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Live from the 15:17 to Newport

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I’ve never done a live blog post before. I usually craft them several days in advance. But not this one; to mark the occasion of my 60th post this one is coming to you ‘live’.

The fact that you are reading this means that it’s uploaded okay, but as I type I’m hurtling south on a rickety Arriva Train through Wales from Ludlow on the 15.17 to Newport. From there I have a quick five-minute platform dash to jump the train to Paddington and the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5.

It’s then early to bed before I board the noon flight to Austin, USA. The 10-hour flight gets me in mid-afternoon Texan time tomorrow (Sunday) so I have the evening free – jet lag permitting – to explore what the city has to offer.

As state capitals go, Austin is the self-proclaimed ‘live music capital of the world’. One of my favourite ensembles performed there several times last week and it would have been lovely if it coincided with my visit. Never mind though, I’ve got tickets for May. (Google ‘Brassneck’.)

According to Austin’s own tourist board website it’s also a city that prides itself on embracing alternative cultures, hence the ubiquitous bumper stickers that I’m determined to search out that read ‘Keep Austin Weird’. It sounds like my kinda place, although we have been warned to not be too concerned at the fact that almost everyone carries guns (which at home I don’t) and wears huge cowboy hats (which I do). Most importantly though – and apropos to nothing – it’s the state that bears the name of the opening chapter (‘The Texan’) of probably the greatest book ever written, Catch-22.

But here’s to the point of this post – Austin is also known as ‘Silicon Hill’ on account of the many technology companies that are based there. In the 1990s, more than 400 high-tech companies, including IBM, Dell, Motorola, and of course Texas Instruments, made the city their home.

Apple have recently moved in as well, opening a brand new ‘flagship’ store in northside Domain and it is to here that I shall be first heading.

During the next week or so, I’m joining a number of UK colleagues on an international leadership study visit organised and led jointly by Apple and SSAT.

The main aim of the trip is to ‘give education leaders unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most successful organisations and learn leadership lessons to apply to their school context.’ When I was first invited to take part, I didn’t need a great deal of time to think about it. It was an opportunity to good to miss for an old hack like me.

The 15-strong delegation meets up in Austin on Monday morning, kicking off with a session called ‘Engaging with Intention’. We then have the honour of visiting the Eanes School District that, according to Apple, will ‘raise your expectations for technology and the role it can play in your schools’. We then debrief before flying up to silicon valley and spending the next three nights in California where hopefully I can bag a load of Apple freebies.

I love California. I’ve had the privilege of going there a number of times and have driven up and across most of the state, including San Francisco to LA and down to San Diego and across to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and up to Yosemite. I’ve never been to Cupertino (San Jose) though, a short drive from San Francisco, so I’m looking forward to this, despite it being strictly for business. Even more so as we are based at Apple Park, the international headquarters of Apple Inc. It only opened last year and is the fifth most expensive building in the world coming in at a cool $5 billion.

Known as the ‘spaceship campus’ the new HQ replaces the previous ‘One Infinite Loop’. With almost 15,000 employees based there, the 175-acre site, is impressive indeed. And although it may seem extravagant at five billion, in real terms this knocks barely 2% off the company’s gargantuan annual cash reserves. By means of comparison, to a small SME in the UK worth £100k (10-50 employees), this would be the equivalent of building a new office for only £2,000.

Sessions for the rest of the visit look like this, spread across two days:

Why mobility matters (understanding the role of a leader in a rapidly changing environment)

The importance of culture (how Apple make it stick and lessons to be learned in education)

Managing change (discovering how Apple approach the complexities of change)

Implicit Promise (intriguingly billed as a ‘special session’ with Apple University)

Apple in enterprise (how as leaders we should approach rapid transformation)

Productivity with Apple (reducing workload and saving time with tech)

Evidence and impact (how to measure your vision for learning, impact and teaching.

Elements of learning and leadership (what Apple have learned about innovation and change)

I shall remain as cynical and optimistic as ever as we get to grips with each of these, using a number of diagnostic digital leadership tools developed exclusively by Apple.

Finally, on day four, we wrap the whole thing up in a strategy session identifying how best to work through specific tasks, formulating actions and next steps for back in our schools. It’s then the San Jose to LHR redeye on Thursday, hopefully arriving in time for tea on Friday evening, 25 hours of flying time later.

So, dear reader, although I don’t expect any sympathy from you, I am going to be working hard whilst I’m out there in the sun. Don’t forget as well that I’m losing a week of my holiday also, and whilst it’s a great opportunity on my part, I am going to miss being with my family. (And if any of my two boys are reading this, “Get back to your GCSE/A-level revision now! You’ve got exams in a few weeks!”)

