“Nothing is Wasted”


He knew it was coming. But he got the news earlier this week. My 21-year old son was told by his university that his finals were cancelled. They were planning to ask the biochemists to ‘sit’ an online essay style exam across 24 hours, but even that imperfect possibility had been pulled. We sat together and he talked me through all the exams, practicals and coursework he has completed this year, and the previous two, and considered how he thinks his university will come to some algorithm of assessment for the final grade and degree class. He was deflated, but against the background of national emergency, pretty stoical.

My mind raced. I drew on ten years experience as a Headteacher plus a few more as a father, then conjured all sorts of practical suggestions for the next five months. I could imagine what he could do with his time, could see it all planned out. I suggested a few ideas. He went very quiet. He asked that we take the dog for a walk. “Let’s go further than normal, Dad.”

I was reminded of Brian Draper’s brilliant and encouraging Lent series ‘Wilder-ness’  here that I’ve been following, where he writes about a similar experience with his son:

“I found myself walking this tight-rope on Friday, when my son returned from school for the last time. He was meant to sit exams this year, but in two brief days went from full-on revision mode to saying farewell. Tears weren’t far from the surface, and I was wobbling up there on the high-wire, too. We looked down at all the revision cards and exercise books he needed to clear from his bedroom floor. “Nothing is wasted,” I heard myself say, with some vertigo.”

So Sam and I and the dog headed to a remote spot (our one exercise routine of the day) and as we walked I tried to stop making suggestions and just tried to hear him. I breathed out, shut up and listened to my son. To his frustrations, his anger and his unformed ideas. At one point the spring light shone through a wooded bank of wild garlic. We both just stood and watched for a bit saying nothing.

And then, slowly, as we meandered back to the car, side by side, a train of half-formed ideas emerged as he talked. I made myself stay silent. He spoke about how he might use this time, learning a new language, playing some new music, maybe doing some NHS volunteering, perhaps looking at some research. The time ahead slowly seemed less a punishment and more a new possibility.

Nothing is wasted.

More than I expected

It felt awkward – just clapping our hands outside our front doors as a sign of support for NHS staff on the frontline of their fight against CV. And yet, reluctantly I stood there in the dark hoping I wouldn’t be the first, or the only one. Armed with my instruments: a saucepan and wooden spoon.

A few doors down a friend working in the local hospital told us that this week she had to advise her most vulnerable patients on the oncology ward that they should stop their chemotherapy, as catching CV with their reduced immunity would almost certainly be fatal. She never imagined having to have such difficult conversations and found herself crying inconsolably when she returned from her shift. I can only imagine having to say that … thinking about the words I would use.

I really hope she heard us.

So actually it was not hard to stand at my front door and clap, and as the applause swept up our street I bashed the tins harder and got weepier for the knowledge of the searing, emotional but understated work our National Health Service warriors do each day.

We are British. On the phone I’d seen clips of men playing tennis across Italian balconies and Spanish police serenading families stuck indoors.  But we Brits don’t do emotional, extravagant outbursts so I expected the 8pm moment would be embarrassing. I knew it would be weird. But somehow, it was moving. More than that. Beautiful.

And as the echoes of the applause and the tin pots melted into the cool March night, neighbours trickled onto the road. We chatted tentatively about our families, how odd it all is, people pulling together, how to source toilet rolls.

I listened intently to the man opposite as he spoke about the crisis. The effectiveness of lockdown, the state of our leaders and how somehow we will all look back on this and be changed. Earlier this year he had found my lost cat who was at death’s door, while we were away on holiday. How had I lived opposite him for years and never really talked? This man loved my cat, had lots of answers and I hardly knew him.

We are desperate for connection, for community and above all for contact. This lockdown makes it feel like we are losing our schools and churches, our sports teams and choirs, even our favourite pubs, all those cornerstones of British community life. And the irony is that in our current state of isolation we need community more than ever before. A week into lockdown and I’m missing basic physical interaction with people down the road I like. A handshake, an arm on the shoulder, a bit of banter, a beer with someone.

The ‘Clap for our Carers’ initiative was dreamt up by Annemarie Plas, a Dutch yoga teacher whose message on Instagram was shared across social media. She was inspired by a moment of applause in the Netherlands two weeks ago where she saw its uplifting effect on people.

Where we are just now feels like a pause. Pauses can draw attention to things that otherwise would go unnoticed. I’ve been reading Robert Poynton’s ‘Do/Pause’. He reminds us that playwrights (like composers) indicate where the actor should pause in the text, because they know the pause will lead the audience and change the meaning. Yesterday, I tried to pause more than usual and I noticed 2 things that with less time I would have missed:

  • A clean blue sky without a single plane trail (I had to catch myself I was so surprised)
  • How hard my eldest son and I laughed as we made toad-in-the-hole for dinner – we had time for cooking together, instead of it being a chore before getting back to work

The enforced disconnection we are experiencing means it’s not business as usual, and our communities are being wonderfully resourceful. Thousands throwing themselves at making each community work, volunteering to deliver food and medicines for the NHS, café-owners selling half price to key workers, teachers making free school meals a reality for families, volunteers running foodbanks, neighbours phoning people down the road to check in and dropping food off. And the exploding of virtual communities encouraging us and keeping us in touch. It is inspiring and tear-jerking in equal measure.

And we are not really losing them of course – those soul-spaces of our society. Schools are working incredibly hard to support pupils at home. Churches run virtual services and have set up practical and prayer support for the elderly and people self-isolating. And of course the time to celebrate sports teams and that beer will come.

So maybe something’s happening.

Poynton remembered as a child merging his collection of lego with that of a friend to undertake bigger construction projects. “I remember thinking it impressive that each brick – his and mine – slotted reliably with every other brick. The studs in the top lock with the tubes beneath without fail.”

We are like lego bricks waiting right now. Physically we have to isolate, but in our minds we can either lie separate on the floor (to be trodden on by a sleepy parent) or join together to build something different in this space. A construction project that we could not have dreamt about before we were made to pause.

Sometimes tiny gestures surprise us and touch our hearts. My family will be putting a candle in our window on Sunday, and I for one will feel a little less alone and a little more open as I look out the window at my own community.

It has all been much more than I expected.



The Village of Albion

Once there was a dreaded plague which came to the Kingdom of Albion from the desert across the sea.

The first signs were coughing. Next came sickness, and then some of the elders began to die. And the villagers were very sad because the people of Albion were a loving people who cared deeply about their elders.

Some of the prophet leaders said that people should not meet together in the village taverns or bakeries or even in the synagogues or churches. But other prophets disagreed and said that people should still hold their child’s hand and take them to sit under the tree for the afternoon story with the teacher, and they should visit the elders in the gardens by the river where they grew flowers that were sold at market to help pay the taxes for the Pharaoh.

And because the prophets disagreed, the lawyers got involved, and everybody argued.

And so the people in the village became angry. Angry at the prophets who gave confusing prophecies and who did not speak with one voice. Angry at the Pharaoh collecting his taxes. Angry at the teacher who carried on reading under the tree as if nothing was happening. And angry at themselves because they were afraid and did not know the right thing to do.

Some people were afraid that they would catch the plague so they started to avoid each other. Some were afraid that the Pharaoh would punish them if they were not working in the garden picking flowers to pay the taxes, and so they went to work. But they eyed each other suspiciously in the gardens and made sure to leave two rows between them and the next picker.

And so the whispering desert wind blew across the land, silently at first and then stronger and stronger until people were afraid that it would blow the plague right into their own houses. So they shut the doors very tight and peered through the cracks to see what was happening outside.

And then the prophets told all the people who were coughing that they would be locked up in their homes. And so the coughers were seen no more. And slowly, the daily visits to the bakery ended, no one visited the old lady at the top of the street and the flowers in the gardens by the river went unpicked.

Young men held their hands by their sides awkwardly at the tavern. The elders in the coffee house bobbed side to side instead of double-kissing, and the clapping games of the girls grew silent.

And then the Pharaoh caught the coughing sickness.

And the villagers held on tight to their baskets of bread, their buckets of milk, the fish from the river and their handful of coins from the market that week. They locked themselves away and hardly ever came out.

And then the prophets said that the children were not allowed to visit their grandmothers and grandfathers. The elders were lonely, and the little children were sad because they didn’t understand and they felt poisonous. And the elders were sad because they yearned to be part of things, instead of shut away. And very soon it wasn’t just the coughers who didn’t come out. It was everyone.

And so the sounds of the village became soft and even the lowing of the cows was muffled and sleepy. The clamour of children and the babble of the elders and the happy eruption of the night music from the tavern all disappeared and so the village became silent.

It was like the world had paused, waiting to see what would happen next. It was as though the village had died.

And all this time the teacher had been sitting underneath in the shade of the tree reading a story to herself. And slowly, because they were tired of waiting, and because their parents were exhausted, some of the smallest children crept out of the houses and nervously sat under the tree to listen.

At first there were only two or three but, because the teacher read so well and felt the words so deeply and wanted to share them, soon there were hundreds of children sitting in the shade underneath the gently spreading branches of the tree.

And then one morning, one of the houses of the coughers opened up and a small girl with a purple dress stepped outside. Curtains and drapes and blinds blinked and the villagers gasped as they peered outside and watched her walk the whole length up the hill. At times she skipped, so happy was she to be in the fresh air again.

She carried something gently, and for the whole time she skipped up the hill there was not a single cough.

At the top of the street she turned, and knocked on the dusty door of the old lady. There was a long pause before the door was opened.

“You know you’re not allowed to come here,” said the lady

“But I have stopped coughing,” the little girl replied.

“No, I mean you are not allowed to come here. I am old and have to be left alone because I am weak.”

