What has had a really significant impact so far?
In my previous blog I introduced our journey as a school, Saint Martin’s in Stoke Golding, Leicestershire, from being a lovely, but very small, 11-14 high school, to becoming a normal 11-16 Secondary Comprehensive with GCSEs, teenagers and the joys that brings. We’ve been (so far, fingers crossed, here’s hoping) quite successful at GCSE, in a very short space of time, becoming one of the highest achieving schools at GCSE in the county. In 2017 we had a Progress 8 of 0.47 and 83% of pupils achieved a grade 4+ in Maths and English (This is only our second cohort of GCSE Students). The key to our success is, in a nutshell, some amazing staff and the willingness to nick any good idea we come across and actually implement it. I have, however, elaborated in a bit more detail below. If you like lists, this blog is for you…..
- Vision and the bedrock of some amazing staff
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” Proverbs 29:18. The vision set out was founded on a remarkably harmonious combination of our Catholic ethos and the principles expounded by Hirsch and others that Education is about social justice, that a school should enable any child, from any background or ability, to access the ‘Best that has been thought and said’, to be the inheritors the collected ideas and wisdom of those who have gone before us. That education, and what we do every day as teachers, should drive social mobility and give a child from a deprived background the same opportunities as one who is blessed with more advantageous circumstances in life. In other words our school should make a difference to the lives of the children we teach and especially the least advantaged.
We are also blessed with an amazing group of teachers and senior leaders who have embraced the change and driven it forward in imaginative and interesting ways that I could never have predicted. I have extraordinary colleagues without whom pupils would not have been able to have the success they did and do.
As a footnote – I have also banned the ‘O’ word from being used in any context other than in a SLT meeting. It’s one of the first things I say to my new staff. I have too often heard the awful phrase in schools, ‘this is what OFSTED want’, an understandable sentiment but one which corrupts what we do and, as my deputy says, it’s like chasing a leaf in the wind; It’ll move as soon as you’ve caught up with it.
- No-nonsense discipline
As it says on the tin, pupils have to behave. In fact they have to be polite, charming and well-mannered at all times. Pupils have to have exemplary behaviour in lessons. Any disruptive pupil is removed and sanctioned. It is the responsibility of the Leadership Team to ensure good behaviour throughout the school. If a pupil misbehaves it is not because a teacher’s lesson isn’t ‘engaging’ enough, it’s because the child has chosen to be misbehave. Even if a lesson is drop dead boring, pupils must still behave. Children who may struggle with good behaviour need this discipline more than most, schools may be able to create a world where compromises for poor behaviour are made, however the outside world is uncompromising. We feel that to send young people out into the world without being taught self-discipline and the habits of successful people, then we have failed them. Our staff know they need to model this behaviour and go out of their way to be both warm, kind and well mannered whilst maintaining uncompromising standards.
- Teacher as the expert
We are not facilitators at Saint Martin’s, we teach, we are experts whose job it is to convey our expertise to pupils and enable pupils to remember. When we have gaps in our expertise (For example our English department who have introduced a demanding course on Ovid into Year 7 or an extraordinary Rhetoric course into Year 8) then teachers devote their time to reading and researching rather than creating multi-media PowerPoints or spending evenings cutting up bits of cards and putting them in envelopes for a 10 minute activity. Desks are in rows, with pupils facing the expert teacher. Normal lessons tend to be very simple (Low-stakes quizzing, teacher talk, reading of high level text, extended writing, lots of questioning, that’s it more or less) but some of the learning is amazing, I’ve been in English lessons where lower ability Year 7 pupils have been quoting Aristotle or Cicero to back up their point about the foundations of Renaissance literature. We celebrate teacher talk, partly because it was frowned upon by OFSTED for so many years, but mainly because this down grading of teacher talk is so utterly absurd. Teachers have degrees, they have studied for years, they know stuff, if you are 12 you know very little about conjugating irregular verbs. Someone who speaks French needs to tell you, pupils then need to memorise and practice.
