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.

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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. 

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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)

 

The healing power of Restorative Justice

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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

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:

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1.
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.

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2.
Challenge everything:
especially confused & lazy thinking and stereotypes. It’s what classrooms are for.

gladia3.
Seating plan is bible: Target group in the ampiheatre. Low progress at front. 

la-laland-kiss4.
Less talk more action: Get straight to long answer qus. Model A* answers from start.

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

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

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

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

paradiso9.
Listen & then teach to the gaps – regular use of feedback/tests/QLA/mocks at the point of need.

silent10.
Silence: Never , never, never underestimate the power of long sessions of extended silent writing.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

Lessons from Zimbabwe

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After a geography degree with some development economics thrown in, I flew to Zimbabwe and lived for two years working in a remote school on the border of Mozambique up in the Eastern Highlands. It helped me to grow up, find something that I believed in and that I thought I could eventually be good at. Since then I’ve taught all over the UK but nothing will replace those first steps in the classroom in blazing temperatures and classes of 52. Recent UK government ideas to expand grammar schools has made me reflect on the inequalities in the two-tier education system during my time In Zimbabwe, and what has happened since.

1988 – To arrive in Africa! A 12-hour flight to Harare the capital, then a 6-hour long slog-drive, and a further 35 k’s down a tortuous mountainous dirt road, to the achingly beautiful but remote and dusty corner of the country on the border of Mozambique. The amazing welcome, the wildness of the ‘bush’, the huts and kraals. The mind-boggling maze of dust paths. To be slowly Incorporated into that different, young and vital culture. At a key point in a nation’s history – a ‘revolutionary’ history in the making. The initial laughter of cultural faux pas. Me striving to overcome our in-built English offhand, distant manner. The filling up of long, lonely, dark evenings with books, marking, reading. Falling asleep to electric cicadas and crickets, droning mosquitoes. The reality of actually being here!

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I learnt how to teach in Nyanga High School, in the Eastern Highlands, a mission school run by the Canadian catholic Marist Brothers and led by the brilliant Zimbabwean Headteacher, Peter Muzawazi. Back then Mozambique was in a civil war and Renamo guerillas would sometimes make incursions across the mountains into Zimbabwe, which was slightly unnerving, but mostly it was perfectly safe, and a fantastic place to live for 2 years. And what’s not to like about wearing shorts all day?

The 450 boys at our school, whose parents were usually subsistence maize farmers, took an entrance exam at the end of primary to get into the mission school, so it was effectively a grammar school for black Zimbabwean children. Most white Zimbabwean children in the east, whose parents were mostly coffee farmers, were sent to private schools in the capital Harare. Our boys boarded at the school paying a nominal fee (subsidised from Canada) to pay for very simple food (mealie meal, vegetables and sometimes meat), and basic beds and toilets. We had the priceless benefit of electricity for at least 4 hours a day.

“At the end of an exhausting court case in Johannesberg I drove an old ANC leader to his house in Alexandria one night. On the way I propounded to him that well-worn theory that if you separate races you diminish the points at which friction between them may occur and hence you ensure good relations. His answer was the essence of simplicity. If you place the races in one country in two camps, he said, and cut off contact between them, those in each camp begin to forget that those in the other are ordinary human beings, that each lives and laughs in the same way, thT each experiences joy and sorrow, pride or humiliation. Thereby each become suspicious of the other and each eventually fears the other, which is the basis of all racism” Andre Brink

Most of the mission schools like ours were built before independence by enlightened Catholic and Anglican organisations who were also sponsoring the anti-apartheid effort south of the border, to make education possible for black students outside the cities. The mission schools struggled through the civil war. Many, like ours, were closed down because of the danger to children and teachers. The atrocities committed and the fear those atrocities instilled in the people were not all one-sided. The oldest man working on our mission, a cook, Sekuru Mambira was tortured first by the white Rhodesian security forces for not giving information concerning rebel movements, and then by the rebel guerillas because they believed he had talked to the Rhodesians. He was the gentlest man I met in my two years there, and remains one of my great role models.

