My Response to The National Catch Up plan

There have been many grand announcements over the last few months, but the one that is causing me most anxiety is the recent Government Announcement for a programme of 1:1 Tuition or similar, to help children catch up.  Although the intention behind it may be good, it reveals to me a government that is totally out of touch with what schools really do – for too long I have been a part of that system–measuring success by the percentage of children achieving an age expected or better score in English and
Maths.   When your results are good or good enough you can breathe, your job secure, when the results dip the anxiety hits, will I still have my job, will our current good grading be down-graded?

Just before the lockdown came into place the biggest stressor in education was the new OFSTED framework–the apparent shift in focus from results to the wider curriculum.  I was told by our Inspector during our own OFSTED Inspection,  2 weeks before lockdown,  that me justifying our approach to English and Maths by the gradual,  year on year improvement in outcomes was not of interest, she wanted to know what was happening now. On the other-hand I have colleagues that tried to showcase their approach to the same subjects told their current grading could not be upgraded while their results were still below National averages. And this is where my resistance to
the National Catch Up programme stems from.  A National Catch Up will be focused on National Tests – our measurement of children on their ability to complete a test paper in a set period of time.

I honestly don’t think there is one head teacher that is not thinking about how to support children back into school, how to help them readjust to learning in the classroom – but by introducing this catch up programme now – they are taking away our knowledge of our context, of what our children need. They are re-establishing their power over schools by deciding for us what our focus needs to be.

What heads do need is some guidance now about what schools might look like in September. Will the 2m rule be reduced to 1m or abolished altogether? Will there be a need to maintain the integrity of ‘bubbles’ ( ‘prides’ as we are calling them) and if so, how do we even do the interventions we currently do let alone any ‘catch up’?

There is much talk of recovery curriculums and as always sudden experts promoting their approach and courses but for me, in my context, having the freedom to introduce a more Early Years Approach all the way to Year 6, will enable us to focus on what we need to.

Firstly, the Prime areas–language and Communication, PSHE and Physical. Some of our children will have spoken little or no English for months, some will not have been outside at all and all of them will need to find ways of dealing with the new way of doing things. We will need to give them the language they need to come to terms with what has happened in the last few months but we also need to give them hope and joy. Of course we will teach reading, writing and maths but we will do so in a way that recognises what they need and when. The term ‘plugging the gaps’ implies that by teaching children how to answer SATS questions you can some how fix the disadvantage gap and all teachers know that is nonsense. The gap starts with children’s language and experiences, even their nutrition,  and is widened because of our unrelenting focus on English and Maths as the only way of measuring whether a child is Secondary ready. We need to be looking at our curriculum (again). The 2014 Curriculum is not fit for purpose–its writing is too secretarial and not enough about developing your own voice, the maths is too much and too soon, and the reading is about being able to answer questions, not immersing yourself in a book and building a schema of knowledge and experiences through reading to help you make sense of the world around you. Finally, don’t get me started on how the Government identifies the disadvantaged children. If it is Free School Meals then all educators know that that misses a huge amount of children whose parents are earning just enough and who have been most likely most impacted by the lockdown rules.
There was a lot of grand talk at the start of lockdown–of educators promising that when schools do return we will do things differently. If the Government really wants schools to help our children ‘catch up’ then announce now that there will be no high stakes testing next year,(if ever) that we will be given the time we need to help children settle back into school and to learn how to learn again, and that they will announce soon what measures will still need to be in place in September so that we can plan now. Commit to funding additional teachers if classes need to be smaller, let us know whether there will still need to be a bubble system in place and how we maintain that, consider where we can find extra spaces for outdoor learning and physical exercise, and let us do our job.

