The ultimate oxymoron


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.

On rigour and vigour


As we settle down to a new term and get to that point when we finally remember how the job’s meant to be done, it all comes down to two things: Rigour and Vigour.

We must never forget how important these two are and make an extra effort to sharpen our saw. As with a new teacher getting to grips with a new class, if we as leaders fail to invest time in these two right at the start, then before we know it, it’s too late. We must be rigorous and vigorous in all that we do, so that we make clear to the people around us what our expectations are and how we want them to behave.

The most thoughtful leaders embrace the need to be rigorous. Rigour is simply the quality of being extremely thorough and careful. It’s about being meticulous in all that you do, paying  great attention to detail. Rigorous leaders are diligent and precise and in order to be so know that they need to sit back and watch and reflect on what they are seeing.

In our multi academy trust, we are currently supporting a new school that we are bringing in to the fold. The school has  been floundering somewhat and finds itself on the wrong side of Ofsted. It was once an outstanding school and the staff are understandably jaded and lost at sea. Shock, denial and frustration have all taken their toll over the past few years. They need to regroup – we need to regroup – so that together we can  take stock and recalibrate. The staff  were heading in the wrong direction, but with rigour at the helm, it won’t take us long to change course. We’ve already got two other schools in the MAT that were once in measures and are now standingout, so we are well-placed to inject the necessary rigour in a way that is as careful as it is recklessly cautious.

To the staff in this new school, we have told them to lead us. We will watch and follow and nudge and cajole. But we shall do so with high levels of rigour by tapping into the energies that resonate throughout the school and those of the other academies across the trust.

This is where the vigour comes in. They may not know it yet, but every member of staff has been given the permission to be vigorous. Whilst as leaders, it is our job to all become the CEOs – chief energy officers – I want us to draw as much strength from their energies as they do from ours. It then becomes infectious and all-consuming as we bounce ideas off each other in a culture where everyone has the permission to fail and to fail often.

I’ve told all the staff that I have no intention of making any changes for at least a term. They have all been told that they are all standout teachers, they just don’t know it yet. They need the time and space to fall back in love with teaching. They need to reclaim their mojo – their va va voom – or whatever else you might call it. They need to delve deep inside themselves – their chambers and their valves – and rekindle their values and beliefs. It’s got nothing to do with pedagogy or targets or tests. Not at this stage, that will come later. For now, it’s all about vigour and the 3 Es: Effort, Energy and Enthusiasm.

Get this right and you’ve cracked it. Andy Buck, for example, talks of the importance of discretionary effort. Known also as ‘going the extra mile’, Andy reminds us that it’s not all about leadership from the top that gets results. Instead, it comes from deeper down within the organisation, most probably a line manager or phase leader. It’s about meticulous attention to detail and showing that you care. Staff appreciate rigour because it shows that you are prepared to really invest time in them by not being superficial or shallow. As a headteacher, I myself appreciate rigour from those that hold me to account because I know it means that we are not just scratching away on the surface but really getting to the heart of the matter.

So if you are a new Headteacher in a school, or stepping up as deputy or senior leader, put away your spreadsheets and trackers and templates. Please don’t start talking about SATs and SIPs and the need to tighten up. Again, that will come later. Instead, have the courage to stand back and climb high. It’s only when you are up there that you can really and truly appreciate how good your school is. And when you’ve done that, climb back down and dive deep. But don’t make the mistake of diving in, however tempting it may be. Two-footed tackles get you nowhere. Instead, jog on behind and try and occasionally knick the ball off them. And when you do, dribble alongside a bit and then carefully pass it back before peeling off and running beside someone else.

Your staff will thank you for it. The children will thank you for it. And you will sleep well at night knowing that thank heavens, you did the right thing.


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.

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.

Why we need to slow things down

Not far from where I live lies the Shropshire town of Ludlow. It’s known for many things – food, medieval architecture, a castle to name but three. But what many people don’t know is that it is the UK’s first Cittaslow town. Cittaslow is a movement that originated in Italy as a rally cry against all things fast-produced. It has since evolved into a cultural trend known as the ‘slow movement’.

This trend has now crossed over into education. Last weekend, the Sunday Times ran an article in which it claims that more and more schools are turning to ‘slow education’ in the belief that deep understanding cannot be achieved by rushing. To quote from the article:

“The movement is a new approach to learning inspired by a book called In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré, a Canadian journalist. Slow education’s academic guru is the British-born Maurice Holt, emeritus professor of education at the University of Colorado Denver. In Britain it is promoted by Mike Grenier, an English teacher and housemaster at Eton College. Its backers believe that how children learn is as important as tests and targets.”

The notion of teaching children how best to learn is a controversial one and there are many protagonists out there who take the view that it’s a wasteful fancy. As a headteacher I have grappled with this very conundrum for many years. Getting the balance right between traditional instructional teaching methods and a more progressive child-led approach is incredibly difficult. Not surprisingly, ex-HMCI Sir Chris Woodhead wades in expressing his concern in the article that the slow education movement’s approach (quite often it seems with an over-reliance on project-based learning) is a throwback to the 1970s and is an attack on the government’s agenda to raise standards. As a result, concludes Mr. Woodhead, we have created a generation of children (of which I am one) with gaping holes in their factual knowledge.

