or is the chaos, as suggested by ministers, their advisers and commentators (generally from the Right), the result of feeble-mindedness on the part of schools?  Such reactions are predictably robust. Of course tests must be harder, we’re assured: standards can only be seen to be rising if more children fail exams.

As for stress on pupils, the same voices claim that schools should be preparing children for tests in a measured and sensible way, so that they made ready without anxiety. 

It doesn’t work that way, as all teachers and parents know. The average child takes every test seriously: and these aren’t internal school assessments but Government Tests. Younger children in particular want to do well, seeking approval from their parents and teachers: it’s natural. 

Critics have lambasted schools for transmitting anxiety to children: but they would be superhuman to avoid doing so. Schools are under immense strain, with added pressure because they know those SATs figures will be used to create targets against which they will be measured, although with all the changes, they don’t yet know how such benchmarks will work. 

Schools do their best to absorb the constant pressure they suffer from government: similarly heads try to soak it up pressure to protect their teachers. But they are under the cosh, particularly in difficult settings situations. 

Fair enough, says the Right. They should be under pressure if they’re not great: but those self-appointed guardians of high standards wilfully neglect the fact that schools are full of people with human frailties and (like most of us) an inability to shrug off the relentless pushing from government.

One flash of honesty emerged during the last SATs row: Schools Minister Nick Gibb admitted on radio that children shouldn’t worry about the tests: they are not measuring the kids, but their schools. At long last, the truth.

Now it appears that Pearson, the firm contracted by government to compose and administer the tests, has suffered its second lapse in security. One can’t help suspecting a deliberate leak, perhaps from someone within the organisation who dislikes what government is up to. 

Should heads roll? If so, whose? They may roll at Pearson. In the old days a minister might have walked, though it must be admitted that these events have occurred at a fair distance from government. 

Does the whole mess prove finally that SATs just won’t work? With such anxiety, hostility and plain ineptitude surrounding these SATs, how long can they continue? 

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan regularly repeats the tedious mantra about how essential these tests are to parents and children and raising standards: yet we know her colleague Mr Gibb doesn’t believe it. Morgan preaches at teachers’ conferences instead of listening to them. Even when a U-turn is announced on the forced academisation of schools, she declares that government will do it anyway: it just won’t enact legislation for the purpose.

You have to admit she and her ministers are tenacious. They cling to their path, however rocky or wrecked it becomes. 

Is that tenacity? Or pig-headedness? I confess I’m reminded of my old Chairman’s advice. 

Moreover, when I look at the department and its leaders, it becomes ever more evident that they are engaged above all in flogging a dead horse.


Fast track to leadership?

5th May 2016

“I’m pretty sceptical of fast-track schemes.” That was the response of NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby following the announcement of a new planned leadership college. The Department for Education is considering funding the plan, the brainchild of the highly influential trinity of Sir Michael Wilshaw, Toby Young and Sir Anthony Seldon.

Based at the University of Buckingham, it will parachute young trainee heads into schools after a mere two years at the college. Two years following a lengthy time in the profession, surely? No: for bright graduates, just the two years. Still, candidates will have qualified teacher status, so they must have spent a year or two in the classroom.

If I’m honest, I’m with Mr Hobby – deeply sceptical. I have no difficulty with the idea of identifying high-quality potential leaders and fast-tracking them. Nor do I think a teacher should have to bear any particular scars as badges of honour, nor have fulfilled particular roles or completed a specified number of years at the chalkface.

But there are three pitfalls in this plan. First, we’re not short of senior leaders in this country’s schools, only of heads. Mr Hobby asks why so many deputies don’t want to take the next step upwards: the question is directed at policy-makers.

Government policy over the last few decades has rendered maintained sector headship both burdensome and insecure. There’s little incentive for a head to go into a struggling school: if the results don’t come quickly, and particular targets (whatever’s the flavour this month) are not met, they can soon be out of a job. 

Maybe heads need more guarantees of security, or danger-money, or both? Experienced senior teachers with families and mortgages will think twice before accepting high-risk posts. All the more reason, then, why the rapid promotion of much younger professionals might seem attractive, before they have those responsibilities.

That raises the second difficulty. Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor at Buckingham, is sure he can bring “great people into the system” and “prepare them better so they are more compassionate, wise, accomplished, rounded leaders rather than mean, sausage-factory, league-table obsessed people”.

Marvellous: we need more of that. But with minimal experience of hacking the job in the classroom, can even a high-powered two-year course transform them into leaders with the experience on which to base judgements, the perspective and the sheer in-depth knowledge of the job and system to manage teachers (who can be a handful) and grasp the complexities of a school? I have to say I doubt it.

And third. Even if training is sufficient to compensate for the gaps in experience, what authority will these new heads possess for the workforce they lead (and, come to that, the parents who trust them with their children)? Few people have made it to headship without significant experience in schools. Of the tiny number to have done so, few have lasted.

Leadership must be authentic. I’ve met great leaders of large engineering firms: they’ve all been, well, engineers by background. They’re not accountants or management experts: though they may employ both to help run the enterprise.

Similarly the millions of personal interactions that take place in a school day or week are of such bewildering variety that for a head there can be no substitute for significant experience in that world.

The three minds behind this plan are powerful figures. They’re certainly not ill-informed: but I fear their enthusiasm to solve an indisputable problem has led them to make a leap too far. Teaching’s tough. Those who lead teachers must have walked in their shoes, known their joys and frustrations and shared that buzz when the child understands, learns and moves on. That (and only that) is authentic leadership.


Raising the PFI question

21st April 2016

One benefit of being long in the tooth as a Head is the ability to say, “I told you so”. Mostly I avoid the temptation: but I wish I could speak to the politicians whose messianic ventures of 20 years ago have created current disaster. 

No schadenfreude, though: it’s not the politicians who suffer from historically poor decisions, but people like (right now) the schoolchildren of Edinburgh.

On Monday 11th April 7,000 Edinburgh schoolchildren were unable to return to seventeen schools for the new term because their school buildings were not deemed safe.  These aren’t crumbling edifices from the 1940s, but sparkling new constructions created under the last Labour administration’s Public Private Partnership (PPP). 

In 2001 The Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP) signed a 30-year PPP contract with Miller Construction (now owned by Galliford Try) who would build ten primaries, five secondaries and two additional special needs schools, plus the Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre. 

In January a wall collapsed in high winds, closing Oxgangs Primary for a few days. In March Oxgangs closed again after a safety inspection, followed by three more schools. On Friday 8th April all seventeen schools were closed. Council Leader Andrew Burns announced: “The Edinburgh Schools Partnership have not been able to give us confirmation that the schools are structurally safe to open on Monday. We’ve been left with no option other than to close the schools on a precautionary basis”.

The Private Finance Initiative scheme (PFI) was dreamed up by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the run-up to their 1997 landslide election victory. They offered developers a fantastic deal. They would build millions-worth of new schools and hospitals, being paid over 20 or 30 years: meanwhile many cut deals that ensured they received payment for such “extras” as caretaking, maintenance and out-of-hours use.

New facilities were certainly needed to replace the country’s tired, ill-maintained old school and hospital buildings. Blair and Brown could also appear powerful reformers investing heavily in public services – without meeting the cost up-front.

My parents’ generation used to talk about buying something “on the never-never”, via Hire Purchase (HP). Buy now: pay later. We still do it when we buy a house, those who can afford a mortgage nowadays. 

At the end of the repayment period we own the house. But with PFI the builder/supplier retains ownership of the building: government is paying not a mortgage, but rent. How does that work?

The Edinburgh Schools Partnership must have have reckoned it had 15 years yet to ponder that question. It probably appears more pressing now that the buildings have failed.

All of us know heads who have encountered significant difficulties with their smart new PFI-financed buildings. Some of the large corporations to whom they are in thrall make it expensive to run activities in the evening, because extra charges apply for caretaking, heat and light. In the same way sporting activities or weekend events are frequently seen by the providers as an extra earner, to the despair of the schools and their leaders. And some builds have been shoddily constructed.

The buy now, pay later approach brought wonderful new buildings into use – and, as the Edinburgh story suggests, some poor ones, too. Over the long-term, however, the cracks start to show in the Blair/Brown wheeze. In addition to the problems of the economic downturn, episodes like Edinburgh’s are beginning to shine a light on the future debt with which the country will have to wrestle, when all those PFI projects reach their end.

I discovered a parallel in the Sunday Times on 10th April. In a piece about overseas tax havens, it was noted that in 2002 the Inland Revenue (HMRC) sold its estate of 600 offices overseas to Mapeley, a Bermuda-based company, for £220 million: it’s reportedly spending more than that each year to rent the offices back.  Same old temptation: grab the dosh now, pay through the nose later.

I never could see anything in PFI but trouble stored up for the future. Chickens were sure to come home to roost: in Edinburgh they’ve come home earlier than expected. Anyway, in the first place (I’ve stolen this epigram) they were headless chickens at best.

Told you so.


Going for Gold? Rewards in the classroom

16th March 2016

Who would have thought a few gold stars could create such a storm? Many a teacher, perhaps: we’ve all dealt with parents cross because their child didn’t win a prize, or gain as many gold stars as their neighbour.

It started with the government’s behaviour tsar, Tom Bennett, reported in the Sunday Times as criticising sticker charts as “inappropriate for older children” while even primary schools, he continued, should consider dropping them.

In response BESA, the British Educational Suppliers Association, issued a press release characterising Bennett’s comments as tantamount to further government interference in the classroom, even down to micromanaging teachers’ use of classroom resources.

BESA represents the manufacturers of gold stars and sticker-charts, so it’s tempting to misquote call-girl Mandy Rice-Davies’s infamous riposte to Lord Astor’s courtroom denial: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Bennett claims the paper misreported him. Sadly, confusion over who said what curtailed what might have become an interesting discussion. We don’t talk enough about rewards and motivation in schools.

Everyone knows the best motivation is intrinsic, something that comes from within the child. Highly focused individuals with a clearly-defined aspiration to a particular result, course or career are often described as “self-starters”: they see what needs doing, get stuck in and achieve their goal. They are our dream pupils.

They’re also dauntingly superhuman! Most of us are prone to human foibles and weaknesses, and require occasional encouragement. The majority of children need to be told how they’re getting on: teachers spend their lives attempting to strike a balance between realism (how they are doing), optimism (what they might achieve, given a tail wind and something of a miracle) and encouragement (“you’re doing well: if you keep going, put a little more effort in, you might achieve …”).

Human frailty, and the fact that the young live their lives in relatively short timeframes, means that the long-term aim can simply appear too distant. So schools over the centuries have invented myriad rewards systems as extrinsic motivation: hence (in the old days) the plethora of house points (think Harry Potter: “250 points to Gryffindor for saving the world”); commendations; names written in a Golden Book.

