Confessions of an Imposter

I’m sure you will be familiar with the Imposter Syndrome phenomenon – it’s commonly felt by someone following a promotion, and is the inescapable feeling that they have somehow succeeded in getting the job under false pretenses. At any moment they fear they could be found out and sent back to their rightful position.

Head Teachers seem to be particularly vulnerable. I’ve rarely spoken to a fellow Head who hasn’t felt this, particularly when first taking over a job, although for many of us, it never completely goes. It’s part of the loneliness of the job, the fact that honest and impartial feedback is difficult to obtain, and so many of us feel the need to present an air of competence which would be shattered if we suddenly turned round and asked ‘How am I doing?’

I’m no exception. I have all too vivid memories of sitting behind my desk, having given my most confident and reassuring smile to my new team, closing the door and thinking ‘what the hell do I do now?’ No amount of time in SLT meetings, or even assuming the acting Head role prepares you for that buck-stops-here feeling. It’s been useful to understand the syndrome, comforting to appreciate that what I have felt has been an entirely natural reaction to the situation.

However, it turns out I was wrong. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, I realise that I never actually had Imposter Syndrome at all. Turns out I really was an Imposter.

Not quite at the level of the occasional news stories where someone has faked their medical certificates, got a job as a doctor, and is merrily carrying out complicated operations before they’re finally rumbled by someone who knew them years ago and remembered them as a slightly eccentric individual with 3 GCSEs and an unhealthy obsession with Holby City. But an imposter nonetheless.

I started teaching in a primary school in London in 1988, at a time when London schools were finding it almost impossible to recruit, and through a combination of eagerness, luck and market forces, made rapid progress. After three years, I was invited to apply for a Deputy Headship by someone I chatted to over coffee on a CPD course, and was appointed. As a new Deputy Head with responsibility for teaching and learning, I observed the teaching of wise and experienced colleagues and gave then pointers for improvement, all the while storing away tips and techniques to improve my own teaching.

I became a Head nine years after I had joined the profession, spent four happy years in a lovely school full of challenges but surrounded by supportive and talented colleagues, before taking over an inner-city school in Special Measures. With wonderful support from colleagues in the Local Authority, in neighbouring schools, and most of all on the staff team, we began to make a difference. After six years there (by far my longest stint in a single job at that time), I became a Local Authority adviser.

As I walked around great schools, led by wise Head Teachers, and staffed by dedicated and skilled practitioners, my first thought was usually ‘that’s a good idea, I wish I’d done that when I was a Head’. In my time in the job, my imposter experiences came thick and fast – standing in the front of a conference room, explain to 200 Headteachers how to implement the new National Strategy initiative that I had read for the first time the day before, carrying out a performance management review for the Virtual School Headteacher who had already forgotten more about the education of looked-after children than I could hope learn in my whole career, feeding back to members of the education select committee about the challenges of running a small rural school despite never having worked in a school that was either small or rural. Thinking on my feet, reading everything I could, relying on great colleagues – they got me through by the skin of my teeth. As long as I stayed true to my own values and the values of the organisation I worked for, I felt I could make a contribution through a combination of hard work, willingness and dumb luck.

My greatest imposter moment came relatively late in my career. I took the opportunity to apply for a post leading a small Trust, a post that meant an increase in salary, in a stimulating environment, with schools full of potential, much of it not yet realized. The only problem was that it comprised two secondary schools and a sixth form.

Now it’s not as if I hadn’t been in secondary schools before. I’d attended one thirty years previously and often worked with secondary colleagues. However, with the best will in the world, you couldn’t call me an expert. I was suddenly introduced to a whole new lexicon of exam specs, BTECs, EBacc, ALPS, NEETS – my head was reeling. I was one carefully targeted question away from exposing my ignorance and shattering my credibility with my new colleagues, all of whom quite reasonably assumed that the person leading their organisation had a reasonable working knowledge of the sector in which he was working.

In all my early meetings I was in constant danger of displaying an entirely justifiable sense of panic. Over time, of course, my expertise grew and knowledge increased to the point where I feel confident enough to share these reflections, but the memory is still vivid.

