Being a Headteacher during a general election – local v national politics

The last couple of months, since the PM called a snap general election, have been a surprising challenge.

The difficulty has been balancing what the government has done, and continues to propose to do, to our school funding and my relationship with our local MP Rob Halfon – @halfon4harlowMP

Let me be clear Rob has been impeccable in his support for our school community, as was the previous MP Bill Rammell, for the last seven years. He has taken our young people around parliament, been quizzed by our citizenship classes, attended events and organised donations to our school charity from among his connections to name a few things.

Rob was fantastic when he held a parliamentary reception for us to try and raise money to build a technical/vocational centre at Passmores. However this is where the strain between local and national politics becomes obvious. We managed to get a £600k commitment from @placesforpeople and applied for a LOAN from the ESFA to match that figure. The centre would have supported the technical ambitions of our young people, supported apprenticeships and allowed us to offer ‘return to work courses’ to local unemployed people to the wider community. Alongside that it would have saved us money and even allowed us to raise some much needed funds. Despite the support of Rob and Nicky Morgan we got turned down.

It upset me greatly. How on earth could they say no to something that supported the government agenda so closely and would help a school with their funding? It was only a loan! We would have given them the money back!

Then we have the school funding issue that we currently face. Now I have never stood for parliament, nor am I ever going to, so I don’t know for sure how things work but it is quite obvious that at political HQs they get their heads together and come up with the ‘party line’; ‘strong and stable’ or ‘the magic money tree’ were favourites this year it seems for the Conservative Party.

It quickly became obvious that the party line about school funding was to simply talk about the national funding formula and to ignore the fact that this is a completely separate issue to the £800k of cuts that our school, and many others, face over the next three years.

This put me at odds with our very supportive local MP.

Headteachers do have an impact on the wider community and this could be used to influence local election results I’m sure. So I decided that I had to speak up loudly about the present and future funding crisis as this will impact negatively on our young people, I’d be failing in my service to them if I didn’t, but that is all I would shout about. I wouldn’t use whatever social media influence I have about any other aspect of the election out of respect to @halfon4harlowMP and the support he has given us over the years.

The problem is when I was asked directly about funding on Twitter I replied honestly. This put me directly at odds with the Conservative Party party line on funding and therefore at odds with Rob.

I know that this upset many local Conservative Party activists; some of them work very closely and supportively with Passmores. They thought, and probably still think, that I was trying to scupper @halfon4harlowMP’s election campaign. That was never my intention but I could also not allow the inconvenient truth of school funding cuts to be swept under the carpet. The future of our young people is at stake. I had and have to challenge that.

I repeat; Rob has been impeccable in his support for Passmores and I will always be grateful to him for that. I have never criticised him publicly about anything, during or after the election campaign and my tweets are testament to that.

So why am I rambling on about this now? Well, I once invited @nickymorgan01 for a latte to discuss the impact of government policy on our community and she came. I am hoping for the same response from @halfon4harlowMP now.

I’d love Rob to visit us at Passmores, to go through the figures with me and to have a latte. Our school community needs his unwavering support now more than ever as the funding cuts are real and will lessen the opportunities offered to our students; I know he wouldn’t want that as a passionate supporter of the young people of Harlow.

My personal politics remain that, personal. My support for our young people is public and loud.

I hope you read this @halfon4harlowMP and accept my huge gratitude for all your support in the past but also accept my invitation to come and talk to us about the funding challenges we face now. After all we are on the same side – the side of the young people and wider community of Harlow.

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The Problem with Inclusion

I saw that there was a bit of a ding dong on Twitter about a video featuring @tombennet. I chose not to watch the video as I have met Tom on numerous occasions and he’s visited my very inclusive school a couple of times. I know that Tom advocates meeting the needs of ALL young people so I’m not certain what he said, in the video, that upset some people that I have respect for!

Seeing the comments flying around was a really uncomfortable read; with the usual suspects dropping in to support either side of the debate. However it did make me stop to consider the impact of the openly inclusive ethos at Passmores which we celebrate loudly; as do one or two of my colleague headteachers when they tell the parents/carers of some young people (almost without fail those with additional learning challenges) that they can’t meet their child’s needs but Passmores can! This has led to over 50% of school age young people with an EHCP in our town attending Passmores (there are six secondary schools in Harlow) and I accept that this poses an increased challenge for us to meet all of their needs.

A few of the tweeters seemed to confuse SEND with poor behaviour, which showed a surprising level of ignorance for people that have been teaching for some time. The big point of the argument was how unfair it was to expect staff to meet the needs of a group of young people that included those with SEND and/or the negative impact on the learning of the ‘other’ students in the class.

I struggled with this whole premise if I’m honest. Our job is to meet the needs of the community we serve. That community includes many young people from different cultures, religious beliefs etc. I think stating that we shouldn’t be expected to meet the needs of students with SEND to be as ridiculous as stating we shouldn’t meet the needs of Catholics or left handed people.

