True Colours at Dixons Trinity

In her recent blog post, “Why visits to schools can sometimes be a bit rubbish,” Claire Stoneman writes that, when we visit schools, “We need to pay critical attention to what those great schools are doing that have such an impact on the life chances of their kids, and we need to look at both the detail and the whole: what specific things are in place and how do they contribute to the school’s culture?”

I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the top schools in the country serving students and families from an incredibly wide range of contexts: Michaela Community School, Guildford High School, Bedford Free School, Marlborough College, Paddington Academy, Glenmoor and Winton Academies, West London Free School. Each of these has its own culture and there were so many details to think about which contributed to the whole.

I’ve learnt so much from every visit, but today I’ve been blown away by the most coherent and cohesive culture I’ve ever experienced in a school.

The attention to detail, the careful crafting of systems and master-crafting of care at Dixons Trinity in Bradford were all phenomenal.

Luke Sparkes, Deputy Chief Executive of Dixons Academies and Founding Principal at Trinity puts this down to “Clarity, simplicity and rigor. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.” He modeled this in his presentation early on in the visit with frequent over communication of key messages – including the same four slides which, we were told, are used at the start of each meeting and presentation. Each slide was beautifully crisp and simple too: an image of one of Dixons’ students with a single sentence, summarizing the big idea. Clarity, simplicity and rigor in full flow.

Towards the end of his presentation, Sparkes told us, “Don’t focus on what we do. Focus on how we do it.”

If you were minded to, there are many surface features you could take away from Dixons.

You could steal:

  • Morning meetings with quizzing
  • Appreciations over lunch
  • Family dining
  • Silent corridors
  • Afternoon meetings
  • Rebranding detentions as corrections
  • The transfers on the walls
  • Taking year 7 to a university on their first day at school
  • The metaphorical use of mountain climbing
  • Putting progress rank order lists on walls
  • Having a “sentence” for the school, stating it’s purpose
  • Teacher deliberate practice sessions

You could make a right hash of this though.

What’s so stunning at Dixons and what’s much harder to replicate because it takes sometimes painful hard work are the threads of values and drivers which run through each and all of these things (which Dixons call artifacts). These threads and the staff alignment to them gives each artifact a clarity of purpose for staff and students. Alongside this clarity, and this is equally stunning, is the attention to detail in the planning and implementation of every single item on the list above.

Everything is timed in a way which makes things feel reassuring, slick and professional, but also very human.

Above is the slide which is shown on a huge screen during Family Dining for Years 10 and 11 in the school’s Heart Space. The food at lunch is hot, but the experience is exceedingly warm. The students develop a sense of service by collecting, dishing up and clearing away. They talk together. They eat together. Social issues are avoided whilst maintaining a shared social situation. Leaders talk about timings using microphones (again adding a level of professionalism) but this is so that everyone is clear what’s happening and when. Due to the consistency with which this is done, even students in Year 7 and new and inexperienced staff gain in confidence. They know what they’re doing, when, how and why. The slide above looks regimented and there are clear structures in place, but this clarity enables the students to all have a positive lunchtime experience featuring human interactions under the caring eyes of the staff.

We were lucky to see many of the artifacts in the list above in action. What most interested me though were the threads of communication which have run through all of this in order to generate, maintain and develop the level of coherence at Dixons. The induction programme, briefings, what to dos, shared language and bulletins, as well as the SLT walk the day, strategic and team meetings that Dixons’ Principal, Emma Steele, described all lead to the sense that the Dixons team work together with pride.

This is a culture implemented and cared for with radiant rigor – a culture with true colour.

I’m very grateful to have had the chance to visit.

Pick Yourself Up

“Nothing’s impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
Start all over again.

Pick Yourself Up – Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Version above from Gregory Porter.

The most successful schools I’ve visited and worked in have a really carefully thought through balance between:

  1. The behaviour domain (how they want their students to behave and the habits they want them to form)
  2. The curriculum domain (the subject content they want their children to know and apply).

They then ensure all of their teachers consolidate these really well so that all of their students (no matter what their background) know more and are able to do more.

Rushing through either the curriculum domain or the behaviour domain will almost invariably lead to a lower level of mastery of both.

The two are interlinked.

Lack of mastery within the behaviour domain has a massive impact on mastery of the curriculum. This can be the result of:

  • Loss of focus
  • Loss of learning time due to inefficient or poorly followed routines
  • Increases in disruption and disrespect

Lack of mastery in the curriculum domain leads to a lack of motivation, which impacts on behaviour as students increasingly feel unsuccessful.

This is why teachers who begin the academic year with a lesson on expectations, going through all of their rules, lecture-style before separately moving on to the curriculum domain can struggle to establish the culture they want in their classrooms. Unless, of course, the culture they want is either a chaotic one, or one where many students in the room are sanctioned at a high level repeatedly. Better still to teach the routines and habits you want to see at the point you want to see them in the lesson and across a sequence of lessons, explaining the purpose alongside naming the steps and checking for understanding, just as you would with curriculum domain, then maintaining and resetting expectations as required.

This is also why schools who start the year with a training session on behaviour for teachers and assemblies establishing behavioral norms, rules and expectations for students, but who don’t thread those behavioral norms through developing habits of, for example, moving through the school or ensuring staff are on duty spots at the right time and all of the other mundane but vitally important parts of school life – as well as the joyous and  beautiful conversations we have with our students and colleagues – can see that chaos and those sanctions on a much broader scale.

“To help children succeed we need to teach behaviour – not tell. Students are not all the same and have significant differences in behavioural skills, habits, and beliefs.”

United Learning – Behaviour Curriculum document.

Over the last two weeks, schools will have been returning from a period of significant, frequent and abnormal change as a result of the covid pandemic. Our children have experienced partial closures of schools, isolation, periods of online learning, and a physical separation from other year groups. There are routines which are entirely unfamiliar to groups of students who would normally have got to the stage by now where they followed them to the point of automaticity. There are routines which will have been forgotten as it’s so long since there were last followed.

As an example, every year we have to teach our Year 7 scholars how to enter the assembly theatre. This is normally made relatively straightforward as they enter the theatre with their peers in older year groups who act as models. This year, neither Year 7, nor Year 8 had ever experienced an assembly in our theatre. Year 9 hadn’t had a non virtual assembly in 18 months, at which point they’d been in Year 7 themselves. They weren’t prepared to be the role models. We need to teach them how to do these kinds of things.

“Work like a soul inspired,
Till the battle of the day is won.”

In his book, Running the Room, Tom Bennett talks about many students being ‘novice behavers’ and the need for explicit instruction and exemplification. Right now, there are many more novice behavers in school than there would normally have been.

Another way of looking at this is considering how conscious students are of following instructions as well as how effectively they do so, alongside how well the school and teachers do in setting, reinforcing and maintaining expectations in their routines. We want to challenge and support students to move towards a point of automaticity in following the routines we have in place to a level of excellence – a level of habitual competence.

In order to achieve this, our leaders and teachers need to be working at a level of habitual competence too.

This includes:

  • Having a mental model of what excellence looks like in each routine.
  • Being able to explain the steps of the routine to students with both warmth and authority.
  • Being able to see any gaps between the mental model of excellence and the reality when students are responding to those instructions.
  • Having a set of strategies to draw on in order to address a situation where the model isn’t met.

