Airbags

The image below shows that family income has a significant impact on test scores at the age of 3, and that the differences between kids from different income bands increases as they progress through school.  It is an illustration of a depressing yet familiar story.

story

Less familiar are those moments when we see this achievement gap play out in the life of an actual kid.  On a school visit I recently spoke to a girl in Y11; she qualifies for the pupil premium.  This girl took two GCSEs in Year 10 and gained an A in French and an A* in RE.  She is predicted mostly A’s in her other subjects this year.  When I asked her of her plans for next year (her school has no sixth form), she replied – “I’ll probably go to the local college to do BTECs.”

On the website of every school in England you’ll see a report on how it spends its Pupil Premium grant – it’s a statutory requirement.  Last year a DFE study revealed that schools spend this grant (almost £1000 per student per year for secondary schools, more for primary schools) on 18 different interventions, on average. The most popular interventions include paired or small group additional teaching; 1:1 tuition; trips to culture venues; social/emotional support programmes and extra-curricular clubs e.g. breakfast/homework.

Aside from the fact that an average of 18 different interventions indicates a lack of clarity about the specific barriers facing disadvantaged kids in our schools, I wonder if thinking about pupil premium as a collection of different interventions might suit our budgeting and reporting requirements, but not the actual journey that an actual disadvantaged student takes through our school – a journey beset by potential pitfalls and obstacles.

Perhaps we could rethink our approach to Pupil Premium by identifying critical moments when these students are vulnerable; moments when social mobility gets stuck.  The diagram below, for example, suggests that the gap between richer and poorer kids widens at the start of secondary school:

school

These moments when social mobility gets stuck might also include:

  • Primary > Secondary transition
  • If/when attendance slips below 95%
  • If/when a student reaches a behaviour threshold e.g. 5 incidents in a half term or similar
  • Y9 options
  • Start of Y11
  • Post-16 options
  • UCAS process
  • A level results day

The moments above can be challenging for all students, not just Pupil Premium students, but it’s at critical junctures such as these that more affluent kids receive additional support from their families.  The sociologist Robert Putnam talks about airbags inflating in the lives of richer kids at the first sign of trouble:

When a kid from an affluent home does a dumb thing, like getting involved with drugs, airbags instantly inflate to protect the kid form the bad consequences of that dumb decision. So if one of my grandchildren got involved in drugs the first thing I would do is find the best lawyer in town and the second thing I would do is find the best rehab facility in town… and I’m not apologising for that.  That’s what parents and grandparents do, they try to help kids get around the results of bad decisions.  But if one of the poor kids in our book does exactly the thing that I’ve just described: no airbags – and that encapsulates the degree to which we’ve shunted these kids from the rest of society. (quotation taken from this podcast interview)

With no airbags to cushion the crash, our Pupil Premium kids can easily succumb to teenage trials and tribulations.  So perhaps we could improve our Pupil Premium provision by basing our support not around different pockets of spending, but around the critical points in the journey of kids through our care.  Going back to our list of sticky moments in social mobility, here’s what our support might look like:

  • Primary > Secondary transition: Member of staff from secondary school makes a home visit and then checks in with the student every day for first week of secondary school, then once a week thereafter.
  • If/when attendance slips below 95%: Parent/teacher meeting
  • If/when a student reaches a behaviour threshold e.g. 5 incidents in a half term or similar: Tailored support to address cause of behaviour issues
  • Y9 options: Guidance on appropriate courses from specialist careers coach
  • Start of Y11: Provision of all revision guides and revision audit e.g. do they have access to a quiet space? Do they know how to revise? Do they know how to access past papers?
  • Post-16 options: Guidance on appropriate courses from specialist careers coach
  • UCAS process: As above, plus fully subsidised visits to appropriate universities and interview prep if required
  • A level results day: Priority support at 7am on results day as clearing lines open

Our poorer kids don’t always benefit from the seatbelts and airbags that keep more privileged kids on the straight and narrow.  It’s for those of us in schools to identify moments of vulnerability for our most disadvantaged kids in order to stop the achievement gap playing out before our eyes.

