Cobwebs in October


Cobwebs in October
Low-slung nets made visible by dew
Appear suddenly one morning.
Trampolines of soft breath
And droplet-beaded precision.
The seesaw song of the chaffinch
Bounces off allium globes. Ghostly lines
Lassoed over St Johns Wort,
And spiders go-ape
Between herbaceous, hammock-weaved heaven.
Cat’s-cradles: the fingers of branches,
And every bush, every stalk is wired up
With explosives,
As pyracantha flames orange,
Wrapped up like a Christmas shroud.

What T20 Finals Day taught me…about going back to school


Getting the right team?
It’s not always about the big names. Yesterday’s winners Notts Outlaws could have picked their test player Stuart Broad, but they didn’t. Instead they chose the right team for the right format, and the consistent players who had got them to the final. Actually on finals day, the biggest names of each of the 4 semi-finalists (big hitters Alex Hales and Shahid ‘boom boom’ Afridi especially) failed. Strong internal day-to-day consistency from everyone is always better than flashy ‘outstanding’ individual showcases.


Knowing the situation you are in
: Samit Patel and Brendan Tayor won the final match with a 132 run partnership, just when it looked like the team was crumbling. They did it by batting slowly, carefully, not at first with lots of big, popular T20 hitting, but assessing the situation and slowly, deliberately building an innings. The crowd were impatient, knowing that the run rate might be too slow. But, faced with a potential collapse, these two made the right decision, built slowly, then accelerated. Knowing context, planning methodically & choosing the right strategy for the long journey.


Are we really a team?
 More than any other of the 4 teams on the day, the victorious Notts Outlaws had a discernible habit. As we watched from the stands, every wicket they took would precipitate the whole team, from all corners of the field, sprinting together for celebratory high fives and hugs. Contact which spoke clearly of authenticity. The other teams did it to some extent, but it wasn’t the same. More tokenistic, with less intensity. How much do we come together as a team and really build each other up, genuinely spur each other to become better at our practice, authentically celebrate what is going well and revel in our collective strength? Build strong team-building habits 


It’s not about the manager:
For the girl who is struggling in that maths group in Y8, it is the teacher who is more important to her than the Head or the CEO. Moores is a steadying, strong presence but the attention of the media and the crowd is focused on the players, not on him. Know who is really important.


Learn from failure:
Peter Moores, who had two unsuccessful spells as England manager (including one spectacular falling out with Kevin Pieterson) says “To win both white ball trophies in a season is a really rare thing. If you do that then it’s very, very special,” he said. “I think a lot of it comes down to mindset. We’ll go there as a settled team, a settled group of players who have gone through a bit of a journey. We were slow out the blocks and honestly, we weren’t really a proper team. We’d made a lot of changes – we had four or five different players and that took a bit of settling. Credit to (captain) Dan Christian and the players. They were honest and admitted they hadn’t got it right. ” We learn much more from our failures than our high points. 


Catching practice at night:
while we waited for the final to begin, Andrew Flintoff and David Lloyd (Freddie & Bumble to aficionados) goofed around singing Karaoke Elvis and Jonny Cash. Magic. Some players relaxed, watched and laughed along with the crowd, but there was a small, core group of players in the darkest corner of Edgbaston, away from the flashbulb media-scrum, who did catching drills for 30 minutes before the final game, as the sun was setting over West Bromwich. Catching in the dark. Adjusting eyes. Yesterday catches won matches. Remember what our colleagues do and achieve for children in schools in the quiet moments, thoughtfully and away from the spotlight. That’s what counts.

Learn from the best
– 25 years ago the game was dying on its feet. County Cricket had all the vim and vigour of a picnic in Tunbridge Wells. Anticipation for a game looked a little like this:


Rather than this (people queuing for tickets for an Indian IPL game):


So the game learnt from mass-popular formats such as IPL (Indian Premier League) and it became more international, more sexy, attracted the big channels, and and caught the imagination of young people again.


Over the summer reading the excellent Cleverlands by Lucy Creehan, has reminded me that there is a lot to be learnt from the performance of schools in other countries, not just for their quantitative PISA rankings, but also for the qualitative learning we can take. This can guide us in how we re-culture our schools to drive better progress and think more widely about what school should look like to be successful in the future and feel less like an annual slog for teachers and leaders (as well as students). Educating our next generation is a serious business, but it needs to be a profession with huge amounts of heart and fun, so that it attracts the best next generation of young talented inspirers. Let’s enjoy the ride!


Award sensitively!
 And finally the beautiful moment when the only injury of the day was incurred by the oversized trophy being presented rather forcefully, amongst the flowing champagne, into the Notts skipper’s head. Note to self!




