Enough is enough

“We are spending record amounts on our school funding. We are the third highest spender on education in the OECD”

Nick Gibb on Radio 4’s Today programme.

After 2000 headteachers marched on Downing Street hoping to provoke the public in to outrage about school funding, Nick Gibb scored a tremendous own goal by claiming not only record levels of school funding but an almost world-beating commitment to investment in education. Both are true, but like all statistics are only correct in a very specific sense. What these claims omit is… well, every other piece of information you need to understand whether the current cohorts of pupils in Britain’s schools are getting a fair deal. To understand whether the ‘record levels of funding’ are sufficient, you at least need to know how many pupils’ education this needs to cover (more) and how much it now costs to deliver this education (lots more). To take a view on whether our rank position for spending in relation to other countries is something to be proud of, you must firstly know what type of spending this includes. For most people, boasting about how much students have to spend on university tuition fees and how much parents fork out on private education is rather perverse, and doesn’t really tell us anything about the debate on state-school funding. Unfortunately, the figures quoted include both these amounts. The use of these statistics in the context of the school funding debate is either an indication of ineptitude or, worse, a deliberate attempt to deceive the public.

The fact is that school funding has fallen in real-terms by around 8% since 2010, as confirmed by the IFS. This is an inconvenient truth for politicians, but perhaps not surprising given the stated aim of controlling national debt through fiscal restraint. Whether or not you agree with austerity, you don’t need to be an economist to know that it was inevitable that spending on education would fall. It is also true that education spending in the first decade of this century increased significantly. Times were good. If you take the long view, spending on schools today doesn’t look too bad in comparison to when the Labour Government took power in 1997. It is easy to see why the present Government (and no doubt many members of the public) think that headteachers should put up and shut up. Perhaps if the Government were straight-talking and honest about the cuts in funding, and offered support to deal with this, they would.

But this whole debate misses the point. The question isn’t ‘Are schools getting more or less than before?’ or ‘Are we spending more or less than other countries?’. The question we should be asking is…

…is it enough?

And if you care about whether schools are getting ‘enough’ funding, the question you might ask next is ‘Enough for what?’.

The problem seems to me to be that we haven’t defined exactly what it is that we want schools to provide. We have this vague notion of what schools do, but as a public service it is fairly undefined. Given the amount of money being spent (soon to be £4,800 minimum for every secondary school pupil, for example), we are surprisingly laid-back about defining what we get for this money. You cannot imagine a private transaction in which we are as willing to accept such an undefined notion of what we will get in exchange for our cash. Without a clear definition of state-school education provision, we cannot cost this service and therefore do not really know how much money is needed. As a result, when we can no longer afford to spend as much on schools we are not clear what it is we will no longer do. Equally, we cannot make rational decisions about what else schools could provide and whether we are willing to fund this appropriately.

There are further problems with a lack of clarity over what schools actually do. Over time, schools experience mission creep as society places increasing burdens on the education system to attempt to resolve social ills and address emerging challenges, such as those caused by social media. Without clarity over the role of the school, what they should and should not provide, schools will feel pressure to stretch themselves to meet these expectations, and in doing so put increasing pressure on resources. This tendency is exacerbated by the competitive market in which parents shop-around for their child’s school. In one respect, competition can be beneficial in encouraging schools to improve the quality of core education, but quality is hard for parents to see, whilst the breadth of opportunities available can easily be quantified and so schools must do more, rather than do better. Mission creep takes its toll, not only in terms of pressure on a school’s finite resources but in the pressure it places on staff who are asked to deliver much more than their contract requires, often much more than is sustainable for them personally.

To illustrate how ill-defined our state-education system is, consider the following:

  • Counselling services: Is it the role of the education system to employ counselors to support students with emotional difficulties, or should this be provided through the healthcare system? Increasingly, GPs in our region of the country will push back students seeking help and advise them to ask the school for counselling support. Many schools provide such services in an attempt to support young people, but should they? Is this part of our state-education service?
  • Child care: The last Labour government encouraged (and funded) schools to provide out-of-hours child-care to help working families balance the demands of work and family life. Whilst the funding no longer exists, the expectation of parents for schools (particularly primary schools) to supervise pupils and provide activities before and after school remains. Is child-care part of our state-education service?
  • After school clubs: Schools in the UK have traditionally provided free extra-curricular activities, such as sport and drama. However, some schools are beginning to ask for voluntary contributions, or even charge, for participation. Do we want such activities to be provided by all schools free-of-charge? If so, how are these funded? At present, teachers give their time freely but are not obliged to under school teachers pay and conditions. Neither do schools receive any additional funding to promote or encourage this extended offer. What level of extra-curricular activities can we expect from our schools?
  • Societal problems: Schools have absorbed the tidal-wave of problems arising from social media, and addressing relationship problems and bullying is, we would all agree, part of what we expect schools to do. However, most of the issues arise outside of school. To what extent do we expect schools to arbitrate and resolve these problems? Similarly, do we want schools to address problems arising between families in the community, support parents in bringing up their kids and working with the police to address anti-social behaviour in the community? The Pupil Premium strategy has targeted resources (although it was never ‘new money’) for schools to close achievement gaps, but increasingly schools are also expected to be at the forefront of efforts to address the problems of inequality in society, whether it be the rise in knife-crime, legal highs or mental health. As social services fall away, schools are forced to fill the gaps in support for the vulnerable. What role do we want our state-education system to play in addressing societies ills?

There are numerous other examples of mission creep and ill-defined boundaries for schools. If we were to achieve clarity over what we do and do not want schools to do, and cost this properly, we would begin to answer the questions over the sufficiency of school funding.

So what fuels the anger of headteachers over school funding? The disingenuous spin by government is infuriating, but we are used to less-than-honest politicians. What keeps headteachers awake at night is, firstly, the sense that they cannot deliver what is expected of them; that expectations are rising whilst resources are diminishing. And being at the front line, we are acutely aware of the problems that this failure will cause in the future. The core service will still be delivered. Schools will continue to schedule about 25 hours of lessons each week and group students in (increasingly large) classes to be taught the curriculum. The curriculum may narrow a little, teachers’ workloads will increase as they teach more and mark more, but schools will make it work and maintain the pretense with parents that all is well; and maybe most parents and students won’t notice much difference. What gets cut is those things that matter most to the minority; Teaching Assistants, counselors, pastoral support, family support… enough time in the day to just sit and listen to what is on a young person’s mind. We know who these children are and we know what happens when vulnerable children don’t get the support they need. Headteachers will see the damage at the individual level and foresee the damage at societal level.

I think that what most headteachers believe in strongly is equality. Whilst we cannot change the inequality which exists in society, we can at least ensure that every child attending our schools gets the same chance to become well-educated. This opportunity should be afforded to all, no matter their background, social class, parental income, year of birth or home address. This is why headteachers fought for equality of funding no matter which part of the country you live in, which to their credit the present Government has finally addressed through the new funding formula. But we still see so much inequality. We see inequality between funding between state and private schools. We see inequality in access to good schools as a result of where families can afford to live. Most recently, we see inequality between generations caused by the boom and bust of public spending patterns. How, we ask, can it be right that a generation of children can be #WorthLess than the generation that was educated one decade earlier?

