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.

How do Success Academies achieve such exceptional results?

In Robert Pondiscio’s brilliant book, How the Other Half Learns, readers gain a real insight into the workings of the Success Academies through an in-depth look at one school year in Bronx 1, one of their primary schools. In this post, I’m going to explore Pondiscio’s writing in an attempt to draw out what makes Success Academies so, well, successful. And before we think about the “they choose their children” argument so often levelled at successful schools, I will quote the author: “While critics frequently attribute Success Academy’s results to systematically weeding out low-performing students, it would be hard to get anywhere near these targets, even if you hand-selected each child. Success Academy outperforms New York City’s gifted and talented schools, which actually do handpick their students.” Success’s results are astronomical: on state standardised tests, the network averages 95% proficiency in Maths and 84% in English, far above even the state’s most selective schools. For me the key learning points that shine through Pondiscio’s book are:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Teaching, and the leadership of teaching
  3. Parents

 

  1. Curriculum

The narrowing impact on the curriculum of national tests is something we in the UK can readily engage with. Pondiscio describes low-income children’s “starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music” as their teachers prioritise a narrow range of skills to pass state tests (the irony being that a more narrow curriculum drilled tightly to the test tends to have the opposite impact on scores). The impact of the Common Core, introduced in 2013, saw depressed results across the board as children’s lack of a broad curriculum experience emerged – in all except Success Academies. This attests to Success’s rich, rigorous and broad academic curriculum. Success employs a common, shared curriculum across its schools, meaning that their teachers focus instead on “intellectual prep”: i.e., how they will deliver the lesson to their specific children. One of my favourite sentences in the book is this: “once children can decode a piece of text fluently, a reading test is hardly a reading test at all; it is functionally a test of background knowledge.” The Success curriculum is a knowledge rich curriculum.

 

  1. Teaching: behaviour management and teacher instruction

Behaviour is always a priority at Success, and this is quantified for rigorous follow-up. The SLT talk about “deliverables”: children are expected to be on-task 95% of the time; teachers are expected to notice and correct off-task behaviour 100% of the time; teachers should be able to de-escalate challenging behaviour 85% of the time. Why is behaviour so key? Pondiscio writes: “Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their… less engaged peers”.

The culture of learning at Success emphasises what Doug Lemov calls “ratio” – putting the learning onto the children. Teachers at Success are repeatedly described as creating situations for children to grapple with difficult concepts, even from a very young age. One teacher in Pondiscio’s book advises that: “one of the most dangerous mindsets to my mind is ‘it’s too much, you are all doing too much, it’s too hard on them’… Kids are so resilient.” Later, another teacher concerned about her class’s poor performance brings in all the parents for a meeting, telling them: “we will never lower that bar because it’s too hard. We will figure out other paths to get to the destination.”

 

2a. Leadership of teaching

Coupled with these foci is the amount of time invested by leaders in observing and improving teaching. SLT conduct daily “walk-throughs”, giving feedback by email or in the moment (I wrote about this live coaching in my previous Success post, Mission Possible). The principal ensures their SLT are united in their approach, conducting joint walk-throughs initially and asking for their thoughts to check that everyone is looking for the same things ( “what did you see?” – “I want to see that you’re noticing the same things I’m noticing”; “what [feedback] would you prioritise?”) This culture is led from the very top – Eva Moskowitz herself visits Success Academies frequently, and her feedback as described is rooted deeply in her values and ethics: “you’ve got to ask yourself, Would you have your child in that classroom?” The job of the principal at Success is to focus “entirely on instruction, student data, and outcomes” – all operational issues are delegated to a specific, high ranking individual.

 

  1. Parents

By far the greatest learning for me in this book, as with Mission Possible, was around parents. Pondiscio puts it superbly: “Among education reform advocates, there is a regrettable tendency to view urban communities through a lens of dysfunction… ‘Schools should not expect much from parents at all,’ the founder of one national charter school network told me… Success Academy’s relationship with its parents suggests precisely the opposite view. The network makes significant demands of parents, assumes significant leverage, and makes no discernable negative assumptions about parents’ ability to contribute materially to their children’s education. Very little in the network’s expectations, for good or for ill, suggests a view of low-income parents as any less capable and competent than affluent ones.”

Throughout his book, we learn of the almost constant contact with parents and the logistics of how this works. Teachers call, text and email frequently, and daily during important testing preparation periods, about children’s progress, behaviour, or test scores. We are treated to a blow-by-blow account of a parent meeting, where the teacher explains the minutiae of the school day to ensure parents understand why she is asking for what she is asking for, along with offering to support them in any way they need (“You need more stickers? Just ask! You need more cubes, tiles, index cards? Just ask, ask, ask. We’re happy to give you anything you need to support your child at home”). Just as teachers have “deliverables,” so do parents: “97% of students present, 96% on time, 97% in uniform, 97% of homework completed.” Pondiscio even describes a “parent report card”, which was received without argument.

