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1 Out Of 10: From Downing Street by Peter Hyman

August 26, 2018

It is often said that politicians and their advisors have no idea what the ‘real world’ is like.

‘Why the hell have you come to a place like this?’ asked a twelve-year-old pupil upon meeting one of the Prime Minister’s key strategists in the playground.

Peter Hyman, the Prime Minister’s chief speechwriter, swapped the corridors of power for the corridors of a tough inner-city comprehensive?  Peter is thrown in at the deep end. He has to cope with a child trying to escape out of a sixth-floor window, a detention room full of disruptive children and a staff room of teachers hostile to many of New Labour’s reforms.

This is an insider’s account of leadership – a Prime Minister and a Head Teacher. What makes someone want that kind of responsibility? And what makes them good at it? It is also an exploration of change, whether it’s a political party, a school, an individual or a country. It is often said that politicians and their advisors have no idea what the ‘real world’ is like.

After Peter Hyman’s jolt of reality, both his view of politics and his own priorities have been surprisingly reshaped.

His devotion to Blair comes across, at least to me, as sickening. Then again, he praises teachers and understand that theirs is one of the toughest jobs and that they make lasting difference to our future.

He castigates teachers for being unable to cope with change at short notice, e.g. exam board changing the spec after courses have started. Is he unaware that it is government ministers, not exam boards that decree such changes and that teachers use the summer ‘holidays’ to plan exam work because there is no time once term begins.

He also likes the idea of teachers giving their mobile phone numbers to pupils so that they can ]be  available in the evenings to help with homework So when will teachers find time for marking and preparation, let along a work-life balance? What about accusations of stalking?

A boy knows who Churchill is, he’s the dog from the insurance adverts; Hyman tells him he led Britain in the second world war and the boy’s reaction is “Go on, sir, you’re having a laugh!”

The man who helped to re-write Clause Four based on the then Blair philosophy that we are not just buyers and sellers in a market place, finds himself grappling with whether handing over his school to a group of former Goldman Sachs hedge fund millionaires will really work. In return for £2m and in the name of diversity, choice and competition, the sponsors will get total control, effectively remove the school from any local accountability and have the power to sack the head and run the curriculum.

Superficially, this is a storybook, giving an outline of the goings-on behind the scenes at Number 10, and how the author managed to cope with being thrown in at the deep end at Islington Green School.

Whilst working with Tony Blair, the author had various roles ranging from speech writing and strategic thinking, to heading up the Strategic Communications Unit at Number 10. He liaised with politicians such as Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar and Peter Mandelson, other political advisers, including Alastair Campbell, the civil service and other governmental departments.

At school, Peter Hymen was given various roles. He participated at the Senior

Management Team meetings, was part of the roster for overseeing the

detention/exclusion room, participated in remedial teaching both in group and one

-to-one sessions and taught full classes, as well as extra-curricular activities, on debating /public speaking skills. His skills were also used in preparing the school for Academy status.

However, there are far more serious messages in the book about:

  1. Leadership – what makes for good leadership, comparing that of a Prime Minister and a Head teacher

2.Change –and how to affect change, whether it be a political party or a school.

  1. Leadership –various qualities of good leadership were identified by the author and these included:
  2. Focus – both in government and at the school, focus was seen as the way lasting legacies were created, focussing on two or three things and relentlessly driving them forward to conclusion, whatever the distractions. It was easy to be distracted by the day-to-day urgent problem-solving rather than focusing on the important agenda-setting.

Gordon Brown taught the author that if you focus on an objective relentlessly enough you achieve it. Staying focussed was one of two essences of good leadership

b.Good systems, allowing consistency and replication – the second essence of good leadership – having the right systems in place to ensure the organisation can replicate and produce high standards day after day – the “consistency test”

  1. Reflection –there seemed to be quite a lot of time put aside for reflection in Tony Blair’s inner circle, often questioning themselves with what there mandate was for. Indeed, the author mentions Michael Barber, who ran the Delivery Unit in Whitehall, as one of the most impressive and talented people he had worked with, going on to say that he was focussed (on outcomes), authoritative and reflective.
  2. Teamwork–leadership is about taking people on a journey with you. Leaders need followers and good leaders will remain transparent and keep their followers well informed of what they are doing. The headteacher, Trevor, felt this was very important in his dealings with his staff. Different members of different teams performed different roles and both the Number 10 team, and the Senior Management Team at Islington Green had members performing different roles.

