Ignore the blather – enjoy the excitement of a new school year!

One of the most exhilarating aspects of being a teacher was always the beginning of new academic year for me. I still remember vividly my first day as a qualified teacher inviting my first class into the classroom and addressing a room full of attentive faces in their smart new uniforms about the course they were starting. My pleasurable task was to share my passion for my subject, interest and motivate them and hopefully establish the foundations of the kind of positive relationship based on mutual respect and confidence in my teaching that would lead to success and enjoyment.

Of course I didn’t always get it right and win with all students. No teacher does with every class and student – a fact of life that sometimes gets forgotten. Though I certainly got better with experience over the years we should never forget that teaching is not a mechanistic process. It is about human relationships – and that makes it all the more exciting.

That feeling at the beginning of the year never went away. Whether as a classroom teacher facing my new groups, as a middle or senior leader addressing a large group or as a headteacher taking my first assemblies of the year, that new start was always a pleasure. My use of the adjectives ‘exciting and exhilarating’ is deliberate. Part of that was helped by returning from a much needed break suitably refreshed. This highlights the reason why addressing the issue of work life balance is so important.

Each year I or my team had our plans and ambitions for that academic year. Part of that was the opportunity to set out that ‘state of the nation’ with staff, to celebrate their many achievements that had been confirmed by the examination results during the summer break. Of course, it was also to learn from what had not gone so well and understand what we needed to do better – a professional discussion about working together and sharing the responsibility in a climate of mutual support and respect.

As this new year starts all of that still applies. Actually, it is more important than ever because of the very specific challenges for school leaders and can sap morale and undermine retention. It seems that there has been a massive disconnect between the stated good intentions of the Secretary of State to reduce workload etc. and the continuous activities and announcements from the DFE throughout the holidays seem to have operated from a parallel universe.

The greatest challenge for school leaders in such a context is therefore to retain and nurture the excitement that makes teaching such a wonderful vocation in spite of these distractions.

The most effective shield for schools is the shared vision the headteacher builds across the whole school, acts out and articulates every day. Schools have recently been exhorted by Ofsted to adopt a holistic approach to curriculum planning. That can be easier said than done in the light of accountability pressures but we should hang on to this welcome direction of travel and deploy the armour of our vision to ignore any distractions including invitations to waste time and energy on preparation of bids, Ministerial ‘announcements’ and media noise.

We should be a proud, not a fearful profession beginning our new year with confidence.  There is no more powerful source of organisational resilience than a shared vision underpinning an ethos and culture that values all staff and welcomes their full engagement. Here are some brief questions and pointers to the kind of discussion that might help to achieve that common purpose:

What kinds of adult you want your students to become when they have completed the education in your school? This will lead the discussion onto values, personal qualities and all of those things that are often described as character. It will also lead it onto the kind of ethos and culture you want to pervade the school. What sort of relationships and behaviours do we want to foster?

Once these fundamentals have been discussed, the conversation needs to move to the content of the curriculum. What do you want your students to be taught? That is not a distracting and polarised discussion about knowledge or skills but a combination of both. Where will they learn these things? Much may be in subject lessons, just as much might also be in the rich and varied programme of extra curricular activities. I have written about these processes in much more detail in my book ‘Lessons Learned?’.

If there is one time of the year when I miss being in schools more than any other it is that first week of the term. I hope that every teacher and school leader who reads this will share the satisfaction and excitement I felt  31 times at the beginning of September. I wish you all well for the new year as you continue with your life changing vocation.


Some timely lessons about GCSE

As the first results from the new GCSEs are about to be published it seemed timely to publish this extract from my book Lessons Learned? – A Life in Education

I was an O Level examiner and smile when I hear people harking back to those good old days. To pass the O Level in German one of the main things you had to do was to learn parrot fashion a large number of phrases or idioms which you could put into a 150 word composition about something exciting like a picnic in the country or a lost dog.

