The Sunday Times Festival of Education 2014

If you ever have the opportunity, I would urge you to attend the Sunday Times Festival of Education. Not only will you have the opportunity to drink in the sumptuous surroundings of Wellington College, one of England’s finest independent schools, but you will also be able to feed on the wide ranging views and opinions of education that do not always see the light of day at other conferences. It would be fair to say that ‘EduFest’, as it is known, does not necessarily boast the most obvious line up of leadership-inspiring speakers that one or two other events offer, such as the CfBT/NAHT/ASCL conference (which was also excellent and as held just one week earlier). However, the line up is nonetheless eye-catching as it is perhaps a little more subversive, tangential, even unpredictable and therefore just as stimulating as more conventional programmes. Perhaps because of this, it offers a more open-minded, stimulating environment for thinking and reflecting upon the possibilities for schools that are restless in the pursuit of excellence in all that hey do.

The irrepressible Russell Prue, of Anderton Tiger Radio, provided the official Festival Radio again this year and interviewed me during the first day. You can hear the interview here or on Russell’s sound cloud.

Part 1: Using Radio

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Six Principles for Principals #2

In my previous post, I considered Benjamin Zander’s idea of being ‘fascinated’ by the hurdles that we encounter in striving to be an ‘A’ grade teacher / leader / learner. In this post, I extend the idea into my second principle for principals: living in to possibilities.

Professor Dylan Wiliam makes the simple point that the graphs of school improvement are, in large part, quite flat. The distance between the vast majority of schools is statistically quite slight.

Dylan Wiliam data

However, in order to track our progress along this somewhat flat gradient, we have resorted to creating additional ways to level our students and pupils to enable us to chart progress. The problem with this approach is that it is not consonant with the way in which children learn. Wiliam and Black were very clear when they worked so hard all those years ago to support our understanding of levels at ends of Key Stages. They said that at Year 2 a child should achieve Level 2 and at Year 6 a child should achieve Level 4. In between, they observed that children would progress at all sorts of different rates. So the process that we all invented of Year 4 pupils being a Level 3B etc etc were simply figments of our imaginations, much to the frustration of the Professors who had never intended us to do this with data and targets.

WIliam and Black

In the UK, we are just about to embark upon another journey with regard to our understanding of levels, in so far as our secretary of state has announced the demise of levels. Who knows what we will do to replace them, but it is sure to be something that we won’t get quite right as we struggle to shrug off the vestiges of levelling from times past. It seems to me that this issue is addressed by the focus within my second principle for principals. If we are to live in to possibilities, then we must be able to see that possibility.

why are you here

The problem is, with our jobs, that we are caught in the moment. Trapped by the unrelenting pressures that weigh in on us, that prevent us from seeing where we are going. We are caught in existential angst about our immediate impact and purpose. However, we all know that as leaders we must never lose sight of where we are going of course, but sometimes that can just be blurred and confused: we can’t see the destination clearly.

where are you going

And even if we can manage to keep sight of where we are heading to, bridging the gap so that we translate where we currently are and where we thought we were heading is all but impossible. This familiar situation is referred to many as being ‘caught in the moment’. Great leaders help others to break the hypnotic paralysis that is brought about by being caught in the moment, the tidal wave of unrelenting workload that makes ‘now’ feel like forever. So how do they break that hold? Through understanding the sunset.


There is something captivating about watching the sunset on the horizon. Have you ever done it? If not, try to this summer. Go somewhere quiet and allow yourself to be absorbed by it. Then you will experience the sensation of cognitive paralysis (but in a positive and peaceful way). What you will notice is that there comes a point, which great leaders bring about for their colleagues. A moment when the  ‘blip’ happens. One moment the sun was still there and then… it’s gone! The paralysis evaporates. Great leaders bring people to that moment to help them overcome the focus on the ‘moment’ that prevents progress towards their true purpose.


I always think of the journey that colleagues must go on in the contextualisation of their current experience within their longer term goals as akin to a diver returning slowly to the surface from a deep dive. In the depths of the ocean, the surface can be such a distant goal that it disappears from the diver’s vision. But when surfacing, the end goal is to reach the surface and to see how to get there the diver must assess how far to move from where he or she is currently. This is more than just breaking a problem down into bite sized chunks. Instead it is seeing every step from here as a constituent step towards the end goal. The diver is not just taking a step of 5 metres, is not just enjoying the journey, but is moving 5 metres towards the surface. So the journey as a whole is constantly in the diver’s mind.

Great leaders help their colleagues see everything they do within the context of this destination rather than becoming transfixed with the moment they are in.

Six Principles for Principals #1

Only recently Nobody asked me (and not for the first time) to do some thinking about school improvement and leadership and to identify a core of ideas that I felt were important to share with Anybody. Here is what I would have replied to Somebody:

1. Only work with Outstanding colleagues

Of course there is a whole debate isn’t there about who has the right to label anyone outstanding and on what apolitical basis (I doubt very much whether some members of OfSTED would meet that last qualification, but that’s a story for another time). Nevertheless, I think that the plain English version of this statement is true and its realisation best exemplified by Benjamin Zander.



Benjamin Zander famously gives his students an ‘A’ grade at the start of his courses, then asks them to write a letter dated a year later, describing exactly what they did to merit that ‘A’ grade. Crucially he urges his students to then fall ‘passionately in love with that person’. What a wonderful message. 

