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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.

The ultimate oxymoron

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There is no such thing as rapid improvement. The two words simply don’t belong together. Rapid alterations, yes. I can live with that. Rapid change, possibly. But rapid improvement? Absolutely not.

Part of the problem is knowing what we mean by ‘rapid’. It was a phrase that was used many a time by HMI whilst doing our level best to move along a school that was stuck. No matter how hard we tried, no matter how impressive the changes, it was never rapid enough. So as a head I gave up bothering because I soon learnt that if I played the game and gave them ‘rapid’, they left me alone. But it was never going to stick. No sooner had I moved on to the next matter in hand, rapid turned into vapid. There was nothing there, it was meaningless, bland.

I raise this because we are fast approaching day 75 of sponsoring a new academy (working days only). In another 25, we reach the mythical 100-day milestone and by then research tells us that we should have made a difference. In reality this is just over half a school year, so whether it’s reasonable or not to see rapid improvement – with real demonstrable impact – is debatable.

We’ve hardly been pulling up trees during the first one hundred days at school. This mustn’t be mistaken for complacency or lethargy. On the contrary; we’ve been fervent in all that we do. But what we have been doing is watching, observing, listening and talking. This ensures that we lay firm foundations for long term systemic change. In turn the hope is that this will secure the deep-rooted improvements that we yearn.

Having found myself in this position a number of times in different schools throughout my career, what I’ve learnt is this: Horizontalism is the key. This means that leaders see the process of change not as a vertical upward trajectory akin to launching a rocket, but as a sideways segue, perhaps more like the meandering of a submersible as it probes beneath the surface.

The first one hundred days are indeed vital, so use them wisely. Don’t be rushed or hurried. Embrace the fact that rapid improvement is very much a slowburner and can only take off once you’ve been through three distinct phases:

ONE | Stabilise: This is where you need to show that as a leader things are simply not as bad as people may think (even if they are). You need to slow things down, calm things down. It’s crucial during this period that you are able to assess the situation critically and dispassionately and not get drawn into the politics or hubris of a school in crisis. Unless the seas are calm, turbulence prevails and meaningful change simply won’t happen. Creating such an illusion begins and ends with you.

TWO | Prioritise: Once you have turned the illusion into reality and established a sense of calm and stability, it becomes a lot easier to decide what your first important priorities are. With a steady ship you are able to recalibrate the compass. As a team, it is time to create a plan of action in the short, medium and long term. Together, you need to have a strong sense of OST, being clear of your new destination (Objective), how you are going to get there (Strategy) and who does what on the way (Tactics).

THREE | Visualise: This is the most powerful phase. In your mind’s eye, you need to be able to see the school that you want to create. You need to bring the OST to life by giving it a sense of mission, so that all stakeholders know not only where you want to go, but most importantly, why. To visualise therefore is to rationalise. This is where your vision and values come in to play, and by now, staff should know these inside out. Once you’ve achieved this, you are all set to take off and really make a meaningful difference in a way that will stick.

There could potentially be a fourth phase. If this were so, it would be this: Minimise. This is actually quite crucial as it reminds us that less is more. It really ought to operate alongside each of the phases above, which is why I’m inclined not to include it separately.

Minimising is about being clear of what the main thing is and sticking to it relentlessly. The best leaders ask the question, ‘what is it that we need to do less of?’ This ensures that our OST remains to the point, is purposeful and at the same time being both specific and realistic. Leaders that understand this have a strong sense of USP. They know what their school’s unique selling point is and how this relates to the community that they serve. Above all, they keep things simple.

 

You can read more about some of these ideas in The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation, to Greatness and Beyond published by John Catt in 2016 and available on Amazon.

Schools must speak for themselves (Part 1)

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School self-evaluation is a strange beast. There’s no requirement for schools to present it in a particular format and approaches vary up and down the country. How you go about the process is a matter for you and your governors to decide. So long as you know your school, and how it needs to improve, all will be good.

Ofsted’s maligned online, grade-driven Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) was abolished several years ago and many of us still remember it with much angst and trepidation. Many hours were wasted by leadership teams agonizing over fine-grade boundaries as to whether the school was a 1 or a 2 or a 3 or a 4. The fact that it had very little to do with school improvement got lost amidst the hubris.

The grade was everything. If the lead inspector disagreed, invariably it was you that didn’t know your school rather than the other way round. You can understand therefore why so many of us agonized over it, especially when the stakes were so perilously high. They still are for that matter.

