All Together Now?

Primary schools are used to change. A brief reflection on the last few years of initiatives reads like a litany of pedagogical change: national strategies; synthetic phonics; MFL; 5 hours of sport; embedded ICT; Healthy Food; Every Child Matters; the creative curriculum… and so on. As a result, we can do change: we have become masters of change management.

Many colleagues that I have spoken to over the past few months have been elated/devastated (delete as appropriate) by the pace and scope of change that we are experiencing in all education sectors at the moment. The extremes in responses are not, I suspect, just due to political allegiance but rather are a consequence of uncertainty. Up to this point in time one of primary school leaders’ key strategies to managing change successfully has been to anticipate it, yet at the moment reliable anticipation is in short supply. In the absence of such strategies, we are faced with the situation that Professor Seymour Papert summed up portentously: there is only one 21st century skill and that is the ability to act intelligently when you are faced with something you have never seen before.

This may offer little comfort to some. It is all well and good urging intelligent leadership in the face of unprecedented experience. What if that experience is trying to reconcile a staffing profile constructed in times of plenty when now we face a time of unprecedented cuts in school budgets? Or aggressive union representatives agitating for workers’ rights? Or colleagues meandering aimlessly through their curriculum now that QCA and the Rose Review have been shunned? (The Cambridge Primary Review received a much better hearing from the new Government than it initially received from the previous administration and so will have increasing influence on the direction learning in the primary sector may take. I will post on this development in the near future). Or parents worrying about the pros and cons of academy status? Or child protection cases mounting in the context of city councils’ repeated inadequate social service reviews? Or…, well, you get the idea. Facing things that we have never seen before, at a pace that we have never endured before, with an accountability that we have never answered to before mitigates against our ability to think at all, never mind clearly or intelligently. For many of us, survival from one day to another is achievement enough.

However, clearly that isn’t enough. Our children deserve better and goodness knows, given the messes we have created economically and socially during our tenure as guardians of the globe, we really should give everything that we have to enable our children to make a better job of facing unknown 21st century challenges than we have. But how?

You will be disappointed to read that I don’t know. But I know a woman that does, and probably a man too. Never has there been such an important time for a primary network as ours. Whether you are in a rural Kent village school, an inner city Birmingham academy or a Blackpool Children’s Centre, I need you. I need you because you hold at least part of the answer to the problems that I face. Nor should I feel belittled by such reliance, because I, in turn, hold some of the answers to the problems faced in Exeter, Sheffield, Pluckley or Tiverton. Indeed, wherever my partners in this network find themselves. Seymour Papert was right, we are going to face situations that we have never encountered before. But we don’t have to come up with our intelligent responses alone and in fact if we want to deliver the best possible life chances for all our children rather than just a select few, we mustn’t come up with our best responses alone. For me, there are two key 21st century skills when faced with the unprecedented: to act intelligently AND collaboratively.

I look forward to receiving your thoughts on the way forward, because I believe they will help to bring me clarity. Please feel free to respond via my blog at

Dr Neil Hopkin

Chair of the SSAT National Headteacher Steering Group for the Family of Schools Primary Network


9 thoughts on “All Together Now?

  1. To simply say “thank you” and “I agree and “I’m here” doesn’t seem enough, but I am and I do. It’s the only way.

  2. I still firmly believe that the principles of good learning remain the same through time, though styles and mechanisms of delivery may alter. You know what Neil, The great thing about education is the fact that, at heart, children remain the same even if their world changes. I believe the key to riding this change is in thinking, both the development of the children’s thnking but also staff thinking. People are only slaves to change if they blindly follow it. If, at heart, teachers understand the principles of learning and try to break out of their own restricted image of what a teacher is, what a school is or even what a learner is then I think they will ride that wave. The problem is that people are always looking up for answers, whether that be to a Head or an LEA or a government whereas the future of teaching has always been in the hands and, crucially, in the minds of teachers.

  3. We have been here before.

    Great leaders are entrepreneurial. They know what they want to achieve, but the are not always entirely certain about the small steps that will get them there. They invent the future, adapt to the environment and inspire others to catch their vision. This is not easy work and from time to time even the best leaders feel isolated.

    I have said it before but we need to find more time to share not experiences and create the future for our children.

    Dave Watson

  4. Dear Sir,

    Well written and thought out…I enjoyed reading this piece, and I hear what you’re saying. I would add the following thoughts for your consideration.

    While the difference between the change “outcome” and the change “status quo” may appear exceptionally vast, and while we – as depth actors on the educational dramaturgical stage – experience these changes as atypical, there is in fact little new under the sun. History marks moments of cultural advancement in the accelerations of technology innovation – and we are seeing that now. But not all educational enclaves are in the midst of change…in fact, I would argue that globally the state of education is plaqued by the antithesis of change, and resistance to change – that most natural of human inclinations – is deeply embedded in the cultural fabric. Change is most often not “chosen” by individuals- it is more often “imposed” by groups. Thus, while “acting intelligently” and “collaborating” are valuable skill sets in managing change, they are sadly not enough.

