Chasing the ace

ace bet business cardThis year, the annual SSAT national conference has a timely and uplifting theme: Pure imagination. Taking place over two days at the ICC in Birmingham, I was delighted to be invited to kick off the conference with a nine-minute talk. This is what I said:

Imagine if, after all this time we’ve been chasing the wrong ace. And imagine if the ace we should have been chasing is so powerful that if we were able to play it, it would trump everything. What if I told you that we all hold that ace, but do so in a deck that’s been shuffled so many times – often beyond our control – that we’ve lost sight of it. We no longer know it’s there.

Flip it

Before I share with you what I believe that ace to be, imagine if as leaders we could flip the system. We need to take back control of the agenda as system leaders and define for ourselves what we mean by sustainable school improvement. We need a system that operates from within – an inside-out approach – where schools and their community work together to decide what their core purpose is and how best to evaluate this. We no longer need to rely on being told what is best for our pupils from forces beyond our schools.

Can you imagine if we could look at our schools through a different set of lenses that enabled us to perceive our schools in a better way. Our beliefs are simply perceptions of reality, and so by wearing these lenses it allows us to see clearly what we believe to be right and proper, regardless of whatever somebody else may think from outside the organisation. For too long, we’ve been forced to look at our schools through the lens of an external regulator, and as a result, our perception of reality has been skewed. It’s time to recalibrate.

Imagine if we really could transform our schools by flipping the system and that we could do so in a way that is wholesome, values-led and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted. I wrote a book about this once and in it I concluded that the best leaders understand the need to wear a number of very different lenses. I’m going to share one of them briefly with you now.

Wear the right lens

It’s called the telescopic lens, and is perhaps the most important one of them all, for this is the lens that will help you reveal the ace. I would put it to you that we’ve all been looking at our schools through a telescope for a number of years, but unfortunately through the wrong end. As a result, we’ve been reduced to seeing our world through a narrow hole and are focusing on the wrong things. We are not seeing the big picture.

Flip the lens around, and your perception of reality changes. When used correctly, a whole new vista opens up. As with any telescope, if you use it indoors in confined spaces when things are too close up, reality will look blurred. Your perception will become distorted. A wise leader knows this and so strives always to climb high and scans not only the distant horizon, but also penetrates deep into the surrounding local community a lot closer to home.

And it is here where we’ll find the elusive ace. As a headteacher for almost two decades, I was sick of being judged as to how good I was based solely on my ability year-on-year to eke out an extra half of a percentage point here or there. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, I believe that there is, and although it starts from deep within our schools, the solution lies out there in the heart of our school communities.

The ace, revealed

It is called social capital, and this, colleagues, is your ace. By increasing the amount of social capital (or resources) each of our family members own, in so doing we increase their power and agency. The more social capital a parent has, the more connections they make and their sense of belonging within the community increases. They become more advantaged.

More importantly, they become less disadvantaged. This is important, as it now gives them a much-needed foot onto the social ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. For many of our parents – especially those new to the country, seeking asylum and unable to speak English – this represents a huge step. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Imagine the difference it would make having families that engage meaningfully with the school? Not just participate and take part – things such as assemblies and school productions, but deep, meaningful engagement at an emotional and intrinsic level.

Imagine what you could do as a teacher, if every child came to school highly motivated and wanting to learn, who were supported and encouraged at home by family members, who valued the importance of education and bought in to the school’s vision.

Imagine if these families themselves then became released from the poverty trap because your school increased their social capital. Imagine if these parents were then able to get jobs as a result of greater self-esteem, confidence, power and agency. Imagine how this would impact on the children that come to your school.

Social breakdown?

But it’s not that simple. According to a recent New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population are living in poverty. This is a shocking and damning statistic. This means that at any one time, six children in a typical classroom are living in poverty. Just think about that.

Quite rightly, Amanda Spielman has raised some serious concerns earlier this week, about the lack of support children are getting from home and are coming to school overweight and unprepared for learning. This is nothing new. Only five years ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw made similar claims. We were on the verge of ‘social breakdown,’ he said. And yet here we are in 2018 saying the same thing all over again.

Nothing has changed, and it’s only going to get worse. We need to act now.

SSAT stage

The lost generation

These parents it seems have become a lost generation and they need our help. For many of them they are socially immobile. We perhaps only need to take such decisive action the once; the next generation I believe are all accounted for, as we have them safely tucked up in our schools. We know that these young people are well-placed to become future changemakers. Their social mobility is, by and large, locked in and assured, providing of course we are able to release the social capital for their parents.

But for our very youngest children, those starting out in primary school especially, in times of great uncertainty and austerity, never before has there been such an urgent need for schools to step up and stand out as the key driver for social change.

So here is my challenge to you: Imagine if our children came to school loaded with social capital. Mums, dads, aunties, uncles, all massively in credit and willing and able to exchange resources with each other, especially trading it up for cultural capital.

Grasp the nettle

Research has shown time and time again that when it comes to increasing a child’s life chances at school, it’s often what goes on outside the classroom in the local community and family home that has the greatest impact. Yes, I accept that a lot of this is beyond our control. But that must not detract us from trying.

It takes a bold leader to grasp this nettle and goes against all that we perceive to be true as we become entangled with an inspection framework that often detracts us from doing the right things. To many of us, our logical brain tells us that the only ace worth chasing is the one to do with inspection judgements. After all, it’s often only by wearing the right Ofsted badge that we are guaranteed a job.

But thankfully colleagues, when it comes to making bold and imaginative decisions, logic doesn’t always come into it. As a certain Albert Einstein once said, ‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

SSAT pic

Thanks to Andrea Stephens (@andream656) and Paul Foster (@pjf_paul) for the pics.

You can read more about my thoughts on social capital in a previous post here. I’ll be following this up in the new year with some practical examples of how schools can release social capital.


