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.

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

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

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

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

A question for you: is this pupil doing OK?

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 21.57.02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 22.00.58

And they represent these criteria:

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 22.01.48

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

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

So is the pupil doing OK?

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 22.02.27

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

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

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

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

Full Grades Proposal Presentation

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




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

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

A crutch:

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

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

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

Daniel Koretz:

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

I said, using Christodoulou and Koretz liberally:

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

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

Assessments should:

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

In summary, they need to be reliable and valid.

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

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

Assessment next year (proposal):

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

That’s it.

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

Posted by: mrlock | January 15, 2016

Being a headteacher interviewee

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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


Choose the school:

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

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

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

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

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


Reflect afterwards:

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


Tasks I have encountered:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: mrlock | January 14, 2016

A Liberal Education and CVC

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

CPDL @ Cottenham Village College

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

Too many…

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