The little girl did not reply. She reached behind her back, and brought out a bunch of purple tulips. She stood on tiptoes and held them high. The old lady gazed. And she smiled. And then she stepped to one side and the little girl went inside

Our Singing Curriculum


Choirs are mushrooming across the country. I first joined a choir at the tender age of six and I’ve never really shaken it off. Tuesday nights are special for me. I look forward to the camaraderie of the choir, the collective endeavour, the hope that we will crack this tricky piece, the soaring sound of the harmonies. I fear my lack of homework being shown up and I fear the moment when the tenors have to sing an exposed, difficult section but by 9.45pm I realise that for the last two hours of I have concentrated more and laughed louder than for the rest of my week put together. It is this cocktail which brings me back week after week, against a backdrop of the ups and downs of work, illness, birth and death. The music is the thing.

“Group singing is the most transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony.” Time Magazine 2013

Choir singing is growing. In America, 32.5 million adults sing in choirs, up by almost 10 million over the past six years. In the UK, the primary school phenomenon ‘Young Voices’ has taken children and their parents into a new world of music and emotion within the structure of formal singing. For girls and boys.

Singing together generates endorphins, which bring us happiness or elation. Oxytocin, another hormone sparked by singing, alleviates anxiety and builds bonding. So when we are part of a choir, we feel less lonely and more connected. In one study, singers were found to have lower levels of cortisol, meaning lower stress. Group singing is cheaper than a counsellor, better than alcohol, and an aerobic activity into the bargain.

My son’s research for his music degree suggested that music grew as a social construct for group living. The enjoyment from singing together is our learnt evolutionary reward for team working, rather than hiding alone in our caves. In the dog-eat-dog education system where we have taught children from Y6 SATs to Y13 A Levels to compete, that it is us against the world, group singing is a very different kind of educational philosophy.

My son now plays the piano in a number of old folks’ homes in town. He loves the way that music creates a genuine response from people, unlocks memories, makes lonely elderly people smile and join in. Whether it is Elton John, Elvis or Elgar. Musicians in the community encourage singing to treat neurological issues from stuttering to Parkinson’s Disease. The Centre for Performance Science (a partnership of the Royal College of Music and Imperial College London) considers how singing supports mental health, and organisations such as Gloucestershire’s ‘Mindsong’ bring music therapies to those living with dementia.

So these are some of the reasons that this weekly singing with our Y7 choir has given me so much pleasure. The whole year group, boys and girls, singing together for a timetabled lesson each week, and putting some oomph into it. Music is also and rightly about high performance. Developing musicians and creating a culture where high quality is key to enjoyment and building great schools. But with singing this can often be reduced to a small number of people in a choir and a few soloists as we move up the years. We are developing a whole school singing culture where everyone is proud, not ashamed, to sing.

In building properly inclusive communities and schools, look no further than this brilliant clip from Vic Goddard: note that part of the whole experience is how the audience plays their part.

I always hate the first rehearsal of a new piece. My sight-reading is poor, and we bash through the notes and tentatively sing sections together, but it feels clumsy. A musical form of paint by numbers. But David, our musical director breaks it down for us. We start with the first 28 bars, and we split as soprano/alto and tenor/bass sections in separate rooms. Each section sings alone, then together with the other voice, and then after the break we bring all the parts together. Gently at first and with lots of overgenerous encouragement, then more focused coaching so that by 9.45pm the last few minutes of the rehearsal actually begin to hum and there is a moment where I stop singing and just listen to the harmony and a shiver runs through me. A transcendent moment. Then it’s homework (bars 29-56) and next week we will do the same, but for the second half we re-sing through the bits we learnt the previous week. A kind of retrieval practice. This is the ‘core’. We begin to feel it build.

We proceed for a few weeks like this, assembling the nuts and bolts of how the piece functions and this is where David weaves his background magic. His ‘hinterland’. He steps back from the immediate, the music, the notes and then talks to us about what the words we are singing really mean, the sense of passion in the piece or what we want our audience to feel. This is the musical back story –  where the magic happens. He asks us to listen to a professional choir (The Sixteen) with their version of this piece. But he waits a few weeks until we have some traction with the music before he hits us with this context. It has more impact that way. It sticks.

Of course there the end goal – the concert, the final event we have been working towards. The dawning realisation at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon as we meet the soloists and the orchestra on the stage for the first time and I begin to understand the collective parts coming together to make the whole. The humbling feeling of being on stage with professionals – real singers and players. But at the end of the performance when the crowd melts away it’s the next rehearsal I’m looking forward to. It’s about the learning, the doing, each Tuesday night, the settling into the groove and what the next piece will be. That’s my music curriculum. My music habit.

Is it too much to suggest that as we sing, we meet our best self? There is that personal goal of committing to something each week. Does this jointly creative act do something special to us? We spend our lives comparing ourselves in unhealthy ways, but although we stand shoulder to shoulder alongside fellow singers it is the shared endeavour which is key, not who sings best. Can singing make the world better? Are there positive changes which can trickle into our lives – our families our friends, our schools and communities? This sounds a little grand, but I know that there’s a skip in my step each week after rehearsal.

My wife joined a choir three weeks ago. Her choir sing a different genre of music. I played her the sublime ‘Ruht Wohl’ from the St John Passion so that she will be moved as I am moved. She simply looks at me and says: “Well, its not Tainted Love is it?”


Detecting the curriculum: Holmes, Hirsch and Jim Hawkins


Driving back home along the M5, my son and I are listening to Sherlock Holmes. Watson is stunned by Holmes’ all round ignorance, and gives an informal school report:

“Knowledge of literature – nil; philosophy – nil; astronomy – nil; politics – feeble; botany – variable (well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally, but knows nothing of practical gardening); geology – practical but limited; chemistry profound; sensational literature immense (he appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century); plays the violin well.”
Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes has made distinctive knowledge choices, counter-cultural for Victorian Britain, but which fit perfectly for the consulting detective role. His deliberate approach has been to pursue arcane knowledge (blood stains, pollen grains on the soles of shoes, 300 types of cigar ash) whilst eliminating facts which would get in the way:

“A brain is like a little empty attic and you stock it with as much furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort, so that the knowledge which might be useful gets crowded out with a lot of other things.” 

One of the earliest descriptions of the pain of retrieval? Possibly. If Benedict Cumberbatch was all mind-palace, this is definitely more brain-attic.

We think deeply about what we choose to teach, and what we leave out. Each school will have different needs for the core curriculum, its reading and oracy programs, its SMSC. To get pupils university-ready or fit for their next steps we think deeply about our context and what they’ll need.

I am currently in the classroom most of the day teaching English – not a subject for which I was trained. Nor how I have spent most of my time as a headteacher over the last eight years. But for lots of reasons it was a short-term challenge I was keen to have a crack at. As I have watched the shortlists for English posts dwindle in the last 15 years I like other Heads have looked at how to creatively recruit into this subject. And I wanted to see if I could break into the secret garden – the classrooms that so many teachers peep into, wondering at the magic of language being formed. Everything starts with English. So many of the best teachers and people I have had the honour to work with have been English specialists. So I had no illusions. It was going to be like a guy pitching up at Top Gear with his VW camper van and hoping to compete in the timed lap. You see, I’m already into similes.

5 weeks in and I’m loving it. I have some great English specialists helping me and am working within a terrific school ethos. Teaching is an unbeatable, if exhausting, vocation. Still. I’m loving the direct contact with class after class, the interaction and energetic fun of working with 30+ children each lesson, crafting in my own classroom. Watching the moment the ideas kick in.

There is no getting away from the ‘trial-by-class’ for the new teacher, whatever your background. They want to know you can cut it. So bridging the behaviour protocols, navigating the transitions between texts and adjusting to the lightning class-changeovers have all been part of my journey as a fledgling English teacher. Until I reached the point, a couple of weeks in, when pupils began to realise it was going to be OK. Teaching is such a complex task that identifying that precise moment is tricky. I sensed my transitions becoming smoother – the class easing from one English activity to the next. Classes began to happily hum.

With my Y7s I knew it the moment when, bedraggled and sopping, they climbed the stairs from a swimming lesson and minutes later, were all hooked into Treasure Island and writing about Jim Hawkins as a hero. For my top set Y11s, they needed to know that this relative stranger could actually help even this close to the exams, so it was a lesson which compared the theme of power in Blake’s ‘London’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘Storm on the Island’, and when they asked for revision help with Browning’s tricky ‘My Last Duchess’. More about getting alongside, than setting expectations.

And then the gears shift into subject pedagogy. How do I develop the Low Stakes Quiz format in a way that does more than check retrieval of content or search for synonyms? How do I ensure that my teacher-brain (which automatically recalibrates the degree of difficulty for less able groups) keeps the level of challenge high? And so just as my confidence grew and I started to look more closely at the English curriculum, it was then that I received an observation that didn’t go well.

Like many growing Trusts we have a central curriculum which, although emerging, is strongly conceived, highly challenging and centrally shared. Subject leads or ‘curriculum curators’ work with Heads of Departments across schools to develop and construct great schemes of work.

“The best way to learn lots of words is to systematically and coherently learn lots of things. The most egalitarian school is one that follows a cumulative, multi-year plan of knowledge building.”

Anyway, back to my observation. To be fair, more of a gentle drop-in. Y7 studying Treasure Island; I was trying to use one of the centrally planned resources (it was fine) to get my pupils to write more exciting sentences. They were attempting narrative writing but I wasn’t happy with what they were coming up with – it was too clunky, too robotic. So the plan was to look at two pages of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s flowing, descriptive prose, set this against ‘typical boring sentence-starter’ (pronoun/verb: He raced) and then crack on and create their own sentences with a few models to get them going. I was teaching five lessons that day and this section was probably the least well thought through (for this read badly planned).

One thing I rediscovered early: Remember that in every lesson there will be a key moment to learn from. Enjoy it. It’s part of the joy of the journey. Teaching which becomes all about end-points is a dismal vocation.

