Tuesday 9 May 2023
Five famous colleagues ran away adventuring with our Year 6 pupils yesterday, off to Smuggler’s Top, Kirrin Island or some such location, on a week’s residential in Cornwall. The Cadogan team had planned an active trip that required our Hertfordshire eleven-year-olds to surf, bodyboard, and coasteer far out of the comfort zone, exploring caves by day and dancing at beach discos in the evening. It would be untrue to say the primary intent of this action-packed itinerary was to ensure that Year 6 fell asleep at a reasonable hour each night, but apparently this was a lovely side benefit. The primary intent of any residential’s itinerary is awe, I think, always. Awe and wonder. It behoves us as teachers to ensure that our Year 6 pupils are astonished to be alive and to experience awe!
Meanwhile, back in the Head’s office on a Tuesday morning, Awe and Wonder had yet to clock in for the day, there being only the minutiae of my usual line management meetings. The day is perked up by the regular Year 8 class, and while the bonus Year 12 class doesn’t quite scale the heights of last week, we still very much enjoy studying contemporary poetry together. Poetry gives infinite pleasure, and while some have forgotten this fact, all humans need poetry in their lives. Every human child delights in rhymes: the music, rhythm, wordplay, and (non)sense. Tap a human thinking hard about a poem and you will hear infinity ringing. The Year 12s and I did some good, hard thinking this afternoon.
I check in with a colleague who I need to know is okay, before dashing over to our boarding houses to enjoy an Open House evening. These are opportunities for all RMS colleagues to see where our boarders live, to be given a tour of their home, to play a few frames of pool with the students, or just to enjoy a cuppa and a chat.
Wednesday 10 May 2023
Our fab Head of Art, Maxine, has arranged to see me first thing. Maxine has told Sharon, my PA, that the meeting is about how we can display the new RMS Mission and Vision statements around our grounds, and of course this angle gets my attention and gets Maxine straight past the ‘PA as Gatekeeper’ role that Sharon must perform at times. Now, Maxine wasn’t exactly lying in her pitch to Sharon, but in her early morning words to me I also hear echoes of “We really need an artist-in-residence” and “The New Mark Hall would make a great gallery”, aspirations that Maxine has articulated before in a selection of her more ambitious budget requests. This is all good, of course, it’s the nice kind of pushy.
I joke with Maxine that she is essentially commandeering the new Mission and Vision statements, conscripting them into performing artistic service. Maxine protests that the idea is wholly in agreement with our Mission in imagining an art project that will involve all of the school’s students creating their own cornerstone images. We are both right, and Maxine’s ideas are certainly worth rubbing together for a while to see if they breed. We talk through a few options, scaling up Maxine’s original idea from New Mark Hall to The Garth, and seeing the limitations of one thousand students displaying their artwork in one room. I ask Maxine to explore options further with the artist she has in mind, and I promise her that I will take it to Emma as DFO, to explore what funding options we have. The truth is I do like Maxine’s idea. All schools need something special happening each year, a few sweet treats besides the bread-and-butter business of learning.
A Head of Year and Alison, our DSL, meet with me to talk through an issue they are working on at present, then I catch up with the Chair of Governors, before heading off to Watford Girls’ Grammar for a SWHSSH meeting of local headteachers. SWHSSH meetings for the last year have been solely focused on SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities), and EHCPs (Educational Health Care Plans), largely because these are areas that in the views of many are broken due to underfunding. For this meeting we are joined by County Councillor Douris, whose name sounds like a Dickensian creation but who is the actual councillor that oversees this area in Herts, and the Director of Inclusion and Skills. Themes discussed include processes, communication, and how we evaluate effectiveness. There is a recognition of “inconsistencies in delivery of service”.
Early on, Councillor Douris says, “There is an 11-14% increase in EHCPs each year in Herts and so we’re going to have to turn the tap down”. There is quite a lot that I want to ask about this line, but I am mindful that there are other schools with far greater issues in this area than RMS so I keep quiet (which doesn’t come natural to me, (though I have had cause to practise this skill on occasion in recent years)).
The best question I hear asked comes after we are informed that there are Officers each with caseloads of 400 who can’t get their case details up to date, and that therefore schools shouldn’t keep phoning these officers. One Head asks if the council might invest in recruiting to better resource this area of Case Officers. We are told that there is no point in throwing a huge amount of money at things this year as (i) there are no resources to deal with that, and (ii) we need a sustainable fix. We are promised more than once that there is a commitment of “very significant” amounts of money coming over the next three years. Again, I keep quiet. I have learnt that silence is a muscle you can exercise if by nature you are insufficient and puny in this respect, as I am. But like my glutes, delts, and triceps, I’m still unconvinced that I want to supplement this muscle with creatine and daily workouts. I imagine that my wife would disagree, in all the above respects tbh.
