Tuesday, 24 March 2020


Parents and teachers of kids across the nation, stop it!

Calm down, relax and remember none of us is at school.

For all my time in schools parents have said, “I couldn’t do your job.” They’ve been talking about managing the behaviour of so many children. What they didn’t know, and didn’t need to know, is that each teacher is in love with their subject and knows quite a bit about it, too.

So when we asked teachers to set work, they set tons of it, never thinking that their own teaching skills and knowledge might be needed to help kids do the work.

I cannot do much beyond mental arithmetic in Maths and don’t go telling me that this is a good opportunity to learn alongside the children. Can’t do sciences, can’t speak French or Spanish and I’m no use at all at origami. I know I should have learned, now leave me alone with my failings.

Teachers: please set one piece of work per year group per week. Kids who want to do more can find loads online. These are not normal school days so don’t expect every child to do 3 hours study a week for your subject, and the other 8. And who says every home has a computer for each child and each adult working from home?

Parents: if you get an hour’s schoolwork a day out of your child, celebrate by letting them read a book, watch nonsense on TV, do some gentle social media or play a computer game. Stop trying to teach them the school syllabus.

This is Day Two out of, possibly, 100. Let’s try and get through it without too many tantrums about school work.

Year 11s and 13s, we will gather you together to celebrate your achievements later in the year. Your teachers and the other staff with whom you’ve worked want to say goodbye and wish you well, face to face.

I have a theory that now is the time the majority of people will show that we are good people, kind, caring and considerate. The idiots have always got the attention as they shout, threaten, argue and boast – and they will always be there.

Our staff are volunteering to help every day in many different ways.

Let’s quieten the frustration and fear, the uncertainty and boredom by the odd walk, a touch of optimism, faith in ourselves and our communities in getting through this.

And students: don’t work too hard.

Dennis O’Sullivan (Headteacher)

Monday, 20 January 2020


On Friday 17th January Sir John passed away after a short illness.

If you read my blogs you know I have never written this about anyone: Sir John was a great man. 

This is a personal tribute so much of what I write is about how he inspired me to work for the important things in school. He also easily persuaded me to do research, presentations and articles. I would walk away from his gentle requests determined to do my best, only once refusing his offer of an opportunity to write a song and perform it to 2000 teachers. Sir John had looked up my name and found an American folk singer. 

I very nearly said yes.

I am not a biographer but his career included around 20 years as head of a school that sounds like a Northumberland version of Chauncy. He was awarded a knighthood for services to education and was a massive part of London Challenge. He worked with dozens of schools helping them improve London children’s achievements and opportunities to such an extent that London boroughs went from the bottom of national tables to the top. Of course, he was not alone – this was a highly effective group of realistic, experienced, non-political school leaders – but he was himself working with 55 schools in 2008.

Sir John unashamedly focussed on ordinary kids doing well in our schools and he walked away from a government which perhaps differed from the focus of London Challenge. He set up PiXL (Partners in Excellence) with the 55 schools mentioned above. He has left an incredibly influential organisation with around 3,000 schools attending cram-packed, inexpensive, inspirational, practical conferences and on-line curriculum resources of stunning quality and relevance.

It was easy to like, admire and respect Sir John. I was also fortunate to watch Sir John rally and brief the PiXL leaders before the start of a national conference and there was no doubt what he wanted, what the expectations were of the day and of every presenter and organiser. He would then address conference explaining our mission and his views on how we could all make schools a better place for children and staff.

He worried the Department for Education when PiXL helped us all be more effective in targeting support for children taking public exams, giving ordinary children in ordinary schools the access to well directed support without the need for families to employ private tutors. 

The work we all did for and with Sir John probably helped 50 Chauncy students pass their GCSEs. PiXL have around 1500 secondary schools. Those thousands of students every year for a decade went to college and university and got better jobs. The work we all did under his leadership changed lives. 

That’s some legacy.

The TES interviewed him asking, “Is this the most influential man in UK schools?”

Sir John was a charming man and patient. He gently rejected my calls for mass demonstrations in Westminster. Mind you, he was outraged by a senior government education minister, still in post, who explained to Sir John that all schools needed to improve children’s literacy is to have all children read the works of Jane Austin, repeatedly.

