Rail renationalisation isn't necessary. Schools have shown that a third way is possible.

Jeremy Corbyn wants to renationalise the trains and make them into ‘The People’s Railways’.
It’s a natty name.
Lucy Powell has said that she would like to bring schools back into local oversight, and some have leapt to the conclusion that this means schools would become ‘local authority ones’ again.
That’s less natty sounding, but lots of people like it as a policy.
Despite sounding quite appealing, and there being genuine possible benefits to both ideas, there is one genuine problem with having a state monopoly running schools or trains.
And it is this: What do you do if the state company is rubbish?
What if the The People’s Railway gets a rubbish CEO, or the head engineer goes off the boil, or there’s a massive fallout between staff and management and it ends up all skewiff?
I don’t say this because I’m against state companies. I say it because this just happens sometimes. To everyone. To private business and to state-run companies. And there’s no magic dust available to stop it just because you call it something nice-sounding like ‘The People’s Railways’.
Ultimately, it’s really hard to make sure the right people with the right magic keep working to standard at all times in any company. That’s why massive much-loved institutions such as Woolworths collapsed in front of our eyes. It’s why we rotate which computer system we think is best. It’s why a football team which rides high for decades suddenly tanks.
Sometimes, however hard-willed or hard-working a company is, it can become so defunct we just can’t make it work well. In the case of a sports team, the group languishes for a while. In the case of Woolworths, they close down and someone else springs into their place (hello Poundstore!).
But you can’t allow languishing if it’s the only service of its kind and the economy hangs on it; and you can’t have it be taken over by someone else if there’s only one entity.
There are many issues with the way governments shifted schools from being managed by local councils to being run by individual charitable trusts but the one thing that struck me as invaluable about that shift was that if a school became problematic, and a local council did not have the capacity to improve the school (and we all know councils that couldn’t), then having trusts available who can step in and help with turnaround is useful.
Before that, the only solution was to contract out the education part of the council itself – which was messy, and weird, and I don’t think the people who want a People’s Railway would let parts of it be outsourced to the private sector if they weren’t working, so that line of argument is irrelevant anyway.
It is also true that there were big issues with rail privatisation, though many have been resolved in the past 20 years.
But, regardless of issues, the super major huge advantage of having a variety of operators in the field is that, if one becomes corrupted or rubbish, you can fire them and bring in a better one.
Bearing this in mind, I want to try a tentative solution.
In the past, I suggested that schools should learn from train companies. Now, I think trains could learn from academy trusts.
(For those already shaking heads in despair – please try to stick with it until the end).
If Corbyn really wants to be radical, his best bet would be encouraging non-profit organisations to bid to run sections of the railways. If he believes, as he seems to, that a public service has enough of a moral mission that it doesn’t need to make profit, and it can still deliver better than profit-making companies, then let’s invite that in.
Indeed, given the government already runs one part of the railyway network, if it wants to set up as one of the operators that tenders to run railway lines, it should be allowed to do so. And where it is the best, it should be given the contract. (This mirrors how I think local authorities ought to be able to pitch to run schools, too, and if they are the best they should get them).
In fact, if elected, Corbyn’s government could even institute a preference for such bidders. Remember: it is the government who writes the rules of the mark-scheme by which companies who want to run a railway are judged and selected. So if Corbyn wanted to give extra marks to a company for being a non-profit, or offer extra points to a company promising to do socially good things – eg keep prices down, open community lines – then he can.
This encouragement of non-profit has worked in the school sector. Education is now in the fortunate position of having many non-profit school organisations and local councils all of whom are able to look after schools. If one fails, another steps in. Yes, there are still issues around transparency and regulation. Those need tightening. But the solution to those problems is to solve them directly: not cause a heap of new transparency and regulation issues by pratting about with mass moves of ownership.
I am all for a discussion about how we can be innovative and make transport policy work better. I am equally fond of some form of local democratic accountability for schools. But simple renationalisation isn’t innovative or useful. It’s a blunt instrument that neglects to learn from many years of hard work in the transport and education sector. That would be a tragedy. We can afford to be more courageous than that.

