How current assumptions in the system are limiting the conditions for growth in challenging schools – Ofsted the accountability machine

Can an accountability regime support school improvement?

Since Ofsted’s conception, my school had never achieved a Good judgement.

My experience of Ofsted has been extensive, having chosen to work predominantly in challenging schools, as a head I felt a veteran. During my headship we experienced five formal inspections and three internal inspections, within my seven-year tenure. My views on Ofsted are divided. During my earlier career and my first years as head, I held a significant admiration and respect for the work of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI). The latter part of my headship led me to a bitter disillusionment with the inspection process, and a proportion of its inspectorate. In particular, the work force that became sourced to private companies in the expansion years of Michael Wilshaw’s regime. This was the inspectorate we faced in the last two Requiring Improvement (RI) inspections, over a period of three years. Prior to this, I had only ever experienced inspections led by HMI.  In this piece of writing, I am interested in exploring, what it was that changed my views so significantly and lead to my final belief that we could never win?

I declare my bias, the last inspection judgement I received was the hardest to take. I had very little respect for the team, or the process they generated. It also led me, ever closer to losing the job I loved and to significantly damaging my future career as a head. It potentially put other leaders of the school at risk of the same fate, and I carried this burden heavily. Please remember after the second RI inspection the third in eighteen months would have put us into a category, and a sponsorship take- over would have ensued.

In my first years of headship, I respected the inspection process, yet perhaps this was merely because I was flattered and praised regularly. But is there more to it then my own ego?

I am going to begin by revisiting each inspection during my headship, to explore why I have become so disillusioned.

At the beginning of my first headship, three months in, Ofsted arrived and flagged what the LA and I knew, the school was failing. Working closely with the HMI throughout the two- day inspection was invaluable. I became focused on impact not strategy. This was the beginning of the don’t tell me, show me inspections. It was also the time when the regime was beginning to allow heads more access to the main discussions between the HMI. This was where the triangulation of evidence and bench marking against the standards occurred. A fantastic opportunity to watch highly skilled individuals rigorously assess the school, draw the threads together, and give a clear action plan of what we needed to do in order to improve.  Accountability in action, I respected their final judgement, Failing. Yes, this was made easier, as I had little ownership of the label. I had just arrived. But I valued most, the clear areas for action. I was pleased we were given Notice to Improve not Special Measures, this recognised the leadership as having the capacity to improve.

Six months later the interim inspection, led by another HMI with a reputation for incisive data analysis, spent two days assessing our progress. Again I was party to his thinking and his evaluation. His process was open, transparent and informative. We received the first good progress he had ever given at an interim inspection.

Once again, he was able to draw the threads of the progress we were making together, into clear precise ways forward. Do you know how hard it is to find the three key elements that will drive a school forward when so much is wrong? Simplicity is a high order skill, and one that is totally necessary for failing schools and school improvement. These HMI helped me to see my way through this and to plant the green shoots, (their words) for transformational elements of school improvement. Their knowledge had the flexibility to take in the school context and to draw on experiences from a whole range of schools across the country. HMI solutions were always individualised to the school and the community. They were never off the peg or factory generated. It was exciting times, as I was working with real experts of school improvement.

Just over six months later our Section 5 inspection took place, to assess whether we could move away from failing and into the then satisfactory category. The pressure was immense, but our confidence high. This turned out to be the hardest inspection I, and staff have ever had to jump. There was no room for manoeuvre or negotiation. The evidence had to be there with the students and the classrooms. The HMI team were again exceptional, open, transparent and able to read the school and students swiftly. I guess if I have referred to my students as similar to the Terminator, then I can take the leap of faith to relate the Ofsted team to Vela raptors. Beautifully aligned with each other, with the lead inspector as the Alpha, they were everywhere in the school. Throughout that process, my middle leadership were under review and the Lead Inspector spent significant time with me, assessing my ability to understand and deliver on the next steps. His team discussions were transparent and insightful. Eventually we made the leap, and again we left with a plan, that was simple but transformational. We were now satisfactory.

Throughout the inspection the HMI were consistent but not tick box in their approach. As I reflect, I am aware this was generated from the structures that were in place to ensure the small inspectorate as it was then met regularly to debate, confer and benchmark their judgements. I learnt, that they spent time, talking about the heads that they worked with and tracking our progress. They genuinely wanted us to succeed. I believe they saw a substantial part of their role, as educators supporting leadership to make the required changes to understand why.. Sadly, at this point my relationship with the HMI stopped. Unusually for a Requiring Improvement school, we always achieved the judgement of Good for leadership. (The highest judgement you can achieve in an RI school) This meant that we did not receive an interim inspection between the eighteen months before the next assessment. Therefore, I did not have access to an HMI visit which actually in hindsight, would have been really helpful! Yes this would have bought our total in seven years to six inspections, but it was always a learning process with HMI.

Swiftly our new designation of Satisfactory was removed to Requiring Improvement, and as the regime ramped up to inspect these schools along with failing schools far more. It realised it needed a larger inspectorate. Unfortunately for me my last two inspections were undertaken by privatised companies outsourced from Ofsted and only involved additional inspectorate, there were no HMI. At the time the inspection process became directly related to your ability as a head to remain in your post. Michael Wilshaw announced after repeated Requiring Improvements and you would be out.

I was given the most inexperienced teams with no HMI for the latter half of my headship. I will explore the last inspection as an example of an additional inspectorate outsourced inspection. I repeat again, I am biased, I didn’t like the inspection decision, and so this needs to be read with that in mind.

My disillusionment began when I was faced with a team who met for the first time on my school gates. This meant they had never bench marked together, or formed a relationship in which they were able to debate with rigour but without emotion. Led by an additional inspector who was seconded from his role as an assistant Head of 6th form. Followed by an ex- head teacher who had led a school in the bottom 5% of the country’s schools in 2008,and was now back roomed in an Academy chain. One of her first quotes to my Deputy was, “you can’t do this”. She was referring to the behaviour of our students which was excellent, somehow she thought we were cheating! An early years’ inspector with little experience of secondary, and a new inspector a deputy head of a challenging school, who offered the greatest insight in her recommendations. The failed head inspector behaved badly on the first day and unprovoked, swore during a meeting. I reported this to the Lead, but was only asked whether I wanted to take this further, right at the moment we were about to get our feedback. I stupidly declined. In hindsight what a hideous time to ask me, with the inspector in front and just about to give her feed back to the others on her judgments of the school!

We were allowed to join the meetings on both days where an assimilation of evidence was collated, and on the second day where the judgements were made. Having witnessed the rigour and immense skill that HMI take to collate and cross check, then question again and again, each other to ensure they all agree with the judgement. I found the tick box exercise this team delivered extremely disappointing. Their eye was constantly on the clock and their judgement felt made, before we had even started. It rested on our attainment from the last year, not our new data or the quality of the lessons they had seen.

Although I never asked any of my staff, a strong member of the leadership who was in the next room to the team, during the second day. Felt the need to tell us, that the lead inspector had spent most of the day on the phone to the private provider, explaining that we were close to good but last year’s data made it a risk. He believed this year’s data looked strong but the results weren’t out, he wanted advice? HMI would have seen the green shoots, this inspector was looking for an oak tree from an 18 – month turnaround and one set of results.

I am still sore about the result, not yet good. But I have faith that if I felt the team had delivered an insightful and meaningful evaluation and process, and were able to clarify a way forward, the pain would have been worth it.  The opposite occurred, as the poor discussion resulted in a report that was badly written. (A brave statement to make considering I am daring to pen a book together!) Even more disappointing the ways forward commentary left me not with key areas to develop, but fourteen random statements that did not pattern with the rest of the report or collate together as strategic development.

At this point I felt the process of inspection had become a factory procedure of churn. The growing cacophony of sound within the profession with regard to inconsistency in Ofsted became clear to me. We seemed to have moved to a system of many inspections but with far less quality and rigour. Our accountability machine seemed very damaged and lacking. The privatisation had left us with a tick box process, the ability to recognise green shoots long gone. A team of inspectors who had never benchmarked together, and with weak links in the inspectorate who were inadequate. Clearly the expansion and downgrading of the inspectorate plays a major part in my alienation with this process, but I think there is more to it. I really felt I couldn’t win. Why?

What was the aim behind Ofsted and how did this change over my period of headship?

In order to explore my disillusionment further, I decided to look at the Annual reports in detail to ascertain the ethos and philosophy set by the Chief inspectorate for the inspection since I became a Head and match this against my experience as a Head on the ground!  In describing what I have found, I have taken the approach of summarising the philosophy and or aim from each annual report. For the chiefdom of Michael Wilshaw, 2012 onwards I have identified the key findings from the previous years’ as I believe this is relevant to why my alienation began to grow. I have then matched this analysis to what was going on in education and the impact on my school.

2009 – 2010 Annual report : Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert –

Aim for the inspectorate: Christine Gilbert was advocating the purpose of the inspection was, “scrutiny but also challenge”. She refocused Ofsted back into the classroom and advocated inspections should use data as a, “sign post not a destination”. She highlighted what seems to be a new role at the time, “Increasingly, where inspectors find practice that is not up to scratch they return, not just to review and challenge, but as agents of improvement. Few people are better placed to identify what brings about improvement in a range of contexts and organisations than experienced inspectors”.

What was happening in education policy and what was I experiencing on the ground? At this moment contextual valued added was used to inform the inspectorate about schools. Although concerns over comparing schools to similar cohorts of students were being raised and listened to.  The key measure for schools was 5 A- C including English and Maths. The handbook (where you find the benchmarks for which we are judged against) refocused attention back into the classroom. This focus was supportive of the work I needed to do.

In reviewing my experience of HMI as a failing school in 2009 and 2010, they were agents of improvement who set clear and individualised guidance for my school. This support was demanding and challenged us all.

Using “data as signposts not destinations”, was also evident in action in the HMI inspections. Actually if the HMI had relied only on data, we may not have reached failing! As I explained in an earlier chapter my Deputy of the Curriculum, was so able to manipulate the choices of students and the system of exams. (All above board, but perfect game playing.) Our data held up to the 5 A- C measures. Our attendance and behaviour data also painted a rosy a picture that was inaccurate at best and manipulated beyond all recognition at worst. We looked far better than the reality, the school was a well- hidden disaster!

2010 – 2011 Annual Report: Chief Inspector Miriam Rosen

Aim for the Inspectorate: With the advent of the new Coalition Government Ofsted had a dramatic overhaul. The accountability systems main aim became, “Raising standards and improving lives”. In order to achieve this, the Chief Inspector announced that there was to be a move to proportionate inspection where there was failure. Inherent in this decision was the belief that more inspection for failing schools the more the process will bring about school improvement. By inspecting and labelling transformation will occur. There is no clarity as to how this will materialise. Christine Gilbert’s idea that HMI can be agents of change has disappeared along with her! The emphasis lay in review and challenge.

Areas highlighted from the scrutiny of inspections in 2010 – 2011: An area of major concern was the fact that while eighty – five percent of all schools were judged good, or outstanding, only three percent of secondary and four percent of primary were outstanding in their teaching and learning.  A third of all inspections showed passive classes and dull teaching.  An outstanding school might be achieving above national results, but in this system it could still be challenged to improve its teaching. Should their results be supersonic, as discussed previously in the high parent power chapter, not just good? In the same vein a school that wasn’t achieving in line with national expectations, could be recognised in this system for having good quality teaching…. It identifies that it could be doing great work but the impact is less immediate and with less effect.

What was happening in education policy and what was I experiencing on the ground? We lifted from inadequate to satisfactory during this period, and the HMI inspection left me in no doubt of the challenge in the system. Judgements on schools moved swiftly away from any value added, purely to attainment (what pupils achieve) regardless of a child’s starting points. The Local Authority (LA) were coming under increasing attack from the new Government and the expansion of academies was under way.

In our local area all good schools and above were converting to single status academies. We were unable to begin this process. The Teaching Alliance policy was in formation, with outstanding schools designated as the only schools able to lead. This meant that the funding and support for schools designated as “at risk” was moving from the LA responsibility to that of the Teaching Alliance. Practically this meant the really supportive LA were restricted from the work they had begun and instead, in the future I would be working with an “outstanding head” from an outstanding school.

At this time sourcing teachers in Maths, English, and Science was becoming difficult, and we were using our training capacity to find new teachers and recruit. However, we were still moving forward.

2011 – 2012 Annual report Chief Inspector : Michael Wilshaw

Aim for the Inspectorate: This annual report stands out as completely different. The sharp glossy image unfolded to reveal rather a full blown state of the nation declaration. Written in the first person I can’t help hearing trumpets in fanfare, every-time I read it. As it was the 20th anniversary of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw reviewed the past, and praised the process for: “the creation of bench marks with clear performance criteria, rigorous evidence resulting in transparent accountability, school improvement and the routing out of dreadful schools.”

He followed with another fanfare (sorry that is just in my head), and then trumpeted his former success with disadvantage students and his experience. He reviewed the current progress nationally, and internationally and combined the ingredients by which he achieved his success, with international comparisons, to propose areas he would challenge and improve. He introduced the removal of Satisfactory as a label with the grade Requiring Improvement and committed to increasing inspection. He let schools know he would, “walk away but monitor, inspect, challenge and support.” You are left wondering if the edited version added the support. If this superhero can do it, why can’t we all?

