Let the Dogs Play!

I can only applaud the Government’s plans to make it a ‘default right’ for tenants to keep pets in rented homes.  Now get the homeless off the streets into affordable, decent housing, would be my obvious priority message!

Recent Cambridge University research highlighted the significant health benefits from keeping a pet: lowering cholesterol, reducing stress and providing general well being so necessary in today’s lonely society.  They also provide a good opportunity to socialise.  My party story, endlessly retold gleefully by my daughters, is about my attempt at fame stalking when I shamelessly used my ‘hand bag’ dog, ‘Bailey’ the Papillion, to attempt to fruitlessly engage the socialite, the beautiful petite Paris Hilton, in dog conversation as she entered the Paris shop ‘Jimmy Choos’ with her perfectly groomed Papillion.  Maybe my refused entry was due to my dog not wearing a leather jacket or more likely to do with the battered ‘crocks’ that adorned my trotters and brought an understandable dismissive Parisian ‘no, no’ from the security guards and much mirth from my daughters!  That attempt at socialising via dog ownership was an unmitigated failure!

The British have a huge affinity with their animals.  Britain was the first country in the world to have a national charity when Queen Victoria formed the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and with over half of Britain’s owning a pet, schools need to consider the positive role they can play in the curriculum for the welfare of students and staff.  My middle daughter went to Bristol University via a BTEC Level 3 Animal Management course at Halesowen College.  She is the only one on her course not to have undertaken the more traditional Triple Science A-level courses but the course would appear to have set her up brilliantly for the demands of an academic degree.  In her third year, she has successfully negotiated coursework, practical work experiences travelling to various campuses and a variety of challenging work experiences, an abattoir and distraught farmers to name but two.  It would appear that some of the more traditional students have ‘dropped out’, citing an inability to cope with the independence the course requires.  Now this is a study of one and does not represent a huge study.  However, for some of my non-academic students their best days where they demand the least attention is when they are undertaking their Foundation Learning Level 1 courses, working in the garden, managing our unruly chickens, working together.  They use skills and common sense which are often lacking in the so called brighter students.

Schools have to be given the funds to properly fund courses that lead to jobs.  There are only two places in the country, Hereford and London, where you can learn to be a Farrier.  Doulton and Carter gleefully told me their half term would be a week of ‘trapping’, ‘horse riding’ and ‘ferreting’, my plea for history homework would have to wait!  The excitement and joy of being outdoors so brilliantly represented in the 1960s book ‘Kes’ still applies today.  Consign and trap our students in a short sighted, narrow curriculum that leads to league table idiocy and you will need mental wealth trainers and mental wealth counsellors.  Freeing up the curriculum with no labelling or setting of students allows all to thrive, something that does not always occur.  Unlike Jimmy Choos, schools need to allow dogs in and students out of the classroom.


The Headteacher Blues

One of the many privileges of being the Headteacher is observing awesome colleagues and capturing moments where you realise this is a fantastic job.  One such moment came in a recent year 10 assembly, not a group usually noted for mass spontaneity or generosity.  However, their spontaneous, generous, well-deserved round of applause to end Mr Farmer’s assembly was lovely and an appreciated surprise.

A good assembly such as this one, has many key ingredients.  I have tried to capture this assembly that I have been allowed to share.  Please adapt and use wisely if you so wish!

  1. An underlying theme, ‘How tolerant are you?’ was the constant question left on the PowerPoint presentation and often referred back to.
  2. Good music captured the mood on entry. ‘Happy Birthday’ by Stevie Wonder boomed as they entered.  However, this music was all part of the assembly theme not simply as in my assemblies, attempts at indoctrination of the Blues.  This was a prelude to the Martin Luther King national holiday and a reminder of some of the intolerance that has been seen in America from Rosa Parks to the recent Charlottesville atrocity.
  3. Audience captured – with recent events, gentle humour and crucially, participation. They were asked to share with the next person, ‘Do you think Britain is a tolerant society, yes or no?’  Predictably, almost 100% felt that we were superior to America and we are and were tolerant.
  4. Feed the visual with interesting pictures – in this instance, of Cyril Regis, the England, West Bromwich, Aston Villa footballer who had tragically died, captured some of the audience’s attention. Most of our school are Birmingham, Villa or West Bromwich fans or those who want success, Manchester United or Liverpool.  Key facts and interesting pictures kept their attention: Regis receiving a bullet before his England debut and his first ever game, which Mr Farmer attended, ‘Black v White’ a testimonial charity game in 1979 that someone bizarrely believed was an acceptable match.  Pictures and discussion followed, together with reflection about the trials and tribulations of the England ladies footballer/barrister Eniola Aluko and the U17 world cup winner Rhian Brewster, whose recent experiences of racism are a deflating reflection on our society.
  5. Keep up the pace. The second part of the 15 minute assembly was preparation for our ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ week-long event of community giving, which has seen students buy McDonald’s for a homeless resident, work at Food Bank, litter pick and generally be a productive part of society.  This was of course underpinned by challenging reflective questions such as ‘How kind are you?’, ‘What was the last act of kindness you did, you received?’, ‘Is kindness the best drug of all?’.
  6. End with a final challenge – ‘How tolerant are you?’ was a final question. ‘How many questions to a teacher is acceptable in one lesson?’.  The answer he asked them to reflect on was three questions per individual.  In a class of 20, three questions per student in a one hour lesson leaves the teacher fielding 60 questions with no one student dominating.    The assembly ended with a country song – always good – a message regarding bullying, ‘Don’t laugh at me’ by Mark Wills.  Stevie Wonder to Country, equals spontaneous applause.

