Adventures with Machine Learning – Part 1

Last year, I wrote this post which shared how we had developed some analytics tools and data dashboards across Northampton Primary Multi Academy Trust. This was part of ongoing work in our trust to get better at using data we already have to describe, predict and ultimately intervene in the way we operate.

Click the picture to read about how we’ve used data dashboards to share information from standardised tests.

Since this post, we’ve had a lot of interest in how we’ve been developing analytics tools in the trust and so this is the first in a series of three blogs which I’ll interview the brains behind the analytics, self-confessed data geek, Matt Woodruff.

Matt Woodruff: The data man…

 

Matt is the founder and ‘Chief Data Scientist’ at Coscole Ltd. (now a part of Groupcall Ltd.) and I’ve been working with him for the last 3 years on this project within our trust.

 

 

One of the things I’ve learned from Matt is the power of predictive analytics. I believe that too much time is spent looking at pupil data as a rear view mirror in schools. This is often driven by a need to ‘know your data’ for accountability purposes rather than to help you think about what data can tell us about the future. If we think about the publication lag of documents like ASP (previously RaiseOnline), it’s crazy to suggest leaders should wait until November to find out about what happened in the past to a group of children who have already left the school. I think there’s more we could do to analyse the information we have about future cohorts of Year 6 to help adapt and tailor their provision whilst we still have time.

An example of how Matt’s brain works is our exchange over the title for this blog. I went for, ‘Matt and Tom’s Excellent (Analytics) Adventure’ whilst Matt suggested the catchy ‘A ‘Small Data’ Predictive Experiment using Machine Learning – Can MAT pupil level data generate reliable predictions for outcomes or identify pupils ‘at risk’?’.

Matt & Tom’s Analytics Adventure…

In this first interview, we go back about 3 years to a point in time where we were fumbling around in the dark for answers to a life without levels.

Me: Matt – when we first sat down with you, we had a ideas session where we outlined our vision of trying to bring together many pieces of pupil data in one place. What were your initial thoughts when you looked at the sea of post it notes which represented the many different pieces of data we wanted to bring together?

Matt: This is taking me back some time! It was at this stage that Coscole was finishing its direct commission with another MAT where we had spent three years building an approach to personalised learning, and in aggregating and visualising data.  During this time I’d worked with multiple stakeholders from head office staff and directors of education, with data managers and school leaders as well as some pilot projects with teachers, students and parents.  What was refreshing about beginning to work with NPAT is that you had, even back then, a good understanding of where there was challenge, and therefore where the opportunity was to improve: you were not setting out to boil the ocean; to have analytics be all things to all people.

I think like the mantra that ‘Exams are necessary, but not sufficient’ you imparted a view to me that said ‘Teacher Assessment is necessary but not sufficient’ in relation to understanding the whole profile of the pupil.  You had already engaged with cognitive ability testing and understanding pupil attitudes to self and school, and were bringing in external assessment as standardised scores to provide a more rounded profile.

Of course it is natural at that stage you are inclined to pull your hair out – a growing MAT, albeit with a single MIS provider, with a growing need to make more effective use of data and to put it at the finger tips in an easily digestible manner to those that need it most – when your data comes from different providers, in different forms, at different times.

The ‘sea of post-it’ notes therefore represented the fact that as a Trust you had already embarked on the journey of understanding that there was a challenge in making effective use of data and saw the opportunity in the potential impact to improving outcomes if you could do it right.  More than this – you’d moved down the road in determining exactly what you thought it important to capture, but also some things that you may have been doing by rote up until that point that you reassessed and decided it was not as important as you once thought it might be.

Me: There was a lot of planning and work that went on behind the scenes before we ever got close to inputting data. Aligning the MIS databases for across the trust was a big job and we spent a lot of time cleaning up our data as a trust which was an important but time consuming stage. Is this a normal part of the process with all schools you work with?

Matt: Getting to effective analytics is a journey.  Everyone knows the adage ‘Garbage in Garbage out’, and it becomes particularly true when you compound the issue by aggregating ‘garbage’ across schools.  Once again though this is not about boiling the ocean.  Do you have to align everything across an MIS?  Absolutely not.  Should you seek alignment over time, in the things that really matter? Absolutely yes.  You can do this in a way that does not undermine the context of different schools – thats vital.  It is also not about a doctrine of ‘top down’.  In my mind it’s about identifying good practice around data, and making sure all schools understand the importance of that.  Good practices with data lead to much less wasted time further down the chain, and not only wasted time but the impact of not really being sure about your data providence.  The typical reaction to seeing numbers, metrics, percentages is that we believe them.  In too few cases are the underpinning assumptions challenged – “how was this data derived”, “what moderation is in place across schools to ensure that an apple in one is an apple in another”.

Yes, technically, the MIS databases were aligned in so much as NPAT standardised on naming conventions for Aspects.  Yes we put in place data extraction technology and we warehouse that data and layer education modelling on top (the calculations that do your %GLD, Combined Y1/2 Phonics etc).  That’s business as usual really.  The fun starts again with the people and process elements. As soon as you visualise data in a more effective way, and don’t forget we’re not inventing new data here – we are just taking data you already have available – you instantly see gaps.  You instantly notice things that aren’t right.  And when I say ‘you’ I mean from CEO down.  That can be a scary place for some because we lift up all the rocks.  I think that’s great, because this is absolutely not about blame for a legacy of data whose quality can be improved, it’s about finally having access to the tools to quickly spot variations and to scaffold the people and the processes to ensure data is reliable.

There is no one I have worked with that has not done something different in their schools after joining and visualising data, and that’s a great thing.

Me: We had several U-turns and changes throughout the process as we switched our position on the types of assessment data and teacher assessment descriptors. How were you able to manage these changing demands from a technical perspective?

Matt: You’d started with fairly granular objectives in teacher assessment if I remember rightly: levels and sub-levels, or steps and stages, or milestones and smaller objectives. The change specifically did not provide too much of a technical challenge around how we got the data, but I think we found it a particularly challenging time to understand the way in which you wanted to visualise it – how leaders and staff would need to see that in the most digestible form.  We use both a flexible visualisation approach with the Trust with Microsoft Power BI, as well as our own Apps built for Office 365.  PowerBI is naturally easier and quicker for us to adapt than the code in our Apps, but by the same stretch our Apps can provide a more effective interface at times for staff.

The biggest issue though is both from a technical and a data perspective.  We lose consistency, and history.  For me a major incentive for a mature approach to data and analytics is having access to this history so we can build trend analysis and forecasting.  Every time we decide to do something different it makes that more difficult.  In this case with NPAT those decisions and changes were actually dealt with fairly early on and we’ve collectively been consistent since.

Me : After a year or so of being to analyse pupil information, we then started the conversation around how we could use technology to start to predict future attainment. You introduced me to the concept of Machine Learning. Can you explain (to a non-data specialist) how Machine Learning works?

Matt: There is a lot of hype around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) right now.  Three years ago everything was Big Data, in much the same way.  In many respects there is absolutely nothing new about ML, its been an active research area since the 1950’s and arguably in different forms well before that.  Today, ML is a subset of the domain of AI and deals with the ability of computers to learn from data.  It is technology that is now prevalent in just about every other aspect of our lives – from blocking spam in emails, to recommending products on Amazon, films on Netflix, and of course most recently in developing self-driving cars.

ML is itself subdivided into:

  • ways that we set out specific parameters for the computer and where we know what we are looking for (supervised learning),
  • where we want the computer to look at unstructured data and classify it itself (unsupervised learning), or
  • where we set up a computer to learn through its own exploration – most famously used with Google’s AlphaGo team beating the world champion (reinforcement learning).

