Mark Cottingham Monthly Column

Mark Cottingham


Shirebrook Academy

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Shirebrook Academy Principle: “Budget cuts are being felt keenly”

Mark Cottingham, principle of Shirebrook Academy on Common Lane, Shirebrook, said that cuts to education and social care budgets are being ‘felt keenly’. He said: “Shirebrook Academy is one of the lucky ones – I know of many headteachers having to make redundancies. “Education budgets were not exactly generous before, but schools now really have to tighten their belts.” Mr Cottingham commented after new figures show education spending has been slashed by more than £7bn since 2011. The Independent conducted a survey that revealed the extent of the crisis. The poll of 2,000 headteachers showed that 72 percent of heads are facing a deficit this school year, and four in five teachers are using their own money to support schoolchildren amid funding pressures.

Mr Cottingham said: “Staff are so careful with resources, such as photocopying and using older textbooks.

“Schools end up picking up the slack from cutbacks to social funding, such as social work and mental health. “We have a charity fund which we used to provide breakfasts for free school meal students in the run-up to Christmas. “Schools do things like this to make up for the gap in social care and support, as local authorities budgets are cut, and Universal Credit is introduced.” The Shirebrook Academy is one of the lucky schools.

Thanks to a good contingency plan and a new, efficient school building, staffing does not have to be cut like so many other schools.
“The government are insisting money has been spent on education, which is true if you look at pounds and pence. “However, if you take into account inflation and a rise in the number of pupils, in real terms, schools are worse off.” Adds Mr Cottingham. “Shirebrook Academy has less than 850 students, and you get to know those students well. “As 70 to 80 percent of a school’s budget goes on staffing, a bigger budget would mean more staff, and a personalised level of teaching.”

Mark Cottingham


Shirebrook Academy

Monday 16 July 2018

The summer holidays are nearly upon us and my hope for our students is that, in amongst enjoying the ice creams, the beach and the endless sunny hours, they have enough time to get bored, writes Mark Cottingham, principal at Shirebrook Academy.

No, it’s not a very summery message, but the feeling of being bored is, in my opinion, a very underrated experience that is being lost in today’s entertainment-rich world.

I know it’s not easy having to deal with a child who complains that they’ve got nothing to do and that parents naturally want to lay on a fun activity in order.

However, I also hope that parents resist this temptation and tell them what I was told when I was in that situation at that age – to go and find something to do.

Wisdom tells grown-ups that very often the activities you end up doing something to do are richer and more rewarding than those that are presented to you.

Necessity is the mother of invention and so when children are bored they invent things, just as people do when they have a problem to solve.

They create stories and games for themselves to fill the empty hours, allowing their imagination to run free.

Studies have shown that a period of boredom is often a precursor to greater creativity than a period

of activity is, as boredom prompts our brains to switch to a state where the sole focus is to find something to stimulate them, with incredible results.

The problem with today’s technology is that it is always there to eliminate boredom.

Hopefully, during this holiday, our students will get a chance to be bored and it will lead to creativity they may never have believed existed.

And, as we know, being creative is a great way of expressing your individuality, which can be way better than your wellbeing than anything YouTube can provide.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Mark Cottingham


Shirebrook Academy

For year 11 students at Shirebook Academy, June marks the end of their time at the school, which means it’s time for my annual speech at the leavers’ assembly. Strictly speaking, since students only ever hear it once, I could use the same speech every year. But instead I like to keep it varied and leave them with some pieces of wisdom among the congratulations and praise for their behaviour and attitude during their time at the school. However, my main message is always on a similar theme – the need for them to take control of their own lives and be individuals, not always worrying about what their friends think of them, not following the herd.

I also always tell them that they should take chances in life – they will live regret missed opportunities but will never regret trying something that didn’t work out. Whether they hold onto those thoughts, or forget about them, I don’t know.

But I do know that what they have achieved and experienced at school will influence them for the rest of their lives, for better or worse. One of the highlights of the assembly is the moment they look back on all the photos of the time with us and they laugh at how young they looked when they were freshly-arrived year sevens.

It is incredible to think how much they have changed in five years, which probably seemed like a lifetime to them but, by contrast, for us staff those five years have passed by with the blink of an eye, but there will still be a lot of emotion among the staff, especially the form tutors, who have shared their school journey with them. Who knows what the future holds for them? Some of them you know will be alright and they’re ready for their next chapter, others you worry about a bit and wonder how they will adjust to their new life. Whatever happens, we wish them well – and we look forward to welcoming more year sevens through the door, ready to start their journey.


