Four Wishes and a Star

The eve of a new year is usually a time for optimism. The promise of a fresh start, a blank slate to be filled by new resolutions. There’s something about the turn of a year that makes us feel more positive about the future.

Sad to say, in the world of education, the start of 2023 doesn’t particularly feel like that. Almost all of the problems that saw out the old year will still be round when the new term begins. A year ago, the prospect of the end of Covid disruption was an enticing one. Vaccines were proving successful and despite the Omicron wave, it appeared that schools were likely to stay open and largely remain safe. There was a new Education White Paper on the way which promised some clarity about future policy and a national focus on education.

Fast forward twelve months and the optimism has largely evaporated. I’ve rarely seen staff in school who have been so desperate to reach the end of term, exhausted by continual challenges. Some of this is as a result of the cumulative effect of three years during which the demands on schools have never been higher, and the work we do has never been so vital and wide-ranging. Much of it, however, is because of genuine issues that are facing the system and which need addressing urgently.

When evaluating the current situation, in keeping with sound educational practice that teachers everywhere would recognise, I’d ideally like to be positive, pick out a few things that are going well, and identify something that needs improving – a technique you may know as ‘3 stars and a wish’. However, I’m really not sure that would give an accurate picture of the educational landscape, and some of the challenges facing us are too pressing to be skated over. So, at the risk of appearing over-negative, and despite the fact that there are always positives to be found when we work in schools, I think a more realistic picture would be represented by ‘4 wishes and a Star’. Here’s my evaluation of the key issues facing education a we go into 2023:

Wish#1 – Recruitment: It’s a truism to say that the quality of our education system is entirely dependent on the staff who deliver it. Of course, they need to be well-trained, motivated and highly-skilled, but more importantly, they need to exist. Looking at the impending recruitment crisis is like spotting a tsunami far out to sea – it may not be causing issues for everyone at the moment, but we can see it coming and unless we act quickly, it will be upon us, too late to do anything about it.

According to the government’s own figures, in 2022, the number of new entrants to initial teacher training fell to 93% of the target needed to maintain teacher numbers in primary and 59% in secondary. 62% of the target was achieved for EBacc subjects (compared to 84% in 2021/22). All of these figures represent precipitous drops compared to previous years. The total number recruited was 71% of the target, down from 97% in the previous year. In addition, the number of teachers leaving the profession last year, especially in the early years of their career, leapt significantly.

There are already areas of the country where schools find it incredibly difficult to recruit high-quality specialist staff, whether that’s teachers of A level physics, early years specialists or any point in between. It’s particularly noticeable at Head Teacher level, where many posts are advertised and re-advertised several times over.

Put simply, if we do not attract more good quality graduates into teaching, and then retain them when they’re here, then the system will buckle in a few short years, and resolving the problem will take a generation.

It’s not just teachers. Attracting good-quality support staff can be almost impossible, given that the skills that we need are often far better rewarded in the private sector. Business managers, TAs, site staff, Midday Supervisors – schools all over the country have found it almost impossible to recruit well.

There isn’t one simple reason for this, of course – it’s a combination of pay, working conditions, status and the impact of performativity cultures, but if we have a strategy, it’s not working.

Wish#2 – SEND: The truest indicator of the success of our system is the way that it treats our most vulnerable children. On that measure, we’re failing. Increasing numbers of pupils with significant needs in mainstream schools, special schools full to overflowing, independent non-maintained provision of variable quality and spiralling cost – all point to a system that is breaking under the strain.

We have somehow managed to create a national approach to SEND that combines the worst of every possible world – a system that costs eye-watering amounts of money, serves pupils badly, and creates division between school and home. What’s more, the effectiveness of the system varies hugely depending on the locality – a situation that is both inefficient and unfair.

As well as the internal implications for the SEND sector, the crisis is bleeding into the wider funding crisis. In November, Schools Week reported that rising demand for SEND has left councils with a £1.9 billion deficit on everyday school funding, with some councils warning that without immediate aid, they would consider declaring effective bankruptcy.