In modern times, the sheer ease of obtaining (and, for manufacturers, producing) stickers and gold stars has created an industry for tiny, short-term yet cumulative rewards. One gold star may be satisfying: but 10 equals something else; accumulate 100 and the school will give you a voucher to go to the cinema or (particularly if it’s connected to attendance, and the need to maintain those figures to keep government happy) £50 towards a bike.

The danger of such small-scale extrinsic rewards, according to psychologists, is that children learn to do things not because they’re instinctively good or even in the interests of their own success, but because there’s a sticker in it for them. Extrinsic motivation, we’re assured, doesn’t work.

Well, it doesn’t: except when it does. In my school I hand out a lot of small chocolates (generally Celebrations or Heroes): such tiny, inexpensive gestures nonetheless tell children that something good they’ve done has been noticed.

Some of my teachers use gold stars with sixth form groups. There’s a tacit agreement that they’re being employed ironically, so everyone pretends to be unimpressed: but they still like them.

I would be uncomfortable rewarding children every time they get to school on time. But then, I work in a privileged setting where attendance isn’t an issue: I don’t judge those who find a different approach necessary.

Stickers, stars and even chocolate (pace the healthy-eating police) have their place: but we should keep them lightweight. Like Tom Bennett, I can’t see the point in sprawling, unwieldy systems for accumulating and tracking stickers or gold stars.

We don’t need to take this spat too seriously: but teachers do well to remember the importance of rewards, praise and encouragement, something easily overlooked at pressured times.


Can you find enough governors?

2nd March 2016

School governors: love them or loathe them, we can’t do without them. More to the point, we can’t get them.

This is a recurrent theme up and down the country. The most commonly proposed solution to the problem is to pay governors, an idea gaining traction. It would be a damaging and retrograde step.

I can hear colleagues’ howls of frustration: what else can be done when we simply can’t recruit governors?

First take a step back: ask yourself why we can’t find governors. At my privileged independent school in a leafy corner of Newcastle upon Tyne they’re relatively easy to recruit. I also advise a three-year-old free school in the poorest part of Newcastle: that too manages to do well for governors. Why? Because the West Newcastle Academy is a new school with a powerful sense of educational mission: the governors are fired by the same, shared, vision and are highly motivated.

Central government seems constantly determined to demotivate governors. It doesn’t mean to, of course. But for a couple of decades now, one administration after another (it’s not a party political issue) has pushed an ever greater burden of responsibility and liability on to schools’ governing bodies. 

Schools have always felt the pressure when Ofsted comes to call. Now governors share that pressure. They too feel under the cosh: especially when, as happened to me, they find themselves reassuring an inspector, successfully if somewhat ludicrously that the school really is doing everything possible to prevent its five-year-olds from being radicalised. 

I’m not being flippant. Governors are volunteers who work hard for their schools. But government is making the burden, the sheer paper trail, so complex and demanding now that potential volunteers too often decline the opportunity to get involved. They don’t need any more pressure on top of their day job: and retired people might feel they didn’t finish working just to take on that kind of pain. 

All that appears, then, to support the argument for remunerating governors: being paid to do so, they would volunteer and turn out. I disagree: being paid, and therefore being professional, contradicts the concept of governance. 

Governors are the timeless guardians of an institution. Children and their parents come and go. Teachers and heads do, too. But, even though governor bodies inevitably also change their constituency, they ensure, through good succession planning, that they look after the long-term, decades- or even centuries-long purpose and mission of the school.

Whence comes the rationale for remunerated governors? Schools are already equipped with paid professionals to run them. Whatever the shape or size of the school, a senior team will be managing it. Those are the professionals who are paid to take responsibility and to bear the professional, moral and legal burdens of the school. Where is the justification for the expense of creating an additional layer of professional management – above the school’s professional management? 

The proposal didn’t emanate from government: but it matches the way Whitehall’s bureaucratic mind works. A constantly burgeoning bureaucracy continues to strangle schools, despite promises to the contrary from one government after another: I’m writing this bombarded by repetitive claims from Brexit supporters that the UK is mired in Brussels red tape. Brexiteers within government should look in the mirror first: suffocating regulation begins at home. 

Governors should monitor the effectiveness of the school’s professional staff, and exercise long-term oversight of the institution, its health and its progress. But to force them to prove to Westminster via the inspectorate (usually through copious paperwork) that they’re “challenging the head”, or otherwise pushing the professional staff, both demeans their role and renders it a wholly unattractive and dismally unrewarding piece of volunteering. 

Me, I’d rather rattle a charity tin outside Sainsbury’s.

I’m serious. We shouldn’t need to pay people to govern schools: instead we should reduce the burdens and requirements that are making school governance increasingly uncongenial and close to overwhelming.


The arts continue to be cut

3rd February 2016

It’s always gratifying to be proved right even if one’s forecast was less than palatable. In truth, my last SecED blog was less a prediction than a commentary: news out last week furnished not so much blinding proof of my rightness as tangential corroboration. Let me explain.

On 25th January the Daily Mail reported a £30 million “fire sale” being announced by the Ministry of Defence. Smarting from the pain of having to administer swingeing cuts, MoD’s wheeze is to close the famous Royal School of Military Music and to sell off its Twickenham home, Kneller Hall, which should attract a tidy sum.

That’s logical, isn’t it? We’re paring down our spending on defence: if we’re still agonising about the cost of our nuclear deterrent, by comparison the place where servicemen and women learn to march in time and play music for events like the Trooping of the Colour and Buckingham Palace’s Changing of the Guard is a soft target. No lives will be lost: no soldiers will be inadequately protected by not having a row of euphoniums behind them; and, frankly, when you’ve heard one military march you’ve heard them all. Besides, the best ones are American, written by Sousa.

These are hard times, austerity is biting and we all have to tighten our belts. So the military loses some glitz, but its ability to fight and afford protection at home and abroad is unaffected. Job done.

At this point you might ask, what has this to do with secondary education? In my view, quite a lot.

In that last blog I complained that government’s promotion of the EBacc has given rise to a hierarchy or subjects in which creative subjects are undervalued relative to others. Having arrived at the bottom of the curricular heap, they receive less attention, looser focus and fewer resources.

Where does Kneller Hall tie in with this? It is in its own right a college of music. To be sure, it’s somewhat different from the Royal Academy, the Royal College and the other conservatoires. It nonetheless trains musicians to a professional level of performance: moreover, on leaving the services many Kneller Hall graduates go on to teach boys and girls to play musical instruments in schools.

(Parenthetically, those military musicians are also trained to act as paramedics and stretcher-bearers - the latter has a somewhat WW1 ring nowadays - heroically saving lives and treating the horrific injuries caused by modern armaments under enemy fire).

See where I’m going? I can already hear the hawkish voices taking issue with me. What kind of idiot would prioritise a few shiny bands above the troops and expensive weaponry essential to maintaining a viable military and deterrent?

I would answer: that’s not my job. I was caught up in the same argument a few years ago after stating publicly that Newcastle City Council was wrong to axe its entire subsidy to the city’s arts. The Council Leader replied that either the arts took the hits, or children’s services and care centres.

That dichotomy was as false as my example above. Ordinary citizens cannot make those choices: presenting them to us as the only options is mere posturing. We elect politicians so they may assemble the information and make decisions.

Closing Kneller Hall and grabbing all the money government can seize is nothing to do with choosing between the safety of the realm and teaching people to play the clarinet while marching in step. It is, rather, another sign that, at bottom, policymakers view the arts merely as a “nice-to-have”. They’re content to disregard the (inter-)national goodwill generated by the world’s finest military bands, and the money tourists spend to enjoy them.

In fact, all the arts create colossal revenue for the country: sadly, politicians appear unable to regard the cost of training musicians, dancers and actors today as an investment that will bring tomorrow’s return.

Short-termism reigns and brings with it barbarism.

Told you so.


A subject hierarchy created in one stroke

20th January 2016

I confess that, when term ends for Christmas, I pray educational news will calm down. Instead of doing so towards the end of 2015 something that had been simmering through the autumn raised its head again: given my background as a music teacher, it was close to my heart.

Plans are being hatched for a spectacular new £200m concert hall in London’s Barbican Centre. The argument is that, after the Queen’s Hall was bombed in the Second World War, the capital lost its finest concert hall.

The Royal Festival Hall and Barbican are poor buildings, only working at all because they are electronically engineered to sound like a decent concert hall. The Albert Hall is something special: but very particular and enormous.  Birmingham boasts one of the best concert halls in the world: Symphony Hall, opened in the 1980s, was designed (unusually, though that seems peculiar) with the acoustic engineers in at the blueprint stage: moreover, it follows the classic shoebox plan which has been the right shape for a concert hall ever since Britain’s first public concert hall, the Holywell Music Room, was built in Oxford in the 18th Century.

A world-class orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra bringing, world-class conductor Sir Simon Rattle back to this country, demands a world-class venue. The City, high-profile sponsors and perhaps government will find the money for that concert hall, which will reassert London’s pre-eminence as the music capital of the world.

Against that argument stands a powerful group led by Julian Lloyd-Webber, former solo cellist and now Principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire. They aver that, in times of austerity, money should be spent on music education, not on a glitzy performance venue.

They would have a point, if the money were being diverted from arts education. It isn’t. If the concert hall is not built, the £200m won’t materialise, let alone be put into arts education.

Besides, I’d argue that we need both.

We certainly must protect arts education. I recently read yet another disingenuous piece where Schools Minister Nick Gibb trumpeted the success of the EBacc. Since EBacc scores are now a league-table component, schools are under pressure to ensure their pupils sit well-regarded (by ministers) core academic GCSEs rather than (as has been alleged) using dodgy courses to boost their GCSE figures.

OK: except that, at a stroke, government has created a hierarchy of subjects. EBacc signals that there are important courses, and then the “fun” ones – such as art, music, drama, design and technology …

The so-called “creative” subjects have thus been downgraded. Ministers’ protestations to the contrary are dishonest. Yet, perversely, business and employers complain regularly that it’s the softer skills which children lack on joining the labour market: teamwork, cooperation, initiative, creativity, even punctuality and determination.

It’s invidious to claim that one type of subject promotes those qualities more than another: but candidates cannot pass GCSE drama, for example, without working in teams to devise and stage their own creative work.

Sport naturally contributes hugely to pupils’ understanding of teamwork: but it doesn’t necessarily present the same challenge in terms of long-term goals. The average school team need look only a week or two ahead to a forthcoming fixture. By contrast the school orchestra, band, choir or show cast may have twelve weeks to prepare its next performance. Music and drama teachers must persuade their pupils that only long-term commitment to regular rehearsal will produce excellent performance.

Taking the long and patient view is one of those skills that young people have to learn: it is also another of those qualities the lack of which employers deplore.

This country must promote creative subjects, and prevent their relegation to the bottom of a false hierarchy.  Simultaneously London must have a world-class concert hall that will make a powerful statement about the UK’s commitment to the arts.

The two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I’d call them symbiotic.