Whether I get to blog whilst I’m out there depends on how much free time we get as I’m going to be awfully busy. I guess I can’t blame the dodgy Wi-fi for lack of posts, being in silicon valley. (Heck, the hotel even has its own robotic butler (called Botlr) that delivers to your room via your smart phone!). And, I’m going to miss the Champions’ League second leg as well on Tuesday lunchtime, so I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I’m making for the cause.

(16.07, Abergavenny Station, two minutes ahead of schedule.)

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So here’s to the ultimate Catch-22: Assuming I get no freebies, if I come home with a ton of over-priced Apple goodies, I’m screwed for being a sucker and paying over the odds, and if don’t, then I’m screwed because my kids will kill me as I assured them that me and Tim Cook ‘are like that’.

Anyway, I’ll worry about that later. Next stop Cwmbran, so I’d better start packing away as Newport is looming and I have only 3 minutes at the station to get the connection so I need to be lively. Despite having only one bar of 4G, I’m going to hit ‘publish’ now and hope for the best. Here goes…

 

(PS The guard has just told me someone has cut through the power on the Swansea – Newport line and all trains are cancelled. So I guess I really am screwed, good and proper.)

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Read. Talk. Write.

Francis Bacon in the Library of Congress (2)

I’ve come to the conclusion that Sir Francis Bacon may well have been on to something here. In the late sixteenth century he inadvertently defined what the three key qualities of a really good leader are. I first came across them in the US Library of Congress several years ago, on a bookmark no less in the souvenir shop. Taken from an essay called ‘Of Studies’, the philosopher and former Lord Chancellor said this:

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

There is so much to behold in this, a single sentence of only 14 words. Not only does it nail to the mast the importance of reading, talking and writing, but also that if you do them well, you are likely to achieve a greater sense of fullness, readiness and precision (or ‘exactness’, to be exact).

All six of these merit worthy discussion, as they are as relevant in life as they are at work. For the sake of this post though, it boils down to the three: Read. Talk. Write.  It may sound like a nod to Ross McGill’s next book, but as mantras go, it’s up there with the finest.

I wonder how many of these you do on a daily basis? Probably all of them. I suspect you talk an awful lot and I can’t really see how it’s possible to get through a day without doing so. I remember once as a teacher attempting to teach my class for an entire day minus a voice (laryngitis), using only written signs, hand gestures and expressions. It didn’t work, although I’ve never known a class so quiet and well-behaved. As teachers, our voice is often our greatest asset and so it’s something we are skilled and confident at using.

I’m sure also that you read lots, even though you probably never actually sit down and ‘read’. If like me, you spend far too much time hunched over a screen reading through emails or glancing at social media feeds, you probably read a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Then there are the policy documents, reports, evaluations, statutory guidance documents etc. In a single day you probably read thousands of words, equivalent to a chapter or two of a novel. You are of course currently reading this, so that’s just over another 1200 words consumed in one hit.

And what about writing? Again, I bet you write loads. In a single week I must knock out close to an entire novella*, although granted, far too much of it is taken up by emails, reports, blogs, tweets, DMs etc. In his memoir, ‘On Writing’, author Stephen King writes that, as with physical exercise, we should set a daily writing goal. He suggests we aim low to start with and that it should be at least a thousand words a day (about a side-and-a-half of A4, typed).

Now, I know only too well that when I was a teacher I would not have had the time, desire or energy to do this, so I understand that for some of you this is unrealistic. So if you do have a class, don’t worry about this bit too much. However, if you do find yourself with some spare time, use it wisely by reading Mark. Plan. Teach. instead.

For now then, let’s just indulge ourselves with one of the three, the one you use the most: Talk. I know I’m taking liberties here slightly, because strictly speaking Sir Francis refers to it as ‘conference’. But it means the same thing in essence. A quick dash to the dictionary and I’m reminded that ‘to confer’ requires an exchange of ideas resulting in some kind of discussion taking place. The irony of course is that this tends to be the last thing that happens at a conference.

To confer with a colleague therefore means that you need to talk with them as opposed to at them. In Latin, ‘confer’ literally means ‘to bring together’. All the best leaders are highly skilled at doing this, even with those colleagues that are the hardest to reach. In fact, talk is the only meaningful way to engage with such people. Sticking with the US Congress theme, it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” I’m sure he didn’t mean by sending him an email.

If of course, as a leader, when talking with someone you intend to engage with the person then the ability to listen with intent is as equally important. It also requires plenty of integrity and openness and the willingness to genuinely understand. Steve Radcliffe, in his brilliant book Leadership Plain and Simple, unpacks this perfectly in his Future-Engage-Deliver model:

“Engagement is central to a leader’s ability to build alignment, involvement,  ownership, unity and team. Crucially, it is absolutely distinct from              ‘communicating to’, ‘presenting at’, or ‘telling.”

