Bricks and Mortarboards.

I taught in Knowsley in the eighties. They were desperately trying to recover from the seventies nonsense of new builds with open plan classrooms and groovy “new” teaching ideas that had failed to transform attainment. Schools were being re-organised, walls built and an attempt made to provide a framework of discipline for teaching to exploit and learning to flourish. So how could such a desperate authority make all the same mistakes again? I think it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what a school is; this misconception flourishes in politicians but will infect Governors, Heads and even teachers if they are not firmly anchored in the classroom.

A school is an organic institution; you could have a great school in a tent. The buildings will help or hinder but will not stop learning when the roof leaks or be the magic ‘nuke’ that conjures outstanding attainment when the shiny new PFI is launched. Schools are all about what happens in the classroom and that is a reflection of the ethos and traditions or customs of the institution: the culture. It is not to do with organisation: although for social and political reasons I have always been a dedicated adherent to the local authority controlled comprehensive school, there are great schools in every guise from academies to free schools, faith schools and yes, even grammars (although I attended two shocking ones). It’s about the people.

If the last paragraph sounds like a ridiculous statement of the obvious, I would like to make it clear that I have endured four separate attempts to “transform learning” with major building programmes, once in Knowsley and three others elsewhere. Each time the Head, Governors (once sadly including me) and Government conspired to ignore the devastating effect of the disruption on the school, the real school: the people that it comprised. They ploughed ahead, vandalised perfectly useable buildings squandered obscene quantities of our money and let improving schools (the organic bit) decay to varying degrees of misery.

In the worst case a well established local school was bulldozed to make way for a ‘state of the art’ PFI that a senior official involved in commissioning admitted to me was “a bit of an architect’s wank”. Although crude it exactly explained the structure: it was a bid for a RIBA award and the fulfilment of the Head and the Governors fantasy about what 21st Century learners would need. Open plan, large ‘breakout spaces’, moveable partitions, small group rooms, individual learning spaces scattered around an “intelligent building” where you can’t open the windows or put the heating on: the remote computers do that, smart T.V.s and of course iPads. Teachers were consulted about the design but few complained about the lack of walls…until they tried to teach in it. The worst of it was that the school was a tenant, it had lost control of its environment and bled money to the landlord whilst remaining impotent to improve the fabric. In the three years it took to rise from the imagination and the earth, leadership went AWOL. Entranced by the future fantasy, leaders ignored the strains on the school and finally when installed in the new environment gaped uncomprehendingly when the children failed to respond in the anticipated way.

The real tragedy is that it had all been seen before. Yes, I did point it out but was, as usual, a lone voice muttering inconvenient truths from a lowly position and easy to dismiss. For this reason I have no confidence that the current tide of discipline and traditional teaching will endure; politicians will try to find the quick fix with our money and Heads seek a legacy in bricks and mortar, Government will tinker with the curriculum and the organisation of education which will scatter under its own momentum of a privatised service. One day a rant like this will probably be written by a future teacher wanting “walls and windows that open”, unless of course education does some learning of the hard lessons of the past. Sadly, my glass is half empty.

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The Professionals 

When I started to teach more than 30 years ago I ‘joined the profession’, I took the status seriously. No-one told me how to dress, what to do in the classroom, how to behave ‘off duty’, how to organise my classes, how to mark the pupils’ work or how I must address naughty children. There were no ‘non-negotiables’, few policies, one observation per term for the first year only, no ‘work scrutiny’, no drop- ins, no ‘learning walks’, no ‘support plans’ and no annual appraisal.

There was an expectation that you would dress appropriately, plan effective lessons according to the schools’ scheme of work (in your own style: pedagogy wasn’t a word that any teacher would recognise), behave in a “professional” manner as a leading member of your community and representative of your school, be able to justify your classroom organisation, mark the pupils books, ensure discipline and be accountable for the results of your classes. The Head and her or his deputies would enter your class at any time, usually after a brief knock on the door but this was usually to conduct some business with you or your pupils; the rare observations were pre-arranged. Your Head of Department would talk to you regularly (no e-mails) and departments, Tutors or staff would meet monthly.

In other words I had a large degree of autonomy whilst remaining accountable and being inducted into a framework of unspoken expectation. The only time I heard the word ‘consistency’ was in relation to the thickness of the school custard and the aim was to ’empower’ teachers to use their initiative and creativity to extend their effectiveness and impact.

