Tuesday, 24 September 2019

CHOOSING A SECONDARY SCHOOL



Around this time every year thousands of families complete their secondary school choices. The lucky ones can send their 11 year olds to a good local school that, like a house purchase, just feels right. There’s lots of sound educational research showing that most kids do well when their parents support them in schools (and many do badly when their parents don’t.) Parents who make sure their kids read, do a bit of homework, talk with them occasionally and make sure that phones and games machines are nowhere near their bedrooms, these parents may enjoy the secondary school experience more than they had feared.

For those who are struggling to make the choice – and often this is limited by postcode and income – here’s my 3rd Choosing A Secondary School blog.

In East Hertfordshire some people will choose to send their children to private schools because they have more money than sense and/or they want their neighbours to know that they are better than them. My money is a measure of my worthiness and if I have struggled to pay then my sacrifice is my justification. 7% of children are in private schools, many in the low achieving hippy-rich mickey mouse institutions we have in the shires.

Many private schools are still entering children for iGCSEs rather than GCSEs. The Department for Education said that iGCSEs are sub-standard and not fit for purpose. There are no league tables, national curriculum, SATs or Ofsted inspections for private schools. Just give them your money; tell your friends.

In most areas of the country private schools rank no higher than state schools. I have taught and reared children who have done better in exams than every private school child in our nearest, snobbiest, £34,000 a year, most esteemed private school.

The slouching, silver-spooned Rees Mogg didn’t like the bedclothes at Eton so nanny came every week to change them for the 11 year old.

Some parents make a conscious, rational decision to get rid of their kids for as long as possible by sending them to boarding schools and paying up to £40,000 a year.  It’s like being in care without the stigma and children do mess with one’s social life. Young people’s prisons cost at least double per inmate and the food isn’t nearly as good. Private school will possibly teach your children the manners parents should have instilled but, as the short story writer Saki said, “if you truly want a boy to be vicious you have to send him to a good public school.”

So, on to more practical advice on how to choose a secondary school.

Go Local
I want to see local schools which welcome all children who can access the curriculum. I want everyone in our area to have a good school where their children can be safe, happy and successful; a school that unites people in a community, regardless of race, religion, gender or wealth.
Sort of, a school high on morality, community: an equal opportunity meritocracy.
If your child is in a local school they can walk in with their friends, attend before-school and after-school clubs, go for tea with their friends, make friends for life and just be normal. Much of what we offer children is the social interaction with other children and being ferried in and out by parents does not help anxious children develop confidence. Local families with a local school at the centre of their community.

Schools are better now
If you are choosing a new school for your children, please understand that the vast majority of our schools are much better than when you went to school yourself. Teachers are better teachers and lessons are fuller, better resourced, supported by online software and carefully planned.

Talk to People
Your neighbours and their children know a lot about their school.  It’s best not to accost stray children for interrogation as our CCTV and Safeguarding procedures are really good.

Selection by Religion
I have written many times about my concerns for faith schools. They are by design separatist and divisive and encourage social segregation. However, faith schools can now admit 100% Catholics, Jews or Muslims and will safely prevent your children coming into contact with people with different ideas on the meaning of life, relationships and gods.
I worry about the curriculum in all schools, with the drive in reverse gear to the artless, toneless mind-numbing rote learning, speed writing and endless test-practising menu characterised by largely irrelevant SATs in Year 6 and Year 11 GCSEs that measure very little. I was taught the Catholic view of many things, which included virgin birth, resurrection and the chastity of priests.

Take care with Ofsted
One of our local outstanding schools was last inspected 8 years ago – a school lifetime – staff, children, headteacher and governors have changed. I have previously reproduced research showing that many of our “outstanding” schools have the highest pupil scores on admission in Year 7. The correlation between Year 6 attainment of a school’s intake and Ofsted rating is stunning. It is statistically harder for mixed comprehensives to satisfy Ofsted than for a fat man on a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
I wonder if the point of secondary admissions is to stop the children most in need of a good education actually getting in to the best schools. And, inviting approbation and condemnation from my colleagues, some headteachers seem actively engaged in turning away these children.

Selection By Grammar School
Apparently (they got consultants in for this) if you select the kids doing best at tests at age 11 and put them in one school, that school will have the highest achievers in GCSE tables five years later. Stunning. Apparently, it is also hotter near the Equator.
However, real school achievement is the progress made by students in the time between joining the school at age 11 and leaving at age 16.  Progress 8 tells parents how well bright kids did and grammar schools are not always the best at this.
Rather than taking a small proportion of bright poor kids and sticking them in grudgingly benevolent grammar schools let’s put massive resourcing into the schools in poorer areas. Get the best teachers with higher salaries and subsidised housing and create the infrastructure and local economy to employ the high achieving youngsters. Admire and emulate virtually all of Scandinavia.
Or we could select all the academically able kids and put them in schools with thatched roofs. Then, when they achieve good GCSEs we can call for the spread of thatched roofs throughout the country.

Comprehensives Selecting Too
If the school has a test – usually looking for musical or linguistic ability is that your good school? How can comprehensives select their students?
If a school, “tries hard with kids with special needs but is not very good at it,” is that a sign of excellence?  Look out for the schools that tell parents that the school is jolly good with exceptionally bright children.

Schools defend themselves:
Why should schools admit kids who need a little extra help, children who should flourish in an outstanding school, if there is a risk that Ofsted will criticise, league tables condemn and parents choose elsewhere?

NHS hospitals could prosper by turning away sick people as unsuitable.
Some of the “outstanding” schools find educating children who need a little help the equivalent of climbing mountains in ankle length skirts, which brings us to,

Selection By School Uniform
For some parents the uniform rules can be a tremendous signal of a school’s worth: if it is unfashionable and expensive and can only be bought in one shop there’s your good school? I was speaking with a parent whose son’s blazer cost £130, and very pretty it was too. They may be acting illegally but who’s going to tell? I bet his blazer has never been a goalpost.

