Posted by: mrlock | November 14, 2021

Job opportunity: make a great school world-class

There is still a significant volume of nonsense in the school system that is accepted as ‘normal’. But over the last decade plus, it has got better.

In 2003, Michael Wilshaw was appointed the head of Mossbourne Community Academy. Over the next eight years, Mossbourne impacted on my school leadership. This was because Mossbourne became an example of a school that served a deprived community that expected pupils to behave well, 100% of the time. Learning was prized, and a large number of disadvantaged pupils achieved very good results.

Since then, a number of schools have shown that kids from deprived backgrounds can behave, and a phrase that I found common in 2003 – “what can you expect from kids like this?” was cast aside in the minds of many educators. It is a phrase that many people I know now baulk at.

Now knighted as Sir Michael, I’d argue that the ripples beyond Mossbourne around pupil behaviour were at least as impactful as his leadership of Ofsted after 2011.

I learnt that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds can behave as well as their better off peers, and we don’t need excuses.

In 2007, King Solomon Academy in Westminster was established, with the secondary opening in 2009, led by Max Haimendorf and colleagues. KSA focussed on culture, and influenced some other schools I write about later in this blog. Alongside the focus on culture, I learnt from talking to colleagues who worked at KSA that considering the sequencing of curriculum, ensuring that all pupils learn the components, is more crucial to final performance than practising that final performance.

KSA achieved the very best results in the country in 2015 and 2016.

KSA taught us that pupils from deprived backgrounds could behave, and that they could learn an academic curriculum just as well as their peers, and that schools shouldn’t metaphorically shrug if a pupil is underachieving.

I learnt from KSA and others that careful curricular thought raises achievement much more than other ‘bets’, that have more peripheral benefits.

Alongside Reach Feltham (established 2012) under Ed Vainker and colleagues, KSA (now Ark King Solomon Academy) also taught us that schools can work much, much closer with families for the benefit of pupils.

Ed, Max and colleagues are completely committed to ensuring that all pupils, including the most complex and difficult cases, are able to achieve and live happy, healthy lives. This isn’t abstract – the influence is tangible.

I learnt from both of these schools that we really are the centre of the community, but we aren’t automatically. We are responsible for our pupils’ life chances, and this doesn’t end at the end of the school day.

In September 2012, Luke Sparkes and colleagues started Dixons Trinity Academy. Their wider approach to culture is something that opened my eyes when I visited. We can give pupils responsibility, and have much higher expectations of them remembering what they learn, including pupils with SEND.

Dixons Trinity Academy is amongst the top schools in the country for achievement every single year, really transforming education in the north. It is probably the best secondary school that I have visited.

Luke is fond of the Peter Drucker phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and when I visited I really took this away. But the key aspect I really learnt from Dixons Trinity was the humility to listen and consider whether we, as leaders, may have things wrong. In particular, the focus on implementation ahead of new ideas.

I learnt that leaders can be too prideful of their leadership, and need to consider implementation consistently over time, intentionally avoiding being driven by their ego.

In 2014, Katharine Birbalsingh and colleagues founded Michaela Community School. Amongst many other strengths, Michaela most intentionally illustrated to hundreds of visitors that traditional pedagogy makes learning accessible to all pupils. As colleagues at Michaela have illustrated, all pupils can pay attention and remember what is being taught by subject experts. And those pupils are also happy and thriving in an environment where adults control lots of the variables (eg noise in the corridors, impact of technology, other external distractions).

I learnt from Michaela that traditional pedagogy and time-saving routines can be implemented to huge impact on pupil learning.

I have no doubt that the above schools all learnt from each other, and are better for each others’ existence. Their approaches differ in some respects – particularly their combination of ‘bets’ and the things that they don’t do.

In 2012, Mark Lehain and colleagues established Bedford Free School (BFS). With current Principal Tim Blake and Deputy Principal Jane Herron, they have always tried to learn from the best institutions in the country to offer the families of Bedford a choice – striving very hard to make that choice something better.

I was privileged to become the Principal in 2017. I was convinced that Mark and colleagues had a really strong combination of approaches alongside being really clear on the things we don’t do to make sure implementation is possible. So we focussed on implementation.

BFS is now a school where aspects include that we:

  • focus on the curriculum
  • respect subject-specialism
  • expect excellent academic outcomes, without hot-housing or impoverishing the curriculum
  • have very high leadership presence, expecting 100% of learning time to be spent on learning
  • have a feedback rather than a marking policy
  • have purposeful, supervised corridors and lesson changeover ensuring efficiency
  • put ‘extra-curricular’ activities in the school day for 100% participation
  • parent involvement without time-consuming parent report writing
  • supportive lesson visits rather than graded lesson observations (in fact no high-stakes observations at all)
  • expect 100% of pupils to play for a school team (the opportunity to compete together as a team and to develop healthy, social, life-long habits is the aim over winning)

But we know that we can be better still. Perhaps some of the things we do can be implemented better, or maybe there are things we do that aren’t the very ‘best bets’ and there are better ones. As Dylan Wiliam is fond of saying, ‘schools should stop doing some good things to do some even better ones’.

We are looking for the next Principal at Bedford Free School. 

It’s really important to note that this is a Principal, rather than a ‘Head of School’. If you apply and are successful, then this will be your school!

This school is one of only 12 that have been graded Outstanding by OFSTED in a section 5 inspection under the new EIF, and has a great reputation. This has been the platform for a small, but growing trust.

It is stable, has a stable staff, and a great SLT. But there is a lot to do – we’re ambitious to be the very best in the country (while continuing to learn from the best), and we know that our new Principal will take some different approaches, or will implement some of the approaches we already have better.

It’s an ideal first headship for someone smart, and could be career-defining for the right person. It could also be a great move for someone who thinks that the system could be a lot better and rather than moaning about it, wants the support to show how it can be.

I’m very proud of Bedford Free School. It is a school good enough for my own children (my daughter is a pupil) but there is a lot we can improve on and the staff know that we can be so much better still. In order to ensure that this school takes its place amongst the very best, we are looking for someone who can work closely with the Director of Education, Sallie Stanton, myself, the Senior Leadership Team and governors and the rest of our colleagues.

There is still a significant amount of nonsense in the school system. We need to eliminate that, and focus on the most important stuff. Come and lead us and let’s do just that.

Contact me for a discussion – we do not have a fixed mindset in who we are looking for, so if you think you could do this job but your experience, background or circumstances mean you are doubting it, let’s talk – and if you’re confident you are ready, let’s talk! 

Deadline 22nd November 2021.


Not much.

Posted by: mrlock | June 13, 2021

Do it properly: The Early Career Framework

The Early Career Framework is one of the biggest reforms to the teaching workforce in a generation. I don’t say that lightly.

But I feel the need to blog because I see significant variance in how seriously schools, teaching school hubs, and other organisations are taking this opportunity. Fidelity to the Early Career Framework is super-important if it is to have the transformational impact on the profession that is needed.

In 2017, I was invited to join an advisory group on the recruitment and retention strategy at the DFE. I am not sure why I was asked – probably because I’d been outspoken about this issue – but I sat around with about 15 far better qualified smarter people than me. On about our third or fourth meeting, we reflected that the demands to become a teacher, in terms of expectations, are actually minimal. Almost everyone passes ITT, almost everyone passes NQT.

And we looked at other countries and other professions, and concluded that we can do much better. We can be much more professional.

At around the same time, my friend Jon described visiting a friend of his in London who shared a flat with someone who was training to be a lawyer.