Things you need to hear when amid a social media storm

When people don’t like your opinions on blogs, or twitter, or any other form of social network, the backlash can be furious.
If it ever gets fierce I’m lucky that Dad McInerney puts things in perspective. As a shop steward for 30 years and a political mastermind from what seems like birth, his words are from experience. They also tend to be true.
For anyone who doesn’t have such wiseness around I thought it would be worth sharing what he says so that, if you’re ever in a social media tizwaz, you can walk yourself through the process. It helps, I promise.
*
Imagine someone is wrong on the internet. I know it’s tough, but try. They have decided that something you wrote, or said, or did, is terrible and the criticism or ensuing debate has upset you.
In this situation I phone my dad. And this is what he says:
First, he points out how positive it is that anyone cares one jot about what you think. 
He says things like:
“Isn’t it marvellous that they’re reading your stuff at at all”, or
“Blimey, they don’t like you and yet they’ve spent ages responding? I think that’s brilliant”, or
“Isn’t it good that someone disagrees? It’d be terrible if we went through life unchallenged.”
Next, he minimises the criticism.
“Wouldn’t worry though – I mean, who are they? What’s the consequence?”
“Sounds to me like they’ll forget about it tomorrow”
“Is anyone threatening to shoot you? Are you going to die? If not, I honestly wouldn’t worry.”
But he’s not an idiot. He knows upset can’t be magicked away. So next he empthasies.
“Of course, it’s always upsetting or annoying when people don’t understand what you say. But it doesn’t mean they’re right”
“You should be angry. Who wouldn’t be angry? Not worth being angry for long though, is it?”
“If someone said that to me I’d be upset for a few minutes. But if I knew I was right I’d get over it”
He also seeks the other side of the story.
“How many people liked it? … That sounds like a lot more than didn’t”
“So most people thought it was sensible but you’re upset about a few people who didn’t? Hmmmm.”
“What do the people you care about think?”
That last one is particularly important. If the people you care about don’t like something you’ve said or done then he will softly suggest a tactical error has been made and you should re-trace your steps. (“Sounds to me like your words came out wrong. You obviously didn’t mean that. Just explain what you did mean. Everyone gets confused from time to time”)
And then, finally, he reaffirms how it’s a good thing that people are engaging.
Anyway, as I say, it’s marvellous that you’ve got people thinking. They’d be half asleep watching telly if you weren’t and instead they’re having to think about hard things. That’s good. Well done you.”
With job done he inevitably remembers that Match of the Day/Antiques Roadshow or whatever else he wants to see is on tv and he runs off.
*
As never-ending and personal as a debate can feel, when it comes to opinions, if people are engaged, their criticism has zero consequence and the majority of people are non-plussed, it really isn’t worth getting upset about.
Should you ever need a reminder of that, do come back to this page. Dad McInerney’s words are here for everyone to use.

My dad when he was mayor at a Macmillan coffee morning. I think he slept in those chains.
My dad, when he was mayor, visiting a Macmillan coffee morning. I think he slept in those chains.

Learning to be homeless

Carriage of the Central Line Tube - by Mark Hillary http://bit.ly/1KjG2IO
Carriage of the Central Line Tube – by Mark Hillary http://bit.ly/1KjG2IO