These developments have brought ML more recently into the mainstream.  Tools are widely available to utilise ML models both with open source approaches, with Microsoft, or in combination.  In fact, Microsoft have recently announced the fact that they are integrating ML/AI approaches with PowerBI, which is really exciting.  EdTech companies like CenturyTech integrate ML in their adaptive learning routines.

In these ways, the technology already exists to make what we do in education faster, better, and deliver more impact.  We spend 95% of our time looking backwards – what has just happened – whether that is last year or the last ‘data drop’.  This is ‘descriptive analytics’  – we are simply describing the things that have happened.  Other industries have already moved into ‘predictive analytics’ – using data to predict what is likely to happen in the future.  Where we can get to beyond that is with ‘prescriptive analytics’ – if we know what is likely to happen in the future what should we be doing now either to mitigate risk or extend opportunity?  The potential for a learning system that provides effective and efficient decision support for the human in an education context is vast.

This isn’t about ML being able to take peoples jobs; that in five years we’ll have robot teachers.  This is about us leveraging what computers do far better than us, in order that we focus our human intelligence on the things that the machines will never be able to do (there is some ongoing debate on when the singularity might occur, but I think that’s beyond this blog…).

Me: There came a point where I asked you if you thought you would be able to predict our SATs results last year and you went off and did something clever on your laptop and came back with some results. What did you do?

Yes, we got to that point where we knew that we had good consistent data, and conceivably enough to do something meaningful from a predictive point of view.  We tend to like lots of data for reliability, and when you boil it down a Year 6 cohort is not a lot of kids, even over 7 schools.  However, we were at the point 18 months in where we had one years of historical data on the same basis as the current Y6 cohort.  The same ‘schema’ if you like, of the things that we thought might matter in predicting outcomes.

Truth be told this was new to me.  We’d been active in development at Coscole around the AI stack being released by Microsoft and also at that time had been engaged in another predictive proof of concept with Microsoft and one of the largest MATs around Progress 8.  Looping back to my mantra of not boiling the ocean, I thought why not try something – it’ll either work or not work.  If it works, that’d be pretty cool.  If it doesn’t work, we’d be interested in why not.

The easy bit was actually the ‘data wrangling’.  This is normally the bit of any data scientists life that consumes 60-80% of their time – finding data, cleaning data, putting it in a form that can actually be consumed by something and then do something useful…  The joy for me is that we’ve done most of that: we have all your data warehoused, clean, ready to go.

I set out then to run a very simple experiment.  This type of work is not new, lots of providers do it with their own data and I’m sure in more advanced ways, FFT, Rising Stars, CenturyTech etc – but for me it was a validation of others results and I was personally interested in the correlations with the MAT data.  The question I was interested in was “Can we use school owned, in year data, from different data sources, for reliable prediction?” .  If so, the follow up would be more important – “How should this impact current data collection practices to save time for staff, and to highlight interventions early?”.  I also had an academic interest in a methods comparison study in the context of my PhD.

The experiment was a straightforward linear regression model trained on your prior year Year 6 MAT data including a selection of pupil characteristics and principally their standardised scores in Reading and Maths.  I completed this in both Python as an open source approach as well as in Microsoft AzureML.  I then used this model to run against your (then) current Year 6 cohort to predict their Reading and Maths test outcomes.

The results were interesting – in one way or the other I’d described earlier. Or both – pretty cool.

In Part 2, I’ll be asking Matt to explain how accurate his predictions were when we opened the envelopes* on results day in July 2018 and what the implications of this are for adopting predictive analytics for outcomes or identifying those at risk in the future.

*We didn’t really open any envelopes on results day. It was a downloadable csv. at the much more civil time of 8am this year rather than waiting till midnight.

Down’s syndrome, Infantile spasms and leaving Dubai in a hurry…

In 2004, after 4 years of teaching in the UK, Adele and I decided to get married and teach abroad. We both had a bit of an itch to travel and see the world, so we applied for jobs in Dubai. Our grand plan was to teach there for four or five years, travel the world in the holidays and come back with some money in the bank and a great suntan. But it didn’t work out like that.

It started brightly – we were young and DINKY (double income, no kids yet), and was exciting to experience the luxury and opulence of Dubai. Initially, weekends were spent in the desert or at beach clubs, and evenings having dinner at one of the many luxurious hotels. The school experience was really interesting a real contrast to teaching in England.

But all that glitters is not gold and before long, the novelty faded and we found ourselves more at home in the souks, the local Lebanese restaurants or at BBQs with friends in the ex-pat community. We also started to get glimpses into some of the exploitation and prejudice on which the city is built, seeing workers from India and Sri Lanka being treated in ways that felt alien to us having grown up in the UK. It started to feel a bit hollow – like a city still trying to find its soul – and I remember England feeling like a very ‘green and pleasant land’ when we returned in the holidays.

And then along came Freddie – perhaps a bit earlier than was written in the life plan – and everything changed again.

One of my favourite pieces of writing is called ‘Welcome to Holland’ by Emily Perl Kingsley. It is written by the mother of a child with Down’s syndrome and describes the process of coming to terms with a child’s disability as getting on a plane expecting to go on holiday to Rome, but instead touching down to find out you have arrived in Holland. The author compares the experience of raising a child with a disability to the realisation and disappointment of not being able to see the Coliseum, gondolas in Venice and Michelangelo’s David, and learning to appreciate your new surroundings:

‘It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around … and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.’

Our arrival in ‘Holland’ came unexpectedly in the delivery room at Kettering General Hospital. Freddie’s almond-shaped eyes and a mother’s instinct gave the game away to Adele, who called it within seconds of his birth. We’d had no idea. We returned to Dubai with our precious bundle and started a very different life to the one we’d planned. But despite the best intentions of everyone, illness and complications with Freddie meant that a premature return to the UK was inevitable.

‘If you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy,  you may never be free to enjoy the very special,  the lovely things about Holland.’

Emily Perl Kingsley

In February 2006, Freddie was also diagnosed with a rare form of childhood epilepsy known as ‘infantile spasms’ or West’s Syndrome at the age 5 months. Although more prevalent in children with Down’s syndrome than the general population, the condition is still very rare and has a poor prognosis. One epilepsy website described it as ‘catastrophic’ at the time.

Adele had flown home to see a consultant in the UK and I was staying out for the last few weeks of term before planning to fly home at Easter for the holiday. It was the most bizarre school day of my life.

I teach a perfectly normal English lesson to Year 4 and walk them out for morning break. Being on playground duty in 28 degrees is no real hardship and I’m hiding behind my sunglasses enjoying the warmth when a message comes out. ‘Tom – you’d better come quickly. Adele’s on the phone.’ I know this is going to be difficult if Adele has called the school landline directly. Sure enough, she tells me through tears that Freddie is really unwell. They’re in Bradford Royal Infirmary and the doctors have decided that the next step is to put him on a ventilator. Before I have time to process what any of this really means, the head calls me into his office and says the following words, which I’ll never forget: ‘Tom, drive home and pack your bags. My driver will come and collect you from your apartment and take you to the airport. My PA is booking you a flight now.’

The deputy walks with me to my class, helps me to get my things and checks I am OK. She gives me a hug and wishes me all the best. The message is just what I need to hear – to go and put my family first, with no second thought about the logistics or implications which they will pick up later. The next eight hours are a blur as I race back to our apartment, throw an unsatisfactory collection of things in a case and am chauffeured at speed to Dubai airport in time to catch the afternoon flight to Manchester. By 10:00pm I am in a Bradford hospital, about to start three of the hardest weeks of my life, living on a hospital floor praying that the seizures will stop and we can get our baby boy back.

