The healing power of Restorative Justice


In Louise Tickle’s powerful article in The Guardian this week here, she looks closely at the approach to using Restorative Justice in schools. The article reflects on the number of children who have been permanently excluded across Gloucestershire, and across the UK, but then considers the impact of the technique of Restorative Justice on shifting the behaviour culture in our schools. It is a technique worth exploring.

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Christmas at the Gloucester Royal


At the start of shift 3 she hands me a tea,
Just half a sugar. Like I like it now.
In the day room. Like a regular.
A too-familiar welcome for a place
We want to leave. While somewhere in the quiet,
Subterranean darkness, a registrar
Half my age, is cutting up my perfectly-shaped boy.

As I wait for the theatre curtain to fall,
Electric-yellow Nora Virus signs
Blare at me: hands off. Place of life and death.
Earlier, he, stockinged feet dangling,
Was held down with guy ropes;
Intravenous drips, translucent tubes,
The perfect paraphernalia of pain relief.
Inert and pinned, like Gulliver on the rocks.
The perfect Lilliputian saline solution. 

No scheduled ops on Christmas Eve. Time yawns
In the stifled room, reaching across
Empty steel-white beds.
Sounds of shuffling frames and sandled feet,
Porters chat and cackle,
Christmas radio wafts half-hearted jollity.
Unreal. In this real world of pain. Where,
Two nurses sit with a grizzled, pyjama-ed, vacant soul
Unstitch his attachments and hold his hand.
Look into his eyes, draw him from bed to chair
The first step of a long chain home
Into sheltered housing. He refuses.
Two green uniforms stand tall, oversee, frown,
He opens his eyes, moans, then roars,
Finally subdues into sobs. They stretcher him
Away as he flays, as his bagged ID and papers
Slip to the floor. 

And all the while the nurses’ touch,
Graceful, instinctive; eyes, hands, names.
I marvel at its gentle steely resolve.
This will happen. But we will match it with love.
Hard to watch such quiet dignity, it quite unmans me
And I look away. Squirm and squeak
In the shiny green visitors’ chair. 

Last nght, the Registrar sat on my boy’s bed.
First names. Like family.
She summoned an air
Of precision. Definition.
We’d needed for hours. Within minutes
She is the one I want to open him up.
But it’s a tricky diagnosis and even she
Can’t be certain. She retreated
To her flickering screen; ever the scientist,
Sifting and scanning the data,
Assessing the damage:
Pulse rate, Diastolic pressure, temperature,
Bloods, cannula, abdominal pain.
Weighing them
In her small and pinkly-washed hands.

Despite my rocky steady confidence in her
It is the post-op sight of my little boy
In an oxygen mask at midnight
Which unmasks me. The anaesthetist
Touches my arm to reassure.
The spaceship bleep and hum
Only sound in the cavernous, cathedral-dark.
It’s quiet and prayerful down here,
His tiny damp puffs of breath
Like a consecrated mist.
Blessed incense. 

Christmas Day clicks round. I stay for just a little longer
Because I need to rest my eyes on his face.
Marvel at this Christmas miracle.
I want to throw the window up
And lean bodily forward screaming to the world.
Call for a Christmas goose,
He is alive! It’s Christmas Day!
But I’m English.
And instead I drive home steadily.
Eyeing the dark road for surprised deer and sudden fox.

‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ – The Black Mountains


Sharp-angled sunshine catches up with us
On Hay Bluff, racing over bracken bent
By showers stacking up against the dark
And brooding layers of the Black Mountains.
My boy and I we laugh along the ridge,
Gaze across the peak of Lord Hereford’s Knob,
And giggle at the future insults we will trade.

We slide down mossy slopes on green-stained arses.
A pair of red kites, picked out by low light
Skate across the fawn, heather-line of landscape.
We stroll the last few miles down to the car
Elbows and shoulders bump happily into each other.
And later, after cafe doughnuts and hot chocolate
We eavesdrop into Hay-on-Wye at soft twilight.
Yellow-lit windows, cold stone-air and mouldy books.
Boden-London families, Barber-clad old men,
Carved pumpkins and candles, shining shops
A touch of otherworldliness, as he
Weighs a fountain pen he likes the look of,
In the new old-fashioned stationers.

And walking to the car he holds my hand
Although he knows he’s too old, we smile together.
A day shared. In the car he blasts the heating,
Teases me at something I said, and all the way home
I become Lord Hereford for the day. 



The Slingshot – talent or practise?


