Sowing the seeds for school improvement – continuous learning

Why is continuous learning so important for staff?

The key to transforming a school is in the ability of the institution to support and encourage teachers to continue to learn. As professionals we are working with the brain the most complex system in the universe.  Sociological and environmental factors are continually changing and evolving and it is these that influence and shape how the brain works. Every student, class, cohort is different and responds differently to the stimuli we create. Added to this is the revolution in technology which now plays a key role in students’ everyday lives. This means the way they learn has, and is changing and we need to understand these changes. My daughter can look up any question on the magic of the internet and have the answer within a couple of seconds. The strength of that answer and the validity might be in question, but she has the beginnings of knowledge at her fingertips. How much does she now need to retain? How much retention supports her ability to connect her knowledge together and to dig deeper? how much can she revisit again? What should become part of her schemata? (Her brain map of knowledge and understanding.) How much can she rely on storing this knowledge on her computer rather than her brain?

If we accept that we are only just beginning to learn about how we learn, and that our subject pedagogy is deepening all the time. Then as an institution, I believe all schools should be committed to investing real and quality time for staff to continue to learn. Most school meetings which are hopefully effective and full of learning, are bolted onto the end of the day. As the exam period arrives they get pushed to the side and revision and or support classes take over in a challenging school. For staff this means longer hours with students, leaving little time for our own continuous learning.

How do you know when staff are actively engaged in learning?

You know your school will transform and outcomes will begin to improve when you walk into your staff room or bump into some of your team in a corridor, department office and sadly for us (as this was one of the only places we met regularly) the toilet! When the conversation has moved from, “This child didn’t do this….and this one was misbehaving in this way.” To a discussion about pedagogy: what they were trying at that moment in their classroom? What was working and what they had learnt from their trials? How they were going to adapt their practice further and what benefit they anticipated in students learning? Your staff are learning and your school is improving.

How did we create continuous cycles of learning at our school?

For most schools, investment comes in the form of finding time. With the help of my lead researcher and Deputy, pummelling me with weighty research documents confirming that learning was essential for staff. I decided that we needed to devote some of our timetable to this process. The idea neatly combined with my desire to provide our students with enrichment activities outside of the classroom. So on Wednesday afternoons key stage 4 finished school at lunch, missing the last hour. They completed this hour on a Monday pm where then stayed until 4 pm. Key stage 3 went into Enrichment after lunch, which involved a significant number of coaches who came into school. More about this in the enrichment chapter. After lunch my staff were given devoted time to learning. For staff the time alternated between their departments one week and cross curricular coaching groups the next.


Cross curricular coaching to promote learning?

We appointed a Lead Coach, line managed by my Deputy to lead staff learning across the school. We used the school improvement plan, to steer the learning into four or five broad subsets which shaped the framework of our development plan. For example: increasing challenge in the classroom, meeting individual needs, supporting the development of literacy, and improving engagement. Staff were then able to select which area they wanted to research and work on this. We linked with CUREE a research education company to help us create road maps to support the learning that staff were doing.

For example, if I chose to go into the increasing the challenge group. I would be assigned a coach, who would help me to define what I wanted to research within this topic area. They would then support me by giving me a road map to recent research, that I could use to further my understanding of the topic I was looking to explore. I would then be asked to focus in on a specific cohort of students that I wanted to work with, and to identify the student outcomes I was looking for. This might be to take my five top end students and to improve their ability to achieve an A* in the Geography decision making paper. Increasing the amount of opportunities, they took to use their case studies as evidence in the paper and, in helping them to use them to show how they can support their ideas or counter arguments.

Once the students’ outcomes and cohort were identified, teachers were then paired with others and they began their research and or trials. This research was limited and not always scientific,[i] but it allowed staff to trial, discuss, revisit tweak and conclude. By linking their research deliberately to student outcomes, we could track and identify a base measure of impact to the programme. At the end of the term, staff shared their learning through a variety of different media. We carried out a style of speed learning modelled on speed dating to report back findings. We created blogs of our work, and galleries displaying our progress.

Overtime the staff engagement with this process increased dramatically and almost all staff developed and began to think, take risks, and adapt their processes. Because of the alignment to the school improvement plan, this thinking meant that individuals were learning and the school was learning. The alignment to the school plan also meant we were all travelled in the same direction. Seeking greater understanding of the key areas we identified as specific areas for progress within our school. This alignment to the school plan was essential. We were like an amoeba, our wobbly learning individual, yet traversing in the same direction. In my last year I listened to the voices that told me to let this alignment to our plan had to go. This was a mistake as learning became disparate and without the collective had less meaning and ultimately impact.

