We Don’t Do Rewards

This is the second in a 3-part series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford.  The first post described the power of over-communicating simple, clear messages.  This post explores the culture of the school in more detail. 

When describing a great school culture there are a couple of clichés that I’m keen to avoid: that it ‘runs through the school like the letters in a stick of rock’; that it’s ‘woven into the very fabric of the school’.  Yet at Dixons Trinity the culture is so intrinsic to the school that it would be difficult to say where the letters end and the rock begins, or to spot the cultural thread amidst the fabric that surrounds it.

The core values of the school are hard work, trust and fairness.  “These are the root of everything we do” explains Principal Luke Sparkes.  These values are supported by three motivational drivers: autonomy, mastery and purpose. These drivers will be familiar to readers of ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink, a wonderful book about human motivation which can be summarised by the by the idea that once you pay your kids to take out the trash, they’re unlikely to do it again for free.  Instead of extrinsic rewards such as cash, merits and vivo miles, Daniel Pink and Dixons Trinity focus on intrinsic motivation – a point captured on the wall of a science lab – “we do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do”.

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“We don’t rewards kids here” says Luke – “the reward is that one day these kids will have a great life”.  This doesn’t lead to a cold atmosphere – the students that I spoke to beamed with joy as they described their school – and Luke added that they provide occasional treats such as the ice cream van that recently awaited Year 10 students as they filed out of an exam.

It’s not surprising that a fresh-start school like Dixons Trinity has established a rich culture, but I think there’s a couple of points that all schools can learn from them.  Firstly, the stability – the sense of permanence – of its culture.  This continuity of culture is typified by the wall display.  In ‘the heart’ – an open space at the centre of the school – one wall is covered with the words “home to the hardest working young people in Bradford.”  The purple wall of a corridor is emblazoned with yellow block capitals which deliver the Springsteen-esque line: “WHEN ONE OF US SUCCEEDS WE ALL SUCCEED”.

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The student contract for each cohort – signed by every child when they arrived at the school – is mounted on the wall of the lecture theatre, providing a daily reminder of each child’s commitment to their own learning.  I like the permanence and confidence that this conveys – a school so sure of its ethos and values that it paints them to the wall; a school so clear in what it requires of its students that it asks them to sign their commitment to a set of ‘contractual obligations’ and then reminds them of this commitment every day for the next 5 years.

This culture is enacted each day, made real by routines, rituals and shared stories.  Students develop autonomy, for example, by choosing their own ‘stretch projects’ which they work on outside of lessons over several weeks before presenting – without notes – the fruits of their labour to their peers. `

Caring about culture is not a new thing. The Ofsted handbook includes more than ten references to ‘culture’, and in the ‘outstanding’ section for Leadership and Management the opening criterion is “Leaders and governors have created a culture that enables pupils and staff to excel”.  Yet I wonder if we’ve shown enough curiosity about how to build this culture, particularly in communities where the school needs to proactively assert its own values, rather than allowing the values of the community to waft over the school gates.

At Dixons Trinity the culture they have grown is a living, breathing thing, articulated with the same clarity by students in Year 7 as the founding principal.  It’s the clarity, stability and daily reinforcement of this culture through artefacts, routines, signs and habits that was so striking about Dixons.  There’s a school of thought that if you get teaching and learning right, everything will follow, but here it’s the other way round, with a rich culture enabling great teaching by ensuring students’ commitment to their side of the bargain.  In my final post about Dixons, I’ll explore how this culture liberates teachers to teach great lessons.

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Scraping the Barnacles

“I’ve only got one presentation” says Luke Sparkes, Principal of Dixons Trinity Academy.  Luke has created a rich culture at his school in Bradford, a culture that he reinforces by repeating crystal-clear messages.  ‘We over-communicate’, he explains, to ensure that the culture remains solid.

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The over-communication of simple, powerful messages, reminds me of the work of political strategists like Lynton Crosby, who masterminded David Cameron’s 2015 election success.  In an approach he describes as scraping the barnacles off the boat, Crosby distilled the party line into simple messages which were repeatedly reinforced.  If it works on the campaign trail, where a key message can be blown off course by circumstance, fate and fortune, then it’s no surprise that it also works in schools, where core values can easily be diluted by the daily grind.

