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.

Maintaining the Status Quo

My friend Caroline has 10% days whereby she only says 10% of what she is thinking.  Being a headteacher of a beleaguered state school, 10% is a generous proportion of the seething rage that currently occupies my mind on all things educational!  Rightly, much has been written about the madcap whim of the grammar school folly, a cynical distraction from bumbling Boris, the bedroom tax, fraudulent bankers and the lack of a coherent plan for Brexit and now into the heady mix is a ‘snap election,’ giving opportunities for politicians but frightening for those in the state education sector!

The grammar school debate, such as it is, should really be a non-starter.  There is no expert educational evidence that grammar schools are required or that they are part of a coherent educational plan; they weren’t even part of the last Conservative manifesto.  State schools have to wait and make do.  They are underfunded, have classrooms not fit for purpose and are led by a dictated government curriculum.  I believe this debate is a deliberate distraction to ensure that we in state education, and society in general, misplace our justifiable anger at a lack of opportunity on scapegoated individuals.  For example, disengaged students are often described as unruly and unmanageable, despite being expected to partake in an academic curriculum that serves only the few.  Schools have become too easy a target.  They are Ofsted fearful and judged on a daily basis by a sensationalist, instantaneous media that is happy to engage in frivolous debate with recent examples being the scandal of term-time holidays, fashionable haircuts and the so-called provocative length of students’ skirts. The media will not pursue the more complex issues of a 21st century school; a curriculum and school that work for long term inclusivity that is much needed in multicultural Britain. These are difficult topics that require time, debate and perspective, which cannot be provided by easy, glib answers.  Hopefully, this will be debated properly in the next seven weeks.  However, with a media that prefers ‘Farage’ like, simplistic sound bites, I doubt education will get past Brenda from Bristol’s view that this election is barking!  Nevertheless, state schools need to be given answers and transparency is now required.  Does the government really want us to become technical colleges?  Does it expect us to provide a vocational curriculum stereotypically viewed as suiting the state education child?

Education has joined the easy to knock and vulnerable in society.  So called commentators have opinions on ‘benefits Britain’, migrant workers and the scandalous schooling that many children are allegedly receiving.  ‘May’s School Revolution’ and ‘The Dawn of the Grammar Schools’ are two recent headlines that keep schools at the centre of the debate without really allowing any meaningful discussion that includes workload, empathy and tolerance.  These are all topics that the 21st century school is expected to, and does, deliver upon.  This is always going to be the case when we have a class system that maintains the status quo. The white, male majority of journalists are from the elite schools, as are the politicians and business leaders. It therefore benefits, and makes sense, for the Conservative government to further expand the grammar school system.  Expansion of the academic elite will further embed this unequal system; the ruling elite will come from the so-called ‘better’ schools whilst politicians will continue to perpetuate skewed narratives of meritocracy, claiming that the comfortable traditions of the past are the education of today. This debate is about the maintenance of the traditional status quo, the top 10% and the ruling elite.  Seemingly, the place for state school headteachers is to keep our thoughts to a mere 10% with sadly only 10% of young people viewing this election as representative of and relevant to them.

We are Top of the League

I want the ‘astute’ football pundit Paul Merson to be placed in charge of educational assessment.  His latest observation that West Brom, who are eighth, would be top if you took away the top seven teams, is genius.  If I lost my ten year 11 students from the school figures who are victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and debilitating illness, my school would be top of the omnipresent league tables.  They are at present lost to the educational system and school is not their priority.  Nor should it be!

Assessment, or more crucially how we as a comprehensive school are assessed, is currently one of my worries, along with dwindling finance, staffing, a raft of portacabins and 1,500 students all with complex needs and few available support services.  Finance apart, just give me money, leave me alone and I can provide world class education, would be my daily plea.  The assessment of the students and the results they get is my biggest worry.  Assessment in the form of Progress 8 is an unfair, unequal judgement with huge ramifications for the inclusive school we should all desire.  My ten year 11 students who are doing fabulously well to cope with safe houses, an array of child protection core meetings and life threatening illnesses are likely to do two/three GCSEs and will be significantly minus in the progress league tables.  It will take 100 students being above target in their eight GCSEs to nullify the impact of these ten.  How is this fair or a correct way of measuring a school’s progress?  It puts the school under huge pressure to ‘sort them out’, not a long term life solution, but a paper qualification.

Therefore, my ten most vulnerable students are likely to significantly distort the average of the year group.  Sadly for me, and the school, seven of these students come from our high achieving primary school with SAT scores of 5A or 4A.  This school is one where SATs preparation starts early and I would claim that even without their awful family situations, the onset of the teenage years and horrific illness, their 4A is an inflated score.

