Reach Summit

Reach Academy, a Free School set up by Teach First ambassadors Ed Vainker, Rebecca Cramer, and Jon McIntosh, is now three years into its journey to “transform the lives of all of our pupils by providing them with the skills, attitudes and academic qualifications to flourish in any career and live happy and fulfilled lives.” Following an absurdly impressive Ofsted Outstanding report, the school opened its doors yesterday to share some of its core principles and their learning.

The warmth and humility of the teachers and leaders of Reach radiated, alongside their supreme confidence, now buoyed by system approval, and made for an energetic and challenging day. Three students, impressive in their self-possession, preparation and clarity, opened the summit, telling the story of “Ed” and “Rebecca” (unsettling for teachers used to the traditional “Ms/Ms” but a small paradigm shift I rather liked (respect, of course, comes not from monikers)) and their journey to create a school that would transform life chances for children in their community. Having speculated previously on the underachievement of white working class children, I was especially interested to hear one student remark: “I know I’m part of a group. White British boys underachieve nationally, and I’m not going to be one of them.” I’d be very interested to know the conversations that have gone into such clear but unobtrusive awareness.

The first session I attended was run by the inspirational Secondary Headteacher, Rebecca Cramer, who took us point by point through their recent Ofsted inspection, and shared some tips for preparation.  Chief among the take-aways were: to prepare your paperwork to lessen the burden of administration on the day, know your data fully, and to communicate your beliefs about your school clearly (“the more times they hear that this is an Outstanding school, the more they believe it” – “don’t be too self-deprecating”). Rebecca’s tenacity to ensure the grade would be given was evident, along with her and Ed’s willingness to take on almost all of the Ofsted bureaucracy to free teachers to simply deliver great lessons.

Next, assistant principal Grace Wilcox led us through a clear and detailed session on the new Progress and Attainment 8 measures. Although I had familiarity with these measures, her presentation was invaluable in clarifying key questions I had, as well as raising issues regarding the trade-off between school accountability and what is best for the individual child (Reach’s emphasis is firmly on the latter). A serendipity of seating meant I was placed next to the formidable Max Haimendorf, who I have admired since the Teach First 2010 Summer Institute, where sitting in a session run by himself and King Solomon Academy’s first year 7 cohort, he transformed my own ideas of what a transformative education for children would look like. Unfortunately, our first interaction was in doing some simple Maths together to work out a student’s Attainment 8 score, whereby I revealed (too soon, too soon) that I did not know my times tables.

Finally, a session on coaching run by Beck Owen ran through, and most importantly demonstrated, what a Leverage Leadership coaching conversation looks like. It is always good to revisit and practice elements you have some knowledge of, and I know that asking open questions to coach teachers to improve is one of my targets (in the time pressures of the working week it is often too tempting to say: “do this”).

The day ended with further inspiration, as those who had set up schools shared their learning. Ed Vainker noted that “the things we can easily measure are not always the most important in achieving our vision”, exploring the strands Reach would be focusing on to improve ever further. Of recruitment, he mentioned that sharing of core values and vision was more important to Reach than the technical ability to do the job, which was an interesting prioritisation, and emphasises in some ways that the difference of such a school lies in its mission, not its methods.

King Solomon Academy’s Max Haimendorf spoke next, humbly failing to mention the school’s stunning KS4 results, which are by any measure extraordinary (67% FSM; 93% A*CEM; 76% EBacc). He noted that the school had won over the community by getting them, and the children, excited about the goal to attend and thrive in an academically selective university, but that they were always reviewing their methods, and what needed to occur in every week, every lesson, to make this a reality. He spoke of the need, as an organization grows, to “systematize the things that are magical” to ensure sustainability in years to come.

Finally, Jenny, Vice Principal at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, shared her reflections, speaking of the ease with a very small staff to build strong relationships, and the need to always prioritise these even as the staff body grows as it is these strong relationships which hold the key to overcoming life chances. Most resonant for me was her imploration to “do the boring things well every day”, ensuring all the little things are being followed up. She also noted that they would need to be mindful of intake, to ensure they were always serving the students who motivated them to “get up everyday.” She mentioned that one of DTA’s focuses was autonomy, and scaffolding in this for students to guard against them ending up age 18, at university, and coming home without the structures that had sustained them.

