Thursday, 12 March 2015

Work in process

I have to blog about this right now, before I forget a single detail.  Taking a third of the school to sing at Wembley Arena yesterday was amazing enough, and then today.  I am being shown something alright. 

Some of you may have noticed that earlier in the week I tweeted:

'Been reading my last two days worth of tweets.  This job is brilliant, this job is terrible.  Ooh cute baby hedgehogs!' 

As all of us in the system, and indeed the public sector, know at the moment the job is a rollercoaster.  Lots of us in Education feel that we are battling on for children against a culture of failure, fear and blame.  But many of us have that moral purpose and need to do right by children. And, actually, that passion and love for the job. It is who we are, part of our nature, our humanity. 

I attended a conference about values and culture today in London.  The venue was Drummond gate, near the Tate Britain.  Because of the late arrival back at school yesterday, 2am, I was running a little late. There was then tube chaos. 

I know delays get frustrating for people but it always upsets me when I overhear the following types of comments from other commuters 'passenger incident? Hmph another jumper. Now we're going to be late.' I've heard it before and it bothers me around humanity.  You'd have to be in an incredibly dark place to jump.  As it turned out that was a rumour (another rather unpleasant human habit) but I was relieved to find it had been an accident and the person was ok.  

At that point I didn't know that though and I arrived at my destination slightly disappointed with humanity and late for the start of the session. I decided to wait until the next session. Then I remembered that this is on at Tate Britain

'Perfect' I thought.  I keep wanting to stick a plaster on my fears about humanity, and desperately trying to find one.  I knew this exhibition would not do that, but it's art would make me think deeply.  I intended to buy the book also and knew at that point I would be taking away far more than a better understanding of social, moral cultural and spiritual values from my course. 

Sadly I didn't have the time today for the rest of the fabulous art in Tate Britain, so I went straight for the McQueen/Waplington exhibition.  I have always been inspired by McQueen and was sad to learn of his tragic death. A loss to art and the world is worse without him in my opinion.  I didn't know very much about Waplington's work other than what I had read about the 2009 collection and that interested me a great deal.  

Every now and then the universe cuts you a break just when you need it and when I got up to the exhibition Nick Waplington was there and had just started to talk a group of visitors through the exhibition.  He is a fascinating man to listen to and I had the privilege of being able to listen to some of what he said.  I wasn't part of the tour and I assume they had been invited or bought tickets so I felt it would be rude to gatecrash and also was really supposed to be over the road working.  However, at that moment listening to Waplington talk through the reasoning behind the collection was far more important to me. Ideas around the political situation in 2009, the banking crash, recycling and infinite growth versus finite resource.  The haves and have nots.  The perception and depiction of women in society.  He also talked about his friendship with McQueen and how he was as a person.  And the tragic fact that this turned out to be his last big gesture.  His final flourish.  

I recommend that you buy this, it is available at Tate Britain  

Waplington's photographs of the 'work in process' toward the 2009 collection are fascinating.  They give an insight into the process, the creativity, the ideas and into McQueen himself.  

I don't know if it is available elsewhere I haven't looked.  I bought it and then had that moment where I knew if I didn't rush back & ask Nick to sign it I would never forgive myself.  So I did.  He very graciously did as I babbled away in a Hugh Grant film character type way about how dreadful the biro I'd given him to sign it was. His guests laughed with a mixture of pity & awkwardness!

I couldn't possibly have explained why it was so important to me at that moment. How the universe had sent it.  How this wrangling in my job as a Headteacher between what the system is becoming politically and what I know is morally right is so resonant with the tension that is present in McQueen's work.  The layers, the texture.  The infinite growth.  The finite resources. 

Both men, both artists, making us think about it through art.  More than that, feel about it.  

Lee Alexander McQueen on the 2009 collection:

Monday, 2 March 2015

Ofsted, the Cancer of our profession?

After about an hour of observing quite stressed behaviours this evening I plucked up the courage to ask my husband if he associates becoming ill with their last Ofsted inspection.  Sadly I hadn't put enough time into thinking about what I would respond with when he just put all of his marking down and said 'yes.'  But what do you say to that?

