When Nicky Met Neil

My wonderful PA Kim smiles indulgently at my regular kite flying letters, which I float in the hope of a profitable landing, although my wife correctly feels I need to stop writing critical letters to John Bercow!  During my thirteen years of headship I have invited every Secretary of State for Education to visit my wonderful school.  A ‘chance for them to visit a truly comprehensive, inclusive, under-funded Worcestershire school’ is my stock phrase.  Therefore, perhaps understandably, I have not had a positive response until Friday when Nicky Morgan and our local MP Robin Walker came for afternoon tea with me and two local primary school headteachers, the wonderfully formidable Kate Brunt and the lovely, newly appointed Kate Wilcock.Nicky Morgan visit Nov 2015


Table: From left – Kate Wilcock, headteacher at Pitmaston Primary Scholl, Kate Brunt, executive principal Rivers Multi Academy Trust, Nicky Morgan MP, Neil Morris, headteacher at Christopher Whitehead Language College and Worcester MP Robin Walker.

Published with the kind permission of the Worcester News:  http://www.worcesternews.co.uk/news/13951091.Education_Secretary_Nicky_Morgan_visits_Worcester_to_pledge__clear_commitment__on_fairer_school_funding/

Ms Morgan arrived on a grey, wet Worcester day as the school was gleefully departing for the weekend!  She arrived with a frighteningly intelligent group of aides who photographed fabulous displays such as ‘This Girl Can’ and ‘Wall of Excellence’ and took notes at alarming speed.  Ms Morgan arrived at the same time as year 11 Tanya’s mum who announced herself in typical forthright fashion, ‘I know she’s a nightmare, but I want my voice heard!’  I left her to the soothing reassurances of my pastoral leader, ‘we all want our voice to be heard Mrs B’ was an apt opening statement.  I hoped the aides had not taken too many notes and proceeded to have an enjoyable forty five minutes where I hoped to get my voice heard.

This blog hopefully answers my educational friends’ enquiries such as ‘What was she like?’, ‘Did you behave?’, ‘Will we get proper funding for Worcestershire?’ and ‘Did you wear a suit?’

Nicky Morgan came across as personable, charming, and appeared to care and appeared to listen.  These are all qualities that an educationalist admires.  She was in my positive column as she had taken time to visit my school and had clearly read her background materials about our educational journey into language college status, academisation and latterly the September opening of our sixth form.  These were some of our questions/conversations, reflectively paraphrased, that I hope capture the essence of our meeting:

What should we do about teacher workload?

A gentle opening question from the Education Secretary, which I optimistically believe is positive recognition that the government realises there continues to be unreasonable demands placed on the teaching profession, by government policy and sometimes by under-pressure headteachers who are trying to have immediate fixes to long term problems.  Our forthright answers were:

  • No more major educational change for three years to try to ‘bed down’ the mass of changes and support our staff in getting it right for the students.
  • Stop Ofsted putting marking as a key generic school action point on Ofsted reports. This leads to potential school hysteria and does not, I believe, lead to the impact on learning we require.  Trust the headteachers to monitor their staff and cajole/coach those who do not mark effectively into doing so.  There are many forms of effective feedback other than staff working until midnight.
  • Stop denigrating the teaching profession; we want people to do this fabulous, great job. They won’t if politicians and the media continue to pressure headteachers who can then pass the pressure onto their staff.  To label a profession or school teacher as inadequate as Ofsted does, is a poor term that will not bring a positive outcome and will wrongly label a profession as failing.

Have we a recruitment crisis and what can we do about this?

Yes was the obvious glib answer with clear examples of the TES monopoly on expensive job adverts such as for science and maths teachers where only one application is received.  Our innovative attempts at turning learning support assistants into teaching staff and recruiting via Teach First via Ireland, was duly ‘scribbled down’ and I hope shows that we are not simply accepting non-specialist staff working in our schools.

We are committed to ensuring Fairer Funding!

In fact I wrote down the exact statement and asked the Press to confirm that was what she had said.  “There’s a clear manifesto to commit to deliver fairer funding and that’s what we will do”.  I hope they will.  I rarely lose sleep over school issues apart from finance ones.  As a school we have had seven leadership members go on to promotion and have not appointed externally since 2004.  Long term, this is unsustainable and I would advocate is not beneficial to the school or a leadership model.  Staff regularly leave to Birmingham schools who pay substantially more than Worcestershire schools.  Our funding is one million less per year than a Birmingham school with identical demographics and identical additional needs.  Worcester schools have nothing left to cut!  Her agreement still does not help my sleep patterns but this was the crux of our meeting and I hope will be fixed!

Our Questions – why the fixation with EBacc for 90% of the school population?

This was the only answer where I feel she was evasive.  She believes that at age 14 some students are being allowed to choose the wrong subjects, the least challenging and thereby the country is missing out on potential engineers and medical students.

This to me is a trust issue.  Good headteachers care passionately about their students and ensure they get on the right pathway.  For some, such as Tanya, the hairdressing level 1 course is more appropriate than two years of misery in a Spanish lesson.  My NEET figures continue to be 0% compared to a worrying national average of 9%. Where a child goes their destination data is available and I would suggest is a good indicator of where a school has had an impact. Has the school put the child on the correct course?  Clearly, recruiting specialist staff will enable schools to offer a specialist curriculum that is beneficial to all.

Our challenge at the continued marginalisation of RE and the arts seemed to surprise her.  RE is about tolerance and ethics which are key in our request to monitor radicalisation, so why could this not be an alternative to geography or history?  A music, art and PE GCSE pathway is intellectually challenging yet with the demands of EBacc it is unlikely that a student could choose this triple creative element.  This does not make sense and I could not glean a proper answer as to why the aesthetic subjects appear to be frozen out of the EBacc offer.  I referred her to the excellent Tom Sherrington’s blog which was duly scribbled down and was not apparently a surprise to the aides.

What Surprised Her

I think she was shocked at the levels of effective collaboration between secondary and primary schools, with the primary schools often leading on CPD and ideas.  I hoped she was impressed by the knowledge and care we have for our schools.

What Surprised Me

Nicky Morgan and her advisors clearly had never heard of the teacher resignation period that currently exists in education.  Having a science teacher ‘poached’ on May 28th by the nearest local school leaves me little chance of appointment until January 1st, twenty two school weeks later.  The current system allows and encourages ‘shabby’ headteacher behaviour and increases the pressure heaped on vulnerable schools.  We pay our staff monthly and a month’s notice would appear sensible for all concerned.

What I Wished I Had Said

The three schools represented all have favourable Ofsted judgements, so therefore do not have the constrictive pressure a poor judgement produces.  I had hoped to talk about Ofsted and the damage/impact a poor Ofsted judgement can have on a school.  A good headteacher I know has various types of permanent Ofsted alert, inclusive of code names for periods leading up to Ofsted.  His Ofsted ready school is impressive but sad; we need to be a student ready school to deal with Tanya and our EBacc populace.  Headteachers need to be ready for judgements from various audiences such as parents, students and the community, not simply Ofsted.

My final thoughts are that we did okay.  It is always a pleasure to ‘show off’ my fabulous school and to be proud of the work of our tremendous students and staff.  Like Mrs B, I left the school after checking the security of our portacabins feeling that my headteacher voice had been heard!