Jon had asked about several bookshelves filled with files. I may be misremembering the detail, but one big bookcase was what one had to know in order to become a lawyer. Every lawyer knows all the stuff on those bookshelves – it’s assumed shared knowledge of the profession. And a doctor could fill similarly oversized bookshelves with all the stuff understood to be fundamental knowledge to their profession.

The teachers reflected that the total stuff that we have to know, the total number of things that we all share as a profession which is codified and that we are all taught… is zero. There is no content that we share, no shared, expected professional knowledge.

Back at the DfE advisory group, we explored how this situation was insufficient to be a mature profession. And amongst other things, a mature profession is what we need to be to retain teachers. At this point, someone smart asked ministers what they really wanted from us: were we there to rubber stamp some tweaks, or were they willing to consider something more radical, including taking seriously the challenge of significantly developing mentoring – something that people are often just left to get on with, and if so – would they fund it?

The civil servants came back from ministers, and said they were convinced by the group’s arguments for significant reform. From there, the Early Career Framework was put into a consultation to the profession and 88% thought that the profession should have agreed content. So, the DfE bods then appointed a group of a few of us to write it.

I have no idea why I was there. But there were some incredible people involved at various stages:

Becky Francis, Cat Scutt, Roger Pope, Jon Hutchinson Sam Freedman, Reuben Moore and Marie Hamer.

And me. I was more of a cheerleader, but it was intense and brilliant to be exposed to these incredible thinkers.

Over the course of nearly two years we wrote the framework, and we argued for it with a new Secretary of State. He visited Bedford Free School where I was then principal, and my colleagues and I put it to him that it was the single most important thing he should retain from the old secretary of state’s work – you know how politicians often feel the need to have ‘their’ own thing – and I do have respect for Damien Hinds and Gavin Williamson in that they’ve ensured continuity on this.

The ECF gives all early career teachers an entitlement to a broad and challenging body of professional knowledge and I think this is welcome. One of the great things about the group was that they recognised their responsibility to be informed by the literature reviews, rather than to rely on their own views and experience. It meant that genuine disagreements were rooted in evidence, and people changed their minds often. This was necessary so that the ECF was signed off by the Education Endowment Foundation.

This led us to propose at the DfE that it doesn’t stop there – that it becomes a part of the ‘golden thread’ of CPD that leads through to new, more challenging and more specific NPQs and beyond.

The new Headteacher Standards and the new NPQs, as well as the new Standards for NLEs (which have not been released yet) are now all directly correlated with the ECF and have used the ECF as the basis for lots of the content.

It will be game changing if we do this properly.

We know that no matter how good a new initiative is, the implementation of it will be a bell curve. Some providers will do it with total fidelity and understanding of the background research. Others will do it less well, and some will do a version of what they’ve always done. And the challenge of the system is that over the three years that the ECF contract is for, everyone needs to get up to where the top 10% is in the first year.  

Our challenge, for our school and our region where outcomes need to rise quickly, is to be in the top 10% from the start.

It is demanding: in our trust, we started delivering a programme based on the content of the ECF in 2019, and it was clear that even many of our experienced and best teachers had not come across the evidence-based research that underpins the ECF.

As someone who lived and breathed the construction of the ECF, I advocate for Ambition Institute’s Early Career Teachers programme in delivering the government’s Early Career Framework with fidelity, but I am hopeful that all of the six providers will turn to quality rather than compromising on quality and fidelity as they go for price.  

The reason I advocate for Ambition Institute is because they’ve been doing it for two years, they’ve Quality Assured the process.

In 2019/20, Ambition ran one of the first ECF pilots to around 400 participants and then scaled this up as part of the early rollout in 20/21 to 4,000 participants in the country – this has helped them to learn how to operate at scale and build the systems necessary to deliver quality across the country. It’s also helped to iterate the programme through feedback from partners (including us at Advantage Schools) ahead of the National Rollout. That’s two years to become one of the best providers.

Some of the smartest people in that room writing the ECF have effectively dedicated their lives to making this, the NPQs and further professional learning game-changing for the system, and hence they now work for organisations delivering it.

Why not Do It Yourself?

There’s quite a bit of chat about people doing their own DIY versions. To be blunt, this will be a car crash. In some cases, some Local Authorities are trying to partner with Appropriate Bodies and offer their own DIY version of the ECF. It is likely that this will disproportionately affect the poorest areas and the most underdeveloped schools or trusts.

And I think in turn their Early Career Teachers will get the worst deal.

I can’t understand why anyone would take on the expense, effort and risk of Quality Assurance to develop their own when there are funded very high-quality programmes available written by some of the smartest people, and ready to go. If you’re thinking of doing this, you need to be very confident that you’re producing something even better than some very well-resourced organisations, and I’d bet in most cases that it will be inferior.

So, this blog is really an urge to school leaders to be judicious, demand a lot from the delivery partners and lead providers, including Teaching School Hubs, that are delivering the ECF, and embrace the opportunity for this to be game-changing.

I do have some reservations about the future development of the ECF over the next few years, and I’ll blog about them separately.

But right now, implementing this well is one of our biggest priorities.

Posted by: mrlock | November 14, 2020

Exams must go ahead in 2021

At Advantage Schools, we believe that national standardised assessments are important.

They are our best available method of assessing what pupils have learned whilst at school and therefore essential in better understanding the gap in educational achievement between different groups in society.

Exams are therefore important in our efforts to comprehend the impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged communities and to provide us with insight as to how we might respond as a result.

It doesn’t seem controversial to suggest that many pupils have missed learning as a result of school closures. Despite the incredible efforts of many teachers and leaders, this is likely to be exacerbated for the most disadvantaged pupils.

Pupils sitting examinations in 2020 and in 2021 have been disadvantaged in comparison with other cohorts.

In an attempt to mitigate some of this lost learning, governments in Scotland and in Wales have announced that examinations will not go ahead as planned. In England there are currently no plans to do so, thankfully. Depending on where a 16 or 18-year-old lives, they will now receive qualifications on the basis of their teachers’ assessments or some form of internally moderated qualifications. The argument is made that this is ‘fairer’.

This is wrong.


We should remind ourselves of the rationale for exams. We need to assess what pupils know and can do. Teachers do this formatively, to inform them of what they need to teach their pupils next, and summatively, so that they have some idea whether they are on track to becoming educated in the subject in question. Summative assessments work by testing a sample of pupil knowledge in order to draw a conclusion about their knowledge of the entire subject. Trying to understand if these are valid is very important. For more on validity, see all three parts, but particularly the second part of Daisy Christodoulou’s three-part blog.

As pupils end Key Stage 4 at 16, we need a proxy for what they know and can do. Good assessment needs to be valid – meaning it tells us what we want to know, which is why question choice is important – and reliable – which means it offers a consistent measurement and that the same pupil would get the same result over time, if they were assessed repeatedly. A set of scales that repeatedly gives the same wrong result would be reliable but not allow us to draw valid inferences.

It needs to do this so that we can be aware of how much pupils know compared to others, and for judgements made by employers, sixth forms and universities, for accountability, for motivation of pupils and so that as a jurisdiction we know how much pupils are learning for the money we spend on education.

Assessment needs to be accurate. That is as ‘fair’ as it can be.

