Please hold while we try to connect you, your life is important to us
dis: the lack of, not…
We live in a time when increasing numbers of children are becoming disconnected from their world. Too often, circumstances and events act to disconnect disadvantaged learners, who become increasingly disillusioned and disenfranchised from society and school; pushed to the fringes. As children become disconnected their status, sense of belonging and self-esteem diminishes, encouraging retreat.
We live in a time of increased disconnection and social inequality, that is tipping life and opportunity away from increasing numbers of children who are presently disadvantaged. Disconnection is an ever-present thread, a process, through life, accentuated by key events that chip away at a child’s belief in what is possible. This is an on-going and sometimes catastrophic erosion of agency over time that encourages children to step back and not forward into opportunity.
“Disconnection is a fearsome state for a social animal to find itself in. It is a warning that its life is failing and its world has become hostile: where there’s no connection, there is no protection.” (Will Storr)
Looking through the lens of disadvantage we can see the circumstances and experiences that create disconnection and accentuate disadvantage. Almost none of it is purposeful, but we are inconveniently complicit through our actions and collude with practices that disconnect. The failure of a child to connect positively time after time, increases the likelihood of disconnection that drains the joy, the ambition and colour from life, profoundly harming well-being. Once disconnection leads to disillusionment, children find themselves on the outside, where return is possible, but rare. The powers of education are weak at this distance, too often any existing connection irretrievably snaps.
“…loneliness can quite literally make us sick? Human beings crave togetherness and interaction. Our spirits yearn for connection just as our bodies hunger for food.” (Rutger Bregman)
We can counteract and remove these “forces of disconnection” and create better climates and cultures that enable children to grow, to belong and to have more agency. Only then will children feel like the hero in their story through life. Heroes that need equity for their quest, to be privileged, to not be let off and to be held by high expectations worthy of hero-status. We do, however, need to meet them there and up the bandwidth of connection to reach out and say you belong here.
The pandemic is the greatest “disconnection event” of our time and it has entrenched and exposed a world that is already riddled with disconnection. A world where connection systematically weakens over time for increasing numbers and gaps become chasms between those that have and those that have not. The following explores just a few examples of disconnection.
Alternate realities | schools hidden within schools
Alternate reality: a self-contained separate world, coexisting within the real world.
Schools are navigated entirely differently by each child. We may like to generalise provision, but children are the only real experts of their experience. The reality for too many is that they attend a school within a school, disconnected and parallel to the best provision. These alternate realities hinge on a range of factors: levels of attainment, timetable, staffing, setting, banding, reputation, pathways, peers, groupings, pre-conceived ideas, expectations. Typically, high attaining children experience a privileged route, whilst lower attaining children endure a less privileged route; different reality, same school.
“The last thing a fish would ever notice would be water.”(Ralph Linton)
The decisions we make about how we organise provision, have consequences for learners, that create or deny connection, systematically over time. We have come to accept the alternate realities, where those presently disadvantaged are disproportionately represented in the less connected, lower performing, under ambitious, alternate reality. They do not often feel the privilege of the high attaining reality.
“What provokes our outrage depends on what surrounds us – on what we consider normal.” (Cass Sunstein)
Lost in Transition | mind the gap
Children navigate many transitions as they move through their education. Advantaged children leap confidently across these transitions, whilst disadvantaged gingerly and uncertainly step across; this is not for me. Whether it is the summer break (any break), moving schools, moving years, options or pathway choices, advantaged families step forward, stage manage, resource and guide readiness and decision making. At the same time disadvantaged learners get lost in transitions and lose connection, disconnected from seizing opportunities. In these transitions they are reminded that this is a world that happens to them, they step back, not forward and the gap widens, on repeat. We need to stage manage and connect children so they find (not lose) themselves in transition.
We assume too much | pedagogy and teacher that connects children to what is possible
Classrooms should build connection, not just between peers or with adults, but also with the joy of learning and the richness of subject. A connection that enables children to feel clever, to build knowledge and understanding that opens their eyes and inspires them to feel enfranchised and empowered; connecting and giving them access to the world.
Too often we make assumptions that erode connectivity and deny access, particularly for disadvantaged learners. Each time we assume knowledge, cultural capital, language, vocabulary, ability to attend to verbal and written instruction, resilience, persistence in seeking to understand… we limit accessibility and the ability to connect. Assuming too much over time, disenfranchises learners; there is a limit to how often a child will go back and try to connect.
“Making good use of school time is the single most egalitarian function that schools perform, because for disadvantaged children, school time is the only academic learning time, whereas advantaged students can learn a lot outside of school.” (Hirsch)
Enhancing connection in classrooms:
Invest deliberately in a Reading Strategy; perhaps the most important enabler for learning, connecting to the best that has been written. Literally connecting a child, forever, to learning and the world around them; fundamentally enhancing quality of life.
Invest in vocabulary, the keys to language, to comprehension, discussion, building fluency and falling in love with words.
Invest in oracy; supporting children to find their voice to articulate, apply and explore their understanding out loud, connect to others and have a voice that is heard.
Tell stories that bounce up and down through the curriculum, reducing assumptions, inspiring, connecting knowledge and understanding in rich retrieval spaces.
Weave schema nets: really understand the architecture and structure of subject. It is this spine, these key organising concepts that create the net or holding baskets for future learning.
Keep the curriculum tight, spiralling and bouncing not far from the core spine of the subject. Too much unconnected breadth or arbitrary content disconnects disadvantaged learners; who are much more likely to blame themselves than the quality of teaching.
“The 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)
Connection lost | attendance first
Looking for the disconnected? they aren’t in. Everyday too many children are physically disconnected from school. If we do not consider attendance first and reach out to reconnect we reinforce disconnection. In our endemic world the forces disconnecting children from their education are strong. There is a growing sense of wider disconnection that is shifting attitudes and weakening the contract held between families and schools. Children need to feel like they belong, that they can succeed, that it is worth attending and that we deeply care if they are in. Belonging is rarely achieved through compulsion or penalty.
