The Gift of Mr McGee

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Written February 2017, after the terrible year that was 2016
Twenty-one and a half years ago my English teacher, Mr McGee, gave me a gift.
It was autumn 1995 and he made our class write about the summer holidays. But, he said, we were not to write in the normal way. No listing activities or saying what a nice time we had. Instead we must write with our senses. ALL of our senses. We had to feel memories. Taste sunshine.
Twenty-one and a half years later and I am alone in a place far from the bad times that followed me lately. I’m on the Andaman Islands, an Indian outpost so remote that some islanders have never communicated with the outside world. They live in a permanent Stone Age, intransigent to change. After the Tsunami hit in 2004, rescue boats were sent to help the Sentinelese people who, in turn, sent back arrows and jeers.
One cannot outrun the bad times, however, any more than one can force kindness on self-sufficient people.
Hence I find myself, after four days of travelling, sitting on the far side of Havelock island, on Radhanagar beach number 7 – one of the most beautiful coastlines on earth – ready to burst into tears. The only thing stopping me is that I hear Mr McGee’s words.
Those words have helped a thousand times when my mind is racing and the anxiety of a thousand fears blooms in my skull.
“Think like a writer,” says my distant memory-version Mr McGee. “Listen to the sounds. Taste the air. What are you feeling? What can you hear? Tell me what you hear.”
And in my head, I start to write.
I scramble for words describing the mint green waves ahead: rising and pluming, bubbling forwards, grasping for the beach with outstretched fingers. Then, the sounds. The hissing as the sea sploshes the sand like spitballs on hot plates. Psht. Ptth. Pfft. Waves evaporate on contact, as if the beach’s fervent beauty makes the water sigh towards heaven, exalted at last.
Tastes are more pedestrian. Salt, grit, my tears. In the smell there is nothing at all, except an occasional whiff of burning wood, similar to old-man musk worn by granddads on Valentine’s Day. Except, in fact, I am sat by a granddad. I realise it’s Valentine’s Day. And his wife is down in the sea calling for him to come and join her as she might have done every Valentine’s Day for the past fifty-seven years. Yet here he sits alongside me in stony silence. Why won’t she sit down, his face says. Why, for once, won’t she sit next to him and enjoy this wood-dank cologne he’s daubed every February 14th for fifty-seven years and which she has resolutely ignored.
Old-man musk smells of hope from now on. Hope, steeped, fifty-seven years.
I am disappointed by the sights. Or, rather, with my inability to form words adequate to describe the sights. Not good enough even for a Year 8 English assignment. The only metaphor coming to mind is of the 1980s quiz show, Catchphrase, which would play video clips if a contestant won the final round. Bugles played, lights flashed, a voice boomed – YOU HAVE WON THE HOLIDAY OF A LIFETIME – because, somehow, in 1980s England, everyone had the same dream, And lo! Up would rise movie shots of crystal-blue waters, perfect white sands, stripy fish by a snorkeler, a man in a white suit and sunglasses. At home, viewers would simultaneously put down their forks on their Saturday tea-tray and turn to one another and say “we’ll go there one day, when we win the pools”. Except, of course, no one ever won the pools and real holidays were spent in Malaga with Stella Artois and techno clubs, which are also holidays of a lifetime, in their own way, but it does mean that when one is suddenly struck with the superlative version it can be hard to find the right words. Saying what you see is harder than it looks.
As for feelings? Sadness is sticky. Tears leave residue. Snot gums my sleeve. In my heart I hold nothing. Except, perhaps, a strange fondness for the tiny Andaman beach crabs, thousands of them, scurrying on the sand, traversing their way between the minty open ocean and a Jurassic Park-jungle that at any moment threatens to throw a pterodactyl from its canopy.
The crabs are fretful. Wobbling at speed, dashing in and out of sand holes, scared by the slightest sound. Worries flit across my brain that way. Appearing and disappearing. Hiding, watching, waiting. Wobbling. The crabs meet the water, then panic and run back. They dash to the jungle and feel uneasy on the soil. Waving their claws they hurtle again toward the sea. A never-ending path, strewn with imaginary dangers; their shells not hard enough to withstand trampling, their exteriors not soft enough for warmth. It is tiresome always being a crab.
Beaches do not play well with pen and paper. Words come thick and fast but remain in my mind until several hours later when I finally bash them onto a screen using my phone and a portable keyboard in a small beach shack, engulfed in power-cut darkness, while I imbibe paneer masala with a spoon and the other patrons – struggling without light – express surprise as I flick on my pocket headlamp and continue unmoved.
(The note was interrupted by an unhappy German come to tell me I must turn my light away as it is shining in his eyes. Is it beyond expectation that HE shift HIS seat?)
In England it is now 2pm and the BBC tells me it is raining. Here, we sit outside without shoes.  The sadness creeps back in. But tomorrow I will sit on a beach so perfect the sea screams with excitement and dies a fizzy, happy death. The crabs are all asleep now in their deepest holes. The gift of words will accompany me until I finish dinner. The headlamp will light my way home.

Journalists don't need to self-flagellate about Corbyn, but they should about Grenfell

SHAME”! by Rochelle Hartman –
In recent weeks journalists have spent an inordinate amount of time beating themselves up for not guessing the outcome of the General Election. This is bizarre. Journalists are contestants on Catchphrase: we say what we see. The news is not Family Fortunes, in which we try to divine what is in the minds of a hypothetical 100 (or 60 million) people. Sometimes, we are given clues about people’s intentions: through polling data or interviews or protests. And so we report that. Other times, we are asked to give an analysis and a prediction based on this information, and we do the best we can. But the idea that journalists should be humbled because they didn’t predict an outcome that John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, didn’t even believe at 2am after the polls shut, is arrogant and weird. Presumably McDonnell had spent weeks suffused in Labour land – talking to thousands of people on doorsteps, looking at every bit of polling data – and he seemed as surprised as the rest of us. So let’s not be freaked out that the people whose job involved trying to report on one of the most unexpected, shambolic, rapidly changing elections of the past forty years didn’t guess the upshot.
On the other hand, I’ve yet to hear a single journalist speak of the profession’s failure to predict Grenfell.
Did you read that? Did I just suggest journalists might have cocked up on a fire that killed people? That instead of tuggling locks over Corbyn we might want to look a little guilty about some actual deaths?
Well, yes. Because as Mark Horvit, the ardent former chief of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc, once yelled at our investigative reporting class, “It’s no use us standing outside a collapsed building asking questions about why a man died. That won’t bring him back.”
Horvit was incensed after a walkway on the outside of a multi-story student residence at the University of Missouri collapsed, killing a firefighter as it went.
The university is famed for having a huge journalism school which operates a fully-fledged television news channel, a daily newspaper and a world-famous investigations department.  In the days since the collapse, it had emerged the university had been aware of structural issues of the residences – which were mostly occupied by international students with families – but had failed to follow-up with maintenance and repairs. None of us had spotted it.
He was furious. “This town is crawling with reporters. The documents were all there. We can clearly see from the records the university knew about this and had done nothing. But had any of us looked? Had any of us followed up?”
“It’s no use standing outside with a microphone, ‘Good evening, the collapse of a walkway has caused the death of a firefighter’… That’s no use to anyone. We can put in a thousand freedom of information requests now, and we’ll get answers, but we can’t change that a wife and a child no longer have a husband and a father.
“That is what happens when we are not paying attention.”
I remember thinking this was harsh. Everyone in the class was working hard. We were filing information requests like crazy. No one was complacent. We were not the ones who neglected the maintenance on that walkway. We didn’t cause the firefighter to lose his life.
But the speech did its job. It reminded me that journalists need to keep an eye on known problems. Since we started Schools Week I cannot tell you how many times we have reported an organisation saying they were going to do something to solve a serious issue, then, when we’ve gone back a year later, nothing has been done.
Why do we go back? Because I learned that day in Mark’s class that follow-up matters. That’s why, in 2015, when the government promised 13 expert reviews as part of its general election campaign, we meticulously tracked each one to completion. It’s why we printed the outcome of the one they were going to keep hidden. It’s why we made the Department for Education hand us the agreement with the Home Office that they wouldn’t use information about pupils to deport illegal immigrants rather than just let them away with saying they’d made the agreement.
Did investigative reporters, particularly on the nationals, screw up by not noticing fire safety issues before Grenfell? Yes. Inside Housing has been reporting on it for ages, including cladding issues. The government was ordered eight months ago to review fire safety standards after other deaths in high-rise flats. That report still wasn’t out 8 months later – and who questioned that delay?
The government have been woeful in the past twelve months at publishing information. They have hidden consultations across the board (we have three outstanding ones in education). Why? Because they didn’t want difficult information put out before a general election. Grenfell shows why that is downright dangerous. When ministers forget that real people are waiting on that information, to make real decisions, and instead treat them as a political end, this is where we end up: unintended consequences writ as large as headlines.
Why didn’t we see newspaper stories about this inaction? Partly because it is hard to cover things not happening. Attention focuses on action: walkways collapsing, dead firefighters. But, as journalists, we have to plug away at the dull stuff. Keep timetables on our computers of decision dates. Check back to see if things are being done. Write loud words when they are not. Talk about the boring-but-important and find ways to make it interesting. That’s the job. It’s not chasing glamour and scandal; it’s making the important into something interesting.
Second, it partly got missed because political reporting has become a quasi-celebrity form of reporting, minuting what the powerful do. And the politicians pander to it as much as the reporters. A juicy quote here; a contrived feud there. It keeps the papers busy and stops people asking or reading about the boring-but-important stuff. But if there’s a lesson of the general election and Grenfell it is that political reporters would do well to pay attention to policy over politics.
Popularity spins on a dime. Guessing the future of politics is astrology: using snapshots of the past, fragments of light in the dark, in order to predict a tomorrow no one can really glimpse.  Policy, however, stays as is. The workability of grammar schools, or free lunches, or a dementia tax, or renationalisation of rail, can be predicted based on data, and history, and stakeholders, and case studies. Those don’t change with popularity. Likewise, the Grenfell cladding was going to be dangerous whoever got into power. It is a problem anyone could have faced – and one everyone should have been asking about.
Journalism is Catchphrase. It involves saying what you see. But you have got to be looking in the right direction to know if Mr Chips is drowning, not waving. Journalists didn’t really miss the election story; they missed a massive, brewing tragedy.

