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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#rED15: How did it move me?

A big part of the reasons that I have taken to attending ResearchEd events is the way it makes me feel on the day and after, especially when ‘topped up’ with twitter. I am an old teacher, one of the oldest at my school (which means mid-fifties these days); the pupils fill my day with interest and “challenge” but I rarely get to take part in intellectual discourse that has me hyper focused trying to follow arguments and search for weakness and omission. Thinking makes me feel fresher, exercised, stimulated and will last for weeks as I ponder points afresh.

It felt a little less slickly glib this year, the free clutter less ‘wow’, the Master MC less involved in the introduction with his perfect synergy of comedy, accent and smooth (night-club) host. It didn’t matter. We could get straight to the meat and begin the yo-yo march on the stairs of the ‘building of many levels’. As always Old Andrew (who isn’t) fired me into the orbit of philosophy when I expected something else, had my brain burning and my belly bouncing with laughter. My mind re-awoke the importance of precision when thinking critically about ideas including research; it marvelled at the cleverness that filled the room. I like trying to keep up with smart people.

A quick rush and another packed session (they all were) to take part in applying the re-awakened deep thought to a piece of research on the effect of Academy Chains on disadvantaged pupils. The Q and A of the authors let us in to the nuance of the findings and the process of the research. Fascination, a window in to the ‘state of the art’, speculation of causation, my brain is burning the calories in waves of charge.

A model coaching system was explained next, exquisitely designed, rigorously thought through with the subtle balance of objective and subjective evidence, of compulsion and encouragement all being explained by a master unfazed by a Leading Authority of effectiveness measurement in the audience. I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to feel this support and development at my school. Bittersweet, I realised it was unlikely in our circumstance or at my age.

A walk outside for lunch, mind whirling but younger legs perhaps dimly feeling echoes of their student days. A physical circuit to make a mental map to help settle my thoughts.

After lunch, two more of the same sort of session but a little frustration of more predictability and admitted weakness in the evidence. Frustration, fast thinking, appreciation of the intellect of the presenters.

A break, then a marathon session in a hot stuffy sports hall. Two masters of the art of speaking on Ed research demonstrate their art. A pang of regret, a missed opportunity for something new? And yet they still enthuse, stimulate and make me chuckle. I am tired now, fuzzy-minded and need a snooze!

Later, some short conversations with stars of the twitterati add more variety and interest. I AM a learning enthusiast. The up-for-it feeling battered to bits by my routine new-year “INSET” is back! ResearchEd charges my batteries, opens my mind, feeds my teaching soul and expands my knowledge. It makes me FEEL younger, smarter, less jaded, less cynical. I WILL do better this year.

Thank you to all who made this possible, you know who you are, you were there, you made it happen. Thanks.

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Sinking with the ship 3: Last Man Standing.

They are almost all gone now. The ‘goodbyes’ had to be sorted into shifts and the collections could bankrupt if all were patronised. September will see half of the staff on their first day. A year ago, I was in a department of a dozen (9FTE). Many were long-term colleagues, the most recent with three years’ service. I will be the only one left in September. This is how OFSTED ‘turn round’ struggling schools.

The key middle leaders have all left, unable to withstand the blowtorch of impossible SLT demand whilst living the effect with their teams. They have all ‘downsized’ though one has since been persuaded to return to management. The maths department have turned over again. Even the supply teachers came, went and sometimes returned for encore. This is how OFSTED ‘turn round’ struggling schools.

The SLT retired en-masse. Only one of the previous years cabal was still actively in post by the end of the year. Most hung on for a while to see if they could ride out the storm but over a term it became obvious that they were doomed. Rather than admit inadequate leadership they left for health reasons. They were replaced ad-hoc by supply SLT a thing I had not realised existed! This is how OFSTED ‘turn round’ struggling schools.

This unmanageable mess was enabled by Governors and SLT but the catalyst for chaos was OFSTED. So what of their monitoring? Invisible. After a wander round three months after condemnation HMI accepted the made up nonsense numbers showing pupil progress, looked at the plan of many pious hopes and declared it “fit for purpose” and was allegedly convinced that the carpet bagging consultants would ‘support’ SLT in doubling attainment. Then? Nothing. Six months later when Yr11 were on study leave, when many other pupils were on visits when all assessments were complete, the academic and administrative pressure relieved, they returned. They found behaviour much improved, lessons a little better and (made up) data showing progress. They wrote a pleasant letter and everyone engaged in back patting except for the teachers who remained and knew the unreal, superficial mirage that had been painted and praised. This is how OFSTED ‘turn round’ struggling schools.

One of my friends quit at the end after a decade of service, most in middle management summing up the situation succinctly when I asked if he would miss the old school, “Not really, there isn’t any of it left!”. Next years school will be a differerent institution paradoxically with the same pupils. It will still suffer the ‘Sword of Damocles’ and the new leaders will need to be very nimble to survive. I will help wherever I can because the people who have not been helped by this year of invisible demolition are the pupils, the real school, the real victims of a political agenda unfolded by Blair and exploited ever since. A year ago at ResearchEd14 I listened to M. Cladingbowl say that OFSTED turn round struggling schools. Well not mine, nor any that I know of in my area. This is how OFSTED close struggling schools.

