Nick Dennis' Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Multi-Academy Trusts and Independent Schools

Independent schools come under periodic attack for being ‘separate’ from the state school system despite the fact that many of these schools already sponsor academies and maintain a growing network of links (see the Schools Together website for detailed examples).

The proposal that all schools in England should become academies creates a unique opportunity for independent schools. The fall in actual budgets available to state schools has propelled the movement towards new ways of organising schools to tap into the advantages economies of scale can bring.  By forming multi-academy trusts, independent schools can help by centralising a host of the services needed by schools (HR, finance, catering, cleaning) and help formalise the CPD, sporting and governance links that already exist. There would be no barrier between the sectors and it offers the tantalising prospect that there really could be ‘educational excellence everywhere’ by merging the best aspects from the schools involved.


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Beyond the modern obsession of ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ education

One puzzling aspect of the debate surrounding education on Social Media is starting with the ‘Romantic’ period and blaming Rousseau and his work Emile for the problems in our modern age. The creation of binary opposites from this ‘Romantic’ point has fuelled a wide range of discussions about teachers belonging to one group or another.

I would like to present an anterior history that helps us see beyond the limits imposed by the terms used in the debate by briefly exploring the work of Quintilian. Writing around 95 CE,  Quintilian in the Institutio Oratoria suggested that an effective education should pay attention to the needs of the child:

Yet I am not so unacquainted with differences of age as to think that we should urge those of tender years severely or exact a full complement of work from them. For it will be necessary, above all things, to take care lest the child should conceive a dislike to the application which he cannot yet love, and continue to dread the bitterness which he has once tasted, even beyond the years of infancy. Let his instruction be an amusement to him; let him be questioned and praised; let him never feel pleased that he does not know a thing; and sometimes, if he is unwilling to learn, let another be taught before him, of whom he may be envious. Let him strive for victory now and then, and generally suppose that he gains it; and let his powers be called forth by rewards such as that age prizes.

Institutio Oratoria, Book 1, Chapter 1, 20

In other words, learning should be made pleasurable to the student and that rewards should be given to entice interest. However, this does not mean that there is a lack of rigour:

Some have thought memory to be a mere gift of nature, and to nature, doubtless, it is chiefly owing. But it is strengthened, like all our other faculties, by exercise, and all the study of the orator of which we have been speaking is ineffectual unless the other departments of it be held together by memory as by an animating principle. All knowledge depends on memory, and we shall be taught to no purpose if whatever we hear escapes from us. It is the power of memory that brings before us those multitudes of precedents, laws, judgments, sayings, and facts of which an orator should always have an abundance and which he should always be ready to produce. Accordingly, memory is called, not without reason, the treasury of eloquence.

Institutio Oratoria, Book 11, Chapter 2, 1

The training of memory and the ability to retain facts (through devices such as a ‘Memory Palace’) is an essential part of a good education.

For Quintilian, it was not a case of choice between being child-centred or retaining information through training. Both were needed to provide a good education.

It seems strange that we consistently forget or ignore this fluid thinking about education because of the allure of Enlightenment binaries and the certainty they apparently supply.

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How not to ‘whitewash’

The #RhodesMustFall campaign has been interesting because the main goal to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, imperialist and benefactor, has failed. Equally interesting has been the opposition, which has centred around the seemingly simple argument that one should not ‘whitewash’ history (an interesting choice of words considering the reasoning behind the campaign).

This argument in particular assumes that the history behind monuments and buildings is apparent to everyone. It is not. I have no doubt that many people had no idea who Cecil Rhodes was and what he did when they walked past Oriel College. Without context, the statue presented a limited narrative. The campaigners have called for Oxford to ‘acknowledge and confront its role in the ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire’, and there is a simple way to do this.

