Grammar schools? No thanks

Theresa May has announced that selection by ability will be allowed by the new Bill being introduced to parliament bringing back Grammar Schools for the first time in 50 years. 

I’m really against grammar schools for these reasons:

1. 11 is too young an age to take a test that could affect your life chances for ever.

2. Comprehensive schools enable young people to mix and learn with others from a range of backgrounds, rich and poor, black and white, high ability/low ability, able/disabled. This mix teaches young people how to live in a diverse community which is very important and leads to a more tolerant society

3. Comprehensive schools have successfully provided a curriculum for all abilities for 50 years

4. There has never been more accountability for schools to ensure that every pupil makes good progress regardless of ability. We are told that pupils are attaining at the highest levels ever, so where is the evidence that disadvantaged able children underperform? 

5. Grammar schools select the brightest children to join them. Parents all then want their children to attend them, teachers want to work in them, government spin tells the wider public they are the best schools. Grammar schools then go from strength to strength. The other schools then fill up with the children who failed the 11 plus and have much higher numbers of children with learning difficulties, behavioural problems, less supportive parents etc. Those schools have a much harder job than grammar schools but they will be compared to them (unfairly)

6. To ensure their children don’t end up in a sink school more affluent parents will pay for additional tuition for their children to make sure they pass the 11+. So middle class children then take up most grammar school places with the odd bright working class child to justify the vision that set them up in the first place.

7. The brightest 10% in grammar schools get the best teaching in the nicest schools. The 90% just have to accept this and get on with it. Who would want second best for their child? Grammars are great for those who get in…what about the rest? May said she wanted hard work and ability to be the ticket to the best opportunities, not privilege and background. But only 10% will get in, and most of them will be middle class, so it isn’t going to help the majority at all. 
Grammar schools will be a massive step backwards and will do real damage to the life chances of the many. We should be concerned that all children get a good education following a curriculum that is well suited to their skills and abilities. Grammar schools will create division and inequality. I despair. 

In my view the government should be concentrating on how to attract the best teachers and leaders to work in less affluent areas helping those schools to be fully staffed with the best teachers, just like grammar schools are. That’s the best way to help disadvantaged able pupils to achieve their potential 

World War One Battlefields

A week ago I went on a school residential visit.

The truth is that as a  headteacher I don’t get out much on visits, let alone residential visits, but they invited me and I accepted and am I glad they did.

We visited some of the battlefields and cemeteries in Northern France and Belgium linked with World War One. I hadn’t been before and I wasn’t sure what to expect, what I found will live with me forever.

We started at Ypres attending the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. A moving and thought provoking ceremony which takes place every night at 8pm.

The next day we went to the Somme region to see battlefields and cemeteries from the Battle of the Somme.

We went to Thiepval Woods where the British (Ulster Regiment) were dug in to trenches and surrounded by German positions on higher ground. On 1st July 1916 they went “over the top” into no mans land and pushed the German positions back eventually attacking the famous Schwaben Redoubt, a fiercely defended German front line. They showed us a trench in which was found a spoon fully in tact with the name and regiment of it’s owner inscribed into the handle. The owner of the spoon had been shot in the leg on 1st July 1916 and during his rescue it is assumed the spoon had dropped out of his sock. The spoon had a bullet hole through it and it is thought that the spoon had in fact saved his leg as he was able to return to the front line some months later.

Incredible.
When you are standing in the very place that such historical events took place you can’t help but be in awe of the bravery and fortitude of those men fighting in those battles. It must have taken unbelievable courage to leave that trench and run towards the guns of the Germans.

We visited the battlefield and burial site of the Barnsley Pals. The Barnsley Pals battalions took part in the attack on the town of Serre on the 1st July 1916. Both battalions suffered massive casualties and are remembered with a beautiful memorial by their cemetery. Seeing that made such a big impact on our pupils.


The cemeteries too were amazing. We visited Tyne Cot Cemetery for British Empire soldiers, around 12,000 are buried there. It was beautiful and peaceful and impressive. You leave feeling that those men were being remembered and celebrated properly for all that they did for our country.

Then we visited the German equivalent called Langemark Cemetery. There are 44,000 in here, mostly in a mass grave or buried 4-8 in a grave with small low squares marking each burial site. It is in stark contrast to the British cemetery, still peaceful but much less impressive.

So this blog is a bit different from my others but I have felt compelled to write it because of the rush of emotion I have felt since coming back. It is so important to show young people these places and for them to stop and think about what happened in the past and what those soldiers did for our liberty. The bravery shown by those men was amazing.

In the words of John Maxwell Edmonds, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow, we gave our today”

Snow day…no way!

 

So next week will be the last week of winter and as we move forward into Spring so the risk of snow in the weather forecast decreases, and let me tell you I am breathing a huge sigh of relief!

 

Since I became a headteacher I live in fear of of a prediction of the white stuff on a school day, in fact I have become a bit obsessed with it. I have downloaded three different weather apps to check the hourly forecast, I follow “UK snow updates” on social media and other weather focussed providers like @Britishweathersvs and @bbcweather, I even follow the presenters like @Hudsonweather (Paul the weatherman) and @LiamDutton (channel 4 news).

