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


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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What I have learned which may help the new Secretary of State

I have seen a number of ‘open letters’ and advice to the new SoS and it lead me to thinking – what would my approach be?

1. Take the heat out of it

There is an enormous amount of ‘heat’ in the world of education currently.  We have gone through a period of major structural change and turmoil.  This has been exacerbated by austerity.  Headteachers report it is like a pressure cooker at the moment and I am sure it must be similar for the civil servants.   This isn’t helpful.  When things get so ‘hot’ people begin to take fixed positions, stop listening and daft practices emerge.  When people call for periods of calm and stability we can’t deliver because standing still isn’t an option, but what the call is really about is changing the culture around the pace and implementation of change.  Genuine lasting improvements will require a slow release of the current levels of heat: calm it down, work at a fast pace in your own head while projecting a gentle calmness, and listen.

2.  Dysfunctional organisations require asking a fundamental question: is it the relationships that are screwing up processes, or is it that the processes are preventing effective relationships?  It is likely to be both with a ‘chicken and egg’ situation embedded.  Answer the question with a highly simplified  diagram of how the key factors interplay and pick one or two of these key factors to change.  If we target the right areas it is amazing how much cultural change we can affect.  My guess would be that promising and doing less but insisting on sticking to set timescales which make sense to education leaders, would see enormous improvement in both perception and performance of the department.

 3.  Organisations and people don’t like change. This means being very clear on what key outcomes you want to get from any restructure.  You can’t do everything and you certainly can’t do everything quickly; but there are always some ‘quick wins’ to be had while keeping it very simple about the bottom line of exactly what you want to achieve.  Don’t do detail because others do it better and it is what they get paid for, but ask them the ‘dumb questions’.  I always find the “why do we do this this way?” question leads to a lot of other simple questions which ultimately uncovers something which can be changed easily.  (A simple aside – I once radically improved behaviour, teaching and learning, the quality of food and saved around £50k from a school’s budget by asking a simple question about why lunch was at a certain time.)  Things don’t have to be done in the same way they always have been, but they certainly will be if we don’t ask the simple questions.

There is another way of getting change of course – one that was adopted by a recent notable predecessor: that is having the answers yourself without taking others on the journey and forcing your changes.  Sometimes that has to be done, but more often than not it turns up the heat, causes major dysfunctionality and the ‘pressure cooker’.  It also presupposes we have the answers before asking the right questions (and we rarely do).

4.  Be seen to assume that everyone wants to do their very best to make things better.  Now of course we know that some people have a raison d’etre of opposing everything: the ‘bloody minded’ exist, but I have never found it helpful in being seen to assume people are like this.  Instead be clear on your outcomes that are your key priorities and ask the stakeholders how they would recommend you achieve them.  This is a great way of ‘selling’ your outcomes to stakeholders, and importantly the information you receive enables the development of strategy which addresses the issues of the cultural change required.  Oh, and don’t do this in ‘meetings’: everyone knows that when they are invited to sit around a table in a meeting with lots of stakeholders it is usually a façade of consultation designed to flatter and ignore.  Have ‘coffees’ and ‘lunches’ and phone calls with individuals and small groups, remembering that the most influential are not always (in fact rarely) those who shout the loudest or have the key positions.

5.  It is hard not to be motivated by wanting to be seen to be a success and advance your own career, but when doing a really important job short-termism in this regard is nearly always fatal.  History makes different judgement to the present, particularly in public service leadership.  Doing some things very well indeed is much better doing than lots and lots of things which in the longer term are seen to have caused upheaval and turmoil but no system change.

Above all remember that the key word in ‘Public Service Leadership’ is SERVICE.



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What I’ve learned about timetabling

It is a long time since I wrote about something very practical, but this summer I’ve been looking back at my timetabling days.

I wrote my first timetable in 1995.  I had joined the school as the ‘timetabling deputy’ at Easter.  My predecessor didn’t even have a peg board: he had worked like an architect on an enormous piece of paper with pencils and rubbers.  I decided to learn about timetables and computers at the same time and got one-to-one support from the IT service provided in the local authority.  I learned on the predecessor of NovaT – it was called something like STS I think?  I learned about blocks and bands and rotations.  In that first year of timetabling it was just a big logistical problem.

