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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The Last Post

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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.

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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. 

Simplifying assessment

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How will we assess student progress in secondary schools in the new world?

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 06.34.10Whether we are talking about KS2/KS3 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 and protect our colleagues from wasted time and energy. Simplifying. This paring back to our primary purpose as teachers and leaders seems rational and coherent and is a good place to start. 

We have been handed a golden opportunity to really assess learning rather than just a number on a spreadsheet. 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. We still need national standards, so if not levels, we have to have something to benchmark against. There are implications for senior leaders and governers in the way that we support teachers
 in this shift and in how we will hold teachers to account.

So here are some of my questions:
Why are we having to rewrite assessment?
What was wrong with levels, and 
how will we do formative/summative assessment?
What will our assessment/marking policies look in 3 years time, and how will we take parents and children with us?
And how will we make seamless shift from primary to secondary?
How will we craft assessment policies so that progress in learning remains at the heart and they still stand up to scrutiny (under future accountability measures).

5 Ws

This follows an excellent blog summary here by Primary Director Simon Cowley of how primary practitioners are assessing in the White Horse Federation. We are now looking at how our secondary assessment practice can build on this.

1.
Leader – simplify thyself:
T
he most successful leaders have a knack of taking a complex picture and rendering its essence in a graphic and memorable way. Andy Buck’s “What makes a great school?” is a succinct, practical and above all, values-driven formula for success in school leadership. His six-word mantra is to: Recruit, Keep, Retain & Coach Great People. Right now in the teaching profession we need to hold to that like never before. When it comes to the plethora of assessment models, internal and online it is useful to hold the line. Simplifying is the leaders most neglected art.

simpl

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. The current need for workload-reform should help us to streamline and not overcomplicate assessment. Never been a better time to bring our own twist to marking and assessment. 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 departments really engaging with this, and developing a model which organically grows as we trial it and make it fit for purpose.

Lauren Costello, Chair of the Data Management Review Group & WHF Managing Director describes how ‘system leaders have never had a greater opportunity to effect change for the better across the whole system than we do right now in response to the Workload Challenge.’ Two of the overarching principles which should apply to our assessment approaches are:

  • Be streamlined: eliminate duplication– ‘collect once, use many times’
  • Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. Always ask why the data is needed.

 But while I am excited by the possibility of being part of this profession-led movement, I am also afraid. I lead a school where the legacy data is not secure, and for schools facing challenge, there is an inevitable fear that staff may take their eye off the progress challenge because of the feeling that data trawls will be less number-focused. Fear of Ofsted and data-desktops. Surely this is a luxury for schools not looking over their shoulder each year?

2.
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 from his return blog here this week. 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. We need to hold onto these. 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.

3.
So what is out there? 
Learning Ladders have been introduced by many primary schools as a way of demonstrating and assessing progress, ascribing descriptors rather than levelled numbers to capture achievement. Some secondary leaders have used these in a new-Blooms kind of style, while others find that these are too prescriptive. One example is the SOLO structure of observed learning outcomes, currently used in many primary schools. This is a taxonomy-based system, similar to Bloom’s, where children can move through the gears, and where there is both greater value placed on knowledge. Many secondaries are replacing levels with GCSE grades, which reflect the endpoint of the journey, but if handled clumsily can cause some demotivation in Y7. And some have switched to ‘can do’ statements although these have their enemies, because of the difficulty of moderating against external standards. Many schools are focusing on using based around work sampling. It’s definitely worth looking at see Tom Sherrington’s Assessment, Standards and the Bell-Curve (Headguruteacher).

complex.png

But I wonder how many schools have really navigated the challenge in filling the mastery vacuum between the new assessment model of KS1&2 and what used to be called KS3. The trick seems to be to take the learning of the last three 3 years of the Teaching Schools Alliance (Alison Peacock), and not miss out on the opportunity to assess more formatively, but still with a sense of a national, or local baseline. In the era of all-through MATs, this becomes a perfect opportunity. Age Related Expectations are here to stay. How do we ensure that the practice that we introduce focuses on the assessment improving the net teaching input and builds what Dylan Wiliam describes as the best form of AfL that we have ever seen? In his recent assessment blog he describes Here how twenty 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”. Has this changed?

