A momentous day (to bury good news).

I’ve now run two evening classes for a small group of local adults in my home, where we are covering the rudiments of Critical Thinking. The experience is doing me a lot of good: it has brought back some confidence that not only can I still teach, but do it well enough to enthuse and inform my ‘pupils’. (Yesterday, by word-of-mouth my class voluntarily grew in size). Two years on, it is starting to reassemble something from the debris of my professional self-esteem.

I make no apology for continuing to document my mental health experiences. My wish is to do what I can to communicate the severe impact that stress and overload can have on teachers, and people generally, in the hope that it will be both a support and a warning. Some of my posts have been re-used by those raising the profile of the issue elsewhere. Perhaps less honourably, should any of those who caused the situation happen to read, I want them to know the full repercussions of their actions on this erstwhile long-serving and conscientious member of their staff – not that I expect it will cause them any lost sleep.

However, the issues are still ongoing, and our current means are extremely tight. Last November, I secured an interview for a basic administrative post. During the associated test, my anxiety kicked back in, I froze – and failed on that count. So things are still not ‘right’; I won’t be going near a classroom any time soon.

But I don’t mean to wallow. The Guardian this morning is reporting that on this politically momentous day, Ofsted will formally announce major revisions to its inspection regime. This has been in the offing for some time, and can only be good news.

At long last, official recognition is being made that the quality of education is not synonymous with exam data. Amanda Spielman will apparently say that “we have reached the limit of what data can tell us” – a diplomatic way of accepting the flaws in decades of policy.

But what damage has been done in its name! Not only off-rolling (excluding children whose results will harm the school’s data) – but also a host of other policies which have brought the ethical standards of those who run schools into serious disrepute. Gamesmanship should have no part whatsoever in a principled activity such as education.

The ruthless quest of incentive-driven senior managers for compliance at all costs cares little for the impact of that selfish myopia on others.  As well as off-rolling, it has been the primary driver of curriculum-narrowing, the wider neglect of non-core subjects, the deprofessionalisation of staff – and worst of all, the ‘spike’ in mental health problems amongst both pupils and their teachers. The quest for ‘maximising opportunity’ always was nothing more than a thin veil for self-serving institutionalised lust. Hence perhaps the current alarm at this reform in some managerial quarters. It is a sick irony that a supposedly caring profession has been driven by those who often publicly profess to ‘care’ most deeply of all (Ofsted included), severely to damage the very wellbeing that it claimed to promote.

Not long before the end, my school’s union reps (of which I was one) were mandated by their members to approach the management with severe concerns about morale. We were hardly the only school where this was a problem.

But we had just such a ‘driven’ management, which not only ignored the representation made at that time, but also my personal attempt at back-door diplomacy when it failed. But then, it also ignored numerous other manifestations of the harm that its data-craziness was causing. I cannot be sure that this did not contribute to an agenda that did not stop (whether by conspiracy or cock-up) until it had played a large part in badly damaging my mental health. Just one casualty amongst many.

Today’s reforms by Ofsted should be welcomed with open arms. If they can be successfully implemented, they should play a significant part in restoring the balance and perspective that has been lost in education. They are also an explicit recognition that good education cannot be wholly quantified, and that it was a mistake to think otherwise. With any luck, they will also reduce some of the pressure that was brought to bear on those of us who are/were in pure educational terms perfectly competent practitioners, but who were vilified for refusing to sell our souls and accept the Long Winter.

It will no doubt take a long time to change a culture where so many influential people are invested in the outgoing mindset. Long enough that it will more than see out the years I might have had left in the profession. But it needs to be done. The tragedy is that the collateral damage has been so great.


She’s done it again!

When Amanda Spielman was appointed as Chief Inspector of Schools at Ofsted, there were the predictable sniffy responses from the profession: what could a non-teacher know about the education profession?

Well, it turns out that an outside voice is proving to be just what is needed. Spielman is unexpectedly becoming the ‘breath of fresh air’ that the profession so badly needs.

