SLT Book Club: Clever Lands by Lucy Crehan

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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.

Conclusions

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!

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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. 

Teaching: Leading Learning at #TLT16

I have always been interested in leadership, probably even before I started teaching. I’ve always been an organiser, and I’ve enjoyed getting people involved in a project and seeing it through to realisation. As a teacher, I was quick to take on extra: I took on my first responsibility after two years; I was second in English after three; I was Head of English after five. I truth, that last jump was probably two years too soon, but I learned an awful lot from my mistakes in those two years!

I started this blog in December 2012 to share my experiences of senior leadership as a Deputy Head. I called it Teaching: Leading Learning without hesitation. The name of the blog stems from the long held belief that teaching is itself a leadership role, and that if you teach well you already have the skillset of an effective leader. In my session at #TLT16 I set out to explore how my experience as a teacher has prepared me for Headship, and the lessons my experience as a new Headteacher has for teachers.

Leadership behaviours in teaching

leadershipbehaviours

Going through the now defunct Leading From the Middle, several home-grown leadership development courses and, more recently, NPQH, I’ve read a lot about different leadership styles and behaviours. It’s interesting to look beyond education and think about business models of leadership, and whether they have relevance to us in the public sector. Hence my plundering of Zenger Folkman’s generous free-to-access resource library, where I found the “Top 9 Leadership Behaviours That Drive Employee Commitment.” They are:

  1. Inspire and motivate others
  2. Drive for results
  3. Strategic perspective
  4. Collaboration
  5. Walk the talk
  6. Trust
  7. Develops and supports others
  8. Building relationships
  9. Courage

These are qualities that have relevance to educational leadership but also, clearly, to classroom teaching.

Inspire and motivate others

This is clearly the role of the leader: to bring people with you on the journey. And it is the role of the classroom teacher too. To spark the interest of your learners, to get the best out of them, and to do your best to make sure that they want to do their best too.

Drive for results

We’re in an outcomes business, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Results bring choice, raise aspiration and open doors. It’s the role of the school leader to evaluate every initiative, intervention and idea in terms of its impact on results, stopping the things that don’t help and doing the things that do. It’s the same for the classroom teacher. We must ask ourselves: what can I do that will make the biggest difference to the students’ outcomes?

Strategic perspective

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Why do you do what you do? (source)

The leader’s role is to hold and share the vision, based on core values, and align everything in the organisation towards achieving that vision. The teacher’s role is the same: to know how this activity fits into this lesson, which fits into this week, which fits into this scheme of learning, which fits into the long term plan, which contributes to this young person’s experience of this subject across their schooling, which shapes the adult they will become. Where does what you are doing today fit into the bigger picture? Think about how this ten-minute activity contributes to the cathedral that you are building.

Collaboration

Geese

Leadership lessons from geese (source)

A leader doesn’t fly solo. The leader is part of a team. We achieve what we achieve together. And we recognise that we can’t know and do it all, so we call in help, advice and support when we need it. The teacher is no different. The class must work together – the culture must be right. And, when it’s needed, it is a sign of strength in the teacher to seek help, advice and support.

Walk the talk

We all know of inauthentic leaders who don’t walk the talk. Words are hollow and empty when leaders are dishonest or do not act with integrity. Classrooms work the same way. When you say you’ll read their work, you have to read it. The students’ faith in you comes from you modelling the behaviours that you expect.

Trust

This comes from walking the talk. Trust is built over time by leaders who look, listen and learn, leading to an understanding of the issues facing those you lead. Then, it comes from actions rooted in integrity, with a clear and transparent rationale consistent with the vision and values you espouse. The same with the classroom teacher. If you say something is going to happen, it happens. You don’t let your students down. You are consistent, constant, reliable. You win their trust.

Develop and support others

headstanrads

The National standards of excellence for headteachers, Domain Two, standard 5, says that excellent headteachers will:

Identify emerging talents, coaching current and aspiring leaders in a climate where excellence is the standard, leading to clear succession planning.

This is a vital part of any leader’s role, but the process of developing and supporting others is what a teacher does. It is the job.

Building relationships

Relationships lead to trust. This is how things get done – not by ordering people around, but by building relationships with colleagues which bring about commitment to the shared enterprise. Am I talking about leadership? Or teaching? Or both?

