Posted by: mrlock | June 23, 2017

“Pedagogy is overrated”

Festival of education 2017

I delivered this talk at the Festival of Education 2017. From my notes and my memory, here is what I said. It is very long and borrows from previous blogs and tweets.

Pedagogy is overrated

I want to argue that education suffers in the U.K. because we focus too much on how to teach, often in the name of pedagogy, at the expense of any real emphasis on what to teach.

This is basically an argument for thinking about curriculum in schools. My premise is that this is relatively absent from UK schools, but if you’ve been in some of the same sessions as me today you may believe me to mistaken as I’m pleased to report that curricular discussion has been evident. Perhaps there is a welcome change afoot.

According to a blog by my friend James Theobald, the word ‘truthiness’ was coined by the American satirist Stephen Colbert in the pilot episode of his popular daily show The Colbert Report in 2005. It is defined as:

‘the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true’;

‘the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like’;

‘the quality of being considered to be true because of what the believer wishes or  feels, regardless of the facts’.

You get the idea. Colbert used the words, “truth that comes from the gut, not books” in mocking condemnation of the cult of truthiness in politics.

Another word for it in 2017 might be “hashtaggy”.

The following has a truthiness about it. I don’t mean my talk, though that might be true – you can challenge me on that later but this:

The narrative is that Teaching and Learning fixes, leads and is the centre of everything.

To give an example, from the Steer report on behaviour (2005):

We believe consistent experience of good teaching engages pupils in their learning and this reduces instances of poor behaviour.

(All) schools should develop a Learning and Teaching policy that identifies the teaching strategies to be followed by all staff….

To ensure good standards of behaviour all schools should:

plan lessons well, using strategies appropriate to the ability of the pupils;
offer pupils the opportunity to take responsibility for aspects of their learning, work together in pairs, groups and as a whole class;
increase pupils’ involvement in their learning and promote good behaviour;

Now the Steer report also has some parts in it that I might agree with, so the above are selective quotes to make my point. But to emphasise my point at the time of the first Steer report I saw Sir Alan Steer talk and he told a room full of school leaders that his school does not have a behaviour policy. Its behaviour policy is its teaching and learning policy.

The narrative is that if only we get Teaching and Learning right, everything else about a school falls into place.

This has meant that the quality of teaching has been the thing that many, perhaps most, headteachers have focussed on. And hence they believe to focus on it you need to measure it. And if you’re going to measure it, you need to judge it.

But judging the quality of teaching is really hard. It is well documented that judging individual lessons is difficult, and grading them lacks validity and reliability – Rob Coe’s widely publicised work on this is vital – and I didn’t see his session today but I’m presuming he hasn’t gone back on this.

So we use proxies or bespoke ‘solutions’ to judge Teaching and Learning. Things like book scrutiny, triangulated data, performance management targets, various strands of assessment for learning, looking at lesson planning – I’ve even heard of a school where all lesson planning has to be handed in at the start of the week to ensure it is ready and is good enough. And so on.

And if you look at the structure of SLT of a school, there is always someone responsible for Teaching and Learning, sometimes more than one. Generic, cross-curricular Teaching and Learning. And a typical job description will include – and this is just the first one that was in the TES today, I haven’t gone through them in detail selecting one to make my argument:

Promote a clear vision for the highest quality teaching and learning
Establish a learning culture which values scholarship and promotes innovation and creativity
Develop a culture of collaboration and joint practice development
Lead the improvement of teaching and learning
Ensure teaching meets the needs of all groups of learners

Teaching and learning is said to be the only thing that matters in schools. Just yesterday I saw a Headteacher quoted approvingly on social media who said

“Leaders do not allow themselves to be distracted from their core business of teaching and learning. Delegate rest to others”

This has has some push back over the last decade or so as schools that focus on culture and ethos have shown – I think for example Mossbourne – for all of its founder head’s perceived faults – was a game changer in London that showed that pupils, including the most disadvantaged, could behave so that teachers can do their job.

But schools still, perhaps in some cases to a lesser extent, focus on generic “teaching and learning”.

My experience is that things are not fixed with that focus teaching and learning.


Schools should be places where pupils are obedient within a framework of strict rules, enabling a calm purposeful culture.

I don’t feel like I can mention the Steer report without mentioning this briefly. But I think this – behaviour – is the elephant in the room. Before we can talk about the what of teaching, and the how of teaching (if we even need to), we need to talk about the climate for teaching, and the culture that has to exist for teaching.

It is still the case in some schools that persuading or bribing pupils to do as you wish is the preferred model. Or that a teacher is expected to ‘engage’ their pupils in order to teach – often without really defining what engage means. This is not a surprise because I think it is quite hard to define engagement or to be engaged.


I believe schools need to defend this culture from the top: leaders are responsible for behaviour and ethos. This comes first.

I used to work in a school in very difficult the circumstances in East London. The school has tried everything in the past to deal with being a school in difficult circumstances – learning styles, student observations, learning walks, high stakes observations, low stakes observations, interventions from 7am-9pm including on Saturdays, Mocksted, Local Authority secondments, “Lazy Teaching”, and heaven knows what else, we were ignoring the elephant in the room.

And under new leadership, we did some simple things.

• Ban mobile phones
• Exclude students who behave badly, including for ‘persistent low level disruption’
• Ensure students see SLT a lot
• Enforce uniform standards
• Sanction poor punctuality
• Have whole school assemblies focused on ethos

Behaviour comes first…. but when it’s sorted and colleagues can teach without having to focus on “how to engage enough”, then I think schools should focus a whole lot more on the curriculum.


Most schools and hence teachers think about how to teach a lot – probably to excess given the opportunity cost.

When I did my Secondary maths PGCE in 1998 the group, including me, was sent home with homework after the first day. The homework was to watch Blue Peter. We were not told why, and the next day we had to discover why. We talked about it for about thirty minutes and we couldn’t work out why. I thought there was something specific on Blue Peter.

After thirty minutes of trying to work it out our PGCE tutor told us. Incidentally, how common is that when pupils are set to “discover” something through the teacher’s carefully designed lesson, and in the end the teacher just tells them anyway? Anyway, we were told that Blue Peter is 40 years old. It has astonishing longevity. And we should notice that the reason for this is that in the 20 minutes (or however long it was on) there were 9 things that happened. If our lessons were to have longevity, we had to ensure that similar occurred. i.e. there were a variety of activities that were short in length and regularly changed.

I used the analogy of Blue Peter approvingly, in interviews and arguments for many years. It was my first experience of considering how to teach, and for the first decade at least of my teaching career, I was obsessed with getting better at delivering Blue Peter lessons.

Some examples of things I’ve really done:

The 7 part lesson
Include ‘stickability’
Lots of AFL ideas
Use a broader range of questioning
Pose Pause Pounce Bounce
Cold Call
Wait time
1001 tips for outstanding lessons
Self assessment stamps
Peer marking
Group work – but ‘good group work’, not ‘bad group work’, including roles, rainbow groups, whatever….
Agreement timelines,
Animations, powerpoints, no powerpoints, board work, visualisers, kinaesthetic activities, no pen day, no table day, and so on.

I’m not saying any of these are inherently necessarily bad. You can make your own mind up about that. I’m saying that selecting and paying attention to these methods prevented us, at least in part, from looking at the what of teaching.

And we had to include many of them to make them match the variety of Blue Peter.

I want to mention as an aside that recently, John Noakes passed away, and I was able to see the footage of him climbing Nelson’s Column, via ladders tied to the column with ropes and no safety ropes in 1977. At one point near the top the ladder goes back at an angle so Noakes is sort of hanging over a lot of space. Apparently the cameraman filmed it from the top but had forgot to turn his camera on so they had to do it all again.

I’m glad I didn’t watch that footage in 1998, because replicating something like that in my maths lessons would have been quite hard. Competing with that is hard. But isn’t that the point? There are things that young people should know that they don’t know, and they don’t know they should know. How can they appreciate the beauty of Wagner, Van Gogh, mathematics, the wonder of periods of history, Dickens or Wilde without knowing these things. And they do learn interesting things outside of school. That’s why we have kids with amazing ability to produce youtube videos or do brilliant* tricks with fidget spinners. But there are a number of things that are quite boring to learn, and they need to learn them because they are important. And isn’t the point of school to make sure that kids learn those things that are boring but necessary in order that we may expand what we enjoy and experience later in life, and can pass on to our children?

Maths is probably one of those subjects that can be boring. “Mathematics is a difficult subject to teach and learn” said the Cockroft report, published in 1977 while Noakes was climbing Nelson’s Column. It is a difficult subject to teach and learn, but it’s a beautiful and rewarding subject. This is arguable when you’re learning it. I believe it to be far less arguable when you’re good at it. Mathematics is an awe inspiring beautiful art when one is good at it. So it is the job of school to induct pupils into mathematics.

But we don’t talk about this as much as we should, because to a greater or lesser extent, we’re talking about how to make our lessons more Blue Peter like.

And we’re doing so in the name of pedagogy. This is shorthand for focusing on how to teach, not what to teach.

RS Peters, reflecting the concerns of the liberal educators, suggested that an understandable focus on the centrality of the child in education had led teachers to focus on the manner of education at the expense of the matter of education.

I want to make the case that references to pedagogy appear to do this now. If someone wants to reply to me to redefine ‘pedagogy’ to mean *what* is being taught or even to be led wholly by what is being taught, then I have no argument – though I would say that the lack of a shared understanding of what ‘pedagogy’ means makes use of the word rather redundant.

I never heard the word pedagogy until several years into my teaching career. I didn’t enquire as to what it meant for a while. I just carried on teaching maths. Then I was at the stage of my career when I wanted to become an Assistant Headteacher. So I needed to know stuff to get through the interview.

I genuinely thought it meant ‘the science of learning’. Then ‘the science of teaching’. And then ‘teaching’. What does it mean? I don’t know. I said this on twitter and someone recommended me Robin Alexander’s definition, and I read a paper, but his book is £75 and I thought that a little harsh for a definition.

And I asked a few people today and I got various answers, including my boss who when I said “do you know what pedagogy means?’ he replied…

“yeeeaahhh, maybe not now you’ve asked”

And most people reached for their phones and google to define it.

I’ve used the word enough times. I mean, I’m a Headteacher so I can clearly talk the buzzword bollocks. And my criticism of the word in the title of this talk is partly reflected by the fact that I believe it to be a weasel word – at least in how it is used. What I mean by this is that the word appears to mean whatever people want it to mean. And when they start to be specific about what they mean by the word, they no longer need it.


