The Road to Nowhere

road-to-nowhere

Last week I walked into a high street branch of Thomas Cook’s (other travel agencies are available). I was met by an affable lass in ultramarine blue and with striking white teeth. I couldn’t help wondering if she’d been seconded there due to the late cancellation of TCX816 from Manchester to Punta Cana. She resisted the urge to direct me to the fire exits and emergency breathing apparatus and instead enquired as to how she could help me. Easy. “Can I please book two long haul flights?” “Of course sir, did you have a destination in mind?” replied the glamorous assistant. “No” I retorted. “However I would like to be in Vienna on Thursday lunchtime, Sofia on Friday afternoon, and Athens on Saturday morning please.” To be fair to the lady she must have made the call unobtrusively as I didn’t see the medical team arrive. They gently escorted me into the vehicle and on to the quaint rural retreat where I was to undergo my subsequent psychiatric assessment.

During the course of 2018 I have been privileged to deliver a number of training courses for various governing boards across God’s county. I have also worked in greater depth with another couple. It has become increasingly clear that boards are really starting to understand the distinction between their strategic remit and the operational element delegated to the school’s leadership. They know we are charged with thinking rather than doing. In a boat we would be steering rather than rowing. Even more succinctly they know to ask “How well” rather than How?” Armed with this clarity they usually draft a three to five year plan, the contents of which are commonly aligned to, and intrinsically linked with the school development plan. Governors know their school was in the bottom quintile nationally for Key Stage Two Maths last year and hence they have a robust improvement plan. So at the end of the current academic year they want to be in Vienna, next year Sofia, and the third year enjoying the historic delights of the Acropolis. It is likely that if this document is the school development or improvement plan then the operational element will be included. In other words the journey length and milestones are set by the board but the Head and leadership team will have added the methodology along with resource implications and progress to date.

However, what has become similarly evident this year is that several governing boards do not have a vision. Some may have a mission statement on their website, often underpinned by a religious or value-driven ethos. But when I have challenged boards, not on the journey and stop off points but the destination, they often look blank. They will point to the strategic plan and show the commitment towards Maths improvement but they cannot actually answer the question “Where do you want your school to be in three years?” Of course academic progress is critical if we are to optimise the life chances of our young people. Yet I doubt any of us have exclusively academic aspirations for our children. We want them to be safe, happy, inspired, grow in confidence, enhance social skills, and hopefully forge a lifelong thirst for learning and self-development. Yet how many of us have ever undergone a process where we ask these absolutely fundamental questions? How many of us have ever really focused on the destination, the pot of gold at the end of our rainbow?

To be fair some have. Governors, often exploiting the relative freedom of an “away day,” have brainstormed a vision against a backdrop of Werther’s Originals and sparkling Buxton mineral water. On some boards this process appears to have been driven by the Head. Both scenarios are laudable but not sufficient. Governors are one grouping within a community. There are other stakeholder groups such as parents and carers, staff, the children, the wider community, the Diocese, the local authority, other schools or academies. There is surely no point in governors articulating a powerful vision for the school if those other groups disagree fundamentally with our aspirations? A vision has to be collective. It must have common ownership. It must require us all to row and steer in the same direction. The minutiae of how we agree our destination is complex with so many groups to consult. It is particularly challenging in those multi-academy trusts where the trustees are geographically and possibly even ideologically distanced from some of these stakeholders.However it really is a task worth tackling. It gives us clarity. It unifies. It provides real focus.

Of course there is a very powerful argument that governors should go back even further. Establishing where we are going and how we are going to get there is clearly critical. However before we consider both surely we need to agree what or who we are? What is our ethos, our culture, our DNA. How do we want to be seen and thought of in the wider community? What are the absolute fundamentals, the non-negotiables that shape all of our work and provide the context for our tireless volunteering? Again when I ask these core questions I am often met with silence. Some will rattle off the school’s values. And again it is right and proper that our  school community has basic principles it wishes to adhere to. In itself establishing a culture is merely tokenistic, something that looks good on a glossy website and scores brownie points with Mr or Mrs OFSTED. No, a culture simply has to be lived. It is no good referencing inclusion if we are off-rolling the less academic Year Eleven students. Compassion is powerful on paper but lacks credibility if staff are claiming bullying from senior leadership. In the immortal words of Coldplay, “Nobody said it was easy.” However I truly believe establishing an identity and a core purpose for the school or academy are vital. The challenge for us all is to ensure as in all things that we do what we say. That the reality is exactly what it says on the tin.

As we approach a New Year perhaps you can resolve as a board to visit or revisit these really important elements of our strategic purpose? Let’s strengthen our culture and clarify our vision. Having done so we can then sit back, put up our feet, and enjoy the scenery of the ride. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all

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“Order! Order!”

speaker

I left my meeting and briskly walked from the Town Hall to Wigan North Western station. It took around seven minutes and meant I had ample time to cross over to platform five for the 13.05 train to Preston calling at Euxton Balshaw Lane and Leyland, my chosen destination. Within five minutes of having sat on the unwelcoming metal bench an announcement was made over the station’s tannoy system “Northern Rail regrets to announce that………” You can guess the rest. Frustratingly this was an hourly service. Thankfully it was at the height of our marvellous summer and hence there was no need to shelter from the elements. I had a book in my bag which provided a welcome distraction. Of course I tweeted several times about my delay. And I looked jealously into the First Class carriages of the 13.18 to London Euston on platform four where diners were enjoying smoked salmon and scrambled egg whilst I munched on a Dairylea butty clumsily squashed by my laptop.

At 14.05 the service from Liverpool Lime Street arrived and I got on, making myself comfortable for the fifteen minute journey that lay ahead. At 14.25 I got off the immobile train. It had just been cancelled having developed an irreparable fault with its doors. By this stage mild irritation had developed into incandescent rage. I tweeted Northern Fail  (as they are affectionately known) using phrases relating to drinking sessions in buildings where beer is brewed. With minutes however my ire had turned on the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling. You may never have seen this minister. Rumour has it he’s never been seen outside of Heathrow Airport. Certainly as far as the national rail network is concerned he has presumably been replaced by a bus. I ranted about his incompetence based on an abject failure to relieve this incompetent franchisee of its responsibilities.

In a rare moment of calm later that day I pondered if my social media attacks on Mr Grayling were justified. After all he isn’t a mechanical engineer or scheduler of timetables. The thing is politics transcends everything. It is virtually impossible to consider any aspect of our lives that is not affected by politics and decisions made by governments and local authorities. Sometimes those links can be tenuous. For example the price of the bottle of Douro I will purchase this afternoon may be influenced by taxes, climate conditions, inflation, and any tariffs imposed by the exporting or importing nation. Sometimes those links are more explicit. Waiting for four hours in an Accident and Emergency department (surely the worst places on God’s earth?) can be directly attributed to the lack of sufficient funding from successive governments to meet the needs of an ageing and growing population.

And so it is with education. Our sector has long been a political football. Every government believes it will find the elixir of educational success. A bit like the Premier League manager who takes on the flamboyant and disruptive Uruguayan midfielder in the misplaced arrogance that he possesses the man-management skills to tame the wild individual. The fact that in 2018 we still have young men and women leaving school without having mastered the basics of literacy and numeracy suggests our politicians have failed to develop a  panacea of educational success. There is a very clear link between political decisions and educational outcomes. Historically selection at the age of eleven created winners and losers and labelled some as such. More recently the conclusion that local authority management of schools should not be automatic led to the creation of academies and free schools. In 2018 one can point to the retention crisis in teaching, increased class sizes, forced redundancies, and a surge in the profits of B & Q’s bucket section, and link this inextricably to insufficient funding. Similarly at present we have government ministers peddling narrow ideologies and teaching methods, or unashamedly promoting the entire academisation of the nation’s remaining maintained schools. Both of these approaches are arguably politically inspired.

So to put it simply we can never discuss education in isolation. Education is political because its direction, and ultimately its success or failure will be largely predicated on political decisions or thinking. Traditionally however governors have steered clear of thorny discussions around education. We have risen above such petty squabbles and instead rejoiced at the improvement in boys’ writing in Key Stage Two or that Mrs Hartley has recently completed her National Professional Qualification for Headship. Even when times in schools have been really tough we have shied away from wider potential culpability and instead concentrated on our own very narrow collective responsibility to try and make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

I believe governors were wrong. We are still wrong. We have mistakenly conflated being political with being party political. Which of course is a nonsense. It is perfectly acceptable for somebody to call out the Conservative government on its woeful underfunding of state education without being labelled as a placard-waving Corbynista. Similarly it is entirely appropriate to question Angela Rayner on Labour’s proposed education service without being accused of wishing to privatise the whole state sector. As a governor it is possible to support the government on many areas of  policy yet still challenge any perceived abdication of educational responsibilities. I would go yet further and state an opinion that governors who ignore the political landscape, especially in times of austerity, do so to the detriment of their schools, colleges, nurseries, and academies. There are simple things that all governors can do. Such as writing a letter to one’s Member of Parliament inviting them into your school to talk about budgetary deficits and the increasing difficulty in ensuring the best possible outcomes for all children. This is a politically neutral act yet acknowledges governors’ responsibility to ensure their school has sufficient money and that it is well spent.

