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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

The Maelstrom of Change or Education Cluster F***? You Decide #rEdScot

With apologies to my mum, who reads all my blogs, and anyone else who may be offended by me straying into the more Anglo-Saxon dimension of the English language, here are a few thoughts from the first part of my presentation at ResearchEd, Glasgow.  It seeks to give a wider perspective on the context in which any changes, including becoming more research informed, will need to be rooted.


A Done To Profession?

We are on the cusp of something in EducationI just can’t make up my mind whether it is a total disaster or the kind on interface maelstrom which occurs as you move from one paradigm to another.  It’s confusing and confusion always creates uncertainty.  Some people go into their shell whilst others see a great opportunity to seize the initiative.  My sense is that many people are feeling “done to” rather than done with or done by at the moment.  I’ve no empirical evidence just a bit of a gut feel.  Too many dictates by political or school leaders, time scales which are ridiculously short and a lack of listening and debate which are all unhealthy and unhelpful.

Overall the English Education system is good but stuck and still too variable.  The variability links to the relative underperformance of children from more disadvantaged backgrounds.  We all want a good or better school for every child but outside of academic achievement we have limited agreement what this might look like, how we could measure it or how to achieve it.

Assuming we have enough teachers the critical issue moving forward will be one of teacher agency.  A commitment to greater subsidiarity, from both political and school leaders, and increased responsibility for and by teachers are key.  The opportunity and ability to be more self-directing could lead to a sea change in education.

Being more informed through research, data, feedback and experience will require a change in the way schools operate.  Any change in culture will be impacted on by the autonomy granted, accountability, metrics chosen and used, demographics, workload and the effectiveness of professional development available.

Incomplete & Confused Autonomy

Cartoon by Stan Dupp (@SDupp)

Cartoon by Stan Dupp (@SDupp)

With the introduction of more academies and free schools there is a much greater structural autonomy, a freedom from local authorities.  The freedoms tend to be much less if you are a sponsored academy and possibly matter little to the teacher in the class room.  The freedom from universities in delivering initial teacher education is a mixed blessing and breaks a potentially useful long term alliance in initial and on-going teacher development.  It also presents the opportunity for the most advantaged schools to get stronger through taking the cream of new entrants to the profession each year.

Alongside more welcome freedom produced for schools by the removal of levels there is a counterbalance in terms of a national curriculum, examination syllabi to follow and politicians’ tendency to use forceful accountability levers to impose their own pet project be it the E-Bacc or phonics.  There is still too little sense of autonomy being felt in schools or class rooms.

Accountability Gone Mad

Ofsted, Mocksteds, Performance Management & Performance Related Pay have all produced a generation of professionals with cricks in their necks.  Too many people, particularly those working in disadvantaged communities, have been looking over their shoulder instead of at the children in front of them.  The interesting or maybe frightening reality is that there is little or no evidence, I know of, that would conclude these have a significant or substantive impact on improving the quality of education provided.  There are likely to be far better ways to invest the finite time teachers and leaders have at their disposal and increasingly limited financial resources.

The Pupil Premium Fund is just a cracking good idea, however, at a time of increasing costs, in fixed budgets, there is a real danger it will be partially or largely subsumed into budgets to prevent schools plunging into deficit.  Whilst this won’t serve some of our most disadvantaged pupils well the problem is deeper than that.  The current accountability system works against schools in the most disadvantaged communities as the metrics used tend to underplay the valuable work they are doing across the board.  Their relative disadvantage in attainment measures is obvious but the graphic below shows the negative impact on schools’ Progress 8 measure that have large numbers of children who attract Pupil Premium funding.

Acknowledgement: Dr Becky Allen, Director of EduDataLab

Acknowledgement: Dr Becky Allen, Director of EduDataLab

Demographic Time Bomb – Recruitment, Retention & Admissions

The next decade will see: about a million more children and young people in our schools; the 1960 baby boom generation of teachers and leaders retiring and the demographic dip in young people moving through secondary schools leading to a reduced pool of potential graduates from which to recruit teachers.  With an improving economy graduates will also have a greater number and variety of opportunities, beyond schools, presented to them.  You may have already noticed a number of politicians criticise individuals and unions who dare to mention the looming crisis as being overly negative and unhelpful.  Their message is a bit rich given the battering schools, their leaders and teachers have taken from politicians over the decades.  The ability of schools to retain sufficient teachers is the predominant element of the problem and more directly in our sphere of influence.  There is an uncomfortable reality for political parties that they are part of the problem and unwilling to make the changes required to help stem the flow.  School leaders equally don’t always help themselves and consequentially their schools.

