If you lead on Pupil Premium…

Over the last few months we’ve been using webinars at United Learning to connect school leaders who lead on particular issues. Here’s a summary of our recent webinar on Pupil Premium, with thanks to colleagues leading on this who shared their insights so freely.

We started by looking at two recent studies.

The EEF’s Attainment Gap 2018 report tells the familiar story of the gap between PP and non-PP students increasing as they go through school (see diagram below). Our Regional Director Christine Raeside recommended comparing the books of PP and non-PP students with the same starting point. Are the PP students producing work of equal quality in Year 7?  What about years 8, 9, 10 and 11?  It’s easy to see PP analysis as a data checking exercise, all too often undertaken when it’s too late to intervene. Focusing on students’ books, and comparing PP with non-PP from the same starting points – not just within subjects, but also across subjects – enables emerging gaps to be identified while it’s still possible to act.


The EEF report goes on to say that “Even small improvements in young people’s GCSE qualifications yield significant increases in their lifetime productivity returns and in national wealth – highlighting the importance of continuing to focus on improving results for currently low-attaining pupils.” We illustrated this with the example of Totteridge Academy, where the Principal Chris Fairbairn identifies students in Y11 at risk of leaving school with very little (this school only joined United Learning 18 months ago). He calls them in to his office in the spring term of Y11 and tells them to forget about their previous 11 years. He reminds them that their exams are marked by people who don’t know them, who have no pre-conceptions of their ability, and he asks them to see their final few months of school as a fresh start. Last year this approach led to several students leaving school with some decent grades to show for their education, when before they were on course to leave with very little.

We then turned our attention to a recent OECD study which compared disadvantaged students from around the world and emphasised the importance of classroom culture: “The evidence of the positive role of school climate is supported by academic research that illustrates, in a variety of contexts, how student learning can be supported by a positive and respectful atmosphere that is relatively free of disruption and focuses on student performance”.

It’s easy to say that culture matters, but Sam Viney from Glenmoor & Winton Academies in Bournemouth (one of the highest performing schools in the south, yet PP kids outperform non-PP) brought this to life by urging PP leads to influence SLT colleagues leading on behaviour, attendance and teaching & learning by ensuring that PP students are prioritised in each of these whole-school areas.  Does the school leader leading on attendance ensure that the attendance of PP students is front and centre in their analysis and intervention? Does the school leader leading on T&L ensure that PP students particularly benefit from the school’s best teaching? Does the school leader leading on behaviour pay particular attention to PP students?

The OECD study also points to one of the key barriers for our Pupil Premium students: “Truancy, at the school level, is also strongly associated with student performance”.  This captures the twin challenge for colleagues leading on PP.  On the one hand there’s the macro – ensuring that the whole-school culture is one that supports disadvantaged students – while on the other hand there’s the micro: identifying and tackling the specific barriers that PP students face. In our experience, attendance and literacy top this list.

A key theme that emerged in our webinar is that we can’t treat Pupil Premium students as a single group. Schools with success in this area are tenacious in identifying the specific groups who might be underperforming, which might reveal that Pupil Premium girls from ethnic minority backgrounds are doing just fine, for example, while white British Pupil Premium boys might be struggling, particularly in English. There’s an important role for subject leaders and teachers here too, as they are well placed to consider how these gaps play out in their subject, and adapt their support accordingly – perhaps our white British PP boys struggle with Section B of the second literature paper where they have to compare two unseen contemporary poems?  These are the PP gaps that matter, especially if they’re discussed by teachers after a mock exam in January, and not by SLT after the final exams in August.

We closed our webinar by looking at this series of blogs from Mike Treadaway of Education Datalab, and not only because one of the stars of this series is our very own Sheffield Park Academy.  Treadaway’s analysis reinforces this point that not all PP students are the same: students who are in receipt of free school meals throughout their last 6 years (‘long term disadvantaged’) perform much worse than those who only qualified for free school meals at one or two points within the last 6 years (‘briefly disadvantaged’).

