Wise Young Teachers

Teachers in England – and especially in London – are being encouraged to take on their first leadership positions at ever-younger ages. If good leadership depends on wisdom, and wisdom derives from experience, how can our leaders be both wise and young?

The IOE has a long-established CPD relationship with Newham schools. For several years we have run programmes on behalf of three Teaching School Alliances, for NQTs during induction and for those in the second year of their careers (often called NQT+1s.). These have been popular and successful and, through them, reached hundreds of teachers serving children and families in the area.

The design of the current programme arose out of my work over several years with NQTs in Chace Community School in Enfield.

Read more about this UCL Case Study here. If you happen to be a teacher in Newham, you might also want to check out the Newham Early Career Teacher programme here.

I am now running a similar programme for the Tapscott Learning Trust also based in Newham.

They are working on research themes with the (hopefully) catchy titles of Boys and Girls: the same only different? Differentiation: reaching all learners? and Providing effective feedback: it’s not just your marking!

Finally, I am working with a marvellous group of young teachers from the Future Zone group of schools in Islington. They completed their first enquiries, taking inspiration from Addressing Gender and Achievement: Myths and Realities, the report written for the DCSF by Gemma Moss, Becky Francis and Christine Skelton. This Year 6 teacher, from Tufnell Park primary school, Kieran Boulton, was so taken by his discoveries he committed it to video.

Enquiries such as these are accelerating the practice experience of these young teachers, giving them insights into research that provide them with stories to tell their colleagues. This is the sort of ‘practice wisdom’ they will need as they move into leadership.

Headlines are poor proxies for research.

So here goes. The other day Laura McInerney  at ResearchEd Blackpool posted on Twitter this much-repeated list of ‘Poor Proxies for Learning’, asking How many of these are you guilty of thinking will equal learning?

I replied

I have disliked this list for some time. A teacher who achieves these in their class IS doing a fine job. And, if not individually, in combination these will be good proxies for learning. Leaders should not be criticised for wanting to see them.

You can see some of the replies and thoughts on https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js“>proxies for learning here. Of course, I understand Rob Coe’s point that busy or engaged or motivated students, or ordered classrooms, or ones where the course is covered are not the same thing as learning, but I worry about the reactions of some teachers and school leaders seeing this list.

  • It sneers at teachers who strive to achieve exactly the things which are on this list.
  • It implies that these conditions are not worth striving for.
  • It may lead some teachers and school leaders to downgrade the achievement of these conditions.
  • It encourages the despairing conclusion that we cannot ever know that learning has taken place until public exams results are in – and that only those matter.

I know I have substituted the word ‘conditions’ for ‘proxies’. I know that this means I am guilty of a category error, where I mistake the difference between a prerequisite for a thing and the thing itself. But consider the position of the teacher teaching a class, or a school leader watching the lesson. When I was teaching (I remember it well – it was not long ago), I would have been delighted if I ever managed to cover the full content of a curriculum, when that curriculum kept changing and growing. If I ever motivated all of my students so that they were interested in what I was saying and engaged in what I wanted them to do, I would have chalked that up as a stunning success. There were very many times when my classroom was not ordered or calm, so I was definitely happy when it was. More to the point, I know that my students did learn better when they were engaged in busy, well-ordered lessons. It took me several hard years to achieve lessons like those on a consistent basis. And, when it became my role to help other teachers, it took much energy on my part (and much more on theirs) to achieve something like those conditions in their lessons.

School leaders should strive for those conditions in their schools. I mean, imagine if they did not. I know that it is not the intention of those who produce and reproduce the proxies list to suggest that they are (all) undesirable, but I do fear that that is how they are interpreted.

Those who publish research on well-visited platforms have a duty to consider the consequences of misinterpretation, and to at least try not to cause it. Some recent EEF reports have been headlined in a way that I feel is irresponsible. For example, what is a school leader to make of this?

