One of the things I’ve always wondered about the Kennedy assassination is why the state of Texas felt it needed a School Book Depository. If they had so many books for their school children that they needed a warehouse in the middle of Dallas to store them, why on earth weren’t those books in their schools where those children could get some benefit from them? Alternatively, if the books were not needed in the classroom, why were they buying so many in the first place – maybe they should have been spending their money on something else, like science resources or sports equipment.
We don’t have book depositories in England as far as I’m aware. Sadly, nor do we have the kind of surpluses that the Texans were wrestling with back in the sixties. You’ve probably seen in the news that some schools are under pressure because they are receiving less money from the government whilst simultaneously they are expected to stump up higher pension and national insurance contributions. We have been affected by both these factors, but not with any severe effect, although some schools have had to make some quite drastic cuts.
The problem with school budgets is that there is very little room for manoeuvre. Around 75% of our budget is spent on staffing. So if you need to make some savings, it’s not much help trying to cut down on paper clips or turn the radiators down. You can reduce some of the trips which the children attend (or charge the parents more for them), you can cut down on external providers and visitors, you can avoid spending on expensive items such as ICT. However, if you do any of those things the children will suffer, and that, of course, runs contrary to everything we are here for, and yet the effect of these decisions on the budget will not be that great. The only thing that is going to make any real difference to the budget is changing the level of staffing. And that’s why some headteachers get so upset about having to cut costs; it’s not just the impact on the children, it can often mean making painful decisions about valued colleagues.
The reason that staffing is the most significant line in the budget is that it has the most significant impact on the quality of education we are giving the children. You can buy lots of fancy schemes and impressive resources; you can become a centre of excellence for this or a learning hub for that; but the one thing which overwhelmingly makes the biggest difference to children’s outcomes is having a great teacher. All the research shows that that is the single biggest determiner of how well our children do in school.
In fact you could probably boil down the role of the headteacher as being to enable that single thing to happen. My job is to be able to identify a great teacher (or at least someone with the potential to become one) and then to support them, find the money to pay them, and crucially to persuade them to stay for as long as possible. Everything else I do is secondary to that main aim. And that’s why we spend most of our money on teachers. How many of them can we afford? How much professional development do they need? How can I keep them happy!
Once the funding of schools starts to impact on our ability to afford high quality staff, then the life chances of our children are in serious trouble.
Fifteen degrees and sunny
It felt like spring for the first time today. A warm breeze was blowing across the school field from the west and the sun shone uninterrupted throughout lunchtime. All the children were on the field and I enjoyed my promenade around the grounds. Everyone seemed happy, relishing their freedom away from the winter confines of the playground.
Children love to come over to you and ask random questions on days like these. Have you got any pets? Can we have a swimming pool? Can you do a handstand – I can; look! One of the Year 6 boys left his game of football and ran over.
“Have you come to watch us play?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure” I replied.
I stood for a few minutes watching the game. I saw the lad who had asked me to watch execute exactly the move we had practised at after-school football club a couple of days earlier. He glanced over to make sure I had seen him. There is nothing quite like the feeling of having successfully taught someone something and then seeing them actually use it. While I was watching another Year 6 boy asked: “Can we have a school council meeting this afternoon?”
“What time were you thinking”, I asked.
“About 2.30” he said, as if he’d plucked the time out of the air and it didn’t really matter.
“What lesson do you have at 2.30?” I asked.
“Sewing” he replied grimly, before smiling when he realised he’d been rumbled.
Someone was crying in the outdoor classroom. She turned away as I approached, trying to hide her tears. None of the children had come over to see if she was OK, but the place was suddenly full now I was here. A friendship problem; she didn’t want me to say anything to them, just leave it.
I left another of her friends comforting her and walked back up towards the school. On the benches outside the Year 4 classrooms, a little boy was changing his footwear before heading out onto the field.
“Hello”, I called over
“Hello”, he said.
Then a pause. I’d walked past and almost reached the door by the time he said: “Lovely day isn’t it?”