Selection by Income
Some schools expect an annual “voluntary contribution” from parents – a useful message for families struggling to survive on low incomes at a time when wages have fallen behind prices. I know of a school where the USA football trip – already out of many budgets – demanded that each player’s family bought a £1000 Quiz Night table. Another school requires every student to have their own iPad. Helps keep out the riff raff.

Beware Open Evenings
My imaginary, “How to be a Headteacher” course tutors us in how to describe our schools. On Open Evenings we are all unique, have a special ethos where moral values are important and teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do.(I love that bit) Emphasise that, “We teach a traditional academic curriculum and have the highest standards.” One must state, “We have many gifted and talented students,” and then the truisms, “We have the highest standards of behaviour,” and “We aim to help all students fulfil their potential?”

Can you imagine a Headteacher suggesting, “Our standards and expectations are low; we tolerate ill-discipline, kids are scruffy on purpose, our curriculum is useless; we don’t care if they progress or do well?” Quite obviously, the opposite of what we say at these events is unimaginable – “the law of the ridiculous reverse” (Simon Hoggart quoted in an excellent “Choosing a secondary school” article in The Guardian 23rd September 2014)

Emphasise Latin if you’ve got it. My daughter achieved a very good Vocational Latin grade that would endear her school to the pariah, Michael Gove.

As I approach my 20th Open Evening as a Headteacher I am aware that these events are proof that every science lesson contains explosions or volcanic actions and that PE teachers wear suits. One must never consider how many children, on how many occasions, contributed to the building of a wonderful car. The Headteacher, my friend, Kit Car Steve has retired; the car lives on.
The money a school has in its accounts was allocated to schools to educate children. Thousands of pounds are spent on glossy brochures, designer websites and superfluous adverts. Pose the children carefully by the nice tree; blonde girls with ponytails most prominently.
School facilities may well be very good but say, “state of the art,” “the envy of others” or even “the finest in the country,” and pray that no-one asks for the evidence. A few computers in a library can be state of the art to some of us older people.

Tour the School During the Day
Are the children happy, busy, silent, occupied, interested, active, co-operating? Is the school well resourced, warm, well heated, ventilated, safe? Ask about extra curricula matters, staff turnover, pastoral care and watch the interaction between staff and students and between the students themselves.

Choose your own criteria and be very upset by girls’ skirt length.

Finally...
Tell schools your Level 6, gifted daughter plays violin for England and watch them fall over themselves to form a disorderly queue for her admission.

Dennis O'Sullivan

Friday, 6 September 2019

Why You Shouldn’t Think of Teaching


Has there ever been a more obvious time when UK politics uses “The Joker” as its theme, “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.” Whatever else is true in these politically desperate times, Corbyn and Johnson pay little heed to education. There are 10.2 million school age kids in the UK but they don’t have a vote so they don’t matter. And, unlike many of the countries held up as examples of excellence, UK parents don’t always prioritise education when voting. An exaggerated pre-election spendthrift budget and we’re meant to forget the last decade of austerity?

We have a teacher recruitment crisis in our schools. Look at the number of unqualified, supply or overseas teachers employed in any school you know.

An 8% cut in school funding over the last 9 years (Institute for Fiscal Studies) and year on year below inflation pay deals ensures potential, budding and experienced teachers look elsewhere. The phrase, “Come on if you think you’re hard enough,” may aptly apply to some teachers’ lives in some London schools and there is a recruitment crisis in London as everywhere else. Today the government announced that new teachers will start on £30,000 in 2023. That’s sort of ignoring the fact that London teachers already start on £30,479.

It will help recruitment if teachers are better paid but this year’s unfunded 2.75% with inflation at 2.0% is hardly going to turn heads.

The most recently sacked education minister, Damian Hindes, told us to teach older students how often to change their bedsheets. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-48926535) There’s a man with his finger firmly on an alternative reality button – maybe it isn’t just Johnson, Stewart and Gove on various marching powders.

The new unelected (brief?) prime minister, Boris Johnson has privately, and expensively educated all his legitimate children. He has committed to “levelling up education,” which is a profoundly misleading and potentially meaningless term. (https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/analysis-the-prime-ministers-promise-to-level-up-school-funding/) He will ensure that our kids are funded to £5,000 which is less than 14-16 year olds already.

It’s a wonder that his eldest daughter survived school costing him £33,000 a year or his eldest son at the £27,500 a year Westminster School. His commitment to state education is only in the state schooling of his youngest daughter, Stephanie, but then he fought a court case to deny her existence. Boris does not understand nor want to understand the lives of working families or the challenges to their schools .

Recently, on my favourite 3 Counties Radio I was surprised to silence the presenter discussing teacher’s pay. I have a pay slip, dated October 2010 for one of our teachers and also his payslip in June 2019. His take home pay had gone up, in 9 years, by £5.52. Inflation was 17.7% for that period.

State funding of special needs is in crisis and there are so many SEND kids now. We have experts telling us that kids have SAD (Separation Anxiety Disorder) ODD (Opposition Defiant Disorder) ASD, ADHD, BAD (Behavioural Affective Disorder) EBD, MLD and SLD as well as a host of others requiring every adult in school to understand the condition and enact individual teaching programmes for maybe half the class.

My school receives not a penny extra to teach these children, and the increasing number of state schools refusing to admit or teach these children receive not a penny less. How can parents send their children to state comprehensive schools which routinely refuse to admit children the school considers ‘not good enough.’

I wonder how we plan for a child with Intermittent explosive disorder (IED) The disorder is typified by hostility, impulsivity, and recurrent aggressive outbursts. People with IED essentially “explode” into a rage despite a lack of apparent provocation or reason.

And she did!

Of the secondary school headteachers aged under 50 who were appointed in 2013, 31 per cent had left by 2016. One in five primary school headteachers quit their posts over the same time period, data from the Department for Education (DfE) reveals.


If we had 30% of train drivers leaving within 3 years there would be an outcry and few trains. Who has ever shown that they care whether there’s a shortage of nurses or teachers?

At a time when parents are very busy and their kids are entrenched on social media and / or computer games, there are growing reports of stroppy parents displaying what I like, now, to term PPP (answers on a postcard please).

