What a flap your knighthood caused! I was at a Heads’ Conference just after it landed and really, we could hardly concentrate on budgets, absence, exams, staffing, budgets, racism, teacher shortages, budgets, sexual violence, climate emergency, budgets and political impartiality when we had your good news to discuss. When I got back, I opened Brighouse and Waters’ new 640-page About Our Schools for solace and launched into Danny Dorling’s preface. I wonder if his first line: ‘we often don’t truly value something until we’ve lost it’ was about you?
I don’t know if you saw it, Sir, but sadly, political impartiality prevents me from reporting the reaction of the shadow education secretary. I can tell you that Mr Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said head teachers and parents would be surprised to learn the news. He admitted that the pandemic would have been challenging for any education secretary but, a teacher himself, couldn’t help but observe that your tenure had been one of endless muddle and inevitable U-turns. Gosh. Me, I just don’t think we ever grasped the master plan. Am I right?
You could have helped us, though, so I expect you’ll welcome two suggestions. They’re both from our latest Teaching and Learning Newsletter which, though we say it ourselves, is pretty sharp.
The first is about using metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies by modelling your thought processes out loud. That’s when teachers explain their thinking when interpreting a text or solving a mathematical task or whatever. The best ones can simultaneously explain how it relates to bigger objectives and suchlike. You could have tried that?
The second is about producing beautiful work, as I’m sure you were frustrated by the quality of some of your outputs. It can happen to any of us, and I know I would have been. Mary Myatt, for example, talks about eliciting and celebrating work that is original, that represents the fruits of considerable labour and which is worth keeping.
She describes it as a ‘worthwhile endeavour not just for pupils, but for adults as well. It shifts the landscape, it raises the game and it means that we have to continually ask, is this the best it can be? It’s a question worth asking: What do standards actually look like when met with integrity, depth, and imagination?’ Great questions. I wonder if you might have time to reflect on them, from the back benches, or do the fireplaces’ siren calls lure you out of public service? Ah well.
Worse things than old Barton’s opprobrium happen at sea, as I’m sure you discovered, Sir G, when you were in Defence. I was musing on this these with a trainee teacher of my acquaintance, not at this school. She described a (to her) nightmare experience with year 9s which sounded OK to me for someone of her inexperience. It could have been worse, I consoled. How? How? she goggled. Well, she could have had a wasp in the room. Hymenoptera care nothing for a sassy lesson plan. Speaking of, I was nearly flattened by two enormous year 10 girls this very morning, leaping into each other’s arms to avoid ‘a really big bee’, so I know about being blown off course
However, the new tack brought me face to face with a larger youth surreptitiously blowing into a prototype water bomb-balloon affair. We dealt with that silently. I frowned, he raised an eyebrow to demonstrate he’d considered fronting it out, but I won and it went in the bin. Perhaps silence could have been a strategy for you, Sir? Less retrofitting strategy required? It can be tiring.
Indoors – it was a bit parky to stay out - I perused the breaktime hordes in the canteen. They were doing their muttering and eating thing, some reading books, others bickering, some sharing phones, some with the bacon or sausage sandwich fare that so tantalises the tastebuds at 11:00 here in SE3. Others were extracting snacks from pockets, bags, marmalade sandwiches from under hats and suchlike.
After that, mock exam-gathering at one end of the canteen while year 7 and 8 took their turn to gather at the south end to be ushered reluctantly into a singing workshop. They really didn’t want to do it, but the leader was compelling and lured them in. It's lovely to hear children in unison and even better, given the last year or so, to watch them too, laughing and gesturing despite themselves keen to respond to the big character stomping in the big boots and making them SING. One head of year stayed for two hours.
Would a song help, Sir Gavin? Gavin is derivative of the Old English Gawain, of the Green Knight fame. His quest was also tricky, if I may quote the Armitage translation?
In a strange region he scales steep slopes;
far from his friends he cuts a lonely figure.
Where he bridges a brook or wades through a waterway
ill fortune brings him face to face with a foe
so foul or fierce he is bound to use force.
So momentous are his travels among the mountains
to tell just a tenth would be a tall order.
It must have all been very tricky. How we do feel for you. If only you could have been rewarded somehow, for everything you must have wanted to do.
But what am I like? I nearly forgot where we started: you were given a knighthood!
Did you miss my letters, Sir Gavin? Send me your new address: I’m happy to oblige.