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.

Pochettino and Pencil Cases


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.

Core Purpose

one thing.jpg

This weekend my oldest son Harry went to University to begin his course in music, specialising in piano. It was a BIG weekend for the family. There were mixed emotions – a great sense of the start of a new adventure for an 18 year old and a moment in time, but of course tinged with sadness for Mum and Dad as son number 1 moves away from home for the first time. I am now sat typing in his empty room, missing him already!

It has made me reflect on what we want for our children and what I want as a Principal for all of our students at Gloucester Academy. University is not the route for every child, but it should be a possible, realistic and affordable decision for those that want it. Part of my job is to ensure that the quality of teaching and the learning environment in GA is so strong that any child who wants to explore what university might be like can do so. I want us to create such an aspirational atmosphere that all of our children and young people will succeed in their journey, whatever that journey may be. More of our young people should go to University and this is one of my ambitions for GA.

When I arrived in July for the last few days of the summer term I did a lot of listening. I listened to many students and parents and staff and governors so that I could reflect on what needed to be our priorities. Over the first four weeks since I started at GA we have introduced a number of new systems which are a response to this ‘listening’. They also grow out of our VALUES and our CORE PURPOSE, which will form a significant part of our thinking and growth this year. We are part of the strongly values-based White Horse Federation with clear principles about the way that we work together and look after each other.


OUR CORE PURPOSE: “We are a dynamic school community, engaged with Gloucester, where a commitment to excellence in teaching, learning and personalised support inspires students to thrive at school and in the world”


  • Every member of our school community – student and staff – matters
  • Everything comes out of relationship so getting our relationships right is important
  • Everyone works to ensure all students and all staff have a real sense of belonging to the school community

Part of being in a family means being listened to. When Matt Discombe from The Gloucester Citizen came into school to meet me last week it was crucial for me that he meet our brilliant students because they are best placed to describe what is changing at GA, not me. Students need to be at the heart of what we do.

Our new House system will ensure that we are all important and feel part of a family. The House system will bring a togetherness, and allow younger children to feel part of academy life much more quickly. The new restore meetings at the end of the day mean that when things go wrong, we have a structured and calm process to help them put things right. This means that we get quickly back into our learning and we learn about how to restore problems in life as they crop up.


  • We learn to believe in ourselves and in one another, in who we are, in what we do; in our work, rest and leisure; in serving the world
  • We grow in awareness of ourselves, others, the school and local community, the UK and the world
  • We see feedback as our friend, learning how to give and receive positive and constructive feedback so that we grow

Believing that I can respond to and learn from feedback is part of the journey to being a mature adult. We are intent on developing this capacity in each of our learners: students and staff. Feedback is the watchword of the English rugby team as they pour over their laptops and analyse their own performances to pinpoint what needs fine-tuning. Feedback is what my son uses to improve his own piano performances, when things need changing. Feedback is good.


  • Nothing worth having comes easily so we accept the need to work hard to progress to achieve our full potential
  • We work with the personalised support on offer at the school
  • We commit to work excellently as an independent learner, in our work with students and with staff
  • We strive to produce our best work at all times in and outside the classroom, in every area of school life, and in engaging with the local community and with the world

This value is about having a growth mindset: “in the growth mindset you don’t feel the need to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when secretly you’re worried that it’s a pair of tens. The hand you are dealt with is just the starting point …although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and apti-tudes, interests or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through the application and experience.” Carol Dweck

Our new behaviour points system: Part of the feedback that I heard from students in July was that they wanted a really clear system of rewards and they wanted behaviour to be better so that there were no disruptions to learning. In our new system of scoring behaviour for learning this achieves both. All students are scored for their learning behaviour at the end of each lesson, from 1 – Outstanding to 4 – Moved to partner class. At the end of each day students reflect on their grades transparently with their tutor.

I have received hugely positive feedback from students and staff that already it has made a significant shift in the ethos in the academy. Nothing is achieved without hard work, and when students STRIVE within a strong, well-understood behaviour system, then the sky is the limit.


  • With a sense of belonging, a belief in ourselves and in what we are doing, with confidence in others, and striving for excellence, we achieve our full potential at school and in life
  • We take responsibility for ourselves, our progress and our achievements, working alone, with other students and staff to achieve all we are capable of
  • We persevere and never give up

It is early days, but we will explore these values with students in our house discussions, they will be celebrated on the new website, and they will help us to remember what is important and fundamental for young people when the winds of educational change blow (as they will).

What do I watch? How can you help? I spend a great deal of time watching learning in lessons. I sit with students in class and look closely at the quality of their books and their folders. I take photos of great books, great learning and well-presented books and I share this mastery with other teachers and students. After all sometimes the best learning is to see what great looks like. I am really interested in each student’s range of book/folder/finished artwork, and I want us as parents, teachers and governors to work with our children and students on this. Let’s praise them and challenge them with what that quality looks like, and ask where their finest work is and where they need to redouble their efforts. Let’s help them respond to teachers’ feedback to support their learning journey. In school we will be using tutor time and mentoring time to create a real focus around the mastery of books. Our primary schools are often really strong in this area. We need to be more like them. If we get this right, then this will mean a long-term improvement in results for our students: in other words, our students will ACHIEVE!

A massive welcome to our fabulous new Year 7s who have made a flying start in New Basics: At the end of 7 years of education with us we want our new Yr7 learners to emerge inquisitive and resilient and with a craftsman-like approach to high quality work. Children who will have a growth mindset and an inherent self-belief that making mistakes is the path to progress. Who will BELONG with us at Gloucester Academy and feel part of the family. Who will BELIEVE in themselves and their capacity for growth, and who will not be easily defeated. Who will STRIVE to become excellent in all they do and who, through all of this, will ACHIEVE. It is an honour and a privilege to have them with us in the fold.