Making the complex history of statues/monuments/street names available to all can be done through the technology of iBeacons or QR codes that direct the public to a mobile website/app that offers two interpretations in audio or text format. These can be written by professional historians or by using the network of history teachers across the country. After engaging in the content, listeners/readers can then offer their own interpretation as oral testimony. Rather than ‘whitewashing’ history, it allows people to interact with the past and add their own voices.

Imagine what places like Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Liverpool and London would be like where the history of buildings, streets, monuments and public art speak to you as you walk around. What horrors of the Slave Trade would be revealed? What celebrated achievements would they boast of? What tales of fundamental British values would they make complex? The overlapping and intertwining stories would, for the first time, be available to all as they stood in the physical space. Education, something we seem to agree on as a progressive force in society, would be available to all and at the point of interest.

The costs of such a project would be minimal and it could be done quickly. The public benefit would be enormous and it would allow our society to confront, in a very real way, our history. So rather than threatening to withdraw donations, belittling the students for raising questions and prioritising a single story, let us be open to the voices/spectres of the past and confront the issues. If we don’t, we will simply create a safe space for dissatisfaction and anger.

Interested in the above proposal or think it is unworkable? Get in touch (especially if you are in the heritage sector or Oriel College).

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Why I did not go to the Sunday Times Festival of Education last year

I did not go to the Sunday Times Festival of Education last year. Colleagues and friends attended and I even encouraged other people to go to experience the educational substance and froth alike. I was invited to speak but I turned the invitation down.

Why? The main reason was The Times nominating Nigel Farage as ‘Briton of the Year’.

It should be pretty clear that I don’t agree with his politics on race/identity and I thought it pretty insensitive (if I am being generous) for him to be given the title on that basis. At the time, I tried to find the criteria used for selection but I could not find a published rationale (I would be very interested in it if it does exist). It may be that the title ‘Briton of the Year’ is awarded based on notoriety or impact, but as any teacher knows, highlighting the impact of someone’s poor behaviour usually confers legitimacy and creates a social norm where it is acceptable to act in the way identified. There is even some research on this problematic effect in society. See this from the ‘Nudge’ unit on page 31.

But what does the The Times have to do with the conference? Well, The Times is not The Sunday Times but there is a little more to it:

  • The registered offices are the same address in London;
  • They are owned/published by the same company (News Corp & News UK)
  • You pay one subscription for access to both papers (I pay the student cost as I like to read very different views to my own. I knew my university card would come in handy).

If an organisation (News Corp/News UK) wants to support such views through one of its publications, no problem.  However, I did not feel it was appropriate to attend/speak at an educational conference (focussed on inclusion and human betterment) when it was sponsored by another publication of the same company that unthinkingly (being generous again) supports such divisive politics. The reasoning is simple. If one department in a company had acted inappropriately, would the department be the focus of concern or the company itself? Out of respect for the organisers on the ground, I decided not to publish my withdrawal.

I only mention not attending/speaking now because I referred to it on social media over the weekend when commenting on equality and diversity (see my last post) and was challenged about it. I apparently ‘glommed’ the two publications together (despite the fact that they are owned by the same company etc).

The conference has a new sponsor this year and I might actually attend so I can listen to a few select people talk about the great work they are doing in schools. Of course, it does depend on whether the Telegraph writes something incredibly daft.





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Watch out, Cameron; I’m bringing the fight for equality in Britain to you

Let me introduce myself. My name is Nick Dennis and I’m a Deputy Head at an independent school.  I am a governor of a Free School in London. I am also black, from Hackney and the first person in my family to study A Levels, go to university and complete a degree (I ended up doing three).

This is not a ‘sob story’ or an inspirational tale about overcoming adversity.

I’m telling you this because today, the Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a piece about the need for equality in Britain and I’m wondering whether he truly understands the extent of the problem he is trying to address. From where I’m standing his solutions seem pretty weak.

In today’s Sunday Times, Cameron stated that he wanted to reduce inequality in Britain.

