You don’t have to be a megalomaniac to work here, but it helps.

perfect-candidateAre you sick and tired of slogging it out in the classroom? Do you long for the chance to have your own office complete with swivel chair and internal lock? Would you rather be giving the orders than following them?

Yes?

Then it sounds like you’re ready for headship!

I’m joking, of course. Firstly, if you are tired of working in the classroom then headship probably isn’t for you. Yes, the amount of triple marking you’re required to do reduces by about 100% but there’s plenty of other paperwork to keep you busy. Secondly, as much as having a swivel chair is really cool, don’t expect to have too much uninterrupted swivel-time. As a Head, you may not have a class of thirty kids who want a piece of you every minute of the working day, but, you’ll quickly find that there is an even larger number of people who want immediate and unlimited access to your mind, body and soul. Thirdly, while it’s nice to be in charge, there’s still the inconvenient truth that if you want people to follow your orders you’re going to have spend time, you know, getting them to ‘buy into’ your ideas. This takes time, shrewdness, tact, good communication skills and bribery. (Not necessarily in that order.)

If you are thinking about headship then I’m sure it’s for all the right reasons. (I could list them, but, let’s be honest, it’s only going to be a list of ‘good’ and ‘noble’ things. You’d be better off looking at some job and person specs to see for yourself.)

But, wanting it isn’t enough. You need to get through the interview first. Nobody really likes the interview process. Spending two days with a knotted stomach as you try to appear ‘normal’ to your prospective staff and governors is nobody’s idea of fun. Keeping your paranoia and self-doubt in check as you complete a range of tasks whilst maintaining a confident smile is no walk in the park. On top of that, there’s the awkwardness of meeting the other candidates. In my experience, there are three main types of candidates that you meet during an interview:

  1. The Detective

This candidate will not leave you alone. They seem to have been given a secret task of finding everything out about you. You can’t rest for five minutes between tasks without them trying to suss out whether they’ve got more or less experience than you. They bombard you with questions and follow up each of your answers with a passive-aggressive evaluative comment like ‘Oh, so you’ve only really worked in small schools, that’s nice.’ They then proceed to, ever so casually, ask you how you found each task, in the vain hope that your answer will somehow further their chance of success. A simple way to distract this candidate is to make up a task that isn’t anywhere on the itinerary – ‘I thought it was very sneaky of them to add making a call to the LADO in the middle of the data task’ – and notice how quickly they quieten down as they wonder why they haven’t been asked to do that yet.

  1. The Professional

This person is all about making an impression. They arrive at the school three hours before anyone else, just so they can shake every staff member’s hand in the carpark before school starts. They meet and greet the parents. They offer to take the register of the class whose teacher has just rung in sick until the supply teacher arrives. They’ve bought biscuits and a fruit basket for the interview panel. They don’t ask you any questions because they’re too busy helping the caretaker put up the bunting for the Y5 disco (which they’ve also bought a ticket for) whilst memorising every child’s name in preparation for their assembly. At break they can be seen by every member of staff playing catch with a group of children as they just so happened to have chosen the spot in the playground directly outside the staff room window. There isn’t a minute of the day when they’re not showing everyone just how much they ‘live and breathe’ school more than you.

  1. The Square Peg

Not wishing to sound unkind but you have to wonder how some people have got as far in their careers as they have. I mean, we all know that being ‘on interview’ can cause anyone to behave out of character, but this person…wow! They seem blissfully unaware that, with every utterance, they are moving further away from a job offer. Sometimes it’s a case of wrong person/wrong setting. Sometimes, though, you’re left wondering if they’ve ever worked in a school before, or ever interacted with human beings. As a fellow candidate, you could be forgiven for thinking that their bizarre, and at times socially-awkward, behaviour is in fact a brazen tactic to throw you off your game – like critiquing your assembly resources just before you walk on stage. As the day develops, however, and you hear them loudly list all the ways in which this school seems behind the times, or all the reasons why they’ve just got to leave their current school, you begin to realise that, although they may have plenty of chutzpah, they have also raised the hackles of every member of the interview panel.

My advice, when dealing with any of these candidates, is not to be distracted by them. Be pleasant, be polite, and quietly let them crack on. Because your real challenge lies in the interview tasks themselves.

When it comes to headship – or any leadership interview – there isn’t a great deal you can do in advance to put yourself ahead of the game. You will have already researched the school before applying and you may have been required to prepare an assembly, or presentation, in advance. Aside from that, you just need to relax into the day. Easier said than done, considering your timetable will be packed, but if you don’t allow yourself the thinking space to soak up the vibe of the school, how can you properly assess whether you want to work there or not?

