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I’ve worked in education since 2010, as an English teacher, Head of Department, Assistant Head and Deputy Head in five schools, and I’m currently the Principal Designate of Ark Soane Academy, a new school opening in Ealing in September 2021. I write about curriculum, pedagogy, theory, English and books. You can read about what education means to me and why I do what I do here.

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Reading Lists for Adults

Reading Lists for Kids

Remote learning: lessons learned

My central aim today is to avoid using the word “unprecedented”. It is clear teachers find themselves in… Unusual circumstances. None of us signed up to a career spent sitting at a desk all day and communicating by email and phone. My overriding feeling right now is complete confusion as to why anyone would choose this kind of sedentary life, and I, along with many others, am very much looking forward to being physically present in a school again, ideally with some children and colleagues at a safe and social distance.

Much as I would like to pretend otherwise, distance learning looks to be with us for the long term – most educators consider that a significant number of children will have to stay at home with shielding relatives, as well as potentially having two weeks off school should they or a classmate show symptoms – at least deep into the next academic year. I’ve been excited to get to be a part of Oak National Academy, the UK’s online school, on its curriculum team, to learn more about best practice in this brave new world of remote learning, and I’d like to share some lessons learned along the way.

  1. “Assessment for learning” (AfL) looks very different

Even where schools are providing online lessons for their own children, there are some strong arguments for these being pre-recorded rather than live – safeguarding concerns abound with live lessons along with childcare and related demands on teachers’ time making it tough to run lessons according to a set timetable.

Even in live teaching, traditional methods of AfL aren’t foolproof: it’s hard to raise your hand when you’re stuck in a classroom; harder still to do the waving required to make this visible across the internet in front of your peers. It’s easy to read faces in a classroom or hear that low mutter of dissent or see heads shaking when something isn’t clear; again, this is much harder with video conferencing.

Moreover, when students look at a screen, any screen, the default position is to be passive, and breaking the association is a challenge. Students could easily sit through hours of online learning and learn nothing, just as many teachers will have experienced lengthy online meetings they can’t quite recall at this point, along with the multiple TV box sets that have faded into the mists of time.

Online learning must repeatedly fight this passivity. At Oak, teachers have amassed a range of strategies to get children to do something with what they are learning. In primary, this is displayed most cutely through children shouting the answer at the screen.

In secondary, it seems less clear that adolescents would be willing to do this. All Oak teachers use “pause points”: following every new piece of information, a check for understanding – a quick “everyone writes” or multiple choice question to check they have understood.

The lesson is: any time you’d check for understanding with a class, make it a quick task online.

  1. Less is more

The amazing Josie Mingay running form-time reading aside, it is challenging to get children reading a lot when they’re not in the classroom. Oak runs on the assumption that many children access lessons through a mobile phone, and they need to be as accessible as possible for all learners. In the flow of a lesson, it is certainly a challenge to student attention and to teacher delivery to read swathes of text. That is why, though it kills the English teacher in me, I’d advise that less is more when delivering online lessons. Having a large amount of text on slides is a sure fire way to alienate some children. Keep slides clean and keep wording minimal.

In an ideal world, every child would have their own laptop or tablet device from which online learning would be easily accessible. It seems likely that the funding and logistics of this mean it’s not a quick and easy answer. Our best bet – the one that is fastest as well – is to make use of the fact that almost every child will have a mobile phone. With this in mind, use slides judiciously to chunk new knowledge and present it cleanly and clearly, and deliver extended reading separately to new learning to ensure maximum pupil access to lessons.

  1. Digital simplicity

Technology offers limitless solutions to the problem of educating children remotely, but that doesn’t mean we have to take advantage of all of them. The more complicated we make our lessons, the more hurdles we place in front of our children. Oak’s Head of History, Ben Arscott, described this approach recently saying: “every click is an opportunity for a kid to check out of a lesson.” Adding login details is another hurdle that could cause confusion and prevent access. Whatever you do, make it as easy as possible to access, removing every barrier that might prevent children engaging with the learning.

  1. Be “pantomime”

One of my favourite pieces of advice on teaching was given to me by Barry Smith, who describes the process by which a teacher becomes larger than life, firing up the pupils through sheer force of personality, as “be pantomime”. This is good advice in the classroom, though it doesn’t work for everyone – we must also ensure we remain true to our teacher personas, as children see right through inauthenticity. 

