This much I know about…how NOW is the time to pursue the National College of Education leadership qualifications

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about…how NOW is the time to pursue the National College of Education leadership qualifications.

In December 1980 I was chucked out of school, a term into my A levels, and pursued my sporting dreams as a golfer. By September 1982 I was a jobless failure. The unemployment rate in the UK was 11% and rising, a level unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The bleak economic numbers seemed depressingly permanent.

On Saturday 28 August 1982 at around 10 p.m., Cliff, the barman at the local pub, offered me a job behind the bar; on the following Wednesday I went back to school and I began my A levels again as my year group was leaving.

Learning is the best medicine. I turned to educating myself at a time when the future looked hopeless. Professionally, I have always pursued improving my own and my colleagues’ expertise with an eye to the future rather than the present. When we have struggled over the past ten years with our school budget, I have ring-fenced funding for staff training when cutting the staff training budget would have been a relatively painless short term saving.

Ironically, one of those pressures on our budget in recent years has been the Apprenticeship Levy. Whilst we have employed apprentices, it has been difficult to take advantage of the tens of thousands a year we pay HMRC. Recently, however, I have been teaching on the Senior Leaders Masters (Northern cohort) for the National College of Education.  They have a range of leadership programmes that can be fully funded from the Apprenticeship Levy:

Future Leaders Programme (Level 3)  – A twelve month programme for line managers working in schools in teaching and non-teaching roles who are at the start of their leadership journey;

Education Management Programme (Level 5) – An eighteen month programme for current or aspiring middle leaders;

Senior Leadership Masters (Level 7) – A two year programme for senior leaders on the leadership pay scale.

I have been working on the Senior Leadership Masters programme with Stephen Tierney, @leadinglearner, and it has been an absolute joy. Stephen and I bring our 60+ years of experience of working and leading in schools to the excellent programme materials, setting them in the context of day-to-day of school leadership.

Indeed, beyond our contribution, the Masters programme draws from a range of sources, a blend of generic, business and educational leadership expertise which we will need to navigate these extraordinary times.

I cannot recommend the National College programmes enough.

In the next few months, I will be bringing the leadership thinking I outline in my latest book, co-authored with MAT CEO Jonny Uttley, Putting Staff First, to the sessions I teach. Putting Staff First is a book which Professor Sam Twiselton describes as “a thing of beauty”. According to Professor Dylan Wiliam, Putting Staff First is “one of the very few books that I would recommend that every single school leader should read.”

So, as we ponder the reopening of schools and worry about the next few weeks and months, remind yourselves that this too shall pass. There will be years of rebuilding our schools, our economy and our society, and our future school leaders will be central to getting our country going again.

As I discovered nearly forty years ago, the time to invest in your future is when the world looks its bleakest.

If you are interested in one of the National College of Education qualifications, register your interest here.

Now is the time to invest in our future school leaders.

Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | Leave a comment

This much I know about…Elizabeth Ann Tomsett, 1936-2020

Elizabeth Ann Tomsett, 2 May 1936-18 April 2020
“God give me strength to bear that which I cannot change”

Our mother, Elizabeth Ann Tomsett, was born on 2 May 1936. Her father served in the Royal Navy between the wars and was steward to Admiral Sir Arthur Power. When he left he was appointed the Admiral’s butler and lived on his estate at Littlemead Cottage, Hayling Island where mother was born.

When World War II broke out the family moved to East Grinstead and lived in a tied cottage in the grounds of Abbey School in Ashurst Wood where Prime Minister Gladstone’s nephew, Robin Gladstone, was the headmaster. Granddad was a gardener on the estate. Our grandmother did housework at Mr Gladstone’s nearby house, Heatherlands, and cooked lunch for him and six boys five days a week.

Whilst her parents were fully paid-up members of the servant classes, mother had wanted more from life. She was sharp. She read voraciously. She attended Ashurst Wood School and, in 1947, she won a scholarship to the East Grinstead Grammar School. Education offered her the chance of social mobility, to be the first one in her family to attend university. She had the opportunity to grow beyond her relatively humble origins and embark upon a professional career.

Mother’s maiden name was Browning. Her first name was Elizabeth. Whilst no poet, she could certainly write, that’s for sure. Despite her promising name mother wasn’t educated, having had to leave school when she was just 13 years old. She was diagnosed as having manic depression, now known as bi-polar.

One of those jobs she took whilst she was recovering from her first bout of depression was at a nearby dahlia nursery. She twice helped to show flowers at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. She left there to lodge and work at a fruit farm in High Hurstwood, in deepest East Sussex, where she learned how to prune fruit trees and to pick apples to pack for market.

