Half-term is a good time for reflection. It comes with the territory that you never really switch off and I’ve got plenty to think about. I started thinking about all the challenges we are facing and the how the pressure is mounting again (casting an eye over my raw ‘Walking the Tightrope‘ post from August). Then, to restore some peace in my mind, I also reminded myself of all the opportunities we have too. In good old ‘forcefield analysis’ style, it pays to consider both sets of factors – to strengthen or add to the forces pushing towards the goal as well as reducing or removing the forces that are holding us back. Let’s have a look:
Positive Forces: Opportunities.
Staff: teacher quality; recruitment: I’m very happy about where we are here. We have lots of really great teachers across the school. We’re getting strong fields for vacant posts and the few people who are leaving are only doing so for sensible reasons (moving out of London, going abroad etc.). So far! I’m sure we can run a great school with the quality of staff we’ve got. My leadership team is set to be complete by April and we can really take off then. We’ve appointed an excellent new Head of KS3, a Head of Maths, a SENCo – these are great people joining the team.
Curriculum principles: We’ve done a lot to get things in order here – although we haven’t yet seen the fruits of our labours. That will take time. We’ve addressed all the big weaknesses in the curriculum model I inherited which feels good; parental feedback is strongly positive about all of these changes. We’re on the right track.
Sixth Form status and recruitment: The acid test comes in August but the current vibes are positive – our Y11s want to stay in our Sixth Form; the Sixth Form leadership is excellent and we’ve got a great offer. We’ve had record numbers of external applicants. This is good for funding and morale.
Community spirit: parental support and positive feedback: A key cohort of parents – typically the more engaged folk who attend the termly parents’ forums – are vocal in their support of what happens at school. I have happy customers; part of that is the fact that they can raise their concerns – it’s not as though they don’t ever have any – but they understand what we’re trying to achieve and support the direction. A new wave of parent governors is strongly supportive which is helpful. I’m pleased to say that my governing body is now very much a positive force.
Clarity of purpose. Our recent work on our Core Purpose has been very helpful. It’s not finished yet but the process of drafting it has helped to cut through quite a lot of noise. We’ll need to use this to drive our agenda with extra vigour from now on.
Improving behaviour. Even though the challenges many students in our community face are significant and they often bring with them into school; even though we get some rough press at times for what we’re doing, our system is working. Behaviour in lessons is better than ever; standards are rising.
Rising prior attainment profile: Although our Pupil Premium level remains above 70% in every year groups, there’s a definite rising profile of prior attainment. Our top end is stronger than in the last 10 years; we’ve got more models for excellent learning throughout the school. This is a great asset.
So far, so good. But here come the opposing forces:
Negative Forces: Threats.
Budget pressure. Oh boy – this is set to hit us very soon. Educational Austerity has arrived after the years of plenty. In the last 1o years, my school has not had a problem with money; it’s always gone up; it has always had the most funding for any index going. But, now we need to go into reverse, making savings, cutting back, doing the same for less where we can but also cutting out things that we can’t afford. Tough times ahead on this front. We did see this coming and made some prudent staffing decisions last year; we don’t have more teachers than we need – but we’re looking to make a sizeable overall reduction in expenditure in the next financial year.
Persistent disengagement. Despite trying hard to improve our core provision, with clear successes, there is a significant cohort of students who remain hard to engage fully in what’s on offer. They are typically from disadvantaged families; they have low aspirations, have trouble with boundaries and generate negative peer pressure amongst themselves. We’ve brought the horses to water – but they ain’t drinking! So to speak. Some of these students have high prior attainment and we’re expecting them to get strong GCSE outcomes on paper. Cracking this issue is THE central challenge we face. There are no easy wins here…(no nifty last-minute interventions any more) and some days the extent to which some students can obstruct the path to their own success is breath-taking; utterly disheartening – especially when their parents collude or have given up. We can only control so much – and there is the risk that we’ll only ever have a limited impact on the sources of the disadvantage chasm.
Unknowns in student outcomes. The turbulence in the exam system is horribly destabilising. Teachers’ sense of what standards look like; their confidence based on their experience of the journey from inputs to outcomes that informs a lot of their teaching – these things have been shaken massively. It breeds uncertainty, doubt – even fear. Where teacher predictions fall below the Progress 8 median line, it’s mostly psychological. This is salvageable – but it’s a potential threat nonetheless given that teacher expectations have such a big impact on outcomes. The higher maths GCSE in Year 10 seems super-hard and the content is vast. We simply do not know how it will all pan out – especially as grades are based on a competition for places on the bell curve. It’s the same for everyone of course – but that’s not much comfort right now. In truth the changes themselves aren’t the problem; its the scale of total change in the context of our crude accountability system that presents the threat.