*How* to teach matters a lot less than we think. Certainly a lot less than what we teach. And *how* should be driven by *what* anyway.

Most schools don’t think about curriculum enough.
They think they do. Because they use the word curriculum. But think about the structure of the average SLT. As I just said, I think you would find it extremely hard to find a school, primary or secondary, that doesn’t have someone responsible for Teaching and Learning. That isn’t the case when it comes to curriculum. Many schools do not have someone on their leadership team accountable for curriculum.

And when they do, they often actually mean qualifications or the timetable. That person will design which subjects the school can afford to put on at 16 or 18. How much time each subject will get. The options process and how many, if any, pupils must take the EBACC or how they make sure the pupils are Progress 8 compliant. They will discuss whether to take an hour from PE to give to Citizenship or maths, because the maths results weren’t very good.

Usually, there is no-one ensuring that in school there is explicit very hard thought about what pupils should learn, and in what sequence.


I think most things to do with teaching are subject-specific and phase-specific.

Most people in my experience agree with this to some extent. It’s rare to find a maths teacher who is as comfortable teaching drama as maths. It’s rare to find a secondary PE teacher who can teach a phonics lesson to early years. It’s not even that easy to find a subject specialist in secondary school comfortable with teaching all of years 7-13 in their subject. Primary and secondary teachers alike are quite defensive over their phase, and in secondary at least, though increasingly in primary they are somewhat defensive over their subject. In my experience, primary schools have been crying out for more subject specialism – particularly in maths, humanities, languages and PE.

But I wonder if we could go further. Could we not have specialists in teaching certain topics? I know this has happened in some schools, where groups rotate so that they each experience the best teacher with the best knowledge of statistics or Greek myths. We do it ad hoc – I hate teaching transformation of curves – mainly because I always explain it badly – so my head of department does it. It probably helps that I’m the head, but anyway.

I have a problem with the idea that teachers are generic teachers. That we teach children, not subjects. Because while it is true that we teach children, it is through the introduction to subjects that we allow children access to understanding the world, and further, access to that that is beautiful in human life.


We’re starting to engage with the subject-specific aspect of this in my school, not yet the phase specific.

But we’ve started to use new words in our school, partly as a result of a training day we ran in January 2016 with Christine Counsell.

Some subjects, like maths and physics, are explicitly and obviously hierarchical. You need to be able to do a, b, c and d in order to be able to access e.

Some subjects are more cumulative, arguably like literature and history. Usually at this point a historian says that actually, they’re much more hierarchical, and I can’t argue really – I’m no historian – so I just ask them to find Christine Counsell. But those subjects which are more cumulative probably have some very important hierarchical aspects to them.

How many schools talk about the difference between hierarchical subjects and cumulative subjects? And how many talk about substantive knowledge and disciplinary knowledge – particularly relevant to science or history education?

And contrast this with how many talk about 7 part lesson plans, or hooking the kids, or a structure that includes a plenary, or… all of the things I talked about before with “I’m going to try this with my kids on Monday” as if it hasn’t been tried before.


There are some things that all pupils are entitled to know when they leave school. This is the stuff that educated people take for granted.

This is vital. I was given an extract of Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind to read, and I went away and bought the book. I just want to share a paragraph with you:

“August 1672 – The high noon of a continental summer. In Milan and Geneva the citizens are sweltering beneath a strong European sun. Many thousands of feet above them, among the snows of the Simplon Pass – one of the major crossing points of the European Alps – shivers Thomas Burnet. Shivering with him is the young Earl of Wiltshire, great-great-grandson of Thomas Boleyn, the father of the ill-starred Anne. The boy, his family have decided, needs educating and Burnet, an Anglican churchman possessed of a prodigious and restive imagination, has taken what will be a decade-long sabbatical from his fellowship at Christ’s College, Cambridge to act as chaperone and cicerone to a succession of teenage aristocrats – of whom the young earl is the first.” (Macfarlane, p23 Mountains of the Mind, 2003)

The whole book is like this. It’s a beautiful book that is an amazing read. It was an educated person who recommended this to me. Why can we share this book – that appears to be about mountaineering but is actually about mountaineering, history, geography, religious education, literature and so much more? It’s because we’ve been explicitly introduced to the knowledge that educated people take for granted. I don’t even follow every piece of assumed knowledge in reading it, but I do follow enough to derive a lot of pleasure from the experience of reading it.

All young people are entitled to know the things educated people take for granted.


As professionals we should debate very hard what this knowledge is, accepting we may not be 100% right, but that we will be closer to right via debate

This is the case that E.D. Hirsch makes in his 1987 book cultural literacy. The idea that what separates good readers from poor readers, once we get beyond the mechanics of instruction and phonics, is their background knowledge. Hirsch talks of the schemata of knowledge that we stick other knowledge to. Knowledge begets knowledge. This is very convincing, particularly with more recent insights from cognitive science.

I’m not sure that I agree with everything that Hirsch writes about how to decide on this knowledge. In Cultural Literacy Hirsch has a list of knowledge that all American children should know. This list, which is derived from the assumed knowledge that is taken for granted by readers of the New York Times, is contentious.

Far better, I think to make this the job of the professionals. So who decides? We do. We do because we are a part of a community of subject specialists. Subject specialists who argue about what parts of history make up a schema of knowledge that we should be introducing pupils to. Subject specialists who argue about sequencing of knowledge in mathematics, and the difference between different forms of mastery, and whether the so-called spiral curriculum has any merit. But we don’t only argue about it, and write about it, and reply and debate and bitterly oppose each other. We live it, reading academically – most teachers have a minimum of two degrees – and debating what the best possible curriculum could be. What do we need to introduce people to, in our subjects, in order that they may live a fulfilling life that understands the world, experiences beauty and joy, and makes a contribution?

That debate is the one that teachers should be engaged in. School leaders should be engaged in. Governors should be engaged in. That debate is the one that changes lives. Not the how of teaching but the what.


Because that is the purpose of education: to induct pupils into the conversation of mankind; the community of educated citizens.

Liberal philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s phrase stands tall here for me:

“As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”

Put me in a chemistry laboratory, and tell me I am free, and I can do nothing. Induct me into the traditions that make up the conversation that chemists have and put me in a laboratory and I can further that conversation. I can participate in that conversation. I can challenge that conversation and maybe I can ever undermine that conversation.

And if that is true for chemistry, it is all the more true for democracy. For how can one full participate in the conversations that are going on here if one is ignorant of the knowledge that educated people take for granted.

And this is a matter for inclusion. Because if we are not able to induct children into the community of educated citizens by the age of 16, then they are destined to be excluded for life.


If pupils are excluded from this community at the age of 16, they are very likely to be excluded for life, so we must get this right.

To me this means that we should be considering what pupils should know if they were never to sit an examination. When we interview candidates for posts, this is what we ask them. What should young people leave school knowing? And I think this is true for subjects across the board.

I believe that those pupils who choose to go on to do vocational training at 16 or 18 are entitled to this knowledge. I want pupils who become hairdressers or builders able to access and enjoy 19th century literature, or opera, or art galleries, or the assumed knowledge behind popular science magazines. The same as I want those who go on to university to have this breadth of knowledge. I mean that it is a right, and we can only treat it as a right if we are professional about spending time discussing and debating, living and breathing our disciplines rather than debating how to engage and assuming these curricular decisions are made for us.


Even before we get to the content of the subjects, some subjects are more important than others.

I’m not going to make a case here for one subject over another, nor am I going to call Geography colouring in or point out that history and literature are just fighting over who has the best stories. I have my opinions, but the point is that if reading is the most important, and I think it is, then we should be able to say that mathematics is more important than tiddlywinks, or whatever. Mainly, I want to argue for breadth.

I want my own children, and hence all children, to study least maths, literature, history, biology, chemistry, physics, history of art, Latin, music (and be able to perform), theatre, experience competitive sports, , RE, computing, a couple of languages and probably others until the age of 16. I realise this is probably not possible. But I believe in breadth.

This is important because even amongst some colleagues that I agree with on most things in education, there is a ‘depth before breadth’ approach promoted. And to be honest, I’ve said it myself before – if a pupil can’t read we need to teach them to read to the exclusion of everything else – that’s real depth before breadth. But I worry that depth before breadth produces pupils who are great at passing examinations in a narrow range of subjects, but know less than we think. And since we should be introducing them to the conversation of mankind, then we need to really promote the actual knowledge our kids are going to leave with rather than the specs of a few examinations.

This is important, because while we obsess with pedagogy so that pupils can learn and relearn what is handed down via specifications of GCSE exams, to a greater or lesser extent, we are impoverishing our curriculum.

Some schools that take an approach that I mainly agree with risk doing this as they focus on the how rather than the what – and they correctly challenge the orthodoxy on the ‘how’ but I think they simultaneously accept a part of the orthodoxy via their focus on a ‘how’. We need a paradigm shift back to curricular thinking, not to accept that the focus on different forms of pedagogical thinking will enable all kids to join the conversation to the extent that we wish.


I think maintaining breadth is vital, and that we should teach *subjects* not the specs, i.e. the domain not the sample.

Our subjects – the way that knowledge has been organised – are what we want to introduce pupils to. And we might not be able to teach the whole of our domain. However, the GCSE specification is a sample from our domain.

If we teach to the GCSE or KS4 specification, as I said we are impoverishing our curriculum. We have to start with the domain and select, via argument and discussion in subject-specific communities that live the curriculum, the most essential knowledge for our pupils to join the conversation. And we have to trust knowledge. To believe that if we genuinely teach to the domain, not to the sample that is the specification, or worse, the sample that is the test, then the test will actually be okay because we’ve spent our time on an ambitious curriculum and our pupils will know lots about a lot and hence be able to make links between knowledge in their heads. In fact, they if they know lots they won’t be able not to make links between the knowledge they own. Train them for the exam at the very end of Year 11. But teach them the subject you love for the other 4.7 years (at a minimum, but hopefully 10.7 or 11.7 years) you get to show them how amazing your subject is.

And like I’ve said, most things are subject-specific. So in mathematics we’ve had a pretty agreed curriculum for many years. The sequence and assessment is something that is up for debate and, as I hinted at earlier, is central to curricular discussions in mathematics. It’s the reason I think that the mastery debate centres in mathematics. In history or literature I think the content is more up for debate.

Now I haven’t really talked about assessment. I can if there’s a question on it, but basically Daisy Christodoulou is at the festival somewhere and knows a lot more than me, and it’s a whole another talk anyway.

Suffice to say that I think assessment is a curricular question. And any sense of ‘progress’ should *be* the taught curriculum.

