Category: Students

Where are the Female Headteachers?

I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season.  Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me.  My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’.  I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations.  We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.

We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men.  Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates.  I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do.  We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach.  To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue.  As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.

When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place.  What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions.  And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.

Question 1

Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.

Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all thfemale bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.

What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?

In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women.  The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:

same sex interruptions copy 2

mixed sex interruptions copy

Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975

Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms.  They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation.  Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions.  It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order.  The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth.  And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.

How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are?  I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today.  Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here.  If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it?  It is exhausting and demoralising.  And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.

Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions.  The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor.  It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi).  Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.

If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress.  I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night.  I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea.  Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.

Untitled copy 2

The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser.  I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted.  And I stalled.  This wasn’t a result of male oppression.  This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.


If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.

Question 2

Looking to the next generation, it was reported last week that sexist bullying in schools is inhibiting girls from putting up their hands and speaking out in class because they fear appearing “swotty and clever”. Teach First works in collaboration with other organisations on The Fair Education Impact Goals. Goal 3 is – Ensure young people
develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations.
A recent report on data taken from pupils at Teach First partner schools explored this too – When asked if they felt comfortable asking questions in class, boys’ replies were between 8 and 11 percentage points higher than girls’. When asked “I am confident in my ability to learn what is being taught” girls’ responses were between 5 and 6 percentage points lower than boys.
What can we do to as figures of authority – mentors, line managers, teachers etc – to ensure we foster self-confidence and high aspirations in girls and young women?
I did almost fall out of my seat, so keen was I to answer this one.
Young women already have high aspirations.  The evidence shows that girls have systematically reported higher aspirations than their male peers for years.  They outperform boys.  The issue is not in aspiration.  Somewhere along the line, those aspirations fizzle and it is job as educational professionals to work why a girl who aspires to be an astronaut at the age of 10 not only fails to become one, but actively rejects the idea that she might be one.
I go back to interruptions here.  Because the study on interruptions does not apply only to adults in educational or corporate environments.  Kieran Snyder has continued to look at the phenomenon since Zimmerman and West started the process.  In this article, we can see that the interruption process – the assertion of dominance in conversation and discussion – starts at a very young age.  Snyder discovered the pre-schooler girls are much more likely to be interrupted by their male peers and the more boys there are, the more the interruption rate goes up.  How does this apply to teachers?  I was astonished to read that teachers reinforce the model of interruption in the classroon and reinforce gender stereotypes – both belittling female ability in the STEM subjects and belittling male ability in languages and arts. We are literally creating exactly the kind of society we want to avoid.
Is it any surprise then, as the article from Kieran Snyder suggests, girls are 1.5 times more likely to study STEM subjects if taught in single-sex environments?  I can imagine that the gender stereotyping, the interruptions, the fight for dominance, is less of an issue.  I am conflicted on the benefits of single-sex education, but these ideas are hard to ignore.
I made my views clear on how we raise levels of confidence – and I think this might be the basis of another article entirely – but we are not going to foster self-confidence if we send girls home en masse for uniform infringements.  The recent sending home of 29 girls because the length of their skirts didn’t meet with the approval of their headteacher not only reinforced the sexualisation of those girls, it suggested that their education was less important than the poor boys who may have been distracted or titillated by their ungodly flesh.
We are actively showing girls there is no point in aspiring.  We are doing it ourselves by interrupting them.  We are telling them that what they look like in the classroom is more important than the contents of their minds.
Teachers need to manage their unconscious biases on appearance and sexuality and all teachers – male of female – have to manage their interruption biases too.
I finished my answer to this question by citing my favourite documentary of recent years.  In Miss Representation, the phrases “you can’t be what you can’t see’ is used repeatedly.  Our girls need to see that women can take on roles and responsibilities at a high level. What do they see in school?  Chances are they see a male CEO of the MAT, a male headteacher, a mix of genders at senior and middle leadership and a hell of a lot of female teaching assistants.  The schools workforce data in 2014 shows that 91% of teaching assistants were female.  The message is clear.  There are jobs for the boys and jobs for the girls.
We are only applying for jobs if we are certain we can fulfil every aspect of the job spec.  And girls can’t be what they can’t see.  We have to step up.

