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The Goldilocks rule of Multi Academy Trusts

As we are beginning to emerge from the pandemic, many people are asking big questions about our education system – is the curriculum fit for purpose, what is the purpose of exams and assessment, how should we manage accountability, and, perhaps most fundamentally, how should our system be organized to cope with the challenges of the future?

It’s clear that MATs will now play a major part in this system –Gavin Williamson recently stated that by the end of this parliament, he expected to see ‘many more’ schools clustered together in MATs and even the Labour party, who have always been among the most critical, have quietly dropped proposals to dismantle the system. Given that over 50% of pupils are already educated in academies, and the majority are part of MATs, this has the feel of an unstoppable force.

In recent days, I have read opinion pieces from Emma Knights, CEO of the National Governance Association calling for a stronger lead from government on the direction of travel and from Jon Coles, of the United Learning Trust, arguing for trusts to become significantly larger across the board, rivalling the size of Local Authorities or NHS Trusts. Leora Cruddas, from the Confederation of Schools Trusts has put forward imaginative proposals for a system dominated by trusts filling a role as new ‘civic structures’. The debate is taking place and the consequences are very significant.

The difficulty with the debate is that the term MAT covers so many different models of governance and organisation, from the very largest Trusts with centralized curricula and policy, to small local groups of schools who retain their own distinctive character and a large element of local governance. We are in danger of stumbling towards an ill-thought out and ineffective structure that is incredibly difficult to unpick. Before we continue too much further along the journey, surely it makes sense to decide on the destination, and if MATs are a part of that picture, to decide what the ideal model and size of MAT should be.

To this end, there are some fundamental principles that must underpin our system, and which the system should be able to meet if it is fit for purpose.

  1. The purpose of our school system is to give the best possible start in life to all pupils and groups of pupils, without exception
  2. School leaders must have autonomy to respond to their local context
  3. Schools must have access to support and high-quality professional development
  4. The success of a school or trust must not come about at the expense of other schools
  5. Schools and those who lead and govern them must be transparent and accountable, not only for pupil outcomes, but for the way they use public money

The optimum structure to enable maximum school effectiveness depends upon finding the right balance between a number of competing elements. On the one hand, there is a balance between individual school autonomy and shared capacity, and on the other there is a balance between holding schools to account (and therefore those responsible for leading and governing them) and providing the support and development they need. I believe that the key to a successful school system is finding a way to accommodate all of these pressures, to find the sweet spot which gives schools the agency to respond to their local need, whilst at the same time operating collaboratively within a wider system.

School autonomy allows local school leaders to make decisions in their own context, to respond to the needs of their students and the priorities of their local community. It’s been the guiding principle of school organisation in this country for three decades, since the advent of Local Management of Schools and the handing of budget responsibility to Head Teachers and Governing Bodies. Head Teachers, along with their senior leadership teams and governing bodies, have become exceptionally skilled at making decisions about a whole range of areas, from curriculum, to budget-setting, from staffing to behaviour policy. There’s an irony in the fact that the benefits of academisation are often expressed in terms of school freedoms, when the experience of individual schools in large MATs is very often the complete opposite. The fear of losing hard-earned and highly-prized autonomy is one of the principal reasons why so many school leaders are fearful of academisation. Put simply, autonomy allows for creativity, diversity and the ability to respond to the context of the school.

However, for many schools, the downside of autonomy is that it is often accompanied by isolation. Autonomy, therefore, is not enough without Shared Capacity. This is where I have seen at first hand the benefits of schools coming together. Sharing administrative and back office functions such as Finance and HR, negotiating improved contracts, pooling resources to support long-term investment – all enable school leaders to operate more efficiently and concentrate their energies on the important task of ensuring that provision in the classroom is as good as it can be.

Much deeper than the practical and organisational gains, are the benefits of schools working in a true partnership, sharing ethos and goals, and co-operating for the benefit of all. This may be seen in the way schools share expertise by forming networks and peer support groups, the reduction in isolation for school leaders who can seek advice and bounce ideas off trusted colleagues, the way that curriculum can be enhanced through shared planning and moderation, the opportunities for enrichment across schools – I could go on, but the benefits of meaningful collaboration are well documented. This is the key argument for the deep partnership that comes about from schools working in the best MATs, united by a common purpose and shared values.

So this is how we arrive at the Goldilocks rule – if MATs grow too big, school autonomy inevitably reduces as power is concentrated in the centre, if they’re too small, capacity is spread too thinly and schools are isolated. The precise number of schools that we arrive at following the application of this principle is, of course, a matter of opinion and varies depending on context, but my rule of thumb would be that if the Head Teachers cannot meet together with everyone having a voice, the MAT is too large and power will inevitably be drawn to the centre, but if it’s too small to offer the full range of central and shared services, support and expertise is unlikely to be available when it’s needed. In our small but growing trust, we estimate this number to be between 10 and 15 schools.

So far, so idealistic. The problem is that in practice the system of Multi-Academy Trusts hasn’t always covered itself in glory. I can’t tell you how much my heart sinks when I read of the latest MAT CEO who has managed secure a pay rate higher than the Prime Minister, or a Trust with eye-watering exclusion or off-rolling rates. MATs have often not responded well to genuine concerns That’s why the system will not work unless there is effective Accountability, which is both transparent and locally responsive.

It’s a topic for another piece, but my belief is that Local Authorities have a key role in holding MATs to account on behalf of the whole school community for the way they use public funds and discharge their statutory responsibilities in areas such as admissions, SEND and employment practices, and therefore the best way to provide effective accountability is through a combination of Local Authorities and a refocused Ofsted, both carrying out very distinct roles. Without a significant change in the way that MATs are held to account, the system will never command full public trust and support.

The final, and absolutely essential part of the structure, and one where the DfE can play a truly significant role, is Professional Support and Staff Development. We often hear about evidence-based strategies – in reality, the strategy for improving pupil outcomes with the strongest evidence base is to improve the quality of teaching through the professional development of teachers. There are encouraging signs that the DfE is beginning to recognise this – the Early Careers Framework and restructuring of the NPQ programmes, for example. This does not need to be a centrally-driven, command and control strategy, but we should use the expertise of Universities, Teaching School Hubs, grassroots CPD organisations, subject associations and so on, to make our teaching force among the best-informed and highly-skilled in the world.

Whether or not we recognise it, we’re in the process of reorganising our education system in a way that will have profound consequences. Waiting to see what happens in the hope we will emerge with a fit-for-purpose system is a high-risk strategy, especially considering the consequences of failure for our young people. In my view, a system of medium-size school clusters or partnerships provided through our developing system of Multi-Academy Trusts is the ideal way to deliver the education system for the 21st century , as long as, in the words of Goldilocks, we get it ‘just right’.

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What goes up, must stay up – the delusion of social mobility

There are some things that are so obviously a good thing that it would be perverse to argue otherwise – motherhood, apple pie, long walks on the beach, an end to world hunger, social mobility – what’s not to like?

Well, at the risk of appearing perverse, I’m begging to differ. Not about apple pie – you can have that one, and world hunger. But the quest for social mobility, in my view, is a damaging and futile one.

The concept of Social Mobility is built on a fundamental belief about the structure of society, namely that society is structured in a hierarchy, and each of us is assigned a starting place within that hierarchy. Since there is plenty of evidence to show that it can be extraordinarily difficult for somebody born into a lowly position in that hierarchy to move to a higher place, we need to make it easier for that person to move upwards, to a place more suited to their abilities and merit. Social Mobility is most often defined in entirely material terms, primarily income.

Anecdotally, we can all describe people who ‘deserve’ a higher place in this hierarchy – the bright child who couldn’t go to university because they needed to go out and work, the naturally instinctive dancer whose parents couldn’t afford ballet lessons.

One of the problems with the concept of course is the fact that as long as we’re accepting the existence of a hierarchy, we have to accept that for every person who climbs upwards, there’s someone else who slips downwards – it would be nice and convenient if the losers in this process all turned out to be over-entitled Hooray Henrys who’d never done a hard day’s graft in their lives, but there’s probably not enough of those and anyway, justice is rarely served so neatly.

If we are to promote social mobility, what are the criteria that we use for identifying worthy candidates? Talent, hard work, or a combination of both? Working in a shortage area? Ability to make money? All the decisions we make are loaded, based on social constructs and influenced by prejudices, visible and invisible.

I suspect I won’t have convinced everyone yet. So, one more scenario, which I’m posing as the father of a daughter with a significant disability which affects both cognitive and physical ability and therefore potential employment and economic success. Where does she fit in? She hasn’t gone to university and won’t achieve higher-level apprenticeships. She tries her best and is an amazing and much-loved person, but for reasons completely beyond her ability to control, she’s unable to sustain her efforts for as long as the vast majority of her peers.

In a system based on social mobility, I’m assuming her mobility is downwards. Not just hers, but many thousands like her, or others who have different but equally compelling reasons why the race is skewed against them. We may be able to provide a soft landing but it’s downhill all the way, I’m afraid.

Now, I’m not arguing that the system doesn’t need fixing – entrenched advantage in our country means that a small handful of schools and universities provide the majority of people who make the decisions over our lives. Institutional racism blights the ambitions of many people who could be offering so much more. Lack of educational opportunity is repeated in some of our communities generation after generation. What I am arguing is that reshuffling the pack is not the answer.

As long as we insist on ranking people, inequalities and unfairness will exist. As a society we love to do this – Rich Lists, 100 most influential women, Top 20 social media influencers – Sunday papers and magazines sell lots of copies based on meeting this desire. It reinforces one key message – inequality, that some people are better than others. By elevating the value of some, we diminish the value of others.

During the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, there was a fundamental shift in the way certain roles in society were viewed. For example, it was suddenly realized that workers in care homes, until that point amongst the lowest paid and least-regarded of occupations, performed a vital service. We could survive a few months without access to Michelin-starred restaurants, but we needed our bins emptying. We could even do without watching Premier League footballers, but we needed someone to put toilet rolls on supermarket shelves.

Will this lead to the promotion of care workers in our league table, or increase the possibility that shelf stackers or refuse collectors will become socially upwardly-mobile? Based on previous experience, it’s unlikely.

If we’re not careful, social mobility becomes the enemy of equality. It means not that the best and brightest succeed, but the ones who are best-suited to doing the things to which we give the highest economic value, and it’s the people already in prime position who get to decide what that is.

If we paid more attention to power structures rather than economic status, then we may take a different view, and unfortunately, our education system is one of the factors that is most influential.

Over a period of decades, many well-meaning policy makers have tried to raise the status of vocational education in the UK, with very little success. It’s always seen as the poor relation, the route you take, not because you display a particular talent for practical tasks or problem-solving, but because you’re not clever enough to follow an academic route. The post-war structure of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns was designed with the best of intentions to guide youngsters along the path to work which best suited them. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way – you took an exam at the age of 11, and if you passed, you went to grammar school. Nobody ever passed an exam to get into a secondary modern. Social stratification had well and truly begun at age 11.

It’s a problem that is particularly marked in this country. In many other European countries, including some with high-performing economies, adults who work in practical jobs are not allocated a lowly place on society’s ladder and therefore students who take vocational courses are not the poor relations that they are in the UK. Given that as a society, we need the full range of jobs to be filled, then seeing only some of those roles as an indicator of success is a recipe for widespread dissatisfaction at the very least. Social mobility comes at the cost of social cohesion.

Is it too much to ask that instead of seeing our society as a race in which there are winners and losers, and in which every person’s success is inevitably accompanied by someone else’s failure, we should instead recognise that there is a place for everyone? That place should obviously depend upon your ability and aptitude, not your class, race or gender, but one role should not automatically be seen as better than another. Wouldn’t it be better to aspire to achieve social justice, rather than social mobility?

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This is the moment…

After a year of relentless bad news, there’s now a real sense of a corner being turned and a promise of better times ahead. The desire to return to the familiar rhythms of life before the pandemic is palpable, whether that’s sitting in a pub, going to a concert, or packing for a holiday abroad. You only have to look at a newspaper or watch a government press conference to see that a return to full school opening is a potent symbol of this desire, and will be a key marker that society is on its way back to full health.

After the year we’ve all just lived through, the hope of a return to normal is understandable and comforting.  I know that the moment when I see a school hall full of pupils listening dutifully to an Assembly, or hear singing coming from a distant music room, or see a classroom with students crowded round tables engrossed in a group discussion will be a heartwarming signal that the worst is definitely over.

However, despite this natural desire, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever be returning to school as ‘normal’. The impact of an event that was completely unimaginable a couple of years ago, and has left over a hundred thousand fellow citizens dead and many more struggling with the health, economic and emotional consequences, has been profound and will be around for some time to come. Given that a return to business as usual is unlikely to be possible, the bigger question is why we would want to.

History tells us that times of turmoil and disaster are very often followed by times of regeneration and creativity. In medieval Italy, the Black Death was followed by the Renaissance, and in our country the second world war was followed by the creation of the welfare state. Humankind has shown a remarkable ability to demonstrate resilience and rebuild no matter what we have been faced with.

We are (hopefully) emerging from a time of turmoil, but still have a system that was feeling outdated even before the pandemic. It was designed for a very different world, based on an employment market that has not existed for some time, arbitrary age breaks that have no basis in the pattern of children’s learning, a calendar designed around an agrarian society and a curriculum that has emerged through the influence of tradition and special interests.

There’s no reason why this should continue to be the case. We now have huge amounts of research evidence and opportunities to learn from education systems around the world. We have a far greater understanding of the science and craft of teaching and learning, and how that can be developed within the workforce and implemented in classrooms. We are going through a technological revolution that opens up huge possibilities in knowledge accessibility and curriculum design.

And, uniquely, we have a moment of opportunity, a moment when the foundations of our established system – public examinations, school attendance, the home-school divide – have been shaken. Whatever we decide, we will have to rebuild. Are we really saying that we will rebuild to the exact same plan we had before? That there is no way we can do this better?

I believe that there are a number of key questions that should guide our thinking as we survey the landscape:

  • The vision and purpose of education – Are we simply educating our children to get a decent job, or to become good and productive citizens? Is it the job of schools to develop creativity, a love of the arts, environmental awareness, social conscience, community engagement? If so, how do we design an education system to achieve these goals?
  • Governance and structures – How do we ensure agile and improvement-focussed systems of governance? Is that through collaborative groups of schools, as in the MAT model? How do we build in true democratic accountability and understanding of the local context?
  • Teaching and learning – Is there an evidence-based consensus about the most effective methods? What are the implications of the possibilities offered by technology?
  • Assessment and Accountability – How do we give reassurance that schools are providing the best possible standard of education for all children? How do we use information to aid improvement, by looking forward, not back?
  • Workforce – How do we ensure that our workforce is trained to the highest standard possible, and that high-quality professional development is an expectation throughout a teaching career? Is the balance between teachers, leaders and support staff the right one?
  • Curriculum – What is the curriculum that all pupils are entitled to? How much flexibility do we give to individual schools or pupils? How do we make sure our curriculum design is nimble enough to adapt to the changes in society that will inevitably come?

