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Inside the infinite loop

I am writing this in an Apple conference room in Cupertino, California as I await a transfer to San Jose airport. The past four days have been exhilarating to say the least. I’d even be so bold as to say it’s been the best PLD experience I’ve ever had. I am very grateful to be invited by Apple and SSAT to be a part it. It’s not every day you get invited to spend a week behind the curtain with Apple at their HQ.

As I await the long flight home, I’m trying to use this time to reflect and make sense of all that I’ve seen. My head is spinning.

Further, more in-depth posts will follow. Such as how impressive an organisation Apple are when you get to the core. It’s been such a privilege to be allowed behind the curtain and go places very few have been. To have walked the same corridors as Steve Jobs and to maybe have sat in a room where his team of ultimate disruptors changed our perceptions of everything, is very humbling.

For now though, three things that have really hit home for me:

1. Apple are not a company that sells tech. Instead they exist to make us think differently about what we perceive education to be. Technology is merely a means to that end. One particular comment from one of the Austin store retail managers stands out for me: ‘What we do as employees of Apple we do first for ourselves and then for the world. Our soul is our people … people who shine a spotlight on you to stand outside it.’

2. Education in England is exceptional. What we are currently doing in our schools in terms of student collaboration, innovation and creativity is top drawer. When you have the privilege to visit other high-performing schools in other countries, it reaffirms your faith in all that you believe in and that as a profession we are well ahead of the game.

3. Culture is king. And at the heart of any successful culture is simplicity. We are all guilty of over-complicating things. If we want to tell our story in a way that is compelling, engaging and authentic, then we need to strip it right back. Always begin with the ‘why’. Everything else then falls into place.

It’s been an absolute honour and privilege to learn with so many inspiring colleagues who themselves are all facing the same challenges back in their schools. But the schools and communities they serve are in safe hands because I’ve seen first hand – up close and personal – how passion stokes the fire in their bellies.

I’m looking forward to spreading a bit of that warmth around my own colleagues on my return. For now though, I’ll spend the flight home mulling over even more how I intend to change the world.

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Why I fear for our curriculum

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One of the things that we’ve done really well across our trust has been the curriculum. And now I fear for it because Ofsted want to get their hands on it. With their relentless pursuit over the years of teaching, outcomes, standards and compliance, the curriculum has been left alone by and large. This has meant that we have been able to quietly get on with taking risks, being innovative and by and large enjoying ourselves. Stealth is a wonderful thing.

What I’ve learnt more than anything is that Ofsted crave consistency. They love similarity and sameness. Conformity is King. In lessons and books and on the walls they want to see that everyone is doing the same thing. The fact that it might lack excitement or flair is neither here nor there. So long as everyone is doing the same. As we know, as soon as they find someone – anyone – doing something different, then all bets are off.

During an inspection for example, you find yourself having to justify why it is that Class 4A do not use their teaching assistant in quite the same way as in 4B. You find yourself caught up in a mindless argument about why it was that a TA thought it was right to remain in a chair for a few minutes longer than the one across the corridor.

Ofsted would hate having to operate within the commercial sector. Heaven forbid if they found themselves in silicon valley or the land of the dot.commers. Any new or established tech company craves originality and adaptability – they actively encourage employees to think differently and to apply new approaches and ways of thinking to solve problems. But in teaching, when you get the call, it’s all about conformity; being the same, day-in, day-out, regardless of whether it best suits the needs of the children.

In a recent inspection in one of our schools, teaching and learning was on the cusp of being judged outstanding at the end of day one. We pushed for it but on day two the team appeared to make it their mission to find examples of where the teaching in one class was not identical to the teaching in the other. They found something eventually and so we were doomed. As a result, we were saddled in the inspection report with ‘pupils may not make as much progress as they could.’ Correct: they ‘may’ not, but then they ‘might’. The point is no-one knows so why even bother writing it?

It’s lazy inspecting: Any one of us can go into a school, pick up two different books from two different teachers, see that one has slightly fewer gap tasks per week than the other and smugly conclude that one is better than the other. Still far too often the inspection process is based on the principle that the ‘exception proves the rule’.

It is no surprise that schools are reluctant to move away from tried-and-tested methods for fear of getting caught off-piste. Across out trust, every teacher is undertaking a year-long piece of action research looking at marginal gains. Each classroom is a living research centre in which teachers are pioneering new ways of working. The teacher’s pedagogical palette is therefore rich and varied, each with their own blank canvas. As with all art, we don’t want our paintings to all look the same.

