League Tables – What Pressure?

The omnipresent Minister of State for Schools Nick Gibb, the poor man’s Gove, won the award for the blindingly obvious when he admitted that policy makers sometimes put ‘too much pressure on headteachers’.  The fact that he carried on digging a gaping hole of self awareness by continuing with the analogy of headteachers’ having a ‘football manager type pressure’, at a time of recruitment crisis, perhaps should not surprise or disappoint but it does alarm.  Much of the external change is directed by his office and therefore the pressure comes from him.

Our local paper led with the sensationalist headline, ‘School compared to Nazis for segregating purple hair pupil’. This was accompanied by an edifying picture of the scowling mother and daughter with predictable emotive quotations.  Fortunately for me, this was not our school’s turn for headline debate, although it had been the week before with the August fight and accompanying video being front page news at the end of September.  Secreted away in the paper were the GCSE league tables under the helpful headline, ‘How did your child’s school do in the league tables?’.  For the Worcester headteacher, the pressure is clearly there but uniform and controlling behaviour 24/7 throughout the year would appear to be the priority, with school league table performance not a newspaper priority, something too complex to unpick and not a good sales pitch.

Nevertheless, league tables do provide an unwelcome tightening of the stomach and an unnecessary comparison with nearby schools, not helped by the paper’s annual inability to record results properly!  As always, eager reporters want a quotation and I always fail to sound impressed and pleased at what I believe is a flawed process that schools are foolish to continue to take part in.  This year’s embarrassing comment on the league tables was the not so eloquent, repetitive rant, “I think they’re potty, absolutely potty!”.  I continued with, “We’re budgeted like a Ryman Football League club, but we perform like we’re in the Premier League”.

Football analogies are not only the preserve of Gibb!

Emotive language apart, what do league tables tell us?  They were published ridiculously early, before our annual battle to get correct grades established from the exam board.  Scandalously, 45% of our remarked GCSEs have gone up a grade with 80% shifting in mark not grade.  We still await all of science and music remarks and our £3,000 budget for GCSE put aside to ensure remarking can occur looks pitifully inadequate in comparison to other schools who allocate £12,000 for remarking.  Therefore, we have a broken system; exams that are inadequately, wrongly marked, often by untrained, first time exam markers and tables that are published for parents to make flawed judgements of which school to send their child to.  Furthermore, we continue to dance to an educational system which does not recognise the value of some vocational subjects such as hospitality or animal care.

A minister at the recent Conservative conference laughingly decried the lack of vocational subjects offered by beleaguered schools who are desperately trying to ensure they stay in the positive results column, often undertaking subjects that do not necessarily suit their children rather than putting them through the vocational curriculum that suits so many.  We have created a one size fits all curriculum and have a laborious exam system that no one has confidence in.  Why then report it?  And, crucially, why allow this system to be such a central part of how we are judged?

To continue the football analogies, Graham Taylor, England Football Manager in the infamous documentary, ranted at the incompetent linesman, “You’ve cost me my job”.  Headteacher’s could equally rant at Nick Gibb’s obsession of academic subjects to the exclusion of worthy vocational subjects.  For some he is costing them their jobs and we continue to comment on a potty, flawed system.

 

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The Poisoned Chalice – Managing External Change

Sean Harford, Ofsted National Director for Schools, has been a welcome addition to education.  He appears sincere and wants to demystify some of the urban myths that can surround Ofsted inspection.  Therefore, I enjoy following his Twitter conversations and have gladly read Ofsted’s reassuring paper on debunking the myths of inspection.  However, his recent Tweets and blog, in my opinion, ask the wrong and worrying question:

‘What are SLT going to do about teacher workload?’

I believe this major question needs consideration and action but it is a naïve question that needs amending before it becomes folklore, part of educational expectation, part of the current disorientation that exists in our schools where the goals of education appear to continue to change externally.  There are so many major changes that it can be difficult to keep the central focus on what a school’s function is, with A-levels that have become linear examinations, with no supporting text books and often inadequate CPD.  GCSEs that are now assessed 9-1 not grades, no coursework, increased content and new specifications.  Add in the annual school changes, new staff, new year 7/12 students, flawed feeble funding and you can see that teacher workload is already off the scale and SLT are being required to manage an impossible external situation without many of the essential ‘tools’ to adequately manage the job.