All in all, my key takeaway from this day was that education is changing, school by school. Inspirational teachers build their visions into inspirational schools, of which they become inspirational headteachers. Their dedication to their students leads to results which defy the beliefs of the naysayers, and prove that a child’s starting point need not determine their end. There is a revolution afoot in education, and we need to all be part of it.


New year’s resolutions – for other people


It is received wisdom in the teacher world that Ofsted is not fit for purpose. Too many people have blogged much more eloquently than I to explain why; simply put – Ofsted need to scale back in a big way. They need to be mindful that everything they say becomes gospel in schools that are gunning for Good or better – that is, all schools. They need to look at the data: are results (including student progress from starting points) good? If so, why? What is that school doing well that other schools can learn from? And if results are awful, as they are in too many schools, what does that school need to do to improve, and how can it be supported to improve outcomes for all students? Other than this – do we really need anything else?

Department for Education (political influence on)

Yes, I know there is an election coming up and you want to put out enough policy ideas to make all the interest groups vote for you. But please, enough. Enough of change. I’ve spent my holiday working out how we will implement the new GCSEs and the new A-levels next September, and calling exam boards who assure me their support materials will be out “soon.” It’s not good enough. You can’t tear up KS3, 4 and 5 at the same time and expect us to just do it all without support, while doing the job we’ve always done (teaching children) as well as we’ve always done it (or better). There are not enough hours in the day. So just spend a year consolidating, supporting, reviewing, consulting. 


Headteachers have the greatest responsibility to build their school’s ethos and support their teachers. I’ve been blessed to have only experienced incredible Headteachers, driven by strong moral purpose, who are exceptional at what they do. The Heads I have worked for have challenged me to be better, but have also supported me without question or anger when I’ve made mistakes. I will never forget the first big mistake I made, in my first year of teaching. The Head took me into her office, asked me what I did wrong, asked what I would do if I could do it again, listened to my rubbish response, and coached me to a better one.


We think we know our students, and in some ways, perhaps we do. But in other ways, we can never know them. We can never know the struggles they face, we can never know what their formative years have done to them, and we can never know their true potential. We just need to keep raising the bar. In my second year of teaching, I predicted a student in the lowest set for English a B, thinking I was being very generous. She came up to me with that grade, asking: “do you think I’ll get a B?” I replied, thinking I was being supportive: “I know you will.” She retorted: “I’m going to get an A, Miss – you’ll see.” And she did. And I did.


All teachers want the best for their students, but that aspiration can look different to different people. There are still teachers out there who say: “that’s really good progress for a student like that.” There are still teachers out there who say: “we can’t control their home lives, and so they won’t ever achieve what they could.” There are still teachers out there who say: “you have to understand that this child has special educational needs.” I know there are, because I’ve met them. These statements are wrong. They are wrong, and they underestimate both what the child is capable of, and the adult. We, as teachers, have enormous power to change a child’s life trajectory. Let’s stop being scared and use that power.

Educational underachievement and possible racism

Very recently, I was reading this book:


 On showing a friend, she commented to me: “isn’t that a bit…” Then followed the confused and screwed up face, because no-one wants to imply to your face that you are reading potentially politically unacceptable, racist literature.

And that reminded me of this excellent post from Bansi Kara on white working class underachievement. The sticking point in this scenario was one of names: “What do you call a group targeting white working class students?  How do you explain that this achievement group is for white students only?  If you have African or Turkish groups, it is called celebration, but if you add a white group, does it become segregation?”

Ofsted’s 2012-13 annual report includes a specific section on white children from poor families, who are falling behind: “Compared with other ethnic groups of pupils from low income families, White children have the lowest attainment.” This is of key interest to me, as my borough frequently laments a gap between achievement along these lines, and boosting the achievement of White British students has been a major priority for my school.

Here’s what Ofsted says: “It is poverty of expectation in these communities and in many of their schools, not poverty itself, that limits the achievement of these children. In the best schools, successful leaders and teachers challenge all children to achieve well. A relentless focus by school leaders on the quality of teaching creates a climate in which no child is left behind.”

