I woke up this morning to silence, I lay peacefully, working through the mental check list (what day is it? Sunday, phew, I can lie here a bit longer then). I enjoyed the silence, revelling in it, enjoying the fact that the world around me was not yet conscious. Then, I sat bolt up-right in bed, something was wrong, where was the noise? You see, recently we had a flood in the lower ground floor of the house, and late last week, in order to start the drying process a company installed 9 fans, between them the make the noise equivalent of a 747 jet engine, so really my house shouldn’t have been silent. I padded downstairs to attend to the tripped fuse box.
Silence – an indicator of positivity and negativity!
Two years ago I was lucky enough to see Paul Simon at Hyde Park, it was a great weekend away in London with friends. We had been planning it for a while and for me, in terms of timing, it was just right. The weekend arrived about 3 weeks after I had told my staff team that I would be resigning as Headteacher, I needed to get away and forget about school.
That Sunday afternoon in London was very special to me for a couple of reasons:
It was a long set (26 songs in all), at one point I wasn’t sure he would play ‘Sound of Silence’… it came right at the end to send us away into the warm London evening.
It’s a song that has always resonated but none more so than as a Headteacher – to be silent is part of the job, to not voice your frustration or annoyance, to remain even-keeled and compelling, often means being stoic and silent. By all means be vocal with your praise and positivity! There will be an inner circle who you will feel able to share frustrations with. There is a hierarchy here, bigger frustrations or concerns to a trusted DHT or CoG… but some are not to be shared at all, for some we remain completely silent.
To be a Headteacher is to be many things to many people, it is joyful and wonderful but it is also incredibly isolating and in that isolation sits the sound of silence, especially when it comes to our inner concerns – who the heck do you share those with?
As Headteachers we often check in on each other, as chair of the Secondary Headteachers Association I made a point every meeting of asking each HT ‘How are you?’, I’d always get a similar response along the lines of ‘I’m ok’ – the eyes often betrayed the truth – it is easier to say I’m ok than to open the Pandora’s box (actually a jar) of emotions that would result from expressing anything else. I knew because that’s how I felt too… Actually I’m not ok, I’m really struggling but in a world of uneasy alliance underpinned by accountability-driven competition I’m not sure I should talk to you about this, especially as I, myself, am only just coming to terms with the fact that I am struggling. It is easier to remain silent.
That was 4 years ago.
We were a local authority in crisis, no money, no strategy, no support. Just the unrelenting constant threat, a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.
Now we have a society and an education system in crisis and I am worried. I am worried on behalf of HTs. A crisis should be short lived, Biologically that’s how we are wired, become alert to a threat, stress response, threat passes, return to normal relaxed state. HTs have been operating for 14 weeks in a state of heightened stress… for most on top of the already significant stress and pressure of being a HT. We must give these HTs permission to share their concerns, to ensure they do not fall back to the Sound of Silence response.
We must be sensitive to personal preference and not assume a one-size fits all solution but we must provide HTs with support in these challenging times and beyond, through:
We fight for these things at HeadsUp (@HeadsUp4HTs) where we celebrate and positively reinforce the brilliance of those who take on Headship whilst being aware, through personal experiences, of the darker side of the treatment many HTs receive.
We have decided that we will no longer be complicit in the ‘sound of silence’… and unlike Paul Simon we will deal with it right now and not leave it to the last act.
@HeadsUp4HTs is a growing network of HTs past, present and future. We provide support for HTs in crisis through one-to-one coaching/mentoring support and network events and meetings. We campaign together to change the system/landscape for future HTS.
If you would like support please connect on twitter and send a DM, or visit www.inspireducate.co.uk and complete the contact form or google form link on the HeadsUp page.
By Alex Atherton
There’s a scene in Sacha Baron Cohen’s film The Dictator when the lead character Aladeen (played by Baron Cohen) finds himself in exile. Whilst there he discovers all those he thought he had sent to their deaths via execution are still alive. There were some parallels between this and the first Heads Up conference held in Liverpool last week, run by James Pope’s InspirEDucate. I do not think I was alone in thinking that this type of audience was a very new experience.
Those in the room had a range of reasons for being there. Many had left headship and often it was because of one or more issues with their managers, governors, inspectors or something in between. Some had just had enough, had burned out or were on the cusp of doing so. Everyone had seen it happen to others and in some cases many others. Colleagues they once knew, had sat next to them in many meetings, perhaps knew a little socially and then one day, gone. Incommunicado. Out of the loop. Off limits. In some cases their chair was barely warm but the end of the conveyor belt had arrived and the drop was too deep to recover.
For some it was deeply personal, it had not happened to them but they had seen the effects first hand in someone close. Of those who had left headship there were few looking to get behind a headteacher’s desk again, and for me this was the most telling feature. Everyone who had done the job spoke fondly about it and much of their experiences, but it did not make a difference in considering whether to do it again. Those who were looking to get back in most commonly had a sense of unfinished business; they stopped before they had really got going.
