End of Year Gongs: A Headteacher’s Optimistic Prediction for 2017

Breaking up on the 16th of December, sorry for those who struggled on, was the best Christmas present, allowing time to reflect and not chaotically rush/collapse into the festive season. On the first Wednesday, I awoke to day time television! The programme was optimistically titled ‘Good Morning Britain’ and was presented by the obsequious Piers Morgan who was Dad dancing, producing a Irish accent and lecturing a young  Australian fraudster on morals!  Embarrassingly smug and, I believe, a commentary on the current  state of Britain with unintelligent, quick fix television, presented by a man with questionable morals who feels empowered to lecture Britain on behaviour.

Holidays allow you time to ponder on the year. 2016 was a despicable year for Britain, with each depressing event arriving almost surreptitiously, often unplanned, perceived to be thoughtless and leaving those in school leadership to deal with the fallout of staff shortages, stringent financial cuts, falling morale and overworked, fraught staff. For those of us fortunate to still be in post, it was a year of hard work and regular new challenges. This was the year where the disparity between the rich and the poor became even greater with the staggering indifference of those in power to the cuts alarming. As we approach 2017, you cannot say we have not been warned.  The New Year will arrive with a huge austerity health warning that will have to be safely, and where possible, compassionately negotiated. Bring it on I say.  Being a Headteacher still has a lot to commend it despite the pessimistic educational soothsayers; you are surrounded by caring, fabulous colleagues, with positive, energised young people making it difficult not to remain optimistic and essentially positive, whatever the external decision makers throw at the teaching profession. There are many reasons to be cheerful and as the head I believe this job is a privilege and we owe it to our schools to show positive humane leadership. These are therefore my end of year educational globes, awards to those who shape and influence my working life; there are three school awards which highlight some of the good I have seen. All awards are judged by a panel of one, me. All the worthy winners will be given a green marking pen, a frugal prize that will need to be used wisely, not excessively.

Twitter of the year I thoroughly recommend TimKnapp@WXHead.  His joyous enthusiasm for his relatively new job as a Hereford headteacher is infectious. His pride in his school and encouraging, appreciative tweets are lovely to follow. He would appear to be a principled, thoughtful leader.

 Blog of the year – This is a phrase that five years ago I would not have used. I, like many, started tentatively using blogs to glean ideas and much needed reassurance that I was not the only headteacher who thought the latest educational edict was unworkable. I find blog writing cathartic, fun and a way of advertising the ethos and at times jobs at the school; we struggle with TES costs to place a job advertisement. The three blogs I always read are the caring John Tomsett, the compassionate Jill Berry, her fabulous recent article published in The Guardian, ‘How to be Happy’, should be a must read for all teachers and parents and the one I wish I had written in 2016 is by the fearless David McQueen in his blog ‘Tall. Black. One Sugar’ with the article, ‘Stop screwing with our schools’, articulating the frustration of so many.

Newspaper column of the year This is limited to the two papers I buy, which become holiday reading, with Owen Jones of The Guardian being my favourite as he pricks the pomposity of the famous and outs the nasty with his tirade at the despicable Nigel Farage and his cronies, for their vile comments on Jo Cox’s widower, a timely necessary riposte.

Welcome surprise of the year I am tempted to nominate Gary Linekar, presenter of Match of the Day, who has continued to publish pithy, principled, sane humanitarian opinions despite some loud offensive trolling, this is to be applauded. However, my welcome surprise of the year goes to the previously entitled ‘pantomime villain’, the departing Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw. I will miss his provocative, off script comments and forthright leadership that saw a number of old style inspectors leave the profession, the end of Ofsted lesson grading and the challenge to ‘sloppy’, lazy Ofsted inspection school reports, which often produced inconsistent marking as an easy to write, damning whole school action point, which resulted in a number of conscientious teachers marking themselves into oblivion to be ‘Ofsted ready’; a ridiculous perpetual paralysis that did no one any good.  His strident opinions were always news worthy and often cut through the educational waffle, for example, “problems reside in the secondary sector, where recruitment and retention is the most difficult.” At least he observed the truth rather than trying to hide a crisis that ministers are unwilling to acknowledge, and given his position, this was a welcome change to the anonymity the inspectorate choose to adopt.  Maybe 2017 will be the year where Nicky Morgan continues to surprisingly, belatedly, find her voice and rightly challenge, though I hope it remains the grammar school farce rather than the leather trouser debate.