In recent years Sir John moved PiXL towards wider issues in education. Most recently he has talked passionately about “Character” and the missing third – the 35% of students who fail in our schools. He leaves us the task of providing genuine equality of opportunity for all our students.

Sir John read my blogs and even though he may have disagreed with my approach he was always the very first to write to me. His last response on 12th December included his last instruction to me: “…people like you will press on!”

I bet he wrote to everyone. He always remembered our names and greeted us as friends.

His Christmas message to PiXL members hoped for 2020 to be a time of,

“Hope for a sensible approach to the improving of education for all our students? Hope that we might escape the over-emphasis on measures and judgement and move into a new world of inspiration, creativity, excitement and deep and wide learning about subjects and personal development and character.” 

I think Sir John may have believed in heaven. God would be well advised to prepare for improvements in that area, maybe ensuring more of us pass the entrance test.
Dennis O'Sullivan

Wednesday, 11 December 2019


This is not a happy Christmas message; it is not an optimistic assessment of how great we will be as a nation once we have got Brexit done. It is not to welcome a new era of opportunity for our students or teachers. I will only mention the election to apologise for failing so badly to educate the electorate. We now accept the sort of lies and false propaganda that Goebbels and Stalin would have enjoyed.
I allegedly answered a student’s question yesterday, “I would rather pour boiling water over my testicles than vote for…..” Sorry if that offends you.

I am against all sorts of things in state education: faith schools that isolate communities, accentuate the differences between people and refuse non-believers access to good, state funded education, just for starters.

I would abolish faith schools.

I think we are dividing people by class and the ability to pay for expensive uniforms, parental donations and fees. I believe that many of our best state comprehensive schools deliberately select out the children who most need an education and that’s before one examines the children with special needs who are perversely rejected by schools obliged, by law, to welcome them.

I would fine schools that have expensive uniforms.
Schools that call themselves comprehensives should not be allowed Saturday morning tests in order to select and deselect children.

Our exams systems have always been there to fail as many young people as are required to provide a working population available for short term, unskilled and low paid workers who will accept their place at the bottom of society’s heap. No matter how good the teaching, only 65% of kids are allowed through. A smaller number of unemployable, poorer people on whom we can look down is another feature of mature capitalist societies such as ours. Having a number of homeless people trying to sleep in winter-battered shop doorways is acceptable, too. Well, if it isn’t, how come they are there in all our English towns?

If we can identify a lumpen proletariat to be the subjects of our hatred and extended prison sentences so much the better and are we really that far away from the Hate sessions of Orwell’s “1984?”
And yet, I have just walked round my school and met hundreds of smiling, engaged students and happy, tired teachers.

A third of 10 year olds who sit the SATs in their primary schools are told that they are failures, using the descriptive, “below expectation” to supposedly soften the blow of having spent half of Year 6 engaged on mind numbing repetition. Instead of Drama, PE, Geography, History or Science – learning how and why their world works- 10 year olds may briefly be able to tell you what a subordinate adverbial clause of reason looks like. And then forget. I have spoken with junior school headteachers and not one of them respects or wants SATs.

45 of our 222 Year 7 children officially had help in their SATs so they didn’t really get the scores they were awarded, did they? Such meaningless competition acts against the children’s needs for learning.
I would abolish SATs and allow experienced teachers to assess a child’s progress in a broader curriculum.

25% of students sitting GCSEs last year qualified for extra time in their exams. One or two of them had dyslexic tendencies and all of them were granted extra time according to subjective school assessment. I would advise the other 75% to self-examine and put themselves forward for special consideration. 20 years ago my daughter qualified as, I guess, white middle class. She declined but that’s not the point. If 257,000 students, a quarter of all 16 year olds cannot do their exams in the allotted time there must be something wrong with the exams. (TES 25/11/2019)

The latest PISA figures show that England has risen slightly in international tables, thus justifying the abhorrent work of the dreadful Michael Gove.  Or showing that schools took the tests slightly more seriously than a few years ago. Following my advice the blog 'Taking the Pisa' 21/04/14, would have had the UK soar to meaningless heights in the PISA tests. We could have come close to China, Number 1 but only counting children in the 4 most affluent areas, and Macou (again Chinese) with a population of 650,000.

We are becoming a school system obsessed with tests. And tests tell us how well someone does in tests.