I fully accept many governors do pay attention to the influence of politics in education but not in the full glare of social media. This is completely understandable. In the UK politics is largely bi-partisan and hence almost inevitably adversarial. In recent times the landscape has become increasingly polarised which has had a direct impact on some of the rhetoric around people’s political stance. Ridiculously we see Conservative supporters being accused of having been complicit in hundreds of deaths of the sick and elderly. Equally we see card-carrying Labour members labelled as Marxists willing to sell the country down the river on the back of some grotesque Orwellian experiment. All too often this hurtful and outrageous labelling extends into the world of education. Just because you favour traditional teaching methods and silent corridors does not automatically make you a child-hating Nazi. If you question isolation booths and “no excuses” regimes it doesn’t make you a school-shaming Commie. To automatically draw such analogies is not only deeply unhelpful, it actually significantly diminishes the debate because potential contributors are scared off. As with all things Twitter, we should always endeavour to play the ball not the man.

That said there should not be any no-go areas. Provided we do so courteously and respectfully then all politicians are fair game when it comes to governor and wider educational challenge. If a Member of Parliament uses social media to promote certain ideologies or methods they should not expect a clear run. Not only should they face challenge on those views but also on their performance where their roles directly impact on education. Just because you share that politician’s view doesn’t make your their mouthpiece or apologist. Nor does it negate the questioner’s right to question. If you are a minister advocating universal academisation whilst sitting on a prominent multi-academy trust then you should legitimately be quizzed on potential conflicts of interest especially where there is a superficial suggestion that your trust has received preferential treatment. Whether that minister is right-wing, left-leaning, or unashamedly centrist does not affect our right to question and their responsibility to be held to account.

The absolute key to governors becoming politicised rather than political lies in the manner of our approach. Are we questioning politicians in the best interests of children or the best interests of our personal political ideology? Are we asking sensible, intelligent questions in a courteous,  mature manner or are we instead making snide comments to appeal to the lowest common denominator of our echo chamber? Are we genuinely seeking answers and evaluating them or rubbishing responses at the first opportunity. We are educators. We are leaders. As always we must consider what we as governors need to do to improve the educational landscape of our country. But then we remember that we, like teachers, are role models. Would our children be proud of us trying to make their schools better? But also, and critically, would our children be proud of the way we are behaving in the process? If we get that right at all times, eduTwitter will never need a Speaker.

 

 

 

 

Lead Us Not Into Stagnation

stagnationLittle known fact. If you enter the Amazon website, click on books, and then enter the word Leadership you unleash seventy six pages of weighty tomes all dedicated to the art, at least it appears to be, of being an effective leader of men and women. From business leaders to politicians, to educationalists to sports coaches, each has different opinions and different recommendations for getting the best from your highly effective team. When one considers the human psyche and an inevitable propensity to either lead or be led it is clearly an important issue. If the led are to be galvanised, mobilised, and incentivised, it requires a skilled front man (or woman) to facilitate this process.

Earlier this year I was invited to join our senior management team where I work. I already had line management responsibility but the incoming chief executive believed my area of work was so critical to the company that it required direct representation at senior level. I accepted the invitation because I saw it gave me, as a leader, an opportunity to help shape our future direction. I already had leadership experience both historically and in other sectors so this “promotion” held no fears for me. I was more than happy to try and model the words of John C Maxwell who stated “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” In other words a person of direction, prepared to get stuck in but to offer strategic and innovative vision. Whether I am currently meeting that brief would be best answered by those who report to me.

Those who most clearly demonstrate an aptitude for leadership are usually very well rewarded. In some cases leadership brings power and authority. There are the inspirational leaders such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama whose personality and likeability get them elected more than once. There are others through the annals of history who have led in other ways where potential opposition is frightened away, such as cuddly old Adolf and the unassuming Josef. There is no doubt that political leadership is vital to the success of a nation. I would argue that currently our two major political parties are led by people significantly lacking in certain leadership skills and this is reflected in their abject handling of Brexit and other pressing issues affecting our country.

In the world of business leaders are often very handsomely compensated for their ability to drive their organisations forward. In an increasingly marketised education sector there is great concern over the huge salaries of certain chief executives in the academy sector. Their trusts would refute allegations of impropriety by pointing to the results these leaders are achieving across several academies up and down the country. In other words those imbued with leadership quality can expect to be prominent in society and to enjoy three annual holidays in their gated villa in the Maldives whilst at home their groceries (or as they prefer to call them provisions) are dutifully delivered by the Ocado driver in the absence of Fortnum and Mason offering such a service.

When it comes to school governance there is one very distinct difference when it comes to leadership. The greatest, most inspirational, knowledgeable, and insightful Chairs or Trust Directors deliver annually their great expertise with identical remuneration. Nothing. Zilch. Rien. They devote hours of their time, usually in addition to their paid employment and family commitments, to ensure that their schools and academies are ensuring the best possible educational outcomes for all of their children. And when they succeed, and their schools exceed expectations, they get the huge performance related bonus of…nothing.

Now hang on there a minute Neil. So you’re arguing Chairs should be paid? Not at all. I have consistently opposed paying Chairs or indeed any other governors. All governors volunteer out of a sense of public duty or altruism. I have always been concerned that if there was remuneration we might attract candidates motivated more from self-interest than the needs of their community. No, I was merely drawing attention to the fact that unlike leaders in other sectors those involved in governance do not enjoy some of the traditional trappings of success. So why do we become Chairs of Governors? Often of course it appears to be natural succession almost like being in line to the British throne! In other cases there is literally nobody else willing or able to assume the mantle. And of course there are a good many instances when a particular governor possesses leadership ability or demonstrates an innate aptitude and the capacity to take on the role. So  the emergence and subsequent appointment of the Chair differs right across the country dependent on circumstances and context at the time.

In addition to our voluntary status there is another factor that separates Chairs of Governors from their counterparts in business, commerce, sport, and other sectors. We have no individual power or authority. To put it succinctly we cannot hire or fire. We cannot “order” people to do things. We cannot make a decision without the full backing of the board other than clearly defined circumstances where that authority has been delegated to us by our colleagues. We are primus inter pares. First among equals. But undeniably if you look at a job specification for a Chair of Governors it is clearly a leadership position. From taking control of meetings, to dealing with complaints and appeals, and to forming a supportive but challenging relationship with the Head or CEO, we take charge of the board’s business on a daily business. And yet traditionally there has been a complete lack of training in this incredibly important skill. My own local authority runs a course for new Chairs but inevitably that looks at governance legislation and practice and contains precious little on how to recruit, develop, and lead a disparate team of individuals all of whom are volunteers and over none of whom you can exercise any authority. To its eternal credit the National Governance Association (NGA) has developed a leadership programme for Chairs or aspiring chairs. However, this does not seem to be widely replicated nationally. Given the critical role the Chair plays in the growth of the governing board this is clearly a concern and one I would invite local authorities and multi-academy trusts to consider investing in.

Of course even the most experienced and able Chairs are challenged by the role. Often they are exclusively privy to confidential information which cannot be shared among the board and which can at times weigh heavy on our shoulders. Handling complaints or appeals is not just really time-consuming, it is very often emotionally energy-sapping. On many occasions I have thanked God that my wife was still up when I got home from a difficult meeting, or that online governor colleagues are available with a comforting word or sage advice when things seem impossible. To those governors reading this blog if I might ask only one thing from you it would be this. Please remember that it is extremely likely that the Chair will be involved in work you do not or cannot see. It is almost certain they will be working on behalf of the school for far more hours than you could imagine based on your own experience. And as has been said, often that work is being undertaken alone and possibly in confidence. As such the role can become extremely lonely. That loneliness is alleviated considerably when colleagues enquire as to your well-being and offer both support and assistance. Often there is little that can be done practically but the knowledge that others are thinking of you offers considerable solace. Next time you see your Chair, please ask how he or she is faring.

My biggest concern around leadership in governance is the assumption that it is the sole domain of the Chair or possibly vice-Chair. We have all been rightly indoctrinated in the mantra that governance is strategic rather than operational. We are thinkers not doers. We are steering the boat not rowing in the galley. For some governors this separation has been difficult to take on board but progress has been made. Yet most governors still demonstrate their commitment to the school through attendance at board and committee meetings, school visits, compiling reports, or interrogating and understanding data. Yes these are essential elements of our work and getting to know our school. However it can be argued quite powerfully that these are operational elements of our strategic role. I would argue far fewer governors get involved in our strategic work at its purest level. Innovation and providing new solutions to old problems are alien concepts to too many governors. Thinking outside the box and having regular lightbulb moments are seen as the sole preserve of the leader. But whilst in many cases Chairs are brilliantly perceptive and enlightened they are not challenged anything like enough. Leader yes. Infallible, no.

For our governing boards to be at their absolute best we need all governors to come to the party. Not just in terms of their physical commitment where the vast majority of colleagues are irreproachable. Where we need that commitment to change rather than become greater, is for boards to develop a culture of innovation and to constantly challenge the status quo especially where this has been modelled and shaped almost exclusively by the Chair. Perhaps a meeting agenda item can be “Ideas.” Challenge each governor to bring an idea to the next meeting that will enhance the effectiveness of governance or make an improvement to outcomes for children. Chairs can assist greatly by encouraging challenge. An annual review of your leadership, anonymous if absolutely necessary, gives members an opportunity to reflect on your leadership and compliment you on your strengths whilst gently offering developmental food for thought. This creates an ethos of check and challenge founded on mutual trust and respect. Critically it also facilitates distributed leadership right across the board with members empowered and entrusted to volunteer opinions and alternative solutions. Every governor is a leader with the Chair conducting a harmonious orchestra. Ask yourself this. When the Chair is silent for a period of time (e-mails or phone calls cease for a period) is any other governor filling the void and taking up the mantle of leadership ensuring the momentum of the board is guaranteed?

