Where are we with inclusion in 2017?

Inclusion in 2017: Panel with Kenny Frederick @kennygfrederick , Dave Whitaker @davewhitaker246 and Keziah Featherstone @BLC_Head at the Wellington/Telegraph Education Festival 22nd June 2017

Three minutes on inclusion and I have too much to say. I asked a friend whose 15 year old child has special needs and is in a mainstream school. Her perspective on Inclusion in 2017 is that students with special needs all get lumped together in secondary schools. Children with dyslexia, autism, SEMH and other needs are all in a class with children with cognitive difficulties and teachers are focused on simplifying everything, expecting the worst. Even in mixed attainment classes, the “SEN kids” are sat together. Teacher expectations sink to rock bottom as soon as a child is labelled as “special needs”.

We know that there’s a problem with setting and high stakes accountability – poor behaviour in “sink sets”, unacceptable levels of fixed-term exclusions of children with special needs and parents or schools moving children on for “home education” or to attend alternative provision.

There is a skills gap and a communication gap. Can secondary teachers, teaching hundreds of children a week, really engage with a list of twenty recommendations in an educational psychologist’s report, or with mystifying Education, Health and Care Plans? Even if they do, where and when do they learn the skills to put into practice what the professionals advise?

There is quite a movement now for “inclusion units”. I like Paul Dix’s analogy that setting up a unit is like putting a fifth lane on a motorway – when you build them, they get filled up. Nothing moves forwards.

Secondary schools are too busy telling students what they can’t do. We need to focus on what students can do, and on what they might do with the right teaching.

The most important thing that every secondary school must do is re-position their Learning Support department. Our Learning Support departments should be the most expert teachers in the school, training others, engaged with professionals like education and clinical pyschologists and speech and language therapists, working in partnership with special schools to share expertise. We need our Learning Support departments to have sky-high expectations, modelled by the SENCO. Over the years I have seen the remarkable success of students with SEN, for example a student with a statement going to Kings to read Radiography; or the student who grew from hiding under tables in Y7 to succeeding on a Level 3 Animal Care course in Sixth Form; or the agoraphobic student whose love of music, fostered by a teacher who played the guitar, led to further study and playing guitar in pub performances. One thing unites all these success stories: adults who care, who go slightly above and beyond, who consider what is possible and commit to making a difference.

What structures help these adults? Communication and understanding of the children rather than of a labelled need; rock solid behaviour management enforced by senior staff; mixed attainment classes and groups; use of research to identify quality interventions for literacy and numeracy – the Education Endowment Foundation’s work; work with the Educational Psychologist & Speech and Language Therapist to develop practice that works for all children and train teachers in it; quality first teaching by trained and informed teachers supported by expert teaching assistants and a strong pastoral system; partnership working with families.

An inclusion 2017 checklist – how does your school measure up?

1.Are your expectations of children with SEN sky high?

2.Do you have the expertise in school, for example a Lead Teacher for Autism or a bought-in service from a Speech and Language Therapist, to meet all your students’ needs?

3.Is your Learning Support department a well-spring of best practice for all teachers?

4.Are children with special needs positioned carefully in classes where they can best learn? Or dumped in sink sets?

5.Do teachers know how best to teach all their learners?

6.Have teachers stopped talking about special needs, to talk about the children themselves?

7.Do you work hand in hand with parents?

Is this too much to ask of teachers? What about the high achievers? The school I worked in that did this sent 115 students to Russell Group universities in 2015. We need to stop thinking about what we CAN’T do and start thinking about what we CAN do.

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How might school inspection improve teaching?

In preparing for headship, I had recurrent Ofsted nightmares.  These frequently involved me taking an inspector along a corridor, not really knowing the way, and arriving at a class that was out of control.

Which I was meant to be teaching.

During this time, from 2014 to 2016, I studied for an MSc in Research for Public Policy and Practice with the EPPI Centre and UCL/IoE.  I quickly learnt that we need to beware well-intentioned interventions that do more harm than good, for example terrible “expert” advice to put babies to sleep on their fronts  that is estimated to have killed thousands British babies in the late 20th Century.  Systematic Review of research literature can provide more empirical evidence to help us make better decisions.  As Ofsted’s practice of grading lessons was unravelling I became obsessed with school inspection as an intervention that might be doing more harm than good, particularly in terms of classroom practice, and developed the dissertation question: how might school inspection improve teaching? screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-15-12-32

My dissertation took a systematic approach to synthesise the findings of twenty-seven studies that examined school inspection in OECD developed countries.  Having used these studies to develop a context – mechanism – outcome rough theory of change, I tested this rough theory on four practitioners who had worked to improve teaching at whole school level in good or better English schools since 2010.  Using in-depth interviews in Summer 2016, I got their feedback on the extent to which the theory matched their experience; how useful it could be in their future practice; and areas where more research is needed.