Copying the lead of other experienced teachers and examiners who were mainly from the independent sector I culled a list of these phrases from scripts I had marked knowing that these all attracted marks and placed them all on a Banda sheet (remember those?) Each lesson we started with a test to see how many had been memorised. Let me give an example: ‘Trotz des schlechten Wetters’ means ‘in spite of the bad weather’. Since there was often a thunderstorm in the picture sequence for these stories this was a useful phrase to include. However I remember a chief examiner explaining to all of the markers that this showed that the student had not only mastered the fact that the preposition ‘trotz’ is followed by the genitive case but that (s)he had also mastered adjective endings and the fact that masculine and neuter nouns add an s in this case. This is of course rubbish. The students like mine had been given a Banda sheet of such phrases and learnt them off by heart. Gaming the system? Academic rigour? Many of the other phrases were highly amusing, most were not ones that would routinely have been heard in conversation in the last hundred years. I have had many fun conversations with my German friends sharing some of these archaic idioms.

The  other reason for buy in to GCSE was the O level / CSE separation. We desperately needed one examination, suitably tiered, which could be attempted by the majority of pupils and welcomed the fact that the specifications were very clearly defined building on the best practice from the graded objectives movement. Unlike O-level we knew exactly what we had to teach, what a grade meant in terms of learning outcomes and could therefore prepare pupils more effectively. Although Ofqual has disputed this[1]the examinations were largely criterion referenced. It was absolutely clear to teachers that, if a student demonstrated mastery of clearly defined elements they would achieve a given grade.    In my subject the examination gave equal weighting to all four skills enabling us to give the appropriate priority to the vitally important skills of listening and speaking as well as reading and writing.

To put it another way GCSE was not norm referenced as O Level had been. This meant of course that , there was no cap on the number of students achieving a grade leading to claims about grade inflation. These missed an important point. If grades were improving due to poor practice or overgenerous marking this was of course unacceptable and needed to be addressed. If however standards were genuinely improving then it would have been helpful for employers and higher education institutions to know. At present they do not.  And if genuine improvements had occurred a decision to reflect these improvements and raised expectations in future examinations would have been justified. What we were left with by 2017 was firstly that for every school that improved its results another had to go down and secondly that nobody can possibly understand what a particular grade means in terms of learning outcomes. The same student who was awarded a grade 3 one year might have been awarded a 4 or 5 if (s)he had been in another cohort.

Wisely, when implementing GCSE the government recognised the fact that teachers would need adequate time to acquaint themselves with these very different qualifications and planned for this. Unfortunately, the so called ‘Baker Days’  where schools closed for training were taken out of holidays to the anger of the profession. Nevertheless, having overcome that I was asked to host the session for all language teachers in Surrey. After presentations about the new qualifications we were given ample time to work in departments looking at each of the different specifications for our subject, the very high quality specimen papers and the detailed vocabulary and grammar listings. This enabled us to make an informed choice in good time to prepare our teaching programmes and purchase any relevant resources. It also brought subject teams from different schools together to share ideas and foster new and valuable links.

The new courses were a breath of fresh air and I and colleagues thoroughly enjoyed teaching them. That of course rubbed off on the students who made good progress and developed listening and reading comprehension and speaking skills that bore no comparison with those who had prepared for O Level.  Our A Level uptake increased substantially as a result. I would however emphasise that the majority of GCSE candidates do not study the subject to A Level. It is important that the tail does not wag the dog as it did with O Level. There is plenty of time in year 12 to make the transition.


Lessons Learned? A life in education.

This week my book ‘Lessons Learned?’ has been published by John Catt Educational.


I have enjoyed the privilege of a career in education where I have spent nearly four decades teaching, in various leadership positions in maintained schools across England and Wales, five years leading the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and now a period as a freelance consultant playing a small part in supporting school leaders in their unerring quest to change the lives of their students for the better. It has been, and continues to be, both a pleasure and a privilege.

Throughout my working life our education service has been on a constant conveyor belt of reforms largely driven by successive governments. Some of those have been highly desirable, some informed by robust and reliable evidence, others less so. With hardly any exceptions however, the vast majority have not been given time to embed before the next initiative replaced them. Equally significant is the fact that policy memory seems non-existent. As soon as there is a change in government all of the work done by the previous one is filed away and, with few exceptions, dispatched into policy oblivion. Sometimes these forgotten ideas resurface as shiny new ones for which their initiators proudly take credit!

Successive governments and secretaries of state arrive with new priorities, which they are keen to drive forward before they move on, often after not much more than a year. I have met many of them and without exception felt their passion and commitment to do what they believe is the very best for young people.