Maintaining breadth and making assessment a curricular question, demands that schools take curricular development seriously.

Which takes us back to the start. Focusing on ‘teaching and learning’ – the how of teaching – and arguably ‘pedagogy’ – is a level of truthiness that is impoverishing to the education of our pupils.




(* not brilliant)
Most of what I said in this talk has been heavily influenced by Christine Counsell, Michael Fordham and colleagues at my school. Thanks to them. If there is anything wrong or that doesn’t make sense, it will be my error or lack of knowledge.

Posted by: mrlock | December 6, 2016

A visit to Dixons Trinity Academy, Bradford

A couple of years ago, two people who are very high profile in education advised me to visit Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford.

It took me two years, but with a 5am start (so that I got to see morning meetings) I took a colleague and we drove up for a day of great CPD. It is hard to express everything I experienced and learnt in a single blog, so I’m going to summarise a few of the points. I can’t possibly do justice to this wonderful school, so I encourage you to visit, to apply, and to join. I found myself wishing my early years in teaching had been spent somewhere like DTA.

Bradford and DTA:

Half of the children who attend DTA live in the five poorest wards in Bradford, a city that was recently voted the worst place in Britain to live. If any families need a school like DTA, it is those in Bradford. DTA has to overcome the challenges of teacher recruitment (unlike London, there is little to attract professionals to the area) and poverty.

However, 100% of pupils in the school say they enjoy school, and 100% of parents would recommend the school to others.

The school has recently entered the entire Year 10 cohort into Science, and has achieved 93% C+ and 97% 3LOP. The grades at C+ match the local private school entries in Year 11.

Values, Vision and Drivers:

“Our emphasis on drivers is one of the things that makes us different”  – Luke Sparkes, Principal

Hard work, fairness, and trust are the values that sit behind the DTA vision. This could be considered fairly standard fare from a senior leader or headteacher. However, Luke was explicit about what makes DTA different. The Principal Luke Sparkes is overt about the values and vision the school is built upon. This is not uncommon, but having been heavily influenced by the charter school movement in the US, established successful schools in the UK, and Dan Pink’s book Drive, DTA explicitly talks about the drivers. In my experience this is unique to DTA.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose drive DTA. The students, the staff and hence the institution are built on and by these drivers. The desire to have control over one’s life, the urge to become better and better at something, and the idea that there is a role to fulfil that is greater than the impact on oneself. Every pupil, every member of staff, and the school have a sentence that expresses how they would like to be remembered, and the school fosters autonomy in order to strive for mastery.

The drivers at the school are embedded through artefacts – like the rituals and routines of the organisation, the language that is used, the stories and heroes that they reference. In particular at DTA, they ‘go big’ on routines. The adults practice these themselves, and hence practice managing them while pupils are in morning meetings (a version of an assembly, or prep for the day, or additional homework).


“We don’t have many ideas. But we do them with rigour” Luke Sparkes

None of the DTA staff claimed a monopoly on their ideas. Even when talking about what makes them different, like the drivers above, Luke was humbly deferential to where the ideas had come from, be it a book, an individual, a blog or another school. However, throughout the day, when asked how aspects of DTA had been created, the answer came back to implementation – and that means clear vision from leaders, and all colleagues implementing the strategies promoted by leaders.

Luke talked of repetition. He said that his presentation on vision, values and drivers that he had just shown us had been delivered to the staff four or five times this year, and that pupils and staff hear the same messages repeatedly. They have no new initiatives, but concentrate on implementing and embedding their prioritised improvement strategies well. It was clear to me that Luke had been influenced by some of the same people as me when he used said that at DTA the staff “sweat the small stuff” and that they “stop doing some good things in order to do even better things”. While both of these things are features of what we do at Cottenham Village College, I took away the thorough and robust implementation as a key learning point from DTA.

Humility and leadership:

If Luke is impressive when he talks about founding the school, the work that went in, and the vision that has seen the school become hugely popular and successful, his humility is all the more striking. Like his school, Luke is confident, but eager for feedback. He talked to me several times during the day and was eager to gather feedback to improve further. He was generous with his time, and open about things that might not be perfect. It seemed to me that his leadership was significantly influenced by his experience as a senior leader in a successful turn-around school.

“Leaders like measurements, leaders are adrenaline junkies, and leaders pride themselves on their intelligence”  – Luke Sparkes

However, DTA and its success are built on things that are mundane, done repeatedly. It doesn’t require intelligence to enforce the same routine on the 70th day of term, but it is essential. At DTA “we have our bad days” the staff said, “but the bad days are days when a leader or a group of people don’t enforce the simple things, and we fix it”.

It is clear that routines and systems, not leaders’ egos, are at the centre of DTA’s success. It is because of this that leaders don’t continually try to implement initiatives. It is because of this that staff and leaders are constantly on the look-out for feedback, and it is because of this that they are able to implement their ideas with rigour that I have rarely witnessed.

The focus at DTA isn’t on initiatives. It is on a cohesive team, creating clarity, on over-communicating that clarity and reinforcing that clarity. They are hence clear that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker) and do not over-rely on ‘strategic thinking’ at the expense of getting the culture right.

They also focus on having a healthy and smart organisation, with high morale, productivity, an absence of politics (gossip) and low staff turnover to go with great strategy, finance, HR and marketing.

There was an aura of humility around the school. But the school is not humble about its aims – for all pupils to attend a university of their choice or a meaningful alternative. This was clearly a shared ambition by leaders, staff, pupils and parents.


You can’t run a school in the building DTA is in without having very clear enforced rules on behaviour. The pupils are given one warning about their behaviour. This is from the Principal on their first day. Then there is the certainty of action if they break one of the rules. Like most other things at DTA, the combination of simplicity, clarity and rigour of implementation makes this work.

“We don’t have many rules, but they are clear and we stick to them” – Luke Sparkes

Pupils who are in detention are sent on tours of the school with visitors the following day or week. It is hard to miss “home of the hardest working pupils in Bradford” plastered on the wall of the ‘heartspace’ – the large area at the centre of the school widely used including for family lunch.

I walked into a Year 11 English cover lesson. I only knew it was a cover lesson because the teacher approached me and whispered to me above the silence that the pupils were completing their 100% sheets (all the knowledge the pupils need for that unit) in silence, painstakingly memorising them word by word.

The clear routines are modelled and practised, but they are also scripted. Jenny Thompson talked about ‘micro-scripts’, which are a powerful way of ensuring that staff are on the same page and dealing with things consistently. There was also a sense in which this consistency set firm boundaries for the institution to allow and be clear where there is real autonomy. There is no doubt as to where leaders and teachers at all levels make decisions. They hence have a manual that acts as a reference guide. “It says ‘if you don’t know what to do, do this’” said Jenny.

Our behaviour system could be very draconian, if we weren’t led by values” – Luke Sparkes

This is what made the school a happy school, in my view.


“When we were considering our ambition for our pupils, the only thing we could consider was university” – Luke Sparkes

At DTA, children from Year 1 (in the on-site primary feeder, Dixons Music Primary) are visiting university. DTA carry out their secondary transition day at a university.

At the end of each year, every child at DTA writes their own report, which they present to their tutors, their parents and their learning partner. The aspiration pupils have to ensure they have plenty to say about the steps they have taken to meet the highest aspirations is stark as they talk proudly of their school and their progress. Staff told me this was the most amazing day as the whole community ended with (positive) tears in their eyes.


Small, micro scripted (at least, in terms of a menu e.g. ‘1 improvement point’ and timing) coaching sessions with teachers ensure very specific single improvement points are identified and practised. As a result, the pedagogy across the school is of a very high standard, and this is reinforced by the modelling and practice in the coaching which all teachers are entitled to.

There is an absolute focus on ‘what needs to improve’” – Natalie Brown, Vice Principal

I was taken by the way in which this is unapologetic. “We don’t spend 20 minutes getting to the point”, said Natalie. This is a very strong model of CPD that eschews a focus on multiple ideas and focuses on real practice. It had me returning to school and picking up my copy of Leverage Leadership again.

There are two statements that are prevalent with teachers at DTA:

“We will not let pupils leave our lessons with misconceptions”,

and on culture the staff say to pupils:

“Please don’t ever ask me to lower my expectations of you”

Again, these aren’t remarkable, except the focus is on implementation, and hence in this school, these statements put into action make it remarkable.

System-wide influence:

“We find it very hard to recruit. We have PE teachers teaching English” – Luke Sparkes

“You can have whatever you want. We’ll share everything and anything”  – Jenny Thompson, Head of School

Luke is clear that establishing and running DTA is labour intensive. He and the school are very clear on workload and work-life balance and their policies and school calendar reflect this. I could see how they have inspired other free schools in London, Bedford and elsewhere with their pioneering approaches. The candour with which Luke expressed his concerns over excessive workload made it very clear that he takes it seriously and neither hides from difficult decisions, nor pretends that hard work isn’t necessary.

Moreover, we came away thinking about areas at CVC where we could improve significantly. Whilst thinking about the priorities and implementation necessary for us to become an even better school is challenging, the openness and humility allowed me to see that this was far from impossible. We came away feeling that I’d had excellent leadership modelled to us.

So, for Cottenham Village College:

I returned with a renewed sense that the details of implementation are important. For example, as we move towards centralising detentions and improving further our own excellent culture, we are thoroughly exploring the new system and to ensure implementation is thorough and robust, to see where it might creak.

As we launch a strategy to get our pupils to read more, we will focus on the implementation, properly. Planning is under way.

In implementing our new reporting system, we have already been inspired by DTA. Last Friday we had four Senior Teachers lead the whole school in very large assemblies to carve out time during the school day to ensure the implementation is modelled and is hence right. Not only is the renewed focus on implementation partly from our visit, but the practicalities of carving out time in the morning is a direct result of our visit.

Most of all, I came away with a feeling of reasonable aspiration for my school. CVC is a very good school indeed. Behaviour is excellent. Results are excellent. Pupils are happy. But I felt that I’d been challenged to be even better. My resolve to continue to say ‘no’ to most initiatives was strengthened, and while I saw a brilliant school, I could also see how they modelled how some of that further improvement that is possible at CVC might be implemented.

On Dixons Trinity Academy

Perhaps because it is in Bradford, or perhaps because of their humility, DTA doesn’t get the attention I feel it deserves. However, if I was going to recommend a school to start a career in, or one to further a career in – or indeed, if one wants to experience the modelling of truly great leadership in schools in the UK, I can’t think of a much better place to do so that DTA.

