Reflections on #ILConf17

David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates (2)

I think this must be my ninth or tenth Inspiring Leadership conference at the ICC in Birmingham. Previously known as Seizing Success (and run by the National College), the three-day annual event has always been eagerly anticipated by leaders across the country.

This year was no different, and the range of speakers was as eclectic as ever. Particular highlights for me included Margaret Heffernan who skilfully weaved a narrative around horse manure, super-chickens and Adele, Pasi Sahlberg and his dad-dancing and air guitar, Alistair Smith blatantly sniffing drugs on stage in front of a hall of headteachers, and the wonderfully esoteric BBC arts editor Will Gompertz. Oh, and Roy Hodgson, who was basically, well, Roy Hodgson.

But perhaps the stand-out session for me, and the one I was looking forward to the most was one of the masterclasses. It was called ‘What do inspectors think they are looking for and what can they really see in schools?’ It was set up as a debate chaired by Ed Dorrell from the TES and featured Sean Harford and Becky Allen. Both sides were given ten minutes to put forward their case, for and against, and then thrown open to the floor for discussion. Even though I’d worked as an inspector for a number of years, I’d never heard Sean Harford speak before in the flesh and so was looking forward to it.

Harford was up first. You could immediately see why he has such a following on Twitter and that many of us are keen to #HelpSean. Amenable, down to earth and above all, human, he immediately sought to reframe the question stating that the focus needs to be more about what inspectors are looking ‘at’ than ‘for’. He then went on to remind us of the difference between sections 5 and 8 and how inspectors come to make their judgements.

One aspect though that caught my attention was the notion of ‘unconscious bias’. The National Director of Education was keen to distance himself from the fact that inspectors won’t ever get it wrong. ‘I’m never going to stand on a public platform and say that inspectors always get it right, no more than you as Headteachers can guarantee that what goes on in classrooms will always be of the highest quality. This’, he concluded, ‘is the human side of the process.’ In other words, according to Harford, the system understandably has it flaws and is a necessary trade-off if we are to avoid judging schools simply by banding them into four quartiles based entirely on test results and a laptop.

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I got in a spot of bother once as a serving inspector for daring to allude that the process of inspection was flawed. But it was, still is and always will be flawed all the while unconscious bias exists. In a low stake system, I can live with this (such as SATs moderation), but when schools are closed down and people lose their jobs on the back of such bias there simply must be a better way. The paradox of course, is that all the while humans are making subjective decisions – not driven by measurable and quantifiable data – human bias will always exist and so the system will continue to be flawed.

The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been, a point not lost on Harford. When questioned on this, he quite rightly reminded us that it’s not Ofsted’s job to set the bar (it’s the sectors). Ofsted’s job is to judge how a school is doing, not to decree what should happen as a result. Subsequently converting a school into an academy is a matter for the RSC and should not be taken into account by Ofsted when making an inspection judgement (the ‘fear or favour’ effect).

Dr Becky Allen, Director of Education at Datalab and an expert at large scale analysis and research was up next and did a fine job of trying to make a case for this ‘better way’. She quoted a number of studies and research that suggested inspection was unreliable and flawed. We need to lower the stakes, she said, associated with a volatile and unreliable human-error-led system. In short, inspections are based on opinion and divergent data and not on facts or certainty. The weakness in her discourse was the fact that – just like the rest of us – she knew the system was broken, but didn’t have an alternative solution.

We then had a brief bout of sparring where the chair, the two protagonists and members of the jury could cross-examine each other. Both Allen and Harford were compelling, gracious and convincing in their arguments and there were no clear winners. For example, on the question of whether or not it’s harder to be judged outstanding in deprived areas, both sides conceded that it probably was. Certainly statistically it’s a lot harder, but that’s most likely a result of other factors such as the difficulty in recruiting teachers and a whole host of other situational variables.

The point was well-made though that leaders in these schools are often recognised as doing a good job in challenging circumstances. And even in schools that were less than good, Harford reiterated that in the case of RI, more than a third have good leadership.

