Dolphins and Butterflies

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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.

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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.

Born in the USA

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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..

1.
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.

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2.
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

3.
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

4.
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).

5.
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.

6.
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.

 

 

Getting our teachers back. Getting our teachers’ back.

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

1.
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

2.
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”.

3.
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.

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4.
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:

5.
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.

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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.

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6.
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

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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. 

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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?

1.
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. 

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“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

2.
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

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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. 

3. 
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?

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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.”

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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. 

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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.

4. 
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.

pep

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.

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5.  
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.

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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. 

pol

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.”

MORE LIKE THIS/GREAT TEAM-READS: 

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 

 

 

Newts

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Newts
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.

 

 

Pirates

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Pirates
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.

1.
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?

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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.”

2.
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

3.
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).

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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.

4.
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. 

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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 or the NQT who feel this force for good. There is a refocusing of practical help, which supports and coaches and deals with inevitable mistakes. The potentially weakest link in the team becomes the strongest improver.

5.
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 that we are wrestling with is: How do we make sure that more of our pupils get a higher grade in science (substitute any subject here)? Sometimes expressing this simply is important.
Maybe a different question could be: Who were the surprises last year who achieved their grades against expectations. What did we do that worked?
A longer term question could be: Why don’t our students know as much science content as the subject down the corridor/school down the road/across the country?
So 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)? Are we using them consistently across groups?
Or perhaps: 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 which converts to higher grades in our school/family of schools ?
Could probably be rephrased: Which teachers are particularly skilled at getting each child to know how to write a grade 7 answer?
And might be better as: What do these teachers get right in the way they train and support their teams to understand this process, and what can we learn from them?
And a longer term question?  Of course in the long term we need to think about what shifts schools forever. 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?And finally: If ‘specialist schools’ were in vogue now what specialism should your school be? I think leaders who played the specialist schools game best in the past used it not as a celebration of best practice but actually as a vehicle to invest in the next department which needed tnew classrooms, labs or better quality recruitment. Asking probing, honest questions about our strengths and weaknesses means investing in the gaps. It brings irreversible change.

powerful-questions

6.
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

7.
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.”

8.
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 issues.
But 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.

When psychologist David Hofmann, who investigated BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion oil spill, challenges teams about problems and solutions, he believes the business-mantra “Don’t throw me problems, bring me solutions”) maybe too easy. Although it is a sound principle for leaders who want colleagues to think for themselves rather than just moan, there may be less effective than we think. Hofman, who worked on improving NASA’s safety culture after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, is an authority on creating organisational cultures which detect, correct and prevent errors. He believes that where leaders rely on solutions too quickly then becomes a culture of advocacy, which restricts strong thinking.

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9.
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

10.
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. They are the future, they make a huge contribution to the health of the organisation and there are more bench players than starters. 
In schools, because they are more distant from the chalk-face and with a primarily support-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.

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MORE LIKE THIS/GREAT TEAM-READS:
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

Teamwork 1/Building teams, building trust

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“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.” Lyndon Johnson

One is too small a number to secure much of significance. We all work in teams, contribute to teamwork and sometimes lead them. Now is the moment in the year when we look closely at the people we will be working with in September.

The success or failure of a team often appears to rest on circumstance, chance or personality. But listening to the England manager over the last two weeks, he talks less about the fleeting nature of luck in sport and more about building the team for the long term. Gareth Southgate seems to have released an energy and a belief in his team. English World Cup fever isn’t resting, as in previous years, on a few well-merchandised names. In interviews Southgate hasn’t obsessed over results and won’t be drawn over individuals, but he talks thoughtfully about the culture built up within the wider team in the training camp. He focuses on the training process not media hyperbole. He knows his team and trusts their skill level, and values their humanity. He is smiling, relaxed and approachable. And he looks good in a waistcoat. Something here to learn I think. For more about what GS’s leadership read andrewmorrish’s brilliant blog here.

pile on

Comparisons of work-teams to teams in sport don’t really work for me. Sports teams train together, exercise together, eat together, have daily briefings together and ultimately perform together. In schools any of that team ethic is diluted by about a thousand kids and a disparate range of subject interests. The daily grind of teaching, supervising and caring means time with our staff team is precious. Team meetings are secondary to the primary purpose of the day. World Cup footballers can drill a freekick or a deadball situation over and over so it is semi-automatic before it’s perfect for match play. During practice, players perform in front of peers while coaches scrutinise and teammates cajole. It raises everyone’s level helps control some of the external variables. These sessions create not just a shared understanding but practice the specific skill so that this is precisely what will happen when they perform. But for us mortals our meetings are not set up for us to practise the skill we deliver. In schools we don’t rehearse target-questions, watch each others’ starters or weigh-up feedback. What is called teaching practice stops after PGCE. In teaching we don’t have a practising culture.

