A few thoughts on… women in school leadership

As Hilary Clinton recently announced her intentions to stand for president I was reminded of her line that “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world”.  Are our schools tapping into their own pool of female talent?

62% of secondary school teachers are female, yet women make up only 36% of secondary headteachers (HERE).  Clearly it’s not just teaching where the glass ceiling seems to be double-glazed.  Just 5% (not a typo) of FTSE 100 bosses are women (HERE), while in parliament women make up less than a quarter of MPs.

So what can be done to get more women into senior leadership teams?

Firstly, schools that only allow full time teachers to be post-holders need to catch up with the 21st century.  I know of schools where women wanting to return from maternity leave on 4 days per week have been told that to go part time they would need to relinquish any positions of responsibility.   Such a measure can push a woman’s career back by a decade, and can force women to make a blunt choice between work and family – a choice that men rarely have to make in such stark terms.

I’ve worked with women in their twenties who have left the profession because they couldn’t imagine being a mother while teaching.  Concerns about workload are well known, but it’s worth reflecting on the cost to our profession of losing women in this way.  Schools must be careful not to absorb so much of a teacher’s energy that teachers feel that they have nothing left for their family.

This links to a wider point that we are missing something if our teachers, male or female, have to completely devote themselves to their jobs.  We need English teachers who arrive at school on a Thursday morning buzzing because they spent Wednesday evening watching a play at the local theatre, and PE teachers who pick up new ideas for their lessons while attending group fitness classes at the local park.  Our politics suffers from a political class lacking in real life experience; let’s not make our classrooms suffer the same fate.

Finally, I wonder if the unions could do more to fight womens’ corner.   We’ve all heard of union campaigns against testing, free schools and academies, so it surprises me that they haven’t done more to promote the aspirations of more than half of their members.

As America contemplates the prospect of a female president, schools must continue to chip away at the barriers which hamper the progression of our own talented and ambitious women.

Binary Behaviour: Preparing the Ground for School Improvement

What’s the first thing a new headteacher should focus on when taking over a school?  Perhaps a renewed focus on teaching and learning, an overhaul of the assessment system or maybe some structural and personnel changes?

Yet having worked closely with a few headteachers taking on new schools I would argue that the most important thing a head can do is to establish strong cultural norms through a new behaviour code.  Once a culture of excellent behaviour has been established and consolidated, all further strategies and interventions can be planted on fertile ground.  Conversely, launching a new teaching and learning strategy without establishing sound behavioural norms is like trying to plant tropical fruit in a boggy potato field.

I’ve seen the power of behaviour for myself recently as I’ve worked with the newly appointed Executive Principal Ben Parnell at a school in west London.  This is Ben’s fifth headship, and in each one he starts with a new behaviour system he calls Binary Behaviour.  As the name suggests, this is a zero tolerance approach to behaviour based on the premise that you are either behaving appropriately or you are not.  No grey area, no negotiation.  Poor behaviour in the classroom is met with a single warning.  On the second offence, the student is sent out to spend 24 hours in an isolation room.  Binary behaviour is accompanied by a public guarantee to parents that their child will be taught in classrooms free of disruption.

Binary Behaviour reminds me of Tom Sherrington’s Impeccable Behaviour system which he’s launched in his first year at Highbury Grove.  Similarly, in her new book Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership Dame Sally Coates says this:

“It can seem almost unfashionable to focus on behaviour as a school leader… Yet if you can eliminate this low-level disruption, this background crackle of discord, everything that teachers and leaders do in a school on a daily basis will be more effective. Leading a school where low-level disruption is the norm is like driving with the handbrake on, and for a new headteacher it’s the first issue to tackle.”

Of course, it’s not easy to change established patterns of behaviour.  A new behaviour code needs careful planning, plenty of publicity and 100% buy-in from staff.  Even then, no behaviour system is watertight, and the system will need careful monitoring, tweaking and reinforcing following its launch.  Perhaps more challenging is the battle of wills that a new behaviour code will inevitably trigger.  Parents will complain that their child’s learning is being hampered, students will quickly find some gaps in the system and some teachers might resist the strict compliance that the code requires.

But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And the good news is that human behaviour, especially across a group of people, is incredibly malleable and responds quickly to heightened expectations.  Ben Parnell assures me that in the three schools where he’s launched Binary Behaviour he’s seen immediate and sustained improvements in classroom behaviour.  A ‘new normal’ was established.

Appropriately, given its name, there were two sides to Binary Behaviour in west London this week.  In classrooms, teachers revelled in the calm compliance ushered in by the new system.  The flip side of this was the isolation room, where dozens of students learnt the hard way that this new code of conduct was here to stay.  Predictably, the system was tested, for example when making lunchtime arrangements for the students in isolation.  But Ben and his team stood firm, and I’m convinced that referrals to the isolation room will fall in the weeks ahead.

Economists talk about the multiplier effect – the recurring and increasing benefits of a stimulus in economic demand.  Binary behaviour yields its own multiplier effect: raising the behavioural bar will increase the productivity of every single lesson, every single day.  So a 5% improvement in classroom behaviour, if we can put it like that, can be multiplied by the 50,000 or so lessons that take place in an average sized school in any given year (presuming that teachers are able to capitalise on the new standards of behaviour to foster deeper and richer learning).  The sum of these marginal gains is immense.

