#threewords To Sum Up Your Half Term: Anything Is Possible

These are mine, because I’ve rediscovered my teaching and leadership mojo. Because, though it hasn’t been without its challenges, I’ve always had a reason to feel excited and optimistic as I’ve driven into the school drive. Because I admire and respect my colleagues and feel proud of what we’ve achieved. Because I admire the school, its ethos, and what we achieve every day. Because we’ve all been tested – there have been tears and frustrations and germs and confusion – but we’ve come so far. Because ‘we’ as actually starting to feel like ‘we’, and I’m so proud to be a part of it. Because my colleagues and students inspire my every day. Because six months ago, I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be in this role, but I’m loving (almost) every moment. Because people are respected, nurtured and loved and everybody says ‘good morning’.

More importantly, because of the infectious exuberance of our students, whose love for learning manifests itself in boundless energy. This can be annoying (and loud!), at worst, but is never malicious and never ill-meaning. Our students come from all over, but they share a genuine respect for education and shared aspirations to be as good as they can be. Those who don’t speak it love learning English and are fiercely focused on progressing as fast as they can. Those who’ve seen and heard things most of us couldn’t imagine feel genuinely lucky to be here and are making the most of every second. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, anti-immigration types.

Our students admire and respect their teachers and what they do, and the feeling is mutual. What more can you ask? With students and teachers like this, and a school like this, anything is indeed possible.

My take on the #grammarschools debate

This is a topic I’ve toyed with writing about for years. I’m acutely aware of how fortunate and ‘blessed’ I am on so many levels, and how much privilege I have experienced compared to so many other I know. I’m also acutely aware of the ‘champagne socialist’ charges that may well come with this post. But I’m going to plunge in anyway.

I went to a single-sex, 98%-white grammar school. In Home Counties In the 1980s. In fact, I was very much the child of Thatcher. And like many children of Thatcher I know, I’m almost grateful to her for teaching me what I don’t stand for and thereby making me realise, from a relatively early age, what I do.

At 11, we all sat an exam (there wasn’t a choice). You came out as a ‘pass’ or a ‘fail’. Yes, we used those terms. Yes, I have no doubt that children still do.  You were then set off down your path: ‘secondary modern’ or ‘grammar’. Children aren’t stupid. they knew what this meant. And despite enlightened parents who assured us life’s path really isn’t that simple, the stigma for my closest friends and family who ‘failed’ was firmly in place in the children’s minds.

It was essentially an IQ test. Having come out as ‘below average’ in a recently televised nationwide IQ test on TV, I’m not entirely sure I’d pass today… But I was lucky enough to be one of the lucky ones.

And I’ve done well. Of course I have. Thanks to the school? Well, quite possibly. On the other hand, my self-perception was as someone rather bland, hovering around the ‘average’ at school. Competitiveness was all. I don’t do competition well (despite the claims of my Pontoon-playing friends over the summer). Frankly, it was just never QUITE good enough.

I’m not precious about much, but I distinctly remember my Geography teacher calling me Emma Nell and the perceived disdain and sense of invisibility that came with it. SHE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW MY NAME. I was horribly offended. I never quite forgave her and never got on with Geography after that (girls can be a very unforgiving bunch!)

Did my school teach me well? Of course it did. Am I grateful? Well, yes. Would I have done just as well in a comp? Would I have been corrupted by the ‘less academic’, the ‘less aspirational’, the more diverse? Well, not half as much as I was corrupted by the young ladies of Buckinghamshire in the ’80s, I suspect (toe-curling memories…. There’s a reason why I rule with a fist of iron on school trips). And yes, there was a serious motion to change the name of the school to the ‘B**** Academy for Young Ladies’. Was I happy? Well, no. Would I have been happier at a different school? Possibly. I was pretty brooding teenager. But the ‘not quite good enough’ took me decades to shake off. Ironic, given that I was a ‘pass’…

And then there’s the research, which puts a child’s chance of success firmly at the door of the parents. So, ‘x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4 ac all over 2a’ will be with me to my dying day (though I have no idea what to do with it!) thanks to hours at the dininig table with my Dad. ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne…’ and the ten lines afterwards, thanks to my Mum. And pathetic fallacy, Chaucer, French irregular verbs. And not being allowed out (the indignation) two Saturdays in a row. And music lessons and travel and museums and the sheer joy of reading under the covers with a torch until 2 a.m.