I like logic problems and I like jigsaws.  I remember those summer evenings in the late 1990s as hugely satisfying.  I would have the window of my study (which doubled as our bedroom – still does actually!) wide open and I’d drink red wine and smoke and be absolutely engrossed in the minutiae of the timetable.  Oh – that feeling of satisfaction when it was done!  Sometimes I’d go to bed still thinking about a thorny problem and I’d wake up with a solution.  Fascinating how our brains work overnight!

As I watched how that first timetable worked and as I remodelled the curriculum during the year I became acutely aware that timetabling was a lot more than a logic problem and jigsaw.  I remember getting cross with the wonderful head I worked for twice: once when he implied that the timetable was an annual exercise and once when he said I shared too much detail too early with staff.  For me the timetable was becoming an on-going tool for developing the curriculum and the staff.

The first ever OFSTED I experienced was memorable for me in two comments the lead inspector made: the gratifying public one about the timetable being “particularly skilfully managed”, and the insightful private one to me of how she’d seen my timetable as a “damage limitation exercise”.  (She was right!)

In my first few years as a head I kept very close to the timetable. I had to as I was completely remodelling a turgid and inappropriate curriculum and training a deputy in how to compile and manage a timetable.  He was a musician and he became the best timetabler I ever worked with because he approached the task as if conducting an orchestra: he knew the overall effects we were searching for; he understood each instrument and its role in the overall composition; he was unafraid to change the tempo and melody throughout the piece and he kept everyone together.

The worst timetable I presided over was the first few weeks of opening the academy.  With few staff on the payroll before opening and most of the staff who were joining us being an unknown quantity, we had someone compile our timetable externally.  This was exacerbated by it being written on SIMS and transferred to CMIS which didn’t go well!  We worked late into the night in the those first few weeks in September 2006 handwriting student timetables.  Once it ‘worked’ I quickly realised it was a basket case anyway and we had it completely rewritten in-house.  On December 1st we introduced a completely new timetable.  That was just one example of the things that people said couldn’t be done, being done.  It was that or limp on with a timetable that was getting in the way of teaching and learning and successful behaviour management.

In a large school the timetable is not usually written by the head or senior staff these days.  Certainly my experience in later years of headship was that the curriculum was designed by me and the senior team and the timetable constructed by a combination of administrative and teaching staff.  I wouldn’t do that now.  It seemed sensible at the time, but it really wasn’t: I think in that model we end up with the ‘logistical fixers’ and the ‘artists’ compromising over how to best deliver the vision.  The curriculum vision is best delivered by those who own the vision.

Over my 15 years of headship / principalship I saw some really sensible decisions in moving certain tasks away from senior teaching staff, but timetabling wasn’t one of them.  There are too many tiny decisions involved in timetabling which have massive ramifications for curriculum vision, pedagogy and staff development.  As my friend @headguruteacher said in a recent blog – “you can do anything with the timetable; but you can’t do everything.”

The curriculum is our key product and the timetable is its delivery mechanism.  Why would we delegate this most important thing to a committee or to administrative staff?  That is a bit like delegating the content of a CPD package on pedagogy to the finance team, or the pastoral care arrangements to the site management team?  The timetable needs to be kept as close as possible to those who own the curriculum vision and it is they who should be making the compromises and the decisions which have such enormous ramifications.

I miss the curriculum and timetable.



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What I’ve learned about our behaviour

Many years ago someone who was on the periphery of my circle of friends was in distress, behaved badly and ended up in gaol for a short period. He wasn’t a close friend and along with many others I made jokes about the event.  When he came out I wasn’t welcoming when he was back in the local.  Sometime later I learned that some of my close friends, who were not close to him at all, had visited him inside and written to him.  They were older than me and wiser and I learned a lot from that.

I think it was after about 10 years of headship that I decided that kindness was the most important quality of all.  I shared that realisation with a life coach who sent me this poem:


Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.


Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.


Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.


Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.


Naomi Shihab Nye

Words Under the Words

 Eighth Mountain Press, 1995

When I have been disappointed by my own behaviour or that of others I think it is because the behaviour is the result of fear.  Children’s behaviour is at its worst when they are picking on someone but the reasons for doing so are almost always so it doesn’t happen to them.  The crowd mentality and the peer group pressure really works on fear of being ‘left out’.  That dread that children and young teenagers have of being different to everybody else.  We are supposed to grow out of it but the evidence is that we don’t; instead the fear reappears in adults of somehow being tainted or blamed.  The ‘group think’ is responsible for most of the evils in the world.

