I don’t mind admitting that I’ve been struggling lately. Questioning my competence and ability to be part of life in schools. That’s why I haven’t posted here in a while: in fear of being ousted as an imposter or found out as a fraud. This was a strange feeling. I’ve faced and overcome huge challenges before, both professional and personal. Although I can be an instinctive leader and can be quite impulsive at times, I have a bomber record of making an impact. I would even consider myself visionary at times when the wind is blowing the right way.
I’ve compared teachers to priests in the past and the past few months have been a test of my resolve. It took watching the Lego Movie to really snap me out of it. Trouble is, I’ve been trying to follow the instructions instead of thinking creatively. In a serendipitous coincidence, Deputy John, John Tomsett and David Didau have recently written posts that convinced me that I’m not a stark raving lunatic, which is a bit of a bargain. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read their posts as they are far better written and more eloquent than this one will be. What follows is aimed at those, like myself, who assume that everything is OK at senior leadership level when, in fact, it’s more like those swans…
The Lego Movie has an interesting message (for me anyway): if you always follow the instructions, you’ll always end up with the same result. Furthermore, you’ll stifle creatively and straight jacket professionals through a lack of trust.
Last minute interventions do not lead to sustainable improvement.
When I took over Priory Geography back in 2008, I was convinced that a long term approach was important. I fought against the last minute, intensive interventions and actively blocked (with some exceptions) children being taken from Geography lessons for Maths and English catch up. I didn’t allow resits and discouraged controlled assessment improvement sessions, often in the face of what was expected. Workshops took place every week throughout the year to help some children catch up or extend their knowledge / skills / understanding. The thing is, giving a child extra lessons from the same teachers in a similar style isn’t going to change much. It’s also not going to help them in the long term. Is that how you succeed in life? Do nothing much for ten years and then ram it all in within a year? Why bother with education until the age of 16 if that were the case? Does this last minute scramble lead to sustainable improvement and help these young people succeed later in life? Personally, I don’t think so. Also, resources are committed to the examination years so that our eye is taken off the quality of the experience lower down the school. I wonder how this looks to young people? Do they think that it’s OK to cruise along during Key Stage 3 as they can always really start working later on? Does that prepare them for a life of work? Of trying their hardest? It certainly doesn’t encourage the development of a growth mindset or encourage resilience.
Instead, we sorted the curriculum by thinking it through and co-planning it, down to the lesson level. We made every lesson from the very first one in Year 7 top quality. We raised our expectations of what we expected and they met them. Now, the slow improvement for the first two years was excruciating and maybe it’s naive of me to think that this approach is acceptable for a whole school, but in the long term, outcomes went up. By a lot. We also challenged underachievement. Always. And did something about it, right from Key Stage 3. We met formally 1:1 each fortnight and spoke about individual students. Every lesson contained an opportunity to apply the knowledge either as extended writing or exam style questions.
I believe that a focus upon the quality of teaching in the classroom is the most important thing I can focus upon as a leader. Teachers talking about learning. Teachers watching each other teach and teachers planning learning together. High quality teaching and learning is not a bolt-on to be used in emergencies, but for each and every lesson.
But what about those who a disadvantaged? Well, if you wait until Year 11 to worry about this group of people then it’s well a truly too bloody late. I’m looking at Pupil Premium students at the moment and I am convinced that nothing but high quality teaching and high expectations right from day one is needed. We need to encourage Year 7s to fall in love with learning and to recognise that the default level of acceptable work is awesome. If you allow crap work to be accepted and praised early on you send some crazy butterfly type ripples into the future. Secondary schools need to work with their primary feeders (and I know what a challenge that is for some with many feeders) to create bespoke transition arrangements. Alternative pathways needs to be created right from day one. But what do I know?
Why are teachers and students treated differently?
I believe that teachers are a mixed ability group of learners. I also believe that we are professionals. There’s been a lot of talk about losing grades from lesson observations lately. I’ve always popped into classrooms and had conversations with teachers about learning. I wrote about my approach to monitoring here. I also believe that whole school policies should be adapted, subverted even, to fit individual subject areas. The more I find out about teaching and learning, the more I realise that one-size-does-not-fit-all and that there isn’t a single tool, idea, invention or spell that is the answer. If your outcomes are good then should you be forced to conform?