The findings were that despite a lack of evidence linking inspector feedback with subsequent actions taken by teachers in their classrooms; research shows that the inspectorate framework heavily influences school self-evaluation in England. The four practitioners described how the 2015 Ofsted Framework informs rather than defines school self-evaluation, but one expressed the view that in the past the quality of teaching has been limited to the quality of the framework. The September 2015 Ofsted framework gives freedom to teachers to teach in any way they want, which was seen by the four practitioners as a better opportunity to improve teaching, however there is no research available on this yet. There was a caveat raised by one practitioner who had recent experience of inspection under the September 2015 framework; that the inspectors themselves may be mis-interpreting the freedom as an opportunity to judge teaching and feedback based on their own personal preferences and expectations.

Feedback to teachers as part of school self-evaluation is thought by school leaders to improve teaching, as the theory of change model suggests it should, but there is a lack of research evidence on the extent to which feedback from internal observations as part of school self-evaluation changes classroom practice for the better. The practitioners testing the model welcomed that observations now look at progress over time and raised issues with previous practices of the inspectorate grading lessons.   Practitioners were positive that lesson grading had now stopped. Some recognised ongoing issues raised in the research base of staged performance lessons that don’t relate to everyday practice, though others felt that the latest framework and removal of lesson grades had addressed this.

Therefore it is not so much inspection that changes teachers’ behaviour, but the anticipation of inspection. Over the years expectations set by the English inspectorate, such as students having to make “progress every twenty minutes” became part of schools’ self-evaluation, and this and other aspects of inspectorate frameworks over the years have led to unintended consequences (tunnel vision; suboptimisation; myopia (short term targets); ossification and measure fixation). There was insufficient evidence in the literature to develop a theory on the sub-question, “What do school leaders and teachers do to minimise the effect of unintended consequences?” However the practitioners spoke at length about this in their contexts and identified areas where further research could provide more insights. Minimising unintended consequences would remove some of the main barriers to school improvement in a system that involves high stakes inspection; and would also be beneficial for staff morale and longer term student outcomes.

Possible implications for policy makers
Policy makers need to be aware that school self-evaluation and feedback and resultant training given to teachers is very sensitive to the inspectorate framework. Initial feedback suggest that the September 2015 framework is popular with school leaders in England working to improve teaching because it allows freedom for teachers to teach according to their own style.

Possible implications for the inspectorate
Inspectors need to be trained on what to look for and on how to give feedback and need to do this consistently for all inspections. There is no evidence yet to show that inspections since September 2015 offer more consistent feedback on teaching. One practitioner identified the risk that new freedoms in the framework leave more scope for inspectors to feedback based on their personal preferences of teaching. Training on the inspectorate framework is needed for inspectors and school leaders to develop a shared interpretation of what the framework looks like in practice and how teaching can be judged against the framework.

Possible implications for schools
School self-evaluation based on the inspection framework is a key mechanism for school improvement. Training is needed for school leaders to achieve this. When observed by inspectors, teachers will be more likely to act on their feedback to improve if they go to see the inspectors to hear it directly from them.

More research is needed on the headteacher’s role in school improvement.  For example research to identify the features of effective school self-evaluation and the extent to which this relies on the Ofsted framework.

The full dissertation is here if you want to read more or see details of the underlying research base.

Rough theory of change: how might school inspection change teaching?

Conditions Mechanism Outcomes
1.Leaders are equipped to understand the expectations

Inspectors are trained and qualified to judge schools against the framework


Expectations of quality teaching set out in an inspection framework School uses inspection framework to complete self-evaluation of teaching quality


2.School uses inspection framework to complete accurate School Self-Evaluation(SSE) of teaching quality and set improvement targets


Leaders have access to the relevant data and evidence and are able to analyse that accurately to complete SSE


Leaders have access to guidance and support for SSE


Leaders manage the demands of internal and external accountability in pursuit of school-defined improvement


SSE is seen as collaborative and non-threatening


School Self-Evaluation in line with an inspectorate framework is used to identify actions to improve teching



SSE is honest and is written for the school rather than for the inspectorate

Improvements are made to teaching so that SSE meets inspectorate expectations more closely


Inspectors make judgements to confirm or contest SSE, thereby endorsing leadership or recommending that it needs to change


3.Inspectors are of high quality and make consistent judgements on teaching


Inspectors make recommendations that will help teachers improve their practice


Inspection process allocates time for inspectors to see teaching



Independent external inspectors visit the school and gather evidence on teaching quality to make judgements against the framework Inspectors provide school with knowledge it lacked to make improvements


Inspection findings contribute to school improvement: dip in reults in inspection year, but increase in two years after

4.Inspectors take time to observe teaching


Inspectors are trained to give feedback


Specific and clear recommendations


Teachers and leaders accept the feedback



Feedback from inspectors on how to improve teaching


Feedback from school leaders on how to improve teaching as part of school self evaluation

