Curriculum Roundtable

Recently, I received an email “out of the blue” directly from Ofsted inviting me to their head office for “a round table discussion on Ofsted’s new inspection framework, with Amanda Spielman.” I had no idea why I’d been invited but naturally, with curiosity getting the better of me, I accepted the invitation.

On arriving at the Ministry of Justice building where the Ofsted HQ is housed, let’s just say that the security system was unlike anything else I’d experienced. At one point, I thought I was going to be teleported somewhere a la Star Trek! It turned out that fifteen of us had been invited, so we set about trying to find out what either we as individuals or our schools had in common. Clearly, there was no Sherlock Holmes amongst us as all we could ascertain was that our schools were all in London.

On meeting Amanda Spielman, one thing that struck me was that she did have the presence of a class teacher even though she’d never been one. As such, a few weeks after this event, I’m left to own up to my prejudice and reservation about her initial appointment. Another factor that became immediately apparent is that she is sharply focused on making sure that excellent provision and practice should be evidenced strongly across the nation and not just in certain regions. We listened to her talk about curriculum issues for just under ten minutes before she opened up the discussion for our contributions.

One point I made is that within Ofsted HQ, they should never underestimate their power and influence, particularly over leaders who are more concerned with acting upon direction rather than forging their own vision. If Ofsted put out a report stating that a goldfish pond in the middle of a school playground raised attainment in boys’ writing or closed the attainment gap for the disadvantaged, there would be those head teachers who’d immediately dispatch their site manager into the playground with a kango hammer whilst sending an office junior to the local pet shop without giving it a second thought!

In my view, Ms Spielman is entirely right to focus on the curriculum. With my dad hat on, I think it’s ridiculous that my daughter’s formal geography education is over at fourteen years of age, just to make room for triple science and, of all things, citizenship. At primary level, the number of schools that never engage in a full on dramatic production for their pupils at any stage within their primary education is alarming. So Ofsted, I’m right with you on this…but I’m nervous.

Since the headlines broke that curriculum provision is going to form a prominent part of the new framework, the school I lead (St Leonard’s Church of England Primary in Streatham, London) has received an increasing number of requests for visits from interested senior leaders. At St Leonard’s we teach and learn through the International Primary Curriculum (IPC). We’ve done so since 2012 and are now one of IPC’s few “accredited schools”. We chose this curriculum because we strongly believe in developing knowledge, skills and understanding in many subjects, giving all children, with their different gifts and talents, a chance to succeed. Our curriculum is underpinned by an established learning policy created by different stakeholders within the school community. It is now matched with an assessment policy bringing meaningful assessment to foundation subjects. I write this not so much to promote the IPC (although I thoroughly recommend it) but to make the point that to develop a rich curriculum that is as robust as it is diverse takes time – and there will be those school leaders who are not going to be prepared to wait, because they are either going to be acting in fear or, even worse, trying to rapidly establish a personally successful reputation so that they can move on with personal ambition.

One visitor to our school had been sent by their head teacher to look at our provision. However, what quickly became evident was that they’d been sent to evaluate a product to see if it could be used as an additional bolt-on to what they currently offered. The curriculum should be no different from any other aspect of school leadership. It needs to be based upon a clear vision, rooted in philosophy and pedagogy, and resourced adequately to promote the best possible outcomes. If school leaders think that their curriculum can merely be tinkered with to give the impression that it’s more holistic, they are doomed to failure. Moreover, if they think that what in effect is window dressing will not be identified in an inspection, they are incredibly naïve. My worry is that enough school leaders will simply chuck a few “interesting topics” in and have one off artistic visitors to try and give the impression of a broad and balanced curriculum. This of course will fail dismally and, when it does, some will use the data as evidence that broad and balanced doesn’t work.

One of the school leaders present at the discussion summed everything up beautifully by simply stating, “When all is said and done, it’s about brave leadership.”

I’ve often said to my colleagues that, over a decade, I’ll go through a reputational cycle. For a few years I’ll be considered a maverick, for a few years I’ll be considered a pioneer and for a few years I’ll be considered as maintaining the status quo. Therein lies the importance of having a clear vision and philosophy for success that can withstand the winds of change.

For me, the foundation subjects are to be understood as exactly that. The brilliant cellist Yo-Yo Ma in an interview with Andrew Marr stated that, as a young man, he was simply fighting for the arts to have “a place at the table”. However as he became older, he “realised that the arts were the table.” I was really struck by this analogy. At a time when we are at risk of losing expertise and participation in so many subjects, Ofsted are currently on the right path and we should see this as an opportunity to make a successful journey along it. For this to happen, it is vital that Ofsted recognise and endorse this as an evolutionary process; that, as professionals, our “table” is thoughtfully and expertly crafted over time – and that every child has a seat at it.

Best wishes,

Simon Jackson

Setting a Gender Agenda

As a middle aged white male, I have to confess to feeling apprehensive about posting a blog on equality of any kind. I’m leaving myself open to comments relating to privilege and, “You don’t know what it’s like.” As an English boy who started school in the 70s aged five in Wales (due to my dad’s work), I’m not as immune to prejudice as you might think. I used to dread the Spring term and the annual thrashing of England by the Welsh rugby team; playgrounds were not safe spaces in the 70s!

In terms of addressing the topic of gender equality, I must confess that I don’t come at this issue from experience as a head teacher, but rather as a son – for that is how I first became aware of it.

My mother was ordained deacon (the step prior to becoming a priest) within the Anglican Church in Wales in the 1980s when I was 15 years old. Subsequently, she was among the first women priests ordained within the Church of England.

The Church’s struggle with equality, however much improved, still remains to this day. One event though remains with me vividly; my mum’s first sermon. She had received a fair amount of encouragement and support from colleagues, family and friends – but her first big moment as an individual, exposed on high in the pulpit, must have been a daunting one. My father, brothers, sister and I looked on (not forgetting God of course!).

