Growth Mindset Misconceptions and Missteps

Bill Gates with picI have been working on developing a growth mindset culture in my school since October 2013, when I heard John Tomsett speak at TLT13. Over that time I have learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t work, and the stumbling blocks and misconceptions that still persist around growth mindset. I have also learned a lot more about the growth mindset, and refined my thinking about Dweck’s work. In this post I hope to summarise some of that learning.

Misconception 1: I’ve got a growth mindset, so everything’s okay

This is a common misconception. Dweck herself refers to it in this video:

One thing that’s been happening a lot that I see is that people prematurely conclude that they have a growth mindset. I call it “false growth mindset.” [They say] “oh! Growth mindset equals good? I have it! I’m good! I must have it!” And they haven’t done the work.

The fact is, shifting mindsets is about accepting that success is not going to come easy. If we want to be good at something, we’re going to have to work at it. Not just now, but for a long time.

It's all about hard work

It’s all about hard work

Misconception 2: I’ve got a growth mindset: where’s my Nobel Prize?

Another common misconception is that a growth mindset will turn you into an Outlier – an exceptional success. This is partly the result of the “famous failures” assembly and, yes, the growth mindset posters which highlight those people who have reached the top of their fields and also demonstrate a growth mindset. The fact is, there are examples of fixed mindset successes – incredible talents who achieve great things on the strength of natural ability and circumstance alone. There are also millions of people who have a growth mindset and are moderately successful. Having a growth mindset does not make you exceptional. As Malcolm Gladwell shows, Outliers are created by a combination of circumstance, system and approach.

However – and I firmly believe this to be true – a growth mindset is the best way to ensure you develop the talents that you have and continue to improve. I will never run faster than Usain Bolt – I don’t have the physique. But if I train hard and work at it, I will run faster than I can run now. I am unlikely to paint a masterpiece. But if I go to classes, practice and work at it, my painting will improve. If I don’t believe that I can improve – if I believe that my running or painting ability is fixed – then I won’t work at it and I definitely won’t get any better.

Misconception 3: Growth mindset is just good teaching; I’ve been doing it for years

I’m sure, in many cases, this is true. In other cases, however, it’s an opt-out from a critical self-examination of practice and an opportunity to improve. I’ve definitely been guilty of fixed-mindset practices in the past: I’ve congratulated students for getting the top mark in the class in their end of year exams, for example. This kind of well-intentioned approach to celebrate achievement encourages students to compare themselves with one another, rather than evaluating their own performance relative to their own progress. To then bemoan the fact that students are only focused on the marks and not on the painstakingly constructed formative feedback is the ultimate irony. Removing grades and marks from work this year and handing it back only with formative feedback has been transformative. We can all get better. But we need to be self-critical, and actually engage with the research. Read Mindset. Listen to Dweck speak. Read her interviews. Read the research. Don’t assume you know what growth mindset is all about until you have.

Misconception 4: they tried hard, so that’s okay

Dweck’s famous study on praise and mindsets has rightly attracted a lot of attention. However, mindset is primarily about achievement. It’s not about making kids feel good about mediocrity or failure. “Never mind, you tried your best,” is not what Dweck advocates. In fact, in her interview with Schools Week she warns against this approach:

The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.

Failure should feel bad. It should be painful. We should all be motivated to work harder because we want to be successful. We should learn the lessons of failure so we can avoid those mistakes in the future. Effort and hard work are only worth it if they are directed and purposeful, otherwise you ingrain bad technique and habits. Practice piano scales for an hour with poor hand positioning, and you’ll do more harm than good – so it’s no good praising that hour’s practice unless it’s been purposeful and productive. Am I better now than I was before that work? What have I learned? What have I improved?

It’s worth remembering, however, that the growth mindset done right is beneficial to self-esteem. In her interview for Inside Quest, Dweck explains:

Self Esteem is not something you give to people by telling them about their high intelligence. It is something we equip them to get for themselves, by teaching them to value learning over the appearance of smartness, to relish challenge and effort, and to use errors as routes to mastery.

And that is why mindsets matter so much.

Mis-step 1: You can’t change someone’s mindset; they have to change it themselves.

