When we was Phab!

It’s good to get away. Not just to get away from the hustle and bustle from your own environment but also to have an opportunity to meet other like-minded (or not) people from your profession. At a time in the academic of year where the promises of Autumn seem to be at their most fragile and you feel success is balanced on a knife’s edge, it’s good to get away and realise that…you are not alone.

It was the annual Phab (that’s Primary Heads Association of Bristol to you) conference in Chepstow. A day and a half of Heads and Deputies talking, laughing, eating, drinking, singing (partly due to the drinking) thinking, supporting each other, reflecting and looking forward.

Listening and talking to other Heads about their schools, achievements and struggles. Not only do you realise that there are situations that are way more challenging than yours but more importantly you find yourself able to offer support and advice. This in turn is reciprocated and suddenly you have an idea you can take back and a person you can go to after the conference to ask for help. I believe they call this ‘networking’. I prefer to call it ‘chatting with a purpose’ and is a good example of why I love being Phab.

Our highly esteemed Chair @overton66 had started the main proceedings on Friday with the statement: ‘I know we seem to say this every year but it really does feel like we are living in uncertain and exciting times in education’. He’s not wrong. The landscape of education is changing more rapidly than Phab’s resident in-house band’s set list. (Current name: ‘The 4Heads’ although I’m leaning towards ‘The Phab 4’.)

The big movers and shakers of Bristol LA have changed, there are many different school models across the city, and partnerships are popping up here there and everywhere; all this against a backdrop of a never endingly changing national picture of expectations from Whitehall. The goal posts are not so much as changing, as more disappearing leaving schools to put down their own jumpers for goalposts and hope for the best.

How awful!

But as Gus Hedges, the smooth talking Chief Executive of GlobeLink from ‘Drop The Dead Donkey’, always said: ‘’Problems are just the pregnant mothers of solutions.’’

Our new LA leaders were also there at the start and made it very clear to us that as the redefining of what it means to be a school in Bristol gets underway, it will be done with us not to us. If that’s not an incentive to get involved then I don’t know what is as I genuinely think they meant it.

Then, to get us inspired, we had the pleasure of working with Mick Waters. In just over an hour he had gone through:

  • What was important in a child’s experience of schooling.

  • The danger of PISA.

  • The damaging role politics has played in education.

  • The shifting sands of assessment data.

  • The false prophets behind Gove’s ‘freedoms’.

  • What the new national curriculum has left out.

  • The rich educational, cross curricular, mind expanding opportunities of a 6 minute video of a man dancing with people around the globe.

I think it is also safe to say that pretty much everyone in the room agreed with his every word. I did. This did occasionally lead me to think ‘Oh goodness, I have become conditioned by Ofsted? – Do I only care about data and things that can be measured? Am I ruining the lives of my children?’ (Luckily, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t, I don’t, and I’m not.) But I recognised that as a city we have a chance to address all those issues and build a stronger and richer experience for our children.

Then it all got terribly exciting. I mean we started thinking about where Bristol could go. How we, as an educational city, could write its own mandate for what we will give the children that grow up under our watch. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I think we’ll do it, I genuinely do. But for it to work we are going to need an almost Herculean effort from the LA. Because after we’d all decided what it was we were going to put in place so our children could succeed and be fully prepared for a life of contributing to their world fuelled by a love of learning and life; we would have to have a guarantee that no one could come and dismantle it. It would be a bit like a fixed mortgage. We would need the LA to buffer any national changes or additional crazy expectations that came from Whitehall in order to win votes or to be seen to be addressing society’s ills in the eyes of the media/public – they would have to stand up to national government and say: ‘No, we can’t do that at the moment, we’re busy.’

Imagine that?

Imagine working in a world where you were in control of the goalposts. Imagine a whole city working together to give the same experiences and entitlements for every single child. Imagine raising standards in every single area of the widest curriculum? Imagine being able to do this and know you were making a difference? Imagine that the best ideas, the ones that the professionals deemed to be important, were valued and respected and given the time and freedom to succeed.

That is what it should mean to be in education.

Having the chance to instigate it?

That is what it means to be Phab.

When Tristram met ThePrimaryHead


I was very excited to be invited to a round table discussion with @TristramHuntMP on Friday. Not least because there is a chance he could be our new man in Whitehall for education: making decisions that will impact upon us all but also because it was at 2:30pm on Friday afternoon which meant I could be home early after popping into Asda to buy a box of wine!

I had no idea what to expect or more worryingly what to ask. I certainly know what I think is important in education and what direction I would like to see it move in but I wasn’t sure if that was the point. I’ve been completely brainwashed by the last ten years of lesson observation expectations: I need to know the learning objective or else I just can’t function! I was also a little bit scared that my question would be too small minded – did he really want to talk about ‘Levels’ or SPAG tests? Is that honestly all I could bring to the table? The big grown up table of education? It would be like the first Olympic committee when Seb Coe asked everyone around the room to think strategically about holding the Olympic Games in London and I’d be the one fixating about the colour of the medal ribbons or why on the Olympic logo, London, didn’t use a capital ‘L’.

