Black Holes Not Potholes

This week’s Talking Head comes from Andrew Ramanandi, Head Teacher at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Blaydon. 

Whilst the conversations in Whitehall seem inevitably centred around ‘Backdoors’ and ‘Brexit’, the discussions in many Gateshead schools keep turning from ‘Interim Assessment Frameworks’ and ‘EBACC Buckets’ to ‘Insufficient School Funding’ and I’m sure this is echoed around the region.

I am the Head of an oversubscribed primary school that has experienced flat cash into school for the last six years and this – combined with inflation, spiralling fuel costs and increased staffing costs – has exerted extreme pressure on my school budget which is moving from healthy surplus to potentially significant deficit with two years. Does this sound familiar?

I have also had the opportunity to sit on Gateshead’s Schools’ Forum alongside a number of fellow Head Teachers for the past few years. Here too, but on wider scale, we have seen the sufficient funding for schools across the borough be eroded to the point that the majority of schools are facing huge funding black holes by 2020/21.

For years Forum has been forced to make some incredibly difficult choices, trying to share out an ever diminishing cake, fully aware that each slice was proving less and less sufficient. It has become apparent that those difficult choices are now being made at school level and that the scale and scope of this is becoming widespread. As funding has become tighter, schools have had to cut back on:

 Teaching and non-teaching staff
 Support for more vulnerable pupils
 Small group work for children who are not thriving in school
 Teaching resources (parents being asked to pay for books and materials)
 Subject choices in secondary schools
 The range of activities for primary pupils
 Extra curricula activities provided free or subsidised
 Repairs to buildings
 Renewal of equipment

The current funding campaigns being run by all of the education unions, as well as Schools North East’s very own forthcoming #FundOurFuture campaign, all indicate that this issue of insufficient funding for schools is in existence to great extent across the country.

To this end, Heads across Gateshead took the unprecedented action of sending out a joint letter to all parents in April 2017. It referenced and warned parents of an impending funding crisis. This crisis is upon us and further efficiency savings (of which we have all made many) will not touch the sides when it comes to abating the funding shortfall we are facing; this is not about photocopying or toilet paper! If the current funding model does not change significantly then my full and oversubscribed primary school may cease to be viable.

Marches and summits across the country demonstrate an increased strength of feeling and a unified sense of the immediate need for action. Head teachers across Gateshead share this urgency and have adopted a twofold approach to try and affect change.
Firstly, we are raising awareness of the both the existence and the extent of the financial crisis facing our schools. We have written a letter (attached as a PDF below), signed by the chairs of our primary school, secondary school and special school head teacher associations, which details the impact of this crisis upon the quality of education we can offer. We are sending this letter out en masse on Wednesday 28th November and will publicise this widely on social media. This first stage of our approach also details our second approach which is one of mobilising action.

We have set up a petition on Parliament’s website and are asking parents and staff whether they feel Government should fund schools sufficiently and fairly, and if they do then could they please show their support by adding their name to the petition ‘Increase Funding for Schools’, as well as encouraging their family and friends to do so. The purpose of this is simply to give our elected representatives the very clear message that funding levels are currently unfair and inadequate and that we are putting pressure on them to make representation to the treasury to invest sufficient financial resource in the forthcoming spending review. The more signatories it attracts then the louder our voice will be. If we can get 100,000 signatories then our petition would be considered for debate in Parliament.

If you are a Head Teacher and this strikes a chord, then please sign our petition and consider encouraging the parents of your pupils to sign it too.

If you are a teacher or a teaching assistant and you are concerned about what you and your school are able to provide, then please sign our petition and ask your friends and family to sign as well.

If you are a governor being asked to make untenable decisions, then please sign our petition and support your head teacher in sharing this message.

If you are a parent, grandparent, aunty or uncle and are concerned about the impact on the quality of education afforded to the children in your family, then please sign our petition to protect their future.

If you feel that Government should fund schools sufficiently and fairly, and want to have your voice heard, then please add your name to our petition ‘Increase Funding for Schools’.If you feel that Government should fund schools sufficiently and fairly, and have already added your name to our petition, please amplify your voice by encouraging your family and friends to do so too.

Our children deserve the best possible education to enable them to be healthy, successful and happy in the future; our schools need sufficient resource to provide that provision.

If you would like to share your views on this, or would like to write a Talking Heads blog past, please email 



This week’s Talking Head comes from Sarah Holmes-Carne, Principal at Kenton School in Newcastle. 

Leading a school serving a disadvantaged community is an immensely tough role. It’s not a role taken for money and certainly not for ease. But one undertaken to make life-changing differences the students we serve, to all of the community and the future generations within the community. To ensure social mobility is a realistic goal for all.

I became a teacher to make a difference to those students who need it the most. Throughout my career, I have moved from one disadvantaged school to another, aiming to make a difference and never wavering from my own personal philosophy that every child does indeed matter.  Regardless of their background. .

Leading an inclusive school of late has become even more challenging since the introduction of Progress 8 so as an education community, we are collectively asking ourselves ‘Has high stakes accountability led to some school leaders losing their way?’ And if we are not asking this question, we should be.

In recent months, an increasing number of schools and Trusts have been named in the press for ‘off rolling’ by permanently excluding Year 11 pupils and encouraging Elective Home Education and using quick win qualifications to inflate the Progress 8 score. Where the press has not named the schools, Ofsted are now being more rigorous in delving deeper into Progress 8 scores where open pot scores are significantly higher than the other pots though the now debunked ECDL and other qualifications that add little to support to the future life chances of the students. Where the numbers on roll in Y10 are significantly higher than Y11. Ofsted reports are highlighting in reports too many EHE, too many FTEs, too many Y11 PEXs.

