Worcester Letters

Letters have been sent since the time of Homer and I enjoy and anticipate my father’s missives from Scarborough, ‘God’s Own County’ of Yorkshire.  He is a cross between Geoffrey Boycott and Michael Parkinson and Dad sticks to the adage of ‘knowing what he likes and liking what he knows’, freely dispensing octogenarian advice/frustrated criticism at my overlong sentences and misuse of split infinitives.  With each letter I get attached copies from the Yorkshire Post, that opinionated and all-knowing Yorkshire newspaper.  In the education section, headteachers of the north receive unstinting criticism of all our youth, which must be wearing although in my city the Worcester News’ front page headline for Saturday was ‘It’s Dirty and Disgusting’.  A former mayor’s correct view that Worcester people should cover up when they cough or sneeze; yet hardly thoughtful front page news.  Dad’s monthly nuggets are now welcome reassuring reminders of ‘homespun’ advice from a Doncaster teenager’s kitchen.  They are something I look forward to with viewpoints that are welcome opinions from a differing perspective.

However, not all letters are welcomed and leave the receiver with this reassurance, as the Prime Minister will no doubt now feel from the open letter from the Bishop of England rebuffing his lack of response and lack of action over the Syrian refugee crisis.  As a headteacher, I have come to dread the ‘Worcester News’ letters page, which is an open battleground with no area sacrosanct.  The debate and wide ranging opinions offered have varied from the state of my attire or my weight to open antagonism at quotations which have often been taken out of context and do not meet the so called tolerant beliefs of Worcester man and woman!  Letters are powerful tools and can be used destructively and constructively.  As headteacher I try very hard to keep all in my community working with the school and do not want my letters to alienate or attack those parents or staff who receive them.

For some, it is simply the lack of a letter that infuriates.  From personal experience I was disappointed at Mr Bercow’s (the Speaker of the House of Commons) lack of response to my written rant at his extravagant personal spending: £45,000 make-over of personal accommodation in 2013, seven paid international visits in 2014 and the ubiquitous MP expenses claim of £31,400.  Although writing this letter was cathartic for me and written from the perspective of a Worcester school which desperately needs bid funds to be successful, it was perhaps not surprising to have no reply.  His lack of reply does show a lack of courtesy and possibly confirms an already entrenched opinion of him and stereotype of politicians not caring for the public who voted them in.  I do believe most headteachers do reply to criticism and are skilful in their duty of trying to win over the critics with letters being an unemotive ‘tool’ to try to reclaim the critic.

This week my second daughter, in her third week at Bristol University, became homeless as fire ravaged though the five storey Colston Road Fresher’s building.  Amazingly, no one was injured although the wooden roof construction meant the destruction and upheaval caused by the fire was devastating to all who had made a home from home, their first tentative venture in the wider world.  Left with only the clothes she stood up in, the lack of communication and direction from Bristol University was staggering.  For her and us as a family, a letter of explanation/reassurance would have been welcomed and was the least we could expect.  The variety of emails received contradicted and confused.  It was a time of crisis when we almost needed a letter, something physical to hold onto and pass onto the next relative, not an email where tone and curtness can be confused for a lack of care and compassion.  Carefully crafted supportive letters can be so reassuring in simply recognising trauma and how vulnerable someone is.

Reflecting on these ponderings and worrying that I am turning into my father by sending my staff letters attached to blogs or articles from the lovely SecEd, I do believe whilst in this ‘pot noodle’ society whereby everything is instant, the carefully crafted letter still has a crucial place in school management, family lives and even common courtesies.  I will therefore spend my half term penning some missives of thanks to colleagues, ‘well done’ letters to students, a rare letter to my father and letting Mr Bercow MP know of my continued frustration at his continued lack of reply and a view on his credibility!  ‘To boldly go’, I know, another split infinitive, is what I intend to do during this half term break with a few reassuring not reactionary letters being my aim!

The Power of Three

In his entertaining autobiography ‘Memoirs of a Fruitcake’, Chris Evans of Radio 2 and imminent Top Gear fame, starts each chapter with a list of hindsight, “ten things I ought to have known about…”.  The British male has a love of lists or statistics.  One of the major reasons put forward for men dominating the proportion of spectators watching football was their love of lists: top goal scorer, best tackler etc.  Women, it was argued, preferred to be doing rather than watching!  Therefore, as I enter my thirteenth year of headship, here are some of my reflective lists.  I have to record the caveat that hindsight is easy and at times I am choosing my preference not the latest fashionable vogue.  My power of three are:

 Best Blogs

I got into this cathartic writing due to the generosity and tips from key educational headteachers, all whose philosophy I admire and who look to be people I would like to work for.  They appear to have a philosophy and moral compass that are essential when running a school.