For politicians and Daily Mail journalists there is a simple solution to every problem in society : Schools should fix it.

We are responsible for Sex.

Ask your kids how much they enjoy their teachers delivering Sex Education and you can see why they don’t always think we are telling the truth. We employ a theatre group, Tip of the Iceberg, to work with our students on all sorts of Relationships, Expectations, Cyber Safety, LGBTQ+ awareness matters right at the centre of adolescents’ lives and worries.

Or I could do it and maybe teach them some of my catholic Irish prejudice and guilt.

We are expected to look out for Extremist Tendencies amongst our students and we have a legal duty to report children we fear are prone to extreme ideology (That’s EDL and Isis type groups)

In 2017/18, a total of 7,318 individuals were reported to Prevent , exactly 33% by schools and colleges (A fascinating government report:

Schools have to be on the lookout for cases of Female Genital Mutilation and we were instructed to talk with an African girl returning from holiday to check for signs of FGM. Thousands of teachers have done online training on this and we are happy to embrace women’s safety and it is shocking to read an official estimate of 137,000 women in the UK having suffered FGM (https://www.virtual-college.co.uk/resources/free-courses/recognising-and-preventing-fgm)

Our staff have raised over 1,000 Records of Concern about safeguarding, neglect, poverty, self-harm, eating disorders, depression, isolation, domestic abuse, drugged and drunk parents, bereavement, crime, bullying and violence in just 12 months. We work with numerous under-funded, hamstrung agencies to try to help the children and we employ as many support staff as our budget can bear.

We really do want to educate the child about the world and themselves and we would love to be able to point troubled children and parents to where they will receive practical help.

But, our jobs depend on the pointless KS2 SATs where 28% of our 10 year olds had extra help on top of the endless revision and there are 6 categories of underachievement with “Below, Below, Below, Below, Below, Below (age related expectations) now replaced by PK6. The kids need help not labels. The schools need to be let teach Art, Music, Geography, History, Technology. PE and the children need to be learning about problem solving, teamwork and resilience whilst enjoying being 10 years old. Or schools may hammer the subordinate adverbial clause, because SATs demand it (the last 4 words forming, of course a subordinate adverbial clause – look how useful that is.)

We are happy to do what we can and want to see the world a better place.

Knife crime is killing our children and we teach about knives, show stark videos , have police officers explaining to assembled kids, reformed gang members talking to parents and we stay vigilant. I permanently exclude anyone with a weapon in school but I’m not sure we can allay the fears of teenage boys outside our buildings.

We are also being asked to sort out

Gangs, Drugs and County Lines

Mental Health issues including anxiety, depression and self-harm

Obesity

Sexting and Access to Pornography.

We have been asked to identify children at possible risk of succumbing to Violent Crime. The Home Secretary has threatened teachers and nurses with arrest if they don’t notify the police of suspicions of children at risk. (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/teachers-and-nurses-could-be-responsible-for-not-spotting-youth-violence-warning-signs-a4106481.html?

As the curriculum grows in content and narrows in scope; we watch the arts relegated to lunchtime clubs and technology decimated by funding crises.

We have so, so many accountability measures, some imposed by over zealous ambitious assistant headteachers justifying their position and others by government departments almost clueless in their assumptions. Recently they demanded we fill a spreadsheet showing that all 172 children in Year 10 were studying Textiles at the same time because one group of 12 was so doing.

But our own school leaders seem obsessed with plans, meetings, targets, evaluations and allocating blame when they should be reducing the layers of management, clamouring for resources and celebrating their teachers’ work.

Is managing student behaviour getting any easier? Are the support services – like youth workers and mentors – in place to help disaffected children prosper in our areas of high unemployment and poor schools? Do we see signs that Mr Johnson wants to dedicate resources to building self-esteem, ambition and hope, or does he want to build prisons?

We are teaching more, better than ever before and teachers overcome government attacks as best they can. So when Michael Gove promised that more students will fail exams, we just worked harder. The proportion “passing” has got to stay the same each year and there will always be the artificial, harmful and unscientific 66-34 pass- fail figures published no matter how much better we teach and the kids learn.

Oh, for goodness sake, teaching is not worth the heartache.

So why on earth do they do it? Why Do Teachers Teach? I asked teachers and made notes of direct quotes:
  • Within moments of entering the school a kid smiles hello.
  • I come back in September and the children are so pleased to be back in school and they’ve all grown.
  • Adults come up to me on the street to thank me.
  • I’ll never forget the boy who 10 years later called at my home to thank me for saving his life. All I’d done was spend some time encouraging his ambition when everyone else was just frightened by his solvent abuse.
  • There’s a rush of seeing the results for my exam classes.
  • The realisation that I have helped them achieve and move on in learning.
  • Sometimes I can be the only person who listens to a child, who cares what they think and wants them to develop as people.
  • Being trusted by the students.
  • I love it when they challenge preconceptions.
  • Being around young minds.
  • I love my subject; I think it’s really important and helps young people grow intellectually.
  • It’s amazing when a student opts to study my subject when they have a chance not to : GCSE, A Level University.
  • Seeing kids enjoy learning, particularly when it’s in my subject.
  • When a student achieves what she thought she couldn’t.
  • Seeing kids learn and knowing - I did that.
  • Watching children’s knowledge , skills and understanding develop over time.
  • Kids are so funny.
  • Teaching is never boring.
  • Every day is different, every class changes according to the time of day, a wasp or the wind coming from outside the classroom or from inside a child.
  • Making a difference to students’ lives.
  • Sometimes helping break a family cycle of underachievement, unemployment and poverty.
  • I love having the freedom to teach, trusted by SLT and free of bureaucratic restrictions and petty criticism.
  • Being able to try different things in the classroom, to experiment and keep trying to improve.
  • Nothing, anywhere in my life beats the lightbulb moment – when a child “GETS IT”
  • I work long hours in term time and have great holidays.