I have heard many voices, representing a wide range of views, calling for a new beginning, a desire to do things better. We need a structured national conversation including government, political parties, students, parents, teachers (independently, through membership bodies like the Chartered College and through their professional associations), Governance organisations (NGA, CST), Local Authorities, HE and research bodies, employers – anyone with an interest in ensuring that our children are schooled in the best way possible, which is everyone, as far as I can see.

It should be commissioned by government, but led by people with independence, credibility and expertise, and charged with providing a blueprint for the future of our education system, and it should start now, and become a permanent depoliticised fixture on our national scene.

This is the moment – if not now, when?

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How to recover from Covid learning loss – Guaranteed!

Whenever the long term cost of the pandemic is considered, we soon come to the impact on children, blighted by the disruption to their schooling which has lasted for almost a year, and looks set to cast a shadow long into the future. There have been countless suggestions about how we should help children ‘catch up’ for lost learning – repeating a year, summer schools, 1:1 tuition, reducing the curriculum – all starting from the premise that something must be done.

Everyone claims, of course, that their preferred solution is the one based on evidence. I can imagine that the diligent and well-meaning compilers of the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which evaluated the evidence of impact of a range of interventions, shake their heads in despair when they see their work weaponised to suit a particular agenda. Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Select Committee was the latest exponent, explaining on the nation’s morning radio shows that extending the school day would lead to a catch-up benefit of two months. The fact that this evidence was described by EEF as ‘moderately secure’ and dependent on a number of other conditions being in place was not mentioned, nor was the fact that this strategy was actually judged to be far less effective than the majority of other strategies identified, including Metacognition (7 months benefit), Reading Comprehension Strategies (6 months), Collaborative Learning (5 months) and use of Feedback (a whopping 8 months).

Everyone’s entitled to their view, of course. However, before that becomes policy, and attracts huge amounts of public funding, surely we should consider a few other perspectives. Here’s my suggestions, based on a combination of evidence, my experience in schools, and my observation of the events of the last year, and collected neatly into a 5-point plan:

  1. Don’t Panic
  2. Invest in teachers’ professional development
  3. Reform the accountability system….
  4. …and then pass decision-making to schools
  5. Abolish SATs and completely reform (and massively downsize) the KS4 exam system
  • Don’t Panic

Of all the nonsense written and spoken about the impact of Covid school closures, the confident assertions that children are ’10 months behind’ (or whatever figure has been plucked out of thin air) are probably the ones with the least evidential justification. Learning doesn’t follow a neat incremental journey of equidistant steps and children’s development doesn’t just stop when they’re not in school. What is important is not where they are now compared to an estimate of where they would have been if none of this had happened, but where they need to go next in order to reach their destination.

I accept that students who are coming to the end of their time in education need particular attention to make sure that they are prepared for the next steps in their journey, but the vast majority of children and young people will benefit from schools operating as well as they possibly can over the coming years, not from some mad dash to ‘catch up’ in as short a time as possible. The evidence of resilience in children’s learning (see Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning Effect Sizes’) indicates that given time, children’s learning is unlikely to be adversely affected. Our energy is far better used to make sure that improvements are sustained and long-term.

  • Invest in teachers’ professional development

You want an evidence-based approach? Well, this is it. The secret to high-performing education systems is not really that much of a secret – they train their teachers to a high standard, not just at the start of their career, but all the way through. There are so many ways that we can do this – offer guaranteed time and funding for individual professional development at all career stages, increase access to research and offer opportunities to take part, restructure appraisal processes to focus on growth and development, structure opportunities for genuine collaboration (please not just top-down ‘hubs’) – but almost all of them require a cultural shift that puts professional learning at the heart of school development. Oh, and if we really want this to have an impact, extend the concept to all staff engaged in pupil progress.

  • Reform the accountability system….

School performance tables make things worse, not better. They lead schools to focus on a narrow range of outcomes and to prioritise particular groups of students, and they distort the curriculum. What’s more, they waste time and energy. The evidence is strong, (Leckie and Goldstein, 2009; Burgess et al, 2005) and has never been successfully refuted, but league tables have become a sacred cow of our performativity structure.

Let’s be honest, even if there was a sound reason to do it, comparing school performance in the coming years is going to be a lottery – apart from the fact that we’ve lost two years’ worth of national data, trying to understand the differential impact of Covid on each school will be an impossible task.

That doesn’t mean schools should operate without public accountability – this is the role of the Inspectorate. However, in this current effort, Ofsted needs to do more than objectively report – it needs to be a force for improvement. As someone involved in inspection, it always seems a waste of an opportunity that inspectors can’t work alongside schools to support improvement.

I would propose that all schools are inspected annually, a collaborative process in which inspectors are able to make suggestions and offer advice, and which produces one of two outcomes – yes, the school is providing an acceptable standard of education, or no, it isn’t. In the case of the former (on current proportions we’re talking 90% of schools), the report celebrates successes, identifies weaknesses and suggests areas for development. If it’s the latter, inspectors will either give notice of the improvements they expect to see by the next inspection, or recommend external action.

  • …and then pass decision-making to schools

The corollary to the fact that our schools operate in such a high accountability environment has to be that they have the freedom to make decisions. Centrally mandated solutions will never be responsive enough to meet the needs of every local context.

I can’t express how frustrating it has been to see hundreds of millions of pounds allocated to support catch-up learning, and then find out that we can only access it if we follow the National Tutoring Programme, a programme delivered by third parties who don’t know our students, who aren’t able to plan alongside our teachers and who don’t allow us to utilise our current staff.

  • Abolish SATs and completely reform (and massively downsize) the KS4 exam system

The simplest and most obvious proposal of all. If anyone is arguing that we need to lengthen the school day or reduce holidays because of the urgent need to give children more time, whilst at the same time believing that we should keep Year 6 SATs, then I can only assume they have no idea of the amount of time that SATs preparation and administration drains out of the system. The only reason for favouring SATs over the assessment of skilled teachers who know the children well, is if they are intended to judge schools, not assess children – is this really the current priority?

I believe the same argument applies to GCSEs. I’ve argued before (Putting the Horse before the Cart) that in a system where students stay in formal education or training until at least the age of 18, GCSEs are becoming redundant, but the time and energy spent on preparing for them has a colossal impact on the curriculum through the whole of a student’s secondary school life. Drastically reducing the exam burden for our 16-year-olds would put huge capacity back into the curriculum, with no cost to their long-term prospects.

A less-recognised aspect of our current exam system is the frankly scandalous amount of resource that it drains out of the system – the cost of invigilation, exam fees, ensuring practical arrangements etc runs into the tens or hundreds of thousands for every secondary school in the country. Just think how this could be used if it was diverted to activities that were actually designed to improve student progress, rather than just measure it. It would provide a financial bonus way beyond anything we’ve seen so far from this or any other government in recent times.

So, that’s my plan – nothing that others haven’t said before, but I guarantee that it will allow our children to not just catch up, but go further than they would have done before. The cynic in me says I can confidently offer this guarantee because it’s so unlikely to come to fruition, but that doesn’t make it any less true. What would you do?

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The Three Little Words that no leader should be afraid to say

We all have an image of a great leader – usually someone who is wise, fair and inspiring, who we turn to in times of need. When we go to them with a problem, they provide the solution. They know stuff, and when they tell us, we can put our trust in it.

The problem with such aspirational images is that those of us who are mere mortals feel the pressure to present this model of leadership to their team at all times, however unrealistic it might be. The irony is that it is often the most inexperienced and unconfident leaders who feel the greatest pressure to be all-knowing. They are terrified that the mask might slip, and they will be exposed as someone who has no more special powers than everyone else in the team.

This means that there are three words that many leaders feel terrified of saying – ‘I don’t know’.

We see this most starkly with politicians. When the Prime Minister stands up at Question Time, or a minister is being interviewed on Newsnight, or even when a prospective MP is taking part in a hustings at the local church hall, ‘I don’t know’ is almost the worst answer they can give. They need to be able to talk about energy strategy, crime figures, fiscal policy, trade agreements – whatever the subject that’s thrown at them, they feel the need to project an image of someone with the facts at their fingertips and the knowledge securely in their head.

Of course, that’s not the reality – we can’t know everything. Leaders have not been chosen simply because they can store more knowledge than anyone else in the organisation. Not knowing is not the same as not being able to.

In fact ‘I don’t know’ are words that can have great power – depending on the words that immediately follow them.

‘I don’t know, what do you think?’

‘I don’t know, I’ve struggled to find that out as well. I wonder if X might know?’

‘I don’t know yet, I’m going to read up on this.’

‘I don’t know, this is the first time I’ve seen this happen, we need to watch this very carefully?’

‘I don’t know, let me have a think about it and I’ll get back to you.’

Let’s face it, if a leader knew everything, they really wouldn’t need a team. There is a simple solution to the problem of not knowing something – finding it out. Having spent so much time in classrooms where pupils expect us to know everything, we fall into the habit of assuming that’s our default position.

Schools are complex institutions, and have become progressively more complex in recent decades. Managing this complexity is an essential part of school leadership – school leaders have the ultimate responsibility for pupil outcomes, safeguarding, premises management, HR, data management security, pedagogy, behaviour, staff CPD, the list goes on. It’s impossible to be an expert in all these areas, and ultimately it’s not sensible to try. In fact, when the desire to be seen as all-knowing and super-confident becomes too great, it can prevent us from seeking advice and support, or from admitting that a change is necessary.

Obviously, presenting a confident and positive face is an essential leadership skill, but so is authenticity and honesty and we sometimes have to balance the two. It also can work against building a true collaborative team – if the leader of a team has all the answers, the rest of us are simply functionaries.

By 2020, I had been in school leadership positions for 28 years in a wide variety of roles and contexts, and it was 23 years since my first headship – I had been round the block a few times, bought the T-shirt, seen it all. I was falling into the trap of thinking that ‘I don’t know’ was something I didn’t really need any more. Then came coronavirus. Suddenly ‘I don’t know’ was the only sensible response for school leaders, and I was no exception.

However, the myth of the all-knowing leader proved a hard one for many people to ignore, and much of the pressure and stress that many school leaders felt came down to the fact that they felt that they should have the answers, purely by virtue of their job title. On many occasions, members of staff, parents and governors come to the Head with crucial high-stakes questions – when will schools be open again? How can you guarantee that everyone in school will be safe? How are you going to make sure that students aren’t disadvantaged by the time they have spent learning at home? – to which the only honest and sensible answer is ‘I don’t know’, but that may be the last thing people want or need to hear. This is why the words that follow it are the ones where true leadership can be shown.

Thanks to the excellent range of training and development opportunities available for leaders, new Head Teachers take on the role far better informed and equipped than in the days when I first became a Head, although it could be argued that the complexity of the role has increased at the same rate. Does that make this message more or less important?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know…

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Performance Management to Professional Growth

Given how much is written and debated about improving school performance, you could be forgiven for thinking that it depended on a form of alchemy – a mystical collection of ingredients that only a few people truly understood. Governments and systems leaders have tried to find the elusive formula that will unlock school improvement, and many ideas have come and gone (and come round again, and gone again).

The surprising truth is that it’s not actually that difficult to identify what actually leads to sustained, deep, systemic school improvement. Those who work in schools know it instinctively, but it’s conveniently backed up by a huge amount of research evidence, international comparisons and cross-disciplinary study. As Thomas Guskey wrote over 20 years ago: ‘one constant finding in the research literature is that notable improvements in education almost never take place in the absence of professional development.’ (Guskey, 2000)

Put simply, the secret to effective, long-term and sustained school improvement is ensuring high-quality effective professional development for staff – in particular (but not exclusively) for teachers.

The problem of course is that knowing it and doing it are very different things. Firstly, there is no short cut – effective professional learning takes time. Secondly, it’s not cheap, and the cost is particularly seen in staff time. Thirdly, it won’t bring about improvement in predictable ways that neatly match the School Improvement Plan. And fourthly, and probably where this most often falls down, it crucially depends on the right ethos being in place – one where teachers are trusted to make professional decisions about their work.

It’s because of these barriers that we often go for strategies that seem quicker, cheaper or easier to control. There are plenty of off-the-peg solutions out there – detailed pre-written curriculum planning documents, teaching ticklists, online AI courses, the list is endless – that promise rapid and guaranteed school improvement, and when we have the spectre of Ofsted and performance tables hanging over us, this can seem very beguiling.

In our Trust, we had faced this dilemma over a period of time, and had worked away at it as best we could. However, there was one major hurdle that stood in the way of an ethos of professional growth and development – the Performance Management and Appraisal system. Over the years, it had become ingrained – we adopted the LA policies because unions had already been consulted and it met statutory obligations. You know the sort of thing: Teachers met with their line manager and set 3 objectives, with SMART targets and quantifiable success criteria. These are placed in a file, reviewed mid-year (or usually not), and a special performance management lesson observation takes place. One year later, the targets were reviewed and pay progression was either recommended, or not. It went fairly smoothly, but we had managed to develop a system that rewarded those teachers who managed to negotiate the least challenging objectives possible, and very often focused on things that had lost much of the relevance by the time a full year had passed.

Is there anyone out there who would seriously claim that the system of nationally-mandated Teacher Performance Management and Appraisal made any positive impact on the lives of children, let alone that it justified the hours that it swallowed up? There had to be a better way.

This, then, was the starting point for our journey, a journey that is still in its very early stages. Over the last year, we have begun to develop a different approach to supporting staff improvement, an approach that relies on the belief that given the right support and resource, our staff will embrace the opportunity to develop and improve. It is rooted in our Trust Values and ethos, and has been a collective endeavour.

I was also indebted to Chris Moyse of TLC Education Services and The Bridgwater College Trust who generously talked me through the Growing Great Teachers methodology he has developed, and I have drawn on the principles set out in Paul Garvey’s ‘Talk for Teaching’ and Kulvarn Atwal’s ‘The Thinking School’. I was also inspired by the many teachers who have taken responsibility for their own professional development through their own engagement with training and research. It has been inspiring for me to attend events where teachers share their ideas and understanding in a spirit of complete generosity, not because they have to or because it’s on their Performance Management plan, but because they want to and enjoy the stimulation and camaraderie of learning. The fact that events often take place at the weekend and are led by teachers relatively early in their career (special mention to Clive Hill and Steve Cox in the East Midlands) is particularly inspiring for a grizzled veteran like me.

