How to persuade those of us who are not instinctively anti-grammar

UnknownI have no problem with selection. I do not have an instinctive aversion to grammar schools. I do think that the current school system is failing our children. And I do think that something radical must be done to save it (and the country).  I also believe that the school system of the 1950s was not failing the country and I do absolutely believe that we have been on a downward slope ever since.

So I really should agree with Peter Hitchens’ (@ClarkeMicah) position on grammar schools.

Except that I don’t.

And despite having had a long to and fro with him on Twitter last weekend, I am still not convinced of his pro-grammar stance. 140 characters just aren’t enough.

For those of us who believe that there are pros and cons in this debate, but are still anti-grammar, I think there are two issues for us.

  1. We are not convinced that the reason progressivism (child-centred teaching & lower behaviour standards) consumed our education system was because the grammar schools were abolished and comprehensives established. We think it was a sad coincidence that these two things happened at the same time. Indeed, we are certain that grammar schools now and the grammars of the future will simply perpetuate progressivism because generally speaking (not in every classroom but in many), as a society we believe that the teacher teaching from the front is bad, that lessons must be ‘engaging and fun’ and that strict behaviour systems are, well, not very nice.
  2. The old grammar/tripartite system of the 1950s belonged to a different society. It may well have been successful then with some 50% or 60% of pupils being from the working class.  We do not deny this (unlike many anti-grammar people) and nor do we insist that similar standards of both behaviour and achievement are being met by our current comprehensive system. But we are unsure of how we would recreate this now for two reasons. a) The stable working class family with dad working at the factory and mum at home with the kids doesn’t exist on anything like the scale that it used to (today barely half of households with children are conventional two parent, married families). b) The 11+ used to be a test that was fairer. It was fairer because hot-housing did not dramatically affect who got in then. These two reasons help to explain why poor kids have a far harder time getting into grammars these days. We do not believe that this is only because grammars are in affluent areas. Middle class people are everywhere.

So how would I be convinced grammar schools could work?

  1. Convince me that somehow by establishing grammar schools, this will help to reduce the impact of progressivism. I believe that our main focus in education should be in establishing what works well in schools. Does having high expectations on behaviour work, or not? If not, fine. If it does, then let’s start expecting this across the country. Does having teachers teach from the front work? If not, fine. If it does, then let’s start rolling this out in all our schools. I think progressivism is harmful. I don’t see how establishing grammar schools that will themselves be progressive is in any way addressing the more urgent and dramatic issue for our country: an education system that is broken at its roots and in need of a radical rethink.
  2. Convince me that we can test pupils in a way that isn’t unfair to the poor. I can even accept that it might be a little unfair. But grammar schools cannot just be a clever way for the middle-classes to get a private education without paying for it. How you do this in 2017 with the hot-housing culture that we have where the poor are at such a disadvantage, I don’t know. How on earth the government is going to insist on 30% of grammar schools having poor kids without lowering the test results for them, I don’t know. Tests require cultural knowledge. Tests require either a home filled with books and someone to give you practice tests and/or a teacher teaching knowledge from the front of the classroom. Our schools on the whole don’t do that. So how on earth are the poor kids going to get in?

Often I read stuff on the anti-grammar side and I cringe. It can often be too emotional and assumes that people who are pro-grammar are mean and nasty and have another agenda.

The simple fact is that the anti-grammar people and the pro-grammar people all want the same thing. They want a fair and successful society where our children, ALL of our children are educated in the best way possible.

We simply disagree on how to do it.

This – Changing my mind on grammar schools, from one of Michaela’s teachers (mike_taylor11) is well worth reading. I only discovered his thoughts on grammars upon reading it and then I thought, yes, I think that’s right.

Peter Hitchens responded to my post above in tweets below:

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Perhaps I’m not a conservative (small c) after all…

Heather FearnIt was Heather Fearn’s (@HeatherBellaF) post on grammar schools that made me pause. She has written an interesting piece here on reasons why one could be in favour of grammar schools.  I thought I would be persuaded.