So, what do I know for sure? That I am a passionate advocate of comprehensive schools. That little gives me more joy than watching motley crews of mixed children interacting and learning tolerance and respect through friendship. That I believe that no child should EVER be branded a ‘fail’ at ANY level, let alone at the brink of adolescent. That happiness is more important than academic achievement. That, like John Tomsett, I was always champion ‘love over fear’. That I would rather eat my arm off than teach in a grammar school. That I’d like to rip down the advertisements for 11+ tuition outside the PRE-SCHOOL. That I will never work in a school with a table-cloth pattern for a blouse. That the children I teach will be challenged to be as excellent as they can be, but that they will also be allowed to be themselves, and explore and stumble and fail and get up again, and be happy.

Am I responding in the classic ‘pendulum’ approach to the generation before? Almost certainly. Am I just the spoilt middle class girl? I fear, at times, I might be. I’ll have to take that charge, if it means I get to continue working in joyful, diverse and ramshackle comprehensives and my own children are allowed to be children for as long as possible.

Making the case for part-time working at ALL levels

This blog is a shameless mix of academic data, first- and second-hand experience, stories and speculation. But I think it’s an issue that hasn’t had the attention that it deserves, and I hope that by voicing it, I can start a dialogue and prompt others to share their experiences… and start a process through which we can begin to see part-time working at ALL levels of teaching as a valid, valuable and reasonable way forward.

In a recent survey for my Doctoral research on balancing parenting and teaching, of 1603 respondents, 28% of respondents (all teacher-parents in UK maintained schools) said they were working part-time at the time of the survey. There was a distinct gender split, with 33% of the female respondents saying they were working part-time compared to 9% of men. 87% of the respondents agreed with the statement, ‘teachers should have the opportunity to go part-time at key points in their lives/careers’. Whilst and overwhelming 97% agreed with the statement, ‘I feel the job I do is worthwhile’, in response to the statement, ‘I have a healthy work-life balance’, 56% either disagreed or strongly disagreed. 71% of respondents indicated that they regularly experienced feelings of guilt that they are neglecting their duties at home and 63% indicated that they ‘regularly felt stressed, depressed or overwhelmed when balancing work and family.’

Last week, at the #womened conference, Nancy Gedge ran a workshop entitled ‘Making the Most of Part-Time Working’. There were some really inspiring stories of supportive and enlightened employers, job-shares at Headteacher level, and some myth-busting around the demon-job of timetabling (‘I did it in the middle of the night whilst breastfeeding… and no, I’m NOT superwoman!’), there was an underlying not of frustration and something approaching despair.

Part-timers, we acknowledged, were frequently perceived as less committed than our full-time colleagues. We’ve all heard (and possibly used) the phrase, ‘you part-timer’ to insinuate that our colleagues are a little feckless, a little less overwhelmed by work than the rest of us. It was generally perceived to be fine to be part-time at mainscale teacher level, but the further up the career ladder you climbed, the less likely you were to be ‘allowed’ to be part-time.

So, why part-time?

There was a near-assumption that all of us around the table at this #womened seminar were parents. This appears to be the most widespread and most ‘acceptable’ reason for going part-time. Before and since the conference, I have observed that teachers already established in a role had little or no problem going part-time when a  baby was due, but that finding a part-time role in a new post was nigh-on impossible.

Teacher approaching retirement are another group for whom going part-time is recognised as a valid move. But I have heard little to no discussion of other reasons for going part-time. Whilst we would acknowledge that we celebrate our teachers having lives and interests outside school, I remember we were all somewhat gobsmacked when a colleague went down to four days a week to pursue his musical interests. When we start to think of it, there are numerous reasons why a teacher (or indeed a middle- or senior-leader) might want to be part-time. Caring responsibilities, a passion or interest, academic studies… Yes this discussions seem to rarely take place and these options appear to be rarely explored.

Through a mixture of serendipity and mixed-fortunes, I have landed on my feet, with a part-time middle leadership role which allows me to develop new skills and embrace new challenges whilst at the same time pursuing my Doctorate, exploring possibilities around writing a book, and engaging in other exciting freelance opportunities. And – yes! – they’re  not babies anymore, but being able to take my children to school and pick them up and stand in a muddy field watching my youngest playing football has improved my well-being immeasurably. The only issue is that my post was always going to be temporary. In fact, I find myself hoping to return to SLT – I have the qualifications and skills to build on, and I loved the whole-school responsibility. But I really, really want to stay part-time. And even some of the most enlightened people I known have snorted, scoffed and laughed at this hope. Why is it so outrageous? To apply for a new SLT role and ask for a day to pursue my research – should it really be so out-of-the-question?

The case against part-time working

‘I had two children and NEVER went part-time,’ said a colleague and Deputy Head to me the other day. There was a note of triumph and something approaching defiance there. As teachers,  think we are sometimes guilty of being almost competitive about our working hours as an apparent reflection of our commitment. To have gone part-time – would that have meant to give in?