Our teachers have risen above the political interfering, insults from Michael Gove, apathy, ignorance and condescension from the Eton Boys. Teachers will be upset by the odd shouting parents and rarely suggest the cause of dispute is really the parent’s own problems, issues and struggles. There are troubled kids – we didn’t create social inequality, unemployment, drug, alcohol and domestic abuse – and we try to help them as best we can. That half the people in prison were excluded from school is a result of social problems and awful support, not caused by teacher indifference. Our teachers love what they do and they do it with all their energies and commitment. In happy schools we are cult-like in our obsessions to help children learn about the world and their place in it. Some of us have done decades hoping that we will help develop the changers, leaders and good people of the near future and yes, there is no more moral or political job in society. We are missionaries and agitators, challenging conformist ideology. Outside of family, our students learn post 16 that they never meet anyone, anywhere who cares more about them than their teachers.

So, why teach?

You still don’t know?

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

SMART TECHNOLOGY, OUTSMARTED

Lesson time is possibly now the only waking moments when children are more than a metre from their phones or computers. With end of year exams for all students as well as GCSEs and A levels this is a difficult time for parents, trying to balance wanting them to do their best and maintaining family sanity. Tears, tantrums and insomnia, despair and feelings of uselessness – and that’s just the teachers – test all families. A little revision is never enough but does help. I have a little advice for parents on this.

Before I do: kids used to watch trivial TV all night before phones; I watched Crossroads for years. Before proper TV we used to do all sorts to avoid studying. I mainly annoyed neighbours, playing out. I was asked to leave Cubs because I had trouble, aged 10 with the pledge of allegiance to an English queen. Bill and I carried on doing Bob-A-Job long after we left. I even used to play football on Protestant Church land – thus risking eternal hell fire, or so Father Bryant told us, just before he had to explain some naked behaviour on a Lourdes pilgrimage.

Phones and computer games are addictive. Many boys play games every day from the time they get home to the time they try to get to sleep. Pulling away can be hard but like most addictions it can be controlled.

Many revisers put the ever-pinging phone in a drawer when studying - maybe for half an hour at a time.

One boy negotiated and agreed that parents take his games console to work so he is free to study. One girl is weaning herself off her phone because social media is ruling her life. Decisive kids, the pair of them.

Children are exposed to drugs and sex earlier than ever before and our task as parents and teachers is not to hide them away from such issues, because we really can’t cotton-wool them that much, but to teach them the skills to be able to make their own decisions. And, contrary to established hysteria computer games are good for you: manual dexterity , problem-solving, competitiveness and creativity are all enhanced. And, it keeps them quiet and off the streets.

Now, onto my butchering of the inimitable Diane Carey’s more scientific approach to computer addiction.


We have an exam regime which requires young people to interpret, reason, analyse and apply a whole load of new knowledge to a wide range of unfamiliar contexts. Curiosity, adaptability and a willingness to learn new things are key skills for our rapidly evolving workplace. We have to prepare our students for this. We must foster in them a desire to think creatively, to be challenged and to keep going as they struggle to work out their own solutions to old and new problems.

The future will be a very different place, particularly in employment. And we are facing a potentially sinister, far-reaching threat to our young peoples’ capacity to learn.


Business exists to sell its products and what the phone and computer companies want is our Attention: It’s worth a whole load of money and there is a limited supply of it to go around so companies are turning to increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued to their product.

Companies employ experts who know how to programme smart technology to influence the evolutionary instincts of the human mind. You might think that this is bit extreme bit it’s not called ‘race to brain stem’ for nothing. You can even take a course in it.
These people know how to get us hooked. Every time we open up Facebook, You Tube, Instagram, we activate a super computer, pointed straight at our brains, trying to work out its next move to keep us plugged in.
They are creating our social reality. It’s personalised news feeds, video feeds, photo feeds and adverts – all perfectly curated to our specific interests, based upon our click history.

Social media stimulates biochemical responses. You think about checking your phone. Has anyone responded to your Instragram post, your last WhatsApp message? This generates cortisol, which makes you feel anxious. You need to get rid of that anxiety so you check your phone. What you see then messes even more with your brain. A couple of people, whose opinion you really value, like your post. Those little pings of social affirmation stimulate the brain’s reward system to produce dopamine. It feels good. You want that again. Or maybe no one has responded, or even worse, made a negative comment; this releases more cortisol so you have to keep checking to relieve the anxiety, And so it goes on.
Dopamine is the brain’s way of rewarding us for a job well done, a problem solved. From an evolutionary perspective, dopamine rewarded us for solving a problem or making a decision most likely to sustain life. Once rewarded for solving a problem we were driven to seek out the next challenge. Hence the progress of humanity from the plains of Africa to where we are now. Computer game architects replicate this process in the virtual world, but at a much more rapid rate, dishing out strategically timed rewards, leading to continual surges of dopamine.

Cocaine works by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain. That’s why it is addictive.

There are increasing numbers of commercial companies developing, using and selling the technology of addiction.
Evolutionary physiological adaptations, essential for the journey from dependent child to independent adult, make adolescents particularly vulnerable to these effects. Firstly, adolescence brings a peak in the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine, a hypersensitivity to feedback and rewards. In addition, the high level of brain plasticity at this age means that the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to external influences as it continually remodels itself in response to the world around it.

Abstinence alone will not cure an addiction. That space needs to be replaced with meaningful activities that stimulate, enrich and fulfil.

Let's have a look at what makes a great computer game.

A good game uses achievable, incremental challenge, based upon current ability. Gamers know what they are trying to achieve. Feedback and rewards are frequent, but not so prolific as to render them meaningless. Opportunities to join forces online to overcome challenges satisfy the adolescent drive to collaborate with and impress peers. Upgrades and add-ons are provided for those who are starting to get bored.

Isn’t this what great teaching is?

We have access to all of these strategies.

Through great teaching we can activate the challenge, reward, dopamine response.

The best lessons use the incremental stepping up of challenge to maintain pace, some differentiation to make sure that everybody is involved, strategic use of rewards and the opportunity to collaborate where appropriate.

And when students are learning, the same will most likely be true for us: Our goals are clear, the challenge is high, our skills match the challenge; we’re getting immediate feedback from kids and adjusting so that we can meet their needs and accomplish the goal. And when it happens, it is synergistic and rather marvellous.

