Care why, try hard

Guest post by Lisa Worgan, Director of Curriculum Innovation @VicAcademies

“Where are we going? How are we going to get there? And why are we doing this? Because if people don’t care, they won’t try as hard…”

@DavidBreashears, film-maker and climber, Inspiring Leadership conference, Birmingham ICC, 2016

The week of the Inspiring Leadership conference was an interesting moment on reflection in both my role and in life more generally. I spent much time thinking about what drives people to make a difference in the world around them and why this is ever more important in the world we live in today.

My thoughts started with a particularly interesting meeting with a group of children from one of our Trust primary schools. I was probing them around what felt important in their learning and how engaged they were in it. The responses that I got from these children were astonishing. They told me about how much difference they felt they had made in their last term’s Learning Challenge (called ‘Catastrophes) and that they had realised that ‘catastrophe’ wasn’t just about massive world disasters.

They had realised that families in their own school and community were going though catastrophe every day of their lives. That they didn’t have money to feed their families, or means to get clean and washed. And so these children researched and planned how they could help, working alongside the food bank to generate over £500, and using this to purchase a large amount of personal items to help families accessing the food and resource.

These children passionately articulated the difference they had made to their community, to how much they had learnt, but actually the pride they had in what they had achieved.

Children who care about the world are the future of this world. A world where not everyone is kind hearted and wants to make a difference. A world where children, adults and family go through suffering every day.

I continued to reflect on this during the conference whilst listening to author and humanitarian, Zainab Salbi tell her story of growing up in Iraq in a world of oppression and suffering and how she used this experience to motivate her. She knew that she wanted to change the world for women all around who were struggling in difficult circumstances and has spent so much time since planning opportunities for helping them to do this.

But much deeper than this, she has  taken the time to understand why this was important for her do this – how her own personal story has helped her go on to clearly help her make a difference.

And then, at the exact same time as I sat listening to the inspiring Zainab, the news of the death of Jo Cox, MP came through over the news feed. A woman who spent her short life being incredibly clear about her ‘why’. Her actions through speeches in Parliament and campaigns in constituencies and her active charity work demonstrated a very clear cause – to allow immigration to have a positive effect on communities. Jo believed in a better world and fought for it every day.

Our children are the future leaders of our world. We can help them be the kind of people who care and want to make a difference. Taking the time to plan for having a clear purpose in learning and helping them know why they are doing something can really change the meaning for children in our classrooms. This is about finding an ‘authentic’ real rather than ‘pretend’ real too – allowing children to really plan an event to bring communities together or to fundraise to buy that piece of rainforest.

Whatever it is, the learning should actually make an impact and not be falsified to feel real but be created to feel like this rather than actually existing in the world.

By creating a curriculum full of these learning experiences, we are helping children make the world a better place and giving them the learning process that shows that they have the power to change the world, but only if they care why and try hard…


How do you continue to innovate?

A guest post by @LisaWorgan

When I first started my post with Victoria Academies Trust, I was given an interesting job title: Director of Curriculum Innovation. In some ways this filled me with excitement and enthusiasm; I would be responsible for working with the 5 schools in the Trust to ensure that their learning is real, immersive, and purposeful. Having spent time with all of these schools so far this academic year, it is clear that all of them are fulfilling many of these aspects in variety of engaging ways, and our plans to continue to build on this are becoming ever clearer.

And so then I come to the second part of my job title; Innovation. And this is the bit that continues to raise questions in my thoughts…

  • Question 1: When a school is already undertaking a number of innovative practices, is it right to continue to ask them to try new developments?
  • Question 2: Is innovation actually about new things, or is it about really deepening practice to solve problems?
  • Question 3: How much should innovation be led, or is it about giving space for teachers to lead their own practice and therefore bring about innovation?

