Tell your story
My two children (years 7 and 9) were treated to a talk yesterday at school about stress and schoolwork. The message they were given is that some stress is good for us and helps people to perform better. A graph was shown with performance on the y axis and stress on the x axis. The results plotted make an upside-down bell curve. The conclusion being that no stress (bizarrely labelled 'boredom'!) and too much stress ('distress') is bad as performance is very low but mid-level stress (called 'eustress') gives an optimum performance where the bell curve is at its peak. Putting aside the scientific merits of this graph (and it is out there - just google it - but looks to be a management consultant-type thing) my main issues with this are: what's the school's agenda in saying it's ok - in fact it's GOOD - to be stressed? And are they not confusing stress with interest, enthusiasm and motivation? The latter are all positive ways to improve performance. Stress levels seem to be rising amongst pupils as a direct result of the regular testing they undergo - exams every half term. So is the school normalizing this stress rather than dealing with it? My daughter is seeing the school counsellor again for anxiety (or should that be stress?). She's in Year 9 so the whole GCSE pressure has definitely started for her. My son had to hear this talk too though he's only in Year 7. His big stress-point is one teacher who angrily shouts at the class every week! How does that help? I will raise this with the school!
The school has bought into the Rising Stars test scheme. Teachers looked at the test for this half term and saw there are several things in it we have not taught our classes yet (we will teach them later in the year, but the test doesn't match the maths scheme we use). We were told we had to give the test anyway, despite already knowing most children would score 0 on a number of questions, not because they were incapable of answering them, but because they had been taught other things which did not appear in the test. Children we know are not working at, say a Year 4 level, but are in Year 4 have had to sit the Year 4 test and some have scored 0/20 as a result. The test has told the teacher nothing they didn't know already and can only have been bad for the self-esteem of those children.
Nigel Utton Former Chair Kent Association of Headteachers
When I was a primary Headteacher in Hampshire all of my children were well prepared for the move to secondary school. The vast majority went to Amery Hill Comprehensive which shared its facilities and even provided some teaching, particularly in modern languages from reception right up to year 6. The Headteacher and I had regular meetings and our staff worked with colleagues in respective departments to ensure the children went up with confidence and enthusiasm. They already knew the building, staff and other pupils well and had a very positive transition. Moving to the selective model in Kent was a tremendous shock. My school fed into at least six different secondaries; two grammar schools and four secondary moderns with some children being shipped further afield when the place planning went wrong – which it regularly did. Until the children had the results from their 11+ exams none of us knew where they would be going. The curricula, especially the languages learned were different in each school. Preparing our children for transition was a cumbersome affair with the secondaries offering sporadic activities mostly to years 5 and 6 to try to tempt the children to their school. On these grounds alone we should resist a return to a selective education system. The argument that grammar schools somehow increase social mobility is frankly a lie. Comprehensive schools do that – as I know from my own experience. I was the first from my family to go to university because my comprehensive school had that aspiration and provided me with the broad education to get me there. Working in Kent, where, due to political cowardice, selective education has continued unchecked, I have seen first-hand how aspiration is stifled almost at birth. Parents of preschool children have often already decided which of their offspring are ‘grammar’ children and which are not. This goes very much along class lines – with the parents’ own educational experience being a key factor. My educational philosophy is that all children should be educated in local inclusive schools. My preference would be for a curriculum based around children’s individual needs both emotional, physical and academic. Kent’s model is based in segregation. Children with impairments are largely educated in separate ‘special’ schools; children who fail the Kent Test are sent to secondary moderns at age 10/11 and those who pass are sent to grammars. Where the model fails is that children do not fit into simple categories. The Kent Test is divided into language and mathematical components. To go to a grammar school children have to achieve above a particular score in both. Hence children who may only have exceptional mathematical or language ability are denied a place at the ‘best’ schools. Every year I watched extremely talented children being rejected by the system. The knock on effect on self-esteem was tangible. I was horrified talking to adults in Kent who had failed the Kent Test who actually still remembered their scores decades later. What I hated most was seeing how divisive the system is in social terms. Right from reception class adults and indeed classmates refer to children as having grammar or non-grammar potential. Enough educational research on teacher/parental expectation shows us that these early attitudes have potentially devastating long term effects on a child’s learning and actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best comprehensive schools educate all the children, building on their strengths and developing areas where they may struggle. Children learn with their local peers creating a positive cohesive community. Parents and the local community work together to ensure that their school is a place which contributes to a common cause. Bussing children around to different areas, as happens in Kent and other selective authorities, at best renders difficult and at worst destroys this essential function of education. A child’s ability is not fixed at the age of 10 when the tests are administered. Surely the key task of education is to develop children beyond where their abilities seem to hold them. Putting in a glass ceiling is anathema to an educator. Segregating children into different types of school with different aspirations is everything that many of us have been fighting against. The fact that some comprehensive schools, particularly those in areas where deprivation, lack of aspiration and generational underachievement, do not seem to provide the same levels of education as those in more affluent areas with a different demographic, is not an argument against comprehensive education per se. It is an argument for putting massive educational and financial investment into those areas to raise aspiration and provide hope through building coherent communities. Creaming off a small elite of children into a grammar school merely creates social division and a hierarchy of worth. Sir Keith Josephs visited my comprehensive school when he was Secretary of State. As Head Boy I was asked to welcome him to the school. At the time he thought that assisting bright children into private education was the way forward. To a standing ovation I told him that those of us in my school were totally opposed to his scheme and were proud to be at a comprehensive school. Having been a teacher for 23 years, I am even more convinced that I was right.