Of course, for many parents, the cut in salary which comes with going part-time is simply not justifiable. I have worked with numerous colleagues who were effectively – and amazingly willingly – actually paying for the privilege of coming to work.

‘You can never be a part-time Head of Year.’ The words of another deputy. The students need consistency. You need to be there when they are. In a pastoral role, perhaps there is an argument here. Shared classes are also, apparently, a nightmare, not just for timetablers but for the students. And yet, at A Level, we actively promote multiple teachers with their multiple skills. Yes, it requires greater organisation, tighter communication and a bit more hard work to establish rules and boundaries, but is it that much of a disaster? After all, I’ve found that students build the strongest relationships with students who see them as ‘whole’ human beings with lives and families and interests.

The case in favour of part-time teachers

We are undergoing a serious crisis in teacher retention and recruitment. Isn’t this a bit of a no-brainer? How many potential teachers/leaders are we losing through lack of part-time opportunities. Is there, as @EquitableEd points out, a brain-drain happening?

Part-time workers have the capacity to have richer lives which, I would argue, in turn as the potential to make them more complex, interesting role models in the classroom.

Happier teachers are better teachers!

And, get this one… we’re CHEAPER for schools!

So, here it is. I’m a fully qualified and competent Assistant Headteacher, and I’d like a job in SLT. But I’d like to work part-time, so I can pursue my academic studies, work on a book, continue with my freelance opportunities and – yes! – take my children to school and football and occasionally cook an edible meal from scratch. (Should I, however, want to be part-time so I could attend Pilates, have a pedicure, and train for a 10k, this would be nobody’s business but my own.)

Am I really chasing flying pigs in stubbornly pursuing this dream? Are there other professions with models that we can learn from here?

Let the debate begin.


The Scourge of Powerpoint

Originalliy published for edustaff here:


About a decade ago, I worked in a Central London school which had a PFI overhaul. The Victorian-workhouse style building was demolished, to be replaced by a state-of-the-art new building. Only it didn’t quite go according to plan, and, come September, the promised swanky new building wasn’t ready. And all our resources were packed in crates somewhere in a warehouse. So we spent several weeks improvising with groups of students in makeshift classrooms around Camden. I won’t suggest it wasn’t stressful. It was. But there was a Blitz mentality which made us pull together in a crisis. More importantly, the situation necessitated a complete revisiting of what it actually means to teach when faced with a group of young people with none of our usual props. No books, no boards, no computers… It was actually one of the most rewarding and powerful experiences of my career.

Another memory: NOF training. Anyone else remember that? It was all about increasing ICT literacy amongst teachers. Only, in essence, it was a crash course in how to design a Powerpoint. We spent hours creating whizzing, blinking, flying, squealing words and images. The documents were eventually so big they couldn’t be attached to an email. We presented them proudly in our classrooms with some degree smugness and success. Since then, the Powerpoint has become central to almost every Scheme of Learning I’ve come across. In the vast majority of cases, the ‘lesson’, saved in the S: drive, is synonymous with ‘the Powerpoint’. Like any tool, it clearly has huge advantages, and many people in the world of teaching and business have moved away from the reading text aloud from their presentation to creative use of images and puzzles to promote curiosity and enquiry.

And yet I am deeply wary of this phenomenon for a number of reasons:

  1. Writing a Powerpoint is NOT the same as planning a lesson. It doesn’t take into account the unique class dynamic, the differentiation through interaction, the need to check, review and refine according to the inevitably unpredictability of our young people.

Worse, ‘the Powerpoint is just there’ will sometimes lead to teachers entering a classroom and working through it step by step with little or no advance preparation.

  1. The classroom is a physical, almost theatrical, environment. The ability of the teacher to move around, to teach from the back corner, the centre or behind the potentially disruptive child, is crucial. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a working remote (they’re like gold dust!) Powerpoint can ‘fix’ the teacher to the front of the classroom.
  1. Because of the prevalence of Powerpoint, our young people frequently experience a diet of five hours’ Powerpoint in a day. Combine this with the amount of screen time they are experiencing outside the classroom, and are we not exacerbating a growing problem?
  1. Over-reliance on Powerpoint can impede relationships and stunt variety. Due to malfunctioning projector. I recently rediscovered flashcards. Remember those? Numerous possibilities for presentation, reinforcement and movement. Having a screen in the room means that eye contact is limited, individual interactions are curtailed, and the disappointed eyebrow, encouraging half-smile, best horse-impression can easily be missed.

