What I’m learning about disadvantage, disparity and disruption*

*A phrase I’m borrowing from @chaloner88

Having led schools in challenging contexts for over 20 years I now have ‘no skin in the game’ but I find myself dismayed at what is unfurling.  I am watching in horror the comments on Twitter about how ‘exams must go ahead in 2021’.  It would seem that nothing has been learned, and that many of those who one would assume to be capable of nuanced and reasoned debate prefer to be wedded to positions which prevent any proper consideration of the problem.  I am left asking myself WHY?

Let me be clear at the outset that the ideal is that exams are able to go ahead and be a fair measure of the academic attainment and potential of our young people.  That is what everyone should aim for, but a blanket assertion that this should happen is  symptomatic of  the attitude which caused the chaos of last summer and, at best demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what is going on in our most disadvantaged communities; at worst demonstrates a lack of care and a desperation to preserve advantage.

The ridiculous consultation last Spring from OFQAL, which asked all the wrong questions, was based on an algorithm bound to disadvantage students from the poorest communities.  They may have asked the wrong questions, but some of us still sent in responses which accurately predicted for them exactly what would happen if they stuck with it.  Needless to say it was one of those sorry occasions where there is no satisfaction in being proved right, and we were left with the absolute dog’s breakfast of results for the cohort which no-one feels are reliable.  The excuses I kept hearing when we challenged what they were proposing to do was that there was no better solution.  Nonsense – there were, but those of us willing to work on them were shut down, not involved and debate was closed.  And now there is no proper consideration of alternatives for 2021 other than ‘exams must go ahead because there is no fairer way’.  Nothing would appear to have been learned.

COVID has and is continuing to affect communities and schools disproportionately.  But that is on top of the already existing layers of disadvantage.  For students, like my own sixth form daughter, COVID has been a horrible thing to live through in the years when she should be socialising and enjoying young adulthood; but she attends a very good school in an affluent area, has great wifi, numerous devices, her own large study area at home, educated and supportive parents and elder siblings and has not had to self-isolate once.

For students in our most disadvantaged schools the picture has been very different.  Not only did they not have the conditions and resources to support home study during the long lockdown in the previous academic year, but they have also in many cases had severe and serious disruption to their education during this term with ‘bubbles’ collapsing and frequent episodes of self-isolation.  In addition the primary concerns of many schools in our most disadvantaged areas has had to be the safeguarding and welfare issues massively exacerbated during lockdown, rather than the academic progress of their students.  For those who have not worked in this context making judgments about ‘how schools provide online teaching’ seem to come all too easily.  The issue isn’t just lack of devices for students, although that in itself is a very serious inequity, but basic issues of health and welfare.  Headteachers working in the toughest of contexts are distraught.

We know that poor students in struggling schools are already severely disadvantaged, given this additional layer of disparity how on earth can exams been seen as the fairest solution? They are desired by those students and those school leaders who believe that they are reasonably prepared given the circumstances; but those circumstances are so wildly different across the cohort, proper alternatives need to be under consideration.

And here is the thing: consideration of the alternatives needs to involve, not just those who the current crop of ministers deem to be ‘the most successful school leaders’, their favoured ‘yes men and women’, statisticians and powerful voices (these are the ones who produced or supported last year’s algorithm, don’t forget), but also those who understand how disadvantage plays out and how to overcome it, who have experience of leading in the areas of greatest disadvantage, and who know how to reliably devise and standardise methods of assessing attainment and potential for progression without examining.

This work is urgently required because students and teachers need to know there will be something fair in place.  I know my own daughter has no confidence in exams going ahead – she wants them to, but doesn’t think they will.  So as a highly advantaged student, she finds herself in the worst of all possible worlds – having to treat every single assignment she is being given as though it is an exam in case it is used to grade her, and yet still assume she will be doing the exams.  And we wonder why we are in a mental health crisis with young people!  And for her less advantaged counterparts, without the necessary resource to complete each assignment as though it were an exam, and without the necessary teaching and preparation underway, due to COVID disruption, the situation will appear hopeless to them.

Our certainties have gone in this age of the pandemic and our job is to create as much security as we can for our young people and protect them.  To do this we need to be able to say: this is what we hope will happen, but if it can’t this is what will happen, and you can trust us.  I see no signs of anyone in government understanding this at all.

Above all what we need right now is school leaders to show empathy for ALL students, all colleagues, abandon ‘positioning’ and work for justice.

