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!

Headteacher – Male 51, Desperately Seeking…

I have just read a fabulous book, ‘Golden Hill’ by Francis Spufford, which is set in New York in the eighteenth century.  It is a commentary on human life with intricate themes varying from race, gender and class inequality to the need for all of us to be free.  It is beautifully written and is an excellent Christmas stocking filler.

November is always a harsh, bleak month.  As schools, we compound the pressure with a variety of ‘must have’ evenings – parents, certificate and governors, which means that Thursday gym sessions are a thing of the past.  Student and staff interactions become increasingly fraught as the inevitable ‘colds’ increase proportionate to the lack of sunlight.  We are on top of each other, a large dysfunctional family lurching towards mocks, marking and the carefully crafted annual report.  I, rather like a character in one of my escape novels, find myself trying to break free of the ‘shackles’ of the current educational system.  I am like a middle aged man approaching the dating scene.  I am in danger of becoming desperate, seeking an unlikely educational date, an elixir of perfection, a perfect educational date that requires:

  • A perfectly formed pert curriculum that meets the needs of all, not only the academic traditional curricula with alternative curriculums to be encouraged.
  • A staff and student body that has a good equilibrium, a positive mind-set; a need for a resilience and flexibility that can cope with urgent, unpredictable change often with threats from other traditional models based on the whims of the latest educational secretary/ political advisors.
  • A pot of money to support my essentials.

Of course, all of this has to be backed by the key male requisite, a financially sound independence that allows fun and frivolity.  Does such a perfect system exist?  I believe it does, but it needs investment, time and effort and is not a quick fix.

Like many who go on the dating websites, I fear this is going to end in disappointment or a brief tantalising excitement as you believe you are making progress only to have it dashed by data ‘nerds’ who hold you to account with nonsensical information, comparing ‘disadvantaged poorer students’ with ‘those from normal homes’ or ask you to grade students on farcical levels 9-1, which have not been written or agreed by those in charge of data, the exam boards.

My view of this disastrous educational date is that it clearly cannot and will not work with the huge number of issues, restrictions and baggage Mrs Education has.  She is rather like a fading, bankrupt, morally inept rock star trying to return to a bygone, glamorous, Mr Chips era of the 1970s, when Britain was Great and the teaching profession was revered with schools and children knowing their place ranking in the world.  No, this ‘Tinder’ tragedy needs to be consigned to the fantasy world and in the real world…

The headteacher has to carry on regardless of what we desperately seek.  This is a broken, flawed system and at times a political football and as Kenneth Williams in ‘Carry on Cleo’ aptly states:

“Infamy!  Infamy!!  They’ve all got it in for me!”

Let the Cameras Roll

I was contacted by BBC television thanks to my open letter to Robin Walker, Worcester MP and my September blog which was further commented on by my discerning Twitter followers, 185 and increasing!  The Sunday Politics Show, Midlands edition, picked up my less than impressed views on the proposed increase of grammar schools.  Sadly, this continues to be the hot topic in education.  This is a much safer educational issue for the politicians than discussing the latest free school catastrophe or the latest UTC to close, or sad statistics such as a third of newly qualified teachers are quitting teaching within five years of entering the profession or the latest exam board fiasco.  Therefore, I and the school were to be given television ‘fame’ with the aim of the programme being a discussion about the proposed ‘left field’ reintroduction of grammar schools and what I thought!

Those of you familiar with my blog will not be surprised that I saw this as an opportunity to discuss my wider educational concerns.  Rhetorical questions that I was hoping to pose were about:

  • The huge number of mixed educational messages the government continues to publicly debate: grammar school vs academy vs UTC, healthy children vs structured restricted education, vocational education, behaviour management, social work and social mobility. Where is the evidence that this government values state education?
  • How can £50 million be found for new grammar schools when authorities such as Worcestershire have been waiting for twenty years for the promised fairer funding financial formula?
  • Unwritten exam syllabuses that are being taught now. How is this fair to students, staff and future employers?
  • The grading fiasco 9 – 1. Why and who thought this was a positive change?
  • Nine Education Secretaries in 13 years of headship – is there an educational plan?

and so many more questions with, in all probability, little time.

