Justice League? The problem with performance tables

For reasons that will become clear, I’ve been waiting for a while to write this, but here’s my view: School Performance Tables are misleading, iniquitous and damage the system, and we should move away from them as soon as possible.

This is not an argument against accountability. I’m not arguing against publication of results and I’m not advocating a lack of transparency. I’m specifically talking about the reduction of all the outcomes of students in a school to a single figure or a tiny handful of figures, and the use of that to publicly rank schools, allowing anyone, including parents or prospective employees, to ‘Find and Compare Schools’ as the DfE website banner proclaims.

I’m not even arguing against them on the grounds that I think they’re wrong and unethical (although I do). The case against league tables is that I think they are damaging and ineffective, for three main reasons. They don’t give an accurate picture, they act against the interests of students, and they actively work against school and system improvement.

Firstly, they are inaccurate.

The stated aim of league tables is to help parents know how well a school is doing. This can help them to make sure they choose the right one for their child, and to hold the school to account for performance. However, the reality is that schools are simply too complex and multifaceted for this to give useful information. Each parent will have their own criteria for defining the perfect school – for one it will be a level of academic excellence to facilitate a university place, for another it might be an ability to provide targeted support for a child with special needs, for someone else it may be the opportunities to take part in extra-curricular arts or sports. You might get a sense of this through an Ofsted report, you could probably explore it through a school visit, but there is no way a league table can capture this information. The fact that the key measure changes so often is an indication that there is no absolute measure that satisfies all beholders.

This is before we consider the inbuilt inaccuracy of using a norm-referenced system to make absolute judgements about quality. Every year, we will see the news stories that talk about whether pass rates have gone up or the proportion of top grades in a subject has fallen, with very little mention of the fact that this is entirely the result of decisions taken by Ofqual. Across the board, average attainment of students might have risen, it might have fallen, it seems unlikely that it mirrors exactly the profile of exam passes, but still for every school that rises in the league tables, there’s a school that falls.

Another built in reason for inaccuracy is the time lag between provision and outcomes. League tables are usually accompanied by lurid headlines about the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ schools, but unless GCSE outcomes are the product of cramming and gaming, they are telling you something about progress from KS2 – in other words, a five-year journey. So much could have changed during that period that any sensible statistical analysis would urge extreme caution.

Secondly, they act against the interests of students

How have we evolved a system where the interests of schools can be in direct opposition to the interests of their students? Unfortunately, that is often the case. We have all seen the farcical ‘gaming’ dance that takes place, where schools choose qualifications solely because of the impact they have on league tables. ECDL was a stain on the system, whose sole purpose (if we’re honest) was to hoover up a qualification that gave an advantage in Progress 8 for very little investment of time or teaching expertise. If anyone would argue that they did it because it had merits, I would ask why, as soon as it disappeared from league tables, did virtually every school in the country stop doing it?

It’s still going on. Reports of schools entering whole cohorts for English as a foreign language, regular ‘wink-wink’ emails from companies offering to come in to school for a few days and run a premium qualification that ‘counts in the performance tables’, SEND students forced through inappropriate curricula because it’s better for the school for them to score a 1 or a 2 in a GCSE than to succeed on a functional skills route.

Then there’s the student destined to drag the school down. No wonder permanent exclusions rise as GCSEs loom large. The evidence of off-rolling is stark, schools very often paying a premium for an Alternative Provision to place them on roll, students sitting exams as external students, parents choosing to home-educate at the most crucial time of their academic lives.

Long before we get to the business end of KS4, league tables are having an impact on curricula – extended Key Stage 4 courses, basket-filling, using GCSE assessment criteria from the start of Year 7. I welcome the renewed focus on curriculum that has been given momentum by Ofsted, but fear that unless it reaches deep into Key Stage 4, its impact will be limited. My question to schools would be: what curriculum decisions have you taken that are in the interests of students but may adversely affect your Progress 8 score? It seems inconceivable that the designer of Progress 8 has managed to get the perfect balance of subjects for every child in the country.

Thirdly, they have a damaging effect on school improvement across the system.

True collaboration drives improvement, particularly systemic improvement. It’s well-researched and widely accepted. Indeed, there are many policy initiatives that are explicitly designed to encourage collaboration and sharing of good practice.

