GSA President’s speech

Teachers are ‘hapless worker bees in an out-of-control system’ declares GSA President Alice Phillips’ at the GSA Annual Conference

Here is Alice Phillips’ opening address to the Girls’ Schools Association’s 2014 Annual Conference on November 24 in all its unabridged glory: 

“Special guests of GSA, colleagues in leadership of girls’ schools, distinguished former leaders of GSA schools and new members of a great and historic association, the warmest of welcomes to the Royal Horseguard’s Hotel and the National Liberal Club, and to the GSA Conference, 2014.  

“Away from the familiar turf – and audience – of school gatherings where ‘Would you like to say a few words, Mrs Phillips?’ brings with it a sense of security and belonging, of feeling wanted and needed – important feelings for us all – instead I stand here battling imposter syndrome!  

“Why on earth would you want to listen to me? You will all have some 100+ emails on the mobile devices so discretely poised on your knees. You will be driven on by the need to multitask to remain in control of your lives during the week. And gone are the days when the Presidential ‘Elizabeth at Tilbury’ would be one of perhaps a small handful of opportunities to listen live to an experienced educational professional mulling aloud.  

“During 2014 many of you will have heard presentations from Presidents or Chairmen of other organisations to which you belong – and there are, as we know, very many of them in our somewhat confusing yet relatively small independent sector. 

“The 21st century Key Note speaker’s challenge is made even more exacting by the fact that we can each of us turn, at whatever time of the day or night we prefer, to our new best friend, TED. There we can be inspired by neat, succinct and hugely appealing presentations on leadership, education, teamwork, and all manner of other inspirational topics by world-class speakers. What need is there for a speech such as this? 

“And on that basis, why have conference at all? What need Schools? What need universities or colleges? Why not just a lifetime of giant MOOCS? (Massive Open Online Courses) And yet we continue to come and I would like to thank you all for coming in such large numbers. 

“What, then, do I bring to the near Christmas party that could possibly add any novelty to the education conversation? What mischievous firecrackers might I inject into this post-November 5th gathering that might nonetheless interest you or help us gain the ear of our political leaders?  

“At the very least, I’d like to stimulate conversations and dialogue that will run through the week – this is the theme of our conference – and thus engage all the experience in this room. What new ideas might we together generate in the next few days if appropriately provoked? And whom might we persuade to listen? 

“How is it, then, that I can face down imposter syndrome? Why would I even dare to take a risk rather than play safe? Because I was educated in a girls’ school and that was simply what you did. My biggest risk back then, sadly, was that I chose not to conform to the stereotype of the girly workhorse student! However, I can lead this debate because while my early qualifications are not distinguished at all, I now speak after 30 years of teaching experience and 20 as a senior leader or Head. 

“My father stared at my O Level results in 1976 in what he thought was a carefully disguised disbelief. He did not fool me. And I learned a trick or two for future use as the proverbial did not – somewhat surprisingly to my 16-year-old self – hit the fan. Instead my disappointment and infuriation with myself was allowed to fly solo – with my regrets – as an early and important lesson in life. The wise schoolmaster in my father recognised that and let me lick my wounds privately and get on with life. 

“My A Level results, too, were not the stellar line-up we are accustomed to require today of our aspiring Oxbridge or Russell Group candidates. Yet the seventh term university entrance examination system rescued me from myself and launched the career that I have pursued ever since. I was young. And I was given fresh chances.  

“Even at university I did not ‘excel’ in the traditional sense of the word, but emerged with the now apparently unacceptable II ii, yet with as rounded a profile of extra-curricular activities in the arts fields as you could wish for! You will by now be thinking that I am falling victim to talking up my weaknesses and ignoring my strengths. But here you would be wrong. I left university as a happy, balanced, probably over-confident, reasonably well-read young woman who had learned self-knowledge, knew how to fail and to deal with disappointment, and was still ready to step boldly out into the world and contribute. 

“You will perhaps see where I am heading. And this is what I have come to care about fervently as the last decade has unfolded. 

