What I am learning about their determination to perpetuate unfairness in accountability systems

When I first became a headteacher 15 years ago people thought I was mad to seek out a challenging headship. I remember one particular deputy almost sneering at me about the school I had chosen to lead.  At that time there were very few schools serving disadvantaged communities that were any good – many of them were where poor quality teachers washed up and (this is true, I remember it well!) the dominant culture among headteachers who led these schools was one of excuse-making for poor standards and achievement.  I suppose that was why other ambitious deputies thought I was mad and felt able to sneer.

For 10 years though it was exhilirating and exciting because that dominant culture was changed by heads like me.  We worked very hard turning around schools and communities, transforming the attitudes towards schools like ours and producing the frst generation of employed young people and higher education students that some areas had seen for decades.  We were sometimes unpopular with colleagues as we proved it could be done, but we worked in partnership with our government; many of us became Principals of the first academies – the most challenging communities of all.  We had our National College of School Leadership assisting us in establishing networks and helping us learn from each other, many of us became NLEs and were able to work across the system: it felt like there was real system leadership emerging.

I remember the challenges as they emerged around school performance very clearly.  First we were ensuring that all children were expected to and could gain qualifications and then we were focusing on the quality of those qualifications.  We moved to ensuring that there was a clear focus on English and Maths as they are so vital in opening doors to employability and being able to benefit from further study.  Then there was the challenge of ensuring there were no abuses in the system of “mickey mouse” useless qualifications, which needed to be done, as there were undoubted abuses which disadvantaged some students.  Each new challenge was embraced by those of us passionate about transforming the life chances of the children raised in our most disadvantaged communities.  It is ridiculous for anyone to suggest that those of us who have been doing this are wedded to any form of excuse making or under aspirational culture for our schools and communities, but we are now bitterly disappointed and let down.

When we first heard about the move to “Progress 8” in our accountability we were excited.  This was something that we could embrace wholeheartedly; it would be fair.  For the progress of every child to be valued and for proper consideraion to be given to progress from starting points was not only a fair and just way of measuring our schools’ performance, but would also enable us to move away from the dubious focus on “cliff edges” and the iniquity of schools forced to pile resources into C/D borderline students to the detriment of others.  I wrote about this in November 2013, and I called it my six reasons to smile.

Since then we have seen some things happening which should give pause for thought.  We know that there are far more schools who have below average prior attainment that receive an OFSTED inadequate judgment and that where student outcomes are higher it is less likely that the OFSTED judgment will be inadequate.  This blog from @kristianstill asks the question, and I think it is a key question: are the evaluative mechanisms for assessing the outcomes of schools that have the highest proportion of higher attaining students sufficiently taxing?  Or putting it another way as there are notably fewer schools with students who have lower prior attainment receiving outstanding OFSTED judgments – are we measuring school effectiveness fairly and accurately?  Many of us have been increasingly concerned that our judgment-based accountability system (OFSTED) has become increasingly reliant on our data-based accountability system – this in itself begs all kind of questions.  But …. the move to Progress 8 will address this, won’t it as the data will be fairer?

Yesterday I was concerned to read this from @dataeducator and asked @drmarkarobinson to do some modelling for me.  All my reasons for welcoming Progress 8 are swept away.  It is clear from our modelling that all my “reasons for smiling” back in November 2013 have proved to be entirely false.  In our early analysis we see clearly that a system which could have provided some accuracy and fairness is now being manipulated to benefit schools with a higher proportion of students with high prior attainment.  I understand that the official excuse for this is the changing GCSEs.  Really?  Given what we know about how students with different levels of prior attainment progress differentially this is smoke and mirors.  Students with higher prior attaniment tend to be easier to drive further progress from as they tend to come from families and communities doing a large part of the work for the school. It is ridiculous to deny this. You can see from @DrMarkARobinson’s work Prog 8 models 070315 UPDATE that schools adding valuing around the G-F and F-E will receive signficantly less recognition, whereas those adding value in the C-B, B-A and A-A* will receive significantly more.

Now I am angry – “proper angry”, as we say round here. So here are my five reasons for being angry:

I am angry at the unfairness of “clever” children counting more than the others.

I am angry that the judgement-based accountability system is so firmly tied to a data-based accountability system which is working hard to obfuscate, rather than cast a light on performance.

I am angry about my colleagues who simply cannot take the stress and want to quit.  I am angry about how the children and the families in our communities will lose great school leaders and struggle to recruit.  I didn’t feel brave back in 2000, but someone embarking on the headships I’ve tackled now would certainly be brave.

I am angry at the loss of the system leaders this may well cause.  (I doubt people like me will be labelled “outstanding” again!)  The implications for the system are huge.   I am angry that headteachers running schools filled with students of high prior attainment will be the ones with the supposed wisdom to help failing schools instad of those of us who know how to do it.

But above all I am angry at an arrogant cadre of people who believe they are born to rule, know better than anyone else, listen only to the few who agree with them and who are causing deep damage to our most vulnerable.

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What I have learned about addressing inequality in schooling and life chances

There is a link between poverty and educational underachievement and this is a causal link.  The fact that some children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds have remarkable achievements should not disguise this. This is so well researched and so well documented that it is completely beyond dispute.

