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’.

Just one book: leadership

In this post I’ll be exploring just one book on school leadership. I’ve previously written on curriculum, assessment and teaching, and my next post will be on ethos.

Leadership is a somewhat tricky subject, in that there are so many bad books on it. Many leadership books seem to spend an inordinate amount of time exploring semantics: what is a leader, and what is a manager? Indeed: what even is leadership?

At a school level, it is simply the people who make the decisions which run the school. On that basis, the book I have chosen seems to me to be the best one out there on the mechanics of how to run – or lead – a school.

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This book outlines how a great school should be led, with concrete examples of what works. To begin with, Bambrick-Santoyo states: “Exceptional school leaders succeed because of how they use their time: what they do, and how and when they do it.” Specifically, “instruction and culture are vital, and both must be led simultaneously.”

Data-driven instruction

Noting that: “standards are meaningless until you define how to assess them. Assessments, therefore, are the roadmap to rigour,” the author advises meeting after each assessment and “asking probing questions and deeply considering the results,” while great leaders guide this conversation “from the back pocket” – that is, keeping their “answers” in their pocket, and asking the right questions to guide people’s thinking.

Observations

The greatest lesson I learned from this book was the value of weekly developmental observations, coupled with “bite-sized action steps that allow a teacher to grow.” As the author notes: “you don’t get results by placing your best teachers strategically – you get them by coaching each and every teacher to do excellent work.” Finally, an alternative to pointless graded observations, where we are not judging where teachers are currently, but coaching them to improve student learning all the time.

Planning

Bambrick-Santoyo remarks that too often teachers receive “insufficient guidance” in planning, particularly at the start of their careers. Much more, it is suggested, ought to be centralised, and planned according to “assessment”, which is labelled the “roadmap to rigour.”

Training

Quite simply, with professional development: “increasing student achievement is the ultimate goal… if PD isn’t changing how our students learn, it’s useless.” Bambrick-Santoyo posits that “effective PD must start by answering a basic question: what will teachers be able to do at the end of this session?” The benefits of this are maximised by building in time to make the PD relevant to current practice: “giving teachers time to apply their learning is the difference between an engaging afternoon and sustained improvement in instruction.”

Pupil ethos

It is hard to argue with the assertion that “in schools with strong cultures, students receive a continual message that nothing is as important – or as engaging – as learning.” Bambrick-Santoyo advises that the top leaders “transform their vision into meticulously built systems.”

Staff culture

The culture of the school needs to be embodied by both staff and students, and care must be taken of teachers: “when teachers are out with friends or family, what do you want them to say about your school? How do you want them to feel?” The author advises being careful to pick up non-verbal signs from teachers, as not everything (anything?) is captured in formal surveys. Interestingly, Bambrick-Santoyo notes that: “it’s imperative that a leader confront warning signs as they come. Initially, if a teacher seems disengaged during professional development, a leader may be tempted to let it go; perhaps the teacher’s having a bad day… Yet unless it is addressed immediately, it is likely to weaken your culture.” We must always be vigilant to uphold our school culture; one small chink can undermine the entire organisation. The best way to reinforce culture is to continually reference the school’s mission: “by emphasising a common mission, the leader creates an internal motivation to work harder rather than imposing yet another external incentive to perform.”

Yet this is clearly not a blueprint we can pick up and apply to any school indiscriminately. Only those who are observant and have great listening skills will pick up on how to implement these ideas effectively for the context in which they find themselves.

Not only that, it is clear to me that leadership is about vision, and it is only when you harness the belief and motivation of the whole staff body to buy into that vision do these aspects work most effectively: as Bambrick-Santoyo states, “the core principle of a staff culture turnaround is that teachers need to know the school’s core mission… and must be unified in putting it into practice.” But I am not sure it is a book that will tell you how to have a vision, or how you can inspire others to believe in it: that can only come from your own beliefs, which are often informed by experience. And if you can’t imagine what is possible, you need to see a great school in action. And, of course, if you can’t work out why all kids deserve that then it’s not a book you’re in need of.

So far, this series has explored leadership, curriculum, assessment and teaching. The final post will be on school ethos.

All change: new KS4 specifications

English subject leaders around the country have undoubtedly been on the same emotional journey as me regarding the introduction of new specifications for KS4 and 5 simultaneously (not to mention the recent KS3 changes and removal of KS3 levels). For a time, I complained it was too much. How could we possibly be expected to take on such an inordinate amount of wheel reinvention? Not to mention the purchasing of new texts from already overstretched budgets.

Then, in a moment of calm over Christmas, I turned off all technology, sat with the specification, and planned. I looked at the assessment, the time, the units, the assessment objectives. And after a while it ceased to be scary.

I’d made my peace with Literature before Christmas. Having chosen to go with AQA (albeit with reluctance), I wanted to stick with as much of the same content as I could. We currently teach both Macbeth and An Inspector Calls, and though neither would be my first choice of text, I’d rather send English teachers into classrooms armed with at least some prior experience of teaching at least some of the texts.