“Today, my younger self would be written off at the age of 16 by the unforgiving system we are creating. A system with no real second chances, no wriggle room or place to make amends. As I work to inspire the young women in my school and watch them trying to measure up to those infernal grade requirements at such a relatively young age, I am outraged because I, too, am required to ‘play the system’ to help them fulfil their ambitions. 

“The decoupling of the AS from the A Level is likely to erode the breadth of subjects young people study. Gone will be the halfway house reassuring affirmation or ‘call to arms’. Over time it will drop from four to three, undoing one of the real strengths of Curriculum 2000. And as universities – ever more competitive for undergraduates – make their unconditional offers at A Level, they will therefore be forced to refer back to GCSEs as the best indicators of a student’s degree potential. I know that there are many who favour the linear A Level, but I am not one of them and I believe it’s not too late to review the reforms and maintain an element of midway assessment. But that’s by the by. We will all do what is right in our own schools. What remains, though, is the confusion, and the ever higher demands at the younger age. 

“Add to this the new GCSE grade scale, with its possibility of two even smaller bands – 8 & 9 – where the already narrow A* currently sits, and 16-year-olds are going to feel an intensity of expectation that is greater than ever. Many of them will aspire to achieve a GCSE ‘9’. Is that really what we want, in their first public examination? And how long before that scale extends to the ‘Perfect 10’ with all the connotations that holds? Education for me is about so much more than perfect scores. 

“Don’t get me wrong. Rigour is good. Students flourish when they are required to study a subject in depth. The demise of modules at GCSE is also good. The bite-sized chunks were a poor preparation for A Level study. But it seems that the need for accountability and – might we call it ‘PISA Perfection’ – has driven the Department for Education and other quangos to create an assessment structure akin to rigour on speed. What are we doing? It seems that if it can be graded and put on a scale, compared, averaged, manipulated and mangled, it must be both good and useful. The General Certificate of Secondary Education should be what its full name suggests: an indication of roadworthiness across a range of subjects – call them Progress 8 if we must – that is a positive foundation for something to come, not a last chance saloon. 

“Thank goodness independent sector schools are accountable first and foremost to parents. And thank goodness those of us who believe it best are free to pursue the IGCSE and other public examinations. 

“In your conference brochure I have alluded to the culture of constant educational change that we have been living in for several decades now. Restlessness is perhaps a better word than change. We seem not to settle to anything and let it grow gradually – and messily.  

“A close examination of those changes reveals, time and again, driven politicians, learned educational theorists and caring and committed teachers inventing and reinventing our education systems, almost all fundamentally well-meaning but clearly restless and aware that things are not quite right. Yet still we find ourselves in a place where education has become all about grades and measures, targets and outcomes, and before we know it is potentially damaging and restricting those whom its fundamental aim must surely be to nurture and grow. By what language have we persuaded ourselves that this is good? 

“The fixation with league tables has been part of it, and a lack of confidence in our own ability to provide what is needed in our own nation has been another part. Did any of you get that round robin email two weeks ago offering the chance to measure your school against the PISA ratings? Well, you may disagree with me but on reading it I banged my head on my desk. I believe that there are many other ways in which to improve maths – or any other experiences – in our schools. Note that I do not say outcomes. Experiences. 

“Then, even as we are obliged to use phrases such as ‘reintroduce rigour’ into the GCSE curriculum, we simultaneously create a new tension in an implied criticism of teachers. Were they not rigorous enough in what they asked of children from specifications that they did not write? No teacher I have ever met and respected has been against rigour or high standards; many have achieved them without a single examined component in the course in question.  

“We must have an honest debate and fundamental to that is the need to stop casting blame. Instead, I’d like simply to put some brakes of honesty, realisation and reality check on what we currently sign up to. 