The argument seemed to be about the wrong issue in my opinion. Schools should be inclusive of the whole community they serve but that inclusivity should not disadvantage anyone else. It really is that simple. However if schools are not equipped with systems and staff to support the young people and teachers then it will be very difficult to avoid the negative impact on others that inclusion can have, on occasion.

So whose fault is it? If a teacher makes no effort to plan well differentiated lessons, that meet the needs of all students, then that is fundamentally unacceptable of course. However it is the responsibility of the head/governors to ensure that the teachers have the requisite skills and resources to be able to do so and if they don’t the governing body should ensure they hold the head to account for that.

It is unacceptable for a school to actively discourage young people from being members of their school because they can’t be bothered to think through the support required and it is even worse when that decision is driven by league tables or ofsted judgements. In my mind any school that isn’t sharing the whole community responsibility for young people with SEND should only receive ‘requires improvement’ at best when externally judged. However, as we know, it has definitely been the complete reverse of that and this seems to be one of the flaws that Ofsted have yet to rectify.

The funding of schools that go above and beyond their ‘share’ of SEND needs to reflect the complexity of the work they do. The current system is full of tensions with local authorities under resourcing EHCPs because they don’t have enough money and schools having to lose their best in class support staff (called co-educators at Passmores) as we are funded at such a low level that it doesn’t encourage schools to train, and keep, experienced, high quality staff as they get increasingly expensive every year.

Inclusion is fundamentally about ‘botheredness’ and resources; and if either is missing many people are negatively impacted – staff and young people regardless of whether they are in receipt of an EHCP or not – and that is unacceptable.

Community

This has been a tough week for Passmores Academy. We are in the middle of a redundancy process that negatively impacts on a school’s atmosphere. Then we hear of the tragic death of Marcel last Sunday. Speaking to his dad on Monday was really difficult. Standing there as his son and daughter’s headteacher, with a role to play in the community, but just feeling like a dad and wanting to just give him a hug and to cry with him.

I have the pleasure of working with young people everyday. They drive me mad when they don’t try. They make me angry when they choose to make their lives better by making someone else’s life worse. They inspire me when they take a leap of faith. They humble me when they trust me. Today they made me cry with both sadness and pride.

Of course there will have been a tiny minority of people that forgot why they were and behaved disrespectfully by doing wheelies or being overly loud. But they would have been a tiny minority. What I saw in action today was a community of young people behaving exactly like that, a community. They dragged us old people out of our comfort zone. They ignored all the voices saying it will go wrong. They turned up. Many of them wearing t-shirts remembering Marcel. The police supervising the car park were sensitive to the atmosphere of the event. It was amazing to see.

I walked, not being cool or crazy enough to own a motorbike, quietly with other members of the community remembering Marcel. I tried hard to keep it together and I managed, most of the time at least. I remembered him on our ski trip last year. He was a natural skier with good balance and made great progress. I don’t know when his funeral is but it may be when I am helping to supervise this years ski trip over Easter. If it is then we will mark the day in Sauze d’Oulx whilst making new memories for other young people.

I don’t know what the young people from today are doing tonight but I hope they don’t give any of the people waiting to be negative any ammunition. I hope they represent their generation in the same way they did today; with compassion, sincerity and togetherness.

I am always proud to be a headteacher in Harlow. I am proud to serve this community. I don’t think it needs saving or that I am doing anyone any favour by working here.  I am incredibly proud and privileged that parent(s)/carer(s) choose to have to trust us with their most precious gift.  Today took that pride to a whole new level. Thanks for letting me be part of your tribute to Marcel now use it to inspire you into making the most of your opportunities in life.

A moment of joy – Spoiler alert it is about Santa!

I got this email today:

Dear all,

I just wanted to share a lovely example of working with our primaries….

Camille and the English team have asked the primary students if they would like to write a letter to Santa and post it to the North Pole (aka Passmores). Santa’s elves (aka our students) will write them a personalised reply and post it back!

Needless to say primaries are really excited about this.

This is a great example of how we can work together and not even have to take students from one site to another.

Abi 

This was from @abicunningham20. Abi’s role, alongside being a great teacher, is to work with our primary family to see how we can collaborate best.

I excitedly replied straight back to her asking if I could write to Santa too! I was one of many staff, according Abi, that asked the same thing. This came on the back of Abi asking departments to think about how we can learn from our primary partners and what we can offer in return. So this week the teachers from one of the schools came for a good nose around Passmores to see if any of our resources could help enhance their teaching and learning and I’m hopeful that we’ll have lots of our staff going to see the quality of the work being produced in the primary schools and to pick up ideas about how to use display better or differentiate more effectively for instance.

Just thought I’d share this even if we are the last school in England to think of it – I love it! 

Vic

A response from Passmores students – Dear @nickymorgan01

As a piece of writing that was responding to a current news or topical event a class of year 10 students at Passmores were asked to use my open letter to @nickymorgan as the stimulus. I was not aware of this until I got emailed some of them.  I have included some below – all completely unedited as you will see.

