I can’t quite remember the first time I heard the phrases “sh1t umbrella” and “sh1t funnel” but I’ll never forget the distinction between these two fabulous metaphors and the absolute necessity that school leaders work their hardest to always be the former and never be the latter. It’s hard because, as I’ve found in the past two years as I feel my way into Headship, there is a lot of the brown stuff (more than I ever comprehended even as a Deputy Head) that finds its way into your in-tray as a Headteacher.
There is no doubt that it has to go somewhere. Some of it is useless and a quick tap on the flush button that is ‘delete’ will often suffice, but every so often there is a steaming pile that requires forensic attention paid to it to see what it tells us about the diet of our students, staff or education system. And that, I would contend, is what SLT generally and Heads in particular get paid the biggest bucks for and is where those bucks should stop.
And so it was with a heart-sink feeling that I read, earlier this week, the latest in the thankfully very occasional ‘Secret Headteacher’ series in the Guardian, with the title of ‘After Thursday’s GCSE results, will I still have a job?’. As with many people I come across, I’m not the greatest fan of the weekly ‘Secret Teacher’ moanfest, but as I articulated in this blogpost, I believe that there is very much a place for it. What I have a problem with, as articulated in that post and also this one, is when school leaders in positions of power take the ‘secret’ route to air their grievances.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t have sympathy (more than that, empathy) with the contributors, it’s just that on the vast majority of occasions they are, in part, the masters of their own destinies (as well as those of countless others). And so my thinking is, if you don’t like what you see then do something about it and, if you can’t do something about it, suck it up. It’s what you get paid for.
Articles like this, for me, are examples of emotional sh1t funnelling. True, our job is tough and (if we are doing it right) tougher than our colleagues will ever know. But this is true of everyone’s job in a school, from the supply teacher battling the low expectations of students to the seasoned veteran of the classroom responding to new initiatives by government and school leaders, and from the LSA struggling to make a difference with our neediest students to the premises manager keeping the ancient boilers going at the height of winter. The only difference is that we, as I said earlier, are paid the kind of money about which our colleagues can only dream and, to my mind, we get paid it for holding the sh1t umbrella.
But my problems with this piece go further than the fact that it was written. In this case, I genuinely believe that the writer has lost sight of the most important part of their job and, in doing so, lost their grip on the sh1t umbrella. What’s more (and the only reason I’m writing this post that appears to be attacking another Headteacher) is that I think that somewhere inside, not very deep down, they know it. The opening makes it clear:
What follows, in the very next paragraph, is intended to portray the solutions to the problem but shows to me what may well be the problem with which the Secret Headteacher is wrestling.
The full article (which you can read here) goes on to talk about grade boundaries, changes to papers, some “frankly ridiculous” questions, poor quality exam markers and being “sideswiped” by the iGCSE last year. But for me everything that is most problematic about our education system at the moment is contained in that second paragraph. Let me explain.
“Four sets of mocks”
Why? As a full-time English teacher back in the day, the most stressful points of the year were always the same; coursework deadline day (and the final weeks before it) and mock exam marking week. Why on earth would we want to put colleagues through that on four occasions? I’m not sure we would want to put the kids through it that often either, not because of stress but because of the loss of lesson time and the loss of impact that a single mock exam creates when outcomes are evaluated.
“Compulsory after-school revision sessions”
I may be on dodgier ground with my thoughts about this one (mainly because I don’t know for whom the word “compulsory” applies, other than staff) but bear with me. The writer is seeking to understand why things are less predictable now than before when “there wasn’t much homework going on”. Perhaps the culture shift of bringing homework “in-house” to school is as much a part of the problem as it has ever been a part of the solution. By rubbing out the line between school and home we have also rubbed out the expectation that students get what they get based on their own labours. We should at least be honest (as some schools have) and call it an extended school day. I wouldn’t even call it ‘prep’ as, in most traditional schools, ‘prep’ may be compulsory in organisation but it is very much about independent study, not teacher-led pseudo-lessons.
“Easter school. Saturday school.”
At Canons, one of our six whole-school objectives for the first two years of my Headship has been “to ensure that achievement gaps between the performance of students are proactively closed as a result of improved focus on the quality of classroom interactions, ahead of reactive intervention strategies”. True to our word, we have actively sought to reduce and, if possible, eliminate any holiday or weekend intervention sessions for students or staff. Quite simply put, we all need holidays and the time to think through what our next steps as learners or professionals will be. We don’t (yet?) forbid middle leaders or teachers who feel that they need time with students but we actively discourage it and seek information about why they feel they need the time with kids out of school hours. And when it comes to ensuring standards are high, we look to how we can support colleagues in the classroom and how we can assist them in asking students to do more in their own time.
