At the excellent Summit organised recently by the Headteachers’ Round Table I was delighted to be asked to speak about this topic and highlight the barriers that needed to be overcome. Here is an account of the main points I made:

From the very outset I have been a strong supporter of the creation of a professional body and was delighted to learn of the appointment of Alison Peacock as their Chief Executive ably supported by a well-qualified set of trustees drawn from a field of serving professionals.

There are many reasons why I think the creation of this body is so important but here are some:

Our profession needs a voice. At present there is a cacophony largely dominated by those who shout loudest. Whilst there are many reasonable and representative voices many are neither.
  • Sadly our wonderful vocation too often has a terrible press fuelled by a habit loved by media, some policymakers and sadly some of our own colleagues of airing our dirty washing in public rather than engaging in constructive discussion about how we can improve further in the full and honest recognition that there will always be more to do.
  • Our profession needs to seize hold of the agenda and use its experience and expertise to drive forward out education system and not be dependent on government.
  • We need to re- and upskill our profession.
  • We need a long term memory as opposed to one which forgets what has been achieved to date every time we have a change of Secretary of State or Government. Take ‘character’ for example which has disappeared off the face of the earth following Nicky Morgan’s departure.
  • We need to value experience and draw on this to shape policy.
  • We need clear career routes, succession plans etc.
  • We need to set standards which are professional ones, separate from accountability to government.
  • We need to modernise professional development.
  • We need policy and practice which is evidence based. Too much has been based on opinion.
  • Our profession needs to adapt to a changing world. You know what they say about doing
  • what you always did……..

But there are significant barriers to such an ambitious vision which we need to overcome. Here are eight:
  1. The College might be seen as a threat by some organisations who have a legitimate representative voice. The way to overcome this is via dialogue. The College must be inclusive and must not try to do what is the legitimate role of others. I do not believe that it needs to be a threat.
  2. We have a deeply divided profession at present. This is partly geographical with so much of policy driven and informed by London and partly by the very polarised debates that sometimes take place. There are also many interest groups who need to contribute to discussion but not dominate the outcomes. The College must be a broad church which listens to, engages with and respects all informed points of view.
  3. The College must be seen as neutral and independent of government. This is a big sensitivity with current levels of funding. Of course it is to be welcomed that the government has helped the College to be established but it must step back and let go of professional issues such as national standards, leadership development etc. The College might have to decline offers of ‘help’ and will certainly need to avoid bidding for government ‘pots’ which always, understandably, have strings attached. By demonstrating integrity and impact the College must earn the trust of governments and remove the need for them so intervene but it will need to be robust when education is used as a political football. Governments in return must listen to the College as a respected independent stakeholder.
  4. The cost of membership is potentially the elephant in the room. It would simply be the wrong time to aim for compulsory membership when teachers have experienced pay cuts for a number of years and payment from school budgets would be unrealistic at this time. Ultimately the College will need to be self-sustaining but the step towards achieving that is by making is so valuable for the profession that they want to be a part of it. This will need a carefully thought out strategy.
  5. Many people still remember the GTCE. It will be essential to convince people that the world has moved on and this is a different organisation..
  6. The College must avoid the risk of mission creep and resist it strongly. It needs to start small with a clear focus on a sharp and clearly defined mission.
  7. Nevertheless there is a risk of disenfranchising the other committed professionals who work in schools. The College must be seen as inclusive and supportive to all of those.
  8. There is a risk that people will not appreciate the advantages of joining. In everything I have heard nobody underestimates this and we must all work together to promote the benefits which are immense.

At the end of the day we have everything to gain:

If we get this right

We can create a professionalism which goes beyond the electoral cycle, goes beyond self-interest, and raises the status of profession to where it should be.

Our aims must be to achieve:

Intrinsic motivation, ownership, autonomy and independence underpinned by clear, principled professional standards.

Within that clear focus I hope that the College will lead the development of:
  • A clear professional career structure with routes for development and learning through teaching, leadership and specialist strands
  • A professional development structure and entitlement starting with initial teacher education and going through every stage of teachers’ careers.
  • An authoritative, independent voice about professional issues based on experience, professional knowledge and academic evidence.

All of this is an opportunity far too valuable to miss. I wish Alison and the trustees every success.
The announcement that the National Teaching Service is to be discontinued is deeply depressing but not surprising.

Recognising the imperative of helping schools in challenging areas to attract the best teachers and leaders I and many others welcomed the need to provide support for these schools and therefore tried hard to help shape this policy as it was being developed.
Although the intention behind it was worthy alarm bells rang from the outset.

