Career advice from my son

My eldest son left school in the summer and is now in his first year at Manchester University. He was Head of School in his final year and he delivered a speech at prizegiving. He had not rehearsed it with my wife or me beforehand, and why should he? We had no idea what he was going to say when he mounted the platform and stood in front of the microphone. Knowing him, it was going to be something witty or rebellious, perhaps irreverent.

He turned to face his fellow students with a compassionate expression and said, ‘It’s ok. You have plenty of time. Don’t rush. It’s ok if you don’t yet know what you’ll be when you’re older. It’s ok if you don’t yet know what you will do. And it’s ok if you don’t know or how your entire career is going to map out before you’re even old enough to buy a pint.’

Well, that certainly made me think. GCSE and A Level choices weigh heavily on young minds at a time when career choices are far from clear. Any why should they be clear? It was the same when I was at school. I remember being consumed by the question, ‘What are you going to be?’. A better question might have been, ‘Who are you going to be?’

Careers are rich and varied, if we’re lucky. People try many different jobs before they settle on one that they may hold for a while. Change is healthy and the only permanence is that there is no permanence, to anything. We evolve, circumstances change, opportunities arise, our motivations and aspirations alter, and we seek out new things. Some of us are more curious than others, some are motivated by stable and predictable routines. Neither is better, neither is easier. If we’re lucky, and careful, the constants in our lives are our family and friends, not our job.

For my son to have reached the conclusion that you don’t have to choose a career before you’re even old enough to order a drink is so encouraging. He is his own man, architect of his own future and teller of his own story.

If only I’d had that same clarity at his age. Or even now! Like many students still today, I felt rushed into deciding what I would be. Career advice was an episode of Mr Ben: ‘As if by magic’ the career advisor appeared and I would try on various outfits and see which one suited me, with almost no knowledge of what the role involved. More importantly, I did not have enough knowledge at that early stage of what I wanted, what motivated me, or what engaged my curiosity and interest.

I was advised, like so many students back then, that you got a job, worked very hard and success would come; that the amount of money you earned and success you found were entirely commensurate with the amount of hours you toiled.

Part of me still agrees with this sentiment and yet part of me thinks it’s a pernicious myth. Success – whatever that means – is certainly about hard work, head-down grinding away, but it is also about building connections, forging relationships, collaborating, motivating others, seeing opportunities, innovating and creating. If you work very, very hard for many hours a day to satisfy your ambition – whether it is to make money or make a difference – how will you ever know if you have reached your ambition if your head is always facing the work? I know this to my cost; I have set myself a punishing work ethic throughout my career as a teacher and author and have rarely had time to enjoy the view, or enjoy my family. My children speak to me in rapid-fire-rounds of short sentences because they know that after a minute or two my eyes will always divert back to the computer screen. I am ashamed of this and determined to alter my behaviour before all four of my children have left for university and are no longer around to interrupt my work because they want to tell me something.

If I were to deliver a speech like my son did – which is unlikely because it would never be as good as his – then I would probably say that it is worth spending time discovering who are you going to become, before deciding what you will become. The world of work is a white-knuckled ride that can quickly shape and define us. Establishing who we are before we get on the treadmill can help. I often say to students that achieving what you want in life is almost always possible, if you want it enough. The hardest thing is knowing what you want in the first place – and that must not be rushed. My son was right.

In The Bury Free Press 8th November 2019







What makes a good teacher?

The Bury Free Press launched its Best Teacher of the Year Award just recently, in partnership with Discovery Education. This is a tremendous opportunity to share what it means to be an outstanding teacher and I’m delighted to support this initiative.

How we identify the ‘best teacher’ will be an interesting challenge, to say the least. Some may say that the effectiveness of a teacher is a straightforward calculation – it’s the percentage of pupils in his or her class who achieved national expectations in standardised tests at the end of the year. Find out this number and you can then rank the teacher’s performance alongside all other teachers in the country who are teaching the same year group. Easy. Sorted.