New EEF trial results: ‘light-touch’ approaches to research unlikely to impact pupil outcomes

Will they see the ‘light touch’ and think, erm… that’s exactly what I do? For most schools, to be engaged in research and to seek to be informed by research often is a light-touch exercise. They trawl through their twitter feed late at night, look for some promising blogs to read, maybe look to make something more of the connections they have with a local university. Surely to goodness, these are activities to be encouraged. It is not encouraging to learn from an EEF sub-editor that it is unlikely to impact pupil outcomes. Worse still, it might lead some leaders to conclude that that journal club they have running is a waste of time. They should have read the report, of course, and added their own emphasis (as I have here):

While the evaluators from the University of Bristol found no evidence that the programme led to improvements in reading outcomes for ten and eleven year olds, the findings suggests that there may be a relationship between how engaged teachers are with research, and the attainment of their pupils. There was also some evidence that being in a Research Learning Community increased teachers’ engagement with research.

And perhaps they ought also to have read EEF Senior Researcher Jonathan Sharples’ blog . In it, he concludes that the light-touch research approaches described in the report were indeed worthwhile, and he references the 2016 EPPI review.

Importantly, in addition to reviewing different mechanisms to mobilise evidence, they also looked at the behavioural requirements that were necessary for those various approaches to have an impact. This included having:

  1. opportunities to engage with the interventions
  2. the motivations to do so, and
  3. the skills and capabilities to understand and use the outputs.

Dig down far enough into the EEF website and there is everything there the teacher and leader needs to be well-informed. Bravo. However, how many teachers and leaders crack their spade on the hard crust of the top line?


Headlines are poor proxies for research.



CPD: the case for

In Mark Enser’s blog on the subject part one and part two, he argues that the current funding crisis in England’s schools might have the unintended consequence of forcing teachers back on to their own resources and, as he suggests, start doing their CPD for themselves. I make a point of trying never to disagree with Mark. He urges the profession to engage with the Chartered College of Teaching, and to get reading the books from the chalkface, from the likes of Summer Turner, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby. Mark is fond of a Teach Meet, and he wants more in-school professional development to be collaborative and opt-in. He’s not wrong. He is not alone in often finding external professional development – the kind we call ‘training’ or ‘courses’ – dull, pointless and even (sometimes) dangerous. And internal inset can often be no better, as Fish64 reminds us here.

I have recently left the classroom to take up a programme leader position at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning, at the UCL Institute of Education. I set up this Twitter poll to find out what people still looked for when, for whatever reason, they found themselves being ‘facilitated’ by an external pd provider. (And in the sincere hope that I might be able to meet some of their expectations.)

You can read comments on the poll here. One particularly interesting strand in the conversation was the suggestion that teachers at different points in their careers might be looking for different things from their pd. It’s not surprising that those newer to the profession like hoovering up tips: they’ve got many cats and are looking for as many ways of skinning them as possible. Some of these tips are what other teachers (the longer-serving or the precocious parvenus) call fads, or snake oil: there is no evidence to support their efficacy and what links them is their sciencey plausibility. Oddly, however, some colleagues still like them, they persist in using them and weirdly they seem to work for them. The research base for Learning Styles is non-existent, apart from all those professionals still deploying them and getting good stuff out of their pupils out of sight of researchers. This is not a blog in defence of the pursuance of nonsense, but a plea not to disdain colleagues who have found ways that work for them. I suspect many young teachers look to Twitter for inspiration and for collegial support, and the occasional tip.


Given I’ve filed a few teacher planners in my time, I can feel for those for whom another tip would take them over the tipping point. Many of us aren’t looking for ‘another way’; actually, we wouldn’t mind if you told us it was OK to stop doing some of the things we have felt for a while might be pointless. External pd, for us, is a chance to meet up with others of similar bent. You can do a lot of talking and listening, even thinking, on a day out of school with others enjoying the same release. Collaboration is what professionals do, combining experience with wisdom to arrive at new insights. At best, this goes way beyond the confirmation that ‘we are doing it right already’. Competent facilitation disturbs, discomforts, disrupts: it provokes you until either you have shifted your position, or you understand better why you hold the positions you do. And (my Twitter poll suggests) an exploration of the evidence base matters a great deal too. Here are some of the theories, this is the evidence and … it might work for you too.