This takes us back to the distracting argument over whether spending on schools is higher or lower than it has ever been. It is not the level but the fluctuations that are the problem. It is not helpful that the current government are cutting spending in real-terms, and neither was it helpful that the previous Labour government accelerated spending so rapidly. Boom and bust is bad for education. Both are wasteful. When spending rose significantly, the extra money went in to additional services and pay levels which were unsustainable, and we are now living with the difficulty of bringing those expectations back down. Now per-pupil spending is falling, we have the pain and expense of reduced provision, redundancy and pay constraint.

What is required is stability over time. Expenditure on education should not track GDP, but rather the underlying growth in the economy. This means that governments have to fund a deficit during difficult economic times and reap the surplus when the economy picks up. The role of government is to buffer the education system from the cyclical fluctuations of the economy so that each generation receives the educational entitlement society expects. This is not only socially equitable, it is also economically efficient. In practice, some adjustments would need to be made year-on-year to account for cost pressures, including the necessary salary increases for teachers to ensure an adequate supply of labour in to the profession. However, the underlying growth in education spending should be steady and predictable. International comparisons might be helpful in ensuring a comparable proportion of GDP to other developed nations is invested, but, as Nick Gibb has shown, we must be cautious about such data and take account of the differences in education systems, purpose and role of schools in each country.

Unfortunately, on the day of the headteachers’ march I was fighting a more immediate funding threat being waged by our local authority. Had I been there and written the letter delivered to Number 11, I would have asked for the following:

  1. Define exactly what it is you want our state-funded schools to do
  2. Cost this provision properly and make sure the funding you provide is enough
  3. Create stability and predictability over future funding; think of this as investment, not cost
  4. Stop fiddling and meddling in education
  5. If you want the remit of schools to increase, provide the funding to enable this
  6. Be honest and frank with schools and the public over what is affordable
  7. Support headteachers by getting behind them rather than standing in their way

How much better it would be if Nick Gibb could truthfully say;

Investment in every child’s education is increasing steadily and predictably, in real-terms, so that schools receive sufficient funding to deliver on the clear remit we have given them. They have our full support in doing so.”


The Domain of Leadership

My daughter has a new, favourite TV show. It is called ‘What would you do?”. The premise is that various contentious situations are set up using actors, and members of the public are drawn in. Viewers are invited to think about what they would do in such a situation before watching how others react. The program raises ethical issues in a light way and, although cheesy-American, is quite watchable and even educational.

Let’s play… what would you do?

A member of staff arrives at your door looking harassed. You are in the middle of a piece of work which you have left too late to complete, but you can see that it is going to have to wait. You ask if everything is okay. She proceeds to tell you how overworked she is, how the school is expecting too much of her, that she isn’t sleeping. She is angry and upset. She then blames you for adding to this by asking her to do something by tomorrow. She tells you that the last time she felt like this was when she was unwell and was absent from work for some time.

Our response to hypothetical questions such as this is to say ‘it depends’ and ask for more information. In other words, give me more context. We may be likely to act in generally similar ways in such a situation, perhaps by inviting the colleague to sit down, shut the door and take her time to talk it through. But our specific response would be influenced by what we know. Is this behaviour typical, or out of character for this individual? Are they good at keeping on top of their workload or tend to leave things to the last minute? What else might be going on in their lives that might affect their view of work? What was the nature of her absence from work and the circumstances of her return? What has helped this individual in the past. What are the work pressures to which she refers? Have these increased and are others struggling too? Our specific response is dependent on what we know and most people with experience of such situations would begin by asking questions and getting as much information as possible.

In addition to knowledge about the context of this particular situation, we will also draw on other knowledge. In this instance, knowledge of mental health issues may be useful.  We may also draw on knowledge of employment law in understanding whether any health issues raised may fall under disability legislation, or on our knowledge of school policy in handling stress at work. Such ‘declarative’ knowledge may have been acquired through reading or training, or through direct personal experience.

Let’s imagine that the scene plays out and the colleague eventually leaves the room. Do they leave feeling that they have been listened to?

We all like to think we are good listeners, but is there really such a thing? We can feign listening (as my wife will tell you) by allowing another to talk, maintaining eye contact, nodding in the right places, asking questions and echoing back what the person has just said. This is superficially reassuring to the complainant, but do they leave feeling that they have really been understood, and that this understanding will change things?

The ability to listen in the meaningful sense is dependent on the listener:

  • being inclined to listen, which is affected by their prior knowledge of the person talking and the background to the topic in question
  • understanding what they are being told
  • knowing enough to be able to empathise with the person talking
  • having the relevant knowledge to respond in a satisfactory way

Understanding what someone is telling you and acting appropriately in response requires knowledge; often quite specific knowledge. ‘Listening’ without knowledge is a hollow skill. That is not to say that there aren’t things we might think of as skills, and be able to learn as skills, like maintaining eye contact and using body language, but without deep and relevant knowledge we will only be able to create an impression that we are able to do what the other person really requires of us.

I am reminded of a discussion with a colleague who had been diagnosed with a specific medical condition which I knew little about. As a result, we both left feeling slightly dissatisfied with the encounter. I did not feel that I had been able to respond appropriately and I suspect they felt that they had been heard, but not understood.

I would therefore contend that ‘being a good listener’ is not really a thing. Armed with deep and relevant knowledge we may understand and respond appropriately to what we are told. Without this knowledge, we may make the right moves and sounds but our efforts will be superficial and ineffective; deeply unsatisfactory to both parties. The ‘skill’ draws on a deep well of knowledge, and our effectiveness will vary according to whether we are in familiar territory or out of our depth. We may acquire the habit of asking lots of questions when we do not possess the knowledge required, but this will still leave the other person with a sense that you don’t get it; you appear interested but you don’t really understand what I am saying, at least not yet.

This post is an attempt to extend and solidify a previous post titled ‘Leadership is knowledge‘ in which I rejected the generic-skill model of leadership in favour of a position that leadership draws from the specific things that leaders know. Having thought about this further, I would like to set out more clearly the propositions upon which this claim is based and give this idea a name which I think will be a short-cut for some people in understanding where I am coming from. I’ve called it ‘Knowledge-rich leadership’.

I’ve read a great deal about leadership. I studied the theory in college, read numerous books about leadership and organisations throughout my twenties and thirties and took an MA in Education Management. I have practiced leadership for many years (admittedly not always successfully) as a middle leader in schools, then a senior leader for the last 14 years or so. The models, theories and discourse around leadership tend to focus on traits which leaders are born with or acquire; habits, outlook, personality or skills. We hear about ‘great leaders’ as if that is an inherent part of their being and are told that we too can learn to be better leaders if we mimic others’ success. What I rarely, if ever, recall is anyone questioning whether leadership is actually ‘a thing’, or to be more academic and technical about it… is there a domain of knowledge called ‘leadership’ in the sense of a specific, specialised discipline?

