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”)


“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)


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.


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?” 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?..


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.


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?


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..


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?


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..


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…


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.


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.”



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.



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?


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.

Outstanding Meetings | How groups drive improvement

“Right at the heart of what makes humans unique is their social interaction and most importantly empathy… we are hardwired to connect social interaction with survival and that no connection can be more powerful; this is deep in our nature.” (Geoff Colvin, 2015)

It is probably true.. that we spend a significant amount of time in meetings and yet they vary greatly in terms of their impact. The way groups interact, their culture, structure, quality of interaction, expectations and the groupthink dynamics mean that meetings can be prone to encouraging poor decisions, wasting precious time, limiting progress and not delivering the ambition of the people attending.

and.. we are prone to accepting the norm and becoming conditioned to how meetings run  and teams interact in our organisation.


It is also probably true.. that there are some excellent teams who squeeze the very best out of their precious meeting time, planning and executing team/group interaction to ensure high impact that secures improvement. It is also probably true.. that highly effective groups, teams and meetings do not happen by chance – they are highly engineered, developed over-time and are based on a set of key principles that need to be developed…because details matter, it’s worth getting it right.

Which begs the question.. what are the key aspects of effective meetings/groups? How do we nudge and develop the quality of social interaction within groups/teams so that they deliver purposeful collaboration and drive improvement? In short, how do effective teams and groups collaborate to secure high performance and accelerate improvement?

(How do your meetings rate against the checklist in the Maybe then… section?)

What if.. we remembered why face-to-face meetings are so important to our culture and that they should be seen as an important vehicle for adding significant value over time and drive improvement? Seeking groups and working in teams is hard-wired into our brains – it taps deep into what makes us human and is far superior to electronic connection and phone conversations – are most important advances typically happen in person and in groups.

“…the number one factor in making a groups effective is (the depth of) human interaction. Social skills are the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage … “ideas flow” …how good the group members are at harvesting ideas from all of the participants and eliciting reactions to each new one.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. we understood that this is a workload issue. Efficient, effective, meaningful meetings reduce workload and use time efficiently to focus on the key priorities that will most benefit the team/organisation?

What if.. it is all in the preparation. Given that meetings use high amounts of collective time and significant sums of money, the planning and preparation should seek to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of meetings? What if..

  • The agenda is published at least 48 hours prior to the meeting (7 days perhaps)?
  • The agenda is timed so that each item is given a clearly defined slot?
  • It is really not ok to not read pre-released materials prior to a meeting?

What if.. leaders take time to clarify each item and each person’s contribution to the meeting. Securing the key decisions to be made, considering the key questions and likely actions for each part of the agenda? What if.. leaders cancelled items where members have not prepared thoroughly or where the meeting will not add to the item or secure improvement in-line with the organisational aims?

What if.. there is a strategic focus for meetings. So that the focus is on the Why and a bit of the How, but largely avoids the What, which is to be owned and developed outside of the meeting and closer to the action? (Sinek and Maquett) (Interestingly: Different voices are heard in meetings depending on whether the discussion is on the Why, the How or the What.)


What if.. the actions identified in the previous meeting are always reviewed with the expectation that these would have been addressed (what if.. leaders did not let people off the hook for their actions) – What if.. this secured a motivating level of accountability to the group?

What if.. the leader/chair secured an appropriate level of urgency and drive to the meeting to reinforce its importance and reflect that time is precious. What if.. leaders took responsibility to reflect and improve the quality of meetings and team interactions?

What if.. we were committed to and are tenacious in keeping to the the pre-agreed timings – limiting discussion where required? What if.. groups were made to stick to the agenda and not go off on tangents?

What if.. we were aware of the dangers of groupthink? (taken from Sunstein and Hastie’s book Wiser (2015)) In particular..

  • Groups often amplify, rather than correct, individual errors in judgement.
  • Groups fall victim to cascade effects, as members follow what others say or do.
  • Groups become polarized, adopting more extreme positions than the ones they began with.
  • Groups can emphasise what everybody knows instead of focusing on critical information that only a few people know.

“Most managers are exceedingly busy…it is tempting for them to prefer employees who offer upbeat projections and whose essential message is that there is no need to worry (Happy Talk). Employees…(can be) reluctant to provide their bosses with bad news. No one likes to be anxious or spread anxiety, especially to those who have power over them.(Cosy Club)” (Sunstein and Hastie, in Wiser, 2015)

What if.. groups can be prone to “Happy Talk” – where it is easier for members to support the growing concensus and say things that will keep the leader/chair happy? … and feed the Cosy Club?

