We can rebuild it

As I write this, I note that Dr Rebecca Allen’s Caroline Benn memorial speech on teacher workload has received 60 Retweets and 107 Likes on Twitter. If you haven’t read it, do. Even if you are overburdened with your own workload.

Citing DiMaggio and Powell, Allen explains the isomorphic pressures which have resulted in schools becoming more alike, and how this has contributed to increased expectations on teachers. She points two fingers: one at reforms of Ofsted; the other at increased school funding under Labour. These are classic cases of unintended consequences, for I recall the little cheers we uttered when we heard the inspectors would come in smaller teams, and when we realized for once that we had a government that believed in investing in public services.

What went wrong?

Smaller teams and shorter notice meant that headteachers became a sort of chief inspector-in-residence. Schools engaged in continuous self-evaluation, so that they would be in a permanent state of Ofsted readiness. Heads looked across their boroughs at other schools to see how they had survived inspection, and concluded that they must do the same. They already had data on summative outcomes for pupils, and they already had a box full of policies, but – when asked to describe the quality of teaching and learning – how could they do that? They did what we often do when stuck for an answer for quality: they reached for quantity. They increased the frequency of data drops, the amount of marking, the numbers of boxes to be ticked on a lesson plan. They did this (I stress), not because they were bad people, but because they were good people being asked to do something they could not do. How many outstanding teachers do you have? What is the proportion of outstanding lessons taught in your school? These are Alice in Wonderland questions, particularly when we agree that we have not agreed on what outstanding actually is.

If ‘small Ofsted / big SEF’ was the cause of the change, a rapid increase in schools’ spending was the means, says Allen. Leadership teams mushroomed, and rather than let their hands be idle they were put to work on gathering, sifting and analysing all this data, inventing interventions and trackers to shift the data, and creating performance management systems  to hold staff to account for the data they had themselves fed in. This part of Allen’s speech makes for uncomfortable reading for some of us: this is the part that Ofsted did not force on us, the part we (i.e. those of us who were SLT) inflicted on ourselves (i.e. those of us teaching the lessons). How often did I demand information from colleagues in a certain format, by a strict deadline, for a purpose clear only to myself? How often did I conduct learning walks from which I learned little, and after which I shared even less? How many weights did I add to the wrong side of the work/life scales?

I don’t think Allen mentioned it, but I would point a finger at a third culprit here: analytics technology. We can now know how many homeworks the music teacher set last term, and at what point in the week year 11 students are more likely to access it online. We can now identify eight different types of disruptive behavior, and say which ones are favoured by the white boys, or the Greek girls, or the summer-born. We can now measure the rate of progress of every child, in every year, in every subject at any point in time. We can because, as with the Six Million Dollar Man, ‘we have the technology’. And, because we can, we must. And, because we do, we also have to do something with all the data we collect. We have to address the underperformance of the music teacher not setting the right amount of homework, and of all of those teachers (that is all of them) who have students not making the progress the flight path demands. We have to – we tell ourselves – because, if we have this knowledge and do nothing about it, we are letting down the students, the school and the profession.

bionic woman 3

We can rebuild it. Allen makes her own important suggestions about slowing the rate of curriculum change and rethinking teacher contracts. I make my own. With Amanda Spielman in charge, Ofsted have made many encouraging noises about investigating the consequences of their existence – the messages they communicate to schools about the sorts of things they ought to prioritise, for example. Justine Greening at the DfE has published excellent guidance on increasing flexible working. These follow reports and the poster on reducing teacher workload. I cannot fault this messaging, and I note also that the Department is tendering for bids through the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund to address workload. They recognise the problem, but I am not sure they yet recognise the causes of the problem. These are undoubtedly the twin devils of external and internal accountability. We can address the inadvertent pressures school leaders apply to their staffs, and we can congratulate those who are ‘brave’ enough to run their schools as if Ofsted were not there. But, so long as Ofsted is there, there is a limit to how far that courage can take us. I doubt we will ever arrive at the day when the top line of an inspection report reads: ‘This is a great school because it ignores everything we say.’ School leaders do load too much on the backs of teachers, but they do so because of the load which is on them. Ofsted, were it to follow its own logic, would not just stop grading individual lessons: they would stop grading schools. Then, perhaps, schools could get back to the business for which they were built.



Pressure Poll

It is really no stress at all to find an image to feature in a blog on ‘teacher stress’. Many of them are clearly posed (why the need?), images of people who probably aren’t teachers at all because, if they were, their skin would not look this good.


I recently conducted a Twitter poll asking the question,

“If you think that stress at school is too much, what’s causing it?”

I did it mainly because I had never conducted a Twitter poll before and I wanted to work out how to do it. I did it also because, as of Easter, I am no longer working at school (apart from popping in on Wednesdays to tide my A level students over until their exams): I am suddenly a lot less stressed than I used to be, so have the time to witter on twitter.