They learn when they lose

 6th January 2016

Sometimes I think contentious announcements on youth or education are made just to wind up the Daily Telegraph: particularly, perhaps, when they’re connected with sport. About a year ago the RFU announced that, for young rugby players under the age of 11, there would be widespread tournaments and competitions to develop interest in the great winter game, but as for declaring winners – certainly not. The rationale was that it discourages the losers.

Before Christmas the Football Association has done much the same, forbidding publication of results Under 11s. An FA spokesman explained:

“The FA places a great deal of importance in ensuring that youth football is played in a positive and fun environment.

“Our aspiration is to ensure that a progressive, child-friendly approach pervades and we challenge the win-at-all-costs mentality that has been recognised to stifle development and enjoyment for young people.

 “… one-sided score lines … can act as a disincentive to continue playing for many children.”

Unsurprisingly the Telegraph was apoplectic. Yet that FA rationale makes a lot of sense. I’m a passionate believer in school and youth sport, but I hate over-competitive parents on the touchline, yelling, “Take him out Wayne!” and then abusing the ref - or, worse still, telling my colleagues how they should run the team better.

I also dislike unbeaten teams! Although almost any school or club occasionally produces a near-unbeatable team, in such cases I tend to suspect they’re just not playing competition that’s sufficiently strong to give them a good game! I reckon that even the best school teams discover where they really stand when they progress through the stages of a major regional or national competition and finally meet their match. That encounter provides a powerful learning experience.

That’s my point. I hate to see coaches adopt a win-at-all-costs mentality. I despise even more a play-not-to-lose state of mind. We teach children sport not merely for reasons of fitness but because they learn when they lose. An easy win teaches them little, beyond reinforcing the understanding that training, fitness and application work. But battling through a tough game, even dealing with a heavy loss, is a quite different experience and reinforces the vital nature of teamwork (how many games are lost when players demonstrably fail to function as a team!). Similarly, I’m convinced kids learn more about resilience in a cold, wet sports fixture, or when lost in the hills on an expedition, than they generally do in the classroom.

Back in the schoolroom learning outcomes are carefully planned, the whole process packaged, and the learning is more individual than collective. Children rarely have to deal in the classroom with the kind of failure which challenges them to work out where they went wrong and plan a strategy for next time. Arguably it should happen in the best lessons. But too much of that kind of useful classroom failure causes anguish to anxious parents who prefer to see 10/10 at the bottom of the work, to the despair of teachers.

This is about learning lessons for life. School sport, too, takes place in controlled circumstances. Failures are circumscribed and limited: after all, it’s only a game. But something in our human psyche feels passionately about sport, and children can practise dealing with failure and bouncing back probably more easily in the field of sport than they do in the classroom.

So while I understand the rationale behind those decisions of the FA and RFU, I fear they’re missing a trick. If we remove all losing from sport, what experiences will be left for children to help them develop resilience? A catastrophe in the nativity play, perhaps? Not quite the same.

Otherwise they’ll find themselves handling disappointment only when facing government tests in primary school. Still, the way things are going, they may experience those at ages 4, 5, 7 and 11, so they’ll get plenty of practice!

Happy New Year!


Supporting good mental health

25th November 2015

I’m on a train to London for yet another meeting: all the way from Newcastle.

It’s worth it, a meeting of a working group formed by HMC – the leading association of UK independent schools – to discuss Wellbeing. Isn’t that way down the list of urgent national priorities, though? I don’t think so: nor does HMC, seeking to lead a national debate.

That territory is not without risks. The first few occasions the independent sector raised concerns about children’s wellbeing, banner headlines followed: “Mental Health Crisis in Private Schools”. We knew it would happen. Yet the issue’s too important to allow us to soft-pedal for fear of over-reactions. On the contrary, the sector is using every opportunity it can – through sharing knowledge and best practice and even running regional and national conferences - to ensure that it works coherently with the maintained sector to tackle this problem.

A problem it certainly is. As soon as you dare to talk about it, journalists will ask whether there’s a crisis. I suspect the problem’s growing, steadily. But I know we are dealing with more cases not so much because they are multiplying but because schools are getting better at dealing with them.  Children are readier to share their problems. It’s a huge compliment to a school when a child who’s self-harming asks someone in school, the adult they trust most, to help them tell their parents about their problems.

I find it humbling when I hear some of the personal, often heart-breaking issues that children just can’t bear to burden their parents with on their own: so they ask the school to help. What a compliment, what a level of trust put in our professionalism!

So, if the problems are so intractable, what can schools do? The answers are both reactive and proactive. We have to move beyond the stigma of mental illness, and we can certainly equip our workforce, teachers and other staff, to cope better. I’m a fan of Mental Health First Aid training for all staff who want it: currently a quarter of my staff are trained. Excellent training is coordinated by Mental Health First Aid England (MHFAE). That level of training, plus a more general understanding of the issues among the staff as a whole, renders teachers both more confident and more competent: the school is therefore more effective in dealing with these issues.

As for the proactive side, we must do more work nationally on building resilience. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has acknowledged this, not least in creating Resilience Awards for schools. I’m not a great fan of such badges, nor of “quick and easy” terms like grit. The best definition I’ve heard comes from Dick Moore of the Charlie Waller Trust. He describes resilience as “the ability to bend in the wind, rather than to snap in the hurricane”.

It’s no use just talking about it. I believe strongly that we can give children practise in building resilience through outdoor education, even team sports, challenging drama, demanding music, debating and all those traditional and still highly valued extra-curricular activities. They are not “real life” experiences of adversity: but they do give good practice for when the real thing hits.

Our classrooms are in many ways risk-averse nowadays. We structure our teaching and our children’s learning: we want to inspire them to find their own challenges, as well as addressing those we issue, but we keep it safe and dependable.  Yet it is coping with failure, with life going against us, that calls for true resilience: so we must provide appropriate experiences – more easily found when cold, wet and lost in the hills during a Duke of Edinburgh expedition than tussling with sums in maths on Friday afternoons.

There’s no one answer: but there are many, many examples of good practice that we can use and share among schools. I hope HMC’s working group can play its part.


Professional empowerment or government diktat? 

11th November 2015

Just the other day a friend, a primary head, was bewailing her problems with the phonics test. She’s not against phonics per se, but the test for six year-olds is causing her headaches. Why? For some children it’s just too hard.

Not those, arguably the majority, for whom learning to read is best done via phonics: for them the test’s entirely logical. The problem lies with those instinctive readers who grasp intuitively how words are written, recognise and use them. For them there is something bewildering and fundamentally wrong about being required to read words such as gar and kloob: they know they aren’t real. 

For them the fake words aren’t just confusing: they’re actually upsetting. Such intuitive readers have unconsciously grasped both the logic and the illogicality of English spelling: so that test is a regressive step for them.

Like my colleague I don’t object to teaching reading through phonics. I disagree with those critics who claim it’s a form of child abuse. But it shouldn’t be used (or tested) with those children for whom it renders the task more difficult.

It’s patently wrong to apply this blanket prescription to a fundamental skill – not the skill of phonics, merely a tool, but that of reading. There’s nothing wrong with the method itself: but forcing all schools and teachers to use it with all children is wrong. All children are different, individuals: that’s why we differentiate in teaching, stretching the most able, providing scaffolding and catch-up for the struggling.

I find it fascinating - indeed, bizarre - that a Tory government professing to believe in small government, in allowing decisions to be made at the proper level, persists in centralising its control of education. It doesn’t even like organisations as big as Local Authorities: it prefers stand-alone academies (but perversely pushes them to form chains or Multi-Academy Trusts). Yet it demands that every child must learn reading the same way.

Another recent news item stemmed from government diktat, inflexible and inhumane. A recent court case deemed it illegal for local authorities to fine parents for taking their children out of school on holiday. Even after the ruling, Schools Minister Nick Gibb added a rider that, while we might permit children time off for funerals, there was no need to allow time afterwards for grieving. They should be back in school.

Fifteen months ago my family celebrated my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary. Yes, 70th: they were married just after D-Day.

Yet my niece and her husband felt they couldn’t take their three children, always close to their great-grandparents, out of school for the party. In 2014 England it wasn’t worth the risk of their schools and Local Authority adopting a hostile position and issuing a fine as has happened too frequently. That family landmark would not, they feared, be considered acceptable grounds for absence.

Fortunately, Mum’s funeral, when she died two months later aged 92, was deemed permissible.

Teachers and school leaders know that no single solution suits everyone, that one-size-fits-all approaches never work: yet government is generally in too much of a hurry to listen. We are creating a ruthless, sour and unkind educational world.

Last week, surprisingly, it seemed for a moment as if government had paid heed to primary heads over its controversial proposal for primary school tests at ages five, seven and eleven. After the NAHT, hardly a militant bunch, articulated well-founded concerns about increased and unnecessary pressures on pupils and schools alike, Nicky Morgan was reportedly ready to back off.

Until, that is, the Sunday Times used its front page to dub her response a U-turn, accusing ministers of “caving into unions”. Now it appears tests are back on the menu.

In the manner of George Orwell’s Animal Farm characters haplessly regarding their rulers, we might look from the politicians to the right-wing press and back again, and find ourselves entirely unable to tell the difference.


The contradictions of our politicians

14th October 2015

It’s always good to find that education ministers are in tune with the profession. Last week Schools Minister Nick Gibb admitted that there is a looming problem with regard to teacher recruitment and retention: he promised the government is tackling it.

Interestingly, government has hitherto denied there’s a problem. Credit, then, to Nick Gibb who has identified a mismatch between the figures he is given and what teachers are telling him: “In devising policy, I’m assuming what I’m hearing from [teachers] is true, and the statistics somehow – albeit true – are not telling us the whole story”.

Is he really listening to teachers? That’s cheering. More encouraging, perhaps, than my discovery, in a profile of the Minister in Schools Week, a fortnight ago, that he has a map on his office wall charting every area where schools or authorities are not up to scratch on the phonics tests he so loves. Up a ladder, down a snake: that’s education politics, folks!

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan came in for praise from the former Master of Wellington College, Sir Anthony Seldon, in the same week. “Nicky Morgan is the first Secretary of State to fully appreciate that schools can excel at academic rigour and at teaching character”, he said. That sounds good, though I’m in two minds as to whether the Department for Education’s announcement that government is “investing £5 million in character education to help pupils develop the grit and resilience they need to succeed in school and later life” is good news or the kind of quick fix that school leaders dread heading their way – because they know there is no such thing.

Last month Nicky Morgan wrote an article in Leader, the members’ magazine for ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders). She wrote: “I want leaders to have the space to focus on leading and teachers to focus on teaching, free from unnecessary bureaucracy, so that we can do more to spread excellence and ensure that more children can succeed”.

I know what you’re thinking: now I’m going to quote something that contradicts that bold proposal to allow schools to teach as they see best. You’re right: I am. It comes from the very next sentence in the same article: “To this end, we have introduced a number of important new measures, starting with the Education and Adoption Bill. This aims to tackle underperformance by identifying and improving coasting schools …”

This is how it always goes: so many fine statements; so many pledges of listening to the profession; promises to support and value teachers; visions of developing a world-class system – whatever the buzzword is this week. These are followed immediately by further mechanisms whereby the accountability straitjacket is laced around schools, teachers and their leaders: the straps tightened; the buckles fastened until they simply cannot breathe (do they still have buckles on straitjackets, I wonder, or is it all Velcro nowadays, like cricket-pads?).

