The specific things that leaders do

I recently spent a few months supporting a school in Portsmouth as it joined our group of schools. This return to hands-on school leadership presented me with a few situations that I hadn’t encountered for a while, such as holding a meeting with a parent and child to address persistently poor behaviour which could no longer be tolerated by the school. It’s a meeting with a clear purpose: the behaviour of the pupil needs to change.


On an early morning train to Portsmouth I happened to be accompanied by one of our Regional Directors. She’s an experienced headteacher so I sought her advice for the meeting that awaited me at the school. She suggested:

  • Speak to the parent on their own first – make it clear what the problem is and what you need the parent to do.
  • Invite the pupil to join the meeting when, and only when, you have secured the support of the parent.
  • Once the pupil joins the meeting, present a united front – “I’ve explained to your mother/father what the problem is; s/he is aware of how serious this is.”
  • Be crystal clear with the pupil about the behaviour that is causing concern, why it cannot be tolerated, and what s/he needs to do instead. Check that they understand this.
  • Agree on the next steps: e.g. “you’ll return to your lessons from Period 2 but for today only I’ll need you to spend break times with your head of year. I’ll pop in to one of your lessons today and I expect to see you working hard.”

None of this is rocket science and I’m sure that people with more experience of these meetings than me follow a structure like this without even realising it. But this experience reminded me that leadership is as much about the specific things that leaders do as the lofty ideals and the glossy mission statements, and that there is good practice relating to these specific things that we can codify and share. Even if established leaders do this stuff implicitly, by making it explicit we can catalyse the development of new leaders.

I was reminded of this when I read this thoughtful post in which a serving head argues that “Too many leadership programmes focus on ‘leadership’ over domain knowledge”. The head continues, “The problem for schools comes, I would argue, when leaders are more interested in notions of leadership over and above what they are leading on.”

Similarly, this article in the Harvard Business Review makes the case that successful leadership is less about generic competencies and more about perfecting a core set of daily routines:

“Leaders want to get better in the here-and-now, not to be judged against a competency map or be sold an abstract theory about what leadership should look like. If you want to become a great leader, become a student of your context — understand your organization’s social system — and mind your routines. Leadership development is more about application than theory.”

The HBR post continues: “As we pursued our work at BHP Billiton, six routines (for example, how leaders spent their time in the field, in one-on-one meetings, and in cross team meetings) were identified which, when executed well, appeared to differentiate the highest-performing supervisors from average performing ones (the routines we discovered are context-specific to BHP Billiton; the routines that are right for you depend on your organization).”

The 6 core routines for school leaders might include:

  • Managing a meeting
  • Taking an assembly
  • Doing a learning walk
  • Holding a developmental conversation with a teacher
  • Holding a difficult conversation with a pupil/parent
  • Line managing a senior/middle leader.

Doug Lemov improved our understanding of teaching by codifying the specific things that effective teachers do. By making the implicit, explicit, he established a shared language that thousands of schools have adopted to develop their teachers.

Perhaps it’s time we do the same for school leadership?





Careful What We Wish For

‘Summit fever’ is the term given to an obsessive focus on a symbolic achievement – reaching the summit of a mountain, becoming a millionaire, getting married – and the risk that our focus on the end-point can distract us from the issues that matter here and now.


It’s a term explored by Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote.  Drawing on Christopher Kayes’ account of a fatally flawed Everest climb, Burkeman describes a group of mountaineers for whom reaching the summit of Everest ‘became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their sense of themselves’.   As these doomed climbers ignored worsening conditions in their pursuit of the peak, their expedition became ‘a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.’

You don’t have to spend long on a school’s website to see what it wishes for.  Take this from one school: ‘With an unrelenting drive focused on achievement for all our vision is to be graded as Outstanding within four years.’  Other schools strive to be ‘the best school in the borough’ or proclaim a ‘2020 vision’ to gain a Progress 8 of +1 by the start of the next decade.

Such statements provide clarity, purpose and urgency, but perhaps this obsession with the symbols of success distracts us from the steps required to actually get there.  Burkeman tells the story of General Motors which in the early 2000s set itself a target of gaining 29% of market share.  It met this ambitious target not by improving the product but by slashing the price of its vehicles.  This self-imposed race to the bottom continued until it filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

Similarly, our school above which strives to gain its outstanding Ofsted badge might spend time sprucing up classrooms and perfecting the SEF, rather investing in teacher development.  Our school that strives to be the best in the borough might resist collaborating with other local schools to support vulnerable students. Our school which seeks a Progress 8 of +1 might fill the open bucket with easier qualifications, rather than ensuring that pupils who arrive in Year 7 without basic literacy are provided with the support to catch up.

