Schools and the Sky cycling team

Ever heard of the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’?  If you’ve worked in schools over the last few years, you probably have.  It’s the idea that we can achieve success through multiple small improvements.  It’s been made popular by Matthew Syed, Clive Woodward and Dave Brailsford’s Sky cycling team.

Woodward cites marginal gains as one reason for his success with England Rugby.  The tweaks he made included replacing England’s heavy cotton jerseys with a tight synthetic fabric which slipped through the grasp of opponents.  It was the sum of several of these 1% improvements that enabled England to win the World Cup in 2003, so the theory goes.

Dave Brailsford, the brains behind Team Sky and the British Olympic cycling team, credits marginal gains for his success at London 2012 and on the Tour de France that same year.  On the triumphant 2012 Tour, Sky riders had personalised hypoallergenic bed linen delivered to their hotel teach night to ensure a perfect night’s sleep.

The marginal gains model is wonderfully transferable.  It takes about ten seconds to understand, and another ten to think of a context in which a few small changes could make a big difference.

But could our pursuit of marginal gains distract us from bigger issues?  The examples cited above relate to professional sport.  It’s no surprise that in the Tour de France, where every team possesses the best technology and tactics, and every rider is an elite athlete at the peak of his powers, tiny tweaks in preparation and equipment make a big difference, especially once 23 days and 2000 miles have passed.

If we’re honest about the state of English education, we have to admit that our school system is rather different to Brailsford’s well-oiled machine.  For a lot of schools, it’s not the 1%’s that we should focus on, it’s the 20%’s – a systematic literacy catch-up programme which addresses gaps in reading and writing; a coherent curriculum that delivers content in a logical order and provides continuity between the key stages.  An obsession with the 1% tweaks can distract us from these bigger issues that might require root and branch reform, not the pruning of a few leaves.

I was struck by the point made by Eric Kalenze at ResearchEd in Swindon that if we don’t really know what works, then school improvement can involve simply doing the same old things that aren’t working, but just doing them harder and faster. Getting students to work harder and faster on an incoherent and shallow curriculum might win us an extra per cent or two, but nothing more.

I remember working at a failing school ten years ago.  The school wasn’t functioning particularly effectively, and neither was I.  My response was to work harder.  I often set the alarm for 4am to do a few hours before school.  Of course it made no difference – I simply worked more frantically.

Maybe schools should take more time to ask the big questions, rather than tweak at the edges.  Does the Y7 curriculum support students for success at Key Stage 4?  Is every lesson free of disruption?  Does our CPD programme raise the quality of teaching?

Let’s not ignore the other 95% as we look for a handful of 1% improvements.  Schools are different to the Sky cycling team.

On the Physical Challenge of Teaching

“Take a day off once every half term to restore your energy levels – everyone does it”.

I was given this advice in my first year of teaching.  I didn’t follow it then, and I don’t agree now, but perhaps we could support teachers by being more honest about the sheer physical challenge of the job, and how to handle it?

Teachers are on their feet all day, and for most of that time they’re on high alert, making split second decisions and trying to think a few steps ahead.  In my experience, school leaders don’t have it much easier.  At my last school someone in SLT handed out pedometers one morning.  By the end of the day we had all covered between 5 and 10km, pounding the corridors and playgrounds.

I enjoyed Daisy’s recent blog about what teachers can learn from high performance sport, but I wonder if there was any need for analogies and metaphors when teaching itself is so strenuous.

So here’s my advice on confronting the physical challenge of teaching:

  1. Invest in your butterflies.  Read this excellent blog from Joe Kirby and gradually invest in your own renewable resources (or steal with pride from someone who has already done this).  These might include course guides for students, multiple choice tests and lists of key vocabulary for the stuff you teach.
  2. Plan and mark to the clock. Is that lesson you spent an hour planning really better than one you could have prepped with 30 minutes of focused thought?  Set a timer when planning and marking.
  3. Know your impact. Constantly question whether the work you do has any impact, and gradually do less of the stuff that doesn’t.
  4. Set your red lines.   Decide on the hours that you are happy to dedicate to your job, and accept that you will not get everything done within these hours.   The fact that there is always more to do is an occupational hazard.
  5. Learn how to look after yourself.  Whether it’s Berocca, yoga, or a healthy sleep routine, get to know what your body needs.  Regular exercise is known to be as effective as some anti-depressants.
  6. Go easy on canteen food.
  7. Don’t suffer on the central line. Make your commute enjoyable with podcasts and books.
  8. Write short emails.  It’s great that Microsoft now remind us when we’ve forgotten to attach a document. If only they did the same when we write more than 100 words.  Keep them short.

Government, academy sponsors and school leaders all have a vital role to play in tackling excessive workload (I think Ofsted deserves credit for its myth-busting ‘clarification for schools’), but perhaps the most powerful solutions will emerge from teachers themselves?