School leaders leading on PP might be wise to check their census returns so that they can distinguish between their briefly disadvantaged students and their long-term disadvantaged students.  The briefly students might just need light-touch support to ensure they’re on track, and perhaps some fine-tuning in Y11.  The long-term students, on the other hand, might need intense support to tackle stubborn barriers to achievement, such as attendance, literacy, homework and parental engagement. There might be a case for spending a higher proportion of the Pupil Premium budget on the intense support that these students need rather than spending PP funding equally on all eligible pupils.

One last thought. The 2017 Sutton Trust Chain Effects report makes it clear that trusts that do well by Pupil Premium students do well by all of their students.  By tackling the achievement of our PP students, our PP leads might just be improving the school experience for all their students.


The Best Pastoral Care

Back when I was a teacher I taught a unit on environmentalism to an A Level politics class.  We were looking at the tension between concerns for the environment and the economy in the developing world, and we came across a line that stuck in my head.  I think it was attributed to the finance minister of a developing country: “of course we care about the environment, but can we eat first?”  The argument, of course, is that it’s all very well for richer nations to bang the environmental drum, but poorer nations have more pressing concerns to worry about.

There’s something about this that reminds me of schools which prioritise all the nice stuff before they’ve got decent exam results. There is more to schools than exam results of course, but they’re a good place to start.   A while back I encountered this line from John Tomsett which wonderfully captures something I had been trying to express for some time: “The best pastoral care for socio-economically disadvantaged kids is a good set of exam results.”

The best pastoral care

Great schools strike the balance between head and heart: their kids walk out with their pockets full of decent grades, but they also find time for the guest speakers, the OAP’s tea dance, the talent show, the Christmas hamper donations, the house quizzes, the activity week and the camping trips.  But I wonder if too many of our schools focus on the fun stuff before their academic foundations are secure.

Suggesting that academic achievement should be schools’ primary concern might be stating the obvious – like someone in aviation saying that passenger safety is the number one priority, or someone in business saying that the firm has to deliver a profit.  Yet I’m not sure that our profession agrees on this basic point.

I was reminded of this recently when a headteacher friend and I wandered into our local pub.  The main bar was noisy and crowded so we headed upstairs in search of a quiet spot. We emerged in a private party and were welcomed by a friendly woman: “Come and join us, take a seat, it’s my leaving party.  I was safeguarding officer at a local secondary school but I’ve quit because I don’t like the direction the school’s going in…. management want our kids to get good grades, but for lots of the kids I work with it’s a miracle they’re even in school – we should recognise that rather than focus on exam results.”

Clearly schools need to be compassionate and caring, yet this should support our commitment to academic success, rather than replace it.  Of course we want the sports days, the trips, the charity weeks and the bake sales; and of course we don’t have to make a binary choice between standards or fun.  But our primary duty, in my view, is to ensure that all students leave with a decent set of grades.

The Subject Series, Part 3 – 10 Questions to Check how Good Your School is

10 Questions to Check how Good Your School is:

  1. How good is your English department?
  2. How good is your Maths department?
  3. How good is your Science department?
  4. How good is your History department?
  5. How good is your Geography department?
  6. How good is your MFL department?
  7. How good is your PE department?
  8. How good is your Art department?
  9. How good is your Music department?
  10. How good is your Drama department?

This is the third and final post in a series of blogs which attempts to place subject specialism at the centre of school improvement.  I’ve tried to make the point that it’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study.  Crucially though, subject-led school improvement will only hit the mark if fundamentals such as solid leadership, behaviour, curriculum and assessment are already in place.

In this final post, we’ll consider what subject-led school improvement looks like at a school level, rather than across a trust, by focusing on a few areas of school life that don’t get much attention.

