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.

Beyond Boom and Bust

It’s easy to be taken in by the quick fixes made by superheads, fixes which are often about changes to personnel (both pupils and teachers, as Dr Ben Laker’s recent Harvard Business Review article shows) rather than genuine gains in the quality of education.

We can also be duped by tips and tactics.  There was plenty of useful advice in a recent SSAT series “365 ways to improve a school” but I fear that our school leaders and the institutions in their care don’t need more ideas, more activity, more buzzwords – they need to refine the basic fundamentals that ensure sustainable success.

Last night Dr Laker (@DrBenLaker) published a second Harvard Business Review article.   This one identifies the things that leaders do that build lasting success.  I’m thrilled that we’re finally getting a glimpse of the infrastructure of school improvement, rather than the superficial trappings.  Dr Laker’s two articles are the first (and only) to appear in Harvard Business Review that focus on UK schools.  He told me that he wrote them because “we need to stop local authorities, academy trusts and governing bodies from treating their headteachers like football managers. We need to judge leaders on their legacy, as well as their tenure.  It’s time we celebrated our “Architects” and consigned our boom-bust “Surgeons” to history.

He and I agree that too many schools imitate the line-ups, the booster camps, the blazers and the Latin lessons of successful schools but would be better off investing in the hidden platforms of sustainable improvement: leadership, culture, curriculum, assessment and teaching.

We could do with some support from above here.  Appointed to a school with less-than-secure results, why should a newly appointed head focus on Key Stage 3 when she might not be there to see them through to Key Stage 4 unless she secures rapid improvement with the current Y11 and Y10?

One half of our accountability system – performance tables – will always be based on examined year groups, so what if the other half of our accountability system – Ofsted – turned its attention to sustainable school improvement?  Too messy?  Too arbitrary? Too unreliable?  There are no perfect measures here but with a few intelligent questions Ofsted might be able to reach some conclusions about the sustainability of a school’s success:

  • Curriculum continuity: Do students follow a stable and coherent programme of study, or does this change every year (indicating short-termism and leading to teacher workload and burnout)?
  • Allocation of teachers: Are experienced and established teachers spread throughout classes and year groups, or does the school place its most effective practitioners in Y11?
  • Behaviour: Is low-level disruption systematically tackled?
  • Supply teachers: What proportion of lessons are taught by supply teachers, and in which subjects and year groups?
  • Literacy catch-up programme:  Do students who start school unable to read fluently receive rapid support, enabling them to access the curriculum for the next five years?
  • Roll and reputation: Is the school full in all year groups?
  • Exclusions: What do exclusion figures tell us about behaviour and about the school’s long-term commitment to all students?  Do ‘challenging’ students go missing between Y10 and Y11?
  • Attendance: What do attendance figures tell us about basic expectations and systems?

Multi-Academy Trusts have an important role to play here in supporting school leaders in developing the infrastructure of school improvement, rather than throwing the kitchen sink at Y11.  We must never ignore the outcomes of our current leavers, but we can reassure our heads that it’s ok to distribute energy and urgency more evenly.

Take this line from Dave Levin, founder of KIPP charter schools: “we have 7000 kids in college”.  It’s rare treat to hear a school leader take pride in the long term success of his students.  Levin describes KIPP’s 20-year investment in his students, which means that they take just as much pride in their former students’ college graduation rates as current test scores in their own charter schools.  It’s a far cry from squeezing kids over the C/D threshold after intensive spoon feeding, then turning our attention to the next Y11 cohort as our leavers flounder in further and higher education.

Thanks to Dr Laker’s research we can begin to distinguish between the quick fix surgeon and the transformational architect headteacher who invests in the infrastructure that ensures sustainable success.  Writing today in The Times (with David Weston), he comments “Why do we celebrate inconceivably quick school turnarounds? And why do we judge the leaders of these schools by their tenure, not their legacy? Surgeons were given more knighthoods, damehoods, CBEs, MBEs and OBEs than any other type of school leader. But, as they take their halos with them, they can sometimes leave behind a trail of destruction as the miraculous improvements go into bone-crunching reverse. Is this the right way to improve our schools and our society? We need to stop this debilitating boom-and-bust cycle by fundamentally rethinking how we develop, reward and recognise our school leaders.”

