Growth Mindset Launch

Back in March I blogged about becoming a growth mindset school following our staff launch event.  Since that time we have been very busy preparing to roll out the ethos to the whole school. Here’s what we’ve been up to, and what we’re planning for September…

Re-branding the school

Our old school motto was “Developing Potential to the Full” – a noble idea full of good intentions. However, as John Tomsett pointed out on Twitter, how do you know what anyone’s potential is, even your own? For this reason we have rewritten our school aims and changed our motto to “Learn, Grow, Achieve” to encapsulate our growth mindset ethos.

Graphic of our new school sign

Graphic of our new school sign

The external signs and website have all been “refreshed” with the new motto. Unfortunately our paper prospectus was printed in bulk so re-branding that will have to wait until next year!

Inside the school, we have put up over ninety “inspiration signs.” These all feature quotations which encapsulate aspects of the Growth Mindset crowdsourced from the school staff (and a good trawl of Twitter and Google!), made up into A3 sized plastic signs. You can see the whole collection here. One of the activities we will be running with young people is an “Inspiration Treasure Hunt” where the students have to find all the different signs and research the sources of the quotations. There will be prizes for the most detailed research as well as the first to find them all!

Finally, there are two displays in school explaining the idea of Growth Mindset – one outside my office, and another due to go up in main reception. The latter will also include an excellence wall to celebrate student work after the model of Pete Jones and Shaun Allison.

We felt that it was important that the students arrived in September to see something visibly different about the school, and we also felt it important to wear our hearts on our sleeves. The ethos should be visible from the front gate through every corridor and into every classroom in the school.

First days back with staff – INSET

Staff have already had the launch presentation, so the presentation below will serve as a reminder of the principles and set out our strategy for launching the new ethos.

The presentation boils down the growth mindset approach to three key mindset traits, and lays out the importance of praising effort not intelligence. I have also prepared a handout on the use of growth mindset language in the classroom and in written feedback (GM Language) adapted from various sources including the Grow Mindsets blog from Huntington School. From this session, teachers will move into their inaugural Teaching and Learning Team sessions to work on improving their own teaching practice. This is a cornerstone of the growth mindset approach, as teachers as well as students will be working hard to develop a growth mindset for themselves. You can read about our Teaching and Learning Leaders approach here.

Launching Growth Mindset With Students

1. Growth Mindset Questionnaires

With tutors on the first morning, students will complete a Student GM Questionnaire. This has also been borrowed from Huntington School via John Tomsett and their excellent Grow Mindsets blog.  The idea behind this is to get the students thinking about the ideas of intelligence and mindset, and reflecting as they start the school year on their own mindsets. We will also be collecting the data to evaluate whether our interventions have had an impact on student mindsets over the first year.

2. Launch Assembly

Secondly, I will be delivering a Growth Mindset launch assembly, using the Prezi below. If you can’t see the embed, please click this link.

This assembly is a refined and condensed version of the presentation delivered to staff and governors in March. I didn’t want to over-complicate it, so I began by thinking about the most important information that students needed to know. I came up with:

  1. The difference between growth and fixed mindset
  2. The basic neuroscience of how the brain learns
  3. How this neuroscience can be used to understand the benefits of a growth mindset
  4. How to use a growth mindset voice in learning situations


Growth Mindset Infographic

I based sections 1 and 3 on a simplified version of the well-known mindset infographic by Nigel Holmes, and used this Robert Winston video from The Human Body for the neuroscience:

The key part of the assembly is emphasising why the growth mindset attributes – embracing challenges, seeing effort as the path to mastery, learning from critique and the success of others – help develop intelligence by growing and developing neural pathways. Struggle is essential for learning. I will also make sure that the students know that all teachers will also be working hard to develop a growth mindset in their Teaching and Learning Teams to ensure that the quality of teaching young people receive continues to be excellent and improving. It’s important that students understand that learning, growth and achievement are critical for every member of the school community.

3. Tutorial session

The week after the assembly, all students have a session with their tutors to reinforce growth mindset ideas and apply them. Click here for the lesson plan: GM Enrichment Lesson 230914 . This session uses “The Learning Brain” video to revisit the link between neuroscience and mindset from the assembly:

Tutors then have a choice of three activities to help embed the ideas of a growth mindset, including Elizabeth’s Story.

Learning Reflection Journals

The final part of the tutorial session involves the launch of our Learning Journal for reflection (click here for a copy). Each student has a journal and they will use it to define their goals at the start of the year. It serves as a “getting to know you” exercise for new tutors, as well as being something to refer back to during the year to remind students of the big picture. There are also sections in the journal for more detailed reflection at monitoring points when reports are shared with parents (three times a year). The bulk of it, however, is taken up with weekly sheets to review learning in the previous week and set goals for the week ahead:

Weekly reflection from an original by @abbie_tucker adapted by @Ashley_Loynton and @chrishildrew

Weekly reflection from an original #5minplan by @abbie_tucker adapted by @Ashley_Loynton and @chrishildrew

The aim of this is to promote consistent reflection on learning and enable regular dialogue between tutors and students about mindsets and approaches to the learning process.

