A Clarion Call


This is a clarion call. It’s my clarion call, and I’m going to own it.


It’s the eve of my birthday. It’s not a ‘big’ birthday. It’s nothing that’s any different really. Except that over the past year or so I’ve done a great deal of thinking, considering, deciding. And I’m now done with inertia and reflection. So it’s on the eve of my birthday that I’m going to say it: I want to be a head teacher. It may be in two years, it may be in twelve years. But that’s what it is.


I’m certainly not going to embark on a race to become a head teacher; this isn’t a frantic dash and scramble to me leading a school. I am very happy where I am, and I’m learning a lot. It’s been anything but a rush making the decision to, at some point in the future, lead a school. It’s been a slow but steady journey to get to this point: I’ve had to weigh up different, important considerations, both personal and professional. And it’s definitely not for the title or parking space or a name on a door. I don’t care about any of that. It’s because there is something that courses through me, and I feel its urgency. Something that rhythmically tick-tocks in me, that swoops within me like a pendulum, that preoccupies me daily and that I think and talk about probably more than anything else. And that thing is equality.


Equality has formed me because I grew up with inequality as a cruel, unwelcome guest. I was a child who lived in poverty. I’ve written about this before, here. And I was an exceptionally lucky child, too, despite living in a household where being hungry was often the norm. I had parents who did everything they could for my sister and me, and a school that did so, too. I am forever indebted. There was scant food on the table. But, because of my parents and my school, that table was rich in other ways. I was blessed: the table creaked under the immense weight of the joy of Keats and the pull of Toni Morrison and the bleak misery of the trenches and the beauty of Schubert and the angles of Brutalism, all of which, years later, brushed poverty aside like crumbs in an empty bread bin. I would not be a deputy head teacher without my parents and the school I went to. Without both, I don’t think I’d be in a position to know what my ambition for young people is. Without Mum and Dad, and my school, I wouldn’t know what I thought about lots of things, simply because I hadn’t come across them and thought about them; and if I hadn’t come across them, I’d find it hard to have an opinion because I didn’t know enough. As a consequence, I couldn’t be in a position to be free, remaining invisibly shackled by my own ignorance. My parents, and my school, set me free.


Like I say, I’m lucky. I dodged the short straw.


And this makes me angry. I don’t want our kids to have to be lucky. I don’t want our kids’ futures determined by the turn of a coin or the roll of a dice. I don’t want them to have to dodge the short straw. I don’t want them to hopefully be OK. I have a quiet fury and a sharp focus and a fire that simmers: rubbish deals, inconsistent deals, hopeful deals simply aren’t good enough. Rhetoric and kind words and gut feelings aren’t good enough either. And that’s why that equality metronome keeps ticking, steadily, inside me. Because all our kids have a right to a great deal. And I’m not going to wish for it, or pray for it, or hand-wringingly pine for it. At some point, I’m going to make it happen.


Anyone that knows me knows I’m pretty specific. And I’ll be, when the time comes, very specific and fussy about getting the right headship, so I can make sure that thousands of pupils get a great deal. I’ll know it when it comes, whenever that will be. I’ll be a head teacher that doesn’t allow our children’s futures to be put at risk by wings, prayers, coins and dice. A head teacher who will ensure that a great education, for all children, is a right, not a privilege.


And that’s my clarion call.




Grief: Mum

“…she went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep and reaching half down the hall.”

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll


I wrote about my Dad earlier in the week, and how he died, and the grief that ensued. Grief is a boring thing. It’s mundane, dull. I’m sure it’s very personal too. I can only write about mine, and mine is pretty run-of the-mill.


It hit me in the months after Mum’s death that I was an orphan, and that things would never be the same again. That I couldn’t ask Mum’s advice about what washing machine setting to use; that I couldn’t talk to Dad about work any more; that I’d never again be able to show Mum the bees dancing around the lavender. These are all very everyday things, but, when someone is irrevocably torn from your life, it’s often these seemingly little things that become overwhelmingly huge.


Although my grief was, and is, pretty routine, my Mum was anything but. I’ve written about Mum and Dad before. They were amazing people. Mum was a force of nature. I really don’t know anyone else like her, and I don’t think I ever will again. Mum had faced challenges with her health from early in life. In her 20s, in swinging sixties London, she was diagnosed with epilepsy (something she kept from my sister and me until we were in our late teens). Epilepsy was manageable for Mum, but a pain; thankfully the major seizures were kept under control. In her 40s she was diagnosed with MS, and then, terribly unluckily, she was diagnosed with another neurological condition that would eventually kill her: Parkinson’s disease.


The MS was relatively OK. Mum was diagnosed when I was fourteen. It involved lots of tripping up (rather than major falls), some stabbing pains particularly in her feet and legs, and other weird neurological symptoms. It was when Mum began to develop symptoms that weren’t epilepsy or MS-attributable that we worried. Initially the consultant delivered some earth-shattering news: it might be Motor Neurone Disease, and we should prepare for the worst. I was sixteen, taking my GCSEs, and more preoccupied with The Prodigy than complex neurological conditions. But even I, in my sixteen year old selfish self, realised that this could be dire. I was still (just about) going to Mass then, and I prayed for the first time in years. So, after months of tests and appointments and worry, the final diagnosis of Parkinson’s came as a blessed relief. But we had no idea. We thought Parkinson’s was a bit of a shuffly, trembly, old person’s disease. As Mum was diagnosed in her early 50s, we thought all was OK, pretty much. And, as I’m told by Parkinson’s experts, living beyond twenty years from diagnosis is remarkable. But Mum was remarkable.