He then went on to remind us that in the 25 years of inspection, we’ve come a long way. Those of us around in the mid-90s will remember that a typical secondary school inspection consisted of 17 inspectors spending five days in school and then writing a 60-page report published about three months later. A similar inspection today will consist of just two inspectors and one day. At last, suggests Harford, we seem to have have a system fit-for-purpose at a cost per school per year equivalent to that of a fifth of TA. (At which point Ed Dorrell asked the audience of heads what would they rather have, Ofsted or a fifth of a TA. I’m sure you can guess the answer.)

So there we have it, a system that has improved over the years, is much slimmer, but awash with human error and understandably so. It is flawed and will continue to be so, hence the continued conveyor belt of new inspection frameworks, each one ‘much-improved’. At one point we will hopefully finally get it right to the point that we won’t need to keep changing it. (The next framework will be published in summer 2019.)

By now, every school in the country has probably been inspected during Ofsted’s lifetime at least five or six times and we have a system in which 90% of heads are good or better in terms of their leadership. Never before have we had so much expertise and experience within our profession. We spend hours, days, weeks and months in our schools trying to work out exactly what it is that we are good and not so good at. And still we don’t always know because what we are looking ‘at’ and what we are looking ‘for’ are both so damned illusive.

Relying on a system therefore that requires one person popping in to a school every few years for a couple of hours in an attempt at telling us the answer simply won’t wash. I just hope that we don’t waste another 25 years trying to find the answer.


(Postscript: The painting at the top of this page is The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1781. Its significance is that it appeared in two unrelated slide decks on days one and three respectively: Steve Munby’s when comparing headteachers as Philosophers, Architects and Surgeons, and then by Will Gompertz on thinking like an artist).

A rallying cry for the arts


One of the more pleasurable elements of my job is my role as a strategic board member (and chair) of a regional Arts Council Bridge Organisation. Based at the mac (formerly the Midlands Arts Centre) in Birmingham, Arts Connect is responsible for the delivery of the arts and culture offer across the region. Although it is operated by The University of Wolverhampton, it is entirely reliant on funding from Arts Council England. Without the funds, schools across the region would be unable to participate in Artsmark, Arts Award or enjoy any of the experiences provided by local Cultural Education Partnerships.

But I fear for our future; not so much for Arts Connect as an organisation, but the arts in general. It can’t have escaped your attention that the future of school funding is perilous to say the least. For the first time this millennium, heads are going to have go through their budgets line by line to make savings, and significant ones at that. Across our MAT alone (6 schools) we anticipate a shortfall in the hundreds of thousands, and that’s just for starters. Factor in the increased pension contributions that we all face and the future does not look rosy.

Never before has the need to issue a rallying cry to save the arts been more apparent as it is now. When it comes to making difficult budget issues, because the arts are often seen by many as icing and not cake, there are no prizes as to what’s likely to get the chop.

Figures shared at today’s board meeting show that across the West Midlands (14 local authorities covering 2600 schools), less than one in ten are involved with Artsmark (8%). Across the country the figure is close to 15%, almost double. Compare this with Arts Council England’s target of 50%, and we have a very long way to go. Factor in the new National Funding Formula, and you can see why that target is looking increasingly unlikely.

At the heart of the work of Arts Connect is a fundamental belief that arts and culture can enhance learning and transform lives. I believe in this and I hope you do too. I sincerely hope that as a teacher or leader in your school you will fight tooth and nail to protect the arts as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to the pressures of accountability – Ofsted included – the arts can be the first to be marginalised. I say this gingerly because I don’t actually believe it to be so, although sadly, in reality the pressures of inspection invariably mean that the arts end up taking a back seat. The lead performers will always be English and maths, with art and culture playing very much a supporting role.

The curriculum that we offer our young people must be riddled with art and cultural experiences. Without it, we cannot make sense of the world or ourselves. How can we expect children to embrace cultural diversity for example, if we don’t provide opportunities for them to engage with the world through arts and culture? (I feel at this point that I should take a moment to extol the virtues of the arts, but if I had to do that then the battle is already lost. We may as well all go home.)

School leaders are under ever-increasing pressure to show return on investment (ROI). This can only be demonstrated through impact in terms of outcomes and achievement. It’s the ‘So what?’ question. The problem primary schools face of course is that it’s very difficult to demonstrate how the arts (as opposed to art) have made a difference to young children’s lives because it’s almost impossible to measure in a meaningful way. I’ve always believed that if you stumble across something that is difficult to measure then it’s probably a good thing to do. Take SMSC, character education or social and emotional aspects of learning for example. The arts are the same; the minute we start to test it… well, heaven forbid.

