7 reasons why state schools do not need independent schools

7 reasons why state schools do not need independent schools*

1 Different planet
Independent schools – especially the top boarding schools – inhabit an entirely different world. Their staff and students live in a bubble, divorced from the lives of ordinary people. This disconnect with reality can be betrayed in attitudes, values and behaviour that may be patronising or even offensive.

2 Exclusive
State schools exist to educate whole communities and to look after all their students. They are fundamentally inclusive. Independent schools pick and choose whom they recruit and retain. They are fundamentally exclusive. This difference is hard to reconcile and results in different mindsets, that can easily be misinterpreted as ‘low expectations’.

3 Different skill: different job
Independent schools have a binding contractual arrangement with the parents who pay the fees. Students are likewise sub-contracted to play their part. In state schools you have to win hearts and minds in a different sense and in all sorts of different ways. State school staff develop a different set of skills in understanding others, as well as fundamentally different work practices.

4 Social similarity, not diversity
Independent schools are about buying social exclusivity, alongside academic success. Not having to mix with the rest of the population means you are less likely to really understand and empathize with the lives of those unlike yourself, especially the most challenged or challenging. This was clearly demonstrated in the recent TV series Tough Young Teachers.

5 Inequality
The products of independent schools, by and large, run the country. They dominate politics, business, the professions and the media. Independent schools are a fundamental ingredient in the divide that keeps the haves at the top-of-the-tree and the rest in their place. The gap is getting wider and wastes the talent of so many people. This is a moral issue and relates to the type of country we want to be part of.

6 The academic myth
Independent schools, by and large, educate and reward those who are well suited to written and spoken academic, abstract, intellectual work. State schools educate these types of students too, but also a huge range of others, often a majority, who find this type of work very difficult or who excel in technical, practical or applied fields of learning. This means state school staff understand and value a more diverse range of learners, their talents and achievements.

7 Incomparable economic model
The economics of state and independent education are poles apart, making many comparisons meaningless. Pupil-teacher and support staff ratios, facilities and financial clout are very different. State secondary schools may receive £5K/year per head, independent schools at least double that plus all the little extras for things like specialist kit and trips abroad. The full independent boarding package can be over £30K/year, when the average cost of state boarding is around £10K.

• For state schools, read non-selective, neighbourhood comprehensive schools
• For independent schools, read selective, fee-charging, day and boarding schools
• There’s a big difference between the top, well-known independent schools and the rest – but it’s the well-known names that David Cameron and Tristram Hunt have in mind as sponsors of state schools

Blunkett’s review: the 40 recommendations

Labour’s Policy Review, written by David Blunkett and endorsed by Tristram Hunt, is the first piece of substantial thinking on how the education system in England might look following the major changes under Michael Gove since 2010.  It aims to create some coherence from the current ‘atomised’ system, where many schools have a direct relationship with the Secretary of State through funding agreement and draws on the collaborative approach of the London Challenge.


There are 40 main recommendations:

Local oversight and the spreading of best practice

1  Creation of local area independent Director of School Standards (DSS), to work across LA boundaries

2 Remit of the DSS – to facilitate intervention to drive up standards and broker intervention, as in London Challenge

3 Operational role of the DSS – to work with LAs and with new local Educational Panels

4 Public duty on LAs, schools and other providers to cooperate with the DSS in brokering collaboration

5  Community schools not currently part of a federation, multi-academy or sponsor framework should be encouraged to join a partnership, including the creation of a new Community Trust model for primaries

6  Kite-marking of educational support services – those not inspected by Ofsted

7 Creation of Education Incubation Zones, to test new practice and develop the school of the future

8 Schools free to move between partnership, federation, trust or academy chain

9 A more decentralised and appropriate model for Funding Agreements

Entitlement to high standards and fairness

10 A public duty on LAs to represent the interests of pupils and parents

11 Assess the level and use of the Pupil Premium

12 Reaffirm the need for teachers to be qualified (in publicly funded institutions)

13 New, revised independent careers advice, through Local Enterprise Partnerships

14 Clarification of the role of the Local Government Ombudsman and Office of the Schools Adjudicator, to cover all schools