I’m not going to go into detail here about Mum’s deterioration over a twenty year period. Safe to say, though, Parkinson’s disease is not just tremors and shuffles and forgetting the odd word. When the Parkinson’s got much worse, and tore Mum and us to pieces, it was us changing her nappies; laminating our photos and phone numbers and sticking them on the wall so Mum could remember; desperately trying to calm a terrified Mum as she hallucinated (a frequent Parkinson’s symptom when the disease gets more advanced); finding Mum bleeding out on the floor having punctured her lung with her own rib after falling on the sideboard; making Mum’s food into a mulch so she could just about swallow it, as the swallow reflex deteriorates. And this was almost constant for the last few years of her life. Parkinson’s flays the soul of dignity and tramples on it and laughs at it and keeps laughing and doesn’t care.


But, like my grief now, this unhappy regimen of what we did became usual, regular, mundane. My sister and I, and our partners too, became part of the routine. That said, it didn’t make what we did any less special or memorable – we have many, many funny memories (both my parents were hilarious – but that’s another blog). Dad had died, and Mum’s Parkinson’s-associated dementia had started to kick in, but it meant that she often saw Dad around their flat. We all found this comforting. Mum couldn’t write very well at all as Parkinson’s had ravaged her motor skills, but we left her a notebook and pen to use during the day because she still wanted to write. I came over one day after work and found her writing about my Dad (he was called Bernard, but she called him Bern – see below). This was often in a web of other fleeting thoughts and memories. If you know someone with Parkinson’s and with dementia, you’ll probably have to, at some point, accept the unacceptable: dementia knits tightly the neurological tangle of memories and thoughts and feelings: you can’t often work out what is real and what is not. It’s ferociously upsetting until you try to accept it.


Mum hand


As dementia tightened its grip and shook Mum like a ragdoll, Mum had a spectacularly catastrophic fall about nine months before she died, in the summer of 2014. She smashed her head, her ribs, her arm. This sounds awful as I write, but again, it’s what we were used to; we were familiar with the hospital patching her up and us, as a family, starting again. But this fall was different. Although Mum still recognised my sister and me, her speech had changed. She slept for hours at a time. She sometimes didn’t recognise our partners. We knew something was wrong; the earth was out of kilter. Mum was admitted to hospital after the fall in August 2014, and there was no improvement. Nothing. We were convinced she’d had a stroke. It wasn’t until the 3rd October, unhappily my Dad’s birthday (which is why I remember the date), that my sister and I were ushered into a bleak, anonymous room, to be told that Mum had entered “the last stage” of Parkinson’s. We had no idea what this meant, so I had to ask: was Mum going to die? The response: Yes. She probably won’t make it to Christmas.


Typically, Mum ‘dug in’. Both my parents were exceptionally determined, a trait both my sister and I have too; it was almost as if Mum refused to accept her fate. She moved to a hospice, but became even funnier, more animated, more beautiful. She made it past Christmas. She made it past my birthday (February), and my sister’s birthday (March).  She made it past her own birthday (early April). The carers and nurses in the hospice were magnificent. Amazingly, just a week before Mum died, they managed to help her walk down the corridor, with a nurse on each arm. Although everyone knew Mum was dying, they never gave up.


Then, one dazzlingly bright April morning, with the sparrows chirping outside the window, my sister called. I knew what had happened before I answered the phone.


The next few hours were a blur. I remember calling work and explaining what had happened; traffic lights; that I didn’t have time to wash my hair. Stupid stuff, but concrete stuff. I remember feeling bereft. If you’ve read my last blog post, you’ll know that I decided that I didn’t want to see my Dad when he died; that I’d caught a glimpse of him through the door and that he, dead on the bed, didn’t look like Dad. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d have to make this awful decision again. I decided I would see Mum.


Mum was far more what I’d expected death to look like than Dad’s furious, angry departure. Mum looked completely serene. She even looked comfy. But, and what upset me greatly: she was cold. Again, it hadn’t even occurred to me that this would happen. After leaving her in her room, I remember little else.


So here I am: an orphan. I’m aware that sounds pathetic, and I’m definitely not asking for sympathy. I’m also not going to happily, piously accept Mum’s or Dad’s deaths. It’s not fair and, like I said in my last blog post, I’m pointlessly bloody furious about it. But my fist-waving at the heavens is completely futile, so I try to channel that energy, that fury, into what I do in a positive way. I’ll write about this another time.


And, as I said last time, Mum and Dad left a huge gap, an empty void. But I’m OK with it, because it’s a gap I don’t want filled: it’s a gap hewn by their love.


Mum Claire



Grief: Dad

“…she went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep and reaching half down the hall.”

