This much I know about…Michael Gove’s departure

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about Michael Gove’s departure.

Michael Gove could have won me over. Back in early 2013 he was asked at a National College event whether he had won over the hearts and minds of Headteachers and he replied something like, Well, I’ve made some progress, but I don’t think I’ve won over Heads like John Tomsett… He was only partially right.

For all his renowned intellect, Michael Gove didn’t seem to have the nouse to understand that people can hold contradictory views simultaneously: I am co-leading an EEF Randomised Controlled Trial into the efficacy of research in schools, but I have also authorised the teaching of a new Happiness course to Year 10 from this September which has no evidence base supporting it whatsoever. The thing is, there are a number of key educational issues upon which Michael Gove and I agree. His problem was that I didn’t agree with him upon every educational issue. And as I wasn’t entirely with him, I must have been, in his eyes, against him. I was an Enemy of Promise. I was a paid up member of The Blob. I was a bad Headteacher, as he implied in an interview with Allegra Stratton recently…

I have quietly bemoaned the decline in academic rigour of the English Literature A level examination over the last thirty years. In 1982 I studied, amongst others, these challenging texts from the English literary canon: Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Hardy’s Return of the Native, Chaucer’s The General Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems 1965-1975, all examined in closed book, three hour, terminal examinations, sans coursework. I still recite the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra to anyone who will listen. Heaney himself loved my annotations when he signed my A level copy of his poems last year.


When I began teaching A level literature my aim was to teach my students to be active readers of literary texts and to understand the delicate but essential relationship between form and content. Somehow, the study of literature at A level has morphed into a formulaic exercise best exemplified by the quite appalling  Aspects of Narrative unit of the current AQA course. It’s not our current students’ fault; they can only study what they are presented with. No, the decline in rigour is down to a whole range of factors, including the dire consequences for all of us should our students fail. You see? Michael Gove and I both know things aren’t like they used to be!

Michael Gove and I love international education systems. For the past four years we have offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma whose English syllabus is as close as you’ll find to my A level of three decades ago. Trouble is, as post 16 funding cuts have begun to hurt school sixth forms, we have just seen our last, very successful, cohort of IBD students finish the course; from September, for purely financial reasons, we’re back to A levels only. (Since I published this post ten minutes ago, it has been announced by the DfE that funding for the IBD will be enhanced by £800 per student…too late for the state school students in the north east corner of York. A cynical move with electoral motivations? I could weep.)

I admired Michael Gove’s courage to oversee the first fall in GCSE and A level pass rates for two generations. I remember being in a Local Authority Headteachers’ meeting in 2009, when Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, had declared that on the twenty-odd KPIs he had defined for schools to measure our performance, we were not allowed to set targets for next year which were lower than the previous year’s targets. I exploded, to the discomfort of all present, exclaiming, We don’t work with wood and steel, we work with human beings! When did we start living in a Stalinist state?!

Whenever I have met Michael Gove, he has been politeness itself. The thing is, I’ve never been convinced of his sincerity or that he ever really listened to anything I, or my colleagues, have said. And I’m probably in the minority when I say I have never been entirely convinced that his championing of the deprived children of this land is wholly authentic. Remember, for the last four years he has been an influential minister in a government which was criticised recently by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in a report which concluded that, The statutory goal of ending child poverty by 2020 will in all likelihood be missed by a considerable margin, perhaps by as many as 2 million children. Furthermore, as Vic Goddard wrote, His dismissal of vocational qualifications was also extremely damaging to young people: I absolutely deplore his message that it’s better to be a doctor than a plumber and that you’re only valuable if you go to university. Sometimes he speaks as though he has no real sense of what faces the poorest families in our country today.

Michael Gove is a Shakespearean tragic hero in that his greatest strength was his undoing. His passion for education sometimes manifested itself as ideological arrogance. This one-time B-movie actor, comedian and journalist thought he knew better than thousands of experienced practitioners. In the end it was the ideologue, rather than the committed educationalist, who seems to have got him the sack.

Teaching is a mass employment profession. This is something Michael Gove forgot. There are 451,000 FTE teachers in the UK. You can only improve an education system by improving the quality of teaching, something difficult to do if, as the ultimate leader of those 451,000 teachers, you lose their trust.

