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How to recover from Covid learning loss – Guaranteed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Invest in teachers’ professional development

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

  • Reform the accountability system….

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

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

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

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

  • …and then pass decision-making to schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t know, what do you think?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know…

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Performance Management to Professional Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putting the Horse before the Cart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The year the Blob grew teeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Failure – delay, not defeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NB Title quote from Denis Waitley