Other qualities of good leadership that were mentioned in the book included, networking, getting out and about, restoring and maintaining trust, humility, being oneself and authentic, being able to judge the tone, and balance various roles, the art of persuasion and inspiration.

  1. Change – clearly change management needs good leadership skills; other issues to bear in mind include:
  2. Change whilst one is still successful – in 2000, before New Labours 2nd victory at the polls, Peter Hyman became obsessed with renewal and quotes Charles Handy who argued that organisations should re-invent themselves while successful, just as they are coming down from their peaks, rather than waiting for a crisis before moving forward. Tony Blair, in private, apparently used to say, “we will end up suffering, not for reforming too much, but for doing too little”. Charles Darwin wrote, “it is not the strongest or cleverest species that survive, but the one most responsive to change”.
  3. The causes of refusal / opposition to change –people will often go along with change when it is generalised or means little to them or little work for them, but when it impacts more on them, then change is harder. Those who oppose change use all kinds of excuses rather than just saying they do not agree, often not debating the issue, but instead, attacking the process. Blair said in a speech about the forces of conservatism, “what threatens the nation-state today is not change but the refusal to change”.
  4. Teamwork –like with good leadership, to enact change good teamwork is essential. According to the “School Improvement Reports”, edited by Tony Attwood, the power to change is in the school (organisation). The team needs a united goal, in Labour’s case in 1997, the will to win, and as a leader it is important to take the team with you.

The interest in the book was maintained because this was a personal journey from the corridors of power to the corridors of an inner city school. It was not a blow-by-blow account of events of the government, or its personalities, nor was it a detailed or academic analysis of educational policy. It was a personal journey, talking about day-to-day events that most readers could relate to.

The school controversially failed its Ofsted inspection in 1997. The school had received a respectable 38 per cent pass rate the previous year and despite shortcomings the staff were convinced that the school was not failing. The decision caused the school to “implode”. The headteacher under enormous pressure to make visible changes discarded mixed-ability teaching, many teachers decided to leave and the pass rate dropped below 25 per cent. The school went through nine inspections before it finally came out of special measures in 2000 and serious weaknesses in 2003.

Ken Muller, a teacher at the school and SWP activist, made a request to Ofsted under the new Freedom of Information Act to see the documents relating to the judgment. Twenty working days later, he got a reply. Most of the documents had been destroyed, said the email, but there was one that might be of interest. Attached was a memo dated November 1997, from HMI Barry Jones to the then chief inspector Chris Woodhead, making clear that the HMI team, of which Jones was a member, had disagreed with Ofsted’s judgment, and noting that they were “of the unanimous view that the school was not failing”.

‘All the attempts that I made at Number 10 “to communicate better with frontline staff” presupposed they would have time to take in these messages.’

The school is not the City of London Academy and I note that their Sex and Relationship policy, due for review in 2006, is out of date and that they break the law by having no statutory RE (which they call SEB = Society Ethics and Beliefs) at Key Stage 4.

The author became a teacher in a free school in Stratford. They do no RE (except for a half term on world religions).

Interview with the author:

Did you have a rose-tinted view of the education system while you were working for Tony Blair?

I was an advocate of the big, symbolic policies but now I understand that what matters is the accumulation of the small things. The student-teacher relationship provides academic delivery. Government can provide the resources and strategies but in the end it all comes down to that relationship, multiplied hundreds of thousands of times across the entire country.

If you were to go back to your old job tomorrow, would there be any specific changes in your speech writing?

Yes. When you’re on the front line, you pick up the details, experiences and stories. Governments usually just deal in statistics which are very dry. Including people’s individual experiences would bring my writing alive.

Did you feel the need to justify the war in Iraq to your new colleagues?

During my first conversation with the National Union of Teachers rep, he said: ‘Tony Blair’s a war criminal and I don’t want anyone associated with him at this school.’ I was taken aback by the forcefulness. Overall, the staff have been very friendly towards me. Generally, the students and staff are anti-war. Some of their strong views – especially anti-Bush views – have come out in the political debating lessons I’ve taught. In a school, you get cheekiness and imagination that produces the sort of comments a politician may want to say but would never dare.

Have you spotted any Tony Blairs of tomorrow?

There’s one student who nobbles me every time I walk across the playground. He asks: ‘What’s going on in Iraq?’ – and tells me every time he thinks George Bush has done something wrong. It sometimes feels like he’s spoiling for a fight but it shows a real interest and enthusiasm. He watches the news and reads the newspapers, which not all of them do. One or two others are poised, competent and, I suppose you could say, quite prime ministerial.

