Eternally Optimistic

The perspective in January is often one of nostalgia and remembrance.  A yearning for the beloved past, lost loved ones and the vitality and optimism of younger days when your knees did not betray your hopefulness.  You only have to listen to radio talk shows that yearn for football from a bygone era or the so called panacea that was national service or the education system where teachers were respected and old fashioned discipline was to the fore.

There is a Brexit like love of the past when Britain apparently was Great and the world was simpler, kinder place.  At times, it is too easy to ‘moan’ and fall back on the easy cliché that societal standards are slipping.  Football in the 1980s was played on atrocious pitches, the clawing mud of Derby’s Baseball ground with British players whose only knowledge of dietary requirements was to have a pre-match ‘half’ rather than a pint.  Each team had an ‘enforcer’ like Alan Little, my moustachioed, long haired, potbellied Doncaster Rovers hero, or Gary Megson whose despairing manager Brian Clough stated ‘he couldn’t trap a bag of cement’.  Football was a tribal, attritional, horrid, male only experience that has improved dramatically with the introduction of innovative educative coaching that has taken it into the twenty first century, with space age stadiums to match.

Similarly, education and our schools continue to improve at an astronomic rate.  The schools of the late 70s were horrific, barbaric places ruled by violence and fear.  My secondary experience at Adwick School in Doncaster, now a housing estate, was a brutal place where daily caning left irrevocable scars.  Before the soothsayers produce the usual cliché of it appearing to not have done me any harm, I would argue that all I learnt at school was to fight, to survive and loathe many of my male teachers.  I survived but many talented students did not, and this for them and for society was a lost opportunity.  My fabulous Worcester school is better than it was five years ago.  We exclude less, attendance has increased, which is a significant statistic to indicate students are happy and value school.  Teachers and all staff are working so much harder than in previous eras, determined to make a difference for those in their care, determined to ensure the plethora of new courses and new initiatives work.  Our curriculum offer is broad and balanced and results and progress are excellent.  The positive growth mind set of our industry needs to be lauded, not provocatively challenged by politicians looking to deflect from inept national educational policy.  Schools and teachers are working collaboratively, determined to ensure every child matters and we need to not be distracted by Daily Mail type hysteria regarding school and society challenges that have always existed, always will exist.  So, entering 2019, I would expect that we do it all again with relish.  Our crucial challenge being to always remain eternally optimistic.  This is a ‘good’ job, a good place to work.  We need to consider:

  • How to ensure passive, arrogant boys are challenged and not allowed to dominate! What are the courses that ‘switch’ them on?  Where are the practical courses that produce our engineers, our craftsmen of tomorrow?  Mapping the curriculum skills is essential to know where next.
  • How do we ensure that our unique student processes cope with the demands of parental popularity? We have increased in size dramatically and will be the target 11-18 school in Worcestershire?  How do we ensure that our pastoral house system remains central to this with all involved in the many experiences offered?  How do we productively manage students’ free time?  Ensuring the data comes alive and is used in directing their studies, not simply managing their behaviour is a challenge for all but in particular for those who run our pastoral system.
  • How do we productively manage our system of staff meetings to ensure they are a professional developmental guide that allow all a voice?
  • How do we embrace causes that make a difference and matter? Worcester Food Bank, Worcester homeless and becoming plastic aware/efficient are three causes for the school.  As a teacher, what are your house/personal causes?  Do we know about them?  Do you passionately believe in them?

I am sure there is much more.  We will do this with relentless optimism and will ensure that the school students and crucially staff are in better place in 2020 than before.  As headteachers are apt to say, this is an exciting journey, a privilege that cannot be rushed, especially with this inept funding system.

As the Liverpool fans know, ‘walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart’.  After all, in teaching you can only walk not sprint and this is a marathon that you need to embrace with intelligent, professional passion.  See, we can all do football like clichés.  Good luck – enjoy the journey.

