Multi Academy Trusts, who’s being ideological?

This week’s Talking Head comes from Martin Clephane, Head Teacher at St James’ RC Voluntary Aided Primary School in Hebburn, South Tyneside

Sometimes those opposing multi academy trusts (MATs) have been said to do so on ideological grounds. The truth is that ideology is at the heart of this issue as it so often is in education, which has become a “political football”.

The Academy Act came into being in 2010 and brought in by the then Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, possibly the most ideologically driven Education Minister this country has seen. So what is driving his ideology? Well we know that as a Tory he is in part influenced by 18th Century Philosopher Adam Smith; you will know him from the back of the £20 note. Adam Smith was also a great influence on Margaret Thatcher (another former Education Minister).

So what did he do? Well in 1776 he wrote a book called the Wealth of Nations. In it were two key ideas:

1) The division of labour. Up until then a craftsperson would make something from raw materials to finished product. Adam Smith suggested that the process be broken up into parts with a different person doing each one; thus inventing the production line and revolutionising the manufacture of goods.

2) The idea that reasoned self-interest and competition would lead to economic success.  1776, when the book came out, was also the year of the American Declaration of independence. This is no coincidence as the principles of Adam Smith and other Scottish Philosophers were woven into the creation of the new nation. There is no arguing that the idea of self-interest and competition hasn’t resulted in economic success; as the United States went on to become the greatest economy the world has ever seen.

Let’s consider an alternative or counter ideology to that of Adam Smith or the tory party. Forward to 1848 and we come across another philosopher, this time from Germany. Karl Marx; who produced a pamphlet called the Communist Manifesto. The central idea was the redistribution of wealth so that the top 20% would not own as much as the other collective 80%. Key to this ideology was the seizing of the means of production, which meant that ‘fat-cat’ factory or farm owners would not gather all the wealth while the labourers did all the work for little money. The means of production would be owned by the state in the name of the people so the wealth created could be shared. It was this idea which resulted in our country nationalising industries, the creation of the NHS and comprehensive education. This control is often referred to as “the hand of state”.

Back to Michael Gove; as minister he wanted, of course, to improve education in this country. Driven by the principle of self-interest and competition he needed schools to be working independently of each other so as to compete, more effectively. (It is this idea of competition breeding success which has seen previous governments bring in standardised tests, league tables and Ofsted grades). But he had a problem; the counter ideology of the hand of state had control of the collective schools in the guise of the Local Authority. Gove would have to separate schools from the hand of state to move his ideology forward. How would he do this? Well the first way is to remove resources from the Local Authority; to starve it at source. This has led to the unprecedented cuts to local authorities across the board. The second strategy is to give schools the ability to cut ties with the Local Authority and become autonomous; thus the creation of the Academy Act.

But how would he convince schools to break away? By using two tried and tested methods 1) carrot and 2) the stick. The carrot being the lure of greater control and access to more money in your budget, (I will choose not to mention CEO wages at this point) the stick being the ‘fait accompli’ argument that it was inevitable that all schools will be academies and better you got on board sooner rather than later as you may miss out on the best rewards.

The same arguments are being used today; eight years after the creation of the act. So why didn’t it happen? Why didn’t everyone join Gove’s revolution? Gove would suggest that we are all Marxists in education and immersed in the counter ideology as discussed earlier.

I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools.

(Michael Gove, Mail on Line 22:02, 23 March 2013)

Well 95% of NAHT members voted against the compulsion to become an academy, maybe they were all Marxists, but something else came into play. The tory back benchers who represented communities where schools were good or outstanding could see no reason to change when their schools were doing so well. The idea of a good school having to sponsor a failing school, thereby risking its own reputation, would not fit into the idea of competition breeding success either.

Many in education regardless of any political leanings would agree with the concerns of Michael Goves parliamentary colleagues. In 2016 the Government almost completely abandoned the idea of forcing schools to become academies; a big decision as this was their key education policy. Sir David Carter, the Academies Minister, made it publicly clear that he was glad of this change in policy as he felt that trusts should “grow sensibly and in line with capacity” (CARTER, 15 October 2016) and not be forced.