Yesterday I got on the Central Line tube at Oxford Circus, one of the busiest parts of London, just minutes after a downpour started.
The carriage was sticky and warm, and quiet. I sat on a mostly empty row of seats. As the tube doors closed two figures dashed through the narrowing gap.
The first man looked old. Not because of his skin, although it was wrinkled, and not because of his frame, though it was stooped. It was more that he looked as if he had lived forever. As if he had swept through deserts in Biblical times and fought in bygone wars. His coat was black and long, his hair wild and matted, his trousers tattered to ruin. His nose bent forward, growing down, while his chin curled up. It was as if the two had been growing slowly towards each other in a facial continental drift happening over eons of time. Despite this, his eyes sparkled.
The other man was younger but more downcast. It looked as if he was in his 30s and his face was dirty in the way of an extra playing a peasant in films of olde England: it had a sort of greasy caked-on all-over grimness. His teeth were yellowed, his hair short, his clothes blackened, and dripping from the rain. He did not wear a coat.
The old man’s voice emulated Fagan from Oliver! – raspy, bright, cockneyed, charming.
“‘Ere you go,” he said to the young man as he pulled him through the squeezing door, “we can stay ‘ere for as long as we need.”
He threw his hands in the air and skipped into our palace of warm seats. The young man went to sit on one. Fagan looked alarmed.
“No, no. Don’t frighten the people,” he said, grabbing his protege by the elbow and guiding him to the small ‘perching’ seats at the end of carriage.
With his other hand he scooped up two abandoned freebie newspapers.
“‘Ere,” he said, thrusting the newspaper into the young man’s hands, “read this.”
The young man took it from him gingerly. The old man nodded at him encouragingly to open the front page.
“And afterward, it can keep you warm,” he said, patting his hand on a heavy black record bag hanging from his neck where the paper was destined to go next.
“I’m not much of a reader,” came the quiet reply from the young man.
His accent was difficult to place over the clanking of the tube. A home counties accent? A hint of well-to-do-ness, perhaps?
Fagan was not put off. “Al-wight,” he said, rolling his r sounds, “if you don’t wanna read, you can fink abaaart what flaava coffee you like.”
“Coffee?” asked the young man.
“Yeah. When you sit outside coffee shops, people are gonna arsk you ‘what flavour coffee do you want?'” – he laboured on the word flavour –  “and you gotta know what you want, cause they won’t wait for ya.”
The young man looked baffled. “Flavours?”
The old man put down his paper and started counting out on his hand.
“Well, you got your exsspressos, your americanos, your flat whites….”
The young man looked more perplexed.
“Look, don’t worry about it,” the old man said, lifting the newspaper back up again. “I always say there’s nothing wrong with an Americano. Get one of those. You’ll be fine.”
He went back to reading. The young man mouthed the word “Americano” as if to check he was getting it right.
Having been told not to stand and stare as a child, I felt terrible for my part in this conversation. By now I was pretty much gawping at the two – possibly open-mouthed – across the carriage.
I was watching learning. I was watching a person learn how to be homeless. It was not something I had seen before, or ever really thought about.
It was the most chi-chi, bourgeois, middle class thing to sit and marvel at it, but there was something amazingly calm and spiriting about the old man. This was proper mentorship. Guiding his learner to safety, encouraging him to read, encouraging him to think, filling in gaps when needed. He was making it look so easy and compelling I almost wanted to follow him around and learn how to be homeless.
As someone who has obsessively followed teaching for the best part of a decade it was quite something to be reminded that there are many things we don’t prepare children to learn, nor do I think we should (don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest ‘homeslessness lessons’ on the curriculum). But it was a reminder that whether or not we teach collaboration, or peer learning, etc – one of the most basic things humans do is show each other how to do stuff. And if we do it in a calm way, that keeps people’s humility, stops them from walking into too many walls, teaches them specialist vocabulary and skills, then we can make their world easier – even when it is unimaginably difficult, as I expect the life of a homeless person is to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.
There was something else interesting in the exchange. The older man showed a distinct pride in being able to show the younger man the ropes. It clearly gave him an opportunity to be respected. For all I know, though, he could have been buttering the young man up to use him later, in true Fagan style. He would easily have been able to do so. It was obvious the young man was grateful. Which was a reminder of the power that knowledge transfer brings to the teacher. It can make the learner feel indebted, and teachers must work hard not to take advantage of that gratefulness for their own ends but instead encourage the learner to use that energy to go on and teach others. In my ideal world, the old man was simply paying forward a good deed someone once did by showing him the ropes.
It was now getting near to the end of my tube journey and I was quite gutted to have to leave the masterclass.
The older man was now busily reading the paper. The other was still holding his limply.
“Jus’ look at the pictures if you can’t read,” the old man said, flicking his head to one side, encouraging the young man to open the pages. He dutifully did and began staring hard.
Both were soon lost in the pages that would later warm their bones. I stepped off the platform and changed onto another line.