On why I disagree with universal free lunches and scrapping university fees

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Over the past week or so I’ve disappointed a lot of people. I know this, because they’ve tweeted to tell me.
The problem was that Labour announced two policies, and I have issues with both.
The policies are:

  1. Free school lunches for all 7 to 11 year olds, and
  2. Free university tuition for undergraduates (maybe even graduates)

Both sound amazing. Who doesn’t want a world where we feed children and educate everyone? Sign me up!
BUT, the introduction of both largely amount to one thing: giving something for free to people who, by and large, are already able to afford the service.
The twitter critics disagree. They say I’m missing the point because the policy is about giving everyone free access to something. But in both cases we already have targeted support for families most in need. Hence, in both cases, the addition of making it free for all is, literally, about giving it to more people – most of whom are already able to afford it.
If the policy was “help more people who can’t afford to do something” then my reaction would be different. But so far, that’s not what is being proposed.

A word on socialism

One of the things people have spent time telling me, at length, on twitter is that the principle of universalism is a good thing, in and of itself. They are right. I get it. If you’re asking me where I would like to get to in the end, a place where everyone has equal access to food and education is great.
But that’s not what Corbyn is offering me. Because this isn’t a religion. It’s politics. This isn’t about what I want from Nirvana but what I think someone who holds power from 2020 to 2025 (probably before) ought to do with their time in power.
And me, well, you may not believe it but, largely, I sign up the Marxist maxim: ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need”. And if a child is already being provided with a perfectly good meal by their family, then I don’t think they are in need of a £2 plate of sausage and beans. But what I do think is that there are very real and immediate social issues that Labour could instead focus on. Social issues needing pragmatic socialist solutions, which would enable society to start flourishing in precisely the way that the people who are disappointed in me want.
I think we need solutions for homelessness. I think we need to use any available cash raised from taxation to bring back vital services which have been lost – SureStart, children’s trust boards, sexual health services, walk-in centres, in-between homes.
This is where I would begin if I was outlining Labour’s vision for 2020-25. Not with policies which, as I said above, are largely about giving free things to people who already have stuff.
And if you don’t believe that’s what these policies do, let me explain them one by one…

The Problem With Free School Meals for Primary Children

At present, if you are in a family on benefits, free lunches are already covered for your child.
If your child doesn’t get free meals, and you can’t provide food, the likelihood at primary level is that this will be picked up. Primaries are small enough, with enough dinner attendants, that if a child isn’t getting fed, people notice, and this is remedied in a variety of ways. (Sometimes the school pays, sometimes liaison workers work with the kid etc).
But, here’s the really important bit, we know some families aren’t able to feed their children at other times. The thirteen weeks of holiday, plus breakfasts, are particularly difficult.
We might also argue that families just above the benefit line – the ones recently defined as ‘ordinary working families’ – may struggle to pay for the meals. This is particularly the case in the casual labour market where earnings are lumpy for some parents.
These are both real social issues. So, instead of spending £1billion on a policy which includes paying for meals for families earning millions, I would instead start with extending the threshold for free meals upwards and using any leftover cash half-term and breakfast food for struggling families.
But what about ethos? Isn’t it better if everyone sits down together for lunch? If Labour want to do that, (and I think it’s a strong shout), then there’s a solution that doesn’t cost anything much. Just write it into legislation. “Schools must have children sit down together at lunch”. It sounds hideously controlling, but it’s no different than what universal free meals actually involves. It just doesn’t cost a £1billion.
And if you wanted to go further you could do. Some schools already make it a requirement that children eat school food, altogether. Personally, I find this a step too far. But if you’re a fan of everyone being made to eat lunch together, and eat the same food, why not simply require it just like we require parents to kit out their kids in uniform? (Or are the Labour party also going to start paying for uniforms?)

The Problem with Free University Tuition

This is the one where I upset everyone with a tweet which, as someone fairly pointed out, wasn’t one of my best.

And I get why this annoyed people. It’s very un-me. I’m not usually a “but why should I pay for X’ type person. And I used private school kids as a proxy for “ones from wealthy families”, which isn’t entirely fair and has distracted people from the main point.
So, let’s pretend I’d said what I intended to say, which is:
The reason why people don’t like this sort of whataboutery is because it is usually said by someone claiming:
In that case, the reason why I usually say a rich person should pay is because there is a greater cost if we don’t. Hence, there’s a collective benefit to paying for the thing. For example, why should a rich person pay housing benefit to a care leaver? Well, a homeless person has a financial and social cost. If we take from a person who can afford it, and give to the person who can’t, then we stop this cost, without anyone being too badly affected.
My tweet spins that around. It is now a low-income person giving to a person who is (more likely) to be wealthy in order to have a good which is (somewhat likely) to make the wealthy person even wealthier.
Yet, people still use the same argument as above. They say there is a benefit to university education, and we would have problems if we had no, say, doctors or teachers.
Clearly, this is true. University educated people are a social good.
But there are also significant individual benefits of a degree. Graduates are still, ever so slightly, more likely to earn more in their lifetime than non-graduates. They are also, most definitely, given more options in the labour market. They have more autonomy over what job they can do. This is a substantial individual benefit. One worth paying for, in my view.
Furthermore, there’s no sense, at the moment, that the collective benefit collapses if we keep tuition fees. In the case of a rich person paying for a low-income person to have, say, a home, we know that unless this basic need is met the other person cannot provide it for themselves. In the case of degrees, however, that hasn’t happened.
Tuition fees have not (yet) put off the poorest students. Heaven knows how many times I said they would. I really believed it. I marched over it. I wrote articles about it. But – so far, up until the £9k fees, that didn’t happen. Instead, bursaries amped up, fee waivers came in, universities got better at doling out cash, and the poor kids kept going. It’s awkward, I know. But it is what it is.
With the new £9k regime, I suspect this might change. But I’ve said that every time before and always been wrong. So who knows?
Certainly what we can say is that a system where students were paying between £3,000 and £6,000 – so were part-subsidised, part-paying – reflected both the collective benefit to society, but also the graduate premium and individual benefit.
The way repayment works also means that the repayment of fees essentially works as a form of income tax. No one pays until earning above a threshold. (So if you never benefit, you never pay). It is, in essence, a graduate tax, but with an expiry date.
It is the sort of progressive taxation that I always thought Labour were in favour of.
The other beef people had with my tweet and arguments was a belief I was presuming everyone who goes to university comes from a wealthy family. That’s wrong. I know they are not. I am one of those kids. But I’m afraid they are much more likely to go. That’s because universities are selective, so they are a service more often used by children of middle and high income families who hold the grades to get in. This isn’t a conspiracy by me. It’s just true.  If Corbyn wants to change who goes to universities, that’s great. But, as it stands, scrapping fees disproportionately helps young pupil who had the triple advantage of growing up in a family with a decent income, with educated parents and who, by 18, were already smart enough to get a gaggle of decent grades (because, whether you like it or not, that’s who tends to go to university).
Could we change that? Yes. Is Corbyn suggesting that? No. Hence, as it stands, I don’t love the free fees policy.
Now: are there problems with the current university loans system? Yes. You betcha. The interest rises are tantamount to misselling. There are serious issues around the costs of living versus grants and loans available. And don’t get me started on quality, the offers systems, etc. But none of those are solved by making fees free. Which is another reason I find the policy so annoying. There are actual problems out there in higher education land. And yet Labour, so far, is silent on them. If they were talking about making universities set rent-caps, I’d be applauding. If they were talking about how to fund university when you are there – I’d be all ears.
What we also know is that there is an issue with mature students. And this has been a focus for me in my writing – not least this article, where I point out how horrific the numbers are.
We need to think very seriously as a country about how we sustain people in employment until they are (basically) 70. And one way to do that would be funding re-training.
It is all very well for people to harangue me on Twitter and say we can have those things as well. We can have free first degrees, and second ones, and third ones, and free childcare, and free everything. But, these are expensive things and without knowing where the cash will come from, I’m not satisfied that by 2025 we actually can. And it would be awful, really awful, if Labour promise something they cannot deliver. Look what happened to the Lib Dems on this point!
So, what I would like to see the National Education Service become is something like an Individual Learning Account with a fixed amount for everyone, and perhaps a redistributive top-up, which can be spent at any time across life. This could be used to support a first degree, but also later training. It could be used to help support people when they are low-paid apprenticeships (another neglected area by Labour).  These policies haven’t worked well in the past, I know. Both Blair and Brown tried. But we have much better technology to enable it now and I think they are the genuinely egalitarian thing to do. Individual Learning Accounts for all is better than free university fees for some.  
Hence, it isn’t that I have given up on Labour or on education or on the principles of redistribution. It is simply that I think pointing at services which, so far, would largely give a cash transfer to middle and high income families is not the way to solve the ills of today.
Might it be one day? Maybe. But we have to accept where we are now. We have to see today’s issues and solve those. Because if we try and jump to the heavens too quickly, reality will remind us – rather quickly – that clouds are made of water and we will come back to earth with a bump.
Building a ladder to the skies today is a much safer approach, even if less exciting, than promising universalism and free things tomorrow.