I know there are no silver bullets in education (though Tom Sherrington’s Silver Arrows are great!) but Dweck’s Mindset was so convincing, so obvious, so natural for me that I couldn’t see how anyone could fail to be persuaded. In the hullabaloo of our Growth Mindset launch I had the zeal of an evangelist, and many were convinced. Many, but not all. There have been lovely moments where I have seen the ethos work:

And yet…and yet…I still picture a Year 10 student faced with an amateurish looking magazine article in GCSE Media. The conversation went something like this:

Needless to say, I didn’t leave it there and the fonts and image were improved. But still, why wasn’t my student convinced? She’d been to my assembly. Surely she should be applying herself to self-improvement with every fibre of her being. Didn’t she realise she was at a Growth Mindset School™? I can create the conditions which make the development of a growth mindset natural, easy, and self-evidently sensible – but teenagers being teenagers, the self-evidently sensible path is not always the path most trodden. I could compel her to improve her work. But I couldn’t compel her to change her mind. She needs to do that for herself.

Mis-step 2: Small scale, low-key interventions work best

One mis-step I think we made in launching our growth mindset ethos, due in part to the enthusiasm we felt as staff for the project, is that I think we made too much fuss. It was teacher led and this ran the risk of creating a condition which we came to recognise as “growth mindset fatigue” – the tendency of teenagers to groan whenever the term was mentioned.

Looking into the research in more detail, it is clear that the best interventions are small-scale, and followed up by shifts in the culture of the school to develop the growth mindset. A superb summary is presented in the excellent blog Growth Mindset: What Interventions Might Work and What Probably Won’t? from @Nick_J_Rose:

A successful psychological intervention involves a quick, well-targeted ‘nudge’; not repeatedly hitting students over the head with a sledgehammer!

What we definitely got right is ensuring that each aspect of the school’s culture and approach is compatible with developing a growth mindset. This approach to adjusting the normative influences within the school is definitely productive. But, in the early days, asking students to reflect weekly on their learning approaches definitely felt more like sledgehammer than nudge, and led to the aforementioned “growth mindset fatigue”. None of this is catastrophic, and easing off the use of the terminology whilst maintaining the shifts in culture, language, feedback and praise kept the project moving forward. And, after all, in a growth mindset we learn from criticism and persist in the face of setbacks!

Mis-step 3: Student Leadership – the missing piece?

In my wider reading and research around growth mindset, I came across the wonderful Growth Mindset Journey blog from Rebecca Tushingham. The whole blog is full of great ideas, including the on-topic Little Nudges, but she has also posted about Growth Mindset Leaders, student ambassadors for the growth mindset developed from within the school. We sent our Head of Science over to meet with Rebecca to discuss her approaches and we definitely feel like this is a strategy we missed. Using student leaders allows ownership of mindset theory within the student body and offsets the risks of top-down, teacher-led “nagging” approaches. As Dweck said in an interview with Schools Week:

Some teachers who genuinely have a growth mindset aren’t understanding how to apply it properly. They are just telling kids to try hard: which I call nagging, not growth mindset. Or they are just saying ‘hey kids, have a growth mindset’.

We definitely ran the risk of falling into this trap. However, by continuing to read around the subject, listening carefully to feedback, and refining our approach we are able to improve and develop what we are doing. It’s almost as if we have to have a growth mindset about developing a growth mindset…

Conclusions: Sticking with it

I remain just as evangelical about the power of the growth mindset to improve achievement, motivation and self-esteem as I was in Southampton in October 2013. Listening to Jo Boaler in the recent Radio 4 Mindchangers programme on growth mindset demonstrates why mindsets matter for achievement:

Anyone can do Maths at high levels if they are given the right teaching and the right messages. Many kids think that you can either do maths or you can’t…[but] we can all develop the brain connections we need. The brain is very flexible, very adaptable…if you need to learn some maths your brain can adapt and learn it.

I feel just the same about growth mindset interventions at school. We have achieved a lot already, but we are flexible and adaptable, and we are learning.

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#PoetryPromise August: Let me put it this way by Simon Armitage

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for August is “Let me put it this way” from Reading the Banns by Simon Armitage.


Let me put it this way:
if you came to lay

your sleeping head
against my arm or sleeve,

and if my arm went dead,
or if I had to take my leave

at midnight, I should rather
cleave it from the joint or seam

than make a scene
or bring you round.

how does that sound?

This beautiful poem is on the final page of Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches, a series of brilliant meditations on love. It concludes Reading the Banns, the third section of the book, which is an account of his own wedding. I’ve never read anything that captures the simple, selfless truth of love as perfectly as this.

All I Know Now about advice for teenagers

I remember being a teenager. It was a while ago now, but the maelstrom of growing up is still very immediate. In fact, I don’t think it really stops. It’s a myth that you emerge from your teens as a fully formed mature adult. I’m still learning, changing, developing every day, connecting new experiences and ideas with old ones to update and develop my own personal map of the world – and I stopped being a teenager in 1994. Take my last metaphor, for example – I robbed it from a TED talk I watched yesterday by John Green on Paper Towns and Why Learning Is Awesome, in which he likens learning to a cartographic enterprise. I liked it and I’ve already woven it into my own way of thinking about education.

