Points about prizes

I have been thinking hard about values and ethos recently. It’s probably to do with being on NPQH where every other slide on every PowerPoint is about your values and vision, but my thoughts were also prompted by Joe Kirby’s recent blog series on rewards which begins with the Lewis Carroll quotation:

“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”

Image via Wikimedia commons

I remember David Cameron using this same quotation post-Olympics as he laid out his vision for the future of a Conservative-led Britain in the pages of the Daily Mail:

“In schools, there will be no more excuses for failure; no more soft exams and soft discipline. We saw that change in the exam results this year. When the grades went down a predictable cry went up: that we were hurting the prospects of these children.
To that we must be very clear: what hurts them is dumbing down their education so that their potential is never reached and no one wants to employ them. ‘All must have prizes’ is not just patronising, it is cruel – and with us it is over.”

Roger Bannister reaps the benefits of competition

Roger Bannister reaps the benefits of competition

I find this difficult, because I’m caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, I’m a fan of competition. I know that it can spur people on to achieve bigger and better things. I’ve been listening with interest to the documentaries commemorating the first four-minute mile, run by Roger Bannister on 5th May 1954. Most commentators, and Bannister himself, agree that competition from Australian John Landy pushed him on to achieve that feat. Kennedy’s drive a decade later to put a man on the moon was driven more by competition with the Soviet Union than scientific advance.

Man on the moon: the space race was driven by competition

I’m also a fan of competitive sport, both as a spectacle and as an integral part of schooling within and beyond the curriculum. Despite all of this, I can’t help feeling uneasy at the notion of awarding prizes to the single best performer in a discipline.

I’m certain this unease has its roots in my own experience; schooling is formative for all of us. But unlike Michael Gove, I am not driven to emulate my own schooling for the students in my care. My school (all boys, independent – read about it here) was competitive in every respect from the entrance exam to the end-of-year prize-giving; all very well if you were the single person that won. Which, after the first year, I was – I won the subject prizes for English and Biology and went up to shake the Headmaster’s hand the day after the great storm of 1987.  From that point forward, I measured myself against the success of others, constantly looking over my shoulder at the competition – the epitome of a fixed mindset. It’s no wonder that Carol Dweck’s story about being sat around the room in IQ order in sixth grade strikes such a chord with me! In the Sixth Form, when the school prizes were awarded, I came second in English. And I was gutted.

The competition

Let’s put this in context. I had a place to read English at Oxford; I got an A at A-Level and a 1 in S-Level English – and I was disappointed. Because there was someone better than me. It turns out the teachers were probably right, since the prize was awarded to my contemporary and all-round lovely bloke Andrew Miller, who went on to write the Man Booker nominated Snowdrops (heartily recommended by the way – a fantastic novel). I should have been proud of my achievements, but I wasn’t, and this was entirely due to the competitive ethos of my school where only one person could feel truly proud of what they had achieved – the winner.

I have no doubt that Cameron, Gove et al would nod at this and say “quite right.” In a true meritocracy, I wasn’t good enough. Perhaps they might even say that without the competitive ethos I would not have achieved as highly as I did. But I can’t accept that. In a growth mindset we should be measuring performance against our own yardstick, aiming to better our own personal best irrespective of the performance of others. This is the message I teach in my classes, the ethos I want for my school, and the frame of reference I set myself.

Are prefects compatible with an egalitarian ethos?

Are prefects compatible with an egalitarian ethos?

The same idea permeates my attitude to prefects and student hierarchy. My school had three levels – house prefects (bronze badge), sub-prefects (silver badge), and prefects (gold badge). As I’ve said, it was an independent boys’ school, so what do you expect? I was a sub-prefect but was never nominated as a prefect – I still don’t know why. The criteria weren’t published. I was certainly never in trouble, I was academically successful, I had 100% attendance throughout my school career. I wasn’t sporty; was that it? Maybe I wasn’t high-profile enough. Maybe there was a quota which had already been filled. My point is this – I had done my best throughout my schooling, and I was left disenchanted. A good student, passed over, left resentful and irritated, feeling second-best when there was no need! That’s why I strive in my classes to recognise the achievements of every single student, not to pass over any of them, and to celebrate each of them.