Despite previous promises, there is still no clear timetable for the implementation of SEND reforms promised in the Green Paper, and as we get closer to an election, the chances increase that this will be shelved yet again. In the meantime vulnerable pupils lose out, parents are despairing of finding appropriate provision, and schools are buckling under the strain.

Wish#3 – Structural reform: One of the most eye-catching elements of the White Paper was the intention to move to a Trust led system by 2030. Whatever your views on this as a model, it at least represented an attempt at coherence. However, since the initial momentum generated by the announcement, little has actually changed and the shelving of the Schools Bill leaves us precisely where we have been for the past few years.

That is to say, we have a system completely lacking in coherence – a combination of maintained schools, small local trusts, national MATs, single academies, and a few variations on the above. All operate under slightly different conditions, with different rules, funding arrangements and accountability frameworks. The occasional school will be forced down the MAT route following a poor Ofsted, or a school leader may choose to join a trusted local colleague in a Trust, but at the current rate of progress, this patchwork system will exist for decades.

It makes effective policy decisions extraordinarily difficult, because the impact of a policy will often depend upon the status of an individual school, and it also hard-wires unfairness into the system. If the vision is still of a Trust-led system, then the Government needs to spend more time and energy in engaging with schools to make the case, and needs to join the debate.

Wish#4 – Funding: It’s important to recognise that the additional funding announced in the Autumn statement was extremely welcome and has certainly bought us some time. My initial scepticism has been misplaced – this is new money and has arrived in the nick of time. However, it is most definitely not ‘problem solved’. There is a well-founded fear that unless we take a longer term view, it has postponed the crisis rather than solving it.

Sensible and well run schools don’t plan a few months ahead, and hope for a benevolent Chancellor to rescue them when times are tough. We use all the information we have to take a view over the medium and long term, and then make decisions accordingly. For years, we have been asking for a long term view on budgets. There are a few key factors that we need to know to avoid the sort of angst that has been in evidence over the last few months – overall core funding over the coming years, broad policy on pay settlements, support (or otherwise) for extraordinary factors such as stratospheric rises in energy costs, and the policy on funding large scale capital projects.

Above all, we need a continuing commitment across the political divide to fund our education system properly, giving it the value it deserves.

And a star….

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the issues we’re facing at the moment. However, whenever the broad educational landscape appears to be lacking in hope, the best way to restore optimism is to look at what is happening in classrooms across our schools.

It’s my greatest privilege that I get to visit many classrooms in many schools and see teachers and support staff across all phases and sectors of education. Given the unimaginable disruption since the start of 2020, it is remarkable to see how successfully our schools have picked up the reins again, and children and young people are once again learning key skills, acquiring vital knowledge and making progress in their learning.

The core strength of our education system lies here – in the skill and dedication of staff, the positivity and warmth of our schools, and the strength and unity of our communities.

The message for those in power is simple – take problems seriously, engage with the stakeholders, particularly school and Trust leaders, and develop a coherent plan. We’ll do the rest.

Now, that would lead to a Happy New Year.

Dear Ms Truss…

First of all, congratulations on your election, and on becoming our new Prime Minister. It’s a great achievement, of which you should be very proud. It’s also good news that we have a Prime Minister who has been educated at a state school, and does not come from a background of immense privilege – I have to say it never felt as if your predecessor had any understanding of the lives of real people, and hopefully you will be very different.

I know you will have a busy few weeks as you settle in to your new job. As was discussed many times during your leadership campaign, we are facing many challenges as a nation – cost of living, fuel poverty, war in Ukraine, climate change, and we are faced with the transition to a new monarch. It’s an unenviable in-tray, and you will certainly have your hands full. I see that delivery is the theme of your tenure, and I know you are anxious to get on with things.