“The second thing that concerns me, therefore, is the impact of this drive for perfection on teachers. I am really worried about our profession. There was a time when the significant majority of graduates from grammar schools like mine went into teaching. Now that may not always have been a good thing, but nonetheless, schools today face a crisis of recruitment at the graduate level of entry. This does not surprise me at all. University fees and loans have to be paid off. You are bound to seek the highest income you can command as a graduate, as well as job satisfaction. Who can blame you? Teaching brings rewards of many kinds but not in high remuneration, at least not at the classroom teacher level where you have to remain for some years in order to perfect your craft. As long as such a pay differential exists, I would appeal to government to consider waiving university debt for any graduate teacher who achieves five successful years in the classroom. 

“Why would a young graduate volunteer want to be subjected to the kinds of attack that teachers have faced in the past when the glamour of high finance or the law is an alternative? Teachers are ready scapegoats, sometimes for governments – of all hues – and often for the media. Hapless worker bees in an out-of-control system, we are an easy target. Having lived through all the changes from the ‘new’ 1988 GCSE to the present day, I have seen at first hand in the staff room – and as a Head of English who had to introduce Key Stage 3 testing – the way in which so many members of our profession are quickly persuaded to believe that what they have been putting heart and soul into must have been dreadful and damaging. Time and again they nonetheless turn to put their shoulders to the wheel of the next new fad or expensive ‘fix it’. They assume responsibility and resolve, like Animal Farm’s Boxer, that ‘I must work harder’. It is therefore really welcome news this autumn to hear the new Secretary of State publicly recognising the issue of teacher workload.  

“Next comes performance related pay. It will drive up standards, we are told. I have not met a single head yet who has agreed wholeheartedly with that position. Yet somehow we seem to be letting it happen. 

“I am unashamedly and volubly against performance related pay in our sector. I know some of you will be less strident but I did promise to provoke debate and start conversations! There are other ways to reward and incentivise teachers without putting them in unhelpful competition with each other which is what I believe PRP will achieve.  

“I suggest to you that teachers who want PRP – I understand there are a few out there –  have missed the point of what we do in schools as a united team of adults working collaboratively on the development of the children in our care. Bonuses are for bankers. And I’m not convinced they have even worked very well for them, or led to institutional happiness – and thus success – in any sector. If you are anxious daily about where a big chunk of your salary might come from, you cannot be giving your all to your work and teaching is an all-consuming profession. It is the job of leaders – you and me – to manage the capability of our teachers, if it is in question, through occasional use of proper employment procedures. Not to waste days of time tied up in salary appeal hearings and litigation that immediately undermine collegiality and threaten a school’s positive atmosphere.  

“With so much volatility, it is not surprising that the teaching profession is experiencing a continuing recruitment crisis. We have teacher shortages and, more worryingly, head teacher and senior leader shortages. In the independent sector we can offer teachers a different way, but we do first have to accept that graduates must be inspired to enter the profession in the first place. Teaching can be the most rewarding job in the world with every day full of infinite variety. Are we doing enough in our schools to promote our profession? Do our school careers fairs feature a stand manned by a range of our own strongest teachers telling our students why teaching is a great career which they should consider? Can we agree with our own teachers that we will drop the possibility of teaching as a career into our lessons from time to time? Let’s make teaching one of the list of aspirational careers regularly discussed in school and an aspiration of which to be proud. 

“What is heartening is to see the independent sector providing so many avenues for young graduates to complete their Initial Teacher Training. It was a GSA Head, Sarah Evans, who led the first independent school to be a Teaching School. Many in this room already run Initial Teacher Training programmes – formerly Graduate Teacher Training – in their schools. We have worked with a variety of established external providers for at least a decade and will continue to do so. Meanwhile, the HMC has this term launched its own PGCE scheme with the University of Buckingham and the Independent Schools Council’s new website clarifies the routes into teacher training in independent schools. This is welcome news. This is our sector saying to graduates, if you want to teach in an independent school where you will be free from many of the restrictions imposed on  the state sector, come and join us!  