Normally I’m a fan of clear and simple delivery and no fan of gimmicks, but while we are delivering lessons on the very device kids are most often distracted by, a little gimmick goes a long way. I find the entirety of Oak’s primary team enchanting, but one of my favourite moments was watching the year 6 teacher add some jazz to a spelling test with his quizmaster jacket (see minutes 1:45 to 2:30 for the transformation).

 

Oak National Academy is completely free to all students and teachers and exists to support teachers focus on the things a tech platform cannot do: the pastoral support of pupils. When professionals return to school, it’s a great resource to allow teachers to plan for the children in front of them, while being sure that the ones at home have something of quality to learn with. We’re improving all the time, and looking for new ways to integrate with existing systems so teachers can monitor the work their students are completing on Oak. With that in mind, do leave any feedback on how we could make the platform most helpful for teachers in the comments of this post.

Finally, some of Oak’s team of superstar teachers will be leading a Research Ed Home talk on 2nd June at 11am to share their own lessons learned, so tune in then to find out more.

David Copperfield

I did not like Dickens until I was 28 years old. When I joined a new school, the whole of the Autumn term for year 7 was spent reading Dickens, which I thought I hated, so I decided I really had to read some. The good news was that I was totally wrong. Dickens is great, once you get past the excruciating syntax and accept that these are not, in fact, capital “S” Serious books.

In fact, David Copperfield may be the greatest comic novel ever written. It is a thinly veiled autobiography, and full of the most genuinely humorous scenes in all of literature – not just Victorian literature, all of literature. It is a masterpiece and you must read it if you have not already. (You’re welcome.)

What is good but in a different way is the recent film, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Like the novel, it is hilarious. Unlike the novel, which usually comes in at around a thousand pages of printed text, the film delivers the most vital storylines in under two hours. A recipe for disaster, some may say. Luckily, Armando Iannucci wrote and directed it, so it is a work of pure genius.

And what happens in the film, when you squash up all those thousand pages, is you see more clearly the peaks and troughs of David Copperfield’s life. The vista is one of extreme success and extreme failure, cycling around. An idyllic early childhood gives way to the entry of an abusive stepfather; poverty and drudgery give way to fame and fortune. This is repeated several times.

I found this film incredibly profound. For me, no other film has quite captured the essence of reality so well as this sometimes surreal piece.

In March 2019, I was reeling from a spectacular failure. I’d applied for a headship and arrogantly assumed I was a shoe-in. I’d done heaps of preparation, redrafted my application several times, and conducted three mock interviews with three different, very kind individuals. I was absolutely ready. This was my school.

I didn’t even get through to day two of the interview. I was crushed.

Reading back over my diary at that time, I laughed at how crushed I had been. I wanted to tell that sad, pathetic woman: “don’t you worry! In a couple of months time, you’re going to see the dream headship – a new start school in London with your favourite academy trust – and they’re going to be mad enough to give it to you!”

Deflated and humbled by my earlier failure, instead of putting in hard hours and preparation for this second attempt, I rushed an application to get it in by the deadline and repeatedly believed I wasn’t going to get called to the next stage of the interview.

Reading my diary in the months after my appointment is a whirlwind of disbelief: how did I get to do this job? How did I get to work with these incredible people? What had I done in life to deserve such riches? Once the interviews for our founding staff began, my disbelief doubled: never had I ever turned away so many extraordinary professionals. We hired a dream team. For each post, we would worry we hadn’t shortlisted the right people, and then at the interview day they would just gleam like gems. Every member of that team was a star player.

And then, when we had recruited our entire team, COVID-19 struck.

One evening early on in the crisis a very close friend had sent me a text message: “your school’s not going to open!” I laughed then, as they were joking and we have that kind of relationship.

But as the weeks crept on, and schools closed, and shops closed, and we were all sent home, and the children came in twos and threes instead of hundreds; and our building slowed and slowed, and the supply chain was disrupted, and the contractor for the second half of our building wouldn’t sign until after the virus was “over,” and the Department for Education couldn’t sign the funding agreement without a building, it began to sink in. Our school wasn’t going to open.

While personally hugely disappointing, the decision makes perfect sense. The DfE’s understandable priority is existing schools: the logistical challenges of reopening schools is immense; time and resources are limited; of course they want to place those limited resources into current schools rather than opening new ones. The DfE are supportive of a new secondary school in Ealing, which is desperately needed in years to come due to the large numbers of children going through the primaries right now: they, and we, are confident that Ark Soane will open – in 2021. While a deferral is disappointing, our founding team are committed to coming back next year stronger than ever – a year spent working in one of our other Ark schools, thinking carefully about Soane, is a privilege in many ways.