So what does our new system look like. First of all, we have separated pay-related appraisal from the professional growth process completely. If a teacher is performing in line with the expectations of the Teacher Standards, taking into account their job description and level of seniority, then pay progression happens. On the rare occasions where that is in question, they don’t find out in a meeting at the end of the year, but effective QA and line management means that problems are picked up early and addressed, principally through support and positive coaching. Professional growth is not about justifying your salary.

That does not of course mean that it is a soft option, quite the opposite. Our policy is based fairly and squarely on asking ourselves the question: Whatever my career stage, whatever my current performance level, how can I do better in a way that improves things for the children and young people in my care?

So our teachers still set objectives, but they are based on what we call Career Goals. The goal is to improve and the role of the line manager is to help each teacher to identify the areas on which to focus. These might be areas of relative strength in which the teacher wants to become even more expert, or areas of relative weakness in which the teacher wants to develop and improve. It could be developing new skills or expertise, or learning more about a particular issue – anything that fits the definition of professional growth.

Improvement doesn’t happen spontaneously of course, there are a number of things that have to be present, but the key element is learning – as teachers we know this instinctively. Professional growth is accompanied by professional learning – that may be through reading and reflection, it may be via others, perhaps a mentor or someone providing an inspiring CPD course, or it may come from our own research and evaluation.

Another crucial part of our policy is what we are calling the ‘Three-part conversation’ which takes place each term between a teacher and their line manager, with outcomes recorded and shared by both parties. This is a supportive meeting, with no judgement or grading. The first part deals with the breadth of the teachers’ role, and is set in the context of the teacher standards – what is going well? Are there any concerns about particular classes or subjects? Which groups may need some additional support? etc

The second part is focused on Professional Growth, specifically the progress towards the career goals identified at the initial meeting. The plans will be revisited – not to tick off success criteria, but to reflect on the learning so far and refine the next stages of the journey. The key principle is that the career goals are owned by the teacher, not the institution.

The final part is explicitly focused on teacher wellbeing – not simply a ‘how are you’ conversation, but an opportunity for a teacher to talk about the things that may be causing difficulty or anxiety, and for their line manager to discuss support and resources (as a Trust we have invested in ensuring that help and support is available). This is an explicit acknowledgement that our commitment to staff wellbeing is authentic, and doesn’t wait for things to go wrong before the support is put in place.

It’s early days, and we will need to work hard to ensure that this does not becomes as formulaic as the system it is meant to replace, but the early signs are positive. Like any significant change, it needs careful nurturing and support as it becomes embedded. We are also extending the policy to encompass the professional growth of all support staff, for whom the principles are just as relevant and important.

Would I be proposing this if our schools still Required Improvement and our league table position was well below average? Maybe not, but that would probably be due to a failure of nerve rather than a belief that schools and their staff need to somehow earn the right to promote deep professional learning. What I do know is that trusting our schools and the staff who work in them is not just the right thing to do, but the best thing to do – let’s see where it can take us!

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Putting the Horse before the Cart

There are many parts of our lives that have been disrupted at best or completely destroyed by this pandemic – a drink in the pub with friends, going to a concert, having your nails done (less of a problem for me personally) – but one of the least lamented has been the scrapping of exams for the second year in succession. Indeed, the reaction from many quarters of the educational world ranged from relief to jubilation. The unmitigated disaster of 2020’s ‘mutant algorithm’ and the continuing disruption to normal school life had left many teachers and students skeptical about the possibility of a fair and robust system, and despite the lack of clarity about the replacement, it still felt like this was the only sensible decision.

However, the enforced abandonment of exams has led to a growing clamour for a full examination of the exam system from a surprising range of voices. Everyone from teacher unions to David Davis MP have said that this is the moment to reconsider our system. Scrap GCSEs, move to an International Baccalaureate, reinstate a strong vocational offer – there have been lots of ideas, some imaginative, most well-meaning, all based on dissatisfaction with the current system.

Seizing this moment makes sense. Even if we reinstate exams next year, the impact of two years of Centre Assessed Grades will continue for some time. Will we return to the attainment levels that we had before the pandemic? This would seem very unfair to the class of ‘22 who could well be competing for the same university places and jobs as their peers from this year’s cohort. Progress data will be hugely destabilised, given the fact that we have two year groups travelling through school without Year 11 data, followed by two further year groups without Year 6 data. If we’re going to shake up the system, now is the time to do it.

However, I have found much of the debate dispiriting in its scope, treating as it does, the issue as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be grasped. The question that we’re answering seems to be little more than how we find a fairer and more efficient way of managing the exam system, rather than trying to understand the purpose of our education system and the role of effective summative assessment. It’s almost as if the sport of football was designed so that the offside rule worked successfully – we might solve a particular problem, but if that happened at the expense of the whole game, would we call it a success?

The way that our secondary education system has been established is that we have two points at which students make a significant choice about their next steps – Year 11 and Year 13. Since the days when these points were established, the landscape has changed significantly. The era when the vast majority of young people would leave the education system at one of these points and directly enter the world of work have gone. Nowadays, for almost all students, age 18 is the threshold point at which a potential employer or academic institution needs an accurate picture of how their specific skills compare to their peers who might also be competing for the same spot.

By contrast, the decision taken at age 16 is to choose the model of learning that they will engage with during the next stage of their journey. This could be an academic sixth form, a vocational education route at an FE College, or an apprenticeship. There are almost no young people who take their GCSE exams and then leave all forms of education, and the few who do so tend to be the ones who have failed in the current system with almost no exam passes next to their name.

So the key information that we need for students at age 16 is which is the best route for them to follow. And yet the information we gather is how they compare to all students nationally in a suite of 8-10 subjects. I can think of almost no situations where that is needed to decide next steps.

Let’s take the example of a highly academic student, with an interest and aptitude in STEM subjects, unsure of their ultimate destination but certainly heading for university and perhaps intending to go on to become a doctor. What do we need to know about them at 16? We need to know that they have the ability to cope with a challenging academic curriculum, specialising in Maths and Sciences. We need to know that they are diligent and focused on study. We probably want to know that they are literate, well-read and developing good emotional and interpersonal skills. We would also like to know that they have had access to a broad and stimulating curriculum that has given them the opportunity to understand other areas of the curriculum – however, knowing how they have performed in these subjects compared to a national average is unlikely to be important or relevant.

Another example: a student who has had a successful school career without being an academic high-flyer, performing reasonably well across most subjects. They don’t have a clear idea about the job they will end up doing, but they have good people skills, and are interested in a service industry career, possibly retail or hospitality. This student is faced with a dilemma when they approach the end of Year 11. Do they continue with the gold standard academic route and focus on A levels, cut their losses and go down a vocational route, or hedge their bets with some combination of the two? The biggest problem we have in the promotion of vocational courses is that it is always seen as what you do if you are not capable of coping with an academic route – and given the way our exam structure works, why wouldn’t you think that?

Finally, let me offer another example, one that has some personal resonance: that of a 16 year old with a moderate learning disability attending a mainstream school. At the end of Key Stage 4, they are likely to attend the local FE college, where they will take part in a course with a strong emphasis on employability and life skills. They will be supported into work placements, with the hope of finding one which is well-suited to their interests and talents and could then lead to permanent employment, perhaps in a supported capacity. What do we need to know about this student at 16? We don’t need to know how their academic performance compares with the picture across the nation, a set of exam results which is basically a catalogue of failure. As the father of a child who has been in this position, I can report from first experience that it tells you nothing at all about that young person, other than that they have been badly served by the exam system. We need an assessment profile that tells you what they can do, where their strengths and interests lie, and hasn’t wasted half a year getting them to prepare for exams that serve no purpose.

If, like me, you’ve been around for a while, you may remember the Tomlinson report, published in 2004, probably the last serious attempt to wrestle with this problem by fundamentally re-imagining the structure of 14-19 education. It was well-received within education, but the scale of change proposed proved too controversial for the then Labour government and the Secretary of State for Education at the time, Ruth Kelly, not known as one of education’s great reformers. Widespread change at that time was seen as unnecessarily disruptive, whereas at the moment, the disruption has happened – it’s not a question of whether we’re going to rebuild our education system, but how we’re going to rebuild it – by trying to erect an exact copy of a system that is not fit for purpose, or by placing the needs and aspirations at the centre of our vision for education. The DfE, Professional Associations, curriculum bodies, Chartered College, stakeholder groups, employers – everyone who has an interest should be involved in the discussion. If not now, then when?

I haven’t written this piece with answers, not least because there are no easy answers, and because there are people out there who are more qualified than I am to make suggestion. However, acknowledging the problem and beginning a serious attempt to solve it is always a good start. We’ve evolved an education system that is set up to respond to the demands of its final exams – how about doing it the other way round?

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The year the Blob grew teeth

On the 1st January 2020, I posted a blog entitled ‘Reasons to be Cheerful – Why I’m feeling optimistic about teaching in the 2020s’. It’s fair to say that it didn’t age well, so this year I’m avoiding the temptation to make predictions. Instead, I’m taking the opportunity to look back at the previous year in search of positive changes that have happened in the world of education.

Keeping perspective has been difficult when we have had to manage multiple crises and make urgent decisions – there have been precious few opportunities to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. However, whether in schools or in wider society, within all the chaos, tragedy and hopelessness of the Covid pandemic, there have been beacons of hope and positivity, individuals and groups who have shown the power of our common humanity and the example of selflessness.

As school leaders, we have often had a feeling of powerlessness, particularly when we have had to respond to government decisions or government indecision. We have been subject to criticism based on ignorance of the work we have been doing (schools never closed!) and have all been accustomed to making multiple plans while waiting for the all-important DfE announcement or email guidance.

However, this feeling sometimes makes it hard to see a wider truth, which is that the world of education has become more united and more powerful in decision making than for many years. Look at some of the battles we have fought this year. Free school meals support, the scale of the reopening of schools in the summer term, exam algorithms that arbitrarily penalised some students, re-introduction of Ofsted inspections, school performance tables – the pattern has been the same. Government announce the policy in haste with minimal consultation, the world of education categorically declares that it is undeliverable and damaging in its current form, government insist that it will definitely go ahead as planned, right up until the moment when they announce that they’ve changed their minds and propose a more sensible option, which we then deliver.

The planned rollout of testing in secondary schools followed a now familiar trajectory. Government made their announcement – we will test every pupil in the first week back, some year groups stay at home for the first week, everyone back by the beginning of week 2. It’s an ill thought out plan, put together without any dialogue with school leaders. The educational world unites – Unions, Headteacher groups, Chartered College, Local Authorities, even the large MATs who will often try and support the government – and say it can’t be delivered in the timescale set out, there is then clearly a panicked conversation behind closed doors in government, and the policy is changed. A pyrrhic victory, perhaps, but another example of the way that government know that if we’re united, we’re difficult to face down.

Michael Gove famously described those of us work in education collectively as ‘The Blob’. Despite the insulting tone of the description, there is a truth lurking in there somewhere. Many attempts to bring about rapid change have foundered on the power of the education world to resist. If you want us to move, you have to convince us of the necessity of the change. Teaching is a true profession, and the nature of the professions means that its members have a level of autonomy in the classroom. Moreover, school leaders in the vast majority of schools have the trust and support of their local community, to an extent that politicians can only dream of – when it comes to a choice, parents will side with their local Head Teacher against the Secretary of State for Education almost every time.

This power only diminishes when the education world is divided, and one of the consequences of structural changes in recent years has been an increasingly divided system. The emergence of strong organisations such as the Chartered College of Teaching, the leadership of professional associations who have made an effort to speak for the wider educational world, and the opportunity for teachers to share perspectives through social media have all made a difference this year, and allowed us to speak with one voice when our backs are against the wall. Long may it continue.

As I said at the start, I’m avoiding predictions for education in 2021, other than to expect some difficult times ahead before we return to anything that looks like normality. It’s perfectly possible that the cycle will continue of government diktats, followed by resolute resistance from educators, and a climbdown and change of policy. Wouldn’t it be nice if the DfE saved a huge amount of time and conflict, simply by asking us what we thought first, listening to our replies and trusting that we want the best for children?

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If you can lose your head when all about you are keeping theirs…

As an exercise in futility and blind optimism, it would be hard to beat the example of a Head Teacher setting out a detailed plan of their day during 2020. Even the vaguest idea of clearing a few emails, writing a letter to parents, and contacting the Chair of Governors is likely to be scuppered by the phone call from a key member of staff letting you know that their 7 year old has been sent home from school with a persistent cough and they won’t be back for a fortnight, or working out how to get laptops and dongles to the latest group of self-isolating disadvantaged pupils, or god forbid, a phone call from the HSE asking you to explain how you’re maintaining social distancing in a classroom of 30 10-year olds.

Perhaps the most accurate plan for the day would be to scrawl ‘Deal with stuff’ in large letters across every diary page. It’s crisis management, it’s exhausting and at the end of the day, you’re no further forward than when you started. We’re standing at the baseline, desperately trying to reach the next 100-mph serve and just somehow keep the ball in play.

Hats off to everyone in this position – you’re doing an amazing job and rising to all the challenges that face you. It’s understandable if you have no physical or emotional energy to be looking at the longer term, or the bigger picture.

The problem is that we know from all the experience we gained before coronavirus that if we completely neglect the long term and the big picture, then we don’t stay still, we go backwards. The great strides forward that have been made in a whole host of areas over the last few years – curriculum design, research-based pedagogy, teacher well-being, support for early career teachers – will be lost, and we will emerge from the crisis weaker than before. The agency of schools and Head Teachers in particular to set their own trajectory will be lost if it’s not used. Somehow, we have to continue to move forward.

It’s tempting to think, ‘Yes, but not now.’ But, unfortunately, the longer this not-as-we-know-it school goes on, the less likely it seems that it will disappear very soon, We celebrated when we welcomed students back to school at the start of term, but it was unlike any schooling that I’ve experienced. There’s no return to normal around the corner, and it wasn’t long before even the ‘new normal’ became out of date.

So, it’s not a question of pretending this isn’t happening, or even trying to carry on with everything that we would be doing at the same time as managing today’s emergency. However, it is vital to make sure that we don’t completely lose sight of one of the most important aspects of school leadership – the ability to stand aside from the fray, scan the horizon and set a course.

If we’re going to motivate and inspire our teams to deal with the challenges that they’re facing in the here and now, we need a vision of how it will be better in the future. And if we’re going to have that vision, every so often we need to have our head in the clouds, not just in the game.

It won’t be the same as it would normally be – how could it be? At this time of year, in my own schools, we’d be analysing data, identifying patterns and trends and setting our plans to build on strengths and address the issues. We’d be drawing up School Improvement Plans and identifying success criteria and cpd opportunities. We’d be looking at opportunities and wider themes, and evaluating our progress towards our long-term vision. To even suggest that at the moment seems to dismiss the very real day to day pressure.