The traditional response from the left to this is to attempt to create a level playing field and each decade has seen new initiatives for education which aim to spend more money on the education of the most disadvantaged. Statistics show us, however, that very little has changed and this is largely because the children who are brought up in families who value education have home and school working together and those who are brought up in families where schooling is not valued have home and school working in opposition. Traditionally the professionals who have educated the poor have either chosen to do so from a sense of social justice and service, a commitment to make a difference, or because they have not been terribly good educators or not terribly well qualified themselves and have “ended up in the worst schools”. Hence a culture often emerged in schools serving disadvantaged communities of “cuddle and muddle”, typified by the phrase “we are very good pastorally”, and very often by “our kind of children”. The resistance to the standards agenda comes very strongly from this culture.

Thankfully over the last 20 years or so this traditional response from the left has changed and we have seen the standards agenda embraced by the Labour Party and by the profession. We saw the new response in the early academies agenda: spend more money on the education of the most disadvantaged, set committed professionals free from interference and set challenging targets. It was a ‘preferential option for the poor’ and frankly an exciting time. Leading one of those early academies was a great privilege. However, I quickly came to realise that far from regenerating the area I was working in I was doing no more than providing an escape tunnel out of it. The academy I lead demonstrably narrows the gap: from no children going to university to over 90% of sixth formers doing so and from 9% achieving a pass in both English and Maths at GCSE to 55%, but poverty in the area is worsening. And of course not all the early academies were successful and the response to this has been less freedom, less money, more restriction.

Turning to the traditional response from the right to the underachievement of the poor we can see that until recently it was nowhere near their agenda. Apart from a strong attachment to grammar schools as a way of providing a ladder out of poverty for a few they had no response.

It was initially heartening to see the right taking a interest in the quality of schooling for poor children but, oh dear, what a mess. Challenging a culture of an under aspiration amongst teachers – a good thing, but the blame culture, the punitive approach, the failure to listen to committed experts in the field together with the savage cuts is a disaster. We are left with a serious crisis in teacher supply at a time when we have never had a more skilled and committed bunch of teachers, and with a system which actively penalises the best teachers and school leaders for working in the most challenging schools. Leading my academy precludes the possibility of being an outstanding leader, and all the expertise in the system at what works in raising standards is discounted with punitive targets driving inappropriate curriculum. The joy has been gradually sucked out of the system. (If we succumb to it, of course, and many of us don’t)

Nothing typifies the current muddled thinking more than pupil premium. I lead an academy with 67% pupil premium. This is pretty staggering for a secondary school; however I have less budget, not more. Pupil premium is not new money. It also comes with punitive targets around closing the gap. For us pupil premium means desperately trying to continue addressing disadvantage with less money than we used to have, while justifying how we spend pupil premium. It is a nonsense, but here is the bigger nonsense: we know there is a causal relationship between poverty and underachievement and the poor are getting poorer. Think of it like this – setting targets around healing a wound, giving the ‘wound-healer’ less money but making them justify that a portion of it is spent specifically on healing the wound, while giving the patient less food and increasing the bacteria in their whole environment. The national figures show pupil premium is apparently not closing the gap. Are we surprised?

So here’s a radical idea – if we are serious about creating the opportunities for equality (which is a much more sensible approach the talking about equal opportunities) how about addressing seriously the causes of disadvantage. Worklessness needs to be tackled and so does benefit culture and the under aspiration that results from it, but in so doing we have to take the children out of the culture of poverty – all I see happening at the moment is the situation being worsened. New thinking is required or once again we will only be tinkering at the edges and the cycle of disadvantage will continue.

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What I have learned about love

Love is one of the four core values of LEAF Academy Trust.  It is the “L”.  When you establish a multi-academy trust it is surprisingly hard deciding what to call it and part of the process for us was discussing what we thought our academies were about.  People have often heard me say that the David Young Community Academy runs on love.  The rest of the acronym comes from Enterprise, Aspiration and Faith.

When you work in challenging circumstances there are some classic errors that are often made.  One of them is to develop the “excuse culture” and thankfully I see far less of that these days.  It is typified for me by the phrase “our type of kid”, and a key characteristic is the leader who wants to tell you why this school is so different to all the other schools in the town, bemoan the prevailing circumstances and make excuses for the poor performance of the staff and students.  A close relation of this is the “cuddle and muddle” – I still see too much of that and it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what love should mean.  This is the love that is afraid to face the truth and challenge; a soft “there, there – we’ll look after you”, unchallenging care (which in my experience works term time only 0830-1600).  What we see more of these days is the tough, uncompromising promotion of excellence regardless of circumstances, but I worry this can knock moral purpose off course if we don’t love.

This post is going to be an attempt to explain that.

Love is a choice.  It has taken me a long time to learn this.  Too often we think love, whether it be philia, eros or agape, just happens – in the case of eros with accompanying starbursts!  Love is more complex than that.  We are all hard to love at certain times and some of us are hard to love pretty much all of the time.  When we were interviewing for Head Boy a couple of years ago we asked the question of candidates “What about the students who don’t make the right choices and who haven’t had the best examples at home?” – one of the candidates smiled and said “They need more love than the others”.  Our Principal at DYCA, Lynne Frost, is very fond of reminding staff that the students who require the most love are the ones who will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.  What I know is that when I was a teacher I had to choose to love every child, because if I didn’t love them they didn’t learn.  “You need to learn to love the ones you’ve got!” is the no- nonsense advice dished out frequently.

Love is uncompromising and unrelenting.  Accepting poor behaviour and poor work is not loving; it is condemning to failure.  I have learned over the years to be very wary of leaders who tell me first “we are very good pastorally” – my antennae smell “cuddle and muddle” straightaway!  Schools that are very good pastorally generally don’t talk about that much; they talk about their students’ achievements.