So yet another area where the ever decreasing numbers of teachers can become the saviours of the human race, replacing obsessive computer games with powerful, inspiring learning opportunities.

And the added bonus is that everyone involved gets a nice big hit of dopamine.

Dennis O'Sullivan

Monday, 11 March 2019

Reducing Teacher Workload

 
Ofsted reported that I look for ways to reduce teacher workload. I didn’t contribute to either of the government’s two working groups on teacher workload nor have I asked staff to fill in the three surveys recently received. I did present to a group of headteachers but we really need teachers to put pressure on heads.

So, a blog on Teacher Workload with just a little bit of invective to moisten the readers’ way.

Like, how much over £200,000 does the Headteacher of a West London school get paid, and how many of the 29 Chief Executives of academy chains questioned by the minister, Lord Argyle take £150,000+ from already depleted budgets?

Our government has collapsed under a torrent of incompetence. All non-Brexit business has been relegated to insignificance as MPs manoeuvre to be leader of hopeless political parties. Real cuts in schools, prisons, care homes, police, youth and social work and probation services are hurting and working families are queuing at food banks. Is this what a return of sovereignty looks like? Can you vote for a party whose major achievement is to perform the unlikely feat of shooting itself in the bottom?

There is a shortage of teachers as the number of children grows. Many teachers cite workload as a reason for their intended departure from teaching. School budgets have been cut and teachers’ take home pay is less now than it was 5 years ago. Teachers are paying more towards their pensions, the benefits of which have been slashed.

In a recent blog I reported that the government includes in its statements on schools funding the amount parents pay to private schools and the money borrowed as student loans. Spending is down and costs are up.

Cutting workload may increase some costs, admin for example and certainly online resourcing. So my first “Reducing Workload” suggestion asks:

What are Chief Executives for?


The game for ageing, tiring or superior-being headteachers is to form a multi academy trust with one secondary and a couple of primary schools. Each school has a headteacher and you also have the Executive Headteacher – four heads where there used to be three, and at considerable cost.. Some of these schools are now doing less well than before executive heads. Abolish Executive Headteacher Posts and spend the money on reducing teacher workload.

Hertfordshire headteachers had their residential conference at a very nice hotel last week and a local school took its 9 strong management team there as well. I bathe in beatific righteousness as my school took 98 staff on a residential to the same hotel. Maybe we should spend less money on headteachers’ bonding and dedicate the money to the professional development of our teachers.

Every act by school managers should support the teaching of children.


I know of a local school that now has 3 deputy heads, 3 assistant heads and 2 associate heads joining the headteacher and Business Manager on their senior management/leadership team. That costs masses – around £800,000 including add on costs and the school isn’t doing very well.

Every time a school appoints a new manager they have to have people to manage, and work schedules, targets, working parties, accountability structures and whatever else justifies the job. Reduce the Size of the Senior Team, reduce the teachers’ workload and reduce spending on SMT. Spend the money on teaching resources, buns or air conditioning.

Of course, the main benefit of cutting management roles is you can also have Fewer Meetings.

I was once part of a Staff Development Working Party looking at providing good training for teachers. All the meetings produced agendas, apologies for absence and minutes explaining why nothing had been achieved. Oh, and setting the date of the next meeting which involved tedious diary discussions about their cats’ appointments and other working parties. Here’s some stuff on meetings:
The best way to kill an idea is to take it to a meeting.

Most meetings are as valuable as Snapchat post: people talk, ideas disappear into the ether with no outcomes or chance of follow up.

There are 25,000.000 million meetings every day in America (I have the source).

If you must call a meeting know what you want the result to be in advance (and make those attending put their phones away)
Read “The One Minute Manager” (Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson) which tracks an idea from first airing to eternity. An idea is mooted. The manager listens and gives the initial OK, “Set it up and come and see me in a week.” Then,“Run with it and come and see me at regular intervals to announce progress and suggest the next step.” The one minute manager as a concept gives ownership, responsibility and accountability and motivates.

I know another local school where there is an absolute “No Meetings Tuesday.” Wow! Our teachers have one meeting a week, two if they’re on SMT. At the end of the school day teachers should use our fitness suite, talk to each other, plan lessons or go home to pursue wine tasting, talking with their families and other hobbies.

I know an incredibly talented Head of Science who has to report to 3 different managers.

School leaders should Reject Directed Time and the number 1265. Be grateful if you don’t know what this means; ask why you need it if you do. A system that counts the hours teachers work in school makes no sense when most teachers spend hours working at home. It was a Tory Party creation to demean teachers and modern managers should get together in their big teams and have some meetings to discuss a possible future date for a focus group to make recommendations about its abolition. Or Take a minute...

Kenneth Baker decided that teachers should give up 5 days of their holidays to do Inset (Training) Days. With a little imagination it is possible to Do Twilight Inset where teachers spend two-hour after- school sessions replacing one whole day. Then teachers can stay at home on the same day the kids are already off school.

A short while ago I volunteered to cover 3 lessons for an absent teacher as long as I could do what I liked and did no marking. I spent hours trying to find the perfect clip to accompany my exuberant delivery of poetry ranging from WW1 to “Why do men piss on the floor?” I think the poem is called “Bogerell.” I had songs and Youtube to accompany Vietnam war politics and I was well pleased with myself. Hours and hours planning for perfection only to be shot to pieces by lesson 3 when the students asked if they could get on with their written assignment.

Don’t waste your precious time looking for the Perfect Lesson, the cascading colourful graphics of the Perfect Powerpoint, and Share / Steal / Borrow Resources from colleagues, forums and the internet. Someone really has already done it better.

Lesson Plans are a guide for teachers, not a bureaucratic power tool for headteachers eating up their time on busy work.

As an English teacher I brought home my own height in exercise books every weekend and I wrote unread comments on hundreds of pieces of work. I used to enjoy the kid who was absent and produced no work and I loved writing “Finish please” in obvious places. Today, I tell teachers to get written work done in class and to mark as they walk around. There are loads of ways of reducing marking whilst helping the students do better.

