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.


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:


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.


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?

The Scourge of Classroom Disruption

Health officials suggest that we’re on the verge of eradicating polio once and for all, joining smallpox and rinderpest on the list of diseases that have been consigned to history.

In education we’ve consigned our own evils to the dustbin of history.  Before 1870 it was mainly rich kids and religious kids who received a formal education.  The Education Act paved the way for public education for all.  More recently we’ve eradicated the evil of corporal punishment in schools.

Yet the scourge of classroom disruption continues to plague our schools.  A recent YouGov survey suggests that we lose 38 school days per year to poor behaviour, with one in five teachers admitting that they selectively ignore it.  A 2014 ATL study claimed that 40% of teachers have considered leaving the profession because of the poor behaviour of students.   In the same year an NASUWT survey concluded that 69% of teachers think that the problem of poor behaviour is widespread.

disruption free.jpg

As a Teach First participant in 2003 I didn’t receive a huge amount of formal training, but much of what we did get was spent discussing how to get kids to behave.  One ruddy-cheeked chap I trained with, who I haven’t seen since, suggested that all we had to do was leave our desk and walk around the classroom every now and then.

But even if we weren’t explicitly discussing how to manage behaviour, we were mindful of the need to keep our kids engaged by using a range of activities, by making lessons relevant and by keeping our lessons pacy (lest kids should have time to remember that they’re in a classroom where they’re entitled to do whatever they want?).

Thirteen years on I worry that plenty of teachers still plan their lessons with a question in their heads of ‘will this keep the kids engaged?’ rather than ‘will this help them learn what they need to know?’  The former question leads to activities such as creating a Facebook page for Henry VIII, or writing a Twitter argument between a Montague and a Capulet, whereas the latter question might lead to proper analysis of Henry VIII’s manipulation of his image, or a structured response to Shakespeare’s use of imagery to reveal the discord between the warring families (‘where civil blood makes civil hands unclean’).

Classroom disruption appears to be a global menace, not just an English problem.  In Sweden, 38% of students reported that there is noise and disorder in most or every lesson (compared to the OECD average of 32%).  Research in the US suggests that poor kids particularly suffer from classroom disruption: ‘high-poverty claBehavioru.jpgssrooms have four times the concentrations of academic, attention, and behaviour problems as low-poverty classrooms’ (Our Kids, Robert Putnam).

Where classroom disruption exists in a school I think there’s a strong case for a headteacher and her leadership team to resist doing much else until it is tackled.  From what we know about what makes good teaching, and what makes good learning, I see no excuse for classroom disruption.

Removing disruption from our classrooms allows our teachers to teach and our students to learn.  Earlier in the year a teacher at Swindon Academy told me that their behaviour system had ‘changed her life’ as it eliminated the daily stress that teachers face if they can’t be sure of calm, orderly classrooms.  Conversely, at a wedding this summer I met a teacher who left the state sector to work in a private school so that she could actually teach.

The good news about expunging disruptive behaviour is that we know how to do this:

  • Communicate expectations with absolute clarity, creating a shared understanding of the behaviours required for the school to function effectively, particularly in the classroom. Teach these explicitly and give students a chance to practice these expected behaviours.
  • Reinforce expectations relentlessly, for example through a withdrawal system which means that students are removed from lessons after a single warning.
  • Repeat the above until classrooms are free from disruption, and ensure that these steps occur within a culture of love, respect and kindness.

Of course there’s a bit more to it.  We’ll need to explain to pupils and parents why we’re taking this approach; our withdrawal room will take a hit for the first week or two; a small proportion of kids will really struggle with the new expectations and will need additional support; our teachers might need reassurance that they can still fill their rooms with love and personality.  But none of these obstacles are insurmountable, and they are insignificant compared to the prize that awaits: a calm, orderly, purposeful learning environment in all of our classrooms, no matter which teacher stands before our kids.

In addition to leading to better academic outcomes, especially for poor kids who are more likely to experience poor behaviour, eliminating classroom disruption would do wonders for the recruitment, retention, workload and well-being of our teachers.  It might also help us win the grammar school debate.  When parents express a preference for grammar schools they’re often expressing a preference for schools with good behaviour and orderly classrooms; schools in which they feel their children will be safe.

There’s nothing stopping us creating these conditions in all of our schools.


The ‘disruption free lessons’ poster is from a school I work with in Sussex: Seahaven Academy.

For anyone interested in improving behaviour in schools, I recommend With All Due Respect by Ronald G Morrish.  If you want some more details about eliminating disruption from classrooms you could read my earlier blog HERE or contact me on twitter and I will send you some stuff. 

Our Kids



A visit to Rome’s colosseum this summer reminded me that we can be quick to judge the moral failings of other societies, while ignoring those of our own. The tourist route around the colosseum exposes the divisions of Ancient Rome.  The plebs occupied benches at the back, the patricians enjoyed prime views below them, while the senators enjoyed the comfort of a separate podium which afforded unbroken views of the spectacle unfolding before them. This spectacle involved animals and slaves being hoisted up from underground dungeons to fight for their lives in front of paying customers.