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll


Nothing has happened. No one is ill or hurt. No one I love or care about has died recently. Life is comfortably mundane. And that’s OK. This first blog post of two this week has come about partly because some friends and colleagues have recently lost people they love, and partly because it’s my birthday this weekend, so the persistent dull ache of having lost both my parents twinges in the pit of my stomach just that bit more sharply. I never expected to be an orphan in my thirties. Funny word that: orphan. I’d associated it with musicals and Dickens and 80s epic cartoon series, but not with me. And then, a few months after my Mum had died, it hit me with a world-trembling hammer-blow: I was an orphan, and there was nothing I could do about it.


I dislike not being able to ‘fix’. When things are wrong – let me make it better. I like challenges to solve. At work, while I am comfortable with being uncomfortable and not having all the answers, I like to have a number of different plans in mind. I’m good at planning, and I pride myself in efficient execution of plans, too. But this was not the case when Mum died. I had no solution, no answer. I did, though, have ‘things to do’ when Dad died, as Mum was battling Parkinson’s Disease, so my sister and I ploughed everything into caring for Mum, and sorting tablets and consultant appointments and bed sheets and painting classes for older people because – come on Mum! – get back into doing stuff! I see now that this was all kinds of stupid. But grief can make you stupid and inspired and empty and busy and lonely all at the same time.


Dad died of liver cancer. His consultant said it was huge tumour growing like a satsuma on his liver. I found the image comforting, almost. The idea of something growing in Dad, fertile but deadly, gave me strange solace. Dad also had emphysema, and this was getting frighteningly worse. So bad that on some days he clawed frantically at his neck for breath, and it was on days like these that he was admitted to hospital. Grief mangles time, so memories and moments become like shards of glass; glistening and beautiful, painful and fragile, and dazzling. I remember a bleak day in 2010 when Dad went into respiratory arrest, and my sister and I stood motionless, suspended in time and desperation and love, with the doctors and nurses like worker bees around us: fixing, nourishing, saving. Incredibly, they did save Dad, so close as he was to leaving and never returning. And Dad’s cross to bear from thereon was knowing he was going to die, and soon, but he now had a choice of two: emphysema or liver cancer. Because on the x-ray they took as Dad clawed and grasped and tore at his chest for breath, they saw a massive shadow at the bottom of his lungs. It turned out it wasn’t on his lungs – they were already ravaged – but on his liver. There, nestled as snug as a bug, was the tumour that would kill him.


Dad raged on for another two years. And I do mean that: Dad lived as best he could and did so with terrific intensity. He did, absolutely, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  In the last two years of his life Dad was a glorious mix of belligerent fury and gay abandon: railing against the unfairness of it all, and the next round of oral chemotherapy, and the cheek of the postman not to deliver his newly-bought smoothie-maker on time, and the bloke down the corridor in their home who kept irritatingly parking his scooter in Dad’s spot, and “Do you think I should try jeans, Claire?”. This was when I knew Dad really was aware of death’s encroaching shadow: he was trying new things. He just wasn’t a jeans and smoothies kinda guy. And, God love my Dad: he did buy those jeans, and ironed them down the middle like his chinos. Some habits die hard.


In April 2012, when Dad was being eaten from the inside out by the satsuma-tumour, and drowning on the inside from his emphysema, and having fought what would turn out to be his last battle with pneumonia too, I knew he was returning home from hospital to die. Dad was a short and slight man anyway (a nippy scrum half in his day), but was now a man who’d become a tiny membraned bag of bones and phlegm and wheeze and determination. A man who was looking death in the face, and had done so a number of times before April 2012, and had stuck two fingers up at it with a swear and a flourish. So, on that weird watercoloured spring morning in 2012, Dad decided that enough was enough, and, well, gave up. I don’t remember much, but I remember the clutch of knowing death had arrived – and had been and gone, and the sharp sting of tears, and us rushing over to Mum and Dad’s home. Mum was majestically calm in her grief: poised, accepting, smoothing our hair and wiping away our tears. I remember glimpsing Dad through the door, dead on the bed, strangely contorted over on one side and his head pulled back. He reminded me of the Tollund Man; he didn’t look like Dad. I didn’t go inside the bedroom. I wanted to remember him as he was. It was a decision I didn’t expect to have to make. I thought, somehow, that death was all white sheets and white pillows and calm acceptance and smooth, serene, dead faces. In stark contrast, Dad, from what I could see, did not go gentle into that good night. And I loved him all the more for it.


But I didn’t, and don’t think I ever will, come to terms with or ‘accept’ Dad’s death. I don’t see why I should. I’m pointlessly bloody furious it happened, to be honest, and I’m angry that my sister and I don’t have parents any more. This is all exhaustingly futile, because it did happen and Mum, too, died three years later. And they left a gap I don’t want filled, because it is a gap hewn by their love.


I will write about my wonderful Mum, and grief, later this week.




Senior Leadership: How Can We Help Novices Learn?

“’It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’, the Queen remarked.”