Teachers act on feedback


Leaders follow up on the extent to which teachers have acted on feedback, and monitor whether this has a positive impact


Possibility that feedback may have negative consequences is very real, lack of evidence on this

5.Leaders and teachers take ownership of inspection findings


Action plans are formulated and implemented as

result of findings from the inspection


Leaders manage the demands of internal and external accountability in pursuit of school-defined improvement


Leadership makes use of inspection process to improve teaching


Teachers make use of inspection and SSE process to improve their teaching


Leaders implement appropriate actions to improve teaching, avoiding unintended consequences



Student progress and outcomes improve


6.Schools use SSE effectively and have access to relevant monitoring data


Leaders are motivated/compelled to improve teaching to reap rewards and to avoid sanctions (for example in England achieving “Outstanding” for teaching means that a school can apply to lead a Teaching School Alliance; achieving “Inadequate” can mean a school is forced to convert to academy status)


Leaders are motivated/compelled to address inadequate teaching




Carrots and sticks: rewards and sanctions


In England, for “good” schools there is an incentive to improve further to “outstanding”.


Schools that perform very poorly will either improve, with the extensive support provided, or be closed down/put under new leadership – action taken quickly to turn around schools judged to be failing


Rewards and sanctions may have unintended consequences: tunnel vision-narrow focus on certain areas to meet inspectorate demands; sub optimisation – actions for inspection, rather than for best interests of pupils; myopia (short term targets); ossification-sticking to known teaching methods, risk avoidance; measure fixation-focus on data rather than bigger picture (Nelson & Ehren, 2014)



7.Teachers are motivated/compelled to improve their classroom practice so that they are not judged adversely by leaders for school self-evaluation or by external inspectors








Teachers are held to account in line with high stakes accountability expectations, via appraisal and capability procedures System is likely to be less useful for school improvement and professional development


Teachers fear the system and may “resist, subvert or sullenly acquiesce”


The volume of work associated with the accountability agenda was so intense that it severely reduced the time and energy available for enhancing teaching and learning in more traditional ways, such as by offering extra-curricular activities or spending longer planning and resourcing lessons.

8.If (Head of dept) saw an ‘outstanding’ teacher teach a lesson that did not accord with the Ofsted requirement for manifest student progress within half an hour, he graded it as ‘satisfactory’, in the hope that this would jolt the teacher into a more sophisticated understanding of the game they were engaged in. Gaming: activities to get positive inspection feedback, irrespective of whether these are in the best interests of pupils or represent everyday school life. Teachers become reflexively aware that they are involved in what many described as kind of ‘staged performance’ for the inspectorate during the event itself.

Teachers are more resistant to recommendations because a)they are based on a staged performance, b)condition of trust in inspectors is not in place

9.Inspection reports published so that stakeholders are aware of teaching quality in the school


Accountability to stakeholders, including parents, means that schools work hard to meet inspectorate expectations to get a positive report


Inspectorate recommendations are taken seriously because they are in the public domain and schools are held accountable if they do not act upon them to improve


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Why would a headteacher blog?

I have a confession to make.  Perhaps it’s because my son’s favourite poem is Ozymandius, which he sporadically speaks by heart at the dinner table; or maybe it’s that my previous head came from a Greek Cypriot background and so was determined to avoid hubris, but I am deeply reluctant to blog about being a headteacher.

Miss Wilsey’s invitation to do this, DM-ed just a term in, sent me running behind the sofa. 

Then as people who itch to write do, I realised that I could write about that feeling, and it’s important I do.  Because headship is not the perfect hair-sprayed, Shellac-nailed, patent high-heeled vision that people expect it to be.  

Throughout a few years of headship interviews which looking back, defined that era of my life and left me distraught at times,  I got some great feedback on my imperfections. I was told that I should not have emphasised the fact that I was a mother, that my language was too informal, that I “would not take people with me”, that I lacked a vibrant prayer life.  I would like to say that this feedback was transformational and that I studied with Professor Higgins, put my children into care, read “How To Win Friends and Influence People” and took holy orders to find the superhead within, but luckily I kept calm. I instead listened to Jill Berry, Ann Colgan and Angela Doherty, three amazing women who live in the real world of what headship is all about. And armoured with Shellac and Bobbi Brown, I finally got a great headship in a school which would never expect a woman to hobble in wearing patent high heels to fulfil the female head stereotype. A relief, as they were ready in my cupboard but I can’t really wear them.

There have been many mistakes in my transition phase and first term or so of headship, and yet I am still able to go to work every day and lead, even with unpolished nails and flat shoes that are sometimes a tad muddy from the school field.  I’m in an environment where there is no pomposity, we are a community that  values every child and connects with the world beyond our school gates.  Our Co-operative values include equality and solidarity, so why would we claim to be better than other schools? We just do the best we can for the children in our care.

My prayer life is flourishing, my language is (mostly) suitably formal and staff have not revolted (yet). I am still a mother, and I talk about it. In my new school our wider families are part of our community, “growing up together” as a colleague put it recently. 

