What five things should you never say in a school setting? Former headteacher Jane Golightly discusses five comments that she advises senior leadership to steer clear of in order to maintain positive school leadership

Recently I read an enjoyable article which will resonate with anyone who works with teenagers; parents of teenagers; and anyone who has been through those years and lived to tell the tale. The article by Eileen Tracy, Ten things never to say to a teenager (the Guardian, 19 May 2009) not only entertained me, but also prompted me to think about things that should never be said in a school. Over the years I have heard certain phrases repeatedly and I have responded in various ways. Some you will read with disbelief and you may cry: ‘No-one says that anymore. She’s making it up’. Trust me – they do still say these things and no, they are not made up. Here are the five that top the list, in no particular order.

The top five things that should never be said in a school

1. What can you expect from children like ours?
For thousands of young people in this country education is the key to a better future. They need schools to be aspirational for them. Children, irrespective of family, social and demographic background, deserve the best possible education every day. Schools should ensure that the progress of children is monitored, targets are aspirational as well as realistic, teaching is never less than good and that children and families are supported to ensure that they can achieve their best.

2. We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.
Is there anything worse for school leaders than being faced with negativity? Thankfully, negative people are usually the minority but they can impact on how others respond and the effectiveness of our work. Don’t be downhearted. Be one step ahead. Plan your strategies in advance – at least you know who will respond in certain ways. Be smart about how you gather and use their support. A good idea is to discuss things individually with them in advance. By explaining that you are testing your thinking and seeking their thoughts you can often get the result you want.

3. You can’t have a broad and balanced curriculum and set aspirational targets for children.
The first sighting of the national target-setting guidance early in the autumn term frequently leads to mutterings and murmurings about curriculum versus targets. But it shouldn’t be an ‘either or’ agenda. Target-setting is an integral part of school improvement. To support children in achieving their targets and making the best possible progress you need to give them access to a broad, balanced and creative curriculum which draws upon first-hand experiences.

4. Most of our teaching is satisfactory.
You have heard Ofsted say it and now I am saying it – satisfactory teaching isn’t good enough. If your monitoring and evaluation processes are showing that the majority of teaching is satisfactory you need to take action – fast. Children, especially those in schools where there is underachievement, need to be taught by good teachers every day. As school leaders you need to put in place strategies to improve teaching and where it is not and nor going to be of the required standard you need to take the necessary action.

5. We know that in Year X some children have made no progress and others have fallen behind.
If I was asked to pick only one thing out of the list it would be this one. All staff need to understand their responsibility to ensure that the children in their class make sufficient progress each year. This means holding staff responsible and accountable through monitoring and evaluation, school improvement and performance management. Long gone are the days when Years 6 and 2 were of greater importance than other year groups. Every teacher in every year group has a part to play in securing children’s attainment and achievement.

And five more…

There are five more things on my list that cause me alarm when I hear them.

  • Schools don’t have any autonomy. It’s all prescription.
  • We don’t see much of our headteacher. S/he spends a lot of time in the office.
  • Our headteacher doesn’t understand the Foundation Stage.
  • We can’t get our parents to be interested in their children’s education.
  • I don’t know if the work I am doing is valued.

I am sure if you heard any of the above, you too would express alarm. As a school leader you are the key to ensuring that the correct message is delivered to – and received by – staff and governors. Leadership brings responsibility and part of that responsibility is delivering some hard messages.

What should be said in school?

It wasn’t difficult to think of ten phrases that should never be said, nor was it difficult to select the top five. Over the years these have all been said to me by headteachers, leadership teams, staff and governors. I could have also made a list of the top ten things that should never be said by parents and pupils. Perhaps we should all think about these lists sooner rather than later, as the early indications of the revised Ofsted inspection framework (due September 2009) suggest that Ofsted will be increasing the number of ways it gathers the views of parents and pupils about the school. We definitely don’t want to hear them say: ‘We don’t feel welcome in school’ or ‘I haven’t learned anything in school today.’ The best way to respond to this article is to carry out a staff and governor exercise: What are the top ten things we do want people to say about our school?

Ten things never to say to a teenager by Eileen Tracy, the Guardian, 19 May 2009

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education