Nevertheless, lessons from best practice and failures are often not learned leading to many missed opportunities. The challenge for school leaders has been and remains to find a way to ride on the crest of that wave without getting drawn down into the undertow.

My book therefore sets out to do three things:

  1. Through the narrative of my own experience and reference to theory I have reflected on the lessons that might be learned from that period.
  1. I have tried to draw from those reflections some practical advice and suggestions to teachers, policymakers and school leaders. I would not presume to have all of the answers and certainly do not claim to have got everything right. Nevertheless, I hope that this book might be useful for future generations working in education and those who are deciding on future policy
  2. I have taken a look into the future, which highlights what needs to be done in order to build on the many strengths and successes of the education system that we are lucky enough to have in Britain. Whatever the challenges and wrong turns might have been I remain deeply optimistic about the future.

I hope that the  book will be of interest not only to those who were previously or are currently involved in the world of education but also to those who might shape future policy and practice.

Lessons Learned – A Life in Education can be ordered directly from the publisher John Catt  or through Amazon

National Careers Week

This is a link to a blog I have written for National Careers Week (5th-9th March). A tremendous initiative that comes directly from professionals to help schools and colleges provide the highest quality of careers education and guidance.  http://nationalcareersweek.com/thoughts-careers-guidance/

An open letter to the Chief Inspector

Dear Chief Inspector,

Thank you for giving public recognition to the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum in your recent speeches and reports. You are absolutely right to be saying that the curriculum is about so much more than examinations and expressing concern about the fact that important subjects like the arts and technology have been squeezed as a result of government policies such as the E Bacc.

I do nevertheless experience some mixed emotions when reading about this welcome change of direction in Ofsted. After all people like me and those I represented warned about this ever since Michael Gove announced the E Bacc and the accompanying reforms to qualifications which you were instrumental in implementing in your role of Chair of Ofqual. It was not that anyone denied the importance of the subjects included in the EBacc or the fact that all schools should offer them. Our concerns were about the impact on the rest of the curriculum.

When the National Curriculum was amended to its current form Michael Gove was clear and quite explicit with me and others that the Key Stage 4 curriculum was effectively GCSE. The deregulation of broader aspects of the curriculum added to the impact of  this.   Ofsted has focused sharply on data and there has been a strong correlation between examination outcomes and Ofsted grades. Your recent commitment to look beyond those and recognise their place as an important part of the picture but no more is welcome and I have been pleased to see this approach reflected in some recent inspections of schools with high levels of disadvantage which I have been supporting.

Nevertheless I urge you to avoid yet another extension of the culture of denigration that has pervaded our education system for too long. It is not the fault of schools that they are teaching in the way you criticise. The current Secretary of State appears to have recognised that fact and seems to be trying to change the discourse.

Those of us who spoke out in defence of a broad and balanced curriculum were ignored. Though their arguments were strongly supported by many highly experienced and knowledgeable educationalists as well as then Director General of the CBI who argued for a curriculum that enabled young people to be ‘grounded and rounded’ they were accused of being enemies of promise or labelled as the ‘blob’.  In fact the last thing they were doing was undermining the importance of a strong academic basis to the curriculum. Since then the discourse around the curriculum has remained highly polarised. An unhelpful distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ’skills’ implies that one school of thought is in support of one but not the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such distinctions are both unhelpful and damaging.

During the ensuing years examinations have been at the heart of a high stakes accountability system. School leaders have lost their jobs on the back of one set of results and continue to do so. School teachers’ pay is determined on the basis of performance which is more often than not judged against examination results. Performance tables are big news in the summer and affect school choice. Meanwhile schools are doing everything they can to prepare their students for examinations that are far more difficult that the ones that preceded them. At the same time they are trying, often in spite of policy  levers, to do everything they can to address really important broader aspects of education.

In order to achieve your worthy aims I would urge you to consider the following.

First, please do not perpetuate yet more denigration by publicly criticising teachers who, in order to do what government policy has told them to they are focusing their teaching sharply on preparation for examinations. I do not know of any driving instructor who fail to teach people how to perform in that test. Why wouldn’t they? I am fearful that another ‘Ofsted myth’ is about to be created – eg. plan your lessons in a particular way when inspectors are in don’t mention markschemes or be seen to be teaching to the test.