We never went back to Dubai. It was a tough decision that made itself in the end; but throughout it, our friends and colleagues were amazing – they even packed up our apartment to be shipped home and sold our car! The leadership team was fully supportive, recognising the difficulty of the situation, and made it clear that I had done the right thing.

I have often wondered how long my class were left out on the playground, waiting for me to collect them and if one day we might go back and take Freddie back with us to the sand. Over the years we have both felt like we have some unfinished business with the place.

To be continued…

Rethinking Accountability Part 3 – School Improvement Processes

This is the third in a series of five posts about the issue of accountability in schools with some thoughts on how we can create healthier accountability for schools and teachers. Much of the content I am sharing in these posts is taken from my book, Wholesome Leadership. Other resources have either been created kindly by Oliver Caviglioli or are those which have been developed by the leadership team at Simon de Senlis Primary School or within Northampton Primary Academy Trust.

Rethinking Accountability

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – A culture of healthy accountability

Part 3 – School improvement and monitoring processes (you’re reading this now!)

Part 4 – Assessing like a consultant doctor

Part 5 – Managing external accountability

In the first post, I laid out the following four key challenges for us as school leaders to focus on in schools in pursuit of a healthier accountability system which I believe is at the heart of making teaching a more effective and sustainable profession.

  1. Take the fear out of the challenge, creating the right conditions in our school for healthy accountability.
  2. Develop effective processes for school improvement, monitoring & evaluation that are used consistently as part of an ongoing cycle of improvement.
  3. Think really carefully about the purpose and processes of assessment and improve both its use and the quality of conversations that surround it.
  4. Manage external accountability with confidence, staying in control of inspections and audits and not allowing them to influence school improvement negatively.

This post focuses on the second challenge: the specific processes we use in schools as part of our quality assurance, accountability or school improvement cycles.

Informal first

A starting point for keeping our finger on the pulse of a school is (obviously?) to spend as much time as possible visiting classrooms. This means avoiding getting comfortable on a chair somewhere in an office or being drawn into time-heavy paperwork and meetings and getting out among the action. Visiting lessons, walking the corridors, lunch halls and playgrounds is the best way I know to remain in touch with what’s really going on in a school. Teaching (although not every Head has to be a current teacher), talking to parents on the gate, flicking through the books of the children you meet on your travels and playing with children in reception are all important parts of the job and help us gain an important wider perspective of school life. This informal approach has always been my favourite part of leadership and probably suits my naturally restlessness and impatient urges to walk around rather than sit still.

A school improvement schedule

Alongside an consistent informal presence, there has to be some kind of structured school improvement cycle  that takes place throughout the year. Without some kind of rigour or systematic approach to school improvement, things can go wrong in a school for the following reasons (and probably more):

  • Leaders become too preoccupied with operational and day to day issues and lose sight of the longer-term strategic work.
  • Regular checks or reviews get missed and so things stop happening that should be.
  • The right people don’t sit down regularly enough to evaluate findings from monitoring and agree next steps.
  • Steps for improvement are identified, but don’t become reality due to a lack of follow-up and follow-through activity.

In order to ensure a coordinated approach, most schools have some kind of schedule such as the one below which lays out different activities such as assessment, monitoring and evaluation. This is important in giving clarity to staff and leaders as to when different activities are happening and to ensure that the different processes flow from one to another. NB – I call these school improvement processes (because I think that’s what they are) but these are also commonly known as Quality Assurance, Monitoring and Accountability. Tomato, tomato.

A school improvement schedule. Be clear about what’s happening and when and avoid congestion and overload…

Now this is the dangerous bit because all that stuff I wrote in Part 2 about building a High Challenge; Low Threat culture in the school can quickly be undone if we go about monitoring in a clumsy or heavy-handed way. Trust takes time to build up but can be lost in seconds.

With this in mind, whatever school improvement or monitoring processes we carry out, it’s the way we do them that matters most.

Do no harm…

Here are ten things I try and think about when carrying out any school improvement/QA activity to try and help build a ‘High Challenge; Low Fear’ culture.

  • First, do no harm: Keep in mind the unintended consequences on workload, motivation and wellbeing that monitoring and evaluation processes can cause. Plan and execute them carefully to avoid any counterproductive effect.
  • Plan and communicate well: Logistics are always a challenge for monitoring processes, as there are often several people who need to be involved and cover implications. Let everyone know what is happening in good time so that they can plan around it. Last-minute arrangements can cause frustration and add unnecessary stress to the process. If staff need to share planning or children’s books, or present data, make sure the details of this are clarified in good time.
  • Execute well: Whether it’s a learning walk, book look or classroom observation, carry out the process carefully and diligently, ensuring that your ‘bedside manner’ keeps people at ease. Make arrangements for others to be free to pick up any other urgent issues in school so you don’t get distracted or pulled away; it is frustrating for teachers who will have put in a lot of preparation if those carrying out the monitoring get distracted by other issues.
  • Do ‘with’, not ‘to’: Avoid falling into the trap of acting like an inspector and involve teachers and children in whatever process you are carrying out, where possible. A book look is far more effective when talking to children and teachers about what you see on the pages and a planning scrutiny is almost pointless unless it is part of a conversation with the teachers who have written it. Try to capture the staff and student voice within any monitoring processes.
  • Avoid judging: In my experience, a lot of the discussion that takes place on these processes still relates to Ofsted grades, with people keen to hang their hat on a particular peg such as ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Outstanding’. This type of discussion is pointless and avoids the more difficult thinking process of identifying the most useful types of development.
  • Give good feedback: Give kind, specific and useful oral feedback immediately after the activity and provide written notes within a week. This feedback should identify time-bound actions (5 minutes? 5 days? 5 weeks?) so it is clear which are urgent issues and which are more medium term. The feedback should also identify a time and date to meet again to review.
  • Follow-up and follow-through: This is an essential part of the process, but one which is often neglected due to time pressures and leaders being distracted by other challenges. If actions have been agreed, they must be executed, and it is the job of leaders to follow up the conversations and next steps. Never assume that anything has changed unless you have seen it with your own eyes. It’s not enough to think that something has been done; we have to know it has been done.
  • Keep workload lean: Avoid the temptation to create lengthy documentation from different monitoring activities to try to prove that leadership happened. It is a common trap to spend your days monitoring and then evenings and weekends typing up wordy documentation to capture it all. Keep follow-up documents short and focus on clarity rather than an exhaustive list of everything you found out; otherwise, the main messages get lost in the waffle. If you feel that you are writing documentation for Ofsted or governors, remember that the only real evidence that matters is whether improvement happens in the classroom. Schools don’t get better when leaders are writing documents.
  • Evaluate properly: This part of the process is another that is often missed, but is incredibly important. There is no point finding out information from across a school unless you then sit down and reflect strategically on what it means. Once the processes are over, put a bit of space between them and then sit down and ask some good evaluative questions. What were the main messages from this monitoring? What patterns can you notice? Do the things that need improving relate to people or processes? What is our next move?
  • Repeat: Once you have processes established, keep repeating the cycles to get improvement and avoid tinkering with them too much. Once embedded, they cause less stress for everyone.

And now onto some specific processes themselves…

School Improvement Processes

The following four School Improvement Processes are shared here in WalkThru format, created by Oliver Caviglioli and adapted from Wholesome Leadership.