My Y7s got stuck very early. Stuck in a way that if it had been a conceptual gap in geography I would simply have stopped, listened, apologised for not explaining clearly, cracked open the misconception and retaught it. But because teaching English was still fish-out-of-water territory, I was not agile enough to adjust and we soon ground to a bit of a halt. Two vast and trunkless legs of stone indeed it felt, with tumbleweed whispering away into the desert. My observers kindly peeled off giving me space and time to recover my wits and very soon I was into John Agard with Y11 and having a ball. With them it was more urgent. With my Y7s at least I knew I had time to put things right.

But this showed me a little about how a central curriculum running across a group of schools should and should not be used. It should be a team endeavour, corporately created and explicit about exactly which concepts and ideas are taught. These are set out through shared knowledge organisers (this is a must-read from Jon Hutchinson), texts, articles and slides that lay out the picture of a high quality, challenging curriculum. In Y7 English on the ground I could see this meant more epizeuxis and epistrophe, less metaphor and simile.

At its best this reservoir of resources gives me different ways into teaching these concepts – it supports my planning but does not substitute my thinking. At its worst, knowing there is centrally planned powerpoint means I could simply turn on the PC at 8 in the morning and 30 minutes later be delivering someone else’s hard-won thinking. I become some sort of MAT hologram teacher.

So what did I get wrong with my Y7s? My pupils need my own particular strengths and personality that I bring to my craft. They need my thinking about where they are and where they need to be, and the careful crafting which will achieve that. I missed this, the most vital element in the learning process. And of course the dawning realisation that ‘writing floats on a sea of talk’. So the following lesson began well before the following lesson. I created some modelled writing of Jim Hawkins, made parallels with Catniss Everdene (of Hunger Games fame) and studied the characteristics of heroism each character shows. In other words some scene-setting and referring to another world (this time dystopian) to add context, then lots of discussion, before returning Stevenson’s cracking prose and getting my students to write well. And they did. Best writing yet.

“If you look at the manuscript of writers preserved in museums and libraries you can often see the changes they made scribbled between the lines. What you can’t see are the changes they made in their heads before those sentences were even inscribed.”
V Klinkenburg – Several Short Sentences about Writing

And so with thousands of powerpoints down the land. In the visualiser v powerpoint debate, this is excellent from Ben Newmark. I favour visualisers because they are an outward manifestation of the thinking process of the teacher and the class. They see the changes we made in our heads. With slides it has already happened. Visualisers captivate: they are a little bit Tony Hart. I have watched so many lessons where pupils are entranced about what comes next. In contrasts powerpoint slides are usually slapped on the screen rapid-fire (I’ve done it myself) and too fast for all of our brains to process. There is little mystery or joy.

Putting together a great curriculum across a group of schools:
So what about losing the autonomy of my curriculum? As a head of department having to abdicate control of what is taught in my department can be tough. I will have forged together a team and, through trial and error of what works well in our context, having crafted thoughtfully sequenced schemes of work which accumulate the building blocks of good geographers, methodical mathematicians, curious chemists. I will have made decisions about exam boards, tested through the crucible of changes to curriculum frameworks or QCA politics. My team will have built resources, developed successful fieldwork days or museum/art gallery visits which enrich our curriculum choices. All of these decisions built on their particular strengths, qualifications, specialisms or areas of interest (I think of a brilliant geographer I worked with recently who was a proper glaciologist, with serious expedition experience. We were definitely using that in our curriculum!). When I put all of this together, I will be resistant to having to change or reverse these decisions.

But being part of a group of schools means I am also part of a larger team which should help me in creating a more enriching, more exciting, more in-depth curriculum because there is now a bigger resource-base of expertise, thinking and passion and a real sense of purpose. So while I’m losing some control, and a topic or a scheme here or there, I gain the expertise of other leaders and specialists who can, together with me, build what should become a more challenging curriculum. Success depends on the subject-lead setting key principles, keeping the level of challenge high and harnessing the best of our larger teams’ skills and resources. Some schools now part of Trusts will inevitably be further along the journey, others less so. But all make a contribution and so (and this is the key bit) all pupils must inevitably benefit. I can see my way to compromising my autonomy for the greater good. In losing some control, standards must increase.

I’ve visited lots of schools over the past year, and things are changing. Many schools are now acting on the evidence (rather than talking about the evidence) and have introduced daily reading and seeing the impact this especially has on disadvantaged pupils. The ‘reading canon’ so clearly articulated in Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered has been an inspiration in the culture where I am working. The reading approach is led by @josiemingay, and my first experience on day 1 was Y10 reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles at 8.40 for 25 minutes per day and the day ending with another 20 minutes of DEAR time. This is not a school where there was any history of a love of reading and the difference is palpable. The next challenge for schools who are on this journey and who who have selected their canon is developing close reading to ‘uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension’ rather than just whizzing through the books.

English departments are teaching harder texts earlier. This works best when delivered by great subject specialists with the reservoirs of behind-the-scenes background pupils need to know. But in the hands of the less experienced/non-specialists this can throw pupils in the deep end without a rubber ring, creating only the impression of more challenge. Teachers are also introducing more challenging vocabulary earlier, but we need to know how well this new information is taught, how much practice we give pupils in using it and how the knowledge is applied systematically across the curriculum. There is also the risk of losing the connectedness of this rich vocabulary. We need more of what Mark Enser describes brilliantly here.

When visiting a school recently I was asked my thoughts on academic v vocational curriculum. Should we pursue EBacc or applied qualifications? On reflection I think this is the wrong question. The big stuff is happening in KS3. This is where leaders and teachers have been forced/encouraged (you choose your politics) to take ownership of the curriculum rather than blaming the next edict from on high. I think the reason we been asking that very question for years (as some sort of litmus test of our leaders) is because we have not thought about our year 7-9 curriculum hard enough, we have not planned it well enough and because we have not put our best teachers in there (how could you with accountability at the other end?) and so unsurprisingly it has not been taught well enough.

If we properly invest in finally getting KS3 right, the applied/academic question becomes redundant. This will take brave leadership from Heads/Trusts to invest in and allocate resources in a way which promotes long term change, and from Regional School Commissioners/Ofsted to recognise and reward this:

The French soldier Marshal Hubert Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected saying trees were slow growers and it would take a hundred years for the tree to mature. “In that case” replied the soldier, “there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”
 from The Wood – John Lewis-Stempel

My favourite moment from my English teaching? The point I was sure my Y10 bottom set who had struggled with poetry were with me: When 3 of the boys hung around at the end of the lesson and wanted me to know, without exactly saying so, that the lesson on Shelley’s Ozymandias had touched a chord. You are never too long in the tooth for a fist-pump moment down the stairs believing you’ve made a breakthrough. Until you then hear one of them as he steps into the playground asking his friend: “Does Ozymandias play for Spurs?”

It’s a great profession.

Dolphins and Butterflies


My young son and I cycle around Strumble Head, in wild west Pembrokeshire, squeezing through tall, mossy hedgerows on tarmac made glass-smooth by years of sheep droppings. We leave our bikes on the dry Prehistoric drystone wall and walk round the peninsular towards the lighthouse. The wind hugs us tight to the cliffs and as we tiptoe we look down past our feet for porpoises or dolphins. So we peer as we walk, tripping down stony heather bluffs and sea-pink ridges. We perch where the gulls and kittiwakes perch, and scour for any signs of life. Every so often we see seals bottling or hear the eerie sigh of a bull seal over on the brown slab of an island opposite. Eighteenth century sailors imagined mermaids when they tracked its mournful mating call.

Mostly what I enjoy is the deep green bays, and the enormous pale slabs lurking just below the water beneath the cliffs. Great unspoiled tanks of pristine deep water. Within touching distance of big marine mammals. I perch on the cliff edge like a cormorant and mentally launch myself into the crescent of pure, green water. We stroll past serious looking binoculared couples in National Trust green. For an hour or two we wander the warm crags, eyes on the horizon, checking our feet. The breeze dies down and the sun comes out and my son soon loses the intensity.

But then, moment by moment, we become dimly aware of warm wafts of air lifting huge clouds of butterflies off the violet heather and vanilla gorse. My son waves his arms throughout them and we both smile. Staring through the clash of red, black and orange is like being a child with a kaleidoscope again. An unexpected blessing after all that effort-filled pursuit.

That feeling of searching too hard for something in the wrong place. And all the time looking for the wrong thing, when the thing I needed was right under my nose.

As teachers we spent ages creating incredible powerpoints only to be told that visualiers are in. Design forensic lesson plans but then find out it’s more about curricular intent. Scrawl purple-pen feedback in all the exercise books and then read ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger’. Pour interventions into kids like water into a colander, knowing there will always be holes! Then being told that now, in 2018, it is actually THIS that is going to have most impact, it is THIS which is most effective and THIS is what Ofsted are looking for. And then to see the BBC2 ‘School’ programme and feel the rock-bottom morale of children and staff and witness the dignity of the under-pressure headteacher James Pope.

Which is why rereading THIS is a tonic (the pupil premium is not working) and thoughtful reasoning against over simplistic directives. And understanding THIS (to address underachieving groups, teach everyone better)  is what, deep down as teachers, we have probably always known. And realising THIS (graphically exposing Ofsted bias) helps me to be at peace that just maybe the system is stacked against some schools and it’s not just me being neurotic. But there is still a sense of having spent half a lifetime searching the wrong waters for dolphins, with faulty binoculars, when all the while the butterflies danced just inches from us.


Two days later we cycle to Mwnt and after a long, sunny, timeless day, frisbee around the grass car park. The day is almost done and we walk, relaxed in the cool air along the cliff tops to watch the sunset. Just as I try to badly explain to my boy how the bright yellow stains on the rocks is where bird poo has fed the lichen (he yawns), we hear rather than see the rush and suck and then crash of a dolphin. All that is left a spiral of white on the surface of sea. Like tree rings. Then another. And another. And altogether we watch over a period of 30 minutes while two pods of five dolphins swim out west along the sunlit Ceredigion coast. 400m out to sea, occasionally coming up for air and beautifully free of human contact.