Our last development gave us an opportunity to link to a project that aligned university research to schools by allowing teachers access to a website. This site, enabled staff to ask questions of researchers which could aid and support their own learning and trials in the classroom. Using the amoeba effect and linking this to a university and or groups of higher education research would have been an incredibly powerful addition to the process we had developed.

Twilight sessions to develop learning.

Alongside the coaching on Wednesday afternoon we offered a variety of twilight sessions to further learning. These were run initially by the more experienced teachers and were created from our school improvement plan and or training requests from performance management. Over time, as teachers research provided additional learning within our context, volunteers appeared wanting to run session to share their learning. We also developed specific sessions to improve understanding of particular student needs and eventually we were able to encourage parents into these sessions to support our staff in understanding of particular issues and concerns with SEND students. The twilights became an evolving process and a vehicle for sharing good practice which staff regularly revisited in the year. Each twilight linked to alternate and additional sessions so the learning could be revisited throughout the year. We found this model far more effective than one off events that inspire but rarely lead to changes in practice. In order to encourage longevity of learning our inset days were replaced with attendance at a set number of twilight sessions.

Structured opportunities to continue to learn at whatever stage of your career.

Promoting effective learning at my school required significant skill and something that could not be fully acquired in one year. To leave a Newly Qualified teacher after a year seemed wholly inappropriate. So we developed a compulsory 2nd year course for all new teachers. Meeting once a week and led by our Lead Coach. The idea was to extend the pedagogy and to promote and instil the practice of continued learning and research. Alongside this, we developed training opportunities in each of the career paths within our school: preparation for middle leadership, senior leadership and headship. Each course was funded by the school and linked to a qualification and a University.

As with all new initiatives the numbers were small to begin with but word of mouth spread and by the end of my tenure the majority of staff were taking these opportunities to support their learning. In reflection, we identified that while we had created structural hierarchical leadership learning, what we missed was the ability to develop subject specific expertise and this was something I would have explored further. The Singapore model of identifying staff early on to support different strands of learning from: learning for leadership, experts in their subject, or a pedagogy within teaching has I believe, merit.

Intensive learning

I have learnt, If I want to maximise the learning capacity of a teacher,  intensive co- teaching will produce the best outcomes. In my experience where new and or vulnerable staff are given a half term minimum, but preferably a term with an assigned quality practitioner. With the specific purpose of team teaching, and modelling with an agreed class and set of lessons, the learning is greatest. This is an expensive business assigning a quality practitioner to sit alongside a learning teacher. Identifying and agreeing the student outcomes you are looking for, and then mentoring and or team teaching in all these lessons creates overlap in the timetable and removes a quality teacher from teaching another class. However, time and again it has proven to be exceptionally powerful.

In order for this method to succeed I made the decision to offer this process, without the usual accountability procedures that tend to accompany support. I was clear, when performance management became directly related to the teachers’ salary, the accountability and pressure became too great and performance management lost its ability to stimulate quality learning. High stakes agendas reduce learning. Therefore, intensive learning was described as a gift and I meant it. It sat outside the performance management framework and was confidential. Staff were able to explore new strategies and take risks without the constraint of the accountability stick damning them if their and the students learning wasn’t immediately successful.

As this practice grew we had a number of staff who volunteered for intensive learning, (yes they actually volunteered to have staff observe them daily) but this time from a position as a strong practitioner wanting to further their development. In these scenarios the experienced practitioner took on a coaching role, acting as a facilitator of learning not the guru.

Where success occurred in intensive learning many staff opted to use the exercise as evidence for their performance management but this was their choice. Intensive learning remained the gift, performance management remained the accountability. The only exception to this was; one year due to a horrendous recruitment processes we began with a maths department with four potentially inadequate teachers. Each was assigned an intensive learning programme. Within three weeks, one of the teachers was so unable to make progress. The situation was so poor we had to move into capability and she left within the week of her own accord. This was a unique case and the intensive system flourished because of its opportunities to nurture.

Using our Evidence into Practice Blog to feed us the latest research.

Our Lead researcher developed a blog and programme of learning for those teachers interested in keeping up to date with the latest body of research into learning within the educational community. Research is invaluable but finding the time to keep up with it difficult. Whenever we were looking at a change, we had our own librarian to source and map the latest thinking that was out there. To ensure that we did not go into change blind. This blog was awarded one of the top educational blogs in the TES 2015 awards.

