Education has gone to the dogs

'Dogs' Lyrics
Lyrics from ‘Dogs’ by Pink Floyd

When a friend who is a headteacher uttered these words a few months ago, I was in the midst of my angst about whether I should resign or not. Mired in my own personal work trauma, I hadn’t realised at the time how true her words are.

UK Education has gone to the ‘dogs’.  And by ‘dogs’ I’m using a technical term as defined by Pink Floyd’s 1977 album ‘Animals’, in which a section of the lyrics from the 17-minute long song ‘Dogs’ goes:

You have to be trusted by the people you lie to,

So that when they turn their backs on you,

You’ll get the chance to put the knife in.

The song is about business people. That’s who state education has gone to.

Somehow, somewhere we’ve got the idea that education can be run like a marketplace. So we’ve got businesses involved in it. Companies that run academy chains and companies that market resources for a curriculum that’s only a skeleton and so is ripe for fleshing out with expensive products.

But the marketplace is all wrong. In a normal market, companies compete for the business available. Some succeed and some fail, but in competing the idea is that the consumer gets a better deal. Companies make profit and the whole thing is based on money.

But the education market is a kind of half-way house between socialism and capitalism. Every school gets roughly the same amount of money per child (pupil premium excepted) regardless of how well they are doing. Schools are then judged on student performance, evaluated by Ofsted and put into league tables based on test results. There’s very little financial reward or penalty for performance in the education market.

The very best schools can become teaching schools which can then effectively take over other schools. The very worst schools are said to be failing and then struggle to recruit teachers and take on families who want the very best academically for their children. These schools can be closed, or turned into an academy or taken over by a teaching school. However while these schools are failing, their students are suffering. Those students will never get their wasted education back. What can happen during this time is that the school becomes another province in the burgeoning empire of an executive headteacher, therefore justifying a higher salary. Or the school could become part of an expanding academy chain, creaming off more money from state education into private business.

A virtuous cycle is set up for those who are part of it. The teaching school headteachers and academy chains all know the HMI inspectors. They form a powerful network that other schools can’t easily join. They set about making their own bit of state education the very best it can be, ignoring the effect that a poor-education-for-some has on our overall society.

And sometimes they stoop to anything to make sure this happens. Before I resigned from my previous post I was lied to by those in charge. And just as it says in the song, when I tried to get on with my work having been told one thing to my face, other things where being said behind my back which had the metaphorical effect of putting the knife in.

Headteachers of teaching schools are the very people who should be standing up to the DfE and fighting for the rights of all children to have a great education. But instead they have stood by while the DfE have handed over much of the system to business, because the system has suited their growing empires.

Since moving to the independent sector, I’ve been impressed by the honesty of those who teach and work within it. It’s quite simple – you’ve got to do your job well or parents will stop paying the money to keep the place going. Everyone is clear – the school is a business. It provides education but the bottom line is money.

By contrast the half-way house that exists in the state sector blurs the lines between finance and standards. And when lines get blurry, those without moral purpose can prosper.

So what’s the fix?

First of all, ignore the distractions that the DfE come up with, such as that one about Grammar schools.

Secondly, either education should be a great socialist venture into making education great for all or it should completely go over to the market (based entirely on money: actual hard cash). The current half-way house is disastrous for everyone, except for those dogs creaming money off the state sector.

The Encouragement Box

My Encouragement Box
My Encouragement Box

I’ve been musing on the issue of self-confidence in the last couple of posts. When I was at one of my lowest points about last April, I spoke to a friend at church who mentioned having an ‘encouragement box’.

The is a place where you put anything that makes you feel stronger and better about yourself. It might include things people have written about you – cards, letters or even post-its. It might be a report of something that had gone really well, a photo of a good time, even an artefact that reminds you of something that was really, really ace.

I had no box for this sort of stuff. When my friend mentioned this to me I was too much in an a mental mire to take time to put something like this together – I just felt that I was far too busy to spend time being encouraged. Now looking back it was just the thing I needed – something to remind me of things that I do well.

After I made the decision to resign I started the inevitable process of packing up my stuff. And as I did this my encouragement box started to form. I found certificates that I had lost; cards from parents and colleagues that I had forgotten about; reports of successful projects over the years. It made me realise that despite things being bad, they hadn’t always been bad. In fact sometimes they had been really, really good.