It is nonetheless desperately sad for all of us – “our” year 6s who will go to other schools, as well as our founding teachers who were excited to build something brilliant in September.

And so I turn to David Copperfield. I’m not working in a blacking factory (or a bottle factory, as the thinly veiled autobiography has it); it’s not so bleak as life for my furloughed friends and family. But there is, after all, no hierarchy of pain.

The hope I draw from Copperfield is this: this life will be full of tragedy and joy. These will cycle around, and we should always be wary of our highest points because they will not last. As I read back in my diary, I want to warn that joyous woman that her dream school will remain just that – a dream – for longer than she can imagine.

Yet at this very low time, where we are all united in fear for our families and our lives and our jobs and our world as we know it, I know that more positive times will come. I can’t wait to see where the next joy enters.

Chicago Charter Schools

I wrote this blog post back in February, but before I managed to post it the world changed rather dramatically. Now we begin to settle into our new normal, I’m revisiting what has formed the way I think about education. We will return to our schools (whenever that may be) I hope with a renewed vigour to improve the educational chances of our students. We should always be asking: what does great look like? This post is about a time when I was sure I was seeing “great”.

In 2012, I was granted a week’s leave by a kind Headteacher to be able to take part in a visit to see Chicago’s Charter schools with the charity Teach For All. It’s a visit I come back to again and again, often with the sad corollary question: why can’t we replicate the extraordinary success of the US Charter schools?

I started to teach in 2010, the same year that the documentary “Waiting for Superman” came out. As such, I was exposed from the early days of my teaching career to the incredible feats of learning happening in schools like the KIPP schools; I was exposed to the thinking of the short-lived but much-lauded chancellor of DC public schools, Michelle Rhee, and I was introduced to the British version of this in my training weeks with Teach First: King Solomon Academy.

I’ve frequently heard educators say that America is always five or ten years ahead of the UK in terms of education, and so a visit to their leading schools was likely to become a formative event.

An attitude that all the schools we visited seemed imbued with was success at all costs. We visited three schools – one elementary, and two high schools – all of which massively outperformed the local public schools, all of which had incredibly deprived in takes.

At the elementary school, in the middle of an estate strewn with boarded up and broken windows, an intake which was 96% free or reduced lunches moved around the building silently and were taught traditionally. Flags celebrating their teachers’ universities adorned the hallways, a feature notable across all the Charter schools we visited. Even the Maths examples were linked to university (“if you have a college degree, you earn 20% more than someone who does not. Work out what your take home salary would be with or without a degree for the average state salaries of these ten states”).

Yet I also witnessed heart breaking bullying of a child with clear special educational needs, who on the particular day I visited appeared to receive no specialised support at any point – not even a teacher giving her extra help in the lesson. When the teacher in one class asked the children to choose their partner, she tried in vain to get someone to work with her as her peers pretended she didn’t exist, before turning to me – the observer – and saying: “can I work with you please?” In terms of the ethos and culture of the school, the messaging seemed to begin and end with: we’re going to get to university.

Of course, it is unfair to judge a school on a one-day visit, but school culture inevitably pervades. This culture was evident in our next visit, to a high school where 75% of students received free or reduced lunches. The mission of university for all pervaded the school – though students were “tracked” into three streams, the expectation was that all would make it to university. One student told me that they were learning to be more independent (for example, students picked up work from a central area to complete if they had missed any school) because: “in college no-one will hold your hand.” What shone through most at this school, though, was love – the children we met absolutely loved their school. They proudly showed us their “anti-bullying pledge wall,” and were incredibly loving and accepting towards one another. This was most touchingly revealed when we saw lockers that were covered in wrapping paper, sometimes with balloons tied to them – a tradition that happened for student birthdays (we even, sweetly, found they had “wrapped” a teacher’s door having found out it was her birthday).

The final school we visited had an intake where 84% of students had free meals, 10% reduced lunches. The school mascot was this big cat, which they coloured in every time someone won their university place along with posting a copy of the acceptance letter.

Incredibly, on our visit day our staff orientation was interrupted to announce that the final member of the senior class had won their university acceptance: the cat was complete. 100% of that class had been accepted to a four-year university course, the most prestigious kind in America.

At this school, they didn’t just talk the talk of university – they also managed the practicalities. Students had three hours of classes a week on university: how to apply, how to get funding, how to study, how to live independently, how to balance work and university.

The students described incredibly tough discipline, starting with demerits and detentions, and escalating to Saturday detentions. If a student received more than four Saturday detentions, they would be held back a year in school. As you can imagine, this was quite a deterrent.