Two rows in front of us, sat an impeccably dressed familiar member of the congregation. He was middle aged, of German origin, stocky frame, with a moustache that I can only imagine took as long to prepare in the morning as the rest of him put together. As my mother uttered the opening words, “In the name of the Father…” – our subject in front literally turned his back on my mother in front of the rest of the congregation. Please don’t judge me. I was 15 – and I wasn’t happy.

My teenage rage was the last thing that my mother needed. Whilst at the time, I could never understand her acceptance of a “keep calm and carry on” strategy, the dignity by which she held herself served to make the vast majority of others able to support her all the more in the months following.

More than a year passed before an equally memorable moment happened. The same gentleman came up to my mother in the aisle, clasped both of his saucepan hands around my mother’s – and with a tear in his eye, he apologised.

Some thirty years or so later, my mother died in an era when women were now becoming Bishops. I believe that her strategy, shared by many fantastic women within the Church of England of day by day, person by person, congregation by congregation – serving as a woman, faithful and loyal both to her calling and to other women is a blue print that can be looked at for the benefit of other settings. You see, she never set out to prove that she could do all the things that men could do. Instead, she was comfortable in showing just how much better things could be when she brought other aspects to the role as a woman, albeit a formidable one.

So, before you start thinking that I’m writing an article for the Church Times, how does this experience help form my view of gender equality within the education profession?

However obvious it may seem, the first thing that I need to say is that I care about it. I completely accept that, as decent human beings, we should be concerned with promoting fairness in all its forms.

Following a tweet from the wonderful Laura McInerney, I’m going to use a framework espoused by the journalist Amanda Ripley, albeit within the realm of political opinions, to help me be clear; hopefully!

Amanda explains that, often when discussing controversial issues, people just take up their default positions and spend all their energy defending them. They are not truly open to dialogue and they do not know how to listen. She therefore suggests asking the following questions in her article, What if journalists covered controversial issues differently – based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized or suspicious?

What is oversimplified about this issue?
How has this conflict affected your life?
What do you think the other side wants?
What is the question nobody is asking?
What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?

In terms of oversimplification, it should not simply be an issue of the needs of men versus those of women. It is also not a matter of overnight revolutionary change. For improvement to be successful, it has to involve assisted evolution – and that takes time. I do see two polarised views – neither of which I agree with. Firstly, there’s a view where women’s personal and family circumstances should place absolutely no barrier to pay and career progression, irrespective of the impact on the organisation. At the other end of the spectrum are those who say that in terms of promotion and opportunity, it’s just a case of the best person for the job, giving little or no consideration as to how or why a more balanced workforce is in everyone’s interest. One view is idealistic, whilst the other is most definitely all about protectionism, self-service and maintaining the status quo.

The problem with this first view is that it does not take into account the wider impact. The cost is not just in terms of finance but also in terms of the impact on one’s colleagues. In smaller schools especially, the jobs still need doing whilst someone is off for whatever reason. Also, schools are for the benefit of children first; children first. They’re not a means to an end. Schools are communities and it is unreasonable for individuals to expect the community to bend to the will of the individual whenever it suits them – because different people have different needs at the same time.The problem with maintaining the status quo is that, self-evidently, it is not fit for purpose in 21st century Britain.

Given that my introduction was experiential, I’ll move onto Ripley’s third question. The first thing I’d say is that I don’t see this issue in terms of sides. However, I’ll stick within the framework and try to offer a purely gender based perspective as a “bloke”. Based on interactions I’ve had and what I’ve read, I understand that women wish to be judged on their capability, on their potential and on their value as an employee – not in terms of their family circumstances…and certainly not in terms of their appearance. They wish to have opportunities rather than barriers laid before them. They wish to see themselves represented at all levels within the workforce. They wish to have a degree of control over their options. They wish to be judged fairly and with equity. Ladies – am I close???

As for the question nobody is asking, may I suggest this one: How can we generate an unstoppable dynamic for workforce improvement created by men and women equally? The challenge here is to create a movement which is not aggressive or confrontational in its style; a movement that accentuates the positive attributes women can bring into the workplace; a movement whereby men feel persuaded and compelled to reject the status quo that has served them supremely well in order to support women and for women to feel open and welcoming to receiving the support of men…for the benefit of both genders equally. I don’t yet feel that we’re there.

Just before I became the head teacher of my current school, I was invited to a PTA quiz night which included a fish & chip supper. The school was 28% white British. Those present were 100% white British. There was an obvious question which I couldn’t resist asking. The answer: “Well, everyone’s invited; they just don’t come.” Nobody had ever bothered to ask why. Seven years on, school events are now truly that.

In my view, it’s simply tokenistic to say that “Well everyone’s invited; they just don’t come.” If women’s campaigners really wanted a demographic (in this case – men) to become involved in improving working opportunities for women, they’d think about why and how and what they would need to do to attract their involvement. My message to all women’s groups, irrespective of their purpose, is that if you genuinely have hopes of being as successful as you could be, ask yourself, “How are we going to become a broad church?” That involves actively asking men and seeking their support, not just saying, “You can come if you want to”. In 25 years within the profession, I’ve never been asked by a senior, respected woman within teaching about this – and I’m pretty sure that most men haven’t.

Ripley’s final question is the most challenging of all in this context. What do men need to learn about women in order to understand them better? I could be flippant and talk about bottling the answer to this question and selling it as the elixir of life, but there is a serious point to be made. The female Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is quoted as saying, “The problem with sterotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” We now live in an age where to stray into the realms of stereotyping is to be met on Twitter with pure vitriol. As such, it’s great to read a successful black female author recognise that such stereotypes have more than an element of truth. She has far greater credibility than I.

Acknowledging where we do conform to our stereotype can be liberating and humorous, yet should never be used as an excuse for poor or unacceptable behaviour. I am the white English male, who loves his football and a drink down the pub. I like nothing better than a good English roast dinner and a traditional Christmas. But I’m a husband, father (to a girl – and, yes – she’s my princess no matter what!), son and brother. I’m a musician, a teacher and a school leader. In seeing some of my male stereotypes, I am not limited by them, though on occasions I’m frustrated by them (all too often I react rather than respond…still!).

