“So here it is, Merry Christmas. Everybody’s having fun”……….or are they?

In the first of a series of blogs, Kiran Hingorani and Paul Catherall explore the notion of Quality of Life and its importance when working with young people with ASD and their families. If you would like to participate in their project Kiran can be contacted on KHingorani@swalcliffepark.co.uk

———————-

No matter how joyous or irritating you find the perennial Christmas song by Slade, we all know it will be difficult to avoid hearing it in the coming weeks. Christmas is definitely coming but will everybody be having fun? As we approach Christmas 2016, we may have very good reason to challenge Noddy Holder’s claim about this.

Bah, humbug, I hear you reply!

Yet, according to the findings of a large-scale survey of people from a number of European countries last year: “… the Christmas period is related to a decrease in life satisfaction and emotional well-being” (Mutz, 2015).

Now your own life circumstances as we approach the season of goodwill may well mean that you will be singing along with Noddy and his band……..then again after a few days of festivities, you might find yourself agreeing with Dr Mutz’s findings!

The findings in the 2015 study which were published in Applied Research in Quality of Life are, not surprisingly, about Quality of Life (QoL). But what does this term actually mean? Surely it means different things to different people and personal judgements about QoL have to be, by their very nature, subjective. You are the only person who can evaluate your own QoL…. not even the legendary Mr Holder can do this for you!

And another thing… your personal circumstances could easily and rapidly change and have positive or negative impacts on your life. Your financial situation might change suddenly – you may become much richer or much poorer. Your physical health might improve significantly or it may seriously deteriorate. Your personal relationships could blossom or start to decline. Your psychological well-being might be influenced by unexpected crises or happy life events. And so on.

So, this notion of QoL appears to be something that is highly personal and subjective; it is dynamic and ever-changing; and it is multi-dimensional – many things can influence its many components. While all this makes it complex to define, it is likely that most people would claim to have a fair understanding of what it means to them, even if it is a sensitive issue for them to discuss. In view of all this, why should it matter to anyone, other than each individual…at Christmas or indeed any other time?

And what has it got to do with education and schools anyway?

If the answer to this is of interest to you why not join us for our future blogs, where we will discuss the concept of Quality of Life and its relevance to children and young people with ASD and their families. We will propose that it is highly relevant to those of us who work in schools to support these children and young people. We will consider the extent to which we actually appreciate the impact of ASD on family life. We will even try to determine whether it is feasible to measure such an elusive concept and, if so, what can schools do with the information we collect.

In the meantime, look to the future now ….its only just begun, so festive greetings to everybody and jingle all the way!

Swalcliffe Park School – a specialist day and residential school for secondary-aged boys with ASD

We are all vulnerable sometimes.

Quite rightly, the education system concerns itself with aspiring to ensure that all children get an equitable opportunity and that irrespective of their background they should have the chance to achieve and indeed attain at the same specified level as any other child.

To achieve the required improvements within the education system, we often see the use of policy levers to try and affect change, such as the Pupil Premium. This approach has led to significant amounts of money, and indeed attention, being focussed on those children who qualify for this type of support.

It is also interesting to see that the way we use language within education has evolved during the period since the Pupil Premium was introduced. Disadvantage has come to be defined in predominantly socio economic terms despite the fact that there are numerous other ways in which children can be disadvantaged either permanently or indeed temporarily.

As a result of this characterisation of disadvantage, focussing so visibly on one particular group of children, and holding schools accountable for the progress of this group through the inspection process, we risk drawing attention away from others also at risk of lower attainment. If we want to ensure that we create an increasingly equitable education system then it is also important to consider the way in which the policy decisions potentially work to disadvantage those within the system and as such risk promoting inequality.

In his eloquent and thought provoking book, “Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow”, Jarlath O’Brien highlights the impact of having a learning disability on the individual. This analysis is characterised by catastrophically low rates of employment, greater risk of permanent exclusion from education, more likely to be living in poverty or end up in prison and likely to die fifteen years earlier than the average life expectancy. However, the main investment in the education of children with Special Educational Needs or Disability (SEND) has focussed on the systems which govern access to provision. Less attention appears to have been given so far to the quality of the education on offer or indeed the impact of that education on later life. Yet there is limited value in having world class administration if we are still struggling to provide consistently good provision.