The suggestion I made in my last column - that we have less formal assessment and trust teachers more - gained some traction in the Twittersphere. But no one with any responsibility for, or connection to, the drafting of policy has got in touch with me. Don’t worry: I wasn’t expecting them to.

That’s the point. Government, ministers and DfE mandarins will always listen – when what you’re saying accords with what they want to hear. It’s the age-old problem of policy-based evidence. SecEd’s Editor Pete Henshaw described last week how Nick Gibb read Ed Hirsch’s book The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them in 2005. His policies have followed Hirsch unremittingly ever since, to the exclusion of alternative suggestions or approaches.

Remember, the only evidence of any interest whatever to those who govern us is that which fits in with their proposed policy. Anything else is irrelevant. Properly researched evidence-based policy is, well, just too awkward, too time-consuming and, frankly, too inconvenient.


Let’s trust teachers on assessment

30th September 2015

It’s that time of year. The last few re-mark requests are in and, while we await the outcome, we start sharpening our pencils for the appeal letters.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not a fanatical complainer, re-marker or appealer. But I do believe, when things are wrong, we should push to get them put right.

We all know the system’s creaking. Exam boards are struggling to find competent markers. A few years back I spotted an exam-board advert for markers - on the back of a Wolverhampton bus. It seemed a curious way to look for the highly-qualified and experienced professionals required to do a proper job.

Marking has changed over the years, not necessarily for the better. In the old days (I mean five years ago), if you received a strange set of results in, say, GCSE English Language you might have been able to identify a rogue marker. Nowadays marking is done online, and no one examiner sees a whole paper. As a result, they have no opportunity to judge the overall quality of the candidate.

“A good thing, too”, you may say: “Otherwise an examiner might tweak the marks to give the overall result they think the candidate deserves, instead of judging each answer on its merit”. Hm. I’m not sure that was such a bad thing.

Moreover, if we had hoped that we could reduce inconsistencies and errors by having a single examiner marking all the thousands of answers to question 7b, instead of floundering through whole papers, we’re doomed to disappointment. The number of re-marks and complaints is increasing exponentially year on year: and dodgy examiners are hidden from view.

“Enough!” we cry. Something must be done. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, whose name seems to crop up in all the educational columns I write nowadays, is calling for a single exam board for each subject. The rationale? Less to do with marking, more to do with a suspicion that competition between boards leads to dumbing-down, because it’s in a board’s interest to make its exam in a particular subject slightly easier than those of its competitors so that more schools choose its brand.

That view is in marked contrast to the Tory dogma that competition invariably pushes standards up and prices down. I don’t claim to understand the odder aspects of exam board behaviour, but I’d never accuse them of trying to attract custom by making an A* (or a Grade 9) easier to get.

The notion of giving individual boards a monopoly in each subject fills me with horror: the more radical solution of creating a single gigantic national mega-board still more so.

It’s argued that, if only one board runs English, for example, then it can attract all the best markers. But it won’t address the root of the problem: there aren’t enough examiners for the number of papers. The system is so massive, sprawling and unmanageable that, well, we just can’t manage it. Creating an examinations leviathan will only exacerbate the situation.

“No, no, no!” shriek the single-board proponents. Quality would be ensured by a statutorily-created body to enforce rigorous standards. And statutory protection would prevent politicians from interfering. What grounds does previous experience of regulators or government give for believing that?

No strategy for rearranging the deckchairs on a Titanic scale will alter the fact that children are sitting too many exams, all externally marked: there will never be enough examiners. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

There is a solution: to return to more internal assessment, trusting teachers and schools, and making children sit fewer exams.

That raises another question: can we trust teachers? With schools under constant pressure to hit particular targets, won’t they be tempted to fiddle those results?

That is the million-dollar-question. To remove that temptation we would have to reduce pressure on schools: government and OFSTED would have to back off.

That’s the truly radical solution: trust schools and teachers.

Don’t hold your breath.


Will you be banning mobile devices?

16th  September 2015

Who’s feeling brave? OFSTED boss Sir Michael Wilshaw is looking for heads who have the courage to stand up and ban mobile phones. I won’t be joining that queue.

Nor, come to that, will I be taking the tablets away. There I’m misquoting the Times headline reporting the view, forcibly expressed by Tom Bennett, Founder Director of ResearchEd and recently-appointed Government behaviour tsar, that we should stop handing out tablets and iPads to kids because most of them will be checking on the size of Kim Kardashian’s backside instead of diligently researching the political background to the First World War.

Mobiles, iPads and tablets are frequently a curse. When kids are surfing porn-sites on those expensively-provided tablets, or using their phones to sext, bully, transmit pictures of their less desirable parts or merely complain about teachers, I wish I had a heavy hammer to hand and could smash every device within reach.

That’s what the Luddites did: but, remember, it didn’t work for them. If we adopted that attitude wholesale, we’d still be dubious about the merits of the printing-press and insisting educational standards can only be maintained if pupils write on vellum with a scratchy quill pen, preferably in ecclesiastical Latin.

Throughout my 25 years as a head, government has been pushing computer technology into the classroom for one or other of two reasons, both unworthy. First, politicians constantly hope that sticking pupils in front of a screen will save on teachers. Who cares if there aren’t enough maths and physics teachers (yet another recent denial by the DFE in the face of the facts, as it happens)? Just get that brilliant teacher at the school up the road to teach on camera to countless classrooms across the country.

It doesn’t work. Teaching remains an intensely interpersonal activity. Teachers who can inspire via camera are rarer than hen’s teeth: but countless teachers are inspirational in their own classroom.

Second, the practice of handing out iPads or tablets to every pupil stems from policy-makers’ belief that teachers are essentially boring and that we can only interest kids if we’re fizzy, buzzy - and digital.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-tech. I’m addicted to my iPhone 6 and, rather than a laptop, I use a MacBook. I use a pen only to scribble notes of congratulation, thanks or sympathy. But there’s still a lot to be said for pupils practising skills and techniques in an exercise-book so that they and teachers alike can see progress over time. Oh, and inspectors like it too.

I concede that both phones and tablets can and do create problems in schools: nonetheless I don’t believe we should ban them.

I’ve always tried to run schools on the basis that we tell children what standards we expect, and then trust them to meet those standards. When they fail to, we take action, as firmly as necessary.

We must accept that in 2015 the first and quickest way to find out stuff is online. My school, like most others, has school-wide Wi-Fi, actively encouraging BYOD  (Bring Your Own Device): students are expected to use it constructively, usefully and at the appropriate time.

Similarly we have some class sets of tablets, and still a lot of hard-wired PCs. They’re employed across many subjects for speedy research, creative design and presentation: and, let’s be honest, a finished piece of work looks better printed out than scrawled in a book.

It’s real life. We all use our phones for quick searches, for that instant answer - even at the dinner-table, even in polite company. Why should we deny pupils that real-life facility in school?

We need the technology, but it mustn’t rule us. So we should educate our students about how and when to use it, not ban it.

I’m not daft. I know that makes for pain along the way: but, then, who ever said education was easy?

Stop this needless point-scoring

 Thursday 3rd September 2015

In the 37 years since I started teaching (25 of those as a head), many things have changed. Chalk has been replaced by white and smart boards and screens as the digital revolution continues. We have a national curriculum: sadly we also have a remarkably hostile regime of targets, monitoring and control, unimaginable when I started out in 1978.

Some things don't change.

Take the playground spat. When required to sort out inter-student conflict, we must as ever seek the truth, Solomon-like, between contradictory claims. "He said..." is countered by "I never did!" Thus we battle on.

I guess we teachers occasionally behave like the children we teach, professional fallings-out generally stemming from end-of-term exhaustion.

But it's disappointing when government and the media start behaving in that way, as happened over the past week.

It started with the Daily Telegraph trumpeting that state schools are now outperforming independents. A comparison of the top 500 state and independent schools used A-level points scores (a curious measure, since selector universities require particular grades rather than points), claimed to show state schools doing better in total.

Government loved it. A DfE spokesman couldn’t resist crowing:  time was, they said, when the state sector needed to learn from the private. Now the boot’s on the other foot.

Reaction was swift. Fighting his corner, the Independent Schools Council's redoubtable Chairman, Barnaby Lenon, observed that the top of the exam league tables is dominated by independents: moreover, the state schools identified as outscoring the independent sector come from that minority (158) of highly selective state grammar schools.

Let’s just unpack this, calmly. At the top end of both sectors (in terms of exam results and league tables) lie highly selective schools. The highest-scoring state grammars, for the most part situated within the M25 bubble alongside their strongest independent rivals, attract ten or more applicants for every place, a ratio that I suspect even the most selective independent schools (given the price-tag and a host of other factors) can only dream of.

The overwhelming majority of maintained secondary schools, whether or not academies, are non-selective. They’re truly comprehensive, if we disregard the arguments that constantly rage about distortion of the level playing-field through covert selection by postcode, differences of area, social mix and levels of deprivation.

We could embark on endless debates about the advantages that independently-educated pupils start with, not least the family’s ability to pay and, by implication, the value it places on education.  Nonetheless the vast majority of independent schools don’t select: like their non-selective state counterparts they do an excellent job with whoever turns up.  Moreover, the independent sector, with considerable justification, sets great store by the vast amount of financial support given to boys and girls in the form of bursaries, not least in order to avoid becoming the exclusive preserve of the rich (let's not start talking about oligarchs again!).

Above all, for the sake of the country’s children, it’s not the differences that we should be stressing, but the similarities and the opportunities we create to make joint cause.

I’m trustee and board member of an organisation called SCHOOLS NorthEast. With a professional secretariat it’s run by heads for heads. Heads of every school type across our region – primary, secondary, free schools, independent, special - get together around one table. Currently our hope is (after years of trying) to persuade government to back a Great North Challenge following the pattern of the successful London Challenge.

That represents real joint working, and real mutual respect. The sectors don't need to score points off one another, and it seems to me that, when either media or government tries, we do best to ignore them and withdraw from the debate.

All our schools are at their best when we work together. As I take on this column, I hope to make a useful contribution to the enduring improvement and success of both sectors.


Why do we demonise the admissions cheats? – guest editorial

November 2009

It was interesting to read Pete Henshaw's editorial about this yesterday.  In effect, if I remember rightly, he said that it was not a happy or right situation, but he doesn't have any easy answers.  He's right: there aren't any.

I work in the independent sector, so on this issue some people might say I would just shut up and mind my own business.  What do I know about it? they might ask.  Well, in my world I do know something about parents exercising choice: that's what the independent sector is all about.  Moreover, comments on the admissions issue frequently highlight the extent to which many parents only opt for private schooling in desperation because they cannot get the local maintained school they want for their child. So here are my subjective, purely personal views.