My major concern is that already there is a shift in the educational script.  No headteacher I know would bring in so many significant changes at once.  The English/maths 9-1 GCSEs have not been reflected on/learnt from and here we are rushing to inflict this on our next cohort with all subjects changing without evaluating success or requirement or, crucially, training needs.  A-level has changed inordinately without the back-up ‘tools’ to manage the change – with many companies and MATs making a ‘quick buck’ in trying to provide a script for the changes and not so cheap courses to explain how to interpret the data, the new specifications, the new curricular requirements.  The implications are clear, headteachers and schools are expected to manage these changes.  The current political rhetoric and sound bites are all about social mobility, life chances fixing society – a politician’s job, a parent’s job, not simply the remit of the teacher, the school whose leaders are struggling to decipher which priority is to be focused upon.

Let’s be clear, these changes were rushed and ill thought out.  SLT have no choice but to try to manage this workload but please do not try to re-write the script to imply that this is something that was requested or required.  Harford’s question therefore needs a major prefix recognising that the educational world we live in which continues to be going through a time of huge change, requiring a workload that in other industries would be deemed unnecessary, unreasonable and most alarmingly for us as educators, change that has not been given time to work and be reflected upon.  Headteachers have been given this poisoned chalice and will endeavour to manage changes to the best of their ability.  Then we can get back to the core of our business which is educating, in the broadest sense, our wonderful children.  Schools cannot lose this essential message or lose the focus of what we are about in over preparing for Ofsted inspections; an excellent message I wholeheartedly agree with Sean Harford on.

But please also think of those trying to manage the change.  Beleaguered, pressurised SLT, desperate heads of department and teachers who are going way beyond what is reasonable or right.  They are managing stressed students who are going to have to cope with an increase in exams, an average of eleven more hours, 33 hours of GCSEs compared to 24 this year, more time without the sports hall, creating more pressure, more mental wealth concerns and more mixed messages, with a pay increase that for the eighth year in succession is frankly insulting.  But that is another blog, another difficult conversation that I cynically believe will be another (in rugby parlance), ‘hospital pass’, for those who run the schools.

Ofsted – Removing the Label

For years the infamous apt chant of Milwall FC was, ‘no one likes us and we don’t care’.  The club and the fans wore their infamy as a badge of honour.  Their inverted snobbery was used to create an ‘us and them’, very British scenario as a motivational tool to take on the richer more traditional clubs.  When I played for Worcester RFC, one of our coaches wanted us to dress down and come to matches in our working ‘gear’.  The message was we were working men: farmers, butchers, plumbers.  What the opposition made of my fashionable PE teacher ensemble of odd socks, lost property and embarrassingly short shorts was probably not the intimidation required that the coach was trying to build into the British psyche of the underdog visiting the more traditional clubs such as Moseley RFC.  However, the onset of professionalism, the wonderful financial backing of Worcester businessman Cecil Duckworth and the arrival of three New Zealand stars meant in two seasons we went from underdog to favourite, expecting and expected to win.  This was a new pressure with the opposition viewing us as the paid privileged few.  For some in the team, this was an easy pressure.  Like peacocks to the fore, they puffed out their chests and enjoyed the spotlight.   For the rest of us, this was difficult and I often found myself in the bar apologising for a recruitment policy that had garnered the best players from the nearest clubs, with predictable envy at our new found status.

Sport epitomises life and school leaders try to motivate in any way possible.  I therefore amused myself when utilising a chance discussion with the nearby private school groundsman who was bemoaning the recent onset of seagulls, which were ruining his first XI pitch and scaring the spectators.  Childishly and predictably, I continued our litter cleaning campaign with the assembly message that our seagulls were departing and pooping on a private school child – ‘O dear, how sad’.  The school remained clean and I believe the message was slightly changed!

There are times when badge wearing is an excellent message.  If it is good enough for the late great John Noakes, Blue Peter presenter, and the amazing astronaut Tim Peake who wears his Blue Peter gold badge with pride, it is good enough for me.  It always slightly surprises me, the pride students feel when wearing sporting or house colours or the acknowledgement of worthwhile campaigns they are supporting such as the white ribbon campaign.  Badges can and do provide an identity, a sense of belonging.

However, just as Worcester Rugby Club progressed from the North Midlands leagues to Premier league professionalism, there are times when inverted snobbery and labelling are extremely unhelpful.  Ofsted judgements on schools are particularly damaging and totally unhelpful.  An outstanding school would be as happy or happier with a glowing report rather than the label ‘outstanding’.  The impact of Ofsted is restricted as school leaders scramble to get the best judgement, thereby negating the messages of the report.  In 2010 my school was judged outstanding, we weren’t.  In 2013 we were judged good and we were definitely outstanding.  An inexperienced lead inspector did not have the confidence to go with what she was privately telling us, as the data was ‘complex’.  We continue to live with this judgement and the impact of the inspection was sadly negligible as we were disappointed with our label.  By not judging lessons, forthright conversations can and do occur, without the stigma of labelling a teacher as inadequate.  This means a less threatening, more open and rigorous culture with more lesson observations. The same could occur with schools and removing the overall judgement grade would ‘free’ inspection teams and school leaders.  For schools, proper collaboration and a lack of fear of the disengaged student arrivals would then ensue.  My prediction would be that this simple removal of a grade would stop the sink school phenomenon with the rest of us seagulls pooping on the unfortunates or using our grade as a motivational tool as we survey with envy the fortunate few.