Across the region schools are being encouraged to academise despite the rejection of the majority of schools resisting for so long. The rejection is mainly from primary schools as it is clear that the MAT models will often be secondary led, despite the excellent reputation of the primary schools. There is a fear of empires being built with CEOs taking control of schools; perhaps a hark back to the fat-cats controlling the means of production… or maybe that’s because we are all, as Gove contends, a bunch of Marxists.


Bronze Rusty Bullets in the Battlegrounds of our North East Schools

Rusty bullets

Jon Tait, Director of Acklam Grange Teaching School

Twitter: @TeamTait

You’d be forgiven for thinking this article was about gun crime in school. Thankfully, even with a recent Donald Trump visit to the UK and his efforts to try and persuade everyone to believe the American dream, it’s not. What it is though, is a story of perceived crimes against education. Crimes of perceived educational ignorance in the North, that the educational courtrooms of the south are trying to hang us for. A desire for the exporting of southern silver bullets to be used to win over the battlegrounds of the North.

Evidence based research and evidence informed practice are certainly the new buzzwords in town when it comes to education. There has certainly been a concerted effort in the last 2-3 years to get the education profession to adopt a more research based approach to its practices, similar to how our colleagues in the medical profession go about their business. On the face of it, it sounds entirely plausible….you wouldn’t expect to go and see a doctor when you were ill and let them experiment with different medicines on you, would you? You’d probably be quite annoyed and concerned if you found out that they weren’t using any form of research behind their methods and were just using a certain drug or procedure because they had a ‘feeling’ that it might make you better?

One of the crimes adjudged to have taken place over the last few years is an experimentation on students’ education without any clear, robust and detailed evidence to back up most of the strategies that teachers are using on a day to day basis in their classrooms. However, in the defence of teachers up and down the country, education is quite different to medicine. In education, context is key. Unlike an injury or illness that can generally be treated with the same drug (with relative success) whether you are 18 or 80 and live in Middlesbrough or Middlesex, children’s learning is affected by so many more things. The context in which we are working is absolutely crucial. What works for one child in one class, may not work for another child across the corridor in the same building. However, the prosecution will claim that there is also a danger that teachers and leaders dismiss some of these academic research studies and use their differing context as an excuse to not look at it in any depth. The key is therefore to have professional conversations about the research and make informed decisions about if it will have an impact on student learning in your context. As Tom Martell from the Education Endowment Fund points out ‘most research travels quite well within education, we just need to be open minded about its context and how we implement it’.

In terms of parity, Chris Zarraga, Director of Operations at SCHOOLS North East quite rightly points out, that the other big difference between the medical profession and education is that you’ll never expect to see a politician come out and publicly tell medical professionals how to perform open heart surgery or how to cure the common cold. Their crucial lack of understanding of context is a crime in itself. Take for instance the London Challenge and the stance by many, including esteemed dignitaries within education such as Sir Michael Wilshaw, that the North East just need to simply follow in London’s footsteps to ensure educational parity. However, this is where context really does come into play and where ignorance to it, or a refusal to accept it, is just as criminal. Closing the disadvantaged gap on paper can be very different when you’re working with families who show up as ‘Ever 6’ where a London city investment banker has been made redundant for six months, compared to a family in a North East coastal town where they have been part of a culture of generations of unemployment. Simply transferring the principles of a London Challenge, without the same funding and without the same context is clearly not going to be the silver bullet that some people think it is. This approach to medically treating educational ill health is more fitting with firing a gun loaded with bronze blanks.

Subscribing to the theory that you can pick an intervention off the shelf and just jump on that silver bullet because it says it’s going to improve student outcomes by a certain amount of months is just as criminal as being ignorant to the research in the first place. If school improvement was that easy, then we’d all do it overnight. The DfE would write the manual, we’d all read it and employ the strategies in our classroom and hey presto.…silver bullets all round. But we know (or we should do) that it’s not that straight forward. Taking context to the extreme view, Tom Martell from the Education Endowment Fund tells of a research trial in the 1980’s that found that caning students increased student outcomes by two months! Are we all going to jump on that silver bullet any time soon? Clearly the context here is different and this is where professional conversations need to be had to decipher whether or not an intervention can travel well through time or geography.