The winter of 1954 was a cold one. It snowed hard. The girl who worked at the village grocery shop, which doubled up as a Post Office, couldn’t make it into work. Mother took her place, temporarily at first and then permanently. The Uckfield postmen called at the grocer’s every morning to collect the mail. Mother had been tipped off by a friend that one of the Postman was quite dishy. She sat in wait for him on the wooden gate to the house. When he arrived, he offered her one of his Player’s Navy Cut. She was impressed.

She married our dad on 27 October 1956. He proved to be the love of her life. She talked to me about those years and what a difference marrying him had made to her world:

I spent those years when I should have been at school at home, more or less. I don’t remember much about those years. I don’t think my mother understood. Dad was more amenable because he was more intelligent. Then when I met Harry it was alright. That was my salvation. Because he cared, love his heart.

With a husband postman and five kids to feed, mother had to work. She was a grafter. She would clean houses for some of the wealthiest villagers. She had a spell in the 1960s and early 1970s working at the Buxted Chicken Factory. One of the vilest tasks she was given was to cut the legs off the chickens with huge shears as they came round suspended from an overhead conveyor belt. The resulting blood blisters on her hands were the size of two pence pieces.

In order to eke out the family’s meagre finances, mother developed a weekly schedule of meals. The day of the week dictated what we would find on our teatime plate: Monday, lentil soup with dumplings; Tuesday, toad in the hole; Wednesday, baked beans on toast; Thursday, sausages and chips; Friday, mince; Saturday, fish fingers and mash; Sunday, roast dinner.

Mother’s house husbandry was expert. Seven people fed well for next to nothing. We all remember when Dad’s infamous compliment to her about the merits of her plain cooking caused a certain tea-time turbulence.

For mother, one extra loaf a week would put her in financial difficulty until dad was paid on Friday. There were few luxuries. Mother would shop cheaply, knit us jumpers, clothe us through jumble sales and buy things on the never-never in catalogues.

My siblings, Bev, Dave, Heather, Ian, and I never felt deprived; we didn’t really know how relatively poor we were but mother did. I can see her standing at the kitchen sink with her hands in the basin staring out of the window and repeating aloud her favourite mantra, God give me strength to bear that which I cannot change. I think we all realise, now, how much mother and dad sacrificed for us.

We would holiday with friends or relatives in exotic places like Hayling Island or Galashiels or Wakefield. Some years we wouldn’t holiday but have days out around Sussex instead: the beach at Norman’s Bay or a day in Battle. We could have invented the concept of a staycation.

For our more extravagant holidays, dad would borrow a car from John Billings who owned the village garage. Dad had taught John how to play golf and we usually hired the car for free.

Dad’s golf was not costly. It was working class, or Artisan golf, where we could only play on the course at nearby Piltdown at limited times during the week. And at weekends, dad would work Saturday mornings and dedicate the rest of his time off work to golf.

That left mother alone a lot of the time. She ran the whole show, to be honest – working, washing, ironing, cleaning and feeding five kids. She was frugality personified. She read a great deal and could write with an Orwellian clarity. Here is a piece she wrote about being a contented golf widow, for the Artisan Golfer magazine:

We’ve been married twenty-one years tomorrow; I’ve spent most Saturdays and Sundays (especially in the summer) of those years at home with our children. Sometimes the air has been blue when I’ve cursed that golf club! But let me finally say this to any other golf widow who may be reading: let them go to golf. Don’t stop them playing. If you marry a happy golfer, and then say he can’t play, he won’t be that same happy fellow you fell in love with.

Mother was never going to be a feminist. Whilst Germaine Greer was publishing the Female Eunuch in 1970, mother was getting stuck into The Reader’s Digest. She read endlessly and would buy me books from the Ladybird series to encourage my reading.

My first ever homework was set by Maureen Boss. She taught me History and on the first day of secondary school we were set the question, Why did Julius Caesar invade Britain in 55 BC? Mother and I worked our way through the text book, explained how Caesar was merely preparing for future colonisation of our island and described how the Senate was so impressed it announced a twenty day celebration of the invasion. Mrs Boss duly awarded us 9/10 and a V. good comment. Mother enjoyed the feedback as much as I did.

As kids, winter Saturday evenings were the source of our 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. That BBC1 Saturday evening schedule in the 1970s was family-viewing gold.

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. My brother Dave would be sent off to the garage to buy us all a chocolate bar, the weekly treat, to be eaten with the mid-evening hot drink. Mother would always have a green thing, aka a Fry’s Peppermint Cream.

