Becoming a growth mindset school: the book


I published my first blog on the subject of growth mindset in March 2014. Since that point I have been refining and developing my understanding of the psychology behind mindsets, and the research into implementation of mindset theory in practice. I have learned a lot about the psychology of motivation, and the challenges of scaling interventions to shift beliefs about intelligence and ability, and I have also become more and more convinced that mindset provides a “golden thread” for school improvement. This book is my attempt to gather my thoughts, explain my journey, and describe my experiences to anyone who is interested in helping their school become a growth mindset school.

Part of the drive to write this book came from a desire to right some wrongs. There is a lot of nonsense trotted out under the banner of “growth mindset” and, like any promising research, it has gathered its fair share of detractors. There is a tendency in some quarters to see it as a kind of panacea, a silver bullet which will quickly fix all your educational problems. Put up a couple of displays full of quotations, tell the students that “if you work harder, you’ll get smarter,” and sit back to watch them flourish. Of course, it’s not that simple, and this book doesn’t offer any of those simple solutions.

The problem is that growth mindset has been understood the wrong way round. The way that it’s often talked about – and I think Mindset itself is guilty of this – suggests that changing learners’ beliefs about themselves leads to more successful academic progress and achievement. What I have learned, from working with mindsets over the past years, is that the inverse is usually true: good academic progress and achievement, when it is the result of sustained effort and effective learning strategies, changes learners’ beliefs about themselves. If you work hard and make progress, again and again and again, over years, you come to equate hard work with progress. This is the growth mindset. If you work hard and don’t make progress, you come to believe that you can’t do it; this is the fixed mindset. If you make progress without having to work too hard, this can also lead to a fixed mindset: what Dweck calls “the worst belief anybody can have about themselves,” that if you are talented you shouldn’t need effort.

A growth mindset school, then, needs to be a place where students have to try hard, and then achieve success as a result. Every day, again and again, we have design experiences where students have to put in the effort, and then experience the satisfaction of seeing it pay off. Because our beliefs are forged far stronger by our experiences than by what we our told – no matter how good the assembly, or how inspirational the poster.

Becoming a growth mindset school 2017 home

The cornerstone of a growth mindset ethos at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form

As David Didau and Nick Rose say in What every teacher needs to know about psychology: 

“The overriding component in all of this is that students must believe they can improve through their own efforts. Probably the best way of achieving this is for students to experience some success as a consequence of applying greater effort.”

In Becoming a growth mindset school I attempt to make the case for a whole school culture, where every member of staff is engaged in working to develop positive attitudes to learning in the children at the school; where practice is based in scientific evidence, supported by research, and constantly refined in the light of new developments; a culture with compassion and kindness at its heart; a culture which values honesty about failures and mistakes, seeing them not as labels but as opportunities to learn. This is a growth mindset school.

I hope you enjoy the book! You can find out more and buy it here:



Why the expansion of grammar schools is fixed mindset thinking

In Becoming a growth mindset school I argue passionately for the promotion of school cultures which are founded on the belief that all children can achieve. The selection of students by “ability” at age 11 runs counter to this belief. I wrote the end of chapter 2 in the summer of 2017, when Nicky Morgan’s emphasis on character education was gone, and in its place were opportunity areas and a renewed interest in selection. Here’s what I wrote in the book:

The subsequent green and white papers issued under Prime Minister Theresa May and Education Secretary Justine Greening, entitled Schools That Work For Everyone, made no mention of the character initiatives either. In place of the emphasis on character came, instead, a proposal to lift the ban on new grammar schools which select students based on educational ability. There are many things to take issue with in this policy, and one of them is the threat that selection poses to the development of growth mindset approaches to education. Of the top performing school systems internationally surveyed by Lucy Crehan in her excellent book Clever Lands, Finland, Japan and Canada all operate fully comprehensive systems up to the end of secondary school, having moved away from selection to improve both equity and equality within their schools. Only Singapore operates a selective system, and as Crehan explains this leads to families taking leave from work to coach their children through the Primary School Leaving Examination (or PSLE), paying for private tuition, and heaping excessive pressure on to young children to perform in a one-off high stakes test at age 12. Crehan also eloquently points out that the premise of the selective system operating in Singapore is based on an “outdated and inaccurate understanding of intelligence” – that a test at age 12 will identify “able” or “intelligent” children and act as a reliable predictor of academic potential. This belief – that you only get a set amount of “ability” or “intelligence” which is defined by heritability and which does not change over time – is the definition of the fixed mindset.

