Taking Stock of the Education Agenda Part 1

Lots of excellent reading material this year, helping to set the course.
Lots of excellent reading material this year, helping to set the course.


This has been a rather remarkable year in education and in my professional life.  Amid the permanent white water of policy change, I’ve been fortunate to have numerous opportunities to engage with teachers, school leaders, academics and policy-makers.  The world of twitter and blogging continues to provide a wonderfully rich seam of challenging material.  David Didau, Joe Kirby and Alex Quigley are among those who regularly challenge me to re-evaluate my practice. There have been some very good books and a few such as Daisy Christodoulou’s ‘Seven Myths’ that, whilst I don’t accept the overall message, have certainly made me think; in fact I’ve been challenged quite a lot this year.

Conference highlights include attending the SSAT Symposia in March, notably the sessions led by Tim Oates, Dylan Wiliam and Andy Hargreaves; the Education Festival at Wellington where Geoff Barton’s session on literacy left a big impression; ResearchEd at Dulwich College brought an amazing array of thinkers together; people like David Weston, Robert Coe and Laura McInerny. (Well worth following all of these links.)

I’ve also had the privilege of working with the Headteachers’ Roundtable leading to meetings with a range of people at the DFE and OfQual and the launch of our own Baccalaureate trial. In addition I’ve served on the Labour Skills Task Force working with Chris Husbands to shape ideas for future Labour policy.   It’s been eye-opening to learn how education policy is formed and how few people from education are directly involved.

Screen shot 2013-12-13 at 15.57.49
The SSAT National Conference in Manchester captured in cartoons.

Most recently I attended the SSAT National Conference in Manchester where the theme was ‘The New Professionalism’.  I had the pleasure of meeting big-hitting academics Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, David Jesson and Tim Oates and of talking once again to SSAT regulars Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas.  I also attended superb workshops with the Pedagogy Leaders from Canons High School and Ken Brechin from Cramlington Learning Village, which runs an exemplary CPD programme.

Of course, throughout the year, my main source of inspiration comes from the teachers and students at my own school where, to my mind, magical things happen every day.  My children’s school experience is also a continuing influence.

Looking Ahead

So, with all this input, it’s time for a stock-take; to think about where we are in terms of teaching and learning, school leadership and national education policy.

The SSAT Redesigning Schooling themes are a useful framework for thinking about the road ahead. These are also the themes that are shaping our thinking in the Vision2040 research group and they cover most bases. Each area is huge; this is just an attempt to map out the territory, not to answer all the questions.

1. Professional Capital

Improving the quality of teaching is rightly emerging as the dominant theme. All too often shrouded in the fuss around curriculum change, exams and school structures, the nature and quality of teacher training and CPD for serving teachers should be driving the education agenda. David Weston is brilliant on this issue.

Obviously more needs to be done to encourage great people into the profession; as Andy Hargreaves says, we should talk up the profession and give more value to experience and expertise developed over time.  I like the idea of decisional capital – our capacity to make informed professional judgements. We’ve lost that in too many areas including assessment and curriculum design.  We need to value different routes into teaching – I’m all for bringing people in from far and wide – but after 3-5 years we need a rigorous assessment such that QTS means something very significant.

In-school CPD should be the dominant concern of Heads.  Some schools have excellent models.  The National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN) has produced a superb framework to challenge schools in this area – I’m glad my school has joined because it challenges us in exactly the right way:   We should be working harder to ensure all teachers have an enquiry driven mindset, looking for evidence to support their practice in the context of their classrooms, engaging both with research and in research.

I think there should be scope for all teachers to engage in CPD of two types:  CPD for mastery – ie honing core skills like questioning and behaviour management – and CPD for innovation; having a go at new approaches to see if they make a difference.  Lesson Study looks set to grow as a practice amongst Secondary teachers.  Our initial forays, as I report here, have yielded very interesting results and more teachers at my school are volunteering to do this.

2. Teaching and Learning

When I talk to Headteachers or if I visit schools, the issues that come up most often are difficulties with stretching the highest performers – often refered to as ‘top end stretch and challenge’; behaviour management (still) and, more generally, low expectations.  Sometimes Heads talk about lessons being too passive – where teachers are too controlling and there’s a stifled, inhibited, ‘lid-on’ feel to the learning.   If my blog stats are any measure, the dominant issues are behaviour management (again), marking and feedback and differentiation.  Clearly these day-to-day challenges are real for people, suggesting we need to provide appropriate CPD time for them.

The whole issue of setting standards seems to be key – knowing how to pitch lessons so that every student is being challenged and supported appropriately.  Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence and the Austin’s Butterfly story help to think about these ideas; the idea that we settle for too little from students when, with structured guidance, they are capable of excellence.  Knowing what excellence looks like in every context should be a dominant concern for every teacher and leader.

There’s an ongoing discussion around the appropriate balance of teaching for deepening knowledge, developing skills and fostering a range of dispositions (resilience etc). I find this discussion often leads to caricatures of teaching that I rarely see in practice but it has thrown up some interesting questions for me:

1. Should we teach more deliberately to improve memory and recall using more testing and interleaving of content? (David Didau is excellent on this stuff.) At KEGS a number of teachers are working on a very exciting Learning by Heart project – (more of which soon) and they’re finding it can enrich the learning experience enormously. Only time will tell if it leads to better writing or examination outcomes but that may not be the point! These age-old practices – learning by heart and testing – have become associated with drudgery; but they may well be the way to secure a better education.