Evidence based research and evidence informed practice looks here to stay, but it’s all about your choice of weapon and ammunition. A highly skilled marksman will pick his gun and his bullets for the type of shot that he is aiming to execute. A comic book image of a man with a bag full of silver bullets and a shiny gun does not exist, not even in education.

Homelife or Homework?

Jon Tait

Deputy Headteacher and Director of Acklam Grange Teaching School


Of all the things we do as teachers, homework continues to baffle me the most. It baffles me because as a profession we’ve been setting it for decades, yet we’ve never really been able to crack it. Ask any teacher in any school up and down the country and they’ll probably tell you that it’s something that they still don’t really feel is having the same proportional impact as the time it takes to set it, complete it, mark it and chase it. Most schools these days are unrecognisable in relation to the days of Grange Hill, yet homework still seems to be something that is dragging its heels, kicking and screaming into the new age of slick educational organisations that run like well-oiled machines.

Unfortunately, in lots of schools, I fear that homework is still being set for a number of reasons that hold no educational value. For example….

  1. We’re setting it because we think Ofsted want to see it.
  2. We’re setting it because we think the Senior Leadership Team want to see it.
  3. We’re setting it every so often because a timetable in our school dictates it.
  4. We’re doing it this way because we’ve always done it that way.

If you’re reading this and it’s already struck a chord, you probably need to go right back to basics and ask yourself the question ‘What are we actually setting homework for’? When asking this question myself, I usually find that the most common answer is that ‘we want our students to develop long lasting study habits that will enable them to become independent and resilient learners when facing tough external examinations’. I’ve never come across any teacher (in my school or in others) that has answered that question by telling me that they want their students to be experts at finishing off classwork at home, or to become masters at filling in worksheets, or even become professional poster designers.

Once you’ve worked out the actual purpose of your reason to set students more work on top of the 5 hours of learning they’ve already completed that day, it might be wise to take some time think about the following areas before you let teachers loose on having free rein to set what they want, when they want:

Is it worth robbing families of precious time?

The best piece of writing I’ve ever seen on homework came from Tom Bennett who said ‘The few hours between getting home and going to bed are precious for families. If you’re going to steal any of it, be damn sure the reward is greater than the loss’. As a parent myself of two children, far too often I have to battle with them over doing their homework before they go to bed at a time when they are tired and grouchy. I often look at the task in hand and wonder if it’s worth me falling out with them over it, when I probably only get to see them for a couple of hours of quality time each day throughout the school week. The message here is clear – think before you set it.

What are you actually assessing?

If you are using homework to assess learning, progress and using it to help form your judgement about how well students are doing in your class, you need to stop and think about what you’re actually assessing. Some students will do it completely on their own without support, whilst others will have mum or dad ‘helping’ them, or even doing it for them to stop the rows that ensue based on the point raised in the previous paragraph. What you first thought was a good indicator of independent learning, has probably turned out to be something completely different. You might be better of putting the grade in a column in your markbook titled ‘quality of parental support and interest’.

Learning it, not finding it

If we set homework where students have to find information and answer questions, you can bet your bottom dollar that unsupervised in their own home, they’ll use whatever they can to find that information as quickly and effectively as they can. I’ve regularly watched both my children go straight to Google to find the answers or the information that they need. Yes they’ve found the information required and filled in lovely worksheets, or created PowerPoint presentations on topics ranging from leatherback turtles to climate change, but how much of this information have they actually learned as opposed to just finding it and copying it down? Exams in this day and age require students to be able to recall significant amounts of knowledge and apply it in varying different contexts, some of these purposefully unfamiliar. Why don’t we start giving students the information to begin with and ask them to start learning it and applying it? This way we can begin to remove the temptation to just ‘find it’ and instead, begin to get students to build up good study habits on how to recall information and commit this to their long-term memory.

