Category Archives: Blog themes

The main themes I write about.

Learning to love the challenge of teaching

If you believe teaching is a cushy career with long holidays, that particular patch of grass might not be as green as you think. Being a teacher can be a tough job at times and if you only looked in the media, you might miss why nearly half a million people around the country get up each morning to work in our schools. For many of them, it’s not only about helping their students or fellow colleagues but also having a positive impact across the whole school and beyond. I spoke to two teachers and looked at research to learn more about what it means to be both a teacher and a leader in a school these days.

Being that unforgettable teacher for some students
You’ll probably have at least one favourite teacher from your own time at school; somebody who inspired or guided you at a key point in your life. It’s that almost magical feeling of opening young peoples’ eyes to the wonders of the world around them and seeing your students throw themselves into learning that can make teaching so rewarding at times. Conor Heaven, a class teacher and maths subject leader at an infant school in Essex, explains how he was inspired by his year three teacher, Mr Brown, and wanted to be that passionate about learning himself, so others could find those light bulb moments as he did. For some teachers, it’s this feeling alone that keeps them doing what they love, with our research showing that teaching children was the most popular aspect of the job. But for others, as they get more experienced and learn how to have a positive impact on their students, they feel a growing responsibility to share their knowledge and this includes helping their colleagues to become better teachers too. Joanne Gray, head of whole school pastoral care at a special school in Northern Ireland for four to 18-year-olds, talks about the mentoring and support she received from senior colleagues and how she now hopes to pass this on to others.

Keeping on learning yourself
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing. As with other professions, you’ll not only have to work hard to qualify but also to stay on top of the latest evidence and teaching practice. This type of lifelong learning is essential nowadays. Nobody wants to be treated by a doctor with out-of-date knowledge, and the same applies to somebody who teaches your child. This ongoing quest to learn is another motivating aspect of the job for many teachers: learning how best to help different children and to pass that knowledge on to other staff. Joanne describes how satisfying it can be to help colleagues teach those children facing the greatest challenges, such as those coming from a poor household who also have a disability. Similarly, Conor talks about his belief that all children can achieve great things if teachers can help them overcome the particular barriers they face. Our research highlights the importance of school leaders creating dedicated time for all school staff to develop themselves, so they can stay on top of the latest thinking and reflect on their own practice. A teacher is an expert in learning; many of the principles that apply to helping children learn can be applied to adults too.

Knowing your community
There’s growing evidence that the best learning is personalised to an individual’s needs. This is something that can usually only happen if the teacher knows the student, the student’s parents, their colleagues and the wider community. It’s this understanding of the unique context and needs that allows the best teachers to respond accordingly. Conor speaks of the deep relationships a teacher can form with those around them and how these relationships focusing on getting each child to succeed can build up trust. For him, this isn’t just about exam results. It’s also about helping the children to develop human qualities, such as independence, tolerance and respect. Teachers and school leaders are key figures in every local community, with the scope to be positive role models for others.

Experiencing a modern school first-hand
If you’ve not been inside a school since you finished your own education, you’d be amazed how much has changed. There’s lots of information online about getting into teaching and the various routes into the profession. But you can’t beat first-hand experience, so ask your teacher friends how they got into it and what they wish they knew before they took up the role, or contact your local school to find out if they’d be willing to let you visit. You may also consider volunteering as a school governor. Teaching is an amazing career. And who knows, you may end up like Conor and Joanne – the next generation of school leaders. You don’t know until you try.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job, for the Total Jobs site)


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How can we help every student to always be switched on by science?

Any subject taught in schools needs to balance the future needs of that sector with all of the others. So with science we need some students to go on to further study research and employment in clearly science-related fields; as astrophysicists, dieticians, technicians and all the rest. But more than this we also need every single student to go into their lives with at least a basic knowledge about science and a passion for some parts of it; whether that’s about really understanding how your bicycle works, a full appreciation of your 4G smart phone, or green fingered experiments in the garden. I’m not sure we’re achieving those wider goals yet for science.

Compare this to English, where any adult citizen should hopefully leave school with both basic literacy skills and a love of reading for pleasure (for example see the Read on Get on campaign). Sometimes this can be about national strategies and dedicated English lessons, but often it can be about Literacy Coordinators in schools weaving those concepts and techniques into the teaching practices of others. It’s a similar story with maths, where the majority of students choose not to study it further at the earliest opportunity. Many schools are starting to use mathematical concepts in other lessons and subjects, whether it’s practical projects, balancing finances or learning games. The evidence is growing that good quality teaching rests on the teacher having deep knowledge of their subject, being an expert at teaching, and also knowing how to best help colleagues teach elements of their subject too. The first two parts are hard enough and we’ve a long way to go. But that third bit can require the development of quite sophisticated leadership skills.