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What I have learned about how little they care

It is probably not a good idea to blog while still seething with anger, but this morning I am encouraged to do so by many others who are simply too exhausted and distressed.

Over the last dreadful few months we have heard much rhetoric and concern about disadvantaged students and communities, and those of us who have served in these areas all our lives have tried not be cynical about this; we have tried hard not to think these are ‘crocodile tears’ from those who have perpetuated disadvantage with their policies and actions.  Last night with the publication of the OFQUAL ‘Exceptional arrangements for exam grading and assessment in 2020’  exhausted leaders serving our toughest communities simply despaired.

Genuine school improvement takes time: recruiting and embedding teams of teachers; developing rich curriculum; raising aspirations and morale, and building hope in communities who have suffered disproportionately under austerity measures – this is a not something that happens quickly.  School leaders who choose to do this, do so within a punitive accountability regime – as Stephen (@leadinglearner) so memorably described it “playing Russian Roulette with your career”.  For many, many schools the initiatives begun in 2017 and 2018 were about to bear fruit this summer in GCSE results which would reflect the improvement journey; students had received mock exam results way above those of their elder siblings, and consequently aspirations were rising and hope for a better future was becoming tangible among them.  And now we are told:

“The statistical standardisation model should place more weight on historical
evidence of centre performance (given the prior attainment of students) than the submitted centre assessment grades”

One distraught headteacher said to me “Failures of the past tattooed on current students and staff. A lot of very hard work discarded.”

We’ve been told not to worry as league tables this year won’t be used.  Well excuse me for pointing this out, but our primary concern is actually the young people themselves (if our concern was our league table position we would have chosen to work in other contexts).  The students who have worked hard with their teachers, have begun to believe that they will achieve and who have an emerging and vulnerable confidence in themselves as learners are going to be absolutely shafted.  The knock-on effect of this into their families and community will be deeply, deeply damaging.  Trust will be broken.

But there is more: we know that the disadvantaged communities have found online learning harder for all the obvious reasons; we know that Covid19 has disproportionately affected disadvantaged communities, and we know that the challenges of return to school for these students is going to be much harder for social, economic, cultural and mental health reasons.  So….. GCSE outputs for 2021 are likely to be badly affected.  We are now facing a situation where our most improved schools with our most passionate and talented leaders may be judged to be seriously under-performing on a 3-year-average.  Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no headteachers left!

Make no mistake about this – there has been a very powerful lobby to place more weight on historical centre performance.  The operative word here being ‘powerful’.  I call them ‘the big boys’ and they have much to gain by preserving the status quo.  On explaining how this will work to a friend she said “Oh, that’ll be OK for us then.”  Quite.

The idea that ‘we understand this seems unfair to improving schools, but there is no other way’ is simply lazy thinking.  There are plenty of other ways.  Firstly it is entirely possibly to say that for this year statistical models can give way to doing the right thing by students and change the mindset with which the problem is considered. If, however, the statistical modelling has to stay, it is entirely possible to ask schools to provide predicted grades for this cohort, together with predicted grades v actual for last year.  Last year’s predictions must be accurately dated through electronic evidence.  This will enable a model which is able to use an objective assessment of the school’s accuracy in predicting.

They don’t want to work on this because they are quite happy to sacrifice the children we serve in favour of their own.  (I knew I shouldn’t blog while still mad)

I want to speak up for the heads who are in despair over this.  These are our leaders who have chosen to work in the most challenging circumstances; these are the ones happy to put children before personal glory; they have spent the last three months with more safeguarding worries and work than it is possible to imagine; they have had no Easter break; they have worked long hours feeding, cleaning, teaching, reassuring and have not sat at home behind laptops exercising power and influence.

I’m going to finish with some comments from hero headteachers:

“It’s time to look for jobs outside of education, before I get very ill.”

“My middle leaders will be broken that past incompetence limits their classes success.  At the end of this infinite half-term this has broken my heart.”

“How can I explain this disappointment to my parents and students? I’m basically asked to say – choosing this school was always going to mean your kids would do badly, because all the improvement you have worked on with me on is ignored.  You shouldn’t have chosen us.  That’s what they’ll hear if I try and explain!  And if I don’t explain they’ll think we’ve lied to them!”

“The whole inspection process is based on improvement so how can an assessment process eradicate improvement?”

“It is another example of the disincentive to lead in challenging schools. I can’t do this to myself and my family anymore.”