Human Beings Not Email Addresses


There has been a lot of talk about what education will look like when we come out of the other side
of this lock down – there is definitely an element of hope, but then aren’t educators generally
hopeful. Afterall, I have never said I am a teacher because I want children to be able to use fronted
adverbials correctly, but I have said I want to give children the skills, knowledge and experiences to
become caring, compassionate individuals that understand injustice and call it out when they need
to.
For me, the issue of Free School Meal vouchers has become a burning platform. From the moment
that we got wind that schools might need to close, concern was immediately expressed for our most
vulnerable children and how we provide them with some continuity of care and support. Whilst
dealing with the sudden need to change how we deliver education – to supporting our children
remotely, across the country, people involved in education began pulling together to ensure that our
children would at least have food. My own school was lucky enough to be able to become part of
Chefs4Schools and The Leap Federation Hackney’s efforts to provide children with cooked, healthy
food, initially on a daily basis, but gradually evolving into a weekly hamper. It took until the 30th
March for the Government to drop the news (late at night) that there would be a National Voucher
system which would provide families with £15 for every child entitled to Free School Meals. As soon
as I could I placed my first order. It was a wonder, on the Wednesday before we were told we were
going to shut to all but a handful of children we had perhaps emails for a third of our families. By
the time we closed on the Friday we had an email address for all but one. I ordered the vouchers,
convinced they would be with families the following day – I assured my parents – decided to
continue offering the hampers for those who needed it – went home, feeling as though I had done
something worthwhile.
9 days later and only about 6 of my families have been able to redeem the voucher. I have dealt
daily with families becoming increasingly stressed, I have tried to contact Edenred the third party
company so many times, to get an engaged signal, be held in a queue. The on-line form was never
responded to and mysteriously, the Contact Us page on their website disappeared over night.
I might seem trivial to the people in charge, £15 might seem like a drop in the ocean, they probably
spend it on a bottle of wine, but for someone like me, who knows what it is like to be juggling
whether to buy a tin of beans to feed your child or to keep the money for the bus fare to work the
reaction has been visceral. I might be more privileged now, my son has grown up, I am now a Head
Teacher and although not a terribly high paid one, compared to the families I serve I know how good my salary is, I don’t need a lot. Material things don’t interest
me much, as long as I have books, music, quirky clothes, I’m okay. But I do remember being a child
when even paying the electricity bill was a struggle. I remember the man in a black coat turning our
electricity off, just when my posh friend from school was having a sleep over. She thought it was an
adventure, she didn’t see the shame on my mother’s face when she had to ask her parents once
again to help her out, to pay the bill so we could have light and heat.
I remember too being the only Free School Meal kids at my grammar school, being made to line up
at the back of the queue with my sisters. Perhaps my first introduction to fighting against social
injustice, my best friends and I launched a campaign to be able to queue up like ‘normal’ people.
Those experiences don’t leave you – they might drive you to make the world fairer and for that I am
grateful. However, they also mean that when a parent rings to ask yet again where the voucher is,
when they are grateful for a few potatoes and a bag of bagels, your heart twists. The empathy that
you believe makes you a better leader also leaves you fragile. You want to fix it but are frustrated by

non-existent communication and platitudes about the sheer volume of orders that need to be
processed.
Well I am sorry, but that just isn’t good enough. I’ve heard ridiculous things as though somehow the
parents needing vouchers are a sub-class of people – they’ll spend it on alcohol, fags, drugs. It might
be true for some, but most parents needing Free School Meals are parents who do their best, every
day. Denied employment in ‘proper’ jobs due to barriers of language, education, physical and
mental health – even just location. How can you work when there is no work?
I know I am not the only Head Teacher experiencing this- twitter has been a place where we can
connect – share our frustrations. It might seem trivial to the people who have been charged with co-ordinating the vouchers – to the Department for Education – they’ve done their bit. The scheme is
in place, and yes belatedly, they have agreed to fund the vouchers over the Easter break. That only
works if the parents get them. The vouchers I ordered for the 1st April have only just been processed
and most of the parents have not been able to redeem them due to problems with the parent site,
the vouchers I ordered for the 8th April – for the first week of the Easter holiday languish, in some
virtual limbo – they’ve been paid for apparently – but no-one has processed them.
I need the organisations who are supposed to be managing the vouchers to understand one simple
message – the people receiving these vouchers are not abstract e-mail addresses, they are all
individuals, dealing with unprecedented challenges – trying to keep their children safe, their
teenagers to follow the guidance. Many of them don’t have a garden to play in, they don’t have
access to technology apart from perhaps a phone, they don’t have board games and bookshelves full
of books. They are human beings who want their kids and wider family to stay safe. They need to
be able to provide the basics – and food is an essential part of this.
There is time to begin thinking and reflecting in what our education and society will be like when we
come through this crisis. Right now though we need to make sure our families are getting the
support they are entitled to, us educators will continue to improve what we offer in the way of
education, we’ve been learning rapidly, now you must step up and get the Vouchers scheme right,
not next week, not in a few days, but now. Stop the platitudes and self congratulation about how many orders have been processed – you knew the numbers when you took on the contract. Please, sort it out, now.