Instead please keep demonstrating through your inspections what is valued and please advise policymakers to emphasise this.  Perhaps it is time for the inspectorate to draw on the vast wealth of evidence it has gathered over many years and present this to a department that has recently made an explicit commitment to using evidence more effectively.

Second, please look very carefully during your curriculum review about the impact of the current focus on linear exams. We need to gather evidence about the impact of this policy as it continues to be implemented.  The absence of any form of continuous assessment that counts towards them due to a lack of trust in a profession that has been driven by external accountability can only add to the pressure to teach to the test. Plenty of other jurisdictions combine their forms of assessment.

Third, please engage as much as you can with government to broaden the criteria according to which they judge schools and the way in which it is done. The respective and sometime contradictory roles of RSCs and inspectors will need to be part of that conversation.

I wish you well. There has never been a time when our country has had a greater need to equip all of our young people with a broad and balanced education. I can assure you that those people like me who are working with large numbers of schools are absolutely committed to helping them to achieve that. We all want the same thing. The best possible outcomes for our young people.

With all good wishes,

Brian Lightman  (Former General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and now a freelance education leadership consultant working with numerous schools)


Some thoughts about ‘GCSE myths’

As someone who was a Head of Department when GCSE was first introduced I was really interested to read Cath Jadhav’s recent ‘mythbusting  blog’. Because the blog led me to question my own memories of that exciting period I decided to do some research.

The first ‘myth’ the blog deals with is “GCSEs used to be criterion referenced.”

We could argue about semantics but I am not sure that calling this a myth is entirely accurate. I fully understand what Ofqual says in that requiring every candidate to fully meet every single grade criterion would be setting the bar very high indeed.  Although an element of professional judgement is required this is what a BBC report from that time stated:

Under the old O Level and CSE system, grades were awarded primarily according to statistical rules which measured each candidate’s performance relatively against those of competing candidates.

The introduction of the GCSE meant that, for the first time, grades would be allocated with reference to absolute standards of knowledge, understanding and skill.

The then Secretary of State Sir Keith Joseph is quoted in the same article as saying:

“It (GCSE) will be more intelligible to users………also more intelligible and therefore more useful for employers.

When GCSEs were first introduced this represented a massive step change for teachers. For the first time we had explicit descriptions of the knowledge and skills we needed to teach. We knew that, if they could demonstrate their mastery of these in accordance with the grade criteria that they would be awarded that grade.


So whilst I broadly agree with the argument in the blog that GCSE’s are a ‘best fit’ qualification and that they are not fully criterion referenced this feels a long way away from what we currently have. I doubt whether Sir Keith’s comment about employers and users would apply to the new GCSEs. I also worry about the apparent disconnect described in the Ofqual blog between the grade descriptors and grades awarded. Doesn’t that call into question their value and indeed the claim that these new GCSEs are more rigorous that previous ones?

The second myth is “My school can’t improve because of Ofqual’s approach.”

Well of course schools can improve. Judging by the classroom practice I am seeing in the schools I visit I suspect that many are doing so much more than any published results show. However, I am not sure that this is actually the ‘myth’ in existence.  What I do know concerns people is that the system as a whole cannot be seen to improve if broadly the same proportion of students are achieving each grade each year due to the statistical process known as ‘comparable outcomes’. I accept that awarding bodies can make a case for varying their results but as Ofsted has recently stated ‘none of us yet know what a new grade will look like in terms of pupils’ work’. In the 1980s and 90s we certainly did know and could therefore prepare students confidently for these examinations. That confidence has been seriously undermined at the moment giving teachers immense cause for concern.

The third myth “There is a cap on the number of students that can be awarded each grade.”is therefore not all that far from the truth. True there is some flexibility in that cap but it is a fairly strong guide. The proportion of grades is based on the prior attainment of the cohort but the problem with this is that nobody knows whether those Key Stage Two assessments will be reliable predictors of performance especially as they change from year to year. Will assessments in English and Maths tell us reliably how well we can expect a student to perform five years later in History or Modern Languages? And what will carry more weight – the grade descriptors or the prior attainment matrix? How will be compare two candidates for a job who attained the same grades in different yers?