What if.. we are vulnerable to being pursuaded more by how an idea is delivered as opposed to the merits of the idea. What if.. we are knowingly or un-knowingly bias towards other members of the group and to their ideas – what if we reinforce this bias by finding the good in what our favoured people say and ignore the weaker parts?

What if.. meetings become hijacked by professional (and forceful) opinion givers and persuaders – more interested in serving their own ego than the overall good of the group?

“Conversational turn taking also made a big difference; groups dominated by a few talkers were less effective than those in which members took more equal turns.” (Colvin , 2015)

What if.. “social skills were the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage those patterns of “idea flow”. (Colvin, 2015) What if.. group performance depends upon how good the group members are at harvesting ideas from all participants and eliciting reactions to each new one.

What if.. the meetings are dominated by one or a few individuals? What if.. decisions are normally aligned to the bossiest individual? What if.. any benefit of groupthinking is removed by a dominant participant; essentially limiting the quality of output to the quality of that person?

What if.. Leaders strategically self-silenced themselves?

“…leaders and high status members can do the group a big service by indicating their willingness and their desire to hear uniquely held information…Leaders can also refuse to state a firm view from the outset and in that way all space for more information to emerge.”(Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. all members of the meeting are obliged to provide a perspective (that self-silencing is actively discouraged)- so that the group can benefit from the widest viewpoint? This supports groups to benefit from insider-outsider viewpoints and reduces organisational blindness (Tett, 2015). What if.. the leaders actively brought individuals into discussions?

“If the group encourages disclosure of information – even if information opposes the group’s inclination – the self-silencing will be reduced significantly.” (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. it is not ok to be a bystander. What if.. “self-silencing” happens where the culture is not conducive to a range of ideas or is dominated by a few?

What if.. success is a majority agreement not full concesus – to provide the safety and support for divergent and opposing viewpoints to exist? What if.. we openly welcomed and rewarded opposing views and ideas?

What if.. silence was taken to mean that individuals agree with the item and that where they disagree or require further information that this is indicated at the time?

What if.. Adam Grant is right the most successful groups use a “giver culture“…helping others, sharing knowledge, offering mentoring, and making connections without expecting anything in return.” And perhaps this is the basis for the high collegiate, low ego culture required in meetings and teams to drive-up group success and organisational improvement?

What if.. group effectiveness depends on building up social capital of the team? (avoiding the dangers posed by Cosy Clubs) Colvin (2015) provides a good example of Steve Jobs who kept together the six top executives for 13 years until he stepped down as CEO of Apple in 2011.

What if.. we championed and rewarded divergent thinking so that when appropriate groups generated a large number of ideas in short contributions from all members of the group – seeking and promoting individual viewpoints. What if.. we actively dispatched and brought in outsiders to provide an insider-outsider viewpoint (Tett, 2015)

leaders are choice architects; determining the environment in which noticed and un-noticed features influence the decisions groups make. Leaders have the ability to influence behaviours and use “nudges” to influence individual and group behaviour. (influenced from, Thaler and Sunstein, 2008)

What if… the art of leadership and leading change is in the ability to priortise what is important and to stay on track? What if… meetings and groups discussion sought to prioritise, asking…

“…what’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller)

What if.. active listening is expected from all… and this meant eye-contact and small gestures to acknowledge the developing contributions. What if.. this meant all members were active note takers and (as reflected in research)…

“…engage…in ‘deep interactions,’  with group members constantly alternating between advancing their own ideas and responding to contributions of others with “good”,”right”, “what?”and other super-short comments that signaled concensus on ideas value, good or bad.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. we run scenarios of the future based on the decisions made by the group. What if.. these were considered in terms of possible and probable futures? What if.. we exercised high levels of empathy..changed perspective..and spent enough time thinking about how decision will be receieved by stakeholders and the likely level of adoption?

What if… we use roles to draw all into discussion and debate. Devil’s advocate, Black Hat (Thinking Hats approach) or set-up red teams, who construct a case against the proposed idea, change to test the quality and sustainability of a strategy or change. What if.. we tested whether each proposed change is likely to be there and sustaining improvement in 3 years time?

What if.. we realised the importance of execution and that we need to invest time in meetings ensuring that the execution of actions is fully timed, owned, evolved and reviewed?


What if.. we ask “end of spectrum” questions to provoke debate, creativity and innovation?

  • If our lives depended on it what would we do?
  • If we were a new leadership team in this organisation what would we do?
  • If we had all the time and money we required what would we do?
  • If you had to argue against this course of action – what case would you build?
  • Are we answering the right question?

What if.. we use data to inform decisions – hard and soft information that allows for Black Box Thinking (Syed, 2015) and brings a key reality to the decision making and to measuring impact.