Jack Morris is a good friend of my son and plays cricket in Gloucester Academy sports hall on a Thursday night with the County squad. He says it is the bounciest surface he’s ever played on. He is only 16, but has strong arms and shoulders, a steady eye and his timing of the ball is sensational. He hits it a very long way and when he hits it, it stays hit. Jack plays against my son and they play for rival teams. Sam bowls and Jack bats. Jack’s master plan is to completely dominate Sam’s bowling and intimidate him so he wilts, bowls a loose delivery and then Jack crashes everything to the boundary. Sam’s tactic is to bowl an in-swinging yorker which ducks into his crease, catches him unawares and smashes the stumps out of the ground. Despite this competitive edge, strangely they still like each other. But in my mind Jack is currently ahead. I have heard spectators watch Jack and say things like “Wow, what a talented lad, I wish I had that gift”. They don’t know what I have seen over the last few years.

Deliberate Practice: 
Jack’s Dad has a kind of dog-ballthrower designed for rock-hard cricket balls, and for the last 9 years he has used it to hurl these at his beloved son at ridiculous speeds. This piece of kit is actually called a sidearm. I call it a slingshot because when they bowl it at me at 80mph it may as well be little shepherd David firing a slingshot at hairy Goliath’s forehead. You hold the slingshot high above your head and whip it down the pitch towards the batsman, who wears all the protective gear (including helmet) you could imagine. Cricket is a dangerous game. In some practice sessions Jack’s Dad hurls down 200 balls down at his son. Using the sidearm means that the delivery is near perfect, and as a batsman you can predict where it will come and practice that specific shot. The on-drive. The hook. The cut. Each one repeated over and over again. 20 or 30 times each.  All of which means when you are out in the middle of a real match when that ball comes down from the real bowler into that same position, your eye adjusts, your shoulders rock into position and then you cannot fail.

 slingshot 2

Ration of praise and feedback: 
I watched the first 20 minutes of their training with a coaching company called Gecko this Friday. I wanted to learn what it was about the coaching that the boys were enjoying so much and learning from. After all, it’s not school – they don’t have to be there. There must be something magical happening. I counted 95 balls hurled from the bowling machine at 65 mph in the first 15 minutes. I listened to what the coaches actually said. This was what I heard: “Good shape Jack, nice drive Sam, good head position Jack, nice upright body position Sam, well left Jack, lovely cover drive Jack, nice shot, solid defence Sam, great shot Jack, top shot, good leave Sam, don’t play that one it’s too far away from your body, shot! Wrong shot for the ball, good straight drive Jack, great drive Sam, beautiful hit Jack, keep watching the ball, OK come over here we need to look at this one together”. So the first 18 shots yielded verbal feedback each time, 16 specific praise, 2 general praise. 15 specific positive praise and 3 specific feedback to improve. That’s about a five to one ratio, but it is the focus of the feedback which strikes me as part of the real success. Also notice the use of names almost every time and finally physically changing positions which leads to the individual summing up element of coaching. I wonder how much of my own teaching and my parenting reflects this level of specific positivity.

slingshot 3

Accelerate the progress: 
65mph on a full size pitch is one thing at the age of 15 or 16. When I watched I did a double take: both boys were asked to bat one third of the way up a 22 yard wicket, but with the same bowling speed. This dramatically reduced reaction time, meaning it was great practice for much quicker bowling. The boys quickly adapted to these new conditions although they played and missed more often. When they returned to full length pitch they were so much more controlled and relaxed in the shape of their shots, because they had more time. By changing the rules, they will become better, more proficient batsmen. In teaching we often create an artificial environment which controls some variables but allows students to focus on others. Allowing less time for a practice exam answer paring down our response-time until we can do it, and then building time back in should help students to relax in the way they respond

Know the language: 
It really helps. Too many of our students lack the basic terminology to build confidence in their subjects. Boys especially, which is ironic when you listen to their knowledge and articulation of Match of the Day, Play Station, bikes, new kit and technology. When I showed a photo of one of the boys playing a defensive shot to a friend Ruth who is herself a brilliant teacher and a Head of English, she showed her husband whose response showed typical male economy of (but precision with) language: “textbook orthodox defence” was all he said. Her response: “Ian, I have no idea what that means!”

Surround yourself with a peer group of winners: 
Friday night means best night of the week for Sam who goes off with his mates Jack, Joel and Tom. They are all good players, having a great time and playing serious cricket with adults. They are surrounded with high quality coaching and this combination – friends and great teaching is a toxic mixture. The best schools are unashamedly aspirational for their children and through role-modelling and close focus on areas to improve, this develops over time a special culture. What is that culture? It is not complicated: what gets results is commitment, great coaching and responding to clear feedback. Schools who articulate exactly what it is that they value and what they focus on will always get the right outcome: happy youngsters who come back for more.

slingshot 6

Eat, sleep and breathe it: 
Becoming obsessive can be good! Great players sleep with their bats when they are young! They cruise through youtube clips of great shots and coaching tips. They are preoccupied with new kit.  Jack is a little like this, and part of me thinks he should be really good. Anybody who spends that amount of time on their passion deserves to be brilliant. It is the embodiment of the 10 000 hours routine.