We are not super heroes. But we are here.

Read more headteacher blogs at https://thehopefulheadteacher.blog/2017/01/12/talking-heads-weekly-insight/

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Why not “outstanding”?

It was the final Y6 parents’ tour on Tuesday and I bounded in, having welcomed over a thousand parents and students in my first Half Term as Headteacher.  I was looking forward to the positive feedback that we have come to expect, having got the role of ‘Headteacher at the end of a school tour’ down to a fine art.    My craft has been refined by many parent tours this term and also also by my experiences as a parent in other schools because my daughter is in Year 6.  (Be brief, be heard, be honest.)  Finally confident that I have answers to all the tricky questions from: “Will you bring in blazers and ties?” to “What is your vision for the next eight years?”; I asked the parents, “Any questions?”

Y6 parent: “I see that this school is only rated ‘good’ by Ofsted,  and other schools we have looked at are outstanding.  Do you have any comment on that?”

Headteacher: “I don’t think that has ever been the priority for this school, the Ofsted rating.  It’s all about your child.”

Y6 parent: “But this school seems great, better than others that we have been in, but those schools are outstanding and this school is not, what was the failing that meant that you did not get ‘outstanding’? Are you going to be doing something about this?”

This question poses me with a problem.  In ten minutes I have to meet a teacher and a student, so the tour needs to be accompanied down the stairs and to the gate within five.  Not only have I blogged on “Why do I refuse to be outstanding?“, I also spent much of last year researching for a dissertation on “How might school inspection improve teaching?” which enabled me to do some in-depth analysis of reasons why aiming for outstanding has been a big distraction for English schools that has got in the way of improving quality teaching.  With a few minutes to respond, I had over 20,000 words to say.

This is what I said:

“For some Headteachers the Ofsted grade is very important and they will have talked to you about that at Open Evenings.  For this school Ofsted has never been the priority.  The priority has been the students.  Sometimes actions schools take for an “outstanding” grade may not be in the best interests of your child.  Here we have high staff morale and great teacher retention rates.  That is what really matters.  Therefore like my predecessor, my goal will never be achieving an ‘outstanding’ grade.

Because when a school gets that outstanding grade, what then? All you can do is lose it.  And I know of schools which are under enormous pressure to keep it, schools where talented teachers are leaving to work abroad because of this.  In this school we have great teacher retention. In this school it will always be about what is best for your child.”





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Who wants more secondary moderns?

My son failed the 11+. If I’m honest, the grammar school was near the bottom of my six choices as I am committed to comprehensive education. The school’s website promised that no additional preparation was needed and I took them at their word.  He was upset after the test. He had met boys there who had been out of their primary schools for up to three weeks, taking practice papers after years of specific tuition.  I would want to see evidence of the children who get in with no additional preparation, cited by Tim Leunig at ResearchED – I have never met one.  Not when you look into it properly.

If I’m really honest I was making a political point, but even as a grammar cynic, I was shocked by the reality of selection.  Selection deemed our child, the son of two Oxford graduates, to be secondary modern material at age 11. Because you can dress this up any way you want to, and May has certainly attempted to do this in her speech, but a return to selection at 11 separates most children away from grammar school opportunities and expectations.

The consultation describes a “more challenging and targeted curriculum” for the pupils selected for grammar provision. (p28)  May’s claims that children could transfer at age 14 don’t stack up – would children leave the grammar to go to the “non selective” school age 14 to free up a place? I doubt it. And if the secondary modern pupils have studied a less challenging curriculum in KS3, they will not be able to catch up.  I also worry about movement to grammar at age 16.  Is it not really important that a range of Sixth Forms continues?  Teachers are attracted to schools where they can teach A Level. If we move towards large grammar-only sixth forms, there would be a knock on effect for 11 – 16 provision in the other schools.  One achievement of Gove’s era was the expansion of an academic curriculum for all.  Selection would end that, according to May’s own documents.

Thankfully my son has the highest of target grades in his comprehensive and his university dreams remain intact as most of their Y13 go on to Russell Group universities.

Comprehensives work because we have high expectations for all students.

A comprehensive I worked in ran a (tiny) RCT recently, as we educated one twin while his brother went to the grammar school an hour away.  The twin who came to our comprehensive scored a grade HIGHER in every one of his GCSEs than the twin selected for grammar education.  Without high expectations, a school is lost. And what better way to lower expectations than to tell parents and teachers and the students themselves that their school is for those who failed a selection test?  Or for teachers at a grammar to assume that their “least able” are only likely to get a B, but that’s probably enough.  Because selection encourages a fixed mindset in the students selected and their teachers, as much as in the students who were not selected and theirs.