To this regard, it is worth noting that if a school performs poorly during inspection in relation to their pupils in receipt of free school meals, and as such in receipt of the Pupil Premium, then they can be compelled to participate in a Pupil Premium review. Yet no such mechanism currently exists for those schools whose pupils with SEND are identified as receiving a low quality education, or those with English as an Additional Language, to name just two other groups who may benefit from greater attention being focussed on the education they have access to.

We also need to be mindful of the transient nature of some vulnerabilities, the turmoil that children can be exposed to unexpectedly and the impact that it can have on them. One example of this can be found in the debates around mental health and the broader wellbeing of the children in our schools that are highlighting a perceived change in the needs of the children we work with. We need to consider the extent to which we are able to meet emerging disadvantages and vulnerabilities and what may be happening to affect the changes that we seem to be seeing.

We find ourselves in a situation where there are systems of accountability that draw attention towards particular groups and it requires strong moral leadership to ensure, that in responding to these pressures, schools do not find themselves distracted from the needs of pupils who do not fall within those categories. To fail to do so, risks allowing a system to flourish where some pupils’ disadvantage is seen to be more important than others.

School leaders need to ensure that they have the clarity of vision necessary to be able to drive improvement for all pupils, irrespective of whether the quality of what their schools offer as a result addresses the political priorities of the time.

It would be a dereliction of duty to focus only on the needs of policy, when every child deserves the very best from their education. When every child has the potential to be vulnerable sometimes.

Simon Knight 

Director of Education at the National Education Trust

This blog is an edited chapter from NET’s upcoming book Learning without Labels due for publication by John Catt books in the New Year.

The theme of vulnerable learners will be explored in NET’s upcoming event in partnership with the Teacher Development Trust on January 17th, details of which can be found here:

http://nationaleducationtrust.net/portfolio/educational-excellence-for-everyone/

Motivation – A Surprising Finding (an extract from Cleverlands) by Lucy Crehan

With so much pressure coming from external sources, such as parents and teachers, one might think that while most Chinese students are motivated to study hard, this is entirely extrinsic motivation, and driven by fear of punishment or promise of reward rather than interest in the task. It would be easy enough to pick out examples of Chinese students being bullied by their parents and hating school – but would this fairly represent the ‘typical’ Chinese experience?

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume so. At the very least, given that British and American parents are more concerned with making learning interesting and fun than their Chinese counterparts, you’d think that their children would be more intrinsically motivated than Chinese children.168 Another reason for thinking so would be that Chinese teachers have been described as more ‘controlling’ than Western ones: putting more pressure on the children, giving them more tests and demanding more conformity.169 According to Ryan and Deci’s well-evidenced finding that autonomy is a key prerequisite for intrinsic motivation, it ought to follow that Chinese children have, on average, very little of it.170

This is not actually the case. Wang and Pomerantz gave Chinese and American adolescents questionnaires that asked them to say how much (from 1–5) they agreed with various statements about their motivations for studying, which corresponded with the different types of motivation identified by Ryan and Deci on their taxonomy: intrinsic motivation (e.g. ‘I do my homework because it’s fun’), identification (‘I work on my classwork because it’s important to me to do so’), introjection (‘I work on my classwork because I’ll be ashamed of myself if it doesn’t get done’) and external motivation (‘I do my homework because I’ll get in trouble if I don’t’). They found that Chinese students actually had a higher index of relative autonomy – i.e. they gave more intrinsic and identified reasons for studying than American students. While this index declined over the course of junior high school (a period where the pressure intensifies in China due to the high school entrance exams) it remained higher than American students of the same age.171

This is surprising – Chinese students are under lots of pressure from parents and teachers, and are taught in a way that doesn’t give students much freedom, and yet they report that they enjoy learning more than Americans do and that they work hard because it is important, rather than because their parents force them to. However, it is consistent with research carried out in the 1990s which found that Chinese children reported liking school more than American children.172 More recent research was carried out by the OECD in 2012 in which 85 per cent of Shanghainese 15-year-olds surveyed agreed with the statement ‘I feel happy at school’ compared to 80 per cent of American 15-year-olds and 83 per cent of British 15-year-olds (not a big lead for the Chinese, but they are not behind on this measure as you might expect).173