The proposal to allow the expansion of selection at aged 11 in England therefore ran completely counter to the development of growth mindsets in our young people. In its simplest form, a growth mindset is the belief that your intelligence and ability can grow over time. We know that children develop at different rates, and that whilst some will excel in primary, some will only flourish towards the end of secondary school. Current thinking suggests that intelligence develops and improves in surges, rather like growth spurts. Labelling children at the end of primary school either “can” or “cannot” clearly creates a problem for those many children who “fail” the 11+. How are we to help them believe that they can achieve, that they can learn, that they can grow, when the test which meant they ended up in your school, rather than the one they wanted to go to, acts as a permanent marker and reminder of the fact that they have already failed? Quite aside from the fact that grammar schools – like the selective schools in Singapore – are predominantly the domain of those wealthy enough to be able to pay for extra tuition and whose family backgrounds provide the kind of academic support required to succeed in the test, the very notion of streaming students in this way acts as a brake on the positive self-belief of the majority. To become a growth mindset school, the school needs to teach a challenging and demanding curriculum to all children, not just the few, assisted by a culture predicated on the belief that all children, not just the few, can achieve.

I am used, by now, to the vicissitudes of education policy and the fluctuations that occur as successive Secretaries of State use their office to advance their own particular agendas. Under Nicky Morgan, there was a sense of alignment between policy and evidenced based practice that seemed to offer a positive way forward to developing growth mindset approaches in UK schools, supported by funding. In the political turmoil that followed the EU referendum, that momentum was lost and replaced by a policy position that seems predicated, instead, on fixed mindset thinking; that too was further consumed by the hung parliament following the snap general election in 2017, and the shelving – for now – of the proposal to further extend selection. It is my hope that schools and school leaders continue to define the ethos and approach of their own institutions to develop character despite, rather than because of, changes in policy direction from central government.

From Becoming a growth mindset school

Since I wrote that, Damian Hinds appears to have rowed further back on Nicky Morgan’s 2016 policy position that all schools will become academies. Justine Greening confirmed the legislation had been dropped in October 2016, but Hinds’ speech to the NAHT conference on May 4th this year went further still to remove the threat of forced academisation. Vicissitudes and fluctuations indeed.

Hinds’ £50m backhander to allow the remaining 163 grammar schools to expand may only add 3,500 new grammar places to the system, but it breathes new life into the zombie of selective education in the face of the evidence that it harms social mobility:

See my previous post: My thoughts on the grammar schools policy

Buy Becoming a growth mindset school: 


SLT Book Club: Clever Lands by Lucy Crehan


This year, in an attempt to keep abreast of educational thinking and to keep our minds sharp, we are running an SLT book club. Each member of the senior team has chosen an educational book to take away and read. When they’ve read it, they present the key ideas and points we can learn from at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form back to the rest of the team. I went first last week, when I attempted to summarise the key points from Lucy Crehan’s excellent educational odyssey “Clever Lands.”

The premise

Lucy Crehan set off to visit top-performing PISA educational systems around the world. She visited Finland, Singapore, Shanghai, Japan and Canada, staying with teachers and volunteering in schools whilst there to get in amongst the system and try to really understand it from the inside. By taking this very personal perspective, as a trained Science teacher from England, Crehan offers a window into these very different systems from a perspective which is easy for us to relate to, whilst summarising big policy and system ideas clearly and coherently.

Key findings

There are so many nuggets in this book it’s hard to summarise them or select just a few! But one or two that caused me to turn down page corners are:

  • Finnish Child Welfare Teams: each Finnish secondary school has to have a child welfare team, consisting of specialist pastoral workers with the aim “to create a healthy and safe environment for learning and growing, to protect mental health, prevent social exclusion, and promote the wellbeing of the school community.” They meet weekly to discuss a particular class in detail with the class tutor, then a drop-in session for any teacher to discuss concerns about any child in the school.
  • Finnish trust in teachers: the Finnish education system is set up around the pillars of intrinsic motivation for its teachers. They are trained well and then trusted as professionals, achieving purpose, mastery and autonomy.
  • Japanese emphasis on resilience: Japan has an ingrained cultural emphasis on resilience, and on collective conformity which enables academic success.
  • The impact of selection in Singapore: Crehan’s portrait of Singapore’s highly selective system was nightmarish. With entire futures hinging on the outcome of Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE – the Singaporean 11+), eleven-year-olds are tutored, crammed and pressurised to within an inch of their lives. The highlight of the entire book for me was Crehan’s expose of the flawed interpretation of research upon which ability selection at 11 is based. I wish Theresa May would read just this chapter.