How’s your working relationship with the teacher in whose classroom you assist?

I’m lost without her. Every time she leaves the room and I’m in charge, it quite often falls apart a bit. She’s got a huge natural authority that I’m trying to emulate but I’m not always succeeding. I rely on her and I’ve learned a huge amount from her. She’s very good at giving praise to students rather than just shouting at those who aren’t doing well and it encourages the rest of the class. There’s a huge difference between a teacher who’s been doing it for five or six years and someone starting out like me.

We’re a politically apathetic nation. Do children offer us any hope?

There’s a spectrum of political knowledge in school. I’ve had a student ask me, ‘What is politics?’ because he literally doesn’t have a clue. I even asked one pupil whether his family were interested in politics and he said: ‘No, we’re just a normal family.’ But others have become consumed by politics and political issues. School students aren’t any more apathetic than the rest of the population.

Are young people more interested in politics because of our relationship with the US?

Because of that and Iraq. Of the political stories that break through to those not normally interested, the war is the biggest. It has stirred up very strong feelings and that has undoubtedly energised interest in some students.

In your first week, one of your pupils asked you: ‘Why the hell have you come to a place like this?’ Have you got any answers?

“Thankfully, we are now running an economy with low inflation, low mortgage rates and low unemployment.”

I’ve always been passionate about education and I wanted to challenge myself but I also wanted to try to make a difference. The Government has made a lot of difference nationally and I wanted to make some personal difference to some students’ lives. It’s been really rewarding.

“This is a charade… the system breeds a bureaucracy of mediocre administrators and bureaucrats and educationalists who don’t work in schools… I left early. I couldn’t stand it.”

“I don’t know whether I will stay in teaching, because I don’t know yet if I’ve got the ability to control a class.”

I was a keen and willing student. I joined them as a young, naive, idealist, passionate about wanting to make a difference. I believed in one- thing above all else, perhaps the influence of my Jewish upbringing, that- discrimi­nation of any kind was abhorrent, that people from all backgrounds should be given an equal chance to succeed. Also, again perhaps influenced by my father, a publisher, growing up surrounded by books, I believed the route to success was through education and learning. I was ambitious too. I wanted Labour to win again, and I wanted to be part of it.

In the coming years I studied a political craft – policy formation; media relations, strategy, communications, cam­paigning, political organisation – and ten years on, when I looked back, I realised I- had learnt some key lessons, lessons I would be able to take with me on the journey that was about to begin: lessons about leadership and lessons about what made for successful change.

I am a classroom assistant in Sally’s English class with some Learning Zone students. These are students taken out of main­stream lessons because they either have disruptive behaviour or poor literacy or both. There are only between eight and ten in the class with two adults — a teacher and an assistant. Our classroom is in the old technology block. It has a shelf running round the perimeter to put books on, leaving –inviting gap underneath. Lessons are at a single high table with chairs resembling bar stools around it. There is a sofa in the corner. This is meant to create a more relaxed primary-school feel and give students a place to read.

This is a typical lesson:

I enter the room. Sally is already writing the lesson objective and date on the board. The classroom appears to be empty. But I see arms and legs poking out from under the shelf.

‘By the time I turn round I want everyone sitting up at the desk or there will be detentions.’ One boy rushes out from under the shelf. The others do so more half-heartedly, One remains in the corner under a sink, thinking he hasn’t been spotted.

`Stuart, I will count to three and then. I will get angry. One, two . .

Stuart scrambles out and sits down.

Kelly enters the room. She is the only girl. There are mea to be three or four in the class, but they have not turned up f weeks. So she is outnumbered eight to one. She’s a bit of a tomboy which helps. She wears glasses and neat school unifor with socks pulled up to her knees. She shouts at Dave for reason and sits down.

Neil saunters in, shoulders slouched: ‘Got to give a note to my Head of Year.’

`Can you give it to her at break, the lesson’s starting,’ I say.

Neil walks out ignoring me. Neil,’ I call after him. ‘Please-come back. You can go at break.’ He looks at me con­temptuously and walks away.

‘ Neil,’ my voice trails off Neil is on anti-depressants. I have never seen him smile, though he did laugh once when he was picking on another student.

Simon shuffles into the room. He has mild learning difficulties and a motor disease and moves slowly. He has charm and an ear­to-ear smile. Getting from the sixth-floor of the tower block to the technology block between lessons takes a lot of stamina, even though he has a lift key.

`Sir, this is boring,’ says Stuart. `We haven’t started yet,’ I say.