Chairs are usually excellent leaders. They inspire, they motivate, they organise. But these are skills and qualities that should not just be limited to their role. Every governor has the potential but also the duty I would argue to contribute to that leadership. Let’s stop waiting to be asked or even reminded. Let’s start using our initiative. Let’s start to be proactive rather than merely reactive. When, not if, we get this right we will offer great support to our precious Chairs but also enhance our collective work and hence improve outcomes for all children. And that of course is why we do what we do.

The Last Stage Before Tacky

TrendsJune 14th dawned a beautiful morning right across England. In Milton Keynes Lauren silently seethed at the outrage of making her sit GCSE English Literature at an ungodly hour when she could be out on the streets in her crop top and shorts necking Blueberry and Pear Kopparberg with her friends of dubious reputation. On the outskirts of Wigan Joel sat quietly outside the school hall now pondering the wisdom of being up until 4.10am playing Call of Duty. He reflected he’d be alright provided he could twist the Animal Farm question to his stock answer of comparing Orwell’s farmyard with the current Labour Party. And in the London Borough of Hackney Ibrahim looked disdainfully at his indigenous classmates whose command of their native tongue fell way beyond his, this despite him only having moved from Somalia five years ago.

Not all Year Eleven pupils across England were currently sat outside an exam hall however. In a quiet, rural corner of Devon, as Ibrahim dreamed of Keats and Joel equated Napoleon with Corbyn, seventeen students trudged through a muddy copse with a selection of implements and a bundle of willow. They were students of the ultra-modern Spring Mount Free School, founded only twenty years earlier by Enid Weatherspoon an eccentric art dealer from Dorking who wanted to save children from examination factories and instead be as one with nature. Her ethos inspired the school’s motto “P*** Off Pythagoras.” This hotch potch of sixteen year-olds followed their teacher Miss Pru Gressive along the well-worn path towards the stream in relative silence having spent half the night arguing in their gender fluid dormitory. Three particular students led the way. At the front was Vince Sewell, his eyes scanning the environment continuously as he wondered how many millions his financial wheeler-dealer father had made before breakfast. Next in line was Audie Tory, an aloof young man from Leamington Spa whose Dad had won the lottery and founded a cult whose disciples were all attractive women under twenty five and who embraced a culture of free love. Sadly he died of exhaustion at the age of forty-one. Adjacent to Audie was little Ken Isthetic a Kossovan born immigrant with an amazing gift for pottery especially the creation of models of wolves with obscene appendages.

The group reached the stream just before nine o’ clock. The teacher directed her group to “drop your stuff here dudes” which met with a response of  “no dramas Proggy.” She divided the willow equitably and handed each student a tool with which they could begin the process of branch weaving. A short introduction to the task was completed by Pru reminding her group that they were blessed not to be sat in an exam factory today as pawns of an oppressive and abusive society. “Today ladies and gentlemen we ignite your creativity, we light your fires, and we empower you to begin your own journeys of personal exploration.” Those last words had just left her lips when Jack Dibble, a particularly disagreeable youth hurled a huge stone at Ken’s head narrowly missing its intended target. Thankfully. Miss Gressive stood up and exclaimed “Jack, why did you do that? Do you have an unmet need?” “He wuddn’t gi’ me his pencil Proggy.” Miss Gressive turned to Ken and enquired about his refusal to share. Ken replied “This isn’t a f******  Communist society Proggy. I need something in my hand all the time, you know that. It’s the only f****** way I can learn you stupid tart.” “It seems you have unmet needs too Ken” replied the teacher.

It was clear to Miss Gressive that she needed to resolve this dispute quickly. She remembered her basic Spring Mount training and sprung into action. “Right Jack, it’s up to you of course but would you like to apologise to Ken then we can move to restorative justice immediately?” “F*** off” replied Jack Dibble chucking another fearsome projectile at his diminutive teacher. Pru concluded she needed to summon the Head. “Vince, you will best recognise the route back to school. Please go and ask Mrs Foster-Thinking (first name Ida) to come immediately to resolve this impasse between your peers.” Audie Tory stood up in support of his teacher and said “Pru, when the old trout gets here I’ll tell her everything I heard although of course I saw nothing.” “Thanks Audie” said Pru, discreetly lighting a spliff to calm her jangled nerves.

The Head Teacher came scurrying through the bushes at a rapid rate of knots and arrived at the stream with an air of authority. “Whoa, what’s going down here dudes?” “I’m sorry to request your presence Mrs Foster-Thinking but we’ve had a tiny disagreement and we all know how important the school views resolving matters amicably and never excluding a child from the group.” The students all looked at each other quizzically. Although Mrs Foster-Thinking was a hopelessly soft touch she had one sanction they all feared. At Spring Mount students involved in an argument were immediately given ice cream by the class teacher to help in the calming process. However, the Head had the right to decline ice cream if she felt students’ failure to consider reconciliation had not embraced mutual healing. She stood five yards from the awful Jack Dribble and asked “How can we best meet your needs today Jack?” “By giving me ice cream NOW you f****** old hag,” those last words delivered with a hiss as he threw another mini-boulder but this time at the Head. She dodged it deftly and turned to face Pru, her face breaking out in a smile. “Well done Miss Gressive, your attempt at restorative justice has indeed been successful. Jack is no longer angry at Ken but has instead transferred his hostility to us and that is good. Jack, an ice cream will await your return to school. However Ken, you will not receive a reward as you have failed to engage with this process and apologise for moving your head out of the way of Jack’s rock.” Ken’s response was to lunge at Jack, in the process knocking Pru and the Head into the stream with them. Three hours later they returned to school thanks to Devon Mountain Rescue. Pru had to spend the night in hospital with mild hypothermia but as Mrs Foster-Thinking told her, it was sometimes necessary for the adults to suffer temporarily to guarantee the needs of their students were constantly met.

Ten years on Spring Mount has undergone a major transition and refurbishment after Jack Dibble used his chemistry knowledge (facilitated not taught) to irreparably blow up the East and South wings leading to him winning the Prize for Science. Under a new head the school has been absolutely coincidentally renamed Summerhill. Vince Sewell, the visionary, became the lighthouse keeper at Fleetwood only to lose his job that fateful night when a Lativan trawler beached close to Knott End when Vince took unfortunate advantage of the three for two offer at Asda on Mouton Cadet. Audie Tory attempted to fulfil his destiny to be a speech and language therapist before he finally conceded learning styles were hugely overrated and ironically  ran off with a receptionist from Specsavers. And poor little Ken Isthetic, touchy feely and everything, only realised the folly of learning styles when he tried to communicate manually with a twenty six year-old male waiter from Wagamama and was sentenced to two hundred hours of unpaid work for sexual harassment.

Today Miss Pru Gressive is a talented Year Three Teacher in Lincolnshire. . Long ago she accepted teaching was more complex than the Spring Mount model. She still encourages collaboration, group work, and the need for independent thinking but also realises that some elements of education require more direct instruction. Mrs Foster- Thinking is now retired and spends many hours on social media decrying phonics and accusing teachers who test children and expect them to behave of being child abusers.

NB “Trendy is The Last Stage Before Tacky”  – Karl Lagerfeld

Katy Golightly – Parent Governor

mum and son

 

Katy Golightly, 29, single mother stood patiently in the yard of St Aloysius Primary School. It was 3.26pm. She never failed to see the irony of standing outside a building she had always planned on being inside. Seamlessly from GCSE to A Level Katy had performed highly. Her first class honours degree in English from Durham had delighted many but surprised few and was just the next step on the inexorable journey towards qualified teacher status. A journey that was catastrophically halted that night in Mablethorpe, with the girls from her student union Pilates class, when she bumped into Archie from Grimsby,  and when, after six Bacardis and a fumble an hour later, she ended up pregnant. He honourably promised to do the right thing by her but it only lasted four months when he finally admitted their tryst had been sexual exploration on his part, and he ran off with Dimitri, a seventeen stone merchant seaman from Lithuania.

She was still contemplating her desperate misfortune when the bell rang and little Robbie came running across the playground sporting a toothless grin and a sheaf of papers. Her heaving heart soared. “Mummy, Miss Watkins wants us to learn our four times tables tonight and finish our spelling corrections. Let’s go.” Mrs Kowalski from the chip shop leaned into Katy and said in her dulcet Gdansk drawl ” Ridiculous expecting these babies to do homework. Why does she do this? They should be playing.” The orange sheet entitled Parent Governor Election fell to the worn tarmac surface. As Katy dutifully picked it up Mona Compton (mother of Rhianna and of dubious reputation) said brashly “You’re a bright bird Katy, why don’t you stand for election and put those ancient governors and that cow of a head right on bloody homework?” Katy made her excuses and left offering Robbie the obligatory packet of sour Haribos. Later that night, watching another re-run of Grey’s Anatomy, and munching on cashews, Katy suddenly identified the opportunity to have an involvement in her child’s education. If it couldn’t be at the front of a class, it most certainly could be as a parent governor.