We are then told that Herts spends more on alternative provision than any other county, that Herts has historically filled up children in special schools who should not be there, and that there is more exclusion in Herts than elsewhere. These claims are not supported by evidence in the meeting, and there is strong pushback against this last point in particular, with a few Heads pointing out that SWHSSH is highly collaborative, that it does not have an exclusion culture, and examples are provided of occasions when schools have been prevented from working collaboratively in pupils’ best interests. One Head says there are children in Herts schools that the Provision Panel have said should be in specialist settings, and asks “What are the numbers on this?” but these numbers are not shared. The Director of Inclusion and Skills told us that the decision making of the Provision Panel is not right.
These are all complex and emotive issues, and I wouldn’t pretend to understand them as well as others with far more experience. Neither can I claim to have solutions. I can only say that it seemed to me, listening carefully, that the Councillor appeared to view the increase from 3600 EHCPs in 2016 to 11,000 EHCPs with suspicion, as if people were lying to get EHCPs or as if they were being given away cheaply or incorrectly. We were told that something was “not right” with this 11-14% annual increase.
I played the role of considerate stone, wanting to build endurance in this area, but my mind kept coming back to the line that, “There is an 11-14% increase in EHCPs each year in Herts and so we’re going to have to turn the tap down”. Why? What if these children require and deserve EHCPs and it is a credit to everybody that we are getting better at recognising this? If we are to presume positive intentions, and that cases are genuine and identification is successful, then why would we wish to “turn the tap down”? Would we not be failing these children if we did so? I genuinely appreciated the attendance of the councillor and the Director of Inclusion and Skills, however I felt that their intent was to justify a process rather than trying to address a hugely important issue that our pupils need us to be working hard together on in order to improve.
After our guests left us, there was a discussion about schools’ budgets. If I heard correctly, the deadline for maintained schools receiving budget information for 2023-24 has been extended to 31 August 2023, which put my challenges into perspective. Some schools were predicting deficits of £400,000, based on fictional budgets. Schools were having to assume what the increase to teachers’ pay would be – 4%? 5%? – and to produce multiple versions of their budgets. It all seemed less than fair, less than ideal. I know that maintained sector Heads across the country are having to consider the extent to which they can manage financially next year. It has recently been reported in the national press that some schools in England are preparing to move to class sizes of as many as 60 children from September to deal with the funding crisis. Some headteachers say underfunding will force them to cut staff, which is inevitable. One academy school leader has warned a newspaper that another year of underfunding will force some schools into a four-day week.
Everything discussed at SWHSSH today has been years in the making. It has taken dedicated neglect to bring education to this point. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) told government ministers last year to collect “reliable evidence” on the impact of financial pressures on schools as reports circulated of narrowing curriculums and of dwindling support for vulnerable pupils. The Department for Education promised to publish their report by March 2023, which would make interesting reading, but a letter sent to the PAC in April confirmed publication has been pushed back until after September. Independent schools will face challenges over the coming years, for sure, but the extreme challenges and hardship faced by many school leaders in the maintained sector is not good enough for what their children and all of those schools deserve. I stayed quiet in the meeting and let those most in need lead, but my thoughts had to come out at some point. The incomparable Melvin Hoyle’s reading of Shakespeare back in my Sixth Form taught me that it’s unhealthy to suppress natural emotions and strong viewpoints.
Back at RMS in the afternoon, I complete some compulsory training, observe a couple of lessons and then get over to Harris House, where our youngest boarders live (up to age 14). The pupils show me how tidy/messy their rooms are (not bad at all, in truth), and then our conversation evolves into a Town Hall style meeting where I am quizzed on matters including why RMS students can’t wear shorts in summer term and why we have Phone Free Wednesdays after 6pm in Harris House. Do I find myself slipping into politician mode and defending a process rather than addressing the issues directly? I’d like to think not, on the whole, but I can neither confirm or deny that this was the case.
Thursday 11 May 2023
Today is the final day before study leave for our Year 11 pupils. It is mostly a lovely day for them, filled with the usual shirt signing and final assembly fun. However, for about fifteen minutes around break, a few of them get it wrong, which is disappointing. It was not serious by the nature of many schools: a flashmob that got out of hand, a silly charge down a corridor, and a little thoughtless graffiti in the loo that is confessed to within the hour. But it’s not what we’re about at RMS. For many years, we have not been used to the issues that can accompany excessive exuberance of this nature. There are lessons to be learned by us here too.
