The Midland Knowledge Schools Hub

The Midland Knowledge Schools Hub – promoting & supporting a Knowledge-rich Curriculum in schools. Based at Saint Martin’s Catholic Academy.

The Midland Knowledge Schools Hub is working with Parents and Teachers for Excellence to offer advice, training and support for school interested in developing a Knowledge Curriculum and other relevant aspects of pedagogy and school ethos. The Hub is based at Saint Martin’s Catholic Academy in Stoke Golding, Leicestershire and networks with other like minded teachers and schools across the Midlands

The Midland Knowledge Schools Hub has been set up to support teachers and schools who want to develop a Knowledge-rich Curriculum and other relevant aspects of pedagogy and school ethos. It is based at Saint Martin’s Catholic Academy and networks with other like minded teachers and schools across the Midlands. @Knowledge_Ed @PTE_Campaign


An ambitious curriculum for all is the only ethical option

What is education for? Opinions differ. Some think that schools should prepare students for their careers, maybe for jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Others believe they should induct students into the best that has been thought and said, or open up the world to them through the understanding that study brings.

It actually doesn’t matter what you think the purpose is. Whatever you think schools are for, the only ethical model for curriculum is an ambitious one for all.

Historically, we have not had an ambitious curriculum for all. When education was first institutionalised, it was only the (male) children of the very elite who attended. The curriculum for this elite was ambitious: mathematics, literature, the classics, history, with the sciences added later on.


Through a number of reforms, education came to be compulsory up to 16 for all children, regardless of their background. Unfortunately, cognitive science was not well understood at the time and consequently teaching methods were not well-designed. The “whole language” approach to reading left many children unable to read fluently, with predictably disastrous effects on their engagement with school and their attainment. Students were left to discover things for themselves because of a mistaken belief that discovery is a privileged kind of learning. Activities in lessons were chosen for their entertainment value rather than the level of thought they provoked, again because cognitive science was not well understood. I know, because I did this.

Another factor that happened at the time was a well-intentioned lowering of expectations. Often, in staffrooms across the land, one could hear comments like the following:

“It’s not fair to expect kids from this background to study Shakespeare”

“This course is much more accessible for our kids”

“How can Ofsted expect that in a school like this?”

I know, because I was one of the ones saying these things.

Then came DATA, and a preoccupation from inspectors and leaders with target grades and progress towards them. The data that those of us in challenging schools had for our students tended to re-affirm our expectations: “How can you ask a kid who comes to us on a level 1 to understand balancing equations?”

None of the teachers who said these things were setting out to hold students back. I was one of them, I should know. We saw the struggles these children faced and we wanted to help them. But there were several things we didn’t know:

1) “Target grades” for individual students are not worth the paper they are written on. This has been much better explained elsewhere but let us just briefly outline the issues with them:

Target grades are generated from an average from the KS2 maths and English scores for a student. They tell us something about the child’s performance in maths and English on a couple of days at the end of their primary school experience. They don’t tell us the child’s intrinsic ability or what they are capable of achieving.

2) Reading was taught using a faulty model in the 1980s and 90s. Every child without a significant impairment can learn to read fluently, but under this faulty instruction many got left behind and were simply labelled as “slow learners” and then later, “low target grades”.

3) It is possible to achieve great behaviour in all schools, regardless of the background of the students. It is reasonable to expect students to listen to their teachers’ explanations and to work hard, in silence where appropriate, for the entire lesson. Many schools are now achieving this through clear and supportive systems and explicitly teaching children routines and expectations.

4) Cognitive science. Cognitive science explains several things. Firstly, it explains why so much of what we saw in the past seemed to support the view that disadvantaged students couldn’t access challenging curriculum. Lessons in the past were taught without regard for cognitive load theory, and a rejection of explicit teaching of knowledge meant that students from advantaged backgrounds could access tasks while their peers with less knowledge capital fell behind. Before our very eyes, the gap widened – but this was because of the teaching methods not because of a difference in ability/potential in the students. Secondly, cognitive science shows us that there is no limit to what can be learned, using the right techniques. Siegfried Engelmann’s research of 1967-1977 showed the world that all students can achieve incredibly high outcomes, regardless of their starting point. Cognitive science reveals the techniques to us which, if used correctly in teaching, allow the most challenging curriculum to be opened up to all. Simply put, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students has widened in the past because we didn’t know about cognitive science. Now we know, and we have the tools to close the gap.

So now we know that it is possible to teach a challenging curriculum to all. We must ask now if it is the right thing to do.

We should teach a challenging curriculum to all for the following reasons:

1. We have no way of knowing what any individual student is capable of. If we cap the curriculum we offer to a student based on so-called “data” then we are limiting that child’s potential from the offset – and we could be so wrong!

2. Ambitious curriculum opens up opportunities for students. Ambitious subjects, curriculum content and the grades that ensue allow students to pursue more options after they leave school. No-one should be turned away from a post-16 course because the qualification they did at school was not suitable. No-one should have their future limited because their school decided they should study a less challenging curriculum.

3. Ambitious curriculum opens up the world to students. A student who understands concepts like empire, democracy, composition, juxtaposition, and atomic theory will experience the world in technicolour compared to his peers who have studied a lacklustre curriculum.

4. Ambitious knowledge begets more ambitious knowledge. To read a broadsheet newspaper, for example, you need not only a sophisticated vocabulary but a comprehensive knowledge of science, politics, history and literature in order to make sense of the many inferences that must be made to make sense of the text. If we cut students out of ambitious curriculum then we cut them out of this conversation and everything that flows from it.

5. Ambitious curriculum is the foundation of a functioning democracy. Our only defence against fascism and totalitarianism is a well-informed electorate who can identify fake news and make informed decisions at the ballot box.

I have struggled in my journey in thinking about ambitious curriculum. It is hard to challenge years’ worth of assumptions in oneself. It is particularly hard because that challenge entails admitting that I let children down by expecting too little of them. But what is the alternative? Do we pretend that the facts I have listed above are not facts at all? That would save my ego but it would fail my students. Or are we going to say that we think that actually, the job of schools is just to occupy children while they turn into adults, and those from a privileged background will succeed and have all the opportunities, and those from disadvantage will just do less well? When I put it like that, it’s clear that this is not why I went into teaching. What other option do I have? Do I actually think that children from disadvantage should stay there? Do I think there is some kind of natural order? The poor should stay poor? All of these ideas are appalling to me. I came into teaching because I believe in social justice. I made some mistakes because I didn’t know about cognitive science or about how much we can expect from kids in terms of excellent behaviour. I thought I was being a good person by lowering my expectations around curriculum for students from disadvantage but now I know: ambitious curriculum should be for everyone, regardless of background, and it is achievable. I can’t change the past but I can change the future and you can bet your life I’m going to work as hard as I can for every child to get access to an ambitious curriculum, regardless of where they’re from. Thanks for reading.

Part of the PGCE problem…

According to a 2017 survey carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lectures 73% of trainee and newly-qualified teachers have said they are considering dropping out of the profession. This stark statistic is perhaps quite shocking to anyone who has not experienced the life of a teacher. I have so often heard teachers be mocked for their six week holidays and ‘short days’. However, from within the profession, in far too many cases, this statistic might cause far less surprise. As someone who is about to start their teacher training year, this figure is a daunting prospect. At least it was until I had my first induction day and I realised where this number might, at least in part, stem

I was instantly struck by how overwhelmed trainee students are made to feel about the year to come, let alone the rest of their careers. A cohort of eager and passionate individuals left this induction day seemingly exhausted and downtrodden, instead of invigorated and excited. I was under no illusion that the year ahead would be easy, but the ways in which we were told it would be hard did not seem wholly necessary…

Firstly, we were told that we should split each lesson down into five or six smaller lessons in order to keep the learners ‘engaged’ (of course employing the use of different learning style techniques). We then moved on to what is expected of us in the actual planning of these lessons. It was explained to those in the room that throughout this year we are expected to spend around two hours (!) planning each 50-minute lesson, but not to worry, for the rest of our careers this will then go down to about an hour. Phew! In doing this we would build our own catalogue of lesson plans. This is done because spending so much time on every lesson is just how things work… or so we were led to believe.

Those coming in to the profession and being told that this is standard classroom practice by the academics often means that the accepted orthodoxy surrounding these ideas will constantly fail to be challenged. Why would it be? Who would know classroom methods better than those who have studied it for years and written papers and books on the subject?

Now, the problem seems to come when this produces generation after generation of capable and talented teachers who end up spending a large amount of their time on menial and unnecessary tasks. Ranging from time consuming but ineffective lesson planning to catering to learning styles. If young individuals are coming into the profession being told that these are the things that will make them good and effective teachers, it can, and often does, act to the detriment of their well-being and so effects their student’s learning. Unachievable and impractical expectations are placed on teachers, to a point where they can, in no way, fulfil the criteria required in delivering effective and passionate teaching. When only one narrative is spun to a class of trainee teachers, this one-sided view is all they are going to experience. Far too often within the academic side of a PGCE, only the progressive story is told, and this is portrayed as gospel. In my induction day, I politely commented on the absurdity of organising several mini-lessons within one lesson and expressed my shock at the amount of time it was supposed to take. However, I was told that this is the best and only way to ‘engage’ with every type of learner. The eager and passionate trainees who sat around me soaked this up and will go on to put these ideas into practice; no doubt diluting their passion and eagerness in the process.

It is a given that skills such as planning lessons are necessary and ought to be taught in training. However, as I hope you have picked up, it seems absurd that it should be taking anyone even close to double the time of the actual lesson to produce. There seems to be a bigger question at stake here. Why are student teachers (and a lot of teachers in general) expected to build, from scratch, their own repertoire of lessons and lesson plans? The topics we teach in schools have been taught a thousand different times by a thousand different teachers. It appears illogical for there to be an expectation that so many lessons and their components  should be produced from scratch, by trainee teachers who are, after all, pedagogical novices. Other, expert teachers’ lesson plans could be altered, edited or expanded; so why is there not a wider pool of research based and quality assured resources and plans to draw upon? Enabling teachers to spend more time teaching, becoming experts in the topic, mimicking expert teachers and less time planning lessons in their own hit and miss way. I appreciate that in some school networks this is the case, but in so many others, especially for those teachers who are starting out in their career, there is no such pool to draw on. This seems to be a fundamental flaw in the teaching training system, and one that needs to be addressed if we are to retain the brightest and best in this profession.