This 2015 report for the NCTL by the UCL Institute of Education and Sheffield Hallam is the most authoritative account we have of ‘professional development that leads to great pedagogy’. It reminds us that pd must be grounded in the real context of the school, start with the end in mind, and is best when collaborative and informed by expert external input. It was referenced by The Teachers’ Professional Development Standard in 2016, which argued that effective pd was a ‘partnership’ of teachers, school leaders and pd providers. The prerequisites for this partnership to be successful are:

1. Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes.

2. Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise.

3. Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge.

4. Professional development programmes should be sustained over time.

And all this is underpinned by, and requires that:

5. Professional development must be prioritised by school leadership.

None of this contradicts my poll. Respondents still want externally-supported pd (only 6% avoid it), they want it to be research-informed and collaborative. And, sometimes, they want to be told stuff.

ResearchEd16: A Slight Curve in the Architecture

Capital City Academy

DCSF / The Team Academies Brochure Capital City Academy, Willesden 25th November 2008 © Pete Jones pete@pjproductions.co.uk


ResearchED has now been going long enough (this was its 4th) to have acquired its own set of clichés. Tom Bennett will collapse the real world into the Twittersphere (“We’re trending!”) while wearing a waistcoat. Lunch may exist, but only for wimps (like vegetarians, like me.) The technology will be impressive for those watching in Sydney, but pants for anyone in the room. There is no single ResearchEd: everyone makes their own; and after spending Saturday experiencing it, they spend Sunday blogging about it. (Then they wait for Helene to retweet it.) My day was not your day. This was my day.

It’s not straight, and it goes uphill. Sir Norman Foster obviously wanted to introduce a bit more effort to the usual business of getting from A to B; perhaps he intended to disrupt our cognitive ease. In any case, headteacher Alex Thomas was right: Capital City Academy was somehow the perfect venue for ResearchEd 2016. The day was filled with gentle dichotomies and seeming contradictions, enough to provoke thought without provoking ire. Like the cognitive dissonance of being told that your identity did not matter that much, certainly not enough to be worth queuing for, and surely less than a TES bag and pen. What is identity to a denizen of Twitter? I am well-known, but hardly recognised – anonymous among 650 friends. Fortunately I brought two actual friends with me. That’s two more than Nick Gibb, who committed the raging solecism of being a guest at a conference devoted to evidence-based policy while defending grammar schools.

Thereafter, the ironies followed. Laura McInerney told a room-full of teachers that teachers suffer performance anxiety, that we are perfectionists before whom it is unwise to demonstrate best practice. And she did it perfectly. (Although I would quibble with the assertion that we are a ‘performative profession’.) She reminded us too of her discovery of the ‘tired teachers’, those leaving the mainscale to boost the profits of the agencies. Hers is a serious analysis, but there we were – tired or not – spending our Saturday morning with her.

Better with her, perhaps, than with the oddly cheery behaviourist Alex Petty. He trotted out the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram electric shock test – distressingly familiar studies which somehow go to demonstrate that we should still set homework to students who refuse to do it. In his analogies, I kept casting myself as the one with the prison guard uniform, the one with my hand on the lever and wondering whether I was a teacher at all, and not maybe O’Brien in Room 101. Petty’s solution to this toxic culture that he imagines pervades our classrooms is to ‘celebrate success’. (He said 6 other things too, but I was keen to celebrate my own success in writing that down.)

Paul Bennett imagined his talk was to take place after lunch, unaccustomed as he is to the parallel timetabling of #rED food. He also thought he was giving a talk called Technology, E-Learning and Teachers. But Bennett is an ‘iconoclast’ (Paul thinks Tom is too) and so a tech disrupter is bound to deliver a talk where the Power Point has lost all of his animations, and the screen is hung in the far corner. (Was that you, Lord Foster?) I’m grateful to Paul for sharing three Zs in one slide, without sending anyone to sleep: Personalization, Robotization, Googlization – the 3 ideologies of high tech education. Bennett is a self-professed blasphemer, and he should wash his mouth out for proposing that school leaders should develop reliable measures to evaluate the effectiveness of digital learning.