But such a calculation only tells you half the story, or even less. It’s like saying the best baker in the county is the one who bakes the most loaves. Schools are not production lines, churning out standardised products that meet or fail quality assurance checks. Judging the effectiveness of a teacher’s ability requires more than a glance at the data. Yes, of course, a teacher is there to teach his or her students a syllabus of knowledge, skills and proficiencies sufficiently well so that they can gain academic qualifications. The teacher’s performance will always be judged against those learning outcomes. But the plain truth is that behind every academic result lies a real person, living a real life in a real context, making real progress in ways that stretch far beyond the data. Academic results are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning outcomes; there are deep down things that a teacher is influencing, shaping, encouraging in every child, qualities which are invisible to the data lens. If every child were identical – with the same skills, the same character and the same advantages or disadvantages – then judging the success of a teacher would indeed be very easy, just look at their results and ignore everything else.

But every child is different – with different attitudes, behaviours and backgrounds. Children learn, or don’t learn, depending on their emotional state at the time. They may hear and respond to some of what the teacher says to them in class, but not much. They may read and reflect on what the teacher writes in their books, but not much. They may even take on board the advice they are given in reports, but not much. The most significant impact any teacher can have on a student is found in the way they make that child feel about themselves. That is the legacy of a good teacher, and it may not be visible until long after they have left school. The seeds of self-confidence and self-worth are being sown by teachers right now, in classrooms across the region, but they may not be yielding visible shoots of growth for some years to come. As teachers we play the long game, even if those who measure our performance need instant results.

So how do we judge the best teacher, if their reach and influence is so invisible? I think there are some observables; there are signs which tell you that the teacher in your child’s classroom is good at what they do. They smile and project optimism at all times. They are calm, patient and understanding. They present the story of learning with expertise and a repertoire that enables them to connect with all the pupils in their class, whatever their learning differences.

But looking at and listening to the teacher will only tell you so much. The best way to judge a good teacher is to turn around and look at the children. Are they engaged and enthused? Are they collaborating and cooperating? Are they willing and able to share what they think? Do they feel safe and secure enough to dare to have a go? Are they bouncing into class looking forward to seeing their teacher?

The very best teachers use all their skills and experience to empower students to feel confident and ambitious as learners. They help them to see that there is a reason to bother, a reason to try. In short, they project unshakeable belief in what their students can achieve. Children will have ups and downs, always. They may be fortunate enough to be feeling confident and enthusiastic on the day of an examination, or they may flunk a test because of something someone said to them in the playground. They may have good short term memories and remember the correct facts and figures to score well in a test, or they may panic and forget the lot. But how their teacher made them feel in class – how they helped them form their mindset – that is what will shape the way in which they handle success or failure for life. It’s not just about what you know, it’s about what you do when you don’t know the answer. It’s your character that counts, even if it cannot be counted.

The best teachers help their students to be the best versions of themselves, in school and into adulthood. The best thing about being a teacher is that you can have a positive influence on children every day. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that you have an influence on children every day and you have to get it right.

I for one can’t wait to celebrate the good teachers in our region. To quote a much used cliché, they are all winners already.

In The Bury Free Press, Friday 4th October 2019


Thank you for being a teacher

Just as children are more than the sum of their grades, teachers are more than the performance data they present at pupil progress meetings; their impact runs so much deeper and the effects of their teaching will be seen and felt by their pupils long after they have left their care.

At this time of year, when the sum of a teacher’s work is viewed through the microscopic data lens and all their sterling efforts are translated into a percentage of pupils who met national standards, it is easy to think that it was only their measurable impact that counted. All the planning, worrying, caring, discussing, sharing, creating, innovating and chivvying along was all for this: a number.

But it wasn’t. Data has a habit of eclipsing the good stuff: the flashes of inspiration; the epiphanies; the motivational moments; the character-building and life-defining minutes when a child suddenly feels a little happier in their own skin; the rainy mornings spent cajoling and chivvying; the lunchtimes spent listening and sympathising; the afternoons spent stirring and inspiring; the evenings spent worrying and rewriting tomorrow’s lessons just so the children will grasp a concept they missed today; the guiding, the counselling, the entertaining and praising. These cherished crafts and skills form a teacher’s repertoire and though they may be hidden when the exam results come in, their impact stretches far into the future, all the way into a child’s adulthood.