Next steps

We have already put family information sessions into the school calendar. I have pushed hard for these and they represent a substantial investment in terms of staff time out of normal school hours. However, it is essential that families understand what we are trying to achieve in school so that they can reinforce the message and provide consistent feedback at home. I will publish a separate post about these in due course!

Finally, it’s about getting on with it and ensuring that all of this planning actually makes a difference. That means enacting and developing a growth mindset in every interaction, every lesson, and every communication in every classroom, corridor and playground, not just for now but for the long haul – until it becomes the norm. Through the aggregation of these marginal gains, I hope we can achieve a true ethic of excellence.

Napoleon Hill with pic

Becoming a growth mindset school

The idea of becoming a growth mindset school has been over a year in the making. Our Headteacher bought each member of SLT a copy of Mindset for Christmas, and it was the main agenda item at our annual senior team conference. Today I launched the idea of becoming a growth mindset school to all staff at our INSET day. This is the basis of the presentation I did.

Our INSET session was for all staff – teaching, support, administrative, catering, site, network, technicians – everyone! It was essential for us, if we’re going to begin the process of shifting the culture of the school, that all staff are working together as one coherent team. It felt wonderful! As people arrived and settled down, we encouraged everyone to fill out a self-assessment questionnaire, with the results to be given out later! You can download our questionnaire (borrowed from John Tomsett and Huntington School) here.

What is Growth Mindset? 

Professor Carol Dweck and

Professor Carol Dweck and “Mindset”

Growth Mindset is the idea Professor Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Dweck has conducted a lifetime’s research into mindsets and established an opposition between a fixed mindset (the belief that intelligence is fixed) and a growth mindset (the belief that intelligence can grow). The differences Dweck establishes are well illustrated in this helpful infographic by Nigel Holmes.


Dweck’s approach to mindset was sparked by her own experience of education. In her book, she describes what happened in her sixth-grade class:

Even as a child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher… She believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating a mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal—look smart, don’t look dumb. Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?

Our aim as a school has to be to build the growth mindset in our young people, and avoid the fixed mindset that can trap them into a premature plateau and cause them to fall short of their unknowable potential.

The Science behind Growth Mindset

I have previously blogged about my tentative first steps into neuroscience. As part of today’s presentation I used a Robert Winston video to explain about neural pathways and synapses. The video helps to visualise the learning process in the brain. The first time we try to learn something, it can be really hard. This is because we are making the first connection between neurons across a synapse. If we give up at this stage – as the fixed mindset might encourage us to do – we will never form that neural pathway. If we persist, repeat and deliberately practice the new skill or knowledge, we will create a secure pathway in our brains which will allow us to recall and re-use that skill or knowledge.

Establishing a growth mindset works in just the same way. The first time we challenge our fixed mindset approach to something, it’s difficult. Persisting in the fixed mindset strengthens that pathway in our brains and makes it more difficult to challenge. But building and repeating growth mindset approaches makes them stronger and more powerful too.

Dweck’s work and why a Growth Mindset is important

To give my audience a break from my voice, I turned to a helpful TED talk:

Here Eduardo Briceño outlines some of Dweck’s research studies, and how they apply in particular to education. The most powerful for me was the study into the use of praise. When similar children were given fixed mindset praise (“you did that really well; are so clever at doing puzzles!”) or growth mindset praise (“you did that really well; you must have tried really hard!”) it dramatically reduced or improved their ability to progress onto harder puzzles. Briceño’s examples are clear and well-articulated, which helped to illustrate the application of Dweck’s research into an educational context.

Why are we interested in Growth Mindset

In our school, we use PASS surveys to help us understand how our young people feel about themselves and their school experience. In these nationally benchmarked tests, our school’s scores come out green, well above the national norms. However, there are some interesting anomalies around the numbers. Students’ own perceived learning capabilities – the extent to which they believe they are effective learners – are the lowest average scores across the school. Even more powerfully, as students moved from Year 7 to Year 8, whilst their self-esteem and attitudes to teachers improved, their perceived learning capability declined. As SLT, we interpreted this to mean that whilst students were increasingly positive about school and themselves as they progressed, they became less confident in their own ability to learn. This can lead to a slow-down of academic progress, often manifested as a lack of effort or a “can’t do” attitude: “I can’t do Maths.”