But it needn’t – it’s the role of leader to seek out and seize new opportunities when tried and trusted ways don’t apply. At the height of this crisis, we need to look at what we’re doing now, and what we’re doing well and how we can fit that into our longer-term narrative? What would I recommend goes into this year’s hypothetical Improvement Plan, whether or not we get the time to write it down? What are the things that we’re experiencing now that can make us stronger in the future?

First of all Building team – in a crisis, people come together. They roll their sleeves up and do what’s necessary. In many schools this experience has brought the team together in a way that no amount of paintballing sessions could ever do.The generosity and selflessness of our colleagues has been humbling and must not be lost if we go back to normal. What are the strengths we’ve identified in our people? Who has shown a talent that we never suspected? Who is ready for greater leadership responsibility? We need to make sure this isn’t forgotten and they continue to have the opportunity to develop. Is this an opportunity to look at our structure and systems, to consider a more collaborative leadership approach?

Redesigning curriculum – this is happening in almost every school, it’s happening at a pace and scale that is staggering. Given the hours that have been spent in establishing an online or blended curriculum model – deciding what are the key areas of content to deliver when access is limited, reconfiguring schemes of work to plan for revised exam specifications, establishing innovative ways of delivering reading programmes from a distance – we now have an opportunity to think about what we’ve learnt and what we’re keeping, and to take curriculum way beyond face to face classroom sessions. The task is to evaluate what’s worked and embed it in the curriculum and in our instructional techniques.

Building community – the place of schools at the centre of their community has never been so clearly seen as during the current crisis. Schools have arranged for food to be delivered to homes, have provided advice and counselling, have been a place of comparative calmness and safety. I’ve been staggered by the extent to which our communities have turned to their schools when the chips are down. We’ve also learnt about the crucial parts of our local community that have gone under the radar before – food banks, care homes, delivery services. How do we redefine our values and vision to recognise these community links? How do we work with community champions and encourage our children to give something back?

Finally, Developing an understanding of the world – one of the most mistaken assumptions about children during lockdown is that unless we were providing a full programme of live online lessons, somehow their development would be frozen at the point where they could no longer physically attend school. However, they haven’t been in cold storage, and their natural interest and curiosity has been working overtime. Was there ever a group of young people who were more engaged with political issues and national debates, not least because of the direct impact it had on their lives. If this crisis doesn’t lead to a significant increase in students studying power structures in social sciences, or understanding global interconnectivity in Geography, or showing curiosity in the spread of infections in Science, then we’re missing a huge opportunity. There’s hardly a single subject studied in school that can’t claim increased relevance as a result of the Covid crisis, so let’s build on that natural interest.

So, good luck to everyone who is dealing with extraordinary challenges. I hope the next few weeks go as well as possible. But I also hope that, every so often, you have the opportunity to allow your thoughts to drift to the the future as well.

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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times – Finding Hope (quite literally) in despair.

When approaching 50,000 people have died in our country as a result of coronavirus, finding the positives can seem almost irrelevant. I am sure that among my abiding memories of this time will be schools closed, empty streets, bare supermarket shelves, and care home workers and NHS staff in flimsy and inadequate PPE, exhausted and despairing. The very idea of millions of children and young people prevented from going to school or college, places which should symbolise, safety, success and comradeship, is something that offends against my concept of normality.

And yet, there have undoubtedly been shafts of light. For example, the way we have recognised the value of people so often dismissed and unregarded before – refuse collectors, supermarket shelf stackers, delivery drivers, or the way that neighbourhoods have come together to look after their most vulnerable members.

I’d like to share one of those stories – a story of Hope.

Our schools and our community, like most across the country, has been through challenging times in the last few months. We have had bereavements in our school community, we know that some of our families have been on the brink of collapse, and that anxiety and depression have been a constant backdrop for many. Nonetheless, when we look back on the last few months, there are many people to whom we have reason to be grateful. Our staff have responded magnificently to the many and varied challenges they have faced, our students have shown maturity and resilience and our parents and families have been unstinting in their support. The importance of community has never been so clear.

Without doubt, among our most important partners has been the local charity, Hope Nottingham. In the first few weeks after the vast majority of students had been asked to stay at home, we had the urgent task of ensuring that everyone who needed support with the basic necessities of life could access it. You will recall that at this time even getting to a supermarket was difficult and it was likely that shelves would be empty when you got there. Although there was a voucher scheme promised for those families whose children were entitled to free school meals, it was painfully slow in arriving and in the meantime we had to find urgent solutions.

This is where Hope stepped in. For those who had not been aware of their work, they are a very well-established Christian charity, working with local churches and community groups to serve those in need in neighbourhoods all around Nottingham. Hope House in Beeston has become a one-stop community support centre, working in partnership with many local agencies, to provide a place of trust and transformation for local people. Hope also supports many neighbourhood Foodbanks across the city, helping people out of crisis and directing people to life-changing support. They were therefore ideally placed to reach people in need in our local community.

At very short notice, they were able to start delivering food and basic necessities to families. The deliveries went well beyond what would be needed to give one child their school meal entitlement, providing support for the whole family. They were delivered to the door, allowing people to remain in their homes, reducing the risk of infection, whilst at the same time relieving the anxiety of knowing where the next meal was coming from.

When the voucher system finally kicked in, we continued to offer food deliveries to any families who wanted them, thanks to the partnership with Hope, and we have continued to do so throughout the crisis. We know what a lifeline this has been to so many people, and it would not have been possible without their amazing work.

On behalf of everyone in our Trust, I would like to say thank you to everyone involved with Hope Nottingham for their unstinting work to support our families. One way we are doing this is by raising funds to support their ongoing work and so we have focused on some of the things that have been the themes of lockdown for many of our staff and students, in particular, the photographs that have appeared regularly in our Newsletter from the Bramcote College photography students, or the wonderful performances of the Alderman White Stay at Home Choir. We put together a special collection of Lockdown Images and recorded a unique performance by the Stay at Home Choir by students and staff across the Trust, and we would like to invite you to enjoy them on our website at https://whptrust.org/news/thank-you-hope-nottingham and perhaps make a small donation.

Every penny raised will go to support the vital work of Hope Nottingham with vulnerable families, and will be a testament to the lasting partnership we have formed. It is our determination that our relationship, and the values on which it is built, is one that will continue long after this particular crisis is a fading memory.

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Don’t Panic – Why trying to catch-up will leave us further behind

I’m writing this as the national conversation about education seems to be focusing on life after Covid-19 for the first time since the crisis started. We have quite rightly been so focused on the immediate issues of safety and protecting the most vulnerable that beyond a vague sense that everything will be different, it has been too difficult to understand how, and when, we will return to normality.

But now that debate is shifting. Government has made it clear that schools will be fully open for all children full time from the start of the new school year in September. Not only that, but we will be seeing a substantial investment in programmes to help students recover.

Clearly, the last few months will have had an effect – in many ways it would be more worrying in the long term if there wasn’t a significant impact of such a period of school closure (for most pupils). No matter how diligent teachers have been in setting up online curricula, we know they cannot replace the benefits of fully operational schools.

The effort to support a generation of young people who have been badly affected is welcome. They certainly do not deserve to have their future blighted by factors way beyond their control. That’s why people on every side of the argument have bought into the idea that children have fallen behind, and now what is needed is for these students to ‘catch up’.

Catch up with what? With who? With where everyone else is? With where we imagine they would have been if they hadn’t had any time out of school? ‘Catching up’ implies a sudden and temporary spurt, an extra effort to get back on track, following which they slow back down and jog along with everyone else. It’s a persuasive idea, because it isolates the problem and provides a neat solution.

However, the pervasive narrative of ‘catch up’ will mean that we make some poor decisions about curriculum and provision.

Firstly, as teachers will know, it doesn’t reflect what we know about student learning. Learning is not a racetrack with a finishing line. It’s not a neat, linear process where every person takes the same cognitive route to an imagined finish line and if you fall behind, you just need a turbocharged boost to get back in touch. I’m tempted to observe that if accelerating learning was as straightforward as this, we should be doing this already. What’s more, children’s development is not simply confined to the classroom, so the assumption that nothing will have been learnt, or that they will have gone ‘backwards’ may not be accurate, and certainly won’t be consistent.

Secondly, we have no idea what the impact of learning loss will be, and how long lasting. The research by John Hattie (based on an analysis of student progress after schooling had been interrupted by the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake) has been widely quoted recently, but in summary it says that children’s recovery from interrupted schooling is swifter and learning is more resilient than we might expect. We also have to bear in mind the fact that young people will not come back into school in an equal state of readiness to learn – some will have been hugely affected by the crisis, others may be able to pick up exactly where they left off. Designing programmes to meet these needs will inevitably miss far more targets than it hits.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the concept of ‘catching up’ as quickly as possible could easily lead to short-term curriculum decisions that do not benefit the broad development of our pupils. If we’re trying to move as quickly as possible, it makes sense to jettison all unnecessary baggage that might slow us down. The evidence says that catch-up and intervention time is often taken from PE, PSHE, tutor time or at the expense of enrichment activity. These are precisely the sort of things that many young people will have been missing out on in recent times.

So, how should we respond? Most importantly, we need to make sure that our students make as much progress as possible when they come back, by using the wealth of knowledge we have about securing excellent pupil outcomes. Quality First Teaching, broad and balanced curricula, well-planned schemes of work, teachers using their well-practised skills of instruction and excellent subject knowledge to bring about secure long-term student learning – these are the things that we know make a lasting difference.

We can then supplement this by employing the promised additional support and resources (subject to the small print) in a targeted and informed way, so that individual tutoring programmes build on and support work in class, and are informed by accurate formative assessment – avoiding one-size-fits-all remote packages.

We use the newly-formed knowledge and resources we have about online and remote learning to supplement what we are doing, not just as a panicked attempt to catch up, but from now on as an integral part of the learning package.

We make sensible curriculum choices to recognise that some content has been missed, but that does not have to lead to the long term lack of skills development. If not all History topics can be covered in a meaningful way, change the exam so that fewer topics are needed, don’t sacrifice depth of knowledge for superficial coverage.

It would also be helpful if school-level decisions in the interests of their students could be supported by central policy – for example another year’s suspension of comparative league-table data, or amendments to the Ofsted framework to acknowledge school’s current challenges.

This has been an unlucky generation of students – they’ve gone through a period of austerity in education and have now been hit by a once in a lifetime pandemic (we hope). However, all is not lost, and anyone who works with children and young people knows how resilient they can be. This is a time for the adults to display determination and cool heads. Catch Up? All in good time.

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The school leaders Covid dilemma: ‘With limited power comes great responsibility’ (as Spiderman didn’t quite say)

In normal times, the English education system runs on the principle that schools and school leaders are given the freedom to make and take action and are then held accountable for the impact of their actions. Our Head Teachers are among the most accountable in the world. There are multiple levers – Ofsted, performance tables, RSC / LA intervention powers – all are part of a system which allows judgement to be made and consequences, good and bad, to be felt. Underpinning the system is the fact that the Head Teachers and governors are subject to statutory responsibilities, and in extreme cases, could suffer legal sanctions.

Challenging as this may be, there’s a logic to it – compared to many systems, there is a higher level of school autonomy for school leaders in England. Head Teachers make important decisions about curriculum, staffing and budget that they wouldn’t have the authority to do elsewhere. They can decide the style of pedagogy they will promote, the structure of the day, the behaviour policy and many other things that, in theory, give them the levers to bring about effective change. We may argue about the balance, and there is undoubtedly a heavy accountability pressure, but there is also power and agency.

This delicate balance has been completely upset by the events of the last few weeks. Schools, and Head Teachers in particular, have been given a huge responsibility – the responsibility to begin opening their schools safely to an increasing number of children. They have to decide how to organize their teaching groups, how to deploy staff, how to maintain a safe environment. They need to maintain distance learning for most pupils while staffing a significant increase in face to face teaching.

Ultimately, they have the absolute responsibility to keep their community safe, whilst at the same time opening schools up to greater risk and maintaining a high standard of education. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that they are now potentially making life or death decisions.

The problem is that despite having this accountability, despite bearing the full responsibility if their staff and students walk into a potentially unsafe situation, they have not been given the agency or autonomy to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

They are responding to a bewildering series of government instructions, many delivered at the last minute or contradicting a previous announcement. You will deliver education to these specific year groups, from this date. You will organize your classes in this way. This will be your approach to social distancing, PPE, school meals, First Aid. The diktats come thick and fast, from people who don’t know the school site, the community, the staff profile – all hugely relevant factors. Detailed planning is essential, but plans are often rendered completely redundant when a new 11th-hour announcement turns things upside-down.

Meanwhile, it is very clear that accountability has not gone away. Head Teachers and school governors remain answerable for the consequences of decisions with which they may totally disagree. Unions (quite legitimately) provide challenge to Head Teachers, as the people who carry the formal legal responsibility. It can be tough carrying the can for the impact of our own decisions – it’s really unfair to do it for someone else’s.

The irony is that by following this path, the objectives that the government hope to achieve are actually undermined. By not trusting Heads to make the best decision for their local context, in consultation with staff and local community, they take away their ability to find creative ways of achieving the outcome that everyone wants.

I believe that the objectives are clear and sharted by almost all – to open schools to pupils as soon as it is safe to do so. School leaders recognise the role we play in ensuring that people can return to work, as well as the social and educational imperatives in opening schools more widely. We do not want to frustrate or undermine this ambition. This may involve a gradual process, possibly part-time, with a mix of year groups. It may need groups of schools to share capacity, it may require prioritising certain groups of pupils, or areas of learning. Schools should be required to liaise with their LA in designing their approach, then publish their plans on their website, together with a rationale explaining why they are following this path. That’s how true accountability works.

We need good and clear advice from government, as much relevant information as possible, and as soon as it is available. We need support to procure equipment, we need model policies , checklists and risk assessment – all the things that will inform good planning and implementation. We need government to work closely with stakeholders, including trade unions, local authorities and parents groups That is the support that will help us bring pupils back, not put obstacles in our way.

Then, please let us get on with the job – if we’re to be held to account, then trust us to make the right decisions.

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Failure – delay, not defeat

I moved to the East Midlands at the end of 1994 with my wife to take up my second deputy Headship in a large primary school. It was a time when rapid promotion was possible and by this point, after an eventful first six years in teaching, I had taught in three schools – primary schools in Islington and Haringey, and my first Deputy Headship in a First School in Borehamwood, on the outskirts of London. I had taught Years 5, 6, 4 and 2, thrown myself into all the CPD I could find, and been subject leader for Maths and Music. I’d also had a three-month period of acting Headship, covering for a Head who was on sick leave, but always available on the end of a phone.

