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'It's not workload that keeps me awake, it's the fear'

This head issues a warning to those who refuse to acknowledge the crisis in education: judgement day is coming...

Storm clouds are brewing over the teaching profession, writes headteacher Colin Harris

This head issues a warning to those who refuse to acknowledge the crisis in education: judgement day is coming...

We have reached a point in state education where the perceptions of our politicians are so at odds with the day-to-day experiences of our profession that indignation, bluster and polemic are just not enough.

I am no more overworked than many in society. But I am appalled at the way austerity has cut services to our most vulnerable. The impact it’s had on our schools is profound.

I am sickened by the defences of a government that has fragmented our education system. The Department for Education has taken down the old structures without any real understanding of how they would be replaced.

And worst of all: I am scared of the consequences I face because of how our education system is funded, made accountable and structured.

I am an experienced headteacher and I have seen a lot in my 15 years leading schools across the South of England.

At times, school leadership can be the most challenging of places. You need to know to regulate your own emotions through tragedy and jubilation – sometimes in the same day.  

I have written much about school leadership and I always come back to "longevity" and how it’s the only true gauge of success in teaching. My record stands the test of time and I know I have given an incredible amount to the profession.

Times are changing, though. I can no longer pretend that hope, skill, knowledge and ambition are enough. A soon-to-be acting head recently asked me, “It’ll be OK, right?” In the past, I would have said, “Of course. Do X, trust yourself and listen to Y and all will be peachy.”

I can’t say that any more. I cannot lie.

One of the greatest lessons I ever had in leadership was listening to a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board after the space shuttle disaster.

He talked about how scientists working on the project couldn’t imagine failure. That, for some, to suggest that the disaster was due to human error was unthinkable.

There are many in positions of influence within our education system who see education like a jet engine at full throttle reaching ever higher altitudes and speeds. They can say things like “more money is being spent than ever”, and “look at the fantastic results we are getting!”

'Education is not a machine'

They forget that education is not a machine. It is a system run by the day-to-day practising professionals. Anyone watching the BBC documentary School can see this from the first few minutes.

Our education system works because professionals know what they are doing, even when "non-teaching experts" tell them they don’t. The problem is, we have reached a new standard – it’s as high as I can remember, and no one is saying "slow down" or "lower your ambitions" any time soon.  

That would take a very brave politician; or a very stupid headteacher. Our education engine, squeezing every last ounce of energy out, is moments away from scandalous failure. You can’t keep expecting better results for less "relative" investment.

It’s not rocket science.

Schools are under so much pressure trying to meet the expectations of too many people. The government, the DFE, Ofsted, parents and, of course, the profession itself.

In many ways, it’s a perfect storm. Everyone wants a piece of it; everyone wants a say. Yet no one is really doing anything about the major issues right in front of us. We’re letting them pass us by as the money for vital services for our most vulnerable disappears, as our buildings fall apart and as our teachers leave.

You see, it’s not workload that keeps me awake. It’s fear. Even knowing that I’m good at my job, there are now so many factors in which I am set up to fail within. I’m scared about:

  • Running a school with an ever-diminishing budget;
  • Being unable to meet the needs of the pupils or parents;
  • The safeguarding failures in a system that, let’s just be blunt, seems to not care;
  • Not meeting expected standards that are higher than ever;
  • Not being inclusive;
  • Not having a good enough curriculum;
  • Not having enough staff;
  • Providing a substandard education.

And the rest. The list is endless. It’s the ignorance of what is obvious to anyone working in education that cultivates this fear. The fact that those we entrust to represent us cannot do it.

Or they won’t accept what thousands of professionals (across the sector) are telling them.

That is ignorance on a whole other level. It’s the gravest of mistakes. It may not seem this way to them right now, but I can guarantee that on reflection and given time they will understand.

If only our politics lived in the now of everyday people’s experiences. If only our politics were born of all the people rather than just the people we identify with, the people we are comfortable being around.

Every time we hear that there is no crisis in recruitment, there is no issue with funding, that accountability is perfectly balanced, we know one simple fact. The person saying it knows absolutely nothing about the realities faced by the people in our schools. The politician standing tall and strong on the issue is utterly deaf and blind to the daily experiences of teachers and the communities they serve.

The good thing about fear is you can control it. You can turn it into something positive. You can fight it and grow strong from overcoming it. To do this you have to face it and look at the evidence. You need to visualise what is better, talk about it and believe in it.

I am able to do this and, therefore, my fear will become a strength. But for all those people who can’t see the problem, who think they have done enough for education, judgement day is coming.

Brian Walton is headteacher of Brookside Academy in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1

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