I will start this by stating that I am an advocate of being inside the tent looking out (polite version) rather than being outside trying to get a look in. But those who know me know this doesn't mean being compliant or fawning to those in positions of power.
When I wrote my open letter to Nicky Morgan, I had no idea that it would reach so many people. I was unaware that my blog was linked to my Twitter account, so I didn't realise that the letter had been instantly published until I logged in to Twitter and saw that it had been retweeted. It goes to show the power of social media to make someone as far removed from my daily life as possible to take notice (or their advisers at least).
So, how did the education secretary’s visit to my school go? Well, Nicky was met at the door by one of our Year 10 students, Will, as he has aspirations to go into politics in the future. I couldn't quite hear his questions as he showed the secretary of state to the first class she visited: a Year 7 lesson in which the young people were evaluating their work on Much Ado About Nothing. However, I think he was asking about the rationale behind curriculum/GCSE changes.
On entering the classroom, the young people took absolutely no notice of us – just how I like it. After a while, I stopped them and introduced the secretary of state. Nicky spoke to the students individually as they did some self and peer assessment and I overheard a simply fantastic conversation that went along these lines:
Secretary of state: "Are you marking each other's work? What grade or level are you going to give it?"
Year 7 student: "Oh, I don't give it a grade, I talk about the learning, what went well and any improvements that I think could be made. Grades aren't the important things when we are discussing learning."
I haven't yet high-fived our lovely Year 7, but I will when I see them later.
We also visited a class of Year 6s who were spending the day with us from one of our partner primary schools, and spoke at length about the opportunities for learning from each other that have taken place over the past 18 months. How it is very much a two-way street. How frustrating it is that we have only really started to properly collaborate with our two partners in the trust since becoming an academy, and how we could and should have been doing it whether we were an academy/sponsor or not.
It is one of my biggest regrets as a headteacher that I didn't embrace the cross-phase opportunities for working that have always been there and that I only began to truly see them after the governors decided to become an academy sponsor. It is a case of mindset. We have also seen first hand how we need to stop planning from GCSEs down and start from EYFS up. It is quite ridiculous that it has taken this long to realise.
Then it was latte time.
I had asked more than 50 reasonably random teachers – many of whom are current headteachers, from all phases of education, parts of the country, Ofsted categories etc – the one issue they would raise with the secretary of state. Of course, I got more than one suggestion from most – we are teachers after all!
The first two were reasonably obvious: recruitment and funding across all school types and locations. Particular points were the highest-bidder mentality that schools are being forced into for recruitment, post-16 funding, and the impact of increased national insurance and pension contributions on standalone budgets.
Other points discussed with the secretary of state were (in no particular order):
- Being realistic about the time it takes for schools to improve in a sustainable manner.
- The need for the EFA to understand the priorities that schools have been set by the government and for decisions to be matched up.
- What Nicky can do to ensure that a positive message about the profession is sent out. Also, a shared frustration that the reporting of union conferences doesn't really help as the same media agenda kicks in.
- How the current accountability structure can work against inclusive education, and how a lack of oversight into schools’ work with/for our most vulnerable means that, very sadly, some schools are deliberately deterring the parents/carers of certain groups of young people from sending them to that school. (Sadly this isn't new, but it is definitely getting worse, in my opinion.) The wider inclusion agenda was discussed on numerous occasions.
- Particular concerns regarding the capacity of social care and CAMHS to meet growing needs and the impact this is having on schools.
- Year 7 "resits" and the neccessity for us to have the details now so we can assure we are meeting their needs. And, of course, how this will fit into the accountability system.
- How the pressures on headteachers, especially those close to an inspection, are causing some to struggle with balancing what is right for the young people in their care with the need to protect the future of the school by getting a good Ofsted report/league table position. Also, this has led some heads to behave in a way that is detrimental to the staff in their employment.
- Funding and protection for preschool settings and the vital work they do.
- The need to value the whole curriculum and how a compulsory EBacc will not do this, and will lead some young people and schools to fail. I made it clear that if the EBacc is made compulsory I would not be complying, as it is not currently in the best interests of our whole school community.
- The disparity in Ofsted’s stated approach and what is actually going on during inspections. How Ofsted could become a supportive structure without having to stop holding us to account.
- The relevance of GCSEs in a system that continues to 18.
- How moving a young person from G to D can often have a much greater positive impact on the individual and the wider community than moving one from B to A, yet this isn't reflected in the accountability system.
- How, according to the DfE's headteacher standards, we are "guardians of the nation’s schools", and whether the sectetary of state can truly be the "guardian of the guardians" and a "champion for schools", because that isn’t what it feels like to many of us.
Obviously, the discussion touched on many more subjects and a further conversation was had with a group of Passmores teachers (from Australia, Canada, England and South Africa). I deliberately wasn't present for that conversation but I know that the reality of workload pressures, inclusion, curriculum reform and how the English education system is viewed from overseas were discussed at length.
The million-dollar question is: will any of this make a difference? Is it possible for a secretary of state to focus on the positives in our jobs and in what we are trying to do? The biggest influence on this is likely to be how important the opinions of certain right-leaning media outlets are. I would argue that if it was possible to not be negative towards education in the run-up to the election, it must still be possible now if the will is there.
I am very clear that the only mandate I have for any discussion at this level is the one given to me by the parents/carers of my school community to do what is best for the children that I serve. However, the reaction to my blog on Twitter and via email made it clear that I am not alone in feeling frustrated, tired and occasionally deflated by what is going on at the moment.
So, Nicky, I hope you enjoyed the latte. I remain positive that the role of secretary of state for education has the potential for boosting the numbers of people wishing to be teachers and even headteachers and that you understand that. You gave up your time to visit and listen, which we truly appreciate, but now is the time to be proactive in being the champion for our young people, the school staff and governors and for the education system as whole. This doesn't mean being some sort of wild-eyed cheerleader, as we know that for some young people improvements are needed quickly. As my dad would have said, if you have nothing nice to say then maybe, just like in the lead-up to the election, you should be saying less.
I do still have the best job in the world, in my opinion, but I know others are not feeling the same. And you, Nicky, can help to do something about it.