Step forward the Secretary of State and the concrete issue. Our concrete, being of a relatively up-to-date kind, is fine, but I’ve done my time in crumbling buildings and I sympathise most energetically with Heads who suddenly had to close. I taught in a room with a hole in a broken window for the whole of my first year, and in a school which had outside toilets until 1998 and sixteen rotting demountables until 2009. I once lost 13 classrooms to an arson attack. This stuff happens, but its wearing.
One might ask why? Surely we should educate our young in buildings suited to the value we place upon them as our jewels, the holders of our dreams, our single hope for a better future? Schools should be palaces – or at least as nice as Tallis’s lovely building. The problem is that our school buildings are indeed matched to the value we place upon children, nationally. Children are messy and a bit unpredictable. They’re not much economic use until they’re grown and though they complain with every breath they also take everything in their stride so everyone can ignore them. Schooling is compulsory, so its not as if we have to lure them there.
I don’t know of a nation that spends the right amount on schools, but the Children Village in Brazil was declared the world’s best building in 2018. The three Building Schools for the Future-era buildings I’ve been lucky enough to head are each lovely in their way, built when much more money was spent on design as well as building (though I did have to skill myself up on post-torsioned concrete and nickel sulphide inclusion very temporarily). It's been sad to hear lazy glib talk of ‘wacky warehouses’, as if we’ve never known what we’re doing. I wonder how many fee-paying schools were built with holey concrete?
The Secretary of State gives the impression of being a practical woman. It is annoying to find yourself at the top of a heap that appears to have let something (literally) fall. It's embarrassing to be caught out venting on a matter that would best be kept between you and the dog. It happened to me – ahem – recently. But honestly? Getting a 95% return on a questionnaire should give you enough to go on. The other 5% might have been places like us, Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schools where you have to escalate any inquiry through Dante’s nine circles of hell before you can fill a form in. Cursing won’t alter the fact that everything in education needs more money and every chicken comes home to roost in the end. They’d better be careful which roof they land on.
Filling further inches with the lucky appearance of the new Chief Inspector of Schools designate, Martyn Oliver: I met him at a dinner last year and he seems a nice chap. He’s going to try to keep his own roost in the north, which is good too. I hope he values the considerable work Ofsted have done on curriculum and doesn’t revert to the easy but damaging single focus on outcomes. Despite considerable experience, I hope he isn’t dogmatic about the way to run a school, a real problem with the last ex-head who held the golden clipboard. No, my problem with Sir Martyn is purely linguistic. It is his claim, at the Select Committee, that he would ‘walk the walk’.
This stuff has been getting on my nerves for a bit. Leaders are prone to say they ‘walk the talk’, demonstrating that they practice what they preach. Fair enough, but now its amped up to ‘walking the walk’ which doesn’t shed any light. What walk? How far? To where? Why? Does it mean that people have actually done the job that they’re supervising? But leadership isn’t just about solving practical problems. It needs vision, and articulacy. If you spend your life with your sleeves rolled up, when do you think?
Am I worried or just irascible? Time will tell.
No more time for that as the cricket thing’s re-emerged as a tea-stained press cutting under last year’s School Plan. It seems I was gripped by an article about Bazball which told me about playing test cricket as though losing doesn’t matter much. Cricketers have apparently been encouraged to play as if they enjoyed it, without the fear of failure, remembering that it’s a game and that it ought to be fun. Instigators Stokes and McCullum (whom I wouldn’t know if they presented me with The Ashes) asked players ‘what if you don’t mind about losing, so long as you are playing your own style’.
I’m not going to make an obvious and worthless point about Ofsted here. Children are too important to allow every school and teacher to do as they please, cheerfully failing them but having a great time. We have to have a shared and clear vision and some assessment of success against it. But we need to get out from under the fear of failure, and allow everyone in schools to think and to enjoy it a bit more. Is Mazball at Ofsted Towers too much to hope?
Happily seaworthy, we’ve launched the good ship Tallis cheerily this week. I hope we’ll enjoy the voyage for the next 38. I’ll keep you informed.