I checked back.
“Yes, it is” I said with a smile. “Lovely”.
There was another pause and then he added: “…at last”.
I had a couple of thoughts as I headed back inside. The first was that our young people really do have their expectations of the weather set very high if they think 15 degrees and sunny on the 9th of March after a virtually frost-free winter marks the worryingly slow passage of spring. And then I thought about where children get these phrases and these words and their quirky manner of speaking. The answer of course is from us, and that’s true of all the charming things they say and all the funny things, and it’s also true of all the unkind things and the negative things and all the unpleasant words.
Which is a sobering thought for all for us; parents and teachers alike.
Nice to see you again
I love parents’ evening. I know for the teachers it’s a long evening after a full day in the classroom, but for the headteacher it’s a great chance to speak with parents informally and check how things are going – particularly those who are not able to come to the school regularly because of their work commitments. We get some great feedback on these occasions and I always head home with a warm glow and a sense that we’re getting it right for the vast majority of our families. (Well, actually I usually head to the chip shop - it’s almost always too late to start cooking!)
One of the challenges, of course, is being confronted by lots of parents who you don’t see very often and having to remember who they all are and, more importantly, who their children are. It’s one of those situations where you’re in context (most people know I’m the headteacher) but everyone else is out of context. You need to be able to recognise and remember people, and in this respect I’m more fortunate than others it seems.
I heard on the radio the other day that some people suffer from face blindness. Prosopagnosia it’s called – the inability to recognise people from their facial features, even when they are people they know very well. It causes all sorts of problems both socially and at work, as you can well imagine. For a teacher it would be disastrous.
However, I suffer from the opposite problem; I can remember and recognise everyone I’ve ever met. I don’t always know exactly where I’ve seen them or remember their names, but both will usually come to me if I think about it for a few minutes. But the faces are always instantly familiar.
This may sound like a talent, and it’s very helpful at school, but the rest of the time it’s actually a curse. Because wherever I am, I am not only recognising the people I actually know, I’m recognising people I have seen in shops over the past few hours or days as well as people I have once had a conversation with at any point going back years. Waiters, bar staff, shopkeepers, the woman who stood behind me in the supermarket queue, the couple I parked next to, people I’ve played sport against, parents of ex pupils – they appear one after another as I walk through any one of a number of local towns or, of course, Norwich. When my third child was born I greeted the nurse on the maternity ward like an old friend. She stared blankly at me for quite a while before we eventually established that she used to work in my local Tesco store, in Ely, a place I’d left 15 years earlier.
It also causes a problem when I bump into someone famous. Because they seem so familiar to me, my instant reaction is to smile and say hello as if I’m greeting an acquaintance. They don’t always like that. When I saw Nick Knowles in Waitrose in Swaffham recently and greeted him cheerily, he looked at me with complete disdain and walked off. (Actually he looked down at me – he’s huge.)
I know that the majority of you will be thinking all this sounds highly unlikely, but for a few of you it will seem very familiar. It even has a name – people who can do this are called super-recognisers. (I know; they could have chosen something a bit cooler or a bit more scientific.) The very best are used by the police to pick out people in crowds or from CCTV footage.
It is generally a helpful attribute at school. Children hate it when you get their names wrong and half the battle there is recognising them. However, I have discovered that my brain sorts faces into groups or types and this causes me to muddle their names up.
So we have a similar-looking group of Olivers and Harrys in Year 3 at the moment, and it’s taking me a little longer to get their names right. And there are some children who seem so similar to me that I continue to confuse their names right through the school. Tilly and Mataya; that’s you two at the moment, and you Lily and Eloise. But I don’t know if anyone else thinks they look like each other.
Parents I always recognise too, although I have no magic key to placing the parent with the child (unless they’re standing next to each other – that always helps.)
So if in 20 or so years time, a bald old man shuffles towards you in the street or the supermarket and looks up at you and greets you as if he’s your oldest friend, please forgive him – it will probably be me.