Now, I’m not naïve, on reflection, the privileges that so often accompany my race and gender are likely to have been a significant factor in some of the promotions I have gained, particularly early on in my career. Not directly or overtly, and almost certainly not with the conscious knowledge of the people doing the appointing, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s a regret that it has taken me until late in my career to recognise this, and to acknowledge the responsibility this places on me to make things better for others.

So what has my career as an Imposter taught me? Firstly, that knowledge and skills can be acquired along the way and that if you wait until you are totally ready to move to the next step, it’s a step you probably won’t ever take. A bit of impostership is inevitable, and no bad thing if you get the balance right.

Secondly, that no matter how important anyone’s role is in an organisation, they’re only ever part of a team. The important thing is not whether everybody in the team has the full range of knowledge and skills required, but that somebody does. In hindsight, even when my knowledge gap has been greatest, there has usually been something that I have been able to usefully contribute, and some skills can apply in almost all circumstances.

I’ve learned that in terms of career development, there are some vital things that don’t come under the category of skills, knowledge or experience, but are attributes and attitudes that make a huge contribution to any leadership team. Perhaps most importantly, positivity and optimism are an essential prerequisite for leadership, not least when they are in short supply elsewhere – everyone wants people on their team who has a belief that success is achievable and can communicate that with a degree of infectiousness. Loyalty and trustworthiness are always noticed and appreciated – every leader has to trust his or her team implicitly, or open discussion and dialogue is impossible. That doesn’t mean being a yes-man, in fact giving an honest opinion is the most important thing to do, as long as it takes place at the right time and place, and with the right audience.

I’ve learnt that if you want to do a job, you should start doing it before you’re appointed. For example, if you want to be a Deputy Head, start volunteering to be doing Deputy Head-type roles – assemblies, timetables, mentoring, policy development. Join the Governors, attend the PTA, chair the Parents’ Forum. Apart from the professional learning and enjoyment these roles can bring, don’t see it as doing something for nothing, see it as an investment to be cashed in at a later date. Don’t let people down – meet deadlines, contribute to meetings, check emails, be a supportive colleague – when you achieve a leadership role, you realise just how much you value the colleagues who can depend upon to do these apparently simple things.

Finally, the thing that allows the Imposter to survive without the whole shaky edifice crumbling – never forget that you’re always learning, whether that’s through formal structured professional development, through reading and reflection, or simply by engaging with professional conversations on social media. In an ever-changing education world, when we lose our curiosity and stop learning, we don’t stay still, we go backwards. As leaders, whichever direction we go, we take others with us, so forwards seems like the best direction of travel – now that we’ve bluffed our way into this position, we may as well make it count.

Congratulations – you haven’t got the job!

 

No matter how many times I do it, sitting down to make the phone calls at the end of a long day of interviews is never a task I look forward to. I normally make one very pleasant call, passing on the good news to the successful candidate, before I turn to the four or five people who haven’t got the job. I know that they will have invested a huge amount of time and energy into the process, probably discussed with their partner, taken the huge step of letting their current school know that they were looking to leave, maybe even checking out houses and schools in the area if they’re moving locations as well. They may well have spent most of the weekend preparing their model lesson or presentation, rehearsed the questions they thought most likely, asked for advice from trusted colleagues and maybe even have shared their excitement on social media. 

Then it’s my job to bring them down to earth. ‘I’m sorry, I’m not ringing with good news’ is my opening gambit, operating on the basis that the sooner I pass on the news, the better. I can honestly say that in the many, many hundreds of times I’ve done this, there have only been a couple of occasions where I have felt a certain frostiness or anger – the most common response is for people to thank me, and wish the best to the successful candidate. People are basically nice, in my experience. 

I always try and pick out a nugget of advice that is easy enough to remember given the nature of the call, and useful enough that it might make a difference next time. But there’s something I say that I’m not convinced many people hear: ‘It’s not about who is the best person, it’s about who is the best fit for this job.’ This is why the most important piece of advice I can give anyone going for a job is to ‘Be Yourself’. Obviously, on the day of an interview, you will want to present the best version of yourself, but yourself nonetheless.  