July 7th: Preventing Radicalisation in Schools

In the staffroom of a 1960s built comprehensive in the heart of East London, the radio is on under single-glazed windows that let in the heat of a July day.  In itself, that isn’t unusual. I pass through without giving it a thought and without registering the looks on faces of teachers who are hearing something out of the ordinary.  The light streams into the room; I head to photocopy, anticipating the inevitable surliness of the reprographics technician who wants copying done in advance at all times, with no exceptions.  He isn’t there so I copy surreptitiously and sneak back out with a criminal lightness.

By lunchtime, I have taught all day and still have two lessons to teach until the blissful moment the school is empty and I can breathe.  My feet are complaining, so I head back to the staffroom to find more teachers gathered round the radio.  And now I know something is wrong.  The radio tells me.  It is surreal, I think, whilst trying to block out the insistent crying of a colleague whose partner works near Kings Cross.

I went through there this morning, I think. On autopilot, bus to Kings Cross, through the side entrance, down towards the Hammersmith and City Line going east.  It was early, 6.30am perhaps.  And it strikes me, in the way the unreal and the strange has a habit of doing so, that I can’t get home.  How am I going to get home?

In the end, after hushed chats and practical exchanges between colleagues, I climb into a car and am driven back to Finsbury Park.  I have never seen London in this way before.  The people walking strike me not as Londoners who have just experienced the horror of a terrorist attack, but of characters in a movie or a music video.  REM’s Everybody Hurts, when they all just get out and walk.  They just get out and walk.

Ten years later, and on the ten year anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in which 52 people lost their lives, I can’t help but take a moment to examine whether we are a society have made any headway against extremism.  The Prevent Duty was published on July 1st this year, only a few days ago; it outlines a statutory duty for schools to spot signs of radicalisation in young people and build resilience to radicalisation through the promotion of FBV, the latest acronym to be presented to education professionals: Fundamental British Values, in case you are not aware.

The double edged sword that is asking teachers to spot potentially radicalised young people is already part and parcel of conversations I have held with colleagues and friends.  While in principle, the concept of being able to safeguard effectively is at the very heart of a teacher’s responsibility, we as experienced professionals know that if teachers were the final line in preventing harm to young people, we have not done brilliantly.  Not because we do not care – somewhere in our teaching histories, we have all been appalled to discover that a child we know, that we have taught, is on the child protection register.  We have been appalled to discover the sometimes horrific circumstances of our wards.  But also appalled that we did not see it.  That we were too busy marking, or making exam entries to have noticed. Or worse, that there was something that we could not possibly have seen.

And it is this that becomes the flaw.  Yes, we have the duty to enact the Prevent strategy in schools, but that does not mean we have the expertise.  Did I miss the training provided by experts on how to spot a potential terrorist in my classroom? Even as I type this, I wonder what that training would even look like.  Underneath the sincerity of such an ideal is a murky truth that I’m not sure we are ready to confront as a profession.

Do we suddenly look at our Muslim students more carefully now?  I am reminded of the discomfort of ordinary Muslim Londoners when they boarded trains and planes in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings.  The actions of a few people marked their experiences for a long time, in the same way that now, the fleeing of schoolgirls from a school in East London means that the movements of Muslim students suddenly becomes a matter of national debate.  How do I know if a child’s unformed thought is radicalisation or the product of the foolishness of the young that will be grown out of?

I cannot even think about the consequences of another terrorist attack on London and I am left bewildered by the dilemma of this situation. Does the quest to create a safe society necessitate the potential false criminalisation of the innocent?  I would hope that I would know the difference between a radicalised child that is dangerous to society and a misguided child who requires debate and dialogue, but I am left uneasy at the thought of having to make that decision – for the simple reason that we as teachers are standing on a line that marks society’s needs on one side and the needs of a possibly damaged child on the other.

I know I would make the sensible choice and follow the guidelines I have been given, but I worry about a ripple effect becoming a tidal wave.  Students need to trust their teachers; without this, the possibility for small, dangerous thoughts left unchecked and hidden increases the risk to us all.  We risk alienating the children that we are mandated to protect.  Nusrat Faizullah, a woman I had the privilege of knowing during my teacher training, has written about how we need to create dialogue between the communities.  She says: “What we need are approaches that are positive about people’s identities and that bring communities together, rather than drive them apart.”  Her whole article can found here.