All of these questions have led to thoughts around how we find opportunities for developed leadership and giving the space for innovation for teachers within our Trust to become expert in their practice. Now it’s a question of how we do this! Luckily, we have found a friend who is an expert in just this…

Zoe Elder from Clevedon Learning Trust is passionate about Action Research. She kindly invited me to a group that she was facilitating from Weston Super Mare Excellence cluster. On a chilly January afternoon, I arrived at a quaint, but slightly dated, beachfront hotel to meet a group of teacher’s part way through their journey of innovation. From a number of different schools, the teacher’s in the room were relatively new in their practice, but all had been identified by their schools are future leaders, quality practitioners, and with a thirst for developing their own innovations.

Each teacher had identified their own Action Research question; something that they wanted to really delve into to make a difference in their classroom – whether that be for all children or an identified particular group. Being a very open group, the teachers kindly allowed me to question their ideas, discuss what they were really looking to get to the bottom of, and generally to be a little challenging!

What was refreshing and enjoyable that session (alongside the yummy piece of cake!) was that the innovations that these teachers were exploring (whether this be mind-set in the classroom, confidence through child led developments, or changing the status of being ‘learning ready’) were not being led by anyone other than what those teachers felt were important. The likelihood is that they are also identifying aspects that would be important to all teachers in their school; and thereby setting up the pilot for an innovation that has the potential to change whole school practice in time.

Bringing me back to what my role in Curriculum Innovation should therefore be…part of this needs to be not only sharing innovative practice or supporting teachers to undertake this (where this time and space can be useful from the day to day of the classroom) but to create opportunities for them to lead innovative practice.

We have started this in small steps. Across the Trust we now have 6 Social Enterprise leaders, mostly TA’s, who are leading innovations in their school – more about those another time. And we have identified 3 more teachers who are going to start their own Research projects in their own practice that they feel will be interesting innovations for the future. But in discussions with Zoe, we are interested to explore how this model of teacher led innovation, through Action Research could take place for all teachers. Much more on this to be discussed, developed and decided. But through this journey I am intrigued to find out if teacher led innovation can continue to feed our forward moving practice in schools – and hopefully not leave me without a role to play!

The Art of Standing Out is available for pre-order on Amazon and is due for publication in July 2016

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.


Seizing the Agenda – musings from Whole Education conference 2015

Guest post by @LisaWorgan, Director of Curriculum Innovation

After two days of reflecting on the future of education for our young people, I sat on a packed train waiting to leave London Paddington. As the clock ticked past the departure time, my thoughts were with Sir Tim Brighouse’s call to action: we must find the ‘gaps in the hedges’ in education. We must innovate, to test things out in adverse circumstances.

And as I reflected on how we are doing this at Victoria Academies Trust, the announcement came over the tannoy that the train I was sat on was cancelled and we must all get off. A metaphor, if I do say so myself, for how education policy can be the biggest stifler of the innovative spirit in our schools where we are putting our young people first.

Having recently joined the team at Victoria Academies Trust, I do feel that I now am able to really create opportunities that start as an idea and become an innovation. And the beauty of being part of an academy means that we truly can put our children and their futures first.

Take our work on social enterprise; exactly what I had been asked to share at the Whole Education conference, as part of the workshop on ‘Unleashing the Curriculum Designer in us all’. Our approach to developing social enterprise skills in the curriculum, running our own social enterprise (Ballot Street Spice) and weaving these two aspects together through our new mini challenges in our wider NICER curriculum are very unique aspects in a school – especially a primary school.

Could this be a gap in the hedge? I certainly think so! Perhaps more of our education for children should help develop these skills so as to help prepare our children for their futures and tomorrow’s world, whatever this may hold. Friday of the conference saw a room full of people discussing and believing in exactly this, so there is definitely a body of thinking that has a power in schools to see more of this work happening.

And so although I had to repack all my items, get off the train, change platforms, wait for another train, and arrive home much later than I had planned, I left feeling that any challenge that we come across isn’t going to derail our journey as innovators. Yes, there is adversity and challenge and barriers that feel like they get in the way. But actually overcoming these challenges often produces the kind of results that are right for both us and our learners – for the futures that we all face together. To harp back to Sir Tim once again; we may be moving into a fourth age in education. A time for innovations and partnerships. And that is what I plan for my work within the Trust to hold at the forefront.