Within the lesson-level schemes of work mentioned above, there was always room for creativity and going off script. The common assessments had to be tackled, how individuals got there was up to the class teacher.
The instructions found in Lego packets are easy to follow; well communicated and ensure that you end up with the model shown on the outside of the box. But, if we’re honest, smashing up lots of models and creating a new model was always more fun and led to better adventures that are a better fit to our own vision and experiences. Think also of the problem solving skills developed.
I believe that there does need to be a whole school focus upon improving a couple of things at a time. I wouldn’t give a young person a huge list of ‘even better ifs’ and this is no different to a teacher. Having said this, middle leaders are the teaching and learning power house in schools and they should be developing teaching and learning and challenging underperformance within their curriculum areas, with support from senior leaders. To borrow a phrase, I don’t want to be a hero leader as I don’t have all of the answers. If I did, there wouldn’t be a need for other leaders. I have faith in people and think that teachers should receive investment in terms of trust, support and challenges. I’m a great believer in the power of developing other people’s ideas. How many meetings are actually centred on developing teaching and learning? What about just talking about teaching and learning? Of course, I know that the roof will literally fall down and the toilets back up if there wasn’t an operational element somewhere, but still. When was the last time you left a meeting fired up and ready to change the world? If not, isn’t it time to stop following the instructions?
I wonder what would happen if a staff ignored the Oftsed definition of teaching and created their own within a school. Would it be that different? Of course, we could argue that we have all been straight jacketed, robot style, but I think the list would raise results and result in overachievement if everyone met them. And if your school’s final outcomes are as good as they can be, wouldn’t you have a very good chance of convincing parents, governors and Ofsted that you knew what you were doing? Maybe I’m wrong on this?
In a nutshell, invest in teachers and they’ll grow. I remember when Ofsted came calling last year. A trainee was teaching some of the department’s lessons. I insisted that he continue to teach them. That faith paid dividends. I fundamentally disagree in doing anything different for visitors of any flavour. Business as usual. Day in, day out. To do otherwise may result in a ‘thin’ Oftsed judgment. When they come a calling, get the team together by all means and reinforce the expectation that life goes on without change.
The danger of chasing Key Performance Indicators
If you focus narrowly on one or two indicators, the danger is that you take your eye off the really important stuff. You go along thinking that everything is awesome. (warning – if you haven’t seen the film and click here, it’ll be stuck in your head for days)
Problem is, when you look at other factors, like achievement for example, things aren’t awesome. Yes, you may have nailed the 5 A*-C including Maths and English, but it looks like most of your students made no real progress at all. This is a worry when these KPIs seem to change once with every passing day. Is the mantra of ‘best for the kids’ really being followed in many schools?
I never know what’s going on back there.
How many teachers actually know what’s going on in other parts of the school? As I’ve ventured further afield and visited other departments over the past three years, I realised how little I know about what’s going on in other classrooms. Crucially, how much great practice is going on. I loved Sam Atkins point and use of this 30 second clip from The Wedding Crashers at TeachMeet Bohunt:
It’s a powerful point. There are 15 minute forums, conversations, teacher learning communities and all sorts of other meetings. These are great, but they miss the critical point: sharing stories is great but seeing others in action is better. I’m starting to explore Lesson Study. Teachers watching other teachers teach is really important in my view. Learning Walks, set up in the right way (as a CPD opportunity and not monitoring), can achieve this. But so can in-house publications. I’d like schools to shout about what’s going on and sharing it as a regular event. Like the mobile learning cookbook (like a cookbook, there are instructions but they don’t need to be followed).
This is kind of what I think schools should be doing – creating their own sets of instructions that take what’s out there and applies it. I don’t really think there’s a very complex answer out there, it’s about simple ideas done well.
I could be wrong, but I think we should stop following the instructions.
Doubts have gone. Game on.