This much I know about…the inequality bred by the educational divide

Before you read my post, click below to have a peek at a cartoon that illustrates the cumulative effect of privilege…



Joyce Bell’s letter in the Guardian this week reminded me of my speech two years ago at the Oxford Union when I was asked to speak in support of the motion, “This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good”.

The impact of private schools is very similar to the impact of grammar schools. What I said in that most famous of debating chambers resonates loudly this week…


In June 2014 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 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.

Posted in General educational issues | 4 Comments

This much I know about…how we are on our own when it comes to the teacher recruitment crisis

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about how we are on our own when it comes to the teacher recruitment crisis.

If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You can just about manage, but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school. The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives.
Theresa May, 13 July 2016


It is a truth universally acknowledged that only great teaching will make our country’s education system great. It’s that simple.

Finding great teachers isn’t so simple, however. Despite what Nick Gibb might say, we are in the middle of a teacher recruitment and retention crisis in England.[1]

And it is not just a matter of having enough teachers to stand in front of classes, it is the quality of those teachers which is an equally serious concern. In 2009 the OECD concluded that ‘The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals, since student learning is ultimately the product of what goes on in classrooms’, echoing the MacKinsey report’s findings from 2007.[2] [3] It is hard to disagree.

In the last four years, whilst the number of pathways into the profession has proliferated, the number of recruits to teaching has been insufficient to meet demand. In 2015, for instance, 18,000 teachers left England to teach abroad whilst only 17,000 teachers were trained.[4]

I know of a school whose Science department comprises 17 teachers, but only two have science degrees. The school is in one of the most deprived wards in the country. More than most, its students need the very best teachers.

If you cannot recruit enough teachers then just find a way of teaching which requires fewer teachers. I have heard the notion of a single teacher in Sidcup video conferencing Physics A level lessons to classrooms scattered across the country lauded as the Next Big Thing. I have had sufficient conversations with policy makers to convince me that sixty students taught in a hall by a teacher supported by a Teaching Assistant is The Future as far as the DfE is concerned. The DfE’s obsession with all things Chinese makes so much more sense if teaching students by the hall-full is where we’re heading.

The thing is, you see, the DfE seems to have almost given up worrying about recruiting teachers to the profession. The first finding of the Public Accounts Committee Report entitled Training New Teachers, published on 10 June 2016,  was damning: ‘The Department for Education has missed its targets to fill teacher training places four years running and has no plan for how to achieve them in future.’[5] When it comes to recruiting teachers, the DfE isn’t much help.

Other government policies are actually making it even harder for schools to recruit and retain good teachers. Many teachers working in our schools come from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, but they will only be able to remain working in the UK if they earn over £35,000 thanks to Theresa May’s genius piece of legislation which became law in April 2016. The new rules state that anyone from non-EU countries working in the UK from 6 April 2016 must earn over £35,000 or be deported.[6] The impact on schools is being felt already. A head teacher friend of mine has recently lost two mathematics teachers, one who returned to Canada and one who went to work in London at a school able to offer a salary above the £35,000 threshold. [7]

When I asked Dr Gary Holden at a Teaching School Council regional meeting recently about what needs to happen to address the teacher recruitment crisis, instead of answering the question he threw it back at me and asked me what I planned to do to recruit more teachers. He may as well have been JFK: ‘ask not what the DfE can do for you, ask what you can do for the DfE.’ It was a moment of illumination for me.

With the demise of the Local Authority there is little left locally to support schools. At a national level, the school-led system will result in an arm’s length relationship between the DfE and schools. The bottom-line is suddenly clear: we are on our own.

So, what should we do to recruit and retain high quality teachers?

Firstly, school leaders need to eradicate the fear from our schools’ corridors. We have to stop the madness of overbearing quality assurance systems, penal performance-related pay policies and ridiculous policy which has no grounding in evidence. Why, for instance, do some schools insist upon teachers marking books after every five hours of teaching, no matter what has gone on in those five hours, or whether that marking will impact positively upon students’ learning? Stop such nonsense before we drive even more teachers out of the profession. Much of what is forcing teachers from the classroom is imposed by school leaders themselves.