Many people would argue that the skills developed in one’s PGCE year often do not wholly fit with classroom practices and the daily life of an actual school; acting instead as a necessary box that needs to be ticked. Catering to pupils learning styles rather than how to expertly model a concept so pupils understand. A trainee teacher should not have to spend an exhausting number of hours creating potentially ineffective lessons and ancillary resources in order to pass their teaching qualification. They are experts in their subject. They should instead be focusing on the most effective and efficient way to impart their knowledge to students; how to sequence concepts so pupils understand; how to enable pupils to remember what they have learnt, and so on.

It is a tragedy we lose so many teachers from the profession, but this is something that can be addressed. The growing influence of research based pedagogy and a steady shift to training schemes that are school-lead is helping this process, but ultimately, this is something that lies with university PGCE courses. They need to change if we have any hope of creating an effective workforce, and ultimately changing the lives of more young people.

The Point of it All


When I was a younger teacher I believed that my work would have a direct, immediately clear link to positive future outcomes. For example, I thought that if I worked hard at my job and was good at it, poorer pupils in my classes would get better exam grades. This would lead to them studying at better universities, which meant they would get better jobs, earn more money and become more economically, socially and politically influential than they would otherwise have been. This would, of course, make them happier people. Eventually, the world would become a better, fairer and happier place because of my work. While perhaps naïve, I was no fool for believing this; the narrative is familiar and to many of us, a reason we chose teaching as a profession.

I now accept that life just isn’t as simple as this. It’s very difficult, probably impossible, to separate out any contribution a teacher makes to a pupil from the sound and fury of the rest of their life. Even, for whatever reason, poor pupils do achieve better exam grades, financial and cultural barriers may well prevent them taking up any offer from any university. For those that do, a degree is no guarantee of success, and even those who make it this far down the road might, as has been really well written about by Michael Merrick, find themselves no happier for having walked it than their friends who did not. Or they might. We just don’t know enough about how happiness works to be able to say.

My error, as revealed to me by my unpaid philosophy tutor Bernard Andrews, was that I was deriving my professional (and self) worth from a belief in consequentialism. I could only be successful and fulfilled if my work had definite and certain outcomes that were caused by the things I did. If these outcomes did not happen then I was a failure. As convenient as this is for recruitment campaigns and to unimaginative and ill-informed decision makers with views of success and failure based around numbers, it is a fallacy.

When this brutal message finally sank in I found myself somewhat disillusioned. If we cannot be certain the education we provide our pupils will benefit them then why bother at all?

The realisation of my error cast me, for a short period, into a sort of existentialist funk, which I got through by recognising the inherent worth in learning and education regardless of any concrete, measurable outcome. This was actually hugely freeing, because it allowed me to guiltlessly appreciate the learning of all my pupils regardless of the exam grade they might or might not eventually achieve.

But I’ve found it hard to shake consequentialism completely. It’s difficult not to have hopes and dreams for our pupils even when we recognise that we may have a very limited role in helping our pupils achieve them, or indeed even whether it is our place for us to have them at all.

I’ve thought about this hard and I’ve decided having hopes and dreams for my pupils is OK, and that it’s also OK for these to play into the decisions I make at work.

We all have hopes and dreams, for ourselves and those we love. Most of us are wise enough to know that there is no guarantee we’ll ever achieve them and that circumstances outside our control are probably more significant than anything we can do, but this does not mean that we are foolish or misguided to take steps to maximise our chances. Of course, having dreams for others is more morally problematic, but it is also inevitable; we cannot educate a child while wilfully failing to think about what will happen to them when they step blinkingly out of their final exam and walk away from us for the last time. As adults in charge of children I think the bedrock of our role is to decide what we want for them and then to create a conducive context, and that avoiding thinking about this is actually a failure to meet one of our key responsibilities.

So if it’s OK and perhaps even desirable to have hopes and dreams for our pupils, what should these be?

While we all want our pupils to go as far as they can, it would be illogical to look out on a whole school assembly and hope for all pupils to get top grades in every subject, go to top class universities and then go on to have influential and high paid jobs. As Martin Robinson has explained well, our system is set up deliberately to preclude this; there are a limited number of top grades just as there are a finite amount of high-flying careers. To wish for this would be to wish for the impossible. Still worse, to hope for this would inevitably mean being disappointed by some pupils, and probably most in some schools. Given that pupils do, regardless of how unwilling some are to accept it, have varying levels of aptitude, this seems to me a cruel hope to have, because it condemns the most vulnerable to failure and means we inevitably end up devaluing the contributions of those who don’t soar to such obvious heights.

Instead of this sort of thing, I hope that the children for which I am responsible become open, curious people able to take satisfaction from many different places in their lives. What I want for my pupils is perhaps, to me at least, best articulated in the poem Ithaka by CP Cavafy, which I heard read on Radio 4 many years ago now. It’s a beautiful poem, and you should read it, but for those who haven’t the time the gist is that while we may have an ultimate destination in mind we should aim to appreciate the journey, because we might never get to where we want to go and even if we do, we may find it less satisfying than we’d thought it would be.

This is why a knowledge rich curriculum, based on the best that has been thought and said (and painted, composed, sculpted, danced and so on), is so important. It’s the canon, rightfully contested, debated and argued over, that has the best chance of giving pupils the keys that unlock life’s richest treasures, the things most likely to give them satisfaction and pleasure on whatever walk of life they find themselves. Some of life’s greatest rewards are counterintuitive and hard to begin with which is why, just as most of us have to work at appreciating olives or coffee, we must sometimes teach children things they initially find boring or irrelevant. Of course, and as I have already acknowledged, nothing is certain; pupils may choose not to engage with school for a myriad of reasons outside our control, or their lives may take really tragic turns that mean they never get the chance to properly open the gifts we give them. But all that said, a good curriculum offers all children their best shot at fulfilment because it gives them at least a fighting chance of joining the Great Conversation.

This is why we should teach Frankenstein and not Holes. It is why Shakespeare belongs to everyone just as the Beatles and Maya Angelou do.

By teaching all our children their cultural entitlement we also give them the best chance of seeing themselves as being entitled in the most proper, fair sense. Entitled to respect. Entitled to attention. Entitled to proper healthcare. Entitled to a place at an opera house, concert, museum or exhibition should they choose to go. Entitled to laws that protect them at work and entitled to pensions for a dignified old age regardless of their station in life.

I hope that by teaching pupils the things that matter most they will come to see they matter too.

Although I can’t be certain of any of this I will allow myself my hopes and and dreams, and make the decisions I think most likely to make my dreams come true.

This is why I am proud to be part of a Trust that sees things this way too, and proud that this Trust is part of the newly formed Midland Knowledge Hub, which aims to help those who dream our dreams too. Get in touch.

Have a good summer everyone.

Ben Newmark



This Year’s Love-Headship in the First Year

So things were a little broken. Exam results were lower than predicted and for many teachers, it was a paralysing devastation they took to heart; and that is how I met them on Day 1. They had been through a merger, a complete restructure, a third of teachers and a quarter of support staff had left and those remaining seemed battle-scarred. There were a lot of documents, complex systems, checklists, data galore and piles of evidence of teachers doing their job. A paperweight of justification sitting on them like a golden Buddha. This was our beginning.

Be a Teacher and Love it:

Our people needed to be reminded of the joy, the moral purpose, the gravity of teaching; they needed to fall back in love with being a teacher. They had been drowning in paper, teaching in fear of constant high stakes scrutiny, they wanted to be good teachers but many no longer trusted themselves to know what good was anymore.

So we stripped it all out and made it simple. No written lesson plans, my teachers plan what they will do and what the students will do- I trust them to do this. No graded lesson observations. No marking/individual comments; my teachers use whole class feedback based on misconceptions and a plan to reteach it. No multiple data entries, no levels-even-after-life-with-no-levels, no 8 page criteria sheets(remember APP?) no data drops; instead, my teachers RAG rate on one element: have students learned the knowledge? We are more interested in a conversation where we discuss the students, and the leader enters the data- next year this is the way it is to be done. No setting and chasing homework- students learn the Knowledge Organiser and get quizzed on it in class. No gimmicks or teaching myths- our teachers are the experts and they teach from the front in a simple and straightforward way. We teach an academically rigorous curriculum, no dumbing down. Think Doug Lemov, not ‘edutainment.’

I tell my teachers they are good because they are. Not Ofsted good(whatever that mystical, golden unicorn is) I mean, good, strong teachers who love their subject and are the expert in it. And the teaching grows stronger every day because we trust teachers, we train teachers and we keep all the junk away from them. We stripped away their workload. They are free to love their jobs again.

Love what we teach:

For so long, teaching was process-driven and all about the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what.’ The Head of a nearby school sent me a welcome to the neighbourhood card and that set off a chain of events I affectionately call Joining Clive’s Knowledge Cult. Our Trust was already aligning exam boards and beginning curriculum collaboration and we spent this year, writing a knowledge rich curriculum. It is a game changer. A tour around nearby St Martin’s left me in no doubt it was the way for us. As a Trust, we took the best elements and ideas from the schools we knew and spent this year developing a rigorous, academic and aspirational curriculum.

Make no mistake, this is a curriculum our pupils deserve. A curriculum that is based on ‘the best that has been thought and said’, a curriculum that excites and ignites because the knowledge does that- not the teacher trying to dumb down/jazz up in order to entertain. It has been built by many hands across the Trust, across 5 school years and reaches out beyond the GCSE expectation of knowledge. It has challenging, intellectual content and will be taught by our teachers who are experts and love their subject. Teachers are writing their own knowledge organisers, work-booklets and text books then sharing these across the Trust. Lots of schools talk about working in partnership- I can only describe this as ‘accelerated collaboration’ that strengthens us all and cuts our workload by 75%.