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What I’m learning about our ‘Quaranteens’

My youngest is 16.  She did her GCSEs and had her prom a year ago, and is coping well with A-level study at home.  She has a large bedroom to herself, great wifi, plenty of gadgets, is well-supported by a lovely school with online learning and zoom chats, a nice garden and a supportive family.  She engages with her friends on all their various social media until late into the night and we hear the laughter coming from her room, she studies for about 5 or 6 hours a day, bike rides with us, enjoys a lot of banter around the dinner table with her older siblings, and plays with the cats in the garden.  Until this week she hadn’t moaned about lockdown.  She is one of the lucky ones and she knows it.

But I can’t help comparing her life now with what it was and how it still should be:  ‘hanging out’ before school, going for ‘cookie dough’ and coffee with friends after school, lying on the grass on the Knavesmire and Museum Gardens whiling away long summer evenings, part-time working in a pub kitchen, visiting the library to study and looking forward to her 17th summer of friendship, fun and laughter.

At the beginning of lockdown she said to me “Mum, do you think my generation will be known as the ‘Quaranteens’?”  Yesterday she said to me “I’m going out for a bike ride with two people at the weekend: I know it is two people, not one, but I couldn’t choose, and we promise not to hug and we promise to stay 2m apart.”  I had nothing I could say.  My sister tells me she had almost the identical statement from her Year 11 son the same day.

My eldest was due to start her graduate training scheme in 4 weeks; the start is now postponed ‘indefinitely’; currently furloughed from her current job she is volunteering and has no idea about her future.  She feels lucky because, through her volunteering work, she sees families who have had literally no money coming in for 8 weeks and who are hungry.  And I suppose she is very lucky. Relatively.  At her age I was finishing my PGCE and looking forward to my first teaching post.

My son is recovering from Covid19 and doing second year university exams online.  He left Newcastle days before lockdown without emptying the student house and he has no idea whether his third year will be all online or not; he doesn’t know if he’ll see his university friends again; he is committed to paying rent in Newcastle for accommodation that may not be needed.  He is also lucky – lucky to have survived the virus, and to be safely home with his family and able to complete his second year work online.  He does ‘virtual pub nights’ with mates and is cheerful.  At his age I was enjoying a free university education with a full maintenance grant and spent a glorious summer travelling with friends.

My ‘foster-daughter’ also considers herself one of the lucky ones as she is continuing with her masters course and is furloughed from her part-time job.  However, her research will be affected; her fieldwork cannot happen; she is having to ‘shield’ as a diabetic, and worst of all she hasn’t been able to see us in person since February.  How many young people on the brink of adult life and needing a sense of ‘roots’ to anchor them are alone?

I know my kids are the lucky ones and so are their cousins.  But between them these are only a few things they have had taken from them:

  • a proper end to 3 years of university life, saying goodbye to friends and Grad Ball
  • a proper end to 11 years of school, saying goodbye to friends and Prom
  • being able to complete exams they have studied for
  • knowing if are going to be able to return to university in the autumn
  • jobs they have worked hard to obtain for the summer
  • jobs they have worked hard to obtain as graduate trainees
  • holiday plans
  • being with friends, parties and the freedom that being young without responsibility gives

And let me set a context on this: this generation is already experiencing a mental health crisis with very high levels of anxiety; they are saddled with massive debt from university fees; they face the enormous challenges of dealing climate change, and now the economy has been totally destroyed too.  I want to sit and weep for all they will not have that we had.

I do a lot of voluntary work with the elderly and of course we need to protect them; but the generation who have been most robbed in all this and the ones we need to focus on are our young people.  They have massive debt, both personally and as a nation; huge insecurity about their futures and the future of the planet; they are unselfishly accepting this lockdown to their freedoms in order to protect the vulnerable, and many are giving their time volunteering to help others.  It is time our media trained their lens onto our ‘Quaranteens’.

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What I’m learning about taking time to analyse problems

I remember when I was a young Head of Faculty handing a letter into the office manager for typing.  She looked at it and then at me over the top of her glasses and said “This isn’t what you want; what is the problem you are trying to solve?”  I told her.  “Right then, let’s keep it simple and address that one, shall we?”  She rewrote my letter.  It was short and superb and did the trick.

