Have you ever sung at the Royal Albert Hall?

I am always pleased when children with SEN come up as a topic for discussion as it did yesterday following Quirky Teacher’s post on segregation. I am still waiting for the day, though, when I hear from a teacher who says in exultant tones that teaching children with learning difficulties has made them a better teacher. Until then I steel myself for deficit narratives, sometimes overt, sometimes implied. This deficit model is fed, in part, by the process of assessment for statements of special educational needs as was (now the Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP)) which lists, sometimes in great detail, everything that the child finds difficult. I have often wondered what my own EHCP would look like – it would make depressing reading for sure.

This deficit narrative, these proxies for SEN, arise time and again. The two main ones I see are:

These children are an unacceptable drain on resources.

Every child is a drain on resources by definition. So what? Start the watch on an INSET day and see how long it takes someone to come out with the wisecrack “This job is so much easier when the kids aren’t here! Eh? Eh?” It’ll be minutes, not hours. The line between what any school can and cannot do is undefinable and is, in large part, drawn by the headteacher. I’ve blogged about that before in Entitlement? Yes. Inclusion? No.

Their behaviour has an unacceptable effect on the other children.

I see SEN and behaviour used interchangeably and erroneously. Do some children with SEN sometimes present with challenging behaviour? Yes. So do all children. The last time I looked 53% of all special schools had an outstanding judgement for behaviour and safety, compared to 32% of all other schools and 27% of all pupil referral units. That’s the same framework remember. Special school exclusion rates are also half that of mainstream schools. Couple that with the fact that all kids in PRUs are there because of their behaviour and last year 25% of the children at my school came to us from secondaries due to their behaviour.

The thing that irks me most about this narrative is the subtext that without these children the lives of the teacher and the other students would be improved. I reject this.

I’m a love the one you’re with kind of bloke. I have unshakeable belief that all kids can do great things with the right teaching, support, care and, as Dave Whitaker would say, love. The things that the children I serve achieve sometimes move me to tears. They have significant difficulties in certain aspects of their life, but that does not mean that they struggle with everything. 10 of our students sang at the Royal Albert Hall this year. Not in some event purely for children with SEN. They were full participants in an opera with professionals and other children from across Surrey. My heart was bursting from my chest that night. I had to politely clap along with the other 6,000 people but I desperately wanted to scream and shout from the rafters about how proud of them I was. Take the young man in Year 10 who has Down syndrome but speaks three languages (Do you? I don’t.); the girl in Year 11 who was a Paralympic torchbearer in 2012 (as well as appearing in a BBC documentary and being interviewed on Japanese TV); the young lady in Year 12 who recently returned from Italy where she won four medals and set a European record at the European Down Syndrome Swimming Championships; the young lady in Year 10 who’s been selected for the GB Down Syndrome Swimming Squad. All impressive, but no more impressive than the 25% of our children who had to leave secondary schools due to their behaviour but have come to love school once more, a place that, at one time, scared the life out of them. For one of our Year 11 students it took FOUR YEARS for us to make him feel safe in school. It takes that long (this is the bit where you tell me to think of the other children) and we pride ourselves on not giving up on kids who have been written off long ago. Their difficulties will not be solved by the end of the week.

Teaching children with complex learning difficulties can make you feel unskilled. To start with it certainly makes you feel scared. This is at the heart of the matter – read Beefy’s response to Quirky Teacher’s post to learn more. Embrace it and it will be the best CPD you will ever have. It took me to teach children with profound and multiple learning difficulties to realise that what I knew about teaching, and behaviour, when I worked in mainstream was a veneer at best. Try teaching a child with multi-sensory impairment (that is to say, deaf and blind) and then you’ll have to begin from first principles. How does this child even know who I am? How do I know if they’ve learned something? How do I assess it? Have they really learnt it if they cannot do it in another class, outside of school or with another person?

My seven-year-old daughter and I were discussing jobs yesterday. Her visual impairment means that some jobs will be closed to her. She spends time with soldiers and police officers and thinks their jobs are cool. I’ve had to tell her that she won’t be able to do those things when she’s older. It breaks my heart to tell her and her disappointment is palpable. The thing that is most upsetting, though, is that she feels a little less human as a result. “There are things I’m not allowed to do. This makes me different from everyone else.” Her impairment is, in the world that I spend my time in, minor and close to being inconsequential. I can only imagine what it’s like for those with complex difficulties. Read Beefy’s response again.

Don’t make the mistake of perpetuating that deficit narrative. Don’t make the Fortune Teller Error – the prediction of failure – that I so often hear.