I'm rarely speechless, I think he appreciated it! I responded with a lengthy silence and then asked how I could help.  I have helped him mark books.  I have fired questions about their Raiseonline.  I have helped plan his assembly. 

I would like to say Ofsted is not as bad as Cancer but actually I got much more stressed before our last inspection than I did when he had Cancer. I couldn't leave the house to buy milk at one point before our inspection whereas I never got like that when I was leading a school post Good Ofsted & nursing him at home during intensive chemotherapy. 

After the first day of their last inspection husband came home in tears.  The only other time I have ever seen him cry is when his grandfather died.  He was given outstanding but the school got RI & he felt it was an unfair judgement.  In the end our friend & mentor Nigel Utton, head at the time, decided to resign.  The pain of unfairness burns Andy and I very hotly. It's one of the many things we have in common. 

All of those feelings, less than 24 hours to deal with them. Alongside the prep & marking & Raiseonline. And checking in with colleagues to make sure they are ok.

Is Ofsted the Cancer of our profession? I have some wise Twitter Ofsted contacts who I have a good deal of time for.  But the Ofsted machine?  I think it's run it's course personally.  We have appraisal mechanisms & teacher standards that are far tougher than they were.  They ensure rigour. Ofsted is just causing rigor mortis. 

Ofsted causes the great teachers to overthink & feel too much pressure.  It does no more for bad teachers than us as school leaders can do. Except for scaring people into sacking a token case study.  It's inconsistent and fundamentally flawed in my opinion. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Hands up, baby hands up for quality ITE

I think we're very fortunate in our area to have an excellent ITE provider.  Canterbury Christchurch University College produce fabulous teachers consistently. They are a respected institution. They have high expectations & standards of students and work well with us as schools but they also challenge us. They are full of professionals with research credentials who reframe our thinking in school about trainee teachers and where they are/what they need. They have an excellent blog at 

As a very small school I make trainee teachers a focus around every third year. We don't have capacity every year. We have two students when that is our priority and I throw myself into all things Chrischurch to make sure they get the best partnership between us and University.  I am passionate about trying to get it right from the outset so that the drop out rate improves among new teachers. I interviewed there for next year's trainee teachers this week and deviated from the set questioning on two points:
'How well do you deal with frustration about the system and why do you think so many new teachers drop out?' 
'Do you aspire to be a Headteacher?' 
I think these two questions are essential indicators of resilience now and of realism about our profession.  Of course I wouldn't expect most applicants to teacher training posts to see themselves as a Headteacher (I didn't!) but aspiring is different.  We need resilient, sparky folk who want to be in it to win it. I'm not saying everyone should be a Head either, of course not. To maintain life as a high performing teacher is as hard as the job of Headteacher. 

I also had the privilege this week of observing and interim grading our final practice trainee teacher alongside her University link tutor.  She is outstanding.  She is a joy to behold. She also has a work rate that is second to none and is reflective. She had graded herself cautiously and we upped many of her grades. 

The link tutor and I had a bit of conflict though over children putting their hands up.  Her point of view was that the trainee teacher shouldn't be asking for hands up.  I pointed out that we use hands up as a school strategy. That's not all we use, the pupils know we don't always choose those with hands up. There is a lolly stick mug so those that don't put up hands know that if the teacher is holding the mug they'd better try & think of an answer if their hand isn't up. But that isn't used every time. 

I see this dislike of hands up as another easy thing for people outside of day to day school life to take a dislike to based on bits of research. Children love putting their hands up! Why wouldn't you sometimes ask the child who has their hand up so much they might pop? Why wouldn't you occasionally give the child who doesn't like putting their hand up a safety break? 

It's quite obvious my childrens' school use hands up as on occasion my children raise their hands at home! They are an outstanding school, and not just in Ofsted terms. 

So, I fought my trainee teacher's corner on that one and won.  The link tutor is excellent actually and I know she is just balancing what our trainee may find in the culture of other schools once she is employed, where perhaps the show of hands has been vilified as ancient practice. 