Dear @nickymorgan01,

I am a student attending Passmores Academy going into my last year of secondary school. Yes, I am part of the next set of national statistics for the academic year 2015 to 2016 which you will be arguing about in a year’s time. I am aware of the blog regarding you and the issues with education at this present time. This letter is my own response to problems highlighted in the blog that my peers, my teachers and I are imminently facing. By this I mean: making sure that the idea of child-centered education rules instead of indulgence in never-ending policy debates; my school being able to recruit new staff to support me in my last year and the class the year after me; money for updated resources and new courses; my teachers being trained to help my peers and I excel with the new specifications on exams. In addition, my concerns span Mr. Goddard’s diminishing ability to create a less stressful environment, for me and the staff around me, and finally, underpinning the problem, the unpredictable and destabilising changes from Ofsted for the present and future generations of head teachers and students alike.

The first point highlighted in Mr. Goddard’s blog is the fact that schools need to be, “focussed on the needs of the young people.” As an experienced head teacher, Mr. Goddard understands that the focus should not be on students facing our exams and being stressed over Ofsted. The CfBT Education Trust website also agrees that, “Ofsted has become too pervasive an influence for schools.” Their March article insists, “What would Ofsted say? is too often the key question asked when making a strategic decision in school.” Having a child-centered education system means that children like me can develop as a whole person; it means we can focus on all of our skills instead of narrowing it down to the ones that are ‘Good’ by Ofsted’s standards. Graeme Currie, a blogger posted onto Mr. Goddard’s letter while he was at the Hay Book Festival saying that people were asking the question, “What is the point of any society if its first concern is not the upbringing of its children?” Then writer after author after researcher at the festival went on to point out how politicians have somehow forgotten this. This quote emphasizes that child-centered education is becoming a thing of the past when in fact it should be a squarely central feature of education. 

Continuing from that point, we couldn’t have a child-centered education system without qualified teachers that enjoy and are stimulated by the job they do. Finding these kinds of teachers takes time and money, and as it reads in the blog, “recruiting new staff becomes a real focus”. This is true. Figures from the Department for Education show that “in the 12 months to November 2013 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) almost 50,000 qualified teachers in England quit the state sector. The problem was emphasized by the fact that more than 100,000 potential teachers have never taught despite completing their training.” These figures do not make the teaching profession look attractive or even slightly compelling as a career choice. In the comment section below the letter, “Hopefully you are not one of the Academies employing unqualified teachers,” telling us how bad the situation is becoming.

As I mentioned in the paragraph above and as Mr. Goddard mentioned in his blog, money is also spent trying to find the best possible teachers for us students. Due to the absence of many teaching staff in Britain, schools are left with little option but to pay the price, “schools pay firms up to £50,000 to find leaders,” reads the title of a June 2015 Guardian article. You may ask where the schools get extra money to pay for things like this…they don’t. This money is taken from breakfast clubs, extra revision materials for year 11, etc. So, recruiting and then holding on to staff becomes increasingly difficult. Furthermore, after the school has spent the money recruiting new teachers, they then have to train them. “Please tell me how I can continue to grow and develop the three schools with less money and it being almost impossible to recruit with any certainty?” Mr. Goddard vociferates. The only certainty at the moment is the inevitability that endless change makes things worse.

I can only imagine how stressful this is for Mr. Goddard and damaging to his hopes for us ‘to improve upon our best’, our school motto. Mr. Goddard swears by this and, as he says in his letter, one of his main jobs is to, “create (positive) energy.” How can he continue to inspire and keep us – especially year 11s – positive when his own positive demeanour is slowly fading. However, it’s not just the students that are yearning for a more stable system, my teachers are losing hope which you can see with from the official resignation figures in paragraph three. How can this continue? Soon there may not be any teachers left.

It is obvious to see where the problem lies: within the Ofsted grading system. Ofsted are, and rightly so, focused on improving education within schools. Despite this, their approach is somewhat blunt and in some cases thoroughly demeaning. You may argue that the education system needs a no-nonsense approach but this stressful and intense way of judging schools only affects our school negatively. 

How so? When last inspected by Ofsted in November 2008, Passmores and Mr. Goddard’s leadership were judged to be outstanding. Yet in October 2013, Passmores Academy was downgraded to ‘Good’. Same leadership, same ethos. According to the Harlow Star in 2014, “Passmores Academy celebrated a successful year of GCSE results with an eight per cent improvement on last year. It is the school’s second-best results it has ever had with 60 per cent of students achieving five or more A*-C.” Yet, Mr. Goddard is still worried, still wondering if he will be judged as inadequate, still in the position where he feels as if he needs to defend himself and his results. As he says in an uncharacteristically negative way, “no matter how much we all work…you will just redefine what that means to make us feel inadequate again”. How unlike our positive and ever-cheerful leader! 

This quote shows us the extent of the problem. How can Ofsted come to a downgraded judgement on the same school, with the same leadership and almost the same pupils? How can good teachers, head teachers and schools cope with the increasing downward pressure of Ofsted judgements? The simple answer is that they shouldn’t be coping with anything except getting their students exam-ready and life-ready. I don’t want a school where my teachers are too stressed to think about what I need. Because in the end, it is my life, my future and my dreams that are at stake. Come to think of it, Mr Goddard’s dreams are at stake, too. As he says, he feels ‘ vulnerable’ to losing his livelihood and the job he ‘loves’. Perhaps I was wrong about Ofsted being unpredictable as well as destabilizing. They are increasingly, predictably negative and are arguably driving down standards, yes, destabilizing the very profession they are supposed to be supporting. 