I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about leadership in these ways, and I am likely drawing on many theories of leadership as I write this. However, I am not going to explicitly reference particular ideas or writers in this blog as I am exploring the edges of my understanding and drawing upon the mish-mash of knowledge which I possess, which is not tidily organised or referenced. Who knows, there may even be some original thoughts here.

Before further exploration of the idea that leadership may not actually be a thing in and of itself, let me set out the propositions I made in my previous post:

  1. There are no such things as generic leadership skills which exist separate from specific knowledge which relates to the context within which competence is developed. [In other words, you don’t learn to lead teams, you learn to lead this team]
  2. Due to the context-specific nature of leadership, competency learnt within one context has limited transferability to another context. Transfer is only possible to the extent that the domain of knowledge and social context are similar. [In other words, you can’t walk in to a new job and expect to be equally proficient]
  3. It is possible to codify common procedures which school leaders carry out, but codified models must be adapted to work in the specific context in which you work. [In other words, there are ways of doing things that tend to work, but these are only a guide to what will work in your context or specific situation]
  4. The more deep, relevant knowledge you possess, the more effective your leadership will be. [In other words, build knowledge over skills]

This ‘knowledge-rich’ view of leadership doesn’t just place knowledge over skill, it rejects the possibility that a skill can exist independently of a specific knowledge base (in the sense that a skill is not just doing something, but doing something in an informed and useful way). Leading, as a function which may be carried out in organisations, is defined as ‘acting on deep and relevant knowledge to alter the course of events for the better’. That is my working definition for the term leadership from this knowledge-rich perspective.

What is the well of knowledge which school leadership draws upon? There are at least three:

  1. Domain knowledge: this includes knowledge of the field of education and other specialist areas (such as psychology, child development, economics and social science).
  2. Contextual knowledge; this includes knowledge of the social context within which the leader operates (including culture), knowledge pertaining to specific people or situations and knowledge of the wider educational context (e.g. government policy, legislation).
  3. Procedural knowledge: encompassing received wisdom on leadership practice and tacit knowledge gained through experience of acting in a leadership capacity in a variety of contexts. It is important to note that procedural knowledge is a rough estimate of what might work, not a route map to be followed precisely, due to the complexity of the contexts within which school leadership takes place.

As leaders ‘act on deep and relevant knowledge to alter the course of events for the better’, they will draw upon these types of knowledge to varying extents. One interpretation of my previous blog was that the need to understand the social context within which one is leading meant that it was therefore necessary to stay in one school to develop one’s effectiveness as a leader. Whilst length of service within one school may indeed strengthen knowledge of the social context, culture changes and people come and go, so this knowledge must be continually refreshed. Also, set against any benefit of not moving school is the opportunity cost of experiencing diversely different school contexts and acquiring a base of procedural knowledge which is more widely tested through application to different social contexts. I’m not saying either is better, but each will build different knowledge.

It would appear, then, that there are at least three distinct areas of knowledge which leaders draw upon. What are often asserted to be transferable leadership ‘skills’ are, in fact, leaders making informed decisions to act in specific contexts with the best available knowledge, and therefore their effectiveness is tied to their extent of their knowledge, not their mastery of generic skills. If we accept this position, it becomes difficult to think of leadership as a domain of knowledge in its own right i.e. a specific, specialised discipline or field. We cannot name and place a range of skills or competencies within a group called ‘leadership’, neither can we claim that there is a unique and defined body of knowledge associated with the concept. Leadership draws upon various bodies of knowledge and disciplines. It is the Geography of the management world. There are perhaps some generalisable procedures which we could set out in terms of ‘this is what  leaders do’, but without context we quickly relapse in to the language of generic skills e.g. manage difficult conversations.

Ceasing to think of leadership as a discipline in its own right might actually help us move forward. Rather than lead in accordance with an abstract notion of what leaders do, we can anchor our leadership in the concrete question ‘what do we know?’. In doing so, we may be less prone to be over-confident, believing ourselves to have mastered the art of leadership, and more likely to recognise the gaps in our knowledge and set out to acquire a richer, deeper understanding of the relevant domains and social context within which we lead. Knowledge-rich leadership rescues the concept of leadership from existential threat by giving leaders a purpose (to alter the course of events for the better) and a method (by acting on deep and relevant knowledge). It places substance over style, and points us towards a tangible way to become better leaders in a way that generic-leadership development approaches never did.

Before we can answer the question ‘what would you do?’ we must ask ourselves ‘what do we know?’.


Bad homework

Don’t worry, this isn’t road-kill. I’m just dissecting a rat. The rat in question is ‘bad homework’. Why does it happen?

Much has been written about what constitutes good and bad homework, most recently this pithy blog post by Greg Ashman (it’s hot off the press as I write and has prompted this response). I’m not going to enter the fray (but Greg is basically right IMHO). However, I have been thinking about why we, and I am as guilty as the next teacher, set bad homework. I should say at the outset that my own school is as flawed as the next in this respect i.e. we do quite well but there is room for improvement. By writing this down, I am giving myself some advice first and foremost.

It helps to think of this in terms of push and pull factors. How do schools push teachers in to poor practice and how do teachers allow themselves to be pulled in to bad habits?

How do schools push teachers in to poor practice?

Schools promote bad homework when they…

  1. dictate the frequency that teachers must set homework. If teachers know they have to set a homework every week, they will make up anything off the top of their heads just before the end of the lesson. I have known many teachers to say things to students like ‘don’t spend much time on this homework; I’m just setting it because I have to’.
  2. design monitoring approaches which focus on compliance over quality. Online homework platforms make this really easy to do as they generate data on the amount of homework. It would take much more effort to examine the quality of homework set or to seek to understand the rationale the teacher has for setting homework and whether it helps students learn.
  3. ask for all homework to be marked. This skews the type of homework set. For example, the teacher will be more likely to set students a task which is ‘mark-able’, such as an essay or answers to lots of questions. The problem with this is that the teacher’s main consideration in deciding on the task is not ‘what will complement their classroom learning best?’
  4. respond to misinformed parental pressure by meeting their expectations rather than presenting a compelling case for the most appropriate policy. Some parents will tell you they want less homework set, some more. Often the ‘more homework’ voices are loudest. Parents will often want to see lots of marking; it shows the work is being looked at. Parents will have expectations, often from their own school experiences, of what ‘proper homework’ looks like. These views are all legitimate and well-intentioned. However, homework serves learning, not parents.

How do teachers get pulled in to bad habits?

