Articulating messy thoughts

Anyone that knows me will tell you when asked the question ‘what is Mike’s passion?’ that the answer will, without a doubt, be looked after children and mental health. These issues are very close to my heart for several reasons, but mainly because I’ve lived with, cared for and worked with these children for many years now. No amount of professional training or qualifications shape my work as much as my own lived and shared experiences within my home. I am grateful for these unique experiences and I have been fortunate enough to experience the remarkable aspects of their being, but also witness these children falling into vulnerable and challenging spaces.

In my opinion, part of the issue in dealing with the challenge of mental health in our children is that we sometimes fail to recognise that the difficulties a child may be experiencing is often situational. Chemical imbalance, ‘lack of resilience’ and ‘emotionally sensitive’ are all phrases I hear used regularly. Of course there are children who may fall into these categories and neurotransmitters certainly play a part but there is a bigger picture here. Life is anything but linear and in my own experiences, situations have played a huge role in my own mental health. Often plunging me into mental illness or pushing my towards over functioning. This is the same for our children.

We all know that a child’s formative years are crucial. We also know that the children who are placed in the care system have experienced much trauma during and after these early years in their development. We know what comes next, but I ask you to just take a minute to contemplate this part of their lives…

That child goes into a new home, with new care givers. Often this may not be long term. They then go into school where the system expects them to function at the same level as other children their age. Then there’s also the lack of therapeutic input much of the time because of funding, provision or their age. We just accept that this is the case without really giving it due consideration. I have often questioned in my training and work why it is that we don’t pause to think on this more. Because here is the reality.

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Reasons to be angry

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Colin Lofthouse, Head Teacher at Rickleton Primary School

It is not often as a jobbing Head Teacher that you get to talk to those who are actually devising and enacting education policy at the heart of government. But what is great about SCHOOLS NorthEast is that if you go along to their events, the calibre of their speakers means that you can get this chance.

And so it was at the White British Working Class conference at the Riverside stadium Chester Le Street. The morning began with Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University, who gave an eye opening warning about the use of poor quality educational research that is used to sell interventions and justify education policy.

After lunch, the tone changed and we heard from Kate Chisholm, Headteacher of Skerne Park Primary Academy, a fantastic school in an area of huge deprivation in Darlington. It was uplifting to hear an impassioned description of the challenges she and her staff face in helping raise the aspirations of the pupils and community the school serves. The work they do to help the pupils realise their potential and be a successful against the pernicious effects of deprivation was great to hear. What came across strongly was the moral purpose, which underpins everything the school does.

From their breakfast club, to their ‘stage not age’ curriculum, to their pastoral support, that sees staff scooping up children and eating with them in their offices and classrooms, just to help them feel looked after and a little bit special during the day. Here is a school that has crystal clear moral purpose. They have a principled and committed leader who has a plan based on evidence of what works for its pupils and it is enacted by a similarly principled staff, driven to act with commitment towards the same, shared goal. I suspect it is like this in most good schools across the country.

What followed was somewhat different.

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Competition or Collaboration – The Perfect Dichotomy

Jon Tait, Deputy Head at Acklam Grange School

Outside of education you’d think that schools would be open to sharing practice, helping each other and identifying what works best for the young people of our country. We are all working to a common goal of better equipping the young people in our care, giving them the very best life opportunities possible, irrespective of their postcode. So naturally, collaboration would be an obvious choice. Find what works and share it. Let other schools and young people benefit from your experience, together with seeking advice and inspiration from others who may have solved the very problems that you are dealing with.


But anyone inside of education knows only too well that it doesn’t always pan out like this. With the backdrop of a league table driven educational landscape, the question on many people’s lips when faced with the possibility of local collaboration is ‘Why should I help the very school that we are fighting to get ahead of in the local league tables’? If you put it in a sporting context where league tables and competition are a hallmark of its very existence, you wouldn’t expect Middlesbrough Football Club to be providing coaches and expert training methods to Sunderland in a bid to help them fight off relegation when they are both fighting to be above one another.