Your not good so you can’t lead the training of teachers.

One key element of creating a successful and sustainable school is your ability to attract quality teachers and retain them. It doesn’t matter how good your systems are, and how innovative you may be, if you don’t have the staff you will fail. For schools in disadvantaged circumstances, sourcing beginning teachers is a key strategy for engaging new graduates in the joy as well as challenge of working with disadvantaged students. It helps to secure a regular supply of new teachers into your school. Training teachers also has a secondary impact of creating regular and effective dialogue about pedagogy, and helping your current practitioners to continually reflect on their practice. New recruits are often full of enthusiasm and in the best institutions bring innovation and the latest research theory with them.

The changes to the training of teachers has bought about significant barriers for schools in challenging circumstances. Taking on beginning teachers in now almost all ring fenced to Good and Outstanding schools.  Teaching Alliances have to have Outstanding schools within them, often leading. Whilst we applied to our local Outstanding Alliance (25 miles away) to train teachers, we were never given the opportunity to do so. In the four years we applied we were offered a big fat zero of new staff. We became locked out of training and sourcing beginning teachers. This remained a strangle hold on our school’s ability to reach Good.

The School Direct route which provides salaried training, directly into school was also barred from us, as we were Requiring improvement. Frustrated we decided to ignore the system. We had through our blog and training programmes in house, a growing reputation as a thinking school. Fortunately, by manipulating our networks we able to access non salaried routes to training. Yes, come and train with us in a really difficult school and don’t get paid for it, was our only route available to attracting beginning teachers, and yes they had to self- fund this training! [ii]

In bucking the system, we were able to secure university training partnership with five significant institutions. By the end of our program we were the only school in County who achieved Outstanding with our two students who completed the self- assessment route. We were used an examples of excellent practice for the quality of their training programme with one of our significant University partners

These new recruits to the profession having worked with us, lost the fear of working in a challenging school and actually began to enjoy their experience and relish the challenge. Our current training system channels the majority of student through good and outstanding schools with no concrete training in disadvantaged situations. This leaves the shrinking number of graduates who are available each year, even more inclined to avoid these schools and with absolutely zero experience. God give me strength!

My Learning:

Actively seeking time devoted to learning collectively, is the essential ingredient for school improvement. Creating a safe haven away from the accountability machine promotes the greatest learning as staff are more willing to take risks.




[i] the Education Endownment Fund latest research on non -cognitive skills has a rating for scientific research which I find helpful, for some we had a constant to compare others we did not. I believe we would have been rated level 2 to 3 in their scale of 5.

[ii] review of training providers by the think tank Policy Exchange is well worth a read in highlighting the inadequate system of training currently at work. They believe our current system has most damage for the most disadvantage schools and most advantage for outstanding. I wouldn’t disagree

A school in chaos – Learning in the beginning.

Learning in the beginning


When was the last time you attempted to really learn something, something really new and challenging? As adults in our sphere of home and or work we are often cocooned in processes that might require us to evolve something, but rarely to learn something completely new. As an adult when was the last time you really faced that precipice and tackled something you weren’t naturally inclined to? That leap of faith over the cliff into something new and unknown is rare if not non-existent in a substantial number of our lives, so we forget how daunting it is. In a good school students are facing this experience regularly as they are pushed and challenged to progress. Their ability to manage the unknown and to tackle the new is paramount in enabling them to succeed now and in the future.


This is one of the reasons why we like our staff to continue learning; not only does it create a dialogue about the process, but we then all experience these feelings and remember how unnerving learning is, and how resilient you have to be to tackle the unknown.


At my school, as already stated a significant majority of students had already experienced failure. They had taken the leap and crashed down the cliff into the abyss. Often this abyss was then ignored, as the next terrain of learning needed to be conquered. No crampons, or alternative climbing gear were ever fitted to them, so they couldn’t climb out of the hole and back up the mountain of knowledge. Their learning was left in the ravine. Many of these students had huge gaps in their learning.


For those who were able to cross and climb the mountain of key stage 2 assessment, they did it with significant aid. This hadn’t come in the form of a guide helping them to solve the problems and find their own way to the solution. It had come in the form of rote learning, somebody leading the way, which allowed them to cross the path of knowledge but gave them little opportunity to turn back and find their way again when they needed it.  They had not learned to avoid the misconceptions or grasp a deep understanding, but they could cross the mountain test on one day in the year. This however did not translate to long term memory and sustainable knowledge.