Love challenges and tells the truth.  I have yet to meet a member of staff or a student who doesn’t appreciate honest feedback about their performance – as long as it is done in love.  Sometimes we have to give hard messages, but these need not be condemning of the person – they are about the behaviour or the performance.  Critically when we are choosing to love the person, regardless, we are also making sure that hard messages are given with the offer of help in changing, improving or finding alternative avenues.

Love requires silence sometimes.  I sometimes worry that when I am silent people know that is because I am digging deep to be able to love.  (Sometimes it is!)  I am learning though that being silent is sometimes the best way of practising love.  Some truths don’t need telling and some things can remain unchallenged – wisdom helps us discern when to practice the love that is silent.

Love is unafraid and resilient.  These are some of the most powerful characteristics of love and why love needs to be the choice of all who serve in challenging contexts.  When a damaged person (adult or child) is effing and jeffing and kicking off all over the place I like them moved to a safe place and to be told “We’ll deal with you when you are calm – this behaviour is not acceptable”;  when they express great hatred I like them told “That’s OK, but we love you and we will stay here loving you whatever you say, so you may as well calm down.”  Love baffles people and overwhelms “why do you care? why don’t you just give up? what’s it to do with you anyway?”  In truth it can be our greatest weapon; it is certainly far, far more powerful at changing people and situations than anger and revenge.

Love will be misinterpreted.  I have learned over the years that when I am doing some of the hardest things and digging the deepest, I will inevitably be accused of all kinds of things from lack of commitment to over ambition.  Love is also about not letting that matter.

Love is hard which is why it is a choice.

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What I am learning about sexism

Sexism is draining. It’s the cumulative effect that matters. Until recently I would probably have said that I hadn’t really suffered from sexism – after all I’ve not done too badly, I thought – but I am now coming to realise that this is really about my resilience, not my experience. Maybe it has taken the prism of 50 years to help me see the patterns and realise just how bloody boring and draining the everyday experience of sexism is for the professional woman.

I was a clever child and the eldest of five siblings. Without any shadow of doubt the experiences of my early life helped me develop organisational, managerial and leadership skills; however what I was known for throughout the extended family was being “bossy”. 40 years further on this causes me a pain that I didn’t have then. As a child I thought it unfair that I was given responsibility and then criticised for rising to it, but I had no words to describe this. I saw a tweet early this year about the fact that only girls are ever called “bossy”.

My first early experience of promotion to Head of Department drew an anger from colleagues that came from nowhere.  It was worded such as “not been here long enough” and “one of the youngest staff” and it was pretty vitriolic. With hindsight I think this was about being young and female – wish I’d realised that at the time as it would have made it easier.

Being young and female for a professional is the “double whammy”.  I remember back in the 1990s that young men rising in the teaching profession were generally referred to as “Young Turks” and were seen as ambitious and “thrusting”, and a generally good, transformational thing for the system; the adjectives applied to us most frequently were “strident” and “pushy” (presumably the adult version of “bossy”). We were criticised for being emotional at the first sign of any emotion; and yet if unemotional we were “cold”. It is a hard trick to pull off trying to be warm but unemotional and, for me, impossible. I am driven and I am emotional – why are women not allowed to be both, when this would be high praise for a man?

I am ashamed to say I have laughed with colleagues about the fact it took me 12 interviews to get my first headship: actually that isn’t really funny. Oh there were some that were wrong for me and there were others where I performed badly, but I have one clear memory of being told on the debrief that it wasn’t clear why the governors hadn’t gone for me. It was clear to me – I was 8 months pregnant. On that occasion I knew the job was mine – I had been fantastic throughout the process – and I asked the panel if they wanted to ask me about my circumstances as I would be ready to take up post with my husband as our family carer. The panel didn’t want to go there due to equal opportunities! I am convinced that I finally got my first headship because the school was in such a mess no-one else wanted it; however, it was the best opportunity I could ever have had and made my name, so obviously “all is well that ends well”, isn’t it?

I have seen the gender balance in headship change this century. I was one of only 4 female secondary heads in the LA back in 2000; now at secondary heads meetings it looks like 50:50 split. It never feels to me like we experience discrimination within the profession except I am often the only woman in some forums I work in, and I don’t know why; I sometimes have my opinions ignored, only to hear them lauded as another colleague’s later – but that’s OK because it is the ideas that are important, isn’t it? Female heads talk about the “boys’ club” referring to a certain type of male head – sometimes in an affectionate way, but more usually in a resigned acceptance way. An excellent female colleague said to me recently “I’m trying not to see it as a boys’ club, Ros as that will undermine me.” And that is precisely how we cope – we choose not to see it, because if we see it for what it is and name it for what it is, then we undermine ourselves.

The worst sexism often comes from those who espouse otherwise. I’m not going to say too much about this for another 10 years, but I am beginning to realise that the language people use about successful women is completely different to that they use about men. I have allowed people who should know better get away with using words to describe me which they would never use about a man. I have been pretty rubbish at spotting sexism at the time I experience it and generally require hindsight so I’ve decided to train myself. The cumulative effect is just too draining so I think I’d rather deal with things as they arise now.

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What I have learned about “group work”

I love working with colleagues to solve problems: I am happy to lead in discussing problems, garnering the experience of others and coming to conclusions.  I adore  working with my Headteacher colleagues, particularly @headsroundtable, to share experience, exchange ideas and develop policy.  I am happy to serve on a number of working parties for thinktanks, DfE and the Church of England where I learn and contribute in equal measure and feel I am doing good.  These real life working experience examples are, however, so far removed from the horror of “group work” when in formal learning experiences as to have almost no relevance.  We subject learners to group work because it “develops the skills needed in later life”; except it really doesn’t.