The journey from the capital to the school was a kaleidoscope of colour. The hazy golden highveld: sunbaked plains shimmering with tobacco, coffee or maize gave way to the mountains and rocky inselbergs of the East. Going by local bus took twice as long as a car but it was so worth it to see real life. If you could get on a bus you were lucky. You’d cling on, hoping a seat would appear at some stage. Bank managers on the way home from the capital rubbed noses with peasant farmers who had been selling tomatoes in the next market. Chickens squawked about the bus until they were scooped up by women in fantastically coloured ‘zambia’ wraps. Dinner beckoned. 

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Education was effectively tiered: a tiny number of white ‘private’ schools, a very small number of well-established black ‘mission’ schools and thousands of brand new black ‘rural district council’ schools. What was amazing was the feeling of positive energy and political clout of the schools, in a country with 50% of the population is under the age of 15. Independence triggered a massive school building programme and recruitment of teachers to educate the children of parents who had never had this chance. I was recruited along with many teachers from Canada, Spain, Belgium, Ireland as part of that demand. Mission schools were pre-civil war so it was the new District Council schools that were the revolutionary flagship. School attendance for Zimbabwean primary children reached 95% in 1990, and literacy 91%, the joint highest in Africa at that time (it has never since reached that figure). Education embued the country with tangible excitement in the future.  Children were desperate to escape the hot, dusty, drudgery of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives growing maize and vegetables. Education would be the silver bullet to help them do just that. It was a brilliant place to be a teacher. In the eyes of the local people, teachers were up there with the Gods. Even on a par with national football players!

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While the living conditions of the children in mission schools cannot be compared with the traditional ‘white’ schools, the academic results were far better. Children sat Cambridge international exams, and performed well. All of the government leaders at the time including Mugabe were educated at mission schools. Nyanga High was a school that parents wanted to get their children into. Mostly the quality of teaching was good in comparison with the rest of the schools locally, and the government actually physically relocated teachers to schools across the country. Although this policy was brutally disliked by teachers (imagine a teacher in Newcastle told they had to up sticks with their family and go and teach in Ramsgate), this meant that in principle the best qualified teachers and heads were well spread across the country, serving rural areas as well as cities. This redistribution of skills into the hard to reach corners of the country sounds enlightened to us today in some UK schools where it may be hard to recruit because of our school’s geography, and followed the fashionable grassroots approach to development & the communist philosophy popular in Mugabe’s 1990s government. In reality however there was still a steady and insidious drift of teachers towards the capital Harare. The same ‘bright lights’ drift, which drains every rural area of its brightest talent in every developing country in the world, was steadily killing Zimbabwe’s backwaters too. Because of this dissatisfaction, and despite the school’s strong reputation, often teachers didn’t want to be there, so didn’t turn up for class, or would disappear and take the trip to the beer hall 6 miles walk away, leaving young people alone in their classrooms or on the football field.

“The rains were so late that year. But throughout that hot, dry summer those black storm clouds clung in thick folds of brooding the darkness along the low horizon. There seems to be a secret in their activity, because each evening they broke the long sullen silence of the day, and sent soft rumbles of thunder and flickering slicks of lightning across the sky. They were not promising rain, they were prisoners pushed back in trapped coils of boiling cloud” Bessie Head

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Living with me also based on a mission station were other volunteer teachers who taught in the flagship new Rural District Council schools. These were the vast majority of Zimbabwe’s schools, the poorest schools; think classic African open-roof classrooms, overarching purple jacaranda trees, hundreds of small children with smart, brightly-coloured maroon uniforms and you have it.  Walls, if they had them, were clumsily built and experienced teachers & heads were a distant dream. Many classes were taught by students who had just matriculated from the oldest class in the school aged 15 or 16. There were no blackboards and textbooks were a luxury.  I felt a certain guilt about teaching in a selective school, even though it was badly equipped and poor, when resources were so much worse in the rest of the local schools. I persuaded myself that my focus should be the kids in front of me and to make sure I taught as best I could, so that my students would get good grades and go on and reach the University of Zimbabwe, and perhaps so that some could even form the next government and bring about some sanity to the political situation. Most of us in the mission schools recognised that we needed to support colleagues in District Council schools, who had fewer resources and fewer qualified staff. Mostly I just loved the students in front of me who kept me on my toes intellectually and made me laugh, and made my job a true vocation. They made me fall in love with teaching, in a visceral way.