I was not.

So I started to wonder why.

I’m not against selection per se. Neither am I outraged by the idea of splitting children up at the age of 11. I tweeted a lot yesterday asking teachers questions like, ‘What if we had a fantasy test that didn’t test cultural literacy and background (as all tests inevitably do, so penalising the poorer child), would we teachers then be pro-grammar? My own answer was, I’m still not sure I would be. What if we really could guarantee that a certain percent (80%? 90%?) of all grammar school children came from families earning under X amount, would we teachers be happy with the policy then?

What I wanted to know is whether teachers dislike grammars because of the inevitable exclusion of the poor, or whether they just instinctively hate the idea of selecting children.

For those of us who believe there are pros and cons to both sides of the grammar debate (although clearly we fall down on one side in the end), I think the crux comes down to this (from Heather’s article):

“…these arguments from research are anyway based on a highly debatable premise. They presume that the purpose of education is social mobility. The research then seems to focus on the chances of grammar schools raising the status of the most disadvantaged – a worthy endeavour but hardly all that should be understood by social mobility.

I am not a socialist and therefore I do not believe in the possibility of an egalitarian utopia in which all will flourish. This means I cannot view social mobility as the primary purpose of education. A stretching academic education is a good in and of itself, whatever utilitarian outcomes it might also offer society. On balance I would rather at least some children benefit from a limited resource (whatever their social background) than none.”

Roger Scruton – who I once told that having him visit our school was like having Brad Pitt visit – I like him that much – says the same thing: Education’s primary purpose is not to enable social mobility. It is to pass on our history, culture and knowledge to the next generation.

And there we have it. That’s where I part ways with those who are perhaps truer conservatives than I am. I am not in the game of education just to pass on knowledge. I admit it. I’m in the game to change the stars of the children we teach, to give them the chance to be just like Boris Johnson (i.e. be articulate and knowledgeable and have all doors open to them in life). And to do that, we give them knowledge, thereby doing what Scruton and Fearn believe should be the primary reason for education. But for me, it is secondary.

So the idea of reserving all the clever teachers for the brightest seems wrong. Fearn spends some time explaining why having all your intellectuals in one place is important. And I agree with her that comprehensives (or indeed the whole school system) fails in numerous ways to give our children the education they deserve.

But cleverness is a trait that every employer craves in all staff: teachers, office staff, kitchen staff, caretakers. And that’s because it means systems are more likely to work well, staff are more likely to work seamlessly, and one’s school is more likely to succeed. To reserve the cleverest staff for the brightest children because they will want to discuss more Shakespeare is both unfair in my opinion, and simply not true. At Michaela, we take children who were years behind their chronological reading age on entry and have them writing glorious essays on Macbeth within 2 years.

If we didn’t have super bright staff (and I don’t just mean teachers), we wouldn’t be able to do that.

But if what matters to you is passing knowledge to the next generation, then it doesn’t matter who exactly gets that knowledge. All that matters is that it has been passed on.

However, if what matters to you is everyone having an equal shot at the pie, then in end, the arguments in favour of grammar schools will always fall short.

I don’t care for the current policy on grammar schools but am not incensed because 50 or 100 extra grammar schools will make little difference to anyone. If the current government is obsessed by grammar schools, then let them have their fun. I am baffled by the decision to use up so much of their political capital on such a contentious issue, while sidelining the far more important issue – our 23 thousand schools that require the government’s interest, time and energy.

But the simple fact is that if we had many thousands of grammar schools, Michaela would not and could not exist. I wouldn’t be able to find the staff to make it happen. And that would mean that all those children either at the bottom, or simply in the middle who are more than capable of doing intellectual work, might never do it. And social mobility for anyone but the brightest would no longer be a possibility. Schools like Michaela make social mobility a possibility for anyone who chooses to work hard. Grammars make social mobility possible only for the brightest.