But this goes against the very reason that we all came into education – to help and support people to be the best version of themselves that they can be. We all want to help each other and share our great ideas that can really make a difference with young people, but to what cost if it gives your neighbouring competition an advantage? In a competitive market of fighting for the same bums on seats, falling budgets and a more business-like approach than we’ve ever witnessed before in education, every competitive advantage you may hold might be worth clinging onto.

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What NPQH doesn’t teach you

school-network-4The role of a Head Teacher is rich and varied. I would say that it is the best job in the world but you have to be prepared for a role that is complex, eventful, uncertain and memorable. My last week was one such week:

Sunday night (5.00-8.00pm)

Three hours of Twitter to support the Association of School & College Leaders (ASCL) campaign to highlight concerns about education funding. Search #WhatWouldYouCut for details.

I usually aim to get in to school each day before 7.30am to do some work before everyone else arrives; this sets me up for the day. As usual, my plans are waylaid as three different members of staff, who also arrive early, catch me ‘for only 2 mins’. I enjoy the fact that people will drop in and talk about things that are on their mind.

I start the weekly Staff Briefing where I get the chance to thank people for key aspects from the previous week and go through the week ahead. It is also a great way to provide a timely reminder of key practices.

The briefing always finishes with birthday cards for those staff with a birthday that particular week and a bottle of wine for the staff Star of the Week, nominated anonymously for a random act of kindness. The recipient was a Business Studies teacher who came into school on her day off to support her colleagues as we had an exam board moderator in school. This is a great way to share small stories that influence the culture of the school.

Meet Tyne Tees reporter/cameraman to do a piece on concerns about the National Funding Formula (NFF).

Teach a lesson with one of my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) groups – it’s always great to spend time in class with the students. Best part of the week!

I always do the dinner queue as this enables me to memorise as many names as possible … but also causes delays in letting students through. I need to do better. New best part of the week!

After school
I accompany two girls’ football teams to another school for a tournament – this takes me back to my days as a PE teacher. This is now the best part of the week!

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How do we equip youngsters today to cope with the often quite pernicious effect of “fake news”?

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Kieran McLaughlin, Headmaster at Durham School

FACT! LIE! Sad! We can barely open our internet browsers these days without being swamped by rival factions claiming territory over the truth in the news. Diametrically opposed viewpoints argue their case with vociferous energy, castigate their enemies and fight for airtime on conventional news websites or the pages of social media outlets. We seem to be living in a world of confusion and combativeness, and it isn’t likely to change soon.


How do we equip youngsters today to cope with the often quite pernicious effect of “fake news”? Up to now, when we were faced with rumours or scare stories, it was relatively easy to combat them. Newspapers were the august records of the day; anything reported in The Times could be said to be authoritative and, whilst the relationship between the tabloid press and the truth could be a little more tangential, there was a journalistic pride felt in writing the history of the future. Television too would be studiously impartial, balancing both sides of an argument to an almost paranoid degree.

Today’s landscape is much more complex. Perhaps the effect has been heightened through recent political events, but the partisan nature of much news reporting is too readily apparent. More worrying is the role of social media in the relaying of news events. On the positive side, outlets such as Twitter provide a literally up-to-the-minute guide to events taking place. However, no rules of journalistic balance or, in some cases, integrity apply and there is often no corroboration of the “news” event being claimed. This was seen most powerfully in the American presidential election, where the effect of sharing of bogus news stories, manipulation of statistics and the telling of downright lies is only just becoming apparent.

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Let’s get Hygge with it

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Hilary French, Headmistress at Newcastle High School for Girls

The latest Viking invasion is the antithesis of the marauding pirates of yesteryear; the modern incursion into the UK comes in true peace, in the shape of the Danish lifestyle trend, Hygge.  It is so much easier to write than to say – Hygge –pronounced Hoo ga – isn’t actually meant to be translated; instead you’re meant to ‘feel’ it.

When struggling to find an English definition, Danish people say that the English word ‘cosiness’ is closest to Hygge but this is still not enough to convey its true and fullest meaning.  Hygge is cosiness, warmth, tenderness all wrapped up with wellbeing, family and friends – all rolled into one.