A side-note on aggressive tweets

I know my tone has upset people. It wasn’t intended to. But that happens sometimes, especially on twitter. If it did, I regret that. I like engaging in an open and honest conversation, and I hope people see my subsequent tweets have tried to do that. My aim is never to be dismissive.
One thing I don’t agree with, though, is how many people have aggressively suggested over the past day or so that, because I am a journalist, that this means I must never question Corbyn or McDonnell. Or at that I must only ever write very serious tweets.
It would be a very dangerous thing if people insulting me because I’m picking holes in Labour policy actually stopped me doing so. Politicians must always be treated as people who one day might take over every instrument of power in the country and be questioned appropriately. It’s much worse to treat them as if they’re irrelevant or to unthinkingly believe every word.
So, challenge my opinions, sure. Tell me I’m wrong, or missing a point, no problem. But require me to simply stop because you don’t like what I say? That’s not something I can agree to.
Likewise, I won’t stop with my use of satire and sarcasm, even if it’s not to every tweeter’s tastes. Five years ago, when I left the classroom and moved to America, I used to get up in the middle of the night and tweet education select committees attended by Michael Gove. The tweets were part-newsy, part-sarcastic, and they had two functions. One: inform people of what was said. Two, remind the audience that people in power are still just people. That second one is what satire and sarcasm does. Satire is what keeps power grounded. It’s the kid at the parade pointing out the Emperor was naked. It’s Charlie Chaplin pointing out the absurdity of Hitler. It’s the reminder that no one is above humour, no matter how beloved, because – in the end – they are just people operating in the same constraints of every other politician who went before them. And if I think their assumptions or values are wrong, I will say it. And if I think humour can punchly get the point across, I will use it.
No-one has to agree with my politics or even with how I conduct myself.  But please know my opinions and actions are not because I am unthinking, or because I believe in right-wing thinking, or because I’m being glib. They are because I believe the world is better when we ask questions, point out absurdities, make jokes, question fiercely, debate harshly, and – crucially – when we take from each according to ability, and give to each according to need.

What to do when you feel out of your league – #WomenEd #IWD17

A week ago I gave my first ever talk at a WomenEd conference.

I’ve written before about not particularly enjoying doing things “as a woman“. So the talk was less focused on gender, and more on the unifying fact that we all feel out of our depth sometimes – especially in work situations.

Feeling out of my league has been fairly common as I moved from being a classroom teacher, to being taken to court by the government, to editing a newspaper, and now to running an app. I’ve also watched carefully as other people have gone on journeys which pushed them out of their comfort zone. AThe education landscape changes quickly – politicians are parachuted in and out; union secretaries rise and fall; successful superheads are praised one second and mutinied the next. Watching that happen gives you a good sense of who pushes ahead, and how they did it.

From all that watching, the main thing I learned is this:



No matter how big he edu-celebrity, every single one I’ve interviewed admitted they worried about something. Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of Ofsted, did a stint in a ‘middle-class’ school and was flummoxed by the intervention of parents. He left and went back to working class communities where parents didn’t question what he said.  Dan Moynihan, chief executive of Harris schools, famously paid over £400k a year, is short in height – and that mattered to him at school. He was a scrapper until his teens, though when his shortness meant he couldn’t prove himself by physically fighting anymore, he instead figured he could be clever – trading his fists for textbooks and so went on to university. Dylan Wiliam, the demi-god of education research, was so surprised when he heard that he was being promoted to an academic position he dropped all the files he was carrying when he found out.

Everyone feels out of their league sometimes. But opportunity comes, leaders are pushed from the top of the building and, as the adage goes, they build their wings on the way down.

So what can you do when you feel yourself shying away from the big leagues?

It is normal to be afraid in situations where you feel out of your depth. I suffer as much as anyone on this.

Three years ago I returned from a period of study in the US and was invited to a roundtable at the Department for Education to be held by David Laws, who was schools minister at the time. I was reasonably well-known as an education blogger by then, but I still hadn’t met most of the big education names face-to-face.

At the meeting were journalists, CEOs, union leaders and so on. Of the 16 people around the table that day – I was one of only two women. That rarely bothers me, but that day I let it get at me. I felt smaller. I felt my voice would be squeakier. I felt… different.

And I let it freak me out.

The discussion was about the pupil premium: why it wasn’t closing the achievement gap despite its vast sums. I had an answer. But after forty minutes I still didn’t have the guts to speak up. This wasn’t like me. I’m renowned for being gobby. And yet… I just felt completely outclassed. As if my idea wasn’t going to be impressive enough for a debate which was, so far, pretty theoretical and involved a lot of fancy words.

After about fifty minutes, I worked up the courage to speak and said something along the lines of …. “Well, see, isn’t the reason that the pupil premium doesn’t work is because we don’t know what to do with the money? I mean, we give schools 700 pounds… but what are they supposed to do with it? It’s not as if you can feed the money to a child and the problem goes away. It’s not as if there’s a supermarket with 700 pound products where you can go in and say – ‘hi, my poor kid has x need, which solution can i buy for them?’ – and then you buy it and you know it will work. It seems obvious to me the reason the pupil premium doesn’t solve inequality is because we don’t actually know how to solve inequality.”

It’s not the most sophisticated answer. It doesn’t mention evidence, or data, or collaboration, or all the other dreadfully polite and on-trend words that people in education like to use. I still don’t think it’s wrong though.

The room fell silence for a beat. Then a senior educationalist said, “Well, I think that’s a bit simplistic…” and everyone went back to their discussions of long abstract phrases.

His point wasn’t mean in tone. But it felt dismissive. My stomach flipped. My cheeks flamed red. I couldn’t hear much for a few minutes. It had taken me fifty minutes to get the guts to speak and I felt totally shot down.
Even worse, I’d left it so late to speak that by the time I gave myself enough of a talking-to that I felt confident enough to re-enter the conversation, the meeting was wrapping up.