Courage

 

typorama

Mark Twain: always good for a quote

Joanna Postlethwaite put me on to this quotation in her “Head in Heels” session at #WomenEd. It’s a different take on the “do the hard things first” I’ve used before, and it’s about not shying away from the most difficult tasks. If challenging situations aren’t grasped and resolved, they will fester. If you don’t eat that frog now, it’ll grow – and then you’ll never be able to stomach it. The same in your classroom – whatever you tolerate, that’s where your expectations sit. If there’s a problem, tackle it. Don’t let things go, or you’ll struggle to get them back.

Spheres of influence

spheresofinfluence

In leadership, and in teaching, it pays to focus your attention where you will have the most influence. In both cases, this is the inner two circles in the diagram above: the areas where you have complete control, and the area where you have direct influence. You can’t control everything. But what you will find is that, if you are outward facing and focused on outcomes, the energy you are expending on the inner two circles will have an influence on the third. And the third, on the fourth. What you’re doing with your students in your classroom matters. What you’re doing with your team in your department matters. What I’m doing with my school matters. We all influence one another. We all matter.

 Download the slides from my #TLT16 session here (Dropbox link)

 

Women into Leadership at #WomenEd

On Saturday 8th October my colleagues Jo Gill (@JoanneSGill, Assistant Headteacher Teaching & Learning) and Sue Strachan (@SusanSEnglish, Head of KS4 English) headed for Microsoft’s HQ in Reading for #WomenEd’s Second Unconference. We were co-presenting the approach we’ve taken at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form to promoting gender equality, with a particular emphasis on women into leadership. Here are my remarks. You can see the Prezi, along with the sections presented by Jo and Sue, here.

#HeForShe Headteacher

 

he4shelandscape

The field when I interviewed for the Headship at Churchill was 50/50 male/female. I got the job. I feel therefore that I am already on the back foot when discussing the issue of promoting women into leadership roles. The numbers are clear:

  • 63% of secondary school teachers are female
  • 50% of secondary school senior leaders are female
  • 37% of secondary school headteachers are female

 

There are, however, signs that things might be improving. When Kate Chhatwal was writing in the New Statesman in 2014 about The Invisible Prejudice Holding Women Teachers Back,  she was faced with a choice to take her proposals forward:

Now, which of our great education or political leaders should I pitch the idea to? The man at No 10 or the man in charge of education?

There have been significant steps forward in gender representation at the top of education, although opinion is currently quite mixed on whether this represents progress for education generally.

What to do?

As a HeForShe advocate, I am committed to improving gender equality wherever I can exert any influence at all. In doing so, I need to avoid stereotyping, patronising or “mansplaining”.

 

I find explanations which focus on the generic qualities of “women leaders” as though that is a homogenous group unhelpful. However, Lean In provides I think useful advice in tips for managers and how to be a workplace ally. As a Head I try to ensure that I:

 

1. Make sure women’s ideas are heard

The chair of SLT rotates. We haven’t ever used the Are Men Talking Too Much? counter but perhaps it’s not a bad idea…

2. Challenge the likeability penalty

This is about challenging perceptions of male and female success. Lean In asks:

When a man is successful, his peers often like him more; when a woman is successful, both men and women often like her less. Who are you more likely to support and promote, the man with high marks across the board or the woman who has equally high marks but is just not as well liked?

At every point, it’s important to challenge the likeability penalty, asking colleagues (and myself) “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?”

3. Support mentorship and coaching

We are strategic partners in the North Somerset Teaching Alliance which runs a Women into Leadership programme. Both Jo and Sue have undertaken this course and continue to promote it to other women. I have encouraged female SLT to sign up to the National College’s Women Leading in Education coaching programme, as coaches and as coachees.

4. Celebrate women’s accomplishments

michelleobama

It should go without saying that it’s the role of the Headteacher to celebrate accomplishments and positively reinforce success. However, as a strategy to encourage women into leadership, it’s vital. As Michelle Obama’s visits to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School show, highlighting high-profile successful women’s accomplishments can have a transformative impact: the “I did this; you could too” effect.