And you know what? We weren’t even looking for them.

Getting our teachers back. Getting our teachers’ back.


“I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.”
Stevie Smith

Getting our teachers back:
The moment it hit home for me was when I heard that X had left teaching. I knew then with absolute clarity that we had a problem. Why in that moment? Because she was simply brilliant. Strong subject knowledge, super-high expectations, a great team player and a wonderful sense of fun. She was one of those incredibly effervescent adults who children of all ages gravitate towards. I had appointed her into a good department team where at first she thrived. In her first year she would sometimes have the kind of meltdowns we’ve all had – mostly around the volume of marking, unhelpful paperwork or working so late she had no energy for anything else.

But she was one of those professionals who I sensed, with a little creative support, would ride the storm and withstand the roller-coaster of the first two years. I’d visit her classroom at 5.30pm and tell her to go home. Her team would take her for a drink. I told her to stop marking for a few weeks so she could get the balance right. There was a cycle of marking, deadlines, personal frustration that she felt things were not getting better, and then a meltdown. She was upset that she couldn’t manage things better.

“A cocktail of box-ticking demands, ceaseless curriculum reform, disruptive reorganisations and an audit culture that requires teachers to document their every move.” Becky Allen, The Teacher Gap

I remember my first headteacher, the late Robert Buckley, who often took a young geography teacher to one side, catching him at exactly the right moments of exhaustion, reminding him that the first year was the hardest and that it would get better. It did, it became brilliant. But I needed those kind words. And good people around, who would frogmarch you to the pub on Friday after school for therapy: either to dispel any delusions of grandeur or pick you up after a week’s mauling by West London kids.

And then I heard that X had left the profession to become a youth worker. Which was great for the local youth. But desperately sad for the kids she was teaching, for her team and for the wider profession. Although it was only one person, for me it was like a flare signal going up that something was very wrong. I felt a sense of waste. The waste of talent and her training, and of the 25+ future years of brilliant teaching that our pupils and our schools have lost in that decision to leave teaching. It was not her fault at all. My strongest feeling was that we could have avoided this and caught her before she fell. I could have done more.

Business solution or exit strategy

Teachers leaving like never before:
There are currently 216,500 teachers in primary, 208,300 teachers in secondary, 16,700 teachers in special and a steadily growing 61,500 teachers in the independent sector. We are short of specialist teachers in maths and science (in poor areas outside London only 17% of physics teachers have a relevant degree compared with 52% in more affluent areas). Nearly 35,000 teachers left profession in 2015, and numbers are rising. Most leavers were in the 20-24 and 55-59 age categories.

“We know teacher recruitment targets have been consistently missed for many years. Workload, leading to a lack of leisure time and decreasing job satisfaction are key issues as well as a lack of flexible working particularly at a secondary level”Stephen Tierney, Chair of Heads Round Table

Russell Hobby, Teach First Chief Executive feels that the government lacks the levers to address the teacher recruitment crisis and believes “devolution and autonomy” (the breaking up of education into self-governing trusts) means the hands of the DfE are tied. The accountability system is driving school behaviour to generate excessive workload, and the speed of transmission from Ofsted to recognise this and bring real change on the ground is “unbelievably slow”.

So why is there hope?

But despite this I feel surprisingly positive about the future of teaching. Things are changing, just not from the top. There is broad understanding, a consensus, a movement among grassroots teachers and many school leaders that this has to change and that we have to be that change. No one else is going to do it for us. While in the last ten years the education system has prioritised structural reform and reorganisation (from LA-land to MAT-land) the profession knows it will now have to look after its teachers.

So like never before teachers are being proactive: Sharing strategies to shift behaviour in our schools so that first time teachers can now teach and not be crushed by disruption. Swapping knowledge-rich curricula and resources so that new teachers don’t have to start from scratch. Addressing workload, not with woolly ideas but through hard, well-designed structures (designing tighter working weeks, addressing wasted meeting time, streamlining marking and reporting), which allow teachers to get on with their job. There is some end-of-the-world-scenario-ing on edutwitter but there are far more shafts of sunlight. Our profession is beginning to look after its own.


Love the ones you’re with:
What reasons are teachers giving for leaving?

  1. Teachers who left in their first two years because they were not supported effectively, not provided with personalised help and practical strategies.
  2. Many were sick and tired of the relentless drudgery of fixing behaviour in their own classrooms because it was not managed centrally, or where the marking workload sucked the fun out of classroom interaction.
  3. Those who, like Becky Allen herself, as she describes in ‘The Teacher Gap’, felt that was no deliberate programme to help teachers get better, and no sense that it actually mattered much if they improved as teachers or not.
  4. Young parents balancing the challenge of bringing up young children with teaching. And who might be much more likely to return part time if they believed that it was doable, with realistic expectations about planning.
  5. Many retired early because of some or all of the above. The grandmasters with 10 000+ hours of practised-skill, who may not know how much they and their timeless skills are valued.

Many teachers have left financially worse off having invested in teacher training fees (this week’s Teach First survey of Headteachers reported that writing off student loans was the most popular option for boosting recruitment). Teachers have moved to perceived less stressful jobs, or retired earlier than they might have. They make up some of the teacher gap and should be part of the solution. But for them returning will feel counter-intuitive. How can they be confident that the same pitfalls (isolation, workload, stress) will not happen again? How do we persuade them that the profession is on it?

For those near the end of their career: Other public services are ahead of the teaching profession. The ‘Retire and Return’ scheme shows the NHS being proactive about retaining good people with invaluable skills. Why re-hire a retired employee? For heads and employers, there’s a double win: retaining valuable skills and experience and potential cost savings by reducing recruitment costs, agency fees and employer pension contributions.

Teach First’s Russell Hobby may be critical of the system’s agility to produce more teachers, but at least he is doing something about it. The Time to Teach scheme is designed to attract newcomers to teaching, Reconnect to Teaching will support former teachers to return to the classroom, while a teaching assistant fast-track programme will aim to support schools in developing high-potential support staff. It’s a start, for schools in challenging context.

For those at the start of their career:  I think retaining good new teachers is about deliberate in-school training programmes to develop teacher expertise:

Teaching expertise:

We hope that we get better at our job as we build experience. Becky Allen and Sam Sims borrow the graph below to describe the concept of a learning curve where over time our teaching skills and capabilities follow an upward trajectory. Just as measuring pupil learning is complex and not linear, the same is just as true for teachers’ progress. It is a difficult concept and tricky to measure but a helpful visual. While each person’s curve is unique, with a different start point and growth rate, what is common is a steep gradient after qualification and then more gently sloping until about the ten-year mark.


But teachers’ upward trajectories are not fixed. Schools that are really supportive of new staff (top blue line) find that teachers will gain nearly 40% more expertise compared with teachers in schools that do little. Common supportive practices include:

  • teaching the same content in multiple years to build up expertise and decipher the misconceptions fast
  • building up experience teaching a specific part of the course (and not teaching outside your subject)
  • teachers working with skilled colleagues in curriculum teams to share planning and to benefit from the ‘spillover effect’ (including being given a subject mentor who meets without fail)
  • Lots of planned opportunities observing skilled colleagues to learn the nuances of ‘professional judgment’ (eg. how do I develop a full repertoire of questioning skills, or when do I close down a class discussion).

Surely this is CPD. Maybe if X had received this kind of intentional support and training, which could have given her the tools to improve and develop mastery, she might be teaching now. Would she feel able to make her own decisions to keep her afloat and feel that sense of autonomy? Would the knowledge that she was improving her skills be the antidote to that sense of forever pouring out knowledge so much of the time but not being invested in? I really think it might have.


Getting our teachers’ back:
Lucy Crehan believes the Finnish government’s support of teacher-mastery is right at the heart of Finland’s PISA success. Teachers qualify through a five-year Masters degree in education, funded by the government. Primary teachers study education for 5 years in one of the 8 universities that specialise in teacher training. For secondary teachers their education masters degree and their subject degree make up their 5 years of study and training. Crehan’s experience of working with Finnish teachers shows a deeply intrinsic motivation about serious study being a solid preparation for real autonomy as a professional teacher. The application process is tough and there is high demand for places. Both of these reasons are a big part of why the profession has so much more  kudos and respect than currently in the UK:

“Since inspections were no longer needed Finnish teachers have had autonomy over how to teach and what resources to use, thus completing the triumvirate of relatedness, mastery and autonomy that supports intrinsic motivation.” Lucy Creehan

This sounds like a country that really gets teaching. Invests heavily. Trusts teachers. Knows that schools are doing the right things. Trusts schools to deliver an education a proud country can be proud of. Now wouldn’t that be good? Getting our teachers’ back, if you see what I mean.

But we too have a responsibility too in how we talk up teaching. It’s a brilliant career where teachers have life-changing impact, and its one of the few professions with the potential to transform a community in a generation. We should be shouting from the rooftops, encouraging friends to consider it. If we are not evangelical about teaching, who will be?

Some questions our profession needs to consider:

  • How will we build a profession where low stakes investment in teaching, not high stakes blame for terminal results, is central?
  • How can we get back those who have left after less than 3 years and the ‘grandmasters’ who have retired too early?
  • How do we make the first three years in a UK school a strong experience that does not break initial teachers nor deter newcomers to teaching?
  • What can we learn about recruiting and retaining teachers from what America got wrong? (next post).

Teamwork 3/ Characteristics of world class teams


This, the third of three blogs about teamwork, looks at the qualities of world class teams and what sets them apart. Here are the first two:

Teamwork 1/ Building teams, building trust
Teamwork 2/ Organising your team

James MacGregor Burns, writing Roosevelt’s biography, said:

“Great teams happen when people engage with others in such a way that raises one another to higher levels of motivation and morality”.