An excellent assembly has of course to have excellent confident delivery, control of the traditional year 10 titter at what is the best drug and a pace that delivers the message but also moves on when ‘non sporty’ students glaze over with regards football.  Stevie Wonder to Country in 15 minutes, reflection time and all underpinned by key questions, the fundamentals of a good assembly and also awesome teaching.

Great questions can lead us to fabulous learning.  However, as my cynical year 13 son Louis moaned, ‘I do not want questions, sometimes I just need the answers than I can fill in the questions’.  Apart from a 17 year old moan, he has got something and I have recently observed a number of skilful teachers asking, ‘This is the answer, what is the question?’.

I did laugh out loud at Gareth, beleaguered Liverpool fan, whose response to ‘Zonal marking is the answer, what question would you ask?’ was ‘Do Liverpool defenders have a clue what system of defence we are trying?’.  It is quite a good ice-breaker for a Saturday night: answer Boris, what is the question?  Red wine, what is the question? Or world class state education, what is the question?  Something our politicians have lots of questions about and not many answers.

Perhaps Louis has something.  Those of us in education are forever being asked new questions we are never allowed to get the answer to.  Maybe this is why Education Secretaries are constantly chopped and changed.  Maybe this could be a blues song:

  • Woke up one morning
  • Had a bad head
  • Debts are soaring
  • Two teachers have fled

Chorus             I’ve got the Headteacher blues etc

I’ve got the Headteacher blues is the answer, you make up the questions – a consultancy job awaits!


2018 – The Year of Community?

Since when did we become a nation of ‘haters’?  My best friend Chris is dramatically opposite to me, public school educated, teaching in an affluent girls’ grammar school, he is generous, caring and his opinion is invaluable.  I learn a lot from him.  We are lifelong friends who are opposite in so many ways and due to our backgrounds and experiences, a friendship would have been lost if we had kept to our stereotypical groups.  After the tragic death of the politician Jo Cox, there appeared to be a national pause in the rhetoric, the post Brexit ‘fire and brimstone’.  Yet, this amnesty was so short lived.  A variety of MPs are fearful over daily death threats with Diane Abbott the most ‘hated’ MP, rightly sharing some of the daily abusive tweets she receives, comments I thought belonged in the dark ages, which are simply not acceptable.  These need to be tackled more rigorously, as any good school would do!

Yet, it is not just MPs who receive regular, horrific, hateful abuse.  All those in the public sector are now seen to be fair game for abuse, with parents regularly making ‘false’ abusive comments and coming down to ‘sort out’ myself and or my staff as they believe the messages given by their precious offspring.  They simplify and see support of their children and, at times good parenting, as unconditional whatever the circumstances.  They are challenged daily but it is wearing and a continual surprise.  Since when did this become part of the job, part of Britain?

Worcester 2017, the happiest place to live in Britain, is like many cities seeing an unprecedented increase in the need for food banks, a rise in rough sleepers that populate every doorway and a year on year horrific rise in reported sexual assaults on women.  Damningly, in the shadow of the iconic cathedral, drug dealing and homelessness occur of those of my catchment area.  Our Boxing Day walk saw my family ‘stumble’ on Max and Darren (names changed), thirty some things, rough sleepers, Max had collapsed and we did not ‘step’ over him like many of the Christmas strollers but called the paramedics.  Darren’s story of redundancy, relationship breakdown and dependency was depressingly familiar, made all the more so as he was an ex-student, class of 2003, whose optimistic SIMS profile picture did not prepare me for this reunion.  We followed the ambulance to the war zone that was Worcester A & E, drunks, those with obvious mental health, corridors full of elderly.  Later that evening in the blizzard we attempted to meet with Darren as prearranged, new sleeping bag and coat on offer.  His perhaps predictable non-appearance dampened festivities in the Morris household as we pondered what might be.  Darren is 29, five years older than my eldest, his GCSEs are not a protector against the bleak midwinter.  The closure of the shelters on Christmas Day and Boxing Day and the opening of ‘Drunk Tanks’ to cope with the festival are damning indictments of our cities and our society and cannot be pushed into the dark, hidden doorways as currently occurs.