Quizzing, spacing and interleaving

Once we get past students just finding information (or Google doing it for them), we can begin to look at the importance of regular retrieval practice to prepare students for the demands of the new and reformed external examinations that they’ll all need to sit one day. Research from Smith & Karprice (2014) states that ‘students who had participated in some type of retrieval practice performed much better on the final assessment, getting twice as many questions correct as those who did not’. This is crucial for us to remember if we want to prepare our students to perform at the best of their ability in examination situations. Teachers can start to interleave and revisit topics through spaced repetition to train students in recalling information effectively. We shouldn’t just ask students to learn information from the topic they’ve just been studying; this is far too easy and still stored in their short-term memory. Instead, start to get students to dip into their long term memory and recall information from topics that you taught a few months ago; after all, this is what they’ll need to do when they come to the final examination. Recalling information from a two year course is going to be almost impossible if you’ve not been doing it regularly throughout that period. Students can be given knowledge organisers and key information to learn at home. Quick and easy techniques such as ‘read, cover, write, check’ can be used very effectively to commit this knowledge to long term memory.

Flipped learning

In recent years, flipped learning has began to creep its way into many classrooms across the world. In a flipped classroom, students learn the basic knowledge for homework and then use that knowledge in the classroom so the learning can be taken so much further in the presence of the skilled teacher in the room, rather than asking them to go home and do the hard part on their own. Teachers can therefore start to set their students videos to watch, articles to read or information to learn for homework so that the precious face to face time in the classroom can be used as effectively as possible to enhance their learning experiences.

Teacher workload

Homework has always caused teachers’ headaches when it’s come to workload. Setting, marking and chasing it leads to umpteen extra hours every year, without that much proportional impact. I bet we’ve all considered at one stage in our careers not setting homework when you think about the amount of time and energy it takes to collect it all in and then chase all the students that haven’t done it and set the necessary sanctions. With all the suggested activities above, none of them require any teacher marking or significant increases in teacher workload. The onus and responsibility is placed on students to build up these long lasting study habits, together with learning and applying information, rather than just finding information and answering questions that inevitably will need to be marked, graded or judged by a teacher further down the line.

So, what have you been setting, why have you been setting it and what have you actually been assessing? Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought as we move towards a new academic year. Could this be the year we actually crack homework once and for all?

Would you like to write the next Talking Heads blog? Contact 

UCAS: A North East’s Principal’s Response

As a school leader in the North East, I’ve developed a high degree of immunity to the plethora of poorly informed “must do better” comments about our schools. Most school leaders are far too busy trying to make a genuine difference to the students in our care to respond to this type of diatribe.  However, I find it impossible to let the comments of Clare Marchant, CEO of UCAS, go unchallenged. “It will be school aspiration and attainment, it’s as simple as that” was her ill-informed opinion as to why only 31.7% of 18 year olds from the North East applied to university.  This represents a fall of 4.6% from the previous year, in stark contrast to London, where 47.5% of 18 year olds applied.

I wonder how many North East schools Ms Marchant has actually visited to formulate her hypothesis about our schools? I for one would welcome her to see what our schools are actually like. One thing that she won’t find a shortage of is high aspirations for our students, something I’ve certainly experienced a massive change for the better in during my 26 years of working in North East schools. As for attainment, I see nothing other than school staff working tirelessly to improve outcomes for their students.  However, what Ms. Marchant, Sir Michael Wilshaw and others completely fail to acknowledge is the vast disparity in educational spending between the North East and London. Funding is never the sole answer but, frustratingly, many strategies which we know improve student outcomes are impossible to implement due to funding constraints. Chronic under-investment in North East schools has reduced capacity to offer the quality of education our children deserve, at the same time as austerity measures have increased disadvantage. The impact of demographics, rather than school effectiveness, is recognised in the recent report by Datalab and points to the need for increased investment in Northern schools.

As someone who would have qualified for Pupil Premium had it existed in the 1980s, I count myself as extremely fortunate to have studied at university in the golden days of “maximum grant”. This meant that as the first in my family to access higher education, I could study without the worry of running up debt.  Given financial barriers facing by students today, I wouldn’t necessarily have come to the same decision if I was applying under the current system.  Ms Marchant would do well to spend more time considering the financial barriers, both real and perceived, that deter many disadvantaged students from applying to university.