Ladies there are many times when you conform to your stereotype; sometimes they’re funny; sometimes frustrating – and that’s fine. But to know women better involves me looking beyond the obvious…and listening to women who are explaining and talking but not bellowing or rolling their eyes when a white male gets appointed to a position. That’s when the dreaded word “vulnerability” comes into play. In turn, that involves as #WomenEd would put it, being “10% braver” – both men and women being vulnerable; together.

Simon Jackson

Paradise Lost

I’ll begin by stating the obvious in an attempt to secure common ground; we wish to be aspirational, both as teachers and parents, on behalf of our children.

There is however a huge amount of variation in what we understand is meant by being aspirational and what we should provide in order to achieve positive outcomes. I do remember many years ago, a prospective parent asking me, “Do many of your students go on to become doctors?”…and this was on a tour of the Nursery! I garbled something along the lines of “We’re confident that all children who come to our school will have the opportunity to become successful” – but I was shocked nonetheless. At the other end of the spectrum, there were those whose aspirations were limited to their child “having fun”.

With the KS2 SATs results having just been published, there’s the usual feverish activity occurring on social media. One post that landed in my timeline particularly caught my eye and read as follows:

“Our SATS results were shit by the way. Barely above floor standard. It seems like applying pressure to teachers for years to manipulate data on Target tracker to make a weak cohort look good and then doing almost nothing but SATs practice in year 6 doesn’t work. Who’d have thought it?”

Clearly, the author was in reactionary mode, demonstrating frustration, anger and a fair amount of resentment – and I do not judge them for that. However, reflecting on the content, a multitude of issues come to light, the common thread being the importance of leadership based on a clear set of values.

Firstly, let’s consider the phrase, “a weak cohort.” If one can strike the balance between considering achievement alongside attainment, then one’s perspective is likely to be far more positive in its outlook. Heavily implied in this phrase is the notion that attainment is the single important factor when judging success. When such cohorts emerge within a school, this is when those in positions of leadership should embark on additional measures so that from a school accountability perspective, their story can be successfully told. This may involve having portfolios of work outlining the significant progress made by individuals throughout their time at the school. Yes this involves additional work, but if one is organised and has systems in place to closely monitor such groups, it can be hugely motivational both for the children concerned and the staff doing their utmost to support them.

When I began my headship seven years ago, a “weak cohort” with a large number of children with statements of SEN was part way through the school. I knew that their SATs year would yield some very unpleasant headline reading. This we could not change, but we set about gathering the evidence to also reveal a positive narrative. I suspect that, if this process had begun when they were in Reception, we could have been even more confident of demonstrating outstanding progress. We will have a similar situation next year, but we are confident that the story of this cohort can be convincingly articulated. Such cohorts are not “weak”. They have to endure some of the biggest challenges. Their strength often stands in stark contrast to the quality of the materials by which they are judged at the end of KS2. But for class teachers to maintain such a perspective, it is the duty of senior leaders to reassure and enlighten them. The tweet quoted above would suggest that the leadership team have been singularly unsuccessful in achieving this.

Our job is about handling pressure, not creating stress. The tweet is strangled by stress. I won’t focus too much on the aspect of data other than to say that, whilst it’s always important to use data positively and to one’s advantage – it’s important as an SLT that the data is reliable and that the uglier aspects revealed are properly investigated and addressed.

It’s the last part of the message that concerns me most.  Children’s Early Years and Primary education should be a paradise full of creation, exploration, cooperation and revelation. It should be an experience that motivates them to want to become life-long learners. The fact that there are still schools reducing Year 6 to a daily conveyor belt of formulae is truly shameful – and it’s the responsibility of those in positions of leadership to change this and expose those who are doing it.

The school at which I lead teaches the broad and balanced International Primary Curriculum (IPC) throughout the year. Our Year 6 each Christmas lead a fantastic musical production accompanied by adult musicians which is six weeks of rehearsing – sometimes in small groups and sometimes as a cast. Their residential school journey is also in the first term. Of course, we prepare children for some contextual based learning in relation to the SATs. However, we do not make Year 6 the “Year of SATs”. It is the year when they become in effect, pupil leaders. It is the year group that is most highly judged on how they demonstrate the IPC’s personal goals of enquiry, adaptability, resilience, morality, thoughtfulness, cooperation, communication and respect. We impress upon them that they are the ones who should best exemplify our school’s values of the Bible’s “Fruit of the Spirit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. This is the pressure we put them under. These are values by which one’s understanding of them is not based on an ability to read, write and count.

For those of you thinking, “This is all very well – but I’m judged on results” – let me assure you that this works. Generally, our KS2 results are healthily above the national and Local Authority average – but not suspiciously so with 100% every year!

So let’s avoid falling into the trap of trying to use children to manufacture SATs outcomes. Let’s stop using the proclamations of ill-informed politicians and others whose independence I strongly question, to rob the children of what should be the best years of their school lives.

I know that we’re under pressure to produce results, but the best leaders will never let this prevent them from doing what is right for all children. For if this becomes a tale of Paradise Lost – and one only has to look at the devastating assault on our expressive arts provision to see that the signs are there, then it will have happened on our watch.

I’ll finish with a message for our downhearted tweeter. Firstly, give yourself a moment before reflecting on your own practice; it is only right that you do. Secondly, reflect on the leadership within your school; it may be that you are in the wrong environment. Finally, and most importantly, change your perspective when teaching such cohorts, understanding just how challenging each day is in school for them when they’re being made to engage in tasks which are inappropriate and at which they can’t succeed. I hope that you go on to become a school leader, because this experience will help you to avoid putting your teachers under the same stress that you have been under. Good luck with it.

Are we losing our understanding of the need for personal responsibility in society?

I read the following short article recently.

I found it really interesting because, in my view, there is much for both the teaching profession as well as for parents and society in general to reflect on within the piece.

To briefly summarise the article’s content, a secondary school has decided to significantly alter its homework policy, basing its premise on reducing the marking workload for teachers. As a result, some parents have reacted negatively, including one who has set up a Facebook page for others to log their concerns after being worried that the school is possibly creating, “a generation of children who flunk their GCSEs.”

