Friday, 1 August 2014

Harris: Leaving the 'Evil Empire'

An experienced teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, writes about their feelings on leaving the Harris Academy chain.

When I tell teachers where I’ve worked for the majority of the last decade, when I mention the name “Harris”, I often see a look in their eyes of haunted horror mixed with deep personal relief that it wasn’t them.  But finally, I’m going.  I have a new job in a great comprehensive and I can finally begin to put my professional life back together.  Sounds melodramatic?  They don’t call it “The Evil Empire” for nothing.

While not all of the academies in the chain are the same, there is a common theme that the Harris federation really struggle to hang on to the staff in their schools.  Average annual turnovers of between 25-40% of personnel are not unusual at some sites.  OFSTED have been known to spin this in their glowing inspection reports as being part of a 'relentless drive' to ensure the very best teachers work at Harris academies: the inference being that those driven out can’t cut the mustard. But that’s just not true.  We keep losing perky GTP youngsters, full of beans and inventiveness and a desire to succeed… burned out and gone.  On the other hand, in my mid-sized secondary academy there will only be seven teaching staff over the age of forty left from September, because valuable, experienced, ‘outstanding’ teachers have been driven away year-by-year through a constant compulsion to throw away the practices that work in favour of those that are flavour of the month.  Only one member of our SLT and one of our Middle Leaders have school-aged children of their own, doubtlessly because the 60-80 hour standard working week is simply incompatible with family life.  I have one friend at another Harris academy who returned to work part time after having children, but regularly has to put them into childcare on her ‘days off’ in order to keep on top of the workload.  Needless to say, she’s also looking for work elsewhere. Through one initiative and another the weekly contact hours with students grow higher and higher, and staff are no longer invited but expected to teach additional classes in the holidays.

You may be thinking “well, come on – long hours go with the job“ …and they do.  They always have.  There is much more to it than workload.  I'm sure you all remember when Sir Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Schools, infamously said in 2011 "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right." A phrase so unethical, so vile that I hardly knew where to begin in my reaction to it. Well, it seems to me that leaders of the Harris federation may have taken that comment as a goal - an instruction that they should go out of their way to destroy morale, as the surefire way to achieve their objectives.  Because achieve them, they do.  Harris academies get great results in tough areas, and it can be hard to argue with that… until you look at other schools which also get those great results with similar kids, and you see that those schools can hold onto their staff.  I have occasionally been invited to the staff social events of other schools and what's remarkable is that no one is crying in the corner; or tearing out their hair; or endlessly, furiously trying to make sense of the head’s latest brainwave.  It’s a revelation.  Because there’s nothing wrong with the destination: maximise progress, never give up on the kids, pursue excellence in teaching… it’s great stuff.  It’s just the route Harris academies take that destroys dedicated, skilled, motivated teachers.  The philosophy of the federation is to pre-empt what they think the Department for Education / OFSTED might want, identify a way to deliver it that will produce lots and lots of evidence (at whatever cost to actual teaching time), and make that the ONLY permitted way to teach.  And at the same time, you must, at all costs (and you may have heard dark rumours about methodologies at some of our academies) deliver four levels of progress for every single student otherwise not only will your pay stagnate but if it isn’t Ebacc, your subject or course can disappear from the curriculum with no notice or consultation - in some cases triggering redundancies.  Three mini-OFSTEDs a year with 48 hours notice will keep anxiety levels high (and that’s at the academies where ‘Outstanding’ has already been secured – at our newer or more troubled sites the inspection regime is constant and aggressive).  There may be some happier Harrises, but the atmosphere at the ones I know is toxic.  There is a culture of presumed incompetence, and each observation or evidence gathering exercise is used as an opportunity to catch you out. And it's this culture, in combination with the workload, that’s simply unsustainable. I look around at the federation training events and see thousands of mostly young staff, (overwhelmingly slim, caucasian, dressed for sober commerce - there’s a definite Harris ‘look’) and above all the hubbub and din there’s an almost audible note of all these bright, resilient spirits being stretched to breaking-point.  For my own part: I’m a consistently outstanding teacher and I've lasted a lot longer than most... but that's partly because I have been made to feel, for many years, that despite my observations and great exam results no one else would ever want to employ me.  It made me so unhappy that a summons by the head for a ‘chat’ (never any indication of the subject matter, this is management-as-guerilla-warfare) would see me feeling sick to my stomach.  Worse, I know the poisonous culture has made colleagues at more than one Harris academy consider taking their own lives. 

A while ago, Gove (ahh, Gove… I like to imagine his strange, disappointed little face when he heard about the reshuffle) wrote about Lord Harris as a “hero” and his overpaid henchman / CEO Sir Dan Moynihan as “inspirational”.  Every current or ex-Harris teacher I saw respond to this described a feeling of nausea having read the article and for me it was a sickness borne of frustration.  How can they pretend this is a bowl of proverbial cherries?  How can they ignore how unhealthy it feels to work in this system?  How can they look at exam results and OFSTED judgments and pretend not to see how many teachers – talented, intelligent, professional teachers – are leaving the federation and will never, ever return?