The challenge for the slow education movement is to get the balance right between the need to raise standards and being held accountable whilst at the same time removing the stress and pressures of hot-housing and testing. Can we create a system that has both? Can high stakes and league tables sit alongside creativity and nurture? We need to find a way that promotes the values of a slow education but at the same time provide opportunities that – according to Mr. Woodhead – allow students to submit to a body of external knowledge.

The Slow Education movement’s website acknowledges this but feels that we’ve already crossed the divide:

“Are you a teacher or head of a school who feels testing has gone too far? Do you wonder about life after levels? We within the Slow Education movement believe we are at a critical moment. There is a need to reclaim the importance of quality, creative teaching which enables students to think independently and cope with the challenges of life today.”

It’s certainly a worthwhile call to arms. However, as much as I subscribe to their underlying principles, I can’t help but think that in order to enable students to ‘cope with the challenges of life today’ then they need to be able to operate effectively within a frenetic and fast-paced environment. It’s a double-edge sword.

Three ways then to slow things down in your school:

1. Project-based learning. Often much-maligned but when used effectively and is purposeful and based on a child’s interests it allows pupils to engage in deep learning. I’ve written about PBL in a previous blog in which I emphasised the fact that PBL needs to promote critical thinking. Most importantly, it’s essential that learners acquire and apply relevant new knowledge. Where it goes wrong is when children have not been taught to think independently and so PBL simply serves as an activity to keep pupils busy. So yes, if delivered incorrectly, it serves no purpose and I can see why Woodhead raises concerns. However, providing PBL sits within a whole-school framework and is planned for meticulously ensuring that it promotes a broad and balanced curriculum, then as a tool for sustained school improvement, it’s highly recommended.

2. Learning in Depth. As a concept it’s very simple: To ensure that over the course of a child’s time in a school, no other pupil in the world is more expert about a specific body of knowledge than that child. Children in Reception are assigned a specific topic, such as ‘Pirates’, ‘Submarine World’, ‘Insects’ to name but a few. They then spend the next seven years mastering all that there is to know about the concept. The pupils lead the learning and have total control about their lines of enquiry. Once per term we run LiD days where children spend the day in mixed age classes (all the ‘Amphibians’ learn together from age 5 to 11). Facilitated by a teacher or teaching assistant, the pupils apply all their research, enquiry and thinking skills to master their learning and to take on the mantle of the expert. The fact that pupils have seven years to remain interested, inspired and enthused requires a slow pace with ample resilience, perseverance and determination on the learner’s part. It also requires excellent teachers who are able to take on the role of coach. Most importantly, pupils’ work is not assessed by a teacher and the only feedback they receive is from their peers through critique. Finally, for it to work well, pupils must be taught how to think, assess their work and that of their peers and to think actively in a social context. All of this needs to operate within an experiential and immersive curriculum that is sufficiently tight to ensure breadth, balance and rigour whilst at the same time being loose enough to allow for creativity and adaptability. You can learn more about Learning in Depth by watching its creator Professor Kieran Egan explain it here.

3. Ditch timetables. We seem to have a national obsession in primary schools with blocking learning into manageable bite-sized chunks so that we can create timetables to keep management and Ofsted happy. Remember those ridiculous calculations that we had to do for Ofsted back in the 1990s to show how many minutes of history or geography we were teaching per week? Woe betide any school that was a minute short. Numeracy and literacy hours didn’t help matters either. I understand that we have to stop learning at certain points during the day to eat and to go home. But other than that, leave them be. If your class are on task, in a state of flow and fully immersed in their learning then let them get on with it. It’s only managers that love timetables. Leaders don’t. So be bold and do away with them and go for a flexible timetable approach instead.

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.”

Do the right thing

One of the first tasks that needs to be done when taking on a special measures school is to recalibrate the compass. They are heading in the wrong direction. It’s not that teachers aren’t working incredibly hard or lack the pedagogical know-how. It’s simply a question of them doing the wrong things. And because they are the wrong things, they inevitably don’t work. As a result, the frustrated teacher has to work even harder to overcompensate the loss, and so the cycle continues. It’s no surprise therefore to find that morale is low and burn-out high.

A Road to Nowhere is a ride that no one wants to take. So instead, re-set the Sat Nav. Let people re-discover their moral compass. To quote the author John Maxwell “The pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects the wind to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” It’s not quite as simple as sailing off into the sunset together but at least the point has been made as to the key difference between leadership and management. The over-riding culture that tends to dominate special measures schools is one of micro-management – a tick-list approach that requires compliance in order to appear to look as if we know what we are doing. It’s all about inputs with little regard to outputs, teaching and not learning, cause and not effect. The school may be awash with all sorts of initiatives, new systems and procedures but so what? Is it making a difference? Probably not, because they are the wrong things. And therein lies the difference between leadership and management: The latter is more to do with doing things right, whereas leadership concerns itself with doing the right things.