In the early 1970s mother began cleaning for Mrs Mann whose house stood directly opposite the Piltdown golf course clubhouse. It had a huge garden and it wasn’t long before she was employing dad as a gardener. It worked really well. Mother would clean every Friday and dad would garden after lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

There came a point when Mrs Mann decided to move into the closest town, Uckfield. A small two-bedroomed cottage was attached to the converted barn she had bought and she offered the cottage to my dad. So, in 1977 we left our council house and squeezed into Cherry Barn Cottage.

Some of the financial pressures they had felt for decades suddenly lifted. They were modest, happy times. By 1983 Mrs Mann had made it clear to mother and dad that she intended to leave all her worldly possessions to them. Suddenly, dad could see the end of getting up at 4.15 a.m. every day except Sundays to do his post round. And mother wouldn’t have to clean for anyone else ever again.

Mother and dad had two years imagining such promised joy. He died on 6 February 1985, six months before Mrs Mann passed away. Mother was left with grief and pain, and money she had no idea what to do with. She once said to me that she’d have been happy living in a hole in the ground with dad, rather than existing in the converted barn without him.

In the 35 years since dad died, mother had a few relationships, but nothing lasting. She lived alone, latterly in a flat; I would ring mother and ask what she was up to and she would reply, Oh, not a lot, dear. Her days drifted by in an indeterminate haze of reading, television, crosswords and the regular cigarette. Beyond Ian and his dog Sid, she had few visitors; nearly all mother’s contemporaries had passed away. She was way beyond understanding the internet and how that might entertain her for days on end. She could not be doing with another pet dog. Consequently, there was a huge gaping void facing her every time the sun rose and a day began.

We started to notice how she would ask us to repeat names of people, three or four times in a single visit. She became increasingly unsteady on her feet and two falls in a matter of days in the local supermarket led her to be hospitalised. She spent her last four or so years in a care home, as Alzheimer’s tightened its grip upon her. Trying, and failing, to reteach her the rules of snooker so she could watch her beloved Ronnie O’Sullivan, was painful.

Despite the dementia, mother had more than a little of the Livia Soprano in her; she remained a combative soul, pretty much right up to the very end.

She was resident in the Copper Beech House Care Home in Uckfield when she died. Whilst it is hard to know what exactly caused her passing, her advanced Alzheimer’s certainly helped her choose to give up on living.

The care Gillian and her colleagues at Copper Beech gave her was exemplary. They are complete heroes. They grew to love mother’s spirit, which became increasingly funny, rude and raucous as her filters fell away.

The final testimonial comes from Kay, one of mother’s carers, which she sent to my sister Heather just an hour after she had passed away:

I spent time with her last night and this morning. I am glad we handed over to Michelle and her team this morning as I knew they would be by her side. It’s honestly heart-breaking at the mo. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to meet your mum. Utmost respect, she was her own woman…. You couldn’t but love her!! XX

Donations to the Alzheimer’s Society can be made here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-involved/make-donation

 

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Why the COVID-19 crisis requires the recall of Parliament

Important caveat: without wanting to sound remotely self-important, I need to point out that I write this simply as John Tomsett, British citizen.

The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.
Atul Gawande

Today at least forty people an hour will die with COVID-19 in England. Each one will die alone. The same number died yesterday in similarly dreadful circumstances. And the day before that, and the day before that.

Any of us who have lived any length of time will know what it is to lose someone we love. My dad died when I was twenty. My sister died three years ago. I have lost friends and colleagues over the years.

If you have lived, you have lost.

The process of moving from bereavement to acceptance is an uneven one, but in most circumstances it begins by saying a final goodbye, either at the bedside or at the funeral.

But those who die in hospital today will die alone. And they will be buried or cremated whilst their relatives watch on a Zoom call.

It is hard to imagine the agony of all those involved.

And then there’s that hand-holding nurse.

That nurse will call the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters to break the deadly news. Over and over again, today, tomorrow, and the next day. Deep into next week she will still be making calls to distraught relatives.

That nurse will work a 14 hour day, go home, sleep and return the next to go through the same terrible process of managing people’s last moments on this earth.

That nurse is unlikely to have sufficient personal protective equipment for tending patients in the COVID-19 ward. She will live every minute of her working day wondering whether she will contract the virus, and, like 19 of her fellow NHS workers, suffer the kind of death she witnesses daily.

Here we are, then, with the country’s death figures yet to abate, and little clear sense of what is actually being decided on our behalf by our country’s leaders to counter the pandemic.