I have often found that when I am trying to solve a problem I get it muddled up with other issues.  
This is particularly true when under pressure and when the problem I’m solving appears to be just a small part of a bigger issue.  I guess all school timetablers will recognise this!  I have often been guilty of trying to fit the annoying bit at the margins into the boxes to make ‘the whole’ neater and easier to operate.  Similarly I have on occasions tried to make parents and families use systems that suit what we already easily provide rather than change our provision, because I haven’t taken time to analyse the problem.  It inevitably causes more problems in the medium and long term.

Privately Headteachers are very, very angry at the moment – not because they don’t wish to serve at this time of national crisis,  but because it makes little sense.  Frustrations include being expected to place themselves, their staff and families at risk for an unpredictable small amount of children of key workers; expectations of providing for ‘vulnerable children’ and their placement out of stable environment and social distancing rules, when they would not normally be in school anyway during holiday periods; being told they don’t need PPE when dealing with children who require personal care etc etc. This list goes on and on and some of the instances are quite harrowing.

I am in the fortunate position of not being operationally responsible for anything other than my own family currently and it has given me the space others don’t have to reflect.  I have concluded that the problems and frustrations school leaders are encountering are largely because no-one in government took time to properly analyse the problem they wanted solving.  There was a mental leap from ‘children of key workers need looking after’ and ‘children at risk need checking on’ to ‘well, we can keep schools open for that’.   Because we have schools and they can do this; it is what we know and it appears simple.  However, when we leap to the simple solution without really analysing what is needed we cause many problems, and this is where we are at now.  Maybe it is time to look at what the problems are that we are trying to solve and begin to adjust the provision to them.

For what it is worth, this is how I see it:

NECESSITY: Social distancing means schools must close.

* Key workers need childcare during the crisis.

* Children at risk need regular ‘eyes on’.

* Families of children with complex needs require support

* Families in poverty need support feeding their children

Each of these problems requires a response, but not simply ‘schools will stay open’, because each of them requires a different response.  Giving key workers the childcare they require during a time of increasing and longer shifts is not best solved by keeping schools open; surely a designated, safe facility near each hospital is a more practical solution?  Collaborative planning for such facilities from LAs and MATs will deliver results here.  Children ‘at risk’ require professional ‘eyes on’ and this is not best done by them being required to attend school; they are the least likely to be sent in anyway!  This is a problem that requires a social care response.  Feeding the hungry is not simply a matter of FSM – this requires a co-ordinated response from govt for longer than the duration of the crisis, and the mess and confusion over the recent FSM logistics has highlighted this.  Support for families of children with complex needs is not best addressed by putting school staff and families at risk through demanding schools stay open; this requires health, social care and education looking at what support families need to operate during this time of social distancing which minimises the risk to everybody.

A wise experienced headteacher said to me privately “This is the wider problem of schools being the prop for all the other under-funded services”.  That is probably true, but we won’t sensibly address any problems unless we actually understand what they are, disentangle them and develop safe solutions which are fit for purpose.

Headteachers and all their staff are heroes at the moment.  We need to keep them safe and we need to enable them to plan for addressing the educational priorities. 

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What I’m learning 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.

This blog first appeared on the @HeadsRoundtable website in February 2018


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What I’ve learned about education policy and what I’m learning about what is now needed

We all want every child to go to a good school.  We all want every child to reach their full potential.  And we all know that this is not currently happening. 

During the time I have been leading schools (in many roles over the last 23 years) I have seen four distinct policy periods, which I am beginning to define in the following ways:

  1. No More Excuses. This period was defined by the growing importance of OFSTED; the publication of performance data; the beginnings of the removal of under-performing headteachers, teachers and schools, and targeted intervention.
  2. Brave New World. This period was largely defined by the beginning of the academies movement and later by an attempt to join up various elements of provision for young people and their families – characterised in the renaming of the department as the Department for Children, Schools and Families
  3. Redrawing the Map. This period saw the massive expansion of multi-academy trusts; the desire that ‘every school will become an academy’; the promotion of ‘system leadership’, and the removal of any form of contextualisation as this was seen as ‘excuses’.
  4. Living in the Chaos. This period is defined by attempts to bring coherence through much more centralised control; the failures of some multi-academy trusts; crisis in teacher recruitment and austerity.

Whereas the first two of these periods saw increased funding for schools, the latter two have largely taken place during periods of shrinking resources for schools.

Education has always been a ‘political football’ – at school as a student during the 1970s, I vividly remember the highly charged and passionate debates about grammar schools and comprehensives – but now is a time when policy makers need to recognise that the turbulence has to stop.