Small moments of prestige | interactions can have serious repercussions for the future
“Anything you do could have serious repercussions on future events. Do you understand?” (Doc Brown, BTTF)
Tread carefully, you know not where your influence will lead. Each interaction or experience can trigger a child to connect or disconnect to a new self-image a new sense of whether this is for them; whether they step forward and persist or step back and dissociate. Each positive connection fills a child’s “confidence locker” stacking evidence that they can do.
“An ignition story … when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion … a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them” (Dan Coyle)
Small moments of prestige, give status. We all need to feel clever, to achieve something, to be acknowledged, to be truly listened to, to be invested in, to see yourself in the learning, to build belonging and status over time. Every interaction, word, comment, response, expectation, experience builds or breaks a child’s sense of what is possible (often stickily into adulthood). It is too easy for individuals to grow disconnected and to feel the insecure sense of being an outsider.
“To feel a sense of belonging is to feel accepted, to feel seen, to feel included.. to not feel belonging is to experience the precarious and insecure sense of an outsider“(Owen Eastwood)
Our language and expectations are an expression of our attitudes towards others. Deficit language erodes connection, we need to invest in specific language, in high standards and expectations; if we let you off we let you down. High expectations are an expression care, that connect and include individuals. To grow up advantaged is to be shaped by high expectations.
“My expectations about you define my attitude towards you.” (Rutger Bregman)
“some of us may need to start with bubbles of safety.. when we belong and where we are encouraged or at least allowed to make a contribution, the magic happens.” (Jon Alexander)
Strong Trusts build collaborative structures and platforms for great schools to create more value for all children, over time. This trust dividend enables groups of schools to achieve more than the sum of their parts, and more than before. Strong Trusts are values-led, purpose-driven, learning organisations who establish the conditions for colleagues to create collaborative intelligence that becomes trust wisdom that strengthens great schools.
“Instead of seeing trees (schools) as individual agents competing for resources, she proposed the forest as ‘a co-operative system’, in which trees ‘talk’ to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence she described as ‘forest (trust) wisdom’. Some older trees even ‘nurture’ smaller trees.” (Robert Macfarlane)
There is now enough maturity in our system to identify how strong Trusts create enough value to sustain groups of great schools; school is Trust, Trust is school. Deepening this understanding will enable educators to take greater stewardship of the sector and build strong Trusts that work together for all children. The following identifies five functions of a strong Trust that, taken together, create a trust dividend that supports, empowers and sustains great schools.
The five functions of a strong Trust | in brief
One: Strong Trusts are values-led and purpose-driven, they understand why they exist, live out their values, achieve their purpose, tell stories of the future, create coherence and clarity to establish a climate where colleagues belong to something bigger and are empowered to add value.
Two: Strong Trusts standardise areas of provision that build platforms for colleagues to stand on and exploit, areas that are high dividend and rise the tide, particularly a shared curriculum, shared assessment and wider professional services. These are significant investments in high dividend areas, over time, that add future value.
Three: Strong Trusts invest in leadership, particularly of headteachers, so that there is a deep investment in relationships, setting direction and implementation within schools. Leadership that builds and sustains a strong culture and great teaching, hallmarks of great schools and areas that are largely empowered to and owned by schools.
Four: Strong Trusts create collaborative structures, an architecture enabling colleagues to collaborate across the Trust in networks and communities, creating, designing, developing and aligning approaches that add value. Trusts are risk-informed, distorting resource and expertise to tackle underperformance.
Five: Strong Trusts maintain high standards creating the conditions for healthy competition, great schools joined in the shared endeavour of raising standards, transparently using trust-wide data, building shared intelligence and using research-led approaches to inform implementation and school improvement.
+One: Strong Trusts act within and on the system, working together with other Trusts, to create a collective dividend and take responsibility for the education system, serving communities as anchor institutions and working with other civic partners to support all children.
The Five Functions of a Strong Trust, the next level of detail
One: Values-led, purpose-driven | building culture and belonging
Strong Trusts know and understand why they exist. They have a set of compelling values and clarity of purpose that galvanises colleagues into shared endeavour and collective responsibility. This clarity aligns colleagues, informs the strategic investments and paints a compelling future, that guides the big and small decisions made across the Trust by all colleagues every day. It is in these actions, over time, and not in the written words, that culture emerges.
“…understanding the “cultural magic” that makes an organisation feel truly human, and creates a sense of connection and belonging.” (Tracey Camilleri, et al.)
Without this clarity of purpose, colleagues struggle to place themselves and their work within the Trust. Strong Trusts create a sense of belonging, give status and build esteem, because the rules of the game are clear, colleagues understand the journey and are empowered to add value. This is a significant investment in people, actively building well-being to create psychologically safe, high trust, heart felt collegiality that holds people in the Trust.
“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)
Strong Trusts bring coherence and clarity on how we do things here, what is standardised, empowered, the routines and collaborative structures that secure school improvement at scale. Deepening understanding of the Trust’s Theory of Action empowers colleagues to build great schools on the platform of the Trust.
Two: Standardisation | creating a platform for colleagues
Strong Trusts deliberately standardise areas of provision, typically complicated areas, that add value and create platforms for colleagues to focus on the Main Thing(s). Amongst the most important to standardise: a shared curriculum, shared assessment, syllabi and professional services.
A shared curriculum where learning is progressive, sequenced, and coherent over time is one of the most important levers available to Trusts; being experts and collaborating on one curriculum, rather than many.
A shared assessment system across all year groups, based on the shared curriculum and shared examination syllabi create an accountability framework and the intelligence for raising standards. This provides the elements required for co-opetition and the transparent sharing of data for the purposes of school improvement; school is Trust, Trust is school.
Three: Trust Leadership | empowering leadersto build great schools
Strong Trusts invest in leaders, particularly Headteachers, as the key agents in building and sustaining great schools, investing in their knowledge, development and wellbeing. Great leadership builds relationships, sets direction and implements well. Strong Trusts seek to drive-up the quality of this leadership, they build a curriculum for it and create the conditions that empower leaders to lead great schools, within a strong Trust.