Through The Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll

In my last blog post I tentatively explored the need, as I see it, for a greater emphasis on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ in senior leadership. I’m still umming and ahhing over what I think could or should be included in senior leadership courses to make them any good. I have never done the NPQSL or NPQH; the ones I’ve asked to see information about have been sorely lacking and, again, seem to push the narrative of tub-thumping leadership ‘personality’: that everything about a school is the elliptical orbit around the head teacher’s personality, and everything and everyone is held in position by that. Or, conversely, there is often a treacle-wading emphasis on reflection; so much so that inertia seems to be the only course of action. And this still seems to be focusing on the leader’s perceived charisma and personality rather than what a senior leader might need to know. Carl Hendrick wrote a tweet yesterday that I thought was excellent: “…a charismatic leader is one who IS knowledgeable.” I’m still exploring what it is that would be useful for senior leaders, especially new senior leaders, to know. Almost what a senior leadership ‘curriculum’ would look like, and also how this meshes with the dispositions we might see as useful for effective leaders. But, as Carl says, perhaps the charisma is an outcome of the knowledge.

So you could say that I’m arguing in favour of an overhaul of the content of senior leadership courses. I guess I am. But I’m not sure senior leadership courses are necessary. As you can see, my thinking is still developing. I don’t, though, necessarily see senior leadership curriculum content as separate from the ‘pedagogy’ of leadership. I do think that too great an emphasis on how we lead rather than what we lead in our schools (e.g. the leadership of curriculum or what people thought was the leadership of curriculum) has been problematic in the last ten – fifteen years or so. I’m pretty sure the what of senior leadership isn’t seen to be as ‘sexy’ as the how of personality types, leadership styles or the ubiquitous trotting out of vision statements.

I don’t think that the what and the how are mutually exclusive though. The senior leadership curriculum has to be great, but the strategies used to ensure that this is learnt and practised are also important. Because, after all, new senior leaders and new head teachers are novices.

The last twenty four hours has got me thinking about this again, because I was fortunate enough to attend the Learning Scientists conference in Bedford, generously run by Advantage Schools. I went with my deputy head hat on: I lead curriculum, and I line manage the assistant head teacher for teaching and learning, so the conference was bound to be useful. Although it did help me reflect on what we do at my own school to ensure teaching is most effective for our pupils, I didn’t expect my thinking to wander down the path of learning for other novices: new senior leaders, and the pedagogy that might be most effective for their learning.

After my train odyssey from Birmingham to Bedford, I arrived late and at the first break, so after being fuelled with substantially strong coffee (thanks Bedford School!) I took up my pew in the gods of the Quarry Theatre. The Learning Scientists were talking about the importance of elaboration, and elaborative interrogation in particular. They talked about novices asking ‘how?’ or ‘why?’ questions, and then trying to answer those questions, compared to passive re-reading. Interestingly, they said that elaborative interrogation may work better when knowledge is high (Woloshyn et al., 1992). I found this fascinating. When I was a new senior leader, I asked a lot of ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions, and discussed them with the other, equally inexperienced assistant head teacher, but with little guidance or input of knowledge from the head teacher. This was useful in some ways, but not particularly effective; we still made errors and we didn’t learn and execute as well as we could have done; our knowledge wasn’t yet high enough.

In a Q&A session, Tom Rees asked an excellent question about when elaboration goes wrong: when pupils may be explaining to each other but the content and explanations are incorrect. This made me think about novice senior leaders and the importance of both a senior leadership curriculum and pedagogy and where this has gone wrong in the past: too much elaboration between novice senior leaders on the fluff and rhetoric of perceived ‘leadership’ and not enough on knowledge and substance. The Learning Scientists were clear about elaboration: be as explicit as possible to novices about what a good example is and get them to explain why. Something useful, I think, for experienced senior leaders and head teachers to bear in mind when working with novice senior leaders or novice head teachers.

The Learning Scientists also talked about novices needing concrete examples. I loved this. And I’m talking about personal preference here, but that this was a proven strategy shared by the Learning Scientists made me smile! I am an experienced deputy head teacher, and I’m tentatively, through my own reading, writing and discussions with colleagues, exploring the knowledge and dispositions that may be needed to lead a school as a head teacher. I often talk to colleagues and friends who are head teachers, and who generously give of their time, experience and knowledge. But when another school leader talks to me, for example, about the “…love we have in our school” or the “…sense of family in the MAT”, this is unhelpful for me as it’s too nebulous and abstract. Concrete examples, as the Learning Scientists point out, are easier to remember. So often, when talking to head teachers, I like to know exactly what something looked like or what was done that made it effective – the concrete, the absolute. And if it’s a difficult idea or concept, more examples make it easier for me to understand; again, something else the Learning Scientists explained when talking about novices learning well. I remembered that this was something I need to do more of for new senior leader and middle leader colleagues.

I wrote in my last blog post about how I like to listen to others, which is my default position more than talking. I do like to listen, and I like to learn stuff and know stuff. Once I’ve got the hang of an idea, I like to question and compare – perhaps that’s elaborative interrogation in action and I didn’t realise. I also sometimes feel like there are so many interesting and useful things to know about education that I’m never going to know everything. The awe-inspiring encyclopaedic knowledge of the Learning Scientists brought this into sharp focus. But it also helped to reinforce the point that providing multiple examples helps the novice. As does providing worked examples, so the novice can extract the underlying structure of the problem. This made me realise that this is often what colleagues and friends who are head teachers do with me. That, and quality feedback; something else the Learning Scientists emphasised was crucial. And I’ve realised that, after listening and questioning and feedback and thinking, I am moving to solving more whole school problems and challenges on my own.