I loved it all. I marvelled at the 6th Form Library, where the books had all been stolen. I chuckled in an unreconstructed way at the blue and pink signs denoting the boys’ and girls’ changing rooms in the dance studio. I empathised with Frank Furedi, whose Why is Reading always in Crisis suffered its own near-crisis when Amanda Spielman showed insufficient passion and left early. And what eduquack chaser would not experience a delighted tremor as Paul A Kirschner checked off of all our favourite urban myths? And so as to prove that none of us is an efficient multi-tasking digital native, he forbade the use of phones and tablets. Surely the ultimate contradiction in ResearchED terms?

Research: Learning by Doing

Learning by Doing

I provoked some minor debate with my Research Home Guard post, suggesting that ‘research ayatollahs’ ought to be more relaxed when more practitioner researchers commandeer their favourite R-word. My point is basic: if I want my colleagues to engage with research, they need to have some experience of also being engaged in it.

What does that mean? Engaging with research is more than just clicking on twitter, or scouting around the EEF site – though I would do nothing to discourage either activity. To be properly engaged with implies that I can read the findings critically, that I can ask questions about validity, that I have an appreciation of methodology. It also means that I don’t let go of my own professional judgement: I may catch some shining new insight escaping out of an academic hole, but I also have long years of my own experience to call upon. In short, if I am to understand what I am reading, I need also to understand how the knowledge was put together. And that is where school-based, action/practitioner enquiry comes in. Done well (and – I owe – it can sometimes be done badly), it can be systematic and rigorous. All I know about evidence-collection, I have learned from doing it and from guiding others to do it. Action researchers learn by doing. In other words, they can read other stuff because they have had to write their own.

Research Social Network at Chace My Social Network analysis (courtesy, Chris Brown.)

This map arose out of a survey conducted among my staff, compiled by David Godfrey at UCL-IOE. It revealed that, although I was at the centre of much of what my colleagues perceived as the school’s research culture, I was not alone: our Lead Teacher team was vital to the wider dissemination of ‘what we know’. I wanted to build upon, and to further democratise, this distribution. So, as my homework for the Leading Evidence Informed Practice in Schools course (led by David and Karen Spence-Thomas at UCL-IOE), I proposed the creation of volunteer Research Co-ordinator posts at my school. With the green light from SLT, I advertised and successfully recruited two colleagues who had recently completed excellent school-based MAs with me. (See here.) They are @louleggo7 (our head of Psychology) and @DSaunders1106 (a PE teacher). With @BTerziyski, we have now completed our first meeting. They have taken on a lot, and I need to reconsider the ‘volunteer’ aspect of their job title. As their work proceeds I, and they, will report further. But, for now, here are our plans:

To increase staff engagement with research ·         DS and LL will start ‘research reading’ groups (name tbd), convening possibly on a monthly basis to share thoughts on a piece of recently published research. This could be something with a controversial edge, or an enquiry conducted by a colleague at Chace.

·         DS and LL to publish a termly ‘research digest’ (name tbd): either synthesised by them, or ‘found’ elsewhere. This will be placed on our ChacePD website, and flagged in the staff bulletin.

·         Either as well as, or instead of, the above DS and LL will compile a booklet of research which will underpin our Development Time focus. E.g. pieces on resilience, growth mindset, collaboration, independence.

·         LL and DS will contribute to short School Briefing slots on research into pedagogy, school leadership and the educational system.

To increase the Research Coordinators personal effectiveness. DS and LL will continue to pursue their own research interests (and through this contribute to School Briefing, as described above.)

Through twitter, blogs and publications they will enhance their skills in data collection, and their appreciation of how best to engage a school in and with research. Among the commentators and academics they will familiarise themselves with: Chris Brown, Louise Stoll, Gary Jones, Alex Quigley, Tom Sherrington.