It worked. Almost all teachers that I knew responded with their best efforts and high standards: I see no improvement in teachers today. For a brief period as an employer of teachers I found an improvement in the basic skills of what used to be called “probationers” in the early 2000s but that seems to have evaporated with ITT. There were dire colleagues who were eased out, there are as many today. There were colleagues of questionable effectiveness who escaped the classroom for ‘extra responsibly’ as fast as possible, there is so much more scope for this today. There were lazy teachers that didn’t mark, there still are. There were teachers that were scruffy, still happens.

Here is the point: I felt like I had achieved something worthy being appointed a teacher, it wasn’t just a job it was a profession with status and responsibility. And now? I am a minion guided in every respect by inscribed instruction with failure ‘not-an-option’ and the dark shadow of Damocles’ sword marking my neck. I feel worth less with a lowered inclination to do what I can for my school; I have to concentrate on hoop-jumping not considering how to deploy my experience to best benefit for my institution.

Leaders: if you truly value your teachers, set them free. Let them accept their responsibilities; don’t hold their noses in it. Have courage, they will respond (mostly).

Teachers: fight for your autonomy. Question the red tape whilst modelling professionality. Argue less over pedagogy: cats can be skinned in so many ways, argue that it is your informed professional choice. Argue less over pen colour, point out it is a teachers domain not leaders’. Be professional and rescue the profession from the madness of micromanagement.

And never use the word consistency!

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It’s all Academic now.

As an old unreconstructed lefty I had hoped to end my days in a Local Authority run “State Comprehensive” such has been my place for the last three decades. It’s not just a resistance to change, I have worked my conviction. It is not to be. I belong to an ambitious MAT just at the watershed of patience when Government policy became honest and admitted that we will all be Academies soon.

I had been intrigued by the report “Chain Effects” when explained by the authors Professors Francis and Hutchings at ResearchEd15 which seemed to me to show clearly that some schools got better and some worse after academisation and that some MATs were more successful than others: exactly what one would expect if Governance were not the real issue. I am sure that @oldandrew is right about his school and his objections to demonising Academies rather than Academisation as policy.

Nonetheless, I held a faint hope that perhaps there was magic in the formula; an unaccounted benefit that would rescue my ‘sinking ship’. After the LA had thrown every consultant it could find from the Consultancy-with-the-very-impressive-title at the school and we had changed everything then made sure that everything had changed the results headed for the Earth’s core. It wasn’t really a surprise that the LA couldn’t arrange help: we were in the Special Measures death-grip designed for forced academisation, the consultants appeared to be previously failed SLT and the Authority had made all of its school improvement team redundant some years previously. The Chief Exec of the MAT gave his best speech: the future was bright, hopeful; commitments were publicly made. Perhaps this really was a new dawn?

A short while later: all of the publicly made commitments have been broken, the redundancy express is rolling and most worryingly of all we are now a thrice Headed beast! Yes, as we make teachers who interact with pupils redundant we have gained an Executive Principal to stand above the Principal and the advisory Principal. These were transported in from MATland without notice let alone appointment procedure. The consultants that were rightly cut off from their gravy-train have been replaced by others from MATland, frighteningly similar to their predecessors they look for inspirational teaching, enrichment and the curriculum to secure ‘engagement’. No-one would argue that these can play a part in raising results but they are not magic bullets.

More and more I am fighting the old battles about ‘learning styles’, ‘less teacher talk’, ‘active learning’, ‘red and green pen’ and ending lessons with an opinion poll about how much pupils feel  they have learnt rather than finding out with a test question. Meanwhile, a saviour appeared. A new member of SLT with a determination to establish discipline via a rigorously supported and enforced behaviour policy, some extra hands for the withdrawal rooms and a demand for extra teacher duties. 

A further sadness is that the new Governing Body has fewer parents and less community representation; that local people will have much less say in the school. Trivial examples have been: no consultation on a name change or uniform both of which have had extensive consideration in the past. Probably the biggest influence on the school will be a rumoured new ‘free’ school in the area by a competing MAT rather than the views of locals.

It seems to me that the new ‘ship’ may float in the long term but it will be in spite of academisation, not because of it. Meanwhile community representation and logical service organisation are becoming vestigial.