Teachers set poor homework when they…

  1. believe that what ‘good teachers’ do is set lots of/a particular type of homework. Teachers’ self-identity is a very powerful influence on their behaviour. They may believe that homework signals to students that they will work them hard. They may be proud of being the sort of teacher who sets really creative/fun homework. They may identify with a colleague who gets students to draft and re-draft essays numerous times in an attempt to instill academic rigor. Homework is about learning, not about what kind of teacher you want to be.
  2. have poor understanding of how students learn. Homework must be an integral part of the learning process, complementing the learning in class. An understanding of memory function, at the very least, is required to be able to use homework effectively to reinforce the knowledge insecurely acquired in lessons.
  3. have skewed priorities for setting homework. For example, they may want to refresh a classroom display prior to Open Evening.
  4. fail to understand what it is like for the students and parents. There is nothing like being a parent of a child at school to open your eyes. However, many teachers aren’t in that position, so the perspective of students and parents needs to be gained in other ways. Perhaps asking parents at parents’ evening? If they express angst, frustration and conflict, you’re probably doing it wrong.
  5. don’t consider opportunity cost. Young people do have valuable experiences other than doing the homework you have set. The opportunity cost of homework is hobbies, family time, relaxation, social contact and sleep. However, the cost of too little or ineffective homework is lost learning. Homework must be efficient i.e. deliver the required gains in the minimal time.
  6. don’t consider the diversity of home environments. Not every child has a desk, a bedroom to themselves, a parent at home to supervise, a parent who understands the task set, somewhere warm and well lit, minimal distractions, access to a computer. This isn’t just about poverty and disadvantage, however. Many children will be overwhelmed with hobbies, have overworked parents, fight siblings and parents for IT access and feel under pressure from high expectations.

In the quest to improve homework we do need to address the question of what good homework looks like, but we also need to create an environment where it is as easy as possible for teachers to do the right things and which makes it as easy as possible for students to meet our expectations. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get the Policy right. Undertake a literature review of the research evidence. Ask parents and students not what homework they would personally prefer, but what it feels like to live with the current approach. Keep it simple. Avoid practices which are put in place because they will be easy to check compliance against. Be clear about what is and is not considered good practice. Spell out the pitfalls and how these can be avoided.Create a framework which makes it easy for teachers to do the right thing. Think of the policy as more guidance than diktat.
  • Focus on teacher development over teacher accountability. Teachers want to set good homework. Explore what this is in a collegiate way.
  • Make homework integral to teaching and learning. Homework is not an add-on to the learning process or an after-thought, it is a critical part. Ask teachers to consider what part it best plays. Plan homework as carefully as, and in synchronicity with, planning sequences of lessons.
  • Evaluate impact and equity, not quantity and frequency.
  • Communicate your rationale and expectations clearly to parents. Get them on board.
  • Take bold action to  mitigate the effects of disadvantages in home circumstances. Provide space to study. Provide and signpost help. Set homework which students should be able complete interdependently in most instances.

Now I’ve publicly dissected that rat, its time to sew it up. Another thing on the to-do list.

Leadership is knowledge

When it comes to school leadership, what you need is knowledge. Yes, you’ve got to do something with that knowledge, but acting without knowledge is foolhardy… damaging… even dangerous. If this sounds obvious then please tell me why we spend so much time concerning ourselves about generic leadership skills? Why is leadership training full of sessions on ‘change management’, ‘communication’ and ‘how to motivate’? Why is the literature on school leadership focused on such whimsy as ‘developing a vision’ and ’empowering staff’? Without knowledge of the domain in which you practice these are vacuous notions; each ‘skill’ a hollow shell.

The acorn from which my thoughts on this have grown was this article in the Harvard Business Review (featured by @TeacherTap a while back) followed by this blog by Ollie Knight. The HBR article makes a simple argument for leaders to focus on more authentic aspects of how they do their jobs, rather than worry about abstract competencies. This extract sums it up:

Leaders want to get better in the here-and-now, not to be judged against a competency map or be sold an abstract theory about what leadership should look like. If you want to become a great leader, become a student of your context — understand your organization’s social system — and mind your routines. Leadership development is more about application than theory.

What strikes me as relevant for school leaders about this argument is the acknowledgement that organisations have varying and unique social systems, and failing to understand the context within which you work will lead to ineffectiveness. In other words, knowing how to do something in general terms is not possible; the ‘how to’ is particular to the context of your organisation.

The article goes on to outline how the author’s own organisation identified six context-specific routines which ‘when executed well, appeared to differentiated the highest performing supervisors from average performing ones’.

Let’s take an example. In the school which I lead, we (by which I mean senior leaders) have evolved an approach to challenging unkempt students as they walk between lessons. I haven’t said this out loud, but in my mind I’ve been calling it ‘Stop and shirts’. I know, but there it is.

I first observed my Deputy Head do this when he started at the school, adopted a version of it myself and the habit seems to have spread. My version goes like this…

A student is walking towards you with their shirt hanging out. As they near, you call them over. The other students carry on walking and you have isolated the student from any peer influence. ‘Good morning’, you say. ‘How was your weekend?’ This is a disarming tactic. They answer along the lines of ‘Okay, thank you’. They may even ask ‘How was yours, sir?’ This exchange is followed by a direct request for them to tuck their shirt in. They usually apologise and start to do it as they walk off. You ask them to stop and stand still until it is tucked in. This is mildly humiliating. As they complete the task you have the opportunity to reinforce the reasons for your request, perhaps by saying ‘It is really important to me that you look smart, because it shows you mean business. Also, you are a role model to those younger students walking past.’ Another mumbled apology. ‘Okay, off you go. I hope you have a good lesson’.

Firstly, this approach works. After a short time we found that almost every shirt was tucked in as students walked between lessons. Furthermore, as this routine became consistently applied by just a few senior leaders, students would anticipate what was about to happen and start tucking their shirt in as they walked towards the member of staff. Still we stop them, have that polite but clear reminder of expectations and send them on their way.

However, when I say that this approach works, I mean that it has worked in our school. The effectiveness of the routine is context-dependent. The particular features of our school culture and circumstances which make this approach appropriate and effective are:

  • our students generally follow rules and instructions – rule breaking is the exception
  • relations between students and staff are mutually respectful
  • most of our students would walk on when their friend is called over, rather than stop to enjoy the confrontation
  • we are a small school with high senior leader presence, so there is a good chance of being caught twice by the same senior leader if the shirt gets pulled back out (meaning an escalation of sanctions)
  • the senior team share a quiet and assertive approach to disciplining students

The knowledge which underpins effective action in this example, and in the HBR article, is knowledge of the social context. More specifically it is knowledge of what will work in the social context; this includes understanding the school culture, knowing what students will expect and how they will respond. It is even knowing individual students, recognising which will need a firmer hand or which will be flouting the rules inadvertently and will be mortified to be challenged.

In Ollie Knight’s blog, he makes the connection between the criticism of generic leadership competencies in the HBR article and the debate in education about teaching generic skills to students, like problem solving. His contention is that if we accept that skills are rarely, if ever, transferable but instead are rooted in a specific subject domain, then should we not also accept that leadership is also domain-specific? He puts it thus…

My hunch then is that it seems that hand in hand with the development and rise of genericist curriculum ideas came the growth in genericist leadership ideas in schools. Just as for a curriculum that foregrounds generic skills; subject information is simply the landscape within which to practice those skills, so in a generic leadership model the school is simply the arena in which to act out leadership skills or actions. Limited domain knowledge is required due to the mistaken belief that leadership is transferable and good leaders have a framework to follow. If I can switch between being ‘visionary’ or ‘directive’ based on my audience then I will be an effective leader. Thus knowledge of leadership models transcends knowledge of the domain within which I am operating. Although I don’t have any evidence to support this claim my thinking is that just as ‘skills’ don’t cross disciplinary thresholds, nor then, does leadership.