The unavoidable trade-offs

Pondiscio does not shy away from the inevitable trade-offs required. Ultimately, we can’t do everything. He writes that we can either “attempt to serve all disadvantaged children equally and labour to close the achievement gap” or we can  “do all in our power to ensure that receptive and motivated students can reap the full benefit of their talents and ambitions because that is what’s just”. He notes that the latter is what well-off families secure for their own children. Exposing a second moral quandary, he asks: “when a school or teacher fails to engage or manage disruptive behaviour, children are cheated. But who, exactly? The disruptive child who is suspended and excluded from class? Or the diligent student whose education bleeds away hour after hour while her teacher responds to antisocial outbursts or focuses on her classmate to prevent them? The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.” Pondiscio does not cover all the trade-offs, however, and I would have liked the author to look more into the high staff turnover at Success.

Ultimately, Success exemplifies the Charter movement: exceptional achievement, at a cost not everyone is willing to pay: “her methods may not work in all schools, and not all parents would want to send their child to a Success Academy even if they could.” Me? I’m totally sold. I would send my children to Success in a heartbeat, as the CEO Eva Moskowitz herself does. Now, to find out how to visit…

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.

Glass Ceilings

I’ve mentioned before: Glass Ceilings is my favourite education read so far this year. And that’s not because I agree with every page, because I don’t. The book is inspiring and thought-provoking in equal measure.

When I started teaching, a film came out called Waiting for Superman. Again, I don’t agree with everything in it – but I still think it is a superb documentary. Both that film and this book showcase American charter schools, fighting against unthinkable odds to send children from the poorest backgrounds to the best universities. In 2013, I got to visit Chicago and see some of these charter schools in action, and it profoundly changed what I believed was possible in education. I had always said: ‘all children can go to university,’ but I would never have had the gumption to say, as a classroom teacher, leader, or (I hope eventually) headteacher, ‘all these children in front of me now will go to university.’

The charter schools forge the path for us: they are beacons of hope, and reminders that we could and should do better. I’m not aware of a UK school serving a deprived community that has yet managed to admit 100% of its pupils to a university, and yet schools like this do exist stateside. Statistically speaking, they are vanishingly rare, and yet their very existence should shock us into believing that we can do better.

What Hall’s book does so beautifully is to look at what those schools are doing, and what we can learn from them. An interesting early thread for Hall is how traditional the teaching was when he visited the charter schools: he reports being shocked by the ‘didactic’ focus, along with the ‘amazing gains in outcomes.’ Interesting, when I visited charter schools – though I was fully mired in progressive practices myself – the classrooms simply seemed normal to me. I think the length of my teaching experience (then just 2 years) was outweighed by my own fortunate experience as a student in a traditional private school.

Hall’s take-aways from these visits, and his application of these to his own British context, makes for helpful reading: he saw relationships forming the cornerstone of strong behaviour systems, a whole-school insistence on ‘whole sentence answers’ supporting literacy, and, after meeting Rafe Esquith, a belief that what all children need is a ‘content-rich knowledge based curriculum.’ Hall’s personal story is told in a compelling narrative, oozing humility as it inspires.

But what this book really made me think of was that education is, in the end, about our values. After I finished this book, I revisited and edited some of the things I had written when I first became a senior leader in a school. They were my core mantras for children, and core mantras for staff. These are my values, and the values I would love the people I work with and work for to share.

For children:

  1. Education changes your destiny.
  2. Discipline now means freedom later in life.
  3. The more effort you put in, the more you will get.
  4. Politeness gets you where you want to go.

And for teachers:

  1. Children rise (or fall) to our expectations.
  2. Powerful knowledge changes lives.
  3. All children are essentially good – it’s their behaviour that sometimes is not.
  4. Tough standards for kids are loving.
  5. Success motivates.
  6. All kids can do all things.

And number six is really the core of it all. I couldn’t count the number of times Hall referred to the belief in all children to do all things. And that really made me think: do I still believe this? And does every teacher in my school believe this?

Because over time, this driving belief that all children can achieve academically is being gradually eroded. The more time I spend with the ‘edge-case’ children, the more children I see being excluded from schools, or simply refusing to attend school at all, the more children aged fifteen and sixteen I see who can barely write even one coherent sentence, the more I start to think: is it possible?