Mark Cottingham


Shirebrook Academy

If anyone wants an example of how moving into a new building can help a school, then the past five years at Shirebrook Academy would make for an extremely good case study. That is the length of time, to the exact month, that we have been operating from our wonderful facility in Common Lane, which replaced a crumbling 1960s building on the other side of our site. Now, visitors walk into our reception and go ‘wow’ at what they see, we have a great reputation and we are full. The school has also become the pride of Shirebrook, the community uses the sports facilities extensively outside school hours and we also have ever-strengthening ties with Stubbin Wood Special School, which is co-located with us in our building.
What’s more, thanks to the care shown by our students and the hard work of our site staff, the building is still in excellent condition. For me, school buildings send out a strong message about how much society values young people’s education.

A modern and well-resourced building shows that we have invested in them and their futures, but an old, crumbling, building says this is how much we think of you and your education, and it isn’t a lot. Speaking as someone who once taught a class in a temporary building that had a hole in it so large a dog could walk through it – which did happen one morning – I understand all too well how a bad learning environment can affect students’ ability to learn.

And although you can have bad teaching in a good building, I know how this school helps endorse the quality of what we do. None of our current students remember the old building but many of the staff do and, even now, when someone complains about something, someone else will soon remind them of the old building, which puts it into context.


Mark Cottingham


Shirebrook Academy

As someone who has always felt uncomfortable with the whole idea of grand-prix pit girls and darts walk-on girls I was pleased when I heard the controversial decision that these sports’ organisers had chosen to face the future without then.

I say this both as someone who believes in gender equality but also as a teacher who believes that girls should grow up with high aspirations and wonders why, when they routinely out-perform boys at secondary school, on average they grow up earning less and working in lower status roles than the men they once overshadowed.

There are a number of theories for this, but I strongly believe that the roles we see women and men filling in the media shape our expectations of what they can achieve later in life.

You can’t place all the blame on Formula 1, of course, but when you watch it, what do you see? You see the men doing the exciting work and earning the big rewards, while the only women visible are only there to look decorative.

What message does this send to a young girl watching the sport with her family? Not only does it tell her that only attractive young women are allowed to step into such a glamorous world, but when they do, they play lesser roles, merely prettying up the sport, not actively partaking in it.

We are so used to this that we don’t question it, but it affects young people’s thought processes and attitudes that will influence the decisions they take in adulthood.

Taken to the next step, it means that young women may not aspire to do what the men do, while young men may – and likely will – conclude that it’s OK to see women only as objects of desire.

This can lead to them leering at them, wolf whistling and – as we have seen with the #MeToo movement – even worse, while such expectations over one gender being more important can lead to unequal rates of pay.

As teachers we have to tread a fine line between giving students advice about their futures and keeping our personal opinions to ourselves but if someone came to me saying they wanted to be a walk-on girl I would consider my answer carefully and urge them to consider all possibilities open to them.

I don’t hold with the notion that women are making a positive choice to make their living this way because in reality their choices are limited by society’s expectations of a woman’s role.

If a woman wants to be a part of Formula One, has she the same opportunity to be a mechanic or a racing driver as a man does?

I get the debate about whether the media shapes society or society shapes the media, but the ban on pit girls shows that attitudes in society can change the way the media performs and this will in turn, broadcast a new, less sexist, reality to our young people, which will shape their own attitudes and ambitions for the future.



Mark Cottingham


Shirebrook Academy

It won’t make the headlines like Waitrose’s recent ban on selling energy drinks to young people did, but we have also made a new ban of our own this month, telling our students that long false fingernails have no place at school.

This is not because of health and safety, nor because we fear fashion rivalry, but simply because while long acrylic nails do look decorative, they are a drawback when it comes to holding a pen, picking up a paintbrush, kneading dough in food science or playing sport in PE.

This stops their wearers from doing their work, which is enough to earn them a place in our own Room 101, alongside energy drinks, body piercings, trainers and fidget spinners.

Banning things comes as part of the territory when it comes to running a school. It is often a controversial issue and different schools take different approaches to different fads and fashions.

We do allow mobile phones in school, but not in lessons, while some schools ban them completely. Others have a different view to haircuts.

That said, I can’t imagine many schools allowing fidget spinners, not that they are as widespread as they once were. Their popularity grew during the school holiday so I only found out what they were at 9am on the first day back.

By 11am, I’d banned them.

We have already sent a letter home to parents about false nails, following on from a reminder letter concerning the ban on energy drinks, as well as family-sized bags of crisps.

We rely on the cooperation of parents, hoping that while they want to give their children the freedom to express and enjoy themselves, they understand that we are a community which cannot function without rules.