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Stop Posturing and Listen

The latest lemming-like government minister to roll out a pre-prepared script on school funding is the Department for Education’s new National Schools Commissioner Dominic Herrington, who insisted that schools had received ‘record levels of funding’.  He went on to announce that he disagreed with the accountants. Qualified accountants such as ours, who despite our exemplary financial management, described our budget as ‘tantamount to teetering on a cliff edge’.  This is Trump-esq logic and follows such distinguished luminaries who felt emboldened to comment on education and funding, such as:

  • Philip Hammond, whose patronising budget that gave schools ‘little extras’, yet to be seen, and hardly going to fill the holes created by the pensions fiasco or years of underfunding.
  • The publicity seeking Lord Agnew, who challenged a magnum of champagne to headteachers if they could prove that schools are not wasting money and could not make efficiencies. A ridiculous, provocative challenge.

Teachers’ average hourly pay is now lower than both nurses and police officers according to the recent NFER report!  So not much money wasted on our teachers and perhaps an area of efficiency that should not be gleefully highlighted!

My expectation is that Lord Agnew will provide me, and every headteacher, with champagne for the basic efficiencies I can find at the DfE with my easy identification of where savings for schools could have occurred and perhaps where proper planning of public funding could be more thoughtfully developed.  These improvements would lead to better funding, more schools with proper facilities, proper buildings and satisfaction at a lack of wasted public money.  For example:

  • The gift that is free schools, which has in five years cost £863 million for 175 free schools, 20% of which have been built in an area not requiring basic needs. £13.8 million has been wasted on free schools opened and now closed.  These are staggering figures and are basic inefficiencies that key ministers have allowed to occur.

The Guardian, 25 April 2018, is charitable when it calls the policy ‘incoherent and wasteful’.  I would be stronger, more Anglo Saxon in my description of this sackable ineptitude. The frustration I and many heads have of the dire, constrictive bidding process to try to get capital builds is that it is a huge process, an inefficient waste of time.  The free schools initiative is an unproven vanity project which continues apace, with the spring budget setting out the plan for 500 new free schools in 2020, an astounding £20 billion budget set aside.  Yet, I and my school continue to struggle to get our ten year old music portacabin replaced or an adequate fire system put in place despite numerous bids that are undertaken in restrictive timeframes, with the clamour from too many schools a clear indicator of the concerns and the basic needs of all our schools.  Where is the careful educative research that demanded this latest free school add-on?  Toby Young, posturing in The Daily Telegraph, is hot air, not relevant research and not really applicable as he is proven to be flawed and another courting publicity.

Then there is the much vaunted, well publicised Troops to Teachers non-graduate programme, because as educationalists know, military training is so similar to a four year Bachelor of Education degree!  Of the £10 million put aside by the DfE, £4.3 million has been spent on 69 teachers who have successfully completed training, hardly efficient impact for resources.  Where has the remaining money gone?  Who has overseen this white elephant?  Who is accountable?

I would agree that further efficiencies could be made by the DfE if they stopped their vanity projects, which are not required and are simply add-ons or attacks on the teaching profession:

  • £600,000 spent by the DfE communicating the change from A* – G to 1 – 9 grading at a time when A-level was also changing.
  • Grammar school expansion of £50 million, despite obvious underfunding of the rest of us.

Therefore, Lord Agnew and his trusted group of privately educated ministers need to listen to those of us in state education.  We have no money, which makes it impossible to do an already difficult job.  We are efficient and need to be heard, not provoked before a crisis becomes reality.

Now, how do I get my champagne?

‘I am just a poor boy from a poor family’

The amazing film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was not just remarkable for the frightening likeness of the Brian May actor, or the fact that my twenty five year old daughter annoyingly stated that Freddie Mercury had died two years before she was even born, it was a soundtrack to my early life with the central component being Queen’s performance at the 1985 ‘Live Aid’ concert, inspired by the horrific BBC news reports of the Ethiopian famine.  I well remember the incandescent popstar Bob Geldof dropping the ‘f bomb’ and demanding that a civilised western country provide support immediately.  ‘Pay your taxes now’ does not have the same ring and probably would not be the popstar mantra of today!