It is clear that the challenge for schools in England is tough: our system necessitates some children leaving our institutions at the age of 16, so we have more limited control over university acceptances. We can’t hold students back a year for poor behaviour. In other ways, of course, Americans face a far steeper challenge: excessive university fees, as well as access to healthcare and other benefits being more challenging.

This trip was formative for me though. Until you actually see it, you don’t truly believe it is possible – or else, I didn’t. I thought I had high expectations, but what I saw in the Charter school classrooms exposed these as frighteningly low.

And while the details differ, this visit taught me some overarching eternal truths about schools.

For example: the building doesn’t matter. Charter schools often open in the actual building of a failing school. Technology doesn’t matter. These schools all used blackboards and the occasional overhead projector (I might be the last generation of teacher who remembers these in their childhood classrooms!). Class size doesn’t matter. These schools are often widely oversubscribed, and classes were much larger than the state averages.

But culture matters. Parental support matters. Quality teaching – and all the attendant concerns like teacher development – matters. Curriculum matters. And belief matters. That core belief: it is possible, it is being done, we can do it too.

Why can’t we replicate the extraordinary success of the Charter schools? We can, we just haven’t yet.

King Solomon Academy: the original dream school

I trained to teach with Teach First in 2010, and I will always consider that to have been a fortunate year because of one two hour, voluntary session held in a lecture hall at Warwick University. In that session, a Principal named Max Haimendorf introduced the pupils of King Solomon Academy to us, and explained what his school stood for.

Looking back, it is clear to me that this was a defining moment in education. Schools like KSA simply did not exist back in 2010. It’s hard, having experienced the best part of ten years of free schools trailblazing innovative practice, to remember a time when no children in England did “two claps on three” and chanted “you’ve got to read, people read.”. Back when schools were just schools – they didn’t grow from nothing; they occasionally changed their name or tragically closed – but that was that.

In 2010, as KSA’s founding cohort were finishing their first year, the simplicity and scope of Max’s vision was ground breaking: if 97% of privately educated children go to university, why not 97% of the children we serve? If we accept 97% as a benchmark, why not make it 100%? At that time, only 16% of children in receipt of free school meals were going on to university. The contrast of these figures could not be more stark.

That session in 2010 marked the first time someone had put it to me in those terms. I honestly think before that moment I had somewhere thought that some children were smart, and some children were not, and schools had to do the best they could with that. Max and his team’s beliefs completely changed mine.

What is so humbling about the KSA story is its sustained excellence. That first cohort of children came out with stunning results – 93% of children gained five GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths. But as the years have gone on, the school has continued to wildly exceed expectations, and put its children on a path to university and genuine life choices: in six years of GCSE results, five of the cohorts have achieved progress in the top 1% of all schools.

I’ve been privileged to visit the original dream school four times since that day, and every time I’ve felt moved by what that team does – day in, day out. The belief and the vision are strong as ever; the behaviour and the respect for adults from the children is clear; the copious amounts of work in every lesson and the focus on an academic core of subjects are still strong. After 10 years the results are still impressive. And after 10 years, Max is still there. In a sector where people often move on rapidly, or see success as running many schools over a career, to stay with the ever changing and ever challenging school you first founded seems to me the most admirable choice one could make, and illustrates the total commitment to mission that founded the school in the first place.

I remember leaving that meeting in 2010 buoyed with the infectious enthusiasm of the KSA team. I remember my shock that not all my Teach First colleagues felt the same.

“The clapping was weird.” “I didn’t like the chanting.” “I don’t think they’re right – university isn’t for everyone.”

The clapping is weird. So is the clicking. So is the chanting. But for me it is weird in the way Shakespeare is weird: it creates a new world –one of endless possibility.

School is, at its heart, a place for reinvention. School is the place where children come, independent of their families and their backgrounds – they leave whatever home they have come from, and whatever troubles or issues might be present there, and they sit side by side with their peers and learn from the same teacher. At school, a child can be anything they want to be.

KSA taught me that the job of a school is to believe the impossible is possible, and to know that getting there will look different and feel, at times, different or even uncomfortable. The promise of university necessitates difficult choices on curriculum, on pedagogy and on ethos. But for the schools that make that promise, the results are extraordinary.

What does it mean to teach?

When my friend Lia told me to read Some kids I taught and what they taught me, my response was to judge a book by its cover – why would I, who lived the world of teaching each day, read what appeared to be a teaching memoir?