I think this type of discourse is so valuable though and I worry that without a University provision and discourse between school and University link tutor the quality of provision for training isn't there. We have had our County ITE program given 4 by Ofsted recently

The teaching schools are all developing provision but, as yet, I can't see the comparison between them and an established ITE provision. In my view Christchurch have an entirely different mindset to that which a teaching school has capacity for, particularly when it comes to educational research and research based discourse with schools. 

Saturday, 31 January 2015

You are braver than you believe

I fell down the stairs last week.  It's an unglamorous story that is connected with me having the bug my kids had & going to bed in the spare room. I look like Bowie during his Spiders from Mars phase. 

I've been at work this week, in dark glasses, and I'm ok. Sort of. I've done a lot of reflecting and talking to staff and I've realised that it was getting to me. 

By 'it' I mean the national picture.  The academy programme.  The fact we're one of the only small schools in the county not yet federated or part of an academy chain.  With my small cohorts meaning children carry as much as 17% we are also vulnerable to drop below key performance indicators.

I have led my school for 7 years.  We are full, solvent, in a fit for purpose well maintained building and 9th in our, large, county in performance tables.  The team is high calibre and really something special. I am happy, proud and privileged to lead them. We are part of a strong collaboration and have a steering company, of which I am on the board of directors.  We have good connections and exciting plans.

So why so scared? Today has been that moment when the sun shines in the morning and you can't even believe you were so scared of that horrid nightmare you had.  Both my irrational nightmares and my worries about school are based in the same place. My subconscious. 

So time to remember something simple. Simple's always best at such times. A while since I've mentioned AHT in my posts as she has been a Head of her own school for a year and a half now, and has taken on a second school this year*proud face.*This (link below) is a favourite of hers and one she left for me to remember going forward.  School leadership has to be brave, strong and smart.  Often we are more of all of those than we think.  And the most important thing, our moral purpose, will always be with us. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Friend, my friend.

Friend isn't the same term as it used to be socially is it?  Has it been redefined or is it just in the social realm.  Is a Facebook friend the same as a work friend? A Twitter friend the same as a pen friend (who has those any more? Shame) to 'friend' someone for teenagers doesn't mean to subscribe to any of the values of friendship. For some it does, but those aren't the social rules. 

Was it ever any different?  Is social networking just party rules unwritten? With (you'd like to think) less alcohol? But perhaps more. 

I do know that I had few old friends that could support when my husband was ill. Our Macmillan nurse told us that would happen and I didn't believe it.  But she was right.  My Twitter friends got me through. Jan Rush & Banno initially.  Banno turned tears to laughter with his tweet about the macdonalds milkshake machine explosion! Jan was so kind & then sent a pillow.  Charlotte sent me three hearts with the words 'love, hope & luck' they are still in my purse. 

We had some bricks of friends too.  Craig, Martin and Tina.  Online I was supported every day though.  It was almost like tag team. There was always someone there. You people are quite a team. 

The point of this is our friends online are friends, they don't mean less than those we regarded before as friends just because we met on the net. 

I'm really looking forward to Friday. I'm going to see @raliel first thing (who is one of my favourite folk) as I discovered he doesn't have a ukulele & that must be remedied! Then I'm off to the BETT show and will get to Friday hug @betsysalt for real this week! 

Sometimes I see people moaning about teacher Twitter feed.  There's a simple answer to that. Make friends with people who are not teachers too. Think wider. 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

We are the media - 540 days for a bereaved family in the UK

In the light of the recent press about the NHS and comments about the politicising of health issues I feel compelled to write this post.  It's about a wonderful girl who was one of my dearest friends, and her mum who is now one of my dearest friends. 

I must explain that I don't have medical reports in front of me. I have been told a lot about them. I haven't sat in hearings. I have heard a lot about them. The final hearing doesn't take place until May. I am not in possession of data and haven't conducted freedom of information requests.  That fact and data post is for someone else to write.  Perhaps several people, perhaps the media.  

But I met these dear friends because of a favourite artist, Amanda Palmer.  One of her great phrases is 'we are the media.'  Now, with blogging and social networking as it is, we truly are.  This is an opportunity, and a responsibility. So my 'media' act in this post is the human story. Obviously from my own camera angle. My intention is to support the family and highlight the pain that they have been through.  Also to expose some details that have shocked me utterly about the current system. 