After 7 years many learners were wary and reluctant to tackle change. Their next step on the mountain of knowledge felt precarious, and the foundations behind them were uneven. This scenario does not breed the type of learner necessary for success. Learners need to have a deep -set knowledge base and the ability to persevere with resilience when learning gets tough. Constantly moving students on, when they really haven’t secured learning can create individuals who are limited in their ability to dig hard when they are finding a problem, making new learning difficult. Many never really achieved success in learning by themselves.


For a teenage student that is struggling, it can make sense emotionally to give up and attempt to fail spectacularly, rather than to place exceptional effort into something difficult. To be seen to be placing this effort, and then to crash land down the ravine of failure is a complete embarrassment to them, and something to be avoided at all costs. So why should they try when it hasn’t worked in the past?


Their literacy issues compounded the problem as their inability to talk and explain ideas and/or share their thought processes in tackling a problem restricted them further. Their inability to read fluently left them working hard to translate text. With little time or skill left to tackle the meaning of that text. Again, added pressure for a teenager. Can they admit to not understanding something they are reading in a class? No, not in an environment like the one I am describing.


Actually, to learn you have to be prepared to fail spectacularly and to change. Even the brightest child will at some point face the failure of not achieving secure learning from their first attempt. Without the confidence and resilience to pull yourself back up and carry on, learning stops. *


Failure at the school was the daily experience for many, but hidden and shameful. Camouflaged by poor behaviour, significant absenteeism, and/or the ability of a child to disappear into the corner of a classroom unseen and unheard. For the majority, they saw success as being unattainable and aloof. Success was felt to be a thing others attained through their genes, not something that was gained through hard work and perseverance.


At this time all high attaining pupils were sectioned away in separate classrooms and sets (a strategy to try to attract higher ability students) – they were the elite. Even for the highest achievers this success again seemed to be more to do with luck in genetics than strategies and skill sets. When attempting to really challenge this group of individuals the same fear and resentment appeared in the classroom. Real push had been rare for them and they were used to succeeding without the need for resilience and perseverance. Their initial stages of learning had come easily to them. Their learning style was often copious note taking, which they then regurgitated.


To sum up: learning at the school was a mystery, something that some students got lucky with but the majority failed at.


* One of the biggest mistakes that I and other teachers have made is where we plough on with the content we need to cover rather than ensuring that students are secure in their learning. Better to learn two thirds of a curriculum thoroughly and securely than the whole poorly. With the hike in expectations in the national curriculum and the pressure on teachers to tick the box in primary to confirm students have passed set markers, we are likely to see more ravines emerging in student learning and more students who have shaky foundations to their learning. Is speed of learning really the solution to improving education?



* This is often seen in highly capable female students who come crashing down in year 13 (18) or the 2nd year of University when faced with significant challenge for the first time.


Requiring Improvement: A head teacher’s journey to career suicide in education

At the ASCL 2013 conference I am asked Michael Gove, a man strong on rhetoric and self- belief. “Who would take on a challenging school in his brave new world of education?” The press report the phrase I use at the time, “Career suicide”.

 The answer was me. In 2009 I took on a failing school in a low income white working class area that had never achieved Good. After seven years of school improvement, reaching its peak with working hours exceeding ninety hours per week, and a national agenda and operative that I have a lost all faith in. The intelligent decision is to walk away from secondary headship. The wise but wholly alien decision for me is to catch the chair lift downwards and move off of the mountain climb that is school improvement, because the summit and the goal are now so hidden in the clouds of politics. As a challenging school, the crampons and climbing gear that naively I believed would be given to some of the most vulnerable schools to support the climb, have been removed. Having successfully navigated the lift out of Failing.The label Requiring Improvement (RI) has damaged my staff and I, regardless of always receiving Good leadership, in the five inspections we have faced in seven years. This label reduces me to a pariah for most Governing bodies of good and outstanding schools. They can’t recognise my skill set, let alone appoint me. I have entered the state of career suicide at the age of forty- four.

Please note during my headship the school took significantly below average students to broadly average. Our sixth form intake although below average exceeded all expectations for the numbers of white working class boys who went to university. Again we reached average with these students, and we excelled in our vocational subjects. None of this was good enough for Good.  In the 2014 annual Ofsted report it was noted that nationally low income white working class students achieve 25% 5 A- C with English and Maths. White working class boys (which we had a significant proportion of) achieve in line with SEND students (exceptionally low). Under 10% attend university.