“Nothing seems to inject reality into a discussuin and banish wishful thinking and biased speculations as well as empirical evidence, especially in the form of data and numbers.” (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. the power of questioning creates better meetings and better decisions? … As Barber highlights…

“…our perception of what is possible is obstructed by historic assumptions about what is possible – they stop us considering game-changing innovations. Clever questioning has the ability to unlock possibilities previously not considered. Barber sets high targets to support ambition, urgency and to force a wide consideration of options. To drive change there needs to be a strict focus – “delivery never sleeps” (influenced by Michael Barber, 2015)


ALSO What if…

  • … it is not ok to allow the agenda to fill the time available – finishing an effective and efficient meeting early is a good thing.
  • … the expectation is that everyone is 5 minutes early to every meeting…(what if members are not allowed to attend after the start?)
  • … the chair was decisive and assured in maintaining both quality, timing and the momentum of the meeting?
  • … Steve Jobs was right and that only the very key people should be in a meeting making key decisions – do we get the group/meeting attendance right?
  • phones and laptops are banned? – the meeting is either worth the full attention of the members or it is not.
  • … side-conversations were not tolerated and that no one spoke over anyone else, ensuring a shared bouncing of ideas across the group.
  • only ideas and not their owners were examined or pulled apart? What if.. it should never be about taking sides?
  • … post-mortems, conducted well, are a key way for groups and teams to learn?
  • … within 24 hours the actions of a meeting are clearly circulated to all members – highlighting and driving accountability.

Maybe then.. we would use the following checklist to assess our meetings and the effectiveness of our groups and teams. Also Maybe then.. we would realise that this is hard to achieve and that it needs to be deliberately developed over-time to add real value to an organisation… the opportunity to improve our groups, teams and meetings is too important to ignore.

  1. Meticulusly plan each meeting – it occupies too much time and cost too much money not to be fully planned. Understanding and evaluating the intention of each item.
  2. Keep meetings tight – effective and efficient. Start on time, consider who really should be attending, no mobiles/laptops, keep to time, read pre-released information, keep to the agenda, no side conversations, seek clear actions, keep concise minutes and seek high accountability for agreed actions (always follow-up actions – avoid letting people of the hook) – finish on time.
  3. Delivery never sleeps – meetings should prioritise the most leveraging items for discussion and agreement. There sould be a level of urgency and drive delivered through the leader/chair – this is precious time.
  4. Beware of and share the dangers of group think (empowering groups to identify these dangers in meetings):
    1. Amplifying errors through a lack of critical discussion.
    2. Cascading initial or most forcfully delivered ideas
    3. becoming polarized based on allegance instead of the ideas
    4. Having a narrow view and limited development of ideas as the group only shares knowledge known by all  (or that of the most vocal) – lacking wider viewpoints and insider-outsider views.
  5. Find ways to support broad brainstorming, explore wide perspectives and encouage Divergent Thinking to solve problems, generate ideas and develop strategy. Effective groups seek and support “idea flow” from all participants.
  6. Avoid a culture that is dominated by “Happy Talk” within a “Cosy Club”. Seek majority agreement, by tolerating and exploring opposing positions – decisions to be supported by all outside of the meeting.
  7. Use data to inform decisions – hard and soft information that allows for Black Box Thinking and brings a key reality to decision making and to measuring impact. People need to feel something to change their views (Kotter).
  8. Beware the Bystander and the tendency for individuals to be self-silencing – create structures and an ethos that expect participation. Reward opposing viewpoints and critical comment – make it a safe environment to share critical views. Ensure silence is taken as agreement. Develop a “Givers culture” (Grant, 2015)
  9. Leaders and chairs need to take to opportunity to be self-silencing to avoid over-influencing decisions and draw a wider range of opinions out.
  10. Beware the Hijacker – generate cultures that champion group as opposed to individual success – counter act dominant individuals – make it about the groups/teams success not individual success.
  11. Provoke wider views and perspective through end-of-spectrum questions and scenario creation to test the impact and likely success of strategies.
  12. Use roles to draw all into discussion and debate. Devil’s advocate or Black Hat etc. or red teaming – set-up a team who construct a case against the proposed idea, strategy or change.
  13. Promote an ethos and culture of active listening and deep buy-in – enhance where meetings or team interaction are meaningful, effective and efficient.
  14. Execute all actions agreed in meetings – ensuring enough time is spent thinking-through delivery and execution over-time. Always return to the actions to secure accountability and the on-going effectiveness of he meeting.
  15. Why?, What if?, Have we thought?, What is the consequence of? – our meetings and group interactions need to be rich in clever and searching questions? Clever questioning has the ability to unlock possibilities previously not considered.