5. Encourage women to go for it

leanin

I don’t know whether the statistic quoted on Lean In, that men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the criteria while women wait for 100%, is accurate – or even if such a generalisation is helpful. I do know that, if we are to improve gender equality, it’s my role as Headteacher to spot potential, develop it, and maximise it. My school will benefit from it and, if and when those leaders eventually leave, the wider system will benefit too.

As the Assistant Headteacher at Churchill, Jo Gill, said: 

 In order to move on in your career it is all about taking opportunities when they present themselves to you, but also to seek out those opportunities that you are looking for to enhance your career prospects. Ensuring that you have a mentor – or mentors – that you can trust and that you value their opinion and their advice. Having confidence in yourself about the experiences that you have gained along the way that shape the kind of leader that you want to be and demonstrate these skills and experience in job applications and when you achieve that promotion.

 

The first staff briefing of the new school year

We had two Inset days on Thursday and Friday, then the weekend before the children started today. I’m a big fan of two-day-weeks anyway, and my Head of Music requested that I consider ensuring we have two days off after every two days of work in future. I’m looking into it.

Anyway, I began the first Inset day with a reminder of why we do our job in the first place: a photo slideshow of lovely moments from the previous year. Photos of our kids learning, enjoying, competing, trying, caring, succeeding, laughing, inspiring, travelling, performing, smiling, embracing, celebrating, achieving. It was such a pleasure to put together, going back through the photo archive and seeing all the wonderful opportunities that our school provides for young people, and the way in which they seize those opportunities with both hands. I soundtracked the slideshow with two tracks from our gospel choir’s new CD: “September” (topical) and “True Colours” (emotional). I wanted to begin the year with a celebration of the children – because that’s why we do it.

The first inset day was focused on performance development, our replacement for “appraisal” or “performance management” inspired (as usual) by John Tomsett’s work. It’s our first run through this year – I’ll blog about it when we’ve got it properly up and running and let you know how it’s gone!

The second day began with a focus on teaching and learning. We are launching teacher-led research and development groups working alongside a leadership strand in scheduled meeting time over the course of the year. My colleagues and I will be presenting about this at #WomenEd’s Unconference later in the year – again, blog to follow!

The point of all this preamble is that I’d already had two opportunities to speak to the whole staff. Briefing on Monday was going to be factual – key information about the new Year 7 to be checked, arrangements for lunch and catching the buses etc. But I wanted to set the tone for the year and make sure that I gave out key messages about our approach and direction. So here’s what I went for.

  1. Love the kids.
  2. Pace yourself.
  3. Start the learning straight away.
  4. Enjoy it.

Have a great year everyone!

The benefit of experience

This week I’ve been reading through my List in Pocket (the single most useful app I have installed) of all the blogs, articles, links and clips I’d seen during the last term but not had the time to consume and digest. In my trawl through I found this excellent paper from the states: 


In a nutshell, the answer is “yes.” Or, as Mark McCourt (the wonderful @EMathsUK on Twitter) put it: 

Yes, in the summary of the research Kini and Podolsky clarify the following: 

  • Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career.
  • Teachers’ effectiveness increases at a greater rate when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment.
  • More experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.
  • On average, the most effective 20-year teachers are significantly more effective than the most effective first-year teachers 

Or, in summary: 

Our research does not indicate that the passage of time will make all teachers better or incompetent teachers effective. However, it does indicate that, for most teachers, experience increases effectiveness. (Kini and Podolsky, 2016)

This isn’t news, surely? Yet my tweet about this study attracted a number of replies discussing examples of schools undervaluing experienced staff and the “cult of youth” which sees some schools placing too much emphasis on new career entrants with “fresh ideas” and “energy.” I know that schools benefit massively from trainees, NQTs and RQTs, with all those fresh ideas and energy – that isn’t what this blog is about. What it’s about instead is the value that experienced staff bring to a school and why we should value them, listen to them, and above all retain them in the profession. 

I can remember being an NQT and looking in awe at those with ten, fifteen or twenty years experience. Their command of the room, their command of their material, and their command of their craft was inspiring. I’m no fool: I watched and learned, hungry for the secrets of success that, in my first faltering forays into the classroom, I sadly lacked. And, although I am now entering the 20th year of my teaching career myself, I’ve never stopped. 