Strong Trusts understand where to standardise (complicated) and where to empower (complex). Whilst great schools are great at many things, two areas stand out. Firstly, great schools propagate a strong cultureof high expectation that is scholarly and builds character. Secondly, they secure greatteaching, through professional learning and developing individual teachers. Both areas are largely empowered to schools as they require contextualising and local decision making, to follow learning to meet need and to build culture in context.
Four: Deliberate collaboration I networks, communities and expertise
Strong Trusts create collaborative structures for colleagues to build collective intelligence and understanding; an investment in people. Networks and communities connect colleagues horizontally across the Trust and within and beyond phases to create the conditions for improvement, the sharing of practice and alignment; moving towards a self-improving Trust. Creating the architecture, time, artefacts and purpose of collaboration that empower colleagues to focus together on the Main Thing(s).
“…we can speed this process (trial and error) up by creating systems and platforms where we search for new knowledge systematically… integrate the result into our body of knowledge, and apply it into new ways of doing things.” (Johan Norberg)
Strong Trusts deliberately build expertise and improvement tools that support school improvement, particularly in areas of provision that are specialist and in high demand; one of the key advantages of Trusts. The accessibility and use of expertise commissioned and utilised by schools and headteachers creates the conditions for a self-improving Trust.
“The stars we are given. The constellations we make.” (Rebecca Solnit)
Strong Trusts are risk-informed, use information, intelligence and data to concentrate and distort the resources developed by the Trust to improve areas of underperformance. They develop expertise and capacity over time, commensurate with scale, and use school improvement teams and specific expertise to improve schools in a timely, proportionate and deliberate way.
Five: High Standards | competition and transparent performance data
Strong Trusts balance co-operation and competition to drive up trust standards; co-opetition. The transparent, deliberate use of data (democratised data) to understand performance and school improvement, in high-trust environments, builds intelligence and informs improvement. Great schools invest in quality assurance as part of strong implementation practices, supported by the trust and accessing trustworthy expertise, resources and tools.
Strong Trusts are research-led, often working in cognitive dissonance, holding opposing ideas in tension; resisting simplified swings based on trend; tempering influences and instead leaning on seminal readings and peer-reviewed research. They are learning organisations who use the Trust as a test-bed to understand performance and deliberately share intelligence.
+One: Sector engaged| all trusts working together for all children
Strong Trusts work within and on the wider system. They understand that the success of the Trust hinges on the success of other Trusts and that we all have a shared responsibility and stewardship for the education system as a whole; all trusts working together for all children. By working in partnership and with a sense of altruism, Trusts can better understand how to add value, achieve dividend, and take greater collective responsibility for our system.
By building strong, resilient Trusts that are connected as partner Trusts, we can seize our opportunity to serve communities, build partnerships and exploit the opportunities afforded by civic leadership, anchor trusts and investing in place. This creates a stronger education system, better able to secure equity through education, social mobility, justice and to reach those presently disadvantaged; disadvantaged even over.
Great schools, strong Trust |the five functions
The five functions seek to create a trust dividend, establishing a strong Trust with great schools. The functions create the opportunity for Trusts to be self-improving, with leaders empowered and connected to lead on the platform of the Trust. This long-term investment builds strong Trusts who can work with partner Trusts to add a collective dividend that transforms the life chances of children. All trusts working together for all children.
Dan Nicholls | February 2023
The thinking presented here is based on the work, experience and thinking of colleagues across Cabot Learning Federation.
“We need a social contract that is about pooling and sharing more risks with each other to reduce the worries we all face while optimising the use of talent across our sector … It also means caring about the well-being not just of our own pupils, but of others’ too, since they will all occupy the same world in the future.” (Minouche Shafik)
For just over a decade, schools have been coalescing and forming into multi-academy trusts. The forces that push and pull these schools together are born as much out of circumstance and chance, than intelligent design. As Trusts mature, there is an ever-increasing responsibility falling on educators to find coherence, to create more value and to secure a Trust Dividend. A dividend that enables groups of schools to achieve more than the sum of their parts, and more than before.
Whilst Trusts have grown and matured, the sector remains under development, with trust leaders building purposeful collaboration across groups of schools to seek additional value. There is now enough maturity in our system, to understand and explore how Trusts create the conditions and climate for higher performance. This will require us to lift our horizon, to think beyond the immediate distractions, including growth and to take a longer-term view. So that together, altruistically, far-sightedly, we continue to build Trusts that make a difference now and into the future. It is a moment of uncommon opportunity to take greater stewardship and together build a stronger education system, where all Trusts, work together for all children.
“I would contend that now is a moment of uncommon opportunity, and we should seize it.” (Jon Yates)
By building strong, resilient Trusts that are connected as partner Trusts, we can seize our opportunity to serve communities and exploit the opportunities afforded by civic leadership, anchor trusts and investing in place. Seeking far greater equity through education, for all children in these challenging times and creating a stronger education system that creates social mobility, justice and reaches those presently disadvantaged; disadvantaged even over.
“Whether the systems that emerge… are better or worse than the current dispensation depends on our ability to tell a new story, a story that learns from the past, places us in the present and guides the future.” (George Monbiot)
We should continue to seek a story and a sector that is developed more through joint enterprise, than tribalism, and invest deeply in people and partnerships. A shared endeavour that explores how best to secure a trust dividend, adding value that is significant, persistent and contingent on the existence of the Trust, and a collective trust dividend that transforms our system now and into the future. We may need to re-orientate from a sector where Trusts struggle for existence to one where Trusts are joined in a struggle for performance. Creating an education system that is values driven and built on a collaborative model that transforms lives; the real promise of academisation and Multi Academy Trusts.
“History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.” (Nelson Mandela)
The following seeks to explore how Trusts can intelligently implement high dividendapproaches and strategies to secure a trust dividend. Decisions made in these spaces on what is standardised, empowered and how these are sustained and intelligently implemented will determine the long-term trust dividend. It is not a framework or a checklist. It seeks to offer a language for discussing and thinking coherently about what Trusts are, what they need to be and what they can achieve.