I wish I’d gone to the school I teach at now. There are no prefects, no Head Boy or Head Girl with their own offices and privileges putting them a cut above. The thriving school council, branded Change & Create, is comprised of self-generated student-led teams engaged in projects such as fundraising, Amnesty International, caring for the chickens, gardening, regenerating the pond and memorial garden, caring for wildlife, raising awareness of mental health issues… If a student wants to be part of it, they step up and join or form a project team. This way the community of the school pulls together towards common aims without the interference of hierarchy or external judgement. It is growth mindset in action.

And yet…we still have prizes. Each year the highest performing student in each subject discipline receives an award. Every school I’ve ever worked in has had them. And, for the winners, they’re great. The public recognition of achievement is powerful and important. We temper it slightly with awards for “most progress” and “best effort” alongside the achievement awards, which I think helps. And thankfully, we don’t have the situation which prevailed in a previous school where students were only permitted to receive one prize, which led to the bizarre situation of having my Media Studies nominees returned because they’d already been nominated in Art or Chemistry or something, so the second best media student would get the prize…and the senior leader in charge would not be budged. Insane!

Prizes can make us part of a shared community history

Prizes can make us part of a shared community history

The prizes themselves bring something else, however – a story. They’re named after an ex-teacher, ex-student, or member of the school community who wanted to put their name to an award. Some of them stretch back decades, some are more recent. Every year, as the story behind the award is read out, I get a lump in my throat: “this award is in memory of…a servant of the school for thirty years…” The names of the recipients are recorded, and it connects us to a shared community history that helps make the school more than a set of buildings and a seat of learning. I love this part of the prize-giving ceremony. I just wish there was a prize to recognise and reward the efforts of all our learners for the victories, achievements and triumphs they have celebrated on their journey with us.


What I learned from #SLTeachMeet


A week ago I travelled down to London to #SLTeachmeet. Expertly hosted by Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit) and Stephen Lockyer (@mrlockyer) the event was exactly the “rocket-fuelled CPD” I’d been promised. Tweeting through the event forced me to crystallise my thinking about the presentations, and I took advantage of the train journey home to put the highlights into Evernote. As part of each CPD event I go on I have to feed back what I have learned to relevant staff. This is the first time I have done this in a blog, and I have only included a small selection, but here goes…

Leadership is letting go

Plantation vs Rainforest Thinking

Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) and James Heale (@Heale2011) both expressed this key idea. In his “Plantation vs Rainforest Thinking” opener, Tom Sherrington outlined the benefits from thinking about schools as the latter, rather than the former. The temptation to make everything uniform, have a standard set planning format, a standard set teaching and learning strategy, and a standard set technology package, is clearly overwhelming for school leaders. Instead, Tom argued, school leaders should set the standard and expectations and have the confidence in their middle leaders and teachers to find their own way, holding them to account for the outcomes but allowing the autonomy to plan their own methods. This method of fostering innovative practice and “taking the lid off learning” was really engaging and was underlined by James Heale in his reflections on his first year (so far) in Headship when he said “tighten up to become good; loosen up to become outstanding.” That’s so good, it should be on a poster.

It’s your job to catch people doing the right thing

situational-leadership-2In his presentation on Situational Leadership Sapuran Gill (@ssgill76) made this really important point. In the current climate more than ever, where school leaders are urged to challenge under-performance, raise aspirations, and be the friends of promise, it is our responsibility to catch those we lead doing the right thing, recognise it, and celebrate it. It struck me that this is true as much in the classroom as the staffroom. I’m getting badges made.

