Damming the Flood – dealing with bad news

Psychologists sometimes describe being emotionally overwhelmed by negative emotions as being ‘flooded’. Your emotional foundations are overrun and can feel in danger of being washed away. At some stage, all Headteachers will experience this overwhelming surge wave of negative emotions when facing bad news. A serious incident, a bad Ofsted experience, a poor set of examination results, a trusted colleague suddenly resigning. How do you cope with the breaching of your emotional storm protection?

Grieve. Take some time to come to terms with what’s happened. Bring in trusted confidants and explore the hurt, disappointment and anxiety the news has caused. Of course, a leader’s role is to be strong during times of challenge but who motivates the motivator? All leaders need a trusted support network to unload with in safety and without judgement. It maybe this support is external to the school but wherever your support, you need to offload. And for me unleash some of my favourite Anglo-Saxon words!

Face the fear. Share the fear. At the most basic level a leader facing really bad news will fear for their job. Their rent, mortgage, car loan, kids’ school trips will feel in peril. Seeking catastrophe is natural and expected. It can also impair rational thought and action. In most cases the worst-case scenario is not going to happen. It is hard to act though when you feel that your security can be washed away. If the culture of your school/Trust is strong and supportive you might be able to discuss this fear openly – if not seek a trusted colleague outside of the institution to speak to. I have a number of Headteacher friends who have proved invaluable sources of rational perspective when I have seen only doom and despair.

Resist the reclusive. There is a huge temptation to withdrawal into the security of your office as wearing the burden of bad news is heavy and uncomfortable. Yet your school needs you most at this time. At my first ever Ofsted inspection, a term into being a Head, the HMI told me in the first meeting the Academy would likely be put into a category. It wasn’t even 9 o’clock on the first day of inspection! As I came out of my office, shell shocked, a wonderful TA smiled at me and gave me an enquiring thumbs up, questioning ‘is all ok?’. I wanted a hug but returned the thumbs up and beamed a smile. Walk your school, seek out the excellent, talk to your students, prepare in your mind the best way to communicate to all those who care about the success of your school. You will find inspiration within your school and a vital connection to the moral purpose which will be vital for you in moving forward from a bad experience.

Be transparent. I have always sought to share bad news openly with staff, taking responsibility for it but also narrating the cause and effect. Sometimes you’re just too early in the journey and, in the future, plans will embed and be more effective. Sometimes events are out of your control but you have to offer reassurance and direction to assure the school that these difficult times won’t destabilise your progress or undermine the values the school is built upon. After a bad inspection a local Head called me and told me she wasn’t sharing the news with the staff until the report was published. This unleashed weeks of gossip, misinformation and staff morale, which had united to deal with the inspection, collapsed. It’s tempting to convey a ‘nothing bad has happened here’ demeanour but it won’t foster trust and a collective responsibility to address the challenge.

Start the resistance movement. There is a whole set of thinking that suggests leaders learn more from failure than from success. I think there is much truth in this – if failure leads to future success. There is nothing more powerful for a staff to face adversity and come through and deliver success. Adversity stress tests you, your team, your plans, your processes, your systems. You will identify weaknesses that need fixing or priorities that have been, perhaps brutally, put into perspective but the negative events encountered. You need then to set out simple, decisive responses to some of these problems with perhaps a longer reflection on more complex challenges. Unify your spirit, your team and your school with a humble defiance. You accept that things weren’t good enough but you there is also positives and strengths within the school which provide exemplars on how problems can be addressed effectively.

We know, unfortunately, that too many good school leaders have been disposed of, sometimes brutally, as a response to bad events. Sometimes this may be necessary but there is a group of leaders who have been unfairly branded by disappointments who still have enormous potential to offer schools. How we deal with disappointment is a key measure of leadership, but you should know, we have all been there and most of us not only survived but eventually thrived. Reach out, take your mental health seriously and seek laughter – even if for a few weeks the humour is a dark shade of funny.

James Eldon is Principal at Manchester Academy, Moss Side.

What are the pros and cons of keeping EHCPs?

It has been a challenging few weeks at school, as the days get dark, cold and wet in the lead up to Christmas.  For many of our children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), Christmas is not something to look forward to.  Extended social gatherings, heightened expectations and additional family pressures mount up to rising anxieties.  This is also a feeling mirrored by parent groups as their journey into parenthood has often not been straightforward.

To help, the government introduced new (SEND) reforms in 2014, under the Children and Families Act.  They were designed to offer simpler, improved and consistent help for these children and young people, enabling families to support and advocate.  Additionally, it was also implemented to protect school budgets, extend provision from birth to 25 years of age, give families greater choice in decisions and ensure needs were properly met.