slingshot 7

Know the season: This is winter nets season. In schools it is the season when the graft is done. It is when teachers really begin to understand students’ strengths and weaknesses and plan tasks accordingly. It is when students apply themselves to developing great note-taking skills, building great books and folders. There will come a time when the nets, sports halls and kit-bags are substituted for summer outdoors and in each match there is one chance to transfer what you have inwardly learnt, what has become second nature over the winter, out into the middle. Then the focus of the coaching will change, there will be an adjustment toward fine-tuning the effectiveness of shots, of looking more closely at the fielding positions and seeking out the gaps. In school this looks like exam-technique, the importance of spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar, using quotes more effectively to develop your argument, or just the sheer physical mechanism of writing practice, handwriting and pen-grip. However, these finishing school techniques are no substitute for the winter-slog. Although no-one can guarantee success in terms of big runs, there will always be a direct correlation between the regularity and intensity of winter nets practice and the scores under the sun in June and July. Likewise with summer exams and results.

slinsghot 11 

Gegenpressing: While the rest of the world were enjoying England collapse in the rugby world cup, I’ve been tracking the two sports we in England can actually play. A few weeks ago the England skipper Alistair Cook scored 263 against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. He beat Sir Len Hutton’s record-longest innings for England of 797 minutes during his 364 against Australia at The Oval, 1938. Cook’s knock is now the third-longest in Test history, behind Gary Kirsten and Hanif Mohammad, who occupies top spot. It was a long innings, no great guns, no big shots. Lots of sweat under a tropical sun. Meticulous application and the reward of years of hard practice. And then there is the introduction of Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s new German manager. He arrived with feverish adulation from proud Liverpool fans, on the back of his reputation at Borussia Dortmund. And not because he plans to buy a silver purse of strikers. He is best known for ‘gegenpressing’, a sort of relentless chasing down the ball, a never-giving-up grit and determination. It is not pretty. Neither Cook’s innings nor Klopp’s managerial style will win prizes for flair. But this gutsy, gritty, don’t give up approach is a model of the ingredients to success, in sport or in school.

So for students and parents:
It’s the winter nets season – time for getting your books and notes in order. Every after school session is another hurdle towards the finish line. Its not hoping that you will get the grades…it is getting to a place (through practice and more practice) where you cannot possibly fail.

Parents let’s think about our feedback. Play the long game – every conversation is an investment in the next conversation – keep it positive! Gegenpressing isn’t pretty – sometimes parenting is just about making sure your child is in the right place to learn!

And finally for teachers/support staff: 
Let’s think about our feedback. The Ruth I mentioned is one of the best teachers I have worked with. She inspires, she works really hard to prepare well-crafted lessons and gives her students brilliant, focused feedback. But what distinguishes her from many really strong teachers is that when she senses one of her students beginning to fall behind, that is when she steps up and ensures that everyone in the building knows that we all need to support and challenge that child. She is a terrier with a heart. She will not let children fall behind. This is our challenge.



Kindness – Why phones don’t work, and why disruption-free classrooms do


“What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller – The One Thing)

Some of the reading I have been doing recently and some of the visits to schools over the past few months (Nova Hreod in Swindon; Magna in Poole and Hayes School in Bromley) have helped me to simplify things and strip back. It may seem counter-intuitive to be writing about kindness while simultaneously introducing tougher rules around disruption and mobile phones. But it feels right. Less ‘cruel to be kind’, and more ‘tough love’. The next step of the improvement curve.

School leaders want to create happy schools, where young children and older students are entirely comfortable and happy knowing they will work hard, be treated well and not have their learning disrupted. Where they will not be constantly reminded of the pernicious presence of phones in their lives. We want teachers to know that they will be able to deliver the most stimulating lessons, and be able to enjoy teaching, instead of spending time and energy managing distracting behaviour, or the impact of mobile phones. We want to see middle & senior leaders able to focus on supporting students making more progress and not waste time on distraction. We want all of us as parents to be able to have absolute confidence that we send our child to a disruption-free school. And ideally we want that school to feel kind. Where adults are focused, helpful, hard-working, get the best out of our children. Where they and the school feel ‘kind’.

Two things are clear to me: Firstly, even the smallest number of students who affect the learning of others is not on, and secondly, however you dress it up, mobile phones have a negative impact on concentration and learning, for children, young people and often for adults. For this reason we have developed our rules to address this.

One of the first concepts to consider is that however things have improved, we have not reached our destination. However good we are, it’s probably not good enough yet:

We have arrived at the conclusion that if we wish to fulfil our potential as individuals and organisations, we must redefine failure. Failure is a means – sometimes the only means – of learning, progressing and becoming more creative. This is a hallmark of science, where errors point to how theories can be reformed: of sport where practice could be defined as the willingness to clock up well-calibrated mistakes; of aviation where every accident is harnessed as a means of driving system safety. Failure is rich in learning opportunities. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.” Matthew Syed: Black Box Thinking

So let’s assume that some things are not correct and let’s improve them. Start with intentional design – with the end in mind. If we want a school which embodies ‘kindness’ for instance, and where ‘quieter’ students receive more attention – then we need to create the conditions which will achieve that. We need a behaviour system which is unambiguous so that more gentle characters can benefit from more attention in our schools, instead of louder or more challenging students attracting teacher attention. Where teachers can demonstrate greater kindness (because the ethos is so strong) and where students are taught how to model kindness – for instance through teachers giving students more opportunities to show appreciation and gratitude.