‘What did I do wrong?’ is an obvious question, but the wrong one. The simple truth is likely to be ‘You did everything right but you still didn’t get the job – you’re the right person, but not for this particular role.’  

By the time everyone arrives for the interview, the application process should have established that all the candidates are performing at the right level to do the job and have a good enough track record to be appointed. Of course, a large part of the purpose of the day is to ensure that the candidate has the appropriate skills and knowledge, and a record of good performance. Equally, that they have the ability and willingness to develop experience and knowledge through training and development. 

(NB A plea to those doing the interview – make sure you’re not designing a process that will simply reward performance on the day or highlight skills that are really only applicable in a limited range of situations, such as an interview day. You’re not looking for a used-car salesman, someone who can spin a line – far more important to find out who they really are.) 

The most important thing, both for the candidate and those interviewing is to be certain that values and ethos are compatible. Context changes, policies come and go, but values are something that is integral. There is nothing more damaging in the long term to mental health and self-esteem than working in an institution which does not share the same values as you.  

In a good interview process, this will come out, but it can very be tempting to say what you think your potential employer wants to hear even if it’s not what you truly believe. Behaviour, inclusion, curriculum, governance, leadership style and a host of other areas are hugely influenced by the philosophy of the school. 

You may think it’s the role of school leaders to have a visible presence in and out of classrooms all day, or you may think teachers should be left alone to get on without interference. You may want to use the role as a springboard to further development, or you may want to be allowed to consolidate and achieve some stability, without the pressure to advance your career. You may want the encouragement to lead extra-curricular and enrichment activities after school, or you may want to protect your work-life balance by being home early enough to spend time with your own children after school. 

The point is that none of these positions is inherently right or wrong, but in each case, finding that your standpoint is diametrically opposed to the school ethos is going to cause difficulties down the line. Much better for both parties to find out before you make a decision that you’re both committed to for a long time to come. 

So, if you’re going for an interview, my advice is to do three things – show them what you know, show them what you can do, but most importantly, show them who you are. If you’re then offered the job, you can be confident that this will be a good fit for you, and you can look forward to being happy and successful. If you get the rejection call, thank them for their time, breathe a sigh of relief, and carry on looking for your perfect match – it’s out there somewhere! 

Race and Identity – a personal and painful journey

This blog is a personal account of my engagement with the issue of race and identity, both individually and in my role as the CEO of a small Multi-Academy Trust. I’ve hesitated for a long time before writing it – in fact it’s taken over a year to pluck up the courage to do it. That’s not because I think I’m going to say anything particularly radical or controversial, but because I’ve had to ask myself whether I have anything of value to contribute, and whether I should be amplifying my own voice in this debate

Watching the reports of the death of George Floyd in April 2020 shocked me profoundly. Obviously, I knew that a black man dying as a result of police action was not unheard of, but watching the banal brutality of a police officer squeezing the life from an unarmed man accused of a minor offence was shocking. This wasn’t a heated exchange, or a confrontation that escalated out of control – judging by the reactions, until Mr Floyd’s death, the way he was being treated was clearly something that everyone at the scene saw as unremarkable. From my perspective however, knowing that it happens and seeing it happen are very different things, and shook my complacent view that things were gradually getting better and we just needed to keep things moving forward in our society.

For a while, I did and said nothing, except watched the Black Lives Matter movement unfold, following the debates on news channels and social media. I privately lamented the fact that in the Trust that I lead, the representation of BAME people in leadership and governance teams is almost non-existent, and began to examine whether our policies and practices were making the situation better or worse, all the time not knowing what to do or say. I started to speak to people who did not share my reluctance to express a view, not least young people for whom the debate was a lot less complicated than I was making it. Gradually, I realised that there were no neutral observers in this dispute and I had to make a conscious effort to understand and respond.