The Hiding of the Blue Penis – My No. 1 #TeacherBloopers

Everyone has done at least one embarrassing thing in the classroom. Most of us have done more than that.
In response to a call by Jo P on twitter…..


Here’s mine:
It’s September 2007 and my classroom is the departmental showcase for the annual parent’s open day. The event is critical – it’s where local parents come, look around, and decide whether they want to send their child to us when they move into secondary school.
I teach citizenship and PSHE, and am very excited that we’re being given a ‘room’ for the subject. It’s our first chance to be taken seriously. In response we’ve created a ‘healthy eating’ area where the kids can make smoothies, a display of children’s presentations from last year about environmental issues and have students on hand to talk about their Model UN work.
We have also decided to showcase sex education. This is risky for our community. Super-conservative and largely muslim, several years earlier a parent-led campaign had raged to try and stop sex ed in the school altogether. It was only years of negotiations with the local religious education board that got us back on track.
We therefore wanted to share what we were doing in sex ed, but needed to not terrify parents. I made the decision to diBlue condom demonstratorsplay one of our ‘sex ed kits’ – a bright red plastic briefcase that included examples of IUDs, images of STDs viruses, leaflets of advice. BUT to save everyone’s blushes I decided to remove the condom demonstrators, which – to be blunt – looked like a bright blue penis. (See picture right).
The event starts well. Parents and children are merrily making smoothies and reading the children’s work. No one is spending too much time with the sex ed kit, but no one is offended either.
A parent notices a book I have on the windowsill about supporting children with literacy. We chat. She asks if I can write down the name of the book.
No problem, I say, and dive into the top drawer of my desk to grab a pen.
Only, the drawer is messy and I can’t see a pen. I first remove my keys, flinging them on my desk … and then I remove the bright blue penis-shaped condom demonstrator I have neatly stowed in there which, for some reason, I continue holding in my left hand while I root around with my right.
It is only when I look back up and see a somewhat red-faced parent looking wide-eyed at me, and another parent double-taking, that I realise I have spent the past 20 seconds waving a phallic object at them. An object which appears to normally live in my top drawer.
My mortification is obvious. Cue a red face, masses of apologies, a throwing of the penis back in and shutting the drawer quickly. I then, inexplicably, decide to get the demonstrator back out again and show how it fits the gap in the sex ed kit, before realising that the best thing to do was to get the darn thing away as quickly as possible before any children see it.
It finally goes back in the drawer; my embarrassment is complete.
Thankfully, the people who noticed were very understanding. I vaguely remember writing the literacy book name down, laughing with the parent, and then slowly (very slowly) regaining my composure.
I spent the rest of the evening convinced a complaint would be made (none ever was) while my very understanding boss laughed it off and calmed me down admirably. It was an honest mistake and completely explainable. But it did mean I never again hid a condom demonstrator in my top drawer. I recommend you follow that lead.