Homework is one of those issues that continue to divide opinion amongst teachers and parents alike. My own view is that the appropriateness of the homework is the key determiner in establishing whether it’s been purposeful or not. Giving out homework every “whatever day” can lead to task driven, laborious and uninspiring, low level work which neither the teacher nor pupil values. In an age when children may not have access to as much adult support at home as was the case for past generations, homework can be an enduring trial for both pupil and an often working parent. As such, the homework needs to be carefully planned and targeted. Everyone involved needs to feel the benefit of the task: the teacher should see improved practice from the pupil; the pupil should grow in confidence and ability; the parent should feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to their child’s learning. I suggest that this should involve a lessening of the amount or frequency and an increasing of the quality. But this is not what the article was about. Instead, it was about workload from one perspective and expectation from another.

I fear that there’s a danger that we are letting outside pressures inhibit our sense of personal responsibility. For those of us in the teaching profession, this may involve leaders and class based practitioners focusing on the wrong type of accountability measures and trying to second guess what is expected of us so as to avoid “failure”, which in turn means they are spending large amounts of time doing the wrong things.  Meanwhile, for often busy parents, this may involve abdicating responsibility for the entirety of their child’s education to the school.

I genuinely appreciate that there is an increased awareness within some schools of the need for reducing pressure on teachers, but has anyone actually considered what matters most to the children they teach? Why is the focus so much on reducing marking rather than reducing other responsibilities for the teacher? For example, within primary education it has almost become expected that teachers run an after school club voluntarily. These need preparing for, are time consuming, often energy sapping. Yes, they’re worthwhile – but more worthwhile than marking children’s work? How about looking at planning? It amazes me that there are still some schools that expect their teachers to hand in planning to be looked at by senior leaders when work scans indicate that the planning is appropriate. At the school where I’m head teacher, it has become increasingly clear that the latest generation of teachers coming through are utilising a lot more digital material when planning which can be viewed and stored on the network. Consequently, the time has come to remove the burden of duplication on old planning formats.

In relation to marking, there is an agreed minimum number of books to be scrutinised each day. But our teachers recognise the value that children place on knowing that their work has been looked at regularly.

Teachers shouldn’t need reminding that our job is a vocation first and a career second. Therefore, children come first. The best teachers, of whom there are a far greater number than our print media and politicians would have you believe, are totally committed to the service of their pupils and never need to refer to the required minimum standard of anything. These genuinely fantastic people are not concerned about accountability because they live up to their responsibility on a daily basis knowing that the results will take care of themselves.

Unfortunately, as a result of decades of political manoeuvring, some great disillusioned talent has left the profession and so we’re faced with a recruitment crisis (does anyone still believe that we’re not?). Subsequently, there are those who have been accepted into the profession who are not of the right character let alone ability – and suddenly, an agreement of what constitutes the bare minimum is being sought over all things. Poor teachers within a team can have as much effect on team morale as workload.

So – to the parent preparing to blame a school for any possible failing of GCSEs: Where is your personal responsibility as a parent? If you feel that your child may benefit from additional challenge or practice – what’s to stop you from providing it? Surely you’re not worried that your child will resist and not comply? Is it a teacher’s job alone to monitor, challenge and support the individual student? If you’ve got time to set up a Facebook page and engage in generating aggravation, then you’ve got time to support your child in their learning. The student is YOUR child.

I totally accept that a huge increase in the amount of accountability measures and the potential consequences arising from them only serves to replace acceptable pressure with unacceptable stress; that can be truly catastrophic. As such, it is up to those of us in positions of leadership to ensure that there is a balance between monitoring, challenging and supporting those within our learning communities and to expose those who are not providing the support. But let’s not resign ourselves to lowering the acceptance criteria for entry into the profession. That will not solve anything. Indeed, quite the reverse. It will only act as cannon fodder for certain parents and certain news media to blame our country’s schools even more, so as to hide their own lack of personal responsibility.

Who was the reshuffle for?

When creating my blog last summer, I indicated that I would be resisting the temptation to write from a political perspective. This was in part because I genuinely believe that it would be of great benefit to our profession and more importantly our children, if there were to be a greater degree of separation between the worlds of education and politics in this country. I will continue to avoid writing in terms of passing judgment on individual politicians or parties, because to do so, would leave me open to accusations of having a particular “political axe to grind” and I genuinely wish to connect with all parts of our educational community irrespective of wider political views.

However, 2018 marks thirty years since the introduction of the National Curriculum. Over that period there have been sixteen different politicians (with varying job titles) placed in charge of education policy. One does not need to enrol in a Singapore maths course to work out the average tenure of this post.

It is reassuring to know that the education of our country’s children matters to so many people, so much so that politicians feel the need to connect with the electorate about it. But, with politicians from all parties predisposed to attack or defend policy based on which is the party of government rather than on what actually works, it would seem that the teaching profession and the children we serve are at the mercy of people who have a totally different agenda from those of us focused on adapting to the needs of our children in a rapidly changing world.

In the school where I’m head teacher, we work to a range of time scales. We work as a supportive community to establish a shared long term vision. We work as a senior leadership team to establish a subsequent three year plan of development, implementation and embedding. As you’d expect, we also have a single year development plan which is contributed to by a variety of people in senior and middle leadership roles. As part of all of this, there’s an understanding that some adaptations may need to be made in response to a variety of as yet unknown factors. As such, there is an overall sense of control, calmness and above all direction about what we are trying to achieve.

My question to all politicians is, “How can you expect to make sustained progress when at the heart of any government the person in the key role is not given enough time to develop, implement and embed a coherent approach to the education of our children?”

Education research needs to be apolitical. It needs to be allowed to focus on the needs of a generation of children rather than a biannual merry go round. Most importantly, politicians need to listen to those working within the system on a daily basis.

I accept that there are those within the education sector whose default position is to always oppose change of any kind and put the needs of adults within the system before those of the children. But the vast majority have no interest in wearing any political rosette. Instead we are just focused on discovering how we can best serve our pupils.