His summary chapter title, “Ofsted will contribute more to improving schools” and “Raising standards with a focus on the disadvantage” sums up his agenda. Inspecting schools is now considered a significant if not key ingredient for school improvement, those that are deemed to Require Improvement or Failure will be inspected more. The stick approach arrived at large, as the Chief inspector believed he had the answer to improve schools and expected all to follow his recipe. One size fitted all. It was his way or the highway.

Sorry at this moment in writing I get the giggles, as I consider we were operating with not one alpha male with the “God complex” [i] but two, Mr Gove also!

While carrying out this research, I was really keen to see whether the percentage of observed outstanding teaching had increased. Nowhere in his report can we see what has happened to the amount of outstanding teaching and learning in schools. It is demarcated for colleges but not schools. This triggered my memory that around this time the handbook guidelines, our criteria for judging schools, conjoined attainment directly to teaching. Creating a situation where if attainment was strong, teaching was considered outstanding and vice a versa. I think this is one of the key death knolls for schools like mine, who receive significantly below average students. If attainment was not exceeding nationals it became impossible to achieve outstanding, or to see our teaching as anything but failing. Along with the downgrading of inspectorate this was a crucial in leading to my school never being able win at the Ofsted game and here begins my disillusionment.

What was happening in education policy and what was I experiencing on the ground? I was in the process of establishing a new school improvement partner from a select group of Heads. Who due to their school Outstanding status, had been designated national school leaders to support heads like me. The LA were reluctantly retreating from intensive school support, acting only as a broker to finding us, a partner to work with.

The chaos of the new recruitment system arrived, and the number of newly qualified staff (NQT) nationally went down. Shortages in Science equalled those of Maths and English. The move to NQTs using agencies increased significantly, and the cost of recruitment augmented by an average of £4000 per NQT.

I remember a specific discussion, with my middle leaders at the time. Looking at the newest handbook and subject specific guidance, we concluded if you were teaching a bottom set you could never achieve a judgement of outstanding as a teacher, the link to attainment was so direct. What I feared but chose to ignore was the note to myself in this meeting, that this would then be the same for the whole school. It said, “How can we win?”.

Vocational qualifications were cut, and down-graded and coursework per se in subject areas disappeared. Teacher assessments were replaced by the exam process. Attainment was the ruling factor for success. Value added had gone, and we now had to take our significantly below average cohort and rapidly accelerate their progress to achieve national and above if we wanted good.

As a Requiring Improvement school, we became locked from funding streams and the lucrative extra cash that you received as a sweetner for converting to an academy. We could only put ourselves up for sponsorship. The public purse cuts meant in real terms our budget became squeezed alongside us, still recovering from the deficit.

The areas intake decreased and while our relative share of year six’s remained the same, actual numbers decreased leaving us open to more excluded students, more vulnerable and SEND students.

Our 6th form was rewarded with good. At this time value added remained a key judgement in the outcomes for the 6th form. However, the national funding for the sixth form began a significant reduction process.


2012 – 2013 Annual report Chief Inspector : Michael Wilshaw

Aim for the Inspectorate : As above, the mantra remained inspection will improve standards. As his main evidence for the success of the RI initiative he wrote,” 90% of RI schools are making SATISFACTORY progress in remedying weaknesses!” This made me laugh again as I continued to research. He noted there were more children in good or outstanding schools and concluded inspection grades reflect better teaching.

Areas highlighted for scrutiny of the inspections in 2012 and 2013: He reports on the first group of academy sponsors succeeding in improving schools. Primary providers were identified as improving faster than secondary. Gifted and talented students and low income students were highlighted as not making expected progress. For the first time this is delineated further. White working class students were identified as the least likely to make progress. Secondary provision is considered variable depending on the region. The Local Authority (LA) comes under criticism particularly where regions are performing badly. At this point the Regional Inspectors were introduced as those who will hold schools and LAs and trusts to account. Poor outcomes are attributed to low expectation in leadership.

What was happening in education policy and what was I experiencing on the ground: Secondary assessment change was in full flow, with grade boundaries for GCSE students hiked. Teacher assessments disappeared from the GCSE and A level courses. The reverse occurred in primary assessment; autonomy and professional judgement were reintroduced for assessments in English writing and Science.  For secondary schools this is the year that the English results go into free fall. Never seen before, uplifts in grades occurred. Our C-D borderline students are impacted.

We had requested to work with our nearest Teaching Alliance, an outstanding school consortium to train beginning teachers. We had been ignored on three occasions, and we had no access to the regions new recruits.

Recruitment became even harder. Modern Foreign Language and Design and Technology struggled to recruit, and with the introduction of league tables with the EBAC grades, Humanities teachers were hard to find. An opportunity to recruit externally a senior team member, leaves us with a very poor field.

We were working with an outstanding school to support school improvement. We were preparing for our first RI inspection. Number four and five of the handbook grade changes took place this year, since my headship.

2013  2014  Annual report Chief Inspector : Michael Wilshaw

Aim of the Inspectorate: Our Chief Inspector reiterated inspections made a difference and quoted international studies to show this. The number of inspections had increased and to support this the rapid expansion of the inspectorate took place. The role had expanded to include inspection of LA’s where regional performance is poor. There are regional reports from the regional inspectors in this report.

Areas highlighted for scrutiny of the inspections in 2012 and 2013:  The statistics showed improvement in primary but not in secondary, not with the disadvantaged or white working class. Progress re- entered the arena and became tied in with attainment and teaching. Primary improvement is marked with eighty-two percent now good and eighty-five percent with good leadership or above. Progress in secondary schools had stalled and more schools are failing.

The factors for primary success are attributed to the willingness of primary heads to engage with Requiring Improvement, the leadership ability to keep a close scrutiny of learning, strong governing bodies challenging, phonics testing, and seven year- old assessment checks (teacher assessed) which also showed improvement. He noted narrowing the gap between pupil premium and non- pupil premium occurred at a faster rate in primaries and the able were more likely to be stretched.  He identified teaching at key stage 3 as not challenging. Low level disruption was highlighted as an issue.

The previous theme of white working class failure and regional difference were given greater coverage. This time while noting the first sponsored academies are closing gaps he identified some multi trusts who have not achieved school improvement.

Significant issues with teacher training, were recognised and problematic. He is the first to have identified that the areas that have least Teaching Alliances correspond to the areas that are white working class and the socio economically most disadvantaged.  The further education (FE) were highlighted for failing to improve the outcomes for children, who had failed English and Maths level 2 courses. Swiftly this becomes an accountability measure for post 16 league tables.

What was happening in education policy and what was I experiencing on the ground? The Teaching Alliance, after continued asking had still failed to provide us with one beginning teacher to support. My frustration at the time was boiling over. No secondary in our area was outstanding, so none of us could form a Teaching Alliance. We began to look at how we can flout the system, as recruitment issues were horrendous. Agencies were charging huge fees, and the Times Educational Supplement TES, was not resulting in any candidates.  FE colleges were at the time desperately trying to recruit English and Maths teachers. The new measure in league tables and Ofsted expectation had a knock on effect, and increased the shortage of Maths and English teachers further. The situation in our area becomes ridiculous, with the college advertising a £45,000 salary for a basic maths and english teachers. How could we compete?

As a result, we began 2014 with four substandard teachers in Maths. We moved SLT into Maths to ensure the behaviour was appropriate at all times, and we moved to a system of intensive coaching, with our lead teachers including myself, positioned in the class with the inadequate teachers in order to train them swiftly. We run almost the whole year with temporary Head of Faculty, but we were fortunate to have an outstanding mathematician in the senior team, and the support of a strong LA maths advisor. Unbelievably the results came in due to rigorous and regular assessment and intervention. All that coaching paid off, as the teachers improved rapidly bar one who was moved on swiftly.

As I had three year groups significantly below number, our budgets continued to shrink.  A local academy decided to increase its number by sixty pupils which exacerbated the problem. None of these places were needed in the area. We received a significant quota of excluded students in the Summer of year nine, they were pupil premium, with multiple vulnerabilities and disruption in their lives. After a year and half with us, they achieved five A-C grades, and a C in English. Our maths team can’t quite get them to the C in Maths. Two of them are jailed within two months of leaving the school. As they didn’t achieve the C in Maths they hit our figures hard, in terms of Pupil Premium progress. Interestingly the school that they came from, wins a regional award for pupil premium. I missed the strategy which said kick out your multiple and most vulnerable pupil premium, who are the hardest to move, this will improve figures. Still it’s the system and market forces are in action.

Thirteen students with six different languages arrived in the school through admissions between September and Christmas.

New GCSE and A levels raised the bar higher and the grade hikes at secondary continue to impact.

We had minimum contact with the LA as the Teaching Alliance and outstanding schools no drove school improvement. The annual report however, criticised Las for not improving schools and challenging leadership, regardless of the fact that they are removed from supporting schools like mine.

I took on the teaching of a bottom set in Science, who due to the changes made by the Government half way through a Science course, had to move to a new course in order for it to have currency for them.

Performance management has been under rigorous scrutiny, inspections were looking for evidence that thresholds have been held back due to poor performance. The coalition government changes to pay and statutory conditions had come in. At this point I should have been restricting the progress of my Head of English and others because the GCSE exam results were lower, due to the grade hikes that hit a number of schools the previous year. I don’t and the Governors support this decision. Our future inspection looked at this set of results as its base judgement.

We were taking significantly below average students, and achieving average progress with all disadvantaged groups but we just missed the national average by 1%. We remained Requiring improvement GRRRRHHHHHH. It felt like starting a race 300 metres behind everyone else, coming in second but that isn’t good enough because all we care about is attainment not the journey run. Leadership, behaviour and the 6th form are judged good.

Key stage 3 levels were about to go. We were told that the DfE would wait for the outstanding schools to come up with the great new assessment ideals, and then disseminate these. In 2016 we are still waiting.

I feel like I am moving from a chaotic school to a chaotic system. SEND started the process of transformational change. Attendance expectations were raised and suddenly, excluded children’s results remain our responsibility. With no ability to recruit it is difficult to see how we will achieve Good.

I started to seek potential sponsors to support the school. I was clear I was looking for power and educational influence. I recognised that in seeking this support I am most likely to seek myself out of a job.

2013 -2014 Annual report Chief Inspector : Michael Wilshaw

Aim of the Inspectorate: This report moves away from proclamation to scrutiny of the data and highlighted growing problems for schools in challenging circumstances.  There is interestingly far less about stick beating and far more about scrutiny of issues. Even the LA received praise at one point!

Areas highlighted from the scrutiny of inspections 2013 – 2014: Continuing improvement in primary education are identified. The growing gap between regions in particular the north south divide, are considered and there is a call for the collective action within these regions.  Our chief inspector, outlined his belief that structural reform can only go so far, and highlighted the variances in academies particularly those that aren’t Multi Academy Trusts. He identified a growing shortage of teachers and leaders particularly in the most disadvantage areas and recognised that recruitment in these areas is was difficult. He talked of a two tier system those that can recruit and those that don’t. He identified the growing overseas market as increasing the burden of recruitment. He acknowledges successful Multi Acadmey Trust (MAT) have worked with the LA in particular regions.

This next scrutiny of data breaks my heart. Under quarter of all white working class low income students achieve five A- C with English and Maths. No wonder the failed head inspector kept telling us, “you can’t do this with these kid” as if we had sprayed magic powder over their behaviour! Even worse than this the report stated boys from this group perform at the level of SEND students, which I believe to be around nine – percent , five A- C including English and Maths. Under my headship we reached fifty- six percent five A – C with this cohort yet we never achieved Good. We were never allowed a context. Please note we had significantly more boys than girls in each year group.

What was happening in education policy and what was I experiencing on the ground? The new national curriculum arrived. Academies were able to detour from it. We were still awaiting the example from outstanding schools and their new assessment ideas. New GCSE and A levels began in a number of subjects.  We were told primary testing will be bought in for, four, seven and eleven year olds. Bench mark floor figures came from nowhere and rose and rose again.

The Governors agreed to seeking a sponsor and the process began. Like me in this process they were all likely to have to stand down. This made me sad as this was the strongest Governing body I had at the school. I am inundated with work, and my ability to remain at the centre of school improvement is hindered significantly by the process of academisation. This is common. I began the year not knowing whether I would be a head or not at the end of the process. My work life balance is so poor, my husband stopped working to support the family.  I taught Science from January as we could not find a decent Scientist. I experienced anxiety and a bout of depression for the first time in my life. The role had consumed me at this point.

Recruitment is even more impossible. Having exhausted Ireland, Canada and New Zealand supply agencies then turned to the Caribbean to recruit.

Our budget having come out of deficit looked set to return with the coming real term cuts. Our numbers of applicants to the school remained below our standard number. We were asked to take a child who wears nappies and has legitimate psychotic tendencies. There was no funding accompanying this child. I refused and a legal battle ensues.

2014 – 2015 Annual report Chief Inspector : Michael Wilshaw

Aim of the inspectorate and scrutiny: The report focused on the regional divides and their causes. The North and Midlands are identified as key regions of underperformance. He used key stage one results as an example of improvement over the last three years. He does not make the link that these are teacher assessed. He identified particular local authorities as failing, and related political will and local action as key to improving the situation. He concluded that Academies can create the conditions for remarkable improvement but structural reform can only go so far.

He identified the capacity for school improvement is balanced on the ability to attract good leaders and teachers into the most disadvantaged schools. He heralded the fact that the new remit for the National College for Teaching and Leadership has placed the responsibility for the school’s system to grow its own leaders. He recognised that that the current arrangements are not targeted to deliver the leaders they need. He is concerned over the absence of information on the supply of head teachers his concern over where this supply is going to come from has encouraged him to commission a new report. His concern over supply is mirrored in his concern over the recruitment of teachers. There are no changes to his regime in light of the problems he highlighted and labelling continued despite the revealing scrutiny.