If you want to achieve something significant, on a large scale, you have to take people with you, something Michael Gove just did not understand. In one of my earlier posts about preparing for an OFSTED inspection, I make this point about trusting my teacher colleagues: Headteachers need to trust their colleagues more than ever. At our school we deliver over 2,000 lessons each week; I cannot teach them all, so what I have to do is develop my colleagues in a safe school environment which allows them to thrive professionally and personally. It’s the only way to a decent OFSTED inspection. It’s the only way I will keep my job. If he’d followed my advice, Michael Gove might have kept his job too.

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This much I know about…where my poetry comes from

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about where my poetry comes from.

If you listen carefully, people’s stories can be the raw material of poetry. This sonnet I wrote twenty-five years ago derived from my friend Kate’s recollection of her father and his ink pen, told to me as we drove to work together.


for Kate


His choice of pen remained the same

From undergraduate Cambridge days

To signing his headmaster’s name -

A Waterman in mottled beige.

The cursive blacksmith’s art had honed

The ink-filled gold into a tool

For use by him and him alone -

His hand made them inseparable.


Gold outlasts all.  The pen was left

A legacy, bequeathed to her

Whose writing pleased the family most:

But straining through the unknown curves

It snapped, to leave the nib’s new host

Mourning afresh, doubly bereft.


Sometimes my poetry radar is activated without any warning whatsoever. Last week, just as I was leaving work, I got chatting to John, one of our Site Supervisors. Fishing is our common bond: he told me about how, when he had crossed the mist-shrouded River Ouse early that morning, he was reminded of his dawn-start fishing trips with his dad fifty years ago. His reminiscences were a sonnet waiting to be written.



for John


His old man crossed the landing to his room

And, careful not to wake the eldest son,

He whispered to the youngest through the gloom

The needless exhortation, “John, come on.

The weather’s good.” And like two guilty thieves

They rode unnoticed through the early dawn;

A getaway on bikes along York’s streets

To Puncture Bridge. The morning mist adorned

The slow, resplendent Ouse – just like this June,

Fifty years on. Those stolen early starts,

Sat with his dad beneath the fading moon,

Were when he learnt the expert angler’s art:

When to strike, how to read the river’s flow –

Such things that only fishermen can know.


I toyed with Lineage as the title, but I think Fishing Lines is subtler. I worked really hard on making the octave and the sestet merge into each other, mirroring the relationship between his memories of the past and the present. Originally the first three lines of the sestet saw June rhyme with summer’s bloom, but that didn’t quite work and clashed with the room/gloom rhyme of the octave. When I worked on the June/moon rhyme suddenly it all came clear; a great example of form establishing meaning. I was reminded of Billy Bragg’s line in Tank Park Salute, his song to his father:

Some photographs of a summer’s day

A little boy’s lifetime away

Is all I’ve left of everything we’ve done

Like a pale moon in a sunny sky

Death gazes down as I pass by

To remind me that I’m but my father’s son


John and I also agreed that the poem reminded us of the Mr Crabtree cartoon strip from 1949. A couple of the images from the strip on Google are remarkably apposite!




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This much I know about…what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about (and why your keepy-uppy skills really matter!)

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about (and why your keepy-uppy skills really matter!).

I am convinced that the best pastoral care for students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds is a good set of examination results. I thought I’d state that clearly at the outset just in case I get attacked for being blobby and soft and someone seriously suggests that I should be sacked for writing what follows.

You can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. This ubiquitous mantra may have become a cliché, but if you do have children you will know it possesses more than a grain of truth. We worry about our children’s happiness endlessly.

When my sons went to secondary school above everything else I just wanted them to have a few good friends. I believed that academic success would only follow once they were emotionally secure at school. Don’t get me wrong – my sons’ academic success matters hugely to me, but only in the context that academic success will give them greater choice in life and so, perhaps, greater chance of being happy.

When reshaping the curriculum in these times of tumultuous change, you must begin with the type of education you want for your students. Next year all our Year 10s will be taught our new Happiness course for one hour a week. It has been conceived by our Religion, Philosophy and Ethics teacher Robin Parmiter, one half of @DiscoMisterUK, and was developed last autumn when Robin enjoyed a two-days a week sabbatical at the Farmington Institute. Students will learn about how some of the world’s greatest thinkers – including my favourites, The Stoics – have wrestled with the concept of happiness. They will then reflect upon what they want from life in order to be happy in preparation for the most important examinations of their lives.