Brexit back to the future
A teacher friend of mine reckons that the first act of the Brexiteers after we trigger Article 50 will be to announce a return to imperial measures. What better way to reassert our utter Britishness than to scrap those pesky metres and grammes and return to good old pints and gallons, pounds and ounces, and feet and inches.
Let’s face it, we’ve been teaching our children metric measures since the 1970s, but beyond the classroom they see precious little evidence that we really mean it. We fill our cars with litres of fuel and then work out how many miles to the gallon they give us. We buy our food in kilograms but then weigh ourselves in stones and measure our waistlines in inches. Beer comes in pints, wine in millilitres. How tall are you, by the way? And how big is your front room? What about your telly? Something tells me we aren’t taking this terribly seriously.
A few weeks ago in the middle of Swaffham I was approached by a confused looking Eastern European man who asked me whether it was ok to park his car there. He pointed quizzically to a sign which said: “Weight restriction 30cwt unladen.” Poor chap, I couldn’t offer him much assurance.
One advantage of this return to the 1950s will be the much harder mental arithmetic we will be able to require of our children – all those bizarre combinations of numbers (14 pounds in a stone but 16 ounces in a pound) will make for some fiendish word problems. It will also give me the opportunity to dust off my treasured copy of ‘Diagnostic and Attainment Testing ‘, a book of English and Maths tests originally published just after the war (which I rescued from a skip at a previous school). It is packed with just this sort of real-life puzzle from the baffling world of imperial measures and pre-decimal money.
To warm up for the brave new world to come, try these out:
Answers on a postcard, or maybe send a telegram….
When the Penny Drops
I saw a woman drop a penny on the floor the other day. It slipped through her fingers while she was searching in her purse and landed on the hard supermarket floor with a loud tink. Then, by chance I suppose, it began spinning perfectly on its side like a top. What happened next was even more unexpected; the woman didn’t pick it up. She simply put her foot on it and then walked away.
I was surprised to feel within myself a sense of moral outrage at this. Partly I think it was the littering – she had dropped something on the floor and failed to pick it up. But it was also the idea that you could be so indifferent to money; money which many other people would be pleased to have. (I could hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me to eat my tea because there were people in the world who were starving. You must have heard the same thing as a child. They were welcome to the broccoli and carrots I used to think.)
I paid for my sandwich and walked toward the door, past the coin the woman had dropped. I looked down, and for some reason it seemed to be worse that it was actually a two pence piece rather than the penny I first thought it to be. Hardly a more significant amount – there’s not a lot you can buy with either – but statistically at least it seemed twice as bad. Could the woman have not put it in a charity box if she didn’t want it? Or given it to someone else? Have we really got to the point where we regard money as litter?
Young people’s values are changing rapidly. In fact they have changed. And the dilemma we face in school is whether we reflect these values within the ethos of what we do, or do we resist them?
When I was at primary school it was barely 30 years since the end of the second world war. The values we were taught were all about hard work, respecting your elders, prudence and propriety. We aspired to be firemen or engineers or racing drivers and we knew hard work was required to get there. (We also didn’t care much how we looked; our mums had invariably dressed us in appalling polyester clothes and cut our hair with the kitchen scissors.) When I interviewed our Year Sixes at the start of last academic year, many of them had a clear and impressive sense of what they wanted to do when they were older. But just as many had no idea at all about the world of work, or even university, and those that did express an ambition wanted to be Youtubers.
For them ambition means achieving celebrity. Not just in the macro sense of actually being famous, although that is the pinnacle, but more immediately in the micro world of social media where recognition and acceptance provides instant gratification. Everything else in their world is instant too – your phone spells words for you so why learn to spell? Google gives you access to every fact in the world, so why acquire knowledge? Similarly calculators negate the need for maths. And contactless payment makes notes and coins look like museum artefacts (which I think is where we came in).
