Closing the disadvantage gap | Curriculum as the lever

Building a sequenced, coherent, cumulatively sufficient and spiraled curriculum from 3 to 19 is perhaps the most important bet we can place for disadvantaged learners

The world is an increasingly challenging place to be a child; the compounding combination of the pandemic, economic hardship and political uncertainty has exposed and entrenched disadvantage in society; threatening to define and harm a generation. Without stronger leadership and greater action, our legacy may reflect that we did not do enough for those who needed us most

This think piece explores our best bets for closing the disadvantage gap. Whilst far from exhaustive, it highlights the central and critical role that curriculum (and the enactment of curriculum) needs to play as the key lever; a bet that accumulates advantage year-on-year and is best placed to privilege those who are presently or previously experiencing disadvantage. (and all children)

How … do we privilege those presently and previously experiencing disadvantage … (and) apply a lens (to) ask searching questions about what we should value and how we must act. Now is the time to use the expertise and experience across our region to make a discernible difference? from: what if we are the hope and we fail

Placing the curriculum under the disadvantage lens allows much greater specificity in response to this challenge. Identifying the connected best bets that will secure the circumstances and opportunities for children to accumulate advantage in our schools; disproportionately supporting disadvantage learners so that we (upwardly) close the disadvantage gap…

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities…”  (Malcolm Gladwell)

Successful people are not gifted; they just work hard, then succeed on purpose.” (G.K. Nielson)

The curriculum, and particularly what we choose to value, how we structure it and how we enact it, is the key lever and our best bet for disadvantaged learners. This long term investment seeks to secure the irreversible conditions required to achieve attainment mobility for all children and prepare disadvantage to thrive in an uncertain world; placing our chips on curriculum.

The impact of disadvantage on learning is not static. It is a long-term process, not a moment or an event. (Marc Rowland)


Give the golden ticket: As educators what we choose to include and how we sequence and curate the curriculum confers or denies power for our disadvantaged learners. Designing the curriculum as the golden ticket to the world for all children is a weighty ethical responsibility. We must think hard about what is in and what is out; what of all that has been thought, written and said gives the very best chance for disadvantaged children to thrive and have self agency throughout their lives. Not everything is of equal importance; we need to seek deep subject domain expertise to consider, identify and curate the key substantive concepts, disciplinary knowledge and powerful necessary knowledge wrapped together in a well-conceived curriculum; as an ever-onward investment.

Curriculum is all about power. Decisions about what knowledge to teach are an exercise of power and therefore a weighty ethical responsibility. What we choose to teach confers or denies power. (Christine Counsell)

The potential of a progressive, sequenced, cumulatively sequenced Curriculum is our best bet for securing greater…

  • Social justice: The equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.
  • Social mobility: The ability of individuals, families or groups to move up or down the social ladder in a society. Social mobility is often used to describe changes in wealth, but it can also be used to describe general social standing or access to education
  • Equity: Ensuring that everyone receives what they need to be successful. In short, equality is not enough to combat disadvantage. “While the world in which we live distributes talent equally, it does not equally distribute opportunity,”
  • …as well as systemically and upwardly closing the disadvantage gap year-on-year.

Think hard about the Conceptual Backbone of the curriculum. Prioritise, as our most important bet, a progressive, cumulatively sufficient curriculum that has a well-conceived conceptual backbone; the key substantive and disciplinary concepts that provide the conceptual fabric and holding baskets (Mary Myatt) for future learning. Weaving vertical threads through subject ropes.

Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist. (Stephen Pinker)

We know that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric of the subject. Thinking hard about the conceptual backbone and how this identifies the Big Ideas/Substantive Concepts to be considered through a disciplinary approach, imprints and builds the cognitive architecture. Onto this backbone substantive concepts are thrown into sharp relief and brought to life by judiciously selected necessary, powerful (subject) knowledge, seeding the ground, weaving the nets, creating the Velcro for future learning and for remembering more. Schema sticks knowledge.

It is precisely this schema development, this access to the organising concepts, that is the nurtured gift that advantaged learners bring to our schools as the consequence of experience and supported opportunity over time. It is why the year-on-year progression and securing of the substantive concepts, as threads through the curriculum, is so essential for disadvantaged learners to connect and create conceptual holding baskets for powerful knowledge that self-perpetuates in the future… creating precisely the Mathew Effect that has given an advantage to advantaged learners from birth (and before).

It is this conceptual architecture, schema and backbone that secures the big ideas, makes sense of and holds necessary, powerful knowledge that develops disciplinary understanding to build historians, authors, mathematicians, geographers, artists… who develop their states of being over time (…and with it their identity, self-esteem, sense of place, agency and belonging).

Concepts are sitting in every part of the curriculum and they cannot be left to chance, because they are acting as holding baskets for a lot of information. (Mary Myatt)


See the Curriculum as the progression model; it raises the tide. It is the year-on-year progression through a cumulatively sufficient curriculum that is the biggest opportunity and the best bet for disadvantaged learners to close the gap.

Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us later to go further more easily. (Bruner, 1960)

Constructing and curating the curriculum and the enactment of it is a long term bet that requires a long term investment – it is precisely the coherence and sequence built progressively over time that lifts and raises the tide for all and particularly disadvantaged learners. As educationalists we need to give the capacity, space and time for subject experts to carefully craft, curate and develop curriculum. Children get one chance, one opportunity to experience a coherent, progressive curriculum; incoherence and arbitrary knowledge is leaving the guesswork to chance and children.

The curriculum requires an infinite mindset; one that requires educators to plant trees for the future. The development of curriculum through a child’s lens lasts at least from age 3 (although we also know the first 1001 days from conception is a significant determinant) to age 19 and beyond; approaching two decades. A daunting, yet helpful perspective. If the power of curriculum is its cumulative coherence and sufficiency over time – regular revolution and change of curriculum is detrimental for learners; and particularly disadvantaged learners. (how often has curriculum changed in the last 15 years? how has this lack of continuity and coherence impacted on the progress of disadvantaged learners?)

The curriculum should not be half baked. Random curriculum (or poorly conceived curriculum), can present the prospect of multi-serendipitous findings for advantaged learners to make sense of within their well-connected schema, an opportunity to meander and make meaning. For disadvantaged learners it feels more like a trek into an abstract unknown, poorly structured and sequenced, day on day struggle to work out how this bit fits. This cognitive conflict and dissonance gradually erodes confidence and shifts the blame onto themselves, reaffirming that they do not belong. (Discontinuity and incoherence is damaging for disadvantaged learners; hence the presently widening gap as the impact is not felt evenly).


Stay close to the backbone its strength is realised over time; it holds, supports and directs the curriculum, but it is an investment that should be viewed in yearsdecades (resist mission creep into a world of arbitrary knowledge, topics, lists, whims… ). Too much curriculum and teaching steers too far from both the substantive concepts and disciplinary approach to deliver arbitrary knowledge not held by the conceptual/big ideas of the subject or supported through the development of disciplinary knowledge and states of being.

closeup photography of cairn stone

Staying close to the backbone requires teachers to consider less content and to deepen teaching that hangs around on the big ideas, concepts and the judiciously selected necessary knowledge that catalyses and provides the stickier holding baskets for future learning; covering what matters most, better.


Beware the noisy, content heavy, multi-topic curriculum that is bursting with arbitrary knowledge – chasing that which is not worth having (or that which will not stick in the absence of a conceptual backbone or secure holding baskets, or because ultimately much detail is forgotten in the long term).

Arbitrary: based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system ‘an arbitrary decision’

Instead judiciously select necessary knowledge that exposes, simplifies and exemplifies the organising concepts and big ideas of our curriculum; think networks of knowledge held by concepts and less about facts and lists. Understanding that it is the substantive concepts and the disciplinary understanding that is the goal of the curriculum, which is brought to life through judiciously selected knowledge; gifting the thrill of insight and knowing more to disadvantaged learners.

Arbitrary knowledge, content and topics selected randomly or as a personal (or historic) whim is kryptonite for disadvantaged learners. Understanding the organising concepts gives the thrill of insight and the ‘feeling of being clever’ that super-charges curiosity; as disadvantaged become advantaged and see the world differently and are then in turn increasingly motivated to test new experiences and information against their new view of the world. Gifting how subjects are organised and the concepts that define it not only tackles disadvantage in the present, but also into the future within and beyond the subject – setting the type of schema and conceptual awareness that many advantaged learners bring to school.


Subject is King. Curriculum is enacted through the lens of subject. These domains organise and structure our curriculum into distinct realms. Only deep investment over time on how subjects are constructed will provide the insight that teachers need to teach (not present) the substantive concepts, build disciplinary understanding and secure the pertinent and president knowledge that allows pupils to know more, remember more and do more. (understanding that much will be forgotten, but that the organising concepts will live on to allow learners to know what to do when they do not know what to do, throughout their lives). Pushing wide open a door for colleagues to think deeply and celebrate widely the unique aspects of their subject; to get their subject geek on (but not in the undisciplined pursuit of content, but in the underlying structure that is so important to learning).

There is significant ‘polymathic’ demand on primary teachers and schools. To realise the intention of the new framework and to invest deeply in curriculum and subject requires significant subject domain expertise… unlikely to exist within a single primary. Educators from across 3-19 must work together altruistically across our sector to think hard about and curate accessible and understood subject curricular for teachers (and pupils). Groups of school creating the collaborative structures and subject knowledge expertise to curate curriculum that will disproportionately support those presently experiencing disadvantage.