The openness with which they admit to challenges, such as Year 11 has been our hardest year makes me convinced they have the leadership and ethos to get it right for a large cohort of pupils whom one can’t help wonder what their futures might have held without this wonderful school.

In Part one I gave a broad outline of our proposals on assessment. I hope that they will put assessment in the hands of the subject professionals in our school, enabling them to truly assess pupils’ knowledge so that they can teach as effectively as possible, and ensuring that development of the curriculum and assessment are intertwined.

This is tempered somewhat by competing pressures of ensuring that we regularly report to parents, and that we ensure that we as leaders know whether pupils in the school are making progress in each subject.

The most important developmental work we are doing in our school this year is specifying the knowledge that pupils should gain in each subject, and establishing the best sequence in which they might do so. Assessing that in order to ensure pupils are learning is very important, and ensuring parents are aware is equally important.

This blog is an attempt to represent our Head of History Matt Stanford’s presentation to our staff, which I’ve since repeated to governors, on how we might report to parents and use our reporting system to support our development of world-class provision.

A question for you: is this pupil doing OK?

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 21.57.02

Most professionals will correctly say “we don’t have enough information”.

What lies behind the orange C that Miss Underwood has awarded for History? Well there is a simple grade descriptor, that relates to the curriculum:

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That simple grade descriptor is not simplistic though – so here is Matt’s first efforts (that I endorse – I’m not passing on responsibility) at explaining some of the terms used:

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To use these descriptors, teachers are asked to use the mark book (designed with their subject and curriculum in mind), but also, crucially, their professional judgement. We can’t emphasise this last point enough:

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Behind the mark book, according to colleagues subjects’ will lie task specific mark schemes like the one below, and crucially, their professional judgement:

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Behind those task specific mark schemes will lie the nature of the subject, the professional literature in the subject, the teacher’s expertise in the subject, probably the national curriculum and probably the requirements of Key Stage 4 courses and beyond, and crucially, the teacher’s professional judgement.

We will expect teachers to be able to justify the grades awarded to each pupil. The evidence that teachers use to make these justifications depends on what enables them to do so best, but will largely be drawn from what is written above.

So is the pupil in the made up example above doing OK? Well in History, maybe. But what about the orange?

Well the colour code is the pupils’ attitude to learning (we might just make it a separate word or number, but at the moment it’s a colour code). Behind the colour code is the data the school has – for example were they a C last time, and the time before? Is their attendance to History any good? Do they hand in homework? How are they doing compared to their reading age or Key Stage 2 SATs fine score? And crucially, the teacher’s professional judgement. It might look like this:

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And they represent these criteria:

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 22.01.48

The bottom two of these should act as a flag or a warning signal.

The flag will signal the start of a professional conversation. It will never be used to grade the teacher. As soon as these become high-stakes, they lack any semblance of reliability and validity.

So is the pupil doing OK?

Yes. But (for example) his HoY had a useful and friendly conversation with his History, English and PE teachers.

Miss Understood is going to move him to the front and Miss Pelt is going to think about how she can plan the next unit in a way that provides more access for that class.

Mr Ball is going to send him to county rugby trials:

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 22.02.27

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This is our proposal for reporting on our curriculum to our parents. We have been careful to attempt to separate assessment of work from assessment of students, and to not confuse assessment with reporting.

It does depend on very robust quality assurance processes throughout the school, but I do not want to get them mixed up with assessment, thereby engendering some lack of validity or reliability.

There’s plenty more to do to make this better and make it work – please do feedback.

Full presentation here if there’s anything you couldn’t read:

Full Grades Proposal Presentation

Also: if this kind of development – of development of a great curriculum, of valid and reliable assessment for our school rather than for inspection or for SLT – is for you please have a look at the vacancies on our website.




This is our efforts at moving beyond the ‘crutch’ of National Curriculum levels at Cottenham Village College (CVC). It contains a proposal that emerged from an SLT meeting. I emphasise that it is a proposal.

I’m blogging about it hoping to harness some wisdom from colleagues and hence some feedback that might enable us to make it better before we launch it.

A crutch:

In my view parents, staff, SLT, governors and inspectors have been duped for years into believing they know how well pupils are doing by looking at assessed national curriculum levels in each subject and comparing these with expected ‘flight paths’. We have had a similar system, with data gathered every six weeks. Our assessment has been driven by this system. This system has been driven by a perception that it might be judged by inspectors. In my view it’s wrong.

One colleague, Head of History Matt Stanford, had previously done some work proposing a different assessment system that works for History prior to my arrival at CVC in September 2015. Having heard about this, he was also a part of the SLT meeting. He had significant input into this but it’s fair to say it isn’t one person’s work alone.

It is no accident that our most extensive developmental work this year has been in identifying the knowledge we want pupils to gather in each subject area in each year – particularly in Key Stage 3, and in sequencing that knowledge. Basically we have started with the curriculum and challenged ourselves to specify the knowledge that pupils are expected to gain by attending our school. You can read more about one training session that launched that here. You don’t get very far into discussing the curriculum, though, without starting to talk about assessment.

Daniel Koretz:

The principles behind which we base our assessment come from reading Daniel Koretz’s excellent book Measuring Up. We have used Koretz in three different training sessions this year. Daisy Christodoulou has published an excellent three part review that covers lots on the book – and I often return to Daisy’s blog to revisit points meaning I don’t have to search through the book for them – as is the case below. I spoke about Koretz and the principles of assessment to colleagues prior to talking about our expectations from September 2016 on assessment.

I said, using Christodoulou and Koretz liberally:

  • assessments can be and are used badly or misused
  • assessments that are high stakes create perverse incentives – the more high stakes the less reliable
  • some assessments are not helpful to our aims and values, in fact they can work against them
  • the perfect assessment with perfect information doesn’t exist – and certainly nothing like it in a school setting alone

However, assessment gives us valuable information revealing more clearly to us who are the winners and losers.

Assessments should:

  • focus on what they can tell us about what is learnt from the curriculum
  • have clearly defined purposes, including ensuring they are fit for purpose (can measure what we want them to)
  • be standardised
  • usually and as far as possible isolate specific knowledge and skills we want to measure
  • not be the sole measurement we use

In summary, they need to be reliable and valid.

Reliability means consistency, and we should recognise assessments can be reliable but not accurate.

Validity means that it tells us useful information about what has been learnt. Validity requires that we know our curriculum and our subject, and that we accurately sample from the curriculum, and that we don’t test from outside of it. We also need to ensure we don’t teach to our assessments.

Assessment next year (proposal):

  1. In each subject we will assess what pupils know and what they don’t know. Subject areas decide how often, and how they assess the pupil in their subject. They are not expected to assess because data is due to be put into a spreadsheet. The purpose of this assessment is to add to our knowledge of how much pupils know, and what they don’t know so that we can teach them what they don’t. Teachers and departments will decide what their mark books should look like. SLT will not lay this down.
  2. We will report, three times a year, how well the pupils have mastered the curriculum (i.e. the knowledge we are expecting pupils to gain each year) and their attitude to learning. This will not be automatically generated from assessments. Teachers will use their professional judgement. We will award grades (from A through to E). The purpose of this is so that parents, other teachers and leaders, and governors can see how well pupils are doing, and to ‘raise a red flag’ if pupils are falling behind so that the school can support teachers and pupils. This information will never be used for performance management or capability.
  3. We will have an annual standardised examination in each subject (we are open to not having one in subjects where it might be claimed this won’t add to our information). This will be moderated across the department and maybe outside of the school if we can organise it. We will rank the pupils (though I’m not sure we will make these public – I’m open to discussion on this). The purposes of this are to cross-check the professional judgements above and to give pupils experience of terminal examinations.
  4. I’ve edited this to add that we will still gather predicted grades three times a year in Key Stage 4. The purpose behind this is to get some insight into pupils who may need support and because local 6th form colleges require these as standard.

That’s it.

In part two, I will go into more detail about how number (2) above might work. This is available here.

Posted by: mrlock | January 15, 2016

Being a headteacher interviewee

This post touches on my experiences of being an interviewee for headteacher posts. I have had some experience, and I’ve mixed a number of them up here. This follows my previous post on selecting a school to apply for a post.

The job (that I’m currently doing, at CVC) where I got the post and accepted was a brilliant process.  I would say that because I got it and am happy. But I enjoyed it and was exhausted. It ensured I knew the school, accurately, by the end of it, and it put me through my paces. The governing body knew they were getting me – a not fully formed headteacher with some potential to shift the school from its already very good base.

The purpose of this blogpost is because a large number of colleagues have asked me about headteacher interviews, sometimes out of interest, and sometimes because they’ll be applying themselves. I hope this helps some people prepare. It may be useful for governing bodies interviewing candidates as well. I’ve listed some experiences, and briefly where I think an approach I’ve taken is helpful.

I’ve resisted writing about the application in depth because I just don’t think there is a standard application. Most people who are applying for Headships can write an application that hits the person specification and know this gives them a shout at an interview. I think preparation really shows up in the application though. There is no point in applying unless you have the time to really research the post, the school, the history, and you have time to listen to what you’re being told.

I should say at the outset that being honest is vital. I said this in my last blog, but it bears repeating. It is a disaster to get a headship where the governing body didn’t want you, or you didn’t really want the school.


A headteacher application and interview is unlike any other in education. The reason for this is that in any other post, you’re applying to the headteacher (or a teacher the head has delegated responsibility for the appointment to), perhaps with the support and challenge of governors, or to be ratified by governors.

In this case, the application is to governors themselves. Governing bodies are a mixed ability bunch. There are those who prepare well and take it seriously and those that don’t prepare well (though I think all take it seriously). There are those that have experience of education and know what they’re looking for, and those that don’t, and it’s possible some will judge you on trivial details.

Two anecdotes that illustrate this: I heard from a Headteacher colleague that he had been turned down from a previous interview because one of the panel had particularly objected to the colour of his socks. It was a single day process.

On the other hand, I attended a single interview process where I was interviewed by:

  • the head of education at Policy Exchange
  • one of Michael Gove (secretary of state for education at the time)’s Special Advisors
  • the Headteacher of Bedford Free School
  • the Headteacher of Kensington Aldridge Academy
  • the Headteacher of Dr Challoner’s Grammar School (NLE)
  • the Headteacher of Garrick Wood School (NLE)
  • A lawyer at Clifford Chace
  • two exceptional parent governors
  • and various staff and students as with all Headteacher interviews.

This was a rigorous interview process indeed. So the same job in different schools can have very different people interviewing you. It can be a single day or three days.