If I could only choose one word to sum it up it would be catharsis. The emotion that poured out as many shared their stories of why they had come was fairly jaw dropping. We only heard one half of everyone’s story of course, but whatever the circumstances it felt like a stupendous waste of the combined experience in the room. There were some people there I could have talked to for hours. It seemed ridiculous that so many people in their professional prime felt they had lost interest, or confidence, or both.
The concerns some raised about discrimination were compelling. Only in a minority of these cases did people say they had been treated differently by their current employer because of who they were, but it was extremely common for them to say that the only interviews or posts they could get were the riskiest jobs that no one else wanted. If it was a highly sought after job, they did not expect to have a chance. It was either the edge of a glass cliff on a windy day or nothing at all.
Some themes emerged, not least from the many stories which boiled down to working in a situation where the interests of adults were put above the needs of students. The short term transformation demanded from some they worked for could only come at a cost that was too high in terms of one or more of morals, values and mental health. A lot talked about the need for support and well-being for those in post, but as one person put it so eloquently at what point did well-being become such a high priority? Why not change the job so finding solutions to well-being was not so important? This was emphasised as more and more people talked about what was happened to ‘prepare for the latest Ofsted framework’. The warm up ‘deep dives’, preparing for the ‘phone call itself’, the programme of learning walks. And so on.
The more the day went on the more it felt like the Ofsted rules may have changed but the game remains the same. Furthermore, when the rules change the game is played that much more intensely. “Some of the new reports are out today”, said someone. “Are they?” replied everyone who heard it simultaneously followed by a flurry of clicks to look at the new format, calculate time since that school’s last one and so on. Reverse engineering Ofsted algorithms is few headteachers’ favourite game, but it is one in which a large proportion engage and none more so that at the start of a new framework. Absolutely no one wished it was them. If anyone was half thinking about a return to headship at the start of the day, they had not been converted to applying sometime soon by the end. When people clicked on their phones, it was not on the TES jobs page.
The truth is that there must be hundreds, thousands even, of people in the same position. It would be interesting to know if ASCL, NAHT et al could come up with some figures. For each one of those there are others who know it could happen to them. All of this raised many questions. How can someone best return from exile? What might the role of unions be in supporting this? If you want to stay in what should you be thinking about? If you do not want to go back, what are your options? If you do want to go back how do you avoid standing out with a ‘damaged goods’ face at interview (the ‘one who did it before but it did not work out’)?
Most significantly, if we all came together to support those who would be great at it but will never apply, those who are in it but are clinging on and those who are no longer in headship what kind of voice would we have? The answer could be a powerful one. The consensus by the end of the day was that an element of how ‘the system’ operates in practice depends on silence in exile. If whistle blowing only damages those who blow the whistle, or if those who are burning out do not get help even when they ask (as two of many examples) then things will not change.
The last year has shown me there is life beyond headship, but not everyone is in it long enough to have built up the contacts on which I have depended. Heads Up can be the first step for those currently in exile, or can see it on the horizon, who need to see some hope.
I have just read Tom Sherrington’s (@teacherhead) latest piece. As ever it is absolutely spot on. I also read @vicgoddard’s piece with tears streaming down my face. As with all good writing, it got me thinking and stimulated an emotional response.
It’s coming up on two years since I had my ‘David vs. Goliath’ moment as a headteacher when Ofsted called. In my world a lot has changed since then. In Goliath’s world little has changed – Oh, they’ve launched a consultation on a new framework and no doubt we will see the new framework in its operational state soon… with the odd tweak to keep the profession on a low simmering rage – but nothing has really changed.
You see, for me, to get change, you really have to change people’s thinking. I don’t see any new thinking in the new framework, despite the protestations from some notable Ofsted leading lights. If your data is not good enough, I think the basic pejorative premise is still the same:
You are not good enough or you are doing something wrong – we are here to point that out to you and to make sure that everyone in the world knows about it. We see your context but we don’t understand it and we don’t much care.
What will be different is that through this new framework’s lens it will be the curriculum that is picked apart as the evidential carcass of your failure.
Don’t get me wrong, like Tom and many, many others I think accountability is really important, I just don’t think it has to be done the way it currently is.
I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Headteacher’s Roundtable Summit 2019, it was an amazing event, surrounded by brilliant people, offering their thoughts and views on how we can support each other and develop together. As with many a conference, all day long the elephant in the room was Ofsted, hinted at, nodded towards, sometimes spoken about in outraged or hurt tones.
If you need convincing of the all-conquering and pervasive effect of Ofsted in our system take a look at the agenda. I would argue that many of these workshops (including my presentation) have been shaped and formed as a direct or indirect result of the Ofsted yolk under which we toil. What do you think?
How different might this conference have looked if we had a different accountability system? How different might our education system look if we had a different accountability system?
I’m not asking any question that thousands have not asked before me – it’s a well-worn path – so why isn’t anyone listening?
How many millions of professional working hours could be saved if we stopped feeding Goliath?