How can we make sense of this? One explanation comes from some Chinese researchers. Zhou, Lam and Chan suspect that the answer to this paradox lies in the different ways that students from different cultures interpret the apparently ‘controlling behaviours’ of their teachers (and I would argue this extends to parents and grandparents too).174 Zhou and colleagues tested their hunch by giving Chinese and American fifth graders various scenarios involving teachers, such as a teacher keeping a child behind in class to finish some homework they hadn’t handed in, and asked the children to say how they would feel if their teachers did the same to them (choosing from 12 emotions). They found that American students were more likely to interpret the teachers’ actions as being controlling, and to say it made them feel sad or mad, whereas the Chinese students interpreted exactly the same scenarios more positively, indicating that they felt looked after or cared for. In addition, they found that for students from both countries, feeling controlled led to less motivation in that teacher’s class, whereas feeling cared for led to more motivation, and that students were less likely to perceive an action as being controlling if they had a good relationship with that teacher.

If you’ve been brought up in a Confucian culture, where fulfilling your role within the family is very important, and where parents impress the value of learning upon you from a young age, you are likely to have internalised these values and goals. When an adult then acts in a way that will benefit your learning, you are less likely to perceive that behaviour as being controlling, and more likely to see it as evidence of your teacher or parent’s concern for you and your future; especially where that relationship is a loving one. In other words, Chinese students have higher levels of autonomous motivation because they have internalised the cultural and familial goals, and made them their own. They are less externally motivated despite the pressure from parents and teachers because the pressure is to pursue goals that they themselves believe in.

 

Cleverlands is due for publication on December 1st and can be ordered by following the link below.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cleverlands-secrets-success-education-superpowers/dp/1783522739

The Special Schools’ Curriculum Question By Lara Hughes

With the removal of National Curriculum Levels and the impending demise of P Scales many Special Schools are feeling worried about what they are going to replace them with. For some, the anxiety is even greater because these assessment materials have formed the basis of their whole curriculum. This is the unintended consequence of any assessment; teaching to the test.  Assessment criteria can also act as a crutch, so when a teacher thinks, “I don’t know what to do next for this student” they refer to the criteria for the next stage and so become intellectually disengaged with what learning looks like for that student. Whilst the P scales may offer some guidance, they do not and were not intended to show the nuanced progress that a child can make, either vertically or more often laterally and were certainly not formed to be used as the backbone of any curriculum framework.

But that does not answer the question, “What is a school to do?” As with all complex decisions and processes there is no one solution and in a recent conference held jointly by Swiss Cottage School, Camden and Frank Wise School, Banbury, it was clear that many Special Schools are indeed being brave enough to create their own, confident in the knowledge that theirs is the right curriculum for their students. No child is the same as another and so by extrapolation, no school of students will be the same, so it is up to the headteacher, senior leaders, teachers and teaching assistants in collaboration with parents to create a curriculum that promotes the aims and aspirations they have for those children and young adults. Once you have the “Why?” you can begin to formulate the “What?” and the “How?”

So all schools must begin with their vision and this should not just be some polished beautifully sounding epithet. It must be what is truly aspired for in relation to their whole community. What does the school believe? Is it all about individuality and functionality or is this interwoven with being part of many communities and having exposure to a breadth of experience? No answer is right or indeed wrong, but it has to be believed and supported by all stakeholders including the students themselves.

Once the vision is secure, the process of identifying what this will look like in practice can begin. Will the curriculum be broad and balanced or will it be tightly focussed on those skills that are needed for life beyond school; be that college, work or independent living? Will students be given the opportunity to find and develop interests and passions? Will the curriculum be internally driven and outward facing? Will the learning provide students for the lives they can lead in the future whilst also being expansive and aspirational? Will time be given to enable students to be fully immersed in the world that is presented to them through school?