As I tell the students, “be prepared”, and I went into battle with the cameras; shiny shoes, smart suit, ‘prep cards’ considered and memorised with what I believe were some wry observations at the ready.  These are some of my ponderings.  They did not make the editorial cut and sadly remained on my cards or were filmed but not considered:

  • The current exam system is tantamount to child cruelty – year 11 students this year will be undertaking 3 times as many exams as last year’s year 11. For example, English exams have increased from 3½ hours to 7½ hours and the beleaguered PE department have written off using the sports hall, which becomes an exam studio from April to July.  Inclusive exams are not really happening as we test the resilience of our children, not what they have learnt.
  • Schools such as mine are the last stop motel, they are all inclusive where we provide counselling, attendance monitoring, behaviour support, psychology assessments, nurturing for parents and students and even the police/nurses have an office. Schools and children should not be measured on a test, undertaken in a leaky sports hall, at the end of eleven years of education – I was determined to get this point in.  This became a frustrated rant at the unreasonable demands on all secondary schools and what we are expected to deliver with no external financial support.
  • Everyone has been to school, therefore they all have an opinion but schools evolve so quickly. Theresa May’s grammar school education was in the 70s and we have changed immeasurably since then. We need the evidence that they will be beneficial not detrimental.  Grammar schools will entrench separation not increase inclusive opportunities.

There were more but I screwed up the cards, frustrated at a likely lack of air time!

Disappointingly, I undertook a pleasant hour’s filming walking around my fabulous school for thirty seconds of camera action, with the television viewers in no doubt ‘I would argue strongly’ – I said it twice in favour of the state school system, so it was an interesting editing of the filming between questions one and six. Go to https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07y9f87 at 44 minutes 38 seconds to see me in all my glory.  Therefore, what did I learn about the television process?

  • The camera puts on more than ‘ten pounds’ and filming in the last week before half term was not conducive to feeling young. The camera was close and obtrusive and that is the story I am sticking to!
  • Sound bites are what sells. Lengthy considerations are not going to get airtime.  We are a ‘pot noodle’, instantaneous generation and simplistic points are what were delivered, especially by the Conservative MP from Rugby who got two thirds of the  airtime with Boris like ‘sound bites’ such as ‘we deliver what the parents want’, ‘grammar schools are good schools’!  Alliteration and smooth but seriously lacking evidence or ability to answer the question.
  • Nobody really cares about the financial crisis that Worcestershire schools are currently facing. Only by the radical action such as the proposed four day school week that Sussex headteachers are considering will thought be given to essential money.  Headteachers claiming to be cash strapped are not good viewing figures.  My serious proposal to the Worcestershire headteachers is that we now need to demand the attention of the politicians who have ignored reasonable headteachers.  Striking, like the junior doctors, has to be a last action but the cuts are  now so harsh that long term adequate school provision is being affected.

Finally, our seagulls are seriously hard!!  The £8,000 drone incorporating a TV camera proudly put in the sky probably to display our crumbling fabric and portacabins was destroyed by a passing, unperturbed seagull.  My view that this catastrophic footage of a spectacular descent to being smashed on the playground could and should be used as a key analogy, the state of a smashed state education system in spiralling descent taken back to the 70s, also did not make the editor’s cut!

Floundering at Every Level

When staffroom conversation moves away from the English department’s current obsession, a surreal sitcom world of ‘Friends’, with ‘who amongst staff would you like to share a flat with?’, an icebreaker is always the never ending gift of Michael Gove.  Which of the many daily educational edicts from the mind of the ‘Dark Lord’ was the most stupid, the most damaging?  There are so many to choose from, all being operated in or coming to the loyal royal City of Worcester, all still having a damaging effect on the educational world.

Is it the new ‘free school’? Unwanted, unrequired, unloved and planned with little proper consultation.  Worcester City’s ‘free school’ is going to be rolled out in 2018 to the cost of £13 million.  A school of 600, hoping to glean top scientific students from the rest of us is a worrying threat to the five remaining city portacabin state schools.  I have expressed serious reservations about this becoming a success due to lack of need, lack of parental desire and a belief that there aren’t the science teachers out there!  2018 will prove whether it is going to be a successful venture or be consigned to the Gove bin of wasteful, expensive ideas.