I feel that I may be entering a ‘Brave New World’ of Secondary schooling; I will let you know……..

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The Panic Paradigm.

It’s that time of year. Everyone stares into the abyss, their pious hopes slowly peeling away. The hoped for last-minute burst of progress seems ever more unlikely. What are we to do?

You will be asked to ‘identify the underachievers’.

You will think they stand out like Nicky Morgan at a Union conference. They have made themselves obvious for the past few years. In fact, you will have complained about their underachievement to parents and managers in numerous reports.

You will be asked for your ‘interventions’.

You will think that all possible ways of forcing these recalcitrants to work have been tried. Short of doing their coursework for them what more can one do? Surely that can’t be what is wanted, can it?

You will be asked to take compulsory revision sessions.

You will think why will a detention with teaching bring a magic cure for indolence? You will put in the extra unpaid overtime for those that cannot provide an accepted excuse and see the same responses as in your usual lessons.

You will be asked to do ‘Easter school’ and other holiday lessons.

You will think for goodness sake, give me a break!

You will be asked to ‘close the gap’ between PP and the other pupils.

You will think 4 levels of progress is a lot more than closing a gap and anyway why will these pupils do so much better when neither they nor you have seen any of the funding? No extra helpers, books, devices or any additional resource at all, where did all that money go?

You will be asked for ‘data’ to show progress.

You will think is it really worth all of that extra hassle and scrutiny to tell the truth? If you massage the marks in the mocks a bit the problem would just go away. You won’t be getting that increment anyway so why advertise the class shortcomings? All of your previous warnings and calls for help were ignored with that patient ‘well they work and behave well for others’ look.

You will be asked  by parents if a private tutor will help.

You will think an hour a week of an unknown teacher will definitely outweigh many hours of your best efforts at individual instruction over months maybe years, of course it will.

You will be asked to find a way of overcoming every shortcoming in the pupil, the school, it’s SLT and your own performance in the few weeks that are left.

You will think I have done my best in the circumstances, this last minute panic I predicted and it is unfair to expect me to carry on giving ever more of my time, energy and expertise in the vain hope that a final revelation will manifest in the underperforming. Why don’t we listen to the complaints about performance at the start of the Key Stage and panic then? 

As usual you will do it all without complaint, and just like last year, it won’t work; And just like last year, you will do it all again next year.

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Freedom from fear, ditching the career.

I spent more than 20 years as some sort of middle manager. In every case I was a bit of an accident that I arrived in the role and in every case I was trying to extend my influence in a messianic desire to see things done in what I believed was ‘the right way’; to be educationally more effective and socially to promote equality. I think I did more good than harm, enjoyed the majority of the work and am confident that there are teachers and pupils who would testify to my role in their development (probably outnumbering those who would eagerly condemn it). Although I spent the majority of my time and intellectual effort dedicated to the managerial role and my teaching suffered in consequence a colleague pointed out that the vast proportion of my pay was for teaching and a wise Head used to call management allowances “poorly paid overtime”.

The rise of micro-managerialism destroyed any satisfaction in these roles, made me Ill, bitter and finally grateful to  refuse to reapply following re-organisation. I returned to focus on the classroom and the joy of teaching. This was almost also stolen by the tyranny of accountancy led administration which has replaced intelligent management throughout much of the school system from top to bottom (in that order). My school floundered in R.I. then S.M. The response of leaders egged on by the cold dead hand of OFSTED was more and ever more of that measuring: more observations with grades, secret grades ( we were told grades were finished then one day told that 60% of lessons were good or better!) and no grades, more ‘work scrutiny’ (usually mere  marking checks), more policies with ‘CPD’ to explain them, more data with more ‘managers’ to monitor it, more secrecy, more paranoia. But then peace. Why did I care about failure to meet a target, especially those’ Aspirational’ ones? What was my need for approval about? I had no career. I had given it up. I did have the experience and intelligence to know what was right. I could tell if I was providing a good service, I have tried to be a better teacher each year since I started: I think I am a good one, overall. My conscience could be my guide because I no longer have to impress anyone.