And the test is this. When I look at the 5 year curriculum plans, across all the subjects; I don’t just feel excited about teaching it, I want to be in Year 7 so I can learn Homer’s Odyssey. I want to be in Year 8 so I can argue the significance of railways and canals in the Industrial Revolution. Our curriculum is so delicious, I don’t just want to teach it, I want to learn it.

Tough Love:

Behaviour was not good enough, processes were complicated and teachers were interrupted by low level disruption. And to lay in the knowledge curriculum, behaviour needed to be much better. We made what my Exec Head calls the sacred pact: the conditions for learning are the responsibility of SLT and teachers are responsible for…well…teaching. Our teachers give students a chance to change behaviour, then they are removed to silent study so that everyone else in the class gets to learn. We have centralised, same day detentions so the next day is a fresh day. Students start the lesson in silence, greet the teacher and sit down to a Do Now task. Students finish the lesson standing in silence, thank the teacher and move onto the next lesson. Very high expectations coupled with explicit and tangible respect. We feel strict, calm and purposeful. All our visitors comment on it.

We do tough love because our students deserve both an academically rigorous curriculum and to grow up strong with good self-discipline. We do this because tough love is what our students deserve; it is the making of them. We are always telling them that when we tell them off, we do this because they are worth it, because they need us to- and I tell our parents the same. The way we raise our children is the way we change the world.

It Takes a Village:

People say that being a Headteacher is the loneliest job in the world. Not for me: in fact, I have found the complete opposite. I knew at the beginning I would need friends and I can truly say I have found my people.

I needed an executive Headteacher with that perfect balance of support and space to lead. Someone who lives service leadership, has the moral drive of a ten tonne truck and common sense around teacher workload and curriculum. I found her (or she found me?)

I needed a tireless, make-it-so deputy, one who wanted more for the young people in this area. A deputy who supports and challenges me, has made our journey his own and is my critical friend, my ally, my teacher. I found him.

I needed a team of staff who believed in what we were doing and understood why it was important. People who could fall back in love with what they were doing. People who could find a true north for their moral compass. People who felt good, doing good things for a community that deserved it. I found them.

I needed ‘Headteachery help’ from my peers and all I found was genuine care, advice and wisdom from my nearest Headteachers. I needed to find our way back to teaching & learning and curriculum- I found the way was lit with the torches of St Martin’s Academy, their leaders having already begun this journey and shared it with us.

The House that Love Built

Every step of the way and everything we have built here, has been moulded by many hands. We have built our house on trust of one another and faith in ourselves. We have built our house on knowledge; the awe and wonder of the best that has been thought. We have built our house on social justice, that all children deserve the best education and we are the ones to provide it.

We have built our house on love, a love of teaching, a love of education, a love of children and this, this has truly made the difference.


Megan Morris


Reducing workload and maximising progress…

This is the transcript of my talk at the Midland Knowledge Hub Launch. Enjoy!

Good afternoon, the first thing I’m going to talk you about this afternoon is pizza – not the Dominos/Pizza Hut thick crust takeaway variety but the posh, Italian thin crust pizza – the sort you get in gastro pubs up and down the country – you know the ones I mean – the pizza you are served in trendy restaurants where the waitress/waiter arrives to your table with a giant wooden board, on top of which lies your pizza along with a pizza wheel and a knife and fork…

Now, I have decided that there are three types of people in the world. There are those people who discard the knife and fork, slice up their pizza and get stuck in. Then there are those people for whom eating with your fingers is a no-no and so delicately slice chunks of pizza off with their knife and fork (in a “proper way”). Finally, there is a third group of people: those who look around the room, surveying the clientele, trying to work out what everyone else is doing, afraid of making a pizza-eating faux paus!

The reality of course is that it doesn’t matter how the hell you eat your pizza – shovelling it in with your fingers is probably the most efficient – what really matters is the pizza itself, the nutritional value, the flavour. And for a long time teaching has been just like this. We’ve been obsessed with the how and not the what and just like the “finger shoveller” with his pizza, those teachers who have tended to be more “traditional” or efficient in their instructional approach have often found themselves on the wrong end of lesson observation gradings – with performance improvement targets centred around ways in which they could make their lessons “more engaging”, “enjoyable”, “fun”, “interactive” and so the majority of teachers have, after surveying the landscape, decided that if everyone else is doing it another way – so should they.Dc_72S7X0AAp0JR

For a long time this was me too. As a trainee teacher in London in the early Noughties I was regularly observed and one Deputy Head, a man named Peter, always talked to me about what I was teaching – his feedback always focused on what the pupils had learnt in my lessons, the progress they had made; he would talk to me about the content of the lesson, the topic I was teaching, my knowledge and how I could make myself a better teacher. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t really listen to Peter’s feedback – he was a maths teacher and the feedback I got from other senior staff members and my course tutor was always about how I needed to include more group work, think about my resources – how could I make them more interactive and exciting? Could I have used a card sort somewhere, a roleplay, some hotseating? Maybe the pupils would benefit from sketching out the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comic strip… etc etc. I like many others began to believe that “fun” lessons – jam packed with a million different activities, with pupils’ “learning styles” clearly catered for, was the way to go if I wanted to be an excellent teacher. I had drunk the kool aid and I would argue until I was blue in the face with anyone who told me different – just ask Lee Donaghy. I trusted the people coaching and training me, and they must have known what they were talking about. Right? There must have been a scientifically proven reason why we started teacher training sessions at the university with 5 minutes of brain gym. Why else would they make us do it? And for much of my teaching career, that is what I believed.

Almost ten years later I became vice principal at The Nuneaton Academy – working in a school and community that is now very close to my heart. The school was failing – behaviour was appalling, teaching was inadequate and on our first official day we learnt that only 21% of the year 11 cohort had achieved 5A*-C including English and Maths. I was a new vice principal, working in a team that consisted of a new principal (there had been five new principals in as many years) and two other new VPs. We had a job on our hands – a school to turn around and a community of young people who, up until then, had been severely let down. And so, as any school would in that situation, we set about getting the systems and processes in place to repair the school – improving behaviour, improving teaching and learning, rectifying staffing issues etc. The bit that we missed, crucially, in the early days was the “what”. We focused on curriculum from a timetabling point of view, scrapping the awful two week merry-go-round of confusion we had inherited and eradicating lines of supply that were costing us thousands with no impact and causing us a headache. And we focused our energies on the how – the “knife and fork”. We invested heavily in a well know teacher enhancement programme, running weekly CPD sessions and whole inset days centred on the “how” – the mode of delivery. We had the whole staff in a room: writing songs, talking about jigsaws, thinking hats, card sorts, inspirational video clips – ways to engage and enthuse our young people. We talked about feedback – triple marking in two different coloured pens and how we would monitor and enforce high quality conversations in books about progress.

The impact of this was that it gave our teachers a structure to their lessons – one that had been sorely lacking – through a cycle of learning; it brought the staff closer together and started conversations between teachers and pupils about learning and for a while it felt like we were ready to fly. Ofsted (the dreaded dementors) visited and were repelled; special measures were removed – for the first time in my life I hugged a HMI, genuinely happy to listen to what she had to say – and we were described as an SLT with a “refreshingly honest” approach.

But… outcomes didn’t shift far enough, quickly enough. Pupils didn’t know enough and, increasingly, teachers were knackered! There are only so many lessons you can shimmy your way through, triple mark and resource to the nth degree before exhaustion sets in. It wasn’t sustainable. Behaviour began to dip when pupils didn’t feel “entertained” and things began to wobble. We needed to act.

Now, I should mention here that in the background, the MAT had just appointed a new executive principal. A determined and passionate force of nature who many of us had followed online for a number of years. Where previously we had worked very much alone, she was bringing us together – encouraging us to share expertise, work across schools and build on our strengths.

So, what did we do? The short answer is we changed our focus. We re-focused on the “what” and efficient teaching, removing barriers. As Ros says, the goal was simple: we needed to reduce workload and maximise progress.

Now, it’s fair to say that we went about things a bit back to front. We knew what we wanted to achieve, had read around, researched schools that had placed knowledge at the centre of everything they did. We knew where we wanted to go: we wanted our pupils to receive the very best, to know the best that has been thought and said. We were working collaboratively now across four schools, aligning our curriculum, focusing on what we wanted pupils to know, thinking about the most efficient ways of instruction. Our vision is clear: our pupils are entitled to same breadth and depth of knowledge as those in the top performing private schools in the country.

But we were unclear about how we would get there and so we ran headlong and enthusiastically into knowledge organisers. We set about delving into the depth of knowledge we wanted pupils to have – spent hours researching, begging, stealing and borrowing from other schools. We were starting to talk explicitly about knowledge and it was invigorating. But we still needed to sharpen our focus and so, once the second visit from our “friends,” Ofsted had been and gone and we had jumped up to RI we changed tack.

To start with, we centralised all our pastoral systems: detentions, pastoral interventions etc. These are key to removing barriers for our pupils but had become also barrier to ensuring that our teachers were free to teach. We put a dedicated non-teaching pastoral team in place. Five pastoral leaders: four linked to our new house system, one behaviour intervention leader; an attendance officer, a safeguarding officer, a progress coach who works with our most vulnerable learners and a student support manager who oversees their work. The impact is huge. Pupils are well supported and cared for by a dedicated pastoral team who have no competing demands on their time. They’re not trying to balance dealing with a vulnerable young person’s disclosure at the same time as planning or resourcing a lesson.

At the same time we stripped back our behaviour systems. Where before we had had a system of consequences that increased in severity and with corresponding rewards, now we introduced a 100% compliance rule. If a pupil has to be told more than once that’s too many times. Quite simply there is no excuse for disruption; teachers must be free to teach. A pupil is told once and then removed by SLT. They spend time reflecting on their behaviour, revising the key content from their knowledge organisers and have a same day detention. It’s efficient, it’s effective and it’s immediate. It allows for the pastoral support team to quickly identify and act on any underlying needs to be addressed. there is no blame linked to teachers asking for pupils to be removed, No expectation that they will organise and run an after school detention. It’s our job as SLT and the job of our pastoral team to do the “heavy lifting,” to make sure that our teachers can teach free of disruption and our pupils are supported to learn.

