What does the future hold (post 8 June 2017)?

I’m working on the basis that a Labour victory would rival that of Charlton vs. Huddersfield in 1957 (down 5-1 with less than 30 minutes left and only ten men on the pitch but somehow rallied to win 7-6).  The Conservative manifesto was published this week and in just over two weeks it’s likely to be the roadmap for the next five years. It’s a bit Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5- ‘full of sound and fury signifying nothing’- as manifestos often are, but six ideas stand out.

1. The EBacc:

Despite 86% of Headteachers declaring their opposition to the 90% Ebacc, the Conservatives remain committed. The amended pledge is for 75% uptake by 2022 and 90% by 2025. First, this will require a dramatic increase in the numbers of people training to become teachers of Modern Foreign Languages. And, because curriculum time is finite, it will lead to redundancies in other subject areas- most likely in the Arts and Design and Technology. A possible solution is reducing the amount of curriculum time each subject receives but this is at odds with the increased demands of the new GCSEs. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in 100% uptake for those who wish to take these subjects but I don’t believe in prescription. This has nothing to do with lowering expectations for the less able. Make all subjects equally challenging (no more ECDL-like subjects) and let schools, pupils and parents choose.

2. A commitment to free schools, faith Schools and grammar schools:

The rationale here is simple: these schools achieve higher results so, if the government creates more of them, more children will succeed. Right? Well, not really. For a moment, let’s entertain the idea that these schools consistently achieve better results because of their ethos and not because there is any kind of selection in place. Even if this was true, in our zero-sum system of examinations, GCSE results will not continue to rise. the commitment for English and mathematics GCSEs this summer is 70% of pupils to achieve a grade of 4+ in each subject; in English, approximately 16% will receive a 7+ grade and 20% of pupils will do the same in mathematics. Unless the government is willing to embrace grade inflation (which was more to do with teachers and pupils working much harder than they did when I took my O’ levels in 1987 than some kind of dumbing down of standards), then increasing the number of grammar schools is not going to help ,assuming that it would in the first place. And it definitely won’t help Progress 8 scores!

3. A commitment to an academic, knowledge-rich curriculum:

The Conservatives are committed to a knowledge-rich curriculum and most teachers I know are in agreement that this is a good thing. They’re less happy about the specifications being published in July (a publishing trend I remember well from the introduction of the Literacy Strategy during the last fortnight of the summer term in 2000) and the lack of assessment materials, but good teachers find a way and twitter is encouraging teachers to share high-quality resources at a level never before experienced by the profession. In English, sites such as @Team_English1 or leading practitioners @MrBruffEnglish and @_Stacey_English, are creating and sharing resources far superior to those which schools used to pay for. There is an intriguing commitment by the Conservatives to develop a curriculum fund to encourage the development of high-quality resources, which teachers will be able to use, but time will tell if this is manifesto fluff or a genuine attempt to reduce teacher workload. My money’s on the fluff!

4. Key Stage 3 SATs?

This is worrying- a reference to increasing accountability at KS3 implies a return to testing in Year 9. Things have moved on since 2008, when the SATs were abolished to a nationwide cheer from teachers, pupils and parents. The introduction of more challenging GCSEs will, by necessity, encourage schools to raise standards in KS3 curricula which probably needed a shot across the bows. KS3 SATs are not the answer.  Do we really want a return to tests which have little correlation to GCSEs. Do we really want a return to poorly-marked assessments and endless appeals? As a former Head of English, my department once achieved the highest-ever GCSE grades and lowest-ever SATs results in the same year. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry (actually, I did- I laughed).

5. A commitment to increasing the numbers of pupils who take technical subjects:

Again, this is a laudable aim and one with which I think most educators would agree. I think more pupils should take these subjects- taught well, they combine analytical, practical and creative skills. The only problem is that fewer pupils will be sitting GCSEs in Design and Technology so where is the uptake going to come from? Is the thinking that pupils will want to take these subjects after years of being forced down a narrow curriculum? These new qualifications will be challenging- the T levels will have an increased teaching time and a 3 month work placement- but I’m not sure the demand will be there. And, if it is, then surely the sensible course of action would be to encourage more pupils to take Design and Technology subjects at Key Stage 4. The logical policy would be to change the EBacc: English; mathematics and any 3 subjects from an increased selection to include science, MFL, Arts and D&T subjects. That would promote a broad curriculum whilst keeping the focus on literacy and numeracy.