Don’t forget, you will be expected to mooch around the school, eat lunch with the children and visit the playground during break time. Don’t, like ‘The Professional’ candidate, treat that as a hoop to dutifully jump through. Don’t feel that you have to go and have really upbeat and enthusiastic conversations with every person you come into contact with. This is not the time to leave a memorable impression on them, it’s a time for them to make an impression on you. Use that time to observe and to listen. What are the people like in this place? What are they up to?  Do you feel you could do some good here? Would you enjoy working in this environment? You still have to be nice! Don’t be a silent weirdo lurking in the shadows; have your conversations with people, but ensure they are beneficial for you.

As for the tasks, well, they’re going to be leadership tasks. They’re probably going to be things you’ve already done in your current setting. There is not a special and secret set of tasks that everyone, apart from you, knows about. Your tasks will most likely be, in no particular order:

Data: identify the strengths and weaknesses and suggest some priorities to work on. It’s not rocket science, just look for the gaps.

Teaching: observe a lesson and give constructive feedback. Tread carefully and make sure you put whatever you say in the feedback in context. (Don’t give a judgement!)

Learning: review some books or a work scrutiny and share your thoughts. Again, avoid making too strong a judgement, and try and link it with other information you’ve had access to, like the data.

Meet the staff: don’t come across as a pillock. Much harder said than done, especially on interview! Try not to try too hard to make them laugh. Adults can see a poor joke coming a mile off, but they’ll probably forgive you because they’ll assume you’re nervous.

Meet the school council: don’t come across as a pillock. Much harder said than done, especially on interview! Remember, try not to try too hard to make them laugh. Kids can see a poor joke coming a mile off and they won’t forgive you.

Hold a meeting: maybe with a pretend disgruntled parent or with a group of staff. Strength, compassion and clarity should see you through safely. If it’s a deliberately delicate/volatile simulation then it will be as tricky as it is in real life, only you’re less likely to be physically assaulted on interview.

Formal interview: relax and allow your experience to answer the questions. Do not just say what you think they want to hear. Tell them what you believe. Back that up with what that’s allowed you to achieve in the past. If you’re not honest about your philosophies, strategies, challenges and successes then they are in danger of appointing an inauthentic version of you.

The hardest part will always be when they want to know about your plans for their future. Again, be honest. Share your evaluations based on what you feel you have learnt about the school so far. But be very clear that you are basing your answers on minimal knowledge. Demonstrate, through your answers, that they can trust you to work with them. Also, ask them. What do they want? Reflect on whether you can deliver that.

Finally, when they ask you if you would accept the post…think before you answer. The right answer is not always ‘yes’.

I don’t enjoy interviews. They are uncomfortable. Half of the time you are in two minds about whether you’re doing the right thing or not. But leadership interviews are not one-way contests with an overall winner. They are a process, and the risks – to the school and interviewee – are far greater if a wrong decision is made at the end of it. Play it straight and true, and, whether you get the job or not, it will be the best decision for everyone.

Go get ‘em!

Selective Fury

ANGER_Fullbody_Render

One of the advantages of not being a politician is that you can smugly roll your eyes and shake your head whenever one of them announces something stupid. Things like announcing how a new wave of selective schools will benefit ‘ordinary’ families. As soon as Justine Greening said this there were people, up and down the land, looking up at the heavens thinking but that doesn’t make any sense!

Firstly, they thought, isn’t the whole point of these schools about selecting children based on academic ability? Some poor children, they assumed, would pass the test enabling them to rise above their ranks as they pursue a life of academia, but surely academic selection shouldn’t be about giving everybody in society an even chance? Then, they considered, the possible implication of allowing ‘ordinary’ families into these new schools in the first place. Wasn’t the reason they voted for the Tories because of the chance to finally get their children away from the ‘ordinary’ boys and girls who don’t want to learn? Finally, they feared, how would this affect house prices?

Now, I get why some people like the idea of grammar schools. I understand the value they place on being able to access a higher level of education (because comprehensives hate all that) and that they simply want their child’s education to be uncomplicated by having to co-exist with different people (because I think we can all agree that nothing good ever came from mixing up the social classes). I hear their argument at dinner parties about how they just want a better option of schools for everyone but I can also see into their cold black hearts that only care about their own child.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And, if there’s a market, the government will sell. If there’s a need, they don’t always give a toss, but where there’s a vote, they’ll give it a go. How odd then that this new grammar policy won’t really appeal to anyone. I would have thought – and bear in mind I am but a simple-minded headteacher – that just creating more schools would have been a better gambit rather than set up a particular type of school, that has a particular appeal, and water it down in the vein hope that it appears more socially palatable. But what do I know?