We cannot escape the reality of our times, but more than ever, we as teachers have not only the duty to ‘Prevent’ but to debate.  We go back to FBV here.  It is a Fundamental British Value to hold fair and open dialogue in a democratic society.  That is what we want to uphold.  That is how schools can change the frontline of education to one that does not stigmatise its charges, but encourages them to discuss, to hold our own version of truth and reconciliation.

When, on July 7th, ten years ago, 52 people died, I was teaching in a school that had a large population of Muslim staff and students.  I will never forget what one student said to me.  He expressed his sadness that a terrible tragedy had occurred.  But he turned his face to mine and asked: “Will they blame us for this?”

This week, it is our duty to remember those who died in the 7/7 bombings and think of their families’ loss.  After that, we have to go to work finding ways to debate our world and the place of religion and race within it so that child – that universal, fearful child – can turn to us, rather than away from us.  And that we as Londoners can feel safe in our lovely city.  That is the real meaning of ‘prevent’.

The Last Battle: What do we do on the morning of an exam?

So tomorrow sees the first iGCSE exam. It’s an early one as far as exams go and marks the kick off for exam season 2015.

Take a moment to say good morning and good luck to your English team tomorrow first thing. If they have students sitting the exam, chances are they have spent months preparing them and so much rests on this moment, for them and for the school.

How do schools prepare for the PM exam? I have Year 11 students off timetable periods 1-4 tomorrow and I know there is nothing new to be said. Some argue there is no point, that now it is up to them. I disagree. Having the students all in one room, looking at past papers and working together on questions triggers memories of the classroom, allows talk to be centred on the process of the exam and prevents silent panickers from squirrelling themselves away to catastrophise.

We have allocated staff to particular ‘groups’ of students: the weaker inferrers, the wafflers, the miss-the-pointers. It isn’t an intervention, it is a setting of direction and a direct addressing of mistakes common to those individuals. It is a round table working party on questions they find difficult.

I have measured out this exam in analogies – ones I have mentioned before in my blogging – particularly in language analysis questions. We are looking for ‘ticking time bombs’ in the text – words and phrases that contribute to meaning. The analogy comes from film making. An image of a ticking time bomb is juxtaposed with an image of the whole building. Why? The ticking time bomb is needed to inform us about that building. It is in danger. Specific words and phrases are used to inform us about a whole text. They are the markers of meaning.

Tomorrow, I will be going back over the concept of sponge vs stone. ‘Stone’ words are words and phases that you cannot squeeze meaning out of. ‘Sponge’ is what you are looking for. Full of meaning that can be wrung out.

The point of sitting with my students tomorrow is to assure them that what we have taught is good and real. Give them breakfast, provide water. To create a sense of collective responsibility. This is what good schools do.

I am looking for the wobblers, I am looking for the over-confident. Having them there together means we can catch the shaky. But most of all I am going to be able to look them in the eye and tell them they have done well to get this far, but now is the time.

Good luck to English teams for tomorrow!

Tough Young Teachers: In Loco Parentis?

On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.

The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.

In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”

How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.

It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”

All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.

So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.

We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.

Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!

First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here

Oxbridge: Teachers are Unambitious (apparently)

Paul Murphy MP, last week, called Welsh teachers out on their lack of ambition in getting students from staBullingdon Club Cameron Boris Oxfordte schools into Oxbridge.  His statements only serve to put the proverbial icing on the cake in a week when Michael Gove has essentially called teachers lazy.  I wonder if government ministers, Conservative or otherwise, will ever run out of negative adjectives to use about teachers.  Perhaps they could stagger their verbal assaults – at least then, I’d be able to deal with them in one blog post at a time.  I am more than a little disappointed in a former Labour Secretary of State for Wales wading in on the teacher bashing.

Back to the point.  The idea that teachers are responsible for poor numbers of state school Oxbridge applicants is fascinating.  It is wearying to see this issue crop up time and time again.  Numbers of state school students applying to Oxbridge first appeared in 1852 when Royal Commissions for both Oxford and Cambridge showed that poorer students did not attend those venerable institutions.  Why are we still having this same debate?  And more to the point, why is it – 161 years after the first report on this issue – that we are now saying it is their teachers’ lack of ambition that has prevented students from applying to Oxbridge?