Secondly, even though most don’t teach for the money, we have to pay our teachers as much as we can. Six years of pay freezes and below average pay rises have led to real terms pay cuts of around 10% since 2008.[8] As the government cuts school budgets by 7% in real terms over the course of this parliament, school leaders have to prioritise teachers’ pay if we are going to recruit and retain enough high quality teachers.[9]

Thirdly, we have to prioritise continuous professional development and learning (CPDL). I have come to realise that we are the worst trained profession in the country. Think about it: when did you last receive training which changed your classroom practice and improved your students’ outcomes? In twenty-eight years of teaching I can think of no more than three moments when I have changed my teaching as a consequence of my training. The new DfE Standards for Continuous Professional Development are a good place to start planning better CPDL.[10] If you support your CPDL provision with a focus upon evidence-informed practice, you won’t go far wrong.[11]

If we do not make teaching a much more attractive profession we are in danger of seeing the school system in England implode. We do not have the capacity to lead our own system right now. The school-led system is doing what the KS3 Strategy did: take our most talented practitioners out of the classroom and make them consultants and trainers, when they should be in classrooms teaching brilliantly.

Which leads me to The Huntington School Contract with Teacher Colleagues, Present and Future…

At Huntington I want to work with teachers who are academically well-qualified, who enjoy working with children, who are prepared to work really hard for those children, who have genuine humility, who are open to improving their practice for the entire length of their teaching career, who are idealists, who acknowledge the fallibility of the human condition, who always see the funny side of things, and teachers who teach for the love, not the money.

In return I want to provide teachers with the very best opportunities for continuous professional development and learning, give them as much professional autonomy as I can over how they manage their working lives, treat them with respect, honesty and kindness, show them unqualified humanity, acknowledge that they have a life to live outside of school, give them free tea and coffee on demand, and, even if they do it for the love, to pay teachers well.

It’s a matter of love over fear.


Sitting here in the Sunday morning holiday sunshine, reflection comes easy, as easy as the words uttered by Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street as she took office.

If May really does care about the ordinary working class family then sorting out the teacher recruitment crisis should be a priority. The thing is, it has to be a priority for us, for school leaders across the country, not for her, because with Brexit to deal with, education has already fallen off Theresa May’s priority list.

We are on our own.




[2] OECD (2010), PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV)

[3] Barber, M., & Mourshed, M. (2007). How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top. London, UK: McKinsey & Company.


[5] p. 5








Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 13 Comments

This much I know about…the Brexit dishonesty of Gove and Johnson


Insularity breeds contempt.

In my first job at Eastbourne Sixth Form College I was tutoring a student. I asked him whether he had ever been to Brighton. He replied with some disdain, “No way. It’s full of crooks and queers.” I lived in Brighton at the time and commuted the twenty-five miles to Eastbourne on a daily basis. He failed to see the irony in his response.

When I became head teacher at Lady Lumley’s School in Pickering, rural North Yorkshire, we had an OFSTED inspection eight days into my tenure. The lay inspector was called Hussein. He lodged for the week at the local B&B and on the Wednesday evening he went to the local fish & chip shop, where they proceeded to ignore him. He left without being served.

My first appoint at Lumley’s was a female senior caretaker. I was reliably informed by my own PA that I had made a huge error in appointing a woman because, “in Pickering we think men are the stronger sex”.

One Friday evening on the way home I drove up the main street to find a gathering of German Officers fraternising with a bunch of Tommys outside one of the pubs. There were military uniforms everywhere. I realised that I had chanced upon the biggest event in the Pickering social calendar, the “War Weekend”.

This was 2003, but it felt like I was living in a different age altogether.

I grew up in deepest rural East Sussex in the 1960s and ’70s. At primary school Martin was a black lad who we found endlessly fascinating. He used to pull out tiny bits of his hair and give it to us. He called it “Hairy Goodness”. And in Year 3 I had a Malaysian girlfriend, Cecile, whose dad had been posted to the village by the army. There exists in mother’s archive a photograph of us in which, I swear, Cecile is twice as tall as me.