The ability to create a highly productive team is a rare skill. Trickier still to be able to move from being simply producers of great results to developing exceptional people. Great teams are thin on the ground and difficult to build. But they do exist. We know them from the world of sport – Liverpool FC and West Indies cricket team of the ’70s, Barcelona FC of the recent past, the All Black rugby union team in any era. Teams who have transformed, with apparently effortless grace, what their game can accomplish. 


In other realms ‘world class’ is more subjective and hard to measure. It may involve confronting a truly noble struggle. Politicians or humanitarians seize a moment of national or world crisis: King tackles discrimination, Mandela dismantles apartheid, Churchill confronts Hitler, Bevan establishes the NHS.  Or men and women like Anita Roddick or Steve Jobs spinning the working world around. Where courage in times of great uncertainty drives a people or an organisation on and makes the future. But these are just the big names and sometimes that’s not helpful. Our individual culture focuses on charismatic names rather than digging beneath that – remembering their team that made the plans happen. More of that later.

In education and health which teams are changing our professions? When so much of a school leaders’ energy is responding to the freshest accountability measures, who is doing something different, something world class? Beyond national results or PISA scores, something which will have legacy?

Here are 5 of the characteristics that I believe put great teams into a different class, elements from which maybe we can learn in our own working lives?

Great teams are unreasonable about the important things:
“Achieving clarity, focus and alignment sounds reasonable and rational. Effective leaders learn to be selectively unreasonable.” Jo Owen.

There are huge constraints in the world of education and health. Resources are limited. Teacher recruitment is under threat. Workload pressures are worse than ever. So the job of the leader who has to deliver is more challenging than ever, but the unreasonable leader will stand firm on the few things that really matter. We will become unreasonable when we know the ‘felt injustice’ which causes us to feel anger. There are people I admire with a righteous anger about a clear wrong that is just not changing fast enough. Be it pupil premium gap, school funding, handwriting, hot dinners or A&E waiting times. When much of the world is steeped in mediocrity, their edge is refreshing. They shine a light into murkiness. They expect better. 


“If you do things well, do them better.” Anita Roddick

Peak teams are permanently dissatisfied with performance. The approach to learning that is simply never satisfied with former achievements is a key ingredient of becoming world class. Even following victory the New Zealand All Blacks are habitually self-critical.  A poor match is not just an off-day. It is a key learning point. This isn’t a negative mindset, simply a deep desire that there is always more to learn.

“Successful cultures use crisis to crystallise their purpose” Adam Grant 

Great teams learn from failure. Leaders know that it is in the crucible of our most difficult moments, that fundamental truths emerge, growth is forged. Understanding what we are truly about, knowing what our ‘felt injustice’ is, is a process of trying, failing, and learning to get it more right. And of course we see best and clearest what the leadership of an organisation is really like when it is down on its knees. In the way that we treat people, shoulder the blame and share the praise. I can testify that we learn much more from failure than from success.

“We cover up mistakes, not only to protect ourselves from others, but to protect us from ourselves. We all have a sophisticated ability to delete failures from memory, like editors cutting gaffes from a film reel. This is what we call “black box thinking. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.” Matthew Syed

Great teams make the vision real:
Teams must have something to believe in which takes us beyond the individual. All teams have objectives, but few get real vision. There must be an emotional element. It must excite. 

“Visions have two dimensions. For the All Blacks, to be the best in the world. Not all of the All Black teams I played with had a true positive vision. But all had a type of negative vision, a fear of letting down the past.” David Kirk


Research suggests we massively under-communicate our message. Successful organisations build understanding and learning through a few key values, and great leaders are discerning how they go about this. They re-articulate key values until they become foundational. Catchphrases can be cringe-worthy, but some, in a simple way, describe what they about. Michaela’s “doing it differently” has struck a chord, like it or not, across British schools, and it is. The All Blacks’ “leave the jersey in a better place” speaks of legacy; Clive Woodward’s “TQB” (total quality ball) is pretty self explanatory and of course Michael Jordan’s iconic: “I’ve failed over and over and over again and that is why I succeed” has probably achieved more for growth mindset than probably all the posters in all the schools. Values expressed simply and often can form a fundamental part of building character in our children and a shared belief in our teams. The school motto is not just for the prospectus. 

Great teams have a discipline which eliminates mistakes:
The strongest teams do it really, really well. There is a skill of proficiency – a practised way of performing the key skill with precision and consistency. Errors are the exception. Reliability rocks. Staff are provided with models of excellence. Training is not vague but tightly focused around the most important domain skill, close to the point of delivery and led by the best practitioners. Training gets tighter through feedback from colleagues.

Team discipline often which begins with a set of baseline boundaries that define acceptable. These are usually about the small things: dress code, appearance and punctuality. The thinking is that teams who get these essentials right will take that professionalism into battle at work. From these basics, leaders apply these external principles to the way people communicate, and how things are done at work. Over time standards are internalised. There is grassroots raising of expectations. 

Great leaders shine a light onto on micro-behaviours which set the bar. This is much more powerful than generic guidance. In sport, coaches direct attention to the ‘unseen’ moments of a game: a small defensive intervention or supporting teamwork, deflecting focus from the glory goal. Many leaders use a briefing or version of ‘Wine of the Week’ to celebrate together, show gratitude and acknowledge simple, replicable actions where a colleague goes beyond the expected. Support staff who ferried a child home late after a school trip, the teacher who pushed a child to achieve brilliantly in a test; the receptionist who manage a tricky incident with humanity and grace.

In “The Culture Code”, Daniel Coyle describes an expert in sharpening these tiny behaviours. Danny Meyer has created some of the most successful restaurants and cafes on the planet. In the challenging environment of New York (of the 1000 NYC restaurants opened 5 years ago, 800 have already vanished without trace), Meyer has brought a magic touch where not only are his eating places surviving, but they are also picking up awards. So what is he doing we can learn from?

danny m

He seems to be creating the tangible feeling of home. Restaurant staff remember details (birthdays, anniversaries, table near the window) mentioned on the phone when booking, and they conveyor-belt this on so that when customers are served it is remembered and acted on. This is tricky and depends on a chain of communication, awareness and action. Staff watch out for the people-dynamic at a table, are taught to be  proactive and empowered to take initiative, even if in the short term this costs the restaurant money (a free extra glass of wine).

Meyer has precisely identified the processes which create ‘enlightened hospitality’, a simple set of rules that develop intricate behaviours, for example: 

Read the guest; Athletic hospitality; Turning up the Home Dial; Loving problems; Collecting the dots and connecting the dots; One size fits one

Grant describes a moment when with Meyer and a tray of glasses crashes to the floor: “For a microsecond, all the action stops. Meyer raises a finger, pressing pause on our conversation so he can watch. The waiter starts picking up the pieces, and another arrives with a broom and dustpan. The clean-up happens swiftly, and everyone turns back to their food. I ask Meyer why he was watching so closely. “I’m watching for what happens right afterward, and I am looking for their energy level to go up,” he says, “They connect to clean up the problem, and if we are doing our job right, their energy level will go up.” He puts his fists together, and then makes an explosion gesture with his fingers. They are creating uplifting energy that has nothing to do with the task and everything to do with each other and what comes next.”


And what does a bad interaction look like? “Either they are disinterested – ‘I’m just doing my job’ kind of thing. Or they’re angry at the other person or the situation. And if I see that I know that there is a deeper problem here, because the number one job is to take care of each other. I didn’t know how to read a balance sheet or manage flow in a kitchen. But I did know how I wanted to make people feel.”

Huge changes on a national or world stage are often put down to charismatic individuals making great pronouncements, but often what gets the trains to run on time or cuts hospital waiting lists is a well directed team of diligent people with the perseverance to succeed for others. While Tony Blair had visionary ideas and made a great number of electoral promises in his first term in office, when he reached the second term he realised he needed someone to coordinate and lead delivery of these grand ideas.

So the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) was set up and led by Sir Michael Barber, an education leader who has become one of the best proponents of how great teams deliver. 


What were the key features of the PMDU Model?

  • Set clear priorities with measurable goals
  • Establish a dedicated unit focused on getting those things done
  • Use data and trajectories to drive progress
  • Build routines around those priorities (such as stocktake meetings, or monthly notes to the Prime Minister)
  • Help with problem-solving
  • Persistence – stick with those priorities despite the temptations in government to shift the agenda.

Through over fifty visits to Pakistan, Sir Michael has advised on system reform, including creating the ‘Punjab Roadmap. It’s purpose was to improve the quality of education in its 60,000 schools. Achievements are huge: an extra one and a half million children enrolled in school; lesson plans for every teacher and new textbooks for every student; student attendance increased from 83 per cent to 92 per cent and teacher attendance increased from 81 per cent to 91 per cent. An expert on large-scale system change, and authority on education reform, his recent appointment as Chair of the Office for Students (the new regulator for Higher Education in the UK) is no surprise when one biggest ticket items is vice-chancellor pay.

Great teams get organisational health right first:
Pep Guardiola’s first season was seen as a failure, because there was no silverware. But his approach to fixing the club from the bottom up before prioritising performance was evident when in his second season they were generally felt to be the best winning Premiership side for years.


Great teams make the jump from ‘results’ to ‘people’. When we take up a leadership position we make the most difficult of transitions from being responsible for doing the stuff, to being responsible for the people doing the stuff:

“You’re not ‘in charge’. You’re responsible for ‘those in your charge’.” Simon Sinek

This is the crux of organisational health. Improvement in both performance and health allow teams to move beyond systems to address individual behaviours. We change mind-sets, which shifts culture, which becomes sustainable. In schools, organisational health might simply be defined as the ability to recruit great teachers, look after them, and direct behaviours towards high standards. In so doing happy schools grow.