I have realised that most of us judge the behaviour of others by our own standards.  I have often been horrified to hear the judgments people make of others and more often than not these tell us far more about the person making the judgement.  My own teenagers often say to me “what makes you think I would do that?”  And the truth is what makes me think that is that it is what I would have done at their age!  “S/he is a glory hunter / power seeker / empire builder”.  I hear that said so often about good people serving others and it saddens me.  When we are the victims of misjudgements it is hard to say ‘that says more about them than it does about me’ and carry on regardless: it is far easier to return the misjudgements and become bitter.

We invent convoluted processes based on the worst judgements of how others behave.  We all do it and to some extent we have to in order to ensure a lawful society, but when that mindset necessary for making laws and rules becomes our way of thinking about others we diminish ourselves.  And it is very hard to avoid doing so.  My lovely old Dad (a retired primary head) used to love talking to the children passing his gate to and from school, but for obvious reasons he had to stop.  I once clipped a drunk staggering across the road at night with my car, and stopped and looked after him; he kept saying “you’re such a nice person to stop” which mystified me until I told my family and they explained!  Why do so few of us get involved when we see someone in need?

Being judged as foolish, reckless and naïf; being made fun of for refusing the ‘group think’; being tainted and blamed for standing up for truth, and having bad motives ascribed to you dominates too much human behaviour.  We see it in our own children and in the playground, but we do not recognise it enough in ourselves and in our workplaces.

Wisdom does not require age but it does require experience and reflection.  There is nothing in allowing our behaviours to be dominated by fear and self-preservation that makes us fully human and alive; it is stultifying.  For myself I like the words of Martin Luther King:

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
 If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
 If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.
 The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
 Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
 The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
 People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
 What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.
 People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
 Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001



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What I have learned about church schools

I went to RC schools as a child and, after a period in my 20s and early 30s of being a “lapsed catholic”, I am now a practising catholic.  I was told around the time I was beginning to apply for headships that I couldn’t lead a catholic school as I had had a short marriage in the church and was divorced.  This was despite being happily married to a good man who was supporting me in bringing up our children as catholics.  Church schools (particularly RC ones) struggle to get heads and will of course continue to do so if those who have had failed marriages or who are openly gay are excluded.  I shrugged my shoulders at this, thought “their problem” and went on to 2 successful headships – one of a community school and one of a CoE academy.  As a woman who is a catholic I am well practised in shrugging my shoulders, thinking the institutional church has problems and carrying on living my life and serving as best I can.  I am concerned, however, that church schools, particularly RC schools, may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction as the leadership crisis deepens.

In my experience church schools seem to be either very good or very bad and sometimes those that are very good are highly selective.  (I’ll say something about those that are very bad at the end of paragraph 6) When a parent chooses to send their child to a church school that is a form of selection in itself, exacerbated by those schools which require attendance at church regularly.  Schools which do this cannot, in my opinion, call themselves comprehensive nor inclusive.  I heartily disapprove of schools which argue they are “serving the whole city” by making attendance at a Christian church an admission criteria.  My children attend a good RC school which is inclusive in that it takes every baptised catholic who applies, but with the free travel for faith-based choice having been abolished just about everywhere this school will become less inclusive.  I can afford the travel; many can’t.

If church schools exist I cannot see how they can justify their existence by having any admission criteria based on anything other than choice and proximity.  The Christian message is one of service to all regardless of race or creed.  The parable of the good Samaritan and everything in the life of Christ demonstrates this.  Furthermore church schools (even some fee-paying ones whose existence almost defies belief) were founded originally to serve the poor.

I do not believe that the role of schools is to evangelise.  The role of the school is to educate, nurture, serve and guide the young within an appropriate ethos.  For some of us our choice of appropriate ethos is one of Christian values.  Many people of faiths other than Christianity choose for their children to go to a church school for this reason, and the best church schools value those of all faiths and those of no faith.  At most the school can only reinforce the values of a faith; its job is not to indoctrinate, convert nor drill in catechetics: responsibility for bringing children up in a particular faith lies with the family and their faith community.  Offering young people the opportunity to explore and question matters appertaining to all faiths and give them opportunities to practise their own safely and securely is consistent with a good education.  I worry about schools being founded to serve specifically children from one faith community as it seems to me they will be confused in their purpose.