Hygge is the latest buzzword to hit these shores – it was runner up in the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2016 and it has inspired thousands of lifestyle and home interior trends and even more Instagram hashtags and photos.

Unlike other interior and lifestyle movements, like Feng Shui or Shaker, Hygge is a trend that I am hoping to embrace wholeheartedly – I really am struck on Hygge and how it can help us all in today’s frenetic, modern world.  It is not all about the decorative art of beautifying your home with rugs, plump cushions and candle light – it is more about searching for a feeling, reclaiming time and striving and working at happiness, improving well being and switching off.

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Helping our students be READY

Lee Elliott, Head Teacher at Wolsingham School

The beginning of the Autumn term at Wolsingham School was no different to previous years. We, like many schools, had scheduled two days of staff training prior to the arrival of our students. However, this year staff, parents and governors started the new academic year considering one straightforward question, ‘what is the purpose of education at Wolsingham School?’ This marked the start of a new journey for staff and students at Wolsingham School, it was the first step in developing our ‘Ready’ curriculum.

The ‘Ready’ curriculum remained dormant in my mind during my time as a Deputy Headteacher and it was only when I was appointed Headteacher in 2016 that I brought the idea to life. As a parent, I appreciate the importance of academic excellence but also the development of the skills, values and character which enable children to be happy and successful.

The simple question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ threw up a remarkable number of answers and some heated debates. Answers included:

‘To ensure students are the best they can be. Providing opportunities and chances for them to face life’s next challenge’

‘To equip each individual with the transferable skills – academically, socially and holistically – for his/her future’

‘To recognise and maximise individual potential in all areas ready for life!’

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The secret art of staying in love with teaching

Kate Chisholm, Head Teacher at Skerne Park Academy

About 6 months ago I was sat in a conference for Head Teachers about the wonderful world of Ofsted. Now anyone who knows me knows that I am mischievous with language patterns and really enjoy noticing people though their choice of language and metaphor. I was fascinated whilst walking into the venue the impact 6 little letters (Ofsted) could have on a room of highly educated, resilient and passionate people. I hung back in the entrance and watched people walk in. The closer they got to their seat, the lower their heads became, the more rounded their shoulders and, as they sat down and glanced over the literature, certain key words became word popcorn throughout the arena. “Nightmare… awful… battle… up against it… unfair… enemy…stress… murder… deceives…”. I was fascinated, especially when the key note speaker, who was an additional inspector, started their spiel with ‘what an awful time to be a Head Teacher’. I was saddened by the room’s collective acceptance that they were going to allow Ofsted and the current climate to overwhelm their emotional state and in essence spoil their whole day. What a way to live.

I then started thinking about my own school. How do we stay so positive? Because my staff are the most positive bunch of people you will ever meet. Well, it’s not by accident I must admit. I became Head at a time when the school had been through quite a bumpy journey and for the last 5 years we have layered a programme of Emotional Intelligence. I remember one of the first sessions we had – we looked at the brilliance of Ofsted. Granted initially when I started saying how excited I was by the thought of Ofsted and how I was looking forward to enabling the staff to shine, my staff really did look at me with a bemused expression.  We wrote down all of the negative assumptions associated with Ofsted and all of the positive things which could come out of the Ofsted framework. Then we went into the playground (after school) and actually burned all of the negative mind maps and collectively agreed that the only language patterns that we would associate with Ofsted were positive ones. We stuck all of our positive mind maps on the staff room wall and practised visualising how we would be when Ofsted arrived. When the did come, it was commented on by the lead inspector what lovely, happy feeling the school had and how proactive the staff were in discussions with the team. We had no panics, no tears and everyone came out of the experience feeling good about the process of the day, rigorous as it was.

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New school term, new calendar year: what will it bring?

Bernard Trafford, Headmaster, RGS Newcastle

We already know what is on the agenda. There’s the whole of the Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone: and there’s a new boss at OFSTED, pledged to working with us to improve schools (well, that’s what she said!). We’re still phasing in new exams at GCSE and A level, and it’s anyone’s guess how much or little chaos will ensue in that quarter. And all of this is set against a backdrop of funding cuts in state schools.