We often tell children it is the deep-down-things that matter most: self-worth, confidence, pride, compassion. But as teachers we rarely tell ourselves this and seldom let the compliments stick. The attritional nature of the job can strip a teacher of her health and well-being, shrinking her spirit and narrowing her view of education, so that eventually all that matters are the numbers. When her performance management targets speak of pupil outcomes, this only confirms her impression that she is, when all said and done, only as good as her pupils’ measurable results.

When a person who doesn’t teach asks a teacher to explain the impact of what she does, and the answer must be given in percentage points, how is she to respond? Sadly, it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy and the many reasons why she entered the profession – to move the dial, make a difference, build characters, grow aspirations, tell stories and inspire imaginations – all seem silly now. She has been measured and has not come up to standard.

So, in the remaining weeks of term, and the long and rocky descent to August, can I remind this teacher of the amazing moments she has had, as the Sherpa on the mountain for her young climbers. The data won’t tell her, so I will.

– when a child arrived late, in tears, and she cheered him up and settled him into class;

– when two boys fell out, and she heard each one’s stories, brought a peaceful resolution and watched them playing happily again in the playground;

– when an anxious parent barged uninvited into her classroom to tell her she didn’t care about her child, and she provided calm reassurance and understanding;

– when she worried all night before a lesson observation, and then absolutely smashed it on the day;

– when a child who just couldn’t get fractions finally did;

– when a little girl told her that her daddy was leaving home, and she cuddled her and helped her see that everything would be alright in the end because both her parents loved her very much;

– when a child who rarely smiled laughed out loud at her joke.

There were so many more golden moments along the way. And a million more from last year. I hope all teachers take time this summer to remember the reasons why they entered this amazing, inspiring and utterly essential vocation. The children’s lives just wouldn’t be the same without you. Whatever the numbers say.

You are making a world of difference – just like you said you would.


Running the curriculum

The word curriculum, meaning a running course, comes from the Latin word, currere: to run.  The first borrowing of the Latin word into English was curricle, meaning a two-wheeled, twin-horsed carriage. Curricular meant pertaining to, or driving, carriages. In English, curriculum was not used in an educational context until much later, first in Scottish universities and then in schools and colleges across Britain and beyond. Until then, a curriculum was a course that you ran or traversed in some way.

Curriculum no longer refers to movement, at least not in schools; the word is now more likely to be associated with a large, heavy ring-binder of objectives. There is little movement involved and the only curricle you can use to traverse it is your brain.

How comprehensively the course of life was codified and compartmentalised into a curriculum for students to traverse is a subject of great debate, political and societal. Were we to peg out such a course now, with its lanes and hurdles, bends and dips, it is unlikely we would create a similar track to the one we have. A curriculum for the 21stcentury would look different, surely?

Like everything in education, we have tampered with the track over the years, bolting on units and adding more and more hurdles and time trials without ever adjusting its direction. The track still remains circular, and after the final lap you are back to where you started, more knowledgeable and ready for a life of school, just when you exit it.

There is no handbook for the course of one’s career (from the Latin word carrus, meaning wagon). You gallop along on a path that barely resembles the running track of school. The curriculum we know as students is pegged out in academic subjects. Assimilating and recalling core knowledge drawn from those subjects is a requirement for passing school examinations. To what purpose you put that knowledge once you have embarked on your curriculum vitae, your life’s course, is anyone’s guess. But our consolation is that the proficiencies and disciplines developed whilst traversing the school curriculum are, in themselves, of great worth. That is to say, the computer engineers who built my ZX81, almost forty years ago, would have amassed critical skills that outlived the use and relevance of the product they were actually building. Coincidentally, the National Curriculum was forged in the same decade, but unlike the ZX81, it hasn’t been replaced.

And so we take comfort from the fact that no matter what you think of the curriculum still delivered in schools today, the learning skills and attitudes acquired by students while studying it may still be of use in their future careers. This is the fortuitous by-product which educators like me champion.