There are risks when schools and/or individual teachers:

  1. Expect students to know how to follow routines when told rather than taught.
  2. Are keen to move on to teaching content rather than keen to invest important time in the teaching and practicing of routines.
  3. React to routines going wrong by either getting cross / ignoring / not noticing / accepting sub standard rather than with a set of strategies including those on the right hand side above from Teach Like a Champion.

“…when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
Start all over again.”

This year our new Vice Principal, Dan Hudson, has begun the introduction of a model of deliberate practice at our school. You can read a blog about how Dan implemented this at his previous school here.

We’ve looked at models and practiced rolling out routines with a clear feedback loop for teachers, but alongside this we are also looking at effective reactions to imperfect routines where students and teachers aren’t yet habitually competent. We’re doing this using a framework of questions to prepare for and practice impactful responses:

  • What’s the routine?
  • What are the steps?
  • What is the purpose of each step of the routine?
  • What will the students be visibly doing so I know they’re getting it right and complying?
  • What will I say and how will I say it if they’re not getting it right so that they do it better now and in the future?

We’re investing time in this as we believe practice of the routine and the responses are pivotal if we’re to get things right in any year and particularly this year – if we’re to provide excellence.

One Way or Another

Stepping into headship seems like it must be a unique experience.

Each school, each cohort of students, each staff team, each building, each set of routines is different.

There are commonalities of course. Schools are ALL made up of cohorts of students, staff teams, buildings and sets of routines. These might differ from school to school, but all schools have them.

Each headteacher or principal is different too. They bring with them all of the unique experiences, knowledge and know-how they have gleaned from their past. They bring with them their views on what education is for and what schools should do.

Importantly, and this is particularly the case for inexperienced headteachers, they bring with them all of the gaps in that experience and knowledge and know-how too.

In a recent sequence of posts for Ambition Institute, Jennifer Barker and Tom Rees have explored the question, “What is school leadership and how can we develop it?” They’ve looked at the concept of school leadership, the complexities of the problems faced by school leaders and the differences between generic leadership and domain specific leadership expertise.

Get lost in the crowd / One way or another

Barker and Rees argue that educational leadership development has historically focused on leaders’ personal traits, values and behaviours, or their generic leadership skills such as creating a vision, communication or leading change.

They cite Christine Counsell as a proponent of a more domain specific style of leadership:

‘the absence of an adequate model of senior curriculum leadership seems to me to deepen fundamental and longstanding problems in schools with which we have all wrestled, from weak assessment systems to problems with generation and interpretation of data, from problematical judgements about teaching and learning, to attraction and retention of fine teachers, from teacher development to the effectiveness of CPD’ (Counsell, 2018, para 7).

Many would argue that the same is to some extent the case for behaviour, SEND, attendance, safeguarding, pastoral systems and transition.

In secondary schools and larger primaries Deputy Heads or Vice Principals have, more often than not, honed their leadership skills overseeing either pastoral or academic matters. Unless they have at some point stepped across from academic to pastoral leadership or vice versa, leaders may have some experience or knowledge of the other domain but this is more likely to be at surface level.

This, combined with the fact that the historic version of the training route to headship (the NPQH) has focused on generic leadership skills rather than domain specific knowledge, has made the challenge of stepping up to headship even more challenging.

Towards the end of the third post in their series, Barker and Rees point out, “Whilst it might intuitively sound right that leadership development should focus on ‘both’ generic and domain specific approaches, this view is built on the assumption that they (generic leadership skills and domain specific bodies of knowledge) are two different things.”

You’ll see there is the master plan / It’s like a big blueprint

What they appear to be proposing – though I’ll await their next post to check I’m not putting words in their mouths – is a model of school leadership content knowledge similar to Shulman’s PCK (pedagogical content knowledge) model.

This is crude, but as an example: there is content knowledge about SEND and there is school level contextual knowledge about a particular child and their specific educational needs. There are generic skills to run meetings, but there is also a really effective way to run a great meeting with that specific child and their parents/carers to reach the best outcome.

As a further example: there is a generic set of principles behind devising and getting buy in to a vision. There is also a whole host of content knowledge about different aspects of school life and a further range of contextual knowledge about the specific school you’re leading which, if you fail to grasp, will limit the chances you have of bringing the vision to life.

When we first set foot in the classroom, the cognitive load makes it incredibly challenging to be a teacher. There are thousands of human interactions and decisions we are making which are helped immensely by:

  1. Knowing how to set up and maintain effective structures and routines
  2. Knowing the curriculum
  3. Knowing our students and any specific needs they have
  4. Knowing how to draw out and spot our students’ misconceptions
  5. Knowing the optimum strategies to address a specific misconception

The cognitive load involved in headship can be similarly intense, on a grander scale, and even more public.

It requires:

  1. Knowing how to set up and maintain effective structures and routines
  2. Knowing school leadership content knowledge
  3. Knowing our students and any specific needs they have
  4. Knowing how to draw out and spot our students and staff misconceptions
  5. Knowing the optimum strategies to address a specific misconception
  6. Knowing a million other things which don’t fit neatly into a list of five things

At first, and without guidance or swift learning for some time, this can be overwhelming.

One way or another / I’m gonna see ya

A significant part of this is about the development of school leadership content knowledge, but it is also about perception, which Doug Lemov writes about in the context of sports coaching here saying:

“Some important things to know about perception…

  • Perception is not automatic or objective. What we see is subjective and we fail to see a great deal that is right in front of our eyes. Alternatively we can see something and react to it and not realize it.
  • We are unaware of the great majority of our own actions regarding perception. We are rarely conscious of where we are looking when we play for example.
  • Surprisingly experts look at fewer things during performance than novices. In many ways the definition of their expertise is that they know where to look.
  • What we think of as poor decisions are often failures of perception instead.

Back in 2016, research carried out by the National Governance Association (NGA), The Future Leaders Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) estimated that, “there may be a demand for between 3200 and 6700 more executive headteachers by 2022.” The report states “In the self-improving system [Executive Principals] can provide strategic capacity and oversight across more than one school or equivalent responsibility.”

Trainees and Early Career Teachers receive support from mentors to develop pedagogical content knowledge in their subjects and perception in their classrooms. Given the similarities in need between trainee teachers and new to post headteachers, it is perhaps surprising there isn’t the same expectation around mentoring.

Having an Executive Principal perhaps isn’t right for everyone, but having a mentor as a new headteacher is incredibly beneficial in supporting with gaps in knowledge, know-how and perception.

I realize this is anecdotal and that one might argue that lots of headteachers have made the step up without one, but I know I’ve benefited massively from having an Executive Principal as well as a Regional Director to turn to for support as well as to direct my focus towards some things I might not otherwise have perceived so effectively. I genuinely don’t think I could have started my journey as a headteacher as effectively without this – especially not in the midst of a pandemic.

This One’s Optimistic

The music video for Radiohead’s “No Surprises” features a single close-up shot of Thom Yorke, their frontman, inside a deep sea diving style domed helmet. During the video, the lyrics of the song slowly scroll upwards, mirrored and reflected off the dome.

Following the first verse, the helmet begins to fill with water. Yorke continues to sing whilst trying to lift his head above the rising water level. Once the bubble completely fills, Yorke appears to be motionless for over a minute.

At this point, the water is released and Yorke resumes singing.

“You have turned me into this. Just wish that it was bulletproof”

In September 2018, I began my first headship.

I had the chance to do so whilst continuing to work with a brilliant Executive Principal in Ruth Robinson who did and will continue to challenge and support me. I’d also continue to have the challenge and support of what’s now the biggest Multi-Academy Trust in the country and all of the expertise that brings with it – from the CEO, Sir Jon Coles, and Director of Academies, Dame Sally Coates to the Regional Directors who have been exceptionally successful Headteachers or held very senior positions in Ofsted.