A bizarre (but truthful) story about Grant Shapps

Before the election there was a lot of fuss about Conservative co-chair Grant Shapps.
Did he deny having a second job? Did he change wikipedia entries about himself? And who the heck is Michael Green?
Whatever was true or not – and that picture is so complicated I’m still not sure – it seemed like Grant Shapps was to be viewed with scepticism.
And then I remembered something.
Back in 2011 Shapps told the Welwyn Hatfield Times that he was involved in a car crash in Kansas in 1989. The crash was so bad he was in a coma for a week, and spent time recovering in a Ronald McDonald house.
The story Shapps weaved about the accident is detailed. He names the town, WaKeeney, and details of his companions.
I was convinced that a crash really had taken place. But I was suspicious of the coma and the recovery. A week is a long time in a coma, and aren’t Ronald McDonald houses for kids?
Plus, I thought, why take his word for it? Why not just check? 
Helpfully I used to live in Missouri, a bordering state to Kansas. And I attended classes at the journalism school, meaning I knew one or two contacts who I figured could point me in the right direction of helpful public records.
I was right. A few clicks of a keyboard later, and I was emailing the Trego County Historical Association. They kindly trawled their local papers from August 1989 looking for details of a crash on the interstate. (I worked out rough dates for the accident as Shapps said he flew home on his birthday – September 14).
A day later and I received this in my inbox:
shapps
The story checks out!
Admittedly, there is no mention of a coma – but severe head trauma is close enough. AND the dates work. A week in a coma and roughly a fortnight in McDonald’s house (which is how long he claimed) takes you to Shapps’ birthday.
Only one thing bothered me still. Ronald McDonald houses are for children and Shapps went home on his 21st birthday. How could this be? But a quick check of the website run by RM house in Wichita, Kansas reveals that they look after anyone up to the age of 21. Three weeks from his birthday, 20 year-old Shapps just scraped in.
So, there it was.
Whatever else may or may not be true about Mr Shapps we know his claim of a head-whomping in Kansas is true and we also know that if you’re a politician, and you are going to lie about being in accident, it’s probably best that you don’t pick a midwestern US state as its location. Trego County Historical Association has my back.

Top Tips For Education Academics Who Want Media Coverage (or REF impact)

It was with great regret that I couldn’t attend an Education Media Centre event last week at the University of Durham. I’d been looking forward to it for months, but with the news breaking about the PM’s school asking for donations I was simply unable to go.
Intrepid senior reporter Sophie stepped in and delivered a sterling performance on my behalf.
She travelled with a handout of tips I penned once I knew speaking would be impossible. A few people have since sought them out, so I thought I’d share here in case anyone wants them in the future.
They’re not THE RULES of how to blog, or be picked up by the media, they’re just WHAT HAS WORKED FOR ME AND TEND TO WORK FOR OTHER PEOPLE.
If you have better rules, feel free to add them in the comments.


 

Vexatious again: This time, for asking to see the Workload Challenge results

In October, education secretary Nicky Morgan launched the ‘Workload Challenge’ – a consultation with teachers about their work burden and would could be done to reduce it.
The Department for Education tweeted the hell out of it and made a thing about how they were analysing all 44,000 responses.


I decided to ask for the workload challenge database of answers. Having looked at the survey, I knew it was created using survey monkey so would be easy to download.
I completed the DfE Freedom of Information Act contact form 
contact form
 
I waited for the full 20 days, and then received this letter.
It is long to read the full thing. In essence, it says:
* We believe that people have strewn personal data throughout their application forms and going through and redacting the forms, and removing that personal data, would be such an enormous burden that it constitutes ‘vexation’ and therefore can be legitimately turned down under the law.
* We get that you won’t like this. But hey, we published a report on the ‘findings’. So, transparency top trumps!
This is the exact same defence used to turn down my free school requests.
It is also a massive problem.
10492509_10100848676447759_771514507081795792_n (1)See, the whole reason why the cost of redaction can’t be used under the part of FOI law which normally allows public authorities to turn down a  request due to cost is because, if it was allowed, anyone wishing to hide information from the public could simply embed their national insurance or credit card details somewhere on each page in a document. That way, when a member of the public asked to see it the authority could simply say “sorry, there’s too much random information” to remove.
If redactions were allowed to be counted as a cost – we would never have got the release of information that led to the MPs’ expenses revelations.
Now, the Department have found a new loophole where they can simply claim that redactions are ‘burdensome’ under section 14, i.e. the ‘vexation’ clause – which was originally created to stop people who were aggressive or malicious but has now seemingly expanded to mean ‘we think doing this would be a lot of work’.
But – look again at the tweet at the top of the page. The Department for Education clearly state that they have already read through all the information.
An annex in their technical report states that 60 volunteers across the Department ensured they read each answer and highlighted any that didn’t match key themes in a sample of ~1650 surveys analysed in more depth.
Why didn’t those civil servants just redact the personal data while they were there? It really wouldn’t have been a big deal.
That this wasn’t done suggests  there was no plan to publish the information – despite the fact that the government’s own Consultation Principles from October 2013 specifically state:

“Consultation responses should usually be published within 12 weeks of the consultation closing. Where Departments do not publish a response within 12 weeks, they should provide a brief statement on why they have not done so.”