In recent days she has observed that it is not reasonable to expect schools and teachers to address all of society’s ills – that parents and other agencies need to be responsible for their own impact too. And more recently still she has called on professional leaders to abandon their preoccupation with pedagogical gimmicks  (singling out Brain Gym as an example), and allow teachers to focus on the basics using tried and tested techniques that work for them in classrooms.

The teaching profession has always been prone to the distractions of gimmickry: the whole progressive movement is predicated on – as Spielman observed – the belief that the Holy Grail is waiting just around the next corner. It is not. The problem has only been made worse in recent years by school managements desperately plugging anything that they hoped might push their institutions up the league tables.

My only regret is that personally, Spielman has come a few years too late: during my career I was repeatedly bombarded with instructions to adopt such gimmicks by a few influential people in my school who saw this as the way to ‘lead learning’. Their influence was reinforced by rather more others in middle management who were reluctant to challenge them. It was made clear that disagreement was not permissible. It was my reluctance to comply with – and my willingness to challenge – such idiocy that first saw me marked by those who in reality were more interested in compliance that cultivating real professional excellence. Much of what Spielman is now saying formed the core of my own book on teaching and education.

There remain those for whom it seems imperative that education should dance to some all-embracing meta-tune. It is not unreasonable for the profession to seek some form of consensus over what works – but it should not be ideologically driven, and it is good to see Spielman in effect challenging this. As I proposed in The Great Exception, it is entirely possible to derive a model of good professional practice that is based in the realities of good classroom practice rather than the vanities and insanities of those who are always looking for the Next Big Thing.

Why are we not more surprised?

My family has something over 150 years’ combined service to education in Britain, spread over the period since 1950, and covering the working lives of at least five individuals. So it is probably fair to say that teaching and all its collective consciousness is pretty deeply-embedded here. While one has to acknowledge the possibility of the perpetuation of shared fictions, one of the enduring values shared by those people has been the unimpeachable integrity of those who teach. I cannot see that this is anything other than the fundamental sine qua non for entering a profession whose aim is the furtherance of the lives of others – even if we accept that the actual track record has never been quite 100%…

And yet my attention is repeatedly forced to return to the perversions of the system as it exists today, which seem huge compared with anything that has gone before. I cannot help but see direct parallels in education with what is becoming ever more apparent are the inevitable consequences of a wider national system that for several decades has prioritised individual gain and operated as a free-for-all for those who could attain positions of power. How could anyone not see that this would result in the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the sharp-elbowed, narcissistic few?

While it seems that Thatcher was too naive to realise what she was unleashing, it was always too much to expect that a general sense of ethics and morality would act as a restraint on the worst aspects of human nature, or indeed for the supposedly customer-centred market to ensure that fair play always ensued. There are enough people deficient in such qualities in a population of 60 million for them to have been able to fleece the rest of us utterly.

In its fundamental logic, business is amoral: it only operates for its own advantage, and it is even enshrined in Law that shareholders’ interests come before customers’. The same should not be said for public services – and yet it is the same market-based model upon which education has been increasingly run.

I wonder how my forebears would have reacted if one could have told them that by 2015 state schools in Britain would have become chains run by what are in effect private companies. I think they would have been incredulous.

Given the same incentives, how could we have believed that the same distortions would not come to characterise the education sector? Two newspaper reports in just one day cover:
Pupils ‘disappearing’ from the rolls of Multi-Academy Trusts in the run-up to GCSEs (to improve league table ratings).
A former MAT executive head formerly lauded by the government banned from teaching indefinitely for financial irregularities that in addition to a £120k salary resulted in over £1 million (of public money) being channelled to him via a company he set up supposedly as a third-party contractor. (He has admitted making “mistakes”. Hmm.)

