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!

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.


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 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.


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’.


I accepted a temporary contract at an ‘outstanding’ school. Between the interview and the start of the job I became pregnant- unplanned and unexpected. A month before the job started, at around 4 weeks pregnant I started vomiting constantly- for one month I was bed bound and couldn’t eat anything but dry crackers now and again. I didn’t want to let the school down so decided to start as planned. By the time of my first day I was being sick 3 or 4 times a day and was still unable to eat much. This went on for the first half term but I continued on. I took one day off in that time. Over half term I caught a cold, which then developed into bronchitis. This lasted for four months. I also had undiagnosed gestational diabetes.

Despite this, I kept going at the job. I wrote schemes of work in the holidays, I took on extra exam marking of other colleagues as well as my own to help out, I planned and taught my lessons, did my marking, and worked really hard to do it all well. It was exhausting and there were times I felt I could barely stand but I really didn’t want to let down my colleagues so I ploughed on. I formed good relationships with my department and got positive feedback for my schemes of work.

Around 5 months into my contract the head teacher walked in during the last 5 minutes of my lesson. The projector had timed out but as it took 5 minutes to reboot it, I wrote the last task on the board. This was a very challenging and at times hostile class. They were thrown together into a newly formed class half way through the school year, they thought of themselves as the lowest set and had very little confidence in their ability. I worked very hard to build trust and gain their confidence. By this time, they would all stay in their seats, complete the tasks I set and some of the more tricky ones were doing well. I felt proud of this. The head teacher was not happy with what she saw- I’m not sure what exactly, I was never given specifics. The students were listening, they completed the task, they volunteered their ideas. She asked my head of department to tell me that none of my lessons were engaging. That was all – that none of my lessons were engaging. She didn’t even have the courtesy to discuss this with me directly.

I’ve never felt so demoralised in 15 years of teaching. I felt I had sacrificed my health, the health of my unborn child, our family life to stick at this job and do my best for absolutely no reason. She didn’t even send me a thank you email or acknowledge my departure in any way when I left.

I love teaching. I was an outstanding teacher for years. Since having children I haven’t had a Professional Development observation teaching my subject so I don’t know where I stand now but I feel that I’ve failed terribly.