Our church schools should have an amazing headstart on developing an appropriate ethos for the education of the young.  Firstly the Christian narrative is one of hope and redemption for all: all are to be loved, all challenged to do their best, all are made in the image of God, and no-one is unforgiveable.  This interpreted into the daily life and practices of a school community creates high aspirations for everyone; offers a discipline system which is confident of forgiveness; inculcates the values of service in the next generation; creates respect for others, has an atmosphere of celebration and is inclusive.

Secondly a school founded on Christian values demands that we see the face of Christ in every child.  I taught for 31 years, 13 of them as a head and 2 as an executive head and always in challenging circumstances, and I can tell you some children are hard to love!  If you are reading this I expect you are an educator and you will therefore know this.  People are flawed and annoying and the most damaged of them are the most difficult.  As my senior VP used to remind staff “the students who need the most love will often ask for it in the most unloving ways”.  When there is a belief running through a school like the lettering in a stick of rock that we are all made in the image of God and that he loves all and forgives all, it is far easier for us to make the choice to love those who make it difficult for us to do so.  Of course this can sometimes go very wrong and the very worst church schools interpret this in a “cuddle and muddle” way, forgetting that we need to be judgemental about behaviour and have aspiration and challenge.  For example I knew a school where the head responded to a member of staff who had been sworn at by a child by saying “Ask yourself if he had had breakfast this morning?”  Mmmm………… perhaps making sure the children have a breakfast and dealing with their behaviour in a discipline system confident of forgiveness and redemption might have been a better response.

There are certain values shared by people of faith which lead to long-term happiness and challenge popular culture which is too often focused on pleasure  rather than happiness: for example humility, selflessness, conscientiousness and compassion.  Adults who exhibit these values are far happier than those who seek instant pleasure, are greedy and self-serving, seeking maximum personal reward for minimum effort, and make zero contribution to the betterment of society.  Values cannot be taught but they can be caught through the ethos of the school.

Some of my readers will say “but you don’t need to be a church school to have an ethos like this”.  I agree – you don’t.  Indeed I know many schools who have an amazing ethos which are not church schools: what I am saying is that church schools should have an amazing headstart in this regard and it saddens me when it is not capitalised upon.  If we are to have church schools which capitalise on this headstart and if the churches are to truly serve the education system then they need to be totally inclusive in admissions, be clear about their purpose and have a sensible response to the leadership crisis.

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What I’m learning about reclaiming management

When I first started teaching in the 1980s we talked about management a lot. I think the earliest course I was allowed out of school on was “Women into management”, schools had senior management teams and we referred constantly to “the management” when talking about the head, deputies and senior teachers.  There was a gradual evolution during the 1990s into talking more about leadership.  Senior teams were renamed as senior leadership teams and we discussed endlessly the difference between management and leadership.

I don’t think this was necessarily intended by anyone, but a clear feeling emerged that it was leadership that was important; managers just got things done, but strategy was all about leadership.  This permeated the entire system: many of us began talking about our heads of department as middle leaders.  CPD very often focussed almost exclusively on skills that were defined as leadership skills in order to prepare heads of department for senior leader roles.  We talked about the old models of ensuring people did things as opposed to the new models of winning hearts and minds to vision, of developing others and scanning horizons for adaptation to environmental factors.

When I got my first headship I began by insisting that senior mangers in charge of administration, finance and facilities attended senior leadership meetings.  I wanted the senior mangers to have the status they deserved and for everyone to understand each others roles more fully.  It didn’t work as the managers got totally fed up with listening to curriculum discussions.

When I built an academy structure I established two teams – a senior management team of the administration, finance, ICT and facilities, and a senior leadership team.  This worked reasonably as long as there were regular joint meetings with tight agendas, and as long as I maintained a very close relationship with each senior manager.  I have to be honest and admit that these two prerequisites for effective working were not always adhered to and communication between leadership and management relied too often on an exceptional relationship between me and the Finance Director which doesn’t build sustainability into the system.

Hindsight and time for reflection and reading have led me to believe that we have all too often built problems into the system by seeing leadership and management as separate strands when in fact they are impossible to separate.  I think we need to reclaim management as completely integral to leadership.  We simply cannot operate effectively with colleagues at all levels charging about being leaders without developing high level management skills.  I’ll go further: very often when things go wrong in a school it is because people at a very high level have not demonstrated any managerial competence, despite clear vision and communication.  Everyone knows what needs to be done, everyone is on board, but the translation into operational strategy has lacked effective management.