Now that’s what I call quite good

A bit of a lazy post this one, so please forgive me. Feel free to walk away now. However, in the highly likely event that you have not read a single post of mine throughout the year, you may wish to read on.

What follows is a handy pocket-sized summary of my top 10 posts throughout the 2014-15 academic year. To add a bit of tension I’ve ranked them below in order of ‘popularity’, with the least popular one first. I understand entirely therefore if you want to skip straight to the end.

  1. A formula for success

In which I introduced readers to C = v2+s+d+r+2p which I recklessly claimed to be the formula for effective change. To labour the point, I referred to a previous post on the importance of having a compelling vision. It’s also the only time I’m likely to name check the SAS in a blog post.

  1. Do the right thing

This was my first post of the academic year and sadly largely overlooked. I reflected on the challenge that lay ahead when taking on our first sponsored special measures school. I referred to the importance of leadership and quoted John Maxwell: “The pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects the wind to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

  1. The imitation game; tackling social mobility

This was my first attempt at reviewing a recently published government report. It will probably be my last. Tackling social mobility has been a passion of mine for a while now and I tried to reconcile the findings of the report (called Cracking the Code) with my own practice.

  1. How social enterprise can spice up your school

This post got the most retweets on Twitter most likely because the blog referred to an article about the school in the Guardian. It was a great piece (the article and not the post) that does justice to the crucial role social enterprise can make in schools.

  1. Making the pupil premium count

I am quietly confident that this post will continue to climb the top 10 as it’s still out there, being my most recent post. I reflect on my session speaking at the Sunday Times Festival of Education and suggest five ways to spend your pupil premium wisely.

  1. The importance of having a good door monitor

In which I get a little bit political and express concern at the announcement to send in so-called Super Heads to turn round failing schools. It was written post-general election and was a reflection on Nicky Morgan’s first major announcement.

  1. The most bonkers thing you’ve heard in a while

Probably the most cathartic and enjoyable post to write just because of the sheer daftness of the situation we found ourselves in. It still rankles now. Not surprisingly, Twitter seemed to enjoy it.

  1. Cutting out the middleman

Despite having just finished the two-day Ofsted selection process to move across to a central contract, I tried to do myself out of a job by suggesting we for cut Ofsted out altogether. I make the case that peer review is the way ahead, in conjunction with a lighter touch inspection regime.

  1. Why we are not on-track with assessment without levels

This is perhaps the one post, that had I written today as opposed to back then in December (a lifetime away in education), I’d have written it differently. At times aloof and slightly overcautious I put forward a view that I suggest represented an undersurge of opinion. I have no idea if ‘undersurge’ is actually a real word, but it feels right to use it to describe the views at the time.

  1. Why we need to slow things down

I am as surprised as you are that this post made it to number one. I suspect it was because it opened with reference to fine dining and Michelin Star restaurants. I am grateful to those of you that hung in there and made it to the end. If you did, you would have learned about the three things that I believe schools need to do to reclaim the moral purpose of education.

So there we are. The top ten. Granted, I only posted ten throughout the year so hardly difficult to make the cut. I am reminded of a quote by Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) when he was talking about PowerPoint slides: ‘They are a bit like children. No matter how ugly they are, you’ll think they’re beautiful if they’re yours’. Blog posts are no different.

Making the pupil premium count

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington College. Tinie Tempah was there. So was Al Murray, Piers Morgan and a host of other A-list speakers. When I say they were ‘there’, I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that they were actually there in person sitting at the back of my session. That would be daft. I do like to think that they might have thought for a split second that the pupil premium panel that I was a part of might have been worth a listen. But they didn’t. The nearest I actually got to Mr Tempah was that I retweeted him. And as for Messrs Morgan and Murray, well at least I was on the same page as them in the alphabetical list of speakers in the festival programme. Not many people can say that.

