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. 

60 thoughts on “A Letter to the Secretary of State

  1. I wholeheartedly empathise and support this. What is happening to our education system? I am every bit as proud of being a teacher, indeed a deputy headteacher in an RI school awaiting an imminent inspection that genuinely could go either way. Every single colleague I work with, works hard and on behalf of the young people in our community. Yet too often, bureaucracy gets in the way of them doing their job. It saddens me that when I was interviewed as an assistant headteacher 5 years ago, I gave a resounding “absolutely” when asked if I wanted to lead my own school one day, yet now, five years in to senior leadership the thought scares me because the prospect is terrifying. I don’t wish to lose myself to the job yet I worry about losing my job as the crows circle waiting to “take us over”. Please heed the stories from teachers @nickymorgan because otherwise, there won’t be anyone left to teach tomorrow’s industrialists or entrepreneurs.

  2. There’s an honesty and vulnerability in your words that aren’t to be found coming from the mouths of politicians. Keep fighting the good fight Vic. You are transforming the lives of those around, albeit without the support that you deserve.

  3. Superb letter, expressing everything that we as head teachers are experiencing right now. Thank you for writing it.

  4. Excellent comments, well made.

    One of the man roles of a leader is to guide and encourage while remaining overwhelmingly positive. It is hard to do this in the current climate when virtually every missive from on high is either negative or spun in such a way as to fit only the party line.

    Success is generally founded on stability and the volatility created by the policies espoused of late by our secretary of state will not help the situation or indeed attract enough professionals to be interested in the ultimate responsibility.

    Enjoy the rest of the holiday. Content yourself that you are doing as much as you possibly can and sleep at night.

  5. All politicians take note. This letter rings so true our children and the staff we entrust them to deserve so much better.

  6. Vic,

    I read “the best job in the world” and hearing you speak once helped me take the leap into headship.

    6 months in, I am certain you are right am I am still filled with hope and optimism but fear where we will be in 5 years. As you suggest the key question for Nicky Morgan to answer is how we can all grow our schools, meet new standards, improve learning for our students, all whilst working with less money.

    Thanks for writing to Nicky – she’s said that she will engage with the profession on more than on occasion, so I look forward to her reply.

    Thanks too for your part in helping one man step up to headship.

    Enjoy the break!!

  7. I’m currently at the Hay festival listening to talks by authors of well researched, profoundly considered books and articles about the current state of British Society. It’s not possible to avoid asking the question posed repeatedly here “What is the point of any society if it’s first concern is not the upbringing of its children?” Then writer after author after researcher goes on to point out how politicians have somehow forgotten this…… the end of sure start, the number of children using food banks, the ending of the education support grants, the closing or privatising of playgrounds, the deteriorating general health of the young, the continual tinkering with the education system that is based on dogma with no recourse to research and sometimes in direct contravention of it, and then the lack of jobs and the ability to secure housing once they become young adults.

    I swing between anger at people like you going along with their policies, joining the Academy system, becoming an executive head of primary schools when it appears your experience is in the secondary sector and then sympathising with bulk of your article, recognising the pressures you talk of through my own experiences and the experiences of the eight other teachers in my family.

    The one specific I can give you though is, involved in training maths teachers, a crisis is coming upon us rapidly. We cannot get enough trainees, the Schools Direct system is not working, once trained we can’t keep them in teaching, and some don’t even start their NQT years, already turned off by the experience of their training. It’s a direct consequence of the last five years of Education policy.

    Hopefully you are not one of the Academies employing unqualified teachers. We are not far away from the point where Politicians are going to have to rethink (yet again) their attitude to teachers and teaching if there is to be schools open for children 9 -3, five days a week, let alone the extra hours they seem to be suggesting.

    1. Thanks for the reply. I am not an Executive Headteacher. I have been fortunate to be both a primary and secondary teacher but do not profess to be an expert in the finer details of supporting primary aged young people through their early stages of learning. We took a decision out of a protectionist stance to work with our partners to support all the young people in our community. We have never approached another school but several have approached us.

      Thanks again for your response, it is appreciated.


  8. Vic – I am so sorry to hear about your brother.

    This is a sobering post – and I know you’re an excellent, experienced head with a clear vision and strong values. How must it be for new heads who are still building their confidence and their competence?