Who are the students on the receiving end of the EHE, the Y11 PEXs, the inflated open pot scores through ECDL? The most vulnerable students disadvantaged through poverty, disadvantaged through special needs and of course disadvantaged through not having a voice via parents who don’t challenge these questionable decisions by school leaders who appear to have lost their way. The students who deserve the best, an inclusive education, the students who deserve the most polished education that this country has to offer, it seems ironically, their biggest disadvantage is the school they are in. Or at least the system ‘we serve’.

Earlier this year I heard a school leader speak dismissively of the phrase ‘inclusive education’. Suggesting that leaders who state they are an ‘inclusive school’ were making excuses for low standards. That inclusive schools focus on a small percentage of challenging students at the expense of the majority of less challenging students in their schools.

I disagree with this. I serve the school community, every child in the community whatever their disadvantage. I do not pick and choose. I serve the community now, in order to benefit the community in the future. Inclusive education for me, includes every child in school and working hard to ensure no child is left behind.  Whatever their social circumstance.

In school as I walk through lessons I ask myself, ‘would this be good enough for my daughters’, if the answer is no; then it’s not good enough for me. High quality first teaching, high quality school experiences, high standards of behaviour and excellent levels of attendance. I do not expect any less at Kenton School students, than I do for my own daughters.

Is it a coincidence that so many schools with high percentage of disadvantaged students have low P8 scores or Ofsted rating below Good? Of course not. There is an absolutely clear correlation between disadvantage and low P8 scores and an even clearer link between disadvantage, white working class and low P8 scores. However, does that mean all schools with high percentage disadvantage students should sit together wallowing in our own self pity? No, the moment we accept this is our lot, is the moment to give up. We can do this. We can improve the outcomes and life chances for disadvantage students and ensure we retain both our ethical and moral leadership. We can do this AND be truly inclusive.

Achieving this is not easy, but neither is it impossible.

We need, as an educational community, a clear understanding that disadvantage is much broader and much more complex than eligibility of a free school meal.

Knowing the gap between disadvantage students and non-disadvantage students is there at the age of 4 and widens as they get older. Making sure transition with Primary schools is a lengthy process with seamless communication and no child is left behind.

Often we deal with families who are three generations disillusioned with the education system.  Breaking that trend is not easy.

Amongst these pupils cultural poverty is rife and world experiences are lacking and we are again left to be creative and energetic to ensure the disadvantaged pupil is given the same life chances as their more affluent peers.

The biggest issue for a disadvantaged school where they want to retain true inclusion is to comprehend the most significant barrier is emotional poverty. To balance behaviour codes where we insist on high expectations of cooperation and understand that compliance is not the same as cooperation. Achieving compliance is relatively easy but cooperation is truly the goal. We want to ensure we are developing students who contribute positively to society. Investing in those behaviours that seek cooperation does take time but will support our students in becoming self-regulating individuals. This will not only have a positive impact upon impact the school community but also the wider community we serve.

I work with the spectre of an imminent Ofsted with P8 scores that reflect my values that ‘no child is left behind.’ We know the journey we are on at Kenton and as tough as it is with high stakes accountability; I will not allow my moral and ethical leadership to be compromised and I will continue to ensure Kenton School remains a fully inclusive school.

If you would like to share your views on this, or would like to write a Talking Heads blog past, please email 

The Journey from RI to Good

This week’s Talking Head comes from Joanne Williams, Head Teacher at East Stanley School, County Durham. 

East Stanley School is a medium-sized primary school, situated just outside of Stanley in County Durham. There are currently 230 pupils on roll.

All schools live in fear of the dreaded Ofsted call, but few schools have experienced waiting for the call as often as we have over the past few years.

I have worked at East Stanley since 2005, when I was appointed as Deputy Head Teacher. During the first Ofsted inspection we went through in September 2007, we were graded as satisfactory….not great, but in those days satisfactory was good enough and truth be told, it could have been a lot worse.

I was appointed Head in September 2008, when the previous Head retired. My first experience of Ofsted in that role was positive – in January 2011, we moved from a satisfactory to a good grading. I had not been Head very long and was thrilled with the progress we had made as a school.

However, disaster struck during our next inspection in November 2013…we were graded overall as Requires Improvement (RI). Our Key Stage One results had been an issue for the previous two to three years and even though inspectors were not supposed to have preconceived judgements in mind before they landed, it was apparent that the Lead Inspector was determined to bring us down for our Key Stage One data. This turned out quite a task for him, as our Raise OnLine (anyone remember the blue boxes?) indicated that the progress of these children was good from their starting points. Therefore, the Inspector focused his attention on a different aspect of the published data.

As a school, we meticulously tracked the children year on year across Key Stage Two, ensuring that as many children as possible made the required two levels of progress to get to Level 4, or even Level 5 if the children were of a higher ability. Back then, it had not even entered our minds to check to see how many had actually exceeded this goal and made three levels of progress. That is until the summer of 2013, when our Link Inspector at the time had asked to see this data. We had never tracked it before and certainly had not targeted children to see if they could make this extra leap in progress, so when we did pull the data together, the figures were quite unimpressive. Of course, this was highlighted magnificently on the published Raise Online. So, guess what the inspection focus became.

As soon as we had recognised the number of pupils making three levels of progress was an issue, we had already ensured it was a priority on the school improvement plan for the year ahead. Looking at the predictions for the current classes moving through Key Stage Two, we were not overly concerned because most cohorts were on track to have progress figures above national averages. Unfortunately, during that particular inspection framework, inspectors were not allowed to take predictions into account. This led to a snowball effect of judgements…..if progress was not good, then teaching could not be good. If neither of those were good, then leadership and management could not be good either….hence the RI grading.