All of this is instantaneous and it is this which is shaping their values. The danger, of course, of having all this done for us is that none of us will become the person who puts the technology together, or the person who knew the thing in the first place. Because these kids are going to have to do some pretty important stuff. They will need to solve the world energy crisis. They’ll need to tackle global hunger. They’ll need to outwit terrorism. They’ll need to cure cancer. Because let’s face it, we didn’t.
So the challenge for us is to explain the value, the necessity, of the sustained effort and practice which is required to achieve significant expertise and success. Not just at school and not just at home either, but generally in our culture; in their culture. We need the penny to drop.
The Way We Was
The national focus on grammar in our education system was brought into sharp relief the other day when I asked my son who was going to read his bedtime story. “Me are,” he replied with commendable independence. Exactly.
He is, of course, only three, but that means he is a mere eighteen months away from his first test – the EYFS baseline. Although this was abandoned by the Government this year, it is sure to be back in 2017. And then, two and a half years after that, he will be sitting the end of Key Stage 1 tests in English and maths (they are bound to be tests by then). And there won’t be any marks for coming out with things like “me are.”
“You’ve used an incorrect pronoun and the wrong participle,” I told him, in line with current government thinking on the teaching of grammar to young children. He gave me a withering look and opened his treasured copy of Room on the Broom.
What really interests me is how he arrived at “me are” in the first place. He would never have heard anyone actually say those two words together, so he must have worked out that he needed a subject and a verb and that by putting them together he could describe who was doing what in a way that sort of makes sense. Except that he wouldn’t characterise it in those terms; it’s not natural to do so. Instead he has simply internalised the language he hears all around him and in time he will learn all the rules which apply to the language in the same instinctive way.
I was at primary school in the seventies and we learned no formal grammar. We read lots of books and wrote lots of stories, and by the time I was an adult I doubt that I could identify an adverbial phrase or the past progressive. But I had learned to read and write well enough to get an English degree and begin work as a journalist. Lacking the technical knowledge to be able to name the function of each word in a sentence did not seem to have held me back. No one learns how to read or write like that.
In fact, I can only think of two occasions in anyone’s life when they might need to be able to identify a conjunction or a subordinating clause. Those two occasions would be when sitting the Key Stage One Grammar Test and then the Key Stage Two Grammar Test. Otherwise, this knowledge seems to me largely useless. I don’t think anything in education has ever made me as angry as I felt watching our children sit that test last week. What are we doing to our children………
Having a Look
I helped a lad look for his tracksuit bottoms one lunch time recently. He wanted to change into them to go outside and play football on the field and he was a bit upset at the prospect of not being able to get out there. We had a good rummage around between us but couldn’t find any belonging to him. Eventually we lent him some and he headed outside. The following morning I found the boy’s mum on her knees in the cloakroom searching through piles of P.E. kit. I approached her with my usual charm and good humour and explained that her son and I had had a good search the day before without any luck. “Hmmm,” she said. “I’ve found two pairs with his name in so far. I think you must have had a ‘man-look’.” That was me told.
As a parent I can understand your frustration with losing your children’s kit, which is why we are happy to let you in before or after school to have a look. We are, however, not quite as open as a previous school of mine where all the parents (yes all of them) came into school every morning. Like an army of butlers they came in carrying their children’s bags and hanging them up with their coats on their pegs. Kisses goodbye and have-a-lovely-days were exchanged in the corridor; you can imagine how difficult it was to work out where the children were in this forest of adults and, rather more scarily, exactly who was in the building at any one time. Fire, abduction, theft – in the event of any of these we would have had no idea who to rescue/look for/ arrest. To be fair to them it was how they had always done it; the whole school, in fact the whole village, was like a big family. But as I stood there on my first day as headteacher of that school watching all this unfold, I can remember hearing the words of my safeguarding training echoing round my head like a panicky character in a disaster movie. Parents were leaving their children at the door by the start of week two.