The five principles of successful education systems

Crehan concludes by drawing together her conclusions from her experiences in these different systems into five governing principles:

  1. Get children ready for learning
  2. Design curriculum for mastery (and context for motivation)
  3. Support children to take on challenges, rather than making concessions
  4. Trust teachers as professionals
  5. Combine school accountability with school support (rather than sanctions)

Of particular interest to me was principle 3, linking to my drive to develop a growth mindset ethos in schools. Within this principle, Crehan observes that the successful systems she observed:

  • Delay selection by ability until age 15 or 16
  • Teach children in mixed-ability classes until 15 or 16
  • Provide small, flexible group support from qualified professionals before/during/after lessons

I feel we have a lot to learn from this.


I drew three take-away conclusions from the book that we could implement at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form:

  • Combined Child Welfare Team – we are implementing a unified student services team which combined academic, pastoral, social, behavioural and mental health support
  • Support all children to reach high expectations, not concede lower expectations for lower ability
  • Equip teachers with knowledge and then trust them – give them purpose, mastery, and autonomy

Coming soon on SLT Book Club:

My next read is John Dunford’s The School Leadership Journeywhilst my colleagues are reading:

As an avowed #HeForShe advocate, I note with some pride that five of our first seven influential books are written by women.

We’re also thinking of extending the book club to our Middle Leadership Team!

Sharing a book

My World Book Day post from The Headteacher’s Blog.

The Headteacher's Blog

grasmere-school-date-unknown Jim Hildrew at Grasmere School (date unknown)

This photograph hangs on my office wall. It’s a photograph of my grandfather, Jim Hildrew, when he was Headteacher of Grasmere primary school. Although it’s undated, we think it was taken at some point in the early 1960s.

I love this photograph for lots of reasons. Firstly, my grandad was a huge inspiration for me. He taught at Percy Main School in North Shields in the 1930s, before serving in the Royal Navy in the Second World War on minesweepers and as part of the D-Day landings. He came back to teaching after the war, settling into the school house in Grasmere that came as part of the job of Headteacher. His passion for teaching and learning was clearly infectious as his eldest son became a teacher and Head of House at Sedbergh School, and his youngest – my father – a Headteacher…

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Staff Shout Outs

This week, we’ve launched our first Staff Shout Outs. This was the brainchild of our fantastic Catering teacher, Sarah Tucker, who suggested it as part of our staff wellbeing strategy before Christmas. The idea is brilliant: a way of celebrating the wonderful things colleagues do to make one another’s lives easier and better, by giving them a public “shout out” to say thanks. Here’s how it works: 

  • A link on our staff intranet takes you to a Google Form, where you fill in your name, the name of the member of staff who did something nice, and what it was that they did. 
  • The results are collated by our HR team and run through a mail merge, so that every Friday afternoon you receive a certificate in your pigeonhole with the details of your shout-out. The certificates are also displayed on the staff room wall. 
  • HR send out an all-staff email on a Friday afternoon containing the details of all the Shout Outs from the week, so that everyone can see the lovely things that have been going on. 
  • Every term, I use a random number generator to pick one Shout Out to win either a bottle of wine of a box of chocolates (their choice!) to say thank you. The winner, and a summary of all the term’s Shout Outs, are included in the termly HR newsletter and shared with the Governors. 

It doesn’t take the place of the private thank-yous that happen as a matter of course across the Academy, but when a colleague has gone out of their way, or over-and-above, or just deserves public recognition for their all-round niceness, the Shout Out is an excellent addition to the staff wellbeing strategy to foster a positive culture or mutual support, recognition, and celebration. 

I even got a Shout Out myself this week – for being supportive of the introduction of Shout Outs. 

Thank you Barack and Michelle Obama


Dear Barack and Michelle Obama,

I wonder if you realise how far the influence of your Presidency extends? I know the President of the United States is often dubbed the “Leader of the Free World,” but your time in the White House has had a truly global reach. In my little part of England, I have been moved to tears more than once by the example that you both have set for me, for my family, for the students I teach, and for future generations.

I want to thank you. Over the past eight years, you have shown the world what it is like to behave with dignity, compassion, and humanity in public office. The first black President and First Lady in the White House, you have completed your tenure without personal scandal or revelation, with your integrity intact. This shouldn’t be a rarity, but public figures with such qualities are few and far between.