My attitude to a Headteacher interview is that I really don’t want to be a Head where they don’t want me, so I am very honest. Sometimes, I have to accept it might be a rather trivial reason that they don’t want me. So keep everything in perspective.



I was phoned by a high profile Chair of Governors from a school I wouldn’t have considered and asked to apply for their headship. I was recommended by a previous interviewer – one of the panel in the rigorous process above (where I didn’t get the role). They’d further looked at this blog and got in touch to talk to me about the role. Several of these people in both these processes have become people I regularly use for advice and further networking, and have even become professional friends. It’s important to show your best side, even if you’ve decided to pull out or been told you’re going no further.

Governors will be taking it seriously, and will have put a lot of effort into the process. You’re seeing them at their best. I considered each time whether this was a governing body (or equivalent) I could work with.



I ensured I knew what I’d written in the application inside out. This always led to follow up questions in the interview. More particularly, I’d ensure I had my values and vision at the forefront of answers, and could relate back to them whenever I thought it right to, which was with most questions and tasks.

If there was a presentation, often on data, my approach was to either have notes in front of me, briefly, or notes on the data itself (usually RAISE from a similar school or the school), and ensure I’d practised the presentation so that I was fairly fluent. I don’t think I ever used powerpoint. I know that not using powerpoint this ruled me out of one headship. As said above, it depends what they’re looking for.

If the presentation was to staff I usually did it with no notes, practising first.

Apart from that, reading everything on the school (which I do for the application) that is possible and ensuring that I listen carefully to everything in the inevitable tour was all the preparation I did.


Choose the school:

I was always prepared to pull out of the process. In my mind, I was choosing the school, even if the interview was them deciding whether to select me.

For example, there was one process, which started at 11.30, had a brief chat with each candidate from the current headteacher and a tour, a lot of waiting, a presentation to all staff, and then onto the next day.

The school was requires improvement in Ofsted terms, with poor results. I began the next day with a ‘gut feeling’ that the process wasn’t rigorous and hence I might not be well suited to working with this governing body. I took part in one interview, involving the local authority and I really thought that they weren’t searching enough. The governing body seemed to defer to the LA and sometimes the current head. I went to and knocked on the current headteacher’s office.

I asked him about the governing body. I expressed that I suspected the governing body didn’t know the school. He was too professional to confirm this, but he confirmed it with his body language, and I just trusted my instincts, went to see the chair of governors, and walked out.

Gut instinct is really important to me. In this situation, I really didn’t want to be waiting for a telephone call either worried about being offered the post, or deciding whether to accept it. That required me to be sure it was the job for me, or I withdrew. Of course, without being sure it is the right job, one doesn’t perform as well anyway.


Reflect afterwards:

After any interview process, I would always talk it through with colleagues not invested in it. What I did wrong and what I would do next time dominated, but what I would do similarly is also important. I always took feedback (even when I’d withdrawn), though sometimes I didn’t accept the feedback because I didn’t agree (see the point about mixed ability governing bodies)


Tasks I have encountered:

I don’t have the correct approach to any of these. This is what I remember and my broad approach. These are in no particular order. Some panels want to know what you have done. Others want to know what you’re going to do. It’s hard to judge, but I’d go for a combination and read the panel.

Pre-interview visit to current school: Rare. In one interview, the chair of the trust came to visit me in my current school. I didn’t do any admin that day but I did everything else normally for the two hour visit. I did walk the classrooms, so it was clear that presence is something that is not unusual – I was out and about as a Deputy Headteacher. This task is not on the day of an interview, so stands out as slightly different to the rest, which are interview process tasks. I think it’s quite a clever, though time consuming thing to do, because I suspect the chair of the trust could pick up quite a lot about what I’m really like.

Tour: Very common. Usually from a student. Since I’d almost always had a tour prior to application, I usually spent this listening to the students’ perspective on the school, asking them questions about things from curriculum, behaviour, teaching and learning, careers, and what they want from their new headteacher. This is invariable useful in interviews later in the process.

Goldfish bowl: Infrequent. All the candidates sit around a table, and are given discussion points or a task to do collaboratively. My approach was to usually eschew the ‘I agree with what the last person said, and I’d like to add…’ approach, and to find an area of disagreement and to exemplify, professionally where I disagree. I would therefore be able to show how I listen and how I try to gently persuade. It’s a very artificial conversation though, as everyone knows they have to speak at some point, and the points made are for the benefit of observers.

“Speed-dating”: Infrequent. It wasn’t called this, but twice I’ve had short (4-6 minute) interviews with groups of staff (and/or students) with a whistle or equivalent and move on. My approach has been to go back to my vision and values and mention them in as many as appropriate. I also tried to always say something I’d noticed or heard about the school.

Student interview: Common. My approach here is to be honest and not patronise, including where they won’t like the answer (for example, I was asked if I would look at making students wear shoes in my current school rather than trainers [answer:yes]). My experience is that students see through being patronised. They also often like to throw in a curve ball at the end… ‘if you were a biscuit, which…?’/ ‘what’s your party trick?’

Teaching staff interview: Very common. Usually focussed on teaching and learning. Cognitive science was usually good to talk about here. Also: workload and what leadership can do about it, abolishing lesson gradings and the rationale, autonomy and trust, and the value of subjects. They often want to hear about behaviour and my plans for dealing with low-level disruption.

Middle Managers interview: Common. This would cross over into a number of areas, but curriculum, teaching and learning and leadership and management mainly.

SLT interview: Varies. This can be as a group, or separate, or each member of SLT can join a panel. They often have significant sway over the governors. I’d encourage getting to know as much about SLT as possible – after all I’d be inheriting them if appointed. They also know the school and the job well, so listening to them is really important.

Support staff interview: Fairly common. I always found this the hardest, as I was confronted usually with issues that have come up somewhere that I wasn’t aware of. This can include, lack of effective CPD for support staff, wanting teaching staff to work harder so TAs can know what is going on, recent issues with redundancies, issues related to the minutiae of individuals jobs, legal issues. I always went back to values and where possible, referred to how support staff can have real impact on our pupils.

Group task: Infrequent. Solve a problem (usually buildings) split into two groups and present the solution to the governors.

Finance interview: Fairly common, but varies in form. Usually with some fictional or not so fictional numbers. Quite often given 15 minutes to analyse and then present or write about savings or issues. The answer is almost always staffing. My approach would be ‘I can see that we might be overspending here, here or here, but to make substantial savings we have to look at staffing. This means non-teaching staff, or class sizes, or cover, or subjects offered or teaching ratios, and difficult decisions. This is the reality when a school has a difficult budget. I went on teaching staff circa 60% of budget, support staff 20%, and the rest the other 20%. It’s possible a panel put a figure somewhere else to see if you spot it.

Teaching and Learning interview: Common. How do you know what is good teaching? What is good CPD? I think if you can answer these two questions, everything else flows here. I wish there were more curriculum interviews, but these often go back to pedagogy (sadly). In the job I was appointed to, I think I tried to move this towards discussion on curriculum, though I didn’t think I did a very good job in that interview.

Leadership and management interview: Common. Here is the only place I would admit to my weaknesses, and what I was doing to address them. I would also talk a lot about visibility, behaviour (which might be a separate interview was well), and then about rigorous systems of line management. The panel quite often wants to know if your action has led to colleagues leaving the school. It’s really important here to talk extensively about the role of governors, especially if you haven’t managed to elsewhere.

Attendance and behaviour interview: Common in some form. I think this is pretty predictable. I was not backward in saying that we should have high standards and no excuses. I was often challenged about pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or with particular learning needs. My response is the distinction between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ behave.

Letter to disgruntled parent or to parents generally: Common. Usually a parent who wants something and has been turned down. I’ve had to write to a governor who wanted their child moved up a set, a letter to encourage use of pupil premium funds, and a letter to a member of staff regarding an appeal on their lack movement up the pay spine.

Data task: Common. Sometimes ‘what does Raise tell you?’ Sometimes ‘what does this internal data tell you. I usually focus on what else I’d need to know to confirm very early hypotheses.

SLT meeting: Rare. All candidates sit around and take it in turns to chair a fictional SLT meeting agenda item. I was a part of this and it was interesting that the third person delegated an aspect of the task to each person. My approach was to listen, agree we didn’t really know, and (fictionally) send someone to find out more and stick it on the agenda next week. Probably didn’t go down well, but I wouldn’t waste time if we didn’t know, so it was honest.

Emergency task: Infrequent. Sometimes left as an envelope on your desk, or some other way of surprising you, I have experienced a number of these. One was where the next interview wanted a response to what I do over a member of staff who has organised a staff social, not followed procedure, and now that the event is cancelled, the school has lost £800.

Teaching and learning data: Rare. Presented with a set of lesson observation grades and monitoring, how is the school going to improve?

Presentation to the local community: Infrequent. I had this to 45 parents, primary school headteachers and so on.

Interview with local primary headteachers: Surprisingly common. This is worth having some thought on. It threw me in two interviews and I’m angry with myself that it did the second time. It’s a really good thing to put into a process, I think. It is a key difference between being a deputy and a head – the networking, the listening, and the local community all come in here.

Teach a lesson: Infrequent. Well, duh. I should be able to do this. I always planned too much. I always get the kids to collect a piece of card from me on the way in to write their names on so that you can question them by their names without too much fuss. I picked this up from a fellow candidate in one interview.

Teach a lesson on something not in the school’s curriculum: Rare. I didn’t do this well in the one interview where it happened, so I’m not sharing what I taught.

Observe a lesson: Common. I think I have usually done this well. I’ve done it from interview, where feedback is to an actor or governor. I’ve done it where it’s live, with feedback to the actual teacher. And I’ve done it live, where feedback is to a member of SLT pretending to be the teacher. I ask questions and make suggestions for improvement. Usually thinking about working memory and long term memory is a good way in. I always start with ‘I’m not going to grade this lesson, because I won’t be if I’m the head, so don’t read anything into that’, unless I thought there was something appalling about it (that hasn’t happened). My worst experience of this was where I knew the teacher, and had a lot of respect for him, and I just found it impossible to believe what I’d seen (he had been told to deliver a lesson that wasn’t all that), and didn’t want to patronise him. I was really embarrassed at my performance in that.

Presentation to staff on me: Common, in different forms. In one interview, I was told to ‘go through this door, you have to talk about what you’ve learnt about the school for ten minutes… you have no preparation time’ and shoved into the staff room.

Interview with the 6th form students: Frequent where there is a 6th form. In my experience they want to know about responsibilities and that you WILL focus on the quality of their experience in the classroom, not abandon them for Key Stage 4.

