The news headlines are pretty bleak in the world of education at the moment. Industrial action by members of the National Education Union is disrupting schools up and down the country. They are taking action because of the significant financial challenges facing schools – as with every sector of the economy – in the face of skyrocketing energy bills and insufficient funding to raise staff salaries in line with high inflation. A further slap in the face was the revelation of WhatsApp messages from former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, denigrating teachers as lazy and workshy at the height of the pandemic. I remember our staff working with students throughout that time – without vaccines or PPE – and moving heaven and earth to deliver education in unprecedented circumstances, so this is particularly galling.

There have also been shocking scenes on social media of schools around the country in disorder as students stage “protests” against rules and approaches taken by staff. I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of individual cases elsewhere, but I am very glad that our Academy is a school with strong student leadership and voice; a school where staff listen to students and where students are able to make positive changes to the Academy in partnership with staff – as one community. We have revised uniform rules and systems as a result of this kind of feedback from students through councils and student voice, and those groups are continuing to work hard to improve many aspects of school. We will continue to listen as our students express their views through the channels designed for this purpose – and I am grateful for the good sense and maturity that they have shown, despite the trends of social media.

As I was leaving school at the end of the day this week, I saw the carpet of crocuses and daffodils blooming again, as they do every spring. They reminded me – as they always do – that out of the cold and dark, brightness always returns. Working in schools, we are in the business of optimism. Every day, we work with the young people who have the potential to go out and make the world better, to solve its problems, to make a positive difference. No matter how difficult things are, the positivity and potential of our students make the job worthwhile.

Comprehensive advantage

Or why state schools actually provide a better education than private schools

This week, the front page of the Times newspaper declared (in horror): “privately educated to lose places at Oxbridge.” As Sam Freedman has subsequently pointed out, the headline here implies that privately educated students have some pre-ordained right to places at our most prestigious and elite universities, and should be up in arms about “normal” state educated children coming along to take away the places that are rightfully theirs.

This sort of stuff makes me furious!

As many of you will know, I am myself privately educated, and I went to Oxford to study English. One of the unresolved questions in my life is whether I would have got my place at Oxford if I had attended the local comprehensive, instead of being a scholarship boy at a competitive, selective, all-boys school with a long-established and well-designed Oxbridge preparation programme. Almost half of my A-level English Literature class in Year 13 successfully gained places at Oxford or Cambridge – it was “expected.” Was it my natural ability, work ethic and enthusiasm for reading and writing that got me in – or was is the advantage of a system loaded to get students from certain schools into certain universities?

I will never know the answer to that question, but one of my personal missions as teacher and Headteacher is to ensure that students from the state schools I work in recognise that they have just as much right to places at our most prestigious universities and top careers as anybody else. I want to make sure that the playing field is levelled wherever possible, so that those without privilege have equal access to the opportunities that those with privilege take for granted.

Over my 25 years working in mixed state comprehensive schools across the East Midlands and the South West, it has also become abundantly clear to me that a state education is actually superior to a private one. Not necessarily in terms of resources – private schools are cash-rich. Mine had two theatres and its own sailing club, for example; most state schools can’t compete with that. But an education in a comprehensive school gives you something that a private school can’t: the understanding of people who come from a different background to you.

At Churchill, we have students from across the whole range of ability, across a wide range of backgrounds, with different needs, family backgrounds, identities, enthusiasms and interests. Some of our students come from rich, privileged backgrounds; some live in poverty. We are a rich, diverse community. I never had that at my school – I had no idea about how people different to me lived their lives. And that meant that, although I knew I lot about Jane Austen, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, I wasn’t really that well educated – because I didn’t really understand people who weren’t like me. That part of my education didn’t begin until I trained as a teacher, age 22, in a deprived area of north Nottinghamshire, in a state comprehensive school.

And, more than that, the evidence shows that a comprehensive system actually provides a better level of academic preparation. A landmark report by the HEFCE showed that state school students with the same A-level grades as their private school counterparts went on to get better degrees at the end of university. Something about a state school education prepares students to be more successful when they move on to higher education than those from the privileged private sector. Maybe it’s the inclusion and diversity of their education that gives them the edge to be more flexible, to have empathy, and to work better with a greater variety of people?