Irrelevant and Worthless?

Rightly, the annual angst regarding working class, deprived families’ failure to educationally catch-up was highlighted with the Isle of Wight young people castigated again as the biggest failures.  This is a year after the then Ofsted chief David Hoare disgracefully dismissed the islanders as ‘inbreds’.  We are right to be concerned that deprivation can lead to a lifetime of catch-up and lower wages and is a sad further reinforcement of the segregated society those of us in state education want to eradicate.

‘30,000 pupils with hidden skill underperform in GCSEs because of poor oral skills – the majority can be classed as working class’ – Schools Week.  Only 15% of poor white boys, 20% of poor white girls leave school with the basic English and maths GCSE qualifications.  There is an early damning segregation of those decided by birth.  In Worcester, parental choice/voice can be a damning indictment of the value of Worcester schools, as parents recognise that so called ‘good schools’ can lead to a lifetime of affluence.  Many openly wish for the wealth to be one of the 7% of children who go to private schools, after all 82% of our newly elected MPs came from private/grammar school education.  This disproportionate representation of the ruling class over the working class leads to sensationalist stereotyping labelling of white British children as ‘tracksuit hooded failures’ and unlikely to make much of themselves.

All in education are right to be frustrated that we do not have literate, numerate school leavers.  However, I would argue the failure could be considered to be deliberate.  We cannot have the masses educated was the subliminal front page message given by the Daily Telegraph, which decried the fact that the majority of university students voted Labour.  Therefore, why would you educate the masses?  Better to keep them ready for call centre, zero contract jobs where they can be stigmatised as failures.  Having university educated children does not keep the status quo and the ruling class being in power is a sad summary of this message.

The English language GCSE on a hot June day in the middle of a week of a plethora of GCSE exams typified this.  The key question was based on a Katherine Mansfield text set in a hat makers shop at the turn of the twentieth century.  For this 52 year old middle class teacher, this was irrelevant and akin to a foreign language.  To my 15 year olds, it is a text many will have struggled to crack and will leave them without the qualification to escape the low paid jobs birth has stipulated they follow.  Therefore, rather than bemoan the lack of success of working class students, should we not be strongly questioning the curriculum and qualifications on offer that are seen by so many as irrelevant and worthless rather than try to analyse and compare traditional qualifications that are irrelevant and redundant for 2017?

Know thy Self

What do the months of December and June have in common?  My good friend Saira, ‘hippy humanitarian’, would highlight these as the key Pagan months of the winter/summer solstice, a time for much needed and deserved celebration.  For beleaguered headteachers, December and June are difficult months, six months apart where staff are likely to forget themselves, forget their training and indulge in poor choices, poor judgements, and poor behaviour.

Now I fully comprehend the angst that December causes with poor weather, a long term, dark nights, the impending season of parents’ evenings, report writing, ‘goodwill’, forgotten relatives, the realisation that you have put on weight and bought unimaginatively.  December is, I realise, a stressful time which forced joviality cannot hide.  However, June should be a joyous month, culminating in midsummer night’s dreams, cricket, Wimbledon with a six week holiday awaiting; this should not be a time for staff upset, difficult decisions, hard conversations.

Yet, every June I am caught unawares with frivolous, surprising staff fallouts as they become frustrated with the dysfunctional nature of each other.  The relaxation after exam groups depart is counteracted by the realisation that gained time is minimal and will not be sufficient to cope with the workload left for the sixth half term.  A summer holiday of catching up frustratingly awaits far too many staff.  This is a time when I have to know myself, and manage myself as well as my staff, to try to prevent irreversible fallouts.