World-class teams genuinely look like they are having fun. Even in the most challenging and traditionally authoritarian roles, they maintain a sense of perspective. The UK’s Royal Navy is a highly disciplined command-and-control organisation where people serve in the intense pressure-cooker of a ship or submarine. But there is increasingly a recognition of how important “soft” leadership skills really are. Current naval training is based on the premise that when two teams with equal resources try the same thing, the successful team will be the one whose leaders better understand how to use the softer skills to maintain effort and motivate. For officers leading teams in tight quarters, there’s no substitute for cheerfulness.


Great teams change the game permanently:
Great teams transform: they create and innovate in a way that will change the way that their industry does things.

“The world-class teams I played with pushed back the boundaries of the game. The opposition was no longer the other teams we played against, but ourselves and the game itself. Opponents were the medium through which we attempted to realise our vision.” David Kirk

Teams are rarely composed of purpose-built, world-class performers. Great leaders choose people who have the potential to become really good. True ability is normally the result of the mastery of skills. In rugby these specialist skills are basic: running, kicking, passing, catching, jumping, tackling, decision making. Each team member has a specific job to do. Each specialist contributes their skill for the team to reach world-class standard. You do your job well, in the confidence that everyone else will too.

But high performing teams are so far ahead of this. They understand the ‘game’ so completely, and practise so intently that unforced errors are eliminated. There is an ‘at ease’ which comes from complete faith in each member. It raises the energy levels of everyone. And the best players have morphed into generalists, losing the stranglehold of skill specialisation. In rugby, forwards have learned to run and pass like backs; in cricket England cannot find a specialist number 3 batsman but they do have 6 all-rounders to choose from. Liverpool’s multi-position, ageing, generalist James Milner (read Matthew Syed’s brilliant article here) is the new toast of the premiership.

This drift towards building wider skill sets is not new. ‘Futsal’ began in Uruguay in the 1930s, with a low bouncing ball to aid control and develop skill, and grew throughout South America. Now famous for launching young Brazilian stars out of the favelas, futsal was developed to be played on shanty town basketball courts, keeping youngsters off the streets. The West German “total football” of the 70s developed futsal, and the ‘Coerver’ method of Dutch football (through Feyenoord and Ajax) helped the Dutch master Johan Cruyff bring this technique to Barcelona. Now every decent football team has players in all positions who can pass, head, dribble and shoot. 

Barcelona’s dominance in European football over the last 20 years is largely due to building on this legacy and developing the onomatopoeic Spanish ‘tiki taka’ style of close touch possession football (think of the sound of all those passes). This influenced the way that young children were coached across Britain over the last 20 years, my boys among them. Less physical, more two-touch, non-contact possession game.  Sometimes the means do not always achieve the desired ends, but in creating the conditions for teams to become more reliably successful, coaches have taken the randomness out of the result. They have inched toward predictable success.


Atul Gawande is himself a study in diligence; a thinker about how to build teams to change the world.

“The index case was an 11 month old boy in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. In April 2003 the family took a trip north to see relatives. Shortly after they returned the boy developed high fevers and bouts of nausea and vomiting. Two days later he was unable to move his legs. This was a confirmed case of polio, a disease thought to have been eliminated from southern India.”

A ‘mop up’ is World Health Organisation language for a targeted campaign to immunise all children at risk surrounding a new case. The campaign is carried out over just three days to ensure that the vaccine floods the population. The challenge: An area of 50,000 square miles; 37,000 vaccinators; 4000 healthcare supervisors; 2000 vehicles; 18,000 insulated vaccine carriers and workers going door-to-door to vaccinate 4.2 million children. A world-changing, herculean task. 


Atul Gawande followed Pankaj Bhatnagar, a WHO paediatrician monitoring the operation. They walked through villages and stopped at dwellings at random. Marked in chalk on each door was a number (the house number), a letter P and that day’s date. The letter P signifying that the vaccinators had come, had identified all of the children under the age of five who lived in the house and that they had all been vaccinated. Pankaj checked that each team had done their job and it is working. But local doctors challenged Pankaj: Why this polio campaign when what is needed is clean water (diarrhoea kills 500,000 Indian children per year), better nutrition (half of under 3s have stunted growth) or working toilets (which would also prevent polio)? Pankaj’s steady,  focused, ‘unreasonable’ reply in the face of these competing priorities: “Ending polio in itself is worthwhile!” But polio is not yet beaten. In India alone, with 24 million children born each year, a huge campaign to immunise has to be planned each year just to stay on track. Gawande accepts this challenge:

“Betterment is a perpetual labour. The world is chaotic, disorganised and vexing. To complicate matters we in medicine are only human. Yet to live as a doctor is to live so that one’s life is bound up with others and in the messy, complicated connection between the two. It is to live a life of responsibility.”


Better – Atul Gawande | Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed | How to Run a Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t go Crazy |The Culture Code – Daniel Coyle | Originals – Adam Grant | Leadership Matters – Andy Buck |The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ – Susan Cain | Winners – Alistair Campbell | Legacy – James Kerr | How to Lead – Jo Owen 





Buckets full of crabs,
Decent shrimp, bigger fish than we’ve a right to land
With that children’s bamboo net; and a baby eel.
Satisfied, smug and sat, hands flat upon
Four inches of warm waves and corrugated sand
I’m braced against the unexpected sun
As lazy, loud gulls wheel above my head.

Secretly my two small sons
Manoeuvre behind me
Skip through no-man’s land
To within splashing distance, take aim, pause.
Fast hands and feet, sharp knees and elbows
Carve vast arcs of water through the latitude
And longitude of my exposed position. 
I roar and scatter their onslaught up the beach
To rocks and hideouts near warm dry mum.

Tucked up in bed that night, as sunburnt chins
Jut proudly out of crisp holiday sheets
I play dumb. “Who splashed me? My back was turned”.  
They know I know, but only just.
First comes the flat denial: “Not us, Dad”.
They share a sideways glance, then shout; “Pirates!”

And later, as kiss-curls and sleep-frowns merge
In the shadows and half-light 
I decide
That pirates it was. If by pirates they mean
Small shadows who creep up unannounced
And with clashing wills and smart demands
Have stolen into the unexpected places of my heart.

(photo: Doug Menuez)


Teamwork 2/Organising your team

Peloton Magazine

“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask”  Tim Ferris

So now we have the right balance in the team how do we get it to function well?

Some teams just hum. Seeing them operate is like watching the peleton in a cycle race. While a crocodile of lycra streams along a sunflower-strewn lane, one red-vested group hug tightly around a bend. As they emerge into the next straight, one of the them slips into the front, and the team narrows into a ribbon of red, nose to tail, sucked along  inches from each other. Extremely fast and terrifyingly close.

We see a similar dynamic in good teams. A team member takes on a lead responsibility and runs with an idea, attracting resistance to themselves.  They push on and pick up the flack, making it easier for others in the team to quietly beaver away in the background, slipstreaming behind the scenes. Then just at the correct moment they step back automatically for another to share the load or take the limelight. The cogs of the organisation mesh brilliantly. Problems get solved almost before they emerge.

Conversely we know teams where a jockeying for position or a breakdown in communication means that nothing good can happen until there is change.

“90% of investors think the quality of the management team is the single most important non-financial factor when evaluating an organisation” McKinsey

Editor Definition in English Dictionary.

Good teams edit:
 A team with vague purpose is next to useless.

“Clarity is not about the answer, the key challenge for the leader is to know the problem” Jo Owen

A sharply-focused purpose will help to identify what the team membership needs to be. People are resistant to change, but they will follow team-leaders who know how to bring about change with real clarity. Each team’s purpose will be different: Improving progress in history by the end of Y11; building English attainment at A Level; rewriting the KS3 curriculum to give children a deeper learning experience; boosting literacy in Y3-4; even turning the school around. And how long have we really got to do it? Being very clear about timescales and managing expectations will help us in the long term?


Once we are clear about what needs to be done, the next step is drilling down into the 2 or 3 key things that need to happen at the expense of all else. Lincoln was the ultimate editor. He would keep his team focused by developing its ability to identify the one or two essential issues facing them at that time. Once these were established, his Team of Rivals’ had to ignore the other problems not central to the team’s purpose. Rarely do teams allocate the right amount of time to the most important areas; people and strategy. And what do we do instead? Everything that rushes at us. Which all leads to monster meeting agendas and superficial tick lists that achieve nothing but exhaustion. As Gary Keller says: “When you go as small as possible you will be staring at one thing. And that’s the point.”

Good teams are closely aligned:
The problem in any strong organisation is that there will be leaders who also have great focus and strong opinions about our priorities, but frequently about different things to us! Individual pet subjects or areas of interest can cloud and confuse. Good team leaders build consensus around the key things. This is more than distributing strategy documents, or tying performance targets together. Articulating a vision which is simple, visual and memorable in a way which brings the team on board will help tackle the 2 or 3 problems which really count. And the planning of this – this very practical ‘visioning’, is probably best done away from the minutae of daily life.

But alignment problems will emerge for teams as the year rolls on. One team I know had reduced teacher workload by eliminating report-writing in the summer term, wanting staff to focus on planning and writing a stronger scheme of work in this released time. But under the pressure of primary transition days, there was friction because people want to focus time on their particular responsibility or project. So a meeting is called to bring consensus, and this helps refocus at a crucial moment. Which eases relationships.

Red Arrows

Good teams work their values
The values which counted in selecting the team to take your organisation to success must stand the test of time in how they play out. What will we do when books are not marked? Where do we stand on exclusion? Will we work with the grammar school down the road to provide a better post-16 offer? How will we measure staff performance targets? Not arbitrary bland statements, but real decisions leading to concrete actions based on principles. These will impact how we share out tasks and responsibilities within our teams, and when there is friction or disagreement around these, then there are strong principles to fall back on to structure our decision-making.