Given her popularity and demonstrable comparative intelligence Katy’s election was both guaranteed and indeed a landslide. Four weeks later in Year Five’s classroom, having been briefed by Chair Cynthia (wife of Fred the turgid organist from church) she sat patiently awaiting her first meeting. She’d dutifully read the minutes of the previous meeting. She now had a vague understanding of admission criteria and why a school trip involving water needed discussion. She also understood she was doing something called Curriculum and had been asked to oversee Pupil Premium children (whatever that meant). But all that was of little significance. Her job here was to seriously question the volume of homework in Year Two. And she did. To almost complete silence. In fairness to Mrs Horrocks (Ms Compton’s cow) the Head took the question constructively despite the tuts of the Reverend Simpson and the eye rolling of Mr Baines, staff governor. “If you look at the data Katy you will see Year Two are behind expectations in both Maths and English. There has been considerable disruption this year with Mr Banks’ unforseen trip to HMP Winson Green and it was felt we needed to consolidate their hard work in school at home with parents so they can share in their children’s educational journey.” Katy was bright. The penny dropped immediately. These professionals had spotted the problem, had dealt with it immediately, and the progress figures were indeed most impressive.

One day later Katy stood next to the corroding gate. Just her and Robbie. Mrs Kowalski had banned her from the chippy five minutes early. Ms Compton (her of four husbands) had said she was “a useless puppet of that old cow Horrocks.” Katy was shocked. All she’d done when questioned about the previous night’s meeting was to reply that the details were confidential. When pressed about the homework she’d patiently replied that she now understood it was critical to ensure their children were all where they needed to be before entering Key Stage Two. She’d finished by informing her interrogators that being a parent governor was not to be a delegate, but to use her own experience in life and as a parent, opinions, and judgement to arrive at decisions in the best interest of the school. Mrs Kowalski’s response was to summarily withdraw the offer of discounted steak puddings every Thursday. Tough when suet is your idea of heaven but Katy consoled herself with the knowledge that children would always come before beef skirt during her term of office.

Three years later a much more experienced and significantly wiser Katy Golightly (soon to be Mrs Katy Robinson, wife of a pesticide salesman from Redcar) sat in that same classroom. Her head was in her hands. Rarely had she felt so desperate. Fifteen minutes earlier the interim chair of the local academy council, Jeff Rigby, has read out a terse letter from the trustees of the Brighter Minds Academy Trust of Dorset (Cynthia, organist’s wife, was currently recuperating in The Priory) . Only one year earlier their adoption of St Aloysius had been universally welcomed by governors who had not ever believed that the old cow Horrocks could have eloped with Pablo Sifuentes, the school business manager she appointed, taking the entire Pupil Premium and Sports Budgets to stock their Salou apartment with vintage Cava for time immemorial. Governors had been assured by Brighter Minds (strapline “Learning to fly, flying to learn”) that they would still be the major decision makers. Yes, finances would be run from Poole, and the ethos would be the sole domain of the trust, but “local governance was essential and stakeholder interaction vital.” Now Katy sat staring at the letter. The vicar had left amidst a volley of unchristian expletives. The staff governor was in the Ladies in tears. The letter had told them that the trust was dispensing with their services as a local advisory board (had that description been changed?). It had decided that it was perfectly feasible to run a school in North Yorkshire from three hundred miles away given their extremely highly skilled and entrepreneurial trustees. Their CEO had told them. And you don’t pay an executive head four hundred grand a year and fail to listen to them. That would be short sighted.

Katy once again received steak puddings on a Thursday. Ms Compton (now courting husband number five) had long since forgiven her. Katy kept Robbie at St Aloysius out of some hideously misplaced sense of loyalty. But she’d been wrong. To be fair she couldn’t have known that countless parents would remove their children from a school with which they felt no affinity or connection. She couldn’t have known that despite their lofty promises Brighter Minds would palpably fail to improve educational outcomes at all. She couldn’t have believed that most of the SEND kids with whom Robbie had loved playing had now been relocated “in their best interests.” She could have never have considered that Brighter Minds would tell the Regional Schools Commissioner that St Aloysius was no longer viable resulting in the gates being locked for the last time on July 22nd, 2023.

In 2025 Katy Robinson was appointed as a Newly Qualified Teacher at Wood End Community Primary School on the outskirts of Leeds. Mrs Kowalski was now a hugely persuasive parent governor in York where her small business experience and financial acumen had been highlighted in her skills audit and exploited to best effect by a perceptive Chair. Ms Compton didn’t have time for governance as she two-timed her fifth husband with a Glenrothes HGV driver but she had long since realised that the world of education needed more parent governor Katys and fewer distant trusts who couldn’t be trusted. And that old cow Horrocks still eats tapas every day funded by the St Aloysius money originally earmarked for seventy-two free school meal kids.

 

 

 

 

Turning Mirrors Into Windows

visionThe ongoing edu-Twitter debate (I use that word loosely) about the best way to teach children continues unabated. It now threatens to exceed the Hundred Years War or even the amount of time that has elapsed since Liverpool last won the title. As a brief recap for those who may have been recently holed up in their nuclear bunker for fear of a North Korean red button with a year’s supply of Kendal Mint Cake, we have at least two approaches. We have traditionalists who prefer a teacher to stand at the front of the room and instruct classes of children, front-facing, and probably in rows. The emphasis is on the transference of knowledge and facts. We have progressives, although they do not recognise that label, who appear to gravitate towards holistic development of the child based on acquiring a thirst for learning through enquiry-based, collaborative education. There is a third group who believe there is no hard or fast way to teach children and that educators should be pragmatic and flexible incorporating elements of both approaches dependent on the subject being taught, or the type of lesson being delivered.

Are you keeping up? Good. Of course healthy debate is good on all subjects. The ability for those with one view to challenge or take issue with opponents is to be encouraged because through the constructive discussion of evidence and theory, advancements will surely be made. Except the debate is very rarely constructive. It all too often and too quickly descends into acrimony and abuse as some of those involved target the individual rather than the argument. It is almost certain the debate will never be solved on Twitter because there are chief protagonists who have all blocked each other but somehow have alternative  secret accounts or allies who sneak around the tweets of the enemy and report back with support being quickly mustered on both sides to decry the latest outburst or slur. Not all are teachers. Some used to be. Some never were. And some clearly have a vested interest by virtue of their consultancy or commercial operations. A recent development has been to align educational opinion to political sympathy. The “trads” are marginally to the left of Hitler whilst the “progs” are rampant Marxists in some gross distortion of a gang war. Pestsnide Story. Some of them are relentless and unforgiving. And as typifies, in my experience, people on the extremes of the political swingometer, many of them are hopelessly and utterly humourless, driven myopically by dogma. Some of them are nasty people who preach human values but tolerate discrimination so long as an opponent is the victim. Some hound to the point of stalking and harassing. In my view some of them are appalling role models for the young people they claim to be championing.

Meanwhile back in the real world away from this eye-gouging are the vast majority of us tiptoeing delicately around the edges of the occasionally hate-filled abyss trying to learn, debate, and be persuaded by other moderates in education. This week a poll showed that the majority of UK voters identified as centrist. We have no natural affinity with the rabid right, typified by Daily Mail believing, Union flag emoji festooned proponents of a return to 1968. But equally we have little desire to embrace Jezza’s renationalisation and a dubiously costed spending spree that might financially cripple us for ever. The same applies to education. Most of us don’t align with either “camp.” I recently chatted to a primary teacher. She explained she taught some lessons in some subjects in a very traditional fashion by direct instruction and rote learning. Yet later in the same day she will empower her children to work together on their latest topic (Rock and Roll!) which transcends several core subjects.

It was at this point that the penny dropped. The arguments about which method of teaching best serves children are rendered irrelevant and superfluous unless we have absolute agreement on what the purpose of school is. The title of this blog was the suggestion of the British-born American journalist Sydney Harris. Others have volunteered their ideas. Apparently the purpose of education is to make minds not careers. Ok, so that rules out the need to consider future employability. Or is it to “replace an empty mind with an open one?” So knowledge isn’t a priority then. Indeed Einstein believed education was not about learning facts but teaching the mind to think. And he knew a thing or two (but presumably not facts). More philosophically it is suggested that education’s purpose is to develop that which is within us to its fullest. Lovely. But no common agreement. Yet there is absolute unanimity on the importance of education. The great Nelson Mandela identified it as the  most powerful weapon with which to change the world whereas Nahendra Modi argued that a society that does not give due importance to education cannot ever progress.

This whole question of the purpose of our schools is fundamental to governance but I’ll wager it’s one we very rarely discuss or debate at meetings. Most schools have a vision hosted on their website. It is generally fluffy, lovely, and if it were a picture would be a summer’s day in a corn field (minus Teresa May) with a skylark and Mozart  playing in the background. Some visions are the creation of the board of governors. Others are a more collaborative venture having canvassed the outlooks of our various stakeholder groups. But the fundamental question is this. How can we truly have a vision, or a strategy to get to the the end of the rainbow if we do not have common assent as to whether there is a pot of gold there or not? And yet the question itself should be very easy to answer. What sort of children do we want to pass on to high school or further education or the workplace? What do they need to know? What values will they have developed? Will they be contributory citizens in an increasingly digital and global world? It should not be beyond the wit of those with a deep interest in the school to agree a broad vision based on these core questions and others.

But that’s only the start. We may have a vision where the holistic development of the child hugely exceeds the importance of academic attainment. Problem is OFSTED can’t measure emotional, social, and physical development. But they can measure exam performance. That judgement can often dictate the future direction of our school such is the power of the one or two day visit by HMI. How many of us are prepared to put our vision at the forefront of everything we do even if we end up falling through the floor standard or occupying the bottom quintile for GCSE Maths? How many of us are prepared to look the inspector in the eye and tell him or her that getting Jodie into school every day, away from her abusive home, is your greatest achievement even though in Year Six she still hasn’t mastered Phonics? How many of us are willing to meet with the inspectors to be questioned, but only if they are willing to meet you again later in the afternoon to watch Fencing Club, the junior choir attempting an Olly Murs number, or Year Three working assiduously on their production of Twelfth Night?

