Bedford Free School: knowledge and discipline

‘We believe that, given the right circumstances, all children are capable of extraordinary things.’

So reads the wall in the reception of Bedford Free School. The school was established in 2012, and has been working out exactly what those ‘right circumstances’ are. Last year, for example, under the previous Principal, Mark Lehain, the school introduced silent corridors. It is hard to imagine the peaceful halls of the school otherwise, but the children have taken to them well, and are grateful for the ‘calm’ atmosphere. One year 10 who showed me around said: ‘it’s great, because we get 50 minutes of learning in every 50 minute lesson with the silent entry.’

Across the school, and including in cover lessons, behaviour is exemplary. One class’s teacher employed Doug Lemov’s ‘do it again’ technique to line up her class anew outside when there was ‘some silliness’ on the stairs (standing in the stairwell, I heard nothing). Standards are very high here. Executive Principal Stuart Lock tours the school, asking of teachers his trademark: ‘is everything to your satisfaction, sir/miss?’ to provide a supportive climate for teachers.

Bedford’s context is unusual: a commuter town to London in part, it is said that a larger than average number of children attend long-established private schools. The intake of state schools in Bedford, therefore, doesn’t always reflect the full demographics of the area.

Apart from behaviour, I was struck by the knowledge focus of the school. All children carry ‘100% books’, which contain knowledge maps collating the core knowledge of each subject. These are referred to, used, and tested across subject lessons. In History, pupils began their lesson by filling in a partially blanked-out knowledge map, allowing the teacher to assess their recall. In Art, pupils completed a knowledge-based end of unit exam, where they were asked to identify paintings and techniques, among other aspects. In Science, I saw a teacher going over a recent exam practice paper, re-teaching questions the class had struggled with.

The school is increasingly using booklets like these in English to ensure pupils’ focus is on the text and linked questions, and this has led to remarkable consistency across classrooms. The writing in these booklets is supplemented by work in their books.

Bedford Free School have a generous approach to guests, offering for me to take away any booklets I saw. (‘All we ask is that you send them back to us if you make any improvements so we can all improve!’)

Every pupil reads for 30 minutes a day in what the school calls ‘DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time’, but which is improved immeasurably by having the whole class read a text together with a teacher, thus ensuring all pupils are held accountable to be reading during this time, and no child can just stare into space. This also ensures the pupils are constantly being exposed to high quality texts, improving both their literacy and their cultural literacy.

In addition to academics, the school day is structured using ‘electives’ built into the timetable, so every child enjoys extra-curricular activities. Incredibly, last year 92% of pupils at the school participated competitively in a school sports team, despite the fact that the school cannot host matches due to its lack of facilities.

As with all the best schools I have visited, the focus is on relentless improvement, and there is no complacency. Stuart and his team are working hard each day to tweak the conditions to ensure every pupil at Bedford Free School can achieve their full potential.

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Great Yarmouth Charter Academy: Hotspot of Hope

About twenty minutes walk from Great Yarmouth train station is a school where every child will greet a visitor with a smile and a ‘good morning miss!’ It is a school where children will merrily chat about their learning. Where they are relentlessly polite, happy and friendly. Where they are proud of their school.

At the same school, teachers are encouraged to ‘lecture’ while children listen. They are unfrazzled. No one is racing anywhere. They are relentlessly happy and excited about what is happening to their school.

And so they should be. Because last year, 21 of every 30 children who attended the school did not get even a 4 in English and Maths. Behaviour was out of control. ‘Last year nearly broke me,’ said one teacher.

It is the last week of November. How on earth has new Headteacher Barry Smith managed to put in place this much change in less than two half terms?

‘It had transformed within two weeks,’ one teacher tells me. Barry spent the inset days modelling exactly what he wanted all teachers to do: I would have loved to see the teachers, filed into rows in the dining hall, being taught to SLANT by him. They worked through their own distinct ‘Being Charter’ booklet on behaviour expectations just as the children would when they arrived later in the week.