This is brilliant: http://chauncystweb.co.uk/marking/

In 1967, Butch Hurrell took delight in correcting my essay on Sweden. 54 times he circled my incorrect spelling – Sweeden. If only he had done In Class Marking he might have read the rest of the essay.

A few final thoughts:

We have abolished all words on our termly School Reports and, apart from being better written, they are easily understood.

Publicly castigate any teacher who sends Evening Emails, unless they are funny.

I know that some of these things are done in all schools, much in many and some in all. Teaching should however, be too exciting, stimulating, rewarding and fun to be left to the knackered teacher and the weary teacher cannot inspire for long. Children need them alive.
Dennis O'Sullivan


Tuesday, 18 December 2018

OOPS! WE HANGED THE WRONG MAN



I opened my door to a man brandishing a shotgun.

As a co-op milkman I lived on my round so was this a man with an issue with his milk delivery? I was too frightened to ask. The gunman stared at me and some sort of change of mind came across his face and he lowered the shotgun. He was visiting me to discuss my having sexual relations with his wife but he was beginning to think this was a case of mistaken identity.

We were creative with names on the milk: there was Dave the Hat , Dave the Bread and Spanish Dave for example. One always wore a hat, one used to deliver bread and Spanish Dave always wore his anorak even on holiday in Spain. I was Big Den and there was a guy called Dan, who was also big, had a beard and was having relations with one of his customers.

Soon afterwards Dan was in trouble for fiddling the books and, as his shop steward, I made no fuss at all when he was sacked.

In my first year of teaching Councillor Massey was set to have me, “taken home in a box” when his son came home with a “nearly torn jacket.” I had pulled Greg off a girl he was assaulting and my union rep kept me in work.

One week into my time at Chauncy, a policeman met me outside my house at 6.30 a.m. A girl was receiving dodgy phone calls and the guy sounded like me. My headteacher stood up for me at the Child Protection meeting with the professionals who sent the policeman after me. I had evidence of being in Letchworth, when a call had been made from Windsor; of teaching a class when another call had been made and I had a receipt from a shop in Ware when a call was made from Essex. So I was let off and the girl’s uncle was warned not to make calls to his niece. No-one apologised.

My headteacher, Gill Field, saved me from suspension but if you’re suspended in teaching, especially as a new boy, that’s your reputation, job, career and possibly home gone.

The next time the police called, I’d been accused of assauling a boy and threatening some latecomers that , “I will rip up this 20 foot Christmas tree and beat you with it…” I did make the statement about the tree as I was being funny. CCTV proved me innocent of assault and the sad father with the angry wife searched for something else to which they could divert their failure.

The child protection professionals had sent policemen to talk to me and then, as I’d sent them away, they sent Roy Hardcastle a great HR man, who I respected, to see me. Proven innocent, I never received that apology either. By now, having worked here for a decade, and with a chair of governors who knew me well, I was almost fireproof ; no-one would falsely suspend me. But what if I’d been a new young teacher?

When a concern is raised about a matter that may be a child protection issue we contact the local authority Child Protection people, specifically the LADO (Local Authority Designated Officer). They hold their meetings and decide how best to protect children.

This is Bobby Smith’s story. That’s not his real name, for reasons that will be or become obvious. I have seen the paperwork and can vouch for its 100% accuracy. All the other people are flattered with their real positions.

I will tell it briefly in direct quotation:

“There’s a man in Brighton that the CP people want to talk to. Oh says the Lead CP person, I have done a full media search and can see that he has moved to..” (Shall we say Ware)” Mr Policeman, off you go to see Bobby Smith in Ware. The PC is a bit busy and wont be up for a couple of weeks so he tells the CP people in Hertfordshire that Bobby’s a bad un. The CP people, who have known their Bobby for 20 years tell the HR people, who have also known their Bobby for 20 years, to contact the Chair of Governors so that Bobby can be suspended from his school.”It is almost incidental that this act itself has been illegal for two years.

“So HR ring the COG, who has known Bobby for 20 years and do tell him to send Bobby home for a couple of weeks. Chair of Governors asks, “Have you checked whether Bobby ever worked in Brighton ?(No was the answer) Have you checked his pension record? (No) Have you done any sort of media search? (No) Because I have and it can’t be our Bobby. However I spent five minutes on Google and found the Brighton Bobby, his current job, his address and his photograph.” “Oh well says Hertforshire HR , “Just make sure your Bobby isn’t around children for a few weeks.” –This after the Hertfordshire Bobby Smith has been absolutely proven to be not the Brighton Bobby Smith. He was still to be punished.

Just because they can.

Hertfordshire and Brighton ignored the law: Suspension should only take place where children at the school are at risk of harm.

Just because they can.

So Hertfordshire Bobby asks Brighton CP to explain themselves. “I did a full media search and found one Bobby Smith in the entire world and anyway it was the policeman’s fault.”

The Brighton dodgy man comes up second in a google search, right behind Hertfordshire Bobby. CP bosses made Bobby’s case a Level 3 Complaint.

And then forgot about it.

Bobby asked the policeman to explain and he apologised, blaming the CP woman. The Brighton Chief Constable didn’t even reply but made it a Customer Service issue.

And then forgot about it.

Hertfordshire Assistant Director of Services said, “We have nothing to apologise for. It is not protocol to check the veracity of information; we act upon it.” The senior HR man intervened and promised that they would ensure that procedures would be put in place by December to stop this sort of thing happening.

And then forgot about it.

“ As through this world I’ve wandered

I’ve seen lots of funny men

Some will rob you with a six-gun

And some with a fountain pen.”

Bobby’s story: teachers suspended and their careers ended, their reputations destroyed and their lives damaged.

Guess how much the CP people, the police, the HR and directors of services care?

There must be some simple mechanism whereby a council receiving a referral from another part of the country can carry out a simple test to see if they are condemning the wrong man. Hertfordshire HR and CP have undertaken to show us this new procedure by Christmas. It is Christmas and they haven’t .

I think they forgot about it.