There is a reverse problem in secondary, where the degree-level expertise tends to lean towards content-heavy curricula that are prone to ‘arbitrary’ knowledge, whims and a breadth of curriculum that is too noisy and not efficient enough to secure and deepen understanding of the conceptual framework; placing responsibility for drawing connections across subjects with students. For some learners, this autonomy leads to meaning making and mastery and for others the incoherence leads to dislocation and disconnection. We need much greater debate and discussion on what it means to be a teacher of…


Sequence matters; really matters within learning episodes. Learning happens when we think hard and where we can connect new ideas securely into our existing schema. When disadvantaged learners meet new learning in our classrooms they really need it to be enacted in a sequence that is coherent and cumulative. Whilst advantaged learners have cultural capital and developed schema that is more resistant to poorly sequenced learning, disadvantaged learners are much less able to make sense of poor sequence; the curriculum literally becomes out-of-order (and out of reach) for disadvantaged learners if it is enacted out of order.

Disadvantaged learners are likely to have less well developed schema, which makes them far more sensitive to learning that is out of sequence. Given that disadvantaged learners often need to structure and re-structure schema as opposed to accrete or tune schema it really matters the order in which areas are taught. Learners with limited or less stable schema are more likely to reject (fail to resolve cognitive conflict) new learning that is not well sequenced and sensitive to previous knowledge and existing schema.

Sequencing that achieve an hours-worth of learning for an hours-worth of input will close the gap for disadvantaged learners. Typically, disadvantaged learners are far more likely to assume that they alone do not understand when learning/teaching is out of sequence; “that does not make sense, it must be me,” compared to advantaged learners who are self-confident enough to recognise poor sequence, “this is a bit odd, but I am confident with what I already know, I’ll tolerate the learning and assimilate as I go.”


Give Status; Small Moments of Prestige, that say you belong. Disadvantaged learners are more likely to have an external locus of control, to step back and to opt out of learning. Our perceived status drives are sense of belonging, our connectedness, our value and ultimately whether we are part of the game (and entitled to be…). The Pandemic has driven far greater disenfranchisement in education; if you do not see yourself as part of the game, you will opt out and protect yourself from further status harm by playing a different game or cutting losses to avoid playing and failing.

It is easy to forget we have status to give, that it costs nothing and it never runs out. …Allowing others to feel statusful makes it more likely they’ll accept our influence. (Will Storr, 2021)

It’s probably not a surprise to discover that feeling deprived of status is a major source of anxiety and depression. When life is a game we’re losing, we hurt. …To our brains, status is a resource as real as oxygen or water. When we lose it, we break. (Will Storr, 2021)

As humans we seek status, typically measuring against those that we are closest to. Classrooms are on-going status games, one that reflects a key aspect of being human.

…our curriculum should whisper to our children, “You belong. You did not come from nowhere. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it.” (Ben Newmark)

Create learning spaces where all children belong. Without psychological safety we cannot attend to what is to be learnt. Within these spaces how do we gift Small Moments of Prestige and build every learners status, how do we have greater awareness of how we give status and build a fully inclusive space for all and particularly those learners experiencing disadvantage.

To feel a sense of belonging is to feel accepted, to feel seen and to feel included by a group of people… to not feel belonging is to experience the precarious and insecure sense of an outsider. (Owen Eastwood, 2021)


Build schema by weaving (conceptual) nets. Do not presume previous knowledge, weave conceptual nets, stop throwing fish at broken nets. We are the sum of our memories (and opportunities and experiences) over time. This means that each individual is unique; be wary of working to the average. This uniqueness is to be celebrated and yet it provides the wickedest of problems for teaching. Each of us bring a range of schema to our learning; some advanced and deep, others beginning and shallow.

white and blue net

People are not born with fixed reserves of potential; instead potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.” (Anders Ericsson)

Our understanding of the world and our place in it is built over time through the development of schema.

“…our brains do something vastly more impressive, forming neural nets from billions of cells, each connected to thousands of others. And these networks are organized into larger structures, … and so on, in a complex hierarchical scheme..” (Leonard Mlodinow, 2018)

When we meet new information (and when we are primed to attend to it) we typically do one of four things:

  • Accretion: Add it into existing schema with little cognitive conflict, like inserting a new puzzle piece into existing puzzle.
  • Tuning: Tweak and reshape what is already known or understood in light of new insight. The puzzle picture shifts to reveal a new truth or connection.
  • Restructure or structuring: New information is acquired by thinking hard about it and securing a few connections together that can hold fast. New puzzle under construction (without repeating or see in other contexts, learning likely to be insecure).
  • Rejection: New information is beyond proximal zone, cannot resolve the cognitive conflict. No puzzle to add too, starting a new puzzle is too abstract or teaching not made the leap to existing puzzles.

Deepening the wicked problem; the importance of the proximal zone a space that is typically narrower for disadvantaged learners. Understanding where children are in their learning and the scope of previous knowledge is particularly important for disadvantaged learners who have much less scope to wrestle with learning that is beyond schema.

Disadvantaged learners typically have less developed schema supported by cultural capital and opportunities and experiences over time. This is not linked to innate ability. Whilst advantaged learners typically spend time in the accreting and tuning space, and within their proximal zone much more often, disadvantaged learners typically spend more time structuring or restructuring, wrestling often beyond the proximal zone to build understanding and retain exemplifying knowledge. Careful structuring of learning episodes to systematically build in the fundamental and foundational concepts and the introduction of ‘necessary knowledge’ gives a greater chance for cognitive dissonance to be resolved.

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.” (Dan Coyle, 2009)

In this way we can build conceptual nets that allow more knowledge and understanding to be caught by disadvantaged learners; levelling-up the playing field towards advantaged learners who drag thickly woven nets (conceptual fabric of the subject) that are steeped in cultural capital and understanding that collect much of what is available in classrooms (even where it is poorly taught). It is why advantaged still make progress with poor teaching and why poor teaching has a disproportionately negative impact on the progress of disadvantaged(Helpfully the reverse is true, highly effective teaching secures greater progress for disadvantaged compared to advantaged).

Consistent, insightful formative assessment, that allows teachers to build conceptual understanding and to teach the next bit, disproportionately advantages disadvantaged learners. We need to consider particularly the pre-work and the structure of sequences of learning to address previous conceptual and knowledge gaps and at the same time consistently build learning with one eye on future learning.


Seek subject domain experts to inform, curate, collaborate and evolve the conceptual backbone of the curriculum (as an ever-onward); those who will know and understand the threads that weave vertically through the subject. Subject Communities and Subject Groups who together curate an efficient curriculum that enables all learners to secure the substantive concepts, disciplinary knowledge, meaning and understanding through the judicious selection of powerful knowledge. Where subject is celebrated and seen as an academic pursuit, where the discussion and talk is deep, expert and about how subjects are uniquely structured and organised, revealing the conceptual backbone essential for holding and accelerating learning over time…

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something they do and want to learn how to do it better by interacting regularly.” (Etienne Wenger)

Double down on and build deep understanding of the conceptual backbone with teachers and other colleagues. Teachers and colleagues often engaging in deep professional subject specific discussion and debate on the nuances and peculiarities of concept development over time. So that against this backcloth and architecture we can identify and judiciously select the necessary powerful knowledge, Tier 3 vocabulary, and secure understanding and meaning to allow all learners to know more, remember more and do more. We must create the conditions for collective endeavour, the pursuit of subject and collaboration; creating Communities of Practice in each subject/department, where teachers deliberately plan, sequence and play with pedagogy that will best enact the shared curriculum. A powerful alchemy is created when colleagues discuss practice on aligned curriculum across schools and evaluate often.

Teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long term memory and apply them fluently (Ofsted Framework)

Create much more space for teachers to debate, discuss, test and evaluate the pedagogy and teaching that is most efficacious in every way for the delivery of the specific subject necessary knowledge and conceptual framework; this can only be done in the consideration and shared planning of specific sequences of learning that fit the curriculum backbone and are an exploration of curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. We should deeply invest in Communities of Practice; the result of these curriculum conversations are our disadvantaged learners best chance of experiencing teaching that is efficient, effective and focused on what matters most.


Deeply consider and discuss Pedagogy. Teachers teach, presenters present. The careful selection of pedagogy in planning sequence and in response to following learning to meet need within learning episodes is the determining factor on the quality of the curriculum. Where the teacher habits, skills, strategies and approaches are highly aligned to the subject content and disciplinary nature of the subject we will accelerate learning, year-on-year. Whilst it is important to build habits and skills of teachers, particularly those that maximise learning time, secure routines and create climates that maximise attention and attending to learning, these are just the starting point of establishing the climate for learning. Those habits and skills that are deeply linked to the specific subject knowledge acquisition and for developing subject conceptual understanding and the disciplinary aspects of the subject will secure greater learning now and in the future. Matching the pedagogical choices to the particular curriculum item, subject nuance and specific desired learning over time.


Don’t build Knowledge in a vacuum; curriculum is not a list it is a network. We learn and remember knowledge and build understanding in relation to what is already known and understood. We compare and contrast and attempt to resolve/assimilate what is new with what we already know.

“The importance of knowledge is not in question, but knowledge alone is not enough.” (Mick Waters)

Stacking knowledge in isolation of context and concept slows learning. Acquiring knowledge and building understanding in context accelerates learning.

The large amount of school time spent in direct word study is not being spent on systemically becoming familiar with new knowledge domains, where word learning occurs naturally, and up to four times faster, without effort. (Hirsch, 2017)

…we should be wary of assuming stacking vocabulary in a list for some quick quizzing offers anything like the deep understanding and rich connections pupils need to make between words, phrases, concepts and big ideas. (Alex Quigley)

We also need to balancing another wicked problem: how do we judiciously introduce new knowledge and new understanding in and within context, without increasing noise and surplus information far beyond the conceptual scope of some disadvantaged learners?