From the broad categories of “What?” comes the intellectual demands of working out ‘How?’ this learning can be delivered. Schemes of work are not called for as this provides another ‘off-the-peg’ model for teachers which assume they cannot work out what their students need and hampers their innate creativity. Guidance documents however, prove very effective and if these are created in working parties in which teachers have an intellectual investment in the process, their understanding of underpinning skills for each area is rigorous.

The curriculum framework and guidance documents must also give thought to the thread that connects learning from a child’s first exposure to school through to post 16, post 19 and beyond. How can we make transition points smooth and ease students through the tangled web of getting older whilst developing cognitively at their own pace?

And beyond the curriculum, schools must consider the learning that happens throughout the day at other points. How do we notice and promote those? How can we capture the interactions between students at lunch times for example? Are the spontaneous decisions students make to solve a problem such as feeling thirsty recorded too?

So, in summary, here are some key questions a school should consider when embarking on this process:

  • What is the vision for our students? How does this relate to our aims and objectives?
  • Within the already segregated environment of a special school (segregated from their mainstream peers), do we want to be truly inclusive?
  • How can we encourage inclusion in the local community?
  • Are we making decisions in the best interests of the students or in the best interests of the staff? For example, is mixed ability just too hard?
  • Are we challenging our formally held beliefs? Do they stand a rigorous critique?
  • The process of preparing for adulthood does not begin in post 16 provision. Are we planning for it early enough?
  • Have we asked our students what their aspirations for the future are?
  • Is what we offer fun and engaging?

And once you have created the ‘perfect’ curriculum for your students, one that is like opening a box of wonder for each student, remember that is just the beginning. It should be ever-evolving; dynamic rather than static and robust rather than rigid. Any curriculum, if grown in this way also bears well under the scrutiny and sway of national policy change; external guidance act as a mirror by which to reflect upon what a school has. It should not rock the foundations but make them all the more secure. Questioning and challenge serve to make stronger the beliefs we all hold.

Lara Hughes is a Deputy Headteacher at Frank Wise School

A dog owner’s guide to grammar schools by Harmer Parr

As Teresa May tossed the juicy bone of grammar schools to the right wing of her party, I was reminded of a request to buy dog food for my daughter.

Well, more accurately, for my daughter’s dog, as we left the ranks of the urban poor when we became one of those eponymous hardworking families. She was very specific about which kind it had to be, so I set off down the relevant isle in ‘Pets ‘r Us’, a phrase I certainly wouldn’t have got away with in my 1960s grammar school, in search of the correct product.

And there, thanks to freedom of choice, the problem started.

Not a choice of four or five products, but seemingly four or five hundred, all beautifully packaged, redolent with pictures of gambolling, happy dogs, and presumably differing from each other in ways that were too subtle for my human eye. With the help of an assistant, I eventually located the right one, wondering as I did so how our 1960s dog had managed to survive on a diet of leftovers. My primary school friends, who got their academic leftovers at the secondary modern schools in the town, were not always so lucky.

To think that we are about to recreate the binary system is apparently to misread the situation completely. Yes, there will be lots of grammar schools, but there will be lots of other kinds of school as well, possibly one for every day of the week. Independent schools and grammar schools will be sharing their expertise, providing a welcome respite for those teaching Year 9 set 6 on a Friday afternoon. Parents will have unlimited choice and are expected in droves to choose a grammar school. Let’s hope the feeling is mutual, and it chooses them as well.

Parliament, of course, is located in the middle of London, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the ideas emanating from it are located in the same place. Fifty-seven varieties may have some traction in Islington, but it is less clear how the idea can be applied to rural areas like Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Several years ago, I was able to admire the latter’s binary system at close quarters as I inspected the runt of a three-school litter in a small town.

The grammar school gobbled up the academic cream, leaving two secondary moderns to fight for the leftovers. The one I inspected was at the rougher end of town, and had strangely emerged as the school of choice for its local population. The staff at Hobson’s Academy (no, not it’s real name!) deserved a medal for the degree of damage limitation they achieved. I’ve not been back, but if anyone has opened a Free School in the area specialising in Latin and Greek my guess is that it’s not over-subscribed.