In tray: Common. Aspects of some of the above plus some emergency emails and telephone messages. A fixed time to prioritise and answer. e.g. Michael Gove wants to visit tomorrow, a fight has broken out in the playground, Teacher x and TA y are getting a divorce and are crying, the Chair of the Academy Trust is angry at pupils misbehaving on the way to school, a parent needs a phone call on z…. my approach here has been to ensure I know who I can delegate to and use them, but with clear instructions on the outcome e.g. “report back to me if unhappy, no need if not” and sometimes on how to deal with it. Child protection is first priority, always.

Final interview: Common. Usually starts with a presentation on where the school will be in a certain amount of time. I really think it’s important to use what I’ve learnt about the school in the previous day, two days or three days to go through this. There are then usually 8-25 people, including most or all of the governing body. It lasts an hour or three, depending on how many candidates remain.



I used ‘we’ when referring to the school at every interview. I took this from when I interviewed a headteacher early in my career. He impressed me by talking as if he was in post, and really cared. I still use ‘we’, and found in my interviews if I stopped using it, it was probably time to withdraw.

I almost always stayed in a hotel, but checked wifi. Between days there is always something to do, and it’s much harder to concentrate at home. For example, in one interview, I was asked (at 9pm on the second day) to prepare another lesson to teach on the third day.

A friend of mine, Keven Bartle, sent me a list of over 100 questions that could be asked. I had asked for the list, but I found it unhelpful. It just meant I was practising answers, rather than listening and responding. I was better off without practising questions. However, having someone read my application and point out questions that came to mind was very helpful.

I accepted a post after an interview process that I would call ‘reassuringly rigorous’. I also always gave feedback to governors where I thought it wasn’t so (or it was). I wouldn’t accept a post where the governors hadn’t put us through our paces because I wanted a good governing body. I got one, but I had to be persistent. I would advise governing bodies not to ‘dumb down’ their processes – candidates in their rooms were scathing about ones that weren’t and do chat to each other. I’m delighted in my post. I feel like I was myself in the interview, and I really feel like the job I am doing is exactly the one I suggested I would do during my interview. I’ve been fortunate in inheriting a fantastic governing body and a brilliant SLT, but a part of that was selecting the school.

I’m not convinced interviewing is a great way of appointing a headteacher. However, I’m going to plagiarise Churchill: I think it’s better than all the other ways that have been tried and that I can think of.

Posted by: mrlock | January 14, 2016

A Liberal Education and CVC

This is similar to something I’ve written before. It may also (unintentionally) use phrases I was reading when I wrote it. I hope I’ve referenced them at the end. It is a piece I wrote for my school’s blog in the context of our direction of travel.

CPDL @ Cottenham Village College

Learning is an activity that thrives on a desire to know. The state of deep learning – of love for one’s learning and the activities that lead to learning – is bound up in the essence of being human. The intense satisfaction of learning combined with the desire to know more as an end in itself is liberating. As educated people, we will (I hope) all have experienced undertaking a learning activity because of intrinsic desire or love of the activity itself. Pursuing a question, or reading a book, or finding out more just because we want to is something uniquely human and something we must cultivate in our young people. We want pupils to thrive on learning, if not in the now of the classroom, then in the lives of those we are inducting into a lifetime of fulfilment and freedom: the pupils at Cottenham Village College.

Too many…

View original post 1,356 more words

Posted by: mrlock | January 9, 2016

Choosing the right school – to apply for headship.

I’m aware that people who are aiming for headship will be about to see a larger number of headship posts advertised at this time of year.

A number of people have asked me about the process of a Headship application. The first aspect I considered in my applications is getting the right school for me. I should say at the outset that this is secondary-focussed. I don’t know the extent to which it’s transferable to primary.

Getting the right school:

When I was applying, I was aware that I would be responsible for shaping the vision and direction of a large institution were I to get a post. It would be crazy not to ensure this was a direction I support and indeed am driven to ensure we do the best way possible. So getting the right school was absolutely crucial for me. And there are practical considerations that one might need to consider.

Before being appointed to Cottenham Village College last year, in three years I had looked into over 100 schools, phoned over 50 chairs of trustees or governors or equivalent, downloaded application forms and person specifications from about 30, applied to about 25, been called for interview 17 times, actually went to interview 14 times (one I didn’t go to because OFSTED called on the day before the interview and there were two others I opted out of), withdrew from 5 during the interview, failed to get 7 (6 on the final day), turned one down and accepted the one at CVC.

A headship application would take me approximately six hours to do properly, and was a real investment of time.

Quite often I’d stop half way through the process having found something that revealed it just wasn’t for me. There are principles I wouldn’t compromise on just to get a (wrong) headship.

I didn’t feel that many of the above were particularly failures; just that they weren’t right. Of the ones I didn’t get, there was only one that I really wanted and would have accepted on the spot.

I realise that others just walk into a role after their first application. My approach was not to fit a school, but to find a school that fitted me (and I have). I was happy in my previous role, and not desperate to leave. The school was and is going places, and there was no push factors leading me to need to get away – other than we did want to move out of London with my young family at some point over the next few years.

I offer this, not necessarily as advice for others, but as an indication of the lessons I learnt along the way. It may be useful if you are applying for headships. It may also be useful if you are advertising one.

I do think that in an application process candidates should be honest. I did not want to be appointed to a school that didn’t really want me. I could have been successful by tempering what I am about, but then I would have been in a position where I had to do a job I wasn’t interested in doing, or indeed couldn’t do.

Have a vision:

This is promoted on every leadership course. But I think it’s really important despite this, not because of it.

It’s important for me because it’s the reason I want to do the job. It leads from my values, centred around equality. My vision is that we will have a school where pupils are entitled to the best that has been thought and said. That comprehensive school pupils are entitled to the same provision that others get by paying for it. And that the gap between the achievement of disadvantaged pupils and their peers is a national disgrace.

You can try to prepare answers to every question or task you’re going to get, but if you are trying to remember these, you’ll fail to grasp the intricacies of the questions or tasks. If you come back to values and vision each time, you can knit a coherent framework that actually gives an insight into what a school under your leadership will be like. And it makes your application, interview and tasks coherent with what you do when you start in the role.

During interviews, on curriculum, on teaching and learning, on behaviour, on leadership and management, and on community, I was able to refer to the vision that I had banged on about in my personal statement. If it wasn’t the right vision, so be it.

In interviews where I deviated from this, and tried to play to what I thought the governors wanted, I was far less effective.


As a matter of course, when I saw what I thought was a suitable job, I’d take the following steps.

  1. Write down all details I could about the school in my file, starting a new 2 page spread. This would include:

a. OFSTED rating, strengths and improvement points

b. Results for the last 3 years – progress in maths and English, value added, notes for questions to the governors

c. How long the head has been there

d. Anything notable about the job description or person specification

e. a quick trawl of news for anything that needs clarifying

f. Anything notable from social media, or the school website, particularly over curriculum.

2. Phone for a visit; ask preliminary questions

3. Visit; have a list of things that need to be asked from my notes above. If I couldn’t visit, ask for a phone call on governors. I would always ask about behaviour policy, what the experience of staff is in the school, the roles of SLT, and the finances. I would also ask why the current headteacher is leaving.

4. Spend quite a significant time deciding whether an application is worthwhile. Quite often, if I’d used up a lot of time (some conversations with chairs of governors went on for a couple of hours), I’d let them know if I wasn’t applying, and give them a reason why.

5. Try to find someone who works in the school, lives near the school, or knows something of it. There would be something that will be helpful to me. On one occasion (the school where I didn’t accept the post after a 3 day interview) I went the day before to the town, stayed in a B&B, and went to the local pub the night before visiting. I asked about the reputation of the school with some locals.

6. Listen, carefully, especially in the visit and any phone calls.

I reckon I’d spent 20 hours, including two dinners with people who live or know of the school, talking about Cottenham Village College before I decided to apply. But because I’d done that, I knew I wanted the job.

Be choosy:

I was looking for a school where I could implement my vision. That success is desirable, demanded and achievable is my pithy way of putting it, but actually it is that powerful knowledge is an entitlement to all pupils. I also believe that we should eschew excuses.

I didn’t hold back on this. It’s not the mainstream of educational discourse at the moment – but nonetheless it was important to me and is a part of the school I lead. Being very explicit about this – in application and in interview – has allowed me to be honest in doing the job.

It also led to my not being shortlisted on occasion, I’m sure.

If the governors or the school were not open to this, it either came through that I wasn’t what they were looking for, or I ruled myself out by disagreeing with the predominant view of the governors. Usually, I’d see this coming.

On one occasion, I rang a school to ask if I could speak to the chair of governors. This school was too far away for me to visit, was Outstanding, but had results that suggested if would be Inadequate in the near future. It could be the right job for me, because a school that was in such a difficult position might be open to a change of direction. I wanted to hear if the governors would support a change of direction.

I was referred to the current headteacher. I said I didn’t want to speak, at that time, to the current headteacher, and asked for the chair of governor’s number. I was given it.

When I called the chair of governors, I was informed that they didn’t know the answer to any of my questions, but that they would get the headteacher to call me.

I didn’t apply. I understand it is now in special measures.

My criteria for application was: supportive governors, supportive trust/ executive head, (fairly) stable staffing at least, school that knows its weaknesses and genuinely wants the head to address them – even if it doesn’t know how.

The advantage of being choosy is that at the school I’m at I know I have the backing of the governors, trustees and executive headteacher in the direction I am taking the school. As a result, we’ve made more progress in a term than I ever thought possible.

Be honest:

This is linked with being choosy, but I knew the job I wanted to do, and I knew there were things that I didn’t think were positive in every school I applied to. There were things I’d like to change.

Of course, it was important that I recognise what I was going to inherit – a new head inherits a great deal, including an existing vision. But a part of the application and interview process is establishing if my vision and practice could align with what I was inheriting.

I did develop an honest line about surveying and listening in order that I could understand quickly the good things that happen in the school and ensure that we keep the things we really treasure.

Sometimes I was too honest I suppose. There was one headship interview where I was the only candidate on the second day.

After a presentation that took some time, an Assistant Head asked me a question after a long presentation, with words to the effect of “we know where you think the school needs to improve. Please could you give an outline of the things you think we do well?”

To be honest, I didn’t think I’d seen much they did well, even though I’d been looking for it, and I didn’t even believe my answer (it really was a politicians answer). I knew I wasn’t right for that school at that point. So did they!