I did find it surprising that during your campaign, there was so little mention of education. Apart from some passing mentions of grammar schools, I am very much in the dark about your views on the key issues and concerns facing schools. The scale of the disruption to schooling during the pandemic has been very well documented, and the fact that this has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in society was only confirmed by this summer’s results. As Nadhim Zahawi said, during his short time as Secretary of State for Education: ‘Young people have put up with an awful lot over the past two years. By doing everything that has been asked of them, they will have sacrificed many of the things all of us here took for granted when we were growing up…We all owe it to this generation to give them the world-class education they deserve’.

I sincerely hope that you share this view. So, speaking as someone who is charged with dealing with these problems on a daily basis, I would like to give you and Mr Malthouse a ‘heads-up’ on the most pressing problems that are facing us.

Firstly, make no mistake – there is a funding crisis out there that schools are finding devastating. Help with fuel bills will make a difference, assuming it continues for a reasonable length of time, but unfunded and unanticipated increases in wage costs have hit us hard, however much they are needed and deserved by our dedicated staff. Schools and Trusts tried to be responsible and factored in increased costs at the recommended level, but given the scale of the increase, the proportion of our expenditure that we have to commit to wages, and the lateness of the announcement, it is impossible for this not to impact significantly. This will lead to cutbacks and impact provision directly. My greatest fear is that we will have to prioritise the core business of class teaching and therefore the individual and small group help and support will suffer. This will mean that our most vulnerable children and those most affected by covid disruption will suffer most. I can’t believe that you want this to happen. An announcement that government will fund the pay rises that schools were not asked to budget for would be very welcome, and help avert a significant diversion of resources for all, and catastrophe for some.

Secondly, whilst I understand and fully accept the need for schools to be held to account for the way they perform their vital task, this only works if the information used is fair and accurate. My observation is that two years without published external data have not led to complacency or a lack of effort, it has allowed us to focus on the most important things for our pupils. We have navigated a successful return to exams and external assessments and schools have prepared their pupils in the best way possible. However, the fact that the profound impact of the pandemic was so unevenly and arbitrarily distributed means that using these results to publicly evaluate school performance needs to be done with extreme care, or they may well lead to unfair and counter-productive outcomes. Until you have absolute  confidence that this data is accurate and meaningful, it should be treated with extreme care.

Thirdly, the White Paper and subsequent Schools Bill signalled a direction of travel in terms of the future structure of education, but the uncertainty that has surrounded the change in government has left many schools unsure of the best way to plan. We need a clear signal around the plan for the future of education system. If all schools are to be part of Multi Academy Trusts, how will that be done at a reasonable scale and pace? How will you convince reluctant schools that they will not risk diluting their ethos and values by joining a larger partnership? There are many great trusts out there who are keen to grow (not least our own) but we have no desire to bring schools into our partnership who don’t want to be there. Hearts and minds have to be won if this is the way forward.

Fourthly, please don’t be distracted by phony culture wars. In my experience, teachers and school leaders take a pragmatic, responsible and ambitious approach to the curriculum. We want our pupils to have a balanced and rounded view of the world, to have a secure grasp of important core skills as well as the opportunity to develop their own particular talents, gifts and creative skills. We don’t use the curriculum to pursue ideology or promote particular lifestyles. In my experience, governments are advised to tread carefully and work with the profession when it comes to curriculum development.

Finally, please don’t be afraid to celebrate the achievements of pupils, teachers and schools. It is my privilege to see wonderful staff inspiring children every day of my working life. During my 34 years in the profession, I have seen remarkable improvement in the quality of all aspects of school provision – pedagogy, curriculum thinking, behaviour management, safeguarding, pastoral care. It has sometimes seemed that politicians view our education service not as a jewel to be celebrated, but as a problem to be fixed. When everyone is working as hard as they can, we all want to feel appreciated. When the pressures of your very difficult job weigh heavily upon you, then my advice is to arrange to visit a school – close contact with children, young people and the wonderful staff who support them will revive your spirit and remind you why you wanted to be in a position of influence. Just let me know and I’ll put the kettle on