In the early 1980s Sir Keith Joseph became Education Secretary. He was not always an enlightened man. Once, on an interviewing panel, he allegedly told a black candidate to go back where he came from and grow bananas, obtaining the response that ‘that would be rather difficult in Haringey’. However, his analysis of the country’s education problems was more perceptive and more accurate.  We failed to educate the bottom 40 per cent of the ability range. The tripartite system envisaged by Butler’s 1944 Education Act had never materialised because of our antipathy to technical schools, and the binary system that had emerged had been singularly unsuccessful in reaching the parts that grammar schools could not reach.

When compared to the vocational education offered by our European neighbours, the criticism still holds good today. We’ve never managed to escape the feeling that vocational qualifications are a booby prize, and we’ve always managed to escape investing in them properly.

At the other end of the scale, our academic achievements compare reasonably well with those of Europe, except, of course that students emerging from the French and German systems usually speak two foreign languages as well. That may matter less in a post-Brexit world, where the default position of shouting loudly in English is likely to be more acceptable.

Teresa May presented her ideas under the banner of inclusion: better education for all. Experts are not to be trusted, so the current fashion seems to be to commission research and then do the opposite of what it tells you. As Keith Joseph noted, the major problem with the British Bulldog is its extraordinarily long tail. So the less obvious solution is to devote all our attention to feeding its front end, in the hope that some of the juice will drip down to those who’ve exercised their choice for a secondary modern.

Research also appears to show that overall academic standards are weaker in areas with grammar schools, so the answer there is to create more of them. Although, of course, standards will rise automatically when every school is a grammar school, just as they did when every school was required to be above average.

I’m sure Teresa May would not welcome a comparison to Mao’s cultural revolution, and his wish to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. But the Tories’ plans for education have a similarly experimental feel, and could produce a similar crop of weeds.

Let’s open lots of different sorts of schools, let’s have lots of grammar schools, and, not on the script, let’s have lots of unintended consequences. Schools who lose their critical mass of able students to surrounding poachers, schools who use their sharp elbows to acquire the ‘best students’, schools left with spare places so they can mop up the waifs and strays that no-one else wants. Will this, in fact, be ‘a better deal for all’?

So why did she do it? Evidence-free, counter-intuitive, potentially destructive of a system producing, arguably, better results than ever before. Well, the clue is in the term: ‘grammar schools’. It’s up there with motherhood, apple pie, warm beer and cricket on the village green. And given its ability to induce prolonged salivation amongst ‘traditional’ Conservatives, the shires will be drooling and dribbling for some time to come.

Teresa May can rightly say: ‘après moi, le déluge’. Let’s just hope the flood defences work. If not, the resulting torrent could drown the dog’s dinner.

Harmer Parr is a former HMI.

Social Mobility | A View from the foothills By Marc Rowland

Grammar Schools are the mountebank of social mobility. But we will have no impact if we leap into an entrenched position and stay there. Placard waving rallies make people feel good, but they rarely change policy. We need to be in the uncomfortable chair of decision making, rather than wrapped in the cosy duvet of vocal opposition.

If grammars do have any positive impact on social mobility, that impact will be most welcome. More disadvantaged pupils attending Cambridge is undoubtedly a good thing, but it will do little to tackle the deep-rooted issues our society faces. A genuine plan for social mobility needs to be bold, politically savvy, values driven and evidence based.

So I propose the following priorities:

Tackling the language gap we see in our disadvantaged pupils at risk of underachievement. This gives virtually every other education policy a better chance of success. The language gap and the evidence for it can be described below.

‘The landmark Hart and Risley study in 1995 identified “remarkable differences” in the early vocabulary experiences of young children. Researcher and author Betty Hart described the results of their observations: “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour)” (Hart & Risley 2003, 8). This is important because vocabulary development during the preschool years is related to later reading skills and school success in general.’

In all my experience, school-led solutions are best placed to help tackle this issue. Reading hubs, where schools are responsible for working with children and their families to make a better start to early reading.. The hubs should work with families in the summer term prior to year R. Schools would be expected to reach a fixed proportion of disadvantaged and vulnerable children as part of the hubs.