So look for those comprehensive schools with students who go on to a range of universities and apprenticeships, which have the highest expectations for your child and all their friends. And if there are areas without such schools, politicians should look across the globe to research what works and why.  Kent tells us that grammars are not the answer  and that the green paper does not “set out plans for schools that work for everyone”.   MPs, Headteachers, Ofsted, Teach First, Teaching unions and even Policy Exchange agree. I would like to remind Ms May that it is Gove, not she, who has advised us not to listen to experts, and recommend that she starts listening.

Please respond to the consultation and make your voice heard.  I found this very difficult to do.  Questions that seemed to miss the point included

“How can we support existing non-selective schools to become selective?”

“Are these the right conditions to ensure that selective schools improve the quality of non-selective places?”

I think I found a good answer for this one, though: “Are there other conditions that we should consider as requirements for new or expanding selective schools, and existing non-selective schools becoming selective?”

My answer: A non-selective school should only be allowed to convert to become selective if it has a partner secondary modern lined up to be selective of those children who don’t pass. ONLY joint bids should be sanctioned or this will be very messy.

If an Academy chain plans this, they would need approval from governors, parents and teachers at both schools.

And I suspect that, like the grammar pupils selected without any additional preparation, such schools will be as rare as hen’s teeth and so this particular episode of “Yes Minister” could be brought to a close.

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What bad decisions have you made ?

“Can you give me an example of a bad decision you’ve made? What would you now do differently?” My interview for headship stalled, as I pondered some stinkers from over the years, and wondered which was least worst, while offering the best opportunities to show how unlikely I am to do this. Ever. Again.

A better question that I have asked myself since is why did I make those decisions? Sub-questions: who/what influenced me? What was my rationale for change, or for not changing? Who opposed the bad decisions? What prevented me from listening to them?  We have to work in the best interest of our students, so there is an imperative for me to make the right decisions, to “do no harm”.

Most importantly: how can I and my fellow senior leaders take responsibility for making better decisions in the future? What do we need to do differently, not with reference to that decision which is long past, but when making all future decisions?

Firstly, we need access to the best evidence available so we can be informed; but we also need to go further and engage with that evidence so that (HT @fullonlearning ) we are not simply implementing the what of recommended practice; but are also getting the context right with the how, who and why.  In addition to the Education Endowment Foundation ‘s excellent and growing research base, used in 2014 by 54% of secondary senior leaders and just 11% of secondary classroom teachers, there is also Evidence for the the Frontline which enables teachers to pose their own questions to researchers.  In this way research can directly affect classroom practice and does not rely on school leaders catching up with a wide range of subject specific research that might be beyond their understanding.

There is a threat to this best evidence, however, as seen by the 73% of school leaders who learn from what works in other schools – many more than the 54% who use the Toolkit.  The best example of learning from other schools that I am familiar with is PiXL Group, dissected thoroughly by Tom Sherrington in this blog.  The PiXL phenomenon has taken learning from other schools, with member schools faithfully following the PiXL way, to such a large scale that the Secretary of State has had to change education policy to cope with effects of mass numbers of retakes or iGCSE entries.  Does PiXL – learning from other schools – offer the best evidence to support our decision making?

Since liberation from the National Strategies in which the state knew best about education and told us how to do it, there has been immense growth in sharing of personal experience and expertise; and ensuing enlightening arguments over competing groupthink in education (HT Twitter).  Yet the state continues to get in the way of evidence-engaged practice.  Some of the best evidence is ignored by the majority of schools on the basis of ministerial or inspectorate announcements, for example the evidence on mixed ability teaching being more effective than setting/streaming.  The DfE is implementing the Y7 SATs resit policy despite clear evidence that far from helping children catch up, repeating a year of school sets children back even further behind their peers by a whole term.  I realise that pupils are not exactly repeating Year 6, but in effect a Y7 resit group would need to repeat Y6 study to focus on passing KS2 SATs, so academically they would be.

Meanwhile sharing I see via Twitter can rely on little evidence and can make assertions about effective practice that are not even clearly evidenced by results or impact shared from the tweeter’s own classroom, never mind the broader evidence base.  Having eagerly adopted and shared resources for “outstanding teaching” for many years, I then as eagerly adopted ungraded lesson observation, reminding me that a pinch of salt is as useful a Twitter tool as the DM.

In my current school we benefit from dozens and dozens of evidence-engaged practitioners who have completed Teach First, Teaching Leaders, Future Leaders, NPQML/SL and/or Masters study; and have taken other opportunities to learn from experts via our links, for example with Learnus, the National Education Trust and a range of ITT providers (we are a specialist teacher training partner with UCL/IoE).  Our teachers run and attend subject specialist networks across the Local Authority; and many have completed the Excellent Teaching coaching programme to engage further with research and bring this in to their day to day classroom practice.

