A CPD Curriculum in 9 Principles

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a short thread about CPD and school improvement at Lodge Park Academy. I followed it up with a tweet about the poster above and how pleased I was teachers seemed to be using it.

The thread and tweet got more attention than I had thought they would and I had requests for for a blog post on how it all hangs together.

This is it – but before going on it’s worth emphasising the principles behind this strategy are more important than the strategy itself.

I’ve put the principles sitting behind what we do in bold type.

Principle 1: The best people to solve problems are usually those closest to them.

At Lodge Park we only set one school wide step at a time and we encourage departments to make it subject specific. They also set completely specific action steps based on their own priorities. We are open to being convinced a schoolwide action step has no utility for a specific department. When this is the case we allow the department to opt out of the particular cycle.

We are very aware of the danger of generic strategy and we try to mitigate against them.

This post is only about our school wide action steps – if you’re reading this and want to know more about departmental steps please get in touch and I’ll point you towards the right people.

Principle 2: People work best when they are focused on limited number of things at one time.

We begin with conversations about what one specific thing would have the highest impact on the learning of our students if we were all doing it.

We know this will be a compromise but think the benefits of us all working effortfully on one thing outweigh the negatives of everyone doing their own thing with no centralisation at all.

These conversations are journalistic to begin with – based on what leaders think are priorities.

Usually these are about what persistent problems we are facing and which of these would have highest impact if we solved it.

Once we have a range of problems we discuss them at SLT meetings and try to formulate action steps that might resolve then – sharing our evidence base for the opinions we have and challenging each other. We have loads of informal conversations about we’re thinking too– with SLT, leaders, teachers and our pastoral team – checking whether any emerging conclusions are out of whack with our reservoir of professional and contextual expertise.

Principle 3: Certainty is impossible but we can make better bets by looking at lots of evidence before making decisions.

The aim of all this isn’t to arrive at certainty – in low validity research fields this is quixotic.

We’re just aiming to make the best bet we can – what single thing would make the biggest difference if we all did it well?

More than a year and a half ago we decided the single biggest school wide improvement we could make was around Means of Participation – we wanted every student to know exactly what they should be doing for every minute of every lesson.

Principle 4: Solutions to persistent problems will not just be found in our school.

Once we’ve decided on what to work at we go out to find the best possible work we can on this specific problem.

We know we don’t have all the expertise we need to solve our problems.

For our Means of Participation phase this meant drawing heavily on the work of Doug Lemov, Fahim Rahman, Lee Donaghy and Adam Boxer among others.

Principle 5: We show what we care about through making time for it and using that time well

We use the work of others and our own knowledge to plan training on the action step.

This usually means a presentation, some opportunities for practice and the sharing of our research base for those who want to go further than the headline messages. All materials are sent through our weekly bulletin so they can be accessed for people who weren’t present during the training or want reminders.

Time is then given to departments to personalise the training and make it subject specific.

After this SLT meet with the departments they link with to help the subject leader make the school set action step department and subject specific through exemplification and training, and to decide on how progress against it will be quality assured.

Principle 6: To really understand what is going on in a school you need honesty and people aren’t honest when they’re scared.  

Next the Head of Department and SLT link plan appropriate quality assurance for all agreed departmental action steps. This will and should vary according to what the action step is – this quality assurance schedule is then shared with the department. This is important because we want a culture of transparency and trust – firstly because it is just nicer and secondly if things like learning walks and book looks are made high stakes it becomes more likely those subject to them will attempt to hide the truth to stay out of trouble.

This is absolutely not a criticism of teachers – this is a perfectly rational and human response when management is seen as threatening and I think in some schools it’s accepted as just the way things are.

We don’t want a culture in which quality assurance is seen as test in which you show the best aspects of your practice while hiding problems you experience.

We make it as clear as we can that making slow progress or even no progress towards an action step won’t lead to punishment. When things don’t go as well as we all want we try and frame the issue as an interesting puzzle rather than a professional failing.

This is both more humane and more accurate – in complex systems like schools if something isn’t working it’s very rare the reason is one isolated thing going wrong.

It’s far more common there are a number of interacting issues and if we want to work these out and understand them it makes no sense to have a fault-finding approach to performance management.

Sometimes it might be the entire action step was wrong and if it is we need people to feel able to tell us this.

Principle 7: People working on similar problems will find helpful solutions from others working on similar problems.

During each phase we align our experience sharing culture to the schoolwide action step.

During lockdown we did a lot of big Teams meetings in which she discussed what worked online and we pivoted this to more regular operation thorough staff breakfast clubs and the Precision Partnership model established and embedded by our AP for Professional Development, Selina Martin (@dancemarts)

Everything – action steps, training and quality assurance are all recorded on one document, which is then used in review meetings to decide whether the action step has been totally achieved, needs embedding or is failing to bite.

After each phase senior leadership uses what they’ve learned from their link meetings to decide whether the school has made enough progress towards the central action step has been made to make it an LPA Standard and move on, or whether more work is required. No decisions are made ahead of each cycle – adapting to reality means creating the capacity to be surprised and respond when we are.

Over eighteen months we feel we’ve done enough to make Means of Participation, 100% Engagement, Checking for Understanding and Responsive Teaching LPA Standards.

Principle 8: Nobody is perfect all the time and we all need help.

This does not at all mean we think we are perfect at these things.

We know none of us do everything well all the time.

There is no draconian penalty for those of us who slip up and miss things.

There can’t be if we want people to be open and to talk about what they are finding hard so they can get better at it. It means what we’ve worked hard on has now become the standard students should expect. If anyone enters any room and sees one of these things not being done then they should immediately step in to help and that help should be gratefully accepted.

We make this clear this works at all levels. If an ECT pops into my lesson and sees I haven’t noticed a student has their head on their desk while I’m modelling something under the visualiser – which can happens – , I expect them to say something like “Mr Newmark, excuse me but James isn’t looking at the board and I think he should be.”

This allows me to take the right course of action to achieve the LPA Standard.

We don’t want to become complacent about our standards so we make space in our CPD curriculum to review and relaunch them when we need to. This – again – isn’t necessarily a problem. We are busy. We forget. We get tired. A return to our basics is very often the best bet we can make.

Principle 9: People come to work to do their best and will use things if they help them do a better job.

A way we gauge whether or not our teachers are finding what we do useful is by making signage and other resources easily available but not insisting anyone takes them – our hunch is people come to work to do their best and want to get better – so if something is useful and helps them do their job better they’ll engage with it and if they aren’t there’s a very good chance they haven’t found it helpful. This means we need to rethink.

Although there is a lot more to teaching we reckon any school achieving clear Means of Participation and 100% engagement, where teachers check for understanding and respond to what they learn is a long way down the right road.

Standard

The SEND Green Paper – how can we move towards a more affirmatory conception of SEND and learning disability?

The Green Paper and SEND Reform – Tom

In March the government published a green paper which set out proposals for further consultation on reforms to the system for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

We welcome this.

It’s important we surface a debate around how we educate our most vulnerable learners and the green paper is a step in the right direction.

It makes some sensible and pragmatic suggestions about how the system can be more effective and efficient.

The Green Paper is honest in capturing the problems children with SEND and their families experience and it confronts the dire outcomes within the system

It accurately captures the frustrations and inefficiencies – the delays, the disagreements, the multiple interests working across each other and the resource sapping bureaucracy that too often drives young people, their families and professionals working with them to despair and disillusionment.

It understands how regional variation and non-standard ways of doing things combined with inconsistent provision creates a mystifying landscape full of cul-de-sacs and wrong turns, in which our most vulnerable children and their families are often bewildered and lost.

It appreciates how hard it is to regain purpose and momentum once things have begun to go wrong stating that: “carers and providers alike do not know what is reasonable to expect from their local systems.”

This sort of honesty is welcome.

A lack of clarity around exactly who is responsible for what is a source of many of the disagreements and frustrations between families and professionals. Those of us who contribute to EHCPs in school know just how difficult it can be to agree exactly who should provide a service, by when and who should be held to account – and how this can create unpleasant tension that can unhelpfully damage important relationships that work best when they’re free of conflict.

Many of the proposed solutions are sensible too – such as consistent national standards for how special educational needs are identified and met, standardised approaches to EHCPs across the country and greater clarity around what can be expected. The current EHCP system is a source of enormous inefficiency and the current postcode lottery where children with higher and complex needs get more or less support depending on where they live is entirely unsatisfactory.

Overall, the green paper frames these different problems through three challenges:

Firstly, that outcomes for children with SEND are poor.

Secondly, that navigating the SEND system is not a positive experience for children, young people and their families

Thirdly, despite unprecedented investment, the system is not delivering value for money

We recognise these challenges and are supportive of any reform that will help to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and user experience of the system.