Department of the year – Anyone who is surviving in SEN services can only be commended, and for all the staff who find the time to voluntarily  give our students invaluable enrichment opportunities, I thank you. The hidden curriculum, the heart and philosophy of a school, needs to be judged with as much merit as the academic results. To my PE department who have already put on 100+ fixtures, the Music and Drama departments who have survived and thrived at the December carol service, the production of ‘Elf’ and numerous performances and to all who have braved various D of E bronze/silver/gold expeditions and to those staff who have run 2 of our 4 residential experiences, I salute you. My department of the year however goes to the Learning Resource Centre, which despite the unhelpful daily announcements signalling the demise in reading, has been open daily and has dramatically increased the number of book loans and updated our 12,000 books that are on offer. This has been undertaken in a positive, welcoming environment that sees reading thrive in my school.

Favourite school moment of the year “Schools exist to educate our students” was the opening line of my headship application.  I would argue that this is more relevant in 2016 than when I originally proposed that as my stated ethos in 2003. Students provide a reassuring presence with their optimistic enthusiasm energising to behold. Brunel students raised the money for three defibrillators, nine local charities were supported and over £5,000 was raised.  The week of ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ is always fabulously supported. However,  my favourite moments have been the students’ and parents’ generous response to Worcester Foodbank, whose requirement has increased by 33% in the last three months and whose discreet work is making a significant impact on so many of our families.

Gift of the yearthere were so many thoughtful gifts, appreciative cards and a generous secret Santa. I am tempted to give this gong to the gift that keeps giving, the Dark Lord Michael Gove, whose lack of self-realisation is staggering. His recent reflection that he might have made mistakes was stating the obvious as the next decade will sadly illuminate. My gift of the year was the announcement by my chair of governors that he was cutting back other commitments to carry on this unpaid demanding role. To have a supportive chair, who will get the balance between challenge and criticism right is invaluable for a headteacher. It is easy to be ‘Chair’ when your school records record results but to not panic when the English results were at an all-time low three years ago. The exam marking fiasco coupled with staffing concerns requires special leadership. The resulting action plan and fabulous 93% A*-C results are reward for all involved in the school and the role the chair of governors can play should never be under estimated.

Hope of the year Hope springs eternal and when newly qualified teachers enter the profession it is a duty for leaders in schools to cherish and nurture them. It is my hope and belief that my three young staff who have entered this precarious, fabulous profession are in this job for the long haul. They have had only one day’s absence, taught numerous classes, undergone report writing, attended a parents’ evening, ice skated and crucially survived a staff social! This is a promising start which will hopefully see them become embedded in our school and not become one of the 40% who leave the profession within the first five years, another damning statistic that all who lead in schools should take note of.

Hopes for 2017Funding, funding, funding – FAIR FUNDING!

And the urgent need for pragmatic truthful politicians.

Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year ‘post-truth’ epitomises what a dismal year 2016 was. Let’s make 2017 the year when truth is seen as the key part of a discussion, not gossip or easy stereotypical prejudice and supposition. Perhaps belatedly, we can take Labour’s Neil Kinnock’s celebratory premature anthem, ‘Things can only get better’, as our song, a mantra for all in education and key professional development for Piers Morgan’s presenting skills 2017!

Christmas British Values!