I promised myself afterwards that I would never allow myself to feel so totally helpless in a meeting again.

But how? How do you make yourself speak up when you feel so outclassed? And how do you avoid the dreaded fear that something will go wrong?

Three things to tell yourself when you feel out of your league


1. Be 10% Braver

I first heard this saying from Jill Berry although I know it’s widely used across the WomenEd sector. It’s a lifesaver. I use this one whenever I am just about to complete an action and then find myself self-sabotaging with negative thoughts.

Back in April last year, for example, I really wanted to do a profile interview of Toby Young, the journalist who set up one of the first free schools. Having battled with him for years, and given that our newspaper is often quite scathing towards free schools, I didn’t imagine it was a proposition he would leap to take. Nevertheless, I wrote an email to send on the basis the worse that could happen was that he would say no.

As I was about to send it, the doubt demons visited. My fingers hovered over the send button. Was I being an idiot? Why would he do the profile? Were readers really interested? What was the point?

And then Berry’s words floated in: WOULD YOU SEND THE EMAIL IF YOU WERE BEING JUST 10% BRAVER?  My brain immediately answered: YES. So I sent the email, and secured one of the most successful profile interviews Schools Week ever published.

The nice thing about 10% braver is that it gives your brain a question to overrule the doubt demons. I find that if I ask it, the answer always comes back quickly from my brain. Most of the time it is a yes, sometimes it’s a no – which usually points out that my reluctance isn’t an irrational fear, but a genuine concern. Had I asked myself in the David Laws meeting to be 10% braver, I have no doubt my brain would have said – WE CAN DO THIS – and I would have spoken sooner.

2. The 4Ws: Some Will, Some Won’t, So What?, Someone’s Waiting

I use this phrase when making decisions I will have to live with for some time. The 10% braver statement is good when you need to do something quickly. The 4Ws is for those moments when you’ve got a good idea that you want to implement, but you know you will have to live with the consequences – for example, publishing a blog post or announcing a change in departmental policy.

The fact is: some people Will like what you do, and some Won’t. The question is whether or not you can cope with that.

And if you’re not sure ask: So What? So what if everyone hates it? So what if everyone likes it? Will you lose your job? Will you feel uncomfortable for 24 hours? Will absolutely nothing at all happen and the world will go on spinning? (This is the most likely).

Finally, remind yourself that you are unlikely to be unique. Out there in the vast universe there is probably another human being, just like you, who is hoping someone might say or do the very thing that you want to say or do. The world will never move forward if we are all politely waiting for someone else to articulate our thoughts. So you articulate them. Chop, chop. Someone’s waiting.

3. Is this your _____ moment?

Six years ago, when I was still teaching, I was asked to attend a TeachFirst ‘strategy’ meeting. I didn’t really know what it was but the invite listed lots of big names – Michael Barber and Andrew Adonis among them – and I was very excited to go.

When I got there I realised it was an afternoon to plan TeachFirst’s strategy and I was the only teacher in the room. I felt  totally out of place. I observed the enormously influential education people, who all knew each other and seemed so normal with each other, in the wide-eyed way that children watch animals at the zoo. At one point someone was texting Michael Gove’s special advisors AND GETTING AN INSTANT RESPONSE. I was bowled over. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? I remember thinking.

The seat next to me was empty at first but half-way through the first session a young woman appeared, apologising for her boss’s absence. He was sick. She had been sent in his place.

As the session continued she leant over to me, introduced herself and said, “I really have no idea why I’m here. Have you seen these people? They are all amazing.” I leaned back towards her and empathised entirely.

Over the day we warmed up but we spent the whole day shaking our heads as to what we could possibly be contributing and questioning if we should be there.

That woman, it turned out, was Dr Becky Allen, now chief executive of Education Datalab and this year listed on DeBretts as one of the most influential and powerful people in education.

Which goes back to the point that everyone is out of their league.  Everyone had a first meeting where they sat around a table and wondered WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE? Today you might feel uncomfortable but it is entirely possible this could be your Becky Allen moment and, in a few short years, you’ll be the one at the head of the table getting calls answered and having apologetic newbies rush in the door.


But what if it all goes wrong?

This is the thing that can put us off the most. If we screw up by being 10% braver or saying ‘so what? someone’s waiting…’ then won’t we pay for it?
In all honestly, the answer is probably no.



Three things to remember about why being wrong doesn’t mean the end of the world



1. The Trump Pussy Principle

Last year, Donald Trump made a ridiculously crass comment … and he still became the President.
That’s a terrible indictment on many things. But it highlights two truths:

  1. No one is that interested in other people, they are more interested in their own lives, and
  2. You can really screw up and still get to the top.

Please don’t take this as me saying you should therefore abandon all morals and not give a stuff about anyone else. I’m not.

What I am saying is that if you are well-intentioned in your actions, and you mess up, the chances are that you will be able to recover the situation. And the reason I say that is because even when people are not well-intentioned, and they don’t do anything that proactive to try and make the situation, they often still recover given enough time. Ultimately, your mistakes are not other people’s priorities hence, they are not likely to damage you too greatly.


2. You Have More Resources Than You Think

Secondly, if things do go wrong, you have more resources than you imagine with which to cope.

I realised this a few years ago when I noticed I had a really weird, quite embarrassing habit. When I first moved to London, every time I visited a decent public toilet in the city I would mentally log it in case I became homeless. I would note how easy it would be for me to get to it without being seen by a security guard. Or how easy it would be to wash in the basins.

One day, I mused out loud about this on Facebook. My friend, Pia, responded almost immediately: “Laura, if you were homeless you could just use our toilet. Also, you wouldn’t be homeless, because you could come and stay with us.”

She was right. Yet it was only then that I realised my mind had kept catastrophising what might happen to the point that I had decided that by losing my income I would also, apparently, lose every friend I had ever made. Plus any ability to get another job too.

When the chips are down you will not be able to count on everyone. But the likelihood that your action at work – your asking for a raise, or saying no to a new responsibility – will lead to a catastrophic outcome is pretty low. Don’t let irrational fears of loss stop you from gaining.



3. Flip The Script

I owe this one to my dad. The master of ‘flipping the script’ – he is able to turn almost anything negative into a positive.

If I call him to complain about people writing horrible things about me on Twitter. He will point out how great it is that people are engaging with me. If someone is mad at a story in our newspaper, he will point out how great it is the paper is influential enough for people to be so worried.

And he’s great at perspective – including the game of 5s:
Will it matter in 5 hours? 5 days? 5 weeks? 5 months? 5 years?

Frankly, in work, almost nothing will still matter five years later. So don’t let a dip in fortune, or a mistake get you down. After all, it probably just means people will notice you – and, to Dad McInerney’s optimistic mind, that can always be turned to your advantage.


In conclusion: Everyone is out of their league…

In the end, none of this adds up to magic beans. You will find yourself paralysed sometimes, unable to act, feeling outclassed and beating yourself up for being such a wuss.

ut, I hope it is helpful to know that you are not alone. That almost everyone has felt that way at some point and that, when it comes down to it, you can either let it stop you or you can carry on anyway. And if you want to carry on anyway then ask yourself: Can I be 10% braver? So What? and Is this my Becky Allen moment?

Remember, someone’s waiting for you to speak up. Hop to it.

PS – I did talk about a few women-only issues in the talk, but I’m going to save that for another post. 

Do you want to slay dragons? (Aka be Deputy Editor of Schools Week)

We are hiring over at Schools Week.
We know exactly the skills we need, we just have to find them. Please share liberally. And remember: the better the person we get, the better Schools Week will become. What greater motivation do you need?

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Deputy Editor

Greenwich, London

(Pay: Depends on experience, but not stingy)

Who are we?

Schools Week is a print and digital newspaper covering the schools sector, with a focus on investigative journalism. Since our launch 18 months ago, our stories regularly make national news, featuring on Radio 4 Today, BBC TV and radio, and across all major national newspapers – including the front pages.
Every senior reporter received at least one award at the 2015 Education Journalism Awards and our readership continues growing at speed.
Our founders, Shane Mann and Nick Linford, cut their teeth on the incredibly successful FE Week and are the only shareholders in the company. So there’s no loans to pay back. No distant investors to keep happy. The editorial team can simply concentrate on writing quality news that keeps the school community knowledgeable.
We are apolitical: giving an equally tough time to all parties and ideas.
We are data savvy: beating out the Financial Times and the Times Higher Education Supplement to win this year’s Outstanding Data Education Journalism Award.
We know our community. The editor, Laura McInerney, spent six years teaching in challenging schools and three battling the department for education in court to get secret documents.
But we still want to improve, and we need an extra team member to do it.

