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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 There’s no return to normal around the corner, and it wasn’t long before even the ‘new normal’ became out of date.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.