A group of head teachers attended a school improvement meeting to discuss values-led educational development. They were asked to consider the potential beneficial effects for their schools of actions to support the flourishing of play, learning, teaching and relationships, rather than directly on a narrow range of attainment outcomes. One of the heads present was clear that this way was not for him. He had just moved into his school, was determined to drive up standards and said he couldn’t risk spending the time on an approach that might yield greater gains in the end but might not produce results fast enough for the next inspection. It was suggested that he was talking as if he would do anything to make sure that attainments improved even if he knew that what he was doing was unsustainable by which time he would have left the school. He responded: “well, that is the game we are in”.
As a governor I was asked to sign ‘a code of practice’. I read it carefully and traced its origins. It was a modified version of a document that had been on the National Governors Association (NGA) website now replaced by a shorter, better written, version. A number of mistakes had been introduced; governors were said “to oversee the setting of statutory (legally binding) targets” though this was not the case. Other sentences emphasised ‘consultation’ with parents rather than ‘participation’ in decision-making. The most contentious element asked governors to make a commitment: "I will never do anything publicly that would embarrass the schools, the Governing Body, the Executive Principal or staff". This was an unreasonable gagging order - and seemed likely to be unlawful since it is the duty of governors, and all staff, to expose abuses of power, including physical and sexual abuse, and to do that publicly if other avenues prove unsuccessful or if there is suspicion that criminal actions are involved. It seemed to breach the schools own safeguarding policy. Yet most governors across the three schools of the multi-academy trust, signed it. I contacted the NGA, asked their advice and was told that it was not common practice for a code to contain such a clause or to get governors to sign one. Months went by and then the original version appeared unmodified with a repeated request for the very few governors who had not signed, to do so. It was only when I refused to sign, consulted with the parents association and the teacher unions and said that I would seek legal advice, that the document was changed.
A lot of teachers don’t want to talk about performance related pay because of the shame attached to not getting an increment. A lot of people don’t even talk to their colleagues about it for fear of being seen as a bad teacher. Often they don’t make an appeal when they should. Being a teacher is an integral part of who you are, it’s not just a job. If you're told that your lessons aren’t of a high enough standard or you haven’t got the grades to fulfil the targets and you don't get your pay progression then you're going to want to keep it very quiet. It can be very demoralising.
I spoke to a teacher in one secondary school where there was no staffroom. I asked her if the staff could take over a classroom at lunchtime and have all the staff in there. Although that would not be ideal because you’d have to sit on plastic chairs and its not set up as a staff room, but you could at least all get together and talk. She said they would be in trouble if they were seen relaxing at lunchtime. This was in a school where there was no outside play space for the children either; a space for them to get some air and let off steam. Although there was space outside for games, lessons were at different times for different groups and the outside space was in use across the lunch period when the children had to be in the corridors or sit in classrooms. I think that kind of thing is happening a lot more now that outside space is being taken away because they don’t see it as necessary and managers think they can sell off their land for housing. I asked if, as a consequence, behaviour was a big problem in her school. And unsurprisingly she said it was.