No. 5022: A true war horse story

FGA (2)

Posted at 11am on 11th November 2011

As birthdays go, it was probably no different to the previous few. It began at sunrise with a mug of muddy coffee or beef tea, perhaps even a biscuit. The day would be spent in the company of friends, many of whom he’d gotten to know exceptionally well. And then of course, there were the war horses, all of whom were under his guard as a soldier serving in the Army Veterinary Corps. (74th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, ‘B’ Battery, to be precise.)

Turning 31 was probably something Sergeant Frederick George Anderson never thought he’d see, grateful as ever to still be alive. His brother-in-law, Private George Holtum never made it to his 21st. He was killed-in-action a year earlier on the battlefield of The Somme, one of the many who fell fighting and whose graves are not known.

As my great-grandfather went to bed on that birthday evening in 1917, he probably did so blissfully unaware that in the morning he would find himself in the middle of one of the seminal events in military history – the Battle of Cambrai, the world’s first ever full-on tank battle. According to a commemorative article in the Telegraph last year, “tanks had been used in battle before, but Cambrai was the first time that they were put to work so mob-handed.”

The battle of Cambrai

Taking place in a woods just outside the sleepy town of Cambrai in north-east France, the Allied objective was always to take the enemy by surprise and advance on a vital supply point on the German Hindenburg Line. The well-established German strategy of occupying high ground meant they were confident of there being no attack from the British. Besides, the trenches were too wide to get across and the horses certainly couldn’t penetrate the ribbons of razor-sharp barbed wire.

It seemed as if it was stalemate. With Christmas closing in, everyone assumed they were in for a long, hard winter.

And then, at 6.20am on the morning of 20th November 1917, the day after Sgt Anderson’s birthday, the allies executed a spectacular surprise attack on the German lines, overwhelming them with never-seen-before ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics by rolling in over 470 thirty-ton tanks. If you’ve ever watched War Horse, you’ll know the type I mean – huge rearing beasts that gobble up everything in their wake.

One delighted soldier in particular – having seen for the first time what the Mark IV combat tanks could do up close and personal – said, “the enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains. The tanks appeared to have busted through!”

The ruinous sight must have been terrifying, so much so that thousands of startled German infantry scrambled out of their trenches in the mist at dawn on that chilly November morning. Bewildered soldiers were caught completely off guard. Records show that, according to one German officer:

“At about 9am, retreating infantrymen gave us an account of swarms of tanks – so many that it was impossible to stop them. A little later the tank monsters came creeping to the ridge to the south of the village. Not one of us had seen such a beast before.”

According to German Field Marshall Prince Rupprecht, it was the only time the Allies achieved a complete surprise attack.

A tide of iron

The Germans were quickly overwhelmed. The barrage of tanks crushed through the barbed wire, and by deploying an ingenious technique, they were able to cross the deep trenches with relative ease. The Battle of Cambrai, or the ‘Tide of Iron’ as it was to be known was in full flow. And despite all the new technology, the success of the attack partly came down to the use of good old-fashioned logs. The British had finally worked out how to get the heavy tanks to cross the trenches without falling in or being gobbled up by mud. According to one soldier, George Coppard:

“The tanks – looking like giant toads –  became visible against the skyline. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly bound logs and brushwood, which they dropped into the wide German trenches, then crossed over them.”

tankAs simple as it was genius, it also became apparent that the pace of the attack was to be their downfall. So fast were the tanks moving, and so quickly were they dispersing the fleeing German soldiers, it left those British troops at the rear vulnerable to side-on counterattack with no tanks to protect them.

One of those would have been my mum’s granddad and his war horses.

As the scattered German troops regrouped, they launched a scathing attack on the British troops at the rear, including the war horses, who by now would be shell-shocked and quivering with fear at the carnage that surrounded them.

As tempted as he may have been to run for shelter, Sergeant Anderson stood firm. He knew that his one and only objective was to stay with the horses to protect them, despite the torrential shelling and carnage. Without the war horses, the officers would not be able to communicate and the heavy artillery would remain abandoned in the 20 inch mud. The advance would be over. The war would be lost.

And all for what?

During the first day alone, the British lost 4,000 of their own men. Fighting was especially fierce around Bourlon Ridge (just before the woods) to the west of Cambrai. The British were squeezed back by German counter-attacks and were left exposed, despite the advancing tanks by now being almost five miles ahead.

Eventually, after a few days the Germans pushed the British back – advancing tanks and all – and by the end of the campaign almost three weeks later, the Allies were all but back where they started. According to official records, the British suffered 47,596 casualties, equivalent to almost 6% of the total number of war losses in just 18 days. The Germans lost a similar amount.

In the time it’s taken you to finish reading this post, the number of deaths on both sides would already have been in double figures. That’s almost one death every 30 seconds. And all, seemingly for nothing.

I can’t begin to comprehend how terrifying it must have been for my great-granddad when he woke up that fateful morning of 20th November 1917. The deafening noise alone would render most folk to jelly. He certainly wouldn’t have known that the war had less than a year to go when he first caught site of those monstrous tanks as they rolled in, guns blazing.

Like his friends that toasted his birthday the night before, their first and only priority was to protect the precious war horses, including the many that were poisoned, shell-shocked, lame, crippled, dead.

Oh, to be able to charge their glasses one final time. Tonight though, only empty chairs and empty tables.

War Horse

As a sergeant in the AVC (the ‘Royal’ would come later when the war ended), my great-granddad would have been one of the 27,000 or so soldiers who looked after and treated the horses. Horses were considered so valuable to the cause that if a soldier’s horse was killed he was required to cut off a hoof and bring it back to his commanding officer to prove that the two had simply not been separated.

At the start of the war, the British Army had 25,000 horses. By time the war ended, in total, around one million horses were sent into battle. Casualties were catastrophic, equivalent to losing one horse for every two men. Only 65,000 horses came back.

Luckily, so too did my great-granddad. I’m not exactly sure when he finally arrived home. War records show that the 74th Brigade went on from the Battle of Cambrai to fight in The Somme and a number of other battles during 1918. On the day of the Armistice they were somewhere near Maubeuge and ordered to the Rhine to cross the German frontier a month later. They remained there for Christmas, before finally beginning to return to England on 20th February 1919. All were home by 29th April, almost six months after the armistice.