“In these difficult times of upheaval and uncertainty, it is up to us now to build a resilient school system that has the capacity and can create the conditions to keep getting better. We believe that is the potential of a trust-based system.” (Leora Cruddas)
The Trust Dividend
The purpose of a Trust is to add more value than the sum of the parts and more than before. This additional value is the Trust Dividend: A significant and persistent level of performance that is contingenton the existence of the Trust and enables schools to work in a higher performance space over time, above that which would have been achieved without the Trust.
Securing a trust dividend, is contingent on the actions taken by a Trust, typically including a level of standardisation, empowerment and collaboration that creates value. As a Trust matures and makes good decisions about where to invest in high dividend strategies there is an inflection point when a discernibledividend is evident that holds the Trust in a higher performance space.
The following diagram compares the impact of a Trust (in blue) with the performance of the same schools if they had not become a Trust (in green). Over time, if the Trust successfully implements approaches that are significant and persistent a trust dividend is created above that of the original schools.
As a rule of thumb, a dividend is hard to achieve and to sustain, we should assume young and maturing Trusts have relatively low influence and capacity to secure a dividend. We should seek evidence of systemic and sustained influence of the Trust on performance and provision to build confidence in the existence of a dividend. The timing of the inflection point is dependent on a range of factors, including scale of trust, strategic decisions, founding principles, values, capacity, capital (intellectual and financial), geography etc. Engaging as knowledge building organisations, Trusts can build a body of knowledge that informs decision making to create stronger dividends.
“…we can speed this process (trial and error) up by creating systems and platforms where we search for new knowledge systematically… integrate the result into our body of knowledge, and apply it into new ways of doing things.” (Johan Norberg)
A Trust Dividend is a composite suite of strategies and approaches that Trusts employ to add value over time. Consequently, some actions and strategies add value sooner, some are stubborn, and barely add value, and a few unintentionally decrease value.
The Trust Dividend needs to be significant and persistent
We need to exercise caution, too often we over-estimate the impact of the Trust, too often mis-understanding cause and effect and attributing impact where it is not warranted. Achieving a trust dividend is a high bar it requires Trusts to implement high dividend strategies and approaches that are significant and persistent.
Where it is neither significant or persistent it approximates to normal to status quo. If it is significant, but not persistent, it may have an impact, but not over time, may be dependent on transient conditions, inputs or specific people (Teflon). Something that is persistent and not significant, sticks, but is of low value (Velcro).
A higher performance space | seeking the signal in the noise and antifragility
The Trust Dividend holds schools in higher performance space that may become irreversible and ultimately self-improving (where normal routines hold the trust in the higher performance space) beyond that of stand-alone schools and the previous system. A dividend should be sought across provision and in schools within a Trust, it should act to reduce variance and improve standards within a Trust over time. A dividend that is identifiable, and undeniably contingent on the actions of the Trust. Whilst quantitative measures are the easiest to interrogate for evidence of a Trust Dividend, qualitative dividends add significant value and are often the foundation for quantitative measures.
Reliably identifying a trust dividend requires that we search for signal in the noise. The dividend that emerges from the noise needs to be beyond the noise of normal variations in performance over time. The emergence of a dividend is likely to not happen across a Trust at the same time or with the same potency. An evaluation of positive deviants in the population may indicate early dividend and/or where we should seek future value. Understanding the causes of variation between schools, particularly over time, in the same Trust is invaluable in understanding how value is added and dividends created.
Whilst a trust dividend should be significant and persistent, we should seek dividends that display antifragility, the dividend becomes stronger not weaker under stress. This indicates that the Trust is moving into a self-improving space that sustains and holds up performance that will go beyond our time and become a long-term dividend.
Seeking Expected Value (EV) and Future Value (FV)
As trusts seek a dividend it is helpful to consider the Expected Value (EV) and Future Value (FV) of strategic moves. Whilst this pushes us to think in bets, these are not one-off punts, more a strategic identification of areas of work (in the right order) that the Trust invests in deeply, to secure irreversible improvement and conditions for performance. It is an inconvenient truth that seeking this added value is typically high effort for lasting impact and, annoyingly, it is rarely quick to pay-off. Areas including shared curriculum, shared assessment, deep investment in Trust culture, professional services and building trust leadership are considerable undertakings, but carry high expected and future value.
Why do you (your Trust) exist?
If a Trust is to secure a dividend it needs to know where it is going and what it seeks to achieve; to know why it exists.
It is the reason for existence that directs the dividend. Too often values, mission statements and visions are cliché ridden, assumed, taken for granted and superficial. Unless you know where and what you specifically aim to achieve, where you want the trust to go, then anywhere will do. Leaders who paint the clearest picture of the preferred future, who tell stories of what will be, in high-definition, inspire movements, create greater value, and create the climate for stronger dividends.
“If everything is important, then nothing is… When you know your reason for existence, it should effect the decisions you make.” (Lencioni)
If the values, collective purpose and direction of the Trust is widely owned, this creates the climate, language, habits and behaviours that secure a dividend that is more self-sustaining; pointing colleagues in the right direction, joined in a shared endeavour and mission to make a difference.
Mis-aligned energies will weaken the force and dilute the dividend, we tend to approximate the value that would have been achieved if the Trust did not exist.
A Trust dividend acts like a force that holds the trust in a higher performance and cultural space. The values, principles, ethos and culture of a Trust creates psychological safety to colleagues, a place of belonging and one that gives status and esteem. This gives identity, motivates and encourages discretionary effort that taken together lifts the Trust into a self-improving space; creating the purpose and the autonomy to seek mastery.
Where to play? | Standardise the complicated, empower the complex
Achieving a significant dividend requires Trusts to make good decisions about how they work. Aspects of provision can be broadly divided in to complicated or complex. Understanding this difference supports decisions about where Trusts (and academies, departments or any team) should standardise and where they should empower colleagues.
