2018: Get Lost

This is not a grand exit. It’s not even an au revoir. There are few things more irritating than a public exit followed by a swift return. This is more of a ‘see you around, maybe’. 

In the latter part of 2017 I reflected on my twitter existence and my blog. As I stopped myself from almost passing out with nausea at the pretentious reality that I was ‘reflecting on my twitter existence and my blog’ I quickly concluded that, as far as social media was concerned, I am pretty much spent. 

I don’t think I have anything left to say that would be of any interest to anyone. And, for the benefit of any cynics, if nothing I’ve previously said has ever been of interest to anyone else, I have at least run out of things to say that interest me. 

I can pinpoint my current state of ‘meh’ to two key factors: I have just started a new school, and, I don’t think anything that happens online, on my timeline anyway, actually matters. 

In terms of blogging, when I started, I used it to chart my experiences as a new headteacher. Over the years, writing blog posts have enabled me to clarify my thoughts on educational issues that I have had to wrestle with. In doing so, I credit blogging with forcing me to be the headteacher that I wanted to be. So often, I would write something over the weekend that would influence my behaviour, or decision making, on Monday. By putting my principles ‘out there’ I felt forced to see them through. It was a way holding myself to account. 

So what am I saying? That I have made it and no longer need such reflections in order to be a good headteacher? Not exactly, although I am very happy with the Professional that I am today. It’s true, that with a new headship comes a whole bunch of new challenges as well as a raft of familiar ones. But, at present, I either don’t feel the compulsion to blog about them, or, I find that I already have. 

There are still times when something happens in the world of education where I think ‘ooh, I could blog about that’. The trouble is, the online world revolves so quickly, by the time I’ve fired up the laptop, my timeline is already over-saturated with everyone else’s’ take on the issue. To the extent where I end up thinking that what the world doesn’t need right now is yet another blog about Toby Young’s tit-tweets. 

Which brings me to my reason for my potential Twitter abstention. Nothing what I have to say matters. So little of what any of the voices say on Twitter matter. Never has so much energy been exerted into such a large vacuum. Not to sound too gloomy, but, Twitter is pointless. It hasn’t changed anything. People will tell you that Twitter has influenced Ofsted, education policy, senior leadership, teachers’ work-life balance, marking policies, uses of assessment, behaviour management, what to do during wet play. And I’m here to say: no it hasn’t. It really hasn’t. 

Edu-twitter is not a force to be reckoned with. It’s an echo chamber that, if you stand in the middle of it, deafens you with all its souped-up controversy, grandiose grand-standing, occasional good ideas and relentless gifs. As soon as you step away you realise none of it matters. Hardly anyone I know (in the real world) is on Twitter for educational reasons. Most of the leaders and teachers that I meet are too busy getting on with the day job to care what is in vogue on Twitter – thank goodness! I mean, anyone who has bemoaned pointless staff meeting and insets should thank their lucky stars that Twitter isn’t real. The pace at which Twitter-Trends zoom in, get slammed and reverse twice as fast to where they came from, if leaders were taking their cues from Twitter, we’d never get anything done!

Plus, at the moment, Twitter seems less about networking or sharing good ideas. It’s seems to be more about being vile to each other. By vile, I mean: petty, loud and repetitive. And, I’m not subtly having a pop at anyone here…most of us are at it. You can’t scroll for two minutes without someone slamming someone else’s thoughts or actions in a, mostly, negative and personalised manner. In Twitter-land another school’s context is of no importance if it means we can be publicly shocked by something they’ve done. 

So, what am I going to do?

Well, I’m probably not going to leave. I can’t be bothered to go cold turkey because eventually I know I’ll come back. But, in the same way that I have never sworn on Twitter* (unlike Toby Young, I actually give a Friar Tuck about what a future employer might find) I am going to temper my approach to criticism. If I see something that I disagree with, or think is daft/dangerous/dim, rather than quote it along with any personal disparaging remarks, I will simply respond with something along the lines of: ‘Well, I ain’t never worked in no school where that has been needed, but I guess folks gots their reasons.’ I might even say what has worked in the context of my experiences just to, you know, put it out there. Not to be patronising but in the spirit of professional curiosity. At least then Twitter is opened up to professional dialogue rather than a series of conflicting diatribes complemented by faux-outrage and screenshots. 

So, that’s me in 2018. I might see you around, but then again, I might not.

Take care. 

*go on, tuppence for the person who scrolls through all my tweets and screenshots one where I sound like a docker whose just stubbed their toe.

Appraise your appraisal


Like the daytime schedule on BBC2, there are some topics on Twitter that are as predictable in occurrence as an episode of Cash in the Attic. And, just as you don’t need to check the Radio Times to know that at half-ten this morning there will be another set of pensioners failing to fund that holiday in Crete by selling some old tut they’ve just rescued from their loft, you need never refresh your Twitter feed to see if we’re all still bickering about behaviour, progressives, traditionalists, Ofsted, the ethical implications of subtweeting or the statistical significance of a Twitter poll. The answer to all the above is: of course we are.

