Lock up the Curriculum

A sign on the back of a security van: “This vehicle contains a locked safe to which the crew have no access.” Imagine if the school curriculum came with a similar tamper-proof warning: “THE CURRICULUM IN THIS SCHOOL IS CONTAINED IN A LOCKED SAFE TO WHICH TEACHERS, SLT AND GOVERNMENT HAVE NO ACCESS.”

LOCK UP 1

As it stands, the curriculum in any given subject in any given school can be a moveable feast, disrupted one year by national reforms, the next year by the preferences of a new Head of Department, the next year by the decision to switch exam boards, the next year by a reduction in the number of hours allocated to each subject. This leads to teachers constantly teaching new topics for the first time and relying on piecemeal resources lifted from the internet.

A few examples from the history department where I started my career:

  1. We spent one half term of Y7 history making paper mache castles. It might have been fun, but it wasn’t history.
  2. The holocaust and the atomic bomb were taught in the summer term of year 9 but this was often interrupted by activities week, sports day and trips, so these crucial topics were barely touched.
  3. The GCSE course comprised mostly of topics perceived to be more accessible to our pupils, such as the American West and Medicine Through time, with coursework on Jack the Ripper. Did this prepare students for history at university? Did it fulfil their democratic right to leave school with a basic understanding of the world around them?
  4. The curriculum taught in each classroom would depend on the preferences of the teacher; we would sometimes deviate from the curriculum to teach an area of personal interest e.g. the Olympic Games or London through time (might be a good thing in the right hands but it’s a lot to ask from inexperienced teachers or teachers teaching out of their subject).

It was a curriculum guided not by powerful knowledge, eternal truths and threshold concepts but by the whims of teachers and the state of the department filing cabinet on any given day. Despite the fact that this particular history department had been in place for decades, we had failed to establish a secure curriculum and a stable set of teaching materials to go with it. The classroom experience suffered as a result, particularly for pupils taught by supply teachers and non-specialists.

We can’t guarantee every child an exceptional teacher, but we can guarantee every child an exceptional curriculum.

Our national tamper-proof curriculum would be an entitlement for all pupils. In each subject the content would be laid out in a logical sequence: year by year, term by term (the current National Curriculum simply sets out what pupils should be taught in each key stage). The stability of this curriculum would enable resources to latch on to it: lesson plans, topic tests, low-stakes quizzes, knowledge organisers and masterclass videos by subject experts.

With the whole country studying the same stuff, publishers would be able to produce textbooks cost-effectively. Perhaps most excitingly, we could collate and share the best work produced by students across the land. Forget arbitrary levels and age-related grades – pupils could see how their work compares to some of the best work in the country.

There’s one massive problem with the idea of a ‘locked-up’ curriculum though – the curriculum should not be hidden away, it should take centre stage in our schools and in our society. Safe in the knowledge that it won’t be tinkered with, it could be emblazoned on walls, plastered on corridors, published on the website alongside resources that pupils and parents can access at home. Over time the curriculum could become a sacred national treasure, enshrined in our national psyche. Let’s have a national holiday on the rare occasion (every ten years?) that we update it!

The benefits for teachers’ workload would be immense. Earlier this year I walked through the staff room of an independent school. Teachers were reading newspapers and academic journals; they huddled in subject groups planning and reviewing lesson materials. They did this because the curriculum itself had been stable for years, allowing expertise and resources to gather around it.

Does this impede the autonomy of teachers? Of course not. Delivering the curriculum – linking it to prior knowledge, deftly checking for understanding and providing precise feedback– is the very essence of teaching. Deciding what to teach places a huge burden on individual teachers. In every profession there are accepted standards that professionals simply don’t interfere with, whatever their personal preferences.

It’s time to stop tweaking, tinkering, chopping and changing. The curriculum – the stuff kids study so that they leave school with an understanding of the world around them – is too important to be left to chance.

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The specific things that leaders do

I recently spent a few months supporting a school in Portsmouth as it joined our group of schools. This return to hands-on school leadership presented me with a few situations that I hadn’t encountered for a while, such as holding a meeting with a parent and child to address persistently poor behaviour which could no longer be tolerated by the school. It’s a meeting with a clear purpose: the behaviour of the pupil needs to change.

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On an early morning train to Portsmouth I happened to be accompanied by one of our Regional Directors. She’s an experienced headteacher so I sought her advice for the meeting that awaited me at the school. She suggested:

  • Speak to the parent on their own first – make it clear what the problem is and what you need the parent to do.
  • Invite the pupil to join the meeting when, and only when, you have secured the support of the parent.
  • Once the pupil joins the meeting, present a united front – “I’ve explained to your mother/father what the problem is; s/he is aware of how serious this is.”
  • Be crystal clear with the pupil about the behaviour that is causing concern, why it cannot be tolerated, and what s/he needs to do instead. Check that they understand this.
  • Agree on the next steps: e.g. “you’ll return to your lessons from Period 2 but for today only I’ll need you to spend break times with your head of year. I’ll pop in to one of your lessons today and I expect to see you working hard.”

None of this is rocket science and I’m sure that people with more experience of these meetings than me follow a structure like this without even realising it. But this experience reminded me that leadership is as much about the specific things that leaders do as the lofty ideals and the glossy mission statements, and that there is good practice relating to these specific things that we can codify and share. Even if established leaders do this stuff implicitly, by making it explicit we can catalyse the development of new leaders.

I was reminded of this when I read this thoughtful post in which a serving head argues that “Too many leadership programmes focus on ‘leadership’ over domain knowledge”. The head continues, “The problem for schools comes, I would argue, when leaders are more interested in notions of leadership over and above what they are leading on.”