  1. Geoff Barton’s teacher tips. (Pick ‘n’ Mix)
  2. Tom Sherrington’s unbridled enthusiasm. ( Headguruteacher)
  3. John Tomsett’s searing honesty. (This much I know about…)

Current Must Read Blogs

  1. The Learning Spy – David Didau. Prolific, always opinionated, entertaining and sometimes cantankerous.
  2. Ed-U-Like – Rachael Stevens. She ought to write more, but the detailed ideas work.  Her blog on ‘Dynamite Paragraphs’ was even a successful year 8 cover lesson.
  3. Tabulsa Rasa – Tessa Matthews’ lovely blog. I just love her philosophy on reading and correct rants on the weird world of education.

What I Wish I Had Done on Being Appointed Headteacher

  1. Ensured that I had a buddy, a school improvement partner or personal advisor. The first three years as headteacher were arduous and lonely.  The difference between being a deputy and the head are huge with every decision overanalysed, primarily by you!  The feeling of being on show daily was something that I found difficult.  Even a visit to the local Tesco was an opportunity for the checkout lady to discuss behaviour and our uniform.  Finally getting an adviser, someone who had been an experienced headteacher, was the best decision I made for myself and probably the best decision for the school.
  1. Become an Ofsted inspector earlier. This is a statement I thought I would not make.  On appointment I was firmly in the ‘us and them’ camp.  Inspection was a dirty word, a frightening experience that you hoped you survived. Demystifying the urban myth of inspection, the jargon and what the inspection is really looking for has been fabulous CPD and reassurance for colleagues when we embark on our self-review. The obvious further benefit is you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in another school for two days.  Reflecting on other schools’ systems and evaluating their practice has been a privilege.
  1. Managed the local press better. By being too readily available and allowing poor rushed pictures of myself, which often became the  newspaper picture for the next three years ( there were the grumpy/surprised/elated pictures to choose from), I opened myself up to unnecessary exposure and potential criticism. The misleading, inaccurate headline and subsequent unfiltered personal criticism from the feral beast that is social media, was not something I was prepared for and is still an area that catches me by surprise annually. This vulnerability is something I regularly resolve to ignore and it grates that I am affected by this.

What I Wish I Had Not Done

There are obviously numerous decisions, reactions and ill thought out conversations that I have thankfully, conveniently, consigned to headteacher history!

  1. Never rush or force an appointment. To paraphrase the often used marriage analogy – to appoint in haste can mean you repent at your frustrated leisure.
  2. Do not fall out with local headteachers whatever your righteous indignation, you will get over the implied slur and the only people who suffer are the young people of our community.
  3. Always check out the training prior to valued INSET. ‘Restorative Justice’ still brings the staffroom out in hoots of derision, which is very unfair; a good principle was lost due to the poor didactic delivery of those presenting. Laughter yoga was another memorable training event with esteemed colleagues trying to produce forced laughter on demand, ho ho ha ha, memorable yet questionable in value.

Books Every Teacher Should Read (not quite the TES list but these are my three)

  1. The Restless School by Roy Blatchford – sensible practical tips for genuine leadership.
  2. Radical by Maajid Nawaz – the journey into extremism from a Southend grammar school boy is a fascinating warning for all in education.
  3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho- a magical journey for your soul.

Reforms if I were Education Secretary (apart from the obvious promise to immediately have fairer funding across British schools and have an end to knee jerk, politically inspired educational reforms and a positive message about this fabulous profession.)

  1. Make Ofsted accountable for the schools they inspect. An inspection team will have responsibility for re-inspecting the school within the three years thereby ensuring the action points are carefully thought out to bring school improvement and hopefully the start of a meaningful relationship.
  2. End the archaic half term period of notice for teacher resignation. Teacher movement should be encouraged and not leave schools having to resort to desperation tactics to ensure recruitment occurs. Currently a teacher can resign on 28th May and the host school could be without a specialist teacher until January. A four week resignation period would allow swifter, smarter recruitment and stop poor practice by desperate headteachers who, fearing long term supply, can forget their moral compass.
  3. Produce proper accredited vocational courses for 16 year olds. Courses that are recognised and valued.  The demise of the BTEC is sad as it provided the non-academic student invaluable work placed learning.  A course such as Public Services gave an insight into so many possible future career options.

What I am Immensely Proud of in my School

  1. The vertical house system that underpins a lot of the good, caring work that occurs in the school. Brilliantly led by the directors of studies, this system is part Harry Potter with house competitions ranging from pumpkin carving to sugar cube stacking to twenty first century education with students having meaningful responsibility.
  2. ‘Big Brother’ classrooms that support developmental observations. The building of two observation booths enabling discreet observation and discussion by observers has transformed our observation process.
  3. Blink reviews (see earlier blog ‘BLINK: The way forward with department reviews?’) have ensured observation is regularly undertaken with feedback that is less judgemental and therefore more developmental.

Next year, I will…

  1. Eat less.
  2. Talk less.
  3. Laugh a lot!