Barry roams the school during lessons. Even children on their way to isolation are polite, making eye-contact and calling him ‘sir.’ There are three children in isolation when I visit that afternoon.

Teachers are effusive in their praise of his leadership. They explain to me something I saw a lot when I worked with Barry at Michaela: he ‘bigs teachers up’ in front of the kids (‘sir, where did you go to university again? Cambridge? Wow – lucky kids!’) He is the heart and soul of the school.

But it’s not personality that has transformed Great Yarmouth Charter – it is systems. Barry has introduced a simple behaviour system, and works tirelessly to ensure all teachers follow it consistently. As a result, children across year groups and subjects are listening, focusing, learning. Their books are consistently beautifully presented, and work is always neat. They are silent, or very close to it, at every transition, even when no teacher is present. In the lunch hall, when one member of staff puts their hand up, 300 year 10 and 11 students put their hands up and are silent, including midway through eating lunch for an important announcement.

The best thing about great behaviour is that it frees children up to be excited about learning. Over lunch, a year 11 buzzed as she told me her favourite Shakespeare play (Much Ado About Nothing), and she and her friends spontaneously debated culpability in An Inspector Calls. Outside Miss Rizvi’s Maths classroom, year 8s beamed that they ‘knew all the squared numbers off by heart,’ and proceeded to chant them with their teacher’s blessing.

At the centre of all this marches Barry Smith, flanked by a host of other Barry Smith sound-alikes (teachers encourage kids continually using classic Smith-isms: ‘looking smart,’ ‘looking sharp’, ‘smart as a dart’). Teachers are unremittingly positive: ‘we can see the effects of the behaviour systems,’ one told me, ‘we can actually teach here now.’ Yet there is no complacency – several times during the day, several teachers and leaders said: ‘this is just the beginning. There is so much to do.’

One Teach Firster in his second year was glowing; in his element after a tough first year battling behaviour. I asked what his plans were – would he stay in teaching?

‘Yes,’ came the reply, without hesitation. And then, unprompted: ‘I want to stay here. Something really special is happening here right now.’ It would be madness to disagree.

The Path to Wisdom

At the risk of opening with a lamentable cliché, the older I grow the less I know. More and more, I’m questioning old paradigms, not only in my work, education, but also in life.

Take, for example, the paradigm of sincerity. It is an accepted truism that we must be true to ourselves: old Polonius’ ‘to thine own self be true’ could hardly be more frequently quoted (and we conveniently forget the rest of his advice is brushed off as the witterings of an old ditherer). How about fixing our difficult relationships: we tend to want to have a heart-to-heart, ‘this changes everything’ conversation.

But what if there was a different way?

Michael Puett’s The Path: a new way to think about everything takes ancient Chinese wisdom and reveals its use in the modern world. He notes the ‘unhappiness, narcissism and anxiety surging in the developed world’ and suggests an Eastern alternative. Instead of prizing sincerity, Chinese philosophers emphasise: ‘honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation so eventually we would act in the right, ethical way.’ For them, artifice is crucial: we would not want to say everything that comes into our heads, and nor should we.

Puett talks about everyday rituals, such as the response to ‘how are you’ being ‘fine, how are you?’ This ritual is important: it establishes a connection quickly, and allows us to move on. We are learning to behave in a socially appropriate way all the time. The most notable example of this is the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We first learn these words as a rote act, and they are largely meaningless to the toddlers who respond automatically to Mum’s ‘what do you say?’ But over time, this rote act evolves, and we come to genuinely feel grateful to others. Puett reminds us that we construct new realities with such white lies all the time: couples say ‘I love you’ when they don’t necessarily feel that loving nurtures the relationship and improves it, allowing their love to grow with this ritual.

Our lives are patterned by such rituals, and our behaviour is the inheritor of them. Instead of saying: ‘it’s just the way I am: I’m a very angry/emotional/sad person,’ you should recognise that you have slipped into ‘patterns of behaviour’ over time, and you have the power to change those patterns. Why do some of us revert to our teenage selves around our parents? Patterns of behaviour. But we can change ourselves and our relationships. How? By focusing on each daily moment. If we change how we ‘live our lives on a daily basis,’ we can alter our lives for good.

