This much I know about…Putting Staff First

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 Putting Staff First.

I have just finished co-authoring with Jonny Uttley, CEO of the Education Alliance Trust a new book called Putting Staff First. It will be published in April.

The thinking behind this new book is best exemplified by an oft-used metaphor…

When cabin pressure falls inside an aeroplane and the oxygen masks drop down, parents are directed to fit their masks before they fit their children’s. It is obvious why. Once hypoxia – a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain – sets in, even the simplest tasks become impossible.

Symptoms of hypoxia vary from person to person but include blurred or tunnel vision, hot and cold flashes, euphoria, numbness, tingling, apprehension, nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and belligerence.

Without an oxygen mask, within a few minutes parents suffering from hypoxia will be incapable of fitting their children’s masks, let alone their own. If parents fit their oxygen masks first, it turns out to be better for their children, who have a competent, healthy adult to support them through what can be a challenging experience.

The parallel with being a teacher is striking. If we do not ensure, first and foremost, that our teachers are happy, healthy, well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, well-trained experts, they cannot be their best for their students. Consequently, a school which does not prioritise professional learning and managing staff workload – which, as a consequence, will help improve staff wellbeing – is disadvantaging its own students.

Whilst it is easy to say that schools would not exist if it were not for the students, the glib converse is that without truly great school staff, the students would not be taught well enough. What we need – as recruiting subject specialist teachers, school leaders and specialist support staff becomes increasingly difficult – is a revolution in how we treat the adults in schools.

“What is the most important school-related factor in pupil learning? The answer is teachers”, say Schwartz et al, and if they are correct, then we have to put our staff before our students because it is the only hope we have of securing what our students need most: top quality teachers (Schwartz et al, 2007).

The longer our schools are populated with hypoxic adults, we imperil all our futures.

And whilst we are determined to put staff first, that does not mean working in a blueprint school is an easy ride; far from it. We expect teachers to work hard and to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be.

If high quality teaching is the only thing that really matters when it comes to improving students’ outcomes, it follows, then, that we expect teachers in blueprint schools to accept the professional obligation to improve their practice; indeed, we consider that to be one of the most important aspects of being a teacher in a blueprint school.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a blueprint as an ‘early plan or design that explains how something might be achieved’. Ten years after the Academies Act disrupted the structures of the English school system irrevocably, we want to look forward ten years hence, to a revitalised school system where our nation’s teachers are thriving and, consequently, so are our students.

Our new book is a 2030 blueprint to revitalise our schools that unashamedly puts staff first.


Schwartz, Robert B., Wurtzel, Judy & Olson, Lynn (2007) “Attracting and retaining teachers”, in the “OECD Observer” N°261, May 2007

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This much I know about…our family’s Lost Lowry

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 our family’s Lost Lowry.

What follows is based upon a family tale which has floated around my wife’s family’s consciousness for decades. At the end of last year, I asked my mother-in-law Pauline to tell us the story again, when we were all sitting round the dinner table. She was essentially speaking directly to Louise, my wife. I captured Pauline’s words on my dictaphone and shaped this short story. The quotation from The Antiques Roadshow was the serendipitous spur which finally prompted me to pin down this family tale for good.


The Lost Lowry

“It’s now become a kind of status symbol to own a Lowry. That means everybody wants one.”
Rupert Mass, Antiques Roadshow, 29 September 2019

When your grandad came out of the navy he started a taxi business. He couldn’t work as he had a complaint. He was torpedoed in the war. He set up this taxi service. There was one taxi in every village. He made a lot of money out of that. He had one car and then two. He was a good entrepreneur, your grandad. He had lots of people who he taxied around. The Blackwell’s. There was Mr Shami, an Iraqi. I think he were a mill owner.

Anyway, he used to run these people around. Including Lowry, you know, the painter. Matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. I love his paintings, me. I think they’re lovely. They’re busy. The house was very dismal. He had a trilby and a long raincoat. He were tall. He died just up the road in Wood’s Hospital, at the top of the park, near where you were born.

So, Mr Lowry had your grandad as a chauffeur and he used to take him places. I never took that much interest. I used to see him shopping as a young girl. We knew he were an artist. He used to carry a shopping bag around with him. It was in the early fifties, maybe late forties. We lived at Broadbottom then. Your grandad used to pick him up. He used to do long trips with him. Up to Sunderland, I think, you know, the north east. Long trips. In those days there weren’t many cars. He drove for him for years.

He lived in a house called…what was it? “The Elms” I think it was, up in Mottram. Oh, your grandad got on well with Mr Lowry. He took him around regular. He must have been on one trip with him once and after he dropped him off – he used to have a cup of tea with him, especially if it were a long trip – he says, as your grandad were going out of the door, “Harry, do you want this?” He had one of his paintings in his hand.