I always like to end on a positive note and I am proud of the fact that almost 50% of our first ever A level cohort at Whitburn gained places at Russell Group universities. However, I am equally proud of the significant number of students who will go on to achieve degree level qualifications through higher level apprenticeships. Therein lies a key part of the solution to more of our students gaining degree level qualifications; the system needs to diversify to better meet the needs of our students and a degree needn’t mean three years. Changing the admissions system to be based on actual rather than predicted results would also make a positive difference to disadvantaged students, as set out so clearly by the Sutton Trust. So my advice to Ms Marchant would be to invest her time in reforming her own organisation and remove barriers for North East students, rather than taking the lazy option of making ill-judged comments that do nothing to inspire more North East students to apply to university through conventional means or otherwise.

Alan Hardie, Principal of Whitburn Church of England Academy and Acting CEO of Northumberland Church of England Academy

I hate working alone

I hate working alone. So much so that I’ve recently moved in with my new  deputy head. Professionally speaking of course! We have co-located in the same office. It made sense since we both work best through discussion, collaboration and simply ‘chewing the fat’ as the old saying goes.

For me it’s a chance to have another brain to test out a response to a parent, or a spelling, or share in celebrating a pupil who comes up with some fantastic work. I was actually feeling a little left out, as our staff all have PPA together in planning partnerships, it serves the same supportive purpose and as a result the shared workload and top quality lesson planning through collaborative innovation benefits everyone.

Jan is in the midst of an intense induction phase. She moved up from London to join our school and so feels somewhat disconnected to the North Eastern Education scene. I’m sure many of you will have experienced the same feeling when you land in a new area or local authority and suddenly you don’t know who to contact, you feel lost without your set of phone numbers and have to build new networks. And its vital to do this quickly as leadership can be a lonely place without the ability to ‘phone a friend’.

I’m on my fourth local authority and have become pretty adept at quickly creating contacts and networks of support. But having said that, I’ve always been based in the North East and so my networks have always been fairly close by and reachable. It’s very different if you move a long way.

I’m really enjoying connecting Jan with some of the fantastic networks that are available in our region. Chief amongst which is SCHOOLS NorthEast of course! We are uniquely lucky to have an organisation like SNE serving us. Its events and newsletters provide links and networking opportunities, that are the envy of the rest of England. Then there are the Universities, teaching schools, cluster groups, unions, community groups, Twitter even – the list is ever growing.

It really worries me when I come across colleagues who don’t look outward and aren’t connected to others. Schools who deliberately, or through accountability pressure or circumstance, cut themselves off from the networks around them, rarely thrive. In fact I see it a lot through my inspection work – it’s a really obvious characteristic of failing schools that they are cut off from others. They lack the drive to innovate; they don’t see the need, as they don’t have the yardstick of comparison. Not seeking alternative viewpoints or opportunities for comparison prevents questions from forming. They only see their school through their own lens, which inevitably leads to an atrophy of innovation – ‘We are as good as we can be’, ‘this is the best way’. Without a stimulus to ask ‘Isn’t it?’ or ‘Aren’t we?’  a school will never improve.

I listened to a fascinating radio documentary 1 the other day, which investigated how government could get better at experimenting and learning from getting things wrong. It had huge resonance for the important ideas behind good networking and school improvement. The central theme was that networking is synonymous with growth mindset characteristics – which makes perfect sense to me.

It is safe to stay the same. Trying something different takes courage, energy and confidence because it invites failure. It is human nature to avoid situations in which we might fail.

Take a situation where you have 6 ideas for change in your school. You try the first 2, they fail, then a third which also fails. Who would keep going on the fourth, fifth, sixth? Only the brave. But what if the sixth unlocked massive improvement in outcomes?

Research into the success of innovative Silicone Valley companies identified a common thread of an empowered attitude to failure. Coined the Silcone Valley Mindset (read growth mindset) the courage to test out and embrace failure until they struck gold.

Through visiting and talking to other schools who are doing things differently to us with success energises me and gives me confidence to drive change and experimentation in my own school. You don’t know what you don’t know, unless you go looking for it. The same goes for your staff – get them out. Think for a moment about your staff  – how many of them in the last 2 years may have never visited another school to look at something new?