I have a natural tan. I only have to be out in the sun for a couple of hours and it looks like I have been on a Greek beach for a fortnight in August. Back in the 1970s, by the end of the summer my dad’s mates at the Artisan working class golf club used to call me “Rastus”. It was common sense British racism and I didn’t understand its significance. I just used to smile.

We were taught French from Year 1. I found it really hard to learn but I can still enter a French GCSE class and engage with anyone in the room. At secondary school I learnt German and my CSE grade 1 helped earn my place at York University to study English and Related Literature.

It was difficult to broaden my horizons.

Even when I was doing my A levels, there were teachers who would tell overtly racist jokes and think nothing of it. But education is a marvellous thing and the more I read and the more people I met the more I realised how much of the world there was to discover.

I went abroad for the first time when I was twenty-one, to the USA. Before then I hadn’t even been to the Isle of Wight. Coming from a working class background without the wherewithal to venture abroad, it was only my education which broadened my horizons.

And now, as an educator, I have worked hard to develop a curriculum with a global outlook. At Huntington we have always insisted that studying a modern language to sixteen is part of a well-rounded education. For four years, and with great success, we offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma, one of the finest educational qualifications in the world, until the pressure on funding meant we could run the IBD no longer.

At Huntington we have a comprehensive student in-take. We teach students from across the full socio-economic spectrum. For some students going “into town” means going up to the Monk’s Cross shopping complex. The City’s walls were built to keep invaders out and centuries later some of York’s own citizens feel barred from entering the City’s streets.

Promoting an international outlook for all our students in an insular city on an insular island is a challenge, but one which is important and valuable; my argument to students, parents, staff and governors for doing so has been based upon the premise that, as the globe continues to shrink, our students’ market for jobs will be Europe and beyond.

Despite York voting decisively to Remain, yesterday’s Referendum result seems to have invalidated my argument.

That disappoints me, but what outrages me is the dishonesty by which that outcome was reached. David Cameron gambled on a referendum merely to appease the right-wing of his party and diffuse UKIP’s potency. As Nick Robinson’s analysis so clearly showed, Gove’s support of Brexit was prompted, to a great extent, by revenge for Cameron sacking him as Secretary of State for Education. Johnson, a natural Europhile, chose to oppose Cameron to depose him and assume the top job.

What you realise, having been at university back in the mid-1980s, having listened to the boys in the Federation of Conservative Students who now populate the Tory backbenches, having spoken at the Oxford Union where Johnson and Gove were both President, is that they are unremarkable human beings. They are, like all of us, making it up as they go along.

The look on Johnson’s face yesterday, when he had to give a proper statesmanlike press conference, when he couldn’t bat away awkward issues with a joke and a shake of his shaggy blonde mane, said, ‘Oh, sh*t! I never really thought we’d do this thing. I never really wanted to leave the EU. And I know, because I’ve always known, that giving the EU £350m a week was a lie and now there’s no way we can spend that on the NHS. And when it comes to immigration, we couldn’t really “take control” (I loved that fatuous phrase yesterday but today I’m not so sure…), and I know net immigration will actually rise for years to come. We’ve won this by telling fibs to the electorate who have gone with it because they are fed up and hard up and think things can’t get any worse. And I know they can and they will, and now I’ll have to sort out this bl**dy mess that I’ve caused. All because I wanted to get one over on Cameron and be PM.’

The FT commented this morning that Johnson was, “looking subdued and lacking his usual ebullience”.

Michael Gove looked like he was going to vomit.

To listen to the pair of them, along with Jacob Rees-Mogg, during the referendum campaign, talking about the establishment as though it was some alien force they had spent their whole lives resisting was laughable and another example of their dissembling.

It’s not the 1950s again. It’s 2016 and the world has changed irrevocably over the last sixty-odd years. What Johnson and Gove have done is fool the electorate by appealing to its worst instincts, restricted the scope of our young people’s lives and engaged in a power struggle as though it was some common room election shenanigans at Eton or Oxford.