As I said in a previous blog I fear that GCSE is currently a very sick patient.  There is a pressing need for some honest communication with the public about what these examinations do and do not mean. If we are to have trusted and meaningful qualifications for 16 year olds surely we need to know what each grade means in terms of pupils’ learning?

I am pleased that Ofqual is inviting discussion about these issues. It has an incredibly difficult job to do working within the constraints of government policies which is did not design.  What we now need is an informed and professional debate about the best way forward for the young people we serve.

Keep your foot on the accelerator but switch off the headlights

Early in my teaching career I was appointed to a middle leadership role in a school in which neither I nor any of my colleagues had sight of any data regarding pupil outcomes. We were totally reliant on our own assessment systems. Though I would like to think that mine were strong I cannot say that I had a good idea of how pupils were doing in other subjects or what might have been appropriate aspirations. I am certain that there was significant underachievement in the school and possibly in my department for that reason.

Thankfully the world changed with the increasingly forensic use of data. By the 1990s school leaders’ offices were adorned with spreadsheets of pupils’ latest assessments and forecast grades enabling schools to support and challenge those pupils who were underperforming and address any shortcomings in the teaching. This was powerful and most certainly a major factor in the improvements in results which could not simply be dismissed as grade inflation.

All of this has been massively undermined by the hi-jacking of assessment in the interests of hyper-accountability. It is reassuring to see quite a backlash in many schools which are trying to seize back control of assessment in the classroom as an integral part of the learning process. The high order skills of assessment have been neglected in initial teacher training and continuing professional development for too long. We need teachers to own and master this expertise.

But there is a big spanner in the works which Sean Harford has highlighted in an excellent  blog building on a recent one by Cath Jadhav of Ofqual which he quotes.

He summarises the problem as follows:

‘While we know that the national profile of results will be stable, none of us yet knows what a new grade will ‘look like’ in terms of pupils’ work…’  He continues   ‘So trying to work out how pupils will fare, in terms of predicted grades, is even more problematic than when qualifications are well established – and it is a very imprecise science even then. In short, it’s a mug’s game at times of change in qualifications, and should be avoided.’

He has also helpfully instructed Ofsted inspectors not to expect schools to produce predictions but instead to look out ‘how schools have assessed pupils’ progress and what they are doing to support them to better achievement’. So far so good. That makes absolute sense and the best thing schools can do is focus sharply on students understanding and mastery of the knowledge and skills in that subject.

But I wonder whether the full implications of this have really been understood. Actually I don’t. I know they have not. Read that incredible and absolutely true statement again:

‘none of us yet knows what a new grade will ‘look like’ in terms of pupils’ work’

What then do these qualifications actually mean and what does that mean in terms of all of the government policies which relate to accountability?

Take performance management for example. Headteachers are being held to account all over the country for their examination results and so are teachers. If we don’t know what a grade means how can that be done and how on earth will we know whether teaching, learning or, for that matter our education system as a whole is improving?

Take performance tables and the criteria for coasting schools. Are schools going to be labelled (maybe not by Ofsted) and more headteachers to lose their jobs because they have been affected by the ‘volatility’ to which Sean refers?

And what about employers and providers of further and higher education? Will these grades be of any meaningful use to them? Do they understand this? I fear that many do not and I know that many parents are equally unaware.

Most of the schools I am visiting are highly cautious about predictions and trying their very best to base them on strong classroom assessment practice but they cannot simply ignore them. If qualifications are to open the door to better life chances for young people teachers and school leaders have a duty to aim as high as possible for them. How are they supposed to do that if they don’t know what the grades mean?

Sean makes the rather odd comment that ‘it is impossible to do so (predict) with any accuracy until after the tests and examinations have been taken’. I always thought that predicting was a future facing activity rather than a retrospective one. If qualifications are to be no more than an accountability measure then I fear that GCSE might have been infected with a disease that could be terminal.

Sean’s advice feels a bit like suggesting we switch off our headlights on a dark night while keeping our foot on the accelerator and hoping that we won’t have a car crash. I am fearful.

The Future of Teacher Professionalism: A College of Teaching for All or the Minority?