His belief is that expectation is a crushing lever on ambition, which leads to a downward spiral of despair at the sad state of affairs. Instead, he advocates an optimistic declaration in the face of failure of ‘How fascinating!’. This approach to risk taking, ambition and pushing the boundaries demands an element of courage, but also the assured understanding that failure is only failure if it is the last thing you do. If we learn from failure and try again, then it just a crucial stepping stone on our journey of success.



 Of course, Mr Zander does not accept any old Joe in to his orchestra, but demands the highest of standards. This is the caveat that helps school leaders sleep at night. It is not that he revises his ‘A’ grade, but that he works with those that are hungry to achieve it. Many of us have colleagues that are hard working, but that is not enough to be an ‘A’ grade. What is required is hard work on the right things. The process of identifying the right areas to work can be tortuous and is best done in discussion, I would say through coaching (more on that in a later post).


But equally important is the belief and self-belief that a colleague can live in to the possibility of the ‘A’ grade and the determination by all concerned that they will do so. Only then will the wonderful sculpture that exists in all rock be allowed to emerge. So the question is, for you as a school leader, do you have that belief and determination? If so, get your chisel out, a masterpiece awaits your liberating and empowering leadership.



Design Thinking

We have been thinking quite a lot about how children learn. As a statement that may appear surprising. Surely, I hear you ask, schools think about that all the time? Well, perhaps they should, but sadly all too often, they do not. That is not schools’ fault or school leaders’ fault. We are inundated with tasks and administration that often seem to serve simply to distract us from our core purpose: to develop learners.

However, we have put a lot of effort in to thinking exactly what great learning should look like in our school. You can read about our philosophy in the document ‘How we learn what we learn’, which we published to some acclaim at the start of this academic year (Professor Stephen Heppell, no less, urged his twitter followers to “Stop. Read this.”)

In particular we have been exploring the ‘Design Thinking’ process with Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett of No Tosh and Ewan describes something of the exploration in this video clip, delivered at the SSAT National Conference 2012, in Liverpool.

Children Tagging their Learning

I have worked with Tom Barrett in one capacity or another for a few years now, as our paths have crossed and we have collaborated over our belief in the importance of truly personalised learning. So when I took up post at Rosendale School in South London, I was keen to make use of Tom’s skills in taking the school to a new level of understanding about the ways in which New Technologies could support learning. Specifically, I was keen to find some way for children to gather together evidence to substantiate the progress they were making in their learning. It had always seemed to me that schools had missed the point of formative assessment as described by Dylan Wiliam and had put in place assessment for learning procedures that were still too ‘teacher heavy’. Added to which, friends in the corporate world seemed to have understood the paperless office in a way that shames those of us leading learning with young people, where we still used post-it / print&cut&stick exemplars of evidence gathering. Surely, I thought, we must be able to use a system such as Evernote to support teachers and children in gathering evidence. And if we did, then gathering that data across the school, in all subjects, might yield further insights in to the kind of learning and progress happening in the school. Thus the stage was set for working on this idea and Tom Barrett of NoTosh led us very ably through the stages of the project. In the video below, he describes the aims, principles, issues and opportunities of the project as it unfolded.

School Leadership, ICT and Social Media

There has been a lot of talk recently about the renewed ministerial interest in ‘computing’. As senior parliamentarians casually refer to the need for children to be involved in ‘coding’ programmes, not merely using programmes, we in the education world spend our time dealing with some of the realities of the proposed (unknown) new curriculum and the Great ICT Escape. I admit to some misgivings about political interference in subject specific content and I am uncertain as to the robust vision for ICT as currently politically evangelised in its ‘coding’ form. In future posts I will reflect on this double edged reprieve for ICT, but for now, if the aim of this shift in curriculum is to create an enthusiasm for coding and to nurture future programmers, then quite frankly teachers are a highly unlikely source of inspirational role models. So where do the Steve Wozniaks of the current school generation get their ideas? Well, the online community, of course. The groups with whom they socialise. Everybody under the age of 21 knows and understands this. Once again, the reality of how we might achieve the Government’s aims of producing an army of technically literate, artistic and creative workers will depend on how well school leaders face a more pressing matter: how to close the gap between ‘out of school’ and ‘in school’ encounters with technology. The way we handle social media in schools will be fundamental to our effectiveness in this endeavour. The video compilation presented above represent my thoughts on this matter, shared with Ewan Macintosh of No Tosh prior to speaking at the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning conference on Tweeting for Teachers. The videos can be found in original form at

Why fail? Isn’t that a mistake?

Recently the senior leadership team at Rosendale have been debating our vision for the school. We have been particularly exercised by whether we support failures or prefer to think of mistakes.


Seth Godin has posted this very helpful reflection on the debate…

A failure is a project that doesn’t work, an initiative that teaches you something at the same time the outcome doesn’t move you directly closer to your goal.

A mistake is either a failure repeated, doing something for the second time when you should have known better, or a misguided attempt (because of carelessness, selfishness or hubris) that hindsight reminds you is worth avoiding.

We need a lot more failures, I think. Failures that don’t kill us make us bolder, and teach us one more way that won’t work, while opening the door to things that might.

School confuses us, so do bosses and families. Go ahead, fail. Try to avoid mistakes, though.