In taking the step into headship, with this level of support and professional challenge, I found myself in a very privileged position indeed.

I’d had a fortuitous sequence of years building up to this point.

I’d had the chance to work with some great people as Head of English, Literacy Consultant, Assistant and Vice Principal. I held the knowledge I’d built up from each of these roles and all of those people.

I’d been fortunate to work with and observe some of the most amazingly skilled teachers alongside students they cared for deeply.

I’d been lucky enough to attend training led by Paul Bambrick Santoyo and Doug Lemov, who (and this seems a little surreal now) had visited the school I’d been working at, as had Bruno Reddy, Harry Fletcher Wood, Matt Hood and David Didau.

I’d seen education at its best and at its worst.

I’d been in schools where smart leaders who had humility and a hunger to see all of their students do well had developed fantastic leadership teams and I had worked with leaders who hadn’t a clue what they were doing so no one else did either. I’d been in schools where there was a strong culture, where routines were embedded and where behaviour was exceptional as well as schools where there was a culture of every teacher for themselves so behaviour was dire. I’d seen intelligent curricular planning and worked with emotionally and intellectually smart teachers and I’d worked with teachers who were lost and demoralized in the midst of planning everything from scratch with almost no help.

“If you think that you’re strong enough. If you think you belong enough. If you think that you’re strong enough. If you think you belong enough.”

The school I inherited as headteacher had already gone through a substantial cultural change. From the point of becoming an academy in 2014 it had turned behaviour around. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, had visited and said that, “huge progress has been made” – that it was a school where children were improving their life chances.

Attainment had, as a result, also improved. Sir David Carter who was Regional Schools Commissioner for the south west and went on to be National Schools Commissioner visited the school when it had almost doubled the percentage of students achieving 5 passes at GCSE in a single year.

He said, “Students and staff have delivered some amazing GCSE results this year. This places the academy as one of the three most improved schools in the South West which is a brilliant achievement for everyone here.”

Everyone was very proud.

A number of fundamental challenges remained:

  • Though there had been a marked and welcome improvement in attainment, the Progress 8 measure highlighted just how much higher attainment should be.
  • The curriculum at the school had narrowed. Provision for subjects outside the EBacc suite had been reduced substantially.
  • This narrowing of the curriculum and the resultant reduction in staffing in sport, the arts and design had also caused a reduction in the school’s extra-curricular provision.
  • The focus on academic attainment had caused a reduction in focus on the personal development of students.
  • Students and the whole community needed even more to buy into – a clear school set of values, a strong tutor system, house system, student leadership opportunities.

Attainment was good but the heart of the school was not fully fighting fit.

I’d read Dame Sally Coates Headstrong, Vic Goddard’s The Best Job in the World, Jill Berry’s Making the Leap and Paul Bambrick’s Leverage Leadership. I was also two thirds of the way through my NPQH so thought I had a good idea about what my “first hundred days” as a headteacher would be like.

Alongside getting to know the staff team, the students and the community, I knew that development in these key areas would be priorities for my first year in post and beyond.

Having worked with others to put together an ambitious improvement plan and broken this down term by term I reached Christmas of the first year feeling like we’d been moving well in the right direction. We’d set off with a much stronger focus on progress, improved curriculum planning, broadened the curriculum offer, introduced a clearer model of teaching based on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and Teach Like a Champion, brought in a structured PSHE programme, re-introduced a house system, held new competitions and set up our refreshed extra-curricular programme.

On the night of our staff Christmas party I didn’t drink as I was driving but I was keen to celebrate what had been achieved so far. I knew we hadn’t got everything right. I was concerned about the progress of the students for whom we received pupil premium funding and the work ethic of our high prior attaining boys, but I did feel really positive as I arrived home for the weekend.

The next day, I found myself in hospital for the first of three visits that academic year.

“I wanna live, breathe. I wanna be part of the human race. I wanna live, breathe. I wanna be part of the human race, race, race, race.”

I didn’t sleep at all that night. The pain was utterly excruciating. I thought something evil was inside me and wanted someone else to take it out.

Quickly please.

For some reason I’d imagined that, if I were ever to call for an ambulance, it would be for someone else, and that if I ever needed an ambulance someone would call for it for me. At two thirty in the morning, my delirious logic told me that, if I were well enough to call for an ambulance then I couldn’t possibly be unwell enough to need one. Instead, I called 111, thinking they might tell me I needed to call for an ambulance. Please.

Instead, they told me to see if I could wait it out til the morning then visit the local hospital in the next town along.

Following a night of zero sleep, a painful journey to the community hospital, a quick check up followed by a journey on to another larger hospital, an x-ray, a scan, care from some fantastic NHS staff, and a couple of nights on the ward, I was told I had gall stones – something which, as soon as you find out you have, you also discover everyone else has had too.

A couple more nights in hospital, a round of antibiotics, the disappointment of missing the school Christmas dinner, Christmas show, Christmas jumper day and Christmas Festival all saw me through to Christmas. I made it in for the last couple of days of term having done all I could to work with my SLT to run the school remotely via a mobile phone.

I had a wait on for an operation, but planned to stay healthy and hit the ground running in the new year.

“If I could be who you wanted.If I could be who you wanted all the time.”

Hospital visit #2 happened on New Year’s Day 2019.

The pain was back, but this time it was accompanied by a cough which clearly meant business.

I was initially seen by two junior surgeons who decided it was flu. I knew it wasn’t flu.

“Is it possible it isn’t flu and that it’s the gall stones?”

“No. It’s definitely flu.”

“But the pain is the same and this time it’s on both sides. Could it be the gallstones. And it’s this side too. Isn’t that where my appendix is?”

“No. It’s flu.”

“Yes. It’s flu. And anyway, it’s never three things. It’s always just one thing which sometimes makes you think you have other things.”

“Ok. But I definitely think I have the other things.”

The scan I had showed I had the other things and that it was pneumonia rather than the flu. A triptych of conditions: pneumonia, appendicitis and gall stones. The junior surgeons were lovely but shocked. It’s never three things at once.

Another physically and psychologically painful sequence of weeks away from school dosed up on more antibiotics and pain killers and a low fat diet and it was back on the mobile phone.

You can try the best you can, but there’s no doubt it’s incredibly difficult to run a school properly from a mobile phone.

“Fitter happier more productive comfortable not drinking too much”

Hospital visit #3 followed more extremely familiar pain in the spring. This time, thankfully, they decided to operate to take out the evil things from inside of me.

At this point, the water is released and Yorke resumes singing.

That’s right isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Well no. Not quite yet.

“Nice dream, nice dream, nice dream.”

Despite getting back into school from Easter to the end of the academic year and, thanks to the efforts of students, their families and our staff, securing the best results a cohort had achieved at the school, this was actually the bit where the bubble completely fills and Yorke appears to be motionless for over a minute.

September arrived and people were saying to me, “I expect you’re looking forward to having a normal year at school aren’t you?”

For the next six months I delighted in the normality. Normal shows, normal mock exams, normal clubs, normal lessons and even a normal Christmas.

Nobody used the words lockdown, mask, sanitizer, asynchronous, isolation or bubble. We just had normal words for normal times.

Sometime around December though, people started talking about a rapidly spreading virus in China and the possibility of a pandemic. Sometime around January, the virus spread to the UK. Sometime around March, the virus was in our town near our school, near our students and their families.

