I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about feeling like a dinosaur.

‘Tis now Spring, and all the pleasures of it displease me; every other tree blossoms, and I wither: I grow older, and not better; my strength diminisheth, and my load grows heavier; and yet, I would fain be or do something; but that I cannot tell what, is no wonder in this time of my sadness. – John Donne

The older I get the less certain I am about anything. I write this neither for sympathy nor reassurance, but because I feel a genuine sense of doubt; whilst I like peaches and I’ll never wear my trousers rolled, I do keep asking myself, am I stalwart or dinosaur?


I’ve never been good about getting older! I spent a great evening recently with David Conn, an old mate from university and recent winner of the Sports News Writer of the Year award. David was speaking at the York University Union, exploring his latest book about Manchester City FC, Richer Than God, and he explained to the youthful audience how he and I had met at York exactly 30 years ago. He pointed out that coming to speak to them was the equivalent of someone coming to speak to our undergraduate selves in 1984 about football in 1954.
There is a whole generation of youthful educators on the move. I spoke recently at City Hall about research in education. We were on the top floor overlooking the Thames, with a veritable fest of world famous landmarks in view, and in front of me were dozens of young educators like Julia Citron who are  unencumbered by the last three decades of state education. They know nothing but Academies, Free Schools, Teach First and Michael Gove and their sense of the possible was tangible. I left Boris Johnson’s HQ feeling uplifted; later on the train back north I began to wonder whether it was time, to use a golfing term, to step aside and wave the new breed through.

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!

Am I part of Michael Gove’s blob? If I am, is that actually a good thing? Has the educational world changed so radically that there is no place now for my concept of Headship which I articulated 18 months ago, the nub of which is to be the Headteacher of the school, the lead practitioner, the person who spends most of his or her time improving the quality of teaching across the institution? In the past I have ranted thus: There is a huge fork in the road for Headteachers: one route leads to executive headship and the other back into the classroom, teaching, coaching, mentoring, supporting, being the Headteacher. If the Headteacher’s day-to-day work is not engaged in improving practice in his or her school then s/he is missing the point. I still believe this is true, it’s just that growing numbers of people seem to disagree with me.


If the Conservatives win the next election I would say that forced Academisation is inevitable. And I don’t know what I think about that any more. The vast majority of my great colleagues on the Headteachers’ Roundtable Think Tank lead academies; I’m one of the few exceptions. Should we allow state schools to be run for profit? I’m pretty sure that they shouldn’t but many think schools-for-profit is an acceptable concept.
Funding cuts make my working life increasingly hard; I have had to oversee some very painful redundancy processes this year. Yet the cost of setting up the Harris Westminster Sixth Form for high-achieving students is purportedly £45m, or £90,000 per student. Is that right? I don’t know, but some people seem sure it is.
Can some horror stories emerging from Academy chains really be true? Is the world so changed? I heard recently that the advice from the CEO of an Academy chain advertising for a new principal for the chain’s flagship Academy to an experienced aspirant candidate was, It’s an outstanding Academy, part of an outstanding Academy chain, the OFSTED report is available online, apply if you want to. Is there such a thing any more as a Headteacher who is able to lead a school according to his or her values-set or are Headteachers/Principals merely implementers of the corporate processes? Does it matter, as long as students’ outcomes are improving? Really, does it? I don’t know…
One personal Springtime cheer has been an invite to speak at the Oxford Union in June; the letter is very very amusing for someone like me who has taken Shelley’s Ozymandias to heart…

oxford union

This House Believes That Private Schools Do More Harm Than Good is the debate; well, the trouble is, as a member of the Steering Group of York’s Independent-State School Partnership I will probably be speaking against the motion!
Margaret Thatcher inspired me to become a teacher. And the Coalition is dismantling state education as we have known it in front of our eyes. Are we really returning to a world of unbridled competition? Is the market the answer to our educational woes? It seems that the level of turbulence caused by deliberately huge policy change means that what is left surviving when the dust settles on Michael Gove’s tenure will be the new educational world. I’m afraid I am beginning to feel my erstwhile certainties, the very bedrock of my core beliefs, begin to crumble.
Few candidates I interview now remember Banda machines. What I hold onto, however, is the fact that many interviewees have explained to me recently that they want to work at our school because they want to work somewhere which has soul.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


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This post has 27 Comments

  1. Another immaculate post from Mr T but it raised some questions/comments in me
    1) How do the 30 or 40 something mature entries into teaching ( escaping from their private sector first profession ) compare. Are they dinosaurs or innovative middle-bloods who annoy both the old and the young guard ?
    2) How can dinosaurs get their teaching and innovation mojo back? Is this a golden opportunity for a new field in inspirational CPD.
    3) Nearly everyone in every non-pastoral profession hits a “what’s it all about” wall at 40 or so and there’s no reason why teachers should be any different. The only difference is that teachers are jaded in what should be for them a rewarding profession.
    4) TWO key learning points I recommend for staff room posters are : a) 70% of effective change management is dealing with the “grief of change” and b) “The worst colleague to have is a cynic”.