To assume that because you’ve told someone something, or sent them an email, or sat them down in front of a PowerPoint, that they will immediately jump up with glee and merrily go about their business implementing it, is a mistake that many of us I’m sure have made in the past. I’ve certainly done this – and quite possibly still do – especially when bringing new sponsored schools into the trust where one assumes engagement is taken as read.

I am always very mindful that it’s less about what you say and everything to do with how you say it. If you get this bit right – day-in, day-out – the results can be spectacular. Or as Radcliffe puts it: ‘What’s possible for a group or organisation when people are really engaged can be immense.’

In Radcliffe’s book he defines a leader as being someone ‘who is up to something‘. There are few definitions of leadership better than this, for if you are not up to something then you cannot possibly be in a position to engage meaningfully with someone.

The next time you really want to talk to someone in a meaningful way try asking them what they’re up to. If you are in the presence of a true leader, you will invariably see their eyes light up, as if to say, ‘Sit down. I thought you’d never ask‘. So you find yourself sitting down with them and sharing what you’ve both been up to and before you know it, the engagement leaves an indelible mark on you both and something happens. The best leaders know that it is the artful synergy and alignment of these ‘things that happen’ that create deep-rooted systemic change. All from a single conference.

Read, talk, write. As tempted as I am to call these my new year resolutions, I’m going to resist. This is because it would be wrong of me to revisit them only once a year for the first few weeks of January, only to have forgotten about them entirely by time the clocks change. These three simple behaviours need to remain my mantra at all times, something that I try to work hard at developing every day, providing of course they are rooted in quality. Having it emblazoned on my bookmark helps me no end, so long as I remember to read.

*’A short and well-structured narrative, often realistic and satiric in tone’, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. A novella can consist of as few as 7,000 words.

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Pot and kettle: A letter to HMCI

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This post appeared in the TES here.

Dear Chief Inspector,

I went to visit a new school last week. As I drove in, I could tell from the houses and the front gardens that it was an area starved of prospects. Term hadn’t started yet and the streets were awash with the detritus of a long barren summer holiday; make-shift goal posts, punctured footballs, broken tennis rackets. I’d arrived a few minutes early so decided to park up and check my phone. As I did, I noticed a group of young children tentatively approach the car. They were about six years old, unkempt and in need of something to do.

Emails checked, I was about to leave, the engine still running. The children had lost interest and had moved on so I put the car in gear, checked my rear mirror and was about to pull out when I heard giggling. I looked around but couldn’t work out where it was coming from. My first reaction was that a ball had gone under the car. I noticed movement and saw a small group of children – no more than three or four – crouching behind the vehicle.

I was about to jump out, convinced they were going to pinch my number plate. But then I noticed what it was they were actually doing. They were taking it in turns to crouch down and suck in the fumes from my blowing exhaust. As each child gulped in a lung-full, they’d turn to their mate and giggle hysterically, presumably getting some kind of kick out of the sensation. They were creating quite a stir and so more children were now beginning to come over.

It reminded me of a scene out of the TV series The Walking Dead, me surrounded in a car with a load of walkers outside. Do I turn off the engine and stay put, hoping they’d get bored and leave, or do I drive off? I was worried that if I drove away the surge in exhaust fumes might prove too strong or hot and burn the children. Besides, what if I accidentally had it in reverse and ran over one of them? I decided instead to turn off the engine and go and talk to them in my best teacher voice. I needn’t have bothered. As I opened the door, the children turned and scarpered in all directions in a move clearly well-rehearsed, laughing heartily as they went.

The following day, these very same children turned up at the school for their first day of term. They will continue to do so every day throughout the year, high on fumes, low on food and completely out of aspirations. The class teacher will think nothing of it, for it is what she does. She will welcome them with a smile and give them the love and attention they so crave. The teacher will not think twice about the extra work that goes with the job, for she understands that in choosing to work in such a challenging, demanding and all-consuming school, it goes with the territory. It’s par for the course.

I’m telling you this because I don’t think all of your inspectors will ever really understand or appreciate how much extra work teachers in these schools have to do. It’s not as simple as the headteacher being mean or nasty and abusing his or her authority. It’s far more nuanced than that. What is doubly difficult, is that these teachers who work so tirelessly just to stand still get no credit or acknowledgement for this because it’s likely that the next time an inspector calls he or she won’t think that the children are making enough academic progress compared with other schools.

Not every school is the same. I’m sure you know this, but again, I don’t believe all your inspectors do. Too many of them have never worked in tough schools where deprivation is high (and children pass the day sucking in exhaust fumes). Context is King. Unfortunately, your current framework does not acknowledge this. This is why I’m deeply troubled by any attempt at evaluating workload, because teachers in some schools have to work so much harder and longer than others. This is no-one’s fault. It’s just that some children are more needy than others. They need a lot more attention.