The consequence, Knight argues, of the growth in ‘genericist leadership ideas’ in schools is a series of management approaches which are underpinned by a belief that leaders can collect abstract data and apply one-size-fits-all frameworks to ‘lead’ the school. This is evident in approaches to progress data collection, lesson observation, performance management, marking policies, CPD, book scrutiny… the list goes on. As leaders are encouraged to believe that they can apply their generic leadership competencies flexibly within different schools and scenarios, so to do they believe that management systems can be imported, imposed and universally applied.

There are two different, but related, ideas here which we need to be careful not to conflate, but which are both valid in my view and relate to the critique of genericism in school leadership. The first is the observation that leadership capability is social-context-specific i.e. generic leadership skills cannot just be acquired and applied across different organisations. We may think of this as leadership within a social domain. Secondly, the idea that leadership and management practices within schools must pay due regard to the subject-domains which the policies and practices impact upon. In other words, we should not attempt to apply generic leadership competencies without regard to the social context of the school, and neither should we do so without regard to the inherent differences of between subject domains where leadership seeks to influence teaching and learning. Both these ideas share the notion that leadership must draw significantly on domain knowledge; knowledge of the social and pedagogical context.

If we follow the branch of this idea relating to pedagogy, the work of Christine Counsell is relevant and illuminating. In this blog, Counsell argues convincingly and eloquently that senior leadership of the curriculum is incredibly difficult as the curriculum itself is ‘fiendishly complex’. As a result, she argues, many attempts by senior leaders to develop curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment fail as they pay little regard to the nuance, distinctiveness and traditions of each subject domain.

Where SLTs have tried to reach into pedagogy with generic strategies that fail to attend to subject distinctiveness, all manner of distortions have occurred. In tackling the ‘how’ (teaching and learning) and in attempting to judge its efficacy (progress, assessment, data, outcomes), if we ignore ‘what?’ is being learned, we risk damaging so much else that school leadership and management ought to foster.

Counsell’s blog posts on this subject are very worthy of your time. I will not attempt to replicate her narrative here as I am unlikely to do it justice, but her contention (above) chimes with the idea that generic leadership approaches in schools are unlikely to be successful. In particular, it is hard to defend many of the common accountability mechanisms employed by schools (lesson observations, work sampling, data scrutiny) and continue to believe that they have validity and worth if you even partially accept Counsell’s views on curriculum complexity.

The trail leads us back again to knowledge. School leaders must acquire and act in accordance with a deep knowledge of the social context within which they work. They must also seek to acquire some understanding of the ‘fiendishly complex’ curriculum and ensure improvement strategies are grounded in specifics of subject practice.

I would contend there is another form of declarative knowledge which senior leaders must also master, which is the domain of technical knowledge in the field of education. This includes a vast array of statutory requirements, government ‘advice’, standards, established procedures and received wisdom. Without a firm grasp of this domain of knowledge, leadership actions will likely be flawed. A good example of this is familiarity with the School Teachers Pay and Conditions (STPC). The STPC document, revised each year, is a key reference point for matters of pay and working conditions for teaching staff. In the fourteen years I have worked in school leadership teams, this document has proved invaluable, particularly in resolving disputes. Discussions which so often may have dissolved into subjective disagreement over what a member of staff should or should not be required to do can be diffused with reference to an objective statement of expectations. This document, and knowledge of what it contains, enables the leader to de-personalise the dispute and demonstrate consistency in expectations of staff. The key to managing such difficult discussions is not some generic ‘persuasive skill’ possessed by the leader, or a general ability they possess to negotiate compromise, but a sound knowledge of what is required, expected and reasonable, and where to evidence this. That is not to say that persuasion and negotiation are not required, but that these are hollow skills without the possession of the necessary declarative knowledge. We cannot transfer such skills from other contexts because this context is different; it requires a grounding in a different domain of knowledge. We may, however, become expert in these skills within similar contexts. As we experience negotiating our way through more disputes about pay and working conditions we can deepen our knowledge of this area and refine our application of this knowledge in reaching resolution.

This example takes us back to the business in the HBR article which identified ‘six context-specific routines which when executed well, appeared to differentiated the highest performing supervisors from average performing ones’. These routines are specific to the social context of the organisation and also require the leader to draw upon a strong declarative knowledge base. It should also be possible to identify such leadership routines in our schools.

Also drawing on the HBR article and Knight’s blog, Steve Adcock attempts to list six core routines for school leaders in this blog, aptly titled ‘The specific things that leaders do‘.

These are:

  • Managing a meeting
  • Taking an assembly
  • Doing a learning walk
  • Holding a developmental conversation with a teacher
  • Holding a difficult conversation with a pupil/parent
  • Line managing a senior/middle leader.

This list is a good start. Adcock calls for the profession to codify the specific things that school leaders do, in the same way that Doug Lemov has done for teachers. In the blog, there is a great example of how this might look in relation to managing a difficult meeting with a parent. What is striking about the example is that the experienced headteacher giving the advice to the author has an established routine for ‘similar situations’ which is quite simple and has proven effective. The leader can draw on this tried and tested approach when confronted with circumstances with look similar to past experiences. However, whilst the advice appears sound, we must remember that this routine was built up in a specific school context. It may be that the routine broadly works if the social context is similar, but it is likely that the leader will need to consider how such an approach is likely to play out in their school, with these particular parents. Over time, this less-experienced leader will develop their own establish routine and the confidence and expertise to vary this approach in response to what they know about the specific context they face.

Having dismissed the notion that there are no generic leadership competencies which exist independent of context, I am left questioning whether there is worth in generic leadership routines which we can specify and codify in the way Adcock suggests. I think there probably is to the extent that there are common things leaders do across a variety of school contexts. However, taking an assembly in one school might look quite different to taking an assembly in another. I suspect, therefore, that greater merit lies in individual schools seeking to make explicit the leadership routines which are shown to work in their specific context. In doing so, we are setting out the mechanisms by which we create the culture of the organisation, and turning the organisation’s values in to the norms of behaviour. Routines are the leaders’ tools for improving the organisation; the ‘specific things that leaders do’ are critical to school development.

How to lead a school?  It would appear that we need to acquire knowledge of how to run this school, not schools in general. This knowledge is both declarative (firm technical knowledge, understanding of the social context and insight in to the complexities of the curriculum) and procedural (knowledge of the routines and behaviours which are effective within the specific context in which we work). Responsible leaders seek to arm themselves with knowledge, not empty skills. Those responsible for leadership development must recognise this and stop endorsing the view that we can acquire permanent expertise in generic leadership traits. Leadership expertise is domain-specific and without deep knowledge of the context and the complexity of the organisations we lead we will do more harm than good.

