Thursday, 20 August 2020

OH, TO BE SURPRISINGLY EMOTIVE AND UNBALANCED


I wish I were brave enough to open the school to all 1200 students and the 130 adults who will be teaching them or otherwise dealing with their education – TAs, admin, cleaners, catering, finance…

But I’m not.

So, I told our parents and governors and staff that, as a coward with about average fear of death, I will not take responsibility for 1320 people in confined spaces. You see, I don’t like funerals and I don’t like writing eulogies for dead colleagues and students. I’m scared that the virus has not gone away, sure that kids can’t and don’t and won’t socially distance. I fear that our 20 page Risk Assessment, one way stickers, double action alternate wet/dry duty teams, special cleaning teams and other measures will not prevent the virus from spreading.

I talked it through with our chair of governors, SLT and passing strangers.

I wrote to parents and staff with a partial re-opening, minus 2 year groups, following the full exciting curriculum including the arts, technology and science experiments. Then, as a sometimes clear and/or straight-speaking media babe, I was contacted by 3 Counties Radio and I told them, too.

At this point I was declining the chance, as a highly photogenic celebrity, to be in a LA video assuring parents schools are safe. The LA informed the DfE of my reluctance and non-compliance with full opening (not video participation.)

A senior officer from the DfE phoned and I explained my reasons and plans. He made notes. The MP questioned me by email. Then the Regional Schools Commissioner, herself, wrote to our Chair Of Governors to try to change our plans.

So here’s the point of this blog. She wrote:
Whilst trying to find out more details on the plans for September on the school website, I was concerned to read the details of the headteacher’s blog about re-opening. I found the tone surprisingly emotive and unbalanced and am concerned that it may have left families confused and anxious about returning to school. I would be interested in your reflections on the appropriateness of such a communication from the headteacher.

My problems with this subtle attempt at bullying and censorship are many:

Headteachers talk with Chairs of Governors or they are doomed. We talk.

I’ve written over 60 blogs and, I hope, many are emotive and much more critical of decision makers than the one to which she refers. Google my name for the 120,000 words.

She ignored my answers to her officer, making notes, you’ll remember. We discussed the prime minister’s call to arms, his “moral imperative” to get all kids back. The note taker omitted that I questioned Mr Johnson’s right to talk about morality and I mentioned that I acknowledged all my children, didn’t give contracts to my girlfriends and that I’d always tried to tell the truth.

I had also compromised. I said that the prime minister taking responsibility for any serious illness in my school and guaranteeing a payment of £100,000 to any employee’s family if they died might mean he could instruct me to open to all.

If the school’s commissioner thinks that me, “following the science” and taking my duty of care for staff and children somehow abrogates my responsibility she could have taken the time to talk or write to me.

Neither the MP nor the RSC mention adults in their letters.

Everyone knows that schools are a festering swamp of minor colds and headaches, coughs and sore throats, especially in a new term. Many school staff are used to catching these ailments and working through. In September, if I find that a member of staff has a high temperature – and we have guns to instantly test this – I will send them off to be tested. Their classes will be covered by another teacher. 

If 5 teachers have a temperature I will send them all away and do what with 5 classes, 4 or 5 times a day?

What if 1 of them has the virus?

Why did 2 Scottish schools close within days of opening?

Will Boris come back off holiday and visit my school with kids in? Can the RSC cover some lessons? Please, Ofsted, come and help.

I sat in school today, on holiday again, wearing an Irish republican T shirt that I have recently shrunk into. The radio presenter was shocked that I consider myself a socialist and have been a union member for 45 years. Strange as it may seem to some, I am proud of these characteristics.

I am also proud to be head of a non-selective, inclusive, successful, popular, oversubscribed, “outstanding” academy. Over a period of 22 years, I have appointed every single member of staff to their current position. I insist on the opportunity to care for them so we can continue to do the best we can for the young people whose education and future means so much to us all.
Here’s the link to the notorious blog:


Dennis O'Sullivan (Headteacher)

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

SCHOOLS OPEN, TEACHERS SACRIFICED, BORIS OK



Let’s get straight to it: If we reopen our schools some teachers will catch the covid-19 virus and some will die.