The same thing happened as I was reading Carrie Hope Fletcher‘s book All I Know Now: Wonderings and Reflections on Growing Up GracefullyCarrie is a polymath: currently starring as Eponine in the West End production of Les Miserablesshe also runs a YouTube channel with over half a million subscribers on which she sings, talks about books, conducts an ongoing “Dear Tom” video conversation with rock star brother Tom from McFly/McBusted, and makes vlogs full of advice and thoughts about life, relationships and her experiences.

One of these videos, Honorary Big Sisterprovoked the All I Know Now blog which became the book I read at the end of the summer term. In it, Fletcher offers her take on growing up from her own perspective – the coverline bills it as “The essential guide to surviving ‘the Teen Age'”. The point that Carrie makes in the video, to her largely teenage audience, is that:

it’s always harder to talk to people who are older than us, who we see as authoritative figures. People who we feel judge us or look down on us for the silly decisions we make as teenagers. Namely, our parents. We see our parents as people who couldn’t possibly understand what we’re going through because it was forever ago that they were teenagers and times have changed since then.

Substitute “teachers” for “parents” and you have the reason that I’m so interested in Carrie’s channel, blog and book. We do, I think, a great job as teachers of providing advice, guidance and structures for the teenagers we teach to help them grow up safely. Most parents, though with some horrifying exceptions, also do the best job they can. But there is always this chasm dividing them and us: we’re grown-ups. We can’t possibly understand what it’s like for them.


Click for source

This is where the internet comes in. The online age has created new communities, especially for teenagers. As John Green said:

these places exist, they still exist. They exist in corners of the Internet, where old men fear to tread.

Teens watch YouTube more than television. They connect with vloggers. The teenagers in my classrooms spend hours with Dan and Phil, Zoella, Jack and Dean, Sprinkle of Glitter and the rest, watching their channels and following them across the media. Events like Summer in the City draw massive crowds. They’re turning to the online world for advice and guidance from personalities they see as understanding them, from their world – #relatable, if you like.

There are dangers to this approach. Many vloggers and online celebrities have abused their position and the fans who idolise them. But these bad apples make Carrie Fletcher and her ilk all the more valuable. Carrie takes her position as a role model seriously, and has shouldered the “honorary big sister” yoke willingly and enthusiastically, online and in book form. And reading All I Know Now was a real pleasure. Her advice, simply put and peppered with anecdote and aside, is wise and sensible, taking in friendships, bullying, relationships, ambition and success. Perhaps most powerfully, she devotes a whole section to life online:

Her guide to Internetiquette is absolutely brilliant. It should be required reading before anyone is allowed to sign up for any social media account. I could recommend it to some tweeting teachers in fact. And this is the point – although I’m completely out of the target audience bracket, twenty years beyond my own Teen Age, I found myself nodding along to Carrie’s advice – and taking some of it myself to weave into my map of the world. In particular, her section on “it’s easier said than done” has become a little mantra for me – “nothing worth doing is ever going to be easy.”

My tweet joked about putting Carrie onto the school curriculum, but of course that would kill it stone dead. The minute her advice is endorsed by an old grown-up like a teacher, it would become immediately invalid. Luckily, no young people are likely to read this endorsement. They’re all too busy watching YouTube. But, hopefully, some of them will subscribe to Carrie and read her book. If they’re getting advice like hers from the internet, they’re in safe hands.

The Prospect of Headship

A month ago at Wellington College, Sir Michael Wilshaw was asked about Deputy Heads who did not want to step up to Headship as the pressure was not worth the salary increase. His response: “Have some courage, don’t be so feeble about it, have some guts.”

I am a Deputy stepping up to Headship. In his response, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector acknowledges one thing I agree with: stepping up to Headship needs courage.

At every stage in my career so far, there has been someone above me who holds ultimate responsibility. From January, that person will be me. It will be me the Leadership Team turns to for the final word, me the staff look to for a decision, me the Governors hold to account for the performance of the school. If the school is found to be coasting, I’ll be sacked. The buck will stop with me.

“Don’t be so feeble.”

I remember how I felt when my children were born. I remember holding their fragile bodies in the crook of one forearm, and feeling the incredible weight of responsibility pressing down on me. As a Headteacher, I will be responsible for over a thousand children every day, every single one of whom has parents who felt like I did, and they will be putting their trust in me. The safety and well being of the most important thing in nearly three thousand parents’ lives will be on my watch.