The grading resulted in the anger, frustration and disappointment of the staff and governors and lots of additional support from the local authority. We were introduced to SSG (School Scrutiny Group) meetings, annual local authority reviews, extra school improvement partner support, as well as being issued with a school improvement advisor. Many extra school improvement plans and action plans were produced and reviewed on what seemed to be a weekly basis, and monitoring increased tenfold. This led to immense pressure on everyone in school. We all lived in fear of the dreaded call to announce the forthcoming HMI monitoring visit. This happened in February 2014 and actually turned out to be a fairly positive experience – ‘senior leaders and governors were taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement’. The mood in school changed and we became almost hopeful. We got a decent set of data in the summer of 2014 and confidently looked forward to the next Section 5 inspection where we were certain we would return to being a good school.

Not the case! Our full Section 5 inspection did not take place until March 2016….the two-year re-inspection window came and passed, and by this time, we had all whipped ourselves up into a complete frenzy as the months passed by. The timing of this inspection was completely against us too – this was the first year of assessing without levels. Our assessment had always been accurate in the past, but as a school, we were still getting to grips with the new system. As were the Inspectors, so it seems. Being an RI school, we were assessing each cohort on a regular basis, but were following issued guidelines on the new assessment system and not grading a child as being age related if they had any gaps at all in their previous learning. We were no longer taking a best-fit approach as in the past. This led to a dip in percentages for each cohort – from the number of children working at the required grade on the old level system, to meeting age related standards on a far more challenging curriculum. Of course, the inspectors then challenged us for not having high enough expectations. Surprise, surprise…the end result was RI again.

We were devastated. All the hard work, sweat and tears had paid no dividends. Being RI for the second time was not a good place to be. We were under threat of being graded as inadequate if we did not get back to good during the next inspection…two strikes and you are out! This was the point where we almost considered becoming an academy…jump before we were pushed. Local Authority support was increased and instead of holding SSG meetings in school, we were ‘invited’ to attend meetings at County Hall instead. Not a great time in the history of the school, or in fact in my career. On many occasions I felt like giving up, quitting my job and letting someone else take over but something made me hang on in there. As a school, we shook ourselves off and started again – school improvement plans, action plans, monitoring on what felt like a daily basis…. basically justifying everything we did to prove the impact it had. It took its toll on the staff – everyone was anxious and questioning everything they did. A few staff resigned, as the pressure was too much.

Again we waited with trepidation for the next HMI monitoring visit, which happened almost a year later in January 2017. Again, this was positive. However it did not lead to the same hopes as it had on the previous occasion…they had been raised last time and then dashed tremendously. We continued to soldier away, doing the very best we could and doing everything that was asked of us. As the two year re-inspection window drew closer, the pressure and anxiety increased. I wasn’t sleeping properly and had a constant knot in my stomach, dreading the impending inspection. It was almost a relief when we finally got the call in February 2018. We had done everything we could. Being RI meant it was a full two day inspection and the first day seemed to go very well. Then it snowed. And when it snows in Stanley, it really does snow. As a school, our experiences of Ofsted inspections have not been the best, but this took the biscuit. School was closed for the next three days because of the inclement weather, meaning our Ofsted inspection started on February 27th but did not end until 5th March. Was that the world’s longest inspection? Was anything ever going to go our way?

Finally it did…..with a fair inspection team, supreme effort from our fantastic staff and skilled support from our governors, we did it! We were graded good in all areas.

You would think that once inspection was over that we could relax….this was not the case. The aim for school improvement carries on, regardless of whether Ofsted is due to call. But now the beauty of it is, we can afford time to focus on what is really important…..what is best for our children and not what the current Ofsted framework says.

If you would like to share your views on this, or would like to write a Talking Heads blog past, please email 

Are you an ethical leader?

This week’s Talking Head comes from Peter Eyre, Executive Head Teacher at Saltburn Learning Campus, Cleveland. 

The understanding of moral and ethical decision making is one of the simplest, and most fundamental learning experiences for any child. We begin this earnestly from birth based around the ideas of what is considered to be right and wrong. This framework allows us all to exist in a well ordered and sophisticated society. However, ethical decision making is far from simple in reality and as such, agreement on what is considered a “good” decision is often open for significant debate.

The trolley dilemma is a standard example of this to unpick an individual’s thoughts behind a moral debate. A runaway train trolley is heading down a track towards five unaware workers who will surely die if it crashes in to them. The track has a crossroads and you hold the lever to divert the trolley. On the other track is a lone worker. Do you pull the lever; saving the five, but killing the one? This conundrum is further explored by removing the lever and the lone worker but suggesting you could push a person onto the tracks – stopping the trolley but in effect murdering the bystander. Or perhaps you could sacrifice yourself? This is a classic debate but ultimately is very useful as it does mirror the complexities of real life. No one decision is independent. Teaching a child that it is wrong to steal from others is undoubtedly a clear ethical lesson and many children may experiment with boundaries of what is right and wrong as they grow. However, in society we may often ask what are the drivers for older children and adults to steal? What is their motive?

Ofsted and the DfE’s recent focus on permanent exclusions in schools is a topical and controversial entry point to ethical dilemmas that leaders in education face every day. A decision to exclude a student permanently should only be taken: in response to a serious breach or persistent breaches of the school’s behaviour policy; AND where allowing the pupil to remain in school would seriously harm the education or welfare of the pupil or others in the school. The “and” in this guidance from the DfE is critical. I have never not heard any Head Teacher being very articulate and clear about the evidence and reasoning behind why a permanent exclusion has been made – each fully convinced that the mirrored example of the trolley experiment is clear. In their case; the permanently excluded student who has their right to mainstream education taken away from them was to protect the maintenance of a good education for the rest of the students. Ofsted will do well to ask this question and gather the evidence when they visit around what was the negative impact of this student on the whole school? Similarly they should ask, what was the potential risk to the whole school by not permanently excluding the student? I have been part of many conversations where it is clear that a leader feels they have clear justification and have been an ethical leader, and then others will quickly question and make an assessment on their decision, their behaviour policy and their reasoning. It would seem it is often easiest to pass judgement on others ethical leadership while maintaining security that your decisions are sound.

