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


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