Who do we need?

We already have business savvy, reporting chops, deep community knowledge and graphic designers who could improve the Sistine chapel.
What we need now is a Deputy Editor who loves words. Loves them. And combines that passion with the organisational skills of a military commander and an intense joy of social media.
Words. Organisation. Social media.
Sound like you? Read on.

What will you do?bst job ever

As a weekly print and daily digital product our stories must be led from reporting stage into final format. We need someone to support the editor in this process, and be ready to step into her shoes when she’s away.
Along with the sub-editor you will package stories: creating perfect headlines, re-writing, style-checking. Making a story sing by changing a hyphen to a comma.
You will also be responsible for bringing the pages together, so will need a love of deadlines, following-up and making everything just so. We are looking for a polisher more than a sculptor, although we’ll expect you to jump in with writing when needed – just like we all do.
Finally, we need someone excited about social media. A big part of your role will be working with designers and reporters to push out stories in different ways. We already use Twitter and Facebook but are looking to experiment across more platforms, and do so in a consistent, timely and attractive way. There is lots of scope for doing better here so the more excited you are by this part of the job, the better!

What do you get in return?

  1. The pay will reflect the importance of the role
  2. A committed team, totally serious about what we do
  3. Super smart readers, who really care about the product
  4. Feedback. We are passionate about schools because we are passionate about learning. That goes for staff, too. You will become a better journalist with us, and we want you to take an active lead in helping others become a better journalist too
  5. A spot in a growing, evolving, successful, innovative newsroom.


You want to apply? Excellent. Here’s how…

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We have a no-CV policy. Clearly, we think schools are important. But only because you learn in them. What you know and can do for our company is more important than where you learned it (or when).
So don’t send a CV. Instead write a letter to the editor (, which includes:

  • What you do currently
  • What evidence suggests you’d be good at this job (the more links you can send showing us this, the better)
  • Why you think Schools Week would be a good fit for you
  • 3 people we can call for references

If the letter piques our interest, we’ll follow-up with an initial phone call and go from there.

Want to know more before applying?

Good! We like curiosity.
If you’d like to speak to any of our team you will find us all on twitter.
Editor Laura can be emailed at or you can organise a call with her by visiting
Our website is An example of the printed paper is available here and here.
The closing date is advertised as January 29th however we will review applications once they are received and may appoint before the period closes. So don’t wait too long!

A Year At Schools Week – The Nurture 15/16 Challenge

January 1st 2015: A new year, a new name, a new editor.
That’s how last year began and it was terrifying.
After just 13 weeks in journalism I was made editor of weekly newspaper
Schools Week
which had already become renowned for breaking smart, headline-grabbing, important stories about what was really going on in schools and education policy.
Like a teacher facing a new class for the first time, or a headteacher taking on a new school, the possibilities for doing well – and for totally screwing up – were almost overwhelming.
Since then it’s been a hell of a year.
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I’ve been on the six o clock news, the Today programme, endless numbers of radio shows. I did the first major interview with Nicky Morgan after she re-entered office as Education Secretary. Just before Christmas, Schools Week even made the front page of a national newspaper.
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I got to interview some of my education heroes. To name a few: Dylan Wiliam. David Blunkett. Carol Dweck. (All of whom were brilliant and inspiring).
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I was called names by directors of communications at multinational companies; had strips torn off me by a politician’s aide; I was told umpteen times by tweeters and online commentors that they were “disappointed” in me.
I encountered situations that seemed like cliches created by script-writers of political dramas. My life has been more Thick Of It and House of Cards than I thought possible, and yet it has also been wonderfully human, too. For every person who phones to yell, there are those who go out of their way to tell us what we are doing well. For every person flouncing, there’s someone else acting with breath-taking magnanimity. For every cross word with a person in power, there’s also a humorous text – often from the same person.
The main lessons of the year have been simple:
1  – Sometimes you have to be pushed to become a leader. As a teacher I swore I’d never want to be a headteacher until 100% ready.  Now, I think that’s a mistake. I don’t think most people are ever 100% ready. Sometimes you’ve got to leap, and build your wings on the way down.
2 – Don’t doubt your team. The Schools Week crowd are an amazing bunch – the directors, the designers, the reporters, the office staff, all of them. For a workaholic perfectionist like me, it’s tough learning to give other people the reins but the team have consistently stepped up, and 2015-11-30 00.19.21their efforts were duly rewarded this year at the CIPR Education Journalism Awards.
But I did a stupid thing. Before the event I told senior reporter Sophie that she musn’t be disappointed if she didn’t win the Outstanding Education Data Journalism Award. In my head I was trying to point out that her amazing competition (not least a stats guy from the Financial Times) was not something to worry about if you lost.
Naturally, she won. And no one in that audience was more proud than me when they announced her name. (I nearly clapped my hands off). But I also realised what an idiot I was. Sophie is not a sensitive year 7. She didn’t need me sugar-coating reality, nor pre-empting it. A hard transition for teachers going into management is the line between treating adults like pupils, and as colleagues. The teachery-ness I have in me is sometimes brilliantly useful. It helps me notice needs and push people further. That is good for management. But I’m still working on dialing it down as necessary. Thankfully, it’s something I’m aware of and so I don’t mind when people point it out, and thankfully I have a forgiving team. (Sophie had the courtesy not to stick her award and two fingers in my face afterwards). And in the end it taught me lesson 3….

3. You just have to keep on learning.

With that in mind, on to the Nurture stuff…

Review of Last Year’s Nurture 14/15 Hopes:


1. Blogging

I wanted to do more, especially about journalism. I haven’t.
Why? Well, I’ve agonised over it. I want to open journalism up more, and get people understanding how and why newspapers (particularly Schools Week) do what they do. But in this first year I was also aware I’d make lots of mistakes and I wasn’t ready to share them. Like many people who say they want to blog, but feel reluctant, I worried that I’d give away things about other people that might make them uncomfortable and I didn’t want to talk the business into corners that it couldn’t remove itself from.
In October, I did share one piece about being a journalist in the crowd at the Conservative conference. It went viral. So viral I even got asked on to the Daily Politics to talk about it – a show I have adored forever. (Annoyingly I  couldn’t do it due to prior commitments, but still – an invite!)
The piece was tough to write. As a newbie to the media industry I’m still intrigued by the silence around the way it operates. Journalists are uneasy, I think, with turning the tables on themselves.
I was criticised by Louise Mensch for what I said and called an apologist by a few others. But, as I’ve written before, I grew up in the shadows of Ogreave and Hillsborough. The complicity of the press in both those incidences means saying what I see, even if it’s different and awkward, is fundamentally important to my sense of justice.

2. Reading more blogs

Done. I check out blogs recommended on Schools Week and I try to read at least one each day from the echo chamber.
Commenting has been less frequent largely (and lamely) because I have incessant problems logging into wordpress on my phone – especially now I have 2-step verification.
It has been great to see more bloggers stepping into the limelight this year, though. (And if you want to know my ‘never misses’: Nancy Gedge, Michael Tidd, Stephen Tierney, Jane Manzone, Joe Kirby and Tajinder Gill all come to mind).

3. Raise the voices of otherwise ignored groups

This happened. From our Schools Week ‘league tables for disadvantaged pupils’ which re-ordered performance tables based on schools best serving low-income children; through to our 6-part vulnerable learner series; to our celebration of A-level results at secondary modern sixth forms (yes, they exist, 88 of them); and right on to our front page story regarding the free school PRU that locked pupils into classrooms – we did absolutely everything we could on this throughout 2015.
In my Guardian columns I wrote a few times about special educational needs (here and here), in no small part due to the encouragement of brilliant educators in the special needs sector like Simon Knight, Nancy Gedge, Jarlaith O’Brien and Mark Baker. Each time they pointed out the important stuff and didn’t leap on me when I got things wrong but instead coaxed my thinking through calm debate.
I was particularly proud that my piece on child poverty, and its changing measures, received over 10,000 shares and featured my all-time favourite joke about politics.

4. Build more subscribers and brand awareness for Schools Week.

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Asked on serious BBC radio show while on day out. Had to go in hotdog contest t-shirt.

The television, radio, newspaper appearances helped. As have the panels, meetings, dinners, coffees, conferences. So thank you for the many invites, and for listening. The yellow jacket has become a celebrity in its own right.