It is clear to me, having been educated in the private sector and worked for two and a half decades in the state sector, that students get a better all-round education in state schools than they do in private ones. I have three children myself – my youngest is just finishing primary, and my eldest is in Year 11. They all go to state schools. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The principles of public life

Accompanying the documents I signed in January 2016, as I became Headteacher of the Academy, was a copy of The Seven Principles of Public Life, sometimes known as the Nolan Principles. The principles:

“apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder. This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), and in the health, education, social and care services. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources.”

From The Seven Principles of Public Life, published 31st May 1995.

As a Headteacher, I am a public office-holder. I am a servant of the public, and a steward of public resources. I signed those principles, and I remember them. I take them very seriously and do everything I can to uphold them in every aspect of my work, and the work of the wider Academy. The principles are:

  1. Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
  2. Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
  3. Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
  4. Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
  5. Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
  6. Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
  7. Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs

I find these principles inspiring and helpful. They genuinely guide my work. I know that upholding them will give people faith in me as a leader. Their widespread adoption gives people faith in the wider public services, because there are good people working there, behaving ethically, honestly, openly, selflessly, and conducting themselves with integrity. If ever I fall short, I work hard to put it right.

If public servants are dishonest; if they are selfish; if they are biased; if they dodge or avoid the scrutiny and accountability that they should submit themselves to; if they conceal the truth, our faith in them is shaken. And not just in them: failure to adhere to the seven principles of public life undermines our faith in the wider system, not just in the individuals who fall short.

That is why I take the principles so seriously, and do all I can to demonstrate selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership in all that I do. And I would expect all servants of the public to do the same.

Making the leap

In 2016, Luke Aikins became the first person to complete a planned jump from an aeroplane without a parachute or a wingsuit. Jumping from 25,000 feet, he sped earthwards before eventually landing in a net just 30m square.

Such behaviour might seem like complete madness to most people. The nerve required to take that leap of faith is unimaginable. But the experienced skydiver had been preparing for this moment for 18 months, as had the team around him. He had practised the movements he would need to make to adjust his freefall to hit the target precisely, and he had worked with gymnasts to rehearse the flip he would need to perform to ensure he landed safely on his back (you can see him practising the “flip” move at about 1:30 into the video above).

Meanwhile, the net was precision engineered to cushion his impact. Civil Engineer John Cruikshank had worked out the maths and physics required to slow the plummeting man from 193km/h to zero safely. The net was suspended high in the air from four cranes, supported by air pistons which would compress on impact. It took eight months of testing to be sure that the mechanism would work safely.

The landing site

I use Luke Aikins’ story when I am talking to students about preparing for their exams. Aikins has his team around him, supporting him, for the first part of his fall. These are teachers, friends, family. But there is a moment of truth – about 1:40 into the video for Luke Aikins -when you are on your own and you have to rely on all the preparation you have done to deliver the result you want. It’s just you and the task in hand. The better your preparation, the higher the chance of a good outcome. Of course, it’s never guaranteed: even with the best preparation in the world, things can sometimes go wrong. That’s why it’s never possible to take the stress out of such situations completely. But, if you know that you’ve practised, you know what you need to do, and you know how to do it, you will have the confidence to make the leap and land safely.

We all need to take a deep breath before we make our leap. But, if we know we’ve prepared as well as possible, it gives us the confidence to take that step and – as far as we can – to enjoy the ride.

Thank a teacher

This week was National Thank A Teacher day, on Wednesday 23rd June. It is always lovely to receive messages of thanks, not just on one day of the year but at any time! One of the things that has sustained us at Churchill through the past fifteen months has been the stream of positive comments from parents and families, showing their gratitude for the work of all school staff – not just teachers – for working through lockdowns and beyond to keep education moving forward for our students. It was particularly gratifying, when the Secretary of State for Education suggested that parents should report schools to Ofsted if they weren’t doing well enough during the pandemic, that the schools inspectorate was overwhelmed by 13,000 messages praising schools – and only 260 complaints.