When I was a teacher in the 1980s I felt a bit embarrassed that my students and I all seemed to like teacher-led discussion best. I used to throw into lesson plans various types of group work every now and then, and I believed that there was something deeply inadequate in my teaching ability because students always seemed to learn best when I led.  I never, ever spoke about this and as I “rose through through the ranks”, I just gave it less and less thought.

 No-one could ever accuse me of being a “shrinking violet”, but I quite literally want to die on INSETs when I have to do role play: I hate it and I learn nothing from it.  The worst was the “triads”:  my wonderful SLE Team, who run INSET days, put us in groups of threes (randomly) to share teaching experiences about something or other.  I was mortified – I was the Principal – were the other two meant to pretend they had forgotten that fact?  Was I?  To rescue their learning I think I invented an urgent phone call or something, which also saved my embarrassment.  You see, I may appear not to be, and I am comfortable to lead, but underneath I really am a very shy person.  When I know what I am doing I am comfortable – I am confident; but outside of my comfort zone, I want to dig a big hole, jump in it and cover it up as quickly as possible.  (I send Lynne into the “balancing a warm glass of white wine and making small talk events” on my behalf.)

When I did my MBA (fairly recently) I was subjected to some truly appalling group work situations. At its best it reminded me of being back at school in the ’70s, and at its worst it caused the crumbling of personalities during a highly-pressurised residential situation.

The worst I still can’t bring myself to write about:  a course designed for senior leaders, across many sectors, that I unfortunately attended and that was based on Gestalt principles: I remember spending 5 days watching bullies given the freedom to bully in complete horror.

Having come to terms with the fact that I “am not normal” in a whole variety of ways I think I was floating through life thinking that “group work” was by and large a “good thing”, and keeping my mouth shut about my private dislike.  Then, about a year ago, I was driving back to Yorkshire with Roisin as my only passenger and she began to outline in graphic detail her deep seated loathing of group work.  It went something like this:

  • Teachers deliberately put you with people who aren’t like you so you “can learn from each other” (eye roll).
  • The people you are with never want to work, often simply expecting a single person to do it all due to their reputation as smart and “if you try to get them working, well, it isn’t worth the grief”.
  • It makes those single people resent the rest of their group.
  • Eventually you decide to just do the work because you need the marks and don’t want to score low marks and “they just let you – it was exactly what they expected to happen”.
  • The teachers never realise what has gone on despite how obvious it may be.
  • Then when the group gets good marks, because you have done all the work, you just feel resentful because the others do not deserve the commendation.
  • And at the end of it all, people still belittle you for your attitude to learning after taking full advantage of it.

Well this description was very different to any I would have given, but it had the complete ring of truth.

So now I am prepared to “come out” about group work:

  • fabulous when appropriate and indulged in by the willing of similar interests and abilities
  • should never be forced
  • is not necessary to all learning

But if you want me to really rant these days, mention peer assessment ………….

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My 7 rules for leading when it is hard

There has never been a time for me when it hasn’t been hard. Towards the end of my first headship, after OFSTED had been extremely complimentary about the turnaround that had taken place and had made some blush-inducing remarks about me, someone said “You can go and get a proper headship now – somewhere really good”. I knew that would never happen: even if I had wanted it, I didn’t have the CV for it and I’m not sure how I’d go down with middle-class parents! But above all else, to put the kind of energy into my work that I need to – I need to care deeply about it and for me that has always meant going where it is hard. This leads me straight into my first rule:

1. Remember why you took the job

Leaders don’t take jobs because they think they will be easy; you didn’t take the job because you thought it would be easy, but because you thought you would make a difference. Get through this bad time in order to follow through the promises you made and then you can go. This doesn’t last forever and it doesn’t define you; running away from it or leaving it half done will.

I got through the whole of the academic year 2005-06 by telling myself: I will get the David Young Community Academy open and give it a successful start, and then I can resign and leave knowing I did what I promised to do. (I’m still there by the way!)

2. This isn’t about you

Sometimes because “the buck stops here”, and sometimes because we care so deeply, it is easy to fall into the trap of looking inwards. I have learned that the time to look inwards is when things seem easier; when it’s really, really hard – this isn’t about you. No-one is helped by your introspection; they need your leadership. In difficult times what people require most is to feel secure in their leaders and emotion, insecurity, and wavering really do not help. Of course we feel insecure and emotional and unsure, but in the tough times we need to “encapsulate” it (stick it in a capsule to be opened when we are through this patch!)

3. People need to be told the truth, but also given direction

Insecurity is caused by a whole range of behaviours which are seen by those who indulge in them as protective. These can range from serious cover-ups to minor excuse making, but they really backfire in the tough times. The only way through the really tough times is to tell the truth and the skill of the leader is to do so at the same time as showing the direction to make things better. The simple fact is that just about everyone wants to a) do a good job, b) be empowered to make things better (particularly when they have made mistakes), and c) feel confident that their leader knows the facts and is supporting improvements.

I often hear people talk about “blame-free” cultures and I find this language a bit strange because if we have the language of “blame” in any form we will never really manage our way through the most difficult times. Maybe this is about my catholic formation (condemn the sin; not the sinner), but in tough times I have found the assumption that everyone wants to do their best the simplest way of making sure that we can all tell the truth and be given a new confidence and sense of direction. I suppose what this really means is that the culture you develop when the going isn’t quite so tough will define how you cope when it is.

