The Game Changer

Today was a Training Day. The title of the day was ‘Thinking Big……Breaking Free’. The journey to this point has been built through a combination of many, many  of the elements that are frequently blogged about.

A year ago training days were fairly traditional –  a theme set by SLT and linked to the School Development Plan (SDP), with an SLT/ guest speaker led opening and SLT led closing session with a bit of departmental work in between. Lunch took place in the school canteen and was heavy on the baked potatoes.

Some of these days were quite good. The set themes were important and based on the data of the time. The SDP had been carefully considered to tackle the pertinent issues in the school. The guest speakers were usually relevant and engaging as they spoke to (at) 140 teaching staff. There were pockets of innovation and lots of very good teachers.

The school results were solid and there was a buoyant staff who worked hard. We were consolidating ‘good’ – we were tightening.

@teachertweaks in their blog Part Five: How do you develop a strong learning culture amongst staff? state:

“If you asked a teacher to describe our teaching and learning vision, they would most probably respond with ‘To get another good or maybe an outstanding grade from Ofsted’. And this, in a nutshell, is our problem. All past  conversations about teaching and learning have been centred around doing well when we’re Ofsteded. That is not a vision: it’s an outcome.”

This is exactly where we were in 2011/12. However, two significant events happened in the Spring / Summer of 2012 that led us much closer to the point we arrived at today. In May 2012 we received a very good OFSTED report. In August 2012 after a few years of steady progress, our 5 A* -C with English and Maths rose by 12% to a very high standard.

These 2 factors gave us the impetus towards becoming a more self-confident school. With OFSTED recently behind us and results that are arguably outstanding, two of the major barriers and blocks for staff in ‘loosening up for outstanding’ had been reduced. We had the impetus to BE BRAVE and TAKE RISKS.

However, the Autumn Term 2012 was tough. All of the goals we had been pursuing with rigour for 3 years had been (almost) achieved. There was a lull and a feeling of ‘what next?’

OFSTED had highlighted 2 action points (as they do) and they were pretty broad and in fact pretty fair. So we did something that we hadn’t done too often previously in terms of CPD – we asked the staff how they wanted to approach tackling them, we listened to them – we were starting to go ‘bottom-up’.

The training day in February 2013 started the significant shift. The theme had still been set from the ‘top’ – in this case OFSTED action point – but there was free reign for staff in cross-departmental groups to generate ideas, discuss and debate, facilitated by their peers. The outcome was a whole school approach to independent learning within which virtually all staff could visibly see their input.The fact that it evolved from contributions from such a diverse and large group of teachers has meant that a wide range of views (knowledge and skills advocates) are represented in the final outcome.

Alongside these developments we have also encouraged staff at all levels to engage in formal and informal professional development opportunities. We have supported and been well supported by Chris Holmwood and our local Teaching School @LTCSBE which has created many more opportunities for individual and team developments. Following the latest, Middle Leader day out, Chris described the sessions and the subsequent mood amongst the group as ‘potentially game changing’.

Less formally many key staff are positively engaging with Twitter groups, attending Teachmeets and writing blogs. Pedagogical discussions are beginning to dominate conversation in the staffroom.

And so to today.

For today’s ‘Thinking Big….Breaking Free’ sessions the starting question was ‘What does GREAT look like in….?’ Departments decided how they wanted to approach the question and discussed, debated and drew conclusions – concerns and anxieties were able to be expressed as blocks and barriers to ‘GREAT’ were identified. From here, cross-departmental buddy groups, facilitated by the middle leaders explored the ideas of  ‘Squaring the Circle’ – how can we still have all of the ideas for  ‘GREAT’ lessons while resolving the anxieties that still exist around meeting the OFSTED criteria for outstanding.

A working lunch internal Teachmeet at our ‘Outstanding café’  followed with a range of great practice being shared by 7 members of staff, ranging from NQTs to Middle Leaders from different departments.  Further time in departments to explore and develop GREAT ideas linked to the whole school independent learning developments followed in the afternoon. The feedback was hugely positive and the outcomes in terms of ideas that departments own and want to explore further are truly GREAT. But perhaps more important is the change in mind set. Staff are now approaching CPD and training days with a different attitude. Teachers at all levels are identifying ideas that they wish to pursue and there is a genuine desire to contribute.

There are a whole plethora of upside down CPD ideas that we are intending to expand on further next year – we have momentum – we have changed the game.