After two weeks settling into the new school, at a point where I had just about got the names of my colleagues and most of my class sorted, my new Head sat me down in his office. ‘I’ve been waiting to appoint a Deputy’ he told me, ‘so that I can put my retirement plan into action’. The plan was to be signed off by his doctor with high blood pressure and continue on sick leave up to the point where his pay would start to drop, when he would hand his notice in and retire. This is exactly what he did – I was now Acting Head, 31 years old, six years in teaching, in a new city.

The next four terms were challenging but exhilarating. I had a brilliant staff team, great governors and a supportive LA, and I threw myself into the role. I used the knowledge I had gained in London to redraw our curriculum model, prepared for our first ever inspection and taught a class of 44 Year 5 children (yes, really) for half the week. Parents seemed to like me, the staff were supportive and every governors’ meeting ended with a word of thanks and the comment ‘what on earth would we have done if Paul hadn’t been here?’

Finally, the retirement was confirmed and the permanent job advertised. I spent a long time on my application and made sure my preparation was just right. On the day before the interview, I received a card from the staff wishing me luck, and lost count of the number of parents who told me that I was a shoe-in.

The day arrived. There was only one other candidate, a Head from a local school. Everything went well. My presentation was a thing of beauty, my prepared answers slick. I was able to reference all the things that I had done over the past year and show off my detailed knowledge of the school. I went home, rang my wife to give her an update, and awaited the phone call.

You’re probably one step ahead here. The phone call came. The Chair of Governors thanked me for everything I’d done for the school, congratulated me on my performance during the day… and told me they had given the job to the other candidate.

I couldn’t tell you the reasons she gave – I was in no state of mind to listen to them. I mumbled a ‘thank you for letting me know’ and hung up. I sat there feeling slightly numb and was still sat in the same chair when my wife came in an hour later with a bottle of sparkling wine, ready for a celebration which never happened.

My first instinct was to buy that week’s TES and search the Jobs section – I felt cheated, that I’d been lied to. They had taken advantage of me, strung me along while I had kept the school going, only to ditch me at the first opportunity. The next day was hard, I was the victim of my own hubris, but I fronted it out and thanked everyone for their support, all the while dreading the next few weeks during which I would still be the Acting Headteacher – good enough to be the caretaker, but not good enough to be trusted with the job permanently. I resolved to stick around for just long enough to be able to apply for a job without my application looking like a fit of pique.

As it happened, I stayed for two more years. The new Headteacher arrived, and made her presence felt straight away. The office, which had been unchanged in a year apart from a small photo of my wedding and a framed picture of Goodison Park was now resplendent with dried flowers and pot pourri, and inspirational quotes framed on the wall.

Her initial Assembly was brilliant – warm, authoritative, funny – and set the tone for her first few weeks. She suggested we write a School Development Plan. At this point, School Development Plans were like duck-billed platypuses – I had heard of them; I had just never seen one in the flesh. This one was a Rolls-Royce of a plan – sleek and efficient, identified what we needed to do, and set out the how, who and when. A decent start then, in her first few weeks of doing my job.

Over the next two years I watched her at close quarters. She asked people’s opinions, considered them, but was unafraid to make decisions. She had a way of passing on difficult messages supportively and professionally, in a way that didn’t really brook any argument. She was thorough, hardworking, knowledgeable and always professional. The school grew and blossomed under her leadership. Ofsted came, (6 inspectors for a week, with an 80-page report) and liked what they saw.

She was also kind, and took an interest in people. She was particularly kind to me, and instinctively knew that she was dealing with someone with a bruised and fragile ego. She had a way of giving me good advice whilst at the same time making it sound like she was asking my opinion, and without realizing it, I was learning my trade every day. It was my Head Teacher apprenticeship.

Eventually, I felt I was ready, and applied for headships. The first one I didn’t get, up against a strong and well-respected internal candidate. The second one was different – I knew I had a chance and it felt like a good fit.

There was a moment in the final interview when the LA representative on the panel asked me ‘What makes you think you are ready to be a Headteacher?’ I can’t remember my answer, probably a fairly anodyne and cliched response. However, I do remember it as a moment of clarity. I could not be certain that I was ready, but I was absolutely certain that I hadn’t been ready two years earlier.

It had felt like my period of Acting Headship had been the archetypal steep learning curve. However, the real learning was done afterwards. You learn by observing expert practitioners, who coach you and allow you the freedom to try things and fail safely. I learnt because there were people who were prepared to make the right decision, even though it was not the one I wanted.

It’s common to see social media posts from disappointed people who haven’t been given their dream job. After a few years in any career, most of us can empathise and sympathise with that feeling. I suppose the point of this story is that in the moment of disappointment it’s hard to see the bigger picture, and the job that is the perfect fit for each of us is by definition the one we eventually get.

In the meantime, every application and interview really is a learning experience. As Henry Ford said ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently’. It just sometimes takes time to realise it.

NB Title quote from Denis Waitley

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More questions than answers – the why, who, how and when of school reopening

To be absolutely clear from the outset, this post is not a call for schools to reopen. I completely agree with everyone who says that schools should not open until its safe to do so. It even feels slightly risky talking about schools reopening at this stage, almost as though we’re tempting fate, but the reality is that if at any point we’re going back to fully open, fully functioning schools, we need to understand how this can happen.

School leaders and central teams at White Hills Park Trust have started looking at this in detail so that if and when we have to respond to central directives, we know what’s possible, what’s safe and what’s desirable and we can act accordingly. I’m sharing this model, not because it’s one that I think all schools should adopt or because it’s fully formed and ready to go, but because I think that it’s important that this debate is led by the people who will be responsible for implementing the decisions and accountable for their consequences – school leaders and colleagues working in the classroom.

First and most important thing to decided is Why? What are we trying to achieve by the reopening of schools? It may seem obvious, but if the purpose is primarily to get parents back into work, then our model will reflect this, if it’s to make sure that pupils continue to make progress, it will look different. If it’s to protect vulnerable pupils, it is different again. In our organisation, we’re working to the following objectives, in no particular order of priority:

  • To maintain continuity of learning for all students
  • To support remote learning
  • To support vulnerable students and the children of key workers
  • To support induction / transition
  • To provide a route towards a full re-opening of school

Being clear about the purpose of opening schools will help us to make wise decisions about how we do it. Simply responding to a  government instruction that schools should re-open on a certain date could easily lead to poor decisions.

The second decision is Who? On the assumption that we will not go immediately to a model whereby every pupil turns up at 8.45 on the first Monday of re-opening, we need to consider the best way of bringing all pupils back in to school safely over time.

For most of us, this will be a two, three or four stage model. In a secondary context, do we start with Year 10 and Year 12 on the basis that they will have less time to make up lost ground, or do we consider that they are best placed to access remote learning and focus on Year 7s? Do we use our physical capacity to provide extended induction for Year 6, hereby relieving the pressure on primary colleagues?

In our Trust, Head Teachers and Local Governing Bodies are the key decision makers here. The role of the Trust is to define objectives and then support implementation. One idea from our schools that Head Teachers are considering is attendance for half days only, gradually increasing the number of days over a period of weeks as capacity allows. Another idea is bringing each year group in one day a week (more frequently for Year 10s) so that teachers can have face to face tutorial-style sessions with students to support effective remote learning.

Thirdly, How? This is where we try and understand how the model can be delivered safely, within each school site and each school’s unique context. Safety is the overriding priority, and we also need to have something that is physically deliverable on site. We’re considering the following questions, among others:

  • How can social distancing be maintained?
  • Which areas of the school will be opened?
  • How can we maintain safe and healthy environment? Handwashing / sanitiser, PPE. Screens, circulation routes etc
  • What’s our strategy for site management, cleaning, refuse etc?
  • How will we provide meals safely and efficiently without having a packed school canteen?
  • What staffing restrictions should we expect? A number of staff are shielding / isolating, absence is very likely to be higher than usual. What level of staff testing should we expect?
  • How will we communicate with parents and students so that they know, understand and support our strategy

In other words, we need a detailed risk assessment and strategic plan, formulated on a school by school basis, to make this work.

Finally, and only after the first three questions have been answered is When? When can we safely implement he plan we have drawn up to meet our objectives?

Unfortunately, far too much of the discussion has focussed on the when – this is where we end up with poor decisions and risky situations. We name a date and then try and work out how on earth that can be achieved. We intend to do this the other way round, and I hope and expect that any government instruction will allow us to make these decisions locally, as the people accountable for the safety of students and staff, as well as for the effective delivery of education.

We want students back in school – as long as we know why, who and how, we can make a good decision about when.

The final point to make is that it is becoming clearer that whatever we eventually return to, it will be different from before. Even in a fully vaccinated / herd immunity future, this experience has changed things. The use of technology as a central part of curriculum delivery for example, or the way we support our students anxiety and mental health – these are things that will not disappear. Everybody needs to expect and accept that the schools we return to may look different from the ones we left so precipitously in March.

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I’ve finally found out what ‘British Values’ are

Since Michael Gove introduced the concept of ‘British Values’ in June 2014, in the light of the Trojan Horse scandal, it’s always been a contentious concept in our schools – why do values have to have a nationality? Is it the duty of schools to define the values of their communities? Was this a kind of moral imperialism, an updating of the Tebbit test? The fact that it then became written into the Ofsted framework and was therefore used to judge schools, only increased the sense that this was not so much a celebration of our shared heritage, as an attempt at forced cultural compliance.

It wasn’t so much that people didn’t support the values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, and mutual respect and tolerance – on one level, they were hard to disagree with. Ultimately, they were conceived as an attempt to define the core beliefs that brought us together as Britons. Perhaps they were always doomed to fail – reducing the complexities of a modern multicultural, multifaith, multidimensional and multifaceted geographical entity to a handful of values defined as uniquely British always ran the risk of excluding more people than it included.

However, if it wasn’t challenging enough already, the fact that it landed a couple of years before the most divisive period in our recent history probably doomed it to failure. Over the last few years, the country seems to have been split like never before. In the context of the deep rift caused by Brexit, the very idea that we shared common values seemed far-fetched. Ultimately, Brexit was reduced to a battle of competing value systems. Whichever side of the fence you stood, this was not about policy differences, it was about a fundamental view of Britain’s place in the world. This division seemed to be real, and it seemed to be permanent.

Times have changed. Over the last couple of months, the passionate and deeply polarized arguments over Brexit seem to belong to a different age – we have more important things to deal with at the moment. At the time of writing, the news is carrying stories of conflict and protests in the United States as arguments rage about how and when to lift the lockdown. By contrast, apart from a few exceptions that test the rule, people in Britain have reacted with a remarkable level of consistency and unanimity. We have followed guidance, supported the NHS and carers with one voice, accepted the restrictions on our freedom with equanimity – even our children have dutifully been completing their lessons online and observing the lockdown.

New values are emerging, values that seem to represent who we are as a society. The sense of connection is growing – we sympathise and empathise with individual people’s stories in the news and on social media, we worry about the safety and health of people we don’t know and will never meet,  we’re even saying hello to people as we pass them in the street – unthinkable even 6 weeks ago.

I’d like to propose a new list of core Values that British people have rallied around, with the full acknowledgement that they aren’t unique to our own country. However, they are values that have not always been obvious or fully acknowledged in our society, but have come to the fore in recent weeks.

Firstly, Humility – the understanding that true worth comes from the contribution you make to others, not the material possessions you have. Care workers, refuse collectors, supermarket shelf stackers, teaching assistants, agricultural workers, hospital porters, delivery drivers – there are so many people who do jobs that are clearly not valued when it comes to allocating salaries, but when the chips are down, they are among the jobs we really need to happen. Like many others, I have resolved never again to take these unsung workers for granted. In the meantime, many of those who had been lauded primarily because of their material success or reputation, have never seemed less relevant.

Secondly, Selflessness – the understanding that there is such a thing as Society. So many people have made sacrifices for the sake of others, for some that has meant risking their own health and wellbeing to care for others – for many of us, it has simply been limiting our own freedom to go where we want, when we want to. Whether it’s Captain Tom raising millions for the NHS by walking round his garden, or neighbours offering to pick up essential items from the shops, the question ‘what’s in it for me?’ has never seemed less relevant. Alongside the key workers are the army of volunteers who have been so willing to step up in the service of others and the wider community.

Thirdly, Resilience – we prize determination and stoicism in the face of adversity. It’s not just the skill and expertise of doctors and other essential workers that we have depended upon, it’s also their sheer doggedness – we know that people have dragged themselves into work, often in heartbreaking and perilous conditions because they have been needed by others. The list of people undergoing their own personal and familial tragedies grows longer, but still they pick themselves up and carry on, for the wider good.

Finally, Governance by Consent – this is a society that runs on our shared willingness to do what’s right, at least as important as doing what’s lawful. At the start of our lockdown, there was widespread scepticism (including from some official quarters) about the ability and willingness of the British people to go along with measures that inconvenienced individuals but benefitted society as a whole. There have, of course, been well-documented examples of the rule breakers, but new social norms have been established very quickly. We queue patiently outside shops, try not to buy more than we need, recognise the unfamiliar social rules – we understand that mistakes will be made but the vast majority of people are trying their best.

I know this isn’t the full picture, and I don’t underestimate the difficulties many people are going through, whether as a result of poverty, domestic violence or loneliness. This also isn’t about a ‘silver lining’ – we would all be much, much better off if this had never happened. However, this difficult time is a reminder that fundamentally, there are far more things that unite rather than divide us.

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Could we live without GCSEs?

The first thing to say about the cancellation of GCSE exams is that I understand the dismay and disappointment of the young people and their teachers who have worked hard to prepare for this summer’s exams. There is a sense that the compact between students and the education system has been broken. The principle that your destiny is not predetermined, but that you can achieve great things if you work hard and do your best is one that we have spent countless hours embedding. If it turns out that the most important factors in your Geography grade are a) how well you did in Maths and English SATs when you were 11 years old b) how well a completely different set of students did last year (possibly with a different teacher) and c) how clever your friends are – then an element of disillusionment is understandable.

However, the die is cast – the solution has been settled upon, the hastily-cobbled system will run its course, and grades will be awarded. The students who feel a sense of unfairness have my sympathy. However, the fundamental question is, ‘So what?’ Will the cancellation of GCSEs make any substantial difference to where the nation’s 16-year-olds find themselves in 6 months’ time? How many students will find that they are denied access to a 6th form course, or a college place, or an apprenticeship based on teacher assessment, that they would otherwise have been able to access?

In reality, all but a tiny handful will be exactly where they would have been. Speaking from our own organisation, we have a fairly clear picture of which students are intending to come to our 6th Form; we know, broadly speaking, which courses they will select and we have a clear picture whether that is an appropriate choice; we have given advice to that effect and offered a place on that basis. In a normal year, if a student came to us on results day with a disastrous result, and we knew that did not reflect their performance over time, we wouldn’t just turn them away – we would consider a retake, maybe a shift in the pattern of courses, not a simple rejection. We would keep our eyes on the bigger picture.