Isn't it time we stopped kidding ourselves?  In the past 20 years both Tory and Labour governments have insisted that parental choice and a kind of "free market" in education are the best way to drive up standards.  So league tables tell parents where schools stand in relation to one another (so we're told), and parents naturally opt for the most successful.  Why would they do anything else?

The introduction of Specialist status made some schools more desirable than others: and, even though just about all secondary schools now have a specialism, this kind of badging and kite-marking - let alone the fact that some schools are allowed to select up to 10% of their pupils, in what is meant to be a non-selective context - the competitive marketplace is still alive and well.  Even in the context of increasing cooperation between and federation of schools, and of superheads running several at once, some kind of curious doublethink continues to promote competition between schools and allows the concept of parental choice to remain the driving force.

Parents want the best school for their child.  To want anything else would be perverse.  Why wouldn't they?  They see an unfair system out there, and feel obliged to play it.  We hear stories of parents who can't get their child into the school a hundred yards from where they live, and have to send them a couple of miles away instead.  In that situation the concept of choice has surely gone mad.

Look at newsreels of famines, and you see parents fighting tooth and nail over limited food handouts so they can feed their children.  It is the basic, unalterable parental instinct: the mother tiger kills to protect her young.  In the UK parents don't have to fight to feed their family.  But they do have to fight for education for their children under the current regime. Any of us working in schools would say that education is one of the most important gifts - if not the most important - that they can give to their children. 

So why do we demonise those who cheat?  We’re not in the spirit of the Blitz any more.  We don't queue up to get our food rations, waiting our turn in that uniquely British, courteous way.  In the school race, standing back and old-fashioned courtesy get you nowhere. Parents are driven to do the best for their children: it would be unnatural for them not to do so.

So I find this idea of blaming and suggesting legal penalties for cheating parents pretty obnoxious - and I don't think it's the role of the school to act as investigator, judge or jury.

I don't seem to agree with very much that Children’s Secretary Ed Balls says nowadays.  But, commenting on this situation, he managed a flash of honesty when he admitted the only way out of the problem would be to make all schools as good as one another.  That's true, and it's a right and noble aspiration.  But it is government that perpetuates the concept of winners and losers in education through a hostile inspection regime, league tables and the delusion of freedom of choice in an educational marketplace.  That's where the blame should lie, and politicians, educators and the press should stop demeaning and characterising as cheats those parents who are simply doing what any good parent would in getting the best for his or her child.


Why do we demonise the admissions cheats? – guest editorial

November 2009

It was interesting to read Pete Henshaw's editorial about this yesterday.  In effect, if I remember rightly, he said that it was not a happy or right situation, but he doesn't have any easy answers.  He's right: there aren't any.

I work in the independent sector, so on this issue some people might say I would just shut up and mind my own business.  What do I know about it? they might ask.  Well, in my world I do know something about parents exercising choice: that's what the independent sector is all about.  Moreover, comments on the admissions issue frequently highlight the extent to which many parents only opt for private schooling in desperation because they cannot get the local maintained school they want for their child. So here are my subjective, purely personal views.

Isn't it time we stopped kidding ourselves?  In the past 20 years both Tory and Labour governments have insisted that parental choice and a kind of "free market" in education are the best way to drive up standards.  So league tables tell parents where schools stand in relation to one another (so we're told), and parents naturally opt for the most successful.  Why would they do anything else?

The introduction of Specialist status made some schools more desirable than others: and, even though just about all secondary schools now have a specialism, this kind of badging and kite-marking - let alone the fact that some schools are allowed to select up to 10% of their pupils, in what is meant to be a non-selective context - the competitive marketplace is still alive and well.  Even in the context of increasing cooperation between and federation of schools, and of superheads running several at once, some kind of curious doublethink continues to promote competition between schools and allows the concept of parental choice to remain the driving force.

Parents want the best school for their child.  To want anything else would be perverse.  Why wouldn't they?  They see an unfair system out there, and feel obliged to play it.  We hear stories of parents who can't get their child into the school a hundred yards from where they live, and have to send them a couple of miles away instead.  In that situation the concept of choice has surely gone mad.

Look at newsreels of famines, and you see parents fighting tooth and nail over limited food handouts so they can feed their children.  It is the basic, unalterable parental instinct: the mother tiger kills to protect her young.  In the UK parents don't have to fight to feed their family.  But they do have to fight for education for their children under the current regime. Any of us working in schools would say that education is one of the most important gifts - if not the most important - that they can give to their children. 

So why do we demonise those who cheat?  We’re not in the spirit of the Blitz any more.  We don't queue up to get our food rations, waiting our turn in that uniquely British, courteous way.  In the school race, standing back and old-fashioned courtesy get you nowhere. Parents are driven to do the best for their children: it would be unnatural for them not to do so.

So I find this idea of blaming and suggesting legal penalties for cheating parents pretty obnoxious - and I don't think it's the role of the school to act as investigator, judge or jury.

I don't seem to agree with very much that Children’s Secretary Ed Balls says nowadays.  But, commenting on this situation, he managed a flash of honesty when he admitted the only way out of the problem would be to make all schools as good as one another.  That's true, and it's a right and noble aspiration.  But it is government that perpetuates the concept of winners and losers in education through a hostile inspection regime, league tables and the delusion of freedom of choice in an educational marketplace.  That's where the blame should lie, and politicians, educators and the press should stop demeaning and characterising as cheats those parents who are simply doing what any good parent would in getting the best for his or her child.



Stop the food police! – guest editorial

September 2009

A colleague’s eight-year-old daughter has been told that next term she won't be allowed to take a chocolate biscuit to school to eat in the mid-morning break.  Crisps too.  My fairly laid-back friend was ready to laugh about it.  I was outraged on the girl's behalf - but I wasn't surprised.  The food police have arrived.

Like most people I admired the efforts of Jamie Oliver to raise the standard of food in schools.  His crusade was energetic, frustrating, great television.  Crucially, it scratched society’s conscience.  If you allow a disgraceful 46p per day per pupil for lunch (the figure Oliver was quoted), all you will get is Turkey Twizzlers made of the sweepings of the abattoir floor bulked up with fat and gunge.

A rethink started.  It was a positive process, but never an easy one.  A lot of people do eat, and feed their children, unhealthy junk food.  Many kids simply didn't like the healthy alternatives Oliver was preparing.  Inevitably changing attitudes would take time - and education.

But it seems we’re not bothering with educating, with helping people to make right choices. Instead we’re banning things.  My friend reckons his daughter’s school is chasing accreditation as aHealthySchool: to tick the boxes chocolate and crisps must be proscribed.  To hell with parental choice, striking a balance or even an occasional treat - naughty but nice. Winning the kitemark is what’s important.

That is not education.  It’s food fascism.

I can already hear the counterargument to my wishy-washy liberal view.  "Bernard, it's okay for people like you and me, because we know.  But there are families out there who have no idea about a balanced, healthy diet, so we have to be firm." Firm? Wasn't such firmness Chairman Mao’s approach, when the intellectuals who didn't understand his vital message had to be "re-educated" through forced labour? 

People are awkward. They don’t behave as ‘we who know best’ want. But we have no right to force them to follow our plan, to deny them choice because we don’t trust them to make the right one!

I thought reason had prevailed: the profession had refused to search children’s lunchboxes.  But food totalitarianism has crept in nonetheless, through insidious indirect pressure on schools in the form of Healthy Schools accreditation.  Schools don’t have to outlaw unhealthy foods – but, if they don’t, they won’t get the badge.  Yet again, school leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Even while this government is finally starting to loosen its stranglehold on schools a little, crazy compulsions still slip in.  Cookery will be obligatory in secondary schools from September.  Maybe that's not a great loss of freedom, though it would be better if schools could make up their own minds.  But, as always, the compulsion to include an activity brings with it a detailed prescription of what must be done.  So it's not just cookery that will be taught: diet and nutrition, hygiene and safety and "wise food shopping" will be there too.  That’s all the fun gone, then.

It’s the snack of firm government. Apple-pie is now firmly on the curriculum - and motherhood, too, now that PSHE is also a statutory subject. Like Harry Potter’s Dementors, government diktat will suck the savour and joy out of cookery as it does from whatever it gets its hands on.

Come the autumn I'm tempted to drive around outside primary schools during morning break, chucking chocolate bars in over the fence.  If I'm not arrested on suspicion of grooming, I may become the greatest folk-hero since Robin Hood. 

Happy holidays!


Time to consider

December 2008

The Key Stage 3 SATs have gone. Hurrah! The pressure’s off: at least until Mr Balls squeezes in some alternative measures and benchmarks for schools - you see if he doesn’t! For the time being, though, we naturally assume it’s a great opportunity to put back into the timetable some of the important things that have been squeezed out by curriculum overload: we all know what a nightmare it is to pack into Year 9 everything we want to see there. 

Sure: for those children unsuited to the prescriptive academic National Curriculum this is indeed a great chance to free things up and develop curricula that are much more suited to them. Let’s do it. But for the great majority who are okay doing a package of GCSEs, I’d like to promote an old-fashioned solution. Add nothing. Don’t shoe-horn in more and more courses that will score children (or, more accurately, schools: the kids don’t gain anything) additional points at age 16. My advice is to follow the Zen Commandment:  don’t just do something – sit there.

I’m deadly serious. Don’t dive in with yet another raft of bright ideas: that’s what politicians do. This just could be a great opportunity for schools to sit back, relax a bit and, yes, stick to what they’re good at, teaching subjects.

Heresy? Not necessarily.  The danger is that, if we don’t pause and leave some space where there’s been only overload, we’ll just let all those other imperatives pushed by well-meaning policy-makers and pressure-groups to crowd in and leave the school week more, not less, bunged up than ever.

It always happens. For example, Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) has always been a good idea - especially when it can be a brief pause during children’s busy week to think about those aspects of their lives.  But whenever politicians see something wrong in society they demand that schools do something about it, usually by wedging yet another element into PSHE lessons (oops! Sorry: it’s now called PSHE Education, the additional E standing for Emotional). So we have more and more about sex, now younger than ever (I’m waiting to see the ante-natal sex education programme). We cover drugs, puberty, emotional health, healthy eating (in favour), obesity (generally against), fitness, bullying, green issues, citizenship and every other thing that a Secretary of State (or Prime Minister) has a bright idea about.

So maybe we had it right after all when we were content with teaching separate subjects.  That’s what secondary teachers do best.  What we have generally been bad at in the past is making explicit the connections between subjects. Children have too often been taught to think in separate compartments: yet it is only when we make connections and comparisons that deep understanding really occurs.

I don't think we need to fill up the week with more health, citizenship, sex or obesity classes.  I do think we need to run emotionally intelligent schools that are conscious of bigger moral and educational themes, explicitly expressed in the ethos, in the very heartbeat of the school, and emphasised by teachers and their leaders all talking and walking the talk, setting and maintaining the tone. So while they are learning the knowledge and skills of specific subjects, children start to understand wider, bigger, deeper overarching and interconnected truths.

