Thursday, 24 October 2013


Sitting at my kitchen table, during half term, I have been reflecting on the past 18 months since we opened and in particular about all the various ‘news’ items about Free Schools over the last few weeks. I do get particularly cross with the way that education in general, but the Free School agenda in particular, has become such a massive political football.

When I talk to parents (& as a parent myself), what every parent wants is the very best possible for their child.  And that can usually be summed up in a couple of simple objectives; they want their child to be happy and educated so that they can be the best they can be.

For me, that is what the Free School agenda is all about. At its heart, it was designed to allow people to set up a new school to fit the needs of a local community. Now, whether that is a highly academic school with Latin on the curriculum, or a Primary School or a school with a faith focus, surely they are addressing a need? There needs to be checks and balances, and accountability, but that holds for all schools.

The thing is, every free school is different and using one to beat all is just ridiculous. I have a student at my school who was shut in a room during break an lunchtimes at another secondary school before coming to us. Why were they punished and excluded from their friends in this way? Because they were being bullied by a group of other students and this was the school’s way to stop this young person from being bullied. Yes, you read that right – punished for being a victim.  Why isn’t that used to berate non-free schools?

Sandymoor was set up by a small group of local parents, who wanted to increase choice and provide a local school for families who were making a choice by moving out of area to find a school they wanted to send their children to. I do not make any exaggerated claims about what we are; we aim to be a local school, for the local community, providing the best possible experience we can for the students in our care, helping them to be the best they can be.

And in that way, like so many others, we are just the same as every other school in the country. We deal with children from every background represented locally, just like the other secondary schools in the area. I want nothing but the very best for the children at my school and I know that I can do that better when I work collaboratively with the local schools and authority. Detractors of Free Schools talk about how they take money away from other local schools; we are funded on the same basis as every academy, with a per pupil funding formula. The only way I am taking money from other local schools is when a child comes to my school rather than another. Again, that is identical to every local school. Except with one exception – in our situation, we have a significant number of students who would have been educated out of authority, so it could be argued that we are actually bringing central government money into the authority. And, with a new school building going up fast, we are also helping to raise the standards of educational establishments in the area. If you trawl through the news archives, you will find allegations that we will drain in excess of £3 million from the council. It is this sort of ridiculous allegation that just makes me furious.

We’ve also been accused of feeding our students fast food from a well-known chain. Again, utter rot! And I know that my Catering Manager is furious about these allegations too. Headlines nationally about how Free Schools need to have greater controls imposed on them about healthy food don’t help. We want our students to be the very best they can be, in a friendly, safe environment. Our food is sources as locally as possible, with our meat, for example, coming from a local butcher’s firm. It is cooked fresh on site, prepared fresh daily and served to the students by our catering manager & assistant. The food is served on china plates (not the ‘prison slop trays’ you see in a number of ‘ordinary’ schools we should, apparently, be more like) and the students are expected to sit and eat their food together, as a social activity. We have cashless catering in place, so our FSM children are not highlighted in any way.

And over 80% of our students have our hot meals. That’s the ‘aspirational’ target Jamie Oliver wants the government to aim for in all schools. If you want to see happy, healthy young people, have a look in our dining hall during lunchtime!

Yes, there are some free schools that have appointed unqualified people into posts, particularly the high profile ones around currently, about head teachers appointed with no qualifications &/or no experience in schools. The last 18 months have been some of the hardest months in my career and I have over 23 years experience in a wide variety of schools around the country, including inner London comprehensives. I have two degrees (my original Physics degree from Imperial College and a Masters in Education) and my head teacher’s qualification, the NPQH. Have they helped me in my role? Most definitely yes, but not necessarily in the obvious ways. Resilience, perseverance and dogged determination have been much more important. I have had to know what I’m doing, but anyone who is a head teacher will appreciate that, every day, things come across your path that you have no direct experience of. You just have to rely on experience and the collaboration of colleagues to make the right calls. I actually feel sorry for those people who were given the responsibility for leading a school, any school, without that background of experience and support. I can only imagine how often they did not sleep with worrying about an issue and how many times they must have cried through frustration or doubt because they did not know what to do.