Here is the poll:

For all my researchy friends, I self-defensively point out some of the caveats to this sort of enquiry:

  • The question ‘leads’, by the very mention of stress. (Although, I did give an opt out.)
  • Only those teachers browsing Twitter could come across it.
  • Only those who follow me on Twitter, or following the 25 who retweeted it, could come across it.
  • I didn’t offer an explanation of ‘boss’ in the first option, and in the second what did I mean by ‘etc.’?

But, setting all those reservations aside, I was quite interested in what it threw up. (And 593 responses over one weekend was a lot more than I anticipated.)

If this had been a general election, we would have had a hung parliament with ‘Cuts’ being given the first opportunity to form a government. No single option was a clear winner; indeed, as the weekend unfolded, each option spent some time in the lead. If I had allowed four days, and not three, ‘I’m not stressed’ might easily have topped the poll. In my question, I tried to allow for the fact that stress is bound to exist – what I was interested in was too much of it. Nonetheless, over a quarter of my self-selecting sample aren’t feeling the burn.

Many were kind enough to add their comments. Several of these may have opted for number one or two, given that they cited the many and various pressures of the job. Here are a selection:


The ever-shifting demands, the fact that sometimes these run counter to our own values, or are imposed upon us by external forces such as inspectorates or the media: these are familiar themes and intractable so long as teacher agency is compromised.

Although cuts leading to additional burdens was the commonest answer, it drew fewer comments.

Thanks to everyone who took the time, despite their stress, to respond. I do wonder whether, for some of us, Twitter is a pressure valve allowing us to relieve a little stress in the evening. Perhaps I will conduct another poll…












#Nuture1617 Goodbye, Hello

When we have experienced something we rather hadn’t we describe it as ‘forgettable’. Odd that. The nasty, the regrettable, the unwished-for – these are the experiences that tend to stick in the memory, regardless of our preference to forget. 2016 was replete with such unforgettables. But, for all the bad, bad was not what the year was all about.

In May, my school was Ofsteded and was judged as Requires Improvement. ‘RI’ can sometimes feel like ‘Rather Indigestible’, as we felt that the inspectors missed what we truly are as a school. It has been hard to adjust to our new ranking: we simultaneously lost our lead school status for School Direct; we faced tougher questions from prospective parents at our open evening; some staff have chosen this moment to move on and recruitment in certain areas has been hard to achieve. We haven’t stood still. We have rebooted our approach to ensuring high quality teaching, while remaining firm with our principles that it is about Improving, not just proving. Undeniably, however, it’s been tough.


‘Requires Improvement’

I’ve had a few great headteachers in my time, and none that I did not admire, but this year saw the retirement of one truly inspirational head: Sue Warrington. She would not want me to recount her life’s work here, so I won’t, short of remarking that this Yorkshirewoman devoted her entire teaching career to the young people and teachers of London. I would invite her to speak to every fresh cohort of student teachers (so that would have been 16 batches) and, although I knew her spiel well, I never tired of hearing it again. She was the greatest advocate of inclusive, comprehensive education I ever met, believing that every young person deserved the same high quality experience of learning as any found in the selective or independent sectors. She devoted her life to achieving this and, in the end, Ofsted told her she had failed. She didn’t fail.

My Dad died this year. In a year such as this one, to report a death seems humdrum. You have not heard of my Dad. He didn’t write a book, or release albums, or appear in films. Mainly he did what dads are meant to do, as in he worked every day and provided for his wife and sons. He didn’t get the education his intelligence warranted, so his pride would have been tinged with a little envy the day this photo was taken in 1990.


My graduation from Queen’s University Belfast, with Dad.

He had wanted me to study law, not history. He thought I should follow a profession (believing that teaching was not one.) We never quite found a language we could communicate comfortably together in. It took me to this year to work out that that struggle was the thing itself: he wanted to show me he loved me, and I wanted to do the same for him. And, if we could not quite say it, wanting to say it is still something.

Struggling to say the right thing, trying but failing to report accurately the way things actually were: these are the themes of my novel that continue to resonate with me and my family in the weeks following its publication. Those who knew its subject, Dan, the best have liked it the least. They have not enjoyed how I chose to fictionalise his life, and I understand why. I am sorry about that, because I wanted to honour the man and that part of my family. It has been a failure of my writing, and perhaps also of my character: I thought I could meld the factual and the fictional and achieve a new truth. I thought I could do that! But, ‘wanting to say it is still something.’ I have been wanting to ‘say’ this book for nearly two decades, and I am not ashamed of my pride in having it published. I received my author copy and it went on online sale on the day that would have been my Dad’s birthday. 2016 was not all goodbyes.

2017 may contain a few, but I look forward to it positively. My son will sit his GCSEs and, whatever happens, he will do us proud. I will approach the end of my 22nd year teaching in schools, knowing that I am just beginning to know what I am doing. I will write more, some of it fiction and some more stuff like this. And, all being well, 2017 will be more memorable than forgettable.