Factors that compromise validity of assessment:

Human bias is one of the biggest factors in compromising the validity of conclusions we can draw from assessments. While teachers often know their pupils extremely well, counterintuitively this means that they may unwittingly jump to conclusions when assessing pupils. Indeed, teachers may have two or three grades they believe the pupil will achieve, and because we are an optimistic profession, we’ll generally predict that pupils will pull off the most optimistic of these. As a result, teacher assessment overall becomes weirdly skewed towards higher grades and while this may sound great, it hugely reduces validity.

Teacher assessment without examinations is a factor that compromises validity. In examinations, tasks are common, the marking is monitored and the awards standardised. Teacher assessment is prone to implicit bias and external pressure – for example from accountability measures. Around the world, in high-stakes arrangements which rely on teacher assessment, there are serious problems of systemic grade inflation.  This is hence highly likely when teachers mark examinations themselves. Furthermore, teacher assessment is demonstrably biased against marginal groups, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If test conditions are not consistent, this will compromise validity.

Teaching to the test can mean that the pupil knows the sample that is being tested, but that the results are less valid because this is not an accurate indication of what the pupil knows in other parts of the subject. This is a concern when pupils are taught, for example, knowing which extract from a literature text will be examined – a pupil can learn an answer by rote, practice and get feedback from a teacher and if they are lucky also from a tutor, without even having read the entire text or having a sound understanding of literary conventions. A pupil may hence have a grade that suggests they would be more successful at A Level than they are in fact capable of being. Similar effects can be seen when a curriculum is geared towards the syllabus on a test.

All alternatives to exams significantly compromise validity.

Limitations to exams:

There are a number, including:

  • A pupil may do better on one given day than another, or the content of examinations may be skewed towards what they are particularly good or bad at
  • The high-stakes nature of examinations mean that it ceases to be a good measure of what it is attempting to measure (also known as Goodhart’s law)
  • A pupil may just be a bit rubbish at exams. Exams cannot account for that. They are far from perfect, and even robust, well-designed examinations that are held in strict conditions cannot tell us with perfect validity what pupils know or don’t know
  • There is also a debate to be had about criterion-referencing or norm-referencing the awarding of grades

Examinations are not perfect, even without a pandemic. In fact, examinations could be a lot better. But they are still better than all the alternatives – the solution to imperfect assessment is not no assessment.

The validity of the conclusions we can draw from examination results is the crucial benefit to examinations.

Validity of inferences drawn from assessments of pupils at 16 and 18 is the important thing to maintain.

Considering these limitations to exams, it is understandable that people should ask if there is a better alternative.

Alternatives to examinations:

Teacher assessment is less valid and reliable, as I’ve said. I’m also amazed that, following the mess of last summer, anyone would suggest going through that again, knowing the huge inbuilt grade inflation and with the additional pressure of those high-stakes decisions landing on pupils. On results awarded alone, last year’s cohort look like the best educated in recent years – even though their formal education ended prematurely with many disengaging long before exam season would have started – so it seems unlikely they are the best educated compared to previous years. If we can’t rely on grades to give us a true indication of how educated and knowledgeable someone is, what is the point is in awarding grades at all?

Clearly, those with resources to challenge, offer their children support or who are already advantaged in a multitude of ways are far more likely to be able to maintain their position were there to be no grades. This would cement the position of the better-off and ensure that, despite all of the heroic efforts of committed school staff, demography becomes destiny.

Awarding grades for what pupils don’t know, via some alteration according to how much learning pupils have missed, is likely to make validity so poor that the outcomes are useless.

One Headteacher suggested teacher assessments moderated by a sample of interviews with headteachers across the country. Obviously, this introduces variables that mean that validity will be impossible to tell. I think it might make us feel good while being ineffective.

Others have called for a combination of teacher assessment and examinations, but why do some pupils get valid results, and others not?

Some have suggested we should have no examinations and no qualifications. I have more time for this suggestion, but I think it will result in smaller-scale less valid assessments as admissions criteria, or could result in pupils in other years having a significant advantage over the 2021 generation.

My view, borrowed from people who know more than me, is that over the longer term we should note that Finland, the USA, Germany and Singapore all have the almost exact equivalent for A Level in their systems. The exams are almost identical – but in Finland and Germany more subjects are studied than examined. If there is a problem in England, it’s not that the exams are wrong and need to be changed; it’s that we have narrowed the way we think about the curriculum, building it almost exclusively from exams. 

There are no better alternatives to running GCSE and A-level examinations for 2021.

Should we change anything this year?

Probably. We cannot avoid that there are likely to be disrupted exams and a plan that considers significant learning loss.

The most obvious problem with examinations is being able to sit them while keeping pupils and colleagues as safe as possible. I do think “where there is a will there is a way” but in some centres this is going to need a lot of goodwill. It may mean a shorter period for examinations, with schools partly closed for a very short period, or closer collaboration between centres.

As well as this, pupils who are self-isolating obviously need to be awarded grades. We should consider second sittings, spacing out some examinations so that we can extrapolate a (relatively) valid assessment from a single paper, and we should look at all other options.

I know that Ofqual are looking into possible alternatives should the pandemic be widespread in 2021. I know there are a number of smart people doing so determined to avoid a repeat of last year, and I believe they will be sensible. The Education Policy Institute also offers some smart suggestions. I understand that the precise mechanisms for this will be agreed by end of November, and consulted upon. Exams boards, Ofqual and Her Majesty’s Government are working hard on fair, practical adjustments to exams. 

Losing examinations is the very last thing that should be considered.

Schooling is unfair in 2020:

In some schools, up to 60% of the pupils in Year 11 or Year 13 have missed school.

We shouldn’t downplay the efforts of schools and teachers to provide an online curriculum that ensures that pupils make progress, alongside ensuring that pupils and families are as safe as possible, while also running a school with pupils physically present. However, very few people would argue that online provision can match face-to-face provision. Therefore, in those schools, pupils are likely to do worse in national standardised examinations.

The instinct might be to lower standards for these pupils, or ask teachers to award grades that are not dependent on what pupils know and can do. On what basis should they award these grades? On what they think pupils know or can do? Well, we’ve already established the most valid, unbiased way of establishing that is through an exam. So, if we are arguing against the more accurate, exam-based measure, it seems we are asking for teachers to assess based on their perception of a pupil’s potential – what they guess they would have achieved had there not been a global pandemic disrupting their education. 

We get into real difficulties when we start to try to work out what pupils could have achieved without this disadvantage.

We would have no idea about what pupils can actually do, nothing valid to use in the future, and have undermined all the awarding of grades.

Things have been unfair this year, and most unfair for the most disadvantaged.

Schooling is unfair in every other year

Every year all pupils sit the same examinations in broadly the same conditions at the same time.

Some of those pupils are taught in great schools. Some are taught by great teachers. Some of them had been taught in small classes. Some have teachers as parents. Some have private tutors. Some of them have other additional tuition. Some of them don’t have English as a first language. Some of them are in schools where they can’t concentrate because of poor behaviour. Some of them are in poor schools. Some of them are in schools that cannot recruit in particular subjects, or at all. Some of them have teachers that are ill. Some of them are in homes where the main concern is the next meal. Some of them are in rural schools with huge transportation issues.

Education and schooling is unfair. This is why Advantage Schools exists and our aim is to mitigate this.

Exams don’t mitigate disadvantage, and nor should they

Examinations do not solve the endemic issues of poverty and disadvantage. They don’t close the achievement gap. They don’t award higher grades for those who have a more significant disadvantage. Part of the reason is that if they did, they would not be accurate. And if they aren’t accurate, they aren’t valid.