6. Developing lifelong learning in digital skills:

Er, isn’t this Crucial Skills 2? Please tell me we’re not going back there . . .



Managing the load . . . and supporting those who are overburdened

Ah, decisions decisions: have your liver consumed daily by an eagle or be crushed under 3 sets of marking?


I genuinely believe this is not a bad time to be in education. And yet:

  1. In 2015/16, the only subjects where the Teacher Supply Model (TSM) recruitment target was met were English, History and PE. This shortfall represents 3400 fewer secondary trainees entering the profession than were needed (although the news this week is that PE and English teachers make poor super heads so maybe this is not such a good thing for our schools in the future).
  2. South-East headteachers are currently considering a 4-day week to cope with the increasing financial cuts.
  3. A BBC report posted today confirmed that 30% of the 2010 teaching intake had left within 5 years of taking up teaching.
  4. Earlier this month, SecEd referenced research which indicated that a combination of long hours and insufficient CPD has led to only 48% of teachers lasting more than 10 years in the profession (which explains why I  am feeling increasingly old every time I deliver an assembly).
  5. A report from the EEF on marking and feedback concludes that we still don’t know what works.

That’s a lot of foreshadowing but I think we could pretty much summarise the position as follows:

  • There is too much work to do.
  • There is insufficient funding to help schools and colleges complete it.
  • We are not entirely certain what works and what doesn’t so we cant cut anything out of fear that we’re getting rid of the one thing that actually made a real difference.
  • All of this is taking a catastrophic toll on young teachers who are increasingly choosing other options, taking their training, growing expertise and potential with them.

Of all of these threats, the issue of retention is the one which concerns me the most. I was fortunate enough to start my career in a fantastic department. At break and lunchtimes, we sat in the staffroom and discussed Literature and pedagogy that was working (or, in my case, not). We socialised together and I genuinely woke up each day excited to get back into the school and classroom. I worked stupid hours but mainly because it was taking me 5 hours to mark a set of books. I wasn’t brilliant by any means (I cringe when I remember my reliance on task-led lessons) but I was happy and I felt supported, which means that I was more open to the (sometimes withering but always astute) guidance offered to me by my Head of Department. If not for that solid grounding, I might easily have quit when the challenges became more testing.

Over the last 20 years, I must have worked with hundreds of teachers. I’ve seen good ones who left and not-so-good ones who possibly should have, but the overall conclusion is that when it comes to teacher retention you have to play the cards you are dealt. Most people want to be better and sometimes the behaviours exhibited, which cause others so much angst, are  simply mechanisms developed to help them cope in a profession which can be brutal. Feeling inundated by emails? Don’t reply to any. Stressed by the behaviour of an unruly class? Ignore it and find a way to block out the chaos. Overwhelmed by the workload? Do lots of things badly and become increasingly tired to the point when your only reaction is fight or flight.

We have a moral responsibility to support our colleagues, to give them sufficient opportunities to experience success, and to help them address areas of their work which may need improvement. Tough love has to incorporate love, otherwise it’s just tough!

The very best schools make their own agendas; they don’t follow them. The best leaders understand that Stephen Covey’s pithy line about focusing on the core business- “The main thing is to keep the main thing about the main thing.”- is a way of life not a bumper sticker. The best teachers understand that a few minutes of evaluation here and there can save hours of wasted energy later. It starts at the top and it requires leaders to be brave, to judge what works and what doesn’t, and to make decisions which impact the most on the outcomes of the children in our care.

Going forward?

Over the next 5 years, I suspect that the best schools will find a way to:

  • improve the quality and regularity of professional learning so that people feel valued;
  • develop real collaboration between colleagues, departments and schools which lead to the sharing of ideas, shortcuts and curriculum innovations that benefit and enrich the learning of children;
  • effectively model what a healthy work-life balance looks like;
  • find ways to resolve the marking and feedback dilemma (I’d argue that context, as always, is king here and that a personalised approach is required);
  • improve teacher wellbeing;
  • create opportunities for teacher-led action research to both improve pupil outcomes and also to offer creative opportunities for practitioners who otherwise would look for this creativity outside of teaching;
  • use the PMR process for professional development (and therefore increased job satisfaction), rather than as a blunt measurement of how someone has performed against 3-4 objectives linked to a meagre financial reward (which can lead to dissatisfaction);
  • use labour-saving IT (such as ClassCharts, which so far does everything it promised it would) to reduce workload;
  • create cultures that make people think twice (and even three times) before leaving;
  • engage with the ideas of thinkers such as Greg McKeown and focus on doing fewer things, really well.