Areas that are largely complicated are open to standardisation. Complicated areas act largely the same way each time. These areas can often be reduced to a checklist; if this, then do that. Trusts should play in these areas and standardise as there is limited need for local decision making or creativity. For example, shared curriculum, shared assessment, professional services, data, Trust values, Trust leadership, governance…
Areas that are largely complex should be empowered to schools and colleagues. Complex areas respond differently each time and are typically influenced by the unpredictability of human action and interaction, requiring in the moment decision making. In complex areas of provision, we need to push decisions closer to the action where quality and outcome is linked to the situation as it emerges. For example, academy culture, ethos, behaviour, teaching and learning, academy leadership, quality assurance…
…under the conditions of true complexity – where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns – efforts to dictate every step from the centre will fail. People need room to act and adapt. …they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation …and also to measure progress towards common goals. (Atul Gawande)
“You can mandate to get the system from awful to adequatebut not from adequate to great. To do that you have to unleash potential and creativity. This cannot be centrally mandated but has to be locally enabled.” (Michael Barber)
Where should Trusts standardise and empower?
“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work” (Seth Godin)
As Trusts standardise areas of provision a column is built on which colleagues can lean and stand upon to focus on the Main Thing(s). Where these standardised areas are developed by teachers for teachers (curating curriculum and designing assessment), we move to a self-improving system owned by colleagues across the Trust. On this platform all colleague across the Trust are empowered to Red Dance, to do what they do best and what they signed-up for; to make a difference to the lives of children.
Areas of provision that are standardised and empowered need to be sustained, guided, held and validated. Empowerment can be supported and magnified by strong values, principles, trust standards, co-opetition, transparent data, horizontal collaboration and a deliberate development of trust leadership and implementation. It is the investment from the Trust in these sustained areas that reinforce the high dividend areas of work and create the conditions for a persistent Trust Dividend.
The following table identifies the key areas that are standardised (typically complicated) and areas where Trusts should empower (typically complex). Contextualisation ensures that standardised and empowered areas strengthen the dividend, owned locally; how we do things here.
The need to standardise, empower and sustain works at all levels within the trust, it is fractal, relevant at Trust, academy, team-level.
Creating the column holds colleagues, simplifies approaches and builds a platform for red dancing, to do what they do best, reducing workload and removing the need to re-invent complicated provision. Empowering colleagues is an expression of trust, it says that they are best placed to make decisions in complex areas and make a difference. We create the sustaining collaborative structures, invest in trust leadership, networks and communities, democratise data and quality assurance to create the conditions for colleagues to feel secure and feel success. This investment is about belonging, giving status and building esteem.
Overcooking Standardisation into the complex areas
It is desirable for Trusts to build standardised approaches that raise the tide and create Trust effectiveness. As the level of standardisation increases it reaches a sweet spot where there is a desirable balance. Beyond the sweet spot further standardisation stifles local decision making and reduces effectiveness.
Trust Leadership | Headteachers as the key agents of improvement
In any Trust it is hard to understate the importance of headteachers. Whilst a number of things separate high and low performing schools, it typically hinges on the quality of leadership and particularly that of the Head.
This is still very much true within Trusts. Seeking and securing a Trust Dividend is strongly hinged on the colleagues that turn up in schools every day. Great heads are experts in relationships and implementation, understanding the complicated and the complex and standardising, empowering and sustaining to seek a dividend. Trusts need to invest in an on-going leadership curriculum the secures and develops trust leadership, focused on Headteachers. Michael Barber’s model is useful for considering implementation, the importance of execution and the boldness/promise of a strategy.
Trusts and headteachers need to place a few bets well, principled innovation on high dividend strategies, that are executed well to achieve improvement and transformation, a dividend. Multiple initiatives that promise much (or little) that are not well executed will be ignored or cause controversy; if this happens too often it weakens the credibility of leadership.
Sustaining and enhancing a Trust Dividend requires strong collaborative structures within a Trust that purposefully connects colleagues to collaborate, creating the conditions for intensely focused collaboration. This is perhaps the greatest advantage that Trusts have. Expert Networks allow the sharing of expertise and development of practice across the Trust, aligning and strengthening the standardised as well as the empowered. Subject Communities, curate curriculum, design assessment and focus on enactment and pedagogy: by teachers for teachers. The sum of this connectivity and collaboration enhances and develops practice that adds dividend and becomes self-sustaining, self-improving.
“Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Etienne Wenger)
All Trusts working together for all children
We have an uncommon opportunity as educators to build an education systemthat is more about joint enterprise and shared endeavour. Trusts working together for all children, seeking trust and collective dividends that exploit our collaborative structures within and between Trusts to bring greater coherence and effectiveness; reaching all children and bringing light in these gloomy times.
A greater understanding of why we exist, what constitutes a trust dividend, and what does not, the nature of complicated and complex, how this links to standardisation, empowerment and how this can be sustained as well as the importance of Headteachers, implementation and collaborative networks and communities can secure dividends. Seeking a sector that is a co-operative system, where collaborative intelligence becomes wisdom and we enable groups of schools to achieve more than the sum of their parts, and more than before.
“Instead of seeing trees as individual agents competing for resources, she proposed the forest as ‘a co-operative system’, in which trees ‘talk’ to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence she described as ‘forest wisdom’. Some older trees even ‘nurture’ smaller trees that they recognise as their ‘kin’, acting as ‘mothers’.” (Robert Macfarlane)
Dan Nicholls | February 2023
The thinking and ideas in this piece are heavily influenced and created by colleagues across Cabot Learning Federation.
“Of course, poverty isn’t the only way in which people get overlooked by society; there are many ways that the world has of saying, “you don’t belong here.” … I wanted to say, “yes, you DO belong. We all belong here.” (Tom Percival, 2022, from “The Invisible”)
Our world is getting darker. In the enveloping gloom, individual children are becoming invisible, trapped by circumstance. We urgently need to wield our collective power and throw light on those who are fading. If we choose to work in education, and we do, then we also choose to make a difference to the lives of all children. And if it is about all children then we are compelled, through our shared duty of care, to tackle the eye-watering and widening inequality. Together we must secure far greater equity through education, giving individuals what they specifically need and seeking to close the growing chasm between those that have and those that have not.