The thing is this. Once the collective light bulb is switched on and our vision is overwhelmingly agreed we have no option but to stick to it.It is our driving force, our guiding light. It is our DNA. It is what we are. How can we therefore ignore some of the absolutely core principles contained in it or sacrifice them at the high altar of accountability? The answer is we shouldn’t but sadly all too often we do. I wonder how many primary governing boards know whether or not their leavers are ready for the next stage of their educational journey. Yes we can trot out the data and our embedded knowledge that it was a great year for maths but not so good for boys’ writing. But how many of us know that Jamie is having anxiety attacks over transition? That Victoria is going to the grammar school unlike her friends? That autistic Bobby is having trials at Rochdale and can’t wait to try and get in the Year Seven football team? And most importantly of all what has their journey through our school felt like to them. My fear is that the focus of school is becoming more narrow as academic demands rise. As governors we have two choices. We can either meekly accept the prioritisation of after- school reading boosters for children who were previously enjoying the release of an hour of badminton. Or we can be much more stoic in our outlook. We are the governors of this school. We are the advocates for OUR children. All children based on the development of the whole child. We WILL ensure that every child leaves us with all the tools to make a contribution to their world and that whilst they were with us they lived, laughed, and learned.

Of course the current high-stakes  model of inspection previously discussed in my blog makes such an approach either extremely brave, or irresponsibly reckless. Should that change the way we govern? No. Instead we need to change the way we inspect, judge, and value our schools. We need ministers to stop pontificating about how children should be taught and instead expeditiously convene a Royal Commission to establish what is the purpose of school. Employers, academics, teaching professionals, governors/trustees and even children should be involved in shaping a national ethos, culture and direction. Once established the whole process of assessing the quality of that provision needs root and branch reform. We need to remove the pressure of the peaks and troughs of attainment and progress data. Of course academic rigour is very important. But not to the exclusion of a broad curriculum and extra-curricular offer. Not to  the exclusion of developing character based on values of decency. Not to the exclusion of creating a safe haven on a daily basis for those for whom home is not a nice place. Not to the exclusion of feeding those poor mites whose parents are struggling even with the assistance of the local food bank.

The day will hopefully come when we have a common vision for all of our schools and an agreed method of ensuring they all deliver their promises to our children. And once that Utopia is in sight we can then allow the Montagus and Capulets of edu-Twitter to fight to the death over how best to bring it about.

Are You The Government Mr Yates?

skill

From memory it was a spring Sunday morning in 2003. I walked into church around 09.50 in plenty of time for Sunday Mass which is advertised at 10.00 whereas actually 10.04 would be more accurate. I was there for the weekly absolution of my more heinous sins such as having convinced Mrs Y the previous evening that those rump steaks really were within the “eat by” date. She did not accompany me to church that particular morning due to a stomach upset. There to greet me at the porch was our jovial Parish Priest who immediately whispered “I need to see you after Mass Neil.” That subsequent discussion was not what I expected. “We have a vacancy for a Foundation Governor and I thought you would be the perfect candidate.” Roughly translated that meant “I need a governor to represent the interests of the church in the school and you’re the only person under ninety with the use of his or her legs that I can think of.”

Now I’m quite old-fashioned about these things. I was brought up to respect my elders and most certainly be deferential to the clergy. So before I could ask what the job entailed and the term of office I had meekly agreed to join the board of governors and at the same time ensured my place as one of God’s Chosen Ones for at least another seven days of wine-fuelled debauchery. My conscientiousness directed me to research the role. The first comment I found was from the American author Mark Twain who said “In the first place God made idiots. That was just for practice. Then he made school boards.” That made me feel more at home. It was suggested I join the Finance Committee. Clearly it was not widely known that I have never even attempted to look after the family finances such is my appalling track record with anything to do with money management and balancing books.

I remember approaching my first meeting with no little trepidation. We met in the staff room and I was introduced as the new boy. At that stage there had been no overview of the role, no partnering with a mentor, or any explanation of how things worked other than the obligatory warning of the proliferation of acronyms. I sat on on a comfortable chair shuffling papers trying to look professional but feeling increasingly out of my depth. In truth that would probably have been worse now than it was then. Back in t’ day few questions were asked. The Head confirmed we had money in the bank, progress and attainment were good, and that children were happy. She was, and still is, a lovely lady with the children close at heart so why wouldn’t we believe her without probing any deeper?  I had two children there, with two to surely follow, hence I had a deep vested interest but Number One son and Number Two son’s experience of school mirrored the Head’s description so I was happy.

In 2010 the Head retired and we had to go through the recruitment process for a replacement. This is physically and emotionally draining given the magnitude of the decision being made but we came through the process unscathed and hence began a new chapter in the life of our little mill-town primary school. Two years later, after a meeting, the Parish Priest asked to see me again. He is a wise and intelligent man and admittedly a little eccentric but whilst he might exasperate some, I respect him deeply. He told me his role as Chair was increasingly at odds with his pastoral position in the Parish and that the Diocese was encouraging clergy to divest themselves of this conflict of interest. Would I be prepared to become Chair with his ongoing support as Vice-Chair? Another bolt from the blue given that, even in my late forties, most of my colleagues were older and more experienced. I agreed to his request provided my fellow governors were happy. I was elected unanimously and with great warmth and I have to say I have never had a day since where I felt any opposition or animosity from a single governor.

My accession to the throne coincided with two things. I was in my second of a three year degree course in Education and Society which had necessarily made me more interested in education broadly, but also developed my abilities to dig below the surface for more, and often detailed information. I joined Twitter soon afterwards and from afar began to read comments, blogs, and articles from the great and good of online school governance. It quickly became apparent to me that we were not modelling many of the processes highlighted as best practice. We moved meetings to a classroom with tables where we could spread out papers and write more comfortably. Questions were actively encouraged. Roles were aligned to the school improvement plan rather than the traditional model of curriculum subjects. We met staff. We met children. We met parents. And we began a journey to where we are today. In my view we are an excellent governing body blessed with relevant experience and expertise but more importantly a collective commitment to make our school the best it can be even if that means asking difficult questions and posing significant challenges to the school’s leadership. Only recently I attempted to set up a cluster governance group with our fellow local Catholic primaries. The response was lukewarm to stone cold. However I am proud that WE have emerged from the silo of insularity that still marks so many governing boards in the local authority sector.

I decided to write this blog not just to chart my own journey. Those of us involved in governance and using Twitter will collectively have literally hundreds of thousands of friends and followers who are not governors. Some may have considered it. Many would be highly appropriate and most welcome recruits. Recently we have quite rightly been concerned with teacher recruitment and retention. We must never forget however that attracting and developing governors and trustees is equally vital to the long-term sustainability of British education. But, if we are to go out into the ether and evangelise the gospel of governance I believe we need to offer an honest precis of what it involves. It’s no good wrapping the perception of the role in cotton wool only to find new recruits leave pretty quickly having witnessed the warts and all version. So an honest personal appraisal of the life of a governor is, I believe, what’s needed.

Without doubt life was much easier before becoming Chair. I was a member of a committee and had responsibility for History. A piffling role in the greater scheme of things. I produced one report in three years. I chucked in my twopennyworth in Finance meetings but often budgeting went over my head. However, I was able to pop into school occasionally to help out on trips, and see happy, safe children engaged in their learning. And of course those visits almost always refuel and reinvigorate us from the slumber of data analysis and remind us why we do what we do. I believe I used my own skills and abilities to make a difference but also acknowledge that these qualities were being further enhanced by acting as a governor. In other words it was certainly beneficial to my own CV. Beyond that it was basically two meetings per term with a bit of prior preparation for each. However, it was never onerous and I genuinely felt I was contributing to the life of the school. Despite me having two children there I can honestly say I was never acting out of self-interest but from a deep-felt desire to  help make the school great in every way.

I believe that around the time I became chair, the expectations of responsibilities of all governors significantly increased. OFSTED was starting to look critically at governance as part of leadership and management and there was an inherent assumption that boards would be totally professional in their approach to governance and in their own training and self-development. A much greater emphasis was placed on the understanding of data and what that told us about progress or lack of progress of certain groups. Inevitably that placed additional pressure on us all. And as unpaid servants, for some this was too much. Some found the workload difficult to balance as many of our workplaces started to also make greater demands of staff. Family circumstances changed for some. But largely we kept our core of governors and the direction of travel was thankfully sustained.

So what’s good about governing in a school or academy? Well firstly you will grow as a person, not just in knowledge acquisition but also in the development of skills. You will probably become more confident and less immediately accepting of what you’re first told. You will become business like even though schools are not businesses. You will see children, at work and at play, growing as young people in every way. You will be privileged to see children succeed in sports, excel at drama, and bring a tear to your eye as they sing a solo or play a trumpet in public for the first time. You will make a difference to the lives of those children, their families, and the wonderful staff without whom our schools clearly could not function. Most of all you will experience a feel good factor that only comes from seeing your voluntary time and efforts translated into something so deeply rewarding.

