What I’m learning about workload and looking at things differently

 

At the @HeadsRoundtable summit earlier this year I attended a great workshop where Professor Bekky Allen outlined the problem so clearly: it is us who have allowed this to happen – we have been the agents through which this awful audit culture has taken a grip in our schools. It isn’t our fault necessarily; but it is certainly our problem! And, as we have been the agents through which this was allowed to get a grip, we must the ones to dismantle it.

Headship was traditionally described as a lonely job; I have to confess I never found it so, but it is very, very exposed. The pernicious accountability system as it has developed over the years has put headteachers under more and more pressure to be able to, at the drop of a hat, give others assurance of the effectiveness of every teaching and learning exchange within the school. (Even writing that sentence has made my jaw drop.) The only way to feel able to do this is has led to the very worst kind of audit culture which disproportionately hits schools facing challenging circumstances. The truth is, as long as student outcomes look strong there is little challenge; but the endless requirement for more and more monitoring and data drops, and progress checks and QA processes for those headteachers and schools most in need of the time and space to actually improve, rather than justify, is eye-watering.

If we change the way we look at things; then the things we see begin to change. A little over a year ago I took on a new role and I have been slowly trying to change the way we look at things starting with data and assessment. Traditionally, when we ask teachers to give us data on a class, everyone involved in that data exchange and information (student, teacher, subject leader, senior leader, headteacher, governor) has assumed that this is about measuring students and it is for reporting upwards to inform. We are working on fundamentally changing this assumption. The purpose of all forms of data are to assess our own effectiveness and improve what we do as educators. Data as an instrument of improvement rather than audit, report and justify.

We are seeing that as teachers and subject leaders begin to look at data this way a number of things happen:

  • Data collection points and reporting become less important than the conversations taking place between teachers and subject leaders, subject leaders and senior staff, heads and governors.
  • Teachers and subject leaders are empowered to change the organisation of learning and pedagogy in response to what data is telling them about their effectiveness.
  • We start to see some green shoots of a new culture: empowerment rather than paralysis, and creativity rather than drudgery.
  • Marking seems like a long time ago as teachers are assessing their own effectiveness not individual students, with whole class feedback sheets driving improved planning and delivery.
  • Workload becomes about planning and pedagogy, not mind-numbing tasks to provide an audit trail.

 

We are beginning to develop a culture of ‘working to be better at what we do’ rather than ‘trying to look as though we are good’. It is early days and cultural change takes time. I have had colleagues look at me as if they want to say ‘Sir Humphrey-like’ – “This is a very courageous course of action, Executive Principal”. But we have to change the culture; we have to look at things differently, particularly in schools where headteachers and teachers are continuously under the most pressure. The paralysis and panic caused by audit culture has to stop.

Our mantra is “Accelerating progress and reducing workload”. The message we give out is “if something doesn’t do both of these we are not playing”.

 

This blog first appeared on the @HeadsRoundtable website

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What I have learned about supporting headteachers

When I was first a head, back in 2000, I had taken on a particularly challenging school and had a ‘consultancy team’ of 3 experienced heads working with me.  They worked in the background coaching and advising me and, crucially, alerting me to ‘what will happen next’.  The improvements we made to the school were massive and my induction into headship was absolutely amazingly good – I was constantly participating in discussions with very experienced heads focusing directly on what was required at my school.  I think I must have gained around 10 years of experience in my first year. Now I am an Executive Principal I think my practice is largely based on my reflections from those early days of headship.

These are the five things I think headteachers most need from their Executive Heads:

1. Active listening from their coach. Heads do not need to be told what is the right thing for their school, but they often need to be able to talk their way through the trees with someone who can see the wood, ask questions which help to navigate the path and feedback what they are hearing.

2.  A safe group of colleague heads for completely open discussion and shared problem solving. Within MATs this should be possible; it is certainly desirable.  In our Trust I have 4 Principals who have a full understanding of each other’s academies; who feel responsible for the performance of each other’s academies, and who share and deploy resources generously (including staff).  The five of us as a team of principals with four academies are far more effective than one principal with one academy.

3. Being freed to lead their schools from the front. What staff and students need most from their head is someone who is visible, approachable and a real inspirational force for good, clearly articulating a vision and creating a feeling of security.  Sadly modern headship places so many demands on a headteacher to be out of school and to be involved in annoying peripheral distractions, which while often important, get in the way of the head feeling effective and being valued by their staff and students.  Executive Heads can and should take all that away by doing some themselves and by helping heads sieve through the garbage to what is really important.