Because, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, safeguarding is the single most important thing we do at school. And a significant part of that is knowing exactly who is on site at any one time and exactly where they are. It’s why we do things like lock the gates at the end of school (we can’t really have open access to the field while the children’s sports clubs are going on). And it’s also why we don’t usually let parents beyond the entrance hall once the school day has begun.
And it is also why we constantly review what we do. So there will be some changes over the coming months to that entrance area and the way we let visitors in. We will also (early heads up here) be changing the way we do sports day which, lovely South Wootton tradition though it is, currently looks a bit like that first morning at my previous school, except with lots more people we don’t know.
It’s not that we want to be unwelcoming. I hope you always feel welcomed in school – we do genuinely enjoy having parents in and we know how much it means to the children. But, unless we are very careful, an unfamiliar face can soon appear among the dozens we know, and no school ever wants to be having that conversation that begins: “Do you know who that guy is?” ; “Not sure, is it Johnny’s grandad?” You can imagine the rest.
So we continue to explore the best possible ways to keep your children safe. And when I say explore, I mean look properly, not have a ‘man-look.’ (Do I sound like that hit a nerve? I mean….. man-look ….honestly….. whatever is that supposed to mean….)
Nowhere to Sit
My recollection of classrooms when I was at school is of rows of tables and chairs all facing the front. Even when I was at primary school we all sat looking at the teacher, listening to what she told us and copying our work down from the board. Then when I went to grammar school (yes I really am that old) we sat at individual wooden desks; the sort with a little built-in bench seat and a lift-up top with an ink well in the corner. Our teachers paced up and down between us, silently inspecting our work over our shoulders. One of them, who I suppose I shouldn’t name (although naming him is the least of the things I’d like to do to him) had a particularly menacing demeanour. Any instance of indiscipline, such as stopping writing for a moment, was met with swift brutality. I remember one day watching the boy in front of me committing one such violation (I think he dropped his pen on the floor and then made the mistake of speaking to his neighbour while bending down to pick it up) and this teacher walking slowly up alongside him, grabbing hold of a handful of the boy’s hair and lifting him into the air. I actually saw the lad’s backside lift an inch or two off the seat before he was dropped back down with a bump. Fortunately, sadism now longer has a place in our education system.
The desks were about control. And even in my own teaching career I have used similar tactics (seating the children in rows, not picking them up by their hair), especially when confronted with a difficult class. If they are a friendly, well-behaved bunch I would be happy to seat them in groups of four or six so they can work together and discuss their learning across the table. But if they are hard work, I’m afraid it’s going to be five rows of six seated boy-girl, boy-girl, with no opportunities to talk to your mates or get up and wander about. Political dictators call it divide and rule.
But that was when I was teaching. It’s rare to see a classroom like this these days. Like most things in schools, behaviour has improved dramatically over the last few years and teachers, in primary classrooms at least, think about creating a stimulating learning environment rather than getting to the end of the day in one piece. Usually that will involve a chair and a desk for each pupil, except for the very youngest classes. But not at the school a small group of us went to visit last week.
At Hartsholme Primary Academy there is not a single conventional table or chair in any the classrooms. Instead the children sit on beanbags, in tree houses, on bales of straw or lie on the floor. Each classroom is decked out according to the theme which the children are studying for that term. So one room we saw was an enchanted forest with trees and leaves (hence the tree house), another was a farmyard (that was where the children sat on straw bales) and another was Tesco, with the walls covered in packaging and those signs hanging from the ceiling telling you which aisle you are in. There were interactive whiteboards providing a focal point for teaching, but when the children were working they sat where they liked Most of them chose to lie on the floor, some were backed up against a wall or a bean bag, knees up, their work resting on their legs. In short they were sitting exactly how your own kids sit when they are at home.
Handwriting? Presentation? The books were immaculate, beautiful – completely dispelling the myth that you need to sit upright with the back of your chair pushed in to write neatly. Each of them had a clipboard to which their book or sheet of paper was attached, and between them they were systematically proving that that horizontal was a perfectly good angle for writing neatly.