What was happening in education policy and what was I experiencing on the ground? Primary schools were gearing up for the new tests that were being reintroduced into the system. Secondary GCSE and A level changes continued ad infinitum, deadlines for the completion of specifications were missed and publications to support learning delayed. To date there are still thirty five qualifications awaiting confirmation for a start in September.

Recruitment moves into the realms of impossibility. I am defeated. I managed a week off, in the year as the sponsorship process took hold. My working hours exceeded ninety hours a week. My Finance manager and I look at the REAL term cuts for education and remarked we have no idea how to operate the school with these cuts within three years.

Due to budget cuts, two more academies in the local area increased their numbers of students that they can take, in a bid to sustain their shrunken budgets. These places are also not needed and have a direct impact in a reduction in our numbers and budget.


The inspection process and subsequent labelling limited growth within my school and others. This process has not been about school improvement. The devaluing of the inspectorate has added to this failure to improve the system. Primary schools improve when teacher assessments are returned. How will they fair in the new era of testing and accountability?

If Ofsted purpose under Mr Wishaw was to “contribute more to improving schools” 2012 annual report. The process failed.


[i] Tim Harford, “Trial Error and the God complex TED Global 2011

A school in chaos – learning at the beginning

Learning at the beginning

When was the last time you attempted to really learn something, something really new and challenging? As adults in our sphere of home and or work we are often cocooned in processes that might require us to evolve something, but rarely to learn something completely new. As an adult when was the last time you really faced that precipice and tackled something you weren’t naturally inclined to? That leap of faith over the cliff into something new and unknown is rare if not non-existent in a substantial number of our lives, so we forget how daunting it is. In a good school students are facing this experience regularly as they are pushed and challenged to progress. Their ability to manage the unknown and to tackle the new is paramount in enabling them to succeed now and in the future.


This is one of the reasons why we like our staff to continue learning; not only does it create a dialogue about the process, but we then all experience these feelings and remember how unnerving learning is, and how resilient you have to be to tackle the unknown.


At my school, as already stated a significant majority of students had already experienced failure. They had taken the leap and crashed down the cliff into the abyss. Often this abyss was then ignored, as the next terrain of learning needed to be conquered. No crampons, or alternative climbing gear were ever fitted to them, so they couldn’t climb out of the hole and back up the mountain of knowledge. Their learning was left in the ravine. Many of these students had huge gaps in their learning.


For those who were able to cross and climb the mountain of key stage 2 assessment, they did it with significant aid. This hadn’t come in the form of a guide helping them to solve the problems and find their own way to the solution. It had come in the form of rote learning, somebody leading the way, which allowed them to cross the path of knowledge but gave them little opportunity to turn back and find their way again when they needed it.  They had not learned to avoid the misconceptions or grasp a deep understanding, but they could cross the mountain test on one day in the year. This however did not translate to long term memory and sustainable knowledge.


After 7 years many learners were wary and reluctant to tackle change. Their next step on the mountain of knowledge felt precarious, and the foundations behind them were uneven. This scenario does not breed the type of learner necessary for success. Learners need to have a deep -set knowledge base and the ability to persevere with resilience when learning gets tough. Constantly moving students on, when they really haven’t secured learning can create individuals who are limited in their ability to dig hard when they are finding a problem, making new learning difficult. Many never really achieved success in learning by themselves.


For a teenage student that is struggling, it can make sense emotionally to give up and attempt to fail spectacularly, rather than to place exceptional effort into something difficult. To be seen to be placing this effort, and then to crash land down the ravine of failure is a complete embarrassment to them, and something to be avoided at all costs. So why should they try when it hasn’t worked in the past?


Their literacy issues compounded the problem as their inability to talk and explain ideas and/or share their thought processes in tackling a problem restricted them further. Their inability to read fluently left them working hard to translate text. With little time or skill left to tackle the meaning of that text. Again, added pressure for a teenager. Can they admit to not understanding something they are reading in a class? No, not in an environment like the one I am describing.


Actually, to learn you have to be prepared to fail spectacularly and to change. Even the brightest child will at some point face the failure of not achieving secure learning from their first attempt. Without the confidence and resilience to pull yourself back up and carry on, learning stops. [1]


Failure at the school was the daily experience for many, but hidden and shameful. Camouflaged by poor behaviour, significant absenteeism, and/or the ability of a child to disappear into the corner of a classroom unseen and unheard. For the majority, they saw success as being unattainable and aloof. Success was felt to be a thing others attained through their genes, not something that was gained through hard work and perseverance.


At this time all high attaining pupils were sectioned away in separate classrooms and sets (a strategy to try to attract higher ability students) – they were the elite. Even for the highest achievers this success again seemed to be more to do with luck in genetics than strategies and skill sets. When attempting to really challenge this group of individuals the same fear and resentment appeared in the classroom. Real push had been rare for them and they were used to succeeding without the need for resilience and perseverance. Their initial stages of learning had come easily to them. Their learning style was often copious note taking, which they then regurgitated.


To sum up: learning at the school was a mystery, something that some students got lucky with but the majority failed at.





[1] * This is often seen in highly capable female students who come crashing down in year 13 (18) or the 2nd year of University when faced with significant challenge for the first time.



How current assumptions in the system are limiting the growth of challenging schools – The new Educational Landscape

How current assumptions in the system are limiting the growth of challenging schools – The new Educational Landscape

The new Educational Landscape – Transformation at break neck speed.

When Michael Gove took over, the rumour on the ground was that the Coalition Government did not want to make the mistakes of the past. They believed the previous regime had not moved fast enough on their reforms. So that not enough of what they had hoped for, was achieved. Rightly or wrongly, our new Educational Minister took this theory to heart, and swiftly the maelstrom of change began. Scientists predict it is the pace of change that is of most concern with regard to climate change and all species ability to adapt. In comparison as a Head the last seven years have left me reeling as more and more change has been heaped on to the system, with more and more haste, and less and less money. It was this era that bought in the new final document that meant there were probably another three documents of change prior to the final, final, final document spouting the latest proclamation. Please note we are not a sector unused to change, education is continually moving in circles. If the direction is correct these circles should move us in a spiral forward. Have we moved forward? I will leave the judgement to others. What I want to do is to describe the spin of this era as the pace has been phenomenal. If success was defined as the ability to achieve the change in the first four years of Government, then yes, Gove was successful. Our educational landscape is irrevocably altered.

For a Government that regularly tells us we have more self- autonomy, schools at the eye of this hurricane of change have been left feeling the opposite. Challenging schools in particular, have had little to help buffer them from the effects of the pace of change and its content. Particularly, as the tactic of aligning the Ofsted judgement to a directive from the Department of Education and vice a versa has now become common place.   In this chapter I hope to outline the main areas of change and highlight the impact for my school. However, I felt it was important to begin with what life would have been like prior to the coalition Government for those in education. I do this, as I believe the role of Executive Head should have a note of caution to it. If you were a Head prior to 2009 and not post, your world of education and our current world are very, very different. Do remember the further you climb the further you move from the classroom, the children and the learning process.

A leader prior to 2009 in a school setting will have experienced the following educational climate:

–          Revenue for school improvement.

–          Capital grants and the Building Schools for the Future funding for new schools.

–          Value added and Contextual value added analysis of schools’ performance. This meant the context of the school was considered in how well a school achieved and progressed.

–          Vocational qualifications that were worth four GCSE’s.

–          Vocational qualifications that were of varying quality and universally considered not as rigorous as GCSE. Yet added value for the school and student, at the same level as a GCSE.

–          A significant number of qualifications that were predominantly coursework based and teacher assessed.

–          A much greater freedom of choice in the selection of subjects from age fourteen onwards.

–          AS and A levels. Two stages to the completion of sixth form both examined.

–          A supply of teachers of quality, particularly in cities and particularly in London.

–          Reliable training providers predominantly at Universities, with an entry system to the profession that was well understood and well signposted. Only failing schools were restricted from this supply.

–          A training programme for teachers that allowed satisfactory schools opportunities to participate.

–          An Ofsted framework that believed data was a “signpost not the destination”, and that HMI were “agents of change” and “best placed to support change.” (Annual Ofsted report, 2010)[1]

–          A performance management process that was not directly pay related until threshold. A unified, published set of pay scales for teachers.

–          In the Summer of 2007, the first smart phone arrived on the scene. In 2010 this was followed by the IPad. In September 2006 face- book extended its network to anyone with an email address. All information becomes accessible regardless of its content.

Here comes the revolution:

Sourcing the supply of teachers and training: in 2009 the main source of new recruitment came through the University route in association with in school training. Very quickly this system was diversified and our national structure became a much more complex. For our school, this resulted in 2015 receiving new teachers from eight different qualified status routes. The main entries into the profession included:

  • non- salaried routes, and salaried routes known as Schools Direct which allow a colleague to be trained within a school.
  • Post graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) partner schools provide placements to support the main University training.
  • Teaching School Alliances where a University may provide some of the training, but the majority is formed within the Alliance and within schools. The Alliance has to be formed and led by an outstanding school.

Unqualified teachers were officially accepted in schools with no impetus or expectation that they should train. College trained teachers were also able to make the cross over to teaching in schools without further training.  In an era where cost was prohibitive, the financial incentive for the Government to increase training in school was significant. In comparison this became a very low cost option in comparison with University training.

The decision on how many teachers were needed nationally, was determined annually and through a quota system. It took little consideration of regional need.  This has led to providers filling courses as quickly as possible in order to ensure their quotas are met. This does not necessarily lead to the best quality recruits, just the fastest and or fastest providers.[2] A direct impact of the new training methods has been, to see the number of University PGCE places shrink and in some cases the courses have closed.

Shortfalls between the numbers of teachers needed and the number trained has increased.  As a result of these shortages the Government has intervened. Currently physics teacher can now receive a golden handshake of £30,000. Maths teachers £25,000. These bursaries do not require any commitment to long term or medium term teaching. Regional differences exacerbated shortages, particularly in the East of England where my school was located.


What was the impact on my school?

Sourcing new and quality teachers’ year on year is challenging and there is no national strategy to reduce the problem of regional differences. Outstanding schools are the key determiners of where beginning teachers train, and these trainees are now far less likely to experience any time in a Requiring Improvement school. As our Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw identified in the 2013 – 2014 annual report, by mapping the location of Teaching Alliances alongside the location of underperforming schools. There is a complete disparity. Outstanding schools have significant access to the new graduate teachers through the Alliance. Failing and Requiring improvement schools have very little if any access.

Having approached the nearest Teaching Alliance which was twenty miles away, on numerous occasions. We continued to receive zero recruits to train. This was stifling to our school improvement, as a challenging schools source of teachers will always be these new recruits. We were not assigned any recruits to train despite four years of requests. This left us at the mercy of agency recruitment for our Newly Qualified Teachers and their ever increasing commission rates.

In recognition of the shrinking number of quality candidates on the market at any one time. There was and continues to be an increasing tendency for schools within Teaching Alliances to secure hard to recruit teachers even when they do not have the need, investing in the future and their succession process. This made an already hard to reach market of graduates even harder.

The freedom from regulated salary scales increased the problem. We were now in a market economy system where the winners were able to offer significantly larger salaries to staff. Supply agencies capitalised on this, increasing their agency fees and the demands for their clients. As a school that was already broke (inherited), and with a shrinking role, we were left behind. Those schools that could afford to pay premium prices for the rarest of recruits, recruited well. Money talks and so did our label, Requiring Improvement. Neither conversation was positive to a prospective new teacher.

Eventually in 2014 we decided to ignore the ring fencing and approached a series of providers to work with us. Eventually, we were aligned to seven universities and a non- salaried route provider. We were used as an example of outstanding practice in a key London University Ofsted inspection and our assessment only trainees were the only two in County to achieve Outstanding in their final judgement. Not bad for a school Requiring Improvement. However, prior to this move, the restriction on training damaged us significantly. Continually stifling our access to quality new staff.

Training and support for schools in challenging circumstances

With the development of the Teaching Alliance the money for school improvement that was normally given to County moved to the Alliance who were assigned the new lead role in school to school improvement. The teachers and leaders designated, were newly announced National Subject leaders and School leaders. This designation was and remains ring fenced to teachers serving in outstanding schools. Any teacher and or leader in an RI or Failing school is unable to access the title, but can receive support from an individual with this label. Even if you weren’t the School leader and or Subject leader to achieve the outstanding grade, you can still apply and achieve the accolade if your school is outstanding.

What was the impact on my school?

The LA support mechanism disappeared and I was then under the support of the Teaching Alliance and their leaders. These schools had an above average intake, and high Parent Power. See chapter on Parent power, when and if the book is published.) Their world of existence was very different from our day to day. I lost my access to individuals who had significant experience of school improvement in challenging circumstances and gained those who didn’t. With this change went a substantial Local Authority budget that supported our school improvement. The new National Leaders and their Outstanding schools were the new recipients. They were funded instead to support any work they chose to deliver in the school. At this point a two tier class of head teachers and leaders was created and we were definitely second class. My career pathway became blurred at best and damaged by my inability to be recognised and or apply for National Leader Status.

What should students be learning in schools?