“Have some guts.”

The education of those young minds is my responsibility. The curriculum they study, the way it is delivered, the manner in which it is assessed, the way success is celebrated – in the end, I will set the tone for all of this.

“Have some courage.”

The school’s standing in the community is my responsibility too. The Headteacher of the local secondary school is an important community figure and the success or otherwise of the school has an impact on all around it. Regardless of the wisdom of it, there’s a link on every RightMove property to the local schools’ Ofsted reports – the value of people’s houses depends on my effectiveness. I will be a community leader. One wrong move and the Daily Mail is poised to pounce.

“Don’t be so feeble.”

The careers, well being and development of close to two hundred staff will be my responsibility too. As Vic Goddard was told, “you make the weather.” I will make the weather for all those professionals. There are teachers leaving the profession in droves, crushed under bureaucracy and workload, frustrated by the perverse incentives of performance pay. Will I be able to stem the tide? Can I lead a school where teachers feel like they’re making a difference? Where it’s all worth it?

“Have some guts.”

The next five years will see a real terms budget reduction of 7% in school funding. I will be responsible for delivering the highest quality of education on less money per pupil. I will face the toughest of tough decisions – cut posts or cut resources? Slim the curriculum or expand class sizes? Cut corners or do a proper job? I will have to fundraise, bid for every grant going, recruit, and economise, lobby and pressurise to ensure a fair deal for the young people in my care, and hope that someone will listen.

But I will have courage. I will have guts. I will not be feeble.

Because Headship is a privilege.

Because I will have a team around me to advise and help, a wise and experienced Governing body to help set the direction, and a local and national network of Headteachers to consult and support me. Of course, managing that shrinking budget will be hard, but there is comfort in knowing that I will not be alone.

Because Headship is a privilege.

I will be leading a group of teachers. Teachers – the most committed, good-humoured, and dedicated profession, packed with graduates who decided that they wanted to make a difference, to pass on the love of their subject, to give their time, energy and dedication to help the next generation be better. I will make the weather for those selfless, generous professionals – and I will dedicate myself to making sure they know it’s worth it.

Because Headship is a privilege.

It’s right that the school takes its place at the centre of the local community; I want the community to be proud of the school – no matter what Ofsted say – and I will be proud to lead it. I want the community to talk warmly about the quality of education it provides and it will be my leadership that ensures that this will happen.

Because Headship is a privilege.

I got in to teaching to make a difference too. In my classroom I hope I made a difference to the thirty children I had for that year. As a Head of Department, I made a difference to more children, on a larger scale. As a Headteacher, I have the opportunity to make a difference on the largest scale, to set the tone for thousands of children in every decision I take.

Because Headship is a privilege.

Parents treasure their children, thrill in their successes, worry themselves sick about them. The sleepless nights don’t stop when they’re weaned. Those parents place their trust in teachers every day to care about their children just as much as they do themselves. Can there be any greater honour?

Because Headship is a privilege.

The weight of responsibility is not one I shoulder lightly. I am stepping into the role with my eyes wide open, with guts and courage, yes, but also with determination, with confidence. Because, despite the fear, it is a privilege to be a Headteacher. And I am looking forward to it.

Thank you.

This blog was the text of my presentation delivered at #SLTeachmeet for #BELMAS2015. 

#PoetryPromise July: The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for July is The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Kestrel hovering

Kestrel hovering (source)

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is another unique voice in poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, he crafted his own poetics. He hammered and twisted the English language into a completely new form, sending red hot sparks spilling off the page with his sprung rhythms and exploding images. Reading his verse is like watching a pinball machine, as the meanings of words collide and spin off in unpredictable and spectacular directions, lighting up in vivid colour.

Although in later years Hopkins’ poetry turned darker and more tortured as he wrestled with despair and shaken faith, I love the unconstrained joy of his early poems. Though I am not religious, I feel the same wonder in nature when I see a marvel like a kestrel, catching the wind’s currents to hold itself aloft, its head a static point as its piercing eyes scan the ground for traces of movement. Whenever I see one above the motorway or over a field, Hopkins’ words leap into my head; his rippling lines catch the constant movement of the bird’s wing and the open-mouthed wonder of seeing such awesome adaptation in action.

Assembly: If not us, then who?