Working 1265 (what a way to make a living)

In 1991, the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Act sought to redefine the contractual terms under which teachers were employed. The context for this change was an increasing level of government control and intervention over schools due to a perceived need to address low standards in many state comprehensive schools. The Act introduced, for the first time, a specified number of hours and days for which teachers could be directed to work; 1265 hours over 195 days (about 6.5 hours a day, on average). The term ‘directed’ held a particular significance in the new terms and conditions. It was defined as meaning an employers right to specify when a teacher should be working and what they should be doing during this time. This cap on directed working meant that schools could not instruct teachers to work on 170 days of the year and must ensure that work was reasonably evenly spread over the other 195 days, and should not exceed the 1265 maximum.

The new School Teachers Pay and Conditions (STPC) also made provision for un-directed work, that is all the other things teachers might be expected to do but did not have to take place at work or at a specified time of the week. Predominantly, these tasks were believed to be planning and marking. What was, and is, misunderstood about such tasks is that there is no limit to what schools can instruct teachers to do in this un-directed time. The term ‘directed’ is possibly somewhat to blame for this misunderstanding as schools could direct teachers to do work, but as long as they did not specify where or when this work should be carried out it would not count as a directed activity. The 1265 limit was never, therefore, a cap on working hours but instead a protection over the right of teachers to flexible working, in the sense that some of the tasks they were asked to undertake could be completed at a time and place of their choosing.

In 2002, the Labour government embarked on a significant remodelling of the school workforce. A major element of these changes was the enhanced role of Teaching Assistants who were seen by the government as an untapped resource. The changes to teachers’ working conditions were levered in on the promise of a significant increase in funding for schools. Teachers were also to be given protected time for planning, preparation and assessment (which became known as PPA), which equated to 10% of their teaching load. Depending on your point of view, PPA was either an attempt to replace qualified teachers in the classroom for some lessons with (cheaper) unqualified assistants, or a means of supporting teachers improve the quality of education through creating time for planning and marking. In reality, this change did reduce contact time for primary colleagues in particular, but made less impact on secondary colleagues who already usually had ‘free periods’ on their timetable. Arguably, attempts to limit the amount of cover teachers should provide and removing the right of schools to ask teachers to invigilate exams had more impact on workload for secondary teachers.

The 1265 and PPA rules have remained in the STPC and continue to be the main contractual ‘protections’ for teachers from excessive working hours. However, we might question whether they have been effective in this regard, or at least continue to be in the current climate. The evidence would suggest not. The DfE’s own research shows that workload pressures are unsustainable for many teachers (here) and Ofsted have released a report this week which concludes that teachers are ‘stressed and anxious’ about their jobs (here). Whatever the reasons for this problem, it would appear that the protections in place for teachers are not working. Of course, contractual terms and conditions are only one possible way of limiting working hours, pressures and anxiety, but they are an important one. Why are they not working in this regard and what better alternatives exist?

The main problem with the 1265 limit is that it appears to be absolute but is not. Firstly, this is because it only covers directed activities. These activities (teaching, tutoring, meetings, parents evenings) are quite easily contained within the 1265 hours, which equates to about 32.5 hours per week. Most schools run a 25 hour p/w timetable. They usually register students every day. There will be a cycle of meetings teachers may be asked to attend (1-2 hours a week maximum). There will be the occasional parents evening, clubs to run and supervision duties before or after school. These activities can be scheduled without difficulty with an hour or two to spare each week. Arguably, without the 1265 cap, schools might increase directed activities. For example, they might extend the school week so that students are taught for 30 hours instead of 25. This would be feasible given the pressure schools are under to improve outcomes. The cap might therefore be effective in limiting scheduled teaching time. However, it is not effective at limiting overall working hours as much of the ‘overload’ teachers are experiencing is in relation to the un-directed activities required of them. This is explained well in a 2014 ‘Secret Teacher’ article in The Guardian (here). The (anonymous) author demonstrates how a teacher’s working week can easily exceed 55 hours, with less than half of this actually being time spent with pupils. There is no limit on this un-directed activity. Furthermore, with a limit on how many hours schools can require teachers to teach, there is a tendency to increase those tasks for which there is no specified limit in order to meet increasing accountability pressures on schools. This was demonstrated in the ‘race to the bottom’ (in workload terms) to make teachers spend ever increasing amounts of time writing detailed comments in children’s books. Ironically, the 1265 cap may unintentionally limit improvement in standards as an additional five hours of teaching a week may be a more effective use of teachers’ time than an extra five hours marking (and might reduce pressure on teachers struggling to deliver more content-heavy qualifications).

The boundary between directed and un-directed activity is also increasingly blurred. This is evident in the number of teachers who ‘choose’ to spend time during their lunch breaks, after school and in school holidays providing additional teaching and one-to-one tuition for students. The STPC makes clear that teachers cannot be directed to work during 170 days of the year colloquially known as the ‘school holidays’. And yet, apparently increasing numbers of revision seminars and catch-up events abound. It is quite possible that many teachers impose such additional work on themselves, out of a sense of wanting to do everything they can for the students, but if this is the case, should the school be allowing them to do so? It is also possible that schools exert pressure on teachers to run such activities, either subtly by praising those that ‘go the extra mile’ or promoting those who do so, or explicitly by asking teachers to let senior leaders know what day of the week their lunchtime revision sessions for Year 11 will be.

The guaranteed PPA time is also a weak protection. What use is a protected 2.5 hours each week if un-directed tasks have increased by 10 hours? In addition, it provides no protection against schools increasing the amount of time teachers must teach by extending the school day. For example, a school running a week of 25, one-hour lessons would provide 3 non-contact periods for teachers (2.5 hours rounded up to 3 lessons), whereas an increase in the school week to 27 hours would still mean 3 non-contact periods, but an extra 2 hours teaching.

If we accept that the contractual protections for excessive working hours are insufficient, what might we enhance or replace them with?

One possible solution is to impose an absolute limit on working hours and to make all work ‘directed’ in the sense of specifying when and where teachers will work for the entirety of their contracted hours. How might this look?

Let’s imagine a school which requires teachers to be present, on site, from 8.30am to 6.00pm for five days a week. Given a 30 minute lunch break, the working day would be 9 hours, meaning a 45 hour week. There would then be provision for directed evening events (parents evenings, open evenings) totaling no more than 20 hours a year. The school then requires teachers to be in work for three of the thirteen weeks of ‘school holidays’ per year (meaning a 42 week year – 10 weeks of holidays). Importantly, teachers are mandated to carry out no additional work outside of these working hours. These arrangements would mean an average working week of 45.5 hours (substantially less than at present); a cap set at 1910 hours a year. Calculated as an average over 47 weeks (the normal working year for many professions) would give a figure of just under 41 hours per week, which is broadly in line with what many full-time workers would expect to work.