Focusing on behaviour might not be very fashionable, and a new headteacher might be keen to show her strategic mettle rather than get bogged down in behaviour.  But establishing a culture of impeccable behavioural norms is a gift that keeps on giving.  As the management guru Peter Drucker says, we can strategise all we want, but ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

Postscript, the mechanics of Binary Behaviour:

  • One act of poor behaviour in class results in student’s name on the board
  • If the same student offends again, s/he is removed from the class.
  • The teacher records this on SIMs and the student has 5 minutes to make his/her way to the isolation room
  • Students spend 24 hours in the isolation room. This applies whichever period they arrive.  So a student arriving Period 2 on a Wednesday will be in the isolation room until the end of Period 2 on the Thursday
  • On arrival in the isolation room the students complete a reflection sheet explaining why they are there and what they could do better next time. Students then work in silence through prepared packs for English, Maths and Science
  • Students stay in the isolation room 30 minutes beyond the end of the school day. During this time, the teacher who has referred them comes to the isolation room and discusses the issue with the students.  The reflection sheet forms the basis of this conversation.
  • Additional sanctions, such as fixed term exclusions, are issued to students who fail to make their way to the isolation room or who misbehave in the isolation room.
  • Students in the isolation room take their breaks and lunch at different times to the rest of the school

Marking: From Teacher Compliance to Student Impact

There didn’t used to be any doubt about how to cook the humble chip.  Now, even modest establishments offer triple-cooked chips, coated in duck fat, beef dripping or truffle oil then tossed in salt and rosemary/paprika etc.  So too with marking.   What was once the most benign duty of a teacher now fills the pages of a multitude of blogs and government directives (“Ofsted does not expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders”, Ofsted 2014).  Rather like our tripled-cooked chips, I’ve heard of some schools insisting that every piece of work is ‘double-marked’.  Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves why we mark in the first place.


Marking is important because there is nothing more fundamental in a school than the work produced by students in their daily lessons: have the students learnt what the teacher taught them?  It’s right that we take marking seriously, and in doing so, place value on the end product of everything else that we do in schools: work completed by students.  Research appears to support the importance of marking: Hattie praises the power of feedback, and feedback also appears high on EEF’s toolkit of interventions which schools can employ to enhance students’ progress.

It seems that our renewed focus on marking has been driven from above, particularly by Ofsted (in practice, if not in writing) and by school leadership teams.  From a management perspective, the great thing about marking is that it’s easy to check who’s doing it and who isn’t and – unlike lesson observations – it’s incontrovertible: no value judgements are required to see that a teacher hasn’t marked a book since Christmas.

Yet it strikes me that this concern about marking should also be in a teacher’s best interests, since a broad sample of students’ books surely offers a much clearer insight into ‘typicality’ than snapshot lesson observations.  Book scrutiny should allow school leaders to moderate other evidence on teacher performance and reach a more rounded view of the daily diet experienced by students in each class.  The challenge, of course, is striking a balance between the need for high quality marking and protecting the precious time of teachers, and this is where I would like to offer a problem and a solution.

The problem with our renewed interest in marking, beyond the burden of time that it imposes on teachers, is that good marking does not equate to good learning.  Just like other ‘indications’ of good learning, such as students working in silence, or tightly structured lessons with good pace and high levels of engagement, deep marking does not itself signify deep learning.  When we go back to the research of Hattie and the EEF we see that the most impactful feedback occurs in the moment, rather than in the books.

A friend of mine illustrated this for me recently.  He was talking to a former student to whom he had taught A Level English.  “Our new teacher marks our books loads more than you did sir, but with you I knew exactly how to improve because you would sit down with me and we would go through my essays together”.  This is surely the best kind of ‘marking’, and yet no record of it exists for Ofsted, line managers or SLT to check, and I’m not sure that a ‘verbal feedback given’ stamp on this student’s essay would have added any value to the dialogue.

But perhaps within this problem lies the source of our solution, since once we’ve recognised that marking itself does not equate to progress, maybe we can refocus on the impact of marking, not the act of marking per se.  So rather than demanding marking every two weeks, or stipulating red pen/green pen dialogue, a school’s marking expectations could be stated thus: “we expect the quality of work in students’ books to improve over time, and we expect timely and informative teacher feedback to support this process.”  This shift in ‘policy’ refocuses our energies on the end product: the quality of students’ work.  The focus of marking switches from teacher-compliance to student-impact.  With luck, teachers will be empowered to focus on the feedback that matters, which leads on to another possible solution.

For any given subject, how many different pieces of student advice can there be?   I’m a history teacher, and here’s a few of the questions that I regularly ask in my marking:

  • Can you include evidence which supports this point?
  • What are the limitations of this source?
  • Were any other factors involved?
  • Was this the most important reason? Why?
  • Can you suggest any alternative interpretations of this event?

Of course, these comments will need to be adapted for individual students.  Rather than just ‘can you include evidence?’ a teacher might add arrows to show where evidence should be added, or where a point needs to be developed.

Instead of expecting lengthy dialogue between student and teacher, our focus on ‘improvement over time supported by timely and informative teacher feedback’ allows teachers to home in on the key issue.  Posing this feedback as a question reinforces the point that feedback is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  I’ve seen so much dialogue between students and teachers which involves a long comment from a teacher followed by ‘thanks Miss’ or ‘ok Sir’ from the student.   Such dialogue is a distraction from the desired outcome of student progress.

Using focused questions rather than lengthy dialogue places the onus for improvement back on to the students.  Time can then be allocated in class for students to respond to these questions by improving their work.  Better still, the questions can be shared with the students during a task, rather than at the end, so the feedback becomes “a recipe for future action” and “a windshield not a rearview mirror” (both Dylan Wiliam, 2011).  Marking shouldn’t be a mystery.  If the teacher can clearly share the success criteria for the subject and for the task then students are more able to regulate their own progress every lesson.

In short, we should welcome our renewed interest in marking, but we must remember that the point of marking is to support students’ learning.  Demanding extensive dialogue between students and teachers is a distraction from this.