Saturday, March 05, 2016

Book Review: Staying A Head

Below is the review of ViV Grant’s book ‘Staying A Head’ about overcoming the stresses of school leadership. The book identifies key strategies that school leaders must adopt if they are to rise successfully above the challenges of their roles and maintain their ability to lead and inspire others. This review appeared first in the February 2016 edition of ‘Governing Matters’ the NGA's membership magazine.
Staying a Head by Viv Grant

To be appointed as a headteacher the successful candidate will have gone through an often rigorous, gruelling process. Once appointed the pressures can be so immense that many heads question how it is possible to remain in post. How often do governors hear a headteacher talk about how lonely it can be at the top? One of today’s many challenges facing school governing bodies is how to ensure that their headteacher is properly supported. An even bigger challenge is exactly what can be done to help create an environment that encourages headteachers stay being headteachers.

Viv Grant’s excellent book ‘Staying A Head’ is a hands-on guide that offers many practical tips, ideas and strategies that governors would be wise to become familiar with. A former headteacher herself Viv has a sound understating of the demands placed on the current generation of school leaders. She writes with compassion, realism and authenticity. The book is easy to engage with and outlines some sensible suggestions as to how school leaders need to have greater ‘self-knowledge’, external advice and support and how coaching can provide this.

There are two chapters that governors may be particularly interested in reading. Chapter two looks at how to overcome the loneliness of being at the top of an organisiation and has a section that focuses on how some types of support can increase a leader’s sense of isolation. A governing body that is charactersised by low trust/high accountability relationships with senior leaders can lead to headteachers deriving little ownership or satisfaction from their role. Chapter eight looks at how to bring the best out of others and offers some sound advice in regard to how to devise a performance management system that harnesses the principles of effective coaching.

Governing bodies have an important challenge role in holding school leaders to account for outcomes for children. They also have a duty of care to the staff in the school, a duty that is all too often ill-defined and at times perfunctory and tokenistic. Grant’s new book can help governors gain an insight to the stresses faced by the modern headteacher but more importantly what can be done to help reduce them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Class does matter in modern Britain

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer – ‘no sh*t Sherlock’, as my eldest daughter might say!

Apparently over a third of voters see the Conservatives as the party of the upper classes. So what? Does class really matter anymore? Can it really influence the way people vote? The simple answer to both questions is yes. Whether we like it or not, class still matters in this country and could well influence the outcome of the 2020 election.

Back in 2008 Labour's shambolic "Tory toff" campaign prompted a plethora of articles and comment about whether class was still a major issue in British politics. The truth is that Britain remains a nation that is still dominated by class division. In 2013 in an ICM poll for the Guardian, 89% of those surveyed thought that people are still judged by their class – with almost half saying that it still counts for "a lot". Over 50% of people said that class, not ability, greatly affects the way they are seen.

The very, very sad truth about modern Britain is that social mobility has decreased in the past 30 years; in fact the modern British middle classes are operating what is, in effect, a closed shop. For example our top universities are still, in the main, the preserve of a rich, well-connected elite. You may well remember the furore a few years ago when Bristol University was accused of gross discrimination and unfairness — spurred on by several influential columnists and leader writers — for introducing a "fairer" criterion for admissions that would benefit pupils from poorer backgrounds.

Often the real reasons why many left-leaning journalists and politicians end up sending their sons and daughters to fee-paying schools are based not on the raw results of the local state schools, but on a desire to ensure that their children have access to what the local comprehensive cannot provide: privilege, advantage and the opportunity to network. British public schools have always been a production line of the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, can raise their fees steadily, select their pupils, enjoy a growing endowment income from their benefactors, and offer some of the most impressive sporting and extracurricular activities in the country.

What's more, they now recruit from a middle class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage: parents who become part of the problem, rather than seek to be part of the solution. I often hear some of my friends and "comrades" attempting to ease their consciences by announcing that the local comprehensive is simply not good enough and they have to go private in the name of parental responsibility.

Sometimes I cannot help but feel that the perpetuation of class divisions in Britain really is part of a liberal conspiracy. It seems clear to me that those who do have influence in our society have such a high stake in the current order that they will seek to mobilise and organise in order to protect it. It must surely be true, for example, that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs.