In simple terms, we need to reverse this trend. As Shaun Allison has noted on his blog, we need to be producing Hobnob learners, not Rich Tea:

The #BiscuitClub Case Study

Ashley Loynton has run a case study group with the boys in his Year 11 Science class to develop a growth mindset approach. You can read more on his blog, but he outlined the approach that he had taken and shared the impressive results: from Year 10 Core Science achievement of 2Bs, 8Cs and 1D, the students went on to achieve 1A*, 1A, 5Bs, 3Cs and 1D in their Physics mock exam at Christmas. The difference? A growth mindset approach. One boy even stuck the Nigel Holmes infographic over the power button on his XBox, to make him think about what he should be doing every time he went to switch the console on and break the habit of getting in from school and switching straight into gaming mode. That feels like success to me.

What difference can a Growth Mindset make? 

Here I paid due tribute to John Tomsett, who firmed up the idea of a growth mindset school for me as I sat in his session at #TLT13. His blog has been incredibly influential, but most notably the post “This much I know about…developing a Dweck-inspired Growth Mindset culture.” John has been very helpful and supportive, providing materials that he has used at his school and useful, intelligent advice. Thank you Mr Tomsett! This results graph, taken from his #TLT13 presentation (which he has helpfully embedded on his blog), helped illustrate what can happen to a school which adopts a growth mindset culture enthusiastically:

Huntington School A*-C, courtesy of John Tomsett

Huntington School A*-C, courtesy of John Tomsett

I also used the example of New Heys School in Liverpool which, when faced with closure, adopted growth mindsets and saw their results rise by 39% in two years. You can read Winchester University’s case study of New Heys here.

How will we enact a Growth Mindset culture? 

This is where the session became more open. We have several ideas already:

  • Ensuring all stakeholders – staff, students, governors and parents – have the approach clearly explained
  • Changing the language of reporting
  • Using growth mindset praise
  • Using formative comments only for assessments (both on student work and in lesson observation)
  • Removing the concept of “Gifted and Talented” and instead identifying “high starters” in curriculum areas
  • Using peer-to-peer coaching to develop teaching and learning

The buzz in the school hall was overwhelming. Staff were full of ideas. We aren’t launching to students and parents until September, so there is plenty of time to harness that energy and those ideas into a coherent strategy. It’s really exciting!

Changing Mindsets

I finished the session with the results of the questionnaire, so that all staff could assess where they currently were in terms of their mindsets. Finally, we discussed how Dweck encourages us to change our mindsets when we find ourselves taking a fixed approach:

  1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice
  2. Recognise that you have a choice.
  3. Talk back in your growth mindset voice.
  4. Take action.

I finished on this animation illustrating the mindsets:

Here is the Prezi I used in the INSET session. If you can’t see the embed, click this link.

I will be updating you on the progress of this project on this blog over the coming months – with the first being our new teaching and learning approach! Watch this space…the Trojan Mice are coming!

Closing the Gap Marking – Twilight CPD

As part of our twilight INSET programme this year I am delivering a CPD session on marking. It’s a great opportunity to bring together lots of ideas from lots of superb bloggers, teachers and thinkers – it’s been quite difficult to condense everything down! Here is the Prezi I’m using in the session (click this link if you can’t see the embed):

I have also adapted this session for Pedagoo South West and a 45 minute version of the 90 minute session can be found by clicking this link, along with the video of the session on YouTube.

The aims of the session are to improve the effectiveness of marking without spending more time on it. This will be done by looking at:

  • Public Critique (via Tait Coles here)
  • Triple Impact Marking  (via David Didau here)
  • DIRT (via Alex Quigley here)

Why are we looking at marking? Because…well, I’ll let Phil Beadle take this one:


I chose that photo on purpose.

The key thing to first is identify the gap that we’re trying to close. Fortunately, Tom Sherrington already has this covered in his Making Feedback Count blog:


Graphic adapted from @headguruteacher

It’s the gap between students receiving the feedback and acting on it that we need to address. There is no better example of this process in action that Austin’s Butterfly, also blogged about by Tom here, and demonstrated by Ron Berger himself here:

Nowhere is the power of feedback on performance better demonstrated than in this example! Our feedback needs to be:

  • Specific
  • Hard on the content
  • Supportive of the person

And by “our”, of course I mean peer and teacher feedback, since Berger’s example is primarily focused on teacher-mediated peer feedback.

To demonstrate this, I ask colleagues to undertake a public critique exercise (inspired in part by the Alan Partridge clip used by Tait Coles at TeachMeet Clevedon). I ask staff to produce something to a set of criteria – a haiku, in the Prezi example – and submit it for public critique using Tait Coles’ critique sheets. I have adapted them so that there is space at the top measured for post-it notes to fit into – because I’m obsessive like that. You can download the Public Critique Sheet here.

Following reflection on public critique and applications in practice, we move on to Triple Impact Marking. This idea comes from David Didau and is captured in this presentation from his blog:

A key component of Triple Impact Marking is DIRT – Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time. Alex Quigley explains the concept in detail (with links) here, but essentially students need TIME to act on the feedback given. This is where the gap is closed. I have been as guilty as any teacher of handing back meticulously marked books, asked my class to read the comments, and then got on with the next bit of the course. What. A. Waste. Well no more – we’re getting DIRTy.