I want to thank you for your leadership. You have shown what it is to lead with vision and values, a set of principles that you articulated clearly and which ran through every aspect of your Presidency. I am sure that you will feel frustrated at not having achieved all that you wished to, obstructed by partisan division and political machination. I am sure you will be frustrated as you watch some of what you have achieved rolled back and undone by your successor. But you have borne those setbacks with equanimity and tolerance, and they seem to have strengthened your resolve, not weakened it.


I want to thank you for the example you have set as a family. I admire the care you have taken to protect your children and ensure that their upbringing was insulated from the extraordinary circumstances of your role. The fact that Sasha did not attend her father’s farewell address because she had an important exam the next day tells us everything about your priorities as parents, and the value that you place on education.

It was fitting that the First Lady’s final public engagement was at a celebration of school counsellors, and you took the opportunity to re-emphasise your commitment to the importance of education to the success of our society. You have yourselves shown what the power of good schooling can do, as it was your own education which allowed you to overcome all of the barriers and obstacles between you and the highest political office, and to speak with such authority, knowledge and wisdom on so many occasions and on so many topics.


I want to thank you for your feminism and all you have done to overcome stereotyped masculine and feminine roles in the workplace, in authority, and in relationships. In your farewell address, and on so many occasions throughout your two terms in the Oval Office, you have shown that your marriage is a partnership of equals, modelling those values that so many still struggle to live by. You took time to reply to a letter from a young girl suffering bullying because her parents were a gay couple, saying:

In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity. And we recognize that whether you have two dads or one mom what matters above all is the love we show one another. You are very fortunate to have two parents who care deeply for you. They are lucky to have such an exceptional daughter in you.

Our differences unite us.

I want to thank you for your humour. From Carpool Karaoke to the Correspondents’ Dinner, from your Thanksgiving dad-jokes to your Saturday Night Live appearances, you have set a new standard in political comedy – although I admit your competition is scarce. You have balanced this with the dignity you have mustered in times of unbearable tragedy and commemoration. You have shown that laughter and tears do not diminish your leadership, but enhance it.


I want to thank you for all the barriers you have broken down. You have shown people what is possible with a good education, a set of deeply held principles and values by which you chart your course, and the unconditional love and support for one another as a couple and as a family – not just in America, but the world over. You talked about the audacity of hope. But in your time as President you have shown what can be achieved by daring to hope, by daring to try, and by believing in what is possible. You have been inspiring. And no matter what follows, that will always remain.

Thank you, Barack and Michelle Obama. Thank you.



Assembly: The 1960s

Latest Assembly from the Headteacher’s Blog

The Headteacher's Blog

This year marks the Diamond Jubilee of Churchill Academy, which opened its doors as Churchill Community School in January 1957. To mark this anniversary, we are having an assembly in each term looking back on the decades that the school has existed. This term, it’s been my job to look back on the 1960s.

sixties-collage The Sixties: what a decade

When looking at this amazing decade, I could have chosen from such a wide range of events, movements, and people – I was spoilt for choice! But for me, the iconic image of the 1960s comes from the end of the decade.

man-on-the-moon Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon in 1969 (Source: NASA)

The moon landings still represent the zenith of human scientific achievement. I have written before about the so-called “moonshot thinking” of President Kennedy who, in September 1962, gave a speech at Rice Stadium where he…

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Why I’m backing #ASCLBarton

In a previous post on my history of union membership, I waxed lyrical over my ASCL membership. Here’s what I wrote:

Now that I’m in ASCL I feel like I belong to a union that does speak with my voice. When I read Brian Lightman’s responses to the GCSE fiasco, to the EBac proposal, to the proposals for performance-related pay, they seem rational, reasoned and responsible. They represent the profession as a profession, and when I hear the national officers speak at conferences, they seem committed to constructive negotiation on our behalf with the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. This model of the representative voice constructively negotiating with the senior leadership on behalf of teachers is precisely that which works so well in school, scaled up to the national level.

I stand by those comments. I do think that the Association of School and College Leaders represents the profession well. I am proud of my membership and I feel like ASCL represents me, as a Headteacher, in the way I would like to be represented. Their Blueprint for a Self-Improving System is a document I return to, alongside the Headteachers’ Roundtable Five Principles and Alternative Green Paper, as a common-sense but ambitious vision for how education could work in this country.