Maximising the Impact of Early Years.

Kathy Sylva’s EPPSE 3-16 project shows that 2-3 years of high quality pre-school impacts on outcomes at least to 16, particularly for disadvantaged learners.

A quick glance online shows that Early Years professionals, who need to be educated to degree level, can expect to be paid between £22,000 and £33,000 (about the same as a bus driver). A well-known recruitment website lists the requirements for an Early Years professional as follows:

  • excellent communication skills;
  • good listening skills;
  • the capacity to learn quickly;
  • excellent organisational skills;
  • the ability to inspire and enthuse young children;
  • energy, resourcefulness, responsibility, patience and a caring nature;
  • an understanding of the needs and feelings of children;
  • ability to work independently, as well as being able to work in a team;
  • a sense of humour and the ability to keep things in perspective.

I’d argue that subject knowledge, a fundamental understanding of research and how to apply it are the gaping omissions here, along with the highest ambitions for all, regardless of background or barrier to learning.

Better opportunities for young people with learning difficulties

6% of adults aged 16-64 with learning difficulties are in paid employment. Of those surveyed, 65% want to work. The Social Mobility challenge is at its most glaring where the people concerned are the least likely to be heard.

 

capture

Maximising the Curriculum.

In too many cases, the Key Stage 3 curriculum remains a rather desolate place. A few weeks back, I was told about pupils with excellent reading outcomes at KS2 going into year seven and been given a recommended reading list with Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl. These suggestions sadly lack challenge and imagination.

A chasm in the DfE’s business plan is the lack of a challenging, high esteem technical education pathway. This should have literacy and numeracy at its heart which doesn’t narrow opportunity. We should learn from other countries about how we could do better. It remains an afterthought.

Oracy as standard  

If it were measurable, I suspect that one of the greatest achievement gaps we see in our schools is oracy and articulacy. Peter Hyman’s work at School21 is an exemplar of how we can improve the life chances and life choices of disadvantaged and vulnerable learners.

Good oracy, coupled with cultural literacy should be at the heart of the social mobility agenda.

The Power of Multi Academy Trusts.

We are only starting to see the potential with Multi Academy Trusts. With support, I believe we will see some diverse and innovative models evolving that produce excellent, long term outcomes for pupils of all backgrounds.

One of the true drivers for genuine, sustainable collaboration is shared accountability. Through MATs, we can create an education system which enables the very best teachers and expert support staff to work with the most disadvantaged pupils.

The quality of teaching has a significantly disproportionate effect on disadvantaged pupils. Pupils in the poorest communities are more likely to be taught by unqualified or inexperienced teachers. They are more likely to experience high teacher turnover. They are more likely to be taught by a teacher without a degree in the subject they teach. High quality teachers are more likely to move out of the most disadvantaged communities.

In some communities, such as rural North Yorkshire and Northumberland, Local Authorities need to be empowered to support this agenda too.

The Pupil Premium.

This has also been a very powerful vehicle for improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.

We should further improve the use and impact of the funding by ensuring schools have the highest of expectations, high quality teaching and cultural literacy. The policy itself should not change. The expectations of its impact should continue. Better designations data would help inform the use of funding. Good GCSE results only open a door for disadvantaged pupils. They need to have the expectations of themselves to step through it.

The Progress Problem.

Progress is one reasonable accountability measure for schools. But for individual pupils it is attainment that matters. ‘Expected Progress’ has been one of the most limiting factors for disadvantaged Pupils. As George Mallory said: ‘We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.’

Aiming for the bare minimum means missed opportunity and wasted talent.

Leading the way.

I have yet to hear any argument for additional grammar schools that stands up to scrutiny.

But we need to be proactive too. If we let it, this gloomy green paper could become the Gavrilo Princip of a new and completely unnecessary education divide. The School-led system should be at the forefront of the alternative.

Marc Rowland, September 2016

*Pseudonym used

Vacuum at the top? by Dr Bernard Trafford

I fear that, whenever anyone sees my name at the top of a blog nowadays, they’ll assume I’m about to embark on a rant about the latest government initiative or policy. To be fair, I do it a lot.

