Congratulations – you haven’t got the job!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race and Identity – a personal and painful journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Values in Action – where rhetoric meets reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whisper it – I’m carrying on inspecting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The argument about funding has been won

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

  • The teaching profession has never been so well-informed

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

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

  • Young people are leading the way

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

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

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

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

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

  • The support and fellowship provided by our professional community

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

Happy New Year!

Stop! Collaborate and listen…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.