Yours sincerely,

Shadi Amor

 
Dear Nicky Morgan, 
I am writing to you as a student at Passmores Academy as a response to what my Principle, Mr. Goddard, wrote to you. I am about to start my final, most important, year of secondary education.
My school works with our two nearest primary schools that were given the statuses ’Special Measures’ and ‘Requires Improvement’. When I started in 2004, my primary school was rated as ‘Good’ by Ofsted but during my time there, it went down to satisfactory and then in-between the time I left in 2011 and when my younger sister left in 2014 the school was in ‘Special Measures’ and the students’ education was suffering because of it. As a result, I know how a primary school that is in need of major help and improvement can affect how well students do in the SAT tests and subsequently the impact that it can have on their future schooling. 

Mr. Goddard spoke about the stress on teachers to make sure results are high and that students are meeting targets. I know about this first hand as my mum is a Primary School Teacher and my dad is a Secondary School Maths teacher. I have a number of other family members that have worked in a wide range of jobs in a school ranging from a Head Teacher to an Examination Officer and a Science Technician. One of the most recent things to affect my family life at home was when my dad stepped down from being the Head of Department at his school because of how the stress was affecting his health. I can honestly say I have seen such a drastic improvement in the quality of our family time. For example, just after my dad made this decision my entire family were able to sit down and eat dinner together. There was such a relaxed atmosphere that we all knew things were getting better and we were closer as a family than we had been. 

It is not only the teachers that are suffering from this target-driven culture. The changes that are continually being made to the education system have also increased the stress levels of the students. As part of the group of students in my school that are aiming for A/A* in most subjects, knowing that the possibility of getting these grades is being made increasingly difficult due to the government wanting to prove the success of their changes, adds further anxieties to an already stressful time. Although I do not deny that a strong literacy and numeracy skills-based timetable is a good idea, I suspect the government will suffer the consequences in 6-7 years’ time when it is my cohort finishing university. These are also the students that will need to be future teachers, doctors and workers, however, how are we supposed to look forward to the next step in our education knowing that the stress of doing A-levels or degrees is being added to day in and day out by the government? The politicians, that are supposed to be helping the nation, are merely making it harder for themselves. When the next General Election comes around (which will be the first election that my peers and I will be eligible to vote in) there will be a nation of 18-22 year olds that are going to be finishing university knowing that it was this government that made their school life harder and therefore added unnecessary stress. Our Prime Minister and his government did not think about the future of the UK but only short-term solutions. We know from history that the best way to improve the prosperity of the UK is to help the people that are going to be the leaders.

Another comment that my principle mentioned was regarding Ofsted, and the idea that Mr Goddard’s hard work and inspiring leadership isn’t enough. These inspections are an example where authority believes that only academics can do a job that I feel could, and should, be led by the students. The purpose of an Ofsted inspection is to make sure that a school is working to the best of its ability to help its students progress in their attainment. However, when it comes to an Ofsted visit Inspectors go into classrooms, judge our teachers and the way they teach and give the school a rating based upon what they see. Except, how can you give a school an honest review on the way they are teach and look after their students if you don’t ask the students what they think? Although I realise a few students may be given the opportunity, I don’t understand why the rest of the students, especially some of the most respected and mature students in the school, don’t have a way to express their opinions. I feel that if Ofsted and Inspecting Bodies did ask about what we, as students, thought they would find that schools, like Passmores, not only deserve Outstanding, they would also learn we have an outstanding Head Teacher that does his absolute best for all the students he looks over and that our school would be no where close to the standard it is now if it wasn’t for him and the amazing staff.

So next time you are thinking about changing the way we learn or you are judging a school, choose to do it not only by what you see but also by opinions of those people that matter – the entire student body. Equally, when you are thinking about the future and what you want it to be like, if the UK is to have a brighter tomorrow, you need to be considering the generation that are going to be leading the change.

Yours Sincerely, 

Rebecca Kitson

Dear Secretary of State,

I am writing to you in response to an article I read written by Vic Goddard, Head Teacher of my school. The overview of the article addresses the unbalanced relationship created between expectations and achievable grades: by this I mean what you want us to achieve and pressure us to achieve compared to the plausible grades of our year 11’s.

As a student I feel that the letter written to you didn’t just express the ever-rising expectations of my school but also the pressure upon the students. I agree that every year you raise the average you want us to achieve but these achievements just make students and teachers alike feel inadequate compared to the education system; the system we should all work to create. The point made by Vic Goddard is that this system we all work for “for the system that you have helped create” is one that should fit and work for each school. The grades raise each year while student’s confidence in their grades and exams drop mainly due to the pressure created, this isn’t beneficial as our school and many alike have funding taken away which could be used to effectively help the students: “Please tell me how I can continue to grow and develop the three schools with less money”. Mr Goddard uses the words “develop” and “grow”, these words are what we should be aspiring for as students. The grade at the end of our time at secondary is very important but what our character is like when we leave is just as important; it may even surpass it.