I now recognise that a key trigger for me in headship is other headteachers, in particular the practice of ‘poaching’ staff/students with total disregard for my school or our professionalism, our job.  In education we have a ridiculous system whereby due to our intransient resignation schedule, schools can be left without key staff for the crucial period June to January, creating another stress point in December.  My ‘blind spot’ is that I can and do ‘burn’ good relationships as I struggle irrationally with the concept that some schools are now acting like businesses, grasping the best for themselves whatever the consequences to neighbouring schools.  Some would argue that now as stand-alone academies (the clue is in the name) all stand or fall alone and that headteachers such as myself have to understand this ruthless concept.  I believe that this is sad and we are not simply businesses but should not forget that our business is education.  Therefore, in Worcestershire we now have selective Saturday exams for admitting year 6 students, schools interviewing without advertising and home education which has become the new exclusion prior to the inevitable reapplication to neighbouring schools.  Yes, June is a month to know and manage myself rather than rant against the flawed system.  The famous 1950s self-help model known as Johari Window divides into useful categories when I come to managing June.  I cannot manage other desperate headteachers who in the summer madness forget their moral compass and their obligation to the job but I can support myself and my staff. The categories are useful reflective tools when looking at your own reaction, in my case overreaction, to your own and others’ decisions.  They are the following categories to understand yourself:

  1. Openness – ‘an emotional man known by all’ – my deputy head’s pithy summary!
  2. Blind spot – at times I struggle to forget and forgive, which is childish and does no one any good. Besides, as the world/the fabulous students show me there is a need for daily perspective.  There are much bigger things in the world than movement between schools with staff being flattered and moving to a new job and I should celebrate the opportunity to replace by necessity, possibly cheaper and I need to reflect on this, not mither on perceived foolish, flawed loyalty – after all, I have worked in seven schools.
  3. Hidden – I know that I will not forget these perceived slights and will struggle to work collaboratively with these people again. This is ridiculous and does harm my school and ultimately my staff and students.
  4. Unknown – qualities which might be the anger I feel at this impossible job which is underfunded, underappreciated and each June leaves school leaders wondering why and how we continue to do this. This is the key to managing daily decisions some of which are unpalatable and many which leave you pondering how to manage without effecting the vulnerable students and staff.  This rage against the tide does no one any good and is wasted energy.  Losing good staff with little notice is all part of being a good school where everyone wants a bit of you.

Thank goodness I have a great leadership team who recognise, support and listen, managing my ‘blind spots’, sending me out to ‘litter pick’, ‘chunter’ and run to joyous July, preparation and reflection for September when we will do it all again!  Maybe aged 52 I will learn to manage myself; hidden emotions as well as blind spots.  Maybe I know myself, weaknesses as well as strengths, and this is an emotional job where people surprise you daily, particularly in June!

 

Sport – for the many, not the few?

Sport is a micro chasm of our society, our school and our communities.  Therefore, when my beloved Worcester Warriors rugby football team continues to ‘thrive’ in the premiership, based on rugged, imported South African nous and affluent local public school boy verve, and the tranquil charm of Worcestershire Cricket Club continues to excel with stars from the affluent Malvern College and Bromsgrove schools, I am thrilled.  I should be thrilled at my city’s sporting success.  I can lose myself in childhood dreams of being John Hampshire of Yorkshire CC or Peter Winterbottom, Yorkshire/England ‘hard man’.

However, it is the plight of Worcester City Football Club that should be a warning to us all.  They are homeless as St George’s Lane has long since been erased for St George’s housing estate.  They are penniless and now relegated three leagues to play in the Vanarama National League North.  Next stop, park football!  The working class football team as an opportunity for the state educated child is being erased, with the premiership being the domain of affluent London clubs and the Arab/American sponsored North West.

Growing up in Doncaster in the 1980s, sport brought the community together with football clubs excelling, the end of the Leeds United era was replaced by hope for Sheffield and Bradford clubs.  Yorkshire was a sporting hotbed, with pride in the local cricket team, where internationals played and were paid the same, and rugby league towns full of miners were successful and hopeful.  These were proud communities who came together on a Saturday to rejoice in competition.  This was a time when Alan Little bestrode Doncaster’s pitch, launching opposing midfielders over the barriers into the welcoming crowd.  All teams had an enforcer, an anti-hero, uncompromising in attitude, appearance and ability.  To me, Little epitomised Doncaster, rough, honest, hard and I followed him throughout his time with the Rovers.  Now, there are no premiership teams in Yorkshire.  Many of the rugby league teams struggle to survive and no northern team has excelled in the premiership, Leeds continuing to be in the Championship.  Football in the north mirrors education, struggling hopefully on, underfunded and kept going by the effort of the faithful few.

The divide between the affluent south and the rest is, I believe, in danger of extending.  The London clubs will continue to excel and Manchester apart the divide is getting bigger and will continue to do so with one tenth of the world’s billionaires residing in the capital.  It is now too expensive to regularly visit the Worcester Warriors with tickets for myself and my son in excess of £70.  The last game saw no Worcester resident play for the team.  In my last match for the first XV in 1994, I was considered to be an outsider; I lived eight miles away in Malvern.  The rugby club was part of the city and there was pride in the school boys who made it to the first team, whatever school they had attended.