Don’t think about what they can’t do – think about what they can do


Judith Enright (@judeenright) was passionate and moving in her presentation about SEN. She reminded me of the importance of inclusion not as an after thought, but as something at the very core of what education and leadership is about. Her acronym “LeNS IF” (Leadership, Needs, Staffing, Impact, Finance) is a tool I am already applying not just to SEN but to all school development priorities. Jude also provided a helpful and timely reminder about the changing national and local context for SEN which, in the midst of all the other seismic educational changes, must not get lost.

Digital Learning – it’s the future! (and the present…)

I was really looking forward to meeting Sarah Findlater (@MsFindlater) as a fan of her blog and on-the-money #SLTchat contributions over the weeks. She didn’t disappoint, with an engaging presentation on the power of digital learning. Sarah outlined her own journey from digital novice to edublogging royalty (she was quite modest about it!) and ran out of time to talk about the many tools and sites she is experimenting with, but helpfully tweeted them out afterwards:

I have a similar list at the back of my school’s “Teacher’s Toolkit” and it’s great to be reminded of the resources that are out there to transform learning, and the need to continue to explore, experiment with and evaluate new digital resources. I still hanker after trying Edutronic‘s bold “replace exercise books with blogs” strategy, which is working to an extent with A-Level Media Studies. One day!

Education for social responsibility

Given my anti-independent school tirades in the past (see The Past Feeds the Present and The Universal Panacea) I was very pleasantly surprised to hear Neil Jones (@neiljones) speaking about Education for Social Responsibility. Anyone speaking on behalf of the Independent Association of Prep Schools was going to have a hard time winning me over, but win me over he did with a compelling vision for the overarching purpose of education. This, coupled with John Tomsett’s thought-provoking blog on bridging the independent and state sector divide and the role some independent schools are playing as academy sponsors is continuing to provide me with much food for thought on a subject which is very close to my heart.

Engaging with parents – a letter of hope


The biggest “lump in the throat” moment came from James Heale (again!) as he explained a strategy he’d introduced in his first year as a Headteacher to help raise aspirations and focus his Year 11 on the task ahead. He asked all parents to write a hand written letter to their son or daughter explaining their hopes and aspirations for them over the coming year. So simple. So incredibly powerful I got choked up just thinking about the potential emotional and motivational content of the experience. I went straight back to school and told my Head about it! Of course I also thought about the drawbacks – what about those students whose parents don’t write them a letter? Is there a danger of aggravating strained relationships and causing damage by intruding into the family unit? I think the good it could do is immense and I’ll certainly be exploring it further.

It’s the best job in the world

One thing became absolutely clear through the evening. I heard from James Heale in his first year in Headship and Kenny Frederick (@kennygfrederick) about to retire after seventeen eventful years in post. I heard from deputies, assistants and serving Headteachers. I spoke to primary and secondary colleagues from the West Midlands, East Anglia and across the South of the country. There was an unwavering certainty in every person I spoke to that we can make a difference. At a time when there are more reasons that ever to be downhearted, glum or pessimistic about education in Britain, this was a room full of school leaders who weren’t moaning or complaining, but looking forwards and upwards with positivity and enthusiasm about what could be achieved, not what the barriers were. As the event programme stated, the attendees at #SLTeachmeet work with over 40,000 students and over 2,800 teachers. I walked back to the station through the rainy London streets feeling reassured, hopeful and optimistic for the profession that I love.

The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime is the demolition of private schooling.

Let me explain. I don’t just mean the existence of schools that you have to pay to attend. I also mean the social prejudice that believes a private school education is somehow superior to a state one. This is one of the many prejudices, it seems to me, upon which Michael Gove is modelling his reforms to the state education system: the curriculum reform heralded by the English Baccalaureate and subsequent EBCs emulates the perceived curriculum of preference for independent schools; the obsession with testing and examination does the same. If we are truly to continue to provide a world-class education for our children, this shall not pass.