I was at a primary school, supporting an initiative based on the Index for Inclusion (indexforinclusion.org) to help young people develop 'values literacy'. They were choosing from a range of headings for inclusive values, and illustrating some of those words, onto a 'values shield'. It was a Year 2 class engaged in a lovely activity which I had been invited to join. The teacher said to me: "I've split the values into groups for our lower ability and higher ability children". The 'low ability' children were illustrating 'love', 'joy' and 'trust', while the 'high ability' children were illustrating 'compassion', 'sustainability' and 'non-violence'. As a visitor with an eye to encouraging the activity, and the school's wider participation in the initiative, I felt I had to bite my tongue at that point - but my heart sank to see inclusive values divided up and allocated in this way. Developing skills in spotting the gaps between the ideals and reality was at the heart of the initiative.
I recently attended my daughter's school's Year 9 'help your child at home' evening. Thinking there might be an agenda other than just homework I kept a tally of keywords. Top of the list over the 75 minutes was 'GCSE' (23 times) with 'exams' a close second (19 times). The primary school she attended did a very good job of getting on with the SATs without stressing out the kids. At her secondary school the approach is very much one of pressuring the children and - based on that evening's presentations - the parents. It's so unnecessarily stressful and counter-productive. To help us stay on top of our child's progress or lack of it, it was proudly announced that we'd all have access to the "online dashboard" that gives a score for our daughter's attainment in each subject. This is presumably adjusted after each of the many tests - which have already started, barely 3 weeks into term!
There’s a particular academy chain that I work with at the moment where the secondary schools are new builds without staff rooms. There are four or five secondary schools in this chain and not one of them has a place for staff to have a private moment for themselves, to make a phone call or a health appointment, speak to their own family if there is a crisis, or to have a private conversation with another member of staff at any time during the day. They cannot share stories, get support, exchange ideas, get help or let off steam. They might want to say things like “Joe in my class has been a bit difficult this week, do you know what’s going on? How is he in your class?” There’s no space for them to have private conversations away from the children. I don’t think employers see that staff spaces are necessary; they think that staff should be on duty at all times with the children, so why should they have any time to- what they see as -rest, relax or put their feet up? They think that staff should be seen to be working every moment that they are in the school. I also think they think it’s a dangerous breeding ground for ideas and rebellions, people getting together and getting united. I don’t think they see it as being a necessary space for the staff.
Last week I met a friend who teaches in a primary school and asked him whether he would be willing to contribute anything to this website. He said that he already knew about it and thought it was a good thing, but he was fearful about writing anything for it even though it was anonymous, because he was worried that somehow, someone might trace it back to him. It wasn't that he didn't have anything to say, he said there were numerous ridiculous things happening in the school for him to choose from. This is a man who is active in the trade union, normally confident and outspoken in his views, supports others in the community and is passionate about social justice. In spite of this, his workplace, a primary school is so repressive that in this instance he was frightened to tell the truth about the things that are happening there.
I visited a school recently where Ofsted inspectors had commented with disapproval on the small amount of progress the children made in their tests at end of key stage 1 (age 4-7) and end of key stage 2 (7-11). This is a school with very high pupil mobility so that only a minority of the children took both tests at that school. The inspectors were uninterested in this information yet the comparisons they made were entirely invalid.