“And the needle returns to the start of the song and we all carry on like before” Nothing Ever Happens. Del Amitri
Like many I listened to the School funding debate at the houses of Parliament on the afternoon of Monday 7th March. Also, like many I had signed the petition which had led to the debate. 100,000+ signatures on a petition to force there to be a debate on a subject that seems to have been prevalent in my mind for most of my time as a headteacher - funding and finances. I was heartened as over 2.5 hours MP after MP stood to make the case for funding in their constituency - each of them had a slightly different take on the funding issue dependent on their political allegiance but all of them made the same point, something must be done! It isn't political and it is a crisis - it should be to our national collective shame that we are in this situation. Following this clarion call from MPS Nick Gibb stood to speak, I held my breath. He responded and trotted out the same, by now boringly familiar, set of statistics in regard to this government's approach to funding -more money than ever Blah blah blah. I should think everyone had the same response, had he not listened? It’s not political Nick! Headteachers up and down the land need help!
Nick fiddled whilst education burned.
What must it have felt like to be a headteacher the following day? To have gone back to the balance sheet with no hope of a lifeline to look at the shortening list of increasingly unpalatable solutions. I know how it felt, I've been there - no hope of a saviour here. Maybe we should launch a charity campaign 'Education relief'. Stacey Dooley could visit a headteacher or two for a VT, we could all wear red noses and tell each other jokes - did you hear the one about Nick Gibb? We'll laugh so hard that tears will stream down our face.
Of course, in the following few days a number of stories broke about the steps headteachers were taking to save money. MP Jess Phillips' school have decided to close early on a Friday. She is rightly outraged, taking to twitter to berate Damian Hinds. I know the anguish that the headteacher will have had, in both making and then going public on this decision. They will have thought long and hard about the impact.
- What will happen to the children?
- What impact will it have on parents?
- Will it affect the education or the outcomes for children?
The answers to all of these questions will be negative, Lord knows we have spent enough time telling parents of the importance of high attendance, we all know the figures, we all know the impact of non-attendance on educational outcomes.
What choice do they have? Hobsons. it will have been this or something else, class sizes of 40 plus? Who knows? What I do know is that this will have been the lesser of 2 evils, with the sad thing being that evil 2 will be coming shortly as this government continues to ignore the reality that is being faced by schools across England.
If the funding is in crisis, what does that say about SEND funding? What's bigger than a crisis? A disaster? The now chronic situation for SEND funding is both a mirror and a magnifying glass for the society that we are becoming. The public sector wide under-funding and therefor dismantling of any agency that might be able to offer support to the most vulnerable and most needy in our society is coming to roost. What's left? Schools. What have they got? Nothing? I feel sorry for parents of children with SEND and those who remain on the frontline to offer whatever support they can in equal measure - the problem is, neither wants my pity. Neither do they want to hear how understanding the government is. I would guess that they would prefer support, they would prefer that their children feel like a valued member of a caring society. At my school we'd stretched our SEND funding so thin you could get a musical note out of it... perhaps if we all played the note at the same time it would be loud enough for someone at the DFE to take notice? Then again if 100000 people shouting wasn't loud enough, what hope is there?
This is David Cameron's Big Society writ large - you want an education for your children? You want support for the vulnerable? Organise it yourself.
Thanos - If you consider failure experience?
Loki - I consider experience experience.
Avengers: Infinity War - 2018
In the direct aftermath of the airing of ‘School’ I have been inundated with correspondence. It has come from all corners of the education world and beyond. A significant proportion of it has come from School Leaders wanting to share their stories with me.
In all the conversations with Headteachers/Principals, one common strand keeps coming to the fore. When asked a version of this question – ‘what support are you getting?’ the responses are all very similar. The similarity is that in all cases there has been an attempt by the leader to outline where they get support from: Governors, fellow HTs, Trusts, LAs but, in all cases, it has been wholly unconvincing.
That’s not to say that support is not available. All of those listed above are offering support, alongside a variety of other agencies that Schools and their leaders can buy or opt into. There is support available from NLEs, SLEs, School improvement advisors etc. etc…
There appear to be two separate issues:
1) The majority of the support being made available to school leaders falls into the arena of school improvement. Most of the school leaders I have spoken to have discussed how this is useful, but that it also feels limited. Many have shared that it is valuable to have an external set of eyes to assess the school improvement strategies and their impact. To cross check and benchmark your own evaluation is supportive. However, there are some limitations that keep being referred to:
a. There is a limit to the depth that can be achieved in a small number of visits made over the course of a school year
b. In challenging schools there may be a range of different ‘external eyes’ made available – whilst this support is welcomed there is a feeling that it is also disconnected. The SIA might reflect and suggest a different set of conclusions to the NLE to the LA/trust support to the HMI. This can be very difficult to manage strategically. To ignore the conclusions is not an option so they must be acted upon – How to respond to all the identified ‘priorities’ in a managed way? That does not leave staff feeling assaulted by the ‘oh and another thing’ approach.
c. The background context of the leaders offering the support. Our system is set up so that many of the individuals allowed or in a position to offer support are coming from a background of good/outstanding schools. (There is a broader problem with this in that there is evidence to suggest that the reliability of these judgements is questionable, but, let’s put that to one side and assume that all the inspection conclusions are accurate). The issue identified by the HTs that I have spoken to is that the advice being offered is limited by the experiences of the individuals offering it. It’s not that they don’t have useful advice but perhaps we need to recognise that the HT of a Grammar school that is outstanding is not necessarily the best person to advise the HT of a large urban comprehensive in a deprived area. I use an extreme example to illustrate the point, there will be plenty of less extreme versions of this phenomenon.