To support internal research and review ·         RCs will conduct a review of the impacts of MDT. They will design their evidence-gathering methods at the outset and measure progress towards desired outcomes.

·         RCs are keen to work with one or two middle leaders as they write and review their improvement plans. Enquiry questions such as: What do I need to focus on? What might success in this area look like? What evidence can I gather against this? What is my current position? What does research – and my experience – tell me might work? Therefore, what will I do?

·         Assist with the construction of enquiry questions when SLT are conducting reviews and learning walks.

·         To respond to ‘commissions’ from SLT for research findings into areas, on an ad hoc basis.

·         Work with NQTs on one action enquiry across their induction year.

To impact on teaching and learning, and on school culture. LL and DS are keen to implement next steps from their MA enquiries. They will explore opportunities to work further with interested departments.
To create a repository of items of research interest. MQ, CLTs and RCs are increasingly sharing insights and thinkpieces from twitter, blogs and online publications, which we need to store more efficiently.

We will share using the #ChacePD hashtag, so our PD website can maintain items on its timeline.

MQ and BT will create space – and place interesting items – on the ChacePD site, under the Research Enquiry at Chace heading.

To support the RC team. Request that MQ and the RC team have a timetable free together, to meet to plan and review work.

MQ to enquire as to how now to remunerate RCs (via TLR or time), as their input could be substantial.

The Research Home Guard

The estimable Alex Quigley’s recent post Just Don’t Call in Research again raised the issue of what should, and should not, be called ‘research’ in schools. I’ve debated the issue myself here and here. Despite his post’s title, Alex seems happy to take Dylan Wiliam’s notion of disciplined inquiry and apply it to the hard work of school improvement. I’m just not sure why the research mavens are so jealous of the word ‘research’. If what we do in schools passes the test of asking interesting questions in a systematic way and making our answers somehow public, wouldn’t Lawrence Stenhouse himself be satisfied?

Full Disclosure: I do a little work for the UCL IOE Research and Development Network, where this blog is also featured. I have been a participant on their Leading Evidence Informed Practice in Schools course, led by Karen Spence-Thomas and David Godfrey. Their working definition of research is much more open:

By ‘research’ we include a broad range of activity that can be loosely defined as ‘systematic enquiry made public’. In other words, it must be consciously planned and involve some collection of data/evidence. Making research ‘public’ need not involve writing the research up formally in an article or report but it must have been shared in some way.This can include a wide range of practitioner or academic research or research and development activity.

They have been sharing some of the insights from their colleague Chris Brown’s Leading the use of research & evidence in schools, which includes the notion of information flow around an institution’s ‘social network’. This was my effort:

Research Social Network at Chace

I am the hairy dot in the middle. It was based partly on my own observations, but mainly on the findings of a staff survey which David is using in a number of schools. I have selected just a few graphs here as indicators of the sorts of things my colleagues think about the idea of research engagement.

The first set of questions were about our culture.

Research Culture at Chace


There is pretty clear agreement that the culture of our school supports engaging in and with research for professional development. They also agree that we use and do research for wider school development, and that the school’s leadership is committed to this. Very many could point to specific inquiries that they, or colleagues, had been engaged in. This included Masters level work (see here for recent examples), but also inquiries conducted as part of our NQT induction programme, action research conducted within some departments, and school improvement work done as part of National College programmes. Interestingly, very many decided that our professional development programme (what we call Development Time) also amounted to research engagement, as it often starts with sharing a piece of externally-produced research and urges colleagues to experiment with ideas in their own classrooms. Whereas few puritans would accept this as research, it is clear that our staff think of it as such; for many, it will be the principal way in which they interact critically with the research.

So my colleagues are clearly not averse to this business. What would help more of them get into it? The next question revealed that a quarter of them did not know of a named member of staff responsible for promoting research engagement. That person is me. Subsequent questions show that a majority do not know of funding to support research (there is, from the governors), or of training to develop research skills.