black box

4.
Opportunities:
In doing this we want to find the key to where great progress is happening and where it isn’t. This is likely to be in particular year groups and subject areas in both primary and secondary. We need to build on this but also seize control of the transition gaps – Yr2,4,7,9 and do something radical with these to accelerate progress. It is also an opportunity to consider how a series of curriculum experiences can grow with children from Yrs 5-9. It give us the chance to look closely at the work on mastery (this seems to have got stuck with maths hubs – what about other subjects?). It is a chance to be a little bit disruptive and to stretch and about develop a portfolio of progression experiences through our school life which enables the whole learning journey to hang together. Never before have we had such an opportunity to craft what this continuity should look like. It will allow us to prepare children for exams well in advance of crisis points and it prevents Yr6 and Yr11 becoming years where true learning stops because cramming happens.

buttRon Berger’s thinking on Austin’s butterfly is perhaps a microcosm of what feedback and assessment is at its best. It shows that the best feedback is incredibly powerful in non-judgmental and non-summative ways. And that it is often owned and driven by children.

5. Build depth: Because of the structure of the last 2 National Curricula and 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. Part of challenging and changing the dominant culture around us and embracing mastery we must create schools which value above all the ability to peer deep into the well of knowledge and dig deep. 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. This differs from so much current needs-must learning which has become a passive and compliant attitude towards gleaning just the right amount of knowledge in order to reach a certain level in Yr6 or pass in GCSE, according to last year’s grade boundary. Exam results, university entrance and our position in PISA tables are important, but these are part of the ‘back end’ of our educational processes (Michael Fullan). Mastery is the front end, and more attention needs to be focused there by school leadership. If we wish to be pioneering school in the way that we want to redesign assessment & learning, we need to think clearly about the values to get there. At the end of 15 yrs of education with us we want learners to emerge inquisitive and resilient and with a craftsmanlike approach to high quality work. If we want a culture where children are not easily defeated, nor passive in their learning our assessment system needs to embrace mastery. For those of us who work in schools in challenge, we want to see our children being able to compete nationally with the best, win the exam game, earn as much and live as long as others. It’s a case of results and mastery please.

“Schools are in urgent need of redesigning. While some are giving their students a genuinely fitting start to life in the 21st century, many are not. We have not yet achieved the critical mass of thinking and practice that will change the system as a
whole.” (Claxton and Lucas 2013).

mastery

6.
What does mastery mean?
 (
“Yes! I just scraped a Level 5/C grade”) 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. Within this structure the young person either can or cannot, perform the required task. There is no room for ‘almost’ or ‘sometimes’ within this system. What has been introduced in primaries is a standards-based mastery model: a pre-determined, age-related standard (ARS) which involves a mastery-model of learning in which there is generally less content addressed in greater depth than in the conventional models that have prevailed since 1988. This will be a standards-based curriculum which provides us with landmarks or milestones for learning. Aptitude not ability is a mantra behind this thinking. There is a challenge for us in how we teach the more able – if we just teach to the standards set, how will we provide stretch and challenge and exploration? The use of the word mastery is interesting: Mastery has always equalled excellence, not just a covering of the content, which is how it is presented in some primary curriculum thinking.

Teaching mastery: Great assessment practice is where the teacher, through bitter experience, helps children achieve great outcomes through a deep understanding of the specification and exactly what an A*/level 4looks like. Tom Sherrington reminds us we should recognise the way teachers in each subject evaluate standards and describe how to improve because every subject has distinctive features. To improve a piece of writing in English or History, you need to focus on some specific aspects in the context of the particular writing task alongside some general features that apply to all writing. In other words, it’s definitely not straightforward!

7.
So how could it work? Well, t
hese could be our principles of assessment? 

  • Do less assessment – make it deeper
  • Assess once: use many times
  • Every teacher understanding purpose of assessment & assesses correctly.
  • Do not simply replace levels with numbers – this runs the risk of becoming levels by another name
  • Is the assignment the SAME AS/BETTER THAN/WORSE THAN before? This describes progress succinctly
  • Mastery principle: ‘It is not yet an A*’, so…
  • Base assessment on where they need to be not where they start
  • Work scrutiny is assessment. Tests are part of assessment.
  • We build on the information which arrives from primary – thus we do not need to retest as they arrive.