A large part of this is in staying in touch with our emotions, while not letting them rule us. Puett notes: ‘you will not mend a troubled relationship with your sister by sitting down for a single big breakthrough heart-to-heart talk. It will happen instead through the tiny decisions you make about how to behave and respond every time you talk.’ So, next time she pushes your buttons, instead of responding, think: ‘I’m feeling anger right now. But if I can put that emotion aside and respond in a kind way, I can change this interaction.’ We can even acknowledge our emotions in a heated exchange to help clarify what is going wrong: ‘I’m responding in an angry way because I’m feeling threatened by what you are saying. But you are not trying to threaten me, so let me understand what you mean.’ If we can take control of our emotions, and then our responses, we won’t be buffeted by the events of life to happiness and sadness, but can instead cultivate ‘balance and alignment, or an inner stability.’

Puett compares the Protestant world view, so pervasive today, that the world ultimately has order and sense with the philosopher Mencius’ view that the world is capricious: ‘hard work would not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds would not necessarily be punished.’ He believes that if we fail to respond to the changing world, we ‘die in shackles.’ Our reactions can’t be controlled by the things that happen to us. Again, a micro, daily focus is helpful here: instead of saying: ‘who am I?’, which is something always shifting and changing, or ‘how should I plan my life?’ which is open to similar flux, we need to move our focus to alter things on a small, interaction by interaction level.

And this is why artifice is intensely helpful. We get further in life by employing artifice. If you march into work, bringing your mood with you, you infect everyone you meet with your anger and upset. As adults, we have self-control, and we can grow our self control. As teachers, we are artificial ever single day, and many is the day I’ve woken up tired and grumpy, to plaster a smile on my face and ‘get through the day,’ only to end a teaching day feeling genuinely delighted. Pretending to be happy is the surest route to happy I know of. Similarly, the ‘deliberate training’ of a pianist, the artificial scales and arpeggios, is what leads to the ‘joyful freedom’ of the concert pianist.

This way of thinking is vital for schools: ‘our habits limit what we can see, access and know.’ Our children with least self-control must be taught self-control. They must be taught how to behave, and over time they will internalise it. Telling a child to say ‘thank you’ for a lesson might feel artificial, but over time gratitude grows from the external appearance of gratitude. Telling children to sit up straight and ‘track’ the speaker might feel horribly controlling, but over time this artificial habit becomes a real habit, and one that will stand them in excellent stead when they have marathon attention-spans that will enable them to argue at length in law courts, parliamentary debates, and focus throughout complex surgical procedures.

Puett writes: ‘in this fractured and fragmented world, it’s up to us to generate order.’ This is true of ourselves, and also true of our schools. The world is a messy place, and if our children are going to thrive in it, they need to understand how to control themselves and their emotions, and learn the habits that will allow them to succeed.

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Starting at Michaela

Starting at Michaela is unlike any other school I have started at. In the three other schools I have started at, in my first lesson I have introduced myself, told them a bit about myself (especially if I have a position of any clout) and where I’ve worked before (showing them I’m not a newbie and won’t be walked over), stamped my authority on the class as kindly as I could (in particular, showing them I know the behaviour system) and then just done what I do. I’ve taught as I’ve always taught, improving incrementally each year (I hope).

In a first week at Michaela, there must be three hundred new things to learn every day. Some examples: all teachers say ‘3-2-1 and slant.’ No child does anything until you say: ‘go.’ Each lesson begins with children handing out books; this takes ten seconds and you count it down. Every second of every lesson is used; routines are meticulous to ensure this happens and everyone uses the routines. This, for me, has been the hardest part: on top of learning 240 names (the expectation is that every teacher knows every child’s name), you’re always thinking about the systems that others have long since automated. It is hard.

But necessary. Because what you don’t need to do when starting at Michaela, even mid-year, is stamp your authority on children. Children will happily file in absolutely silently, wait for all your cues, and do exactly as you say. Within 30 seconds on Monday, I was teaching my first Michaela lesson. Contrast this with the first lesson I ever taught: asking a colleague what I should do, she replied: ‘well, you have to give them their books. So you won’t have much time after that.’