2) There is little in the way of support that is directly focussed at looking after our leaders and their leadership teams. In increasingly and endlessly challenging times, where not only are we being asked to do ‘more with less’ and achieve higher standards, I have to wonder, who, exactly, is looking after headteachers. I would hope that it is obvious that, there is the need to skill leaders up to look after themselves and their teams. The culture generated within an organisation for all the staff who work in it, stems from the leadership team and will be a reflection of it. If the senior team are not looking after themselves or being looked after it follows that this culture will be reflected in the rest of the organisation. This has been outlined in some detail (with yours truly as a reference point) in this blog post by Viv Grant. Where this support is available to schools it is contracted in – this in itself is a problem. At a time of decreasing money and HTs scratching their heads to find money to preserve front line services you can guarantee that the last thing they are likely to do is spend valuable monies on a coaching programme for themselves and their senior team.
I think it is time to rethink:
1) Can we take a more connected approach to school support and scrutiny?
2) Can we drop the assumption that the only leaders worthy of advising or supporting other leaders are those from a background of good/outstanding schools? I launched this blog with a quote from ‘Infinity Wars’ because in my more cynical moments I feel that to be the HT of an RI or SM school is to be tarred and feathered with ‘failure’ – I prefer to go with the God of Mischief on this one and regard any leadership experience as experience and therefor to be learned from!
3) Is it not time that we acknowledged that school leadership is inherently stressful (joyful and amazing too!) and that our school leaders deserve to be supported with free-to-access coaching support for them and the senior team. If we take this approach we have a chance of stress proofing school leaders through a proactive strategy rather than waiting for them to stumble and fall when the pressure gets too much.
Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belong to strangers and some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills and shake the many hands
There's nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
You see a lot up there but don't be scared
Who needs action when you got words
When you're finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you've done
The plateau's clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work it took was fun
Well the many hands began to scan around for the next plateau
Some said it was in Greenland and some in Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
But those were all just guesses, wouldn't help you if they could
(Plateau - Nirvana MTV unplugged in New York)
Randomly, whilst reading various blogs and posts on twitter I started to hum the tune and then selected sequences of lyrics from Nirvana’s ‘Plateau’. This is a song (and album) that I haven’t listened to in years but it has always struck a chord with me. In essence, it is a song about conforming, sense of loss and of feeling lost once your ambitions have been fulfilled. It’s about the realisation that once you have reached the Plateau and played around up there for a little bit, that there are others… but you’re not quite sure where they are or how to get to them.
I couldn’t help but feel that this is a reasonable description of the current state of education. You see the tune popped into my head whilst I read (for the third time) Lord Jim Knight’s speech in the House of Lord’s (transcript and video here). Like many, it resonated deeply with me. I had also just read Teacher Toolkit’s excellent Christmas wish list/Manifesto. So much common sense in a simple to access ‘Dear Santa’ letter, I sincerely hope that the letter makes it to the North Pole.
In my reflective state I thought about my own experience as a Headteacher at Marlwood School. I’m not naïve or conceited enough to think that we were trying to deliver a paradigm shift in education at Marlwood. However, we were trying to do things differently, in part because we had no choice, in part because it felt right to. The financial constraints coupled with 5 years of significantly changing cohort sizes meant that we had to be creative, the traditional structures that work in most schools were not going to work for us during the period of transition from a large rural comprehensive (the past) to a small rural comprehensive (the future). Within all of that there was also the matter of rapidly and significantly improving the quality of the education children were experiencing. On top of that was the need for a cultural shift amongst the students themselves, to get all of them to aspire to be their best (many did but not all of them) and to get them to be excited about their education. We worked with ‘Whole Education’, we researched widely, we developed, we invested in staff (time, not money, we didn’t have any money). We did so unencumbered by any OFSTED rating, we were free of the school’s past and heading to a bright new future.
What’s that got to do with the Plateau I hear you cry! Well, naively, I thought that we were scaling our own Plateau, we were only partway up but we had a clear idea of what the top of our own version of excellence would look like, our own Plateau. As long as we could articulate our journey and our method for reaching the plateau we would be left to finish the climb. As it transpired, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were climbing the wrong plateau, that we needed to climb that one over there, the one that everyone else is climbing because they have been told to.