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Africa should be a teacher’s paradise: Bright, inquisitive, resourceful children eager to learn and impeccably behaved. For the teacher of English there are classic African authors – Dambudzo Marechera, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri. For the geography teacher a whole new wild, arid landscape opens itself to the eye. For the history teacher the intricacies of the disturbing colonial era and the ‘chimurenga’ struggle of the Civil War. The kingdoms of Chaka, Lobengula, Mzilikazi: Evocative names which spread great webs of power across the plains out towards the Kalahari. I taught with and learned from some cracking teachers: Peter Muzawazi was wise and fiercely competitive about his own school and children; Augustine Baudi was a deeply intellectual man-mountain who taught a firebrand of anti-colonialist history with brilliantly dark humour. Netsai Mugwindiri persuaded young minds to celebrate & hold onto their ‘Shona’ mother tongue and blend this with English lit. She taught local dialect and Chaucer, often in the same lesson!

In the afternoon the school grounds resounded with the screams and whistles of football matches, as we braved the heat and I played with the boys who zipped skillfully round me, always barefoot. Shoes were the most outward sign of wealth; football boots a fanciful dream. Sixth formers would carry their desks into the cool breeze and the shadows of the small mango orchard, beneath swaying eucalyptus trees blue against the backdrop of a smouldering Mt Muosi. They studied Keats, organic chemistry, or the evils of colonisation. They wanted to become lawyers, doctors, politicians, agitating reporters. They succeeded.

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In November it was strange but somehow rather natural the way everyone seemed to be waiting, waiting for the rain. At midday the heat was oppressive and people stayed out of the sun. Old men sat in the shade and carefully studied the sky. Old women relaxed in the huts telling stories and shrieking at the best ones. Everything else is in the landscape itself seemed to wait, hovering in the heat. The mangy dogs would hardly stir except for the interruptions of the flies; dead carcasses with flicking years. The classrooms were cool places at this time, the children sat shirtless.

Looking back the tragedy was that children were being dangled expectations way beyond what the country would ever be able to deliver. There was just not the infrastructure for serious careers outside of farming, and although secondary industry grew through Chinese and British investment, there was no serious growth beyond this. In the best District Council schools there was an academic curriculum which also embraced agriculture, and I often saw specialist teachers who in the morning would teach Shakespeare’s Macbeth (within the vivid context of ancestral spirits and witchcraft) and in the afternoon discuss the merits of cash crops versus subsistence farming, or drip irrigation, or how to harness fish-farming to improve the family diet. But despite many inspiring headteachers fighting against the odds and delivering miracles on a daily basis, all too frequently schools closed because of embezzled school fees, or classrooms remained empty of teachers and full of children, hungry in every sense of the word. And of course there was no central leadership college or effective training program or to improve teacher quality, strengthen subject knowledge or the skillset of headteachers. And often teachers would not get paid at the month end.  It is the ultimate irony that despite the failure of the education system, Mugabe ended up creating a young educated intellectual elite (including some I taught in Nyanga) who ended up at University of Zimbabwe demonstrating against his failed policies and violent means.

Winding down for the close of term. Exam season. Not a gentle smoothly programmed wind down but we are spluttering to a close with no direction rather like a car with engine trouble and no steering wheel, meandering its way to the bottom of the hill. Boys sit behind the desks twiddling their thumbs. Laughter trickles out of each classroom. Exam scripts lie idle and red ink-less in the staffroom. Headteacher nowhere to be seen. The hot day buzzes on, like the last.

And so a strange inequality grew across the whole country. Small numbers of well resourced, well staffed, and usually better led high-performing ‘mission’ or ‘grammar’ schools surrounded by swathes of District Council schools housing the majority of the population, with an inadequate buildings and untrained teachers. And where was the appetite for change to reform this desperately unfair system? Since the country’s decision-makers of course sent their children to Zimbabwean mission schools or to independent schools south of the border in South Africa, there was none. And so the gap between the relatively higher standards in mission schools, and the District Council schools grew. There was plenty of high-level talk of the grand plan for restructuring education and delivering ‘liberation’ to the children of the civil war heroes who had freed the country from colonialism. But not much evidence of results.