This would be consolation enough if the curriculum were inert – a harmless collection of study topics and themes designed to increase your academic knowledge – but it’s not. There is an insidious side to the curriculum, and it’s this: the ease or difficulty with which a student assimilates the curriculum’s content is held as a measure of their ability as a learner, and more than this, the score they achieve when this curriculum knowledge is then tested impacts significantly on their life chances. This is because we have built a whole career structure and hierarchy around the gaining, or not gaining, of academic qualifications in school. If you don’t learn the curriculum content well enough, you fail exams; if you fail exams you do not get into university (which, apparently all students are supposed to attend if they want a successful career?). Consequently, the large, heavy ring-binder of knowledge, to be consumed by the runners in the race, sifts the readers and writers from the non-readers and non-writers. The former go on to successful jobs and the latter don’t, apparently. Yet all the wealthy and contented entrepreneurs I know (granted, I only know a handful) proudly say they flunked school and did not go to university.

How did we reach this point? Metaphorically, we drop a heavy curriculum on a young child’s lap, ask them to learn it, and imply that if they don’t learn it, their future life chances will shrink. This is a myth. Our youngest riders bolt out of the blocks only to be diverted on their course at the first bend and told how to ride, where to ride and that the race was being timed from the outset, with their lap scores being written down and used as predictions for their future position at the end of the race.

Forgive the rant. As a primary headteacher waiting for SATs results, and a father of teenagers currently immersed in GCSEs and A Levels, I may be feeling a little tired of the system. I have cried from the rooftops that my children, and all children, are more than the sum of their grades. I have reassured them that no matter what they achieve in their school tests, the course of life that stretches beyond them does not balance on the pinhead of exam scores; I have told them that who, where and what they will be when they are older will not be determined now, so they shouldn’t worry. They have plenty of time to write their life stories.

What I cannot tell them, for fear of tramping over what little motivation they have left, is that the exams they are sitting are based on a thirty-year old curriculum that is no longer reflective of real life and real careers (not that it ever was). I don’t want them to feel their efforts have been in vain, they haven’t, and I’m enormously proud of how hard they have worked. The learning skills and disciplines they have amassed, and the positive mindsets they have just about managed to keep intact, despite the attrition of revising and testing, will stand them in very good stead when they are older. They will be successful and contented adults not because of the curriculum they have learned, but because they have survived it, and because of the motivational teaching they have received from rebellious teachers who have found creative ways of delivering it. Imagine working as a sales assistant in a computer shop, charged with selling the ZX81 to a 21stcentury teenager. This is what teachers have been doing for years.

It is time to start again, time to build a new curriculum, a course for life, that requires an active rather than passive stance and a honing of attitudes, behaviours and capacities that will have proper use and relevance in today’s world. The ring-binder of words will still have knowledge running through its spine – no one is suggesting we depart from knowledge, such cries are hackneyed and only lead to polarising and pointless debates between trad’s and romantics – but it can include knowledge of self, of others, of human endeavour. An ‘i-curriculum’ version 2.0 could include knowledge about intuition, instinct, initiative, intelligence and imagination. These aren’t ethereal concepts for the fairies, they are real human facets much in demand outside school.

Until then, students will continue to strive for an A* in maths without ever really knowing why.

There are life lessons learned in school that stretch far, far beyond the visible curriculum. The ring-binder may be filled with words, but there are non-verbal lessons being learned all the time too, and these need better recognition in school. If the direction of the running course in school doesn’t lead us to where we need to be, then the skills and attitudes we honed whilst participating in the race certainly will. That’s why I continue to make such a noise about the hidden curriculum. It is the most relevant and valuable course of study and it does not end at 16; its linear track stretches on through life.



When you find your element

What’s your thing? Everybody needs a thing: that skill or hobby which absorbs you and beckons you into a flow state, being ‘in the zone’ and free of distractions. It may be something artistic, musical, or perhaps a sporting activity. Or it may be a collection – a fascination for something that captures your interest and pleases you.

