Ark Elvin Academy

When you complete the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), you are required to spend nine days at a second school. I chose Ark Elvin Academy partly for their phenomenal turn-around, and partly because one of the most inspirational educators I know, Sarah Donachy, is now a Vice Principal there.

I worked with Sarah a few years ago, and found her to be one of the most relentless and intelligent professionals I have ever met. While I could not foresee what I might glean from a second placement, I knew that time spent with her would be developmental – it was a sure thing. She had moved to Elvin, a school I only knew by its reputation some four years previous as being pretty difficult. Sarah assured me it was very different now.

I could tell from day one she was right. When I arrived, children were waiting calmly outside the gates, speaking in low voices with small groups of friends. When the receptionist opened the gate for me, a flood of children also came in, walking purposely to their courtyard.

What I saw, in every aspect of school life, was hugely impressive. Any child whose opinion I asked about school could only say positive things. On the first day, I watched over 900 students fall into year group lines in total silence and then, when dismissed, walk to their lessons in around three minutes. I turned to Sarah and grinned. She grimaced: ‘Needs to be quicker.’

And that attitude summed up every interaction I had with teachers: everyone was constantly asking ‘how can we improve’? When I asked the Principal, Becky Curtis, for her thoughts on the school’s transformative journey, she started by noting: ‘we approach everything in the spirit of constant improvement. We know we’ve still got a long way to go. Our children are not getting the grades they need to transform their lives.’

When Curtis took over in January 2017, she was the year 11s’ fifth Headteacher. In her first six months as Head, she took a narrow and laser-focus to the actions she felt would have the highest leverage in improving the school: making line-up (before school, after break and after lunch the students line up silently to transition quickly to their next lesson) more efficient and a more positive experience for students; ensuring a purposeful start to each lesson; and behaviour management. For the third action, again she broke this down into just a few clear focuses: teachers should use ‘three step instructions’ (1. Tell them the task 2. Tell them how long they have 3. Clarify the voice level expected) and then positively narrate what they saw. Only once this training had been embedded did Curtis review the sanctions system, centralising detentions in an early move to ensure staff were supported.

Similarly, as the school goes from strength to strength, the SLT retain this laser-like focus on only a small number of priorities. This is especially evident in teaching and learning, where the school will focus on only three core ideas until they are embedded, usually for the whole academic year.

For Curtis, a great school is one that can be sustainable over time. She has much to build on: staff satisfaction is high. Curtis attributes this to making Elvin a team effort: teachers know they are cared for and that their opinions count. Curtis talks about ensuring people have both the training and time to do their jobs well. Such pragmatism is typical: Curtis says that ‘at the heart of school improvement is an organised school.’ She means this on every level: clear systems, strong training, and a sensible calendar with deadlines planned in advance so nothing comes as a surprise and people can plan their workloads.

In fact, one of my favourite take-aways from Elvin was the time spent thinking about when people will do the work. During meetings, Curtis includes ‘togetherness’ time so everyone can plan in any new projects. They also work out what might need to be dropped in order to fit in a new priority.

Another learning point was Becky Curtis herself. She is stunningly clear on what she wants in Elvin and how she will rally the team to get there. She and others continually say: ‘what does great look like?’ For all the staff, the first step is to be clear on what ideal practice is. In my nine weeks at Elvin, I too started to internalise three core principles I heard Curtis say again and again:

  1. Evolution not revolution
  2. Less is more
  3. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing it right

So, where next for Elvin? Curtis is still focused on dramatically improving outcomes, and the school will also reopen its sixth form in 2020. For 2019-20, Curtis wants to make sure all teachers and children can articulate the purpose of why they are doing what they are doing. She also says ‘structure should liberate’: the school is a well-oiled machine. Now what? With the safety of these strong structures in place, Curtis wants to untap creativity within the school, so staff and students take ownership. Finally, she wants to build what she calls ‘a genuinely developmental culture of constant improvement.’ Curtis’s aim is to sustain excellence over time, a concept I saw scrawled large on the whiteboard in her office that the leadership team had used for planning their next academic year: ‘excellence isn’t a prize you win once; it is continuously earned’.

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Ark Soane Academy

The opportunity to found a school from scratch is an incredible one. To do it within the expertise and support of a large network with whom you align is a dream beyond belief. Today, I’m going to share my vision for Ark Soane Academy and what I hope for when we open in September 2020 and beyond.

My three central beliefs will underpin every decision we make at the school:

  1. Impeccable student behaviour is possible and desirable.
  2. A challenging curriculum full of powerful knowledge changes lives.
  3. There are no limits to student achievement.