‘Black Box Thinking’ begins with the premise that in the past we have got things wrong. Looking at how a growing number of schools are now successfully eliminating disruption, it feels as if for years we have been watching schools allow poor behaviour get in the way of developing a great culture and ethos. By being blindly ‘inclusive’ schools have erred on the side of the disrupters and failed to stand up for the rights of the silent, cowed majority. Through a more robust approach (backed by an ambitious curriculum and principled leadership) students appreciate that adults should be in charge, that authority is not inherently bad, and the result can be a superb experience for children. 

No excuses discipline changes lives. The story of educating Essex and educating Yorkshire is often the same. One charming but unruly pupil, often from a troubled home, disrupting the learning of the other 30. You can’t help but sympathise. However we must also sympathise with the other 30, who listen attentively in lessons, who do their homework and who really just want to get on and learn. They are the silent majority in Britain schools. To compound matters further the effects of poor behaviour are probably most damaging in schools whether pupils are poor. These children are doubly disadvantaged.” The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers – The Michaela Way

 Challenging and inspiring stuff from the Michaela mob. They are of course not alone (although some of their evangelical writing may seem to suggest so). Many schools are now taking a clear and unequivocal approach to getting poor behaviour out of the classroom. This ‘binary’ approach, sometimes known as ‘Ready to Learn’ is being used to great effect in schools across the country, often accompanied with rapid improvement. In order to eliminate disruption to learning at GA, we have introduced a very simple ‘one warning’ system in class. When reprimanding a student about a disruption to the learning of others, the teacher will write their name on the board and briefly explain the reason. Any further disruption will result in the student moving to work in isolation, with no arguments. Students will have to meet the teacher to restore at the end of the day, which is part of our restorative ethos, and of course students who need greater ‘inclusion’ support to manage the new system will get it. But clearly this will mean that all of our classrooms will be calm, positive and disruption-free. It has already had a massive impact.

Our approach to mobile phones & wires is similarly straightforward – as soon as students are in the school building these are to be switched off and kept away in bags or jackets, and they are not to be seen or heard at any time in school. We have discussed with students the reasons we are changing our rule, and they include:

The myth of multitasking:


(image: from Gary Keller – The One Thing)

We believe that removing phones will help students concentrate, & will boost academic performance. According to many studies here and in the USA, when schools ban students from using phones in school, grades improve. Most of the highest performing schools (and therefore many of the highest performing students) work in schools where phones must not be seen or heard. Because students are more attentive in class, their work quality and exam scores ultimately improve. There is no temptation to always check for messages, or indulge in silent, off-task conversations. It cuts down on screen time – which as a parent is always good. It reduces cyberbullying – while social networking is great, there is a wide and grey area which can quickly descend into online bullying. Teenagers complain to staff in all schools across the country about receiving hurtful online messages. Policing such behaviour in the evenings is tough enough for parents, so let’s reduce this by preventing students from using social media during the school day. The consequences of this kind of bullying take up the time of pastoral team up and down the country, who should be focused on helping young people overcome barriers to achieve. The main reason that parents advocate for their children having phones, is that they want to be able to reach them in case of an emergency, but all schools have key staff who can act on emergency calls during the school day. Finally, at any time there can be circa £500K worth of phones and contracts swilling in our school systems, which can be lost, get broken or may even be stolen. Schools cannot take responsibility for this and dealing with all of this takes up huge amounts of time for senior leaders in schools, which should be directed to helping children make better progress.

Like all thoughtful and rational changes, this has taken place over a period of weeks, where we have talked to students in assemblies and listened to them in groups, and considered together how to make this work and who it will help. What has been fantastic has been the enormously positive response from young people towards both changes within the first two weeks.  The first bit of feedback I received was from a tutor whose class had received a record number of outstanding behaviour scores on the first day of the new system. Now that speaks for itself! Feedback from teaching assistants is a sense of real calm. Feedback from children has been that they like it. Guess what: classrooms where you cannot disrupt or argue and where phones are not a concentration-menace are great, peaceful, positive places in which to learn. Funny that. And one of the best bits has been seeing children talking, making proper eye contact at break and lunch. Smiling.

We believe that these kind of positive, restorative changes will bring attention to more of the students who have missed it in the past. They will also probably encourage teachers to enjoy their job even more, stay in the profession and remain full of the passion that brought them into the job. Which has to be great for our kids. Ultimately the purpose is to allow us to bring greater kindness, calmness and more focused help to our children who really need and deserve it. Which is exactly what we want as parents or as teachers ‘in loco parentis’.