Then, in the final week, I was treated to a magnificent surprise. The staff and the children put on a surprise leaving performance for me with fun, games and songs, each class presenting me with a book of memories. It was a laugh-a-minute – we really had loads of fun and some of it made my cry with laughter it was so funny. I particularly remember a sketch the Year 6 teacher had written performed by the Year 6 children where they impersonated the staff responding to one of my maths CPD staff meetings. It was marvellous. And lots more things were added to my encouragement box.

It all made me realise that I had forgotten some vital aspects of my identity as a teacher and school leader over the previous months. The fact that I was being remembered by my colleagues as creative and fun was something I had lost sight of. And I have resolved not to lose sight of these things in the months and years ahead.

Hopefully my encouragement box will remind me of this next time I start to forget…

What’s your stick?

In my last post I wrote how I had lost a considerable amount of confidence in my previous job. These next few posts are dedicated to how I’ve begun to regain it.

Confidence is a strange thing. You can have confidence in yourself, but people can lose confidence in you no matter what you feel. Confidence can be affected by external factors, like what people say about what you do or how you work. But you can affect your own confidence too, make choices that increase or decrease how confident you feel about something. In fact the verse of the day that I read this morning (Hebrews 20:35) it said: “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.” Confidence therefore is something that you can choose to get rid of. Or maybe we can choose to stop doing the things that once made us confident, and therefore we lose confidence.

During the Summer this was made clear to me at the New Wine Summer Conference. During a talk by Danielle Strickland a question was asked: “what’s your stick?” Danielle Strickland went on to relate the story of Moses who when finally he had got his people the Israelites out of Egypt was presented with the seemingly impassable boundary of the Red Sea. The Egyptian army, the mightiest army of the time was on their tale, time was ticking and it seemed that the Israelites were doomed to be destroyed. They moaned to Moses who in turn reassured them that everything would be alright if only they stood still. But God’s response contradicts Moses. He told them to stop crying out and get moving and he reminded Moses to use his stick (OK, the passage says ‘staff’, but that just makes me think of Gandalf.)

Oh yeah, thought Moses, my stick. The same stick that I had with me when God, the infinite being, spoke to me from the burning bush. The same stick that I had when I called ten plagues down on Egypt. The same stick that turned into a snake and ate all of the snakes of Pharoah’s wizards. That stick.

That stick.

I forgot that I’ve been given things that have got me through tricky times before. These things are the metaphorical equivalent of Moses staff. Or maybe Moses staff is the metaphorical equivalent of them. I’m not quite sure which way round it is. These habits have worked before but I’ve forgotten them, fallen out of practise at using them, but they are the best things at reminding me, who I am. They keep me confident. In other words, I had thrown away some good habits – chosen to lose my confidence.

And they are simple things. Like being creative – writing some words or a song to express how I feel, singing, playing my guitar, praying, singing in tongues, cycling. These are things that don’t take much time or effort. And they are good for me.

And of course these things are different for different people. As you read this you will know that you have a good habit which when you practise makes you feel good about yourself. You’ve probably got more than one. Practising them keeps your confidence up, so do them. Do them more. They’re good for you.

The Importance of Confidence in Teaching

I’ve written before that I believe four things define a teacher:

  1. subject knowledge
  2. pedagogical skill
  3. motivation
  4. confidence

I think too often schools over-focus on one of those areas to the detriment of the others. It may be that a school works on team building to develop the motivation of its staff, but neglects to look at the pedagogical skills that are needed to teach good lessons. I’m sure you can think of your own examples where schools work too hard on one of those qualities while the other three are going down the pan.

As individuals we all have our different strengths and for me my subject knowledge has been strong whereas my pedagogical skills have been developed thanks to the grace, patience and expertise of a whole host of teachers I have worked with over the years. I’ve never really considered that a lack of motivation or indeed confidence would affect me, although I have seen how it has affected others over the years.

But as I reflect on the reasons for my necessary ending at my previous job, I realise that I had lost some confidence. As I began to receive both public and private criticism of my practice I found that I worked harder to fix the problems which had been identified. But the criticisms didn’t go away, my confidence did instead.

One example is a lesson observation that I knew was coming up on a Monday morning. I’ve been observed many times, but never under such criticism and I found that I worried about the lesson all weekend: planning and re-planning what I would do, unable to focus on the things we were doing as a family and losing sleep.