We need to hire people who really get the importance of people-skills. When interviewing for middle and senior posts its probably safe to assume that technical skill (build a curriculum, create an assessment system, deep teaching know-how) is an essential, but never underestimate the desirable importance of coaching, persuading and especially role modelling to people. People-skills make the difference. And don’t misunderstand diversity. We want to appoint strong diversity (difference) in our people, but it is key that we hire people who share our intimate set of values (similarity).


Expanding organisations such as MATs have a values challenge. It may be that those beliefs which a Trust forged together in its tight crucible when small, risk becoming so dilute that they are meaningless. Instead of inadvertently creating a motley collection of schools with no golden thread, the best Trusts ensure that students, staff and parents know precisely what they stand for. What the team values, celebrates, strives for.

In good teams you feel the culture:
 The way a group operates is fascinating. We see its positive power working inside World Cup winning teams, successful families and great businesses. We know exactly what it looks and feels like when we’ve got it, but how do we achieve it? A well-rooted and established culture in an organisation feels just right – like it’s been there forever. Group culture has physical presence – if we stand back and watch we see lots of eye contact, close proximity and energetic meetings. Incisive questions, deep listening, warm humour, handshakes, people mixing with all parts of the organisation (versus a climate of stifled hierarchy). In other words great chemistry. It is both very exciting to watch and yet creates a sense of true security. It is infectious. 

hockey 2

Actually it is collective efficacy: Where we receive helpful information about our impact as teachers, where we have a shared language about what will make a difference to children and where we model this regularly to each other then it is likely that ‘collective efficacy’ really exists in our schools. It is more than a buzz. Its a buzz with purpose.

The weakest link or the strongest improver? Strong teams forge protection around the newest recruit who feel this force for good. There is a refocusing of practical help, which supports and coaches and deals with inevitable mistakes. And so the potentially weakest link in the team actually becomes the strongest improver.

Good teams ask deeper questions:
When we are looking at a really tricky issue, often we don’t have the right answer at our fingertips. It becomes even harder when we are not sure if we are even starting with the right question. Good teams think harder about the questions they ask. Recalibrating questions helps attack the root causes of the problem rather than the symptoms. Perhaps the question we are wrestling with is: How do we make sure that more of our pupils get a higher grade in science. Sometimes expressing this simply is important. Or: Why don’t our students know as much science content as the subject down the corridor/school down the road/across the country? Or instead we might ask: How have we made science content easier to learn? What are the content deal-breakers that are at our disposal (Knowledge Organisers, QLAs, textbooks, the panoply of websites, Low Stakes Assessments, Tassomai)? Or even: Does our KS3 system of assessment allow us to build knowledge over time? And so the question: Where is the best practice for building content knowledge ? Could probably be rephrased: Which teachers are particularly skilled at getting each child to know how to write a grade 7/8 answer?

We know that recruiting good science teachers is a Sysyphean task, so we might rethink this as: How do we create such an exciting culture around science learning that this becomes a place which draws in the best of the new recruits? Asking probing, honest questions about our strengths and weaknesses means investing in the gaps. 


Good teams run few meetings well: Probably the best outward expression of a leaders’ style and of the development of the team is the way that meetings are set up and planned; both team meetings and one-to-ones. Is it always listening to the leader, or is it a genuine sharing of knowledge and people’s contributions? So much time in staff and department meetings feels purposeless, which makes everyone feel devalued and damages goodwill. In Kill Bad Meetings Hall and Hall shine a light into wasted time. 50% of meeting content is not relevant to participants and does not need to be discussed collectively, and 20% of participants should even not be there. They argue that in fact 20% of meetings should be shelved. Andy Buck insists on the power of the regular, developmental conversation being “at the heart of what really drives improvement and performance.” His Features of Great 1:1 meetings is one I return to again and again. Engaging our teams in real activities that are actually of benefit to day to day roles but is so important.

Failed Business

In good teams the best ideas Win:
(and not hierarchy for its own sake). The most secure leaders are open to great ideas about how to do things differently. Better maybe. Unafraid to be questioned. Not always right. Prepared to listen. Caroline Webb urges us to actively seek dissent within our teams, quoting Eric Schmidt of Google:
“In meetings I find the people who haven’t spoken, who are often the ones who are afraid to speak out but have a dissenting opinion. I get them to say what they really think, which promotes discussion, and then the right thing happens.”

Good team leaders coach, instead of offer solutions:
It certainly helps if teams have an expectation that they plan thoughtfully for 1:1 meetings. We might typically bring two lists of issues to discuss: 1) these are the things I have done and the reasons behind my decision, and 2) I need to help with these thorny issuesBut if we always come to meetings with our line manager with answers nailed, then both partners lose the opportunity for reflection and growth, and a better constructed, jointly-worked solution. It is this essential dynamic, which is at the heart of great teams:
…I struggled and was anxious about something
…We thought the problem through together
…We came to a stronger solution.
Maybe we encourage people to offer solutions too readily. Instead ask better questions.


Good teams are teachable: 
We want to work with people who are open to new learning and who can then put that learning into practice in the pressure-cooker of work. Clive Woodward says the best teams rely on teachability: they are eager to listen, willing to learn and looking to continually build on what they have already achieved: sponges who absorb new ideas try to adapt and learn. Then it is about applying this learning, ‘thinking clearly under pressure’. We cannot perform under pressure if we haven’t already experienced the situation beforehand. Teams need to anticipate all eventualities. One team introducing the technique of incremental coaching asked themselves, as they planned dates into the calendar, “What will we do if we reach the situation where a colleague is unhappy with their two succinct elements of feedback and want a different coach?” So they incorporated that next step into their planning.

european business review

Good teams use the bench:
There has been a revolution in the perception of reserves or substitutes across a wide range of sports. In rugby they are now known as ‘finishers’, in NBA basketball people talk about the all-important ‘6th man’, the one who makes a significant contribution to the team’s success but isn’t one of the 5 starters on the basketball court. John Maxwell identifies the two groups in our organisations; ‘starters’ (frontline people who directly add value to the organisation) and ‘the bench’ (who indirectly add value). We need to develop those currently on the bench. We all spend time on the bench. It is the future, they make a huge contribution to the health of the organisation and there are more bench players than starters. B
ecause they may be more distant from the chalk-face and with a primarily supportive role, non-teaching staff often miss out on valuable development . But the best leaders identify the strengths of every colleague, celebrate what they do, extract the best of what they offer and develop them to become better. There are so many better ways that we could harness peoples’ different skill-sets, from the ‘expectations-setting’ stage to the ‘nailing-results’ phase. 

Great starters are not enough to secure victory any more. For our team to perform well over the stresses and strains of the year, we need strength in depth. Call it succession planning, talent-spotting or just plain good sense we build the team for the long term. A good team with no bench will collapse. 

H4H Stretcher Hi Res no bg feet

Sometimes people drop out of a team to try to accomplish goals on their own, but they find that they miss the synergy of being part of a cohesive team. As John Wooden UCLA coach says: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team”Teams, when they put each other first, win.

How to Lead – Jo Owen | Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed | Leadership Matters – Andy Buck |The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ – Susan Cain | Originals – Adam Grant | How to Have a Good Day – Caroline Webb | Winners – Alistair Campbell | The Best Place to Work – Ron Friedman | High Performers – Alistair Smith | Legacy – James Kerr | Kill Bad Meetings – Kevan Hall & Alan Hall

Born in the USA


This post looks at what the teaching profession can learn from what the US education system has got wrong. It follows  Getting our teachers back. Getting our teachers’ back..

Born in the USA:
Many features of the American education system are impressive. According to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019, 15 out of the top 20 universities are American:

1. Oxford, UK
2. Cambridge, UK
3. Stanford
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology  
5. Californian Institute of Technology  
6. Harvard
7. Princeton 
8. Yale
9. Imperial College London, UK
10. University of Chicago
11. ETH, Zurich
12. John Hopkins University
13. University of Pennsylvania 
14. UCL, UK
15. University of California, Berkeley
16. Colombia University
17. University of California, LA
18. Duke University
19. Cornell University
20. Michigan University

But E.D. Hirsch (Emeritus Professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, author and education reformer) says:

“There is wide agreement in the international community that the US has created the best public universities and the worst public schools of the developed world.”

How do we explain this apparent contradiction? A tide of well-educated foreigners into the US’s research universities seems to mitigate the decline of the American school system. There are over 13,000 Japanese students in the US and only 700 American students in Japan. 56% of all of the PhDs in the US in the STEM fields are foreign. Many American imports, those not ‘born in the USA’ (pre-Trump of course) populate its universities.

The Charter Schools movement have been praised for building great inner city schools with genuine aspiration, but despite notable successes which have influenced thinking and work in UK city schools (Uncommon Schools, Knowledge is Power, Teach Like a Champion) the average results in Charter Schools are pretty similar to most schools. And there is a huge amount of mediocrity in the middle years of the school system. The inadvertent effects of a recent history of US educational initiatives introduced by people with good intentions have damaged the quality of teaching and the profession.

When I read the first section of Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Creating the Schools Our Children Need’ it seemed to describe all the things they tried in American schools and which we must never do. It’s a chilling read. A swathe of attempts: getting smarter people into teaching, firing bad teachers, paying good teachers more, reducing class size and how these ideas failed. Of course they weren’t designed to be bad ideas. My Compact Oxford Thesaurus gives me various synonyms for ‘inadvertent’. Unintentional and unwitting I’ll accept, where it applies to education. Innocent not so much.

However the last section in Wiliam’s book helps me believe that success is possible again: Introducing a rich curriculum, improving the teachers we have, creating the right environment for educators. It’s encouraging to know that many of the things leaders are focusing on in the UK right now are the right things, but no surprise to know that we have tried and failed much of the earlier chapters too.