If you want to find a school where workload is off the scale, head for the nearest school that one of your team recently put in special measures. The school I visited above is one of those. The teachers in these schools are working exceptionally hard, and even though they may not always be doing the right things, what they are doing is ensuring that the children stay safe, remain secure and are nurtured. Unfortunately, the existing framework means that your inspectors will never get to see this because the focus is entirely on outcomes and progress, regardless of context.

You see, the teachers in these types of school have so much extra work that needs to be done. Things like running a breakfast club or a walking bus to get their class safely into school before the working day even begins; attending safeguarding meetings and maintaining detailed child protection records for the many children at risk in their care; constantly analysing the progress of each of the many groups in their class because Ofsted or HMI expect and demand it; producing countless reports showing the impact of the many children in their class eligible for sports’ or pupil premium funding, again because the government and yourselves require it; writing personalised risk assessments for trips and visits, especially for those children who never get to go outside their house and are likely to dart across the road to suck in fumes at a moments notice.

Most of this additional work has been created by the government. Not schools or headteachers. We’ve been telling ministers for years that workload has reached breaking point, mainly as a result of unnecessary bureaucracy and demands. This may well be why there is a recruitment crisis or that nobody wants to be a headteacher anymore. So you can imagine the irony when we learnt that the very body that has perpetuated the situation over the past quarter of a century now has the temerity to ask us what we intend to do about it. The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ come to mind.

Like it or not, it’s the unreasonable demands made on schools due to an unworkable accountability system that gives these teachers loads and loads of additional work to do. This is before they even think about their main workload of marking and planning that takes up all their evenings and weekends. They don’t want paying any more money, they only want a break; an acknowledgment from Ofsted that in these types of school it’s so much harder to achieve a higher Ofsted grading when kids are high on fumes.

These teachers seldom complain, even though they know that several miles away in the leafy middle class school in suburbia (could even be the local grammar), where the children are dropped off by their nanny in the Range Rover clutching a note saying they can’t go to after-school club because of their private tuition lesson, these teachers do not have to do as much extra work.

Throughout my career, I’ve done nothing but work in deprived, inner city, challenging schools up and down the country – Liverpool, London, Birmingham and the West Midlands. It’s incredibly hard and I do get so very frustrated when I know that the teachers in these schools get little credit from Ofsted. More recently, I’ve been involved as a chair of governors and trustee in remote rural schools and I’ve learned how hard these teachers have to work as well. I still don’t understand why a teacher chooses to teach a class of 40 pupils in a portacabin consisting of an entire key stage (no TA mind – have you seen how underfunded village schools are?). This particular teacher may also be the Head as well. And still they have to show the same rates of progress compared with a teacher working in middle-class suburbia with two TAs, shed loads of tech, a PTA listed on the FTSE 100 and a class of only 25.

Please don’t get the impression that the teachers that work in more affluent schools work any less hard. Of course they don’t. This is not an attack on them. In fact in many ways, teachers in these schools face all sorts of different pressures such as over-demanding parents, expectations to continually top league tables, the 11+ and grammar school applications, the performance of higher attainers. I know all this because my first headship was in one of these schools in a very well-to-do area in London. I wouldn’t begin to think how you are going to get your inspectors to reconcile these workload pressures alongside those mentioned above.

I’ve seen it also as an Ofsted inspector. I no longer have the heart to do it any more and so I gave up several years ago. I become entirely disillusioned even though I thought I was making a difference. You can read why Ofsted forced my hand here. But what used to frustrate me more than anything was having to be party to a decision to judge a ‘wealthy’ school ‘outstanding’ when I knew that some of the teachers in the school would never be able to cope in mine, as good as they might have been.

These teachers were fortunate. Their children turned up fed, watered, motivated, loved, cared for, with a head full of cultural experiences and a heart full of hope. On the whole, these teachers didn’t really have to worry about rates of progress for a dozen different ethnic groups, non-English speakers, SEND pupils, traveller families, 60%-plus free school meals, low attainers, CP and Prevent referrals, persistent absence or a revolving door of new admissions due to high rates of pupil mobility. For them, it’s pretty much a case of boy/girl and that’s it. I can think of several ‘outstanding’ schools I inspected where children did well not as a result of good teaching, but despite it.

I know your intentions to tackle workload are entirely honourable and for that you deserve much credit. I’ve worked under every single HMCI since Ofsted began, and it’s really rather refreshing to hear such compassion from the person at the top. The problem you have is that your workforce – as best intentioned as they are – simply are not, and never will be sufficiently skilled enough to be able to assess workload.