Like my own children, I doubt if Tom (name changed) in year 8 has ever heard of ‘Live Aid’ or like many in Britain has not registered that a specialist envoy, Philip Alston, had been invited to Britain to evaluate Britain’s response to our social crisis.  This respected lawyer produced a staggering, emotive 24 page report damning the ‘callous policy’ that puts people such as Tom in ‘great misery’.  Tom is hungry.  Like many in our schools, he has a difficult home life, is the subject of casual violence, neglect and overcrowding and has no aspirations beyond survival, often couched in the teenagers’ cliché, ‘having a laugh with my mates’.  He has been arriving at school at 7.15am and is often seen hunting for food in the bins.  We feed him, clothe him and try to show some care for this ‘Billy Casper’ waif like figure (lost boy from ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, the great Barry Hines’ book of 1960s neglect in Yorkshire) who shows no emotion as he is always in survival mode, always moving, looking for the next opportunity, the next laugh.

Yet Tom would not provoke a Geldof like outrage.  He is feisty, swears like a veteran, steals and treats girls as usable commodities, habits learnt from his domineering father.  He is not likely to be a poster boy for some popstar sympathiser.  Yet we should be outraged, should care and focus on Tom and focus on this unbelievably sad report that is a stain on Britain and her politicians.  Some of the emotive language used by Alston should have been a week’s worth of headlines, should have ensured Daily Mail outrage from Surrey, and crucially, should have ensured the policy makers re-look at their budgets for the next five years to establish a planned support for the Toms of every school.  The UN report stated that:

  • ‘Great misery’ has been inflicted on the poor by ‘callous policies’, ‘treated as an afterthought’.
  • Levels of child poverty were not just ‘a disgrace’ but could rise, according to some surveys, to 40% by 2020, a biblical famine that needs more than popular intervention and a serious concern for all involved in schools, with ministers appearing to be in a ‘state of denial’.

The 24 page report, https://ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Poverty/EOM_GB_16Nov2018.pdf, the end to two weeks of independent wide-reaching investigation, needs to be read by all who lead our schools.  The lengthy title gives a clear guide to Alston’s perspective of disdain and dismay that the fifth richest economy in the world and its policy makers could have allowed this situation to occur.  Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has a huge powerful title and damning message to match and should be listened to.  Do not be put off!  He has, after all, much more than a huge title and has given a report, a bit like the Michael Buerk’s BBC Ethiopian news footage, that should shock policy makers into immediate action.  Yet, this has not seen widespread reporting, perhaps because those who are hardest hit, the poor, women, racial and ethnic communities, the Toms, do not have a voice.  They need a Michael Buerk, a Bob Geldof and are in survival mode.  As headteachers, it is time we spoke up for those who need our support and try to scaffold support packages to ensure, as the report concludes, ‘as the country moves towards Brexit, the government should adopt policies designed to ensure the brunt… is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens’.  As you walk around your city, your school, the Toms (in every sense of the word) of this world are becoming more prevalent and we cannot allow this to happen, whether we remain or leave, we are a part of the civilised world and need to ignite a positive response, preferably before June when he delivers his final report.

Minister of Magic

I have grown. I used to ‘stalk’ the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.  His pompous pronouncements and waste of public money on replenishing his personal government apartments gave me Tourette’s.  His understandable lack of replies to my questioning letters has led me to a new public figure of scorn, though Boris Johnson, that ‘wolf in teddy bear’s clothing’ is always a reliable source of ire.  Sadly, I now find what little time I have is spent following Nick Gibb, the omnipresent Minister of Schools, a title that sounds like a departmental post in a Harry Potter book.

Our erstwhile Minister of Magic’s recent vacuous announcements have seen him:

  • Defend the grammar school expansion… “they will significantly help disadvantaged children”.

The fact that our bean counting, ex accountant has provided £50 million annual funding for this expansion based on no research and the announcement he made at Research Ed conference, would be funny if it were not a serious proposal undertaken at a time when Worcestershire schools are wondering which course to cut, where redundancies should occur.

  • Not accept the argument that:

“the EBacc is driving the arts out of the curriculum”

I suppose if you follow his point, he is correct.  It is the chronic underfunding that is driving the arts out of the curriculum.  Arts/DT based subjects are more expensive to run than classroom based subjects such as history, therefore schools have the unpalatable decision of marginalising these key subjects.

Mr Gibb has been around education half of my headship, 8 years in his post and in every reshuffle I hope we will see him move to a department more suiting his qualities, Brexit?  My fear is that his ‘scattergun’ announcements are becoming more provocative, and with an alarming lack of real evidence.  It is almost as if they ‘test’ the educational water, assessing the reaction before moving to policy.  However, as the profession emerges from yet another year of enormous change, unprecedented exam reform, 20 new GCSEs, new grades, new requests to manage mental health of staff and students, government announcements are lost or appear to be a lower priority than Brexit or Boris’ latest indiscretion.