Why does having ten students in chaos matter?  As a school we are tracking, supporting and providing a pathway for them.  Milly (name changed) will not leave the house due to the beatings her mum receives when she is at school.  Her attendance is 30%.  A safe house awaits if and when her mum makes the brave decision.  Chloe (name changed) is under medical tuition for severe anorexia.  Her last day in school was when she was in year 8.  She will count against her host school, us!  Tara (name changed) and her family live in a safe house.  The sexual abuse case that will come to court against five 20-somethings is due to start on the day of her first GCSE exam.  All the ten students are girls and all are coping with the impact of twenty first century life.  For them, equality is a theory, not a reality.  Students like these are in all our schools and need our support, not ‘mithering’ about their GCSEs.  Education for them will be something they hopefully return to.

However, this is a significant group.  Schools such as mine with significant free school meal students and a high proportion of special needs students will not recover from a group making below progress.  The fact that they are pupil premium and girls is likely to see Ofsted judgements that will have to be argued with, for example:

“White British girls are not making expected progress and in some cases are significantly below expected progress in terms of attainment and attendance.”

This could be a blindingly obvious statement akin to their other lazy judgement, “school marking is inconsistent”.  This could be a damning judgement and the ensuing arguments will be seen as excuses and a leadership team not managing.  Like the Sword of Damocles, Ofsted does matter.  A good judgement equals kudos, more students equals more finance, seven full year groups, better students and thereby excellent Progress 8 data scores, and so the never ending circle continues.

On the day following the January Census, we received twenty admission applications.  The majority were level 3 boys and I would predict they were being moved on by desperate headteachers seeking to ensure their data keeps them top of the league!  Perhaps my daily plea should change in Theresa’s new, fair world of meritocracy to ‘just give me a grammar school and free bus to fill this utopian school with free school meals students’.  However, that is another blog, another league in a land far, far away where league tables do not matter!

Improving Standards

Various news stories emerged during the half term week with:

  • Yorkshire Tea having to embarrassingly recall a batch of teapots that cracked when boiling God’s brew.
  • The RNA committee proposing that this year’s winners of the Royal Open Golf be paid in dollars not in pounds, due to the concern over the recent Brexit led fall in the pound.
  • President Trump’s latest dalliance with the truth being the incorrect denouncement of events in Sweden, based on his obsession with only Fox News, not factual news stories.

All of these depressing stories have a common epitaph, which has become the default position if any public figure is called to account.  They will predictably bluster the following phrase “improving standards”.  The common link with the above news stories was a variety of spokesmen stating that the recall of teapots, protection of multi millionaire golfers’ wallets and all things American, was underpinned by the need to protect the company and countries’ standards, whether it be tea, golfing prestige or American homeland security.  On journeys to rugby matches, my teacher friend and I play a game of ‘edutwaddle bingo’, whereby we read out or listen to recent educational news stories, analyse education secretaries’ statements and guess how many educational clichés they will reel out.  For example, ‘status of the teaching profession’, ‘educational investment’, ‘educational landscape’, ‘comparative targets’, ‘inspiration’, ‘motivation, ‘perspiration’  would bring seven points for seven clichés!  Then there is the gift that keeps giving, that reforming confessor, the ‘Dark Lord’ Gove, whose every utterance is edutwaddle and a cliché.  “I’m a decentraliser” and “I believe in trusting professionals” are two recent examples.  The amount of abuse depends on the stupidity of the comment and whether there is any credence to these ‘sound bites’ that ‘Trump like’ have replaced facts.  The England rugby team would be totally in the aggressive zone if they played this game, even if the rules changed mid-game.

Therefore, our cynically aware antennae were primed for the Department for Education’s response to the unsurprising, critical MP’s report into the crisis of teacher recruitment and retention.  The spokesman’s predictable comment cited Justine Greening’s ‘ambition to continue driving up standards through investment in professional development’.  Thereby ignoring the fact that teaching has major problems with standards falling to an all time low in:

  • How we measure our schools. Progress of the 8 best subjects in principle seems fair but already it is open to abuse with schools persuading weaker, vulnerable students to seek pastures new via exclusion or home education or playing the system by finding accredited subjects such as European Computer Driving Licence.  See excellent blog ‘Love Learning… A Broken System’.
  • How we examine our students. This year’s exams are tantamount to child cruelty with students expected to sit for an average of thirty two hours as opposed to last year’s 18!  An English paper of two and a quarter hours and geography afternoon papers with key papers in the morning are a test of endurance, not skill.
  • How we mark the key exams is in crisis; inconsistent, inaccurate and inaccessible and due to the expense of appealing likely to be flawed. GCSEs are being undertaken in twelve weeks time with 7,000 markers still needing to be recruited.  How can our young people trust this system?
  • How we pay our teachers who are falling further down the graduate rankings with secondary teachers ranked 9/12 and primary colleagues 11/12 for median gross earnings – Data Research.

These are the standards glibly talked about.  Shoddy investment in the infra structure, the mental well-being of the profession and their workload have not driven up standards and it is hypocritical to claim otherwise.  These are falling standards and as a school are we failing our young people?

