Teamwork 3/ Characteristics of world class teams


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

danny m

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


What were the key features of the PMDU Model?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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





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.





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


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:


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.

Lessons from Zimbabwe


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!


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. 


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!


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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?!


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.

The Last Post


The Last Post

At 10.45am the students fan out along with the L-shaped lines of the new building, and across the tiered steps. The dazzle of sharp November sun, a playground half in sun, half in shade. I shield my eyes to see my deputy waving to me that we are all assembled and we begin.

Staff and students are jumbled in an informal formality. Individuals not known for their appreciation of the gravity of a situation sense a different atmosphere, like a tremor in the air. Early shuffling and nervousness gives way to a resolute presence. The grey and khaki cadets of all shapes and sizes, some 16 years old and trench-ready in another era, stand to attention with Mr. Massey. He drills them in a fatherly way, with smiles and a tinge of pride. Sixth formers, standing further back stand like thoughtful sentinels framing the picture.

I welcome everybody, and speak of my grandfather, a fireman in the Blitz, and my Uncle Jack who died in Crete, his grave discovered only a couple of years ago by my father and mother in a bright olive grove in a quiet corner of the island. I tell them that yesterday I was at a busy and bustling Headteachers conference in Westminster, so took some quiet moments to stroll through the grounds of Westminster Abbey only to be shocked by the thousands of wooden crosses and poppies in the turf beneath the sheer walls.

A clutch of Y7s bob like robins at the microphone and their own poetry wafts in the air, some words clear and bright and heard by all, others blown away by the wind. But it doesn’t seem to matter. We all know and feel their nervous effort. I see pastoral staff alert for any possibility of silliness or fainting visibly begin to relax as the ceremony builds and takes shape. Each speaker, musician, prayer group and contribution grows, but it is the long silences taking shape between them which begin to speak more powerfully. The Last Post is played on a violin. Perfectly imperfect haunting violin notes rise into the cirrus high sky and we all stand and wait.


11 o’clock inches round. I close my eyes and imagine. Some point their heads up to the penetrating blue, or bow, or wipe their eyes. Silence becomes presence. One collective, unspoken groan of pain for all the wars, each individual life, each family, each country. Children and staff from Gloucester, London, Newcastle, Abidjan, Calcutta, Prague, Bucharest, Syria, Palermo, Edmonton, Munich. All of us consider how each of our families have been touched by war. The unspoken awfulness experienced by our great-grandfathers. Last year’s memory of a refugee camp and what it does to a child. Our new Head Boy Abdul reminds us of the thousands of Muslims killed in the First World War. We hear Jesus’s words of John 15 – ‘Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. Colonel Lance Ranson  (Grenadier Guards) reminds students to hold our politicians to account for never embarking on the madness of war again.

And suddenly it is over. The guests trickle away. Our speakers head inside. Slow shuffle of feet. Silence remains, beautiful and terrible. And I sense that something special has happened and a moment has been shared. And somehow I feel that despite a week of hatred and disbelief in international politics, despite today’s memorial of military leaders getting things wrong, there is hope in the air. Hope has become a verb and I feel it around me. The cadets proud of their teamwork, their contribution and service. The boy who arrived in the school from Syria recently and whose family are so grateful for the welcome he has received from students and staff that they invited me around for dinner. I think of this wonderful and precious blend of culture and language and personality that our school represents, and how in some strange way it resembles those gentle, early exchanges in both wars between men and women from different cultures, countries and classes who were thrown together, and who began to learn from each other. From ignorance to solidarity. Yes, I feel enormous hope.

Life beyond levels – the assessment cycle

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How will we assess student progress in secondary schools in the new world? These slides are part of our thinking with senior and middle leaders to create an assessment model which will really capture learning rather than just generate numbers or levels. The three part cycle: 1.TEACHER INPUT, 2.ASSESSMENT, 3.MASTERY & PRACTICE are an attempt to allow students to really improve on their first attempt at learning. Assessment doesn’t just come at the end of the unit of work and then we move on regardless. We break the cycle of failure.

It is not about tracking numbers or levels. As a parent I was never convinced with levels. Our assessment starts with the curriculum contentEach faculty creates a big picture of what children will learn through the year. Then we drill backwards from GCSE specifications, and also forwards from Yr5/6 new standards to develop a much more challenging curriculum. This aims to dispel the ‘wasted years’ of former KS3 in schools across the UK. The intention is that studying concepts in greater depth is more important that coverage of a great deal of topics in a shallow way. We aim to keep it simple: identify what pupils know, understand and can do that they didnt or couldnt before.

Pupils engage with “I can” mastery statements in order to address what they can and cannot yet do. They use these to describe not only what they are learning but how this fits in with the big picture, and what they need to improve. A calendared meeting at the end of week 6 means that Heads of Faculty identify with each teacher which students have not mastered the content and require additional help. These become our target students. Support comes from the teacher, from teaching assistants & senior staff, after school sessions. We adjust the teaching based on what pupils do and do not know. There is an absolute focus ensuring that our Pupil Premium and SEND students do not fall behind. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 16.37.05This is the most practical evidence that we are a growth mindset school – that pupils can get it wrong first time, fail, but then develop and master learning second and third time. Across the UK many vulnerable learners have lurched from ‘did the topic, didnt learn it correctly, failed test, then moved on to the next topic which I will probably fail’. We are attempting to break that cycle. Instead of last ditch intervention in Yr11  we bring support right down to the age and stage where it is needed, not allowing children to fail repeatedly. We build in the correct support and challenge and much higher standards earlier. 