Underpinning this are rolling assemblies focused on our why. We talk to the pupils about the fact that they are entitled to the same rigorous curriculum and expectations as anyone in the top performing schools in the country. We call and respond our expectations and our belief that our pupils are as good as any, and talk explicitly to them about their right to knowledge – the passport to their future – and their right to disruption free lessons and high expectations. We make it explicit that their context is not and will never be an excuse for anything but is instead the reason for provision. We don’t hide the inequalities of the education system. We are explicit about them and tell pupils what we’re doing to address them and what their part in this is. They know that we are ambitious for them. They know why, and they and their parents’ expectations have changed. Where previously interactions with parents were all about behaviour and frustrations, we now have a growing number of parents who come in to school to talk to us and work with us to discuss curriculum, homework and how best to support their children.

A key aspect to the work that we’ve done this year has been to change our approach to school-to-school support. In the past it was very much the case that “outstanding” schools came in and told us what we needed to do and sent teachers to coach/train our staff. This year instead we’ve taken control. We’ve approached the schools we want support from, we’ve sent staff out to visit and pinch ideas from other schools: Bedford Free School, St Martins, Polesworth. Our focus has been on both curriculum and modes of instruction, which has led to some big changes. Gone is the well-known teacher enhancement programme – there are no more “laminating facilitators of learning” in the Academy – and we have changed our whole approach to teaching and learning. I along with senior colleagues in the other trust schools designed and delivered a training programme designed to strip the snake oil out of our classrooms.

We’ve focused mainly on the Doug Lemov TLaC techniques we’ve seen so effectively used in the schools we visited. We start every lesson with a Do Now task for example – but always linked to recall and retention. We’ve limited “group talk” to what we call “90 second buzzes”. We encourage our teachers to teach – no worksheets, no card sorts, no laminated diamond nines, treasure hunts around classrooms, comic strips, posters or re-enactments of historical events. To coin a Lemov phrase we have tried to engineer efficiency into every aspect of our lessons. From how we give out resources, to entry and exit routines and how we deliver lessons.

For staff, one off lesson observations and the “fear factor” are now a thing of the past. We walk the school every day, sometimes all day, visiting lessons, supporting staff, coaching and modelling what we expect in terms of lesson delivery and interactions with pupils, quietly noting where teaching is on point and where additional support is needed – but in a no-blame, non-judgemental atmosphere. We keep a very simple but effective traffic light monitoring board of our walks: green if a teacher has mastered a technique we have been working on and we can direct staff to them as an example of good practice; orange if we feel a teacher could do with a pick me up – some peer coaching for example; red if we feel we need to revisit the strategy in CPD sessions. Staff are free to amend their own colours, ask for support and self-direct their CPD. We don’t judge – we train, we support, we coach.

We’ve introduced two 30 minute prep slots a day in which pupils are taught how to self-quiz from their knowledge organisers, in which they self-select the areas they struggle with and take responsibility for improving their own knowledge through developing their powers of recall and retention. Working across all four schools and with the support and advice of St Martin’s we have completely re-written the curriculum. Senior leaders and directors of learning have ensured that across the four schools there is now in place a curriculum that focuses on the development of academic knowledge and skills that will enable pupils to be successful at GCSE and beyond. Where before the pupils studied Harry Potter in English lessons, they now study Chaucer; whereas before history was taught thematically, leaving the pupils with a limited sense of chronology, now it is taught in a logical chronological sequence, ensuring pupils will develop deeper understanding of substantive concepts such as parliament, monarchy and revolution. We have mapped out the knowledge we believe pupils are entitled to in every subject for every topic. We have started writing our own knowledge booklets in subjects such as English and technology and bought in the support of partner schools such as St Martin’s to help us implement tailor made work booklets in science and a direct instruction intervention programme at key stage three. After the May holiday our pastoral system will be amended to introduce a two house system – Scientia and Percipio, both Latin words meaning forms of knowledge – so that everything we do is linked back to knowledge.

Where previously pupils’ academic progress at the academy was hampered by a well-meaning focus on them “finding out for themselves,” our teachers are now empowered to be the experts in their classrooms and pupils understand that they are students, entitled to the same depth and breadth of knowledge as any student in the top performing fee paying schools in the country.

The impact of all of this is perhaps most striking in terms of the forecast attainment data for “disadvantaged” pupils at the Academy which, since the introduction of this curriculum and teaching approach, has overtaken that of their “non-disadvantaged” peers in all year groups. The conversations we have on a daily basis with pupils about what they have learnt right across the curriculum is staggering – year 7 pupils in PE will happily stop and explain the muscular system of the human body while year 8 pupils are discussing the way rhetoric has developed from Aristotle to modern day. And no one can tell me that they are less engaged in their learning. In fact, the opposite that is true. They are thriving on “knowing stuff”, soaking it up – and it is wonderful to see.Logo

We are, of course, at start of our journey. We have come a long way and learnt some lessons the hard way, but the academy and our sister schools have taken off and are about to soar. We are changing lives through delivering an unapologetically rigorous and knowledge-rich curriculum. To borrow one of Lorraine Lynch-Kelly’s favourite quotes, our pupils are “Heirs of all the ages that have gone before” and must be treated as such regardless of background. They deserve nothing less and we are determined that they will receive nothing less.

So what lessons have we learnt? What would we advise people about to embark on a similar journey to do?

1) Remember that knowledge organisers aren’t the answer to everything – they’re a useful tool for prep work, homework and making sure that pupils and parents are clear about the body of knowledge to be taught but the curriculum planning must come first. Start with getting the conditions for teaching right: centralise behaviour systems, remove the barriers to teaching and focus on the long term curriculum plan initially. Take time to do the thinking and planning. We’ve tweaked as we’ve gone along and sometimes you have to, but having a clear plan of action in place is vital.

2) Build the conditions for collaboration. Identify leads for curriculum design and quality assurance; make sure you know who will lead on what and that they have the time and space to do this. If you’re working across schools find clever ways of freeing staff up at the same time in the day to give them planning and thinking space.

3) Encourage staff to go out and visit other schools – develop and foster an outward facing approach to school improvement by going out and finding the schools who work in a similar way to where you want to end up. Borrow, modify and give back – but always remember that every school is different. What works in one setting won’t be easily copied across wholesale elsewhere. Encourage staff to engage with constructive social media debates and discussions but do this carefully – there are a wealth of fabulous, positive, dedicated people out there (many of whom have been here today) who write blogs, will readily email advice, help arrange visits etc BUT…there are also those who will negatively slam people openly online – we have encouraged teachers to engage but there have been instances where staff have been left upset by online interactions. So, really I suppose this is a plea as well as a takeaway: thousands of teachers have spent years being told how to teach. A natural reaction to that is to be sceptical, to question. Throwing the words “trad” and “prog” around as insults and shouting teachers down instead of opening up polite debate won’t open doors or change people’s minds. Encouraging staff to engage in online research and debate is brilliant, but we must guide them – we need to be the torch in the dark by recommending blogs to read, people to follow on Twitter who we know will be kind, and give staff explicit advice on how to use social media constructively, to learn – and also how to deal with trolls.

Ann Donaghy


Promoting Knowledge When You Are Not The Boss

What’s your dream school like? Mine would be like Michaela, St Martin’s, and Nuneaton Academy: high expectations, sensible workload and knowledge-driven. Oh and to get on well with my colleagues. But what if you’ve got three out of the four? You could leave, but most schools don’t even manage two out of the four. Or you could try to introduce a knowledge-centred approach. The problem with this, though, is that people, and leaders in particular, have got very good reasons not to listen to you. In fact if you tell people they are wrong, they are likely to find you irritating. “But I’ve got evidence! Of course they’ll listen to me!” Sorry but it often doesn’t work like that. I don’t know whether the explanation lies in cognitive dissonance or some other psychological phenomenon- but what I do know is that presenting people with evidence that current practice is sub-optimal, frequently does not have the desired effect. Leaders might ignore it, or worse, see you as a problem, as someone who is not aligned with the goals of the school.

In this post I’m going to give you my tips for successfully promoting a knowledge approach if you are not the boss. You might feel this approach is not as candid or forceful as you might like, and I would agree, but it has worked for me in my setting. I’ve been using this approach for about six months and we’ve now got knowledge organisers being made in all departments, proper focus on curriculum, and I am able to teach using a knowledge-centred approach and nobody hassles me about it. We are joining the CCT as a school and we are looking at planning great teacher explanations in CPD, and next year hopefully we’ll be able to put even more things in place.

In my experience, most school leaders fit the following profile:

1.Want the best for students

2. Want good results for the students and the school

3. Want to look after staff

4. Want to do stuff that works

5. Want staff to plan carefully, not just rock up and make up the lesson on the spot

6. Think good behaviour is important


7. Want to do stuff that Ofsted like


8. Don’t know about the progressive/traditional debate

9. Think the main conflict in teaching is between teachers who want to do a good job and people who can’t be bothered/don’t know how.

10. Think that progressive practices are how to do a good job, and traditional practices are done by teachers who can’t be bothered/ don’t know how.


Items 1-6 are both ideological and pragmatic. We in the knowledge camp share these goals with leadership and this is very important. Broadly, we have alignment.

Item 7 is pragmatic and although the knowledge camp may not be as motivated by Ofsted, I think we can probably all understand it as a very reasonable consideration for leaders to take.

Items 8-10 are absolutely critical. This is where the disagreement lies but notice these are not deeply ideological. They are, in fact, an understanding that most of us shared at some point in our career because that is what we were told  by the so-called experts.


This is not to say that there are not some leaders who are out-and-out progressives, who think research is at odds with the goals of education, or who are slave-drivers interested only in furthering their career. But these are rare in my experience.

So if you like your school but you want to develop the role of knowledge and traditional teaching, and you feel the conditions are not right for an overt and wholesale challenge to the status quo, then I have some things you might like to try:


  1. Be an exemplary member of staff, and be high-profile about it


Comply with all school expectations, especially the very visible ones. Follow the dress code and get to break duty promptly. Smile and say hello to all staff and students. Volunteer for things – not crazy things that make workload ridiculous but if the school asks for an article for the website, write a quick one. Show how much you love your job, and the school. Plan great lessons and give feedback in line with school policy. Walk quickly, meet your deadlines and don’t bitch. When you do come to challenge things (see below), it will be easier to show that you are challenging because you want the best for the school, rather than because you are lazy or non-compliant. I’m not saying that not doing these things makes you bad – I’m saying that your credibility as a knowledge advocate realistically does depend on doing them.