 

1. Impeccable behaviour

I’ve worked in schools where behaviour is impeccable; where it is quite literally perfect. I’ve seen and experienced what it is like to work in an environment like that: to be able to teach your subject with the passion, joy, energy and humour you dream of. It means you come to your classroom every day, energised to work hard for the children. It means no more Sunday dread, no more grinding conversations taking up learning time, no more bargaining about sanctions.

But what it also means is a huge amount of time invested in establishing a cast-iron system, and building positive relationships with students. The systems have to be robust enough to support all teachers, so everyone’s classroom displays impeccable behaviour – including new teachers, who often struggle with this. We cannot rely on individuals to make the behaviour policy up as they go along, as happens in some schools: that way lies inconsistency. When children spy inconsistency, they are apt to cry ‘unfair!’ and are even less inclined to follow routines.

Importantly, some children find living up to high standards hugely challenging. This is still a school for them. In fact, those children need high standards the most. We cannot ignore or push out those for whom education and self-regulation are harder. By investing in a strong pastoral system of support, by knowing all children individually, and by working closely with families, we can help all children live up to the highest of standards.

 

2. A curriculum full of challenge

All children have the right to access the best that has been thought and said. It is simply not right to exclude some children from a canon of thought that has shaped the Western world, just because they happen to have struggled academically. An appropriately timetabled school day is the way to ensure all children enjoy a curriculum we would want our own children to learn. Some children will struggle academically, we know that. That doesn’t mean classroom A learn Great Expectations while classroom B work through Spot the Dog. If the Head of English has chosen an extremely challenging text for that year group, then both classrooms should benefit from its inclusion, with classroom B being given more time and more support to ensure their experience is fulfilling and enjoyable, not frustrating.

In Mission Possible, Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academies – which are primary schools in challenging neighbourhoods in New York City – talks about their belief that children are ‘short, not stupid.’ She passionately argues that if we think they can’t, then our expectations are too low. We simply must expect more from all children – the higher our expectations, the more likely children are to rise to them. If we know all children individually and work with them and their families closely, I am confident all children can catch up and achieve academically. Yes, all children – which brings me on to point three.

 

3. Limitless potential

I know a lot has changed in the ten years I’ve worked in education, but I’ll never forget being given a bottom set year 10 towards the start of my career and being told: ‘we don’t expect them to get Cs so don’t worry too much about what you do with them.’ I have been told by colleagues in other schools that ‘some children won’t get there,’ or ‘an E is a tremendous achievement for a student like that.’

I don’t believe that. In the aforementioned bottom set, a girl was sent down from set 4 on day one of year 10. She was devastated, and told me: ‘that means I’m thick Miss.’ Luckily, she was also hugely resilient and fiercely driven. She and her sister – also in set 5 – badgered me for extra work and completed it. Both girls achieved A grades. Another student I taught who coped with huge traumatic change in year 11 (including, but not limited to, her entire family relocating four hours away, and staying on her friend’s sofa for the duration of her GCSEs) achieved a B grade. Another, apathetic and heading for failure, was blessed with a mother who forced her to attend intervention (I will always remember her phone going off, and me being so shocked that she answered it, but then her handing me the mobile and saying: ‘tell my Mum where I am please’) and supported the school to such an extent I really think it is her who managed to get her child a B and not an E, as she was predicted.

And I have seen the reality of failure. One student in year 11, barely literate, told me with pride about how ‘we’ve had so many amazing teachers.’ He went on to list seven or ten names of teachers, none currently at the school. When he left the room, the teaching assistant confided that all of these teachers had been long-term (or short-term) supply, and many were not ‘amazing’ as he had so sweetly said. In another school, I remember having to tell the kindest boy that he couldn’t come to our sixth form – he had not passed any of his subjects, and we had no provision suitable for him. He looked up at me, someone who was meant to guide and care for him, and said, tears in his eyes: ‘what do I do now?’

In both those cases, these were year 11 boys who had been let down by us. In both cases, the schools had been taken over and turned around in the time they had been there by inspirational headteachers who are a credit to our profession. But in both cases, that change came too late.

There is a tremendous benefit of a new start school. No child will ever be in the position of the two boys above, because we can focus on the incoming year 7s and make sure they never fall so far behind. That is a luxury other schools do not have. At Ark Soane Academy, there is no reason why every single child cannot succeed and achieve academically.

 

As this year goes on, I’m going to chart the journey of setting up a new school. If you like what you’ve read, we’ll be recruiting our founding teachers from January 2020.