The key questions to ask the MAT CEO

It is noticeable that in all the political chaos of the last few weeks, the Schools Bill has continued it’s passage through parliament. The flagship policy, namely the ambition in the White Paper and subsequent Bill that all schools will be part of a strong multi-academy trust by 2030 seems to have been far less controversial than a similar announcement made by Nicky Morgan in 2016. It appears that now we have well over half of pupils taught in academies, and further erosion of the capacity of LAs to directly manage schools, there is an acceptance, or at least a realisation that this change is coming.

As the CEO of a small but growing Trust, we have certainly noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of enquiries we’ve been receiving from maintained schools and single academies, and have a real sense that the number of schools now seriously considering conversion has grown dramatically. In our Trust, this has already led to conversations, school visits and a couple of information meetings for potential new schools.

To be clear, we welcome the interest – even though we are committed to remaining a relatively small Trust and don’t have any immediate imperative to expand, we are hoping for sensible and sustainable growth over the next two or three years. As a result, it’s easy to get drawn into a selling role when talking to perspective schools – there’s always a temptation to tell them what they want to hear in order to get that all important governing body vote over the line. I’m not suggesting that Trusts are not being completely honest with their answers, but they may certainly be painting things in the most favourable light possible.

In my experience, most of the questions we get are fairly straightforward and relate to systems and processes – contracts, TUPE arrangements, policies etc. They’re relatively easy to answer, and although there may be some differences in nuance, most trusts will be saying similar things. After a few years of the MAT system, most Trusts of any size will have employed competent specialists to deal with the operational side of things.

The reason, therefore, to join a particular Trust is not because they may shave a few pounds off your photocopying contract, or that they have a good bid-writing team that may get you a new class set of ukuleles. The reason is because you share their values and ethos, and that this is a comfortable home for your school – a partnership of schools that is a good fit for you, not just at the moment, but in the years to come.

Your questions, therefore, need to get to the heart of this – what’s important to this trust, what makes them tick? When the chips are down, what do they hold dear? You will be placing your trust in this person and their team, and that trust is precious. You are entering into a marriage without the possibility of divorce – the answers to your questions need to tell you not just what they do, but who they are.

So here’s some suggestions for questions that, if asked of me, would make me think, would reveal something of my motivation for the Trust – and may take me by surprise:

How would you define a strong Trust, and does your definition differ from the government’s?

Make no mistake, the CEO will have thought about this, not least because it has been highlighted in the White Paper. Although it did not make it into the proposed Bill, it is clear that MAT evaluations are on their way, and judgements will need to be made against some clear criteria. So what’s important to them? Achievement outcomes, presumably; Ofsted grades, probably; proportion of students going to university, oversubscription rates, sound financial management? How about exclusion / attendance rates; support provided for schools outside the Trust, engagement with parents and the local community? This may give you an indication of where their values lie.

When did you last permanently exclude a pupil, and where are they now?

As in most of these questions, there’s no correct answer, but it will certainly give you an insight into the culture of the MAT. Firstly, is this an exceptional event and therefore it has stuck in the mind of the CEO, or is it fairly routine? The most revealing element of this question is likely to be the second part – to what extent is the Trust committed to the long-term interest of their pupils, even (or especially) those who have failed?

How often do your pupils sing?

If the CEO starts talking about the medium-term planning framework for music, they’re probably missing the point of this question. Their answer should give an indication of the importance that the Trust gives to joy, wonder and awe in the curriculum, to a school experience that is broad and rich.  

Are you an expert in teaching and learning? How do you keep your knowledge up to date?

Once again, the most important part of this is probably the second question. Whether someone defines themselves as an expert may tell you more about their own levels of confidence, but their commitment to keeping their own knowledge current is a key indicator. Do you want to be part of a Trust where the senior leader does not have a clear grasp of the key skills needed to do the job, or shows insufficient interest in their core business? Without this, how do they effectively support schools and decide on policy?

