Dear Stephen (an open letter to Stephen Twigg)


Dear Stephen

I was really pleased to read that you had recognised the importance of giving young people confidence, although I am not convinced that a school debating society is the place where most will find it. I do however strongly agree with your with your initial premise although I would choose to use the phrase self esteem rather than confidence.

It struck me that developing the self esteem of young people would be a great starting point when considering what your agenda should be if you are the next Secretary of State for Education. In my 8 years as a headteacher and 30 years as a teacher I have come to know that self esteem is at the heart of all of the challenges we face in improving the life chances of young people.

This is why the current debate about the curriculum and the EBC is so crucial. I don’t know anyone in education who is against assessment, challenge and standards but what I do know is that this will not be the same for all young people. Memory and the ability to complete 3 hour exams are skills to be admired but so are creativity, researching and evaluating information, presenting knowledge in different formats and the ability to work with and lead others. Gove’s proposals for the curriculum only value a very narrow outdated range of skills.

The second most dangerous aspect of Gove’s EBC is the lack of recognition of creative and performing arts, the very subjects which buld the self esteem and confidence of young people. It is absolutely vital that we have a curriculum and assessment system that recognises all of these qualities. We cannot afford to tell a generation of young people that only half of you have qualifications which are of value and the rest have a statement of experience. I am heartened that you seem to agree with most of this and I hope that you will in time make a clear statement that you oppose the EBC.

The curriculum is not the only place that we build the self esteem of young people. The quality of teaching and the classroom experience are vital too. Gove is right that we should only expect the best for our young people but he fails to recognise that the current generation of young teachers are the very best we have ever had. Their commitment, ability to reflect and improve their practice is undeniable but we must continue to invest in their development and retain their motivation. The proposals that teachers have to meet expectations to progress in their pay will be rightly welcomed by many but to pay two people doing the same job equally well different salaries because of their subject specialism for example will be hugely destructive to the team ethos that exists in great schools.

The next concern is that  we neglect school sport, school visits and extra curricular activites at our peril if we really want to build self esteem. I have no issue with the goverment support for competition in sport but it is about much more than that. We need very young children to be participating before they compete and they need to be physically literate, supported by experts. The demise of School Sport Partnerships and the appalling lack of an Olympic Legacy is shameful and should be another commitment for an incoming Secretary of State. In my own school we have been able to use the power of sport to develop confident leaders, to form links around the world which have raised the aspirations of my students but I hear nothing about these incredible opportunities from Mr. Gove and the DfE.

Finally the challenges to School and Local Authority Budgets mean that the pastoral and emotional support that many young people need to develop the self esteem to be successful are under serious threat. The mental health of young people and the levels of poverty and neglect are the real obstacles to progress for many students. The incredible work that my colleagues and thousands like them across the country do re-building the lives of young people and guiding many others is rarely mentioned by politicians. I know that this part of our work is as important as the work of inspirational teachers in the classroom. The Pupil Premium is welcome in this regard but in many cases it has only been able to replace existing funding steams that have been cut.

I am not asking for a blank cheque, all of my colleagues understand the economic context in which we work. What we do expect however is a Secretary of State who consults and listens, to those of us who have everyday experience of the needs of all young people, and who will then use our input to create a policy agenda which genuinely makes a difference to as many young people as we possibly can.

Yours sincerely

David Ellis – Headteacher York High School.


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Husband and Dad, recently retired head teacher, sports addict and lover of good food and fine wine.

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