I remember sitting at a round table discussion in the plush environment of a Number 10 round table warning about the following pitfalls:
that this was not about attaching schools with the greatest challenge to ‘outstanding schools’ with completely different contexts;
that this was not a problem that could be sorted with any quick fix or by parachuting in bright young things from another part of the country for two years;
that any initiative had to be part of a coherent multi agency approach to the complex social and economic problems that affect these schools.
That moving excellent teachers and leaders into these schools needed to be part of a carefully planned career route.
Above all many of us warned about the risk of a message to these schools that the people who were working there were all failing and needed to be shown what to do or discarded.
Unfortunately we were largely ignored.

I currently spend time in numerous schools including many in areas of high disadvantage facing enormous challenges. I am one of the few external visitors who are not there to judge or assess them Consequently staff can speak openly to me about what is and isn’t going well.

Wherever I go I meet staff who care deeply about doing everything they can for the children in their schools. They baulk at the idea that the context in which they operate should be an excuse for lowering of expectations and work incredibly hard to compensate for these things. They know that their staff need and deserve the highest quality of leadership by compassionate, caring individuals who trust and value them and will do their very best to assist them in the difficult job they do. Where schools have the capacity and skills in their teams to provide that, the schools work miracles but capacity is the key issue that needs to be written large. Often they just cannot fill vacancies with suitable staff.

In its response to the BBC report of this news the DFE recognised that there were lessons to learn.

Here are my suggestions about what needs to happen:
When one of these schools is judged to be underperforming a detailed review by experienced professionals should be commissioned in order to understand the issues. It is simply not acceptable to base strategic decisions on a brief inspection or simplistic desk analysis of data.
That review should be undertaken with and not done to the leaders and governors.
It should start from a no blame standpoint and not automatically assume that the cause of the problem is failings in leadership. If that turns out to be the case it can be addressed at the next stage.
The outcome of this review should be a detailed and resourced short, medium and long term plan to address the identified issues. This plan must be tailored to the individual needs of the school and the wider community rather than resorting to a default solution which may not be suitable.

From my experience key issues to address will be the following:
Many of these schools need an injection of additional leadership capacity at various levels. Replacing experienced people may not be the answer but they may need additional help. Staff in many of these schools are rushed off their feet. Most do not have the luxury of the levels of funding and support enjoyed in many London schools. The appointment with appropriate support of additional senior and middle leader to concentrate specifically over a significant period on a key issue can make a massive difference. Recent funding announcements might help, but I’m afraid the jury is out on that one.
The accountability system must be made fairer. It is too difficult for the strengths in these schools to be recognised within the current systems and KPIs.
There must be an acceptance that these matters are not addressed by quick fixes. The idea that a secondment for one or two years can address them is nonsense.
The school needs to be part of a supportive network with access to people working in similar circumstances who understand the issues. It does not mean that the school needs to be ‘taken over’ by a school in completely different circumstances, nor does it mean that the multi-academy trust might not be an appropriate model in some cases.

Above all however I have left the most significant issue until last. This is about a deep seated culture change in the way governments, ‘opinion formers, parts of the media and sadly some educational professionals speak about, trust and value our schools and the people who work in them.

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s annual report speech rightly highlighted the biggest issue the government has signally failed to address – namely of recruitment. We will only recruit the quantity and calibre of teachers we need when there is culture where working in an area of high deprivation is the pinnacle of the teaching profession and school leadership. It is time for the government to stop listening to those who shout loudest and work with the quiet champions at the front line to achieve this.
Many school leaders and governors have expressed outrage at the Prime Minister's proposal to reintroduce selective education and much has been written expressing why this is such a bad idea. If I was still a headteacher I would be sorely tempted to send a letter like this to the parents of our students:

Dear Parents,

In the context of the Prime Minister’s stated commitment to reintroduce selection into the English school system the Chair of Governors and I are writing to state the position of this school.

We are proud of the fact that we are a non-selective school with a truly comprehensive intake. Our student body is a rich and diverse community.

Our mission and responsibility is to have the highest ambitions for every single child to receive an excellent education, to achieve the best outcomes they can and to experience success. That means providing them with a solid grounding in academic knowledge and basic skills through a rich and broad curriculum offer together with numerous opportunities to develop their interests through our extra-curricular programmes.

Our students will progress into a vast range of different careers , continue to learn and build on their education in many different ways. On that journey some will need more help than others, some will be from more advantaged backgrounds than others. All deserve equal opportunities to access a quality education.

Our children display a vast range of skills and talents as they progress through the school and mature. At the heart of our ethos is the belief that every child has the potential to excel at something and we see it as our duty and privilege to nurture this. Our community is all the richer because of this diversity. We take great pleasure and pride in celebrating these many achievements.

We know that we do not always get everything right but remain committed to doing everything we can so that every child has access to an excellent education. We believe that this should be the right of every child in the country , not just the favoured few and that rather than segregating children governments should be doing everything they can to achieve this.