`But I know it’s boring, it’s English.’ `0i, four eyes,’ says Dave to Kelly.

`Don’t call me four eyes.’

Kelly takes off one of her shoes, holds it in her hand like a club, with the heel pointing outwards, and approaches Dave who is spraying the insults.

`Kelly stop,’ Sally says. Kelly hits Dave feebly with the heel. `Kelly put that down.’

`Why are you picking on me, Miss?’

`Don’t be wound up by him. Dave, apologise!’

Dave mumbles: ‘Sorry four eyes.’

`Miss.’ `Dave.’

Kelly picks up her rucksack and leaves the classroom with a

swagger, slamming the door behind her. `Right she’s getting a detention.’

`Hello Simone,’ Benny says entering the room, fifteen

minutes late and tipping Simon’s chair backwards. The group switches between being motherly towards Simon and treating him to the same aggressive and mindless behaviour as everyone else. It’s not always clear which is worse.

Sally: ‘Benny, leave him alone and sit down, you’re late.’ It’s like musical chairs. One in one out. ‘Right, I want you to write about your favourite thing. I have written the instructions on the board. What is your favourite thing, what does it look like, what does it, smell like? When you close your eyes what do you imagine about it? Well done Dave, well done Stuart, you’re starting immediately.’ Sally is good at praising the students to encourage others to follow them. If she can, and this class tries this theory to destruction, she always prefers to praise the good ones rather than tell off the bad.

There is momentary calm as the students realise there is a simple task to carry out. Sunil, who is clearly quite bright, missed lots of his primary schooling through illness, and although he speaks perfect English, he cannot write a word. I have never met someone before who cannot spell his own name. The class has an extraordinary spread of reading and writing abilities, from next to nothing to pretty good. Teaching such a range in a way that benefits all is difficult. I sit next to Sunil and help him with the assignment. He is due to get some additional one-to-one help soon.

Every time I am in this class I am gripped by the dynamics being played out. The three toughest kids are vying to be top dog. A couple of the others know they will always be too weak to dominate, so use verbal niggling as a way of asserting themselves. Kelly receives grudging respect because she is a feisty girl. Ngu and Sunil, both foreign, are treated as acceptable outsiders, and are respected when they join in the larking about. To all of them the lesson is a game: how much can we get away with before the teachers snap? There is no sense in which they are there to learn, or because they believe the lesson or school.is for their benefit.

Stuart breaks the quiet with fury. ‘He cussed my mum,’ Stuart says and gets up and whips Nick, who has been sitting quietly, with his tie.

`Put your tie on and sit down please,’ I say to Stuart. He ignores me the first six occasions T ask him.

`He called my mum a bitch, that’s b . . . i . . .,’ there’s along pause, . . c . . . k.’ Emphasising a word by saying the letters is usually effective, but the power can be lost if you can’t spell.

`Don’t get wound up by it, just sit down,’ I say. ‘Oi, sir why are you looking grumpy?’ `Can I have a pen sir?’

`Yes sir, I need a pen.’

`Sir, gis a pen.’

`Oi sir, pen.’

`Can you bring a pen in future please,’ I say giving out pens. `I can’t give out new pens every lesson.’

Matthew, who refuses to work most lessons, has not had much attention. He attempts to remedy this by climbing on the shelf and banging on the window.

`Get down,’ Sally and I shout in unison. Two instructions for the price of one, but it has no effect. Matthew laughs and throws a pen at Simon. At least he’s got a pen.

`Get out of my lesson,’ Sally says snapping. Matthew slowly obeys. He leaves the room but disrupts the next five minutes by banging on the door.

`Just ignore him,’ Sally says. I go outside to see if I can reason with Matthew. He has disrupted several lessons.

I sit with him in my office and ask him what the matter is. He opens up very quickly: ‘My dad says he hates me and never wants to see me again. You know last time I saw him we drove around in his car and he wore two pairs of sunglasses so that he couldn’t see and then he tried to run people over. My stepfather keeps telling me I’m the devil and have 666 written on my head.’

Other teachers tell me afterwards that he makes up a lot of stories and it is very hard to tell which are true. True or not, it’s worrying that he should be telling the stories at all.

`Do you like this school?’

`No. It’s boring.’

`Did you like your primary school?’

`Chucked out 15 times.’

`What can we do to make it better?’

`Stop the teachers picking on me.’

I convince Matthew to come back to the lesson and try to behave.