Behaviour is so good I am having to fine tune my radar. Demerits are given for infringements than at any of my past schools would have gone unnoticed: turning around slightly, leaning over instead of sitting straight or not ‘tracking’ the page or me. Demerits are given publically and quickly: ‘Hayder, that’s a demerit for not tracking. We listen so we can learn.’ And the pupils’ response? So far, for each demerit I have given, pupils have responded by desperately trying to get back into my good books: sitting up straighter, putting their hand up more, writing faster, trying harder. They don’t sulk; they don’t argue back. They want to do the right thing; the demerit is the reminder to meet the sky-high standards.

Teaching, something that takes up 59 minutes of every Michaela hour, is a joy. With 100% focus, we get a lot done. I am constantly being given feedback to ‘speed up’ my teaching. Previously, I’ve been told: ‘slow down – they don’t get it.’ I’m starting to think that pupils didn’t ‘get it’ because they weren’t listening. Their behaviour and habits were such that I had to go over and over key concepts to ensure they understood. Every moment is used, and the pupils expect this. On packing up my last reading group of the week at 4:29pm, saying how much I enjoyed reading with them, I noticed no-one had closed their books. One pupil raised their hand and, eyes shining, said: ‘we still have one minute! Can we keep reading?’ A dozen nodding heads agreed. We read on.

I’ve been observed a lot – at least once a day, sometimes twice. Sometimes it is someone wandering in the back for five minutes; sometimes they stay for the full hour, usually bringing their own work to get on with at the same time. I’m given written feedback immediately, meaning I can put it into practice in the next hour. There are no grades. There are two, maybe three, small action points (‘narrate when you give a merit.’ ‘When you parse the sentence, start with the nouns and verbs, not the first word.’ ‘Don’t ask them an open question they can’t answer.’ ‘Don’t say “we shouldn’t be.” Say “We don’t.” Should suggests people are going to defy that expectation.’) The feedback has felt incredibly supportive.

What has also felt incredibly supportive is the response of the pupils. On my first day, children were thanking me for my lesson with beaming grins as they exited. Then came family lunch, where I sat with pupils whose names I could not remember, as they told me how much they were enjoying poetry. By the end of the week, pupils I taught were telling me: ‘my friend thinks you’re a great form tutor.’ I have never had such positive feedback in my life, and it makes me love each lesson all the more. At one moment on Wednesday, I looked at the clock: 12:20pm, ten minutes to lunch, and I actually felt sad. I felt a deep sadness that my lesson was nearly over. I desperately wanted to keep going. Similarly, on Thursday evening, I asked my other half if it was ‘Thursday or Friday tomorrow?’ He looked bemused: ‘Friday!’ It didn’t feel like the end of the week. Even this first week, which has to be the toughest, I could have kept going.

Teachers work hard at Michaela. We teach intensely, making every moment count. We have lots of duties, maximising the time we are with pupils. We are reminded to engage the pupils at break time and lunch time: they are our top priority. We have lunch together every day, talking and chatting with them. And yet teachers do not work late: the work is intense, but manageable; with pre-planned resources, my own ‘planning’ can be done on half a post-it note, and most of that is reminding me to give the books out.

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What has surprised me most? The noise. It can be loud. If more than half the class have their hands up to give you a one-word answer (‘what poetic technique is this?’), you get a choral response: ‘one two three:’ ‘ALLITERATION!’ Thirty-two children shouting an answer is loud. This happens several times in everyone’s lessons. Lining up ready for lunch, children are chanting poems they have learned by heart, speeches, times tables or subject chants, in unison. It is loud. They love it. The looks on their faces are joyful to behold.

These are normal kids. But they are exceptional. And at Michaela, a normal teacher like me can begin to feel exceptional too.