But we think there is a fourth and more fundamentally important challenge that the Green Paper does not recognise. Special Educational Needs and Disability is still framed within a deficit narrative – it conceptualises learning disability and special educational needs as something somehow going wrong.

As Leora Cruddas, CEO of CST says:

‘It is important for us to move on from a deficit narrative built around the medical model of disability to a more inclusive and socially affirmative narrative of human flourishing.’

We think we can do better.

Deficit narratives – Ben

When we compare outcomes of children with special educational needs to those without, we imply success always looks the same.

This can very easily create the belief disability or greater need is something to be educated out of someone – even a defect.

We see this in the application processes for EHCPs and DLAs where to get help parents and professionals must gather evidence a child is so behind their peers they can’t possibly catch or keep up without additional resource.

The intent is not malicious – a way of identifying children who need support is necessary – but the effect can be brutal.

Many families find it traumatic.

What’s produced ends up being a list of things your child can’t do all together in one place laid out as failures.

There is space to share your child’s strengths, interests and aspirations, but many families feel these sections are tokenistic and are not given the same weight as the focus on things they can’t do. 

Many feel they do have clear ambitions and visions for their child, but these are side-lined or even ignored.

To access help, a child needs to be seen to fail at things other children succeed at.

Professionals know and – I think – find it as awful as families do.

We were warned about it – told from the outset the process we’d need to get Bessie help would be unpleasant but like many other families – were advised not to let our love get in the way of confronting objective reality – as if all our positivity and joy was a childish fantasy that now needed to be shoved aside. 

We were advised to show her in the worst possible light – to hold our daughter up for judgement to strangers and provide evidence of her failure ourselves.

While the process is not intended or planned this way no family should be subject to this indignity – especially those most burdened with appointments, paperwork and procedure already. 

It creates the sense that the world sees your child as worse than other children, and this creates adversarial relationships between families and the education system.

As Barney Angliss writes in the researchED Guide to SEND “it often seems the only way for young people with SEND – or their parents and carers to get help.. is to characterise themselves as ‘impaired’, somehow less.”

This deficit framing of learning difficulty and disability informs the Green Paper.

The Key Facts section of the Paper notes that – for example – the average attainment 8 score for KS4 students with SEND is much lower than for those without any identified needs and uses this as evidence things are not working.

Most children who struggle to learn end up with lower grades than those who don’t. Of course they do. We should not be scared to say so. 

And it does not mean there is something wrong with these children.

Today we are suggesting a better path means reframing the way in which we view learning and humanity. 

It doesn’t mean dismissing academic achievement. Instead it means broadening the scope of what we celebrate and finding ways to reward learning regardless of how children perform against their peers.

We don’t think school has to be a zero-sum competition between those who find learning easy and those that don’t. 

We think it is possible to identify those who need help and then help them without humiliation or shame.  

This may require an effortful refocusing but we are certain it is possible.

To get started we need to understand the problem with the value system in which we live – exactly what meritocracy is and how it affects the way we frame education.

The Meritocracy – Tom

The term ‘meritocracy’ is the ideal of success, status or power being distributed on merit (talent, achievement and hard work) rather than through other means such as social class or on a hereditary basis. It’s the ideal of people getting further in life not because they were born into it, but because they earned their success and they deserved it.

We can hear the language of meritocracy in everyday language such as:

You can make it if you try.

You make your own luck.

Work hard at school and you will get good grades, go on to university, get a good job and lead a happy and successful life.

Or more negative variants such as:

If you don’t work hard and get good grades, you will end up stacking shelves at Tescos.

You’ll waste your life doing that.

The term ‘meritocracy’ was coined by the sociologist, Michael Young in 1958 in an essay where he described a future and dysfunctional society where a tension existed between high IQ elites in positions of power and influence believed strongly that their position at the top of society is deserved and a disenfranchised underclass of those left behind.

In Michael Sandel’s 2020 book, the tyranny of merit, he argues that these narratives of meritocracy have become increasingly common in western society. It’s the American dream: the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone.

But listen more closely to the rhetoric: ‘everyone can rise’, ‘you can make it if you try’, ‘what you earn, depends on what you learn’. So is it true? 

Sandel argues that during this same period of increased faith in meritocracy social mobility actually declined.

The meritocracy doesn’t deliver the social mobility it promises

Sandel points out, in countries where the narratives of social mobility are strongest, there is in fact less equity and social mobility than in others. In America (the home of the American dream where everyone can be upwardly mobile if they follow their dreams and work hard), the richest 1% of the population earn more than the lowest 50% of the population combined yet 77% of Americans believe the statement that ‘people can succeed if they work hard’ (American dream, it would appear, is not alive and well).

From the perspective of narrowing educational gaps between children from high and lower income families, our school system currently fails to deliver social mobility.  Children from low income families start school 4 months developmentally behind those from more affluent backgrounds. Despite over a decade of pupil premium funding and a national focus on ‘disadvantage’, the gap doubles by the end of primary school, and doubles again by the end of secondary school to nearly 20 months.

The attainment gap is not a problem found only in schools assessed by Ofsted as performing poorly – in fact, it’s just as large in schools rated ‘Outstanding’ as it is in schools rated ‘Inadequate’.

The meritocracy creates losers as well as winners 

It’s easy to talk about the ideal of jumping up a social class or rags to riches tales of people who ‘make it’ against the odds. But the reality is that these stories are against the odds and not typical.

They also often fail to talk about the uncomfortable truth which is that in order for someone to become a winner, it has to happen at someone else’s expense. Meritocratic success is finite and there are a limited number of places at desired universities or top jobs which if someone ‘makes it’, it means someone else has not.

In a zero sum game, being a winner requires someone else to be a loser and we’re often not honest about this displacement.

This is true also in a school setting. For every celebration we hear of someone ‘moving up a set’ or ‘making the team’ there is someone else who travelled down.

The meritocracy creates the hubris of the successful

The meritocracy lead us to believe that if we are successful, it’s because we deserve our success, that we got there on merit – through our own hard work and talent.

This leads to the hubris of the successful, where we believe our success came through hard work or talent, rather than because the odds were stacked in our favour or we were in the right place at the right time.

But if we believe that we get what we deserve in life, we also have to hold the same belief for people who are less successful. By extension, we must believe those who don’t do well in life, deserve their fate and didn’t work hard enough. People who experience success might not say this out loud – they might not even consciously think it. But you cannot simultaneously believe that you deserved your success,

without believing someone else deserved their failure.

In a school environment, this is damaging for those who don’t achieve – the 30% or so of the school population who don’t leave primary school with passes in Reading or Maths, the 1/3 of children who leave secondary school without qualifications that enable them choice. A life without choice and an implicit belief from society that they deserved it.

The meritocracy reinforces a narrow set of ideals about what a good life is

Sandel argues that we’ve become more fixated as a society about this has become more focused on a particular type of success, one that is recognised through qualifications, exams and particular professions.

This credentialism has become an almost singular focus of our education system which leads, in turn, to a narrow conception of what a good and worthy life is. The section in the Green Paper of describing the gap in academic outcomes between the overall population and children with special educational needs and disabilities is an example of this

If we are to take this opportunity as society to think again about the place for those with special educational needs and disability, we have to be able to make fuller and more inclusive articulation of what a good life is, and what it could be.

Fully actualised humans – Ben

In January, former Love Island star Molly-Mae Hauge briefly became The Main Character on Twitter after she shared a quote about Beyonce having the same twenty-four-hours in a day as everyone else.

She was endorsing the meritocratic myth – the idea we are all equal and have nobody to blame but ourselves if we aren’t successful.

There was pushback because many people understood while Beyonce may well achieve more than most of us do in a day she has advantages making it easier for her.

But Molly-Mae has a point – we all do have twenty-four-hours.

Her mistake was in seeing Beyonce’s achievements as superior to those of others who have used their time differently.

Beyonce’s achievements are not more important than those of a nurse finishing a sixteen-hour shift at Great Ormond Street. While the world affords Beyonce greater rewards than a nurse it also understands this does not make her achievements morally superior. 

There is no one way to be successful. 

By measuring everyone with the same ruler and only with this ruler we construct some people as failures and narrow the range of things for which humans can achieve honour and dignity.

This is of concern to us. 

My daughter, Bessie, has Williams Syndrome and is unlikely to ever become a famous millionaire businesswoman, singer or nurse. Tom’s son, Freddie, has Down’s syndrome, Autism and due to early childhood epilepsy is mainly non-verbal at 16 – it is unrealistic for him to become a doctor, a teacher or to hold a position of public office.

Bessie is a typical five-year-old in many ways.

She learns phonics and numeracy at school and spends much of her time playing babies and cats with her sister, Rose.

There are differences too.

Her learning disability means she is already behind most of her peers at reading and counting. 