    I really hope the politicians, and people like Sean Harford, are listening.

    Hope to see you again soon.


    1. Thanks for your support Jill. I still feel very new to the job with so much to learn from those around me but know that I can’t really get away with that any more! Vic

  9. Well said Vic, I wish I’d written this letter: I wish I had your poignant eloquence – and I wish too that the school I’ve taken on wasn’t facing <40% for the 3rd year running, that I was sure of continuing in my role in September, and that I could actually recruit some good teachers instead of wasting thousands on adverts and agency staff. And my third wish (they always come in threes): I wish it was genuinely about children again. They are such fun, full of life and enthusiasm, and it's a joy to work with them. It may be the best job in the world but at the moment it feels like the hardest. Let's hope the minister takes you up on your latte offer! Thankyou for speaking for us all.

    1. Chris thank you so much for replying and your context is very grounding for me. I am afraid that the black and white world of a ‘floor target’ is very much a part of the problem, introduced by a Labour government I think. If the responsibility of Ofsted was to not only sit in judgement but also to let us know what exactly we need to do to improve the situation (from their vast knowledge of schools through inspection) then life would be different.

      But we live in a world of judgement without responsibility so this won’t happen.

      If there is anything I can do to help please ask. Even if it is to be at the end of the phone to have a rant at! If a visit to Passmores (for a latte) would be of any benefit just drop me an email – v.goddard@passmoresacademy.com

      1. Thanks Vic, I see she’s coming so I hope it goes well. If you can convince her of the vulnerability we feel while trying to maintain that sense of the “reservoir of hope” both for our staff and our young people it will be worth a decent coffee! Good luck with the visit – and ofsted!

  10. A great letter and I sincerely hope it is read by those in office. I am now in my fourth headship and I have never felt so anxious about my future – I am head of a RI school and my journey started just over two years ago with an OFSTED not long after I arrived. After the inspection we experienced a great deal of instability with staff. Last year we appointed a new TLR and due to pressure of work she has resigned. We have advertised twice and had no interest in the post. We upped the TLR too. One of our key issues was to develop middle leaders. We now don’t have any. My new deputy has taken on an additional responsibility and is now leading maths. We can’t get an English leader. Being a one form entry school there is less flexibility for staff to take on additional responsibilities. Two potential leaders simply do not want the responsibility or to be held accountable for a core area of the curriculum. The school has made great progress under very difficult circumstances. We have had poor KS2 progress data for two years and I am hopeful this year’s will be better. OFSTED is due in the autumn term. I’m praying that we have done enough to secure a good judgement or I may get my P45! I’m working my socks off, spending holidays and weekends in school just catching up. We’re certainly not coasting. The scrutiny is intense. Sadly, the promise of HMI to support us hasn’t been in any way shape or form what I expected. There hasn’t been the capacity for regular visits. We have only been able to attend one HMI / OFSTED regional conference despite asking to be able to attend more. It has been a frustrating couple of years to say the least. I’m a naturally optimistic person and just love being with the children but I am really feeling the pressure. Live to work or work to live? At the moment I’m hanging on by the skin of my teeth and would like there to be times when I am working to live! Phew! Thanks for sharing your letter. If Ms Morgan doesn’t come for the latte I might!!!

  11. Your letter is everything I think and feel every day. I support your every word and can think of many other teachers that feel the same way.
    Thank you for writing it.

  12. I could not agree more. Thank you for writing this letter Vic, it is the one that I wish I had written. I work with many schools in challenging circumstances and have met a number of very committed Headteachers determined to do the best for their students, but the goal posts change so quickly, not to mention the difficulty of recruiting good staff. In the end, there will be no more people willing to do the job. Every government needs to understand that to turn around a school so the improvement is long term and sustainable, rather than relying on ‘quick tricks’ takes at least 5 years, rather longer than the life of a parliament. Please hang on in there. Your kids and staff need you

  13. Excellent letter Vic which mirrors what Heads tell me all the time. Speaking truth to power is what is needed, methinks! We are sleepwalking into a teacher supply crisis, fuelled by all the things you note, and of course, the smaller number of teenagers available to go into teaching

    Will buy you a latte at the BELMAS conference! Wish you were coming for the whole weekend.