If you were planning to follow this rule, you would – surely! – have got the 60 volunteers to also do the redactions.
Having gone through the courts once over this exact issue, I am not minded to go again. But I can’t help feeling that this “we can just randomly claim a burden when we feel like it” get out card is a serious blow to the public’s right to transparency.
I get arguments about austerity and cost, and I’d let it go on those grounds. BUT – this really feels like there was negligence in a responsibility to think about how information can be provided to the public. It shouldn’t be an after thought. It should be part of the process.
When 40,000 teachers have spent their time completing forms – I think the least we can do is share that collective knowledge.

A Year in Review – The #Nurture 14/15 Challenge

This year’s #nurture1415  blog challenge involves listing 5 highlights of the year and 5 hopes for the next.
Right, well… here goes.

The Highlights

FOI selfie with Helen Lewis (my official 'court friend'). It was the end of the day. And we did ask before we took it.
FOI selfie with Helen Lewis (my official ‘court friend’). It was the end of the day. And we did ask before we took it.

1. Being opposed in court by the Department for Education
That sounds weird, I know. It didn’t feel particularly good either. But the farcical situation of defending my simple ask that the DfE publish information about free school applicants and decisions, was one of the best learning curves of my life.
I spent months reading and writing court documents, and becoming conversant in Freedom of Information law. There were endless sleepless nights worrying about it all. Family and friends were bored to tears with me going on about it (and did an amazing job of turning up to support me on the day).
Lots of things about the day were awful. And I didn’t even win. (Well, I half did. Read why here). But I walked away a thousand times more knowledgeable about the legal system and I now get emails from people all over the place, trying to use the Freedom of Information act to access files the public has an absolute right to see – and it is wonderful being able to help them.
The tribunal also introduced “The Yellow Jacket” that I wore, on the day, as a symbol of shining light on the truth. It has since become a bit of a motif for me, and has the neat advantage of helping people find me easily at events. There’s now a hunt on for more – so if you ever see a nice yellow jacket in a tiny size – do please tweet me. I will likely run and get it if I can.
2. Launching Academies Week
I never thought I’d be a journalist. Frankly, I still struggle with the idea. But becoming Deputy Editor of education newspaper Academies Week, and steering it through the initial launch has been like a dream. It’s a bit like being a blogger, but with other people, who are all interested in the same things as you – and you get paid for it.
I’m so proud of the stories the team have produced. Our first investigation revealed that Trinity Free school in London had only 17 pupils. This fact is now dropped casually into news stories all the time. But it wasn’t easy to find out. The lack of transparency on frees is so bad that we literally had to send a reporter to count the pupils as they went into the gates. That’s ludicrous, but having the ability to do it, and write about it, means we now have this information – and I think that’s vital. It’s what gets me up in the morning.
Going into this second term, I want us to become better at deeper reporting, doing more investigations, and being a place for full and frank debate. So do keep telling us what you are finding interesting; what you are reading and what you aren’t. It’s a paper for the whole school sector, whether that’s teachers, governors, school business managers, teaching assistants – whoever! – and we want to write what people want to read.
I am also constantly thankful for the people around me who have helped me start in something I don’t have any real clue how to do. Reporters from other papers have helped me find press rooms, been kind enough at events where I blatantly looked out of my depth to come and shake hands and ask how things are going, and make me feel welcome in a world that I know – but also, don’t. Also, and this will sound really weird given my first point, that goes for many DfE staff too. It’s a tough job being a civil servant, with few outlets for letting off steam and no easy way to defend yourselves. I get that, and I appreciate the kindnesses that many have shown.
3. Seeing my former students starting their own lives
In July I attended the christening of a child born to two of my former students. One had a particularly harrowing time as a teenager, but is now at university and is raising the most wonderfully cared for little boy. Sitting among her friends (mostly from my one-time form group), it was an honour to see these young people making their way in the world, helping each other, flourishing in jobs, and some even becoming teachers themselves.
As the old adage goes, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived – this is to have succeeded”. I don’t know about them breathing easier simply because I lived. It was bloody hard work with that group sometime. But to know that they have got where they are, in some way, because of our collective hard work does make you feel uniquely alive.
4. Attending an Education Select Committee
Hard at work.