There’s much more to consider here, particularly in relation to the following:

1. How senior leadership knowledge is revisited and concepts and problems are reactivated over time for the novice senior leader or novice head teacher.
2. That effective learning strategies for any novice will work in the long term, but that there are no magic bullet short term solutions.
3. That practising application of knowledge is hard, and that gut feeling cannot necessarily be trusted: something that senior leaders and head teachers have fallen into the trap of in the past.

So again, I don’t really have any solutions or answers. Sorry. Learning is hard, and sometimes learning is boring, and all of this is important for any novice to understand. And now I’m thinking deeply about my new knowledge from the Learning Scientists, I can happily say that the application of it is hard, but rewardingly hard.


School Leadership: Dispositions and Knowledge Part 1

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll


I’ve been teaching for a while now. Sometimes I forget precisely how long it’s been, and then I depressingly realise I am working with teachers I could have taught. So yeah, it’s a while. And it only seems to have been in the last few years where some of the craziest teaching edu-myths have finally been properly challenged. And a big hurrah from me for that. No more mini-plenary hoop jumps required. But education is still preoccupied with leadership, and some leadership myths linger. And it’s absolutely right that we should think and talk about educational leadership, of course, but in my view there’s far too much preoccupation with the ‘how’, when we need to look at the ‘what’ in more detail.  Many young teachers aspire to be school leaders. I’m not criticising this at all; I find it interesting. What I also find interesting are perceptions of ‘good’ leadership. So this blog post is different from the usual. It’s an exploration, and a reflection, and I don’t have any answers and haven’t come to any conclusions yet. Sorry about that.


A friend said recently that they found me an interesting mix of self-confidence and self-doubt. This is a fair and perceptive assessment of me. As a child, I was quite shy. As a very little child I remember hiding behind my mum’s skirts at Mass. But I also remember hurtling in my StartRite patent shoes down the gentle curve of the hill at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, flapping my arms, and thinking that if I really tried, and if I practised lots, I would take off and sail into the Edgbaston skies. I didn’t give a hoot about anyone who said I couldn’t, so although a little shy, I was undaunted. Of course, I didn’t take off. This annoyed me, and I resolved to do something about it. I didn’t fashion any wings in a Why Don’t You? pipe cleaner and tissue paper triumph, but I did decide that I could try really hard at other things and see if they worked or not. I grew out of thinking I could fly, or that my Staffordshire bull terrier might turn into a unicorn if I fed her enough Pedigree Chum (she just got tubbier), but I did, in my little 1980s head, decide that I wanted to KNOW LOTS OF STUFF, and I recognised the value in working hard and in practice. I learnt how to use a sewing machine and practised sewing at Brownies: I made a half-decent pencil case. I learnt how to use a fountain pen properly and practised handwriting: my ks were looped and beautiful. I learnt how to read music and practised singing: I started to get quite good. I began to realise that, although I didn’t fly, my hypothesis was correct: knowing stuff + practice = improvement (most of the time.  And obvs I’m aware I’m simplifying this).


At primary school my small group of friends, like me, were the slightly geeky kids who liked hanging out in the library and researching information about saints for us to choose for our confirmation names. I didn’t speak out in class because, remarkably for me now in 2019, I was teased for having a ‘posh’ voice. I decided I didn’t want to be teased, and I made sure I spoke like everyone else, which was different to my mum’s well-spoken non-accent (she’d had elocution lessons as a child in London), and my dad’s flatly-vowelled New Zealand accent. I still threw in what I thought was the odd poshly-pronounced word in class, barely perceptible, but my own tiny act of lingual passive resistance. I was also shy because I was teased for being clever, so I learnt to shut up in class and not to put my hand up to answer questions. But in year 6, my small central Birmingham primary school took on a remarkable feat: the whole school was to be involved in the first full-scale musical the school had ever produced: Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. And I was to be the Narrator. This was a massive deal for me, and also a big preoccupation for me between the end of Grange Hill and the start of Neighbours. I loved music, and I loved singing and performing, but I was reticent. At age 11 I decided that the joy I got from music and performing outweighed the fear of performing in front of a lot of people, and I did it. And I was good at it. At that point I realised that just as I was a bit shy, I was determined, too. But, though being determined is great, it’s a disposition. I had to know stuff about reading music and beating time and where to breathe in a line etc to make a good enough go of it. So although my determination was important, equally as important, or even more important perhaps, was my knowledge.