4. Get c**p off their desk and out of their in-box. There are all kinds of energy-sapping, time-consuming hindrances to good mental health for headteachers and these are increasing.  The most obvious example of these is the vexatious formal complaint, but there are also the worrying HR cases and troubling financial planning.  I suspect that when heads ‘go under’ it is some combination of the vexatious complaint, tricky HR and troubled finances to blame.  An Executive Head is there to make certain that doesn’t happen, to deal with the c**p while keeping the head firmly in the loop and modelling how to manage it for them.  Headteachers need someone to be in charge of their health and well-being.

5. Being asked the question “how can I be of service to you?”; rather than constantly being under pressure to serve a central organisation. In order for heads to feel empowered, effective and secure, any central organisation must be in service to them.  I am sad to see and hear that this has not always been the case and that some of the worst practice from the old LAs has been replicated in some MATs.  But I sense things are getting better and I hope that my generation of Executive Principals/Heads are getting this bit right – if we aren’t we need to be told!

This blog first appeared on the @HeadteachersRoundtable website at the end of 2017

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What I’m learning about why we fall out

I am increasingly concerned that lots of people whom I respect greatly in our “Edu-Twitter sphere” seem to be forced into opposite corners.  I read lots of articles, blogs and pieces of research – many of which appear to contradict each other – and I find myself in agreement with much of what I read despite contradictions.  Education is complex.  It is complex because we are dealing with people and people are complex; yet there is enormous pressure within the system to make it simple.  We are encouraged to believe that if we get the ingredients right and follow the recipe religiously we will get the desired outcomes.  The trouble is that this denies the glorious and messy complexity of the human state.

I thought I’d attempt to list some of the ‘truths’ that we should all be able to accept and which are hugely difficult to deliver on simultaneously

Children require structure and routine in order to feel secure and grow in confidence. 

  • The less structure and routine children have in their home life the more they need at school in order to be able to flourish.
  • For some children with chaotic home lives coping with structure and routine at school can be difficult and distressing.
  • It is every child’s right to be able to benefit from teaching without it being disturbed by the poor behaviour of others.
  • It is every child’s right to an education, and if their emotional needs are preventing their access to this, then these emotional needs must be addressed.

 

Teachers need to concentrate on teaching, rather than controlling poor behaviour, and they should be free from abuse in their classrooms.

  • The behaviour issues that arise in classrooms may not be a teacher’s fault, but they are a teacher’s problem, and teachers need to acknowledge this and be supported in developing their own strategies to overcome.
  • It is a key role of school leaders to ensure that the culture of the school allows teachers to be free to teach and flourish and the climate in classrooms is one of mutual respect.
  • Behaviour problems are most effectively addressed where they arise and in most circumstances it is best to avoid undue escalation.

 

Consistency of application of behaviour systems and processes is essential in promoting security for all.

  • ‘Fairness’, and the perception of fairness, needs to be carefully managed as it does not necessarily mean ‘treating everyone the same’.

 

The curriculum needs to be about transferring key knowledge.

  • In order to be able to assimilate and process knowledge there are key skills children need to be taught.
  • Basic communication skills are the building blocks – speaking and listening, reading and writing, and numeracy.
  • Some children pick these basic skills up very quickly and before formal education; others require them to be formally taught in a highly structured way.
  • It is not OK for children to be formally taught skills they already have simply because others require it.
  • It is not OK for lack of skills to prevent children from assimilating and processing the knowledge taught.
  • As children move through the system they require more complex skills in order to be able to critically engage with and analyse the knowledge being taught.
  • ‘Group work’ and ‘individual research’ do not address the development of the more complex skills required to critically engage with and analyse knowledge; these also require formal teaching for most children.
  • Creating a thirst for the creation of new knowledge, in addition to transferring existing knowledge, is absolutely essential for the progress of society.

 

There is core curriculum content which all children should receive.

  • Curriculum should be reviewed and responsive to the needs of our community, our country and our world.
  • Core curriculum should not be ‘over-loaded’ as a response to current societal priorities; as some things are added, others should be ‘ditched’.
  • Government has responsibility for ensuring appropriateness of curriculum and access of children to core curriculum.
  • Curriculum development should not be determined by ideological priorities and whims of politicians.
  • It is important to ensure that all children are allowed to follow curriculum routes which are appropriate to their aptitudes and abilities, motivate them and provide us with the skills we need in our economy.
  • It is important that children are not directed into curriculum pathways which limit their life chances.