But the minute we get the Ofsted call, all that goes out the window. It has to because at best we’d do well to get an RI. Even if as leaders we proclaim that staff are to carry on as normal, teachers are human after all and in times of stress we revert back to our default position. Better to be seen to play it safe and do it well – and  to not stand out – than get caught doing something risky and wrong. It’s about safety in numbers as no-one wants to be singled out for letting the side down.

So this is why I fear so much for the curriculum. Ours is very risky. It’s risky because it’s based on children’s interests and takes the principles of EYFS right through to Year 6. It’s like Marmite. When people visit our school they either love it or hate it. They ask me how do we measure it and I say I don’t know. I tell them that from experience when I come across something that’s hard to measure, it’s probably a good thing to do. Take growth mindset for example.

Our curriculum is full of elements that we can’t measure and quantify, such as entrepreneurship, critical thinking, meta-learning and play. I have no idea what ‘expected’ looks like in Year 4 or whether or not a Year 5 pupil is making better than expected progress in his ability to think critically. But I’m pretty sure that for Ofsted I’m now going to have to.

When done right, the curriculum is so deeply embedded into the life and soul of the school that it becomes almost impossible to find. At best, all you can do is scratch the surface if you are only popping into school for a day. Anyone who says you can is wrong and has obviously never spent years trialling, refining and crafting a worthwhile curriculum.

A truly great curriculum can’t be boxed up and quantified unless of course the type of curriculum you offer is the boxed-up and quantifiable type. The kind that is formulaic, churned out year after year, is utilitarian and based on what the teachers want to tell the students as opposed to what they want (and need) to learn. In the words of the song (Panic by the Smiths), ‘it means nothing to me about my life’. QCA anyone?

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Reflections on #ILConf17

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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).

An education worth having

 

 

IMG_2218The chances are you may not have heard of the Whole Education Network. It’s been going strong for several years now and grew out of the RSA in 2010. If you haven’t come across them yet, then you really should have, so read on (3 minutes reading time).

Consisting of over 200 members (and 21,000 Twitter followers), the network is a dynamic partnership of schools all with a shared passion: That all children deserve an engaging and rounded education that supports academic achievement, but also develops the skills, knowledge and qualities needed to thrive.

Anyone can join. So long as you buy-in to the key principles and are committed to collaborating with like-minded schools who embrace innovation and world-class thinking, then you’re in. You also need to sign up to the concept of – as the name suggests  – a ‘whole education’. In other words, you ensure that your pupils take complete ownership of their learning through a relevant, engaging and worthwhile curriculum. Only then can we truly guarantee an ‘education worth having’. (Those of you who have read my book will know what I mean.)

You can find out more about the Whole Education Network on their website, such as leadership impact initiatives, research and focus groups, webinars, conferences and peer review. As a member you can connect with schools at the cutting edge of best-practice up and down the country. For example, there are currently school-led interest groups exploring flipped learning, spirals of enquiry, project-based learning, digital fluency and so on. What’s perhaps most exciting is the ability to influence change on a national and international scale. Chaired by Sir John Dunford, the board and executive are well-placed to open doors and bend ears of ministers, influencers and international movers and shakers.

As the executive headteacher of a Whole Education Network Partner School, and all-round advocate for a whole education, I’m looking to establish a regional primary hub in the Midlands. Hubs are already well-established in some parts of England, such as the one in the North-West led by Sharon Bruton, CEO at The Keys Federation in Wigan. I hope to galvanise enough support to create a Midlands powerhouse where schools are able to create synergies and collaborate and share best-practice. Never before in our schools has this been more relevant, with the growing pressures on the arts, creativity, culture and the importance of a rounded and balanced curriculum, both implicit and explicit.

If you want to find out more then we are holding a Whole Education launch event at Rowley Park Academy (Stafford) on 15th May from 11.00am to 1.00pm. Look out for more details next week. You are all invited, regardless of whether or not you are an existing Whole Ed member. There’ll be an opportunity to learn more about what we do, meet key staff from the Network and agree a way forward as a regional hub. Rowley Park is a classic example of a school that has benefited from a whole education. In 2014 it was in special measures and is now a school bursting with innovation and creativity. Feel free to stay on for a tour of the school and have a look round.

If you can’t make the 15th, but are still interested then do contact me either through LinkedIn or Twitter @AndrewDMorrish. You can always contact Natasa Pantelic at Whole Education (Natasa@wholeeducation.org or on 0207 2585130).

Finally, if you know of any schools or colleagues that might be interested in joining the network, please pass this on.