With our Head of Prep, I hear about a parental concern, a colleague needing support with accommodation, and a colleague’s illness. With the Director of Admissions, we cover boarders’ numbers, Sixth Form scholarships, and links with boys’ schools. All of this is important, and I try to add value to these chats, but in truth my mind is still on Year 11. I am not a person who shouts, or loses his temper, or is knee-jerk in response to a work issue – that would be silly and unhelpful. I am told that I’m pretty even-keel, calm and measured on the whole. I do say to close colleagues that “If I go really quiet, it sometime means my emotions are very strong, and I’m staying quiet to make sure I don’t say anything rash.” This doesn’t happen often at all, only four times over six years at RMS, perhaps most often in meetings with our landlords about rent and the new lease, however this afternoon I am quiet. I know that it will be the weekend before I allow myself to think about how we best reflect on what happened with Year 11 today and leading up to today.
I distract myself with a “Prevent” online training course that I am required to do, and with a lesson observation. I have completed a few of these online training courses in recent months, and overall am not yet a fan. The cynic in me thinks they exist to save money, the tired teacher in me wants to sleep through or skip the corporate videos, and then the swotty schoolboy in me becomes annoyed if I don’t get 100% in the tests at the end. The tests themselves are invariably too easy for us all so the certificate you print off at the end feels worthless, the final insult of a tick-box exercise. I am conscious on this particular afternoon that I am viewing these courses in this moment in time, and that my response says more about me just now than anything else.
And then out of nowhere my mood lifts, and of course it is due to the students. Year 13 have stayed behind after school to set up for their Leaver’s Day tomorrow. They have decided on a pirate theme, and they have decorated the ‘Long Corridor’ accordingly with bullions, balloons, and bad puns. There are jokes at the expense of teachers, headteachers, and at Year 11’s high jinks today. A dedicated dozen Year 13 pupils are still there until after 6pm, along with Clare and Jennie, the Head of Sixth and Deputy Head of Sixth. It’s good-natured fun, all in the right spirit from students who love their school and are working with the school to enjoy licensed merriment in the morning. It’s all exactly how it should be. I stroll down the corridor at 7pm and am greatly looking forward to tomorrow.
Friday 12 May 2023
Year 13 students are in early, from 7:30 onwards, in costume, armed with a sound system and water pistols. Their targets are any pupils who wish to participate in this fun of running the gauntlet through the main gate into school. I see some Year 8 pupils go back through the gate repeatedly, delighted to be teased and chased in this way. It’s the start of a lovely morning that continues with a series of activities, memories, and an incredible magic show. Today will culminate in a wonderful formal dinner with their parent, tutors, and teachers this evening. We do the final day for Year 13 extremely well at RMS.
My morning is busy. Aside from joining Year 13 at a series of points, I catch up with a relatively new colleague to hear how his first few weeks at RMS have been, see Sarah about next year’s timetable, attend an Accommodation Committee trying to accommodate everybody’s requests, meet a Year 12 pupil called Molly who has impressed recently with her mindset and maturity, see Lucy and Melanie about PE staffing next year, and then pause for breath before lunch. And as I stop I realise, out of nowhere, that I have a headcold, a sore throat, a runny nose, and aching eyes. It’s as if they all arrived at once; I was fine in my meetings earlier on. I haven’t taken a Covid test in quite a while (haven’t had need to), but I am conscious that this evening I am due to be attending pre-prandial drinks, sitting down for a final celebratory assembly, and then joining a party of eight at a table for a formal dinner over a couple of hours all as part of the Year 13 celebrations. It would be irresponsible to sit with Year 13s who are about to take exams, and with their parents, without having taken a test. I do. It’s positive. Rubbish.
I am hugely disappointed to be missing one of the most special nights of the year at RMS, and an evening at which the headteacher really should be present. I inform relevant colleagues and head straight home to Covid isolation, for the third time since 2021. I smile to myself as I remember that at one point, when schools first reopened, the government tried to tell us all that Covid didn’t spread easily in schools. We didn’t believe them then. As it is, at RMS we have had a few cases this last week, nothing like the scale it once was of course, and everything is different now we are jabbed, have caught it, and our immune systems have built up, but a new variant is definitely doing the rounds.
My disappointment aside, one great thing about working with truly wonderful colleagues is that I know my absence won’t impact the evening a jot. The school runs just fine without me, Clare and Jennie have it all in hand, and Jennie has even written a beautiful poem that I later learn from the students had a number of them experiencing “happy tears”.
I attend my afternoon meetings on the phone, or by Zoom, feeling essentially fine. I hear news of the Year 13 evening through pictures and text updates. And then, about 9pm, a fever comes on quickly, shakes start, and I try to settle down for a disturbed night experiencing Covid all over again, (hopefully) for one last time and just for old time’s sake.