My experience has shown that, if anything, Oxbridge entrance is given top billing in state schools.  It is still seen as the gold standard of university admission and teachers who are sixth form tutors are more than willing to encourage students from all backgrounds to apply.  With an increasing number of Oxbridge graduates working in schools, there is a renewed focus on raising aspirations, using people who have been through that system themselves.

Many moons ago, when I was a student, there was a real sense of expectation around students who achieved those elusive top grades at A-Level.  If you didn’t think it was for you, you were still pushed to place an application to Oxford or Cambridge, especially if, like me, you were from a minority ethnic background.  I don’t remember a single teacher ever telling me that I shouldn’t apply or being particularly discouraging.  I am conscious now, however, that my teachers saying I should apply for an Oxbridge place was not really about me as an individual, it was about state school statistics on Oxbridge entrance.  I do feel quite cynical about it now.  But it still does not mean that my teachers were unambitious.

I know that teachers are important to their students’ perceptions of the world they live in, but I am more than aware, too, that my students are not passive receptacles of information given to them in school.  I certainly wasn’t, at that age. This is partly why I objected so violently to Boris Johnson’s comments about teachers being the reason that so many students hate Margaret Thatcher – apparently, we have indoctrinated them with our anti-Thatcher views.  Students are, more than ever, exposed to political and social comment.  They have access to the news in many different formats; they are more likely to communicate with each other via The Student Room, on Twitter and on Facebook.  They learn about the world they live in from many different sources.  If there is a hesitation on our students’ part to apply for those Oxbridge places, it may be because there is a collective awareness that it is hard to get in and that admission of state school students is lower than admission of students from independent schools.

If state school students are exposed constantly to the idea that Oxbridge is an elitist concept, then surely the barrier to be overleaped is that idea in itself.  It is not a teacher’s lack of ambition that prevents a student from applying to one of those universities, it is the students’ own perceptions of them.  It is certainly true that teachers I have worked with in the past eleven years have worked tirelessly to raise aspirations and to remind students that the perceived elitism is not a barrier to their ambitions.

As usual, teachers just need to keep powering through the criticism.

To change the record somewhat, it may be worth asking whether, in fact, there is too much focus on Oxbridge entrance.  Times, they are a-changing.  They have certainly moved on from when Paul Murphy himself went from a Catholic school in Pontypool to Oriel College, Oxford.  Now, the Russell Group of universities, made of 24 of the best higher education institutions, has a wealth of excellent teaching facilities.  One look at the rankings of universities according to subject makes it clear that if one is to go the ‘best’ university, it may not be Oxbridge for a particular subject.  While both Oxford and Cambridge rank highly, they do not always rank at the top of the list.  It begs the question, then, whether Paul Murphy’s comments are based on a real desire to see students receive the most cutting-edge, the most developed and most effective teaching at this level, or whether he – like many others, believes that having Oxford or Cambridge on your CV gives you an immediate advantage over anyone else.  If that is the case, he is just perpetuating an elitism that teachers have been trying to eliminate for years.

For many students, regardless of their socio-economic background, Oxbridge may not be the right environment for them to flourish.  Of course, there is evidence that many do.  However, it is also interesting to note that one of key failings of the charter school movement in the US is around college drop-out rates.  Charter schools laud their success in getting students from poor backgrounds into college, but are still trying to work out how to keep them there, particularly at Ivy League institutions.  Where my own students have visited Oxbridge, some have indeed returned with the absolute belief that they do not want to go there.  Why?  Because they do not feel like they fit in.  I realise that this idea will never change unless more state school students do apply and are admitted to Oxbridge – however, that perception of the institutions is not something that is created by teachers, it exists separately as a real barrier to students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. We can be as ambitious as you like as teachers, but that doesn’t change the fact that a rarefied environment may be off-putting from students who believe, even in this day and age, that they don’t belong there.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I note Paul Murphy’s comments and that I raise a glass to my Welsh colleagues, who will soon be working with students to fill in UCAS applications to a wide range of universities, which may or may not include Oxbridge.  Good luck all – keep your heads up.