In all this time we carried on as normal, with assemblies and lessons and interventions with Year 11 and sports and shows and trips, but the bubble was filling up with the water forcing normality out.

“Here we are with our running and confusion. And I don’t see no confusion anywhere.”

In the week beginning 9th March 2020 there were still plenty of ordinary, quite normal things going on. The weekend before had been our SLT conference. It’s over this weekend that we map out our Improvement Plan for the academic year ahead. We set out an ambitious roadmap to take the school on the next step of its journey developing our curriculum and assessment practices, reshaping our teaching model and strengthening our house system, tutor time, extra-curricular programme, and PSHE provision.

There had been further talk of the virus at the conference over coffee and cake. It felt like it was moving closer to home. There was a rumour about the local Costa drive through. The hotel we were in was opposite the local Costa drive through.

Other countries were closing schools.

Could that happen here? Shouldn’t that be happening here? Would we be closing?

By Thursday 12th there was talk of Boris Johnson closing schools. It was the day of the Year 9 Options Evening and a trip to see An Inspector Calls in Cardiff. I called an additional staff briefing that afternoon after making it clear it was nothing to do with an Ofsted inspector calling. At that point, there was very little news other than to say that news seemed imminent – the intention was to reassure the team.

Over the coming days, these briefings became increasingly important as more news came through. By 17th March, shielding and social distancing had emerged, we were giving out exercise books and sending students home left, right and centre but keeping the school open. By 19th March, it was clear the school was almost entirely closing, but we were yet to tell the students. By 20th March we were closed and had sent our Year 11 cohort home – at that stage not knowing precisely what would happen to them but being sure we would support them come what may.

Since then we have:

  • “Closed”, but not closed. Twice.
  • Learnt how to be stronger teams on Teams and then even stronger teams off of Teams.
  • Opened for our most vulnerable students when we were “closed”, but not closed.
  • Learnt that guidance can turn on a sixpence quicker than a 1970s football player.
  • Learnt what 2 metres actually looks like.
  • Learnt how to rank order and do CAGs and rank order again and then do CAGs again.
  • Learnt what an algorithm is – even if we’re not a maths or a science or a computer science teacher.
  • Learnt what an algorithm can do to a CAG and that it would beat a CAG in top trumps.
  • Learnt how to do virtual assemblies and virtual open evenings and virtual open days and virtual staffrooms and virtual parents evenings and virtual awards assemblies and virtual teaching but we could do virtually anything anyway.
  • Redefined what a bubble is and then come to hate the word bubble even more than we wanted to evict Bubble from Big Brother.
  • Learnt how to be teachers with trolleys without being off our trollies.
  • Staggered on after staggered lunchtimes.
  • Learnt the difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning and then realised that we’d muddled them up.
  • Set up a testing centre.
  • Hoped for a return to testing meaning exams and not testing which means shoving a swab down your throat and up your nose

Next up: reopening for the second time. 8th March 2021.

In two weeks time we have our 2021 SLT conference. There’ll be no conference suite at a hotel opposite the Costa drive through but there will be additional an new members joining the leadership team and another seriously ambitious improvement plan ready to drive our school further along on its journey to excellence.

“When I’m at the pearly gates. This’ll be on my videotape. My videotape.”

In her book “Making the Leap” Dr Jill Berry argues there may be a difference between the leader you hope to be, the leader the school needs and the leader the school will allow you to be. An alertness to these three things can be helpful in making the transition into headship.

I’d never been a head before, but I have had to be keenly aware of these things over the past two and a half years.

I have survived being stuck inside a metaphorical diving helmet as the lyrics of the song slowly scroll upwards, mirrored and reflected off the dome.

I’m optimistic that the 8th March 2021 is when the water is released and Yorke resumes singing.

Anything is possible. I’m optimistic.

The Ridiculous and The Sublime

Headteacher above a sea of fog

The sublime in literature refers to the use of language which evokes thoughts and emotions beyond the everyday. Though often associated with grandeur, the sublime may also refer to the grotesque or other extraordinary experiences that “take[s] us beyond ourselves.” The concept of the sublime relates to something which is both beautiful or alluring whilst also being threatening or frightening.

It’s a concept I teach to English literature classes as it’s pertinent to Wordsworth’s extract from The Prelude in which he describes a young boy discovering a small boat. He rows the boat out into the midst of nature where he discovers both the beauty and stark truth of the world around him as well as the beauty and stark truth within his own identity as a developing human being. This is the way Wordsworth describes the opening to his adventure:

“One summer evening (led by her) I found/ A little boat tied to a willow tree/
Within a rocky cove, its usual home./
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in/ Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth/ And troubled pleasure…”

Extract from The Prelude by William Wordsworth.

I was reminded of this whilst reading Adam Boxer’s recent post I Want to Go Back To School. The pleasure many will take in stepping back in to the school boat properly will be weighed against the concerns and troubled pleasures they may have. If these emotions aren’t considered by everyone involved in any return to school, we will get things badly wrong.

Headteacher caught in the hay wain.

This sense weighs particularly heavily with me as I’ve had a sublime and ridiculous first two years of headship. In my first year, I was unable to be in school (on and off) for about two and a half months due to a combination of concurrent health conditions which a number of surgeons told me were almost impossible to have at the same time. In my second year, we’ve had a pandemic which has closed schools internationally. Though in both cases I’ve absolutely understood the need for caution, both sets of incidents have also been deeply frustrating. I’ve been a headteacher for two academic years but six months of this time has been at an absurd and infuriating distance.

Some people talk about a new normal as if we’ll be godlike figures creating something from scratch which will last forever.

The ancient of headteachers with a lockdown beard.

Mostly, I’m keen to get stuck into strengthening normal and, though I know the temporary new normal needs to be considered, I think it would be very easy for us to take our eyes off too much of what works during normal times. There’s a lot of talk about catch up curricula and recovery curricula. Though it is the case that some students will have had traumatic experiences through which, at any time, they would need support, what they and their peers will mainly need is:A strong and aspirational culture with effective pastoral support for everyone, rather than over-communicating a sense that students are part of a lost generation

  • Intelligent use of assessment rather than an immediate and scattergun testing approach to make ourselves feel like we’re identifying gaps but which will actually show students what they and we already know – that they didn’t learn as much as they normally would whilst they were away from their teachers
  • Responsive teaching and checking for understanding with high ratios of participation, thinking and application rather than easing back into school

In this post, I’d like to focus on culture outlining the work which @AnthonyRadice1 has started to lead on. It draws on his time at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy with @BarryNSmith79. You may also see links with the work of Michaela Community School, @carpenter_rob and Tom Bennett. However, the way in which we draw these elements together will make our school distinctive and special.

Saturn Eating Child

September eating school culture.

Each school has its own unique culture – different from that of any other school in the world. This is because culture is not formed from posters on walls and motivational speeches in assemblies. Instead, culture is formed from the ways in which people behave, their actions, what they believe about themselves and the ways in which people interact. 

‘Culture is not formed by motivational speeches or statements of values. It is formed by repeated practice – using every minute of every day to build good habits.’ 

Paul Bambrick Santoyo, Leverage Leadership

When people visit a school, they can get a sense of the culture very quickly because they see the ways in which people behave there, how they hold themselves, how they treat each other, what they do, how they talk about themselves and how they talk to each other. Culture is not about a small group, it is about every single person together. The culture of a school is about what the people do and say there every single minute of every single day. It is about their habits – how they develop good ones and how they break away from bad ones. 