  1. How to carry out a Review Morning
  2. How to carry out a Learning Walk
  3. How to carry out a Progress Meeting
  4. How to carry out an Appraisal Meeting

The purpose of these WalkThrus is to try and ‘demystify’ the things school leaders do by making visible some of the common school improvement routines and processes they carry out. I have found, through working with Oliver, that these visual aids are helpful in simplifying otherwise complex processes.

Feel free to use, adapt around your own school, subject and context.

How to carry out a Review Morning

Review Mornings: Click the image to download a pdf poster of this WalkThru

Over the last three years, we have developed termly review mornings as a way of taking a more in-depth look at the learning taking place across a year group. Rather than a series of individual observations or occasional book looks, we tend to spend most of a morning in a single year group observing, reflecting and exploring the issues. Being released from the shackles of grading lessons is empowering for both teachers and leaders, and this type of process can switch the focus from one of ‘judging’ to one of supporting improvement.

  • A couple of weeks before the review morning, send around a short survey asking staff for their opinions on what is working well in the year group at the moment, any areas that they feel might be weaker and any specific challenges or children that they would welcome support with.
  • Read the feedback and do your homework on the issues or children that have been flagged up. If concerns were raised about the behaviour of individuals, do some background checks on them. If a particular subject was flagged as a weakness, talk to the subject leader about any involvement they have had. Analyse what any available data says about this issue too.
  • Try to put people at ease. A morning can feel like a long time for staff to have leaders snooping in and around their classrooms, so it is important to try to make it feel more like a joint process of investigation rather than being judged.
  • Have access to pupil data during the morning. It is really useful to be able to check out assessment information around groups or individuals that you might notice while in the classroom.
  • Give some short general feedback to all staff involved (including support staff) at the end of the morning and then follow up with teachers individually that evening if possible. Do not give Ofsted-style grades as part of this feedback; it should focus only on helpful developmental advice and a ‘next steps’ discussion.

Click this link for an individual post of the Review Morning WalkThru

Learning Walks

Learning Walks: Click this image to download a pdf poster of this WalkThru

Learning walks are more focused than the kind of unplanned classroom visits described above, but should still have a relatively informal feel. They should have one or two areas of specific focus, such as classroom behaviour routines, quality of classroom discussion or effective direction of support staff. These could either be a follow-up from previous development work or be identified through other monitoring or data analysis.

  • Identify your area of focus and communicate a few days in advance, either by email or at a briefing, that you will carry out a learning walk to focus on one or two specific areas.
  • Don’t intrude too much on the learning – try to be an invisible observer. When the situation allows it, engage in conversation with teachers and children to find out more about what is going on.
  • Adopt a curious mindset and avoid jumping to hasty conclusions based on first impressions of what you see. Stay long enough in each area to get a good feel for things and don’t rush it, even though you are likely to have time pressure to finish quickly.
  • If you are working alongside someone else, make sure you spend time looking from different angles and in different places, and then comparing what you noticed – it is interesting how similar and different two opinions can be.
  • Recognise any of your biases that might have crept in. Are some of the things you notice ‘pet peeves’ or ‘the way you would have done it’, rather than things that evidence suggests are the most important to focus on?
  • Follow-up with whole-school feedback, sharing successful things you saw and any areas you need to follow up on.
  • Follow-up individually with any support or coaching conversations where help might be needed, but keep it light. If learning walks become perceived as being ‘on show’, you will stop seeing what is typical in a classroom and only get polished versions instead.

Click this link for an individual post of the Learning Walk process

 Progress Meetings

Progress Meetings: Click the image to download a pdf of this WalkThruClass Attainment & Progress (CAP) meetings are carried out with each class teacher and relevant leaders shortly after each summative assessment point. Their purpose is for everyone to reflect on the current challenges and priorities within a class or year group. A range of sources, including assessment data, is evaluated to inform adaptations to the provision, curriculum or targeted support for the next term. Leaders can often interpret data in different ways from class teachers, so it is really useful to have this joined-up discussion once a term. It helps as a check point to hold both teachers and leaders to account for their contribution towards improvement, and allows leaders to see where any additional support or intervention is needed.

  • Organise CAP meetings to take place at the end of each term after a summative assessment point.
  • Analysis should be carried out before the meeting and agreed documentation should be completed which identifies the strengths and areas of focus for the next period. Good teachers are constantly evaluating children’s progress and adapting provision throughout the term, and this just formalises their thinking.
  • The meeting should be a professional discussion that focuses on classes, groups and individual children and what can be done to address their needs, rather than crude percentages or which borderline children might get ‘over the line’.
  • The main discussion should centre on how teaching approaches and the curriculum can be adapted within the next term to address any areas of concern.
  • Try to avoid the temptation to steer the discussion onto solutions to do with teaching assistant intervention and parental engagement. These may be useful things, but the 27.5 hours of curriculum and teacher time afford the greatest opportunity to make an impact.
  • Use research to support your decision-making. If suggestions focus on specific interventions or organisation such streaming or reducing class sizes, look at what research says about these areas and read around the issues more closely.
  • Agree what the actions are going forward for the next period and make a shared record of these. Start each meeting with a review of the previous agreed actions. Did everyone do what they said they would? What impact did these actions have? What are the next steps?

Click this link for an individual post of the Progress Meeting WalkThru

Appraisal 

Appraisal: Click this picture to download a pdf of this WalkThru

An annual appraisal should be a great opportunity to have a meaningful one-to-one with members of staff to thank them for their contribution to the school in the last year and to think about how they can develop in the future. Quality reflective time with staff is a rare commodity and the 40 minutes or hour that you spend with them in appraisals is precious. If this opportunity is not grasped, these useful discussions can be lost in meetings that race through the process, ticking the boxes but missing the point. In recent years, the quality of appraisals has been limited due to a demand that they become a process where a judgement is made on performance-related pay. Since evidence now shows that the impact of performance-related pay is negligible, we should make sure that appraisals are used more effectively as developmental and motivational tools for our staff.

  • Be prepared for the meeting – make sure that you have all the documentation you need from the previous year and that the appraisee is prepared to talk through their objectives with supporting evidence. If either side is not properly prepared, stop the meeting and arrange a time to do it again; otherwise, it undermines the process.
  • Talk through the objectives set for last year and allow time for reflection and discussion on these points. Avoid simply focusing on the success criteria and whether a target has been ‘met’.
  • Celebrate successes and take time to appreciate and thank people.
  • Include a discussion on wellbeing as part of the appraisal discussion and, if the appraisee would like to, write down some commitments that you will both make to support their wellbeing for the year ahead.
  • Avoid making the meeting a drawn-out game of cat and mouse which focuses on whether to give someone a pay rise. In my view, unless someone has not met the Teachers’ Standards consistently throughout the year (in which case some kind of managed support process is warranted), they should automatically make progress on the pay scale (upper pay scale is a separate discussion).
  • Set challenges and targets that stretch and excite you both within a ‘high challenge/low threat’ discussion. Remind your appraisee that no one gets sacked for being ambitious and doing a good job.

Click this link for an individual post of the Appraisal WalkThru

Thanks to Oliver for creating these WalkThrus. You can visit his awesome website where the whole collection are available to download.

WalkThru: How to carry out a progress meeting

This WalkThru of a Progress Meeting has been adapted from Wholesome Leadership, by Oliver Caviglioli as a free downloadable resource.

The purpose of these WalkThrus is to try and ‘demystify’ the things school leaders do by making visible some of the common routines and processes they carry out. I have found, through working with Oliver, that these visual aids can help to simplify otherwise complex processes.

You can download this WalkThru here as an A3 poster or visit Oliver Caviglioli’s awesome website where there’s a collection of other school improvement processes including Learning Walks, Review Mornings and Appraisal Meetings.

