'There’s a constant "gun to the head" feeling that I could really do without' - one head's open letter to the reappointed secretary of state

11th May 2015 at 11:20
Tom Sherrington open letter to Nicky Morgan
Leading headteacher Tom Sherrington has taken the time to write an open letter to Nicky Morgan

Dear Nicky

Congratulations on your re-appointment as Secretary of State for Education. Education policy had rather a low profile in the General Election, but I’m sure you’ll be returning to the DfE with renewed determination to put education at the centre of the agenda for the new government. To some extent, you and your predecessor put enough changes in place to keep us busy for five years, so don’t go crazy looking for things to do.

The examination and curriculum changes take up a lot of institutional energy and, above all else, we simply need time to get those things right. I’m actually quite happy about the move to terminal exams and the removal of the less robust elements of GCSEs: the ‘discourse of gaming’, as Brian Lightman has called it, never did us any good. I’m looking forward to 2018 when all the GCSEs have converted and we’re not dealing with year-on-year tinkering to performance measures. I hope you’ve been briefed on the statistical limits of Progress 8 and understand that it is not a measure of school effectiveness per se (I’ve got quite strong views on this).

As the headteacher of a complex inner-London comprehensive, I’m hoping you’ll help me to address some of these issues – or at least accept a degree of responsibility when difficult choices have to be made:

  • My budget is shrinking in real terms. I accept that reality, but already I’m plotting out how we’ll manage. Take a look at our exciting curriculum model here. Is there a better one anywhere? Note how we support the arts and how it makes the Ebac seem comparatively limited. This is what comprehensive education can deliver – for all young people. The only question is over whether we can sustain it. If not, which bits should we cut? Are we sincere about all young people developing character, gaining rich cultural capital? I hope so. 
  • There’s a constant ‘gun to the head’ feeling that I could really do without. I was very concerned with the rhetoric being used in relation to primary headteachers and times tables. I’m sure you have a sense that this job is difficult enough without thinking you’ll be sacked if the data doesn’t pan out as you’d hope. Personally, I feel quite secure at the moment. I’m new in post; I’ve got time and I’m experienced enough not to jump left and right every time a new tweak is made to the Ofsted framework. Actually, I feel headteachers can and should step up to lead change with more confidence. But, as Secretary of State, you have so much influence in creating a climate where more headteachers could express that confidence – not just hide within the safety zone of compliance. Please do all you can to set us free and unleash greatness. Putting the guns down would be a start. Take a look at Ofsted and let’s move forward on the intelligent accountability agenda.
  • Teacher recruitment and retention is challenging. It would be great if there was more affordable housing in our area (but I know that’s a big ask). You could go a long way to helping in this area by simply resolving never to return to the dark days of the "enemies of promise" rhetoric. More pragmatically, giving some shape to teacher-training routes would be helpful and, if I were you, I’d have an early conversation with David Weston from the Teacher Development Trust and pretty much do everything he suggests. I’m glad that you take workload seriously, although, in truth, I think that’s an operational matter, especially when money is tight. What we need is a more active, more effective leadership development body that could promote good practice; we don’t need new rules. Can we have the NCSL back please?

Finally, I’d like to make sure you are aware of what we’re doing to develop a grass-roots National Baccalaureate. You don’t have to do much, except perhaps promote it and let us get on with it, but I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the details with you. It’s a very cost-effective, aspirational and inclusive concept that could address a range of issues in our fragmented system. I’m going to send you a formal invitation to attend our very first Baccalaureate Awards Ceremony in 2017. If you can make it you’ll see my A-level and BTEC students alongside their peers from the special school next door receiving their National Baccalaureate certificates and transcripts side by side; all them achievers; none more important than the other, all having received a broad, challenging education. You’ll love it.

Good luck. Work with us and, for sure, we’ll work with you. Remember that new types of schools might give the sense of a quick fix – but they don’t really solve the fundamental problems; after all, they don’t stay new for long!

Best wishes


This open letter first appeared on Tom's blog 


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