15 Strengthening of the School Admissions Code

16 Strengthening  monitoring of the Schools Admissions Code

17 Strengthening of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator and Fair Access Protocols

18 Coherent and consistent appeals framework

Fiduciary duty

19 Local Authorities remain responsible for place planning

20 DSS to lead on the process for commissioning of new schools and places

21 Adjudicator to assess appeals on new school decisions

22 Open competition for new institutions

23 Same freedoms for all schools in key areas: ‘light-touch’ curriculum, school day and week, buying in services

24 Take steps to clarify the legal entity of schools

25 Greater transparency, including throughout the Freedom of Information Act and audited accounts

26 Private sector providers of educational services brought within a standard framework

The local area

27 Best practice made available to governors, including the application of Freedom of Information requirements

28 Greater support made available to governors/trustees

29 DSS responsible for ensuring that available ‘dashboards’ are being properly accessed and utilised

30 Accessible and consistent procedures for parental redress across LAs – and LAs to encourage the creation of Parent Teacher Associations

31 LAs to use their scrutiny function to monitor training providers and FE provision, with the aim of reducing NEETs

32 Urgent review into unregulated alternative provision

33 Clarification of the objective of Every Child Matters and the long term relationship between the DSS and officers of the LA

The centre

34 Inspection of Chains and Trusts

35 Inspection of wider LA education services

36 Curriculum advisory group to be established to report to the Secretary of State – to make recommendations on ‘light-touch’ curriculum

37 Clarification of the role of Ofqual – in relation to determining curriculum and syllabus content

38 Reconsideration of the decision to merge the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) and Teaching & Development Agency (TDA)

39 Revision of the role of the Office of the Schools Commissioner

40 Abolition of the role of Regional School Commissioners and greater inter-authority collaboration at regional level



Inspirational designs: bringing walls to life with QR codes


One of the last things I did at Wellington Academy was to commission Shadric Toop of Sphere Design to produce large scale graphics with embedded QR codes for walls in the new academy building.  The impact was stunning.

Walls to Inspire  – a short film about this project.

The idea was to give each department in the school its own visual identity.  Some of the graphics act as beacons, to draw people across the large central atrium to specific departments that were previously hard to find.  Others line the corridors and are rich in subject specific information upon closer inspection.  All the walls contain QR codes which link to pages on the school website that give more background information on the content of each wall.  The links for the QR codes can be up-dated with different content or tasks as often as you like.

The project was commissioned in 2013, and was designed and illustrated by Shadric Toop, director of Sphere Design Associates in Brighton.

Education Question Time: Brighton April 23rd

Delighted to be on the panel in Brighton on April 23rd for Education Question Time as part of the National Education Debate, with Christine Blower, Caroline Lucas and Jon Berry.  Tickets free – but going fast!





Attachment disorder

“So what am I supposed to do with no Teaching Assistant?”

Notes for an afternoon workshop at Southampton University, secondary conference 19th March 2014 – SEN in mainstream classrooms


The usual range of persuasion, rewards, sanctions and common sense classroom techniques work for the vast majority of students, most of the time – but not all.  In most schools there are around 5% whose emotional make-up means they operate within different parameters.  Their brains seem to be wired differently.      They don’t always walk in with a teaching assistant and certainly don’t come with an instruction label attached.  You may have watched Tough Young Teachers – you may remember Caleb.

How do you plan to succeed with the student who has a reputation for being ‘off-the-wall’,  who just says “no” or who storms out when you speak to them reasonably?

Today we will explore how understanding more about attachment issues can make you a better – and more inclusive – teacher.


Attachment develops in infants over the course of the first year of life and stabilises in subsequent years as an ‘inner working model’ of how to relate to others and the environment

Attachment theory was developed in England in the 1950’s by John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst.  Recent work in this country, some of which arises from an interest in the needs of children and young people within fostering and adoption, extends the thinking into the implications for  primary and secondary schools, illustrated by the pioneering work of  Louise Bomber  (2007, 2011), Marie Delaney (2009), Andrea Perry (ed.) (2009) and Heather Geddes (2006) – see book covers below.

Attachment disorder arises from adverse experience, usually early in life, associated with trauma, loss, neglect, violence or abuse.   It manifests itself in the manner in which an individual may think about themselves, their environment or other people.  It has implications for communication, behaviour, learning, self-esteem and the way in which students will respond to every day events and interactions, adversity and the expectations of adults.

For young people with attachment disorder, secondary school and adolescence can make issues more complex by the re-stimulation of earlier trauma and insecurity, especially in large schools with many different adults to cope with and constant change during the day.  Students’ minds may be so preoccupied with distress that they cannot settle to learn, undermining their relationship with the teacher and the task.

Attachment disorder is a hidden disability, in that there is often little physical to see that would give away the underlying issue.  It can only be understood by thinking intelligently about what a young person’s behaviour may be telling us, within the context of an individual’s life story. It is a relatively new area of study, but has huge implications for the way we relate to students, especially in secondary schools.