Feel free to use, adapt around your own school, subject and context.

Progress Meetings

Progress Meetings Or Class Attainment & Progress (CAP) meetings are carried out with each class teacher and relevant leaders shortly after each summative assessment point, no more than 2 or 3 times a year. Their purpose is for everyone to reflect on the current challenges and priorities within a class or year group. A range of sources, including assessment data, is evaluated to inform adaptations to the provision, curriculum or targeted support for the next term. Leaders can often interpret data in different ways from class teachers, so it is really useful to have this joined-up discussion once a term. It helps as a check point to hold both teachers and leaders to account for their contribution towards improvement, and allows leaders to see where any additional support or intervention is needed.

  • Organise CAP meetings to take place at the end of each term after a summative assessment point.
  • Analysis should be carried out before the meeting and agreed documentation should be completed which identifies the strengths and areas of focus for the next period. Good teachers are constantly evaluating children’s progress and adapting provision throughout the term, and this just formalises their thinking.
  • The meeting should be a professional discussion that focuses on classes, groups and individual children and what can be done to address their needs, rather than crude percentages or which borderline children might get ‘over the line’.
  • The main discussion should centre on how teaching approaches and the curriculum can be adapted within the next term to address any areas of concern.
  • Try to avoid the temptation to steer the discussion onto solutions to do with teaching assistant intervention and parental engagement. These may be useful things, but the 27.5 hours of curriculum and teacher time afford the greatest opportunity to make an impact.
  • Use research to support your decision-making. If suggestions focus on specific interventions or organisation such streaming or reducing class sizes, look at what research says about these areas and read around the issues more closely.
  • Agree what the actions are going forward for the next period and make a shared record of these. Start each meeting with a review of the previous agreed actions. Did everyone do what they said they would? What impact did these actions have? What are the next steps?

WalkThru: How to carry out a learning walk

This WalkThru of a Learning Walk has been adapted from Wholesome Leadership, by Oliver Caviglioli as a free downloadable resource.

The purpose of these WalkThrus is to try and ‘demystify’ the things school leaders do by making visible some of the common routines and processes they carry out. I have found, through working with Oliver, that these visual aids can help to simplify otherwise complex processes.

You can download this WalkThru here as an A3 poster or visit Oliver Caviglioli’s awesome website where there’s a collection of other school improvement processes including Appraisal Meetings, Review Mornings and Progress Meetings (CAP Meetings).

Feel free to use, adapt around your own school, subject and context.

Learning Walks

Learning walks are more focused than just managing by walking around making unplanned classroom visits , but should still have a relatively informal feel. They should have one or two areas of specific focus, such as classroom behaviour routines, quality of classroom talk/language or effective direction of support staff. These could either be a follow-up from previous development work or be identified through other monitoring or data analysis.

  • Identify an area of focus and communicate a few days in advance, either by email or at a briefing, that you will carry out a learning walk to focus on one or two specific areas.
  • Don’t intrude too much on the learning – try to be an invisible observer. When the situation allows it, engage in conversation with teachers and children to find out more about what is going on.
  • Adopt a curious mindset and avoid jumping to hasty conclusions based on first impressions of what you see. Stay long enough in each area to get a good feel for things and don’t rush it, even though you are likely to have time pressure to finish quickly.
  • If you are working alongside someone else, make sure you spend time looking from different angles and in different places, and then comparing what you noticed – it is interesting how similar and different two opinions can be.
  • Recognise any of your biases that might have crept in. Are some of the things you notice ‘pet peeves’ or ‘the way you would have done it’, rather than things that evidence suggests are the most important to focus on? Or are you looking at the impact of initiative that you had a hand in planning? In which case you may well be subject to confirmation bias where you think the initiative is more successful than someone else would who is less involved.
  • Follow-up with whole-school feedback, sharing successful things you saw and any areas you need to follow up on.
  • Follow-up individually with any support or coaching conversations where help might be needed, but keep it light. If learning walks become perceived as a ‘compliance walk’ or start to encourage others to put on a show, you will stop seeing what is typical in a classroom and only get polished versions instead.

WalkThru: How to carry out a review morning

This WalkThru of a Review Morning has been adapted from Wholesome Leadership, by Oliver Caviglioli as a free downloadable resource.

The purpose of these WalkThrus is to try and ‘demystify’ the things school leaders do by making visible some of the common routines and processes they carry out. I have found, through working with Oliver, that these visual aids can help to simplify otherwise complex processes.

You can download this WalkThru here as an A3 poster or visit Oliver Caviglioli’s awesome website where there’s a collection of other school improvement processes including Learning Walks, Appraisal Meetings and Progress Meetings (CAP Meetings).

Feel free to use, adapt around your own school, subject and context.

Review Mornings

Over the last three years, we have developed termly review mornings as a way of taking a more in-depth look at the learning taking place across a year group. Rather than a series of individual observations or occasional book looks, we tend to spend most of a morning in a single year group observing, reflecting and exploring the issues. Being released from the shackles of grading lessons is empowering for both teachers and leaders, and this type of process can switch the focus from one of ‘judging’ to one of supporting improvement.

  • A couple of weeks before the review morning, send around a short survey asking staff for their opinions on what is working well in the year group at the moment, any areas that they feel might be weaker and any specific challenges or children that they would welcome support with.
  • Read the feedback and do your homework on the issues or children that have been flagged up. If concerns were raised about the behaviour of individuals, do some background checks on them. If a particular subject was flagged as a weakness, talk to the subject leader about any involvement they have had. Analyse what any available data says about this issue too.
  • Try to put people at ease. A morning can feel like a long time for staff to have leaders snooping in and around their classrooms, so it is important to try to make it feel more like a joint process of investigation rather than being judged.
  • Have access to pupil data during the morning. It is really useful to be able to check out assessment information around groups or individuals that you might notice while in the classroom.
  • Give some short general feedback to all staff involved (including support staff) at the end of the morning and then follow up with teachers individually that evening if possible. Do not give Ofsted-style grades as part of this feedback; it should focus only on helpful developmental advice and a ‘next steps’ discussion.

 

WalkThru: How to lead an appraisal meeting

This WalkThru of appraisal has been adapted from Wholesome Leadership, by Oliver Caviglioli as a free downloadable resource.

The purpose of these WalkThrus is to try and ‘demystify’ the things school leaders do by making visible some of the common routines and processes they carry out. I have found, through working with Oliver, that these visual aids can help to simplify otherwise complex processes.

You can download this WalkThru here as an A3 poster or visit Oliver Caviglioli’s awesome website where there’s a collection of other school improvement processes including Learning Walks, Review Mornings and Progress Meetings (CAP Meetings).

Feel free to use, adapt around your own school, subject and context.

Appraisal

An annual appraisal meeting should be a great opportunity to have a meaningful one-to-one with members of staff to thank them for their contribution to the school in the last year and to think about how they can develop in the future. Quality reflective time with staff is a rare commodity and the 40 minutes or hour that you spend with them in appraisals is precious. If this opportunity is not grasped, these useful discussions can be lost in meetings that race through the process, ticking the boxes but missing the point. In recent years, the quality of appraisals has been limited due to a demand that they become a process where a judgement is made on performance-related pay. Since evidence now shows that the impact of performance-related pay is negligible, we should make sure that appraisals are used more effectively as developmental and motivational tools for our staff.