Back in July 2013 my friend had just had one of the most fun weekends of her adult life. She had spent time with friends, seen one of her favourite rock stars, lived and laughed.  She was doing fabulously and it was brilliant to see. 

Inevitably Monday morning came around, Stella the cat was at Grandma's house following the weekend's frivolity & everybody had to go to work. There was a slight falling out when my friend's mum was too busy at work to fetch the cat from 'G-MA.'  For that reason her mum wasn't surprised not to hear from my friend on the Tuesday. She was a fabulous, sparkling girl but had a passionate personality and sure could sulk if she felt inclined! 

When Wednesday dawned though her mum got a sinking feeling that something was wrong.  She convinced herself it was worry about nothing and went to work.  The nagging feeling continued until, later that day, she could bear it no longer and went over to the flat. When there was no answer she got in through the summer window locks, which she used to nag all the time were not secure enough. On doing so she discovered that her mother's instinct had been correct and that her beautiful, vibrant 23 year old daughter had died.  Her own nursing background suggested probably some time ago. 

She phoned an ambulance, the crew contacted police.  Her daughter was taken to a local hospital for an autopsy.  All dreadful and horrendous, but as we would all expect. What we would not all expect though, and what none of us knew at that point, was that autopsies at that hospital had been outsourced by the NHS to a private company. 

The report came back swiftly, the cause of death recorded as an undiagnosed heart defect.  Even in shock, mother's instinct was there again for my friend's mum. My friend was bipolar and had borderline personality disorder. She was medicated but doing very well.  She was working on a plan to try and rely on less medication.  

She had been medicated from a young age, 17.  She was under several clinics 6 years later and the plan she wanted was proving tough to achieve.  I know that, she told me.  She had asked for rehabilitation to help her become free of prescription medication but that had been refused on the grounds of cost to the tax payer. Little did professionals know then just how much her case would end up costing.  Not just to the tax payer. 

Because of this background she had been regularly seen by medical professionals.  She had also been admitted to hospital on several occasions.  Her notes were very detailed. Why would a heart condition never have been diagnosed?  How could it have been missed? Something felt wrong. 

But a report had been done, a cause of death recorded and her body released for  her funeral.  She was buried in August 2013 with many family, friends, and even her favourite rock star paying tribute.

Then the inquest began.  The report began to raise some significant questions.  For example why had it been recorded that her gall bladder was intact and in good condition when she didn't have one?  It had been removed when she was 15 years old.  There were so many questions raised that one of the UK's leading coroners became involved. 

Months of pre inquest meetings and inquest hearings then begun.  The family were plunged into hearings, meetings and reports.  Until early 2014 when the inquest panel made the decision to exhume my friend's remains.  This was because of serious concerns about the accuracy of the autopsy findings and a theory that the recorded cause of death was incorrect. A team of experts came together, including a professional expert flown in from another country. In mid May 2014 my friend's mum, also now a great friend, was in the cemetery at 4am.  It hadn't occurred to me before, but I suppose it is obvious, that any exhumation must be completed in darkness with no public around. She had agonised over whether to go.  An occasion on which I was bereft of advice.  I just promised I'd have my mobile on if she decided to go & wanted to text.  In the end she couldn't bear the idea of her child being exhumed without anyone from the family there.  She made chocolate brownies for the team and along she went.  Grandma went too.  Their strength astounded me. 

More inquest meetings and hearings followed.  Details emerged about careless actions during the autopsy that are heartbreaking.  The reasons that the family were not allowed to see her to say goodbye in the chapel of rest became clear.  There is only so much even the best undertaker can do.  My amazing friend (mum of my amazing friend) and the close family had to listen to details about the remains themselves and the exhumation that were unpleasant and harrowing.  

The official cause of death following the exhumation was recorded as 'poly drug toxicity.' There were many drugs prescribed over six years.  She was on a larger daily dose of zopiclone and morphine than my husband was short term during the worst of his chemotherapy.  She had been on them for three years. Oxycodone had recently been added also.  She was under several professionals and clinics.  No one seemed to support her rehabilitation idea, in the last meeting with her, mum and grandma professionals said it couldn't possibly be funded. 