This gap will almost certainly widen but this does not mean there is anything wrong with her.

Williams Syndrome is part of what makes her the person she is.

It part of her personal charisma.

It is why on the first day of school when far more academically able children struggled she placed herself on the threshold smiling and beckoning them in.

Her learning disability is part of why her twenty-four-hours – and those of her family – are so full and rich. It is an inherent and immutable part of what makes her, her.

There are no better versions of Bessie and Freddie without their learning disabilities in parallel universes.

They will always have them. They are not unwell. They are fine as they are. 

We know Bessie and Freddie are not typical of all children with SEND. 

Some children may be pragmatically well served by a deficit conceptualisation and a framework based entirely on affirming the difficulties children face as aspects of character runs the risk of lowering expectations and depriving those who need help of the support they need.

I understand this well because I have high expectations too.

I want Bessie to read and I want her to be able to add up, take-away and multiply.

I want her to get extra help. I do not want the adults in her life to say things like ‘bless her heart’ while allowing her to spend all day playing in the sandpit because this is what she says makes her happiest.

I want her known, identified and properly supported.

The beginning of resolving this apparent contradiction – between helping with need but also affirming people is understanding what makes a person find something hard is not a character flaw to be educated out of them.

The Green Paper is not framed like this. 

Instead it suggests if we intervene early, we can stop children developing SEND or make their SEND less severe, and by doing so better equip them to compete in the meritocratic battle of life.

While this might be useful for some children it is exclusive to others and it means framing those who find learning hardest as problems.

There are lots of people who find learning hard – lots who aren’t great at anything deemed valuable by mainstream society – people who won’t win competitions. By making the value of humans contingent on an ability to excel in the least imaginative sense we strip away their dignity and opportunity to live a good, fulfilled life. 

This is what deficit framing does.

I think it is the reason a father with an eleven-year-old with autism once told me in a meeting “I just want him to be normal” before breaking down into tears of defeat and shame at what he’d just said. 

It is why any ambition to reduce the level of SEND among England’s children by teaching it out of them is misguided – it legitimises the sense there is something wrong with you if you can’t learn as quickly as others.

And this isn’t just about children with SEND.

In assuming failing to learn quickly and meritocratically achieve is a defect then all of us aside from the very highest flyers will be found wanting too.

We are entitled to better – to a more ambitious and fuller articulation of what a good life is.

The counternarrative – Tom

At this point, it’s important for us to say that having made some criticisms of the meritocracy, credentialism and very narrow conceptualisation of ‘a good life’, it might come as a surprise we’re not saying that we shouldn’t have exams, performance tables or a focus on high academic achievement in schools.

On the contrary, we believe that these things have value and are important tools in raising educational standards more generally.

But we recognise there is a risk that this argument might be interpreted as somehow being anti-intellectual, anti-exams or having low expectations. But without making it, we consign millions of children who don’t achieve normative success in schools to an existence where the meritocracy tells them: you failed, you didn’t try hard enough, you get what you deserve.

We don’t think this makes us enemies of promise or that this is somehow the soft bigotry of low expectations. On the contrary, we want to have much higher expectations for children who find learning the hardest. Higher expectations of outcomes but also higher expectations for the dignity and respect that these children experience. Ultimately, a higher expectations for our conception of what a good life is and can be.

It is comforting to believe there are innate, unique and meritocratic talents in everyone just waiting to be unlocked and the reason not everyone is able to rise to the life’s top table is because we are doing education wrong.

This sort of thinking is well-intentioned.

It moves culpability for bad outcomes away from those who struggle and places it on a failure of our education system.

If it were true we could solve these problems by working on radical pedagogies that would unleash this ocean of hidden capability allowing those with SEND and learning disability the same chance as everyone else at meritocratic success.

But it isn’t true.

While as humans we are all of inherent equal value this does not mean the most meritocratically advantageous capabilities have been distributed equally.

Saying otherwise is a fiction we tell to make ourselves feel better about society’s inability to properly include all its members because it fails to recognise human value as inherent.

Our squeamishness about confronting this can be unhelpful.

We hear our society’s defensiveness about facing up to who our children really are when parents like Ben and I are told they have ‘delays’ in learning, as if struggles at communication or reading are just speedbumps on a road to the same place everyone else is going.

With Freddie for example, Adele and I sat through at least 5 years of nursery and primary school parents evenings regularly being told that ‘Freddie’s not mark marking’. It became a joke between us, if one of us couldn’t get to the parents evening the other would say ‘guess what they said?’ 

‘He’s still not mark making’.

Freddie doesn’t write.

I don’t think he’ll ever write – he doesn’t need to.

So why does he need to mark make? And why did we as parents did we need to spend 5 years having written reports that told us he wasn’t doing it very well.

This is example of where the school system assumes that everyone is on the same path – and that any difference is a delay, it’s slower, and seen as lower.

An example of where children with profound learning disability are inappropriately compared to the progress of young people who have few obstacles to learning.

But this doesn’t mean that conventional measures of success are worthless.

Strong exam results and high academic achievement are legitimate aims and to suggest that we should do away with them because not all children can excel at them would be to go too far. It would damage the life chances of millions of young people capable of better academic outcomes than they themselves realise.

We should celebrate ten grade 9s at GCSE as impressive. Just as we should celebrate Usain Bolt’s 100m world record.

By celebrating Usain Bolt’s achievements, we are not making running less valuable for the rest of us.

Ben and me don’t sweat our way around a 5k in Lycra thinking what’s the point of this?”, because we are not in competition with world athletes.

We are mediocre runners but like it anyway because it is good to run. Running is an inherently good thing to do and if we go faster than normal, we’re happy!

Our value as humans isn’t tied to how fast we run. We did not start our running life at the same point Usain Bolt did. There are good reasons he is faster than us both.

There are lots of people who find learning harder than we do.

There are lots of people aren’t great at anything deemed valuable by mainstream society – people who won’t win at most competitions. By making the value of humans contingent on their ability to excel in a limited number of things such as their income, their academic credentials or certain professions, we strip away their dignity and opportunity to live a good, fulfilled life. We make it hard for them to see why they should bother trying at all.

This presents us with a challenge.

How can we educate children of all abilities in ways that allow them recognition and honour for their work regardless of whether it results in meritocratic reward? How can we show them they don’t need to be Beyonce or an ICU nurse to achieve the positive regard of their communities?

The problem is not that there is anything wrong with celebrating achievement – it is we’ve got a bit lost and come to see meritocratic performance indicators – like exam results – as virtues in themselves rather than being potential contributors to a good life for those capable of achieving them. We have narrowed our conception of what learning is for and what a good life is in a way that puts it out of reach for people like Bessie and Freddie and impoverishes the endeavour for everyone.

How might we rebalance?

Ways forward – Ben

 Here are five suggestion – if nothing else we hope these can begin good conversations.

 High expectations for all.

The meritocracy wants to concentrate resources on people who are already advantaged.

It is taken as given those who are clever deserve better than those who are not and are entitled to it.  

It isn’t true, it is exclusive and we can resist it.

While the journeys of those of us who find learning difficult will be different, their paths are just as worthy of our attention.  

They deserve teachers just as qualified and ambitious as those of the most academically gifted. 

This is something that’s been said well by Nicole Dempsey in the ResearchED guide to leadership in which she says of her school Dixons Trinity Academy:

“The quality of input, high expectations and staff accountability that we apply to our highest attaining learners is the right of all pupils. “

This isn’t cheap – children like Bessie and Freddie do require more resource than those who don’t. We need everyone to agree they are entitled to it.

Children who find learning tough deserve imaginative curriculums of possibility that listen to them and their families. Although they might not look like yours or mine they have the right to dreams as exciting and wild as anyone else’s.

For these children high expectations means talking to them and the people who know them best and taking their ambitions seriously even – especially – when they don’t look like our ambitions. 

By placing children and their families at the bottom of ladders they can and want to climb and then placing their feet on the first rungs we make aspiration for all more than just rhetoric.

Celebrate a broader range of things in school.

Schools have awards for being loyal, brave, kind and helpful but they often feel compensatory– a sort of ‘bless ‘em’ prize for those who we know won’t ever get the best exam grades or reach Grade 8 cello.

This is not the fault of schools – society’s patronising attitude towards those who don’t win at life’s big games makes making such celebrations meaningful tough, but I think we can swim harder against this particular tide.  

We can show we value a wide range of human qualities.

While it is common for schools to bring back alumni who have meritocratically achieved – and they should not stop doing this – inviting a former pupil who has spent years working as a carer on minimum wage to inspire children to lives of responsibility and commitment to their communities is much rarer. 