We know that Boris cares for state education. I remember he mentioned it on the eve of the General Election. He also said something about increasing funding. Schools have now been told that they will have to fund any government awarded teacher pay rise  out of existing budgets. Cuts, therefore continue.

We know he cares about teachers because he read out a list on Sunday where we were placed in the appropriate alphabetical order.
Scientists of different varieties say:
  • Children do or don’t get the covid-19 virus.
  • Kids don’t die much from the virus.
  • Students may or may not transmit the virus less or more than adults.

But the government has a road map.

Some schools are to re-open from June 1st. The least sensible option would be to call in those children who can’t socially isolate, like to play with soft things and occasionally need a plaster. The least vital returnees would be those who can’t now do the inessential post SATs work. Oh dear, the road map signals Reception, Year1 and Year 6 to start first. Their unions don’t agree. Do you think primary teachers would have prioritised these children?

Do you think they were asked?

When it comes to opening schools, whilst the virus rules and there’s no vaccine, it’s just a suicide mission for some of us; maybe just a few, dozens, hundreds.

I want no-one to worry about this: if you fear for your own or your family’s health I am not in the business of signing death warrants, or attending any more children’s or teachers’ funerals. Be aware of your family’s health, yes, be alert to the possibilities and stay home to stay safe.

Let’s not worry about the radio phone-in whingers who say “You’re being paid; go to work. When I was a boy…”

Let’s smile sweetly at those who say we’ve been on a long holiday these last 8 weeks. I’ve seen the amount of work set, phone-calls, emails, video/google/zoom lessons and meetings. I’ve seen all the data that shows how each student is working in every subject and yes, I know, a third of them (in my school)  haven’t been doing much if anything. I’ve seen the predicted grades \ rank order deliberations and rewrites and I’ve heard the disappointment from teachers who have worked really well with Year 11s and this was going to be a record breaking year. No teacher wants to work from home – we’ve always been in it for the kids and this home schooling lark is dull for teachers, too.

Many of the younger staff live in flats without balconies or communal gardens. They, too, are stir-crazy and have been clamouring to be put on our care of key workers rota so they can come to school. Many are struggling with reticent children of their own and trying to get them off one tablet and on to a laptop, once they have finished setting on line lessons themselves. Their children, I hope, are not amongst the 170,000 children classed as homeless in the UK.

We’ve delivered goggles and gloves to a hospital and I’ve been released to drive thousands of masks to care homes, special schools, paramedics, hospice and surgeries in and around Ware. A 4th teacher joined the 3 who have spent weeks making these masks, another has been making surgical gowns. Parents and friends donated almost £3,000 so that we can make up for some of the deficiencies in a NHS condemned by 10 years of cuts by Boris and his mates.

When this virus passes, fades or ends let’s make sure no government ever abandons the NHS, its workers, or our health without us doing a little more than clapping.
Our staff are desperate to get back to working with children. As a preliminary, do I get staff and parents to sign a waiver in case they get seriously ill?

As an employer of around 130 people I have a duty of care to each of them and I cannot deliberately put them at risk. Some politicians and the DfE say we don’t need PPE and we must not wear surgical masks because that will reduce the supply to the NHS. These giants may offer some Turkish gear, cheap. However 8% of teachers in a recent TES survey agreed that they do not need PPE, the other 92% were wrong of course.

I don’t expect to see anyone with asthma, diabetes or epilepsy in school. I will not be chasing, admonishing or failing kids and staff who are frightened to come to school – or should I force them? You see, schools are recognised as hubs for the transmission of diseases in normal times and I doubt this virus will back off knowing this return to school is an attempt at herd immunity by stealth.