I’d suggest the following have a look at what they could do to improve matters for people who work with children for it is not just the children who are vulnerable:

Chris Williams (Herts HR), DC Thomas (Brighton Police) Sharon Martin (Safeguarding Brighton Children’s Services) Darrel Clewes (LADO Brighton) Frazer Smith (LADO Herts) David Windridge (Herts Head of HR) Giles York (Chief Constable Brighton) and “We have nothing to apologise for,” Simon Newland (Herts CC).

Dennis O'Sullivan

Sunday, 7 October 2018

WHO IS LYING ABOUT SCHOOL FUNDING?


A week ago I joined almost 2,000 headteachers marching, ever so quietly, to Downing Street to protest about the funding crisis in schools. That morning the Conservative Government Minister, Nick Gibb, repeated, “We are spending record amounts on school funding. We are the 3rd highest spender on education in the OECD. We spend more per pupil than France, than Germany or Japan” (BBC Radio 28-09-2018)

Headteachers keep whingeing about cuts in funding and must be lying. We are trusted by 87% of poll respondents with government ministers only believed by 19% (Ipsos Mori 29-11-2019) Is nothing trustworthy?

This week we found out that the “more money” incredibly, unbelievably, outrageously includes the money lent as student loans and the fees parents pay to private schools. Nick Gibb is counting £17 billion pounds lent to university students at 6.3% interest as government funding of education. (Sean Coughlan’s article of 03-11-2018 - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45706603)

It gets messier.

If you have opted out of the state schooling system and you are paying for a private school place for your child are you surprised that this money, the fees you pay to private schools, is counted as state spending? ( https://www.bbc.com/news/education-45738158)

"It now costs more than £30,000 to send a child to board for a year. And it's £15,500 to send them to a private day school. (Independent 10-05-2016 where their statistics also show an increase in private school fees of 550% in the last 25 years) The government is counting all this money as their investment in state education.

The UK Statistics Watchdog has launched an investigation into the government’s spending figures. (https://www.bbc.com/news/education-45746062) Maybe because they are incredible.

My local MP is currently writing to his constituents trotting out the party line on government spending on education, word for disingenuous word, including a seemingly random reference to government spending increasing by 50% since 2000. But the money spent by students on student loans has trebled since the year he quotes, (because your party trebled the fees) and the fees paid to private schools has risen massively (because they can) since 2000. So MPs can blindly believe their minister and repeat his dishonest manipulation of truth to your constituents. It’s nearly 5 years since 31 Hertfordshire headteahers lobbied our MPs. In response to our concerns one offered subsidised wine on the House of Commons veranda. At no time since, it seems, have they asked ministers or civil servants if we were lying.

A local conservative school chair of governors told me recently that she only reads my blog when someone shows it to her because they outraged. I have yet to be sued for anything I write. I think I do my research thoroughly and choose my words to be provocative and precise. I have been trying to find out if I can use the word “lies”

Either, our government minister, MPs and civil servants are deliberately misleading parents worried about the funding of their children's schools. Or, they can't be bothered to seek out the truth.

We already know that their level of competence fails to manage Brexit. And we know that while they fiddle around with the EU our police, prison service, care for the elderly, social services, education and housing priorities are left to fester.

So what do demonstrating headteachers claim as the funding crisis in our schools?
  • According to the IFS (Institute for Financial Studies) school spending on students has been cut by 8% since 2010.
  •  6th Form funding has been cut by 25% (IFS) and the support schools used to get from local authorities is down by a massive 55%.
  • There are more kids than ever in our schools and the government has cut grants and heaped cost increases on all schools.
  • 26.1% of secondary schools are now running at a loss. (Education Policy Unit who add that this is a trebling of the numbers of schools in dire financial crisis since 2010.)
  • Schools are not allowed to run at a loss so they have to cut spending: starting with “extras” like library books, music lessons, special needs provision, school trips, staff training and teaching assistants, repairs and maintenance Then we cut teaching jobs.
  • Class sizes have grown and subjects like Music, Drama, Art, Technology, Computing, Economics, Politics and Modern Foreign Languages have disappeared from many 6th Forms.
  • The government does not tell you that it has deliberately and systematically increased our costs over the last 8 years, transferring government liabilities to the employers: schools.
  • Every time you read of a 1% rise in staff pay the school must find the money from existing budgets.
  • You are not told that the employers’ contribution to the pension fund – not to the teachers’ pension payouts - is paid put of my school’s budget. This is an extra 5% on costs in the last five years.
  • Our wage costs have been driven up by almost 10% in five years. Wages make up almost 90% of our spending. Most UK secondary schools say they will be in deficit within two years, if not sooner, and this will be catastrophic for our children’s education.
It was good to see Hertfordshire primary headteachers joining with colleagues from all over England demonstrating last week. I am proud that we spoke out for our children. 

Dennis O'Sullivan

Thursday, 30 August 2018

CLASS A PARENTING (Parenting & Childhood in Crisis Part Two)



I met a parent shopping with her 13 year old daughter. Her 11 year old boy was at home, safely left alone with some snacks and advice not to open the front door. She cheerfully announced that he was on his computer 10 hours a day playing Fortnite. She thought I was mad when I expressed schoolteacherly concern andsuggested limiting this.

“7 out of 10 children said they had missed out on sleep because of their online habits and 60% said they had neglected school work as a result.” (National Online Safety 2018)

The chemical reaction in an adolescent’s brain from addictive computer games – and our kids are addicted – is the same as that produced by cocaine.

Kids brains and bodies are developing all the time Fortnite, and others, Game producers consult psychologists about how best they can make their games addictive. The games promote the release of dopamine which is how cocaine works. Youngsters are particulary susceptible to its effects, deliberately designed to satisfy teenagers’ craving for instant gratification as they have not yet developed the capacity to resist this. (For much more on the science look up video-game-drug-addiction at Psychology Today)

As parents, are we worried about this?

Fortnite is much cheaper than cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA, spice, speed…
This is a blog about Fortnite and you know I’m going to suggest that our boys’ obsession with this game is bad for their physical and mental health, family life, schoolwork and, even, their future romance prospects.

