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.

Could we live without GCSEs?

The first thing to say about the cancellation of GCSE exams is that I understand the dismay and disappointment of the young people and their teachers who have worked hard to prepare for this summer’s exams. There is a sense that the compact between students and the education system has been broken. The principle that your destiny is not predetermined, but that you can achieve great things if you work hard and do your best is one that we have spent countless hours embedding. If it turns out that the most important factors in your Geography grade are a) how well you did in Maths and English SATs when you were 11 years old b) how well a completely different set of students did last year (possibly with a different teacher) and c) how clever your friends are – then an element of disillusionment is understandable.

However, the die is cast – the solution has been settled upon, the hastily-cobbled system will run its course, and grades will be awarded. The students who feel a sense of unfairness have my sympathy. However, the fundamental question is, ‘So what?’ Will the cancellation of GCSEs make any substantial difference to where the nation’s 16-year-olds find themselves in 6 months’ time? How many students will find that they are denied access to a 6th form course, or a college place, or an apprenticeship based on teacher assessment, that they would otherwise have been able to access?

In reality, all but a tiny handful will be exactly where they would have been. Speaking from our own organisation, we have a fairly clear picture of which students are intending to come to our 6th Form; we know, broadly speaking, which courses they will select and we have a clear picture whether that is an appropriate choice; we have given advice to that effect and offered a place on that basis. In a normal year, if a student came to us on results day with a disastrous result, and we knew that did not reflect their performance over time, we wouldn’t just turn them away – we would consider a retake, maybe a shift in the pattern of courses, not a simple rejection. We would keep our eyes on the bigger picture.

We see the same attitude reflected from employers offering apprenticeships, and FE colleges offering vocational routes – we all want students to succeed and to follow the route that gives them the best chance of long-term success. This year, students are still able to access appropriate destinations, based on teacher assessment. There is no incentive for teachers to support students on to courses where they would be out of their depth and likely to fail. It may be an imperfect system, but the one its replacing is not perfect either.

GCSEs made sense in a time when age 16 signalled the end of formal education for a huge proportion of the school population. In the modern world, it’s just another point at which young people pick a particular route, in the same way they do when they choose options at the end of Year 9.

So, what would we lose if GCSEs just didn’t happen? What purpose do they actually serve? Let’s just imagine if this situation became permanent and we decided to abandon KS4 exams on a permanent basis. What would be the consequences of a system that relied on a model of teacher assessment?

Well, it can be argued that exams are a good motivational tool – we’ve all seen Year 11 students suddenly buckle down with a term to go after a few years’ coasting. But is that final year acceleration inevitable only when all the eggs are put into the exams basket? If we can change the culture so that it’s clear that your performance over the whole course is considered, then we would be encouraging greater depth of learning as opposed to superficial cramming of knowledge that can be immediately discarded after the exam.

We wouldn’t have external published data with which to compare and judge schools – league tables would disappear. I have written before about the distorting effect of league table culture, but the excesses that it has led to – spurious courses and entry patterns, off-rolling, gaming in all its forms – are clear to see even for its greatest advocates. The inherent socio-economic unfairness written deep into the fabric of our current system is magnified and highlighted through our league table obsession

Of course, the idea that schools can’t be judged by results is one that fills some people with horror. In reality, there are plenty of other ways that parents or other interested parties can judge schools – Ofsted reports (and let’s face it, Ofsted’s new framework is ahead of the curve here) look at the full range of school provision, no longer just the summary of exam data. Perhaps parents could be given greater opportunity to visit school, or to talk to current parents, or look at the impact of the school in the community.

For those who want data, destination data is possibly the best indicator of the way that a school is having an impact on the life chances of student, but there are also exclusion and attendance figures, financial data (including how much is allocated to executive pay), and a whole range of data that schools can choose to share.