Let’s face it, some of them can barely go about their core business of judging accurately teaching, learning, leadership etc. in a way that is both consistent and fair. Take annual inspector training days. There’d be a room full of over a hundred inspectors, we’d all watch a lesson and there’d be a four-way split on the judgement. I got more right by tossing a coin. So why throw something else in the mix? I bet you’ve got more than enough on your plate at the moment, like introducing yet another framework and sorting out the illegal complaints procedure. (Which you really want to get fixed if you go ahead with the workload proposals as it’s certainly going to be put to lots of use.)

So please stick to your remit and don’t get side-tracked. Instead, make an effort to ensure that the next framework really is the last one we’ll ever have because at long last Ofsted will finally agree on what it is you are looking for. And if you really are serious about helping us reduce workload, don’t talk to us. Instead, go and talk to the Department and tell them.

Please don’t get bogged down with focussing on workload. Besides, I always thought it was for schools to decide what they did and how they went about it, not Ofsted.

For the sake of all those thousands of teachers working in challenging schools (and indeed for those that aren’t), please don’t do it.

Yours etc.

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ITT by numbers

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Until not that long ago I didn’t really have a clue how to run an ITT partnership. So I did what I usually do when stuck and turned to others, namely leaders from within the trust. We locked ourselves in a room for days on end, determined that we wouldn’t come out until we cracked it. We did and we created Central England Teacher Training.

Unlike School Direct, when you are reliant on partnering with a university (who award QTS), school-centred initial teacher training (or SCITT) is provider-led and entirely independent. As an accredited provider in our own right, we design the programme, deliver the programme and decide who passes. It is us who confer the award of QTS. This gives us control of the system. (As well as getting to organise a lovely graduation ceremony in summer.)

We are now in the second year of operation. Last year we sent twenty or so bright, talented teachers out into the world and this year we are doing the same. Being in year two means that as a new provider we get inspected in the summer term. In my previous blog last week I wrote about our first sponsored academy getting the call. I hadn’t anticipated when I wrote it that our SCITT would get the call barely a week later.

Having never experienced an ITT inspection before, I didn’t really know what to expect (not much difference then to a section 5 or 8). But it went very well indeed; better than expected if truth be told as we were convinced they’d see through us and we’d be sent packing.

ITT is inspected in two stages. Stage one for us was a three-day visit focussing on the quality of training (whilst on attachment). The second stage arrives in autumn when inspectors look at the quality of teaching and see how good the trainees really are as NQTs, wherever they may be. It’s only then that inspectors can make the judgements such as outcomes, training, leadership and of course overall effectiveness. The stakes are high: Mess it up and you get one more go. Mess it up again, and bang – you’re gone: Closed down, never to be seen again.

So for those of you who’ve never dabbled with initial teacher training, here’s a really simple guide by numbers:

#9250: The fee we charge trainees to complete the course. Equivalent to less than fifty quid a day, for this they get a year-long school-based training programme, including taught sessions, tutorials, workshops, placements in four different schools, a trip to Parliament, full access to the University of Birmingham faculty of education and if they do well, QTS and a PGCE at the end.

#3000: The number of words per written research assignment. Trainees need to submit three of these throughout the year to receive 60 credits towards a Masters degree at the University of Birmingham. The papers are marked by myself and an Executive Headteacher within the partnership. Assignments include the Simple View of Reading, Management of Behaviour and Mathematical Pedagogy. As a marker, I get to learn loads.

#191: The number of days in the course. Covering the full academic year, trainees spend about two-thirds of it out in schools learning on the job. The rest are taught sessions (designed by us) or personal study. This is well above the recommended 140 so for me, that makes for great value for money.

#65: The percentage of trainees already offered jobs just within the partnership. This is excellent news for us (we get to ‘grow our own’) and even better news for them (they get to work in great schools as NQTs). It’s a win-win. A number of others have jobs elsewhere in schools equally as good across the region. We are on track to match our 100% employment rate from last year.

#32: The number of pages in the SED (self-evaluation document). This is the not-so-good bit about ITT. Unlike in schools, the SED is compulsory and it has to be long. At 14,000 words, it’s by far the longest SEF I’ve ever written. In particular, it needs to analyse in detail the attainment of trainees and how well they teach against each of the Teachers’ Standards. Alongside this sits our 15-point improvement plan which at 6,000 words is also a very lengthy and detailed document.

#30: The number of mentors and trainers. All are selected from within the partnership (bar one) and are practising teachers. It’s great CPD for those that do it and with a head of mentoring and head of tutoring to ensure consistency, it’s no surprise that this is a strength of the partnership.

#19: Number of schools in the partnership. These include sponsored academies (recently in measures), outstanding schools, large schools, small schools, rural schools, urban schools. Some are academies and some aren’t. We have one special school and one secondary. Schools come from across four local authorities so trainees get to experience a number of different systems and ways of working. This is a good thing.