  2. I really loved this post John! Your sense of worry about the future is palpable and something I think many people will relate to.
    On youth: Of course, it *is* possible to be 30 and still know about education before academies… 😉
    And anyway, how many of the newbies are constantly banging on about the importance of history? There’s nothing ‘blobby’ about having a sense of where schools have been and how that might impact where they are going.
    Congrats on the Oxford Union debate invite – such fun and what an honour!

    1. Thanks Laura. I just wonder whether the new world is here to stay for a bit. I SO don’t want to be some Luddite, but that old aphorism about staying still long enough so that you become radical again resonates. Speak to Jonathan Taylor the Head at Bootham, a Quaker School in York, and he’ll say he spends his whole life encouraging his teachers not to teach formulaically, to take risks and make the classroom an innovative and interesting place. It’s MacDonald’s vs Michelin Star models of education and so many academies seem MacDonald’s not Michelin Star. I know every SoS has espoused subsidiarity and then centralised, but the current incumbent seems to be centralising more than most.

      1. I wonder whether the trick of adapting over time is constantly looking for synthesis points and not holding too preciously to either side? For example, Michelin Star has its issues: it’s expensive, unscalable, it can only ever be the preserve of the few. Assuming you’re using McDonalds to mean standardised and uniform that has the issue of being impersonal and and its cheapness means it’s lacking in nutrients. But there are probably inbetweens – ways of finding a blend between the two. So when we have reservations about academisation (which I and you do), then it’s about seeing what the opportunities are in the new stuff (there are some, right?) but what are the important things we must not lose.
        Doing this is tough. Sometimes, when I feel myself getting down about education debates, I force myself to find at least one thing in the opposing side’s argument that I’m willing to budge on. [I can hear the hardline crowds weeping here, but bear with…] If I realise that I’m not willing to budge on anything, not even a little, then I examine why that belief is so central. Too often it has been because some past enormously salient experience makes me believe in things very firmly, but if looked at objectively that experience is no longer relevant. (In fact, I wrote about this problem a little while ago, I call it the ‘Quantum Leap Theory of Education’ http://lauramcinerney.com/2012/09/10/the-quantum-leap-theory-of-education-reform/). On the other hand, if you’ve really tried to budge and you know in your gut that there simply isn’t budging room, then it’s right to fight for it. And you can console yourself by knowing that you really did try to budge first before being a mud-sticker!
        A final thing – whether new teachers realise it or not, whether governments value it or not, experienced people must cajole and challenge new-kids-on-the-block if things are to get better. That’s not pessimistic or ‘blobby’. It is an extraordinarily optimistic thing: people who don’t think they can change anything tend simply not to say anything. In my own blogging I am constantly in awe of headteachers life yourself, and the many others on twitter, who take the time to points things out, share knowledge and ideas. It’s a vital piece of the puzzle. Without Seymour Sarason’s forty years of education research my own studies of Free Schools would have been completely base. Without decades of people driving change, we’d still have schools with almost no students getting GCSEs and enormous inequality in university attendance. Whether they realise it or not, any success and innovation among the young is built on the shoulders of the giants were they are precariously perched.
        All of which, to be honest, is a really lengthy way of saying: PLEASE DO NOT STEP ASIDE AND LEAVE THE YOUNG PEOPLE TO IT. Your experiences are needed. Very very much so.
        [Lawks, this was long. I really should get my own blog. 😉 ]

        1. Thanks Laura for taking time out to respond. I don’t reject all of the new developments. It’s about adjusting to the new thinking (some of which is the old repackaged!). One of the strengths of leadership is being prepared to admit when you get it wrong and holding your hand up. I think that’s about authenticity and feeling confident in one’s fallibility. I think I’m just entering a different phase of headship, where I make sure that the 30 year olds are in the roles where they can drive on new initiatives with my wisdom and judgement to guide them. Some of the new is exciting for sure, really exciting. My January post about loving the job again still holds. But there is always a moment when the world has developed and is in some ways unrecognisable and I’m just asking whether that moment has arrived for me; I just want to be conscious of that moment when it comes…

  3. Thank you. As deputy in a school which strives to be decent and retain its soul, we have felt for some time that we are out of step with the current educational climate. I’m holding fast that the pendulum will swing again… Or maybe this enemy of promise will just get out with her soul intact.