Suspicion of the wealthy, the privileged and of the upper classes is hardwired into the DNA of those who espouse left-leaning ideas and policies. Why? Because most believe that the inevitable consequence of a politics that espouses equity and fairness is that it will give comfort to the afflicted and end up afflicting the comfortable. For example the majority of ordinary people watch in disbelief when bankers attempt to paint themselves as noble and public spirited by limiting their annual bonus to "only" a million pounds. What people want, demand almost, is that the super-rich should pay more, and that those that got us into this mess should shoulder the responsibility for getting us out of it.

A concerted Labour-led campaign that seeks to portray the Tories as the party of the elite, a party out of touch with the needs and aspirations of ordinary families on low or moderate incomes could well resonate with the wider electorate.

If Labour is to make any breakthrough in the next few years its best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done, not in defending the status quo but rather in campaigning against the ugly realities of health and education inequalities and showing why these warrant further state action.

Spotlight: If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.

Last night my wife and I went to see the new film “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation in 2002 into the priest paedophilia scandals and subsequent cover-ups within the Catholic Church. It is a film that needed to be made, has been done well and deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.

The film makes for some very uncomfortable viewing at times but for me the real essence of the story is about betrayal and in particular the betrayal of trust between the laity and the ordained. Trust is a social practice. Humans are social beings who swim in an ocean of trust. What happens when this ocean begins to drain away is that we become sceptical, often cynical and perhaps even a little paranoid. Some of the most disturbing parts of the film relate to the systematic attempts by US bishops to control information, prevent public disclosure and silence dissent. Some of the most heart-wrenching testimonies from abuse victims relate to their reports of having nowhere to turn when their priest was part of the problem and of their attempts to engage others within the church that were ignored or rebuffed. Similarly, the laity has no formal recourse when their pastors are insensitive or incompetent. What has been become crystal clear in recent years is that many of the mistakes and cover-ups, involving the abuse of children by priests, have been made by bishops.

The problem is that those who want to do something to help to move things on, namely the laity and some clergy, have no real vehicle for doing so. Despite the long-ingrained tendency of lay men and women to defer to the hierarchy, lay people have both the right and the responsibility to make their voices heard. Many of them are now tragically aware of the consequences that follow from the concentration and misuse of power and lay deference to hierarchical authority.

What the film highlights above all is the willingness of good people to ‘turn a blind eye’ and to fail to acknowledge that the ‘system’ was the problem and not the solution. There is a line early on in the film that states ‘it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.’ We are all under the spotlight and we all have to accept some responsibility for the sins of the fathers!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Student fees and teachers: why Labour should be more radical

Teaching in some of our most challenging schools is not easy. Despite the rhetoric, in some parts of Britain there is a huge divide between the haves and have-nots. One by-product of the growing inequality that has been all too evident in the past 20 years is the despondency and sense of worthlessness that those at the bottom feel as even modest lifestyles have moved out of reach. The lack of self-worth of individuals and communities, the sense of despair, of alienation and powerlessness also need to be addressed. Without doubt, many of Britain's schools and teachers have been key players in attempting to tackle many of these symptoms.

Schools can, and often do, play a major role in helping to improve the life chances of our young people. It is our schools that are often agents for change in their local community, it is our schools that are increasingly agents for increased social mobility. But there is a problem. Many of our teachers, like others working in the public-sector, are often de-motivated, disaffected, poorly paid and working in wholly unsatisfactory conditions. It is no surprise therefore that both the recruitment and the retention of teachers is a huge and growing problem. This is particularly the case in inner-city areas where a significant number of schools serve communities that are characterised by high levels of unemployment, low earnings and higher than average numbers of single parents.

Teaching in these schools is more difficult than it is in others, but - and this point is crucial - they are the very schools that need the most able, the most competent and the most caring teachers. At present, teachers who "choose" to work in these types of schools are rewarded by enormous stress, league tables that imply "low" performance is the same as "poor" performance and conditions of service that have not changed (that means not improved) for the last 50 years.
It is in this context that the coalition government introduced fees that could well result in many students accruing debts of up to £30,000+ by the time they graduate. What effect will this have on teacher recruitment in five to 10 years time? What hope for the most "challenged" schools in recruiting the well qualified, the motivated and the inspirational?