Culture provides us with a sense of belonging. As humans, we like to feel that we belong to something, something which is going to benefit us – sometimes individually and sometimes collectively. Providing students with this sense of belonging is motivating. It gives them something to which they can contribute which is always important, but will be particularly important on the return to school this academic year.

At our school, our culture is underpinned by our DISC values of: Drive, Integrity, Scholarship and Contribution.

We model ambition, effort and a determination to improve. We solve problems, taking timely action when necessary and seeing things through to completion. We have high expectations of our students and ourselves. We are productively dissatisfied, searching for the highest leverage changes we can make to improve our practice. We are professional in our actions, organisation and appearance. We use the language of possibility, resilience and growth. We don’t believe prior attainment determines future performance. We celebrate excellence and accelerated improvement, particularly where this has involved overcoming challenges.

We are warm and strict.We model politeness, honesty, humility and respect. We care about and invest in our students, our colleagues as individuals and respect our environment. We develop habits and instil character through being consistent in our systems and routines. We celebrate outstanding acts of kindness.

We model curiosity, fluency and precision. We demonstrate a joy for learning. We seek to gain expertise through training, reading, examining the findings of robust research and listening to those with a proven track record of success – seeking out ways to raise standards for our students. We are reflective. We own our mistakes and learn from them. We are candid, constructive and emotionally aware in our feedback to others and seek this kind of feedback for ourselves from our mentors and coaches. We celebrate academic and vocational success.

We model through our commitment to and investment in our students, school and community. We ensure effective contribution through clarity of our expectations and communication. We enable our students to lead and participate in our wide-ranging Pupil Charter programme and our house system.  We celebrate our students’ contributions to the Nova family and the wider world.  We champion and embrace all that is on offer to our students at Nova. 

The Urban Cookie Collective model of school improvement

Strong school cultures open doors to students’ futures. Each student leaves a door in the morning to begin their journey to school from their family home. When they arrive at school though, they all come into the same building through the same door.

Just like parents and carers, schools should want the best for their students. They should want their students’ time at school to enable them to do whatever they might wish – schools should want students to be the best possible version of themselves and to learn as much as they possibly can. Schools should believe in bringing out the best in every one of their students. It’s important that a school is able to open the eyes of its students to things which they may not have even felt were possible before – that they might not have even heard of before. Schools have the capacity to unlock and open doors to students’ futures. 

In order to open a door, you need a key. Over the coming year, we’re going to be working on a number of keys which will help unlock our students’ futures, making them believe in themselves and, over time, to see, aim for and secure the brightest possible futures for themselves. In this way, we’ll strengthen our culture, making our students feel that they belong to a place which is incredibly special.

The caretaker with a particularly shiny key.

  1. The key of consistency
  2. The key of warmth
  3. The key of strictness
  4. The key of language
  5. The key of corridor culture
  6. The key of acknowledgement
  7. The key of tradition, ceremony and symbolism
  8. The key of CPD
  9. The key of visible leadership

The keys of consistency, warmth and strictness

The first of these keys, which sits at the foundations of the our school culture, is consistency.

The kind of strong culture I’ve just described comes from everyone developing and sticking to excellent habits. Habits aren’t something you switch on one day and turn off another. They can only be formed by repeated practice and we only get the amount of practice we need if we are consistent: consistent in our expectations, consistent in our language, and consistent in the way we follow up on anything that does not meet our high standards. This doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be exactly the same. We are all different and we should celebrate the level of diversity in schools. However, as Lieutenant General David Morrison said, “The standard that you walk past is the standard you accept.” Every member of staff in a school is different just as every student is different but we would want every member of staff, every day to have the same, sky high expectations of the students and to help students to develop the same sky-high expectations of themselves through the work and personal habits they build. We need to consistently help students to develop the habits to match the expectations of the school.

In order to achieve this, it’s possible to use the second pair of keys – warmth and strictness.

Schools show warmth in their interactions with students because they care about the students. Schools should support and challenge their students because they believe that they can always go one step further, jump one notch higher, do one bit better and they should want the students to believe this too. If students make a mistake, they can learn from it and move on, always striving to improve and schools should help their students to see how to make these improvements. Schools should care about their students being successful and being the best that they can be. 

The key of warmth is balanced with the key of strictness.

Warmth isn’t about letting students get away with things.

Equally, strictness isn’t about being nasty or mean or horrible. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite. Strictness, rules, routines and procedures in schools should be used entirely because the staff care about the students. Schools can give their students a sense of reassurance and help to create a culture where it’s possible to be really focused on hard work and learning and in which students can achieve amazing things. Schools should make their rules clear to reinforce fairness and justice. Rules help students to focus their attention on being the best version of themselves– both inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers should demonstrate that they care about students and the culture of the school through their consistent application of a clear and shared behaviour system. Sometimes students might feel that this is because teachers and other staff are being mean. It’s actually because they want their students to learn from what has happened and they want their students to be a better version of themselves every day. This is why there needs to be a focus on trying to be as consistent as possible in being both warm and strict.

The key of language

Our fourth key to unlocking a culture of excellence and to unlocking those exciting doors to students’ futures is that of language. This is partly relating to the words which we use, but it’s also to do with non-verbal communication – the way we hold ourselves, the way that we walk through the building, our body language and the way that we interact. The way that we stand and hold ourselves says something about us. It sends a message to others but it also sends a message to ourselves. We shoud walk with pride – pride in ourselves and pride in each other.

Our students will sit in our classrooms in a way which shows respect for themselves, what they’re learning and for each other too. Their poise will be developed through the way in which they SLANT. They will sit up straight, listen carefully to the teacher or other students who are contributing, they will ask and answer questions like scholars to help with their learning, they will never interrupt and will track the speaker to show them that they are listening to and have respect for their contributions.

At our school, students will talk in a well SHAPEd way. They will talk in full sentences, expressing themselves in speech in a way which will help them to rehearse the way in which they will write. They will aim to have their hands away from their mouths when they talk so that they show they are proud of what they have to say, what others can learn from them and that they know mistakes are not something to be afraid of, but instead they are something which can learned from. They will articulate their words precisely and clearly, projecting their voices so that they can be heard and they will endeavour to make eye contact with the people to whom they are talking.

The Key of Corridor Culture

Walking Tall

Our school’s reputation and popularity have grown due to the many improvements over the past few year. As year groups have been growing, the wide corridors at the school have started to seem fuller. Next year, excitingly, we have nearly 220 students joining us in Year 7 – we had 149 in the outgoing Year 11.

To keep the calm, purposeful focus which is part of our culture at the school, from next year when we move through the building we’re going to walk on the left, no more than two in a row together. We’ll keep to the left because we want everyone to be able to move smoothly and safely from one place to another. Just as cars drive on the left, we’ll walk on the left. Drivers don’t choose which side of the road to drive on, because they want to get safely and smoothly to their destination. We want the same thing for ourselves and for each other. Our teachers who will be on duty will use polite, warm reminders of these expectations because they care about safety, and they care about learning – they will want students to get to lessons calmly and move as purposefully as possible from one lesson to another.

We’ll also ensure doors are open for those behind us, holding our heads high, smiling and greeting those we meet. Our corridors will be ringing with cheerful greetings and filled with smiles. They will be filled with positive words, respect for one another, politeness and good manners. The words thank you, excuse me, please and, when appropriate, sorry will echo through our wings because these kinds of words demonstrate that we have taken STEPS to show respect for each other and help us to develop and maintain a level of self-respect.