At their press conference yesterday they looked worried and ashamed. And so they should.



Posted in Other stuff | 22 Comments

This much I know about…Jo Cox’s murder and the worth of public service

I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about Jo Cox’s murder and the worth of public service.

At 5.10 pm last Thursday I was sipping a coffee in the University of York’s Sports Village watching Northern Ireland play football in the European Championships. At the same time, just five hundred yards away, the producers of BBC’s Question Time were deciding to cancel that evening’s episode.

I had a place reserved in the Question Time audience and, with Nicky Morgan on the panel, I felt particularly clever in having crafted a question which combined immigration with our country’s teacher shortage: “Why are so many of our teachers leaving to teach abroad when we have a teacher shortage at home?”

It was a question I was destined not to ask. When the cancellation email pinged into my ’phone it was no surprise and my instinct was to hurry home to my family.

Since Jo Cox’s murder the time has seemed out of joint. I said to my colleagues at yesterday’s staff briefing that should any of our students want to talk about what happened in Birstall the day before, they should explore our school values of Respect, Honesty and Kindness. I asked them to explain why we choose to live by those values at our school and why the world would be a better a place if we all chose to be respectful, honest and kind to each other.

And so this morning, after a difficult week at work, I reflected upon my 28 year career in public service. And I began to count the times I have been assaulted or threatened…

  • I was once hit when I was refereeing a football match by an Asian student. He had sworn at me for a decision which went against him, I asked him to leave the pitch and he thumped me in the mouth. I was wrongly accused of being racially motivated, taken to a tribunal and the case was dismissed.
  • I was falsely accused by a parent of lunging to strike her son during a meeting with them both; a ridiculous claim considering there was another colleague in the room. After a full investigation, a month later the Governing Body concluded that I had no case to answer.
  • I was attacked by a student in my office and saved from being battered by his dad, who fought him instead as I was bundled out of the room by another colleague. That same student turned up late one afternoon when no-one else was around to threaten me. I had to have the police escort me to my car and then serve a Harassment Order on the lad.
  • A parent once threatened to break three of my fingers. I have no idea why he was so specific! Luckily he was caught on CCTV and we banned him from coming onto our school premises again.
  • At one readmission meeting the excluded student stared down the table at me and said, “It may not be tomorrow, it may not be next week, it may not be next month, but I’ll have you Mr Tomsett, cos you piss me off”. He was Godfatheresque in his sense of calculated menace. His dad said I ought to avoid his son from now on because, “He’ll launch you, Mr Tomsett. He will, for sure, he’ll launch you!” I still have this cartoon image of me airborne, flying horizontal…
  • More recently, a parent began swearing at me profusely. When I said I would have to end the meeting and asked him to leave the building, he squared up to me, eye-ball to eye-ball, and laughed with scorn in my face.

I have not published this list to elicit pity. More than anything, I think it surprised me. I don’t consider my job a dangerous one, but the list prompted me to ask the question, Why do people think they can treat teachers, and others who work in state sector jobs, in such an aggressive, disparaging manner?

I think the answer lies in people’s general attitude towards public service workers.

We are all too often openly criticised, by politicians, by inspectors and the media. Teachers have had bad press for decades. And in the same way that Jonathan Freedland identifies the negative, thoughtless stereotyping of politicians as the root cause of the murder of Jo Cox, over the years the portrayal of teachers as feckless, pinko-leftie, holiday-long, pension-rich layabouts, by people who should know better, has helped create the current teacher shortage and the tiny minority of parents and students who assume that they can treat us with contempt.

The parallel between attitudes towards teachers and politicians goes further: it’s maybe worth reflecting that Frances Lawrence, the widow of head teacher Philip Lawrence who was stabbed to death outside his school in 1995, might know, more than any of us, something of what Brendan Cox feels this morning.

Teaching is a selfless profession. Indeed, those of us who work in the state sector – in hospitals, in GP surgeries, in prisons, in council offices, in social services, in policing, in waste disposal depots, in schools, in libraries, in fire-stricken buildings, on battlefields, and, pertinently, in the House of Commons – think about what we can do for others every minute of every working day. We do good work. We are the glue that holds communities together.