Things changed at secondary school. Being in Joseph did give me a lot of confidence, and I made new friends, so I became progressively mouthy, more gregarious, more outgoing. I enjoyed school. I loved learning. I really enjoyed knowing stuff, and still do. I was sometimes naughty. I enjoyed all the extra-curricular activities my school provided for me. I enjoyed the routine and the consistency that school gave me. I’ve written about that before, here. But I was, and still am, interested in listening. I like hearing what others think, what others have to say, what makes people tick. This means that sometimes I do much more listening than talking. Conversely, I also talk a lot sometimes. This isn’t my default position, but this was often seen as What A Good Leader Should Do in the ten years I’ve been a senior leader. Have all the answers. Lead from the front. Do all the talking. Be charismatic. I struggled with this when I first became a senior leader, especially as when I first started I couldn’t even get the lunch queue sorted. I thought that as a new assistant head teacher I should be able to do everything with verve and vigour and resolve. That I should stride the corridors and make decisions in a split second, because that’s what good, extrovert, charismatic leaders do, right? I hadn’t even considered that there were different ways of doing things, or that different situations called for different knowledge and perhaps a different approach. Or indeed, that I needed to know stuff very well and practise stuff, and that this was really, really important. This was the X-Factor era even in school leadership: if you wanted a school leadership role hard enough then – why! – of course you must have it. It was the epoch of the cult of the individual. There were some tub-thumping, very vocal school leaders, tiresomely bounding into assembly halls up and down the land. This was when those school values began rolling through laminators and magically appearing on walls overnight: dreaming and believing is all very well, but it’s not going to get you far without knowing something, or even simply being aware that you don’t know what you don’t know.

I guess what I’m tentatively exploring here is twofold:


1. That not every school leader should have to feel comfortable being in the limelight all of the time, but should be comfortable with ensuring colleagues have input into decisions, ideas, actions; and that our school leaders are those “…who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.” (Quiet, Susan Cain, Penguin 2012, p.55).
2. That although there are dispositions (e.g. my steadfast determination as a little girl) that we may want to develop in school leaders, we must consider carefully what we need to know as school leaders, and that we probably need to focus on this more, because much of the knowledge we need to acquire as school leaders may be domain-specific.


So there we are. All I have presented here are a number of questions and thoughts really. I’m thinking a great deal about what a senior leadership ‘curriculum’ might look like, and I’ll explore that further at a later date.


This Is Going To Hurt: Medicalised Words in Education

‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Through the Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll


I’ve been wondering why there are so many medicalised and anatomised words in education.  It’s an itch that I love to scratch; it’s word pedantry eczema.  Some have been creeping in over the past few years, almost unnoticed, like rampant edu-chlamydia.  I wonder if it’s because there are things (symptoms?) in our profession that are seen as needing to be treated, and therefore it’s perceived to be more straightforward to name, classify and ‘treat’.  And I’m not arguing that there aren’t things that need treating/sorting/improving.  But why our educational lingua franca is so blotched with these ulcerated sores of words is odd, if not fascinating. 

So here goes: the stain and pain of medicalised words in education.  And this is going to hurt.


1. Lens

OK, so we’ll start with a relatively innocuous one, but boy is it lazy.  I hear this time and time again, usually in the language of perceived effective ‘leadership’, often uttered by the chin-stroking, musing type.  And it frequently belies someone who’s not really thought of anything useful, but has swallowed a few ‘leadership’ books and vomited up something they think sounds sage.  ‘Lens’ is often used thus:

– How interesting.  Let’s look at that through the lens of…

– I do think we need to see things through the lens of…

– Have you considered thinking about that through the lens of…?

Enough already.  What you mean is from a specific perspective.  Let’s be precise.  Let’s not get all unnecessarily opticianal.  Or next time you say that I’ll squirt you with saline solution.  Stop it.


2.  Diagnose

This is one of the many medicalised verbs that have stealthily wormed their way into our staffrooms, usually in the context of looking at data.  Even without the innumerable problems with the use of data in our schools, I have an issue with ‘diagnose’.  Diagnose suggests there’s something wrong: a problem or symptom that needs examining and classifying.  It also implies that whatever the perceived problem is can be ‘named’.  And this is a concern in itself, and is symptomatic (ha!) of so many of us looking for easy solutions to complex issues in schools.  I don’t blame schools for this; often it’s the pressure that many of us work under.  Which leads me neatly on to…


3.  Therapy

This is the one I love to hate.  It propels a bit of sick into my mouth, and has done, annually, since I first heard it a few years ago.  This is an appalling noun to use in my opinion, for two reasons:

  1. It suggests that there is some form of faux psychological talk show Ricki Lake-ness to schools, and that schools, or challenges in schools, need ‘therapy’.  This lurches and skids over its mindfulness colouring books to huddle under the oft seemingly-psychological umbrella of ‘wellbeing’.  I find this problematic.  You can read my views about ‘wellbeing’ in schools here, and here.
  2. It also implies that there is an illness or a disease in our schools (presumably that the data will reveal to us), and that there should definitely be some sort of salve or ointment to ‘treat’ it.  Perhaps a few spoonfuls of sugar.  Perhaps a ticklist, worksheet or poorly-used knowledge organiser.  Perhaps a sit in the mindfulness yurt (thanks to Tom Bennett for that one).  Perhaps a pet of the wellbeing dog is an ‘intervention’ that will work?  Don’t get me wrong.  I like dogs.  I even like yurts.  And I definitely like knowledge organisers, and I like sugar.  But ‘therapy’ goes straight into my edu Room 101.