If we use exams to mitigate disadvantage, we might be awarding disadvantaged pupils higher grades, but we will not have taught them a single thing more, and the widened education gap will continue to exist. Our efforts will have covered up this gap. We are being, perhaps partly unintentionally, dishonest about its existence.

So we should sit examinations, be honest about the results and the deficiencies in learning, and place the effort in ensuring that admissions departments and employers are aware of the compromised situation in 2021 and not undermining the credibility of the best form of assessment that we have.

There are many different ideas of what it means to be fair in assessment, and in current times some of those are colliding. What we must not lose sight of is that exams need to be an accurate measurement of what a person knows, understands and can do.

Assessments need to be accurate.

How do we mitigate disadvantage?

I believe the best way is to have the best thought-through curriculum that is as aspirational as possible, and that we need to deliver it as best we can to pupils. I think we need to embrace the challenge to do this significantly better than is the norm, or average, at the moment. But there may be better bets that we can make with the limited time and resources we have available which include:

  • Providing digital devices to families without access
  • Funding schools with higher levels of disadvantage significantly more, and allowing schools to spend this on their best strategies
  • Even more focus on Oak National Academy
  • Funding schools to have the best subject-specialist curricula
  • One-to-one tuition where required
  • Collaboration (including between private and state institutions)
  • Extending free school meals
  • Reconsidering the high-stakes nature of the examinations for institutions – so that we can maintain the impetus towards ensuring pupils are educated without having leaders and teachers fear for their jobs – this could include strong guidance to the media not to manufacture league tables or a suspension of the individual school examination figures

I’m sure there are lots of others. This needs to be our focus while keeping exams.

We should not pretend to have mitigated disadvantage by manipulating the best measure of assessment.


Some have argued that examination grades are merely an indication about the potential of pupils. They are used for this purpose, but that is because the amount that pupils know and can do now is the best indicator of what they might know and can do in the future. But they are an assessment of current knowledge.

When Centre-Assessed Grades (CAGs) were awarded in 2020, pupils at our secondary school who had done well looked relatively downcast, even on results day. There was a sense that it wasn’t real, that they hadn’t been able to show what they could do, and that they hadn’t achieved validation.

A few months earlier, I’d had to stand in front of them telling them that they wouldn’t be sitting examinations. None of them were pleased about it.

In many schools, I heard about engagement in year 11 “falling off a cliff” and about the significant gains in learning that can be made at the end of a course – when in some subjects over the last few months the components of knowledge and skills that have been built by really careful curriculum cohesion that come together as a composite of performance in the subject – that final composite didn’t materialise. The lack of a decisive end-point made this extremely difficult, and set pupils even further back than the loss of face-to-face time.

Furthermore, in 2020, CAGs were significantly inflated in some schools. As a result, one of the real limitations of using CAGs again is that nobody will trust them. We might as well not bother at all. And what this will mean is lots of other more oblique criteria will be used by destinations to make decisions between candidates. This will disadvantage the disadvantaged most.

We cannot repeat the chaos of 2020.

This is high stakes

If the current year 11 or year 13 don’t sit examinations because they have missed a certain number of months of their education, then the precedent is likely to mean that next year’s GCSE and A-Levels may not take place either, due to Year 11s and 13s having missed at least the same amount of education. And if they don’t sit examination, why should anyone sit them in 2023?

Of course, many of the loudest arguments against exams are not being made as a result of the current challenges of the pandemic. They are well-rehearsed arguments by campaigns to try and remove examinations from our education system, rooted in an ideology that believes that there must be a better way, but which hasn’t yet found an alternative. These voices are capitalising on well-intended concerns about “fairness” to try to achieve their goal. The current febrile environment amplifies this voice. But sober consideration of events and the needs of society and individuals shows that this voice fails to solve the problem it identifies. Indeed, it exacerbates the problem.

The irony is that the removal of GCSE and A-Level examinations could leave us with a system that entrenches disadvantage further, and only enhances the devastating impact of the pandemic on children and young people in future years.

An informed debate on how we could further the reliability and validity of examinations across our school system is welcome. But any claim that exams should be removed should be accompanied by robust and plausible proposals for an alternative which doesn’t have negative unintended consequences for those we want to help the most.

The fairest thing we can do for this generation is to judge them on the same standards of others and then do what we do best to help fill the gaps. Anything else isn’t taking responsibility.

That is why the very last thing that anyone should argue for is the removal of GCSE or A-Level examinations in England this year.

Posted by: mrlock | November 9, 2018

Being fit for the job

On 1st January 2018, I stood on the scales.

I weighed 17 stone. It was the first time in my life I’d been that heavy. I used to be a runner of long distance at school. Then I played football until my mid-30s. Then I refereed. And I am a vegetarian.

I stepped off. And then stood on them again so that they could get the glitch out of their system. I was still 17 stone. I went and got the old scales.

The old scales said I was heavier.

I was horrified again. I was really, really overweight. I had been for years, but this was worse than any weigh-in that had gone before.

I hadn’t had an alcoholic drink for two and a half years, I have been a vegetarian since I was 11. How had this happened?

“I’m going to die by the age of 60,” I thought.

So I decided to lose weight. I have decided this before, including starting a blog to track it, but I’ve never stuck to it. This time I did.

The first thing I did, is that I tweeted it.


And not long later, Matt Hood, founder of the Institute for Teaching, offered to help me.

I said yes.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had effectively got a coach. It is the single most important thing I did. I didn’t know Matt well, but he had visited my school, I’d had a meal with him, met him on a handful of occasions, and communicated about education a few more. I respect him. This matters. I didn’t know it but I had a coach that I respect, and whose opinion I cared about. This was fortunate; I was lucky to have someone I respect who both read my tweet and offered to help.

Part 1 – a food diary:

Matt gave me a brief history of his understanding of nutrition and outlined his credibility, designed to give me confidence. Then he demanded a food diary. A typical day. Everything I eat.

I didn’t really have a typical day apart from I ate whatever I wanted and I hated being hungry.

I wrote a food diary.

Then I realised how embarrassing it was. So I didn’t send it to him. A couple of days later he asked for it again. I ignored him. A couple of days later I wrote to him professionally about the IFT Masters in Excellent Teaching.

Matt’s reply said “Food diary!”.

So I sent it to him. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to write, and it said this, on 4th January:

I don’t like feeling hungry, which is a problem. I’m embarrassed about this.

A typical weekday might include:

5.30am: Coffee – espresso with sugar.

Coffee recurs all day until about 5pm I probably drink 6 or 7 cups, with sugar and semi-skimmed milk. 2 cans of full sugar coke.

I don’t usually eat breakfast but if I didn’t go to bed early enough (circa 10pm) I might end up drinking one of the energy drinks in the car on the way to work (energy drinks are generally bought when I’m on long car journeys and the family are in the car so I stay alert – I also always buy multipacks of everything because it’s cheaper per capita and I can’t stand overpaying).

Sometime between 10.30 and 12.30 I’ll eat the two sandwiches I have made at home. These are usually cheese, lettuce, tomato, butter.

2-5pm Biscuits from the SLT meeting that week. Eat most or all of what is left. We should probably count it as a packet.

6.30pm ish: A subway on the way home. I’m usually starving and give up trying to make it all the way home. If not a subway I might stop for a portion of chips. This is bad, isn’t it?

8: A meal at home, pasta with sauce, plenty of cheese. Or freezer roulette, veggie portions (but usually the whole packet, i.e. 2 cheese and leek plaits.

9.30: Snack on whatever, usually toast with butter.

I will probably have eaten sweets stored in the car. I certainly will have if they are there.