8.
And here is a start for how we are planning do things:

  • The concept of key stage 3 is dead. Yr7-9 are working back from GCSE.
  • 3 clear and ambitious flight paths set for children, shared with parents (Low/Middle/High Ability)
  • Each faculty reorganises/redesigns KS3 curriculum to achieve 2 things: Align content with GCSE specs working backwards from Y11 and to build on gains made in primaries in literacy/numeracy. Essentially this means teaching more challenging content earlier
  • Pupils assessed in 8 week blocks – less often
  • Reporting to parents simply at, above or below expectations based on flight path
  • Identify new Options window

 flight9.
Flight paths: expected, above, world class. Local, national, international. Constructed thoughtfully, and communicated to children and parents well, flight paths can be aspirational wherever the starting point. I like the sense of students saying “I want to be on this track” so that I can become…and of course linking this clearly into the rewards system is key.
Assessment and Ebacc –
The a
ssessment of English, Science, Geography, History and Languages will be around Vocabulary, Spelling, Reading, Analysis, Essay writing, Speaking. Ultimately we need to develop learners who can analyse text and information and develop strong written arguments. In other words pupils will be assessed along an essay-writing trajectory. A Level students of facilitating subject need to strong essay writers. King Solomon Academy has an explicit ‘promise’ around literacy mastery before children reach 14.They are a top performing secondary nationally in the KS2-4 progress league.

10.
and towards that elusive ‘
Mastery’? We will use a simple 8 week learning-cycle throughout the year which the school calendar and everything hangs off. It works like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 06.34.10

and to develop depth and mastery we aim to:

  • Develop the language of the expert
  • Teaching planning once the challenging curriculum is set needs to be around challenging misconceptions.
  • Introduce subject specialisms earlier (as happens in all-throughs in the private sector).
  • Better use literacy and numeracy co-ordinators for long term goals from 4-19, and especially from Yr5-8, and also to create more ambitious opportunities for more able children.
  • Focus on those key transition years; preparing children properly for secondary education and maintaining something of the primary environment at the age of 11 and beyond.
  • Use more exams throughout Y7-10.Embrace the value of formative tests. I think we all need to re-write the popular slogan: weighing the pig doesn’t fatten it.  Actually, as we should now know, weighing the pig does actually fatten it if we are talking about testing within a learning process, not just at the end. (Once again, this re-write is borrowed from Daisy C and derives from work by Robert Bjork and others.  Testing fuels learning – it’s a fact.)” Tom Sherrington.

So we have some way to go yet, but this is an exciting time for getting a system right for the long term. Why is this so crucial?  Well very simply, so much of teachers’ time is wrapped up in this process, so it makes every bit of sense and taxpayers money in getting it as right as we can.

19 950 words I learnt at school

We are trialling a really easy and quick idea in our starters with the potential for long term impact. Developing a wide and functioning vocabulary is essential not only for learning language for all-round academic success. Educational research shows that vocabulary strongly relates to reading comprehension, intelligence and general ability. As children learn to read, they must learn to decode (sound-out) print, but they must also have a vocabulary base (word knowledge) in order to make sense of what they decode. Unless children are confident readers and writers by the time they embark on GCSEs in Yr9 (future curriculum) they will not be able to access each subject curriculum and will not be successful.

Daisy Christodoulou says ‘Knowledge is the bedrock of a good education for the 21st Century. Effective teaching should feature more direct and explicit teaching of factual knowledge.’ For too long the acquisition of important subject-specific vocabulary has not been a priority. Key vocabulary is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate knowledge, facts and understanding in order to make better progress. This practice is boy-friendly and can be a competitive and fun activity. This will create a strong orientation towards exam preparation and the new GCSEs certainly have more knowledge requirements. Much of the best teaching we see is knowledge-rich, hinges upon acquisition of key vocabulary and incorporates skillful questioning and feedback. John Hattie’s evidence underlines this: direct instruction of key knowledge is effective.

The evidence shows us that:

children's vocab

Research tells us that children from poorer homes are exposed to less parent talk and a much-reduced vocabulary. Two recent studies this highlights the issue. Hart & Risley (USA) suggest that poorer children hear 30 million fewer words by age 3. Frank Field’s 2010 report on Poverty and Social Exclusion suggests that UK children hear 23 million fewer words before school. Since the best measure of ‘disadvantage’ in schools is being in receipt of the pupil premium (free school meals), then most of our children by definition are word-poor. Thus one of our primary roles is to develop not only literacy, but to build and grow every child’s vocabulary. By doing this we will be providing them with greater chance in their exams, more enjoyment in their subjects and ultimately better access to higher education and to better paid jobs.

In other words there is a word-gap for our children, which we need to tackle head-on. We have tackled poor equipment in a very direct and explicit way. We are starting to do the same thing to improve the vocabulary for all of our students over their 7 or 5 years with us.