The aim of the system was to extend the rights and protection to young people by introducing an education, health and care plan (EHCP), with an intention that professionals would provide tailored support to families, giving them the help and assistance they need. Nearly 6 years on, and SEND is in crisis, spilling out into the wider educational landscape, as this growing cohort struggle to get the support they need.  Sparking a government led SEND inquiry, the UK Parliament Education Select Committee released a comprehensive report (2019) identifying and raising some key points, including:

 ‘…these adversarial experiences are the products of poor implementation, the inability to access the right support at the right time, and services struggling with limited resources.’

 ‘There is a clear need for the Department to be more proactive in its oversight of the way in which the system is operating.’

 ‘The Department for Education set local authorities up to fail by making serious errors both in how it administered money intended for change, and also, until recently, failing to provide extra money when it was needed.’

 ‘Ultimately, the Government must decide whether it wants local authorities to retain the statutory duties it set in place in the 2014 Act.’

The report is damming, but brings a bitter/sweet sigh of relief to many school leaders and parent/carers as it finally feels like ‘someone is listening’.  Both groups share the response, as both groups see first-hand, the struggles of those with SEND, at the hands of a system that doesn’t work.  This observation made me wonder; ‘what are the pros and cons of keeping EHCPs as they are?’… I made a list:

 

EHCP pros: EHCP cons:
1.    Children/ young people with SEND have clear rights to have their needs met

2.    The system has raised the profile for pupils with SEND

3.    It has raised awareness of inclusion within the school system

4.    Core principles are aspirational and focus on partnerships

5.    Parents with children with SEND have a mechanism to be heard

6.    Provides security for parents

 

1.    Lack of positive outcomes despite EHCPs being in place.

2.    EHCPs do not protect the most vulnerable as more pupils with SEND are pushed out of schools.

3.    There has never been more children with an EHCP than now.  The system is over-stretched.

4.    Not value for money – EHCP processes are bureaucratic, costly and time inefficient

5.    There is insufficient funding and provision in schools, health and social care services to make EHCPs work

6.    Professionals in health and social care are unable to attend meetings due to lack of capacity

7.    There is not enough specialist provision, resource, or expertise (in all services)

8.    The EHCP system is incompatible with NHS model

9.    Works under the premise that there are unlimited resources/ funds

10.  Perpetuates a deficit model – Cost of resource to meet need is more than then the value of funding allocated

11.  Postcode lottery – Inequality of funding/ resource allocation

12.  Lack of transparency and consistency

13.  Encourages perverse behaviours in schools and parent groups.

14.  Encourages separation rather than inclusion of those with SEND.

15.  The DfE have no direct responsibility for pupils with SEND as all activities are delegated to LAs.

16.  LAs have limited powers, capacity, capability in relation to delegated duties

17.  Lack of DfE accountability of High Needs funds

18.  National gaps or shortfalls in provision are not easily identifiable

19.  Supports an adversarial climate where the focus is on achieving the best deal for individuals, rather than for everyone.

20.  All children, regardless of SEND, loose out. We are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

 

Although my list may contribute to the wider question of whether we should keep EHCPs, I’m curious to know if these factors were previously considered in the design of the EHCP process in the first place, and if they were simply ignored, misunderstood, or thrown onto the ‘too difficult’ pile.  If so, the implications of a re-think might generate similar thoughts, however there is a chance that we have already reached the tipping point without realising. Can we continue with the current EHCP system knowing what we know now?

By Sabrina Hobbs, Principal, Severndale Academy

Putting social justice at the heart of education leadership

Based on a panel contribution at SSAT National Conference on Deep Social Justice

I wonder how many of you, like me, have often dreamed of the ability to create a force field around our school. A happy, bullet-proof place, capable of absorbing the waves of negativity in wider society…. just like in the movies.

The problem is, much as I might fancy the outfit I am no Marvel superhero and my school is not in Wakanda or any other such magical kingdom. Some might think it comes close, tucked safely in the Sussex countryside it might on the surface appear likely to be immune to the inequalities discussed today. I can promise you, it’s not.

If we want a sense of social justice we need to accept what that will actually take for every child to have the chance to grow and thrive no matter what their start in life, such as pre-school provision and environments that level the playing field at the beginning. Too many children start school with significant pre-existing gulfs in their working memory, attentiveness or reading fluency. Gaps caused by their pre-school experiences which only seem to widen with each age and stage they move through; long before we label them as disadvantaged and start incessantly tracking or measuring them.

However, the gaps children start with cannot be closed if the specialist staff they need are leaving the profession faster than they are joining. At primary or secondary, systemic failures in recruitment mean schools are too often judged for failing to provide that which cannot be found. Retention in some quarters is woeful as teachers flee the profession they felt inspired to join, worn out by practices which do little to inspire staff or students and rarely enhance the outcomes they are designed to promote. Workload Reform rhetoric is all very well but we must re-establish teaching as a desirable profession which genuinely values autonomy, actively develops career-long expertise and promotes cohesive communities with a sense of moral purpose.