I did reflect on whether I should have been looking for significant strengths, but in reality, if I’d got that job, I would have wanted to change almost everything about the school – something that it became clear the governors did not want me to do. I could answer why I wanted the job, but I should have been more discerning about whether the school was ready for the changes I would’ve been interested in introducing.

A second part of being honest was admitting where I need support. For me, this was around the legal aspects of HR and governance, and finance.

A third part of being honest was not holding back on my own qualities. If I think I can lead a school to be world class (I do), I said so. If I thought that my work on curriculum was groundbreaking, I said so. If I thought that I was solely responsible for improvements, I said so. I didn’t temper these in order that I would look humble.

The humility came with admitting when I played only a part in what I’d done, or in listening to those in the school about what they value, and showing that I valued their position or opinion by assimilating it into the direction I would take the school – that’s the case at interview but that’s also the case when doing the job.

Get someone to read it:

I used friends, colleagues, and others I know from social media. Vic Goddard and I have differing perspectives on many aspects of education, but he was very helpful with one application, saying “I don’t see why they’d shortlist you if you write this”. Jill Berry was also helpful, for example, with “as a head you inherit a great deal, including an existing vision” – this made me think differently about how I align my vision with the existing one, and even considering whether this is possible as a first step. I used different people each time because they contributed to my understanding of how varied different people can read an application.

I don’t think getting people to read an application has ever failed to make it better.


I think the best summary is that applying for a Headship is a bit like a political campaign, only with a lot more honesty.

Next week, I’ll try and remember as many tasks from as many interviews as I can, and how I approached them.

Posted by: mrlock | November 29, 2015

The Cambridge History PGCE

I’m really proud to have started as a Headteacher this term. I’m particularly proud of my new school – Cottenham Village College.

The whole experience has been a whirlwind and I’ve barely had time to return to my blog – though I am hoping to more regularly. Its been 57 days of work so far, and I’ve loved every minute.

I’ve had my eyes opened to many things on top of what I was expecting: I hadn’t anticipated the extent to which local newspapers would take interest; the local television station turned up; dealing with parents less happy with changes to the school; managing a wide variety of staffing issues; public relations; and most recently an OFSTED inspection have contributed to my personal learning.

But I have to blog about some of the recent changes to Initial Teacher Training (ITT).

As I said to the staff on my first day in post, I want my school to be world-class. I want it to deliver a knowledge based, knowledge rich curriculum encompassing the best humanity has passed through the ages to all pupils, regardless of background or ability. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold, our pupils are entitled to the best that has been thought and said. It is in this arena that I agree with Michael Gove. And I feel like I always have to repeat this: I have never voted Tory and never intend to.

I also know that this is a challenge. Teachers often arrive in schools predisposed to promote ‘child-centred’ progressive ideology. This is still, in my experience, the primary perspective of many ITT courses.

However, I have found that many of those colleagues in my new school who understand this and can challenge these orthodoxies have been trained at the Cambridge Faculty of Education’s secondary history PGCE. This course, I have learnt from trainees and ex-trainees, promotes a knowledge led curriculum and is highly subject-specific in absolutely the right way – in a way that assists me as a Headteacher to promote a knowledge rich curriculum. Lee Donaghy writes about this here.

This is the sort of course I want to be training my teachers: one that is challenging; recruits the very best graduates with the best qualifications; one that is unapologetic in expecting exceptional subject knowledge and subject pedagogy; one that, frankly, makes a difference to the schools it works with as well as expecting the school to make a difference with the trainees. Two weeks ago, I cancelled an SLT meeting to attend a seminar on whole-school curriculum leadership run by the same people who run this course – knowledge based, challenging of the orthodoxy, and related closely to school leadership I have already used this seminar to direct our leadership of my school. This sort of opportunity would not exist without this course. One of the Assistant Headteachers at Cottenham Village College works, mentors and delivers seminars on this course. This course is one of the main reasons the History department at Cottenham Village College is so strong.

Last week, I was aghast when I discovered that caps on admissions to university based ITT would mean this course closed. It would mean that the network of Cambridge history mentors in Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, Suffolk and Hertfordshire schools that I have been lucky enough to find myself in the middle of, would wither and die. It would mean that the task of batting back some of the damaging orthodoxies of generic skills and dubious pedagogies becomes harder. It would mean that my school, and I, would be more isolated in Cambridgeshire and the argument for a knowledge rich curriculum would be harder.

There was widespread disgust in the staffroom on Thursday morning as we met to discuss the OFSTED inspection over the previous two days. Certainly, amongst some, this was more of a topic of conversation than the inspection. There had been similar disgust on twitter the night before. There is similar disgust about Oxford’s History PGCE closing. And this course would be closing because they’d been discerning about who they interview and had taken their time to get the best possible graduates into teaching.

Since then, the course appears to have a stay of execution. The course can now recruit 11 new teachers under a rule that says it can recruit 75% of the candidates it recruited last year. But that’s 11 (last year was already down to 16 due to all HEI institutions having had 33% sliced off). I don’t know, but I speculate that we’re missing out on a great deal of knowledgable graduates – who could walk into other better paid occupations but have chosen to go for one of the most rigorous courses to enter a truly noble profession – who will be going somewhere else. And what does this mean for next year? The way that university based ITT has been attacked and continues to be (and I get the reasoning) means that this course could be collateral damage. It really could just be a stay of execution.

And what if there were (say) 10 great candidates interviewed on the first selection day? The climate this ridiculous rush has caused means that not offering to all 10 would risk losing them to another training route. But what if there are more candidates the next selection day? What if they’re even better?

Finally, what of the history mentors who have helped to shape this very school-based, subject-specific course, and made it their own? In two years’, that team of history mentors will have been halved.

The fact that this course is under threat at all has got me beyond angry.

The fact that recruitment for this course is a mess, through no fault of the brilliant people who run the course, has me fuming.

The fact that this is very likely to make developing a knowledge rich curriculum (that I know ministers would approve of) in my school more difficult makes this a disgrace, and a massive own goal.

The recent shifts to save the course, possibly for one year only, are not enough. I hope that the storm, on twitter and elsewhere, doesn’t die down until proper moves are made to save this course.




Please note: I am not saying there are not other courses that deserve saving, just that the Cambridge Secondary History course aligns with our agenda for our school and is nearby.

Posted by: mrlock | August 4, 2015

Chinese School – Are Our Children Tough Enough

This blog was written in 55 minutes following the programme. Please forgive any errors.

Prior to the first episode of Are Our Children Tough Enough broadcast on 4th August 2015, very many people (including many teachers) on twitter, and I’ve no doubt many not on twitter had decided to dismiss any possible positive outcomes. The most common response was a varient of

“It is, however, abundantly clear to me that Chinese parents, culture and values are the real reasons that Shanghai Province tops the oft-cited Pisa tables rather than superior teaching practice. No educational approach or policy is going to turn back the British cultural clock to the 1950s. Nor should it seek to.”

That quote is from Headteacher Neil Strowger, the Headteacher of the school who participated in the experiment, so it is worth noting what he has to say. I would respond to Mr Strowger that no-one I know who wants to learn from the Chinese system wants to turn the clock back to the 1950s. The Chinese (or at least Shanghai province) are clearly doing something right in the 21st century, and it’s unprofessional of us to ignore that, and our school system needs a kick. Why not learn from China?

I understand that the programme is devoid of nuance, that it is entertainment, and that we can’t draw conclusions from a whole series, let alone one episode. Indeed the programme appeared to imply the project was a variant of an RCT – neutral assessors would see which group – those taught in the Chinese style or the UK style – had learnt the most after 4 weeks. But of course this says nothing except what can be done in 4 weeks. It’s like last minute intervention, Chinese style, with a few pupils, and the conclusions must therefore have a mountain of salt with them. Actually no salt, just dismissed.

The students taught in the ‘Chinese school’ wore tracksuits. I wasn’t expecting that! There were more predictable things: desks in rows, longer days, two lunch breaks and lots of teaching from the front.

The most worrying aspect of the reactions to the programme are that we as a profession seem entrenched in our view that in the UK we are *good enough*, and there is little that can be learnt from overseas, despite what the international tables suggest. Some commentators hide behind context as an excuse for not challenging what we do. I suspect it’s because those of us working in education are something of a conservative lot.

Besides anything else, it makes me uncomfortable to suggest that the difference between the performance of nations is ‘cultural’. The implications of such conclusions are unpalatable.

Throughout my career in teaching I’ve witnessed the teaching profession react defensively to any challenge of the status quo, or any suggest we’re not all brilliant. There’s a nod to ‘improvement’, but in reality we are a profession that revels in our status as martyrs whenever there is a suggestion we could be doing better. It’s a defensive attitude we see in others, that as a profession we’re capable of identifying in others, but as a profession find it difficult to identify in ourselves.

This defensive attitude does our pupils a disservice. It also does us a disservice.

As a profession we have to accept that, despite the heavy investment in education, standards in the UK are not high enough. We may argue about the cause of this, but to deny that standards have fallen over the last thirty years would be ridiculous. Personally, I blame an over-reliance on progressivism and a lack of effective challenge to the progressive educational establishment – discovery learning, permissiveness and child-centredness have had centre stage for far too long at the expense of direct instruction, authority, and subject disciplines. This has been reinforced by government, including via the national curriculum, and policed by the inspectorate at a very high price in terms of our kids’  achievement. The programme itself identified ‘child-centredness’ and ‘progressive’ as features of UK education and features of Bohunt School (the school in the programme) specifically.

The question arising from the educational exchange with China – a relationship cultivated by my last school with an exchange that included our pupils visiting China – shouldn’t be “would Chinese style education work on British kids?” but “what can we learn to do better from the Chinese?” as well as a host of other questions.

Here are three things I noticed from the first episode and think we should consider.

1) Behaviour – I thought this might have been nailed years ago by Mossbourne, led by Sir Michael Wilshaw in Hackney and proving that the most deprived pupils can behave immaculately, but apparently not. It is fine to expect pupils to listen and behave and make this a pre-requisite of learning. Too many schools still believe that lessons need to interest pupils and this is how we get good behaviour. It’s nonsense. It’s an abdication of leadership: the ethos of a school is set by senior leaders and enforced by everybody and if this ethos is one of strict discipline the school is more likely to be successful. As one of the Chinese teachers said “without discipline you don’t learn well”.

The programme makers clearly focussed on the least well behaved pupils, but the immediate switching off, outright defiance and lack of grit really got to me. I am not even a fan of that word, but both that and ‘growth mindset’ came to mind several times during the programme.