This is obviously an area we can work on. I have taken 18 teachers through to completion of their MAs over the past few years, and whipped numerous NQTs through various forms of action enquiry, but clearly several others have not been invited to join the party. There is a capacity issue: if I alone am the ‘research guy’, too many opportunities will be missed.

So, where next? The social network analysis provides me with a potential way forward. Although I placed myself at its centre, I was not alone. The CLT (Lead Teacher) team leads the Development Time which very many saw as their exposure to research. We have a hardy band of volunteer Development Coordinators, who consciously develop strategies to share with their colleagues. My plan is to build upon this habit of discretionary input from colleagues, to mobilise some of the skills that my ‘MA teachers’ have acquired, and muster a small team of Research Coordinators.A Modest Proposal

And, daring the wrath of the research ayatollahs, we are going to use the word ‘research’ at every opportunity.

Action Research: More than a Hobby

For Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), ResearchEd2015 turned out to be all lasagne and toilet rolls. I’m sure this was not a comment on the catering. His was a unique perspective and, if he took the opportunity to sit back and survey the landscape, then he deserved the respite for this was a wondrous landscape he had created.

It had certain must-see features. For anyone who found their way to Finchley Road station via Twitter (and, really, was there any other way?) surely the likes of John Tomsett (@johntomsett), Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher), David Didau (@LearningSpy) and Sam Freedman (@samfr) were the main draw. These are among those to whom Nick Gibb was referring when he spoke of how teachers have the potential to affect policy. They would have provided the meat in the conference lasagne for many a conference-goer. But, being a quiche-eater, my conference experience was a touch more marginal: no more adventurous and no less fulfilling, just not what everyone would have chosen. But being ResearchEd, it was impossible not to slip into talks delivered by what Tom B labelled somewhere ‘the illuminati.’

This was not my first. Not a veteran, not a neonate: I suppose I may be a ResearchEd toddler. I took my first steps at Dulwich College in 2013. Much has changed, it seems to me, between #reEd13 and #reEd15. Then, many of us needed to be told what the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit was; now it can be the butt of barbed references to its generous funding, and we all nod sagely. At South Hampstead High School, no one needed a primer on Lesson Study. We have come such a distance, and have done such a lot to dismantle the walls dividing our educational estates, that the promises of Connect-Ed to put us all in touch with each other seem quaintly out of time. But, for all this advance, the issue which dominated for me two years ago still lingers: what place does teacher action enquiry have in the research garden? Is it the well-groomed lawn, the pride and joy; or is it rather the embarrassing collection of gnomes, pointless but stubbornly present?

Becky Allen (@drbeckyallen) invited us to hack our own teacher-researcher career: like a domestic goddess in a business suit, we too could have it all. What was not available to her ‘in her day’, was to us on Twitterday. How good we were feeling… until the first slide.

“Almost all teachers should never do educational research.”

Like Dr Husbands in 2013, her point was that ‘piffling around’ with classroom enquiries did not a research study make. Do it for pleasure – or PD – but don’t pretend you are adding anything meaningful to the knowledge base. Yet, though most of us action researchers should leave well alone, ‘Education research needs practising teachers on the team.’ They need us to make up the numbers in their big projects. They. Us. Their. The hacking of her title seems to apply only to the few who can ‘create an identity’ for themselves online, build a team, get a summer job with someone reputable such as Education Datalab, then find a sugar daddy to fund us while we go part-time at school. No one quite asked, but why would we want to do all that, when the ‘pleasures’ of piffling around with action don’t-call-it-research are so enticing?