There are two inter-related areas we can focus on to help improve this situation, one at a national level and the other actually in schools.

Firstly at a national level we need government ministers, officials and other policy-makers to talk about English, Maths and Science, rather than just the first two. Science remains the poor cousin of the three in the national discourse. This is easy to fix and costs nothing.

The second national issue is more difficult. We need the government to invest in our schools, rather than allow a real-terms cut of 12% as the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has predicted. Schools can take on the challenges of rising standards and greater accountability but they need help to grow their capacity.

Thirdly we need government to help make being a teacher and a school leader more attractive, especially to science graduates. We’re facing a perfect storm of a rising economy that offers careers in better-paid professions, a falling number of graduates, and a rising number of school students. Issues such as workload and pay need proper attention.

Fourthly we (finally) need a long-term national STEM strategy. One that has a clear definition of STEM at each education stage, that systematically monitors the ‘pipeline’ of people with STEM skills, identifies any gaps and properly evaluates the solutions. It’s time to go beyond ad-hoc pet schemes and projects.

On a smaller scale and influenced by those four national issues there is also a lot that schools can do, with both middle and senior leaders key players. Science is currently taught in a range of different ways, with dedicated science teachers in most secondaries and a tiny number of primaries. Whereas in most primaries non-specialist class teachers are teaching some science to their own class. But even this picture is by no means universal, I’ve heard of one large secondary without a single science teacher which is unsurprising as this is one of the most challenging roles to recruit for, particularly in some schools and localities.

Whichever model is adopted (or available), it’s important that all those teaching science have access to excellent science teaching expertise. For example the Wellcome Trust is promoting the idea that every primary school should have (or have access to) a Science Leader. This is a rightly ambitious target but is within that challenging context of constrained resources and teacher supply.

Within schools it’s important that they’re make good use of the appropriate evidence, with middle leaders often well placed to explore the options for improving science teaching for their students.

Given the limited supply of new science teachers, good Continuous Professional Development and Learning (CPDL) becomes more important than ever. However, it is hard to judge the impact of CPDL in advance or to prove it afterwards, leaving cash-strapped schools with difficult choices to make. Beyond science teaching there are wider challenges with CPD as too often it is generic rather than truly subject-led. Budget constraints require school leaders to really prioritise CPD, to spend their money wisely, as well as funding release time for CPD and subject leadership. I’ve also heard that the way Performance Related Pay is implemented in some schools it can discourage teachers from spending time away from their own students.

Beyond school it’s not just about science lessons and science teachers. There are a dizzying array of other science resources available. For example STEMNET ambassadors are a network of local experts who use science in their day jobs or studies, and who are passionate about sharing that experience. There are enrichment activities such as CREST the ‘STEM Duke of Edinburgh awards’. There are also new developments such as Q&As with experts online through the I’m a scientist initiative.

Helping students and teachers interact with those who are actively using science in their work can help to engage and enlighten them about the realities of the full range of future careers and industries out there, beyond the simplistic lens of ‘men in white coats’. To that end I hope the £25m funding the government has put into the new Careers Company will include a focus on both primary and science.

Proposals for busy school leaders have to be clear and coherent, which can be challenging given the size and diversity of the STEM community. Many school leaders are looking forward to working with you all though, together we can help every student get switched on by science.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job, for the Science Association)

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Grow your own school leaders

Schools are spending more of their limited resources on recruitment. Our survey of more than a thousand school leaders found the most challenging roles to fill are those with a teaching and learning responsibility (TLR).

I keep hearing about schools paying vast amounts of money to advertise and re-advertise such posts, sometimes never finding anybody. Many schools are looking further afield, getting creative with social media and competing rather than collaborating to find the best people from an ever limited pool.

This isn’t sustainable and we’re still waiting to hear how government is going to help the situation. In time, the college of teaching will be part of the solution, but this doesn’t help those schools that are missing key staff right now. Threatening announcements about greater accountability, sacking school leaders and forced academisation aren’t helpful. We’re hoping to see a more positive, sophisticated and holistic response from Nicky Morgan and colleagues this parliament. We need to encourage graduates to consider teaching as a career option, entice experienced leavers back to the profession and highlight the benefits and opportunities of leadership responsibilities rather than just the risks and challenges.