What’s not so good then Neil? Undoubtedly the demands on the time of governors have significantly gone up. The days of tea-drinking, cake-munching nodding dogs have been rightly consigned to Room 101. You will receive lots of paperwork which you are expected to both read and understand. Furthermore you are required to come armed with questions to dig beneath the superficiality and challenge those charged with educating our children. As a friend to staff and parents outside of school you cannot always share that same relationship in your role as governor. Your shoulder which was previously available for crying on now must be removed to a respectful distance. For some that has threatened friendships. None of us, however experienced, are true experts and hence the need for regular training and development is a necessity right across governance. This will mean additional time taken out of your busy lives to upskill yourselves. And yes, increasingly in the current climate, governors are being asked to make horrible decisions which can directly impact on the livelihood of staff members with all the accompanying angst and emotion.

From a Chair’s perspective I would say my personal development has been enormous. I now feel emboldened to manage meetings even though of course, I am still massively reliant on our Clerk to pull me into line! I am much more confident in the company of senior leaders, local authority figures, and fellow governors. If you are passionate about education being chair affords you a unique opportunity to drive the governing board in the direction you believe is best. You have the scope to place your own indelible mark on how the board operates. You can inspire, enthuse, cajole, and even smilingly browbeat colleagues. By your own example you can model rigorous questioning, ownership of a brief, a presence in school, and a relationship of appropriate challenge yet support with the Head. In my own particular case being Chair of a “Good” school meant I could successfully apply to be a National Leader of Governance. That means I can now use my own experience, and hopefully a little expertise, to offer a helping hand to other schools in temporary need. For me it was never about the colour of the uniform, it was always about the children wearing it irrespective of the building in which they were being taught.

That sounds great doesn’t it? And by and large it is. But being Chair isn’t always easy. As a result of necessary and difficult past decisions some people no longer speak to me. Worse still my wife and children have had people treat them differently. This is upsetting. Whilst a supportive Vice-Chair is vital, inevitably at times you feel a degree of isolation. Often you are burdened with highly confidential issues which you cannot share but can be deeply troubling and weigh enormously. I have lost many hours sleep as Chair considering how to deal with delicate and complex matters often carrying serious consequences. I cringe when I receive a letter of complaint from a parent, carer, or member of staff because I know the huge, time-consuming, and emotive challenges that the subsequent investigation and correspondence will bring. In the run-up to our most recent inspection I was devoting ten to fifteen hours work per week ensuring our evidence files were updated, all governors understood their brief, and that the school development plan accurately mirrored our governance priorities. That on top of working over forty hours per week in my salaried role and having the same family commitments we all face.

So would I recommend being a governor? Overwhelmingly I would do yes. Volunteering your time and energy to benefit others is ingrained in British society and you will receive great satisfaction and warmth from seeing our youngest members of society benefit from your altruism. Don’t worry about getting into school regularly. If you work full time that does not disbar you from governance. Others, perhaps retired colleagues can be a more prominent presence in school whilst you can offer a meaningful input in other ways. You will develop personally as the school develops under your stewardship. Put simply you will be able to derive the unimaginable pleasure of seeing Year Eleven Amy, who came to high school introverted and friendless singing Ave Maria at the Leavers’ Mass in front of dozens of caring and admiring pals.

And what about being Chair? The sad reality is few of us get to choose if or when we are appointed. Indeed I know some Chairs who entered their first meeting as a governor and left having been elected to that role. It’s not a job for everybody. Not all people are leaders or have any inclination to so be. However, if you believe that through your own example, enthusiasm, diplomacy, and unflinching high expectation you can drive your board’s agenda to take the school to its next level then go for it. It is admittedly lovely sometimes, when times are good, to take a step back and reflect on the small part you have played in that particular cause for celebration. One thing I would recommend is that if you are approached to become Chair, or successfully put yourself forward for election, then immediately seek a mentor to help you through those uncertain first few months. Speak to your LA or MAT or Diocese, or the Inspiring Governance team, and see if an NLG or suitably experienced colleague would be willing to assist. I’ve never known the answer be negative. Those formative weeks are critical and will help you hit the ground running and hence ensure continuity of good governance. The title of this blog is a direct quote from a child at my first meeting as Chair with the children. Who wouldn’t want to be in government eh?

O Holey Roof

leaking roofAs appears to be perennially the case I am sat here listening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at home, all alone, taking one of my remaining days leave from work simply because I’ve been too damned busy in the preceding eleven months to notice I was carrying seven residual days into December. So I’m here. I went shopping this morning to buy my infinitely better half a lovely present. Then I remembered the suggestion one year of an electric carving knife. She smiled at me sweetly, nodding knowingly, then replied “If you do can you guess what will be the first thing I cut off?” Since then I have been somehow frightened of purchasing anything that would not gain full approval. Hence I left the Mall empty-handed although a quick detour on the way home did produce three packets of Harry Ramsden Chip Shop curry sauce mix for a quid. Anyway the steak pie for tea is in the oven, the dishwasher will soon be unloaded, and the washing has been distributed evenly across various hard-working radiators (yes, I do know about condensation, thank you). So currently, all around the house, nothing is stirring, not even the Russian dwarf hamster who has turned her nose up at broccoli stem. Quite the discerning rodent she is.

I have two hours then to kill before making three cups of hot Vimto for an overworked HLTA and two teenage daughters who like to pretend they are. The youngest was in the choir at her carol concert last night which Number One daughter (teacher) and I (mug governor) dutifully attended. It was beautifully uplifting and always such a pleasure to see their hard work translate so seamlessly into outstanding singing. You know the bits the inspector never sees but make you proud to be part of the school community. And as always, as I belted out various traditional carols (I provide volume not harmony) I reflected back on the year and looked forward to the next. Today I plan to do the same but concentrating on education, governance, edu-Twitter, and the ever-shifting sands of accountability.

Now I actually don’t like looking back. For me the Gove of Christmas Past is an irrelevance (he possibly always was) because we cannot affect history although we should most surely learn from it. For me my standpoint has always been where are we now, where do we want to go, and how are we going to get there and when? I have carried that philosophy as Chair of Governors sitting alongside my no blame, no excuses mantra which encourages a collective ethic based on trust and support. So at the end of 2017 where does education sit? Without doubt if you believe Amanda Spielman this week, more children than ever are learning in good or outstanding schools. Last week we were told our phonics regime was showing tangible results in worldwide literacy comparisons. So that’s good although it does beg the question I asked last time as to how much emphasis we place on English and Maths performance when judging a school’s overall quality and contribution to wider society.

What is also a reality is that these steps forward are being made in spite of, not because of government investment in the future of our children. Politicians continue to bask in the reflective glory of progress they have threatened rather than facilitated. I made the grave mistake of watching Education Questions in the House of Commons last week where yet again ministers robotically trotted out the party line of retaining funding per pupil during the current Parliament. My anger at their apparent refusal to even acknowledge that this is insufficient, when we consider spiralling costs, was such my laptop is now awaiting dredging from the bed of the Leeds-Liverpool canal by British Waterways, presumably sometime in 2037 when World War Three has ended and we return to transporting cargo via barge. It would be churlish not to applaud investment in certain areas such as social mobility, post-sixteen education, and certain rural and seaside areas where progress has been difficult. However, if we do not see a significant spend right across the whole of the education system we run the very real risk of letting our current generation of children down badly. I appreciate the department for education is planning to make £1.3 billion in efficiencies (their dinner parties must be very good) but the cynic in me, possibly a product of being an avid Yes Minister viewer in the day, tells me the cash will be drained from one pail to fill the next.

It begs the question do our politicians know what appalling choices school leaders are increasingly making as a result of this inexorable austerity? I doubt when St Nicholas Gibb is next photographed in a synthetic phonics session it will be under a leaking roof in a class of forty being delivered by the school’s only teaching assistant because the class teacher is enjoying their first PPA session of the term. They sit in Education Towers surrounded by data and listening exclusively to civil servants and their own backbenchers pining for a return to the good old days of 1960s grammar schools with their refectories, ink wells, and oak panelling forgetting the fact that these days there are no mills or factories for the thickies who fail the eleven plus in which to work.

So in the unlikely event that Chief Elf Greening ever reads this rant through the magic of social media let me explain what life is like in Northern England this Christmas. This is my first year as a governor where our school has set an in-year deficit budget. We had accumulated significant reserves courtesy of a relatively full roll and recently qualified, and hence less expensive teachers. We can only sustain this financial model for two years before the cash runs dry. We have no grandiose spending plans. No off-site governors meetings in Barbados or even Blackpool. It’s just a reflection of outgoings significantly outstripping income. Other schools are less fortunate and do not have our temporary comfort blanket. Class sizes are rising due to staff not being replaced or even being made redundant. Teaching assistants are not being deployed even though abilities and special needs vary considerably in each class. Can we really expect a teacher with thirty-five kids including seven with different special needs to differentiate equally and effectively? The curriculum is contracting partly due to the disproportionate focus on literacy and numeracy being the barometer of a school’s quality. Building projects are being shelved. Resources are not available. Requests for books are met with an invitation to search the internet but only for things that don’t require colour photocopying. Sales of buckets at B & Q (other DIY outlets are available) have gone through the roof in direct proportion to the  rain coming through the school roof.

