Lessons from Headstrong

Headstrong, by Dame Sally Coates with Steve Adcock and Michael Ribton, highlights eleven lessons for school leaders – handily though unintentionally making it easier for me to structure this blog post. Although many of the lessons are relevant for leaders more generally, the writers mention on a number of occasions that their focus is primarily on schools in challenging circumstances which need turning round. The book draws on the writers’ experiences in transforming Burlington Danes Academy in London.

Headstrong begins with the narrative surrounding Coates’ appointment as headteacher of Burlington Danes whilst the remainder of the book explores what it takes to turn a school round. This includes, “strong leadership; dedicated and talented teachers; decent facilities and resources; and personalised support.”

Coates sets out to establish that, even though “the tragedy is we’ve known about the pernicious link between social background and achievement for decades,” there is no need to accept this link in a defeatist or fatalistic manner. In fact, with strong leadership, and in particular a strong headteacher, Coates argues schools can have an impact on achievement and therefore play their part in narrowing social divisions. The 11 lessons are as follows.

Lesson 1 – Lead from the front

A central message of Headstrong is that headteachers should be flying the flag for SLT, teachers and students to follow. In order to do this, they should be authentic – few of any worth will follow an inauthentic leader or a false idol.

In the early days of leadership, Coates argues headteachers should maximise the leverage they have in their honeymoon period to kickstart necessary changes. This means not accepting that which is substandard, thereby setting your high expectations early. Coates warns against timidity and directs new headteachers who wish to turn a school around towards being:

  • Professional
  • Decisive
  • Boundlessly optimistic
  • Energetic
  • Calm
  • Authoritative
  • Brutally honest

Lesson 2 – High expectations

The kind of high expectations Coates believes should be set early stem from having belief in the students – a belief that should exist no matter what the students’ backgrounds. Children, on the whole, won’t rise higher than their community expects them to and their environment allows, though there will be outliers.

Your behaviour system, Coates maintains, helps demonstrate your expectations. This includes detentions, ‘corrections’ and acceptance of low level disruption. Maintaining high expectations is affected by the contemporary cultural climate but this cultural climate can be overcome by effective relationships and systems driven by strong leadership in schools. Pivotally, the claim of high expectations is less important than the consistency of their application.

Lesson 3 – Professional culture

Coates argues for the prioritising of teacher quality. Central to this is the creation of a culture where teachers can do their jobs, which she goes on to outline in lesson 4.

Making the right appointments to your team is key, but alongside this should be opportunities to gather together to develop and reflect through internally organised CPD. SLT should be a clear presence in the school on what Coates calls walkabout. The idea is to generate a level of sensible consistency. Coates also argues that, where possible, because you’ll have developed your staff you should promote from within.

Lesson 4 – Set Your Teachers up to Focus on Marking, Planning and Teaching

Coates sees this as meaning headteachers and SLT having a vital role in enabling teachers to do the core of the job. In order to achieve this, leaders should secure behavioural standards; recruit wisely; establish minimum standards and core expectations for teaching; provide opportunities for development; and, over time, enable teacher autonomy.

Lesson 5 – Create a culture of transparency and accountability.

Headteachers, Coates believes, are responsible for ensuring that rigorous, accurate, meaningful data is in the hands of those who need it: namely teachers, students, parents and the rest of their SLT. This means that the relevant staff must have had training on producing and using robust assessments. It also requires that checks are in place to secure accuracy of assessment. Coates maintains there should be a rigour rather than ruthlessness around data. She also believes in rank orders as a catalyst or motivator for student progress and, therefore, attainment.

Lesson 6 – Treat students as individuals and personalise intervention.

Headteachers, according to Coates, should make sure students are known as individuals and cared for – in part this means developing and maintaining a strong tutor and pastoral system. It also means:

  • Getting the right data into the right hands.
  • Avoiding intervention outside class impacting on learning inside class.
  • Treating exclusions with the gravitas they deserve.
  • Looking to maximise students’ talents.

Lesson 7 – Create clear systems and structures

Coates asserts that SLT need to be both operational and strategic. They need to gain and maintain the respect of other members of staff, students and the community. School, pastoral and faculty structures all need to be in alignment with the school’s vision. In terms of timetabling and intervention, Coates argues we should look first at how you can maximise the time you have already in the school day before adding any more.

Lesson 8 – Cultivate a Bullet Proof Culture and Ethos.