The headteacher talked a lot in his introduction about creative spaces and compared what they were doing to modern business practices, such as the new offices Google are building in London. The principle is that the children are comfortable sitting as they would in their leisure time at home, stimulated by the environment, fully immersed in their learning, and, crucially, more motivated to learn because they are exercising choice. Exciting spaces make people feel valued and free to be creative.
In truth the school were doing lots of other things that had a positive impact on these children, in addition to the amazing environment. For instance, they were teaching the children to draft and redraft their work, and everything the children did was working towards something real that would be presented or performed to people outside the school. And they were investing a huge amount in their staff. The effect was an incredibly happy group of teachers teaching remarkably articulate, well mannered, high achieving children who belied the difficult social conditions which surrounded the school. It definitely worked.
We’re trying out some of this back at SWJS. Want to join us in a little experiment? Next time you’re struggling to get your child to give their full attention to their homework (we’ve all been there with the tantrums and the sulking and the screwed up pieces of paper at the kitchen table) give them something hard to lean on and try suggesting they do it lying on the floor, or sitting in bed, or leaning against the bookcase. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on.
You probably already know that your children are learning a new curriculum. Expectations have been ratcheted up; more is expected at an earlier age – you may be familiar with some of the headlines such as all children should know their times tables up to 12x12 by the end of Year Four, while in Year Six we should now be able to multiply fractions as well as tackle much more demanding calculations. And then there is grammar.
Let me throw a few terms at you. Adjective, noun, conjunction, adverb, determiner, preposition, pronoun, possessive pronoun, adjectival phrase, fronted adverbial phrase, indefinite article, relative clause…how are you doing so far? Let’s try some tenses – past, present, future, past progressive, present perfect, future perfect continuous, and everybody’s favourite, the subjunctive. Then there’s active and passive verbs; infinitive, transitive and auxiliary verbs; the gerund. Yes the children really are supposed to know all this; not just how to use these words and forms and tenses, but what they are actually called too. We will be teaching it throughout the school (there are set expectations for each year group) and there will be a test at the end of Year Six to make sure they know it. In fact, for the first time, there will also be a test at the end of Year Two as well – on a simpler level, but still expecting our seven-year-olds to know what a subordinate clause is.
(For information, in case you were left wondering, the subjunctive is the infinite part of a verb without ‘to’ in front of it, as in “it’s important that we be there.” As opposed to the pluperfect which is what we were doing a week ago next Tuesday. Or something like that.)
If you’re a child of the seventies like me, you probably won’t have learned this stuff when you were at school. So it might seem a little intimidating. On the other hand, if you are the pedant in your family you’ll probably love it – no more split infinitives or young people talking on the television without any of their verbs agreeing. The English language protected by the reimposition of strict rules.
I should hold my hands up here and admit that the pedant in our house is….yes it’s me. But even I’m not sure this is the way to improve children’s writing; I’d rather concentrate on given them a feel for how the language sounds and feels, harnessing their natural flair and creative ability rather than giving them a toolkit of words to screw together. I rather doubt Aesop was thinking about relative clauses when he wrote The Boy Who Cried Wolf. So you’ll be pleased to hear that we will be doing both.
One of the best perks of my jobs is the opportunity to hear some of the best speakers in the country on education issues. A couple of months ago a large number of Norfolk primary headteachers decamped to Centre Parcs for a couple of days (never been before; it’s really nice isn’t it) and we were treated to a brilliant line-up. These guys are generally teachers or ex-heads, some of them still working in the classroom as well as doing the public-speaking circuit, and they are as funny as any stand-up comedian, as well as brilliantly insightful and enlightening on what works best for getting children learning. So, with my usual mix of optimism and naivety, I accepted an invitation from a local rotary club a few days later to be their after dinner speaker. I talked about education in general and the particular problems facing West Norfolk, and it went okay. They probably didn’t laugh as much as I had hoped but, as my friends are quick to point out, I’m not as funny as I think I am.