Instead often our CPD implicitly assumes that we all get it. Then the day begins and we say the same things to children as they enter our classrooms, we repeat the same patterns of instruction. We fall prey to the inevitable cycle of habit. The same mistakes and the same strengths; we flounder or fly.

And it’s often lonely. We yearn for the banter and the heightened challenge of actually being part of a real team that connects, that learns together, plays together, maybe eats together, certainly sharpens each other. That is fun to be a part of! At its worst teaching is not a team game. Sometimes it feels like solitary confinement for adults. Does it need to be like that? What can we do to help us feel like we are more than the sum of our parts? How do we develop a strong team culture, so we become better practitioners within a great ethos and want to stay in a profession that we love?

Here’s some common questions about teams:
How do I build the right team and build trust?
How do I keep the team focused on the right things?
I’ve got good people in my team, working hard, how do
 I improve our performance?

Which I’ll attempt to cover over the following 3 blogs:
1/Building the team
2/Organising the team with purpose 
3/Learning from world class teams

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1/BUILDING THE TEAM:

1.
Small teams work fastest:
Because we are looking for enthusiastic and capable people and because there are always new targets to hit and new responsibilities to fill, there is a temptation to over-grow the team. Research suggests that a team’s effectiveness is inversely proportional to size. A small team is stronger: the fewer people we appoint the more we attend to quality, the better focus we can devote to improving their day-to-day effectiveness, all of which leads to better, more rapid decision-making. If we aren’t careful, in larger teams sub-groups can develop and positioning can get in the way. Extended teams have become popular – these offer aspiring leaders an opportunity to show what they can do and a bigger team can enable succession planning. But too often this runs away with itself and with the budget.

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2.
The Bus – who before what: 
Building teams is a labour of love, but cliché or no cliché, getting the right people on the bus, and the wrong ones off the bus is the starting point. Looking at Jim Collin’s much quoted mantra two bits which are often missed are: “Get the right people in the right seats”, and “Put who before what”. Choosing the membership of our team is the most significant lever in how our team will perform. It is why Heads say that hiring good people is the most important thing they do, and growing great team culture is fundamental to long term reputation. We neglect this truth and sometimes cloud it with details: job descriptions, team structures, pay grades. Ultimately it is about the people. According to a recent McKinsey survey more than a third of US worker said top teams did not have the right people.

3.
Keep your enemies close:
 In the early days of forming your team, the chances are that each member of the team you inherit will not have been your first choice. Yet getting people on board with your ideas, working constructively alongside them and getting the best out of them for the time they are with you is fundamental. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliant “Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”  is the story of his three rivals for the presidential nomination, William H Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates. Lincoln built his team from his fiercest rivals. Often a newly appointed leader has to work with a colleague they were pitted against in an interview and this can either be full of friction or the beginning of a respectful working relationship. Lincoln’s skill in team-building was the ability to keep these ‘factions’ together. “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Because he understood the difficulties facing America at the time, he refused to compromise on appointing the finest people simply because of negative comments in the past. Lincoln was a brilliant leader principly because he was a great team builder. As Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 2 advises. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”.85906610

4.
Working with difficult people: Work is not perfect and we all have to work with difficult people, if not quite Boris Johnson. At our worst they get our backs up and we react to them with our default behaviours that just seem to compound their awfulness and their negative impact on the team. It helps to plan how to manage these people. 
In ‘Originals’, Adam Grant explains that we tend to view our relationships as on a continuum from positive to negative. Our closest friends support us, our enemies actively work against us. He describes the concept of ‘frenemies’ – people who sometimes support you and sometimes undermine you. These ambivalent relationships are actually unhealthier than negative relationships because we are constantly on guard, wondering if that person can be trusted. All of which takes emotional energy. Although we tend to focus on building ties with the people who support us, evidence suggests we should instead spend more time developing those who started out against us. They have to work against their original feelings, to overcome their instinct about us, saying ‘I must have been wrong about that person’. These former enemies will be our best advocates when it comes to persuading others. Grant writes about how the suffragetter Lucy Stone won over some of her greatest rivals in this way:

“When Stone walked around hanging up posters announcing abolition speeches, young men followed her and ripped them down. Stone asked them if they loved their mothers. Absolutely. She explained that in the South, men of their own age were sold as slaves, and they would never see their families again. She invited them to attend the evening’s lecture as her ‘special agents’. Such street recruits proved useful allies, able to defuse other troublemakers.”