When the two observers came into the room on Monday, I found that any confidence in my ability to do a good lesson just drained away. Some elements of the lesson went well, some didn’t and the external criticism increased. As my confidence decreased I found that in turn it affected my motivation. I was not looking forward to the school day and I was not enjoying the interactions with the children or my colleagues as much as I once had. Seeing the people who were observing me just in passing around school made me feel physically sick, so I did my best to avoid any interactions with them.

In short, whether or not the original criticisms were deserved, by this point my confidence was so low that I was actually under-performing. Something had to change – another realisation that led to my Necessary Ending that I have written about so much recently.

Over the summer break I learned some things about regaining confidence. Now at a new job with my confidence firmly back in place and feeling motivated to get up and teach every day it’s time to write about some ways I’ve found handy to increase confidence. But they’ll have to wait for another day.

Don’t wait for the incompatible wish to come true.

Waiting for the right kind of magic?
Waiting for the right kind of magic?

In his book Necessary Endings, which I found so helpful in making the decision to leave my previous job, Henry Cloud explains that one of the reasons people get stuck and can’t move beyond something is that they believe that an incompatible wish will come true. They believe that a contradiction that can never happen will, as if by magic, somehow happen.

As I read his list of ‘incompatible wishes’ I realised that I had done the same. I believed that I wanted to be the highest performer in the school but also wanted more time at home with my family.

It had been explained to me that as the deputy headteacher I should be the second best teacher in the school, after the headteacher that is. As the headteacher didn’t teach however, then by definition this meant I should be the best teacher in the school. Now there are some things that I think I am particularly good at and I know that that there are others aspects of my teaching at which I’m not so strong, for example my own written presentation and therefore my teaching of handwriting.

It became clear as I worked harder and harder to try to address the issues where I wasn’t ‘the best’, I was doing the opposite of the other part of my incompatible wish, namely spending more time with my family.

Reading the section on incompatible wishes was incredibly releasing. It released me into making a choice – between being the best performer in the school and spending more time with my family. I stopped being stuck. I recognised the incompatible wish – that contradiction I had thought to be possible – and chose the latter: the necessary ending that meant I could spend more time with my family.

People don’t think the same

Proverbs 18v6
Proverbs 18v6 (The Message)

One of the lessons I learned in ending my previous job was that people don’t think the same as each other.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? People are different, so clearly they think differently from each other. But I had made a presumption that we were all at least on the same bus as each other. But I was wrong. We’re not.

In my last post I mentioned I had read Henry Cloud’s book ‘Necessary Endings‘ and how helpful that had been. As I read through Chapter 7, entitled ‘The Wise, the Foolish and the Evil: Identifying which kinds of People Deserve Your Trust’, I realised I had made a couple of catastrophic errors in how I related to various people who were working with me to improve the school. Firstly I presumed that others thought the same as me and secondly I presumed that all the advice I received would be wise.

Henry Cloud says this:

“The truth is that not everyone on planet Earth is like you. Not all take responsibility for themselves or care about how their actions are affecting other people or the mission. Moreover, some are even worse than that. Some people are actually out to do you harm.”

Necessary Endings, p120

Reading this chapter was vital to me because it made me realise where I had gone wrong in my communication with other people. Cloud is clear that one of the main differences between wise people and foolish people is how they receive feedback – wise people listen and respond, whereas foolish people shift the blame and make it your fault. I was in the position of seeking feedback in how to do a couple of parts of my job that I hadn’t done before. But when advice and feedback was not forthcoming I began to lose hope. When I was told I had to improve without advice or feedback entirely in my own strength the hope drain continued. By admitting my errors and failures in the journey of the school from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’, I had expected to be advised on how to put things right. Instead my failure became part of the narrative of the school. Now I was hopeless.

Up to this point I had mainly focused on how well I was performing at the various functions involved in my role as Deputy headteacher. Now I was confronted with the fact that my communication to others had contributed to a narrative in which my position was increasingly untenable.

Cloud’s solution about dealing with foolish people is to stop talking. “Talking about a problem with a fool does not help it all.” Cloud writes. At the end of the chapter, he talks about getting to a ‘good hopelessness’. I mentioned earlier that I had been beginning to lose hope. Now as I read ‘Necessary Endings’ I realised that actually that hopelessness was a good place – I was hopeless for my role at that school, and that meant I could venture into the unknown of finding an exciting role somewhere else.

And that’s what I did.