The freedom increases as retirement draws near. Although I loathe conflict and hate disapproval I can tolerate it a little more now that I know that I could leave if I had to. I genuinely have little or no interest in what observers have to say about my work save for colleagues with whom I work closely and respect to varying degrees. I take notice of pupils and parents, guard my reputation for effective teaching and discipline, do my very best every day and measure myself minute by minute with my conscience: each day I must give more than full value for money. And the managerial nonsense? Mostly I do as I am told, support my colleagues and managers but when it gets too silly I just stop. I still mark in red, still ‘talk too much’, still work in shirtsleeves, still shout (rarely), still seat alphabetically boy/girl to start with and rarely differentiate by task. My teaching is personalised because I know well each of my pupils and try to tune their overall experience of my lessons to their individual needs, but I don’t explicitly plan that it is just a part of my internal monitoring of learning quality that guides me minute by minute. I enjoy my work more now than for many years. Still frustrated by lazy or damaged pupils, still infuriated by idiotic managerial decisions. Still convinced that locally accountable, state comprehensive schools can be a great thing. I get very tired now and can feel the end approaching but also feel more skilled, able and comfortable in my teaching ‘skin’. Would I apply to do the work again? Honestly no given what I know, would I persist for more than 30 years again, another no and that is why retention will be such a problem in the next few years.

For my mid-career colleagues: try to teach as if you were old, had no career to nurture and could retire next term. You will enjoy it more, stress less and listen to your own hard-won experience.

You are doing a great job.

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The Wreckage

Recently I have spent some happy evenings with ex-colleagues mixing food, wine and happy anecdote. However, the truth is dark: almost all of these friends are ex-teachers damaged or destroyed by working at my school. All of them were talented, experienced teachers that should have had many years of valuable service ahead of them. Few can even bring themselves to even visit.

The most cruel case is a young teacher (30s) who is the most thoughtful, hardworking and rapidly developing teacher I have ever seen. No, was those things. Now a local artisan, self employed and recovering, was recently offered a temporary post at a great school but wouldn’t consider it. This teacher took on SOLO, teaching children (successfully) to meta cognitively consider the relationship of their ideas and knowledge with a sophistication that was staggering. Their class control was excellent, popular with good student relationships. Ambitious, when given 2 by OFSTED requested another observation to get 1. Creative, their classroom was at the top of my visit list for inspiration and teaching tips. As a subject leader, their work was thoughtful and thorough; the curriculum was re-organised to interleaved and space learning, the more regular assessments were thorough, tiered and reliable. The workload destroyed them, the SLT undermined them, the environment that became ever more hostile from pupils and leaders corroded them until illness intervened: ‘morning sickness’, the 3am panic, tears, absent staring silences, irritability and so much more. Their partner pushed them to the Doctor, a short term absence was followed by return which was followed by symptom return which was followed by eventual resignation. This teacher should have been an inspiring teacher and leader over four decades but was destroyed in a little more than one, the effect on family and health was profound; the destruction of self belief cruel.

The next, a mature entrant, a re-trained manager, endlessly capable in such a rich way their experience and diverse skillset became a towering strength of the department. Their syle, a meticulous Direct Instruction based on deep thought leading to impressive outcomes. An impeccable administrator and kind but firm manager, quick promotion rightfully ensued. Their wider experience was a hidden poison, they knew that in ‘industry’ no-one would tolerate the culture in our school, the impositions would lead to action, incompetence to dismissal and even managerial illiteracy to a ‘bollocking’. They fraught against the infrastructure but slowly sank beneath ridiculous demands of leaders, hyper scrutiny by all and sundry observers and finally being admonished for an administration error that was not theirs. Self doubt and anxiety took their physical toll and long term absence ensued. A brief return, a renaissance as part-time teacher but ultimately, a final ending of premature retirement at the first opportunity. This talent still works in another school but predominantly outside the classroom; that rich experience and skill is lost to our youngsters.

Early retirement features a lot in my friends, almost always with illness and a psychological disability of annihilated confidence, depression and anxiety. Most are recovering slowly, some have other jobs and some still teach in other schools but all are marked by their time at my institution.

A  recent escapee was a middle manager with a talent for figures. Their destiny was as a Senior Leader with propensity for administration: Their ability to untangle timetable issues astounded me and the analysis of “Data” rivalled a (good) consultant I know. A sound teacher with meticulously planned and resourced lessons and a thoughtful, compassionate manager this person was not only destroyed by SLT but sabotaged by subordinates in an attempted Coup D’Etat. The psychological scars meant that they have refused all invitations to visit whether for Awards Evening or the school production and that they will refuse further promotion and will likely leave the profession in the next few years.