To say that high-stakes performance tables militate against collaboration seems axiomatic. The performance tables website is designed to make it easy for parents to use a map tool to find local schools and create a ranking list. When so many schools are desperate for the funding that comes with the student, a low placing on that list can be disastrous. Many great schools, and principled Heads will do what’s right and I know collaboration happens within Trusts or formal partnerships, but how can it be a good thing when the failure of the school down the road, with all the impact on the lives of young people, is good news for me and my school.

At the same time that Ofsted have realized that great schools plan a long-term coherent curriculum journey, with aspirational goals for all students, we are still running a parallel system that priorities short-term solutions, narrows the focus of teaching and learning, and excludes many of our most vulnerable students. We are now evolving a system where the two main accountability mechanisms for schools – Ofsted and Performance Tables – are potentially acting in conflict.

A final point, but not an insignificant one is the impact of league table culture on the individuals at the sharp end, particularly school leaders. My doctoral study looked at the emotional impact of Ofsted ‘Inadequate’ judgements on Head Teachers (http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/50957/). These case studies of four remarkable colleagues who went through a public trauma that ate at the core of their professional identity, brought home how personally damaging public naming and shaming can be (for anyone who points out that it is the school, not the Head Teacher that is identified, I can only assume they haven’t been in that position).

I believe that as long as we keep this system, then politicians’ words about school leaders well-being ring hollow.

These are not new thoughts of mine, but I’ve not felt able to be quite so open about them before. You can probably guess why. One of the schools I work in has been at the wrong end of league tables in recent years, and despite the fact that the staff and school community have done a remarkable job in moving the school forward, providing an amazing quality of education and care, to the point where I believe this has been a high-performing school for a couple of years, it’s only now showing through in results. We’ve had a good week, and this year I’ll sleep easy the night before league tables are published, but we’ll do our best to remember what it’s like to be on the other side.

It’s perfectly possible to publish detailed information about a school, including performance data and the most recent Ofsted report, in fact most schools already do. We don’t need league tables, and the sooner we move away from them, the better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same Difference

The problem with research is that sometimes it discovers things that are inconvenient. This is particularly irksome when someone takes a detailed, analytical look at something into which you’ve invested quite a lot of time, energy and faith, and discovers that the evidence says that your investment is based on inaccurate information and so is unlikely to pay the dividend you’ve hoped for. When this happens, the best strategy is usually to look away and hope nobody notices – after all, what do the so-called ‘experts’ know anyway?

This might be the scenario following the paper published this week by the Nuffield Foundation, and carried out by UCL and NFER: Better Schools for All: School Effectiveness and the Impact on Pupils. It’s a fascinating analysis of large-scale data designed to answer some key questions about the factors that influence student attainment and school performance. The authors, Alex Bryson, Lucy Stokes and David Wilkinson, provide a clear-eyed and readable summary which throws up some fascinating findings.

There are two in particular that caught my eye and which raise some awkward questions for policy-makers in education. The first is that ‘schools account for a relatively small share of the variation in pupil attainment (not usually more than 10%)’ and the second that ‘Head Teacher characteristics … explained a relatively small part of the variation in school performance’ and in fact the research found ‘no impact on attainment of a change in Head Teacher’.

Academic language sometimes allows remarkable things to slip through, so let me repeat and rephrase. The data shows that the school you go to and the performance of the Head Teacher have a very small impact on how well you do in our education system.

Why is that so significant? Well, we’ve built a system that is absolutely dependent on the opposite being true. How do we deal with school failure? We re-broker, change the Head, ‘turn the school around’. We pay huge salaries to CEOs of favoured Trusts, and laud them for the difference they are making to children’s life chances. We’ve hard-wired competition into our education system through league tables and unlimited parental choice. We have engineered huge penalties for inclusivity and rewards for exclusion. We’ve treated Ofsted judgements as an outcome, as an end in itself. All based on the belief that if only all schools were as good as the best schools, and all Heads were as good as the best Heads, the problem would be solved.

Turns out, according to this data, that’s not true.