If Not Us Then Who - Quote from Freedom Rider John Lewis - Central High School Visitors Center - Little Rock - Arkansas - USA

Quote from Freedom Rider John Lewis, painted on the wall of the Central High School Visitors Centre in Little Rock, Arkansas

I have always been inspired by this quotation, and in this assembly I’m going to talk to you about its source and what it can teach us. The words were spoken by John Lewis – not the famous British retailer, but John Robert Lewis, born February 21st 1940 in Troy, Alabama. Lewis grew up in a black neighbourhood in the southern United States – he had only seen two white people by the time he reached the age of six. He described what it was like growing up:

A police sign for a 'white only' waiting room at the bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, 1961 (source)

A police sign for a ‘white only’ waiting room at the bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, 1961 (source)

“I saw racial discrimination as a young child. I saw those signs that said ‘White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women’. … I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for ‘coloreds’.”

Lewis was 20 in 1960 when the Supreme Court in the United States ruled the case of Boynton vs Virginia that the law which forced blacks and whites to sit separately on public transport was unconstitutional. The law was changed, and public transport became legally integrated. However, although it was now legal for blacks and whites to sit together on buses, and illegal for there to be segregated waiting rooms, in large parts of the southern United States the law was not enforced. John Lewis was one of thirteen original Freedom Riders who set out to challenge the Federal government to enforce the law.

Map 02 08/11

The planned route of the Freedom Ride

The plan was simple. A group of white and black men and women boarded a bus together in Washington DC and set off on a journey through the deep south to New Orleans. They intended to travel on the bus together, to challenge the racist attitudes of southerners who thought that blacks and whites should remain segregated, and to force the police to uphold the law.

Freedom Riders on the bus

Freedom Riders on the bus

The journey started well. Spirits were high, and together the Freedom Riders agreed on their key principles of non-violence. Theirs was to be a peaceful process. However, some of the white people in the south were angry at this display of integration – very angry indeed. And they had not taken a pledge of non-violence.

John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being assaulted

John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being assaulted in Montgomery, Alabama, 1961

Lewis was the first to be assaulted, as he left a waiting room in Montgomery, Alabama in the company of his white friend Jim Zwerg. And worse was to come. The police commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama was a supporter of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, and assured the Klan leader that the police would allow them to attack the Freedom Riders without fear of arrest. The initial attack happened in Anniston, Alabama, as the bus was hit with stones and had its tyres slashed. The driver tried to get away, but the crippled bus came to a stop, and the Klan threw firebombs inside. Then they held the doors shut, intending to burn the occupants alive. The police stood by and watched.

The Freedom Riders' Greyhound bus on fire

The Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus on fire

Either an exploding fuel tank, or a shot from a highway patrolman, forced the Klansmen to retreat, and the Riders escaped from the bus. After hospital treatment, the Freedom Riders continued their journey, being assaulted, attacked and injured again and again. And they did not retaliate, sticking to their principles of non-violence to make their point.  As Lewis said, “if not us, then who? if not now, then when?”

Lewis went on campaigning for civil rights. In 1963 he was elected chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was the youngest speaker at the meeting in Washington where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. He is the only remaining speaker from that meeting still alive today. He was elected to the House of Representatives as Congressman for Georgia’s 5th District in 1986 and has been re-elected fourteen times, only dropping below 70% of the vote once in all that time. If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

In 2008, Lewis endorsed Barack Obama’s campaign for the Presidency of the United States. In the run-up to the election, he said this:

When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected President of the United States. My mother lived to see me elected to the Congress, but I wish my mother and father both were around. They would be so happy and so proud, and they would be so gratified. And they would be saying that the struggle, and what we did and tried to do, was worth it.

At Obama’s inauguration, John Lewis was sat right there on the stage. And afterwards, President Obama presented him with a commemorative photograph, signed, with a simple message: “Because of you, John.”

Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010

Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010

In 2013, John Lewis returned to Montgomery, Alabama where he had been beaten 52 years earlier for using a legally integrated waiting room with his friend. Kevin Murphy, the current chief of police, met him at a church, and handed over his badge out of respect, apologising for the way in which his police force had failed to protect him from violence in 1961.

What John Lewis said has always inspired me, but when I found out the story behind his words, I was overwhelmed. “If not us, then who?” led directly to “Because of you, John.” Lewis saw something that needed to change, and he did something about it. The world we live in today is different, better, because of him and people like him who did not stand by, but who stood up and were counted. Events like last week’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina show why his kind of non-violent action is still needed today to change attitudes that would seek to divide, rather than unite.

What do you want to change? And what can you do about it?

At Chew Valley School in 2012, a group of students decided that they wanted to change the way in which homophobic language was used thoughtlessly and irresponsibly in our community. Rather than moan about it, or be frustrated by it, they did something about it. They formed the Equalities Team and conducted a campaign to educate, inform, and change attitudes.

