There once was a dream that was Birmingham

There once was a dream that was Birmingham.

It was a city where children from different communities would be welcomed. A place where different cultures, languages and faiths would be celebrated. It was a place where people of every different colour and creed would rub along in friendship.

In Birmingham schools, all children would achieve, no matter what their social background or their ability. Schools would work together in a learning gestalt, where in collaboration the sum of the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. Tolerance would meet opportunity; diversity would meet purpose; together Birmingham would be great.

But then great people left: important leaders who had held the vision. Following this, private companies became involved with public services and decisions became based on bonuses, not benefits. Rather than addressing the ignorance of each other to benefit Birmingham, ignorance was abused to win bonuses. New leaders put reputation ahead of risk. Opportunity was stunted by blame; purpose was replaced with excuse; diversity was withered by predatory capitalism.

The dream still exists. But it is close to becoming a nightmare. So Brummies: rise up. Express hope where there was none; stand up when you feel cowed.

Together we can make this city great again.

Why we should teach spelling

The recent introduction of the spelling, punctuation and grammar test into schools in England has perhaps sharpened our focus on spelling somewhat.

We have always taught spellings, but it became abundantly clear from the results last year that we need to be doing a better job at it, especially in Key Stage Two. In Early Years and Key Stage One, the letters and sounds programme had been reaping big dividends – now to translate that success into the junior part of the school.

And yes, national tests are important – we do need to do well in those to make the school look good… But on the wider debate, we had had some discussion about whether children really need spellings. With spell checkers, these days, surely a child just needs to get close, they don’t need to be 100%? At least, this was one musing that had been debated in what is euphemistically called ongoing professional dialogue.

Then earlier this week I saw a brief anecdote that told my why children need spellings. A few children had been invited with myself to the new Library of Birmingham to take over their twitter account for a few hours. They lent us two of their iPads and we wondered around the building photographing and tweeting about what we saw.

One child had taken a photograph from the 3rd floor terrace and wanted to tweet it out to the four and half thousand followers of the new Library along with the caption “view from the 3rd floor terrace.” However, being unsure how to spell terrace, he started the second syllable of the word with an “i”: “terri…” Immediately the iPad’s predictive text spelt out “terrorist” for the child. How helpful. Fortunately he could see something was wrong and asked me to help. Woe betide us should we tweet out a photo saying “view from the 3rd floor terrorist” from the second city’s new show-piece library…

So. Spelling is important. Let’s teach it really, really well.

What went wrong with Birmingham after Tim Brighouse left?

I’ve been teaching in Birmingham for 12 years. When I started teaching, Birmingham was such a popular authority (and I was such an average NQT) that I couldn’t get a job there – I had to move to Hertfordshire for a year instead.


Back in Birmingham a year later, it was a magical place to be working. Tim Brighouse was (and still is) a true visionary leader. He cast a vision where every child could succeed and where teachers knew they could play a meaningful part of that success.


I met him toward the end of their tenure in 2001 – he had this habit of just turning up at your school, saying something perceptive and positive and leave with the whole staff feeling really good about themselves. When I met him he was taking a year to visit every school in the authority – a reasonable task you might think for the leader of all the schools in that authority, but when you consider that there are more than 400 schools in Birmingham, it’s a task that would mean visiting at least 2 schools every day.


In addition to Professor Tim, Mick Waters, recently head of the QCDA, was head of the advisory service in Birmingham (BASS). I remember the advisors that he inspired talking so passionately about their subjects that it rubbed off on everyone else. Today those same advisors, many of whom are taking redundancy of ‘going independent’, still talk about the halcyon days under Mick and Tim.


Now Birmingham Local Authrity is wracked for cash. Mick Waters BASS once had more than 300 people to serve it’s 420 schools, soon it will have less than 50. Where in other areas of the country some job cuts can be covered by not renewing secondments, in Birmingham the sheer size of the service meant that secondments were phased out over 10 years ago. In addition, the social services department, now the province of the dirctor of children’s services (the equivalent position held by Tim, but an area that he didn’t have to deal with) has failed two inspections.


I can hear the words of the Emperor in ‘The Gladiator’ played by the late Richard Harris, saying “there once was a dream that was Brimingham…” it is this idea that a large city with many different languages spoken and many differet cultures represented can somehow pull together and work towards a better future. That idea existed under Tim and Mick.


So what did go wrong?


I suppose you could blame it on a whole load of external factors: the economy, social media, 9-11; or even internal factors such as appointing too many advisors or admin staff.


However, I think it goes down to succession planning. Tim and Mick are both brilliant leaders, but the people who came after them weren’t quite as good somehow. Not quite as good at passing on a vision. I don’t know them personally, but I think one perogative of leadership is to be a leader of leaders – to be raising up the kind if people who can not only do what you can do, but can do better than you can do. Many leaders need a good manager or two to follow them round and make sure their vision is carried out – if those managers are never given the opportunity to develop their own vision then they won’t be able even to follow in their leader’s footsteps, let alone surpass them.


That’s all a load of pub-theory of course. I have no real knowledge of the internal workings of Birmingham LA over the past ten years. The real impact for me is to make sure that I can lead people well, whilst giving some the opportunities and skills to go beyond what I can ever do. That goes for my own children, students and staff alike.

Brummie Phonics: boy or bye?

When @Mr_Thorne uploaded his new ‘oi’ sound video on, it reminded me of a seminal experience I had when teaching a year 4 class in North Birmingham some 10 years ago.


I was teaching homophones and during the introduction, after a hesitant start, a boy enthusiastically joined the discussion with that face that just says: ‘I’ve got it!’ You know – that AHA moment that all teachers thrive on.


What he actually said was: “Oh, I know! It’s like ‘boy’ and ‘buoy!'”


I could have left it there. Moved on to the next child for more examples of homophones they could think of. But I was astounded: an eight year-old living in one of the most deprived council estates in Birmingham who knew the word ‘buoy’. I had to investigate the further.


So I asked “What do you mean, ‘boy’ and ‘buoy’?”


His response was “‘Boy’ as in me. And ‘buoy’ as in ‘buoy buoy’!”


And then he waved at me.


My turn to have an AHA moment! I realised: in Brummie (the Birmingham accent) ‘boy’ and ‘bye’ ARE homophones.


Anyone got any other interesting regional phonics stories?

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