I’m so glad I did, because this book is so much more than a memoir. It is a love letter to teaching. Even more than that, though, it provides impressive insights on several areas of education. Below are just a few of my many favourite parts.

Early in the book, Clanchy identifies the driving need of children to fit in. It is a need that goes far beyond the school gates, and will drive their social mobility and overall chances of improving their own lives: “Not to be left behind, never to be the one dressed differently, acting differently, feathered differently, never, never to be excluded: for children, that is a primary drive. It is connected to the inbuilt Darwinian drive to walk with your tribe, stay with your kind, and it is stronger in a seven-year-old than the fear of death.”

Through the story of one student who leaves school and becomes a teenage mother, Clanchy allows us to see this girl as conforming to her tribe’s expectations, in words which ring familiar and true: “Aged only sixteen, she will join the adults of her family, with an income as good as her sisters’. She will meet all her family expectations as firmly as a surgeon’s son getting his place at medical school; most of us do not want more than that. And if she is conscious, as of course she is, that those expectations are different from those of the society around her, what of it? That will only make her feel more inadequate in the world, only turn her further in on her tribe.”

Clanchy tells us stories of the ways children from disadvantaged backgrounds cope with the boundaries of school – my favourite anecdote was the boy who turned up at the school gates each day with a small uniform infraction (shirt untucked, baseball cap on, no tie…): “‘He never gets any better,’ she says, ‘so we have to conclude that he likes a telling-off.’… He comes from a cruel, chaotic home where most attention comes as abuse. He has chosen this engagement with Miss P. Each morning, she and the uniform tell Connor that he is in a boundaried place now, where people care what he wears, and care if he keeps the rules.”

This book is the most insightful I have come across in unpacking modern poverty, as Clanchy tells the tale of two homes – her own, and that of a council-house dwelling ex-student: “Cheyenne’s boast about Christmas presents is not a tragic fantasy, and she is not lying about her BlackBerry or her Burberry shirt, for this is poverty in the twenty-first century, and it’s complicated… Cheyenne almost certainly does have more consumer goods than my children, in the same way that she has more calories and less nutrition; more cash and less financial security.” In this observation, Clanchy prompts the reader to consider the very real challenge schools face: “How do we, as a school or as a nation, educate Cheyenne, get her to adopt middle-class habits such as reading, homework, and long-term ambition, without alienating her from her family? How do you induce her to go through the difficulties and deferred gratifications of studying when everyone around her would say that did not work for them?”

On school choice, Clanchy is unflinching in recounting her own anxieties as a middle class mother trying to balance the need to do the best for her children with her political and moral compass. Ultimately, she chooses to send her eldest to the nearest school, even though it is one of the worst in the area, commenting nobly: “Maybe I should be thinking of what my son could bring to the school, as well as what he could take, about his patrimony as well as his entitlement.” The pain and anguish in this section was palpable, but Clanchy soon moves on to explain the very many positives her son experienced through this route, which should give comfort to parents everywhere choosing secondary schools.

As an English teacher, I found Clanchy’s insights on teaching English fascinating. Her mode is to teach poetry through writing poetry, something I myself did in school but have not invested significant time in my own teaching. Her arguments are lengthy and her explanations inspiring; rather than hatchet them here, I would simply tell English teachers – read, then action.

Ultimately, this book assured me that, as an English teacher who often finds myself surrounded by those with more scientific and research-minded colleagues, that there is a great power in literature, and, specifically, story-telling to provide insight. Clanchy delivers her message not through statistics, facts and figures, but through human emotions, lived realities, and incisive observations.

Teaching at Ark Soane Academy

As part of the Ark network, Ark Soane Academy will benefit from a wealth of expertise on teaching and learning. Ark provides central professional development that is second to none, as well as facilitating teachers to study for professional qualifications like the NPQML or NPQSL. 

But we all know that professional development of teaching is about so much more than professional qualifications.  

Teaching and learning at Soane will centre on a spirit of continuous improvement. Teachers at Soane will always seek to get better at the most important thing they do: teaching. 

We’ll work in the context of cognitive science: we believe that something is only learned when it is committed to long-term memory. We believe in frequent, low-stakes testing to support learning. We believe in clear teacher-instruction, and teacher-led questioning and discussion. We believe in extended practice focused on the core aspects of the subject. We believe in frequent, subject-specific, feedback; not onerous marking. 

 Excellent teaching will be ensured by two central concepts: impeccable behaviour and coaching.  