Stonewall poster used by the Equalities Team (source)

Stonewall poster used by the Equalities Team (source)

It’s due to their work that we share a more tolerant, thoughtful and welcoming school. They saw something that they wanted to change and thought “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” Ofsted recognised this – in their recent report they said:

“The school’s Equality Team, led and run by student leaders, provides opportunities for students to mix in socially diverse groups.Consequently, students demonstrate high levels of respect for each other and are extremely welcoming of difference. Discrimination of any kind and the use of derogatory language are not tolerated.”

What will you change?

View the Prezi for this assembly here.

Read more:

Leadership lessons with Linda Cliatt-Wayman

Thanks to Carl Hendrick for sharing this talk from TEDWomen 2015. In it, Linda Cliatt-Wayman sets out her approach to fixing a broken school. She talks about her work at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia, once branded “the most dangerous school in America.” She illustrates three slogans which, as Carl Hendrick said, set the standard for school leadership.

Slogan 1: If you’re going to lead, LEAD. 

The strength of will to keep going, to set the example, to believe in the vision, is what brings about change. “Leaders make the impossible possible,” she says. She describes sweating the small stuff – the displays, the lightbulbs, the environment, the lockers – and tackling the big stuff. Budget. Behaviour. Scheduling. Support.

Slogan 2: So what? Now what? 

Cliatt-Wayman lists the intimidating odds she and her staff were up against – attendance at 68%, 1% parental engagement, 38% SEN – and uses her mantra “So what? Now what?” This really struck home to me. Here is a problem, or an issue – and that is what it is. A problem. An issue. It is not an excuse. What can we do about it? It reminded me forcefully of Ros McMullen’s wonderful blog on addressing inequality, and her attack on what she calls “cuddle and muddle” culture: “these kids have got problems, therefore we should expect less from and for them.” This isn’t good enough McMullen and Cliatt-Wayman, and it shouldn’t be good enough for any of us.

It strikes me also that “So what? Now what?” is an equally useful mantra for times of success. You get your best ever GCSE results, or a shiny outstanding from Ofsted. So what? Now what? For Cliatt-Wayman, being removed from the “persistently dangerous” list after five straight years was her triumph. Her “now what?” was professional development for her teachers, and an “intense focus on teaching and learning” in order to eliminate excuses for underachievement. The result? A 171% rise in algebra scores and a 107% rise in literature scores.

Slogan 3: If nobody told you they loved you today, you remember I do, and I always will.

At this point, I don’t mind admitting, I had tears in my eyes. John Tomsett talks about “love over fear” and this final slogan puts humanity at the centre of leadership. I know that Tom Starkey has discredited passion, but when you see the passion here, I think even he’ll agree it’s inspiring. She talks about her moral purpose with such heart that you can see her eyes glisten, hear her voice crack. She talks about eating lunch with the students, to talk to them and know them as people, to build the relationships that are the cornerstone of effective teaching. And she talks about the rewards of the job:

My reward, my reward for being non-negotiable in my rules and consequences is their earned respect. I insist on it, and because of this, we can accomplish things together. They are clear about my expectations for them, and I repeat those expectations every day over the P.A. system. I remind them of those core values of focus, tradition, excellence, integrity and perseverance,and I remind them every day how education can truly change their lives. And I end every announcement the same: “If nobody told you they loved you today, you remember I do, and I always will.”

There’s been a lot of excellent focus on women in leadership recently, thanks to #WomenEd and others, and here is a fantastic role model not just for women, but for all school leaders. Behaviour. Teaching and Learning. Love. Now that’s getting your priorities right.

#PoetryPromise June: Blackbird by Paul McCartney

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for June is Blackbird by Paul McCartney.

This is one of my favourite Beatles songs – favourite songs full stop. It brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. Inspired by the civil rights struggles in America in 1968, McCartney channelled J.S. Bach’s Bourée in E Minor to create this beautiful solo piece, punctuated by foot taps and birdsong. I bought Blackbird Singinga collection of Paul McCartney’s lyrics and poetry, for my Dad when it came out. Coming to the lyrics fresh, printed and bound, made me re-evaluate the writing. In the introduction, Adrian Mitchell writes: ‘Clean out your head. Wash out the name and the fame. Read these clear words and listen to them decide for yourself. Paul is…a popular poet.’ I agree.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly
Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird fly
Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Doing NPQH as a member of SLT

With thanks and apologies to Kev Bartle for the title!