We see the same attitude reflected from employers offering apprenticeships, and FE colleges offering vocational routes – we all want students to succeed and to follow the route that gives them the best chance of long-term success. This year, students are still able to access appropriate destinations, based on teacher assessment. There is no incentive for teachers to support students on to courses where they would be out of their depth and likely to fail. It may be an imperfect system, but the one its replacing is not perfect either.

GCSEs made sense in a time when age 16 signalled the end of formal education for a huge proportion of the school population. In the modern world, it’s just another point at which young people pick a particular route, in the same way they do when they choose options at the end of Year 9.

So, what would we lose if GCSEs just didn’t happen? What purpose do they actually serve? Let’s just imagine if this situation became permanent and we decided to abandon KS4 exams on a permanent basis. What would be the consequences of a system that relied on a model of teacher assessment?

Well, it can be argued that exams are a good motivational tool – we’ve all seen Year 11 students suddenly buckle down with a term to go after a few years’ coasting. But is that final year acceleration inevitable only when all the eggs are put into the exams basket? If we can change the culture so that it’s clear that your performance over the whole course is considered, then we would be encouraging greater depth of learning as opposed to superficial cramming of knowledge that can be immediately discarded after the exam.

We wouldn’t have external published data with which to compare and judge schools – league tables would disappear. I have written before about the distorting effect of league table culture, but the excesses that it has led to – spurious courses and entry patterns, off-rolling, gaming in all its forms – are clear to see even for its greatest advocates. The inherent socio-economic unfairness written deep into the fabric of our current system is magnified and highlighted through our league table obsession

Of course, the idea that schools can’t be judged by results is one that fills some people with horror. In reality, there are plenty of other ways that parents or other interested parties can judge schools – Ofsted reports (and let’s face it, Ofsted’s new framework is ahead of the curve here) look at the full range of school provision, no longer just the summary of exam data. Perhaps parents could be given greater opportunity to visit school, or to talk to current parents, or look at the impact of the school in the community.

For those who want data, destination data is possibly the best indicator of the way that a school is having an impact on the life chances of student, but there are also exclusion and attendance figures, financial data (including how much is allocated to executive pay), and a whole range of data that schools can choose to share.

A system not geared around exam preparation would obviously depend upon skilled and robust internal assessment practices, which wouldn’t appear in every school overnight. However, a much greater focus on formative assessment to secure improvement and development would lead to the development of assessment practice and a greater incentive for schools to collaborate for the moderation of student performance.

The possibility afforded by changes to curriculum design are exciting and full of potential to improve learning and progress – the structure of the course dictated by the content of the discipline, not the exam spec, the potential use of the many hours that are currently lost for revision, mocks, exam practice. We open up the possibilities of linking curriculum to enrichment, of making deep cross-disciplinary links, of making genuine curriculum connections with the wider world of work and the local community.

Think of the huge savings that we could free up if we didn’t have to pay tens of thousands every school every year on exam fees, exam-related CPD and invigilation (and think of the use that we could make of our army of invigilators). Think of the use we could make of the period from June to late August – planning ahead, focusing on transition or work experience, instead of sweating on that fateful results day.

I suspect that this is a pipe dream, as a result of the insurmountable barriers of the lack of trust in the educational professionals and the importance of external measures in our performativity culture. Assuming that this is a one-year hiatus, by this time next year, I’ll be supporting and cajoling our students and staff to get the best results they can, and celebrating and commiserating with them as usual in the summer. If that’s the case, I will find it hard not to have the feeling of an opportunity squandered.

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Whisper it – I’m carrying on inspecting.

Like a lot of people who’ve been around the education system for a while, my relationship with Ofsted is complicated. I’ve been in schools on the receiving end of inspection many times (at least 10 as a Head or MAT leader), I’ve advised and supported dozens of schools as they have gone through the process, I’ve even written a doctoral thesis on the emotional impact of Ofsted failure on Head Teachers (http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/50957/ if you’re interested). Oh, and I’m an inspector, both team and lead, primary and secondary. It’s fair to say that I’ve seen it from both sides and have a pretty good idea of the process and impact.

I’ve also followed the debate the profession has had in recent times about Ofsted, particularly since the introduction of EIF. I’ve read the opinions of many colleagues for whom I have great respect, who have provided trenchant criticisms and shocking case studies, and have seen the #PauseOfsted campaign gain momentum, driven not least by my own union. Inevitably, I’ve also seen the question raised whether serving school leaders should continue to inspect.

So I’ve asked myself the same question and come to a fairly clear conclusion – I’m carrying on. I’m carrying on partly for some selfish reasons, namely that inspecting is hugely valuable for my own professional development and for my own schools. The knowledge I get from working in the inspection system, the experience of visiting a whole range of schools and observing great practice, the additional resource it brings in – all are extremely useful.

But I’m also carrying on because, on balance, I think this work is good work and makes our system better – better for children and young people and, yes, better for our profession. I say this with some trepidation because I suspect this a minority view amongst colleagues, so let me give my reasons:

We need accountability in a publicly-funded system: It’s not enough anymore to say to parents, taxpayers and politicians – leave it to us, we’re the experts. People have a right to know that public money is spent wisely and that our children are safe and well-provided for. I’ve been in education long enough to remember a time before Ofsted when there was almost no way to challenge (admittedly isolated) cases of shockingly poor practice.

Inspection is a far better form of accountability than performance tables: Our accountability system operates on two tracks – performance tables and inspection reports. Performance tables pit schools against each other, encourage damaging gaming and off-rolling, do not allow sufficiently for context, and reduce the complexity of a school’s work to a handful of narrow measures. An effective and well-run inspection system can and should avoid all these things – it can consider the full range of a school’s work (including whether or not children are safe), can highlight questionable practice, and in a criterion-based framework, inspectors do not need to consider the work of other schools when they look at one school in particular.

The new EIF is built on strong values and principles: The new framework is the biggest change to inspection since it was first introduced, and this has undoubtedly led to inconsistency as it has become embedded. It has also led to additional workload from schools that have tried to second guess Ofsted and adapt to the new approach to the curriculum. However, from my experience of the training process, I can vouch for the efforts made to ensure that inspectors understand the principles that underpin EIF, as well as having the knowledge to implement it faithfully.

At its core, it is designed to establish whether all pupils are offered a broad and challenging curriculum, it directly challenges gaming and off-rolling, it discourages practices that lead to excessive workload, such as excessive marking (with due acknowledgement to the workload created in this initial phase), it allows for context and recognises that schools may be on a journey by removing the focus on data, and it gives a genuine voice in the process to teachers and pupils. I believe that it will lead to significant improvements in the quality of middle leadership in school as the role of subject expert is given real value and purpose.

This is not a framework for the DfE, or for the mighty centralised MATs (as is currently being demonstrated). I think the problems caused by the painful process of change are obscuring the benefits of the change itself.

My experience of inspection has shown me that inspectors are committed, knowledgeable and want to support schools: You may have to take my word for it, but my experience of working on inspection is not what some might imagine. Almost everyone I’ve worked with is well-briefed, conscientious and experienced. During an inspection, there is always a strong desire to see the best in the school, and a hope that the inspection turns out to be a successful one. On the occasions when things start to go astray, inspection teams agonise over the decision. The presence of serving practitioners is valued and their perspective forms an important part of the discussion. It’s hard to relax and present a human face when the stakes are so high, but it does exist.

For what it’s worth, I think that the biggest problems with our inspection system lie in the way that outcomes are presented and used. However, the fact that information is often misused is not a convincing argument for less information.

So, I’ll carry on putting myself forward and trying to do the job to the best of my ability. I know it’s not perfect and things seem particularly strained at the moment, but the system is stronger for the presence of people who carry out their day job in school.

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Splendid isolation? Why I’m struggling to pick a side

I have to be honest, I am a little nervous about entering the behaviour discussion that seems to dominate education at the moment. A few weeks ago, I tweeted that the following:

#edutwitter behaviour debate is so dispiriting. On a subject so complex, multi-layered and context-driven, how have we ended up with such a simplistic division? Allowing a pupil to disrupt others’ learning is clearly wrong, as is ignoring individual needs – it’s not either/or.’

I thought it was an unremarkable observation. However, responses ranged from enthusiastic agreement to someone who ended their response with ‘Who are you? Shut up.’ I’m not too precious about these things but thought it an interesting illustration of the way opinion has become entrenched.

Since then, I have watched the debate continue to be ramped up, making the front page of the Guardian, heated debates on the Today programme, and all out war between the Children’s Commissioner and the Government Behaviour Tsar. As we head towards the ‘Lose the Booths’ event, I’m expecting the sound of the debate to grow, probably at the expense of the light it provides. Will anyone’s opinion shift as a result? I’m not holding my breath.

So, in a small attempt to promote consensus, because that’s the kind of woolly liberal I am, I have three opinions about the current debate.

  • It’s not acceptable for students to behave in a way that prevents other children from learning, makes the classroom unsafe or puts intolerable burdens on the teacher.

As pragmatic professionals, sometimes we have to take a step backwards to move forward. A behaviour policy that does not allow for a student ever to be removed from class as part of a stepped approach is asking for trouble. As long as the long-term aim is for students to address and improve their behaviour, and return to class to learn, then there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with removal from class.

Consequences have to be part of any effective behaviour policy. There needs to be enough flexibility to account for individual needs, but the bottom line is that student learning is damaged when behaviour is poor. It’s our responsibility as professionals to address that situation decisively when it occurs.

  • It’s not acceptable for students to be isolated in a way that is cruel and excessively punitive.

Removal from class to work elsewhere for short periods whilst work takes place to correct long-term behaviour is a good way of addressing a problem, and it’s also fine to make it clear that this is a negative consequence of negative behaviour choices – it’s not fine to isolate pupils in a situation for extended periods where there is almost no interaction with others, or support for learning. It’s also not ok to remove students from learning for extended periods for minor infractions of equipment or uniform policy. There are better ways of dealing with this. Colleagues tell me that this is rare, but there is no doubt that it happens, and it appears to be increasing.

  • Everyone has a right to opinion

Among the most self-defeating aspects of the whole debate are comments along the lines of ‘people who argue this have clearly never worked in a school with challenging behaviour’ or ‘I assume people who advocate this don’t have a child with special needs’, the assumption being that you therefore should not express an opinion. School leaders need to be able to make decisions and parents and others in the wider community have the right to advocate for children, but it doesn’t mean that views can’t be respectfully challenged. It’s not a straight choice between isolation booths and disruptive classrooms, nor between keeping everyone in class and inflicting cruel and psychologically damaging punishment.

By the way, I’m a school leader, I teach, I’m the father of a child with SEND and I have worked in a variety of contexts, including schools in high levels of deprivation. The schools I work in currently are successful, inclusive schools, with very high standards of behaviour, low exclusion rates and no isolation booths, but do have SLT on-call systems and arrangements for students to be removed from class if necessary.

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Time to get rid of ‘Outstanding’ schools?

It’s rare, especially in these fractious times, that a policy announcement is greeted with almost universal approval, but we’ve had that in education this week. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson confirmed that the inspection exemption for the almost 4,000 schools with a current Outstanding Ofsted judgement will be lifted in September, subject to consultation and a Parliamentary vote. They will now be on the same 5-year cycle as schools judged ‘Good’.

This move appears to have the support of almost all sectors of the education community including DfE, Ofsted, professional associations, the majority of teachers – even the schools who will now be subject to the same Ofsted pressures as the rest of us have welcomed it.

It’s not hard to see why this move is both popular and necessary. When some schools have not been inspected for over a decade, and may have had a complete turnover of staff in the meantime, the judgement lacked any credibility. It’s also becoming clear at the moment that a judgement under a previous framework does not automatically transfer to the new framework. The small proportion of outstanding schools that have been inspected in the recent past have primarily been identified through a desktop analysis of data – under the new framework, this is a much less reliable indicator of inspection outcome.

However, just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean that it will be completely straightforward to put it into practice, and we should be prepared for some unintended consequences.

Firstly, we should be prepared for a steady decline in the proportion of outstanding schools. Unless all the current cohort retain their judgement, this is entirely predictable, not an indicator that standards are declining. However, it’s the sort of thing that makes politicians twitchy, and gives journalists the chance to concoct a story out of nothing.

Secondly, it will become increasingly difficult to demonstrate consistency across the system for the outstanding judgement. Without any external data to moderate judgements and with such a high bar, it will be very hard for both practitioners and parents to understand what outstanding signifies. For example, one school might lose its outstanding label because of a small proportion of off-task behaviour, another for over-zealous behaviour policies. Be ready for a steady stream of outraged schools challenging the basis for their downgraded judgement.

Surely the time has now come to revisit the value of the Outstanding judgement. I know this was considered in the last framework but this week’s announcement changes the context.

Apart from anything else, the word itself is not helpful to system-wide improvement. By definition, only a small proportion of schools can be outstanding – if everyone reaches the benchmark, they no longer ‘stand out’. It’s become something that divides and excludes schools, and discourages the system-wide co-operation that is so vital.

What benefit is the outstanding judgement bringing to the system? I know that some will be reluctant to give up their competitive advantage, but why not have a system where all schools can aspire to excellence? An inspection system that recognises that all schools have strengths and weaknesses, and doesn’t put a favoured few on a pedestal.

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Reasons to be Cheerful – Why I’m feeling optimistic about teaching in the 2020s

OK, it’s the holidays and the start of a brand new decade, I’m well-fed, well-rested and feeling fairly relaxed. I’m at that point where I can now contemplate the new term with a sense of relative calm and positivity. It may be that everything I write here is written under an illusory fog of goodwill which will disappear in first contact with reality.

However, I’ve always believed that relentless and indefatigable optimism is a necessary condition for leadership. If as a leader, you don’t believe that the future is bright, then you have to be very good at pretending you do – how much more sensible to look for the positives so that your first day back smile is genuine.

For the sake of clarity, I’m aware of the issues surrounding accountability, funding, SEND, online dangers, the climate crisis, the growing dangers of racism and prejudice, threats posed by crashing out of the EU, knife crime, mental health disorders, workload, curriculum change and all the other issues we face. I’m not denying that problems and challenges exist, and I apologise to those who will no doubt find this a ridiculously Pollyanna-ish outlook, but even when challenges face us, there is always joy and satisfaction to be gained from working with children and young people.

So, here’s my five reasons to be cheerful about working in schools at the turn of the decade:

  • The argument about funding has been won

Ok, winning the argument is not the same as having the cash in the bank, but in the general noise and nonsense of the election campaign, one thing about education was clear – every party knew that they had to promise more funds for education. The colleagues who have taken this fight to the government have done a brilliant job, and the connection between sensible funding and school standards has become much more accepted.  Even a government with a comfortable majority knows that there would be a price to pay for reneging on their education funding promises.