I have reliable evidence from elsewhere in the country of outright, illegal cronyism in recruitment practices (upon which I gather a whistle has been blown) – in addition to some distinctly dodgy practice that I witnessed myself – and this is without considering the number of ‘executive’ heads whose salaries are now north of £200k, while they continue to suppress the pay of their employees, and whinge about cuts to school budgets. I hear of very few taking pay cuts in order to ease their schools’ funding crisis – and in at least some cases, structures are such that this ‘cannot be done’ as they are paid by the MAT rather than any individual school. How convenient. But the effect is the same. It is all a direct parallel of what has happened in the commercial sector.

I have increasing time for Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of School, who seems to have rumbled what is going on. Her proposed changes to the inspection regime have the potential to neutralise some of the educational distortions of current behaviour. Her recent letter to the government’s Public Accounts Committee is worth reading, and can be found here.

But this will do little to alter the corporate culture. While individuals are given so much power and incentive to run schools as though they are businesses, we will always be exposed to the risk that those sharp-elbowed types will shove themselves to the top (always while making good-sounding noises about wanting to further children’s chances, of course) simply because the rest are not inclined to out-compete them. Quite how they square improving children’s chances with the huge salaries they often draw – while still making resourcing cuts – is one of life’s continuing mysteries.

And for all the serious stuff that is reported, my own experience suggests that there is a much wider climate of lower-level dis-reputability going on, all for institutional (read managerial) advantage. Spielman is diplomatic enough to suggest that even otherwise ‘honest’ schools are tempted when faced with lower rankings due to competition from schools that are playing dirty. Hmm.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is the lack of public outrage at what is happening. We have become so inured to the sight of snouts firmly in the troughs of big business that it no longer surprises to hear that those supposedly in public service are doing the same.

Yet this is so contrary to the whole ethos and purpose of education that it should be utterly intolerable in decent civil society. True, it is reported in the papers, but it no longer makes headlines. An acquaintance formerly of very senior position in the profession told me some time ago that there is a group of head teachers whose behaviour is bringing the profession into disrepute. The evidence is growing that this is both correct, and perhaps both more predictable and more widespread than previously thought – but few as yet are being challenged. Even otherwise ‘clean’ schools seem to be perpetrating increasingly edgy practices in today’s harsh financial and accountability climate. It is sold as astute management.

When you prioritise greed, why is this a surprise? If it can affect university vice-chancellors, we can be pretty sure that school managers won’t be immune.

Those 150 years of familial service have indeed left me with the belief that teaching is an honourable and moral vocation; my forebears are probably spinning in their graves at what is currently happening. In my own case, this is quite genuinely one factor in my decision not to re-enter teaching: I do not want to work in such compromising conditions. The situation is so anathema to my understanding that I still cannot comprehend what people who think and act in the ways described above are themselves even doing in teaching in the first place – and I certainly do not wish to work for them.

It is often claimed that school leaders have a huge impact on the wider culture; I don’t doubt it is so. Is the reason that there is less outrage evidence of the extent to which the rot has spread?

A letter to my old school (and the many others like it)

So how do you feel now? I’m talking particularly to those who (have) run the place. How do you feel now that the Head of Ofsted no less, has confirmed her intention to remove exam data analysis from school inspections?

She says it distorts educational priorities, even damages children’s interests. Some of us could have told her that a decade or more ago. But it is what you built your whole institution upon. You are the people who were proud to admit that you ran an exam factory. Are you experiencing a sudden loss of purpose, since your whole rationale – if that is not too fancy a word for it – was built for years on the macho extraction of results data from pupils and teachers alike?

In a way I don’t blame you for what you did: it was only what you were told to do. But you still took it much further than you needed to, drunk on edu-corporate bullishness (remember that word?). There were too many glittering careers to be built in going along with it. You discovered that by bleeding people dry you could harvest data which impressed the inspectors, politicians and local public, which justified your management strut, which treated ordinary teachers as machinery and pupils as data fodder.

I don’t think the ‘customers’ were actually unhappy – but the bonhomie in the school existed despite the management not because of it. Even though you claimed all the credit. They are not a particularly enlightened bunch, the ‘clients’ in this area. A passport to a high salary for their children was all they mostly ever wanted. The fact that you paid yourselves handsomely while making front-line staff redundant no doubt impressed them too, since many were probably doing the same in their own lines of work.