And yet we have to believe. Perhaps the key is wilful belief, against the evidence. Meeting up with a colleague recently, we argued about the extent to which a child’s genes determined their ability. When it came down to it, I said, it didn’t matter what evidence my colleague had – I just could not believe it and still do a good job. Perhaps we have to believe against all evidence to the contrary that it is possible.

Then what do we do? Working it out – that’s the hard part. But it has to start with belief.

Reach 2017

On Monday 23rd October, the first day of the October half term, hundreds of keen educators made their way to Feltham for Reach’s annual conference. The standard is always high, but I felt this year was a particular cracker.

 

NYC after No Excuses: Taylor Delhagen and Mark Lehain

There were two ‘no excuses’ sessions in the first slot: one from Peter Jones, the head of Paddington Academy, on how employing no excuses discipline turned behaviour around in his school, and the other from Delhagen on how he turned his back on no excuses towards a more restorative approach. My overwhelming take away from this was Lehain’s respectful challenge to some of Delhagen’s remarks. Delhagen was a Teach for America whiz kid who was made a Head early on, but grew disenchanted with ‘no excuses’ after seeing the number of children ‘lost’ by that system. Delhagen is a man with a clear mission and morality: he repeatedly asked us ‘where do those children go?’ and reminded us that ‘those children are someone’s problem.’ I don’t think any proponents of ‘no excuses’ discipline I know would disagree. He described as ‘utilitarian’ the challenge that if you do not exclude one child for bringing in a weapon to school, other children will receive the message that this is acceptable, and shared the story of one child at his school, who, after bringing in a weapon, was subject to restorative justice. The child, her parents, parents from the community and other children sat in a circle, and the child could hear the impact her actions had on others. Following this, the child remained in school and succeeded in attending a top university.

A lovely story, of course. And of course schools should not be blindly excluding children. But I don’t think they are. Exclusion is always a difficult call, and the schools that I know do everything they can to ensure all children are included in their communities. But there have to be red lines, and I suspect even Delhagen has them. The child in the story brought in a weapon for her own safety; had she used it on a pupil or member of staff, I suspect the ending would have been very different.

Exclusion does not exclude the possibility of the child understanding the impact their actions have had, and tough sanctions do not prevent conversations and explanations of why their behaviour is unacceptable.

 

The School Improvement Conundrum: Chris Fairbairn, Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs and Clare Sealy

I am ever in awe of Headteachers, and this panel was simply 45 minutes of inspiration. Chris spoke of his experience at Burlington Danes in West London, detailing how seeing first hand the extraordinary transformation executed by Dame Sally Coates had made him believe that ‘change is possible.’ He also spoke of working in two schools prior to headship as helping him to be able to work out what his values were: at Burlington Danes, they did not just focus on results, but also serving the community and creating a great culture for children to learn in. He spoke of challenging entrenched low expectations at his school, Totteridge Academy, a theme he picked up in more depth in his later session.

I had never heard Clare Sealy speak, but her honesty and no-nonsense approach immediately endeared her to me. She outlined being ‘thrown into headship’ with humility, playing down her personal strengths and insisting people liked her ‘because the head before had been mad.’ She was honest about her evolution, saying she had been a phonics sceptic before visiting another school and seeing the impact, and subsequently changing her mind, and suggested that the best headteachers are open-minded to change.

Lydia agreed with Clare, and said the best CPD she had organised was to take a bus-load of her MAT’s headteachers to an excellent school so everyone could see first hand what was possible. She spoke about school improvement ‘beginning and ending with the head’, who needs a strong vision shared by the whole team – including the children.

 

Reach Academy’s First GCSE results – Rebecca Cramer

I always love hearing Rebecca speak – she is the epitome of honesty and humility. This summer, the education world watched in awe as Reach’s first class received extraordinary results, with all but one child achieving a 4 or above in English and Maths. They prioritise academic subjects: 95% of children were entered for the EBacc. Yet Cramer’s speech was focused almost entirely on the mistakes they had made, and what Reach had learned from those mistakes – there is no room for complacency here. Rebecca noted that the new exams had been an advantage, as teachers avoided complacency: they knew it would be tougher, and so did the children. Reach’s small cohort lends itself to mixed ability teaching, and the team are focused on how to stretch top achievers as a result, laying on ‘master classes’ (‘dine for a nine’) and working on injecting more challenge into their Key Stage 3 curriculum (‘teaching excellence beats teaching to the test’).