But here I want to raise a slightly philosophical question about school leadership and, more specifically, headship: not about its nature, but about what happens when it becomes remote. The question concerns me, because we all too easily become so entangled in discussing structures and rationalisations that we risk overlooking an intensely human aspect of leadership.

The current government thrust is towards creating Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). A powerful driver behind the Academies programme was successive governments’ suspicion of Local Authorities: many ministers found them unresponsive to Westminster’s agenda for school improvement:  hence the move to so-called independent academies (not a description I like, since I run a private – genuinely independent – school).

Successive governments have quickly realised that single stand-alone academies can find themselves isolated and that schools tend to fare better when collaborating. Moreover, they were also swift to appreciate that academy chains – in effect, MATs – bring with them not only mutual support but economies of scale: administrative functions can be centralised, both streamlining the staffing and arguably giving them more muscle in keenly-priced procurement.

Critics of the growth of MATs might suggest wryly that they now resemble Local Authorities, but without the democratic accountability. Simultaneously the enormous salaries commanded by top executives in some large academy chains, whether they are called chief executives or executive principals, have attracted media opprobrium.

The economies of scale are undeniable. With an executive principal at the top (however highly paid), there’s no obvious need to pay heads’ salaries to those running the individual institutions: they receive support from the centre, and don’t carry the ultimate burden.

Many functions related to improvement, quality assurance, even recruitment and marketing that might have been taken by deputy heads are now handled at the centre, so Senior Leadership Teams in each academy can be slimmer – and thus cheaper.

I’m not questioning the logic of all this. But, as I said at the start, it leaves me with a philosophical dilemma about the nature of headship.

It’s always seemed to me that parents must have access to the head, the final arbiter, the person who has the last say (pace the Governing Body) and sets the tone in the school. In practice, I can’t claim that, in my fairly large independent school (1300 pupils), parents beat a path to my door. If they did, I couldn’t cope: but they can (and do) get to me almost immediately if they need to.

Moreover, in (you might say) the traditional style of education’s private sector, they know the head’s there, not out running a couple more schools. They like to see the head in the old-fashioned way – at the school gate, taking assembly, just being around. The head is supposed to articulate the vision of the school, to walk the talk: it’s a rare independent head who runs more than a single institution or site.

Parents relish that visible leader-figure. They know the head cannot possibly know the name of every child, nor personally guide his or her development, protecting each individual from whatever storms that may come. Nonetheless they enjoy a sense of reassurance: not promised by the school, certainly – but, well, assumed.

I’m not seeking to denigrate the excellent work done by heads in MATs where there is an executive principal above them. But in my traditional world, parents and students like to know where the buck stops: I wonder how the lack of clarity in multi-institution structures really sits with those vital constituencies.

Accountants won’t justify the expense of a highly-paid head in each constituent unit of a MAT. Yet as a model it has worked for a long time: Tony Blair insisted he could judge how good a school was just from meeting the head.

I’m not having a go at MATs: nor at those highly effective professionals running individual academies; nor at their bosses, the executive principals. But if my kids were starting school again, I suspect I’d want to know that the head really ran the school, and to be able to see him/her in their office if I needed to.

Education ministers in the Blair government used to talk about sectors of society that were “hard to reach”. Though we might easily picture who they had in mind, I loved the riposte from someone speaking for the dispossessed: “It’s not us who are hard to reach: it’s the b*ggers at the top!”

Whatever the prevailing structures and systems, schools are essentially neighbourhood institutions, located within and serving a community. They are all about people, reaching out to, and working with them.

If the real power in the school/academy is elsewhere – at the MAT’s offices, with the executive principal directing at arm’s-length and making periodic, if regular, visits – I wonder how the institution can claim really to operate on a human scale, to be immediately approachable, truly at the service of parents and children.

I’m sure some MATs manage it. I doubt whether all do. I fear that the question is rarely, if ever, asked.

Yet humanity must, surely, always come before efficiency. Or it should do.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School, a NET Leading Thinker and a former Chairman of HMC.

@bernardtrafford