Mr Gove has made no bones about his love of the grammar system and the traditional curriculum and he moved swiftly to re- introduce the EBACC and reduce the value of vocational qualifications as they stood at the time. The introduction of phonics screening at primary and the prescriptive grammar, punctuation and spelling, alongside mental arithmetic tests in schools gained momentum. The cagey use of league tables and the direct link to the Ofsted and handbook, encouraged many schools to make the leap to an EBACC curriculum quickly and reduce choice. The significant drop in sixth form funding, also increased the pressure to reduce choice and return to the traditional subjects.

New rigid exams structures came into place initially in secondary and later primary. Our curriculum choice returned to the Mr Gove’s golden era of grammar and secondary modern schools. This conflicted with the latest requirements from industry and current educational research. Out of all the graduates that attend university almost a quarter fail and businesses continue to bemoan the fact that as well as basic maths and literacy issues students lack employment skills such as problem solving, team working and time management. Business believes, “non- routine tasks and analytical or interactive skills” are the key to employment. Innovation Unit 2015.  Will our new exam system and curriculum support this demand?

This return to 1950’s is compounded as the current winners in the school system are less likely to provoke change, and more likely to maintain the status quo for their curriculum and learning. Why rock the boat when it is succeeding? Why go against the tide of curriculum reform? Of course there are exceptions to this model, but the new high stakes landscape does not encourage prototypes of learning and or structures for the future. Unlike business models which are now moving away from mass production, towards innovation and individuality as the route to success.[3] Schools are moving backward to what has gone before, and where large chains are involved the temptation is to homogenise.

Even the opportunity to open Free Schools has not heralded mass innovation and change. The innovation unit recently expressed their frustration that the Department for Education board were passing more of the same Free Schools rather than those with innovative design. The result is that mass education is retreating into well- worn and dated practices, more of the same. While our future need is demanding something totally different and unpredictable. How are we preparing our students for the unknown?

What direct impact did this have on our school?

Our GCSE range shrunk dramatically and for a number of years, vocational qualifications almost disappeared. The number of students we sent to college, reduced dramatically and sadly the college had to cut these GCSE courses. The opportunity to individualise learning became a thing of the past for secondary students as choice disappeared from the curriculum.

Assessment in the new educational landscape

Assessment changes arrived swift and fast to secondary schools. The Coalition Government mission focused around raising standards in a set of rigid exams with minimal teacher assessment. In primary the opposite was occurring, with an increase in the use of teacher assessment and a reduction in external exams. During this period Michael Wilshaw highlighted the primary improvement as far exceeding that of secondary which in the same period is seen to have stalled. Will the improvement in primary continue, as the new curriculum, and rigid exam process embeds into primaries?

Assessment for secondary schools has been set at a bar never seen before. All Key Stages in tumult with subjects moving to new exams at different times, and a complete abolition of previous assessment procedures, particularly at Key Stage One, two and three. Many exam specifications arrived late. With no time for ancillary companies to produce supporting resources and materials for students and teachers. Decisions about what was a qualification and what would be accountable within the league tables, and to students, changed again and again. The most horrifying changes that created maximum damage were those that reduced the qualification when students had already complete a year of their GCSE.

If you wanted a subject that I think has been mucked around more than most at secondary, it would be Science. With the numerous, double, single and triple courses available for the specification. The changes have been absolutely ridiculous, in amount and regularity.

For Primary the key curriculum changes came about with the new curriculum across all key stages including early years in 2014.  Prior to this Phonics had become a significant initiative with screen testing for all children in key stage 1. Primary initially experienced a relax on external assessment as Science tests were removed from Key Stage two and the English written exam was withdrawn in favour of teacher assessment.

It is only into the Conservative Government regime, that we now see examination returning to primary schools with the initial proposal for four year olds (now thankfully withdrawn), seven and eleven year olds. In-fact the eleven- year old example tests are an excellent route into witnessing, the terrific hike in expectations that have gone across the whole school system. We are currently conducting one of the biggest experiments in state education. An 11- year old, is being asked to complete the work which was until this year GCSE standard. In English the grammar is spurious. Will raising the standards so high, so swiftly, and with very little if any training for teachers, improve our outcomes? (Don’t forget a primary teacher is not a specialist in all subject areas. Yet is now expected to deliver a standard of education that can achieve what was a fourteen – year old expectations previously, in most subjects?) If I was a Parent of teenager about to sit GCSE’s or a year six child, whose previous education has not built to support these hikes. I would be horrified that they were sitting a test of this magnitude. Did we ask for this? Where is the evidence hiking expectations works as a stand- alone measure? Will this raise standards?

The value of subjects at secondary has also altered, and we have a two or three tier system with the grand EBACC in prime position. In the sixth form where the traditional subjects including English and Maths now carry more weight and emphasis. Rightly or wrongly this move has seen a de valuing of the Arts, and Vocational subjects in particular. It has created mounting pressures on the recruitment of subject teachers in the EBACC subjects who were already in short supply. I am pleased to see Computing has been reintroduced in schools and programming but giggle out Algorithms for 5 year olds, and I worry about the ability to recruit.

One of the funniest but I am now realising potentially damaging move to national assessment was the overnight banishing of levels. Huge research and debate currently exists over what is assessment and what is effective assessment?  In picking up on a particular strand of this research, the Department for Education moved with one fell swoop to cut down the offending Levels for Assessment at Key Stage one, two and three. Nothing was to replace the aberrant articles on mass, but we were to be reassured, that our outstanding schools would provide us all with a system of assessment that we could adopt. Sadly, we are all still waiting for these shining examples. While there is amazing work out there on what quality assessment is, Daisy Christodoulou is a great place to start. What the previous levels did provide, was a map of what learning looks and feels like, that the most inexperienced secondary teachers and or primary and a non- specialist could begin with. A blank page is wonderful for those that have the specialism capacity and experience to deliver an assessment map, because they know what learning looks like in their subject, but not for all.

We now have a blank canvass, and with a reduced curriculum, many have lost the map of learning. I am aware large numbers of professionals will be screaming at me, that we gained freedom, but did we gain quality? Having visited a couple of schools I can see the damage this can cause. Luckily in our County the Local Authority have worked with subject specialist to produce a comprehensive route map, which we can tweak. This provides detailed outlines of what learning looks like in the new curriculum. This is a beginning.

For me, this shows how research can be misused and it is the misuse that is damaging. All research is detailed and specific. The research that led to the abolishment of levels was never intended to produce one on mass solution.  The result of the abolition has promoted potential chaos. Resulting in a seizure to learning in some schools. Combined with this concern is my equal worry, that the increased testing reintroduced to primaries, will result in vulnerable teachers and schools becoming reliant on the arcane exams as the map to what students learning looks like. Thus sucking the fun and curiosity out of all learning and returning to a tick box, jumping hoops education.

The impact on my school

Like many challenging schools the grade boundary hikes have had significant impact on the C -D borderline which has at times, impacted on our results. The turbulence of assessment has added to the turbulence of recruiting science and maths staff and resulted in continued instability in these subjects. In one year, changes to the value of exams impacted on our students when they were half way through a Science course. The course was devalued, and at this point I went into teach. We started with two terms and a two year course to deliver.

As a school we have all lost significant faith in the exam process.  Particularly when we find a U grade returns as an A grade. If nationally we are struggling to recruit teaches and retain them, where are the exam markers sourced from?

Shrinking budgets

In real term costs the budget for schools has shrunk. Big hitters to the school budgets have come from the following:

–          the reduction in sixth form funding, a stepped reduction to funding

–          the loss of the specialist status fund (interestingly exactly the same amount of additional funding that we would have received had we been able to convert to an academy)

–          the increase in contributions to national insurance (D code)

–          the increase in contributions to teachers pensions and local government pensions in a bid to reduce the short fall

–          the increase in energy bills (although they have reduced at the moment)

–          Our capital grant shrunk from a healthy £100,000 to under £20,000 annually

Subsidiary, to this but of extreme relevance. The cost of staffing is increased annually as the market forces were unleashed on salaries. The classic rules of low supply, high demand generated higher and higher salaries and agency fees.

The direction of spend during the coalition government has been steered towards academies and Good or Outstanding schools, the replacement to building schools for the future restricted bids to only these schools. The over spend of the Free schools’ budget has led to Free School children receiving a disproportionate amount of money. What really breaks my heart is to see so many brand new schools or college with only year seven pupils in it! Five years later that spend will function at its maximum capacity.

The impact for my school

For once we were ahead of other schools in the game of school improvement without money. With our significant deficit we have never had any. Learning to school improve without any money has been our only experience. Yet the shrinkage of budgets, the reduction in external services to support the most vulnerable, and the unfilled places at my school have left all staff pushed to maximum capacity. Our class numbers have increased dramatically and we were unable to fund small, specialised courses. Our curriculum- offer became poorer.

Standards pay and conditions and performance management/ appraisal

Prior to the coalition government, the standard pay and conditions for teachers were regulated with set of pay scales. Under the new standards pay and conditions there are now freedoms as to how much an academy wishes to pay its members of staff. The new conditions, provided schools with the ability to remove the expectation that main scale teachers would automatically increase their scale, and or with- hold or withdraw upper threshold awards for the most experienced teachers. Countering this they did remember the carrot, by providing opportunities for outcome related pay awards and the double jumping of scales were permitted in order to encourage teachers to succeed. All schools now decide their own pay policy and the variance between schools is significant. Contracts and conditions are now vastly different depending on the institution.

The impact for my school

For the business minded this seems appropriate. Why shouldn’t we be paid for our performance, how fair? However, underlying this premise is the assumption that teachers are the soul determiner of a student’s outcome. Are they?  During the first era of the coalition government attainment was the key measure of success, inspection directly related the quality of teaching to outcomes, at a time when standards were rising significantly. Challenging schools became even more unattractive as individual salaries were now at risk if teachers could not meet the demands of the high stakes accountability regime.

The movement from Super Heads to Executive Heads and the cult of “get ‘em in and get ‘em out, fire em!”

Gun slinging Super Heads are now being given the opportunity in our new academy landscape to take on roles that involve the leadership of groups of schools. This costly move, is yet to be proven and I have some concerns. If an Executive Head last practiced leading a school prior to 2009 then their experience base and knowledge are outdated and quite frankly ancient history. If the current regime thinking continues then the source of candidates for this role are likely to come from schools with high parent power. Do they have the skill set and track record to deliver on all school improvement? The jury is out, and my own experience tells me that the answer is no, not unless they have completed the journey themselves as a leader in a low parent power challenging school.

What worries me most is that this role seems to have generated a phenomenon where some Executive Heads and chains are chewing up and spitting out new head teachers at rapid rate, if improvements are not made swiftly then they move onto the next head.  These mauled heads are normally the youngest and fresh to the system. How are executive heads judged and held to account? How many of their group of schools have to succeed and how? Are they avoiding our current firing line and is this appropriate?

The impact on my school?

It was clear my work was coming to an end with the 3rd inspection a year away since we were downgrade from satisfactory to requiring improvement. The never ending possibility of a sponsorship chain being forced upon the Governing body and the inevitable Executive Head, I concluded that we need to find the right sponsor. This meant the last two years of my career left me with the real chance of losing my job, and consumed my energies in finding a sponsor and converting to an academy. This continually pulled me away from the school improvement agenda.

The structure, and ownership of schools and the removal of the LA.

A school is a centre of learning, but how learning is structured is now free to market forces. 14 – 19, 0 – 19, 0 – 11, 0-9, technical, free, sponsored, stand alone, and multi academy trusts are dispersed in the landscape and are set to continue to grow and diversify with little or no state intervention. What seems to be emerging is that, as a successful school the landscape can remain diversified and unique. As a Requiring Improvement or Failing school sponsorship is now the only alternative. This can leave schools at risk to a homogenised chain, with a factory like approach to school improvement. We currently do not see huge numbers of Good or Outstanding schools stepping up to work with challenging schools. From my time of working with disadvantaged students I am clear that individualise and small scale intervention have greatest impact, when focused on student need. This homogenisation worries me.

The Impact on my school

With label change to Requiring Improvement, leaders of these schools including myself became vulnerable to removal. As the hand book demands increased, and the quality and experience of the teams reduced. (See the chapter on Ofsted). The RI increased our vulnerability and acted as a disincentive for attracting high quality external leaders into the school. Our risk of a Regional Inspector and or Regional commissioner designating us in need of sponsor became very real.  I resigned myself to the fact this meant I would go. The process of seeking the sponsor and the sponsorship process consumed myself and the Governing body and took us away from what should be our total focus school improvement.


SEND provision

The SEND Code of practice was re written with a significantly greater emphasis on support from the teacher in the classroom.  Pupils and Parents were placed at the centre of any planning for provision including how budgets were used. Teacher accountability was increased with dictates to include SEND outcomes in performance management and through the criteria in the Ofsted handbook.  The current handbook requires an outstanding outcome to fulfil, “for pupils generally and specifically for disadvantaged pupils, disabled pupils and those who have special education needs, progress is above average across nearly all year groups.” Ofsted handbook 2015. The boundaries to achieve SEND nomination were raised with the abolition of School Action and School Action plus students. Behavioural needs were dismissed.

The Impact for my school

At the same time, we gained success with our disadvantaged students and a reputation for working with behaviourally challenging students, the acknowledgement of special need for these students disappeared and along with it any funding. Our reputation for supporting SEND students increased, but the criteria for achieving a SEND designation decreased. At the end of my time, we were receiving more students who were vulnerable, but without designation and or the new educational health care plans. Yet our Teaching Assistant resource had shrunk from a team of nine to five, due to our most recent redundancy process.