It is hard to pick out the most useful advice without running to a thousand words on this talk alone, so I will briefly summarise some key take-aways:

  • Don’t run revision until January of Year 11, after their mocks have scared them into working harder. Otherwise, they will burn out and so will you
  • Set grade boundaries in mock exams higher than you think to avoid complacency
  • Relationships are the most important thing – invest in those
  • Focus on every child – not just the loud ones

I loved the idea of a parent and child assembly after the mock exams, after which children are handed their results in an envelope and they ‘feel really sad.’ What Reach do with parents is unparalleled in the state sector, and I look forward to hearing more about how they have engaged them so effectively.

 

In at the deep end: Chris Fairbairn

I was lucky enough to visit Chris at Totteridge Academy in Barnet before half term. It was the day after open evening, and most staff had been at the school late. Yet that morning there was a feeling of elation in the school. As Chris took me around, teachers would stop him to gush: ‘that was the best open evening ever. I can’t believe how different the school is.’ This is after only one year in post. In 2016, 50 parents attended their open evening. This year, it was 450. News is spreading, and a huge amount is down to Chris’s leadership. The school’s progress 8 score improved from -0.45 to +0.32 this year, and the old measure of 5 A*-C including English and Maths was up by 27%.

Chris said the turn-around was down to three main aspects: the power of high expectations, building a reputation, and hard work. He spoke of a staff turnover of 43% and 13 fixed term exclusions in the first week as really setting the tone for higher expectations for both staff and students, all set in the context of a school that had significantly underperformed for decades in the community. The quotation: ‘worry about your character, not your reputation. Character is who your are, and your reputation is who people think you are’ spoke to the core of what Chris does: he draws on deep integrity to make people follow him into battle. This sense of moral purpose is combined with savvy know-how, as he shared some top tips for maximising results with his first year 11 cohort, as he knew they would be a big driver of the school’s success. Chris mentioned two pieces advice from his aforementioned mentor, Dame Sally Coates, which are well worth repeating: ‘surround yourself with amazing people’ (he has done) and, when tough choices need to be made, ‘always go back to what is best for the children.’ I can’t wait to see what happens at Totteridge next.

 

How we approach primary curriculum design – Jon Brunskill

I always love hearing Jon speak – he is full of self-deprecating humour and intelligence in almost equal measure. For every unit at Reach primary, teachers must think: ‘what do I want every single child to know by the end of the unit?’ I can think of no better place to start. Jon says this normally consists of a timeline, key tier 3 vocabulary and key concepts. A guiding principle is also ‘what would I expect intelligent adults to know?’ He uses this to create knowledge organisers that the children quiz on.

Jon drew on Kirschner’s work on long term memory, along with Hirsch’s assertion that background knowledge is the key to reading comprehension, to make a forthright argument about a knowledge-rich primary curriculum that is, frankly, inspirational. Noting that it was impossible to expect primary teachers to be experts in every subject, he recommended the Civitas books as a good place to start, along with the advice that primary teachers be honest about their subject knowledge, and read books to improve it.

Touching briefly on pedagogy, he noted: ‘we don’t do the carousel thing’ (where children teach each other in small groups having been given resources) – ‘if they don’t need a teacher to learn, what are they learning?’ All children end the unit by writing an end of unit essay, and the year 2 work Jon shared was really extraordinary. I can’t wait to see what the children taught his curriculum can do by the end of key stage 2.

 

What can the UK education system learn from other countries? – Lucy Crehan, Alex Beard, Taylor Delhagen, John Rendel

I charged my phone during the last two sessions, so my notes are far more limited. Overall, the message from this panel seemed to be: depressingly little. The consensus was that countries were more different than the same, and that politicians needed to be wary of bringing over whole-sale practices from other countries.

Lucy Crehan spoke of timetabling to allow teachers to specialise in particular year groups and to reduce workload, which I partially agree with – though I think, in the absence of a KS3 curriculum, if you don’t know where they need to be by A-levels or GCSEs this may be sub-optimal for pupils. She noted that part of a practice’s success or failure was also down to implementation, meaning we ought not to dismiss an idea which works well in another country just because we have failed to do it very well ourselves.

There seemed to be some concern about exporting ideas from the UK and USA to other countries for fear of ‘cultural imperialism.’ PISA was seen as a good measurement in general, but policy makers were criticised for over-extrapolating from PISA and using that data to sanction rather than support school systems. John Rendell, speaking about the unions, made the point that the public perception is that they put teachers before students: ‘teachers won’t be respected until they are seen as the protector of student learning and not teacher rights.’

