Since New Year’s Resolutions are doomed to failure, I’ve decided instead to consider what I might do if I were someone else. School starts again next week and I find myself thinking what I might do if I were a secondary school headteacher.
1. Before making any decision, ask myself ‘will this help the students to learn?’
Too much of what happens in school is done to please OFSTED and parents. Almost all of my other resolutions are the immediate result of instead focussing my attentions on helping students to learn.
I understand that it is necessary to judge schools and hold them accountable, but the current system necessarily focuses on what is easily measurable as opposed to what actually matters. I wish I could offer a solution, but I can’t – my only suggestion is that all headteachers refuse to play this stupid game and instead focus on doing what they know is right. (I realise this is never going to happen, sadly.) If every school did this, OFSTED would be forced to develop an inspection regime that did schools justice and the tail could stop wagging the dog.
2. Remove the focus from exams
Much more easily said than done, this one. However there are ways to accomplish it and good reasons for striving to do so. Resits would be allowed in my school but parents would be billed for both the exam entry fee and any extra after school support provided. We wouldn’t even discuss target or predicted grade in the first year of any course of two years or longer. Meaningful courses with no resulting formal qualifications would be provided and professionally taught.
I’m not suggesting that passing exams is unimportant, just that we seem to have lost sight of learning for learning’s sake.
3. Ban homework
Homework is set because parents expect it and because it is easy to monitor. It is often educationally pointless or worse, counter-productive. I would remove any notion of a ‘homework timetable’ and allow teachers to decide whether it is relevant or necessary to set homework at a given time. Poor quality homework tasks encourage a negative attitude from students and arguments at home. We perpetuate the unhealthy notion that the working day does not stop upon leaving the workplace and unfairly disadvantage students from less academic households.
This is not to say that I would be encouraging students not to seek learning opportunities outside school. A bank of inspirational, optional projects, combined with support for parents in how to develop a love of learning at home would complement the ethos of my school regarding learning being about more than just passing exams.
4. Allow failure
Life includes failures. Learning to handle these and move on from them is a life skill. When we allow a student to hand in vital work after the deadline, or clutch at straws to find something, anything, good to say about a shoddy and lazy piece of work, or enter them for their third resit without demanding some change in effort or attitude we are doing them no long term favours. When we correct their work for them, rather than insisting they work out where they went wrong, when we give them rewards for simply doing what is expected, when we lie on their university references we are just passing on problems to the next teacher, professor or employer who has to work with them. Allow failure, catch them, support them in their quest to avoid it again.
These ideas are all impractical, for one reason or another, which is one of many reasons I shall never seek to be a real headteacher. In reality, headteachers have a ridiculous variety of conflicting stakeholders to try to satisfy. Most of them entered the profession to teach in the classroom, not to sit in an office balancing multi-million pound budgets whilst being pulled in a dozen different directions by department heads, governors, parents, pupils, the Council, the Government and the local community. They do a mostly thankless job, mostly very well – it’s too easy to forget this and we shouldn’t. Here’s to the headteachers.