Our readership numbers are now waaaaaay up on this time last year. But there’s so much more growth possible. A year into editorship I’m finally at that stage where I feel like I can catch my breath enough to think about how we improve next. We have big plans. Keep an eye out for more.

2015-07-10 06.39.585. Upper Tier Tribunal in January against the DfE regarding secret documents.

That happened. The battle rumbles on. New Year’s Day was spent writing documents for another tribunal. It is all extraordinarily mind-numbing. But also important. (If you want to know more about my court battle with the DfE – here’s the latest post)


Hopes for 2016:


1. Sort out my workflow (and get a bit more down-time)

I’ve struggled this year with the onslaught of tasks and information I’m managing on a daily basis. Social media is wonderful. It has helped create our newspaper. But trying to keep up with tweets, Direct Messages, facebook, emails to my work and personal account plus traditional mail (at home and work), has become a bit much.
Likewise, I can struggle to keep perspective on what matters in short, medium and long-term. Partly that’s because when you’re new in a role you tend to not know what is going to matter; partly because I get waylaid with the urgent but not always important.
I’ve taken steps in the last few weeks to improve the situation. I’m automating more tasks, taking internal work conversations out of my inbox and into Slack (a messaging service) and putting more specific goal lists together.
The aim is to share more information about this over the year as a way of getting back into blogging about work (and journalism), while also giving away useful information about getting on top of information mountains – whatever your setting.

2. Become better at prioritisation

Newsrooms, like schools, have the problem of ‘immediacy’. In a school, if a big fight breaks out, you can’t leave it for later. It’s urgent and must be dealt with immediately. Likewise, in a newsroom, if news breaks then hands are needed on deck.
Having people available for such incidences requires a glut of resource hanging around doing nothing. But no one can afford that. A school can’t have extra senior leaders awaiting exclusions. A newspaper with 3.5 reporters and an edition to get out each week can’t have someone sat round waiting on breaking news.
So how do you manage such events? (Heads, I’m genuinely asking here: how?! – let me know in the comments!)
I’m experimenting with a few ways of prioritising tasks for myself at the moment, and am going to start sharing with my team over the next month. The aim is to blog afterwards about what works.
We’ll also be thinking more about how we prioritise stories and resource that we put into them. A question I am constantly grappling with is: What belongs in our newspaper? How should we make that decision? thoughts on this most welcome in the comments.

3. Be a better friend

School life can be over-whelming, and my family and friends took the brunt of my workaholism this past 18 months. Because they are family, and fantastic friends, they have been very good about it. But I miss them.
Now the kitchen is (nearly) sorted, the aim is to have people come sit and eat in it more often. And yes, online peeps, friends on social media are real friends. Don’t be surprised if you get a brunch invite soon.
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Nearly done new kitchen – Just the floor to go!

Here’s to a great 2016. Good luck with the return to work.

Think Like An Education Secretary 2015

Another Christmas Eve, another Education Secretary’s annual reading list.
But this year there’s a problem: Nicky Morgan doesn’t seem to like books.
She almost never mentions them. Her speeches seldom quote books. She rarely singles out ideas from authors. Admittedly, a few days ago, she asked everyone to buy their children a book for Christmas. But what book would Morgs like them to buy? Not obvious. She never says.
Still, as is tradition, I have used my best detective skills to work out what books our edu-sec Nicky has been reading over 2015. If you want to understand her, it would be worth you reading them too.
1.Paul Tough – How Children Succeed (aka ‘The Grit Book’)
When asked by the TES for her recommendation of one book every teacher should read, Nicky Morgan picked this: the yawn-tastic Paul Tough ‘grit’ book. First appearing in this list in 2012 it’s the sort of choice that a special advisor makes for you: just classic enough to make you sound knowledgeable about schools, not wayward enough to mark you out as actually having a personality. Next!
2. David Didau – What if everything you knew about education was wrong (aka ‘The wrong book’)
After reading this I like to imagine Morgan sending it on to schools minister Nick Gibb who returned it with the words ‘IT’S NOT’ scrawled on the front, and told her to stick it in the bin.
3. Jonathan Simons and Natasha Porter (Eds) – Knowledge and the Curriculum: A collection of essays to accompany ED Hirsch’s lecture at Policy Exchange
This doesn’t have a catchy name, which is a shame because it needs one. The title does accurately tell you what it is about though. It’s collection of love letters (sorry ‘essays’) to ED Hirsch, the elderly American academic, who has led the thinking of successive Conservative education politicians and particularly captured the heart of Nick Gibb. The book does a good job of exploring his ideas. And it’s not all positive. Chris Husbands in particular needles at some of his thoughts. There’s also a rather fabulous passage where James O’Shaugnessy (leader of an academy chain, and recently made a Lord) bemoans how some pupils have never visited the seaside: “They lacked any of the shared cultural reference points that many of us take for granted – fish and chips, the sailing metaphors that abound in spoken English, a basic understanding of marine plant life”. His solution is that they must be exposed to “the best that has been thought and said”. If you can figure out how that helps them understand fish and chips, you’re a better person than me. (Also, next time I meet O’Shaughnessy I’m asking him to name five types of marine plant).
4. Philip Tetlock – Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
Got a problem? It’s okay. Nicky Morgan has a solution. EXPERT GROUPS. This year she started 12 of the things, and it sounds like more are to come. Sometimes the groups are diverse, sometimes not. The strategy has also been criticised for being diversionary – making it look like things are happening when they are not.
Tetlock’s book provides a fascinating overview of research showing that ‘accurately selected amateurs’ can often make better predictions and recommendations for the future than can so-called ‘experts’. Perhaps these groups will use the wisdom of crowds to solve all our education woes after all.
5. Disney – Finding Nemo: A Personalised Adventure
Like her predecessor, Morgan knows how to turn a cultural reference to her advantage. Asked in an interview earlier this year if she liked the nickname ‘NiMo’ given to her by people in the media with a penchant for shortening names, she wholeheartedly agreed, though she was at pains to point out that her son preferred stories about fish Nemo, than about her.
Books Nicky Morgan probably didn’t read this year… but should
6. John Kay – Other People’s Money
Far removed from the world of education, Kay’s book takes a critical look at the finance industry, and why it got so out of control. The title refers to the way decisions are made in banking secretly, and for the benefit of traders, n the back of “other people’s money”. There are lessons here for schools. When it’s “other people’s kids” and “taxpayer’s money” decisions about education, especially when not open and transparent, can quickly become self-serving. The descriptions of ‘gaming behaviour’ have relevance for the school sector and a smart education secretary would be getting ahead of them.
7. Eric Dezenhall – Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management
Schools minister Nick Gibb can tell people there isn’t a teacher recruitment crisis until the cows come home. But if people feel there is, then that has to be dealt with. Plus there’s plenty of other crises coming: the total curriculum, assessment, performance table, and exam reform revolution is about to come home to roost, and some of it isn’t going to be pretty. This classic of the genre describes how to explain the difference between ‘a nuisance, a problem, a crisis and an assault’. Knowing this before heading into parliamentary question sessions over the next year is likely to be vital.
8. John Baldoni – Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up
Finally, 2015 was the year when Morgan intimated that she might want to run for leader of the Conservative party when David Cameron steps down. In doing so she has made George Osborne quivery (he’d deny this, obvs, but I reckon it bothered him). Subtle moves will be needed to keep the upper echelons of the party onside in the coming years, but if she can manage it – she could, one day, be a contender. This book might just help explain how.