Now, that’s not the same as saying that school performance and quality of leadership is unimportant. Although the authors of the report do conclude that ‘attending a ‘good’ secondary school only adds a small amount more value than attending a ‘bad’ secondary school’ this is about the variance between schools, and does not imply that schools don’t have an impact overall. However, it certainly begs the question whether a relentless focus on competition between schools is likely to make the difference. In other words, given that the difference between the best and the worst is so small, the only sensible response is to develop a system designed to improve all schools. A system, in other words, based on collaboration and shared ownership.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Recognise that school improvement is not about the ‘best’ showing the ‘rest’ how it’s done. Every school has good practice and every leader has wisdom to share;
  • Make sure that all the schools in a locality have a shared ownership of the outcomes of all students in that locality – no incentive to ‘off-roll’ or tactically exclude;
  • We do know that teacher quality matters. Give as many opportunities as humanly possible for teachers to collaborate, share and network, in person and on line. Develop teaching through open research and opportunities to study;
  • No more ‘hero’ Heads – understand that this is a team effort;
  • Use current accountability systems – inspection, assessment data – to inform improvement. What a difference might all of that knowledge make if it was focussed on improving the system as a whole?

If there is little difference between the impact of the best and the worst, then trying to improve by closing the gap between them won’t achieve much. The only thing that will make a difference is by working across the system as a whole. A rising tide lifts all ships, as the cliché goes. Like all good clichés, it has more than a grain of truth. Just look at the research.

Reformed characters?

It’s probably not sensible to get too exercised about policy announcements from government ministers at the moment. Given the likely longevity of the current government, it feels akin to rearranging the ornaments on the mantelpiece while fleeing a burning house. However, the recent announcement from Damien Hinds that a ‘character panel’ has been appointed to explore the ‘best ways for young people to build character and resilience’ caught the eye. Initial responses seemed to broadly welcome the fact that the DfE were taking a broader view of the purpose of education, and it was positive that the panel had a range of representatives, many of whom could be trusted to represent the views of the profession.

In the launch, Mr Hinds explained that ‘the reason character and resilience matter so much to me is that they are key to social mobility.’ It’s the sort of statement that has people nodding in agreement, but closer examination raises a few questions. Most importantly, if character is the key to upward social mobility, that seems to imply that inequity in our society is a problem of poor attitude by those at the bottom of the pile, rather than access to opportunity, wealth and family support. If only people would buck their ideas up, they could climb the greasy pole to wealth and success. The few high-profile successes don’t take away the fact that for many young people, the cards that life has dealt them make this extraordinarily difficult.

However, given that strength of character is a good thing in itself, it seems like a positive move to support programmes to develop it in school. Despite the fact that it’s a hugely difficult task to define what character is, it’s undoubtedly true that experiences at school will help shape it. The panel are not starting with a blank sheet of paper of course. There is a helpful list of activities that help develop character, divided into sport, creativity, performing, volunteering & membership, and experience of the world of work. Examples cited include rock climbing, yoga, litter-picking, choir, film making and public speaking.

Now, these are fantastic activities, I am really excited about the prospect of an entitlement for pupils to take part in high quality enrichment activities, particularly for those who would simply not normally be able to access them. If this becomes part of the regular experience of young people, that will be a hugely positive step forward. I can see that investment in these activities, both financial and societal, could transform many young lives.

However, without being churlish, I’m just not convinced that it naturally follows that an exposure to one particular activity builds character any more than another activity. Why does film making build character more than maths for example? Why does debating build resilience more than playing a console game? Are we still in thrall to the Duke of Wellington’s famous aphorism that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton?

That is not to say that character and resilience can’t be developed and strengthened, and in fact I think that many schools are already doing it incredibly well, I just think it’s more complex than finding the right activity, and it will possibly take a greater commitment.

So how do you develop character and resilience? You need three things above all:

You need to know that someone’s got your back, whatever happens. That the adults around you care for you, not just because it’s their job, but because they like you and will always want the best for you. Young people need to fundamentally believe that they have value, and we show that in our daily interactions.

You also need to know that failure is not the end of the road, but a setback from which you can learn and become stronger. That no matter how many times things go wrong, or how badly you’ve messed up, there’s a way back. It doesn’t mean that failure is rewarded or accepted, just that it’s not the end of the road. This is not an abstract concept – we need to examine our attitude to curriculum options, to ability grouping, to permanent exclusion and show that no matter how badly you’ve messed up, you can have the opportunity to do better next time.

Finally, you need to really believe that a different future is possible. If you genuinely think that you are destined to fail no matter how hard you try, then keeping going isn’t so much a sign of a strong character as a sign of stupidity. Young people need role models who can show them how they overcame obstacles to achieve success, and we then need to help them draw up their own road map.

It’s our responsibility as the most influential adults outside of the family to model character, to recognize it and reward it. To make schools a place of safety, challenge and positivity, where young people believe that anything is possible. And if you get the chance to do Tae Kwan Do and orienteering as well, so much the better.