A system not geared around exam preparation would obviously depend upon skilled and robust internal assessment practices, which wouldn’t appear in every school overnight. However, a much greater focus on formative assessment to secure improvement and development would lead to the development of assessment practice and a greater incentive for schools to collaborate for the moderation of student performance.

The possibility afforded by changes to curriculum design are exciting and full of potential to improve learning and progress – the structure of the course dictated by the content of the discipline, not the exam spec, the potential use of the many hours that are currently lost for revision, mocks, exam practice. We open up the possibilities of linking curriculum to enrichment, of making deep cross-disciplinary links, of making genuine curriculum connections with the wider world of work and the local community.

Think of the huge savings that we could free up if we didn’t have to pay tens of thousands every school every year on exam fees, exam-related CPD and invigilation (and think of the use that we could make of our army of invigilators). Think of the use we could make of the period from June to late August – planning ahead, focusing on transition or work experience, instead of sweating on that fateful results day.

I suspect that this is a pipe dream, as a result of the insurmountable barriers of the lack of trust in the educational professionals and the importance of external measures in our performativity culture. Assuming that this is a one-year hiatus, by this time next year, I’ll be supporting and cajoling our students and staff to get the best results they can, and celebrating and commiserating with them as usual in the summer. If that’s the case, I will find it hard not to have the feeling of an opportunity squandered.

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.

Time to get rid of ‘Outstanding’ schools?

It’s rare, especially in these fractious times, that a policy announcement is greeted with almost universal approval, but we’ve had that in education this week. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson confirmed that the inspection exemption for the almost 4,000 schools with a current Outstanding Ofsted judgement will be lifted in September, subject to consultation and a Parliamentary vote. They will now be on the same 5-year cycle as schools judged ‘Good’.

This move appears to have the support of almost all sectors of the education community including DfE, Ofsted, professional associations, the majority of teachers – even the schools who will now be subject to the same Ofsted pressures as the rest of us have welcomed it.

It’s not hard to see why this move is both popular and necessary. When some schools have not been inspected for over a decade, and may have had a complete turnover of staff in the meantime, the judgement lacked any credibility. It’s also becoming clear at the moment that a judgement under a previous framework does not automatically transfer to the new framework. The small proportion of outstanding schools that have been inspected in the recent past have primarily been identified through a desktop analysis of data – under the new framework, this is a much less reliable indicator of inspection outcome.

However, just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean that it will be completely straightforward to put it into practice, and we should be prepared for some unintended consequences.

Firstly, we should be prepared for a steady decline in the proportion of outstanding schools. Unless all the current cohort retain their judgement, this is entirely predictable, not an indicator that standards are declining. However, it’s the sort of thing that makes politicians twitchy, and gives journalists the chance to concoct a story out of nothing.

Secondly, it will become increasingly difficult to demonstrate consistency across the system for the outstanding judgement. Without any external data to moderate judgements and with such a high bar, it will be very hard for both practitioners and parents to understand what outstanding signifies. For example, one school might lose its outstanding label because of a small proportion of off-task behaviour, another for over-zealous behaviour policies. Be ready for a steady stream of outraged schools challenging the basis for their downgraded judgement.

Surely the time has now come to revisit the value of the Outstanding judgement. I know this was considered in the last framework but this week’s announcement changes the context.

Apart from anything else, the word itself is not helpful to system-wide improvement. By definition, only a small proportion of schools can be outstanding – if everyone reaches the benchmark, they no longer ‘stand out’. It’s become something that divides and excludes schools, and discourages the system-wide co-operation that is so vital.

What benefit is the outstanding judgement bringing to the system? I know that some will be reluctant to give up their competitive advantage, but why not have a system where all schools can aspire to excellence? An inspection system that recognises that all schools have strengths and weaknesses, and doesn’t put a favoured few on a pedestal.

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.

Justice League? The problem with performance tables

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

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

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

Firstly, they are inaccurate.

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

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

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

Secondly, they act against the interests of students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild, Wild West – the development of Multi Academy Trusts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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