There are different types of attachment disorder, with differing ways of responding to the condition – explained in the books below.  At its most extreme, a student may have a statement of special educational need which specifies the condition and so staff are forewarned.  More likely, are the students who have never had their behaviour and attitudes looked at through the lens of attachment, and who simply present as puzzling, challenging or unusual.  These types of students are often recognised as the  5% who don’t generally respond to the usual behaviour management techniques, such as rewards and sanctions or ‘the language of choice’.  Looked at through the lens of attachment disorder, such students may suddenly become more understandable.

Viewing students  – and I would argue the school as a whole – through the lens of attachment disorder provides a superb frame of reference for inclusivity and for truly understanding how students’ behaviour is trying to tell us something, rather than simply reacting to what’s in front of us.

For teachers struggling with seemingly inexplicable and unpredictable behaviours, it is important to build professional resilience through genuine understanding.  This goes hand in hand with an attitude which assumes that the professionals have not yet found the right way to teach the young person.   However long it takes, a route and point of contact will be found.

A student with attachment disorder invariably demonstrates:

  • a heightened state of anxiety – especially fear of changes in routine
  • a constant state of vigilance of their environment or their needs
  • a strong sense of shame or rejection
  • sudden overwhelming feelings of grief
  • mistrust of adults and authority
  • not able to ask for help
  • can’t accept not knowing something  – or
  • belligerent that they know everything already
  • taking statements literally
  • not being able to retrieve situations
  • a brain wired for flight and fight
  • reacting or acting out rather than thinking
  • little self-awareness or reflective capacity
  • sensitivity to failure
  • gaps and missing knowledge  – sometimes of seemingly obvious things like being able to tell the time
  • operating at an emotional level well behind their chronological age
  • strange feelings over seemingly everyday events – such as getting changed for PE, using the toilet or eating lunch
Responding to the young person with attachment disorder:
  • adults need to be  ‘all-understanding’ and ‘all-caring’ in the eyes of the young person
  • the concept of  ‘holding the young person in mind’ is useful (see Louise Bomber’s work below)
  • the young person may need to learn to ‘attach’ to a significant adult before they can learn to operate more independently
Emotional responses in responding to the young person with attachment disorder:
  • demonstrate non-judgemental authority
  • demonstrate interest and an unconditional consistency
Areas for intervention in a classroom situation:
  • the task itself – give a choice (although note that not doing the work at all is not an option)
  • a warm welcome at the start
  • familiar objects or a place to work (part of ‘keeping the young person in mind’)
  • keep remembering the emotional age of the student
  • allowing time to settle
  • tactical ignoring of initial statements from student
  • thinking in advance about changes in routine
  • reliably held boundaries
  • allowing recovery time or a short time out if the pressure builds up
  • handling emotions and behaviour with the class in general in a disarming and consistent manner

Areas for intervention in the school as a whole:

  • continuous relationships
  • plan for teacher absence
  • plan for the build up to weekends, holidays and returns
  • predictability over events, explain changes (e.g. trips) in advance
  • provide a secure base for students and staff
  • professional and emotional support for TAs
  • early diagnosis, professional discussion and sharing of information

Question: So what I am supposed to do with no teaching assistant?  

Answer: Think intelligently.  Don’t beat yourself up over one of the 5% – but don’t be too quick to judge either.  Read up.  Find out more about the student.  Talk to someone (and there is always someone) who seems to ‘get’ that student.  Once you understand, you may have a better chance.  You certainly won’t blame yourself – or allow others to blame you – when things go wrong.  Sometimes a student with serious attachment issues simply isn’t ready to learn and your classroom is not the right place for them at that moment in time.  There’s a big difference between knowing this and why – and simply exiting the student from the class for ‘inappropriate behaviour, yet again’.

The golden rule – aspire to handle emotions and behaviour with the class as a whole in a disarming, disengaging and consistent manner – benefits all students, not just those with attachment issues.

Inclusive classrooms are places where judgements about young people as people as well as unintelligent or emotional reactions to behaviour are eliminated (or at least completely minimised.  You are human after-all, not an automaton).

About teaching assistants: Let’s be clear – you are a class teacher of all children, including those with SEN or hidden disabilities.  You have a professional responsibility to think intelligently about how you try to get all the students in the class to learn.  However, a teaching assistant can often provide the emotional support that a damaged student needs, so that learning can take place.