So what we will do:

In every silent starter (see previous blog) of each new lesson 3 new key words will be introduced with definitions – students will write these into their exercise books (and maybe also perhaps into an A6 vocabulary book which students keep in their pencil cases).

  1. At the end of each day students will have recorded 3×6 = 18 new words.
  2. At the end of each week this makes 18×4 (Mon to Thur) + 1×3 (Fri) = 75 new words. Two tutor times per week are used to embed, check and test knowledge of these words.
  3. At the end of each year this equates to 75 x 38 = 2850 new words
  4. 2850 x 5 = 14250 new words
  5. 2850 x 7 = 19950 new words

These numbers are ambitious and very significant when set against the following:

Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct suggests that the average US graduate has a vocabulary of 45 000 words

 The Guardian newspaper, in 1986, estimated the size of the average person’s vocabulary as developing from roughly 300 words at two years old, through 5,000 words at five years old, to some 12,000 words at the age of 12. The Guardian’s research suggested that it stays at around this number of words for the remainder of most (average) people’s lives—while a graduate might have a vocabulary nearly twice as large (23,000 words). Shakespeare, according to Robert McCrum et al, had one of the largest recorded vocabularies of any English writer at around 30,000 words.

 Professor David Crystal, researcher in English language studies and author of around 100 books on the subject suggests how to discover the size of one’s vocabulary. “Take a sample of about 20 pages from a medium-sized dictionary, one which contains about 100,000 entries or 1,000 pages. Tick off the ones you know and count them. Then multiply that by the number of pages and you will discover how many words you know. Most people vastly underestimate their total. A reasonably educated person should know about 75,000. An ordinary person, one who has not been to university say, would know about 35,000 quite easily.”

How we will make this have impact over time?  Of course issuing new words is just the start, and serves no purpose if those words are not repeated, embedded, learnt in context. Otherwise words are like confetti. Wasted and trodden into the wet ground at the end of the wedding. We aim to use tutor times each week to check and test spellings and meanings. Faculties will keep and promote the key words for each year group, and we wil be much more explicit and ambitious in our teaching and faculties over our policy to the acquisition of key words.And we will use spelling tests – like the learning of times tables, we must not assume that our children have learnt key spellings. We aim to use the website to promote what we are doing and ask parents to support by checking spelling/meanings/glossaries. I expect that we will evaluate our success over time in our test & exam results, through student and teacher voice and student confidence. In addition we will use PPM funding to sponsor a summer reading programme for those children who are behind with their reading age by the end of Yr6, and who still lag behind by the end of Yr7 and Yr8.

Words. Just words.

 

 

Pochettino and Pencil Cases

poch

I have supported Tottenham Hotspur since I was 4 yrs old, and in that time they have wavered from also-rans to jostling with glory in the FA Cup to relegation. Their regular underachievement has helped remind me of my own humanity. As West Brom is to Frank Skinner and Adrian Chiles, so Spurs have been to me in my teaching career. Down the years Yr11 boys would, on a chilly Monday at break time call across a cold wet playground “Unlucky yesterday sir!” and that spirit of compassionate, slightly downbeat camaraderie has often aligned me with them. Sometimes sulking helps.

Possession is one tenth of the law.
But something has utterly changed. Spurs fortunes have transformed this season and they are on the verge of doing something ridiculously successful. They are not immune from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but it really looks like they might do it. So what has happened? A lazy conclusion one could draw would be that they have two or three class players at last in Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Moussa Dembele. But the truth has to be different: the evidence shows that over the years even when they have had great partnerships in the same team; Ardiles & Villa, Hoddle & Crooks, Gilzean & Chivers they have never quite reached expectations. But this year the Spurs coach Pochettino has done something monumental and yet simple which is way beyond bringing in big-name players. Added to this, and incredibly, ten of the last 18 England debutantes have grown through Pochettino’s coaching philosophy, at Spurs and at his previous club Southampton. He is doing something special. Sometimes the most effective transformations come from simple ideas.

If you could distil success in football down to one key variable, it would be possession. A quick look at the correlation between possession stats in the English Premiership shows that 5 of the top 8 teams have the best possession figures. Roughly the same picture emerges across italian Serie A and La Liga in Spain. 