To get them talking beforehand I put a few SATs questions out on the tables. They didn’t have any trouble with the maths pages, but the grammar questions had them flummoxed. And there were some pretty bright people in the room, many of whom came from a generation before mine, when everyone was taught these things at school.
And if it makes you feel better, not a single one of them could tell me what the subjunctive was.
Out of interest, I’ve included an abridged version of the speech I gave below, with a few personal references removed for obvious reasons.
Speech to Rotary Club 9/11/15
Good evening gentlemen and thank you for having me this evening. I understand that I am a substitute and the person I’m replacing was going to talk to you about riding a bicycle across Vietnam. Now, I’m going to talk to you about running a primary school.
This is a little bit of a daunting audience for me because I know quite a few of you but you’re not the most daunting audience I’ve faced in the last few weeks and nor is this the most difficult subject. And I thought I’d start there, with that other daunting audience as a way of starting to tell you where we are with Norfolk education and particularly with the crisis which is looming here in West Norfolk schools.
So it’s 8.30am and I’m at Hethel Engineering Centre near Wymondham, about a month ago, and I’m there to launch Educate Norfolk. Now Educate Norfolk is a recruitment strategy which the two Norfolk headteacher associations have come up with to tackle the single biggest challenge all our schools face which is a shortage of teachers. And I’m the chair, along with a secondary head from the other side of the county. So I stand up to welcome everyone and introduce the thing and I look around the room and I see the vice chancellor of UEA and the assistant regional director of Ofsted and the Regional Schools commissioner (who oversees all academies in East Anglia) and the director of children’s services for Norfolk County Council and the Director of Education and the head of education for the Diocese and all the senior headteachers and advisors for the county and my first job is to introduce the chairman of Adnams who is the guest speaker. Now that for me, even more so than you, is a daunting audience.
Because, despite my ageing appearance and lack of hair, I haven’t actually been teaching that long, and I’ve only been a headteacher for five years. I came into the profession late; I was a journalist for a few years before retraining. Now that may sound like some kind of life choice, but actually it was more of a dad choice. I hadn’t exactly covered myself in glory at university; an ill-deserved 2:2 didn’t exactly impress the old boy and to be honest I think he was just happy that I’d managed to get through the three years without developing a serious alcohol problem or providing him with any grandchildren. So the prospect of sponsoring me through another year to do a PGCE…. well it was a no. And to be fair to him it wasn’t a great time to be a teacher. It was the 80s, teachers’ pay wasn’t great, they were getting a kicking from the government and the media thought everything was their fault.
But I’m glad in a way because working in another industry for a while meant that by the time I retrained in my thirties, I was equipped to cope with the daily grind of planning, teaching and marking, which a lot of young teachers struggle to cope with. In fact, people going straight into teaching from university is one of the key factors in this teacher recruitment crisis we face now. Because our 22-year-old-NQT’s are attracted into the profession often by the vocation and also by a starting salary that is much better than their contemporaries are receiving in other industries. But after a couple or three years their contemporaries catch up salary wise and our young teachers realise their friends are not sitting at home marking til 9 o clock every night, so we lose a lot of teachers after 2 or 3 years. But we also suffer with people who have never done anything else. Because by the time they reach their fifties they’re knackered and they’ve had enough and they want to go part time or find something else.