Wild, Wild West – the development of Multi Academy Trusts

The way that the development of the Multi Academy Trust has transformed the educational landscape has been rapid and unpredictable. It has provided innovation and energy and led to notable successes, but it has also brought controversy as a result of actions that have thrown all MATs into disrepute. This article argues that MAT leaders have a duty to uphold the highest ethical standards if the sector is to thrive

I’m the CEO of a small MAT, currently two small secondary schools that were previously part of a hard Federation. My job title is Executive Principal. The advantage to this title is that when people ask what I do for a living, I don’t have to say that I’m a MAT CEO. That’s helpful, because if I do admit to being a MAT CEO, then either they don’t know what it is, or they believe that I spend my days discussing which is the next school to forcibly academise with the Regional Schools Commissioner, signing permanent exclusion letters or flying business class on a study trip to New York – all paid for by hiring unqualified teachers and moving TAs to term-time only contracts.

The widespread introduction of Academies by the coalition government (as opposed to the few isolated examples that had existed previously) started the revolution but it is the introduction of the MAT that has fundamentally changed the educational landscape. MATs are doing exactly what they were set up to do, in line with the vision of Michael Gove. They have disrupted the system, which has led to creativity, innovation and entrepreneurism. They have provided a test bed for radically different approaches, from highly centralized ‘franchise’ school operations to the introduction of the Co-operative vision into education. I believe there is some potential in this re-imagining of education, whether that is in curriculum development, cpd or models of leadership, but there are risks and dangers as well.

A necessary consequence of the way this development has happened is that there are huge differences between the many different models of MATs. A MAT like ours is far similar in nature and scale to a maintained secondary school than it is to a nationwide MAT with more than 20,000 students. We’ve been shaping a new landscape, and that’s led to a varied and fragmented system.

But this system is maturing now. At some point the lawlessness of the American Wild West, which allowed a few intrepid, risk-taking individuals to colonise and subjugate a continent, had to give way to a structure of laws, public services and government otherwise nothing sustainable and lasting would ever have taken root. In the same way, we need to put some roots down for this system to prosper. I believe that we’re still in the Wild West stage and unfortunately for every Wyatt Earp, there’s a Billy the Kid.

When I read of some of the excesses perpetrated by MATs, my heart sinks. I can’t defend the indefensible, and whether that’s a small minority or not, if it’s the MAT structure that allows it, then that’s a problem for us all.

Recently, I was contacted via twitter by a colleague from a school in a different part of the country. He shared evidence with me of shocking practice from a MAT he had worked in, off-rolling, excessive exec pay, harshly punitive behaviour systems. All the evidence had been seen by inspectors, but the full pressure of a wealthy and influential MAT organization was brought to bear and the school was not censured, but was in fact lauded. This colleague is now an active campaigner against the MAT programme, and no wonder. I can tell him it’s not like that in all MATs, he may even believe me, but it doesn’t take away the bad taste or the feeling that it’s the MAT structure that has allowed this to happen.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The vision of schools working together in a MAT with a distinct identity, sharing resources, good practice and capacity, making itself locally accountable, working in partnership with other schools and the LA, and making a net contribution to the wider system is a hugely positive one, but if it’s not underpinned by an ethos of integrity and public service, then the problems will keep coming.

I love the Ethical Leadership Framework highlighted in ‘Navigating the Educational Moral Maze’ – the final report of the Ethical Leadership Commission. It describes in practical detail what ethical leadership in education looks like and the standards we should hold ourselves to. If you haven’t seen it, the whole report is here, with the framework on pages 11-12

It’s a fantastic piece of work, a perfect summary of how we should expect leaders to behave. In our MAT, we are adopting it as the rule book for leadership. I’ve proposed that we add it to the job descriptions of everyone who takes on a leadership role. My only criticism of it is that so many of the provisions fall under the category of the bleedin’ obvious, that we really shouldn’t have to set them out. So, in the interest of keeping it simple, here’s my suggestion of a few basic rules for MAT leaders:

Don’t get rich – you didn’t go into teaching for the money. At what point does someone decide that they are personally worth more to the children in their schools than ten teachers, or fifteen Teaching Assistants? What do they want all that money for? On its own, excessive MAT CEO pay is a strong argument for the view that the system isn’t working. It is taking millions of pounds out of the system every year. At a time when we have Head Teachers marching on Parliament, campaigning for desperately needed funds, how do we justify this? Why is the percentage differential between a MAT CEO and a Head Teacher so much more than the differential between a Head and a Deputy, or a Head of Department and a class teacher? If we don’t want people to think that the development of MATs is about lining our pockets, we need to stop lining our pockets.