Our heroes matter


Summer. A time to take stock. To watch films and read stories about people and dream. To watch cricket…

Childhood heroes

This week I watched Michael Holding’s 1976 massacre of England during a rain-stopped-play moment in the recent England thrashing of South Africa in the 3rd Test. A re-run of Holding splintering England wickets. Silky, smooth and menacing. An utterly beautiful bowler. ‘Whispering Death’ was his epithet because umpires said his run-up to bowl was so graceful they couldn’t hear him. 10 years old and I wanted to be him.

guardian-e1501592537868.jpg  (Photo: The Guardian)

It was him I was trying to emulate as I’d practised with my brothers on the local primary school playground every morning of the summer holidays of that long hot summer. I could do all the bowling actions: Tony Greig, Joel Garner, Denis Lillee, Bob Willis. But Michael Holding was the one. The first bowler’s name on everybody’s Rest of the World team.

Whether consciously or not, our choice of heroes are a reflection of our childhood,  outlook on life and perhaps an indication of the kind of person or leader we aspire to be. I’ve listened to and led many a heroes assembly; boys or girls, sporting or spiritual, literary or political, superheroes or ordinary folks who stepped up and became great. I’ve tried to steer clear of the cliched or overexposed; Mother Teresa and MLK and Gandhi, the Michael Jordan clips and the Steve Jobs miracles. Great though they are.

 (Photo: Richie Hopson)

Our own choice of hero/role model is inevitably personal: One person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. As a geography teacher, married to a biologist – I get that Dave Goulson (‘A Sting in the Tale’), is the bee-saviour come to earth, but has she yet grasped the majesty that is Robert Macfarlane’s writing about Mountains and Wilderness? Probably not.

Our students are growing up in a moral world of Trump-filled self promotion, and a global economy where we know the cost of a Neymar, but not the value of human dignity. Perhaps this is as good a time to explore who it is that we look up to, aspire to be and put on our private pedestals.


Never mind, there are deep wells of hero-gurus for all of us to choose from: Atwood or Aurelius? Balding or The Brownlees? Corden or Cook (England ex-skipper of course!)?Dench or de Botton? Farah or Fry? Murray or Mailer?  Lennox or Lewis (see what I did there?) Toksvig or Tolkien? Wilberforce or Winfrey or Waite?  Each one is a story. Unerringly world class in their field, or battling through affliction or prejudice, or just plain bloody-minded.


Hercules, the Roman adaptation of the Greek hero Heracles, was rewarded for his suffering through the twelve labours with the promise that he would live forever among the gods at Mount Olympus.


Olympic endeavours, symbolic of the twelve labours, are a metaphor and a mathematical point of reference for what is physically heroic in our eyes. Occasionally history and sport align beautifully and the story becomes bigger than the event itself. Just so when Jesse Owens stepped up and won four gold medals and becoming the most successful athlete at the 1936 Games. As a black man he was credited with “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy”.


“Greatness requires longevity. It’s not one perfect performance. Redgrave is not only a person. Redgrave is also a quality. Napolean would ask his generals: ‘Has he luck?’ I ask of athletes: ‘Has he Redgrave?’ Redgrave is the ability to go beyond yourself. Redgrave rowed more miles, lifted more weights, erged more ergoes. When Redgrave went into battle, he knew that all the others had the choice to work just as hard as he had done, and they’d chosen not to.” Simon Barnes

sr-peter-spurrier.jpg(Photo: Peter Spurrier)

Sometimes ordinary family members become stars and then they become something else completely. The state of the nation and the beautiful collision of cultures creates the conditions and a moment for a star to shine. And we love them all the more for it.

Child heroes 

From a very early age Malala Yousafzai was an activist for female education. At 12 she was supporting the education of women in her native Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan, where the local Taliban had banned girls from attending school. She was influenced by her parents who ran a chain of schools & by 13 she had already written a blog (under a pseudonym) describing life during Taliban occupation. She gave interviews in newspapers and on TV, and was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by one of my heroes Desmond Tutu.

malala-yousafzai-ftr-e1501592585957.jpg“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful”  M Yousafzai

On 9 October 2012, Malala was injured after a Taliban gunman tried to kill her. She was treated in Rawalpindi then later at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. The murder attempt created a huge following and in January 2013 Deutsche Welle wrote that she was probably “the most famous teenager in the world. In an assembly in March I compared her with Jennifer Lawrence (Catniss Everdeen of ‘Hunger Games’ fame) and suggested to western teenagers that Malala was probably more well known across the world. I was amazed at their knowledge of her. Aged 17, she became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner and she is now one of the world’s most influential people (Time Magazine).

What is intriguing is how quickly we have grasped this girl to our collective hearts. With so many one-dimensional role models out there, this young woman resonates incredible strength. Her level of courage to take on a heroic role in the international spotlight is attractive, along with rock-solid personal attributes. She has harnessed the power of media to be a positive influence – a refreshing change from the media’s tendency to pull someone down as soon as they have built them up.