  • Be prepared for the meeting – make sure that you have all the documentation you need from the previous year and that the appraisee is prepared to talk through their objectives with supporting evidence. If either side is not properly prepared, stop the meeting and arrange a time to do it again; otherwise, it undermines the process.
  • Talk through the objectives set for last year and allow time for reflection and discussion on these points. Avoid simply focusing on the success criteria and whether a target has been ‘met’.
  • Celebrate successes and take time to appreciate and thank people.
  • Include a discussion on wellbeing as part of the appraisal discussion and, if the appraisee would like to, write down some commitments that you will both make to support their wellbeing for the year ahead.
  • Avoid making the meeting a drawn-out game of cat and mouse which focuses on whether to give someone a pay rise. In my view, unless someone has not met the Teachers’ Standards consistently throughout the year (in which case some kind of managed support process is warranted), they should automatically make progress on the pay scale (upper pay scale is a separate discussion).
  • Set challenges and targets that stretch and excite you both within a ‘high challenge/low threat’ discussion. Remind your appraisee that no one gets sacked for being ambitious and doing a good job.

Leapfrog Conversations: How to handle the parents when they’re gunning for you…

Sometimes there are situations that crop up with parents that can get emotional and become challenging to manage. You can’t win them all and sometimes the truth is that you end up getting a bit of a pasting. Handled well, these conversations can create greater trust and understanding between home and school; but dealt with poorly, they can quickly escalate into feelings of resentment, resulting in a state of longer-term vexation.

Until I was a parent myself, I never really understood the protective emotions that kick in when dealing with your own children. At times as parents we can be downright unreasonable when we feel our child has been treated unfairly or is at risk from others; this is normal (if not always endearing) human behaviour. Looking back, I was often too quick to try and justify my own or the school’s position, or to point out that a parent was wrong at a moment when it was counter-productive.

Over the years, I have gone from dreading and occasionally avoiding these conversations to quite enjoying them; I now see them as an opportunity to build a stronger relationship with parents (our greatest advocates often start as our fiercest critics). No one ever taught me how to handle difficult parent meetings. So I learnt the difficult way.

Leapfrog Conversations

The Leapfrog conversation model (taken from my book, Wholesome Leadership) is one that gives a structure to handling difficult meetings when trying to reach an agreement or resolution – particularly if the other party is aggrieved or emotional about the situation. The purpose of the leapfrog structure is to allow the other person to ‘get everything off their chest’ and then leapfrog to the solutions by avoiding an argument which no one can win. While written originally as a model for handling those particularly irate parent conversations, it is a tool that can easily be adapted for other scenarios and is structured into three stages.

The Leapfrog Conversation Model: Listen, Leapfrog, Learn.

LISTEN

  • Make the environment welcoming and as relaxed as possible.
  • Welcome the other person warmly to the meeting, breaking the ice through normal introductions. Offer them a drink.
  • Invite them to talk first and just listen to what is being said.
  • Try to avoid butting in or justifying at this stage. If you do speak, try to use emphatic language of listening, such as ‘I understand that must have made you feel angry’ or ‘Yes, I can see that from your perspective’.
  • While listening, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and empathise with that position. Show that you care about their child.
  • Be aware of your body language.
  • When the other person has finished speaking, invite them to carry on and ask whether there is anything else they want to say.

LEAPFROG

  • At the point where you feel that everything has been said, repeat back what you have heard and check that you have understood it correctly.
  • Explain any points that you think are important, but avoid getting into an ongoing justification where things just get repeated back and forth.
  • Don’t be afraid to apologise on behalf of the school if this helps to move the conversation on.
  • Agree some next steps and ways forward (be careful not to over-promise).
  • Agree a timescale and date to review either in a meeting or on the phone.
  • Avoid having to have the last word.

LEARN

  • Take time to reflect on the conversation – perhaps talking it through with a colleague.
  • Try to analyse what was said and why:
    • What can be learned from this issue?
    • Are there any processes or practices that could be changed in the future to avoid a similar situation?
    • Is there any communication that needs to take place to staff as a result
    • do class teachers or other adults need to be informed of what was agreed?
  • By analysing the discussion in this way, it can help to avoid looking at the situation through an emotional or defensive lens.
  • Don’t take it personally.

Rethinking Accountability Part 2: Taking the fear out of the challenge

This is the second in a series of five posts about the issue of accountability in schools with some thoughts on how we can create healthier accountability for schools and teachers. Much of the content I am sharing in these posts is taken from my book, Wholesome Leadership. Other resources have either been created kindly by Oliver Caviglioli or are those which have been developed by the leadership team at Simon de Senlis Primary School or within Northampton Primary Academy Trust.

Rethinking Accountability

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – A culture of healthy accountability (you’re reading this now)

Part 3 – School improvement and monitoring processes

Part 4 – Assessing like a consultant doctor

Part 5 – Managing external accountability

In the first post, I laid out the following four key four challenges for us as school leaders to focus on in schools in pursuit of a healthier accountability system which I believe is at the heart of making teaching a more effective and sustainable profession.

  1. Take the fear out of the challenge, creating the right conditions in our school for healthy accountability.
  2. Develop effective processes for school improvement, monitoring & evaluation that are used consistently as part of an ongoing cycle of improvement.
  3. Think really carefully about the purpose and processes of assessment and improve both its use and the quality of conversations that surround it.
  4. Manage external accountability with confidence, staying in control of inspections and audits and not allowing them to influence school improvement negatively.

This post focuses on the first challenge: creating the right culture in our school and a healthier relationship with accountability.

Taking the fear out of the challenge

It is almost impossible to implement any improvements to accountability processes without first establishing the right culture and ethos in a school. Any attempts to improve processes such as lesson observations or appraisal meetings are undermined in a culture built on fear, coercion or transactional ‘carrot and stick’ consequences.

Over the years, I have seen a real range of staff cultures in schools – from the most diligent and professional, where staff seem to work together like poetry in motion, taking any challenge in their stride, to the most unprofessional and toxic cultures where personal relationships take over and get in the way. At its worst, an unhealthy culture can result in staff being so preoccupied with adult issues that these take precedence over the children.

Creating an optimum school culture is at the heart of Mary Myatt’s excellent book, High Challenge, Low Threat. In this, she writes: ‘Top leaders create the conditions where critical guidance is not only accepted, it is expected.’ Accountability processes within a culture where the threat is removed from the challenge can be highly effective, creating the right sense of urgency among staff and helping to drive improvement within a school.

Built on this concept of ‘high challenge, low threat’, the below model I have developed within Wholesome Leadership demonstrates how this balance might manifest itself within the culture of a school.

The Challenge & Fear Matrix (Wholesome Leadership) built on the ideas of Mary Myatt’s ‘High Challenge; Low Threat’.

Lazy culture (low challenge/low threat): In these schools, expectations and performance are not high enough, yet relationships may appear positive. Leaders are likely to be too familiar and friendly with staff, and find it difficult to see the need for any change. There may be some surface-level ‘nice things’ happening, but overall self-evaluation is likely to be over-generous and difficult decisions are avoided. There is unlikely to be much consistency of effective teaching approaches other than lip service. Standards and staff turnover may be low.

Toxic culture (low challenge/high threat): Here, leaders may be trying to bring about change or insisting on things happening, but there are no high professional expectations or clarity on what excellence looks like. Leaders probably don’t walk the talk and instead use carrot and stick methods of management to try to motivate staff. Standards are likely to be low. Staff turnover may be high, but not necessarily, as sometimes people become ‘normalised’ to these conditions.

Anxiety culture (high challenge/high threat): In these schools, a high demand for performance exists, but is driven through threats of Ofsted, accountability and carrot and stick approaches in an ‘or else’ culture. Teamwork is unlikely to be strong and conflict is the norm, with individuals often competing against each other in order to hit individual goals and targets. Improvements and standards in the school may improve, but are unlikely to lead to long-term success. Workload is often high. Staff turnover may be high as teachers stay for a few years and then cannot sustain this way of working, although many stay because it might be perceived as a ‘good’ school.