We need to offer insight and examples to embed learning so that learners wrestle with co-occurrences, varied examples and contexts to secure connections and deepen understanding. Using analogy, explaining and modelling expertly so that we explore the multi-faceted richness experienced when growing up advantaged.

By paying attention to vocabulary growth at the micro level, we can better understand it, we can go to cultivating it and in so doing every child will be gifted a wealth of words.” (Alex Quigley, 2018, Closing the Vocabulary Gap))


Seek rich retrieval. Retrieval practices should seek rich context based retrieval in preference to memory tests; teaching should seek to be memorable more than a test of memory. Engaging, rehearsing, exploring, discussing, explaining, defending… are far richer for memory than fact checks and quizzing.

It is inefficient to learn facts, vocab, knowledge in the absence of the conceptual fabric of the curriculum. Tier 3 vocabulary for example requires anchoring in learner’s schema. Where necessary knowledge is built within context and where it is judiciously selected to reinforce the conceptual fabric of the curriculum backbone the new information is stickier and retained up to four time faster. Where this is linked to a strong narrative and mental model we have an opportunity to disproportionately enable disadvantaged learners to close gaps efficiently and more precisely.


Investing deeply in debate, discussion and oracy. We have an opportunity to accelerate the learning of those experiencing the most disadvantage through effective oracy practice. As we support our learners to discover and use their voice as part of their learning and as a result of their learning, we enable them to develop more deeply their own sense of belonging and sense of self, with significant impact on mental health and well-being – not as a tokenistic sidebar, but as an embedded pedagogy upon which the curriculum rides. The very thinking needed as children journey through our curriculum can in many cases most effectively be done as part of dialogic learning, using subject as the ‘grammar’ and talk as the vehicle to develop critical thought. (Neil Phillipson, Dialogic Education: Mastering Core Concepts). Understanding that the development of individual and collective oracy as curriculum is essential for accelerating advantage for disadvantaged learners.


Tell Stories to tap into what makes us human. Dan Willingham highlights that, “our brain privileges story.” Fortunately, stories exist across the whole curriculum and yet our enactment of the curriculum can often revert to something far colder and transactional.

“…stories perform a fundamental cognitive function when we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts, but a consistent and comprehensible story.” (from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot, 2017)

There are many things that attract and hold the attention of brains. Storytellers engage a number of neural processes that evolved for a variety of reasons and are waiting to be played like instruments in an orchestra: moral outrage, unexpected change, status play, specificity, curiosity and so on. By understanding them, we can more easily create stories (curriculum and sequences) that are gripping, profound, emotional and original. (Will Storr, 2019)


Tell stories about words. Etymology offers the opportunity to discover the roots of words that build stories around each word that makes them stickier (connection-wise) in the brain and offers further capacity for future learning. Mary Myatt insightfully highlights that this taps the curiosity of children (something innate in humans) and makes them feel clever. This disproportionately benefits disadvantage who go deeper into the learning and secure the necessary knowledge that will close the disadvantaged gap as well as giving status to learners, empowering them and give them the ticket to culture.

Seek to support learners to use Tier 3 vocabulary with the ease, confidence and fluency that more befits Tier 2 vocabulary. A significant passport not just to the world but also to conceptual understanding that creates the holding baskets for future learning.

Provoke, even anger learners, make them care about learning. Curriculum that provokes, that challenges is one that is much more likely to persuade the brain that this is important enough to encode, that this is important enough to release chemicals to secure connections and wrap myelin, that this is important to me and my life and my future. Curriculum that has provoking questions/hypotheses/conjectures, demands a response and tap emotions. Emotionally linked experiences, both positive and negative, are encoded much more quickly and secured in the longer term; if learning through the curriculum feels more like a quest or a mission it is more likely to be both coherent, memorable and remembered.


Make it irresistibly important, give a sense of urgency. We learn what we care about. Cognitive science has highlighted the chemical changes that happen when we code new learning. If the content of what is to be learnt is not deemed important enough, if it is not compelling enough to think hard about, it does not trigger the emotional/chemical response to connect and encode it.

Inside the brain, this relevance is expressed through widely reaching systems that release chemicals called neuromodulators… releasing with high specificity (to) allow change occur (in the brain) only at specific places and times. … The presence of acetylcholine… tells it to change… they increase plasticity in the target areas. When they’re inactive, there’s little or no plasticity (learning). (David Eagleman, 2020)

So when we attend to something, whether by free will, a burst of emotion, under coercion or by finding meaning in it, we hugely increase our chances of remembering it. (Alex Beard, 2018)

Clearly teaching is not about performance, but it is about moving learners to care enough to trigger chemical and attention cues so that new information is encoded and wrestled with. To this end making learning irresistible, provocative and conflicting is vital.

We learn what we attend to, what we think hard about. Unless the classroom climate enables such focus, particularly for disadvantaged learners who may become distracted in class (because if you bring less into the classroom, or you have other things on the mind, it is harder), and by events out of class (because we need both psychological safety as well as being able to park ‘the multi-distractions of life’ at the door), then learning is slowed and the gap widens. We learn when we attend to the information at hand, when we enhance it into focus, released neurotransmitters to encode, create connections, wrap connections and stick long enough at it to secure connections.

It is my fear there are a great many struggling children who believe they are colluding in a game in which their role is to be physically present in a classroom and to make a pretence they are learning in it, but that nobody really believes anything meaningful is ever accomplished and this doesn’t really matter. (Ben Newmark)

Make learning compelling and irresistibly important. We are competing for attention and convincing other humans (disadvantaged learners) that this is too important to be ignored. Allied with the award of status across the class and judicious issuing of small moments of prestige; learners feel valued, empowered to learn more and to take risks.

You couldn’t learn something you didn’t pay attention to. Yet the process of paying attention to something was complex, and not always under our control. It could be enhanced… in a few ways: things that created an emotional reaction were much more likely to be remembered; repetition helped a little; wanting to remember didn’t help much; reflecting on meaning had a positive effect, such as knowing where something fitted in a story or schema, whether personal or general.” (Alex Beard, 2018)


What if learning and our understanding of the world is more catastrophic than we think? Our view of what we are capable of, of how we understand the world, a subject, a concept often progresses catastrophically and not in a linear way. Once we have seen what we are capable of (or see the world differently) we are never the same. Teachers and the curriculum should create fertile grounds for this insight, born out of the curriculum, opportunity, feedback, modeling, explaining etc.

Great teaching create serendipity fields for all learners, but particularly disadvantaged learners who need to have experiences and supported opportunities that grow and intertwine understanding that is the structure for powerful knowledge that needs to accelerate learning if we are to close the gap.


Whilst the world is an increasingly challenging place to be a child, we have an opportunity as educators to address the embarrassing inequality that exists and work together to close the disadvantage gap. Our collective capacity and shared expertise applied to the development and enactment of curriculum is our best bet, or set of linked bets, to advantage disadvantaged learners. This is the key lever that accumulates advantage year-on-year and is best placed to privilege those who are presently or previously experiencing disadvantage.

Our best hope is to adopt a laser like focus on disadvantage. We can then shine a light on those left behind at school and find ways to ignite their minds. (Lee Elliott Major, 2022)


Dan Nicholls | February 2022

This is significantly influenced by the insight and expertise of colleagues from across the Cabot Learning Federation.

Pre-reading for the South West Disadvantage Network | 18th February 2022

Is there Life after levels? – an approach using Age Related Expectations..

“We have.. come to believe that an individual’s rank on narrow metrics of attainment can be used to judge their talent ..and ability.. and potential.” (adapted from Rose, 2106, “The end of Average”)

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“Typing and ranking (against the average) have come to seem so elementary, natural, and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgement always erases the individuality of the person being judged.” (Rose, 2016)

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It is probably true that the removal of levels and Ofsted’s “no prescribed or preferred method” presents an enormous opportunity for teachers and leaders at KS3 (likely to refer to Year 7 and 8 for most – with the preference for three year KS4)  to own the curriculum, develop assessment, improve pedagogy and inspire students to learn and progress into rounded, successful individuals (who also achieve well at GCSE and A-level).

This opportunity is likely to be enhanced in Multi Academy Trusts where scale provides a unique chance to drive-up standards and create world-class, shared, moderated approaches to curriculum, assessment, reporting and teaching in an area of the curriculum without external benchmarks. A chance to define specifically and focus on what students need to know, understand and do as the foundation for being and feeling successful.

It is also probably true that it is hard to avoid recreating a levelled system or to simply drop GCSE grades (or numbers) down through Key Stage 3.

“There are no ladders (progress is not linear), instead, each one of us has our own web of development, where each step we take opens up a whole range of new possibilities that unfold according to our own individuality.” (Fischer quoted in Rose, 2016)

It is also true.. that to move from levels at KS3 requires a shift in what is valued; a letting go of reassuring and convenient level descriptors, ladders of progress and grades. There is also an inherent danger that we will drift into a time of mediocrity and low expectation as schools and academies introduce non-standardised approaches across KS3 – an area that is presently riddled with  underachievement, dips in progress and firmly in the shadow of performance measures at KS4. And.. there is additional danger that where KS3 is inept this will have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged learners and those on the margins; widening gaps already open on entry to KS3.

And it is importantly true.. that primary colleagues have already moved to an age related / mastery approach. The 2016 results show 53% of students achieving the Age Related Expectations (AREs) in Reading, Maths and Writing (with the percentage achieving ARE in Reading (66%), Maths (70%), Writing (72% (TA)) and SPAG (72%)). Children entering secondary in September understand their attainment and to a lesser extent their progress against Age Related Expectations.