So that is why, on Easter weekend 2017, I’m wondering whether or not I’m a conservative after all…

*** Heather Fearn’s response to this blog post, is here. And I have to say, it has me thinking once more! I can’t really disagree with anything she is saying…

Extreme critics & changing your mind

images.jpegI have long wondered at the abuse that educationalists get when they dare to question the status quo. There are teachers out there who will defend the current system at all costs.

Despite the stats that demonstrate just how badly our current system fails its pupils AND its TEACHERS, some teachers march on, certain that what the current system does is not only right, but worth defending. Sometimes that defence will include insults, threats of violence, wishes of death, that the critic should have no children (as in the most recent Twitter spat involving Katie Ashford, one of Michaela’s staff).

What is fascinating is that the perpetrators feel they are morally justified in inflicting the abuse.


They seem to think that because the critic has criticised a practice or a curriculum or a system, the critic is criticising THEM. They then seem to believe that this criticism justifies all types of behaviour towards the individual who dared to question the status quo. I can think of one Michaela hater whose behaviour, if we knew who he was, would be worthy of police action. The harassment has been so intense, prolonged and determined that I worry about his mental health and I worry about my staff and whether one day he will meet one of us leaving school. Jo Cox’s terrible end remains at the front of my mind when my teachers receive death threats.
We have been broken into, had protesters outside handing inflammatory flyers to our year 7s, had hundreds, if not now thousands of emails and letters sent to our school, some with threats, some with simple insults, and some just telling us how much they hate us. We’ve even had guests visit our school who deliberately target our children telling them that they couldn’t possibly like their school.

I have had office staff in tears because it is very hard reading bile about their school that they love. Presumably the people sending the abuse do not consider the office worker who is just doing a job, opening the post, constantly terrified at what might jump out at her.

I presume that all of the abuse that we get is not just from teachers. Although I am always astonished at how much comes from teachers. Surely teachers know that the current system is failing our children and our TEACHERS?

Is it not obvious that change is required? Tom Bennett said in a tweet recently that one shouldn’t assign blame. But it is only in pinpointing what is at fault that one can ever hope to address the correct issues and make change. To do anything else is to just wail in the wind. Perhaps what he meant is that one shouldn’t blame any individual. And of course that is true. There are many factors that cause the current system to fail and one should be seeking them out, not insisting that the system is perfect as it is, and attacking anyone who dares to question it.

Why not be open to change? Open to a better education system that will better serve the children we claim to love?

The number one problem in education is that there are too many people actively defending the status quo. If we could just admit that there is a problem, that the education system could make changes to improve things, then we might be in a position to discuss what they are.

There is a difference between blaming something rather than someone. You can call it something else – pinpointing responsibility – whatever you like. BUT one has to point the finger at something, or else the conversation is utterly pointless. This business of saying ‘all methods work’ or ‘all methods are equal in value’ is bizarre. Clearly some methods work better than others, no? Is it a crime to try to seek them out?

Ever since I started teaching, it was made clear that dissent was not allowed. I think things have improved in the last few years in this area, but it remains the case that there are far too many people unwilling to criticise the current system or current practice. If one cannot reflect, question, consider and discuss, and CHANGE ONE’S MIND, then our education system is doomed.

At Michaela we are even planning a conference (on June 17th) based around the ideas that we have changed our minds on. We change our minds every day about all sorts of things. We do so because we are interested in what works, not in a particular ideology.image1.PNG

There is nothing wrong in being critical of methods that do not work as well as other methods. Indeed, such criticism is what stimulates improvement.


Candour is cool

'By now, you've probably noticed that a corporate culture which values candor and a free exchange of ideas comes with a price tag!'

If you work at Michaela, it would not be unusual to get an email like this from the Head:

Today is Thursday. Before the end of the week, you must say something to someone that you would not have otherwise said. Start with, ‘So Katharine said that I should say, so I’m saying it…’

And then the email will remind them to give themselves a star on the Candour Start Chart in the staff room and to give a star to the person with whom they’ve been candid.

Wherever you work, I guarantee there will be misunderstandings and miscommunication. I guarantee people around you will do things that will make you raise an eyebrow. It is the nature of working with others. So if you want your organisation to run well, you need to address the issue of candour, or the lack of it will CRUSH your organisation.