It is already too dark, for too many: the cost-of-living crisis, fuel, inflation, pandemic, political uncertainty, instability, conflict, the education system… has disenfranchised and exacerbated hopelessness. Everywhere you look in education the gap is widening. Whilst advantaged children and families have some (much) immunity, the world is forcing disadvantaged children and families to re-prioritise and step further back. This is cumulatively, and seemingly irreversibly, eroding status, belonging and undermining esteem.
Over 4 million children, and rising, are growing up in poverty. Everywhere, families are struggling to meet their basic needs, forcing education and wider experiences to be inaccessible, unaffordable (in time and money). Securing the basic needs overwhelms, gradually removing the colour and slowly, intractably dissolving individuals who are ever more invisible in our world; hidden in plain sight.
”(Our) focus on (eye)sight means that we often are at a loss on how to deal with things that are invisible… and it works against us when it’s … invisible over time (like disadvantage). When there’s a conflict between what we know and what we see, we often default to the wrong one.” (Seth Godin)
As educators, we are, for many children, the only second chance, but we are evidently not yet meeting that challenge. There is a heartbreakingly large number of individuals fading within our society and in our schools. But it is not hopeless, we should take heart, because we have what we need. We can create the conditions that offer hope, build status, esteem and agency; empowering children to become more visible. Ensuring that those experiencing disadvantage, are given the opportunities and experiences to be the masters of their fate and captains of their soul. (William Henley)
Together we are obligated to tackle this invisibility and empower the marginalised, at a time when we are also distracted by these darkening times. Our collective endeavour, is to use education to illuminate and bring more colour, to more lives. It is through our leadership and in teams, that we can unswervingly focus on our best levers, teaching and culture to bring light to this darkness and to say, “yes, you do belong.”
The following explores the key bets for securing greater equity through education for presently disadvantaged children. Whilst far from exhaustive, they seek to stop children from fading and becoming invisible.
“One measure of poverty is how little you have. Another is how difficult you find it to take advantage of what others try to give you.” (Michael Lewis)
One way to guarantee the invisibility is to accept poor attendance, everyday a disadvantaged learner is not in school the gap grows. It takes a whole school to improve attendance, because it is a team sport, with an individual focus. Seeking preventative strategies based on really knowing our individual children and families, as well as our responsive actions, reaches out and encourages/expects attendance. We must commit to persistently and insistently working to remove barriers to attendance. So that we, meet them there, apply equity, ensure that they are pushed and pulled to school, resisting the forces that encourage retreat.
It is not good enough to just have good provision, we must support individuals to be present, visible and to take advantage. This is, of course, tightly linked to the quality of education, no one actively misses high quality provision, or the best party in town. Disadvantage attendance is the one measure that can be chased and improved every day; and every day counts when we tackle invisibility.
Measure what we care about (Leadership)
“You should measure things you care about. If you’re not measuring, you don’t care and you don’t know.” (Steve Howard)
Not measuring what matters adds another layer of invisibility. Measuring what matters focuses our accountability systems and our attention towards enacting the level and depth of equity required to make a difference. Giving permission and incentivising colleagues to chase what is worth having; giving children what they specifically, individually need.
“This is Vanity Fair a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.” (William Thackery)
The early advantage, linguistic privilege and supported opportunity that advantaged children enjoy, accumulates success, regardless and sometimes in spite of school. With less early advantage, disadvantaged learners need schools to be excellent, only then will provision reach and achieve the equity required to accumulate advantage. It is the attainment of disadvantaged learners, even over, that is the best measure of the effectiveness of provision. How far a school or Trust achieves attainment mobility and closes gaps to be in line with advantaged learners is the barometer of the quality of provision.
“Making good use of school time is the single most egalitarian function the schools perform, because for disadvantaged children, school time is the only academic learning time, whereas advantaged students can learn a lot outside of school.” (Hirsch)
Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing(Teaching)
“Teaching quality is important. It is arguably the greatest lever at our disposal for improving the life chances of the young people in our care, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.” (Peps McCrea, 2016)
The quality of education, particularly teaching, and the culture of schools are the main things for securing equity and growing great humans, with the agency needed to exploit their future. This is the bet, consistently applied, over the 12,000 lessons and the 15,000 hours they are in school (age 4 to 16), that will reverse delayed attainment, linguistic under-privilege and accumulate advantage.
Disadvantage learners disproportionately thrive when teaching is strong. When it is weak, advantaged learners still make sense of it, whilst disadvantage learners fall even further behind. When teaching is purposeful, precise and where language and explanation includes and does not exclude learners, disadvantage learners make more progress. Where expectations remain high and where we scaffold to fill gaps in understanding, spiralling and bouncing back and forth in the curriculum we secure a narrative that has the footholds, ropes and ladders for disadvantaged learners. We need to avoid presumptions of language, background knowledge and self-efficacy (Marc Rowland). Of course, disadvantage learners really need us to follow learning to meet need, to explain clearly and well, model expertly and to engage in explanation; making learning explicit, coherent and accessible.
Viewing teaching through the disadvantaged lens forces us to really explore, know and understand where learners are, find out what they know, what they don’t know and teach the next bit (Asubel). Whilst knowledge is power, it is understanding and application of knowledge that is king. 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). Teaching that deeply understands subject, the substantive concepts, its architecture, offers the best route map for disadvantage learners; it weaves nets.
Weaving curriculum nets(Teaching)
Decisions about what knowledge to teach is an exercise of power and therefore a weighty ethical responsibility. What we choose to teach confers or denies power (Christine Counsell). There is nothing more important for disadvantaged learners than a well sequenced, conceptually coherent curriculum that efficiently, and intentionally enacts the best of what has been thought and said. If the curriculum is overloaded, disconnected, full of arbitrary knowledge we will not be weaving conceptual nets and much will slip through as unresolved cognitive conflict. It is the progressive and precise sequence, coherence and clarity that disadvantaged learners really need.
