10 November 2023
Dear Parents and Carers,
I had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by John Camp OBE, the new President of ASCL, on Wednesday. He shared how the ‘state’ had provided the things that his family couldn’t afford to as he was growing up in 1970s and 1980s London. His story resonated with my own experience of growing up in that period. He echoed Professor Lee Elliott Major’s view that the term ‘disadvantage’ is both inaccurate and inappropriate as a label for large groups of children and their families. (A steadily increasing number based upon recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation - Government plans “fundamentally inadequate” in nation with almost 4 million experiencing destitution | JRF). Professor Lee Elliott Major, in ‘Equity in Education,’ argues that a better term to use is 'under resourced' families. He has written frequently on social mobility and has consistently argued that talent is being wasted because of a national inability to harness the potential of those from working class or low income families. When framed in such a way, it is fair to note that in broader educational terms, the North East is particularly under resourced and has been, by one measure, since our current Year 9 students were born in 2009 or 2010. That level of under resourcing can be measured by the entire life span of three-year groups at our school. Funding began to decline, in relative terms, when our Year 10 children were born. From a personal perspective that now represents half of my 27 years as a teacher. How many children have grown up in that period without access to the support that could capture and develop their talent more effectively?
My reason for sharing that detail is linked to the other important question that I was asked on Wednesday as part ASCL’s regional conference:
As a Headteacher, if you had more money, what would you do with it?
That is a clearly a common DfE question for school leaders and one that could be used to suggest that schools request extra money but might not actually have a clear idea of what they would use it for. That is clearly a valid question, as public funds should always be spent in a sensible and transparent way. If you fail to use money wisely, then are you worthy of additional investment? But as I have referenced in may of these updates before, investment in schools is actually an investment in a more stable society and the future prosperity of the country.
What would I spend additional funding on?
Well, that’s simple. I would ensure that it was spent on books, uniform and cultural opportunities for our financially under resourced students. I would enhance provision for those with a specific learning need and those near to a diagnosis where extra support is also clearly needed. I would create high quality provision for those who need an alternative curriculum or access to provision beyond the school. I would modernise IT provision for all students so that they could use devices effectively at home and in school and I would employ and train more people to support our wonderful administrators. I would also reduce teacher workload by employing more teachers to ensure an enhanced education for all students and a more balanced, flexible level of work to attract teachers into the profession. I would use extra money to establish social initiatives and drop ins opportunities for parents and would extend the range of clubs and activities that run before and after school. I’d ensure additional transport so that as many students as possible could participate. We already try to do all of those things but, because we are under resourced, we have to rely upon good will, volunteering, and using the money that we have in as concentrated a manner as possible. It's clearly an academic question as there won’t be any additional funding available at any point soon, but the idea that schools wouldn’t know how to use it effectively or wisely is inaccurate and possibly a little unfair. Under resourced individuals, institutions, sectors and regions will always find ways to succeed, but if you don’t have the things that are needed it will inevitably have an impact on what can be achieved.
We have commemorated the former students of Durham Johnston who died in the First & Second World Wars in school today. This has been a longstanding tradition that makes me immensely proud to be the school’s Headteacher. Our students recognised the silence impeccably and I would like to acknowledge publicly those that shared their family stories as part of this year’s assembly, alongside Ben, who played the last post and reveille so beautifully for the third year in succession, and also senior students Tom and Anaita for reading so eloquently. Finally, I would like to thank our student governors Rowan and Elodie for laying a wreath at our war memorial with Councillor Scott. The memorial poppy display produced by our students who access ‘Lydia’ each day deserves a special mention too.
Whilst today we have specifically thought about the former students of Durham Johnston who died in the world wars of the 20th Century, we have also reflected on the futility, or pity, of war and conflict. I was Head of History for 9 years before taking on different roles at Durham Johnston and, in 2002, reinstated the school’s annual battlefields trip for Year 10 students. I have a vivid memory of visiting both Tyne Cot and Langemark military cemeteries for the first time. For different reasons, both made me think very carefully about the nature of war and helped to shape my feelings towards conflict and national memory. At Langemark in Belgium there is a mass grave where 30,000 German soldiers are buried together. Whilst we can all hold a view about who was to blame for the Great War, the British war dead at Tyne Cot and those interned at Langemark are only really separated by nationality. They were young men in their late teens and twenties who never got to lead fulfilled lives or to grow old. My reason for sharing those observations is that war or conflict shouldn’t be regarded as a football match where we pick sides, behave in a partisan manner and become blind to the common humanity of those with whom we might disagree. That is best reflected at Tyne Cot British war cemetery, where the decision was made to bury the bodies of some German soldiers found nearby in the 1980s, to acknowledge their common experience. Ordinary people suffer in conflicts regardless of race, religion or nationality and very few wars are simplistic in either their historical origins or the factors that interact to cause them. We should always seek peace, reflect upon our common humanity and avoid making simplistic judgements about international events that are sometimes incredibly complex. Silent reflection is always welcome on 11th November and would, perhaps, be beneficial within wider society more frequently, particularly when the world is faced with other terrible conflicts.
Have a good weekend.