When our students, out in the big, wide, hazardous world, are faced with one of the myriad perils they will encounter, what will protect them and help them to make right choices is not a memory of their form tutor earnestly explaining to a group of 14-year-olds that ‘cocaine is sometimes called Charlie’, or even how to use a condom using the rubber thing and the eye-watering wooden model. (Whatever became of  the banana? - no offence to those who teach PSHE so sincerely).

No. What will enable that young person to make a right decision is an ability to sum up situations; to weigh up positives and negatives; to have the self-confidence to make empathetic and imaginative judgments where specific knowledge is lacking; to make their own decision regardless of the views or persuasions of others.

Why not do all that through the medium of the subjects our expert, dedicated teaching force is good at? Only connect also – in ways we’ve failed to in the past. Thus for sex education Biology (teaching what a former colleague called ‘the plumbing’) should tie up with ethics and relationships (RS and English? Plus drama and, with a bit of imagination, most of the rest of the curriculum).  Citizenship, by the way, should be learned not in lessons but through involvement in a vibrant Student Council within a democratic school ethos.

All that might take us somewhere. So let’s not spot a gap and immediately fill it up with stuff. Let’s leave the space, if indeed there is a space at all, to allow us for the first time in two decades to spend time on a real consideration of what education is for. We just might, we really might, succeed in planning a better future for our children.


Speaking in tongues

Mandarin.  It’s the new must-have accessory in schools.  Just as 13-14 year old girls have to have those little clutch bags tucked under their arms (at least they did last term) so schools have to be seen to be introducing Mandarin as a compulsory subject for all at some stage.  In fact, I think Mandarin has now overtaken cookery (as opposed to food technology) as the additional subject to be seen with this autumn. Why? 

I’m a passionate believer in the teaching of languages.  Better still, I’m a believer in children learning languages - which isn’t necessarily the same thing, as we all know. But I’ve learnt to be somewhat cynical about the messianic fervour with which people seem to get hold of the latest “essential” language: that is, the language that we all have to start getting our children to learn if UK PLC is going to keep afloat on the tide of international commerce.

Maybe I’ve been around too long.  Back in the 1980s, we were told we all needed to teach Russian: the Cold War was at its height, and Ronald Reagan was pushing forward the arms race.  Then came the Velvet Revolution, democracy protesters took to the streets and the Communist bloc imploded. Russian was off the menu again. (What an exciting time that was:  I recently met a Romanian who met his wife when they were students demonstrating on the streets ofTimisoarain 1990.  How about that!)

Next came Arabic.  We needed to get in touch with the Arab world: not for the reasons which might be very important now, that of reducing distrust and tension and communicating face-to-face with Muslim leaders.  No, it was because the oil-producing states were at the height of their buying power – which was rapidly eclipsed by the rising sun that was the Japanese economic miracle.  So Japanese was the in-language until that country got into a bit of trouble.

Two massive economies are emerging at present,ChinaandIndia.  Maybe people consider that colonial history has left enough English speakers inIndiafor us not to need to learn any of that subcontinent’s many languages, because it’s Mandarin that’s all the rage.  If we speak Mandarin we can do business withChina– and win gold in the Beijing Olympics.

We should stop kidding ourselves. Education is about looking to the future: but examining the tea leaves to see what languages we should be learning (even if they’reChinatea leaves) isn’t going to do much for us.  It never has.

In most UK schools we still muddle along with French and German as major subjects, with Spanish and Italian and other languages as additional choices. Actually, they do us pretty well, and they are languages related to our own.  Learning French, German or Spanish enables us to talk to our European neighbours.  I’ve an old-fashioned notion that we ought to start talking to our neighbours before we worry quite so much about the people on the other side of the world. 

Besides, the function of teaching languages in school, while a vital one, isn’t in my view about getting schools to turn out fluent language speakers.  Do we really think we are going to achieve that when children only learn MFL (well, some of them) between the ages of 11 and 16?  If we were serious as a nation we would be giving them 10 years of language teaching at least.  

No, under the current arrangements what we can hope for is to teach young people how languages work and how to learn them, to develop a feel for languages.  Then, when they’re in a job and the firm wants to send them off toBeijing,Tokyo,Abu Dhabi orMoscow (back on the agenda now Putin’s dusted off his old bombers), it can buy them a crash course in that particular tongue. 

We haven’t really cracked even the European languages yet, and Mandarin is so much harder. Besides, what happens when a school loses its Mandarin teacher? There may be more speakers of Mandarin in the world than of any other language: but Mandarin teachers in the UKare still like hen’s teeth. It’s bad enough when you lose your Spanish, German or Italian teacher – but Mandarin?  My latest ploy has been to trawl round ethnic restaurants and chat up the staff.  OK, I’ve put on five stone but, in case we ever need them, my school now has a supply list of part-time teachers of Mexican, Turkish, Cantonese (oops! Wrong sort of Chinese!)  and, er,  Kentucky English.

Mm. Not quite right yet. Maybe next I should try that little tapas bar round the corner.


Balls’ address was smoke and mirrors – guest editorial

June 2008

Speaking at last week’s annual conference of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), Secretary of State for Children Ed Balls was a man with a mission.  A mission of damage limitation.  He needed to assuage the affront caused by the government’s heavy-handed announcement of its new National Challenge: so he was upbeat. He commended the hard work and dedication of teachers up and down the country in raising standards and improving opportunities for children. He reaffirmed his conviction that poverty and deprivation must never be used as a justification for underachievement, even if they are still too often contributory factors.  He wooed his audience by restating his personal opposition to selection - and, of course, by praising the quality of leadership in schools today, as represented by the delegates present.

It was heady stuff.  Praise for progress; honest admission that things haven’t gone far enough yet, that there is still work to do; a rallying cry to continue with the great work.

He was emollient,too.  He had never, he said, used the word “failing” about the 638 schools currently failing to achieve the magic figure of 30% GCSE passes at A* to C, including English and mathematics. Indeed, so good is the leadership in many of those schools, he said, that they are already “on a rising tide” and will sail past that figure in this August’s results. Actually, his positive gloss was not wrong. Christine Blower, Acting General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, points out that only 11 per cent of those schools are judged by OFSTED to need “the intervention and threats now being employed by the Government.” In terms of contextual value added (CVA), 26 per cent are among the best in the country and around a third are in the top 40 per cent.  A further 50 per cent are deemed satisfactory.

So is it a problem, or isn’t it? Mr Balls was disingenuous in his attempt to disguise government schizophrenia on this issue.  Keen to dispel the bully-boy connotations of this new initiative, he was too quick to imply that they were misrepresentations by the media.  He may not have used the word “failing”: but his boss did. Gordon Brown was playing the tough guy, and will have been delighted that the BBC described him as “thundering” his determination to stamp out failure, to improve schools or close them. It was the kind of macho posturing that makes politicians feel good but nowadays fails to impress even the most right-wing tabloids.  And it offends and alienates the professionals it denigrates.

Time and again Mr Balls used the word “support”.  £400 million will be poured into those schools, and they will be supported through the creation of hard and soft federations and a raft of other positive interventions. In his vision, eloquently outlined, those 638 schools almost ceased to be a problem: they were close to becoming a triumph.  His triumph.

It was smoke and mirrors. His studied avoidance of any mention of the unrelenting pressure those threatened schools suffer was so marked as to be grotesque, almost comical. Politicians always claim to value professionals, but invariably lack the courage to trust them.  They believe only in the stick, and pay mere lip-service to the carrot.

It’s common sense that threats don’t ultimately work, but persuasion does; that pressure inhibits courage and creativity, but trust engenders them. The conference emphasis on trust, creativity and innovation was undoubtedly uplifting for delegates, but arguably somewhat obvious – obvious to all, that is, except the policy-makers.



Culture shock

May 2008

It was Hermann Goering who famously declared, ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol.’ (Actually, sheer pedantry demands I point out that he was misquoting a cleverer line from a 1933 play that said, ‘When I hear the word Culture, I reach for my Browning.’  But we will leave the double entendre there.)  From a fat militarist given to wearing outrageously silly uniforms such a profession of philistinism might appear just that: but Hitler's comical yet murderous military chief had a shrewd eye for fine art, gained by plundering great works from all over occupied Europe.  So I'm alarmed to find myself agreeing with him about culture - or Culture.  As for Creativity and Cadet Forces (all recent daft government ideas start with C, apparently), don't get me started.

I'll explain.  Since the start of the year we have witnessed a flurry of government proposals to enrich the education of the nation's children. They sound plausible when worthily (if dully) expanded by government spokesmen but are likely to be about as successful as a dodo doing aerobatics.  Talking of non-starters, I barely know where to begin.

Culture.  Ministers want our kids to have five hours of it every week.  Why five?  Why not four, or six?  It’s even more arbitrary than the sport/physical activity targets: there at least one can presumably work out some kind of physio-medical rationale.  Quite where those five hours will come from is not specified; but they’re unlikely to be able to be squeezed into the teaching week, given the undiminished pressure on schools to hit literacy, numeracy, SAT and GCSE targets.

What is Culture, anyhow?  Is literature no longer taught in English?  Or has the literacy imperative reduced it to the lowly function of being a text that children have to prove they can decipher and to hell with the aesthetics?

Is art Culture?  Or music?  Drama?  Does history never deal with it?  Our policymakers appear so eager to prove themselves right-on and in touch with ‘yoof kulcher’, that they forget that a lot of culture is actually covered in existing subjects. Nah: don’t be stoopid! That’s all just old school stuff.  This politicians’ Bright Idea is something else. It’s new, it’s real, it’s (spare us) relevant!

Television images announcing the Grand Plan for Culture showed visiting drama specialists working with children in a school.  Importing arts groups for a day, or a week, can spark an interest, get ideas going; but it cannot engender real, sustainable development. This kind of tokenistic input is like sticking a cherry on top of a diner’s burger in case he doesn't have time for pudding.  Real culture is organic: it needs to be developed over time (over years), where children are led, trained and above all inspired by teachers who work with them on a long-term basis.  People of my generation remember the chap who taught us, say, Biology in class but also ran the hockey team; the English teacher who produced inspirational plays after school. Not the visiting drama group (no disrespect to them) who nowadays do a week’s ‘workshop project’ (usually a euphemism for something unfinished) and move on.

Not long ago our lords and masters complained schools weren’t teaching children to be entrepreneurial. We have Enterprise Weeks now, so that problem’s solved. Hurrah!  But it’s not enough: now we’re told we need to make schools more creative.

How this government expects schools to encourage children to go for creative, open-ended solutions when they are the most tested pupils in the world is beyond me.  The people complaining about lack of creativity are the very ones who won’t let up on the testing-and-accountability business for a second. Teachers daren’t encourage risk-taking in exams. There's no room for clever-clever, creative responses that don't match the marker’s template.  Keep it simple and get it right: that’s the only safe way. And results are so important - for the school, if not for the kids - that we have to play safe.  It’s a brave teacher or school that doesn’t.