Since 2010 there are far fewer of us in the state sector and, consequently, we are all doing more. Our general intention is to make the world a slightly better place for us having been here. Our profit is improving the lives of others. I have never regretted my choice of profession for a moment. I am fiercely proud to be a teacher.

So, maybe it is the time for the narrative to change about the diminishing public sector. Perhaps it is time to celebrate public servants like teachers, nurses, firefighters and politicians. Perhaps, even, it is time to question whether the relentless drive to privatise our public services is a good thing.

And, above all else, perhaps the dreadful events on the streets of a Yorkshire town last Thursday will help the British public realise the worth of all of us who serve them.

Posted in Other stuff, School Leadership | 5 Comments

This much I know about…Happiness

I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about Happiness.

Between patrolling the school corridors, ensuring Year 11 are still revising hard and checking the examination halls are in good order, I am writing my next book, This Much I Know About Mind Over Matter. Here is the biographical preface to a chapter on Happiness I wrote this evening.



Make me happy, through the years,
Never bring me, any tears,
Let your arms be as warm as the sun from up above,
Bring me fun, bring me sunshine, bring me love.

Morecambe and Wise, Bring Me Sunshine


As I write, it is a Friday evening at the beginning of the summer half-term holiday. Our eldest son rang from Durham an hour ago to tell us, against expectations, that his Reformation examination went ‘really well’. Our youngest is on the PS4 laughing with his mates. Louise, my wife, is relaxing in the bath. Marcus Rashford has scored for England after just two minutes in the last friendly before the European Football Championships. The weather is calm and sunny, my mate Tom has just texted me to arrange fishing for tomorrow afternoon, I have a good whisky to drink, bought for me by my colleagues Terry and Gail in an act of genuine kindness and I have several days ahead of me writing the final chapters of this book. I have good reason, surely, to be the happiest man on the planet.

I have to admit, right now, at this precise moment, I do feel happy, without qualification. The factors contributing to this sense of contentment are not, however, of equal weighting. Louise luxuriates in a bath most Friday nights. I am never that worried about the football. I don’t need sunshine to make me smile. Fishing with Tom is always a pleasure, but we can go out on the river another day. A cup of Yorkshire tea will suffice if I am short of a decent whisky. Writing is a pleasure but can also be a pain.

No, the main determinant of my happiness is the welfare of our boys.

Joe’s satisfaction with his examination is significant. Like so many Freshers, his first year at university has had its challenges. In four days and two examinations’ time his summer holidays will begin and only then we will be able to look back on the past eight months and realise what a success they have been. As far as Olly goes, if he is getting on well with his mates, then we are all happy.

The thing is, you can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. In the pantheon of populist philosophy, this aphorism ranks amongst the very best. Ultimately, children are the source of your greatest joy and your deepest sorrow.

When Louise said I ought to buy a pregnancy tester when I was out procuring paint during the 1996 Easter holidays, her instruction hardly registered. I duly returned with my pot of yellow Dulux, but without the required test kit. Later that day I nipped to the chemist on the corner of our street. As the elderly sales woman handed me my change – I say elderly, looking back she was probably in her mid-fifties – she said, smilingly, ‘Good luck’. It took me half-way back to our house before I realised what she meant.

After the purple stripes materialised on the plastic test strip to confirm Louise was pregnant, I looked in our bedroom mirror and said to myself, ‘From this point on you will always be worried and always be tired’. Never have I been more prescient.

That insistent, gnawing worry inherent in being responsible for your children never wanes. When they are young their vulnerability is at least manageable. What you don’t realise is that you fret more when they get older because you have far less influence over their welfare. Their two year-old selves might well be wailing away, but you’ve got them strapped in a pram and under complete control.

Quite rightly, as they grow up that level of control diminishes inexorably. The natural way of things dictates that by the time they are in their mid-teens your children begin the process of distancing themselves from you. I call it the child’s boomerang parabola. At around the age of thirteen you become unbearably embarrassing to them. At twenty they stop communicating with you completely. They come back to you in their mid-twenties, when they realise you were not so stupid after all.

