Interview - 'Schools need all sorts of people with different skills'

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Chris Nicholls pioneered single-sex teaching in a co-educational school and the use of non-teaching managers in education. He thinks flexibility is key to success

How did you get into teaching?

After university I did a PhD and went into the civil service. I am ashamed to say that I worked for the Inland Revenue. I hated it. A lot of my friends from my undergraduate days stayed in the area and became teachers. They were already well into their careers and clearly enjoying it.

I always thought as a young person that I might become a teacher. I tried it out when I was at university and while I was doing my PhD and it was so different from anything I had experienced. I was helping out at London schools in the afternoons and didn't have any training. I recognised that it was challenging, and I questioned whether that was the right environment for me. But then a pay rise came in putting teachers' wages up by a huge hike, so I decided to switch. I have never regretted it.

You were part of the working group that brought in non-teaching heads. How does it work in your school?

We have an extensive range of non-teaching staff at the school. Some are pastoral leaders, some are on my executive team, and I have a school manager. As far as I'm concerned, having a school manager who writes timetables, looks at data, organises cover and does the rotas, allows my deputy and assistant heads to concentrate on pedagogy.

I'm a great believer that schools need all sorts of people with different skills. Teachers have certain skills that are important in the classroom and that is at the core of our purpose. But there are certain things that young people need, and you have to put people in place to provide them. I would like schools to be a lot more flexible in their staffing structure.

How would you sum up your school in three words?

Civilised, purposeful and committed.

What do you think is the biggest issue in education?

It is the centrally driven agenda, which is made more complex and uncertain by outside forces, of which Ofsted would be one of the key players. It means that schools are left very unclear and on the back foot about what they are supposed to be doing, and it's diverting from the real purpose of schools.

I don't think it is necessarily the Government's fault: it has a real desire to raise life chances for children. But when it tries to do this by regulation, all the field forces out there - advisers, co-ordinators, local authorities and Ofsted inspectors - turn what should be a rich menu-based set of options into a set of compulsions, which overloads the system.

What is the biggest challenge for teachers?

If you asked teachers what drives their workload they would say, not unreasonably, the school leadership. But school leadership is buffeted by all sorts of different things. Once heads become professionally more confident again and understand that there are times they can say no and that they do have choices about what they do, the situation will improve.

The inspection regime needs to become more considered and teachers will then benefit from the consequences. Teachers are being driven, because heads are being driven.

What do you look for when you recruit new teachers?

Infectious enthusiasm.

Drawing on your experience of dealing with the press, how would you advise schools to respond to the media?

I have been dealing with the media for a very long time and have only been badly let down once. I am always slightly frustrated, especially when I'm talking about gender and the fact that we have single-sex classes at our co-ed school, because gender is a very complex issue and they (journalists) always want sound bites.

They want you to say "this works and that doesn't", but it's not as simple as that. I think my advice would be don't be frightened, because in the main I think the media is supportive of education and most of the time journalists are not looking for a bad story. There are exceptions to that, but you will know when that is. If something has gone wrong and you start getting calls, take advice.

What would you do if you were Schools Secretary for the day?

I could probably write a book on that. I would want to reassess the accountability regime and its over-reliance on data. The irony is that I have been using data since 1991 and think it can be a great motivator. Data is at its best when you put it in front of someone and say: "Look what you can do". It is at its worst when you use it to make judgments and when people say: "Because this is the score, this is my conclusion". I think we are in that regime where the starting point is always "the numbers are right". It shouldn't be.

What is the worst excuse you have heard?

I was confronted by the mother of a young teacher who had been off for some time. She told me that he was ill because I had placed him in a mobile classroom. She said it was well heated inside but draughty outside and that was why he was unwell and not at school.


2001: Awarded CBE for services to education

1991-present: Headteacher at Moulsham High

1982-1991: Assistant head, then deputy headteacher of upper school at Moulsham High School and Humanities College, Cheltenham, Essex

1975-1982: Science teacher, Ilford County High School for Girls, then senior year head after the school became Valentines High

1974-75: Tax inspector

1974: Completed PhD at University of London.

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