At the afternoon Downing Street briefings, I am not even sure the daily death count is announced. You have to calculate how much the total has increased from the day before.

The fact is, our daily death count has eclipsed all others in Europe. Indeed, as I write, on the Andrew Marr Show the Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar, talking about COVID-19 related fatalities, says that it’s “likely” Britain will be “one of the worst, if not the worst, country affected in Europe”.

Yet a couple of weeks ago we raised our eyebrows at Spain, as footage showed A&E facilities with patients sprawled across the floor in the corridors. The people of Lombardy were held up as the victims of Italian ineptness. We saw convoys of Italian army vehicles ferrying the dead to mortuaries under cover of darkness.

The thing is, for me, life goes on over this Easter weekend. So far as Saturdays go, I had a lovely day. I sorted out some old photos, went for a walk by the river, fell asleep on our bench in the sunshine, had a drink with mates – via laptop – and finished the day watching the final two episodes of the first series of The Sopranos. I spent my day in a virus-free bubble.

Meanwhile, 40 people died every hour.

I am truly glad that Boris Johnson has taken COVID-19 on the chin and is up in bed reading Tintin cartoons. But I would rather find out, for instance, why flights from New York – aka Covid-19 central – continue to touch down in Heathrow hourly and their passengers are allowed through immigration and out, unchecked, into the UK quicker than you can say the word “quarantine”.

This is a national emergency. People are dying in their thousands. Who is asking the hard questions? What “science” are we following? Whose “science” are we following?

The media has found it near impossible to hold our politicians to account for their decision-making. Too few are reporting the awfulness of what is happening, in our country, today, right now, this minute.

This is absolutely the wrong time for party political points scoring, but it is the right time, surely, to recall Parliament. The relatives of today’s dead, at least, have a right to know what’s really going on.

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This much I know about…the challenge of keeping our students socially distant in school

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenge of keeping our students socially distant in school.

I was born two months after Boris Johnson. I have a heart condition. This week I was due to have a replacement pacemaker fitted, the same week the Prime Minister was admitted to St Thomas’ Intensive Care Unit. My operation was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four years ago I contracted pneumonia. My GP told me that if, after taking a second lot of antibiotics, I did not feel better within 24 hours, I should go straight to A&E. You can die of this, he said.

I know what it is to feel overwhelmingly weary, to be unable to catch my breath, to feel afraid. Contracting pneumonia was, quite frankly, terrifying.

And all this went through my mind last night as I geared myself up to open school today with the help of five colleagues. On the way to work, there was chatter on Radio 4’s Today programme about reopening schools, from experts who have, perhaps, forgotten the experience of their own school days.

We had nine students to look after – the other 1,522 were at home.

I spent most of today yelling, “TWO METRES!” at our small group of wonderful youngsters. I have a responsibility to keep them and my colleagues safe from each other.

And I want to remain safe too. I really do not fancy contracting COVID-19. Consequently, I am relentless in my exhortations to maintain social distancing.

“TWOOOOO METRES!”

Keeping each other safe is an exhausting enterprise. For the past four weeks I have felt like something is sitting heavily on my chest. It is a level of permanent tension. It rises on a Tuesday night and peaks during my rota-day Wednesday. For the rest of the week it is a constant presence. I know I am not running a COVID-19 ward, but my fears are very real.

As I grumbled around our corridors and out on the school field, the words of the so-called experts came back to me. “Schools could open. Students should maintain social distancing procedures and remain in the same room all day, through breaks and lunchtimes.”

Our students are young teenagers. Remaining two metres apart from each other is an unnatural thing for them to do, as is sneezing into the crook of their elbow, or using a tissue, or washing their hands thoroughly, or keeping their fingers out of their mouths, noses and eyes.

It was a long day, but the young people were just great. They even let me win the penalty shoot-out. But it was all we could do to keep these nine socially distant, with a student-teacher ratio of 2:3. Imagine what it would be like with 1,531 students in school and a third of our staff self-isolating?

We reckon you could keep just 13 secondary-aged students socially distant in an average classroom. If we returned to school after Easter, to ensure over 1,700 people remained safely socially distant we would need twice the number of classrooms and twice as many teachers. We would require many more buses to get them there. And how we would feed everyone, when we would be stuck in the same room all day, I cannot quite imagine.

At 3.20 pm today, as we bid farewell to our students, I felt drained.

On the way home I popped into the local Tesco mini-mart. It was all but empty, until a nurse suddenly appeared at the other end of the aisle. I caught her eye and simply said, “Thank you”. She looked bemused at first, but then realised what I meant.