4. It isn’t about who is right and who is wrong
In unravelling the most complex issues I have learned over the years that there is rarely a right and wrong – indeed I now have a mantra that everyone is right, I just need to understand their “degree of rightness” from their perspective. This is as true of DfE nonsense as it is of playground fights. Once I accepted this it made managing the most difficult situations a little easier. In the toughest times we need to listen more closely, probe more deeply, empathise in a more disciplined fashion and exercise our own intellectual muscles as though training for the Olympics.

5. Be wary of advice-givers
My golden rule is this – the professionals and outsiders who care about you and your organisation are there when times are good and they are there when times are challenging. Those who only turn up to share reflected glory when you are flavour of the month, or to sniff about when they think there is trouble looming – these people are to be avoided. When you are leading through the toughest times be acutely aware of agendas.

6. Hold your nerve
To do this you need to practice 1 above, but you also need to use personal support networks, eat and drink well, exercise, protect yourself from people who drain your leadership ability and confidence and maintain the ability to look over the horizon.

7. Re-watch the West Wing
You can never watch the West Wing enough. One of the important messages for leaders from WW is “What’s next?”. Great leader managing the toughest situation and as soon as it’s over “OK, what’s next?” Sometimes I think I don’t want to live like that anymore and then I realise that if I really didn’t I’d be doing that easier job.

As I thought about how to finish this blog I thought about the thing that really helps and it leads me to paraphrase that naff old aphorism:

You don’t need to be a person of faith to do this job; but it helps.

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What I have learned through motherhood.

“Being a mother takes the skin off you”
This was said to me by a good friend (Val Stevens, then a city councillor in Manchester). So true: any child in distress, any parent in distress, any story on the news could reduce me to tears almost instantly, once I had held Roisin. My protective shell had gone.

I had taught for 13 years before having my first child and the difference it made was extraordinary. As a young teacher my greatest fault was “getting too involved” and being overly passionate, and of course I always chose to work in challenging contexts, so I was hardly Miss Dispassionate, but this was different. This wasn’t political or professional passion anymore; this was an emotional empathy that required discipline. So I had to mature quickly: the overly passionate and involved professional channelled her “emotional skinlessness” into “if it isn’t good enough for Roisin, it isn’t good enough for any child”.

By the time I took on my first headship Roisin was 2 and a half and Finn was a baby. This school was a bit of a challenge to say the least – 7% 5 A-C WITHOUT EM and the “15th worst in the country”. My mission was clear: I had to make this school one I would be confident to send Roisin and Finn to.

Throughout my career I have heard and seen teachers (and other staff), not only behave in ways they would find totally unacceptable in their own children’s school, but actually articulate that somehow there is a difference between the children they teach and their own. On one occasion I heard the bereavement in a family belittled as not terribly significant “in a family like that”. Over the years I have honed the ability to “smell” this attitude in the early stages of selection, and needless to say I don’t appoint.

What interests me is that the understanding that my lesson (and our academy) need to be a safe, happy and stimulating experience for any and every child is not actually related to whether staff are parents or not. Some people know this regardless of whether they have children of their own; some never will.

In some ways being a mum has made me much more confident about school leadership
Some of these ways are just obvious. When talking to parents you can use the line “as a parent myself … ” etc. There is also a huge confidence in knowing what parents want – I always use the same mantra at new intake events: children need to be safe first, happy second and then they we work on their success – my priorities come in that order. Parents love this and I know they will because I do.

But there are other less obvious ways too. There are some things that I believed but found harder to justify; things I wanted to establish as “givens” in a school I led, but that were (back then) considered controversial. For example, right from the start of my career I hated the “we treat them all the same” attitude. Once a parent myself I had complete confidence on that one: we don’t treat them all the same because they are not all the same. I don’t know exactly how and why motherhood built confidence, but that is only one example of what it did for me.

I have become increasingly aware of the needs of the able child
I think I was a bit rubbish at this. I had always worked in, and then led, schools in extremely challenging contexts, and schools that were working really, really hard to raise aspirations and hit floor targets; more able and motivated children were a minority and had never really got onto my priority list. I feel ashamed at that last sentence, but it is true! Listening to my own children’s experiences and anxieties has cured that.

It has also confirmed opinions that I reluctantly held. For example, I have a particular “downer” on group work, mainly because I loathe it myself, and I always thought this was a bit unacceptable so kept quiet about it. Following a car journey on the M62 during which Roisin described her experience of group work in detail, I am quite sure of the reasons why group work is not usually a good idea for the more able child! I think that needs a whole other blog entry actually.

I deal with guilt better (and humiliation)
The one thing every parent learns is that it is impossible to get everything right: for everything you get right, there is something you get wrong. (Apparently it is all my fault Roisin is stressed about GCSE grades, because I made such a big fuss of the work she produced when in nursery!)

When in A+E with Erin’s second broken finger inside 6 months a few years ago, we were asked if we had a social worker. (My Twitter followers will be aware that Erin is the daredevil one who breaks bones!)

I used to feel guilty about not being able to be everywhere in the academy; I don’t now. Motherhood has made me accept that you make choices with the best information available to you at the time, and exercising the best love and judgement you can – what happens next is not your fault. (Although it is your problem!)