It’s OK to be anxious.

I have never blogged before but having seen a number of tweets expressing anxiety about the new academic year I thought I’d give it a go.

I am prompted to write my first blog after reading a number of tweets expressing anxiety and nerves about the new academic year. I too experience anxiety at this time of year, despite 20 years of teaching and entering my seventh year as head, so I have been thinking about the reasons why.

I guess really I want to reassure. I honestly believe that being anxious is fine! Our job matters. In some ways it should give you sleepless nights, not because you are worried about your school’s position in the league tables or because this year is an OFSTED year but because you are being trusted to educate young people. It doesn’t matter whether you are teaching in Nursery or Year 13, the job comes with a huge amount of responsibility so if you are going to survive it you need to care. I hope though that your anxiety is also tempered by excitement whatever your current role in school. I can’t wait to get to know my new Early Years Children and their families but am also excited to work with my NQTS and further develop ethical leadership at all levels. Of course alongside the excitement is anxiety but isn’t that the point?

Although it might appear flippant to suggest sleepless nights are okay, I want to make it clear. I do not want anyone to feel so anxious they cannot sleep and their long term health to suffer, but I do want everyone involved in education to be motivated not by their personal ambition but by the desire to make the world a fairer place for all children. This means there will be times when you spend hours thinking and pondering on the child you are finding it most difficult to reach or even how to bring in a balanced budget without yet another restructure. You will occasionally wake up at 3 am in the morning worried about the child with a Child Protection Plan, or with what you think is an amazing idea for a whole school street party, (not realising that that alone is enough to give your long suffering Deputy her own sleepless nights) and the night before results day, whatever level, is likely to be pretty tough. However, what I have learnt and what helps me generally sleep at night is knowing that I generally have done my best. I cannot fix everything and nor can you. I cannot fix affordable housing for my families living in overcrowded and temporary accommodation but I can listen, make phone calls and adapt my policies to recognise what an achievement it is for some children to get to school at all let alone on time. I can’t overcome every challenge and barrier faced by my children with SEND but I can listen to them and their parents, I can try and walk in their shoes and if this means changing my uniform policy to accommodate a child’s hypersensitivity to certain fabrics or bringing in whole school training on attachment and trauma to better understand our Looked After Children, then I will.

I will do all I can to reduce teacher work load but not at the expense of the children. It is a hard job – there are different points in the year when we are all on our knees, but it is also the best job. If my staff come to me with ideas for reducing planning I will of course listen, but nor will I just go down the route of doing something because it is easier for staff. Our curriculum needs to be responsive to my community and relevant to their experiences and interests. This year we are working on children seeing themselves in the books they read and the history they study and this has of course created work for class teachers and subject leads. I make no apologies for this. I do all I can to provide time for leaders to lead and teachers to teach but ultimately, well our kids get one shot at this so it needs to be the best it can possibly be.

I guess in conclusion, what I am trying to say in my clumsy way, is that it is okay to be anxious and nervous. I’d be pretty surprised if you weren’t. However, find ways to live with yourself and look after yourself. You’re anxious because you are in a profession that cares passionately about getting it right for our children. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed talk to someone, anyone. But also, embrace the nerves and the worry, it’s what drives us all to keep getting better.