Like many in education I am not against accountability, I think OFSTED have a vitally important role to play in education. However, like many, I am deeply uncomfortable with the effect and impact of the framework on the way we do things in our schools. I am even more uncomfortable with the impact created by the introduction of a new framework. If you made it to the top of the current plateau you probably have the time and capacity to see the top of the new one and race off in that direction… but what if you are still making the climb? Stuck partway up for reasons beyond your control, by the time you make it to the top, you’ll find that the whole crowd have moved on. Forever trying to catch up. In OFTSED land there is only one plateau to climb, and it’s theirs, this feels wrong.
What if Jim (and the other voices on the plain) are right? What if we are all climbing the wrong plateau? What if the top of the one we are being directed to climb is ultimately unfulfilling for staff, students and parents alike? What if it’s time to build our own Plateau?
Metaphor stretched to breaking point. For now, I’m with Jim, now that sounds like a song worth singing!
Lord Agnew has ‘doubled-down’ on his Champagne offer, robustly defending his viewpoint – we seem to have a huge perception gap between the financial ‘big picture’ view held by the DfE and the on the ground reality experienced by school leaders across the land – What’s going on??
So I woke this morning to read this article in Schools Week – in which Lord Agnew vigorously defends his ‘Champagne’ deal stating that he needs to ‘stir up some controversy’ and turn up the ‘amperage’ in the debate around school funding. This follows 'Little Extras' and Dominic Herrington's 'Crisis, what crisis?' article in the TES. We can be clear, the ‘Champagne’ offer was no careless slip of the tongue – no accidental slight to the profession here, a full-on deliberate attempt to rattle the cage. Ok, cage rattled… but let’s try to unpick what is being said here.
If there was any doubt before it is now absolutely clear that Lord Agnew, and therefore the Government more broadly, believe that there is plenty of money in education and if schools are struggling financially it must be because school leaders don’t know how to run them efficiently. There can be no doubt that this mindset is deeply entrenched in the DfE. I’m trying to reconcile that to my own experiences as a Headteacher and, since the airing of ‘School’, the experiences shared by other school leaders from across the land.
For example, this afternoon I will be speaking to a primary school headteacher who has already been through 2 restructures in order to save £250,000 and is now in the position where he needs to save further money and is looking at 5 redundancies.
In fairness, Lord Agnew acknowledges that there are ‘pressures’ especially if you are schools in a particular context but I would argue that those pressures are far more widespread than he appears to want to acknowledge.
Looking at this from a business point of view (after all he is making the case specifically about ‘back-office’ functions) is he right? Can more money be saved? Well, yes it can, but at what cost? Firstly, there is the coldness of the sweeping statement about cutting back-office personnel – it’s only numbers on a page after all let’s not worry about people and their jobs – savings to be made right? Ok, let’s put that to one side. How exactly is this achieved Lord Agnew? Even in a MAT this process is nowhere near as straight forward as is implied in this article. Yes, let’s centralise those functions – but the reality of the transition period will, in my experience:
1) Leave schools that are in position to move quickly (because staff have moved on), without many of those functions, this then means that this work has to be picked up by someone else (SLT?) whilst they wait for the MAT to create the central team
2) Leave the trust with the job of having to implement HR process for those school’s not in the position to move quickly. This needs to happen in order to free up the money and the personnel to create the central team
What results is a lengthy transition period where you have a hybrid model. The point is it takes time and the capacity of leaders, at a very time when you are looking to make savings and reduce the demand – result, extra pressure on everyone in the system, to what end? To save how much?
What if you are not in a MAT, as a stand-alone academy or school still under LA control. If you decide to make savings in back office functions who are you going to contract to cover this work?
Conclusion, if there are savings to be made it is not as simple to achieve as is being presented and it is questionable as to how much money is actually going to be saved, especially during the transition period.
The second point here is that the feeling on the ground is that the savings that are required will not be achieved by cutting ‘back-office’ function. Many schools are having to make painful decisions about pastoral support and classroom teachers.
Wherever you are on the ‘savings to be made’ spectrum you will be aware that difficult times lie ahead and all of this will be a distraction from leading your school and ensuring education and learning are your priorities.
The point Lord Agnew makes about ‘deals’ made to trusts is a distraction. First of all, by his own admission this was 18 months ago – things have changed a lot since then. Secondly, surely you have to ask yourself about the culture that exists in education where not one person replies to you – why might this be? Perhaps no-one wants to stick their head above the parapet, in the current climate that wouldn’t be a huge surprise.
I for one can’t see how this latest interview is helping to change that culture. What I can see is a whole lot of school leaders, who having read this article this morning, are yet again left wondering if anyone is prepared to listen to them. Maybe it is hard to be heard above the noise of all of the popping champagne corks.
In the age of short-termism and the cult of the school improvement ‘lightswitch’ - Who’d be a School Leader?
I am prompted to write this article after giving significant time to digest Amanda Spielman’s comments about the circa. 500 hundred schools who have been classed as ‘intractable’ (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/752721/HMCI_PAC_letter_311018.pdf). It is pleasing to see that there is going to be a concerted effort to research the reasons why this is the case and to look at “…why interventions designed to secure improvement, including inspection, have not been effective in some schools”.