You also figured out how to please the inspectors and accreditors; that was far more important to you than the happiness or well-being of your staff. You refused to implement even the most basic workplace guarantees where you could get away with it. I was in the room when you refused to countenance an H&S stress policy. Only bad teachers get stressed, you said. You always said we could go elsewhere if we didn’t like it; many did, and not for the reasons you claimed. That’s how much you valued us.

Playing the corporate game served you well. You had your fancy holidays, your flashy cars and your smart clothes, far out of reach to those who did the real classroom graft day in, day out. Some of you barely taught a class in years, and when you did the results were often no different from those you pilloried for what in their case you called ‘failure’.

I have no doubt you have clear consciences. In fact I genuinely think you did what you believed was right at the time. Who can ask for more? And the fact that the system worked for you only proved you were right – didn’t it? But you still had to sell the soul that any honest educator would find far more difficult to do that you did.

Yet your failure was even deeper than that. In your dismal, mundane world you utterly failed to see what Amanda Spielman has now accepted: that the important thing about educational success is not the grade, but how you reach it. It is the educational experience that is important, not the letters that it generates on a spreadsheet.

In the process, you sold out, too, on the real ethical purpose of education – which is not to help school managers to preen themselves. You didn’t care less about the breadth of the curriculum, or even whether the experiences children were having in classrooms were genuinely educational, let alone motivating, so long as we all pumped out the A grades.

When a hole appeared in the ‘A’ Level results, you chose not to consult the one group of people who knew why: the classroom teachers. We could see that grade-priming was coming at the expense of genuine learning, we could all see students coming into the sixth form without properly-embedded prior knowledge – that too was sacrificed to short-term grade gain. Those students were drained of enthusiasm by the bleak target-slog that you made of GCSE, ever to come back willingly for more: most were only there because they felt they had no choice. It was the educational equivalent of a property bubble: currency backed by no wealth – and now it has burst.

We could feel that it was making the job of teaching children more difficult and less effective. But you over-ruled us every time: you knew best, we were ‘anecdotal’ idiots (remember that word?), not the “experts in their field” that Spielman now accepts teachers are.

Publicly, you will probably say that you welcome the changes – but your behaviour over the past decades went far beyond  doing unwillingly that over which you had no choice. Much of the damage done to the education of British children – to say nothing of the teaching profession – came directly from the offices of school managers. No higher.

So how are you going to function in a world where you may no longer be able to blather your way through, hiding such inadequacies behind reams of meaningless statistics? How are you going to deliver a service that actually requires people to be properly educated? Which requires a school to be a place of learning, not just data mining? Because here is your real failing: you epitomise the emptiness of that approach – people with the right credentials, but nothing behind them. You didn’t understand what we were saying about the priorities and processes of genuine education – because such things were all too evidently a closed book to you too.

Your most abject failure was a glaring lack of leadership – despite the re-branding of management as such. You didn’t lead us anywhere worth going. You and your ilk failed to challenge the powers that were pushing education in the wrong direction; not easy, I know – but presumably that is why you call yourselves Leaders. To do the tricky stuff. But no: there was too much to gain from sucking it up.

You failed, too, to challenge those limited expectations amongst the local populace – to show them that real education is not just an exam grade. But no – that would have required the vision and courage to tackle entrenched beliefs – something you utterly lacked. You never backed those of us who tried to argue otherwise; instead you narrowed the curriculum simply to maximise data outcomes. That is not good education. Education is not about giving people what they want, even less what they already know: it is about challenging them with things they don’t even yet know they need.

So please don’t begrudge those who resisted our current wry smiles. Those whom you didn’t even deign to acknowledge when we passed in the playground, to whom you could be so unpleasant when it suited you. Those whom you hustled out of the place at the first opportunity for daring to stick to our own principles and for not buying into your narrow remit. Educational principles we knew were right. We could see what was really going on.