Great Days: Developing a learning culture with Middle Leaders

Today was one of those days. A day when you come home buzzing about the progress made, excited by what tomorrow will hold – ready to see the tangible impact of the work you have done.

As a school there is a feeling that we are primed. At a recent #slteachmeet James Heale (@heale2011) talked about tightening up for good and loosening up for outstanding.

We have been tightening up for a while to establish a base from which to launch to towards our goal. This has been a holistic approach at all levels. Many of the areas affected will need to remain tight: recruitment, behaviour systems, uniform and use of data to name a few.

The systems within teaching and learning have also been tight. Ensuring stability within the teaching mechanisms of all staff has been essential part of reaching this point.  Subject and course knowledge, the mechanics and rules of the assessments and a clear focus on progress have all been monitored and evaluated. This base has enabled individual teachers, middle leaders and SLT to develop confidence in accurately identifying where we are as a school. The students are getting a good deal. They are taught well, know where they are in their courses and what they need to do to make progress. There are well developed and refined systems, it is reasonably rigid, the boundaries are clear… is safe.

This led to a very positive OFSTED inspection in May 2012 and excellent, many would say ‘outstanding’,  results followed last August.

We are developing into a self confident school. We know that to make the next step we need to loosen up the systems within teaching and learning; empowering and trusting teachers to use their developed and secure professionalism, knowledge and skills to do what is right for our students.

Since the results last year we have developed a range of CPD opportunities for staff at all levels in an attempt to maintain the momentum that great results bring. Each of these tries to send the same messages of challenge, support and looking at what is great in their classrooms, with the drivers for change coming from within rather than above.

This is a difficult shift from being tight. It feels like a risk, but days like today demonstrate that it is a risk worth taking.

Today we took 25 middle leaders – a mix of department leaders and less experienced TLR holders – out for an afternoon / evening of reflection, conversation and debate.

In the first session on ‘Raising the Quality of Teaching’ the OFSTED criteria was dissected and rebuilt in a ‘what it looks like to me’ format. This may not sound too inspiring and many would argue that this is the wrong way around. However, the fact is that this group will drive the agenda of the ‘What Does Great Look Like…..?’ training day next week; will do the peer observations and ‘difficult conversation’ feedback sessions. As a result of the work today, they feel confident to fulfil these vital aspects of their role. They feel they are confident with the terminology and know how they can provide the learning opportunities they want to in the classroom and still be outstanding. I watched as great teachers, mentally replaced tick boxes and checklists of tasks with ideas, creativity and learning opportunities. Loosen up for outstanding.

Next, Chris Holmwood @LTCSBE masterfully guided our Middle Leaders through ‘Creating an Outstanding Learning Culture’. High quality conversations were generated through carefully constructed tasks that provoked thoughts and reflections about: what is culture? team dynamics and affecting teams; questioning and observing vs noticing. The element that struck a particular chord with me was creating a culture where support is provided  through a development model, which works alongside challenge through feedback and judgement. The outcomes were so rich and generated such high quality reflections and potential actions that I intend to blog about it separately.

When we observe outstanding lessons, the electricity that is created is tangible and you can feel the progress being made. This feeling is possibly even more intense when the learners are teachers. Teachers who are motivated and determined to make a difference. Teachers who demonstrate each day the resilience required to meet challenges head on and find solutions.

Today was a great day and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

It’s Good To Talk (And Listen)



If you have been fortunate enough to witness a great orator delivering live then you will know the tingling feeling, the engagement in the room, the electricity created. You also have found yourself listening, I mean really listening.

In 1992 I arrived as a nervous fresher at St Luke’s School of Education, University of Exeter to begin training for the teaching career that was to shape my life. The first lecture was delivered by the late, great Professor Ted Wragg. I was captivated; completely mesmerised and by the end, forever sold on the idea of the capacity of teaching to change lives. In those University years, Ted was also the volunteer, honorary coach of the first XI football team. When Ted spoke – we listened.

Fast-forward, 20 years to the ASCL Annual Conference 2013, where a certain Michael Gove completed a question and answer session with the assembled. You can probably imagine that this wasn’t the most forgiving audience, and whether you agree with what he was saying, or not, you couldn’t help but appreciate the way it was being said. The room listened.