#17: The number of trainees in our current cohort. All of them have been recruited by us and are either career-changers or post-graduates with a degree of a 2:2 or above. Much-praised by the inspectors, they are well-placed to meet the needs of local schools and those further afield. As well as being Twitter-savvy they also have their own WhatsApp group (beyond me) and have formed a really strong and binding relationship. As NQTs their ready-made support network will serve them well.

#5: The number of us that run the thing. Rather than have one single Director solely in charge, our distributive leadership model means that between us we cover all the bases. All of us are senior leaders (mainly heads) and take the lead on certain aspects such as programme design, compliance, tutoring, mentoring, recruitment and QA. It works well and the inspectors seemed to like it.

#3: The number of external review visits we get for free from the National College. As a new provider, we are entitled to three separate day-long reviews from an experienced ITT expert. In our case, it was from an ex-HMI and without her advice, support, candour and expertise, we wouldn’t be where we are today (we’d be shut down for being non-compliant, that’s where).

#1: The final grade that we now aspire to achieving. If you’d offered this to me 12 months ago I’d have bitten your hand off (even a 3 would have been tempting). We are punching above our weight, but we’ve come an awful long way in such a short space of time. We’ve failed loads, messed up, listened to feedback, got better at it, regrouped, reviewed, refined and recrafted. And now, the final end game is in sight.

In autumn I’ll let you know how it went (assuming we are still operating)…

Have belief in your vision

One thing I’ve learnt during my time as a headteacher is that compromise is king. Back in the day as a new headteacher I naively always saw compromise as a weakness – that staff would see me as being a lame and indecisive leader if I didn’t insist on doing things my way. I felt it was incumbent on me for example, to show my authority by laying down a vision – a road map – that would lead staff unto the Promised Land. It was always the one thing that every headship interview panel looked for and that as a prospective new head, you sensed that you would either live or die by your vision. It became the Holy Grail.

In fact, it wasn’t even worth applying for headteacher posts unless you had a ready-made vision to trot out. Unfortunately, when I took up my first headship we didn’t have Google so I really had to make one up. I remember coming across a story from an American Principal bemoaning the agonies of trying to come up with a vision: ‘Years ago, if I declared I had a vision I would have been locked up. Nowadays I can’t get a job without one’.

All of us have a vision of what we believe education stands for. We may not know it, but we do, and we do for one very simple reason: That we all possess a set of values and beliefs that make us who we are. These values and beliefs provide us with our goals and moral purpose that drives us day in, day out. We were born with these and it’s often very difficult to change them as they were shaped by our formative years. So strong are these values that without knowing it we try to create emotional conditions that enable us to be in the right mood or state of mind that allow such beliefs to flourish. Our beliefs are usually located at a deep sub-conscious level serving primarily to determine how we behave. It’s this behaviour of course that then determines our results and if we want to change the results, then we need to change the way we behave.

All of this leads us back to our beliefs and that if we want to change the way we behave then we need to change our beliefs. This is not easy, although it can be done especially when we consider that most of our beliefs are ones we hold about ourselves. As individuals we hold the key. Gandhi once said that ‘If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have had it at the beginning…’  The challenge for leaders therefore appears to be to try and convince staff to change their beliefs – their own self-perception of what they are good at – so that vision and goals become a reality. It all sounds rather Machiavellian but at its core it’s about developing in staff a growth mindset.

This is where compromise comes in, as the above task can be rather like an immovable force colliding with an unmovable object – something’s got to give. It is the real art of leadership to be able to manage this process in order to assimilate the values and beliefs of an entire staff into a vision that meets the needs of a diverse and dynamic organisation. This has always been a bit of a conundrum for heads taking up new posts. What happens if your shiny brand new vision doesn’t fit in with the values and beliefs of the staff? Do you change your vision or do you change their beliefs? I’m certainly not going to change my vision, so this is where I’ve learnt to compromise.

Teachers and educators are very passionate and principled people. We all have deep-seated beliefs about what education stands for and quite rightly so. You only have to take a look at Twitter to see for yourself. Entire timelines and blogs are devoted to extolling the virtues of humanism, cognitivism, constructivism and any other –ism you can think of. By and large each and every one of these has a place in school as they are well-established, tried-and-tested versions of learning theory. It’s quite likely that in any one school, most of these bases are covered by members of staff whose beliefs and values are firmly planted in a particular camp, myself included.

So how is it possible to assert a vision that accommodates such a wide spectrum of beliefs? How in a school would we ever agree on what good learning and teaching looks like? How for example would we gain consensus on how best to teach creativity, meta-cognition, emotional awareness and critical thinking if the head’s vision was built around the acquisition of core knowledge? As a young teacher I believed strongly that my job was to teach knowledge – to instruct pupils on the content of a prescribed programme of study. I started teaching at the same time the new national curriculum was introduced so you can imagine how pleased I was. As far as I was concerned, any attempt at teaching the soft skills that allowed children to become critical thinkers denigrated the true purpose of education. I wanted to teach, to impart knowledge, to be the sage on the stage.