“My third concern is for the parents whom we all serve. They provide that ultimate third angle of the equilateral triangle of education – pupils, teachers, parents. They are vital members of the educational process. But, the impact of all the educational change they are witnessing without our daily familiarity with the jargon, is baffling to them. Add in the public attacks on teachers and the result has been an undermining of what used to be their confident trust in teachers and the education system.  Again, this is not surprising.  

“I speak as a parent, too. I find myself increasingly wanting to reach out to them as I believe that parenting has never been as difficult as it is today. Why? Because one’s instincts are constantly challenged and spontaneous confidence dissolves. Parents are becoming less bold and intuitive in parenting adolescents. Today, social media means they are conscious that their every action is the subject of global scrutiny. Children, as grumpy as any of us were when given the answer ‘No’, retreat in the same way to their bedrooms but instead of reflecting for a while to blaring music, broadcast their parents’ apparently unreasonable behaviour to all their Facebook friends, or Twitter followers, whose own parents are apparently also ‘completely out of touch’. Where once they might have taken time out to come to their senses, apologise and ‘move on’, now they are more likely to continue the fight. 

“The world of electronic media is one in which children pay far more attention to others’ opinions of them than used to be the case. Their formative impressions are of being watched and judged rather than of simply being and discovering.  And if it’s tough, they take it out on parents.  ‘A mother’s place is in the wrong’. I first heard that wry observation from a GSA colleague in Headship and I use it so regularly when reassuring mothers of mid-teenage girls who have suddenly discovered that there might be a competition to be won for the place of alpha female in the family pack. Nonetheless, it takes courage and a long time these days to stay out there ‘in the wrong’ until your teen gradually realises that you are in fact dependable, wise and ‘in the right’.

“Add in the other parental pressures of university fees, assisting your child onto the property ladder – if you can – worrying that they won’t find a well-paid job, is it any surprise that parents who are anxious to support their children feel that they are not as empowered as once they were. Some even start to believe all that their distressed children say instead of sifting carefully to get to the heart of the matter. And anxious parents then turn to teachers – or sometimes turn ‘on’ teachers. Relationships that should be open and trusting can become strained and all too easily everyone feels under attack.  

“We need to ensure that parents know that we teachers understand their challenges and that they can be confident of a listening and supportive ear if they come directly to us for an open debate on any concerns they have. 

“Can we get alongside parents and support them more? Should schools offer more structured and reassuring courses on what to expect at each stage of their child’s development? Can we supplement the routine formula of parents’ evenings which have the aura of speed dating – without the excitement – or routine lectures on the next stage of the curriculum to be taught and assessed, with something more informal that facilitates dialogue between parents who may often feel isolated in making big parenting decisions or holding the unpopular line? 

“In framing your Conference we have invited speakers who will address many of these issues. We have sessions on ITT and NQTs, on electronic media, on educating children in cities – the list of this afternoon’s Conversations is wonderful. Thank you to all of you for your offer of shared expertise. STEM and MFL have their slots, too, beginning this afternoon. We have an update on the curriculum changes and a long workshop session on the challenge of multi- tasking – the return of JoAnn Deak after far too long a break. Marcus Child will demonstrate the power of positive thinking in building successful school communities – pupils, teachers, parents – and Tanya Byron will offer her theories of the importance of EQ as opposed to IQ in a healthy education and of those soft skills that employers ceaselessly tell us they want to see in graduate employees, and which we know GSA girls demonstrate in spades. It’s all such a far cry from the three-hour, hand-written examinations we seem to be veering back towards.  

“We have together commissioned a new piece of music with the uplifting title ‘Gratitude’. In it we celebrate the life of Maya Angelou, campaigner for human rights and most particularly for women’s education and rights. The texts that Katherine Dienes Williams and I selected speak to me of eternal values. I hope you like them. And for the first time we have an exhibition space which we have sponsored in order to let charities which focus on global education tell you about the possible links that they can form with your schools which may further empower and engage your students: Afghan Connection, the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Donor Scheme, International Women’s Academy, and our old friends, Plan UK. Do please visit their stand and those of all our exhibitors and sponsors without whom we could not put on a conference of this scale in this location. I would like here to thank them all and welcome them to our conference. 