Our school’s core purpose is to inspire confident leaners who will thrive in a changing world. I received this email on Friday which confirmed two things for me: firstly, that we are getting ever closer to fulfilling our core purpose and secondly that students feeling safe and happy is the bedrock of an academically successful school.

From: Peter Smith’s mum*

Sent: 18 July 2014 11:20

To: Mail

Subject: END OF YEAR

Dear Mr Tomsett

My son, Peter Smith will today finish his first year at Huntington School.

I am a very anxious mother, Peter being my oldest boy of three.

I imagined he would miss the bus, he would forget his sports kit, he would not know his way round the school.

None of these things happened – quite the opposite.

I am extremely proud of his first year with you, his progression in his education, his aptitude for taking on new subjects and ideas, his enthusiasm in areas I never imagined.

I feel content and enthused every day he comes to school, knowing he is safe, he is happy and he is growing into a (rather hormonal) confident young man.

As parents, we are quick to pick up on faults – I feel it is important to also share thanks.

So thank you Mr Tomsett, thank your staff and how jealous I am that you can do so many keepy uppies in your work shoes…… Peter has a whole new level of respect for you. (I coach football and can only manage 11 keepy uppies)**

Enjoy the summer.

Mrs Smith

*Names have been changed

**When I was on lunch duty the other day, a student’s football broke to me and, unable to resist the ever-present inner-child, I did a few faultless keepy-ups and thumped the ball left-footed forcing a great save from the keeper.


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This much I know about…what a Growth Mindset culture looks like for real


I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about what a Growth Mindset culture looks like for real.


Growth mindset


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This much I know about…finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools.

eef-logo-small  Huntington-School-York  cem_1  IOE-logo-400x168

Do you want to find out what really works?

At a time of shifting tectonic plates in the educational landscape, the evidence provided by high quality research could prove to be a defining factor for school improvement and student success. Our research focus is to train outstanding internally-appointed Research-leads in schools to support the improvement of students’ attainment in English and mathematics GCSE.

Can research provide us with the crucial golden thread that connects school leadership decisions through to successful student outcomes? We think it can and this trial can help prove it.

Do you want to be part of a hugely exciting, and nationally prestigious Randomised Controlled Trial that could shift the landscape of school improvement and benefit the life-chances of students in our schools?

A detailed FAQs document for our project can be found below; further details can be found on the Education Endowment Foundation website:

Expressions of interest should be sent to:


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This much I know about…accurate terminology to describe students’ effort

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about accurate terminology to describe students’ effort.

young girl student lying on the table tired sleeping books

Words matter. And in a school, words which describe student performance matter more than most.

Life for students is getting tougher. Success in public examinations over the next few years will require concentrated, dedicated study of a nature unrequired for at least one if not two generations of students. We are living in a non-coursework, terminal examination world but too many students are still learning with modular-assessment brains. Committing huge amounts of learning across ten or more subjects to long term memory requires deliberate, sustained effort.


Effort is the key to success. Anyone who has attempted to become good at anything knows the veracity of this maxim.

How do you break the news to students that they are not making enough effort? We are moving from five effort descriptors to four. Students’ effort will be classified thus: Excellent; Good; Insufficient; Poor. The third classification, Insufficient is causing some turmoil to all of us at Huntington:

Insufficient effort

Insufficient? As far as I am concerned, what the term Insufficient is saying to a Year 8 student in September is, You are making insufficient effort if you are going to be successful in the terminal examinations which, for you, will be more demanding academically than they have been for your older Year 12 sister. Better tell them now, so they have time to make more effort, than let them discover they have made insufficient effort when they are faced with their first GCSE examination paper…

As a Headteacher it’s always good to ask for better ideas. We could say something gentler, perhaps, like Inconsistent, but you could make consistently Insufficient effort or you could make inconsistently Excellent/Good effort, so Inconsistent doesn’t work. Yet I can see why Insufficient might be a dispiriting term for students and parents; in the wake of colleagues’ disquiet at the term, I sent this email to all staff:

Dear All

As I said earlier, I am uncertain about the term Insufficient Effort.

Having discussed the issue at length with Sam and Jack, I want to hear from colleagues which alternatives we might use:

So…please forward me alternative suggestions which meet these criteria:

      • A single word;
      • A word which does not allow a student who falls into this category to feel it’s OK to be in this category;
      • A word which is appropriate for the new, tougher world of terminal academic examinations.