I was only in my sixth year of teaching when I became a Head of Department. It was too soon. In time, I got better, but I can remember some cringeworthy naïve mistakes that I made in my first year or so. In particular, challenging an experienced member of staff about underperformance. I was well-supported by the Headteacher, carefully briefed, and it needed to be done, but I know I made an unremitting hash of that conversation. I simply didn’t have the experience to carry it off properly, to do it justice, to be fair to that colleague. It was embarrassing. Those conversations are never easy, but with a few more years under my belt I know I would have handled it better. I made a conscious decision to wait for my next promotion until I was experienced enough to be ready – I did eight years as Head of Faculty before applying for SLT positions. 

Throughout that time, I’ve been watching and learning from colleagues more experienced than me. I’ve watched them teach, and picked up as many of the tips and tricks that they’ve learned as I can. As an aspiring Headteacher, I visited and spoke to as many experienced Heads as I could to learn from them. I’ve read everything Tom Sherrington and John Tomsett have ever posted, and read books by John, Vic Goddard and others, for the same reason. But the fact is, you only really get better at doing this job – teaching, or Headteaching – by actually doing it. 


I’ve learned an awful lot in the first seven months of Headship, and had many of my ideas confirmed. One of the latter is the value of experienced staff to the school as a whole. Those teachers who have been at the school for years and seen Heads and Secretaries of State come and go (ideally fewer of the former than the latter), who are teaching the children of the children they taught earlier in their career, who have seen trends and fads rise and fall and carried on regardless. These are the ones you need – who make the school what it is. John Tomsett wrote about this in his interview with his longest serving teacher back in 2013. It is these staff who provide the skeleton of the school: the backbone, rib cage and skull that hold it all together and keep it safe. And I had this personally confirmed to me at the end of term when Chris George retired. 

Chris has taught at Churchill for 22 years, the majority of those as Head of Sixth Form. When I first started, I spent a fascinating hour with him getting under the skin of the school over that time. Before he retired, we spent another hour where he generously told me exactly what he thought I needed to hear after my first seven months. Both conversations were invaluable. And his leaving speech, delivered in the sunshine on the last day of term after the staff barbecue, was one for the ages. He talked about what experience had taught him over his career, and passed it on to all of us. Most importantly, his speech was based around the advice he was given as an NQT himself, by his experienced mentor. Advice that had stayed with him throughout his career. “Treat people like people” was one of those nuggets – and I’ve made that a motto for my own Headship. “Chris Hildrew, coming in here with his new-fangled ideas!” said Chris – a dig I definitely enjoyed! He also advised us to look after our mental health, to seek help if we needed it, and not to try and pretend that everything was okay if it isn’t. This is advice that needs to be heard in staff rooms up and down the country. He also advised teachers to always carry a piece of paper with them when walking around the site, because it made it look like you were doing something important and stopped people bothering you. 

He finished with the words of Norman Stanley Fletcher


 It is vital to our profession that we create those supportive and collegial environments, cherish the teachers who have the experience, and listen – really listen – to them. We have much to learn. Because we’ve recruited fantastic teachers to replace our leavers this year. But it’ll take 22 years before they’re as good as Chris George. And there are no short cuts.

Strategic Priorities for Churchill

Lots of time, care and effort gone into this: the strategic plan for Churchill Academy & Sixth Form.

The Headteacher's Blog

When I was took up post as Headteacher, the Governors gave me 100 days to look, listen and learn about the Academy in order to plan the next steps. As part of that process I met students, staff, Governors, families, and representatives from the local community. I summarised all this in my post What Have I Learned? at the end of March.

Since then I have been working hard with my colleagues to plan for the future of the Academy. We already have an outstanding Ofsted report, a track record of success, skilful and dedicated staff, and hardworking and motivated students. What next?

The answer was to get down to the basics of what we need to do to ensure that the Churchill formula is sustainable, and that being a truly great school runs deep into every aspect of our practice. So, first of all, what…

View original post 1,160 more words

The Reality of Headship

It’s been very quiet over here on Teaching: Leading Learning since I started my Headship on January 4th. I have been blogging every week on The Headteacher’s Blog but the first two terms in a new job have left little time for anything else! The Easter break has given me space for reflection and a chance to write a companion piece to The Prospect of Headship from back in July. What’s it really like taking the step up to Headship? 