Therefore, if the next Labour government is to stave off massive shortfalls in teacher recruitment, if it is to continue too seek to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation then it should seriously consider adopting a manifesto commitment that would write off the debts of all new teachers who choose to work in our most "challenged" schools. For example: if a student graduates with a £30,000 debt it could be written off at the rate of £3,000 per year over a 10-year period (so helping to secure retention rates).

If we are to continue to reduce both the reasons for and effects of social exclusion, then the role currently played by our schools and teachers must not be underestimated. If steps are not taken to remove the barriers that prevent good graduates from applying to become teachers, let alone staying for more than a couple of years, then the vicious circle that haunts the urban poor will remain - if not widen. Expand the numbers going on to university by all means and give the HE sector the additional funding it desperately needs, but provide all the incentives possible in order to get our brightest and best working with our most desperate and disadvantaged.

Labour must defend the poor and rediscover its moral compass

What is the Labour Party for? What is a Labour government for? Too often I get the impression that those on the right wing of the party want future Labour Ministers to be technocrats and administrators, competent but uninspiring. On the left they appear to prefer preachers to Generals, rhetoric not the hard slog of governing.

The debate surrounding the abolition of tax credits offers the labour party the chance to rediscover its mission and purpose. The opposition to the taking away tax credits should be led by Labour MPs and Peers on the grounds of morality and fairness. The Tories can seek to defend the unjust distribution of goods and services whereby a relative minority of wealthy groups and ruling classes use their power and influence to perpetuate macro-economic and political structures which exploit the labour and lives of the vast majority of the this country's population.

Politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution can be a powerful force for change. At home and abroad it is time for Labour to make a preferential option for the poor. It is time to take sides and end the political cross-dressing of the 1990s. As a political party it is time for us to be clear about who we are, who we were and what we want to become.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Trident renewal? No thank you

One of the most interesting aspects of the summer Leaders’ debates was the discussion about the need for the renewal of Trident. As someone who served in the armed forces (RAF for 7 years) I personally believe that Labour should think again about its support for the renewal of Trident and that the scrapping of Trident could end up being a vote winner and not a vote loser. In the recent past even some of the military’s ‘top brass’ have expressed their 'deep concern' about the need for a Trident replacement with the former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Gutherie, has argued that a cheaper option to Trident should be considered, particularly as Britain strives for a world without nuclear weapons.

In the eighties and nineties, when the Polaris and its successor the Trident nuclear strategic defence system was brought into operation, its purpose was unambiguous. The missiles were targeted against the principal cities of the USSR, in order to deter an attack through the threat of an overwhelming response. It is probably the case that the balance of MAD (mutually assured destruction) did indeed prevent the cold war between the western and eastern blocs from breaking out into open warfare. However, the world has changed. In June 2006 the House of Commons Defence Select Committee published its report 'The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent'. It pointed out that deterrence against potential aggression might take various forms: economic, diplomatic, or through conventional forces. "The UK will need to examine whether the concept of nuclear deterrence remains useful in the current strategic environment." (para.55). It is interesting to note that in 2006 the Ministry of Defence refused to take part in the proceedings of the Select Committee, and the report stated "We believe that it is essential that, before making any decisions on the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent, the MOD should explain its understanding of the purpose and continuing relevance of nuclear deterrence." (para.56).

While the claim is that Britain must have its own independent deterrent, the truth is that as long as the UK uses Trident missiles as the delivery vehicle for its warheads, the system is hardly independent. There is a huge difference between being a nuclear power that has independence of acquisition as opposed to independence of operation. In 2015 it is still unclear as to whether Britain has independence of acquisition or whether it possesses operational independence or not.

The truth is renewing Trident will be massively expensive and militarily pointless as it will not deter terrorists or nuclear blackmailers and will make it far harder for Britain to encourage nuclear disarmament around the globe.

What about the politics of all this - would a nuclear disarmament policy be politically damaging to Labour? A poll last year clearly showed – by a margin of 58 to 35 per cent - that the public wants Britain to scrap the Trident nuclear missile system. Such a policy would not necessarily lead to a charge of being soft on defence, since a significant proportion of the saved resource could and should be devoted on enhanced expenditure on conventional forces serving in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

In my view, be it on military, political, economic, legal or ethical grounds, the case for the renewal of Trident lacks credibility. Labour - my party - should think again

Sunday, September 13, 2015

I did not vote for Corbyn but I will certainly campaign for him now he is Leader

Jeremy Corbyn won the election for Labour’s new leader and won it convincingly. He also won via a campaign that focused on issues not personalities on substance and not style.