I’m sure that many school leaders would hold a view on this, I know it has left me feeling deeply unsettled, even a number of weeks after it was published. I think this stems from:
1- The moral scandal as articulated in the letter – it is a moral scandal, but it reads as if it is entirely the fault of the schools
2- The distance between OFTSED and the schools that is presented by the language of the text – again, it reads as if Ofsted is an observer of this situation rather than part of the system that might have some power to effect change
3- A deeply felt empathy for the communities of those schools identified.
Picking up on point 3, what must it be like to be a student, parent or member of staff in one of those schools? Presumably they are able to identify themselves? The text of the letter appears to be another case of institutionalised ‘school shaming’ articulated so well in this blog post by Tom Sherrington https://teacherhead.com/2018/11/17/edu-shaming-starts-with-ofsted-grading/
I am particularly interested in the leadership aspect of these schools. Regardless of whether they are Academy schools under the umbrella of a MAT or if they have somehow managed to hold onto Local Authority control – What must it be like to be the Headteacher of one of these schools?
I know of one such school. I have lost count of the number of headteachers they have had in the past decade. Plural MATs have had a crack at the nut. All of the headteachers were able to demonstrate a track record of success in previous roles. All of them got their fingers burnt and are having to pick up the pieces of their careers.
If the current trend of ‘leader shaming’ is in place in these schools (there is no reason to suspect it wouldn’t be) then I guess that many of the schools will, within the last 2 years, have replaced the Headteacher in a similar cycle as described in the example above. They will probably have new Headteachers, who have not been in position very long. These brave souls have probably stepped into challenging circumstances, following a rigorous recruitment process with the eyes of the whole community on them. One would assume that there has been a hearty celebration that the right person has been selected for the job. I applaud them, but how long will it be before they are considered part of the problem? How long will they be given to find the school improvement ‘light switch’ that so many others before them failed to find? How long before they are the next leader to be shamed and thrown onto the bonfire ready for the whole cycle to be started again? How many times will we repeat the same actions expecting a different outcome? I imagine Einstein looking on in despair.
When will this madness end?
When will we accept that there must be something much more fundamentally wrong with schools that are struggling to reach the expectations that we all have. When will we stop assuming that if schools are unable to reach that expectation then the reason must be down to feckless leadership and a staff body resistant to change and improvement.
I, for one, would like to see the staff in these schools and their leaders celebrated. I would like to see a collective whole sector approach to these schools (and any others that fall foul of the dreaded ‘inadequate’). I would like to see the term ‘Special Measures’ mean something beyond additional scrutiny. I would like to see an approach that accepts that if we are to avoid the perceived failures of the past then perhaps these schools are going to need longer than a 2-3 year turn around time.
Headteachers are not superheroes and neither are they use less but we are rapidly heading towards a world where, when it comes to the schools that are uniquely challenging, you are one or another.
For now, here we are – these schools are now ‘intractable’ and therefore part of a national scandal.
School/leader shaming has just stepped up a notch.
What if the same approach were taken with Schools from a disadvantaged background as were taken with disadvantaged students?
Like many in Education I have watched with interest as the latest iteration of the OFSTED school inspection framework has been hinted at and teased to the education world since September. I am hopeful that we will have an external evaluation framework that works in the best interests of improving our schools. However, I find myself slightly dismayed that we will find ourselves operating in a similar world to the one created by the current framework, albeit with an adjusted focus based on the school curriculum. Don’t get me wrong, I am in favour of a focus on curriculum, it is the bedrock by which schools should be operating and a good viewpoint from which to evaluate the work of the school in making improvements.
What worries me is that at the heart of the framework and therefore the judgements we will continue to assume that all schools are operating on a level playing field. This assumption, in my opinion, is damaging.
Whilst lighting the fire for the moral imperative in regard to disadvantaged students we often used the picture above to illustrate that for many of these students the playing field is not level – therefore our job as teachers, leaders and schools is to level it. As a system we readily accept this, understand it and act to address it, supported by additional funding. Is it not possible to take the same approach for our schools?
Schools can be disadvantaged for a number of reasons. For my School, Finance and School Improvement Timeline were two key factors:
- School Improvement Timeline – Historically, has the school kept pace with school improvement? If not, it is inevitable that it will be behind other schools
- Finance – all schools are suffering with funding reduction but some are struggling more than others.
I won’t describe in detail the reasons for this here, if you are interested please refer to my blog series ‘School – My leadership Story’.
Whilst writing our school self-evaluation we were sure to describe our context as we felt it was important in understanding where we were on our school improvement ‘journey’. The problem is that the framework has no place for context – interesting but irrelevant.
Imagine a world in which we took the same approach for disadvantaged students… i.e. we assume the playing field is level, taking no interest in the context of the child. In this world we would take no action to raise the child’s aspiration, attendance, engagement with education and the outcomes they achieve. We would assume that the playing field for them was level with all other students. Worse still, imagine, if having made this assumption of these children, we labelled them ‘inadequate’ for not keeping pace with their peers.