“Despite the misgivings I have about where our education system is currently headed, I am certain that the future could be enormously positive. Educators are forward-thinking, positive people and if they were in charge, things would happen. My caveat, however, is that everyone in this room has a responsibility to put it right. We are all highly qualified to do so and should be confident to engage at the highest level. 

“If there is an answer to be found it must surely be in the frank acknowledgement that education should be removed from quangos and party politics. We all know this. I think even the politicians recognise it. Let’s remove the costly changes of direction and ‘quick fix’ initiatives that are driven by our adversarial political system. Children and their future – our country’s future – should not be at the mercy of those for whom education is a means to secure votes and power, though I do concede that our elected representatives must have a presence.  

“The Secretary of State for Education’s commission to establish an independently run College of Teaching is at least a starting point, provided it does not turn into another quango. Who will it be accountable to and what powers will it have? Under whose authority? 

“I have attended many wonderful and enjoyable conferences this year – in order:  SoH, ASCL, AGBIS, BSA, ISA, IAPS, HMC, ASGS, not to mention the NCGS in the USA, and now GSA. The collective relevant years of experience at those UK gatherings could surely devise a new system for our country. And, with our collective experience and worldwide respect, the UK independent sector is well positioned to play its part. Our academic standards are of the highest and our enrichment activities – sport, music, drama, the arts – world class. Our pastoral systems and alumni networks are the envy of the world and our schools are already heavily engaged in a plethora of independent-state sector partnerships. Over a quarter of the students we educate are assisted with fees through scholarship and bursary funding. We contribute significantly to enabling social mobility and our sector injects almost £10 billion into the UK economy. We can and I believe we should play our part in helping to devise a new and better education system, fit for our country’s purpose and culture. 

“The time has come for those who do not have the daily familiarity with our work, nor the training or experience, to listen to our collective voices and let us lead. 

“Back to conference. Why come at all? I believe that education is all about the interaction of minds and voices in the same spaces. The handing on of the baton of knowledge and – crucially – how to interpret it. Subtleties of inference and ideas, infectious enthusiasm of face and body language. Sparkling eyes and lively humour. Engagement of the truest kind. These are irreplaceable. No MOOC can replicate them. We still need great, inspirational teachers. And we need inspirational head teachers.  

“In that classroom space – or whatever it will be called in the future – what we can best teach our children is how to draw people to them. To engage with them. Listen to them. ‘Don’t criticise them until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins’ – the American Indian proverb made world famous by Atticus Finch, perhaps one of the bravest and most famous of single parents, skilfully guiding  his impetuous daughter, Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird. Listen and persuade. Don’t just walk away or shout louder because you don’t agree. Persist. 

“Teach children that to have a new idea should not automatically be to dismiss those of the past as poor or weaker which they see politicians do regularly in Prime Minister’s Question Time. Teach them instead to build ideas up block on block, measuring carefully. And to argue out which blocks are good to use and which not. Which will crumble and are sandstone of the whims of the moment. Which are granite and will forever be strong corner stones. In the children’s own language, they need to recognise why it is that loom bands, say, have a short lifetime as a fad, while playing cards, the cross words, sudokos or the chess boards, with their infinite interactive possibilities and appeal have limitless potential? And how to spot the difference. To realise what is good innovation. And please, oh please, to allow themselves time to reflect fully on things before imposing them on others and assess fully and properly all the implications.   

“At the ASCL Conference, our then President – for we are all members – Ian Baukham, referred to the need – in the midst of so much change – for greater emphasis on the underlying values that we teach and model in our schools. This year the ASCL message is about trust. Trust to be vested in schools and in education leaders. I am also arguing for educators to be trusted to reinvent our whole system. Our schools are not broken. They are remarkably resilient. Education stewardship should encourage and foster them, not throw tin taks under bicycle wheels. I thank ASCL for its work on all our behalves. Values are lasting. So are some practical or technical skills though others are of the moment. We won’t need to touch type at all within the next decade, for example. Skill requirements will change. Emotions, though, are consistent, and are of paramount importance as it is through the emotions that people engage with life and are driven to aspire. And emotions must also be managed. 