My wife is a Professor of Education (yes… the brains behind the operation – I am proud to say) she has just started a new job at Leeds Beckett University; check out Collective Ed below her first piece of work. Suddenly we are both becoming connected to a whole new set of fantastic, committed, thinking teachers, researchers and educationalists. Working in contexts very different from mine and I am embracing it with open arms. Especially as it involves beer.

Ever heard of BrewEd? Well if you are nervous of networking but like a drink this may be the answer to your prayers and it’s coming to a pub near you.

The brain child of Daryn Simon and Ed Finch from Sheffield who could see the power of educational networks and debate on Twitter, but were frustrated by the limitations of 140 characters, decided to use the platform to invite interested teachers and leaders to a pub, creating an informal space for a day of structured debate, chat, eating and socialising – perfect! The idea has gathered momentum and the second event in Wakefield a few weeks ago put me in touch with colleagues with new and unfamiliar ideas. Events are now planned for Oxford and Newcastle.

See you there!

#brewedwake   @ed_debate  @MrEFinch  @darynsimon

CollectivED Dec 2017 Issue – Prof R Lofthouse, Leeds Beckett University

  1. ‘Learning from Life and Death’ Matthew Syed, BBC radio 4

 Colin Lofthouse is the Head Teacher of Rickleton Primary School in Washington. 

Want to be our next Talking Head? Contact Nicola Chapman, Marketing and Communications Officer, for more information: 2048866

Social mobility… is school the only solution?

As I was prostrate in the bath the other night (which is where I do most of my thinking I must admit) and pontificating about the wonderment that are  our children one question occurred to me… ‘What are we doing?’

That particular day I had spent the morning analysing nursery data, trying to project outcomes for children who had been on the planet for little over 1000 days and I was trying to map gaps in attainment  in their reading, writing and maths skills to ensure I was rapidly closing the gap in their understanding thus further promoting social mobility. I was there with graphs, birthdates, data charts, expectation graphs and much more to try and fit a unique child into a norm referenced data tracking system.

It occurred to me that we are working in a complete oxymoronic system where we are promoting mastery in all subjects, depths of application and analysis where we can manipulate and apply information in unique and creative ways whilst our education system is in line with the industrial revolution. Where children are sorted by the number of days they have been alive, entering the system at one end and exiting with the presumption that we are all the same and should be achieving and behaving in a way which is ‘normal’.

It makes me wonder where the unique child is actually taken into account. As human beings we have varying genetics, parenting, nutrition, interests or passions which are the golden thread which align any person’s core values which are bestowed onto us by our parents and families. One thing that is apparent now is that if you were born in poverty, in a socioeconomically deprived estate, with a single mother, some social care issues and a deprivation of resilience and optimism, the government are now stating that you have to make more progress and at a more rapid rate than someone of the same age who has been brought up in the comfort of affluence with a stable home life, excellent nutrition and 3 long haul holidays a year to exotic and historic locations. Working in one of the most deprived wards in the country I did ponder as to how realistic that expectation is?

I’m not suggesting that we should not be aspirational for all children, aspiration is what we do. We want to make a difference in the lives of our children; why else would you be a Headteacher? The question I am asking is that how much can schools actually do? In the school I work in we have over 400 wonderfully unique children. We work hard to ensure they achieve their maximum potential. How much however can we influence their core values?

I am currently lucky enough to be part of the SCHOOLS NorthEast Healthy MindEd commission where were are debating in detail the mental health of young people and how it is felt that the mental health of our young people is in decline. Is it so mysterious as to why young people are feeling vulnerable and under pressure?  If it’s not from exam stress, applications to redbrick universities, social media or ‘thinspiration’ web pages it’s from attachment disorder, poverty, identity, bereavement, bullying, parental separation, domestic violence, debt, drugs… the list goes on.

The government are quite rightly attempting to bring parity to society to suggest that whatever your background you should have the tools to choose your life and career. The question I ask is that in targeting schools and schools alone are the government missing the key issue? Have they correctly identified the missing ‘tools’? There has been a decline in social care, sure start centres are closing, peri-natal support is decreasing, health visitors are less and less involved, poverty is on the rise and there appears to be a deficit in the ability to parent effectively to ensure children feel safe and secure and able to take on the challenges of being a young person in the 21st century. How are school leaders and their staff suddenly qualified to solve all of these issues. We are experts in merely education.