Do unto others…if schools in a MAT only collaborate with other schools in the MAT, then their collaboration is doing more harm than good. Our family of primary schools is a brilliant group of schools, who collaborate with openness and generosity. Every school takes part with the exception of three schools who are part of large regional MATs. There is no particular reason why this means they wouldn’t meet with their local HT colleagues, why their children wouldn’t take part in shared activities, why they wouldn’t have a voice in developments in the area. Nonetheless, they are absent.

With secondaries it’s worse. How have we ended up with a system where one school’s downfall is another’s opportunity? I know healthy competition is a good thing, and there’s always been some schools that have a dominant position in the local community, but nowadays it sometimes seems that one school’s problems are another MATs opportunity. We all have a stake in the system, and we all gain when the system is successful. As the saying goes ‘A rising tide raises all ships’.

No macho management – Of all the memorable quotes from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the stand out one has to be ‘If anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low, you know you are doing something right’. Celebrating the fact that working in our schools is affecting the wellbeing and happiness of staff seems to me to be the behaviour of a pantomime villain. Anyone in a senior position in school has occasions when tough decisions have to be made and difficult conversations have to take place. Anyone who enjoys or celebrates this part of their job has lost their compass, and forgotten that these are real people’s lives that they’re dealing with.

A consequence of the MAT system is that the senior managers in a MAT very often don’t know the staff on a personal level at all. They don’t pass in the corridor, chat in the staffroom, queue at the photocopier in the way a Head Teacher in a school would. There’s no personal relationship with the staff in the school, which means that when life-changing decisions are made, the people affected are simply statistics or names on a list. In this context, it’s sometimes too easy to be tough. There’s no such thing as a great leader who doesn’t demonstrate compassion and humility in the way they treat people.

Show some love – when you’re dealing with children and young people, they’re not just customers or clients, their whole future is in your hands. We’re in loco parentis, after all, so that’s how we should behave. Parents can’t permanently exclude their children or suggest that they might be better off moving in with the family next door. Once they’re our children, they stay our children. One example – I can accept that permanent exclusion is sometimes a necessary evil, but by doing so, I’m also acknowledging that it is an evil. If we get to the point where students can’t come back into school, then it should be the school / MATs job to sort out what happens next.

How can we make the case for the purpose of MATs when practices such as flattening the grass (public humiliation and traumatizing of children), off-rolling (sacrificing the life chances of vulnerable learners to boost meaningless statistics) and industrial-scale gaming (forcing students through meaningless qualifications solely to distort league tables at the expense of other schools) bring us into public disrepute?

Don’t believe the hype – Humility is the most underrated virtue among leaders. Whether it’s bragging in the local paper or humblebragging on twitter, there are too many leaders who think it’s all about them. (I blame Michael Wilshaw again). Schools are the ultimate team effort, and as in all the best teams, no-one is indispensable. Sometimes, we fall lucky – right school, right time. Sometimes, it all goes wrong and there’s almost nothing we can do about it, and it’s a case of there but for the grace of God.

Finally, embrace hypocrisy –  in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve broken all of the above rules, and many times over. The important thing is not whether you keep them as much as whether you’re trying to. Recognise mistakes, and try not to repeat them.

I’m proud of working in a MAT with colleagues who I like and respect, serving amazing, positive young people in a community of which we are an integral part. I don’t think it’s inconsistent to recognize the positive contribution that MATs can make whilst at the same time expecting higher ethical standards from MATs as a whole. It looks like MATs are here to stay, so it’s time to put down some roots.

Happy to help?

Schools are at the sharp end when it comes to dealing with vulnerable families and young people in crisis, with so many services stretched to breaking point. How has it come to this, and how can we mobilise all those people who want to help, but find barriers in their way? It’s time for some radical suggestions.

I’m writing this at the end of a day when staff in one of our schools have been frantically trying to co-ordinate emergency support for a student who has been kicked out of home. Her parents, who have huge difficulties in managing their own lives, have told her she’s not welcome – they don’t like her behaviour, they don’t like the fact that she is using drugs, they don’t like the way she treats them. Last night, she slept on a boyfriend’s sofa, but she’s been told this isn’t happening tonight. She’s 16, so the LA are looking to house her in a hostel for the night. Despite the shrugged shoulders and uncooperative manner, she’s frightened and lonely. I have no idea what will become of her, but the prognosis is not good.