As for the other staff? Well, my Catering Manager has all the qualifications needed to run our kitchen and my Business & Finance Manager is a qualified accountant. Why wouldn’t I appoint someone who had the right qualifications, if they were the best person for the job? Again, politics gets in the way here – people think they are being helpful by saying that independent schools have unqualified teachers delivering lessons, so what’s the problem … but people see the word ‘independent’ and forget to then see the principle being laid out, which is about the best person for the job. But getting the best person for the job is about recruiting the best people. And that means having a school where teachers want to work at. The last time we recruited for three teaching posts we received over 120 quality applications, from experienced & fully qualified teachers. Why wouldn’t I appoint a qualified teacher in that instance? But just because a teacher is qualified and experienced does not mean that everything will be fine! A quick Google and you will find references to a teacher I had to fire for gross misconduct – this was a highly experienced and qualified teacher, who came with excellent references and was the best person interviewed for the post.

To answer a particularly ridiculous, politically motivated tweet, no, Free Schools don’t have magical recruitment powers. We are just like any other school, trying to pick the best people to deliver the vision we have for our young people.

And the latest thing is that Free Schools need to be told to deliver the national curriculum. . . When I spoke to my brother about this, his reaction was: “But surely you’re delivering it and some?”. (Paraphrased there). Again I say, why wouldn’t I teach the national curriculum? Our students are going to take national exams, whether GCSEs, A-levels, BTECs or whatever they all get re-branded into. Why? Because Sandymoor School leavers will be competing for jobs against school leavers from other schools. Their CVs need to be easily compared to other applicants – when a boss, who went to school decades ago, looks through a pile of application forms, anyone who has qualifications that they don’t understand is much more likely to be added to the pile of rejections on the floor.

For me, the freedoms I have as a leader of a Free School is the ability to deliver the curriculum in a different way, trying to tackle the things that everyone agrees is wrong with our education system. Like, for example, the fact that business leaders say every year that school leavers cannot transfer skills to new situations, or that they lack basic literacy & numeracy skills. Or that, year on year, tens of thousands of 16-year olds are forced to sit exams they know they will fail (& that all the people they trust know they will fail) and just because they happen to be 16.

Sandymoor students will take the exams that will enable them to compete on an even playing field with others, but they will also leave with the skills to help them stand out and be a positive influence wherever they find themselves.

And in that respect, our students are luckier than the school – all I want is a level playing field, where I can get on with the mind-blowingly difficult, but inspirational and hugely rewarding task of leading my school and helping the staff & students be the very best they can be, day in and day out.

Having been through the whole process (I was appointed after the school went into pre-opening phase), I can say that the checks and balances are there, too. I have sat in a panel interview, proving to experts from the DfE that our curriculum was rigorous and would provide the best outcomes for students before we even opened. I have sat with an Ofsted inspector who grilled me on our policies, procedures and curriculum to ensure that we would meet all statutory regulations. Within a few months of opening, we had a ‘monitoring visit’ from the DfE to ensure we were delivering what we promised & have another one next month. And we will be visited by Ofsted for our first full inspection before the end of this school year. We have been checked and monitored and inspected very thoroughly! I welcome this level of monitoring too; we do need to be able to prove ourselves to external experts. But so do all schools. There are bad schools out there. Some will be Free Schools. That is why there is a system of inspections to monitor the quality of education in the country. 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Assembly week 5 - Respect

One of the things I found myself talking about during the open evening and open day was that here at Sandymoor we base a lot of what we do on the concept of respect. And that got me thinking: what do *I* mean by that word? How does it shape what we do?


Respect is a positive feeling of esteem for someone, or some actions or ideas held by someone. As in:


I really respect Barack Obama.

I really respect the way the Red Cross work in areas of conflict around the world to help those in need.


In school, we base everything we do on the starting point that we all, as individuals, respect each other. I know that every member of staff has joined Sandymoor because they want to be part of an organisation built on the founders' original ethos and that they want to do the very best they can to support and help you be the best you can be. I know that there is not a single one of you who would want to hurt another and that you want to be the best you can be.


I respect the staff because of this and I respect you all because of this.


I also expect you to respect the teachers and other staff who work in school.


Respect is not just some idea either. It is shown by actions. So, I respect the staff, for example, by doing everything I can to provide the workplace that allows them to do their job to the best of their ability. And I respect you by making sure that I listen to you and hear your opinions and views.


I do have an advantage here, however. Respect for authority is, according to academics, something common to most societies - as your Headteacher, I am given respect by people who don't know me. But I know that this respect will quickly drop away if I am disrespectful.


What about you? Another quality of respect is that it is earnt. If you want to be respected, you need to respect others first. Do you do that? Or do you expect to get respect first? You can expect respect, but if you have not been respectful to others, it is unlikely that you will get it.


Within Sandymoor, we have a number of students who hold positions of authority and as such should hold your respect. Our prefects carry out important tasks within school and do so with my authority. To be disrespectful to them is to be disrespectful to me. And if you are, then you will suffer the consequences.