It is also true.. that the time for stalling on a life after levels approach at KS3 is over; not least because of the extraordinary opportunity that it provides. Almost half of all schools have dropped GCSE grades (or numbers) down through to Year 7 and 8 from GCSE (some dropping Progress 8 measures through the five years). Whilst this is both reassuring and convenient it offers no continuity with Primary approaches and essentially replaces levels with grades – particularly where these are fine graded and flipped to the new number grades… (replacing 4c with 4c, but less useful than the previous level because it relates to an equivalent performance projected to a distant summative exam, inherently narrowing the curriculum and experience of children)

However.. in a world without levels there is still a need to measure both the relative attainment and progress of students against a clearly defined age-related standards or expectations to measure the efficacy of the curriculum, teaching and to identify groups and individuals who fall behind, as well as ensuring that all students who need to deepen are stretched and challenged. And.. as Ofsted rightly identify there is a need to secure progress across all Years, in all subjects and across all groups and that where students fall behind they are caught up.

“When we are able to appreciate the jaggedness of other peoples talents – the jagged profile of our children – we are more likely to recognise their untapped potential, to show them how to use their strengths, and to identify and help them improve their weaknesses.” (Rose, 2016)


Which begs the question, what should an approach to life after levels seek to achieve at KS3?

What if.. we developed an approach that used well defined and rigorous Age Related Expectations across each subject and an assessment approach that measured both progress and attainment of children against these AREs and an approach to teaching and learning that inspired, deepened learning and brought the curriculum alive? What if.. was all enhanced through collaboration within a Multi Academy Trust?

What could that look like?..

What if.. this approach to KS3 had a fundamental influence on:

  • The curriculum – so that it becomes absolutely transparent what every child should know, understand and be able to do. As well as affording the space and time to support teaching that deepens and stretches all children within Age Related Expectations. Building a curriculum that inspires children to enjoy and find life long passions across a broad and balanced curriculum – that answers, “what do we want young people to become, how can we give them wings and purpose in life?” as opposed to, “how can we prepare children to achieve an A grade (or 9) in 5 years time on a narrow summative exam testing areas that do not translate well to success in life?”
  • Assessment – common summative assessments that test students against Age Related Expectations (requiring teachers and leaders to develop, create and moderate assessments, enhanced within a MAT or a Collaborative). Using  formative assessment to close gaps, accelerate progress as well as catching-up those short of or falling behind the Age  Related Expectations. Broadening our use of formative and summative assessment to include teacher assessment, coursework, book scrutiny, oral presentations, group working – to assess and support children to work at and deepen within ARE.
  • Teaching and learning: Secure learning and progress of all children against the age Related Expectations of knowledge, understanding and skills. But, and here is the real opportunity, inspire and stretch children so that they deepen within the Age Related Expectations within a flexible, broad and balanced curriculum. Built in Formative feedback that has a strong influence on lesson planning and closing gaps to and beyond the Age Related Expectations.

What if.. we no longer equate speed of learning with ability? (Rose, 2016) What if.. we stopped labelling children as less able or more able; recognising that the key thing is that all have potential to attain well, regardless of their present level of attainment? The present level of attainment of a child is much more likely the result of background, chance, opportunity, linguistic privilege, context etc. than innate talent or ability. What if.. Age Related Expectations made explicitly clear how to close attainment gaps? And that.. the assessment and feedback woven into (and not bolted onto) the curriculum celebrates the jaggedness of children’s abilities and talents?

What if.. this new approach championed all subjects; Art, Music, Drama, PE, writing, poetry, sculpture, design, craft, reading, languages … because when students are enthused in their learning and they value increasing parts of it, they will also progress in literacy and numeracy as the vehicles for them to pursue their passions?

“Good Schools get on and do things: dance, drama, music, art, using the outdoors, speaking in other languages, finding out about the past and other places, growing things, cooking, going places, using ICT and paint brushes, making things, experimenting, learning about their own bodies, working out how to get on with others in the real world. Above all, they use all these experiences as vehicles to do amazing English and Mathematics to support the structured literacy and numeracy programmes at the same time bring purpose to learning for pupils.” (Mick Waters, 2013)

What if.. this extended to extra-curricular opportunities, not least because this does can unpick disadvantage and has been shown to have a significant impact on grades and progress. As Angela Duckworth describes extra curricular activities are, the playing fields of Grit. (When we talk of curriculum at KS3 we should retain “curriculum” in its broadest sense).

“When kids are playing sports or music or rehearsing for the school play, they’re both challenged and having fun.” … “There are countless research studies showing that kids who are more involved in extracurriculars fare better on just about every conceivable metric – they earn better grades, have higher self esteem, are less likely to get in to trouble and so forth. … more participation in activities predicts better outcomes.” (Angel Duckworth, in Grit,2016)

“Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that)” (Dan Coyle)

What if.. the present Year 7 and 8 Curriculum is so opaque, directionless and random that it actually works to enhance accumulated disadvantage? What if.. there was real clarity and consistency for all about the Age Related Expectations so that.. only motivation is the limiting factor for a child’s attainment. What if.. this disrupted the loop of unequal opportunity for students at the margins?

What if.. all of this had the ability to tackle workload through:

  • The sharing of resources, SOW and curriculum planning.
  • We did not seek breadth and focused on quality and depth of learning; reducing the burden on teachers; freeing them from the need to skim and teach at pace. Reassuringly clear clear about the key concepts and misconceptions, as well as the required Knowledge, Understanding and Skills.
  • Centralised assessments and reporting to generate real clarity of expectation.
  • Curriculum groups and CPD to have clear direction around, for example, the key Year 7 concepts and misconceptions. This will bring shared purpose to departments across Academies.
  • Establishing shared exemplars for the Age Related knowledge, understanding and skills in Year 7 and 8 to support modelling and acquisition of AREs.

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What if.. the very first question that we ask is, “what should students at the end of Year 7 (and 8) know, understand and be able to do?” ..in each subject? (and across the full curriculum?)

“Our task is to educate their whole being so they can face the future. We may not see the future, but they will and our job is to help them make something of it.” (Ken Robinson)

What if.. it is much more about developing successful individuals, historians, geographers, musicians, artist, sportspeople, scientist, writers, innovators, dreamers, mothers, fathers, positive citizens.. and that KS3 is about this grounding across all of these areas within a broad, balanced, inspiring, motivating curriculum … Then the question is what do we, as professional teachers, subject specialist and leaders, want our Year 7 (8, 9) children to know, understand and do? Ensuring that we set our expectations high enough.. (and on from Expectations at KS2)..

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” (Michelangelo)

What if.. we also realised that there should be only one set of expectations – the Year 7 Age-related standard – And we avoided describing any sort of level on the way to this standard or beyond. We became comfortable that the Age Related Expectation is just that. And in a similar way to Ofsted who provide no descriptors for Requiring Improvement (it is not yet good) .. students are  “working towards age related expectations” (Of course it may well be helpful to use departing levels, KS2 Age Related Expectations and even GCSE descriptors to inform and support shared construction of the Year 7 Age Related Expectations and the Year 8 AREs … BUT we should resist on-going comparisons and remove levels and grades from assessment – there is no life after levels if levels or grades or a proxy still exist – AREs are single statements of what is expected by age, no ladder through them just distance from ARE and deepening within ARE)

What if.. it is also unhelpful to try to align the Age Related Expectations to GCSE grades or numbers. Whilst you would expect a child working at Age Related Expectations to go on and achieve at least a “good pass” (at least a 5 (1-9)) and that through deepening and pursuing excellence will access 6-9 at GCSE, we should resist placing age related expectations on a graduated scale or flight path across 7-11. Not least because KS3 should be about progress and preparation for life across a broad and balanced curriculum, that learning should spiral and interleave and that assigning a child as an F, G, H in Year 7 is a non-sensical descriptor of their attainment that ignores progression in learning. We should tread carefully if we try to force-fit summative GCSE grading down through to Year 7, even if there is a level of convenience in drawing on GCSE descriptors, questions, mark schemes etc. What if.. a better fit is to base all types of assessment to percentages or standardised scores of 100 and then determine percentage of performance that relates to working at Age Related Expectations? – (banding that can to planned into tests or derived through moderation post-assessment).

What if.. Knowledge is Power and that this should be a key focus for a Age Related Curriculum? What if.. the acquisition of knowledge allows the proximal zone of development to  widen so that progress accelerates as students are more able to assimilate new information/understanding/skill with their existing ability. What if.. this is more important from disadvantaged students who age 3 have half the words of children from professional families? (553 words v 1100 words) What if.. therefore, our KS3 curriculum and Age Related Expectations emphasised the required knowledge and this was made accessible, transparent and secured through quality first teaching .. so that effort (motivation) was the only barrier to acquiring the required age related knowledge?


What if.. instead of levels or grades we were only interested in children working towards Age Related Expectations at KS3 (following the primary model), achieving the AREs and importantly being given the freedom to deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills within these Age Related Expectations? We might describe a child as..

  • Deepening (D): child has reached the year group expectation and is now taking this deeper into more abstract work – following their passion within a broad curriculum that inspires the full range of talent and interest.
  • On track (O) / Working At current age related expectation. Child is working at the age related expectation for the Year group.
  • Yet to be on track (Y): the child shows some working at age related expectations but is not on track to achieve them.
  • At an earlier stage (A) in their learning journey. The child is short of the age related expectation.

(…and we resisted trying to describe any stages before or beyond age related expectations, which would recreate levels)

What if.. these tracked onto the national criteria at KS2?..

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What if.. we tracked both attainment and progress against age related expectations (ARE) using the following?.. for whole cohort (Year group or MAT Year group), groups, subjects, classes etc. … enabling inter and intra Academy and subject and group comparisons.