Scholars, Ladies and Gentlemen

At our school, we address our students collectively either as ‘scholars, ladies and gentlemen’. We do not call them children, kids, teenagers or lads.

We call them ‘scholars, ladies and gentlemen’ because of our high aspirations for them. We want them to have excellent manners and self-respect. We want them to look people in the eye and say, ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’. We want them to walk along with their heads held high, looking out with confidence at the world.

This is about building a positive culture where good manners and polite conversation are the norm. This is about having the highest possible expectations of our students, so that rudeness or aggression are simply unthinkable. It’s not about saying ‘don’t do these bad things’, it’s about saying ‘be this person’.

‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’

We are accustomed to students calling teachers ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. At our school, when talking to students as individuals, we call them by their name or we use ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. Our mantra will be always ‘We’re very polite to you; you’re very polite to us’.

Although it is our aim to accurately know as many students’ names as possible, we will always able to address students politely by addressing them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’, whether we know their name or not. As we walk around the corridors between lessons or at breaktimes, we will make polite requests of students using these terms of address.

Corridor Displays

Just as the way in which we conduct ourselves and relate to one another around the school sends a powerful message about who we are as a community, so the displays in our corridors act as a reminder of the things we value. At our school every single display should show our students and visitors that we cherish at least one of our four values: Drive, Integrity, Scholarship and Contribution.

They should also expose pupils to the very best we can share in order to raise aspirations.

Through our displays, we make our values tangible. They act as a silent teacher. This is why, at our school , every display board has a clear function and every display board is refreshed to a clear schedule. Display boards which remain indefinitely do not demonstrate a sense of drive. The typical functions of our display boards are:

  • To celebrate the highest quality work so as to inspire our current students.
  • To share student achievements.
  • To highlight/exemplify specific aspects of the curriculum
  • To celebrate the diversity in our community
  • To draw attention to the ways in which our students could contribute to the wider world, raising their ambitions and aspirations.
  • To celebrate the successes and achievements of our alumni and other members of the our community.
  • To highlight excellent opportunities available to our students in terms of student leadership or our Charter so as to inspire participation.

Beyond the Corridor

Our DISC values must be lived, explicitly, constantly in every aspect of school life, not just in our corridors, but also in the playground, on trips, with visitors, in games, on the way to and from school, in assemblies and at awards evenings.

We will use every opportunity to role model, talk about, reinforce and celebrate our values, use our mnemonics and strengthen our culture.

The Key of Acknowledgment

DISC Points

At our school, teachers will have 30 DISC Points which they can award each week. When giving DISC points, our teachers will tell students why they are being awarded with a focus on one of the four DISC values. They give a clear signal to the rest of the class of why their work has earned them a praise point. At the end of the lesson, teachers will always spend a minute or two reflecting on the great things which have been achieved, mentioning those who have earned DISC points and why.

Student DISC Postcards

Each week, our teachers will pick two students who have impressed them the most and give them a DISC Postcard to take home. These postcards will be awarded for those who have exemplified most strongly our DISC values: drive, integrity, scholarship and contribution.

Verbal Acknowledgements

Every morning at Roll Call, teachers or students will highlight three other members of the schoolcommunity for an acknowledgement. The teacher will explain why this person deserves our acknowledgement. We will get our hands out and clap in unison twice to show our appreciation for the great things they have achieved.

Staff Acknowledgement Postcards

Each month, students will be given an acknowledgement postcard which they will write to a member of staff to show their acknowledgement of and gratitude for the hard work the member of staff has put in and the support they have provided. These will be given in to the House Office and distributed to teachers by the student runners.

The Key of Traditions, Ceremonies and Symbolism

Roll Call

Roll Call is an integral part of our culture. It enables us to ensure that students are fully prepared for the day ahead. It promotes punctuality, organisation and a sense of belonging.

Alongside the business aspect of Roll Call though, there is also a significant cultural element. At Roll Call, Heads of House won’t merely deliver messages, solve uniform infringements and check the reflection list. They will also celebrate successes, run acknowledgements and lead the House mantra and poetry chanting.


Our assemblies are the perfect opportunity to reinforce and celebrate the importance of our values. Students in Years 7-10 attend three assemblies per week:

  1. A House Assembly led by the Head of House.
  2. A Whole School Assembly led by a member of SLT or an invited member of staff with a specific area of expertise.
  3. A DISC Assembly led by the Senior Assistant Principal or Headteacher.

All assemblies should be an opportunity to pump fresh oxygen into our ethos and culture. This is achieved by ensuring all assemblies:

  • Are characterised by excellent student conduct.
  • Are vibrant and life affirming gatherings.
  • Are well organised and structured
  • Are punctual to begin and end.
  • Thread through clear messages about our values and expectations to develop a sense of belonging and identity in our community. The focus on our DISC values can be achieved both implicitly (through speaker and topic choice, rewards and reminders) and explicitly (direct reference to school rules).

Poetry Chanting

At our school, we are driven to improve our minds by mastering powerful knowledge. We do this as a community by learning poetry together. The experience of chanting poetry in unison is a great way to make it more memorable, but it is also something which unites us.

Our shared knowledge is something that gives us strength both intellectually and morally. We don’t just learn the words of the poems; we spend time reflecting on their meaning, drawing out the lessons we can learn that strengthen our DISC values. The powerful words we have learned will stay with us for the rest of our lives, a treasured possession that no one can take away.

Summer Ball

Our Summer Ball is one of the ways in which we celebrate the culmination of our student’s time with us. It marks the point at which students are moving on to adulthood.

Year 11 Awards Ceremony

Alongside the Summer Ball, we use the Year 11 Awards Ceremony to celebrate our students’ achievements over their years at school. All teachers attend the ceremony as a mark of respect to the hard work of our students. It is a formal occasion during which certificates are given out and awards are presented.

The Key of CPD

Professional development relating to school culture will necessarily be a continuous process throughout a teacher’s career as, if leaders are doing their jobs effectively, they will notice when there is a need to amend, reinforce, strengthen and develop school culture.

If staff (as well as students) are to believe that they are capable of more than perhaps even they think possible, it is crucial that they experience high levels of support from their leadership. Providing them with robust and effective CPD plays a substantial part in the formation of the professional identity.

Professional development at our school doesn’t only occur in discrete chunks such as external training days or INSETs. It is a fluid continuum composed of every interaction between professionals. Alongside centralised whole school CPD relating to our culture, every interaction, from line management through to a passing conversation in the corridor is a potential moment of training, instruction, reinstruction or correction in terms of our culture. Every interaction between school leaders and staff members must promote dignity, positive regard and high expectations. Staff should feel (and be) supported, but also acknowledge their responsibilities.

The Key of Visible Leadership

At our school senior and middle leaders are present on corridors, on lunch queues, in the pastoral base, at the school gates, and in every area of the school community. This is because they understand the need to consciously and persistently model, monitor, maintain and develop the culture. We are present and visible in key areas of the school. In order to achieve this, we are relentlessly intentional about how we use our time. We use verbal and nonverbal cues to create the culture described in this booklet, acknowledging the positive, expecting 100% and using Do It Again where necessary to achieve this. We provide prompt feedback to staff, model the language we want to hear, address student non-compliance on the spot and celebrate success. We use what we see to identify CPD needs and high leverage actions to implement. As a result, over time our culture becomes stronger and stronger.