4.  Dissect

This is a new entry, and gruesomely weird.  I’ve heard it in the context of both data and lessons.  Sometimes that the data needs ‘forensically dissecting’ (whoah there CSI senior leadership teams!), but also in terms of cutting up a lesson into parts.  I thought we’d seen the last of four-part or six-part lessons, but it seems that in far-flung realms of social media they’ve made an unwelcome comeback.  Lessons are ‘dissected’, so that the most important ‘organs’ (say whaaaaat?!) are included.  This is a checklist-cum-operation, where useful stuff has become more about process than what works in our classrooms/operating theatres.  And it’s just really, really odd.  Lesson autopsy anyone?


5.  Clinic

Let’s end with another innocuous one, and one that has again been around for years.  This noun is usually used to mean ‘a drop-in session to help teachers with something’ or ‘extra CPD’.  Now this is fine.  But ‘clinic’ has a whole weeping carbuncle of unfortunate connotations.  CPD is fine.  Drop-in session is fine.  ‘Clinic’ is essentially an edu-swab.

Great Expectations: growing up Pupil Premium

“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll


This is a personal post. It’s about poverty, and it’s about me.

I grew up in Birmingham in the 1980s and 1990s with my parents and my sister, and pretty much a whole ark of pets. My parents moved to Birmingham from London in the late 1960s, shortly after they were married. They passed away in recent years, and my sister and I relished hearing their stories about life in the 1960s. Dad, a celebrated New Zealand sportsman, adept at both rugby and cricket, on a whim (after living in Sydney for a year – another whim) joined the Merchant Navy in the 60s and embarked on a global jaunt for eighteen months, settling in Copenhagen, and then finally in London, where he met my Mum. Mum was even more whimtastic than Dad. She did things because she wanted to, not because my parents came from well-off families (neither did), but because, from what Mum and Dad said about the 60s, you could pretty much do loads of stuff relatively cheaply. Mum worked as a tour guide in Paris for a while. She spoke fluent French and German but had a terrible sense of direction (me too), so she lost many of her tourists, and left them wandering around by the Seine somewhere. She gadded about Spain and Italy for a bit. She auditioned for the Bluebell Girls, passed the audition, and then couldn’t decide whether to move to Vegas or Paris, so turned them down in the end. She was a hand model, modelling some of the most coveted photocopiers of the 1960s (!), she was a flamenco dancer, and she was a trapeze artist. Mum also worked for the Milk Marketing Board in the 1960s. She had a keen eye for design.


Mum and Dad met in Kensington where in the 60s, amazingly, you could rent a flat quite cheaply. Last year, I visited the pub in Kensington where they first met on New Year’s Eve 1967. They lived in Kensington and then eloped to Cornwall to get married. Another spur of the moment thing.


They moved to Birmingham in the 70s for Dad’s work. A few years later, my sister was born. Then I was born. They joined the pub trade and ran pubs in Birmingham, including The Jester – a well-known gay bar in Birmingham city centre, and Dad was also the relief manager for the Mulberry Bush, one of the pubs in Birmingham bombed by the IRA. Thankfully he was not working the night of the bombing. They continued to live an eclectic, fulfilled, happy life.


Just as I’d started primary school in the 80s, things changed. We had to move to social housing in a very deprived part of Birmingham. My sister and I don’t know to this day what happened, but the comfortable life we’d had vanished pretty much in an instant. Suddenly we had a 50p gas and electric meter. We had one small gas fire in the house. Other than the sitting room, the house was often very cold and we wore many layers of clothes. Our clothes were clean, but most were from jumble sales. Mum had to pawn some jewellery. My 6th birthday present from a family friend was a haircut. My Brownie uniform was second hand, and didn’t fit properly. We were always fed, but sometimes Mum and Dad had to ask others for help. I can’t imagine how hard this must have been. There were times when Mum had to take us to the Hindu temple in Handsworth so we could eat. We had no food in the house, and Mum had two little girls, so we were kindly and generously fed without question by the lovely people at the temple. Our neighbours also gave us food. My sister and I often skipped down the road where we feasted on samosas provided by our friends’ parents. Mum and Dad always made events like this, that must have been so hard for them, an adventure. I remember this happened quite a lot, but it’s only in hindsight that I realise that it was because we were poor.


Mum and Dad left the pub trade and continued to work full time, but there was never enough money. Dad worked in insurance and Mum ran a play centre for the children of prisoners in Birmingham Prison, and after that ran a playscheme for children from even more deprived backgrounds than us. My sister and I helped out at Mum’s work and it meant we were fed and watered too. Mum was incredible with the children she looked after, and was adored by both the children and their parents and carers. She organised amazing trips for the children in the summer holidays, securing funding from various organisations, and it meant our little group of children from Handsworth and Lozells went on trips to places like Aston Hall, RAF Cosford, Warwick Castle. We went to Carnival in Handsworth Park and read books at Birchfield Library in Perry Barr. It was beautiful. The sense of community was palpable. Mum was so tenacious she even got NASA to send over resources and posters from the USA to her little playscheme for the children.