As a kid, winter Saturday evenings were the source of my greatest happiness. After an afternoon of breathless footie up the rec and tea and crumpets watching Frank Bough present Final Score, we would be scrubbed clean before settling down in the sitting room for an evening in front of the telly: Dr Who; Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game; Dixon of Doc Green; The Two Ronnies; Starsky and Hutch; Match of the Day. The BBC1 Saturday evening schedule in the 1970s is legendary.

The spectacles I wear to view those evenings of vintage TV derive their rose colour not from the brilliance of Barker and Corbett, but from the comfort gained from having the whole family safe and together for a few precious hours. Seven of us crammed into the front room, craning for a good view of the screen, talking and laughing at the telly, generated genuine happiness.

With the advent of multi-television set homes, tablets and i-Player, TV schedules are no longer the glue which holds the family together. In the BBC series, Back in Time for the Weekend, the Ashby-Hawkins family agreed to give up all their 21st-century technology and travel back in time to discover the radical transformation of our leisure time since 1950. In six episodes, they spent time living under the conditions typical of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. At the end of the series the mum said, ‘The Seventies was the perfect balance. It felt like a real golden era. What I’ve taken away from that is that it’s the time spent with people that is really important and making sure that we don’t let things like technology get in the way.’

What I felt as a child, snuggled in my pyjamas next to mother on the sofa, trying to recall all the items on Brucie’s Conveyor Belt, was a happiness borne of a sense of security. Everyone I loved in one room, safe and well. It could never last, of course, but for a few hours at the end of the week, we were happy.

If we keep pursuing eternal happiness we will be perpetually disappointed. Phillip Larkin once made the astute observation that, ‘The more sensitive you are to suffering…the more accurate notion of life you have.’ Life is inevitably painful and once you realise that is the case, it is liberating; you can stop pursuing the unobtainable and begin enjoying your lot.

Like this evening, which is now nearly done, happiness will always be transitory; understanding that fact is crucial to our well-being.

One May half-term, many years ago, I played football on a sunlit Gibraltan beach with Joe. It was breezy, the ball was too light but his small feet zipped across the beach effortlessly. At the end he fell down front-first in the sand and I captured his indefatigable spirit in this portrait.

Joe final beach

It was a moment in time. The transitory nature of things makes them essentially beautiful. As J.L. Carr wrote, It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

– York, 27 May 2016

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This much I know about…the #LearningFirst conference and unfettered teaching

I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about the #LearningFirst conference and unfettered teaching.

The Dame Alison Peacock-inspired #LearningFirst conference will, hopefully, prove to be part of the growing drive towards rebalancing the relationship between teaching and assessment, whereby assessment will once again be the servant of teaching, just like Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam intended back in 1998 when they first published Inside the Black Box. Alison Peacock is showing the kind of leadership – principled, sensible, courageous – which needs to spread like wildfire through the school system, and here’s why…

No-one is asking teachers to obsess about assessment data apart from schools’ senior leaders. Teachers need permission to teach brilliantly. School leaders need to ensure that, in John Hattie’s words, a coalition of success in the classroom drives school improvement. We need unfettered teaching. Teach brilliantly, then formatively assess what students have learnt, amend your teaching in response to what you learn from that formative assessment and then teach brilliantly some more, then assess summatively. It’s not difficult.

Cross-phase is where it’s at! Our North East York Partnership presentation yesterday was a genuine team effort, with huge thanks to my colleagues Beci McCrea and Vicky Umpleby from Huntington Primary Academy. Here are our slides and that all important Tim Oates video about why we have, thank goodness, seen the back of National Curriculum Levels.

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This much I know about…Evidence in Education – Making It Work!

I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about Evidence in Education – Making It Work!


Tickets are available at the following link:

If you have any queries or want to arrange an alternative method of payment, please contact Claire Kilner, at

Evidence-Work CEIT IEE 20th July leaflet final-page-001


Evidence-Work CEIT IEE 20th July leaflet final-page-002

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