The La La Land of good teaching

Having spent some half term time with the family toe-tapping at La La Land and weeping at Lion, here are my film-inspired thoughts on some of the elements of good teaching:


Command the classroom: really own it. Understand your physicality, presence and how you manage them room. No excuses: high expectations, coats, wires, posture, noise. If you are not in charge, someone else is. Secondary teachers, don’t hide at the front.

Challenge everything:
especially confused & lazy thinking and stereotypes. It’s what classrooms are for.

Seating plan is bible: Target group in the ampiheatre. Low progress at front. 

Less talk more action: Get straight to long answer qus. Model A* answers from start.

So you think you can be 3 minutes late?  Students on time and, crucially, work up to last minute.

Imagine a World – Great resources on desks cuts teacher talk. Thirst-quenching starters on the screen.

Plan and visualise the 3 questions we will ask: Check they are challenging & inspiring.

Plan great lessons: Deliver them, mark books. Repeat.

Listen & then teach to the gaps – regular use of feedback/tests/QLA/mocks at the point of need.

Silence: Never , never, never underestimate the power of long sessions of extended silent writing.

Great relationships: Classroom culture is work-focused, serious, relaxed. Feels like a university seminar.

Earn their love: Help them remember you. Enjoy going the extra mile. Rocking chair moments.

Know why we teach: In a world which poses impossible questions, may my lessons give a fragment of the beauty and the horror of the world our children will lead one day. They must know how to change it. This is why we teach.

Culture of good note-taking: Notes are detailed, extended, annotated, on a journey. Reluctant writers provided with exemplars or teacher crafting on board/keyboard.

Make everything we do high quality: With an edge of class. Demand a lot of thinking, a lot of work,  a lot of pride.

And finally, have a bit of style: Don’t cramp your unique style of teaching and enjoy how you relate to children. It’s the essential ‘you’ of ‘teacher’.

lalaNo really, do: The ‘teacher’s dance’: its a science and its an art. And its meant to be fun.

Winter Solstice


Winter Solstice
December 21. Shortest day. All walled in.
I watch the windows and the drab leaking sky.
Waiting for the last light of the waning year.
Somnolent, deep, all-day dark.
Racing clouds and bedroom weather.
A dark and hope-less time.
Finally the dog and I brave the cold
And hopscotch the spaces
Between ochre farm track puddles.
Nut-brown and spattered, she half-heartedly retrieves
Fallen beech branches I half-heartedly fling.
Noses leaf-mould, chews blackened conkers,
Stands solitary, sensing scents,
Then rushes through the shivering blonde stubble.
Following fox. Chasing hope.

We make one last loop as the half-light fades.
Disappointed we turn, but then the last touches of winter-rose
Leak out of skirting clouds to brush the drab sheepfold walls
And warm the way back to the car. And then the line
Of the horizon bleeds like a glorious,
Over-painted eighteenth-century canvas,
The old light-year is over, and a new one begun.
And now there is a spring in our step,
All the way home

Lessons from Zimbabwe


After a geography degree with some development economics thrown in, I flew to Zimbabwe and lived for two years working in a remote school on the border of Mozambique up in the Eastern Highlands. It helped me to grow up, find something that I believed in and that I thought I could eventually be good at. Since then I’ve taught all over the UK but nothing will replace those first steps in the classroom in blazing temperatures and classes of 52. Recent UK government ideas to expand grammar schools has made me reflect on the inequalities in the two-tier education system during my time In Zimbabwe, and what has happened since.

1988 – To arrive in Africa! A 12-hour flight to Harare the capital, then a 6-hour long slog-drive, and a further 35 k’s down a tortuous mountainous dirt road, to the achingly beautiful but remote and dusty corner of the country on the border of Mozambique. The amazing welcome, the wildness of the ‘bush’, the huts and kraals. The mind-boggling maze of dust paths. To be slowly Incorporated into that different, young and vital culture. At a key point in a nation’s history – a ‘revolutionary’ history in the making. The initial laughter of cultural faux pas. Me striving to overcome our in-built English offhand, distant manner. The filling up of long, lonely, dark evenings with books, marking, reading. Falling asleep to electric cicadas and crickets, droning mosquitoes. The reality of actually being here!


I learnt how to teach in Nyanga High School, in the Eastern Highlands, a mission school run by the Canadian catholic Marist Brothers and led by the brilliant Zimbabwean Headteacher, Peter Muzawazi. Back then Mozambique was in a civil war and Renamo guerillas would sometimes make incursions across the mountains into Zimbabwe, which was slightly unnerving, but mostly it was perfectly safe, and a fantastic place to live for 2 years. And what’s not to like about wearing shorts all day?