We continued to be a family living in poverty. Shopping for clothes and toys at jumble sales became the norm. I didn’t think there was anything unusual about this at all until I started secondary school. Then, when friends asked where I had bought my jumper, I found myself lying and saying that it was from Miss Selfridge or Dorothy Perkins, when really it was from the Salvation Army down the road. As I got older, I started to feel the simmering heat of shame that poverty kindles. Mum and Dad did everything they could do stop my sister and me feeling it, but we did. When I was fourteen, my best friend asked me to go on holiday with her to Tenerife with her parents. I couldn’t go because we didn’t have the money. It still hurts remembering. The shame of being “hard up”, as Mum called it, lingers.


Although we were poor, Mum and Dad did everything they could to make our experiences rich. No one in my family was musical. My sister and I used to snigger in Mass on a Sunday listening to Mum sing the hymns – she sounded like a croaky, out of tune bass-baritone. But Mum and Dad soon realised I was keen to find out more about music. I watched Inspector Morse with them, mainly to hear the snippets of opera that Morse loved so much. It sounded amazing to me and I wanted to know more. Not being musical, but having heard of a few composers, Mum and Dad bought crackly second hand tapes and LPs of any pieces by Mozart, Handel, Holst. I listened to them, trying to work out the sung French, German and Italian pronunciation, and teaching myself how I thought was the best way to conduct an orchestra after I’d learnt how to beat time from a battered second hand copy of the AB Guide to Music Theory. My favourite was conducting the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute after hearing it in one of the Inspector Morse episodes. Then school paid for singing lessons for me. Fast forward a few years and my first solo operatic performance was in a production of The Magic Flute. And then eleven years later, I was training as a lyric mezzo-soprano with English National Opera, and with Janis Kelly teaching me, the soprano in all the Inspector Morse episodes. There’s beauty and triumph that can sometimes emerge from exceptional difficulty.


My sister and I went to a wonderful school. Neither of us did the 11+ exam but instead went to a Roman Catholic girls’ comprehensive school in Birmingham. We would have been labelled as ‘Pupil Premium’, had it been around back then. Apart from the free school meal queue at lunch, which I avoided like the plague, my school never made me feel any different. I was never given anything easier because I was poor, or given any less challenge, or expected any less of. If anything, my school pushed me to know more and to do more. The expectations were sky high. And my sister and I rose to the challenge with relish. School soon realised I had promise at public speaking and debating. Before I knew it I was involved in the annual school public speaking competition, and the debating club. I was in all the musical productions and sang at the annual carol concert at St Phillip’s Cathedral. I was a school librarian. I was in the hockey team and vice captain of the tennis team. The school funded the loan of a clarinet for me. I was rubbish as it turned out, and a far better singer, but the point is the opportunity was there. What I didn’t know until years later was that the school funded most of a week’s trip to Germany for me when I was fourteen, with my grandparents paying for the rest of it, as well as school part-funding a classical tour of Greece for me when I was in the sixth form. It was incredible. In my final year of school I became Head Girl.


I was pushed in lessons to achieve in a way that built my confidence and made me want to learn more. The expectation was that I would go to university, so I never thought there was any other option. School continued to be a beautiful constant whilst things remained difficult for us as a family. Within the same year, when I was fourteen, Dad was diagnosed with emphysema, and Mum with MS. A couple of years later, with symptoms that couldn’t be attributed to Mum’s MS or her epilepsy, Mum was also diagnosed with the final part of the most unholy neuro-trinity: Parkinson’s disease. My sister and I became carers for our parents, and they were for each other. Both Mum and Dad had to stop work but were able to remain in our little house in Lozells until a few years before they passed away. What I remember from this period of time was how determined both my parents were for my sister and me to do well despite the many challenges we faced as a family. And school and the church we went to supported us, quietly, without embarrassment and without pity. I was not labelled. I was simply Claire Stoneman.


Both my sister and I went to university – the first members of our family to do so. I stayed on an extra year to study for an MA in English literature. Mum and Dad couldn’t afford to pay for it, and neither could I, so I grafted and grafted in the last year of my BA to do as well as I could, and won the School of English bursary at the University of Leeds to pay for it. Poverty’s bite, whilst jagged and painful, can also make you exceptionally determined and focused.


And so fast forward to today. Dad passed away in 2012, not of emphysema that he remained stubbornly determined to resist as best he could, but of liver cancer. Mum finally succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease in 2015 – a terribly cruel disease that robs you of so much. My sister is very successful in her line of work, and I am a deputy of academy. This post is very personal, and it is so because it utterly underpins everything I think and believe so keenly about education. I refuse to teach children who are labelled as Pupil Premium in a different, ‘easier’ way. I might need to know that they are Pupil Premium (but could easily argue that I don’t), I might need to give them a pen and not make a fuss about it, I might need to guide them towards opportunities that could enrich their lives – like public speaking competitions or clarinet lessons – but, if anything, I need to expect MORE of them, not less, and support them to do it. Because if we stoke the smouldering fire of poverty with the pernicious poverty of expectation too, then we are perpetuating a cycle of poverty; we are actively complicit in expecting less of ‘poor’ pupils. I wasn’t ‘free school meals Claire Stoneman’ or ‘poor Claire Stoneman’ or ‘disabled parents Claire Stoneman’ when I was at school, although I could have been labelled all of them. I was simply Claire Stoneman, and great things were expected of me. I will be forever grateful to my school for that.