He was not my choice for leader but I respect the decision of the membership and advise those who feel that they cannot accept the outcome to put up or shut up, to work to help achieve a Labour government or leave.

It took the Conservative party two lost elections before enough people were willing to back meaningful change. If Labour really is serious about getting swiftly back into government then it cannot afford to go through a long, painful and potentially damaging process of internal dissension. The truth is that many Labour members and supporters will have opposing interpretations of why we lost in 2010 and again in 2015 or about the direction we now need to take if we are to regain much of our lost support. Some will want the party to be more passionately principled whilst others will stress the need for sensible pragmatism. There will be calls for the new leader to champion the state whilst at the same time allowing market forces to operate with minimal impunity; to attack the causes of poverty but to also be the party that promotes aspiration. The longer these conflicting priorities are debated and discussed the longer we are likely to spend in opposition. Our core message should be simple and unambiguous: our values have not changed and our mission as a party is a clear today as it was a century ago – we really are stronger as a nation when we come together than we can ever be apart.

To his credit Corbyn recognises that members want to be heard and they want to be listened to. Perhaps even more important though is the need for the party to be more proactive in consulting and engaging local communities. It is only when local parties reach out and get involved in their communities that people will see Labour politics as a way of helping them deal with their problems and realising their hopes for a better future.

A renewed Labour party should be the natural place for people to turn to when they want to change things because a party that gets things done locally – and nationally – is a party that will keep winning elections. A renewed labour party will need to reflect the aspirations of ordinary people but it will also need to be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. The forces of conservatism are not confined to our new coalition government, they exist within our own party and it will be up to those of us who believe passionately in the core values of our movement to take on the cynics and the pessimists within our own ranks, to become the change we want to see – be it in our party or in our country.

Who we are is who we were. Labour's core values can and must inform any future 'rebranding' of the party but we should not be afraid to do things differently. New Labour may well be over but Labour renewed is alive with possibility.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Labour needs to be tactical as well as strategic

If Labour is to have any chance of winning in 2020 then having a credible Leader and a sound, well thought through political strategy will be vitally important but some good old fashioned localised tactics are also essential. In 2010 and 2015 the Tories won a number of seats by applying some effective local tactics. To Labour needs to get back to being more tactically aware and astute.
In order to win or retain marginal seats in 2020:

CLPs must be allowed to select as early as possible to allow candidates to become active, develop local campaign issues, recruit new members and build a supporters' network

PPCs should adopt a policy of 'extreme 'localism' - does your hospital need to charge for parking? What is policing like in particular wards? Are there car parking issues on a particular street? They should be encouraged to focus a campaign on local community issues as much large macro issues.

Adopt a policy of positive campaigning - PPCs should resist the temptation to slag off their opponents and should focus on issues and not personalities

Hard working people like hard working candidates - PPCs should regularly provide local people with evidence of their endeavours and of the impact they have had and are having.

There must be no 'no-go' areas of the constituency in terms of canvassing and campaigning.

Monday, June 08, 2015

How Labour can be bolder

'At our best when at our boldest' - the words of one Tony Blair to Labour's annual conference in 2002. Labour remains - despite the cynics who argue otherwise - a centre-left party, not a centre-right one. Let's not forget that the party's recent centre-left credentials are impressive: the introduction of the minimum wage, the abolition of the assisted places scheme and the hereditary principle in the Lords, huge investment in public services, debt cancellation for the poorest countries, civil partnerships etc, etc. The problem today is that the party has become 'more of a machine than a movement'  to quote Stella Creasy, it has been fixated on being competent but not radical, managerial but not inspirational.
So to help us start thinking about what might a 'bolder' agenda look like I have come up with the following:
  1. Lower the voting age to 16
  2. Add 1% to all NI contributions and call it NHS +1
  3. Introduce PR (AVS) for all parliamentary and council elections
  4. Abolish the House of Lords, create a new, second chamber and move it to Manchester
  5. Create a 'People's Bank' with branches on every High St and in every village and call it…The Post Office!