The Government Department That Stole Christmas

It was 9.05am when I rang the tribunal office to find out if the Department for Education would be appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision against them. Again.
I wanted to know if I would find myself in court defending a request for information I first made to them in 2012. Again.
For a short moment a reprieve looked hopeful.
“No, can’t see an appeal listed here,” said the man with a polite but gruff voice.
But I’ve been here before. I remembered his polite but gruff voice. And I awaited the next step.
“Just hold the line while I check to see if anything came in the final post last night,” he said.
This is where it all fell down last time. Back in December 2013 I’d called at 3.05am from a kitchen in Missouri, USA (where I lived at the time). The exact same man had said the exact same thing about checking the post then too. I was silently dancing on the kitchen tiles – careful not to wake the neighbours at such an unholy hour – when he came back with the news he presented this time too.
“Oh, no, I’m wrong! They have in fact put in for an appeal. Yes, it’s here.”
The little rotters. That’s what went through my mind on both occasions. What an absolute pain in the arse.
“Have they asked for an on-paper hearing?” I asked, hoping, fingers crossed, that perhaps we could all be spared the courtroom dramas and have the whole thing finally finished off by email.
“No, they’ve asked for an oral hearing in London,” the man said.
Ugh, I thought. Deep super not-dancing-on-any-tiles ugh.
And so it is that for the fourth December in a row I am reading up on case law and preparing arguments, all just so I can get my hands on a set of school documents that up until 2010 had always been open to the public.
So let’s rewind. How did this happen?
December 2012 – Earlier in the year I had asked for the decision letters sent to groups applying to open new state schools (also known as ‘free schools’). On a whim I also asked for the application forms submitted by the groups – something I would later regret.  Reasons for why new school proposals were accepted and rejected were publicly open until 2010. (Just like they still are for, say, putting up a conservatory on your house or opening a pub). At the time I assumed the government simply hadn’t published them because the Department for Education (DfE) kept shifting their website and the free schools process was quite new.
By December 2012 I learned the DfE were adamant they would not release the documents  even though every FOI expert I spoke to told me transparency in this case should be a no-brainer. Hence, I spent New Year’s Eve in 2012 writing to the information commissioner’s office (ICO) for an independent review.
December 2013 – After waiting 11 months for the ICO to rule, they finally ruled strongly in my favour. The public interest would best be served by the documents’ release, they said, and ordered the Department for Education to hand over the docs. Only, the DfE decided not to hand them over and instead appealed. On the grounds that the request was ‘vexatious’ because it would cost too much to comply with. A fact they hadn’t mentioned once in the previous 14 months of wrangling. I spent that new year writing my first ever court submission.
December 2014 – On a rainy day in June I faced the DfE’s claim that my request was vexatious, and as I boarded a flight in July I found out they had won – sort of. Because I had asked for the letter and the application forms, – and the removal of personal data from the former was so extensive – the judge decided the entire request was ‘burdensome’. But the head of the DfE’s free school group clearly said while on the witness stand that if I had asked just for the letters on their own (the thing I most wanted) that these would not have been considered too burdensome. The day after the judgment I submitted a reduced request for just the letters. The DfE refused to budge. Again. Twice. Last Christmas I wrote again to the ICO asking for another independent judgement.
December 2015 – All of which takes us to now. After waiting another 10 months for the ICO to make the exact same decision they made in 2012 – (no, I can’t fathom why it took that long either) – the ruling was exactly the same. The public interest was in favour of disclosure and the DfE had to hand over the docs. Only this time the DfE added a twist: they had lost 41 of the documents.  (No, I can’t fathom how that happened either).
And then they appealed. The rotters!giphy (1)
Hence, for the fourth year in the row, I will spend the upcoming family holiday writing yet another court submission which this time, coincidentally, is due on New Year’s Day.
Forget rotters. From now on I’m tempted to call them the ‘Grinch’.
The Department for Education have literally stolen my Christmas. Four times.

After a 3 year battle the DfE now claim they have 'lost' 41 free school letters

After three years, two court cases, endless emails, and a new interpretation of the law to try and stop it, the Department for Education have been ordered – yet again – to provide me information about free schools.
The independent commissioner at the ICO has ruled that releasing the rejection letters sent to free school applicants is strongly in the public interest and outweighs purported disadvantages.
But: there is a new twist
I have now been told that the DfE has ‘lost’ 41 of the letters.
How this has happened is unknown. The ICO judgment states that “searches” have been undertaken on both the DfE’s old and new servers. And yet: nothing.
To say that I am disappointed isn’t just an understatement. It’s untrue. I am bloody furious. Not throw-things-at-a-wall furious. More boiling seething mad-at-the-injustice fury.
Here’s why:

  1. The lost documents aren’t in just one set of information. I asked for letters sent to three different cohorts of free school founders and some have disappeared from each group. Which means this wasn’t just one isolated incidence of incompetence. It wasn’t a box left on a train or some ‘water damage’.  It is, at best, administrative incompetence across three years.
  2. WHY THE HELL DIDN’T SOMEONE TELL ME SOONER? When I asked for the information in 2012 Wave 3 rejections had literally only just happened. Deleting information after someone has requested it is a breach of the Freedom of Information Act and, if found to be done intentionally, is a criminal offence. So this information has presumably been missing the entire time for the last 3 years and – what? – no one checked? How is this possible? Information had to be handed over to judges. The files were counted and calculated in agonising detail for their ‘burden’ levels in the court submissions. It was on that basis I lost my original court case. So how is it only now that someone has realised so many of them, across so many different cohorts, are missing?
  3. This entire request was based on a conversation I had with a leading academic on US free schools back in September 2012. She studied them for over twenty years and told me that one of the most important things for ensuring quality is transparency and analysis of decision-making. Back in 2012 when I made the request that was my entire aim: analysing the information to improve schools. That is all I have ever been trying to do. But as the information no longer exists we have lost one of the best learning opportunities for our school system forever.
  4. The completeness really matters. There was a reason I asked for all the documents and not just some. I wanted to compare the consistency of information and how it changed. We will never know if these 41 letters had contrary advice that could give an insight into the policy or if they showed a particular change in direction.
  5. Finally, to put it bluntly, I am pissed off that time has been wasted. I pushed on because I believed all of these documents existed and that the public interest would be served by their release. To make it happen I spent nights away from my family writing submissions. I spent weekends immersed in law books. I talked to endless numbers of free school founders who wanted answers to how and why rejections or acceptances were made. If the DfE think dealing with me is a burden they should have seen how frustrating it was on this side of things. What it was like to constantly harangue the courts for information because no one properly explains it to you. To read dismissive legal documents written by well-educated lawyers tearing into your inevitably non-professional arguments. To be talked down to by a judge – in a packed courtroom full of civil servants – who interrupts the moment you start talking, patronisingly telling you that while non-lawyer people don’t normally get to ask questions he’ll “see how you go”. Because I can say that, from this side of things, to have gone through all that, and then to be met with a ‘Oops. We no longer have all the things that we thought we did – MASSIVE SHRUG’ leaves me utterly, achingly embittered.

The upside is that this judgment should now secure the release of the 590 letters which the department do have. To avoid it the DfE would need to go to court again and while I can’t count that option out, I hope they won’t.
Instead, what I hope is that persistence has won out and that the public can have the information they should have had all along. It’s just a shame that 41 files, and my trust in transparency, have been ‘lost’ in the process.
foi no i

What I learned wandering around the Conservative conference protests as a journalist

On Sunday journalists were spat at outside the Conservative conference in Manchester for doing their job. At the same time, in the same place, I moved around the protest without experiencing any of this. In fact, I’d already written the first half of this blog before I even knew it had happened.
It is plainly not okay for anyone to be gobbed on as they go about their business.
But here’s the protest as I experienced it.

The crowd around me explodes into noise.
Stop taking pictures of us you f***ing *****”
“Do you have the right to do that? Do you? Wankers!”
A young lad, about 18 with auburn curly hair and baggy grey jogging bottoms, makes the loudest comment.
Why are you doing that from four floors up? Come down and take our picture if you want it.”
I’m stood amid a group of men aged 18 to 40, almost uniformly dressed in grey hoodies. They are part of the People’s Assembly protest gathering in Manchester’s Great Northern Square outside the Conservative party’s annual conference. It’s 10.45am on a Sunday morning.
The group caught my eye as I walked down the road from the Radisson Blu hotel – a place so swish it smells of expensive perfume. Pootling around ready for a fringe event I would later be chairing I’d collected my conference press pass a few minutes earlier and was walking back towards my hotel.
As I did, I noticed an angry bearded man with matted hair, holding a pair of black trainers in his hands, and walking in threadbare socked feet as he yelled at a policeman. Men in hi-vis jackets (working for an acronymed security company) were leaping out of vans and setting up barriers around the plot of grass which sits right in front of the Great Northern Quarter, overlooked by a huge brick converted warehouse, and alongside the conference entrance.
More dishevelled men were walking across the road. All white, all male, all looking as if they’d slept little for days.
One of the men asked if the police were completely blocking off the square. At this point I was curious. Were they being stopped from protesting? Aware that I was tottering in heels, wearing a bright pink coat, and holding a conference brochure I was a bit hesitant about asking further questions. The get-up shrieked I’m a tory. But a press pass isn’t just there for access to nice-smelling hotels. So I started to follow them.
“Is something going on in the square?” I asked the man, who later told me his name was Andy.
“It’s the People’s Assembly, they’re having a protest,” he said in thick Mancunian accent.
“Are the police going to stop it?”
“They can’t,” he said, nodding to the converted warehouse, “there’s an AMC cinema in there, and businesses. They can’t afford to stop them being open. They won’t mess with the businesses”.
I explained I was journalist. They seemed fine. We kept talking.
A small group showed me the tents on the square where people had camped overnight, and described the protest’s centreFile 06-10-2015, 21 58 59 at Piccadilly Gardens from where they had arrived.
I explained I wrote about schools. They told me of the Facebook page where I could look to see People’s Assembly’s education events and asked me about prison education. (They are worried about cuts).
Callum, the oldest-looking in the crowd, with a startling similarity to Timothy Spall, talks bluntly but smartly about Noam Chomsky, totalitarianism, Trident. His points are astute even if I don’t always agree. The whole group are excited that Corbyn is due to visit.
During the conversation people wander in and out. Some look as if they are struggling with drug addiction; one has tobacco-stained fingers the colour of a chain-smoking 100-year-old. But they are sensitive to one another and keen to help me. They are worried that violent tendencies will mean the loss of their message and talk about the police with calmness, “They largely do their job well, just on occasion they go overboard.”
And then. It explodes.
From several floors up in the warehouse they hear a shout. I don’t hear it. But they seem to.
Camera lenses are suddenly pointing out of several of the windows – snapping away. Producers, photographers, on-lookers, all looking down from their lofty positions. The anger among the crowd swells.