Workload Challenges

The timetable for concurrent curriculum change, across the whole system, will create a workload issue that no number of working parties will be able to overcome.  There is simply too much for teachers to do in terms of continually planning and re-planning curriculum which will squeeze just about everything else to the margins or out altogether.  This is in addition to the concerns expressed by teachers about the impact on time of accountability and marking.  Some of this is a necessary part of the job but it has been taken to excess over the years.

There is still a massive amount of abandonment required, performance management, performance pay, mocksteds and Ofsted (see above), in no particular order, would be top of my list.  With so many important things we could focus on and do they would all struggle to justify their place in a future education system where time and resource are aplenty.  With austerity about to hit schools and workload pressures mounting they take on a futility we would be better without.

Education Cluster F

Pointless Data Collection by Teachers and on Teachers

Letting go of levels was painful to begin with.  They were introduced the year after I started teaching and I had experienced a nearly thirty year love affair with them.  Having looked at how we had contorted them beyond recognition and possible alternatives I wouldn’t go back for all the tea in China.  The data leviathan has to be tamed.  Hopefully schools and their leaders will use this as an opportunity to totally rethink how often whole school data, that isn’t focussed on the interface between the teacher and learner, is collected.  Once or twice a year would be my opening bid and makes the every six/eight weeks so prevalent in schools currently look very silly and wasteful.

Similarly the data we have been collecting on teachers for decades in terms of lesson grades is already disappearing.  My beautiful colour coded spreadsheet will soon be just another museum exhibit to our collective stupidity.  Similar to life after levels, we need to know what each teacher is good at and what they need and wish to improve From this the genesis and route of improvement becomes more obvious.  Knowing what staff are good at also means you know who can help.

Professional Development focussed on Competence & Coverage Rather than Excellence & Impact

The professional development diet for teachers has often been driven by generic whole school needs or perceived priorities.  Some teachers have been accepting of this, willing to comply and attempted to implement within their class room.  For others they have been physically present at the training but absent in mind and spirit.  The TNTP Report released in early August, The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development came to some uncomfortable conclusions about teacher professional development in terms of impact and excellence.  Too few teachers understood the need to improve and the system doesn’t know how to help them.

Helping Teachers get Better

Click this image to go to the report

“But school systems shouldn’t give up on teacher development. And they shouldn’t cut spending on it, either. Rather, we believe it’s time for a new conversation about teacher improvement—one that asks fundamentally different questions about what great teaching means and how to achieve it.”

TNTP Report, Website, The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truths About Our Quest for Teacher Development

Teachers who improved did so despite the system not because of it.  A teacher’s willingness to improve seemed to be the key which takes me back to an early point around teacher agency as a key element of our future Education System.  It’s maybe time to redirect out efforts, resources and thinking to reimagine teachers’ professional development.

Photo Credit: Ernest Coe via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Ernest Coe via Flickr cc

Embedding research within schools needs a fundamental culture shift that sees the class room as the key structure within the system, the student-teacher interaction as the critical interface and effective professional development of teachers as the primary area for leaders to influence. 

Too much of what we do isn’t great.  Some of it isn’t actually even very good.  You may currently feel like you are swimming against the tide but remember the tide always turns.

The brilliant @SDupp drew this - looks like at least three Hail Marys and a Glory Be for penance

The brilliant @SDupp (well worth following) drew this – looks like at least three Hail Marys and a Glory Be for penance

Two further posts will be released over the bank holiday weekend which combine to form a summary of the presentation at ResearchEd Glasgow.  If you fancy going tickets are available here – there aren’t many left.

Four Aces for Improving the Quality of Teaching #rEdScot

Four Aces Slide

Creating a Teaching Wisdom Culture: Signposts and Destinations #rEdScot

Signposts not destinations



11 thoughts on “The Maelstrom of Change or Education Cluster F***? You Decide #rEdScot

  1. As always with your blog you cut to the relevant issues. I for one am not offended by your Anglo-Saxon I hope your mother forgives you 🙂

    Add to this the stupid idea floated by the Policy Exchange about penalties for schools to fund FE resits in English and Maths and I think we going to reach a tipping point very soon. The view from a special measure school is a bleak one, Maths up this year but now English is down (one first analysis due to anomalies on one paper, cue more money wasted one remarks and recalled papers). With a finite number of C or above grades to go round there will be losers – schools like mine, with lots of middle ability kids, white working class, not quite poor enough for PP but not wealthy to have lots of resources and life experiences at home. Stuck in a shire county with low funding (move us 6 miles into Birmingham and we’d have an extra £500,000 to play with.