5.
Drains and radiators:
 Understanding the energy levels of the people within our team is crucial in predicting how they will work with others and how productive they will be. Some will be energy-sappers and some energy-givers and this will make a huge difference to the team’s happiness and effectiveness. Former Team Sky’s coach Sir Dave Brailsford describes those who he wants and doesn’t want on his team. “I want a culture that is hungry and ambitious, doesn’t see barriers, constantly creating, but organised and disciplined, otherwise change can spiral out of control.” He uses Donald Tosti’s ‘Energy Investment Model’: With energy along the x axis and attitude along the y axis:

TOSTI

Apart from the bottom left quadrant who need to move on, the two middle quadrants can be coached to become team players. Clive Woodward had some concerns about the character and quality of some of his team building up to the World Cup Finals. So he took them to SAS HQ in Hereford. The brigadier supervising the process, gave Woodward a list of players who would never make the marines, not because of skill but because of general attitude. It matched Woodward’s list and they were moved out.

6.
Borrowing outsider wisdom: 
We all use external eyes to help inform and challenge our thinking, but its not always easy to challenge our assumptions. We have blind spots and we don’t even know what they are. Teams have to make difficult decisions and over time the best teams get more of these right than wrong. Caroline Webb says we should think of someone we respect but who does things differently to us, and ask this devil’s advocate “What do you see differently? What are we missing? What assumptions in our thinking would you challenge and what advice would you give?” There is a good chance this will highlight our ‘institutional blindspots’, and help us to think about the information we need to seek out to make a better decision? Outsiders could be best placed to point these out.

Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ describes one idea to gather ‘insider wisdom’. This is the ‘FedEx Day’, from Australian company Atlassian. These are one-day bursts of autonomy which gives people the chance to work on anything they want which will improve the organisation, provided they show what they’ve created to their colleagues 24 hours later. Hence FedEx Days because participants have to deliver something overnight.

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7.
Bring diversity and search out introverts: We hope that with greater diversity and a deeper understanding of what makes successful leaders, the era of the macho, extrovert, charismatic leader is over. Susan Cain challenges us; Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait…introverts in an extrovert culture are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” Because we are all in the business of understanding the learning process deeply, then it stands to reason that our strongest teams (at all levels) will be those who have the deepest conversations about teaching and curriculum. In my experience, thoughtful introverts trump extroverts here.

8.
Choose those who make the team look good: A good friend of mine is a youth minister and inspirational team builder, leading teams who support huge numbers of young people. He works with parents who are volunteering, so motivation and time are at a premium. There is a infectious positivity and energy about him, but most noticeably an implicit humility about what he has achieved. When things go right he points to others in the different teams he has built up and their myriad achievements, when there are problems he shoulders them himself. Roy Hodgson, (manager of 16 football teams in 8 countries) describes two types of player: “The players who bring what they have to the team and make the team good, and players who use the team to make themselves look good.  We try to be everything, instead of stepping back and allowing less experienced people lead. Not everyone has to be in the stage-lights. How do we celebrate the invisible dynamos as well as those on the front line?

strava

9.
Building trust:
Bruce Tuckman’s ‘Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing’ classic team-development model visualises how teams move through the gears beyond the norms stage to real performance. Expectations are clear at the outset and before long there is a blending of the formal structures (eg. appraisal meetings) and the informal structures (one-to-ones) which creates a fluency where the organisation makes rapid progress towards its shared goal. However, in this model trust comes only at the end of the process. Leadership expert Andy Buck compares this with Patrick Lencioni’s model where trust comes much earlier on in the stages and he believes that this is crucial to team members properly being able to engage in honest debate and fulfilling decision-making. He suggests a compromise, so the sequence looks more like this:

  1. FORMATION
  2. ADJUSTMENT
  3. TRUST
  4. DEBATE
  5. BUY-IN
  6. PERFORMANCE

10.
Why micromanagement doesn’t work:  When we are treated simply as cogs in a production machine and are not trusted to make decisions as a team we rebel. We’ve all seen these teams: Top-down, tick-lists of actions, tightly controlled agendas and little distribution of real responsibility or opportunities for leadership. McGregor’s ‘Human Side of Enterprise’ is a classic description of human motivation at work. He describes X-type and Y-type managers. X-types are essentially cynical and don’t trust employees. Bosses boss and the workers work. They coerce through formal authority, compliance, hierarchy and close monitoring. Y-types operate through trust, empowerment and respect. Thankfully the world has moved from Victorian-mill X-type to twenty-first century Y-type but we need to watch for managers who still operate in X-mode.