2. Charitable interpretations
Let’s say you attend an inset session that you would not have chosen yourself for your knowledge-rich dream. DO NOT let on that this is the case. Smile, nod, take notes. SLANT! There will always be something that you can take from the session. Thank the facilitator at the end and say something like “so much to think about. Thank you.”  Make sure to let SLT know you thought it was really valuable too, especially if one of them arranged the speaker. And then refer back to the session in later conversations. But do it like this:
“What really shone out from the thinking hats workshop was the need for us to explicitly teach subject-specific terminology.”
“I was so inspired by Connie the consultant’s session that I looked her up on Twitter that evening, and I came across these brilliant “Learning Scientists” posters, I’m using them with my year 9s today.”

Are you catching my drift?

And apply this approach to everything else. If something is suggested in a meeting, show enthusiasm, and think hard about how you can interpret it in a knowledge-rich way. Refer back to it at another time, and show people what you have done with the idea. “When you spoke about Bloom’s taxonomy the other day it really got me thinking, and I decided I want every student in my class to be able to answer this very challenging question: Now I just need to plan all the activities they need to help them answer it.” (See below.)

3. Use your classroom as a PR tool
If you have a classroom, make it look lovely. Keep it sparkling clean and tidy. Make stunning displays. Make them to last, so you limit the workload, but make them bloody brilliant.

Ideas for displays
How we learn
Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary
Growth mindset (see below)
Independent study habits
Inspirational people in the field
Why your subject is valuable
Careers associated with your subject (yes I know the purpose of education should not be all about the jobs)
It might be that you consider displays a distraction and a drain on your time to make. I do not deny these objections; I merely put forward my observation that leaders judge teachers on the state of their classrooms. If your room looks great, people will be more inclined to listen to what you say.



4. Bring positive, and transferable, things to the table


Instead of saying “these odd one out starters are a waste of time”, say “I read a really interesting thing about retrieval practice and I’ve started doing 5 revision questions as a starter every day. All my slides are in the shared area if anyone wants to use them with their groups.” Print a load of the bookmarks from the Learning Scientists and offer to do a stall at parents’ evening where you can hand them out and talk about study skills. Download here: Make it easy for other people to pick things up and go.

5. Some gentle rebranding



Remembering SLT characteristics 1-6 above, there are more things that unite us than divide us. I think we can highlight that by just tweaking what we call some of the components of great teaching:


Technique Rebrand as:
Silent practice Independent deliberate practice
Hard content Higher order thinking
Teacher explanation Teacher modelling
High expectations Growth mindset
Check for understanding AfL and hinge questioning
Booklets/ great textbooks Literacy and questioning bundles (!)

6. Mini-whiteboards



For some reason the use of mini-whiteboards is a big win amongst most leaders. And from a knowledge-rich point of view they are invaluable. So my advice is to use them as much as possible and appropriate, train your students in the routine of them, use the opportunity to inject a bit of “fun” with the counting down etc. Watch Dani Quinn using them here 

7. How to talk about research



The number one tip I can give about talking about research is this: read it for the first time, or relive that experience. No-one wants to hear about all the research you’ve already read. It just makes you annoying. But if you come into school, breathless with excitement from what you’ve just read on the TES last night, that’s given you ideas for more productive student activity, people will like you and they will be more interested to hear about it. Better yet, make something transferable, based on some research you’ve only just read, and share it, and watch it spread (see point 4 above).

Some judicious name dropping is also useful here. Dylan Wiliam’s new book has a whole section on knowledge, and he is an authority among most leaders. You can view a powerpoint summary of the book here:

And of course if you know someone who works in a school where they do great knowledge-rich things, and that school just got a great Ofsted report, it’s worth mentioning that in a happy tone: “My friend’s school just got Outstanding and one of the things they commented on was a subject-specific approach to ____, which is great, it means we’re on the right lines with ____”. And there are some direct quotes from Ofsted themselves which you might come across in the next few months, and share with colleagues since you found them interesting… just make sure that you come across a person on a journey of discovery just like everyone else, not an insufferable know-it-all who’s here to tell everyone why they’re wrong.

8. Group work and talk for learning



People want to see group work and students talking about their work, and I actually think this is really valuable and something that I’d neglected until I started this mission. Use TLAC’s “Turn and Talk” and “Habits of Discussion” to build students’ ability to talk about the work, and make sure you talk about it often with your colleagues.

9. Use exam questions in your planning
Almost all SLT are interested in good exam results. The new specifications have brought a fair amount of uncertainty and worry:  leaders will be happy with planning for exam success.

I’m not advocating doing practice questions as the main activities in lessons- we know that usually doesn’t work very well. I’m saying get hold of hard questions, or exemplars of excellent work, and use them. Use them for your planning so you can see all the components that need explicit teaching and practice. And have them to hand so you can show anyone who passes why it’s so powerful to plan in this way.

10. Big up the school
If you think it’s worth pursuing the mission described here, chances are you think there are good things about your school. Take time to appreciate these, and be vocal about your appreciation. You don’t have to be a sap but if your leadership back staff up on behaviour, they deserve to be thanked – there are a lot of schools where teachers aren’t backed up. If parents’ evening was really positive, talk about it and talk about it to the right people. If your reporting system is sensible and not onerous, contrast it with the many many awful ones out there and express your appreciation to SLT. “It’s so wonderful to work in a school where decisions have been made to free up teacher time for the really important things, like planning and feedback.”

11. Things you can’t really do much with:
The cone of learning
Students deciding their own objectives
These things are just so awful that I don’t think we can sincerely interpret them in a knowledge-friendly light. I’m sure there are others. If you come across these, there are three options as I see it.
1. Smile, agree, and then ignore. Hope that it goes unnoticed but prepare to be pulled up over it
2. Smile, agree, and then do it for observations
3. Bring something interesting to the discussion: “that’s so interesting, I read a fascinating article in the TES about the other day, let me show it to you…” and gently challenge in this way. This challenge, I guess, is the end goal for all of the strategies I’ve described in this post, and leads on neatly to my final point:


12. Carefully plan and execute your challenges


Hopefully, by carrying out the ideas above you will create a reputation for yourself as a committed member of the school team, someone who recognises great leadership, constantly seeks to improve and does not see themselves as superior to others. By pursuing a knowledge-rich approach in your own teaching your classes will achieve great things and you will have exercise books and exam results to attest to your value. From this position you are well placed to begin to offer more overt challenges – still very respectful, still humble, still sharing your journey of discovery for the first time with your colleagues… Go carefully and test the water first, and be prepared to retreat and lay more groundwork first if need be. It’s not a war, but it is hearts and minds and care is needed to make this work.

And finally…

13. Build your network



Do you follow @Knowledge_Ed? Do you have suspicions about undercover knowledge advocates at your school? Do you know people who are receptive to the knowledge movement but don’t know about the debate? Work on all these avenues. And if you are reading this and wondering if I work at your school… I’ll be wearing a red carnation on our next Inset day. The password is… Hirsch!


(Warning: if you want to share this blog please think carefully about how some colleagues might interpret it, and if in doubt then don’t! Some people have proved very sensitive to the ideas of courteously sharing research and working hard to be great at your job. I wouldn’t want to cause any problems for anyone!!!)

Business as Usual

The ‘O’ word is banned at Saint Martin’s, rather like ‘he who must not be named’ in ‘Harry Potter’. Nothing we do is for the Big O. We educate and teach to change the lives of our students because that’s what we believe to be our mission. It is our passion.

We focus on the simplicity and impact of what we do for all staff, but especially for teachers who we want to work from 8-4 daily. And, usually, they do (parents’ evenings – though we are on to smartening those up – and exam marking would be the exceptions). We want and encourage staff to go home so they can enjoy the evening with family, friends; go to the theatre, read, play sport – anything they want because it is their time. It will render them relaxed and content, and result in their being energetic, expert and enthusiastic for every student, every lesson, every day. We believe that being a teacher doesn’t mean you have to sign away your life and family and friends…  You can be a teacher and live!AE1A6114

So, when ‘the call’ came at 11:30 Wednesday before half term, SLT gathered, talked through the brief/focus set; tasks were appropriated and off we went. Business as usual.

Staff were informed in person before lunch; students were told in Prep time or via assemblies that were already booked. For staff, a short meet (10 mins) happened after school where the Head outlined the day to come: the brief/focus of the Section 8 Inspection, and told staff it would be business as usual the following day – routines, behaviour, expert teaching of an ambitious curriculum, memory. Staff left calmly. No-one stayed until midnight preparing lessons, cutting up card, sorting groups; making Powerpoints, seating plans; writing lesson plans or objectives  – we don’t do that usually. We teach.

No-one was up until midnight (or beyond), marking the books they had so meant to mark the previous week but they had been too busy or exhausted to do. We use feedback most effectively to drive progress. Staff weren’t anxious about challenging student behaviour. They are not nervous about being judged if a student needs to be corrected, sanctioned or removed (rare) from a lesson. SLT deal with ALL behaviour issues and there aren’t many as students are told explicitly they will be polite and charming; kind and respectful because that is who we are.

Wednesday afternoon, staff left calmly, untethered, bemused (if anything) at not quite knowing how they could be going home at normal time without need of a Sherpa to cart suitcases of marking and prep out of the building with an inspection team due to arrive in fewer than 16 hours. They asked if we needed anything, were assured all was in hand and how kind that offer was, but to go, enjoy their evening, re-energise for the next day’s teaching and we’d see them in morning. Business as usual.