Amanda Spielman during her key note speech at the Schools North East Summit ( ) noted that Ofsted’s revised focus on curriculum “will let us reward schools for doing the right thing by their pupils.”  She also noted that leaders “who are bold and ambitious and run their schools with integrity will be rewarded as a result.” This is reassuring and most school leaders are welcoming of Ofsted’s recent conversation on the inspectorates role. However, they have to accept that, along with the DfE they have driven the mixed messages for schools for a significant period of time. If you look at any of the outstanding research lead work completed by FFt Education Datalab (and I heartily recommend you do ) around Ofsted judgements related to Progress 8 and the progress measures at KS2 you cannot fail to see the strong correlation between these measures and Ofsted judgements. These single, often statistically flawed values show that those with the lowest progress are far more likely to be rated Inadequate despite the fact that other research would indicate that those progress measures are not just statistically flawed, but also are lacking in real contextual understanding. Professor Stephen Gorard’s work out of Durham University consistently evidences this. Yet, leaders of those school’s with the highest proportion of disadvantaged students, and the highest proportion of students with SEND face being labelled by the DfE as “Significantly below average” or “Below average” based on a single value. The media then frenzy on this annually asking parents if “your child goes to one of the worst school’s in Britain?” In addition, Ofsted patterns indicate you will be more likely to get a lower Ofsted rating, driving falling roll, parental dissatisfaction and attack, and driving higher recruitment and retention issues for your school further compounding the issues. The new direction of travel from Ofsted is entirely right and I hope that it bears out during inspections but the DfE and the media also have a role to play. If we want our leaders to be ethically driven then perhaps the modelling coming from those holding us to account and judging us should be ethically driven too and consider the individual scenario’s, barriers and contexts of schools, areas and regions first and support those leaders.

On results day this year when myself and a colleague had been debating our secondary outcomes and trying to establish if we were pleased with them she noted that her husband had asked “What would make you happy?”. It gave me pause for thought and we discussed this. I said that right now I would say a progress 8 score of 0 or above for every student in the school. But I went on to say that if you’d asked me 5-10 years ago I would have said “that a student got whatever they needed to make their next step in life and was happy with”. It really made me think about how hard it is to hold onto the true core purpose of education when leaders are so critically and quickly judged on a single measure that is not important for a moment to the learners themselves. If Ofsted and the DfE want true ethical leadership to triumph in our fractured educational landscape then they need to champion those leaders who, despite all their barriers, keep focussing on a learners experience rather than their outcomes alone.

If you would like to share your views on this, please email 

Multi Academy Trusts, who’s being ideological?

This week’s Talking Head comes from Martin Clephane, Head Teacher at St James’ RC Voluntary Aided Primary School in Hebburn, South Tyneside

Sometimes those opposing multi academy trusts (MATs) have been said to do so on ideological grounds. The truth is that ideology is at the heart of this issue as it so often is in education, which has become a “political football”.

The Academy Act came into being in 2010 and brought in by the then Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, possibly the most ideologically driven Education Minister this country has seen. So what is driving his ideology? Well we know that as a Tory he is in part influenced by 18th Century Philosopher Adam Smith; you will know him from the back of the £20 note. Adam Smith was also a great influence on Margaret Thatcher (another former Education Minister).

So what did he do? Well in 1776 he wrote a book called the Wealth of Nations. In it were two key ideas:

1) The division of labour. Up until then a craftsperson would make something from raw materials to finished product. Adam Smith suggested that the process be broken up into parts with a different person doing each one; thus inventing the production line and revolutionising the manufacture of goods.

2) The idea that reasoned self-interest and competition would lead to economic success.  1776, when the book came out, was also the year of the American Declaration of independence. This is no coincidence as the principles of Adam Smith and other Scottish Philosophers were woven into the creation of the new nation. There is no arguing that the idea of self-interest and competition hasn’t resulted in economic success; as the United States went on to become the greatest economy the world has ever seen.

Let’s consider an alternative or counter ideology to that of Adam Smith or the tory party. Forward to 1848 and we come across another philosopher, this time from Germany. Karl Marx; who produced a pamphlet called the Communist Manifesto. The central idea was the redistribution of wealth so that the top 20% would not own as much as the other collective 80%. Key to this ideology was the seizing of the means of production, which meant that ‘fat-cat’ factory or farm owners would not gather all the wealth while the labourers did all the work for little money. The means of production would be owned by the state in the name of the people so the wealth created could be shared. It was this idea which resulted in our country nationalising industries, the creation of the NHS and comprehensive education. This control is often referred to as “the hand of state”.

Back to Michael Gove; as minister he wanted, of course, to improve education in this country. Driven by the principle of self-interest and competition he needed schools to be working independently of each other so as to compete, more effectively. (It is this idea of competition breeding success which has seen previous governments bring in standardised tests, league tables and Ofsted grades). But he had a problem; the counter ideology of the hand of state had control of the collective schools in the guise of the Local Authority. Gove would have to separate schools from the hand of state to move his ideology forward. How would he do this? Well the first way is to remove resources from the Local Authority; to starve it at source. This has led to the unprecedented cuts to local authorities across the board. The second strategy is to give schools the ability to cut ties with the Local Authority and become autonomous; thus the creation of the Academy Act.