And your grandad said, “You can keep it, as far as I’m concerned Mr Lowry. I’ve never liked your stuff. Not being rude or owt.”

And that were it. He never offered him one again.


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This much I know about…how Larkin was right, “days are where we live”

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 Larkin was right, “days are where we live”.

It’s Margate, 22 April 1957. My dad sat on the seafront, beaming at the camera. On his right is his sister-in-law, my Auntie Beat, and on his left, his wife, my mother. Dad, trim and smart, would have been 29 years old; mother, with her Picture Post polka dot skirt, just twenty-one.

Behind them is everything they need on an Easter Bank Holiday Monday: a couple of lunchtime ales followed by a spot of shopping at British Home Stores and, after a walk on the beach, to J. Lyons & Co. Ltd., with its famous roof terrace café, for a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

They look the epitome of happiness. And why not? It’s a day off work. The sun is shining. The summer is ready to unfurl before them. And what’s more, mother is six months pregnant with their first child, my sister Beverley.

Dad’s brother Tom would have been behind the camera, making them laugh. “Say CHEESE!” No need to extricate from the long day the grain of pleasure for these four; they’re having genuine fun. The image’s sepia tones are imbued with a sense of indefatigable optimism. All of life is ahead of them.

Dad died nearly 35 years ago. I’m not sure when, exactly, Uncle Tom and Auntie Beat passed away. My sister Bev was taken by cancer back in 2017. BHS and Lyons are long gone. And today I visited mother in her Sussex nursing home. Despite her Alzheimer’s, she recognised me. She knows my other sister and my two brothers, but no one else.

I showed her a photograph of my wife Louise and our two sons. There was not a glint of recognition in her eyes. She asked about dad. I told her that he had died of cancer a long time ago. She looked rueful and declared, “I loved him”. Ten minutes later, after I had explained dad’s fate for the second time, she said, in a rare moment of lucidity, “Well, they all die John”.

On the way down south we dropped our eldest, Joe, back home in North London. Instead of carrying on straight away, we made the effort to take the tube to the Barbican and visit the Museum of London. I wanted to see The Clash’s London Calling 40th anniversary exhibition. It was, predictably, a thrilling experience.

Afterwards, as we walked through the streets towards the Old Spitalfields Market, Louise remarked that “Days”, by Phillip Larkin, had become her favourite poem. “It’s it, isn’t it? Like this, this is it, days, like this one”, she said. “This is our life. Not yesterday, not in the future, but now. This is where our life happens. On day’s like this.”

And, of course, she is right. Days are where we live. Days like the Easter Bank Holiday Monday that Ann & Harry and Tom & Beat spent laughing in Margate, all those years ago.

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This much I know about…why Tom Bennett is right – teaching IS a wonderful job!

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 why Tom Bennett is right – teaching IS a wonderful job!

I am teaching a Year 11 Business Studies GCSE class comprising 11 boys. I began teaching them in Year 10, when their behaviour was ruinous. I took them out of the original class so that the teacher and the 12 remaining students could get on with teaching and learning. I marched them to my office, sat them round my table and explained that, for the next 14 months, I would be teaching them, right though to their final examinations.

Two things happened in that class last week that gladdened my heart. On Monday we were practising MCQs, including this one:

Now, I had not taught them anything like this. I have no idea what a “Pure play retailer” might possibly be. When we went through the answers, Luke had chosen the correct answer, B. I asked him why and this was his reply:

‘Well, Mr Partmiter in RE was talking the other day about God being omnipotent, and he had explained to us that “omni” is a prefix meaning “all”, so I thought that must be the answer because customers can buy stuff in all different ways. Good old Mr Parmiter!’

Inspired by Alex Quigley, we have focused for the last three years on equipping students with the tools to deconstruct words to investigate their meaning when they don’t know what they mean. Always good when a plan comes together…

And on Thursday afternoon, before we finished the year with a Betty’s tea shop Cheeky Little Rascal each, I told the boys we had got some work to do and I had to get their brains thinking. Oliver replied, quick as a flash, “It wouldn’t be a Business lesson, Sir, if we weren’t thinking.” I have been working of late to ensure every single student has learnt what I have taught, inspired by Tom Sherrington’s seminal post on the #1 problem in teaching. Just changing the wording of my questioning has helped hugely. I have these boys thinking hard; instead of asking “Have you learnt that?” I ask “What have you learnt from that?” I get them thinking all the time. Oliver’s comment is the result of relentless interrogation, until I feel sure that all 11 boys have what I have taught securely in their brains!