At the homeless day centre the next day, a weariness amongst the staff was perhaps understandable as they struggled to cope with a volatile, abusive elderly man who replicated the abusive language we had witnessed a harassed A & E nurse receive.  Apparently, Darren is volatile, unpredictable and not to be approached; not the boy I knew or the man who I observed caring for his friend.

Therefore, as one who passionately believes education can and does make an impact, what can we do to make our community more caring, less abusive and more tolerant?  We need to protect the Darrens of the future.  These two New Year’s resolutions are perhaps my hopeful requirement for Britain, but are my statement as a leader of my school.  We will:

  1. Continue to highlight the vulnerable in our society and support our local and international charities.
  2. Continue to promote independent careers education and a values and ethics curriculum that is truly valued and will be properly judged externally.

As an educated, prosperous, caring nation we need to:

  • Value all who work in the public sector – perhaps even honour a few of the workers in next year’s Honours – a few less politicians and a few more workers would be my wish.
  • Stop differentiating between children. This starts with our obsession with results and school league tables.  Level 5 good, Level 4 bad is too simplistic a label, which hardly protected Darren whose 6 A*- Cs were deemed successful but clearly did not protect him for his future life.
  • Ensure school leaders do not allow students to be taken off roll to become ‘children missing education’. This has coined the new early contender for the most offensive educational phrase, ‘offrolling’, and will allow the Darrens of this world to become forgotten and lost.

‘Take responsibility for all in your diverse community and celebrate their differences’, might be a good positive 2018 mantra and might allow those of us who have the privilege of being in education to enjoy making a lifelong impact.  After all, that’s what most of us came into education for.  Meeting Darren was a salutary experience that leaves you questioning so much and although Worcester has many attributes, for so many in M&S doorways a happy city was not the phrase I or they would use.  A caring community online and in practice is what I hope for.

Do as I say, not as I do!

Once, during a fit of early headteacher pique, I banned all staff email to try to stop the perceived critical email, those which were upsetting and the incessant copied in emails.  This foolish decision probably tells you where I was mentally, a battered headteacher reading everything external or internal as critical.  Often, in the dark months, you literally cannot ‘see the wood for the trees’ and you simply have to trust your school processes and believe that skilled, caring professionals remarkably get it right most of the time, whatever the circumstances.  Telling professional people not to do something does not work and I probably, rightly, endured sardonic comments, though a few less copied in emails was positive.

In a previous blog, I joyfully quoted Kenneth Williams, a humorous national treasure, he of Carry On fame, and his self-righteous screech, “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” Amanda Spielman’s (Ofsted Chief Inspector) naïve criticism of headteacher bloggers, I and my loyal 200 are not the group she is taking aim at, as ‘blockers of progress’ and those headteachers who comment via blogging as ‘problems’, creating a culture of fear, a myth about the Ofsted process.  This strikes me as being her self-righteous ‘infamy’ moment.  This baffling comment will, I believe, go down like Gove’s ‘enemies of promise,’ as naïve and sadly very damning, indicating where she and Ofsted are in perceiving comments, an incorrect perception that all comments from the profession are unwelcome, critical and therefore wrong.  You teach, we judge, could be the message that is taken from her speech.  To blame those who run schools for scaremongering about inspection is simplistic, unhelpful and unlikely to stop the bloggers’ delight at poking at the beast that is Ofsted.

Blogging is cathartic, undertaken by me as correspondence with my Dad and a monthly way of trying to articulate feelings, take the temperature of what has become like the England football manager’s position, the impossible job.  Some of the most prominent, experienced Headteacher bloggers, John Tomsett, Geoff Barton, Tom Sherrington et al, have all articulated concerns, offered different perspectives and useful experiences of leading schools over a number of years.  They are generous in their resources and positive in their message that this is a fabulous, wonderful profession.  I have learnt a lot from their blogs, great free CPD. They are followed by many in the profession and I like the moral, ethical leadership they espouse, not easy in the dark days.  At times they pass comment on Ofsted, some of which is rightly critical.  I am glad Spielman reads their constructive thoughts and would suggest rather than taking ‘cheap shots’ at the beleaguered headteacher, she look at the impact Ofsted can and does have on struggling schools, their headteachers, teacher recruitment and teacher retention.  The whole school impact this judgement has, needs to be seriously evaluated and respected headteachers need to be listened to.  We all want our schools and the educational profession to be successful.