It would be good for everyone because humans don’t derive value from only their income or fame. Recognition of being of use is powerful too. Such an example could inspire everyone and show those who struggle to learn academically they can still live lives of meaning

Schools that want to properly include those who find learning hard should think carefully about what these children will go on to do when they leave. Our education system and wider society should work together to provide destinations for everyone.  

The mark of truly excellent schooling for learning disabled young people will probably not be found in the number of GCSEs students get – it is in what these children go on to do and how fulfilling their adult lives are.

This would be a start. 

But what about those as unlikely to secure work in a care home as they are to become Beyonce?

What can we do for these children? 

For little girls like Bessie and young men like Freddie.

Value learning and work in itself

We could shift the way success is recognised and celebrated from mainly meritocratic achievement and towards the pursuit of learning for its own sake.

Simone Weil argues for this in her paper “The Reflection On The Right Use of School Studies With A View To the Love of God” in which she says the goal of school should be to increase our capacity to work at something regardless of whether we find it easy or hard, interesting or boring.

For Weil there is honour even in failure – dignity in honest struggle.

This places value on the process of learning.

This might make our most able young people – those best equipped to meritocratically achieve  –  better students by steering them away from the sort of pride and overconfidence that leads to misconception, error and misunderstanding.

Those who find learning difficult could be honoured for their struggle and celebrated free of condescension. It would allow us to properly see the achievement of a person who – after weeks of work – learns to tie a shoe on their own. It would allow us to see the sublime strength in a child taking their first steps after years of work. 

Seen this way – the right way – achievements like this can inspire us all – manifestations of the best of humanity not wooden spoons for those who won’t win meritocratic recognition.

Avoid playing the meritocratic game.

A Head of Year standing in front of an exam cohort and telling them their hard work will be rewarded by high grades, offers from top universities, high falutin’ careers and associated inevitable happiness is familiar to us because it makes for a compelling and reassuring narrative.

Good people work hard and are rewarded for their efforts.

But this isn’t true for lots of people.

Perhaps we know this on one level and are playing the odds – thinking children are more likely to be happy if they do well in school than if they do not. 

Perhaps we think telling children this story is a white lie – not true but helpful for them to believe.

The problem is how exclusionary and frightening this is for children who know they aren’t likely to excel at the sorts of things we are used to celebrating.

Such a message might even be counterproductive because it lands most firmly with those who find academic work easiest and misses those who find it hard.

Instead let’s honour children who apply themselves to work however hard they find it for doing it and not just for the result – and let’s be honest. Hard work may result in better exam grades but beyond that our predictions become much less certain.

Start today.

None of this will defeat the meritocracy. We won’t destroy it in half an hour in Leicestershire.

Perhaps we don’t want to anyway – perhaps we need it and history suggests revolutions more often do more harm than good. We should be wary about burning things down in the hope something better will rise from the ashes. 

Perhaps what we’ve talked about is only a counter narrative necessary to keep the meritocracy in check – to avoid falling wholesale for the idea we all get what we deserve. 

What we have proposed today might just be a dream. 

But it is a good dream and the first, perhaps most important step we can take for children like ours is daring to dream better for them.

Thank you for coming. Your attention matters. 

This needs more than just people working in the SEND system.

We can’t do this on our own. We need you to feel this is something that connects with your work and is important whether you work with children with SEND or not. 

It can’t be left to those of us already exhausted by forms and appointments and endless meetings.

It can’t be left to the wonderful professionals – perhaps the best of us – who work every day with the children who find learning most difficult. 

There’s just too much to do. 

We – Me, Tom, our families and our friends -The SENDCO in your school and their team – know this well.

We can’t do it alone. 

So help, please. 

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Why George Monbiot is wrong about exams

Respected environmental journalist George Monbiot takes a dim view of the way we school our children and has written a series of articles explaining why.

While I admire him – his environmental journalism is outstanding – out of specialism he is as vulnerable to his own biases as the rest of us, and often ends up misinterpreting and cherry-picking evidence to support a position he’s already arrived at.

In his latest piece –which you can read here – he argues exams may be a significant cause of the increase in mental health issues since 2017. A source for the claim is this survey in which 66% of 2000 children cited exams and homework as their most significant cause of stress and anxiety. The survey took place around same time as the first school shutdown, so we should consider the possibility part of this anxiety might be linked to uncertainty around how students would be assessed following the cancellation of exams.

Not knowing is worrying.

It’s also worth remembering the survey included children from ages 8 to 17 and it’s unlikely the spread of results would have been consistent among all ages groups – while all year groups do homework not all do exams, which might mean it was homework children find most stressful. Without seeing a breakdown of results it’s impossible to know. Even a full breakdown wouldn’t move us much further forward – self reporting exams as a source of stress doesn’t create a causal link to poor mental health in the context of millions of complicated lives.

There are problems with Monbiot’s second source too – a survey of NEU members in which 73% of 650 respondents said they felt student mental health had deteriorated since GCSEs were reformed. The first issue with this is NEU’s critical position towards exams. This is likely to distort results making wider conclusions on the views of the profession as a whole impossible – the findings are entirely in line with what we’d expect from members of an exam critical union motivated enough to respond.

It’s also important to be aware of just how huge the NEU is – it has nearly half a million members which makes 650 a vanishingly small sample size. To demonstrate how flawed this is I ran a twitter poll earlier today asking “Are the new 9-1 GCSEs a significant cause of a decline in the mental health of young people?” As of four pm 70% of 202 respondents said they didn’t think they were, which is interestingly almost a perfect reversal of the NEU poll. This – of course – does not mean exams definitely aren’t causing anxiety but shows how variable the results of surveys are and how in isolation they don’t add up to much.

Anyway.

Even if we give Monbiot’s reading of his sources the benefit of the doubt – and this is generous – the conclusions he draws from them are still unsound.

The first issue is his failure to seriously consider anything else that might be causing a deterioration in mental health and this makes his argument almost certainly too simplistic and very likely just plain wrong.

By omission Monbiot’s suggests the deterioration in mental health – which is a genuine crisis – has nothing to do with social media, a stagnant economy, anxiety about climate change or the hollowing out of social services over the last decade. This is implausible – there is good evidence all these things worry young people with the correlation between an increase in the amount of time spent on social media apps and declining mental health of particular interest given how it crosses national boundaries.

Monbiot has made a correlation causation error and a quick step back to look the wider picture shows just how unlikely he is to be right in any substantive sense.

His argument is further weakened by how long exams have been going on. Exams are an embedded feature of our educational system for generations – they aren’t new. Monbiot briefly addresses this by suggesting it’s the 9-1 ‘strengthened’ exams driving the decline but this makes little sense. To attribute such a marked and worrying deterioration in mental health to a change in content to exams children have sat for decades just doesn’t ring true.

Having made his case about exams causing poor mental health Monbiot suggests exams themselves are of no use in measuring the most important capabilities of children. He claims their only purpose is to preserve the privileges of advantaged groups. This section of his article tags in all the familiar tropes around exams testing only rote learning, narrowing curriculum and damaging learning. I don’t have the time or energy to clear up all these myths and misconceptions but rebuttals aren’t hard to find – please tweet them in replies if you have them to hand.

Instead I’ll point out there isn’t a person I know who’d argue exams are perfect measures of skills, capacity and knowledge, or that they don’t come with downsides.

All of us know this well.

The issue isn’t that exams are perfect but that everything else we’ve tried has come with are worse.

Continuous teacher assessment is often just as stressful and is more vulnerable to teacher bias. I’ve never known anything that narrowed my subject’s curriculum more than coursework did. Just about every other method of assessment is more vulnerable to gaming and manipulation than exams are. Just about every other method ends up further disadvantaging the most vulnerable. A plethora of different assessment methods is an administrative nightmare and soaks up energy that could be used on developing and implementing strong curriculum.

Saying more is pointless given Monbiot doesn’t give any concrete suggestions for what he’d replace exams with.

Instead he seems to think exams are so terrible razing the system we have to the ground would inevitably result in something better rising from the ashes.

This is naïve.

It is also dangerous.

In attributing the cause of something as serious as the decline in mental health of our young people to predominantly one thing we close our eyes to other things that might be even more important.

Imagine the absolute chaos an announcement of the permanent end to exams would cause and what this would mean for an education system already frighteningly stretched, especially in the context of falling budgets and the shrinkage of social services. How destabilising would this be? How worrying? Who would be best and worst equipped to navigate a chaotic new landscape?

I have great sympathy with one thing Monbiot says. I think he’s right that instrumentalism and credentialism are problematic. I also think how well people do at school has become dangerously high stakes within an increasingly meritocratic, technocratic society. I agree the range of human virtues we value and celebrate is too narrow. I’ve written about this before.

Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit has very important and interesting things to say about this if anyone wants to go deeper.

But changing the way we assess young people won’t make a dent in this and Monbiot is naïve in thinking getting rid of exams would mean the end of private tuition, assessment prep and other methods used by the most advantaged to outperform the less fortunate.  