A political strategist would also recognise the power of the mountain metaphor which permeates the corridors, classrooms and open spaces of Dixons Trinity.  Houses are named after mountains, the SEN department is known as ‘mountain rescue’ and students are assigned a fellow student as a ‘belay partner’ who provides coaching and support.   On day 1 in Year 7, new arrivals are taken to Leeds University to ‘see the top of the mountain’; later in their first term all students are taken to Ullswater to climb a real mountain.

The mission of the academy is expressed here: “the academy ensured that all students succeeded at university, thrived in a top job, and had a great life”.  The use of the past tense is deliberate, and it’s a tense that students also use in their own sentences, such as “Yusuf used the power of science to improve people’s lives”.   An aspirational sentence for each student sounds like one of those ideas that looks good on a flipchart in the head’s office in July, but gets lost amidst the hubbub of school life in September.  At DTA though, these sentences are a living, breathing reality.  The sentences rolled off the tongue of the students I spoke with, and on the afternoon of our visit students were preparing a presentation in which they reflected on their year and on their progress towards their sentence.  Students are allowed to update their sentence once a year.

Several times a day, Luke and his colleagues address students as they gather in ‘The Heart’ – an open space at the centre of the academy.  School leaders use this time to ‘re-induct, re-orientate’.  “We say ‘why’ a lot” says Luke – “the reason why we need silent corridors is because they are narrow and we want to be able to leave classroom doors open.”  Members of SLT pass through these open doors every lesson of every day.  In doing so they constantly check the temperature of the student body, and then ‘re-induct, re-orientate’ as required.

I’ve known schools where the same students give visitors the same tour, but at Dixons I got the strong impression that all students can lead tours and share the culture with visitors because they know it so well.  Luke said that he’s happy to host visits because it raises the self-esteem of students as they see people taking an interest in their school.  He’s particularly keen that their more challenging kids lead tours for visitors, as it gets these students to articulate the school’s values and therefore reinforce their own commitment to these values.

It’s not unusual for a school to proclaim its core values and to explicitly instil a positive culture, but I’ve never seen a school do it so skilfully and successfully as Dixons Trinity. Schools are such busy places that our message can easily get lost.  I remember devising an assembly schedule across the 39 weeks of the school year, with each assembly linked to a different weekly value, such as honesty, integrity, generosity, loyalty, compassion, kindness, commitment, courage, co-operation, gratitude etc etc.  Faced with the same task again, I could do worse than scraping the barnacles off the boat and ensuring that students are repeatedly exposed to the same core message.

The End of School Improvement? Hang on a Minute. 

A couple of blogs over the weekend reflected on the role of data in measuring schools now that norm-referencing and bell curves dictate the distribution of exam grades.  In Rethinking Success in the Post-Gaming Zero Sum Era Tom Sherrington argues that school success will be more about the things that we can’t measure, rather than the data-driven metrics that currently keep school leaders awake at night.   It’s a theme picked up by David Didau, who argues in Where Now for School Improvement? that the “agenda for school improvement has to move away from endlessly pouring over data looking for patterns that don’t exist”

Didau and Sherrington rightly point out that much of what has passed for school improvement has been illusory, based on tactical gaming and statistical quirks.  They are correct to remind us that we now play an almost zero sum game where “roughly 40% of students will get grade 4 or below and there is nothing schools can do about it.”

Except, perhaps, make sure that their kids are not amongst the 40%?

The obvious response is that not all schools can ensure that all of their students sit above the bottom 40%, and of course they can’t.  But if every school secured genuine gains in students’ knowledge and understanding, how would our ‘almost zero sum’ system react?

At least in theory, our exam system is able to recognise genuine gains in improvements made by whole cohorts.  As I understand it, it is Ofqual’s job to ensure that a C grade this year is a similar standard to a C grade last year.  It follows that if all students genuinely produce work of C+ standard, then they can get awarded as such (of course this is exceptionally unlikely).  The introduction of the National Reference Test supports this drive to recognise genuine gains achievement across a whole cohort.

Yet even if grades were awarded purely against a bell curve, with 40% therefore gaining less than a C even if they produce better work than sub-C students in previous years, we can hope that these students possess the basic skills and knowledge needed for their future success, albeit without the grades to show for it.