Career progression

We have a structural problem in our profession that to advance in your career usually means moving further away from your classroom and your subject.  Take a successful Head of Department who joins a senior leadership team as Assistant Principal.  Not only are we paying this person more to teach less, but we’re also taking them out of their subject and asking them to focus instead on whole-school concerns.   A Head of Department who previously grappled with the challenge of ensuring that students are exposed to the best that’s been thought and said in their subject might now find themselves signing off risk assessments for school trips.

We therefore encourage colleagues to race to the top, rather than to invest in subject knowledge and the skill of teaching their subject.  To tackle this, we should move towards leaner leadership teams, with successful heads of department remaining with their subject, even if it means paying them as much as we previously paid junior members of the senior team

Line Management

Thousands of school leaders across the country line-manage departments in their school, but how many of these have received training on what good line management looks like?  Here’s one way of doing it:

At the start of the year agree a 1-page plan for the department containing the following:

  • 1-sentence summary of the most pressing priority the department faces: “This department will be more effective in 12 months’ time than the department it is today because … “
  • Brief outline of what success might look like e.g.
    • Higher proportion of top grades
    • More students taking our subject at KS4 and KS5
    • Greater quality and quantity of writing at KS3.
  • How we will achieve the above, broken down into the following areas:
    • Teaching and teacher development e.g. All teachers receive frequent incremental coaching
    • Assessment/data e.g. Balance between low-stakes formative assessment (quizzes etc) and termly standardised tests, with appropriate response to students’ performance on these tests
    • Curriculum and planning e.g. Map-out curriculum to ensure timely delivery, co-planning of each unit
    • Student effort e.g. Ensuring students have the resources to work hard and productively away from the classroom.

This 1-pager drives the agenda for all line management meetings, which should take place every week. I remember line managing HoDs thinking ‘hmm, what shall we talk about this week?’  Get this 1-page plan right and the agenda writes itself each week.


Instead of cross-curricular links and ‘teaching and learning communities’ spanning different departments, let’s provide our teachers with the time and space to work with colleagues in their subject.  Beyond some whole-school CPD on critical areas of classroom practice (e.g. basic principles of assessment, questioning and feedback) time for CPD is probably best spent in departments, with teachers of the same subject agreeing how to bring key language to life in their subject, how to improve the quality and quantity of students’ writing in their subject and how to ensure appropriate challenge in their subject.  Co-planning within subjects – unit-by-unit and lesson by lesson – strikes me as one of the most powerful things that schools can do to build subject specialism.

The role of an academy trust, or anyone else interested in school improvement, is to sort out the fundamental infrastructure in schools (leadership, behaviour, curriculum, assessment) so that subjects can flourish.  It is through subject specialism, not generic improvement plans, that our schools will thrive.

The Subject Series, Part 2 – Pedants for Precision

It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study. For this, we don’t need generalist school improvement consultants, we need subject specialists with the knowledge, skills and experience to provide specific, tangible support to the departments that they work with.

test tubes

In my role at United Learning I have the privilege of working with 6 subject specialists who lead on school improvement by raising standards in their subject across the 19 southern academies in our group.  They make a difference in a way that a generalist school improvement consultant could only imagine.

Ben is our Science Advisor. On an early-morning train journey to Northampton he gave me an insight into the things he looks for when he goes into schools:

It’s my job to ensure that none of our science teachers are working in isolation.  I spend a lot of time talking about writing.  Good science teaching involves getting students to write about scientific ideas, so when I go into lessons I look at the quality and quantity of students’ writing. I want to see writing that is a product of a student’s thought process. They should be able to write a full paragraph about a given scientific concept. We’ve all heard students say “I understand it but I can’t put into words”. This is precisely why they need to write it down, because it crystallises what’s in their head and identifies any gaps in understanding, however small. I’m reminded of the line, “I write in order to understand”. I want teachers to see that the process of writing is how students develop clarity of thinking.

I also encourage teachers to focus on knowledge.  The best science departments insist that students secure a basic factual understanding, often through regular quizzing of factual knowledge.  I can’t apply my knowledge of convection currents to explain a sea breeze if I don’t know that gasses expand because particles move further apart when they’re heated.  So, I encourage Science teachers to give students the chance to practice thinking logically, to see a logical sequence – “if this is true then that’s true, and if this is true then that must also be true…” so students need plenty of opportunities to apply facts across different contexts. 

