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.)

Your country needs YOU! (But qualified please, don’t take the Michael)


I appointed a new office worker this year: she had worked in banking and had experience of working with the public. At the end of the term I asked her how she had enjoyed her first 8 weeks working in a school. She said that she had absolutely loved it but…

…she couldn’t believe the intensity of life in a primary school and how hard all the teachers worked. ‘I knew they’d be busy in the classroom teaching stuff but I never realised how hard they work on the emotional support for the children and the parents and everything else that has gone on this term: it’s just non-stop!’

For me this newly found perception is most interesting precisely because she hadn’t even seen the work that goes on in the classroom: just everything else and as those of us in education know it’s often the ‘everything else’ which is so exhausting and rewarding simultaneously…and a big reason why QTS is important.

So you have a degree, a passion for your area of expertise and you believe you would be a great teacher. That is genuinely fantastic! I’m pleased for you, come into the world of education and you will love it but please don’t break in via a side door while no one’s looking. Do it properly and train: why? Because you’ll be a better teacher, I promise. I know you have a Masters and yes I know you have a passion but all that will enable you to do is to give some high quality information to the children in your class (due to your degree) with some of them retaining some of it (because of your passion). Teaching is more than getting children to remember stuff (despite Gove gulping to the contrary).

Being a teacher is HUGE. You literally can’t get a job with a bigger job description. I haven’t got time to go into all of it but this picture of a mug sort of puts it across – albeit in a rather smug way.

A mug that is smug…a smug-mug if you will. Every staff room should/will have one.

See? It’s a big job and quite frankly it is too big for your degree in [inset whatever degree subject you want] to handle. It needs a bit more care and attention if it’s going to be done correctly. Oh, and if you think by ‘done correctly’ you think I’m still just talking about the teaching a lesson bit you need to start reading this again or look at the smug-mug or alternatively decide never to become a teacher.

What I’m trying to get at is that with QTS you will understand and will be beginning to be better at working with the pressures and the all the other ‘stuff’ that you have to manage effectively so you can still deliver consistent levels of progress and achievement over time. You still won’t be perfect (but don’t worry we’ll all help you) and you’ll get better.

But if I’m going to get better at being a teacher because of working on the job anyway-why can’t I skip the boring QTS bit?

Oh ok and while we’re at it we might as well just put it about that ‘rosebud’ is just his sledge, Vador is Luke’s Dad, Romeo and Juliet both die, Godot never turns up, the girl in the crying game has a willy and the answer to the life, universe and everything is 42. Do you want to do that? No, I didn’t think so. You don’t just skip to the end, the pay-offs will be meaningless: you’ve got to work your way through it, build up your knowledge and understanding.

Training to become a teacher is far more valid than some certified measure of aptitude and a lot of self-belief. It involves going to lectures and listening to experts talk about learning and the psychology of pupils and the importance of all those bits and pieces identified on the smug-mug whilst doing small work placements in a variety of school settings and reading endless books about becoming a reflective teacher and then transposing them into your own thoughts and pedagogy. It will actually really help you when you finally get your hands on you own class full of 30 (or more) individual minds bodies and souls.

So give yourself and the fellow professionals you wish to work alongside the professional dignity and stature we deserve and become a qualified teacher.

Eyes Wide Shut


After a rather busy year that was my first year in headship I feel that I have reached a turning point in my outlook on education. It feels a bit like an epiphany with the clouds of educational fuzz parting as a singular beam of light illuminates the true path to educational success. Over the year, one word has repeatedly entered my subconscious and this word is now at the centre of everything I do. It has given me a clarity that I have never experienced so far and has become a filter through which everything else must pass through. The only problem I have is that I can’t tell if through my experiences over the last year with Ofsted, HMI etc whether my eyes have truly been opened or if I have been brain-washed.

Oh, the word is ‘achievement’, sorry probably should have cleared that up at the start. Although at times I feel so stupid that this word has not always been at the forefront of my brain-I imagine many of you didn’t even have to get half-way through the first paragraph before you thought ‘the boy’s talking about achievement’. Some of you may even have spurted out your holiday Pina Coladas in disgust thinking ‘the idiot’s a Head and he’s only just started thinking about achievement; find out where he works and acadamise the damn place now, put the poor children out of their misery’.

I know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But before you judge me too harshly, I haven’t not been thinking about achievement but I haven’t always linked everything and I mean everything back to it. I now believe that everything a school does can only be judged successful if judged through academic achievement:

Teaching, behaviour management, your relationship with pupils, your relationship with other staff members, marking, marking all your books, marking all your books every night, planning, getting the right resources, the way you deal with bullying, the way you promote anti-racism/anti-sexism/anti-homophobic views and behaviours, using your data, setting targets, effective child-protection procedures, effective governance, reward systems, assembly themes, after school clubs, the use of pupil-premium monies, the use of all school monies, leadership structures, use of support staff, use of child-mentors…

All of this, if done effectively, will impact on achievement (that bit I’ve always known) but my epiphany/brain-washed bit is that all those elements should be judged through achievement too. Oh and that everyone else in your organisation MUST believe that this is why they do all of the above as well as they can.

We don’t develop a good relationship with our class because we enjoy working with children: we do it because it will have a positive impact on achievement. We don’t challenge racist/sexist/homophobic views just because they are morally abhorrent: we do it because it will ensure a right to equality and ambition which in turn will impact positively on the achievement for as many pupils as possible. We don’t sit down with a pile of books and mark them because it’s part of the job description: we do it because if the school’s policy is effective it will allow us to support achievement.

I could go on but I think you get the point.

Achievement is not just the marker by which we measure how well a school happens to be doing: it is the reason why we turn up. It is the reason why working in schools is so hard. It should be the reason why working in schools is so rewarding. Too often ‘soft’ successes that provide no actual evidence of success are seen as being adequate in themselves and I think that this should change. It is not good enough that a child is happy in your class unless you are capitalising on that happiness to further their chances later on. It is not good enough that you have worked your magic on an angry/violent child if you are not then pushing that child to achieve. You should not feel proud of your achievement as a teacher if all you have done is create a happy, caring and safe environment and convinced yourself that this is enough…it isn’t!

I know…I sound like a monster. I sound like my Ofsted inspector. What have I become?

I think I’ve become a better Head (I hope I have otherwise the last year was a monumental waste of time). I still passionately believe in enjoying teaching and working with children and still believe in creative freedoms and that working in schools can be fun for everyone. But I’m moving away from thinking that some perceived successes cannot be judged or measured. I think that if you hold a pupil’s academic achievement as your ultimate goal you will not rest until you can link everything we work so hard in putting in place to achievement.

So, if you’re reading this thinking ’well it took him a year but bless him, the kid’s on the right path now’ thank you very much. If you’re reading it thinking ‘we need to take him out, he no longer has a soul’ please help me have another epiphany.