Making it happen

This culture has to be consciously brought to life. Tom Bennett describes three steps which schools need to take in order to do this in the following passage from Creating a Culture.


Cultures require deliberate creation. A key role of leadership is to design a detailed vision of what the culture should look like for that school, focusing on social and academic conduct. There should be ambitious goals and the highest expectations possible, for all. There should be a belief that all students matter.


Staff and students need to know how to achieve this, and what the culture looks like in practice, from behaviour on buses to corridor conduct and diner etiquette. Leaders should be highly visible and supported by a strong Senior Leadership Team. This means demonstrating it, communicating it thoroughly, and ensuring that every aspect of school life feeds into and reinforces that culture. This requires attention to detail and thoroughness of execution.


School systems require maintenance. They need to be applied in a highly consistent manner. This is often where good cultures break down. It is reasonably straightforward to identify what a good culture might look like, but like a diet, the difficulty lies in embedding and maintaining it. This includes staff training, effective use of consequences, data monitoring, staff and student surveys and maintaining standards.

Strengthening our culture in this manner will, no doubt, be both exciting and challenging – a troubled pleasure. However, it will provide stability for our students and a level of aspiration for our students which will open their horizons, taking them beyond themselves.

Shifts in fiction

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post called We Bring the Stars Out which explained a process for boosting marks in the fiction writing section of the AQA GCSE Paper 1. The strategy stemmed from the need to support students who read relatively little and who lacked a range of mental models relating to structural shifts in literature. It works because it enables students to approach the task without panicking.

It doesn’t work if we genuinely want students to become better writers. It is a dramatic oversimplification of the writing process.

Sharing the strategy has had an unintended consequence. More recently, I’ve heard of teachers using this approach from Year 7 upwards, training pupils to respond to writing tasks in this way, which is clearly a concern. We should want our students to be able to draw on a range of structures, ideally choosing the most appropriate for their fiction writing.

Between Year 7 and Year 11, students need to learn how to consciously select shifts in, to name a few:

  • Time
  • Location
  • Focusing on different characters or objects
  • Narrator
  • Speaker
  • Attitude of the narrator/a character towards something or someone
  • Mood of the same narrator
  • Course of events
  • Cause and effect or action and consequence

To achieve this, we need to consciously teach these shifts so that our students begin to consciously and deliberately select them and we don’t end up relying on a forced model in Year 11.

To do this well requires us to have a range of compact, complete and incomplete models of each of these types of shift. However, it also requires us to be able to explain and tease out the potential impact of these twists and turns.

  • Why might a writer shift between one narrative perspective and another?
  • What reason may a writer have for moving from a small detail of an object to an even smaller detail?
  • What function could shifting from one location to another serve

And, of course, we should also expect students to deliberately and ultimately independently practice the different kinds of shift, whilst expecting them to justify their choices so that we can support in developing their decisions.

I’d be keen to hear from anyone who knows of any textbooks or teacher guides which would help in this process; any anthologies which contain really short fiction that would help in exemplifying the shifts above; or, in particular, who would be willing to write or share their own three paragraph models which could provide some exemplification.

Litteranguage – Part 4

In this sequence of posts, we’ve already looked at how far the English Language GCSE is (un)fit for purpose in terms of defining a curriculum and assessing attainment or progress. In this post, we’re looking at next steps.

We’ll explore how well the GCSE:

  • Functions as a qualification that demonstrates to employers a certain level of proficiency in language use.
  • Prepares pupils for the study of English Language at a higher level.

Money, Money, Money

The CBI publish an annual education and skills survey which outlines, in part, their thoughts on how well the education system prepares people for the world of work. The findings, each year, are fairly similar. The 2017 report, Helping the UK Thrive, states that the CBI believes primary schools should focus on “core skills such as literacy.” It goes on to explain that “Businesses believe that as well as helping young people after 11 to develop core competences of self-management (37%) and literacy and numeracy (36%), schools and colleges could be doing more to enable them to develop technical skills (25%) by applying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) knowledge.” The percentages indicate the proportion of respondents who felt each aspect was an issue. Literacy and numeracy clearly remain a priority, according to this annual survey.

If employers are concerned with the literacy levels of potential employees, then you might think that their faith in the school assessment model might be weakening. However, the findings in this YouGov report would suggest that this is not the case. Employers have fairly high levels of confidence in the GCSE system.

So, perhaps from an employer’s perspective the English language GCSE is actually alright. Except, and this is especially the case following 2017’s change to the grading system, what can employers actually infer about applicants reading and writing skills from a grade in English language. Which grade should they use to make a cut in applications if quality of communication skills is important to them? 4? 5? 6? 7? What might an employer expect of a grade 4 reader and writer – someone who has met the national expectation in English? What should they expect? For most employers, this isn’t seen as a problem as there is an assumption made that passing a GCSE in English language provides a potential employee with the required level of literacy to function beyond the school gates. Yet, the language GCSE is weighted more towards analysis and (restricted) creativity than it is towards anything functional and students who have relatively inaccurate spelling, punctuation and grammar can secure a pass.

I wonder whether a reason some employers believe schools don’t prepare students for work in terms of literacy is actually because they have a misguided faith in the language GCSE and are disappointed to discover the reality. Moreover, some employers are surely making inferences from employees’ results which the qualification is not set up to reliably assess.

The GCSE may be considered to be a reliable qualification by many employers, but there are misunderstandings, I think, in terms of the information it provides them with.

The Name of the Game

Whilst many employers have fairly high levels of confidence in the English GCSE, it seems A-Level English language teachers have not.

There is a significant difference between English language at GCSE level and the content of the curriculum at A-Level.

The A-Level language teachers who responded to this survey felt there needs to be changes to the GCSE so that there is:

  • A greater focus on sociolinguistics – an exploration of language change over time, attitudes to different accents or idiolects.
  • An appreciation of language use as a discourse or a social construct – exploring how language is used by individuals and groups to gain and exploit their power.
  • A reduction in the formulaic nature of the questions at GCSE level.
  • Some assessment of students’ analysing spoken language.

None of these would necessarily make the qualification less useful as a means for employers to differentiate between literate and less literate candidates and, arguably, some would make it more useful for employees. All of them would bring the qualification more in line with the language A-level and would provide it with the subject content it currently lacks.

The Winner Takes It All

The issue, yet again, here is that the language qualification is strained to be too many things for too many people. At the moment, no one really wins – though it seems some believe they do.

Möbius Strip

Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth’s 1968 collection of sometimes disturbing, sometimes playful, sometimes absurd short stories, begins with Frame-Tale.

The first part of this piece of micro-fiction is a set of instructions: “Cut on dotted line. Twist end once and fasten AB to ab, CD to cd.”

The second part looks like this.

The resultant narrative is perpetual and circular, forming a Möbius strip which seemingly has no real sense of beginning or ending.

The cycle of school life across an academic year and the process of school improvement can occasionally feel like a journey around a Möbius strip.

You think you’re starting in September, the beginning of an academic year, but much of the narrative has been set up well before this during the previous circuits around the twisted loop. Traditions, systems, expectations, habits, processes: many of these things are well (or poorly) established prior to the start of September.

As you go around the cycle of the year, you spot things you’ve seen previously: from school performances to sports days, from students in heightened state of focus brought on by being in the midst of the exam period to students leaping in the air as local news hacks take photos on their results day.