So, what can schools do? For many, the answer has been to grow their own school leaders because this can be cost effective and a way to develop people who know the school and have the right skills; however, this takes time and can be particularly challenging in stand-alone or small schools.

Here are three strategies I’m seeing more schools use to grow the next generation of senior teachers and school leaders despite, rather than because of, government intervention.

1. Map out your leadership pipeline

Ofsted is explicitly looking for schools to do succession planning, with clear development plans for their middle leaders. This requires senior leaders to map out different scenarios for who might be able to step up into different roles over time. This not only helps to highlight the development needs of existing high-potential staff but also shows any glaring gaps that require fresh thinking from beyond the school.

Doing a good job with succession planning often relies on strong relationships and an appreciation of what motivates different individuals. If done right, helping colleagues to consider the options available in the future can build trust and increase capacity. School leaders need to take the time to get to know their middle leaders, including what drives them and what’s holding them back.

2. Prioritise and invest in good CPD

Many schools have an experienced member of the team taking the lead on professional development, which in turn can be a good learning opportunity for them. Increasingly, we’re seeing schools and groups of schools with directors of teaching and learning, or research leads.

There’s growing evidence that high-performing schools develop a systematic approach to professional learning, so each member of staff is clear about their learning goals, how they align with the school strategy and what impact they have on students.

Professional development often starts with a phase of examining the available evidence and could involve working with external experts, attending TeachMeets, focused time spent on Twitter, literature reviews, reading groups and relevant training. Insights can be reflected on and shared with colleagues to identify what might work best for a particular group of students. The next phase is about testing those approaches through action research, peer coaching, student-led research and lesson study. The final phase of good CPD is about evaluating the impact for students and colleagues; it’s often better to have clear but modest targets to judge any intervention, so you know what does and doesn’t work in your school.

3. Build deep relationships with other schools

The estimated school budget cut of 12 per cent combined with a c.500m surge in students and the decline in graduates all create a perfect storm for school leaders. For many schools, the answer has to be working closer with a wider range of partners. Stand-alone schools and those with weak links to others are likely to struggle in this tough environment.

Recent research in this area has highlighted the importance of having a clear agreement about values and goals right from the start of any partnership. Successful school-to-school collaboration also requires regular communication between a number of different people on either side. Regular face-to-face meetings and online workspaces can help colleagues to share information, suggest improvements and report back to colleagues.

Partnerships can aid recruitment by offering a wider range of leadership opportunities to promising staff and allowing resources to be shared. Discrete leadership assignments and projects, mentoring, coaching and shadowing can all help connect staff between schools and build capacity. In turn, such projects can improve the working practices and mood within a school, which helps with retention and attracting new staff.

More formal options include secondments and job-sharing. People with an explicit mandate to spread good practice between partner schools can help to make the most of existing knowledge and talents.

It’s an increasingly tough environment for schools, but those that work creatively together for the good of their students can achieve a lot. Hopefully, government will start to help the situation sooner rather than later.

First posted through my former day-job, via Teach Secondary.

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Nine ways middle leaders can reach beyond their own school (and why they should)

Make no mistake, being a middle leader in a school these days is a tough job. You’re probably spending most of your time teaching and trying to fit leadership and management responsibilities around it. There’s a good chance you proved your abilities teaching your own class and then got given additional responsibilities across the whole school. It’s likely you’ve had little to no training for all that other stuff; instead, you learned most things on the job. Your school probably has a senior leadership team, but no clear group of middle leaders that meets regularly. You’re probably juggling 101 different things, so it doesn’t feel like you have any time to take a step back and lift your head beyond your own school.

One of the privileges of my last role was that I got to visit schools across the country and meet lots of different middle leaders. If any of the concerns mentioned above sound familiar, believe me you’re not alone. In our schools, there are about 200,000 middle leaders and each of whom is teaching on top of their school-wide responsibilities. Given tight budgets and rising expectations of schools, it’s more important than ever before that every middle leader is motivated, supported and satisfied. Increasingly, we need our middle leaders to not only have a positive impact in their own school but also to be excited by the challenges that come with helping colleagues and students further afield. Working beyond your own school could help to improve outcomes for students, and it may also bring you greater satisfaction and a more rewarding career.

Here are nine suggestions for how middle leaders can broaden their horizons beyond their own school.