I can’t imagine what the scene must have been like as Frederick Anderson arrived back home in Folkestone, a mile or so from where I was to be born some half a century later. His brother-in-law wouldn’t have been with him even though they both lived in the same street. If you’ve ever seen the end of the film or the amazing musical adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book, you’ll know what I mean. The scene would have been as sombre as it would have been joyful.

Not forgotten

No. 5022 Sergt. F.G. Anderson, R.A.V.C was awarded the Military Medal ‘for exceptional gallantry in remaining with the horses under his charge while under heavy shell fire on 22nd November 1917’. He received his first of a number of medals following church parade outside the church hut at Digbate Camp. It took place on Sunday 25th May 1919 at 10.15am. It would have been a lovely day, as according to met office records the south-east of England was in the grip of a prolonged drought. For my great-granddad, anything but mud.

No. 80038 Pte. G.A. Holtum remains in an unnamed grave and is listed on the register at Thiepval Memorial in the Somme region in France. His name appears alongside 72,336 other young men who also died somewhere in battle and for whom there is no known resting place.

And finally, what of the 476 tanks? Only one survived. Nicknamed ‘Deborah’, she roared into action at 06.20 before shortly being hit by five German shells. She was commandeered by 2nd Lieutenant Frank Heap from Blackpool who skilfully managed to steer the stricken tank into a ditch. Four of the six crew were killed instantly. There the tank remained abandoned for eight decades, buried as landfill some six feet down, until finally unearthed in 1998. Deborah now stands proudly centre-stage and all alone at the centenary memorial museum in Flesquieres, just outside Cambrai.


With the story over, I feel compelled to try and make a banal comparison to ‘lessons learned in leadership’ or make some other crass or tenuous link. Why else would I write a blog so unlike anything else that I’ve posted before without bringing it round to the usual fodder? Besides, this is a professional account and not one for indulging in family folklore. You don’t subscribe to my blog so that you can read about my relatives, and – quite frankly – why should you?

But today is different, because if it wasn’t for all our great-grandads and mums who sacrificed so much for us all, then there most likely would be no post. Heaven forbid, if the enemy had achieved their objective and killed my great-grandad, I might not even be here now. I hope this post does him justice.

So on a personal note, thank you Sergeant Frederick George Anderson for coming back alive. Above all, thank you to all the thousands of others who were lucky enough to do the same.

To those that did not – just like the horses, Deborah’s crew, George Amos Holtum and thousands of others – this post is for you.


FGA Horse


A girl like Daisy

blooming blur close up daisy

Today is a sad day. One of our children will get told this afternoon by a social worker that she’s being moved away to a new foster carer.

As I type at 10am on a Friday morning, she knows nothing about this. But when she leaves school to break up for half term, she won’t be returning again. She won’t get to say goodbye to her teachers. She won’t get to say goodbye to her friends.

Into the blue again

Let’s call her Daisy. It’s an appropriate name because every child loves playing with daisies. Everyone knows a Daisy and most likely you’ve taught one just like her. Daisy chains are made the world over and young children love nothing more than making one for a grown up or friend. For me, daisies are always a welcome sign that the dark nights are over and spring is in the air, along with the much anticipated smell of the first cut of fresh grass.

But not in Daisy’s case. Today, her world will be over. Her chain will be broken once again as she becomes a lost link in a society that continues to abandon her.

Daisy is 8 years old. Without going in to too much detail, she was taken away from her parents two years ago for crimes done unto her that are unimaginable. She was removed into care and more recently lived with a local foster family who no longer feel they can look after her. As a result, this afternoon Daisy will be moved to a town 30 miles away with no going back.

Under the rocks and stones

The teachers and support staff at the school are in bits. They know they can’t do or say anything for Daisy because it must remain confidential until the social worker takes her to one side this afternoon and whisks her away. They want to give her a teddy but can’t, although I’m sure they’ll manage to slip it by her on the way out.

It is desperately sad and brings into stark focus the reality of the job that teachers and support staff deal with on a daily basis. At times like this, you don’t give two hoots about league tables, SATs results, pupil progress, Ofsted etc. All that matters is the wellbeing of a young child. Failing to hit targets doesn’t particularly bother me in the least. But when it comes to failing a child, it really hits home.

I’ve just got off the phone with the headteacher. They are frantically trying to halt proceedings, at least to ensure a proper school-to-school transition so that Daisy remains with her friends as she settles into her new home. With the clock ticking, and an inadequate children’s services, we are not holding our breath.

Letting the days go by

As we approach half term (and for some of you, it’s coming to a close), spare a thought for Daisy next week. She is all alone. She has no brothers or sisters, aunties or uncles, mum or dad. From today, she no longer has any friends, a school or home. Nothing whatsoever, other than the teddy bear that one of the staff can hopefully sneak into her book bag as she walks out the door one final time.

And as Daisy starts her life all over again, standing lost in the playground on her first day in a new school, in a new town, with new carers, Daisy won’t be alone. There will be hundreds of girls like Daisy (and boys) all over the country in similar positions, rejected, abandoned, moved on.

Daisy won’t know it, but she’ll have more people gunning for her than she could ever dare to imagine.

Having had the privilege of working in so many brilliant schools, what I find re-assuring is that I am confident that Daisy will be in expert hands the minute she walks into school. Her new teacher will welcome her with a big smile and embrace her into the warmth of the classroom. As you read this, it may even be you.

Hopefully, if it is, you won’t bat an eyelid about where Daisy is in regard to ‘expected’ or ‘greater depth’ or whether she’s a ‘rapid grasper’ or a ‘pupil premium’. These are all meaningless labels for a child like Daisy, but then you know that already.

Same as it ever was

I’m not entirely sure why I find myself typing this now on a Friday morning. I guess I ought to be doing more important stuff like writing the annual report for the trust accountants or filling forms out for new funding. There’s also a DfE return that I’ve got to send off showing how much value I’ve added as an NLE.