 

Images above from these reports:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61964/opening-doors-breaking-barriers.pdf

http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/st-social-mobility-report.pdf

Making Good Progress?

My favourite passage in Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress is this one, in which she reveals the flaws in a ‘catch-all’ assessment model which uses a single scale to measure progress in each subject:

making-good-progress

“The best analogy for this kind of measurement is measuring height.  You can use the same tape measure and the same scale to measure a 4 year old as you can a 16 year old. The method stays the same even as the child grows. You can also use the same scale to measure progress over time and, if you have a tape measure with small enough divisions, you can measure progress over quite short periods of time.  This was ultimately why people started using grades in every lesson and why the desire for subgrades and sublevels came about: people saw them as the millimetres and centimetres that made up the metres of progress.  And, if you subscribe to this model, then ever finer subdivisions of grades are a perfectly good idea: they will allow you to measure the precise amounts of progress that are added in each lesson. It would be possible to say that after a week of lessons a pupil had added x% of a GCSE grade, or z fraction of a sublevel.  As we have seen, learning is not actually like this.  Complex skills are made up of many different elements and those distinct elements all look very different and cannot be measured with the same scale.”

This distinction – between performance in a given subject and the incremental practice required to enable this performance – is at the heart of Daisy’s book.  It’s a distinction that results in lessons that might “look very different from the final skill they are hoping to instil”.   Our assessment of the process of learning therefore serves a different purpose to our assessment of the product of learning, since when we’re assessing the process we should be seeking out gaps and errors to enable the student to improve, whereas in assessing the product of learning we are seeking to describe an individual student’s performance in relation to her peers.

The protagonists of Making Good Progress are formative and summative assessment – star-crossed lovers who both have their place in a coherent assessment system, but rarely together.

Daisy accurately notes the “tension within schools between senior managers, who are often more concerned with accurate summative data, and teachers who are often more concerned with accurate formative data.” Yet rather than wishing a plague on both these houses, Christodoulou offers practical guidance on disentangling formative and summative assessment in our schools, liberating our teachers to address the specific elements of their subject.  The exam hall, not the classroom, will generate the hard-nosed data our senior leaders seek (but only once or twice a year).

Christodoulou’s focus is the assessment of students, but her book got me thinking about the way we assess teachers and schools, and whether we need to disentangle formative and summative assessment in these areas too.

Take the assessment of teachers, better known as performance management.  Too often we combine summative and formative assessment – “we judge you to be a Good teacher … to improve try to model the appropriate use of challenging vocabulary”.  There are two very different intentions at work here.  The first – providing a holistic judgement of a teacher’s effectiveness – can only be done, if at all, with reference to student outcomes across several of the teacher’s classes.  The second – providing feedback to help the teacher improve – can only be done meaningfully if the lesson(s) that we see the teacher deliver are a fair reflection of what usually happens in that classroom: if the sample reflects the domain, to use Daisy’s language.  Effective formative feedback also requires trust between the teacher and the coach.   This trust evaporates if the coach is also grading the teacher. In trying to formatively and summatively assess teachers at the same time we end up doing neither to any useful standard.

There’s a similar risk when judging schools.  Ofsted is intended to support school improvement – “We focus on how standards can be raised and outcomes improved” (Ofsted Strategic Plan 2014-2016) but in providing a summative judgement on the effectiveness of individual schools, based on a 1 or 2 day visit, our inspectorate has perhaps failed to create the conditions that would allow for genuine school improvement to emerge, such as trust and transparency.   Making Good Progress argues convincingly that summative descriptors of the end product struggle to capture the small steps that constitute progress towards this end goal.  Such feedback amounts to telling a comedian to ‘be more funny’, just as some Ofsted reports can make recommendations such as “Further raise achievement across the school, particularly that of the most able pupils and boys” without capturing the steps required to enable this.