One topic however, resurfaces on an annual basis: staff appraisals. These threads are less Cash in the Attic and more Celebrity Masterchef.  It only happens once a year and each year you try to make it bigger and more effective with the promise that everyone will be ‘better’ by the end of it.

The question Headteachers, and presumably Gregg Wallace, always want to know however, is how to improve upon last year’s format so that you don’t have to repeatedly taste burnt risottos?

Actually, this is where the Celebrity Masterchef analogy probably ends. Why? Because Headteachers really don’t want to taste the educational equivalent of burnt risotto, and, the aim of appraisal is to try to get everyone through it and not have teachers crashing and burning (pardon the pun, Gregg, unless we’re talking home economics?) throughout the year until the school is left with only one teacher. That would not be a good appraisal system. In fact, appraisal is almost the complete opposite of Celebrity Masterchef. Setting up ridiculous challenges (teachers, you’ve got thirty minutes to plan a three part assembly to present to 900 kids and the four most highly regarded headteachers in the country…Go!) that will result in at least one person failing is not effective performance management. Although it might make good telly. No, forget Celebrity Masterchef. I only thought of it so I could use the phrase ‘don’t over-egg the pudding’ later on.
But, Heads are always interested in revamping their appraisal formats. Each year, the desperate plea goes out on Twitter: ‘please share your performance management arrangements, because I got nothing!’

I go through the same managerial crisis every year. I think back to the previous year, when I was so cocksure that my new system was going to revolutionise teachers’ professional development. Only to find that by Easter, nobody could remember where they saved their bloody targets let alone remember what they were.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with getting teachers to set all the targets, you know, so they have ownership. I’ve tried setting all the targets myself, you know, so I have ownership, plus, the teachers last year complained that them having ownership was too stressful. I’ve set up multiple mid-year review processes that unanimously fail to happen, resulting in an inevitable July panic. I’ve tried giving four targets, two targets, how ever many you want targets, shared targets…these all seemed like good ideas at the time. I’ve given data targets. I’ve purposefully not given data targets. I’ve spent approximately 50 hours of my life explaining to governors why targets based on data are a necessity, followed by a further 103 hours telling them that they are now ‘not’ a good idea. I’ve linked target achievement to pay. I’ve graduated people’s targets linked to their position on the main pay scale. And, one year, I forgot to set any targets at all and just told everyone that Sean Harford had tweeted that this was a good idea.

In short, there ain’t nothing I don’t know about how to make appraisal not work.

True to form, this year, I’ve got it cracked. But, rather than bore you with the actual format, allow me to share with you my simple 5 rules (plus one) that inform my appraisal process.

Rule Number 0 – performance isn’t static.

There is nothing more depressing than setting appraisal targets for a teacher who does not believe they have anything to learn. There is nothing more dangerous than a school culture where teachers are wary of development as they fear it will be used as evidence against them. The appraisal process must be honest and open and, for that to happen, everyone within the organisation must understand that levels of performance are not static. Teachers don’t become ‘good’ and then ‘bad’ and then ‘good’ and then’ bad’. But teachers can change just as the class in front of them changes each year. Each change brings a challenge and some are harder to overcome than others. Leaders must not create a culture where a teacher is scared to admit they are struggling in case they stop being ‘judged’ as good. It is the purpose of the appraisal process to embrace contextual changes and adapt a teacher’s performance management based on the needs that they face right now. Teachers must be open to development and leaders must be ready to support. Everyone should be excited at the prospect that by the end of the year they will be in a stronger position than they were in September.

Rule Number 1 – link it with achievement.

I know, I know! This isn’t the done thing anymore and please don’t tell Jim Pembroke. But, I, personally, don’t think it’s a bad idea to focus teachers’ minds on getting as many children as possible ‘on track’ by the end of the year. I don’t care about measuring progress measures. (Total waste of time and, let’s face it: fiction.) I care about teachers making children even more on track and ready for their next year ahead. So, we look at where the children are and we look at their potential for the end of the year and set a target. The target will be aspirational. But only because I follow rule number 2…

Rule Number 2– it’s about professional dialogue.

I like talking to teachers. I enjoy watching them work and helping them. I want teachers to talk to me about their struggles and challenges. So, when we’ve set an aspirational target for a pupil and it’s not going well, despite the teacher’s best efforts, I like to know. Obviously, I like to know when it is working too and I learn a great deal from teachers who are having a positive impact on their pupils. For me, the decision regarding whether a teacher has met their achievement target is not about statistical success but about teachers’ professionalism in, and around, their successes and failures. If they tried everything to support a child and we’ve both reviewed the evidence, and, we have some insight for the next teacher so that they might succeed better next year….then I say that teacher has done a fine job. The success is not measured through cold data but through the quality of the professional dialogue that surround it.

Rule Number 3 – keep it real.