On the ground nothing changed for the poor and landless peasant farmers whose children attended the poorest schools. The same kinds of children went to the same kinds of the schools. Either from mission schools to university in Harare, or from District Schools straight back to the fields. Standards have not improved, and since the 1990s many schools have closed. The approach of Mugabe and Zanu PF has rightly received a lot of attention in the press in the last 20 years. However what has been almost unreported is the collapse of the education system beneath Mugabe’s failed economy, and the crushing disillusionment that children, parents and teachers in the system now feel. There was a moment when education could have transformed the country and the been a case study for the kind of ‘social mobility’ that we now talk of pupil premium funding being able to galvanise in Britain. That moment has gone. Many schools are now empty, many former teachers unemployed or gone. What began as an egalitarian dream has evaporated in the tropical sun.

“Those wonderful, terrible droughts have stripped the veld so that you could see the very bones of the Earth. Like a sheep’s skeleton. Until you arrived at a point beyond despair and cursing and fear, and in a stillness you’ve never known before. I remember that there was something so utterly clean and pure about the feeling. And only then, usually, the rains would come” Andre Brink

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And finally the rains have come. Yesterday the rain and the hail came under the door blown by strong wind from the mountains and my exercise books on the floor were soaked. Some visitors from a faraway school were stranded on the dirt road and had to wait for the flash-flood rivers between them and us to die down. The snakes, long dormant, have begun to show their unwelcome faces once more. Brother Emmanuel, a sort of catholic Crocodile Dundee, has caught 2 bright green boomslangs and an Egyptian Cobra in the last two days. Still the wind thunders outside and we are treated to an almost daily display of electrical storms over the valley and into Mozambique. The ploughing began the moment the rain was sniffed. This weekend I helped a friend at the village clear her field of thorn-bushes and stunted trees with some dry grass and a box of matches, ready for the plough, only to be attacked and sent running by a swarm of (now homeless) African bees. I look around me at huts I know so well. Everything family I walk past has been hit by mosquitoes, female circumcision, HIV. Not a family unscathed.

In the UK the government plan to expand current grammar schools and build new ones. In each of my last 3 schools in the UK I’ve had fascinating conversations with parents battling with the choice of school for their child. I’ve listened to the inevitable, slightly awkward parental aside on an open morning tour; ‘Because she’s applied for grammar school X we’ll take the exam but I don’t think she’ll get it so we will probably see you in September’, with the corresponding message this gives to the child, and to the school.

Leaders and teachers working in grammar schools are all working hard with a selected ability group of students. The problem with grammar schools is their threefold impact on all other schools. Firstly the number of grammar places taken up puts pressure on local schools with already struggling budgets. Secondly there is no getting away from the academic impact for schools left behind having to adjust to life without the top 25% of the ability range. Future growth of grammars will only add more pressure on schools doing a good job and can only mean that achievement of local schools will drop. And thirdly there is the perceived impact – the neighbouring state school becomes an implicit second choice, however good it is, however well led. It’s tough being a Mum and a Dad in the UK’s education system, especially when political leaders create division and set educational leaders against each other.

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For me the parable of Zimbabwean education is clear, and although it is a different context, made more extreme by the actions of a self-serving leader, the essential elements are similar to the UK: when you focus on and over-invest in a very small number of schools which educate the country’s decision-making elite, and when you believe that this is enough to become your strategy of ‘social mobility’, then the majority of that country’s schools will suffer. They cannot possibly compete equally to provide the best for all children and for all parents. You just cannot have it both ways.

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The children of Zimbabwe still don’t have it easy either. When I consider the daily work rate of these children amongst the goats and the garden plots, their commitment to their broken schools and desperate desire to succeed in their studies is heroic. In a land where corruption is a much more likely quality in a government than dedication, and where there are so few role models, we must look to the system of education to be a beacon and create new and real futures for poor children. Along the dirt road, walking or running to school, in my mind’s eye I still see their faces light up with hope for the future. Their dream of what a great education can do for them is intoxicating. We need to learn the lessons from Zimbabwe.

Done your homework yet?!

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Homework at GA is now set as significant written or practical projects two times in each assessment cycle (each cycle one is 8 weeks long) for most subjects. These are intended to present extra challenge, really get our students to think in depth and to produce work of real excellence. Maths and Languages homework is not recorded in this table but is weekly, because for these subject skills research shows that students need regular smaller inputs of additional work to support learning in the classroom. Most written assignments take the form of extended essays because we believe that ensuring that our students can write with increasing confidence will mean that they become successful in future exams and in life.

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