Further reading

 Inside I'm Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools
Teenagers and Attachment: Helping Adolescents Engage with Life and LearningTeaching the Unteachable: Practical ideas to give teachers hope and help when behaviour management strategies fail: What Teachers Can Do When All Else FailsWhat About Me?: Inclusive Strategies to Support Pupils with Attachment Difficulties Make it Through the School Day
Attachment in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Schools

Welcome to the real world: football manager syndrome


It’s obvious really.  Schools, like football clubs, are ranked in league tables.  Headteachers, like football managers, have to go if they don’t get the right results.  Welcome to the real world.

It doesn’t matter what happened last year – or last week; you are only as good as your most recent results.  The idea seems to be catching on and was quite blatantly stated in my case: “Education is a business like football, in that it is based on results.  If we had been in the Premier League we would have been relegated this year.1”   In the real world of football, people lose their jobs all the time, and what’s good for the 92 professional football clubs in this country is obviously good for the local school.  Or is it?

Firstly, most state schools are not football clubs who can choose all their own students.  Players do not arrive and depart during transfer windows.  Some aren’t really fit enough to play but have to go out on the field anyway.  [2See this footnote for the full analogy – quite a moving tale, in my view].  Schools also have to contend with goalposts moving during the course of a season and frequent rule changes, sometimes announced in Sunday newspapers.

Schools may serve communities where students enter with prior attainment significantly below average (i.e. in the bottom 25% nationally3) or where there is significant mobility.  These schools are not selective. They do not have a common entrance exam to get in or weed out likely under performers in the sixth form before they take their A-levels4.  They do not throw people out for routine misconduct.  Some, however, do have boards of directors and it is often they that draw the ire of the supporters when things go wrong, rather than the manager.  I know this only too well, having played a small part in the fans fight to save my adopted team Brighton & Hove Albion from total oblivion in the late 90s5.

Archer out

The team was distinctly average and many ofthe results dire, but the fans fury was focussed firmly on the chairman Bill Archer and his side-kick, a former LibDem MP, David Bellotti (below). Both thought they knew what the locals wanted but had lost contact with reality.


 Secondly, last season in May I sat and watched with mounting gloom as the team I’ve supported all my life, Manchester City, performed dismally and deservedly lost the FA Cup Final 0-1 to Wigan Athletic.  City fans consoled themselves with finishing second in the Premier League – not bad for a team that was in the third tier of English football as recently as 1999.  The previous season we had won the Premier League in the best possible way imaginable, snatching the prize from local rivals United in the last minute of the season.  City fans still idolised the manager Roberto Mancini.  However, just two days after the cup final defeat, Mancini was sacked.  City are now the richest club in the world, success is non-negotiable, Mancini had not met his targets – and after all, business is business.

What happened down the road at Wigan is similarly revealing.  They promptly lost their next league match after the cup final and were relegated.


Despite this being a shock, their manager Roberto Martinez’s position was never in doubt.  He enjoyed a different sort of relationship than the average football manager with his Chairman Dave Whelan, who believed in what they were all trying to achieve.  Whelan is an ex-businessman but he was realistic.  He knew that Martinez had done his best with the resources at his disposal and that Wigan played a clever brand of attractive football.  He didn’t believe in success at any cost.  The club was built on values that would endure the inevitable setbacks along the way. 

Although he had made history at Wembley the week before, Martinez clearly hadn’t hit his targets – just like Mancini, in fact.  Nevertheless, the question of him being sacked never arose, not even to Whelan the businessman.  Martinez had been a successful manager at Wigan and before that at Swansea, and in many ways still was. Whelan stood by his man.  In the end, Martinez landed a plum job and was ‘promoted’ to manage Everton.  Like Wigan, the other two Premier League relegated sides, Reading and QPR, also retained their managers.  In fact, of the 12 relegated professional clubs at the end of the 2012-13 season across four divisions, only two teams sacked their managers.  In fairness to the analogy, in the surreal world of football management, most teams actually sack their managers during the season, rather than at the end, in an effort to avoid relegation after a run of particularly disastrous results.

Schools only really find out their results at the end of the season.  There were two sets of results in my case.  A-level results mid-August were “truly astonishing6”- the best ever, with 28 students heading to university.  This is in a locality that had never even had a sixth form until we opened one in 2009.  GCSE results in English a week later were down, with lots of D grades rather than Cs on the foundation paper.  The 5A*-C (with English and maths) was down and the rest is history, as they say7.  No need to have regard to what was playing out nationally with shifts in English GCSE results or analyse what happened in more detail8.  The results were worse than predicted and the conclusion inevitable.  Schools, it is said, can’t tolerate young people getting poor results as they only get one chance at an education.  You can’t bounce back in education from relegation.

