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.

In Defence of Setting

Plenty of evidence suggests that setting students by ability is beneficial to more able students but detrimental to others (this summary of the evidence by Chris Husbands is a helpful starting point).  We can say the same about the impact of grammar schools, which is perhaps no surprise since setting could be seen as a grammar approach in miniature – categorising students by ability and then separating them.

Yet I remain in favour of setting by ability, and given the threat posed to non-selective schools by the resurgence of the grammar school debate, I think it’s more important than ever that we set students by ability in our schools.

It’s tough for a teacher to cater for the full ability range in a mixed set, and very easy to end up teaching to the middle.  Setting by ability helps to build an academic culture, supporting an honest and transparent approach to assessment in which students know where they stand and are therefore empowered to do something about it.  Setting by ability also helps reassure parents of high attaining students that they can be stretched and challenged in a non-selective school – that they don’t need to go to a grammar or a fee-paying school to enjoy the company of other bright kids.

So how can me make setting fair and avoid the problems highlighted in the research, where more able students benefit but the rest suffer?

Firstly, we hold high expectations of all students and recognise that ability is not fixed – we improve through purposeful practice.

Secondly, no matter what set they are in, students should cover the same content. I saw this powerfully at an academy in Banbury recently where I had the pleasure of dropping in to 4 Year 10 English lessons which were set by ability.  From the highest set to the lowest, students were analysing the same Macbeth passage and producing an extended response. What changed as we went down the sets was not expectations but support – teachers of these lower sets explicitly defined key language and provided a tight structure for students to arrange their response.

Thirdly, we should allocate our most established teachers to the lower sets, as it’s these students who need them most.  We should insist that behaviour is impeccable in these lower sets just as it is in the top sets.   These lower sets should be smaller, ensuring that all students are challenged and supported (I’ve known weaker students feeling lost in a big mixed ability class).

Fourthly, there should be frequent movement between sets – probably twice per year.  In order to inform this movement we need to ensure that all students sit the same assessments, which goes back to our point that no matter which set our students are in, they are entitled to the same curriculum.

I recognise that setting by ability can be a pretty blunt tool, and I would be worried if all my views about education went against the grain of evidence.  But with the threat of grammar schools on the horizon, perhaps now is the time to show that non-selective schools can be every bit as rigorous and academic as our most selective institutions.

We might worry about the impact of setting for those in lower sets, but we tolerate a system that allows nearly half of our kids to leave school at 16 with little to show for 12 years of full time education.  Setting gives kids a chance to respond before it’s too late.

So long as we maintain the highest expectations of behaviour, teaching and curriculum in our lowest sets, I support setting.

Teaching Unleashed

Previous posts HERE and HERE reflected on the culture I encountered on a recent visit to Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford.  In the second post I mentioned how Dixons rejects the old adage that “if you get teaching right, everything else will follow” by establishing a rich motivational culture which binds students to the school’s mission: “The academy ensured that ALL students succeeded at university, thrived in a top job and had a great life.”  This helps create compliance which in turn enables teachers to teach.

There is no single preferred method of teaching on display at Dixons Trinity, but each lesson is built around 3 core features:

  1. Intelligent sequencing
  2. Highly tailored learning activities
  3. Effective formative assessment

I think that a shared understanding of common features of great teaching is an essential starting point for a whole-school teaching and learning strategy.  I love the ‘tight but loose’ framework suggested by Allison and Tharby in their wonderful ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ (summary HERE).  The 6 principles they suggest are: challenge, explanation, modelling, deliberate practice, questioning and feedback.  In ‘The Confident Teacher’ Alex Quigley suggests a similar set of principles: explanations, questioning, feedback, modelling, memory and meta-cognition.  What I love about these frameworks is that they are tight enough to promote a shared language and provide a structure on which you can hang your CPD and coaching, yet loose enough to be adapted by individual departments and teachers.

Modelling, for example, looks incredibly different in drama compared to maths, PE, DT or English, but in every subject it’s essential that students get to see what excellent work looks like.

The second point about teaching and learning that struck me at Dixons was that every member of staff (including non-teaching staff) receives 15 minutes of coaching each week from their line manager. The coaching focuses on specific elements of teaching and includes time for practice.  As Bambrick-Santoyo argues in Leverage Leadership, incremental classroom coaching can easily be overlooked by school leaders – he suggests that most principals spend half their time on admin and only 6% of their time on classroom instruction.  Ensuring that every teacher receives regular coaching and feedback strikes me as one of the most important things that a school leader can do.

Perhaps one way in which Dixons has made time for this coaching is by ensuring that no teacher teaches more than 21 lessons per week (out of 30).  The timetable includes a couple of other quirks that I think are worth exploring.  Students receive large group lessons each week in English and Maths, delivered by experienced subject specialists in the school’s lecture theatre.  We didn’t see any of this in action on our visit, but I can see the benefit of every student receiving the same high-quality instruction once a week, and then receiving more personalised support in their usual lessons.  Students in Year 10 also have timetabled ‘Prep’ lessons in which they do individual study – a halfway house between teacher-led lessons and homework, and a reflection of the growing recognition in our profession that we need to move away from spoon-fed intervention by providing students with the space and supervision to work hard on their own.

Finally, students at Dixons Trinity are issued with “100% sheets” in all of their subjects.  These sheets contain all of the essential knowledge that students are expected to memorise and retain as they progress through the curriculum.  Students self-quiz themselves on this knowledge every day.  I’m 100% sold on the power of these sheets.  It’s incredibly reassuring for students to receive all the knowledge they need to gain at the outset of their course.  It serves as a revision guide at the end of the course, but also as a reference for students to turn to from lesson to lesson.  It also ensures consistency between classes – no matter which teacher you have, you will work through the same content and have access to the same resources.

It’s worth noting that the these 100% sheets, the timetabled Prep lessons and the large group teaching all rely on high levels of motivation from students.  That’s why I agree with the Dixons team that a strong school culture can unleash great teaching and learning, not the other way round.

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”.

dixons values

“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”.


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.

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.


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.