  1. Make a plan. Start thinking about what you’re trying to achieve. For example, you could ask yourself which students at your school need the most help and where you might learn from others that have supported similar students. Perhaps one of your colleagues is struggling with something, so how might you find out how to help them? And what do you want to do yourself? Are there parts of your job you particularly enjoy, or are there some areas you’re still unsure of? Once you’ve decided on a problem you’d like to fix, work back from there. Try to be as specific and realistic as possible. How might you address it, who do you need to speak to and what’s a realistic time frame? Share your ideas with your line manager and get their feedback and support
  2. Develop your subject leadership. Middle leaders often have an impressive mix of hand-on teaching experience and deep subject knowledge. They may be local champions for their subject and get involved with communities of practice, TeachMeets and subject associations. The moderation of teaching practices across schools can help those involved to learn from each other
  3. Mentor and be mentored. Middle leaders should proactively seek to develop and practise their coaching skills with others. Such relationships can be powerful with peers, junior colleagues, senior staff or even pupils. Remember, it’s important to ask good questions and not just provide the answers in such situations. This encourages the other person to reflect
  4. Use research, evidence and data to inform practice. Middle leaders should be advocates of evidence, sharing insights with colleagues and keen to learn. Lesson study can be a particularly powerful professional development model
  5. Make continuing professional development your own. Middle leaders are increasingly taking responsibility for owning their professional development – finding and evaluating different sources. This can range from formal training to Twitter chats (#UKEdChat, #MLTChat or #SLTChat), blogs or events (#ResearchEd or TeachMeets). You should reflect on what you’ve learned and document the evidence of that learning, even if it’s just a few notes and the time spent
  6. Find a secondment. School can feel like a small place sometimes, especially if it’s not part of a family, federation or trust. If you want to develop new skills, try a different role or tackle a particular challenge, a secondment opportunity could be a great way to do so without losing touch with your home school
  7. Connect with the community. Schools are doing more with less and middle leaders could build relationships with other local stakeholders through specific projects. For example, working with parents and carers to put in place strategies for the early identification of vulnerable children to prevent long-term problems
  8. Trial a new intervention. Middle leaders are typically the ones testing and evaluating a new teaching practice, supplier or learning technology in their school. By comparing notes with others locally and taking an experimental mindset – with a clear and modest measure to judge success – you can quickly work out what’s effective for your students and what isn’t
  9. Be a governor at another school. Working with the senior leadership team and governors of another school can be an enlightening and rewarding experience. All you need to give is a little of your own time

This blog was written for Challenge Partners.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job)

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So why aren’t teachers treated like doctors?

Here we have two different groups of well-educated, hard-working public service professionals, both providing invaluable front-line services to their local communities. Each year millions of pounds of public money is invested in preparing tens of thousands of new entrants to each role, for the challenging and technical careers ahead of them. Time and again surveys find that these two long-established professions are the pair that are most trusted by the public.

So why is it than one group can be told, sometimes in considerable detail, how to do their jobs by the least trusted profession – politicians? Why is it that one group has a lower bar to entry, is trained less, gets paid less, is given less autonomy and as a result is less likely to be satisfied, want to go for a promotion or to stay in the job long-term?

The first and perhaps most obvious answer to explain this difference is to do with evidence. A doctor can draw on their many years of structured training (including a grounding in science and maths), and also upon a largely-accepted body of peer-reviewed journals and multiple randomised trials to inform what they should do with a patient. They’re often then able to test and quantify the difference their intervention made, sharing the data and approaches with their peers, then telling a patient their temperature is normal or that they are ‘no longer sick’.

Compare that to teachers, who will have experienced less and more varied training, and who are presented with a far more complex and contested landscape of evidence about the best way to achieve different learning outcomes for different students. Those outcomes themselves are also complex to achieve, personal to each student and only measured in the crudest of terms currently. The resources and insights generated from teaching are often not even shared across the school, let alone wider. It’s also not really acceptable to say to a student your learning is normal or that they’re ‘no longer thick’.

This isn’t an argument for apathy or hand-wringing, the teaching profession is already taking hold of evidence, standards and outcomes for itself – most promisingly through the emerging College of Teaching – but also through the efforts of the Education Endowment Foundation, universities, ResearchED, CUREE, teaching schools, the Teacher Development Trust and others.