Responsive Teaching

It’s probably not going too far to say that an observation from Harry Fletcher-Wood altered my teaching in the most dramatic way possible. In 2012, he visited my classroom and offered feedback in the gentlest manner possible – with a series of questions: ‘do you think they were focused on the work? Do you think they can handle doing everything in groups? How did you make sure everyone was working? Was anyone opting out from learning? Do you think your weakest readers were also reading in their groups?’ It was through his eyes I saw that teaching everything through group work (as I had been trained and advised to) was not working, and was not going to work.

So it is no surprise to me that Harry can see what is happening in a classroom, see how to make it better, and then kindly suggest how teachers might make that leap. I can imagine no human better placed than he to be an Associate Dean at the Ambition Institute, a body that is working to improve classrooms across the country. I am ever in awe of his humility and constant drive to learn, despite his eminent authority in education, and his most recent book, Responsive Teaching, offers much to the development of our profession. 

The book opens with a typically humble introduction that identifies three main problems in the author’s past teaching practice: ‘assessment seemed to hinder learning, skills seemed more important than knowledge and Assessment for Learning seemed to be just a collection of techniques.’ He moves through addressing these problems, to considering how we can genuinely work out what children have learned and what they are struggling with, and how we can rebalance to ensure children learn both skill and knowledge in their subjects.

Each chapter follows a clear pattern: it outlines the problem, the evidence, the key principle, the practical tools to improve classroom practice, and then the words of individual teachers reflecting on their own practice in each area.

One of the key take-aways from me were the warnings against ‘extraneous cognitive load.’ I definitely need to think harder about paring my lessons down to ensure children are focusing on the crucial aspect, rather than being overloaded by material that is not yet essential for them. I also need to script model examples more frequently – students always need to see lots more of these than I ever think they do. As Fletcher-Wood writes: ‘Overcoming ambiguity by showing what success looks like seems to particularly benefit lower-attaining students.’

One further aspect of practice outlined in Responsive Teaching that I’d like to think more carefully about is student misconceptions. At Ark Elvin Academy where I’m doing my NPQH placement, a subject expert has listed key misconceptions for every lesson the teacher delivers. It’s an incredible resource for novice teachers, or those teaching out of specialism. I think this is a hugely worthwhile task. Perhaps a group of subject experts could club together to write ‘the book of English misconceptions’, for example?

As always, I could go on, and add more detail on what I learned from this book, but to avoid plagiarism I will simply recommend this book whole-heartedly.

Mission Possible

I started teaching in 2010, the same year the documentary Waiting for Superman came out. If you haven’t seen it, you should: it’s a polemic on the American school system, starring the Charter school superstars. You hear from Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, along with Michelle Rhee (ex Chancellor of Washington DC’s schools; proponent of performance pay) and the founders of the influential KIPP Charter Schools. The message of the documentary is that the school system is broken, but there are ways we can fix it.

When I first watched this documentary, I remember feeling that our school system was ‘at least not as bad as America’s.’ But I’ve come to see that working in London schools for eight years blinded me to the challenges of rural communities who cannot choose their school; schools who are dependent on one bus a day to transport children to it (making any kind of detention system extremely challenging to implement); the impact of grammar schools on student self-belief; and the funding of small-town secondaries.

But mostly, I’ve come to think that we probably are failing children, on a system-wide level, in a similar way. We don’t have the annual benchmarks of success, but in the schools where we have run the NGRT (a nationally standardised reading age test), the results have been damning. The amount of children not achieving a basic pass in English and Maths GCSEs at 16 is damning. And the number of children leaving school at 16 is damning. I remember being horrified about the ‘drop-out rate’ of American schools, thinking ‘at least we get everyone to the end.’ But 16 is not the end, so we don’t. In fact, allowing children to leave the school system at 16 (and I know colleges and apprenticeships exist and I know these have their benefits) is deeply troubling to me.

In this post, I’m not going to tackle these monumental system problems. I used to worry a lot about the education system, and what we could do to improve it. Now, I look at what we can do in schools to improve the lot of the children we work with, in spite of those poor systems (something The Teacher Gap has really convinced me of). And what Mission Possible does is to examine what goes on in a successful school, in this case the Success Academies in Harlem, New York.

The defining principle of the authors, shared by many in the charter movement, is that the quality of the school and the quality of the teachers are what make the difference to children’s results. The book opens with the impetus to make schools a ‘magical place’ to be, which I found an interesting word to use. While I wouldn’t prioritise some of what the authors consider important (notably, expensive trips and impressive classroom displays), I would totally agree with their other aim of encoding success for students so they want to come to school every day and succeed (and what is continual success in academics if not ‘magical’?).