 

We have enough data to be able to make predictions of future academic performance based on prior academic assessment.

  • It is important for us to be able to track children’s progress in order to be able to improve teaching.
  • Academic progress from a starting point to an end point is rarely linear.
  • Economic and cultural factors are hugely significant in children’s academic performance and schools have no control over these.
  • There is a wide difference in the academic performance of schools with similar intakes and so a school’s response to its context makes a difference.
  • Schools should be held to account for the quality of education they provide and one way of doing this is through measuring academic performance.
  • We do not have perfect measures for holding schools to account for academic performance.
  • Accountability measures for academic performance contribute to the recruitment crisis.
  • Accountability measures for academic performance can lead to improvement.

 

So there we have it – a list of things that make education so complex.  My fear is that because of the inherent contradictions we often decide to ignore some of these, concentrate on those we feel are the most important, or relevant to our contexts, and attack colleagues who have done the same but have chosen different ‘truths’ for their attention.

My point is that we all have responsibility to acknowledge all these and work to develop strategies at system and school level which enable us to deliver on them all simultaneously.

 

 

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What I have learned about the recruitment crisis

If you believe, as I do, that there is no better job than that of being a teacher then we should have all been surprised, horrified and baffled when listening to the news this morning that there is a crisis in teacher recruitment. But we weren’t, were we? I think the only surprise was that it was finally making headlines – this has been a long time coming.

Just how did teaching become so unattractive when for so many of us there is absolutely nothing more satisfying than ‘touching and shaping tomorrow’, than seeing young faces light up with the discovery of learning something new, than passing on our passions to the next generation and watching children arrive to us, and adults leave our care and go on to be successful?

There are plenty of people lining up to talk about the various factors that have contributed to the current crisis and all the usual suspects about marking, behaviour, work-life balance, lack of CPD are being trotted out. I think it is infinitely more complex than that; there has been an extremely damaging interplay between the various political agenda which has led to a long-term erosion of vocation and joy.

I read a tweet sometime ago about a teacher in training who arrived home one evening to declare “so the whole system is about keeping OFSTED happy?” How deeply depressing that was to read. I think I replied at the time that it shouldn’t be in a well-led school; but the truth is that for most, if not all, that is what it has been reduced to. I have friends in schools with ‘outstanding’ labels who live in total fear of losing this; I have friends who have devoted their whole lives to working in the most challenging of circumstances transforming the lives of young people and injecting hope into communities who live in fear of losing their jobs; I have friends who are outstanding leaders and visionaries who are respected by the profession and who have lost their jobs, and I listen everyday to managers and leaders saying “we have to do this because of DfE / OFSTED / RSC”.

No-one wants an unaccountable education system; schools who are unable to benchmark themselves; teachers who have no idea how effective they are or underperformance that goes unchallenged – but we have managed to get ourselves so tied up into knots with how we do this that confidence in accountability mechanisms is at an all time low.

The truth is that we really wouldn’t start from here if devising a way of judging school performance; what we have is a system that has emerged through incrementally solving one problem caused by holding schools to account only to cause several more. And that has gone on for years. We are now in the crazy position of being able to clearly see from data that school OFSTED judgments are strongly correlated to the socio-economic backgrounds of the parent body and the prior attainment of the pupils on entry. This hasn’t moved us on from when I first studied educational sociology in the 1970s. Surely any mechanism of judging the quality of educational provision should be able to see deeper than that? But as Dr Becky Allen so ably lays out – if data is flawed and human judgement is flawed that is what we get. Meanwhile the high stakes, the ‘football manager syndrome’ and the fear caused has changed the culture of our schools.

Having always worked in and led schools in what are called ‘challenging circumstances’ I have experienced being praised to the stars and being condemned; I have rejoiced over great student outcomes and despaired over poor ones. We like to think that when we are being praised to the stars and rejoicing over outcomes it is due to our leadership, and that when we are being condemned and despairing over a poor set of results it is due to circumstances beyond our control. The truth for me is simpler: I always did and do my best, my performance as a school leader is not terribly variable and I am reasonably good at it, but working in the contexts I work in I am more exposed and susceptible to the vagaries of changes to examinations and accountability than those in more stable contexts. I have tried so hard to ensure that any schools I lead do not have a fear culture about data and inspection, that instead they concentrate on doing the very best for every child and that the professionals enjoy their professionalism, but it has got increasingly harder to do so as the stakes keep getting raised.