Now I can imagine you are thinking; here we go – teachers moaning. But it is hard; particularly when you start. I can still remember my NQT class. There was a boy called Ryan who used to roll around on the floor and when you spoke to him he used to pull the most extraordinary faces. There was a girl called Rosie who suffered from giantism and had huge hands and feet and used to suffer brutal bullying. There was a boy called Tom who I quickly realised was significantly cleverer than me even though he was only 8. And then there was Joe. When you hear people talking about disadvantaged, damaged children; they’re talking about kids like Joe. He lived on a council estate in a tiny village with his mum; he didn’t know who his dad was; he was severely neglected to the point that one day I can remember him eating some sort of chocolate dessert at lunchtime and he had clearly wiped his face with his sleeve afterwards because he had chocolate smeared across the full width of his left cheek when he came back into the classroom at the start of the afternoon. He wouldn’t go and wash it off, he wouldn’t let my teaching assistant Anne wash it off, so we had no choice but to send him home on the bus with this brown smear still there. And when he came back in the next morning it was still there. That was how much love and care Joe received at home, that he would be sent to bed and then to school the next day without even being given a wash. Joe also had the lowest self-esteem of any child that I’ve ever met, partly because he had been born with a cleft palate. In fact the first thing he ever said to me was “Do you think I’m ugly?” I had no idea how to deal with a child like that, or Tom or Rosie or Ryan for that matter. And of course we are still dealing with children like that, except now many of them bring the added complication of being unable to speak English. I can also remember that first year mis-reading the words in a story “he had his eyes shut tight” which caused absolute uproar and more than one parental phone call. And also putting my sweater on before taking the children for a walk down to the beach and cracking this kid so hard over the head with my elbow that we had to take him to the doctors’ surgery.
I slowly worked it out and after a couple of years I was lucky enough to get a job teaching on a forces school in Cyprus. And having got the hang of it and worked out my teaching style and methods, it seemed quite doable; working with children really is great fun and very rewarding. But I think it was when I became a deputy head in 2008 that I first noticed a change in the mood and by the time I got my first headship a few months after the 2010 general election, the tone was definitely different. Pressure was being exerted on schools through Ofsted with the veiled threat of academisation lurking in the shadows. Suddenly schools which were previously considered ‘good’ in Ofsted terms were being put into special measures because one line in their data set was below national average. Inspectors were being specific about what marking should look like, how children’s books should be set out, whether the school fence was high enough and how children should walk down the corridor.
Oftsed itself had become like the big bad wolf and schools were, and still are, like Little Red Riding Hood trying to sneak past without being noticed, carrying our little basket of things for Grandma. And if they do notice us we hope we can show them the nice things in our basket and they’ll be happy with that – some nice marking, some tasty lesson observations, some scrummy SATs results. But most of the time you can see a look in their eyes which says they’re just going to eat you all up whatever you do.
So schools were being put into a category for reasons no one could predict and headteachers of those schools were disappearing the same day. Fair enough you might say, and I agree every child should expect to receive a good education, but a lot of heads feel like football managers these days and when you’re under that sort of pressure to produce results, short term thinking can overtake long term strategic planning and we end up with 7 and 11 year olds being crammed for tests and taught short cuts within an ever narrowing curriculum focussed on nothing but English and Maths, rather than the sort of broad, balanced, creative, awe-and-wonder learning any rational person would want for our children. And heads who feel under this sort of pressure inevitably pass it on to their teachers; demanding more paperwork, insisting on more observations and imposing more conformity and uniformity. And you can guess what our teachers think of that. It’s the main reason they are leaving. And that brings us back to the crisis I mentioned earlier and the meeting at Hethel last month.
Because about a year ago an email was sent to all Norfolk headteachers from a head in Yarmouth saying that she had advertised three times for a teacher and had no applicants at all. Other heads responded to say that they were experiencing similar difficulties and quickly a picture emerged of a significant recruitment crisis across the county, particularly in the east and here in the west. Colleagues in this part of the county will tell you that recruiting any teacher – experienced or NQT – has become a major problem and often they are having to rely on unqualified agency staff, people who are retired or simply teach classes themselves.
Educate Norfolk was launched as a result, to tackle statistics such as that only half of initial teacher training places were taken up last year and that government has just cut funding for school-based training from £14,000 to £9,000 per student teacher.
And at the other end of the career pathway, teachers are leaving in droves.
So that’s where we are. Norfolk schools are better by every measure, 80% are now Ofsted good compared to 60% two years ago and we’ve embraced every government initiative going. But it’s all going to blow away in the wind very soon because we simply can’t recruit any teachers. And that is where we are with education in Norfolk.
Click here for more information.