Inconsistencies in practice. The things we can control are the lessons we teach. Here, the challenge comes from getting everyone up to speed; getting everyone on the same page all of the time. In a complex school, there is a herding cats aspect to things at times.. people are human; they diverge; they digress; they meander. However, we have agreed a certain number of things that all of us should be doing. Currently, with quite a lot of things being new, we’re still at the stage of embedding ideas or even getting the ball rolling. These divergent tendencies and the inevitable inertia to change – are holding us back a bit. Work to do there. I need to turn up the alignment forcefield.
Staff retention. Although our recruitment has been a strength so far, there is an ever-present threat around staff retention. My pet-peeve is when teachers are lured into the independent sector; our moral purpose is not always a match for the promise of more money and smaller classes of fully motivated students. I want to retain and develop people and to sustain a staff culture that makes the school a good place to be -but I can’t always give people what they want. I know I’m not as available as I’d like or as good as I should be at showing the level of recognition people deserve. CPD is the driver of improvement and I do hope our CPD model succeeds in moving people forwards. Next on the agenda is our middle leadership development which isn’t where we need it.
Accountability pressure. Gosh, I really wish I could swipe it all away. It’s not just all the documentation; the reports and action plans. It’s the nagging sense that at any time, the game could be up. Some days, when things seem difficult, I start to imagine what I’ll do in the worst case scenario. I have my imagined post-headship career mapped out; the down-sized house somewhere; a job doing something I can do well – teaching physics,writing a few nostalgic blogs! In all honesty, given how hard we all work, given how complex some of the problems we face are – it’s ridiculous to live under this cloud of constant pressure. I should be able to enjoy every moment, feeling secure and supported as well as challenged to seek continuing improvement. The pressure itself is a definite risk. There are too many days when I question whether it’s worth it. That’s not right is it!?
Fortunately, I’ve managed to build a leadership team that is right there behind me – and we are all in it for the long haul – as long as that lasts! I have a Chair and Vice-Chair of governors (amongst many others) who are right there with me; they get how to challenge me whilst being massively supportive. And I’ve just had another email from a parent gushing about their child’s experience since joining my school. Happy customers! Perhaps we’re winning….
Good luck, Tom. As someone from the independent sector, I’m full of admiration for the high quality work that you and others like you do. In many senses, the state sector is more dynamic, more engaged with educational research and more focused on the quality of teaching and learning, with the pupils at the centre of what you do, than we are.
However, it’s amusing that the opportunities and threats are largely the same, irrespective of where you work. (PS: My best mate is a Head of Science, Head of Year in a large state secondary school in the West Midlands, and previously taught in London…so I do see both sides!)
Thought-provoking stuff as ever. As someone in the independent sector, I have to say that I’m envious of the more dynamic, more engaged and more teaching and learning focused emphasis of the state sector, in comparison to the independent sector. However, it’s interesting to see that opportunities and threats are fairly universal too.
PS: My best mate is a Head of Science/Head of Year in a large state school in the West Midlands; so I do get to see both sides. And if you’re offering Economics in the Sixth Form, let me know: if there’s any help you need, collaboration opportunities etc…
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So good to hear how positively you face the challenges. I work in the Sebd environment so feel your pain about those disadvantaged, disenfranchised students. Keep fighting the good fight and try and squeeze in some time to surprise some of your longstanding frontline colleagues who are doing right by the kids, day in day out. Great blog 😃
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A very honest blog. Thank you. Mirrors so many of my own thoughts and experiences. Our children are fantastic but present us with significant challenges. I doubt the current incumbents of the DFE will ever understand the damage they are doing to some of our most vulnerable children and also the profession in deprived areas. I’m beginning to doubt whether they really care at all (not sure I ever believed they cared!).
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Hi Tom. Have you seen this – key findings from a study I just had published, with evidence of closing the ‘disadvantage chasm’ from the bottom up – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_4BXny-kAU. This was with a very different demographic so no guarantees that it would transfer to HGS, but it’s essentially a Year 7 Learning to Learn curriculum – you have to find their on switch, and find it early! I guess that principle is transferrable. Would be happy to have a conversation if you fancy putting something in place for September – email jwm43 at cam dot ac dot uk
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Always refreshing to read your open, honest and straight-talking blog posts, Tom. It sounds to me that there’s a great deal to feel positive about, but I also recognise the reference to days where you question and doubt your capacity to keep everything moving in the right direction. But this degree of humility and self-doubt just springs from your commitment and your humanity.
Hope half term gave you chance to rest and re-energise.
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