A school’s Progress 8 score and Ofsted rating do nothing in themselves to improve the prospects of its pupils, so a school driven by these external reputational goals can set itself on a path of activity which diverges from the needs of its pupils.

How can we avoid summit fever in our schools while still harnessing the organisational benefits of a clear and simple statement of intent?

Firstly, we can prioritise the process, not the destination, framing our targets around the inputs of school improvement. Such targets might include raising attendance, getting pupils to work harder, improving behaviour and ensuring that the curriculum is coherent and challenging.

Secondly, if we do want to set specific end-point targets, we can ensure that these benefit students, rather than the school. So rather than a Progress 8 of +1 we could commit to the majority of pupils walking out with 8 good GCSEs.  Rather than being the best school in the borough we could commit to all of our pupils progressing to university or employment. Rather than an Ofsted outstanding rating we could commit to ensuring that all pupils can read fluently by the end of Year 7.

Say if our school above gained the outstanding judgement that it set out to achieve. What next? Like a runner with post-marathon blues, I wonder if the school would be able to sustain its momentum.

A colleague of mine recently conducted an Ofsted inspection. Throughout the process he didn’t once hear the word ‘outstanding’. It wasn’t uttered by a single member of staff. It didn’t feature on the SEF.  In fact, the first person to use the word was the lead inspector when she delivered her final judgement to the school.  If we invest in the process, the end-point might just look after itself.

There are hundreds of things that schools can strive for.  A single headline measure, or a particular judgement from a team of inspectors, shouldn’t be the extent of our ambition.

One Click revision

Converting an intention to purchase online into the act of purchasing online is a billion pound problem for the world’s retailers. Just google ‘cart abandonment’ to see how much it bothers them.   Retailers have responded with One-Click ordering and tools which speed up the checkout process by remembering your delivery preferences and auto-filling your address.


As exam season approaches, a similar problem plays out in homes across the land: converting the intention to revise into the act of meaningful, productive revision. Thousands of potential revision hours are lost each day as students fail to convert this intention into action.

Take two ways of fixing this.

Online programmes speed the conversion from intention to action by removing the question of what to revise.  One such programme is HegartyMaths which tracks students’ progress and enables them to pick up their revision from where they left it the last time.  To convert the intention into action, simply log-in to HegartyMaths.

Less techy, but just as powerfully, Walthamstow Academy (a United Learning school which I work with) provides each student with a 1-20 book in each subject.  This 20-page booklet captures all the important stuff they need to know for that subject.  They receive it just before the Easter holidays and it guides them through the start of their revision programme, day by day.  No more sifting through piles of papers for those important notes, or spending time making revision cards; the 1-20 books enable students to crack on with meaningful revision. The intention is quickly converted into meaningful action.

We can’t remove all the barriers our students face this exam season, but we can help convert the intention to revise into meaningful revision.

If you lead on Pupil Premium…

Over the last few months we’ve been using webinars at United Learning to connect school leaders who lead on particular issues. Here’s a summary of our recent webinar on Pupil Premium, with thanks to colleagues leading on this who shared their insights so freely.

We started by looking at two recent studies.

The EEF’s Attainment Gap 2018 report tells the familiar story of the gap between PP and non-PP students increasing as they go through school (see diagram below). Our Regional Director Christine Raeside recommended comparing the books of PP and non-PP students with the same starting point. Are the PP students producing work of equal quality in Year 7?  What about years 8, 9, 10 and 11?  It’s easy to see PP analysis as a data checking exercise, all too often undertaken when it’s too late to intervene. Focusing on students’ books, and comparing PP with non-PP from the same starting points – not just within subjects, but also across subjects – enables emerging gaps to be identified while it’s still possible to act.


The EEF report goes on to say that “Even small improvements in young people’s GCSE qualifications yield significant increases in their lifetime productivity returns and in national wealth – highlighting the importance of continuing to focus on improving results for currently low-attaining pupils.” We illustrated this with the example of Totteridge Academy, where the Principal Chris Fairbairn identifies students in Y11 at risk of leaving school with very little (this school only joined United Learning 18 months ago). He calls them in to his office in the spring term of Y11 and tells them to forget about their previous 11 years. He reminds them that their exams are marked by people who don’t know them, who have no pre-conceptions of their ability, and he asks them to see their final few months of school as a fresh start. Last year this approach led to several students leaving school with some decent grades to show for their education, when before they were on course to leave with very little.