Impeccable behaviour will be ensured from day one at Soane, with children inducted into the school’s behaviour policy for one whole week at the start of year 7. A centralised detention system will support teachers to enforce high standards. Plenty of whole-staff training will ensure that teachers are as consistent as possible when applying sanctions, to ensure we can be completely fair to those in our care. Impeccable behaviour means teachers can focus on the most important thing: teaching their subject to children.  

Our coaching model will support and stretch teachers at all stages of their career. We know that one-size-fits-all professional development alone will not deliver world-class teaching. At Soane, all teachers will teach with their doors open; a signal to their fellow professionals to come and look at what’s going on. Teachers will provide feedback on teaching to all members of staff, regardless of the supposed school hierarchies. Every teacher will observe another teacher weekly – a short observation, just 10-15 minutes – and give feedback and an action step to improve teaching.   

We can all always get better at what we’re doing. If the idea of continuously improving, while supported by strong school systems, appeals to you, we’re hiring now. 

Top reads of 2019

Fiction:

Maggie O’Farrell This Must be the Place: this was the first book I read in 2019. What a way to begin. Absolutely epic family tale which bounces around, so the story sort of comes into focus rather than progressing linearly.

Madeline Miller Circe: This retelling of the Odyssey from Circe’s perspective is like Wicked for people who love literature.

Curtis Sittenfeld American Wife: The balance between reality and fiction is delightfully blurred in the story of the president’s wife. Probably the book I most enjoyed reading this year.

Sally Rooney Normal People: I didn’t think anything could be better than Rooney’s debut novel, but I was wrong. This look at an un-relationship is like One Day but literary.

Tayari Jones An American Marriage: The blurb to this makes the premise sound absurd, but every page feels real and true.

Joshua Ferris Then We Came to the End: My overall favourite fiction read of 2019. I especially enjoyed the character Lynn’s fragility and strength. This is an incredible evocation of the mundanity of office life.

Tom Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities: An incredible tear through 1980s America’s racism, privilege, and finance. Genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

Non-fiction:

David Didau Making Kids Cleverer: Definitely Didau’s best, in my view; great ranging over the research with a crystal clear aim.

Becky Allen and Sam Sims The Teacher Gap: This is so engagingly written, and tackles the important issue of teacher recruitment and retention. I think I’ve quoted this book more than any other this year (hopefully accurately).

Eric Kalenze What the Academy Taught Us: Kalenze takes us through a specific project where his school created a “school within a school” for those most at risk of dropping out. He then explores the lessons learned and applies his experiences and research to wider school improvement. I adored it. Funny, smart and full of feeling.

Robert Pondiscio How the Other Half Learns: A fascinating insight into the Success Academies, full of helpful advice and thorny moral issues.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff The Coddling of the American Mind: This book is the most influential on the character curriculum I’m developing for Ark Soane Academy, and is a fabulous take-down of “the three great untruths”: “what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker” (not true; we are anti-fragile and challenge makes us stronger), “always trust your feelings” (never trust your feelings – our minds deceive us) and “there are good and evil people in the world” (not really; we all have good and evil within us. Better to view others with a charitable mindset, no matter how different our views).

Ann Patchett This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: the most personally influential book I read this year, Patchett came along at exactly the right time to help me through grief and spur me to action. One of many great pieces of advice? If you want to be a writer, write. So I’m writing… This collection ranges over love, failure, joy and dogs – all the big issues.

Elizabeth Day How to Fail: This book is an absolute balm to the wounds of disappointment. Brutally relatable in places, it is full of warmth and wisdom.

Ben Newmark: Why Teach: this little book is great, and the final chapter moving beyond belief. It reminded me, importantly, of why teaching is the best job in the world.

Kim Scott Radical Candour: This great book is about so much more than candour. Its superb advice is genuinely useful. It is not about doing more, but rather about changing the interactions we have with others to forge improvements in our organisations.

 

I was surprised looking through the list of books I read this year (thanks to my year 9 English teacher I’ve kept a list since I was 13 years old) at how few were strong contenders for this list – normally I have a big job cutting it down. Next year I think I will be more ruthless about reading books I’m excited about, and stop “saving” the best ones for holidays (or the last week of term, when I tell myself I “need” something brilliant) – there are too many great books out there for that. 2019 was the year that I published a book on education, Simplicity Rules, but, as inspired by Patchett, I really hope to continue writing fiction in 2020, and perhaps feeling confident enough to share it in 2030.