I managed to choose headship as the Government changed, the public purse closed and the regime moved to a pure attainment measure of success. The curriculum reverted to a 1950’s ideal of education, ignoring the growing body of research screaming that this model will not provide in the 21st century.

Within my headship, Ofsted has changed the handbook (the way schools are judged) nine times, the exam system has moved into overdrive with huge and regular inaccuracy, expectations of standards rise, with no explanation of where the new measures originate from. How for example floor standards set and what is their statistical meaning?

During this time like many schools in challenging circumstances we experienced:

  • A lock on access to additional pots of funding due to our Failing and then Requiring Improvement (RI) position, and the fact we were not an academy. This included new builds (I managed a school with significant and debilitating asbestos)


  • A death lock on our ability to train teachers. RI and Failing schools are not open to training teachers and sourcing new staff, unless part of a Teaching Alliance. Entry into Teaching Alliance is difficult we have tried on several occasions to no avail. Without a source of quality teachers, a school can’t sustain itself.


  • A death lock on any member of staff in an RI or Failing school training to be an Ofsted inspector and therefore having access to the internal insight into the inspectorate.


  • A lock on any members of my staff including the Head applying for any recognition award for subject or national leader.  All schools have pockets of excellence, but why would a great leader stay when they can’t be recognised?


  • The removal of the experienced Local Authority, as the main lead in providing school support and replacing this with a brokering system where outstanding schools and leaders are bought in to provide advice. With respect to all leaders of the schools I have worked with, their experiences are so different and their ability to provide the time limited.


  • We entered one the biggest experiments in education. Raising standards with blind belief that if we raise them significantly enough and expect students to achieve they will.


As I make this decision, I am suffering from significant depression, that leaves me unable to see a future. In order to help me process, I have decided to write a book and I have been advised a blog can help to publicise this book. Apparently I write as I speak. I don’t know if anyone will be very interested in my story or at least my learning about the nature of headship, but as I do this, the reflection is helping me to process.


Originally I thought I might write about what I have learnt and some of my experiences in chronological order, but while this was fine for the start of the book, when discussing how you breed the seed of a potential head, and the recruitment process for headship. When I reach the story of taking over a failing school, one that was recognised by the local authority as failing in all areas of leadership and operation, chronology has stopped working and I am now debating why this is?


I think the route to headship for me, naturally lends itself to a chronological story, because for a significant part in my 20’s and early 30’s I could command my own destiny and I was successful. I didn’t have children, and for whatever reason, the work I carried out with my teams was successful. I valued the system, and the changes while regular, were not incessant and seemed for the most part to have some reason, logic and most important professionals involved. (I exempt Mr Balls from this comment, fortunately his surname is a metaphor for my judgement of his capacity as education minister.) I worked with challenging students but was able to make and then lead substantial change and improvement. During this period of time the journey your students achieved with you was the key measure of success, not their raw attainment. This is crucial if you chose to work in a low attainment school on entry, who start 300 metres behind the average school on the race track to GCSE. Context was valued.


However, as I tell my story when I reach my appointment as Head of a failing school the reality of the situation at that time, is not lending itself to chronology. If you think about a landslide you come close to the feeling of my headship at first! You are constantly hit by issues in a random, pattern that feels like chaos and actually in trying to write them down looks like chaos.  Of course now as I reflect I realise a truly failing school is chaos! All you can do is grab on tight hold on by your finger tips and pull you and whatever you select to place around you upwards!


So once I have passed my appointment to headship in my story, I am going to write about themes that impact on a troubled school which has never achieved Good. In a community and location that are now recognised as least likely to achieve good educational outcomes.


The book is divided into three sections:

  • What a chaotic school looks and feels like – and what you can learn from this as a Head.
  • How we began to imbed the seeds of improvement?
  • Why I think our current system is limiting the conditions for growth in these challenging communities and schools.


None of these themes are intended to provide a definitive list to all that will appear to you if you take on a failing school. They are what I remember at present, and as I contemplate a new career and the death of a career I absolutely adored, they need a health warning. A damaged heart and soul at work currently!


In setting up my blog I am hoping to post a few of the chapters from the first two sections.  As, soon as we received the label Failing three months into my headship and then Requiring improvement two years later (Satisfactory was stripped from us) my voice has disappeared. It has felt as if no one is the system has wanted to listen or valued our voice as we are condemned by our label. One of my staff members broke this system with their blog, he advised I try this route to. So here goes…………………………..