Another day might include the same until 2pm. Then no biscuits, but at around 7pm I will stop at Tesco. I’ll buy a sandwich meal deal thing, cheese ploughmans sandwich, bag of crisps, orange juice. Buy multi-pack or several of chocolate, convinced that I’ll eat one and the rest is for later. It’s on offer after all. Eat at least four bars of said chocolate. Or none. But usually four or more.

Then I’ll eat a meal at home as above.

I’ll then snack later as above.

Weekends usually include breakfast – Alpen (full sugar version) with whole milk (we have whole milk because of the kids), lunch (a couple of sandwiches) and dinner (a roast, or equivalent, or pizza. Actually, often pizza, and I eat a LOT more than is normal – I can easily eat a large Domino’s, for example).

And the I eat whatever I feel like in the evening.

I eat some, but not much fruit. I don’t drink enough water.

I don’t drink alcohol.

Please don’t judge me too badly. This was honest and painful.

Part two – drinks:

Because I have very little willpower I had to get myself to a position where I was just following instructions.

So having produced an honest food diary, and got myself a coach – one who would check in on me every two or three days – I needed to get into the mindset of changing routines.

Whenever anyone has asked me about my diet I have just said that I have a routine, not a diet.

Here was the first step from Matt – consider that I’d also let him know that in the last couple of days I’d tried to immediately stop drinking full fat drinks and cut sugar from my coffee:

1) You’re going to continue coffee without sugar (a great start) but also cut out the milk.
2) You’re only going to drink sugar-free drinks.
3) You’re going to exercise twice (light jog / brisk walking / swimming).

Here’s why. We’re trying to change your routines around what you drink – or more accurately the sugar you’re taking in from drinking. This is enemy number one because it’s so hidden. The coke zero is a great start as is the water but I want to push you to black coffee to cut out the lactose in the milk (which is no difference to sucrose or fructose). On exercise twice is just fine. If you fancy more, then fine but it’s not a game changer and is a big time drain.

I want you to keep everything else the same (ish). Don’t go nuts on pizza but don’t not have it this weekend. Have a biscuit or two but just not a pack etc etc. Remember that we’re changing routines, we’re not on a diet so we’re doubling down on that liquid calorie intake routine this week. ‘Good’ looks like you becoming one of those annoying middle class people who says things like ‘oh I only drink black coffee’ and ‘is that a coke zero’.

My reply to Matt:

Coffee without milk is not something I like. That will be the hardest thing. For ten days. I might just switch to liquorice tea or peppermint tea, but I’ll struggle without caffeine. But I won’t have milk. Are you suggesting I stop milk with the Alpen at the weekends?

Sugar free drinks is okay – but I failed to write ‘roses lime cordial’ quite often in the evenings. Am I cutting that too?

Matt’s reply:

Don’t cut out the coffee – bad bad things will happen. I’d like you to *try* and get used to the taste without milk (if you’re drinking instant try switching to Nescafe Azera – it’s basically a cross between instant and proper coffee). If you really can’t after this week a splash of milk won’t hurt.

Carry on with that Alpen with milk for now – that’s not for this week.

Yes you’re getting rid of that lime cordial – you drink black (or quite black) coffee, coke zero et al and water now.
I forgot to say that it’s so good you don’t drink booze by the way – for many many people this is the hardest nut to crack. Wine is liquid cream cake. ​
On exercise, my general point is don’t try to do every day. Two or three times per week is fine. I train three or four times a week – never every day.

So not having any sugar or milk in my drinks was exactly what I did for that week, and ever since. Not drinking made this easier than it might have been otherwise, but overall I found this really hard. I have never enjoyed ‘diet’ varieties of soft drinks. I have always relied on full fat Coca Cola or equivalent to get me through periods of low energy. And good, strong coffee with milk was an essential daily item I would drink much too much of. I have never liked black coffee.

The taste came eventually though and I got used to it – I still drink black coffee and while I don’t like it, I don’t hate it either. I do like Diet Coke and Pepsi Max.

Part three – snacks:

The past two weeks were about cutting sugar out of drinks. As we moved into the next week my routines had  shifted as I was drinking black coffee, water and ‘zero’/ diet soft drinks.

I’d canned sugary soft drinks, milk and sugar in coffee and fruit cordial.

Ultimately, we were aiming for about 2000ish calories a day. Just sorting drinks cut out a full day’s worth of additional calories. Which is huge. I was doing a moderate amount of exercise too.

The next two weeks were pretty simple and were about snacks. But they’re not that simple. If I had a snack of any kind, my previous routine would be to finish the lot over the rest of that day or two. I don’t even like biscuits that much, but a whole packet would disappear quickly. Even if I bought fruit instead, I’d just eat it all.

So the advice from Matt:

Snacks are important when, like me, you like food and don’t like feeling hungry. All these programmes that are like NO SNACKS can sod off. We need snacks. The routine we’re going to try and change over the next two weeks is switching out hob nobs et al for a mid-morning banana and a mid-afternoon handful of almonds.

1) Routine one – no sugar in our drinks
2) Routine two – mid morning banana and mid afternoon almonds

But my problem here is that I’d be in danger of eating too much. And almonds, in particular, were a killer for this – they tend to come in big bags.

Matt again, addressing this:

An important trick here. Get one of the tiny little Tupperware boxes and a big big bag of almonds which stay at home. Don’t buy a big bag and take them with you. The bag of almonds to your desk at work is potassium to water – fine if they are not near each other, massive ****ing explosion if they are. Almonds have lots of good fat, lots of potassium (as do bananas) but quite a lot of calories so you only want a handful. If you snack from the bag at eat half of it (we’ve all been there) you’re screwed.

I actually found this relatively easy. Within a few days I was eager to move on to part four.

Part Four – Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

Key here was planning. A healthy, low-carb, high protein meal is not an easy thing to make, and takes a while. Maybe it takes a couple of hours to do it properly.

So we decided to outsource this.

I want you to outsource the preparation of your meals. There are a number of options here which I think involve a balance of Buffbox and Huel. In either case we’re going to aim for five lots of three meals per day during the week plus one lot three meals on each of the weekend days giving you four ‘cheats’ to do whatever (and I literally mean whatever) you want with.

I think Huel for breakfast makes sense as it’s super quick and easy. You can even blend a coffee into it (black of course). I also think a meal at dinner makes most sense as we’re not barbaric and eating is a nice thing. It’s then your call whether a box at school for lunch or a shake is easiest. The Huel works out at about £1.45 per shake and the box about £5 each. That means you’re looking at between £50-80 per week all in.

In the end, Buffbox, which many people have told me is ace, didn’t supply enough veggie meals for me so I went with allplants.

This was a bit of a game-changer. I had to focus on nailing the routine, day by day. Even if not hungry, I tried to eat at exactly the same time every day. I also made sure that Sunday was one cheat meal, so that I ate my Sunday roast with my family.

While it seemed expensive – allplants is about £6 a meal – it’s little compared to the cost of the food as detailed in the food diary I at the start of this blogpost.

Huel is super-convenient. It is now about 14 of my meals a week and is oats, flaxseeds, pea protein and a whole load of other things mixed with water. It is too sweet for me in the sweetened version, so I mix the sweetened one with the unsweetened one. I keep powder at school and at home. Sometimes I add instant coffee. Other times I add a bit of cocoa powder, but I’m happy to have it on its own. It is fibrous and a bit of a change in diet, so my digestive system did have to get used to it, but it’s been revelatory. It’s very low in sugar and keeps me full. Since recommending it, I’ve had something like 15 referral codes to Huel but never have the chance to order to use them before they run out. I’d recommend (and, to be clear, I’m being paid nothing for this) huel for a convenient, cheap meal where you can easily keep track of what you are consuming and you can prepare it in seconds.