I’ve found myself having to adjust the sails in two of our schools at the start of this term, one outstanding and the other our new sponsored academy currently in special measures. What was interesting in the outstanding school was that when it was in SM, I didn’t need to adjust the sails because we didn’t even have a boat. Despite the two schools being at opposite ends of the inspection spectrum, the two are remarkably similar. Both schools share a passion for immersive and creative learning; both schools are driven by a set of core beliefs and values that demand success. And in both academies, staff work incredibly hard.

All well and good of course until you sit down with a blank piece of paper and try to decide what these right things are. So to help us with this, we got out our golf balls. Not perhaps the first thing that comes to mind, but nevertheless a powerful metaphor for illustrating the point. We used the golf balls in both schools to help us re-calibrate the moral compass. It’s often said – and quite rightly – that the main thing is to make sure that the main thing remains the main thing. Or something like that. The point is – decide what you want to do and stick with it. In this particular context, we used the golf ball analogy (and I will get on to explaining it shortly) to help us decide what the non-negotiables would be for each and every lesson. This was necessary in order to refocus our lesson observations to bring it in line with the new inspection framework: “School leaders and teachers should decide for themselves how best to teach, and be given the opportunity…to explain why they have made the decisions they have made and provide evidence of the effectiveness of their choices.” (Paragraph 179, School Inspection Handbook, July 2014).

So we came up with ten, each represented by a golf ball. What was remarkable was that both sets of staff, from two very different schools, came up with pretty much the same ten. I like to think that the golf ball story – shared with both sets of staff in their schools – made the difference. I have our deputy @matt_Wynne1 to thank for bringing the idea back to school having seen it himself on a course. When he first started sharing it with us on the opening training day I wasn’t entirely convinced of the point he was trying to make. But it worked, and as a result I repeated it the following day with our SM school. This is how it goes:

You’ll need a large straight-sided glass vase, some golf balls, sand, salt and gravel. Fill the vase about two-thirds of the way up with sand, salt and then the gravel – in that order. These represent certain elements of a lesson but not the important ones that are going to secure effective learning, Examples of sand might include dealing with petty behaviour, underlining the date, insisting on a plenary, drawing a one inch margin and so on. Then take the golf balls and place them on top of the gravel and you will see that they don’t all fit into the vase. Explain that the golf balls are the crucial elements of the teaching process – in this case the non-negotiables  – that need to be evident in every single lesson. The point that is being made here is that because the teacher has been dealing with the wrong things (albeit very effectively), the things that matter are left out.

Now, empty the entire vase, taking care to separate the materials into their component parts (a sieve is handy at this point as is an assistant). Fill the vase again, only this time put the golf balls in first, filling the vase to the top. Reinforce the fact that these are the non-negotiables. Then pour in the gravel and give it a good shake. Repeat with the sand and then the salt. As you shake it, the gaps between the golf balls fill up. There and then before your very eyes you now see that everything fits into the vase. The unworkable lesson now becomes the workable because the important things take priority. In fact, in a lesson, if the non-negotiables are effectively in place, there might not even be any need for the sand.

Our revised teaching and learning policy is now based around the 10 golf balls. We’ve agreed an approximate teaching sequence as well based around the order of the golf balls (particularly helpful to NQTs). The children will know them and will be expected to review how effectively they have learnt relevant to each golf ball, (e.g. opportunities for self and peer assessment or Directed Improvement and Review Time (DIRT)). During the year we shall collect evidence that justifies why each golf ball leads to effective learning and the impact it is having on closing the attainment gap. Teachers will refer to the golf balls as part of their performance management to demonstrate how effective they are at applying them across the full range of the curriculum. We are even going to use the golf balls with our Board of Directors at a Strategy day where we aim to develop a self-review tool to evaluate the effectiveness of the Trust’s capacity to bring about improvement. Each golf ball will represent a KPI or milestone that will help us self-evaluate.

You might think that the golf ball demonstration is a bit of a chore (and I probably wouldn’t disagree with you). So instead, you may simply wish to share the story with staff. You could even use it in an assembly – but do remember to leave out the final ingredient below. A quick search on the internet and the original version can soon be found. Originally, it was told to remind us about the important things in life. This is how it goes:

A professor of philosophy stood before his class and picked up a large empty jar and without saying anything began to fill it with golf balls. He asked the students if the jar was full and they agreed it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. The pebbles rolled into the spaces between the golf balls, filling it to the brim. The students agreed that it was full.

The professor then repeated the procedure with sand, which of course filled up any remaining spaces. Again, the students confirmed it was full.

The professor then produced two beers from under the table and poured them into the jar. The liquid soaked into the sand and somehow managed to fit into the full jar. The students laughed.

The professor then spoke. ‘Now,’ he said as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to imagine that the jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things – your family, friends, your health. If everything else was lost and all you had were the golf balls, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter such as your house, car and job. All the rest is sand – the small stuff.

‘If you fill your jar with just sand, then there is no room for the golf balls or pebbles. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time on the wrong things then you will never have time for the important things in life. Pay attention to these, such as spending time with your family. There will always be time for cleaning the house or washing the car. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.’

One of the students then raised her hand and asked what the beer was about. The professor smiled and said, ‘Well isn’t it obvious? The beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a few beers with a friend.’