The temptation to micromanage downwards is usually because we are the next head on the chopping block and so we pass on urgency – the unachievable deadline or the unintelligible goal – to our team, which piles short term pressure to deliver, stifling the long term development of the team and curbing autonomy. Don’t obsess: allow.

Conversely, we know when the team is functioning, all the cogs working and where trust is central. This sense of identity and culture is as tangible for staff as it is with students. Changing the culture around our teams is paramount and it is led from the top:

“Headteachers in challenging schools have to create goodwill with our staff because we ask so much of our teachers. You gauge the staff morale like a doctor checking for the pulse of a patient.” Dame Sally Coates.

So creating a culture of trust is central to the next stage because this is all about the process of getting the job done in the right way. Building the team is the starting point. Once we have a team we know will function well, it is time to get moving.

MORE LIKE THIS/GREAT TEAM-READS: 

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

Brighton Subzero

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Photo: Michael Regan

I drove to Brighton: four degrees below.
The motorways were salty, grinding, slow
My windscreen wash was frozen. Would not come.
The murky shroud of winter pushed me on.

We met at Trevor’s Café. Half past three.
Two full breakfasts and then two cups of tea.
Like lovers, sliding eggs around our plates,
We slowly brought ourselves to share our fates.

We come at it full circle; in for the kill
In all my life I’d never seen him look so ill.
His news was bad. I knew that it would be.
Compounded by the consultant’s honesty.

I looked at him. His eyes bore into me.
A hollowed-out version sat in spectral symmetry.
His clothes and skin and faded hair let go.
The insubstantial trappings of this ghostly show.

The only moving things in the place
Were clouds of cappucino steam upon his face,
And his eyes; liquid eyes that, although blurred
Traced my talk of future hope in every word.

Talk of children not had, choices made,
Cities not seen, odd debts not paid,
Journeys not taken and books not read,
Went untold, and mostly by us both, unsaid.

Scarves and hats summoned, he scraped his chair,
And we were all too quickly back in the hard, cold air.
He’d not the energy for the uphill climb.
So we took the No 12 bus to save the time.

And later as I strapped in, and slammed the car door
I saw him up high at the window of the 7th floor.
Mortally still, except his eyes that followed me
Hungrily up the road I drove along, along the sea.

Is that a newt in my curriculum?

 

great_crested_newt_derbyshire_cpt_philip_precey-e1509133751908photo by wildlifetrusts.org

A thing of beauty is a joy forever/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness. Keats – from Endymion

Tipton: 1974. When I was young I had a love of natural history. Specifically newts. Near my house as a small boy I would idle away hours fishing in a wasteland pond with my dog on the edge of town (definitely something to be said for laissez-faire parenting in our overprotective culture). I would stand in silent solitude waiting for these semi-amphibian creatures to show themselves with their characteristic wriggle up to the surface to take in air.

I can remember like yesterday a Y5 project on newts that my teacher dreamt up and that I threw myself into. I grew to know and feel the colour differences between Smooth newt and a Palmate newt (sexy latin name Lissotriton helveticus: like a character from ‘Gladiator’). I drew colourful sketches of Great Crested newts, the Jurassic Park dinosaur of the trio, picking out the underside of their unbelievable bellies and their triceratops-like wavy ridge-crest, normally only properly visible in a jar.  I wrote about them, drew them with precision, measured their growth and hatched their ‘efts’ (if there is a more poetic term for animal young I’d like to hear it). I sketched the incredibly rapid stages of their metamorphosis. I kept them, felt their feather-like gills and gazed at them with childlike awe for hours. It was muddy work, and I probably looked a like Huckleberry Finn, and stank of rancid pondweed. But what was not to like aged 10 and a bit?