News from the NCTL

News from the NCTL

I received notification yesterday that I have passed the NPQH. It’s no longer mandatory to have the qualification to be a Headteacher, but I’ve spent sixteen months on the course. This blog is really for anyone weighing up the prospect of taking it on. I’ll run through my experiences, and try to answer the question…is it worth it?

Getting on the course

This is really, really tough. I can’t actually blog about what happens in the selection process, as we were sworn to secrecy so as not to prejudice or advantage future cohorts. Suffice to say, when our cohort got together for the first time we bonded over the incredibly rigorous, taxing tasks you have to do just to get a place on the course – really, really tough! The idea is that, if you pass the selection process, you’re definitely capable of passing the course; it reduces the likelihood of anyone getting on it, spending a year and a half, and then failing. Sensible investment I suppose, and a good test!

After successfully passing the selection process, there’s a useful 360° exercise where you self-assess your competencies and your colleagues do the same. You get a report of the results and I found this a great starting point to pinpoint strengths, areas for development and discrepancies between my self-assessment and my colleagues’ views. A really useful process.

My chosen licensee

My chosen licensee

Finally, you have to choose a licensee. NPQH is not delivered direct by the NCTL any more, but by regional licensees. I did mine with CPD Southwest and I was very happy with my choice – efficient administration, knowledgeable and helpful trainers, and a functional online resource bank. I went to an information session before I chose my licensee and this was definitely useful in helping make my mind up. I’d recommend doing a bit of research first! Although much of the material is common across NPQH courses, and the assessment is standard, it’s worth bearing in mind that my experience is with one particular licensee and they’re not all the same!

The Leadership Capacity Matrix. I took the red pill.

The Leadership Capacity Matrix. I took the red pill.

Face to face sessions

There were nine of these in total, covering the core modules: Leading and Improving Teaching, Succeeding in Headship, and Leading an Effective School. There were also sessions on Advanced Coaching Skills and a Viewpoints on Style self-assessment day. On the whole, these were useful days! Here are some of the plus points:

  • “Talking Heads” sessions: most days, a serving Headteacher came in to talk to us about aspects of their practice and their route to Headship. These were, without exception, really inspiring and useful. There was a huge range, including Heads from large secondaries and tiny primaries, special schools, new heads, experienced system leaders…and all dedicated, positive, uplifting speakers with lots to offer. I was scribbling furiously during these, cribbing tips and ideas aplenty!
  • Cross-phase working: the NPQH was a great opportunity for me to work alongside school leaders from primary and special school sector. Most of the CPD events I go to are secondary-focused, so it was really refreshing to get a different perspective and work with colleagues from across a range of schools. My cohort were brilliant – really supportive of one another and thoughtful, caring leaders.
  • Time to reflect: there is rarely enough time in school to step back and think properly about what you’re doing. Taking nine days out across ten terms is a considerable investment of time but the opportunity it provides to reflect is invaluable. It felt, at times, like a retreat – and a treat.
  • Coaching: this was my single biggest take-away from NPQH. I’d done coaching training before but it hadn’t really been embedded in my practice; now I use it daily in interactions with staff but also with students. It’s worth a blog post on its own! I know Vic Goddard swears by it and I can see why. I was lucky to have Judith Tolhurst running our session, whose book is well worth a read.
  • Finance: we were all worried about this aspect of Headship, and there was a really useful session on running the budget of a school. This was a real confidence booster – it turned out I knew a lot more than I thought I did!

Of course, it wasn’t all brilliant. This happened on one of the days:

And then there was this:

I suppose you can’t get through nine days of CPD without being asked to draw yourself a spirit animal! But aside from these points the days were really valuable and the opportunity to take time out from the daily whirlwind was incredible helpful.

Hitting the books...well, the pdfs.

Hitting the books…well, the pdfs.

Online learning

Aside from the three core modules, NPQH involves two elective modules. I did mine on Leading Change for Improvement and School Improvement for Effective Partnerships. At the start of my course, all of the material was hosted on the NCTL’s own rather convoluted website, but halfway through that was shut down and the material moved over to licensees. Either way, there is a lot of reading! At the start, I tried to read everything and I did a pretty good job, filing it away and keeping a running record of key points in Evernote. We discussed the reading often on our face to face days – mainly how hard it was to read it all! – and we soon worked out that you could be selective in your choices. However, I would recommend looking at as much of the resource as possible, because there are some gems in there. Case studies, research papers, policy documents, official guidance, legal frameworks – all useful, some essential. I didn’t agree with all that I read, but then as an avid reader of edublogs I’m used to that – and reading stuff you don’t agree with is often more valuable than reading in an echo chamber as it helps you define what it is that you do really believe that little bit more clearly.