The pupils even knew this. At one point Rosie said “in China aren’t the children like really really well behaved” and Angelina finished her sentence with “and we’re not”. Another pupil talked about it being fun to push the boundaries when teachers are strict, and another complained that it was unfair that her behaviour had been corrected with a (minor) sanction without a warning.

Some others challenged me on twitter suggesting that the behaviour was normal for kids in an unusual situation. This might be true, but they are in their school – and surely they should be behaving according to the school’s ethos.

I do understand that the programme does not represent how the school is on a day-to-day basis, nor how the pupils behave.

2) Instruction – it’s fine to tell pupils what they need to know. This sounds ridiculous to have to say, but in an era of the prominence of discovery learning, what pupils need to know is so often kept from them.

In fact, a British Science teacher said in the programme “for a Scientist it’s all about finding out the methods yourself”.

This is a common view in schools, and not just in science. The Chinese teachers expected pupils to absorb and memorise information delivered at the front of the class – something the pupils were unable to do. Memory can be a dirty word in our schools while I follow Kirschner, Sweller and Clark in defining all learning as a change in long term memory of some kind. It is fine to tell the pupils what they need to know and not wait for them to find it out for themselves. That British students don’t memorise formulae in maths was a key problem brought up midway through this episode.

The Chinese approach illustrated was very different. The teacher explained that “I don’t use the science equipment very often. I deliver the knowledge and use the board in a very traditional fashion. I can deliver it fast in a very structured manner.” Efficiency is key, and something I think we can learn from. I often hear subject leaders bemoan the lack of time they have for subjects – they’re almost always right, but time is the thing we can’t create more of and we must use as efficiently as possible. Discovery learning uses a lot of that most precious resource of time – usually, I would posit, to less effect.

As the narrator then said, the children need to behave for the Chinese style lecturing to be effective, which takes us back to point one.

Despite some of the poor behaviour, and despite the lack of background knowledge of the pupils meaning some parts of lessons were inaccessible, some pupils described the teaching in the Chinese style as positive. One pair talked about understanding equilibrium and Mr Strowger admitted some of the pupils preferred being told what they need to know. Another boy said “I actually learnt something in chemistrieeee”.

This is despite Headteacher Mr Strowger having pedagogical views that are not exactly in favour of explicit instruction – “talking at the front doesn’t sit right on any level… I don’t want it to be the best way to teach students”

3) All can achieve – but not all will – and expectations are everything. One of the Chinese teachers was comparing the approach of teaching different pupils at different ability levels different syllabuses in the UK with the approach in China – “we have the one syllabus and we teach them all that syllabus”. The implication was that setting can be a form of dumbing down for the least able. There was one scene where a teacher was imploring the class to work harder because the work is accessible to all as long as they work hard enough over time. I’m not sure a 4 week series is going to be enough.

I wonder about the role of practice in China – I’m guessing a lot of this is after school hours but it must be prevalent to ensure the transfer of some of the knowledge they learn to long term memory.

At one point a child said of a lesson taught in Chinese style “I get what you do but not why”. I’m sure this will be leapt upon by critics, but it ignores that we all often get the what before the why. Most of us who drive a car know what to do but not why it works, and I would guess everyone including mechanics learn what to do before understanding why it works. This is actually the case with a great many aspects of education and desperately trying to put the ‘why’ before the ‘what’ can be tremendously inefficient as pupils need a great deal more knowledge to understand why.

I was amazed at the central role of PE. If you don’t pass the PE tests in China you can be held back from good high schools or universities. This didn’t go down well with some of the UK students, especially Joe, who is high achieving academically. As the PE teacher said “the students are scared of failing”. He certainly needed a dose of growth mindset at that point. Everything came right for Joe though, as he could do the complex chinese puzzle that was introduced to engage the pupils towards the end of their first week of teaching, and his classmates gave him attention. Joe reported “that’s never really happened before”.Joe did say, reflecting on his experience in PE, that it was OK in Britain to be mediocre at some things, and clearly expectations are higher in China. I thought this was interesting.

Some of the other pupils in PE didn’t really embrace the ‘no excuses’ approach of the Chinese either, one girl saying “well Stephen Hawking wouldn’t be very good at it”.

I was also surprised at the role of student voice in maintaining high standards in the classrooms in China – committees elected to maintain the environment and keep order and discipline. I’d like to know more!

While it was set up to be an experiment, and gives the impression of rigor, as my partner said to me while watching it “They’re just English kids in an English school with Chinese teachers”.

Quite. I took from the programme what I read into it – reaffirming my biases. I’m sure people who disagree with me also reaffirmed theirs. Given the false and artificial construction of the situation with the programme, there’s not much to actually learn from it, is there?

Or is there?

Mr Strowger said “I believe that a longer school day would have value for our pupils and that teachers should not on occasion be afraid of delivering monologues in the classroom”

And for someone who “does not want this style to be successful because it’s wrong on every level” there’s a bit of a shift. I hope it’s shifted some others similarly. Challenging the idea that we all have to be ‘guides on the side’ rather than ‘sages on the stage’ is a positive step.

Finally, I’d like to mention that I expect to learn a lot from the most successful school systems from Lucy Crehan’s book Cleverlands. If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend pledging by clicking on the link (and please do so soon because I want to read it sooner rather than later).

Posted by: mrlock | March 13, 2015

No excuses

On Friday afternoons at my school all the Student Progress Leaders (Heads of Year), three senior staff including myself, our learning mentors, our child protection team, seclusion team, SENCO and attendance team sit down for an hour to meet. We’re often joined by a social worker, a police officer and various local youth workers.

We go through last week’s minutes, detailing what’s happened with each student that we’ve offered support to. These can be for crises at home, attendance issues, problems in the local area, issues to do with nutrition, or child protection. Every few of weeks or so we find solutions for a child hard to come by. But we do our very best and we have significant resources allocated to supporting our students to ensure they can meet our expectations.

Two and a half years ago, when local childrens’ services were faced with no home, we gave them one at our school. For us, this meant pupils and parents have easier access to that expert support. It meant we have access to expert advice and guidance on and from outside agencies, and indeed direct access to some of those agencies.

We support the students as much as we possibly can. We have a brilliant record of ‘keeping’ those students who are sent to us for a second chance after all chances at their school have expired (this is two way, we don’t just receive).

A part of that is we are inflexible on rules. You meet our expectations or you face the consequences – no exceptions.

Late to school – 20 minutes after school that day and an hour detention with me later in the week. Don’t complete your homework to a satisfactory standard – your parents know, you have a detention with your teacher, and you have an hour with me later in the week. Late to a lesson by a minute – that will cost you 20 minutes with your teacher and an hour with me as head of school. Late four times in a four week period, Saturday detention. All detentions in silence.

No excuses.

I have written about our behaviour policy before. While I know some people were and are upset that I was so brazen about upholding our standards to the point that pupils have to leave our school (and I think there is an issue system-wide with what happens to excluded children), the above meeting shows the other side of our work on behaviour and discipline, including preparing our pupils for the outside world.

If I could start a school from scratch, ‘no excuses’ would be one of my school’s founding principles. It’s something a number of schools I admire use as a mantra that works. It’s often set alongside hard work, or no shortcuts.

I think we’re getting closer to no excuses at my school. We still have some poorer behaviour, but we don’t make excuses for it. Here’s an email exchange (with names and details changed and explanatory brackets included) from a few weeks ago that I was copied into, and I was heartened by the message that colleagues are giving each other. I’ve obviously asked for permission to reproduce these edited versions.

From:T (English teacher)
To:J (Learning Mentor); G (Student Progress Leader);

Cc: P (tutor); N (head of department); Stuart LOCK

Subject: Max Smith

Dear Colleagues

Max arrived five minutes towards the end of my lesson today. He was absent on Friday so this was the first time I was able to speak with him regarding his behaviour last Thursday, period 5 for which he was sent to seclusion. When I had challenged him on home learning he became defensive and took offense to my implication that he was lying.

His body language became quite erratic and then he shouted at me before storming out of the room. This is not the first time this has happened with Max. I understand there are some serious issues at home and, upon speaking with J (Learning Mentor), that he has not been attending his mentoring meetings.

Today, I told him that we would need to address the issue of his behaviour and I was met with a response of ‘I don’t care. Do what you want.’

Can I please request a meeting (for example restorative justice?) be arranged with Max and another member of staff. The sooner the better please, if possible. I teach him period 4 tomorrow.

T (English teacher)

Some quite serious behaviour. In my old school (ie this school, three years ago), we’d have gone ahead with a restorative justice meeting – a meeting where both the teacher and pupil talk about how they felt and what they need from each other. It would have been one of hundreds of similar incidents and meetings.

In my view, this used to undermine the authority of the teacher.

In this case, this kind of behaviour is now rare because of our systems. And the following email came back:

From: G (Student Progress Leader)
To: T (English teacher); J (Learning mentor);
Cc: P (tutor); N (Head of Department); Stuart LOCK; P (attendance team)
Subject: RE: Max Smith

I will be speaking with Max this afternoon.

I will not be organising a restorative justice meeting as from my understanding nothing needs to be resolved between you and Max. He simply needs to do his job and if he fails or refuses to do that then he suffers the consequences.

I will seclude him for the next lesson and we will have a re-entry meeting with him before he is allowed back in your class. The re-entry meeting will be used to reinforce your expectations.

Max’s issues are the same as a number of our pupils and are actually excuses and excuses don’t get results.


G (Student Progress Leader)

I should point out a re-entry meeting means parents are involved and have to come to the school.

Of course Max will be discussed by colleagues and we will support him to achieve good GCSEs. He’s had very serious sanctions that have stopped short of exclusion, but he’s been isolated in our seclusion unit. He’s actually very happy here because of the structure. Not allowing him to use anything outside of school as an excuse for not meeting our expectations means he can focus more on being here and shaking that off. That doesn’t mean outside circumstances don’t affect him – of course they do. But Max doesn’t have expectations that are differentiated downwards for him, either in terms of his conduct, or learning. He does have scaffolding – centred around the meeting above and provided in his lessons, to meet our expectations.

It occurred to me when reading these emails that we are now really clear on authority and expectations of behaviour.

From: T (English teacher)
To: G (SPL); J (Learning Mentor)
Cc: P (tutor); N (HOD); Stuart LOCK; P (attendance team)
Subject: RE: Max Smith

Thank you for your support G. I’ll keep you all posted.

No excuses.

NB: Pupils who are excluded for more than 5 days have to have education provided somewhere – so called ‘day 6’ provision. We provide day 6 provision for the authority. We also provide satellite PRU provision when the PRU is full.

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