Consequently, group work is rare, although I heard a rumour it happened back in the summer of 2015. Departments also use our own Saint Martin’s lesson scripts or teacher made text books which are far more demanding the published text books. Once a script has been produced, there is very little lesson prep other than ensuring we have a handle on what we’re teaching. If you’re teaching an in depth course on rhetoric to Year 8 you’ll probably need to brush up on Isocrates or the Sophists.
What’s quite interesting I think, is that we have rarely prescribed a particular approach, however, when shown the research and teachers have piloted ideas picked up in other schools or from various blogs, the successful ones take root across the school. We spark the interest and fan the flames. I never at any point asked teachers to put desks in rows or not to do group work (Although I may have once said that group work was crap – but we all know that anyway).
I used to think that the quality of teaching and learning was everything. And then, through the ideas of Siegfried Engelmann and various blogs like Michael Fordham’s one entitled ‘The Curriculum as progression model’, it dawned me that the diet is as important as the manner in which it is imparted. In other words, the same skilled teacher in English following a curriculum in Year 7 of Harry Potter, Michael Morpurgo and general topics like writing newspapers articles or biography will produce very different outcomes and rates of progress if the diet is, as at Saint Martin’s, Homer, Ovid, Rhetoric and Renaissance literature. A question we ask Heads of Department is, ‘what is your Ovid?’ What does your curriculum consist of that makes for extraordinary outcomes?
Even a practical subject like art, instead of pupils dabbling in a number of different art based activities like painting, pottery, screen printing and generally letting their creativity flow, instead focus on very specific and practiced skill development. Art at Saint Martin’s is essentially a course that teaches all pupils to become proficient portrait artists. Drawing techniques are methodically taught, pupils are explicitly and systematically taught how to draw various facial features with a focus on practice and culminating in portrait drawing and painting. The outcomes, even after just 5 or 6 hours of teaching, are extraordinary.
Creativity, by the way, is based on at first being highly proficient. Picasso, for example, had become an exceptionally skilled artist before he began painting like a 5 year old. The second part is a joke. Just checking. But seriously, you cannot break rules, re-create or imagine new ways of being creative until you have mastered the art form in the first place. To be a superbly creative musician, for example, will need to first read music and master scales.
‘If nothing has been retained in long term memory, nothing has been learned’ Kirschner, Sweller & Clarke. This was another one of those revelations that now seems blindly obvious. I remember a school I was in having a mocksted (A fun version of an OFSTED inspection) and teaching a lesson to a group of 6th formers on some aspect of A level Philosophy. The students lapped up ideas about the Verification Principle or some such thing. The lesson was judged to be outstanding (yay!) and then, merely a week later, when asked a fairly straight forward question like, ‘What is the Verification Principle?’ I had bemused faces looking back at me as if this was an entirely new concept. The lesson clearly wasn’t that outstanding.
Therefore remembering what you have learnt, is fundamental. Daniel Willingham (Why Students don’t like school) and Joe Kirby explain this better than I ever could. But in essence, teaching pupils has to have at its heart memorisation. Hence Knowledge Organisers (Thank you Michaela Community School), a five year revision programme (Thank you Michaela), self-quizzing (Thank you Michaela), low stakes and high stakes quizzing (Thank you Michaela) and so on. By the way, none of the ideas we have developed are original. We are magpies, we borrow and steal everything that seems to work from other schools or very clever people (Genuflect to Daisy Christodoulou there).
So at Saint Martin’s, getting pupils to remember what they learn is central to what we do in every lesson. Day in day out. It’s not sexy, it requires lots of bread and butter teaching and practice, but it works and pupils develop an extraordinary tapestry of facts that knit together to give them a deep foundation for their understanding. And, very interestingly, they enjoy it. If you’re a low ability Year 7 pupil there is a joy in being able to quote Aristotle in order to underpin your point about Renaissance literature that no multi-media interactive kinaesthetic card sort could ever match. That’s another thing, Visual Auditory and Kinaesthetic learning is made up. OMG. That revelation made me angry, Tom Bennett angry, no actually worse than that, Andrew Old angry.