As Dylan Wiliam has said, “teach the kids in front of you, not the ones you wish you were teaching.



How Reliable is Your Ferrari?

I left university many years ago with two things to my name: an overdraft that I thought was eye-wateringly large (loose change by today’s standards) and an overinflated ego courtesy of the degree certificate I was flourishing. My inability to secure a graduate job (ah, those were the days) soon bought the ego a one-way ticket to Dignitas and off I trooped back to my holiday job with BMW in their warehouse. The slagging I got from the regulars for ending up back there taught me a lesson in humility I’ve never forgotten.

I loved working there. I started work at 2pm, so I could indulge my love of running in the mornings before work. BMW were also a really good employer. They treated their staff really well, but expected a lot in return. Their big focus was quality. In a warehouse full of the thousands of parts that make up the hundreds of models and variants of BMW cars and bikes that there have been over the years, the ability to get the right parts to the right dealers at the right time was critical. Sounds easy. It is when the parts are the size of a 7-Series bonnet, but when you have parts boxes with thousands of washers and shims, miscounting means omission of the smallest of parts halts a service or repair which means unhappy customers.

For a brand as prestigious as BMW I was surprised to learn that the only measure of quality the management were really interested in was reliability. Speed? Price? Sales? Volumes? Nah. High quality and reliable trumped all.

On our noticeboard was the league table of reliability. Who produced it and from what information I cannot now recall, but I still remember who occupied the important positions.

Bottom Three

3 Vauxhall

2 Ford

Dead last Ferrari

Top Three

1 Toyota

2 Honda


Fast forward sixteen years to last term. One of my students was telling me that his mum and dad were driving back from Maranello having collected their new Ferrari from the factory. Soon after I was talking to his mum and she recounted their journey through a torrential rainstorm in northern Italy without the use of the windscreen wipers as the electrical systems in their brand new car had malfunctioned.

When a promoted tweet popped up in my timeline today from Osiris Education advertising Primary Turnaround – A proven process to get to Outstanding in under 2 years. A step-by-step guide to move up an Ofsted grade I couldn’t shake a mental picture of that Ferrari – incredible to look at, great for the ego of the owner but in reality fragile, temperamental and prone to breaking down when the track is anything other than perfectly flat.

Minesweepers – with an apology to John Steinbeck

Day after day the minesweepers go out.

There’s is a low-profile, unglamorous job, but one that is crucial. The limelight, the plaudits, the medals go to the hawk-eyed Spitfire pilots, the square-jawed Commandos, the immaculate guardsmen.

The sailors and officers are all veterans of frigates and destroyers. Not content with traditional naval set-piece warfare, the role of hunter-killer, they have sought out a life of dedication to the vulnerable – troop ships, aircraft carriers, merchant vessels – all dangerously exposed to the unpredictability, power and energy of mines.

The ships work in teams; their job is impossible otherwise. Their roles are clearly defined, but are interchangeable in a heartbeat when things change which, at sea, is an hourly occurrence.

The crew surround themselves with highly technical equipment, measuring magnetic fields and communicating in a high-speed language of dots and dashes impenetrable to all but those in the know.

Despite the wealth of dials, meters and maps the sailors put their trust in the Mark One Eyeball, the feeling in the gut, the hair stood up on the back of the neck. They have learned to read the relief of the sea, the ever-changing undulation of the surface and can instantly tell the difference between an innocent piece of flotsam and a German Hertz horn. That works up to a point. It’s the subsurface mines that they spend most of their time thinking about. Hidden just feet below the surface, but invisible to that trusty Mark One Eyeball. The crew need to muster all of their collective expertise, intuition and courage to stay the plotted course, spot the tell-take blip on the magnetometer and let their lines neutralise the hidden threat. Get the spacing between ships wrong by a few feet and it’s not their lines that detonate the mine, it’s the ship.

Patience. Any sailor will tell you that’s the defining characteristic of a crewmate on a minesweeper. They are, of course, wrong. It’s courage. The submariners, the frigates, the corvettes all take the fight to the enemy. The minesweeper is the sacrificial lamb. A lamb who puts itself in harm’s way every day so that others remain safe. A job successfully done is not seen by the ships that sail through its cleared channels. A job half done has the Admirals moaning “We shouldn’t be expected to deal with this kind of thing.” There is the occasional appreciative Captain who knows that the absence of mines in his channel is a major boost to his chances of survival. Perhaps he’s appreciative because his brother commands a minesweeper or because he lost a cousin on a merchant vessel to a moored mine last year. Out of sight, but not out of mind for him.