However, the prefects are, conversely, also representing me when they are performing their duties and if they are disrespectful to other students, then that reflects on me and I will not tolerate that either.


We are a community. A family. And we share a set of common values. Respect for the individual, respect for the values of kindness and mutual support and respect for the desire to be the best you can be. When any member of the community breaks these values, they are being disrespectful to all of us and we need to hold them to account. But in a respectful, supportive way, in deference to their right, as an individual to be treated kindly. We can all fall short of these ideals, but if we are a supportive community, we have people around us who work with us and help us get back to being the best we can be.


So, how will you ensure that Sandymoor is known as a respectful place? How will you support the prefects in them carrying out their duties? How will you someone who is known to be worthy of respect?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Assembly, Week 3

What is important to you?

A simple question, but a whole host of complex answers lie under it! 

Health, wealth & happiness? Or 'just' loads of money? What about a good job, nice family, time to enjoy things? 

Or getting down to more mundane things, what about your mobile phone? or your xbox?

I hope you would all say that someone close to you is important to you? Your mum or dad, maybe? Or a brother / sister? (Even though you may fight like mad!). Or maybe you've got a pet that is important to you?

Or power? Do you want to have a high powered job, where people respect you for what you do? Or maybe you don't want the power and what you want is to do something to 'make a difference'. Maybe work in a charity, helping other people who have nothing?

What about knowledge? Do you want to know as much as you can about something? Become a world expert in something? 

But will any of it make you happy? 

Think carefully about what makes you happy and what is important to you. The answers to both of these fall into two distinct categories:

There are the things that you maybe haven't got & long for. Maybe it's the latest xbox, or the next iPhone? Or maybe it's something else you are longing for? 'Acceptance', or to be liked? Or to have the 'perfect' girlfriend / boyfriend? There is a huge danger here. Seriously, it's really, really seriously dangerous. If this is the trap that you have fallen into, then you are at serious risk of never really being happy.

You are using the lack of something in your life to explain why you do not feel contented and happy now. But what will you feel when you do obtain your goal? Will you be any different? Will you really be happy, or will you just substitute your 'missing link' to happiness with the next thing you want? It is easy to fall into this trap; I'll be happy when I get a girlfriend/boyfriend. I'll be happy when I get that job. I'll be happy when . . . 

But this means that you see life like a journey, with a final destination. At the final destination, you will be happy, because you will have reached your idea of perfection. This means that you are not interested in the journey, but on the end result. This has been written about in so many different ways and, in fact, is a thread through a lot of major hollywood movies! I want to read out to you one piece of writing that explains the danger of being 'destination' focussed. It's called:


By Robert J. Hastings

         TUCKED AWAY in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision in which we see ourselves

on a long journey that spans an entire continent. We're traveling by train and, from the 

windows, we drink in the passing scenes of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at

crossings, of cattle grazing in distant pastures, of smoke pouring from power plants, of row

upon row upon row of cotton and corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of city skylines and

village halls.

    But uppermost in our conscious minds is our final destination--for at a certain hour and on a

given day, our train will finally pull into the station with bells ringing, flags waving, and bands

playing. And once that day comes, so many wonderful dreams will come true. So restlessly, we

pace the aisles and count the miles, peering ahead, waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.

    "Yes, when we reach the station, that will be it!" we promise ourselves. "When we're 

eighteen. . . win that promotion. . . put the last kid through college. . . buy that 450SL 

Mercedes-Benz. . . have a nest egg for retirement!"

    From that day on we will all live happily ever after.

    Sooner or later, however, we must realize there is no station in this life, no one earthly

place to arrive at once and for all. The journey is the joy. The station is an illusion--it

constantly outdistances us. Yesterday's a memory, tomorrow's a dream. Yesterday belongs to a

history, tomorrow belongs to God. Yesterday's a fading sunset, tomorrow's a faint sunrise. Only

today is there light enough to love and live.

    So, gently close the door on yesterday and throw the key away. It isn't the burdens of today 

that drive men mad, but rather regret over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow. Regret and

fear are twin thieves who would rob us of today.

    "Relish the moment" is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24, "This is

the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."

     So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, swim more rivers, climb more

mountains, kiss more babies, count more stars. Laugh more and cry less. Go barefoot oftener.

Eat more ice cream. Ride more merry-go-rounds. Watch more sunsets. Life must be lived as we

go along. The station will come soon enough.

So, rather than focussing on the destination, look to the journey! Enjoy the scenery, to follow through the metaphor from that piece of prose. What makes you happy now? What makes you alive now. Right here, right now? 