Underneath all my academic interest and good intent, I was continually being faced with a personal and uncomfortable challenge: What if my position, status and everything that comes with it has been achieved as part of an inherently unfair process? That it hasn’t simply been a result of talent, hard work and experience?

Over the last year, I’ve lowered my defences and allowed myself to think the unthinkable. I contacted Integrity Coaching, who have introduced a leadership programme on Race and Identity and signed up for two different year-long programmes, one with a group of Trust senior leaders including all of our Head Teachers and another a personal coaching programme, exploring my own approach to racial identity and the impact it has had on my actions.

At the start of this process, I was very clear about my standpoint. I wasn’t racist, in fact I was an enemy of racism. This wasn’t evident in what I did, as much as what I didn’t do. I didn’t discriminate in the way I treated people, whether that was friends and acquaintances, colleagues or students. Many of my influences and heroes were black – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Muhammed Ali, Barrack Obama, Maya Angelou (I’ll concede that it’s not exactly an original list). My musical and sporting heroes were black – Sam Cooke, Jackie Brown, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Usain Bolt – and I allied myself to political groups that actively opposed racism. Racist statements or attitudes were completely unacceptable in my professional and social circles. In fact, I would congratulate myself on my openness, cultural literacy and lack of bias or prejudice.

I fundamentally disagreed with the standpoint that you couldn’t be non-Racist, that you were either Racist or Anti-Racist, you either worked against the status quo or you were part of the structure that upheld it.

I was wrong.

That’s the one lesson that I’ve learnt over the last year. The barrier to progress is not just the hostility and overt racism of those who are mostly on the fringes of mainstream opinion, but on the complacency and inaction of the majority who would never define themselves as racist.

I’ve read so much over the last year – articles, blogposts, books of polemic. Most influential of all have been the works of fiction that I’ve read, which have helped me inch towards a better understanding of how the world looks from the perspective of a person of black or minority ethnic origin. Contemporary or historical, urgent or lyrical – ‘Open Water’ ‘Real Life’ ‘The Shadow King’ ‘The Nickel Boys’ – books that describe the personal experience of living in a society where being black provides a backdrop to every encounter and significant event. A book doesn’t have to be about race, for the issue of race to be ever present, and actually the same thing applies to an encounter, a relationship, a job. The occasions when I am forced to consider whether my race is a factor in the way I am being treated are vanishingly rare, but if I were black, it would be a constant backdrop to every interaction.  How does that change the experience of daily life? I don’t think I’ve ever been described as a white Head Teacher, but my black colleagues will know that their race is noticed, even if it’s not always remarked upon.

The penny was dropping – that’s what it means to live in a society where the colour of your skin has such an impact. Even more pertinently, I started to question what it means for young people going through school. We’ve done some memorable work as part of Black History Month, but isn’t the fact that it exists a tacit admission of deficiencies within our existing curriculum? If we continually give the message to students that hard work and talent will help you succeed, how do we reconcile that with the fact that success in our own organisation is the preserve of white people?

The question that I keep coming back to is the obvious one – ‘so what?’ A privileged white man has been on a journey which has helped him understand the systemic racial structures that perpetuate inequality in our society – so what? Conveniently, I’ve discovered this at the point in my life and career where it’s unlikely to have a major career impact.

In the Trust I lead, we define ourselves by our values and ethos, and we prove that these are important by the way they are demonstrated through our practice. Inclusion is important to us – just look at our SEND provision and outcomes and very low exclusion rates. Community support and engagement is part of our mission – I can show you how our schools support local charities and community organisations. We are committed to a rich and broad curriculum – you can see it in our music, sports and arts outcomes. We are anti-racist – err… can that really be seen in our curriculum or the make up of our leadership teams?

We need to make sure that our curriculum is a true and honest reflection of the reality of society our children live in, we need to make sure that people of colour feel comfortable and confident to become teachers and leaders in our organisation, we need to make sure that our professional development empowers our staff to challenge and confound racism in all its guises, we need to make sure we amplify the voices of those in our community who have not been properly heard, we need to make sure that our policy decisions are actively designed to make things better. We need to do all these things not just now, but from now on.