Imaginative questioning stems from this. For example, in order to explain why solids cannot be compressed a teacher might follow logical sequence of questions such as:

  • Can particles be compressed? No
  • Are there any spaces between the particles in a solid? No
  • Can the particles be pushed closer together? No
  • Therefore, what would happen if I try to compress a solid?

What is interesting here is that the first three questions are closed and concrete, yet the final question (and the teaching objective) is open and abstract. The final conclusion is a logical extension of those concrete facts. 

Attention to detail is important too.  For example, you might see a teacher giving out 1cm square paper to practice graph drawing when students need to be accurate to 1mm when plotting graphs in controlled assessments or exams.  Students need to be shown this attention to detail too. For example if you draw a diagram of a covalent bond you have overlapping circles for each element, like a Venn diagram, but if students don’t draw the dot and cross (representing the shared electrons) within the overlap of the Venn then they may lose the mark if it is drawn shoddily. It’s important that teachers ensure that students are precise about what they’re doing so that there’s no ambiguity. The best science teachers are relentless pedants for this sort of precision.

This precision relates to language too, if there’s a turn of phrase used by a student that is ‘sort of right’ but not precise enough I’m interested in how teachers pick up on this.  I love it when teachers have very high expectations for students’ verbal responses and reject answers that are nearly there but not quite right.  Take a question on pressure: In terms of pressure, why do polar bears lie flat on the ice?  A student might say ‘because this spreads out the mass’ which is a broadly accurate description of what the polar bear has done, but doesn’t answer the question or pick up the marks.  A better answer is that the bear spreads the force (or weight) acting on the ice over a wider area which lowers the pressure. Here, the answer is improved by relating the variables which contribute to the quantity of pressure. It is not that “spreading out the mass” is wholly wrong, it’s just that it’s not nearly right enough. As teachers it is tempting to forgive these ‘nearly answers’ which do hint that students have a fledgling understanding of a given concept, but also show that they are falling short of being able to articulate it using the best scientific language.

I love the precision in Ben’s analysis.  There’s no way a non-scientist would be able to provide such granular guidance.

With the growth of multi-academy trusts we’re going to see more people working across schools in improvement roles.  There’s a danger that we end up with an army of generalist consultants who know their way around a RAISEonline and an inspection dashboard but have no clue about the specific language required by students to gain full marks in a Physics question on pressure.

The flipside of this danger is the opportunity to allow people to develop their careers while retaining their subject specialism.  Our subject advisors have been successful Heads of Department who want to retain their specialism while having an impact across a range of schools in a range of contexts.  Crucially, they are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools, meaning that when they go into our academies they roll their sleeves up, work with students and build capacity of subject teams. They’re also well placed to establish links with exam boards and provide precise guidance on moderation, standards, exam preparation, curriculum design and the writing of assessments.

School improvement means students performing better in their subjects.  The majority of support that schools receive should therefore be provided by subject specialists.

UPDATE: Following some feedback on Twitter (“are these not the same as local authority subject leads?”) I should probably stress that (a) Our subject advisors are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools and (b) because we as a MAT can ensure consistency in the basics of school improvement (leadership, curriculum, behaviour, teaching, assessment – see previous blogs) we can enable our subject advisors to have impact. Point (a) means that our subject specialists work directly with students, they do masterclasses with A/A* candidates, they provide guidance on controlled assessments and mock exam grade boundaries.  In short, they are subject specialists with teeth.  Point (b) means that they can be sure of a common curriculum across our schools enabling them to invest in assessments and student resources which support this curriculum.