A few stayed – the Head, VP, Data/Progress, and Behaviour and Attendance Leads, SENDCo… We ordered food and took time out to eat it, but the tasks in hand were administrative – the printing and gathering of documents

  • we had already prepared an introduction to Saint Martin’s, our Knowledge, context, data headlines and current actions (We deliberately hadn’t done a SEF)
  • policies
  • a streamlined, understandable data pack – 2 sides of all Year Groups.
  • a case study prepared
  • marking analysis for 4 terms, the Feedback Policy from January 2018, why we had changed and the impact
  • knowledge books and scripts to exemplify our ambitious curriculum
  • behaviour statistics (to demonstrate the explicit execution of our policy that supports all students’ behaviour to maximise learning
  • attendance data
  • we rang 22 homes, requesting student books for the next morning.

Amazingly, the biggest task was the re-allocating of staff to next day’s Year 7 (150 students) London visit – essentially to replace SLT on the trip, secure cover and supply. In that 11th hour, staff stepped up so supportively – booking childcare, changing their day, sacrificing their day off, or evening/family time to let us stay to meet the Inspectors. What an amazing set of people. Thank you.

We were gone by 10 p.m. at the latest. All content, calm; not arrogant. Rather, with a feeling that we were ready to address, and explain our approach and educational faith because we believe in it; we live it. There was no rehearsal of straplines, or mnemonics, or mottos to learn. We know it: ‘The best that’s been thought and said’ and to know they are loved by us and God. Our students and staff would be great – because they are – every lesson, every day, every week… it’s what they do. And I say that with full confidence as we pop in regularly to see wonderful practice; we have toured in excess of 300 visitors to witness the same, and staff use us for coaching (we don’t observe lessons). Having built that culture firmly over the last 3 years, the habits of trust, team and excellence course through our veins.AE1A0353

Come Friday morning, the day following Inspection, we returned to school. Slowly, we started to reflect on it having been the most calm, non-stressful Ofsted any of us had ever experienced. We had thanked our Inspectors for being most personable, and they were equally incisive and knew their job and purpose. However, I’d account for the composure and lack of anxiety because we did what we always do. I’ve said many times that chasing Ofsted (and what you think they want) is like chasing a leaf in the wind – you go to grab and it flies away. Our approach, therefore, is to stand firm, to pin our educational philosophy to the mast, and drive that every lesson, every day, with every person on board. When Ofsted came to call (or anyone else visits for that matter), that philosophy was completely embedded; indelibly etched into each one of us. We have had the benefit of time – 3 years – over which that core purpose has been explicitly shared, revisited, reiterated, developed via CPD, briefings, informal chats, interviews, line management meetings, coaching. Equally, trusted, driven staff are respected as experts, have control over their curriculum, and the time to think how to craft and perfect their delivery of it. We all own the philosophy and the culture of it.

And on Thursday, that’s what was so evident. In Inspector-led observations, it meant staff delivered (in my opinion and not related to the pending official Ofsted feedback) stunning, sequenced, expert teaching (it was a privilege to watch) in lessons where students were enabled to learn deeply and reviewed to remember (learn); it meant students were polite, charming, honest, kind, articulate and not uncomfortable talking to visitors. It meant SLT presented the cases; answered the questions and showcased the brilliance of a truly-dedicated team of staff and evidenced what we believe:  that every child, regardless of challenge, will succeed and we are transforming lives.

It really was business as usual.

Loraine Lynch-Kelly
Vice-Principal, Saint Martin’s



Curriculum is diet

‘Our wings are small, but the ripples of our hearts and minds are infinite’

A long blog and a massive game-changer. Grab a cuppa or something in a glass and enjoy…

Knowledge-rich schools are predicated on the highest standards of behaviour and then build confidently on an ambitious curriculum that supports student memory (which is learning). Continuing the grassroots’ view – the how of curriculum.

Curriculum is diet.

We can let pupils ‘eat’ burgers, ready meals, poor-quality food, or we can nourish them with food crafted from the finest ingredients of entitlement and love. These are the extremes of the diet of curriculum we create because pupils will ‘eat’ what we serve them. The diet we choose then is paramount to their learning and is what we mean by education. Our students’ diets goes beyond the 3 year GCSE specification because we are blessed to have the students in our care for 5. Many blogs have been written on the curriculum and few more exciting and more powerful than @MrNott via TES. This blog tracks how we arrived at the ‘best that’s been thought and said’ – THE best part of the journey so far for Saint Martin’s. It has transformed us as a staff, our working lives, put expertise at the centre of everything we do; its impact on our students is transformative as we ramp up the ambition and they feast!

The How…

2 years ago, during a cold January INSET, I set the premise: we’re all History teachers. Students may drop History at the end of Year 8 (though I would absolutely defend their right to History over 5 years – because it’s Literature – the story of how the country and world reached their places today, but I digress.). With only 2 years or 6 terms of History, which events would we, as ‘History teachers’, ensure no child would leave school without knowing? Everyone had a view, of course. From 1066 Hastings to 1966 Wembley; the Revolutions – Tolpuddle, Jarrow; the Tudors; the Civil War; the Slave Trade; the setting up of the Welfare State. World History included revolutions, too: American, French, Russian. And, of course, the people of History: Pankhurst Gandhi, Mandela. It was fascinating and for every topic suggested, all nodded in agreement at its importance, whilst simultaneously realising we couldn’t teach everything…

As we had begun to delve into Curriculum, I shared Siegfried Engelmann’s powerful thoughts summarised in Joe Kirby’s Pragmatic Education blogs. Thank you, Joe. But there was one seminal idea – Engelmann’s insight that ‘the cause of educational failure is the curriculum’ because it placed the responsibility right at the heart of our locus of control.

We looked at different curricula models in varied areas which posed questions about content, chronology, number of units per year, timings. Should we work to arbitrary term lengths, or decide that teaching X takes 13 weeks so it is allocated 13 to teach it in a way that it will be recalled for years to come: learned.). The GCSE specification was acknowledged – it is our duty to teach it – but could we, university-educated professionals, produce a curriculum  that fed our students the content and knowledge we wished we had been served, including the ‘golden nuggets’ of learning which, perfectly sequenced, would drive the depth of understanding beyond our highest aspirations? A curriculum, for example, in MFL, whereby students could converse confidently in French – something they were not able to do despite having been awarded GCSE As and A*s. Revisiting, interleaving and memory were pivotal, too, but they would come once we had crafted the Curriculum.

The question was asked: what is your Department/subject canon? We were clear in our timings too – reject the fruitless separations of Key Stage 3 from 4, in favour of departmental 5-Year Curricula to mastery by looking to the outcome and aspiration for students in our departments and tracking back over 5 years to position what had to go where to reach the end.


We agreed this experience could be emulated in every Department and subject; this was not unique to History. There were choices to be made about the ‘what’ of curriculum. If we left those choices to politicians, we would criticise the narrow white, dead and male canon, so we set off on the most amazing journey: crafting our own – the Saint Martin’s canon predicated on Arnold’s, ‘the best that has been thought and said’. Collaboratively our English teachers battled over ‘Frankenstein’ or  ‘Wuthering Heights’ but both saw all our students being taught a classic Gothic novel, analyse it and create their own descriptive writing from it because both Shelley and Bronte were the best writers for the job.

Such an exercise takes time, swathes of time in fact, as well as deep thought and discussion to shape and craft the plans, but the conversations I have been privileged to drop in to have been (and remain) energising and intellectual. It has been a pleasure to hear Science staff talk so expertly about the modules handed to them in the wrong order or with missing pieces (by the GCSE Spec/KS3 Curriculum) and to watch them reshape their Science curriculum for all 5 Years for our students. Quickly, they came to realise that underpinning prerequisites is essential: teaching digestion meant an understanding of enzymes; needing knowledge of molecules, then bonding, leading to the atom! So Year 7 start with the Atom (smallest first), the Greek and Latin etymologies of thermos and endo/exo, whilst meeting many great scientists on their way – Mendeleev and Rosalind Franklin amongst others, not to mention their own teachers.

In English, it was a process of demolition and re-building, clearing the debris of Autobiographical Writing and Newspapers and the laying of new foundations ensued. In their first term with us, Year 7 encountered ‘The Iliad’, summarised in the context of who Homer was (and indeed if he was) and why we should study him before reading and analysing a translation of, ‘The Odyssey’. This was then followed by Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ with focus on a translation of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. In Trinity Term, they were introduced to Chaucer and Chaucerian English through ‘The Knight’s Tale’, with Year 7 teaching completed with, ‘An Introduction to the Renaissance andA Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ where they meet ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ again, looking very different this time, except students will understand the parody completely – just as Shakespeare intended. Year 8 opens with Rhetoric. It replaces the surface-level FAR DEPRESS SPA or A FOREST persuasive writing with ethos, pathos, logos and the 5 Canons of Rhetoric. We teach anaphora, epiphora, anadiplosis, chiasmus… And we are all energised, learning from those who crafted the most powerful, historical speeches: Christ, Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Wilberforce, Pankhurst, Martin Luther King to name a few. It means our Year 8s know the context of each speech, read/hear it, analyse it, understand its impact. In turn, they then begin writing with integrity from their soul – not in response to a formula or checklist. And how students have gathered voice, opinion, passion, structure as they begin to understand and harness the power of the spoken word.


The journey has been so much more than ‘a curriculum review’ for it has inspired us all to re-consider our subjects and to really think about not just the what, but how we teach it.

In Art, Emma has stripped back her entire curriculum to focus on Portraiture. The results are stunning. All Art students start their GCSE course in Year 7, regardless of whether or not they opt for it at the end of Year 8. As well as spending time (24 hours each per year in Years 7 and 8) building the language and definitions of Art, the palette and Art History, Emma uses the grid method and starts Year 7 with a baseline – a drawing without a grid. Over 2 years, she revisits the same picture for assessment and tracks progress. It is astounding. Lessons are uncomplicated, focused and instructive; students watch the expert and then emulate her; the repetition and precision of stroke enabling all to succeed. Its simplicity and impact are powerful. Emma circulates to support her students, providing personalised feedback to each pupil in every lesson. Drawn, sketched art works of portraits are deconstructed (thank you, Daisy) – eyes, mouths, noses – each worked on very precisely until the moment is right to bring them together to craft a face.


