Some recent columns

Here are some links to articles I have had published recently.

Firstly, my regular column for the TES can be found here. It continues to be the main outlet for my writing.

Here’s a piece I enjoyed writing for The Critic. It seems dated now (doesn’t everything pre-Covid-19?), but the main argument – that the Conservatives are not the close friends of independent schools that is often claimed – holds.

I was asked to write an article for The Copyright Licensing Authority on why teachers should write. You can find it here.

And here is an article I wrote for Odgers on vocational pathways in education.


A time of loss and anticipation

It is that unreal time in schools again. It is a period of loss and anticipation: the academic year is all but done, wrung out and packed away, with its last gasp, its final blazon, being the public examination results coming deep in the otherwise blameless August, reminding all teachers of the struggles and successes of classes now fading from memory with surprising haste.

So many pupils have now departed, leaving classrooms and corridors relatively quiet. Almost overnight, pupils left unaffected by the twin intensities of GCSEs and A levels, roam the school landscapes suddenly liberated, emboldened, free from the stifling presence of their elders. Lessons take on a peculiar tone, being both more relaxed, but intent on being productive, outwardly at least. Teachers used to eye the VHS machine, nervously wondering if any members of SLT, whose teaching commitments have remained unchanged since week one, are on another learning walk; now, those teachers pray that wifi works and that they can find a TED talk, or that documentary by Melvyn Bragg on YouTube.

There is a looking-forward-to as well. The organised, conscientious teachers begin to plan classes, order books and files, write schemes of works, sort out their classrooms. They might even start thinking about books they should read, or at least start consulting lists posted online. Others stare at them with a growing sense of alarm, preferring sometimes to simply sit, drinking coffee, marvelling at the new gaps on their timetables, blindingly white now, wondering how was it possible, in those long winter days, to do quite so much in one day. In an idle moment they might reflect on that difficult Year 11 class suddenly scattered to the winds, some of them unmissed, to reassemble in different forms in the Sixth Form, and some never to be seen again, statistics that appear in name only when the September inquisitions begin.

What should teachers do with six weeks off work? Ask the general public and some talk jealousy of such a gift of time; others complain about such a period of indolence, aghast that it continues still. Parents of young children have a very different view from those who have no such emotional investment in education: those long summer days stretch out, endless, filled with unaccounted for activities and exhaustion, the juggling of childcare and favours promised. But of course teachers’ holidays have long been eroded by the demands made of an ever-more accountable system, of marking, planning, new specifications to be read. But only those involved in schools know this, or speak about it, most teachers stay quiet, calmly planning to catch up on all the things most people do when working 9am to 5pm, not 7am to 9pm.

For all this, it is a moment of delicious anticipation when, despite all the signs from the past suggesting the opposite, this Summer will be a time of reinvention, of weight loss and knowledge gain, of preparation and recuperation, and it will last for several weeks at least. Perhaps such optimism, which I find in so many teachers, is a defining characteristic of the profession, and long may it remain so: it is sustaining, affirmative, and, above all, well earned.

Reflections on a Summit

On Wednesday 7 June Bryanston held its first Education Summit. Our strapline was: ‘delivering a world class education in turbulent times’. Just how turbulent these times are was driven home the following day when the first results from the general election started to come in. With so much uncertainty affecting so many aspects of this country’s future it seemed particularly important to bring people together to discuss what were the biggest issues facing schools today, and how could they be resolved.

And so we invited some of the most influential speakers working in education to give us their insights, and over 400 delegates arrived to listen, take notes, debate and disagree. Those attending came from all sectors: primary, prep, maintained and fee-paying secondary, and there were representatives from higher education as well. Themes developed over the course of a fascinating day: the role that technology could play was explored by Ian Fordham, Head of Education at Microsoft UK. Award-winning teacher Paul Turner looked at how technology could be used meaningfully in the classroom, and there were other sessions by, among others, Crispin Weston, James Penny and Jane Basnett, which looked at how far technology could shape learning. The answer? Quite a lot, but only if the teachers are fully trained. And that requires investment, of resources, trust … and time.

And time was a theme running through the day. Professor AC Grayling discussed ‘educating the future in the present’, and Martin Robinson explored similar themes arguing for a return to the ‘trivium’ style of teaching which places emphasis on grammar, rhetoric and logic. Russell Speirs discussed the ten biggest educational trends in 2017, and a panel of prep school heads looked at the future of prep schools in a turbulent world with ever-changing priorities (and demographics).