The most shocking thing about this story is its sheer ordinariness for those who work in the majority of our schools. Whenever we read a heartbreaking story about exploitation of vulnerable young people, about homelessness, about children drawn into drugs, crime or prostitution, we can picture a long list of our students who may well share this fate. It feels like it has got worse over the last few years as resources are stretched to breaking point, but it also feels like there’s a wider shift in terms of the support that families and young people receive from the people around them, the extended family, the local community.

I’m 55 years old – when I grew up, children played out with each other, but we also interacted with the adults in our neighbourhood. I have a distinct memory of me and my friend, aged about 5 or 6, knocking on the door of an elderly man who lived on our street and asking him if we could come in and see his dog. We were invited in and sat in his front room, playing with the dog, while we chatted and he gave us orange juice and biscuits. After an hour or so, we thanked him, and went out to carry on playing.

Play that scenario out in a modern-day context. It’s inconceivable. Even at that age, children would know how dangerous strangers are, parents would be worried sick, the old man would be terrified to get the knock on the door, and if he was foolish enough to let them in and give them juice and biscuits, he could expect to find himself in serious trouble, and a figure of suspicion in his neighbourhood.

Vulnerable and damaged children are made, not born (I recognise the exception of our SEND children). Look behind (almost) every unsuccessful child, and the chances are there’s an unsuccessful parent or two. It’s a truism that children who are brought up in an environment of love and care, surrounded by wisdom and happiness, are more likely to thrive emotionally, socially and academically than children brought up in an atmosphere of chaos, anger and neglect. Every child needs a strong family. How those familial relationships are configured and organized is not the important factor here – one parent, two parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends and neighbours, two dads, two mums – it’s the relationships themselves that are important. Coming back to my childhood experience, we had more uncles and aunties than I could count – it was only as I got older that I realized that most of the people I called uncle or aunty, we’re not related by blood at all, but they fitted every other definition of family.

Surely people’s nature and instincts haven’t completely changed in a single generation? Are today’s parents really more feckless, morally inadequate or incapable than their parents? I don’t believe that. However, they are more isolated and they face many challenges unknown or less significant a few years ago.

Those of us who come into contact with it know that Social Care is an emergency service – thresholds are heartbreakingly high and staff are stretched to breaking point. Preventative work and family support is almost impossible. Imagine a scenario where a school identifies a young mother that was struggling to cope, where the children displayed some early signs of a lack of care but nothing that meets any criteria for intervention – children tired, eating unhealthily, clothes dirty and disheveled, homework not done. If that young mother was your daughter, what would you do? Most of us know instinctively – take the children for an evening so she could have a break, help her organize the housework, maybe sit with the children to do their homework, or help make a meal. Do a few small jobs around the house, or help with an online application form. Be on the end of a phone, or available to pop round occasionally. Be a role model, and a source of kindness, care and stability in the family life. The fact that this young mother is someone else’s daughter, does not mean that most of us would instinctively turn our backs on her.

I believe that there is a huge and willing resource available that could transform lives, that remains completely untapped. It’s all of those people, many perhaps coming up to the end of their working life or enjoying good health in retirement, who have wisdom and experience and time. We need a national mobilization of people of goodwill and generosity, who can transform the lives of others. My generation and people slightly older have had a lot of advantages through an accident of timing – free university education, great pension deals, affordable home ownership, relative job security, access to relatively generous benefits when things were tough (and yes, I’m aware that these don’t apply to everyone).

It’s time for the baby boomers to pay their dues, but we need to make it possible, practical and even beneficial. I’m aware that there are a number of excellent charities and voluntary organisations that promote this sort of work. Family Action, the Early Intervention Foundation, Action for Children, and many others do amazing work but they are flying in the face of public policy and social trends that makes this much more difficult. We need systems and structures that not only allow people to support others but make it easier to do so. I’m not talking about huge expense, but measures that with a little management and co-ordination, could pay for themselves in a very short period of time.