In Music, Tim has re-thought his curriculum to enhance vocabulary; his aim that, by the end of Year 7, they know pianissimo from fortissimo; polyphonic from heterophonic. By Year 9, our students know a Beethoven from a Mozart; know and recognise a Williams and a Zimmer, and can articulate and appreciate them musically. All students know notation; all students can write music (not just those who can afford peripatetic lessons); all students play instruments and create – not what Space sounds like which, at best, is cacophonic, but all can play from major and minor scales to Blues improvisations.

In PE, Shaun is working on the knowledge and vocabulary necessary to underpin the theory of his subject. The calf is called the gastrocnemius; the collar-bone the clavicle. In addition to his PE Script, he is also creating a booklet of Sporting Greats. This will consist of moments, people and achievements that he judges all students are entitled to know as masters of the cultural capital of sport: the original Marathon; rugby; Muhammad Ali, Roger Bannister, Pele, Serena and Venus Williams, Ellie Simmonds. He believes that if the PE staff don’t explicitly tell the students, they may never know the endeavours and accomplishments of these amazing people; their dogged determination against the odds, and their astounding sporting prowess. Pupils will be able to rely on the strength of their stories to inspire them in the face of adversity, too, and learn that hard work and resilience are key to success.

Every subject has begun this journey and we make greater progress towards our destination every day.

So where’s Curriculum now?

What we are doing will impact upon the futures of our students and change their lives forever.

  1. We realised that subjects are not the same so they cannot be treated the same. Christine Counsell has been instrumental in that seminal moment of learning. Thank you. We refer to it often. Cumulative v hierarchical. They just are. Let their leaders and teachers take them in their right directions, but don’t expect them to do the same – they don’t; can’t, in fact. Respect them. Consistency exists in behaviour and standards+ but not in subjects.
  2. Teachers are experts and know how their subjects work. The Head and I line-manage every Department between us. In our weekly meetings, I ask questions – lots of them – to unpick the essence of subjects, and subject leaders use me as a sounding board for their thinking. It’s powerful; I relish our time as it energises and drives practice to pursue perfection.

At this point in time, we are well on our journey of putting all of that curriculum into the highest-quality Knowledge Books and Scripts which have been made by expert teachers for expert teachers and students to work from in class. They have had an enormous impact on reducing staff workload and have enhanced curriculum, and teaching and learning beyond belief. All for another blog, though.

For now, the whole review and challenge of curriculum is brave. It puts teachers in charge of our domains. It puts us back on the ladder of professionalism – with surgeons and barristers – to say we are experts in our subjects and in the teaching of them. We are! SLT MUST TRUST SUBJECT EXPERTS and give the opportunity, time and support to Departments to find their way through this. The Teaching and Learning Lead needs to ask the questions that prompt such depth of thought and unharnesses expertise that will change lives. Equally, SLT must support their staff if the most efficient way is to learn from those who are already on the path to share their experience of the journey.

The greatest rewards, though, are for the students accessing, learning, engaging with curricula previously reserved for the very advantaged. Pupils will be completely engaged in their learning, thinking, asking us amazing questions. There are no behaviour issues (why would you misbehave when you are this engaged?). At the same time, a tangible respect by students (and staff) for staff has emerged. We no longer look like cabin crew (no offence intended) issuing card-sorts, rainbow groups and spending hours on discovery tasks. No more of that: the stage’s sage is back! They are recognised by students, parents, governors and visitors who comment on how clever our staff are (because they work hard and smart to be thus!) with the Saint Martin’s Curriculum that has unclipped wings so teachers teach and all students devour.

Interested in any of this, just contact Saint Martin’s for a visit @Knowledge_Ed or via or come to hear more at our first Midlands Knowledge Schools Hub conference on Saturday, 12 May. Click here for tickets.



‘In union there is strength’

Midlands Schools Knowledge Hub’s three introductory blogs set out brilliantly the 


landscape view of so much of what we have achieved at 

Saint Martin’s and in Birmingham to secure the best education to serve the wonderful students in our care.

Briefed with the task of crafting the next blog, I go to the grassroots – the classroom (and corridors) – to share the how of realising the vision. Enjoy and welcome!

Polite and charming

Let’s make no bones about it: a knowledge-rich school relies on high expectations of behaviour and etiquette. Some schools operate silent corridors and literal lines not to be crossed, and there is absolutely no criticism of those – expectations and standards are to be decided by each school’s Head and SLT who will know the shared vision and the needs of the students in their care. Our pupils don’t need it. Our site doesn’t lend itself to silence – it’s vast and consists of a main block and external paths that take students out to English, Maths, Drama, Divinity. And, as SLT, we want pupils to talk quietly, calmly on the corridor; to greet and interact politely with staff as well as each other. So we use our annual Bootcamp (and interim Re-Bootcamps) to explicitly set the standard of greeting, ‘Good morning or Good afternoon, Miss/Sir.’ We hold doors open for each other, we say thank you and ask how was the weekend or, ‘How are you?’ It means students confidently make eye-contact, smile, say hello to adults, and we all feel connected and belong – it makes for a calm, respectful atmosphere that sets the tone for the respect evident in classrooms. The model is explicitly shared. It works. And if someone passes and doesn’t acknowledge, we stop them and remind them that it’s good manners to greet.

And we shake hands (we have a reputation for it!)  with visitors, and stand up in rooms and welcome them when they pop in to classrooms. We do it in school (and out) because that’s what we do in life. It’s good manners and we want to inculcate that standard as the norm for all our students, regardless of background: socio-economic or other context. We share that standard and model it explicitly with new Year 7 cohorts on transition and to newcomers in Bootcamp assemblies and House time – the rationale, the feel-good effect of being positive and nice to each other. It means that when a pupil drops their equipment, others stop to help pick it up; or that Year 11s care for a newly-arrived Year 7 student, pointing them in the right direction to class, or taking them to the right place. Exactly the behaviours you would want your own child/ren to learn and be exhibiting daily, and to be in receipt of as a valued member of a school community. Yet, we are not friends, or equals with students. We are very clear that we are the adults. We are the professional experts. We are in charge. We know what’s best for students because of our experience and wisdom. And that the decisions we make for them are not always easy for us to make but they are the right ones, made out of professional love and care, with their best interests at heart. And most students and parents (99% in fact) agree.


We all know that time is one of our greatest resources (staff expertise is the greatest of all). Fascinated by the fact that a short-haul flight to Cork will always serve food/drink and offer duty free within 50 minutes, it means that boarding, seating, luggage-loading, serving times and packing it all away must be performed with efficacy in mind. In class, with time in, start, review, content, apply, tidy, leave, time is finite and precious, too. Via weekly CPD (when we invest time and bespoke training to all teaching staff) we’ve looked at timing and introduced two of the many Doug Lemov mantras that underpin our class practice: Entry and Exit Routines, and the Do Now, to ratchet-up behaviour to enable us to maximise lesson time and support student memory (a euphemism for student learning). Via assemblies, the expectations were explained explicitly for clarity of message and rationale – learning more and more deeply, and a better education. And the training began. United as a team of staff, Entry and Exit routines were quickly established:

  • polite and charming students line-up outside classroom doors ‘lesson-ready’, single file with equipment, Planners, their reading book and any files, books, etc., in hand.
  • the teacher welcomes individuals in at the door (picks up any issues on the door and ensures students enter carrying equipment). They will have practised the fastest, most efficient way during Bootcamp – filling in from back or side or front of the class and in silence – purposefully.
  • All lesson items will be placed on tables; bags below and tucked away and the teacher greets:

’Good morning, Year …’

They reply, ‘Good morning, Ms/Mrs/Miss/Mr …’

‘You may sit down. Blazers off if you wish.’

(Some schools are scripting this and more for consistency of pace in lesson starts/ends.)

24 seconds with a class of 32 students. And they are off!

The reason they are ‘off’ is again thanks to Doug Lemov – we have our blessed Holy Bible as a Catholic school and we have Teach Like a Champion as our teaching bible. Lemov’s Do Now is available to every student so that we support every student’s review of key subject information from the previous lesson, combined with the ‘blast from the past’ interleaving or revisiting of key subject terminology that needs to be shifted into and secured in long-term memory over time. And we do that every lesson; every day. As Aristotle says: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.’ And that habitual act of attempting to retrieve information, supports the very learning of it, resulting, long-term, in our students (all abilities and needs) just ‘knowing stuff’.

Staff prepare a Do Now to last the first 3-5 minutes of the lesson. Students complete it in silence, independently and without need of explanation. It may be on a sheet, on a Powerpoint slide, or written on the board – the professional teacher will decide that. It invariably reviews information taught and to be learned: spellings/vocabulary, character names, timeline, quotations, oceans, formulae, artists, food processes, body parts, properties of shapes/steel… taken from the 40-50 pieces of key subject information identified on the Knowledge Organiser.

This low or no-stakes quizzing quickly establishes the calm, purposeful start to every lesson that we want. Students are on task, engaged without being ‘entertained’! There is no wasted ‘settling time’ and staff can gather a moment to clear their head from teaching ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ to Year 11 and re-set their brains into Ovid’s tale of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ with Year 7 (and take the register). It’s great for teachers teaching for 4 and 5 hours a day and for those who travel and need to set-up for the lesson, too. For both, it’s the chance to draw breath before the answers and then beginning the instruction. The Do Now also allows students to do the same – to transition in their heads from one subject to another. I was in French; now it’s Maths.

Once set-up, the teacher circulates, processing the quality of answers being recorded – strengths, weaknesses – diagnosing what needs to be worked on, returned to quickly; picking up misconceptions, etc.. Within the 3-5 mins the teacher gives the answers (they are either right or wrong; nuances clarified, but this is not teaching time). The lesson moves on; instruction begins. The Do Now is also a diagnosis for the student to see what they know and to establish what they need to work on for next lesson; the teacher will diagnose too, and adjust next lesson’s Do Now to support learning.