Concern about the unselective quality of new grammar schools was not, however, why I rolled my eyes and shook my head when I read Greening’s new announcement. I was more concerned with the state of things in the current education climate and how opening a raft of grammar schools will not help a damn bit.

I’ll be brief.

Our budgets are knackered and the services, that schools can access, to help support vulnerable families are vanishing.

Now, I wouldn’t mind taking a massive scythe to my school budget if it meant the saved money was being ploughed back into essential services. I would happily sack, pretty much anyone, if it guaranteed help for damaged children. The reason I would be so slash-happy is because these services are needed and when they are accessed they make my job of educating much easier.

To put it into context. In Bristol, the SEND budget across the city is becoming increasingly non-existent. Thresholds are rising as the amount of money for each band falls. Early Help, that provides vital support for vulnerable families on the brink of getting into real trouble, are going. In the South of Bristol alone this means that the local authority’s capacity to support these families will fall from above 120 families to just under 60. Social Care is gradually being eroded away to its bare bones. I know of a child who since being placed in care has not been assigned a permanent social worker for 6 months. (Guess how they’re doing?) Behaviour improvement services have vanished. Funding for more specialist provision is being denied: a new setting for children at risk of permanent exclusion but do not yet have an EHCP is now not going ahead.

What is the impact of all this?

Your job, dear teacher, is going to get harder. Why? Because these troubled children and families still exist. And, instead of being able to access the support they need it will be up to you to deal with it. You could just permanently exclude them. But just remember that could be exactly what the school down the road is doing. You may get rid of one troublesome toe-rag but pretty soon you’ll be invited to attend a Fair Access Panel where you will likely end up with another one. So, you’ll just have to accept these kids as part of your daily grind. Many of you, I know, already have. Those teachers who don’t fancy that could always go to work in the new grammar school. (Although, apparently, these schools will be filled with similar children…yeah right!)

Do I mind that teaching is harder when classes are filled with difficult and damaged children? No, of course not. What I do mind is that I can’t help. I can’t access vital support services because they are disappearing fast. I can’t give the children what they need. Therefore, when I find out that funding for existing schools is being reduced whilst the government is financially propping up failing free schools and chucking cash at re-introducing a selective system of education that hardly anybody bloody wants, I get cross.

I get filled with rage at the short-sightedness of the current regime. I want to take every education minister and advisor along with every narrow-minded educationalist who thinks these problems shouldn’t be part of a teacher’s job because they only came into this profession to teach and chuck them into a school with all these children who have nowhere else to go and say: ‘There you go, you’ve got naff all support, get them to the expected standard.’ And when they complain saying that it’s too hard, I will simply double lock their classroom door and say ‘Sorry, this is what it’s like now. Crack on!’

Because, like it or not, these are ‘ordinary’ children from ‘ordinary’ families and building new schools who may not have to take them in does not mean they disappear. Preventing them from getting help will not make society a better place. Denying them social support will not improve their education.

Ignoring these problems is a national disgrace.

Eyes rolled, head shaken. I’ll be quiet now.

Oh my word, not another flippin’ blog about progs and trads! I mean seriously? You honestly think this is necessary?

infinity-256x256

Happy holidays!

Why not relax by engaging in some professional to-and-froing with your twitter brethren about teaching? Sounds like fun, don’t it? And quite often it is. Sometimes – and by ‘sometimes’ I mean ‘often’ and by ‘often’ I mean ‘pretty much all the time’ – you could be forgiven for thinking that Twitter is on the blink as your timeline appears to be nothing more than a rehashing of comments you remember reading last holiday, and the holiday before that, and the holiday before that.

Fear not technophobes, your shiny new phone isn’t on the blink. It’s just that us teachers can’t move on from a single subject. For some reason our tiny minds are fixated with discussing the merits and failings of two different approaches to teaching. These approaches, or depending who you follow, theories / philosophies / beliefs / ideologies / disciplines / concepts / dogma / ways of life / only thing that matters / reason to walk across a crowded room in order to punch someone in the face, currently represent – if twitter is to be believed – the only thing that matters in education.

Forget the dire financial situation schools are currently in. Forget the collapse of social care around the country. Forget the increase in social, emotional and mental health problems that we are seeing in every area of our system. Forget the systematic dismantling of local authorities in favour of selective education. Forget the disconnect between key stages in relation to what is ‘expected’ of our pupils and students. Forget the ever-changing goal posts informing us of how better things need to be before we’ve had time to adjust to the last change. Forget the high-stakes system of results and Ofsted that cause panic and frustration when things are perceived to have gone wrong. Forget the pressures all of the above place on leaders, teachers, support staff and children.