In such uncertain times people often reach out to others, for guidance, and support. And colleagues from maintained schools discussed the nature of partnerships, both within the sector and across independent and state. Sharing, it was felt by many, results in strength, not dilution. But the pressures schools are under was also debated, with one panel of head teachers arguing about whether leading a school at such times is the ‘impossible job’. It was heartening to hear so many school leaders say it remained such a valuable and rewarding job, but the responsibilities are growing, and resources are shrinking.

There was also a strong evidence-based strand running through and across sessions. Experienced teachers and researchers such as Nick Rose (on using memory research in the classroom), Lucy Crehan (on the role that culture plays in creating education superpowers), David Didau (on the research that helps us make kids more academically successful), and, in the final keynote, leading educationalist Professor Dylan Wiliam talked about how we can create the schools our children need (which are different from the ones they actually have). It was stimulating, provocative stuff.

I end where I began: on uncertainty. Now that we know the result of the general election, it seems less likely that we will see a return to grammar schools, but what fills that policy hole? How important will schools be to a government that is struggling to retain a working majority while it is negotiating Brexit? My guess is that schools will slide down the political agenda quite quickly, and that is potentially very serious for the future of our country. On a more positive note, the summit showed what is possible when teachers come together, and share ideas, good practice, and find local solutions to perennial problems. Of course, such things cannot be scaled up to a national level, but perhaps this is the most we can achieve in the immediate future, and indeed this might be enough to ensure our schools still help produce gifted students ready for the 21st century. That is the hope, and until these turbulent times settle down, that might be just enough.




(Just like) Starting over

I was the director of the Sunday Times Wellington College Festival of Education for six years.  In that time it grew from something medium-sized to something very big indeed. There were many reasons for this: it became increasingly well-known, we brought in a professional event management team, and Wellington, under the headship of the charismatic and determined Sir Anthony Seldon, remained totally committed to supporting it.  It also remained true to one of its original ideas: namely, that it would be serious and fun.  I made no apologies for including various Secretaries of State and Katie Price (talking about raising a child with learning difficulties) on the same list of speakers. And if Tinie Tempahfoe_day2-621-690x4_3492471k-large_transqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8 wanted to talk to young people about why education is so important we were happy to provide him with a platform.  I’m delighted to see it continues to go from strength to strength, this time with a new media partner. 

But anyone who has been involved in running a big event that takes place (mostly) outdoors in this country knows that making it a success often depends as much on luck as judgment. As the Festival approached I used to watch the sky as fearfully as Chicken-Licken.

The last Festival I was involved in had Carol Dweck and Ken Robinson headlining (with Guy Claxton, left, mercifully wearing a lanyard), as well as several hundred other speakers.  By then I knew that I was moving on because I’d accepted a new job at Bryanston School, and it seemed like a good time to stop doing events and actually begin attending things like researchED without worrying about whether everyone had a complimentary pencil in their complimentary bag, and were wearing lanyards (that said, if I go to any event nowadays and I see someone not wearing a lanyard I get a little bit panicky and wonder if I should tell the organisers).  I must admit that the prospect of not running an event again filled me a degree of liberation I have not felt since I put down my pen on my last A level History paper.

So why am I doing it all over again?  Part of the reason is that I realised how much I missed bringing teachers together to debate and discuss issues that really matter to them and their students.  And there is a particular sense of reward about organising something in our divided school system that attempts to build bridges across sectors.  I also like listening to interesting people talking about stuff they know a lot about.

And so on June 7th Bryanston will host its first Education Summit.  The theme, or rather strapline, is ‘delivering world class education in turbulent times’.  It was an idea that I had decided upon before Donald Trump had been elected President, but it now seems particularly appropriate.  This event will bring some inspirational speakers together with school leaders and teachers from independent and state schools to discuss what might lie ahead. It will be more intimate than the Education Festival, but smaller scale has innate advantages.
edfest2I’m delighted that Dylan Wiliam is going to be giving a keynote speech on the day, and that other speakers confirmed include, AC GraylingDavid Didau and Martin Robinson (pictured), as well as Tom Bennett and Lucy Crehan. Many more will join.  Just like the Education Festival it will be an event run by teachers for teachers and held in a school.  And there will be lanyards, of course, lots and lots of lanyards.