The truth of course is that there are hundreds of other Malalas in non-western countries, and we need to teach our children to dispel the idea that most role models are British or American, wear jeans and sunglasses and emerge phoenix-like from a singing contest. Malala’s story also reinforces the incredible force young people have for justice.  In schools we can help open their eyes to inhumanity across the world (human trafficking, modern slavery, FGM) and connect young people with the amazing groups and unsung heroes fighting for justice.

Action heroes bear-grylls.jpg(Photo: Martin Holland)

Starring in heroic documentaries, writing self-improvement books, breaking his back in a fall over an African desert and trekking with Barak Obama, theres not much that BG hasn’t done. The most significant thing about him seems to me how ‘at ease’ he is. Supremely comfortable in his own skin, whether planning a route up Everest, willing a group of twenty-somethings through a rainforest or talking about his faith. He exudes ‘can do’, warmth and compassion. He is one of the great boys-own scouting role models.

Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane studied the bystander effect, the failure of people to help in emergencies. People diffuse responsibility and assume that others should do the heroic work. Emergencies are rare and dangerous, and to be heroic, we must sometimes be willing to put our own lives at risk. All of which explains why so few are heroes.

But amazing though their work is, our perspective on being heroic is not just about how the the likes of Bear Grylls save us in a crisis. A close look at his books demonstrates his focus on developing character and bringing a particular personal attitude to each situation life throws at us.


Thinking heroes

Poets, novelists, mathematicians, scientists, educationalists, actors or politicians all challenge and grow our thinking. Along with many parents I have a soft spot for JKR, because she was one of the catalysts to springboard my boys into reading, along with Michelle Paver with her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. Maybe our heroes are women who should be paid more for the excellence that they do, or at least as much as their male counterparts. Maybe we should shout more about this.


Or perhaps they have a brain the size of Wales, the scouring honesty, warmth and compassion of the techno-geek that is cricket-loving Stephen Fry. Searingly honest about his own battles with mental health and manic depression, he may not the most obvious young person’s hero, but why not? His approach to achieving success through work-life balance is educational for young people under the illusion of a get-rich quick culture:


“The idea of balancing one against the other makes no sense. My work isn’t against my own life – work is my life. Everyone I know who is successful works, and works hard. Really hard. Maybe that should be my advice: work your bloody bollocks off.”

Everyone knows how many years Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in prison. Few young people know the name Aung San Suu Kyi, or that she spent 15 years as a political prisoner, just as Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island was ending. Politician and now the first Leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar (previously Burma, she rose to prominence in the 1988 Uprisings, and in the 1990 elections, she won 81% of the seats in Parliament, but the results were cancelled and she was put under house arrest.

moral-heroes-e1501592638429.jpg(Photo – Telegraph)

She should be the world’s most acclaimed female world leader. But in the Guardian earlier this year Poppy McPherson was critical of her first year in power, against her enormous build up: “The script called for the lead actor, a Nobel prize winner, to seize control of a country, bring peace where there was conflict and prosperity where there was poverty. But like many political dramas the script has not been followed by Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi.”

A year since she came to power there is now escalating ethnic conflict and an army crackdown. Perhaps we expected Suu Kyi to do a Mandela. Maybe we are too impatient to see the fruits of what these moral giants should achieve when launched on the big stage.

Conversely there are those anonymous people who step into history and simply and silently make a stand. Their strength becomes a touchstone for all of us to show more courage when faced with lesser obstacles in our daily lives.



Almost all of literature and film seems to understand that orthodox heroes are inherently boring. Too goody-goody. So they draw us into the big themes through the imperfections of the antihero, who lack the conventional qualities of morality, courage and high ideals.

“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the grey truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. How can I know that and not know who I am?” Jason Bourne


We urge Jason Bourne on because of the hand that the ‘Treadstone’ system has dealt him, and so we forgive him his violent journey to discover his identity. We laugh at clumsy, ageing Hans Solo and his tired spaceship (really have I got to come and save you from the Death Star again?) because he’s a charmer and a smuggler who would rather be anywhere else but working for the Resistance. Children and adult literature seems stuffed full of unlikely heroes – Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, JK Rowling’s Severus Snape, The Bard’s Hamlet, reluctant tragic-hero and procrastinator. We read and watch and identify with antiheroes because they make us feel better about who were are. We could be them.

Personal heroes

We all have heroes that resonate personally. There is nothing not to love about Desmond Tutu. From his diminutive size to his explosive smile you cannot help but be drawn in. From a social rights activist he rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as a vigorous opponent of apartheid. He was the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. At the end of apartheid, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and as well as coining the term “Rainbow Nation” was probably mostly responsible for such a bloodless transition from apartheid. He was the quieter foil to the public Mandela. He gets up at 4am each day for his morning walk and prayers.

tutudesmond-e1501592687911.jpg(Photo: Adam Jacobs)

I lived in Africa for 2 years and write about that experience here. While there I visited a Leprosy Settlement in N Zimbabwe where a friend was nursing. I met elderly couples cruelly disfigured by leprosy and I saw up close what I had imagined was a mediaeval, biblical plague. People had come from all corners of Zimbabwe to meet like-bodied people. To be loved unconditionally. To marry. Beyond the stage of infection but not immune from persecution. Some heroes feel more personal to us and because of that experience, although I never met him, Dr. Paul Brand (1914–2003) is a legend for me. He pioneered hand tendon transfer techniques for people with leprosy. He was the first doctor to realise that leprosy did not cause the rotting away of tissue, but that it was the loss of sensation of pain which made sufferers at risk to injury. Along with writer Philip Yancey, Brand wrote about his own philosophy about the valuable properties of pain in “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants”. 