Schools and academies go through similar development phases as a family
When first a Headteacher (particularly of a challenging school requiring turnaround) you have to do everything for them: everything comes to the Head’s office and everyone needs you to show them how it is done. The job is to ween them off and you know that, but as they are able to do things for themselves you have to adjust your style of leadership, and this can be painful. Watching an SLT able to run the school without you constantly role modelling everything is rewarding, but it is a bit like watching your child start school and manage without you.

When your academy becomes a teenager, you have to adjust again because it is far from the baby that needed your tender loving care, but it can be difficult to judge the level of guidance it needs – and, guess what? – yes, you’ll get that judgement wrong sometimes!

Above all being a mother has taught me that you make choices and you make the best of them
The best choice I ever made was marrying Steve, because he is a superb father and husband. I cannot even begin to understand how single parents cope. We made the choice that he would be the carer and I would have a career. It made sense at the time and it has worked pretty well for us – I certainly couldn’t have done what I have done without him at home – but not being a double income family has had other consequences.

The truth is you cannot have it all. I sense a lot of angst amongst a lot of colleagues who strive for perfection in their professional leadership and in their home life. I know I cannot have that, even if I make different choices!

I didn’t make the choice to be born female, and one day I will blog about how the educational establishment treat women like me, but not for many years yet!


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What I have learned about improving teaching

Teaching and teachers have never been better.

I started teaching in 1984.  I wasn’t given targets, there was no focus on learning, no-one was interested in the students’ results and I was judged to be excellent because difficult teenagers behaved in my classes!  I see young entrants to the profession now engaged in discussions about pedagogy, understanding data and using it, interested in academic study about leadership of teaching and learning and with no expectation of 13 weeks holiday a year completely free from all schoolwork.  I think it is sad that the public perception of the modern teacher is so rooted in the past.

Some people will never be able to teach.

This is something that people don’t admit.  Too often the fact you have a degree and want to be a teacher is seen as enough.  Err, no.  Some people, no matter how much guidance and training they are given, would lose control of a dead rabbit!  Some people are not natural communicators and teachers need to be communicators.  One of the most infuriating things about our profession is the way that everyone from journalists to taxi drivers, from politicians to refuse collectors, from parents to shop assistants know about teaching because they went to school!  The constant call for teachers to behave professionally is sadly not reflected with the same level of respect for their professional opinion and ability enjoyed by accountants, lawyers and doctors.

Teachers are essentially sociable creatures.

They like people and they like a job with human contact, particularly with the young of the species.  There are very few who don’t like children.  I have met the odd one or two over the years who don’t like children, but it is rare and I’d bet they didn’t start out like that.  By the time they get to that stage we have to have to get them out the profession, but it’s equally important to make sure that the factors which caused them to reach that stage are removed.

Teachers working together are far more effective than those working in isolation.

Ideas which are bounced around amongst enthusiastic professionals become great.  Confident enthusiasts build on each other’s work, learning is accelerated, evaluations are more effective and camaraderie raises morale, which raises enthusiasm and we have a virtuous circle.  Teachers’ needs for affiliation, recognition and all that “self-actualisation” stuff is met.  The system gets better, the teachers get better and the kids get a good deal.

 Far too many teachers work in isolation.

There are many reasons for this.  Historically there was a view in the profession that a teacher could close their classroom door and be a king in their own classroom, free from “interference” of others.  Just plain daft.  There can also be a view that if a teacher admits they could do with ideas or support this means that they are “failing”, when of course the opposite is true: it is the confident who understand the importance of seeking help.  This nonsense is, however, still prevalent in lots of schools.  Thirdly, and in my view this is the most serious cause of teachers working in isolation, is the school that is in a downward spiral of isolation from governance, through to the head, through to the staff and ultimately the kids.

The downward spiral of isolation.

It works like this: a weakness in governance allows a “bunker mentality” to be adopted by the head.  The head knows that other schools have “a better intake”, that they are “favourites with the LA/diocese or both”, that “competitor” schools were “very lucky in their last OFSTED” etc etc.  this head doesn’t network much because s/he has little real confidence (although this can be heavily disguised).  Decisions are often not made or made by default and student behaviour plummets.  The culture of excuses and isolation emanates throughout the building.  Teachers who have ideas find it’s best to keep them to themselves because “raising your head above the parapet means you’ll be shot down”.  What happens in schools doing this is that those who have a sense of what is happening, and who can, leave;  some teachers stay and maintain a good level of performance, but are far from fulfilling their potential and, for the majority their performance is way below what it needs to be.

Heads are the people responsible for monitoring teacher performance and this is a core skill of headship.

I’m not deliberately setting out to be controversial here, but these following points seem to me to be self-evident truths, and ones I want politicians to take note of:

1.     It is perfectly possible for heads to “sack” / “get rid of” failing teachers in a timely fashion.  The processes are there and are used effectively by good heads.

2.     If there are heads unwilling or incapable of using existing procedures, that is a capability issue about headship.

3.     Teachers who are “failing” can have their performance transformed through excellent leadership and this, together with that downward spiral described in the above paragraph, means that we cannot make judgements about teachers in isolation from leadership.

4.     Diluting the responsibility for heads to ensure good teaching will do nothing to improve the quality of leadership.

5.     The people who appoint heads and manage the performance of heads are governing bodies.  The link from weak governance to weak headship to weak teaching to failing schools is indisputable.

This is Ros banging on again about leadership!

Well, yes I am!  If anyone is responsible for licensing or re-licensing my teachers, it is me.  And if I am incapable of ensuring quality teaching, then I am incapable of headship and someone should do something about that.