 

My return in September has seen a determination to inoculate my school and lovely students from the fads and foolishness of educational ministers who are beginning to ‘bob’ up and down for prospective attention.  I do believe that at times we get it right.  We are an oasis of calm, laughter and kindness.  We are already preparing for our first Foodbank donation and the European Day of Languages, which will see staff in bizarre outfits and European food on offer.  The PE department continues to offer opportunities for all sports all abilities, all aptitudes.  The maths challenge, photography, film and hair and beauty clubs are just some of the experiences offered during the last week of this half term as teachers keep going, work harder, care continuously and are relentlessly reasonable, unbelievably optimistic.

I believe headteachers do need to challenge.  I so admire the ‘WorthLess?’ campaign that has highlighted how many schools are facing chronic underfunding.  As leaders, we care passionately about our schools and are best placed to guide and challenge – hopefully we will be listened to!

Now, it’s time for me and my family.

Let’s park private education in the public car park

Headteacher cars have been in the news recently with the TES leading on, ‘What this car park tells you about a headteacher’.  The gist of the provocative article was that headteachers who reserved their space were indicating that they are more important than their hardworking, beleaguered staff piled down with marking and furthermore, their likely autocratic management style could be judged by the reserved space and probable expensive shiny new car.  A petrol head could not be a good lead, was the simplistic, incorrect conclusion.  I believe a headteacher with passion and interests is always a good starting point, even if it is the mysteries of cars and what they can do.

Whilst I ponder my bike with one brake – probably a metaphor for state education, brake on when looking at the budget, brake off if you’re the government talking reforms, change, educational policy – I think the inverted snobbery that underlines this article is flawed.  We are in a period of chronic underfunding where teacher pay in real terms has continued to fall alarmingly with only Greek teachers now considered to have lower pay, sixth form funding has hit its lowest point since 2002 and the profession is in a bunker.  This is not a time for division but for teachers to stand together to address real issues such as deprivation and hunger.  To try to address the fabulous job those in state education really do.  To make simplistic jokes at the expense of those who try to lead schools is not the way forward, even if it is an easy target.

However, whilst real issues are saddening us daily, there is always the gift that keeps giving, the private prep school headteacher.  They sometimes give open targets.  The private school head of the apparently prestigious Vinehall prep school in East Sussex, was forced to apologise for his insensitive open day advert.  It depicted a fictitious, poorer family in a Volvo estate, who on seeing the beautiful dark blue Jaguar in the reserved headteacher parking bay was given the golden future, the prospective successful life journey through Vinehall, to successful business, to buying Dad a proper car!  Sometimes the truth, however clumsily given, comes out – have you ever seen the reality television cast of ‘Made in Chelsea’?  This show is a fabulous advert for state education as clumsy, London buffoons (think Boris Johnson) made in the top public schools struggle with basic daily life such as opening a jar, walking etc.

My impression of this open day advert is that it is muddled in its thinking.  Flawed as a Volvo is, it is more reliable than a Jaguar.  Furthermore, it is foolish of them to highlight that the private school dad is driving an apparently less expensive car than he would wish – probably due to the exorbitant fees he has to pay to keep the head in blue Jaguars and his children at Vinehall – see, we can all do inverted snobbery.  This is not an advert that will inspire families to join the exclusive, isolated elite.

My real frustration is that this advert epitomises the public school façade of good show without real quality substance.  The child will be successful due to attendance at Vinehall is the implication; good contacts and etiquette, driving the right car, creating the right impression is Vinehall’s aim, not I suspect, skills and drive to academic success.  Is it not time to erode or even eradicate this façade?  Public school children and their families are being duped.  They do not do as well as state school children as proved by a 2015 study by Cambridge University that quietly acclaimed that state school students outperform their Jaguar aspiring counterparts.  Perhaps it is their aspiration, perhaps it is that state school children are not limiting their hopes to a Jaguar but to an Aston Martin, a Lamborghini.  For me, I will settle for a space on the bike rack or kerb with the rest of the amazing staff, as we all try to have two brakes on manic reform and chronic underfunding.