The 450 boys at our school, whose parents were usually subsistence maize farmers, took an entrance exam at the end of primary to get into the mission school, so it was effectively a grammar school for black Zimbabwean children. Most white Zimbabwean children in the east, whose parents were mostly coffee farmers, were sent to private schools in the capital Harare. Our boys boarded at the school paying a nominal fee (subsidised from Canada) to pay for very simple food (mealie meal, vegetables and sometimes meat), and basic beds and toilets. We had the priceless benefit of electricity for at least 4 hours a day.

“At the end of an exhausting court case in Johannesberg I drove an old ANC leader to his house in Alexandria one night. On the way I propounded to him that well-worn theory that if you separate races you diminish the points at which friction between them may occur and hence you ensure good relations. His answer was the essence of simplicity. If you place the races in one country in two camps, he said, and cut off contact between them, those in each camp begin to forget that those in the other are ordinary human beings, that each lives and laughs in the same way, thT each experiences joy and sorrow, pride or humiliation. Thereby each become suspicious of the other and each eventually fears the other, which is the basis of all racism” Andre Brink

Most of the mission schools like ours were built before independence by enlightened Catholic and Anglican organisations who were also sponsoring the anti-apartheid effort south of the border, to make education possible for black students outside the cities. The mission schools struggled through the civil war. Many, like ours, were closed down because of the danger to children and teachers. The atrocities committed and the fear those atrocities instilled in the people were not all one-sided. The oldest man working on our mission, a cook, Sekuru Mambira was tortured first by the white Rhodesian security forces for not giving information concerning rebel movements, and then by the rebel guerillas because they believed he had talked to the Rhodesians. He was the gentlest man I met in my two years there, and remains one of my great role models.

The journey from the capital to the school was a kaleidoscope of colour. The hazy golden highveld: sunbaked plains shimmering with tobacco, coffee or maize gave way to the mountains and rocky inselbergs of the East. Going by local bus took twice as long as a car but it was so worth it to see real life. If you could get on a bus you were lucky. You’d cling on, hoping a seat would appear at some stage. Bank managers on the way home from the capital rubbed noses with peasant farmers who had been selling tomatoes in the next market. Chickens squawked about the bus until they were scooped up by women in fantastically coloured ‘zambia’ wraps. Dinner beckoned. 


Education was effectively tiered: a tiny number of white ‘private’ schools, a very small number of well-established black ‘mission’ schools and thousands of brand new black ‘rural district council’ schools. What was amazing was the feeling of positive energy and political clout of the schools, in a country with 50% of the population is under the age of 15. Independence triggered a massive school building programme and recruitment of teachers to educate the children of parents who had never had this chance. I was recruited along with many teachers from Canada, Spain, Belgium, Ireland as part of that demand. Mission schools were pre-civil war so it was the new District Council schools that were the revolutionary flagship. School attendance for Zimbabwean primary children reached 95% in 1990, and literacy 91%, the joint highest in Africa at that time (it has never since reached that figure). Education embued the country with tangible excitement in the future.  Children were desperate to escape the hot, dusty, drudgery of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives growing maize and vegetables. Education would be the silver bullet to help them do just that. It was a brilliant place to be a teacher. In the eyes of the local people, teachers were up there with the Gods. Even on a par with national football players!


While the living conditions of the children in mission schools cannot be compared with the traditional ‘white’ schools, the academic results were far better. Children sat Cambridge international exams, and performed well. All of the government leaders at the time including Mugabe were educated at mission schools. Nyanga High was a school that parents wanted to get their children into. Mostly the quality of teaching was good in comparison with the rest of the schools locally, and the government actually physically relocated teachers to schools across the country. Although this policy was brutally disliked by teachers (imagine a teacher in Newcastle told they had to up sticks with their family and go and teach in Ramsgate), this meant that in principle the best qualified teachers and heads were well spread across the country, serving rural areas as well as cities. This redistribution of skills into the hard to reach corners of the country sounds enlightened to us today in some UK schools where it may be hard to recruit because of our school’s geography, and followed the fashionable grassroots approach to development & the communist philosophy popular in Mugabe’s 1990s government. In reality however there was still a steady and insidious drift of teachers towards the capital Harare. The same ‘bright lights’ drift, which drains every rural area of its brightest talent in every developing country in the world, was steadily killing Zimbabwe’s backwaters too. Because of this dissatisfaction, and despite the school’s strong reputation, often teachers didn’t want to be there, so didn’t turn up for class, or would disappear and take the trip to the beer hall 6 miles walk away, leaving young people alone in their classrooms or on the football field.