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What if.. this shows where students enter year 7.. using the KS2 scaled score. (where >100 reflects “Working at Expected Standard” on the x-axis? That in-line with Progress 8 this is the average of Reading and Maths. (53% of students achieved >100 (scaled score) in Reading, Writing and Maths. (SPAG being the fourth area measured at the end of KS2.

What if.. we used blue to identify non-PP, orange to identify PP children, triangles for female and circles for male and that an SEND child is shown by a black border?..AND what if.. as you rolled over each symbol the name and class of the child popped up?

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What if.. we used the y-axis as a 100-scale – most likely to be linked to a summative assessment (percentage) that identified children’s present attainment against Age Related Expectations.. What if.. the measure of a child’s attainment against Age Related Expectations could be given through teacher assessment, practical scores, oral presentation against set criteria?

What if.. the child’s vertical position identified their present attainment or distance from, on or beyond Age Related Expectation? AND that vertical movement up or down is a reflection of progress toward or away from the Age Related Expectation..

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What if.. we could plot over 1000 students against these Age Related Expectations (a benefit afforded by being part of a Multi Academy Trust)? What if.. this created a unique opportunity to moderate and standardise performance against a significant sample of children in each year (n.>1000), in each subject across all classes and groups? What if.. this was a significant nudge that raised standards at KS3?

What if.. we presented this data for each subject? ..or group? ..or class? So that..

  • We were able to track cohort percentages of the attainment of students – e.g. 63% at or above ARE
  • We were able to track the progress of students – e.g. of those starting at ARE and above at the start of Year 7, 40% are gaining ground against ARE, 52% are falling behind
  • We can visually and directly see who is falling behind … and intervene.
  • We can compare the attainment and progress of groups, particularly focused on groups.
  • We can measure the progress of students by class – a class that is moderated across a number of schools – in a student cohort of >1000, across 8 Academies.

What if.. we described progress over time against Age Related Expectations as:

  • Accelerating progress against Age Related Expectations
  • Gaining ground against Age Related Expectations
  • Maintaining progress against Age Related Expectations
  • Falling behind against Age Related Expectations
  • Falling further behind against Age Related Expectations

And.. these could be used with the attainment against Age Related Expectations: Deepening ARE, At ARE, Yet to be at ARE or At an Earlier stage (as above).

What if.. this allowed very clear identification of the children who are falling behind from where they were against the clearly defined Age Related Expectations?.. what if.. this told us about PP or SEND or gender or academy or department or individual? what if.. we did a work scrutiny and student voice for those students falling behind, and actively caught them up?

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AND.. those that are gaining ground from where they were against the clearly defined Age Related Expectations.. so that we can grow bright spots, celebrate and share practice that accelerates the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills..

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What if.. our job as educators just became very straight forward … all children regardless of present attainment need to be supported to reach the Age Related Expectations and for those who are secure to deepen and further bring alive and broaden the curriculum. So that the standard deviation shrinks and attainment rises (or deepens!)… seeking this…

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OR more simply.. to get all up to the standard and to deepen within the curriculum to inspire the next generation of mathematicians, writers, readers, sculptors, actors, artists, play writes, composers, biologists, astronauts, comedians and so on? against deepened AREs … and without levels and/or grades.

AND What if.. this just required:

  • a set of rigorous and well crafted Age Related Expectations – cleverly described and accessible…(to students, teachers, leaders and parents) Expectations that develop over time (through moderation and the professional dialogue of subject specialists) to articulate ever more clearly the expected knowledge, understanding and skills?
  • a set of common assessments that are 2/3 times a year sat across all Academies., as well as a suite of other summative and formative assessment techniques?

BUT we need to.. remember that we can also measure whether children are working at age related expectation through teacher assessment, through the quality of books, practicals, presentations, group working etc. After all this should really focus on the quality of formative feedback and importantly how this informs and shapes teacher’s planning.

What if.. the real benefit is that children, teachers, leaders, parents etc. will know much more precisely what they know, what they do not know, understand or can do … and importantly how they can close gaps in their learning. This may help to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks…

“(KS3 needs to…) replace the patchwork of lucky breaks, context and arbitrary advantages that determine success…with a system (curriculum and teaching) that provides opportunities and the conditions for all to feel success.” (Malcolm Gladwell, adapted)

What if.. ALL OF THIS is compromised if we do not invest time in establishing outstanding Age Related Expectations. AND what if.. even with this we need to support the development of teaching to secure deepening of ARE, the quality go feedback for planning lessons, feedback for children and the ability to broaden the curriculum to inspire and secure a passion for deeper learning.

What if.. we need to become excellent at setting ARE summative Assessments? as well as teacher assessment, coursework, practical assessments etc. to judge children against Age Related Expectations. Where Multi Academy Trusts have scale they become their own Exam Board for KS3 with paper setting, expectation setting, moderation, reporting and feedback. The moderation, CPD, sampling, ARE reporting, ARE data will grow our understanding of ARE over time; clarifying and improving the Age Related Expectations and the quality of Assessment (and feedback).

What if.. the age related expectations are clearly communicated on single sheets that show the specific gaps in what children know, understand and can do? – not dissimilar to PiXL Covey tables or PLC grids…a DTT approach. What if.. deliberate practice approach is then used in lessons, at parents evenings, in reports and through intervention to close gaps.

What if.. this allowed reporting and parents evenings to have the structure of…

  • Your child is gaining ground (or falling behind) in their learning towards age related expectations. (progress)
  • She is presently short of Age Related Expectations (Attainment)
  • What she specifically needs to do to secure Age Related Expectations is … and this … and that … (Targets)
  • And here is the specific Age Related Expectations that I have colour coded to show you where there are gaps and these link to specifically how you (and we) can support your child to go beyond ARE and deepen in these areas…
  • For every subject at KS3.

What if.. this enabled us to plan, teach and intervene to: catch-up those who fall behind, ensuring all achieve ARE, deepen children’s knowledge, understanding and skills within the Age Related Expectations and stretch and challenge all to release their passion for learning within a deep and challenging curriculum – inspiring excellence


What if.. all of this required great teaching … perhaps most importantly emphasising..

  • Feedback that inform planning of lessons against ARE and specifically what students can and cannot yet do. (More reading/marking for planning over marking to the individual)
  • Questioning that secures and deepens key concepts and challenges mis-concepts by age. Focusing on the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and application.
  • Deepening and challenging lessons that bring the curriculum to life and to depth to challenge all learners to ARE and to deepen beyond.

What if we then further embed ideas around Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That “by age” we were very clear about what is expected (what competences children need to have or be able to do?)…and that this provides the framework for depth, teaching, questioning etc. as it already does in many classrooms.

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What if we taught to depth around these age related expectations because the necessity to cover lots of content is removed. What if there was a real stickiness around redrafting and re-doing, such that children were challenged to do their best work and this enabled students to spend more time working at Age Related Expectations?

“More generally, in top performing education systems the curriculum is not mile-wide and inch-deep, but tends to be rigorous, with a few things taught well and in great depth.”

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What if all of this also sought the ethic of excellence, because…

“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

What if.. this seeking excellence required an unswerving expectation that all teachers were  purposeful, deliberate and precise around formative feedback and that this was within tasks and lessons and not bolted on. What if.. we judged the quality of feedback much more on the quality of what students produce and less on ticks or comments or forced dialogue in books.

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What if.. the curriculum was interleaved so that the Age Related Expectations are re-visited to embed and secure new knowledge and understanding? What if.. we developed a spiral nature to the curriculum?

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Maybe then we would have an approach to life after levels that..

  • was focused on developing successful individuals, historians, geographers, musicians, artist, sportspeople, scientist, writers, innovators, dreamers, mothers, fathers, positive citizens.. as identified by subject specialists in our Academies.
  • took control of the curriculum, assessment and teaching against a clear set of Age Related Expectations that importantly allow teaching to deepen and inspire within the expectations.
  • built on the Primary experience of Ager Related Expectations and Mastery and provided a strong foundation across a broad curriculum – including
  • was able to measure attainment and progress to identify those that fall behind.
  • was clear about the precise Age Related Expectations for Year 7 and 8 – so that children understood the knowledge, understanding and skills that they can and cannot do and importantly the gaps in their learning and importantly how to close them.
  • did not recreate levels in a new format or simply use GCSE grades or numbers down through to Year 7. It did not seek to provide any other descriptors other than one set at Year 7 and one at Year 8 – the child is either at an earlier stage, yet to be at ARE, working at ARE, deepening within ARE.
  • took full advantage of Multi Academy Trusts and Collaboratives to own and develop standardised approaches that sought to raise the bar. That charged subject specialists with developing AREs and Common assessments (summative and other) that brought real ownership of what and how knowledge, understanding and skills are secured in our young people.
  • had a sophisticated way of visually showing the attainment and progress of all children, by year, group, class … Academy, department etc. So that progress of a child is identified as accelerating progress, gaining ground, maintaining progress, falling behind or falling further behind.
  • never forgot that it is still the quality of teaching in each lesson every day that is the transformative engine of education regardless of the curriculum.
  • had at its heart a drive to close gaps for the disadvantaged and children on the margins. In fact catching-up all those who are and fall behind.

“An individual is a high-dimensional system evolving over place and time.” (Molenaar, in Rose 2016) “…if we demand that social institutions value individuality over the average, then not only will we have greater individual opportunity, we will change the way we think about success – not on terms of our deviation from average, but on the terms we set for ourselves.” (Rose, 2016)

What if.. it was precisely this opportunity to take control of the curriculum, assessment and teaching that inspired us all to enter Education and seek to make a difference?