How have I managed to make any bad decisions, as a listening leader surrounded by these experts? I did struggle at first to answer the headship interview question, but luckily it was asked during a practice interview with the amazing School Improvement Officer from our LA, who works closely with us and so was able to come up with a great (terrible) example.  Suppressing my instinctive response that the bad decision had nothing to do with me, I took responsibility and my answer was about evidence.  Had we researched further and weighed the available evidence properly, we would not have made that decision.  Or, better, I could have stopped the decision using the cold hard facts.  As school leaders we need to make learning from the Toolkit and other evidence higher priority than learning from other schools.  The evidence is out there. We have a duty to engage with it, rather than simply joining the PiXL gold rush on the off-chance that we may strike gold.


Image from Shutterstock


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When is it worth resitting?

Michael Gove famously resat his driving test six times before passing it on his seventh attempt.  The driving test is a good example of a test that is worth retaking, because passing it gives you immense freedom, and I applaud Gove for his resilience.

I would also advocate retaking Maths and English GCSEs between the ages of 15 and 16, because it opens doors in the future if you can achieve that magic hurdle at a time when you are best primed to pass it: apprenticeships, university, swathes of jobs.  Sadly Gove ignored lessons he might have learnt during his seven goes at the driving test and ruled that only a student’s first attempt at a GCSE should count in the schools’ League Tables.  For girls at a school I know well, that led to a decline in the rate of 5+ GCSE  A*-C grades including English and Maths from 88% to 74%.  That is a lot of girls destined to vie for teachers’ attention in the Post 16 retake classes, forced to try again aged 17 and 18 (whether or not they want to achieve the qualification by then).

In my life I once failed a test.  That was the Ofsted online assessment, which I failed in 2015 in the same week that I received glowing reports from HMI and passed my sign off inspection after two years of expensive training.  There was no right of appeal, no chance to see my marked script and no feedback other than that I was unable to synthesise information.  There is an annual opportunity to resit, but I see no point in doing this – when will I ever be better able to meet Ofsted’s expectations than in the week I qualified?  Without my marked script, how can I learn from my mistakes and improve?  I will never again inspect for Ofsted.

How would I feel, I wonder, if I were forced to retake that test? Watching colleagues move on with their lives while I focus, with increasing mystification, on meeting the rules of an assessment that has already defined me as a failure.  You might argue that I should show resilience and knuckle down to it; but I have been able to decide that it is better for me professionally to move on to headship without the distraction of 18 days out of school a year to inspect.  I can look ahead, redefine myself and move on.  It is humiliating to fail, and you question your worth as a human being.  You have to be aiming at a bigger end goal that is really worth it to put yourself through a resit, to work for it again so that you do better on a second or subsequent attempt.

Add in to the resit mix pre-puberty, a new big school with new rules and hundreds of new students with lots of different teachers, none of whom have any expertise in the test you need to resit, and you have a perfect storm.  I can’t begin to imagine how I will organise these resits as a school leader in the second year of root and branch curriculum reform in key stages 3 to 5, but my bemusement is not the issue.  How to justify this to parents? To the students themselves? To the teachers?  All of them know that this resit has no significance for the young people, and that what matters instead from Year 7 is steps towards GCSE success.  Can we justify the resit as a stepping stone to GCSE success?  Politicians are trying to, but they have not been in our English Year 7 classrooms recently to see the brilliant teaching of a scheme of work on “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time”, with students writing quality literary analysis and challenging stereotypes, whatever their KS2 SATS result.  Fast forward to next year: will there be some resit classes in which students do not move on to the exciting secondary curriculum, but repeat a curriculum that failed them in KS2?  What happens if they fail again?  Because, as Tom Sherrington pointed out for GCSEs, there will always be failures in the KS2 tests.  A national scaling system will be used to award KS2 SATS scores, which means that a proportion of children will be below average and will therefore fail, however amazing their teachers are and however hard they work.

I am seeing Escher’s infinite staircase winding upwards, when I should be seeing stepping stones like the beautiful ones I crossed today near Box Hill.


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Why include?

The school I attended from age 7 to 17 was not inclusive.  My class consisted of girls from Surrey whose parents could afford it, who had passed a challenging entrance test.

Each year there was a roll call of where every single one of last year’s Upper Sixth leavers had gone. Oxford, Cambridge etc etc.  My friend’s name was read out as having “got engaged” and there was apparently a sharp intake of breath.  We are now doctors, lawyers, teachers, a theatre producer, accountants, mothers, wives.

Educational nirvana.

But there was the girl who struggled because her dad was an alcoholic and she didn’t know where to go for help.  And the girl who was asked to leave, who burnt down one of her next schools.  There were some eating disorders, and other mental health issues which weren’t discussed.  Sadly two of my Year 4 class of 25 or so girls died by the age of 40.  Because “life” (as a landlord I once worked for used to say frequently) “is not a bowl of roses.”  And however much you bundle up privilege in a classroom together and pull up the drawbridge, you cannot prevent life from storming the ramparts.  Maybe because my brother is autistic, I always knew that there was more to life than perfect crocodiles of girls from a Madeline book.  But others were not so lucky, and years of trying to fit in to the perfect stereotype took their toll.