  • The teaching profession has never been so well-informed

For those who have known nothing different, it may seem fairly unremarkable that teachers routinely refer to the research that informs their practice. For those who have been around for some time, following the research-informed debates on social media is an eye-opener. In my early years of teaching, I would have struggled to identify any current research – that was the province of the university, not the humble classroom teacher. Today, teachers are not just aware of the research, they question, debate and critique it; they reference it against other schools of thinking and come to an independent conclusion.

The much-maligned National Strategies articulated a philosophy of teaching that linked to learning and progress, and shared that with the profession. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to contain it, and the bottomless resource that is the internet provides all the source material anyone could ever need. It’s no coincidence that the rationale for the new Ofsted framework is linked to research, not policy. Now teachers not only know what to do, they also know why, and how to do it better. It also means that the education debate is focusing on the things that matter – curriculum, pedagogy behaviour, SEND, leadership.

  • Young people are leading the way

In the immortal words of Whitney, I believe that children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way. This year of all years, that’s been the case. On a global level, it’s humbling to see adult politicians tying themselves in knots as they try and unravel political crises that are entirely of their own making whilst scoring points and levering their own advantage – meanwhile the fight against climate catastrophe, the true global challenge of our time, is led by young people.

On a local level, I see students engaged in supporting local foodbanks, helping out in street kitchens for the homeless, challenging racism and homophobia, engaging in political discussion. During the recent campaign, I watched a lot of electoral debates – I can honestly say that the audience that was most reflective, open-minded and prepared to listen and engage with arguments was our KS4 and KS5 students at the constituency hustings we hosted. Working with young people brings challenges, but is continually surprising and rewarding.

  • The quality of education in our schools has never been better

A colleague on twitter (thank you @MrPran Patel) recently posted something along the lines of ‘A controversial opinion: Behaviour has not got worse in the last 20 years.’ Judging by the responses, it was not as controversial opinion as expected – most people agreed that things had indeed got better. Every available metric – standards, inspection outcomes, attendance – demonstrates a gradual but inexorable improvement in school performance since James Callaghan’s famous Ruskin College speech of 1976. Admittedly, it’s been a bumpy ride, and there’s been a price to pay, but the improvements have been real. I started teaching in the late 1980s – I think it’s true to say that the best teaching at that time was probably comparable with the best teaching now, but at that time the worst teaching was far worse, far more widespread and far less likely to be challenged.

One of the most frustratingly predictable events of the year is the way that improved exam results lead to commentators opining that such continual improvement is nonsense and proves only that exams are getting easier. However, given the focus on educational standards over recent decades – improvements in knowledge, greater accountability, use of technology, etc – surely it would be more surprising if things weren’t getting better over time? In the same period of time the 100m world record has been improved significantly – should we conclude that Usain Bolt was racing on a shorter track?

  • The support and fellowship provided by our professional community

Finally, teaching as a profession is essentially a collaborative endeavor. For decades, there have been attempts to embed competition and a market dynamic into the system, with, it has to be said, some success. However, there is an enduring willingness of teachers to appreciate that we are all in this together, with the shared aim of changing young lives for the better. I know that I’m fortunate to work with talented, hard-working and principled colleagues, but I also know that this is not unusual. I believe that generosity, openness and willingness to help is hard-wired into teachers – that’s why we have chosen to do this job.

Happy New Year!

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Machacando en hierro frío – the crisis in language learning

I don’t wish to appear eccentric, but I love speaking different languages. My degree was in Spanish along with a bit of Portuguese, and I always have a go at speaking French when I can. This summer, our family holiday was in Sicily, which gave me the excuse to learn some Italian, through a combination of Duolingo, Michel Thomas and listening to Italian internet radio stations. When we got there, I took every opportunity I could to have conversations in Italian, even though to all intents and purposes I couldn’t speak it, and certainly not to a level that would have got a good GCSE pass.

The thing is, I have developed a special technique that allows me to do this: I don’t get embarrassed by speaking a foreign language, even if I’m not sure how to say something correctly. In fact, I enjoy it. I’ll have a go, throw in a few words from other languages, guess what the grammar rule might be, even make a few things up if I think it helps. I wave my arms around, use facial expressions and enthusiastically adopt the accent and even the stance that seems closest to that of a native speaker (hopefully without causing offence).

I realise that this is not typical of my compatriots. If you want a perfect definition of awkward embarrassment, look no further than an English person abroad who has ordered a bottle of wine by using their phrasebook or plumbing the depths of their memory, in their best schoolboy French accent, completely unprepared for the waiter to ask them which particular wine they would prefer. Cue a look of total panic, immediate reversion back to English or a simple repetition of their original order, exasperation and frustration all round.

As a nation, we may be entering a period when our ability to establish good relationships with others around the world becomes ever more important and language is such a key part of that relationship. Whilst it’s true that wherever we go, we can usually find an English speaker, if we can speak the language of our hosts, then that relationship is so much stronger and deeper. The ability to speak more than one language is a life skill that is invaluable in the modern world, not least because of the respect it demonstrates.

Not only that, but the learning of languages is well known to have impact well beyond the subject itself. The understanding of grammar and vocabulary, the ability to solve problems and use inference and deduction, the use of tone and inflection in speech – all are skills for learning and skills for life. My hunch would be that as a school-improvement strategy, ensuring all students were multilingual would lead to phenomenal outcomes across the curriculum.

The irony is of course, that as this skill becomes ever more valuable, our ability and willingness to do this seems to be declining from our already very low base. The numbers studying languages are declining year on year. In February this year, the BBC reported that language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling the most. Their analysis showed drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England, with a third of schools having dropped at least one language from their GCSE options.

Normally, when things are not working on this scale, we look to policy makers, and expect that they will put measures in place to address it. To be fair, in terms of education, that is what they have tried to do. The introduction of the EBacc, followed by its prominent role in the Progress 8 calculation, and reaffirmed by the government ‘ambition’ that 90% of students should study the full EBacc by 2022 is a clear policy direction and should have led to the widespread uptake of languages.

So why hasn’t it? In my view, our examination and accreditation system actively mitigates against the natural development of language skills for most pupils. The ability to communicate effectively is almost impossible to assess out of context, and we can’t reproduce that context in an exam hall. Even in the elements of the course that focus on spoken language, students are trained to have conversations that far exceed the level of independent conversation that they are able to have, so it is inevitably stilted and unnatural.

The fact is GCSE language specs are formulaic, dry and lacking in relevance. The saddest thing I can say about them is that in my experience, the ability to speak and understand a language with any level of fluency or improvisation is almost irrelevant to success at GCSE. I applaud the amazing MFL teachers out there who work tirelessly to breathe joy into the moribund corpse of the GCSE MFL curriculum, but they’re very often ‘machacando en hierro frío’ (flogging a dead horse).

This is a crisis that needs some radical solutions. Almost every single pupil who walks through the doors of our schools has demonstrated that they can master a spoken language. By the age of 6, they have approximately 2,600 words of expressive vocabulary and 20,000–24,000 words of receptive vocabulary (Lorraine, 2008). Why do they all think that learning a language is so hard? We need to understand what it is that has got them to this level of expert language use and replicate it in the next language they learn.

My first suggestion would be to remove MFL from the EBacc and Progress 8, but prioritise it in the curriculum discussions held by Ofsted, including anything relating to cultural capital. Of course, MFL should be there as an academic option, and a highly valued one, but we should recognise that the academic study of a foreign language is different and separate from the ability to communicate in a real-life context. Some people should have the former, everyone should have the latter.

Secondly, language learning should be present throughout a pupil’s school life, treated as a cross-cutting key life skill that all students study, in the same way that they are expected to study PE, Citizenship and RE. What message does it give about the importance of communicating in other tongues, if the majority of students get to ‘drop’ it at the earliest opportunity?

Thirdly, we should accept that conventional teaching of languages has not worked and that we need to look at a different model, one that learns from the things that have helped us all successfully acquire our first language – immersion, motivation, reward. When we learn a language, meaning comes first, grammar second.

Here’s some suggestions – build in some immersive and fun experiences – assemblies entirely in French, tutor time twice a week only in Spanish, PSHE / Citizenship entirely in German or Italian, on wet playtimes put on the Simpsons in Spanish in the school Hall, school dinner orders only accepted in a foreign language. Most importantly, as the adult models, we need to ‘get over ourselves’ and have a go – of all the things to feel shame about, mispronouncing a word in a language we are still trying to master has to be fairly low on the list.

I realise that the chance of my wish coming true is virtually nil, but that doesn’t stop me from suggesting it. By a quirk of history, we are in the unique position of being able to go almost anywhere in the world and finding someone who can speak English. That used to be an advantage, but now it feels more and more like a handicap. Our children’s ability in language learning is among the worst in the whole world – that really is something to be embarrassed about.

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Stop! Collaborate and listen…

As someone who leads a small Multi-Academy Trust, I am acutely aware of the range of views about the MAT sector that exist within colleagues and the wider public. If scale of impact is the measure, then MATs have been a huge success. Many can point to their achievements in turning around historic poor performance, in leading debate and innovation, in developing models of leadership across the sector. The sector has gone from pretty much a standing start less than a decade ago to the point where over half of the pupils in the country are educated in academies, and some Multi-Academy Trusts have grown to rival the size and influence of a small Local Authority.

However, it’s an understatement to say that the growth of MATs has not been universally popular. Let’s face it, we haven’t done ourselves any favours by the steady stream of headlines exposing practices that range from the questionable to the clearly immoral, introducing a bonus and expenses culture in some cases that is entirely at odds with the Nolan principles of behavior in public life.  

The worst excesses can be put down to the ‘bad apple’ principle, emerging as the sector became established, drawing up rules and standards as it went along, and fortunately they are increasingly likely to be exposed. However, there are deeply held objections to the core principles underpinning the MAT structure. Having recently been in situations where I have had to defend and justify the role of MATs, including to a hall full of deeply suspicious people, I think that the key objections come down to two main themes.

Firstly, the lack of effective democratic oversight. How does the public who pay our wages ensure that their voice is heard and that poor practice can be challenged? We know that accountability exists – through Ofsted, RSC, performance tables etc – but if I’m a parent who believes that my child has been unfairly excluded as a result of unfair MAT policies, and this particular MAT is based 100 miles away and runs 40 schools, how on earth do I effectively challenge that decision? Where is the independent local democratic accountability that was represented (however inconsistently) by Local Authorities? I worked in an LA Children’s Service at a time when our voice had some authority in schools, and we had some levers to hold schools to account on behalf of an elected local council. No longer. MATs will never fully gain public trust until they are fully accountable to the public.

The second key problem, and the one I want to focus on here, is that MATs seem to be inherently competitive. Many are predicated on a model of continual growth, and their key performance indicators are explicitly tied to competitive criteria – ‘top 20%’, ‘among the best’, ‘well above national average…’ and so on. Norm-referenced public accountability measures such as Progress 8 make it essential for performance not just to be good, but to be better than others.

Even the word ‘Outstanding’ to describe the highest Ofsted grade, which is so coveted by schools and MATs (just look at their vision statements) implies competition. If lots of schools are judged ‘outstanding’, then they no longer ‘stand out’ – the judgement doesn’t simply mean ‘excellent’, but better than the vast majority of other schools.

Of course, it is well-established that competition can bring benefits, and the theories behind New Public Management (Hood 1994, among others) which have been so influential in the redrawing of public services in western countries in the last 30 years have established this principle as a key driver for improvement. The availability of accountability measures, the direct link between pupil numbers and budgets, the prestige and reputation that comes with the public acknowledgement of success – all incentivise us to improve performance urgently and to develop effective practice (according to the theory).  There is undoubtedly evidence to support this analysis, and the idea of competition driving performance is absolutely mainstream.

I believe, however, that the growth of the MAT sector has heightened this process to the point where even if it is beneficial for an individual school or trust, competition between MATs is no longer pushing overall performance forward but is now having an increasingly detrimental effect on the system as a whole.

Firstly, the impact of league table culture distorts curriculum choices. The Ofsted shift in focus away from data and recognising diverse curriculum approaches is welcome, but as long as there are real-world consequences for poor placing in performance tables, then schools will always be driven to ensure that they give themselves the best opportunity to succeed. What if a group of pupils might be better served by focusing on a small number of vocational / entry-level qualifications? Impossible – that would leave 3 empty Progress 8 gaps. How about this high attaining group managing a broader offer by shaving a couple of lessons from their existing subjects? What’s the point – only the best 8 count. I’m not suggesting that it’s quite as cynical as this, but the experience of ECDL was instructive – a qualification that swept across our schools as a way of boosting league table performance. Some have argued that it wasn’t about league tables, it was genuinely used to equip pupils with real-life ICT skills – well, in that case why is almost nobody still using it?

Secondly, excessive competition incentivises schools to remove the most troublesome or hard to educate pupils. This may be as part of a completely legitimate exclusion process, or it could be through unscrupulous off-rolling practices, but let’s be honest, if a pupil has significant behavioural problems, or complex special needs, or is simply making very slow progress, then it is in the school’s objective interest not to have them on their books. I’m not accusing schools of excluding pupils for spurious reasons, but there has to be an impact of the fact that our system actively incentivises us to move them on, or to try and ensure they don’t arrive in the first place. Ask any Headteacher what their response is when they get a call from a parent of a child wanting to move from the school down the road because things aren’t going well – are we welcoming or downright suspicious? We have established a system which rewards those who don’t welcome our most vulnerable pupils.

Thirdly, it works against co-ordinated local initiatives including the sharing of expertise and CPD. Within a MAT, the capacity to improve teaching and learning, or to provide support for leadership development is a valuable currency, and is targeted across the Trust. Where it is offered outside the Trust, for example through a Teaching School, there is often a hefty fee and a lack of accountability for the impact in school. How often in the current climate do schools from a variety of Trusts sit down together and work on strategies to address local issues? (I believe that this was the principle behind the London Challenge, but elsewhere in the country, we’re still waiting for something similar).

In our area, we have the bizarre phenomenon whereby children from some primary schools are not able to take part in curriculum events (taster days, large scale music performances etc) run by the secondary school they will attend in Year 7, because it’s part of a different MAT. There could not be a clearer example of competition having a negative impact on children.

Education is a collaborative enterprise – we get better results when we work together. This is true in a classroom or across a school, but it’s no less true across a system. A MAT that is successful at the expense of other schools and students should not be considered a success. If we want the sector to thrive and gain public support, we need to work together for the benefit of all.