So, this isn’t a look back from the finishing post, but a look forward from the starting line. I’ve learnt some uncomfortable truths and had to accept the responsibility for action that they place upon me. I’m privileged to have the opportunity and the agency to make a difference, so that’s my aim – I’ll keep you posted.

Marking your own work – why high stakes accountability depends on school autonomy

The UK education system is just about the most accountable in the world – The combination of a high-stakes inspection system, a series of public exams and tests which are analysed and compared to other schools, a governance structure that allows for high levels of challenge and intervention, and a media that often displays a lack of trust in schools and school leaders, all add up to the sensation that many schools and school leaders feel of constantly being under the microscope.

Now, there are many views about the desirability of this model – critics say that such high-stakes accountability leads to a range of negative consequences, including an over focus on a narrow range of performance measures, high levels of stress and burnout and a disincentive to collaborate and support the wider system. Others argue that accountability provides incentives, ensures focus on the important things and leads to rapid improvement through competition. It also supports safeguarding and avoids consistent underperformance over time.

Much of the machinery of accountability has slowed down or been silenced over the last 18 months – Ofsted inspections halted and only restarting very gradually, performance tables suspended as a result of the absence of SATs and exam data, and other data such as attendance and exclusion data losing its usefulness. However, it is abundantly clear that this is intended to be a temporary hiatus. In fact, it’s possible to argue that the usual measures have simply been replaced by other forms of public judgement such as comparing the frequency of live lessons or conformity to government safety measures.

Whatever your view, there’s a key principle underpinning all this – accountability depends upon agency. In other words, if you’re going to hold someone accountable for the decisions they make, you need to allow them to make some decisions in the first place. You have to give them autonomy over the way they do things. This is key to the whole concept. It’s also the stated aim of government over the last ten years or more. The point of academisation, government’s flagship policy, is to grant freedoms – over curriculum, pedagogy, staffing and so on – which will allow for innovation and experimentation, and drive improvement. Academies and MATs can decide how they’re going to do things, and they are then fully accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

It seems, however, that in recent months, that the people driving current policy have chosen a different path. Autonomy is being eroded at an astonishing rate. Fealty to a certain approach is not just tacitly encouraged, but is actually being built into the system.

For example, we’re told that the government is considering extending the school day. Currently, the government doesn’t set the lengths or timings of the school day. As long as the day is divided into two sessions with a break and there are 380 sessions in a year, the rest is up to the school. Mandating the timings of the day wouldn’t be a tweak to the system, it would be a significant centralisation of control. And what if it doesn’t work, and produces no positive impact on pupil progress? Who is responsible – the school who has implemented it or the government who have come up with the plan?

Likewise, imagine a scenario where a school embraces DfE policy and uses every opportunity to introduce tuition programmes provided by government approved companies, dedicating all of their Covid-funding as well as core funds to provide the top up. Two years later, exam results come in and they show very disappointing progress in English and Maths. Who is accountable? The school, the tuition company, or the Department for Education who devised the scheme?

Another scenario – a behaviour adviser is allocated to a school from one of the new Behaviour Hubs being established. They give advice that has worked well in the context they have come from. The school tries to follow the advice, but it doesn’t lead to improvements, in fact there is further deterioration. Now this could be for many reasons – the skill level of staff, the relationship the school has with parents and carers, the quality of the adviser – but come the next inspection, it will be the school leaders alone that carry the can.

We’re seeing an increasingly clear government-favoured approach across a whole range of educational policy areas, including pedagogy. The Early Careers Framework is an ambitious and comprehensive piece of work, providing a highly detailed structure for teachers in the formative years of their career but with only six nationally approved providers, who are producing materials showing a high level of consistency – some differences in approach, but few in content or philosophy. Not since the days of the National Strategies during the last Labour government has it been so clear what the favoured pedagogical approach is.