New assessment methods would just mean new ways to game and new ways in which curriculum would be narrowed and education degraded.

These are likely to be worse than what we have now.

We know because it’s happened before- this call to arms is more reactionary than revolutionary.

We’ve tried to find other ways of doing things – many, many times.

We know about this stuff.

It’s galling and frustrating to read articles like Monbiot’s in which those of us who’ve given our lives to education are at best witless pawns trapped in a game we only play because we don’t understand it and at worst monstrous ogres forcing children through hoops they don’t fit through out of spite. A world in which journalists whose expertise lies in other fields are so confident they know better than those of us who’ve worked decades in this one they conclude articles by saying our work preparing children for exams “inflicts pain and distress on our children, narrows their minds and forces them to conform” and seem to expect us just to take it.

The final sentences of the article – in which Monbiot breezily owns up to having no ideas as to how to things better – are perhaps the most infuriating of all.

“Q: What would a fair, rounded, useful 21st-century education look like? A: Nothing like this.”

I expect better from George Monbiot – a person of integrity who I will continue respecting regardless of what he writes about education.

Sorry if this came over as a bit of rant. I’m not angry – honest. Just disappointed

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Why is more important than what.

Someone I know has an enthusiastic and knowledgeable daughter who on her first visit to the British Museum wanted to see the Rosetta Stone more than she did anything else.

Although it’s something we’ve all heard of it’s still an impressively niche choice.

On the face of it the artefact itself is pretty unimpressive – just a broken slab of granite-like rock with the same thing – fairly boring stuff on the achievements of a specific pharaoh – carved in three different languages. What’s important about it isn’t what it says– it’s that the two known languages on it allowed the translation of hieroglyphics which unlocked the literature of Ancient Egypt to scholars and resulted in astonishing breakthroughs. 

I hope my colleague is proud of her daughter. She should be. What she’s grasped is that artefacts – physical things you can touch and hold – are only important because of what they mean and this is a lesson I think many of us – certainly myself – can too easily forget.

Teaching and teaching leadership are low-validity research domains.

The complexity of schools and the communities they serve makes it hard to work out the impact of discrete actions and decisions.

An improvement or decline in outcomes – from better GCSE results to worse behaviour – is almost always down to range of interacting things. Did GCSE results go up because of Growth Mindset assemblies or was it because of our targeted use of after school intervention? Is behaviour worse this year because the new system we brought in isn’t working or is because of high staff turnover last year? Even though behaviour is poor might it be even worse if the system hadn’t been changed?

It is impossible to be sure and it is often impossible to devise ethical ways in which to be more certain – the sort of randomised control trials and studies used routinely in medicine and other more defined fields don’t work well in our world. It just wouldn’t be right – for example – to withhold a potentially powerful intervention like online one-to-one tutoring from some students in order to assess its impact on others.

While such uncertainty can feel paralysing it has to be acknowledged and confronted.

What we do is important and although it is hard to make correct decisions we have to try – we can’t throw up our hands and say because we can’t be sure about anything it’s best not to do anything or that because we can’t be certain anything goes.

We must work within the uncertainty.

This means holding our views and decisions lightly and being ready to shift when the gradual accumulation of softer and harder evidence creates a compelling case for change.

This can be hard to do. It is hardest in systems and cultures steeped in transformative leadership models of management which privilege certainty and action over reflection and restraint.

When things need to improve then things must change. Decisions must be made. Things must be done.

While this is all well and good we get problems when actions and decisions in of themselves becomes the point of rather than the means for improvement, which can happen when systems and the people in them try to hide from uncertainty by cladding themselves in the illusory armour of certainty – when they either deliberately or unconsciously pretend to be sure about things they can’t be sure about.

One manifestation of this is the privileging of school artefacts over the reasons for the artefacts – a misconception akin to valuing the Rosetta Stone for how it looks and its weight and heft rather than what it means and represents.

An example of this might be a school requiring teachers give feedback in a specific way – for example demanding they fill in a school-wide standard whole class feedback sheet or requiring teachers insist children respond to feedback in a different coloured pen. Here there is a risk the sheet or pen becomes the point with the quality of the feedback of less importance.

There are further risks.

Unless those asking for specific artefacts are careful they might find (or not if there’s no incentive to look) that the type of work and the sorts of task teachers ask their pupils to do become dictated by the format of the artefact.

The danger here are teachers doing things like setting tasks that could easily be responded to quickly in green pen because it could be responded to quickly in green pen not because it was really the right work for the child or class. Teachers doing this shouldn’t be blamed – by taking control of the artefact and emphasising its importance leaders are making a claim they know better than their teachers how best to do an aspect of their teaching and all teachers who fall in line are doing is respecting hierarchy.

Sometimes – in some contexts often  – leaders will be right to step in but in others they might be wrong and when they are wrong teaching becomes vulnerable.

A teacher subject to regular scrutiny of whole class feedback sheets – particularly if the scrutiny is high stakes – might end up aiming to fill in the forms as quickly and efficiently as possible rather than spending time thinking about where children had not understood something well and what to do about it – especially if what they had to do didn’t fit neatly on the form and wasn’t immediately visible to external audiences.

In both examples the artefact has eaten the reason it was introduced from the inside out leaving just a husk behind.

The point is not that there is anything wrong with standardised feedback sheets or using different coloured pens –there can be great value in both these things if they are done for the right reasons. Nor is that leaders should never ask teachers to do things in a specific way – there are lot of times this is appropriate and correct.

The point is just caution – that we ask ourselves “why do we want teachers to do this?” more than “in what sort of format should we ask teachers to do this?”, and that we remain vigilant for times form may be assuming ascendency over function.

We must remember why the Rosetta Stone is important. Without knowing it’s just a piece of black rock in an old building.

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A Chosen Child

B has been in proper ‘big school’ school for almost six months now. It is going well.

She’s happy.

We are impressed and encouraged by the expertise and the commitment to true inclusivity her teachers and teaching assistants demonstrate every day. As we tell them often what they have done and continue to do for her is important because it has set our expectations high.

Knowing what’s possible we will never be satisfied by lacklustre or mediocre provision.

As a result of all the help and her own efforts B continues to thrive and her evolution into a confident, self-assured and articulate little girl delight us. Her interests and opinions peel away the dulling scales of familiarity and reveal everyday wonders in refreshed colour.

“Listen Daddy!,” she says, pointing at me in imitation of her teacher. “I’m teaching you about castles now. Do you know some are close and some are far away? Did you know knights live in them with horses? Did you know that daddy?”

While of course on the most prosaic level I know these things B’s discovery makes them new. I did know but I didn’t know. I had forgotten.

This is a gift all children bring us.

In the meetings we have to chat about how she’s getting on we learn new words and phrases. One of these goes something like “she is a chosen child”. This little idiom – cloaked in sadness in its acknowledgement some children are not chosen – fills me with great hope.

It means that other children choose to befriend, socialise with and play with B of their own volition.

This is something I’ve thought about. I’ve worried about it too because B is different. 

Children are human. Their desire to fit in and for acceptance can make a different child seem like a social burden it’s best to be without. Wishing the world was otherwise won’t change it. While we can do our best to mediate, facilitate and nurture more complicated relationships we can’t make one child like another if they don’t. We can’t force a child to feel a responsibility to look out for another when they’re negotiating complicated social paths themselves.

What delights us about B – her uncritical, all accepting, all trusting, two-fisted, wholehearted and loving desire to connect can be unnerving to those experiencing this emotional intensity for the first time. Sometimes – watching her fall in love with a new friend, a ladybird or even a shrink-wrapped raw ham (this has happened), it seems as if there is so much love in her it overflows her banks – that there just isn’t enough space in the world to hold her gifts.  

Given the high propensity of this sort of outlook in people with Williams Syndrome it is likely a key driver of this is genetic.

I have read suggestions the tiny microdeletion of DNA causing WS may remove some of the genes responsible for checking the innately human desire for community. This – the same suggestion goes – might also be why most people with Williams Syndrome have a great affinity for music. The theory goes that most of us are held back from complete immersion in song because a bit of us is always apart – coldly appraising ourselves and others as individuals even at our most communal. People with Williams don’t hear the internal voice saying “Am I singing well? What do others think? Am I better or worse than everyone else?” – they just want to be part of the togetherness.

Williams Syndrome isn’t a deficit – it’s a fuller expression of a part of humanity we all have.

I hope this is true because it is lovely.

But this fuller expression of one part of humanity does come at a cost to another.

Life can be cruel and hard and the part of us that appraises, schemes and works out whether others are an advantage or disadvantage to us is a useful tool. Being without it makes a world created by others harder to understand and navigate. Those who lack this instinct – an absence of guile as a wise friend once put it – require others to guard and protect them.