Improving culture (high challenge/low threat): A combination of high expectation for performance and improvement within a supportive and professional environment is the winning formula that takes the fear out of the challenge. In these schools, staff don’t ‘settle’ or rest on their laurels, and improvement happens in a collegiate manner. Accountability processes are transparent and this helps to motivate individuals. Staff turnover is likely to be average, as staff generally move on to promoted posts or to progress their careers.

Questions:

What is the level of challenge and threat in your school?

What people or processes contribute to this?

What small changes could be made to find the right level of challenge without fear within your school?

Beyond  Compliance and Consistency 

When considering the levels of threat and challenge in a school, it’s important also to look at how these different cultures come to be.  I believe the most significant factors are the behaviours of leaders and, in particular, the tactics and levers they use to try and influence or control others.

Whatever it is that we lead on in school, it is important to get buy-in from others. Whether it’s a new approach to behaviour, a change to break-time supervision or a revised marking policy, we all want people to go along with the plan and do what they are supposed to. Who wouldn’t?

But this drive towards common approaches in schools has led to the rise of ‘Consistency’ being seen as the holy grail where in reality, successful schools are so much more than that. An over-focus on consistency and conformity (often driven by a perception of what Ofsted is looking for) often leads to a culture of compliance, where people duly carry out processes without really understanding why.

A crude drive for compliance – often in the form of checklists or ‘non-negotiables’ documents – can reduce opportunities for staff to think intelligently and prevent professional growth. Consistency for the sake of consistency is not the answer. Of course, some minimum expectations in a school are required, usually to do with behaviour and safeguarding; but in a profession such as teaching, where approaches are nuanced depending on the subject or age group which is being taught, the culture must allow for the expertise within the school to be applied with some freedom and sense of professional trust. Without this, managerialism can take over, as Martin Robinson captures brilliantly (and tragically) in the following blog post, entitled ‘The 51-year Lesson Plan’.

Most of us can point to examples of initiatives or processes in the past that we did ‘for Ofsted’ or ‘for the SLT’, knowing that they were pointless. It depends on the culture and ethos of the school whether staff feel they can question these and suggest alternatives, or whether they simply tick the boxes publicly and then get on and do what they think is right when no one is watching.

From Compliance to Commitment and Creativity

Stephen Covey offers us the following levels of buy-in, describing different degrees of commitment that we might see from staff:

      1. rebel or quit
      2. malicious obedience
      3. willing compliance
      4. cheerful cooperation
      5. heartfelt commitment
      6. creative excitement

Clearly, one of our most important jobs here is to ensure that we can build higher levels of commitment among staff to our school’s mission and strategy. If staff bring a heartfelt commitment or creative excitement to their work, the job of leading becomes much easier and any approach or initiative is likely to be more successful. One initial challenge is that it can be difficult to work out exactly where different people’s commitment sits on this scale. Those at the two extremes are fairly easy to spot: the rebels tend to make themselves known quite quickly and those with creative excitement are often keen to share their ideas with you. But the middle ground is a place where people generally do what is asked of them, without fuss or opposition, even though their hearts may not really be in it.

Question: Take a minute to reflect on some of the key staff you work with and consider their level of commitment. Is this level of commitment constant or does it change depending on what policy or initiative you are thinking about, or even perhaps on who is leading it?

I find this exercise interesting and it is good to talk through with others in your school to see how opinions differ. Sometimes we become concerned by those staff who offer initial resistance and vocal challenge to initiatives – particularly in situations such as staff meetings. But in my experience, it is often the same people who offer initial challenge and resistance that become the greatest advocates in the long run. The process of challenge and questioning allows for a better discussion and leads to reasoning things through. In fact, if there are no difficult questions, it can be a sign that staff are sitting more around the ‘willing compliance’ or ‘cheerful cooperation’ stage of commitment, where they will go along with the ideas without resistance, but without the full commitment that is so important in high-performing schools and organisations. We can think of these different levels of commitment in four stages (ignoring the rebels or the quitters):

      1. Coercion: People are forced to do things.
      2. Compliance: People do what they are told to.
      3. Commitment: People believe in what they are doing.
      4. Creative excitement: People believe in what they are doing, have agency to contribute to school improvements and are innovative in their approaches.
Four Levels of Commitment (Wholesome Leadership). To create a culture of creative excitement, schools have to move on from cultures of coercion and compliance…

So what?

In order to create the right cultures where staff feel wholeheartedly committed and have creative excitement for their work, leaders have to do more than just talk or create PowerPoint slides about culture; they have to display the right behaviours, processes and actions – deliberately and consistently.

Within Wholesome Leadership, I explore some of these actions and behaviours in more depth through the following four areas, termed the ‘Four planks of school culture’.

  • healthy relationships
  • disciplined thought and action
  • teacher agency and innovation
  • solution-focused thinking
The four planks of school culture (Wholesome Leadership)

Whilst there isn’t room here to unpick these in more detail, I’ve summarised ten steps from these below.

Ten steps towards a great school culture…

    1. Build trust over time through small but important actions, such as doing what you say you will and never criticising someone who isn’t there.
    2. Over-communicate the same important messages to help make sure that everyone hears the main things.
    3. Accept others and the strengths and weaknesses they bring to the team.
    4. Manage conflict well with each other. Make sure that differences of opinions can be explored professionally and without defensive behaviour or judgement.
    5. Avoid arguments as a leader, as you will never win. As Franklin said, ‘A man convinced against his will/is of the same opinion still.’
    6. Develop disciplined thought and action among the staff. A culture of discipline removes the need for time-heavy monitoring processes that breed compliance rather than commitment.
    7. Allow teacher agency so that professionals feel empowered to unleash their knowledge and expertise in the classroom in a supported environment.
    8. Encourage innovation that is carefully thought through and research based. Value new ideas from across the team.
    9. Remain solution focused and ‘default positive’. See the many challenges that come your way as opportunities to grow through.
    10. Chop wood, carry water. Remain connected to the core purpose of the school through simple but important jobs, no matter how high you climb or how impressive your job title.

I hope you’ve found this  post interesting. If you have a few minutes, why not share your experiences of school culture in the comments box below?

  • What is the level of teacher agency in your school?
  • Would you describe the culture in your school as one of coercion, compliance, commitment or creative excitement?
  • Thinking through the lens of High Challenge and Low Threat, what are the levels of challenge and threat as a teacher in your school? Where would you pitch your school culture on the HCLT matrix (Lazy, Toxic, Anxiety, Improve)

Thanks for reading.

TR

Rethinking Accountability: Part 1

This is the first of a series of five blog posts about the issue of accountability with some suggestions as to how we can create healthier accountability for schools and teachers. Much of the content I am sharing in these posts is taken from my book, Wholesome Leadership. Other resources have either been created kindly by Oliver Caviglioli or are those which have been developed by the leadership team at Simon de Senlis Primary School or within Northampton Primary Academy Trust.

