Being brave part 1: Don’t look back in anger.

This blog has been slowly forming in my mind since I heard that a bomb had gone off in Manchester.

I knew. I just knew the bomber would have a link to Burnage Academy for Boys. I worked there for three years, arriving a few months after the bomber left. I was head of science in what was at the time a challenging school, yet one that was steadily improving and moving away from the school the bomber would have known. It is still a challenging school and this event will challenge the school and its pupils further.

A previous colleague of mine wrote about the school in the days that followed. It’s taken me until now to figure out why reading it made me sad. The article described the child that became the terrorist as ‘averagely lazy’ and ‘dislikeable’. He had given up on him before he sat his GCSEs. I wouldn’t dream of making excuses for a terrorist, but there are reasons why children who disengage from British values go on to be influenced by extremists with such devastating consequences. The Prevent strategy is intended to ensure extremists can’t influence our youngsters in this way. In this case at least the Prevent strategy has failed. Any strategy reduced to a PowerPoint on an inset day and a tick box on a lesson observation form will fail. This is too important to reduce to an ineffective senior leader’s slide deck.

There is a better way. Seeing the child behind the behaviour; having empathy for where a child has come from, and being aspirational on their behalf for the good they can do in the world. There were boys at Burnage Academy for Boys who had lived a life before and during their days at the school that gave them the potential to follow the same tragic path as the terrorist. But they didn’t follow that path. They work hard, they achieve well and they go on to make their families and teachers proud. We as teachers can’t take the credit for all of the boys’ achievements, but some teachers at that school can take absolute responsibility for some of those boys’ successes. They are the brave ones who demonstrate love in all that they do. They listen to the stories and fears of the most vulnerable pupils in their care and they fearlessly challenge the influence of those who seek to divert children’s thinking towards extremism. And they make a difference. There is at least one boy I know personally who was kept on the right path despite being startlingly close to headline hitting extremist events, simply by influencing more than the Islamic extremists.

However, the potential for evil influence remains and we must review how far the Prevent strategy is working and what needs to be done differently to make it successful in preventing future attacks. It did not work for Salman Abedi. It is likely we had failed him before he left school. He lived in a divided community and was vulnerable to the evil influence of those who pray on disaffected youngsters like him. Those influencers surround communities who have a tough time just by living in the UK. This attack and others like it are driven by hate. Those that execute them have experienced hate. We, as teachers have not protected those in British schools from hate or given them the skills to deflect evil influence. We could. If we’re brave enough to accept that our current strategy doesn’t work.

We can make it work. Before the coalition government came in, the Prevent strategy in my local authority focussed on critical thinking and philosophy. Together with an LA colleague we trained teachers in P4C with a view to giving children the skills to think for themselves so they could recognise and critically evaluate dissonant ideology. It wasn’t even that expensive. The challenge is in getting school leaders to see another way. Some have great pride in those slides and shiny printed policies.

We can’t afford to continue to accept this approach. The One Love event tonight in honour of those who died had a consistent message of love defeating hate. We can lead our youngsters with love. We can defeat the hate they experience with love. We will need to display extreme bravery to do this. Speaking as someone who has experienced death threats from the community I am defending, I truly understand the bravery required. This will be a tough gig but there is no other way.

Join the club…

Hi there, welcome to the club! It’s a club of one so far so you are very welcome.

I’ve come to the conclusion over the last couple of years, that there are a vanishingly small number of sensible people in the world of education. I am lucky enough to have met and worked with several of them, but more often find myself having to concentrate very, very hard on controlling the face as yet another earnest soul proclaims the oracle they see before them in their beautifully crafted spreadsheet or uses the inevitably flawed data that represents children to make important decisions about teachers’ or children’s futures. Sure, data has a place and everyone working in education needs to be responsible for the quality of their work, but education is so much more than reducing children to an algorithm and the job teachers do to moving children from one number to another.

Unfortunately real life children have a tendency of not following the ‘flight path’ that would take their school into the desirable Ofsted categories that their school would like them to be in, and secure their teachers the peace of mind and promotions that come from being part of such a winning team. At some point teachers moved away from the joy of inspiring learning that motivated them to join the profession and towards being either a part of the exams machine as a school leader, or a disenfranchised and demotivated foot soldier, sadly putting children through their exam preparation paces and dreaming of retraining or retirement, whichever comes first.

A wise ex-colleague once wrote to the entire teaching staff of my school about the enormous power of a teacher in the run up to an Ofsted inspection. The fact we had a couple of weeks notice speaks of how long ago this was and although it was paraphrased and pasted onto an Ofsted framework, the sentiment set seed and had influenced me ever since. The snippet was from a longer quote by Haim G Ginnott: “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

That quote scared me. It carries such responsibility. We, as teachers and leaders have a responsibility to set clement weather in our classrooms and schools. If we carry a raincloud of sadness it will dampen the spirits of all around us. If we teach and lead with joy and humanity, despite the daft data and dafter politics, we will change the climate in our schools.

So that brings me to the point of this blog. I’ve had enough of controlling the face when children are reduced to numbers and teachers are ‘held to account’ or more accurately bashed over the head with flawed data. Children get lost in such data and it’s time to get back to what’s really important in our classrooms – children. Real life children with real life problems and flaws and talents and personalities. They will get to the magical land of progress and exam results and whatever else is important to ministers in any given week, if they have teachers who teach their subject really flipping well, as exam results will naturally follow. But they are an add-on; a by-product of excellent teaching by brave teachers confident that they are doing the right thing.

So where does the brave thing come in? it is really hard to do the right thing sometimes. Just teaching flipping well and not to an exam is a brave thing to do in some schools. I’m hoping to share how I’ve done this personally and what I’ve learned from working at Ofqual and with DfE. This is not a blue print or ‘how to’ guide and I’ve not always got it right. But hopefully there is learning in my mistakes, and the brave theme will certainly extend to me in sharing the cringy stuff!