Like the children who were excluded or close to exclusion we were at risk of receiving mid- year (with no budget planning) SEND students and these could be extreme. In one incident we were asked to take an individual who fantasised about guns, and soiled himself regularly and daily. He spoke limited English and the levels he entered with were a work of fiction. We were not full and had no internal funding to support this individual, we were offered none.

Frustratingly like those most at risk of exclusion the system funnelled the most vulnerable to us but gave us the least capacity to support these students. Reaching above average progress is this scenario was impossible we were trapped and so were their outcomes.

Access to the net at our fingertips

Have you watched a young child access information these days? Their ability to receive and communicate is changing rapidly and we are….

* Ofsted 2009 – 2010 Annual report – Christine Gilbert Chief Inspector

*10 schools for the 21st Century –  Marth Hampson, Alec Patton and Leonie Shanks Innovation unit 2015



[1] Gilbert Christine Chief Inspector. (2010) The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2009/10.

[2] Sir Amyas Morse KCG Comptroller and Auditor General. (2016) Training New Teachers, Department of Education.

[3] Seth Goodwin 2010. How to get your ideas spread, TED Talks. This is broken! TED talks Sept 2010.


A great experiment in education May 2016 – Wobbly jelly learning

Reflection (Not part of the book)

I believe we are currently seeing the implementation of a great national experiment which covers all key stages including early years.  This experiment is based on the hypothesis that if we raise standards and expectations significantly, students will achieve more. Unfortunately, our current Government doesn’t recognise the experiment. It has moved lock, stock and barrel into creating this assumption and its reality in each school and classroom across the country. Sitting alongside this experiment are two subsidiary trials:

  • The first is that, we can raise expectations with no or minimal training for teaching staff. In particular, non- specialist subject teachers which can be found in primary schools and middle schools. Although with a shortage of teachers they are now appearing as a regular occurrence in secondary also. The experiment assumes that all have the capacity of knowledge for all these subjects at the higher standard, and can jump to this demand.
  • The second is that, by implementing a high stakes exam system to sit alongside some of the largest hikes in expectations, that I have ever seen, all key stage learning will be further enhanced.

Having experienced the birth of this experiment as a secondary head teacher, and witnessing the ensuing chaos created from an ever advancing curriculum and rapid, and continuous raising of exam standards. (As secondary teachers we used to be able to predict grades, now we spend our time second guessing the latest grade hike.) I am interested currently in looking at the impact on learning in the primary school system as this experiment reaches their key stages. Will this high stake experiment improve learning? Will secondary schools see the uplift to accompany these changes when their new intakes arrive?

My current evidence base is limited. Consisting of visits to primaries and small pockets of observation and conversations with primary and middle school teachers predominantly. My only science to this is my ability to observe. None of what I write can been seen as in anyway conclusive. However, in visiting various schools a repeat pattern is occurring which concerns me. I am witnessing the pressure to meet expectations, and jump the hoops in the next exam, is overtaking the necessity to check students learning and to revisit immediately where learning is not secure.

The pressure to meet these new expectations has left primaries with a high paced and prescriptive curriculum that seems out of kilter with students recognised stages of development. Sitting in lessons and discussions, with a variety of primary teachers the pressure was palpable. The expectation to get through the curriculum burning into their judgements and balance between pace and ensuring learning is secure. I could hear in conversations, the frustration of having to move on, before students have established and secured this new and demanding learning.

In Maths in particular, I am deeply concerned that eight and nine year olds are being asked to manipulate and comprehend number that is beyond practical application and requires a thought process that is abstract. It feels that the curriculum is sitting at a juxtaposition to the developmental stages of the brain. I am not an expert in psychology, but even with really quality teacher input. The learning feels like jelly, wobbly without a solid foundation, and likely to slide off the plate of secure understanding at any point. The new curriculum and expectations are imposing a planning model that is ignoring the essential ingredient to any students’ learning, where are they at? What are they secure in? Plan with this in mind and don’t leap prior to securing this knowledge so that it is solid and they are confident.

If this is the case and teachers are recognising this problem, why don’t they in the autonomous system take the opportunity to scarp the curriculum. If you are an academy you can do just that?

For me, the high stakes scenario we work in, is adding to the necessity to tick the box of expectations. Currently school assessment relates directly to the Ofsted judgment and to teachers pay awards.  The pressure to meet the new age related expectations and beyond, takes no consideration of the fact we have just sent primary expectation in to the stratosphere. The spurious exam processes now entering the primary system adds additional pressure to get through that content. All in all, schools have very little choice but to push on and ignore the wobble.

Is this the type of learning that will secure great learning? No. What will it create?  A lot of students with wobbly foundations, significant amounts of insecurity and a lack of curiosity.

A school in chaos – the isms


The school had an undercurrent of the isms on arrival. A predominantly white working class intake, with a small but significant national front party on the door step. Although the school was situated next to a major ethnically diverse city, students and parents exhibited no desire and even fear which prevented them from exploring the city and discovering difference. As a Sports School it had established dominant male leads in traditional roles. A key male within the staffroom, dominated any discussion with deep undertones of misogyny. This school was rife with unchallenged issues. While I am not an advocate of zero tolerance in all behaviour issues, in these areas and all isms, it was essential that we did not accept any part of them. The sooner my community knew I would not tolerate them the better. What did I learn with every ism? – address it, and never let one opportunity go to let everyone know it is unacceptable. I have written some examples of the isms in action at the school I inherited, and my response.

Sexism – where was it lurking in my new school?

On my appointment and arrival at the school, my mere presence as the new Head, began to tackle a little of the sexism that existed in the school. In my early darkest moments, the key male member of staff continued to dominate the staff voice. Not one women spoke out during the first months of our staff meetings, except me. Later, when he squared up to hit me, (In this moment I was praying he would. I’d have taken the knock to remove him from the school, and bought myself veneers on the outcome.) I knew my mere presence irked the living daylights out of him. In writing this I can’t believe my naivety in not taking this incident further. However, it would have been his word against mine. No one else was in the stairwell.

As a new Head your staff and students need to get to know you, in a truly chaotic school that has had very weak leaders you begin as the lead role model. If you want to change the ethos and values, then you should be leading assemblies. Over time my Deputy and I have realised that the method of the Chinese mantra, say it again and again in formal settings and then again, almost to the point of indoctrination creates significant impact. Yes, I did write indoctrination for the isms as these are absolutely and fundamentally wrong, and the only area of life we were never prepared to debate with our students. We spent considerable time in generating this message with examples of why.

As I set out on my assemblies in key stages, (we never could put the whole school together due our limited hall space) and in year groups each half term. I was met with wolf whistles. Initially I ignored it, but within a week this technique was only dampening the situation, not stopping it. So what do you do? With any ism my belief is you tackle it head on…. You never pussy foot around it, you talk about it. So that’s what I did in my assemblies. Guilt and questions are such a powerful tool. We discussed, (well they listened) why I was subjected to wolf whistles, why they might have been intending it as a compliment, but that I didn’t feel it was. How would they behave if I was a male? Why was it women in 2009 were still subjected to this treatment in the UK and why it needed to stop? Somehow the conviction of the assembly, and I think one of the first times an ism had been tackled head on, had impact. I didn’t face the wolf whistle again.

Women on women, perpetuating our own kind of sexism.

In any school change, the older year groups (not sixth form) find it hardest. They have gone through the school and have been ingrained intentionally (if you have quality leadership) and unintentionally if not, in the beliefs (overt or subliminal) that the school represents. My first year 11 were no exception. As I began to make change, a group of around ten to twelve white girls, all very sporty and indoctrinated in the heavy male sports presence, decided they didn’t like what I was trying to do. To show this dislike they took to booing me predominantly at any public event where I was having to be present. This booing was loud, persistent and yes internally upsetting. I think that if this had been 2012 onwards this would have been followed up with social media clips etc. Fortunately for me the phenomenon was only just beginning!

It surprised me, I thought it would have been the male population that took to revolt, but in hindsight women are excellent at subtle subterfuge and often so hard on each other. Even in the primary playground girls are constantly falling out with each other, and judging. Give me a male argument as a head teacher any day.  Cave man aggression (yes dangerous at the time) initially, but quickly the heat and argument are gone.

The booing was backed up by a whisper campaign, and drop dead looks and directed laughter whenever I was on the scene. God bless them, like others in the staff, the sight of a thirty-six-year-old female, attempting to lead a school full of significant testosterone……. (please note we had more boys in almost all year groups) confused them at best.

So what do you do? Tackle it head on. They were fifteen and sixteen years old, so I felt it was not necessary to involve the parents immediately. Instead I kept the group, post one assembly. This wasn’t a discussion. This wasn’t time for understanding to show in my eyes. This was time to talk women in the 21st century in power, and how we work with each other. They left knowing that I hate booing, I find it one of the most cowardly things to do. A group mentality trick, which creates a noise but gives the causes freedom to hide behind and remain anonymous in a crowd. They were told “If they had an issue, disliked what I was doing and wanted me to rethink, then they fronted up to me and we talked properly and appropriately. But before they did, could they consider their response to me… would a male head have the same treatment from them?” I continued. “They were going to face real challenge in their life and for too long some women had made the mistake of seeing other women as competition. I wanted to effect change and I wanted to reduce this for them and for my daughter”. On hearing this, their eyes rolled at first, but later became more constant. The outcome of our meeting? The booing disappeared from my hearing, (not the best) and although the comments were tempered, the looks remained, but as I say to lots of students you can’t change the eyes but you can close the mouth.

Sexism on the internet

The dawn of social media and the internet is rich with promise for education and learning, students have so much knowledge at their finger- tips and commentary. However, we all know that we are at the beginning of this new era and limited in our approach and use of these facilities. One of the most frightening and worrying elements in the access to information has been the abundant and unrestrained access to porn, but not just any porn, hard core. Often with the mistreatment of women and or other subordinates being played out in fantasy situations where this seems the norm. What frightens me most is that, what the majority of adults would consider outside of the norm is now becoming the perceived norm for teenagers. Students have regular and frequent access to violent and aggressive porn. This, is not a good teaching method. Frighteningly, this has also led to two cases in my school where a teenage relationship has moved into domination and a sexually abusive scenario. Each case has had regular access from a young age to porn. What do we need to do? Talk about sex as parents and carers. Address the issues with active campaigns to re balance what are “healthy and enriching” sexual relationships. Talking about what was once so taboo, is essential for our teenagers and whilst I began the process in school I think a national agenda is essential. My one saving grace in both of these situations was that the teenagers told us, and trusted us enough to deal with it. Sadly, the outcomes involved the police.

A small note on sexism in leadership for females. In a headship world that remains with roughly 75% of secondary heads originating from private schools and only 25% of the current headship population in secondary schools are female, grey suited men predominate. In watching and admiring my older female colleagues, I had concluded that a number of them had faced the battles of sexism and leadership by becoming equal and alpha in their approach. Emotion was out and into the battle fray we go, seemed their mantra. Rightly or wrongly this is not me and I was not prepared to shape my headship as a second rate male. I believe I am lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to take this stance by the women that have gone before me.

For my SLT from the outset this has meant they have seen tears from me of frustration at times of great stress, and probably a little more indecision and lack of self- belief. Yet, at least I feel integral to my type of women hood rightly or wrongly. And in a chaotic school if you don’t stay integral to your beliefs, you lose the grip on you and the mountain you are climbing. Talking about this dilemma with them (my leadership team) and my female students was crucial to supporting young women in the future to make decisions about their choices in the work places and how men respond to these changes.


When you break down the intake of my ex school there were small pockets of Black British, Turkish and a small, but rapidly growing group of students from the ex- Eastern bloc.  Though in a sea of white, they were in the minority. With the national front on our door step, the undercurrent of racism was rife. It seeped below the culture but surfaced regularly.  On entry a log of racism at the school showed very little had ever been reported. That log and reality were very different.

Racism in the beginning existed in three forms that I could identify. The first was in the staff. Like many schools Science was in disarray with only four permanent members and the rest temporary staff. In fact, the entire Year seven had only temporary teachers in the school on arrival. Who stayed a few weeks and then were replaced, once the chaos in the classroom became too much for the leadership to ignore. Supply teachers were almost exclusively foreign, and predominantly black and African. Their experience of supply teaching in the UK often came as a huge shock to them; arriving from countries where education was the path out of poverty. To face marauding crowds of students disillusioned with the constant turn- over of Science staff and the drudgery and often pointless nature of cover work. The situation was a disaster. No one had intended or was saying that foreign teachers resulted in failure, but this was the students experience and was leading to a culture where difference other than white in the teaching body, led to immediate poor behaviour and lack of respect on approaching a new teacher. This was an appalling situation to inherit.

A key player in the Maths department was the exception to this. In reflecting on my period of time at the school, I recognise I owe so much to this Maths teacher. He helped not only to deliver great maths teaching and an awesome belief to all students that “Yes they can do maths!” But also he helped me, with great patience by accepting my initial overt strategy, and later subtler one to tackle this problem. He put up with my efforts to constantly remind the students that without immigrants, and second and third generations of ethnically diverse groups, we couldn’t have filled our Maths department and later other departments with such passion and quality.