As an NQT I was influenced – among others – by the work of Jerome Bruner whom I liked very much and who wrote a book in 1960 called ‘The Process of Education’ (long before I trained as a teacher, I might add). Bruner said that ‘you can teach anything to anyone in an intellectually honest manner by translating it courteously for them.’  In other words, no matter how complex or difficult the content being taught, providing it was skilfully differentiated, the children would be able learn it regardless of age or ability. I was very clear on how instruction worked in my lessons and how each lesson built on the knowledge acquired previously.

I no longer have this belief. It has evolved over the years and even more so since Gove began imposing his own beliefs on the national curriculum. In many ways this reminded me even more of the need to compromise, which brings me back to the purpose of this post. Namely, that the real art of leadership is to know which bits are worth keeping and to then blend them into some kind of approach that works in your school.  It really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts – a bit like trying to get a tune out of a room full of random instruments that when performed together sound like a musical masterpiece.

So why am I writing about this? Because I’m sitting in my office thinking about how I will get my own beliefs, values and vision to resonate with the staff of the school that we are about to sponsor in a few weeks time. The school is in special measures and we have a training day organised for the first day back and I am trying to capture my vision and values all in one or two slides. I’m even going as far as trying to see if I can capture my vision in 140 characters or less. (#Tweetyourvision. No mean feat let me tell you.) We are also going to come up with a teaching and learning policy, complete with 10 non-negotiables. I have no idea what these might look like as I want them to come from the staff. But with the right vision in place, and with a set of beliefs that are aligned, or at least in the process of being aligned, the art of compromise should be so much easier.

Whether we ever agree in September on how best to teach anything to anyone remains to be seen. With there likely to be as many different values and beliefs among the staff as there are musicians in a full symphony orchestra, the odds of getting a tune out of us all at first may appear remote. However, the likelihood of success is increased significantly if we can ensure that we all have the same piece of music in front of us. Having this played out as the soundtrack to your vision is music to anyone’s ears and perhaps something we shouldn’t compromise on after all.

Why less is more

I have always liked to think that I have my finger firmly on the pulse of all things educational. However, these past few weeks I have found it rather difficult keeping tabs on the numerous blog posts on Ofsted’s latest proposals to improve the inspection process. If you’ve never heard of Mike Cladingbowl before, you have now. I actually applaud the way Ofsted seem to be engaging with social media in an attempt at clarifying and consulting. It does feel like we are all being given a chance to chip in, especially when Ofsted refer to the influence certain uber-bloggers are having on shaping their thinking. If we want to aspire to developing a world-class education system then we need an inspection system to match. Openness and integrity must be at its core.

There’s nothing though like the imminent publication of a couple of influential Think Tank reports to sharpen the mind. It’s understandable therefore that Ofsted are indulging in a spot of kite-flying to gauge the opinions of the masses, especially with a general election looming. Only this weekend we read of Ofsted’s plans to create a new blueprint for inspecting good schools and how this might incorporate the intelligent ACSL response. Ofsted’s National Director of Schools  accepts that the current inspection regime stifles innovation, with schools too often ‘awash with squadrons of inspectors.’ Instead what we need is ‘constructive and expert professional dialogue.’

All well and good but is anything likely to change in time for the general election? Unlikely. So what to do in the meantime when the squadrons descend into school? Well certainly, we don’t need inspectors bombarding classrooms with what feels like a lightning attack within the first few hours of an inspection. If ultimately what inspectors are looking for is evidence of learning, then strangely enough, piling into lessons to watch a teacher may not be the most obvious starting point. Less is more and it needs to start with the classroom.

I’ve always believed that any valid system of inspecting schools must be based on observing lessons. As a head of a school previously in special measures I have practically dragged inspectors kicking and screaming into lessons to see learning in action. If nothing else it might make them forget the fact that RAISEonline is a sea of blue. I’ve seen teachers reduced almost to tears because an inspector didn’t come and see them teach. So why as an inspector (and indeed as a headteacher) am I beginning to wonder whether observing lessons is all that it’s cracked up to be?

For years I’ve gone into classrooms, firstly as a rookie teacher learning the ropes, then as a subject leader, appraiser, headteacher and finally as  an Ofsted inspector. It’s such a privilege to be able to spend time in lessons and to observe the art of teaching. I like to think that I was good at it (observing that is, and not teaching) and had a pretty good grasp of what good teaching looked like. Nowadays of course we don’t look at teaching anymore and haven’t for a while in fact. The focus – quite rightly – is on the learning, with the shift moving away from the adult as a performer to the child as a learner.