File 06-10-2015, 22 04 12
The only visible trace of the photographers is in the 6th window from the left in the second floor of windows on the brick part of the building. There were many more.

Andy pulls his hood up, Callum starts pacing, many of them start shouting.
The young auburn-haired lad, circling from around the edges, now steps out in front of the crowd and starts yelling skywards. In his thick Manchester accent he wants to know from the camera people what rights they have to photograph him. He swears. He tells them he’s going to go up there and batter them.
Two men come out of the tents, waving sticks and middle fingers.
My heart sinks. Every time one of them throws their arms out or points their stick, I know the photographs are getting better and better. Every swear or insult proves their unreasonableness.
Andy and Callum know this too. “Stop being so aggressive,” they hiss at the young man.
“It’s a public car park. I’m going to go up there and get them,” he replies, shrugging his shoulders furiously and puffing out his chest.
“Why don’t you just ask them to come down here?” Callum says sharply, “Tell them if they want pictures of us to come down and ask us what we’re doing.”
The weariness of the group is palpable. I feel entirely torn by it. On the one hand I know why the photographers are four floors up. They’re awaiting the march. A fourth storey is a perfect vantage point from which to record it. While waiting, it makes sense to get some other shots. The group’s over-reaction is perfect.
At the same time, I can see how it feels intrusive. Here we are talking about Chomsky but me and the young men know that if the pictures are printed they will simply say ‘yobs’.
“They don’t even know our name”, says Andy.

Shortly after leaving the group I head to a fancy coffee shop on a parallel road. I order a flat white coffee and a bakewell slice. It costs six quid. The room is filled with smartly-dressed people who, like me, are here early for conference and who, also like me, are hiding in the comforts of somewhere warm, clean, ‘civilised’. It’s the sort of place most of us spend our lives, I suspect.
I think about Andy, Callum, and the angry young man. It strikes me that perhaps the ‘new politics’ isn’t so much about a lurch to the left as it is about recognising that the people on the ground want the people on the fourth floor to know their names. Or at least have the decency to come down and ask.

By 2pm I have watched my first fringe event within the boundaries of the actual conference. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said all the right things and I have tweeted and written and clapped.
As I walk towards the exit reading social media on my phone I notice that journalists are rightly furious because one of them has been spat on by a protester. The picture lays bare the grim reality. Up ahead the police are telling people to hide their passes. There is panic in the air.
Knowing I must go back to my hotel regardless of the situation I decide to walk back across the square. If things turn nasty I hope I might be able to find Callum or Andy. Or that someone might remember me as the girl with the pink coat from earlier and go easy.
File 06-10-2015, 22 00 18As I head out onto the square the protest is snaking around it. A choir of middle-aged women stands along one side of the road singing an adapted hymn about the bedroom tax. It is haunting and powerful. The tent group are mostly wearing face masks. I can’t see anyone I know.
I start talking to two security guards from the Great Northern building who are out on the square for a better view.
One has a thick scouse accent: “It’s all fine. The worse thing is when it gets violent, then the media will start saying that it’s everyone, and the words get lost, that’s bad, that means you’ve lost the message, but there’s good and bad in everyone, and look at all these people, and it’s fine.”
They complain that health secretary Jeremy Hunt purposely came through the square where the protesters were standing.
“Everyone else has gone the other way but he came through here and he wonders why people are at him and that, but he came through here on purpose.”
I have no idea if he did or didn’t, but it does seem an unusual route compared to other politicians.
One of the security guards bristles as he sees two ‘leaders’ of the camp emerging from the protest, and heading to sit on a low wall by the grass. They’re the men I saw earlier coming out of the tents; waving fingers at the press. One is heavily tattooed, leaning on a walking stick, wearing a t-shirt with a comic cover, his eyes slowly rolling. The other is neatly dressed in jeans and a black bomber jack, but he’s agitated and gaunt. He has one visible tooth.
I wander over and ask whether anyone has told them to move their tents. They start explaining about Section 60s, and police ‘force’, and spraying down pavements. I don’t know what any of it means. I explain that I’m a journalist. We talk for a while about their grievances.
One of the pair, Tom, is angry that his sister’s benefits have been cut dramatically and she is struggling to feed her daughter. She was forced to attend a food bank last week, he says.
“Meanwhile they’re ordering 3,000 bottles of champagne into there at sixty quid each and yet they’re the ones using the police to protect them.”
I don’t know if his figures are accurate nor why his sister’s benefits have been cut. But it’s an anger-riling sentiment if you, like Tom, believe it to be true.
The other man, John, talks about his homelessness in the 90s. Eventually he went to university (John Moore’s in Liverpool) and wrote poetry for a while. He had a book contract, once. But he lapsed when his sister got ill. Now he is angry with the royal family.
“Things like the first world war were caused by royalty” he says, “We send our poorest to die for them… But why aren’t their children ever the first into battle?”
I have no answer.

After an hour of ducking and weaving in the crowd I head to my hotel, then back again, each time without a hint of anyone shouting directly at me. Across roads I see people in suits being heckled and others on mobile phones diving under police barriers and being escorted away. The chants of Tory scum are happening as I walk up to the entrance. I can hear them. I just don’t think of them as personal insults.
Inside everyone is sharing their experiences of being yelled at; of being called a Tory c***, of being intimidated, of the awfulness. I feel guilty for pointing out my take was so different. On Twitter someone suggests it’s because I’m northern and scary. In my ludicrous outfit and with an accent considered normal for the area, neither is true.
Instead, the fourth floor metaphor keeps coming back to me.
Protesters simply see people in suits walking away. It’s the symbol of what makes them most angry: being ignored by the wealthy. That’s why they yell. And, to them, a media who sticks a camera in their face to get a story without first seeking to understand is a parasite. Not Tory scum, but journalist scum. A part of the establishment that ignores its people. It doesn’t matter whether the nuance of that is true or not – that’s how they feel, and so they shout.
Sadly – inevitably – inside the conference gates I learn that the spitting, the yelling, and the aggression has only served to build the walls up further. “They don’t deserve my attention,” says someone who has been yelled at repeatedly. “Welcome to the new politics,” remarks another with disdain.
And so we waddle into the age old battle of the powerful and rational deciding that unless you can have a ‘civilised’ conversation then you’re not welcome at their door and the emotional crowd outside become angrier and angrier as their voice is dismissed for not being what is deemed civil while the people in power continue imposing cuts – a behaviour the protestors would argue is uncivilised – and they do so while applauding one another in a fancy conference centre.
No one should be spat on. No one should be dismissed as unimportant.
We must guard against the fourth floor crowd, who have the keys to the kingdom, barricading themselves in and dismissing the mob below. If that happens, the mass will increasingly want to come up and batter the ignorance out of them. And while, somewhere, on a metaphorical stair landing between the two, there’ll be me and Callum hovering around in our pink coats and grey hoodies trying to work out how the hell we get the two groups to talk sensibly, the fact is we have no clue of how to even begin. Writing up this experience was really all I could think to do.