2. Can we actually teach to develop dispositions explicitly?  I’m sceptical that resilience, for example, can be taught; it can only develop by putting students in situations were resilience is required, such as a lesson with some properly challenging work.  I’m more persuaded that Growth Mindset ideas can be made explicit to good effect – although simply saying ‘growth mindset’ at people over and over won’t change anything.  There needs to be a genuine attitudinal shift from teachers before students will change.

3. Is there scope for a combination of genuine rigour in learning (real, substantial knowledge and understanding) alongside genuine student leadership and independence? My explorations into co-construction and our Project 9 IT programme support this.  It’s not about saying this is THE way to teach; it’s about considering whether, within the total experience of learning across a year or a school life, there is room for students to have these learning experiences? Well obviously YES is the answer.  That said, the need for straight-forward rigour and challenge are probably even more important in many contexts; context is key.  Sometimes people are arguing for different ways to teach when they are referencing entirely different school contexts.

This set of axes from Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas are worth considering:

A set of axes for considering the direction of pedagogical travel.
A set of axes for considering the direction of pedagogical travel.

The point is not to characterise one side as better/correct/modern and the other as worse/incorrect/Gradgrindian. It is to consider that different bits of learning in different contexts could vary in interesting ways, across each spectrum.  My feeling is that a person will be better educated in the end – and will live a more fulfilled life – if they’ve encountered learning in many different forms.  It’s all about gaining the deepest and widest array of knowledge possible, in different ways, developing all kinds of skills and personal dispositions along the way.

3. Principled Curriculum Design

With all the noise about the National Curriculum (which I still haven’t looked at in great detail) and the demise of NC Levels, the freedom (and responsibility) teachers have to take hold of the curriculum doesn’t seem to have been fully acknowledged yet.  Dylan Wiliam’s SSAT Pamphlet stressed the idea that pedagogy trumps curriculum; in fact, curriculum IS pedagogy.  This is a key concept. We create curriculum in every lesson through the way we teach concepts. The ‘enacted curriculum’ is what students experience; this matters much much more than what is stated on the syllabus or DFE website.

I’m hoping that there will be a gradual awakening in the profession around this concept.  School leaders and teachers should spend more time planning together and shaping the curriculum they want – rather than continually considering the curriculum to be something dictated from above, beyond their control.  I’d like to see more time spent looking at what Tim Oates calls the ‘constructs’ of learning in each curriculum domain, planning appropriate sequencing from first principles instead of merely following the familiar road set out in off the shelf text books and schemes of work (unless they deliver the right thing.)

In this, we have an opportunity to develop teachers’ pedagogical knowledge and getting that rigorous thinking embedded.  To use Tim Oates’ favourite example, we should be teaching that ‘mass is conserved in chemical reactions’; we are not merely teaching ‘about chemical reactions’. This level of depth is required across the curriculum but it is just the start; how we teach these constructs then needs to deliver that understanding.  Laced within this is the idea of cultural capital and the associated Matthew Effect. Planning curriculum content needs to take account of the holes that will exist in learners’ cultural capital, giving them the opportunity to fill them, not just leave them to fall down later.

Of course, there is a qualifications and accountability framework to contend with.  Within that there are kinds of issues to resolve in the coming years. The perennial divide between academic and technical learning and the structural segregation that happens in schools along these pathways is something we need to revisit. Many schools take their lead in this area from the prevailing Performance Measure criteria rather than from the value they themselves place on the learning components. Curriculum design at the level of a whole-school timetable is in a bit of a crisis I’d suggest.  I’m hoping that the Headteachers’ Roundtable Baccalaureate model will gain traction… we certainly get plenty of interest.  2014 is a big year for us.

One final note on this.  I’ve attended three sessions this year where a Head or teacher has proclaimed the virtue of their radical, innovative curriculum that is competence or skills-based and is ‘not knowledge driven’.  That makes me cringe; it’s wrong.  Surely they should be saying that their skills/competence based curriculum is ‘knowledge rich’; otherwise it just sounds lame, woolly and low quality.  It could be a presentational flaw but, if real, that’s got to be worrying.  These things are still rare in the system but are often the source of the caricatures mentioned earlier.

OK. This post is already too long. In Part 2

4. Intelligent Accountability

  • OfSTED
  • Performance measures
  • Lesson observations
  • The impact on curriculum and assessment

5. Structures

  • Academies, Multi-Academy Trusts
  • Teaching Schools
  • Sixth Form and FE

6. Technology

  • Just where are we with the edtech stuff?



  1. Another fantastic blog which gives so much food for thought. I especially like the comment that knowledge v skills debates often descend into caricature. I look forward to hearing more about the learning by heart project. Not only the results but the methodology that produced the results.


  2. Outstanding and thought provoking blog as ever. I like your comment on the knowledge v skills debate descending into caricature.
    I look forward to hearing more about the learning by heart project. I feel too often (and I am guilty of this) pupils leave the classroom and we “tick off” the content as taught (and learnt) with little regard as to how best we can get this learning to stick. I will be interested in the philosophy and methodology of this approach.


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