Clear those channels they do, day after day. No matter how successful their mission, tomorrow will present fresh challenges. The Germans will drift back in the dead of night to resow their deadly seeds. At the end of each mission the crew allow themselves a moment’s collective satisfaction, but this almost immediately evaporates with the certain knowledge that tomorrow requires the same commitment, dedication and diligence. They take that oath once more to do the job that no-one else wants to do.

Walking With Intent

I’ve lived in Little Sandhurst for nine years. It’s a lovely, quiet little place nestled up against Wellington College, Broadmoor Hospital and the Royal Military Academy and surrounded by heathland and woodland that my children love. In that nine years I’ve crossed paths countless times with a young man who also lives in the village. He is very distinctive – ginger hair, glasses, iPod and earphones always in, jeans, hoody. He also has Down syndrome. I estimate that he’s about 25 years old.

Up until today every time I saw this young man, with one exception, he was doing the same thing – walking aimlessly, listening to his music, alone. The one exception was when he was walking with a young lady of a similar age. Every single time I’ve seen him I’ve wondered where he’s walking from, where he’s walking to and what he’s going to do when he gets there. I worry about him. I worry because he is the adult personification of the children at my school. I worry about him because I worry about them. A lot. I worry about what life holds for them once they leave my school and take on life as an adult.

I’ve never spoken to him, although I dearly want to to learn more about him if only his name. Two strangers passing in the street, both walking with intent doesn’t make for a relaxed conversation. I have, though, grabbed hold of him once. Walking home from Crowthorne one day we passed on the footpath on the main road. He politely stepped off the path to let me pass and stepped straight in to the oncoming traffic. I pulled him back on to the path and he proceeded to go about his business as if nothing had happened.

I worried about him that day.

But not today. Today I was jubilant.

I saw him as I was taking my son to his Saturday football match. Ginger hair – check. Glasses – check. iPod and earphones – check. Jeans and hoody – missing. In their place an unmistakable uniform. This young man was off to work. Smart shoes. Trousers. Shirt. Tie. His usual aimless cadence was replaced by a purposeful stride as he had a place to be by a certain time.

He gave me hope. Hope that the children in my school find employers that recognise their great strengths, that allow them to use the skills and knowledge that we spend years working on with them in lessons, in our college programme, in our vocational programme and in our work experience programme.

People with learning difficulties are far less likely to be working than the rest of us. Mencap says they are seven times less likely and if they do work it will most likely be part-time and poorly paid. All sorts of other social issues flow from this underemployment and unemployment.

These statistics give my exceptional colleagues a very sharp focus for their work. They do everything they can to give our students the best possible chance out there. That gradient didn’t get any shallower today, but my commitment to doing everything I can to improve the prospects for our children was given a boost.

He’s not walking aimlessly anymore. He’s walking with intent and I couldn’t be happier for him.

Headteachers’ Roundtable Meeting with Sean Harford

Today members of the Headteachers’ Roundtable met with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director for Schools, to discuss the newest evolution of their inspection framework due to go live in September 2015.

As always I wanted to ensure representation from the special school sector and wanted to seek some clarification from Sean on some elements of the framework that affect special schools specifically or disproportionately.

89% of all special schools are either good or better which means that the overwhelming majority will be subject to the new section 8 inspections – that is to say, a one day, HMI-led inspection. One key difference between mainstream schools and special schools and PRUs is when the school is notified that it is to be inspected (paras 67 and 68, p19 of the School Inspection Handbook – section 8). Mainstream schools will be called on or around midday the day before the short inspection as per the current protocol. For special schools and PRUs “Ofsted will normally contact the provider by telephone to announce the short inspection at, or just after, 9.00am on the working day before the short inspection. This is to allow the lead inspector time to assess the specific contextual factors for the short inspection, including the number of sites in use and the specific nature of the pupils’ needs. Following the notification call, the lead inspector will conduct an on-site face-to-face preparation meeting with the leaders from midday onwards.”

There has been some concern since publication that this on-site meeting will be used to scrutinise data and to me it is clear that this would then become the de facto start of the inspection. Sean advised that this is set aside if there is a need to plan an inspection of a PRU or special school that has a number of sites, therefore making it difficult for one HMI to inspect thoroughly. If your provision is single site and straightforward the HMI may not feel the need to attend in the afternoon of that day at all.

Sean was rightly keen to point out that use of alternative providers and multi-site provision is of interest to Ofsted in terms of the school’s responsibility to keep its students safe. I put it to him that, although my school is single site, I may well have Years 11 and 14 out on work experience, for example, and Years 10 and 13 at an FE college on a particular day. This may, in his view, be something that an HMI may want to visit on that afternoon before arriving on site the following morning.