Because we really want to teach, see our shared role in saving the economy and teaching the kids who will have to mop up this disaster for years, this is how my school could start when we welcome any secondary school students in a pandemic, and that might not be for months yet:
  • The current year 10 only will be taught Monday - Thursday only. We will do lots of cleaning on Fridays as well as having site staff cleaning anything that doesn’t move, all day long, every day.
  • Half of the year group will come in from 9.00am - 12.00pm. The other half will do 12.30pm - 3.30pm (No calling for your mates, getting on a bus, walking with anyone, giving friends a lift).
  • Kids will line up 2 metres apart in the playground.
  • Groups of 12 maximum will be escorted to a room where they will stay.
  • Instead of hour long lessons we will “teach” 40 minute classes.
  • Classes will have subject specialists but probably not the teacher who has taught this group since September.
  • I will be on corridors wearing one of our visors and I will bark at children getting close.
  • In those rooms kids will be seated 2 metres apart.
  • The teacher, in a visor or own mask, will not get closer than 2 metres to a student.
  • There will be no handing out of books or equipment after initial distribution. 
  • The teacher will not be able to look at your work, do any marking as you write, nor will they collect in work.
  • Kids will be escorted out of the building for breaks where they will stay 2 metres apart or receive a piercing blast on a deputy head’s disposable whistle.
  • There will be no drama lessons and no PE involving changing rooms.
  • At 12.00pm students will be able, by prior appointment, to enter the canteen (two metres apart) and take a previously purchased (by Wisepay not cash or cheque) packed lunch from a long table. Then leave the building and go home.
  • The 12.30pm attendees will start in the playground and be escorted……
  • Teachers and Teaching Assistants will work according to a rota; admin as required and cleaners a lot more. We will be cleaning surfaces all day, if we have enough disinfectant now that Mr Trump has reduced availability.

We have written a timetable for this scenario. Staff with existing conditions, pregnancy, illness,  screened or sick relatives at home cannot be called upon. I’m 67 and fat and the doctor says I have asthma – do I go in?

So lots of cover work. Those kids who benefit from closer help, a bit of live marking or even a pat on the back will have to get used to formality.

The teachers will go home and set work for the other 800 kids on line.

That’s week one for Year 10. What do we do in week two?

There’s no way these students can be judged by exams alone, is there?

So Year 7, 8 and 9 keep doing the work at home. Year 6: We have a plan to help you visit us in small groups before September. You can’t come until the shops open to sell you a school uniform.

We want to teach, to care and nurture our young people, to help them see how important and valuable each of them is and how every last one of them has a part to play in creating a fairer society and world. Politicians should listen to us.

Dennis O'Sullivan (Headteacher)

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

CHILD CARE, EXAM FACTORIES AND EDUCATION



My past often informs my present.

Just 52 years ago I was a van boy delivering sausages in County Kilburn. A shopkeeper offered us a cup of tea and Bill, the salesman/driver refused, grumpily, saying what he wanted was a decent wage.

Our prime Minister thanked the NHS for his life. We all clap and bang saucepans at 8 pm on Thursdays to show gratitude for so many poorly paid, terribly resourced, outrageously protected NHS workers. More than 30 doctors, nurses and other NHS workers have died during this UK Coronavirus crisis.

Before this pandemic I spoke with a foodbank organiser who claimed two nurses amongst the needy relying on handouts. The thanks and applause are easy.

Charities have donated thousands of meals for NHS staff and millions of pounds raised by ordinary people. Shops have donated uniforms, schools have given the kids’ goggles and flimsy plastic gloves and there are hundreds of thousands of good citizens trying to help. But when it’s over, and austerity returns, make NHS workers the last to suffer: Pay them better, don’t charge for car parking, public transport or canteen food. Just treat them a little more like we do the PM, who must now regret how disgracefully he voted down their pay rise.

Some people are saying that we will be more decent human beings after this virus passes, that we will appreciate that the key workers have shown that public service, community and humanity raises us above penny-pinching, materialism and is morally good. Will this include our cloistered decision makers or are they, like premier league footballers still clinging to their own privileged rights? MPs get subsidised food, housing and transport and are picking up a £10,000 supplement to cover the cost of working from home. Will the NHS workers usurp the fat cats in government priorities?

Terribly, the Health Minister, the Wayne Rooney of sensitive soundbite, has doubted the cause of death of NHS workers. He says some might have contracted the fatal disease outside their places of work.

Dreadfully, Matt Hancock, has also accused doctors and nurses of wasting protective clothing, masks and gloves, urging them to “use no more and no less” than they clinically require. I know of an A&E doctor who celebrated the arrival of his mask on April 2nd.