I think staff probably think, ‘Oh no… here she goes again…’ when they get emails like this from me. But they do as I ask and they raise all sorts of grievances with their colleagues as a result. What happens next? The grievance gets resolved. No one feeling awkward about stuff, wishing they had said something but never quite mustering up the nerve.

The Headmistress at Michaela never gets any stars on the chart. And that’s because she is always candid. Hard to take? Perhaps. But people get used to it.

That’s why our so-called ‘PM Management meetings’ with me tend to go like this:

ME: “Is there anything that we could do to support you better?”

STAFF: “Well no, because had there been, I would have told you.” Pause. “So is there something I should be doing differently?”

ME: “Er…No. Of course you would already know if that were the case…”

See my last post on abolishing targets. You should only abolish targets in a culture of candour. When everyone speaks freely to each other, then you don’t need the tick box exercises that pretend to improve people when in fact they only make an organisation feel as if that’s what it is doing.

Every half term, the top 3 star earners on the chart get a reward of chocolate in front of the whole staff and a clap. Hurrah for speaking your mind! Hurrah for the bravery, for the honesty, for putting the success of the school and the children above your own feelings of awkwardness. Hurrah for being candid!

Candour creates a culture of trust. And a culture of trust allows you to abandon all the nonsense that wastes teacher time, like targets, PRP, book looks and marking. Oh, and all the crazy data input… There is so much I could write about!

All a load of nonsense if you ask me.

That’s why I don’t get stars for being candid.

I just can’t help it. 🙂

Targets don’t work

'Believe me, targets are essential!'

To SLTs out there…

Who ever came up with the idea of targets? They are worse than a waste of time.

Targets take up valuable time, concentrate people on the wrong things or too few things, and lay the basis for a pseudo-performance-managment experience: ticking a box.

They don’t make people better. They make them worse. And they make your school worse. In fact I’d argue they make most organisations worse and any leader who wants to do something radical for the better, should abolish them.

At Michaela, we don’t have Performance Related Pay. God no. And we certainly don’t have its mirror cousin: targets. Targets & PRP create a culture in schools that is pernicious. They destroy teamwork and ensure that no one can trust each other. Give targets to staff who are failing, sure. You need something to hold them to account. Give targets to everyone at your school and trust is obliterated everywhere and your teachers begin to play a game.

In any given day, teachers are making thousands of judgement calls that make a massive difference to the school. Why not set targets for those too? Because of course that would be impossible. Set them 3 targets a year and you move your teacher’s attention to the wrong thing. Must get X number of C grades with “everyone-had-given-up-hope-for class” and your teacher will either do whatever is necessary to hit that target to the detriment of everything else, or they will forget about it until the PM meeting comes round at the end of the year.

If they take their target seriously, they’ll suddenly refuse to take in naughty kids from other classes to help out colleagues, or they’ll stop doing that extra-curricular club for Year 7 in order to pour all of their energies into their target.

If they forget their targets, it is because no one takes targets seriously at the school anyway, so then, erm, what’s the point of having them and going through the joke that is the performance management process?

SLT should distinguish between teachers who are failing and those who are doing well. By all means, hold those who are failing to account with targets and let the others go free from the restrictive stranglehold that is performance management dictated by targets.

Stop wasting everyone’s time.

Break free from the mould!

I know what you’re thinking: But how will we know who is good?

Are you really telling me you need targets to know who is good??

You already know! Everyone knows. It is just that on one wants to admit that they know. The teachers know. The SLT know. The kids know. Come on! Just admit you know and you’ll be half way there.

I know the business world uses them. I know.

But might it be possible that they too have got it wrong? Especially for those jobs where there isn’t a bottom line to judge by?

Targets work in an environment where you genuinely only want staff concentrating on achieving 3 things.

Teaching isn’t one of them.

So I know it might feel scary to do it, but my suggestion is to take the leap: get rid of targets. Get rid of the things that waste people’s time.