What does your Trust do for the most vulnerable member of your school community?

This, for me, goes to the core of the MAT’s approach to inclusion. Once again, look out for the glib, rehearsed answer that references Trust-wide policy. Firstly, who is defined as the most vulnerable member? Educational need, risk of exclusion, family upheaval? Then, does the CEO take an interest in what happens to them – to the point where they would become personally involved if that could make a difference. I believe that you can always judge an institution by the way it treats it’s most vulnerable member.

Do you get paid a bonus, and if so, what for?

You may get an evasive response here, but it’s a simple question. The level of executive pay is to some extent a matter of record, but the awarding of a bonus and the criteria for doing so is likely to be more obscure. Is it for growth, for pupil test outcomes, for financial performance? Can you be completely confident that the values of your school and the Key Performance Indicators of the Trust are fully aligned.

What’s the one thing I could say that would convince you that our school was not right for your MAT?

It’s very easy for a CEO to go into a sales mode in these conversations, and to be focussed on ‘closing the deal’. If that’s the case, then this might make them shift a little uncomfortably in their seat. Groucho Marx is famously quoted as saying ‘I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member’. A Trust that would take any school is probably one that is not clear and confident in its ethos and values. So what’s the red line, and would you put it in the same place?

In your time as CEO, what’s the one thing you personally have done of which you are most proud?

Being a CEO is a strange job. For those of us who have spent most of our working lives in a classroom, we have to come to terms with the fact that the really important work is done with the pupils, and our role is to simply to create the conditions in which that can happen as effectively as possible. So are we most proud of the fact that we have grown the size of Trust, or received national recognition, or that we have intervened to support a pupil or a teacher?

In the end, it’s a question of faith, and whilst faith in the leadership is not enough of a reason on its own to join a Trust, a lack of faith is probably enough to convince you that this is not the right move. When it comes down to it, if I haven’t been made to feel at least a little uncomfortable under questioning, then I probably haven’t been asked enough of the right questions, and that’s not good for either side of the discussion. The only way to make this vital decision is with eyes wide open. Good luck.

New Year Revolution – the Power of Collaboration

New Year is traditionally a time for optimism – for looking forward, considering the possibility of better times ahead. However, unless I’m misreading the mood, that doesn’t seem to be the prevailing emotion in the world of education. Uncertainty, anxiety and exhaustion seem to be the themes from school leaders as we head into the new year.

Obviously, the impact of two years of pandemic has much to do with this, as does the fact that there is still an air of doubt clouding the situation as schools return. In-school testing, staff absences, the return of SATs and exams – all cloud the future and make planning more difficult. The most recent government announcements have only deepened the gloom.

However, in the spirit of the season, if we’re going to change things, then the start of a new year is a particularly good time to do so, and it also makes sense to apply the things we have learnt in the turbulent times of the pandemic.

It’s been notable that when we analyse the successes of the last two years, many of them come down to organisations putting aside their competitive relationship and working together. When we needed to get meals to families or source PPE, schools, Local Authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts pulled together and got things done. When the chips are down, sometimes quite literally, collaboration was the only option.

The problem is that collaboration is often seen as an added extra, a ‘nice-to-have’. Our system is structurally hard-wired to be competitive. Exam grades are allocated based on pre-determined ratios, meaning that whether or not a student achieves a Grade 5, for example, depends not just on whether they have achieved a certain level of knowledge or skill, but on how many others have done as well or better. School performance measures use metrics that compare individual schools to the group as a whole, so that even if everyone gets better, or indeed everyone gets worse, there are still exactly the same proportion of ‘failing’ schools.

The use of the word ’Outstanding’ as the highest Ofsted grade, literally means that the school ‘stands out’, or differs from the rest. By definition, it is impossible for more than a small number of schools to be outstanding – why can’t we have a system that hopes and expects all schools to be performing at very high level?