Dr Laker is currently writing a third Harvard Business Review article. It focuses on school culture and is expected to be published in 2017.

5 Pillars of Teaching

This short post on teaching begins with the admission that I don’t currently teach.  Perhaps that’s where it should end.

But I’ll continue on the promise that rather than focusing on the craft of classroom delivery I’ll suggest a framework that school leaders can use to cultivate great teaching in their schools.

This framework stems from the concern that our efforts to develop teachers might fail if we haven’t first created a shared understanding of what good teaching looks like.   We talk about developing teaching and learning as if we all know what we’re aiming for.  So we might create a crammed calendar of CPD and design a coaching system in which all teachers coach each other.  Yet without a clear and shared understanding of what effective teaching consists of, the coaching and the CPD can provide teachers with inconsistent and conflicting advice.

At ResearchEd in York earlier this year, John Tomsett referred to a point made by Dylan William in his 2010 SSAT speech: “Teachers are like magpies, they love picking up shiny new ideas from other teachers and taking it back to their classroom [but] if you’re serious about improving schools you need to get away from sharing good practice and focus on consolidating and embedding practice for each practitioner”.

To avoid the magpie problem, school leaders can provide a framework which is tight enough to create a common goal and shared language, yet loose enough to allow flexibility for different teachers and different departments.  I’m borrowing the language of Allison and Tharby here because I love the framework they provide in Making Every Lesson count (wonderful summary HERE).

Inspired by Allison and Tharby, here’s what a shared understanding of effective teaching might look like:

In every lesson we expect students to think hard and produce excellent work. We do this through:

  1. High expectations for all students based on a clear objective
  2. Challenging content clearly delivered and explained, with appropriate checks for understanding
  3. Modelling of excellent work
  4. Purposeful practice, giving students time to produce meaningful, authentic work.
  5. Feedback which is frequent, formative and acted upon.

With this statement on the front page (perhaps the only page) of our teaching and learning policy we could ensure that all of our coaching, CPD, inset, learning walks, observations and any other bits of training and quality assurance support these 5 pillars.

ECDL: Pollyfilla not Cement

It’s not been a brilliant week for the ECDL – the European Computer Driving Licence.   Last week edu-Twitter erupted with news of a 346% increase in ECDL passes.  We’ve now heard that Ofsted will pay close attention to it on their inspections this year in what would seem to be a crack-down on tactical game-playing which might place the interests of the school ahead of the interests of the students.


The ECDL is the best known of a small bunch of ‘accessible’ qualifications that still count in our league tables by filling a slot in the third basket of Attainment/Progress 8.  It’s as popular as it is contentious – canny schools can get large groups of kids through the ECDL in a matter of days.  It seems at odds with the increased rigour of our new assessment framework.

There isn’t a head in the country who went into school leadership so that they could provide kids with the ECDL, but I disagree that there’s no place for it in our schools.  The trick lies in using it like Polyfilla, not cement.

Using the ECDL as Polyfilla means using it as a temporary fix to gain performance table points (with some benefit to the students) while longer term improvements take shape.  I love Attainment/Progress 8, but we know that it favours schools that already deliver a traditional academic curriculum, and we’re now seeing a lag as other schools realign their curriculum to fit the new measures.  As these curriculum changes take shape, schools are justified in seeking out advantages available to them in the current system.

Of course school leaders would rather their students gain an A in French than a Pass on the ECDL, but if they’re not taking a modern language due to curriculum decisions made three years ago, then it can make sense for the child and the school to find the time to deliver the ECDL.  It serves as Polyfilla in this case as it fills a crack in the curriculum, plugging the leak until the new curriculum comes through.

The danger is when ECDL is used as cement – when a school’s success is built on vast numbers of students doing as many accessible qualifications as the system allows.  I’m glad that Ofsted will now ask questions about the number of students entered for ECDL and the curriculum time allocated to it.  I hope they also enquire about each school’s future intentions, with the expectation that ECDL is phased out, or reserved for a small number of targeted students, as the school’s curriculum realigns in the coming years.

The use of ECDL, and the search for the few remaining accessible qualifications that still count, can be justified so long as schools recognise this expediency for what it is – a temporary tactical fix while the longer term strategy of equipping students to get proper grades on proper courses takes shape.

Trouble emerges when our tactics become our strategy; when our Polyfilla becomes our cement.