The resultant power of this practice in every lesson 5 times a day is astounding and makes you realise the importance of routine to learning , work ethic, school culture and purpose – students self-quiz, retrieve, learn…. Not only that, the first 5 minutes of any lesson root the ethos, atmosphere and expectations. It really is so simple, easy to embed and so powerful in establishing a calm, purposeful, safe learning environment and quickly moves schools away from places where lesson starts consist of crowd-control with teachers fire-fighting and battling to be heard, to ones where they come to effortlessly establish their authority in a room. That ‘Shhh!’, ‘Quiet, please!’, ‘Come on, Year …’ desperation 5 times per day is draining and not good for the soul. Instead, Lemov’s Entry/Exit/Do Now mean the History teacher might not see her class again for 2 days, but her students will be well-practised by then as they will have experienced this routine 10 times (5 lessons a day for us). This harnesses the power of us as the team – a power too often neglected or ignored in schools, especially ones that purport the notion that teachers work in isolation. Not true. In fact, at Saint Martin’s, we work together to support this practice:

  • House Tutors ensure their students leave a.m. Form/registration lesson-ready for lesson 1
  • lesson 1 teacher does the same for lesson 2
  • break
  • lesson teacher is on the corridor to start lesson 3 and we all remind students to be prepared as they line-up
  • lesson 3 prepares students for lesson 4
  • lunch
  • lesson teacher is on the door for lesson 5 to remind and check
  • lesson 5 teacher ensures students leave prepped for lesson 6/Form time at the day’s end.
  • each of us investing 20 seconds of time in our lessons for our colleagues. The dividends are enormous.

And any member of staff out and about during changeovers will proactively remind students to be ‘lesson ready’. We encourage everyone in it – regularly. It means our students are so purposefully drilled that Cover lessons start just as efficiently. It’s one of the many reasons we all love working at Saint Martin’s.

The lesson ends with the reverse: tidy away, but keep out the Planner (Diary), equipment, reading book, get out next-lesson books; chairs in, blazers on, ‘Good morning and thank you, Year 11’; ‘Good morning and thank you, Ms ..’. The respect is modelled – manners, politeness – with teachers in charge – rightfully – releasing their classes in an orderly way. Corridors are calm and pleasant, despite having been built to hold 346 students and currently seeing 650 pass through. Against the backdrop of such calm, adults are in charge not with loudness, but with the calm authority of respect and purposefulness.

How long to achieve? 2 weeks to lay secure foundations. Start with your Teaching and Learning Lead sharing this explicitly with whole team – all staff, including support staff. Share the rationale and practice in CPD or INSET. They may film it to show it;  share it; talk it through; make it explicit what is happening; discuss how that will translate into practical lessons – PE, Art, RM, etc.. They may practise it in one area, or with one class or a subject area to show it works in your school, then roll it out. Share the rationale with students – no surprises – and with parents. Upload it onto your school website, Facebook, Twitter – share the expectation; be proud! SLT have to review it, support it, coach it until it’s embedded and then keep returning to review it so it can’t peter out. And it’s SLT, who have to be out and about, who will need to be deployed for the first 2 weeks (intensively initially), to oversee areas of the school, support staff to embed this and be on hand, just in case it is challenged. In such cases, SLT simply remove such students from the entire lesson and book them into a one hour same-night detention, explaining, of course, to the student and their parents, why Entry/Exit/Do Nows are so important to the student’s learning – which is our core purpose. This leaves teaching staff to secure the routine and get on with teaching, and leaves students in no doubt that this is happening, it is for their good and they will do it because we love them.


Loraine Lynch-Kelly
Vice-Principal, Saint Martin’s


The Midland Knowledge Hub

We set up The Midlands Knowledge Schools Hub to anchor the knowledge-rich philosophy in practice and to re-centre the gravity of this movement to broaden access to it. In order for us to magpie so much, we spent lots of time in brilliant (though not exclusively London) schools. Thank you! Ostensibly, we offer schools interested in, contemplating or keen to adopt this approach, the model and practical advice so freely offered to us by so many. We’ve started working with Nuneaton’s Midland’s Academies Trust (MAT) to walk this journey with them with astounding results so far and only on a part-time basis. We are passionately evangelical about this educational approach because of its impact on our students, on their learning and outcomes, and on the lives of our staff. We simplify and question everything – and we are delighted to promote this modus operandi.


The Launch and Conference

We’re very grateful to have Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, launching the Hub at Saint Martin’s on the 10th of May at Saint Martin’s (Any Midland Head Teachers/ Deputies i/c of Teaching and Learning are welcome to come to the launch which will include a speech from Nick Gibb and from Stuart Lock, Head Teacher of the Bedford Free School – email me for an invite). In addition to this, our first conference will be on Saturday May 12th 2018 entitled ‘What does a Knowledge-Rich School look like?’ – tickets available here. We have some really interesting speakers, educational bloggers and writers. The confirmed ones so far are Andrew Old, Ben Newmark, Stuart Lock, Robert Peal, Jon Brunskill, Helena Brothwell, Ros McMullen and Mark Lehain (With more to follow). If you’re interested in the Hub then please feel free to email me or my Deputy Loraine Lynch-Kelly ( for more information.

Setting up a Knowledge-rich school in inner city Birmingham

In the third blog in preparation for our conference, ‘What does a Knowledge-rich school look like?’  Chris Martin, the Head of School at St Thomas Aquinas in Birmingham outlines what he and his team have learnt from other excellent schools who have been on this journey. For the last year he has been laying the foundations of discipline and routines in order to enable the teaching of an ambitiously Knowledge-rich and stretching curriculum feasible…….


Last summer I was appointed Head of School in a larger than average secondary school.

It is a ‘proper’ inner city school – no playing fields on site (our children have to get a coach at the start of their PE lessons!), a very leaky roof on our main corridor in the school (on one occasion this year I turned the corner and a corridor was under an inch of water and the bell was just about to go for lesson changeover!) and the sloping playground looks out onto two beautiful tower blocks. Despite being as far away from the sea as possible, we also have a large seagull population!!!

Despite all this, it is a truly wonderful school; full of amazing vibrant students and some of the most dedicated and committed staff anyone could ever work with.

Throughout last year, we had a P8 score of -0.4 and our disadvantaged students – which make up over 45% of our cohort – were doing considerably worse than that! We put an Action Plan in place to raise achievement. This consisted of lots and lots of additional sessions; Year 11 no longer had just 5 periods everyday but 7 (period zero before school and period 6 after school!).

Due to the hard work of staff, we raised achievement significantly to be in line with national averages. It didn’t take much further analysis to quickly realise that we had raised achievement for the students who actually turned up for all the additional sessions … but we had simply widened the gap between our PP and non-PP further!

Most significantly, what had been the cost of all this? There was a lot of pressure, long hours and, if I am being really honest, some of the joy and excitement had long disappeared from the faces of staff. All rather depressing.

When reflecting on this, I was convinced there must be an alternative. How could staff rediscover their love of teaching? To embark on a new direction, I got out there. I was allowed to visit some of the best schools in the country. I simply emailed Headteachers and spoke to some of them for an hour. I read books and reports and then contacted authors. I was really taken aback by the generosity and goodwill of fellow professionals who did not even know me – the very best leaders really are driven by moral purpose.

After visiting Michaela School, St Martin’s, Mossbourne Academy, Dixons Trinity Academy and sending colleagues to Bedford Free School and others, and attending numerous ResearchED Conferences, I soon began to realise that there was an alternative approach out there.

When I walk into lessons in any school, it is immediately evident to me that the new GCSEs our students are sitting include content I studied when I sat my A levels. The only way students who arrive to school without the cultural capital necessary to succeed is to be taught it. That is, modelled and explained explicitly until it goes into their long term memory. They can stay in school until 6 or 7pm every night to do this. Or, alternatively, a school can have the highest standards of behaviour with a demanding and ambitious curriculum. The key difference with the latter is that staff can have a life!

I was fed up of looking at long faces. As a result, we developed a vision around becoming a Knowledge-rich school. First and foremost, however, we knew we had to improve behaviour.

We did some standard/expected things such as significantly raising expectations re uniform – we banned black trainers and insisted on shoes (we sent lots of students home … but somehow avoided the news).  We also did some more radical things such as same night centralised detentions. Yes, in the first few weeks we did have 100 students in our main hall but we kept going saying we care too much too make exceptions. Perhaps, most crazily of all, we introduced Line Up every morning and afternoon for 1100 students … on that sloping playground with the seagulls! The students walk into school in silence now though and they are much more ready to learn as a result. The impact had been transformational.

Since January, with the improvement in behaviour, our conversations with staff have turned back to what is being taught. If we are serious about raising achievement of our disadvantaged students, we are serious about them studying challenging texts right from their first day in Year 7. We have talked about pedagogy but in a way I have never talked about before in my teaching career. We are talking about direct instruction and modelling and given staff permission to teach their subject rather than entertain. We discuss distributed practice and interleaving key content to ensure our kids can recall key knowledge months after they are first taught it. Although very early days, our staff feel affirmed because they have permission to be experts!

Once you go down the journey of a Knowledge-rich School, I have found that you become more and more convinced it will transform the lives of disadvantaged students. Quite simply, they will get better GCSE grades as a result. More importantly, they will stand on the shoulders of giants they wouldn’t have known existed. What are you waiting for?

Chris Martin
Head of School,
St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School & Sixth Form


The conference and Midland Knowledge Schools Hub Launch and Conference

Saint Martin’s in Stoke Golding, along with Parents and Teachers for Excellence and a network of other Midlands based schools and teachers, are setting up a network called the Midland Knowledge Schools Hub. The aim is to to share expertise and network for those interested in developing a Knowledge-rich curriculum and related strategies to promote attainment in schools, especially among the most disadvantaged.

We’re very grateful to have Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, launching the Hub at Saint Martin’s on the 10th of May at Saint Martin’s (Any Midland Head Teachers/ Deputies i/c of Teaching and Learning are welcome to come to the launch which will include a speech from Nick Gibb and from Stuart Lock, Head Teacher of the Bedford Free School – email me for an invite). In addition to this, our first conference will be on Saturday May 12th 2018 entitled ‘What does a Knowledge-Rich School look like?’ – tickets available here. We have some really interesting speakers, educational bloggers and writers. The confirmed ones so far are Andrew Old, Ben Newmark, Stuart Lock, Robert Peal, Jon Brunskill, Helena Brothwell, Ros McMullen and Mark Lehain (With more to follow). If you’re interested in the Hub then please feel free to email me or my Deputy Loraine Lynch-Kelly ( for more information.