There is, of course, the promise of a national (fair) funding formula: but, even if areas like the North East get a better deal, there still won’t be enough money to go round. Government cuts are biting deep, schools are hurting and it’s children who get the raw deal. Not only children, though: it’s a rough time for those who give their lives and careers to education and receive a lousy deal from government in return.

Our spirits might have lifted a little when we heard that Theresa May announced a new focus on mental health. She promised that, in 2017, teachers in a third of secondary schools will receive Mental Health First Aid Training. Something’s better than nothing, of course: but there’s nothing specific on the money for that training, nor any idea of how many members of staff in each school will be trained. Then there’s the bizarre idea that the need is only in secondary schools: primary colleagues across the North-East know the issues are almost as numerous and certainly as pressing in younger children as in adolescents.

So there are plenty of issues on which we might wish to do battle with government. Given that even the mental health initiative seems to be a lightweight solution to a very heavyweight problem, we can be pleased that our own SCHOOLS NorthEast Mental Health Commission is getting down to work this month: perhaps some of our findings will render government better informed about the scale of the issues and difficulties to be faced, and the size of the response that is required.

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Ensuring a broad and balanced curriculum for all

Suzanne Howell, Deputy Head Teacher at Sacred Heart Catholic High School for Girls

We are very proud to be the first North East secondary school to achieve the prestigious Platinum Artsmark Award, and what is most pleasing, is that Sacred Heart Catholic High School has been recognised as a regional leading light for our work in the arts.


So what is Artsmark and what does it entail?

It is the Arts Council England’s flagship programme; a tool that enables schools and organisations to evaluate, strengthen and celebrate their arts and cultural provision. Artsmark is endorsed by Ofsted, the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It involves auditing provision, developing a whole school agenda and sustaining long term purposeful partnerships, as well as completing a statement of commitment and a case study. Like everything worthwhile in this life…you have to work for it!

Our Artsmark journey began at the Forge in County Durham, an arts education organisation, contracted by Culture Bridge North East, to deliver the Artsmark award across the region. The Forge, Culture Bridge North East and Arts Council England all firmly believe that ‘great art and culture is for everyone’. As a school looking to maintain its already wide ranging curriculum offer, securing the highest award seemed to dovetail into our whole school plan. And, achieving it has opened up an even wider array of opportunities, which now afford us the privilege of choice for our students.

Professional partnerships

We have continued to develop our already strong relationships with a range of companies like Northern Stage, Theatre Royal Newcastle and the Royal Shakespeare Company. We are proud of our association with these professionals and hope that our new platinum status will further strengthen our links with the best in the business, and allow us to continue to share our practice with partner schools and beyond.

Platinum status is testament to our amazing students and staff who go above and beyond in so many areas of our school; our students, who have the passion, drive and desire to allow their teachers to unlock their potential, and our staff, who work tirelessly to develop students’ character and talent, ensuring all benefit from our high quality arts provision. Platinum status rewards the fact that we constantly deliver excellence and plan new and exciting ways to increase our arts offer, in a current climate where some arts subjects are being squeezed out of the curriculum in other schools.

Current pressures

In some schools, this does seem to be the case, where the pressure is on to align that curriculum, fill that EBACC bucket and increase that overall P8 score, and in some cases, certain subjects are falling by the wayside. We must ensure that our students are able to access all areas of the curriculum. Our girls excel in Physics, Chemistry and Biology, we have record numbers of students wishing to study Medicine who go on to secure that vital Russell Group university place. Equally, they take up prestigious places, most recently with the Brit School, Ballet Rambert and LAMDA. We feel it is our duty to make sure that the very best opportunities are offered to the students of Sacred Heart and our Artsmark Platinum status is already allowing us to honour this promise to our girls.

Suzanne Howell

Deputy Headteacher

Sacred Heart Catholic High School for Girls

Find out more about Artsmark visit: or