Here, Coates makes the argument that schools need to create their own code of honour. A headteacher is the champion of the school, the establishment and maintenance of this code. This includes the internal relationships between students, staff and the school as well as the relationship between the school and the community. To achieve this:

  • Use assemblies to share key messages about culture. They drive a sense of collective purpose.
  • Behaviour systems, uniform, your extra-curricular offer, a house system and decor play a key role here too.
  • Use newsletters and staff briefings to support in the development of the code.

Lesson 9 – Develop the Whole Child

Academic outcomes alone are not enough. Many schools talk about developing character without thinking hard enough about the mechanisms through which they will do so.

A substantial role here is played by the school’s extra-curricular and co-curricular programmes. Students need to be aware of and take up the positive opportunities available to them within and outside the school gates if they are to become positive participants in society. Engagement with charities and the local community enable students to see the impact they can have on the world outside of school.

Leadership opportunities, such as school council member and prefect, offer students opportunities to practice the roles they might take on in society in the future.

Diet – both that provided by the school canteen and that sold by local shops – is important too.

Development of character comes from teachers modelling respect towards each other and towards students.

Lesson 10 – Schools Don’t Operate in a Vacuum

In this chapter, Coates deals with the impact of government policy and external accountability. Schools leaders, she argues, have to accept accountability and change but do so whilst managing it in the best interest of their students.

Schools can both support students towards academic success and nurture them to develop other talents.

Accountability is required to ensure they do both. A key point she makes is that testing brings equity between students taught in middle class schools and their peers in other communities. Accountability therefore brings credibility to the profession. In the 1970s-1990s, there were issues for students in schools serving low income communities as they were often neglected. The curriculum in any school shouldn’t hold students back, no matter their background. In fact, it should be designed specifically to help students maintain equality with their peers. Schools are well placed to make a significant impact on social inequalities, though they cannot do this in isolation. Homes, parents and societies matter. This takes a significant commitment from all staff, particularly in schools in deprived areas and challenging circumstances.

Lesson 11 – The Pebble and the Mountain

In this lesson, Coates outlines four stages of school improvement:

  1. Intensive care – six months in which the head tackles low expectations and poor teaching. Some headteachers get stuck in this stage as it’s intoxicating for them. This is where schools can become based on fear rather than trust.
  2. Critical but stable – here, headteachers work on convincing staff that they can develop under the new regime. Provision of excellent training is important here. Leaders need to be highly visible here to support this development of increased expectations.
  3. Development – Coates also calls this professionalisation. In this phase, headteachers shore up routines and rituals to develop a systemic approach to each aspect of school life. Leadership can be distributed more at this stage.
  4. Collaboration – this is where the head is looking to share what they’re doing with others. This can include expansion.

Constant renewal runs through each of these stages. Everyone, especially leaders, needs to guard against complacency. Small details matter as they all add up to the overall impact your school has on the students and the community. This includes the school environment and uniform. Criticism and correction is done in private whilst praise is done publicly. Leaders need one eye on the long term and the other on the day to day processes of the school.


Leadership matters. Though there are standard aspects of school development, strong leaders are required to adapt these to a specific school’s context. Schools are human organisations so require strong systems but strong human leaders and relationships. The headteacher drives this agenda.

Coates argues that headteachers need to find their own strengths and play to their advantage – there are other models than Sally Coates’ but hers is most likely to be successful in schools in areas of deprivation or schools in challenging circumstances which need turning round.

Spots of Time – The Poetry and Prose of Teaching

As a response to the question, “Why don’t poets just write what they mean?” I’d generally subscribe to Coleridge’s view that prose is “words in their best order” whilst poetry is “the best words in their best order.” There are times when both the choice and sequencing of words lifts the meaning of a line of poetry above that which would have been expressed if a writer had selected ‘plain English’ prose. Another argument, of course, is that the poet did write what they meant – they intended to put those specific words in a specific order in an attempt to make us think or feel a specific way. Oftentimes, once we’ve unravelled the syntax and imagery of a phrase, a line, a stanza of poetry, something sublime emerges.

Despite this attempted defence of poetry, I can’t help but agree, on occasion, with the sentiment of the question. Some poetry is neither the best words, nor the best order. It’s just rubbish.

Wordsworth often suffered guilty migraines, resulting from his attempts to mock Coleridge by putting the worst words in the worst order.

Coleridge’s balladeering buddy, Wordsworth, wrote some rubbish, for example. Some real rubbish which would have been better in plain English. Take a look at this seemingly unending and painful sentence from The Prelude:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

Wordsworth, The Prelude. Book 12. 208-218 (1850 edition)

There’s something important and true and beautiful in what Wordsworth is arguing here but I’m distracted from it rather than drawn to it by the meandering syntax of the sentence. It’s this kind of over-complication verging on impenetrability which, I suspect, results in a feeling amongst less experienced readers that poetry is this way – relatively dense in syntax but relatively sparse in meaning.