Who is in post as Education Secretary should be decided on what’s best for our children rather than what’s best for an individual’s career or a party’s fortunes.

Breaking The Cycle To Achieve Real Progress

When it comes to education, its importance is underlined by the fact that most people hold such passionate opinions about it. Whether it’s the curriculum – what it contains and how it’s taught, ability or mixed ability grouping, the importance and amount of homework, assessment and testing, marking and feedback; the list seems endless.

In relation to my own views, some of which I’ve held throughout my twenty five years as a teacher, others which I’ve arrived at as a result of experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that, if you’re a principle centred school leader, you’re aboard a train on a cyclical journey with three stations – “Status Quo”, “Maverick” and “Pioneer”.

For example, when I started teaching, performance assemblies and various productions in schools were commonplace (the status quo). Then, armed with a variety of excuses, such events were seen by many school leaders as time consuming and that the increased requirements of the curriculum did not allow for them. As such, those of us who believe that the expressive arts should be at the heart of many things and not just education, were considered as mavericks and that we would soon pay for our folly. As a head teacher, providing education with high quality arts and humanities opportunities at its core has been non- negotiable for me. As such, I’ve led a school with a team of staff and governors committed to providing the broad and balanced curriculum irrespective of the status quo. Fast forward to Ofsted’s welcome announcement that schools will be judged in part according to the curriculum on offer and, “Ding ding; welcome to Pioneer. All aboard!”

It is my view that we have to break such cycles because progress should be about discovery and advancement, not going round in circles. However, for that to happen, we need to be clear as to how such cycles can be avoided.

Firstly, there is a duty upon school leaders to have the courage to stay true to their principles and remain resilient when facing pressure to adopt the latest trend (NB: this does not mean being intransigent or ignoring substantial, credible evidence identifying reasons for change).

Secondly, there is a duty of government not to become obsessed with trying to climb international league tables. Remember, in a rat race, even the winner is a rat! (Are you reading, Russia?) If they wish to improve the quality of education, then there needs to be consideration and genuine consultation as to what is likely to create such improvement and how this can be best achieved. Underpinning this should be a genuine understanding that the timeline for progress should not be aligned with party politics or the calendar of the electoral process. I have been fortunate enough to visit schools in other countries. I’ve seen some practice which has provided opportunities for me to positively reflect on provision within my own school. However, I’ve also seen a lot of stuff which, not to put too fine a point on it, has been horrifying – some of which has happened in countries with better international league table positions than England.

Thirdly, supposedly independent bodies should act as such. There are a host of civil servants engaged in delivering policy without seemingly having any understanding of why they are doing it other than obeying their political masters / mistresses. Similarly, the leadership and management structure of the inspectorate needs to reflect the vast expanse that is the world of education. For example, the National Director of Education was recently at pains to point out that he “commended” the contents of the Early Years “Bold Beginnings” document. Well, when one’s own experience is senior leadership within secondary education, one doesn’t have much option but to accept on trust what’s been produced!

Recently I’ve watched the resurgence of the debate around marking and feedback. Cue another cyclical storm which will provide opportunities for some schools to implement oppressive and unrealistic policies, others to abdicate from marking altogether and, somewhere in the middle, companies and consultants making shed loads of cash out of the confusion.

Surely it’s reasonable to say that policy and practice should reflect principle?As such, I invite you to reflect on the following questions:

  1. How can the teacher ensure that there’s appropriate purpose behind a child’s work?
  2. How can the teacher ensure that a child knows that they have high expectations of them?
  3. How can the teacher make a child feel that they care about their individual progress and development?
  4. How can the teacher best obtain clear knowledge about what a child can and can’t do or understand?
  5. How might marking contribute to delivering answers to the above questions?
  6. What other practice might make a valuable contribution?
  7. How might manageable marking support outstanding teaching and learning in your school?

I’ve always considered marking as part of our duty of care, guidance and support (CGS). So momentarily writing as a parent, the impression I’ve received is that whilst secondary schools often provide excellent CGS in relation to general well-being, pastoral care and personal advice, there is far less evidence that the subject teacher actually provides CGS in relation to the student’s work, especially when compared with primary practice.

So, in conclusion, I invite us all not to jump on the latest marking / not marking train. Let’s not be labelled as maintaining the status quo, mavericks or pioneers. Let’s genuinely consult and reflect on impartial evidence whilst remembering Dylan William’s observation: The question is not, “What works?” because everything works somewhere. The question is, “What works here?”understanding that “here” might mean England, an education age phase or indeed a school.

This blog terminates here. All change please!

Simon Jackson

The Standards Benchmark That Really Counts  –  A Leader’s Own Expectations (originally published on Leadership Matters)

In my career which has spanned almost a quarter of a century (ouch!), it would be true to say that my practice and philosophy have been far more influenced by people than by organisations. Ofsted make the grandiose claim that they are “raising standards improving lives” (pictured),

but truthfully it can only be through the relational aspects of human leadership rather than institutional benchmarking that lives can be improved.

I’m sure that, given the fact that you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in reading about the stories of other leaders and considering what you read in the context of your own role and setting. You want to do well because you care about those you’re with on a daily basis.

Sir Ken Robinson in his book, Finding Your Element, (2013) considers the vocational dimension of our lives through the analogy of a voyage. He states that whilst charting your course, “you meet new people and have new experiences; you influence them and they affect you and together you change the stories of one another’s lives.” I was stopped in my tracks on reading these words. I’d never really thought about professional relationships impacting on the “story of my life”. And yet, what a potentially wonderful image this creates as it emphatically underlines the importance that, as leaders, we must be in the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons. As Vic Goddard in his book, The Best Job in the World (2014) says – it is the Head Teacher who “sets the weather”, so we need to feel positive about our role.

Jocelyn Davis in The Greats on Leadership, (2016) affirms, “Leaders show courage when they face down their adversaries, but they show more courage when they face up to their responsibilities.” She also bluntly explains that, “Good leaders step forward when others stay back. They speak when others stay silent. They forge ahead where no path has been forged, and they set an example for others to follow. You won’t always see them out in front…but wherever they choose to stand…it won’t be against a wall, butt covered, observing which way the wind blows.”