- Butterflies and Hornets
One of Joe Kirby’s best blogs is one entitled Hornets and butterflies, originally an idea Tim Brighouse developed with the analogy of hornets as high-effort, low-impact activities, and butterflies as low-effort, high-impact activities. So, as a whole school we looked at what are the least productive things we do and what are the simplest but most effective. What is it that causes a teacher stress and is time consuming that could be eradicated or minimised. What is it that actually impacts on pupil learning. These are a list of some of the things, we consider not worth the effort:
Lesson observations – stressful for teachers, contrived, and do not help a teacher develop. Instead we have low-stakes coaching where the coaches ask teachers for their worst lessons, weakest practice, most desired development point. The two week coaching slot is then just about tweaking. If a teacher struggles more, the coaching is more intensive.
Marking – we have turned into ‘Feedback’ and teachers read through key tasks in a book, note on a sheet the common issues and give whole class feedback for pupils to then annotate their work in green. Visualizers are used to illustrate issues, common misconceptions and good examples.
Lesson planning – keeping it simple. No multi-media PowerPoints, card sorts, group work activities or ‘engaging activities ’. The expectation is that a lesson will be simple and founded upon the expertise of the teacher. So a typical lesson will be a combination of low-stake or occasionally high stakes quizzes, teacher talk, challenging reading, extended writing or an aspect of writing practice plus lots of questioning. Doug Lemov and Teach like a Champion is our classroom Bible.
- Challenge everything, outward looking
One thing I have learnt, is that common practices should not be considered sacred, there is often a better way of doing something. Some of the things we have done for years are a waste of time. Some things considered outdated or rejected are actually effective. Learning facts off by heart, for example, has been done for millennia. There was a reason for that and just because we now have Google does not take away the need for pupils to have knowledge in their heads in order to access information. Again, far greater minds than mine explain this so much more eloquently, but, in a nutshell, to think intelligently and creatively, we need facts and information about a particular area of expertise at our fingertips. Children who write the most eloquently and beautifully also read the most; they absorb the prose of their reading and creatively reimagine it in new and interesting ways. This is why the tracts of rhetoric that Shakespeare learnt (by rote, off by heart, drilled and killed) are reflected in his writing. It’s the whole ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ thing. In other words, and I still find it difficult to say out loud to teachers, let alone write it, learning by rote is beneficial, in fact necessary. And the thing is, it’s what bright children do anyway to develop expertise in a field and pass exams. The children who miss out are those that don’t do this and the knowledge gap grows exponentially. These children are often the least advantaged. I’ve gone off the point a bit here. (Back to the point) Challenge everything. There is often a better way to do what we do, more efficiently and more effectively. As a great head teacher I worked for once used to say, ‘work smarter not harder’. Us Head Teachers can be guilty of telling staff to ‘work harder not smarter’. As you may remember, Boxer, the horse from Animal Farm used to say ‘I will work harder!’ This may seem like a good thing (and I confess I’ve found it always a good answer for anyone when in a pickle with the boss – try preceding it with ‘Yes you’re quite right, it’s not good enough’. Works every time), however, as you may also remember, Boxer ended up dead. And this is perhaps one of the most important things I’ve learnt, as a school leader, we need to make good teaching sustainable for the sanity and welfare of staff. Discipline needs not to be an issue for teachers. SLT need to sort this. Lesson expectations need to be a very straightforward, convey your expertise and love of subject. That’s it. Forget multimedia, singing and dancing lessons. Get rid of anything that is unhelpful, inefficient or peripheral to this core purpose.
Oh, and finally – ensure a culture is created where a school is a harmonious and happy place to be, where people want to come to work. Where pupils are explicitly taught to be charming and well mannered. Where teachers, once given a very clear vision, are trusted as professionals to get on with their job.
The Midland Knowledge Schools Hub
And absolutely finally, if you are helped, supported, blessed and inspired by other schools and teachers, do likewise when you can. Hence our decision to establish the Midland Knowledge Schools Hub. As I’ve already noted, any good ideas we’ve had are probably stolen off someone else or some other school. So, in that vein, we are setting up a network called the Midland Knowledge Schools Hub, in order to gather together more great teachers and school leaders and nick even more great ideas. We’re establishing this network, along with Parents and Teachers for Excellence, and other local teachers and schools who are following a similar path. 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 email@example.com 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
Principal, Saint Martin’s, Stoke Golding