There’s a myth that to be successful in life, we need to engender a spirit of competition – that we should teach our children that success means doing better than the next guy. This isn’t how human society works, at least not when it’s operating successfully. In the vast majority of jobs in the real world, it’s far more important to work well with your colleagues and the people around you than to ‘beat’ them.

Of course, the belief that competition brings about improvement is ingrained into the performative, neo-liberal philosophy that has driven our public services for the last forty years. I’m not qualified to know whether it works in manufacturing or investment banking, but I can see the damage it causes in a public service like education.

A competitive system, by its nature, creates winners and losers. Successful firms thrive, weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with applying this to a public service like education is that we can’t accept the casualties of the system, we can’t allow some children to fail on the grounds that others will benefit elsewhere.

A system founded on the principle of collaboration looks very different. It’s a system where we all feel a genuine stake in the success of others and where success that comes at the expense of others is not seen as success at all.

Imagine if every policy decision was subject to this test – does this policy increase the potential for collaboration, does it improve the system as a whole? How do we take good ideas, share them, support their implementation elsewhere? Imagine if collaboration was the guiding principle behind discussions around admissions, exclusions, budgets, recruitment.

It’s not the same as sharing good practice, valuable though that can be. Collaboration is frequently interpreted as the favoured few telling the rest how to do it – Hubs, Tsars, accredited CPD providers – this isn’t a sign of a collaborative system, it doesn’t unlock the potential within each school.

But collaboration means working together to achieve a shared goal. It isn’t simply a soft option, free from accountability. If accountability is shared, then resources will be targeted where they’re needed, data will be used to support and inform rather than report and conform, and expertise will be put to work wherever it will have the greatest impact. If you want to see the research basis for the power of collaboration, see ‘Learning is the Work’ Michael Fullan, amongst many other studies.

It’s been my privilege to spend time in hundreds of schools, including many that were mired in difficulties. I can honestly say that I never visited a Special Measures school that didn’t have pockets of excellence, or an Outstanding school that had nothing to learn from others, regardless of their Ofsted badge or attainment profile. In other words, I’ve never come across a school that had nothing to gain from a collaborative system, or nothing to offer.

On a local level, 2021 saw the start of our own experiment in true collaboration – ‘Better Together’ a partnership of schools, some from our own small MAT, but also single academies, maintained and voluntary aided schools – special, primary and secondary. The aim is to run professional development courses delivered by our staff, for our staff. We chose a number of key themes – SEND, Governance, Behaviour, Curriculum etc – and asked for teams of people to take on the responsibility of running the courses. No expensive charges, no badge – just generous sharing.

It’s early days, but so far we have delivered courses to over 400 staff and governors, and feedback has been excellent. It’s also given opportunities for staff to deliver training to colleagues from other schools, and uncovered some real talent. If you’re interested in seeing how it works, our website is here

I realise that my new year’s optimism has probably got the better of me and we’re currently a million miles from this, but like all revolutions, it has to start from the ground up. If we want change for the better, we need to do it together.

The Goldilocks rule of Multi Academy Trusts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the moment…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the moment – if not now, when?

Performance Management to Professional Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splendid isolation? Why I’m struggling to pick a side

I have to be honest, I am a little nervous about entering the behaviour discussion that seems to dominate education at the moment. A few weeks ago, I tweeted that the following:

#edutwitter behaviour debate is so dispiriting. On a subject so complex, multi-layered and context-driven, how have we ended up with such a simplistic division? Allowing a pupil to disrupt others’ learning is clearly wrong, as is ignoring individual needs – it’s not either/or.’

I thought it was an unremarkable observation. However, responses ranged from enthusiastic agreement to someone who ended their response with ‘Who are you? Shut up.’ I’m not too precious about these things but thought it an interesting illustration of the way opinion has become entrenched.