One of the main reasons for all of this can be told via an apocryphal story:
Omar was a borderline student for Maths who had missed building the strong foundations in the subject because he came to England during his primary school years. In particular, his basic mental arithmetic was a hindrance in higher tier maths exams in spite of all his efforts and his understanding of higher order maths skills. In his mock exam he achieved a low D grade and so was targeted for compulsory revision sessions after school twice a week. On top of this he attended numerous higher tier revision sessions at February half term, Easter and during the Whitsun break. For the last month he dropped out of his football team, missing out on his chance to play in the regional cup final (at which a scout for Tottenham was present) so that he could attend yet more revision sessions because, despite all of his commitment, he had only nudged up to a very shaky low C grade. His family were unable to buy the services of a tutor and so were thrilled that the school offered so much time to him. As a result they didn’t push him to do any other work at home, partly because they could sense that he was becoming stressed with the pressure of this vital subject and partly because he had achieved high Cs and grade Bs in them at the mock exams. What they didn’t realise is that Omar’s Maths teacher was equally stressed and was, as a result, using the additional time with the ‘intervention group’ of 10 to re-teach all that she had taught them before rather than responding to their specific and individual needs. Meanwhile, Omar’s RE and Art teachers were in a state of despair as they could see him slipping backwards from the high watermark of his mock exams (from which they had hoped he might springboard into an A grade). Above it all, Omar’s Headteacher smiled (a nervous smile, mind you) because all the internal data showed that he – alongside dozens of other borderline students – would get his Maths as well as a whole host of other GCSEs. What could go wrong?
“There simply is nothing more my staff could have done”
There is something more the staff could have done… Relaxed. Met friends after school. Enjoyed Saturdays. Recovered during holidays. Placed more expectation on students and less upon themselves. Enjoy time under the umbrella rather than endure it under the funnel.
I don’t blame the ‘Secret Headteacher’ for the approach that they have taken with staff. It is a fault of the system and, as the article goes on to show, Headteachers are as much the victims as anyone else in the system and, in some ways, more so.
Job security is generally good in education, but each time we approach a set of results (exams, finances, inspection, safeguarding, and so on) I do realise again that there is less security now that I am a Head. It scares me sleepless sometimes, but I’ve learned to hold on to that sh1t umbrella for all that I am worth in spite of this and refuse to do “the middle of the night download”. I hope that it helps others sleep more soundly.
Postscript: I nearly didn’t write this blogpost, even though it came to me as soon as I read the Secret Headteacher article on Tuesday morning. In part I nearly didn’t because of the respect I have for the author regardless of my disagreements with their choices, but mostly I nearly didn’t because I wasn’t 100% sure that the results at Canons on Thursday would back it up. Fewer mocks, fewer students in after-school sessions and fewer subjects using holiday time for interventions (how I hate that word) have meant that we have had to have more trust in what teachers and Heads of Department were telling us and more faith in students giving up their own time (which we have been using less of) for their own revision.
Even after the results came in, and they were our best ever results with a cohort that were far from being our best ever (behaviourally and academically, but they had a je ne sais quoi about them for sure), I was still reluctant to write this post. On the one hand I don’t want to come across as boasting about the results and on the other I have no guarantees for anyone that a ‘less is more’ approach will continue to work wonders for our school or that it will transplant effectively into any other. All I do know is that Canons’ feels like a happier, healthier place for staff and students than many other places I hear about and certainly than the schools described in the Secret Headteacher article. And that IS something I believe to be worth boasting about.
But the most important reason I wrote it was for the Secret Headteacher, whose wellbeing, health and happiness seem to be suffering…
…and who talks about their “terrified teachers”. Whoever you are, if you manage to read this I hope you are not too cross with me for writing this post. It is written with the best intentions. You have the solutions to your own problems. They were the things that stood out proudest in your article. You have the support of your governors, so use it and be the kind of Head you clearly want to be, not the one you feel forced to be. Pick up your umbrella and invite your colleagues under it with you. Maybe, just maybe, your results will be more predictable as a result but even if they’re not, at least you’ll know you looked after people along the way.