The letter goes on to discuss how Mr Goddard is a “shield” to the community, I believe that the community wants to be aware of the rising pressures and not protected with “the stick on grin”. As a new year 11 I want to discuss a more logical and pragmatic approach to the unrealistic expectations of my peers and now our education system. I believe that this article is a step in the right direction to correcting these worries and working together in creating a suitable environment for all – I insist you take up the offer of a latte – not just for students but for people like you who have a wider understanding of our education system.  

In 2014 our schools year 11’s achieved outstanding marks with 68% of students getting 5 A*- C’s, this is amazing for a school in our area, of course other schools like Burnt Mill did better but instead of dwelling on this we should consider this a victory. 

We should also begin to consider that within Ofsted and the dialogue between you and Mr Goddard there is no Student Voice. Don’t you think that when discussing the future of young people you should communicate with them to find a way to reach the grades while improving their outlook upon our education system: the system that is supposed to be for all students? If we incorporated more student voice within Ofsted I think it will have a positive correlation between involvement in the system and grades – give students more responsibility and they work harder to sustain the responsibility – consequently I think this would be a big change and maybe we should be the ones to take the first step. By taking the first step it would be a victory amongst not just students but teachers too, as they will see more classroom environments where students are confident and comfortable. 

Overall, I want you to see and understand that as more responsibility is put on us to choose colleges, pay tax, get jobs and to live our lives, you don’t give us a say in the first 11-13 years of our education when these are the ones that shape our choices. I think Mr Goddard’s letter hits the nail on the head, that all of these factors affect the teaching at school and the environment we have worked hard to achieve, “give young people the best possible start in life”. I’m sure you want the same thing in your position. Please take the offer of a latte. As a student I would love to participate in a discussion on what the next step is, to stop these conditions which are detrimental to us as students.

Yours Sincerely, 

Tiegan Meadows

Dear Nicky Morgan, 

Having read Vic Goddard’s ‘A Letter to the Secretary of State’ it has made me conscious of the state of our education system. As I am a Year 10 pupil at Passmores Academy and have the privilege of spending my secondary school years with Mr. Goddard as the principal, I am somewhat aware of the issues he stated such as the partnership between our school and two local primary schools and the struggle to recruit teachers. 

As I have been at the school for nearly 4 years, I have been taught by a variety of teachers and have seen many join Passmores and many leave. However, I never knew the severity of the process and money spent on this. In the blog Vic Goddard states, “Please tell me how I can continue to grow and develop the three schools with less money and it being almost impossible to recruit without certainty? Three months of advertising for maths teachers and then we rely on those being produced in other countries. This really is the outcome of the decisions around initial teacher education over the last few years.” I completely agree with what he is saying here and it has been recognised globally as a major issue. For example, it was addressed in The Guardian article ‘Teacher recruitment falling short for third year straight’; the author Daniel Boffey stated, “Although the country will need more than 52,000 entrants to the teaching profession each year over the next three years, the latest figures available show that 44,107 teachers entered the profession in 2011-12. If the same number of teachers entered the profession each year until 2017, there would be 132,321 entrants to teaching between 2015 and 2017. This would be nearly 27,000 short of the 159,300 teachers the country needs over this period, according to the government’s own forecasts.” This would mean more schools would have to follow along the line of overseas recruitment as Vic had already said.

Despite this, having multicultural/lingual staff can be seen as an advantage, encouraging equality and respect in the wider community but can also been seen as a language barrier; this could be a benefit in some subjects such as languages but not in others where the different pronunciations/accents could cause a struggle. 

Not only do I agree with the fact that there is a major teacher recruitment crisis, not only costing money, but affecting the standard of learning for the students, but as Vic said, “I still feel no matter how much we all work, for the dream of every young person being in a good school, you will just redefine what that means to make us feel inadequate again.” The way he addresses it as the collective of teachers empathizes the voice of the people who want to speak out: “I genuinely don’t disagree that we should focus on the basics of a timetable based on strong literacy and numeracy skills within the context of a basis of traditional subjects”. By using this collective voice it creates a powerful, strong opinion that flows consistently throughout the article, which really projects the importance of the words being spoken. It is quite clear teachers from all around the country work hard for the benefit of the students and their educations but this can have a major effect on the teachers themselves. Research by the Teacher Support Network in 2007 found that 71 per cent of Scottish teachers felt their job was ruining their health, with stress, exhaustion, mood swings and poor sleep patterns common. Also, studies show that half of all teachers have thought about quitting because of stress. Lack of respect from pupils, heavy workload, and dealing with ‘pushy parents’ are all blamed, according to a YouGov survey in 2007. 

Now I am not saying that this is entirely the government’s fault, but we need to think about what is right for everyone; what is best for the students so that each and every young adult has a good chance at life, what is best for the teachers as they have an incredibly important role of teaching knowledge and skills to the next world leaders, prime ministers and important people who will shape the world in the future, which should not be seen as detrimental but an opportunity which should be seized and enjoyed. And finally, what is best for our country as a whole. 