Leading at Ark Soane Academy

Starting a school from scratch is the opportunity of a lifetime. You have a blank slate on which to project your every hope of what a child’s education might be. While those limitless choices might seem daunting, we are lucky to be surrounded by a group of highly successful schools with Ark, including a number of successful new-start schools. There are no shortage of smart, experienced educators to guide Soane’s way.

What would you do if you could start a school with only year 7? What would the ideal behaviour policy, curriculum, lesson look like? What systems would need to be in place to make that happen? Which parts of all the best schools you know of would you take with you?

We already have a clear idea of the kind of school Soane will be: a rigorous curriculum delivered by subject experts who plan lessons with the lessons of cognitive science in mind, high expectations of behaviour, and opportunities to build cultural capital through enrichment. The large-scale values are in place.

What is not yet in place is the fine detail.

We are looking for exceptional teachers and leaders to lead at Soane. Every teacher we hire for September 2020 will be a leader: unlike a long-established school, the founding teachers always have a special place in a new start school. Whether they choose to pursue promotion or to stay in the classroom, no other teachers who join us later will have created the founding systems of the school. No one else will have as strong a sense of the school. No one after will have made the school from its foundations up.

If you believe strongly that every child is capable of academic success, that every child has the innate potential to be an upstanding citizen, and that the highest expectations of behaviour allow children the freedom to learn, leading at Soane may be the right place for you.

Over the coming weeks, we are welcoming applications from motivated teachers at all stages in their careers to join the founding team to begin our school. It will be a rigorous process, because there will never be a more important team than those who found our school. You will need to be an excellent classroom practitioner, have a strong understanding of the science of how children learn, have a mind for detail and a wish to create and perfect new systems at all levels of school life. Most importantly, we are looking for people who love their subject and who love children.

Please see the ‘vacancies’ tab on our webpage to explore current opportunities with Soane.

“Radical Candour” and staff culture

As we start preparing to hire our founding teaching team at Ark Soane Academy, I’ve been thinking a lot about staff culture. Speaking to a wise headteacher colleague recently, I was struck by her advice: “when you get that founding team together, there will be zero trust in the room.” She advised me to think deeply about how to build that trust so they can become a team that executes excellence. And she told me to read Kim Scott’s Radical Candour.

The combination of my colleague’s wisdom and reading Scott’s book have given me a clear steer on staff culture. Radical Candour is essentially about how to set up strong team relationships so you can hold each other to account and continually improve. In Scott’s latest introduction, she notes that she almost called the book “Compassionate Candour”, which I far prefer. What this means for Scott is that you need to both “care deeply” about each team member and “challenge directly.”

The book opens with the all-too recognisable story of the anonymised “Bob.” Bob came to her company with great references, but his first piece of work was sub-par. Rather than challenging him on it, Scott insincerely told him the work was great. This meant Bob assumed that this standard of work was acceptable, and continued with it. Which meant the team kept having to cover for him, and then they themselves stopped seeing why they should put so much effort in when Bob was praised for so little. Eventually, having avoided Bob in the office, Scott finally built up the courage to talk directly – and fired him.

Bob’s reaction? “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

It is easier to care deeply than it is to challenge directly – I’ve often fallen into the trap of what Scott calls “ruinous empathy”: “I won’t have that difficult conversation today because this person is feeling under the weather/has just come back from being ill/is having relationship problems.” And of course, sometimes it’s right to put off a conversation (in fact, Scott says picking people up on every little thing, in work as in relationships, is not advised: she suggests leaving “three things unsaid” each day). But ultimately, there are some hinge points where you do need to hold others to account.

A large part of this book explores the concept that you as the leader need to model welcoming feedback. In fact, if you are constantly seeking, inviting, relishing and (crucially) acting on feedback, you encourage this culture in your organization. People might not have to steel themselves for the “difficult conversation” if everyone is constantly saying: ‘what do you think? What could I change? How could I improve this?” It becomes part of the natural dialogue. Scott describes a culture at Google and Apple where the top leaders – CEOs, founders – would relish being shouted down by others, and thank them for being so direct. She cites Steve Jobs: “I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.”

So as leaders, we have a huge responsibility to always seek feedback, and then to genuinely act on it and show we have taken that feedback seriously to build that culture of constant improvement. This culture is especially crucial to an organization that is growing.

Scott talks of the particular nature of start-ups, which of course resonates strongly with me at this point: with a tiny team, everyone knows each other extremely well. You tend to find it easy to have radically candid conversations, because you know each other well and the care is evidently there. But as a start-up begins to grow, this does not scale. You can’t deeply know one hundred people in a genuine way. You can’t go around “just being honest” with people you haven’t built relationships with. That, Scott advises, makes you an “a**hole.” The trap is that people actually prefer a competent boss who is a “jerk” to an incompetent boss who is nice to them. The danger of this is that the jerks begin to flourish, and all of a sudden you have an organisational culture that becomes pretty toxic.