To an extent these differences between the two professions could be to do with the challenges of trying to improve (and then prove) your positive impact on the mental, rather than the physical state of others. Teaching is a relational and holistic process, involving a personal, long-term connection with each ‘whole student’. Some doctors rarely meet conscious patients, some only meet them once and others see the greatest ‘efficacy’ by prescribing medicines. I suspect child mental health practitioners find a way to overcome all these challenges and don’t face the same challenges as teachers.

I’ll leave the debate (for now) about what we value as a society and the emphasis on the quantitative over the qualitative, the rational over the emotional, but it’s perhaps just worth mentioning that what is easier to measure is not necessarily more important.

I also wonder if doctors can’t learn a thing of two from teachers, with the growing emphasis on prevention over treatment, and upon health and wellbeing over just avoiding illness. Teachers know how and when to go beyond ‘narrow’ learning, to teach students holistically, such as using an exercise on the twelve times table to teach about working together and celebrating differences.

The other reasons that explain the difference between teachers and doctors are more systemic. Everybody has had extensive personal experience of education, but not necessarily of healthcare. It is also an inherently political activity, with values often necessarily bundled in with the learning. These two factors probably go some way to explain the bankrupt, high-stakes accountability system we’ve ended up with. One that can incentivise teachers to shy away from some pupils, and leaders from some schools.

Teachers deserve a more nuanced and sophisticated approach, one that prioritises helping them to teach, rather than holding schools to account. Even a brief glance at NHS choices shows a more nuanced approach to what hospitals, GPs and even individual consultants have to report publicly. High stakes testing, simplistic grading and league tables aren’t improving standards, they’re harming our most precious resource, the school workforce. Would Google or John Lewis treat their staff this way?

There are alternatives though, with some lessons to be learned from doctors. For starters we should be making far more of peer-review, so that teaching professionals are holding each other to account, driving improvement for themselves.

We can also learn from the clear, structured and well-supported career pathways available to doctors. Our current salary structure in schools is a mess, we should be compensating teachers in line with other professions. Why does a qualified teacher earn about half that of a General Practitioner (GP)? Again these are decisions that we’ve made as a society and not necessarily what other countries have chosen.

There’s also scope to link greater responsibility and accountability with more recognition, autonomy and pay. We can learn much from the medical profession when it comes to offering a variety of motivating incentives and rewards to high performers. Our research shows that many middle leaders in schools are crying out for the meaningful development opportunities that doctors’ experience. For instance why don’t all teachers get ‘electives’, to go and teach, research and learn in other countries?

Lastly teachers should be helped to safely plan and trial new approaches. Nobody dies if a lesson goes badly and everybody can still learn from the experience if it’s evaluated properly, yet it’s the medical profession that has managed these concerns to industrialise innovation. Nobody wants their children to be guinea pigs but if done right, a more structured approach to trialling different teaching and CPDL methods could be powerful, both for students and teachers.

So next time the doctors vs teachers debate comes up, I hope you’ll have a good answer to the question. It’s an important and complex one, going to the heart of why education is so compelling and challenging.


(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job, for Schools Week)

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#CollegeofTeaching (part one): what might the college of teaching mean for middle leaders?

Many of the middle leaders I’ve spoken to recently are uncertain about what’s happening with the college of teaching, what it means for them and how they might get involved. There have been various announcements by government, including some start-up funding and a front-runner group to set it up. There’s also a lively debate happening via blogs, Twitter and beyond.

To set the scene and encourage discussion, I’ve listed 10 questions below for you to answer about what the college of teaching may look like in time and the benefits it could bring to the profession.

  1. What would encourage you to join such a voluntary association of teachers?
  2. Are there useful approaches that work in other countries or walks of life?
  3. How could the college of teaching include both middle and senior leaders without being dominated by them?
  4. What would create a genuine grassroots movement that’s authentic and accessible to teachers everywhere and not just to those in the Westminster bubble? TeachMeets, ResearchED and the various Twitter chats are good examples of how this could be done
  5. Who would ensure the college of teaching is independent of any particular organisational interests, including government, unions and others?
  6. How could it be as transparent and consultative as possible, and engaged with and answerable to a broad membership base across the profession?
  7. How could it be funded in time and would this create the right incentives?
  8. Should it be focused first and foremost on classroom practice and explore leading teaching and learning in time?
  9. What would ensure it’s informed but not dominated by research, data and other forms of evidence? [What gives doctors and their colleges clout is an unassailable grasp of the evidence about what works in their profession. This doesn’t mean they know everything, but it does mean they know best (and certainly more than politicians) .]
  10. How could it raise the standards and capacity of the whole teaching profession?

(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job)

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