To conclude our look at feedback, who better than Dylan Wiliam (via Mark Miller here):

This emphasises the importance of creating a successful feedback culture to enable a growth mindset. No grades. No levels. Specific targeted feedback, hard on the content, soft on the person.

To conclude the session, an exercise looking at managing marking workload. Many of these ideas come from another excellent Mark Miller blog, found here. There are twelve strategies and staff note down the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy in terms of learning and performance gains and workload implications. The idea is to evaluate each strategy in terms of its overall cost benefit to the busy classroom professional.

Twelve Tips and Tricks for marking and feedback

Twelve Tips and Tricks for marking and feedback

As a takeaway I’ve also adapted the sheet that Tom Sherrington blogged from Saffron Walden High School – you can download the Student engagement with written feedback sheet which can be seen here:
Increase marking impact
What has become clear to me in planning this inset is how rich my personal learning network is. The blogosphere is teeming with great ideas about marking, feedback and critique – all I had to do was synthesise the great work of others and stitch it into a package that will fit into 90 minutes of a dark, January evening. I hope it will go well!

What I learned from #SLTeachMeet


A week ago I travelled down to London to #SLTeachmeet. Expertly hosted by Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit) and Stephen Lockyer (@mrlockyer) the event was exactly the “rocket-fuelled CPD” I’d been promised. Tweeting through the event forced me to crystallise my thinking about the presentations, and I took advantage of the train journey home to put the highlights into Evernote. As part of each CPD event I go on I have to feed back what I have learned to relevant staff. This is the first time I have done this in a blog, and I have only included a small selection, but here goes…

Leadership is letting go

Plantation vs Rainforest Thinking

Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) and James Heale (@Heale2011) both expressed this key idea. In his “Plantation vs Rainforest Thinking” opener, Tom Sherrington outlined the benefits from thinking about schools as the latter, rather than the former. The temptation to make everything uniform, have a standard set planning format, a standard set teaching and learning strategy, and a standard set technology package, is clearly overwhelming for school leaders. Instead, Tom argued, school leaders should set the standard and expectations and have the confidence in their middle leaders and teachers to find their own way, holding them to account for the outcomes but allowing the autonomy to plan their own methods. This method of fostering innovative practice and “taking the lid off learning” was really engaging and was underlined by James Heale in his reflections on his first year (so far) in Headship when he said “tighten up to become good; loosen up to become outstanding.” That’s so good, it should be on a poster.

It’s your job to catch people doing the right thing

situational-leadership-2In his presentation on Situational Leadership Sapuran Gill (@ssgill76) made this really important point. In the current climate more than ever, where school leaders are urged to challenge under-performance, raise aspirations, and be the friends of promise, it is our responsibility to catch those we lead doing the right thing, recognise it, and celebrate it. It struck me that this is true as much in the classroom as the staffroom. I’m getting badges made.

Don’t think about what they can’t do – think about what they can do


Judith Enright (@judeenright) was passionate and moving in her presentation about SEN. She reminded me of the importance of inclusion not as an after thought, but as something at the very core of what education and leadership is about. Her acronym “LeNS IF” (Leadership, Needs, Staffing, Impact, Finance) is a tool I am already applying not just to SEN but to all school development priorities. Jude also provided a helpful and timely reminder about the changing national and local context for SEN which, in the midst of all the other seismic educational changes, must not get lost.

Digital Learning – it’s the future! (and the present…)

I was really looking forward to meeting Sarah Findlater (@MsFindlater) as a fan of her blog and on-the-money #SLTchat contributions over the weeks. She didn’t disappoint, with an engaging presentation on the power of digital learning. Sarah outlined her own journey from digital novice to edublogging royalty (she was quite modest about it!) and ran out of time to talk about the many tools and sites she is experimenting with, but helpfully tweeted them out afterwards:

I have a similar list at the back of my school’s “Teacher’s Toolkit” and it’s great to be reminded of the resources that are out there to transform learning, and the need to continue to explore, experiment with and evaluate new digital resources. I still hanker after trying Edutronic‘s bold “replace exercise books with blogs” strategy, which is working to an extent with A-Level Media Studies. One day!

Education for social responsibility

Given my anti-independent school tirades in the past (see The Past Feeds the Present and The Universal Panacea) I was very pleasantly surprised to hear Neil Jones (@neiljones) speaking about Education for Social Responsibility. Anyone speaking on behalf of the Independent Association of Prep Schools was going to have a hard time winning me over, but win me over he did with a compelling vision for the overarching purpose of education. This, coupled with John Tomsett’s thought-provoking blog on bridging the independent and state sector divide and the role some independent schools are playing as academy sponsors is continuing to provide me with much food for thought on a subject which is very close to my heart.