 

Throughout the winter I follow the mid to long range forecasts frequently and as soon as they start talking about a blocking high over Scandinavia preventing Atlantic lows moving east and the ensuing northerly wind turning any precipitation to snow I go on high alert. I start to check back more frequently and track the progress (thankfully many of the possible wintry scenarios don’t develop into the snowmageddon first predicted).

 

Gradually the forecasters start to talk about it and eventually we reach the night before the dump of snow. We’ve had two of these this winter and I barely slept both times. You see the problem for headteachers is that closing the school for snow is possibly one of the most stressful decisions they have to make. There is real pressure associated with it. In my case there are over 1000 pupils who need to be transported there and back and around 200 staff. I know that most of the pupils and staff would love the school to be closed. Snow days provide an unexpected and usually very welcome additional day off school that has been decided early in the morning by someone else. They can’t influence the decision they simply have to go along with it, and if that means a lie in followed by a day of fun in the snow then so be it. So most people in school are hoping like mad that school is closed.

 

On the other side of the decision are the many people who find the closure of schools really inconvenient. Businesses know that once schools shut their staff can’t get in because they have child care problems, productivity is badly affected. Town centres lose trade, money is lost, society grinds to a halt. There are also a lot of cynics waiting to be highly critical on radio phone ins and newspaper letters pages, “Schools these days,” they say, “always shutting at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t like that when I was a lad…” etc.

 

The bottom line is that headteachers have to make the call, and they have to do it at 6 in the morning and base it on the snow they can see outside their own front door (the progress of which has usually been checked several times through the night, the picture at the top is a view from my front room on a school morning), a site report from the school itself and a weather forecast.

 

This year we have had significant snow twice but remained open. First time there was a covering but not enough to stop the buses or cars. The second time there was very little when I drove in at 7 but it came down heavily at 8.30 in the height of rush hour. Once the decision is made you have to stick to it, I don’t believe in shutting through the day unless the weather alerts are red but in truth whatever you decide you will be criticised. We stayed open but got a real mixture of feedback about it.

 

So I for one am celebrating the coming of Spring with real enthusiasm. I really don’t like the dark nights, and I really don’t like snow fall on school days!

Teaching and learning at the heart of all school improvement

Holy Trinity teaching and learning magazine

This week I wanted to share something about things we are doing with teaching and learning at Holy Trinity.

The development of teaching is a critical part of the work of any school and for any headteacher. In fact I would go further and say that if leaders are spending time on anything which does not directly support or develop the quality of teaching in a school then they are spending their time on the wrong things.

As a through school we have a primary and secondary phase and it is important that both phases work collaboratively and understand each other’s work. One of the ways we try to achieve this collaboration is by having whole school teaching and learning meetings once each half term. In them we try to focus on whole school priorities and share best practice. People new to our school sometimes ask whether it is possible to find common ground between say a year 1 teacher and a secondary science teacher. Of course the answer is there is huge common ground between the two, there is huge common ground between all teachers. At the heart of all great learning is a well planned and organised lesson that builds on previous learning and is appropriately differentiated for the needs of all the learners. All teachers need to have good relationships with their pupils and to offer regular and constructive feedback which will deepen understanding. I could go on. In short the elements of great teaching and learning are the same whether you are teaching 3 year olds or 16 year olds, so regular whole teaching staff meetings are great ways of developing professional learning across the school.

Innovation and creative approaches in the classroom are actively encouraged and just before Christmas our Assistant Head created a new teaching and learning magazine to enable some of these ideas and approaches to be shared. I think this is a wonderful new initiative and I have attached a coy of it to this blog to let you see them.

Hopefully in time we will build up a library of teaching resources that can be referred to by all.

I am interested to hear what you think about this magazine. Do let me know.

Aspiration

Is one school just like another? Are all school pupils the same? Is it fair to say that every school, regardless of its cohort of pupils, should achieve exactly the same?

No. All pupils are born with the same potential, but some pupils have bigger barriers to learning than others, and the biggest barrier of them all is aspiration.

The definition of aspiration is, “The strong desire to achieve something, such as success.” Desire burns within, it is intrinsic, you can’t teach people to have the desire to do well, that feeling has to grow from inside and link to a clear understanding about what success is.

Now success of course comes in lots of different forms. Health, wealth and happiness are the most usual measures and those three things aren’t necessarily linked – money can’t buy happiness, being healthy doesn’t make you wealthy.

The research is clear that children from more affluent backgrounds are advantaged over children from less affluent backgrounds from birth. 

Middle class children are more likely to have a family that want and expect them to do well at school and when they are in danger of failing, to have tutors and mentors employed to get them over the line. The culture they come from teaches them from birth that success in education is the key to the door for success in life so those children want it. The flame of aspiration is lit.