To be clear, if there is to be an afternoon meeting it will be to plan a multi-site inspection and will not be a meeting to scrutinise information about student progress.

The second question I had for Sean related to para 178 of the School Inspection Handbook: “Inspectors will consider the progress of disabled pupils and those with special educational needs in relation to the progress of pupils nationally with similar starting points.” Special school Headteachers all have different tales to tell of individual inspectors’ opinions about national benchmarks to use. “We don’t accept CASPA at all.” “CASPA is fine, but only when used alongside Progression Guidance datasets.” “CASPA is fine along as you only use age and prior attainment and don’t filter for individual types of need.”

I asked for some clarification as to how prescriptive Ofsted were going to be on the use of information relating to national benchmarks to avoid just such differences of opinion in the future. As part of a wider answer about how schools should embrace this opportunity of the abolition of levels to build their own robust systems (he’s right, by the way) Sean said that Ofsted deliberately avoided naming a specific dataset or benchmark. Use what you want but have a clear rationale for doing so, strong evidence to back up your judgements and ensure you’re judgements are externally moderated.

Thanks to Sean for putting the time aside to meet Headteachers’ Roundtable this afternoon.

The Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, never knowingly understated, this week pronounced headteacher recruitment to be “shambolic”.

My own experiences of this, both dim and distant and much more recent, certainly back this up. I’ve been part of the selection process for the recruitment of three headteachers and have been through the process once myself. In each case, especially in the case of my own recruitment, the process felt like a formulaic How to Recruit a Headteacher in Ten Easy Steps that had been downloaded from the internet with no deep thought as to what the school needed.

Four recruitment rounds. Four times where the ability to talk like a management textbook and dress like Gordon Gekko paid off.

So, Jarlath, what animal best describes your leadership style?” “Well, Bob, I’m a giraffe. I see everything, but I have my feet firmly on the ground.” For pity’s sake.

Knowing the type of leader a school needs at any particular time is far from easy and this is why mistakes are made. In my own school and in others the consequences to the organisation and to its people can be significant and I’ve written about that elsewhere in Part of the Furniture.

Sir Michael talks about spotting talent early. In the early days of my teaching career I was sceptical about the ability to spot future leaders. My first headteacher, the very supportive and encouraging John Goulborn, told me that I’d be a headteacher one day; a prediction that I swiftly dismissed.  This dismissal was backed up by the Fast Track (remember that?) assessors who rejected my application to go on the programme by telling me that I had no clear skills as a leader and that my thinking was pedestrian.

Fast forward to yesterday. I received an e-mail from my colleague who sat in on the assessor’s final feedback meeting with our colleague who is finishing the School Direct programme. To the surprise of absolutely no-one she passed with flying colours. I remember the feedback I received from her interviewer a year ago for a place on the programme, “She’ll have your job in ten years’ time.

One of my main roles is to grow the leadership talent in my school as well as I can. This is not always easy in a small school as opportunities are inevitably limited. This is why I will lose an exceptional colleague at the end of next week. She’s keen to progress and I am unable to meet that need. I am glad, though, that she will go out and change the world in another school and I know that it’s not the last that I will see of her.

I was also fortunate to spend yesterday with my colleagues in the Headteachers’ Roundtable. This is the single most impressive collection of leaders that I have the privilege of spending my time with. They would all undoubtedly score very highly on those rubbish recruitment tasks that I had to endure, and there is a complete absence of inane management speak amongst this group. So, what differentiates them and the best leaders out there from the crowd? They have three things in common and in abundance: brains, heart and balls. Plenty of leaders score highly on two of those key attributes, but only truly great leaders max out on all three. If you’re spotting future leaders or recruiting for a headteacher that’s what you need to look for.

Knifes, Hooves and Rooves

A chance encounter last week with one of the teachers who taught me when I was a teenager set me on one of my regular reminiscences about my own experiences of schooling in the 1980s. I am prone to do this on occasion and when I do it is the same dozen or so encounters that spring to mind.

I sometimes feel that it is only I and John Tomsett who hold the view that schools today are in far better shape than those of generations past. I went to a secondary school that would, in today’s climate, undoubtedly have been in special measures (indeed, it has been at least once since Ofsted’s inception). Despite that I enjoyed being taught by some exceptional teachers, but this was countered by ultra-marathons of mediocrity (including my own) that would have tested the superhuman endurance of Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

What strikes me about my memories (and I’m aware that time embellishes them) is that each of the teachers involved will not have given the encounter a second thought since. Yet, they have stayed with me as distinct, sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful memories that have undoubtedly influenced the kind of person, and teacher, I subsequently became. The memories that spring to mind are not the best experiences I ever had at school, nor are they the worst. The fact that these may be considered inconsequential to many highlights just how influential we are as teachers whether we like it or not.