So then presumably possession is the number one ingredient to successful football teams. Retaining possession for around 56% of the match means that the opposition have less time on the ball and obviously, less time to score. The exception in the Premiership of course is Leicester, with their twin pairing of Mahrez and Vardy who rely on speed and attack on the break, rather than through a slow, possession build- up.  The evidence suggests that with Barcelona (the most successful club in years) at the top of the European possession league at 62% then this assertion is true. Pep Guardiola, the former Barca coach must have distilled the essentials of this approach to perfection. But of course there is more to it than that. Barcelona use an ABAC passing structure (eg. Xavi to Messi, back to Xavi then onto Neymar), which separates them from other clubs with similar high profile players (who more often use an ABCD routine). So not random possession but a carefully planned structure, which breaks through defences. The Spanish national team has dominated world football for years, and has changed football into a game that is less about brilliant attacking play and more about patience, avoiding mistakes, and making certain that mathematics ensures you cannot lose. (bear with me if you have a football allergy – there is method in my madness)

Pep Guardiola is the most wanted manager in the world and will soon move to Manchester City, the fifth richest club in the world according to Forbes’ rankings (Barcelona is second to Real Madrid). Clearly great coaches don’t come cheap. Of course this knowledge is not new. A brief look at the Spanish ‘tiki taka’ style of close touch possession football, shows that these simple concepts were built on the ‘Coerver’ method of Dutch football which emerged through the 1970s through Feyenoord and Ajax and which the Dutch master Johan Cruyff brought to Barcelona.pep

This also influenced the way that young children were coached across Britain over the last 20 years, my boys among them. Less physical, less Wimbledon 1990s long ball; more of a two-touch, non-contact possession game. And so great young coaches like Mauricio Pochettino are borrowing this knowledge, from Cruyff and Guardiola before him, and harnessing it to their advantage. I watched from the Hawthorns stands before Christmas as Moussa Dembele utterly controlled the Spurs – West Brom match  dominating possession in the middle and yet only achieving a draw. Sometimes the means do not always achieve the ends, but in creating the conditions for teams to become more reliably successful, coaches have taken some of the randomness out of the game. Great coaches develop predictable success.

Knowing that we never stay still for long, and that after half term I wanted to see another real hike in expectations at school, I decided to go and see an example of what constitutes success in education.

I went to Magna Academy in Poole four weeks ago. Sometimes disparaging comparisons between education and football management are made, but in this instance I was looking to see what simple truths & techniques the head coach/headteacher had distilled in order to springboard a school from special measures to outstanding within three years. There were many very robust and incisive approaches to tracking data and creating much more ambitious flightpaths for children the moment they arrive in year seven now that key Stage 3 is dead. Teaching was clearly changing lives. But three of the key drivers for this transformation had been:

  • Equipping all students with full pencil cases where the majority of children receive the Pupil Premium
  • Students moving in silence around the academy (while all staff stand on duty), and
  • Teachers controlling the first five minutes of each lesson with silent starters.

Establishing a baseline of behaviour routines has meant for staff that this is a joyous place to teach, has taken much of the behaviour management stress away from teachers (at a time when we are reminded daily that teachers are leaving the profession), and equally importantly has meant that children are thriving in a calm environment of exploratory, high class learning. Children at Magna Academy are now competing with the two grammar schools in Poole for progress and even for overall attainment.
Like Poole, Gloucester is a city where for years the status quo has permitted a small number of underperforming state schools to wane while the grammars and high performing state schools remain in pole position, seemingly in glorious isolation.Two weeks ago, the next step change in expectations happened at Gloucester Academy and it is that perfect combination of the trilogy of right equipment, quiet movement between lessons and perfect, silent starters which have transformed learning in the last two weeks. No excuses about equipment save hundreds of minutes each week. Our regular nudges in our schools demonstrate a desire to want our children to receive and benefit from the kind of ethos, behaviour and quality of teaching that formerly only existed in a few schools. Can this culture change that schools embracing such ‘no excuses’ transformations create social mobility? Of course it can.

It has brought greater consistency without destroying the individuality of each teacher and it has allowed students to thrive in their learning. It creates predictable success because it supports the least experienced teacher in the building. The feedback from children has been immense, and teachers describe how much more enjoyable it is not giving out equipment and being able to focus on the essentials of good quality instruction for well-equipped, well-organised students right from the outset of each lesson.
What are the things that will have the greatest impact for the least input? In sport and in schools learning from great coaches and leaders can sometimes help us distil and simplify what are essentially complex organisations in order to find simple and clear nudges which can yield surprising results. Pochettino has learnt this for Spurs and increasingly I am learning this for GA.