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…………………………..