But all that can wait. It seems so unimportant now. I suppose in some small way this is a silent protest in tribute to all the other Daisys that are out there, whilst at the same time serving as a sad testimony to the many children that society continues to fail.

It is not the first time that this has happened and it won’t be the last. Nothing ever really seems to change and it’s hard to apportion blame other than to the abusive parents. But by then of course it’s too late, the damage is already done.

Once in a lifetime

A little part of me hopes that one day, perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, Daisy will stumble across this post, show it to her husband and grown-up kids, and say, “I was like that once. That could have been me.” Daisy will then smile and think back to her time at school and exclaim, “But look at me now! I’ve got a lovely family, a great job, a beautiful house, and all because my teachers never once gave up on me.”

Deluded? Quite possibly. But all the while there are children out there like Daisy, we must never give up.


[Postscript. School has now finished for half-term. The children have gone home, except for Daisy, who sits in a room wondering what comes next. The social worker is late and has failed to turn up.]


A boy like Jermaine


If you’ve ever had to deal with an angry pupil during a lesson, you’ll know how important it is to have a rapid-response system in place that quickly de-escalates the situation.

In most cases, this will likely involve a member of SLT removing the child from the classroom for time-out in order to calm the child down in a quiet space so that they can return to learning as quickly as possible.

Like me, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is standard fare. Surely this is what most schools do, day-in, day-out?  But apparently not, according to an article in this week’s Schools Week.

The state of play

The headline goes like this:

‘Isolation rooms: How swathes of schools are removing pupils from their classrooms’

I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a swathe, but the report claims that some schools are dealing with inappropriate behaviour by – and brace yourselves – actually removing children from class and taking them somewhere else in order to deal with the situation. In some cases, schools are even using the room as part of ‘an escalating set of disciplinary measures.’

Schools Week have found this out because they made a FoI request to the 90 largest academy trusts asking them if they use isolation rooms. I should state that I am somewhat at a disadvantage here as I haven’t seen the request, but I assume they defined; (a) what they meant by an ‘isolation room’; (b) what the thresholds were for removal, and; (c) for how long they were used.

If by ‘isolation room’, they mean some kind of ‘lonely mildewed concrete silo’ (to quote from Tom Bennett’s tweet on the subject), then yes, they are abhorrent, should be banned and as Paul Dix rightly says, they are the ‘bleakest sign of an institution giving up’.

Any school that routinely and systematically rounds up its most difficult-to-teach pupils and holds them in a designated room should be challenged.

I’m not sure whether the reporter ever set foot in a school to see how they work. This is perhaps why it seems they have completely mis-read the room. Because in the vast majority of schools – primary especially – the so-called ‘isolation room’ is not used as such, and certainly not in swathes.

Despite it’s provocative headline, the article itself even appears to self-contradict, conceding that ‘many trusts told Schools Week the rooms also allow for supportive conversations without disrupting lessons for other pupils.’

So here in fact is the real headline, the one that should have been reported: ‘How swathes of schools are expertly managing behaviour in the classrooms’.

Granted, some schools are not, and yes, these need to be addressed. Let’s not forget though that the representative sample of those 48 trusts that confirmed they do ‘isolate’ can’t be any more than about 5% of all schools overall. And of those that did respond, their definition of an ‘isolation room’ is likely to be varied.

What would you do?

Being able to manage challenging behaviour effectively is the ultimate hallmark of a really great teacher. No matter how good you might think you are at planning, marking and teaching a class, the moment a child kicks off, everything else counts for nothing.

By ‘kicking off’, I mean violent, red-mist-descending rage, and not the continual low-level disruptions of a bored learner. I’m referring to behaviour that is entirely uncontrollable and likely to compromise the safety of everyone in the room.

Let’s assume it happens during a lesson or an assembly full of parents. What do you do? Do you ignore it and allow the child to continue to trash the room, throw chairs, be abusive, damage property, injure themselves and others and hope it goes away? Or do you deal with it? Do you use everything that you learnt from your priceless Bill Rogers training and de-escalate the situation, or do you turn a blind eye? Do you fear that by removing them to a room you’ll be accused of using Draconian measures, or do you stand by what you believe is right?

Let’s imagine the same thing happened to one of your own children, or a nephew or niece, on a Saturday morning. You find yourself in Asda or in the kitchen at home and your four year-old goes into a right old tantrum.

Do you ignore it or do you remove them from the situation by perhaps taking them to the car or to their bedroom to calm down? Do you then leave them in the room all day on their own or do you remain with them for 20 to 30 minutes until they calm down and then allow them to go back?

And remember this, no matter how stressful, humiliating or challenging this situation may be, think yourself lucky that you don’t have another 29 young children to have to deal with, protect and look after.

So being a teacher when a child becomes angry is tough, which is why all the best schools have a well-managed intervention strategy that skilfully and sensitively removes the child from the situation and takes them to a designated room, regardless of whatever it might be called.

What I’ve noticed in the most challenging schools, particularly those in special measures, is that this system is either completely missing, or in place, but badly managed. What you tend to find are either empty classrooms, because almost every ‘naughty’ child has been removed so that someone else has to worry about them. Or, you get the complete opposite extreme where the pupils aren’t ever removed, instead resulting in unsafe lessons descending into chaos.

In turn, this leads to teacher burnout and illness and up steps an inexperienced supply teacher, and so the vicious circle continues.

A boy like Jermaine

I always remember a Year 2 boy – we’ll call him Jermaine, although that’s not his real name. I had recently become headteacher of a school in special measures and Jermaine was a child in desperate need of help.

There are loads of Jermaines up and down the country, including children that have witnessed all manner of atrocities from war-torn corners of the world. I’m sure you’ve taught one and know exactly what I mean.

Jermaine’s  home circumstances were horrendous; his single mum couldn’t control him and was in bits, his brothers were involved in local gangs, drugs and violence. He was exposed to watching all sorts of X-rated TV at home and his dad was in prison.