The latest research from the universally respected Sutton Trust recognises that the new GCSEs have further widened the attainment gap between affluent and disadvantaged children, benefitting those with private tutors and making the poorer child’s life more difficult and drive social mobility downwards. (TES 05/12/2019)

Coursework and practicals have been eradicated, oracy counts for nothing and if children are lucky enough to still have Food or Technology lessons they will find the qualification in those subjects weighted heavily towards writing and tests.

In our secondary schools we can offer vocational courses to our 16-18 year olds and these have motivated loads of young people who might otherwise enter the unskilled world of zero hours. Many have perked up so well that they have worked harder and grown in self-esteem and gone on to great jobs, apprenticeships and university places. Whoever the last secretary of state for education was launched a consultation to determine how he was to abolish these (BTec) courses in schools. Not whether, just how. BTecs have been like cockroaches and have survived years of meddling governments but now politicians, detached from the reality of schools think it is acceptable to erase children’s opportunities.

I know this is pretty miserable stuff but with our politicians denying the importance of dignity and truth you may understand my feelings of doom. I don’t accept that I should be lied to.  I know that this government will not encourage teachers to help our children learn social skills, team work or problem solving, will not reverse the cuts of the last decade and will not encourage the arts and humanities. Because they haven’t, don’t and won’t.

Our biggest industries are creative and service based: that’s media and arts, project development (that’s coursework) and social skills.
One particular, quite nasty form of school selection which adversely affects social mobility and employability is the practice of “off-rolling” children in the final year of their schooling. Parents “opt” to home educate, usually with little attempt at educating their 15 year olds at home. There are suggestions that school leaders have encouraged off-rolling as a means to improve the apparent performance of the schools.

Young people who behave atrociously even after getting loads of support should be expelled and local authorities should then fulfil their legal duty to provide remedial help and education. It is our failure to help the dreadfully behaved that fills our prisons.

Some schools have off-rolled dozens of children in their final year, as if parents have now decided that their children are going to be better educated at home.

There are children who really cannot cope in school, any school. Where there is no appropriate local provision some parents elect to Home Educate and work hard at providing for their children often this involves a range of private tutors, stay-at-home, well educated parents and group activities with like-minded parents. At what age would parents decide big school is not the answer to their child’s needs? In Hertfordshire, which is possibly atypical, my FOI request produced figures showing that 202 parents (of 547 total for years  1-11) decided to home educate after Year 9.

If a parent writes a note, “I am home educating my child from this date,” that’s it: the child is removed from roll, their existence does not count in exam statistics, someone from the Local Authority may knock on your door, once, and no one checks what the parents are doing to educate at home.
  • National figures on off-rolling are hard to find but The Education Policy Institute question how 49,100 children have an “unexplained exit” from school rolls
  • Over 19,000 students left their schools between January of Year 10 and January of Year 11 (Jason Bradbury 06/09/2019 Ofsted Blog)
  • Outrageously, in statistical terms, 23% of these children – the disappeared – came from 6% of secondary schools.
  • These 6% of schools, 340 schools in total, lost an average of 13 students each between the start of Year 10 and the start of Year 11.
  • There is evidence from Ofsted (Schoolsweek 24/06/2109) that some Local Authorities have co-operated in off-rolling and Ofsted has downgraded schools who cannot explain their high numbers of disappeared children.
19,000 missing schoolchildren, a safeguarding issue?

No Headteacher enters education to remove needy children from their schools but, one way or another, some do, placing exam performance tables above the moral obligation to teach all children.

Our schools should be able to support young people who need extra help, we should be able to offer vocational alternatives for 14-18 year olds to develop work-related skills and then Ofsted should be able to give school leaders a mighty slap if they place their individual status above the needs of children.

Ormiston Academies Trust has been issued with a termination warning notice. Inspectors said the decision to remove pupils from the school’s roll at the start of Year 11 “was taken in the best interests of the school rather than of the pupils”. Thanks, Adrian Lyons, for this inspection and alerting my colleagues to the dangers of gaming.

There you go: a partial set of manifesto promises to make our children safer, happier and more successful. I just know that the way the votes go tomorrow will do none of these things. Schools will get no more help or encouragement, no additional funding and no decent pay for our staff.

Oh dear.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019


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.

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


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


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