As a medical leader, he sought solitude. His response to acclaim was the opposite of our bare-your-soul Twitter generation. He lived far away from the centre of medical research.  On a tiny salary he treated people with gentle dignity, reconstructed hands and toes, built relationships, cured people.

Ordinary heroes

I think we love ‘A Wonderful Life’ because we can all identify with Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey; a flawed, sad fellow who feels his life has meant nothing. His is the ultimate mid-life crisis. At our lowest ebb, we see ourselves in him.  Wendell Jamieson writes: “My affection for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has never waned, despite the film’s overexposure and sugar-sweet marketing, it is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams.”


The way in which we hold onto our heroes is to somehow remain in childhood, to cling to our dreams. We know that they in some small way represent our better selves, our best selves. To misquote Clarence the Angel from Wonderful Life: “Each of our life touches so many other lives. When we aren’t around it leaves an awful hole, doesn’t it?”


To qualify as truly heroic it seems that we look for people who bring moral courage or physical strength, not only to achieve something extraordinary for themselves, but beyond that to influence our nation’s destiny at a key point in history. Children and adults need them because however wonderful parents are, Philip Larkin’s poetic reminder will always have a grain of truth. We need something to use as a compass needle of cool, a plumb line of perfection. 

Here are 5 practical steps in encouraging children to think through their heroes:

  1. Acknowledge who our heroes are and get children to talk about theirs. Create research opportunities in our subjects for pupils to explore their stars and what it is that really makes them heroic. Share personally your role models – this is so powerful: give a little of yourself.
  2. Dwell on character. Dig under the surface of the who and get to the why.
  3. Challenge superficial thinking and the instant celebrity nature of our culture. What would the world look like if we valued and rewarded heroic acts more than football players? How did each hero show resilience and surmount obstacles?
  4. Encourage boys to think about female heroes more. Very young children are mad about Superheroes. What is that about!? There is a lot of healthy energy in this desperate desire for special power…how can we channel this?!
  5. Remember the incredible force young people have for justice and harness this.  In schools we can use our rich curriculum to open their eyes to inhumanity across the world (human trafficking, modern slavery, FGM) and explore the incredible organisations fighting for justice.

Love the Quote: “I do my homework. That’s why people like me.” Clare Balding

You could read: “If I could tell you just one thing…”  by Richard Reed. It’s a great read packed full of original modern day heroes.



The healing power of Restorative Justice


In Louise Tickle’s powerful article in The Guardian this week here, she looks closely at the approach to using Restorative Justice in schools. The article reflects on the number of children who have been permanently excluded across Gloucestershire, and across the UK, but then considers the impact of the technique of Restorative Justice on shifting the behaviour culture in our schools. It is a technique worth exploring.

Continue reading

Christmas at the Gloucester Royal


At the start of shift 3 she hands me a tea,
Just half a sugar. Like I like it now.
In the day room. Like a regular.
A too-familiar welcome for a place
We want to leave. While somewhere in the quiet,
Subterranean darkness, a registrar
Half my age, is cutting up my perfectly-shaped boy.

As I wait for the theatre curtain to fall,
Electric-yellow Nora Virus signs
Blare at me: hands off. Place of life and death.
Earlier, he, stockinged feet dangling,
Was held down with guy ropes;
Intravenous drips, translucent tubes,
The perfect paraphernalia of pain relief.
Inert and pinned, like Gulliver on the rocks.
The perfect Lilliputian saline solution. 

No scheduled ops on Christmas Eve. Time yawns
In the stifled room, reaching across
Empty steel-white beds.
Sounds of shuffling frames and sandled feet,
Porters chat and cackle,
Christmas radio wafts half-hearted jollity.
Unreal. In this real world of pain. Where,
Two nurses sit with a grizzled, pyjama-ed, vacant soul
Unstitch his attachments and hold his hand.
Look into his eyes, draw him from bed to chair
The first step of a long chain home
Into sheltered housing. He refuses.
Two green uniforms stand tall, oversee, frown,
He opens his eyes, moans, then roars,
Finally subdues into sobs. They stretcher him
Away as he flays, as his bagged ID and papers
Slip to the floor. 

And all the while the nurses’ touch,
Graceful, instinctive; eyes, hands, names.
I marvel at its gentle steely resolve.
This will happen. But we will match it with love.
Hard to watch such quiet dignity, it quite unmans me
And I look away. Squirm and squeak
In the shiny green visitors’ chair. 