So it was entirely understandable that at certain points during the day, with no warning whatsoever, Jermaine would occasionally lose control and become unmanageable.

This is where the system kicks in. And by ‘system’ I mean senior leaders, led by the headteacher entering the classroom and supporting the teacher by removing the child to avoid further injury or distress to all concerned.

We’d do it always in pairs, my deputy and I, using team de-escalation techniques that we’d been trained in. We’d practiced the drill many times and so intuitively we set to work removing Jermaine to a designated room because we knew we’d never be able to reason with him all the while there was an audience. Besides, the other children were scared because Jermaine’s language was so abusive.

So off we all three go to the room. We’d get him almost there and then he’d spy an open door and would see his chance. He’d bolt, we’d lose him and so we start all over again. Eventually, we manage to get him to the room, Jermaine’s rage and anger at boiling point.

We won’t exclude him because he is safer at school than at home. In the past, fixed-term exclusions simply didn’t work for Jermaine, even though they did for others.

At this point, the risk of injury to himself and others has passed. Jermaine is still fuming, but at least he’s decided to curl up and lie on the carpet, gathering the over-stuffed cushions tightly into his chest. This is a good sign as we’ve seen this behaviour before; we are almost there.

On cue, we then leave him with two of our highly skilled teaching assistants, one of whom starts to read him a story whilst the other passes post-it notes to and fro for half an hour or so as he won’t talk.

Invariably, Jermaine starts to get hungry and is getting bored. He wants to be back with his friends. By now, a tearful mum has arrived and is grateful that we aren’t going to exclude her son. All the while, reams of forms have been filled in and filed and ongoing referrals made.

Jermaine wants to go back into class now, but first understands there will be a consequence for his actions, as there always has been and always will be. He acknowledges that what he did was wrong, is deeply sorry and says he won’t do it again.

Jermaine knows he still needs lots of help making the right choices. We didn’t know it then, but by the time Jermaine made it to Year 6, he’d turned himself around.

After a period of reflection and redirection, Jermaine is successfully re-integrated back into class. I go back in with him so that the rest of the children are reassured that it’s been dealt with as well as it has always been. Children crave consistency.

I linger for a few seconds, see that he’s on task, and then slip out unnoticed.

A reason for being

As I walk back to my office, smiling as I go, I reflect that these are the moments that will always stay with me. These are one of those ‘sliding door’ episodes, where for one of your flock, you know you are saving lives.

Above all, you know that you are making a real difference to the life-chances of a troubled young boy and his family. You remind yourself that this is why you trained to teach, and that this is why you love your job.

The school is quiet. Nobody, other than the classteacher, deputy and the TA have any idea what’s just happened. That’s the way it should be. I enter my office, close the door and take a moment to compose myself, feeling guilty as always because I know Jermaine’s teacher can’t do that. She still has a class to teach and must carry on, ever the professional.

As the adrenalin ebbs, my pulse starts to drop and the dryness in my throat disappears. I begin to feel calm again. A cup of sweet tea has magically appeared on my desk, along with a custard cream.

As I munch, I think about how effective the room is that we have on standby, should we need to remove pupils, and that despite its use being rare, I’m glad we have it.

Reverie over and back to work. Game face on, the phone rings and a parent of a child in Year 6 tells me I can stick my *******  school up my **** and so it begins, all over again.


The best investment you’ll ever make (Part 1)

road closed signage

With child poverty at record highs, if schools really are serious about transforming the life chances of young people then they need to unlock social capital. In this the first of two blogs, we unpack the different types of ‘capital’ and the challenges schools face.

I am currently reading a book called ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind’. The American author, Eric Jensen, asks two key questions: ‘What does being poor do to kids’ brains?’ and, ‘What can schools do about it?’ More importantly, the book attempts to demonstrate how schools can improve academic achievement of economically disadvantaged pupils at the same time as preparing them for ‘life readiness’. It certainly is a challenging brief.

According to a 2016 New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population in the UK are living in poverty. In Scotland alone the situation is even worse, with one in four. This means that in a typical classroom of 30 pupils, at least six children will be living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published last week in Scotland pulls no punches. The situation will not get any better it claims, unless political leaders take “the decisive steps needed to make the transformational change required.

This is nothing new. We’ve known this for years. For example, in a 2006 Audit Commission report, researchers concluded that if school leaders were serious about transforming communities, schools have to become far more proactive at releasing social capital, especially in the most deprived parts of the country. This is often why it is more challenging transforming a school in a deprived community (with low levels of social capital) compared with one that is not. Ofsted, please take note.

What is poverty?

According to Jensen, poverty is “a chronic and debilitating condition that results from multiple adverse synergistic risk factors and affects the mind, body and soul.” There is a tendency to assume that poverty only affects the working classes and those pupils living in cities or in large metropolitan areas. This is not the case, and Jensen’s book reminds us of all the different types of poverty, including the more familiar ‘absolute’ (day-to-day survival) and ‘relative’ (when income is below a national average). What is perhaps less familiar is the notion of ‘rural’ poverty, a concept that seems to be emerging more and more and is certainly true this side of the pond.

The issue is therefore as complex as it is ubiquitous. This is particularly why I was immediately drawn in to Jensen’s compelling narrative because he frames the entire book in the opening chapter with one stunningly simple question:

‘If life experiences can change poor kids for the worse, can’t life experiences also change them for the better?’

Pierre Bourdieu and the 3 types of capital

This is where social and cultural capital come in, which is why the question got me thinking again of the work of the influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. I revisited his writings last year when researching a chapter on Identity I wrote for The Working Class, edited expertly by Ian Gilbert. Bourdieu first coined the terms in the 1970s when attempting to construct a new social capital theory eventually crystallised in his classic study of French society called Distinction (1986). He even suggested that it is social and cultural capital that have the biggest influence over a child’s chances in school.

