I love snow; it is my favourite type of precipitation. I rarely feel as peaceful as when crunching through piles of the stuff, tinglingly cold and somehow quietening the world. Even though the itinerary was stupidly rushed, I’ve spent three nights of my half term break in Iceland, gobbling up the snowy lava fields and glaciers. Beautifully refreshing.
So when I heard about SNOW schools I initially imagined something wonderous. Then I learnt it was an acronym for schools no one wants. Schools not wanted by multi-academy trusts, by headteachers and no wanted by parents. Schools so far in debt there looks to be no way out and even the exam boards cut off your credit. Schools so far down the league tables they look as if they’re about to be relegated from the Isthmian League although not even Bostick would sponsor you.
Schools, frankly, situated in areas of high deprivation and its associated problems – historical unemployment, crime, poverty, poor mental health, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol abuse. Schools, as Stephen Tierney has argued in this challenging blog post more likely than not to be judged as requires improvement or inadequate by Ofsted.
And of course, where there are schools that no one wants, this means that there are children that no one wants either. The sorts of children that can be seen as grass to be flattened, not watered and nurtured. Children who may happen to have the sort of special educational needs that no other school can meet the needs of. Children who, when it looks as if they might not deliver the right sort of results vanish into elective home education.
If you think recruiting great teachers is tough in all schools (which it is) imagine finding staff prepared to take on these additional challenges – you want to reduce your workload, why go to some place with no money and a tough demographic? One where Ofsted is a constant Sword of Damocles and the results will probably never look as good as the ones up the road.
What sort of message do these children hear? They feel that no one wants them. They feel as if they don’t matter. This is no way to transform communities or change children’s futures.
However, I love the snow.
Like many of my colleagues in the Headteachers’ Roundtable, I have found myself at home in such schools. They’re tough, often exhausting, usually challenging but absolutely worth every second and more rewarding than you can possibly imagine.
I feel exceptionally lucky to be part of the entire team at my SNOW school. I am lucky to work for a multi-academy trust that is prepared to do what is right for the children. I am honoured to go to work every day in a community that wants to be proud of all it achieves. I’m working with some of the most dedicated and professional teachers and associate staff I have ever had the privilege to work alongside.
But it can also be heart breaking. I was ever so sad in the summer, before the schools had moved from one trust to another, when a Year 8 students asked me, “Why do you want to come here?” as if working with him was the most repugnant thing ever. It’s depressing that I am the school’s fifth headteacher in four years. It is shocking to look at empty shelves in Science labs, Music rooms and the library.
It’s easy to think of such places as a door to career suicide – but it is not the schools or the children that is the threat – it is an imbalanced accountability system that is stacked against us. At a time when unethical behaviours are driven by perverse expectations, it can feel isolating to stick to your principles. And at a time when all schools are struggling with financial cuts, the additional costs needed to meet the additional needs of our children make things triply hard.
Simply, when the broken system is fixed there won’t be SNOW schools any more and all children will feel wanted.
Keziah Featherstone is head of Q3 Academy Tipton, near Dudley, and is a member of the core group of Heads Roundtable