Toxic tough talk is still killing us and needs to stop.

Although I’m an optimistic by nature and see lots of wonderful things happening in our system, this is something that still bothers me…. so I’m going to off-load about it.

I remember hosting a Headteachers’ event at my school – when I had one – when a well-informed policy thinktank person laid out some home truths for us.  (No names because I can’t remember if it was meant for public consumption….). Here’s what we were told:

  • Politicians are motivated by getting elected… therefore they are motivated to do things and say things they think will deliver their re-election; this is hard-wired to be short-term given our electoral cycle.
  • In public opinion terms, it pays not to appear soft on schools or teachers.  There are no votes there.  It pays to talk tough to teachers.
  • Teachers are a minority voice versus parents – so if parents say they want things that matters way more than what teachers say.  All parents want better schools… so, again, seeming to be demanding about school standards etc is a winner.
  • Because of the holidays and relative pay, there is low public sympathy for teachers on pay and conditions.

So there we are.  Tough talk pays!  We’ve been getting it for years.  The prevailing school improvement paradigm has been that poor performance is the fault of feckless leaders and teachers who just need a rocket up them to get their act together.   Ed Balls was full of it introducing statistically dubious floor targets and talking tough about them; Michael Gove made it an art form on many fronts- a personal obsession to slag teachers off as often as possible; Nicky Morgan took in on too when introducing the totally dubious concept of coasting schools (see Nicky Morgan vs The Bell Curve.).

Ofsted HMCIs have been pummeling us for years. Because we deserve it right?  It started with Chris Woodhead and Michael Wilshaw picked up the baton.  All those countless interviews and speeches glorifying tough talk… A classic Wilshaw sentence would start with ‘any Headteacher worth their salt should …..’… followed by some big cojones bravado referencing his own true greatness.  He was at it again at the Education Festival; interviewed by Mr Tabloid breakfast telly host they made a right pair.  Tough Talk!! (Mr  Tabloid called me a ‘spineless twerp’ when I mentioned this on twitter… hey ho. That’s me told. And you know, tough talk plays to the gallery. etc)

And then there are the big-bucks CEOs with their gongs and Outstandings championing their ‘tell it as it is’ approach, the discredited evidence-free business of PRP, blindly continuing to justify grading lessons (because any decent school leader ‘can just tell’) and generally making a virtue of how fast they can spin the revolving door of staff turnover.   Some of these guys are celebrated by members of the press adding to the general public perception that good school leaders talk tough.  Tough talk pays.  I remember getting another twitter-bash from a former edu-press editor telling me that I needed to get in the real world and that ‘any Headteacher worth their salt….’ would be able to decide who deserved a pay rise. etc etc.

And look where we are with all of this: despite teaching being potentially a fabulous job, teacher recruitment and retention are absolutely dire.  All the tough talkers have got a lot to answer for.  Schools systems are awash with unevidenced monolithic performance management processes linked to excessive workload;  unions have defences up about lesson observation and feedback – actively stifling school improvement because they’re so much on the defensive.  I have regular communications from Headteachers on the edge of a breakdown or recently having been ‘disappeared’ because of tough talk governors and CEOS making their lives impossible with relentless unforgiving pressure to chase the impossible dream of having all schools above average, all children hitting their FFT20 .. and all that utterly ignorant target/data chasing.   Even some of the very best Heads I know are subject to outrageous levels of pressure by lay-people who know virtually nothing about schools.

Here’s the thing – it’s total BS.  Tough talk doesn’t work.  It kills.  It kills the very spirit that keeps our education system alive.  I can’t think of a single school that I rate where tough talk has worked in securing genuine sustained success.  All the best schools I know (there’s a long long list) have strong cultures where staff morale, staff development, staff culture, staff retention, staff professionalism etc etc etc are conspicuously valued, nurtured, developed, prized.

And let’s not confuse an aversion to tough talk with tolerance of low standards. That’s the big lie.  The big illusion; the Big Cojones delusion.  It’s the long game, long haul commitment to genuine sustained excellence that demands that teachers and leaders feel secure, supported, motivated, developed, valued – and, yes, challenged.  But challenged in a spirit of shared endeavour; not challenged with a gun to their heads.

I think things are changing.  There’s a been a drop off in some of the policy-makers’ tough talk; less of it directly from Ofsted and the DFE… even they seem to be worried about the brain drain and are desperate for solutions.  But the systematic legacy is still there: the very essence of inspection and the language of ‘inadequate’ and ‘RI’ perpetuates it; some MAT structures give wildly excessive powers to some pretty awful tough talkers who can hire and fire on a whim.  They justify all they do by focusing on tiny pockets of success…. meanwhile the system itself falls further apart.   The national culture has got to change faster… we shouldn’t stand for it.  We shouldn’t allow these people on festival platforms to further poison the water unchallenged …. Let’s keep calling it out and resolve to transform school cultures so that more teachers join, more teachers stay, and teachers and leaders all thrive.   And if you’re a tough talker.. have a word with yourself.  Stop.  You are the problem.





  1. I agree but I don’t know one teacher who would recommend being a teacher to their own children – or their students!


  2. Rant read, appreciated and wholly agreed with (yikes, ending my sentence with a preposition.). “…pretty awful tough talkers …” -we all unfortunately know these and are living the hellish life at the moment. ‘tough talkers’ is something of a gentle descriptor in fact. #MATS=deathofeducation


  3. Time for the teaching community (what’s left of it) to rally together and stand up for changes in policy and practice using research-informed methods. Here’s where the CCT come in amongst others………

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s worse up north, at least Sean Harford at your Ofsted is a beacon of sense on various. In Scotland we have quangos galore (no bonfire here) plus new ones: Regional Improvement Collaboratives & at national level an academic body producing 19 recommendations. There is an illusion of inertia as recently John Swinney, the SNP edu sec, has pulled his reform bill due to the opposition from Local Authorities and Unions but in reality a shortage of teachers/mone/etc & new-schemes from digital to “curriculum design culture” means many are working harder for less.

    You might say the above is toxic talk & does not help those working in the above institutions; of course there are people thereabouts doing their best. But fight fire with fire.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Quite agree with the content and sentiment. Sadly, as teachers we are rather good at being victims / being too inward looking / concerned with binary debates etc Over time the profession has been cowered so good to see some green shoots coming through.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well said. Hard to imagine that any teacher at any level worth their salt would think anything other than that you are absolutely right.

    Liked by 1 person

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