We then turned our attention to a recent OECD study which compared disadvantaged students from around the world and emphasised the importance of classroom culture: “The evidence of the positive role of school climate is supported by academic research that illustrates, in a variety of contexts, how student learning can be supported by a positive and respectful atmosphere that is relatively free of disruption and focuses on student performance”.

It’s easy to say that culture matters, but Sam Viney from Glenmoor & Winton Academies in Bournemouth (one of the highest performing schools in the south, yet PP kids outperform non-PP) brought this to life by urging PP leads to influence SLT colleagues leading on behaviour, attendance and teaching & learning by ensuring that PP students are prioritised in each of these whole-school areas.  Does the school leader leading on attendance ensure that the attendance of PP students is front and centre in their analysis and intervention? Does the school leader leading on T&L ensure that PP students particularly benefit from the school’s best teaching? Does the school leader leading on behaviour pay particular attention to PP students?

The OECD study also points to one of the key barriers for our Pupil Premium students: “Truancy, at the school level, is also strongly associated with student performance”.  This captures the twin challenge for colleagues leading on PP.  On the one hand there’s the macro – ensuring that the whole-school culture is one that supports disadvantaged students – while on the other hand there’s the micro: identifying and tackling the specific barriers that PP students face. In our experience, attendance and literacy top this list.

A key theme that emerged in our webinar is that we can’t treat Pupil Premium students as a single group. Schools with success in this area are tenacious in identifying the specific groups who might be underperforming, which might reveal that Pupil Premium girls from ethnic minority backgrounds are doing just fine, for example, while white British Pupil Premium boys might be struggling, particularly in English. There’s an important role for subject leaders and teachers here too, as they are well placed to consider how these gaps play out in their subject, and adapt their support accordingly – perhaps our white British PP boys struggle with Section B of the second literature paper where they have to compare two unseen contemporary poems?  These are the PP gaps that matter, especially if they’re discussed by teachers after a mock exam in January, and not by SLT after the final exams in August.

We closed our webinar by looking at this series of blogs from Mike Treadaway of Education Datalab, and not only because one of the stars of this series is our very own Sheffield Park Academy.  Treadaway’s analysis reinforces this point that not all PP students are the same: students who are in receipt of free school meals throughout their last 6 years (‘long term disadvantaged’) perform much worse than those who only qualified for free school meals at one or two points within the last 6 years (‘briefly disadvantaged’).

School leaders leading on PP might be wise to check their census returns so that they can distinguish between their briefly disadvantaged students and their long-term disadvantaged students.  The briefly students might just need light-touch support to ensure they’re on track, and perhaps some fine-tuning in Y11.  The long-term students, on the other hand, might need intense support to tackle stubborn barriers to achievement, such as attendance, literacy, homework and parental engagement. There might be a case for spending a higher proportion of the Pupil Premium budget on the intense support that these students need rather than spending PP funding equally on all eligible pupils.

One last thought. The 2017 Sutton Trust Chain Effects report makes it clear that trusts that do well by Pupil Premium students do well by all of their students.  By tackling the achievement of our PP students, our PP leads might just be improving the school experience for all their students.

The Best Pastoral Care

Back when I was a teacher I taught a unit on environmentalism to an A Level politics class.  We were looking at the tension between concerns for the environment and the economy in the developing world, and we came across a line that stuck in my head.  I think it was attributed to the finance minister of a developing country: “of course we care about the environment, but can we eat first?”  The argument, of course, is that it’s all very well for richer nations to bang the environmental drum, but poorer nations have more pressing concerns to worry about.

There’s something about this that reminds me of schools which prioritise all the nice stuff before they’ve got decent exam results. There is more to schools than exam results of course, but they’re a good place to start.   A while back I encountered this line from John Tomsett which wonderfully captures something I had been trying to express for some time: “The best pastoral care for socio-economically disadvantaged kids is a good set of exam results.”

The best pastoral care

Great schools strike the balance between head and heart: their kids walk out with their pockets full of decent grades, but they also find time for the guest speakers, the OAP’s tea dance, the talent show, the Christmas hamper donations, the house quizzes, the activity week and the camping trips.  But I wonder if too many of our schools focus on the fun stuff before their academic foundations are secure.

Suggesting that academic achievement should be schools’ primary concern might be stating the obvious – like someone in aviation saying that passenger safety is the number one priority, or someone in business saying that the firm has to deliver a profit.  Yet I’m not sure that our profession agrees on this basic point.

I was reminded of this recently when a headteacher friend and I wandered into our local pub.  The main bar was noisy and crowded so we headed upstairs in search of a quiet spot. We emerged in a private party and were welcomed by a friendly woman: “Come and join us, take a seat, it’s my leaving party.  I was safeguarding officer at a local secondary school but I’ve quit because I don’t like the direction the school’s going in…. management want our kids to get good grades, but for lots of the kids I work with it’s a miracle they’re even in school – we should recognise that rather than focus on exam results.”