Please can we have our National College back ……

as an independent organisation intellectually, ideologically and professionally committed to raising the quality of teaching and leadership, with a leader who is recognised across all sectors as outstanding and who has the confidence of the NLEs?  Give NLEs “teeth” in supporting schools and licensing other heads.  Allow the profession to control the CPD, through the college and led by the system.

I promise all the politicians that if you follow this formula teaching will look after itself.

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What I am learning about maintaining ethos

I have read a lot of blogs towards the end of the year from some fabulous well-respected leaders and colleagues about reasons to keep cheerful and positive.  I have also read some blogs from teachers which horrified me about how badly their schools were led and managed. I spent a good part of December at DYCA trying to figure out why our staff are so very positive and why our ethos remains so strong, given that this is clearly not the prevailing condition.

I am a very realistic woman and I know that things “out there” are pretty depressing. After all, for those of us working in the most challenging schools and academies, our students’ family situations are worsening, the budget situation is gloomy, it is extremely difficult to recruit teachers in core subjects, the media relentlessly report on negative statements from HMCI and SoS about teachers (while under reporting anything positive), all school employee living standards are eroding, OFSTED is losing (maybe lost?) the confidence of the profession and heads are increasingly subject to “football manager syndrome”, with some well-respected leaders losing their jobs unfairly and stupidly.

And yet what I see everyday at DYCA are teams of staff driving up their own performance, supporting each other in loving and challenging ways with great humour, senior staff exuding enthusiasm and joy in their leadership roles and with high levels of credibility, rising standards and lots of fun.  (By the way, I have spent most of my time as CEO of LEAF recently and so take no personal credit for this!).  DYCA operates in the most challenging of circumstances and so this requires some reflection.  Having had a few days off work now which didn’t require cooking for huge numbers, I’ve done a bit of that and can offer the following:

Leadership of love

I know I’m probably getting a reputation for “always banging on about love”, but it is the X Factor.

There are some golden rules in leadership: never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself; model behaviours you wish to see in others in ALL interactions; embrace collective responsibility; be prepared to admit mistakes; deal with the urgent urgently, and give time to the important; never pass the buck and deal with the most difficult people yourself; be generous with your time; don’t make excuses and tell the truth.

I am privileged to be surrounded by senior leaders and managers who have swallowed this rule book, but they also offer something more – they demonstrate a love and joy in their jobs, and a love and joy in working together, for the benefit of our community. They never flinch from telling the truth to anyone – staff, each other, parents – but they do so in humility and love, always with the offer of help and support to be be better.  I was once told “just because you can do difficult things, doesn’t mean to say you have to enjoy it, and if you did enjoy it, then you’re in the wrong job.”  Leaders who haven’t understood this either cannot tell the truth or become isolated and ineffective in supporting others when they do so.

I am very proud of the senior leaders and managers I work with, but more importantly than having my confidence, they have the respect and confidence of those they serve.  We were so very sad to say goodbye to one of our number who moved on recently and she reports that the aspect she misses most is “servant leadership”.  The thing about servant leadership is that it creates a virtuous circle which stops leaders themselves becoming lonely and isolated.

Confidence and Courage

If an academy or school knows its community well, understands its mission, has robust self-evaluation procedures and effective governance, then it should have the self confidence to “keep calm and carry on”.  I say this in humility – I have no understanding of why any head runs their school in a constant state of “preparation for OFSTED”.  I understand the pressure: indeed I am under more pressure than anyone and always have been, but focussing on OFSTED will prevent greatness, and our calling is to be great, which is not the same as being labelled “outstanding” by measures with which we do not always agree.

Floor targets, OFSTED grades, progress measures are not nonsense: indeed they are very helpful in moving our academies and schools forward in many ways, but they are not the total of what education is about.  My personal view is that as a system leader I have a duty to try and make these things as helpful as possible in assisting heads move their schools into greatness, but, as a Principal, when they are unhelpful, it is my duty to ignore them and to give all in my institution the courage to ignore them.

I firmly believe that when the staff in an academy or school see all the initiatives in their institution  geared towards external accountability measures, they are right to lose confidence in their leaders because the leaders have clearly lost confidence in themselves.

At DYCA we have a sub-committee on SLT made up entirely of SLEs; it is their role, not to look at preparation for OFSTED or published accountability measures, but to develop the teaching and learning service so that it meets our internal targets.  Sometimes these overlap with the external measures and sometimes they don’t; on a rare occasion they conflict, and in this eventuality it is always the needs of our students and our community that take precedence.  Staff buy into that because it comes from a leadership which is confident and secure.

High levels of challenge / High levels of support

There isn’t much to say about this other than you have to do both.  Interestingly, when I have read the blogs of teachers who are are unhappy with the school leadership they work with, it seems not so much that these things are unbalanced, but rather that they are just inappropriate or absent!

I remember 12 years ago, when first a head in a very difficult situation, realising the staff I was leading had never had either before: what was dressed as support was nothing of the kind – it was lack of challenge, and this had damaged everyone.  I have come to believe that it is impossible to have high levels of support without high levels of challenge.  I was told by HMI Tom Grieveson back in 2008 that it was because these two were in balance that morale was high at DYCA.  At that stage high morale at DYCA was a miracle, so this was useful feedback which has become part of the leadership mantra.

Culture and Climate

I can’t remember who taught me this definition: culture is how we do things here, but climate is how  it feels to work here.  We keep a careful eye on this, because routines and policies and procedures are all entirely subject to the quality of relationships!

If we want to get the best from all our staff, then they need to enjoy working here: they need to feel valued, rewarded, that coming to work is something they would miss and that they get personal growth and fulfilment from it.  This is as true for the facilities team as it is for the SLT.

