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.
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.
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.’
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.