While marvelling at the architectural splendour it’s easy for tourists to chide the moral failings of Roman society, captured in these ancient ruins.

It was on this Italian trip that I read Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.  I bought the book after listening to a podcast interview with the author in which he says:

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.

The passage above captures the dilemma that Putnam explores throughout the book: how to ensure social justice for all our kids when they are born into such different circumstances.

Putnam makes a strong case that the social bonds that previously ameliorated inequality have eroded.  Going back to his own childhood in 1950s Port Clinton, Ohio, he argues that even poor kids back then tended to have two parents with stable jobs who owned their own home.  While the grip of race and gender has loosened since the 50s, the grip of social inequality has tightened, with poor kids today now suffering from the twin evils of low absolute mobility (wealth in western society as a whole has stagnated) and low relative mobility (less movement up and down the social ladder).

Putnam provides powerful case studies of the different experiences of rich kids and poor kids when it comes to parents, schools and neighbourhoods. Rich kids receive from their parents more hugs, more emotional support, more family dinners, more conversation, less physical punishment.  Their daily family experience cultivates the view that the world is theirs to enjoy – they are encouraged to be adventurous, confident, ambitious.

These differences play out beyond the home:  ‘If you live in an affluent neighbourhood you are much more likely to know and trust your neighbours’.  Affluent parents have a broad and deep network of contacts to draw on in times of need.  Putnam compares these support networks and social safety nets to the poor social cohesion he sees in deprived neighbourhoods. This might not be so bad if it wasn’t for the growing trend of poor kids living in exclusively poor neighbourhoods and rich kids living in exclusively rich neighbourhoods.

Not surprisingly, it was the chapter on schools that interested me the most.

Putnam describes schools as being ‘sites’ of a growing divide, as residential sorting means that rich kids and poor kids tend to go to very different types of schools:

The American public school today is a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids. [M]iddle-class kids like Isabella hear mostly encouraging and beneficial echoes at school, whereas lower-class kids like Lola and Sofia hear mostly discouraging and harmful echoes.

The ‘encouraging echoes’ include parental support, funding for extra-curricular activities, and motivated peers.  The ‘harmful echoes’ include low aspirations from peers and parents and exposure to violence and drugs. In a trend mirrored on our side of the Atlantic (e.g. this Datalab evidence) schools in challenging areas struggle to recruit and retain teachers.

Perhaps more alarmingly, learning is disrupted more frequently in schools with poorer kids: ‘high-poverty classrooms have four times the concentrations of academic, attention, and behaviour problems as low-poverty classrooms’ and these kids are less likely to follow an academic curriculum: ‘parents in upscale communities also demand a more academically rigorous curriculum, which in turn helps produce more learning, fewer dropouts, and more college entrants.’

These differences are exacerbated as richer families are better placed to identify better schools and then move closer to them.

Even when things do go wrong in school for rich kids, Putnam provides examples of those airbags that immediately inflate to limit the damage.  He describes rich parents moving their kids to another school; paying for therapy; setting up a study at home; volunteering in the school to keep an eye on things; advocating for their kid in front of their teacher when their rich son was accused of cheating in a test.  In one example, parents bought a horse and stables to provide a productive outlet for a teenage daughter having a bit of a wobble.

If this all sounds pretty bleak, there’s hope in Putnam’s prose.

Even if schools haven’t caused the social divide, ‘they might well be a prime place to fix it’ he argues, in a line I wish I had thought of years ago when first confronted with that dismal argument that schools can’t compensate for society (I usually just point out that plenty of schools do, and in any case, we must surely try, much as doctors fight against the spread of illness, knowing that they won’t always be successful).

Putnam advocates spending more on early years rather than college years.  The massive economic cost of wasting the talents of millions of kids justifies significant expenditure, he says, even if it’s costly, and even if we can’t be sure that our intervention will pay off. Putnam suggests that such initiatives might include cash transfers to poor families with young kids, tax credits, reducing incarceration, improving rehabilitation, expanding mentor schemes and even relocating poor families to richer communities.  In our schools he suggests better funding for schools in challenging areas, a longer school day and better vocational provision.

I’m not sure that we need to take such a scattergun approach in order to transform our schools from echo chambers of social division to launchpads of social mobility.  We have enough successful schools in the system, such as THESE 7 schools with the highest progress 8 figures, to know that our poorer kids need great teachers, a decent curriculum, a culture of high expectations and lessons free from disruption.  The fact that several of these schools are in London is thanks in part to the huge pool of ambitious teachers that London headteachers can draw on.  We must redouble our efforts to entice teachers to rural, coastal and isolated schools, even if that means throwing money at the problem.  Once recruited, Putnam urges us to put these teachers ‘under conditions in which they can actually teach and not just keep order’.  This means eliminating disruption from our classrooms once and for all.

In the final line of the book Putnam calls for all of us to take responsibility for all kids – ‘for America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids.’

The moral superiority I felt towards the citizens of Ancient Rome was shattered by Putnam’s depiction of our fragmented society.  At least those of us who work in schools are in a privileged position to do something about it.