Since then, I have watched the debate continue to be ramped up, making the front page of the Guardian, heated debates on the Today programme, and all out war between the Children’s Commissioner and the Government Behaviour Tsar. As we head towards the ‘Lose the Booths’ event, I’m expecting the sound of the debate to grow, probably at the expense of the light it provides. Will anyone’s opinion shift as a result? I’m not holding my breath.

So, in a small attempt to promote consensus, because that’s the kind of woolly liberal I am, I have three opinions about the current debate.

  • It’s not acceptable for students to behave in a way that prevents other children from learning, makes the classroom unsafe or puts intolerable burdens on the teacher.

As pragmatic professionals, sometimes we have to take a step backwards to move forward. A behaviour policy that does not allow for a student ever to be removed from class as part of a stepped approach is asking for trouble. As long as the long-term aim is for students to address and improve their behaviour, and return to class to learn, then there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with removal from class.

Consequences have to be part of any effective behaviour policy. There needs to be enough flexibility to account for individual needs, but the bottom line is that student learning is damaged when behaviour is poor. It’s our responsibility as professionals to address that situation decisively when it occurs.

  • It’s not acceptable for students to be isolated in a way that is cruel and excessively punitive.

Removal from class to work elsewhere for short periods whilst work takes place to correct long-term behaviour is a good way of addressing a problem, and it’s also fine to make it clear that this is a negative consequence of negative behaviour choices – it’s not fine to isolate pupils in a situation for extended periods where there is almost no interaction with others, or support for learning. It’s also not ok to remove students from learning for extended periods for minor infractions of equipment or uniform policy. There are better ways of dealing with this. Colleagues tell me that this is rare, but there is no doubt that it happens, and it appears to be increasing.

  • Everyone has a right to opinion

Among the most self-defeating aspects of the whole debate are comments along the lines of ‘people who argue this have clearly never worked in a school with challenging behaviour’ or ‘I assume people who advocate this don’t have a child with special needs’, the assumption being that you therefore should not express an opinion. School leaders need to be able to make decisions and parents and others in the wider community have the right to advocate for children, but it doesn’t mean that views can’t be respectfully challenged. It’s not a straight choice between isolation booths and disruptive classrooms, nor between keeping everyone in class and inflicting cruel and psychologically damaging punishment.

By the way, I’m a school leader, I teach, I’m the father of a child with SEND and I have worked in a variety of contexts, including schools in high levels of deprivation. The schools I work in currently are successful, inclusive schools, with very high standards of behaviour, low exclusion rates and no isolation booths, but do have SLT on-call systems and arrangements for students to be removed from class if necessary.

Machacando en hierro frío – the crisis in language learning

I don’t wish to appear eccentric, but I love speaking different languages. My degree was in Spanish along with a bit of Portuguese, and I always have a go at speaking French when I can. This summer, our family holiday was in Sicily, which gave me the excuse to learn some Italian, through a combination of Duolingo, Michel Thomas and listening to Italian internet radio stations. When we got there, I took every opportunity I could to have conversations in Italian, even though to all intents and purposes I couldn’t speak it, and certainly not to a level that would have got a good GCSE pass.

The thing is, I have developed a special technique that allows me to do this: I don’t get embarrassed by speaking a foreign language, even if I’m not sure how to say something correctly. In fact, I enjoy it. I’ll have a go, throw in a few words from other languages, guess what the grammar rule might be, even make a few things up if I think it helps. I wave my arms around, use facial expressions and enthusiastically adopt the accent and even the stance that seems closest to that of a native speaker (hopefully without causing offence).

I realise that this is not typical of my compatriots. If you want a perfect definition of awkward embarrassment, look no further than an English person abroad who has ordered a bottle of wine by using their phrasebook or plumbing the depths of their memory, in their best schoolboy French accent, completely unprepared for the waiter to ask them which particular wine they would prefer. Cue a look of total panic, immediate reversion back to English or a simple repetition of their original order, exasperation and frustration all round.