Let’s start with the practicalities. My proposal is the nationalisation of all private schools. Bring all of the 25,245 schools in England into the state sector, and run them properly so every family has a great, local, state-funded school.

Here is some very dubious maths: according to this article from April 2012, 505,000 children are in private schools. Their parents are paying an average of £3903 per term at day schools and £8780 at boarding schools. I don’t know what the proportion of day to boarding is, but let’s say that’s an average of £19,000 a year (they mean old terms, right? a three term year?). 505,000 children paying £19,000 per annum means £9,607,372,500 being paid for a service which is free at the point of use in this country. Nine point six billion pounds. I realise that there are massive flaws in the calculations I’ve just done, but I’m really not worried about the figures, only the point that half a million children’s parents are paying for a service that they could be getting for free. Why is this? And what is the impact on the education system in this country?

The main reasons given for “opting out” of the state sector are:

  • Independent schools can offer better sports and extra-curricular opportunities
  • Behaviour is better / discipline is stronger
  • Private schools get better results
  • Private schools are better able to cater for my child’s needs

The reasons more rarely given but perhaps most powerful are:

  • Going to an independent school confers a social advantage on my child
  • They’ll mix with the right sort of people at a private school

Enough has been written about the hegemony of the independently educated. It is the poison of social division that I think my panacea will treat. John O’Farrell wrote brilliantly in the Guardian last summer about why he sent his children to his local state school, Lambeth Academy:

My kids rubbed along with classmates of all races and classes. They know the other people in their community, they are not frightened when they walk down the high street after dark, they have gained an understanding of how society works that you could never get in an institution from which most of society is excluded.

I know exactly what he means. I was privately educated and had no idea about the real world until I started teaching – you can read all about that in my post The Past Feeds The Present. Until we have a properly comprehensive system where children from all social backgrounds are educated together, ignorance will breed social division. We can’t blame David Cameron, George Osborne and the like for not understanding what it’s like to live in an inner city – they have never had the opportunity to coexist with people who do.

I have been really inspired by a fantastic post by Emma Mulqueeny called “Are the school fees worth it?” – I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading it for yourself, but I do want to refer you to her superb “Myth Busting” section at the very end of it which addresses many of my bullet points above. She put her children into private school, transferred them to state school, and honestly and insightfully compares the two. She highlights the kinds of problems that having an independent sector in education creates for parents who just want the best for their children. Read it.

We all want what’s best for our children. What’s best for our children is not educating them in a social vacuum. Putting children into independent schools is like putting them voluntarily into a bell jar and sucking out the air so the real world continues all around them but they can’t hear it, can’t touch it, can’t feel it – it all seems so distant and unreal.

To say that standards of behaviour and attainment are better in private schools is a spurious argument. Children from advantaged backgrounds go to private schools, so of course they behave better and achieve academically; they come from families who invest in education. Children whose parents make an investment of time, care and attention instead of money and send their children to state schools provide them with a similarly advantaged background and – guess what? – their children also behave well and achieve highly.

There is also a misapprehension that “comprehensive” means “the same for everyone”. As anyone who works in a good comprehensive knows, education is tailored to the most and least able on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis throughout the land. Educational needs are met. The brightest are stretched. The most troubled supported. All for free. It’s no wonder that we already have the sixth best education system in the world.

So, what would be the benefits of my fully nationalised education system? Social harmony. Greater understanding between people of all backgrounds. Fairer distribution of funding, facilities, and opportunities. Maybe, just maybe, we could have the best education system in the world .

Of course, at the moment, that honour belongs to Finland. Finland has a completely nationalised education system. Students don’t sit any compulsory exams until they are at least 17. There are no inspections. There are no such things as school league tables – instead, investment is made in local schools to ensure consistency of quality. Adam Lopez summarises: “Finland’s Ministry of Education’s philosophy has been to trust the professionals, parents and communities to guide their own policy.”