Engaging with parents – a letter of hope


The biggest “lump in the throat” moment came from James Heale (again!) as he explained a strategy he’d introduced in his first year as a Headteacher to help raise aspirations and focus his Year 11 on the task ahead. He asked all parents to write a hand written letter to their son or daughter explaining their hopes and aspirations for them over the coming year. So simple. So incredibly powerful I got choked up just thinking about the potential emotional and motivational content of the experience. I went straight back to school and told my Head about it! Of course I also thought about the drawbacks – what about those students whose parents don’t write them a letter? Is there a danger of aggravating strained relationships and causing damage by intruding into the family unit? I think the good it could do is immense and I’ll certainly be exploring it further.

It’s the best job in the world

One thing became absolutely clear through the evening. I heard from James Heale in his first year in Headship and Kenny Frederick (@kennygfrederick) about to retire after seventeen eventful years in post. I heard from deputies, assistants and serving Headteachers. I spoke to primary and secondary colleagues from the West Midlands, East Anglia and across the South of the country. There was an unwavering certainty in every person I spoke to that we can make a difference. At a time when there are more reasons that ever to be downhearted, glum or pessimistic about education in Britain, this was a room full of school leaders who weren’t moaning or complaining, but looking forwards and upwards with positivity and enthusiasm about what could be achieved, not what the barriers were. As the event programme stated, the attendees at #SLTeachmeet work with over 40,000 students and over 2,800 teachers. I walked back to the station through the rainy London streets feeling reassured, hopeful and optimistic for the profession that I love.

Wasted investment?

Why do so many teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years?

This month’s #blogsync is a challenge for me. My pension statement reminded me that I’ve been teaching for 13 years and 151 days last week, and I have never in that time considered leaving the profession. I have had bad days: bleak Friday afternoon lessons with Year 9 where nothing I tried would make them listen; staff and students in dire personal circumstances; terrible micromanagement from over-zealous senior leaders; results dips; bureaucratic burdens too many to mention…but I love this job. I love the children I work with every day. It is a privilege to work alongside professionals as dedicated, selfless and sharp as my colleagues in school past and present. I have never wanted to leave.

Maybe I’m an exception. I’ve always known I wanted to teach. As a teenager I was helping out  on summer music and activity camps and doing work experience in local schools. My Grandpa, both parents, and an uncle are teachers. Okay, so that is quite unusual. But am I really that exceptional? I’ve thought back through my career, through the end-of-term gatherings to say goodbye to departing colleagues, and other than those retiring or going on maternity leave, I can’t think of a single one who wasn’t going on to another teaching job. I reckon I’ve appointed about thirty NQTs or new teachers in my career, and all of them are either still teaching or full-time parents now. I know there’s a problem – everyone keeps telling me there’s a problem with teacher retention. But it’s not a problem I have any personal experience of.

There are problems though with teachers in the profession who probably should be doing something else. I pledged to myself when enrolling on a PGCE that, if I didn’t like it and I wasn’t any good at it, I wouldn’t continue. I’d been on the receiving end of teachers who clearly didn’t enjoy what they were doing and didn’t want to be there, and it was a terrible, soul-destroying experience which made me drop French in Year 9. It must be terrible to be a teacher and not enjoy it. What a nightmare. How could you carry on? But they do – hating the children, blaming them for not listening and not behaving in their classrooms, moaning about how much they have to do, spending every lesson shouting and battling… Teaching is an all-consuming job. You can’t leave it behind at the school gates. Part of your brain is constantly planning, worrying, and making to-do-lists for school. It really is a vocation. This isn’t a problem if you love it, but if you don’t…grim.

Of course there are a million and one things that conspire to make the job unbearable. The national policy compass swings at an almost impossible pace. The accountability framework is punitive and threatening. Pay and pensions are being reformed unfavourably. Many media representations of the profession are negative and loaded with blame. Teachers have to cope with an ever-increasing burden of social problems which make the process of education more difficult almost to the point of impossibility. Yet there are solutions to all of these at school senior leadership level.


I have blogged before about how senior leaders should be like magic umbrellas, shielding their staff from the crap raining down from above. This is part of the essential function of senior leaders. We can’t make Ofsted, Gove, poverty, neglect or bad parenting go away, but in every case we can mitigate and mediate. The principal burden of Ofsted inspections lies with senior teams; the inspection essentially tests the accuracy of the SLT’s self-evaluation judgements. A good SLT wil not pass the pressure and stress of Ofsted on to their staff. SLT set the staff performance management and appraisal agenda within their own schools; a good SLT will ensure that these are fair, transparent and developmental. SLT puts the curriculum and support structures in place to provide the best opportunities for learning for all children, tailored to the intake and context of the school.  SLT have the incredible responsibility of interviewing and hiring the staff in the first place, exercising critical quality control and looking for the sparkle that comes from a love of teaching and an unabashed enthusiasm for the privilege of working with young people. SLT sets the ethos of the school – trusting and supportive, or punitive and controlling.