When we teach out of sequence, disadvantage learners assume that they do not understand, and this encourages further retreat and desk top truancy. Really, deeply thinking about why this, why now is so important – we often seek to cover too much, to move on too quickly and to be activity/task driven, instead of securing the conceptual spine that, once in place, will hold and accelerate future learning. Disadvantage learners need us to really know our subject and the progression, they neither have the time or the wider schema to make sense and find their way through the arbitrary or the ill-sequenced. Curriculum is arguably the most important lever that we have, it is further developed here: Closing the gap curriculum as the lever
Vocabulary | give the keys of language(Teaching)
“Education is the process of preparing us for the big world and the big world has big words. The more big words I know, the better I will survive in it. Because there are hundreds of thousands of big words in English, I cannot learn them all. But this does not mean that I shouldn’t try to learn some.” (David Crystal)
Big words, for a big world. Vocabulary gifts the keys of language, the basis for deeper understanding, but even more importantly gives access to culture, enfranchises and privileges learners. Being vocabulary-poor disenfranchises and excludes, it takes the colour away. Teaching (exploring, marvelling at) words in context, in subjects, connected to big ideas and concepts makes children feel clever, builds esteem and, most importantly, the words are stickier in schema.
“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)
It is a feature of growing up in an advantaged home that words become jewels in conversations. And it is the etymology and structure of words that really intrigue and make individuals feel clever. Gifting a wealth of words to children, unlocks doors into the past, into interesting places and times, uncovering provenance, quirky connections and ; Joy filled learning.
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)
Oracy |valuing everyone’s voice(Teaching)
“It may seem an obvious thing to say, but one of the best things we can do with young children is to have interesting and enjoyable conversations with them.” (Michael Rosen)
Oracy exposes language, vocabulary, thought, cultural capital and understanding to all. Our sentences and words open the window to our understanding and how individuals navigate the world. Disadvantaged learners need full immersion in rich conversation, be given permission to listen, encouragement to be heard and the safety to articulate understanding out loud. In doing so they fire the connections, build word wealth and secure schema that grows confidence, cognition and enables musing and exploration. It is why we should be picky on full response, why we should provoke and encourage discussion and debate. It is also on this sea of talk that great writing happens. We need to articulate our ideas and thoughts, our opinions and cogitations to bring colour to learning, to revel in thinking and for individuals to find their voice.
“If we are truly committed to empowering every young person regardless of their background, with the belief that their voice has value and the ability to articulate their thoughts so others will listen, then it is time to get talking in class.” (Beccy Earnshaw)
Reading | opening eyes to multiple worlds (Teaching)
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” (Dr Seuss)
Reading and the development of reading is fundamental for accumulating advantage. It is hard to over-state the importance of reading: it develops cultural capital, comprehension, vocabulary, thinking, empathy, inference, confidence, concentration, oracy, writing, esteem… all the ingredients required to achieve attainment mobility. Alex Quigley offers this helpful summary on developing reading:
Start with careful planning a broad and balanced curriculum that brings a world of knowledge alive.
Ensure pupils do lots and lots of reading of challenging texts.
Support pupils to develop, connect and cohere their knowledge.
Give pupils targeted, text sensitive support to deploy reading comprehension strategies, with a gradual release of responsibility.
Avoid over-practising comprehension assessments that can compromise curriculum time for read extended texts. (Alex Quigley, 2022)
More than any other subject, English – and especially reading – gives pupils access to the rest of the curriculum and is fundamental to their educational success. (Ofsted, English Research Review, 2022)
Hunt don’t fish(Teaching)
“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)
We are pre-programmed in education to seek equality, which in most areas of life is essential. But disadvantaged learners need more than equality, they need equity, they need what they need, not what everyone needs. This ensures that we privilege and prioritise the needs of disadvantage learners – to know exactly where they are and give them what they need – and to do that we need to hunt not fish. To fish is to cast the net and do the same for all (privileging advantaged) to hunt is to seek to meet the individual needs (privileging disadvantage).
Advantaged childhood; one of high-demand and expectations(Culture)
Sit up at the table, elbows, don’t talk with your mouth full, use the right tense, sit up, can you rephrase that, do you know where that word comes from, you know that links to this and what we saw there, finish all of that, put you knife and fork together, dry-up, put away, finish your homework, when is your tutoring, tidy your room, what time is training? have you got your violin out for tomorrow? do you need a new reading book? what time do I pick you up from rehearsal? we are going to the theatre on Saturday after hockey, have you applied for that part time job?….
To grow up advantaged, is to experience the constant drip of expectation, self-fulfilling and accumulating advantage over time. The shaping, informing, correcting, pickiness, opportunity laden, supported experiences add up to add advantage that presents to adults as innate ability, even talent. Those experiencing disadvantage (only an economic label) have had fewer opportunities, less education and guided experiences, which slows progress, accumulates disadvantage and presents as less able (less talented) and once this sets-in, it holds on through life. This perpetuates the opposite of a virtuous circle, a vicious circle, where we consistently over time (perhaps subconsciously) expect less of those with delayed attainment and increase the gap. Disadvantage is a process (born out of circumstance(s)), it is not an event (Marc Rowland).
Our job is not to collude with circumstance, but to maintain high expectations, understanding that if we let them off, we let them down. We must avoid deficit discourse, assumptions of innate talent and loose language that reinforces, often unintentionally, disadvantage. When we see delayed attainment, we acknowledge that nothing fundamental can stop attainment mobility or the closing of gaps, except, of course, if we fail to advantage those presently experiencing disadvantage.
“It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted, because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)
As individuals, we have an un-ending well of status to give to colleagues and to children. The opportunity to give status is a fundamental human gift to others. To give status is to be interested in every child, who they are, what they are doing, smiling, acknowledging, encouraging, noticing, being present. It costs us nothing, is a measure of our shared values and plays out in every interaction.