But when you look more under the surface, it’s clear that we’ve still got some distance to travel to achieve the One Nation ideal. Consider this: if you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying in a top university. Only one in 10 of the poorest white boys go into higher education at all. There are no black generals in our armed forces and just 4% of chief executives in the FTSE 100 are from ethnic minorities.

As Trevor Phillips stated in the same paper, this is a watershed moment. Unfortunately, the proposed solutions do not match the written ambition.

The Prime Minister talks of addressing the problem in two ways. The first is raising aspirations. There is evidence that this helps (the ‘Nudge’ unit have produced some interesting research here), but it is not a solution. When material concerns such as high tuition fees/ reduced funding for state schools to provide education opportunities are obstacles, the financial package around education has to be addressed.

As a teenager living in Hackney during the riots in the 1980s and attending a comprehensive school in the Bethnal Green, university seemed like something other people did. It was somewhere I wanted to go, but at that point I – along with many of my classmates – had no way of knowing how to get there.  In the end I was fortunate. During my GCSEs I got to spend a week at a university as part of a widening access programme. It opened my eyes to something I did not really think was possible. Later, I was able to study a course where my fees and living were subsidised by the state but even then, it was a worry. Student loans were being introduced and as I worked out how much I would have to pay back over a period of time, it seemed almost impossible. For current students facing a larger debt without the family resources to support their studies, what incentive is there? The effects of debt on decision-making have been clear for a while but do not seem to figure in the proposed solution.

Beyond individual choices, there are financial issues that reduce the ability for state schools to provide the great education they want to the students walking through their doors.  Recruitment is a major problem because the wage is not enough to attract people in London due to high rents and travel costs. Teacher training, once the preserve of HE, has now moved to schools but without the budget or time increase you might expect.  My experience in the independent sector shows that many schools have the capacity to offer housing with low rents and extensive training for their staff. If we really want to ensure that state schools can do a great job in helping to create the new equal society, a more detailed look at finance is needed.

Cameron’s second solution is to tackle discrimination in all its forms.

I don’t care whether it’s over, unconscious or institutional – we’ve got to stamp it out. We don’t need politically correct, contrived and unfair solutions. Quota’s don’t fix the underlying problems. To succeed, we must be far more demanding of our institutions, and be relentless in the pursuit of creative answers.

One particular target in the fight for inequality are universities. Cameron highlights that Oxford accepted only 27 black men and women out of 2,500 undergraduates. Cambridge don’t have a great success rate on this either. His solution is to make sure universities  publish data on applied for and offers given. More detail will help (it is partly done already by Oxford and Cambridge) but it does not go far enough. The cuts that the government have made to HE funding has reduced the capacity for widening participation schemes to bring in more students from diverse backgrounds. Ironically, what it has also done is reinforce the commitment of many academics to include as many students from diverse backgrounds as possible (disclosure: my wife is an academic and this is a hot topic of conversation in at least one Russell Group university).  Alumni funding campaigns have been increased in the hope of accruing the money to fund the great work many institutions are already doing. But both of these have happened in spite of the government, rather than because of it.

Finally, the PM issues the following challenge:

 Ask yourselves: are you going the extra mile to really show people that yours can be a place for everyone, regardless of their background?

This is a very interesting question to ask and it is one area the government has a terrible record in. The data published by the Department for Education clearly shows the dearth of black head teachers and the number has not risen dramatically over the last few years. Where programmes exist, it is usually individuals like Dave Hermitt who take the lead. If the government cannot make dramatic changes, then it really is up to other institutions and individuals to pitch in.

Based on the above, I would like to ask the Prime Minister, is this really the extra mile? Because if it is, we are in trouble and the One Nation he hopes to create will remain an unfulfilled promise. In my view, this is just a first step. The vision is enticing but the steps to get us there demand a more reasoned, subtle and deep appreciation of the problem.  It also requires genuine leadership and I look forward to seeing what the Prime Minister does next.