For the past two and a half years I have live-tweeted education select committees. It’s a niche interest, I know, but it has a surprisingly cult-like following, and I started it when I finished teaching because it used to get on my nerves when I was teaching that I could never watch the darn things – and I wanted to be able to read a quick summary (like this one) at the end of the day just to catch me up.
During my two years in the US on scholarship I got up, each week, at 3.30am to live-tweet them. (Missouri time is six hours behind London). Back in the UK, in September, I was able to go along to my very first one – in person! – and be in the same room as my MP committee heroes, such as Graham Stuart, Ian Mearns and Pat Glass. It was quite surreal, but also wonderful.
5. Being asked to write a 2,000 word piece for the Guardian
I blame a few people for me having the confidence to become a writer, but maybe no one more so than Alice Woolley, the Guardian Education editor – who is incredible. Seriously, I am in awe of her most of the time. Not because she gave me the chance to write (although I will thank her for the end of time for that) but because she has been so relentlessly supportive about it. (I’m not a natural writer; I am a natural worrier – she deals with both gracefully).
She also asked me, earlier this year, to write a full-length feature about US charter schools and their similarity to free schools. 2,000 words, she wanted, and a photographer to go with me to get shots of a St Louis school. I was besides myself. Both in a good way, and a bad one.
I went into panic mode. I didn’t know how to interview politicians. What are the rules? Can I record it? WHY DON’T I KNOW SHORTHAND? Also, how the hell do you fill 2,000 words in an actual newspaper? Can you use headings? Must it be funny? How many points can you realistically make without boring the reading, but also not-boring the reader?
These were all things I didn’t know. And yet, she believed. And also, she was right. The piece got done, it read well, and it gave me confidence to believe that maybe I could do this writing shiz properly after all. (As long as I have amazing editorial advice, and a small army of friends to look over my drafts).
Bonus +1: The LKMCo Pirate event was amazing and I was so very sad to leave LKMCo this year. That’s why it’s not a ‘highlight’ but I wanted to recognise that working with them has been an honour and they don’t get to escape too easily as Eleanor, who wrote a column very quickly for us a few weeks ago, found out!
 

 So, what are the hopes for 2015?

1. Retain a link to blogging – and try to blog a bit about journalism  
One of the problems of become a ‘professional writer’ is that I’ve found blogging a bit odd. What’s the point of it? With teaching I could convince myself that other people might be going through the same thing, and that I might learn from their perspective (or they, from mine). What’s happening now is a bit more unusual – so it’s lost that purpose. However, I think openness about edu-journalism might still help. I used to hate journalists and was incredibly wary of talking to them. I didn’t really understand what they did – or why. It was only the cautious patience of edu-reporter heroes, such as Chris Cook, Richard Vaughan and Warwick Mansell – each of whom spoke with me when I was teaching, and gave me some insight into what they were doing – that I ever spoke to journalists at all. Without teachers speaking with reporters, though, their voices get missed completely. So if I can help break down the mystery a little, that’s worthwile.
Also, I don’t want to get too far away from the blogging community. It’s my stomping ground. It’s where I feel comfortable, and where I learn so much. When I finished teaching I kept writing monthly #blogsync challenges about teaching practice to keep my hand in. Over the past year I always wrote a blog about the experience of doing my Guardian column that month, and what I learned from the reaction. In 2015 I want to find a way to keep talking about what’s challenging, or funny, or interesting, in this new world I inhabit.
2. Read and comment on more blogs
This is vital for two reasons. One, I’m always looking for good stories to highlight in my Guardian column and the paper. But also because blogging is scary, and having people comment on your ideas is a good way of getting feedback and improving. Back in my early blogger days (pre-twitter) I had a rule when commenting that I would always try to find something to agree with a person about, and also ask one question. I want to get back to doing that – it was a good way of bringing out ideas.
3. Raise voices of groups that need to be heard
The last few years of education policy have focused on traditional subjects and ‘mid-to-brightish’ kids. Many other groups have been ignored. Special needs schools are regularly missed in conversations. So are the needs of young carers, children educated in hospitals or exclusion units, or those who have just arrived into the country. Many are getting a raw deal and in 2015 I want to talk about them more. If you have any ideas, do get in touch.
4. Get more subscribers and brand awareness for Academies Week