Learn to live in the now, enjoy the moment and seek happiness in what you are doing, here and now. 

If you do, then you are being aesthetic. Aesthetic means to be fully alive, with all your senses working at their best, when you are fully present in the moment and resonating with what you are doing at that moment of time. 

The opposite of this is to be anaesthetic. when you are deadening yourself to what is around you. When you go to the dentist or into hospital, they give you an anaesthetic, to deaden you, so that you don't feel what they are doing to you!

Well, you can also give yourself anaesthetic, when you switch off from the now and when you deaden yourself to the experiences happening around you.

Some people think it's not cool to be eager and keen to do things, but those people have anaesthetised themselves, have deadened themselves, to protect themselves from something. 

Go on, risk it - get excited about what you are doing. Live in the moment, seek happiness in the right things and don't put all your hopes in some golden future! 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Parents' Information Evening 2013

For those who were unable to attend the Parental Information Evening, I promised to prepare a brief summary of everything we covered, so here goes!

It seems almost unnecessary to do so, but I do believe that it is important to always come back to the founding vision for Sandymoor School, because it is one of the things that makes us different. Everyone is reminded of this vision and everything we do is measured against it, giving us all a strong sense of focus for what we are creating here. So:

“Sandymoor School aims to be an 11-18 school, creating intelligent, employable global citizens that demonstrate social competence, a desire for learning and respect for each other and the world around us.”

And this leads us into thinking about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of what we are doing, every day, in school. For about the past 15 years, a local lad, Sir Ken Robinson, has been involved in the global educational scene, pushing for schools to change their approach to education, and his thinking is very much in line with Sandymoor’s vision. The link below is a short (10 minute) animated version of one of his key talks:

Ken Robinson’s talk on the changing nature of education:

At Sandymoor, we are also focussed on the ‘soft skills’; not to the exclusion of knowledge and the importance of developing a rigorous, broad base of understanding across a wide range of subjects, but as well as. The CBI has published reports showing that school leavers do not have these soft skills they require in the modern workplace and it is Sandymoor’s goal to ensure that our students do leave with them. To that aim, we work with a model first developed by Professor Guy Claxton:

The attitude and mind-set that Sir Ken Robinson advocates, along with the structured approach to helping young people develop better thinking skills, form the basis for our curriculum structure. However, there are a few more down to earth elements that also support the development of all our students:

Work Habits:

Sandymoor students are expected to be fully prepared to work, and have all the equipment they need to perform their job. We do not want students to think that being prepared for lessons is acceptable. We also expect them to have pride in what they are creating and this shows through the presentation of their work – if we feel that a student could make a piece of work look better and that they have rushed it, just to get it done quickly, then they will be asked to do it again.

We do have a policy where it is perfectly ok (in fact expected) to not know everything – that is, after all, why they are in school! We encourage all students to ask when they do not understand. If it is not possible to ask immediately, they are more than welcome to seek out their teacher after the lesson and seek support, or email them through the school’s systems. No child at Sandymoor will be made to feel stupid because they asked a question.

Being a Community:

We expect all our students to get on and respect the differences in others. There are ‘fall-outs’ and sometimes students act in thoughtless and hurtful ways. When this occurs, we have a completely zero tolerance policy and every instance where one of our students is made to feel small, hurt or unliked is dealt with seriously. We are also likely to deal with any student who stands by and lets another student be hurt.

We believe that everyone deserves respect and so when we do follow up poor behaviour, it is always done behind ‘closed doors’. No student it told off in front of their peers as this is a humiliating action. We have a policy, therefore of: Praise in Public – Reprimand in Private (PIP-RIP). You may have a conversation at home with your son or daughter about something they saw happen in school and ask “What did the Teacher do about it?” – the reply will be “Nothing.”, but that does not mean that nothing has happened. Quite the opposite.  


The Sandymoor uniform is designed to be as simple, neat and effective as possible, and be as affordable for all as possible. Given that, we expect all our students to look neat and smart in their uniform; we believe that how you present yourself says a lot about what you value and we expect our students to value themselves. Ties should be done up properly and a reasonable length (we do not use clip-on ties as this is demeaning). Shirts should be white fit well, with the top button done up. Jumpers, blazers, trousers & skirts should be in good order and clean. Skirts, particularly, should be of a modest length, with the bottom of the skirt line around knee-length as a guide. Shoes should be supportive, comfortable and black, with no bright markings. There are times when, for various reasons, a student has to deviate from this and providing a conversation has been had about the reasons why, a temporary compromise is usually possible.