Professional football clubs are not really proper businesses.  Most clubs would cease trading tomorrow if expenditure had to be covered by income.   Decisions are often made based on emotion, in the heat of the moment or because boards come under significant external pressure.  You wouldn’t run a school like that.  Clubs like Brighton & Hove Albion are not alone in having to endure their most traumatic eras while being run by ‘businessmen’ from the ‘real world’.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s the type looking to make a fast buck or the ones who wish to massage their egos.  It doesn’t have to be like that though, as Dave Whelan at Wigan demonstrates.

Schools certainly aren’t conventional businesses either.  They are non-profit making , they don’t answer to shareholders or directors who hope to gain financially or professionally.  They don’t make short term decisions based on ‘the bottom line’.  They don’t make products but they do have multiple goals and an impact that is hard to sum up in one set of results.  They should be directly accountable to the local communities they serve.  And of course, they still need to be run in a business-like manner – and there the choice is still between the Dave Whelan style or the ruthless style employed at Manchester City.  Which is more sustainable in the long-term is a matter of debate.

Schools do have something slightly in common with football clubs, being one of the few places left in society where the same people come together regularly in  large numbers for a common purpose.  But of course schools have a much more important over-riding moral mission to work for the common good.  The church, the scouts and guides, the trades unions and political parties have all seen a dramatic decline in mass membership.  In an increasingly fragmented, sometimes individualistic culture, state schools are still there, plugging away day in day out in doing the best for their communities.

The real heroes in education are the people turning up every day to walk into classrooms and schools to inspire the next generation.  These are the adults who work with all young people – including those who have a lot more on their mind than whether they did their geography homework last night.  How the staff sustain themselves every day to do this is a mystery, but it must have something to do with an unflinching belief in shaping the future for young people.  ‘Making a difference’ is a cliché, but that’s what the vast majority of people came into teaching for.

Contrary to what one might read in the Daily Mail or Telegraph, the vast majority of state schools are not in crisis – they are doing a great job and are very popular with parents and students.   The great value of schools in 2013 is that they epitomise the very best of human values – of fairness, compassion, aspiration and togetherness, as well as achievement.  They nurture and sustain the human spirit.   Without that, targets, results and league tables risk reducing our national education debate to the banalities of football manager syndrome.  There is a lot more at stake here than the manager’s job, out there in the real world.


1 Wiltshire Conservative Councillor Mark Connolly, former chair of governors of Castledown School, Wellington Academy governor 2009-13 and Bristol Rovers fan, Salisbury Journal, 5th September 2013 http://goo.gl/aeOeEK

2Letter to Andover Advertiser, 12th September 2013 http://goo.gl/Z78zqk

3Intakes in the state system are analysed according to prior attainment in year 6.  Significantly below national average is the label for the bottom 25% of schools on prior attainment.

4If your AS level isn’t up to scratch you’re out, Daily Telegraph, 29th August 2013 http://goo.gl/3XSxz8

5 Brighton rocked by civil war, Independent, 29th October 1996 http://goo.gl/edzSov

6 Quote from chairman in Wellington Academy press release – A-level results, 15th August 2013 http://goo.gl/DakyCC

7Wellington Academy press release GCSE results 2013, 29th August 2013 http://goo.gl/F0JIZv

8Brief summary of GCSE English results 2013 http://goo.gl/iBfdZa

‘Candid’ academy talks

Latest local news from Andover Advertiser, October 4th

Tidworth councillor Mark Connolly (formerly the chair of governors of the predecessor school to Wellington Academy, as well as an Academy governor until last summer – and most recently the advocate of football manager syndrome, see Advertiser 6th Sept) told town councillors that he has held a meeting with Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, to discuss the situation at Wellington Academy following the departure of principal Andy Schofield.

Cllr Connolly, who represents Tidworth at County Hall, said: “It was a candid meeting.  We (sic) were heartened by the things we heard about discipline which may have been a bit lacking in recent times.  There are not going to be any quick changes at the top – Mike Milner will continue in post until a new principal is appointed.”

He added that the governors may take some time to make the right choice.  (All very odd, given the recent advertisement for the post in the TES and Guardian.)

Plans for the academy to expand have also emerged, with a new sixth form block open on the nearby Castledown Business Park – freeing up around 300 additional places in the main academy building.  Meanwhile in Tidworth work on a new primary school is expected to begin in November on the North East Quadrant housing site. (Due to open September 2014, sponsored by Wellington College).