At the excellent Summit organised recently by the Headteachers’ Round Table I was delighted to be asked to speak about this topic and highlight the barriers that needed to be overcome. Here is an account of the main points I made:


From the very outset I have been a strong supporter of the creation of a professional body and was delighted to learn of the appointment of Alison Peacock as their Chief Executive ably supported by a well-qualified set of trustees drawn from a field of serving professionals.


There are many reasons why I think the creation of this body is so important but here are some:


  • Our profession needs a voice. At present there is a cacophony largely dominated by those who shout loudest. Whilst there are many reasonable and representative voices many are neither.
  • Sadly our wonderful vocation too often has a terrible press fuelled by a habit loved by media, some policymakers and sadly some of our own colleagues of airing our dirty washing in public rather than engaging in constructive discussion about how we can improve further in the full and honest recognition that there will always be more to do.
  • Our profession needs to seize hold of the agenda and use its experience and expertise to drive forward out education system and not be dependent on government.
  • We need to re- and upskill our profession.
  • We need a long term memory as opposed to one which forgets what has been achieved to date every time we have a change of Secretary of State or Government. Take ‘character’ for example which has disappeared off the face of the earth following Nicky Morgan’s departure.
  • We need to value experience and draw on this to shape policy.
  • We need clear career routes, succession plans etc.
  • We need to set standards which are professional ones, separate from accountability to government.
  • We need to modernise professional development.
  • We need policy and practice which is evidence based. Too much has been based on opinion.
  • Our profession needs to adapt to a changing world. You know what they way about doing
  • what you always did……..


But there are significant barriers to such an ambitious vision which we need to overcome. Here are eight:


  1. The College might be seen as a threat by some organisations who have a legitimate representative voice. The way to overcome this is via dialogue. The College must be inclusive and must not try to do what is the legitimate role of others. I do not believe that it needs to be a threat.
  2. We have a deeply divided profession at present. This is partly geographical with so much of policy driven and informed by London and partly by the very polarised debates that sometimes take place. There are also many interest groups who need to contribute to discussion but not dominate the outcomes. The College must be a broad church which listens to, engages with and respects all informed points of view.
  3. The College must be seen as neutral and independent of government. This is a big sensitivity with current levels of funding. Of course it is to be welcomed that the government has helped the College to be established but it must step back and let go of professional issues such as national standards,  National College etc. The College might have to decline offers of ‘help’ and will certainly need to avoid bidding for government ‘pots’ which always, understandably, have strings attached. By demonstrating integrity and impact the College must earn the trust of governments and remove the need for them so intervene but it will need to be robust when education is used as a political football. Governments in return must listen to the College as a respected independent stakeholder.
  4. The cost of membership is the elephant in the room. It would simply be the wrong time to aim for compulsory membership when teachers have experienced pay cuts for a number of years and payment from school budgets would be unrealistic at this time. Ultimately the College will need to be self-sustaining but the step towards achieving that is by making is so valuable for the profession that they want to be a part of it. This will need a carefully thought out strategy.
  5. Many people still remember the GTCE. It will be essential to convince people that the world has moved on.
  6. The College must avoid the risk of mission creep and resist it strongly. It needs to start small with a clear focus on a sharp and clearly defined mission.
  7. Nevertheless there is a risk of disenfranchising the other committed professionals who work in schools. The College must be seen as inclusive to all of those.
  8. There is a risk that people will not appreciate the advantages of joining. In everything I have heard nobody underestimates this and we must all work together to promote the benefits.


At the end of the day we have everything to gain:

 If we get this right we can create a professionalism which goes beyond the electoral cycle, goes beyond self-interest, and raises the status of profession to where it should be.

Our aims must be to achieve intrinsic motivation, ownership, autonomy and independence underpinned by clear, principled professional standards.

Within that clear focus I hope that the College will lead the development of:

  1. A clear professional career structure with routes for development and learning through teaching,  leadership  and specialist strands
  2. A professional development structure and entitlement starting with initial teacher education and going through every stage of teachers’ careers.
  3. An authoritative, independent voice about professional issues based on experience, professional knowledge and academic evidence.

All of this is an opportunity far too valuable to miss. I wish Alison and the trustees every success.