Here’s one idea – allow people in a public service pension scheme to retire early and access their pension if they commit to spending a proportion of their time supporting vulnerable families. How about reviewing the bureaucracy around safeguarding checks for volunteers to take some of the hassle and expense away from the people we should be encouraging? Maybe a role for Local Authorities in setting up local partnerships with church groups, charitable organisations, employers to promote family networks? What if we encouraged large employers to commit to giving employee time, and even incentivised them to do so? Perhaps we can co-ordinate social media groups to give access to advice and offers of help? Should Social Care have a lower threshold for those families who just need a bit of extra support, rather than waiting until the crisis point had been reached?

I’m sure there are many other measures that people who are far more expert than me could come up with. Bringing up children can be hard – if you’re struggling with money, lack of practical skills and experience, mental health issues etc it’s harder still. I have enough faith in human nature and in our society to think that when we see someone who needs help, the huge majority of people want to provide it. It’s such a shame that it can be so hard to answer that instinct.

The Work-Life Balance Myth

I’m going to generalise here, but teachers work hard. They work hard because they want the best for their pupils, they work hard because they are a group of people who are intrinsically self-motivated, and they work hard because they have no choice. Sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon with a pile of books, stumbling home from a full day’s teaching without a proper break followed by a staff meeting, hunched over a laptop till late at night because an assessment or set of reports is due – all are part of the regular experience of teachers in our state schools. It doesn’t seem to change much whatever stage of your career you’re at – NQTs sometimes seem to have it worst of all, as they struggle to distinguish what is important from what’s vital, and what’s urgent from what needs to be done yesterday, but in my experience, it doesn’t get better as you go through your career, or as you join SLT. Late night email conversations and constant checking of the phones just seem to inexorably extend the school day.

Has it got worse? It seems to have done so. Everybody accepts this is an important issue. When the teacher workload advisory report was published last November, the range of organisations contributing and in full agreement with the conclusions was striking – from unions representing both leaders and colleagues in classrooms, from the DfE to the National Governors Association to Ofsted. All agreed, workload was a problem and needed addressing, and helpfully came up with a number of suggestions to help address this.

Most astonishing of all in a perfect example of gamekeeper turned poacher, is the fact that according to the draft Ofsted framework, schools will now be inspected on how well they are helping staff to manage workload and support their wellbeing. Any English Language teachers looking for a perfect example of irony might want to point out that this will have sent many school leaders scurrying off to rewrite a whole raft of school policies over the weekend.

It certainly appears to be a question of work-life balance. The obvious conclusion is that as workload has increased, this has eaten into the amount of time available to do other, more fulfilling things like spending time with the family, exercising, or sleeping. The healthy balance between the time spent at work and the time spent outside work appears to have lost.

Nevertheless, in my view, work-life balance is an unhelpful and iniquitous term and by using it we are preventing ourselves from making meaningful progress. The word balance implies that as one side goes up, the other will come down. In this description, the more work you do, the less life you have, and vice-versa. If this is the case, then the solution, if not simple, is obvious – demand and expect less work from teachers, and you’ll give them more life.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking ignores one aspect of the job that if not unique, is certainly a key element of the teacher’s lot – teachers have a to-do list that can never be cleared. ‘That’s it, I have done all the marking, planning, assessment, curriculum development, resource preparation and classroom display that I could possibly do, and now I’m going to have a glass of Merlot and watch Endeavour with nothing nagging away at the back of my mind’ said no teacher, ever. There’s always another job, something else that we can think of that might make a difference, and that’s the key problem with most of the solutions suggested to deal with work-life balance issue. If life is what we get on with when the work is done, then there’s always a reason to put it back on hold.

The worst job I ever did was stacking shelves on the night shift at a major supermarket. At the time, it was the most money I had ever earned, when I walked out of my shift at 7 in the morning I wasn’t taking home a bag full of tins that I was going to price up at home and bring in the next evening, and the work was pretty easy and fairly relaxed. I certainly had better work-life balance than I have ever had as a teacher or school leader. However, it was boring, repetitive, unfulfilling and pointless. I brought no special skills to the role that millions of others couldn’t have offered, my opinion wasn’t valued, I made no decisions of any importance and I was completely anonymous.

If we want and need to improve teachers’ wellbeing (and we do), then identifying tasks we can cross off the list to tilt the balance is not the way to do it. That’s my issue with the workload advisory report, however well intentioned. Almost all of the recommendations are welcome, I just don’t think they’ll have much impact on workload, or work-life balance.