I once naively thought that for colleagues who led schools in more stable contexts this was less of a challenge. I was wrong. I have mentored some amazing young teachers who work in schools with ‘outstanding’ labels who despair over the things they see happening – not for the benefit of children, but in order to ‘keep our outstanding’, and in many cases they are desperate to leave their schools. I have colleagues who lead ‘outstanding’ schools and who haven’t been inspected for many years, who pour over the latest inspection framework and lose sleep before results are published – they live their professional lives in terror of losing the label – and I am sure that transmits to their staff and infects the culture of their schools.

There is no doubt in my mind that schools have improved immeasurably during my 33 years in teaching and I think it is really sad that this is never allowed to be celebrated. No incoming government begins with ‘our schools are the best they have ever been, we need to celebrate that and keep on making them better in an ever-improving cycle. Now tell us how we can best support the profession to do that?’ No, what we get is ‘things aren’t good enough’, ‘we need to name and shame’ etc. This not only damages the culture in schools but it also mitigates against government being able to get kudos for things they have genuinely achieved with educational policy. They set a culture of condemnation and then despair when it comes right back at them.

This culture in schools creates a retention crisis which was once a problem only for ‘challenging’ schools, but is now across the board. It is also an extremely bad piece of marketing the profession to the young people. I am the mother of teenagers who get nothing but positivity about teaching from me and I suspect from their teachers; but young people are not daft – they tell me they don’t want to be doctors because of the university fees, long hours and poor pay before ‘it gets really interesting’, and they tell me they don’t want to be teachers because ‘it is too hard’. If we want another generation of teachers they need to see the joy in the job and they aren’t seeing it in their schools. How do we sell teaching when the culture within which it is displayed seems toxic?

The third part of this dangerous interplay is the funding crisis and I don’t mean salaries. People never entered teaching in their droves for the salary but there was an understanding that public service had other perks – pensions and job security – which have now all but disappeared. But it is not even that which causes the real toxic mix: the funding crisis and having to make deep cuts feeds into the already damaged culture of a school. Most of the ‘nice to haves’ have already disappeared from school budget plans and, as John Tomsett so eloquently described in his TES article, school leaders are now facing extreme challenges.

For a committed young teacher the interplay of the fear culture, the funding crisis and the recruitment crisis create a difficult environment in which to flourish. They are unlikely to be protected from anxiety over the school’s performance against targets, whether that is coming from immediate line managers or senior staff; they will be acutely aware of the ‘closing the gap’ agenda whilst seeing fewer staff and other resources made available to help, and failure to recruit to posts puts all staff under greater pressure to deliver and fill the gaps. In this context is it any wonder we are seeing a retention crisis?

This is how I see the dangerous interplay of accountability, funding and recruitment.

I still believe teaching is the best job in the world and I don’t want to do anything other than lead schools and help school leaders be the very best they can be. I want to inspire headteachers and encourage colleagues to aspire to headship, but I cannot pretend that the challenges are not getting more extreme.

I am glad teacher recruitment has hit the headlines, as it should have done many years ago when we first knew this was a time bomb. I do hope that instead of sticking plasters we see a willingness from government to look deeper at the culture we should be creating in our schools and throughout the system.

 

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What I am learning about the emerging system

There are three good things about motorway journeys: the latte stops, the political podcasts you have time to listen to and, above all, the time to think.  The blog that caused me the most thinking was one from my friend @JohnTomsett https://johntomsett.com/2016/12/18/this-much-i-know-about-a-new-concept-of-headship-in-a-mat-centric-school-led-system/  I think this blog was exceptional in its ability to get right to the nub of the current contradictions and problems in our system.

Ten years ago when I opened one of the first 30 academies – one of the original ones – the landscape was completely different.  The ‘bog standard’ schools which were considered to be all similar, and in the poorest areas deemed to be ‘similarly bad’, had to be closed and reopened as entrepreneurial academies, led by innovative, entrepreneurial leaders.  Principals were appointed who would put their own stamp on these new schools, lead them in new ways, adopting radical approaches: some were very successful and we were rightly and justifiably proud. A model which recognized the importance of individual leadership and vision certainly appealed to our egos and our desire to make a difference; it also appealed to my sense of the importance of individual context.  There was an inherent problem always built into this model – how to survive when that leader moves on and many of these early successes didn’t.  They were schools with extremely challenging contexts built around an individual’s response to that context.