It is so important to me B is chosen because she needs the loyalty of others to keep her safe.

And I think she will be fine.

I feel this more and more. She turns up to parties and other children squeal and jump and scream “B!” and run to hug her.

She is popular – and those of us lucky enough to know her understand why.

B offers acceptance.

There is security in her friendship. I think we all – her teachers, family and friends – know this on an instinctive level. To be in B’s life is to know you are wholly accepted; there is no part of her held back – no part of her that might use you or decide you’re no longer worth the bother of friendship because there are other people it’s more advantageous to spend time with. It is to go through life knowing there is someone all in on your side– a person who will celebrate your achievements without surpressed envy and console you in hard times free of the faintest trace of schadenfreude.

To be in B’s heart is to be locked safely there.

Just last week my bold, bright and precocious younger daughter fell and banged her arm.

She was distraught as two-year-olds are when they are suddenly hurt and frightened. My wife and I were there but she ran first to B. She threw herself into her sister’s arms who hugged her back and made everything better.

In this there is such hope – the same upwelling I feel when I watch the “Undateables” and see vulnerable young people protected and nurtured by friends whose own lives are immeasurably enhanced by people who may never win life’s most gaudy and obvious prizes but offer something both more subtle and profound. People who teach different philosophies – different ways to live and understand.

These stories are humanity at its best – a lesson that while the world is not always as it should be sometimes it is and that means it can be.

B and people like her can build this world but they will need our help just as we need theirs. We need each other for this is a world that cannot be built alone.

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Book Review. The Queen’s Fool by Ally Sherrick

One of the questions faced by historians interested in marginalised people and groups is how to write history when there are comparatively few sources and little existing scholarship.

Some might conclude in cases where we have little evidence we should not attempt history at all. This is –  of course –  unsatisfactory as it condemns and even endorses the confinement of already underrepresented people to historical obscurity – victims of the same forces that made their voices quiet and hard to find in the first place.

Neither is it acceptable for history to overstate its claims when there is a paucity of evidence about its subject. In such cases – whether it is the Norman Conquest for which we have only a handful of sources – or whether it is people with learning disability for which we he have few across thousands of years– the form of history has to be different to that on subjects for which historians can draw upon a wealth of documents.

History here will be more tentative – more suggestive and more circumspect with hedged interpretations and conclusions. While historians must still pay careful attention to the evidence there is perhaps more scope for imagination to fill in the bigger gaps as long as the line between conclusion and speculation is made clear.

Novelists are not constrained by sources at all and are free to do what they want with the historical settings in which they create their worlds. They have total freedom and as such it can be dispiriting to see the same worn seams tunnelled time and time again especially when the stories of those too often ignored by history are ignored in fiction too.

We have truckloads of fiction set in Ancient Rome and more still in the Third Reich and Cold War.

When it comes to the Tudors we have mountains of it – some bad, some indifferent and some good but usually all about the same sorts of things; power struggles between noble families, queens, princesses, wives and axemen – The Fat Horrible King and his Wives.

How refreshing then to read a book that boldly and confidently steps away from the familiar path to tell the story of a character so fully realised she explodes from the pages like fireworks over the Field of the Golden Cloth, around which much of this marvellous book is set.

The main character in this book – main not amusing or pathetic sidekick – is Cat Sparrow.

While modern readers will know Cat has what we would call learning disabilities Sherrick respects her source material enough not to label her this way in a world in which the term had no meaning.

Instead Cat is what she is – different with an off-beat way of understanding the world around her. The writing never patronises or makes her the subject of maudlin sympathy.

Cat is what she is and does what she does.

Characters react to her in different ways and things do not always go her way but it is her decisions and actions which drive the book forward to its thrilling conclusion. She shapes her own story and those of her family, friends, allies and enemies. Cat is rescuer as much as rescued and sits right in the middle of all that happens – no mere plot device designed to say something about someone else.

Unaccustomed to seeing someone from what historian Simon Jarrett calls “the outgroup of all outgroups” so confidently and firmly realised I found myself almost breathless with pleasure and excitement at many points in the story.

The Queen’s Fool is a remarkable achievement.

As the father of a fully realised person with a learning disability it means a great deal to me there is now something I can read to my daughter when she’s old enough that shows someone like her adventuring, striving, succeeding – the master of her own life regardless of how different she may sometimes seem to others.

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All strategy is logistical

I admire logisticians because logistics are very hard.

When my wife talks to me about her work consulting for international charities it is always the logisticians – those on the ground doing the work – I feel most in awe of. It is one thing to come up with a grand plan to feed a drought-stricken area but making it happen is another thing altogether. Those implementing the plan have to know so much. How many trucks are there and where exactly do they need to go? Where can they get fuel? What state are the roads in, and will they still be passable in a month when the rainy season arrives? Where is need most acute and where is delivery of any aid made more complicated by inter-group tension?

This thinking has to be meticulous. It is exhausting and it is done by people who are often tired in a way those of us who’ve never worked sixteen-hour days for months on end without a break on something that matters can really understand.

Those at the sharpest of sharp ends understand that without logistics – implementation – there is nothing at all. They get while it is important someone comes up with a big plan and a goal if this isn’t turned into operational strategic stuff with spreadsheets, phone-calls, maps, budgets and fail-safes then people die.

Luckily for us in schools the stakes aren’t nearly so high, but this doesn’t mean lessons learned from where things are most urgent should be dismissed – while it can appear simple to devise a powerful strategic plan in the garden in August this is very likely to fail if careful thought isn’t put into the operational, logistic stuff that needs to happen to realise it. What seems straightforward in the calm of summer appears very different on a rainy Tuesday in November after half your team has just called in and just staying in the game feels an achievement. This is something I think those who don’t work in people facing jobs struggle to understand – schools are inherently complex and unpredictable and strategy can often feel like trying to build a cathedral on ground that shifts and moves every day.

These challenges do not means strategic thought should be abandoned or seen as impossible in a school context. It’s my belief the key to making strategy more than an empty wish-list that burns up on re-entry is in making strategy operational. This isn’t always easy to do and it isn’t as fun or exciting as imagining a world transformed by a buzzy initiative –  but –  without it all we have are pipedreams and fantasies.

Here’s an example of how this might work.

Tiegan is Head of English at Gasworks High and towards the end of the academic year becomes concerned about the inconsistency of KS3 homework in her department. After some reading and conversations with her colleagues she makes the bet the highest leverage action step English could make would be to introduce high quality knowledge organisers and then base homework on them. This isn’t the first strategy she considers – far from it – she knows there are a great many things that would lead to improvement and considered and reluctantly dismissed other options knowing how little time she is likely to have once the school year begins.  

Her bet might be right or wrong. Without knowing more about her context it’s impossible for us to know and not our place to judge. Whatever our opinions we can probably all agree how effective or not this strategy will be very dependent on actually making it happen.

Tiegan understands this well and begins by making a list of all the things she and her team need to do. She does this with her team and time budgets it with them – there’s an agreement the creation of the knowledge organisers will take time so agrees with her SLT link that the English team can be excused from providing extra-curricular activities for the first two weeks of the first half term. 

Her rough first logistical plan looks like this:

Half TermActions
1Source examples of great knowledge organisers in English from other schools. Produce sample knowledge organiser for Romeo and Juliet. Plan and conduct training on creating knowledge organisers. Divide texts to be taught in half term 1 and 2 among team and ask them to create knowledge organisers for these topics.
2Quality assure knowledge organisers produced by team and give feedback. Organise visit to another school to see how these knowledge organisers are used effectively. Share findings from school visit with team. Organise printing of knowledge organisers and distribution to all classes. Meet with team to agree on consistent homework approach using these knowledge organisers and how this will be communicated to students and parents. Communicate strategy to students and parents.
3Monitor homework completion. Organise quality assurance to assess impact of knowledge organisers. Feedback to team on areas of strength and for development. Adjust strategy based on results of quality assurance.

If Tiegan’s strategy is to become sufficiently operational to work it will need to be much more iterative than even this; just about every item will have more actions sitting beneath.

But it is enough to make a start.

Next she goes to her planner  – she’s a bit old school and doesn’t use outlook as well as she knows she should – and in conjunction with her timetable and personal and school calendars, writes in what she will do and when for the first half term. She’s been in schools long enough things won’t go to this exact plan but also knows writing her actions in means if they don’t happen because she’s put on emergency cover or has a terrible headache she’ll be aware of when something slipped and needs to be rescheduled. She is also alert to unexpected opportunities to get ahead – for example she’d clean forgotten that her Y7s are out on a museum trip until two days before but when she twigs she’s quick to get a few of her operational jobs done ahead of original schedule.