You’re it

Coming in new, I’ve been conscious of setting the tone. Vic Goddard’s excellent book The Best Job in the World outlines the advice he received on taking up the role: “You make the weather.” Every decision, every interaction in fact, sets the tone for the sort of Headteacher you’re going to be and the sort of school you’re going to lead. There’s an inevitable realignment of priorities and setting of agendas. I’d thought long and hard through my Aspiring Heads course, NPQH and the application process about my vision and values, to the point where I’d almost overdone it. I used this process as the acid test for my approach – is this decision aligned with my beliefs and the kind of Headteacher I want to be?

I’m also conscious of being the voice and face of the Academy in public. It’s made me think harder than ever about what I tweet and blog. Also, of course, it’s been a period of taking stock – my “look, listen and learn” agenda – so there hasn’t been a great deal to blog about…yet. 

Feeling Presidential 

 

Barack Obama weighing up the options

 
Towards the end of term, a colleague and I were having a conversation about leadership and how I’d been finding it. We ended up discussing Barack Obama and the excellent series Inside Obama’s White House on BBC2. To be clear, neither of us were suggesting that being the Headteacher of a secondary school was really comparable with being the leader of the free world, but we did find some common ground! In the series, Obama describes the kinds of decisions that he has to make:

“Most of the decisions I make don’t lend themselves to a clean, crisp, wonderful solution; when they do somebody else typically solves them and they never arrive at my desk.”

                                               Barack Obama

I have been really struck by this in my few months of Headship. On a daily basis, I have been faced with 50/50 decisions with no clear “right” answer; decisions finely balanced and often with potentially negative consequences on both sides; decisions which are all grey area. If a decision reaches the Headteacher, it means that it’s sufficiently problematic, difficult or of such consequence that the Head needs to make the call. Having a clear sense of what I believe to be right has helped guide me here, but this is not a perfect world and it’s often been about deciding which compromise I’m prepared to make, and which I’m not. 

Everything has a cost

Much is made of the importance of financial management as a Headteacher. This was really brought home to me in the first week as I was registered as a director of the Academy at Companies House, and signed up as the chief accounting officer. This was accompanied by a copy of the Nolan Principles – the 7 principles of public life – that all public servants are expected to uphold. I’d never come across them before! They are: 

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership 

 

Seeing the matrix for the first time

 
This was one of those sit-up-and-take-notice moments for me, when I took on board the gravity and responsibility of the post. I’d sat on the Governors’ finance committee as a deputy head, and I came into Headship with a good handle on how school finances work, but that’s very different from being responsible for the delivery of the budget and signing off the multi-millions of public money invested in the education of the young people at my school. Suddenly, I started seeing every decision in relation to the impact on the bottom line. Walking past an empty classroom with the lights still on, or considering whether we could cover a member of staff to take students on a last-minute trip, or how to advertise a teaching vacancy…every aspect of the school suddenly had costs attached. It was like that moment in The Matrix where Neo suddenly sees the corridor in computer code, except I was seeing £ signs. This was perhaps the most unexpected shift in becoming a Headteacher. It’s not one I particularly enjoy, but I suppose it’s inevitable. It’s really come home to me how little I understood about whole-school finances even in middle leadership.

You are not alone

“It’s a lonely job,” I’d been warned. But it’s really not! My senior team have been excellent through the various twists and turns of a spring term in a secondary school. Colleague Headteachers from local primary and secondary schools have been hugely supportive. The admin and support team have been incredibly helpful. I’ve made good use of our SSAT membership and my own membership of ASCL to leverage professional networks. But by far and above the best thing I’ve done is sat down for a one-to-one meeting with every single member of staff at the school. Being able to make a personal connection with every teacher, administrator, teaching assistant or member of the support staff has been invaluable. It has been time-consuming but getting that variety of perspectives and having the chance to listen to what it’s actually like to do their job – and how I might be able to make it better – has driven my planning and helped me clearly to see what my priorities need to be. The corollary has been to enable those passing-in-the-corridor chats and on-duty moments which make working in schools such a pleasure. 