The data drop comes at end of week 8 when pupils have developed and improved learning and when school leaders have looked closely at the progress of all groups and classes. The first 8 week data is formative, the 16 week data drop is based on the new GCSE scores.

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Our three elements of strong teaching are: 1. Direct instruction of key concepts & curriculum content. 2. Specific teaching of common misconceptions. 3. An utter focus on precise and immaculate note-taking in books to aid revision. 

Learning objectives and driving questions describe sequences of learning rather than individual lessons to develop independent learning and depth, and avoid too much teacher-talk. We use silent starters to redraft/improve work form previous lesson using ‘modelled’ best work with a visualiser. Three new words per lesson drive literacy (see blog “19950 words I learnt at school”). Teachers are frequently seen sitting alongside pupils helping them craft better writing, challenging the more able. 

There is support & challenge from Heads of Faculty & senior staff in establishing climate for excellent learning, and a calendared faculty meeting at the end of week 3 for teams to dig deep into the quality of books. Developing great books is a priority – High quality preparation for assessment with a focus on ‘best work’.

The assessment phase will involve assessed extended writing, silent revision, learning key words, tests, scrutiny of books, paired revision. Proof reading, redrafting a regular feature of lessons. ‘It’s not yet an A*’ is the kind of mantra teachers will use regularly. Marking moves beyond a tokenistic response to feedback to really changing the nature of the very next piece of work.

Whether we are talking about assessment, use of data in schools or marking workload, it seems we are stripping back to the essentials in order to focus on the right things. Simplifying. This paring back to our primary purpose as teachers and leaders seems rational and coherent. Now that we have a mastery curriculum model introduced from Sept 2015 in our primary schools the current model of assessment which still operates through KS3 in many schools does not now match.  

In my fixed mindset I see the assessment landscape full of contradiction: Y6s will arrive in September with a new and (for secondary staff) little understood 100 point score, at a time when our primary colleagues are frustrated by the testing debate and have been embracing a whole new assessment system. With my growth mindset hat on I see an assessment vacuum, which should be filled by strong, pioneering, practitioner-led strategy, in a school-led system where professionals are trusted. And in the same way that we encourage teachers to engage with data rather than have it dropped on their plate, here’s a chance to really own the agenda. I am excited about how our faculties have really been engaging with this, and developed a model which could be transform learning.

Two of the overarching principles to reporting and data collection which should apply are: 1. Be streamlined: eliminate duplication– ‘collect once, use many times’, and 2. Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. (Lauren Costello – Data Management Review Group)

Why are we rewriting assessment? What was wrong with levels?  Levels were meant to be a summative statement of pupil achievement at the end of each Key Stage, but In many respects they were hijacked into labels, which did not adequately define achievement. “The removal of levels is a good thing. They didn’t really tell us what we needed to know in order to help pupils learn more effectively.” Andy Buck.

At the heart of this shift is the understanding that what teachers do in classroom is assessment, whereas what they record & write down is recording. Although this sounds utterly obvious, so much of the thinking around life beyond levels is based on this division. A swimming teacher may describe the strengths and weaknesses and provide advice and feedback for 3 young swimmers, and then choose to record these as 1a, 2c, 3b in a record book, but these numbers may become the only memorable feedback for the child (and from the child to the parent) and are of no help to a child in understanding what they can and cannot do and what they need to do to improve. We have become lost in the numbers which in the worst cases, have created pre-set assumptions for teachers about what tasks or concepts children will be able to contend with. In some cases, these assumptions have created an artificial ceiling for teachers and sometimes for students themselves.

It seems to me that we assess for three things: misunderstandings, misconceptions, gaps and careless errors. In drawing up a new assessment system it is important not to confuse the teacher’s assessment of a child’s learning with the process of recording and reporting and documenting. These are by-products of the learning process but they do not replace the teacher’s knowledge of the child’s understanding. This is key. Over-frequent data trawls in schools run the risk of pushing teachers to fill in spreadsheets without spending adequate time looking at the evidence in books. We have all been there.

So what to do? There are relatively few schools which have really navigated the challenge in filling the  vacuum between the new assessment model of KS1&2 and what used to be called KS3. How do we ensure that we focus on the assessment improving the net teaching input and build what Dylan Wiliam describes as the best form of AfL that we have ever seen? 20 years ago, he and Paul Black wanted to know what kinds of changes teachers could make in their teaching that would have the biggest impact on how much children learn: “What we found was that using assessment to find out what children have learned, and using this information to adjust teaching to better meet their learning needs, produced more positive benefits than just about anything else that we looked at.”

Build depth and mastery: Because of our channel-surfing, internet roller-coaster attention-deficit culture, children default to a fairly shallow level of knowledge about lots of subjects and topics. Daisy Christodoulou argues that we have lost the joy of facts and the learning of stuff, which is still exciting and not something to shy away from. Whatever assessment system we choose, we need to develop a deep disposition within our children to be curious. If we want a culture where children are not easily defeated, nor passive in their learning, then our assessment system needs to embrace mastery. The term ‘mastery’ relates to an expectation that learning has been consolidated to such a degree that it is known, understood and embedded thereby leading to fluency. So we are trying to keep it simple: find what pupils know, what they can and cannot do. And help them to fill in the gaps & articulate their learning journey through using mastery statements to describe how this fits in with the big picture, and what they need to improve.