This was my chance to make a profound contribution to the future of education and I had nothing! Luckily, neither did he.

Now that’s mean, I’m sorry. That was a cheap gag and in all fairness it does him an injustice. He had some ideas and he went through a few of them; and ok at times his delivery was similar to contestants on ‘Dragon’s Den’: the ones who half way through their pitch realise that their big idea makes about as much sense as the word ‘foap’ in a year 1 phonic test. He would occasionally trail off in the middle of his idea for ‘re-shaping localised school accountability measures through a single representative body who had ultimate accountability for securing improvement measures in sets of locally aligned schools’ (or something) and look at us saying ‘I mean, what do you think?’

Now I can’t speak for the other five head teachers who were there but at no point did we stand up and say ‘By Gove, I think he’s got it!’ But neither did we get up, slap him about the chops and tell him to get a grip. We recognised (at least I did) that he is engaging with school leaders to find out about issues that matter and in my mind he genuinely seemed to care. (I can’t say whether he cares because it’s his job or because he cares about education but either way he’s motivated and he wants to listen.)

I’ll admit the first thirty minutes did sort of go over my head/interests: academy take overs/new schools planning/school improvement models/executive heads. But eventually we settled in to interesting things that will affect everyone in education rather than specific schools in specific circumstances. So what were they? I have tried to summarise some of the things we talked about and what I write will be what I walked away thinking about whilst queuing to buy my box of wine.

Local Authority: There is no model and there isn’t one being planned. The landscape of education is doomed to be disparate groups ‘challenging and supporting each other’. I hate this. It really depresses me. Loads of little power hungry groups all looking for the next weakling to eat up and digest. No shared accountability, no shared vision for standards across cities. Everyone doing what they want and proving that it is working for them even though we’ll all be judging ourselves against different criteria and against each other. I hate it. I actually want to live in a world where we are ‘all in it together’ and this ain’t it. I don’t think @TristramHuntMP wants it either but I think we’ve gone too far to get anything like a unified front back again. I think he looked most pained when trying to establish how getting joined up support and accountability over large areas of the country could work because he knows it’s never going to happen. Gove’s freedoms are in fact opportunities to divide and conquer – destroying consistency, professionalism and looking after all children, families and teachers.

National Curriculum: I think @TristramHuntMP thought I was joking when I said I genuinely wasn’t getting ready for the curriculum because a) I like my school’s topics as they are b) I’m trying to make sure that my ‘standards’ are too good for any ofsted inspector to care about our deviation from the NC and c) I’m banking on him winning and reinstating the lovely curriculum we nearly had through the Rose report. I did say that I was concerned that as there were all these different models of schools that could weasel out of implementing it leaving us poor state maintained schools at a huge disadvantage. His reply was that he was going to make it so that any school could not do the NC which begs the question what is the bloody point of having it anyway?

Standards/Ofsted/Gove: There were questions about the relationship between ofsted and DfE and the need to re-think how primary schools are inspected. Also about the fact that the expectations put on us are being constantly raised but there is no substance underneath to guide us on the path to improvement. 85% floor targets, getting rid of levels, changing tests: all just put out there followed by the caveat that if you moan that it’s not fair you get beaten by the ‘low expectations’ stick. Finally we tried to say to him that as long as you’re not Gove you’ll be fine. He looked at us rather sternly and said ‘But what do parents say of Gove? He wants high standards and discipline in schools. How do I compete with that?’ Therein lies what I think will be the hardest part of his success: convincing parents he also wants that but assuring teachers he’ll achieve it standing alongside us.

He’s made a start: he spoke to six primary head teachers and none of us left angry (although we were all going home early on Friday and this may have been a factor). His main strength is that he hasn’t got a good plan (stay with me Tristram, stay with me) but he’s willing to talk to us in order to get one. So my advice: keep listening!

(oh, and get rid of SPAG, give us back a good national curriculum, change ofsted, get rid of free schools, make assessment procedures consistent from EYFS to KS3, don’t give free school meals for all but help us give FSM breakfasts, make primary uniform compulsory, and stop the birds crapping all over my car outside my school-probably should have said this at the meeting, would have saved us all some time.)

…but some of my best friends are dyslexic!


This week is dyslexia awareness week. Its theme this year is about debunking the myth that dyslexia is just about struggling with reading and spelling. There are some interesting and useful resources on the British Dyslexia Association’s website that you could use in school from posters and assembly sideshows to information for teachers and staff about how to support pupils with dyslexia.