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This is why….

Recently, I read a post from @disidealist that gave all the reasons that have kept me in the classroom for more than 30 years and more particularly, why I have stayed in “bog standard” comprehensives in deprived areas. One rarely hears the notion of service these days and I hadn’t heard anyone elucidate the desire to serve their community in locally managed and accountable institutions before. I am glad that these notions have not become extinct.

These altruisms do not provide sufficient motivation to ward off the battering of the primitive practise of ‘school improvement’ in the modern era, a policy which becomes ever more oxymoronic the more it is applied. The privatisation of  education has been camouflaged with ‘raising standards’ and schools continue to be executed by OFSTED the brunt of these dogmas is bourne by teachers. Another installment in the ‘sinking school’ blogs is due but I will persist a little longer in its classrooms because of this:

I could never thank you enough for everything you have done for me over the past 2 years. You may not realise this, but you have given me hope throughout the hardest times and helped me reach the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. You are an incredible teacher and I will never forget you.”

The student involved didn’t realise that this quote equally applied to them. The joy I felt at their recovery from depression and the limitation of the damage to a grade or so after the extended absence, the self harm and the complete loss of self belief, the joy at seeing them laugh, the satisfaction at their recovery of study and self confidence has “given me hope throughout the hardest times”. This is why I teach. The students give so much more than they take.

And yes, I had a lump in my throat and something in my eye…

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Sinking with the Ship part 2. Watching the lifeboats leaving.

The slow death of my school following the vampire kiss of OFSTED is even more dramatic and complete than I had expected. To continue the Titanic analogy from a previous post, the decks are awash, the passengers becoming unruly, the officers panicking and the band are still fiddling as the sea folds over the bow. All the lifeboats have left with the privileged, the unscrupulous and a random selection of the rest. We are awaiting the final moments with a mixture of fascination and fear.

The first to leave were those with abundant ambition un encumbered by commitment; they secured new positions before publication of the report so that they could claim their initiatives were a great success before the truth embarrassed them. Leaders able to float away on final salary pensions slightly reduced by prematurity were next and were followed by the desperate who would accept demotion if it meant a ‘Good’ school as the madness multiplied of ‘school improvement’.

An avalanche of consultants decended, observing reporting, plan writing and convincing those with budgetary authority that the ship won’t sink, they can help, making the crew work harder is the way to keep afloat. They carefully avoided interacting with the unruly passengers (pupils); their agenda is extended self employment not saving the school, and why not? they have no formal commitment to it. Some have been supervising the sinking situation for over a year, they have made a fortune and still those with the purse-strings haven’t seen that things are worse not better.

Specifically, the first measure was increased lesson observation/learning walks/learning temperature taking/support visit/monitoring improvement measures and several other euphemisms for teacher scrutiny. Typically teachers are seen briefly 2 or 3 times a day. There isn’t intervention in misbehaving groups, they are reported to middle managers at their extra weekly meetings. Next came lesson plans. A full page of boxes to tick, and then the plan to show “more engaging lessons” with “personalised learning” (there are SLT and consultants assigned for this) this must lie beside the seating plan with colour coded annotation for every category of pupil. Every consultant does a work scrutiny as do middle and senior leaders, reports are made to middle leaders. A vast plan for improvement was launched, detailed, long and irrelevant to all except HMI, consultants, Governors and SLT. The rest have read it once, marvelled at its irrelevance and forgotten it. Observations check the plan, seating plan and behaviour, “feedback” is about compliance. Data became king. There began an insatiable appetite for grading pupils: more reports, more tests more analysis, by teachers, leaders and consultants. There was huge pressure to show ‘progress’.

A new behaviour plan was incredibly even more complicated than the previous labyrinthine system and seemingly designed to prevent senior staff being troubled by naughty pupils; they would be removed to a colleague or at worst to a room with a teaching assistant. Teachers were taught that they were the cause of the behaviour problem: less engaging lessons and an inability to de-escalate confrontation the main issues. Mostly, phone calls by teachers for help simply went unanswered until the problem had “walked off”. Rightly, teachers were told to supervise the corridors between lessons but few leaders did this between them; pupils texted, met up and roamed the building. If found they would simply be shown to a classroom.

The behaviour steadily became worse, the staff turnover steadily increased, the proportion of supply teachers steadily increased, the learning slowly dwindled, the teachers ever more exhausted and harassed, the parents more disgruntled, THE WRITING WAS ON THE WALL. So most of SLT have left within a year. The people in charge are consultants, supply SLT and leaders working out their notice having resigned before this years results. Replacing staff has become almost impossible at every level, few applicants, most with ‘issues’ and of course no NQT allowed.

The future is dark, cold and deep. Soon the ship will begin its final plunge, the sinking will accelerate on its final voyage to oblivion. It’s place will be taken by a re-launched ship built without a bottom, sailed without a permanent crew and destined to follow its predecessor into the depths. Ultimately, permanent closure or merger will prevail, the corporate identity merely a memory and the community left with another casualty.

My school may be a walking corpse but it is MY corpse and I am wedded to it ’till death do us part. I inhabit it with determination and an exhausted but grim fascination with the process.

THIS is “Turning Around Failing Schools” by OFSTED in 2015.


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