Didau quotes an example provided by Jack Marwood:

Here is Seaside Primary School in North Yorkshire*, a fairly typical two-form entry school. These are the percentages of children achieving level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths:

  • 2013: 77%
  • 2012: 70%
  • 2011: 58%
  • 2010: 69%
  • 2009: 77%
  • 2008: 76%

There is no pattern. Unless a school consistently records 100%, there never is a pattern for any school, in any historical data. This is because the data is based on children’s results, and children are complicated and individual, and the school population in any given school is statistically too small to make meaningful generalisations.

I’m no statistician, but by Marwood’s reasoning I presume we’re unable to criticise the poor records of individual hospitals and clinics, let alone doctors and nurses, since any given hospital “is too small to make meaningful generalisations.”  And what about a dangerous stretch of road which causes several accidents –  “too small to make meaningful generalisations” – or a restaurant with a nasty hygiene  record: “too small to make meaningful generalisations”?

Didau adds: “Stupidly though, the government is still insisting that schools need to be above average to avoid being labelled as failing.  Schools will tear themselves apart looking for the latest silver bullets but there are none.  If a school does especially well in one year – or even two – results will inevitably regress to the mean. No amount of grit or growth mindset can resist this mathematical bulldozer.”

I’m not sure this is entirely fair.  From this summer, the floor standard will be applied to schools with a Progress 8 score of less than -0.5.  In these schools students score, on average, half a grade worse across all of their subjects than students with similar starting points in other schools.

There is so much more to a school than its Progress 8 score, but if my kids were at a school where they made half a grade less progress than their peers in other schools, I would want to know about it, especially if this lack of progress occurred year after year.  Of course it wouldn’t mean that the school’s leaders and teachers were uncaring or incompetent, but I dare say they could be doing a few things better.

Student outcomes are not statistical quirks. They are real grades of real kids. I agree 100% with Didau and Sherrington that quick wins are less likely in the new system, and we need to take a careful, rounded view of a school’s performance before we even begin to draw conclusions.  But I still think that student outcomes have a fair bit to tell us about whether or not a school is doing its job.  If it’s a question of being statistically accurate or asking genuine questions about repeated under-performance, I know which side I’m on.

A lesson in PhD statistics will be scant consolation to a kid who leaves school without GCSE maths after 11 years of mathematics tuition. And they might not appreciate the irony if they’ve also failed their English GCSE.

Kids deserve better than exam-factory schooling, where educational success is equated solely with exam success, but they also deserve better than a school which dismisses under-performance as a ‘statistical quirk’ and takes a fatalist approach towards exams – “roughly 40% of students will get grade 4 or below and there is nothing schools can do about it.”

There’s a spreadsheet on my laptop which shows the ten-year trend in GCSE results of the schools I work with.  The columns on the left of the spreadsheet show that a decade ago several schools repeatedly saw less than 20% of students leave with 5 good GCSEs.  Now these schools, which are universally in challenging areas, repeatedly find themselves exceeding the national average.  This means thousands of students leaving school with genuine life chances which were denied to their elder siblings just a few years before. We should celebrate this.

Of course we need to recognise the limits of data, but my concern about an anti-outcomes narrative is that it can easily be used to justify and ignore entrenched educational failure. I believe that with 11 years of good teaching, with the right curriculum and consistently good behaviour, our most disadvantaged kids can compete with their more privileged peers.

I’m reminded of a line in Andrew Adonis’s 2012 book Education, Education, Education.  Adonis describes a visit to a failing school in the North-East, and his incredulity when he heard this from one of the teachers: ‘“Twenty years ago”, he said, “when the boys left here, they walked down the hill and turned left to get a job in the shipyard or right to go down the mines. All those jobs have now gone. They might as well walk straight into the sea”. I didn’t know how to respond. It seemed too obvious to say that, if they got a decent education, they might prosper on dry land’.

I worry about a similar analysis now: “Five years ago, the boys could have got C grades, but now that 40% of grades are always below C, there’s nothing we can do.”

Twenty five years since the emergence of league tables I think we’ve finally got a system (thanks to Progress 8 and tough terminal exams) which shows up real school improvement. I hope that Ofsted and Amanda Spielman continue to challenge schools which persistently fail to ensure that students depart with their pockets full of decent grades.