Maybe the government needs to look more broadly at the issue as to why children from socially economically deprived areas do not necessarily socially mobilise? If they looked closely would they actually discover that they are not taught well in good schools, or would they discover that despite excellent teaching and pastoral care; without intervention into the wider aspect of parenting, poverty and mental ill health in our more deprived communities; the children have very little for the excellent schooling to stick to. Their resilience, optimism and core drivers (which are affected almost entirely by preschool experiences and parenting) which enables children to feel safe and ready to learn are lacking.

The question the government maybe should be asking isn’t how much more should schools be doing to solve the social mobility issue, it is how differently can the government support socioeconomically deprived areas in their parenting to ensure children come to school resilient and life ready, excited for all the curriculum has to offer thus enabling educationalist to do what they are trained to do and educate. With this embedded one outcome must be that the mental health of children and their families are improved and that children are more able to and achieve their maximum potentials, whatever these may be.

I want to deliver more than just good results for my school

This week’s Talking Head comes from Craig Knowles, Acting Head Teacher at Hetton School. The Secondary School in Sunderland has gone through a vast change over the past two years and for Mr Knowles, like many other Heads, there is an importance of achieving more for the school, and its pupils, than just good results. Find out how Hetton School is achieving just this…    

I know that this is a sentiment shared by every Headteacher, but how realistic is it with current accountability systems? Of course the answer is that it comes down to the strength of our moral purpose.

The last two years at my school have been tough in terms of headline results and this has felt worse because they have been hard to explain (or make excuses for). As a school, teaching and learning has improved, CPD is better directed and more effective than ever, the curriculum is more personalised to individual needs than previously, and we have a great new building – so why were results a disappointment? This was the dilemma that I was faced with when taking over as an Acting Headteacher. How could I address this at the same time as doing what I know to be morally right? I’m not certain we have found the answer, but the ‘Learn to Achieve’ strategy we have introduced is an answer that has started us in the right direction.

‘Learn to Achieve’ is my school’s adaptation of Professor Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset work. Our aim as a school is to build a growth mindset in our young people, avoiding the fixed mindset that can trap them into a premature plateau and therefore cause them to fall short of their unknowable potential. Our end game is that students have a desire to learn, embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from feedback and find inspiration in the success of others. Easier said than done!

We started small, trying to create curiosity in our students through posters placed throughout the school with the word ‘Yet’ or with phrases like ‘Embrace failure’.  We expanded to our use of language in the classroom like, “I love the risk you took in…” and “Nearly – what would you do differently next time?” Reflecting after a term, we were already seeing a difference in the willingness of students to have another go at a piece of work that they would have previously given up on – displaying the type of resilience that not only makes a difference in their school lives, but forms a bedrock for a positive mental approach to the rest of their adult lives.

To say it has been transformational is disingenuous (yet!), but the approach has created a positivity around learning, and has the potential to have impact throughout our school community. We have encountered resistance from some unhappy parents and staff, but the passion we have for our ‘Learn to Achieve’ philosophy has overcome these attitudes.

You might ask the question – “so what?” and you’d be right. Unless it has a demonstrable impact then why shout about it? Our students are not all bursting with a desire to learn every lesson yet, but they are a lot closer than they were. Pupil and staff surveys show positive changes. Governors are on board, and if our KS4 results are anything to go by, there has been an impact in outcomes too.

This term we are building on our staff’s use of language by changing the way students speak to each other about their work. We are deliberately creating obstacles to challenge our students and all our policies and practices have been altered to reflect the new language. Lastly we are attempting to change the aspirations of the community for our young people through events and community work.

I don’t yet know how our philosophy will be interpreted by those outside our community, but I do know that it feels right and feels like we are delivering more than just good results.

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Articulating messy thoughts

Anyone that knows me will tell you when asked the question ‘what is Mike’s passion?’ that the answer will, without a doubt, be looked after children and mental health. These issues are very close to my heart for several reasons, but mainly because I’ve lived with, cared for and worked with these children for many years now. No amount of professional training or qualifications shape my work as much as my own lived and shared experiences within my home. I am grateful for these unique experiences and I have been fortunate enough to experience the remarkable aspects of their being, but also witness these children falling into vulnerable and challenging spaces.