So seeing as they missed it, and most probably you did too, this is broadly what I said.

Chaired magnificently by Anna Trethewey (@annatreth), and joined by @MaryMyatt and @Khawar_Malik, each of us on the panel were afforded 5-10 minutes each to extol to the masses who turned up our thoughts and views on ‘how to spend the pupil premium wisely’. This proved to be very difficult because 5-10 minutes is clearly not enough time. However, I think I made a fair fist of it.

1. Build a shelf. Despite the fact that almost 80 per cent of those listening were not aware of the EEF toolkit, I still made the point that you should choose carefully. There is a danger that schools adopt a ‘supermarket sweep’ approach to filling their trolley with strategies and interventions in the hope that if they pick the ones at the top of the list, the gap will close. It’s really not as simple as plucking them off the shelf if, as a school, you do not have a shelf yourself on which to sit them. By shelf, I mean an organisational culture or set of core values and beliefs that underpin and support all that you do. Spend time building your own solid shelf and getting the climate and ethos right before you start raiding the store.

2. Back to basics. Better still, whilst building the shelf, invest time and effort in going back to basics and being clear about what good quality first wave teaching looks like in your school. Agree on a set of ‘non-negotiables’ around effective learning and ensure that these are applied consistently across the whole school. Once you have these, you can then begin to use strategies that are consistent with your pedagogical approach.

3. Don’t weigh the pig. As a general rule of thumb, if I come across something that works in a school and it’s difficult to measure, it’s probably a good thing to do. Be cautious if the strategy that you are pursuing requires constant and continual measurement. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing pupil premium funded activities as only being of value if they improve test results. Of course this is important, but simply viewing the toolkit as a means of plugging gaps in knowledge is shortsighted. Avoid interventions at all costs. Instead, consider using pupil premium funding to provide opportunities to teach children how to become better learners by allowing them to develop their soft skills such as resilience, independence, collaboration or critical thinking (shelf, notwithstanding). With this in mind, perhaps one of our highest impact projects is our pupil premium funded social enterprise that teaches children how to be social entrepreneurs in a purposeful context. It also prepares them for the world of work. You can read more about this here and here

4. Greatest good for the greatest number. Choose strategies that have the most impact across all subjects and areas of learning. One of the earliest approaches we took was to spend funding on technology, ensuring that it impacted across all areas of learning. Each child now has a device and 24/7 broadband connectivity at home. This allows us to flip the classroom which has shown to have a significant impact on closing the gap. Have a look at @mathsflip, an EEF funded project we took part in for more information. A utilitarian approach will also be well-served by adopting strategies that impact on meta-cognition, feedback and peer-assisted learning (PAL). We use our funding to employ a team of DIRTy teaching assistants to ensure the gap remains closed as part of Directed Improvement Review Time. We also employ staff to run PALs sessions where a more able child teaches a concept they have mastered to a group of pupils that require additional support. It is also entirely appropriate to spend the funding on partnerships with external organisations who develop the whole child. Examples of those that we currently work with include Real Ideas Organisation, Creative Alliance, University of the First Age, and of course the Whole Education Network (we are a partner school).

5. The killer question. Finally, ask yourself this question: If pupil premium funding was stopped tomorrow, which (if any) of your strategies would you continue to fund yourself? If the answer is ‘none of them’ then you are doing the wrong things. The strategies that you use to close the achievement gap need to be sufficiently valued such that you would be doing them anyway because they are fundamentally at the heart of all that you believe to be high quality teaching and learning. If this is so, then you are indeed spending your pupil premium wisely.