For Academies Week to survive we will need subscribers, and given that I’m enjoying myself, I want people to buy in. But the real reason for wanting people to get the paper is more schmaltzy than that. (Get your vom-bags ready). In school, I tried to make every lesson worthy of the time kids were giving to. At Academies Week, we do the same with content. Each week, when we create the paper, we try to pack it with stuff that, if you’ve read it, then you’ll have learned something, and you’ll be able to discuss education more knowledgeably, and maybe even do your job better, because of it. That’s why I want people to read it. A maximally informed world is my nirvana – this is our step towards making it happen.
(If you fancy taking a look at Academies Week – here’s a pdf of edition 11).
5. Upper Tier Tribunal at the end of January
I haven’t written about this anywhere so far, but I’ve been granted an appeal for my free school FOI tribunal, and will be going to court again at the end of January. The parameters of the case are quite technical and more to do with the law than schools, so it’s not something I plan to write lots about until we get the judgement and I know if there are any actual implications for the education community. My hope is that it will undo some of the problems of the judgement last year and will hurry in a sorely needed era of transparency around free schools. When the public give you their kids and their taxes, the least you can give them is honesty in return.
Obviously I also hope to eat well, exercise often, sleep ten hours a night and have lots of holidays with family and friends. But I already do all those things already. Right?
Happy 2015 all. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
 
 

What I Learned From Good Will Hunting

1. Why “knowing stuff” does not make you the smartest person in the room


2. How being academically smart, even when your friends are not, is a really useful thing

3. Why you don’t owe an education to yourself, but to everyone else

How unisex toilets helped me win at the internet

I won at the internet last month. They emailed to tell me. ‘They’ being a company called metr.ic and the email said that from among 150,000 daily news articles, mine was one of the top 100 most commented on. It was clearly a slow news day.
That said, the topic of the piece was gendered school uniforms and gendered toilets. My view: why not have unisex versions of both?
People didn’t agree.
guardian loos
Commentors typically liked one and not the other – but then struggled to explain why. Most looked to be proving Jonathan Haidt’s well-worn theory that people react emotionally to an idea and then post-rationalise the feelings with any spurious claim they can muster. My favourites were the people who said unisex toilets were a bad idea because they would cause bullying – as if same-sex bullying hasn’t happened for years in single sex toilets. (The idea, I guess, being that cross-gender bullying is worse but without any real reason of why this is the case. Also, the layout of toilet I described reduces bullying because the washrooms are open to public view).
On uniforms I was annoyed not to have mentioned that the school where I taught also stopped girls from wearing trousers. I believe they still do. So to all the commentors who said “NO SCHOOLS MAKE GIRLS WEAR SKIRTS” – you are wrong.
There was the fair question of whether non-gendered uniforms simply means “let’s make everyone dress like men”. Although I liked Sandra Leaton Gray’s suggestion, via twitter, of a uniform consisting of a choice between t-shirt, collared shirt, trousers and kilts. Uni-sex, all the way!
It’s a topic to keep pondering though. Arbitrary gender divides are everywhere. I constantly hear people of my own generation, who are now parents, making unthinking remarks such as “he’s a boy, of course he’s going to be naught”, or “girls are just so sensitive”, blah blah. These comments horrify me because they’re lazy thinking. Being a boy doesn’t make you naughty, being a girl doesn’t make you sensitive.
Still, shouldn’t say that too loud. Wouldn’t want to break the internet with all the angry howls.