  14. After 26 years of teaching Vic, I feel the same way as you. I love my job, I love being with the children and developing them into rounded individuals. I have been working in three schools in special measure trying to help raise standards and finally I have cracked. There is only a certain amount of time that you can keep working with this level of pressure. I have, therefore, decided to call it a day before the job finishes me off. I can’t even finish the two years to see me to early retirement and I feel very sad but my husband and family have got to come first. Look after yourself and your family – I just wish the powers that be thought about what they are doing to dedicated teachers around the country.

  15. Hey Vic, Well said. Keep up the questions – how else would we ever change things? To all the headteachers under pressure out there – keep fighting for the kids – tomorrow for them must look bright and I certainly want to be able to teach the kids of the bright, varied, inquisitive kids we have now. This is my 44th year of teaching and it IS better – in many ways – than it was. The kids do get a better deal. If you decide to give teaching/headship a rest then that is fine – go back after 4 or 5 years refreshed and with a greater understanding of all that is required – we have to change the culture of ‘job for life’ and be happy to mix it with other jobs when we’ve run out of steam.
    Like the kids and the teachers you work with (and love the ones you can’t like.)
    and remember the person you are is the person you are – not the job.

  16. Ps I have no objection to you sharing anything I’ve said in my previous reply though I’m sure your original letter will do the trick. If Ms Morgan would like to visit the North East for another perspective she is most welcome. We have no official school latte machine but I could take my little one from home!!

  17. Hi Vic,
    Very well expressed! I invited Ms Morgan before the election to share 2 weeks of my working life with me in our primary which is in the top 10% of deprivation nationally and locally. After 4 weeks a reply came stating that she had a very busy diary but went on to explain , in great detail to a myself, why it’s important that EVERY child should know their 12×12 times tables by yr 6.
    I really don’t hold out much hope for that latte visit!!! LOL.
    I too am feeling immense pressure and am seriously contemplating quitting. What a shambles our system is in. I believe that the fact that our children are children , is being seriously overlooked by the government and they have become number robots. Something truly has to give. Let’s hope seriously, that it’s not the heads that are hanging on in there!
    Sorry to hear about your loss, I have been inspired by yourself both at conference and through your book! Keep being that inspiration for all.

  18. Vic that was eloquently put. Having known you for over 20 years I know how passionate you are about the students you work with and how you strive to do the best for them. I, like you, firmly believe that Heads are being put under immense pressure – as are their staff teams – as a special school head I am expected to be able to pull the GCSE results out of the bag wit students who have been excluded from mainstream or moved to specialist provision due to their behaviour and emotional challenges. They need time, nurture and understanding. They do not respond positively to pressure, and whilst we don’t have the floor levels that you have we are expected to fulfil the Ofsted criteria in the same way. So there is no time for coasting -just a foot on the throttle all the time, keeping the focus clear and driving to achieve it whilst trying to work restoratively and nurturingly.
    I do hope Nicky comes for a latte and you are able to discuss this with her more openly and that she listens!

  19. Send your open letter to ALL the National Newspapers, speak to your contacts at Channel 4 Educating Essex. The general public need to hear and understand more about just HOW much unpaid work you and your staff give.

  20. Reblogged this on teachercoach1 and commented:
    This totally echoes my feelings, thank you for writing it. I decided to leave the classroom two years ago and became a principal of a private sixth form for a while but nothing could compare to my love for the role I left as a Deputy Head in an RI school which we got out of special measures. I wanted to passionately be the head of an RI school but after many sole destroying interviews of coming second every time, I couldn’t do it anymore. Now I use my strengths to help others as a leadership coach and if I am lucky still get to dabble in the classroom when teachers are unwell. I have been trying really hard to get good physics teachers into some of the schools I work with over the last 2 years. The decision to go either with a great science teacher or a poor physics teacher is always a no brainer for me, but the Governors have often thought differently. We need excellent teachers and we are simply not training enough of the right mindset. This year I cant even get a good science teacher never mind a specialist. How on earth will A ‘level be delivered to a good enough quality? Simple- it won’t be on the timetable if it can’t be delivered well. So it is the visits to other European destinations and the Skype interviews with Canada, South Africa and beyond which just seem a ridiculous substitute for seeing the person interact with your students. The dog eat dog competition, to get a science teacher simply to interview,is not healthy. The incentives then offered to that teacher you want to appoint from their host school then brands the days work a waste of time. @nickymorgan we need you to listen and start to help us with a dire shortage, then we can get back to using our resources and time to do what we do best- inspire our young people