We’re told that Gavin Williamson is looking into ways that he can ban phones in school. Now, I’m sure Mr Williamson is aware that schools obviously already have the ability to do this – indeed many do. My impression is that the majority of schools follow a similar policy to the one we favour – during the school day, phones should remain switched off and out of sight and if this is not adhered to, the phone is confiscated. National policy on mobile phones in school would be an absurd level of micro management, significantly eroding school autonomy.

I’ve spent my career leading schools in a high-stakes accountability system. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it, but I understand the rules of the game. I have seen the quality of provision improve hugely in that time. Throughout that time, I have felt that leaders in schools had the right to make decisions over the curriculum, pedagogy, timetable, behaviour policy, style of intervention – at least as long as the school was operating successfully. I have accepted that by making decisions, I am accountable for the outcome. It just feels as though the rules are shifting.

I am concerned that in the end it comes down to mistrust of ‘The Blob’ – Michael Gove’s memorable, if slightly offensive, description of the educational establishment. That’s not what the rhetoric says – ministers will point to improvements in schools over the years, and declare their trust in school leaders. If that’s the case, then give advice and support, by all means, but allow school leaders to make the right decisions in their own context.

Then, and only then, the buck stops here.

The value of sharing bad practice

Several years ago, I was given the task supporting a school in an Interim Headship capacity that had recently been placed into Special Measures. The teachers were hardworking and keen to improve but the school was in a challenging context, and over time inconsistency in the quality of teaching had led to entrenched low outcomes.

I came up with a plan – a colleague knew of a school a couple of miles down the road that had been consistently outstanding in Ofsted. I rang the Head, booked a visit and the whole staff headed over there, notebooks at the ready – we were going to watch and learn.

Of course, it was a disaster. None of the things that were being drilled into teachers to get the school out of Special Measures were anywhere to be seen – no detailed curriculum planning, progress checks or three levels of differentiation (it was a while ago) – and in fact it was very difficult to understand how the school had ever got an outstanding judgement. The teachers did not seem to be putting in the extra hours that their Special Measures colleagues were, there were no detailed and complex systems of review and analysis, no endless meetings. However, there was no reason to question the inspection judgement – the children’s achievement was exceptional, they loved school and the place had an air of quiet purpose.

We left downbeat, demoralised and none the wiser.

The problem with observing truly high performance is that it looks so effortless. If I want to learn how to juggle, then it doesn’t matter how many times I go to the Cirque du Soleil and watch someone throwing and catching 6 flaming torches, it still wouldn’t be advisable for me to have a go. If, on the other hand, I could spend time watching someone struggling to learn the technique of keeping two tennis balls in the air, I might learn something.

It’s an often-stated fact that we learn more from our failures than our successes, so it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that we may learn just as much from watching the failures of others as we do from watching their successes, for exactly the same reason.

Behaviour management is a perfect example. If a teacher is struggling to control their class, then sending them to watch your most skilled behaviour manager is unlikely to be effective on its own. They won’t be able to see how their colleague manages poor behaviour because they probably won’t see any – they’ll just see that mysterious alchemy which means that the student who refuses to stop talking in their class, will be the model of conformity with their highly-skilled colleague.

Of course, we need both to really succeed – we need to know what good practice looks like, but we also need to know how to overcome the hurdles that stand in our way, and understanding what not to do is equally as important as knowing what to do.

I’ve been privileged to have been present in a great many lessons taught by a huge range of teachers over the years, as a school leader, adviser and inspector – I can honestly say that I have learnt something in all of them. It’s an unavoidable human instinct to think ‘What would I have done in that situation? What can I apply to my own practice and what would I do differently?’ It’s this reflection and application to one’s own context that makes observation such a powerful tool for learning.

I have been very interested in the revolution that is taking place in CPD at the moment. I welcome the desire to establish a coherent structure and the recognition that high-quality professional development is at the heart of effective school improvement. I also welcome the way that those who are charged with leading CPD appear to have been selected based on the evidence of their own good or outstanding practice. It gives them credibility and experience of practical strategies. However, it’s very important for those charged with delivering CPD to remember the overwhelming importance of context.