Unfortunately, the very fact that it can’t be tested is often the reason why it gets marginalised and may ultimately be its downfall. Unlike with maths and English, it’s very difficult in a SES or headteacher’s report to governors to produce charts and tables that show how pupils are achieving in the arts. Even if we did (and a number of schools are doing exactly that with increasing aplomb), it would only be a matter of time before we’d then be expected to show how we compare with other schools.

Over the years, schools have learnt to play the game. Heads know only too well that a positive inspection outcome can be achieved without any arts, so long as outcomes are strong. I recall on several occasions as an inspector under previous frameworks, examples of schools that we’d graded as good or outstanding without seeing an ounce of arts, despite the children telling us that they were crying out for it. It was extremely frustrating, but our hands were tied by the inspection criteria, attainment especially. That said, the current framework is much-improved, particularly in regard to how well pupils thrive. The difficulty of course is how you go about proving it on the day in such a short space of time. (This is why I am a fan of peer review as it allows colleagues – in the words of Mary Myatt – to dive deeper and linger longer.)

I urge you to stand up for the arts. I urge you to resist the pressure of ditching the trips and visits and partnerships you may have with existing creatives and arts organisations. Rather than see them as inevitable victims of austerity, instead be wise, be brave and build your curriculum around them. If you haven’t already done so, contact your regional Bridge Organisation and see how they can support you, perhaps through Artsmark. It’s a much-improved beast to what it once was and is now based very much on whole-school self-evaluation and improvement.

You can find more information on how to find your nearest Arts Council Bridge Organisation here. All ten are currently putting in bids to Arts Council England for funding for the next four years and it’s unlikely that it will continue beyond that. There’s £10 million up for grabs each year, divvied up amongst the ten and so I urge you to fill your face and have your cake whilst you still can.


My latest book, The Art of Standing Out, is available on Amazon.


The Power of Love

Have you ever experienced what it feels like when you get several hundred like-minded people together and lock them in a room for the day to see where the magic can take you? And that during that day you get to dream about ‘what if…?’ and get to ask really powerful questions like ‘why can’t our schools be like Disneyland?’

We did. On the last Friday of the half term, we closed all the schools within the trust and got them together at a lovely venue and held our inaugural ‘Standing Out’ conference. Everybody was there, including support staff, governors, trustees, directors and teachers. We didn’t literally lock them all in, but we certainly closed the doors, battened down the hatches and spent the day re-calibrating our moral compasses.

As it was the start of the Valentine’s weekend we wanted to launch the conference by inviting each and every one of us to fall in love. Or more to the point, to fall back in love with what called us to the profession in the first place.

Having enjoyed an uplifting opening choral performance from one of our schools, I had the pleasure of kicking off the event by exploring the concept of ‘The Art of Standing Out’. We reaffirmed our core purpose, which is ‘to make people become the best they can be’. We then explored three key themes of what makes for a standout school: Great culture, great teaching and great experiences.

Great culture: We explored our beliefs, in particular dispelling any fears we may have around our limiting beliefs. With our empowering beliefs established, we then looked at our values and launched ‘Trust Us: Making Our Values Happen’. This document was written by our cross-party changemaker team that unpacked each of our five values, providing examples of what these might look like in practice. We then celebrated and affirmed FIDES (Latin for ‘to trust’) so that we can Focus on family, Insist on excellence, Do good as we go, Embrace innovation, and Seize success. As our core values, these ensure that our organisational culture is always conducive to wholesome growth.



Great teaching: We asked ourselves the Disneyland question and how we can ensure that we let RIP in our lessons so that learning is Real, Immersive and Purposeful. We explored what 21st century learning looks like and how we can ensure that children are taught to be confident independent learners, with a strong focus on meta-learning. Moreover, we want our children to always have JOBS and to experience the Joy Of Being Stuck in their lessons. Most importantly, we acknowledged that as teachers, quite often what we want to say is different to what the children are interested in, and so we must find a way to merge the two so that learning is relevant.