What does that mean in practice? Firstly, celebrate the success of our schools by all means, but not at the expense of others. The way that we take the toxicity out of performance tables is by making it clear that they are deeply flawed and hugely unreliable. Every school that describes their results as ‘in the top 20%’ is reinforcing the myth, likewise every school that puts up a slide at Open Evening showing how they compare in a particular (carefully-selected) measure. (Oh and Ofsted, it would help to get rid of Outstanding).

This could be done tomorrow, led by professional associations and a bit of gentle peer pressure. It’s all well and good the schools at the bottom of the league tables explaining to parents how closely Progress 8 correlates to disadvantage, it would be nice to hear all the schools at the top doing the same, rather than posing for pictures as part of a glowing article in the local paper.

Secondly, we need to work together to provide the most effective (and cost-effective) provision for our most vulnerable children in the locality, both morally and financially. I would like to extend the principle that exists in some areas whereby every child who has an EHCP, or is in danger of PermEx (I realise that I’m describing two very different categories) is the shared responsibility of a partnership of local schools. Additional funding is held centrally by the partnership, and allocated to an appropriate provision, whether that’s a mainstream school, special school or alternative provision. Partnerships could even establish their own APs, or jointly purchase special school places, or step up managed move protocols. In the vast majority of cases, the most appropriate provision is in the local mainstream school, but it will be possible for a partnership to see whether the distribution is equitable or sensible, and to react to circumstances e.g. one of the schools going into an Ofsted category. If we really wanted to establish this principle, we would also find a way of sharing responsibility for outcomes, to ensure that all local schools work together.

There are many other ways we can encourage and celebrate collaboration. I would suggest a simple leadership question for Ofsted – how have you contributed to the outcomes for pupils outside your own school or Trust? Unless a school can answer this positively and convincingly, Outstanding should be off the table.  Schools should also be encouraged to make curriculum resources widely available, to invite others in to observe their great practice, and to feel confident enough to pick up the phone to their neighbouring school when they need to do the same. The teacher networks that have grown so successfully through social media can be promoted and supported by schools. We can build on the example set by organisations such as PixL, CCT, or the professional associations, to unlock the power of collaboration.

In the end, however, it’s a question of integrity and values, as it so often is. It’s difficult to force people to be collaborative and collegiate, but we can celebrate and recognise those colleagues who are. Wherever you are working, if you are working with children and young people, then your success is my success.

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The law of unintended consequences – how a greater emphasis on academic rigour is leading to a decline in academic subjects.

This last week has been a defining week for another cohort of Year 13 students as they have collected their A levels and used them to confirm their place on the next stage. In truth, it has been a week of few major headlines – a slight dip in A and A* grades, entries for girls in Science overtaking boys, minor controversy around grade thresholds in Maths.

However, what was also reported is that in the last year, there has been a 13% decline in the number of students studying English at A Level. This is on the back of a precipitous drop in the proportion of students studying languages over the last few years, and a slow decline in the proportion of students studying History and Geography. Although Science entries are up, most of the subjects traditionally at the heart of the curriculum seem to be in decline (Maths has also declined this year, amid concerns over the impact of new GCSEs).

The irony is that the opposite should be happening, and that the explicit policy direction over the last decade has been to strengthen the traditional curriculum. The introduction of the concept of the EBacc, now a Government ambition for 90% of students at KS4 (monitored by Ofsted), the compulsory resitting of English and Maths in 6th Forms, the downgrading of vocational qualifications – all should be bolstering traditional academic subjects.

The truth is that they’re not, and this decline is moving swiftly past the alarming stage to become irreversible.

When major curriculum or exam reform happens, the impact is not always seen instantly, and can take a few years to work through the system. These reforms are not piecemeal or incoherent. They are based on a Gove-ian vision of the curriculum that asserts that students (and society) are best-served by a rigorous focus on challenging subject matter delivered through a Hirschian ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. They have been supported by policy initiatives, such as EBacc, redesign of performance tables including Progress 8, and the new Ofsted curriculum focus.

I accept that they are based on aspiration and a sincere belief that this approach leads to improvement, including for less-advantaged students. As Michael Gove said at the start of his journey: ‘If our state schools were a little more elitist, if they tested their pupils with greater rigour and frequency and brought home the difference between failure and success more forcibly they would have more pupils at Oxford.’

However, there appear to be problems. English is the area that has raised the greatest alarms this time round. According to a report in The Guardian, English language A-level numbers dropped from just under 18,000 in 2018 to less than 14,000 this year. Uptake was also down for English literature, from 41,000 to 37,500. Teachers and school leaders put the blame fairly and squarely at the door of new ‘more rigorous’ GCSE courses, courses that require hugely increased amounts of rote learning, greater use of historical texts and analysis of excerpts. By the time they get to 16, many students have had enough.

The report quoted an assistant headteacher who said: “GCSE English language is sucking the joy out of the study of how we communicate: the power and beauty in words. English literature favours those with excellent memories; it has reduced our most magnificent pieces of writing to a collection of quotations.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “It is right that we should have the highest aspirations for all our students, but this should not equate to turning exams into a joyless slog. We are concerned that the current GCSE specifications are failing to encourage a love of English in young people and this year’s entries at A-level appear to confirm

The Department for Education was quick to express that reformed GCSEs in English are “better preparing pupils for further study at A-level.” Well, that may be true, but if they’re not studying it at A Level, it’s irrelevant.

Languages are an area that I have a particular interest in. Simply put, many students no longer study languages at KS5 because they’re too hard and too boring. I’ve had lots of conversations with students to try and convince them of the life-expanding benefits of learning a language, of the range of art and literature that opens up when you learn another language, of the joys of overseas study and the many employment possibilities that open up for language graduates. But it comes down to this – ‘I need the best A-levels possible to get into the best university possible and I’ve got two years to get them, so why would I pick a subject that is too hard and too boring.’ It’s an argument I usually lose.

GCSE language specs are formulaic, dry and lacking in relevance. The saddest thing I can say about them is that in my experience, the ability to speak and understand a language with any level of fluency or improvisation is almost irrelevant to success at GCSE. I applaud the amazing MFL teachers out there who work tirelessly to breathe joy into the moribund corpse of the GCSE MFL curriculum, but they’re very often flogging a dead horse.

I’m in favour of supporting our declining EBacc subjects. I’m totally in favour of academic rigour and challenging our brightest students. However, I’m also in favour of looking at the evidence, and changing a policy that’s not working. This is not an argument about pedagogy or instruction, or knowledge-based approaches – it’s an argument that in a buyer’s market, we need a product we can sell.

How have we got to the point where some of the glories of our education and culture – the study of history, geography, literature, even mathematics – are seen as a chore, or irrelevant by so many? How is it that subjects that should open a door into understanding the world don’t seem relevant to the culture and society of young people?

We need curriculum content that combines modern and historical voices, that draws from sources across the world, that reflects the reality of our students’ world with due diversity in race, gender, sexuality and disability. We also need a balance between content acquisition and student agency, between knowledge and acquisition. Most of all, we need to understand that to get Key Stage 5 right, we need to start with Key Stage 4.

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Guest Blog: Multi-Academy Trusts: A grassroots view…

The following blog was written by a colleague with whom I have communicated regularly on twitter and who is a supportive and positive presence in the #edutwitter community. Following my blog ‘The Golden Rule of Multi Academy Trusts’, he wanted to share his thoughts and experiences, but is nervous about doing so publicly under his own name, which perhaps gives an indication of the uncertainty that people feel when dealing with MATs. I’m happy to host his thoughts here.

Twitter’s @DrHeery who I greatly respect and enjoy corresponding with on Twitter galvanised me into writing this with the blog he published on 12 April 2021 entitled “The Goldilocks rule of Multi Academy Trusts.” Before I go on, I’m afraid I’m having to post this anonymously (thank you @DrHeery for hosting this) as I know from painful first hand experience that senior colleagues lurk on social media and while what I have to say is largely positive, there may be some “home truths” that will make less palatable reading.
Before I go on, I feel too I need to declare my political colours so others reading this might have a better understanding of my approach. I first started working in schools when David Cameron became Prime Minister so have been working within a political landscape where the controversy of academisation versus local control was one of the big headlines of the time. I actually did some supply work at the school formerly known as Downhills soon after it become part of the Harris Federation. That experience was so traumatic, I ended up having to step away from classroom duties and received NHS funded psychotherapy for over a year. It was therefore interesting to read in 2018 that this happened:
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/harris-primary-academy-ministers-philip-lane-downhills-school-sats-exam-chearing-parents-letter-gove-a8482556.html (last visited 13 April 2021)
Coming back to my political colours, Politics was a significant part of my undergraduate degree and at the time, in the immediate aftermath of the death of Labour Leader, John Smith and the talk at the time of party reform, I was a card carrying member of the Labour Party. The subsequent controversy over “Clause 4” made me revoke my membership. In recent elections I have voted with a much more critical eye and for candidates who I truly believe have the interests of their electorate at heart rather than aspirations for high office.
I thought it important to set out the political context of what I’m about to say as I don’t want those scrolling by to think “Oh what does this voice know about the politics of academisation? They’re just a foot soldier and lacks any leadership experience, especially in schools”. That might be true, but as a keen observer of politics and the economic as well as social policy impact of Central and Local Government decision making, I’ve seen that ideologically the Conservatives during my lifetime have maintained a very clear approach with rolling back the State as it were and I see the academisation of schools as part of that. Furthermore, reading through so much about the History of Education too, the creation of the National Curriculum in 1988 and Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976
were or are symbolic of how I believe successive Central Governments irrespective of political colour have a fundamental distrust of Local Authorities. This in school terms manifests itself as taking schools out of Local Authority control or responsibility and not for any other pedagogically sound reasons. Of course, in soundbite terms it sounds better when the Whitehall Wombles say its about “control of curriculum design being given to the teachers and other educational experts” rather than “Local Authorities don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to
teaching and learning.”
During my teacher training too, the emergence of academies was a big talking point and the subject of many written assignments during my University based training. The consensus view amongst the cohort was that “we” would try to avoid working for Academies owing largely to rumours among the student body, as social media was in its infancy
at that time, poor pay and conditions for their staff and draconian working practices.
I had a very chequered and erratic start after I qualified, working in short bursts in many schools. The faith based schools I’ve worked in are experiences I never want to repeat, not just because I felt like a complete classroom novice and unknown to me at the time in desperate need of psychotherapeutic support. In my recovery phase as it were, I had the good fortune to work in some schools which were still in Local Authority control – albeit under a structure which had a “Director of Education and Children’s Services” which operated at arms length from the rest of the machinery of Local Government. I also spent one and a half terms working at a fee paying school in an exclusive part of London which merits its own story for another time. As @DrHeery says the array of strategic school structures from “soft Federations” to fully branded large Multi Academy Trusts means I can’t clearly recall what type of schools I’ve been in during the time I did supply work.
Anyway, since the end of 2015 I’ve worked for what I think is a wonderful Multi Academy Trust. And this is the first really contentious statement. There are so many on social media who would “block” and “mute” me for simply saying that for no other reason than their own ingrained belief that “Multi Academy Trusts are bad”. I saw this first hand as one of the Board of Trustees was presenting her emergent findings from her PhD about her observations of managing the Trust at an academic conference we both attended. From where I was sitting in the audience, I heard tutting and booing from a senior academic at a fairly prestigious University. I suspended my disbelief at such unprofessional behaviour and instead found comfort in the Newman and Baddiel “that’s you that is” comedy routine from early 1990s British television.
I also hear and see all of those reasons why Local Authorities are doing a good to great job of providing a community based service through the schools they have retained responsibility for. There are some Local Authorities who have a wonderfully comprehensive service that they provide to support schools in their catchment area as it were – with
music teaching, professional development opportunities, cross school cross curricular learning provision, SEND support and much, much more. Sadly such practices are not only not universal but are very dependent on individual personalities and commitment. Today’s leading Local Authority could and can rapidly descend because of political whims and a change of focus or Leadership. And this is true not just of Local Authorities but any organisation – whether in the private or public sector. I think I can say this with legitimacy given my extensive management and executive professional paid experience of supporting change management projects across a large (8,000 plus staff) organisation for almost 24 years before I became a teacher.
Anyway, coming back to the wonderful Multi Academy Trust I work for. Why are they amazing? Because they have had a vision from the outset of allowing their Headteachers a “can do and want to” approach in the way the schools locally run. I’ve heard such an approach being described as “collegiate leadership” although I haven’t fully researched what this might mean – although it would make it an interesting aspect of the Action Research that the Trust are sponsoring me to undertake. Yes, and this is another reason why I think the Multi Academy Trust I work for
is a brilliant employer. They have made the commitment to support the professional development of its staff by partnering with universities so that colleagues who want to can study at postgraduate level. I really should be working on my dissertation at the time of writing but exercising my mind in this way is much more appealing.
The Trust have also established a “Hub” type model where individual schools with leading experts in subject fields deliver and support other schools across the Trust to raise teaching and learning standards. The Director of Music and former Director of Art did and continue to do amazing work raising the profile and standards of teaching and
learning for their respective subjects. The Trust brings all of its schools together for memory making Trust wide events like Sports Olympiads, Science Symposiums and a fortnight long annual Arts Festival. I am trying to emulate the same in my own subject specialism – not because I want to return to the lofty heights of Executive Leadership again but because I’m passionate about the subject I adore teaching. The Board of Trustees and the Headteacher at the School I’m usually based at has allowed me to do exactly that.
You’re probably thinking, ‘but surely there must be “weeds” in this beautiful garden I’ve described’. Well, yes there are. The bureaucratic process in parts of any organisation slows down decision making. As a classroom practitioner who thinks about these things, the cost of “administration” for any Multi-Academy Trust in any shape or form means money being taken away from “front-line” delivery. As @DrHeery reflects, the exorbitant salaries of some Executives for any organisation makes me question every day, when I don’t have the resources to enable every learner I work with, the opportunity to receive the outstanding learning experience I expect for my own daughter and son. The examples of best working practice can also be lost in large organisations too to what Economists call “diseconomies of scale”. As an experienced classroom practitioner, I do not expect to be given a “rulebook” to follow but would appreciate strategic decisions on working practices to be unambiguous and not seemingly constantly changed as pedagogical fashion dictates. This personal frustration is perhaps more of a wider observation or reflection of how schools have had to operate since March 2020 and requiring all of us to have a much more adaptable and flexible approach. From my previous experience of change management processes, new structures
and practices do need to be communicated effectively and allowed a period of time to be embedded and reviewed for its impact before any further changes are made. Once again, such observations apply to any organisational structure.
I guess in summary for me, based on my professional experiences and personal observations, I prefer thinking about the Multi Academy Trust model of managing schools as, taking the analogy that @DrHeery has applied, one technique of preparing porridge that some will find is “just right”.

Thank you for reading.