 

New schools – success and failure – Oli de Botton, Max Haimendorf, Rebecca Cramer, Jenny Thompson, Charlie Kennard

As the leaders of these new schools stressed the challenges they had faced along with the successes they had enjoyed, I was amazed by the variation between schools even within one city. Rebecca spoke about undervaluing ‘operations’ early on, and recognising now how vital it is that, for example, the school photocopier works smoothly.

Listening to Max speak was a particular highlight. KSA opened in 2009, and it really was on its own then, doing something completely different. Max travelled to the US for inspiration, stealing the best of what he saw in Uncommon Schools and KIPP. He has stuck with his school for eight years, and despite consistently excellent results was keen to stress the mistakes he felt he had made. (‘Don’t start a school day at 7:55 and end it at 5pm. Some people will burn out.’) His reflections on staff wellbeing and retention, and his honesty in sharing with the room where he had got it wrong, was really extraordinary.

Rebecca started on the original KSA team, but decided for Reach to ‘go it alone’ without a Multi-Academy Trust to back them, and shared the benefits and the challenges this had brought, while Jenny Thompson talked about recruitment issues in Bradford and having to grow staff.

 

Coupled with these incredible talks were plenty of opportunities to catch up with education folk and meet new people. I’m not sure this short post can do the day justice – I will be thinking about what I learned at Reach for a long time to come.

Thoughts on ‘Cleverlands’ by Lucy Crehan

I have been excited about Lucy Crehan’s book for what seems like eons, and it does not disappoint. Unlike Amanda Ripley’s (also excellent) The Smartest Kids in the World, Crehan’s book has real direction and pulls together helpful strands, always with a focus on what we in the UK (or in the USA, as she makes frequent allusions to both countries) might learn from these successful systems. Crehan’s style also fuses strong, robust research with anecdote, all told in a witty and engaging style evoking a sense of a travelogue. 

Early on Crehan refers to her research as a ‘geeky gap year.’ Many teachers would surely envy her travels, but she does not shy away from evoking some of the tougher aspects of travelling from place to place, spending around a month in each country, teaching, observing, helping and discussing education.

There is much to be learned from almost all of the countries explored by Crehan, and I was pleasantly surprised by which I learned the most from in reading Cleverlands.

As a former ‘progressive’ teacher, I used to hold up Finland as an example of all that progressive education could accomplish: comprehensive, child-centred, homework-less. But as its PISA results have flagged, and my own pedagogical values have shifted, I have increasingly turned my back on this previous analysis, listening instead to those who claim Finland’s previous results were down to its earlier, more traditional methods.

And yet I learned much from Crehan’s chapters on Finland; perhaps more so than any of the other chapters. She points out that in 2012, Finland was still the highest scoring non-Asian country. Her analysis ranges over the late school start – age 7 – and the counter-intuitive ‘learn through playing’ ideology that pervades these early years. But the focus in those years is on making children school ready, and Crehan cites extensive research showing that it makes no difference if children begin school early or late.

In fact, trying to teach very young children difficult skills may even prove counter productive: ‘like scattering seeds on a path, trying to teach children to read aged one or two will be unproductive, as they don’t have the skills, the language abilities or the cognitive capacity to be able to do it yet.’ Moreover, such a focus could ‘detract from the time they could be using to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed’ to be ready to learn to read.

Crehan considers the success of Finland’s comprehensive system to be due to its slow lead-in time, extensive training, and oversight and inspection of teachers and schools until its full establishment. And Finland is fully comprehensive, down to mixed ability classes, which make a number of appearances in the book. The focus for the Finnish teachers is on the weakest kids: one teacher opines ‘the brightest kids, they’ll learn anyway, whatever you do with them.’ This equity is also reflected in school structures; only the Headteacher is different in the hierarchy. There are no department heads, or senior teachers. There is no performance related pay.

Teachers are continuously developing their own practice independently, genuinely engaging with research and education and cultural writing, and there is a palpable culture of believing this makes them better at their jobs. Crehan warns, though, that this is only possible with a highly motivated workforce.

Of the often celebrated ‘teacher autonomy’ of Finland, Crehan has much to challenge, beginning with a 1996 report on Finnish schools which found: ‘whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher… you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference.’ From Crehan’s observations, she notes a ‘consistently traditional approach’ in classrooms, with lessons ‘led by the teacher, but with substantial whole-class interaction.’ High quality textbooks are ubiquitous. Teachers are not forced to use these, but she points out it would be foolish not to. As Finland has no official exams until age 18, these textbooks are not focused on drilling to a test, but instead on promoting ‘engagement and deep understanding’ of the topics.