This is just an example, and you can play around with the figures. However, the point is that such a model has the benefit of being absolute. Whereas the job of teaching is currently dictated by how much work you are given (and you struggle to find the time to get it all done), the onus would now be on the employer to find the most efficient way of employing teachers’ time to maximise standards. There can be no arms race whereby standards are improved at the expense of teachers’ wellbeing. Given this restriction on the school, we now start to consider the opportunity cost of the various ways we could deploy teachers. We may indeed decide that it makes more sense to ask teachers to teach for longer, perhaps 27 hours a week instead of 22. This is where their skills might best be deployed. To achieve this, you may significantly reduce or even cease the requirement for marking books as the benefit of more teaching exceeds the lost benefit of marking. These freedoms may lead to many research opportunities to establish the relative benefits of various models of teachers working patterns. It may in fact result that instead of reducing educational standards due to teachers working fewer hours, standards are increased as we learn more about the most effective workforce models possible within the resources available.

An argument against such an approach would be around the loss of work flexibility for teachers, particularly those with young families. I would argue that this need not be the case. There is a framework within the law for flexible working requests and employers are required to consider these. Flexible working arrangements could be considered for all those teachers who have legitimate reasons to ask for the right to complete work at a time and in a place more convenient to their personal circumstances.

The most obvious advantage of a ‘fixed and capped’ working hours model is the protection and certainty it provides to teachers. Additional protections might be added to ensure that these terms are adhered to by both parties. Teachers might be obliged to report any hours worked over and above the limits, for example if they have a stack of coursework projects which need marking and they have not kept on top of, and employers obliged to monitor this and act if teachers repeatedly exceed their working hours. Schools might also be asked to report such data through the workforce census so that patterns can be monitored nationally and support provided for schools who fail to manage teachers’ working hours appropriately.

Such a change would be very challenging for school leaders, no longer able to achieve school improvement at the expense of teachers’ health and personal life. However, it might also be liberating to know that there is an even playing field across the sector and there is no longer a temptation or pressure to drive staff ever harder to keep up with the better performing school down the road. The key to success would be in the school’s ability to get the best, not the most, out of its teachers.

Working excessive hours has become part of our identity as teachers. I suspect that teachers themselves would be among the loudest voices in criticising reform to their working conditions, worried that their students’ education might suffer. I believe it would, in fact, be improved. They might also worry about an erosion of their professional status, after all we are committed to serve not to clock in and get paid by the hour. Sadly, our status as professionals is already weak and successive Governments have eroded the autonomy we once enjoyed. We should refuse to be work-horses, giving endlessly of ourselves until we are put out to pasture. Being a professional teacher should mean we are raised high, not worn down. This can only happen if we radically re-think how we work and how much of ourselves we should reasonable be expected to give.


Footnote: I haven’t drawn much from the following article, but would recommend it as an historical overview of the erosion of teachers’ professional status:

Gillard D (2005) Tricks of the Trade: whatever happened to teacher professionalism? http://www.educationengland.org.uk/articles/23tricks.html


All the things we don’t do

I’ve kicked the habit
Shed my skin
This is the new stuff
I go dancing in, we go dancing in
Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer” (1986)

I’ve almost done it. I’m almost over obsessing about GCSE results day. Shedding this addiction has taken me over twenty years. My habit started with my first Year 11 class as a new teacher. Back then it wasn’t a destructive addiction; I was driven by the satisfaction of seeing students get good results and how pleased this made them. Then, as I became responsible for the results of more students, some of whom I didn’t teach and possibly didn’t even know, individual results started to be swept aside in favour of the statistic. The numbers became very important because someone would ask me why they weren’t good enough, or give me a pay rise if they crossed a particular threshold. There were many people complicit in feeding my addiction along the way. I don’t blame them. They had their own problems; someone asking them the same questions. One day I woke up and found myself responsible for all those numbers. And there was no longer one person asking me ‘what went wrong’. Now there were governors, Ofsted, parents, the media, other schools all pawing over these numbers. GCSE results day had morphed from a moment of sharing in another human being’s delight and relief in to an existential event when I would ask myself repeatedly “what does this all mean?”.

I’m not sure when I kicked this habit, but I think I have. There was no Trainspotter, cold-turkey event, no sudden epiphany that this whole self-destructive charade was completely insane (which it is). I think that, over time, my cynicism about the education policy in this country has made be belligerently reject other peoples’ expectations of what people in my position should think and do. I refuse to continually fall in to the traps that are laid for me. I suspect that this is a moment that everyone reaches in their career, when they have enough experience and perspective to genuinely think for themselves. It is the phase before they become inflexible, stuck in their ways and irritating to younger colleagues. It is called middle-aged. It feels liberating.

The moment of realisation that my obsession was over came the day before this year’s GCSE results were released. All over Twitter, teachers and headteachers were complaining of sleepless nights ahead. I won’t pretend I felt no anxiety, but I knew that whatever the results were we had done our best and what we felt was right. I knew that some things would probably not go well (I’ve never known a GCSE results day where everything turns out exactly as expected), but that these problems would be sorted. I knew that whatever happened this year we would learn from it and move on. I knew these things not because of some gift I had suddenly acquired which enabled me to transcend mere mortal concerns but because I’ve lived the drama so many times and, you know what, the world never ends. I slept well that night. My wife told me that I wasn’t a ‘proper headteacher’ if I slept well on exams-eve. Maybe not.

I realise that not everyone can adopt this privileged nonchalance. For some headteachers GCSE results are career threatening. For those working in schools in far more challenging circumstances than I do the pressure of results day is, I imagine, almost unbearable. This highlights the inequality and absurdity of our education system. No-one should feel such a level of anxiety about one set of results.

Our obsession with GCSE results is unhealthy and destructive. It causes schools to act in all sorts of ways that, I believe, are not in the best interests of the staff or students. It is really hard to resist placing the aim of ‘increasing results’ above all else. It is even harder to make choices which you know are right for the students but may actually limit exam success. In the school in which I work there are many things we don’t do which might make our exam results better. That sounds perverse and irresponsible, but it isn’t.

Here are some examples of the things we don’t do to improve exam results.

We don’t make students take particular subjects at GCSE. They have a free choice. We have this policy because we believe that students should study the subjects they enjoy. We guide students in this choice. For some it will be wise to take a foreign language, for others a range of arts subjects may be appropriate. The consequence of this policy is that we do not steer students in to courses with the aim of benefiting the school rather than the individual. As a result, our EBacc ‘success’ fluctuates significantly. Last year, over 50% of students achieved the EBacc threshold, this year less than half that. That doesn’t mean the school’s performance has ‘declined’, it means the cohort made different decisions, had different needs and aspirations.

We don’t make students sit qualifications to boost school results. In 2017, one in three students nationally took the ECDL qualification (an IT course which counted as one GCSE in school performance measures). The course has some educational value, but significant doubts were raised about its equivalence to a GCSE. I know of one school that put the whole cohort through this course in two intensive weeks, which tends to suggest that the doubts are correct. As a result, the qualification will not count in this year’s performance tables. We entered no students for this qualification. Had it been the right thing for some of our students we would have done. It is estimated that schools like ours, who entered no students for ECDL, will achieve a higher Progress 8 score of around 0.1 points this year. Automatically. For doing nothing different. Remember this when someone tries to tell you that the Progress 8 score measures an individual school’s effectiveness.