We absolutely reject the idea that the full potential of any child can be known at the age of ten. All children develop at different rates and it is vitally important that doors are left open for them in order to progress as far as they can.

We abhor the idea of writing children off or segregating them into different schools effectively labelling those who, at the end of their Primary Education have not displayed a particular stage of development. If a selective school were to provide places for a proportion of our intake that would automatically mean that another proportion would be labelled as failures. We would be devastated if your child were labelled in this way and are certain that you would be too.

If you feel there is anything more we can do to give your child the best possible start in life we will, as always, welcome your suggestions. In the meantime we assure that no child will be written off at this school and we would urge you to support us in opposing this policy.

‘The Blunders of our Governments’ by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe[1] is an extraordinary account of a disturbing catalogue of failed policies. It painstakingly describes how successive UK governments have wasted eye-watering sums of money and caused hardship and suffering to countless people with poorly planned and researched policies. A number of well-known figures from the world of policy describe the book as ‘essential reading’ for current and future politicians. Whilst most of the examples are not drawn from education policy any school leader will remember policies which display similarly depressing characteristics.

The latest re-ignition of the grammar school debate by the the group ‘Conservative Voice’ calls for the ban on new grammar schools to be lifted. Extensive evidence from research, all of which demonstrates how damaging such a policy would be for the life chances of hundreds of thousands of young people is being steadfastly ignored.

King and Crewe identify two characteristics of many of the blunders they have identified: ‘Cultural Disconnect’ and ‘Group Think’.

‘Cultural Disconnect’ occurs when politicians and civil servants make assumptions that are radically wrong, ‘projecting onto others values, attitudes and whole ways of life that are not remotely like their own’. Whilst we all do this to some extent they are disastrous when individuals forget to ‘wear their hat’ as professionals.

The second characteristic is ‘Group Think’ – an idea developed by an American psychologist Irving J. Janis during the 60’s. It is defined as ‘when the members of any face to face group feel under pressure to maintain the group’s cohesion’, ‘when the group feels threatened by an outside group or comes, for whatever reason, to regard one or more outside individuals or groups as alien or hostile’. The group then becomes ‘intolerant of dissenting voices and seeks to silence them…. They are ‘increasingly reluctant to engage with outsiders and to seek out information that might run counter to any emerging consensus.’ They are ‘liable to persuade themselves that the majority of their opponents are, if not actually wicked, then at least stupid, misguided and probably self-interested’. I am certain that I will not the only person who is reminded of Michael Gove’s now notorious designation of the ‘blob’ by this description.

It seems to me that both of these features accurately describe what is taking place in the grammar school lobby. As numerous commentators including the National Association of Secondary Moderns have pointed out it is difficult to find anyone who is advocating the reintroduction of them although that is the natural consequence of opening Grammar Schools. This is of course because many advocates of this policy have no knowledge of Secondary Moderns or many of the people who attended them and rarely mix with them. With few exceptions they attended selective schools themselves and would wish the same for their own children. A classic example of ‘cultural disconnect’ and ‘group think’.

The fact of the matter is that the advocates of this policy have not thought out the consequences. and dismiss the mass of evidence that proves them wrong. They fail to see how their proposal contradicts and undermines the commitment of their own Prime Minister and the new Education Secretary of State to social mobility and social justice and the government’s equally important commitment to ‘closing the attainment gap’.

In his outstanding analysis of the outcome of the EU referendum broadcast on 26th June Andrew Marr spoke of our ‘deeply divided country’ [2] in which the ‘liberal urban class’ in London and the South East ‘spoke but didn’t listen’. The emerging ‘group think’ of the proponents of this policy would be well advised to reflect on this before further deepening the divisions in our society.

The reintroduction of grammar schools has all the hallmarks of another policy blunder. Let us hope that the proponents of this policy might reflect on King and Crewe’s analysis before deciding to condemn generations of young people to failure at the age of 11.


1. The Blunders of our Governments Anthony King and Ivor Crewe Oneworld 2013
2. Andrew Marr commentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jE5gsdEeCLI
Brian is delighted to be joining the team of ambassadors providing coaching and leadership team development together with 360 degree and self assessment tools for school leaders. Further details about Leadership Matters can be found here and here is a link to Brian's page which contains video clips and blogs.
Here is a link to my article published in edition 68 of School's Week. The headline in the online version wholly misses the point that ECDL is not a three day qualification but one which can accredit those pupils who do not have other qualifications in ICT with their prior learning giving them something which has currency with employers and internationally and indeed is promoted by our won government's National Careers Service. The article also asks some important questions of relevance to Ofqual's recent correspondence with awarding bodies.