I suspect good schools will do all of these things and more. The hope is that more schools will follow. Job satisfaction shouldn’t be the prerogative of the lucky few.




Austin’s butterfly and developing self-motivation

“Made it, ma. Top of the world.”

(James Cagney, White Heat)

There are few better experiences than the feeling of absolute satisfaction when a lesson goes exactly the way you had planned: your explanations are clear; the pupils engage enthusiastically with the tasks; everything sequences together. Learning is palpable and the lesson flies by (the ultimate compliment is when the children are surprised that the lesson is coming to an end).

The only thing better is if the lesson is being observed as part of your PMR.

Earlier last week, to coincide with the Manchester parade for Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes, there was a discussion on Radio 5 live about what it took to become a champion. It all came back to self-motivation and resilience: without these pillars/foundations (pick your metaphor), everything else collapsed. The athletes spoke about the frustration of injuries, plateaus and inconsistencies in performance; all of them admitted to times when they felt like quitting and all of them praised their support networks (coaches, friends and families). The core message was it was hard, unstinting work and sometimes it was only their stubbornness which stopped them quitting. It reminded me of something Muhammad Ali once said: I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ It’s an important message that all of us- pupils and staff- need to keep close to heart.

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Ron Berger and Austin’s butterfly:

It’s pretty inspirational stuff and is a powerful visual reminder that, contrary to the deeply-ingrained beliefs of many people that we are either good at something or not, we can get better with practice, self-motivation and perseverance. More importantly, the compelling argument is that once a pupil has experienced the satisfaction and pride of achieving at such a high level, he or she will never be satisfied with anything less. Even my sceptical Year 11s were impressed by the quality of Austin’s final draft.

It’s a lesson we can all benefit from, not just the children.

I have been engaging in deep learning with my classes in an attempt to boost their confidence and, therefore, their self-motivation. The increasingly content-heavy nature of GCSE seems to encourage a mad rush through the curriculum and it’s important to take the time to embed key concepts. It’s not easy- our natural inclination is to spoon-feed because the extrinsic threats (pressure of exams) can loom larger than the intrinsic beliefs (developing independence). But all of the most inspiring lessons I have ever had the privilege to watch have had independence at their very heart. Those are the lessons when you walk out thinking I have to recreate this somehow when I next teach. It’s one of the (many) best parts of my job.

This week we have been reading Act 4 Scene 1 and exploring how Macbeth’s character continues to change. It’s a great scene, beginning with a powerful images of witches brewing up a foul concoction (‘Eye of newt and toe of frog/ Wool of bat and tongue of dog.’) and concluding with a clear indication that Macbeth is no longer troubled by self-doubt or guilt (‘No boasting like a fool/ This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool.’). We’ve had some interesting discussions but the proof of the pudding, as always, is the quality of the analytical work. This is where Austin’s butterfly has provided the clear, visual motivational tool I was looking for. Focussing on a small extract of text, the pupils produced a draft piece of writing analysing the ways in which Macbeth is presented as being more ruthless. Then, using pupil-friendly marking criteria, they worked in pairs and small groups to give each other specific guidance on how to improve before redrafting. Lather, rinse, repeat: a third draft was produced.

There were a couple of speed bumps (one of the girls told me it was becoming tedious) and it’s at these times that your relationships are tested- the pupils have to believe that you know what you are doing and have to buy in to the importance of it. They also need to know that they won’t be doing this every time they start a piece of writing. But the outcomes far outweighed these minor hiccups. Most, if not all, made significant progress, moving from rushed observations about the text to carefully-considered analysis of the language and imagery used by Macbeth. The looks of pride and satisfaction on some of their faces was the highlight of last half-term and was a perfectly-timed (if unintentional) conclusion to a long and busy half-term.

If Carling made last lessons on Fridays . . .