And yet, in spite of this systematic neglect of schools they amazingly continue to give children a great start in life. Our school leaders have become expert jugglers and diplomats. Governors have by necessity become much more professional and questioning of all expenditure. And of course our school staff continue to be the true heroes and heroines of this sad story. Faced with an unsustainable workload and dwindling support they battle on because as we know, for most teaching is a vocation and any adverse impact on children is unthinkable. They are the giant sponges soaking up the rain water and preventing it dripping on young heads. But at what cost? Retention is appalling. Inspirational teachers are leaving to work in banks, bakeries, and beauticians for far less money but far less pressure. Staff are exhausted, morale has been sapped to Saharan levels, and they feel deeply undervalued. At the same time they are dipping in their pockets increasingly to buy their own resources but to also ensure vulnerable children are not embarrassed on the school trip when they don’t have a pound for a miniature replica of York Minster. And, shamefully, their pay is capped at one per cent. This on the day when inflation went beyond three per cent. We demand more and reward them by giving progressively less each year. It is nothing short of a disgrace.

The lot of our beleaguered teachers would be helped of course in other ways. The continued under-funding of medical, mental health provision, children’s social care, and specialist services inevitably impacts on staff who are having to deal with these complex issues in addition to classroom teaching. Poverty is real. I wonder how many ministers watched this week’s ITV documentary on life in the North West and thought they were watching a modern take on Oliver Twist? For the love of God. Washing machines in the staff room and food parcels to send home? Really?  Yes, we have parenting issues with some unwilling or certainly unable to discharge basic responsibilities. But the fact is  a country that can afford to send £50 billion to the EU to take back control of our boarders (no, that isn’t a spelling mistake) can bloody well do something about families in our Northern towns sitting down to a Christmas dinner of value pasta and tinned peaches provided by the growing number of food banks. And yes, it’s a disgrace my seventy seven year-old Mum who runs a food bank with Dad texted me yesterday to tell me how knackered she is,  whilst the Salvation Army in Blackpool has run out of toys such is the demand this year. Honestly, Britain.

So that’s where we are. And even the most strident supporter of the government and the DfE could surely not disagree with my bleak assessment if they were to take the trouble to see beneath the carefully placed veneer of favoured free schools, academies, no-excuses establishments, and of course the bastions of Britishness, our public schools. All of which by the way I wish well as they are educating children and developing future generations too. If we agree, then how can we start to reverse this growing threat to our state education system? Well, as Bill Clinton memorably uttered in 1992 “It’s the economy stupid.” Until we release the purse-strings and give schools what they need then things will only get worse not better. I worry government will not act until the point too many schools are simply unable to set a budget. In other words the day a Conservative government, which supposedly champions education, becomes the architect of educational bankruptcy.

The money is critical but there are other things too that will help the burgeoning crisis we face. As I’ve written previously the inspection regime is too narrow in its focus in my opinion but most definitely is too high-stakes in its impact. You can read my previous blog to prevent me regurgitating all that and leaving me too late to make the girls’ hot Vimto. When times are tough we need stability so at least our leaders and teachers are working within a familiar system rather than one that is constantly changing. A moratorium on new policy. A halt to the ideological policy of academy conversion which the cynic in me says is the real reason for the under-funding of local authority maintained schools. An immediate re-assessment of how struggling schools can be better supported with deployment of specialist staff and leaders being much more fluid and expeditious. Certainly we need a national campaign to shout from the rooftops about the desirability of teaching as a career, make clear their workload and their responsibilities but also their critical position as role models to millions of our children (Memo to teaching unions. Please do not arrange any strikes soon). But for God’s sake if we want to attract and keep the very best then we must pay them the going rate. We will not make the silk purse from a yoghurt pot, pipe cleaner,  and two pieces of sticky-backed plastic bought at her own expense by the teacher from Rymans last Sunday.

Oh yes, be sure it’s a bleak mid-winter. But it really is possible for the herald angels to be able to sing of an improvement. It needs all the faithful to come together. Come together on a midnight clear whilst the shepherds of our education system hatch their plans by night to turn around English education. If Chief Elf Greening, St Nicholas, and most importantly May (who, in the pangs of Labour, rode to Bethlehem on an ass called Boris) see what is happening to education, but more importantly what it could be with vision, investment, and a trust of the professionals, we will all be able to see amid the winter’s snow. If that can happen, then O Holey Roof will never be sung again. Pick up thy quill I entreat thee and write to thine MPs this January and make their lives a misery until we can ding dong merrily on high and our nights can once again be silent.

Merry Christmas to the one man and his dog who reads my blogs but thanks so much for doing so.

Venite Adoremus Dominum.

 

 

Measure For Measure

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For those who have come to know me primarily through my role as a school governor, it may surprise some of you to know that since 1986 I have been a qualified football referee. Courtesy of lots of effort and commitment, and no little luck, I managed to work my way up through the ranks, and whilst I would never claim to have been a beacon of excellence, I did somehow contrive to steal thirteen years in the professional game. This allowed me to grace the turf of some of the country’s great stadia and rub shoulders with several legends of the beautiful game.

In order to retain one’s status we had to pass an annual fitness test. In the early days this consisted of a relatively comfortable jaunt around a running track where 2700 metres had to be covered in twelve minutes of continuous running. Provided you had trained sufficiently diligently then it posed few questions. Over time however, it was clear that the players were getting fitter and faster and hence referees had to do likewise. Suddenly we were compelled to wear heart rate monitors and download our thrice-weekly training sessions to a sports scientist. The fitness test became more complex and more demanding, reflecting the typical movement we would be required to undertake during games. The continuous run was replaced by a number of short, sharp bursts punctuated by similar periods of recovery. Additionally, and most worryingly for me, a sprint test was added. Let me explain. I was in my forties, with five-to-two feet with virtually no arches. Put simply I had never been built for speed. I could still metronomically trot out even paced laps but this was no longer felt sufficient.

So there I was. Ready to attempt five sprints of forty metres each within 5.20 seconds. I managed the first, then pulled my hamstring on the second before unceremoniously limping from the track. Effectively that season had ended before it had started. I considered my future momentarily but I was no quitter. I lost a few pounds, bought new shoes, and joined a local athletics club where I found myself constantly out of breath trying to keep up with fifteen year-old county standard runners. I grafted, I suffered, I got to intimately know ice baths and compression tights but it was worth it. Next season, more in hope than expectation I visited my last chance saloon and did it. My last and slowest of five sprints was exactly 5.20 seconds. I was to have another season. Ironically only a few weeks later we received communication that the threshold for next season would be reduced to 5.00 seconds. I knew the end was nigh.

So later that next summer, after finally realising I could no longer put my body through demands it wasn’t equipped for, I penned my letter of resignation. I thanked those who had helped and supported me but stated my opinion that undue emphasis was placed on fitness and much less on reliability, communication skills, man-management, and decision-making accuracy. I pointed out that if fitness was everything then why weren’t they recruiting Olympic athletes! The answer was patently obvious to me. Fitness was the only thing they could measure quantitively. All those other critical aspects of refereeing could only ever be subjective.

T’other day, whilst reminiscing about those days of yore, I couldn’t help comparing my frustrated resignation letter with the current system of education and how it is inspected. Schools work hard every day for three years or more then a man or woman visits, often for one day, and makes an assessment which pretty much decides the future course of that school. I doubt there is anybody who would venture to claim that even the most experienced and astute inspector could accurately assess a school having only spent a few hours in the building. That would be a nonsense. Of course prior to knocking on the door, Her Majesty’s Inspector will have spent several hours scrutinising data. Comparing Key Stage Two SATs results with the previous cohort and the one before. Looking at how disadvantaged and SEND children fare comparatively. Looking for where the school was strong but also where it clearly had work to do based on the figures. Because, of course, data doesn’t lie. Performance is factual, irrefutable, and most importantly measurable. The figures are everything and are not only used to compare us year on year but also with schools within our local area and nationally. We are officially benchmarked.

But here’s the thing. Some of us believe schools are more than just a set of numbers generated by a national test of reading and mathematics added to to a teacher assessment of writing. Some of us are very frustrated at the things an inspector can barely even hope to quantify during that fleeting visit. Will the inspector see that a quarter of pupils play a musical instrument including the disadvantaged kids whose lessons are funded by pupil premium money? Will the inspector see the Christmas production where the precocious dramatic talent of the infants brings smiles to our faces and tears to our eyes in equal measure? Will the inspector see the whole school running a charity mile even the obese child in Year Four who is cheered to the finish line by supportive class mates? Will the inspector see the incredibly lifelike drawing of Miss penned by the budding artist with autism?

I guess the issue here does not lie with OFSTED or its inspectors. It lies with us all. It lies primarily with government which has deemed through it’s testing and inspection regimes that basic numeracy and literacy are everything. No value is placed on those other subjects. When one of that school orchestra becomes a session musician, nobody in government will notice. When one of that production group gets a starring role in a gritty Northern TV drama, nobody in government will notice. When that obsese kid is transformed into the country’s fastest youth cross-country runner, nobody in government will notice. When that child with an acute learning disability has an exhibition at a leading city gallery, nobody in government will notice. Of course back in their schools these achievements will be celebrated, highlighted, and hopefully used to inspire the next generation. But as for the world beyond our community, who notices?

It also lies with parents. Those who read league tables on the Internet, study GCSE results in the evening paper, and minutely interrogate an inspection report. They have been conditioned to act this way of course but it surely simplifies the purpose of education if we only value proficiency in English and Maths? We fail our children if we do not look at how well developed their IT skills are, surely a pre-requisite of life in the twenty first century? We will not develop the engineers or scientists of the future if we do not place equal importance on Physics, Chemistry, Biology and the humanities. We will not sufficiently equip the British workforce of the next generation for international trade if we do not embed a mastery of, and a flare for, modern foreign languages.