Whilst Wordsworth struggled to contain the his dribbling sentences, Coleridge struggled to contain his neckerchief and mullet.

In the same way, I think we are often guilty of over-complicating the process and practice of teaching. The more complication we add to our lessons, the less likely we are to notice misconception, bewilderment, reluctance or a lack of challenge. We can be too busy with the sometimes distracting poetry of teaching to notice these issues. I was reminded of this, when this tweet popped up on my timeline the other day:


This was followed by the creation of the #Nobservation hashtag by Matt Pinkett, through which people shared a range of largely ill-conceived advice, given to them by people who had observed parts of their lessons. There were hundreds of responses and, although it’s difficult to tell whether there is a truth in every single one, the sense of collective relief in being able to share the apparent stupidity of some observers comments was substantial. Quite a number of the comments related to the observer’s desire for more poetic excitement in the lesson.

One of the key frustrations which seemed to emerge in the thread was that people who appeared to know little about the context of a class, a lesson, a subject or a school could be so wrongheaded about something. I’ve been on both sides of this situation before. I know that I’ve made some of the suggestions in the thread to other teachers in years gone by. I’ve also received some of the other advice as a teacher. I’m sure I will look back in ten years’ time and think that some of things I’m currently doing are pretty stupid. We’re all, to our own degrees, imperfect.

When you spend much of your time “judging” the quality of education in your school, which is at least a part of the role of a school leader, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the large or even small spots in your school where the prose of teaching has a clarity to it – where there is plain teaching.

Something we’ve done over the last few week’s which has been really useful, I hope, is take all of our teachers in small groups, on a walkabout of the school, dropping into lessons  to see what we can pick up from the teaching of others. It’s been a little like a surgeon’s rounds.

On the walkabouts I’ve been on, I’ve seen amongst other things:

  • An amazingly clear explanation of how to use a saw: “accuracy is life.”
  • Some exceptional trainees demonstrating that, if you have and make use of an effective behaviour system in your school and you prepare your lessons well, then you can teach effectively from very early on in your career.
  • Some of the most efficient resource distribution I’ve ever seen allowing more time to focus on subject content.
  • Superbly crisp transitions between one activity and another.
  • The initial impact of a teacher’s high expectations with regards to the use of mathematical terminology in class discussion.
  • Carefully sequenced questions and tight time limits enabling students to produce really well crafted responses to a key moment in Romeo and Juliet.

The opportunity to walk into lessons with such a wide variety of teachers from different subjects made me look at our school from a different, quite humbling angle. We’ll take feedback from them to see if they felt the same. My suspicion is that many of them will have learnt as much from this as they would from a coaching session and certainly more than from the advice exemplified on the #Nobservation thread.

There are, in our teaching. spots of time in lessons which lift us up, either when we’re higher than we’ve been before or when we’ve fallen to our lowest point. Maybe Wordsworth wasn’t such a nobserver after all.

Lessons from Trivium 21st c

The title of Martin Robinson’s book, Trivium 21st c, stems from the three paths (trivium) to a classical education: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. In the course of writing, Robinson characterises three types of thinker and educator: grammarians, dialecticians and rhetoricians. The book initially acts as a chronicle of the way in which the views of these three groups have intertwined and gone in and out of fashion, before going on to establish some of the ways in which the Trivium could be utilised in schools today. Through carrying out his research for the book, Robinson seeks to define the kind of school he would want for his daughters.



In the book, Robinson traces the history of grammar from its beginnings as the study of Greek and then Latin and Hebrew, on to its evolution into a deep study of literature and ending up with its later meaning of the study of the foundational aspects of a culture. However, in his 21st Century Trivium, Robinson takes it to mean the knowledge relevant to a specific subject domain. He argues that, “In order to be critical and creative, kids need to know stuff, to have a good grasp of the basics, the grammar of a topic.”

Robinson states that “Grammarians tell it like it is, either by agreed practice or imposed rules.” They are focused on facts and the way things are supposed to be done.

Implications of a grammar based approach:

The faculties in a school need to clearly define the factual and procedural knowledge which they need/ought to teach and which they want students to retain in order to be successful. There is a finite amount of time in a school day, so it’s important to consider whether your school is exposing students to “the best that has been thought or said” (Matthew Arnold) by looking at “those aspects that are proven by time to be enduring rather than ephemeral.” A couple of key questions to consider are:

  • How have you defined the knowledge which you want students to retain from Year 7 and how you will assess this in Year 8?
  • Have enough opportunities been built in for students to apply the knowledge they have gained in speech, writing, through problem solving, performance or developing products?