  4. Oh John… there is, as MissMcinerny says, a palpable sense of sadness in this. I will not argue against what you feel, because I share it deeply, but I’d like to offer a little hope from my fellow feeling. To paraphrase…. I was a teacher for 15 years, then a rich rag tag of deputy, head, adviser, inspector and officer for another 15 and then freelance until now, at the age of 65.. so this much I also know about feeling like a dinosaur….. If you can keep your head whilst all about are raging at the night…I have learnt there is something that growing old allows….if you keep reflecting and analysing the longer view… I like to think it’s the dawning of wisdom…It’s never about, “told you so….been there… got the T shirt… or even let them learn themselves..” but it is about…”these are the patterns I now recognise… I think I can see a simpler way… and asking all the time…. where have you met this before….. and how about this as a way to see what you are describing?”
    So,16 years on… I’d just say… think about how metaphors, once chosen, limit our thinking….Why choose dinosaur – something destined to become extinct? What will be your comparison of hope?

  5. John – I’m pretty much the same age as you, and I’m experiencing a similar feeling. However, I think it is a good thing. That sense of being less sure of anything to me signifies the arrival at a more mature and nuanced understanding of education that rejects the black-and-white terms in which so many of the discussions and dilemmas have been couched. Education simply isn’t a simple matter of good technocratic management, and I’ve seen far too many errors committed as a result of b&w decision making. Too many people have been cast into the professional darkness as well, as a result – and if we’re coming to the end of that, I think it’s a good thing.
    I’m glad you run your school with soul. I think your subject background has something to do with that, and you strike me as fundamentally a ‘people person’. Far too many schools are run by those who know far *too* clearly what they think (but only in technocratic or policy terms) – and it is usually to the detriment of the other people who make up the communities that they control. That isn’t good education.

  6. If it’s a choice between value driven leadership and leadership by numbers (which is what a lot of schools sadly feel like) then I know which side I’m on. It’s not just a preference thing either. Only one leads to innovation and evolution. It’s not just the teachers, it’s the kids too. I know of many high achieving sixth formers reacting to their schools’ attempts to squeeze every last grade out of them by settling, almost by way of rebellion, for the minimum grades than will get them a university place, when they should be brimming with scholarly passion!

    1. I fear there’s yet another false dichotomy in the making here, though. I agree utterly with running a school on ‘soul’ – but it’s actually the orthodoxies of the past twenty years that have got rid of the soul. I share the experience above witnessing the counter-effects of too much pressure – but that is the consequence of the education-by-numbers that the educational establishment has embraced so fully. I have tried to stand up for more traditional, more personable teaching methods, which I still believe are the most effective – only to have been criticised and marginalised for doing so by my local powers-that-be. In that sense, I have little sympathy if the progressive ‘blob’ is feeling some of Gove’s heat – it’s only what they have been doing to the likes of me for twenty years.
      I have no liking for Gove the man, but I have a sneaking hope that some of his reforms could unintentionally return more discretion to teachers – after all it was in those past times when schools probably did have more soul.
      John sometimes sounds like a man caught between the humane ‘will’ and the managerial ‘won’t’. I hope the human being wins out – and it’s worth remembering that in those softer past times, most people didn’t achieve headships until significantly later in their careers – when they had perhaps gained precisely the kind of age/experience-related wisdom that John seems worried about!

  7. Jon, I’m sorry that you feel that your time as a Headteacher may be running out. I’m not in education, I am slightly older than you, and have a leader position in an organisation. My organisation has started to bang on about youth, innovation and the next generation. But this I know, nothing can replace experience and commitment. Fear not, keep an open mind and continue to Lead.