I would like to add my thanks to all those positive messages of support. The staff at Churchill – all the staff, not just the teachers – have been amazing. We have got through the most difficult year that any of us have known as a team, looking out for each other and supporting our shared purpose of keeping our Academy community strong, no matter what. It has been a privilege to be part of it.

Thank A Teacher Day reminded me of the teachers who made a difference to me. There are many, but two in particular stick in my mind.

  • Mrs Chamberlain: Mrs Chamberlain was my teacher in Year 5 at Elmgrove Primary School in Harrow. The difference she made was that she made be believe in myself. I’d always loved learning, but she opened up my eyes to what was possible if I worked really, really hard. She set us projects, and encouraged us to push ourselves. Our whole class flourished – and I’ve never forgotten it. When I became a teacher myself I wrote to thank her for the impact she had on me.
  • Mr Rattue: Mr Rattue was my English teacher in Year 8 (I think…or it might have been Year 7?!) and again in the Sixth Form. I always loved English because I loved stories – reading and writing them – but in Year 12 Mr Rattue taught us a unit which took us through the whole history of English Literature from Geoffrey Chaucer through to the modern day. We studied a couple of poems or extracts from key writers from every period. It wasn’t on the syllabus or the exam, but he wanted us to be able to put our understanding of texts in context. This unit gave me an overview of the subject which allowed me to make connections between ideas, writers and movements that otherwise I would have learned about in isolation. This made a huge difference, helping me to understand English Literature as a subject, rather than just learning about individual writers, books or poems. Mr Rattue had also studied English at Oxford, and helped me to believe that, maybe, that was something I could do too.

We can all remember the teachers who shaped our school days – for good and for bad! If there’s a teacher who has made a difference to you, make sure you say thank you – it makes a big difference to them, too.

Investing in education

Education hit the headlines over the half term break, when the government announced its education recovery plan. The announcement included an additional £1.4bn to be invested in education over the next three years. This is, by any stretch, a large amount of money – but it did not go down well. By the evening of the day of the big announcement, the government’s own Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins – the man appointed by the Prime Minister to oversee the education sector’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – had resigned. His letter to Boris Johnson spelled out the reasons why he could not continue:

“I do not believe it will be possible to deliver a successful recovery without significantly greater support than the Government has, to date, indicated it intends to provide. I am concerned that the apparent savings offered by an incremental approach to recovery represent a false economy, as learning losses that are not addressed quickly are likely to compound.”

Sir Kevan Collins, in his letter of resignation to the Prime Minister

The headlines which followed told the story:

So why was the announcement of £1.4bn of extra funding for education so poorly received and so controversial? The main reason is that it was well-known that the plans put forward by Sir Kevan Collins were actually costed at ten times as much as the Treasury actually released. Reports suggest his plan would have cost £15bn. The Secretary of State for Education is reported to have asked the Treasury for £14bn. And the Treasury actually released a tenth of that, with funding ring-fenced to support tutoring and teacher development rather than many of the more ambitious (and expensive) proposals put forward.

So why was everyone so upset?

The government – and especially the Prime Minister – had been talking for weeks about prioritising education, talking about “levelling up” and suggesting it had a real ambition to do something radical. There had been much discussion in the media about extending the school day by half an hour, not just so that children could access tutoring in English and Maths, but also to provide opportunities for enrichment as laid out in Sir Kevan Collins’ letter:

“I believe our approach to recovery should also offer children opportunities to re-engage with sport, music, and the rich range of activities that define a great education. I proposed extending school time as a way to provide this breadth, as well as to ensure that additional academic support does not cause existing enrichment activities to be squeezed out.”

Sir Kevan Collins, from his resignation letter

Extending the school day is a complex, difficult thing to do. There would be a myriad of issues to work out and a mountain of obstacles to overcome. But it showed real ambition, a real sense of purpose, and it offered a genuine solution to the problem. With more time, we could do more – more performing arts, more sport, more outdoor education, more creativity, and more of the basics – without squeezing the stuff we already do.