Where Finland’s values are reflected in each of its schools, Japan’s system seemed the least coherent. Whereas middle schools invoke military discipline to toughen kids up for high school (Crehan includes one of many brilliant details in outlining the lightweight uniform being entirely useless in winter, but due to layers and coats being forbidden the children ‘buy self-heating pads, which they put in their socks and stick to their backs on the really cold days’), the primary schools are almost completely devoid of any behaviour system, with teachers relying on the children to discipline each other using peer pressure. Teachers are graded A to E, but never know their grade, and they are moved from school to school as their district sees fit. The families in Japan demonstrate strong support for education, with mothers expected to ‘retire’ when pregnant and devote their lives to raising kids, and the school constantly admonishing parents for not supervising children’s homework if it is not done.

More positive aspects include the curriculum: in Japan it is, according to Crehan, narrow but deep. Teachers share planning, and all teach the same lessons. They support struggling pupils outside lesson time.

A large proportion of Crehan’s discussion on Singapore schools pertains to selection, which occurs throughout the system, with streaming beginning early, and schools sorted into more and less academic. Personal responsibility is strong in the chapters on Singapore, and Crehan cites former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saying: ‘nobody owes you a living.’ The schools are extremely competitive, and private tuition is big business: kids are often being tutored until 10pm or even later, as the exams increase in difficulty every year. The ‘disparity between what is taught at school and what is in the exams puts further pressure on parents to fund private tuition,’ which Crehan dubs a ‘shadow education system.’

The results of this highly competitive system are indisputably impressive: even the poorest pupils in Singapore are far ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet here, Crehan challenges her reader to think more carefully about what equality looks like. Because although the poorest echelons and weakest performers in Singapore are far ahead of other countries, ‘it doesn’t mean they have better academic opportunities, as their advantaged peers in their own country are still ahead of them, filling the places in the junior colleges and forcing them onto less academic courses.’

In Shanghai, the overriding message was that a Chinese value is that everyone is capable of learning. Success was not considered to result from innate ability, but effort. All work is given to all children, meaning the work is pitched to the top: weak pupils are ‘given challenges rather than concessions, and were expected and supported to rise to them.’

Interestingly, the parents in China ‘tend to play down their children’s successes, because they see it as their role to promote effort in their children… when parents from Eastern cultures point out a child’s failings or mistakes, its whole purpose is to allow the child to grow and improve.’ This puts the writings of Amy Chua into perspective, and helps to explain to a Western mindset why, though the Chinese mother might seem ‘cruel’, it is, in fact, working from a different paradigm in raising children’s expectations of themselves. Like Japan, schools constantly communicate with parents and hold them to high standards. In lessons, pupils are taught didactically, but there is little time for extended practice – this is done as homework.

Of all the countries covered, Canada to me sounded more nightmarish. Crehan outlines a national curriculum full of discovery learning and group work. Yet Crehan herself in fact favours Canada, praising its balance between ‘the teaching of academic content and broader cognitive, social and moral skills and traits.’

There is much to learn from this extraordinary work, but one aspect I found compelling was the teaching in nearly all the above examples in mixed ability classes. Since moving to Michaela, I have really enjoyed teaching streams – lessons move at a pace the very vast majority of the class is comfortable with, and I can give whole-class feedback that is relevant to all pupils. Teaching to the top in a mixed ability class is not impossible, but it does rely on the weakest children working the hardest: doing more homework, and coming to teachers for individual support. This is possible in a culture where hard work and personal struggle to achieve are normalised. The practical reality, in my experience, is that the weakest kids are also the least invested: the least likely to do homework, and the least likely to attend additional clubs (non-teachers wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get kids who have fallen behind to attend catch-up clubs put on specifically for their benefit). But what we can take from the mixed ability argument is a need to pitch our curriculum to the top, so we teach all children the same stuff. This could be done by changing the allocation of lessons, so weaker children do the same high-quality work, but just have more time to spend on that tough material.

This book is fascinating for its research, but it is also a crucial one for all educators in that it reminds us that education is about values. More than once, Crehan asks: ‘would you want this in your country?’ This is why education will always be a knotty issue, because we do not have a consensus on values. We know what works to improve pupils’ behaviour, learning and habits, but what we don’t know is whether we all want pupils to behave in a certain way and know certain things. This book is crucial to prompt reflection from all educators.

cleverlands

We Have Overcomplicated Teaching: Research Ed 2016

I was overjoyed to be asked to present at Research Ed’s national conference last Saturday.

We have massively overcomplicated teaching. In my talk, I explored how we have overcomplicated it, why, why we need to go simple and how that would work, using examples from Michaela Community School.