A further note on meals: there was a danger of it being too weird – of me being THAT GUY and just not participating in life. An example of an exchange with Matt was this:

I’m about to attend a quiz night at school for fundraising for our kids to all climb Snowdon. Its a fish and chip evening. I’ve already had a day of tasting for the new catering contract (I was very good, one bite of each, do it properly, but no need to finish anything) this week. Should I avoid the chips and x. Possibly the worst thing that could be on offer? Or is that too weird about “being that guy”? I think I can easily avoid them without it being obvious – though I won’t be able to if I don’t eat before I go.

Matt’s reply, and I agree, was as follows:

It’s too weird.
Eat them.
Enjoy them.
It’s just a whatever you want meal – try make something healthy on Sunday evening and the balance is restored!

So to this day, if I go out with friends or if someone else is cooking, or if I’m at a hotel with no Huel to hand, I just don’t worry about it. I just nail the routine at all other times.

I found being able to ask ‘stupid questions’ like this to Matt was very helpful as well.

The routine now suddenly saw weight drop off. Literally within a couple of weeks people were talking of seeing it come off my face. A couple of months in, I remember being at an event in London where I’d had to buy a new suit because nothing I had would fit any more. At that event, Katharine Birbalsingh didn’t recognise me, not having seen me since I started the routine.

I later bought some foil meal containers, and I regularly ‘batch-cook’ lots of portions of veggie chilli, tagine, green curry or veggie moussaka. The containers are important for portion size, and the recipe to ensure protein so I don’t get too hungry in the evening. The late evenings are the most challenging, because I feel hungry, and I have to remind myself to drink water.

This was great. I was achieving what I’d set out to. But I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t necessarily healthy. I was rarely exercising, and only when I felt like it. Which led to the final part of the routine.

Part Five – Crossfit

Without question, my diet was much improved. Within four months I’d lost nearly three stone. And this would continue. I was sleeping better, working much better, and was happier.

But there was more to go. I discussed exercise and taking up running. I’d been good at running as a child.

And so Matt looked up my commute to work (over an hour each way) and suggested this:

On exercise I’d like you to think about making it along to this two evenings a week.

Here is my case:

You drive right past the front door anyway – it’s 12 mins from school on the same road home. Even easier when you’re staying in Bedford.

You need to do exercise with someone and it needs to be more varied than running ideally – this gives you a coach and a community who are always there and doesn’t rely on say, running with others. You’ll really enjoy being mates with the folks you train with.

You’ll love learning how to do it – it’s technical and involves theory and practice and refinement – which is better than it feeling like exercise (it will feel like that too). Basically it will keep you interested and stop you being bored. See >

You won’t do it on the weekend which protects family time whilst keeping the option of a jog open if you fancy it.

You’ll be good at it – I suspect you’re quite strong.

If you say it’s not for people as unfit as you i’ll bombard you with youtube videos of people who have various limbs missing, people who are 90 and people who are way way bigger than you are doing it just fine.

I’m only asking you to try it. If you do it for three months and hate it, I’ll back off.

So given this whole thing has worked up until this suggestion, of course I went along as told.

I’ve never heard of Crossfit before, but the very first time I did it, it took me 4 days to recover.

I got there and was told to ‘warm up with double-unders’. I had no idea what they are, but then I established that they are skips where the rope passes around twice for every jump. To this day I’ve managed to do two in succession once. And no more. Yet. But I’m enjoying trying.

At Crossfit, there is always a well-qualified coach, some skill work (working on technique) and then a WOD. WOD stands for Work Out of the Day. Everyone who goes to the gym on those days does these WODs. But they can be scaled to whatever is challenging but appropriate to each individual’s fitness level.

My first ever WOD was

FT: 27-21-15-9 Rowing and Front Squats (60kg).

This means 27 calories on the rower, then 27 Front Squats at 60kg, followed by 21 calories, and 21 front squats and so on. FT means ‘for time’, so these had to be done as fast as possible.

I did the squats with literally no weight on the bar (so 20kg). I was last to finish. But I did finish.

When I finished, everyone (who had finished) stayed around and cheered and clapped me. I was elated. And collapsed in a heap, exhausted. The cheering and clapping of others is something that continues to this day. It’s the most supportive environment for working out that I’ve ever experienced. It’s diverse, enjoyable, and a real community.

I spoke to the coach, Brittany, afterwards and told them of my friend challenging me to go for 3 months. She said words to the effect of “that’s clever: if you do it for 2 months, you’ll be addicted and never leave”.

And so it has proven.

I went and did a course of ‘fundamentals’ – being taught 1-to-1 to lift weights and carry our the core movements safely. I also asked lots of questions.

For a month or so, I went once a week, and people would laugh at me at work as I moved slowly in pain for three or four days afterwards. Then I found myself going twice a week. I also found myself lifting heavier weights because I could.

I still collapsed in an exhausted sweaty heap after every WOD.

The biggest advantage for me, is that I turn up and none of my working memory is spent wondering what to do – I just do as I’m told.

When I wanted to go three days a week, I realised I wasn’t getting home until very late, but I was addicted to the exercise, the camaraderie, the online app that records the scores, the progress, the mastering of some really quite difficult things, and the feeling that I’m stronger than ever. But my day was really going on too late and I have no chance of seeing my children. So I started going to the 6am classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Unbelievably, I’d become someone who gets up at 4.45am to go to the gym. And I’ve never slept in and missed it when I’ve booked. This is just not me. Except it is.

I now go every single weekday that I can.

And I feel like many of the people at the gym are my friends. I certainly find myself asking about their day, supporting them, wanting them to get better while appreciating the same as my new friends take an interest in me. My “score” on the app is 10, meaning that I’m fitter than approximately 10% of the CrossFit community worldwide – something that seems both very low and very high considering where I was a year ago. It has taken me a long time to get up to that score. Most of all, I enjoy it, and in holidays I really miss it.

I certainly find it easier to nail the overall routine when I’m exercising regularly. I’d say that exercise is now an essential component of all of this weight loss, and certainly, hopefully, of living longer.

In the Christmas holidays, because my CrossFit gym in Bedford is a long way away, I went for a couple of runs so that I didn’t take too many steps backwards. I hadn’t run for a very long time (January 2018, 1.5miles, exhausted).

The first run in December 2018, alone, was 10km in 58 minutes, and the second was 20km in 121 minutes. I’ve never run 20km before in my life, let alone without any particular running training. But I’m fitter and it seems to be working.

I still collapse in a heap after every WOD and find it hard. But I love it. My coaches are professional rugby players, experienced personal trainers, a professional golfer and I work out alongside supportive people who are much fitter than me. But I don’t feel out of place at all. And when newcomers arrive, I really enjoy welcoming them in the same way.

The weirdest thing from my perspective is that if I have a really tough day or an important meeting coming up, I make even more sure that I attend the gym first – it becomes more important that I do as it sets me up for a much better day than if I don’t go to the gym. I’m much, much better at my job and get much more done by going to the gym every day.

I’m 13 stone. I don’t need to lose any more weight. I just need to keep it where it is. And I’m happy. I no longer think I will die early, but I know we can’t predict everything. And I’m proud. But all I’ve had to do is follow instructions.