The Subject Series, Part 1 – Good to Great

Earlier this year I was sat in the feedback meeting at the end of an Ofsted inspection.   The school had retained its Good status.  After receiving the feedback from the lead inspector, the Chair of Governors asked what the school needed to do to get to outstanding.  The response was “get more green on your RAISEonline”*.   The lead inspector wasn’t being flippant, and I appreciated her honesty.  It got me thinking, perhaps an outstanding school is simply a good school with better grades.


Throughout the land, school leaders are grappling with the question of how to become outstanding.  Courses are delivered, meetings are held, papers are written, usually with a catchy heading like  ‘good to great’.  Several common themes emerge from these courses, meetings and papers.  One is that outstanding schools are outward facing, serving their communities and supporting other schools.  Another is that outstanding schools are less prescriptive, captured in the phrase ‘tighten to good, loosen to outstanding’. A third common theme is that middle leadership would tend to be stronger in an outstanding school, with the school’s success less reliant on a hyper-active SLT.

There’s something in all of these points, but there’s also something missing.  Perhaps the best way of moving from solid to excellent is by placing subject specialism at the heart of the school.  It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study.

Subject specialism as a lever for school improvement starts with the curriculum: a 5-year journey in each subject which gradually exposes students to the key knowledge, skills and understanding of that domain.  This means that that the Y7 curriculum does not seek to replicate the GCSE specification, but does seek to provide a solid grounding in the key knowledge that underpins the whole discipline.  I’m reminded of my visit to Michaela when Jonathan Porter talked us through the Y7 Geography curriculum which gradually constructs an understanding of place through knowledge of continents, capitals, oceans and rivers; few of which will be directly tested in a GCSE paper, but all of which will enable students to appreciate the basic layout of the world around them.  With this big picture in place, students will gradually gain a more granular understanding of Geography in the 5 years ahead of them.

This 5-year journey in each subject requires a coherent timetable, with sufficient time devoted to individual subjects, particularly the subjects that the majority of students will take throughout secondary school.  A humanities carousel, or a curriculum which bundles subjects together in Y7 to ease the transition to secondary school, will struggle to support this 5 year journey.  Specialist teachers are critical to this too.

With these structures in place we can turn our attention to CPD.  Where this is done best, I see the member of SLT who leads on teaching and learning identifying the common features of good teaching that they would expect to see in classrooms.  These might include the skilful delivery of challenging content, modelling of excellent work, astute questioning and precise and frequent feedback.  Once these key features are understood by the staff body they can be devolved to a subject level, with teachers of the same subject deciding together how they will bring these features to life in their classrooms.  Teachers need less generic guidance on the benefits of modelling, and more time to work out how to model excellent work in the units that they are about to teach.  What this modelling looks like, and where in the learning process students encounter a model, might vary significantly depending on the subject.

Co-planning can be powerful here because it nudges teachers to discuss what happens in their classroom, and to consider the best way of delivering each topic, while also building accountability for the quality of lesson planning.  United Learning schools devote the first day of each term to co-planning within departments.  It’s trickier when a school only has one teacher of each subject.  In these cases we build links between subjects at different schools, and encourage teachers to sign up as examiners and engage with the online community for their subject.

On a different encounter with an Ofsted inspector I was recently asked how we develop scholastic excellence in our students.  We do this by placing subject specialism at the centre of our school improvement strategy.  

A school that places subject specialism at the heart of its work would soon see plenty of green on its RAISEonline.


*RAISEonline is a document which compares school performance to national performance, with green signifying better than national achievement in your school

Infrastructure of School Improvement

Imagine a delegation from a developing country visiting London to learn how to create a successful metropolis.  They could admire our cultural attractions, our vibrant neighbourhoods, our international businesses.  We could dazzle them with our sky-scrapers, our stadia and our calendar of sporting and cultural events. But these visible symbols represent the trappings of success, not the underlying foundations.  They might indicate success, but they don’t enable success.


Rather than looking up at these trappings of success, our delegation might learn more from the infrastructure beneath their feet: a tube network which handles almost 5 million journeys a day, a sewage system which hygienically disposes the waste of ten million people, a network of cables which connects millions of homes and businesses to an endless supply of cheap electricity and broadband.