For the nineteenth century novel, I won’t lie: my first impulse was to go for the shortest available. We teach Jekyll and Hyde in year 9, so it would have to be The Sign of the Four (a short story that begins with the injection of illegal drugs? Sounds eminently teachable to me). We want to teach every child the same curriculum in English, and if the exam is closed text, surely the shorter the text, the more manageable?

Luckily, I was dissuaded of my instinct to game by two people: my glorious line manager (deputy headteacher; fountain of wisdom, knowledge and general calmness) and my superstar NQT (so good at what she does already, I am improving my own practice with every observation). Both looked at the text choices afresh, having not been in the room when I was descanting on the virtues of a short, easy novella. Both said “Jane Eyre.

Of course. We teach in a girls’ school, for one thing, and what female (human?) has not felt left out, isolated, unfairly treated? And, of all the texts on the list, which would I most want the children leaving us to have read? It had to be Jane Eyre. Plus, we have time – despite the weight of many exams, the course content is comfortingly manageable. Four texts in two years is no great feat.

That settled, my new worry was the Language specification. Teaching fiction would be straightforward – I stuck the word “seminal” in front of the unit title, and thought we would pretty much teach any “great” literature, thus exposing students to excerpts from the best that has been thought and/or said. The non-fiction reading/transactional writing had the greatest potential to devolve into the current, mostly meaningless skill-drilling of the current AQA language paper (my least favourite exam ever).

Instead of teaching skills, therefore, I thought about what else I most wanted our girls to leave us with. I want them to be confident young women, who are armed with knowledge of the inequalities of our world that might face them, and angered enough to challenge these. I wanted them to be inspired by female role models, and seek to achieve more as a result. I wanted them to understand the journey that women as a sex have been on, and how far we have come. It was thus that the idea of “Women Through the Ages” came about: a scheme of work that would explore female journalism and feminist polemics in the context of works such as Everyday Sexism. The unit is under construction now, and I will write more about it in due course, but I am terribly, terribly excited.

But with eleven schemes of work to write over two key stages (and that’s just for us to be 2015-16 ready), how could I convince a small team to pitch in? I agonized over the department meeting, and spent a good deal of time talking with close colleagues and loved ones about how I would go about dumping a massive amount of work at English teachers’ feet; English teachers who I already have to chase out of the office nearing 6pm on a Friday, where they trudge, still laden with exercise books, home to half eat, half watch television and half communicate with their families while marking.

Under excellent advice, I simplified my initial explanatory teaching grid (it underwent many guises, including one especially confusing multi-coloured moment), and talked teachers through it. I’d spoken to the whole department about the new specs informally leading up to this moment, and I think our conversations were invaluable to trail this meeting. We went through each paper and the mark scheme, but not in a great deal of detail. I then shared a timeline for how and when these schemes would be completed: each teacher was in a team with either myself or the 2 i/c, and each teacher had a deadline for the medium term plan, first week of lessons, second week and so on.

I could not believe the response from the team. They nodded along during the meeting, chipping in helpfully, and making positive and enthusiastic comments. When I broached the making of SoWs, no-one flinched. When I asked them to go and have a think about any they might be happy taking on and let me know by the next week, one burst out with: “can I do Jane Eyre?” I wanted to explode with gratitude.

The following week, I approached my team to see if they wanted to sit down and clarify their schemes prior to beginning the medium term plans. Each member surprised me by showing me nearly fully finished plans, three weeks prior to the deadline. There was no fear, no concern; just seeming excitement and graft at the task in hand.

I could not be more grateful to the team of amazing teachers I am privileged to manage. I was expecting resistance, struggle and unhappiness; instead, the department feels invigorated, stoic and almost merry. Long may it last.

Leadership

Having trained with Teach First, I felt like I had heard enough about “leadership” to last me a lifetime. Prior to moving into a role as Head of Department last September, I thought I knew much on the subject – I could parrot, for example, the line about the difference between leadership and management; I could recite the vignette about the boss seeing where his people were heading so he could lead them.

But there’s a world of difference between knowing the shorthand and actually being an effective leader. Having heard the depressing line: “if you’re telling me to do it, I’ll do it,” I knew I needed help. I resolved to attack the problem the only way I know how: by reading all the books.

Of course, this is not the only way, and a lot of what I learned did not come from books. I’ll write soon about what I feel leadership is, at this uncertain moment of new enlightenment, but for now, here are some of the best leadership reads.

Leverege Leadership

The first book on leadership I read, this was perhaps pitched too far from my world of middle-dom; but nonetheless I gleaned some useful insights here, not least the resounding message that the key is focusing on great teaching. Bambrick-Santoyo lays out the ideal of principal as “instructional leader” and some examples of how this might work in practice. There’s a helpful distillation of data-driven leadership, as well as plenty on culture and vision.

Switch

Here’s the essence of Switch: people know a lot, but are still mostly driven by their emotions. To make people change (or, in my case, specifically change to wanting to follow you) you have to engage their emotions and activate their trust. The book sets out strategies for making people want to follow you, and steps for pushing positive change through.

 

Leadership Plain and Simple

The amazing Jill Berry recommended this book, and it could easily be the only leadership book you have to read. Amazingly straightforward, the book turns on the assumption that leadership means: engaging others in your vision of the future, and the plan you have to get there, and then delivering that plan. It is fuzzy on delivery, but that’s probably because delivery will be massively varied in different scenarios.