Having the details written down also makes it easier for Tiegan to turn down requests that make it harder for her to achieve her strategic aims; for example, in the second half term she regretfully but firmly turns down a request from the ECT lead to run a series of workshops on lessons starts because she sees this will make it very hard for her to quality assure her department’s knowledge organisers or visit another school.

While things don’t always go to plan and there are a couple of weeks when Tiegan feels close to despair she gets there in the end – because she understood without logistics there is no such thing as strategy.

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How I plan

Five Types of Production Planning

Start with the curriculum. Decide what will be taught in the lesson. This could be one thing, less than one thing or more than one thing. It depends on what is to be taught and the group.

Identify the resources you’ll use. This could be a textbook, a book, a booklet or a worksheet. If there isn’t a resource that adequately supports the curriculum develop one. This is time consuming, which is why centralised resourcing can be a godsend.

Be wary of using loads of resources as this can get messy and can easily lead to pupils losing focus navigating reams of paper.

Decide what format pupil work will take. For me this is predominantly work in exercise books which mirror the format of my own planning exercise book which I display using a visualiser.

Use the curriculum to identify what is really core in the resource. What is it essential students leave knowing? What gaps in knowledge will prevent them progressing?

Decide on the best way to teach the core knowledge. Most of the time for me in history this is reading prose, elaborating and clarifying, discussing questions and then answering them. But not always – for example using a map to learn about the events of the Abyssinian Crisis could be better.

Identify any particularly tricky concepts and decide how best to explain these. Sometimes this might mean thinking of a metaphor or analogy. Or it might involve using a diagram drawn on board or under visualiser. Sometimes it might involve listening to a piece of music or looking at a photo. If something is very tricky or new then consider scripting.

Decide what tasks students will do and how these will demonstrate understanding and consolidation of the core knowledge. This might involve answering questions verbally, bullet point notes, spider diagrams, tables, cloze text or extended writing. Sometimes there may be a choice (e g bullet point notes or spider-diagram). Avoid tasks that allow simple copying or replication of what is in a resource. This is a recipe for busywork but low thinking ratio.

Decide upon timings for each task. Which may need more time depending on how things go? Build potential for increasing time into timings.

Decide upon check for understanding methods based on the core knowledge. When should this happen and how? How can I be as sure as I can be that everyone in my class knows what they need to know? This could involve sampling work while circulating the room (who to especially check on?), cold-call questions (who to ask what?), hands up questions (who to avoid asking all the time?), choral response and mini-whiteboards. Knowing a class becomes very important here as you need to know who should be hitting your core and who should be operating well above this ‘floor’. You need to know who needs more thinking time and who you need to check is paying attention. You need to know if anyone has anxiety which will make them freeze if you cold call and who will thrive on having a question sprung on them with no warning.

Anticipate areas that are likely to be hard to understand and grasp and consider how to re-teach these if pupils struggle. What will you do if they don’t get it?

Plan for less than you think you will get through but have more glorious hinterland in reserve. This allows time for the lesson to breathe and for plenty of time to properly check for understanding and re-teaching without feeling panicky about the time.

If you do finish earlier than planned teach deeper (not beyond) your plan or stick in a quiz based on what was learned in the lesson or before. Time on retrieval is never wasted.

Decide what core knowledge should form the basis of future retrieval practice, why and when students should retrieve it. Make this logical. For example if a lesson is about the impact of the Wall Street Crash on Germany it would make sense to make the Dawes and Young Plans focus of retrieval. Retrieval shouldn’t really be random – it should be informed by what you’re about to teach.

Planning in an exercise book makes this really neat as if tasks you’ve set are based on what’s really core then you can flick back and find content for retrieval pretty easily. Don’t worry too much about having a consistent pattern for how far back you go for it but probably a good idea to audit yourself every now and again to make sure you are covering all the stuff that needs to be remembered.

Don’t be too precious about your plan (exercise book or whatever) use it to make live notes of what worked, what didn’t, what you need to follow up on etc. You can then refer back to these easily when planning future lessons.

All of this is much easier to do if you know the curriculum well. The reason planning takes me a fraction of the time it used to is I just know more history now from reading, going to lectures, podcasts etc. There’s a line in Peaky Blinders when someone complains about paying for a service that only takes ten minutes. The response is it took years to learn to do the task in ten minutes and the payment is for the years not the minutes.

A long term investment in improving subject knowledge is a good investment.

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Learning Vs The Exams

Every now and again I am rocked by something on twitter.

Most recently it’s been Soloman Kingsnorth’s thread on the tension between the goals of examinations and proper learning. Their thread identifies similarities between mathematics exams children sit at the end of Key Stage 2 and those they sit at the end of Year 11.

Bluntly a lot of the content is the same, which means that a significant number of children are not really progressing much in the five years they are at secondary school and may not have learned much at primary school either.

This is very concerning for lots of reasons.

Firstly it calls into question the effectiveness of mathematics provision at secondary school. What exactly is going on in lessons if the sum of what children know at age sixteen isn’t much more than what they knew at eleven? Kingsnorth suggests a reason for this might be that the domain – the secondary curriculum – is so ambitious many children are simply not given enough time to master things they need to master in order to progress to latter content.

The most obvious solution to this – in the absence of wholescale curricular and associated examination reform – would be for secondary maths departments to simply spend more time – perhaps a lot more time – on the basics. This appears quite logical. What does it matter how big a domain is if children aren’t learning most of what is in it?

Surely it would be better for teachers to concentrate on their pupils mastering more of less than it is to expose children to things they simply do not have the prerequisite foundations to understand?

Things are not so simple.

The children who make little progress attend the same schools as those who make a lot of progress. Sometimes they are in the same classes and taught by the same teachers at the same time. If a teacher chooses to spend a lot of time teaching and supporting practise of basic content how will the children who have already learned this make progress? A school adopting this approach might well find while the examination grades of their weaker mathematicians improves, those of their most able gets worse.

The big issue is the tension between learning and the requirements schools prepare all their pupils for exams that are used not just as measures of learning but also as evidence used to sort them for different post-16 destinations.

This problem is particularly pressing in hierarchical subjects like maths – which probably explains why maths teachers tend to be so supportive of setting –  but exists in other subjects too.

It’s an issue in even the most cumulative subjects like history, where the vast scope (and recently expanded) exam specifications mean the volume of what needs to be learned is now so huge those who struggle to keep up can find themselves further and further behind after every lesson. A teacher who chooses to teach to mastery for every child in their class will – almost certainly in most contexts – find they run out of time to finish the course and so hobble the outcomes of their most able pupils.

This is not just a maths or a history problem. Every teacher in just about every subject must make a compromise between what is best for their highest flyers and those in their classes who find things hardest and as children get older this becomes more and more difficult to do.

When I first began teaching nearly twenty years ago this problem was addressed by an ethos in which the aim was for children to work independently with their teacher supporting them on their individual areas of weakness. In these utopian classrooms all children would make progress from their unique starting points. This is why – I think – children were supposed to be able to parrot off personalised ‘targets’ at the drop of a school leader’s or inspector’s hat, and why whole-class instruction was often frowned upon. This usually proved impossible to practically implement and often resulted in the academically weakest pupils making the least progress. It made behaviour very hard to manage and – in my painful experience anyway – made for weird Kafkaesque environments in which children were able to say things like “I need to explain in more detail” without having the faintest idea of what this meant.

The crux of the problem was this approach really needed a fundamental restructuring of the way the entire education system worked to have hope of success. It needed small groups of children to be tutored intensively by polymaths in the way Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle.

While such a restructuring might indeed lead to better education for England’s schoolchildren it is not a practical or even serious option. Without dramatic changes to taxation and associated funding – and then all the associated risks of such a huge change – there is simply no way to realise this vision.

We are – for better or worse – stuck with what we have.

So how do we make the best of it?

We should begin by acknowledging of the large group of children who don’t make much progress at secondary school there are many – probably most – who could make much more progress than they do. This is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. From Michaela in Brent in London, to Bedford Free School in the midlands and up to the Dixons Academy Chain in Bradford we have lots and lots of examples of places in which children learn more than might be predicted by their demographic.

The failure of large groups of pupils to learn lots of the curriculum is not inevitable. Good schools can change the stars of the children who attend them.

We should also acknowledge there is nothing in any exam specifications which definitively precludes any child from learning more of it. While many exam specifications could be improved to make their content more interesting and relevant there is nothing on any of them which simply can’t be learned, and there is something on every specification every child could learn more of.

High expectations – as ever – remain of inestimable importance. We must not allow the great struggles of some to push us to the sort of hopeless passivity that makes improvement feel impossible.

We should look to places – like Michaela, BFS and Dixons – where children do learn more than might be expected elsewhere and find out why. We should do this without ego and without defensiveness. When faced with great achievement elsewhere it is temptingly human to explain it away in terms that make it irrelevant to us and so miss things that are actually very relevant. It is easy to say ‘oh they were a start-up’ or ‘that school is in London’ or ‘their children come from a different demographic to ours’.