Of course, some teachers will join the profession and find it’s not what they thought or wanted. They will leave; they should leave the profession. It’s best for them and it’s best for the children they teach. If your heart’s not in it, you shouldn’t be doing it. But when the spark of a great, dedicated and passionate teacher is there, it is the duty of school leaders to catch it, nurture it and provide the conditions in which it can thrive.

The Importance of System Leadership

This week the news was full of the “attainment gap” between the “best” and “worst” schools’ GCSE results. The Department of Education said it was “accelerating” its academy programme to bridge the “appalling” attainment gap. However, I do not believe that the academy and free school programme is the answer, but rather a solution in search of a problem. In creating thousands of publicly funded independent schools, I worry that the programme is in danger of undermining effective system leadership in this country.

What is system leadership?

Put simply, system leadership is about taking the wider view of education beyond your own school walls. Although we are accountable for students within our own institutions, we are responsible for those beyond them. As I have progressed in my career, the importance of system leadership has become ever more stark, and the opportunities and challenges for developing it more widespread.

As a Head of Department, I remember attending local authority Heads-of-English meetings three times a year. These were powerful drivers of CPD and sharing good practice, facilitated and led by advisors from the authority. These people had visited all the schools in the area and were able to deliver an overview of current national policy development and match expertise from one school to needs in another. They were energising, and ensured that leaders of English departments across the region had access to the same high-quality messages. This is a good model to me of how system leadership works. If someone had come up with a great way to track assessment across Key Stage 3, it didn’t just stay in their school – it spread and was adapted, borrowed and adopted across the region.

The forces working against successful system leadership

Academies, in opting out of local authority control, remove the authority as a viable provider of system leadership. I recognise that I was lucky in the experience described above, and that not all local authorities were able to deliver the same high-quality support and networking that I describe. However, the stated aim of the academies programme is for all schools to become publicly funded independent schools – and one of the dangers of independence is cutting yourself off from pre-existing networks of support.

The performance tables, likewise, pit schools against one another in competition. Confession time: I have fallen into the trap on the publication of the performance tables of pressing the “sort” function at the top of each column to see how we’ve done. I have celebrated when we’ve been at the top. I have been irritated when we’re 7th or 8th in the table. Once, I even caught myself being pleased that another local school had seen their results dip, meaning that we leapfrogged them in the tables. I performed ritual self-flagellation in horror and shame afterwards, taking a long hard look in the mirror and asking myself “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” But the tables are set up to provide those competitive comparisons which can work against successful system leadership. Where is the motivation to help neighbouring schools, when we are set up to compete against them?

I read with dismay an article in the TES highlighting a section in the consultation document published by the DfE on secondary school accountability measures. In section 7.1, admittedly for the first year only, the proposal is to “use a relative measure for the floor standard. In this approach we would identify the worst performing number of schools, rather than those below a pre-determined floor standard.” In other words, schools would be competing not to be in the bottom x% of schools on the new accountability measures, rather than to be above a particular score on the measure. Where is the incentive there to share best practice with your neighbour? Your neighbour will be – in fact, as well as in name – your rival school.

The good news – where system leadership is thriving

I realise I laid into academies earlier. I stand by the paragraph – that there is a risk to independence. However, astute Headteachers have been alert to this danger and created new alliances and networks to ensure that they are not isolated. Some of these are through academy chains, not all of which are evil for-profit privateers comandeering schools against their will and sacking all the staff over the age of 35. Some of the academy chains – I might point to the Cabot Federation in Bristol as an example – are predicated on successful system leadership and David Carter has blogged about the excellent model of distributed leadership that is being developed there.

Although local authorities seem to be largely spent as drivers of networked school improvement at secondary level, schools are doing it for themselves. Teaching School Alliances are another way of developing and formalising these relationships for CPD and teacher training between institutions. Yes, they are a threat to university-level initial teacher training, and a balance needs to be struck, but they are positive moves for school-led systems to develop training.

There are also many more informal arrangements. Locally I know that the Outstanding Facilitator Programme is beginning to enable school-to-school development of teaching and learning programmes, and there is a similar model of school-to-school Leadership Development which I am involved in. These are good programmes and being delivered and driven by serving teachers and education leaders is both a blessing (they are “real”, in context, and tailored) and a curse (they cannot be the top priority of the people involved).

And then there is Twitter, the blogosphere, Teachmeets, online forums from The Guardian Teacher Network, the TES and others. There are plenty of great blogs singing the praises of online collaboration (like this and this) and I am a fully signed-up convert to all of it. My practice and in particular my leadership role have been transformed since I started using twitter as a tool for my job, and since I properly started following and reading teacher blogs. The richness and generosity of fellow professionals in sharing best practice is staggering and, for those in the loop, it is an energising and affirming experience. I need only look at the international spread of Ross McGill’s 5 minute plan to see the power of twitter and blogging in spreading a genuinely good idea.