Clearly schools need to be compassionate and caring, yet this should support our commitment to academic success, rather than replace it.  Of course we want the sports days, the trips, the charity weeks and the bake sales; and of course we don’t have to make a binary choice between standards or fun.  But our primary duty, in my view, is to ensure that all students leave with a decent set of grades.

The Subject Series, Part 3 – 10 Questions to Check how Good Your School is

10 Questions to Check how Good Your School is:

  1. How good is your English department?
  2. How good is your Maths department?
  3. How good is your Science department?
  4. How good is your History department?
  5. How good is your Geography department?
  6. How good is your MFL department?
  7. How good is your PE department?
  8. How good is your Art department?
  9. How good is your Music department?
  10. How good is your Drama department?

This is the third and final post in a series of blogs which attempts to place subject specialism at the centre of school improvement.  I’ve tried to make the point that it’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study.  Crucially though, subject-led school improvement will only hit the mark if fundamentals such as solid leadership, behaviour, curriculum and assessment are already in place.

In this final post, we’ll consider what subject-led school improvement looks like at a school level, rather than across a trust, by focusing on a few areas of school life that don’t get much attention.

Career progression

We have a structural problem in our profession that to advance in your career usually means moving further away from your classroom and your subject.  Take a successful Head of Department who joins a senior leadership team as Assistant Principal.  Not only are we paying this person more to teach less, but we’re also taking them out of their subject and asking them to focus instead on whole-school concerns.   A Head of Department who previously grappled with the challenge of ensuring that students are exposed to the best that’s been thought and said in their subject might now find themselves signing off risk assessments for school trips.

We therefore encourage colleagues to race to the top, rather than to invest in subject knowledge and the skill of teaching their subject.  To tackle this, we should move towards leaner leadership teams, with successful heads of department remaining with their subject, even if it means paying them as much as we previously paid junior members of the senior team

Line Management

Thousands of school leaders across the country line-manage departments in their school, but how many of these have received training on what good line management looks like?  Here’s one way of doing it:

At the start of the year agree a 1-page plan for the department containing the following:

  • 1-sentence summary of the most pressing priority the department faces: “This department will be more effective in 12 months’ time than the department it is today because … “
  • Brief outline of what success might look like e.g.
    • Higher proportion of top grades
    • More students taking our subject at KS4 and KS5
    • Greater quality and quantity of writing at KS3.
  • How we will achieve the above, broken down into the following areas:
    • Teaching and teacher development e.g. All teachers receive frequent incremental coaching
    • Assessment/data e.g. Balance between low-stakes formative assessment (quizzes etc) and termly standardised tests, with appropriate response to students’ performance on these tests
    • Curriculum and planning e.g. Map-out curriculum to ensure timely delivery, co-planning of each unit
    • Student effort e.g. Ensuring students have the resources to work hard and productively away from the classroom.

This 1-pager drives the agenda for all line management meetings, which should take place every week. I remember line managing HoDs thinking ‘hmm, what shall we talk about this week?’  Get this 1-page plan right and the agenda writes itself each week.


Instead of cross-curricular links and ‘teaching and learning communities’ spanning different departments, let’s provide our teachers with the time and space to work with colleagues in their subject.  Beyond some whole-school CPD on critical areas of classroom practice (e.g. basic principles of assessment, questioning and feedback) time for CPD is probably best spent in departments, with teachers of the same subject agreeing how to bring key language to life in their subject, how to improve the quality and quantity of students’ writing in their subject and how to ensure appropriate challenge in their subject.  Co-planning within subjects – unit-by-unit and lesson by lesson – strikes me as one of the most powerful things that schools can do to build subject specialism.

The role of an academy trust, or anyone else interested in school improvement, is to sort out the fundamental infrastructure in schools (leadership, behaviour, curriculum, assessment) so that subjects can flourish.  It is through subject specialism, not generic improvement plans, that our schools will thrive.

The Subject Series, Part 2 – Pedants for Precision

It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study. For this, we don’t need generalist school improvement consultants, we need subject specialists with the knowledge, skills and experience to provide specific, tangible support to the departments that they work with.

test tubes

In my role at United Learning I have the privilege of working with 6 subject specialists who lead on school improvement by raising standards in their subject across the 19 southern academies in our group.  They make a difference in a way that a generalist school improvement consultant could only imagine.