Some sort of perverse Brexit thinking, or plain incompetence, meant the UK failed 3 times to take part in the 1.5 billion euro scheme to protect against Covid-19 (Guardian 13-04-2020) despite obvious life-threatening shortages. Home Secretary Priti Patel sulked, “I’m sorry if people feel there have been PPE failings,” after the deaths of frontline NHS staff. (The Sun 11-04-2020)

The government got the pandemic preparation wrong: fess up, apologise and put it right.

Moving On

The Department for Education have requested that I write my own obituary.

Being amongst the oldest headteachers, even after a life drug and alcohol free, healthy eating and sensible exercise, I’m more likely than most of my staff to struggle with the infection.

I have other staff more at risk: teachers, site and admin.

Because the economy is going to struggle, because millions will be out of work, because we face years of economic depression the DfE suggests we can reduce these effects if the schools open again soon. The Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty says, “schools were not dangerous for children during the pandemic.” Allegedly almost half the cabinet want us to open now for all kids. They believe that we can protect staff and students by enforcing social distancing measures.

Keep the kids two metres apart in classrooms, on corridors and at lunchtime. Really?

Also, make sure we have enough hot water and soap and sanitisers. Oops, we haven’t.

The DfE (Department for Education) view is that we could welcome back the kids, teach them in tiny groups – a classroom of 8 would still compromise the “safe distancing” measure – and somehow entertain the others. Class size of 30 is common in our schools but bureaucrats think we can drop that to 8. PE lessons, science experiments and any sort of group work impossible, lunchtimes staggered across most of the day, half the parents keeping their kids at home. What would be the point?

Do they really confuse child care with teaching?

There was a time when DfE people were seconded to spend a few days in schools to see the reality and be able to sensibly advise ministers. Given that there are around 4,000 employees at the DfE send us a couple and they can childcare some classes of 8 .

Allegedly we will not need protective clothing, nor testing and if we get ill, we should be sent home.

As headteacher, I have a duty of care to the staff and I share this with the governors. Will I be willing to send staff into dangerous rooms full of kids who routinely sneeze, cough and don’t wash their hands enough? I work to improve the lives and careers of teachers and students; even though teachers have an intimate relationship with infections I never planned to make life or death choices.

Is a dead teacher expendable?

I wonder how many older teachers will now pack it in earlier than planned? This week, in a survey of 7,732 teachers, 22% doubt they will be teaching in 3 years time. (source the excellent Teacher Tapp 11-04-2020)

The government admit to having failed to reach their teacher training target in each of these years: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019.- no gaps.

The DfE forecasts an increase of 14.7% rise in student numbers by 2027. (Schoolsweek 28-11-2019)

Maybe we need to keep the teachers we have rather than say they are really child minders of the 10.2 million kids in our schools and a few (hundred?) dead ones will have little effect.

At least 10% of my teachers will not be at work if we are sent back in the next month: cv infected, family at home cv infected, high risk, just plain sick. That in itself means around 100 classes a week to be covered. And then you have to triple the number of most “supervised gatherings “ because we have to reduce class size to 8. Over 250 classes covered in each week of social distancing. Teachers covering (teaching more hours) leads to sickness and absence and more covers, and sickness….and very bored, increasingly disruptive children not learning. Cover is nearly always an unacceptable alternative.

Will the kids walk to school, in single file, not breakfast from Asda, not travel in our bus of 50 kids, not be driven by parents?

The economic and social costs of shutdown are profound and deepening every day. If I cannot keep the kids safe, the staff safe, myself safe, I’m not going to open the school. My chair of governors reads my blogs: what you going to tell me to do, Bob? Are you good at obituaries?

Now, on to our role as exam factories.

Year 6 teachers, junior heads, parents and children did not sit SATs this year. They will not be ab le to tell secondary school teachers what a subordinate adverbial clause of reason looks like (because they didn’t sit the SATs exams {for example})

Like the junior school heads with whom I’ve spoken, I’d abolish the endless repetition of SATs. Replace with everyone doing CATs in a day – you can’t prepare, can’t revise and, many schools do them anyway.

Then Year 6 kids can do some Drama, Art, Music, PE, talking, playing, working with peers; develop social behaviours, share inspiring literature and teach about the wonders of our world, encourage thoughts feelings and the development of resilient individuals.