I have to admit that I was rather surprised as I clicked and downloaded all these resources, not from what I was reading about dyslexia but because they were free. Free! Several free resources later the biggest myth surrounding, not dyslexia but dyslexia support was being debunked…some of it is freely available!

I could not believe my eyes. You see, I live in an almost constant state of annoyance around dyslexia support: now wait a minute, don’t judge me, I’m not being dyslexicist. Read the title: some of my best friends are dyslexic. I recognise dyslexia and will always look to see how I can support people with it. What I also recognise is that private dyslexic support centres within my local authority area (I probably can’t name and shame but I live in a city with a suspended bridge built by a man who wore a tall hat and has a middle name that quite frankly beggars belief) are, in my experience, useless when it comes to helping schools support pupils with dyslexia.

There are some massive myths surrounding dyslexia but in my experience they are mainly peddled by the organisations who actually claim to be the champions of dyslexic support. The main myth seems to be that schools have no idea how to support dyslexia and some even actually go out of the way to not recognise or support pupils with dyslexia.

Are you serious?

Do you really think as a school we would turn our backs on a child’s need? Do you think we sit there twirling our Victorian moustaches inventing ways in which we can actively punish and humiliate our dyslexic pupils? Do you think we stand in front of the class pointing at the child saying ‘Nonsense, that modern disease of dyslexia doesn’t exist: you’re just lazy.’ And then make them stay in at break time copying tiny printed letters onto a white background? Why would we do that?

And yet, parents who have accessed your service seem to have this perception that this is a standard approach that all schools adopt and I can assure you…they haven’t got that from me. So why would an organisation that wants to support dyslexia do this? More on that later but let’s take a step back from dyslexia for the moment.

Now in my opinion the whole broad spectrum of SEN can be terrifying for parents (and some teachers) and the more experienced I become in education the more I understand where this fear comes from. It mainly comes from the unknown and worrying that the particular type of SEN that may have just crash landed into your life, is so incredibly complex that only the most senior professors at CERN  are capable of understanding it. For me the first step in supporting pupils, parents and teachers in matters of SEN is equipping them with knowledge. Often, even the most worried people about the most complex SEN issues can calmed and reassured once they know a) a little bit more about the issue b) what it looks like in the real world and c) how to get the right support in place (which in many (not all) cases consist of simple but consistent measures).

Right, back to dyslexia. Given the above sentiment it never fails to amaze me how after paying approximately a million pounds for an ‘assessment’ by an independent body (who also just happen to make their living by supporting dyslexic kids) the parents receive an assessment report which is so staggeringly complicated it makes raise online look like ‘Miffy draws a graph’. Is it any wonder that the parents are then panicked into feeling like they have to do more to support their child? And where do they go to? Why their child’s school of course.

This seems to be a totally rational and sane suggestion. Yet when they hear how our classrooms are dyslexic friendly and that we have a range of teaching strategies in place that will support any child with dyslexia and how we will target that child for additional reading/phonic/spelling support: this doesn’t seem to be enough. Now why is that?

Is it because the same people that wrote the assessment report have also concluded that the only solution is to attend their organisation at significant cost to the parents? Interesting that they are still more than happy to encourage children to miss whole mornings and afternoons from schools; I would have thought that in this brave new world of performance related pay this could start to get tricky. If I have a pupil who spends 10-20% of their time away from my school shouldn’t I receive regular assessment updates, shouldn’t the parents hold them accountable for 20% of their child’s achievement or underachievement? The parents don’t seem to think this appropriate…I wonder why?

If only there was something I could do that could put the parents’ minds at rest that we really were a dyslexic friendly school…maybe there is an award I could get the school. Well it just so happens there is. On the British Dyslexia Awareness website you can request to get an accreditation: brilliant I thought that could be really useful and if it strengthens our practice all the better. I clicked on the download and waited, and waited….and waited. Why was it taking so long? Oh it’s because the Dyslexia accreditation action plan is the size of the yellow pages. Do you remember when SEFs first came out and they took almost two years to complete: that’s pretty much how long it would take to fill in this action plan. Seriously, I’ve seen Bristol Local Authority’s post Ofsted action plan and there is less to do across the whole city than there is for me to get my school a Dyslexia friendly icon for my letterhead.

It concerns me that there is this huge barrier being erected between parents worried about the support their children are getting and the schools who are trying to do their jobs. It angers me that this barrier is being put up on purpose for what I see as financial greed. I am not perpetuating myths about dyslexia but the dyslexia organisations up and down the land are spreading the belief that schools neither know or care enough about their pupils to support them effectively with their dyslexia and that my friends is wrong.

(Having said that I do recommend looking at the resources on the British Dyslexia Association website as they are rather good and could be very helpful for teachers and parents)