Great experiences: We want our children to experience a challenge-based curriculum that is inspiring and engaging, so that pupils run to school each day buzzing with excitement at the thought of another day of mouthwatering thrills-based learning. We re-affirmed our commitment to the pursuit of the creation of a curriculum that guarantees a continual stream of learning opportunities that will tantalise and inspire in pupils a desire to dream, imagine and thrive.

To bring all this to life, we ran a series of workshops throughout the day to awaken the creativity within, be it through the arts, social enterprise, technology or good old-fashioned maths mastery. We then wrapped the whole thing up with a thought-provoking keynote from Andy Buck, from Leadership Matters. We are eternally grateful to @RobArtsConnect (Arts Connect and MAT trustee), @JonathanClith79 (Real Ideas Organisation) and the team from Apple (@krcs_education) for giving up their time to host the workshops, in addition to our very own @matt_wynne1.

We even managed to get all of the heads up on stage to do a bit of pecha kutcha. Meaning chit-chat in Japanese, each head had four minutes to present four slides on ‘what makes my school standout’. Slides weren’t allowed to contain text and were timed so that after one minute they automatically moved on. Ranging from car engines, to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, space ships to Anton du Becke, the heads took the challenge by the scruff of the neck, showing why they themselves in particular stand out. We all know how much heads love talking about their schools, so this was no mean feat to restrict them to only two hundred and forty seconds.

At the end of the day, we asked each delegate to make a pledge. They wrote these down and we intend to send them to them at the end of the summer term. I am confident that they will make the change they want to see. Examples of pledges include:

  • I will always consider the real meaning behind the lesson – the ‘so what?’
  • Always try and praise the children’s efforts and not intelligence (a growth mindset).
  • To be the teacher that the children want to be with.
  • Stop limiting my beliefs and empower them!

We didn’t quite manage to get #StandingOut16 trending, but we certainly made a lot of noise on Twitter. At one point, @Andy__Buck tweeted, ‘One could be forgiven for thinking that every member of staff at @VicParkAcademy is on Twitter #eagertolearn’.

You don’t need to be in a trust to experience the power of synergy. Any group of like-minded schools can get together and make it happen, be it a local cluster, federation, collaboration, teaching school alliance or whatever. What’s essential though is that you invite absolutely everyone, provide a lovely venue (such as the Birmingham Botanical Gardens) and feed them well. The rest looks after itself.

The evaluations are now in and we are delighted with how positive they are. The words ‘inspiring’ and ‘inspirational’ crop up a number of times, as does ‘you ran out of chips’. As a multi-academy trust we can offer many things, such as sticky toffee pudding to die for, but when it comes to fried potatoes of the chipped variety, I’m afraid even we’ll have to pass.


Andrew’s book, ‘The Art of Standing Out’ will be available soon. Published by John Catt as #thestandoutbook.


How social enterprise can spice up your school

It shouldn’t take you too long to read this post. A little over four minutes should do it. That’s precisely how long I had to make my pitch at a recent RSA Engage speed-networking event.  Hosted at the impressive Impact Hub in Birmingham, the eight fellows invited to pitch had four minutes each to get their product across to the audience before rounding it off with three ‘asks’. I spoke about Ballot Street Spice our primary school social enterprise that we run as a community interest company – described recently in the Independent as an ‘online curry business’. It’s not quite at that level yet, but who knows, one day we may be delivering to a house near you.


Here, pretty much word-for-word, is what I said:

“Tackling social mobility has been a passion of mine ever since I became a headteacher 16 years ago. In fact it’s one of the reasons why I first became a teacher. I love the challenge of working in multicultural communities where I can make a real difference to transforming the life chances of the families we serve. I started out in Liverpool as a rookie teacher soon after the Toxteth riots in a city ravaged by strikes and militancy. In London as a headteacher, never a day went by without there being some headline or other referring to an ‘immigration crisis’.  And at Victoria Park Academy in Ballot Street, Smethwick – my current school – we are reminded daily of the devastating effects of the Birmingham riots as we view from the school the poignant memorial in Victoria Park that commemorates the lives of the three local young men killed in the Birmingham riots.