Dan Nicholls | August 2016

Thoughts and ideas largely my own and do not necessarily reflect that of the Cabot Learning Federation.

Thunks | simple questions that prompt a new view

Thunks… beguiling questions about everyday things that stop you in your tracks and suggest new ways to look at the world… earthrise

Earthrise: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth.” (Jim Lovell)

Thunks have the ability to change our view, our thinking, our behaviours, our habits and the way we lead and teach; just like seeing earth from space changes perspective and forces us to reflect. The following is a herd of thunks designed to add ideas and viewpoints that stop and force reflection…prompting improvement in our leadership and teaching…

All teaching and leadership blogs are here


Thunk #3 | What if… motivation needs to be ignited?

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“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.” Dan Coyle

We all have them; the moments in our past that have shaped the present and will influence the future. It may be a teacher, a sportsperson, a hero, a film, a piece of work, art, riding a bike, running, a poem, essay, a realisation, a chance encounter. It can be like a lightning bolt that ignites something deep inside that motivates a lifetime of passion for something; it causes the heart to flutter and captures the imagination.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

It is probably true that there are moments in our lives that create core memories that have disproportionate influence on who we are, what we do and who we become. The Disney Pixar film Inside Out is a great tale that revolves around those forming experiences that shape each of us.

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In the film each memory that Riley has is diligently stored in the short and long term memory, occasionally forgotten and removed (hoovered in the movie). There are however key core memories – it is these that shape Riley’s personality islands…those few things that define who  she is, what is important to her and what she is passionate about. The mind replays the key igniting memories that reinforce this passion and drives the intrinsic motivation for deep practice.

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“Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that)” Dan Coyle

The emerging thunk is that these moments are a lot like falling in love — we can’t force it, but we can increase the odds slightly by doing a few basic things. As teachers and leaders how do we create the conditions and the opportunities that are more likely to provoke these lightning bolt moments for children and our peers?

These moments are: (from Dan Coyle)

  1. Serendipitous. Happen by chance, and thus contain an inherent sense of noticing and discovery.
  2. They are joyful. Crazily, obsessively, privately joyful. As if a new, secret world is being opened.
  3. The discovery is followed directly by action. Not to just admire, but to act, do and practise.

One key lever in education is subject knowledge or rather subject passion from teachers who inspire. Teachers have huge influence – and with that opportunity comes great responsibility:

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The language we use is also extremely powerful. It is language that can create ignition points and perhaps more importantly can confirm and propagate these sparks into passions that drive the motivation to shape and enhance young peoples lives…

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“Tread carefully on the dreams of children; they are fragile”

So, create moments of joy, inspiring facts, details and experiences that ignite a passion, perhaps not seen or witnessed early but for ever changing the individual. After all…

“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

It just might be that supporting children to achieve the best work they have ever done ignites the sort of motivation that creates a personality island and the deep passion to engage in the practice that enriches a lifetime.

How do we create core memories, lightning bolts, ignition moments or at least the conditions for them to happen more often?

How do we use language to support children’s dreams and passions?

We may not create olympic medalists, chess grandmasters or a world-class composers, but the fun is in the journey, in having a passion, an interest and generating the kind of joy that sparks an interest – Teachers have no idea the influence they have on others.

Go create ignition opportunities and sparks that will enrich and empower young people to be passionately interested about stuff… and reinforce these passions with your language.

you have the privilege of sparking remarkable futures.

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August 2015


Thunk #2 | What if… Mission + Campaigning = Momentum?

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Michael Hayman and Nick Giles identify: Mission: “A driving desire to change things, a higher purpose that drives (improvement).” (best expressed in 5 words) Campaigning: “Turning the mission into a powerful reality, the activist mentality.” Momentum: “The measure of success moving and growing faster than the competition.” Are you a campaigner, an activist, a disruptor? …on a mission to secure the momentum you require to change the piece of the world that you want to improve? This is a refreshing view of change (particularly the link to activism) and what it takes to move to action and secure the level of change that will make the difference. But what does it take to be an activist/campaigner? Hayman and Giles identify:

  1. Drive (or refusal to give in): Do you have the drive to keep going when it is easier to stop or when people tell you it will not work? Remember that there is a default movement against change and an inherent fear of new/different. Set your mission with care – it needs to be simply expressed and the focus of your drive.
  2. Self improvement: Do you build in enough time to reflect and learn? Treat experience and opportunity as stepping stones forward as part of the ups and downs of a campaign.
  3. Communication: Without communication there is no campaign. Reinforce the mission and the purpose often – drive the mission daily…this is the flywheel. If it is not simple and compelling there will be no followers.
  4. Disruption: To achieve change you need to disrupt the current status quo: If your mission is to address dissatisfaction or a need for change and this is multiplied by a Vision (Mission) and First Steps (Campaign) and this is greater than the Resistance you will achieve Momentum. (based on Gleicher formula)change-graphicOvercoming the Resistance of status quo requires a disruptive drive to succeed in achieving non-reversable change.
  5. Persuasion: You will not achieve your mission alone – persuasion is the key to securing followers – it is followers that transforms a lone nut into a leader. You need a tipping point to secure change – persuade through the strength of purpose, mission and ambition – people follow those with a deep and unshakable belief about what they seek to change. Unwavering commitment to change.
  6. Connection: Connect and network widely to secure support, seek feedback and make things happen.
  7. Optimism: To overcome the status quo activists and campaigners need to be optimistic. The vast majority of people will give up before they realise the change they seek. Develop the ability to bounce.

“Go big or go home. Because it’s true. What do you have to lose?” (Eliza Dushku)

Maybe then: As educators and leaders we should assume the role of activist and trigger campaigns to achieve missions. This language underlines the inertia of the status quo and that if we really want to trigger change and make a big difference – irreversible change – then activism and campaigning is more appropriate representation of the energy and commitment required to overcome the inherent resistance and secure the improvement we seek.

Go forth and disrupt, commit to a mission that you love, use ridiculous amounts of drive, communicate for buy-in, create a movement through persuasion and connect with others to achieve a level of momentum that makes the change stick and irreversible.

Go big or go home

Further Reading: (“Mission” by Michael Hayman and Nick Giles is excellent and very applicable to educational leadership)

and this blog: Great Leaders create movements that stick | Amazing is what spreads 

August 2015


Thunk #1 | What if… leading change and improvement is all about the nudge? Nudge “Nudges are ways of influencing choice” (Hausman & Welch 2010) …a fundamental aspect in education. The behavioural insights team, led by David Halpern, commonly known as the “nudge unit” was set up by David Cameron to “help people make better choices for themselves… (by gentle prompting or nudging).” The art of leadership, teaching and sparking change is often in the ability of “nudging” new ways of acting, learning and thinking in others. Nudges are similar in nature to other powerful change agents: butterflies (Brighouse), bright spots (Heaths) or positive deviants (Sternin)… those outliers present in any population that, when amplified, have the power to leverage change and improvement. Thaler et al. highlight that there are influential strategies (nudges) that leaders can use as choice architects to influence choice and behaviour. So leaders are choice architects; determining the environment in which noticed and un-noticed features influence the decisions that staff and students make. Leaders have the ability to influence behaviours, create social epidemics and use “nudges” to influence individual and group behaviour. We are surrounded by nudges; good leaders see them, look for them and use them (often automatically), great leaders have an increased awareness of nudges and use them to spark change; clever, cheap and effective ways that change behaviours intrinsically – without forcing choices. Perhaps some obvious nudges are:

  • What is placed onto observation forms and is therefore rewarded.
  • Telling students how many marks they are away from the next grade and not their actual grade.
  • Shifting Satisfactory to Requires Improvement.
  • Removing levels.
  • Any new performance measure  – nudging by shifting the goal to where you want it and not wasting time supporting the how it can improve.
  • Any new category that classifies performance of Academies or MATs – nudges improvement toward set criteria.
  • Asking (not telling) others what they will contribute.
  • Warning bell moved earlier to nudge punctuality.
  • Accepting that change is the norm and not saying things like, “we just need stability”
  • Never talking negatively as a leader – nudging that positive ethos that is desired.
  • Being in every classroom everyday.
  • Providing enough seating at lunchtime.
  • Finding and promoting teaching bright spots.
  • Removing all graffiti immediately.
  • Using “we” and not “I” or “you” when collaborating.
  • Investing in signage/branding that describes the accepted behaviour.
  • Leading with Why and telling emotive stories of a compelling future.
  • Not talking about behaviour and only about learning.
  • Praising the good habits, only highlighting that which is desirable.

…you will have other nudges. As the choice architect of your organisation, team, classroom… 

  • do you recognise the nudges around you? …the nudges that influence you as well as the nudges that you use to influence others?
  • how do you use nudges? Do we think and plan long enough to seek softer ways (nudges) to achieve the changes we wish to see?
  • how can you nudge improvement?

(a Future Thunk: Do we understand and recognise the constraints that we have around us; constraints that control what we do, how we think and how we behave?)

 August 2015

Great Leaders create movements that stick | Amazing is what spreads

“The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.  Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate” (Gladwell, 2002).


It is probably true… that understanding how to “start a movement” is a key leadership quality at all levels within organisations. Why is it that somethings tip and others do not; why some approaches are adopted and become habitual and others not? It is also probably true that movements start when the conditions are right and you emotionally connect, tell stories, ignite action, reach the tipping point and propagate the conditions for contagion, so that ideas spread, are well adopted and become typical. 