 

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You are the most creative person you know

Before you begin reading this post, I want you to pause, close your eyes and think of the one single strategy that you think has the biggest impact on transforming a school. When you’ve done that, read on.

I can probably guess what crossed your mind: More resources, smaller class sizes, better technology, perhaps even stronger leadership. All of these are worthy and will no doubt make a difference. But how many of you thought of the arts? Or more specifically, creativity? Suppose you were applying for the headship of a school and the interview panel asked you to name your number one priority for school improvement. How many of you would honestly say ‘the arts’ or ‘to be more creative’? I suspect very few of you.

Like me, you’d probably have played it safe and said something like marking and feedback. I dare say you would have got the job as well because it’s unusual for people to associate school improvement with the arts. The two simply do not go together, especially with today’s high-pressure stakes.

For some reason, when it comes to school improvement – and I’m talking real, hard core school improvement here – we have this misguided perception that the arts simply don’t cut it. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to test and measure, and also, why bother when it’s not tested at the end of key stage two?

Instead, we stick with what we know best: We lock down the curriculum and go back to basics with literacy and numeracy. Besides, how many of us have read a special measures Ofsted report that says the school needs to improve further by being more creative?

One of the biggest myths that surrounds creativity is the fear of the arts. Too many schools view creativity as unachievable because they ‘don’t do the arts.’  This of course is unhelpful because creativity and the arts are not the same thing. Some of the most creative schools in the country become so without an Artsmark in sight.

For many years, I always believed that I wasn’t a creative person because I didn’t like Shakespeare. I don’t play a musical instrument, I can’t draw or paint and I don’t particularly enjoy traipsing round museums and art galleries. But I’ve come to learn that this was all wrong and that I am in fact – and always have been one – of the most creative people I’ve ever met.

You are as well. As a teacher, you are one of the most creative individuals walking this planet. You spend your entire day being creative and coming up with dozens of original ideas that add value. Even when you are not teaching, you are dreaming up thrilling ways to motivate and excite your class. In particular, your ability to use your imagination is second to none. It comes so naturally to you that you don’t even know you are doing it. Above all, you are able to inspire and capture the hearts and minds of a classroom of young people for hours on end, day in, day out, and they cannot get enough of it.

For most of us as parents, the thought of keeping a handful of other people’s kids entertained at a children’s party is the stuff of nightmares, but for you to do it with so many, in such challenging circumstances, without a magician or Wacky Warehouse in sight is little short of a miracle. So whilst you might not know your crotchets from your quavers, or a trochaic from caesura, fear not. You are still a talented and uniquely creative person.

To help you appreciate exactly how creative you have been today, here are 10 things that you probably did at some point with your class that were highly creative, and not a paint brush in sight.

  1. Your lessons were based on an assessment of what the children could and could not do, and you thought carefully about what it was that you wanted them to learn that was relevant and purposeful.
  2. The children experienced the joy of being stuck and celebrated that moment. You didn’t tell them how to come unstuck though, instead letting them help each other and find out how to do it themselves.
  3. You allowed the children to make lots of choices, such as when it was the right time to use traditional pencil and paper methods or technology.
  4. You provided the children with some feedback that got them to think about how they could use their new learning in the real world.
  5. The children worked hard and had to concentrate. At the same time they also used their imagination and got a bit lost in their thoughts.
  6. Your classroom was a bit of a mess with examples of children’s work pinned, blutacked, or strewn all over the place, especially on the learning walls.
  7. You didn’t get hung up on insisting that the children had to write down the date, title and learning objective. Instead, they just got on with it.
  8. Your children chose when it was the right time to look at each other’s books during the lesson. They asked each other questions and gave constructive feedback on how they could improve their learning by the end of the lesson.
  9. You gave the children time at the start of the lesson to read and respond in a meaningful way to your marking from the previous day (but you only did this for a few pupils and not the whole class because that would be silly).
  10. You had fun with your class and they really enjoyed being with you and can’t wait to do it all over again tomorrow.

Anything over 7/10 and you are a seriously creative person. Don’t despair though if you only managed one or two. It still puts you in top 1% or so of the population.

And if you still don’t see yourself as being creative, then don’t lose hope, there is still time. It is never too late to unleash the creative within you. As Stephen Fry once said: ‘We are all opsimaths[i]. Let us all go forward together now… Nothing can hold us back.’

 

 

[i] Opsimath, noun: one who learns late in life. This appears in Fry’s charming little book ‘The Ode Less Travelled. Unlocking the Poet Within’, that taught me everything I need to know about Iambic Pentameter and all other matters poetic. (It won’t surprise you that I ditched poetry as soon as I could at Secondary.)