One of the toughest decisions for a multi-academy trust is where to draw the line between central prescription and local autonomy.  I’ve found a tentative answer to this in the rule of thumb that academy trusts should focus on the infrastructure of school improvement.

This infrastructure includes 5 foundations: leadership, behaviour, curriculum, assessment and teaching.  No matter which government is in power, no matter who holds the post of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, no matter which performance measures schools are judged on, this infrastructure will serve as the platform on which to build exceptional schools.

Leadership matters because schools are tribal institutions, driven by rituals and routines; habits and history.  Schools are intensely human, which makes them especially well-suited to the grip of a figurehead who takes ownership of the school.  As a colleague recently put it, you walk around a school, taking in lessons, corridors, break times and assemblies, but it’s only once you’ve sat down with the headteacher that your view of the school comes into focus.

Behaviour matters because it’s difficult to teach or to learn in classrooms where disruption is a constant risk.  Successful schools cultivate respect for the authority of adults and the sanctity of the classroom, creating a complete intolerance of one person disrupting the learning of another. Recruitment and induction (of staff and students) are critical to the communication and consolidation of this culture.

Curriculum matters because it’s the stuff that teachers teach and students learn; the stuff that we pass on to the next generation as their cultural inheritance; the stuff that gives our young people at least half a chance of making sense of the world around them.  This curriculum should be guided by a commitment to coherence and continuity, with each subject setting out a 5 year journey which gradually builds secure understanding.

Get the curriculum right and we can then turn our attention to assessment, striking a balance between summative assessment which addresses the macro issues of how our students are doing, and which students might need more support; with formative assessment which addresses the micro issues of whether each student has sufficiently understood each key element of the subject to enable progression to the next element.

Our final foundation is teaching.  Don’t be  fooled by the relegation of teaching to number 5 on the list – from our teachers’ perspective getting better at teaching will be the absolute priority, and getting the other 4 foundations in place will enable teachers to focus on this.  I think the best approach to teaching and learning starts with a clear agreement on the common features of excellent teaching, such as the skilful delivery of challenging content, modelling of excellent work, astute questioning and precise and frequent feedback.  Teachers and heads of subject then adapt these common features to their own subject and bring them to life in their own classroom.

In United Learning academies, where I work, you’ll see significant differences on the surface.  Some schools have 50-minute lessons, others have 100 minute lessons.  Some have a vertical house system, others a year group structure.  Some schools set students rigidly by attainment, others favour mixed-ability classes.  Yet beneath the surface you’ll find similarities in the pipes, sewers, roads and bridges.

Look beyond the gleaming trappings of success; invest in a common infrastructure and watch schools flourish on their own terms.

5 Enemies of School Improvement

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Daisy Christodoulou and Christine Counsell talk about curriculum and assessment.  They were both frighteningly insightful, explaining the intricacies of curriculum and assessment with incredible precision and conviction.  They make a compelling case that a coherent curriculum and intelligent assessment should be front and centre of any attempt at school improvement.  It’s reassuring that Daisy and Christine are in key positions at Ark and Inspiration, two trusts committed to improving schools in challenging communities.  We need intellectual heavyweights to be involved with our toughest schools.


At United Learning we’ve committed to subject-driven school improvement by investing in a team of subject specialists who support heads of department and teachers in their subjects.  Their impact is huge.  It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement when in essence it means students performing better in their subjects.  It makes sense, then, that subject specialists should be at the heart of this.

Yet I fear that schools struggle to prioritise curriculum, assessment and subject specialism because they get bogged down by day-to-day strife.  Such schools can easily find themselves in a death spiral, overwhelmed by operational challenges and unable to make the time and space for the stuff that will actually lead to sustainable, long term improvement. Take a few issues that can easily suck all of the energy out of a school and prevent leaders from investing in proper improvements:

  • Disproportionate obsession with Ofsted
  • Disproportionate obsession with Year 11
  • Falling roll
  • Poor behaviour
  • Recruitment and retention of staff

None of these require huge explanation, so I’ll be brief.