“The rains were so late that year. But throughout that hot, dry summer those black storm clouds clung in thick folds of brooding the darkness along the low horizon. There seems to be a secret in their activity, because each evening they broke the long sullen silence of the day, and sent soft rumbles of thunder and flickering slicks of lightning across the sky. They were not promising rain, they were prisoners pushed back in trapped coils of boiling cloud” Bessie Head


Living with me also based on a mission station were other volunteer teachers who taught in the flagship new Rural District Council schools. These were the vast majority of Zimbabwe’s schools, the poorest schools; think classic African open-roof classrooms, overarching purple jacaranda trees, hundreds of small children with smart, brightly-coloured maroon uniforms and you have it.  Walls, if they had them, were clumsily built and experienced teachers & heads were a distant dream. Many classes were taught by students who had just matriculated from the oldest class in the school aged 15 or 16. There were no blackboards and textbooks were a luxury.  I felt a certain guilt about teaching in a selective school, even though it was badly equipped and poor, when resources were so much worse in the rest of the local schools. I persuaded myself that my focus should be the kids in front of me and to make sure I taught as best I could, so that my students would get good grades and go on and reach the University of Zimbabwe, and perhaps so that some could even form the next government and bring about some sanity to the political situation. Most of us in the mission schools recognised that we needed to support colleagues in District Council schools, who had fewer resources and fewer qualified staff. Mostly I just loved the students in front of me who kept me on my toes intellectually and made me laugh, and made my job a true vocation. They made me fall in love with teaching, in a visceral way.


Africa should be a teacher’s paradise: Bright, inquisitive, resourceful children eager to learn and impeccably behaved. For the teacher of English there are classic African authors – Dambudzo Marechera, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri. For the geography teacher a whole new wild, arid landscape opens itself to the eye. For the history teacher the intricacies of the disturbing colonial era and the ‘chimurenga’ struggle of the Civil War. The kingdoms of Chaka, Lobengula, Mzilikazi: Evocative names which spread great webs of power across the plains out towards the Kalahari. I taught with and learned from some cracking teachers: Peter Muzawazi was wise and fiercely competitive about his own school and children; Augustine Baudi was a deeply intellectual man-mountain who taught a firebrand of anti-colonialist history with brilliantly dark humour. Netsai Mugwindiri persuaded young minds to celebrate & hold onto their ‘Shona’ mother tongue and blend this with English lit. She taught local dialect and Chaucer, often in the same lesson!

In the afternoon the school grounds resounded with the screams and whistles of football matches, as we braved the heat and I played with the boys who zipped skillfully round me, always barefoot. Shoes were the most outward sign of wealth; football boots a fanciful dream. Sixth formers would carry their desks into the cool breeze and the shadows of the small mango orchard, beneath swaying eucalyptus trees blue against the backdrop of a smouldering Mt Muosi. They studied Keats, organic chemistry, or the evils of colonisation. They wanted to become lawyers, doctors, politicians, agitating reporters. They succeeded.


In November it was strange but somehow rather natural the way everyone seemed to be waiting, waiting for the rain. At midday the heat was oppressive and people stayed out of the sun. Old men sat in the shade and carefully studied the sky. Old women relaxed in the huts telling stories and shrieking at the best ones. Everything else is in the landscape itself seemed to wait, hovering in the heat. The mangy dogs would hardly stir except for the interruptions of the flies; dead carcasses with flicking years. The classrooms were cool places at this time, the children sat shirtless.

Looking back the tragedy was that children were being dangled expectations way beyond what the country would ever be able to deliver. There was just not the infrastructure for serious careers outside of farming, and although secondary industry grew through Chinese and British investment, there was no serious growth beyond this. In the best District Council schools there was an academic curriculum which also embraced agriculture, and I often saw specialist teachers who in the morning would teach Shakespeare’s Macbeth (within the vivid context of ancestral spirits and witchcraft) and in the afternoon discuss the merits of cash crops versus subsistence farming, or drip irrigation, or how to harness fish-farming to improve the family diet. But despite many inspiring headteachers fighting against the odds and delivering miracles on a daily basis, all too frequently schools closed because of embezzled school fees, or classrooms remained empty of teachers and full of children, hungry in every sense of the word. And of course there was no central leadership college or effective training program or to improve teacher quality, strengthen subject knowledge or the skillset of headteachers. And often teachers would not get paid at the month end.  It is the ultimate irony that despite the failure of the education system, Mugabe ended up creating a young educated intellectual elite (including some I taught in Nyanga) who ended up at University of Zimbabwe demonstrating against his failed policies and violent means.

Winding down for the close of term. Exam season. Not a gentle smoothly programmed wind down but we are spluttering to a close with no direction rather like a car with engine trouble and no steering wheel, meandering its way to the bottom of the hill. Boys sit behind the desks twiddling their thumbs. Laughter trickles out of each classroom. Exam scripts lie idle and red ink-less in the staffroom. Headteacher nowhere to be seen. The hot day buzzes on, like the last.