Christodoulou calls for teachers to devise a ‘model of progression’ for their subject – a coherent framework which links the granular activities taking place in the classroom to the end product: mastery of the subject.  In simple terms, this model of progression means a clear sense of what getting better looks like in any given subject.

It strikes me that Ofsted, and we as a profession, lack a model of progression for school improvement.  It’s difficult to argue with the Ofsted criteria for Outstanding (e.g. “The school’s thoughtful and wide-ranging promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and their physical well-being enables pupils to thrive”) but these post hoc descriptors fail to provide a route towards this end goal.  This is why school improvement plans which borrow the language of Ofsted are often just bland statements of intent.  Just as National Curriculum Levels distracted teachers from the incremental practice required to make genuine gains in learning, so Ofsted descriptors might distract us from the incremental growth required for genuine school improvement.

A further implication for Ofsted in Making Good Progress is the problems caused by Ofsted’s interest in in-year data.  It’s commendable that Ofsted seek to give credit to the current performance of students, but Christodoulou makes a compelling case that the primary purpose of in-year data should be to reveal gaps in students’ understanding, which is clearly at odds with the pressure to provide a positive in-year picture for Ofsted.  The presence of new HMCI Amanda Spielman in the acknowledgements page offers hope.

This book can be a challenging read, as Christodoulou gently reveals the flaws in practice that are commonplace in our schools, even after NC levels have disappeared.  Perhaps those hours that we spent trying to define what a Grade 5 looks like in Geography in Year 7 could have been used more productively.

Yet there is plenty of hope in Christodoulou’s work; hope for a future in which we genuinely seek out – rather than cover up – gaps, flaws, errors, and misconceptions; not just in our students, but also in our development of teachers and our improvement of schools.  The proper work of student learning, teacher development and school improvement can then begin.

 

 

On Purpose and Pace

At what pace should our schools operate?

A spectrum of speed can be found in our schools.  At one end, the pace might be a little pedestrian.  Pupils amble to lessons and drift to their desks.  The bell serves as a guide rather than a mandate.

At the pacier end of the spectrum, the bell summons students and staff to their next post. Senior leaders hotfoot from one hotspot to another, and lessons zip along with an electric buzz – a stream of pacy, punchy activities divided by the piercing beep of a stopwatch. Posters remind students that every second counts and the plasma screens provide a daily update to Year 11 on the number of school days remaining until their first exam.

I prefer our pacy school to our pedestrian school, but I wonder if we might be wrong to assume that pace in our schools is always a good thing, and whether we might benefit from dropping down a gear so that our schools move at a brisk canter, rather than an all-out sprint.

This all-out sprint involves hyperactive, interventionist school leaders where every member of SLT promotes their latest wheeze, drive and initiative in a frenzied bid to rapidly improve the outcomes of all students.

The words ‘rapid’ and ‘rapidly’ feature ten times in the Ofsted handbook, for example:

  • Pupils ‘trust leaders to take rapid and appropriate action to resolve any concerns they have.’
  • ‘Leaders pursue excellence. They improve provision and outcomes rapidly and reduce achievement gaps between groups by monitoring the quality of teaching, learning and assessment as well as learners’ retention, progress and skill development.’

Hot on the heels of ‘rapid’ and ‘rapidly’; ‘quick’ and ‘quickly’ appear 8 times in Ofsted’s handbook:  inspectors will note ‘how quickly leaders tackle poor teaching.’   Meanwhile ‘strategy’ or ‘strategic’ is found just 3 times.  ‘Thoughtful’ occurs 4 times, though three of these relate to students, not the school e.g. ‘[pupils] are thoughtful, caring and respectful citizens.’   You won’t find any instances of ‘judicious’, or ‘cautious’, and while the word ‘careful’ and ‘carefully’ feature 3 times, two of these are directed at the inspectors e.g. ‘Inspectors must consider carefully the effectiveness of safeguarding’.