A second contender would be the reform of teacher training that has left us bereft of science and maths teachers, which is a long term crisis that will affect the profession for the next decade.  Gove’s third strong new initiative is the ill thought out introduction of the Progress 8 measure, which has meant the castration of languages and the arts as viable options in so many schools as senior leaders ‘chase’ the correct bucket list, hoping to receive a positive score never mind the aptitude or needs of their students.  Just look at the number of entries for languages, halved from five years ago – decisions which may effect their future employability and life chances.  Furthermore, this judgement is limited as there is no real comparison.  Good grades means good scores and the more affluent schools and demographic areas will score heavily.  There needs to be recognition, a weighting for those who get good grades against home, school, community and cultural expectations, not a simplistic 8 grades good, points make prizes measurement.  Hard to do if you cannot employ/find a science teacher.

Nevertheless, the huge change in GCSE grading with 9 – 1 replacing A*- G will, I believe, be his most contentious and unless some dramatic developments occur, his most damaging with already a dread of August 2017 results day forming in my already educationally neurotic stomach.

This potential change has hung over the profession for the last year as confusion continues as to what it will look like.   A GCSE level 4 grade will now be equivalent to a C grade but the following year this will become a level 5?!  This mammoth educational change perhaps explains the air of lethargy and flatness I feel, not buoyed by relatively good GCSE results and a fabulous full staffroom that should give an air of hope and optimism for the new year.  My weariness is rooted in the speed of educational change, which is externally driven and appears to be rushed without sensible consultation or any real evidence.  No coursework in the final GCSE mark increases the lack of feeling of control for staff and stressed out students.  Coursework is another life skill that has been removed as we ‘hurtle’ back to 1970s education, without the trust in teachers that could mean we teach in a robotic, exam priority way, which I fear is detrimental to our complex society of 2016.

This change to 9-1 did not appear to be rooted in educational research or proper evidence with the proposed change late in 2013.  Only 15% of the 328 teacher and parent responses agreed with the change.  Employers and universities were even more scathing and unwelcoming with only 9% apparently agreeing to the change.  So we have an exam system that is established and understood being replaced by the introduction of a system that is ill conceived and grades/levels given to new GCSE students whose specifications are not yet written.  You simply could not make it up!  This is based on limited research and little evidence with the idea conceived at a time when educational edicts were daily.

When I talked to Ian Narraway, my family butcher, his dismay at a grade 1 being the bottom score was partly to do with the apparent demotion of his three 1980 CSE 1 grades, which he was rightly proud of and partly because of the confusion he felt at my waffly explanation of potential future 2017 apprenticeships, English and maths graded 9-1 and all the other subjects graded A*-G.  His best Victor Meldrew impression of ‘I don’t believe it’ is a sentiment I fear we will all share in the coming months.  The fear is always that someone’s school, someone’s children will be caught in the exams grade lottery!  I hope it will not be my school but I cannot guarantee with confidence my future predictions. This leaves me floundering during a year when young people and staffrooms require strong coherent leadership!

An open letter to Robin Walker MP: please reconsider your stance on selective grammar schools.

Dear Mr. Walker,

I am extremely disappointed that you have publicly stated your intentions to not vote against the government’s proposal to expand selection and thereby increase the opportunity for even more grammar schools. Please do not hide behind the argument that your priority is “fairer funding.” This is a case that has been convincingly argued and now needs to be put into practice. The sadness is that, once again, fairer educational funding has been put back for at least another year; a crippling decision for many of the Worcestershire schools. The irony that the government can find £50 million a year for selective grammar school education in times of austerity has not been missed by those of us in state education trying to juggle deficit budgets and the increasing government and public expectations. It is my belief that this proposal is a “smoke-screen” to mask the short comings recent educational policy has caused, leaving those leading schools bewildered as to what could be next. For example, currently:

  • Final year GCSE students are about to take a variety of exams not yet written, with no grade boundaries and no exam board advice. In the crucial English and Maths examinations, levels will now replace grades. Yet, the teachers – and crucially – the students, do not know what a Level 4 or 5 criteria is. The exam boards are in utter chaos and sadly our students are being used as “guinea pigs” with exams that are not fit for purpose.
  • The proposal to allow universities to set up new free schools in return for newly increased student fees is tantamount to blackmail and is creating a system that will surely fail. Once again, this allows universities to prioritise profit over potential. It is hard to comprehend how a university will be able to successfully run or take over a school in a deprived area, not their forte.