The most bonkers thing you’ve heard in a while

Last Thursday morning I had the pleasure of being a part of Digital Shoreditch in London. The title of my #ds15 talk was ‘Why changing the world is child’s play’. I was telling the story of the creation of our community-based social enterprise Ballot Street. In particular, I was bemoaning the national testing system and the fact it was no longer fit-for-purpose – that it is unable to assess the really important qualities and soft skills that employers crave; enterprise, resilience, collaboration and so on. I made the point that as a general rule, if it can’t be tested, it’s probably a good thing to do.

Meanwhile, schools up and down the country were finishing off their final SATs tests. More to the point, one of my schools had received a monitoring visit from the local authority. It is a school that we sponsor, having previously been a local authority school until last September. It had languished in special measures for several years beforehand and is now making excellent progress.

The local authority adviser arrived at the school at the start of the monitoring visit to check the administration of the maths paper B test. She must have received a pleasant surprise on seeing the transformation of the school as it looked a lot different to when she was last there. She was certainly impressed with the fact that all other elements of the administration process were being strictly adhered to. With all boxes duly ticked, all that was left was to observe the test itself.

And then, she spotted something wrong.

You see, we had given a child a rubber. According to the local authority visitor, the regulations state that you cannot do that as it may be classed as cheating. Or at the very least ‘inappropriate support’. However, such was the seriousness of the situation it merited immediate interjection from the monitoring visitor. She swiftly approached the teacher (an experienced Assistant Headteacher) and told her there and then right in the middle of the test that what the teacher had done was wrong. She said to the teacher that she’s not allowed to give the child a rubber. The LA monitoring visitor then marked an ‘X’ on her clip board.

The children sitting nearby overheard this and were understandably surprised by the situation, because the guidance in the test right in front of them says that a rubber can be used. They also weren’t used to seeing their teacher being chastised by a lady they’d never met before, especially during a test no less. As if to labour the point, the LA monitoring visitor also claimed that the teacher told the child to change the scribbled-out answer, even though on the form that she diligently filled in, she noted that the teacher in no way helped the child.

Understandably, the teacher felt it necessary there and then to make a mild stand and justify her actions as she didn’t want to have her professional integrity called into question. She quietly informed the visitor that the child had scribbled out the answer and then realised she didn’t have a rubber. The child then employed that much-rehearsed tried-and-tested look that said to the teacher ‘Can I have a rubber please, Miss?’ (She didn’t want to ask out loud because she was afraid of disturbing her friends.) The teacher immediately recognised the non-verbal request because she knows her class so well. So she gave the child a rubber and that, we thought, was that.

But here’s the really bizarre part. At the beginning of the test, when the LA visitor entered the classroom and the test started, she too gave a child a rubber. The child hadn’t even asked for one but that didn’t stop the LA visitor from approaching the child mid-question and giving him a rubber. Knowing that taking things from strangers is wrong, the child reluctantly took the rubber and erased his answer.

The teacher saw this and was perplexed at the role the visitor had played, not least because she was aware that the guidance states that LA monitoring visitors should ‘take care not to disturb pupils as they take the tests.’ The monitoring visitor however was unperturbed, claiming that the child was about to ask for a rubber and so she dutifully stepped in to give him one.

So, you can imagine the teacher’s surprise, when a few minutes later, she too also gives a rubber to a child who had clearly scribbled out an answer and then finds that she’s accused of malpractice.

I am sure you can tell that I’m trying very hard to appear non-judgmental in the writing of this post, taking great care in recording the facts as they happened. My reasons for writing are to see if perhaps there are other teachers out there who have experienced anything similar.

I’m all in favour of monitoring visits to ensure that the public are reassured of the integrity of the testing system. I understand entirely that the local authority visitor is only doing her job and is clearly highly competent and meticulously efficient. When I put this out on Twitter though, I got a slightly more acerbic response: ‘Utterly ridiculous’, ‘nonsense’, ‘absurd’, ‘imbecilic’ to name but a few.

For me though, the reply that perhaps best sums up the whole sorry affair is from the chief executive of The Parent Zone: ‘That’s the most bonkers thing I’ve heard in a while.’ I couldn’t possibly comment.