‘A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier’ Chinese proverb, ‘Clever Lands’

For comprehensive state schools, serving a wide demographic, no matter how hard we try, the uncomfortable truth is that this lovely Chinese proverb is not applicable to us as schools, no matter how early we start.  Ofsted ‘outstanding’ has become the preserve of the postcode lottery, the affluent, the selective or those who play the exclusion data off-rolling game.  It does not matter how much Amanda Spielman or Sean Harford protest, use social media or attend ‘lovee’ events such as the Hay Festival, the current Ofsted criteria will not allow your average comprehensive to join the exclusive ‘outstanding’ club.  The Ofsted judgement will keep us in our place and the educational hierarchy three tier system remains.  There are many damning statistics, all of which indicate if you serve an average or lower to average catchment, it is almost impossible to be judged as outstanding.  This cannot be right.  Those who work in truly comprehensive schools need a better inspection framework that allows them to get the top judgement.  I am sure the new Ofsted framework will take these concerns on board!

This is my sad conclusion on receiving the eight-page response to my first ever complaint.  I complained about our ‘good’ Ofsted inspection.  Essentially, my concern was regarding the process, the specific data requirements, not the overall grade.  The reply was also eight pages!  The response was full of platitudes and false referrals of the inspector’s perception of the evidence base.  My cynical view is that any errors on their part were either blatantly denied or would be evidence forms that were re-worded/re-worked to falsely cover their tracks.  Unsurprisingly, the response to the complaint arrived in the first week of the summer holidays and gave little chance of an organised response, we felt wearied and timed out.  Timing, as we all know, is everything.

It gave me no solace that the inspectors clearly had spent many hours justifying their decisions.  I know this as three of them bemoaned this to my friend at an Ofsted conference they had been to.  Circle the wagons, deny and imply you were lucky to get the judgement you did eventually get, especially as you were judged in one area as outstanding and you need to remember be warned against counter accusations you were belligerent and put the inspection team under pressure was the patronising, slightly threatening message I and my governors received.  It is my considered opinion that whilst Ofsted review Ofsted they are not going to admit flaws or that they are the part of the government agenda of widening MAT conversion, expansion of so-called successful grammar schools.  Imagine the publicity if Ofsted changed a good school to outstanding or hypothetically admitted that the lead inspector had an agenda and made mistakes, recommendations that are wrong and embarrassing and will not be used.  In our example, the factual check changed so many inaccurate comments but we are still left with some action points that despite challenge, are factually incorrect and sadly unusable.

Ofsted in its current formulaic format has had its day and needs a revamp.  School grades, rather like lesson grading, focus the school on the grade not the content of the discussion.  Reflecting on the two days, perhaps the most surprising and disappointing part was the lack of educative discussion of why we had chosen this course and not another one.  The majority of the time was spent in discussion over data, data of the previous year 11 and the current year 11, as the inspection team seemed constrained by the need to grade rather than observe.  The data dictated the judgement rather than observation leading to discussion.  I expected and was saddened at the lack of discussion regarding curriculum planning or how we tackle being predominantly a white British inner city school.  The context of the school and its pressures were for the majority not evidence that they appeared to want to see.

So, what are we left with?  A slightly jaundiced view of the inspection process, faith in the support from ASCL and freedom for four years that good allows you to develop to your school students’ requirements.  The latest results are in, way above the national picture and sadly Ofsted has hardly been mentioned as we continue to make our school developments for our community and keep our moral compass, our students even if this depresses our data.  We are therefore a very good school with outstanding personal development, behaviour and welfare of our students.  I will take that and now move on but I do hope the new Ofsted framework sees a new approach for all schools, a more developmental approach that incorporates the obvious experience and knowledge of the inspectorate team, involving joined up discussion on leadership and management.

If you wish to read our inspection report: https://files.api.beta.ofsted.gov.uk/v1/file/2780333

Ofsted – The Million Pound Game

Some of my colleagues who made it to the May half term went to Wembley for the Championship play-off final.  Aston Villa versus Fulham was dubbed the £160 million game with the victors Fulham in the premier league promised land of football television rights, advertising add-ons and big business affluence beyond marketing men’s dreams.

