The Phoenix Revolution:
Over the last generation, teaching has become a very stressful occupation. A survey published by the NASUWT in 2008 found the majority of respondents (69%) reported having suffered from work-related stress and in more than three in ten (31%) cases this resulted in members needing to take time off work.
It needn’t be this way: the Free School programme has given Phoenix the freedom to completely re-think the way schools are run. We’ve borrowed ideas from the independent sector and from the military—and come up with a lot of our own. The net effect is to free teachers to do what they do best: teach.
This is how we will do it:
The seeds of the Phoenix Free School concept were sown back in the late 1980s, when Professor Tom Burkard was known as Corporal Burkard of the Royal Pioneer Corps (TAVR). He was trained as an Instructor by outstanding senior NCOs—men who could command the instant attention of the most unruly Glaswegian privates, and make them into good soldiers.
Most of these men retired from the Forces while still in their late 30s or early 40s, and their talents were subsequently wasted as lorry drivers or security guards. When Corporal Burkard first proposed that they be retrained as teachers, no one took him seriously.
His interest in education took on a more personal note after his own son—Arthur—spent 1 ½ years in a highly-regarded RC suburban primary school without learning a single letter of the alphabet. After a retired teacher took the trouble to teach him about letters and sounds, he learned to read with very little trouble. By the age of 9, Arthur had read My Early Life by Winston Churchill.
By 2008, Tom Burkard was an experienced teacher with an MA in Education, and a long list of publications for academic journals and think-tanks. When he heard about the American Troops-to-Teachers programme, he wrote a report for the Centre for Policy Studies recommending that a similar programme be introduced in the UK. It was instantly endorsed by Michael Gove, then the Tory education shadow. After the general election, the proposal featured prominently in the Coalition’s November 2010 white paper for education.
Early in 2011, Capt Affan Burki contacted Tom with a view to starting a Free School where all the teaching staff would be ex-forces. The two had not met prior to this but it was clear to both of them that they shared the same vision. Captain Burki had worked in schools delivering Army Insight Training, and he saw first-hand how misguided ‘behaviour management’ policies had undermined teachers’ authority.
Captain Burki also viewed his military experience in the same light as Corporal Burkard did in the 1980s; the Armed Forces were full of very highly motivated, experienced, highly trained and proactive individuals who work effectively together whilst under enormous pressure. Amongst soldiers, there always has been an inherent level of trust which transcends rank, race and religion.
Although born in Pakistan, Affan regards Great Britain as his home. He felt it unjust that personnel could serve their country – offering the sacrifice of their lives, should it be required – but when they leave the Forces they are treated with indifference (or worse) by civilians who don’t really understand what they have done—or more importantly, what they can do.
Working together, Tom and Affan drew up plans for a revolutionary new school. When it was launched by the Centre for Policy Studies after the urban riots of August 2011, there was a media feeding frenzy, with articles in all of the national newspapers. Cameras were lined up on Tom’s lawn, and he was interviewed by John Humprhys and Jenni Murray (to say nothing of regional BBC news programmes). Suddenly, Troops-to-Teachers had arrived in the UK.
Since then everyone has been hopping on the ‘military schools’ bandwagon. Alas, Phoenix isn’t really a ‘military school’. We have no intention of starting a Combined Cadet Force or marching our pupils around a parade square. In fact, the Phoenix project is far more radical than that. At Phoenix, teachers will be freed to teach. The key element of this plan is the creation of a new role for former NCOs, very few of whom have degrees.
As Tom had emphasised in his 2008 Centre for Policy Studies report, the American Troops-to-Teachers programme worked because 40% of their retiring NCOs have degrees, and hence could go straight into teacher training. Since virtually none of ours do, Tom proposed that they be retrained as Instructors—a new role vaguely akin to that of a teaching assistant, but greatly enhanced and entailing a much higher degree of responsibility.
If you think about it, it makes sense. Good teachers have to know a lot about the subject they teach—in secondary schools, they really should have a good degree in their subject. They need the ability to plan and deliver interesting lessons and to engage their pupils’ interest. However, many people who have these abilities don’t have the natural authority to deal with unruly pupils. If they can’t get them out of the classroom straight away, discipline disintegrates and the lesson is ruined past redemption.
A good teacher may also be a hopeless bureaucrat. In any case, routine admin consumes time and energy that could be better spent planning first-rate lessons or marking pupils’ work. A good teacher may not be blessed with the common touch that is needed to deal with distraught parents or troubled pupils. However, it is exactly these person-centred abilities that are required for promotion in a volunteer military force. If the troops don’t feel respected and valued by their chain of command, they won’t re-enlist.
In secondary schools, teachers have neither the time nor patience to teach basic skills to children who are poor at reading, writing and basic maths. Yet it is common knowledge that illiterate pupils are virtually doomed to a life on benefit, or at best working in menial jobs. Most schools have no better answer to their dilemma than to paste a label on these hapless children and put them on the Special Needs Register.
At Phoenix, Instructors will be trained to use programmed synthetic phonics materials such as the Sound Foundations decoding and spelling materials developed by Tom Burkard. They are already being used successfully by teaching assistants in over 1,000 British schools; independent trials conducted in Southampton and Gloucestershire found them to be remarkably effective, even in special schools.
Officials have already consulted Prof Burkard and Capt Burki in an abortive efforts to develop a new Instructor’s qualification. We will be doing it for them, and from September 2014 onward Panorama will be tracking our progress.
However, there is more to the Phoenix Revolution—ideas borrowed from established independent schools and some old-fashioned grammar schools. Phoenix will have a ‘house’ system, and it will be run by our Instructors. They will use competition to a degree that is almost unheard of in today’s comprehensive schools. Competition is the surest means of engaging pupils’ attention in a difficult subject—how do you make quadratic equations ‘relevant’ or ‘exciting’? Truth is that most academic subjects can’t compete with social media and video games no matter how you dress them up. But if you make things into a competition, you can even get boys reading novels!
The house system is rather like the Army’s regimental system: it is the key to loyalty and ‘esprit de corps’. It is an unparalleled means of building teamwork and bonding pupils with diverse backgrounds and differing abilities. Pupils will meet in their houses for prep, and the most able pupils will be trained to work as tutors for the least able.
This, along with setting pupils by ability in each subject, will all but eliminate the need for teachers to differentiate or ‘personalise’ lessons—another huge time-waster in many schools.
Lastly, the Phoenix management structure will resemble that of most independent schools. In other words, the Headteacher will still be a teacher, and not just a manager. He or she will oversee heads of subjects and take the responsibility for teaching and learning. But the day-to-day running of the school will be in the hands of the Bursar and Secretarial staff.
All responsibility will be vested in individuals who will be a part of a clearly-defined management structure. The Head and other senior managers will be perfectly free to form ad hoc or standing committees to assist them in making decisions, but the responsibility and authority remain invested in the individual.
Of course, there’s a lot more to Phoenix than can be explained in a thousand words. And we’d like to stress that the same principles could equally be applied to schools where many if not most staff lacked any military experience. But the Phoenix Revolution could have interesting consequences, if for no other reason than its obvious appeal to teachers. After all, what teacher would pass up a chance to work in a stress-free environment where they were free to teach and pupils were free to learn?