What if the grading system is as unreliable as observing a lesson? We know from research that if a lesson is given a top grade there’s a 78% chance a second observer will grade it differently. Worse still, when giving the bottom grade, the figure increases to 90%. Even if we adopt a 50% margin of error, it’s close to 50/50 if following a category 4 inspection a second lead inspector comes along and gives it a different grade.

If the purpose of grading your SEF was to try and second-guess the inspector, you may as well have tossed a coin.

Last week @HarfordSean, Ofsted’s National Director of Education made it absolutely clear on Twitter that we don’t need to grade our self-evaluation summaries. This came at just the right time for me as for the past six months or so I’ve been trying to align the process of school self-evaluation with the key themes in my recent book. Namely, that as leaders we should run our schools in a way that is meaningful and purposeful to us and not necessarily for a national inspectorate.

Wanting to find out whether the message was getting through, I turned to Twitter. I asked the question: ‘Do you grade your school self-evaluation?’ Almost three-quarters of you said that you did and that you use the 1-4 Ofsted grading. One in ten schools (11%) don’t grade at all with one in twenty (6%) choosing to grade but using their own criteria. Ten percent of you were clearly in a mischievous mood choosing instead to tick the ‘What Ofsted summary?‘ box. I shall consider these as spoilt papers.

I was mildly surprised though that a quarter of schools use their own grading criteria or none at all when self-evaluating. Scaling up, that’s equivalent to approximately 5,000 schools that write a SES that does not use Ofsted grades. In my 8 years as an Ofsted inspector I can’t recall a single inspection where the school did not produce a self-evaluation summary that was not based on the inspection framework and not graded 1-4 using Ofsted grades.  Even now as an NLE I’ve yet to find a school that has been bold enough to ditch the grades altogether.

For those schools that don’t grade, it would be interesting to see how this impacted on their overall inspection outcome. I wonder as well whether there are any heads out there leading schools in special measures and subject to regular HMI monitoring visits who are brave enough to ditch the grades.

I’m still not clear whether to grade or not. It was interesting to learn that @TeacherToolkit is trying to convince his leadership team not to grade, if nothing else to make Ofsted work harder for their stripes. Likewise @theprimaryhead doesn’t grade, instead choosing to identify strengths and weaknesses.

I think it takes a bold headteacher to drop the grades altogether, a sentiment shared by @Funkycow64 who appeals to anyone who chooses not to grade to come forward. Her #askingforafriend hashtag suggests she is grappling with the idea but needs some allies. However, with @Yorkshire_Steve’s rallying cry – ‘spread the world people!’ – hopefully she’ll soon have plenty, myself included. The day will come when one day we shall have the critical mass.

But for now, I’ll continue grading – albeit with caution – but not using the traditional Ofsted terminology. If we are though as a system going to try and move from good to great, then we will surely need some form of proxy as to where we are on the journey and so it’s inevitable that we will need a set of progress markers, as crude as they may be. As a MAT, it also allows us to compare ourselves with each other using a common language of school improvement. At least if they are crude, they’ll be consistently crude. (I’ll take this over inconsistent refinery any day.)

In my next post I’ll share the rationale and approach to the new self-evaluation framework I’ve been developing. It’s based in part around the 1999 publication ‘Schools must speak for themselves‘ that does a fine job of making the case for school-led self-evaluation. We’ll also look at some of the most recent research on system-led self-improving schools, including peer review and the work of the London Leadership Strategy.

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.


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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.

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The importance of having a good door monitor

School improvement is complex. We all know that. Turning a school round is not easy and it takes time. An awful lot of time.

We are only as good as our previous twelve months – a slight dip in attainment, perhaps a difficult cohort or a stubborn long-term staffing issue and, bam – on a bad day we could end up in a category. It can feel like it could happen overnight. The problem of course, is that once the decline starts, it’s hard to steer the school back on course, and even harder to keep it there, especially if there’s a change of leadership.

It’s a bit like losing weight – it’s easy to quickly pile on the pounds but takes a lot longer to get rid of it. Keeping the weight off is even harder as it’s very easy to slip back into bad habits and the pounds soon start creeping back. Schools are the same.

As a headteacher I’ve had the privilege of turning round a failing school. It was relatively straightforward getting it out of special measures as I knew how to play the game. Being an inspector myself meant that I had a fairly good idea of the rules of engagement. Moving the school to outstanding though was a different beast. It took an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears along with the odd scrap with Her Majesties Inspectorate (read about it here).