The beloved mathematician was a huge ex Ugandan, with a broad thick accent and wicked sense of humour and a passion for Maths. Ignored by the previous regime, he couldn’t believe that I would come initially to talk to him, and later to regularly ask his advice on a variety of leadership matters including support for ethnic minority staff and students. In his first two years at school, (prior to my appointment) he had experienced all the overt and subliminal racism and questions over his thick accent and blunt manner. However, his resilience and personality saw him through, and by the time I reached the school he was already a legend. Well respected and with children and parents in awe. He was truly a great. Please note all failing schools have pockets of excellence, often buried and hidden behind closed doors but there for the discovery.

I am not black and having been out of London teaching in the world of white working class for more than 15 years, I am conscious that this story may not be pc and or what anti- racism activists would suggest is the way forward. However, for me this man and others like him, were key to quietly challenging very ingrained perceptions and fears of difference within our community, and in supporting other colleagues to adjust to teaching in the school. My wonderful Chair of Governors, and Parent Governor were also great advocates for diversity.

From my experience the ridiculously complicated entry system erected by the coalition government is compounding the already pressing issues of recruitment, and recruitment in challenging schools is harder than anywhere else. This is also compounded by the fact that Requiring Improvement and Failing schools are not allowed to breed their own source of teachers by training them. This has left schools like my ex establishment becoming more and more reliant on overseas teachers. And while almost all overseas teachers can convert and become successful in the UK, the time to adjust is long and difficult and requires specific and intensive training. My mathematician would talk frequently about African maths and how it was different and staff needed time to convert.

The second form of racism was experienced by the students and was probably summed up by one Year eleven girl’s experience. I met her very early on in my Headship. Her reputation proceeded her, and sadly when staff described this young adult, it was with little empathy and what felt like a significant amount of animosity. This student was attractive, dynamic, intelligent and angry as hell. She could pick a fight with any teacher and or student within seconds and there was no possibility of negotiation once this student had turned to conflict.  She and two of her friends who joined later, were phenomenal in their ability to argue their point of view and I seriously hope at least one of them has taken my advice and is now a lawyer.

Somewhere in this student’s history she had been very popular and great friends with a lead family in the local area, but this friendship had turned sour and underneath this sourness was a whiff of racism. Too far back in her history and too difficult for me to unpick as I got to know this student in our long discussions in my office. I began to see a picture of a fog of racism incidents surrounding the major school conflicts that had occurred in this student’s life. Yet no one had tackled them or even attempted to name and label it. The subliminal messages we were sending her and students like her, was that it was better to not say anything and to ignore this. Over time this approach had resulted in a young adult who was steaming with rage and this was often directed at the teachers.  Any- one who went to challenge this student ended up with a full frontal of abuse. On one memorable occasion she barricaded herself into a classroom with a group of friends in defence of a decision. Hours later and a lot of low level talking and calmness she came out!

I was not sure by the time I got to her how much I helped. I hope that she was able to witness any racism that was reported to me was tackled without delay. Certainly we talked about my conclusions about had happened to her and how sorry I was. She needed to hear that this was wrong. She did calm a little in the last days that I worked with her, but I am not sure how much success I made of the situation. What I learnt was, how easy it is to turn away from facing an ism, but how damaging it is for the individual involved and the community experiencing this abuse. Racism always has to be faced, and as school leaders we need to be proactive in regularly addressing this with staff and students, to make sure they know to report any issues in. Quiet tolerance generates a storm, and giving students the confidence to report issues and know they will be addressed is key.

Parents were our last source of racism, of course however much teenagers might deny it, there home seeds the majority of their base values and opinions. One memorable moment with a Parent stands out. It is an example of where our ability to tackle racism head on and talk about it openly, led to a Parent of a child reverse her strategy of denial and recognise her own behaviours were part of her son’s problem. By the end of the conversation with my Deputy and I, she stated, “Oh my god… it’s me… I am feeling so angry about the growth of Polish shops that have sprung up in the area in the last 4 months. I feel like the high street is being taken over and I know this is influencing him. I have got things wrong.” Her honesty and recognition of her anger were to us astonishing, and a reflection hopefully of the work we could do in the community to make people think and question. This Mum had a child who found school very difficult but her honesty, humility and determined approach supported him throughout his career with us.

Ism 3 Homophobia (sorry doesn’t quite fit my theme of ism)

In my school the word Gay was banded around frequently as a slight, by the majority of boys in the school and many of the girls. Although statistically I am likely to have had a variety of bi and homosexuals in the school staff, non- ever identified themselves to the community as is their right. One very brave boy (brave because of the climate) stood out, and I met him when he was in year 10. We were already heavily into tackling the use of Gay as a derogatory term, and had carried out some initial work with Stonewall. Any opportunity to pull up this type of slight was taken my SLT and members of staff, yet it remained prevalent in the community.

Unbeknown to us this student had taken it upon himself to openly express his homosexuality and to defend his right to choose his sexuality. He was having a hard time, particularly in PE when this stand came to my notice. Wolf whistles and continuous gibes were his norm within the school day.

At the same time, a phone call came in from Stonewall to say that as we had been so proactive in tackling this issue, they wanted to offer us the opportunity to meet Sir Ian McKellen and have him come to the school and talk to a small number of students.  This was a fantastic opportunity and one rarely given to school like mine in such challenging circumstances. “How could we guarantee good behaviour?” was often the unspoken doubt in people’s mind. However, stonewall took risks and they were prepared to take one in a school that really needed to get over homosexuality and bi sexuality and welcome them into 21st century living!

I decided to ask Sam if he would be willing to help me organise the day, and to advise us on how we could get the maximum benefit from the occasion. He was openly out and therefore I wanted his advice, if he was willing. As always his parents were included in the decision. We also invited the embryonic group that was to form our equalities and diversities student voice committee to help. Together we worked to organise the day with a focus around maximising the impact to change the students use of the term gay and their perceptions of Gay individuals.

In our discussions, the student group were clear that actually we needed to capitalise on the number of students who would have an opportunity to see and hear Sir Ian McKellen speak, and to hear his message. The small groups of students actually turned into over four hundred students having access, during two sessions which lasted the majority of the morning. We felt that the age ranges fourteen – nineteen would benefit most from the experience. Once again Stonewall were willing to take the risk and Sir Ian McKellen after consultation agreed!

The day itself began with Sir Ian visiting a beautiful and successful school in the leafy countryside in the morning. He arrived with us after break, where he was met by the student counsel who had helped me organise the event and our student newspaper group. From the outset he was astonishingly candid and graceful, keen to engage with all students and staff. He spent well over his planned allocation time, in two sittings in the hall, jammed to the rafters with students. Speaking to them at length about his experience as a homosexual. He also after requests performed soliloquies for our students, which kept them spell bound. His impression, bravery, and inclusivity kept them enchanted and he single handily routed the your gay as a criticism from the school. All we had to do was keep this going. Our students behaved impeccably, and our student voice groups confidence that they would was not let us down, paid off.

Sir Ian also provided me with a fabulous opportunity to display pictorially our support for Stonewall and homosexuality. As I had huge white board pictures made of Sir Ian and our students which we placed as the first pictorial image in reception. They were massive and left no one in doubt of our message. Sam had a fabulous day and although not easy, his route way through school was improved substantially, his voice has been heard and respected.


How current assumptions in the system are limiting the conditions for growth in challenging schools – The free market

Assumption: The free market is the answer. 

With the announcement of the abolition of Local Education Authorities we are moving lock, stock and barrel to a free market education system, [1]one where supply and demand will influence decisions with little or no counter control. Is this system likely to give us a better quality education and a greater choice for parents? We seem to lack substantive evidence to suggest that the model of academies and free schools are not yet proven as the true panacea*[2]. Sadly, many of those schools that have remained unable to reach the good with Ofsted persist as stubbornly Requiring Improvement or Failing regardless of their structure.  In this essay I am looking to outline how a partial free market system increased the difficulties for my school and least supported the most vulnerable in the community. I conclude that market forces alone can-not provide an education system that supports their needs and demands. But I am also unclear if high parent power students’ (See the chapter on parent power for a definition.)  are getting value from this system either? I am concerned our current process, generates complacency in the winners of this system while whipping to a frenzy the losers.

The local area governance at the start of my headship.

Within my local area, any school that was Good or Outstanding converted to academy status under the new regime in 2010 – 2011 when the financial incentives were strong.[3] One conversion involved the Diocese, the others were stand alone. This left three local authority state schools within the area who were unable to convert. They were at various stages of Failing and or Requiring Improvement. To become an academy these schools would have needed to seek sponsorship. No state school within an area was willing to engage in this notion.

We existed in a typical rural suburb scenario, where the two ex- grammar schools maintained their capacity to attract and to receive the higher ability students. Every year a constant clamour to attend one of the ex- grammar schools occurred. Entrance exams took place and applications over flowed for these two schools. Two other schools over the last twelve years had, with exceptional head teachers, managed to turn their performance around and were now rated as Good. They also converted swiftly to the new structure; to secure the funding incentives available at the time. These schools also received above and beyond applications in Year Seven. The three remaining schools within the area mine included, were understandably the least preferred option for any parent and rarely received enough applications to fill their places.

Unique to our area, was the fact that we were experiencing a significant and long term reduction in the number of students attending all secondary schools. This meant that in a relatively free market of choice there were more places than there were students. So those less attractive schools were going to receive less students than they are able to take each year. (This is described as the PAN the number of pupils a school has the capacity to take each year.) Receiving less students is a major problem for a school as you are funded by the number of students that you have. This funding is lagged.

To add to this, one academy in the local area decided with their new build, to increase the number of students by another sixty for each on coming year. As an academy you have the right to set your own numbers for entry with little or no negotiation and or say from the Local Authority. The year later two more good academies made the decision to increase their intake by twenty- five and fifteen students respectively.  This resulted in adding more places to a system that already had too many places.

For the weakest school like mine this had a direct and exceptionally damaging impact. As numbers dwindled even further, budgets reduced to damaging levels. For one school their numbers were so effected that they reduced to less than half of what they needed to remain sustainable. The dwindling numbers for all three schools acted like a slow death placing a severe strangle hold on the finances. We were lucky to buck this trend slightly as we generated some interest, yet we operated between one and two classes below our PAN. This was damaging to our budget.

Isn’t this a good idea that the free market and the powers of academies led to the good schools taking in more students and the weakest having less? This is what parent power and choice is all about, so stop whinging!

Taking money away from schools with the most problems.

In our current system the number of students you receive equates to the funding you obtain for your school. The more students the more money. The less students the less money. In the scenario described above. The schools that need to carry out the largest amount of progress and school improvement, received the least amount of money.

This system began to make turning around a “failing” school even harder for a number of reasons. Like many failing schools I had already inherited a £660,000 deficit. We then had a budget that was reducing year on year to add to our woes. As our Year Seven numbers decreased our forecast budgets for future years looked damning. We were going to have to school improve with less and less money. The system was funnelling the money into the schools already doing well, and removing it from those that weren’t.

The most vulnerable are funnelled to the weakest schools in substantial numbers with the least amount of funding:

Low ability and “Low Parent Power”

For students with high Parent Power, with the increase in places even more may have got into what were perceived as the Good schools. However, for those students with the least Parent Power and the most vulnerable students they began to fill the less popular schools in significant numbers. These parents had less capacity to push for the most popular school. Their children were less likely to present performance related data to encourage the Good schools to make and allow them in. If they sat the entrance exams they were likely to fail.  These schools nestled in the more expensive areas of the region where high Parent Power tends to exist A filter system began to occur, the high Parent Power child to the most popular school, the low Parent Power child to the least popular.  Our intake became skewed with a substantial lower ability students entering our school and very, few high- ability crossing our doorway.

At the same time, we entered a Govian system of attainment as the key measure for schools. What students achieved at GCSE and A level became the measure of success in, not the journey of learning they took with a school. What students entered with was ignored. We were sunk! If we were now taking the largest proportion of lower ability students within the area, how were we ever going to compete with those schools taking the top end in this system?  It was like trying to run the four hundred metres with the other schools, except we started our race three hundred metres behind everyone else. Even if we had of been able to support these children to make exceptional progress. It was unlikely, we would ever have caught up with those that so far in front. If the system had measured the journey, everyone could have seen we had travelled a far greater distance in supporting students’ learning. Nevertheless, Gove’s early regime didn’t allow us any opportunity to evidence this. This was disastrous for us and other schools like ours. Although we took for a number of years significantly below average students, and together we reached broadly average in our results, this was never good enough for Ofsted and the regime. How were we ever going to turn around the perception that if you had a good student you should never send them to our school? How could we even up the system?

The poorest behaved students

We also began to receive more and more excluded students, or close to exclusion students. If a school is not full, then it has no ability to block an application or approach from a parent wanting to move their child to the school. If you are full you have this opportunity. In our current school system this meant that those students who had been excluded from other schools in the area, were able to approach us and enter. Regardless of the number of these types of students, that existed in each year group. Those Parents who decided to jump before exclusion were also able to attend the school.

Many of these students arrived in years nine, ten and eleven. They came with a significant dissatisfaction with the school system, alienated and generally far behind their peers in their learning. Out of a year group of one hundred and fifty we could face up to ten students in this category. Even before we considered our own students, who had arrived with significant problems from year seven. This was an influential percentage of our cohort, that annually impacted on our overall results. Our data showed our excellent ability to improve these student outcomes, but we always needed more time to do this. A year and half was never enough! Please note although funding came with them, this was often only half a year’s. These students were rarely SEND[4] as the system did not now recognised behaviour problems and a SEND need. Therefore, they came with no additional support and yet consumed our resource of time and teacher input initially.