Christmas time in schools is not like the idealistic, romanticised versions portrayed in the supermarket adverts or latest Disney film.  December is a dark, bleak month where the worst excesses of humanity, often alcohol fuelled, surface and the beleaguered Children’s Services receive numerous frantic calls to try to protect and shield children from the threat of men; often these are boys who were not ready to be fathers.  Despite falling budgets, schools cannot give-up and it feels very much as though we are holding back a fragile frontline, protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

Unsurprisingly, my school’s health profile 2016 made for depressing reading with students living in deprived households where there is significant excesses in binge drinking, smoking and under 25s admitted to hospital with mental health issues.  Yet, our persistent absence and exclusion statistics and those who have received three vaccinations is significantly positive in comparison to other Worcestershire schools.  In other words, my remarkable pastoral team control, support and parent our students and ensure that school is a safe place where generally they trust us and want to attend and we can even do the vaccinations – all of this needs to be done and used to be done by the parents!!  This is an extraordinary achievement, yet I fear I am pushing more onto these remarkable, often underpaid people.  Expectations are frequently unrealistic and the pressure to do something does cause sleepless nights.

Worcestershire sexual assaults have risen by 154% to an unpalatable 11,000 compared to 5,662 in 2014.  Worcestershire’s answer to this 154% rise is to cancel sexual health counselling!  Children and Mental Health Services now have an unacceptable waiting list of eight months and the school now faces a cut in the Educational Services Grant (ESG) by £98.00 per pupil equalling to £100,000 plus in our school.  This is the grant I pay for these extra services with:

  • The School Councillor, who saw over 60 critical students and staff last year.
  • The Safeguarding Officer, who spent last week on the riverbank talking down a serious suicide attempt and counselling the distraught parents.
  • The Pastoral Support Officer, who was recently at the home of a drug addict, checking on the welfare of mother and son with cannabis openly smoked and seemingly an acceptable drug to the alternatives.
  • The Education Welfare Officer, who met with a mother with mental health issues to try to ascertain whether she was likely to harm herself or those she was in charge of – she was sectioned!

All these key staff provide invaluable expertise and support that is difficult to measure in league tables or with questionable data – but they would be massively missed if removed and this could be considered as being life threatening for those families who are our most vulnerable.  I think I have and do teach values that are intrinsically British but it is arguable whether a Government that wants to place children of illegal immigrants at the bottom of a list for school places, the latest leaked Cabinet papers, should be followed or listened to!  Is an inclusive education for all our children really valued?  When the continued educational messages measurement of success is that:

  • Student progress is measured only by flawed exam data.
  • The reintegration of grammar schools, the provision of the elite, the traditional, the 1970s, is seen as necessary not a waste of money and will be brought in whatever the profession or data produces as evidence.
  • Big is beautiful: big multiple academies, big salaries for questionable unqualified CEOs, big unfulfilled promises for those in education, education, education!

I therefore try to promote British values of tolerance and thoughtfulness.  This is a difficult mood to capture in December with crushing financial debts looming and asking my staff to take on so many different unpaid, thankless roles to try to maintain a community that is in desperate need of support.  One in five families had a Christmas feast provided by a food bank!  This is an educational and societal crisis that needs addressing now with significant investment.  Failure to do so will see extremism making headway with the significant home schooled children particularly open to being groomed by unscrupulous, extreme ideologies.  Furthermore, our SEN children are being excluded not included as they are seen as a ‘drain’ on the points scored for the infamous league table or progress chart.  Add in the recruitment crisis and you can see why certain schools are left isolated, untouched by MATs/new teachers.

I have been Headteacher for 13 years and 2017 is the year I have approached under the most pressure, the most unsure and the most determined to ‘not have it’.  This is ludicrous and whilst we keep working at this ridiculous pace we do not protest at the daily educational messages that are not British, are intolerant, and I would suggest undemocratic!  To do nothing is not an option and where possible I intend to prick the pomposity of those whose educational vision would appear to be cemented in the claustrophobic, stereotypical confines of an exam hall; this will provide a success or failure judgement based on a grade (or is it a level?) simply on academic exam performance not your personal quality, your nature, your ability to respect what a fabulous society/community we could live in if we open our eyes and are allowed to look and value – possibly the true purpose of being British!  Schools and governments have to look beyond the grades and produce fully functioning human beings who happen to pass a few exams.  Now there is a Christmas message to toast to!