All students carry with them a ‘Conduct Card’, showing penalty points issued for not wearing their uniform correctly or acting in an inappropriate way during the school day. They also carry a ‘Star Card’ for collecting points for acting above and beyond.

We are changing our uniform requirements in respect to the PE kit, but no parent of existing students will have to pay to purchase our new PE uniform.


We recognise that for some students, not being able to wear a small amount of discrete make-up can cause distress. So, rather than having a total ban on make-up, we allow girls to wear certain elements. The guidelines are explained to them clearly and are based around helping them feel confident whilst maintaining a professional, work-place demeanour. The same applies to nail varnish, which, if warn, must be a single, subtle, colour and cover the whole nail without chips or flakes.

Mobile Phones:

We also allow students to carry around with them their mobile phones. They are not allowed to use them or have them out in lessons (unless the teacher has asked them to – some mobile phones have very good calculators, cameras, stop-watches, etc… on them!) and they should be off or on mute (just as if they were working in an office). If they are going to contact home during the day, we ask that they let a member of staff know before-hand, just so we are aware.

Term dates / Attendance / Punctuality:

The term dates have been distributed to homes and we ask parents to be aware of these when planning family events. Particular note should be made of the two-week half term in October, providing an extra opportunity for family holidays, etc.

If your son or daughter is too unwell to come into school, please ring or email the school to let us know. We have a policy of ‘First Day Call’ and will ring through our emergency contact list for you by mid-morning to see where your child is if we have not heard from you. When they return to school, please could you also include a signed note confirming the reason why they were off.

For planned absences, such as medical appointments, please let us know, in writing, before-hand. There are notes in the back of the planner to help with this.

There has been a change in the law this academic year regarding the taking children out of school during term time. In simple terms, this is at the discretion of the head teacher to allow, but will only be granted in truly exceptional circumstances. If there may be such a reason, it is important that you book an appointment to see Mr Green-Howard to discuss it as soon as possible.  Failure to do so may now result in a penalty notice fine of £60 (£120 if not paid within 28 days) issued by the head teacher.

We also expect all students to be at their lessons on time, ready to begin promptly. There are no school bells deliberately, as we want everyone to take responsibility for their own actions.

Clubs & Societies:

These occur after 3:45pm and finish off the school day. Students can (& have) opted into these, and can chose to come home early on a night where there are no clubs running that they are involved in. However, once signed up to a club, they are expected to then participate in that club for a minimum length of time. Registers will be taken and a student missing from a club will be treated with as seriously as if they had missed a lesson, including a detention. Clubs run Mondays to Thursdays.

ICT / Internet:

We would ask that all parents sign up to ParentMail as this is our main route for communication. If you register your mobile phone number, then you will receive urgent school messages (such as snow closure notices). Signing up with an email address as well and you will also receive electronic copies of everything that is sent home with the students. ParentMail is also our ‘online school shop’, where you will be able to top up their lunch money (& see what they have bought for lunch), purchase extra items of uniform, replace lost equipment and, where appropriate, pay for music lessons and/or school trips. If you would like support with setting this up, please contact school and arrange to meet with Mr Fry, our IT/Network Manager, to sort this out.

Shortly, we will also be sending out details of another website for parents – My Child At School (MCAS). MCAS is your portal into the school ‘report’; through MCAS, you will see a summary of your child’s attendance data as well as their behaviour record (both positive and negative). Also, after October ½ term, you will see the progress measurements for all their academic subjects, including end of year targets. As they are created, PDF versions of the school report (Individual Development Plan, IDP), will also be available via MCAS.

Alongside this, your child has access to the school’s Learning Environment, based on the Microsoft Office 365 suite. Through this, they have an email account, and access to online versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint to enable them to create school work without the expense of the home needing to buy the software. This is a very powerful suite of tools and over time, every subject area will have all their lesson material on this site, for access outside of school hours.
Parental Involvement:

As we have said before, we are here for the whole family, not just the child, and extend a warm hand to all parents. We are here if you need our support over anything; just ask and everything will be treated in confidence.

Also, we are always very keen for parental support! In the first instance, we would love all parents to join our PTA and get involved that way. If you are interested, please email them at

Also, please come along and support us at our two open events, Wednesday, 18th September at 5:30pm and Saturday, 28th September at 10:30am.

Finally, we will be sending out invites in the near future to our first formal evening Founders Day Celebration evening. Please keep the evening of the 8th November clear to join us in celebrating the students’ successes over the last year. We have as a guest speaker the Lord Lieutenant of Cheshire, David Briggs. It should be a hugely enjoyable evening.