  8. I have taught for five years more than you. I understand exactly. I gave up middle management to escape the stupidity of being forced into being a mediocre accountant, administrator and business manager when I had enjoyed being a value driven builder and leader of teams, choosing curriculum and overall structure whilst supporting and developing teachers and their individual preferred pedagogy. I have retreated to the classroom where I may still make that difference for the 150 young people I manage. Narrowing the viewpoint has returned the satisfaction, my traditional and experience developed teaching gets comparatively very good results and I find with some irony that it is even becoming ‘mainstream’ again. Focus on your school and make it a beacon of what the ‘system’ could have been. Best wishes. See you all on the 3rd May.

  9. I don’t think it’s about getting old, it’s about waking up to what is going on, and feeling confused by it. If you stick to your convictions you may find you have a fight on your hands; if you were able to add the authority of your voice to that fight you might be surprised by how much support you have. For further inspiration read Diane Ravitch, what’s happening in the States is clearly the model. And rather than Shakespeare, the apposite quotation might be this. The link contains the full lyric.

  10. Another near dinosaur here and still trying to bat away the advances of ‘guff’ that come my way daily as headteacher – The young ‘uns still need us there as all these things will come and go again in ever decreasing circles. Just like they say no new music is being invented as every tune has been written, it’s just being re-arranged. Fundamentals will still be fundamental, children will still be children and good teachers (and headteachers) will still be good. I read out extracts of our Victorian school log to our children recently and the same misbehaviours were in then as are in our meticulous behaviour records for Ofsted today, only the punishments were very different! Maybe we should take a lesson from AAMilne and instead of dinosaurs we can be wise old owls while the tiggers, piglets and winnie the poohs bounce around (I am no longer able to bounce around without severe upholstery, painkillers and preferably a day off to recover)
    I do remember banda machines – inky fingers and that oh so slightly high feeling 🙂

  11. Many thanks for this post, John, which raises many questions and which really made me think.
    Would love to discuss some of the points in it with you sometime….

  12. Having read all the comments I must say that I too understand the importance of a sound moral compass in leadership at this time. I think that my ‘gut’ instinct has been right most of the time and if yours is telling you that not all is right in the world, its probably because it isn’t, rather than because you have reached your sell by date.
    Sound leaders have always taken policies and changes made by Government and re-moulded them into something worthwhile of our nations children. In a democracy I think that is the only way. Work within the framework, but seeing as we will outlast all secretary’s of state and Governments, have a longer term view and morph the landscape into our own vision.
    What worries me is that Headteachers who want to lead a school in the way that you have described are currently being put off, and Deputy’s are not applying. Instead we have the over-ambitious, over-confident, status and power driven people, without the necessary character, grasping the opportunity to elevate themselves in both position and wealth. Any system that allows this to happen, and the news is currently full of examples of misspent tax payers money and unaccountable executives, must be fundamentally flawed.
    Surprisingly, the same core principles, applied outstandingly well in schools, that we have always had, lead to improvement and better outcomes for young people. The rest is a sea of change, because that is the world as we know it, and the best leaders adapt with it, not because of it.
    Keep up the good fight, it is when good people stand by and do nothing that bad things prosper.

  13. This is such a great post on so many levels. Very thought provoking so thank you for that!
    Personally I find absolutely disgraceful and frankly unforgivable is the ‘privatization’ of education. While the governments aims are hopefully nobel, in that they are trying to raise standards, they are in the process of creating an educational system that is a divided as the country. Education is like the health service as far as I can see in that it is something that should be a fundamental right for every citizen. Everyone should have access to a quality education. If someone is profiting from it then someone along the line is loosing… in business there are very few win wins, even if corporations would try and tell us different. To continue the comparison with the health service, it has become evident over the last few years the quality of health care you receive depends on where you live. This will be exactly the same as the education system that is currently being installed.
    The question of being a dinosaur is relevant to me in that I am a similar age. The difference is that I am in the process of returning to education after a sabbatical of a number of years… I’m in a different country but I would say I think with age comes a perspective that younger educators don’t have. While the youngsters are all full of idealism and enthusiasm, both necessary and somewhat envied, the experience that we, the middle aged folks bring, is just as important as the vim and vigour our younger colleagues offer.
    I think what everyone forgets is that at it’s core education is a simple endeavour. We try and impart knowledge and develop skills that will allow our children to live a full and happy lives. What has really queered this pitch is the incessant pursuit of trying to measure this. What’s really sad is that it’s not really for the benefit of our children but so that teachers can be accountable and results measured. Well they are now but I wonder at what cost?