Planned posts in this series…

Part 1 – Introduction (you’re reading this)

Part 2 – A culture of healthy accountability

Part 3 – School improvement and monitoring processes

Part 4 – Assessing like a consultant doctor

Part 5 – Managing external accountability sensibly

Summary of posts…

If you don’t have time to read the whole of this series, I’ve attempted to summarise it in the following 6 bullet points:

  • School accountability is in a mess – both at a national level and within schools. A culture of hyper-accountability and an obsession with OFSTED has led to damaging practices and policies across schools in England. The consequences of this unhealthy accountability are serious and have led to many teachers leaving the profession or becoming demotivated about the job they’re in.
  • In too many cases, school leadership has become primarily about monitoring, consistency and generic teaching and learning approaches which create an impression of school improvement for an external audience, rather than focusing on the more fundamental areas of school improvement such as behaviour, curriculum and developing better in-service training for teachers.
  • Often, teachers and school leaders are quick to blame OFSTED and the government for things that are wrong with accountability. In fact, lots (most?) of the damaging processes and approaches are within a school’s gift to change for the better. Schools can do more to rethink their approaches to monitoring, staff development and evaluation (I will share some that we have developed in schools I’ve worked in that you are free to use, adapt, suggest improvement or ignore).
  • The starting point for getting accountability right is a school’s culture.  I think it’s essential for schools to  create a culture of ‘High Challenge and Low Threat’ (to borrow Mary Myatt’s phrase) where staff are aspirational and highly motivated to improve within a positive and supportive environment.
  • It is impossible to ‘fix’ accountability without first addressing assessment processes and practices which are still varied and problematic in schools and across the system. By rethinking assessment more intelligently (assessing like a consultant doctor), we can put assessment in its helpful and rightful place rather than it being something driven primarily by accountability. As Dylan Wiliam said, ‘Assessment is a good servant but a terrible master’.
  • External audits and inspection will always remain a part of school life. As leaders, part of our job is to not allow these processes to divert limited time and resources away from proper, sustainable school improvement. We should avoid using ‘Ofsted’ as a threat or lever to get people to do things and make sure that any external inspection or audit is not a bruising process for staff.

Rethinking Accountability

I should start by saying that I believe it is important that schools and teachers are properly and thoroughly held to account for our role in education. Children only get one chance to go to school and the quality of their education has an impact on the rest of their lives. I don’t think anyone would dispute that we must have high expectations and standards of what takes place in the classroom every day. Although teachers are mostly well-motivated people who want to do the best job they can, teaching is no different from any other walk of life in that, without regular and effective monitoring, things can slide and people can stop doing some of the things that they are supposed to do. It is important that we have checks and balances in the system, and I have always been happy to be held to account in a thorough and systematic way for my work.

But accountability has gone wrong in our system: processes are often clumsy and the stakes are too high. Rather than a ‘healthy pressure’ that keeps schools on their toes and increases motivation, the system is full of fear and discussion about ‘what Ofsted is looking for’. This has led to the introduction of clunky processes, primarily as evidence-gathering exercises for external accountability, which take up precious resources that would be better directed in the classroom. A thirst for evidence of improvement rather than actual improvement has added to workload pressures and disillusioned many; this in turn has added to the recruitment and retention challenges across our schools. Does it  have to be this way?

Dad

Like most sons, I have spent many hours of my life arguing with my dad about a great number of things.

Dad was a secondary music teacher in comprehensive schools for 42 years and saw a lot of change over this time. From his early pre-national curriculum days of cane-wielding housemasters, spectacular school musicals and annual trips to France conducting his 40-piece orchestra, he has spent the last 15 years fighting against the slide of music to the sidelines of the curriculum and continually dodging Ofsted and accountability bullets.

Dad: now enjoying semi-retirement teaching A-Level and GCSE music as and where required around Northants…

Dad was, and still is, a brilliant teacher – primarily due to his expertise and love of music. We argue about different things. Dad will say that the introduction of the national curriculum was where everything started to go wrong, and that it was so much better in the days when people who really knew their subjects could decide what to teach and when; I will argue that without some kind of agreed body of knowledge, the ‘what’ of education would be left to the whims and fancies of each teacher. He will argue that Ofsted is the disease of education and responsible for stifling teachers across the country; I will counter by pointing out that without the checks and balances of a regulatory body, some schools would slip into lazy practices and let down generations of kids, including his grandchildren. Dad will say something about the England team not having enough Spurs players; I will remind him that he knows nothing about football.

Our conversations often play out like this:

Me: Alright, Dad?

Dad: Hi, Tom.

Me: How’s your day?

Dad: Kids were fine – it’s the other stuff. More pointless meetings about data and marking policies. Learning walks happening later this week from middle managers – they’ve gone back to calling them ‘teaching leaders’ again now, rather than ‘learning leaders’. Apparently we’re not all writing our objectives on the board, so we’ve got to make sure that everyone’s got them up as part of our consistency policy.

Me: (Instinctively defensive of the middle managers who have tried to get my Dad to write a WILF on his board) But surely you see that there’s some sense in all that, Dad? I mean, trying to make sure that everyone’s clear about what they are teaching isn’t a bad thing, is it?

Dad: It might be right in maths or English, Tom; but they want to see me doing it in bloody music! I’m supposed to get the kids to write in books in music just so I can show that I’m doing some marking. I even staged a quiz this week rather than working on composition, just so there could be something in the books for a scrutiny that’s coming up.

Me: OK, I agree that’s total nonsense. But you do have to have some systems in place that people stick to. It can’t just be a free-for-all, right? People need to check that teachers are doing the things they should.

Dad: It’s rubbish, Tom, and everyone knows it. They should abolish Ofsted and the government, and just let good teachers get on with it. And while we’re at it, they should dissolve the monarchy too.

Me: Drink?

And so the conversations continue: Dad wishing for freedom just to get on and teach, and lambasting any form of standardisation or accountability; and me standing up for (often questionable) managerial processes that might keep the occasional mediocre teacher in line.

Dad retired from his position as assistant head of a large comprehensive secondary school ten years ago to return to his first love of teaching music. When I watch him conduct orchestras and choirs across the county with his boundless energy, and I meet many of the adults who still play in his groups perhaps 25 years after they left school, it reminds me of the bigger picture that his life as a ‘teacher’ has played in the world.

And it makes me cross to think of him spending hours after school and at lunchtimes wrapped up in meetings about data or learning walk feedback when he could have been running choirs or rehearsing soloists for shows. It makes me sad that he spends Sunday mornings writing lesson plans that no one (including him) will ever read. It makes me both laugh and despair at the stories of how little time he would spend on national curriculum level assessments at Key Stage 3 – his logic was that whatever he put down, the data manager would soon come down and tell him what to change it to anyway.

Dad was right: the unintended consequences of accountability have spread like a disease across our schools.

Does it really have to be this way?

Dad (front right) with the Fellaini haircut as a young teacher in his 20s,1981.

Towards healthier accountability

Much time and energy are spent discussing where the problems of accountability come from and who is to blame, so I won’t labour this further here. Instead, I will try and focus on what we can do as school leaders to improve things and the responsibility we have not to simply replicate crude and unhealthy external processes in our own settings.

At this stage, I would like to propose four important tasks for leaders to create healthier accountability schools in our schools which will form the basis of the following posts:

  1. Take the fear out of the challenge, creating the right conditions in our school for healthy accountability.
  2. Develop effective processes for school improvement, monitoring & evaluation that are used consistently as part of an ongoing cycle of improvement.
  3. Think really carefully about the purpose and processes of assessment and improve both its use and the quality of conversations that surround it.
  4. Manage external accountability with confidence, staying in control of inspections and audits and not allowing them to influence school improvement negatively.

I hope you’ve found this first post interesting. If you have a few minutes, why not share your experiences of accountability in the comments box below?

  • How has accountability changed in your school over the last few years?
  • Would you describe accountability as ‘healthy’ in your school? Why or why not?
  • What would you change about accountability processes if you could?

Thanks for reading

TR