I taught an all-boy group like this several years ago for English GCSE. One lad stood out, called Tom. A few weeks ago, Ros McMullen texted me. She lives just up the road. I was reminded of our ensuing exchange of texts this morning when I read Tom Bennett’s inspiring post, “It’s still a wonderful job – because teaching saved me”. I don’t usually post this kind of stuff, but Ros’ texts meant a lot to me, because my student Tom meant a lot to me. And Tom Bennett is spot on – it is a wonderful job, for sure!

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This much I know about…London Calling’s 40th birthday!

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 London Calling’s 40th birthday!

Forty years ago today The Clash released London Calling. It was a seminal moment in rock and roll history and a life-changing experience for my 15-year old self.

Less than a month after the release date I was queuing outside the Brighton Top Rank to see the band play on their 16 Tons Tour. They were promoting the new album. As my mates and I shuffled from foot to foot to keep the January chill at bay, critical opinion was divided about London Calling’s eclectic musical mix. No one understood Jimmy Jazz. Train in Vain was pure disco. There was so much reggae! The title track was great, for sure, but Lover’s Rock? Really? Before the gig, the proverbial jury was still out.

Once in the venue, it was a matter of downing as much Pernod & black as you could afford and then getting to the front of the stage. There were no safety gaps filled with bouncers. If you were brave you’d get a front row spot early and then just hold on. The crush was dangerous and exhilarating. The night The Clash played I ended up swaying around in the mosh-pit, just a few feet from the front.

There was nothing quite like being in the mosh-pit as The Clash began their set. The support had been finished for some time as chants of Clash…Clash…Clash…Clash bounced around the Top Rank’s sweaty walls. And just when you thought they would never appear, the lights fell. In the blackness torches scattered. The lyrics of Tennesse Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons floated out of the PA system and as they faded a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome back to Brighton…THE CLASH!” And a nanosecond later, pandemonium.

They began with Clash City Rockers. Mick Jones’ opening chords growled out across the Top Rank and the surge of energy was raw, elemental and purifying. A lad next to me grabbed my shirt and hauled himself up to crowd surf into the swirling mosh. I gasped for breath. Before I knew it we were straight into Brand New Cadillac followed by Safe European Home. One track, then another, then another. London Calling, Bang! Stay Free, Bang! White Man in Hammersmith Palais, Bang!

It was absolute chaos. I found myself laughing at the perilous thrill of it all. I loved it. And the thing was with The Clash, they loved it too. It was a night of heady celebration. They knew their new album was bloody great. As Andy Kershaw said, who heard them a couple of weeks later in Leeds, “they were at the absolute peak of their powers, the fully finished article…the last word in rock and roll bands”.

In those days the last bus home left at 11.05 pm from Churchill Square. Miss the 729 to Tunbridge Wells and you were stuck in Brighton all night, 20 miles from home. We never saw a full set. We left as Simonon thumped out the Police & Thieves base line, Strummer snarled Junior Murvin’s lyrics, Jones struck the jarring reggae chords and Topper orchestrated the whole thing with drum-machine precision.

It was 11.00 pm on 8 January 1980. Margaret Thatcher was in power and unemployment was on the rise. Unbeknownst to us, The Falkland’s War and the Miners’ Strike lay ahead, soon to ambush our remaining teenage years. But that night, walking up West Street, sweat-ridden and frozen, we didn’t care. We had seen The Clash. And London Calling would become the sound track of our lives. We were changed forever.

This 16 Tons Tour recording is from March 1980 in New Jersey, USA. The band’s supreme confidence is epitomised by Stay Free at 41:10. They own the whole auditorium.

P.S. My son shares his birthday with London Calling. He is 23 today. He is called Joe. Obviously.

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This much I know about…three funding facts which illustrate why school budgets are a General Election issue for all parties

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 three funding facts which illustrate why school budgets are a General Election issue for all parties.

  1. In 2007 we had 1,526 students at Huntington School and a curriculum taught by 97 full-time equivalent teachers; in 2019 we have 1,539 students and a curriculum taught by 86 full-time equivalent teachers.
  2. In 2010 we had an annual capital budget of £160,000; in 2011 that was cut to £28,000 p.a. and it is £29,000 p.a. this year.
  3. According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, if our total budget had merely kept up with inflation since 2010, we would have nearly £1,000,000 more in our annual budget in 2019.
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This much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: coping with the loneliness

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 challenges for early career headteachers: coping with the loneliness.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This final post explores, coping with the loneliness.


Coping with the loneliness

I had been exercised, early in my first headship, by a lad from the town who was known to dabble in drugs. He would loiter at the stile at the end of the school day, mixing with some of our most vulnerable students. One darkening November afternoon in my first term, I confronted him boldly, accusing him of being a drug dealer and directing him, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from my students. He stood his ground. He wasn’t, by a matter of inches, on school property. And he had an audience of some of my most challenging charges.