The writers make much of the rigour of the curriculum, and the urgency required to ensure children catch up with their wealthier peers. Furthermore, the pages on letting children ‘do the thinking’ I ultimately agree with – not in terms of guessing answers or discovery learning, but certainly ensuring they do the bulk of the work in the lesson. In general we are moving, in so many schools, towards teacher-led lessons (something I wholeheartedly endorse); yet it is crucial this does not result in children sitting passively. It is too easy for children to tune their teachers out. Rather, our teaching must be continually asking students questions to ensure they work hard.

This book has helped to shift my thinking on parents. Of the two extremes on this view – shut parents out at the gates versus give parents autonomy to influence the day-to-day of school – I leaned in the past towards wanting parents to let teachers teach, smiling on from a distance. Yet this book is persuasive in the possibility of parents really transforming their child’s academic success. I’m always amazed by how much parents are willing to do to support their child’s learning if you only ask them.

The book also ranges over rigour, reading and pace, but the chief takeaway for me was on the professional development of teachers. Again, the authors implore us to focus on the adults, and begin by asking school leaders: how often do we fix the children when we should fix the adults? I’m certainly guilty of this: walking into a lesson and using non-verbals to remind the students of their teacher’s expectations, or even just standing there (when you’re senior enough), waiting for the class to behave perfectly and then leaving… Only for the class to immediately start to murmur again.

Instead, at Harlem Success, leaders practise live coaching. Instead of ‘fixing’ the children, the observers whisper to the teacher, or hand them a note (‘Ali is doodling; Tommy is looking out the window’) and then watch how the teacher ‘fixes’ their own classroom. They don’t intervene at all – or, with training teachers, they model the first two ‘fixes’ and then watch how the teacher does it. After the lesson, they feed back on how effective the teacher’s actions were and where they might improve. Doing this would require huge teacher buy-in, but I do think it would be far better for the overall quality of teaching.

The book goes into significantly more detail on teacher development, and I’d recommend reading it for those chapters alone. Although not everything in Mission Possible chimes with my beliefs, there is much to admire here.

The Teacher Gap

I think The Teacher Gap is the most important contribution to education this year. The book offers an incisive critique of what is wrong with the state of education, and then offers governments and school leadership teams concrete ways to fix it.

In the opening sentence of this book, the authors, Becky Allen and Sam Sims, note that ‘education is unique among the public services in its ability to propel people forward.’ At the heart of this is the notion that education is a public good, and the potential of a good education to transform lives. Yet, surveying education policy over the past several years, they note that many of these initiatives – Building Schools for the Future, school choice, class size – have little to no impact on student attainment. What does have an impact? Teacher quality. This is especially the case for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom a good teacher can make the ultimate difference in their educational attainment.

Despite this, improving the quality of teachers has ‘rarely, if ever, been a genuine priority for government.’ We can’t even hire enough teachers, let alone teachers with top credentials; let alone begin improving the ones we have. The answer to all of these conundrums, for Allen and Sims, is that ‘we need to give teachers a career worth having.’ This is two-fold: firstly, to professionally develop teachers so they get better at what they do each year, and secondly to manage workload so they remain in the workforce, improving each year.

Part of the joy of this book is that is balances out research (lots of it) with engaging personal narratives, so the numbers are given faces and feel familiar to readers. At the end of each chapter, instead of saying: ‘isn’t the status quo rubbish?’ the authors provide a series of ‘what we can do’ for schools, even without waiting for government policy to alter. This solutions-focused method makes the book, which could feel massively depressing, wonderfully uplifting.

There are too many learning points for me to list here without running to plagiarism, but the ones which seemed most vital to me in the contexts in which I have worked are:

  • Use anonymous surveys to know what teachers genuinely think.
  • Give new teachers ‘easier’ timetables, ensuring they teach (where possible) the same lesson to more than one year group (i.e. give them two year 7 classes) and have them only teach one subject; write their timetables and roomings first.
  • Develop CPD for experienced teachers with experienced teachers and use the peer effect to ensure this is appropriate, enjoyable, and low-stakes.
  • Implement teacher coaching.
  • The 8am to 4:30pm experiment: two weeks where no-one works beyond these hours. At the end, assess what the impact was of losing that extra work time, with a view to cutting more of what proved unnecessary to move working hours closer to this ultimate aim.

In a nutshell: teachers are really important to student success, and this is even more the case for disadvantaged students. We need to train them better, and we need to treat them better.