How do we guard against this? How do we safeguard the culture, while still being honest with each other about how we’re doing?

The first step, as above, is to model from above. Scott notes that for CEOs (headteachers), the way you line manage others will be mimicked by them: you influence your organization much more than you are ever aware (she tells the memorable story of a hold-up in making a shuttle bus for workers at one company because the team in charge looked at the CEO’s car and chose the same colours for the bus, which then took longer to make. The CEO hadn’t mentioned this and didn’t care what colour the bus was, but for those he managed they added weight to his every visible movement).

Secondly, perhaps having a dialogue of compassionate candour between line manager and managee, i.e. those who have formed a trusting relationship, is the best place for candour to remain. A positive culture focused on excellence can only be built when feedback is freely given and underpinned by the understanding that the person giving feedback genuinely cares about the person receiving it – and relationships do not scale in the way we imagine they do. But if everyone is continually seeking to improve with the support, guidance and challenge of those who know them the best – I think that’s a staff culture I’d want to be a part of.

If you like the sound of a staff culture focused on continual improvement, founded on genuine care for others, we’re starting to hire our founding team in December. Stay in touch!

Curriculum and enrichment

It goes without saying that the curriculum is the education preoccupation of the moment. As a profession, we’ve come to recognise the limits of a focus on pedagogy alone, and we’ve moved towards a debate on what children study, what their entitlement is, and what that looks like in a school.

In creating the curriculum entitlement for Ark Soane Academy, I’ve had to do some soul-searching. It became rapidly clear, staring at those 29 squares of lesson time, that there was no way we could do everything we wanted to. My own dream curriculum would have 7 lessons of English a week, 8 of Maths, 3 History, 3 Geography, 2 Religious Education, 5 MFL, 7 Science, 2 Art, 2 Music, 2 PE, 2 Drama… we’d have to either find 14 additional hours, or compromise. It came to me early on that we couldn’t do everything, and we certainly couldn’t do everything well.

So, moving away from the boxes, I went back to first principles. We want to ensure that students can achieve great results in academic subjects, not only because academic subjects open doors, but so they can be introduced to the academic conversation, participate in cultural debate and discussion, and have a broad awareness of human thought that is the entitlement of every child. With that in mind, the curriculum at Soane will be highly academic. We make no apologies for wanting every child to learn core academic subjects, and expect all Soane students to study the following to GCSE level: English, Maths, Science, History or Geography, and a foreign language.

That is not to say that we only care about academic subjects at Soane; far from it. After all, we take our name from the most famous architect in British history: Sir John Soane. Soane, born the son of a bricklayer, made his legacy through his art: in his case, designing innovative, enduring buildings like the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. We absolutely recognise and celebrate the importance of the arts. In fact, to designate the arts “non-academic” is clearly inadequate. The arts can be taught as “academically” as any other subject, and they will be at Soane.

Another thought I could not shake was the importance of enrichment. I was inspired hearing Lizzie Bowling’s speech at New Voices last year on enrichment, where she lamented how few children came to her wonderfully planned, hugely inspiring lunchtime clubs. Her rallying cry: “enrichment for all!” rang in my ears. We had to ensure every child had an enriched experience of school, not only those who chose it. So we have built enrichment into the school timetable, to ensure every child who attends Soane gets to choose something extra-curricular to pursue. Our aim with enrichment is to provide students with a broader educational experience, and to enable them to have an aspect of choice in their education: students will have free choice over a myriad of possibilities, and the opportunity to change each term to try something different. What these possibilities look like will be shaped by the passions and expertise of the teachers we hire in January and February next year.

At all open events, the children want to hear about school trips. I’ve worked at schools where teachers ran trips every week, taking a handful of children to some new and exciting place. This ultimately left behind cover work  and all its attendant difficulties for the teacher’s classes, and scores of children crying “unfair” – it was often seen that the same students got lots of opportunities, and others very few. In other schools I’ve worked at, we would run trip days or “academy days”, like I know a lot of schools do now. Taking a whole year group out on an enriching trip means no cover left behind, and no children left behind. This will be our approach to trips at Soane.

If you like the sound of an academic curriculum full of cultural capital with enrichment as an entitlement for all, please stay in touch – we will be accepting applications from December 2019.