Some exceptional leaders, such as Sir Michael Wilkins, anticipated this and built the ‘Toyota model’ John refers too.  Michael talked about it as the 80% rule – building the systems and processes that cover 80% of what the schools do to ensure that the quality is future-proofed.  And so we see the growth of the MATs and a new style of headship is born.  I find it hugely ironic that that the birth of the academies was about doing things differently and now the drive is to ensure that within each MAT things are done the same.

John concludes his blog saying that future headteachers may be the guardians of the MAT’s educational philosophy and values-system as in the oldest, successful schools which have survived for centuries.  Maybe he’s right, but it seems to me to be hugely important that schools need to be able to respond to context in order to serve, and those schools which have been successful and survived for centuries largely do so because they are educating only the privileged whose future place in society owes more to their birth than their education.  But maybe I’m just a bit old-fashioned.  One thing I do know is that headteachers like John need to be central in shaping educational philosophy and values and any system which prevents that doesn’t serve our country well.

I also thought long and hard about the whole ‘Michaela furore’ on Twitter.  It worries me a lot when people want something to fail because it doesn’t fit into their own value-system.  It also worries me a lot when people think they have found the magic bullets – I’ve lived too long to believe in magic bullets.  I think I tweeted at the time something on the lines of ‘it isn’t the replicability of Michaela – of course it is replicable; it is the scalability which is in question’.  Having thought about this a great deal I have decided that there might indeed be one magic bullet after all – the ‘opting in’.  If a school is absolutely clear about what it is about and the families who send their children there take a clear and positive choice to opt into that vision and support it, then it will succeed.  In the early days of the first academies many of us used the same approach – “This is an academy, we do things differently here and if you don’t like it, you can choose to go to a local authority school”.  I admit it – I made that speech, several times.  Of course the world was a very different place then.  But the problem is the education of the children whose families never wish to ‘opt in’.  That is the scalability problem of Michaela and that is the challenge for those of us who wish to continue to serve the children of those families who will not ‘opt in’, in order that their place in society is determined by education and not by birth.

 

 

 

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What I have learned to advise NQTs about behaviour

It is that time in term for the NQTs: half-term seems a long way away (it isn’t but it feels like it) and the honeymoon is over.  Sorting through my files last week I came across notes I made following a discussion amongst a very strong SLT some years ago.  We were trying to make a list of the best advice we gave NQTs.  I hope some of this is helpful.

Their behaviour is not your fault but it is your problem. Depersonalise it in your mind for a start.  If you have had a nasty and hurtful experience with a child or a class it is extremely unlikely that they will be lying awake angsting about it: don’t let yourself do that – the job is too exhausting.  It really isn’t personal and it’s unlikely to be your fault unless you deliberately didn’t plan or turned up with a hangover etc.  A struggle with student behaviour is a problem to strategise about and solve; not one to cry about.  Get good at depersonalising, seeking advice and building a strategy.

The simple truth is that you cannot teach them anything properly if you are not on top of the behaviour.  Back in the day they taught us that if your lessons were properly prepared the students would behave.  This is not true and it is very unhelpful because you can exhaust yourself with planning only to find things get worse.  The planning needs to be strategies around behaviour when you are struggling with it.  I was very fortunate as an NQT (we were called ‘probationers’ back then) to have an excellent Deputy Head and learned most of this from her:

  1. Pick the one who leads the poor / off-task behaviour and turn him into your friend.  The old tricks still work: asking for help outside of lesson about how he thinks you should approach a difficult topic;  asking him to sit close to you because you need someone to mind the distribution of equipment; approaching in the yard to discuss something out of school you know he is interested in.
  2. If you have had a disaster of a lesson begin the next one by saying “I’m really sorry last lesson went badly for you.  I didn’t realise ………..(insert here anything appropriate) and I know that means we have much more to get through today so let’s get a quick start.”
  3. Insist on the school’s routine for the start of a lesson and instead of shouting when they aren’t standing silently behind their desks, stay standing quietly yourself modelling the behaviour you need, find the one child who is doing what is required and praise them.  Nine times out of ten they will all look to see what is being praised and a few will immediately copy.  Praise them.  It only takes 5 or 6 “Well done X” for the Mexican wave of compliance to occur.  Then immediately seize it and make a pacy start.
  4. Catch them being good at something and praise.  If it can’t yet be something inside the class make it something outside.
  5. Own your classroom.  This can be hard if you teach all over the school but there are still little things you can do – insisting on straightened desks, asking for noticeboard space etc.  If you are lucky enough to have your own classroom adjust the layout to suit you.  Always stride around the room purposefully, making eye contact.  It is YOUR room; not theirs.  Be as OCD as possible.
  6. If equipment is an issue sort it immediately.  “Hands up if you have no pen” and count them out as you distribute and as you collect in at the end.  You can take the names later.  Wasting time on little things is counter productive at the beginning.
  7. Ring home to praise – it makes ringing home to complain much more effective if you ever need to do that.  And at parents evenings always start the conversation with your face lighting up, smiling and saying “Oh I am so pleased to meet you, I love your X”.  You can then move on to the areas for improvement.  If the parent goes home saying how much they like you, they’ll back you too and the child gets the message.
  8. NEVER keep a struggle to yourself – your HoD and SLT will know anyway and you’ll gain their respect by following their advice and improve quicker too.
  9. Borrow the authority of others.  When you are near a student who is a problem for you and there is a member of SLT around ask the student to do something: they have to obey you and be seen to obey you publicly.  Trust me – this works!
  10. If it gets out of hand and you need help it is best to quietly write a note and give it to a good student to deliver for you.  Publicly calling for help in front of the class is best avoided unless absolutely necessary.
  11. If you need someone removed, get them removed using the strategy above: I don’t think I’ve ever seen standing a student outside work – they generally cause more of a problem there.

We all work best for people who like us and teenagers are no different.  I had a marvellous science teacher who would say every time I popped in “Mrs McMullen this is my favourite class” no matter who she was teaching.  They all believed her and they all adored her.  Basically you have to learn to love them because they are the ones you have got in front of you and they learn and behave for those who love them.  “Fake it until you make it” as my eldest daughter would say.

Copy what you have seen working for others and adapt it to your style.  I had the weird experience of watching my NQT teach when I was a Head of Department and it was like watching the Head of Department I had had years earlier.  Great behaviour management passes down from generation to generation of teachers!  (My youngest daughter really believed me when I told her we were all taught at college to say certain phrases)

One to one conversations with the really difficult teenagers can be the hardest of all to manage in your first few years.  These are my top tips:

  • Begin with “what I really admire in you is ………” before the hard news.
  • Do not get deflected into side issues of the whole long story of injustice. Stop and ask them at what point they made a poor choice.  Keep the focus.
  • Make it clear behaviour and language are a matter of choice: “what do you expect when …….?” should be met with “I expect you to be in charge of your behaviour.”  Relate the choices they make to how they would be perceived in the outside world – a hospital waiting room etc.
  • Keep it clear the issue is their behaviour not them as a person.
  • Never back a student into a corner (metaphorically): they have to have a way out of the mess and to be enabled to see it clearly.

Always remember that the colleagues you most admire struggled at the start.  I remember a colleague saying to me “Why do they all line up straight the minute you appear?”  He is now on his second headship.  I also remember camping outside of my Deputy Head’s office from about 6am one morning during my first year ready to hand in my resignation.  She said something that has never left me: “Good teachers always look to what they could have done better, Ros, but great ones never let that break them.”

My favourite two pieces of advice come not from my old SLT nor me in fact I don’t remember where these come from but they are very good:

The students most in need of love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways

and

Meet resentment and hatred with strength; never revenge

Half-term isn’t that long away. But a school year is a marathon not a sprint and you only get a week off.  Pace yourself.  And think of all the funny anecdotes you have garnered to entertain family and friends.  You are doing the best job in the world.  Keep going.

 

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What I have learned about grammar schools and selection

I was in Italy this summer when Twitter seemed to go bonkers about the reintroduction of grammar schools.  I did consider adding my thoughts then, but the sun was shining and the wine was good and I didn’t want to spoil the mood.