Once I had an experience with newts which will remain with me forever:

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We draw on our intense childhood experiences. Although traumatised for a while, I know that I loved my learning about amphibians in school and the extra research at home. My teacher sparked something exciting for a small boy and built on it, and at no point crushed my enthusiasm with a “that’s enough of that now”.  Because of her planning and patience I knew with certainty that no one else in my class, nor any of my teachers, nor indeed any adult that I knew had spent as much time as I in the mini world of newts or had the depth of interest or fascination for them that I did. That sense of micro-awe and micro-wonder. Newts have become for me a metaphor of the ultimate hook (excuse the pun) into learning. A quality curriculum with really exciting content is at the heart of everything.

Our National Curricula (now twice round the block) too often force teachers to cover large chunks of content in a very superficial way. And because of our internet roller-coaster, attention-deficit culture, our children are used to racing through a shallow level of knowledge about lots of subjects and concepts. And we are under pressure to perform and get throughout the content. So how do we challenge and change the dominant culture around us? How do we embrace whatever we mean by ‘mastery’ and create schools which value digging deep into knowledge for its own good? How do we value depth not coverage? Where are our newts?

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In Y5 the learning I was doing at school translated seamlessly beyond the school gates. ‘Project-based learning’ has been tried in secondary schools and found wanting, for lots of reasons. So where do we see children really get into flow in a meaningful way so they are utterly absorbed? This is Daisy Christodoulou’s frustration with our loss of the joy of facts and the fun of learning the ‘stuff’. This is where the teacher can step back, walk to the back of the class and admire. How do we create the space to slow things down so that our students practice so well that they feel that sense of awe, that pride in the final assignment, the finished article, the fourth draft of the poem, the completed model, the dance performance honed? The deep disposition within our children to be absorbed, curious, fascinated. Where memories are made.

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This differs from so much current ‘needs-must’ learning gleaning just the right amount of knowledge in order to reach a certain score in Y6 or grade 4 at GCSE. Aged 10 I might not have been able to master a sentence with a conjunction, but I could tell you why newts are semi-amphibian. I was inspired at school by being told how frogs reproduced, how the keys of a brass instrument worked, how and why patterns of burglaries varied in my town, or how to use the Cruyff turn to beat an opponent. My youngest son in his first term at university phoned me yesterday telling me how he had counted the heart rates of daphnia fleas on 3 different surfaces: water, caffeine and ibuprofen, to see the impact of these chemicals on them, and us. He will remember that. Stuff that is tricky. And fun. And also a little bit cool. The wonders of a great curriculum are like the annual growth rings in trees. Children should be learning it in 100 years’ time.

So 5 simple suggestions:

Don’t overcomplicate our classrooms and our learning: As a Head I a trying to encourage teachers to keep lesson planning very tight, teaching one or two really key concepts unbelievably well, often reteaching them and then allowing children to really drill this knowledge and understanding through different applications. Less is more. Let’s think carefully before we try to shove the next new idea into our lesson plans: see Phil Stock’s excellent Resist the urge – Joeybagstock

Scour our schemes of work: Our Heads of Faculty have spent lots of time this year drilling down into where the real content challenges are, and planning in more depth for these bits. And making homework harder, a little more ‘different’ and asking whether it is really practising the skills that children have been taught?Where are the ‘memorable moments’ or experiences from which other curriculum content can hang? Primary and Special Schools are often best at this: 50 things to do before…

Slow down: Let’s resist the compulsion to race onto the next topic. Let’s slow down our delivery and ask ourselves whether this is now time for students to redraft and rework. Jamie Thom’s ‘Slow Classrooms’ might just allow some of this reflection, and also leave teachers feeling less stressed out. Slow Teaching – Jamie Thom

Ask better questions : We are currently reviewing our Key Stage 3. All of it. Obvious questions are: do Y8 & Y9 have enough really challenging content? How much material is now being taught in Y8 which previously was being taught in GCSE years? Less obvious ones include: how good is our enrichment, and how does this add to the whole-child experience and get kids excited about school and about learning?

To get school improvement right get the curriculum right: To begin to impose a school culture of better teaching techniques or improved behaviour shifts without the fundamentals of rock solid curriculum experiences is short term, sticking-plaster, cart before horse school improvement.

A rich curriculum is a great cornerstone. The bedrock upon which we build everything else in our schools. It’s application may adapt slightly, but if we value its principles then its content should not shift much and ought to bring great depth, when cooked slowly. We don’t want to dumb down beautiful and difficult things, and the degree of difficulty is part of its beauty. It is why our children should be learning about the Human Genome Project, Quark theory and Keats. It is why they need to know calculus and be able to bring perspective to a charcoal drawing.