Now, ASCL members are faced with a choice. Two candidates have been placed before the membership of the association for election to the post of General Secretary. The ASCL selection committee have nominated Chris Kirk, who has spent fourteen years at PwC as an education leader as well as stints at the National College, as a director of education services for GEMS, and at the Department for Education as a civil servant. Before that, he spent a year in the classroom. Around 300 ASCL members, myself included, nominated his opponent, Geoff Barton, who started teaching in 1985 and hasn’t stopped since. Geoff has been a Headteacher since 2002.

Both candidates are qualified to lead ASCL, but for me the choice is clear. Who do I want representing school and college leaders at a national level, influencing policy, engaging in debate, challenging the evidence base behind decision making, and holding the Secretary of State and the Department to account? I want the candidate who has been where I am now, as a serving Headteacher, facing the challenges of the current system and climate, and really understanding them. Not in theory, but in practice. The candidate who has spent over thirty years in schools, in classrooms, teaching and leading.  The candidate who has been endorsed by Stephen Tierney, John Tomsett, Kev Bartle, Rob Campbell, Ros McMullen, Caroline Spalding, Ross McGill and countless other teachers and leaders I admire and respect from across the country.


Click the image to tweet your support for #ASCLBarton

In his manifesto, Geoff outlines the challenges currently facing our “perilously fragmented system”:

  • funding
  • teacher and leadership recruitment
  • the proposal to resurrect educational selection
  • an apparent marginalisation of vocational education and the arts
  • the fallout from over-hasty qualification reform
  • an inspection regime which for too many leaders continues to feel punitive

These are all critical issues facing our profession today. The top three – funding, recruitment, and the return of selection – all loom large in the top left “urgent/important” quadrant of my Covey Matrix. That they have pushed the other three towards the top right hand corner indicate the unprecedented level of crisis across education. We need an eloquent, level-headed and experienced leader to articulate the genuine concerns that every Headteacher I speak to is feeling.

But what Geoff also brings to the table is optimism. In amongst the dark clouds and portents of doom, the horses eating one another in the stable and the spilled salt, Geoff brightens my Twitter timeline with silly humour, tales of the unexpected and dry reflections on obscure words in the English language. Geoff is already a high-profile figure. A published author, a well-known writer, and an engaging public speaker, his over 35,000 twitter followers show that he has the capacity to reach not only school leaders and teachers, but a wider audience too. His voice will be a powerful one not only to ensure that this issues are clear – he articulated the funding crisis in just this way in the Guardian in November – but also that the many positives in teaching continue to be communicated far and wide. He promises to battle hard to defend, champion and celebrate the profession he has devoted his life’s work to. I will be supporting him all the way.

So what now? If you are an ASCL member – or if you know an ASCL member – it’s vital that you engage with the election for General Secretary. Whoever is elected will be our voice. Read the information on the ASCL website and, when your ballot paper arrives in January, vote. As 2016 has shown us, anything can happen when democracy is unleashed. So read. Fill in your ballot. And vote.

Why I love the Junior Choir

New post on The Headteacher’s Blog:

The Headteacher's Blog

This year’s Christmas Concert was an absolute triumph, as you can read in my review for the website and all the lovely emails and messages which were sent in afterwards. The standard of music-making and performance was exceptional, and the variety of acts was joyous. But for me, and I think for most of the audience, the Junior Choir was the perfect way to close the show. Here’s why I love the Junior Choir…


By my count there are 237 students listed on the programme in the Junior Choir, including 21 soloists. The captures the ethos of the Academy – it’s inclusive, where all students are valued, where everyone has a voice. And what a fantastic sound 237 Year 7 and 8 students make when they’re together!


The soloists – and the rest of the choir – who performed on the night were incredible. It’s important to remember…

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#LoveToRead: My Desert Island Books

My Desert Island Books – from The Headteacher’s Blog.

The Headteacher's Blog


This weekend (5-6th November) is “Love to Read” weekend, a campaign run by BookTrust and the BBC. There’s a wealth of programming across the BBC (read about it here) and as part of the campaign, Simon Mayo has been asking authors to share their six “Desert Island Books” on his Radio Two show (you can hear Marian Keyes’ choices here). Our wonderful LRC co-manager Mrs McGilloway suggested I share mine here…and I don’t need asking twice! You can read the LRC’s #LovetoRead blog post here.

Firstly, I’ve always loved to read. I used to read by torchlight under the covers at night when I was supposed to be asleep. I have always got a book on the go (it’s pretty much all I put on my Instagram!) and I don’t think there’s much to beat the feeling of being completely absorbed…

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