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When writing about history teaching goes very, very wrong.

The Daily Mail’s article, ‘GCSE pupils to be taught that the nation’s earliest inhabitants were Africans who were in Britain before the English‘ marshals an impressive array of commentators apparently condemning the new course as a beacon of all that is wrong with political correctness in education.

The article suggests that the course is attempting to rewrite history, yet the scrupulous appeal for what is ‘right’ does not stretch to their research methods. As they are not trained teachers, they have little understanding of what a specification does or comprehend the role of historical interpretation in reading lists. These lists are put together to stimulate debate and offer an insight into the richness of historical debate surrounding any subject. Reading lists are also useful to teach students that different conclusions can be drawn from the same source material. It is also clear that they have not read the book, because in citing Peter Fryer’s ‘Staying Power’, they suggest that it argues that the Africans stationed by Hadrian’s Wall in the third century AD ‘settled’ in the country. Fryer says no such thing.




Quoting VS Naipaul is meant to support their case but as usual in these matters, Naipaul goes too far comparing the supposed rewriting of history to the work of IS.

The press has a right to question what goes on in schools but not when it is based on deliberate misdirection, a desire to create moral panic and – particularly galling from a history teacher’s point of view – a lack of carefully researched homework.

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The Role of the HoD Within Whole-School Planning

The role of middle leaders in driving school improvement is crucial. Despite a wide acceptance of this wisdom across education, acting on it is not. On the 3rd November, I led a workshop on the Independent Schools Qualification in Academic Management (ISQAM)  course on this issue.  Below is a brief outline.

Purpose is a crucial factor when leading people. Without it, decisions can be paralysing. Delegates were asked to consider the notion of ‘purpose’ throughout the session and the importance it plays from a whole-school perspective and from a departmental point of view.

The other major feature of the presentation was to clarify the difference between strategy and development. A colleague in a state school contacted me a while ago for some help with what their Head wanted from them. After a few minutes it was clear that their Head did not know the difference between a strategic plan and a development plan and this led to increased stress on all sides. Simply, strategy is concerned with defining the shape and extent of the organisation. Development is concerned with how the organisation is going to adapt and improve within the strategic framework. To put it another way, strategy is concerned with what ‘B’ looks like and development is concerned with the substantive steps that take us from ‘A’ to ‘B’.

I then discussed the strategic process from a whole-school point of view from four key areas:

  1. Background research – stakeholders, market research, SWOT analysis
  2. Core Aims and Values – what are our core values? What do we stand for? What are we trying to achieve?
  3. Decide Fundamentals – size/structure of the school, boarding/day, single-sex/co-ed
  4. Determine direction – where are we going? Why are going there?

On the background research, I discussed the use of analysing student numbers and the use of Mosaic data to think about potential competitors and prospective parents. This is a fascinating aspect of analysis and if you work in an independent school as a senior leader and have not heard/seen the data, I recommend going on a course to find out more about it.

After going through the rest of the process from a whole-school perspective, we then explored what the process would like from a departmental point of view. I mentioned the importance of the ‘pre-mortem‘ in departmental and school planning and how a ‘multipliers‘ approach can work at a department level.

I was also keen to stress (and I will do so again) that despite using Berkhamsted as the basis for the presentation, we have not got everything right! When I joined the school, the middle leaders (academic and pastoral) were not directly involved in the development process and I felt strongly that they should be. Now, we have two separate development days for HoDs and pastoral leaders in January set aside for this purpose. Their thoughts flow directly into the Senior Leader strategy days later on in the year and shared with the school before the end of the summer term so people can think through departmental development plans carefully.

Detailed information on the workshop can be found below:

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’s Conference (HMC) and the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) jointly run the ISQAM. If you are a current middle leader, or aspire to be one, I highly recommend the course.

