Posted by: mrlock | May 27, 2013

Beating the Odds

We want more of our students getting into the best universities.

We want this for more of the poorest, often from the local estate – making our school and our area proud.

We want to celebrate more than our selection of ex- students who are footballers, olympians, and the student who held the torch on David Beckham’s boat in the opening ceremony.

We’re about to launch a group called “Beyond Horizons” at my school. My school is an inner city comprehensive with all the usual inner city issues. We are going to identify a group of Year 9 students (about ten percent for now) whose aim should be the Russell Group Universities. I’m leading this group. The group will be meeting on Saturdays, and we will be extending their curriculum, giving them access to content that makes them competitive with students from any school in the country.

And something else.

The students will have the highest expectations, because we’re aiming for the pinnacle. I don’t say that lightly. I really do subscribe to the idea that schools should be aiming to get students to the highest level of education possible for, as Tony Benn once said “the sake of education”. In fact I’m sure Tony Benn has said this on many more than one occasion, but I only saw him say it once.

But there is something else we need to include.

I found John Tomsett’s post on bridging the divide between independent and state schools  helpful in framing my thoughts on this. In many ways, it encouraged me to write a personal response. This does get somewhat personal.

For background, I’ve always had a thing about Independent Schools. From an early age I objected to their existence (my English teacher in Year 10 told me I was a Marxist after an essay that argued this), and as an adult I ridiculed their existence (regularly saying to friends who can bear to listen to me rant on education things like “their teachers don’t even have to be qualified” – how wrong that sounds now that ours don’t either being an Academy!) and related any success such schools had to the support and focus privilege of the students they attract.

I had never set foot in an Independent School until the Teaching, Learning and Assessment conference at Berkhamstead School earlier this year.

As a child, I knew I wanted the highest standards of education. I also thought I would never know about education in schools where one had to pay, because I hadn’t been born to that class. I remember living in a mobile home with three younger siblings and my Mum in tears because she couldn’t pay the poll tax. Here I should be saying “from that day I was determined to…” but I don’t think it formed anything apart from feeling sorry for myself because I couldn’t afford to go on my football club’s tour of Devon, or because I had to get up at 6am to do a paper-round to have any spending money at all (or scrounging golf balls off Blackmoor golf course in Hampshire to sell). But I had one thing – I was competitive with anyone at my school in terms of performance – and I wasn’t bad at most sports either. I just had no idea how this compared to anyone who paid for their education.

Michael Gove is proud of exclaiming that the improvement in outcomes for the most vulnerable is a personal quest for him, because he was adopted at 4 months and was hence in care. The outcomes for children in care are unspeakably low.

When I heard Gove say this, it chimed with me. I was born to a single mother in 1977. It seems obvious to say that this was far more uncommon then. My natural father ran away prior to my birth – though I was not told this until I was 9. My mother met my Dad (I call him my Dad to distinguish from my natural father) soon after I was born. My Dad adopted me at about a year old. My Dad treated me like his son, and I felt no different from my three siblings in this regard and still don’t.

My Dad was in the services. Service children are now Pupil Premium children (though in writing this and doing a modicum of research I realise this is not about outcomes). They are considered to require additional pastoral support, partly because they move schools regularly, and partly because of the potential lack of stability.

My Mum and Dad separated when I was 12. We were plunged into fairly significant poverty while my Mum did an Access course and then a three year degree at Bristol University. I have no idea how she managed this and simultaneously managed to bring us up.

I went to 8 schools as a student:

A school in Upavon, Wiltshire, presumably a pre-school or something

AFSOUTH Infants School, Naples, Italy

AFSOUTH School, Naples, Italy

Shortstown Lower School, Bedford

AFCENT International School, Brunssum, The Netherlands

Queensmead School, Ruislip, Middlesex

Eggars School, Alton, Hampshire

Worle School, Weston-super-Mare, N Somerset

Churchill 6th Form, Near Bristol, N Somerset

I have met many children with far more turbulent and difficult backgrounds than mine. However, because I achieved the best A-level results at my 6th form, and was the first from my 6th form to attend the London School of Economics and have since completed my MA – all things I’m proud of – it’s safe to say that I beat the odds.

In fact, when you consider that my brother has no qualifications (not even GCSEs) and has spent a spell inside, my sister is a traveller in Portugal (she went travelling at age 18 for 2 weeks [15 years ago] and never came back!) and my other sister is a very happy care nurse in Weston-super-Mare – and none of them have even level 3 qualifications, it is even more obvious that something meant I beat the odds.

“Beyond Horizons” is about those students beating the odds in the same way. I think Mossbourne under Sir Michael Wilshaw delivered and continues to deliver similar for many of its students and I read about many schools (not least referenced by Gove himself) determined to do the same. I am sure that our school should be (and does strive to) doing this for all students and needs to work with the junior and infant schools to do so from age 4.

But for now, I want us to do what we set out to do for these students we will identify next week. The highest expectations, a competitive extended curriculum, and the something else to beat the odds. And I suspect we can learn at least part of that something from schools where you have to pay.

So in thinking about the something else, I think about the influences that I remember that meant I went to university, and they’re almost all either teachers or conversations with teachers:

1)      I remember being “ahead” of most of my peers at all my schools from an early age, but this accelerated when I was in Mr Dean’s class. Brian Dean at AFCENT International School is the teacher I remember most of all from my days at school. I remember he was Scottish, extremely strict (if he caught you with a banned item he destroyed it in front of you and threw it in the bin), and never smiled. He had one joke. He would always say “it’s nearly Christmas” – especially just after Christmas. I still don’t get it. I was 9 back then.