But how would he convince schools to break away? By using two tried and tested methods 1) carrot and 2) the stick. The carrot being the lure of greater control and access to more money in your budget, (I will choose not to mention CEO wages at this point) the stick being the ‘fait accompli’ argument that it was inevitable that all schools will be academies and better you got on board sooner rather than later as you may miss out on the best rewards.

The same arguments are being used today; eight years after the creation of the act. So why didn’t it happen? Why didn’t everyone join Gove’s revolution? Gove would suggest that we are all Marxists in education and immersed in the counter ideology as discussed earlier.

I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools.

(Michael Gove, Mail on Line 22:02, 23 March 2013)

Well 95% of NAHT members voted against the compulsion to become an academy, maybe they were all Marxists, but something else came into play. The tory back benchers who represented communities where schools were good or outstanding could see no reason to change when their schools were doing so well. The idea of a good school having to sponsor a failing school, thereby risking its own reputation, would not fit into the idea of competition breeding success either.

Many in education regardless of any political leanings would agree with the concerns of Michael Goves parliamentary colleagues. In 2016 the Government almost completely abandoned the idea of forcing schools to become academies; a big decision as this was their key education policy. Sir David Carter, the Academies Minister, made it publicly clear that he was glad of this change in policy as he felt that trusts should “grow sensibly and in line with capacity” (CARTER, 15 October 2016) and not be forced.

Across the region schools are being encouraged to academise despite the rejection of the majority of schools resisting for so long. The rejection is mainly from primary schools as it is clear that the MAT models will often be secondary led, despite the excellent reputation of the primary schools. There is a fear of empires being built with CEOs taking control of schools; perhaps a hark back to the fat-cats controlling the means of production… or maybe that’s because we are all, as Gove contends, a bunch of Marxists.

Bronze Rusty Bullets in the Battlegrounds of our North East Schools

Rusty bullets

Jon Tait, Director of Acklam Grange Teaching School

Twitter: @TeamTait

You’d be forgiven for thinking this article was about gun crime in school. Thankfully, even with a recent Donald Trump visit to the UK and his efforts to try and persuade everyone to believe the American dream, it’s not. What it is though, is a story of perceived crimes against education. Crimes of perceived educational ignorance in the North, that the educational courtrooms of the south are trying to hang us for. A desire for the exporting of southern silver bullets to be used to win over the battlegrounds of the North.

Evidence based research and evidence informed practice are certainly the new buzzwords in town when it comes to education. There has certainly been a concerted effort in the last 2-3 years to get the education profession to adopt a more research based approach to its practices, similar to how our colleagues in the medical profession go about their business. On the face of it, it sounds entirely plausible….you wouldn’t expect to go and see a doctor when you were ill and let them experiment with different medicines on you, would you? You’d probably be quite annoyed and concerned if you found out that they weren’t using any form of research behind their methods and were just using a certain drug or procedure because they had a ‘feeling’ that it might make you better?

One of the crimes adjudged to have taken place over the last few years is an experimentation on students’ education without any clear, robust and detailed evidence to back up most of the strategies that teachers are using on a day to day basis in their classrooms. However, in the defence of teachers up and down the country, education is quite different to medicine. In education, context is key. Unlike an injury or illness that can generally be treated with the same drug (with relative success) whether you are 18 or 80 and live in Middlesbrough or Middlesex, children’s learning is affected by so many more things. The context in which we are working is absolutely crucial. What works for one child in one class, may not work for another child across the corridor in the same building. However, the prosecution will claim that there is also a danger that teachers and leaders dismiss some of these academic research studies and use their differing context as an excuse to not look at it in any depth. The key is therefore to have professional conversations about the research and make informed decisions about if it will have an impact on student learning in your context. As Tom Martell from the Education Endowment Fund points out ‘most research travels quite well within education, we just need to be open minded about its context and how we implement it’.

In terms of parity, Chris Zarraga, Director of Operations at SCHOOLS North East quite rightly points out, that the other big difference between the medical profession and education is that you’ll never expect to see a politician come out and publicly tell medical professionals how to perform open heart surgery or how to cure the common cold. Their crucial lack of understanding of context is a crime in itself. Take for instance the London Challenge and the stance by many, including esteemed dignitaries within education such as Sir Michael Wilshaw, that the North East just need to simply follow in London’s footsteps to ensure educational parity. However, this is where context really does come into play and where ignorance to it, or a refusal to accept it, is just as criminal. Closing the disadvantaged gap on paper can be very different when you’re working with families who show up as ‘Ever 6’ where a London city investment banker has been made redundant for six months, compared to a family in a North East coastal town where they have been part of a culture of generations of unemployment. Simply transferring the principles of a London Challenge, without the same funding and without the same context is clearly not going to be the silver bullet that some people think it is. This approach to medically treating educational ill health is more fitting with firing a gun loaded with bronze blanks.

Subscribing to the theory that you can pick an intervention off the shelf and just jump on that silver bullet because it says it’s going to improve student outcomes by a certain amount of months is just as criminal as being ignorant to the research in the first place. If school improvement was that easy, then we’d all do it overnight. The DfE would write the manual, we’d all read it and employ the strategies in our classroom and hey presto.…silver bullets all round. But we know (or we should do) that it’s not that straight forward. Taking context to the extreme view, Tom Martell from the Education Endowment Fund tells of a research trial in the 1980’s that found that caning students increased student outcomes by two months! Are we all going to jump on that silver bullet any time soon? Clearly the context here is different and this is where professional conversations need to be had to decipher whether or not an intervention can travel well through time or geography.

Evidence based research and evidence informed practice looks here to stay, but it’s all about your choice of weapon and ammunition. A highly skilled marksman will pick his gun and his bullets for the type of shot that he is aiming to execute. A comic book image of a man with a bag full of silver bullets and a shiny gun does not exist, not even in education.