In each of these periods good things happened and in each of them mistakes have been made.  What is important is that we fully understand the lessons learned and in attempting to bring coherence we must avoid ideology and a return to any golden age which frankly never existed.

Many on the left have fallen into a trap of believing that the increasing accountability load in schools, the demise of local political control, the continuing disparity in the quality of our schools, the creeping loss of autonomy for school leaders in providing for their communities, and the dubious behaviour of some of the multi-academy trusts and their leaders mean that a return to local authorities running the system is a key part of the policy solution.  It isn’t – indeed if the local authorities had been the solution to ensuring that every child went to a good school and that there was equity across the system then they would still be doing the job; similarly if total autonomy and independence for school leaders was the solution then we would not be seeing the increasing central control.  There is a need for a debate about control and accountability of our schools but it cannot be framed in the ideas of the past: we need to look at the lessons we have learned from the recent past and use them to shape the parameters of the debate.

So what have we really learned?

Firstly we are in a place where we need to recognise that structures are neither the problem nor the solution: there are excellent schools and there are poor schools and the structure of control is not what makes the difference.  There are both excellent and poor local authority schools, stand-alone academies, and schools within multi-academy trusts.  Our debate, therefore, must be very careful to ensure that it is not about structures.

Secondly, we know that the leadership of schools makes a critical difference and that the best school leaders bring an incredible premium and therefore need growing and need investing in. Leaders want to be free to run their schools for the benefit of their communities and they want all their children to succeed.  We know that when we have the best leaders and we give them autonomy to do so, their schools flourish; unfortunately we also know that poor leadership does the opposite.  Our debate needs to be clear about how we grow and support great leaders and how we attract them into our most challenging communities.

Thirdly, we know that schools do not work in isolation and, while the evidence has been there for many years, the British class system is far more pervasive in determining educational outcomes than we previously knew or than it is in other jurisdictions: all the evidence shows that in schools with predominantly white indigenous working-class populations the aspirations and attainments of young people are depressed.  This is not as simple as poverty being the problem – feeding hungry kids, buying their books and uniforms, providing extra classes etc. with pupil premium money would have worked if it were.  The cultural isolation, under-aspiration, feeling of ‘being left behind’ and antipathy to formal schooling (for many complex reasons) in our most challenging communities is a very serious problem.  It is not possible, therefore, to develop policy about improving schools without seeing it as part of a package which addresses all the other problems within our most challenging communities.

Fourthly, money can be wasted in assuming that enhanced provision in buildings, resources and staffing will address all the problems.  The value placed on education by aspirational communities is high and we have seen what can happen to previously ‘mixed communities’ when a school is seen to be improved.  The often-cited joke of a headteacher being ‘so successful that Aldi moved out and was replaced by Waitrose’ may well be apocryphal, but we have seen ‘gentrification’ in which the school system has played its part and the marginalised become more marginalised in the poorer schools whose problems are then increased.

Fifthly, as a result of the above, we now know that increasing the accountability pressures on those schools attempting to serve the most challenging communities is self-defeating, as they then face the ‘triple-whammy’: a very difficult marginalised community; publicity which demonises and isolates them, and, crucially a failure to attract the best teachers and leaders as this is basically playing Russian roulette with their careers.

In the four periods I described above of policy development there has overall been an improvement in the quality of our schools but it has always failed to address the under-lying serious inequity at the heart of our system.  Most recently the added layers of accountability, the increasing marginalisation of the most challenging communities as a result of years of austerity and other social factors, and the continuous tinkering with both school structures and examination frameworks are all working to create further inequity.  We know that there are ‘missing children’ simply not in the school system and this number is increasing; meanwhile we are facing a recruitment crisis into the profession which is unprecedented and applications for senior leadership roles in challenging schools are at an all-time low, often with a failure to recruit at headship level.

These are the facts which need to frame the policy debate and new, not old, solutions need to be considered.

A good place to start would be to decide that the ‘low trust and high accountability’ model needs to be replaced with one which recognises the expertise within our schools.  The inspection model needs a fundamental reappraisal as it is now part of the overall problem and cannot be considered as part of any solution to address these inequities.  A ‘high trust’ model of simply auditing whether schools are meeting their statutory responsibilities and then continuing to publish student performance data for information should suffice.

