The value of sharing bad practice

Several years ago, I was given the task supporting a school in an Interim Headship capacity that had recently been placed into Special Measures. The teachers were hardworking and keen to improve but the school was in a challenging context, and over time inconsistency in the quality of teaching had led to entrenched low outcomes.

I came up with a plan – a colleague knew of a school a couple of miles down the road that had been consistently outstanding in Ofsted. I rang the Head, booked a visit and the whole staff headed over there, notebooks at the ready – we were going to watch and learn.

Of course, it was a disaster. None of the things that were being drilled into teachers to get the school out of Special Measures were anywhere to be seen – no detailed curriculum planning, progress checks or three levels of differentiation (it was a while ago) – and in fact it was very difficult to understand how the school had ever got an outstanding judgement. The teachers did not seem to be putting in the extra hours that their Special Measures colleagues were, there were no detailed and complex systems of review and analysis, no endless meetings. However, there was no reason to question the inspection judgement – the children’s achievement was exceptional, they loved school and the place had an air of quiet purpose.

We left downbeat, demoralised and none the wiser.

The problem with observing truly high performance is that it looks so effortless. If I want to learn how to juggle, then it doesn’t matter how many times I go to the Cirque du Soleil and watch someone throwing and catching 6 flaming torches, it still wouldn’t be advisable for me to have a go. If, on the other hand, I could spend time watching someone struggling to learn the technique of keeping two tennis balls in the air, I might learn something.

It’s an often-stated fact that we learn more from our failures than our successes, so it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that we may learn just as much from watching the failures of others as we do from watching their successes, for exactly the same reason.

Behaviour management is a perfect example. If a teacher is struggling to control their class, then sending them to watch your most skilled behaviour manager is unlikely to be effective on its own. They won’t be able to see how their colleague manages poor behaviour because they probably won’t see any – they’ll just see that mysterious alchemy which means that the student who refuses to stop talking in their class, will be the model of conformity with their highly-skilled colleague.

Of course, we need both to really succeed – we need to know what good practice looks like, but we also need to know how to overcome the hurdles that stand in our way, and understanding what not to do is equally as important as knowing what to do.

I’ve been privileged to have been present in a great many lessons taught by a huge range of teachers over the years, as a school leader, adviser and inspector – I can honestly say that I have learnt something in all of them. It’s an unavoidable human instinct to think ‘What would I have done in that situation? What can I apply to my own practice and what would I do differently?’ It’s this reflection and application to one’s own context that makes observation such a powerful tool for learning.

I have been very interested in the revolution that is taking place in CPD at the moment. I welcome the desire to establish a coherent structure and the recognition that high-quality professional development is at the heart of effective school improvement. I also welcome the way that those who are charged with leading CPD appear to have been selected based on the evidence of their own good or outstanding practice. It gives them credibility and experience of practical strategies. However, it’s very important for those charged with delivering CPD to remember the overwhelming importance of context.

At the risk of over-simplifying, it appears that there is definitely a favoured delivery model. Find individual examples of very good practice, gather them together in a ‘Hub’ structure, pair them with underperforming schools or individuals and let them learn from the experts. I’m sure this has the potential to be effective, but only if it goes beyond the master-pupil dynamic, and once that relationship is established it can be hard to disrupt.

When we’re engaged in improving teaching, especially in the light of underperformance, it’s crucial to take into account that teaching is a complex process, especially teaching large groups of individual pupils at the same time. That’s not to say that there may be simple changes that can make a difference – we’re all always on the lookout for those inspired tips that we can pinch from colleagues and that make our lives easier. However, if we want improvement, the first step is understanding, not compliance, and the way we gain understanding is to see how something works, and why it sometimes doesn’t work.

Teaching is not the same as following a recipe, although CPD can often present it in this way. Whether it’s following a National Strategies 3-part lesson, or ticking off a Rosenshine checklist, there is often a temptation to say that the key to a successful lesson is simply to make sure that you’ve done certain things in a certain order. If only it were that easy.

One of my favourite CPD approaches is Lesson Study – groups of peers working together under the guidance of an expert facilitator to observe one another and give constructive and supportive criticism. It’s a safe place for people to try things out, some of which will work well, others will fall flat – it’s a brilliant learning experience for the person being observed and for their colleagues who are being observed. Sadly, it’s one that it’s very difficult to deliver on a practical and cost-effective way – wouldn’t it be great to install a teaching and learning classroom in every school, with cameras and recording equipment and space for teachers to work together?

The key principle, however, is that while teaching is often an individual endeavour, learning about teaching is far more effective when it’s a shared activity. Opening up our practice takes courage and a culture change – many colleagues are understandably very nervous about allowing others to see them at work, especially if they aren’t feeling particularly confident. If we want to improve schools, leaders have to establish professional communities of trust. To do this we don’t need less observation, we need more – but it needs to feel very different.

I’ve never seen a lesson so perfect that it couldn’t possibly be improved, and I’ve never seen a lesson so terrible that there was nothing that could be built upon. If we can establish the principle that the point of observing teaching is not to judge, but to learn, then we really will be revolutionising CPD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t know, what do you think?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure – delay, not defeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NB Title quote from Denis Waitley

Same Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a few suggestions:

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

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

The Work-Life Balance Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Collaboration and teamwork across the system

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

  • Ability to exercise professional judgement

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

  • Career momentum

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

  • Public support and respect – no naming and shaming

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

  • Understand and embrace change

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

  • Support networks and social interaction

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