Homelife or Homework?

Jon Tait

Deputy Headteacher and Director of Acklam Grange Teaching School


Of all the things we do as teachers, homework continues to baffle me the most. It baffles me because as a profession we’ve been setting it for decades, yet we’ve never really been able to crack it. Ask any teacher in any school up and down the country and they’ll probably tell you that it’s something that they still don’t really feel is having the same proportional impact as the time it takes to set it, complete it, mark it and chase it. Most schools these days are unrecognisable in relation to the days of Grange Hill, yet homework still seems to be something that is dragging its heels, kicking and screaming into the new age of slick educational organisations that run like well-oiled machines.

Unfortunately, in lots of schools, I fear that homework is still being set for a number of reasons that hold no educational value. For example….

  1. We’re setting it because we think Ofsted want to see it.
  2. We’re setting it because we think the Senior Leadership Team want to see it.
  3. We’re setting it every so often because a timetable in our school dictates it.
  4. We’re doing it this way because we’ve always done it that way.

If you’re reading this and it’s already struck a chord, you probably need to go right back to basics and ask yourself the question ‘What are we actually setting homework for’? When asking this question myself, I usually find that the most common answer is that ‘we want our students to develop long lasting study habits that will enable them to become independent and resilient learners when facing tough external examinations’. I’ve never come across any teacher (in my school or in others) that has answered that question by telling me that they want their students to be experts at finishing off classwork at home, or to become masters at filling in worksheets, or even become professional poster designers.

Once you’ve worked out the actual purpose of your reason to set students more work on top of the 5 hours of learning they’ve already completed that day, it might be wise to take some time think about the following areas before you let teachers loose on having free rein to set what they want, when they want:

Is it worth robbing families of precious time?

The best piece of writing I’ve ever seen on homework came from Tom Bennett who said ‘The few hours between getting home and going to bed are precious for families. If you’re going to steal any of it, be damn sure the reward is greater than the loss’. As a parent myself of two children, far too often I have to battle with them over doing their homework before they go to bed at a time when they are tired and grouchy. I often look at the task in hand and wonder if it’s worth me falling out with them over it, when I probably only get to see them for a couple of hours of quality time each day throughout the school week. The message here is clear – think before you set it.

What are you actually assessing?

If you are using homework to assess learning, progress and using it to help form your judgement about how well students are doing in your class, you need to stop and think about what you’re actually assessing. Some students will do it completely on their own without support, whilst others will have mum or dad ‘helping’ them, or even doing it for them to stop the rows that ensue based on the point raised in the previous paragraph. What you first thought was a good indicator of independent learning, has probably turned out to be something completely different. You might be better of putting the grade in a column in your markbook titled ‘quality of parental support and interest’.

Learning it, not finding it

If we set homework where students have to find information and answer questions, you can bet your bottom dollar that unsupervised in their own home, they’ll use whatever they can to find that information as quickly and effectively as they can. I’ve regularly watched both my children go straight to Google to find the answers or the information that they need. Yes they’ve found the information required and filled in lovely worksheets, or created PowerPoint presentations on topics ranging from leatherback turtles to climate change, but how much of this information have they actually learned as opposed to just finding it and copying it down? Exams in this day and age require students to be able to recall significant amounts of knowledge and apply it in varying different contexts, some of these purposefully unfamiliar. Why don’t we start giving students the information to begin with and ask them to start learning it and applying it? This way we can begin to remove the temptation to just ‘find it’ and instead, begin to get students to build up good study habits on how to recall information and commit this to their long-term memory.

Quizzing, spacing and interleaving

Once we get past students just finding information (or Google doing it for them), we can begin to look at the importance of regular retrieval practice to prepare students for the demands of the new and reformed external examinations that they’ll all need to sit one day. Research from Smith & Karprice (2014) states that ‘students who had participated in some type of retrieval practice performed much better on the final assessment, getting twice as many questions correct as those who did not’. This is crucial for us to remember if we want to prepare our students to perform at the best of their ability in examination situations. Teachers can start to interleave and revisit topics through spaced repetition to train students in recalling information effectively. We shouldn’t just ask students to learn information from the topic they’ve just been studying; this is far too easy and still stored in their short-term memory. Instead, start to get students to dip into their long term memory and recall information from topics that you taught a few months ago; after all, this is what they’ll need to do when they come to the final examination. Recalling information from a two year course is going to be almost impossible if you’ve not been doing it regularly throughout that period. Students can be given knowledge organisers and key information to learn at home. Quick and easy techniques such as ‘read, cover, write, check’ can be used very effectively to commit this knowledge to long term memory.

Flipped learning

In recent years, flipped learning has began to creep its way into many classrooms across the world. In a flipped classroom, students learn the basic knowledge for homework and then use that knowledge in the classroom so the learning can be taken so much further in the presence of the skilled teacher in the room, rather than asking them to go home and do the hard part on their own. Teachers can therefore start to set their students videos to watch, articles to read or information to learn for homework so that the precious face to face time in the classroom can be used as effectively as possible to enhance their learning experiences.

Teacher workload

Homework has always caused teachers’ headaches when it’s come to workload. Setting, marking and chasing it leads to umpteen extra hours every year, without that much proportional impact. I bet we’ve all considered at one stage in our careers not setting homework when you think about the amount of time and energy it takes to collect it all in and then chase all the students that haven’t done it and set the necessary sanctions. With all the suggested activities above, none of them require any teacher marking or significant increases in teacher workload. The onus and responsibility is placed on students to build up these long lasting study habits, together with learning and applying information, rather than just finding information and answering questions that inevitably will need to be marked, graded or judged by a teacher further down the line.