In some cases, our entire careers were defined – blighted – by this utterly pointless obsession with meaningless data. Spielman has said as much: “Teachers have been forced to become data managers”. Too right they have – forced to game the system and mortgage their own well-being purely to massage the egos of managers – and too many have paid with disillusion, their health and their livelihoods.

Spare a thought for the time I sat at a computer facing a dilemma over whether to falsify so-called achievement data in order to keep you happy, or whether to stick to my principles and record the reality I could see, knowing how unpleasant the consequences might be. I am proud I did the latter, even though it helped to kill my career.

So forgive me for having the last laugh. While you kowtowed to your superiors, some of us were trying to do the right thing. For us small fry, making a stand on a matter of professional principle was important, even when it did us harm. Not an approach shared by you, our ‘leaders’ for whom compliance, even collusion was a far more important consideration than anything that required the courage of conviction.

In some cases, it damaged us personally – but we knew we were right, every time you ignored or over-ruled our input and views. I may be beyond the professional grave now – but I feel well satisfied by what Spielman appears to be saying. The principle we were defending has now been recognised for what is it – and the damage done by your false gods called out, despite the scorn which you poured on us when we tried to speak up.

It was us that kept the true spirit of education alive, while you were busy selling out to the gods of educational mammon. What will you do now?

Beyond outstanding.

The grace of a soaring bird is not in its understanding of aerodynamics. The intense beauty of Bruch’s Violin Concerto is not visible on Nicola Benedetti’s Grade 8 music certificate. And I suspect that some of the world’s greatest sporting moments were more a product of chances seized than any premeditated plan. No matter how important the 10,000 hours, it’s having something ‘in your bones’ that counts.

I was party to a discussion about what a school should do if and when it is awarded ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.  

This presents an institution with precisely the same problem as anyone who has just won gold – what do you do for an encore? The risk, of course, is that the higher you fly, the further there is to fall, and while school inspections are not competitive as such, there seems only one way to go from the top. So the secret might be to pretend that it isn’t the top after all, merely a false summit on the way to greater glories…

All well and good so far: many people like a challenge, and it is no doubt helpful for management to have another carrot to dangle (or stick to wield) to keep the donkeys on the move. The problem is this: what should that new summit be? If you have built your entire reputation on complying with the demands of an organisation like Ofsted, have done everything it required of you and received in return its top grade, no matter how much ‘more of the same’ you do, you will receive no further recognition; you will never know if you’re still getting better, the criteria simply don’t go there. The summit is the summit. Even if you do carry on doing more of the same, it isn’t going to show – unless of course Ofsted does the very Ofsted-like thing and moves the goalposts, effectively downgrading its own benchmarks. I suspect there are only so many times it can try that trick before someone launches a serious assassination attempt on its boss…

The other curious thing about top marks – be they Ofsted gradings or league-table positions, is that not all schools get there by the same route. I have read several interviews with heads of very successful schools, who seemed almost surprised to have received accolades, as they were ‘just doing what they always did’. One was adamant he did nothing to prepare for Ofsted, at all. Other schools, on the other hand (probably the majority) sweat blood to attain such heights, and then risk paranoia at their fear of falling. What do some schools have in their bones what others drive themselves into the ground to achieve?

I’m not convinced there is only a single route to success; even Ofsted passes no comment about how one reached the target, simply that one did; as far as I know, it makes no public comparison between different strategies for getting there. Some approaches grind their way up to where others seem to be simply soaring: same result, but one route is a lot more painful than the other.

The obvious, if mechanistic approach seems to be rigorous control over all aspects of what the school and the personnel within it do. Strict quality control and strong accountability will pull every one into line and ensure that they deliver the best – assuming, of course, that you can correctly identify what ‘best’ is.