Indeed it might be… that those organisations who create movements by seeking small but precisely targeted pushes turn the Flywheel (Collins), so that the organisation becomes and stays great. This is focused, deliberate change and improvement, based on an understanding of how to start and propagate movements and trigger change that sticks. Great organisations take bets where the odds suggest that change will be well adopted, aligned to core purpose, impactful and importantly … irreversible. Great organisations deliberately stay close to their flywheel and make a few well-placed bets on a few key irreversible strategies that matter and make the difference … it is around these that great leaders create, trigger, propagate and sustain movements.

Slide11

However…it is probably true that education is riddled with dead-end initiatives and unsustained changes – the consequence is either a wasteland of innovation or multiple initiatives; where a thousand flowers are allowed to bloom and wither often in rapid succession; all of which has a damaging impact on the credibility of the organisation’s leadership.


 Which beg the questions…  What are the conditions required for a movement to start? AND how, as leaders, can we start, propagate and embed a movement/change based on key leveraging strategies that stick and accelerate improvement?


The importance of the firsts followers, the lone nut and creating conditions for movements to thrive

What if… we understood how movements start and remind ourselves of this great clip and piece of observation from Derek Sivers … how to start a movementhqdefault

Derek Sivers: Blog: https://sivers.org/ff

“…remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, making everything clearly about the movement, not you. … be public. … be easy to follow! …remember leadership is over-glorified. … It was the first follower that transforms a lone nut into a leader. … there is no movement without the first follower. …the best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow. … so when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.” (Derek Sivers)

What if…, as leaders, we…

“…take responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose.” (Sinek)

…understanding that by enabling others to achieve and by creating conditions for connection and collaboration we provide the opportunity for movements to start.

“What happens when you build an organisation that is flat and open? what happens when you expect a lot and trust the people you work with?” (Seth Godin)

What if… we were aware that great leadership is about creating a climate where movements happen; that these need to be well focused, but trust that it is amazing that spreads.f163eaa3b112c76e1f850c9a4ba57189 What if… we recognised that change and movements do not take hold where there is disorganisation; where an organisation is…

  • Passive
  • Divided
  • Drifting
  • Reactive
  • and prone to inaction

What if… sustained change and the conditions for movements to grow occur where an organisation is…

  • Motivated
  • United
  • Purposeful
  • Values initiative
  • Moves to action?

“The role of the leader is to enable, facilitate, and cause peers to interact in a focused manner…but still only a minority of systems employ the power of collective capacity.” (Fullan, 2010)


Igniting and propagating a movement that sticks…

What if… we understood that the spread of a new idea, strategy or approach is determined by the adoption patterns of this small group of ‘socially infectious’ early adopters and connectors in an organisation that enable the reaching of a tipping point (Malcolm Gladwell). Who are the Connectors in your organisation? or the sneezers…

What if… we knew who our “sneezers” are? After all it is the sneezers who “unleash the idea virus” (Seth Godin) These are the people who are listened to, who are respected and admired. If you can build up a core of evangelizers among these sneezers, Godin says, your idea is much more likely to spread. What if… we understood how ideas become adopted by a population…perhaps then we would be more successful at starting and creating movements…

F2_0

What if… it is about 16%?

Maloney’s 16% Rule:  Once you have reached 16% adoption of any innovation, you must change your messaging and media strategy from one based on scarcity, to one based on social proof, in order to accelerate through the chasm to the tipping point.

How many organisations fail to switch approach for new strategies and simply decide to re-invent or scrap it? Do we invest enough time in ‘social proof’ a demonstration of the effectiveness of the new strategy – measuring and communicating the impact? What if we understood that 16% is a significant tipping point; that point where the early adopters become interested – we then have a movement (if we seek and communicate ‘social proof’)

BUT…

What if… as senior leaders within organisations the actual tipping point is far beyond 16% – perhaps >80% after which the movement is embedded, change is sustained and habits become irreversible.

AND…

What if… we re-set our movements to ensure that there is on-going improvement that is fit for the time and focused on maximum effectiveness. An evolving, well positioned and aligned movement may require re-birth to maintain momentum of improvement and avoid plateauing:

types-of-innovation-s-curves

Diagram credit: Innovation-Management.org


Create the time, space and opportunity to connect and collaborate; creating the conditions for movement to trigger, propagate and become habitual.

What if … we understood the power of connection; actually the power of purposeful connection and collaboration. Remembering that connection means nothing without a commitment to move to action. Slide1 What if… we understood that an organisation cannot remain agile and innovative with a purely hierarchical structure (right side of diagram). That great organisations maintain a connected structure that supports innovation, grows its individuals and ensures that there is collective ownership and opportunity to drive the organisation forward (left side of diagram) (John Kotter). It is within this structure that your, connectors, sneezers, early adopters have the opportunity to follow and create a movement…remembering that it is the first followers that transform a lone nut into a leader and a fad into a movement.

What if… this also recognised that decision making is better done nearer to the action; that this is what empowers individuals to commit and convert into habit those things that make the greatest difference. (David Marquet) Slide1 What if… we understood that through connection and collaboration we grow resources and opportunity; we gain insight, ideas and innovation. This challenges that traditional assumption that change just costs time and money.


Getting out of the cave and inviting peers into our cave provides perspective and enables more deliberate focused innovation; we increase our odds of instigating the right movements around the things that matter…

What if… we get out of our cave and connect so that we create opportunity and increase our view of what is going to have the most impact; increasing our odds of success. What if this also involves inviting others into our cave to provide peer review.Deer_Cave_Mulu_National_Park_Borneo_Malaysia

Image Credit: wallpaperweb


Tell stories that connect emotionally and tell of a bright future, trigger movements and compel people to action?

Slide2

What if… we shared stories that motivate: Stories that are about SELF, are about NOW, are about US and are about the FUTURE. People respond to stories; how often do leaders use stories to  make an emotional connection? We are pre-disposed to responding to stories; we understand our world through story and strong leaders understand this; and will passionately link stories to the WHY and the moral purpose.

“The Story is everything.” (Spacey)

What makes a good story?… Kevin Spacey highlights the need for… CONFLICT, AUTHENTICITY and AUDIENCE. kevin-spacy-cmi Stories create emotional connection:

“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking, than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” (Kotter)

John West-Burnham highlights the importance of describing a preferred future.

“Successful and credible leaders are able to tell compelling and credible stories about the future – they are leaders to the extent that people accept and value the future they describe.” (John West-Burnham, 2012)

Stories bind movements together they give reasons to start movements, they tell of a worthwhile future and they connect emotionally; it is the story that moves people to action.

Inspired leaders, organisations and teams find their deepest purpose – their ‘why?’ – and attract followers through shared values, vision and belief.” “this has the ability to transform the fortunes of a group or enterprise – activating individuals, providing a cultural glue, guiding behaviours and creating an overall sense of purpose and personal connection.” (James Kerr, Legacy, 2013)


Movements are more likely to take hold and become habitual if we KISS and avoid complexity – Complexity unravels good ideas, diminishes adopters and stops ideas sticking.

What if… we understood that we needed to  “Keep it simple, stupid?” The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated. Complexity is the enemy to creating a movement or implementing change. Where strategies mis-fire, or change is not adopted, or where there is limited consistency and low habit development, complexity is likely to be the cause. What of we… also recognised that:

Slide3

 What if.. we also understood that when a thousand flowers bloom we are not deliberate or focused enough on propagating and developing those ideas that really matter that really make a difference. Innovation and movements need to be few, deliberate, leveraging, focused, contagious, simple and compelling. 


Wide held and owned set of beliefs in what is possible maintain movements and make them stick. Great organisations have deep, clear and simple beliefs, that are widely held and applied. These underpin the success of any movement or change. Where change or a movement mis-aligns with the underlying belief it will mis-fire.

What if… there is a wide-held and embedded belief in the organisation that we can do things that are amazing? The type of belief that enables and levers success from deep within the organisation – a belief that lives and breaths –  it is felt, insidious and ubiquitous; it is in the air.

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” (Anatole France)

What if… we build this belief into great ambition, purpose and drive? Quotation-George-Akomas-Jr-decision-promise-belief-success-commitment-Meetville-Quotes-66977

“Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.” (Henry Ford)


 Making movements stick. “Fire bullets then cannonballs” (Collins)

What if… we sought stickability of change and movements? Not only does change or movement need to be compelling, it also needs to stick around. Creating a movement or instigating change should consider if it will stick, a year, two years, three years… if not, don’t launch or invest energy and time, it is futile. The stickiness and sustainability of change is key; it needs to have legs! Education is a wasteland of terminated, washed-up initiatives. This is a real problem, because where organisation are initiative rich and these rarely take hold, the leadership reputation is eroded and damaged; further innovation becomes less likely to stick.

What if… we fired bullets first to test the water and then fully back those ideas that have the potential to be sticky, by firing cannonballs.

““the stickiness factor”, is a unique quality that compels a phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of people and influences their future behaviour.”

What if… we understood how to make ideas stick? and we considered the six principles of sticky ideas (“Made to Stick”, Chip and Dan Heath).

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Stories

Maybe then…

  • we would understand the dynamics of how to start, propagate and sustain a movement (change) around the few things that matter; the few things that make the difference.
  • we would better understand that it is more about the followers than the lone nut leader. That moving from 16% to 80% is the measure of success as well as understanding that re-invigorating change is required to avoid plateauing and sustain a trajectory of improvement.
  • we would create the connection and conditions for movements to start, ensuring the checks and balances are in place so that we back those movements that are deliberate, effective and well targeted… avoiding a thousand flowers blooming and then wilting.
  • We would use story to emotionally connect and move people to action.
  • We would take bets on a few ideas and strategies that have a high chance of success. where success is measured in sustainability, adoption, impact and whether the change will become irreversible (or evolvable in the same direction) Will this be in place – consistently applied in 3 years time?
  • We understood the key components for making change stick; the stickability factor.
  • We would KISS and avoid complexity; because complexity kills movements.
  • We would get out of the cave and invite peers into our cave more to get perspective and better understand the movements we need to create; having that wider view.
  • we would align belief about what is possible .. about what the future could be .. and that this aligned to a deeply held moral purpose .. that recognise that everything is possible .. so long as we are willing to do whatever it takes.