I can imagine that on occasions, the communication between government, Ofsted and the Standards and Testing Agency is somewhat similar to the cartoon pictured. So, how as leaders can we face up to our responsibilities on our own terms rather than the changing requirements of others? In short, the answer lies within our own expectations.

I recently listened to Dr Ioan Rees, CEO of Sycol, an organisation focused on developing high performance cultures. He explained through the examples of hotel and restaurant chains, how the standard we are prepared to accept is largely down to the standards expected by the organisation itself. For example, we wouldn’t ask to move rooms due to a little mildew being present in a low budget, basic hostel but we would if we were staying in a hotel which made bolder claims about the quality of its hospitality. We were then shown two pictures similar to the ones pictured below and asked, “Which restaurant has met its standard?”


The answer of course is that both of them have. Most of us have walked into a fast food shop after a night out at the weekend and ignored all the litter which is lying around – because the management accept it and we’ve come to expect it. However, if we arrived at a top restaurant to be met with a similar picture, we’d walk out!

So – how much does the school you’re a leader in reflect your expectations? What is your school’s standard on your own terms? You’d never have either of the conversations below, so if you wish to recruit well, it has to be visible from the outset what the expected standard is at the school you lead for all types of things from staff and pupil behaviour to displays and learning environment.









Mary Myatt in her book, Hopeful Schools (2016) refers to Dame Alison Peacock’s “ethic of everybody”. She explains that, “the fact that everyone has a voice does not mean that anything and everything goes… Ethic refers to the way we do things here…it also has a layer of moral overtone to it…doing the right things, for the right reasons, for everyone.” The leadership task then involves the process of your individual standard becoming the school’s standard – understood, accepted and owned by everybody.

Andy Buck (Leadership Matters 2016) when writing about delivery explains the importance of, “Making sure things happen when you want them to and to the standard you expect.” He also talks about the need for the leader to have, “the unshakeable conviction and determination to do what it takes to do the right thing for the school and the young people it serves.” This however cannot be achieved and sustained purely by communicating your expectations clearly. Relationships have to positive so that others are prepared to engage meaningfully with you as leader.

In my blog post, “Welcome to Headteacherville!”, aimed at new head teachers which can be viewed here, I also write about the importance of establishing relationships first. There can be no short cut to this element. Andy Buck writes that, “The single most influential factor in determining discretionary effort in an individual member of staff is their relationship with and respect for their direct line manager.” So whilst “the right people are self-motivating and self-disciplined” as he puts it, facing up to our responsibilities involves our human spirit  establishing relationships and creating a culture with others so that it exists even when you’re not there. This obligation should be considered positively.

Tom Rath (2009) explains that leaders need to talk about how they have faith in people. Mary Myatt explains how “our expectations both for ourselves and for others are a consequence of paying attention as much to the positive as the negative.” Meanwhile, Jocelyn Davis (2016) describes four levels (can we still use that word?!) of leadership development. They are: initiator, encourager, cultivator, mainspring.

Initiators go first; encouragers create hope; cultivators focus on people; mainsprings create institutions or cultures that last long after they’re gone…they create other leaders…they give themselves up. Which one of these describes you best?

Davis writes of the behaviours that distinguish true leaders from “mis-leaders” and cites what she calls the eight most dangerous traps of leadership.

  1. Ignoring blind spots
  2. Being naive about relationships
  3. Scorning the soft stuff
  4. Pursuing simplistic answers
  5. Declaring victory too soon
  6. Failing to adapt
  7. Devaluing others’ strengths
  8. Dominating and abdicating

Reflecting on these traps, the vast majority of them lie in failed relationships, either by not treating others as they need to be treated or by not allowing others to influence and enlighten us as the leader. Whilst accepting our human frailties, generally all of these can be avoided if our relationships are right. Davis urges leaders to “Challenge them (the team) to live up to the ideal”, citing courage, integrity, resilience, generosity and concern as the important characteristics of effective leaders.

So, in facing up to our leadership responsibilities, irrespective of transient outside pressures, we must offer ourselves up in the service of others, based on our own standards of the highest quality. When this happens, “you meet new people and have new experiences; you influence them and they affect you and together you change the stories of one another’s lives.” That’s when pressure becomes privilege – and we as leaders should be thankful.

“The Baffled King Composing Hallelujah!”

Andy Buck in his book, Leadership Matters, refers to the importance of culture and climate. Often, the first few days and weeks in September can define these characteristics for the entire school year.
This blog title takes lyrics from the opening verse of Leonard Cohen’s famous song, “Hallelujah”. Hearing these words for the very first time, I absorbed them on a very human level.

So often in life we feel like we’re making things up as we go along, holding tight to a few principles on the way in the hope that everything will turn out for the best. As school leaders though, we’re required to have belief as well as hope; composing and delivering specific strategy rather than waiting for acts of serendipity.

Within our world of education, who is the “baffled king”? The cynic in me thinks of just about every Education Secretary in my lifetime, with a couple of notable exceptions!
However, other than providing myself with the opportunity to laugh at politicians, this is not a helpful view because it can lead the school leader to fall into the trap of thinking that they’re not in control of their own individual or institutional direction. If we wish to be taken seriously and respected, we have to look at ourselves as well as others. Therefore, the duty falls upon each of us to accept the prospect of becoming the Baffled King / Queen whenever change is required of us as leaders, or of our schools as organisations. On accepting this title and responsibility, the mission is, with the help of the wider team, to become assured and confident rather than remaining baffled for too long – after all, a lot of people depend on us and therein lies the main pressure of the job.

When I became head teacher at my school, I had this vision of our school becoming a fortress able to withstand any onslaught from government, Ofsted or the popular press. This approach was helpful to a point because it formed the basis of creating a strong school identity in terms of principled philosophy and practice. It underpinned the “moving of the piano” as Jarlath O’Brien would put it. It was certainly helpful in allowing us to not get caught up with the whims and fads that are always swirling as a whirlwind through the English education system. Over six years later though, with a very different school in terms of outcomes (judged Ofsted outstanding this year), but still with that strong sense of a unique history and identity, this image of a fortress seemed neither appropriate nor necessary. As such, I found myself considering as the baffled king, “With what should we replace the fortress?”