So thanks, thanks especially to Matt, thanks to Huel, to allplants, to the community at Crossfit and to everyone who has said nice things to me.

My goal for 2019 is to keep the weight off, keep healthy, run a marathon, and enjoy my work and my family more as a result of this.

Happy New Year. If you are facing some of the same challenges I tried to face in 2018 and I’m still trying to address in 2019, while I’m no expert, I’d be delighted to answer any questions.

updated to add: here is a typical picture from beforehand, and then a (very recent) shot of the first handstand I’ve ever done, aged 41. It’s one of the things I’m supposed to be able to hold at CrossFit:


Posted by: mrlock | November 8, 2018

The Learning Scientists – live

Advantage Schools is a small multi-academy trust in Bedford. We currently have just two schools – a Primary and a Secondary. I am very proud to be the Executive Principal of Advantage Schools.

Over 150 school leaders have visited our schools over the past year to look at some of the things that we do – some of them are very different. Most are borrowed from other schools. We are hence outward-facing and keen to work with other schools and Trusts. We are also keen to grow or merge so that we can become even more effective at these things and ensure we can provide a world-class education for as many pupils as possible.

One of those things is that we ask our staff to be research-informed, and we explicitly say that if someone says “research says….” we should be asking “what research?”.

We have hence spent some significant time exploring the insights of cognitive science. As many others will attest to, The Learning Scientists – 5 cognitive scientists from around the world – and their website are some of the best people and resources to gain an insight into our ‘best bets’ for getting pupils to remember what they have studied. They’ve revolutionised our practice, but we want to develop further.

On Friday 11th and Saturday 12th January, we are hosting a two day conference and have the great privilege of 4 of the Learning Scientists visiting Bedford.

Dr Megan Sumeracki, Dr Carolina Kupper-Tetzel, Dr Althea Kaminske, and Dr Cindy Nebel are visiting Bedford.

The venue is the beautiful Quarry Theatre at Bedford School.

This week I had the pleasure of talking to Dr Sumeracki and she outlined the content of the conference. It is below and those are The Learning Scientists’ notes that I have expanded on.

You can join us for a contribution to our costs of £195, and if you’re really interested and can’t afford that, please do email me and we’ll see what we can do. We are really keen to share everything that we do, and work with you, so would welcome you joining us. Over 75 colleagues from other schools have already bought tickets.

Broad outline:

Most will not have had a workshop with us before. We will therefore assume no prior knowledge, but interleave the basics with more specific implementation ideas so that anyone who was has been at a  workshop before will not be bored. For some therefore this will be largely reinforcement with some new ideas.

We will focus on evidence behind the six strategies, and then ways teachers can implement them in the classroom, including activities to do with students to help the students themselves learn the strategies so that they may take control of their own learning.

Breakout sessions will involve discussing ways to implement, challenges to implementation, and solutions to those challenges. In some cases, what resources may be needed or desired to overcome challenges.

Attendees will be split into loose teacher areas for some parts of the conference to ensure a level of subject-specificity or phase-specificity (e.g., early primary, mathematics, science or even breakdown to more fine grain like physics and chemistry) for breakout groups.

Groups will be made up of teachers across schools, but will be similar in the area they teach, to allow networking.

We will provide question cards to participants to answer bigger questions that may shape some of day 2 and we will create piles of similar questions and address as we can in the 2 days. If necessary, we can also take some home for ideas for new blog posts and put those into our normal blog rotation.

Day 2 will build on day 1 and assume some knowledge from day 1. It may be possible just to attend day 1 or day 2, but the full benefit will come from attending both days.

Day 1 

  • Cognitive psychology applied to education [Megan]
  • Strategies for Effective Teaching – Planning

o   Spacing, what is it and what is the evidence? [Althea]

o   Interleaving, what is it and what is the evidence? [Cindy]

o   Ideas for implementation and teaching [Althea]

o   Brainstorming challenges and solutions [Carolina]

  • Strategies for Effective Teaching – Reinforcement

o   Retrieval Practice, what is it and what is the evidence? [Megan]

o   Ideas for implementation and teaching [Megan]

o   Brainstorming challenges and solutions [Carolina]


  • Strategies for Effective Teaching – Development

o   Elaboration, what is it and what is the evidence? [Cindy]

o   Ideas for implementation and teaching [Cindy]

o   Concrete Examples, what is it and what is the evidence? [Althea]

o   Ideas for implementation and teaching [Althea]

o   Dual coding, what is it and what is the evidence? [Megan]

o   Ideas for implementation and teaching [Megan]

o   Brainstorming challenges and solutions [Carolina]

  • Resources, conclusions, wrap-up [Carolina]


I can’t wait!

If you wish to join us, please click here

Posted by: mrlock | July 14, 2018


This is Kevin, with his Mum. I want to talk about Kevin when he was young.

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 20.38.40

Kevin was born in 1983, the third of four children. His father was in the RAF, and he went to a number of schools as a child because the family moved about a lot. 

When he was six, his mother and father divorced. Soon after he lived in a caravan in Hampshire with his mother and three siblings. One of his older siblings used to do a paper-round early in the morning to earn pocket money. His mother went to do an access course to get to university, and was hugely affected by the poll tax which meant things were a real struggle. 

At age eight or nine, his mother got a place at Bristol University. The whole family moved around a bit in the west country, including a time in Kevin’s Grandparents’ house – a four bedroom place in Weston-super-Mare. It probably wasn’t big enough for the seven of them, but it felt palatial in many ways. 

Secondary school

At age 11, Kevin started secondary school. His older brother was about to go to university, and his older sister was going into Year 10 at the school. His younger sister remained at the village primary.

Kevin disliked school. He had been left behind, probably as a result of poor teaching in previous schools. He hence found it very hard to concentrate. We might now talk of his working memory being regularly overloaded, but back then he was identified as having ‘problems studying’. Kevin had established at primary school after primary school that he didn’t like school and didn’t belong. He did like helping his father with more practical things. He knew what a ‘Phillips screwdriver’ was, though his elder brother had no idea. 

On his taster day at school, Kevin got into trouble. This was a sign of things to come.

Kevin didn’t think he belonged at school. He was in the bottom set for almost everything. He didn’t really have much in common with his peers, and he certainly didn’t like sitting in classrooms. He had failed, at that stage, to master the basics. He didn’t really like football, and he still tries to get into it to this day. In fact, sport was no passion of his. 

The only time Kevin felt he belonged was when he was disruptive. He avoided work. He wouldn’t listen. It is fair to say that he was not good for others’ education. It’s also fair to say that many other pupils would laugh and play along with him. There would be dozens of people paying him attention. And Kevin would be congratulated by them. He doesn’t really remember the trouble.

But he would be in trouble unless for some reason he wasn’t caught.

Kevin probably should have been excluded from school many times. For disruption, for repeatedly not listening. For affecting others’ education. For serious one-off incidents. 

By the time he reached year 11, Kevin was almost impossible to teach. School was a battleground. And he was ‘stressed out’ by school. In an effort to help him cope, his mum would give him one ‘stress’ day a week and not insist he went in. 

Kevin was a delightful boy when not in these circumstances. He was a total pleasure to be around. He would volunteer for all sorts of things, was hugely sociable outside of school, and loved his music. At one point he took up boxing which helped him manage his frustrations and keep his  discipline.

It was school where he didn’t feel he belonged. 