Our education system is flawed as Mr. Goddard speaks about in his article, but it will only improve if we all appreciate that our education isn’t something that we can frequently alter because small changes can ripple through and disrupt students’ learning. We cannot stop the fact that eventually we will have the responsibility of running the world, resolving global problems, and ultimately… teaching the generations that come after us. “I stand by every word but I could do with some help from you to convince others it is a good career choice,” this is what Mr. Goddard said about teaching and it is something more people should know. I believe teachers have a lot of responsibility within the world and nobody would be where they are today if they hadn’t had the education/teachers they had when they were young and not enough people know it. 

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter and I hope it gives you an insight into how I and many other students around the world value our education.

Yours Sincerely, 

Holly Hudson

Dear Secretary of State for Education,

I write this in response to an open letter written by Vic Goddard, Principal of Passmores Academy. As a student of this school I felt particularly compelled to give my two cents on the issue detailed in Mr. Goddard’s letter and possibly address some of the points he made, while also giving my own thoughts and opinions on the topic.

One of the things that really struck a chord with me, and likely a number of students and teachers alike, was the emphasis placed on the pressure teachers (Head Teachers in particular) are under. Whether this is the pressure to meet the ever changing expectations put on schools or to strive to give students the best start possible in life, it can be crippling to health, attitude and personal well being in general. Mr. Goddard addresses this with a touching and raw anecdote, talking about his and his close family’s experience with this stress first hand. 

He also talks about the vulnerability he (among other teachers) feels about the security of his job despite working hard to make progress in Ofsted inspections and pouring energy and time into matching the local and national government’s standards for schools. These feelings are reflected in what Christine Blower (the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers) had to say about Nicky Morgan’s pledge to convert up to a thousand failing schools into academies, calling it “as impractical as it is irrational”. She was sympathetic towards the problems with recruiting new teachers and the fear of losing their job – Head Teachers are already in short supply, so the promise to sack more of them will simply exacerbate the problem. Where does Nicky Morgan imagine that new teachers and heads will come from?

As previously mentioned, the open letter also talked about how the standards required for schools and the definitions of failing, coasting and excelling schools shifted continuously. This unpredictable threat of being inadequate looms over educators and the ambiguous criteria for coasting schools set by Nicky Morgan doesn’t help matters. Secondary schools that fail to have 60% of students leave with at least five ‘good’ GCSE’s will be declared coasting and be required to create a plan for improvement, states an article from the guardian. If this plan is deemed ‘not good enough’, something these schools will have been hearing for quite awhile, they will be turned into academies and taken over. While I believe that setting higher standards (thus being more likely to have schools achieve them, if given the correct support) is paramount in improving this country’s education system and properly equipping young people for the rest of their lives, Nicky Morgan’s criteria can be seen as unspecific. According to Brian Lightman, General Secretary of School and College Leaders, Morgan’s announcement is premature and muddled, apparently not stating the criteria for a coasting school with enough clarity. 

Another problematic element of her announcement is the idea that turning schools into academies is an infallible and adequate final solution to the myriad of reasons that some schools might be coasting in the first place. In my opinion suggesting that any single proposition will be the right solution to a problem with so many different reasons, each one specific to their particular circumstances, is inherently flawed.

As previously mentioned in this post and in Mr Goddard’s open letter, Head Teachers of ‘coasting ‘ schools – even those that were previously considered good by Ofsted – will be under threat of losing their jobs. These new changes will not only be endangering the security of a number of people’s livelihoods but will also narrow the already limited curriculum, threatening to disengage students.

Another main point at the heart of this debate is the issue of recruiting new teachers. The concerns about recruiting well qualified teachers is one detailed in Mr. Goddard’s open letter and is shared by a variety of other experts in the field, such as Kevin Courtney, Christine Blower and Brian Lightman. One of the central issues surrounding recruitment, and by extension the effect the Education and Adoption Bill will have on people wanting to enter the profession could exacerbate an already substantial problem. The bill will put even more pressure on teachers and possibly discourage others from pursuing a career in teaching. It will also cause the sacking of a number of Head Teachers and management of failing schools, just adding to the existing issue of a lack of qualified staff.

Overall, I believe that while not all points of the Department for Education’s bill were damaging to schools and teachers, they certainly aren’t perfect. Far from it in fact, with many of the points having repercussions on the daily lives of teachers and Head Teachers and also affecting the curriculums that young people will have to follow.

Yours sincerely,

Seemal Naqvi

The latte was up to scratch

I will start this by stating that I am an advocate of being inside the tent looking out (polite version) rather than being outside trying to get a look in. But those who know me know this doesn’t mean being compliant or fawning to those in positions of power.

When I wrote my open letter to @nickymorgan01, I had no idea that it would reach so many people worldwide. I was unaware that my blog was linked to my Twitter account, so I didn’t realise that the letter had been instantly published until I logged in to Twitter and saw that it had been retweeted. It goes to show the power of social media to make someone as far removed from my daily life as possible to take notice (or their advisers at least).