I have a depressingly large collection of these life-stories detailing a massive waste of talent, training and experience. This is what we must stop if  the supply of teachers is to be sustainable; increases in recruitment just means more turnover.

And me? I’ve experienced all of that with them. Why am I still there? Mostly because I am so fucking stubborn!

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The Sh*t Head.

It has been my misfortune to observe the erosion, dilution or reduction in Headteacher competence since the days NPQH began at close quarters. The advice below is for any further candidates who wish to add to the chaos, confusion and cock-up that passes for “management” in many of our secondary schools. It is not modelled on any one Head but on direct experience of the three most incompetent that I have had the misfortune to work for but even the best that I worked with had hints of some points.

Just to be crystal: this is not fiction; I have lived these.

To be a Sh*t Head:

1. Vision: For Gove’s sake don’t have one of these, your vision is simply that you are in charge. If asked, trot out the cliches: “outstanding”, “no-child-left-behind”, “growth-mindset”, “21st century learners” etc. Take a serious tone and ensure that the audience understands that you are determined to “drive-up” standards and achieve “educational excellence”.

2. Visibility/Accessibility: Make it clear: your door is always closed. You work from your office, you do not accept e-mails from staff. If teachers have to talk to you they can make an appointment like everyone else (20m max.). The reason for this is obvious; you cannot risk children being ‘cheeky’ to you in public, therefore you cannot mix with them in unstructured settings. You simply want the staff to do as they are told, you are the Head so by definition you. Are the most qualified, experienced and knowledgable person in the faculty. Q.E.D.

3. DO NOT TEACH! Simply tell them you were outstanding.

4. Charisma: Is overrated. John Major and Ian Duncan Smith weren’t so bad were they? It’s policies and procedures that make a school not personality and people. Don’t even try to make an impression: your position is your personality.

5. Sweat the small stuff: Your motto is “consistency” (you mean compliance and uniformity) do not allow staff any leeway for individuality or originality: they conform or face action; whether this is the colour of their pen or the length of their skirt. You probably won’t be aware of the chaos in the English corridor after break (see 2), this is a good thing as you can concentrate on their late submission of their Rapid Improvement Plan.

6. Consultation: Minimise this. You rule by policy: devise it, inscribe it, have it agreed by representatives one-to-one, present to Governors and only then ask more widely for comment. For best results present it at busy periods and allow a week or less for response (written). Do not allow any discussion in open forum. Remember: you truly believe in your “pointy” command model of management with you at the pinnacle; what could a classroom teacher know that you don’t? after all, you taught (some specially selected groups, sometimes [meetings! Meetings!]) only a few years ago.

7. DESTROY  DISSENT: Tell them you won’t tolerate it, stamp on any grumbling. Scan social media for this: any criticism voiced or written push to formal disciplinary via HR. Particularly watch SLT, remind them of ‘corporate responsibility’ and that you are their appraiser/referee.

8. Pace of change: This must be rapid to show you are “taking firm and decisive action”. Make sure you have a major staff re-organisation at least every six months, role changes more frequently and curriculum or timetable changes termly. Try to have a minor rule change or policy shift at least fortnightly. This will be what you can point to to show that you have been working hard for improvement and will keep everyone off-balance and hopefully exposed to a policy infringement if you need it.

9. Lie: If caught out in error or at risk of exposure to censure, alter truth. This may extend to providing policy or role outlines that were never agreed or even seen. Present them as if they were. Particularly lie to Governors about progress: use statistics in the traditional way.

10. Corruption: Is a dirty word for treats. You and your SLT deserve those away days in luxury. Your salary compared to some of these exec Heads is paltry. Maximising expenses payment is nothing like the M.P. Scandal. Finally, if you have to ask a staff member to do something dishonest or immoral, they are unlikely to ‘blow the whistle’ after all, you have all the power: it’s your game and you are the referee.

……and if it all goes wrong? Resign for  ‘personal’ or ‘health’ reasons and become a consultant, inspector or step-in SLT. Leave chanting “A school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”.

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