If we can find a word which meets these criteria and which will cause less anxiety amongst parents and students then we’ll change.

Kindest regards


Even our core values don’t help! In a Growth Mindset school which promotes the values of Respect, Honesty and Kindness, Insufficient is honest but perhaps not kind?

I’m genuinely unsure…What do you think?

PS. Many readers of this post have asked for all four effort descriptors, so here they are:


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This much I know about…speaking at the Oxford Union

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about speaking at the Oxford Union.


I have written about bridging the gap between independent and state schools before. Consequently, being asked to speak in support of the Oxford Union motion, “This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good” placed me in an awkward position. The trouble is, I am a member of the steering committee for York’s Independent State School Partnership and have worked hard for a number of years now to help the two sectors work together more closely in order to benefit all our students.

Debating is an art form. You debate in teams of three. After the first two speakers from each side have contributed to the debate it is opened up to speakers from the floor. The third debater opposing the motion sums up.

Programme front cover

Programme inside

When I spoke, then, my argument was crafted to support the motion provocativelywhat better place that the Oxford Union to challenge the nation’s ruling classes?

The Oxford Union Debate, 12 June 2014

This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good

Thank you Mr President for inviting me to debate an issue that is very close to my heart.

Private schools produce some wonderful people and truly great leaders. That’s not for debate. And those great figures have contributed a huge amount of good to this country. Of course they have. It would be silly to say anything to the contrary. One of the greatest leaders the world has ever known, Winston Churchill, went to Harrow. Wellington and Gladstone – both Old Etonians.

Even if you just take York, my home city, the roll call is pretty impressive – Christopher Hill, Joseph Rowntree, Judy Dench and Margaret Drabble: all alumni of York’s private schools.

But, the debate tonight is not whether Private schools do good, it’s whether they do more harm than good.

And I would argue that private education has a profoundly harmful effect upon our country. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the private school system contributes significantly to our nation’s growing inequality.

At a basic level, parents believe they are buying an advantage for their children in sending them to a private school. They believe that smaller class sizes, more diverse subjects, wider learning experiences: all these factors will help their children get ahead.

And in terms of measures like educational attainment and Oxbridge entrance, the data suggests that they’re getting their money’s-worth.

So, given the critical importance of educational attainment to success in later life, we could have a straightforward debate about whether we want to live in a nation where a small percentage of the very rich can buy a fast track to success that the vast majority of families cannot possibly afford.

The thing is, I believe our system of private education does something more pernicious: it separates a privileged elite from the rest of us, with some devastating consequences.

Of course some state schools are more ‘comprehensive’ than others, but go to any state school and you will find students from a wide-range of socio-economic family backgrounds.

In state schools children grow up alongside fellow pupils who have different social roots. Just by rubbing shoulders with their peers in the lunch queue they learn that our lives vary.

And most importantly, children form friendships across the social divide.

They experience school, in other words, as they will experience life – where our social groups aren’t predetermined by parental income and where society is actively working against segregation rather than instilling it as acceptable.

This experience for children is absolutely critical to developing a society that has the potential to be inclusive, to empathise, to seek fairness.

And the crucial thing is, such a social mix is missing from the leadership elite in our professions. Certainly our judiciary, our legal profession, the media, medicine, the City’s financial institutions, all largely led by people who were privately educated.

Just visit the diversity web site and the very first page reads: A common description of a judicial office-holder is “pale and male” – a white man, probably educated at public school and Oxbridge.

This stranglehold on positions of power has proven extraordinarily hard to break. There is a ‘club’ that exists at the top of many professions, which leads to the continual appointing of “people like us” to senior positions. If you are a state school child, you have to beat extraordinary odds to become, say, a judge.

Exceptional opportunities, unshakeable confidence and the ability to exploit a network, they combine to give the children of the privileged a powerful head start in life. And the children from less fortunate backgrounds are kept outside that ‘club’.

And some positions of leadership have particular influence: those of top politicians. The way a nation is steered is hugely influenced by the backgrounds of those sitting around the Cabinet table.

Go back to what I said about children in state schools forming friendships across social divides. If you went to prep school, and then Eton, and then Oxford, when do you connect with someone from the local council estate?

Here’s Michael Gove’s view of the huge number of Old Etonians in David Cameron’s inner circle, “It’s ridiculous. I don’t know where you can find a similar situation in a developed economy.”