At the other end of the Ofsted process, this preference for pace is evident in their reports, with all of the comments below featuring in reports written over the last few months:

  • the performance of the school has declined rapidly since the previous inspection in 2014
  • Leadership and outcomes of the 16 to 19 study programmes are improving rapidly
  • The ethos of high aspiration this creates is leading to a school which is rapidly improving
  • The attendance of pupils in key stage 3 and 4 is improving rapidly, as a result of the determined work of school leaders
  • Outcomes at GCSE have rapidly improved since the last inspection
  • Consequently, pupils make excellent progress towards rapidly improving outcomes at GCSE and in 16 to 19 study programmes
  • The school continues to improve rapidly
  • Leaders make very good use of the additional funding available to them to make sure that the gap in progress between disadvantaged pupils and others is closing rapidly
  • The gaps between disadvantaged pupils and others closed in 2015 and are now closing even more rapidly
  • Standards in the sixth form are not yet rising rapidly

A rapid rise in standards sounds impressive, if perhaps a little unconvincing.  The word ‘steadily’ appears far less frequently in Ofsted reports.

Beyond Ofsted, there’s something about our profession that lends itself towards hyperactivity.   Alex Quigley likens a teacher’s predicament to that of a goalkeeper in a penalty shootout.  The goalkeeper feels that he ought to pick a side and dive to the right or the left, as he would look a bit silly if he stood his ground in the middle (even though statistically he’d save more shots if he held his ground occasionally).  Similarly, in education we want to be able to say ‘there’s nothing more I could have done’.  Quigley questions the impact of this throw everything against the wall and see what sticks approach –  ‘Perhaps, counter-intuitively, what if all that extra work a teacher does isn’t productive?’

I worry about the impact of this relentless busyness on our teachers and leaders. Fuelled by caffeine and Berocca, colleagues leap and bound through their days, grabbing a quick snack while on break duty and hoping that their immune system can hold out until the next holiday.

So how could our schools replace their mad dash with a purposeful clip?

The first solution might lie in building slack into key processes.  One of the best teachers I’ve worked with describes his lesson planning as identifying the destination he wants his students to get to, along with two or three stepping stones to get there, but leaving plenty of space in each lesson for him to gauge understanding, fill gaps and recap prior learning.

Similarly in our assessment schedules we should ensure that the frequency of our formal assessment points allows plenty of time for meaningful learning in between.  I think three formal assessment weeks per year should be the upper limit, and two might be optimal. These assessment points can be followed by a review week in which teachers and students can reflect on performance and return to gaps in knowledge.

Slack can also be built into CPD schedules, allowing leaders to respond to teachers’ needs as they emerge.  Leaders should be encouraged to give CPD time to teachers to invest in long term planning.  For those schools with an INSET day on the first day of term, why not give the day to colleagues to use as they wish, with the one condition that they should do work which will support them for the rest of the year, rather than catch up on a couple of odd jobs from last term?

In this Long Read in The Guardian Oliver Burkeman explores the dangers of an obsession with time management.  Here he draws on a conversation with software engineer Tom DeMarco:

“An organisation that can accelerate but not change direction is like a car that can speed up but not steer,” DeMarco writes. “In the short run, it makes lots of progress in whatever direction it happened to be going. In the long run, it’s just another road wreck.” He often uses the analogy of those sliding number puzzles, in which you move eight tiles around a nine-tile grid, until all the digits are in order. To use the available space more efficiently, you could always add a ninth tile to the empty square. You just wouldn’t be able to solve the puzzle any more. If that jammed and unsolvable puzzle feels like an appropriate metaphor for your life, it’s hard to see how improving your personal efficiency – trying to force yet more tiles on to the grid – is going to be much help.

If the jammed puzzle feels like a metaphor for our schools, we should grapple with the obvious but challenging question of what to stop doing.  Fewer assessment points, fewer meetings and briefings, fewer ‘data packs’ for every class to be presented to classroom visitors, fewer emails and fewer ‘focus weeks’ might just enable our teachers and leaders to turn the treadmill down a notch or two.  New priorities and initiatives should meet the 5-year rule: if a proposed priority would not be relevant in 5 years’ time, then perhaps we shouldn’t introduce it now.  Another solution lies in avoiding the temptation to chop and change mid-year.  Teachers need to know that the things that matter in their school will matter for the duration of the year and beyond, and not just until the Assistant Principal in charge of teaching and learning stumbles across another buzz word or blog post.