    History suggests that Charismatic Champions play an important role in large scale change constructs. Today’s “charismatic champions” are often media stars, whose ritualistic public exposure is embedded in multiple patterns of the cultural fabric. These champions are necessary to maintain a public “locus” – personally, I think it’s more of a “referent” thing, than a “fan” thing, but either way, if you are able to “encapsulate” the individual with the change paradigm, you’re more likely to succeed in today’s change environments. Further more, history suggests that very clearly defined, and easily measurable outcomes, arranged to frequently occur on a path to an “inevitable” and “preferred” goal, are strongly linked to successful change. The notion of selling “change” because “change is good” is dead; change must be grounded in practical reason today, and outcomes on the road to the overall change goal must bear logical sequitor, and they must be fully transparent. Successful change needs a carefully detailed project plan with use cases, and an even better PR machine.

    In the United States, the Web 3.0 “axiom” making the rounds in Education technology is “Create, Communicate, and Collaborate”. This suggests that communication and collaboration are not the same…in fact, the latter is only one “modality” of the former. I agree with you that we must act intelligently and collaborate, but I humbly suggest that what will help you weather these storms is a far greater goal, nor will a mere axiom change the actuality and immensity of the task. The goal should not be to get through this and teach our kids some green skills to fix the mess we’ve created – the goal should be to (1) create the economic conditions needed to foster education and make it not the last choice in professions (following the saying, “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach”), but rather the first choice. We must engender excitement and value and returns, both fiscal and psychological. We must make it far more rewarding to be a teacher. We must (2) create the resource pool necessary to meet the need for services. Even if we had all the money right now, we simply don’t have enough teachers for everyone who needs them. We need to recruit untapped labor markets, such as the retired sector for example, to participate and fill the gaps in our students’ educational lives. And (3), perhaps most importantly, we need to create “individualized solutions of scale”. If that seems like an oxymoron, I apologize – but let me explain. In the United States, for example, all school districts are more or less autonomous. They are required to comply with state and federal laws, but each school has a remarkable amount of leeway about how to shape the curriculum, how to spend their resources, how to measure outcomes etc. This makes it very difficult to create an aggregate system of any predictability, nor does it allow for a true collectivity, if everyone can do everything differently. I am not arguing for socialized education – I am arguing for organized and scalable education. What we need is highly productive, outcome based school “systems” that we can quickly deploy and scale…systems that allow us to meet the increasing need to individualize student programs and teach to the individual, not the group. Solutions of scale will feed change — they are the grist, until they become the mill.

    Our children do deserve better, and for what it’s worth, I would rather leave them a well working education system, that can provide the framework for successful outcomes, than a splintered skill set of content specific knowledge bases that are likely to be eclipsed in the next paradigm shift. If we truly have become masters of change management, then building a bulletproof change system should be really easy….right?

    • Chris, thank you for this really thought provoking response. I particularly liked your first suggestion that economic conditions are key to promoting our profession as one of choice. I think there are two manifestations of this priority in the UK and I wonder whether this is replicated in the US. Firstly, Initial Teacher Training (ITT) needs some serious attention. There is a tension here between the breadth of the course versus the brevity of the course provided. Don’t get me wrong, I think our new teachers are better trained than ever before, however that does not mean that the training is sufficient. Which leads to the second issue to do with teacher training. Once they have qualified the professional development offered is very often shockingly poor. Whether through Local Authorities (read Districts) or many consultants and external providers, the schools here find it very difficult to get hold of inspirational leaders of learning or to hear of inspirational practice around the country. It is interesting to contrast the spread of innovation across our National Health Service (whatever you may make of that…) to its equivalent in education. What takes days and weeks to be communicated across the NHS takes years and decades across our educational sector.

      I was also very taken by your notion of the untapped resource in our local communities, as this strikes at the heart of much of what I believe should be done in our schools.

      Your third point of individualized solutions of scale intrigues me. If what you suggest enables the individual to be seen clearly at the heart of the learning journey then I would want to know much more about how you see this developing. However, if a highly productive, outcome based school system implies generic standardization then I would be more cautious. In the UK we have only recently emerged from a Victorian, factory model of production education, masquerading as individualized through its use of assessment for learning strategies and differentiation. However, the individuals passions and interests are inhibited and conformity is required to operate this system. We stand at a point in the UK when we may genuinely forge something new, but clearly researched as through the Cambridge Primary Review, and I think we cannot afford to relinquish such an opportunity to shape the future.

      Thank you so much for your contribution to my learning.