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Challenges to a ‘mastery’ curriculum

In my role this term, I’ve been implementing a knowledge-led mastery curriculum across all subjects, following the thoughts of great educationalists like E.D. Hirsch to shape students’ learning around core knowledge to increase their social and cultural capital and ensure they can access the greatest number of choices in their future lives.

So far, the three greatest challenges to implementing this kind of curriculum have been the concerns of SEN and EAL students, along with behaviour.

SEN

My school has a very high percentage of pupil premium students, and it is the peculiar case that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to be diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) than their wealthier peers. Our school certainly has an extensive SEN list.

Now, while I am not an SEN expert, I do tend to the view that, as it seems unlikely that poor children are just predisposed to having special educational needs, there must be something else at play to explain the higher numbers on the SEN registers of schools serving economically deprived communities. Partly, I wonder if this is just one symptom of the wider knowledge and practice gap between our students and their more advantaged peers, diagnosed and labeled to be worked around.

Whatever the root cause, there can be no doubt that there are certain children who take much longer to learn stuff – any stuff. Try to teach all children incredibly rigorous material, and these children in particular will struggle. I don’t think that is an issue – struggle is the very stuff of learning, after all. But there is the inescapable issue of time: if these students will take longer to learn, how to we ensure we allow them the same space to master core content?

One solution is to focus the curriculum offer, giving more time to the key subjects (like humanities, science, English and maths) to ensure these students have time to truly master the key subjects. It is a point of contention at what stage such a focus should take place – is it in the early years of KS3, to drench them in the basics and catch them up, or should they have equal access to all subjects at KS3 and narrow at KS4 in preparation for the exams?

In general, I would advocate focusing sooner, as the latter can tend to lead to students pushed through a clutch of technical qualifications in an attempt to ensure they leave school with something they can use later in life. Too diffuse a subject offer at KS3 for these subjects means some will continue to struggle, and even fail, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of lack of buy-in.

EAL

The second challenge to consider in our school’s particular context is its EAL students. We have a particularly high number of new arrivals, and a phenomenal job is done by the EAL team with these.

But there are students who still really struggle with the basics of communication in English. As one teacher told me, ‘to allow one student to access the lesson, her TA has to look up the words in Portuguese just so she can answer the questions – in Portuguese. What is the point in her learning a nineteenth century novel?’

I have much sympathy with this view. Of course, we would like all our EAL students to miraculously pick up perfect English just by sitting in mainstream lessons, but there might need to be a smarter solution for these students.

It also depends how much time they have before their all-important exams; clearly a student in year 7 can struggle through the year and probably make enormous progress in mainstream lessons, where a new arrival in year 10 or 11 might need alternative curriculum provision to ensure they are not drowning in syntax.

Behaviour

The greatest and widest-ranging challenge to a mastery curriculum is behaviour, because behaviour affects every teacher and every student in a school. If in the past I was guilty of delivering lessons with too much group work and student independent research, this was partly because it was incredibly difficult to deliver to a class that you couldn’t reach silence with. In that circumstance, in my early years as a teacher, I believed it was better to teach them something than to have a complete riot with nothing being learned.

But I know now that I failed those children in many ways. We do not have time to waste – the gap is too large, the stakes too high. These children do not have time for guessing, for card-sorts, for making posters with their friends. They need to read, write, and learn.

Delivering a lesson which is composed of reading, questioning and silent writing is not easy with students who are used to a variety of engaging activities which allow them a quiet word with their friends. A year 11 student only recently reminded me ‘I’m doing the work while I’m talking!’ when challenged, as if to say that as long as their pen was near the paper they were fine to not be 100% engaged with the lesson. (I firmly disagreed with the student, for the record.)

The major concern with implementing a rigorous knowledge curriculum is that the people who deliver it, especially NQTs, teachers who are new to the school or trainee teachers, all run the risk of immense challenge from students who have grown accustomed to lessons which are part learning, part social time.

To be able to deliver effectively to children, for them to really engage with and reflect on the knowledge they are learning, for them to learn enough in a short enough time to close the gap, behaviour must be absolutely impeccable. And if it isn’t, that has to be the number one priority to allow mastery to take place.