    So my other half (and my Headteacher boss) awaits his fate. For me the as a member of SLT if someone walks in on the first day of term and says you’re all being made redundant I would be relieved take the payout leave the profession find a 9 to 5 job, leave the career I love in a heartbeat…….

    The education system is on the verge of breaking I feel sorry for the kids but I want my life back. I hope that there are plenty of people like you who still have the energy and the drive to move things forward sadly I fear not, we have been cluster f****d!


    Posted by Helen | August 25, 2015, 12:09 pm
    • Thanks Helen, keep fighting the good fight your doing a great job. We can’t afford to lose people like you.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | August 25, 2015, 5:02 pm
      • Thanks for your kind words a week on, and in the final week of a much needed 7 week break, I have a much better perspective on things. I’ve been developing our new target setting system for KS4, doing lots of blog reading and feel ready for the challenge of the new term.

        To pinch @johntomsett ‘s catch phrase ‘This much I know about….how I’m going to approach the new academic year’:

        I will do my best for the students, that’s what I’m there for after all
        I will look after the staff, without them the school is nothing
        I will ignore the circulating maelstrom in education as far as possible
        I will treat our next HMI visit as ‘support for’ rather than ‘inspection of’ our progress


        Posted by Helen | September 1, 2015, 9:12 pm
  2. Thanks Stephen,
    Apologies if any of the following seems impertinent, it’s just my personal reflection from within education but outside schools.
    This line about the recent changes in education struck a chord with me: “Some people go into their shell whilst others see a great opportunity to seize the initiative.” I think this sums up the cultural shift in schools that we’ve seen over the last 10-15, but particularly the last five, years. I think the accelerating trend towards academisation – which may or may not have led to increased standards or school autonomy – may have led to a change in the type of person leading schools (and heading up MATs/chains/federations) and the style of leadership employed. Leaders tend to be more professionally ambitious than ever, more focused on measureable outcomes, perhaps more competitive and protective of their schools’ ‘brand’. In short, more like a third sector CEO than an old-style Headmaster. Leadership is slicker, more professional, more corporate. It was there last week on GCSE results day, with the array of photos on social (& print) media of ‘Best Ever Results’ banners schools were proudly displaying. It struck me, those banners must have been ordered in advance, which speaks of a coherent and professional PR/comms campaign.
    Which is not to say that any of this is a bad thing. Indeed, with the current educational landscape – increasingly marketised and (ironically given the ‘autonomy’ agenda) politicised – it is almost certainly an essential feature for success. However that success is defined.
    But clearly different sorts of personalities with different talents will be attracted to and successful in this landscape. I wonder if there is a tension – sometimes – between their style of leadership and management, and the culture and philosophy of the teachers they lead?
    I may be talking nonsense, but I wondered if you or others recognised this analysis at all?
    All the best and thanks again

    Posted by Dr David Cameron (@David_Cameron76) | August 25, 2015, 12:17 pm
    • Not impertinent at all a great reflection and good to get different people’s perspectives. Sent you a tweet with a bit of Saturday’s presentation on which rues the lack of respect for teachers’ experience and expertise.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | August 25, 2015, 5:04 pm
  3. As an educator and administrator in the States we would just have to edit specific names and places but these are the same exact issues we are dealing with here and the light speed mentality of the information age has just compounded the process. So interesting for me to read a mirror image as if going to the Bizzaro world of comic book fame where everything is the same but just a bit different. I truly hope that we as universal educators can now use technology to collectively deal with the most dramatic shifts in the history of education. I also appreciate the perspective, however skewed by time, of the old days and how things we “better” or different as we know it was rarely “better’ as that is a relative and time specific term but it is certainly different and it is our job to find the “better” in that difference. Well last day for teacher prep and students arrive tomorrow so the real focus for now is desks and chairs for all, working systems, and supporting new folks who can barely think straight with all they have to do as new to the profession! Thank you as always for the perspective and wishing you the best this school year.

    Posted by Joe Collins | August 26, 2015, 11:48 am
    • Thanks for the comment Joe. As Pasi Sahlberg would say there is GERM warfare going on across the globe and we need to find the antidote. It certainly isn’t more of the same. Hope the term goes well for you. I’m starting to wind up for the new year ready for students to return next week.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | August 26, 2015, 12:16 pm
  4. A great read, full of insight and will create an interesting dialogue about the state of education.

    Posted by Denise Phillips | August 31, 2015, 9:19 am


  1. Pingback: Four Aces for Improving the Quality of Teaching #rEdScot | @LeadingLearner - August 29, 2015

  2. Pingback: Creating a Teaching Wisdom Culture: Signposts and Destinations #rEdScot | @LeadingLearner - August 31, 2015

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