In less structured, less organised, worse led schools, progress around this circuit can be frenetic, stressful, as if you’re lost in the funhouse. You may know what’s coming next, but what’s coming next is frightening – there may also be the occasional nightmarish surprise which will raise your blood pressure to disastrous levels.

A far more pleasurable journey round the Möbius strip can be found where there is clarity, coherence and consistency around attendance, behaviour, curriculum, teaching, assessment, pastoral structures and extra-curricular opportunities. Where these expectations, systems, routines and habits are not established, it can feel like initiatives are being hurled at you in an attempt to knock you from the circuit of the strip. Where they are in place, there is clarity in the purpose for and the shared ways of working. This allows systems and structures to be enhanced, amended or reformed each year without causing confusion and panic. Importantly, they can then have a far more positive impact on the people making their way around the circuit.

Lessons from Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design

Over the Easter weekend of 2018, I’ve been re-reading Summer Turner’s book on Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design. The book is a great primer on these two weighty aspects of school development and points the reader in the direction of plenty of further reading. Turner makes her own position on curriculum and assessment design very clear whilst also providing some balance by suggesting sources of information relating to other schools of thought.

Following a self-assessment tool, which is designed to unpick what the reader knows about these two core educational concepts already, Turner begins with the premise that expertise, in terms of curriculum design in schools, has been in decline over the last three decades. She suggests this has been caused by:

  • The centralisation of curriculum design due to the introduction of the National Curriculum and the implementation of the National Strategies.
  • The centralisation of assessment and subsequent narrowing of the curriculum due to SATS, levels and APP.
  • Further narrowing of the curriculum due to accountability measures in the form of league tables, floor standards and OFSTED.

Turner highlights an opportunity, resulting from the end of national curriculum levels and academy freedoms, to redevelop the curriculum but this requires a rejuvenation in curriculum expertise at whole school and subject level.

Lesson 1: Answer these fundamental questions

Turner suggests using, as a starting point, Ralph Turner’s questions (Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction):

  1. What educational purposes should a school seek to attain?
  2. What learning experiences can you select to achieve these purposes?
  3. How can you effectively organise these experiences to best achieve your purposes?
  4. How can you evaluate the effectiveness of these experiences?

Much of the rest of the book explores Turner’s reading, thinking and actions in response to these questions.

Lesson 2: Read the experts’ views

Turner provides some brief summaries of the work of the following thinkers on curriculum and assessment (other schools of thought are available):

  • E.D Hirsch
  • Michael Young
  • Paulo Freire
  • Daniel Willingham
  • Dylan Wiliam
  • Daisy Christodoulou
  • Tim Oates
  • Ron Berger
  • Carol Dweck

Turner points out that there is a vast body of work by academics and education experts on both curriculum and assessment. Much of it is conflicting. The trick, whilst not closing your eyes and ears to views different to your own. is to prioritise the theory and research which ties most clearly to your purpose and values. This way, you end up with something coherent whilst also remaining open to challenges to your thinking.

Lesson 3: Carefully consider each of these factors in designing your curriculum

  • Determine the purpose of your curriculum
  • Decide your key principles and values
  • Set your expectations
  • Determine the big ideas
  • Define the content
  • Establish the sequence
  • Plan how and when you will review

Lesson 4: Carefully consider each of these factors in designing your model of assessment(s)

  • Determine the purpose of your assessment(s), ensuring it links to the purpose of your curriculum
  • Establish your assessment principles
  • Set your assessment expectations
  • Define your big assessment ideas
  • Check your assessment content covers a sample of your curriculum
  • Ensure your assessment sequence is clear across a term, a year and a Key Stage
  • Plan how you will review and refine your assessments

Lesson 5: Make it happen

Much of the above is about whole school thinking and establishing fertile soil in which faculties or departments can work to set out and deliver their own curriculum plans as well as assess their impact. Turner makes the following suggestions to make this process effective in practice:

  1. Communicate your vision, values and expectations clearly in a manner that teachers will buy into.
  2. Use examples, from within your own school where possible, which align with what you expect.
  3. Ensure curriculum areas are able to provide an outline of their curriculum. Turner believes this should include a philosophy/purpose behind the subject; definition of the big ideas; the key areas of factual or procedural knowledge which make up the subject. She argues that this should be mapped back from the next stage in the students’ education and that aspects of sequencing and interleaving should be carefully considered.
  4. Expect faculties to produce an assessment map which defines the forms of assessment to be used and how these tie to the curriculum, what can be inferred from each assessment type, when each assessment type will be used and how feedback will be provided.
  5. Build a bank, over time, of high quality models and ensure teachers have the subject expertise to model for students and select models of work during lessons.
  6. Provide training to key staff in the designing and reviewing of the curriculum and its associated assessments. Turner finishes the book off with some suggestions as to how you might go about doing this.

“I woke up and brushed my teeth.”

I’m been trying out the planning structure which I’ve written about here with some trickier tasks. A couple of months ago on Twitter, I asked for suggestions for mundane images or first sentences with which I could road test the strategy. David Williams (@davowilz) suggested “I woke up and brushed my teeth.” Below is my attempt at a story, followed by the plan. @MissAliceRQT has produced these examples too.

I woke up and brushed my teeth. Misshapen and covered in plaque and worn away, I can barely look at them without flinching. What these teeth have seen, what they have experienced, I could not bring myself to consider for long. I continue scrubbing at them to clear away the yellowing memories. Then there was that fuzzy, fluttering noise again. I splash my face in ice-water before wrapping my whole head in the warm darkness of a towel. Its fluffiness is so comforting, so safe.

For a moment, I am away from the memory of her.

She’s makes me do it. She made me do it and it’s all I have left of her. Last night was the most recent time. I hope it will be the last.

It was close to midnight and I was outside another bedroom. The lights were out and there was a light, sniffling snore lingering on the other side of the door. Why do parents insist they shut their children’s creeky doors tight with their squeaky little handles?

Still, they’re no obstacle for me.

In seconds I’m inside, creeping – I’m not even on tiptoes – taking what I’d come for. The darkness follows me inside. Light as a fairy.

She shouldn’t have made me do this. I’m sure that stupid fluttering noise will give me away one day, but not this time. I’m in and I’ve taken what I need from the slumbering infant and I’m out again. A thief.

I finish with the towel, putting it back on the radiator. It still smells of her cloudy fuzz of perfume. I can’t bring myself to wash it. We only buried her last week. There was a toothy grin on her face as she was masticated by the earth itself. It’s what she would have wanted.

I notice a speck of blood on the towel. In the mirror, I see my gum is bleeding. I cannot clean all these teeth she has made me take. Misshapen and covered in plaque and worn away – like the yellowing memories of my tooth-fairy mother.

Thoughts/Feelings/Mood + Contrasts

  • Fatigue vs Vivacity
  • Dreary vs Energised/
  • Cleanliness vs Grubbiness
  • Harsh realities vs Imagined success


  • Towel – safety, security, warmth
  • Wings – escape, freedom


Deliberately mundane. Bathroom – Single glazed. Chill draft. Cold feet. Personify the tooth brush? scraping/rubbing… Wipe away excess paste. Wrap self up in towel – warmth, greater darkness. Repeat toothbrushing – leave hints he’s a tooth fairy.


Previous evening – make sinister, shadows, creeping into bedroom, stealing.

Return and Zoom

Zoom in on the towel. Mother gave to him. Smell of her.

Flashback to mother’s funeral. Flowers, cards, donations to…

Zoom and Leave

Gums bleeding from anxiety of being unable to clean all teeth. Reprise toothbrushing and mundane comment.