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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The myth of multitasking:


(image: from Gary Keller – The One Thing)

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

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

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

10 steps to turn the ship


In his book “Turning the ship around” L. David Marquet uses his experience as the captain of the nuclear submarine the Santa Fe, to redefine a different kind of leadership style. Being confronted with the worst performing submarine in the US fleet he watched at first hand as those he led blindly followed poor orders rather than using their own thinking to improve. He urges us to move away from the traditional leader-follower model and instead encourage an intent-based leadership style where people feel more valued and are proud to become part of something bigger than themselves.

Here are my 10 reflections on school turnarounds:

Step 1: Learning from great peers – Working in federation enables much more than networking.  I have seen the days before this era when Local Authorities did not effectively improve hard-to-move schools, often failed to equip leaders to enact change and where consultants came and went, some effective, some less so. As a Principal my CEO holds me to account in a way which means things have to change rapidly for my children, but also provides me with the tools and feet-on-the-ground support to make this happen. “This helps accelerate student progress faster than if you do it alone, someone has already thought about the problem you are trying to solve”, says Claire Carter, the WHF Professional Development leader, talking to the second group of cross-phase Middle Leaders in Gloucester completing their 6 week programme this week. We are striving to develop leaders at all levels to build capacity in our schools.

Step 2: Start by pointing the camera back at us – what do standards really look like? Being a new Principal allows you that privilege of turning the camera back at the children and staff. The first thing I did in a previous school was to take a running series of photos of the route into school for children, behind fencing which at the time resembled Guantanamo Bay, compared with the sleepy walk for staff down the drive into the calm, staff-only reception. And why was it like this? Because some of the children could not be trusted to be in reception in front of visitors. Capturing this screaming polarity on camera was powerful and meant that reversing this mindset with staff was so much easier.

Step 3: How good is your teaching team? Have a set of photos of all staff in reception, or your office, and study it regularly. This is the team you are creating, building and fine-tuning and who will change lives. When you stand and look does it fill you with pleasure and purpose? They will bring joy and hope and life-changing difference. Or they won’t. Do you revel with joy about the team surrounding you who will bring sparkle and pleasure, strength and rigour to our childrens’ lessons and lives? Are they a team of life changers who keep you on your toes?  “While school structures and organisations have changed, the two essential components at the heart of real shift is the way that we assess and the fundamental question: How do we increase teacher quality?” Dylan Wiliam– Embedded Formative Assessment). One of the most significant ways to model your leadership of teaching, both to your commitment to the learning process and to the fact that you practice what you preach, is to be in the classes where you need to see a big shift. It supports teachers with the progress of those children working below par by sitting next to them, showing and modelling, and it shows to children that the quality of teaching and learning on a daily basis is what you most care about. Done positively and with discernment, it improves teachers confidence and we all teach better!

Step 4: Forge brilliant relationships in and out of the school – these are the meat and drink of a great leader – that blend of excellent professional engagement, developing serious rigour with governors, warm but strong parental contact and a rapport with students which blends great expectations with that palpable privilege of working together. These relationships are our metier. Without these essentials the best-laid improvement plans will fall flat; will be the science without the art. That said, there is an inevitable tension in trying to develop strong positive outward-facing professional relationships while being relentlessly concerned with urgently needing to drive standards in your own school, and making sure that you are a trusted, steadying presence for staff and students.

Step 5: Create routines of delivery which will work and listen – Michael Barber describes brilliantly how it is the dull, repetitive, mundane routines which drive improvement at government and at school level. From the perspective of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in Tony Blair’s second term, where the purpose was to deliver on the promises Blair made but failed to deliver in the first term, Barber manages to make dull attractive. Once the new systems have been introduced, then the next phase of embedding the system and driving change is fundamental. Don’t keep changing: just make it work for teachers and students!