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean, I agree with the second part: yes, focus on teaching and learning, every time. But the idea of a “poverty of expectation” just doesn’t ring true for me – unless these families and children are just really good at seeming to want to achieve.

Let me explain. I teach a large number of White British students, all of whom I would consider at risk of underachieving, but really only because I consider nearly all my students at risk of this. Humans are strange and unpredictable beings; teachers will tell you that their star pupil of one week can morph into their massive concern the next. Furthermore, you just don’t know who will fall to pieces before an exam (the panic attacks from my most unlikely Year 11 last year in the minutes before their English exams assured me of that). I’m worried, in short, about all my students.

But to peel off a group, because Ofsted says they are at risk, my school says they are a risk, and even the data suggests they are at risk, I’ll look at these individuals in isolation. These students all want to do well; they are in some ways C/D borderline students, but they want to achieve A grades in English, and they all actually could achieve this. What is holding them back?

Behaviour is an issue – and I mean the full range here; from pretty serious storming out of the classroom in anger to sitting idly and disengaging with the lesson. I speak with the parents of all my Year 11 (race non-specific) a lot. And you know, the White British parents are nothing but entirely supportive of everything I do. They become angry if their child has disappointed me; they talk to their children, they support their children, they come into school to talk with me. I saw all of that in evidence at last year’s year 11 parents’ evening, when 100% of the White British parents attended and spoke with me, and I know when I say I will ring a parent they will become either elated (if it’s good news) or desolate if it’s not. The relationship is working; parents are supporting their children and the school.

So what’s going on?

I turned to Gillian Evans’ Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain in the hopes of gleaning an insight. Yes, the book is from 2006; however she speaks of children in primary school who I am teaching now in secondary school (hypothetically, I mean).

Evans’ book is made up of extensive field research: she lived on a council estate in Bermondsey anyway and integrated herself into the community, conducting interviews and observations over the course of a number of years. The difficulty with this is that the research is all qualitative – I’m not sure how relevant one particular woman’s outlook on life is to all of my students several years on.

Nonetheless, the first aspect which jumped out to me was rules. Early on in this study, Evans notes that while middle class children turn up to school very ready to learn, working class children do not: “the form of participation that is required of them at school doesn’t closely match the one that is required of them at home.” While middle class parents create and enforce strict boundaries, leading their children to recognize these in the school setting, apparently working class parents tend not to. So, in some ways, despite wishing and wanting the best for their children, and despite supporting the school, their offspring will always struggle with tough behaviour boundaries.

This is expanded upon in one case study in which a parent “believes that her daughters’ happiness depends on her giving them the freedom to ‘do as they please.’” This parent’s comment of: “if they want to learn they will, if they don’t they won’t and that’s that” did ring surprisingly familiar to me: I have actually heard almost these exact words from more than one parent.

Evans does not provide solutions in her book, only an overview of some working class values and lifestyle factors which can be inferred to lead of educational “failure”, or at the very least, underachievement.

And this is where I feel frustrated. To return to Kara’s initial comments, we know there is a problem, we almost know what the problem is, but we are powerless to do anything about it. I remember a colleague bringing up a meeting with just White British parents and dismissing it almost as soon as it was brought up – what would that look like?

I will go back to the drawing board on this one, but if anyone can provide any marvelous strategies that aren’t perceived as a little bit racist, I would so love to hear them.

Postscript: I wrote this post back in May, and have been squeamish about putting it onto the internet. Then, I didn’t know what would happen to my C/D borderline White British students, but now I do: they achieved B grades in English. Each and every one of them.

Update: A wise friend has just commented to me: “The fact that your white British parents attend parents evening is the main reason their kids got B’s”. I can’t agree more, and will be posting about the issue of non-attendance at parents’ evenings soon, as it has been especially on my mind this week.

Reading exercise books

Marking as an English teacher means you spend most of your week reading. If I am honest, most of what I read is what I mark. A set of exercise books can become a novel; more than a novel depending on the class size. A novel, of course, full of repetition and analysis. Perhaps, then, more a book of critical essays.