When I was doing my MBA I was taught there were five pillars of strategy:

Corporate strategy.  This is all to do with building the vision of the organisation, building alliances, determining the market and scope of the organisation and exploiting synergies and skills.

Resource and capability strategy.  This is about acquiring and leveraging resources and strengthening capabilities within the organisation.

Functional strategy.  This is about dividing the organisation into units on the basis of the skills and resources required to deliver.

Business unit strategy.  This is where a manager is held accountable for the operation of the unit and controls the resources which allow it to perform with clearly identified targets for performance.

Operational strategy.  This is about day-to-day operational tactics.

I recently led a seminar with middle leaders and discussed this with them.  I wanted to hear their views about which pillars of strategy required excellent managerial skills and which required excellent leadership skills.  I wanted to see how they saw the five pillars of strategy operating in their organisation.  I think this is a worthwhile task for us all to do with staff at all levels before we plan our next three year CPD programmes.

My current thinking is that it is in the business unit that we develop the excellence around managerial skills which are needed in all the other pillars.  My concern is that all too often we are in a big rush to develop colleagues’ thinking and skills around the corporate strategy.  How often do we hear about a colleague “he can talk the talk, but ….”? How often do fantastic strategic plans fail at the operational level? 

I went back to look at “Great by Choice” by Collins and Hasen (2011).  They identify three core behaviours of the leaders of exceptional organisations.  They make me smile every time I read them: FANATIC DISCIPLINE (consistency and utterly relentless, monomaniacal focus on goals), EMPIRICAL CREATIVITY (practical experimentation and direct engagement with evidence, creative moves from a sound empirical basis), PRODUCTIVE PARANOIA (being hyper-vigilant, attuned to environmental threats and developing contingency plans)

It is absolutely clear that these behaviours rely on strong managerial competence as much as they do on inspiration, vision and communication.  More importantly for these organisations to be exceptional the leaders need to have ensured that throughout the organisation there are individuals who demonstrate excellent management and leadership skills simultaneously.

I said about an organisation I led when it opened: All are teachers, all are leaders.  If I was doing it over I’d say: All are teachers, all are leaders and all are managers.  I think if we reclaim management, remarry it with leadership in all that we say and do, and teach it in CPD we will begin to see improvement in how the great strategic ideas in our schools translate into operational practice.






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What I have learned about the Labour Party

I don’t think it is a secret that I am a Labour Party member. You have a simple choice as a public sector leader: you can worry that you risk your employer and your community discriminating against you as a result of your political affiliation, or you can decide that those risks are outweighed by other factors.  So my political affiliations have never been hidden from anyone.  I don’t think the DfE have penalised my organisation as a result of my political affiliations and I don’t believe they ever would.

I’ve been a Labour Party member since 1977 aged 15.  That’s a long time.  At one time in the mid 1990s I contemplated looking to stand in a marginal constituency, but then I got a Deputy Headship and began to have a lot less time for political work.  By the time we won the 1997 election I was expecting my first baby and knew what I wanted was to be a Headteacher, not a politician.  I have actively worked (ranging from practically full-time to merely one leaflet round in 2015) on 9 general election campaigns and, although I haven’t been an active member since 2005, I have sat through 100s of Party meetings.  I have been a delegate at Labour Party conference twice: 1993 (John Smith’s OMOV debate) and 2008, and I chaired a constituency for two years in the run-up to the 1997 election.

I love the Labour Party and feel part of the tribe but it infuriates me. The truth is the Labour Party finds it impossible to celebrate its past, enjoy the emotional pull of its achievements while simultaneously living with modern realities.  In some ways the Labour Party reminds me of something I said when I was 12 years-old “I wish women still didn’t have the vote so I could go and be a suffragette.”  That is a funny thing for a 12-year-old discovering politics to say, but it is not acceptable for a modern political party to want to base manifestos and campaigns on issues which are no longer the battleground just because they feel secure on that territory.