But more importantly of all are the things we hopefully give to our children in schools that can never be measured. How kind are they? Have they developed a real depth of compassion and understanding? Are they socially and emotionally prepared for the next step on their journey? Are they inclusive beings committed to a more equal and just society? Do they espouse decent values and have a strong sense of democracy? Are they true citizens of a global world always willing to extend a hand of support to those weaker or in more need? Have we imbued in them a thirst for learning in all its forms so they can dare to dream and dream to fly? We know the answers to these questions because in education our practitioners subscribe unerringly to the holistic development of the child. But because we can’t place a figurative value on them, insert them into a table, or analyse the hell out of them, they play no part in the assessment of the quality of the education we provide.

Will it ever change? Who knows? Since education became a mass entitlement we have had high-achievers but also those who leave school having failed to master the basics. Under traditional and progressive methods of education this remains the case. And yet we still chase the dream, probably an unachievable one, that each child will be able to instantly multiply eight by six, and properly punctuate a piece of Dickensian prose before they move to High School. Our system seems to have arrived at this ridiculously simplistic value judgement failing totally to factor in the complexities of the modern school. A place where teachers and leaders are increasingly involved in what previously may have been labelled as social work or medical matters. Child protection cases proliferate and increasingly children arrive unequipped in the very basics of dressing, eating, and toileting. Mental health, self-harm, and grooming cases are much more commonplace and very often schools play a pivotal role in getting these children sorted out and able to move on positively. But none of this can be measured.

British schools are full of brilliant people. They are also full of brilliant children who feel safe, and who are excited participants in their learning journey. Their curriculum is broad and varied and allows those who struggle academically to find their forte elsewhere. They are instilled with values, morals, ethics, and qualities which will prepare them well for adult life. Those with special needs or from deprived backgrounds are nurtured, loved, and protected. But none of this can be measured.

If we really want to judge schools it’s about time we went far beyond this ridiculously narrow definition of “what a good one looks like.” It’s about time we started judging schools by the people they produce not by their ability to score five percentage points above an arbitrary floor standard. Yes, we need to see academic progress but we also need to see sporting, artistic, dramatic, and musical progress. We need to see emotional and social progress. How we measure these elements is up for debate. But measure them we must. We do our children and the professionals who teach them,  an eternal disservice if we continue to judge their work purely on the “3 Rs.” If we want to really know how good our schools are then we very quickly need to decide what we all want from schools and only then consider how we assess and compare them.

An Inspector Calls……

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A couple of years ago we fancied going out for something to eat. Now those who know me will readily testify I don’t get out much. However it was a minor celebration and an opportunity for some “us” time. We then had a chat about where we might go. Ideally somewhere sufficiently local to get a taxi without requiring a second mortgage for the fare. So, as you do, I hopped on Trip Advisor. By happy coincidence its top rated restaurant was only two miles away. I quickly scanned the almost exclusively effusive comments and noted it had a maximum hygiene rating. An added bonus for me was that it was a listed building dating back to the 1600s with a nice selection of real ales.

But here’s the thing. Call me old-fashioned but when I go out to a quaint British pub, I hope to find a traditional menu. Lancashire Hotpot, Braised Steak, Liver and Onions, Fish Pie, or some seasonal game. Upon arrival I was faced with New Zealand green-lipped mussels, Cajun chicken, Hoisin duck, and Lamb Jalfrezi. Now in the interests of fairness the food we eventually selected and devoured was of a high quality, the wine lovely, and the ambience convivial. However, I had made a culinary schoolboy error of not checking the menu before making the reservation.

In recent times I have been considering the role of the education regulator OFSTED and how it judges and reports on schools. It occurred to me that when looking at potential schools for their children, the majority of parents will trawl school websites and check the rating at its latest inspection. In essence the educational equivalent of Trip Advisor. If the school is Outstanding, then clearly you would book a table immediately and even join a waiting list were one to exist. Even if it was rated Good, but outstripped other local schools, then it would become the destination of choice for your little Ayesha or Alfie. But I wonder how many parents ask questions about the ethos of the school. Does it have a broad curriculum? Will it hone my son’s burgeoning propensity for acting? Will my daughter be able to play football? And most importantly of all will my little darling be safe, be happy, and be ready for the next level of education/life when they leave? I’ll lay odds that lots of parents don’t look at prospective schools in such depth and hence judge it almost exclusively by its rating. I wonder how many of those parents and carers expecting the educational equivalent of pot-roasted pheasant ended up with spaghetti carbonara?

The impact of an OFSTED judgement is beyond enormous. If you are deemed Outstanding you will attract greater numbers of quality applicants for any vacancies and greater numbers of children. In other words more money. You will be spared the spectre of the MIT consultants forensically dissecting your provision. You will be spared the Sword of Damocles that is a minimum three yearly follow up with all the angst it generates. OFSTED inspections are often as short as one day. Whilst I readily accept they have prior access to reams of data which will have been thoroughly scrutinised, sight of the school website which often speaks volumes, and even the opinions of parents, it is a ridiculously blunt instrument. And this is not a criticism of OFSTED itself, or its senior staff and inspectors all of whom I have found to be approachable, constructive, but also perceptive and professional.

The problem with a school’s OFSTED rating is the magnitude of its impact. All schools know this. All schools know its Trip Advisor potential. Why do you think the walls and railings of schools are festooned with banners displaying the OFSTED logo but also carefully chosen words from a report that one might argue do not necessarily accurately reflect the broader narrative. In short they are shouting to their communities “Bring your children here we are quite good really with OUTSTANDING lunchtime welfare assistants.” For those for whom the judgement is less positive, the fall-out from a Requires Improvement judgement or worse can be catastrophic. Children are suddenly transferred out. Due to the funding mechanism the school then haemorrhages the money vitally needed to bankroll its recovery. Imagine the impact on staff who work so hard often at the expense of their well-being, often fulfilling traditionally parental functions, and often with hopelessly insufficient appreciation of their efforts? “You tried your best love but frankly you’re not quite good enough.” Almost immediately the mass ranks of interventionists are mobilised. Teaching and learning consultants arrive with behavioural experts, their only brief being to return the school to an acceptable rating before the inspector next calls. Suddenly the head and senior leaders disappear, presumably incarcerated in the depths of the art cupboard previously unexplored by man. Governors are patronised and often jettisioned in some cases on the basis of a judgement by an inspector whose knowledge of governance might be sketchy at best.

Indeed governors are not immune from the ramifications of “the call.” We can all sit in meetings and piously state that unlike every other school in the kingdom we govern for children not for OFSTED. Then in the next breath we charge the Link Governor with organising a training session on Preparing for Inspection. The reality is this. We know that the consequences of the inspection judgement are huge in every respect. We survive an inspection then immediately start working towards the next one. We become obsessed with SATs and Phonics screening results. We pour over data seeing if writing has improved, if the boys in Year Two have developed a greater interest in reading, and if the Pupil Premium funded interventions have assisted our disadvantaged children in achieving better outcomes in Maths. If we’ve any time left we might ask if the children are happy. I am not saying schools have necessarily become exam factories but our conveyor belts and loading bays seem more replete with performance figures than figures performing.

If any of this is true then we need a grown-up debate about what we need for schools in 2017. There is little dissent that we need to be able to ensure that schools are providing the best possible education for all of our children. Most, although not all would suggest this can only be credibly achieved by an external, independent body, hopefully free from any political influence. However it is the outcomes of those scrutinies that continue to perplex me. I have concluded that the days of grading schools should be consigned to history. I am now of the opinion that OFSTED, or its new incarnation, becomes a licensing authority for schools. In other words to provide education you must be licensed. Judged as now against a variety of benchmarks in such areas as safeguarding, curriculum breadth,  high expectations, inclusion, and of course attainment and progress, but also social and emotional development, readiness for the next step, and happiness in equal measure.

Under my Utopian vision there would be two outcomes. Licensed or not licensed. If it is the latter then those previously mentioned support forces are mobilised but critically in a no blame, no excuses culture. We move on from staff and governors blaming the inspector. We move on from stakeholders blaming leadership and staff. Ratings will end and thus parents will be forced to be more discerning in choosing schools, delving far deeper than the veneer of that grading. In essence it becomes a collective response based on mutual trust and a collaborative desire to be the best we can be. Critically it attracts all the funding necessary to achieve better outcomes. Perhaps the Pupil Premium can be re-thought. Should it be allocated automatically to schools even when they have a proven record of “narrowing the gap” without it? Should there be a contingency fund therefore within Pupil Premium for schools who lose their licence? And of course we would be reliant on a supportive government ensuring that all education received every last penny of the requisite monies needed to ensure every child leaves school with the skills, qualities,  and knowledge to play a prominent part in the development of a post-Brexit society where talented and well-educated young people can drive national prosperity.

I accept there will be those reading this with far greater expertise and experience who will see my plan as having more flaws than a huge wedge of Emmental.  I accept there might be those reading this who believe I can’t have my Lancashire Hotpot and eat it. However, English education has become utterly obsessed with OFSTED and I don’t believe it best serves the interests of children, staff, and parents. I consider we have reached a tipping point in 2017 where we remove the pressure of attaining a grade, start to trust our school leaders to do their job, and free our tirelessly caring and professional teachers to continue to develop young minds and characters without prescriptive, onerous and shackling policies and procedures,  designed purely to show the school in a positive light when next the inspector calls……………..