Last nght, the Registrar sat on my boy’s bed.
First names. Like family.
She summoned an air
Of precision. Definition.
We’d needed for hours. Within minutes
She is the one I want to open him up.
But it’s a tricky diagnosis and even she
Can’t be certain. She retreated
To her flickering screen; ever the scientist,
Sifting and scanning the data,
Assessing the damage:
Pulse rate, Diastolic pressure, temperature,
Bloods, cannula, abdominal pain.
Weighing them
In her small and pinkly-washed hands.

Despite my rocky steady confidence in her
It is the post-op sight of my little boy
In an oxygen mask at midnight
Which unmasks me. The anaesthetist
Touches my arm to reassure.
The spaceship bleep and hum
Only sound in the cavernous, cathedral-dark.
It’s quiet and prayerful down here,
His tiny damp puffs of breath
Like a consecrated mist.
Blessed incense. 

Christmas Day clicks round. I stay for just a little longer
Because I need to rest my eyes on his face.
Marvel at this Christmas miracle.
I want to throw the window up
And lean bodily forward screaming to the world.
Call for a Christmas goose,
He is alive! It’s Christmas Day!
But I’m English.
And instead I drive home steadily.
Eyeing the dark road for surprised deer and sudden fox.

‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ – The Black Mountains


Sharp-angled sunshine catches up with us
On Hay Bluff, racing over bracken bent
By showers stacking up against the dark
And brooding layers of the Black Mountains.
My boy and I we laugh along the ridge,
Gaze across the peak of Lord Hereford’s Knob,
And giggle at the future insults we will trade.

We slide down mossy slopes on green-stained arses.
A pair of red kites, picked out by low light
Skate across the fawn, heather-line of landscape.
We stroll the last few miles down to the car
Elbows and shoulders bump happily into each other.
And later, after cafe doughnuts and hot chocolate
We eavesdrop into Hay-on-Wye at soft twilight.
Yellow-lit windows, cold stone-air and mouldy books.
Boden-London families, Barber-clad old men,
Carved pumpkins and candles, shining shops
A touch of otherworldliness, as he
Weighs a fountain pen he likes the look of,
In the new old-fashioned stationers.

And walking to the car he holds my hand
Although he knows he’s too old, we smile together.
A day shared. In the car he blasts the heating,
Teases me at something I said, and all the way home
I become Lord Hereford for the day. 



The Slingshot – talent or practise?


Jack Morris is a good friend of my son and plays cricket in Gloucester Academy sports hall on a Thursday night with the County squad. He says it is the bounciest surface he’s ever played on. He is only 16, but has strong arms and shoulders, a steady eye and his timing of the ball is sensational. He hits it a very long way and when he hits it, it stays hit. Jack plays against my son and they play for rival teams. Sam bowls and Jack bats. Jack’s master plan is to completely dominate Sam’s bowling and intimidate him so he wilts, bowls a loose delivery and then Jack crashes everything to the boundary. Sam’s tactic is to bowl an in-swinging yorker which ducks into his crease, catches him unawares and smashes the stumps out of the ground. Despite this competitive edge, strangely they still like each other. But in my mind Jack is currently ahead. I have heard spectators watch Jack and say things like “Wow, what a talented lad, I wish I had that gift”. They don’t know what I have seen over the last few years.

Deliberate Practice: 
Jack’s Dad has a kind of dog-ballthrower designed for rock-hard cricket balls, and for the last 9 years he has used it to hurl these at his beloved son at ridiculous speeds. This piece of kit is actually called a sidearm. I call it a slingshot because when they bowl it at me at 80mph it may as well be little shepherd David firing a slingshot at hairy Goliath’s forehead. You hold the slingshot high above your head and whip it down the pitch towards the batsman, who wears all the protective gear (including helmet) you could imagine. Cricket is a dangerous game. In some practice sessions Jack’s Dad hurls down 200 balls down at his son. Using the sidearm means that the delivery is near perfect, and as a batsman you can predict where it will come and practice that specific shot. The on-drive. The hook. The cut. Each one repeated over and over again. 20 or 30 times each.  All of which means when you are out in the middle of a real match when that ball comes down from the real bowler into that same position, your eye adjusts, your shoulders rock into position and then you cannot fail.