The skills of a good orator and a good listener should not be underestimated. Opportunities for discussion where students are able to practise reasoning, developing argument and counter-argument, speaking and listening are crucial preparation for success in school and beyond. Too often we are fearful that unless students are recording information in the written form, then we cannot demonstrate progress, but there is many an A-level teacher that will be able to describe the student that had perfect notes and struggled with the synoptic paper because they couldn’t make connections and tough out the arguments. The National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) couldn’t be more scathing in their consultation response to Ofqual’s proposals to change the assessment of speaking and listening at GCSE @NATEfeed. Here they outline some pretty persuasive arguments for the importance of both speaking and listening, as well as the potential destructive nature and shortcomings of the proposals.

The opportunities for discussion, presentation, debate and other tasks that require talking and listening need to be carefully managed; the skills need to be practised! Many of us will have taught/observed ‘the debate lesson’ where students fall silent or read their statement but do not listen to others. Or ‘the presentation lesson’ where the students read out their PowerPoint slides. Indeed most of us have probably been to CPD training sessions (often on good practice in teaching and learning) where the same thing has happened! As a result of this and the belief that there is a need to demonstrate progress through written evidence, speaking and listening skill development is often put on the back burner. However, if this is the case we are missing a trick. Explicitly teaching these skills in a supportive environment, combined with good open questioning and well planned end tasks enables students to demonstrate huge progress.

With technological advances increasing daily and an ever burgeoning debate about how technology should be used in schools are we in danger of losing speaking and listening skill development all together? I recently went out to dinner and the 20-something couple on the table next to us spent 90 minutes in each others company, eating 3 courses. They spent the entire time attached to their mobile devices, probably ‘talking’ at length to a whole range of people across several social media, but didn’t actually utter a single word to each other. They probably went home and agreed that they’d had a great night out.

In his superb Blog : This much I (don’t) know about…….teaching ICT in schools ( @johntomsett references the iPad strategy in his school which has provided evidence that it has been successful, but John crucially reflects “And, guess what? They bought just 18 i-Pads, which has meant the students have to share and subsequently talk to each other.” It will be vital that we are mindful of this as technology continues to develop further.

Yesterday @stevechalke tweeted this photo ( demonstrating the changes in technology at the inauguration of two Popes just 8 years apart.Photo 08-06-2013 07 35 04 PM

I showed it to my 10 year old son (bit of a geek like me, likes nothing more than programming on Scratch and doing Suduko!) and asked ‘Have a look at this photo. What do you think?’ His response was ‘Wow look at all the iPads and phones. I’m glad we don’t live like 2005 anymore I can’t imagine what it was like having to just remember stuff’. ‘Why not?’ I asked, “isn’t just better to feel the moment and have the memories?” What followed was an in depth discussion about advances in technology with his parting shot being a conclusive “you gotta move on Dad, you just gotta move on” supported by dismissive wave of the hand.

I asked the same question to my 7 year old daughter (free spirit, away with the fairies) and she said “I like the top one better. The people are actually looking at the Pope. Why would you want to look through a screen when you’re actually there?” I suggested that you may want to record the moment so that you can watch it again later and show it to other people. What followed was a detailed discussion about technology where I used all my sons arguments from earlier. In the end she said “No, I like to remember stuff when it’s in my head, its better that way” (and off she ran to lasso Pixies with a skipping rope).

Kids have views on things. One of our key roles is to listen to them, encourage them to articulate them, challenge them, give another perspective – learn something ourselves. We should not be afraid of debate and discussion in our lessons and schools but rather embrace it, engage in it and provide opportunities for students to develop and use their skills in appropriate and persuasive ways.

I often hear about schools wanting to improve ‘student voice’. This usually involves senior leaders having to update the systems or mechanisms for student voice  because they are disappointed with the results they receive. But I often think that most schools have got pretty refined systems for enabling student voice, but the students are not developing the skills they need to articulate themselves and be heard. Or is it that we are just not listening?

It’s good to talk (and listen, I mean really listen).

Lighting the fire for ‘consistently good’

In schools we often talk about the pursuit of ‘outstanding’ but often there is a confusion between what a school views as outstanding and the OFSTED view of outstanding. In both cases, there is scope for interpretation and subjectivity by individuals on both ends of judging and being judged.

But does it actually matter what the semantics are and is the pursuit of an ever-changing idea of ‘outstanding’ the correct pursuit?

Regardless of the words on a framework, as observers we often know instantly if we are witnessing something that meets our criteria for outstanding. The feeling is there: the atmosphere is productive, students are engaged, learning is happening before our eyes, usually skilfully facilitated by attentive but not over-bearing teachers.