In my opinion, part of the issue in dealing with the challenge of mental health in our children is that we sometimes fail to recognise that the difficulties a child may be experiencing is often situational. Chemical imbalance, ‘lack of resilience’ and ‘emotionally sensitive’ are all phrases I hear used regularly. Of course there are children who may fall into these categories and neurotransmitters certainly play a part but there is a bigger picture here. Life is anything but linear and in my own experiences, situations have played a huge role in my own mental health. Often plunging me into mental illness or pushing my towards over functioning. This is the same for our children.

We all know that a child’s formative years are crucial. We also know that the children who are placed in the care system have experienced much trauma during and after these early years in their development. We know what comes next, but I ask you to just take a minute to contemplate this part of their lives…

That child goes into a new home, with new care givers. Often this may not be long term. They then go into school where the system expects them to function at the same level as other children their age. Then there’s also the lack of therapeutic input much of the time because of funding, provision or their age. We just accept that this is the case without really giving it due consideration. I have often questioned in my training and work why it is that we don’t pause to think on this more. Because here is the reality.

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Reasons to be angry

colin lofthouse
Colin Lofthouse, Head Teacher at Rickleton Primary School

It is not often as a jobbing Head Teacher that you get to talk to those who are actually devising and enacting education policy at the heart of government. But what is great about SCHOOLS NorthEast is that if you go along to their events, the calibre of their speakers means that you can get this chance.

And so it was at the White British Working Class conference at the Riverside stadium Chester Le Street. The morning began with Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University, who gave an eye opening warning about the use of poor quality educational research that is used to sell interventions and justify education policy.

After lunch, the tone changed and we heard from Kate Chisholm, Headteacher of Skerne Park Primary Academy, a fantastic school in an area of huge deprivation in Darlington. It was uplifting to hear an impassioned description of the challenges she and her staff face in helping raise the aspirations of the pupils and community the school serves. The work they do to help the pupils realise their potential and be a successful against the pernicious effects of deprivation was great to hear. What came across strongly was the moral purpose, which underpins everything the school does.

From their breakfast club, to their ‘stage not age’ curriculum, to their pastoral support, that sees staff scooping up children and eating with them in their offices and classrooms, just to help them feel looked after and a little bit special during the day. Here is a school that has crystal clear moral purpose. They have a principled and committed leader who has a plan based on evidence of what works for its pupils and it is enacted by a similarly principled staff, driven to act with commitment towards the same, shared goal. I suspect it is like this in most good schools across the country.

What followed was somewhat different.

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Competition or Collaboration – The Perfect Dichotomy

Jon Tait, Deputy Head at Acklam Grange School

Outside of education you’d think that schools would be open to sharing practice, helping each other and identifying what works best for the young people of our country. We are all working to a common goal of better equipping the young people in our care, giving them the very best life opportunities possible, irrespective of their postcode. So naturally, collaboration would be an obvious choice. Find what works and share it. Let other schools and young people benefit from your experience, together with seeking advice and inspiration from others who may have solved the very problems that you are dealing with.


But anyone inside of education knows only too well that it doesn’t always pan out like this. With the backdrop of a league table driven educational landscape, the question on many people’s lips when faced with the possibility of local collaboration is ‘Why should I help the very school that we are fighting to get ahead of in the local league tables’? If you put it in a sporting context where league tables and competition are a hallmark of its very existence, you wouldn’t expect Middlesbrough Football Club to be providing coaches and expert training methods to Sunderland in a bid to help them fight off relegation when they are both fighting to be above one another.

But this goes against the very reason that we all came into education – to help and support people to be the best version of themselves that they can be. We all want to help each other and share our great ideas that can really make a difference with young people, but to what cost if it gives your neighbouring competition an advantage? In a competitive market of fighting for the same bums on seats, falling budgets and a more business-like approach than we’ve ever witnessed before in education, every competitive advantage you may hold might be worth clinging onto.

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