The NHS is one of our proudest achievements and we know that everyone supports the NHS. Is there anyone in the country who believes the Tories want to “get rid of our NHS”?  I can answer that question for the Labour Party – there isn’t.  There is no hatred for “socialised medicine” within the Tory Party.  Now I am no expert on the NHS at all, but I do know it is a huge organisation to manage (some might say impossible) and that its structures are complex and one really wouldn’t start from here if designing it now.  What the public are interested in is simple: they want the NHS to be publicly funded, free at the point of delivery and to be seen and treated in a timely, safe and efficient manner with the latest research and developments available to practitioners.  What the public do not care about is how all that is achieved and they don’t understand the debate about how the NHS works.  “Do you want your local hospital services to be provided by private companies?”  The answer to this from everyone (except ideologues living in the past) is “If it can be done free at the point of delivery and I will seen and treated in a timely, safe and efficient manner with the latest research and developments available to my doctors, I don’t care how you provide it.”

I do understand education, I’d go so far as to say I am a bit of an expert!   In the Labour Party currently there are still people (loads of them actually) who still want to have arguments about who should run schools.  Providing free education for everyone and using local authorities as the mechanism for delivery was a great thing in the last century but just can’t be relied on to provide every child with a good school in the 21st century.  What is important is the quality of education provided not whether a school is an academy or an LA school.  While the Labour Party waste time not upsetting members hung up on protecting delivery methods of the last century, they have missed the important arguments about curriculum, accountability and standards.  There are three serious problems at the moment: funding; teacher recruitment, and the credibility of accountability systems. Great heads who know about this stuff (some of whom are party members) are not properly used as a resource.  Internal arguments of the last century are allowed to rage, advice is taken from the unions, promises that cannot be kept (qualified teacher in every classroom) are made and the way is left open for the Tories to cause serious damage to some of the most vulnerable children and some of the best schools.  Whenever I have challenged about this I get told that we cannot engage in curriculum, standards and accountability debates without being criticised for being on an anti-standards agenda.  This shows that party leadership doesn’t actually even understand the issues.  Well, why would they – if they are still talking about things that have either ceased to matter or which are on the agenda of the unions only, how can they be engaging in the conversations with those that matter?  And these matters are complex – grown-up conversations for grown-up people.  The field is left open for the Tories whose understanding is limited to seizing on what appear to be easy answers and solutions and replicating what they see as a traditional education which takes children out of poverty.  I am ashamed of the Labour Party allowing the Tories to look as if they are the aspirational ones for working class children; I am ashamed of the Labour Party for not engaging in proper debate of complex issues out of fear at being anti-standards, when they have at their fingertips some of the most successful heads at raising standards, and I am ashamed of the Labour Party for the lack of integrity and bravery.

It comes down to this really: if the Labour Party wants to take on capitalism, fight on a left-wing platform, and fight on yesterday’s agenda then it will never have power.  If the Labour Party wants to make sure that the poor and vulnerable get a good deal, that people have employment rights and that all have respect and dignity, then it needs to be proud of its past, but move on and be prepared work with the rich and powerful.  The Labour Party has to grow up and realise that the leader who managed to massively improve the public services and introduce a minimum wage was the one who also won three elections in a row.  If that took being friendly with people whose views we despise what is the problem?  I am nice and polite to people whose views I despise in order to get the best deal for my students – it’s called behaving responsibly; it’s called understanding how to get power and how to exercise it so that you can a) do good and b) maintain power.

Most of all I am ashamed of me and people like me in the Labour Party.  The private DMs and conversations we have been having about how dreadful the leadership is – we knew as soon as Ed was elected leader it was a monumental disaster (which followed the monumental disaster of the coronation of Gordon Brown).  I have been saying privately that Cameron would win an overall majority for years – I only changed my mind in the last few days as a result of the polls (irony!).  We should have fought for our party.  I’m not sure why we didn’t – too busy doing our everyday jobs perhaps?  Frightened we’d get blamed when the inevitable happened?  Well both of those are probably true.

The Labour Party is in deep trouble. I know this because I haven’t yet been in a room with Labour Party members who are prepared to collectively agree that we need to learn the lessons of the Blair victories, that we need to be serious about power, that we need to ditch the old sacred cows (the arguments we won and those we lost), and that we need to be prepared to find 21st century solutions and work with those who know about stuff and who can exercise money, power and knowledge to our benefit.  I have those conversations in secret with individual members I respect – but they aren’t the conversations any of us are having yet in larger groups.  When colleagues looked at me yesterday and said “Who?” I felt the closest to despair I have felt for a long time.  And I will say this now, publicly – unless any leadership candidate is prepared to fight on a platform like this I will not support them and I will not keep quiet again either.

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