Above all, of course, we have the most amazing students. Tom Sherrington wrote at the end of term about 1200 reasons to love his school, and I know exactly what he means. I have nearly 1500 of course, which makes it even better! I’ve got my own class of Year 7 for English which has been fantastic, and I’ve visited lessons every single day. Seeing the learning that is going on, the pride and the sense of achievement really never gets tired! 

It’s a privilege

In The Prospect of Headship I was looking forward to the privilege of leading a school. It certainly hasn’t disappointed. It’s been a huge challenge and responsibility, and it has definitely been difficult, but I have been thankful every single day that I am doing this job. It’s cliché to say that I got into teaching to make a difference, but I did, and as a Head I feel I can achieve this on an institutional scale. It’s humbling. But the possibilities are awe-inspiring. And I’m only just getting started…

Refining assessment without levels

One of the first things I’ve been involved with in my new post has been the development of assessment without levels. It’s been strange for me to move back to a school still using them! I’m teaching Year 7 English and I’ve had to re-learn (temporarily at least!) the levels system to assess their assignments. What struck me particularly was the way learning gets lost when you hand back assignments with levels on them. I’d been so used to handing work back with formative comments only over the last two years that I was quite unprepared for the buzz of “what did you get?”, fist-pumping triumph when a Level 5.6 was awarded (“I was only 5.3 last time!”) and disappointment on the flip side. I had to work really hard to focus the students on my carefully crafted formative feedback and DIRT tasks – and I know that some of them only paid lip-service only to my requests to engage with the comments in a “please-the-teacher” exercise whilst their minds were still occupied with the level. All I kept thinking about was Dylan Wiliam’s advice about ego-involving and task-involving feedback:

Levels have to go, then – this is not a surprise. It’s also perhaps unsurprising that Churchill have hung on for them, with a new Headteacher incoming (especially one who has blogged extensively about assessment without levels!) My big advantage is in having implemented assessment without levels once, I can refine and develop the approach for my second go. I’m still pretty happy with the growth and thresholds model (originally proposed by Shaun Allison here) which was implemented at my previous school, but there are definitely refinements to make. In particular, a couple of posts have stuck with me in terms of reviewing the way we assess. The first is by the always-thought-provoking Daisy Christodolou, who got my mental cogs whirring in November with Comparative Judgment: 21st Century Assessment. In this post, the notion that you can criteria-reference complex tasks like essays and projects is rightly dismissed:

” [it] ends up stereotyping pupils’ responses to the task. Genuinely brilliant and original responses to the task fail because they don’t meet the rubric, while responses that have been heavily coached achieve top grades because they tick all the boxes…we achieve a higher degree of reliability, but the reliable scores we have do not allow us to make valid inferences about the things we really care about.”

Instead, Daisy argues, comparing assignments, essays and projects to arrive at a rank order allows for accurate and clear marking without referencing reams of criteria. Looking at two essays side-by-side and deciding that this one is better than that one, then doing the same for another pair and so on does seem “a bit like voodoo” and “far too easy”…

“…but it works. Part of the reason why it works is that it offers a way of measuring tacit knowledge. It takes advantage of the fact that amongst most experts in a subject, there is agreement on what quality looks like, even if it is not possible to define such quality in words. It eliminates the rubric and essentially replaces it with an algorithm. The advantage of this is that it also eliminates the problem of teaching to the rubric: to go back to our examples at the start, if a pupil produced a brilliant but completely unexpected response, they wouldn’t be penalised, and if a pupil produced a mediocre essay that ticked all the boxes, they wouldn’t get the top mark. And instead of teaching pupils by sharing the rubric with them, we can teach pupils by sharing other pupils’ essays with them – far more effective, as generally examples define quality more clearly than rubrics.”

The bear-trap of any post-levels system is always to find that you’ve accidentally re-created levels by mistake. Michael Tidd has been particularly astute about this in the primary sector: “Have we simply replaced the self-labelling of I’m a Level 3, with I’m Emerging?” This is why systems like the comparative judgment engine on the No More Marking site are useful. Deciding on a rank order allows you to plot the relative attainment of each piece of work against the cohort; “seeding” pre-standardized assignments into the cohort would then allow you to map the performance of the full range.