Twitter and blogging is really only hitting the relatively few teachers in the loop. What about those who aren’t? The onus is on every teacher to share best practice and raise standards within our school system, not just the school we are employed in. The academy programme has dismantled the mechanism of local authority support which was supposed to ensure that the system was led effectively. I worry that the fractured nature of 2309 publicly funded independent schools will lead to a greater achievement gap, rather than a smaller one, unless there is proper system leadership in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen. And, in the absence of any meaningful DfE-led strategic system leadership, the onus falls on us, the teachers and leaders in local schools, to make sure it happens on a local level through partnerships, chains, federations and alliances, and on a national one through the online community.

A whole-curriculum approach to literacy

I first heard about the Matthew Effect in some training materials Geoff Barton put on his excellent website. Subsequently I read a call to arms on whole school literacy from the equally excellent David Didau (@learningspy) citing the same source. For the uninitiated, the Matthew Effect refers to Daniel Rigney’s book of the same name and is based on this passage from Matthew 13:12: “The rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer”. Rigney applies this to literacy, arguing that:

“good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, (whilst) poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.”

This leads to the literate learning more, faster, whilst those with poor literacy skills learn less, more slowly. Ed Hirsch Jr builds on this theme in his book “The Schools We Need“:

“The children who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on, and they can turn the new knowledge into still more Velcro to gain still more knowledge”.

Literacy is the velcro students need to gain purchase on the rest of the curriculum

There is no doubt this is happening at my school. We are doing exceptionally well with those who come to us with average or good skills already. We provide plenty of opportunities for them to develop more intellectual Velcro and progress rapidly. What we need to get better at is working with those who come to us in Year 7 without intellectual capital, who struggle to get a grip on the curriculum we offer and fall further and further behind. These are the students who often display low-level disruptive behaviour; without a handle on the curriculum that is being delivered they are left with little choice but to play up.

It took a chance conversation with our Head of English to remind me of an experiment we had run in the English Department of a previous school. I am committed to mixed ability teaching (here’s why) but the brilliant English teachers in the team were struggling with differentiation and asked if we’d consider setting. We compromised, creating mixed ability groups where the students were all weaker in either reading, writing, or speaking and listening according to assessment data. This allowed the staff to focus on developing that core skill; although the group itself consisted of students of the full ability range, what they all had in common was that their reading was weaker than their writing (or vice versa). It was a great success – teachers were able to differentiate the curriculum more effectively, and student outcomes improved, not just in the focus area but across the board at a faster rate than those grouped in the usual way. Why shouldn’t this work across the curriculum?

So this is the model we are going to adopt. From September, Year 8 and 9 will be grouped for almost all their subjects according to their area of greatest literacy need – reading, writing, or speaking and listening. I am hopeful that this will bring the teaching of literacy to the forefront of teachers’ consciousness across the curriculum and provide the necessary focus on a particular skill area. Thus, when teaching History to a writing-focus group, the teacher might spend a little longer teaching the skills of writing a good history essay, whilst the Geographer with the reading-focus group might plan a starter on skim-reading skills before tackling a lesson which requires reading from three sources. The Drama teacher who has a group with a speaking-and-listening focus could make an immeasurable difference, and an emphasis on presentation skills and group work across the curriculum for learners who struggle with those aspects could do the same.

Of course, this isn’t just going to happen. Teachers are going to need time to adapt their existing curriculum plans and schemes of work to look for the lessons which may need adaptation or variation depending on the focus of the group in front of them. They are also going to need the tools to deliver literacy skills to students with confidence. And thankfully, David Didau has provided those tools in an approach he calls “Literacy Cubed”.

Literacy Cubed (image from The Learning Spy

I have adapted David’s approach into a single-side of A4 Literacy Cubed help-sheet for staff. There are nine strategies here to help develop writing, reading and spelling. More will follow on oracy, of course. But if everyone – each member of staff, in each lesson – was teaching these strategies, my hope is that it will provide those tiny hooks that some of our learners so desperately need so they can begin to cling on to the learning that is happening around them and, eventually, begin to turn that learning into hooks of their own.