For example, restricting the number of data collection points – as a principle, that’s a good one. It reinforces the importance of formative as opposed to summative assessment, it gives time for the data collected to be processed, evaluated and used to impact provision, and it reduces the incentives for teachers to see progress as a simple climbing of an assessment ladder. It’s a principle we moved to in the White Hills Park Trust a couple of years ago and I hope that teachers would agree that it was a positive change. However, it isn’t the aspect of teacher assessment that has the biggest impact on workload – reducing from 6 data points to 3 saved a relatively minor administrative task but our teachers continue to spend far more time on detailed feedback that promotes high-quality targeted dialogue, way beyond the limits of any proscribed policy.

My worry is that we could implement every recommendation, in full, and find out that at the end of this, wellbeing remains mired in exactly the same place in which it currently sits.

By its nature, teaching should be a job that provides wellbeing on a daily basis – it’s got infinite variety, it’s fascinating, we’re working with subjects that we love and are good at, and above all, we’re dealing with children and young people, who are interesting, funny and rewarding. It is just about the most important job that society has to offer.

If it doesn’t it is because something has gone wrong. Teachers have become separated from the pleasure and fulfilment that should naturally accompany the role, and if we’re going to change this we have to do something more fundamental than crossing a few things off the to-do list. So, what can we do to give teachers wellbeing?

  • Collaboration and teamwork across the system

The belief that competition between schools and MATs will bring about improvement is deeply held by the architects of the current system. I have seen the other side of this – ‘invisible’ off-rolling, where students are encouraged to look elsewhere before the exclusion kicks in, open evening presentations that share the most damning part of a neighbouring school’s data. More damagingly, it prevents any prospect of sharing support and capacity, particularly in the secondary sector, and particularly where loyalty is towards the MAT, not the locality. If a school is worried that the Latin department is struggling because the Head of Department is inexperienced, then the last thing they would consider doing in the current setup is going to the school down the road to the school, with an outstanding department because of the lack of trust that has built up over time. The damage that league-table culture has done to wellbeing cannot be underestimated.

  • Ability to exercise professional judgement

Many of the issues cited as workload issues are also issues of lack of control, and I believe that this is a potent source of frustration. Teaching is defined as a profession, and the key characteristic of a profession is the ability to make professional judgement. This means that tightly-controlled policy-driven systems remove our professionalism and that will inevitably affect wellbeing. We need systems and policies that allow room for teachers to take professional decisions, in areas such as curriculum planning and assessment.

  • Career momentum

A minority of teachers rise through the ranks. A much larger number, with women still over represented, remain as classroom teachers. This should not be a choice that has a negative impact on wellbeing – in many ways, it should be quite the opposite. However, in a long (and getting longer) career, the sense of being stuck in a career rut can be overwhelming – we’ve all come across the teacher who seems to have been doing the job too long and has become embittered and cynical. We need to embrace the contribution that class teachers make to the wider system, ensure that there are opportunities to contribute to professional discussion and research, to access CPD and to have a voice in school leadership decisions. We also need performance management systems that encourage and reward teachers who make a generous contribution to professional dialogue.

  • Public support and respect – no naming and shaming

My doctoral study looked at the emotional impact on Head Teachers of failure in Ofsted inspections – case studies of dedicated colleagues, most of whom found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. I recognise that on occasions things go wrong and in any system with accountability school leaders have to carry the can. However, the vast majority of the Head Teachers I have known who have found themselves in this position are hard-working people with integrity, who have been placed in their role because of a track record of success over many years and a variety of roles. When ‘failure’ of a school is laid at the door of one individual and that person is hung out to dry in public, it damages the well-being of every member of the profession who understands that there but for the grace of God….

  • Understand and embrace change

The plaintive cry of ‘No More Change’ seems on the face of it to be a clear wellbeing issue, change is difficult and stressful. However, it’s one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – change is necessary to adapt to new circumstances, and being stuck doing something that isn’t working is not conducive to wellbeing. As school leaders, we need to have institutions that are ready for change, that explain the reasons behind the change well and that support people through change.

  • Support networks and social interaction

Teaching can be a lonely job, particularly when things aren’t going well or the pressure’s on. In my time in teaching, social interaction has gradually declined. This is partly because of the pressure on time – lunchtime and after-school time is taken up with intervention, evenings set aside for marking. There are still many teachers with strong friendships and social media networks can provide a source of friendships and support, but it appears to me that the social side of teaching has declined, and where it happens it depends on a few individuals. Days spent with people who are friends rather than just colleagues are likely to make a positive contribution to well-being.