I would happily promote a week-long Powerpoint ban, if I didn’t know quite how much teachers like being told what to do (!). But I’d urge teachers to consciously consider teaching without Powerpoint with each class at least once a fortnight. It will be liberating, I promise. Do some role plays, play some games, read from real books (there are some wonderful, neglected text books out there).You’ll get to know yourself and your students better. And surely that can only be a good thing?

A Call to Action and a Cause for Optimism HertsCam: The first UK MEd course run by teachers, for teachers

It’s fair to say, I think, that the last few years have seen a set of particularly difficult challenges for teachers; from the increasing fragmentation of our system, to an insistence on all schools progressing beyond ‘average’. We’ve seen an increasingly volatile performativity agenda which at times seems to fly in the face of our most basic convictions and moving goalposts on our Excel spreadsheets. I have witnessed what appears to be a growing culture of presenteeism – being seen to be working 70, 80, 90 hours a week, and encouraging other to do the same. We have seen teachers hitting burnout on a regular basis. These factors, and others, are culminating in a genuine crisis in recruitment and retention.

It all paints a pretty bleak picture of the lives of teachers. But… in my experience, there’s a core of teachers who maintain resilience, resourcefulness and optimism. There’s a fire in our bellies, a stubborn sense of optimism and, above all, a passion for improve the life chances of young people. So amidst the noises of doom and gloom, there’s been a growing counter-culture of teachers working together to improve their practice and our system. From the thousands of teachers to be found daily on Twitter debating, challenge, consoling and sharing resources to online forums such as Staffrm to the proliferation of informal TeachMeets and ‘Un-conferences’ all over the country, there is evidence of an ongoing hunger to keep learning, keep collaborating and stay positive.

It was last year when I first heard of the TLDW, run by HertsCam and became a tutor for the programme. I blogged about my experience of the annual conference here:


TLDW stands for Teacher Led Development Work. It is, as they say, exactly what it says on the tin. Teachers across Hertfordshire and surrounding areas, including middle leaders, support teachers, headteachers and senior leaders from primary and secondary sectors – have been completing a year long project focused on improving an element of their own classroom practice and their students’ outcomes. They have been led by David Frost of Cambridge University and Val Hill, a practicing Assistant Headteacher, together with a growing team of practitioners who themselves have completed the course.

The principle is quite simple. As any parent knows, it is the teachers on the ground who see their child day-in and day-out struggling with algebra, decoding irregular verbs, falling out with – and back in with – their friends, triumphing over merit points and hiding gum in their checks… it is these people who know their children best. The argument is quite simple: it is not the Prime Minister, nor the Minister for Education, nor the Think Tanks nor the Professors of Education who know our students best – it is their teachers.

The research on teacher retention tells us that to be trusted, to have a sense of autonomy in the classroom means a great deal to education professionals, and that to be deprived of these has a direct negative impact on effectiveness and well-being. This course cuts right to the heart of this by giving teachers an invaluable forum for reflection and collaboration on issues that they know are important for their students; that they wish to improve as practitioners. From use of seating plans to teacher talk to tone of voice to extended writing. Nobody else tells the teachers what to choose; they are coached and guided, but they decide and they pursue their practice-based research over the course of the year, presenting their findings and their impact to colleagues throughout the course.

In April of this year HertsCam, an independent organisation devoted to developing teacher leadership, has received accreditation for the first Masters course in the country [in Europe?] to be run entirely by practising teachers, as opposed to by academics based in universities. The Masters has been validated by the University of Hertfordshire but will be run entirely by teachers who are members of the HertsCam Network.

This is an extremely exciting development and one that flies in the face of much of the negativity surrounding teaching today. It sees the day-to-day practice of teachers as equal to any other academic field in terms of rigour and potential impact. It sees teachers themselves as best placed to work with other teachers on researching, refining and becoming national experts in specific areas of their practice. Their research has the potential to have an impact far beyond their own schools, as HertsCam already has a proved track-record of publication and influence throughout Europe. The validation of the new masters is firmly based on the idea that knowledge can be created through the leadership of development work and shaped through critical narrative writing in the context of networking. This is an alternative to the usual idea of knowledge being created through research.

Above all, it is an academic validation of the role of the teacher as leader and sees the realisation, by real teachers in real schools, of a knowledge creation approach which challenges the traditional hierarchies within our education system. There’s a stirring, almost revolutionary, call-to-action about the work of HertsCam. The advent of the MEd, which openly ‘seeks to mobilise teachers and other education practitioners as change agents’ demands that we challenge defeatism and negative thinking, take ownership of our practice and our profession and, rather than waiting for the powers-that-be to sort out the issues that confront us, do it ourselves. In this hard-fought development and a much-needed injection of optimism into what is, after all, the best profession in the world.

ITL HertsCam