For the teachers, Villa supporters, bemoaning the Fulham tactics of kicking the star midfielder Grealish and dubious refereeing decisions, this was the sad culmination of a bruising week.  Ofsted had descended for a section 5 inspection, six inspectors arriving in the middle of major GCSE and A-level exams, year 6 transition day and the start of Ramadan.  In his May blog, Ofsted guru Sean Harford welcomingly stated ‘Schools are so much more than the sum of their data… it is vital for inspectors to go beyond the data and look at the whole picture.’  Well, my sad experience is that data still dictates, throughout, and that rather like the Villa supporters Ofsted has given us a ‘kicking’ for our star player, our inclusivity, our refusal to ‘off-roll’ or exclude.  This has affected the overall judgement and has impacted on each area of inspection.

Ofsted based their two days around the key area of the disadvantaged child and their flawed outcomes.  As an Ofsted inspector, 2013 – 2017, ten inspections, some under the current framework, this is the correct ethos and was not a surprise.  We should look to make progress with the disadvantaged child, we do, but not rapidly enough or consistently enough for Ofsted.  However, what frustrated all was that in the ‘big picture’, the school context, none of the following were taken into account:

  • We are a Worcestershire school – the third worst funded authority in the country with a 27-year funding gap, which is not closing.
  • We are in an area where far right activity is still prevalent.
  • A year group in which 14 girls have received exam consideration/extenuating circumstances for sexual assault that led to conviction; a life changing event that goes way beyond outcomes.
  • The sudden unexpected death of a key member of this year group.
  • The continued inadequate judgement of Worcestershire Children’s Services that has meant the Social Services being taken over by Essex County Council, not that this helps as we have no psychology service, a 40 week waiting list for CAMHS and is the area where our pupil premium money is spent on counsellors, breakfast bags, uniform. This means we have no EHCP students as they can’t be assessed.
  • A key primary feeder school, where disadvantaged children come from, entering their fourth year of an ‘inadequate’ judgement – one of 14 in Worcestershire. ‘Give us the money’ and progress will follow is an obvious judgement of so many in requires improvement.

During the 11 meetings I attended, Ofsted does disrupt whatever they may claim or intend, I regularly heard a script of ‘I hear what you are saying, but what about the progress of outcomes of the middle ability disadvantaged students?’.   Not all disadvantaged, the 22 who do not make sufficient progress.  22 out of a year group of 240+, less than a significant statistical group.  Overall, our disadvantaged students attain well above the average, do make progress, especially lower ability students, so essentially whatever Harford may claim, this became a two-day battle over outcomes of middle ability disadvantaged, the 22 students in each year group, 110 in total out of 1330 ‘students’.  We were judged on outcomes with the evidence that we are making progress not considered to be sustained or sufficiently rapid enough.

As I peruse the glowing report full of lovely comments about teaching and learning, leadership and management, interesting courses offered, vocational opportunities, Mandarin and Classics, I question how outcomes can affect three major areas of judgements.  To hear the final statement from the lead inspector that overall we are an ‘outstanding-ish’ school, which he judges overall to be good with exemplary Personal Development Behaviour and Welfare judged to be outstanding, only leaves me angry and frustrated.  The ramifications of Ofsted judgements are huge.  Like Villa fans, I rage at the injustice of the decision.  But unlike Villa fans who get another chance next year, we will have to wait at least five years and already the ramifications of the decision are being felt as:

  • We are unlikely to be successful in an application for teaching school status.
  • We cannot put a member of our leadership team through Ofsted training.
  • Crucially, a major investor in our ambitious Performing Arts project is having second thoughts; an investment of £1,000,000. They do not want to be associated with a good school but want premier league status and to get that you need to be in areas of affluence.

Therefore, I feel frustrated at being penalised for not playing the Ofsted game better, keeping disadvantaged students beyond what is reasonable and required, being active in the Fair Access panel and refusing to off-roll, which has become the new headteacher exclusion.  Equally, inclusion is not recognised and outcomes, whatever Harford may genuinely believe, dictate all grades in an inspection.  My complaint is in.  I and my staff have lost even more faith in a flawed system, a game we have not played and where, like Villa, we lose.