As a headteacher, one of my most important tasks is making sure that our school provides ample opportunities for children to try out myriad skills and activities precisely so that they can find their thing. Yes, the academic curriculum is important, of course it is, and it may even be that some children will find their element in a maths or science lesson. But equally important are those fringe activities, the extra-curricular clubs and events that bring enticing opportunities to write, ride, play, climb, paint or dance. We all have hidden potential just waiting to be discovered and there is nothing more pleasing for a teacher than seeing a child engage with a new activity and then discovering they have a hidden talent for it.

I frequently champion the deep-down-things that really matter in education: qualities like stamina, pride and self-worth. When children are immersed in a pursuit which they love, they invariably demonstrate all the hidden characteristics of effective learning that we could ever wish for in class, often without even knowing it; so immersed are they in their flow state that such attributes come naturally – because they are invested in what they are doing and it matters to them. A favourite pursuit is, after all, by definition something we need to ‘pursue’ and stamina is a pre-requisite for a high level of engagement.

A child who has found their thing, who has a passion for something, is topping up their reserves of stamina and pride so that they can take on anything, even the things which don’t motivate them. In finding something we’re good at, we are finding our self-worth; and self-worth allows us to take on new and difficult challenges with renewed strength and resilience. The child who is gifted at something will be better at reading or arithmetic than they might have been had they never discovered they had those other talents. That’s not to say that kicking a football like Lionel Messi automatically qualifies you for an A grade in mathematics, no more than playing the trumpet like Louis Armstrong means you can achieve top marks in science, but it does mean that you can stick around a little longer when the going gets tough, because you have done precisely that on the sports field or in music lessons many times before – and you can do it again.  You can achieve the same high level of engagement because you know what it feels like and it can be transferred. I have often said to students who are struggling with something in class, what would you do if this were a football challenge, or a new piece of music you had to tackle?  Or a drama script? Find the same mind-set and use it here!

Having a hobby to which we are committed teaches us self-discipline too – and there are few attributes more valuable to learners than self-discipline. The challenge is making the connection between how you perform in your favourite hobby and how you perform in class – because the context is often so different and because, crucially, you may not have the same freedom of choice in class as you do when engaging in your own passion.

A hobby is something you have chosen to do; a learning activity in class is often, though not always, something which you are instructed to do by a teacher, relating to a learning objective. This fundamental difference sometimes zaps the student of his self-motivation and reduces his engagement and interest in class. But it needn’t.

The real challenge is tapping into and re-channelling the ‘best-self’ you become when immersed in your hobby, so that you can draw on the same attributes again when faced with other things. The same self-worth can be embedded in us so that it is no longer dependent on the activity we are engaged in, it is innate within us, part of our nature. We are high engagers.

This is another important part of a teacher’s job – helping children to remember that they really can show resilience and stamina, or pride and self-worth because it was these qualities which brought them success and satisfaction in their hobbies. And they can draw on them again.

As an adult, I have tried and still enjoy many pursuits, not all of which I’m especially good at, but all of which hold my interest and make me feel good. I love writing, sketching, playing the drums, gardening, walking, camping and swimming. I wouldn’t win medals in any of these pursuits (except perhaps in drumming, which I feel confident enough in, after practising Buddy Rich’s snare-drum rudiments since the age of ten). But winning medals is not what drives me; it is the intoxication of being immersed in something to the point where I forget my worries and let the activity lead me. Playing paradiddles does it for me.

If only I could step outside myself and watch me engaging in these activities! I could then see that I have stamina, self-discipline, self-worth and a decent amount of talent. I could then remind myself of these qualities when the next difficult challenge comes along, which for me is analysing school performance data or completing any kind of online form.

When you next engage in your favourite past-time, it is worth consciously focusing on what until now may have been entirely sub-conscious – the qualities you are exercising when you are ‘in the zone’: you can manage distractions and remain focused; you can overcome difficulties and reach the high points; you can show creativity and flair; and you can master a skill that makes you feel good about yourself.

And aren’t all these qualities transferrable? I think they are.

First published in the Bury Free Press, Friday 3rd May 2019