Inclusion benefits everyone.  Teachers learn how to teach properly, because we are aware that not everyone just “gets it”.  In learning to differentiate for the child who has specific learning difficulties, we help the child who is particularly able, because we think beyond the text book and adapt our teaching so all children learn.  Meanwhile children learn tolerance and respect because they see examples every day of children achieving despite barriers they face, so children learn not to judge or make assumptions.  They learn to hope.  And they learn how to learn with a range of people, and how to work with them.  In life, we are rarely surrounded by “like-minded people”.  In the neighbourhood, the extended family, our kids’ football club or the local park or swimming pool – even in most workplaces, surely; we have to deal with difference every day.

The main argument against inclusion cites poor behaviour disrupting learning.  In my experience, bad behaviour can disrupt the learning of students across the socio-economic and ability spectrums.  Before blaming individual children or their needs, we need to acknowledge that school leadership are responsible for behaviour management.  If school leaders have not set up their systems properly learning will be interrupted – whatever the IQ of the class, the admissions criteria or the fees charged to the parents.  Conversely, if the systems are strong all children will benefit and be able to learn.

Another argument against inclusion is that the curriculum has to be “dumbed down” to include all children.  Anyone making this argument has not kept up to date with recent curriculum and assessment changes.  All our students are reading and analysing Dickens, Steinbeck and Shakespeare. In Year 7 and 8. And 90% of Y7 pupils will need to take all ebacc subjects.  The more able will be sorted and sifted as never before into Grade 9s to Grade 5s by the means of long written examinations.  Which will also be taken by the less able, with their range of needs; and retaken by these students until they are 19: relentless retakes until they hit a national benchmark of the top X% of entrants to the exam nationally.  Rest assured, educationalist, no one will avoid the academic curriculum.

There is a better argument against inclusion around work-life balance; with teachers having a sense of failure because they are unable to meet the needs of some children who are in their classes, despite intense amounts of work trying.  What is the best way for leaders to manage this?  Surely not to position inclusion as someone else’s problem and petition for a segregated school?  In my mainstream secondary school our approach has been to build expertise amongst staff and develop a team of professionals in the Learning Support team who can provide advice, answers and team-working so that teachers can be excited by what is possible rather than discouraged by what will never be.

Arguments against inclusion have to recognise the reality for children with SEN and their families.  A few of our parents and carers want to move their children to more specialist provision. But their wishes, supported by recommendations from a range of professionals at annual review, are being over-ruled by the local SEN Panel whose hands are tied by shrinking budgets and a lack of specialist places.  This means that we have to stay positive, we have to do slightly more to support our teachers and students, and get more inclusive, not less.

We have one Year 13 with a place at Harvard and fourteen with Oxbridge interviews this year. 111 leavers went to Russell Group universities in 2015.  Our inclusive approach is not holding anyone back.  We celebrate the students who went to study Hair and Beauty or Construction, Animal Care or Medicine.   I would love to go back to my old school and challenge the stereotypes by reading out my inclusive comprehensive’s roll call.


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How do we manage stress?

“All we can do is show you the door – you have to walk through it.”
(The Matrix)

On the face of it, S and I are very different.  She is Asian, from a postcode that indicates a “disadvantaged” background.   I am White and grew up in leafy surrey, in a detached home with an enormous garden.  She attends her local mixed state comprehensive – “bog standard”, if you will, and proud of its inclusivity. I went to an independent girls’ school.  The school cost money, which meant that girls whose parents lost their jobs had to leave.  S’s parents did not go to university. My parents both went to Oxford, as did my granny. My grandpa went to Cambridge.

Yet some 25 years after my own interview at Oxford, S is going for an interview in the same subject at the same college next week.  And on Friday lunchtime she was shivering with stress in the playground at the prospect.  Mrs Enright (en route to berate some Year 8s) was drafted in to help, and we went to my warm office to see if I could help.

S explained that feedback from her mock interviews was that she knows her stuff, but she was too nervous, so that her personality did not come across.  Knowing that she needs to be more relaxed is not helping, because, “It’s Oxford, Miss – I would feel so bad if I am rejected.”

“What do you want to do after university?” “PhD.” “Well – Oxford has been around for 100s of years – it is not going anywhere.  You can study there at any point in your life.”  S brightened a little at this thought.  “I could do my Masters there…” 

But she still looked downhearted.  “Are you under pressure to get in?” (As a third generation Oxbridge applicant, I know what this feels like.) “Yes, my parents are so excited about their daughter having an Oxford interview. I don’t want to let them down.”

Cue some standard teacher comments about the other great universities she will likely get in to if she doesn’t get a place at Oxford. Neither of us is convinced.  Though the reality is that these universities are likely to be better in many ways.

“I worry that I didn’t do very well in the PAT.  I would like to know how I did – am I a strong candidate or not?” “S, you have been invited for interviews at two colleges already – they really want you. You are a strong candidate.”

