David Copperfield

I did not like Dickens until I was 28 years old. When I joined a new school, the whole of the Autumn term for year 7 was spent reading Dickens, which I thought I hated, so I decided I really had to read some. The good news was that I was totally wrong. Dickens is great, once you get past the excruciating syntax and accept that these are not, in fact, capital “S” Serious books.

In fact, David Copperfield may be the greatest comic novel ever written. It is a thinly veiled autobiography, and full of the most genuinely humorous scenes in all of literature – not just Victorian literature, all of literature. It is a masterpiece and you must read it if you have not already. (You’re welcome.)

What is good but in a different way is the recent film, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Like the novel, it is hilarious. Unlike the novel, which usually comes in at around a thousand pages of printed text, the film delivers the most vital storylines in under two hours. A recipe for disaster, some may say. Luckily, Armando Iannucci wrote and directed it, so it is a work of pure genius.

And what happens in the film, when you squash up all those thousand pages, is you see more clearly the peaks and troughs of David Copperfield’s life. The vista is one of extreme success and extreme failure, cycling around. An idyllic early childhood gives way to the entry of an abusive stepfather; poverty and drudgery give way to fame and fortune. This is repeated several times.

I found this film incredibly profound. For me, no other film has quite captured the essence of reality so well as this sometimes surreal piece.

In March 2019, I was reeling from a spectacular failure. I’d applied for a headship and arrogantly assumed I was a shoe-in. I’d done heaps of preparation, redrafted my application several times, and conducted three mock interviews with three different, very kind individuals. I was absolutely ready. This was my school.

I didn’t even get through to day two of the interview. I was crushed.

Reading back over my diary at that time, I laughed at how crushed I had been. I wanted to tell that sad, pathetic woman: “don’t you worry! In a couple of months time, you’re going to see the dream headship – a new start school in London with your favourite academy trust – and they’re going to be mad enough to give it to you!”

Deflated and humbled by my earlier failure, instead of putting in hard hours and preparation for this second attempt, I rushed an application to get it in by the deadline and repeatedly believed I wasn’t going to get called to the next stage of the interview.

Reading my diary in the months after my appointment is a whirlwind of disbelief: how did I get to do this job? How did I get to work with these incredible people? What had I done in life to deserve such riches? Once the interviews for our founding staff began, my disbelief doubled: never had I ever turned away so many extraordinary professionals. We hired a dream team. For each post, we would worry we hadn’t shortlisted the right people, and then at the interview day they would just gleam like gems. Every member of that team was a star player.

And then, when we had recruited our entire team, COVID-19 struck.

One evening early on in the crisis a very close friend had sent me a text message: “your school’s not going to open!” I laughed then, as they were joking and we have that kind of relationship.

But as the weeks crept on, and schools closed, and shops closed, and we were all sent home, and the children came in twos and threes instead of hundreds; and our building slowed and slowed, and the supply chain was disrupted, and the contractor for the second half of our building wouldn’t sign until after the virus was “over,” and the Department for Education couldn’t sign the funding agreement without a building, it began to sink in. Our school wasn’t going to open.

While personally hugely disappointing, the decision makes perfect sense. The DfE’s understandable priority is existing schools: the logistical challenges of reopening schools is immense; time and resources are limited; of course they want to place those limited resources into current schools rather than opening new ones. The DfE are supportive of a new secondary school in Ealing, which is desperately needed in years to come due to the large numbers of children going through the primaries right now: they, and we, are confident that Ark Soane will open – in 2021. While a deferral is disappointing, our founding team are committed to coming back next year stronger than ever – a year spent working in one of our other Ark schools, thinking carefully about Soane, is a privilege in many ways.

It is nonetheless desperately sad for all of us – “our” year 6s who will go to other schools, as well as our founding teachers who were excited to build something brilliant in September.

And so I turn to David Copperfield. I’m not working in a blacking factory (or a bottle factory, as the thinly veiled autobiography has it); it’s not so bleak as life for my furloughed friends and family. But there is, after all, no hierarchy of pain.

The hope I draw from Copperfield is this: this life will be full of tragedy and joy. These will cycle around, and we should always be wary of our highest points because they will not last. As I read back in my diary, I want to warn that joyous woman that her dream school will remain just that – a dream – for longer than she can imagine.

Yet at this very low time, where we are all united in fear for our families and our lives and our jobs and our world as we know it, I know that more positive times will come. I can’t wait to see where the next joy enters.

New year’s resolutions – for other people

Ofsted

It is received wisdom in the teacher world that Ofsted is not fit for purpose. Too many people have blogged much more eloquently than I to explain why; simply put – Ofsted need to scale back in a big way. They need to be mindful that everything they say becomes gospel in schools that are gunning for Good or better – that is, all schools. They need to look at the data: are results (including student progress from starting points) good? If so, why? What is that school doing well that other schools can learn from? And if results are awful, as they are in too many schools, what does that school need to do to improve, and how can it be supported to improve outcomes for all students? Other than this – do we really need anything else?

Department for Education (political influence on)

Yes, I know there is an election coming up and you want to put out enough policy ideas to make all the interest groups vote for you. But please, enough. Enough of change. I’ve spent my holiday working out how we will implement the new GCSEs and the new A-levels next September, and calling exam boards who assure me their support materials will be out “soon.” It’s not good enough. You can’t tear up KS3, 4 and 5 at the same time and expect us to just do it all without support, while doing the job we’ve always done (teaching children) as well as we’ve always done it (or better). There are not enough hours in the day. So just spend a year consolidating, supporting, reviewing, consulting. 