Didn’t Pupil Premium money help?

Yes, Pupil Premium money did help in providing additional money for the most vulnerable. However, the funding was no – where near the funding that we would have received, if more students had attended the school. We also suffered from the problem that our Pupil Premium predominantly presented with multiple vulnerabilities many were also SEND. Pupil Premium is a broad brush measure that lacks subtlety. Moving a child that six years ago, took free school meals and succeeding with them. Compared to a child with a family who are in social housing, currently about to be evicted, and who have a particular SEND need. Is a vastly different experience. Yet, both types of students are lumped into this category and their progress compared. In some year groups our Pupil Premium multiple vulnerabilities exceeded 50%. Pupil premium helped a little to prop our budget as it shrunk, and ensured we spent the money on those in need. Yet it could not compensate for the overall loss of students and the funding that went with them.


SEND students

Again low parent power led to a number of SEND students entering our school, the school with the least funding to support them. If you read the Education Committee’s Admissions report [5] you will also find that our most successful schools are not always the ones to actively promote the admittance of SEND student to their schools. Recently I was asked advice from a Mum in the local area who was being advised that her SEND child would be best suited to my previous school rather than the local good school. As we had more understanding of his needs. I swiftly explained that due to the large numbers of SEND attending our school we probably did have more understanding. However, I knew the SENCO of the good school who was more than capable. I also advised that he would be in a school of one or two students with need and so much more funding. They would ultimately have more capacity to support.

Even worse for us at the same time the Gove regime changed the definition of SEND reducing the numbers and the categories that were recognised as Special Needs and therefore reducing the funding for these students. In particular those students who were classified with behaviour issues were removed from the SEND register and with this change went the additional money to support them. Guess what, the majority of student we inherited sat within this category and in a puff of smoke a further set of money disappeared from us!

The latest handbook requires SEND students to make accelerated progress in order to reach good and outstanding. With so many and very little extra funding we were cutting our support for these students not increasing it.

A victim of our own success.

As we began to improve we became known rightly in the area for being very good with low ability students and those with additional vulnerabilities. We generated our own success story. The problem was, while we loved working with these students and watching their progress. Our reputation for this type of work increased, and the number of parents who chose our school for a child with behaviour and or SEND issues also increased. There were never enough of these students to fill our school, and support our budget. Nether less, there were enough to have consumed significant resources in an ever decreasing pot.  Unfortunately, the increase was countered by other parents thinking, “I do not want to send my child there if those students are attending that school.” (Yes this does happen.) Without any additional funding, and a shrinking budget we had increased our proportion of vulnerable students significantly.


Would this of happened with or without a free market?

My problem with the free market is are we really prepared for education to have a set of winners and losers? If we are, who are the losers? Within my scenario the losers were the most vulnerable students who were funnelled into the weakest schools with the least money? Is this right? Does anybody care?  I also have a sneaking suspicion that the system could encourage a marketing strategy for the perceived good school. In a market driven system with such high stakes, it makes sense as a head, to seek out the most – able and those that will make the most progress with minimal input from the school. This is not something we like to admit as Head’s but the logic is clear to see.

Would this happen in an area where there are enough or more students than places? If schools were full?

I recently visited a school that I knew well twenty years ago, close to where I live. It is in rural area and it and one other secondary school serve two small rural towns. 20 years ago both local schools were functioning well and were considered good schools. Both schools are academies. Recently this school has for whatever reason gained a reputation for being the lesser of the two schools. Both have received Good in Ofsted. This year the favoured school has decided to increase its intake by 60 students. With shrinking budgets and the public sector finance squeeze, this is becoming a more common practice, particularly for single convertor academies. This has had a direct and immediate detrimental impact on the other secondary school. High Power Parents have decided to go to the favoured school. Leaving the less favoured with a skewed intake towards the lower ability and a significant hole in the budget. How easy will it be to climb out of this hole? What impact will this have on the students is yet to be seen. I worry that the circumstances could occur again I this area, and the second school is at risk of spiralling in the wrong direction. Sixty more students attend the great school while seven hundred suffer the consequences.

What about choice aren’t we getting more choice from market forces?

I find this argument increasingly spurious having watched a market force education system generate a polarised system of Good schools and not good. I am unsure how any parent whose child is attending a school deemed as Failing would feel they are getting choice in the system. Success breeds success, and failure seems to breed failure, not choice. There is no mechanism, in this system to support the declining school. As a Parent and Head teacher I am left wondering what choice we really have? My ultimate choice was to accept the system, or try and break it by doing everything in my capacity to not attract the weakest. Something I have never wanted to do. Yet, if we were to succeed in this brave new world than we needed more students who required less input to progress. How many other schools are making this choice?

[1] hidden by the London Mayor elections we have just seen a reversal of one of the White papers founding principles that all schools should be academies. Sadly, this still remains the reality for Requiring Improvement schools

[2] House of Commons Education Committee Academies and Free schools, Fourth report January 2015

[3] From discussion with my local colleagues at the time I understand that, the money that was removed from specialist status for schools was the same amount that arrived in budgets as a new converted academy.

[4] Special Educational Needs students.

[5] Dr Elizabeth Passmore: (2015) Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) annual report September 2014 to August 201, Department for Education.


Sowing the seeds for school improvement – continuous learning

Why is continuous learning so important for staff?

The key to transforming a school is in the ability of the institution to support and encourage teachers to continue to learn. As professionals we are working with the brain the most complex system in the universe.  Sociological and environmental factors are continually changing and evolving and it is these that influence and shape how the brain works. Every student, class, cohort is different and responds differently to the stimuli we create. Added to this is the revolution in technology which now plays a key role in students’ everyday lives. This means the way they learn has, and is changing and we need to understand these changes. My daughter can look up any question on the magic of the internet and have the answer within a couple of seconds. The strength of that answer and the validity might be in question, but she has the beginnings of knowledge at her fingertips. How much does she now need to retain? How much retention supports her ability to connect her knowledge together and to dig deeper? how much can she revisit again? What should become part of her schemata? (Her brain map of knowledge and understanding.) How much can she rely on storing this knowledge on her computer rather than her brain?

If we accept that we are only just beginning to learn about how we learn, and that our subject pedagogy is deepening all the time. Then as an institution, I believe all schools should be committed to investing real and quality time for staff to continue to learn. Most school meetings which are hopefully effective and full of learning, are bolted onto the end of the day. As the exam period arrives they get pushed to the side and revision and or support classes take over in a challenging school. For staff this means longer hours with students, leaving little time for our own continuous learning.

How do you know when staff are actively engaged in learning?

You know your school will transform and outcomes will begin to improve when you walk into your staff room or bump into some of your team in a corridor, department office and sadly for us (as this was one of the only places we met regularly) the toilet! When the conversation has moved from, “This child didn’t do this….and this one was misbehaving in this way.” To a discussion about pedagogy: what they were trying at that moment in their classroom? What was working and what they had learnt from their trials? How they were going to adapt their practice further and what benefit they anticipated in students learning? Your staff are learning and your school is improving.

How did we create continuous cycles of learning at our school?

For most schools, investment comes in the form of finding time. With the help of my lead researcher and Deputy, pummelling me with weighty research documents confirming that learning was essential for staff. I decided that we needed to devote some of our timetable to this process. The idea neatly combined with my desire to provide our students with enrichment activities outside of the classroom. So on Wednesday afternoons key stage 4 finished school at lunch, missing the last hour. They completed this hour on a Monday pm where then stayed until 4 pm. Key stage 3 went into Enrichment after lunch, which involved a significant number of coaches who came into school. More about this in the enrichment chapter. After lunch my staff were given devoted time to learning. For staff the time alternated between their departments one week and cross curricular coaching groups the next.


Cross curricular coaching to promote learning?

We appointed a Lead Coach, line managed by my Deputy to lead staff learning across the school. We used the school improvement plan, to steer the learning into four or five broad subsets which shaped the framework of our development plan. For example: increasing challenge in the classroom, meeting individual needs, supporting the development of literacy, and improving engagement. Staff were then able to select which area they wanted to research and work on this. We linked with CUREE a research education company to help us create road maps to support the learning that staff were doing.

For example, if I chose to go into the increasing the challenge group. I would be assigned a coach, who would help me to define what I wanted to research within this topic area. They would then support me by giving me a road map to recent research, that I could use to further my understanding of the topic I was looking to explore. I would then be asked to focus in on a specific cohort of students that I wanted to work with, and to identify the student outcomes I was looking for. This might be to take my five top end students and to improve their ability to achieve an A* in the Geography decision making paper. Increasing the amount of opportunities, they took to use their case studies as evidence in the paper and, in helping them to use them to show how they can support their ideas or counter arguments.

Once the students’ outcomes and cohort were identified, teachers were then paired with others and they began their research and or trials. This research was limited and not always scientific,[i] but it allowed staff to trial, discuss, revisit tweak and conclude. By linking their research deliberately to student outcomes, we could track and identify a base measure of impact to the programme. At the end of the term, staff shared their learning through a variety of different media. We carried out a style of speed learning modelled on speed dating to report back findings. We created blogs of our work, and galleries displaying our progress.

Overtime the staff engagement with this process increased dramatically and almost all staff developed and began to think, take risks, and adapt their processes. Because of the alignment to the school improvement plan, this thinking meant that individuals were learning and the school was learning. The alignment to the school plan also meant we were all travelled in the same direction. Seeking greater understanding of the key areas we identified as specific areas for progress within our school. This alignment to the school plan was essential. We were like an amoeba, our wobbly learning individual, yet traversing in the same direction. In my last year I listened to the voices that told me to let this alignment to our plan had to go. This was a mistake as learning became disparate and without the collective had less meaning and ultimately impact.

Our last development gave us an opportunity to link to a project that aligned university research to schools by allowing teachers access to a website. This site, enabled staff to ask questions of researchers which could aid and support their own learning and trials in the classroom. Using the amoeba effect and linking this to a university and or groups of higher education research would have been an incredibly powerful addition to the process we had developed.

Twilight sessions to develop learning.

Alongside the coaching on Wednesday afternoon we offered a variety of twilight sessions to further learning. These were run initially by the more experienced teachers and were created from our school improvement plan and or training requests from performance management. Over time, as teachers research provided additional learning within our context, volunteers appeared wanting to run session to share their learning. We also developed specific sessions to improve understanding of particular student needs and eventually we were able to encourage parents into these sessions to support our staff in understanding of particular issues and concerns with SEND students. The twilights became an evolving process and a vehicle for sharing good practice which staff regularly revisited in the year. Each twilight linked to alternate and additional sessions so the learning could be revisited throughout the year. We found this model far more effective than one off events that inspire but rarely lead to changes in practice. In order to encourage longevity of learning our inset days were replaced with attendance at a set number of twilight sessions.

Structured opportunities to continue to learn at whatever stage of your career.

Promoting effective learning at my school required significant skill and something that could not be fully acquired in one year. To leave a Newly Qualified teacher after a year seemed wholly inappropriate. So we developed a compulsory 2nd year course for all new teachers. Meeting once a week and led by our Lead Coach. The idea was to extend the pedagogy and to promote and instil the practice of continued learning and research. Alongside this, we developed training opportunities in each of the career paths within our school: preparation for middle leadership, senior leadership and headship. Each course was funded by the school and linked to a qualification and a University.

As with all new initiatives the numbers were small to begin with but word of mouth spread and by the end of my tenure the majority of staff were taking these opportunities to support their learning. In reflection, we identified that while we had created structural hierarchical leadership learning, what we missed was the ability to develop subject specific expertise and this was something I would have explored further. The Singapore model of identifying staff early on to support different strands of learning from: learning for leadership, experts in their subject, or a pedagogy within teaching has I believe, merit.

Intensive learning

I have learnt, If I want to maximise the learning capacity of a teacher,  intensive co- teaching will produce the best outcomes. In my experience where new and or vulnerable staff are given a half term minimum, but preferably a term with an assigned quality practitioner. With the specific purpose of team teaching, and modelling with an agreed class and set of lessons, the learning is greatest. This is an expensive business assigning a quality practitioner to sit alongside a learning teacher. Identifying and agreeing the student outcomes you are looking for, and then mentoring and or team teaching in all these lessons creates overlap in the timetable and removes a quality teacher from teaching another class. However, time and again it has proven to be exceptionally powerful.

In order for this method to succeed I made the decision to offer this process, without the usual accountability procedures that tend to accompany support. I was clear, when performance management became directly related to the teachers’ salary, the accountability and pressure became too great and performance management lost its ability to stimulate quality learning. High stakes agendas reduce learning. Therefore, intensive learning was described as a gift and I meant it. It sat outside the performance management framework and was confidential. Staff were able to explore new strategies and take risks without the constraint of the accountability stick damning them if their and the students learning wasn’t immediately successful.

As this practice grew we had a number of staff who volunteered for intensive learning, (yes they actually volunteered to have staff observe them daily) but this time from a position as a strong practitioner wanting to further their development. In these scenarios the experienced practitioner took on a coaching role, acting as a facilitator of learning not the guru.

Where success occurred in intensive learning many staff opted to use the exercise as evidence for their performance management but this was their choice. Intensive learning remained the gift, performance management remained the accountability. The only exception to this was; one year due to a horrendous recruitment processes we began with a maths department with four potentially inadequate teachers. Each was assigned an intensive learning programme. Within three weeks, one of the teachers was so unable to make progress. The situation was so poor we had to move into capability and she left within the week of her own accord. This was a unique case and the intensive system flourished because of its opportunities to nurture.