I’m all for urgency and purpose in our schools – we have one chance to educate our children. But education should not descend into a mad dash, and as we approach a new year I wonder if we can work towards schools that are purposeful, not panicked; focused, not frenzied; measured, not manic.

Over-Egging the Exam Pudding

I think exams are an essential element of any self-respecting education system, and the most important thing we can do for our young people is send them out into the world with a pocketful of decent grades.  But of course some schools take this too far.  For any younger readers, here are 6 signs that your school might be over-egging the exam pudding:

  1. The maths teachers you have in Key Stage 4 are different to the Maths teachers that your siblings have in Key Stage 3
  2. Lots of the more challenging students who were in your class in Y7 have since left, probably during Year 10
  3. You are expected to perform two grades higher in your coursework as in your exams
  4. Your knowledge of mark schemes is as good as your knowledge of subject content
  5. Exam bootcamps are funded, but you have to pay for other trips yourself
  6. You are licensed to drive a computer in Europe.

egg-basket-1

7 Reasons Why Schools are Like Restaurants

We compare teachers to doctors, and education to healthcare.  We make comparisons with elite sport (‘what teachers can learn from Olympic athletes’) along with all the marginal gains stuff that might work for the SKY cycling team, but might not help a coastal school struggling with fundamentals, like recruiting a full quota of Maths teachers*.

I wonder if our teachers are more like chefs, and our schools more like restaurants.  Here’s why:

  1. Like schools, everyone’s been to a restaurant, so everyone has an opinion
  2. The daily pressure of serving meals and teaching kids creates a hectic environment in which it can be difficult to step back to reflect
  3. There isn’t a clear understanding of what works.  Some restaurants have queues around the corner, others pack up after a few weeks. We’re never entirely sure why, as there’s an elusive and wide range of ingredients that go into making a successful restaurant. This lack of shared understanding makes it tough to constantly improve at a system level – we end up imitating success stories without understanding the underlying reasons for that success.  Fads and trends prevail – anyone for pulled pork with ‘slaw, and Aperol spritz in a jam jar?
  4. For the same reason, it’s easy to dismiss successes as context-dependent – “that would never work over here” … “we tried that – didn’t work”.  As Dylan William says, “Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere”
  5. The success of the most exclusive restaurants is often based on the quality of the ingredients, rather than the input of the chefs.  This isn’t always recognised.
  6. Celebrity chefs and successful chains tend to open new branches in areas where there’s an affluent customer base.  Restaurants in disadvantaged areas tend to be more run-of-the-mill.
  7. We’re at the mercy of over-zealous critics, and we’re only as good as our last rating.  These reviews and accolades do not always chime with the daily reality.

Nietzsche.jpg‘In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad’ (Friedrich Nietzsche).  I’m more optimistic than Nietzsche about the potential for success at scale, but he might have been on to something.

*see an EARLIER POST on why schools are different to the SKY cycling team.

KS3 Assessment: Performance, Practice and Pole Vaulting

Two years ago as an Assistant Principal in a London school I was asked by the head to provide a solution to ‘life after levels’.  I’m not very proud of what I came up with.  I suggested that we could pull down the new 1-9 GCSE grades into Key Stage 3, so that students are judged on the same criteria from the moment they walk through the school gates in Year 7 until the day they collect their final grades in Year 11.

I now see that my ‘solution’ contained all the flaws of levels with none of the benefits – at least levels were broadly understood as a vague proxy for students’ progress through each subject.  A tweet from one headteacher last week captures one of the issues with my proposal:

Goddard.jpg

Two years on I’m still grappling with school leaders to provide an assessment system that focuses on the specific things that students can and cannot do, while also providing some of the more hard-nosed data that might enable patterns of progress over time to be identified.  I think the solution lies in recognising the difference between practice and performance (and I’m indebted to this brilliant presentation by Daisy Chrsistodoulou here).

