Two headteachers take their cue from Dylan Thomas in describing the Christmas gifts they would like to see for schools

In his poem ‘A child’s Christmas in Wales’, Dylan Thomas compares useful presents and useless ones.

This year perhaps more than ever, this has resonance as Justine Greening announces the birth of 12 opportunity areas, and the “wise men” arrive with their gifts of the strategic school improvement fund, the teaching and leadership innovation, and emergency funding.

With our scarce but valuable resources, we could perhaps end the year by reflecting on what really does make a difference to children, young people, teachers and leaders. What would make a really useful present for teachers to warm our hearts and minds, like Thomas’s “engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths”?

There is hard and fast evidence that quality teaching for all has the highest impact. While we compare ourselves to other high-performing countries, many do not have the same amount of direct teaching hours.

We need the equivalent of a gift voucher to address the inequities of funding

The gift of release time would allow teachers to collaborate both in and between schools on teaching sequences and curriculum design. Free to develop the craft of teaching, the ultimate present would be the retention of autonomous and empowered teachers with a passion for their profession.

Thomas’s story offers a memory of collective carol singing: “One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness.”

School leaders would certainly welcome some singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of accountability. The clarity offered by streamlining the high-stakes accountability demanded by Ofsted, the DfE, the regional schools commissioners and local authorities would be welcome.

Schools and trusts can feel bombarded, which destabilises the system. Reducing the stakes would help eradicate some of the perverse incentives that result in a narrowing curriculum and more exclusions. An increase in peer-to-peer review of school evaluation, and greater consistency in inspection judgments would help schools thrive and not just survive.

Thomas’s story tells us that “years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales” and we could certainly do with some help this Christmas keeping the wolves from the door financially.

Too many heads and business managers are counting the pennies like Bob Cratchit, wondering about how to make ends meet. Will it be even bigger class sizes, fewer options at GCSE or A-Level and the resultant staffing reductions, or will it be the pastoral support that sustains our students’ wellbeing?

Managing wellbeing and leading healthy lives would be a genuine gift for us all

We need the equivalent of a gift voucher to address the inequities of funding and makes up for the cuts that have eroded our balances since 2010. That would be the most useful of presents.

As we move towards New Year, it is also a time to think of new habits. West Earlham Infant and Nursery School recently was proud to report the most positive responses to a countywide wellbeing survey. This is because leaders recognise the value of professional supervision to reflect on non-teaching aspects of the job.

At a time with increasing pressures on schools to provide services once delivered through CAMHS, NHS or Children’s Services, it is vital we create spaces to develop these pastoral aspects of school life.

At Heathfield Community College, investment in pastoral staff and training means intervention is swift; peer mentoring and structured student leadership schemes show our young people that they can have the skills they need. Managing wellbeing and leading healthy lives would be a genuine gift for us all.

Dylan Thomas’s poem speaks warmly of the relatives who populated his youthful Christmas and the “tall tales now that we told by the fire”. If we are to galvanise the real power of our profession, we must embrace all members of our eclectic family to work together to tell our own tale.

As part of our work with Headteachers Roundtable, we will continue to work across all phases and types of school to influence policy so that practice is the best it can be, not just for Christmas but for all of our futures.

Caroline Barlow is a secondary headteacher at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex, and Binks Neate-Evans is a primary headteacher at West Earlham Infant and Nursery School in Norwich

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