At the risk of over-simplifying, it appears that there is definitely a favoured delivery model. Find individual examples of very good practice, gather them together in a ‘Hub’ structure, pair them with underperforming schools or individuals and let them learn from the experts. I’m sure this has the potential to be effective, but only if it goes beyond the master-pupil dynamic, and once that relationship is established it can be hard to disrupt.

When we’re engaged in improving teaching, especially in the light of underperformance, it’s crucial to take into account that teaching is a complex process, especially teaching large groups of individual pupils at the same time. That’s not to say that there may be simple changes that can make a difference – we’re all always on the lookout for those inspired tips that we can pinch from colleagues and that make our lives easier. However, if we want improvement, the first step is understanding, not compliance, and the way we gain understanding is to see how something works, and why it sometimes doesn’t work.

Teaching is not the same as following a recipe, although CPD can often present it in this way. Whether it’s following a National Strategies 3-part lesson, or ticking off a Rosenshine checklist, there is often a temptation to say that the key to a successful lesson is simply to make sure that you’ve done certain things in a certain order. If only it were that easy.

One of my favourite CPD approaches is Lesson Study – groups of peers working together under the guidance of an expert facilitator to observe one another and give constructive and supportive criticism. It’s a safe place for people to try things out, some of which will work well, others will fall flat – it’s a brilliant learning experience for the person being observed and for their colleagues who are being observed. Sadly, it’s one that it’s very difficult to deliver on a practical and cost-effective way – wouldn’t it be great to install a teaching and learning classroom in every school, with cameras and recording equipment and space for teachers to work together?

The key principle, however, is that while teaching is often an individual endeavour, learning about teaching is far more effective when it’s a shared activity. Opening up our practice takes courage and a culture change – many colleagues are understandably very nervous about allowing others to see them at work, especially if they aren’t feeling particularly confident. If we want to improve schools, leaders have to establish professional communities of trust. To do this we don’t need less observation, we need more – but it needs to feel very different.

I’ve never seen a lesson so perfect that it couldn’t possibly be improved, and I’ve never seen a lesson so terrible that there was nothing that could be built upon. If we can establish the principle that the point of observing teaching is not to judge, but to learn, then we really will be revolutionising CPD.

Values in Action – where rhetoric meets reality

In this blog I share my experience of being a parent to the wonderful, indefatigable Molly. We have read through it together, and she is happy for me to share it with you.

Values are important. Not just in an abstract, theoretical way, but in driving the decisions we make on a daily basis. No matter how pragmatic or evidence-based our decisions are, they will always reflect our deeply-held beliefs, for good or ill. I think this is particularly evident in education when so many of the challenges we face come down to values.

We describe the Trust in which I work as a ’values-based’ Trust. Although we sometimes struggle to define exactly what these values are in a meaningful way, I hope that they are apparent to anyone who knows us and works with us – integrity, inclusion, kindness, humility. Although they are values that are shared in the organisation, they are also personal values that mean a great deal to me.

The reason why we all behave in the way we do, why we adopt a particular set of values, is based on a complex mix of influences, events and predispositions that emerge not just over a career, but a whole lifetime. It’s probably rare to be able to pinpoint one event on its own that has had a profound effect, given that we are influenced by parents, community, schooling and lived experience. However, when I consider what drives my personal and professional values, I think I’m able to do that more than most.

Among the most seismic events of my life was the occasion when I was sat with my wife Sarah, our youngest daughter Molly, and her Cystic Fibrosis consultant at the end of one of our regular hospital visits (Molly had been diagnosed with CF from birth, but the condition was being managed brilliantly by the hospital). He gently suggested that some of the symptoms that we had observed in our 4 year old daughter – developmental delay, extreme anxiety, joint and movement problems, irregular heartbeat, among others – could be as a result of Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic abnormality affecting about 1 in every 30,000 people. Our initial response was scepticism, but as we heard the long list of symptoms, we realised that they described our little girl perfectly and what’s more, they explained why she was struggling so much to keep pace with her peers.