For the last couple of years that Kevin was at school, whenever Kevin was in trouble, he would have a meeting. Senior staff or the Headteacher of the school would meet with Kevin, and his mother, and outline what he had to do to improve his behaviour. They would say to him that he should “probably” be excluded, but would give him one more chance. They would, for very good reasons, say that they are working together. Kevin’s mother and his teachers, almost certainly expended disproportionate energy and time on getting Kevin through school.

I’m sure the school thought this was ethical. We know what future faces excluded pupils – particularly permanently excluded ones – statistically it is likely to be one of very little education, terrible life chances and poor outcomes. 

Kevin was hence ‘managed’ through the last two years at school. He learnt that no matter what he did, the line for his behaviour, and hence the ultimate sanction for the school, moved. The school devoted resources to ensuring that Kevin, with his poor attendance and poor behaviour, could “make it” to the end of year 11. 

Kevin and his mother were often grateful that the school didn’t pull that trigger. They were grateful the school made an exception. Then another one. Then another one. And they were grateful they restructured aspects of the school to support Kevin to complete his time at school. 

Kevin left school with no GCSEs. Not even one at grade G. 

Two years later

Kevin was out with a friend in a pub in Weston-super-Mare. As is the case in seaside towns, the pub was crowded on a hot day. Kevin had a pint of beer, and was knocked by an older man. As Kevin had had a few drinks that day, he challenged the man, saying “Watch it!” or equivalent. 

The well-built stranger turned, and provocatively blew Kevin a kiss, and laughed at him. 

Kevin was somewhat enraged, and suggested they leave the pub. 

In a nearby carpark, with his friend watching, Kevin and the stranger had a fight. Despite the stranger’s size, Kevin won easily, and his friend and he returned to their night out. 

At 3.30am, Kevin was arrested. His friend was also arrested. They were charged with GBH with intent. His friend had struck no blows, but had been charged with the same charge because it was a joint venture.

Court case

With Kevin and his friend standing in court, his mother, father and family watched the CCTV images of Kevin kicking a body on the tarmac. 

They wailed, his mum sobbing and his brother saying ‘No’, as he was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison. He ended up serving half of this, largely in HMP Parc in Bridgend. His friend also got 15 months. 

To his brother’s shame, he could only visit him twice in the entire time he was there. He couldn’t handle it – it was clear something happened in jail, but Kevin wouldn’t talk about it. His brother deeply regrets this to this day.

Kevin did work out a lot when incarcerated. He also read the first book he’d read in his life, and was soon reading one a week. This led to him enjoying reading later in life.


Kevin has never really spoken about his time in jail. We know that he found moving to the outside world difficult. We know that he moved in with his Mum (who moved away from WSM to get Kevin a new circle of friends), then with his Dad, then with his Mum, but really struggled to adjust. We know that some outbursts meant that we can only imagine the circumstances that young prisoners have to endure. I do not want to write these here. But I am convinced that they are as bad as the worst of the stories that become public. 

Kevin is the most popular uncle with his 7 nieces and nephews. It’s a total pleasure to see him playing with the children. Their parents would trust no-one more than him. 

Kevin works incredibly hard at his job. He works very long hours and is reliable. He found it quite hard to secure a permanent job, but he always put the work in. 

He is a total pleasure to be around. His family love him very much. While it was hard when he was first released, he has now put that behind him. His family are really proud of him. He especially loves his mum. He is considerate and kind. He loves to go dancing at the weekend, and has an exceptionally wide network of friends. His family really love him. His older brother loves visiting his local where a variety of different people will greet him and chat to him, and he’ll include everyone in the conversation. He’s a bit extrovert, and a lot of fun. 

He’s just a great guy. I don’t have time or space to do justice to him here, nor how he got to be such a top person – but he really is someone people love being around.

However, he can never join the RAF or the Navy, and he can never work with children without declaring that he has been convicted of a section 18 (violent) crime. The tariff for another section 18 crime is usually life in prison.

Now, at age 35, he has qualified as a plumber – his first qualifications ever, and has recently passed his driving test. I have no idea how Kevin turned out to be as well-rounded as he did. In many ways, he beat the odds. A large part of this is just who he is, and another large part is the persistence and love of his Mum and Dad.

So what?

Kevin and his family believe that when the school moved the goalposts, and there was no red line, this played a strong part in him learning that those lines just don’t exist. He believes that he never knew about consequences. He learnt that someone else will always sort out his mistakes, and that consequences were moveable. 

And he genuinely thinks that he would have had a better chance of learning about these red lines if he had been permanently excluded from school. 

So when making a judgement on permanent exclusions, please consider the right of all other pupils to the resources and attention of an uninterrupted education.

And yes: we should consider what happens to permanently excluded kids.

But also consider that, despite the statistics, it might actually be the best thing for the pupil who is permanently excluded.

It may lead to them having more, not fewer, options in life.

It is the case that a large proportion of the prison population were excluded from school. But it might not be the cause of them being in prison. And it doesn’t make permanent exclusion wrong.  

We do kids no favours by not having our red lines.

I’m convinced this was the case for my brother, who I love dearly – Kevin. 

Mum and four kids

Posted by: mrlock | April 22, 2018

Director of Education: the best job in UK education

I maintain that the curriculum is too often ignored in discussions about school improvement and school quality. As I have previously argued, we spend too much time discussing and debating how to teach, and not enough time debating what to teach. 

Very recently, this has started to be recognised. Many schools, though far from the majority, will claim to have a “knowledge-based curriculum”, or a “curriculum rich in knowledge”, and will point to their knowledge organisers as evidence of this. In some ways the curriculum has gained some interest where a couple of years ago there was virtually none, but in other ways, we’re in the same place, where ‘knowledge’ and ‘curriculum’ are being treated as the new silver bullet, or fad, and little is actually changing.

A curriculum is not a curriculum of worth without its teachers to enliven, live, breathe, form and reform it. Teachers enliven the curriculum through their subject knowledge, and in the links they make between the procedures and traditions that are unique to their subject. They debate and discuss pedagogy that comes from the knowledge they have and the knowledge they are teaching, and whether their understanding of the curriculum is the best one. They form plans while exploring whether the content or concepts they have selected best open up the rest of the discipline and they reform this reflecting on which knowledge is the best vehicle for transforming pupils from novices in their disciplines, to experts. And in the case of Advantage Schools, which knowledge allows the same pupils – all of our pupils – to join the community of educated citizens.

Such a curriculum cannot be handed down to teachers. For it is in the development of teachers as curricular thinkers that such a curriculum takes shape, and starts to shape the knowledge, experiences and discipline that I want for my own children. 

The Advantage Schools curriculum, then, is what dictates pedagogy. The curriculum is what dictates professional learning. The curriculum is what dictates the very nature of ‘teaching and learning’. 

In the next few years, vast numbers of multi-academy and single-academy trusts will merge, fold or subsume themselves into each other. In my opinion we will be left with a few hundred multi-academy trusts left. At Advantage Schools we are determined that we will be either one of them, or the forerunner to one of them – one that is the best provider of curricula and expertise around the curriculum in the country in a sustainable manner that can transform the nature and delivery of compulsory schooling in the United Kingdom. 

The quality of our Director of Education will be one of the most important factors in whether we are successful. They will be responsible for the quality of our curriculum, and hence professional learning, staff development, and everything that will ensure that our pupils gain the knowledge educated people take for granted.

I think it is the most exciting post in UK education right now, and in a few years, I hope to look back on why it was the most important appointment I ever made. 

We are advertising for that Director of Education now. Click here to find out more.

Please contact me with any questions. 

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.

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