Using our Evidence into Practice Blog to feed us the latest research.

Our Lead researcher developed a blog and programme of learning for those teachers interested in keeping up to date with the latest body of research into learning within the educational community. Research is invaluable but finding the time to keep up with it difficult. Whenever we were looking at a change, we had our own librarian to source and map the latest thinking that was out there. To ensure that we did not go into change blind. This blog was awarded one of the top educational blogs in the TES 2015 awards.

Your not good so you can’t lead the training of teachers.

One key element of creating a successful and sustainable school is your ability to attract quality teachers and retain them. It doesn’t matter how good your systems are, and how innovative you may be, if you don’t have the staff you will fail. For schools in disadvantaged circumstances, sourcing beginning teachers is a key strategy for engaging new graduates in the joy as well as challenge of working with disadvantaged students. It helps to secure a regular supply of new teachers into your school. Training teachers also has a secondary impact of creating regular and effective dialogue about pedagogy, and helping your current practitioners to continually reflect on their practice. New recruits are often full of enthusiasm and in the best institutions bring innovation and the latest research theory with them.

The changes to the training of teachers has bought about significant barriers for schools in challenging circumstances. Taking on beginning teachers in now almost all ring fenced to Good and Outstanding schools.  Teaching Alliances have to have Outstanding schools within them, often leading. Whilst we applied to our local Outstanding Alliance (25 miles away) to train teachers, we were never given the opportunity to do so. In the four years we applied we were offered a big fat zero of new staff. We became locked out of training and sourcing beginning teachers. This remained a strangle hold on our school’s ability to reach Good.

The School Direct route which provides salaried training, directly into school was also barred from us, as we were Requiring improvement. Frustrated we decided to ignore the system. We had through our blog and training programmes in house, a growing reputation as a thinking school. Fortunately, by manipulating our networks we able to access non salaried routes to training. Yes, come and train with us in a really difficult school and don’t get paid for it, was our only route available to attracting beginning teachers, and yes they had to self- fund this training! [ii]

In bucking the system, we were able to secure university training partnership with five significant institutions. By the end of our program we were the only school in County who achieved Outstanding with our two students who completed the self- assessment route. We were used an examples of excellent practice for the quality of their training programme with one of our significant University partners

These new recruits to the profession having worked with us, lost the fear of working in a challenging school and actually began to enjoy their experience and relish the challenge. Our current training system channels the majority of student through good and outstanding schools with no concrete training in disadvantaged situations. This leaves the shrinking number of graduates who are available each year, even more inclined to avoid these schools and with absolutely zero experience. God give me strength!

My Learning:

Actively seeking time devoted to learning collectively, is the essential ingredient for school improvement. Creating a safe haven away from the accountability machine promotes the greatest learning as staff are more willing to take risks.




[i] the Education Endownment Fund latest research on non -cognitive skills has a rating for scientific research which I find helpful, for some we had a constant to compare others we did not. I believe we would have been rated level 2 to 3 in their scale of 5.

[ii] review of training providers by the think tank Policy Exchange is well worth a read in highlighting the inadequate system of training currently at work. They believe our current system has most damage for the most disadvantage schools and most advantage for outstanding. I wouldn’t disagree

A school in chaos – Learning in the beginning.

Learning in the beginning


When was the last time you attempted to really learn something, something really new and challenging? As adults in our sphere of home and or work we are often cocooned in processes that might require us to evolve something, but rarely to learn something completely new. As an adult when was the last time you really faced that precipice and tackled something you weren’t naturally inclined to? That leap of faith over the cliff into something new and unknown is rare if not non-existent in a substantial number of our lives, so we forget how daunting it is. In a good school students are facing this experience regularly as they are pushed and challenged to progress. Their ability to manage the unknown and to tackle the new is paramount in enabling them to succeed now and in the future.


This is one of the reasons why we like our staff to continue learning; not only does it create a dialogue about the process, but we then all experience these feelings and remember how unnerving learning is, and how resilient you have to be to tackle the unknown.


At my school, as already stated a significant majority of students had already experienced failure. They had taken the leap and crashed down the cliff into the abyss. Often this abyss was then ignored, as the next terrain of learning needed to be conquered. No crampons, or alternative climbing gear were ever fitted to them, so they couldn’t climb out of the hole and back up the mountain of knowledge. Their learning was left in the ravine. Many of these students had huge gaps in their learning.


For those who were able to cross and climb the mountain of key stage 2 assessment, they did it with significant aid. This hadn’t come in the form of a guide helping them to solve the problems and find their own way to the solution. It had come in the form of rote learning, somebody leading the way, which allowed them to cross the path of knowledge but gave them little opportunity to turn back and find their way again when they needed it.  They had not learned to avoid the misconceptions or grasp a deep understanding, but they could cross the mountain test on one day in the year. This however did not translate to long term memory and sustainable knowledge.


After 7 years many learners were wary and reluctant to tackle change. Their next step on the mountain of knowledge felt precarious, and the foundations behind them were uneven. This scenario does not breed the type of learner necessary for success. Learners need to have a deep -set knowledge base and the ability to persevere with resilience when learning gets tough. Constantly moving students on, when they really haven’t secured learning can create individuals who are limited in their ability to dig hard when they are finding a problem, making new learning difficult. Many never really achieved success in learning by themselves.


For a teenage student that is struggling, it can make sense emotionally to give up and attempt to fail spectacularly, rather than to place exceptional effort into something difficult. To be seen to be placing this effort, and then to crash land down the ravine of failure is a complete embarrassment to them, and something to be avoided at all costs. So why should they try when it hasn’t worked in the past?


Their literacy issues compounded the problem as their inability to talk and explain ideas and/or share their thought processes in tackling a problem restricted them further. Their inability to read fluently left them working hard to translate text. With little time or skill left to tackle the meaning of that text. Again, added pressure for a teenager. Can they admit to not understanding something they are reading in a class? No, not in an environment like the one I am describing.


Actually, to learn you have to be prepared to fail spectacularly and to change. Even the brightest child will at some point face the failure of not achieving secure learning from their first attempt. Without the confidence and resilience to pull yourself back up and carry on, learning stops. *


Failure at the school was the daily experience for many, but hidden and shameful. Camouflaged by poor behaviour, significant absenteeism, and/or the ability of a child to disappear into the corner of a classroom unseen and unheard. For the majority, they saw success as being unattainable and aloof. Success was felt to be a thing others attained through their genes, not something that was gained through hard work and perseverance.


At this time all high attaining pupils were sectioned away in separate classrooms and sets (a strategy to try to attract higher ability students) – they were the elite. Even for the highest achievers this success again seemed to be more to do with luck in genetics than strategies and skill sets. When attempting to really challenge this group of individuals the same fear and resentment appeared in the classroom. Real push had been rare for them and they were used to succeeding without the need for resilience and perseverance. Their initial stages of learning had come easily to them. Their learning style was often copious note taking, which they then regurgitated.


To sum up: learning at the school was a mystery, something that some students got lucky with but the majority failed at.


* One of the biggest mistakes that I and other teachers have made is where we plough on with the content we need to cover rather than ensuring that students are secure in their learning. Better to learn two thirds of a curriculum thoroughly and securely than the whole poorly. With the hike in expectations in the national curriculum and the pressure on teachers to tick the box in primary to confirm students have passed set markers, we are likely to see more ravines emerging in student learning and more students who have shaky foundations to their learning. Is speed of learning really the solution to improving education?



* This is often seen in highly capable female students who come crashing down in year 13 (18) or the 2nd year of University when faced with significant challenge for the first time.


Requiring Improvement: A head teacher’s journey to career suicide in education

At the ASCL 2013 conference I am asked Michael Gove, a man strong on rhetoric and self- belief. “Who would take on a challenging school in his brave new world of education?” The press report the phrase I use at the time, “Career suicide”.

 The answer was me. In 2009 I took on a failing school in a low income white working class area that had never achieved Good. After seven years of school improvement, reaching its peak with working hours exceeding ninety hours per week, and a national agenda and operative that I have a lost all faith in. The intelligent decision is to walk away from secondary headship. The wise but wholly alien decision for me is to catch the chair lift downwards and move off of the mountain climb that is school improvement, because the summit and the goal are now so hidden in the clouds of politics. As a challenging school, the crampons and climbing gear that naively I believed would be given to some of the most vulnerable schools to support the climb, have been removed. Having successfully navigated the lift out of Failing.The label Requiring Improvement (RI) has damaged my staff and I, regardless of always receiving Good leadership, in the five inspections we have faced in seven years. This label reduces me to a pariah for most Governing bodies of good and outstanding schools. They can’t recognise my skill set, let alone appoint me. I have entered the state of career suicide at the age of forty- four.

Please note during my headship the school took significantly below average students to broadly average. Our sixth form intake although below average exceeded all expectations for the numbers of white working class boys who went to university. Again we reached average with these students, and we excelled in our vocational subjects. None of this was good enough for Good.  In the 2014 annual Ofsted report it was noted that nationally low income white working class students achieve 25% 5 A- C with English and Maths. White working class boys (which we had a significant proportion of) achieve in line with SEND students (exceptionally low). Under 10% attend university.

I managed to choose headship as the Government changed, the public purse closed and the regime moved to a pure attainment measure of success. The curriculum reverted to a 1950’s ideal of education, ignoring the growing body of research screaming that this model will not provide in the 21st century.

Within my headship, Ofsted has changed the handbook (the way schools are judged) nine times, the exam system has moved into overdrive with huge and regular inaccuracy, expectations of standards rise, with no explanation of where the new measures originate from. How for example floor standards set and what is their statistical meaning?

During this time like many schools in challenging circumstances we experienced:

  • A lock on access to additional pots of funding due to our Failing and then Requiring Improvement (RI) position, and the fact we were not an academy. This included new builds (I managed a school with significant and debilitating asbestos)


  • A death lock on our ability to train teachers. RI and Failing schools are not open to training teachers and sourcing new staff, unless part of a Teaching Alliance. Entry into Teaching Alliance is difficult we have tried on several occasions to no avail. Without a source of quality teachers, a school can’t sustain itself.


  • A death lock on any member of staff in an RI or Failing school training to be an Ofsted inspector and therefore having access to the internal insight into the inspectorate.


  • A lock on any members of my staff including the Head applying for any recognition award for subject or national leader.  All schools have pockets of excellence, but why would a great leader stay when they can’t be recognised?


  • The removal of the experienced Local Authority, as the main lead in providing school support and replacing this with a brokering system where outstanding schools and leaders are bought in to provide advice. With respect to all leaders of the schools I have worked with, their experiences are so different and their ability to provide the time limited.


  • We entered one the biggest experiments in education. Raising standards with blind belief that if we raise them significantly enough and expect students to achieve they will.


As I make this decision, I am suffering from significant depression, that leaves me unable to see a future. In order to help me process, I have decided to write a book and I have been advised a blog can help to publicise this book. Apparently I write as I speak. I don’t know if anyone will be very interested in my story or at least my learning about the nature of headship, but as I do this, the reflection is helping me to process.


Originally I thought I might write about what I have learnt and some of my experiences in chronological order, but while this was fine for the start of the book, when discussing how you breed the seed of a potential head, and the recruitment process for headship. When I reach the story of taking over a failing school, one that was recognised by the local authority as failing in all areas of leadership and operation, chronology has stopped working and I am now debating why this is?


I think the route to headship for me, naturally lends itself to a chronological story, because for a significant part in my 20’s and early 30’s I could command my own destiny and I was successful. I didn’t have children, and for whatever reason, the work I carried out with my teams was successful. I valued the system, and the changes while regular, were not incessant and seemed for the most part to have some reason, logic and most important professionals involved. (I exempt Mr Balls from this comment, fortunately his surname is a metaphor for my judgement of his capacity as education minister.) I worked with challenging students but was able to make and then lead substantial change and improvement. During this period of time the journey your students achieved with you was the key measure of success, not their raw attainment. This is crucial if you chose to work in a low attainment school on entry, who start 300 metres behind the average school on the race track to GCSE. Context was valued.


However, as I tell my story when I reach my appointment as Head of a failing school the reality of the situation at that time, is not lending itself to chronology. If you think about a landslide you come close to the feeling of my headship at first! You are constantly hit by issues in a random, pattern that feels like chaos and actually in trying to write them down looks like chaos.  Of course now as I reflect I realise a truly failing school is chaos! All you can do is grab on tight hold on by your finger tips and pull you and whatever you select to place around you upwards!


So once I have passed my appointment to headship in my story, I am going to write about themes that impact on a troubled school which has never achieved Good. In a community and location that are now recognised as least likely to achieve good educational outcomes.


The book is divided into three sections:

  • What a chaotic school looks and feels like – and what you can learn from this as a Head.
  • How we began to imbed the seeds of improvement?
  • Why I think our current system is limiting the conditions for growth in these challenging communities and schools.


None of these themes are intended to provide a definitive list to all that will appear to you if you take on a failing school. They are what I remember at present, and as I contemplate a new career and the death of a career I absolutely adored, they need a health warning. A damaged heart and soul at work currently!


In setting up my blog I am hoping to post a few of the chapters from the first two sections.  As, soon as we received the label Failing three months into my headship and then Requiring improvement two years later (Satisfactory was stripped from us) my voice has disappeared. It has felt as if no one is the system has wanted to listen or valued our voice as we are condemned by our label. One of my staff members broke this system with their blog, he advised I try this route to. So here goes…………………………..