The date for the final inquest hearing was set for April 29th.  One year, nine months and 14 days since my beautiful friend died.  Finally the family hoped for closure.  The chance to begin to put their lives back together.  Yesterday they found out that the final inquest has now been delayed until May 25th.  

My friend has been inspirationally strong and brave since losing her only child in tragic circumstances.  But facing a wait of almost two years for closure she is understandably finding it incredibly tough. In the past month she has found it difficult to continue to work and has been prescribed medication for anxiety and post traumatic stress.  I'm amazed she managed 16 months of what she's been going through whilst working and carrying on as normal.  I don't think I could have. She remains one of the most upbeat, funny and inspirational people I know. 

Eventually the system will grind to it's conclusion.  It will be reported however it is, I hope humanely. It will perhaps have implications for outsourcing NHS services and checking the quality.  One would hope so.  What won't ever change though is the sheer hell this family have been through over the past 540 days.  

The other thing that won't change is that so many services that we all trust let this family down so dreadfully.  

Sunday, 28 December 2014


My reflection on this year is going to be short, for me, and based on something I've learned about myself.  In the hope it might just help someone else. 

I've read some fabulous Nurture posts and am, as ever, heartened by how many of us love our job. I found many resonated with the deep love and slight sense of being overwhelmed that I feel about our profession.  The other fabulous thing that comes through so many is the joy and laughter that we get to experience with students and colleagues. What a privilege it is to experience the joy and the pain. It's no booth with a telephone and PC. 

I'll call my reflection 'the sponge.' As caring professionals you may just recognise the concepts. 

I used to be a standard car washing sponge. I threw myself at the job and all of the human stuff. I sponged up all of the pools of emotion &  the bits of grit where I dropped on the gravel and I kept on sponging. Rather than taking time to refresh & wring out I'd keep plunging myself back into that bucket. The water got murkier as term went on and invariably a week before the holidays I'd feel ill. I'd limp through the last week heavily and then spend a week or so wrung out. 

A couple of years ago I learned that I couldn't go on doing that as I'd become so poorly my doctor was worried. So I streamlined myself into a bath sponge. I'd make sure I didn't try & mop up too much, especially for others.  I gave myself time, recognised what needed sponging & what didn't and was as kind to myself as I could be. 

This past year I've noticed something though. I get a lot out of being the sponge. I want to sponge things up for others. I like to feel needed, it makes me feel like I'm somewhere doing something.  Making things less hard, less sad. I like to do that in my personal life and at work. I want to help as well and to make a difference.  The difference last year though was that I had someone very close to me ill and my friend died. I'm close to her mum and she's become a good friend.  I am close enough to both of them for them to be really honest about how help from others feels, knowing I wouldn't be hurt. 

By the way at least if you are a sponge your help is offered.  When things get really bad there is often no one there. Even close friends can find it impossible to be around because of how the circumstances make them feel.  That's important to interject at this point! 

This year I realised I need to think a bit more before I offer help. Not about me but about the other person.  As in plan to be helpful rather than just sponge. 

I've learned that helping is listening quietly, or just being there.  Not loads of advice about what to do. A cheery word or a laugh, a funny memory.  Not a deluge of how sad and unfair life can be. Empathy is helpful, but not if it only reminds me of a story about myself!  If it's something I've never been through I have learned that 'I can't imagine' is a lot more helpful than 'I understand.'

Very unhelpful phrases include 'you need to' 'what are you going to do about' 'it'll feel better in time' and 'other people that have been through this say'

It is also untrue that a positive attitude heals an unwell mind or body.  Reassurance that it's normal and ok not to feel ok when things are terrible is much more helpful than assurances that attempts to look on the bright side will make things better.  

This year I'm going to be a bumper pack of makeup sponges. Helping to even the surface, wipe up errors and improve the general outlook as much as I can.  Throwing away the used up sponge & whipping a fresh one out of the bag as needed. 

Sponging up loads and then wringing yourself out isn't healthy or helpful for you or anyone else.  I hope the lessons I learned this year about what is helpful help others too.  I also hope I continue to learn in 2015.  

Thank you to my main 2 sources, I'm sure you know who you are!  Also thank you all of you that are around for me. Always appreciated.