      • Neil,

        There is indeed a need in the US for initial teacher training, in so many critically important ways. The teachers entering our education system are exceptionally unprepared to meet the education needs of today’s students – and what’s worse, they do not understand or appreciate the degree of their own deficit, nor do they evidence the initiative to change. And I can confirm that follow through on initial teacher training is poorly organized, and ineffective, and at times, almost nearly impossible to obtain (for many reasons including time constraints, economics, and resources). Let me explain.

        I frequently open discussions with school admin staff groups with a somewhat sardonic, but enthusiastic, “Folks, we are indeed doing an excellent job of preparing our students for the Industrial Revolution”. Then come a few seconds of silence as the crowd processes the reality. “But if,” I continue, “you wish to prepare your students for the 21st century, for the Information Revolution, then you must change your behavior…you must act differently than you do now, you must use different tools, a different canvas, different eyes.” At that point I usually get a few “hmmm, I wonder what he means”. Everybody decries the current state of affairs, recognizing limitations and faults in the system they operate in; when you ask what is needed, ideas are many; once considered, and once the needs are solved, you embark on the solution set and proudly deliver it to the client, “Look, I fixed what was wrong”; the client looks puzzled, “What’s this? No, this isn’t right, this isn’t how we used to do it, this won’t work”. That’s the thing about change – it actually means doing things differently than you used to. And habits are hard to break.

        I am a hard core behaviorist. I believe the world is behaved into being, that all education is actually a behavior – not a set of rules, not a repository of content — but a physical act. My background is perhaps somewhat atypical, though I believe informative. I am the Chief Innovation Officer for a small special education school in Wichita, Kansas. But we are no ordinary school. We are a residential and day school facility, and we educate some of the most difficult children to educate in the United States – students who have serious behavior issues, serious cognitive disabilities, are often medically fragile, and have failed in all other previous educational placements. Almost all of our students are staffed one on one, 24/7/365. What we do is build functional independence skills; we create the behavioral skill sets, behavioral routines, and behavioral contexts within which students can succeed and increase their degree of functional independence. As functional independence increases, the burden of care is reduced. You might say, we create “functional independence habits”. Thus the student experiences positive outcomes, as do the community of care-takers (which usually means family in the US). For the last few years the Heartspring School ( has been focusing on using technology as a force multiplier of outcomes – for students, for teachers, and for the community – and we have succeeded in doing so, despite economic and industry trends and pressures. You can learn more about our remarkable outcomes on our website.

        Very often the communication issues which apparently plague social systems are less indicative of failures among actors, and more indicative of the communication infrastructures themselves, and how they enable and constrain the content (think McLuhan). To realize effective change outcomes, there must be a technical communication infrastructure in place, one that enables preferred outcomes and constrains undesirable outcomes.

        As to the “individualized solutions of scale”, yes, it is indeed just that…putting the individual at the heart of the learning process, creating a uniquely structured curriculum based on functional outcomes (not assessments), based on the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and delivering an education plan to meet the determined outcomes by using student specific technologies to enable and constrain the outcome set. Realistically, however, we must realize that there is no more costly way of managing education than to individually custom-educate each student, thus we need to make real and use scalable educational systemic frameworks, that allow us to achieve the individual and collective outcomes we require. We do this within the frame of a scalable system that allows for the introduction of novel content, for innovation, while maintaing a structured and predictable outcome model.

        In the US we are bound by federal law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – IDEA) to individualize the education program of EVERY special education student. We know this to produce measurable progress outcomes; we know that social systems continually move towards what Durkheim saw as individualism – and perhaps most importantly, we know it to be the right thing to do. There is no question that individualizing education yields force-multiplied outcomes. And there is no question that whenever “solutions of scale” are mentioned, school administrators yell “blanket programs”. But there is a logical fallacy here: Individualization is specific to students and Solutions of Scale are specific to systems – these categories are not exclusive, and they do not exist on the same spectrum. It is the simple difference between “or” and “and”. Both are possible; both are necessary, neither is sufficient.

        At Heartspring we are doing something new, something innovative, something special. I invite you learn more about us and what we are doing, if you are interested. I would be happy to introduce you to a closer look….I think much of what we are pioneering has meaning in contexts well beyond ours, and to education and health care in particular.

  5. Dear All;


    education needs to change and we will all embrace, change and even indulge it!

    We all need to learn.

    Don’t worry Neil, you are a breath of fresh air.


  6. Having attended my first TeachMeet this week I feel that collaboration of peers in the way forward. Allow staff to be come positive wizards & give them a platform to share will produce more positive wizards. Yes, there needs to be an understanding & trust from SLT but with the financial constraints we are now facing this has to be the way forward. I’m interested in the fact that the National Strategies brought everone (some kicking & screaming) to literacy & numeracy understanding. Why didn’t the same happen to ICT given the funding that it has had over the years.?

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