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Redesigning Schools

Redesigning schools: Masterchef I – Mustard Seeds, Yeast and Salt

 The dust is now settling on a great set of symposia organised by the SSAT on Redesigning Schools.  A bit like the parable of the mustard seed I have a sense that from small beginnings this movement will grow and grow until it becomes one of the mainstream educational groups of this decade.  The use of social media is helping it reach beyond the physical group of people and out into a virtual world, the “yeast and salt” that produces massive effect far beyond its original being.  


All this talk of mustard, yeast and salt takes me to one of my favourite television programmes, Masterchef.  It involves groups of contests competing to become the best chef by surviving and thriving through a series of increasingly complex challenges.  My wife thinks I should go on Masterchef (she is absolutely lovely and very kind about my culinary skills) but I am simply a very good “recipe follower” and would be caught out by the first challenge, the Invention Test.  This requires contestants to make a beautiful tasting dish, in one hour, having been given a whole series of different ingredients.  The most successful chefs seem to be able to identify with absolute clarity what they want to produce, select the ingredients carefully and skilfully combine them to produce a mouth watering dish.  Some poor contestants, either through stress, a lack of imagination or limited skills try to put nearly all the ingredients together into a totally weird and incoherent dish, which tastes awful, or produce something so simple that it fails to reach the exacting standards required.

 Education is standing at a crossroads where the vision, skills and expertise of school leaders, teachers and support staff will all be required in abundance if we are not to go down the wrong road or into a series of dead ends.  In an increasingly complex World the edicts of any one person, whether they are the Secretary of State for Education or the Chief Inspectors of Schools or whoever, will not be enough.  We shouldn’t be either too damning of their efforts or too compliant in following their demands.  I decided a long time ago that whilst we, as a school, may be restricted by our political masters, the school would never be defined by them. 

 Take two examples:

  1. The E-Bacc was for me always a fundamentally poor idea, though its possible root of greater rigour (as opposed to some people’s view that its root was all about one person’s 1950s grammar school style education) in students’ studies is commendable.  However, the lack of congruence with our Christian root that sees the education we offer as helping students develop greater wisdom – the ability to make life enhancing decisions – also recognises that no subject has a monopoly on this; the one size fits all approach (it doesn’t); the restrictive nature of having to take one subject from each discipline (three sciences or two languages weren’t given credence unless you had GCSE History/Geography at grade C, goodness only knows why); dubious use of statistics and exhortations about learning from the high achieving educational jurisdictions in the World (the fact I put “high achieving jurisdictions” in a sentence doesn’t mean I have actually distilled the wisdom of the lessons learnt from these countries/states) and the simple wind up of excluding RE and English Literature which are both facilitating subjects in the Russell Group Report (not included in the list as they aren’t often specific entry requirements of degree courses but look at the small print under the facilitating subjects) meant it never featured in our curriculum.  With the exclusive nature of the measure, if you didn’t get a grade C at GCSE in any one element you were not counted in the statistics, it was easy for the school to ignore.  At Key Stage 4 any student who wanted to pursue subjects leading to the E-Bacc was able to do so, they always had been, but other students could opt for subjects that linked to their own aspirations, skills and interests.  The approach pleased students, parents and staff.  The E-Bacc did not restrict our curriculum offer to students and got no where near ever defining it.
  2. The latest proposals put forward as part of the “Secondary School Accountability Consultation” will restrict us but they will never define us and what we believe a high quality education looks like.  The reason for this different view is simple, there is far more congruence with the proposals and our vision of what education should be.  The proposal to move to a best 8 point score, with the implication that every child and every grade matters, is a huge step forward in thinking as it moves away from C/D borderline, cliff edge manoeuvring; the reintroduction of a value added measure is another commendable proposal which, if Ofsted use properly as the primary measure of schools, might break the clear statistical link between being graded an outstanding school and having few students on FSM/large numbers from high socio-economic backgrounds (exceptions  and outliers don’t make rules but congratulations to those schools that are) and the combined English & Maths at grade C measure is again sensible as achieving it impacts on young people’s life chances.  There is also a nod to a more expansive view of education with respect to other experiences which may be included but they don’t seem to have any great sincerity behind them and I’m not convinced including them within accountability measures is the best way to encourage students’ engagement.  I can live with the three subjects from the E-Bacc list being included, in any combination, as part of the “Best 8” and the inclusion of a further three qualifications including creative and vocational subjects is good to see.  If common sense prevails, it won’t but never mind – the World will not implode and we will all still be able to get on with our lives – then a whole series of other measures will be abandoned as they no longer serve a purpose and the white elephant of a Data Warehouse being “built” at a time of national austerity will be laughed out of existence.  Transparency is fine as long as the people it is aimed at do gain a greater knowledge and understanding of schools rather than being overwhelmed by so much data they simply click off the site.