So it’s tough raising standards. We were once a failing school in special measures. We are now outstanding and listed by the government as being one of the Top 100 schools in England. But I’ve realised that we can’t carry on improving our school by continuing to incrementally increase our test results. This is not what marks our school out for success. Instead, we need to do more to transform the life chances of our children and families. And that’s where social enterprise comes in as a solution to the problem of how we tackle social mobility.

Traditional methods of parental engagement no longer work. A more radical approach is needed which is why we set up our own social enterprise: Ballot Street Spice.

For more than half a century, people have been arriving in Smethwick from all corners of the world. In our school alone we speak over 40 different languages. You can read more about this in tomorrow’s Independent and how we are one of only five Ashoka Changemaker schools in the UK and 130 in the world. We wanted to try to capture the rich and vibrant tapestry of cultures, languages and traditions that exist on our doorstep, many of whom go back several generations. It is through our social enterprise that we want to bring people together and share their spice stories before they are lost.

Through a successful crowdfunding campaign and Heritage Lottery bid we are about to produce an oral history of Smethwick as told through spice stories of ancient hand-me-down recipes and blends. So together as a community, we grow, harvest, roast, grind and blend the spices by hand to make original blends and recipes as chosen by the children. By buying our products you are not only helping to preserve the art of spice blending, but also helping us create employment for the local community as well as providing real and purposeful learning opportunities for our students. This is what makes our social enterprise like no other in the UK.

As a school, we cannot use taxpayers’ money to invest in our enterprise so we are entirely dependent on income from sales or in kind. We have no funding stream to promote or market our social enterprise other than through social media and word of mouth. But it is not cash that we are after. Instead, we have three simple asks where we want your help:

  1. Are you a partner organisation who would be interested in working with Ballot Street from a CSR or business partnership perspective?
  2. Are you aware of potential stockists or retailers or any other local sales opportunities in the local area?
  3. Can you help with any PR opportunities, contacts in the catering world, food bloggers who could help us tell our story?

To find out more, please find us on Instagram or Facebook or follow @TheSpiceAcademy on Twitter. Better still, come out to Ballot Street and see for yourself what we have achieved in the past twelve months . When you do, you’ll be greeted in the main entrance by a quote from Walt Disney – ‘If you can dream it, you can do it. Now go out and change the world.’ We know our children can dream it. We know our children can do it. But if we want to really and truly step up as changemakers and change the world, we need your help. Please join us and be a part of our remarkable story.”

The importance of being noticed

Being a headteacher of an academy only a few miles from the Trojan horse schools in Birmingham means that I have taken more than a passing interest in the recent developments. It has made me re-visit our own Articles of Association to ensure that we do not find ourselves in a similar situation, especially now that we are a multi academy trust. I know one of the Birmingham schools very well as I’ve inspected it in the past and it truly was an outstanding school. The teaching staff were exceptional and the children delightful and so it’s tragic to see the situation deteriorate in such a way. As a result we are now seeing front page inspection reports that confirm that achievement and teaching are outstanding whilst behaviour and leadership are inadequate. How can that possibly be so? When placed in the context of the Trojan horse scenario it does of course seem plausible.

The government were quick to respond and came up with a two-part solution: (1) Introduce no-notice inspections and (2) Teach British values. (Note: On first draft I mis-typed British as Brutish which the spell-checker allowed to go through. For a fleeting moment I was tempted to leave it, having noted the irony.)  I am certainly not going to be drawn into the ‘British Values’ debate as I have not a clue what these are. However, I do know a little bit about ‘no-notice’ inspections – a concept HMCI is keen to remind us he wanted to introduce several years ago. The notion of ‘no notice’ has therefore been around for a while and the merits and de-merits have been discussed and debated time and time again. Personally, I have no problem with it at all and am more than happy for any inspector to visit my schools un-announced.

But what does concern me is that when inspectors do turn up with no notice, they end up noticing the wrong things. The danger could be that ‘no notice’ means ‘not noticed’. In fact I think I’m more concerned about some Ofsted inspectors taking no notice of all the good things that go in our schools than I am of no-notice inspections. Ever since the demise of the SEF and the Pre-Inspection Briefing it’s almost impossible for headteachers to be able to tell their school’s story and set the inspection in context. Schools are simply too complicated a place to do justice to an inspection without engaging with the rich narrative that sits behind each and every school. As an inspector myself, I used to find the PIB incredibly useful in learning about the school’s context. Without it I feel as if I’m going in to the school ill-equipped. With every will in the world, I worry as an inspector that I might fail to notice a piece of crucial evidence that confirms how well a school is doing.