Your staff will love you for it. And your school will run all the better for it.

What is Leadership?


leader-clipart-leadership-clipart-picture.jpgMy top three characteristics that I believe are absolutely crucial for excellent leadership are below. Clearly not everyone will agree with me. This is just my opinion.

Teachers lead their pupils in their classrooms and the best of them have these 3 qualities. SLT lead in their schools as do middle managers. Again, the best of them will have these 3 characteristics.


Having a clear vision about which you are passionate. Every leader says they have a vision. But do they? If they cannot say what distinguishes their organisation or classroom from most others in a few sentences, then I’m not sure they have one. They should have a USP.

If you are just doing what everyone else is doing, then something is seriously wrong, especially when the British education system is in such desperate need of a revolution.

And remember, no vision ever has bureaucratic tasks attached to it. EVER! Bureaucracy kills vision.

Step away from the bureaucracy… run for your lives! If you ever catch yourself consumed by it, you need to ask yourself what you’re doing, what it’s for, who is benefitting from it, and would the world blow up if you just didn’t do it?


Owning the vision/organisation and being able to make hard decisions and hold the line. This might mean being hated & targeted. It might mean vilification and attacks from all sides. I know fellow Heads who have made hard decisions on uniform will know exactly where I’m coming from on this. It might mean excluding a pupil from a classroom, or putting the pupil isolation. It means not allowing unreasonable parents to make unreasonable demands.

It means having standards and not allowing excuse-making to get in the way. It means supporting those who fail to meet those standards precisely by refusing to lower those very standards.

It means holding the line, even when Ofsted stands in the way.


Having the ability to inspire ACTION and TRANSFORMATION. This might come from leading by example, by being efficient and organised or hard-working. This might come from using one’s emotional intelligence or knowing how to get a bunch of disparate people to work as a team, to feel as if they are part of a family, to understand loyalty, trust and commitment.

If staff or pupils won’t act for their leader or won’t change for their leader, won’t reach for that vision with their leader (whether that is to master French verbs in silence or to step out into the ring and dare to do things differently), then something is wrong with the leadership. And I’d say this means the leader needs to change something in what they are doing.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery says, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Tasks, work, collecting wood… all part of the never-ending bureaucratic nightmare that can consume a classroom or a school.

My advice?

Jump overboard and swim forwards with all the energy and determination you’ve got so that you and your staff and pupils can master and bathe in the endless immensity of the sea.

The Detention Director


All good schools run detentions. They would not be good without them. Michaela also runs detentions, but we centralise them in order to have consistency across the school.

Centralisation is supportive of both pupils and staff. It removes the possibility of pupils choosing whose detention to attend and which teacher to ignore. It ensures fairness across the board so that all pupils feel that they are always treated in the same manner. Our centralised detention system is one of the reasons you will never hear a Michaela pupil say, ‘It’s not fair! SHE didn’t get in trouble for the same thing!’ Our centralised detention system is one of the reasons our children are so happy.

If teachers are not running their own detentions, then someone else has to do it. We’ve had teachers on a rota in the detention hall and they are pretty good at it. Of course they are. They know how to give a naughty pupil a stern eye, how to demonstrate their presence, how to inspire the pupil to regret their actions and not to repeat them.

At Michaela, we care about work/life balance for teachers. We want our teachers to spend their time thinking about teaching instead of manning detentions. So rather than have teachers do this, we advertised for a Detention Director.

A Detention Director gives teachers back their time to do what they ought to be doing: teaching. If the Detention Director were unable to imitate what teachers do all the time, then he/she would be a poor Detention Director. A good Detention Director needs the qualities listed in our advert. These qualities are held by any good teacher.

We want someone who will analyse data, organise detentions, line-manage staff, be a sergeant major in the detention room, ring parents, be extremely efficient with time and paperwork, have heart-to-heart conversations with pupils and be inspirational.

While lots of what we do at Michaela is unusual, this one isn’t. Schools have detentions. I’d hate to work in one that didn’t.