Play the game:
In ‘The Tyranny of Metrics’, Jerry Muller tells how American public services have responded to a range of government targets and what this did to quality. He describes the HBO series ‘The Wire’, based in the city of Baltimore and which depicts police, schools and municipal politics and their dysfunctions. Police commanders desperate to hit numbers (cases solved, drug arrests) achieve this by sacrificing truth to meet targets. Teachers in middle schools in poor neighbourhoods have to show improved student performance, so six weeks before the standardised reading and writing tests the Principal tells teachers to focus all class time on practising for the tests. It’s uncomfortably familiar. A culture of ‘gaming’ in the public services emerges and the respect of these noble professions falls within the wider population who watch teachers and the police under pressure chasing numbers.

And in hospitals there is the ‘creaming’ tactics of doctors where low-risk patients are admitted and high-risk patients are not. Which improves the hospital’s metrics of success – but risks lives. States publish ‘report cards’ of surgeons – who then reject the most risky cases to improve their scores. Hospitals punished for the number of deaths within 30 days of discharge from hospital, decide that patients with congestive heart failure – which counts negatively in the metrics – are reclassified so they are not picked up by the metrics.

Metrics are so easily misused. And wherever they are linked to rewards, human nature means that people may sometimes fudge data, obfuscate or lie. Used well, a team of doctors can collectively learn by looking closely at clinical data, but where it becomes the means of performance targets or bonuses, then at best the activity is futile, and at worst it might kill patients. Where education leaders look together at a holistic, 360 degree-view of school performance, within low stakes, this allows resource to be directed to where children require it most. But if this happens with just one or two metrics, at high stakes, school leaders may hide uncomfortable truths. At best this delays much needed action. At worst it precipitates dishonest practice: the off-rolling of students whose data is dire, discouraging schools from enrolling SEND students, making schools less inclusive and creating a football-manager culture of headship.

“Measurement is not an alternative to judgement: measurement demands judgement: judgement about whether to measure, what to measure, how to evaluate the significance of what’s been measured”.
Jerry Muller

In 2001, around the time Billy Joel brought us ‘Uptown Girl’, the US education system introduced ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB). Its aim was to close the achievement gap between ethnic groups. Lack of accountability of principals and poor professionalism among teachers were thought to be the main problem. Since English and maths scores were the high stakes metric on which success or failure was judged, principals told teachers to shift class time towards maths and English and away from history, geography, art, music and PE. Eight years after the introduction of NCLB, the performance of African-American students (measured by average scores on national examinations for 17-year-olds) had not changed. After ten years, reading scores of 17 year olds came in significantly lower than they had been in 1988 before NCLB. The testing helped improve the mechanics of early reading (sounding out faster) on easy texts on everyday topics so younger students could decode texts more fluently. But these gaps began opening up again aged 13 and 17 where knowledge and vocabulary are decisive:

“Too much time is spent on test preparation and too little time gaining the wide vocabulary required for a broad vocabulary. They were under the impression that intense classes devoted to making inferences and finding the main idea would improve reading scores more effectively than learning about Egypt or the solar system or the reason why Nevada has just as many senators as New York.”
E.D. Hirsch

Look what you made me do: 

Obama introduced ‘Race To The Top’ as Lady Gaga sang ‘Poker Face’ in 2009. While NCLB focused on measuring the performance of whole schools, Race To The Top measured the performance of individual teachers focusing on value-added, with performance pay used for the first time. Results were not promising. After the large-scale New York City 2007-9 experiment, economist Roland Fryer concluded after there was no evidence that performance pay had improved student performance or changed teacher behaviour.

US teacher quality? Public perception of teaching in the US is poor. A recent poll of high-achieving US undergraduates showed they were negative about the profession and did not see it as a well-respected job. Education was perceived as an easy major, that did not attract the best students. Eric Hanushek says the average teacher in Finland is at the 65th percentile of skills of college graduates. The average teacher in the US comes from the 47th percentile. So the US is systematically drawing from less well qualified college graduates. He analyses the economic value of a teacher to individual students and the economy as a whole:

“We know a lot about how different teachers add to the achievements of their students. If we take a good teacher at the 75th percentile, and look at the achievement we can expect from her class of 30. And then look at what happens when they go into the job market. If we take the historical pattern of earnings and then add up over the lifetime of the students what this 75th percentile teacher did, if we compare the 75th percentile teacher to just an average teacher, she creates $400,000 in future income. In present value. So that there is a real value in trying to attract and retain really good teachers.”
Eric Hanushek

London Calling:
A similar metrics approach was introduced in the UK just before NCLB. This directed the attention of heads and teachers to the English and maths C grade boundary rather than the broader aims of schools. The current arts malaise and a lack of attention to excellence is directly related to this accountability system – in play for more than 15 years. By 2008 many of the same dysfunctions we can see in the US were found:

“We believe that the system is now out of balance – the drive to meet government-set targets has too often become the goal rather than the means to the end providing the best possible education for all children. This is demonstrated in: teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, focusing disproportionate resources on borderline students.”
(Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families 2008).

Money’s too tight to mention:
Pay progression was introduced in the UK in September 2014. Progression based on length of service was removed and all progression linked to performance. It is difficult to find evidence that it has been successful, and it is significant that teacher recruitment has fallen ever since. Many teachers found the experience of appraisal a largely box-ticking exercise rather than a developmental process, promoting aversion to risk and a tactic of covering yourself instead of aspiring for challenging targets. And for leaders, well why work in a challenging schools when the odds of meeting targets are stacked against you? Many schools and Trusts are now recognising that it just doesn’t work, and there are strong developmental models replacing such PMR approaches (such as this one from Chris Moyse).

The UK government’s decision in 2010 to introduce the pupil premium might have been the least worst attempt to direct money at poverty at a point where it can have considerable impact. Becky Allen’s 3 blogs explain succinctly why pupil premium hasn’t worked and how it diverts the education system away from things that might work better:

“We want schools in more disadvantaged communities to provide rich cultural experiences that students might not otherwise afford, yet many of these things we’d like schools to spend money on aren’t central to raising attainment.”
Becky Allen

Instead of feeling that this is really going to help pay for x or y, many leaders acknowledge that the accountability for pupil premium funding makes them act in short term ways because they have to justify how the money spent directly caused measured increase in attainment. But life doesn’t always fit that perfectly. Nor sit neatly within annual budget timeframes. Changing the school culture may not improve the Y11 English results at the end of this year, but it might be the single best use of PP funding for poorer children in Y7 and an investment in their exam results in 5 years time. But we don’t measure that, and the Head might not be there then.

You make me feel:
Motivating our teams and providing the conditions for real autonomy are at the heart of retaining good people. But the logic of No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top and Pupil Premium places the responsibility for closing achievement gaps on those who may have less ability to do so than we were led to believe:

“That itself is a recipe for the demoralisation of teachers. Add to that the dilemma presented to teachers: pursuing the multiple aims of education versus teaching to the test; following their broad educational mission versus adhering to the narrow criteria upon which they are to be remunerated. Whichever course they choose, they lose”.
Jerry Muller

The regime created by the culture of testing and measured accountability has not worked in the US and it seems like it is not growing teachers here. Instead it is forcing teachers to focus their fiercest energy into groups which ‘matter most’ to the school’s data. It is denying them the discretion to design the best curriculum for their students. The result has been a wave of retirements of experienced teachers and the move by the more creative teachers towards private schools less susceptible to metric accountability.

It is an incredible profession and an unbeatable job. We have a professional community that we can feel proud to be part of, we think carefully about our craft and now we better challenge the change foist upon the profession. Teachers, when led thoughtfully and with long-term perspective and integrity, transform communities. And make no mistake, we all get the importance of accountability, so long as the methods chosen to measure that are properly understood and stand up to hard evidence. But US education shines a light into wrongheaded ideas and suspect practices through pressure to meet short term targets. It provides a mirror with which to reflect what we are doing here in our schools.

The 4 US education experts:
E.D Hirsch – Emeritus Professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia and author. Perhaps the most important education reformer of the last 50 years
Dylan William – Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at UCL, author and living in America, and who understands the inner working of classrooms like no-one else.
Jerry Muller – Professor of history at the Catholic University of America, Washington, and author of ‘The Tyranny of Metrics’, studies how metrics are used in US/UK organisations.
Eric Hanushek – Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution – researching the impact of education on the national economy.





Tipton 1974: burnt rubber smell of factory along the canal,
Empty of birdsong and trees.
I search for newts, trail
Towpath cinders in the tunnel. Scan
The green-spotted slick surface
Broken by bike-wheels and yellow-handled trolleys.
Net-high ready for the joust.
Waiting for wet bubbles
And the dart-wriggle to the surface.
Newt: Part-fish, part-eel.
I stab down right under and lift the creature.
The wet net squirms alternately coal-black and inner-tube yellow
I scoop with feather fingers into the waiting jam jar.
Hold up to the light to see the belly-speckles,
Amidst the pondweed.
Amphibian alchemy in a world of drab.
Improbably tiny feet flat on glass hold
Me captive. I catch my breath at
The ultrasound-scan moment.
Industrial claxons call to lunch so
I don’t hear the bike before I see it.
Yellow chopper. A bike I wanted for months
A big boy, with something long under his arm.
And an expression: something between a knowing smile
And an eye for the future.
He throws the bike into the nettles and swings up,
All shoulders and ears and sleeves rolled over arms newly-formed.
He tells me to get each one of my catch,
And line them in a finger-high crack in the tunnel brickwork behind us.
And so I do. I worry about the dusty mortar on their skin.
He brings his arm from behind his back
The air rifle trained on the gently pulsing bodies
I watch him pull the trigger. Once. Twice.
After three all I see is writhing yellow puss
And a sound like something has broken in me
That will never be fixed. I‘m left with the smell of brick dust
And the gravel kicked up by retreating, wide-grip wheels.
And even as I drag the net along the pavement home,
I know I won’t tell a soul.