Making Kids Cleverer

David Didau’s most recent offering is his most compelling manifesto for closing the advantage gap yet. Making Kids Cleverer eloquently and persuasively asserts the worth of an academic education, and adds much to the current discourse. Brilliantly, Didau has not lost his connection with the classroom: so frequently in books written by non (-practising) teachers I find myself dubiously asking – ‘yes, but what about year 9 period 6 on a windy Friday?’ Not so with Didau.

The book’s power comes from the meticulous logic of its argument, developing from the initial question: ‘given the choice, who wouldn’t want to be cleverer?’ It is the coherence of this argument that propels this to being my favourite education read so far this year.

Although the central thesis of the book might be ‘more knowledge equals more intelligence,’ Didau adds crucial caveats: not all knowledge is equal; not all practice is equally effective.

One of the highlights of the book is the chapter on the purpose of education: schools, of course, can’t do everything. I found the idea that academic education is character education a revelation: we can (can we?) teach generic skills of hard work, perseverance and resilience… Or we can double up and make children learn really hard stuff, and lots of it, from which they will (hopefully) develop those character attributes along the way.

Although I loved the unpicking of what intelligence is along with the relationship between genetic inheritance and our environment, for me the most directly useful chapters were those on school culture. In particular, this book gave me a lot to think about in terms of motivation. Didau writes: ‘if students simply struggle they will learn to hate school.’ While struggle might be the optimal way for children to learn most, the reality of human psychology is that they simply will not choose to learn anything if they feel constantly defeated. Didau’s caution to ‘encode success’ prior to introducing those ‘desirable difficulties’ is something I’m taking into my practice explicitly from now on.

There is so much that is great in this book – from an exploration of the theories of ability grouping (Didau leans toward mixed ability and I find his argument challenges much of what I believe, in a good way) to how to move children beyond ‘just knowing stuff’. I would absolutely recommend this as a must-read for teachers.

Balance

I’ve not been a very balanced person in my life. A few years ago, I wrote a post about how I had approached teaching called ‘At What Cost?’ It was the start, for me, of a new way of thinking about education. I was sinking hours and hours and hours into my job, and although I was seeing benefits for the students, I was starting to wonder if it was possible to maintain.

Unfortunately, I continued to sink hours and hours into work after writing that post. Although I thought seriously about how to simplify teaching, and started writing about making teaching a sustainable profession for the long term, I was not living by those principles. Ironically, when I wrote the most about simplicity, I was putting in some of the longest hours of my teaching career: arriving at 6am, leaving at 7pm, and working weekends and holidays.

It’s true, not all of that time was focused on school work. Some of the ‘work’ I’ve lumped into those above hours and days was spent writing a blog, then writing a book (it is out in May and I am very excited), then writing book chapters or contributing to education groups or speaking at conferences. I was living a deeply unbalanced life.

At the time, one of my closest friends compared their calling to education with those called to other causes in history. Nelson Mandela, they liked to say, sacrificed his life for the cause he so believed in, and all for the greater good.

It is very hard to argue with Nelson Mandela.

And you know, if people want to be that teacher, that is absolutely fine. I started teaching the same year the documentary ‘Waiting for Superman’ came out. I saw teaching as a vocation too, and I saw my own life as merely the conduit for improving the lives of others.

The problem always comes when reality confronts the ideal.

I probably would have continued to sacrifice my life for my calling, had not a confluence of bad news in 2017 – personal and professional – led to me feeling like I had lost everything in my life. With the disruption of my career, I felt like I had lost all meaning.

For a long time I struggled with that meaninglessness and emptiness. I struggled to work out what to say in my blog, so I didn’t, or what to say at conferences, so I didn’t.

And then I got used to a new balance. I got used to getting to work at half 7, and leaving at 4, or 5 at the latest. And never working weekends. And not even checking work email on holidays.

For a while, that made me feel empty too.

The me of five years ago would have filled that emptiness with work. But instead I recognised, at long last, that I needed to fill that emptiness in other ways. Here’s what I did instead.

I read more fiction. I went to the theatre. I met up with friends. I invested in my relationships with people. I got a dog. I wrote for myself, not for other people. I enrolled in a creative writing class. I auditioned for an amateur dramatic society. I called my parents more.

Put bluntly, I got a life outside work.

So I haven’t written a lot on this blog for a very long time, but that’s ok, because I haven’t had much to say that I haven’t said in my forthcoming book (please read it).

I’m starting to find balance, and I’m here to tell you it is a lovely way to live.