This summer I saturated myself in books exploring leadership, most of which are reviewed here. Steve Radcliffe’s book, “Leadership Plain and Simple” provided me with the inspiration. In his chapter on “Deliver”, he refers to the story of two stone carvers. On being asked individually what each of them is doing, one replies, “I’m carving stone” whilst the other one affirms, “I’m building a cathedral”. My eyes were opened. The stark contrast in the imagery of a fortress compared with a cathedral could not be greater.

The fortress by definition is a symbol of defence and resistance. The cathedral, whilst equally strong in terms of its structure and identity, is a place required to be open and prepared to welcome all people. Cathedrals also are places of outreach; they are not just places of comfort for those who are often within their walls.

Leadership requires us to be transformational. So at the beginning of this term, I welcomed back our team of staff, reminded them that our recent important successes also make us vulnerable to complacency and maintaining the status quo. I used, amongst others, the images in this blog post and we’ve begun a new mission with renewed belief and hope. Each year we hold a Vision Evening involving all staff and governors. This year we will begin to formalise our strategy for building our own cathedral!

Who knows where this will take us or what our cathedral will look like? It may not be as beautiful as Milan’s Duomo (pictured above). I am, however, sure that it will involve us welcoming others and confidently going out from our own walls to share what we have to offer as well as being open to receiving, considering and acting upon new ideas and working with new partners.

The final words of Leonard Cohen’s song are, “even though it all went wrong, I stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”. Leadership doesn’t come with guarantees. Leaders can’t be certain that the route travelled will be the shortest or the easiest. But, if we have a clear, principle centred vision, allied with the desire to develop others rather than self, the destination will be heavenly in the end.

The inspiration for this post came from the video below. PS22 Chorus are a group of fifth graders from a socially and ethnically diverse New York school. Their musical director, Gregg Breinberg established the group in 2000 and I’ve been aware of them since 2009. He is a great example of how a transformational leader does not have to be the head teacher, that he / she can sustain their ability to remain transformational over a number of years within the same setting and that the ordinary can become extraordinary if the purpose is rooted in bringing out the best of all those in our care.

Watch this amazing video below

Key Questions to Consider:

  1. What are you “baffled” about in trying to transform your school?
  2. Who are the best people to help you?
  3. What image best describes your school at the moment?
  4. What image would you like your school to become?
  5. What needs to happen first in order to make this happen?

Good luck in building your cathedral or whatever!

With best wishes for the school year ahead.

Simon Jackson

– identifying on occasions as “The Baffled King”!

Welcome to Head Teacherville!

Feeling compelled to write, I’ve considered who is likely to read a blogpost during the English summer holiday. On the one hand, those school leaders who’ve completed a successful and rewarding year are probably abroad bathing in a pool of sangria or spritz, whilst those who feel that they’ve endured a torrid time will be at home with their tablets off, their phones on silent and their laptops reserved for watching escapist box sets from under the duvet.

However, there is another group of school leaders out there; the newly appointed ones! In remembering my beginning as a head teacher over seven years ago (I only had the two week Easter break to ponder my new role), I’m pretty sure that the latest residents soon to populate Head Teacherville are full of anticipation and open to receiving any support that they can get. So, in saluting your achievement and acknowledging your bravery, I thought I’d give you something to reflect on.

You’re probably giving some careful thought as to how you’d like your first day in September to go. This blogpost is going to focus on that first day and subsequent half term. In time, everything else will take care of itself IF you get the first steps right.

My first piece of advice is this: think about who you want to be and how you want to be when you meet your new team on Day 1. Give far less thought as to what you want to do. You are about to enter a world of immense discovery; discovery about your organisation, discovery about the role of head teacher, discovery about yourself!!! Who you are and how you come across will determine how successfully you start. Reflect on the fact that the message is never what you’ve said, it’s what’s been heard. This message can be given via your body language as much as anything you may say on day one.

If you’ve been analysing the latest school performance data and financial statistics in preparation for September, fine. Remember though, data only raises questions and this needs investigation before making some pronouncement as to what actions might need to be taken. Your first task is to establish relationships with as many people as possible. Look for your natural allies. These will almost certainly be people displaying certain behaviours rather than abilities at this early stage. No matter what the current level of attainment within your school, you will need a support team. Don’t be afraid to look beyond your existing leadership team for potential allies.

Note those people who are quieter or distant. These behaviours are not necessarily an indication of trouble ahead. Some like to take their time before visibly committing. However, notice them over time. Go out of your way to engage with them meaningfully. The quietly subversive can be a lot more difficult to work with than the person who’s not afraid to say what they think!

Steve Radcliffe (see reading links page) talks about the importance of relationships being strong enough at the base of your leadership pyramid (see below), and Andy Buck (see reading links also) talks about the importance of creating a “culture” and a “climate” as well as being “authentic”. This cannot be achieved on the first day or even in the first few weeks. Give yourself a chance.

On my first day, I only called the staff together for the first half an hour. Yes, I’d prepared a Powerpoint, but it was big picture stuff, very non-threatening, how we were going to be – who we were going to be as an organisation. I did not at any time refer to current performance or anything which could have been considered accusatory towards an individual with responsibility for particular standards. I also exposed enough of my personality in that first session. I acknowledged that it was only natural for them to want to “work me out” – so I gave them some help. In my case it meant sharing that “I don’t do untidy, either people or buildings, and I don’t do late. If you avoid these two, we’re likely to be fine!” This comment drew a visibly positive response. I had articulated that I wanted this new relationship to work – for the benefit of everyone and for the sake of the children. A baseline had been established. Crucially, I’d established a baseline against which I could also be measured. You don’t need to be a brilliantly talented employee to be tidy and on time! I was going to be studied as to what tidy and on time looked like as much as everyone else within the organisation.