One of our rules is that learning is key and nothing must disrupt that, which is why the nails, alongside the energy drinks – which can cause a student to be hyperactive one minute and lethargic the next when the sugar high wears off – have now found their way onto the banned list.


Mark Cottingham


Shirebrook Academy

A little while ago, a video went viral showing a 22-year-old newly qualified teacher in tears, announcing that he was quitting the profession after just a couple of months at the chalk-face.

Worn down by the hours and the expectations, he said that he wanted to do a job that was more rewarding and gave him more of a life/work balance.

What was noticeable was that when the story hit the radio stations and newspapers, there were plenty of comments about him being a member of the snowflake generation – those spoiled young people who lack the backbone to dig in when the going gets tough.

Certainly, there are very many professions which are extremely hard work. I have told staff in the past who have been bemoaning their lot to imagine what life would be like working down the pit. No-one is forcing us to do this, after all.

But everything is relative and teaching as a career is as hard as I have ever known it. The hours are long – 12 hours a day is the norm at our school – and we are responsible to and answerable to everybody – the Government, Ofsted, parents, other staff and the students.

We are expected to resolve issues in school that arise through social media and cyber bullying and, as other services are cut in the community, such as mental health provision and youth work, we are expected to pick up the slack.

Then there are the changes to the curriculum, which often mean that carefully prepared plans have to be scrapped and resources binned, and, somewhere in amongst all that, the classroom teaching as well.

I can only equate giving a lesson to giving a presentation at your work in front of 30 people, some of whom won’t want to be there and who will seek to disrupt you.

You have 22 of these presentations to prepare and deliver each week, you have six minutes to prepare for each one, and in between you will be expected to give feedback to each person about how you felt they contributed.

Oh, and you are not allowed to leave the room to make a drink or go to the toilet.

If this sounds like a whinge, then the retention figures in teaching tell their own story. It isn’t just the snowflakes who are being blown out of the profession, there are many seasoned professionals calling it a day too.

Thirty-five thousand teachers quit for reasons other than retirement last year. This makes it very difficult to recruit experienced staff and it is no surprise that half of secondary school vacancies were filled by teachers who didn’t have the right expertise and experience.

We do our very best and have a series of measures in place to take the burden off our teachers and boost their welfare, but there is a growing crisis in teaching and it’s getting worse every day.

Yes, any teacher is free to walk away if they wish, but the queue of people desperate to take their place is getting smaller, less qualified and less experienced.

If that was going on at your local hospital, you’d be worried – but it’s going on at every local state school in the land, and the real casualties are the young people whose ambitions and prospects depend on getting a decent education to send them on their way.


Mark Cottingham


Shirebrook Academy

We recently held our awards evening and at one brief point you may have wondered if we had any male students at all, as girl after girl was called to the stage to collect their prize.

By the end of the evening, we did have a healthy number of boys’ names on the role of honour, but we all recognise that at our school, as at other secondary schools, female students tend to outperform their male counterparts quite significantly.

Theories abound as to why this is. One train of thought suggests that girls mature faster than boys and so are more disciplined in class and in their studies.

Others suggest that stereotyping little boys and girls means that by the time they arrive at Year Seven, boys have been given more leeway when it comes to indulging in behaviour which, in a classroom setting, is disruptive.

It is far more acceptable for a little boy to be a little monkey than it is for a little girl to be a little madam and people are more indulgent of scruffiness in boys than in girls.

As a consequence, years of conditioning mean that girls start secondary school as more receptive, calmer and with neater handwriting – all qualities which are cherished by teachers and which aid educational achievement.

This is especially the case in the current educational set-up, where the more academic subjects, which traditionally favour girls, are dominating the curriculum, leaving less room and resource for the more practical subjects which generally play to the traditional strength of boys.

Studies show that academically, boys catch up with girls in higher education, and there is excellent provision for practical, vocational subjects from the age of 16 onwards.

By then, however, we run the risk of losing generations of young men from education forever, because a student who does not do well at any subject gains no reward at school. As a result, their interest and confidence will wane, their attainment will drop off and from then on you have a devil of a job persuading them of the joys of learning.

I know that stereotypes are not set in stone. Not all girls are neat and tidy in their work and not all of them are perfect students, while our high-achieving male students are testament to the way in which it is possible for some boys to buck the trend.

That’s why we do a lot of work on role-modelling and mentoring, making sure their achievements are something to which others can aspire.

However, and it’s another cliché, these are exceptions that prove the rule. It is a fact that boys continue to underperform all over the country and it seems wrong that instead of doing more to adapt the system to their needs, the current system is geared so that it is less in their favour than it has been for many, many years.