 The school was fortunate to be involved in the System Redesign network that contained some wonderful leaders and thinkers, from which I learnt a great deal, and it helped us re-vision what education could be, including developing a more personalised dimension to our work.  Working on personalisation helped crystallise in my mind three touchstones that I have always found useful as a leader when trying to make decisions when complexity levels are high:

  1. Will the decision help further our vision and is it congruent with our values?  This can be quite complicated and you do have to be clear on your vision and values so I devised a couple of simpler ones.
  2. Would it be good enough for my children?  How happy would I be, as a parent, if this new initiative idea was introduced at my own children’s school and affected their education?
  3. Will the initiative help keep the wolves away from the door?  Whether it is Ofsted, the local authority or the more important accountability to parents and students you simply cannot make decisions that will lead the school or its students into the abyss.

 In Redesigning Schools the same three touchstones will again prove invaluable in helping us make key decisions.  In 2008, I proposed a model of the learner we should seek to develop at the school termed the 4Cs Learner and this year we are rethinking both our Year 9 Curriculum and tweaking the options for students at GCSE to fit in with what may well be the outcomes of the accountability consultation.  I intend to blog the details of these in the near future (Masterchef II) for your information, reflection and feedback.


If we are to become the Master Chefs of the education system then choosing the right ingredients and discovering new ones to use will be crucial.  Take the big debate, or is it an argument, over the contents of the new National History Curriculum.  What are your thoughts?  Look on the bright side if it’s implemented we may yet win the World Pub Quiz Award for years to come!  Here are a few thoughts to start you off:

  • Calling it the National Curriculum is a misnomer, what we have is the National Random List of Facts & Incidents that may provide some of the multi-structural knowledge (SOLO Taxonomy) on which we can build deeper levels of understanding (Relational & Extended Abstract in SOLO Taxonomy terms).  A reasonable start.
  • As with Master Chef you may have to add a few ingredients of your own to the National Random List.  Remember you will add to and in no way detract from the History Curriculum as you build a greater coherence for your students.  
  • What would happen if you didn’t use all the ingredients?  For example in Key Stage 2, there is “Warwick the Kingmaker”.  Great, I loved the ladybird book I read about him when I was a child and if it’s still in print I can thoroughly recommend it.  Having ignored many an idiotic edict or “request” from the Secretary of State, DfE and local authority over many years and having not yet ended up in prison (yet) I dare you not to teach “Wolfe and the Conquest of Canada” or “Clive of India” if they don’t help your students understand history or become better historians and see what happens.
  • To truly be called a curriculum what is proposed is simply inadequate as the skills and habits of mind required within the subject as well as to develop young people as learners are missing.  Neither have the pedagogical opportunities been explored.  But for once I say “alleluia”, as this is our domain, we are the master chefs and I don’t want this to be dictated to teachers or schools from on high.

 Redesigning Schools cannot happen within a vacuum but rather as part of a strategic movement with a “sense of direction, discovery and destiny” woven into it.  It must take account of what is happening and raise its eyes to scan the horizon for what might happen and what is possible.  It will not be possible for “recipe followers” to lead the way but they may follow.  What will be required is master chefs who are able to identify with clarity a direction to travel, select the ingredients of high quality learning and development and skilfully combine them into a world class education system for all.  It is time for courageous leaders, at every level in our system, to step forward.


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