A second implication of this section of the book is that teachers’s subject knowledge needs to be such so that they can fully support and stretch children to learn knowledge to a level of excellence. They need the techniques to pass on new knowledge, explain new concepts clearly and precisely, model new procedures to their students, check they are grasping the new knowledge and return to this knowledge in their ongoing teaching so that it is both retained and built on.

Students, meanwhile, need to develop effective strategies to memorise new material and retain and recall old material. They also need opportunities to deliberately practice different steps and whole procedures which they have learnt.


Robinson defines dialectic as a questioning of principles and abstract ideas using reasoning, logic and debate. To aid understanding, he characterises three types of dialectician.

  • Socratic dialecticians argue for arguments sake. They “will ask about it until it is no longer.”
  • Platonic dialecticians “will discuss it until the ultimate truth is revealed.”
  • Aristotelian dialecticians will seek to uncover all of the possible “truths” and can accept that more than one position or “truth” is possible.

Implications of a dialectic based approach:

Here, it is important to define when, in each subject, in each unit and in each key stage across a school, you would want your students to be ready for debate, questioning and philosophising.

In order to do this effectively, teachers and subsequently students need the domain related knowledge as well as knowledge of the processes and conventions used in philosophical/logical debate.

However, it also seems important here to clearly define the practices which enable this stage of the learning process to occur effectively in classrooms and learning environments.


Rhetoric is defined by Robinson as communicating and expressing learning. This can be in written or spoken form or in the form of a performance or product – the form will suit the subject the student is focusing on. Rhetoricians seek to communicate knowledge, choosing and arranging words well, understanding and manipulating other’s emotions, with great culture, sensitivity, humour and memory.

Implications of a rhetoric based approach:

Here, schools need to ensure that tasks are stretching of all students and prepare them for the next stage in their lives.

Teachers need to demonstrate to their students that they are expected to aim for and be able to achieve excellence. Likewise, in homework, it’s worth considering the balance between recalling knowledge and applying it.

The movement from dependence to independence:

Towards the end of the book, Robinson explains how the trivium can also be used as a model of teaching students to move from dependence to independence. He suggests that we move from the directive phase, through the guided phase and onto a phase he calls receptive-exploratory. In the directed phase we focus on the grammar. We also set the context and provide the big picture. At this stage there is likely to be plenty of teacher explanation and modelling. During guided discovery, leadership is shared by the teacher and student. It is likely to feature modelling, shared construction or deconstruction of new models as well as deliberate, possibly supported, practice. This is where students will do much of their questioning (dialectic) of both the grammar and the models. During the receptive-exploratory phase, ownership moves away from the teacher and increasingly to the student. Students apply their knowledge of content and the models they have seen in creation or performance. This is the rhetoric stage of the process.


Lessons from Making the Leap

In Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head, Dr Jill Berry explores the lessons which can be gleaned from her own experiences of becoming a headteacher as well as the doctoral research she carried out into other people’s experiences of this transition.

There are hundreds of lessons one could take away from the book. Trying to condense them down is tough, but I’ve separated the key bits of guidance and advice from the book into five categories.

Lesson 1 Purpose:

Your educational values and aims will have been formed over your time working in schools and even prior to this. Be aware of their importance as well as the fact they’re likely to be affected (either strengthened or remolded) by working in a new context. In applying for headships, Berry tells us to be sensitive to the school’s context and aware of our own skills, strengths and preferences.

Lesson 2 Planning and preparation:

These two aspects of leadership are crucial in the lead in period to your headship, the early stages of taking up post as well as the ongoing improvement to the school and on your departure to the next phase in your career.

Lesson 3 Knowledge and Experience:

It’s tempting to think of this as being merely the sum total of your own knowledge and experiences. Berry highlights that your knowledge and experience need to be the right match for the school as it currently is as well as be right to take the school on the next step in its improvement journey. This includes being aware of the knowledge and experience of your new team and how to utilise them best.

Lesson 4 Relationships:

Berry draws attention to three relationships we need to be aware of in making the transition to headship:

  • The first is with ourselves. Our health, mental health and well-being are all pivotal here.
  • The second is with others in the school – your predecessor, governors, SLT, other staff, the community are all groups you may need to draw on or be wary of.
  • The third important group are those outside the school. This includes networks you’ve built in the past, role models, mentors, coaches, family and friends.