 slingshot 2

Ration of praise and feedback: 
I watched the first 20 minutes of their training with a coaching company called Gecko this Friday. I wanted to learn what it was about the coaching that the boys were enjoying so much and learning from. After all, it’s not school – they don’t have to be there. There must be something magical happening. I counted 95 balls hurled from the bowling machine at 65 mph in the first 15 minutes. I listened to what the coaches actually said. This was what I heard: “Good shape Jack, nice drive Sam, good head position Jack, nice upright body position Sam, well left Jack, lovely cover drive Jack, nice shot, solid defence Sam, great shot Jack, top shot, good leave Sam, don’t play that one it’s too far away from your body, shot! Wrong shot for the ball, good straight drive Jack, great drive Sam, beautiful hit Jack, keep watching the ball, OK come over here we need to look at this one together”. So the first 18 shots yielded verbal feedback each time, 16 specific praise, 2 general praise. 15 specific positive praise and 3 specific feedback to improve. That’s about a five to one ratio, but it is the focus of the feedback which strikes me as part of the real success. Also notice the use of names almost every time and finally physically changing positions which leads to the individual summing up element of coaching. I wonder how much of my own teaching and my parenting reflects this level of specific positivity.

slingshot 3

Accelerate the progress: 
65mph on a full size pitch is one thing at the age of 15 or 16. When I watched I did a double take: both boys were asked to bat one third of the way up a 22 yard wicket, but with the same bowling speed. This dramatically reduced reaction time, meaning it was great practice for much quicker bowling. The boys quickly adapted to these new conditions although they played and missed more often. When they returned to full length pitch they were so much more controlled and relaxed in the shape of their shots, because they had more time. By changing the rules, they will become better, more proficient batsmen. In teaching we often create an artificial environment which controls some variables but allows students to focus on others. Allowing less time for a practice exam answer paring down our response-time until we can do it, and then building time back in should help students to relax in the way they respond

Know the language: 
It really helps. Too many of our students lack the basic terminology to build confidence in their subjects. Boys especially, which is ironic when you listen to their knowledge and articulation of Match of the Day, Play Station, bikes, new kit and technology. When I showed a photo of one of the boys playing a defensive shot to a friend Ruth who is herself a brilliant teacher and a Head of English, she showed her husband whose response showed typical male economy of (but precision with) language: “textbook orthodox defence” was all he said. Her response: “Ian, I have no idea what that means!”

Surround yourself with a peer group of winners: 
Friday night means best night of the week for Sam who goes off with his mates Jack, Joel and Tom. They are all good players, having a great time and playing serious cricket with adults. They are surrounded with high quality coaching and this combination – friends and great teaching is a toxic mixture. The best schools are unashamedly aspirational for their children and through role-modelling and close focus on areas to improve, this develops over time a special culture. What is that culture? It is not complicated: what gets results is commitment, great coaching and responding to clear feedback. Schools who articulate exactly what it is that they value and what they focus on will always get the right outcome: happy youngsters who come back for more.

slingshot 6

Eat, sleep and breathe it: 
Becoming obsessive can be good! Great players sleep with their bats when they are young! They cruise through youtube clips of great shots and coaching tips. They are preoccupied with new kit.  Jack is a little like this, and part of me thinks he should be really good. Anybody who spends that amount of time on their passion deserves to be brilliant. It is the embodiment of the 10 000 hours routine.

slingshot 7

Know the season: This is winter nets season. In schools it is the season when the graft is done. It is when teachers really begin to understand students’ strengths and weaknesses and plan tasks accordingly. It is when students apply themselves to developing great note-taking skills, building great books and folders. There will come a time when the nets, sports halls and kit-bags are substituted for summer outdoors and in each match there is one chance to transfer what you have inwardly learnt, what has become second nature over the winter, out into the middle. Then the focus of the coaching will change, there will be an adjustment toward fine-tuning the effectiveness of shots, of looking more closely at the fielding positions and seeking out the gaps. In school this looks like exam-technique, the importance of spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar, using quotes more effectively to develop your argument, or just the sheer physical mechanism of writing practice, handwriting and pen-grip. However, these finishing school techniques are no substitute for the winter-slog. Although no-one can guarantee success in terms of big runs, there will always be a direct correlation between the regularity and intensity of winter nets practice and the scores under the sun in June and July. Likewise with summer exams and results.

slinsghot 11 

Gegenpressing: While the rest of the world were enjoying England collapse in the rugby world cup, I’ve been tracking the two sports we in England can actually play. A few weeks ago the England skipper Alistair Cook scored 263 against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. He beat Sir Len Hutton’s record-longest innings for England of 797 minutes during his 364 against Australia at The Oval, 1938. Cook’s knock is now the third-longest in Test history, behind Gary Kirsten and Hanif Mohammad, who occupies top spot. It was a long innings, no great guns, no big shots. Lots of sweat under a tropical sun. Meticulous application and the reward of years of hard practice. And then there is the introduction of Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s new German manager. He arrived with feverish adulation from proud Liverpool fans, on the back of his reputation at Borussia Dortmund. And not because he plans to buy a silver purse of strikers. He is best known for ‘gegenpressing’, a sort of relentless chasing down the ball, a never-giving-up grit and determination. It is not pretty. Neither Cook’s innings nor Klopp’s managerial style will win prizes for flair. But this gutsy, gritty, don’t give up approach is a model of the ingredients to success, in sport or in school.