Rather like the England football team, changing the football manager every four years after the latest dismal tournament failure, does not seem to be the right way to manage when it is not the leader but the football/educational system that is seriously flawed.  Ofsted is part of this system and Spielman cannot have the ‘penny and the bun’ as my Dad loved to say, she wants to be part of the system and yet judge the system.  She is canny enough to know all comments will be reported and seized upon to try to sensationalise and potentially cause division.  I would argue that she knew her speech would be highlighted as taking aim at headteacher bloggers and is a distraction from sensible evaluation of the value of Ofsted, something as an accountant she should understand.

The shame of this comment is that there had been green shoots of empathy with Sean Harford, sensible use of social media and myth busting papers.  A new, friendlier listening Ofsted was the image that was being projected with the move from inspectors judging lessons being an excellent example of positive, sensible change.  In our 2010 ‘outstanding’ Ofsted (yes, we celebrated with banners and letterhead), Pat, our outstanding teacher was given a lesson observation of thirty minutes and a judgement of satisfactory.  Cruelly, some teacher wag defined her as ‘Sat Pat’ because this clearly was not how anyone saw her, hence the irony of this joke.  Sadly, this external judgement massively affected this teacher and the teaching confidence of this caring, fabulous professional is still eroded.  This is a microcosm of what Ofsted does to the teachers, to the profession, to schools.  Judgements, sound bites matter and are seized upon by those who are trying so hard.

A damning judgement of a school can still erode confidence, with parents and teachers living the report.  A poor report can, does mean staff avoid applying to the school.  Similarly, prospective parents do not apply and good parents leave.  This affects funding, confidence and results and is a spiral that could easily be changed by a developmental report with no overall judgement.  ‘Inadequate’ has always been an inadequate, dreadful phrase that ‘shocks’ and damns and  severely damages a whole community for decades and ends careers.

Spielman is early in her difficult job and would appear to be worried about perceived criticism, loss of overall control.  My advice would be to trust in your processes, your inspection.  If you do not, then change the process, rather than hit out at easy targets such as 50 something headteachers who continue to strive to make something of a flawed, broken, underfunded and inadequate system.  They obviously care and creating an ‘us and them’ system is not desirable or necessary.

Rescue Dogs

I am in the second year of homing my loveable Springer/Pointer/Staffordshire cross breed ‘Jake’, named after a feral year 11 student at my school.  Name changed to protect the sensitivities of the dog.  Jake is three, a rescue dog who had previously been caged for 23 hours a day in a Dudley flat (make your own punchline!) and is, I believe, fabulous.  Others who see this bouncy, nippy, yappy dog are not so sure.  He does not leave a good first impression, chasing all cats, vacuuming any food and cocking his leg on the neighbour’s pristine car!

I have, therefore, been in intensive dog training using trigger commands that can be summarised as, ‘here’, ‘leave it’ and ‘down boy’, potentially useful for male MPs whose idiotic behaviour needs taking in hand.  Unsurprisingly, he has improved as the regularity and simplicity of the commands, aided by never ending treats, has established a routine.  This is then disrupted by that substitute teacher, aka my daughter, whose “Ahh, he looks so cute” and overlong commands leave him in a frenetic state with me struggling to pick up the pieces, pre hysterical neighbour.

Jake, year 11 school boy, is very like his dog persona.  He won’t shut up.  A combination of wanting to please and insecurity from being caged in a curriculum that does not suit him.  Brilliant with horses, barely able to read, he is in all probability ADHD.  School is for him ‘a laugh’ but year 11 has seen a significant change.  For Jake, the fear of ‘where next?’ has seen him push the boundaries with snappiness turning to snarling.  For the staff, he is no longer endearing, the loveable rogue with the cheerful quip, he is a target who will underachieve and be an ‘outlier’ on the scatter graph of results analysis, a spot that needs further explanation of why the after school history GCSE intervention went wrong.  Jake needs to be in the countryside, free from the constraints of a restrictive curriculum that is not teaching him skills for life.  Yet, we cannot afford a farrier course, so we continue to squeeze him through six GCSEs that will give him nothing but level 1s and E grades, pre his one year animal management level 1 course at the nearby Pershore College.  School, for Jake, is rather like the cage in the Dudley flat and I feel for him as the restrictions are plain to see.  It will mean a difficult last six months with me unable to rescue him, apart from providing experienced SEN staff who are fabulous in their succinct reassuring commands, yet know this is not really okay!

I do fear for Jake and his group.  The vocational skills-based courses used to provide them with hope, structure and valued qualifications.  ASDAN, work skills, public services and travel and tourism are like Jake, no longer recognised and school leaves them and us feeling like unvalued failures, caged and muzzled in frustration.  No way to treat a dog or any year 11 student.

Jake the dog has just been out with daughter number two and rolled in fox dung – another obvious educational analogy – but he has the freedom to make idiot dog choices!

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.


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.