According to the theory, the more capital (or resources) a parent has in their possession, the more power and agency they have. In turn, the more advantaged they become. Social capital gives them a much-needed foot up the ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Before we explore cultural and social capital, we need briefly to mention ‘economic’ capital. According to Bourdieu, economic capital exists very much at the interchange of the two. Economic capital is essentially the total of all the assets that an individual may own and is very often an indicator of money or wealth. However, this also includes material wealth. On the surface, a person may appear to be economically wealthy but in fact they are not. This is often applicable to the families in our schools. They may well have a car, go on holidays and have a sky sports subscription. But because their social and cultural capital are locked up, they themselves remain disadvantaged because they don’t have access to the full range of opportunities available to those with greater capital.

Social capital

Social capital concerns itself with the connections we have in our lives. The more connections we have, then the more control. It means we can make better, more informed choices as opposed to having to just about make do. (Remember Theresa May’s JAMs? Those just about managing.) A person with lots of social capital is likely to have a number of friends and acquaintances at their disposal, some of whom may be colleagues they work with, ex-alumni or community members.

However, for too many of our families, the only acquaintances a mum or dad may have are those other parents they stand with on the playground. This may well be the sum total of all they have, especially if new to the UK. That said, these parents may still be able to release social capital through family connections. Social capital in the family home is often as important as economic or financial capital, especially when strong relationships exist between family members and parents act as strong role models.

Cultural capital

Once a person has a reasonable amount of social capital to hand they can then start to trade it in for cultural capital. Cultural capital includes those assets that are non-financial such as education, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, dress and even age. All of these are known to promote social mobility. Reciprocity is essential so that people know how to bargain, compromise and live in a more tolerant and pluralistic society.

Cultural capital runs a lot deeper though than simply connecting up the friendship groups an individual may have and introducing them to new cultural experiences. Too often, cultural capital is already too ingrained for it to be influenced. Cultural capital is essentially the accumulation over a lifetime of a set of social norms such as knowledge, behaviours, values and skills that a person can access at will.

In essence, it is the extent and ease to which a person can tap into these traits that demonstrates their status or standing in society. This, according to Bourdieu, is what determines class. The more cultural capital you have, the more likely you are to be middle class or above and therefore be more advantaged. However, do not mistaken this with elitism. Regardless of class or status, cultural capital has always been the mainstay currency when passing on traditions or oral history down through the generations, be it round the campfire, on cave walls, urban music or social media.

Ethical trading

Schools are uniquely placed to tackle the problem head on. Our classrooms, school halls and playgrounds are ideal locations to serve as virtual stock exchanges or trading floors for parents reluctant or unable to build capital. Teachers play a key role as as brokers. You need to grasp this economy and make it work, ensuring as many of your parents as possible are in credit, each with a healthy balance. In terms of your time, it could well become the best investment you ever make.

As with all investments, it comes with risk. You are certainly not going to get a quick-fix return, and so any investment plan must be for the long term, five to seven years I’d say at least. As an ethical investor, I’m in. I am far more likely to want to get out of bed each morning to pursue this worthy strategy than endlessly trying to wring another half a percentage point out of next year’s progress measures. It all comes down to moral purpose.

More questions than answers

Returning to the question posed by Jensen at the start, let’s instead now plug in ‘social capital’ rather than ‘life experiences’. In so doing, we can now ask: ‘If less social capital can change poor kids for the worse, can more social capital change them for the better?’

I wish I had the answer. I suspect it is not as simple as that, not least because there is no real and clear consensus as to the extent to which the capital is a fixed or variable asset in the first place. Take you for example. Do you have any idea how much capital you have? If you wanted more tomorrow, how would you go about getting it? I can’t even answer this question for myself, so I have no idea how I’m going to attempt to answer it in regard to the communities we serve. (And we have dozens across the trust, all very different.) And as for measuring it, well it can be a bit like trying to measure the world’s largest dot.

We also need to accept that in most cases, social norms and beliefs are so deeply entrenched within our communities that the extent to which an individual has access to social capital is already a pre-determined given. Nothing we will ever do will change it.  If this is the case, are we not just wasting our time and that we’d be better off doing something else? Can we really kid ourselves that merely by bringing parents together at school we can release more capital for them? And even if we did, does it really make a difference to how well a child achieves? If the answer is no, and we can’t intervene and exercise influence, then we may as well pack up and all go home now.

But we won’t. I do genuinely believe that the answer is yes, we can release capital, not least because we know from research that one of the key characteristics of communities with high social capital is trust. If we can start to engage with our families when the children are as young as possible, then time is on our side. For those of you working in primary schools, you have a distinct advantage. As with virtually everything we do in our schools it starts and ends in early years and so where better place to start than this?

In my next blog I’ll look at practical ways in which as a trust we’ve tried (and often failed) to increase the amount of social capital available to our families. Whether or not it made a clear and tangible difference, who knows. I’ll let you decide.


(Thanks go to @RADY_Louise, @fullonlearning and @mngroves for nudging me in the right direction.)


Why it’s time we all grasp the Ofsted nettle

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Following the publication of the recent Public Accounts Committee findings, Amanda Spielman finds she suddenly has an awful lot to do. And it might just sting.

There is no doubt that Amanda Spielman knows she’s in a job. As Her Majesties Chief Inspector, she is very welcome to her in-tray. It currently looks something like this:

#1: Write to the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) with thoughts on the main risks to schools’ effectiveness along with ‘the systemic causes of poor performance, including the impact of funding pressures’.

Many an academic would dedicate several years’ research on this. Ms Spielman has until next month.

No sooner has she fired this one off, she then has these four to deal with:

#2: Correct the misreporting in the 2017-18 Ofsted annual report 

#3: Write a report on the rationale for exempting outstanding schools from inspection

#4: Write another report on how Ofsted can gather better evidence, including from parents

#5: Write a further report on the most appropriate model for school inspection, ensuring all alternative models are evaluated, including costs and benefits

These are all due by December. Not December 2019, but the one at the end of this term. If she had planned to consult widely, then she will be disappointed.