  21. You have summed up perfectly my feelings. The HT of my school was ‘removed’ after our RI judgement. So unfair. I’m about to embark on being a HT myself, a school that is in a more challenging area which has been on the RI to Good journey already. With all the changes, it is already terrifying me the thought that it might go back. As the bread winner in the family the pressure is immense, and before I’ve even turned 40. I only hope that Nicky Morgan grants you the reply you so richly deserve.

  22. Very moving & honest letter Vic. So sorry to hear about your brother. I hope @nickymorgan01 & the government sit up & pay attention before it’s too late. The education system cannot afford to lose inspiring & dedicated professionals like you who are so relentless in giving their students the best possible start in life. Keep up the amazing work & if the offer’s open I’ll pop in for a latte & chat!
    Annie x

  23. I write as a non-teacher working in the Education Sector.Over the past 5+ years I have tried to observe (as a neutral) the actions of Ofstead and its effect on schools and teaching staff. Speaking frankly, I am appalled at the attitude this Government and its lackey Ofstead has towards teachers. They fly in the face of the facts, all in the attempt to place political dogma ahead of reality. What they don’t seem to realise,or choose to ignore,is the terrible effect this has on GOOD teachers and inevitably upon the children they teach.Nowadays one hardly ever hears a teacher happy with the situation and it seems to be getting worse.Teachers nee to band together more strongly and insist that they be treated not only as professionals but as human beings

    1. There are banded together Alan …. in Unions. Unfortunately the Government, aided by the right wing press, and certainly not opposed by the Labour Party have managed to make the word ‘Unions’ very negative. Witness the current strike action in Brentwood to stop the Conservative council outsourcing virtually every possible aspect of Council work which is then no longer under democratic scrutiny because of ‘financial confidentiality’.

      I find this all rather sad as this thread was started by a Headteacher who actually says he has done everything the Government asks of him including changing his school to an Academy, taking over at least one other local school, advertising abroad for teachers, not to mention a hint of starting competency proceedings against staff etc etc. I’m afraid the NAHT and the SHA have to take a large proportion of the blame for the current state of English…. and it is English and not UK…… schools. The phrase ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee’ comes readily to mind.

  24. A great article, summing up how many of us feel at the moment.
    How many of us get any sleep? Do we need to be beaten up about what a terrible job we are doing or do we strive every day to make things better?
    Working in a coastal school, this year has been tough. I have thought about leaving many times but I truly believe I am making a difference for those who matter- my children.

  25. I read this and all the subsequent comments with a sense of despair. I am in my sixth year of headship and for the last two years I have struggled with recruitment. I’ve just come back to work today after being off most of last week suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. I have upped the dosage of my anti-depressants once again and I hope and pray that this will get me onto an even keel for a sustained period of time. Vic’s comments and the comments of quite a few of the other bloggers really sum up how I am feeling at present. I am only 47 years old and have 23 years experience behind me, but if I wasn’t the main breadwinner for my family, I would resign my post tomorrow. Mentally and physically, I cannot work the hours that the job currently requires, just to stand still.

  26. You speak on behalf us all. I am still trying to be positive ( not easy anymore) and am just about to embark on my second headship. However I am filled with trepidation that I may have sealed my own fate taking on a school which will always have some challenges. Under this government I fear that I may become smothered by another new set of policies that I have forgotten to do or that I see of little importance. I do hope we find the strength to somehow come together soon and say enough is enough.

  27. Reblogged this on The World of The Teigr Princess and commented:
    This pretty much sums up the struggle that a lot of schools are facing. Of course, I’m just an out of work teacher, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about my profession or my colleagues.

    I really hope that Ms. Morgan sees the light and takes up that offer of a Latte!