There is much noise in the system about ensuring that all children receive an equitable amount of funding through the introduction of the national funding formula and then disadvantaged students receiving the additional pupil premium for which schools are made accountable for ‘closing the gap’.  (The ‘gap’ is not closing as the problems causing it are not located in education) It would, therefore, be sensible to consider the national funding formula as the basic entitlement for every child and school, remove pupil premium and instead look to additional funding for the most challenging communities which is located with headteachers of schools in our most challenging communities.  In this way headteachers can construct, commission and deploy services which are either currently non-existent or are not calibrated to address the under-lying causes of under-aspiration and achievement.

Finally, those of us actively involved in leading in schools would like three things above all: some time, some space, and our expertise to be used to inform the policy debate.

This blog first appeared as an article in Progress magazine in July 2018




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What I have learned about school improvement

It is not the same thing as a dramatic improvement in results.

It is possible to effect a dramatic improvement in a school’s results and our accountability system puts demands on our most vulnerable schools to do this.  OFSTED inspections rely very heavily on published data and inspection outcomes are extremely high stakes for school leaders and governing bodies.  I have heard so many times from inspectors “All the right things are being done in this school but unfortunately it is RI because the impact is not yet showing in data”.  Despite HMCI clearly stating that leadership and management can be good while data is not yet good, I have yet to experience this playing out in practice.  So ………. schools are therefore encouraged by the accountability system to ‘throw everything at Year 11’.  In practice these are some of the things that we see happening:

  • Put all the best teachers on Year 11 classes
  • Pile on lots of intervention classes after school and at weekends
  • Collect data every 6 weeks with punishing assessment and marking cycles
  • Focus the majority of monitoring on Year 11 cohort and classes

I am sure you can all add to these and the problem with this list is that almost everything on it mitigates against long-term sustainable improvement.  Teacher recruitment and retention suffers as a result of the energy sapping culture; each year cohort coming through suffers from the gaps caused by poorer quality teaching; there is a lack of coherent curriculum and pedagogy strategy; insufficient time given for quality CPD, and there a lack of monitoring at leadership and governance level on the diet and progress of the younger cohorts.  In effect being forced to ‘throw everything at Year 11’ by a punitive accountability system is deeply damaging to building long term sustainable improvement.

Sustainable school improvement means getting all the ingredients in place.

Teachers need to feel secure in leadership providing:

  • The conditions and climate in the classrooms for purposeful teaching and learning to take place
  • Strong support for students in order that they can present to lessons ready and equipped to learn
  • A curriculum and supporting materials which enable them to deliver to students the best that has been thought and said in their area of specialism, and that ensures a 5 year progression to GCSE without last minute intervention being required
  • A shared pedagogy delivering consistency in classrooms supported by high quality CPD
  • Fewer and more meaningful data collections for the purpose of improving practice rather than reporting upwards
  • A clear vision and a long term plan for where the school is going, and how they fit into this.

When these things are in place teacher recruitment and retention becomes easier, teaching improves and over time so do outcomes.  Most importantly improvement is secured and sustainable.

Many schools most in need of improvement are continuously destabilised and prevented from improving.

It is possible for a large and well-resourced MAT to ‘flood’ a vulnerable school with high quality teachers, import their shared curriculum and resources, student support models and processes and deliver quick and dramatic improvements in outcomes as well as long term sustainable improvement.  We have seen examples of this but we simply do not have enough suitably well-resourced MATs and, even those who are, will sometimes refuse to take on our most challenging schools.

For the schools most in need of improvement the key is attracting committed heads who understand the school improvement journey, and giving them the time, support and space to get all the key ingredients for sustainable improvement in place.  Instead of this we have an accountability culture which means (as @leadinglearner memorably said) “Taking on the headship of a challenging school is quite literally playing Russian Roulette with your career.”

I have somewhat flippantly begun referring to September and October as ‘the killing season’.  Failure to improve student outcomes?  The head needs to go.  Sudden dip in results?  The head needs to go.  The RSC is demanding we do something?  The head must go.  We’ll get put in an OFSTED category!  The head must go to show we are making changes.  All this seriously destabilises schools and in a climate when we are short of heads anyway, it is madness.

To avoid this happening such schools are forced to focus on those Year 11 results to the detriment of all else and so they are continuously ‘on a hamster wheel’ with toxic workload culture, unable to recruit and retain quality teachers and frequently with a leadership churn.

The driver for this is fear of a punitive accountability system, naming and shaming of failing schools, forced academisation, re-brokering etc.

Colleagues – if we are serious about school improvement this has to stop.

This blog first appeared on the @HeadsRoundtable website in 2018


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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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