In the last ten years, head teachers have been guided towards Finland’s education system which is rightly being lauded as one of the best in Europe. I would point out that this system does not start any child before seven and no selective or independent schools are allowed until students are eighteen. Furthermore, when ministers were concerned about a recent dip in education, their action was to increase the arts and music. Perhaps this flourishing educational system could be a model for your current government to give consideration to?

Please support your excellent Worcester city schools and reconsider your decision to side with the government by not rebelling against this proposal. The Worcester city state schools have – once again – achieved way above the national average for GCSE results in 2016; a remarkable achievement considering the longstanding educational predicament that we have faced. Selective grammar education, as proven by the Sutton Trust’s 2013 extended research project, entrench privilege and disadvantage. They will not achieve the meritocracy that you and your government wish to create. This is a proposal that – yet again – undermines and devalues all those who work successfully within the fantastic state school system.

Yours sincerely,

Neil S Morris

Head teacher at Christopher Whitehead Language College

If you would like to petition for Mr. Walker to reconsider his decision on grammar school education, please sign the petition at the following link: https://www.change.org/p/robin-walker-mp-robin-walker-mp-reconsider-your-decision-to-vote-for-selective-grammar-schools?recruiter=601786091&utm_source=share_for_starters&utm_medium=copyLink


Annual August Anxiety

The great Terry Pratchett is attributed with observing that

“the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading.  People like a show.”

Perhaps this is why the month of August is a time of worry and fear as headteachers everywhere await their school students’ fate and possible new, enforced careers.  The A-level and GCSE results over analysis and subsequent tedious, inaccurate media comparison and inevitable annual conclusions that are drawn from these results are unhelpful and emotive.  We downplay success in an understated ‘British’ manner.  Good results are too quickly minimised with ‘they were a good year group’ or ‘we got lucky’, as intervention lists are planned and worry turns to the new years 11 and 13.  Poor or unexpected results, even in one subject such as in the English marking grade boundary fiasco of 2012/13, can lead to a year of uncertainty and paralysis of decision making as daily action plans look at what we could do, should have done.  Good results are crucial.  They positively affect the number of student applications and thereby essential finance, staff morale and student confidence.

Good results sway the next Ofsted judgement, which will lead to further upward or downward spiral.  This is based on ‘glib’ judgements from a two day, fly through inspection that barely scratches the surface of a school, its ethos, its leadership.

Is it not time to have a better system than this annual pot noodle quick snap judgement of schools?  Analysis of results has to occur but not the stereotype of success or failure.  Failure or when things have not gone well has been when I have been most proud of my staff.  The English department have moved from a restrictive period of underperformance to the happier climate of exam success.  This has seen awesome results this year of 93% A*- C.  The same staff, and I would argue similar approach, now have the freedom to innovate and challenge with confidence.  Good results allow you to develop your practice and have the confidence to do so.  The key to this turnaround has been superb support from governors, which is very different from passive, unchallenging support.  Their belief in the staff, the staff review system and the action plan helped, as did the lack of Ofsted.  Ofsted during this period would have put us in a limiting category, now we’d be pushing ‘outstanding’.  Neither judgement would have been correct.  We correctly made the judgement that our KS4 curriculum and teaching was good but our gentle, nurturing approach to year 7/8 was not having the desired effect.  KS3 is the key drive of a school and I would suggest should be the focus of Ofsted for the next five years.  This would stop the quick fix, simplistic emergency cramming of year 11 that occurs.  Get it right in years 7, 8 and 9 and obviously the foundations for success are formed.  My quick fix to the reduction of the annual August stress of results would be:

  • Not to publish results – public comparisons do not help local collaboration but can create understandable but silly GCSE/A-level envy.
  • Ofsted to judge schools on an average from the previous inspection, hopefully every three years. This would eradicate the paralysis dips in performance can cause and would allow schools time to remedy concerns, plan properly and not work on a year by year basis.
  • Ofsted to place far greater emphasis on KS3 than currently occurs, with particular reflection on the level of challenge and the curriculum.
  • Measure schools on all GCSE subjects. RE should be part of the Ebacc measure.  Art, music and sport are essential subjects/qualifications for some, not the marginalised measure they have become.
  • Optimistically, I would readdress the need to be judged by exams and reintroduce coursework assessment but that’s for another blog.

For the record, we did ‘okay’, ‘they were a good year group’ but I am worried about grades 1-9 and our new year 11!