This is a story, a litany of waste, from a university in which I worked for 25 years. A new Vice Chancellor (with a science background) introduced widespread and unpopular restructuring with minimal meaningful consultation. This included reviews of academic subjects (called ‘divisions’ in management’s new parlance), one of which I had run from 2009 to 2013. This subject area is overseen by the Health and Social Care Council, which had, a year earlier, approved the updated courses. It runs one undergraduate and two postgraduate degrees. On the basis of an inaccurate written review assembled without reference to myself or any other previous head still working at the university, and a visit by 3 external academics over two days, it was announced that the undergraduate degree would stop recruiting that autumn (it was, by this time, May 2015). The division consisted of 23 academic staff, of which the university intended to make 12 redundant and immediately instituted ‘voluntary’ redundancy procedures. This news was announced at a meeting by the Dean and head of Department who then left, with no support in place for staff who were clearly traumatized. At this point nobody knew who would be leaving. Each member of staff was offered an interview to discuss their future. After complaints from staff that no criteria for redundancy had been provided, ‘strong entry for the Research Exercise Framework’ (the way universities are arranged in a hierarchy of research performance), and ‘professional body membership’ were mentioned, The outcome of the discussions, through which it became clear that some staff were being given no option but to take voluntary redundancy, and some staff were being denied it (with the criteria unequally applied), led to eight staff taking immediate voluntary redundancy, and two staff being told to take delayed redundancy (so that students could finish their undergraduate degree). Before these decisions had been finalised, four staff left (one retired, three for other jobs/respite from what had become a toxic atmosphere in which the minority who had been ‘collaborators’ in the whole process were pitted against the leavers and their sympathisers). A further member of staff (one who had been a key contributor to the re-approval of the course the previous year) was engaged in a dispute over his probation – which he eventually won, at some cost to the university. The deadline for leaving was 30 September 2015, and by the time the students returned there were ten staff left (including two part time and one on maternity leave) to teach two postgraduate courses and two years of an undergraduate course. The students did not hear in advance of their return to study, but on arrival were told that the staff had chosen to leave. On discovering the actual course of events the students held a party for the departing staff. Within two terms, four of the remaining staff had been offered jobs elsewhere, and it had been arranged for two of the non-professional staff (including one who initially had a delayed ‘voluntary’ redundancy) to move to other subject areas. By the start of the 2016-17 academic year, there were four staff remaining in the division. The head of division (one of the handmaidens of the closure) has given notice that she is leaving the UK. This will leave one full time and one part time members of staff to work with a couple of newcomers and ad hoc arrangements to teach the 3rd year of the undergraduate degree and a two year masters (the other masters course having migrated to another department with its lead academic). The knock on effects that this inept manoeuvring has had on associated subjects is immense, and staff in these areas are also leaving. It seems a costly way in which to close a subject area which, incidentally, had moved up in the last Research Excellence Framework (one of the largest jumps in the University). As you might have already guessed, I was one of those who was offered no alternative but to take ‘voluntary’ redundancy having been viewed, under a previous leadership, as a highly valued manager in the University. Ironically, under my stewardship, the division had broadened its research activity, increased student numbers, and re-secured professional recognition (after this was called into question a year before I was appointed). Two months before I was ‘offered’ voluntary redundancy I had become one of the Associate Deans for Equality and Diversity in the University. In this role, I complained that whereas about 30% of the original division staff were black or Asian, after the cull, only one of these remained, and she had left to take a job elsewhere. Both the undergraduate and the postgraduate professional courses are multi-ethnic, with the majority of students being black and Asian. Many of these students are the first in their family to go to university, and many have overcome considerable struggles to get there. Under its current leadership, the university management claims it is aiming towards the ‘Russell Group’ of Universities (universities who had banded together to give themselves elite status in England and Scotland). But at what cost? Is my old university alone in this? Postscript: I was graciously allowed an extra month to clear my office of its 25 years of accumulated papers. As all my passes were revoked on September 30th, I had to apply for a temporary pass for my office located within an area of open plan workstations. The area has two entrances, and once in, one may range freely and exit out of either door. I was asked which door was nearest my office, as I could not be given a pass to more than one door.
Somehow on Tuesday morning I found myself using a carpentry tool to file down the logo on the back of my son's school shoes. After a few minutes it was agreed that this is madness as 1) it didn't really work and 2) they are perfectly good school shoes as they are! On Monday - his first day at secondary school - my son had been sent to the isolation room to get a slip about his inappropriate footwear. It contravened uniform policy because a brand name appears on the shoes. The logo is barely visible. They are decent, standard children's shoes. He was so upset by this he hardly slept that night. He has a note from us explaining that these shoes are his school shoes now and any further discussion has to be between the school and his parents.
On starting secondary school aged eleven, my friend's daughter was assigned to one of four sets in all subjects based on her scores on the Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) and Cognitive Abilities Tests (CATs) she had taken at the end of primary school. The sets were named after the grades predicted for the children in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) to be taken aged 16 as A* to A, A* to B, A to C and C. A-C were the only grades that counted in national school league tables at the time. The bottom set of C really means F or fail since if the children were really expected to get a C grade they would have been placed in the third set. Such practice is abusive, without recognition of teachers and children’s capacity for changing their education trajectories. It also defines education as a grade grind, a ‘Gradgrind’, rather than an expansion of life interests and possibilities. It is reminiscent of the ability branding of children at Crown Woods College in London, with children assigned into three mini-schools on the basis of their initial tests with different uniforms, and break times, perhaps so that those perceived to be stuck with ‘low ability’ cannot contaminate those seen to be of ‘high ability’.