A recent conversation prompted me to realise that while anyone I have worked with knows that marking is 1. My absolute favourite part of teaching and 2. The way I spend almost every evening, weekend and holiday, I have somehow neglected to say very much on the subject here. Below is my attempt to shoe-horn my ideas about marking into a blog about reading.

Teaching lessons: in my first year in the classroom, I found I wasn’t terribly good at it. I read Phil Beadle’s How to Teach, wherein he writes: “make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher… mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.” Essentially, Beadle contends, you can be the greatest educator ever, but if you don’t mark, your students won’t progress; conversely, you can be a bit of a rubbish teacher, but if you mark well, great things could happen. In my first-year-teacher despair, I clung to marking.

While my mentor and line manager watched me hunched over yet another pile of books (“you’re marking again Jo?”) and begged me to instead spend more time planning semi-decent lessons, I ploughed on regardless, writing buckets of WWWs and EBIs on every page a child’s pen had reached. I handed books back, and rushed to deliver my next rubbish lesson.

Happily, what I learned from this was to balance my time more effectively. I went on to spend less time marking, to mark less frequently and say less, and taught better lessons where children went on to make some progress, as well as making my life less of a nightmare.

Indeed, as the years have gone on, it seems that the thinking around marking, at least in my sphere of existence, has become ever-more progressive and manageable. If the mantra of my mentors early on was “mark less!”, it is now “write less!”

I’ve read so many excellent blogs on time-saving marking, notably from Joe Kirby; and Alex Quigley has signalled my earth-changing, life-altering view of marking, and made me realize that “marking” as a term is horribly outdated. What we need to talk about, instead, is feedback. (Indeed, Quigley’s department has a feedback policy as opposed to a marking policy, a semantic shift I adore.)

When we mark a student’s book, they need to spend about as much time doing something with that marking as I spent giving feedback. This means that rather than writing “nice notes” as I had been advised early on (“put something on every page, so Ofsted don’t think you’ve ticked and flicked”), I do tick and flick their notes (if they are there and in good order; if they are not I tend to write “WHERE ARE YOUR NOTES?!”). I mark their extended writing closely, but not too closely if it’s riddled with errors – most of their ideas are good, and the human brain can process only so much red/pink/green ink.

At the end, I write an encouraging comment (unless they have been truly lazy) and a target. I used to check students had met their target the next time I marked their books, but I now recognize this is not the most effective way of target setting. I now phrase their target in such a way as to encourage editing there and then. And, crucially, I give students time to go back and improve their writing.

The first ten to twenty minutes of the following lesson can then be spent improving a decent paragraph and making it marvelous. The efficacy of this exercise very much depends on what you have written as a teacher; your comments need to be specific, detailed and open-ended, allowing students to add to their responses without needing you to stand beside and cajole each letter from their biro.

Interestingly, in our department’s mock-Ofsted last year, the English specialist pulled out a couple of books that he believed showed outstanding marking. These books had a relatively small amount of ink spilled, but it was done in a miraculously effective way. Teachers had written short, pointed questions at key moments, and students had responded and improved their work. Easy as that: marking not to build confidence, not to check every error, not to show Ofsted we have marked – marking, instead, that allowed students to progress, and allowed teachers to mark without wanting to kill themselves. What a relief!

I haven’t written about the state students keep their exercise books in, because it’s not something I’m especially concerned about. Perhaps another year I will endeavour to inspire students to keep their books pristine, but I’m not a very visual person, and I can’t help but overlook dog-eared covers for the glorious writing inside.

All of this sounds so painfully straightforward, I wonder if anyone is still reading. There will always be new ideas, and new approaches. Yet the core of marking is beguilingly simple: mark often, mark strategically, mark specifically, and make the students do some work too.