Once day one is over, again your first few weeks are all about relationships with the staff and, most importantly, the children. If you get the relationships right with the children, most parents will accept your authority even if they don’t always agree with you; and they won’t!!! Again, look for some key potential allies amongst the parents. Their support can be more powerful than any newsletter which you’re going to write. But, remember Andy Buck’s advice about being authentic. You cannot be all things to all people all of the time.

Certain staff relationships need particular, careful attention. In the first few weeks, you’re going to be signing things that you don’t understand, particularly in relation to school business management. Don’t allow this to make you feel inadequate. Ask your SBM to explain things to you. Give them some 1:1 time.

Your relationship with the site manager is pivotal in making the life of everyone else within the school more positive. A good site manager is more than worth their weight in gold. A work to rule, ne’er do well who has more doctors’ appointments than Dot Cotton is an absolute nightmare for everyone. Take time early on to listen to their thoughts about the school; they’re not usually too shy to give an opinion!

With your SLT, offer reassurance that you’re looking to establish a really successful team with shared opportunity and collective responsibility. These people are your infantry. You need to give them reasons to fight for you; otherwise, look out for the bayonets!

Make sure that, apart from sitting comfortably to sign things which you have no idea about, you do not spend too much time in your office. Get out and about; stay out and about. If everyone is used to seeing you in the classrooms and corridors from day one, you’ll be viewed with far less suspicion. Offer genuine compliments to the staff you notice doing well. Offer encouragement to those who may need support. Crucially, remember that you are not there to fix everything by yourself. Read Steve Radcliffe’s book to look at how you can, “deliver through others”.

Look for a few “quick wins” that everyone benefits from. In my case, it involved getting a skip, well…quite a few skips to be truthful – it took over two years to tidy the school and its grounds up. Environment, both physical and emotional is key to school improvement…if I’m working there!!! There is a serious point here. It is that, even if you notice that something is not right – it takes time and the commitment of everyone to improve it. You cannot engage in some form of Blitzkrieg and expect to be thanked and appreciated for it. Andy Buck talks about the concept of “discretionary effort” in his book, Leadership Matters. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of taking time to develop this.

Hopefully, your Local Authority will provide you with a head teacher mentor. If they haven’t, ask for one. It isn’t healthy to remain permanently camped within your own walls. The job can very easily surround you and your relationship with a few key, supportive head teachers can be instrumental in helping you to become a more successful and happy leader – which in turn will benefit your own school community.

There’s lots more that I could add, but I wish to encourage you rather than overwhelm you. Feel free to contact me using the contact form on this site. My final piece of advice involves your best friend, AMOS. You didn’t know that I knew your best friend was called AMOS did you?  Now, there’s a chance that you’re stepping up from deputy to head teacher in your existing school. For you, AMOS is not a problem. In fact, AMOS is probably most welcome. However, if you are moving to a new school, then AMOS is most certainly not welcome for at least the first half term, and even then only quietly within a leadership team meeting. If you mention your best friend, AMOS, too soon, you could be suffering the consequences for months. Because, just mentioning AMOS sends the message that your new school is not good enough, that the staff are not good enough, the children are not good enough and even the building’s not good enough!

Your relationship with AMOS must come to an end, for the time being at least. AMOS, dear leader is “At My Old School”. If there’s one piece of advice that I hope you accept, it is this. If you ever refer to AMOS, then apologise…quickly…and sincerely. It is only once your relationships are firmly and positively established that this old friend will ever be welcome within a conversation.

Enjoy the rest of your holiday. Why not read one of the suggested books on my reading & links page?

Wishing you good luck for day one and the year ahead.

Simon Jackson

Getting all “Head Mastery”



As head teacher of a school which teaches and learns through Fieldwork Education’s international Primary Curriculum (IPC), I’ve just returned from their delightfully titled, “Festival of Learning” here in London.


School leaders and school based curriculum leaders from IPC schools across the world joined together to share and further their understanding of what great learning looks like and how this can be adapted and developed by all schools to suit their context.

One of the great, and yet unusual characteristics of this conference, is that it does not rely on well known, professional and  highly regarded keynote speakers to lead the voyage of discovery. Instead, it draws on the leadership expertise within individual IPC schools. This results in an enrichment of understanding within the wider leadership community, based on the principle that those leaders are sharing their current practice as well as knowledge and understanding.

Schools in England are well used to working in “clusters” to moderate children’s work. The best schools also collaborate to share resources and expertise, but how many are so outward facing that they look beyond their own locality to develop their own leaders and practice?

By developing a meaningful, solid international link, one has the opportunity not only to see how leadership is developed elsewhere, but also discover what is highly regarded by others about your own school’s and country’s leadership and practice.

The workshop which I jointly facilitated with my school’s curriculum leader was on the topic of assessment in foundation subjects through questioning. We used the New Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl 2001) to show how by just asking different targeted questions at the end of units of work, it can be highly effective in ensuring that there is high quality differentiation and assessment in subjects outside of the usual core subjects.

We also addressed the latest buzzword – “mastery”. I was fortunate enough to recently meet and listen to Professor John Hattie. He articulated the simple fact that “no one can reach the depths without breaking the surface” and that each type of question and each phase of the learning journey was equally important.

This was a “light bulb” moment for me, as often there can be a temptation for teachers and learners to rush the process in a desire to achieve the title of “mastered”. On sharing this with delegates, I could see the lights switching on for them also.

The Bloom Taxonomy is usually portrayed as a pyramid (see below), but how different would it be if mastery was considered as a pool to be dived into rather than something difficult to build and cumbersome to climb?  (see my diagram also below)


So shall we look at mastery differently? Shall we consider leadership differently? The two images and subsequent challenges couldn’t be more different.

I’ll leave you with some questions:

How do you look for expertise to develop leadership in your school?

Do you look beyond your local community? If not, how could you do so?

What is excellent about your own leadership and practice that you should promote and share?

What does mastery look like in your school; a pyramid to be scaled or a pool in which to dive and swim freely to the depths?

Simon Jackson