So for students and parents:
It’s the winter nets season – time for getting your books and notes in order. Every after school session is another hurdle towards the finish line. Its not hoping that you will get the grades…it is getting to a place (through practice and more practice) where you cannot possibly fail.

Parents let’s think about our feedback. Play the long game – every conversation is an investment in the next conversation – keep it positive! Gegenpressing isn’t pretty – sometimes parenting is just about making sure your child is in the right place to learn!

And finally for teachers/support staff: 
Let’s think about our feedback. The Ruth I mentioned is one of the best teachers I have worked with. She inspires, she works really hard to prepare well-crafted lessons and gives her students brilliant, focused feedback. But what distinguishes her from many really strong teachers is that when she senses one of her students beginning to fall behind, that is when she steps up and ensures that everyone in the building knows that we all need to support and challenge that child. She is a terrier with a heart. She will not let children fall behind. This is our challenge.



Kindness – Why phones don’t work, and why disruption-free classrooms do


“What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller – The One Thing)

Some of the reading I have been doing recently and some of the visits to schools over the past few months (Nova Hreod in Swindon; Magna in Poole and Hayes School in Bromley) have helped me to simplify things and strip back. It may seem counter-intuitive to be writing about kindness while simultaneously introducing tougher rules around disruption and mobile phones. But it feels right. Less ‘cruel to be kind’, and more ‘tough love’. The next step of the improvement curve.

School leaders want to create happy schools, where young children and older students are entirely comfortable and happy knowing they will work hard, be treated well and not have their learning disrupted. Where they will not be constantly reminded of the pernicious presence of phones in their lives. We want teachers to know that they will be able to deliver the most stimulating lessons, and be able to enjoy teaching, instead of spending time and energy managing distracting behaviour, or the impact of mobile phones. We want to see middle & senior leaders able to focus on supporting students making more progress and not waste time on distraction. We want all of us as parents to be able to have absolute confidence that we send our child to a disruption-free school. And ideally we want that school to feel kind. Where adults are focused, helpful, hard-working, get the best out of our children. Where they and the school feel ‘kind’.

Two things are clear to me: Firstly, even the smallest number of students who affect the learning of others is not on, and secondly, however you dress it up, mobile phones have a negative impact on concentration and learning, for children, young people and often for adults. For this reason we have developed our rules to address this.

One of the first concepts to consider is that however things have improved, we have not reached our destination. However good we are, it’s probably not good enough yet:

We have arrived at the conclusion that if we wish to fulfil our potential as individuals and organisations, we must redefine failure. Failure is a means – sometimes the only means – of learning, progressing and becoming more creative. This is a hallmark of science, where errors point to how theories can be reformed: of sport where practice could be defined as the willingness to clock up well-calibrated mistakes; of aviation where every accident is harnessed as a means of driving system safety. Failure is rich in learning opportunities. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.” Matthew Syed: Black Box Thinking

So let’s assume that some things are not correct and let’s improve them. Start with intentional design – with the end in mind. If we want a school which embodies ‘kindness’ for instance, and where ‘quieter’ students receive more attention – then we need to create the conditions which will achieve that. We need a behaviour system which is unambiguous so that more gentle characters can benefit from more attention in our schools, instead of louder or more challenging students attracting teacher attention. Where teachers can demonstrate greater kindness (because the ethos is so strong) and where students are taught how to model kindness – for instance through teachers giving students more opportunities to show appreciation and gratitude.

‘Black Box Thinking’ begins with the premise that in the past we have got things wrong. Looking at how a growing number of schools are now successfully eliminating disruption, it feels as if for years we have been watching schools allow poor behaviour get in the way of developing a great culture and ethos. By being blindly ‘inclusive’ schools have erred on the side of the disrupters and failed to stand up for the rights of the silent, cowed majority. Through a more robust approach (backed by an ambitious curriculum and principled leadership) students appreciate that adults should be in charge, that authority is not inherently bad, and the result can be a superb experience for children. 

No excuses discipline changes lives. The story of educating Essex and educating Yorkshire is often the same. One charming but unruly pupil, often from a troubled home, disrupting the learning of the other 30. You can’t help but sympathise. However we must also sympathise with the other 30, who listen attentively in lessons, who do their homework and who really just want to get on and learn. They are the silent majority in Britain schools. To compound matters further the effects of poor behaviour are probably most damaging in schools whether pupils are poor. These children are doubly disadvantaged.” The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers – The Michaela Way

 Challenging and inspiring stuff from the Michaela mob. They are of course not alone (although some of their evangelical writing may seem to suggest so). Many schools are now taking a clear and unequivocal approach to getting poor behaviour out of the classroom. This ‘binary’ approach, sometimes known as ‘Ready to Learn’ is being used to great effect in schools across the country, often accompanied with rapid improvement. In order to eliminate disruption to learning at GA, we have introduced a very simple ‘one warning’ system in class. When reprimanding a student about a disruption to the learning of others, the teacher will write their name on the board and briefly explain the reason. Any further disruption will result in the student moving to work in isolation, with no arguments. Students will have to meet the teacher to restore at the end of the day, which is part of our restorative ethos, and of course students who need greater ‘inclusion’ support to manage the new system will get it. But clearly this will mean that all of our classrooms will be calm, positive and disruption-free. It has already had a massive impact.