In my school’s community the illusion of Range Rovers and country-living is a truly magnificent disguise for the all-too-often overlooked rural poverty that many of my students’ experience. We cannot talk about equality or justice while education is funded according to a lottery based on their postcode.

Let’s overlook for a moment the biggest differentials. We all know them. But even the smaller difference between my funding and a statistical neighbour sounds small at £200 more per pupil but at 240 in a year group that’s £250,000 across the main school. I don’t need to tell you how many teachers, mental health workers or enrichment activities that is. Yet they all sit the same exams and are expected to demonstrate the same levels of ‘cultural literacy’.

Most school sixth forms are nowhere near sufficiently funded to create the learning environment or additional opportunities they deserve and many SENDCo’s deserve a News Years Honour of their own for the support they offer as families’ battle resource-starved local authorities to get their children what they need. If we are to talk about social justice then every child, everywhere needs an equitably funded educational experience.

And that educational experience has to mean something. There is literally nobody I know who gets up every morning determined to set low aspirations for young people. So why are we constrained by an examination system that has failure for a forgotten third of students baked into it by design? There’s no justice for the ones who have to fail so that others can pass. Equally we have to be honest about the effects of an accountability system that creates benchmarks to measure that sometimes have little to do with the lives and ambitions of those being measured. These structures are not new, they are not party political, they have evolved and been manipulated over many different governments. But they create pressure and inequality for all involved.

Very few students, especially those with chronic mental health issues will tell you that sitting 33 exams in the summer of their year 11 felt like good evidence of a deep and rich curriculum. As I sat on prom night last year holding the hand of a fabulously bright young woman as she breathed her way through another panic attack, not for one second did I regret the fact that we spaced her GCSEs over a 3-year Key Stage 4, enabling her to achieve the grades that will allow her to apply for medicine this year.

But we appear to have enabled a system that seems to prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach to what is taught and when it is taught, creating injustice for those who do not fit a particular mould.

However, it is not just about school funding, or curriculum change. When even the journey to a counsellor or even the foodbank involves a 20 min walk to the bus stop and a half hour bus journey as the local service has been cut to the core, and when literally no support service is easily reachable, even if the wait times are sensible, then this issue goes much wider.

So, to be genuinely serious about social justice in education we already know what we have to do. We have to remove it from the electoral cycle. Ideally it has to connect to the services that support children and their families but at the very least, if we could establish cross party agreement on at least a 10-year plan for funding, accountability, recruitment and retention, then we would be able to properly plan long term.

The harsh reality is that life is not designed on a level playing field, nobody promised us it would always be fair but with focused determination we (politicians, school leaders, governors and parents) should be able to harness our collective talents and build that force-field that allows all our children to grow up safe enough that they have an equal chance to be as brilliant as they can be.

The Headteachers Roundtable manifesto attempts to move us in this direction, none of us are politicians, we all have different political persuasions but we do know what impacts on schools and what makes a difference for children. These 5 key proposals address the root problems and urge a collective response:

  1. Sufficient Great Teachers: Every parent wants a good teacher in front of their child; every pupil needs a good teacher if they are to thrive and flourish.
  2. Funding: Education needs to be a priority for financial investment. Our children have only one chance of education and must not suffer due to insufficient funding and the postcode lottery of different funding levels
  3. Protection for the Vulnerable: Our Education System must ensure that the most vulnerable children have their needs met.
  4. High Levels of Professional Trust: Parents trust school leaders, teachers and the support staff to do the best for their children. Politicians must also show this high level of trust and reform the high stakes accountability system
  5. Ethical Leadership: System ‘drivers’ must reflect the ethical behaviour of the overwhelming majority of school leaders & teachers and challenge the few who do not play their part

Caroline Barlow, Headteacher, Heathfield Community College, East Sussex

 

Pay now and save later

The Headteachers’ Roundtable has published 5 critical policy areas derived from chalkface experience, from those living and breathing the critical issues most schools are facing.

At times, the group has been criticised for its lack of diversity and it’s secondary perspective. This has been robustly addressed with a much broader representation of phases.  So now, those of you with an eye for detail may have spotted, embedded in the manifesto, a call for enhanced funding for high quality Early Years provision. Continue reading

Recruitment & retention

I am in my 14th year of headship at the same school, which enables me to have a long view of how Recruitment and Retention has changed during that time. We are a high (56%) PP school and less than 5% EAL so we fit the context of schools that are classed as challenging with the majority of students from the lowest achieving socio economic group in England. What that means in reality is that we have the full range of students, from the brightest, politest and kindest to the most challenging in terms of behaviour, the most vulnerable in terms of high needs and the neediest in terms of disadvantage and deprivation. Continue reading