Reading Ofsted reports

The big ‘O’ has proven to be a popular blog-post topic since probably the beginning of the organisation’s inception, so I’m not sure what my two pence will add to the conversation. Nevertheless, I found myself in a Buzzfeed-esque Ofsted loop recently, going through more and more reports (guidance as well as school reports) and a number of things struck me:

1. What does it mean to be an “outstanding” school?

My plunge into the Ofsted website began when my interest was piqued by a number of education bloggers I follow. Knowing them by reputation alone, I assumed the schools they led were outstanding. After all, they lead the community in thought, they consistently push themselves to do better, they inspire their staff, who also blog, to work hard, and they set challenging goals for all their staff and students.

I was wrong. I found many of these schools led by visionaries were “good,” in particular among those schools recently Ofsted-ed.

I then decided to look up schools local to me, as well as those local to the last borough I taught in.

I knew what I was looking for – schools which were Ofsted “Outstanding”. What made the difference? I’m not entirely sure. The wording of the “Outstanding” reports seemed strangely similar to that of the “Good” reports, even down to the recommendations for improvement.

Finally, I looked up the “Outstanding” reports of schools I personally believe not to be outstanding, from conversations with colleagues and visits. This was a waste of time, as with every high praise I remembered another teacher anecdote and scoffed a little.

2. What does it mean to be a “good” school?

I decided to look at a school I feel is as close to outstanding a school can be under the new criteria. I read the “Good” report, which was similar to many “Outstanding” reports I had recently digested. I read the report from the previous inspection. And the one before that. And the one before that. All good. Each time, the recommendations for improvement were seemingly minor, and each time subtly different. Wow, I think I’d feel a bit cheated if I was the headteacher of that school.

I also looked up schools in that school’s borough, and they were almost all “good” as well, despite being reputed to be significantly worse than this school.

Is “Good” the new 2.1 degree? As in, it can be achieved with both limited and excessive effort?

3. What’s the actual difference between good and outstanding?

I’m looking at the subject specific guidance and feeling like I’m marking controlled assessment again. What really, really is the difference between good and outstanding? It feels very elusive if I’m honest. What I would love are some concrete examples.

For example, in the subject specific guidance for English I’m not sure what the difference between the below statements is. Actually, I’m not even sure I don’t prefer the “Good” to the “Outstanding” explanation. Am I missing something?

Pupils, and particular groups of pupils are well-equipped for the next stage in their education, training or employment as a result of excellent educational experiences. (Outstanding)

Pupils and particular groups of pupils have highly positive educational experiences in English that ensure that they are well prepared for the next stage in their education, training or employment. (Good)

Then there is the giant caveat that Ofsted don’t provide a checklist – it needs to be “best fit” in the opinion of the inspector. I’d like more information on the training of Ofsted inspectors, to be reassured about their training and expectations, as I’ve definitely met some dubious ones moonlighting as consultants (as have many teachers, if Twitter is anything to go by!).

4. Does it even matter?

Reading this blog, which I found extremely shocking, I wonder more and more whether an inspection team doesn’t begin with the end in mind. Do they arrive knowing the result, having explored the data already?

I was told once that it was all about the “feel” of the school: if the kids seem happy and the staff seem motivated, that is the most sure way to the Outstanding lane. But I would say that staff are motivated and children are happy in a huge percentage of “good” schools I know of.

Increasingly I wonder: is there any need for a four point system? It’s basically a two point or fail system at the moment. Why not: good/not good? Why not, instead of awarding a seemingly random “Outstanding” accolade to a select bunch of schools who may or may not have “gamed” the system, make those schools work for it – if they genuinely are a cut above the rest, they can demonstrate this in a myriad of other ways more sensible than painting “Outstanding” on their signage, such as by supporting other schools or opening their doors to teachers from “Good” schools seeking to improve to stratospheric heights.

Because that’s the thing – I have worked in an “Outstanding” school, and definitely believe that there are many schools which are genuinely incredible schools which have much to teach. But there are enough which seem to have achieved this without the support and belief of the local, teaching or pupil community to make me question it.

Furthermore, although my last school was undoubtedly an incredible place to train and work (I adored it), we also lived under the fear of “demotion” as a result of the next impending Ofsted, and that is no way to motivate staff to do a great job day in, day out.

For extended reading, I point you to the Master of Ofsted blogs, Andrew Old, who has done more report analysis than you can shake a stick at.

ofsted outstanding