We don’t make students only do qualifications that ‘count’ in the performance tables. We are a rural school and as such have delivered various horticulture courses for a small number of students over the years. Such qualifications no longer ‘count’ in performance tables. We will continue to offer this course. For the students that take it, they might have achieved an additional GCSE, but they would lose out on learning valuable skills and knowledge.

We don’t run compulsory after-school, lunchtime or holiday revision classes. We believe that for most students the teaching they receive in the scheduled curriculum should be enough. There is a place for targeted support for individuals and small groups, but we maintain that the widespread use of revision classes is counter-productive. Investing large amounts of teacher time in such programmes means less time can be spent on other things. There are three things I would prefer teachers to spend their time on. Firstly, delivering extra-curricular activities (clubs, trips, events). Secondly, planning really good lessons. Thirdly, working a little bit less than they otherwise might. We might get better GCSE results if we ran a comprehensive revision seminar programme, but at what cost? I believe the cost would be spoon-fed students, tired teachers, a narrow educational offer and lower quality lessons for all the other year groups.

There are many other things we don’t do. As a result, our headline figures probably suffer. Since the introduction of Progress 8, our value added is in line with the national average; a score of about zero. This means our students achieve exam results in line with what you would expect given their starting point (KS2 scores). Had we done everything possible to raise GCSE results over this period we would perhaps achieve average results of a fifth or a quarter of a grade higher. For the individual student, this might mean an extra GCSE (that ECDL qualification, for instance) or a grade higher on a couple of their courses. But if this comes at the cost of studying courses they didn’t choose to take, feeling that they were dragged through GCSEs rather than achieved through their own efforts, missing out on great experiences and being taught by over-worked teachers then is it worth it? If your aim is to raise results at any cost then any action that increases grades is logical. However, if your aim is to deliver a quality education for students which leads to a solid set of results, and doing so with principles, then some of the things we do and have done are questionable.

The decisions we have made will not be right for every school. The point is that the choices we have made we believe to be right for our students and this is the basis for the decisions, rather than doing things with the primary aim of raising exam results per se. It may be the case that taking firm action to significantly increase exam outcomes is the right thing for your students (for example, where outcomes are historically low), but we should still be sure that the primary motivation is to benefit students and not to maximise school results.

On Thursday morning of this week I was, as I have been on this particular Thursday in August for over twenty years, in school to see students pick up their GCSE results. I’d taken a look at the data; as always there were some pleasant surprises and some odd patterns – plenty to pick over at a later date. This year I quickly turned to the table of individual students’ results and looked for those I knew best to see what they had achieved. I looked for those who had had a really hard year whom I knew had gone through a lot to get to this point. I looked at those who were really borderline for getting the results they needed to do A Levels. Then I watched as they came in to pick up their results. I saw the delight and relief on their faces. I congratulated them whether they got what they wanted, or didn’t. It was just like old times.

Like most headteachers, I’m never ‘happy’ with the results. You always hope that this year everything will come together and exceed all expectations. In reality, some students pull it out the bag and some don’t. Some subjects continue to edge ahead and others see results dip, and are left wondering why. GCSE results are always met with a mix of emotions, never outright happiness. But I am happy with how we got to this point; we didn’t cut corners, sacrifice our principles or sell students short. GCSE results are not an end point or a start point, they are a moment in time. That moment will pass.


“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

John F. Kennedy

I had cause to research school vision statements recently. We were refreshing ours and I wanted to get a sense of what other schools were saying about how they wanted their schools to be. Our suspicion was that they would all be fairly similar and contain the usual stock statements like ‘success for all’ and ‘academic excellence’. I found that many are quite generic and could apply to almost any school in the UK. However, as I looked beyond UK schools some fundamental differences became apparent.

The vision statements for many UK schools I came across focus on what the school will do for each child. They promise high grades, future career success, a fully developed character and an amazing experience along the way. This seems to be particularly pronounced for private schools where parents want to know what they are getting for the fees they pay. However, the state sector are not far behind in their promises, driven by the need to convince parents to send their children to the school. They too have an income dependent on the number of children they attract; in a marketized system their is a need for marketing. Education becomes a product.

Reading through numerous sales pitches became a little tedious, so I turned my attention to schools oversees, in particular international schools in parts of the world very different to the UK. The contrast with UK schools was fascinating, particularly where the politics, history and culture of the region differed most from our own. I found schools born out of conflict, hardship or chaos whose vision was not about what the school could do for the children attending it, but about what these young people would one day do for the world and the communities in which they lived. Here were schools whose mission was to heal conflict, alleviate hardship and bring order out of chaos by educating a generation with the social conscience, skills and passion to do what previous generations had failed to do. Now there, I thought, is a compelling vision for education.

Clearly schools are influenced by the society in which they exist. We could lay the blame for the narrow individualistic focus of many UK schools on consumerism, capitalism, Thatcher, etc. However, equally guilty in my view is the student-centred rhetoric which has dominated our education system for many years which comes not from the right, but the liberal left of politics. Being student-centred means organising schools around meeting the needs of the individual, nurturing their unique talents, being sensitive to their sensibilities and pushing them to achieve their potential.

Being student-centred is intuitively attractive. Indeed, to adopt the opposite position whereby young people are treated homogeneously, their opinions, hopes and talents ignored, would be extremely distasteful to any educationalist. However, unfettered, a student-centred ideology in schools feeds the cult of the individual.

Consider instead a community-centred approach. This would be a school in which each individuals’ energy and talents are harnessed for the greater good. A community-centred ethos would have students ask not what the school could do for them, but what they could do for the school community (to paraphrase Kennedy). In such a school, each child is treated as an individual, but their own needs are not raised above the needs of the whole community.

As I write, debate about exclusions rages as the Education Select Committee has come down hard on the apparently high rates of exclusions in this country’s schools. The argument focuses on the damage done to the individuals excluded. The student-centered ideology shines through this critique of schools; we should never give up on a child, no matter the cost. Schools must be inclusive, they argue, and any exclusion is evidence that they are not.

A community-centred approach would place the collective good above that of the individual. This does not mean we throw out the idea of inclusion. It also does not mean we stop having empathy for those who have had a difficult start in life, or give up on trying to help them overcome their difficulties. One of the reasons I support comprehensive education, and send my children to comprehensive schools, is that I want them to learn to be tolerant of people different to them and learn to deal with this. I want them to encounter the bully, the racist, the disrespectful and the naughty kids, as well as the talented, courteous, kind and courageous ones. Being inclusive has benefits for the community; it teaches students tolerance and empathy. However, this does not mean I want their education sacrificed because a school is unable to put boundaries in place and have the courage to say that enough is enough. There is a limit – a point at which the needs of the many must be placed above the needs of the few.

Growing up means understanding that you are not the centre of the universe. It means appreciating that your value as a human is in what you can do for others, not what you can achieve for yourself. We teach no-one that lesson if we endlessly tolerate anti-social behaviour. Our vision for education must be about our community, not the individual.