At what cost?

Why would this plan cost so much? Well, an additional half an hour a day doesn’t sound like much – but there are over 24,000 schools in England. Additional time in each of those schools means additional staff would be needed in every single one. They would need to be heated, lit, powered and maintained for longer. Additional resources would be required for all those enrichment activities…in every school. The cost soon mounts up.

What Sir Kevan Collins showed the government was that a world class education system isn’t cheap. Other countries have realised this. In the Netherlands, the government has announced additional funding to support post-pandemic education recovery at around £2500 per child. In the USA, additional funding is running at £1600 per head. The graphic above shows that the UK government’s investment sits at just £50 per head, and even adding in previous education funding announcements only brings it up to £310 per head (as shown in the Financial Times.) As Geoff Barton said on Sky News: “what is it about those children in the Netherlands or the USA that makes them worth more?”

We know that the pandemic has cost the country countless billions already, not just in healthcare costs but lost earnings, furlough, collapsed businesses and welfare. There is no “magic money tree” and it is clear that the government cannot just make £15bn appear to invest in education on a whim. Money spent on education cannot be spent elsewhere – and there are many other worthy and important areas for the government to spending money on.

However, subsequent analysis showed that the education recovery funding set aside for England in the 2021-22 academic year amounts to £984 million – whereas the government spent £840 million on the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme in a single month in August 2020. I am certainly in favour of supporting the hospitality industry, which has been crippled by the pandemic – our restaurants and pubs need and deserve our help. But can it possibly be right that an entire year’s worth of funding to support our national education recovery is only slightly more than a month’s worth of funding to support hospitality?

Unfortunately, investing in education is not politically effective. It doesn’t fit neatly into the election cycle. When you spend money on education, you don’t see the benefits for decades – usually long after the careers of most politicians have concluded. But not investing in education – as Sir Kevan pointed out – is a false economy. Investing in education is an investment in reducing social problems, increasing employability and earning potential, and improving social mobility for the future.

Of course, we will still do everything we can at Churchill to provide a world class education with what we have. We know that the work we do here will continue to have an impact, not just in the short term to resolve immediate issues, but in the long term as we continue to do all we can to inspire and enable young people to make a positive difference to themselves, to others, and to the society they will participate in. But, when I think about what we could be providing with additional funding…it feels like an opportunity missed.

The next generation of teachers

Over the course of the past few weeks, I have been heavily involved in recruiting teachers to join the Academy in September. This is always an exciting and fulfilling part of my job, and a big responsibility; I want to make sure that we have the best possible teachers in front of our students so that they will have the best possible education at Churchill.

I am delighted with the appointments we have made so far. Applicants to Churchill have been attracted by our vision and values, our high standards, and our reputation for training and developing staff. We take this aspect of our work very seriously. We firmly believe in Dylan Wiliam’s maxim:

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

Dylan Wiliam

This process of professional development continues throughout a teacher’s career – up to and including the Headteacher! – but it begins with initial teacher training. We have always been heavily involved in this process, welcoming groups of trainee teachers to the Academy for their teaching practice and school experience placements throughout the year and across a range of subjects. Ensuring that this initial phase of training lays a solid foundation for a long and successful career is essential. And this is where – hold on to your hats everyone – the Department for Education has actually had quite a good idea.

From September 2021, newly qualified teachers will no longer be “NQTs”. Instead, they will be part of a new “Early Career Framework” to guide new entrants to the teaching profession through two years of well-designed training and professional development, fully funded by the Department for Education. These years are designed to build on the initial teacher training year (whether school-based on university-based) to ensure that Early Career Teachers get the best possible start to their time in the profession.

At Churchill, we are ahead of the curve as we have been running a two-year induction for new entrants to the profession for a number of years. This feeds into our wider professional development programme which includes opportunities for staff at all stages of their careers. We know that it is only by investing in our staff that we can continue to be successful in the medium and long term.