While all these things might well be true and even significant none of them should mean we avoid looking for how we might be able to do things better.

My hunch – I think my educated hunch – is a thing which unites the schools I’ve mentioned and probably hundreds more I haven’t is high participation ratios in classrooms. My hunch is an important thing that marks these schools out from those in which struggling pupils are not as successful is the extent to which children are properly engaged in lessons; how hard they are listening, how much they are properly paying attention and how committed they are to the tasks their teachers set for them. This is something many visitors to such schools seem to find surprising – lessons are not monkishly quiet – there is lots of talking and when a class responds together it is loud!

It is also my hunch – again I think educated, based on years of teaching now – that in schools where struggling pupils are less successful these children have become too accustomed to not learning very much in their lessons. It is my fear there are a great many struggling children who believe they are colluding in a game in which their role is to be physically present in a classroom and to make a pretence they are learning in it, but that nobody really believes anything meaningful is ever accomplished and this doesn’t really matter. I fear for some of these children school is simply somewhere to be while they wait for their real lives to start.

In the classrooms where struggling children learn the most teachers break this paradigm.

They change the goal of the game to be learning what was taught and not getting through an hour without being noticed. They know what they expect all children to know by the end of each teaching sequence and plan techniques that give them certainty they do. They check for understanding and respond to what they learn from this all the time, both live in the moment and when planning the next lessons. They ask loads and loads of questions – both quick questions on things they’ve just said to check everyone is paying attention, to planned longer more involved questions that demand deeper thought. They target questions at children based on what they know of them. They read the written work of their pupils and change their planning based on what they learn from this. They don’t allow some children to sit quietly doing nothing because their attendance is bad or because they are often poorly behaved. They do not have children on their register they have implicitly given up on.

They use whole class techniques like choral response. They train their classes in the use of mini-whiteboards. When they find a child can’t answer a question they rephrase it and if the child still can’t answer they stop and they re-teach even if this means they won’t move on to things they’d planned to move on to. If all their information gathering reveals a really significant gap they may abandon the lesson they had planned completely and teach a different one. They never allow children to think it’s OK not to know and not to try and find out.

At these schools leaders respect the ability of their teachers to work out what their pupils don’t know and respond appropriately. They do not make knee-jerk judgements about competency based on how far on through a curriculum they are.

None of this – of course – can solve the systemic tension between learning for all pupils and the sorting function of examinations. However well we teach we will always have the persistent problem of what to do when faced with children who know varying amounts. In the past I’ve written lots about this and won’t go into it again here. Soloman Kingsnorth is right – for many children the curriculum might well be too large and they might well be better served by learning less, better.  

But this is not an ideal world and we must not allow the constraints we work in to crush us when there are things it is in our gift to do something about. There is much in our gift. It is possible to be more effective even when working within flawed systems. While we will never eliminate it we can reduce the gaps between what our academically strongest and weakest pupils know by expecting more from those that struggle most. There may indeed be thousands of children who are disadvantaged by the way we have chosen to organise assessment but there are also thousands who could learn more than they do.

I – of course – am a long, long way from cracking this as a teacher and will not conclude this piece by suggesting I’m anything but a work in progress. I am human and have been teaching long enough to know how tempting it is to avoid asking a struggling pupil a question because I fear a dispiriting “dunno” on a rainy, depressing Tuesday afternoon.

I still fall to bad habits too often.

But I also know this isn’t good enough and my failure – for example – to properly learn how to use mini-whiteboards means there is much still left to do. My pupils have a long way to go before their biggest problem becomes the content and organisation of the courses I teach.

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Removal System

Schools without a centralised system for removing children from lessons should consider introducing one.

Removal systems are procedures teachers use to remove a child from their lesson after a warning or two have been given.

I tweeted about this earlier today as if schools without these were things of the distant past but the number of people replying suggested not being able to remove children from lessons is still a problem for some teachers.

I thought it worth a blog post.

For years I worked in schools in which removing children was pretty much impossible unless there was an emergency. Even in these instances there was no real system – there would be shouting and the commotion would prompt someone to ring someone and eventually that someone would arrive to take away perpetrator and victim.

Other than situations like that I was on my own.

I find this hard to comprehend now. What on earth did I do if a child chose to talk constantly while I was? Or if they flat refused to open their book? Or if they began humming and dragged half the class in with them? I honestly struggle to remember.

I think this is because a lot of the time I did nothing.

Or in the words of the time ‘strategically ignored low level disruption.’ I tried my best to teach those who weren’t behaving badly while the others did what they wanted. I’d attempt to encourage, reason with or even plead with those who were disrupting others. If those choosing to behave really badly became a very serious distraction I’d get angry and argue with them which almost never worked and usually made things even worse. Sometimes I’d form a sort of informal buddy system with a colleague and we’d help each other out which was lovely in a sort of ‘we are the resistance’ way but always felt more of a workaround then genuine strategy.

In some places I’ve heard about but – thank goodness- – never had to work in there are quasi-removal systems which slyly allow removal but make life unpleasant for teachers who use it. There are some real horror stories about these places – children being returned to a class because someone disagrees with their reason for removing a child or being interrogated afterwards as to what they did to cause the child to behave badly.

I think a defence of this sort of thing is that it forces teachers to build relationships – a fear teachers who are allowed to remove children from their lessons will do so aggressively to avoid having to ever deal with children they don’t like. I don’t think this is true and for me the absence of a removal system certainly did not help me make productive relationships. The ongoing attrition and daily low-level rudeness and surliness I had to endure made retaining positive regard for the most challenging children in my classes a gargantuan professional effort which I’m sure was regularly seen through.

The impact of all this varied wildly.

Some classes presented me with few problems as there were almost never behaviour issues and on the rare occasions there were a raised eyebrow or a disappointed look did the job. At the other end of the spectrum there were some classes I just hated teaching all year and wrecked evenings and weekends.

The most insidious effect was how it changed the curriculum and the way I taught it. My planning had to be informed by the likelihood there would be many children in many of my classes that wouldn’t engage and there was little I could do about it. I needed to plan sections of my lessons which allowed me to spend time one-on-one with disruptive children trying to de-escalate behaviour and encourage better self-regulation.

It meant not trying to talk much to the whole class or planning tasks which required silent concentration. It meant reducing challenge for everyone because the deep concentration and support challenge needs to be successful simply wasn’t available in my classroom. This changed what I taught as well as how I taught. Some topics were simply too complex or sensitive to go near.

The cumulative effect of all this was a general deflation of standards and expectations.

Everyone behaved worse than they should have so everyone learned less than they should have. Those rare children who concentrate as hard as they can all the time (and bless these) couldn’t concentrate hard because they were distracted. Poor behaviour and slow progress were so I stopped even recognising behaviour was poor and progress slow. When the sharp end of exam season approached we’d try to fix the problem by running extra intervention sessions for those pupils who were most behind and almost invariably these would be the least engaged and most disruptive.

I suspect a root cause of it was the demonstrable nonsense being physically present in a lesson meant something was learned by a sort of osmosis – as if a pupil who’d just spent half an hour making paper aeroplanes would absorbed their quadratic equations had they not been removed from the second half of maths.

It was all very depressing.

Moving to schools where there were simple and clear systems for the removal of pupils from lessons if they misbehaved was revelatory. Suddenly behaviour management became possible. Suddenly was able to construct and re-enforce positive working relationships with challenging children. Suddenly – almost overnight in fact – my planning became unrecognisable.

There is nothing special about me. I am certain there are thousands of teachers who would quickly discover they are much better teachers than they think they are if they moved to a school with a removal system from a school without one.

Nothing is a panacea. Removal systems won’t solve all problems.

A teacher who struggles to build and maintain relationships with their pupils is likely to find this hard regardless and a teacher who struggles to explain and model well won’t magically improve just because they can remove a child from their lesson for talking while they do. But despite these limitations teachers are more likely to improve if they have control over what happens in their rooms and behaviour is likely to be better when children know there are limits to what they can and can’t do in lessons. Deregulated children are far more likely to get the support they need in a space away from where the flare-up occurred.

The overall effect of this is game-changing. Things become much simpler and the way forward more obvious. Support can be properly targeted and used more strategically. At my school we do have a mature removal system. Today I was delighted to walk into a wonderful lesson to see one of our brilliant Year Managers helping a lovely but sometimes hard to manage young man concentrate on his work so he would not behave badly, would learn something and wouldn’t be removed.

I checked later and pleasingly he did, he didn’t, he did and he wasn’t.

This is exactly how things should be.

So who knows? Perhaps your school’s biggest lever is simpler than you think.

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