None of that really matters.

What really matters is whether you’re a Trad or a Prog.

You should, according to some, know which one you are as knowing which one you are will improve your teaching. (As long you’re the right ‘one’ of course, if not then you’re just wasting everyone’s time.) Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to start bashing either side or try to stop the debate. I think people thinking stuff is fine. People passionately believing in something is great. Evidence based research is, not exactly a laugh a minute, but can be interesting. Putting across your beliefs with the kind of feverish zeal normally reserved for religious preachers on dodgy cable-tv channels can be mildly disturbing but is seldom damaging. Watching debates on Twitter escalate can be a marvellous way to spend the time whilst you’re waiting for your morning egg to poach.

I love it. I don’t care that much about the trad/prog debate but I enjoy reading about it and sometimes I learn stuff. Only today I read Get Kids Cultured by the only man in the 21st century who can make a toga look both sophisticated and seductive: Martin Robinson. It was a right good read. Not only did I learn what neo-progressivism means but I also learnt that neo-progressives are a bunch of cynical swines obsessed with global capitalisation. It was very interesting and made me feel quietly smug that I too, like Martin, value ‘great art, literature…the humanities…a continual dialogue, a great cultural education’. I know nothing else about the chap but these few hundred words of his made sense and represent what I have tried to promote during my teaching career.

The important word in that last sentence is ‘tried’. Sometimes it’s hard to pull it all off because, well, you know that earlier paragraph where every sentence started with ‘Forget the…’? It’s hard to deliver that richness in education because of all that stuff. All that stuff gets in the way sometimes. Sometimes what you face in the classroom has to be dealt with first. And this isn’t wishy-washy bleeding-heart liberal child-centred clap-trap. It’s the reality of being a teacher and working with small but complicated human beings.

I did a teeny-tiny twitter poll recently about what teachers thought about the whole prog/trad thing. 71% of those that responded said they didn’t know what it all meant and didn’t really care either. Since that poll it appears to have been discussed at length on twitter. Opinions were mixed. It was a very badly executed and puerile poll. The divisive nature of such a poll indicates how low some educators are prepared to go to sully professional debate. These 71% are a disgrace to the profession. The fact that these teachers are disengaged with the most important educational issue of our time could indicate that those talking about it must be very dull. Maybe it’s not that important after all. The fact that some people don’t think it’s important proves that it must be important. I could go on…but don’t worry, I won’t.

The most Didau of all the Davids, David Didau, referenced the poll in his recent blog The Great Education Debate saying that it was ‘fascinating’ (thank you, David) and that the outcome could indicate that if teachers ‘aren’t clear about what’s at stake then it’s perhaps no wonder that they’re not willing to ante up.’ He then makes four points about the subject that are very wise and logical. I agree with his sentiments that sometimes teachers disengage with this debate because it can become ‘boringly repetitive’ and ‘ill tempered’.

For me though, another reason why many teachers do not know/engage/care about the prog vs trad saga is that they are too busy with those complicated external factors that threaten to derail children’s learning. There are times, on Twitter, when I feel that these factors are brushed aside as an inconvenience. Dismissed as a symptom of the damage done by those uncaring traditionalists or pampering progressives. It is, of course, always someone else’s fault that children have problems (unless you are a spectacularly bad or unprofessional teacher) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t your job to try and help. That may mean that your preferred teaching approach needs to be suspended as you take the time to create an environment that enables these children to become receptive to your teaching. This is neither a traditionalist nor a progressive approach. It is simply responsible teaching and what most of us do daily. It is the reason, I suspect, that 71% don’t know about or care about the trad/prog debate. They are too busy reflecting in the moment and adapting as necessary to get the job done as best they can. They are also probably too knackered to think that deeply about their philosophical approach to teaching. That isn’t an appalling refusal to engage with educational debate, it’s work-life balance.

I hope those who do manage to find time to ponder the great philosophical quandaries of education continue to share their thoughts on blogs for others to read. I hope discussions continue on Twitter and that they remain animated without being offensive. I hope teachers will always feel able to try out new approaches and share what works and learn from what doesn’t. I also hope that the academic discussions on the merits and failings of traditionalism and progressivism know their place and don’t interfere with teachers’ professional freedoms in the real world. I also hope that Edu-Twitter doesn’t completely disappear up its own backside believing itself to be an executive authority rather than a minority of people thinking stuff. Well, I can hope, can’t I?

See you at the next Twitter poll.