In Finland teaching is one of the most respected professions. In Finland, local schools are fully autonomous with the freedom to implement the curriculum that best suits their context. That sounds like an independent school I’d want to work at.

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here: http://share.edutronic.net/

UPDATE: Emma has helpfully gathered all her “Myth Busting” points into one new post: Myth-busting State Schools vs Private Schools. Go!

The Past feeds the Present

I went to a private school from the age of 11 until I was 18. It was an elitist, high-performing boys school. I remember sitting the entrance exam, driving up to the school with my friend Simon, testing each other on capital cities of countries around the world. This didn’t come up in the exam, but we knew a lot of them. I got a bursary to attend the school; every year my academic performance was monitored to make sure I was still eligible to receive this money. If I hadn’t met the standard, my parents could no longer have afforded to send me.

Looking back on this now with adult eyes, that seems like a lot of pressure to put on a child, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. In reality, I had no concept of the financial and political decisions behind my education. I went to school. I worked hard. I made friends. I did well. That was all.  However, the decision even to send me for the entrance exam resonates through my life to this day and has guided every step of my career.

In the sixth form I applied to read English at New College, Oxford. The system is different now, but back then Oxford set its own entrance exams which you would sit in your school. If you passed those, you were invited for interview, and if you passed that you were given a nominal offer (two E grades, in my case) for the purposes of UCAS. I was put in a special class to coach me for the entrance exam, given mock-interview practice and guidance from Oxbridge graduates on the staff as the tried-and-tested programme at my school picked me up. Again, even as a 17-year-old, I didn’t question this. My school was the only secondary school I had ever known; I naively had no idea that other schools were any different. I got in.

The formative moments came after Oxford as I studied for my PGCE at Nottingham University. The highly astute and perceptive tutor Chris Hall (to whom I owe an enormous debt) recognised that sheltered naivety in me, and sent me for my teaching practice to a school in the north of Nottinghamshire in a very deprived area, where there was no school uniform, where teachers were called by their first names, and where open-plan classroom spaces merged into one another. I think she thought that it would make me or break me. It made me.

I was appointed at Sutton Centre (now an Academy with blazers) as an NQT after my teaching practice and spent three years in the amazing English and Drama department there. The experience shaped my adult self. I know this is supposed to happen at university, but Oxford hadn’t provided that for me. I knew a lot about Jane Austen and even more about Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, but I had no idea how people really lived in the real world. Suddenly, I was in a properly comprehensive school for the first time in my life – and I loved it.

During this time, between the ages of 21 and 24, I was forced to reassess my past. I would often conceal the fact that I was an Oxford graduate, as it generated prejudices in people I met which caused me to be ashamed of what I thought were unfair advantages in my own background. I went through a period of resentment about my own education, which boiled down to this – I like to think that I got into Oxford on merit. That I would have got in anyway, no matter which school I had gone to. But I would never know if this was true.

If I’m honest, I still haven’t resolved this, although am no longer ashamed of admitting where I went to school or university (hence this post!). But what coalesced in me during that formative period from my PGCE to my first promotion was a bedrock philosophy for my career. This philosophy is simple: that no person should have an unfair advantage through education because of the amount of money their family has.

What I realised in Sutton was that state schools provide an education that private schools cannot – a human education which puts children from all backgrounds into one community, together. My education did not do this – I didn’t learn much about the real world until I was in my twenties. And some contemporaries of mine from school and university, not to mention some government ministers, never learn what it’s like to live a different sort of life or come from a different sort of background. They live their lives in a comfortable, homogenous bubble which corrodes the social fabric of our country.

This realisation continues to push me every day to provide a free state education to every pupil for whom I am responsible which is of the highest quality. I want state schools so good that parents, if they are choosing between state and private, would choose the state. I want state schools so good that private schools go out of business and end that poisonous division in our society which leads good parents like mine to think that they can buy increased chances of success for their children.

I know that I won’t change the world. But I will chip away at my little piece of it, making what difference I can.