The most important function of our assessment system is to provide feedback to students on their grasp of the specific, precise components of their subjects.  At United Learning we use KPIs to break each subject down into its component parts.  The KPIs provide a common language for the discreet knowledge, skills and understanding required in each subject, and they remind teachers and leaders that the most important function of assessment is to generate formative feedback. The vast majority of the feedback that our students receive in Key Stage 3 is focused on these component parts of each subject, captured in our KPIs.

Assessment at KS3 could stop there.  Ofsted have made it clear that it ‘does not expect performance and pupil-tracking information to be presented in a particular format … such information should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to monitor the progress of pupils in that school.’  This format could include showing actual improvements in actual work.  We’ve become so used to grades and levels that we forget that they serve as a model – a representation – of a student’s performance.  Sometimes it’s more helpful to focus on the actual work rather than the model – “The best model of a cat is a cat” (Nate Silver).

A KS3 assessment system which is rooted in the discrete components of each subject and which seeks evidence of progress in the actual work that students are producing would be a vast improvement on the level-driven approach that previously dominated.

But I think it’s reasonable that we tentatively ask more of our assessment system than this.  It’s reasonable that we want to know how our students are doing compared to their peers in other schools and compared to their own starting points.  It’s reasonable that we seek to identify variation between different subjects.  It’s reasonable that we seek to compare the progress of different groups of students so that we can address any gaps before it’s too late.  For this hard-nosed assessment information, our analysis needs to go beyond the progress students are making in the discrete elements of each subject, towards a more holistic judgement of their overall performance.   This is where we turn to summative assessments.

I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering that old rule from teacher training that formative assessment is assessment for learning, whereas summative assessment is assessment of learning.  Daisy’s presentation builds on this by making the distinction between practice and performance.  Formative assessment is interested in the ongoing practice of the component parts of each subject, whereas summative assessment involves a judgement of overall performance.

End of unit tests provide a basis for this judgement, and mark a shift in focus from practice to performance.  Take a Year 9 History unit on the suffrage movement.  Throughout the term students learn about the meaning of suffrage, the chronology, contemporary attitudes to women, the suffragettes, the suffragists, the First World War and the legislative process, alongside key skills such as drawing evidence from sources, comparing viewpoints and constructing concise sentences and paragraphs.  Having practised these elements lesson by lesson students sit a test which asks them to bring together all of these skills, knowledge and understanding into a holistic performance by writing a structured answer to an open  question such as ‘why were some women given the right to vote in 1918?’  Depending on the frequency of this summative test (2 or 3 per year seems about right) students would answer several other questions drawn from their work throughout the year.

As long as the whole year group sits the same test, and as long as the tests have been marked consistently within departments, we can compare the performance of students against their peers.  Knowing that I received 73% on my History test and that I placed in the 85th percentile of my year group is valuable and powerful information.  Grades and levels are abstract, whereas knowing my performance in relation to my peers is meaningful and motivating.

Again, assessment at KS3 could stop there.   Or we could tentatively take things a bit further by comparing students’ performance against an anchor point of age-related expectations  (ARE).  This will involve professional judgement as a subject specialist decides what percentage would constitute age related expectation on each summative chartassessment.  Once this has been determined, we can place students in different bands:

  • Significantly above age related expectations
  • Above age related expectations
  • On age related expectations
  • Below age related expectations
  • Significantly below age related expectations

In the example above we have chosen 5 bands from significantly below to significantly above.  We can link these 5 bands to starting points at KS2 and end points at KS4, e.g.

