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:

russellCommand 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.

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

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

la-laland-kissLess talk more action: Get straight to long answer qus. Model A* answers from start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

schindlKnow 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.

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

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

revenantNo homework: if you don’t chase homework, who will?

leonardoAnd 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

000060_001After 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.

000068_001“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.

The Last Post




The Last Post

At 10.45am the students fan out along with the L-shaped lines of the new building, and across the tiered steps. The dazzle of sharp November sun, a playground half in sun, half in shade. I shield my eyes to see my deputy waving to me that we are all assembled and we begin.

Staff and students are jumbled in an informal formality. Individuals not known for their appreciation of the gravity of a situation sense a different atmosphere, like a tremor in the air. Early shuffling and nervousness gives way to a resolute presence. The grey and khaki cadets of all shapes and sizes, some 16 years old and trench-ready in another era, stand to attention with Mr. Massey. He drills them in a fatherly way, with smiles and a tinge of pride. Sixth formers, standing further back stand like thoughtful sentinels framing the picture.


I welcome everybody, and speak of my grandfather, a fireman in the Blitz, and my Uncle Jack who died in Crete, his grave discovered only a couple of years ago by my father and mother in a bright olive grove in a quiet corner of the island. I tell them that yesterday I was at a busy and bustling Headteachers conference in Westminster, so took some quiet moments to stroll through the grounds of Westminster Abbey only to be shocked by the thousands of wooden crosses and poppies in the turf beneath the sheer walls.a-soldier-visits-westminster-abbey-gardens-where-poppy-crosses-with-frtj9b

A clutch of Y7s bob like robins at the microphone and their own poetry wafts in the air, some words clear and bright and heard by all, others blown away by the wind. But it doesn’t seem to matter. We all know and feel their nervous effort. I see pastoral staff alert for any possibility of silliness or fainting visibly begin to relax as the ceremony builds and takes shape. Each speaker, musician, prayer group and contribution grows, but it is the long silences taking shape between them which begin to speak more powerfully. The Last Post is played on a violin. Perfectly imperfect haunting violin notes rise into the cirrus high sky and we all stand and wait.


11 o’clock inches round. I close my eyes and imagine. Some point their heads up to the penetrating blue, or bow, or wipe their eyes. Silence becomes presence. One collective, unspoken groan of pain for all the wars, each individual life, each family, each country. Children and staff from Gloucester, London, Newcastle, Abidjan, Calcutta, Prague, Bucharest, Syria, Palermo, Edmonton, Munich. All of us consider how each of our families have been touched by war. The unspoken awfulness experienced by our great-grandfathers. Last year’s memory of a refugee camp and what it does to a child. Our new Head Boy Abdul reminds us of the thousands of Muslims killed in the First World War. We hear Jesus’s words of John 15 – ‘Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. Colonel Lance Ranson  (Grenadier Guards) reminds students to hold our politicians to account for never embarking on the madness of war again.

And suddenly it is over. The guests trickle away. Our speakers head inside. Slow shuffle of feet. Silence remains, beautiful and terrible. And I sense that something special has happened and a moment has been shared. And somehow I feel that despite a week of hatred and disbelief in international politics, despite today’s memorial of military leaders getting things wrong, there is hope in the air. Hope has become a verb and I feel it around me. The cadets proud of their teamwork, their contribution and service. The boy who arrived in the school from Syria recently and whose family are so grateful for the welcome he has received from students and staff that they invited me around for dinner. I think of this wonderful and precious blend of culture and language and personality that our school represents, and how in some strange way it resembles those gentle, early exchanges in both wars between men and women from different cultures, countries and classes who were thrown together, and who began to learn from each other. From ignorance to solidarity. Yes, I feel enormous hope.

Leaving home


Leaving home

Judging by your expression, as we sat side-by-side on the edge of the just-made bed/You needed us to stay, just a touch longer than the other parents/Who with a cool wave through car windows bless nonchalant offspring/Before crunching down the gravel track to empty nests./Precariously balanced, we toy with words/And weigh the spaces between our sentences./Unsure how to express what we want to say/Not wanting to lose this moment/This build-up of 18 years/Memories flood back/The tip and glitter of stabilisers on that sunny lurch/Across Hengistbury Head, gulls wheeling overhead/The first piano lesson, knees tucked tightly together/In nylon shorts, more chatter than playing/The snapshots of you on the hills, that photographed/Familiar grimace, the same three weeks ago/In the cold Langdale Pikes as we ended an era/The nights sat on the bed reading stories. You a little too big/For this joint exploration into another world/But still your head easing into my neck/And here years later, on the university bed/We run the risk of meaning too much/But saying too little/I ask how long you would like us to stay: “Forever!”/You respond and we both laugh, me roaring to cover my fear/You shyly like I haven’t seen you do for years/We have a final walk around the campus/A snatched ice cream and finally next to the car/You tell your mum off because she supposed to cry/And isn’t, and then the big man hug comes/You look down at me, taller now/And, knowing that the tables have turned/You check on me as I slip/From your grip into the driving seat/And I sit there, the windscreen wobbling with the image/Of you fumbling with the new plastic key code/Before you finally disappear from sight/Into the new hall door, of your new life.