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School improvement: ‘What kind of school would you refuse to work in?’

​​​​​​​‘Virtual comparator schools’ can be useful – but Eddie White would never want to work in one

School improvement: ‘What kind of school would you refuse to work in?’

What is your red line? What kind of school would you refuse to work in?

A massive proportion of teachers have now come through the McCrone system in Scotland, where everyone is assigned their first year’s employment on a temporary contract. There is an awkward time, around Christmas, when we wait to see if we have any jobs coming up in the school we are in.

For my own experience, at the turn of the millennium when McCrone – designed way back in 2001 as a landmark improvement in Scottish teachers’ terms and conditions – was only in its second year, I was covering for a teacher who had gone travelling. He came back, did a “keeping in touch” day, took me to one side and said, “Always put yourself first, or this job will fuck you up!” He sat on a table and said, “Going to do South America next year...fancy keeping my seat warm for another year?”


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The headteacher backed him up the following day. I would have a job for the next year, although I would not see that formally in writing for weeks or months to come.

Facebook wasn’t around back then, but we all had email groups and my fellow probationers were all in frantic flow. Some wanted an excuse to escape their school, others dreamed and begged to be allowed to stay.

I would not have refused to stay another year, but I certainly wanted out. To be fair to the school, I was standing in that classroom when I received a call to say my wife had just had a miscarriage, I was in that classroom when I realised all the financial sacrifices I had to make to convert to teaching had meant our savings had disappeared. It wasn’t the school, but I really had to escape.

A well-run school starts to feel like a family and when someone’s contract – whether probation, maternity cover or whatever else – comes to an end, it is almost like a physical loss, a grieving process. What will life be like after they go? How will they cope? What level of choice do they have? Will they refuse to go to “that” school – the one which crosses your red line, even if it is the only school offering them a job?

It amazes me to find out what makes one school a teacher’s delight and another teacher’s version of hell. We all have the same academic expectations to join the profession, we all have the same will and wish to see children do well (I hope) so why do we look at a school and say, “I dream of working at that school” or “Yuck, I would never work there!”

Understanding the mindsets that point in those directions would probably add an interesting context to the world of schools in a way that league tables don’t. Seven years into my new school in Edinburgh, a move south after probation, I got itchy feet again. I had decided I didn’t want to be promoted, so I wanted wider experience instead.

Another eight years on and I am long-established in a new school within a different region and it feels like home. I understand that community and its needs, I want to serve that community and I have found the school where being an unpromoted classroom teacher is valued and respected. And I can travel “S-C” in under 10 minutes (sofa to classroom).

There is only one school that really gets up my nose and it isn’t even any school I have ever taught in – and it is one I certainly never will teach in. There is a pressure from that school. This school is always in direct and unrelenting competition with my school.

I do, though, keep it in my sights at all times. This evil school has one evil headteacher, who is constantly giving me grief. He may think he is brilliant, but we love trying – and we often succeed – to get one up on it. This school is making me, and many teachers across Scotland, fight a constant fight every year, every day and at every level. Let the tabloids produce pointless lists of school rankings for cheap and meaningless headlines – I will keep fighting the ever-threatening Virtual Comparator School.

VC High is a clever little bugger. I preferred fighting with the old system when they gave us a position compared to other real schools in the country. Then you could drill into that school and say, “Ah ha! But they didn’t have to deal with losing three-quarters of their staff this year.” Or whatever reason. The virtual comparator school, however, takes a like-for-like look at everyone in the school. The virtual comparator school has exactly the same mix of SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) pupils and the exactly same make-up of management.

The statisticians who produced this comparison did so in a way that means even the VC school is affected by budget cuts and staffing shortages that are crippling some schools and closing down entire departments or subjects in other schools. It is a great tool for whole-school reflection and a good way of moving forward in a no-blame environment, assuming that you are lucky enough to work in a positive and forward-looking school like I am.

Maybe it would be unrealistic to expect every pupil in the school to achieve an A at Advanced Higher maths, but are we getting the best out of every child in maths? VC High can sit there passing comment on everything we say or do but one thing is for sure. VC High’s insight can be helpful – but sometimes, when the chips are down, I hate that smarmy school and its smug headteacher.

Eddie White is a maths teacher in Scotland

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