And so a strange inequality grew across the whole country. Small numbers of well resourced, well staffed, and usually better led high-performing ‘mission’ or ‘grammar’ schools surrounded by swathes of District Council schools housing the majority of the population, with an inadequate buildings and untrained teachers. And where was the appetite for change to reform this desperately unfair system? Since the country’s decision-makers of course sent their children to Zimbabwean mission schools or to independent schools south of the border in South Africa, there was none. And so the gap between the relatively higher standards in mission schools, and the District Council schools grew. There was plenty of high-level talk of the grand plan for restructuring education and delivering ‘liberation’ to the children of the civil war heroes who had freed the country from colonialism. But not much evidence of results.

On the ground nothing changed for the poor and landless peasant farmers whose children attended the poorest schools. The same kinds of children went to the same kinds of the schools. Either from mission schools to university in Harare, or from District Schools straight back to the fields. Standards have not improved, and since the 1990s many schools have closed. The approach of Mugabe and Zanu PF has rightly received a lot of attention in the press in the last 20 years. However what has been almost unreported is the collapse of the education system beneath Mugabe’s failed economy, and the crushing disillusionment that children, parents and teachers in the system now feel. There was a moment when education could have transformed the country and the been a case study for the kind of ‘social mobility’ that we now talk of pupil premium funding being able to galvanise in Britain. That moment has gone. Many schools are now empty, many former teachers unemployed or gone. What began as an egalitarian dream has evaporated in the tropical sun.

“Those wonderful, terrible droughts have stripped the veld so that you could see the very bones of the Earth. Like a sheep’s skeleton. Until you arrived at a point beyond despair and cursing and fear, and in a stillness you’ve never known before. I remember that there was something so utterly clean and pure about the feeling. And only then, usually, the rains would come” Andre Brink


And finally the rains have come. Yesterday the rain and the hail came under the door blown by strong wind from the mountains and my exercise books on the floor were soaked. Some visitors from a faraway school were stranded on the dirt road and had to wait for the flash-flood rivers between them and us to die down. The snakes, long dormant, have begun to show their unwelcome faces once more. Brother Emmanuel, a sort of catholic Crocodile Dundee, has caught 2 bright green boomslangs and an Egyptian Cobra in the last two days. Still the wind thunders outside and we are treated to an almost daily display of electrical storms over the valley and into Mozambique. The ploughing began the moment the rain was sniffed. This weekend I helped a friend at the village clear her field of thorn-bushes and stunted trees with some dry grass and a box of matches, ready for the plough, only to be attacked and sent running by a swarm of (now homeless) African bees. I look around me at huts I know so well. Everything family I walk past has been hit by mosquitoes, female circumcision, HIV. Not a family unscathed.

In the UK the government plan to expand current grammar schools and build new ones. In each of my last 3 schools in the UK I’ve had fascinating conversations with parents battling with the choice of school for their child. I’ve listened to the inevitable, slightly awkward parental aside on an open morning tour; ‘Because she’s applied for grammar school X we’ll take the exam but I don’t think she’ll get it so we will probably see you in September’, with the corresponding message this gives to the child, and to the school.

Leaders and teachers working in grammar schools are all working hard with a selected ability group of students. The problem with grammar schools is their threefold impact on all other schools. Firstly the number of grammar places taken up puts pressure on local schools with already struggling budgets. Secondly there is no getting away from the academic impact for schools left behind having to adjust to life without the top 25% of the ability range. Future growth of grammars will only add more pressure on schools doing a good job and can only mean that achievement of local schools will drop. And thirdly there is the perceived impact – the neighbouring state school becomes an implicit second choice, however good it is, however well led. It’s tough being a Mum and a Dad in the UK’s education system, especially when political leaders create division and set educational leaders against each other.


For me the parable of Zimbabwean education is clear, and although it is a different context, made more extreme by the actions of a self-serving leader, the essential elements are similar to the UK: when you focus on and over-invest in a very small number of schools which educate the country’s decision-making elite, and when you believe that this is enough to become your strategy of ‘social mobility’, then the majority of that country’s schools will suffer. They cannot possibly compete equally to provide the best for all children and for all parents. You just cannot have it both ways.


The children of Zimbabwe still don’t have it easy either. When I consider the daily work rate of these children amongst the goats and the garden plots, their commitment to their broken schools and desperate desire to succeed in their studies is heroic. In a land where corruption is a much more likely quality in a government than dedication, and where there are so few role models, we must look to the system of education to be a beacon and create new and real futures for poor children. Along the dirt road, walking or running to school, in my mind’s eye I still see their faces light up with hope for the future. Their dream of what a great education can do for them is intoxicating. We need to learn the lessons from Zimbabwe.

Done your homework yet?!


Homework at GA is now set as significant written or practical projects two times in each assessment cycle (each cycle one is 8 weeks long) for most subjects. These are intended to present extra challenge, really get our students to think in depth and to produce work of real excellence. Maths and Languages homework is not recorded in this table but is weekly, because for these subject skills research shows that students need regular smaller inputs of additional work to support learning in the classroom. Most written assignments take the form of extended essays because we believe that ensuring that our students can write with increasing confidence will mean that they become successful in future exams and in life.