Obsession with Ofsted can hamper improvement because schools at risk of a poor inspection need to devote all of their energy to the ingredients of long term success, such as behaviour, curriculum, assessment and teacher development, whereas Ofsted preparation can suck time from these pursuits, and promote instead a desire to make the school look as good as it possibly can in its current state.

Obsession with Year 11 can hamper proper improvement because resources are finite, so throwing key resources (best teachers; time money and energy for after-hours intervention; 1:1 instruction) at Year 11 inevitably means denying these resources to other year groups.  If we didn’t have performance tables to worry about, secondary schools would surely prioritise Years 7 and 8, rather than Year 11, as they would then benefit from the gains in learning made by these younger students for years to come.

A falling roll can hamper school improvement because it reduces still further those limited resources coming into the school. Perhaps more damagingly, it can create a sense of failure in the school community, with each empty seat in the class representing a boy or girl who chose the school down the road instead.

Poor behaviour hampers school improvement because teachers struggle to teach and students struggle to learn in classrooms where disruption is a constant risk.  In such a situation, a sense of damage limitation dominates, as leaders try to get through each day without any major disturbances.

The cumulative effect of these 4 challenges is a school culture that is no fun for students, parents or teachers, all of whom can vote with their feet in search of another school.  Recruitment and retention of staff soon becomes a fifth deadly killer.

Just as medieval cities struggled to flourish when they were at risk of war, revolution, fire, plague or flood, so our schools will struggle to flourish when they’re grappling with these five mortal threats. So how can we free our schools from the clutch of these killers?

Academy trusts are well placed to invest in long term fundamentals on behalf of individual schools.  We do this at United Learning through our common curriculum which has been designed for most subjects from the beginning of primary through to Year 9. Not only does the provision of this curriculum relieve schools of the burden of curriculum planning and ensure that all of our schools have a challenging, knowledge-rich curriculum, but it also enables us to develop resources that fit around the curriculum, such as termly tests, low stakes quizzes and knowledge organisers.

In doing so, academy trusts are able to invest their resources in the front-end of school improvement, rather than the back-end.  By the back-end I mean the evaluation: Ofsted, mocksteds, performance tables, department reviews, and quality assurance processes.  These things might have their place, but they don’t do much to actually make things better; they simply attempt reveal the quality of the current end-product.  Instead, academy trusts must invest in the front-end by sharing systems that work, connecting teachers from different schools, developing its leaders and building all of its support around a shared infrastructure comprising a coherent curriculum, intelligent assessment and subject specialism.

Beyond the work of academy trusts, we need to develop a culture of honesty about the time and effort required for proper improvement. This involves saying to Ofsted “we haven’t got any in-year data yet because it’s November and our first round of summative assessments is in December, but you’re welcome to look at the books and the low stakes tests that we use to identify gaps in understanding.”  And what if December comes along and the in-year data fails to indicate significant improvement on historic data?   It’s worryingly convenient that in-year data presented to Ofsted always paints a rosy picture.

Part of this culture of honesty means avoiding the blame game.  We know from DFE performance tables that it’s more difficult to secure good outcomes with disadvantaged students, and we know from data on Ofsted inspections that the more disadvantaged students you have, the tougher it is to secure a good inspection judgement (e.g. HERE).  There should be no shame in a school seeking help to shore up the fundamentals in order to create room for the things that will matter in the long run such as curriculum, assessment and subject specialism. Similarly, Ofsted should listen to schools who ask to delay their next inspection so that investment in fundamental improvements can take root.

Sending Christodoulou and Counsell to a school which has not secured the basics would be like assigning Usain Bolt as a personal trainer to a patient in intensive care.   When schools are struggling to get through the day, they’re unable to grapple with the stuff that their long term success depends on.  Let’s make space in our schools for the stuff that matters.