Step 6: Gauge the tipping point – There are certain key moments of the turnaround there are threshold points. Perhaps the new behaviour system we introduce causes a necessary squeeze which children like at first because of improvement but then there reaches a point when the minority infringing the new rules becomes a critical mass. The staff and students begin to disbelieve the system. The teaching is rapidly improving but because the legacy of practice and routine has not been good, learners are fragile, have unstable routines and lack the resilience for the necessary in-class challenge before they resent the changes and give up. At the same time school leaders and Ofsted demand more challenge.  Getting past this tipping point means a clear strategy. Sometimes it means understanding on both sides, sometimes it means stickability. Always it means retaining strong principles that underpin what we are trying to do and creating the conditions for teachers to be successful.

Step 7Disarming humility – every day you will see people who do things better, spot ideas quicker, work smarter, teach with more impact, connect with children more sharply. Our job is of course to celebrate these paragons of our profession, even as we wonder whether we have lost our own powers! We will look at challenges that we missed, difficult conversations we could have had six months ago and which haven’t gone away. Times when we should have stuck to our principles to hold standards, and times when what was required was a touch of humanity and care to reconsider workload or to bring out the best in our team. The leaders that I have found the most attractive and ultimately the most effective in the long term are those who are transparent in their own humanity while retaining the essential drive and moral purpose to deliver better standards for children.

 Step 8: Precision about what, when – “I’ve inspected a few schools recently and they are doing the wrong things really well” described a friend of mine last week. Surgery is sometimes needed. More often it is real precision. A precise teaching document, or precision around behaviour policy and culture so that we all know where we stand. What are you rewarded for as a student? Is there real precision around marking. Are we really sharp about what we value? Our front of school will tell every visitor all they need to know about our values. This means the way in which we structure reception, whether you allow children in, how your reception team are supported, trained and celebrated. Be precise about what is needed in the different phases of improvement – a great deal has been written about this for any organisation. Phase 1 may get you out of Special Measures or into the Good territory, but you may need to consider changing people and systems at the very time that you are celebrating your first stage of the journey. The courage to do this will be part of the story when you look back.

Step 9: Focus on effort – it is in the control of children to change this – and not much else. I have yet to find a school which doesn’t try to celebrate effort with integrity, but many struggle to articulate how they describe effort. We may use Claxton’s ‘learning habits’, the work of Dweck to develop learning habits or Art Costa’s ‘ habits of mind’. Whichever we choose we know that, throughout the use of strong CPD and incremental shifts in practice in the classroom, we grow and develop learners with the right personal attributes and learning dispositions. At the end of 15 years of education in our schools we want learners to emerge inquisitive and resilient and with a craftsman-like approach to high quality work. If we put this alongside the ideas of Matthew Syed (Bounce) we could create a revolution in our school in what we value. Talk about who are the ‘best practisers’ whatever the starting point, and cancel G&T work? 

Step 10: ExcellencePart of challenging and changing the dominant culture around us is our role in creating schools which value the ability to peer deep into the well of knowledge, dig deeper and develop time-taking excellence. Daisy Christodoulou argues that we have lost the joy of facts and the learning of stuff which is still exciting, not something to shy away from and not something that google has a monopoly on. When flow is happening and where beautiful work is being produced and where children are intensely proud of their work then there is a sense of awe, the enjoyment of autonomy and pride in the final assignment, the finished article, the fourth draft of the poem, the completed DT model, the perfectly-topped pizza, the dance performance honed for the parents coming in. There is a sense of “I couldn’t possibly do better than this”. This is what we need to create. Not much leadership time is spent sitting with children to praise and challenge them around what quality looks like, to ask where their finest work is and where they need to redouble their efforts. Let’s prioritise leadership & teaching strategies towards what will craft towards excellence as a product. Exam results, university entrance and our position in PISA tables matter, but these are part of the ‘back end’ of our educational processes (Michael Fullan). Excellence and mastery is the front end, and more attention needs to be focused there by us all.