Wouldn’t that be OK?

Teachers are going to be trusted to say what Year11 and Year 13 students would have achieved if they had sat numerous, intense, GCSE and A Level exams. Teachers already predict final outcomes all the time. We know what the kids have done, how much they understand and know. We are continually assessing their work and abilities. Internal reporting, assessment and moderation is a continual process.

Speed writing what you can remember from a packed curriculum, constantly revised, is not a reliable measure of ability and competence.

Or do we need exams because teachers, apparently, are not trusted?

In the days of 100% coursework in English I had to participate, and endure, lengthy moderation meetings where all 7 of us would argue over ½% points, having marked our own, then each other’s classes’ work, rank-ordered and justified the outcomes. They were tough sessions and the grades more accurately reflected what a child could achieve than 3 two hour exams. Alongside the 20 or so other sudden death, all or nothing, stressful, crammed exams. It seems to me that very little employment measures workers in such a fashion.

Teachers teach to the tests: all year, in Year 6, 10, 11, 12 and 13, at the cost of educating. Yes we do.

My school spends almost £150,000 a year on exam entries and invigilation., an accelerating, costly rush into exam terrorism.

In August 2020, Year 11 and 13 students will get grades.

Just for the doubters: schools will predict outcomes for each student in every subject and present a rank order for each subject. Ofqual will then look at the school’s previous results. They will also look at the students’ previous scores - the dreaded SATs at age 11 and will award grades in line with last year’s results.

And if that methodology is valid and properly applied, there should be very, very little difference between what the student is awarded and what they deserved.

We have a chance now for teachers to show they can be trusted: the results are not being published, there will be no league tables, no use of data by Ofsted inspectors. This is a real chance to accurately record the students’ achievements.

Once we locked down, one boy scoring level 2s and 3s in every subject, partly because he has never been bothered, emailed his teachers to say. “I was just about to start working so can you change my predicted 3 to a 7 which I feel I would easily surpass.”

Universities already dent the validity of A Level exam grades by awarding places to 25% of my students on predicted grades alone.

If we are closed for more than a few more weeks, or if the disruption last to September, Year 10 and 12 students should be judged on their classwork and predicted grades in 2021. It will be impossible to set full exams for kids who missed a term’s work.

When the students do return they should all start proper lessons as classes, with their teachers, working as students and not as child-minded children. Children will not just slip back into the required way of working. The routines will have to be recreated and we will need to help them develop lost learning and behaviour.

The gap between rich and poor is widening. The gap between those who manage to do the work set and those whose parents settled for a quieter life will be huge. The work we set has not been done at all (by 30% in my school) properly (by 30%) or with the teacher help required to make progress by who knows how many. The lockdown has been lost learning time for perhaps 75% of our children and particularly for the disadvantaged.

Only 3% of children had done all the work set according to the 6,000 teachers on Teacher Tapp a week ago. Only 22% had done more than half the work set. Kids need to be with their teachers.

My 9 year old granddaughter – angelic in school – was under her bed stropping within 40 minutes on day one of her lockdown timetable.

Not all households have a computer for each child. Not every child has academic parents able to help with schoolwork. Many parents are fully engaged, working from home and for many busy people it’s easier to let the kids play computer games – especially when the kids say they have completed the work set.

Overcrowding, homelessness, dysfunction in families forced together for unnatural periods of time, more children witnessing drug and alcohol abuse alongside a 120% rise in incidents of domestic violence (Refuge Press Release 09-04-2020). The removal of normal, physical childhood will mean that more kids will not be ready for school straight away and we will have to start anew.

We can have the chance to restart, to offer a more relevant curriculum, modelling desired behaviour, building up student workload, getting them fit, helping them develop relationships outside the family home and believing in themselves.

At all ages, it’s going to be tougher than ever when we open again and society needs motivated, respected, healthy teachers to help build for social cohesion and reclaim economic growth and prosperity.

We can do some good here.



Dennis O'Sullivan (Headteacher)


Tuesday, 24 March 2020

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON!


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

A PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO SIR JOHN ROWLING


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

WAS IT FOR THIS THE CLAY GREW TALL?


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

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