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The misinterpretation of E D Hirsch

Today’s TES has an interview with academic E D Hirsch and it is enlightening to read his thoughts on how his work has been appropriated and used by educators. There are two telling passages in the article. The first deals with the application of his work to secondary education:

In Cultural Literacy, he repeatedly emphasises that his attention is on the primary age group. He does not endorse his work being used to justify a curriculum beyond that level. “My focus is on 3-11 education,” Hirsch reiterates. “I am calling for a solid, well-rounded, common early curriculum.”

The second deals with the ‘progressive’/’traditional’ pedagogic divide:

The truth is you can have a defined curriculum and use all sorts of progressive methods to deliver it. If the kids get the results and you can prove it works, then do it. Who cares how you deliver it as long as it gets into the minds of children and they’re happy? Pedagogy is highly variable. It is very context-dependent.” [Emphasis added]

It really does seem that we have been listening to shades of Hirsch.

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Architects of the Mind – A Blueprint for Education Innovators. Stowe Ed conference 4th Jan

It may appear that I am not keen on relaxing over the Christmas holiday. Not only do I move house on the last day of school this term and prepare to start my new post at Nottingham High School in January, I have also agreed to lead a ‘breakout’ session at Stowe School’s conference on the 4th January. Julie Potter, Director of Studies at Stowe and a former colleague at Berkhamsted, discussed a plan for a conference focussing on the ‘mind’ after visiting TLAB15 in March. The Stowe Ed conference is the result. Keynote speakers include Sir Anthony Seldon, Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Matthew Syed. The programme for the day can be viewed here and my session will focus on the power of ‘Nudges’ and how they can be used in education. If you are looking for a jolt of teaching energy before term starts, I look forward to seeing you there. Just don’t ask how the house move has gone!

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The Next Chapter panel discussion at the University of Brighton

On Friday I was part of the panel at the University of Brighton’s panel discussion ‘The Next Chapter | Our Future in Black and White‘ to discuss the absence of BME academics in HE.

When discussing the lack of BME students in HE, the curriculum was highlighted as a site of exclusion with school history lessons being the worst example. There is no denying the issue as this film explains:

History Matters from University of Chichester on Vimeo.

However, I wanted to emphasise that there are opportunities to go beyond the apparent limitations at school level. The first example is that many schools are not bound by the KS3 national curriculum as Academies and so have the agency to make appropriate content choices. The second example is that even when following the guidance, there is a still a great deal of agency/latitude in how much time is spent on certain topics leaving enough time to explore other areas. Emphasising existing capacity for revealing  the diversity of Britain does not mean that change is automatic, but it moves us from saying ‘we are constrained’ to asking the question ‘why are we not doing this?’

One response to this question may be that geographically speaking, we are an island and our focus should be on the ‘island story’. However, the story of this island, to use Kei Miller‘s words, ‘is a wide, wide open space’ and touches the shores of West Africa and the plantations of the Caribbean.  The politics of the European states, wars with Imperial China, exploration, colonisation and decolonisation are part of our ‘island story’. It is, as Marianne Hirsch suggests,  a connective history rather than a competitive one.

The possibility of teaching a rich history of Britain at KS3 demands a focus on practical matters and for teachers who are already engaged, they need help accessing the latest research.  This is where HE can be very helpful by working with schools in their location to provide access to library materials such as journals so educators. This will not solve the problem, but it removes a very real obstacle for teachers at KS3 who may lack the subject knowledge.

There is also hope beyond KS3. The new History GCSE from OCR has options on migration to Britain from the c200 to the present. Two units, ‘Migration Through Time’ and ‘Empire and Migration c.1688-1730’ have been developed in partnership with the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) and Dan Lyndon-Cohen and Martin Spafford are currently writing resources to support these courses. Other exam boards have yet to follow these lines but this is a clear change at the formal exam level.

Many other aspects were discussed and the video will shortly be available Youtube. Thanks to Marcie and the team at Brighton for organising the event and for emphasising the need for positive steps forward.

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