“The Girls’ Schools Association is 140 years old this year.  In that time it has reworked and renamed itself, but that early gathering of heads of girls’ schools, led then by the legendary Miss Buss and Miss Beale, who called themselves The Association of Head Mistresses of Endowed and Proprietary Schools, had a clear, forward thinking agenda of independence  for educationalists even then. Early resolutions included: ‘that the choice of books and methods of teaching should be left to the Head Mistress; that it was highly desirable to establish an examination for teachers, men and women, as a test of professional knowledge’ – PGCE/QTS What goes around comes around!; and in 1876 – ‘that in several other respects the education of girls should differ from that of boys’. But, ‘that the scheme for examination for boys was sufficiently elastic to be made to fit girls and Miss Beale was quite willing to try it at CLC’. In 1922 ‘that it is desirable to give especial attention to the physical education of girls and to attach a gymnasium to schools; ‘that modern languages should be taught scientifically and have a more prominent place than classics’. That was pretty anarchic for those times! Beautiful, handwritten minute books testify to hours of serious debate and discussion. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, our predecessors were bold pioneers in education. We continue in that tradition in our wonderful contemporary girls’ schools. Respected for the quality of our graduates – 94% of girls in GSA Schools go on to higher education – GSA can comfortably and confidently takes its place as an equal partner alongside all other educational organisations in the independent sector and beyond.   

“We welcome today colleagues from associations around the world, including Megan Murphy, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools in America, and, closer to home, Nicole Chapman, former President, now vice President of the Association of State Girls Schools. We look forward to the proposed 2016 international conference in New York which some of you are already working on. Nicole Chapman and I are together enjoying framing a possible memorandum of understanding between ASGS and GSA, and a joint day’s event in September 2015 for staff in all girls’ schools across state and independent sectors. We will put these proposals to our respective memberships early next year. 

“I am aware that some in the room believe that we should ‘bang on’ not about girls’ schools but rather about excellent schools. Our parents are our strongest critics. If our schools were not excellent schools, they would vote with their feet and we would close. In this room, therefore, are the heads of great girls’ independent schools. For all kinds of girl. There are over 250 maintained sector ones too. There is clearly a very strong market place for strong, contemporary girls’ day and boarding schools. We should be robustly confident, maintain our long established tradition and be proud of our enduring appeal. 

“Thank you for the opportunity to serve you all this year. I have been proud to do so. Thank you to the Class of 2000 for providing the Education Conversation at our annual gatherings for nearly 15 years. It’s a bit like 10 green bottles as we each, in turn, retire, but so many of you are here this week. Thank you for your love and support. To South Central Region, my long suffering regional conversationalists. What a model of convivial educational dialogue amongst sworn competitors! To my many other influencers, mentors and coaches – you know who you are. Thank you. And finally, thanks to Jane Carroll and the PD team for putting the next three days together and responding with no more than the occasional raised eyebrow to some of my more whimsical ideas. The abseiling down Big Ben is sadly off the agenda. Shame. But I’m told that some of you as keen runners may be turning out bright and early tomorrow to take in some London bridges and the Embankment. 

“I hope that you will leave on Wednesday feeling that you have, if nothing else, been provoked to reflect on your own current beliefs about education, on the things you are leading in your schools, and the power – and the right – we all have to make waves and lead revolutionary change.  

“It is important to me that our first speaker whom we shall welcome to the lectern shortly is Professor Dame Carol Black, Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, the place which gave me that ultimately forgiving break and opportunity, and where I first came to realise that girls’ and women’s education is still in its relative infancy and still in need of champions. We are those champions.  

“Welcome to Conference. Let the education conversation begin!” 

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