It isn’t just middle class children though. In the London borough of Newham around 98% of the inhabitants are from multi-ethnic minority backgrounds, many of them are immigrants into the UK. The families there have a similar socio-economic background to people in Barnsley and see their opportunity to live in Britain as a gift, an opportunity to better themselves. They have often sacrificed much to come to the UK but one of the great benefits is that their children can be educated in English schools. If they work hard at school they can gain qualifications that can give them successful lives. The culture and background of those children teaches them constantly that they are being given a chance to live a life their parents could only dream of, so grab it! The flame of aspiration is lit.

Barnsley is reinventing itself. In the past it had an industrial heritage that gave school leavers a choice of jobs. Regardless of how well you did at school you had a job in the pit, or the glass works, or the steel industry. That job gave you a house, some money to go on holiday each year, some money to socialise with. It gave you self respect. The culture of the area taught children that school didn’t really matter, it was something you went to until you were old enough to start work but failing in school had no consequence on the rest of your life. Jobs were plentiful and you didn’t need a raft of qualifications to get one.

The decline of the mining and other industries hit towns like Barnsley very hard. Suddenly those jobs that were on a plate weren’t there any more, the jobs weren’t there but the culture that school didn’t matter remained. There was little aspiration.

Talk to the leader of Barnsley council, Steve Houghton about the council’s response to the closure of the pits and he will point at the brand new, state of the art, purpose built secondary schools one of which I am very proud to lead. He will say that the future of Barnsley is entirely reliant on children doing well in school. The challenge is to persuade the pupils in school now and their families that aspiring to do well in school is worth the effort. In our school we are trying to raise aspiration. We have a stars project which rewards pupils for broadening their horizons. We follow the Archbishop of York young leaders award which encourages young people to make positive changes in the community, to “be the change they want to see.”

We recognise that lack of aspiration is a huge barrier to success in school and ultimately success in life. Remaking Barnsley is all about changing the way people think about themselves and their town, but it will be the raising of aspiration that will have the biggest and most positive impact.

Inclusion…what’s the incentive?

How inclusive are you?

I think my values are very inclusive. Schools should reflect society and every child regardless of ability, gender, sexuality or nationality should be welcome in any school. The problem is that government policy is making schools less inclusive.

We all know that schools are judged by government through Ofsted and that Ofsted are told by government to use attainment and progress in external exams or tests as the basis for deciding how well a school is doing. If the children attain and progress well in a school compared to national averages that school will be judged as good. 

So what are the barriers to good attainment and progress?

The quality of teaching is undoubtedly the biggest help or hindrance to pupils. If children are taught well they will achieve well, if they are taught poorly they will achieve poorly. But ask any good teacher whether every class is the same, whether every class they teach achieves the same and they will probably say they don’t. They are likely to tell you that some classes have pupils that are keen and eager to work, that love learning and that are a pleasure to be with, whereas other classes are dominated by more challenging pupils who aren’t as keen and eager, have larger numbers of pupils who have learning difficulties or who behave badly and present far greater challenges for the teacher. Of course the good teacher will adapt their teaching to take account of the needs of the learners in front of them but it would be wrong to assume that every class is the same, that the ease of teaching is the same regardless of the group in front of you. Some classes are really hard work!

So, some groups of pupils are easier to teach than others, some are easier to help achieve than others. Ofsted judge you on achievement regardless of your cohort of pupils. They only care about the bottom line. Consequently a perverse incentive is created to improve the bottom line any way you can. If some pupils are harder to teach, perhaps because they are badly behaved or disaffected and you can move them on by telling them it would be in their best interest to move because they are about to be permanently excluded or using local behaviour panel mechanisms, suddenly that difficult pupil is off your books and becomes someone else’s problem. Ofsted love it because you are seen to be tackling behaviour robustly, you are seen to have high expectations and high standards, and the consequence of your action is that standards rise in your school. 

What isn’t acknowledged is that by ridding your school of those pupils you are excluding the most vulnerable and passing your problems onto someone else. Schools get no credit at all for working with more challenging cohorts, in Ofsted’s eyes it is all about results.

So by forcing Ofsted to focus on results at all costs the government is encouraging schools to be less inclusive.

If the government are truly wanting schools to be inclusive, and surely this would be an aspiration all political parties would subscribe to, they need to rethink Ofsted’s focus. Genuine credit needs to be given to schools that provide for the pupils they have, that spend additional resource on including the most challenging pupils, that demonstrate a commitment to their original cohort. The incentive to be anti-inclusive needs to be removed.  

New year new blog

I am excited today to have set up a new blog page for myself. I quite often feel as though I have a lot to say, my problem is finding the time to say it! Hopefully now I have reduced my reasons to avoid stating my view.

The spring term is upon us and brings with it the usual excitement for what is to come in 2015. For my school we know that is unlikely to be an inspection as we had one 5 months ago. We did very well in that inspection getting a good judgement but in all honesty there has been very little release in the pressure since their visit. The relentless focus on exam outcomes means that you never feel relaxed or at ease as a headteacher. If anything the pressure gets even stronger as you have to maintain or preferably improve those results, even when you know one cohort can differ from another.

So bring on the new year. I hope it brings happiness to all the readers of this blog and to all in the Holy Trinity community. Happy new year everybody and see you again on here soon.