S looks unconvinced.  “I just can’t help being nervous.” 

We have worked hard with this year group since I joined the school when they were Year 8.  S, it turns out, was one of the main characters in our student created play in the round “Greenford Heroes”, with a cast of 240 Year 8s, which is performed to an audience of hundreds.  “That was a really brave thing to do, S, you took a main role in front of everyone. That shows you have confidence.  You are still that person.

“I am just really stressed.”

“What do you do to manage stress?” “Nothing. Everyone jokes that I am always so stressed.  I’m the most stressed person in the year group.  It’s the thing everyone knows about me.”  

And I realise that whilst we have taught our students their subjects to a high level; given them confidence to speak out to a range of audiences, from Greenford Heroes to debating against Eton; supported them to engage in a range of enrichment opportunities such as summer schools; and fostered independent reading and scholarship; we have done nothing to teach them how to manage stress.

Mrs Enright’s doorknob lesson on stress management.

  1. www.calm.com 2 minute meditation
  2. Make a playlist of your favourite music to play on your way to interview – in S’s case, this is ROCK
  3. Sleep, and eat nutritiously
  4. Know that your parents always boast about you, whatever happens in your life!
  5. Act like Adam – a student also going for interview next week, who is more worried about his History coursework than the interview, which he sees as just another small step in life.

Go and walk through that door, S. You are ready.

S is one of fourteen of our Y13 students invited for Oxbridge interviews this year.  And we have just heard the excellent news that a Y13 has been accepted to Harvard.  Please don’t believe what you read about comprehensive schools.


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Why do I refuse to be outstanding?

When RAISEOnline was introduced I sat through days and days of training on confidence intervals, value added measures and the analysis of significance highlights. As I sat I had a flash of inspiration. The goal for a national education system cannot be for all schools to be outstanding.

In fact, the best education systems in the world have no outstanding schools whatsoever.

There is no point in a government (or an inspectorate) aiming for all schools to be highlighted in green in RAISEOnline, because to be highlighted in green the students’ achievement in your school has to be significantly above the national average for that data set. In the school to school comparisons, it really helps my school be “outstanding” if there is a terrible school down the road. Pupils’ results are achieved in defined national percentages, so there are only so many students who can get A* grades (even fewer who will get grade 9 s). It makes my school more outstanding if my students, rather than yours, get those grades.

Cue five years of some shocking practices up to 2010. Miraculous results trumpeted in local papers, and at open evenings, schools inspected and declared “Outstanding”, with results which on closer investigation amounted to no more than a bundle of high scoring “qualifications” which meant nothing in particular for those young people. That mistake is being addressed, but in the process, as Nancy Gedge highlights, we are missing a key cohort of students for whom some of those qualifications were intended. It is not their fault that stupid outstanding-seeking SLT bundled whole year groups into taking them inappropriately.

And those schools which improved to “outstanding” since 2005? How frequently was it a genuine improvement for the same cohort of students they had always taught, with high Pupil Premium and weak data on entry? Entry data over time is clear that for some high profile successes, it was changing their intake that led to better results. Others have even set up alternative provision to get some of their pupils’ results on a different, lower profile, school roll.

Meanwhile I estimate that £billions have been wasted on the Outstanding industry…. consultancy, training days,sacking or alienating and then having to recruit new teachers and Heads, mocksteds, folder filling. All of us chasing and chasing a badge that we knew was increasingly meaningless,because this badge was given to schools we knew that were sub-standard in many ways – SEND provision being the most obvious example. Yet “outstanding” had become the Holy Grail of school improvement – the only reason to do anything in school.

It took the wonderful Jill Berry to make me realise that in my application for headship, I am perpetuating the Ofsted myth. The Governing Body wanted a Head to take the school from good to outstanding, my application detailed how I had done exactly that, and in the final panel interview my presentation to governors explained how I would achieve this as their Head. My presentation was flat and dull. Despite a really strong day one and the student panel putting me first, I didn’t get the job because of my rambling presentation that lacked heart, and because governors were worried that I would not take staff with me. They did not appoint, and their excellent Deputy has stepped up to be Head.

The Governors were right: if your Headteacher is only there to take a school from “good” to “outstanding”, they may well not take staff with them. And in my application and their priorities for the interview process we missed the point. Schools need an educational philosophy that enables brilliant outcomes for children – the student panel had the right priorities.

Under the new Ofsted, I think that fewer and fewer schools will move beyond good to outstanding, due to the simplicity of good inspections and additional logistical complexity of getting the outstanding badge.

So here is the challenge Sean Harford. You have already improved teaching by removing the “outstanding” badge for teachers and their lessons. Don’t you think the same might be true for schools?

Some of the people I most admire think so:
Nancy Gedge https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/speak-truth-to-power-part-one/
Tom Sherrington @headguruteacher

For more on significance intervals, see this excellent post by @edudatalab

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