Here’s the Prezi I’ve prepared to launch this with staff following really enthusiastic reception from SLT, Heads of Faculty and Heads of Year. I’ll use this blog to chart the progress of this approach, which is the first step on a wider “Learning without Limits” campaign for 2013-14. Of which, more anon…

Retaining the best teachers

I had an exchange on twitter last week with our excellent Head of ICT (@morewebber) following his proposal to create a MMORPG called “School”. We discussed the relative merits of a free or pay-to-play experience of the game called “School” – you can read the conversation here. In amongst this conversation @morewebber posed a real humdinger of a question:

So what can we do to ensure that the best teachers are retained in the profession and, more specifically, in the state sector? As a profession we need to make sure that we can retain the best staff, and it’s largely the responsibility of school leaders to ensure this happens. Here’s what I would suggest we need:

Professional Development

This should go without saying. Good quality continuous professional development is an absolute bottom line essential for the retention of teachers within the profession as well as the continued improvement of the quality of the service we provide. Ross Morrison McGill has written a fantastic manifesto on CPD for the Guardian’s Teacher Network as well as a more radical suggestion as part of the #blogsync “Universal Panacea” project, and Sir Tim Brighouse has called for a national body to oversee professional development. This may or may not come to pass; I hope it does. However, it is the responsibility of each school to provide good quality CPD for all its staff. Not “going on a course” CPD necessarily – although this has its place – but continuous professional development. A daily dialogue about improving practice does not happen by itself and, if we want to develop great teachers who continue to improve throughout their careers, then CPD is the most important personnel investment a school can make.

Career Progression

Opportunities for promotion are really important to give teachers a long career in teaching. It’s important to recognise that progression to middle or senior leadership is not for everyone and other responsibilities are really helpful in encouraging staff to develop particular skills. The days of having a national career progression structure are gone – the Advanced Skills Teacher status still exists within the DfE structure although the role’s definition is no longer clear. In the new era, it is up to individual schools to set their own structures up. The challenge to Headteachers and senior teams is to provide the structures within their schools to allow staff routes into responsibility within the institution.

I have been learning a lot over the last week about system leadership. The theory of system leadership states that Headteachers and school leaders, whilst accountable for the education of the children within their institutions, are responsible for the education of all children. Thus when we train student teachers on teaching practice, or develop NQTs, or provide opportunities for Heads of Department, Year or House to lead whole school initiatives, we are preparing them for roles in other schools. The children in those other schools benefit from the hard work we have done in our school to develop those staff. And we, in turn, benefit from the work done by others to train and develop the staff that we recruit. Retention of great staff within a school is a strong temptation – “we want to hang on to them, let’s see if we can find a role to keep them here” – but it is one that needs to be resisted unless there is an existing role or need that can be fulfilled by that member of staff. Sometimes the best thing is for them to move on, gain experience of a different context, and improve the lives of children in a different school.


If a member of staff has an idea, it should be encouraged. Innovation is the lifeblood of a great teacher. You want to start a club? Run a trip? Coach a team? Go for it. Want to try a new idea with your teaching? Yes, of course you can. Of course, not everything is possible (or affordable), but if there’s a spark of an idea it’s the school’s duty to encourage and fan it into flame, not douse it in the cold water of habit or cynicism.


So many great ideas founder in their application because insufficient support is provided to the staff who are supposed to be putting it into action. How many SmartBoards are there in your school being used as projector screens? And why? Because staff weren’t trained to use them properly. Good teachers need to be supported in the same way or they too will flounder. Everybody struggles and it is precisely at that moment that a colleague, middle or senior leader will be there in a good school to help.

Happy Schools

At their best, schools are surely the greatest places to work in the world. Getting the culture and ethos right makes this so. School leaders need to shield teachers as much as possible from stress (the umbrella), hold on to what’s valuable (the sieve), ensure there is an appropriate work/life balance, and make as much space for fun and laughter in a day’s work as possible. Give and take, flexibility, and sensitivity are crucial so that staff feel supported, looked after, and happy to come to work. And if they’re happy to come to work today, they’ll come back tomorrow and give their all to the best job in the world.

Teaching and Learning Twilight Training

I’m running three twilight training sessions in 2013 on teaching and learning tips and strategies. My aim is to give staff a set of simple tools that they can try out in their lessons with minimum fuss and bother. I’ve magpied a load of stuff from previous schools I’ve worked at, other teachers, Twitter, and blogs to come up with my own “Teacher’s Toolkit” which is below. Especial credit to the excellent David Didau (@learningspy) for the Literacy Cubed section and to Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit) for the previously-blogged five minute lesson plan.
CVS Teachers Toolkit 1.2

Teaching and Learning

In January I will be running a twilight inset for staff to develop teaching and learning. The idea behind the session is to share simple tips which will refresh staff and encourage to plan and deliver engaging lessons.

I’m going to start with Ross McGill’s excellent 5 Minute Lesson Plan:

Then I’ve adapted a Teacher’s Toolkit of my own from one I had at a previous school.

I’m going to try out a few of the strategies on the staff in the session, then get them to think of a few applications themselves. Within the week, I want them all to have tried the 5-minute plan and three of the strategies in the kit – and told a colleague how it went. That’s all. With that, I hope, I’ll be able to generate sixty conversations about teaching and learning that otherwise might not have happened – and I’ll count the twilight a success.