  28. I’m not a teacher. I’m a parent.

    I read your letter. So beautifully understated and so hits the spot slap bang!

    I, naively perhaps, have always credited people in senior positions eg ministers of government, of being capable of understanding the real emotional impact of their policy decisions.

    Late in life I am now confident to challenge those people and to argue that they are wrong. But I fear worse. That no amount of arguing will change their mind because they are incapable of incorporating human, emotional impact (positive and negative) into their pronouncements.

    Christ we are dealing with children and teachers and staff here. Not equities traders or marine underwriters.

    It’s a beautiful letter. I hope parents see it because surely we, in our huge numbers, are the army that is needed to get these mis-guided people replaced because I fear they won’t change.

  29. Vic this is a brilliant letter. I hope the latte went well? Sadly there are also other issues you do not cover that come out of this pressure.

    I, as a teacher with experience in FE, HE & SEN have just taken early retirement but I still am in contact with colleagues & friends. I ‘cry’ inside for the bright young teachers, full of genuine ability to become outstanding, who are struggling to keep going after only a few years. Shoved too early into ‘rescuing’ a school from SM or stopping it happening. I am shocked at how older teachers are so easily discarded as ‘not up to it’ any more, when they only need support (& some respect for what they do know!), but there is so little time (or funding) available to do this is in meaningful and lasting way.

    I also, and in a way this is my biggest shock as an ex-Union rep, am horrified by how many good heads are being undermined possibly unfairly, by their own deputies or other staff. I have seen or heard of at least 8 schools this year, in a small geographical area, where the heads have ‘left’ (this level of issue cannot be a coincidence!) – the details are always hard to come by (as the ‘exit agreements make it all secret) but I know enough to know that at least 50% of these were almost certainly linked to unrealistic expectations or taking the fall for failure of systems, County Hall & even governors. At least two also have potential links to the ‘ambitions’ of lower ranked staff who appear to believe that they can do better without having truly understood the pressures faced in the top roles. Seemingly they are firing at others to maintain their own prospect of promotion – or something similar. It is hard to prove this statement but from the ‘outside’ the ‘picture’ has that look. Sadly teacher Unions can sometimes encourage this if the local rep is too strongly ‘anti-management’ in their stance – yes it does happen and I was a strong supporter of my chalk-face colleagues but I had to educate some about the pressures on managers too.

    Having supported many staff, (including managers) through competency procedures I am fully aware that if there is a teacher/ middle manager/ head who has a perfect record, with nothing they have failed to do correctly which, if found, could be used to oust them, it would be amazing! We are all human, not machines. I do not believe such a person exists. Yes genuine ‘failures’ need picking up but so many times it is on a basis of ‘judgement’ in a grey area or it is a weak spot, that we all have, with no positives given for the strengths to counter balance this.

    At all levels I have taught work related skills courses. One exercise that always opened students eyes was to, early in the day, ask how the ‘workers’ expected ‘managers’ to treat them when they made a mistake – always they expected to be understood & given a chance. Later, seemingly unrelated, we discussed what was expected from a manger – quite often near perfection! Then finally I would bring it all back together & challenge that surely the manager deserved the same treatment the workers wanted. Yes if ‘failings’ did not improve, as in all jobs, adjustments are needed – but hey give them a chance – promotion does not mean perfection is instantly a given. Knowing your team will support you & work with you on your ‘weaknesses’ as you will with them, enables managers to be genuine team leaders empowered by mutual respect rather than by demanding power.

    Back to Gov’t – If we treated our students the way we are treated we would be rightly called to task. It has to stop for the sake of the young people we all are dedicated to.

    Keep fighting Vic. I am sad that I had to, for my own health & sanity, step out a few years early. I hope, with little belief it will happen, that you will be listened to & that education becomes to a dogma free zone. Blame culture, as all good businesses know, is not the way to achieve lasting success. Blame culture does not self-actuate the staff. Blame culture stops people putting in that extra bit outside of requirements that make a school so special. It has to stop – not just from top (Gov’t) down but also bottom up. You must work together, not undermine. quote from song in Nashville TV series – “It’s a whole lot harder to shine, Yeah, it’s a whole lot harder to shine, Than undermine”. Good luck

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