People like George Osborne and David Cameron have missed the opportunity to move in a social circle that could include the son of the local postman, someone like me.

And I ask the question, how can the privately educated elite who run this country have any genuine sense of what it is like to survive on the average UK salary of £26,500 a year, when their annual school fees alone are over £30,000?

How are they able to empathise with the challenges of family life in current Austerity Britain? Can they hug a hoodie? Can they? Really?

No wonder the electorate are losing faith in the political classes.

And is it any wonder, then, that they have chosen to press hard on the poorest by cutting vital services – services they and their families have never needed – whilst offering tax cuts to the wealthiest?

Private schooling adds to the curse of inequality and inequality harms us all. In 2009, in his Hugo Young memorial lecture, even David Cameron admitted that, More unequal countries do worse according to every quality of life indicator.

The thing is, income inequality in this country is at Victorian levels. In the last 100 years, our country was at its most equal in 1975, the very year I began my secondary school education.

State school educated Harold Wilson presided over a Government which enforced an 83% income tax rate on the super-rich. 83%. Think of that. When I began university in 1984 I received a full grant and tuition fees were unimaginable.

And income inequality only grew under Tony Blair, who, according to Neil Kinnock, was always impressed by wealth, aided by Peter Mandelson, the man who famously said that he was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

Now, in 2014, I see the harmful impact of the vast divide between rich and poor manifest itself starkly in my job as Headteacher of Huntington, the largest school in York.

It is a truly comprehensive school. We have the full range of students, from Professors’ daughters to students from some of the worst socio-economic backgrounds in the country. Proper poverty.

As the gap between the rich and poor widens I see more students on free school meals, more students whose parents buy second-hand uniform and more parents who need financial support for school trips.

And in the biggest school in York, a wealthy city in the sixth biggest economy in the world, when it rains hard, we put out 17 buckets to catch the water because the roof leaks and I can’t afford to repair it.

When it floods on the Somerset levels, money is no object… when it floods in our school it’s a different story.

In one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, it is tougher than it has ever been for a council house boy like me to make it to the top of the professions.

To conclude, our country doesn’t have to be like this. The world’s top-performing jurisdictions don’t allow those who can afford it to barricade themselves behind educational enclaves.

Private education is virtually unheard of in Finland, in Shanghai, in most of Canada. These are societies striving to establish a meritocracy, to create social cohesion, to provide opportunity for all. And, as our society splinters further, on social and racial and religious grounds, we should be aiming higher too – for all our citizens.

The final words on our country’s harmful educational elitism go to ex-Prime Minister Sir John Major – who went to a grammar school in South London – who said last year:

“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle-class.”

He continued, “To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.” Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I couldn’t agree more

I beg you to propose the motion.


When the debate is over, if you are in favour of the motion you exit via the Ayes door and if you are against you leave through the Nayes door. The tillers count up the Ayes and the Nayes and the President declares the outcome in the Gladstone Room. We lost the debate 60-78.

I loved every minute of it! Early in the evening I stood in the Members Only William Gladstone Room and said to myself, Take this in, every second, because in a couple of hours it will be a memory only.

I prepared more thoroughly than anyone would imagine. No output without input. We had eight minutes. That focused my mind. I was determined not to run over – the Union Secretary rings a bell if you don’t finish on time. I practised with our Senior Citizens Link Group the afternoon before, which was great – they’re a tough gig for sure! And my wife, boys and PA Kate all had to endure me orating at them. The thing is, on the night, all that preparation meant I was (almost) word perfect and I enjoyed myself beyond measure. And there were no bells.

Precision matters. Working hard on an argument until it is word perfect is one of the more gratifying things to do in life. Ruth Kennedy and Geoff Barton were wonderful editors/co-contributors. I made sure that I addressed the motion, something clear from this top twenty words Wordle of my speech:


We were treated with tremendous courtesy. Philippa, Ben, Sacha, Leo, David and the rest could not have been more welcoming.

The experience was awesome. Thinking of the famous figures from world history who had spoken from the very same spot where I stood made the event awesome in the true sense of the word. The fact that three Huntington students now studying at Oxford, Luke, Lydia and Natalie, were in the audience was a huge inspiration.

Two souvenirs for my mum – I managed to persuade one of the waitresses to pinch me a menu. The newspaper has, as you might imagine, generated much mirth…

menu fc



Posted in General educational issues, Other stuff | 4 Comments