As I walked away, back down the path into school, the sense of loneliness was palpable. He stood there, victorious. I could hear the laughter and the jeers. Things got worse when his parents complained to the governing body. I literally sunk to the floor in my office when that news came through, in complete despair. I had mucked up. A week later I faced his mum and dad in my office where I had to apologise to them for making unsubstantiated accusations about their son. I felt humiliated.

Kevin, our older, hugely experienced, burly assistant head teacher, reassured me. He frequented the local pubs. He knew the town. He was sure nothing would really come of it. In a week’s time it would be old news. And, of course, he was right.

Later that first year I made a terrifically difficult decision about an internal appointment. Two strong candidates for a senior post and I decided to appoint neither. That was tough. For what seemed an eternity, every time I walked into the staff room colleagues stopped talking. I thought about that issue day and night and all weekend. I went fishing with my mate Nick and it was all I could contemplate. Even when I caught a pike, I was wondering about how to sort the mess out at school. Nick knew something was wrong. He chatted it through with me. He was wise about it all. Of course, it would resolve itself. I just had to be patient. Like Kevin before him, he was spot on.

The loneliest moment of my career came in 2010, when our results dipped badly. On that damp August results Wednesday, I sat in my car as the rain pummelled down on the roof and wept and wept; I felt like the loneliest man on the entire planet. I finally rang my wife Louise who said to me, John, come home. We all love you. You can pack it in. It’s really not worth it. Her words were the balm I needed just at that moment. I was very close to quitting. Thanks to Louise, I didn’t.

The loneliness of the job comes, in the end, from a mixture of forces: the fact that the buck stops with you; having to have difficult conversations with other adults; the confidentiality of so much of what you have to deal with; the range and number of different people and organisations to whom you are accountable; the sheer vulnerability of the position and how you are more sackable than any other person in your school.

So, if you are new to headship and you are sitting in front of a screen this Sunday morning feeling distant from your family and worried about next week – if  you are feeling just  plain lonely – here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for coping with the loneliness:

1. Find someone you can talk to. The thread through my loneliness examples above is clear. All head teachers need someone they trust with whom they can share their insecurities. In January 2016 the BBC screened a programme entitled The Age of Loneliness. In a poignant documentary, which is affecting yet never mawkish, Sue Bourne interviews a range of people who talk about living in relative solitude. Loneliness, according to Bourne, is ‘the silent epidemic’. Bourne’s fundamental conclusion is that, ‘People of all ages missed someone to do nothing with. To chat idly. To sit next to.’ And that’s it, isn’t it? We all need, to a greater or lesser extent, someone with whom to share our lives. And why should head teachers be any different? If there is no-one at home to talk to, a good employer will provide you with an experienced leadership coach. Bottling up stuff will only increase the sense of loneliness.

2. Choose to be a stoic and control how you react to things. Shakespeare’s “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, is rooted in Stoic philosophy. Accept that you can control how you react to life’s vagaries. You can choose how you think, and knowing this has helped keep me sane. It is worth reflecting upon the fact that here, now, as you read this and take a moment to look back on your life, all the things that have traumatised you, all the disasters which have befallen you, you have survived. Nothing has been as bad as it might have been. Nothing is ever that bad. As Karen Pierce, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN, pointed out in a recent interview, “It will be alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, you haven’t reached the end yet”. We can surely choose how we react to life’s vagaries. All events are neutral; how we interpret them determines whether they are good or bad and how we allow them to affect us. Imagine this…impossible as it might seem, everything that happens to you could be good if you chose to think that way.

3. Learn to compartmentalise. I have always argued that the work-life balance is a false dichotomy. I enjoy my job, I am proud to be a head teacher, my work is a central part of my life. For a long time I have preferred the work-home balance, which, combined, constitute my life. But now, much nearer the end of my career than the beginning, I am not sure that I wholly subscribe to my nuanced definition. I heard Cat Scutt speak at researchED Durham yesterday and some research she pointed to, made me think. A paper by Klusmann et al, on teacher wellbeing found that some of the most effective teachers maintained a ‘healthy detachment’ about their job and ‘conserved their personal resources’. What Cat said resonated with me and reminded me of Philip Gould. In his final interview before he died at the age of 61, Gould, Tony Blair’s close adviser, said this to Andrew Marr and I have had it pinned on my office wall ever since: ‘What would have been better for me would have been to have said, “I’ll do what I can do, which I do quite well” and then just push it back a little bit’. Gould’s insight came too late for him, but it isn’t too late for me or any early career head teacher. It. Is. Only. A. Job.

4. Expand your own mental health jam-jar (you need to read this post to understand this completely). I have a list of things I do which grow my capacity to cope with whatever life throws at me:

5. My most important tip for coping with the loneliness is an eternal truth. As Francis Bacon knew so well, the best antidote to loneliness is love. It is the only thing that really matters.

“But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”

Francis Bacon



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