So, how did the education secretary’s visit to my school go? Well, @nickymorgan01 was met at the door by one of our Year 10 students, Will, as he has aspirations to go into politics in the future. I couldn’t quite hear his questions as he showed the Secretary of State to the first class she visited: a Year 7 lesson in which the young people were evaluating their work on Much Ado About Nothing. However, I think he was asking about the rationale behind curriculum/GCSE changes.

On entering the classroom, the young people took absolutely no notice of us – just how I like it. After a while, I stopped them and introduced the Secretary of State. @nickymorgan01 spoke to the students individually as they did some self and peer assessment and I overheard a simply fantastic conversation that went along these lines:

SoS: Are you marking each other’s work? What grade or level are you going to give it?

Yr7: Oh, I don’t give it a grade, I talk about the learning, what went well and any improvements that I think could be made. Grades aren’t the important things when we are discussing learning.

I haven’t yet high-fived our lovely Year 7, but I will when I see them later.

We also visited a class of Year 6s who were spending the day with us from one of our partner primary schools, and spoke at length about the opportunities for learning from each other that have taken place over the last 18 months. How it is very much a two-way street. How frustrating it is that we have only really started to properly collaborate with our two partners in the trust since becoming an academy, and how we could and should have been doing it whether we were an academy/sponsor or not.

It is one of my biggest regrets as a headteacher that I didn’t embrace the cross-phase opportunities for working that have always been there and that I only began to truly see them after the governors decided to become an academy sponsor. It is a case of mindset. We have also seen first hand how we need to stop planning from GCSEs down and start from EYFS up. It is quite ridiculous that it has taken this long to realise.

It was then latte time. 


 

I had asked over 50 reasonably random teachers, many of which are current headteachers, from all phases of education, parts of the country, OFSTED categories etc the one thing that they would raise as an issue. I of course got more than one from most, we are teachers after all!

The first two were reasonably obvious – recruitment and funding across all school types and locations. The highest bidder mentality that schools are being forced into to recruit, post 16 funding and the impact of increased National Insurance and pension contributions on stand alone budgets were particular points.  The rest were (in no particular order)

· Being realistic about the time it takes for schools to improve in a sustainable manner.

· The need for the EFA to understand the priorities that schools have been set by the government and for decisions to be matched up.

· What @nickymorgan01 can do to ensure a positive message about the profession is being sent out. Also a shared frustration that the reporting of union conferences doesn’t really help that either as the same media agenda kicks in.

· How the current accountability structure can work against inclusive education and how a lack of oversight into how schools are working with/for our most vulnerable means that, very sadly, some schools are deliberately putting off the parents/carers of certain groups of young people from sending them to that school. (Sadly, this isn’t new but it is definitely getting worse in my opinion). The wider inclusion agenda was discussed on numerous occasions.

· Particular concerns regarding the capacity of Social Care and CAMHS to meet the growing needs and the impact this is having on schools

· Year 7 ‘resits’ and the neccessity for us to have the details now so we can assure we are meeting their needs and also how this will fit into the accountability system of course.

· How the pressures on headteachers, especially those close to an inspection, are causing some to struggle with balancing what is right for the young people currently in their care and the need to protect the future of the school by getting a good OFSTED report/league table position. Also this has led to some heads to behave in a way that is detrimental to the staff in their employment.

· Funding and protection for pre-school settings and the vital work they do.

· The need to value the whole curriculum and that a compulsory EBacc will not do this and will lead some young people and schools to fail. I made it clear that if it is made compulsory I would not be complying as it is not currently in the best interest of our whole school community.

· The disparity in OFSTEDs stated approach and what is actually going on during inspections. How OFSTED could become a supportive structure without having to stop holding us to account. 

· The relevance of GCSEs in a system that continues to 18.

· Governance.

· How moving a young person from G-D can often have a much greater positive impact on the individual and the wider community than moving one from B-A but this isn’t reflected in the accountability system.

· How according to the DfE Headteacher’s standards we are ‘Guardians of the Nations Schools’ and whether the Sectetary of State can truly be the ‘Guardian of the Guardians’ and a ‘Champion for Schools’ because that isn’t what it feels like to many of us.

Obviously the discussion touched on many more subjects and a further conversation was had with a group of Passmores teachers (from Australia, Canada, England and South Africa) for which I deliberately wasn’t present but I know the reality of workload pressures, inclusion, curriculum reform and how the English education system is viewed from overseas were discussed at length.

The million dollar question is will any of it make any difference? Is it possible for a Secretary of State to focus on the positives in our jobs and in what we are trying to do? The biggest influence on this is likely to be how important the opinions of certain right leaning media outlets are.  I would argue that it was possible to not be negative towards education in the run up to the election so it must still be possible now if the will is there.

I am very clear that the only mandate I have for any discussion at this level is the one given to me by the parents/carers of my school community to do what is best for the children that I serve. However, the reaction on Twitter and via email also made it clear that I am not alone in feeling frustrated, tired and occasionally deflated with what is going on at the moment.