Various educational secretaries cannot ‘Arsène Wenger like’ claim to not see ‘the looming crisis’ which cannot be masked by a whirly gig of educational reform.  These changes to GCSE grades, levels, subjects and Ofsted judgements cannot be hidden as improving standards.  This profession that is attempting to wear Emperor’s clothes yet is naked and vulnerable is sadly failing our fabulous staff and lovely young people.  The Ofsted judgements and exams taken are rushed, ill thought out and liable to be inaccurate.  This is not the way to recruit and retain professional people and is not a standardised approach to our educational system!

Choices: A Right or a Curse?

I find stating the obvious an attractive quality not usually associated with the British psyche.  The much missed Caroline Aherne, as her alter ego interviewer Mrs Merton, famously asked Debbie McGee, the much younger attractive wife of the magician Paul Daniels, “so what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” The skill and the humour was that of a waspish interviewer, being able to ask the question that everyone thought but did not have the courage to say. Sadly, a quality a good headteacher has to have!

Perhaps in this ‘post-truth’ era of 2017, teaching could lead the way in a year of professional and kind communication, where truth rather than supposition leads our thinking and how we make changes.

At a recent social event, I was cornered by a lovely yet protective Worcestershire woman who is the mum of a bright year 5 musical girl.  She asked the questions:

“Could you explain the different types of school available for my daughter?”, “What are her choices?” and “What is the ethos of each school?”

This innocent question should not be the impossible question, the lengthy and somewhat confusing way that I tried to summarise in the following answer; (after all, the premier education system British educators are guided to is Finland, which has one system, state run schools.  It is a model the Government support and the public understand.) My interpretation of the British model, as depicted in Worcester is, in no particular order:

  1. Private Education: in Worcestershire there are a number of prestigious and traditional fee paying schools where selection via income and aptitude prevails. I tried to hide my prejudices, after all my school loses a significant number of able Year 6 students to them annually. I need not have worried that the exorbitant fees and a desire for their daughter to mix with children from all walks of society, rather than a sanitised version, meant that private education was not an option for this family.
  2. Academy schools: as mine is, are known as standalone schools, or as was recently worryingly referred to by Regional Schools Commissioner ‘orphan’ schools. This may have been a Freudian slip but it aptly sums up the Oliver Twist analogy of single schools begging at the government trough of funding. Furthermore, it is an indication that the desire is for schools to not standalone but become part of a group of schools.  The ethos of each academy was often derived from a previous short term government scheme whereby schools received extra funding for becoming a specialist school in a key area. For my school, it had become a language college with the ethos still embedded in international status. Sadly, the school with performing arts at its core no longer offers extensive music provision.
  3. Multiple Academy Trusts (MATs): these are collaborative groups of schools. In Worcester, there is one school which is part of a significant MAT with schools in Solihull, Redditch with further schools to follow. They have the same name and similar ethos. The benefits of the larger organisation are economies of scale, recruitment and training opportunities. The Worcester school has a Saturday entrance exam. My views on some of the concerns regarding MATs are expressed in my blog ‘Multiple Academy Trust or Muddled and Troublesome’. I am not sure of the long term impact of these lifelong partnerships with central control being regained via expensive, unproven chief executives.
  4. Faith schools: Catholic and Church of England harmoniously co-exist in Worcester with a Christian ethos underpinning their values.
  5. A free school proposal: currently under review. State funded with the proposed specialism of Science, the school is aiming for 600 students, which will mean less funding for the beleaguered Worcester schools. It is unsurprisingly unwelcomed and as yet not widely consulted upon. Frustratingly, the number of free schools that close has risen to five (the latest in Oldham, open since 2014) with precious waste of public money and student and parental hopes.
  6. A small specialist studio school: for the vocationally minded student.
  7. A community school: they still exist, funded and supported by the Local Authority.

I had managed to avoid the grammar school proposals and was able to assure the mother that catchment areas do not matter, especially for bright girls. Yet, for the vulnerable ADHD boy this might sadly become a problem for some schools as some revert to very un-Christian admission policies.

These are the confusing choices available to a parent. Seven different types of school all within a 15 mile radius and all with differences in their particular system and all with a differing ethos. Dependent on your opinion this is fabulous parental choice or a broken un-coordinated system lacking government control. The problem with so many schools competing for bright musical girls is that nepotism and ethos dwindle as desperate Headteachers chase dwindling funds.

I was on a roll and started to widen the discussion to:

  • Public perception of teaching as a profession.
  • Assessment 9-1 for English and Maths GCSE 2017, A*-G for other subjects.
  • Syllabuses of current A-level and GCSE courses still not finalised by the exam boards.
  • Fairer funding being put back until 2020

Unsurprisingly, my gathering quickly left more confused than when I started. I know how to kill a party, muttering worryingly about the eighth option: home education.

I wonder how Mrs Merton would cut through the educational waffle and what question she would pose to the latest education secretary Justine Greening.  Perhaps, “Has the Prime Minister got an educational plan for you to implement 1970s education?”.