  14. Reading your blog rang so true for me! I qualified in ’88, when Banda machines were in full use. After 25 years teaching, including 13 years in three headships, I was ‘disappeared’, which hit hard, but has given me lots of room for reflection, including most of the issues you have highlighted in your post. I am really excited to be taking on my 4th headship in September, where I plan to move back to the headteacher coaching and mentoring teachers to develop their strengths, improving outcomes for children, maintaining the school with soul. I am appreciating the growth in use of research to inform practice in schools (not by MG) and with experience we are able to reflect on the best practice of the past to influence the future. I embrace the opportunities technology brings to education (sadly nothing smells like Banda ink!) and the access it gives to international education practice we can learn from. I also recognise the need to identify the future young leaders, giving them opportunities to lead change within the school. I am hopeful that forced academisation will come to an end, if only because there aren’t enough sponsors, but hopefully through a change in government, but sadly the damage has been done. Some of the horror stories about academy chains are true.

  15. A wonderful blog. I for one will always remain implacably opposed to the harm being done to our children in so many settings nowadays, by Coalition ideology and it’s overzealous or inept implementation in our schools by fearful or evangelical managers. The distortions and the outright lies told about our state system in order to push this agenda through have been quite scandalous.
    It hurts to see what’s happening, and also people’s acceptance of it, which is why your blog resonated strongly with me. Thanks – the Donne quote is marvellous.

  16. Hi John
    I remember Banda machines . I remember they were the sole technology training on my PGCE. I also remember refusing to learn how to use one knowing that something better would soon come along to replace them!! I am at the same point as you as a deputy and I look around at what education has become… Yes and I weep frequently. But I hold onto that ‘soul’ and why I came into education. And whilst it crumbles around us I hold onto what I can bring to that child, that class, that member of staff, and that community. You reach even beyond that with your latest invite….. Do hold on in there. We are the rocks that can make a firm foundation and whilst changes willy carry on to defunct education we haven’t become robots and we are still able to influence from our ‘old school’ roots. Hang in there… You are very much needed.

    is within our natural ability to speak
    We share a million years of evolutionary perfection within our physical and mental abilities giving us the gift of communication within our species, tribal lifestyles have created our natural fears of the unknown.
    As we share our knowledge our opportunities to live peaceful useful and fulfilling lifestyles becomes an aim of all humanity
    Proving that we are learning our natural language by providing the natural circumstances to do so, is completely in nature’s hands.
    Looking back 3000 years our children would be following our physical activity which we needed to live by.
    Everything our parents were doing, we would be simply following their physical procedure, it therefore follows quite obviously that physical procedure is as natural for a child to follow as is learning a language from Association and Assimilation. As our children begin to speak naturally we can begin to show them physical measurements of everything, counting obviously was initially created by fingers, simply by the use of language and the illustrations made by fingers and toes we can illustrate the decimal system, initially natural pictures were used to identify the decimal place system, around the same time as written language was appearing came the development of the Abacus a purely physical ability used to represent numbers, so our natural ability in regards learning about quantity is also associated with physical activity and language, after a year involving language and physical activity learning arithmetic SHOWING TO TEACH everything we can possibly teach about quantity, the child’s mind is developing the ability to remember simple pictures, pictures of it`s hands and their representation of numbers, pictures of the Abacus and the physically created ability to illustrate counting addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, are all clearly illustrated, the child’s language ability develops, at the pace of a galloping horse, expressing the meaning of numbers in words and even reading those words from Abacus one develops quickly.
    Before their fourth birthday children can be introduced to the rhythmic chanting of the alphabet, which is an initial step which has to be perfected before we introduce the sound and shape together as one memory, the letters of the alphabet in the alphabetic sound, simply by using Association Assimilation letter shapes and sounds are becoming a perfected memory, without realising it children can then be introduced to the phonetic sounds of letters as we use them within words, the child’s ability to remember when a perfected memory is achieved is 100 years, children learning three steps in reading, which are provable and easily demonstrate able, have to be perfected finally as a small familiar picture.
    Everything I know and prove, Maria Montessori knew and had proven 100 years ago.
    Why? have our school teachers University professors and politicians failed the worlds children for 100 years.
    Millions of children have been deprived from perfection in counting and reading abilities, which are our perfectly normal natural right.
    Parents I will show you what you have to teach your own child, when you teach it, how you teach it, where you teach it, and why you have to do it yourself , Teaching your own child to count and read is easy pleasurable and vital for its future and your own family welfare.

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