So, @nickymorgan01, I hope you enjoyed the latte. I remain positive that the role of Secretary of State for Education has the potential for boosting the numbers of people wishing to be teachers and even headteachers and that you understand that. You gave up your time to visit and listen which we truly appreciate but now is the time to be proactive in being the champion for our young people, the school staff and governors and for the education system as whole.  This doesn’t mean being some sort of wild eyed cheerleader as we know that for some young people improvements are needed quickly.  As my dad would have said, if you have nothing nice to say then maybe, just like in the lead up to the election, you should be saying less.

I do still have the best job in the world in my opinion but I know others are not feeling the same and you can help do something about it.

@vicgoddard

A Letter to the Secretary of State

Dear @nickymorgan01

I sit here contemplating whether writing this is a good idea/a waste of time/a drop in the ocean.  I am the Principal of a school where the governors decided to take the option to become an academy and then an academy sponsor. We officially decided to work in partnership (I use these words deliberately rather than ‘take over’ ‘run’ etc) with our two nearest primary schools that had just been deemed to be ‘Special Measures’ (SM) and ‘Requires Improvement’ (RI). One of those two schools was inspected last month and moved to RI with some ‘Good’ at the first time of asking. We all worked hard to achieve that by evolution not revolution (no sacked heads just supporting through extra resources, coaching and teamwork; with the odd challenging question in both directions). We focussed on the needs of the young people, the quality of the staff and tried to support both in a journey of improvement.  On the way we lost some staff because of a variety of reasons but not without trying all that we can to help them to grow to meet the demands of being in SM.

Despite knowing all that we have done the result still left me feeling vulnerable that we hadn’t shown enough improvement.  I wouldn’t be lying if I said for a brief while I worried about my job, my mortgage and my family.  Why should this be how I felt? I work with whoever is in government both locally and nationally to balance their demands whilst remaining focussed on the needs of our young people.

At Passmores Academy this current year 11 group started very significantly below national average. The year 11s two years ago were slightly more able and achieved 48% in the headline figure of 5+ A*-C inc Eng and maths.  However despite knowing that Ofsted deemed us to be ‘Good’ with those results I am convinced that if we don’t get over 55% this year that I am vulnerable to losing my livelihood and the job I love. We have worked with staff to improve individual and collective teacher quality. Same as in our primary partners there have been some casualties through  competency procedures; which is a dreadful process but nonetheless it is my responsibility to ensure that the staff standing in front of our young people are able to do what is required.

Today I sit in a beautiful setting on my family holiday and read the latest stance on school standards that you have given to the press.  I can’t help but wonder whether the true reality of the decisions over the preceeding years (from both Labour and Conservative governments I hasten to add) ever cross your mind?

Why don’t you pop over to Passmores Academy for a latte, we serve a good one. Maybe even Mr Cameron would like to pop in too.  I can let you know first hand in a non-blob/enemy of promise way exactly how challenging it is right now.

I work in and for the system that you have helped create. I do so with every ounce of energy I have; as can be witnessed by how much I have slept this week and how many ulcers I have. However I still feel inadequate. I still feel no matter how much we all work, for the dream of every young person being in a good school, you will just redefine what that means to make us feel inadequate again.

This is the time of year when recruiting new staff becomes a real focus. Let me tell you how it has gone.  Months of adverts through social media and the TES. A recruiting trip to South Africa and Canada. Developing a school that is a good place to work, where staff are nurtured and valued. Tens of thousands of pounds spent with recruitment agencies over the last few years to carry out an interview over SKYPE and pray that you have appointed a ‘good one’.

I genuinely don’t disagree that we should focus on the basics of a timetable based on strong literacy and numeracy skills within the context of a basis of traditional subjects (as well as making sure that the particular strengths/interests of each individual are met and developed).

Please tell me how I can continue to grow and develop the three schools with less money and it being almost impossible to recruit with any certainty? Three months of advertising for maths teachers and then we rely on those being produced in other countries. This really is the outcome of the decisions around initial teacher education over the last few years.

My job as headteacher is to shield my community from these worries.  As Sir Tim Brighouse says one of my key jobs is to create (positive) energy. The stick on grin. The up and at ’em demeanour. The endless positivity towards everyone around me. Believe me I work hard at those things. 

All this is despite the fact that my brother, just one of my family of teachers which currently stands at 8, died suddenly, in his early 50s, just before Christmas after returning from work at his ‘failing’ school. Now I can’t say the stress he was under definitively caused his death but I doubt it helped very much.

So Secretary of State, I write this as someone that wants to help. Wants his community to grow. Wants to give his young people the best possible start in life. Doesn’t want his staff to feel under any more pressure than is healthy and will take it on personally rather than let it all filter down to them. I even wrote a book that was meant to celebrate and encourage colleagues to become a headteacher. I’ll happily send you a copy for free if you like; it is called ‘The Best Job in the World’.  I stand by every word but I could do with some help from you to convince others it is a good career choice. I am not sure your latest pronouncements are a huge help.

Sorry to ramble on but the offer of a visit and a latte remains.