But what happens when we are not observing? Is the level of engagement the same when there is no formal appraisal, no learning walk or peer appraisal taking place?

We often ask the students and gain insightful responses about which teachers are good and why, but when we dig deeper we often find that these views are moulded by a huge plethora of factors that can be traced back over weeks and months, even years. Therefore, the fact is we are not there so we don’t know.

Can we achieve all of our goals by creating a culture amongst staff where we ignite the fire within them to be consistently good with the capacity and desire to be outstanding? A culture where all teachers, when they shut the door and are on their own with their class, have a strong desire to create great learning opportunities.

We all know teachers who are like this in their lessons, everyday. The teachers of whom we think ‘if only we had another 100 of them’. However, for each of these, there are also those who find it a struggle. In order to ignite the passion and the fires, a model of CPD where the agenda is set from the top on a narrow range of whole-school priorities seems counter-intuitive.

I have lots of examples where I have completed tasks to please others or because I felt I had to. Last week I completed several tasks on the ‘list of things to do’  for the half term week – I wasn’t passionate about them but their completion was satisfying (if only because the ‘to do’ list was shorter) and sometimes rewarding because I could see the benefit.

I often think that CPD can be likened to a ‘to do’ list. Teachers in general agree with the principle that CPD is good. That they should be developing both personally and professionally, however, too often the development is for someone else’s agenda. This can be satisfying (if only because the ‘attend twilight’ box is ticked) and sometimes rewarding, because they can see the benefit.

However, whenever I have been passionate about anything: being a good father to my kids; teaching PE;  providing opportunities for students to learn; supporting Nottingham Forest; playing golf; writing the timetable ($@#!) The passion does not arise from wanting to please someone else. This passion is intrinsic and it grows from within because I am interested, and have a huge desire to just… better.

Developing a CPD model that enables teachers to pursue their passions and areas of interest within their teaching in a supportive environment and encouragement to share their passion seems like a great staring point for lighting the fires.

Of course, there are statutory requirements and whole school priorities to be realised as part of a CPD programme and this will always form part of the package. But with teaching and learning at the heart of school development and teachers being a schools biggest resource, this should be able to sit comfortably alongside personalised staff electives to ensure their professional development has an impact in the classroom. Ideas like the research and development communities being developed by @Head_stmarys ( and the enquiry-led action research by @teachertweaks ( , are great ideas that personalise CPD to individual interests and should enable passions in all to be ignited.

Regardless of the semantics of OUTSTANDING, instilling a desire to be at least consistently good with the capacity to be great / outstanding is a good place to be.




Is the curriculum ‘development’ situation an opportunity to develop independent learners?


Currently many secondary schools are trying to decipher where to go next with their KS3 curriculum, have anxiety about the quality of information that will come from KS2 and are trying to predict what the KS4 developments will look like and how they will affect KS5 (if they have a KS5 following funding rearrangements).

But should all of this lack of stability be viewed as an opportunity or a threat?

Many of the educational conversations I have had recently revert back to the idea of developing independent learners. Year 12 teachers are often complaining that the students, in their pre-16 years, have not developed the skills and characteristics required to learn effectively on their own.

However, it seems it is always ‘difficult’ to affect the change because of how the current system is set up. Arguments about the amount of content to be covered within the National Curriculum against the amount of time available; the results orientated ‘we can’t fail’ spoon-feeding culture of Year 11 from mocks onwards and anxieties about how we assess independence all come to the fore when the drive seems to be about giving students more responsibility for their learning.

We should view curriculum development as an opportunity to encourage teachers to work in a different, more engaging and exciting way with students to achieve better learners and better outcomes.

In the murky and directionless environment that we find ourselves in curriculum wise it now seems like a good time to break the arguments of content and time and ask teachers: what do you want the curriculum to look like? When I have asked this question, I have yet to meet a colleague that doesn’t light up with the ideas and passion with which they entered the profession. Incredible ideas about subject and content and the use of new technology that ooze forth with the opportunity to enter into dialogue. In virtually all the examples, students are at the heart of it, developing their skills and characteristics in a variety of areas but understanding the commonality and transferability. Exactly what the Year 12 teachers are looking for.

Whatever our misgivings about the current and future state of the curriculum, perhaps it is the perfect time to break the mould, be brave and light the fire in the bellies of students and teachers to deliver something truly extraordinary.