What does it matter that there are no Midlands teams in a premiership, with football only available to those who can afford Sky?  Why does it concern me that the conservative city of Worcester has lost its football team of 100 years and the team currently playing out of Bromsgrove is clearly nearly at an end?  For the sporty state school child, football is a dream to aspire to, however false.  A city team gives them pride and hope.

Should we care that rugby union and cricket are becoming the preserve of the public school?  Experiences and opportunities that the state educated child cannot hope to receive or understand as they are now played to a minimal standard with even the local leagues pricing aspiring talent out of playing!

I think it matters hugely.  Sport gives hope, mirrors life.  For the child from the council estate, pride in their community and hope is what is required.  For our PE department, providing invaluable opportunities and experiences matters more than ever.  Sport for all should be much, much more than a concept.  Like education, sport should be affordable and available to all with an equality of competition that does not allow the few to prevail but is ‘for the many, not the few’ – very Corbynesque!

Dad

My Dad died recently.  Unlike many of my blogs, I do not have a (what I think to be) humorous punchline to open this blog with.  Brain and lung cancer brought to an end a traumatic and harrowing eight weeks during which time I watched the man I love die by centimetres.  Even now as I write this, I have a weird and unsettled feeling. Parentless at the age of 51, I feel anchorless, alone and somewhat an orphan.

At the Quaker funeral, I read out some of the letters Dad had sent to me; Yorkshire instructions to the core, part Geoffrey Boycott (cricket commentator), part Michael Parkinson (chat show host).  These forthright and fortnightly instructions were often sent with newspaper clippings from writers he deemed to be worthy of reading: Tony Benn, Will Self, Owen Jones and Caroline Lucas, with numerous citing from the Amnesty International magazine.  At times, this further production of yet more articles to read used to irk me, as it often seemed so obvious. “I know, but there is absolutely no funding in education, Dad”, was my last real conversation with him as he sent me yet another article, with highlighted quotations from Sir David Carter, whose idiotic suggestions on ways schools could/should save money were the source of yet more seething rage.  Carter’s view could be paraphrased into the following suggestion: schools becoming MATs (Multiple Academy Trusts), making redundancies and turning themselves into small businesses, was the politest summary of this ‘one size fits all’ education drivel.  However, I do know I will miss the genuine interest, the sounding board and different generational perspective.  I have to, somewhat grudgingly, admit that Dad’s habit of distributing interesting articles is yet another area where I could be accused of turning into my Dad.  I regularly send articles torn out of educational magazines to my beleaguered staff, who politely put them in their burgeoning reading pile.  Another area I follow Dad in is the practice of letter writing.  I was flabbergasted to learn from the Scarborough Amnesty International branch secretary that Dad’s ten letters a week, he estimated, had produced approximately ten thousand letters, providing much needed comfort to forgotten souls and forgotten causes.  This puts to shame my monthly rant at the latest idiotic MP, such as the speaker of the House of Commons.

My weekly letter writing to Scarborough was replaced by the monthly headteacher blog.  This became cathartic for me in trying to order the ever-changing educational priorities, as well as politicians’ whimsically repressive and unreasonable demands.  This blog was written by me for my Dad, replacing my illegible scrawl with a computer screen and a font size of 16, which he could look at and comment on.  Incredibly, I recently found a folder containing copies of all my blogs, in date order, which were kept by Dad.  Some had been marked by him with ‘incorrect commas’ to the fore in an unforgiving red pen, no trendy green pen for my Dad, or any chance for this student to reply to his comments that were clearly written in the margin as future prompts for the next phone call and the next challenge to prick my pomposity.

In school, as I try to make sense of this loss, I am drawn to some of the 16 youngsters who have recently lost parents, and somewhat superficially, seem to find the rhythm of school a major comfort.  As I nervously await adhoc English GCSE papers, I stand by Charlie (name changed), whose Father died two and a half years ago.  He will be allowed no exam considerations, as the death did not fall within the exam window.  He is expected to now cope!  His nervous knee-jigging and reassuring smile fills me with pride but anger at the unrealistic expectations that we place on all our youngsters.

I will continue to write my blogs for myself and my Dad.  I will continue to try to lead my school with my unshakeable beliefs, as he led his life.  He was a pacifist, humanist, internationalist, whose green socialism carried him through his life.  A man of integrity, a man of principle, something to aspire to.