I know from personal experience as a headteacher on the receiving end of how frustrating this can be. I can recall more than one occasion, when despite my very best efforts, inspectors failed to notice things in my school that I felt were crucial to the inspection and subsequent evidence. On one occasion I even put in a formal complaint taking it right to the final stage. But alas, it made no difference, the complaint was not upheld. At least I tried.

I recall in particular a post-special measures monitoring visit several years ago involving a single inspector.  I remember trying to get the HMI to notice how independent our pupils were when in class. The pupils were lead learners and would decide themselves when they needed to leave their seat and go and find the solution to a problem to help them become unstuck. We didn’t want them to be reliant on simply asking the teacher. This might require the use of one of the 5Bs, perhaps by speaking to a Buddy or looking at the Board (learning wall) before ultimately going to the Boss. Or it could be the use of a TASC wheel that requires pupils to move around the classroom so that they get to Think Actively in a Social Context. We do a lot of envoying, swag-bagging, splatting and rainbowing, all of which require the pupils to move around and talk to each other. Learning is messy, active and lively.

As I was conducting a learning walk with the inspector he entered several classrooms where the pupils were out of their seats and wandering around ‘letting RIP’. In one Year 3 class in particular they were actively engaged in learning experiences that were Real, Immersive and Powerful (RIP). It was fabulous and I was buzzing, confident that we’d nailed it.

I watched as the inspector scribbled furiously on his EF each time a child got out of their seat without telling the teacher. I was urging him to go and talk to the children to hear about what they were doing. He didn’t, instead remaining at the door diligently keeping a record of the number of times a child got out of their seat without asking for the teacher’s permission. He seemed very pre-occupied and it was at this point I sensed things were taking a turn for the worse.

We left the classroom and discussed the lesson. He wasn’t impressed. I asked him why and he told me he didn’t like the fact that there was no system in place for children walking around the classroom. I asked what sort of system he would have liked to have seen (Tickets? Formal invites? A rota perhaps?) but he was having none of it. It was the teacher’s job apparently to teach the children the routine correctly, whatever this might have been. Besides, he continued, the children at this age really ought to be able to stay in their seats and learn on their own without keep leaving their desks. I asked him if he’d noticed the learning walls or learning power tools or thinking hats or CoRT 1 thinking tools the pupils kept referring to that helped them learn independently. He said he hadn’t because it was only a brief learning walk, the implication being that he wasn’t expected to notice them. The inspector was so hung-up on the children leaving their seats that he’d failed to notice the powerful learning that was going on around him. I was not in the least bit surprised therefore to read in the final report that the pace of learning in some lessons was slow because ‘classroom routines were not fully embedded…’

Although deflated, the disappointment didn’t last long as ten months later a full inspection team arrived and thankfully noticed exactly the same things and judged the school to be outstanding.

So if we are going to have no-notice inspections, it’s essential that when Ofsted do visit, we as leaders need to make sure they notice all the right things. This has always been one of the criticisms of the inspection regime right back from the days when Ofsted first started over a quarter of a century ago. No matter how complex or challenging schools were, trying to convince an inspector that what they had observed was not necessarily reflective of what goes on all the time was very difficult. So to bring this rather cathartic post to a light-hearted close I am reminded of a story that did the rounds back in the day when Ofsted first emerged. It highlights perfectly the importance of noticing the right things.

An Ofsted Inspector was walking with a friend in a park when he saw a woman throwing a stick into the lake for her dog to fetch. The dog ran up to the water’s edge but instead of diving in to the lake,  it proceeded to walk across the surface of the water, collect the stick in its  mouth and walk back to its master. As if to prove to the astonished onlookers that this was no fluke, the woman threw the stick even further out into the lake. Once again, the dog obediently walked across the surface of the water to retrieve the stick and brought it back to its master. Whilst everyone else continued to be dumbstruck by the awesome event they had just witnessed, the Inspector turned to his friend, shook his head in disbelief and said admonishingly, ‘Would you believe it, a dog that can’t swim’.