She was reciprocally thankful to all the other key workers: the super market shelf-fillers; the bus drivers; the refuse collectors; the police; the teachers. She was upbeat because the personal protective equipment had arrived today. She was a district nurse. She had been sneezed over for the past month, but the newly acquired surgical masks were a godsend.

Fortunately for me, we were interrupted by another shopper and our conversation was curtailed. I paid for my dishwasher tablets and held it together until I made it to my car. And it was then that I gave in and wept.

Posted in General educational issues | 3 Comments

This much I know about…moving from Research to Outcomes (Durrington researchED)

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about…moving from Research to Outcomes (Durrington researchED).

Slides:

 

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This much I know about…how we must keep on saying, “Hello”

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about…how we must keep on saying, “Hello”.

“And those that used to say hello simply pass you by.”
from Think for a Minute by The Housemartins

I hail from Sussex. One of the unexpected pleasures that struck me when we began living in the North was being greeted in the street by complete strangers. People I had never met said, “Hello” as I walked along York’s pavements. For a southerner, it was initially unnerving, but soon became a reassurance. Whilst I will never be an assimilated Yorkshireman, I felt welcome in God’s own county.

A five-mile early morning walk around York is a staple feature of my lockdown day. I follow a route along the River Ouse. I see dozens of people. It feels odd, but understandable, that we skirt around each other, maintaining a healthy two metres of separation. But what has upset me is the bowed heads, averted eyes and the awful silence. I mouth, “Good morning” but rarely is my salutation reciprocated.

Whilst we keep our distance, there’s no need for us to be so distant.

In a post-Coronavirus world there will be a new normal; I just hope the hearty Yorkshire “Hello” survives.

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This much I know about…when the last day of the school year falls in March

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about when the last day of the school year falls in March.

Here is an account of the last few days at Huntington before the country’s schools all but closed for the foreseeable future on Friday 20 March 2020:

Today, I began our final Year 11 assembly with the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”. It seemed apposite.

Oh for a boring Friday in mid-March, where nothing interesting happens, a Friday consigned to the “instantly forgettable” pile, beyond recall.

Instead, it has been a day which will interest historians for centuries to come.

It began for me at 5.00 am, like every day this week.

We have taken things hour by hour. What else can anyone do? We created a planning room where, at 7.30 am meetings, our SLT sat on separate tables and figured out what on earth to do. We worked closely together but kept our distance.

Since Monday we have focused relentlessly on communicating with our students, parents and colleagues. A daily morning PowerPoint from me, read aloud by form tutors to their tutees. A daily parental bulletin. A daily Coronavirus Contingency Planning Update for colleagues before registration.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

A vacuum is soon filled with fear. We had to manage the growing levels of anxiety.

Once out of that room, we put our game face on. As students and staff began to buckle, there was no reason to add to their doubts. It’s great to show you’re human for sure, but people also need to feel they are in safe hands, especially when uncertainty and fear abound.

Then again, I did weep privately in my office on Thursday after I had told the Year 11s and 13s their examinations were cancelled.

Over the past two days we have focused our minds on gathering all the evidence we could find to support our predicted grade judgements. We knew we had to give everyone a sense of purpose. We kept them busy before they started thinking too much.

Beyond that, I’ve been repeating to anyone and everyone the Shelley line which I had written on my office whiteboard last October and is still there: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

At break time today, the sunshine warmed the backs of my legs through the glass as I stood in reception, a reminder that this too shall pass, that the earth will keep on turning.

And we laughed a lot. My last two Year 11 classes were uproarious. We sat and told stories, finding comfort in our narratives.

My Business Studies boys told me things about our school that no one else needs to know!

The prize for the first student to solve their last ever GCSE mathematics question was either all the cash in my trouser pockets or a roll of toilet paper. The winner chose the latter.

When I stood on the stage for the final assembly, I told the Year 11s I was sorry they will never have that last day of school rite of passage. I told them that they will be awarded their qualifications.

I told them their futures will be secure, that the sun will shine again.

Our school values of Respect, Honesty and Kindness, emblazoned above me across the hall wall as I spoke, have never been more resonant.

I told them to go home and be kind to people.

My final slide before we bid them farewell for now featured a wall of Love Hearts sweets. I explained that at the core of our response to this crisis has to be love. And how, when this is over, we just might be a kinder, gentler species, one that realises that we need each other more than we ever knew.

Shakespeare was right when he wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

As our young people hugged each other and wept, the comforting strains of “It Must be Love” floated across the school hall.

Nothing more, nothing less…

 

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