GCSE results day – My PE teacher, Peter Rayman, gives me a firm handshake, a big smile, a manhug and a “Bloody well done,” as he tells me that I got an A (nestled in amongst an otherwise decidedly average set of results). As soon as he tells me I recall that my Head of House had tried to talk me out of choosing PE during my options interview. Peter was an exceptional teacher and still works locally with responsibility for inclusion. Coincidence? I think not.

A-Level physicsGavin Jennings goes out of his way to get me his old textbooks from his time studying physics at university. Gavin is now Head of Physics at Auckland Grammar School in New Zealand and I give him considerable credit for my success in reading physics at university.

Year 8, EnglishChris England invites me and two other class members to be part of the school magazine. I am elated and carried along by his encouragement, so much so that I develop a love of writing that I had, until that point, never had and that I still have to this day.

Year 8, maths – Martin Rudland asks me to solve a maths problem that seems intractable to him. The inter-house x-country results don’t make sense to him. How is it possible to win by scoring the least number of points? He asks me to have a go and I explain to him that you score the number of points equivalent to your position – the winner scoring one point, the runner-up two, etc. The team with the lowest score wins. He is mightily impressed. It is obvious to me now that Mr Rudland, the stereotypical eccentric maths teacher, knew perfectly well how the scoring system worked – he handed out the place discs as we crossed the line – but the tactic worked beautifully at the time.

Sixth Form – I am developing a keen interest in Irish history and am going through a phase of reading a lot about various aspects of Irish political history. A tutor (not mine, he was superb) sees me reading The IRA by Tim Pat Coogan, the definitive work on the history of that terrorist group, as I sit with some friends and my brother. She says to me that “anyone reading that kind of rubbish is also a terrorist“.

Year 6, English – My English teacher ridicules me in front of the whole class for wearing a tracksuit. “You look like you’re ready to play a game of football,” the teacher shouts. [It’s worth pointing out that our primary school did not have a uniform and we were free to wear what we liked, apparently.]

Year 6, English – I make many attempts to get off the purple level of the SRA reading scheme and one day I stop trying. I am required to work out the plural of knife, roof and hoof. [Even thinking about doing that now makes me a little nervous.] I fail with alarming regularity, each attempt being treated with disdain by my teacher. So, I simply stop going up to the teacher’s desk (from which she never seemed to move) to show my work.

Year 6, maths – I am tasked with identifying the tenths, hundredths and thousandths of a decimal number in front of the rest of the class. I fail. “Try again.” I fail. “Try again.” I fail. Either out of boredom or pity my teacher puts me out of my misery and gets Elaine, my neighbour, to do it with, it seems to me, perfect ease.

Year 7, art – My teacher calls the register and when they get to my name something tickles them about it. “Jarrrrlath,” the teacher growls. It gets repeated, the growling sound becoming more elongated each time and the laughter of my classmates and my own blushes grow in proportion to the length of the growl.

Year 11, English – My teacher has been very encouraging over the course of my GCSE, fostering my interests in Twain and Asimov. She asks a group of us to be videoed in the summer holidays for some project. I politely decline as my shyness makes me reluctant to be videoed. She sends me out of the lesson where she unleashes an anger I’ve never seen before. Despite being 16 and a foot taller than her I am so upset that I lose control of my bladder for a short time. My plan to do A-Level English evaporates in an instant.

PGCE – I know I’m not strictly at school any more, but this memory always pops up. I return for my second placement at a school where I spent the first half-term of my PGCE. I am greeted in the Science Department faculty room with “Oh, we’re surprised you’re back. We didn’t think you would make it,” from my subject tutor.

Leverkusen, Germany (1987) – The reel of positive and negative memories that run through my mind are always punctuated by one bizarre incident. I spent a couple of weeks in a German gesamtschule, existing in a state of blissful ignorance as to what was happening around me, but enjoying it immensely.  Mario, my host, Stefan (who spiked his hair up with beer, THE definition of cool to a 12 year old) and I were in English and I asked the teacher if I could go to the toilet. “Sure, but if you like you can p*** out of ze vindow.

We attach great importance to the set piece interactions that we have with students, but if my experiences are anything to go by, it may be, to continue the sporting analogy, the broken play interactions that are the most formative.

What formative memories will endure long after your formal relationships with your students are over?