We’ve got the FEAR: Fantastic expectations; Amazing revelations

I love this song by Ian Brown.  Play it as you read on…is there a better acrostic song?!  It is better sung than written down but here is a sample:


For each a road
For everyman a religion

Forget everything and remember
For everything a reason

Freeing excellence affects reality
Fallen empires are running

Fantastic expectations; Amazing revelations
Final execution and resurrection
Free expression as revolution
Finding everything and realizing

We’ve got the FEAR

This post is meant to be more than an excuse to post one of my favourite songs.  I’ve had a draft post called ‘What are we so Scared Of?’ waiting to be finished for ages, so, after some Ian Brown inspiration, this is it:

I believe that too much of our discourse in education is characterised by fear, to an extent that holds us back from taking the steps we need to improve our teaching, to improve our schools and to improve the system.  I hear this at CPD events, in the staffroom, on twitter and at Heads’ meetings. It is everywhere. Here is a caricature… based on the truth.  The system is blighted by too many…..

Teachers scared of: OfSTED, lesson observations, not finishing the syllabus if they deviate from the scheme of work; criticism from parents, teenagers with strong opinions, their Head of Department, the exercise book review, their Headteacher, redundancy:  Failing.

Headteachers scared of: results going down, losing their jobs, public humiliation, OfSTED reports, a critical Chair of Governors, pushy parents, newspaper headlines, union action, being unpopular: Failing.

Ministers scared of: being accused of letting standards fall; letting standards fall; being seen to be soft on teachers and schools; being found out for not really knowing much about education; being asked about grade inflation or PISA tables; having to appear to know what to do about the academic-technical divide, grammar school creaming and local schools that no-one chooses; the Daily Mail. Failing.

Our default human response to pressure, stress or fear, if we can’t just run away, is to exert control.  So, the consequence of this fear-fest is the imposition of absurd controls.  Ministers are too scared to place trust in the teaching profession; Heads are often too scared to deviate from what they perceive to be the prescribed path laid down by OfSTED; Teachers are often too scared to try anything new, to push students beyond their limits or to give them a chance to make mistakes…

And underneath this pile of people with the FEAR, are the students we serve. Are they scared to fail, inhibited and ever-so-slightly repressed?- you bet. No surprise there then.

What is the answer?

Well we obviously need to reverse the entire process. We need to embrace risk; learn to trust; relax the controls and give people confidence. This is not a charter for complacent coasting… because challenge and trust go hand in hand; it is necessary if we are serious about creating a truly world class system.  We also need to recognise our obligations to our students and to tax-payers…. why should we expect absolute security or protection from criticism? We all need tougher hides and the strength to recognise that students with attitudes are welcome; ‘pushy’ parents are a blessing – and it is completely reasonable to meet certain standards in return for our salaries.  As I’ve argued here, building a trust culture, is not all hugs!

Another way to think of this is that we must stop thinking of our schools and classrooms as plantations:  every input controlled; every process prescribed; every output measured and pre-determined; everything standardised; every risk minimised.

We need to think of them as rainforests:  places where diversity is celebrated, where we create an environment that allows any form of learning that works to thrive and develop uninhibited.

Screen shot 2012-06-30 at 15.55.54

But who starts? Whose responsibility is it?

We can’t expect politicians to change  – let’s be realistic!

So, Headteachers need to do it.  We get paid enough. Our job is create a giant force field around our schools so that teachers don’t feel subject to sustained external pressure and feel secure enough to push themselves.  Headteachers need to examine their rule-books  asking whether they are imposing constraints on their teachers that can be justified.  Headteachers, are you holding your staff back by insisting that they stick to a script? Are you creating insecurity by an over-emphasis on accountability processes, thereby inhibiting any form of risk-taking?

And teachers – if you are in a school where you feel your Head or Head of Department is holding you back..well, you just need to do it anyway.  There is no shred of truth in the view that exciting, dynamic, high quality teaching which includes a few risks is incompatible with outstanding results or outstanding OfSTED judgements.  Fight back… and do what you think is right. But first, look in the mirror:  In my experience, a lot of teacher-fear is entirely self-inflicted. Evidence? Teachers in the same school operate very differently… some just get on with it, whilst others hide behind a veil of battle-weariness, jaded cynicism or conspiracy theories about ‘management’.  Just get on with it…. you do not need permission to be excellent!

Finally, to return to Ian Brown. My favourite F.E.A.R line:

Fantastic Expectations; Amazing Revelations

That, to me, captures great teaching and learning – rainforest style.


  1. Fantastic expectations; Amazing revelations
    Best Twitter Find of the Day for me-rainforest metaphor is one that resonates my inner landscape.


  2. I loved this blog entry. It very much encapsulates my view and as a first time Head of a small primary school, just about to start my second term, promoting ‘risk-taking’ has been a lot easier after OFSTED came and went. (They came in my 6th week!). Good music taste as well.


  3. Thank you for a crucially important point, and a really good description. I have to agree, and have reached the (sorry?) state in my career of writing articles to help teachers cope with the culture of fear!!
    And well done to Steve (previous reply) and the staff of Uplowman Primary on keeping the space invaders at bay!


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