There is a well-publicised recruitment and retention crisis within the teaching profession. For many years, not enough new teachers have been trained, and too many experienced teachers have been leaving. Teaching is a hard job, with heavy demands on time and emotional investment in the young people in our care. It can be very challenging. However, here at Churchill, we firmly believe that there is no more rewarding job. We know that the most successful teachers are well-trained, with the time and support behind them to make a positive difference every day. We do all we can to provide that training, that time, and that support – so that our teachers can give of their best every day.

The pandemic has seen an rise in applicants to the teaching profession. I think people have seen the difference that schools and teachers have made to young people through this crisis, and the impact that a good teacher can have. I am thrilled that this has encouraged more people to think about becoming teachers. I have been a qualified teacher since 1997 and I have been proud to be part of this profession every single day since then – and never more so than during my time as a Headteacher. The government’s reforms to early career teaching are a positive step. Here at Churchill we will continue to do all we can to continue to advocate for our profession, and to ensure that the we train, develop and recruit the very best in the next generation of teachers.

If you are interested in teaching as a career, or simply want to find out more, you can visit the Department for Education’s Get Into Teaching website. And if you are interested in joining us at Churchill, you can visit our Work With Us or our Train With Us pages.

Getting an education

Ruby Bridges, flanked by US Marshals, on her first day of school in 1960

This week I read the fascinating and terrifying story of Ruby Bridges. Ruby was born in 19 54 and grew up in Louisiana, USA, in the midst of the civil rights movement. When she was born, schools in Louisiana were segregated – black children and white children did not attend the same schools. This practice had been declared unconstitutional just before she was born, but it took six years for the first black child to attend an all-white school. Ruby was that child.

In early 1960, she passed the entrance test to attend William Frantz Elementary School – an all-white primary school. Ruby’s walk to school on her first day was big news. A crowd gathered, chanting and waving placards. One sign read: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” One woman held up a miniature coffin with a black doll in it. Ruby was protected from the angry crowd by four Federal Marshals. She was six years old.

All the white parents pulled their children out of the school. All the teachers refused to teach whilst there was a black child enrolled at the school – except one. One teacher, Barbara Henry, refused to be intimidated and taught Ruby alone, in her own class, “as if she were teaching a whole class.” On Ruby’s second day at school, one white parent walked his five-year-old daughter through the angry mob, saying, “I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school.” Following his example, more parents brought their children to school over the following days, although Ruby continued to be taught by Barbara Henry in a class on her own. She would not be taught in the same class as white children until the following year. Throughout that time she was only able to eat food she had brought with her from home, due to threats to poison her school meals.

The American artist, Norman Rockwell, commemorated Ruby’s walk to school in his painting The Problem We All Live With. When he became President, Barack Obama hung the painting outside the Oval Office as a reminder that the courage of a six-year-old black girl and her white teacher paved the way for a black man to eventually become president.

Ruby Bridges visiting the White House to see her portrait hanging outside the Oval Office with President Obama, and reflecting on her experiences

Reading Ruby’s story this week reminded me of another inspirational young woman who stood up for her right to be educated: Malala Yousafzai. Malala grew up in an area of Pakistan where the Taliban had outlawed the education of girls, believing that only boys had the right to an education. Malala, like Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry, refused to be intimidated and continued to attend school. On October 9th 2012, in retaliation for her activism, a Taliban gunman shot Malala in the head in an attempt to assassinate her.

Malala Yousafzai in 2014

Malala survived. She was flown to Birmingham where she recovered, eventually attending an English school in Edgbaston and going on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. She graduated in 2020. Throughout that time, Malala has been a prominent activist campaigning for the right to an education – a right which she nearly died for.

In this country we take it for granted that every child is entitled to a good, free education at school. We don’t stop to question it. We take it for granted that all children are welcome in our schools, no matter their background, the colour of their skin, their religious beliefs, first language, or where their family comes from. This is accepted as normal. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that we are very lucky to live in a society where this happens – because it doesn’t happen everywhere. We must remember to continue to defend the importance of getting an education. And we shouldn’t take it for granted.