But I’m not so sure. While those surprised head teachers might indeed have been doing those things behind the scenes, it doesn’t really explain their surprise.  Maybe they were just lucky with the raw quality of their students and innate talent of their staff – or maybe they found another, more oblique route. The problem with grind is that it tends to be self-defeating.  Much has been written on the demotivating effects of strident management and excessive control. Daniel Pink’s excellent book ‘Drive’ defines the problem.

To motivate people, you need to respect their desire for autonomy, mastery and purpose. You also need to tap into their intrinsic reasons for doing things, rather than trying to bolt-on incentives, whether of the carrot or stick variety. You need to create opportunities for what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  calls Flow. In other words, the opposite of all the things that conventional wisdom says you should do. The basic logic is unnervingly simple: people do better when they’re happy.

I’m a classic example of this: highly internally motivated (for example in my music – and my reflecting about education) – but if someone started directing me to do it, setting me targets and ultimata, the motivation would very soon dry up. Contrary to what a carrot-and-stick outlook might expect, the very experience of being manipulated saps people’s energy and interest.

This would be made all the worse by the increased difficulty of action. The inevitable imposed routines, procedures and checks would divert my time and energy away from my core purpose, remove my autonomy – and very probably further drain my enthusiasm as well. The success criteria imposed to assess my progress might well not be congruent with my own motivation and may not therefore reflect what I am actually trying to achieve. For spice, some added threats about what could happen if I didn’t meet the target might tempt me to game the system, my original motive replaced by a more primitive fear and desire to fend off bad consequences at any cost.

There is a story of three medieval stone masons carving sculptures for a cathedral in Italy. When asked what they were doing, the first said, “I am carving the most beautiful sculptures from stone”; the second said, “I am helping to make a beautiful building for our city”, while the third replied, “I am building to the glory of God.” Which was right? And what would have happened if you were to tell one of the masons he was “wrong”? In fact, there is nothing wrong in allowing all three to go on following their own motivations – they are still working in complete harmony.

Ofsted’s Outstanding grade is a confected and artificial benchmark, even allowing for the commodification of a word that should be used exceedingly sparingly. Reaching it has the effect of homogenising procedures and narrowing goals, but it does at least bring to a school a degree of freedom from being under the cosh. Just as Nicola Benedetti undoubtedly had to work through the grades before she became a virtuoso soloist, I can accept that such a process is probably necessary. But simply to carry on to grades nine and ten (if they existed) would not, in my mind constitute going ‘beyond outstanding’, more a failure of imagination.

Miles Davis said of genius, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there”. I think it is the same with education. The real quality is not in the mechanics – it’s what comes when you set practitioners free to follow their instincts – even if it means sometimes breaking the rules. Genius is not characterised by adherence to mechanical rules, and real education (as in what happens inside people’s brains rather than computer spreadsheets) is simply not a definable, quantifiable entity that can be pinned down as though we are assembling a Big Mac. It requires individuality, intuition and creativity – the very things that are so difficult to do on command.

For school managements, that offers a fearsome prospect – it implies less management for a start – but I suspect it is nonetheless what those surprised heads do. John Tomsett, the head teacher from York, has written about the need to trust his staff, to learn from what they say and do, to remove unnecessary constraints, and to create the possibility for them to flourish as individuals – both inside and outside school. That is what will make them great teachers in the true sense of the word. He has had the confidence to let go, and believe that his staff will strive for their best. It will actually deliver more.

I think it was the boss of 3M who said, “Hire good people and get out of their way”. He was right; my experience of recent educational developments is that they have simply made my job (and life) much harder; that the quantity of work has been increased for comparatively little gain in quality (that’s an inescapable trade-off). In fact, I have been taken away from my core purpose, and in the process had my inner motivation quashed and replaced with an inferior, imposed replica. My happiness and drive decreased; I have had to fight a hard inner battle to preserve them.

I’m not sure what all the answers are to “what next” – but given recent experience, I’m certain that it isn’t more of the same. A paradigm-shift is needed, and I hope the foregoing (and the wider content of this blog) might point if not the, then a way.

Once you get to the summit of the mountain, the only way upward is to fly free…