Our approach to mobile phones & wires is similarly straightforward – as soon as students are in the school building these are to be switched off and kept away in bags or jackets, and they are not to be seen or heard at any time in school. We have discussed with students the reasons we are changing our rule, and they include:

The myth of multitasking:


(image: from Gary Keller – The One Thing)

We believe that removing phones will help students concentrate, & will boost academic performance. According to many studies here and in the USA, when schools ban students from using phones in school, grades improve. Most of the highest performing schools (and therefore many of the highest performing students) work in schools where phones must not be seen or heard. Because students are more attentive in class, their work quality and exam scores ultimately improve. There is no temptation to always check for messages, or indulge in silent, off-task conversations. It cuts down on screen time – which as a parent is always good. It reduces cyberbullying – while social networking is great, there is a wide and grey area which can quickly descend into online bullying. Teenagers complain to staff in all schools across the country about receiving hurtful online messages. Policing such behaviour in the evenings is tough enough for parents, so let’s reduce this by preventing students from using social media during the school day. The consequences of this kind of bullying take up the time of pastoral team up and down the country, who should be focused on helping young people overcome barriers to achieve. The main reason that parents advocate for their children having phones, is that they want to be able to reach them in case of an emergency, but all schools have key staff who can act on emergency calls during the school day. Finally, at any time there can be circa £500K worth of phones and contracts swilling in our school systems, which can be lost, get broken or may even be stolen. Schools cannot take responsibility for this and dealing with all of this takes up huge amounts of time for senior leaders in schools, which should be directed to helping children make better progress.

Like all thoughtful and rational changes, this has taken place over a period of weeks, where we have talked to students in assemblies and listened to them in groups, and considered together how to make this work and who it will help. What has been fantastic has been the enormously positive response from young people towards both changes within the first two weeks.  The first bit of feedback I received was from a tutor whose class had received a record number of outstanding behaviour scores on the first day of the new system. Now that speaks for itself! Feedback from teaching assistants is a sense of real calm. Feedback from children has been that they like it. Guess what: classrooms where you cannot disrupt or argue and where phones are not a concentration-menace are great, peaceful, positive places in which to learn. Funny that. And one of the best bits has been seeing children talking, making proper eye contact at break and lunch. Smiling.

We believe that these kind of positive, restorative changes will bring attention to more of the students who have missed it in the past. They will also probably encourage teachers to enjoy their job even more, stay in the profession and remain full of the passion that brought them into the job. Which has to be great for our kids. Ultimately the purpose is to allow us to bring greater kindness, calmness and more focused help to our children who really need and deserve it. Which is exactly what we want as parents or as teachers ‘in loco parentis’.

The La La Land of good teaching

Having spent some half term time with the family toe-tapping at La La Land and weeping at Lion, here are my film-inspired thoughts on some of the elements of good teaching:


Command the classroom: really own it. Understand your physicality, presence and how you manage them room. No excuses: high expectations, coats, wires, posture, noise. If you are not in charge, someone else is. Secondary teachers, don’t hide at the front.

Challenge everything:
especially confused & lazy thinking and stereotypes. It’s what classrooms are for.

Seating plan is bible: Target group in the ampiheatre. Low progress at front. 

Less talk more action: Get straight to long answer qus. Model A* answers from start.

So you think you can be 3 minutes late?  Students on time and, crucially, work up to last minute.

Imagine a World – Great resources on desks cuts teacher talk. Thirst-quenching starters on the screen.

Plan and visualise the 3 questions we will ask: Check they are challenging & inspiring.

Plan great lessons: Deliver them, mark books. Repeat.

Listen & then teach to the gaps – regular use of feedback/tests/QLA/mocks at the point of need.

Silence: Never , never, never underestimate the power of long sessions of extended silent writing.

Great relationships: Classroom culture is work-focused, serious, relaxed. Feels like a university seminar.

Earn their love: Help them remember you. Enjoy going the extra mile. Rocking chair moments.

Know why we teach: In a world which poses impossible questions, may my lessons give a fragment of the beauty and the horror of the world our children will lead one day. They must know how to change it. This is why we teach.

Culture of good note-taking: Notes are detailed, extended, annotated, on a journey. Reluctant writers provided with exemplars or teacher crafting on board/keyboard.

Make everything we do high quality: With an edge of class. Demand a lot of thinking, a lot of work,  a lot of pride.

And finally, have a bit of style: Don’t cramp your unique style of teaching and enjoy how you relate to children. It’s the essential ‘you’ of ‘teacher’.

lalaNo really, do: The ‘teacher’s dance’: its a science and its an art. And its meant to be fun.