I went to grammar school for 3 years from 1973-6 in a local authority which was discussing comprehensivisation.  My dad was head of one of the local primary schools and I found myself on the opposite side of the debate to my teachers and classmates, and aligned with my dad and his colleague heads.  On one memorable occasion I was ‘picketing’ the council meeting quite literally on the opposite side of the pavement to my teachers.  I was the eldest of five children and the family moved house to a town with a catholic comprehensive so that we could all go to the same school.  I think this came as a relief to my teachers!

All five of us attended the same school.  I was very political by then and managed to get on the wrong side of the headteacher by trying to form a branch of the NUSS in the sixth form; one of my brothers left before taking any exams; my sister ended up as Head Girl and returned there as a teacher and 3 of the 5 of us left for university.

With hindsight I can say that back then in the 1970s neither of the secondary schools I attended were very good.  I did OK in both of them but I under-achieved in both of them.  The comprehensive seemed to be organised so that it had a grammar school and a secondary modern under the same roof. Education looked very different by the time I became a deputy headteacher in a boys’ secondary modern.

I am opposed to selective education for a number of reasons.  Firstly it is daft to believe that it is possible to select accurately and we have plenty of evidence that some of the most academically successful fail to shine at 11 years-old.  Secondly,  we have substantial evidence that labelling children as ‘failures’ has an enormous effect on their self belief and hence future attainment, but perhaps the main reason I oppose selection is that it is based on a daft premise – that performance at 11 determines a certain style of  education is suitable. It would be so economically efficient if we could provide 2 or 3 educational diets, and every child fitted perfectly into one of them.  That really would make planning and delivery so much cheaper and easier.  The truth is though that all children are unique and all schools need to recognise this; we cannot put limits on potential and we should not limit opportunity for anyone.  (At the comprehensive I attended I would have liked to do typing, but I was ‘upper band’ so couldn’t.)

When I was deputy at a boys secondary modern I worked for a visionary head.  I had to do a considerable amount of curriculum remodelling to run the school as a comprehensive as we didn’t believe selection at 11 meant we had non-academic boys.  One of my mentees (who went on to get all As at GCSE) cried at a mentoring meeting when I told him what he was about to achieve (and so did his mum) because they both believed he was ‘thick’ due to the 11+.  I wondered how many, unlike this resilient young man, had been unable to overcome that belief about his own ability.  I knew then and I know it now that the 11+ is just plain wrong.

The evidence against the social mobility argument for grammar schools is overwhelming.  Grammar schools are not about social mobility; they are about social selection.  Parents know this and many are more than happy to admit it.  It doesn’t sit comfortably with politicians though so they pretend, in the face of the evidence, that it is about social mobility.  When I lived in Manchester and had a very young family my friends were very open and honest about sending their children to private schools or ‘over the border’ into the selective LA: it was about ‘who they would sit next to at school and be influenced by’ and ‘who the school was run for’.  Some of these parents were governors at inner-city schools and staunch labour people.  During one row a close friend said to me “So, Ros, stay ideologically pure and move house – that’s your version of economic power!”  Which is, of course, precisely what I did.

The middle classes – we are very good at getting a good deal for our children!  Whether it is through paying for a private school, paying for private tutoring so our kids ‘pass’ the 11+, or moving house for a great comprehensive – we’ll use our knowledge and economic power to protect and nurture our young.

The thing about having a state education system is to ensure that every child is protected and nurtured like this.  This is why I have devoted my professional career to working in schools which by and large don’t serve the middle classes.  It is also why I was so passionate about the early academy movement of Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis.

So …. what are my thoughts about ‘Teresa May’s reintroduction of grammar schools’?  I think we should make it irrelevant.  Parents don’t want to pay for 11+ tutoring and most don’t want to run the risk of their children ‘failing’ an exam, but they do want them to go to great schools.  Grammar schools are not necessarily great schools.  When the local, inclusive school demonstrates excellence in student behaviour, high academic standards and appropriate destinations for all students the potential market for a selective school shrinks.  Of course there will always be those who want to buy privilege for their children and socially select their peers, and I guess in our liberal democracy they will find a way of doing so, but let’s make it clear that that is what it is.

It is clear from the reaction on social media that most of us are very angry about the whole grammar school thing.  I think it is a distraction from the most important issues.  I don’t like selection and would always vote against it because it is daft and wasteful and damaging, but the issues we should be getting angry about are control and governance of our schools, funding of our schools, how we measure school and system performance and teacher supply.  These are the issues that will prevent us creating great local, inclusive schools and making selection irrelevant.

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