I always have a teaching target. And, the teaching target is pretty basic. Something along the lines of: teach brilliantly. The key to the teaching target’s success is in the tactics you ask the teacher to deploy in order to strengthen their practice. This will be informed by lesson observations, work monitoring, professional dialogue, etc. I’ll never ask a teacher to ‘do something’ that isn’t an organic part of their development. The beauty of this is that these tactics can get added to throughout the year. A great teacher may have, by the end of the year, worked on multiple tactics, way more than are captured during the first appraisal meeting. By the end of the year they will have robust evidence to show how the tactics impacted upon pupil achievement. If they don’t, or they can’t, then, well, that will be picked up by rule number 4.

Rule Number 4 – leaders have responsibilities too.
I fundamentally believe that it is the job of school leaders to identify if a teacher is in danger of not fulfilling their appraisal targets. And, if so, they have a duty to swoop in and support. It is not good enough for a teacher to carry on their year not knowing that in July I’ll be telling them they haven’t ‘passed’ their appraisal. They should know in advance and be supported so that that conversation never happens. If a teacher fails their appraisal then it may be that they were failed by their leaders.

Rule Number 5 – make sure leaders know about rule number 4.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it. But make sure it forms part of leaders’ appraisal. They have to know that it is expected of them to not only monitor but also support. Everything they do must be centred around the belief that they are improving teaching. Any monitoring must be about focusing on impact – and not just checking that systems are in place –  so that teaching across the school is truly strengthened.

And that’s it.

Simple. Streamlined. Reflective of the school’s needs and capturing where teachers naturally are in their own professional development. The phrase you want to hear most of all, at the end of the first appraisal meeting, is ‘that actually reflects what I’ll be doing every day’. If you hear that then you know you haven’t over-egged the pudding. (Boom!)

You’re only as good as the sum of your parts

It’s always refreshing to know that you are not alone. I had that experience last Monday whilst I was in a meeting with Sean Harford, the National Director of Ofsted, who had kindly invited me, along with a range of other educators, to a meeting regarding the future of Ofsted. It is always genuinely nice to be invited to such events because not only does it make you feel like you are a voice that could be worth listening to, but, far more importantly, you feel like those with the ultimate power are keen to listen. 

I am totally convinced that, in Sean, we have a rational, determined and dedicated educationalist at the helm of Ofsted. His vision for Ofsted’s future is sensible and picks up the slack in terms of ‘good’ schools being left alone for too long. He was open and honest, especially in terms of his expectations of inspectors, and it was during these moments that I reflected and thought, ah, you have the same problem as me. 

That problem being consistency. As a leader of a school I know what should be going on in my school. I know what consistent approach every member of staff should be applying to the job. I know the values and principles that I expect to be followed. Sadly, I also know what it’s like to find out that, in reality, this isn’t always the case. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing my staff here. I have never worked with such a devoted team of professionals who, over the years, have been behind me every step of the way. They believe in what we are doing one hundred percent; it’s just, they’re human. At times, humans slip up, make bad judgement calls and occasionally get things wrong. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about massive mistakes every day but, as a leader, when your own public rhetoric is so strong, every little doesn’t help – as the saying doesn’t go. 

It only has to be a minor thing: they deviated from school policy just a tiny bit; they agreed to one thing to a child and yet denied it to another; they marked a correctly calculated sum wrong by mistake; they (and this will happen next term I guarantee it) get their ‘he’ and ‘she’ mixed up when writing their 29th end of year report.  But when this miniscule error is presented to me, normally by a parent, you can’t help but feel a bit silly, irritated and wonder why people can’t just do things exactly the way you told them! And if you didn’t explicitly ‘tell’ them, why can’t they just bloody well guess what you want!

There were moments during Monday’s meeting when, on hearing Sean make very clear to us exactly how inspectors should operate, those of us who have experienced Ofsted recently were able to point out that, although that may be how he envisages inspectors behaving, it ain’t always necessarily so. 

• It really is all about the SATs.

• They really do have a bias regarding best practice.

• Some really don’t follow the handbook properly. 

• Minds really are made up before the visit has started. 

Sean reassured. Sean empathised. Sean promised. At times, Sean denied. But I suspect there were times when Sean was thinking: ‘Thanks a lot you bunch. I’m trying my hardest here and you idiots are making it bloody impossible.’

It can’t be helped. It’s what happens when you run a massive organisation. You can’t micro-manage every employee. What you can do though, and this is what Sean is committed to, and to which I, and pretty much everyone else in the room, thought was a great idea, is rigorous training and future-proofing. The new framework will require further training for future inspectors as well as a drive to bring it back in-house. Less outsourcing and more HMI. This can only be a good thing and should provide some extra quality assurances, so that we, along with Sean, can sit back and relax when the inspectors arrive because we will know the standards and expertise they bring with them. Because unlike when a member of my staff drops the ball, and the consequences are relatively minor and can be addressed instantly, the same, sadly, cannot be said for when an inspector miscalls.