Leading in a Culture of Change

Although this book does contain some grating “management newspeak” (such as “simplexity” – definitely not a word), it is written clearly (useful for the midnight reading sessions of a first-year wannabe leader) and is full of awareness of the wrong turnings a potential manager/leader might take, as well as balancing concepts of confidence and humility.

How to be an Amazing Middle Leader

This is one of those “does what it says on the tin” books, and is a great primer for someone new to middle leadership. Occasionally over-specific, it enumerates tasks and activities you might do to hone your vision and create your action plan. Probably one to read the holiday before taking up a post.

Mindset

I am aware this is not a book on leadership, but if there is one thing I know for sure about leadership it is that it is all about your core values. You have to know what drives you as a human, and how that translates to what you are doing in your job. I’ve written before on Mindset but suffice it to repeat: I believe in the uncapped potential of every single child without any exception to succeed, and believe it is my job to create the conditions for success.

Finally, leadership in a school context is perhaps best served by the many wonderful bloggers out there. Stuart Lock is one of the most generous, encouraging and humble senior leaders I have met, and writes plenty that is both heartfelt and sensible on schools. Keven Bartle, a new headteacher, has written copious amounts of genius words on leadership at all levels. We are all waiting for Jill Berry, an ex-head and fantastic speaker, to begin her blog – in the meantime, she says many wise words on Twitter. Finally, Mary Myatt is a school inspector and writes with clarity on all issues Ofsted – always helpful.

Why students must talk

I’ve often wondered to what extent a Headteacher sets the feeling of a school. In my first school, the Headteacher, aside from being the most inspiring woman I have ever met, driven by titanic strength, vision and conviction, was also a drama teacher.

Although our twice-weekly whole-school assembly was conducted in impressive silence, our children were, for want of a more nuanced word, loud. It was a loud school. Not in a threatening way though: these were children who bubbled over with the joy of being. They raced through corridors, laughing and “talking” with one another; yet their version of “talking” sounded very, very similar to shouting.

I think in three years I was there, there was one fight. I’m not even sure that was a fight, if I’m honest; I remember someone in the staff room saying there had been one. No-one seemed too worried, so the likelihood of its existence is to be questioned.

Now, I could write an encyclopedia about the other impacts of the ethos and leadership which made my first school a bastion of educational opportunity, but I’ll save those ramblings for another time. I only want to focus, today, on why students must talk.

Now, I never had a problem getting students at my first school to talk. In my first year, they would speak unprompted; as I grew in teaching capability, I knew they would talk about whatever I asked them to, whenever I asked. When I practiced “hands down” questioning, it was extremely rare that a student would not talk to me. At the time, I prided myself on having created a safe environment for students to speak. Now I know it’s not that simple.

Becoming articulate should be a central aim of a schooling system. Our world is built on communication; written, certainly, but the majority of our communication is spoken. I’ve never had a written job interview, for example. I can think of a paltry few professions which do not require some level of discourse with colleagues or the public. In English, writing down your ideas about a text is never as powerful as balancing these ideas with alternatives; alternatives locked in someone else’s head, accessible by talking.

On arriving at my new school on my interview day, the first thing I noticed was the lack of noise. These students were quiet. They were quiet in lessons, in corridors; even in the lunch hall. Again, I wondered if the demeanour of this school’s (again, exceptional, visionary, committed) Headteacher was partly the cause: where the first Headteacher had reveled in her exchanges with students, the second spent much of her time visibly calming students down; not threatening or shouting, but ensuring they were calm and collected around the building.

I was sold: this was a wonderful environment to work in; peaceful and calm and quiet. What a different life I would lead in this school, I thought. Except, again, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Getting students to talk has proved more problematic than I could have imagined. Although most will gamely go ahead, group discussion is often more like one individual speaking. Feedback can be especially painful, and I’ve had to tweak my “talking groups” to divert disasters of shyness leading to a stifled session.

Don’t get me wrong; these students can be loud – I’ve seen (or rather, heard) them at bus stops, on buses and around the area outside the school grounds. And of course, it is laudable that they are so calm and quiet in school.

Yet students must speak in lessons, and I have made it my duty to ensure, as far as possible, that every student I teach speaks in every lesson. Last week, two students refused to give feedback on the excellent work they had done. After some coaxing, and another student supporting them, one finally managed to come to the front and explain her work. My heart burst with pride. The other student?

I don’t want to force her. She’s in year 11, she finds public speaking incredibly tough, and she’s very far from guaranteed her targeted A grade at the end of the year. There’s a lot going on, and in the race to get her a GCSE she can do something with, I’ve made the choice to leave this battle, and keep her on side.

But I can’t help but think: we shouldn’t have students in year 11 who are afraid to speak their mind. We have to make our students speak, and speak loudly and with pride and confidence. Sure, it’s scary. Sure, it’s difficult. But not being able to articulate thoughts in public or even small groups will prevent these students from accessing the opportunities their grades should rightly open up to them.

Assessed or not, talk forms a vital part of the education we offer children. They all must talk.