On the way back to the lesson I notice Jason, who has left the class and is now in the corridor sobbing. I leave Matthew and try to find out what’s up.

`Why are you crying Jason?’ Silence.

`Can I help?’

Five minutes of trying gets nowhere. So I go and ask his form teacher to have a word. He has no luck either. I return to the lesson.

Simon has decided the way to make friends is to copy the worst behaved students. It is a pitiful sight. He has shaved his head recently to make hit-itself less cherubic. Now he clambers over to the corner of the classroom, with a slow painful bending, movement he manages to position himself under the shelf so: that he is doing something naughty. He looks round for approval from his peers. He gets some.

`What on earth are you doing Simon, you’re normally so good?’

`Do you fancy miss, Sir?’

`She fancies you.’

`Are you two married?’

`You know Sir, she dresses to impress you.’

`That’s enough Benny, that’s inappropriate.’

`Miss do you like sir?’

`Enough.’

`Any more and we will start putting names on the board,’ Sally draws a smiley face and then a sad face. This usually works. Those who get their names put under the sad face then need to be good for the rest of the lesson to get it rubbed off.

`Listening arms please,’ Sally says. ‘Good Stuart, good Benny, good Ngu. Who’s not got their listening arms? Right I want you each to read out what you have done.’

Dave sucks on a long stick of sherbert. Stuart gets out his mobile phone. The latest craze that the school is cracking down on is hitting someone or abusing them and then using the new video facility on expensive mobile phones to record the student’s reaction, and then texting the video’images to a friend in another class as a trophy of the dastardly deed.

Dave reads out his contribution. There is a lot of giggling.

‘My favourite thing in the whole world is bed because it’s big it looks nice. It sm6lls nice and it makes me feel relaxed. It makes me tired. When I close my eyes and imagine I can see pillows and nice cover and comfortable bed.’

`Applause please, that’s very good,’ says Sally.

There is a smattering of clapping. Sunil has managed to write a line but doesn’t want to read it so Sally reads it for him. “My favourite thing is my brothers, mum, dad, sisters and me.” Good, who’s next?’

Stuart slowly edges towards the front. ‘My favourite thing in the whole world is my phone. The reason is because you can make music. I like it because it looks buff, it smells like strawberry and it makes me feel happy.’

`How sweet,’ Sally says.

Ngu reads out very slowly and deliberately: ‘My favourite thing in the world is God, Allah, (both have been crossed out) Mum because she only looks after me and takes carer It smells like perfume and it makes me feel wonderful. When I’m with my favourite thing the best day. When I close my eyes I can see me and my mum have so much fun.’

`That’s lovely,’ says Sally. ‘What a good piece of work.’

`Can I sit on the sofa now I have finished my work?’ asks Dave. Benny leaps on to the sofa without asking.

`Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal,’ chants Dave at full volume for no reason.

`Dave, quieter please! Right, let’s finish off with a story. Those listening nicely can go first to break.’ Sally likes to end the lesson by getting them used to stories. Four of them squeeze on to the sofa, elbowing each other to secure more room.

I notice perhaps the strangest, most poignant sight since I have been at the school. Benny, the tough guy of the class, starts sucking his thumb. None of the other students notice and he seems unembarrassed. This is listen with mother, and the teenager becomes a vulnerable child within an instant.

`Right, off you go,’ Sally says. The students leave. I feel sucked of emotion, reeling from an hour of non-stop battling. You need to come to these lessons prepared, fighting fit, on top bantering form or you can easily get very despondent, and very angry.

I am exhausted. My first-ever lesson is over. I have got through it. Some of them even seem to have enjoyed it. The planning proved essential.

I collect up all the stray pieces of paper, and notice that on the first assignment one of_the students who didn’t come;up to share his contribution with the class, has written:

The thing that makes me most angry is . . . when some one is in the Barth room when you need to go a poo! Because . . . you mite need to go a poo bad and it’s poping out your bum check.

`Good use of apostrophe,’ I say to Jane.

`You should do this again,’ she says.

`How do teachers do that-five times a day?’ I ask.

`You’ll get used to it.’

The big question for me is: could I do this day in day out? Do I have the skill or the stamina or the focus?

 

Those who think teaching is easy, or that anyone good at public speaking can do it, think again. It is a real craft that has to he learnt, though undoubtedly it comes to some more naturally than others. We should support our teachers, for they have taken on one of the hardest jobs there is: passing on not just knowledge and skills but character arid-decency. In their hands, and those of parents, will be the kind of people our children become and the type of country we will live in.

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