I began the session with a series of questions, which readers may wish to revisit:

  • How many activities do you need in a lesson?
  • How often do the activities change in a lesson?
  • How many different ‘starters’ do you create?
  • How many different ‘plenaries’ do you have?
  • How many variations on tasks do you have?
  • How many slides do you have on a powerpoint?
  • How many resources do you print for each lesson?
  • How many ways are you expected to differentiate for children?
  • How many pages does your scheme of work fill?
  • How often have you changed schemes of work?
  • How often have you taught the same curriculum two or more years in a row?
  • How many intervention sessions have you run after school? Weekends?
  • How much feedback do you give children?
  • How much data do you gather? Input? Use?
  • How many CPD sessions have explored new ways of teaching children?
  • How many targets do you have to meet for your performance appraisal?
  • How many trips do you take?
  • How many forms do you have to fill out to take a trip?
  • How many forms do you have to fill out to log a behaviour report?
  • How many external agencies are working with your young people?
  • How often do children miss your lessons for interventions?
  • How do you get children to turn up to detentions, and what happens when they don’t?
  • How many action plans have you written?

I spent four years teaching thirty slide powerpoint lessons. Life in a dark room, filled by clicks and mumbles, was uninspiring for both the children and me. The failures of the past, not purely powerpoint-related it must be conceded, have led to what I called ‘intervention hell’ in the present, something that will be kicking in soon for many teachers, if it hasn’t already. We are drowning in data we don’t use. External agencies are taking children out of the one thing that will change their life: lessons where they are learning.

Schools are no longer seen as places of learning – in the expectation that we will educate the whole child, prevent radicalisation, encourage healthy eating, and teach financial literacy (among other initiatives), we are missing the crucial thing: kids learning stuff, passing exams, having successful lives. In 2015, only 53% of kids in the country achieved the old benchmark of 5 A*-C including English and Maths. 47% of kids didn’t even get five Cs including English and Maths. Schools are categorically failing to teach all kids effectively. Our role has been massively overcomplicated.

But the over-complication is not only the state’s fault. We too must accept responsibility. In the ‘missionary teacher’ or ‘martyr teacher’ paradigm, too many of us have decided to ‘sacrifice our lives on the altar of pupil progress’, to borrow a phrase from Joe Kirby’s Michaela debate speech. Working fourteen hour days, working weekends, working holidays (as it seemed nearly the whole room was doing or had done at some point) is categorically not sustainable. Who can do that for thirty, forty years? Our martyrdom has spawned an arms race, where ambitious teachers strive to outcompete each other. Add to this soup flawed accountability measures, spurious research (learning styles, anyone?) and the ‘teacher as entertainer’ model pedalled by teacher training organisations and SLTs up and down the country, and you have a recipe for disastrous burnout, as evidenced by the 50,000 or so teachers leaving the classroom every year.

Why is simplicity better? Three reasons spring to mind: sustainability, consistency, retention. Sustainability for teachers: simpler teaching means we can have lives and carry on doing the job we love for the long-term. A career is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistency for children: teachers who stay massively impact on the children. Having the same teachers year in, year out, is undervalued at the moment. (In a later conversation, I mused about school improvement. I think a lot of mediocre schools who achieve great results do so by being strong on two fronts: behaviour, and teachers staying. Behaviour is obvious – better a calm than a chaotic school. But teachers staying, as long as they are middling to excellent and not diabolically harmful to children, has a massive impact on consistency within the school and consistency for children.) And retention: teachers who want to stay in the profession is of obvious benefit to schools who spent enormous sums of money and time on recruitment each year.

How do we simplify teaching? I explored three strands: curriculum, pedagogy and systems.

With the curriculum, I focused on within subject choices, rather than whole-school curriculum. When planning the curriculum, instead of fourteen page schemes of work that no child will ever see (or arguably benefit from), make unit packs. All ‘worksheets’ can be in the pack. No need for a powerpoint – everything is happier when your curtains are open in the classroom, and technology is an added stress teachers simply don’t need in their lives. At Michaela, we use packs to cut workload, but also to benefit kids: the text is central. Kids are reading a vast amount across subjects, not just in English. We add recap questions to strengthen pupil memory, resource comprehension and discussion questions to prevent teachers thinking these up on the spot or the night before, and prepare model exemplars to guide pupils to where we want them to end up.

With pedagogy, I foregrounded the three arms of practice at Michaela: direct instruction, questioning, and extended practice. There is a huge gap between our pupils and their wealthier counterparts, and the gap is partly knowledge and partly practice. To close the knowledge gap, we teach with urgency. We never ask pupils to guess, but instruct upfront by reading text and explaining. We then question to check understanding, and recap to aid memorisation. To close the practice gap, we make sure when we’re not questioning and teaching, the kids are reading and writing. Kids are generally great speakers, great debaters and especially great at arguing; that’s not where the gap is. Our kids need more reading and more writing, so we make sure they do lots of that. We need to teach with urgency all the way through school – from reception to year 10, we teach like every second is vital (because it is). Hopefully that way we can prevent the intervention hell that is year 11.