Grid.jpg

Under this model, we can track over time the proportion of students in each band.  This could be compared by class, year group, subject, SEN, Pupil Premium, Most Able etc.  Evidence of progress, as far as the school is concerned, would involve more students working at or above age related expectations than at a previous point in time.  Students and parents could receive the following information:

  • % score on last summative assessment
  • Performance within cohort (i.e. percentile in year group)
  • Band i.e. Sig Above > Above > On > Below > Sig Below
  • What they need to do to improve (using the language of the KPIs).

This approach to assessment at KS3 involves striking a balance between practice and performance.  It takes inspiration from the challenge faced by athletes.  Let’s take the example of a pole-vaulter.  Between tournaments, the pole-vaulter focuses on the components of the craft: the grip, the run-up, the plant, the take-off, the twist, the extension, the arch.  The pole vaulter’s coach doesn’t give out medals during training – the coach provides feedback on each of these discrete elements. Come tournament time, the focus shifts from these discrete elements towards the overall performance.  The feedback the athlete receives is not related to these elements, but to their performance, expressed on the stadium scoreboard by the height they clear and their success against their competitors.  On the training ground the following week, the focus returns to the discrete components of the craft, ahead of the next tournament.

I think we can learn from this at Key Stage 3.   An effective approach to assessment recognises the difference between practice and performance.  When the focus is on practice, we address the constituent components of each subject.   When the focus is on performance, we compare students with their peers and against an objective benchmark.

This isn’t the end of the story, but I hope it’s an improvement on my first attempt two years ago.

We Don’t Need No Innovation

hailA wonderful essay in Aeon magazine ‘Hail the Maintainers’ describes innovation as “a dominant ideology of our era”.  In a podcast based on this essay its author warns: “Our culture’s obsession with innovation and hype has led us to ignore maintenance and maintainers.”

In schools we’ve tweaked and tinkered, chopped and changed, until what counts as school improvement is often just layer upon layer of initiatives and innovations.  This onion-skin school improvement can hide a rotten, neglected core.

Innovation is alluring.  When we bring in new initiatives we don’t have to offend those who invested in the previous project.  New initiatives are shiny, gleaming and different; they offer a brighter future compared to the dull, messy, complex present.   Brexit and Trump – and Obama in his time – were able to sell an exciting new vision, a rejection of the status quo, while those of us who campaigned to Remain could only offer more of the same.

What if we turned our attention away from innovation, away from the latest marginal gain, and towards getting the basics right, towards investing in the infrastructure which will support sustainable school improvement in our schools?  I think of this infrastructure as 5 foundations: leadership, culture, curriculum, teaching and assessment.  These are our building blocks of school improvement and it’s likely that we can trace all manifestations of success back to one of these five foundations.

There’s a dogged patience required to fix an incoherent curriculum, to raise standards of behaviour or to overhaul an assessment system.  Those invested in the status quo might be offended, we might have to get our hands dirty, we might not see the fruits of our labour for years to come.

Of course we can embrace some innovation, while also fixing basic infrastructure – ‘we can walk and chew gum at the same time’ as Larry Summers puts it in the podcast mentioned above –  but I think the current state of our school system means we should focus on fixing, not innovating.  We talk a lot in education about marginal gains, about extracting an additional 1% from myriad ‘interventions’, but I worry that this distracts us from seeking the 20% gains that lie before us if we banish classroom disruption, introduce an effective literacy catch-up programme, or provide a coherent 5-year curriculum.  As I’ve written before, schools are different to the SKY cycling team.   The idea that we just need to tweak around the margins if we’re going to improve ignores the fact that nearly half of our students leave school at 16 with very little to show for their time with us.

When Bazalgette designed London’s sewers he analysed data on peak rates of sewage flow.  Rather than building sewers to accommodate these rates, he trebled the numbers to ensure that the sewers would serve London for generations to come (a point made in this brilliant Great Lives podcast on Bazalgette).  Sure enough we’re still using Bazalgette’s sewers 150 years later.  When it comes to school improvement, we should avoid imitating individual initiatives and innovations and focus instead on the infrastructure which will underpin the school for years to come.

While our teachers teach like champions, maybe our leaders should lead like engineers?