Ben is our Science Advisor. On an early-morning train journey to Northampton he gave me an insight into the things he looks for when he goes into schools:

It’s my job to ensure that none of our science teachers are working in isolation.  I spend a lot of time talking about writing.  Good science teaching involves getting students to write about scientific ideas, so when I go into lessons I look at the quality and quantity of students’ writing. I want to see writing that is a product of a student’s thought process. They should be able to write a full paragraph about a given scientific concept. We’ve all heard students say “I understand it but I can’t put into words”. This is precisely why they need to write it down, because it crystallises what’s in their head and identifies any gaps in understanding, however small. I’m reminded of the line, “I write in order to understand”. I want teachers to see that the process of writing is how students develop clarity of thinking.

I also encourage teachers to focus on knowledge.  The best science departments insist that students secure a basic factual understanding, often through regular quizzing of factual knowledge.  I can’t apply my knowledge of convection currents to explain a sea breeze if I don’t know that gasses expand because particles move further apart when they’re heated.  So, I encourage Science teachers to give students the chance to practice thinking logically, to see a logical sequence – “if this is true then that’s true, and if this is true then that must also be true…” so students need plenty of opportunities to apply facts across different contexts. 

Imaginative questioning stems from this. For example, in order to explain why solids cannot be compressed a teacher might follow logical sequence of questions such as:

  • Can particles be compressed? No
  • Are there any spaces between the particles in a solid? No
  • Can the particles be pushed closer together? No
  • Therefore, what would happen if I try to compress a solid?

What is interesting here is that the first three questions are closed and concrete, yet the final question (and the teaching objective) is open and abstract. The final conclusion is a logical extension of those concrete facts. 

Attention to detail is important too.  For example, you might see a teacher giving out 1cm square paper to practice graph drawing when students need to be accurate to 1mm when plotting graphs in controlled assessments or exams.  Students need to be shown this attention to detail too. For example if you draw a diagram of a covalent bond you have overlapping circles for each element, like a Venn diagram, but if students don’t draw the dot and cross (representing the shared electrons) within the overlap of the Venn then they may lose the mark if it is drawn shoddily. It’s important that teachers ensure that students are precise about what they’re doing so that there’s no ambiguity. The best science teachers are relentless pedants for this sort of precision.

This precision relates to language too, if there’s a turn of phrase used by a student that is ‘sort of right’ but not precise enough I’m interested in how teachers pick up on this.  I love it when teachers have very high expectations for students’ verbal responses and reject answers that are nearly there but not quite right.  Take a question on pressure: In terms of pressure, why do polar bears lie flat on the ice?  A student might say ‘because this spreads out the mass’ which is a broadly accurate description of what the polar bear has done, but doesn’t answer the question or pick up the marks.  A better answer is that the bear spreads the force (or weight) acting on the ice over a wider area which lowers the pressure. Here, the answer is improved by relating the variables which contribute to the quantity of pressure. It is not that “spreading out the mass” is wholly wrong, it’s just that it’s not nearly right enough. As teachers it is tempting to forgive these ‘nearly answers’ which do hint that students have a fledgling understanding of a given concept, but also show that they are falling short of being able to articulate it using the best scientific language.

I love the precision in Ben’s analysis.  There’s no way a non-scientist would be able to provide such granular guidance.

With the growth of multi-academy trusts we’re going to see more people working across schools in improvement roles.  There’s a danger that we end up with an army of generalist consultants who know their way around a RAISEonline and an inspection dashboard but have no clue about the specific language required by students to gain full marks in a Physics question on pressure.

The flipside of this danger is the opportunity to allow people to develop their careers while retaining their subject specialism.  Our subject advisors have been successful Heads of Department who want to retain their specialism while having an impact across a range of schools in a range of contexts.  Crucially, they are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools, meaning that when they go into our academies they roll their sleeves up, work with students and build capacity of subject teams. They’re also well placed to establish links with exam boards and provide precise guidance on moderation, standards, exam preparation, curriculum design and the writing of assessments.

School improvement means students performing better in their subjects.  The majority of support that schools receive should therefore be provided by subject specialists.

UPDATE: Following some feedback on Twitter (“are these not the same as local authority subject leads?”) I should probably stress that (a) Our subject advisors are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools and (b) because we as a MAT can ensure consistency in the basics of school improvement (leadership, curriculum, behaviour, teaching, assessment – see previous blogs) we can enable our subject advisors to have impact. Point (a) means that our subject specialists work directly with students, they do masterclasses with A/A* candidates, they provide guidance on controlled assessments and mock exam grade boundaries.  In short, they are subject specialists with teeth.  Point (b) means that they can be sure of a common curriculum across our schools enabling them to invest in assessments and student resources which support this curriculum.