So, what have you been setting, why have you been setting it and what have you actually been assessing? Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought as we move towards a new academic year. Could this be the year we actually crack homework once and for all?

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UCAS: A North East’s Principal’s Response

As a school leader in the North East, I’ve developed a high degree of immunity to the plethora of poorly informed “must do better” comments about our schools. Most school leaders are far too busy trying to make a genuine difference to the students in our care to respond to this type of diatribe.  However, I find it impossible to let the comments of Clare Marchant, CEO of UCAS, go unchallenged. “It will be school aspiration and attainment, it’s as simple as that” was her ill-informed opinion as to why only 31.7% of 18 year olds from the North East applied to university.  This represents a fall of 4.6% from the previous year, in stark contrast to London, where 47.5% of 18 year olds applied.

I wonder how many North East schools Ms Marchant has actually visited to formulate her hypothesis about our schools? I for one would welcome her to see what our schools are actually like. One thing that she won’t find a shortage of is high aspirations for our students, something I’ve certainly experienced a massive change for the better in during my 26 years of working in North East schools. As for attainment, I see nothing other than school staff working tirelessly to improve outcomes for their students.  However, what Ms. Marchant, Sir Michael Wilshaw and others completely fail to acknowledge is the vast disparity in educational spending between the North East and London. Funding is never the sole answer but, frustratingly, many strategies which we know improve student outcomes are impossible to implement due to funding constraints. Chronic under-investment in North East schools has reduced capacity to offer the quality of education our children deserve, at the same time as austerity measures have increased disadvantage. The impact of demographics, rather than school effectiveness, is recognised in the recent report by Datalab and points to the need for increased investment in Northern schools.

As someone who would have qualified for Pupil Premium had it existed in the 1980s, I count myself as extremely fortunate to have studied at university in the golden days of “maximum grant”. This meant that as the first in my family to access higher education, I could study without the worry of running up debt.  Given financial barriers facing by students today, I wouldn’t necessarily have come to the same decision if I was applying under the current system.  Ms Marchant would do well to spend more time considering the financial barriers, both real and perceived, that deter many disadvantaged students from applying to university.

I always like to end on a positive note and I am proud of the fact that almost 50% of our first ever A level cohort at Whitburn gained places at Russell Group universities. However, I am equally proud of the significant number of students who will go on to achieve degree level qualifications through higher level apprenticeships. Therein lies a key part of the solution to more of our students gaining degree level qualifications; the system needs to diversify to better meet the needs of our students and a degree needn’t mean three years. Changing the admissions system to be based on actual rather than predicted results would also make a positive difference to disadvantaged students, as set out so clearly by the Sutton Trust. So my advice to Ms Marchant would be to invest her time in reforming her own organisation and remove barriers for North East students, rather than taking the lazy option of making ill-judged comments that do nothing to inspire more North East students to apply to university through conventional means or otherwise.

Alan Hardie, Principal of Whitburn Church of England Academy and Acting CEO of Northumberland Church of England Academy

I hate working alone

I hate working alone. So much so that I’ve recently moved in with my new  deputy head. Professionally speaking of course! We have co-located in the same office. It made sense since we both work best through discussion, collaboration and simply ‘chewing the fat’ as the old saying goes.

For me it’s a chance to have another brain to test out a response to a parent, or a spelling, or share in celebrating a pupil who comes up with some fantastic work. I was actually feeling a little left out, as our staff all have PPA together in planning partnerships, it serves the same supportive purpose and as a result the shared workload and top quality lesson planning through collaborative innovation benefits everyone.

Jan is in the midst of an intense induction phase. She moved up from London to join our school and so feels somewhat disconnected to the North Eastern Education scene. I’m sure many of you will have experienced the same feeling when you land in a new area or local authority and suddenly you don’t know who to contact, you feel lost without your set of phone numbers and have to build new networks. And its vital to do this quickly as leadership can be a lonely place without the ability to ‘phone a friend’.

I’m on my fourth local authority and have become pretty adept at quickly creating contacts and networks of support. But having said that, I’ve always been based in the North East and so my networks have always been fairly close by and reachable. It’s very different if you move a long way.

I’m really enjoying connecting Jan with some of the fantastic networks that are available in our region. Chief amongst which is SCHOOLS NorthEast of course! We are uniquely lucky to have an organisation like SNE serving us. Its events and newsletters provide links and networking opportunities, that are the envy of the rest of England. Then there are the Universities, teaching schools, cluster groups, unions, community groups, Twitter even – the list is ever growing.

It really worries me when I come across colleagues who don’t look outward and aren’t connected to others. Schools who deliberately, or through accountability pressure or circumstance, cut themselves off from the networks around them, rarely thrive. In fact I see it a lot through my inspection work – it’s a really obvious characteristic of failing schools that they are cut off from others. They lack the drive to innovate; they don’t see the need, as they don’t have the yardstick of comparison. Not seeking alternative viewpoints or opportunities for comparison prevents questions from forming. They only see their school through their own lens, which inevitably leads to an atrophy of innovation – ‘We are as good as we can be’, ‘this is the best way’. Without a stimulus to ask ‘Isn’t it?’ or ‘Aren’t we?’  a school will never improve.

I listened to a fascinating radio documentary 1 the other day, which investigated how government could get better at experimenting and learning from getting things wrong. It had huge resonance for the important ideas behind good networking and school improvement. The central theme was that networking is synonymous with growth mindset characteristics – which makes perfect sense to me.

It is safe to stay the same. Trying something different takes courage, energy and confidence because it invites failure. It is human nature to avoid situations in which we might fail.

Take a situation where you have 6 ideas for change in your school. You try the first 2, they fail, then a third which also fails. Who would keep going on the fourth, fifth, sixth? Only the brave. But what if the sixth unlocked massive improvement in outcomes?