Lesson 5 Persona:

Here, Berry discusses the difference between role taking (where you fill the shoes of your predecessor) and role making (where you inhabit the role – making the headship and the school your own). Berry’s research suggests successful heads all, to differing extents, do the latter.

She also suggests we should be aware of how the differences between our perception of our leadership persona and the perception of other people may be harming the improvement of the school.

Finally, there may be a difference, Berry maintains, 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.

The Voice

I’ve always enjoyed reading aloud. I was pretty decent at reading at primary school. I was the kid who volunteered to read in class at secondary school. As an adult, I’ve read more often at friends’ weddings than I’ve been Best Man. I never fully appreciated reading aloud, though, until I had kids.

What I’ve realised, whilst reading The Gruffalo, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, No-Bot The Robot with No Bottom, The BFG, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Chronicles of Narnia and Northern Lights is that there is a difference between reading aloud well in your own voice and finding and using the voice(s) of the text – the voice of the narrator and the voices of the characters. It’s a simple realisation, but one you rarely get to see secondary teachers, even English teachers, acting on when they read aloud in class. Perhaps things are different when no one’s looking, but I can only recall two occasions on which I’ve seen non-drama teachers adapting their voice to find the voice of the text. I rarely did the voices in texts before having my own children. Now, I can rarely help myself.

Unlocking this at home has, I think, helped me understand three important aspects of the teaching of reading:

  1. Modelling finding the voice(s) of a the text helps students hear the text and feel brave enough to do so themselves.
  2. Reading expressively, whether with non-fiction or fiction, aids students’ understanding of the text. The melody of the text can be really helpful to hear, alongside the lyrics.
  3. Hearing the teacher read expressively can help students fall in love with texts. I remember my A-Level teacher, Mr Graham, stomping round the class, kicking over chairs as he spat our the plosives in Ted Hughes’ “Pike.” He was alive as a teacher bringing the text alive.

In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov codifies what I discovered by terming it (somewhat unfortunately for his English audience) Show some Spunk. He says, “The verve and energy you bring to your oral reading will be modelled in your student’s oral (and silent) reading.” Don’t be shy. Give it a go and find your voices.

I bet Mike and Scott were spunky readers. 

Habits of Studiousness – Part 1

How do some people get the run in to an exam or high stakes assessment so wrong? Why are some people less successful than others? Perhaps it could be any one or a combination of the following:

  • Not having a sense of purpose in learning the material/processes covered and/or taking the exam and being successful.
  • Not wanting to or not being able to put the time in – sometimes due to leaving beginning to study until it is too late when the volume of material is overwhelming.
  • Not having the best resources to help them succeed and/or ineffectively maintaining and organising the resources they do have.
  • Not knowing or not using the strategies which will help them in preparing best for that specific exam.
  • Not approaching the exam positively due to a perception of or anxieties about their past levels of performance.

She’s actually hidden her phone inside the book to play Candy Crush. Sugar rush!

Clearly, with each of these barriers to success there could be all kinds of contributing factors. Many students overcome these issues or never have to confront them at all. Over the next few posts, I’d like to explore how schools and students overcome or even avoid these barriers altogether. Exploring this should help inform a strategy to support even more students to be successful in terms of their academic outcomes and help them develop a set of habits of studiousness.

Please do let me know if you think I’ve missed any key barriers to success.

Bold Report Reading

Here are seven things I’ve learnt from watching the debate about the Bold Beginnings report this week. They are not a critique of any one individual, but rather a reflection on the errors I think we can make in responding to official education reports.

I saw the opposite of each of these things being done by different people in reaction to the Bold Beginnings Report, but I think they are applicable to the way school leaders and education experts interact with official reports more generally.

  1. It’s probably best not to assume the whole of a report is about the part of the education provision for which you are personally responsible – this applies to the positive and negative aspects.
  2. If something is mentioned as a positive in the key findings or executive summary, it’s less likely (though not impossible) for it to also be mentioned as a recommendation.
  3. If the report writer doesn’t mention a strength as a recommendation, then it doesn’t mean they’d like everyone to immediately stop doing that thing.
  4. If you read a recommendation and think to yourself, I do that already, it doesn’t mean everyone else does it.
  5. Exemplification is just that. Exemplification is not the same as a further recommendation.
  6. Some people will use extreme readings of recommendations in a report to further their own careers. Read the whole report from start to end yourself before making decisions based on it. The business of school leaders is being strong enough, knowledgeable enough and confident enough in their own vision to make decisions about what will benefit the students in their context.
  7. It is worth considering how recommendations which challenge your current beliefs may be beneficial to some or all of the students you work with.