Our elected guardians never rest.  Most recently we’re told that Gordon thinks Combined Cadet Forces (CCFs) would be good for kids in maintained schools: they would teach them discipline and self-respect. No, they wouldn’t.  You don’t change children or their schools by rubbing camouflage paint on their faces and getting them to march up and down the playground. CCFs run successfully (and more imaginatively than I’ve described) in schools where discipline and self-respect are already endemic in the school: the good CCF is a symptom of those qualities, not the cause.  

So is this Cadet Force wheeze just more motherhood-and-apple-pie? Possibly, though a conspiracy theorist might reckon that taking Ministry of Defence funding away from independent school CCFs and moving them into maintained schools would smash what left-wingers see as the perpetuation of the Officer Class. 

As always, politicians refuse to see the contradictions in adding bright ideas on top of their unremitting drive for results: in thinking up new ways to compensate for the disastrous side-effects of that pressure. As a result these add-ons they dream up are mere window-dressing.  Ministers (Prime and other) are just fiddling with the problems they identify.  They're fiddling (ha ha!) while Rome burns - a truly Cultured metaphor.  

So, yes, hand me my pistol. On second thoughts, if there’s a cadet handy, I’ll get him to lend me lend me his antiquated Lee Enfield 0.303 rifle. At least when that was made the army’s equipment actually worked.


Planet Cameron

November 2007

Hurrah for Planet Cameron, that shining heavenly body which seems packed full of knockabout comedy ideas that regularly descend to Earth to solve our educational problems! Whenever I’m short of ideas to write about I rush to my observatory, clap eye to telescope and - bingo! There’s enough deluded material to fuel a conference full of psychiatrists.

Some of these wacky wheezes are plain daft, while others are downright dangerous.  One that should have a yellow Hazard sticker slapped on it straight away is his suggestion that there must be a formal reading test for all seven year-olds. Why politicians insist on this arbitrary age for the ability to read is beyond me.  Lots of children can read fluently aged four to five.  Some at three - usually ambitious younger siblings trying to keep up!  Some aren't ready till much later.  Psychologists and child development experts recognize the damage done when children who can't yet tie their shoelaces are forced to hold pens, and the entire Swiss nation tends to get by pretty well with only starting school at age 7.  But no, the politicos and apparatchiks know best.  Seven is the rule, and they won't trust teachers to make their own judgments and report on progress either.

It gets worse.  The alien from Planet Cameron wants OFSTED (presumably with its customary tact and sensitivity) to check that primary schools are using ‘approved’ methods with regard to the teaching of reading.  Approved?  By whom?  It's no longer good enough to achieve the desired outcome, that of teaching the child to read.  Now it's got to be done in the prescribed way, a level of control not seriously contemplated since the collapse of the Soviet bloc (I did once meet a researcher from immediately post-communist Poland who described the UK education system as ‘totalitarian’ - and she had grounds for comparison).

So after that truly sinister proposal - which gained far more column inches than such pernicious twaddle merited - it was a relief to hear that Earthman Dave's latest message from the Mekon (sorry, showing my age) was that the sure way to maintain discipline in schools is to get kids to tuck their shirts in and to stand up when teachers enter the room.


Suffering satellites! (as Dan Dare used to exclaim).  Where would we teachers be without such sound advice?  It's just a shame that the speech-writers on Planet Cameron confuse the simple with the simplistic.  Listen, Dave: it's more complicated than that.  Tucked-in shirts may well be a symptom of a well-disciplined school, but that discipline grows from a much deeper, more sophisticated ethos and has a lot to do with pupils’ self-discipline too.  And in 2007 kids don't sit silently in orderly rows waiting to leap to their feet when the teacher arrives: for a start, it is generally considered good practice for the teacher where possible to be there first.


Actually, I'm rather proud that, in my school (a well-ordered one, I think), the teachers don't want their students to stand up for them.  When we discussed it we felt that mutual respect worked better – so as I open the door for students if I get there first, they do the same for me.  That's civilised, modelled adult behaviour, not ‘discipline’ in the sense of keeping children in their place.  In short, schools need to run things in ways that work for them.  These proposals suggest a degree of government micromanagement that would surpass even the excessive interference of the past two decades, and show just how far off-planet (extra-terrestrial, indeed) they are.


Are these ideas intended as serious contributions to the (non-existent) educational debate, or do they amount merely to shameless headline-grabbing, pandering to the grumpy end of right-wing tabloid readership?  Let's just remind ourselves that Hitler's first two educational reforms on coming to power were to reinstate uniform and reintroduced the cane. (Ah, but how smart those boys looked in their Hitler Youth shirts!  They had discipline in those days…)


Still, Planet Cameron is only a shadow orb at the moment: inevitably it's so full of hot air that it probably qualifies as a gas giant.  So maybe we can just have a good laugh and ignore it.  It's a joke.


Or is it?


Actually, it’s not funny. A thriving democracy needs a credible opposition, and that would suggest that ministers (and PMs) in waiting should have some clue about their potential briefs, and should be presenting some viable, challenging alternatives, not this rubbish.

What’s that? You’re telling me they’re serious about those ideas? Well, I’m with Blackadder’s General Melchett, who would boom, ‘Only a complete lunatic would…’ Would what? Elect them?  Hang on: according to current opinion polls that makes the electorate a complete lunatic.

Beam me up, Scotty!


It's the money, stupid

September 2007

It was Bill Clinton who coined the expression, "It's the economy, stupid."  He was talking about what wins elections.  It's all about the cash in people's pockets, and how they feel about it.  Whatever the high-sounding messages or lofty societal visions impassioned politicians may promote from the podium, in the end voters want to feel secure and comfortable financially.  That's why our two major parties tussle to occupy the low-tax territory - and possibly why the poor old Lib Dems’ worthy pledge to put a penny on income tax to boost education leaves voters unmoved.

No, we humans generally want to grab the money, particularly when they’re short of it.  Schools are short all the time.  So imagine yourself, a few years ago, desperately trying to manage the overstretched finances of your school, when someone tells you they can find you £100K plus £129 per pupil.  To get this, they say, all you have to do is think of something your school is good at, call it a specialism, write a good bid, and Bob's your uncle.

Or would be.  If only it was that simple.  But you get my point.  Cash-strapped schools - and they are strapped - will grab any new funding they can get their hands on.  What pulled them in was not the great culture to a specialism; nor all of the business and community links; nor the opportunity to select up to 10% of their pupils, an option many have chosen not to take up.  It was the dosh.  I've lost count of the number of heads who have admitted me to me, discreetly of course, that they had no choice: they had to go for the status to get the money.  Of course they did.

I'm not pretending it was easy.  They had to find sponsors to raise the hundred K.; put together an immensely complicated bid; jump through a serious of hoops to get the new status and change their name from Gas Street School to Gas Street Technology, Enterprise and Loom-Weaving Specialist College, a hugely inflated name that has great difficulty in fitting on the headed notepaper, let alone the blazer badge.  Okay, I made that last bit up!

Now 83% of secondary schools have specialist status.  The eventual aim is that all should be specialist schools or academies.

TheSpecialistSchoolsand Academies Trust is quick to trumpet the success of its schools.  60.6% of their pupils are gaining five GCSE passes at A*-C, compared to 48.3% in non-specialist schools (which, let's face it, are now a small minority).  To the Trust, specialist status is the key.

To a research team from Staffordshire andCambridgeuniversities it's just the money that made a difference the only statistical correlation this high-powered team could find with raised attainment is increased funding in the school.  "Additional funding for specialist schools is no more effective than additional funding for other state schools," said Professor Geoff Pugh ofStaffordshireUniversity.  He added that giving schools specialist status was in truth "a re-labelling phenomenon. A majority of schools are now specialist.  They are desperate to get their hands on any additional resources, whether or not there is actually a case for it."

The SSAT isn't happy.  But a dose of honesty won't do any harm.  There's no doubt that the Trust does a great job of networking schools, of promoting and sharing good practice in teaching and learning, of making a difference to schools.  But I've never believed in models or systems that claim to have an exclusive formula for success. 

Early gains in the programme were, in effect, achieved by schools that are already pretty together places.  Winning specialist status took a lot of doing, so it was those schools that were already well-connected with potential sponsors, with their communities, indeed with the new government bidding culture, that won the race.  As the years have passed the hurdle has been lowered.  Moreover, many local benefactors and major trusts, to their credit, have got involved in helping less well-placed schools to mount successful bids.

So now the SSAT has a well-resourced network that connects a huge family of better-funded schools.  Better funded, they perform better.  Better connected, they share good practice.  We can all rejoice in that.  But we should also welcome the dose of cold water that this research has splashed onto the spin attached to the notion of specialism.

It's time we stopped making extravagant claims that specialism is a magic formula. After all, specialist schools are still obliged to follow the same National Curriculum as every other school so, as I sometimes hear from aggrieved parents, specialism sometimes ends up being more about inflexibility in curriculum choices than about real single-minded concentration on a particular area of expertise.  This research should encourage us to take a sanguine look at what really brings about school improvement, starting with funding.

You can't get away from it. It is the money, stupid.


Testing times

July 2007

Testing, testing: it’s back in the news.  In June the General Teaching Council, set up by this government to give teachers a coherent professional voice, came out strongly against the amount of testing currently being inflicted on both children and their schools.  Secretary of State Alan Johnson immediately hit back.  We can't go back to the bad old days when schools were closed institutions, he said (not that anyone had suggested that we should do so).  Schools must be accountable, he insisted. Besides, he was emphatic that schools and parents just love the tests: so much so, he noted, that schools are signing up for optional additional tests between the obligatory SATs at ages 7, 11 and 14. 

Johnson didn’t even have the grace to blush as he uttered this shameless tosh. Schools buy in extra tests because they know that, if their pupils don’t perform well in the statutory ones, they will be hammered: so they get the kids to practise like fury.  (Remember, SATs are there to measure schools, not children).  Children are wearied by endless preparation for tests, the dreary succession of mechanical exam practice that is squeezing all the joy out of junior school. We secondary teachers know this, because the youngsters tell us when they join us in Year 7.  To deny it, as Alan Johnson did on television, and to accuse the GTC of trying to turn the clock back was a contemptible piece of political spin.  When he took over at the DfES we all hoped he had more integrity than that.

Tests and the concomitant league tables put pressure on schools.  It is a rare school that avoids passing that pressure on to its pupils: some manage to, but most don’t, and who can blame them?  So instead of the broad and balanced “learning experience” (to coin a currently popular phrase) that the introduction of the National Curriculum was supposed to enshrine for all children, school pupils get a curriculum that is more and more skewed towards preparation for national tests.