At this point, Tom Sherrington’s generously shared work on his assessment system using the bell curve comes to the fore. Tom first blogged about assessment, standards and the bell curve in 2013 and has since gone on to use the model in the KS3 assessment system developed at Highbury Grove. “Don’t do can do statements” he urges – echoing Daisy Christodolou’s call to move away from criteria-referencing – and instead judge progress based on starting points:

 

Tom Sherrington’s illustration of bell curve progress judgments

 

Finally, this all makes sense. This is how GCSE grades are awarded – comparable outcomes models the scores of all the students in the country based on the prior attainment model of that cohort, and shifts grade boundaries to match the bell curve of each cohort. It feels alien and wrong to teachers like me, trained in a system in which absolute criteria-referenced standards corresponded to grades, but it isn’t – it makes sense. Exams are a competition. Not everyone can get the top grades.It also makes sense pedagogically. We are no longer in a situation where students need to know specific amounts of Maths to get a C grade (after which point they can stop learning Maths); instead they need to keep learning Maths until they know as much Maths as they possibly can – at which point they will take their exams. If they know more Maths than x percentage of the rest of the country, they will get x grade. This is fair.

Within the assessment system, getting a clear and fair baseline assessment (we plan to use KS2 assessments, CATs and standardised reading test scores) will establish a starting profile. At each subsequent assessment point, whether it be in Dance, Maths, Science, History or Art, comparative judgment will be used to create a new rank order, standardised and benchmarked (possibly through “seeded” assignments or moderated judgment). Students’ relative positions at these subsequent assessment points will then allow judgments of progress: if you started low but move up, that’s good progress. If you start high but drop down, we need to look at what’s happening. Linking the assignments to a sufficiently challenging curriculum model is essential; then if one assignment is “easier” or “harder” others it won’t matter – the standard is relative.

As with all ventures in this field, it’s a tentative step. What we’ve come up with is in the developmental stage for a September launch. But moving away from criteria-referencing as the arbiter of standards has been the most difficult thing to do, because it’s all many of us have ever known. But that doesn’t make it right.

always done it

Moving On

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It’s always been a wrench to leave a school. Maybe I’ve been lucky in the schools I’ve worked in, but I’ve never been desperate to leave any of them. For me, moving on has always been about the next challenge and the next step in my career, moving up to new responsibilities in new contexts.

I know that internal promotions can work really well. I’ve had two in my career, firstly with a responsibility point added in my first school and secondly when TLRs were introduced and leadership in my school at the time was restructured. I remember now the trauma of having to re-apply for my job, up against external candidates, and the relief when I was successful. I really enjoyed the new responsibilities and the challenge as I moved on to the leadership spine, but I found it difficult to “re-make” myself in the new role. It seems silly now, but I remember that as a Head of Department my work clothes were shirt-and-tie-with-smart-trousers, accessorised with a nice line in v-necked jumpers. On my first morning of my new leadership spine role, I wore a suit. It was my attempt at signifying that, although I was the same person in the same school with the same staff and the same children, something was different. Navigating that shift in relationships in an internal promotion can be a tricky business!

moving on

In my experience, I’ve always found it preferable to look for my next steps beyond the school I’m currently working in. Arriving somewhere different allows you to re-establish yourself afresh, each time with the benefit of a few more years’ experience and the benefit of knowledge gained from mistakes and missteps in the current role. It’s also, I think, helpful to work in a variety of contexts, seeing how it’s done in different schools with different cultures and ethos (ethe? ethea? ethoses?) I’ve learned so much from every school I’ve worked in, and each one has added to the repertoire of approaches I can use in any given context.

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Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s useful quote (source)

There’s a benefit to the school in appointing from outside as well. New faces from other schools bring new approaches and challenge the status quo. Even if this doesn’t lead to change, the process of challenging “the way it’s always been done” has got to be healthy.

Despite all this, it’s still hard to leave. It’s hard to re-establish yourself; every time you start at a new school you remember how much classroom and behaviour management is based on reputation, routine and relationships that you’ve built up over time. A fresh start means starting again. It’s hard to leave the students, from knowing all the names, characters, families and histories to a completely blank slate. And it’s hard to leave the staff, that dedicated group of professionals who pull together for the benefit of young people in the face of sometimes overwhelming challenges. But despite all this, I know that moving on is the right thing to do, the right thing for me – and I’m looking forward to the next step.