I wrote this article for ASCL’s The Leader Magazine. It was rejected because it was felt some Heads might be offended – some comprehensives do all this stuff already they said. So, fair enough, it isn’t sensible to generalise from my experience of specific schools – but I still feel the message and ideas are relevant so here it is:
What can be learned from comparing the experience of students at a highly selective Grammar school with that of students of comparable ability in a non-selective comprehensive? Is there learning that could make a difference to how we meet the needs of all learners? This is a question that has fascinated me since arriving as Head at KEGS after spending fifteen years in two diverse comprehensive community schools in Holland Park and Haringey. The comparison forms a part of daily life for me as my daughter attends a local London comprehensive; I have a personal as well as professional interest. It is also a feature of the partnership work that KEGS is involved in through Leading Edge and the Consortium for School Improvement, an affiliation of ten schools in Essex working together for mutual support. In our discussions we regularly consider what elements of outstanding practice in one context could be transferred to another. Whilst I continually find myself drawn to strategies from my past experience or the insights of colleagues in neighbouring comprehensives to take my own school forward, my conclusion, now I am in my third year at KEGS, is that the Grammar school experience has a very significant contribution to make to the school improvement agenda.
To capture the eye-opening experience of arriving at KEGS I often use the analogy that it was like walking into a rainforest after living on a plantation. At KEGS, there are forms of learning that I had never seen before, had never thought possible or had forgotten existed. I realise now that the pressures, constraints and drag-factors that I’d always had to deal with before had begun to limit my sense of what was possible. I’d become pre-occupied with bottom-line benchmark data, with intervention and control at the expense of exploring the upper limits of the possibilities for learning and of allowing teachers the level of autonomy their professionalism and skill warranted.
If I were to return to my previous schools, I would go armed with a fresh perspective. Here are just some ideas I would take that KEGS has reinforced or taught me- the first being the most important of all:
Set the highest possible expectations for learning:
KEGS students from Year 7 upwards are set a volume of homework every day far in excess of anything I’ve encountered elsewhere. In lessons, they are challenged to respond in sophisticated ways without excessive teacher input. They are encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them. For example, ‘Faust is fun’ and ‘Kids can do Candide’ are Year 7 units that characterise our approach to language learning. Students thrive on this level of challenge. Previously I felt that, too often, teachers faced with low aspirations or disengagement, inadvertently put a ceiling on their most able students’ achievement, settling for outcomes that seem strong but actually fall short of their potential. But the idea of learning without limits has to be the goal. It is not about pushing; it is more a question of removing barriers or taking off the lid; of getting out of the way.
Value teacher autonomy and subject expertise
There is a place for whole-school initiatives but too often teachers feel compelled to plan formulaic three-part lessons or write lesson objectives on the board as if these are absolute rules; in doing so they lose the essence of what makes great teachers great – passion, creativity and the courage and confidence to venture way off piste. Ultimately less control and more professional trust pays dividends. Also, to support learning at the very top end, subject knowledge is a more powerful asset than I’d ever fully acknowledged before. Clearly, in many contexts, strong classroom management and a certain level of presence are pre-requisites but for those A*s, for true engagement with the subject, depth of teacher knowledge is key and should form a greater part of the discourse in departments and the content of CPD, alongside pedagogical ideas.
Trust students to lead learning and the community
Students at KEGS are given responsibility for a great many core activities. As well as community work and mentoring, they run an ICT curriculum project where Sixth Formers teach Year 9 modules that the students have chosen themselves; they organise House Music which leads, for example, to multiple string quartets and rock bands forming and 50-strong choirs rehearsing in the playground; they edit their own newspaper without teacher supervision or censorship; they arrange debates and conferences (only last week I stumbled upon the Junior Debating Society where ‘this house would invade North Korea’ was being strongly contested!) My daughter, at her very good school, has had none of these experiences.
Acceleration through depth not speed
An often-used G&T approach is to take exams ahead of time on the basis that students respond to the challenge and gain confidence in doing so. However, aside from the problem of what you do afterwards, we find at KEGS that there is more to be gained by going through and beyond the syllabus without early entry. If there is time to spare, why not use it for more practical work in science or a wider selection of poetry in English? There is no rush. On the contrary this approach helps secure higher grades and engages students through the depth of learning rather than the speed.
A common thread through each of these areas is that teachers and leaders invest more trust in students and colleagues; they are able to let go and take a few risks. The conditions in a selective school obviously allow this to happen more easily; the stakes do not appear to be so high and the virtuous circle of aspiration and success is almost built-in. But actually it is only a question of confidence and intent; ambition not ability. What about the key learning in the other direction? Without stretching the analogy too far, clearly not everything thrives in the competitive environment of a rainforest! A plantation has the advantage of ensuring minimum standards and giving more vulnerable individuals the opportunity to survive and thrive. Working with Robin Newman, who recently left KEGS to become Deputy Head at Notley High School and Braintree Sixth Form, we have identified the key areas where comprehensive schools tend to be stronger. These include: • differentiation, personalisation and supporting students with wide ranging special educational needs • engaging pro-actively with parents that are hard to reach or who have low aspirations for their children • using data in a sharp, focused way to raise attainment • promoting tolerance and understanding of people from different contexts, providing opportunities for personal and social development. • linking pastoral and academic support, recognising that success takes many forms. I’d like to think we are doing well on these issues at KEGS but Robin tells me we have much further to go! Without doubt, I take away as many ideas from our local partnership meetings as anyone else and clearly, in both directions, different schools will have varying strengths and weaknesses and will be addressing many of these issues effectively regardless of their context. One thing Robin and I agree on is that high expectations and effective AfL provide the answers to almost everything; schools of all kinds have a largely common agenda and there is a strong broad consensus that the key to improving the quality of teaching and learning is founded on embedding effective formative assessment practice. However, I am convinced that a great many of the features of my school’s success could be transferred to a different context. Perhaps what we need is to create a learning environment that is the best of both worlds – a kind of managed rainforest?! I’d like to extend an invitation to anyone willing to work with me to test that idea out further.