Research into the success of innovative Silicone Valley companies identified a common thread of an empowered attitude to failure. Coined the Silcone Valley Mindset (read growth mindset) the courage to test out and embrace failure until they struck gold.

Through visiting and talking to other schools who are doing things differently to us with success energises me and gives me confidence to drive change and experimentation in my own school. You don’t know what you don’t know, unless you go looking for it. The same goes for your staff – get them out. Think for a moment about your staff  – how many of them in the last 2 years may have never visited another school to look at something new?

My wife is a Professor of Education (yes… the brains behind the operation – I am proud to say) she has just started a new job at Leeds Beckett University; check out Collective Ed below her first piece of work. Suddenly we are both becoming connected to a whole new set of fantastic, committed, thinking teachers, researchers and educationalists. Working in contexts very different from mine and I am embracing it with open arms. Especially as it involves beer.

Ever heard of BrewEd? Well if you are nervous of networking but like a drink this may be the answer to your prayers and it’s coming to a pub near you.

The brain child of Daryn Simon and Ed Finch from Sheffield who could see the power of educational networks and debate on Twitter, but were frustrated by the limitations of 140 characters, decided to use the platform to invite interested teachers and leaders to a pub, creating an informal space for a day of structured debate, chat, eating and socialising – perfect! The idea has gathered momentum and the second event in Wakefield a few weeks ago put me in touch with colleagues with new and unfamiliar ideas. Events are now planned for Oxford and Newcastle.

See you there!

#brewedwake   @ed_debate  @MrEFinch  @darynsimon

CollectivED Dec 2017 Issue – Prof R Lofthouse, Leeds Beckett University

  1. ‘Learning from Life and Death’ Matthew Syed, BBC radio 4

 Colin Lofthouse is the Head Teacher of Rickleton Primary School in Washington. 

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Social mobility… is school the only solution?

As I was prostrate in the bath the other night (which is where I do most of my thinking I must admit) and pontificating about the wonderment that are  our children one question occurred to me… ‘What are we doing?’

That particular day I had spent the morning analysing nursery data, trying to project outcomes for children who had been on the planet for little over 1000 days and I was trying to map gaps in attainment  in their reading, writing and maths skills to ensure I was rapidly closing the gap in their understanding thus further promoting social mobility. I was there with graphs, birthdates, data charts, expectation graphs and much more to try and fit a unique child into a norm referenced data tracking system.

It occurred to me that we are working in a complete oxymoronic system where we are promoting mastery in all subjects, depths of application and analysis where we can manipulate and apply information in unique and creative ways whilst our education system is in line with the industrial revolution. Where children are sorted by the number of days they have been alive, entering the system at one end and exiting with the presumption that we are all the same and should be achieving and behaving in a way which is ‘normal’.

It makes me wonder where the unique child is actually taken into account. As human beings we have varying genetics, parenting, nutrition, interests or passions which are the golden thread which align any person’s core values which are bestowed onto us by our parents and families. One thing that is apparent now is that if you were born in poverty, in a socioeconomically deprived estate, with a single mother, some social care issues and a deprivation of resilience and optimism, the government are now stating that you have to make more progress and at a more rapid rate than someone of the same age who has been brought up in the comfort of affluence with a stable home life, excellent nutrition and 3 long haul holidays a year to exotic and historic locations. Working in one of the most deprived wards in the country I did ponder as to how realistic that expectation is?

I’m not suggesting that we should not be aspirational for all children, aspiration is what we do. We want to make a difference in the lives of our children; why else would you be a Headteacher? The question I am asking is that how much can schools actually do? In the school I work in we have over 400 wonderfully unique children. We work hard to ensure they achieve their maximum potential. How much however can we influence their core values?

I am currently lucky enough to be part of the SCHOOLS NorthEast Healthy MindEd commission where were are debating in detail the mental health of young people and how it is felt that the mental health of our young people is in decline. Is it so mysterious as to why young people are feeling vulnerable and under pressure?  If it’s not from exam stress, applications to redbrick universities, social media or ‘thinspiration’ web pages it’s from attachment disorder, poverty, identity, bereavement, bullying, parental separation, domestic violence, debt, drugs… the list goes on.

The government are quite rightly attempting to bring parity to society to suggest that whatever your background you should have the tools to choose your life and career. The question I ask is that in targeting schools and schools alone are the government missing the key issue? Have they correctly identified the missing ‘tools’? There has been a decline in social care, sure start centres are closing, peri-natal support is decreasing, health visitors are less and less involved, poverty is on the rise and there appears to be a deficit in the ability to parent effectively to ensure children feel safe and secure and able to take on the challenges of being a young person in the 21st century. How are school leaders and their staff suddenly qualified to solve all of these issues. We are experts in merely education.

Maybe the government needs to look more broadly at the issue as to why children from socially economically deprived areas do not necessarily socially mobilise? If they looked closely would they actually discover that they are not taught well in good schools, or would they discover that despite excellent teaching and pastoral care; without intervention into the wider aspect of parenting, poverty and mental ill health in our more deprived communities; the children have very little for the excellent schooling to stick to. Their resilience, optimism and core drivers (which are affected almost entirely by preschool experiences and parenting) which enables children to feel safe and ready to learn are lacking.

The question the government maybe should be asking isn’t how much more should schools be doing to solve the social mobility issue, it is how differently can the government support socioeconomically deprived areas in their parenting to ensure children come to school resilient and life ready, excited for all the curriculum has to offer thus enabling educationalist to do what they are trained to do and educate. With this embedded one outcome must be that the mental health of children and their families are improved and that children are more able to and achieve their maximum potentials, whatever these may be.