Because professional educational researchers are doing such a fine job. As the excellent Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) reminded us, someone like John Bohannon call fool even reputable media outlets (not just the Daily Star) that eating chocolate helps you lose weight. And, at the end of the day Professor Robert Coe (@ProfCoe) drew attention to the flaws in the ‘Screen time drags down your grades’ story. Both gave valuable advice, not so much to teacher-researchers, but to teacher-consumers-of-research. Prof Robert Coe WhatWorks departed from Dylan Wiliam, when he said that a research-engaged teacher can be happy with basing just ‘some’ of her decisions upon the evidence. Like Quigley, he offered several tips for the teacher hoping to cut through the ‘BS’ (perhaps the same substance coyly referred to by our headmistress host at the end.) But Coe seemed to reach out to the action research fraternity, in answer to a question from James Mannion (@pedagog_machine): Yes, teachers should monitor and review the messages passed down to them by the experts, by themselves trialling the ideas and methods systematically in their own classrooms.

I know that much practitioner research can be dodgy. It may lack validity in terms of its wider applications; and those of us in school feel more queasy than those who are not about setting up a control group and deliberately denying them the fairy dust we are sprinkling on our treatment group. Like the joyously upbeat Nick Martin and Clare Hood at the Samuel Whitbread school, where every teacher is in a research lesson study triad, we cannot always reliably locate the factor which truly caused the progress. Our sample sizes may be tiny, and the claims we make for the size of our effects may be overblown. Action researchers are hobbyists, and professionals may feel a little embarrassed in our company.

They should get over themselves.




The Path to Success which is Paved with ‘Grit’.

This recent report from Demos and Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham proposes that ‘Character Development’ replace the Ofsted judgement on the Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural provision in schools. They claimed this was necessary,

 “to ensure the next generation of school graduates are equipped with the social and professional skills critical for them to become successful and civic-minded individuals in their adult life.”

This was followed by evidence from Wellington College and Harvard Graduate School of Education, widely covered both on BBC and the TES. They surveyed 4000 pupils and found that those with ‘grit’ are not – as is sometimes claimed – more likely to lead unhealthy lifestyles as they pursue excellence. Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick), Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College, says,

 “This project is an attempt to measure the more unmeasured aspects of student progress.”

What would Demos, or the University of Birmingham, or Wellington College, or the Harvard Graduate School find if they came to my school? Sans a definitive manifest of what builds character, I could propose some of the following, activities outside the formal classroom that we have made room for over the past year or two.

  • The Big Read, where everyone in Year 9 was given the same novel to read, and events and competitions were organised around it.
  • A Singing School. We put this on our improvement plan, and collapsed our timetable for a day for all Year 7s to sing tunes from Joseph.
  • We enthused our Year 9s about First Give (successor to the Youth Philanthropy Initiative), where they competed to bid for £1000 for a local charity.
  • Our Student Leadership body have raised money for victims of the Nepal earthquake.
  • Our Year 10 XL club organise the Christmas party for our senior citizen neighbours.
  • We do the customary amount of work experience, Duke of Edinburgh Awards and out of school sports activities.

I could add more. My colleagues work hard at this, and we have very many active citizens amongst our student body. But I do wonder how we would fare if Demos got their way and Character was given equal billing with attainment by Ofsted. I might reach for the type of evidence that catches my eye, the sort that’s not necessarily put through the validity sieve. I would note that, very often, colleagues, who have otherwise committed to an after-school session aimed at their own professional development, send their apologies because they have to work with a group of students who are in danger of missing their controlled assessment deadline. I would click on the school calendar, which has an orange bar running the length from October to June placing a ban on all Year 11 trips. (We also forbid trips for Year 10s and Year 9s from February onwards.) I would list the students who miss chunks of their Easter and half-term holidays because they are lapping up exam revision sessions, run by colleagues who are similarly missing their holidays. I might ask the question: Are we promoting the unhealthy lifestyles – the sleep deprivation, the foregoing of rest – that the grit-researchers at Harvard are keen to discover are absent?

The reason we focus so relentlessly upon attainment is obvious: for us, floor targets are never far below our feet. Our Progress 8, our Ebacc percentage, our key marginals: these measures mean everything for the status of a local authority school keen to avoid the notice of a Regional Schools Commissioner. We track our data, and we track the interventions that our data suggest we need. For many of our students, their ‘social capital’ will mean little if they don’t also have a C in English and Maths. It might be character-building to go buttock-to-buttock with a star of rugby union (as Nicky Morgan didn’t quite say), but our students will need to place their grades on their CVs before their areas of interest. And when I say ‘our students’, I imagine this is true for the vast majority across the country whose social background doesn’t already afford them a huge advantage in life.