As a nation, we may be entering a period when our ability to establish good relationships with others around the world becomes ever more important and language is such a key part of that relationship. Whilst it’s true that wherever we go, we can usually find an English speaker, if we can speak the language of our hosts, then that relationship is so much stronger and deeper. The ability to speak more than one language is a life skill that is invaluable in the modern world, not least because of the respect it demonstrates.

Not only that, but the learning of languages is well known to have impact well beyond the subject itself. The understanding of grammar and vocabulary, the ability to solve problems and use inference and deduction, the use of tone and inflection in speech – all are skills for learning and skills for life. My hunch would be that as a school-improvement strategy, ensuring all students were multilingual would lead to phenomenal outcomes across the curriculum.

The irony is of course, that as this skill becomes ever more valuable, our ability and willingness to do this seems to be declining from our already very low base. The numbers studying languages are declining year on year. In February this year, the BBC reported that language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling the most. Their analysis showed drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England, with a third of schools having dropped at least one language from their GCSE options.

Normally, when things are not working on this scale, we look to policy makers, and expect that they will put measures in place to address it. To be fair, in terms of education, that is what they have tried to do. The introduction of the EBacc, followed by its prominent role in the Progress 8 calculation, and reaffirmed by the government ‘ambition’ that 90% of students should study the full EBacc by 2022 is a clear policy direction and should have led to the widespread uptake of languages.

So why hasn’t it? In my view, our examination and accreditation system actively mitigates against the natural development of language skills for most pupils. The ability to communicate effectively is almost impossible to assess out of context, and we can’t reproduce that context in an exam hall. Even in the elements of the course that focus on spoken language, students are trained to have conversations that far exceed the level of independent conversation that they are able to have, so it is inevitably stilted and unnatural.

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

This is a crisis that needs some radical solutions. Almost every single pupil who walks through the doors of our schools has demonstrated that they can master a spoken language. By the age of 6, they have approximately 2,600 words of expressive vocabulary and 20,000–24,000 words of receptive vocabulary (Lorraine, 2008). Why do they all think that learning a language is so hard? We need to understand what it is that has got them to this level of expert language use and replicate it in the next language they learn.

My first suggestion would be to remove MFL from the EBacc and Progress 8, but prioritise it in the curriculum discussions held by Ofsted, including anything relating to cultural capital. Of course, MFL should be there as an academic option, and a highly valued one, but we should recognise that the academic study of a foreign language is different and separate from the ability to communicate in a real-life context. Some people should have the former, everyone should have the latter.

Secondly, language learning should be present throughout a pupil’s school life, treated as a cross-cutting key life skill that all students study, in the same way that they are expected to study PE, Citizenship and RE. What message does it give about the importance of communicating in other tongues, if the majority of students get to ‘drop’ it at the earliest opportunity?

Thirdly, we should accept that conventional teaching of languages has not worked and that we need to look at a different model, one that learns from the things that have helped us all successfully acquire our first language – immersion, motivation, reward. When we learn a language, meaning comes first, grammar second.

Here’s some suggestions – build in some immersive and fun experiences – assemblies entirely in French, tutor time twice a week only in Spanish, PSHE / Citizenship entirely in German or Italian, on wet playtimes put on the Simpsons in Spanish in the school Hall, school dinner orders only accepted in a foreign language. Most importantly, as the adult models, we need to ‘get over ourselves’ and have a go – of all the things to feel shame about, mispronouncing a word in a language we are still trying to master has to be fairly low on the list.

I realise that the chance of my wish coming true is virtually nil, but that doesn’t stop me from suggesting it. By a quirk of history, we are in the unique position of being able to go almost anywhere in the world and finding someone who can speak English. That used to be an advantage, but now it feels more and more like a handicap. Our children’s ability in language learning is among the worst in the whole world – that really is something to be embarrassed about.