Once these reports are duly dispatched, Ms Spielman then needs to swiftly turn her attention to explaining to MPs why turnover of inspectors is high and to account for the discrepancy between actual numbers of HMI and those budgeted for. It’s not due until next April, presumably because March has been designated ‘full’ in MP’s diaries.

The reason for HMCIs sudden additional workload is in response to the damming recommendations in the recently published PAC report. When you read it, it does appear as if Ofsted have had a bit of a mild ticking off. To an outsider reading the report – someone perhaps who has never heard of Ofsted or HMI – it may all seem rather odd, especially for an established century-old organisation funded to the tune of £151m.

You would not be forgiven for asking why it is not in a much healthier position given the number and urgency of the recommendations. This is a very good question, one Ms Spielman may struggle to answer.

It all seems as if the regulator has lost its way and is in need of a major reboot. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Ofsted; it can only work within its prescribed remit. That said, Ofsted appears to be slowly turning into one of the behemoths of the High Street, akin to a Woolworths or a British Home Stores that failed to adopt more modern ways-of-working in response to an ever-evolving landscape.

Unlike Ofsted, Woolies was a bit of a national institution. At the time of its demise many people were angry that such an established and well-respected company was allowed to go down the pan. As tempting as it may be to wish the same fate on Ofsted, we mustn’t.

In much the same way as supporters rally round an ailing local football team to prevent the administrator from stepping in, we must do the same for Ofsted. Whether we like it or not, a national regulator is here to stay. With that being so, the challenge that we now face is, what should it look like and why?

Accountability is essential in any successful ecosystem. The issue as I see it is that the school ecosystem has largely become unrecognisable compared to a decade ago. Even a high-tech social media company would struggle to keep pace, given the rate of continual change.

Add to the mix the fact that we can no longer agree on who is accountable to whom and why, it becomes blatantly clear that we need to take drastic action. I cannot remember a time when the DfE and HMI have been so divided.

What we need therefore is a moratorium. We need to pause and take a long hard look at the current landscape. Only then can we make a considered and collective response.

Rather than rush through a load of knee-jerk reports, Ms Spielman needs to be given time and scope to consult widely on what an intelligent, holistic and purposeful accountability system looks like in the modern age. Above all, it needs to be fit-for-purpose and take into account different contexts.

Schools are far more complex than they were a quarter of a century ago when Ofsted was born. We need to create a model that is intelligent enough to take this into account. A one-size-fits-all approach is too simplistic and lacking ambition.

To really understand the situation, Ms Spielman needs to talk to you and me, the children that you teach, the staff that you work with, the parents and communities that you serve. Her team need to sit down with governors, trustees, unions, professional associations and the finest researchers, both at home and abroad.

If Ofsted really do see itself as being a research body of note, then it needs to embrace and acknowledge all of the international research that is already out there in regard to the most successful systems of inspection and intelligent accountability.

It then needs to align this with the many levers and forces that impact on schools, many of which are beyond their control: Funding, poverty, recruitment, testing, workload and mental health, to name but a few.

Most importantly, once this has all been completed, the chief inspector then needs to tell the secretary of state exactly how it is, without fear or favour, a phrase much loved by the inspectorate.

I’ve got a lot of time for Ms Spielman. I want her to stay and see the job through. She needs to be given the freedom to make the changes that are required, root and branch. I suggest she starts by writing to MPs asking them to use some of the £44m that would be saved on school inspections to set up a year-long national task group. Once established their remit will be to design a contemporary accountability system that will see us in to 2020 and beyond.

In the meantime, whilst we continue to consult and debate on the matter, we have more than enough expertise in our schools to keep the inspection process ticking over. The system won’t come crushing down around our ears.

Between us, we can ensure our children remain safe without the need for grades or high stakes. The RSC budget alone is in excess of £30m so we have the cash as well. On top of that we can add the remaining £100m or so in Ofsted’s budget.

A small senior team of HMIs can continue to provide oversight and quality assurance. It surely can’t do any worse than the existing arrangement given the damming comments by the chair of the committee: ‘If the level of inspection continues … its credibility will evaporate’. I’m sure this is something that Ms Spielman would not want to happen on her watch.

The task though is huge, which is perhaps why over the years nobody has ever really wanted to grasp the nettle. It must be incredibly frustrating for HMCI that the matter has never been tackled before by previous incumbents. Instead, it’s been allowed to continue to a point that may now be beyond the point of no return.

With Ofsted seemingly stranded at a very large crossroads, the time is now right to act. We may never get another opportunity like this again. Ofsted in its current format is in urgent need of reshaping, rebranding, call it what you will. It cannot be allowed to continue to drift.

If the Public Accounts Committee really are committed to ‘providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need’ then ministers must realise that unless radical changes are made to the way we scrutinise our schools, the future of Ofsted – and indeed the integrity of the inspectorate –  remain in considerable doubt.


The Art of Standing Out by Andrew Morrish is available to buy here


What Gareth Southgate can teach us about leading

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(This post can is also available in the TES here.)

If the World Cup is not your thing, then look away now. But if you have a passing interest in leadership and how the manager of England can teach us a thing or two about the art, then read on.

On the eve of the greatest game this nation has seen for more than a generation, we need to revisit the last time we found ourselves in this situation – Wednesday 4th July 1990 and the semi-final of the greatest tournament in the world.

Living in Liverpool as a trainee teacher at the time, 1990 was a watershed year. Not only did it herald a brand new decade, but it arrived full of hope and expectation. The people of Liverpool were still coming to terms with Hillsborough and the ravages of 80’s Thatcherism. Reagan had now gone and his mate Gorbachev was well on the way to receiving his Nobel Peace Prize of that year. The cold war started to feel just that little bit warmer, the Berlin wall was nothing but rubble and England were marching on in the World Cup finals.

As a newly qualified teacher about to put the world in motion, New Order dominated the airwaves for a fortnight leading up to that fateful night in Turin. Half an hour down the East Lancs Road, that upstart city was smashing the music scene, not least with the birth of the Mondays’ Madchester movement. The Stone Roses and Inspirals all got in on the act that year but for me, none more so than James, with their much looked-over anthem, Come Home. Oh, how we wished football would do so that night.