Of course, the disadvantage that a school might be operating in should not be used as an excuse. In the same way that we do not use it as an excuse for children. It should be the starting point for the evaluation of the strategic action plans that the school is using in order to address the context.
A good starting point would be to drop the term ‘inadequate’ from the framework. If a school needs to improve, the term ‘requiring improvement’ would seem to sum the situation up nicely. Next, let’s make ‘special measures’ mean something for those schools that are requiring improvement. The 500 schools identified by Amanda Spielman recently, will have been in receipt of ‘special measures’ as a consequence of their long-standing ‘Inadequate’ status… what have they actually been in receipt of that is special? Some steps appear to being taken in this regard (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-sets-out-plans-to-support-underperforming-schools) but I would argue, is it enough? and at the heart of this is another assumption, that if a school is RI or Inadequate, and has been for some time that the leader(s) aren't good enough. (another blog post to come).
If we really want a framework that works for the improvement of all of our schools let’s stop assuming that the playing field is level and let’s start helping schools to level it.
I find myself writing this blog post for 2 reasons:
1. Over the course of the next 6 weeks I will feature heavily in a documentary series made by the production company Label1 to be broadcast on BBC 2 - ‘School’
2. I wish to shine a light on my own experience of leading schools in challenging circumstances, with the same intent as the programme referred to above, to spark a debate about the state of the education system in its current iteration.
I believe, my own experiences, described here and shown in the series will resonate with many school leaders up and down this country. It is not my intent to deliver a blow by blow account (I’m saving that for the book!!), rather to describe some of the key contexts and decisions taken whilst managing a challenging set of circumstances. It is the first in a series of blog posts that will aim to discuss some of the broader challenges that we all face.
The rhythm of the year, Year 3 for me. The added ingredient? We were definitely getting an OFSTED visit this year. We continue to do all things we had in our plan, we face the day to day challenges and celebrate the day to day joy. Every Monday to Wednesday we wait for the phone call. 12 noon, breath, get on with it. It’s almost comical, but it’s too important to laugh at it.
It comes towards the end of the year. A year in which it felt our momentum was building. Like buses, for me, as executive headteacher of a primary, it came twice. Primary first. Hard, we toughed it out. A primary school that had been struggling for years. Last inspection, special measures. This one we were self-evaluating at RI but in truth we had changed a lot in 14 months and we had a secret hope of pushing to a good. In the end we got the RI with lots of positives to take forward that the school would be good very soon. A smile, a job well done, a celebration and then back to the planning board. Tick. 10 days later OFSTED visit two and it was brutal. Day 1 you fight for all you are worth. This is my school this is me. Let me show you what we are. We know ourselves, we are not good, we are RI – progress is our key issue but we are not below the floor, we have identified the problem and we are acting. The kids were amazing, the inspection team did not see one single piece of disruption, low level or otherwise over the two days and they referenced it. By breaktime on day one, two hours into the inspection, I know we are in trouble as the word ‘inadequate’ is launched for the first time by the lead inspector. If you have experienced it, you will know the sinking feeling in your gut. They listened to the context, save £2million pounds in two and a half years and improve the school– interesting, not relevant not in the framework. As I write I this I am looking at my notes from the day 1 ‘feedback’ session and the anger rises in me. It is so surreal, it is so contradictory it isn’t what the OFSTED leaders have been saying for the past 10 months across the media and twitter – the historical data seems to be all that matters in this inspection. When talking about teaching and learning the Maths inspector reports that he hasn’t seen anything less than good and some excellent practice. The English inspector agrees. Teaching and learning – inadequate. Don’t get me wrong there were things that were not good and we didn’t disagree with them but they were also not surprises to us. This is what our self-evaluation had said. In the end, despite the positive, despite the obvious positive culture displayed uniformly by our students the die was cast. We were ‘inadequate’ and it changes everything.
It all came down to the following, perverse and circular argument - In the last inspection the school was RI (as described above this is highly questionable) the school self-evaluation says RI – therefor you have not improved quickly enough, therefor, you are inadequate.
Inadequate colours everything and you have to rip everything up and start again. As a headteacher it is personal, your school reflects who you are and the report is a reflection on everything you have given in your time at the school. For the remainder of the year you dig deep into your emotional intelligence reserves. Face your public with a mixture of anger and pain but remain the composed leader at all times. What was a fragile but tangible recovery has been blown out of the water. I think about resigning (self-doubt reinforced by external feedback) but actually, I believe in what we have done (self-confidence despite the feedback). I talk to staff one to one, I describe the difficult year ahead, I see the fear and the emotion in their eyes and in their body language – it reflects my own, suck it up buttercup.