Character is great stuff, we should all have a bit of it. But I discern another message lurking between the pages of the Demos report and the Wellington research. For those schools already attaining at the top end, ‘grit’ is a more effective way of setting their students apart from the rest. Let Ofsted also measure the quality of their debating society and the quantity of their charitable giving, the lines spoken on their stage and painted on their playing fields: then we will truly see those best prepared for a successful adult life. It won’t be the kids from my school.


Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance

Fascinating study from LSE on the impact on student performance of technology. Amongst other things, it finds that bans on mobile phones in school improved test scores for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They say, “restricting mobile phone use can be a low-cost policy to reduce educational inequalities.”

Click to access dp1350.pdf


Breaching our Cosy Bunkers


Bruce Bairnsfather

For all the inducements to engage in research, to become more evidence-informed, our staff are largely happy to be in the ‘ole they’re in. We prefer to think we do things differently here, so looking outside for answers doesn’t really occur. On the rare occasions we invite in an outside speaker, we tend to duff them up. “They don’t work with our kids,” is a familiar refrain. I call this our ‘cosy bunker mentality’: things aren’t perfect here, but the grass really isn’t greener on the other side you know.

I don’t blame them really. Just when they were getting comfortable with just marking the kids’ work, I made them whip out their green pens and commence a dialogue with them too. They bought my promise that independent learning was ideal for lazy teachers, only to discover that it was just another way to work bloody hard. My school has been a Pedagogopolis these past few years, and its teacher-denizens have been a pretty LO-abiding bunch. Research engagement / practitioner enquiry has been a toolkit too far for most of them.

But, slowly, we are beginning to breach their cosy bunkers. Some credit for this goes to the SLT. We are a largely internally-recruited bunch, with limited experience of working in other schools, and traditionally we would have been as splendidly isolationist as the rest of the staffroom. But two years ago I inserted into our improvement plan that we become a ‘research community’, and though we don’t yet deserve that immodest tag we are edging that way. On Pupil Premium, life beyond National Curriculum levels, the gainful deployment of TAs, and how we measure the quality of teaching without grading lessons – on all of these we have trudged through the blogs, reached for The Key or looked up the EEF. We have refreshed the way we tackle internal reviews: now we start with an enquiry question, devise a review approach (observations, scrutinies, the like) then publish our findings in ways which are much more useful to the teams under review. So, we have looked outside and we have looked inside and altogether we have achieved a much clearer view.

But, given my professional development role, I need also to be busting the bunker from the inside – getting ordinary colleagues engaged in and with research. I have posted here before on my management of our Masters in Education programme. Being a North London school, we have access to the capital’s universities and libraries. Middlesex University operate an arms-length MA module, whereby I get to tutor and assess my colleagues on their action enquiries. I would not say that we as an organisation have learned enough from the research conducted by these individual colleagues; but 15 busy teachers have themselves read some of the latest thinking, and devised valid tests for gauging the impact of new initiatives. They have engaged in and with research, become informed, savvy and inspired. They have found better ‘oles.

Finally, if enquiry is to be embedded as a go-to means of professional development, I need to get to my teachers when they are still young and know no better. That’s why our NQT induction programme is built upon a succession of 5 or 6 mini enquiries across the year. On school priority issues (independent learning, AfL, literacy) they are introduced to some piece of research or a set of strategies; they then have to consider them, plan around and teach them, then reflect upon and present their findings in a blog (which they are encouraged to share and comment on.) It’s enquiry, rather than research, but it’s my attempt to get them to discover and exercise the muscles they’ll need if they are ever to search for the theoretical underpinning for their practice. I now have colleagues – two and three years past their NQTness – for whom this form of enquiry is an instinct. Not many of them, but some. They have climbed out of the bunker.

It’s not so cosy in there now.