It didn’t of course. Several weeks later I found myself still taking it out on the Banda machine in the staffroom as an NQT. Little did I know that it would be another 28 years before England get to do it all over again. So here I am hammering away at the keyboard, wondering where on earth the time went.

Euro 96 offered temporary relief. I was fortunate enough to get a suite of tickets, including group games at Anfield and Old Trafford, a semi-final (not England) and the final. I cannot tell you how excited I was to be seeing Gazza, Sheringham and Shearer at Wembley. What a team! It was two days after my birthday. I was due to get married later that year and we’d just bought our first house. I was high on life. Even the hapless Stuart Pearce redeemed himself that night.

And then up stepped Gareth Southgate.

You can imagine from that moment on I was never going to be his greatest fan. In fact I hated the man with a passion, refusing ever again to step into a Pizza Hut. In that one stupid kick he ballooned sky-high my hopes and dreams to see England in a final at the home of football.

Instead, I had to endure the lucky Germans once again ride their luck. We winced as they robbed us once more, this time having the cheek to steal it from our own backyard on the back of a Golden Goal. Heck, they didn’t even know they’d won the thing at the time and in so doing denied us the fun of penalties, ever the party poopers.

The passing of time has been kind. I’d by and large forgotten all about Gareth Southgate until he popped up as the FA’s head of elite development 15 years later. I do remember thinking, oh well, that’s another generation of young talent wasted.

But I was wrong. And now, after almost three decades, I want to put it right.

Gareth Southgate is a leader blessed with talent. He may not be up there with the most enigmatic and ebullient of managers – he’s no Venables or Robson, or Shankly or Klopp. But he’s certainly one of the most authentic and effective. Here’s why:

Class is permanent

The man oozes class, not just in the understated way he goes about his business, but in the way he engages with people. There is a genuine warmth in his eyes and as gatekeeper he is always willing to let (the right) people in. He epitomises what it means to be a host leader.

He looks the part as well, suave and in control. He understands the importance of branding. The FA may well have given him the blazer, but he has the confidence to ditch it and be seen only in his now legendary waistcoat. For those of us who were taught at headship school never to be seen without your jacket, this makes for welcome relief (especially in this heat).

Know thyself

It may be a philosophical cliché, but as maxims go, ‘know thyself’ resonates throughout the camp. This team of players know themselves exceptionally well. They are the first to concede that individually they are not world-beaters. Be truthful, how many of you had to Google the likes of Pickford, Trippier and Maguire when we played Tunisia? Hardly any of them would have made it into the starting line-ups of the seeded teams.

I read last week that the Swedish press actually like us as a footballing nation now because the arrogance and swagger shown by previous A-list players has gone. This new-found attitude starts and ends with Southgate. He knows the limitations of his team and creates a system to accommodate this.

He is honest about himself as well. When questioned about his penalty miss, Southgate’s answer was as refreshing as it was insightful: ‘I wasn’t technically good enough to perform that particular skill under pressure.’ He didn’t lay the blame elsewhere, just parked it, dusted himself down and went again. And now, here he is, ex-manager of Middlesbrough, about to grab the greatest prize of all.

Leading down the middle

Southgate knows that any successful organisation needs a strong spine right down the middle. Everyone instinctively knows who these people are. They are the ones you go to, the ones that always put in a shift above and beyond, no matter what. They step up, especially when the chips are down. The spine is what connects the brain to the heart, hands and feet.

The key to high performance is to do your job consistently well, day-in, day-out. It’s no good to anyone stepping up only when you fancy it. The same applies in sport, especially across the course of a long season, be it football, formula one or tennis. All elite performers know this, teachers especially. Southgate’s spine of Pickford – Stones – Henderson – Kane means that the team finally has a permanent back bone that not only props up the team but acts as the central nervous system for the team’s performance, health and well-being.


Successful leaders have a strong sense of Objective, Strategy, Tactics and Gareth Southgate is no exception. As manager, he knows that the single objective to win the world cup needs to drive all that they do as a team. Even at the start of the competition when no-one thought they had a hope, I’m convinced he told his players that this was their objective, their destination. He must have told them it enough times because you can now begin to see that they finally believe it.

With the objective and associated strategy in place and understood by all, the manager has stuck to it, regardless. He hasn’t tinkered with the system and has stayed true to his beliefs. The players all know what is required of them and why. For the first time ever we don’t have square pegs and round holes. Decide on your strategy first, communicate it with everyone, and then build your tactics around it.

When the strategy starts to waver, stick by it and instead change your tactics so that you get the job done. And if need be, write the tactics down on a water bottle and pass it to your keeper during a penalty shootout. It’s called preparedness and it works wonders.


What is remarkable about this set of players is that many of them have been playing together for years, in most cases under the watchful eye of Southgate. Although the team may appear youthful and inexperienced, as a unit overall they have come through the ranks together. Seven of the current squad all played for Southgate at Under-21s, Kane, Dier and Lingard included. There are massive lessons to be learnt here about the importance of nurture, succession and the role effective talent management can play, particularly when developing youth.

The role of the leader is crucial in making it clear to his team that he’s not a quitter. He is in it for the long term. This England squad was always meant to be a work-in-progress, with one eye on the World Cup in four years’ time. The Euros in 2020 were to be the real test. This was just a dress rehearsal.

The reason it’s now become the main stage is because there is buy-in at every level. The team enjoy what they do. Players know that if they mess up, they can go again. The crippling fear of failure has been removed. The prevailing culture is no longer about individual egos but the development of the team over time. It’s about continuous improvement at all levels where every marginal gain counts. You sense almost a siege mentality when the players cross the white line, something we’ve not seen before.

At long last we seem to have a team of players that understand that they don’t own the jersey, just the body within. Above all, they sense that there is a legacy to be left behind; that they are the privileged chosen few to play for the England yet to be born. Finally, the three lions seem to mean something.

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