He also tested me on my times tables, up to 12, every single day. 10 questions in about 10 seconds. We had to write the answers alone as he read them as quickly as he could. I learnt my times tables in the evenings rapidly so that I could get them right.

He tested me on 25 spellings every day in a similar way.

He put me on the most able table and challenged me, in front of my peers, to get the best marks possible (my Mum says that he told her he was doing this because he’d spotted that there were four students who were fairly able with a similar competitive mentality) in everything we did. He challenged the others similarly.

He gave instant feedback, never later than the next day.

He made me talk to the whole class formally in prepared presentations.

None of these things were negotiable. I don’t remember any praise whatsoever for getting everything right or coming first. I do remember that I felt like crap if I didn’t come first, or I let him down, or got one times table wrong. And I remember that we all behaved.

2)      Robert Bell was my teacher a year later at AFCENT. He was nothing like Mr Dean. In fact he was the complete opposite. I don’t remember much apart from I often didn’t feel like I was getting cleverer in his class. However weekly he would give us a page or three from a book and make us read it and memorise all the punctuation. A week later he would read the extract out and we had to copy it down. If we got 100% and all punctuation right, we were able to choose a novel. Since I loved reading, I wanted to get novels. I’m absolutely convinced this is at the root of my dislike at poor grammar and simultaneously at the root of some of my grammatical mistakes. I was never taught the rules of grammar. Ever. But I had a lot of experience of what “right” looked like.

As an aside, I should say I’m convinced by Daisy Christodoulou’s presentation on the explicit teaching of the formal rules of grammar. I saw this at the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference I mentioned earlier and will be getting in touch with The Curriculum Centre to follow this up.

3)      When my Dad was posted to RAF Northolt from AFCENT I was asked to meet the British Headteacher (there was one for the Brits, another Head for the Americans and Canadians, and a separate one for the German students) before I left. I was 12. I don’t even remember whether they were male or female. S/he asked me if I wanted to go to university. I can’t really remember my response, but it clearly wasn’t positive enough. I only remember two things:

It was a very long meeting

I came out 100% certain that I was going to go to university.

4)      I liked books at an early age and my parents REALLY encouraged this and surrounded me with them. I was taken to the library, made full use of the mobile library, and used to stay up barely awake and exhausted to finish books from a very early age. This has deserted me a bit as an adult (I now buy way more books than I can read and have almost completely eschewed fiction for the time being).

I don’t subscribe to what Gove appears to say when he is being personal about his educational experience – that everything that was good for him is good for all – but when I was considering today what the something I need to add to Beyond Horizons group is.

I think it’s at least this:

an unequivocal advocate

the absolute belief of each of their teachers and parents or carers

the knowledge that at any moment we could be their Brian Dean, Robert Bell or that Headteacher I don’t remember personally at all

that we know them

that we know what they need to know

that we know the system so it can’t work against them

I wonder if my institution is equipped well enough for the last two. And I wonder if there’s more I’m missing. The stuff I’ve written is so far too woolly for me.

PS: Incidentally, I failed the Oxford entrance interview having passed the examination. I’d never had an interview in my life. We won’t be making that mistake.

PPS: A note – I’m very proud of all my siblings, who are happier and more rounded people than me, and all very different.



  1. Interesting post and partial disclosure (not full out of respect for my Grandma as she would not be happy with detail about the family) so you know where I am coming from and that my offer at the end is more than mere words.

    I grew up in Hackney and was cared for by my Grandparents as my single mother was too young to know any better. Hackney Downs (now Mossbourne) was the closest school to me but after my uncles ended up with no qualifications at all and concerns about racism and low expectations in school (the days of the CSE had taught my Grandmother a few things), she decided to send me to Raines in Bethnal Green, East London (where Tom Bennett works). No sharp elbows or cultural capital to draw upon but it was the only option she thought she had.

    I had never considered university until I went on a summer school to Sussex. This changed my mind. I was the first in my family to gain qualifications at 16. Then a degree. Still the only one with a Masters and a PhD. I am one of the few ethnic minority Deputy Heads in the independent sector (not sure there are many more in the maintained sector, especially in schools not considered ‘inner city’).

    My point is, if you need any help, personally or from the institution I work for, I will do what I can to help. I was one of *your* students and would have relished the opportunity to benefit from such a programme.


  2. I’ve said this on twitter, but that is a very generous offer and I will certainly be in touch Nick. Thank you.


  3. Your teacher Robert Bell at Afcent, was he a red headed soft spoken man? I also attended Afcent and loved my 5th grade teacher Mr. Bell. I would love to reconnect with him and tell him how much I enjoyed being his pupal.


    • Certainly was. I think I have an email for him somewhere.


  4. I also attended AFCENT. Mr. Dean was my favourite teacher by far and I remember him exactly as you do. I never wanted to let him down so I worked at night and on the weekends. I cannot think of a teacher for whom I had more respect. I often wonder what happened to the man that made us all try Scottish cusine and opened my world to C.S. Lewis. Have you been in touch with him?


    • No, but ironically, my Mum sent me a bbc video where he was on it. I’ll try and find it and link.


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