Headteachers

Headteachers have the greatest responsibility to build their school’s ethos and support their teachers. I’ve been blessed to have only experienced incredible Headteachers, driven by strong moral purpose, who are exceptional at what they do. The Heads I have worked for have challenged me to be better, but have also supported me without question or anger when I’ve made mistakes. I will never forget the first big mistake I made, in my first year of teaching. The Head took me into her office, asked me what I did wrong, asked what I would do if I could do it again, listened to my rubbish response, and coached me to a better one.

Students

We think we know our students, and in some ways, perhaps we do. But in other ways, we can never know them. We can never know the struggles they face, we can never know what their formative years have done to them, and we can never know their true potential. We just need to keep raising the bar. In my second year of teaching, I predicted a student in the lowest set for English a B, thinking I was being very generous. She came up to me with that grade, asking: “do you think I’ll get a B?” I replied, thinking I was being supportive: “I know you will.” She retorted: “I’m going to get an A, Miss – you’ll see.” And she did. And I did.

 Teachers

All teachers want the best for their students, but that aspiration can look different to different people. There are still teachers out there who say: “that’s really good progress for a student like that.” There are still teachers out there who say: “we can’t control their home lives, and so they won’t ever achieve what they could.” There are still teachers out there who say: “you have to understand that this child has special educational needs.” I know there are, because I’ve met them. These statements are wrong. They are wrong, and they underestimate both what the child is capable of, and the adult. We, as teachers, have enormous power to change a child’s life trajectory. Let’s stop being scared and use that power.

Time spent on the “other” side

The Department for Education, tucked away on Great Smith Street in the aptly named “Sanctuary Buildings,” is remarkable, if for no other reason than its foliage. My abiding thought of that building is the giant plants, scaling the central atrium area and winding their way through all floors.

Spending time in this hallowed building has been my privilege, having trained with Teach First, who provide the advantage of the DfE’s ear, and who ship we self-selecting few in from time to time to discuss “issues.”

My first adventures in this building came in the Summer of 2011, when I was, again, privileged, to complete a “Summer Project” (Teach First’s kitsch name for an internship) there. My memories of those frantic two weeks are few, but stark. I remember working with some of the most incredibly dedicated and talented humans, fired by a burning desire to do good for our children. I remember they seemed to work endless hours that summer, and rarely took lunch away from their desks. I remember feeling as if their mission was my mission. I remember they seemed eager to reach out to teachers, although not entirely sure how to orchestrate this.

I remember having the same discussion with a number of civil servants, explaining I didn’t think I would ever be able to swallow my opinions and deliver a policy I disagreed with. I believe that, of those who I spoke to for career advice, 100% of them advised me to not join the civil service for this sole reason.

At that time in my early teaching career, I was such a mediocre teacher and such a (comparatively) decent administrator, such a career seemed welcoming – it felt like something I could be successful in, unlike teaching. But I’m delighted with their advice, and delighted I stuck it out in teaching.

Nonetheless, I still relish the opportunities I have been offered to enter that building and have a bit of a rant. The department’s consultations are inconceivably far-reaching, but I am lucky that through Teach First we have a say. I’m also honoured to have spoken on education with Ministers of State, although I believe firmly in the adage: “if you’ve nothing kind to say, say nothing.” And so I will move on swiftly from this particular topic.

This week, as one minute part of a consultation on the child poverty strategy, I was confronted with a government which appears to be trying desperately to make this blight on our social consciousness history. With a Minister who honestly acknowledged that, in times of austerity, we couldn’t simply throw money at the problem. And with colleagues who ranged from passionate and articulate teachers, to well-meaning and well-versed people on the peripheries of the school system, to frighteningly intelligent intellectuals whose job it is to make decisions which affect each and every one of our students.

I’m reluctant to bring politics into this blog, because I like to think the best of people, and I believe that all politicians (like all people) have good intentions. And despite the problems I have with some education policies past and present, I also temper my tendency to dismiss with the knowledge that what our country lacks is consistency; do we ever really have the chance to assess a policy, when one child’s education is steered by more than one political party across their time in school?

And of course, when tinkering with the whole system, we cannot afford to forget that there are individual lives in play. For every policy and draft and body of research and set of opinions, we have a collection of children – all hopeful, all full of potential; some succeeding against the odds, some succeeding because of the odds, and some being failed by us every single day, because the mechanism does not exist to eliminate our world’s ills with mere will. Would that we could.

That summer in 2011, I weighed making an impact on the hundred-or-so students I came into direct contact with every day with the potential to affect the educational quality of all children in the country. But in a way these are two sides of the same coin; when we work hand in hand, the micro and the macro, a picture begins to form of the certainties in each area of the country or city for students from all pockets of belonging; and what needs to be developed and what eliminated, both for these immediate students, and their children long after they have left us.

I remain ever optimistic that we, as teachers, can make a difference. I remain hopeful that we will begin to work together as a unit towards one united goal of equality in education for all. I rest assured that far more intelligent people than I are doing their best to piece together the parts which will bring the eventual day to pass, when all children will go to their local school, which will provide fantastic educational outcomes for them regardless of background.