At the same point we, the secondary schools within the trust, have agreed to make a tv programme. So the ‘what happens next’ will be visible in a strangely compelling 2 hours of television to be broadcast on BBC2. In summary what you will see is the unravelling of everything we had achieved in regard to the culture of the school. The worst moment of the outcome? Having to stand in front of the staff and the students and tell them we are in special measures. When I call the assembly the sense of anticipation is palpable. I know what they are thinking as they sit there in front of me in their perfect uniform ‘did we get a good?’. For them, the majority of the students, the school has changed beyond recognition, they are happier, their learning is better. When I say it there is an audible gasp in the sports hall – the emotion is real from these kids. I swallow hard to stop my own emotions overtaking me. The parent reaction is similar – anger and upset from those who have not bought into what we have done but from the quiet majority a series of very supportive e-mails expressing disbelieve, for many their journey has been the same as their children.
I resolve to fight and fight hard on behalf of my beloved school. A lot of challenging, difficult and emotionally draining work is done before and during the start of the next academic year.
The year starts, perversely, with the celebration of our best ever attainment results and the welcoming of the first significantly increased number of year 7 students in 6 years. We worked hard to manage the messages to those parents who had bought into our philosophy and they stuck with us. Despite what has been reported by local press I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of parents who took students out of the school and stated categorically that it was because of the OFSTED judgement. The rest stuck with us and I am eternally grateful to them for doing so.
The reason they did? What they said was it doesn’t ‘feel’ like an inadequate school. My child is happy and safe and they are enjoying their learning. Go figure!
The year also starts with the same financial pressure, savings required for the next budget equal £970,000. By the end of the academic year 2017-18 the income for the school had reduced from £5.4million when I was recruited to £2.6 million for the start of the academic year 2018-19. Each and every school has its own challenges but I would maintain that ours were pretty unique – take a rural, leafy comprehensive that has been neglected for a while and improve the quality of the education whilst saving £2.8 million pounds in 4 years. I don’t think this is spelt out clearly enough in the TV programmes so I am doing it here.
In me, though, something has shifted. I am by nature a glass half full person and I have carried that glass right through the last 3 years. But now the anger and the sense of injustice are taking over. This is compounded as I watch things around me start to disintegrate as a consequence of the outcome, sadly some of the students will wear the cloak of inadequate very quickly ‘this school’s shit’ and the ongoing pressures created by the staff reductions. We all fight on but it feels very different. For me there is a rising sense of doom on most days, I can hear in my own head the rising note used in Movies to provoke a feeling of impending disaster. I smile, I joke I try to keep everyone positive but there is just not enough capacity to deal with everything we need to do. My days get longer, my sleep gets shorter and I watch it all happen on television as I look ill and tired.
Monitoring visits? Turned out to be one step forward and two steps back. Apparently, things are improving but not quickly enough, we were fortunate to be allocated a HMI who was astute and sensitive to our context. Ultimately, though, there is a framework and Marlwood does not fit the framework.
Despite all of this we ended the year with the books balanced, another ok set of results and a systematic restructure (how many restructures in 4 years?). The School is set up very well for the future if someone can find a solution to the financial difficulty. The foundations are strong and the succession plan to replace me has left the right leader in place to see it through – I think he will be brilliant.
I thank my lucky stars I was in a trust surrounded by brilliant and supportive colleagues, I’m not sure how I would have coped as the head on my own.
This was my reality of being a headteacher in a challenging school. We work in a system where the margins between an inadequate and an outstanding school are quite small. We all know that in our inadequate schools there will be an awful lot of good stuff and some brilliance going on every day but the term ‘inadequate’ permeates everything and becomes all consuming. I know that there will be teachers, support staff and leaders who will have got up this morning and have had to take a big deep breath to face the reality of what is in front of them. As a headteacher? Well the reality is that when we are asked if we are ok – we all say yes, don’t we?
I think the time has come to say ‘no’. it’s not ok.
It is inevitable as we prepare for the launch of the programmes that people ask me – why did you leave? Well actually not for the reasons people may assume. I genuinely think we achieved something at Marlwood but I am self-aware enough to recognise it needed a new energy to see it through. I don’t think any big decision we make in our lives is ever for one reason. For me there were a lot of reasons to think that I had done my bit professionally and I needed to invest a little bit in my personal and family life. I loved my job. Without a leadership post I still think of myself as a school leader because that is who I am, riddled with self-doubt and self-confidence. If anyone will have me I hope to step back into the ring soon.
The second question I am being asked a lot in the current climate is ‘would more money have helped?’. Well, yes of course. I think it is dismissive and ridiculous to be told it is not about the money – this was stated several times to south Gloucestershire headteachers. However, I agree that it is not all about the money. In fact, what I needed more of was, time. I get dismayed by our finances, but I get more dismayed by the short-termism that currently exists in our system. I will unpick this in another blog post.
If you are an aspiring leader please continue to aspire, our profession needs you. If you are a current leader I doff my cap to you, keep going! In either case if you want to get in touch and discuss your context, or an issue you are facing, or you want to rant, or celebrate something please get in touch through my website contact firstname.lastname@example.org. I am looking to build a network of likeminded leaders who are fighting hard, in extraordinary times, to prevail but who also believe that there has to be another way. This work is happening with the brilliant NourishED.
Round one to the machine. I’m in training for Round 2.