As we learnt more, we realized that this wasn’t a temporary condition, and that it presented some barriers to a ‘normal’ life that simply couldn’t be overcome. A significant learning disability is with you for life, there are some things that become more difficult to achieve, and there are some things that become impossible. Unfortunately, although your biology knows that, society doesn’t. The definition of a successful, fulfilled life that most of us would recognise was suddenly out of reach. As a parent, after the initial sense of loss and denial had worn off, I realised that if I wanted my little girl to have success and fulfilment, I therefore had to change the definition. That’s not a simple task, but it’s one that informs my work every day, and goes to the core of my values.

We know from our contacts with other parents of children with SEND that the experience of working with schools has sometimes been mixed. That hasn’t been our experience – Molly’s schools have done a wonderful job to provide sensitive and skilled support. She has worked with some unbelievably dedicated Teaching Assistants who have helped her with academic work but also provided love and care. Molly attended a mainstream primary and secondary school, before moving to a Special School 6th Form, and is now attending a specialist FE college – we have nothing but praise for all of them.

Despite this, however, our system finds it difficult to cope with children whose lives aren’t running on the conventional trajectory. At every turn, there are barriers, and very often there’s no way over or route around them. For example, putting a pupil with a significant learning disability through a system of GCSEs designed for someone completely different is exactly the same as expecting someone in a wheelchair to enter the triple jump – it doesn’t matter how well-prepared, supported or coached they are, it’s not going to have a happy ending. Who designs a system where the school performance tables benefit from SEND students achieving grade 1s and 2s in full GCSEs rather than achieving well in practical or entry-level qualifications?

When schools arrange 100% attendance reward trips, what about the children who have ongoing health challenges and frequent hospital appointments? How many autistic children have to go through the emotional turmoil of abject failure in a conventional class setting before the correct support is put in place?

Up until the diagnosis, I’d always been in favour of inclusion in schools on a conceptual, theoretical level, but Molly’s taught me what inclusion actually means – it’s not a policy stance, it’s a moral imperative for any society that has a claim to be civilized. It’s not a question of mandating that everyone does the same thing, or attends the same setting, but it is that we give equal value to every child, and equal worth to their achievements. It means that we never turn our back on a young person, even if our love has to be tough love.

A year ago, I sat in my home lockdown office and watched Molly as she left the house on her own to walk to the bus stop, from where she was catching the bus to college – on her own. It’s obviously a completely routine part of daily life for the vast majority of young people, but for Molly, that’s the equivalent of achieving ten Grade 9s at GCSE, scoring a goal in the Cup Final, or playing the violin with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Molly spreads joy. I don’t mean that in a condescending ‘Ah, isn’t she sweet’ sort of way, but by actually knowing how to empathise, by taking a genuine interest in others, by spending time and emotional energy on other people. She has a particular affinity with elderly people and people with disabilities, and suffers none of the social awkwardness that many of us experience when we meet people who struggle to communicate.

When societal attitudes towards the care sector began to change during the pandemic, I felt like cheering – if we lived in a society that valued the ability to connect with an elderly dementia sufferer and take a genuine interest in their life as much as the ability to manage an investment portfolio, Molly’s future would be assured.

It’s my job to make sure that the children and young people in my care succeed, and thanks to the brilliant head teachers and staff teams I work with, we do that really well. I celebrate when our students gain a place at a Russell Group university, or our primary SATs results reach new heights. But those achievements would be hollow if at the same time, we had students who we’ve permanently excluded and became involved in gang culture, or we’d deliberately guided students away from subjects that they had a genuine interest in because we knew they’d bring the results down, or we’d told parents that their developmentally-delayed child couldn’t attend their local school because there was no-one to change a nappy.

If a school ever turns away a pupil because they are too challenging, or too complex, or not clever enough, then no matter what they achieve, according to the value system that I hold, those achievements are empty. That means sometimes having to make tough decisions, but that’s where our values really matter. If we really want to know what drives a school, look at what they do for the most vulnerable members of the community, not what it says on the banner outside the school gate.

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

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

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

Thank you for reading.

The Goldilocks rule of Multi Academy Trusts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the moment…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the moment – if not now, when?