And it’s a great game and kids should play it. Just not so much.

In my various surveys of hundreds of kids, over 90% of boys aged 11-15 admitted to loving the game. Less than 40% of girls were plugged in every possible day but most say they are shackled to their phones and social media. Although this blog is specifically about FORTNITE the benefits and dangers of children being always connected apply to all.

Do you know if your kids have online access when they’re meant to be sleeping?

NSPCC and NCA (National Crime Agency) warn that one in four children have been contacted by strangers by voice and or text when playing Fortnite. It’s a social game and offers new opportunities to paedophiles. Google the NCA warning and read national newspaper stories about the 12 year old offered £50 to perform a sex act online. This sort of danger is widespread.

Fortnite is free but kids can buy 100 tiers of weapons outfits and gear that can be purchased on line. Parents have discovered, their credit card is associated with the site and receive big bills. Kids on the Spanish beaches were wearing Fortnite hats and T shirts. My niece’s primary school has banned Fortnite dances.

Accounts have been hacked and money stolen. (Telegtaph April 5 2018) A friend of mine rewards his 14 year old son with money to buy Fortnite gear if he reads for half an hour each evening. They even sit and read together, which lets boys understand it is OK to read as dad does it.

How about, removing phones and tablets from the room when they are reading (with or without you,) from the place and time when they are eating (with or without you,) and when they are doing schoolwork. Put yours away, too, and perhaps talk to each other.

Oh goodness, take them out without phones.

Launched in 2017, Fortnite had 125 million players by June 2018.

Forbes reported that Fortnite brought in $126 million in February, $223 million in March and $296 million in April. The company has so much cash that it's forming a $100 million prize fund for upcoming Fortnite competitions. (July 2018)

Fortnite is a magnificent, rewarding, and exhilarating phenomenon. It is a co-operative survival shooting game that lets players build structures out of materials they scavenge from the game world. Most play the Battle Royale version, which pits 100 players against each other, some of whom are in small teams, to see who is the last man standing.

Players are there to kill others and the violence is presented in a cartoonish way – there’s no blood and gore. (If you want lots of blood try “Call of Duty” a game with an 18 certificate which parents have told me they have bought for their 12 year olds. Around 60% of my 13 year olds had played COD and more than one was off school on a new version launch day.)

The notion of kids “killing” is controversial in itself.

Have you noticed, this summer that there’s no kids on the street, that the various “Spotted In...” Facebook sites are hardly mentioning wayward youth, that the parks are empty? As a headteacher, I’ve not had a single call from the police. If you get the opportunity, read Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story, “The Pedestrian” where there is no crime in our cities because everyone is at home in front of giant multi-media screens. Walking at night is “not unequal to walking through a graveyard."

I guess it’s good that we know where our kids are.

Ever the English teacher, I asked a class of 20, 13 year old boys to describe their perfect weekend. I didn’t count but most said “Fortnite.” When pressed, because I was an innocent until very recently, they said something like, “Yes, the whole weekend.”

I try not to suggest that I am some sort of superior parent or human being. I can remember the joy when my four year old daughter first got up on a Sunday morning and put the video on without me waking. In terms of computer addiction, let me tell you about Crystal Crazy. 102 levels of anti-missile protection and weapons that ended up taking up about three hours a night, every night. It was the time when games came on discs and my eyes dripped gore, my sleep featured crashing spacecraft. I took a photo, on a real camera, when I completed Level 102. Fatima came from Paris to visit and I left her alone whilst fulfilling my game addiction. I have not seen her since. Knowing from my tobacco addiction that throwing the disc in the bin would only mean I went through the rubbish to retrieve it next day, I eventually smashed the disc. I was 40 years old.

An 18 year old Economics student at my school, two weeks and six lessons short of his final, perhaps career-forming, A Level exam, announced that he had been up until 5 a.m and achieved a 23 person “single kill,” which is apparently very good. The game keeps you trying to get better and players can see their score improving.

I have put on “prep” every term-time evening for GCSE boys who were going home with good intentions but plugged straight in to Fortnite and did no homework. Younger boys come into school with scraps of paper hastily scrawled moments before the lesson.

This is now me trying perhaps too hard: Boys’ opportunities to have girlfriends/boyfriends are obviously diminished. As a father of girls I have would have welcomed Fortnite because ordering them not go out with boys until aged 35, and then with me as chaperone, did not work. We have a new school year starting with our boys going cold turkey and some of them not coping. As boys spend more time alone in their bedrooms, less time studying, do less well academically, the girls may turn away from romantic liaisons, relationships, marriage, futures…

There’s no doubt that young women are now doing better than men and are getting more of the top jobs. Only the fact that old men are still in power and can discriminate against women is holding them back .

Of course, it’s not the end for all boys.

However, I have 32, 15 year old boys entering their final GCSE year whose end of year reports clearly show that their all-consuming interest is Fortnite. I am now going to ask parents to leave us their 15 year olds until 5pm.

Back to the mental health concern:

A nine-year-old girl is in rehab after becoming so addicted to a video game she wet herself to avoid moving and hit her father when he tried to stop her playing. (BBC New Voice 17th June 2018)

The World Health Organisation has classified playing video games on the internet as an official mental health disorder. This means one can get treatment on the NHS.

'Gaming disorder' is defined as 'a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.' (WHO 2018)

Some views to leave you with:

I was talking with a really pleased mother who told me,“I’ve got my 10 year old son back. He was getting obsessed and tetchy, playing Fortnite all the time. It was hard for a week or so but I stuck to my guns and he now plays for two hours every other night…”

Did I mention the anger problems kids have when “losing” at computer games?

A Deputy headteacher gave me this, about his sporty 13 year old, “I came home to find that he’s got angry at losing at Fortnite and threw the controller through the TV screen.”

Another teacher takes the console to work every day and is in endless rows with his addicted 14 year old.

If as parents we can’t negotiate harm reduction with our kids over a computer game, how are we going to cope when they come across ‘drugs’ and other challenges?

What price a bit of peace and quiet?

Dennis O'Sullivan