It takes time to turn the oil tanker around. It’s not just as simple as yanking on the handbrake and screeching left. There’s the small matter of building up trust, sharing a vision, taking stock, building synergy, creating a success culture, seizing success. In a previous post I referred to a formula that might be helpful when embarking on systemic change. There is no quick fix, or more to the point, there is no quick-fix that will guarantee that the school will not slip back into decline.

Who knows what would have happened to the school had I walked away at the end of the first year as soon as we were removed from category. In this instance, I’m sure the school would have done very well though, as I was – and still am – blessed with exceptional teachers and leaders. What I do know as a result of me staying, is that it was the consistency of message and approach, day-in-day-out that got it to outstanding. It’s what Tim Brighouse refers to as having an ‘indomitable will’ – the winning of hearts and minds, and all that.

I’m acutely aware of this in my role as Executive Head in the school we sponsor. Technically, it’s still in special measures, although were Ofsted to come back tomorrow I am confident we’d get at least good. We are due our first inspection in Autumn as a new sponsored academy. If we do well, the expectation from the DfE will be that we move on to a new sponsored school. And so it goes on.

The point I’m trying to make is that creating a school that is sustainably viable as a high-performing going concern takes time. I’m very conscious of this as an NLE when supporting a school at a distance. It’s all well and good, but it’s simply not the same when it’s not your own. So why are ministers continually obsessed with this notion that by parachuting in headteachers from other parts of the country a school will automatically transform itself?

Market forces simply don’t apply to education. You cannot send in a hit-squad to reverse the decline in the fortune of a school in the same way as you can a Fortune 500 company. If that was the case, we would have done it years ago. Local authorities surely would have cottoned on to the fact that by sending in the best headteachers, the schools can be transformed. And of course they did, and in many cases it worked. But, too often, as soon as the supporting headteacher returned to base camp, the school risked slipping back into its default position of underperforming.

Surely, the most obvious solution is to simply make sure that we have in place a continual steady supply of competent, committed and highly skilled headteachers who can lead these schools as their own. For years we’ve known about the impending recruitment crisis and lack of headteachers but little has been done about it. So now we are having to rely on locums. I heard @miss_mcinerney, editor of Schools Week, talking on the radio last week making the point that we don’t exactly have a supply of spare headteachers stuffed down the back of the sofa.

One of the challenges that we face as a trust as we hopefully continue to sponsor more schools over the coming years, is keeping the rear doors closed. Our DfE broker made it very clear to us that our ability to continue to sponsor new schools depends very much on maintaining the outstanding judgement. At the moment though, the existing inspection framework cuts me no slack whatsoever.

Being an outstanding school means we’ve not been inspected for several years now. But when the inspectors do come back, are they really going to take into account the fact that my excellent leadership team are now working across several schools and that invariably we are not there five days a week anymore?

I sincerely hope that the new inspection framework takes this into account when judging the quality of school leadership, especially for those schools where the headteacher has been airlifted into another school to do the department’s bidding.

To help us protect our base camp, we’ve been working in partnership over the past 18 months with Bright Field Consulting. We’ve developed a series of scenarios based around the trust’s capacity to continue to grow in relation to our overall Ofsted inspection ratings. Best-case scenario is that all our schools are performing well and that the capacity to expand is high. Worst case is the opposite – that Ofsted judge us ineffective and that our capacity to grow is zero. This does keep me up at night.

The entire academies programme is at a crossroads. If an additional 1000 schools are to require a sponsor in the next five years then we run the risk of implosion. Quite where these are to come from remains unclear. Whether they have the necessary internal capacity is questionable. Finding another one thousand headteachers who are prepared to run these academies seems fanciful (back of the sofa notwithstanding).

So here is the challenge: As a multi academy trust, do we focus on keeping the front door open so that we can continue to welcome and support new (and often challenging) schools, or do we concentrate entirely on keeping the back door well and truly shut? I guess the answer lies in the ability to do both. Our future success depends on my ability to man the doors. Am I up to the task? Time will tell.

The Imitation Game: Tackling Social Mobility

Finding the time to read governmental reports is something I’m not good at. So I made a big effort over the break to get to grips with one that I’ve been carrying around with me since its publication last Autumn. It’s called Cracking the code: how schools can improve social mobility. Produced by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission it paints a bleak picture in terms of the life chances of those children who are disadvantaged. As a white British, free-school meal, summer-born boy myself who grew up on a council estate in a coastal town, I read with interest that I should at worse be in prison and at best living in Benefits Street. The fact that I’m able to write this now should merit much mirth and mayhem. Continue reading