“…participating in co-operative group behaviour  – working for the success of the group without regard to potential personal rewards – makes us high.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. I took some of this advice?

Dan Nicholls

April 2016

A culture of continuous improvement…

“Seek marginal gains to outperform – small steps that create a contagious environment, where a philosophy of continuous improvement engages everyone.” (adapted from Sir David Brailsford, 2015)

Sir David Brailsford eloquently and concisely outlines the key characteristics of high performing teams in this great 2 minute video…click the photo belowIt is probably true that there are some key principles that are at the heart of high performing teams that enable outperformance .. all of which are highly applicable and relevant to education.


Sir David Brailsford identifies a number of key principles that allow teams and organisations to over-perform or out-perform others. These are explored below…

1. “Recruit the best people that you can find”. What if we are really fussy over recruitment; ensuring that we recruit the very best to the team? What if we were also focused on this being a good behavioural fit … given that attitude is the key aspect in creating an over-performing culture?  There are a number of organisation who largely recruit based on attitude – often gaps in core skills can be closed. What if we started with First Who Then What?…

g2g-first-who“Good to great companies first got the right people on the bus (and in the right seats) –and the wrong people off the bus –and then figured out where to drive it.”

(Jim Collins)

What if these were the superheroes, linchpins, mavericks or Freds whose connectivity and altruistic collaboration enabled the organisation to fly?

2. Seek out the “Podium people – ask, who is the best in the world?” What if organisations identified the best in the world? What if we then understood where they were, how and what they achieve? What if we then work out precisely where we are and then plot to close the gap? By setting direction for the “Podium People” in our field we set the expectation high. What if we habitually faced the brutal truths of our own performance?…

“have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins)


By aspiring to reach and exceed Podium People we commit to do “whatever it takes” and embark on a journey, an accumulation of steps…

“What we can do and what the best schools do already – is ask where they would like to be in five years time (aiming for the podium) and what steps they will take to get there” … ” the best schools accumulate these small steps and describe themselves as being on a journey.” (Tim Brighouse)

What if we time limit the drive for improvement?…

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough-time.” (Leonard Bernstein)

3. Seek Marginal Gains, because small improvements in a number of aspects that we do can have a huge impact to the overall performance of the team.


What if we realised that impact, stickability and the effectiveness of any change is in the detail and that where change is planned, simple and purposeful big change and impact can follow? … often with unexpected benefits…

“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly!” (Malcolm Gladwell)


What if we understood greatness was about the choices we make and the discipline to see them through?…

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.” (Jim Collins)

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

4. Give Ownership, because with ownership comes motivation. What if we trusted that because we have set the destination … on exceeding our podium people/organisations and  that we have the right people on the bus … then these people are best placed to lead and make decisions? That by giving ownership we increase autonomy and this drives-up motivation and performance that is widely owned and more likely to be sustained. – “pushing decision making to the action” (David Marquett)

What if this ownership was allied to responsibility and accountability – a measuring stick and evaluation that rewards and supports motivation? … so that individuals know they are doing a remarkable job.

What if we connected individuals to collaborate? … Seth Godin reminds that groups/teams need a clarity of destination and an ability to connect and communicate … collaboration and improvement follows…

“…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)

What if, as John Kotter identifies, we create and facilitate connection and collaboration (right hand side) alongside hierarchy that challenges, supports and delivers accountability (the left hand side)? It is balancing these that create a successful, agile team/organisation.


5. Absolute clarity of role – People need to own and absolutely accept the role they have, but importantly they need to believe it is the right thing to do. What if we understood that Individuals perform well when there is absolute clarity on what is expected of them? Too often leaders complain of poor performance only to realises that they have never been clear in the first place as to what was expected.

What if we also identify the standards and insisted on the highest of expectations – in all that you do? What if we create a positive, risk-embracing environment and culture so that we face the brutal truths and seek feedback and understanding to maintain continuous improvement?

Maybe then we would build teams in education from middle to senior to executive leadership that understand outperformance, borrow from other professions, sports and organisations to realise the leadership potential that exists.

Maybe then by asking…

  • …do we have the right people on the bus and in the right seats?
  • …do we know who the podium organisations are? – and how we close the gap?
  • …do we find marginal gains for continuous improvement?
  • …do we give and facilitate ownership for improvement and balance with accountability?
  • …do we have absolute clarity on roles and responsibilities and ensure that the standards and expectations are set high … within a feedback and risk-taking culture?

we would would better understand our organisation and how we create the conditions for great teams to grow, succeed and out-perform. After all, in academies/schools leadership and the extent that leadership creates high performing teams directly relates to the success or otherwise of the organisation.

“Delivery never sleeps.” (Barber)

March 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.


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