“Great leadership is the ability to place bets on the few things that matter; that have impact – great leaders use a wide-view to create and propagate movements that reach tipping points, achieve irreversible change and lasting impact. This enables a metronomic and efficient turning of the flywheel.”

May 2015

Connected collaboration and deliberate altruism… growing great organisations and systems

Connected collaboration and deliberate altruism… how great organisations grow and coherent education systems improve…

del alt 3


slide-5-638It is probably true that…for organisations to excel and become great the internal climate needs to support individuals to connect, collaborate and be deliberately altruistic. These indispensable individuals (mavericks, superheroes, connectors, change agents, linchpins, Freds etc.) draw maps, bring Art to work and accelerate organisations toward greatness.

slide-2-638

It is also probably true that this scales to a system leadership level such that great systems grow where deliberate altruism within collaborative networks/multi academy trusts enable clusters of schools to be remarkable; to bring Art to education – lifting-up communities.


Which begs the question: How do we enable change leaders and linchpins across the system (within academies and across clusters of Academies) to connect, collaborate and be deliberately altruistic to deliver world class education?

Perhaps Seth Godin expresses it best: “What happens when you build an organisation (or system) that is flat and open? what happens when you expect a lot and trust the people you work with?” …and what if we create the climate/platform for connection, collaboration and deliberate altruism? … maybe then system leadership has a chance to raise the bar and make education remarkable.

“(when) Schools pull together and share their best ideas, while simultaneously employing peer pressure to achieve more for the sake of all students (and the whole community).” (Hargreaves et al. 2014)


What if there are superheroes in our midsts?… What if we set them free to bring Art to work, to be remarkable, to be heroes who seek connection, who collaborate, who are deliberate, innovative and who altruistically spread ideas that work, because they are close to the action and they are infectious with enthusiasm. Tumblr_mnh27a7WA31rir6lho1_1280 Who are the superheroes?… What if we had more Freds in organisations and across systems? The story goes that Fred was the postman of Mark Sanborn. Fred cared; he cared a lot about providing a service – he did not have to, but he did – he went beyond the call of duty to add real value. Not because he had to, because he wanted to…he was extraordinary and he made Mark Sanborn consider the Fred factor; for which he identifies four principles…

  1. Everyone makes a differencedo we exploit opportunities to make a difference?
  2. Everything is built on relationshipsdo we always invest in relationship building?
  3. You must continually create value for othersdo we lift others up & create value?
  4. You can reinvent yourself regularlydo we take a fresh look and reinvent ourselves?

How many Freds do you know? Organisations that have Freds, add value and are likely to thrive. It is for leaders to create an oasis of Freds within their organisation – and even better if they inspire others to take charge…

“Leaders are only truly in charge when they inspire others to take charge.” (Simon Sinek, 2012)

What if we had more linchpins in organisations and across the system? Those that say…Linchpin_TTb What if we actively recognised, grew and recruited linchpins, These are positive deviants, who engage in “positive deviant practices.” (Heaths) Seth Godin in his Tribes and Linchpin books identifies that these individuals bring Art to work, are creative and are linchpins that link and connect widely. Gladwell would describe them as Connectors. (Tipping Point). 499b343267ee2a7181a9913c4f593c48 What if we allow linchpins to bring Art to work and drive improvement from within? What if we also devolve and push decision making and innovation closer to the action (David Marquet), so that Linchpins and connectors influence others, lead change and release potential to secure improvement? Maybe then change and improvement will have greater stickability, be more effective and more consistently delivered. It is exactly these individuals who “Don’t settle” (Steve Jobs) and consistently reflect and innovate deliberately around the few things that matter. See: Strategic Leadership | fanatical discipline and deliberate delivery. Jobs


What if we enabled and created a platform for these change agents, innovators, linchpins and Freds to do their work…to be given the time and space to energise and accelerate improvement where it matters … near to the action.

“The role of the leader is to enable, facilitate, and cause peers to interact in a focused manner…but still only a minority of systems employ the power of collective capacity.” (Fullan, 2010)

What if leadership within an organisation and across the system created a climate for individuals to thrive, to lead…what if it offered discretion to be creative and innovative? And what if it was less about the leaders at the top and more about enabling and freeing linchpins and Freds to go about making remarkable things happen?

“There are conditions under which people thrive and conditions under which people do not. The culture of an (Academy) is essential…it is organic. If the conditions are right – you give people a different sense of possibilities, a new set of expectations and offer discretion to be creative and innovative…things spring to life…real leaders know that.” Ken Robinson 

And What if leaders sought not to command and control, but to create a climate of possibility that enabled people to rise up, influence and do remarkable things?

“The real role of leadership in education…is not and should not be command and control the real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility…people will rise to it and do things that you did not anticipate and could not have expected.” (Ken Robinson) 

Quotation-Seth-Godin-giving-leadership-work-ideas-people-Meetville-Quotes-228804 What if we developed tribes…

“…groups of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to become a tribe: a shared interest (vision) and a way to connect and communicate.” (Seth Godin)

After all, given freedom we should trust that… f163eaa3b112c76e1f850c9a4ba57189


What if the mode of operation was deliberate altruism. As Adam Grant considers, there are givers, matchers and takers. The takers hold what they have, steal ideas and focus on self-interest. The matchers only give if they receive something of equal value. The givers who give strategically/deliberately, make things happen, they gain far more and they contribute to improvement. We all know takers, matchers and givers. It is interesting that whilst this works on an individual level it is also true at an Academy level. Where Academies give they make a contribution to the system…everyone benefits…in fact more comes back… a-few-quotes-from-its-not-how-good-you-areits-how-good-you-want-to-be-3-728

“There is a crucial difference between the wisdom of openness and the folly of unguarded innocence. (Givers can be the most and the least successful)” (Hargreaves and (Grant))

What if every organisation created the space and supported connected collaboration for individuals to bring art and what if system leaders understood the power of networks…John Kotter provides an excellent diagram of how a great organisation maintains a hierarchical structure with all the necessary line management and accountability whilst enabling connected networks to exploit the linchpins and Freds in the organisation to connect and enabling the organisation to be agile and innovative. If we place a number of hierarchies (academies) around a central network, a network that connected linchpins and Freds across the system, we have the model that connects. If this connection and collaboration is built on deliberate altruism we have the basis for enhancing system leadership and a chance to reshape education. Slide1

Uplifting leadership entails engaging a talented team that values risk and creativity, acknowledges and tolerates honest mistakes, and has members that participate and “play” in interchangeable roles. They inspire each other as leadership emerges throughout the group.” (Hargreaves, 2014)


What if organisations/academies deeply connected and collaborated across networks/clusters of schools and altruistically shared everything such that there was a wide responsibility for system improvement? What if all Principals/Headteachers were system leaders or change agents?

“If as a principal you go it alone, you can only go so far…although it is possible to become a great school despite the system you are in, it is not possible to stay effective if the system is not cultivating greatness in all of its schools…the system matters a great deal.’ (Fullan, 2014)

The best system leaders look out to improve within whilst contributing to the wider system. What if we did not see local schools as competitors? what if there was a greater recognition that the success of other schools increases system success and this is better for everyone? Hargreaves et al.(2014) identifies three powerful combinations of collaboration and competition:

  • Co-opetition: the alliance of opponents achieve greater value together than they can achieve alone.
  • Uplifting federations: that include competitors increase social value for the wider community as well as for each individual organisation.
  • Being on the collaborative edge: enhances motivational value; pushing up performance in the comradely quest to keep innovating and outdo others – in a way that moves everyone up to a higher level.

“There are many strategic benefits…from aligning joint effort, and for combining collective investment for competitive gain. Uplifting leaders know that these (collaboration and competition) are the yin and yang of enduring success.” (Hargreaves, 2014)


Maybe then…Academies will develop greater opportunities and platforms to support individuals to be linchpins, connectors, Freds and change agents. Maybe where the connection and collaboration of these individuals is deep and deliberate altruism dominates, great ideas and approaches will grow from within the organisation.

and Maybe this will…push decision making, innovation, research, development and delivery to the people closest to the action. Perhaps this greater ownership and drive increases consistency and take-up and importantly is better attuned to the needs of students and the Academy. Perhaps this will also allow Academies to be agile enough to stay on the cutting edge … ever closer to creating remarkable approaches that deliver unusual outcomes for students and families.

…and Maybe if we take these ideas and apply them at an Academy level and to Principals as system (uplifting) leaders across networks of schools and multi academy trusts we could transform education. Creating deep connections and collaboration based on deliberate altruism would better allow clusters, trusts and networks to lift up communities and regions….making education remarkable.

Perhaps it is at this level that we require our system leaders (our uplifting leaders) to be superheroes, Freds, connectors and linchpins to take on the responsibility for taking a deliberately altruistic approach to collaboration, creating a remarkable education system…that has a wide and deep impact on communities/regions.

and perhaps there should be greater focus and measure of these qualities and approaches …such approaches are poorly incentivised at present…and yet it offers a remarkable opportunity to grasp and shape education.

Maybe then we will have a coherent system and shift into the top right quadrant where connected collaboration and deliberate altruism dominates… del alt 3 February 2015 | @DrDanNicholls https://twitter.com/DrDanNicholls