At DYCA you see a lot of hugs, laughter, conversations between staff all over the place, acceptance of emotion, no division between “teaching and non-teaching” staff, staff and students entertaining each other and growing together in music, drama, sport, etc.etc.  These are all about climate.

Fun is an important dimension of all that we do and it also helps us develop understanding and tolerance of individual idiosyncrasies.  Middle leaders know that when reporting projected GCSE and IB grades it is best done in terms of betting odds than any fancy educational tool!  New staff know that they will be expected to dance with a Principal or Vice Principal at the Ceilidh and everyone knows “you don’t count the week / day we’re in” when counting down to a holiday.  Again these are all about climate.

 It is bigger than us

All of the above actually comes from “great moral purpose”.  We have a head start on this in two ways.  Firstly, you don’t come to work in areas like this (and get past interview with me!) unless you have it, and secondly we are a faith academy.  Faith academies and schools have a bit of a head start on great moral purpose.  We are explicitly multi-faith and have no faith requirement for admission or appointment, but we are explicit about where our moral purpose comes from: everyone is unique and loved by God and we are called to ensure that all can achieve their full potential for the greater glory of God through our service.

In practice this looks strange to those used to traditional faith schools.  For instance the Christian prayers on Tuesdays and Muslim prayer on Fridays often are attended by the same students!  All major religious feasts are celebrated: 1,000 students listen in respectful silence while Muslim students sing prayers in Arabic at Eid and also appreciate the Easter celebration.  This gives us a head start in creating a culture in which staff and students alike can feel accepted; where sexism, racism and homophobia are unacceptable, and where standing for a minutes silence is a relatively commonplace event.

This final point sums up all the  others really – we are not about an OFSTED grade or a league table place, we are not about personal credibility or ambition; we are about service, and this comes from our great moral purpose.  Thankfully, thus far, this has enabled us to keep positive and successful despite the currents and external pressures.

I hope these reflections resonate with some of you.

Happy new year!

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What I am learning about the new accountability measures

Accountability measures drive behaviour, schools get pilloried for that behaviour, teacher morale plummets, young people feel their achievements are undermined, school leaders get demoralised and the public lose confidence in the system.  That’s how it works, right?

 Well that has certainly been an emerging pattern and the big fear was that we would get more of the same in the new measures.

 For the first time in a long time, however, I am smiling.  I know it is early days, that the devil will be in the detail, that we have yet to see the effects etc etc, but I have looked at the behaviours these measures will drive and, up to now, I am smiling.  Here’s why:

 1.     Teaching to the middle has been a constant drag on our education system. Although not entirely removed (apparently the % at C + in English and Maths will still be reported, but not as main measure), the ridiculous cliff edge of D/C borderline removal, should remove the worst behaviours. I’ve done it myself to my shame: removed kids from other subjects for extra English and Maths.  And the worst of that is that it was never the kids who were desperate to improve from an B to an A, or an F to an E: oh no, we sacrificed everything to the precious C.  The effect this has had on the aspirations of parents, children and teachers has been appalling. The profession should be dancing in the streets about the change to all grades counting in the measure.

 2.  With individualised floor standards for schools, based on students’ prior attainment, we will no longer have the disincentive to work in and lead schools in challenging areas.  This is important, because poor kids need the best leaders and teachers and it was getting to a point where it was career ending to choose to be there.

 3.  Every child counts in these new measures. Ensuring that those who can move from F to D,E to C, and B to A* all count brings us back to a serious personalisation agenda.  This is something else Labour supporting teachers should be dancing in the streets about. ‘The tyranny of the C’ lowered expectations of bright poor kids and abandoned far too many because they would never get to a C.

 4.  Although at first glance it looks like a way of making all schools make all children do an EBacc (an invented random collection of GCSE valued by some politicians with no supporting evidence from employers or universities), it really isn’t.  Yes, they will report on % EBacc, but it won’t be the main accountability measure and those of us who choose to ignore it will continue to ignore it. The reality is ‘the basket of 8’ need not mean everyone does a language, science or humanity. I checked and for the student who wants to specialise English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Product Design, and Business will have filled her ‘basket of 8’.  As would the student doing English, Maths, Latin, History, French, RE, Sociology and Economics.  I’m not suggesting that it is desirable for large numbers of students to specialise early on – just that they should be able to do so, if appropriate.  And they can.  Hurrah!

 5.  Even better,  this measure actively encourages appropriate curriculum for students with alternative or special needs.  The matrix, which to be fair we have yet to see, will use prior attainment to project points students need to achieve at GCSE.  An SEN student with low prior attainment may be projected to get only 8 G Grades at GCSE (8 points).  In arranging an appropriate curriculum for such a student it may be decided that he does Maths, English and 3 BTecs: the basket of 8 will not be filled, but the points scored could be higher than 8 due to the appropriateness of the curriculum.  Incentivising schools to ensure appropriate personalised curriculum for all students designed to maximise their outcomes.  A big smile from me for that one!

 6.  My final smile is that the progress floor standard appears to be statistically sensible.  We have been pretending for too long that ‘3 levels of progress’ is an appropriate target for all.  Statistically students with high prior attainment make more than 3 levels of progress and those with very low prior attainment make less.  This will now be recognised in setting floor standards.

 My early conclusion is that these new measures are challenging and fair.

 Perhaps, even more importantly, they are about personalisation and every child getting the best.  I hope the smile isn’t wiped from my face as we see implementation!

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