I showed some clips of what direct instruction looks like, as it can sound massively off-putting:

 

Notice how interactive these lessons are. It’s certainly not a case of teachers lecturing at bored children. We can’t just talk at children – that much is true. We have to constantly question and check they have understood and remembered what we have taught.

Finally, I explored three systems to simplify teaching: behaviour, homework and feedback. Currently, I would imagine the majority of schools ‘allow’ teachers to set their own detentions. This is great for building teacher-pupil relationships, but I would argue the drawbacks outweigh this benefit. Teachers set detentions of any length they choose, so children can judge different teachers to be stricter or ‘easier.’ If a pupil doesn’t turn up, individual teachers have to hunt the child down. Too often, teachers end up chasing detentions that are multiplying, constantly trying to remember who has and has not turned up, and liaising with form tutors and parents to cajole the children into serving their time. Long-term, many teachers give up. I don’t blame them. The administration involved in setting, sitting, chasing detentions is too much. So teachers stop bothering.

Similarly with homework – and homework isn’t just challenging in terms of sanctioning non-completion. Teachers are desperately trying to think up new and different homework tasks, setting it, and then marking it. Again, all this administration is overburdening and discourages pupil completion (‘son, what’s your science homework?’ ‘No idea. Something about research? It might be due next Tuesday? Dunno.’) At Michaela, all teachers set the same homework on a rigid timetable. All kids are revising their subjects for the same length of time in the same way. Absolutely no confusion over what they need to do or when; no excuses. (We use knowledge organisers to set this revision.)

Finally feedback – I’ve written at length on this before, so I would encourage you to revisit my lengthier piece if you’re interested. The long and the short of it: don’t do it.

I ended with some advice for leaders. When you have a shining star working 14 hour days, it is tempting to let them get on with it. But that sets unrealistic expectations for others, and could set up unfair comparisons between them and other teachers. They are also too often using their time pointlessly: extra marking, making transient displays, or forty five slide PowerPoints with the requisite resources. Instead, have the conversation with them: could every teacher do what you are doing? Do you want a family one day? Will you be able to do this when you do? When you lead a department, would you want every teacher doing this? Thousands of teachers leave the profession every year – how do we make this a school where people want to stay? What is the impact of your excessive workload on others in the department?

Leaders need to lead by example, teaching rigorous content, actually teaching, limiting their activities, resources and feedback (I suggested teachers carry a red pen around with you when kids are writing, and use icons to set targets instead of laborious written comments). Leaders need to mitigate the impact of school systems on teachers: if you lead a department, you set a centralised detention for that department if your school will not (show the SLT it works).

There were a number of questions and comments following the talk. One common thread in these questions was: where is the room for teacher creativity with such a rigid system? I guess we don’t really value creativity as highly as consistency and workload at Michaela. Although there is plenty of space for creativity in delivery (see: Jonny Porter jousting, above), we don’t let teachers make whizzy jazzy PowerPoints or decide to teach their own thing in their own way. Michaela is not for everyone.

But I would challenge questioners: sometimes what we enjoy doing most is not the best thing for the kids. And sometimes what we enjoy doing in our own classroom, going above and beyond for our kids, has an adverse impact on the others around us, not to mention our own workload. And finally, great content is exciting in and of itself! I wouldn’t choose to teach Julius Caesar – it’s not my favourite Shakespeare play. But I absolutely loved teaching it, because it’s Shakespeare! Same with Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ – not my favourite poem, but again, it is a great one, and so great to teach.

I was heartened by the people I met afterwards: it was especially lovely to hear teachers say to me: ‘I’ve done this for years and always been told I was wrong!’ What I’ve said is not revolutionary: many, many teachers have always known this. I hope Michaela can shine a light on what works for kids and teachers and allow these brilliant professionals to just teach, and then have a life. Some of what I said was not appreciated by some members of the audience; I had reports of some eye-rolling and tutting as I was speaking. I’d like to say: thank you. Thank you for coming to hear me speak, thank you for not walking out, thank you for taking the time to be challenged. Next time: ask a question, get in touch, tell me what you don’t like. It is wonderful to debate these ideas. I really think that in sacrificing some individuality and creativity we can deliver amazing results for pupils, and amazing work-life balance for teachers.