But that’s the problem. I genuinely believe that deep down I don’t actually know what learning looks like. There, I’ve said it. I’m talking proper full-on embedded-for-life learning, not just the ‘look Miss I’ve finished’ type that involves simply writing the WALT and completing a worksheet. And even if I did know what ‘full-on learning’ looks like for a child, I’m not sure that I can judge how much learning has taken place across a whole class of 30 children all with very different starting points and styles within just 20 minutes. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure if children actually learn anything in a lesson. In much the same way as when exercising, the muscle doesn’t appear there and then, the same applies when learning during a lesson. The real benefits (i.e. learning gains) are only evident a few weeks later. We all accept that these learning gains are a direct result of teaching during a lesson or sequence of lessons, so can teaching – and the associated learning – ever be evaluated during a single lesson observation?

The answer of course is no. Ofsted know this only too well and have issued several rally cries to this effect during the past few weeks. Inspectors have known for a while that we are not to judge teaching during a lesson ‘unless circumstances are exceptional’ (whatever they may be). Nowhere in the inspection framework will you find guidance or criteria for grading a lesson. I don’t have a problem with this. I understand the difference between grading teaching and a lesson. I think it’s right that we don’t judge a teacher when we’ve only been with them for 20 minutes. So what then is the point of observing lessons during an inspection when the evidence that we are looking for can most likely be found elsewhere?

If the sole purpose of observing a lesson is to verify what learning and teaching are like over time, then unless we’ve had opportunities of finding this out beforehand, what is the point of going in if we have no proxies against which to verify? Apart from RAISEonline and a set of joining instructions, I have very little information on how, when and where learning takes place in a school prior to an inspection.

When inspection teams do arrive at a school we seem to be obsessed with getting into classrooms within the first five minutes of the inspection starting. To the untrained eye, it may appear to be a bit of a scramble. I find myself barely in a school half an hour before I’m required to make a judgement on what teaching and learning are like over time having sat in the back of a lesson for a few minutes. I suppose I could take the easy way out and go with what RAISEonline is showing but I simply won’t allow this to obscure my judgement. If I did, then what is the point of even visiting the school in the first place? Invariably I leave the EF teaching box blank due to a lack of evidence but I know this may displease the lead inspector who by this stage may be doubting my credentials.

So whilst we wait for the Think Tanks to arrive, here is what I would like to do. It’s remarkably simple. On day one, I want to sit in a room with samples of children’s books (or whatever else the school chooses to send me that best captures learning – coursework, profiles, devices, learning journals and so on). Leave me alone, immersed in the books, and within an hour or so I will know how well pupils learn. I will be able to evaluate progress, attainment, challenge, resilience, creativity, curriculum coverage, marking and feedback. The list goes on. I can then have a look at the teachers’ own assessment data to corroborate it. If the teachers’ assessments match what’s in the books then I’m pretty confident at being able to come to a view as to what teaching (and learning) is like over time. Senior leaders can then join the discussion so that together we can come to an agreement on what the narrative is telling us. In short, we let the books tell the story of the school. Indeed, the best schools will already have done this and can then show me their own similar evaluations, confirming at the same time that leadership and management are both strong. The remainder of day one can then be spent talking to children about their books and walking around school with them looking at their displays and learning walls. It doesn’t take long to determine how confident and effective a child is at learning by spending time with them. All of this will provide me with invaluable evidence to confirm what I’ve seen in books and on the walls throughout the school.

With this in place, day two can then be used proportionately to spend time observing lessons to verify what’s been seen in books and from discussions with learners and leaders. I no longer need to ask the head to show me where the best teaching is as I now already know. When I’m in the classroom the teacher should know what the outcomes in their books are telling me so any judgement on teaching will not come as a shock as it won’t be based on performance whilst I’m in the room. It will also make clear the difference between judging teaching over time based on learning as opposed to the teacher’s performance in the lesson. Most importantly though, it takes away the pressure on the teacher to ‘showcase’ or get out the bells and whistles.

So whilst Ofsted appear to be in a conciliatory mood, let’s use this time to have intelligent discussions about the purpose of inspection and the role lesson observations can play. If during this period we happen to agree upon a definition of learning and what it looks like in a classroom, even better. Ofsted’s obsession with observing lessons is miss-placed in an organisation conceived almost a quarter of a century ago. A lot has changed since then and we’ve all become a lot more sophisticated about how we go about coming to professional opinions about how good our schools are. We certainly need a lot less sledgehammer. We want to be subtle but at the same time obvious. The novelist and poet Oliver Goldsmith got it just about right. “Subtlety may deceive you. Integrity never will.”