Similarly, this article in the Harvard Business Review makes the case that successful leadership is less about generic competencies and more about perfecting a core set of daily routines:

“Leaders want to get better in the here-and-now, not to be judged against a competency map or be sold an abstract theory about what leadership should look like. If you want to become a great leader, become a student of your context — understand your organization’s social system — and mind your routines. Leadership development is more about application than theory.”

The HBR post continues: “As we pursued our work at BHP Billiton, six routines (for example, how leaders spent their time in the field, in one-on-one meetings, and in cross team meetings) were identified which, when executed well, appeared to differentiate the highest-performing supervisors from average performing ones (the routines we discovered are context-specific to BHP Billiton; the routines that are right for you depend on your organization).”

The 6 core routines for school leaders might include:

  • Managing a meeting
  • Taking an assembly
  • Doing a learning walk
  • Holding a developmental conversation with a teacher
  • Holding a difficult conversation with a pupil/parent
  • Line managing a senior/middle leader.

Doug Lemov improved our understanding of teaching by codifying the specific things that effective teachers do. By making the implicit, explicit, he established a shared language that thousands of schools have adopted to develop their teachers.

Perhaps it’s time we do the same for school leadership?

 

 

 

Careful What We Wish For

‘Summit fever’ is the term given to an obsessive focus on a symbolic achievement – reaching the summit of a mountain, becoming a millionaire, getting married – and the risk that our focus on the end-point can distract us from the issues that matter here and now.

Summit

It’s a term explored by Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote. Drawing on Christopher Kayes’ account of a fatally flawed Everest climb, Burkeman describes a group of mountaineers for whom reaching the summit of Everest ‘became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their sense of themselves’. As these doomed climbers ignored worsening conditions in their pursuit of the peak, their expedition became ‘a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.’

You don’t have to spend long on a school’s website to see what it wishes for. Take this from one school: ‘With an unrelenting drive focused on achievement for all, our vision is to be graded as Outstanding within four years.’ Other schools strive to be ‘the best school in the borough’ or proclaim a ‘2020 vision’ to gain a Progress 8 of +1 by the start of the next decade.

Such statements provide clarity, purpose and urgency, but perhaps this obsession with the symbols of success distracts us from the steps required to actually get there. Burkeman tells the story of General Motors which in the early 2000s set itself a target of gaining 29% of market share. It met this ambitious target not by improving the product but by slashing the price of its vehicles. This self-imposed race to the bottom continued until it filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

Similarly, our school above which strives to gain its outstanding Ofsted badge might spend time sprucing up classrooms and perfecting the SEF, rather investing in teacher development. Our school that strives to be the best in the borough might resist collaborating with other local schools to support vulnerable students. Our school which seeks a Progress 8 of +1 might fill the open bucket with easier qualifications, rather than ensuring that pupils who arrive in Year 7 without basic literacy are provided with the support to catch up.

A school’s Progress 8 score and Ofsted rating do nothing in themselves to improve the prospects of its pupils, so a school driven by these external reputational goals can set itself on a path of activity which diverges from the needs of its students.

How can we avoid summit fever in our schools while still harnessing the organisational benefits of a clear and simple statement of intent?

Firstly, we can prioritise the process, not the destination, framing our targets around the inputs of school improvement. Such targets might include raising attendance, getting pupils to work harder, improving behaviour and ensuring that the curriculum is coherent and challenging.

Secondly, if we do want to set specific end-point targets, we can ensure that these benefit students, rather than the school. So rather than a Progress 8 of +1 we could commit to the majority of pupils walking out with 8 good GCSEs. Rather than being the best school in the borough we could commit to all of our students progressing to university or employment. Rather than an Ofsted outstanding rating we could commit to ensuring that all pupils can read fluently by the end of Year 7.

Say if our school above gained the outstanding judgement that it set out to achieve. What next? Like a runner with post-marathon blues, I wonder if the school would be able to sustain its momentum.

A colleague of mine recently conducted an Ofsted inspection. Throughout the process he didn’t once hear the word ‘outstanding’. It wasn’t uttered by a single member of staff. It didn’t feature on the SEF. In fact, the first person to use the word was the lead inspector when she delivered her final judgement to the school. If we invest in the process, the end-point might just look after itself.

There are hundreds of things that schools can strive for. A single headline measure, or a particular judgement from a team of inspectors, shouldn’t be the extent of our ambition.

One Click revision

Converting an intention to purchase online into the act of purchasing online is a billion pound problem for the world’s retailers. Just google ‘cart abandonment’ to see how much it bothers them.   Retailers have responded with One-Click ordering and tools which speed up the checkout process by remembering your delivery preferences and auto-filling your address.

Start

As exam season approaches, a similar problem plays out in homes across the land: converting the intention to revise into the act of meaningful, productive revision. Thousands of potential revision hours are lost each day as students fail to convert this intention into action.

Take two ways of fixing this.

Online programmes speed the conversion from intention to action by removing the question of what to revise.  One such programme is HegartyMaths which tracks students’ progress and enables them to pick up their revision from where they left it the last time.  To convert the intention into action, simply log-in to HegartyMaths.

Less techy, but just as powerfully, Walthamstow Academy (a United Learning school which I work with) provides each student with a 1-20 book in each subject.  This 20-page booklet captures all the important stuff they need to know for that subject.  They receive it just before the Easter holidays and it guides them through the start of their revision programme, day by day.  No more sifting through piles of papers for those important notes, or spending time making revision cards; the 1-20 books enable students to crack on with meaningful revision. The intention is quickly converted into meaningful action.

We can’t remove all the barriers our students face this exam season, but we can help convert the intention to revise into meaningful revision.

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.

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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.

Co-Planning

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.