I’m not making this up. I’m not even exaggerating. Fresh evidence emerged within a week of the GTC’s pronouncement.  The Times Educational Supplement trumpeted the fact that, since GCSE league tables will in future be based on the number of pupils attaining five grades at A* to C including Maths and English, schools are now pulling pupils out of other subjects in order to concentrate on boosting those two.  Of course they are.  This has nothing to do with raising levels of literacy or numeracy in the country: it has all to do with schools playing the league table game, because the consequences to them of losing it are so dire.

So government pressure is distorting the curriculum more than ever, for longer than ever - up to the age of 16 now. And a minister is prepared to go on air to swear it isn’t.   He’s like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who used to practise believing “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”.  So the Secretary of State believes that non-stop tests are great; that they raise standards; that parents want them; and that schools love them.  What are his last two impossibilities, I wonder? That Tony Blair will be a great ambassador for world peace, perhaps? And finally that, if you force enough half-baked ideas into the school system, somehow they’ll combine to make one piece of good sense. Hmm.

Why do politicians and the media so steadfastly refuse to trust professionals? Why won’t they accept the fact that bullying them doesn't work in the long run? Let’s reinvent a society view of real professionals who can be trusted to get on with the job. And let’s get back to focusing on what education is really about, equipping children for happy and successful lives as creative individuals, not as government statistics. The first steps would be to slash back those tests and to scrap league tables.

Hang on! Who’s dreaming the impossible now?


Been There, Got The T-Shirt

May 2007

In April it was good to be one of 1,800 delegates at the International Confederation of Principals’ biennial convention, held this year in Auckland. It was impressive to be addressed by both New Zealand’s education minister (who the next day blotted his copybook by using the F word about a fellow MP in parliament!) and its Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who was forthright and, for a politician, unusually specific about her education policies, about what she would do and what she wouldn’t. Ironically, though, we found ourselves enjoying both the Maori Haka welcome and speakers of the quality of Sir Ken Robinson against the backdrop of a politico-educational storm: the opposition National party was looking to grab votes and media backing for a campaign to introduce age-related testing in primary schools. The New Zealand Herald was all for it, and published with glee (4 April 2007) a letter which said:

‘Primary schools need to be held accountable, just as high schools are…We invest millions in our children’s education and we expect much better results. Forget the usual lazy blah from the teachers. They obviously hate any kind of public accountability or competition…The system is not working, and we need to support ways to fix it. Let’s lengthen the school day, reduce the number of holidays and text for results.’

The letter began:

‘Is their [primary school principals’] opposition to the National Party’s testing policy the proof that they know they are doing a rotten job for far too many young people?’

We loved New Zealand, but moved on to visit family in Australia. And, right on cue, that nation was also split over education. John Howard’s federal education minister failed to persuade state leaders to adopt a national curriculum: they preferred to retain the local colour of their particular states. And she was furious that they also refused to countenance performance-related pay for teachers. For the moment, at any rate.

A depressing sense of déjà vu overcame me. In the UK we’ve seen all this. Politicians towards the Right love to play the ‘get tough’ card: and newspapers love to play to an innately conservative (small c) readership.  After all, it’s all so logical, so persuasive. If schools are doing a good job, why should they be against standardised testing?  Parents have a right to know how their children are getting on. Surely the standardisation of a national curriculum is sensible, so that children can move between schools and follow the same programmes of study wherever they go. And why on earth should we reward good and bad teachers the same? Track their pupils’ performance and pay them accordingly: it’s just plain commonsense.

If schools and teachers have nothing to hide, why should they oppose these measures? When they object, the media become suspicious: there’s a scent of professionals closing ranks, of cloaks of secrecy. It’s so easy to manipulate public opinion against a profession: the UK press ahs proved that often enough.

Yes, we’ve been there. The great, seductive fantasy - plain ‘paper and pencil’ tests, a minimal agreed core curriculum, uncomplicated payment by results – quickly dissolved when we woke up from the dream: in no time at all we found we were doing things not simply but simplistically, and brutally to boot. The testing became more complicated, because ‘paper and pencil’ was too crude to produce usable statistics. The curriculum became a battleground for subject lobbies and pressure groups. And performance pay became bureaucratic and burdensome - and never did sort the teacher sheep from their goat colleagues, because it doesn’t work like that.

The rest is history. Fifteen years on, no one in the UK (except politicians and, I guess, some people in the DfES) even bothers to defend the over-rigid curriculum (OK, there have been a few minor concessions recently to ‘personalisation’). Nor the constant pressure of excessive testing on children and teachers alike. Nor the labyrinthine process of teachers’ performance management. But we’re still stuck with them. We’ve got the T-shirt.

Someone has been selling our cousins Down Under the idea that it’s all hunky-dory back in the Old Country. I just hope those fantastic school leaders I was lucky enough to meet as the home team at ICP Auckland are strong enough to hold out against the political pressure and say, ‘Not here.’ I do hope so.



Childhood’s end – guest editorial

May 2007

I remember vividly a conversation I had with a senior civil servant around 1990, when the National Curriculum was brand-new and we were all beginning to realise that we had created a monster that would never fit into the school week. ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about,’ said the mandarin.  ‘If children and teachers did a proper job, worked 40-hour weeks and took four weeks holiday a year, we could fit everything in that we wanted to.’

I was dismayed recently to learn that view of school-as-adult-work still alive and well.  The Sunday Times of 6th May gave front-page coverage to the new Thomas Deacon City Academy in Peterborough, currently under construction, which is not building a playground because (wrote Geraldine Hackett), ‘those running it believe that pupils should be treated like company employees and do not need unstructured play time.’

Wow!  It begs a lot of questions.  For a start, is it really true that company employees do not get free time?  I always thought that food and drink breaks were a right under employment law.  Still, ‘pupils will be able to hydrate during the learning experience,’ says head teacher Alan McMurdo.

Crikey!  In my school we usually call it lesson time, not ‘the learning experience’. Oh, and ‘getting a drink’ rather than ‘hydrating.’ The particular choice of language perhaps gives a clue to the thinking behind the Academy.  The Academy’s sponsors, Perkins Engines and the Deacon school trust, felt that playgrounds ‘did not fit into the concept.’ Besides, the article explains that ‘there will be a 30-minute lunch period when pupils will be taken to the dining room by their teacher, ensuring that they do not sneak away to run around.’

Clearly having children running around at lunchtime is potentially damaging, and this Brave New World vision renders such behaviour unnecessary.  After all, ‘exercise for pupils will take place in PE classes and organised games.’ And don’t start on any wishy-washy argument that children need to let off steam: they simply won’t feel that need because, says the head teacher, ‘they will not be bored.’

Golly!  It’s a brave claim.  When I was a very young head I once (unwisely) boasted to a journalist that I had banned my staff from being boring (okay, this conversation did take place in a pub).  Well, I had: more accurately, I had said if they really had to do something tedious they should at least be honest about it with their students.  This gave rise to the cringe-making headline Lively head bans the school bores. But can we really claim that our pupils are never bored?  I don’t think I would dare, much as I would like to hope so.

The academy also gave a more pragmatic reason for leaving a playground out of the plans.  With 2,200 pupils, the playground would have had to be colossal.  So ‘we have taken away an uncontrollable space to prevent bullying and truancy’: the omission of a playground had the added benefit of ‘avoiding pupils falling victim to playground bullies’.  Certainly both good design and effective management would be needed to make sure that it wasn't a barren, hostile place where lawlessness could flourish: but abandoning play in order to prevent bullying sounds to me like suggesting we can put an end to traffic accidents by closing all the roads.

Ouch!  I feel profoundly uncomfortable writing this.  It goes against all my natural instincts.  Normally I blame national government for educational lunacies, but this one appears to be home-grown in Peterborough.  I always say that how a school runs itself is its own business and that there is far too much interference from government, from the press and from know-alls like me.  But this report made my flesh creep. 

It’s that civil servant all over again. Forget lessons and drinks breaks, and go instead for learning experiences and hydration.  Abolish play time and we’ll get more work done and put a stop to bullying at the same time.  Trouble is, the stone that kills those two birds will also sound the death knell for childhood.


Crisis? What crisis?

March 2007

Business knows best. It’s official. To run the new model of extended schools which will provide wrap-around 24/7 social and health care for children, families and the community on a single site, the PwC review foresees a new model of school leadership, importing managers from outside education, preferably from business.

The report downplays the urgent need to find more heads for the future.  There isn't a shortage, it says, and there won't be.  PwC acknowledges that heads are driven mad by the constant flood of contradictory government initiatives - but neither that factor nor the ever-increasing challenges of the job warrant increasing pay in order to fill senior posts.  As Jim Callaghan famously didn't say: "Crisis?  What crisis?"  PwC can’t see one, but governing bodies all over the country are already living with it.

To be fair, PwC, government and teachers’ leaders all agree on the need to fast-track young leaders. Given proper emphasis in their training on deep understanding of values and emotional intelligence, not mere assessment of management skills, such people could be a huge asset to the system. But even in this positive move, government betrays its underlying obsession. Downing Streethas been leaning on business to sponsor this accelerated training.

Why?  Apart from trying to save money through sponsorship of something that it ought to fund properly itself, why is this government - or this Prime Minister - so dazzled by business?  What is there in the commercial model that suggests it has the answers to the problems of public services?

The classic view of business is that it abhors waste.  If it isn't super-efficient and cost-effective, we’re told, it goes to the wall. But that's not necessarily true.  If part of its operation isn't making money, a firm can lay off staff, scale down or close down that segment.  It can decide to take smaller profits for a time. It can put up the price.

School have few such choices. They could offer fewer courses. They could cut costs by increasing class sizes, or by replacing qualified teachers with cheaper para-professionals - a dangerous course which, in many people's eyes, has gone quite far enough.  But all these damage and reduce the opportunities available to children. One thing schools cannot do: they can't stick the price up: that is set, at bargain basement level, by government.

Business knows about motivation and productivity, though. Or does it? How are the City’s blue-collar workers, cleaners and caterers motivated by the annual bonuses paid to senior managers, bungs on a scale large enough to distort the entireLondonproperty market?  Can the nation’s schools learn anything from fat cat companies that reward bosses for “making savings” by sacking workers?

Besides, is the private sector really that tight on costs?  When I dash from yet another meeting inLondon to catch the train home to theMidlands, I walk to my standard seat through six first-class carriages full of lawyers, accountants, bankers and business people, all of whom are presumably sticking top-price Virgin tickets (£210 return) on expenses charged to the client.  That’s what I call lean or cost-focused.

Still, maybe business has something to teach schools. Successful firms stick to what they are good at. They keep things simple, and nowadays tend to break big corporations down into smaller, more manageable units. 

By contrast, schools aren’t simple organisations. They’re messy because they are concerned with people who are so damnably individual and variable. Extending their role to include all those health, social and child-minding functions risks distracting them from their core purpose - teaching and learning, the education of the young. And the resulting monolithic institutions may be just too complex to be run by a single boss, whether former teacher or ex-tycoon.

Experienced business people recruited to lead the new extended schools may come to the conclusion that the job can't be done. They may be right.