NPQH involves two separate projects: one in your “home” school, and a second in a “Placement” school. My home school project was to implement Teaching and Learning Leaders, and my placement project was an examination of literacy across the curriculum at another secondary academy. This was fantastic – spending five days in another school, seeing what’s the same and what’s different, was an invaluable opportunity. I’ve forged long-lasting links with the SLT there: they came out to visit Chew Valley to have a look at how we’d implemented growth mindset, and I’ve been back there to work on assessment without levels. NPQH forces this kind of system partnership and there’s no doubt this is a real strength of the programme.


The assessment part of the NPQH was time-consuming and difficult. It’s necessary, and in all honesty I couldn’t see a way of making it simpler without reducing the quality. It’s supposed to be challenging! Each of the five modules required a reflective “impact evaluation form” – a summary of what you’d learned and the impact it had had on your leadership. Again, the process here forces reflection, which is important for the process of self-improvement the course is trying to implement. But they are time-consuming to fill in!

Towards the end of the course you have to submit write-ups of your two projects. There are very strict guidelines around pages and word counts here, which were difficult to stick to, and the process of writing up took several days for each project. There was plenty of guidance from the NCTL and my licensee, so I knew what I had to do, but doing it within the word-count was tough!

Finally, if the projects pass, there is a face-to-face assessment. I went to mine already having secured a Headship following a three-day interview, and then having a two-day Ofsted inspection the week before the final assessment. It couldn’t be anything like as tough as those experiences…could it? Simple answer – yes. A panel of three properly grilled me for over an hour following a fifteen-minute presentation. It was every bit as rigorous, thorough and searching as my Headship interview and Ofsted had been. And quite right too; although I did things a bit back-to-front, securing a Headship before completing NPQH, there is no doubt that the final assessment interview would be a good preparation for anyone going on to Headship interviews after completing the course.


Was it worth it?

In a word – yes. The longer answer: I know I don’t need NPQH to be a Headteacher. But sixteen months working on the course has forced me to be more reflective about my leadership, to think about why, how and what I do in my job, in a way that I wouldn’t have done in the normal run of things. The online learning, whilst onerous, was useful. The opportunity to meet and work with colleagues outside my school, beyond my phase, with different experiences and approaches, was invaluable and enriching. And the fact that the assessment, both at the start and end of the course, was so rigorous, gives me faith that the standards of leadership expected of Headteachers are reassuringly high. I have gained NPQH and secured a Headship; now I have to ensure that I live up to those standards in the future.

#PoetryPromise May: “Could mortal lip divine” by Emily Dickinson

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for May is this tiny fragment from Emily Dickinson:

Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight

My copy of The Complete Poems

My copy of The Complete Poems

I can remember coveting Dickinson’s “The Complete Poems” whilst at university. The sheer size of the book, filled with nearly 1800 tiny poems, was intriguing and intimidating in equal measure. I can remember buying it and walking back to my room, the weight of the volume digging the carrier bag into my fingers. Fewer than a dozen of these poems were published during Dickinson’s lifetime, which she spent largely as an eccentric recluse. She often dressed in white and, the story goes, rarely left her room later in life. I still imagine her sister, Lavinia, discovering piles of notebooks and loose sheets in a locked chest in that room after Emily’s death, opening them up and discovering the scope and breadth of her poetry. Opening this book, I felt like Aladdin, stepping into a cave filled with enigmatic wonder.

There is so much to marvel at in Dickinson’s “quiet – Earthquake style” – her idiosyncratic use of the dash being one. These tiny bars work hard to restrain the pace and isolate words and phrases in her verse, forcing a kind of breathlessness into the reading. Her contained meditations on the nature of emotion are at once detached and scientific and passionately involved. I still find her poems fascinating little worlds.

Dickinson's original manuscript (source)

Dickinson’s original manuscript (source)

I have chosen this poem as it contains a message I try to remember every day. Once words are spoken, their impact and message cannot be controlled. Anything we say – to anyone – has unimaginable power on the recipient, irrespective of the intention. A flippant, offhand comment, delivered with barely a thought, can ruin someone’s day or stay with them for weeks – or longer. A well-intentioned intervention can backfire and make a situation worse. Our words have the power to can lift, raise and bolster – or crush,  shatter and destroy. Teachers, and especially school leaders, wield this power every day. What Dickinson’s poem teaches me is to weigh the words I am about to say, and deliver them with care.