“…feeling deprived of status is a major source of anxiety and depression. When life is a game we’re losing, we hurt. …status is a resource as real as oxygen or water. When we lose it, we break.” (Will Storr, 2021)
Given that we measure our status against those with whom we spend time, our classrooms are crucibles of comparative status.Our classroom cultures must level status upwards and not inadvertently reinforce disadvantage or status based on early advantage and current attainment.
“We can’t help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language and our voices. My expectations about you define my attitude towards you.” (Rutger Bregman)
Build belonging, distribute esteem(Culture)
It may not appear obvious, but schools are the most trusted, resourced and the most able to tackle inequality and to combat the growing darkness in our communities. Our superpower is education and that is where we can shine the light and support children to find colour, to belong.
“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)
How then, do we create belonging in our language, values, artefacts, behaviours, routines in schools to say to all children that they belong. To what extent do we see the development of culture in schools as a curriculum to be taught and enacted, not left to social forces? This seeks to create an empowering and ordered culture to enable psychological safety, creating the climate to tackle disadvantage.
The development of shared languageand lexicon is a purposeful activity that understands that some words, phrases and attitudes reduce status and belonging (often unconsciously). We must select, develop and reinforce an empowering language to enable individuals to belong, feel safe and be able to prioritise learning.
In this decade, with the inevitable challenges, our duty of care to the children we educate is to build their self-esteem, so that children have purpose, dignity and feel the glow of accomplishment. A marker of our success will be the extent to which we are able to distribute and redistribute esteem.
“…we need a redistribution of esteem… to live lives of decency and dignity, winning social esteem. …we can travel the road to 2045 with purpose, dignity and accomplishment.” (Peter Hennessy, 2022)
In the dark there is light (Team)
“How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity.” (Matthew Rycroft)
Whilst it is darker and ever gloomier, we should remain optimistic and empowered. Those who are presently disadvantaged depend on us, we are their greatest hope, their best second chance. We do, however, need to actively choose to care, to privilege and to apply equity through education. To measure what matters, drive up attendance, focus on the main things, invest in curriculum, teaching, vocabulary, oracy, culture. To have high expectations, to give status, create belonging and systematically build esteem.
This is our duty of care, it is what matters, it is why you are here. Go forth, build a coalition, a movement within your schools, across schools and across Trusts, for communities, within our regions. A movement that seeks to bring light to those who need it, to support children who are fading, to build the colour back in and to make sure every child has a fair chance, so we can say, “yes, you DO belong. We all belong here.”
“We are bound by a sense of shared belonging and collective responsibility; about strong local communities, active citizens and the devolution of responsibility. …ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to make the most of their capacities and their lives.” (Jonathan Sacks, 2020)
Dan Nicholls | October 2022
Thinking and content heavily influenced by colleagues within Cabot Learning Federation
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: Theequal 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 learningand 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 isrealised over time; it holds, supports and directs the curriculum, but it is an investment that should be viewed in years… decades (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.
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 curriculumthat 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 futurewithin 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.
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 pieceinto 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
As educationalists, we are the greatest hope and the biggest resource that children and their families have to reverse disadvantage* and give each child the agency to decide their future. However, we are falling short and we need to face the inconvenient truth that we are part of the problem. We must take our opportunity fulfil our obligation to those who trust us and need us most. It is time for us to feel outraged and impassioned by the inequity and asymmetry in our society and, dare we admit it, within our schools. We need to understand and overcome the forces that act explicitly and implicitly to reinforce disadvantage over time; we need to systemically and collectively reconsider what is normal (and acceptable).
“What provokes our outrage depends on what surrounds us – on what we consider normal.” (Cass Sunstein, 2021)
The pandemic has not been felt evenly, it has exposed and entrenched disadvantage and threatens to define and harm a generation. Without greater action and decisive intervention our legacy will reflect that we did not do enough for those that needed us most. To remove doubt, there is no choice, no opt out, if you are in our sector you are complicit, you are already responsible. Together we have the collective capability and expertise to make a difference. Together we must reverse disadvantage and close the 19.9 month gap that opens by age 16 in the South West (10.5 months at the end of Primary) so that those that have the least are supported to take what is offered…
“One measure of poverty is how little you have. Another is how difficult you find it to take advantage of what others try to give you.” (Michael Lewis, 2021)
*throughout this piece there are generalisations that place children as either advantaged or disadvantaged, the reality is far more complex, there is a full range of advantage and disadvantage (and attainment) and not all advantaged are advantaged and not all disadvantaged are disadvantaged. This simplification does not deny the need to consider all children as individuals.
I am more than a number
“Don’t call me disadvantaged, I’m Alice, and to clarify I may be presently experiencing disadvantage or have a legacy of disadvantage, but it has not, does not and will not define me. I am Alice, I don’t need a label I need equity… to be offered the supported opportunity and high expectations that allow me to take control of my life; to have the agency to choose what I do, where I go, with whom, when…. I do not need you to collude with me, or pity me, I need you to notice me, knowme, to teach me, to support me to step forward, not backward. I need you to give me what I need (deserve)… and one more thing, I may appear less ambitious than others, I’m not, but I have experienced less opportunity and this can erode what I believe is possible.”
As educators we need to fully understand those we educate, not on the surface, but as humans who are finding their way in our world. Reversing disadvantage is a deeply personal challenge and mission for us all. Not least because when we know something about someone it becomes personal. Only action born out of knowing individual children, where it is everyone’s business and privileged in everything we do, will we have the chance to support all children who are presently or previously experiencing disadvantage; that is what Alice and the 144,310 individuals who are presently experiencing disadvantaged in the South West (19.9%) need from us.
Privileging disadvantage in everything that we do
How do we mobilise and organise our effort, through everyone, for every child; delivering the equity that all children deserve? By privileging disadvantaged learners in everything we do, by applying the lens of disadvantage and understanding what it is to be presently or previously disadvantaged we will turn the dial and make the difference that we came into education to achieve. We can do this by optimising the talent that exists across our region…
“We need a social contract that is about pooling and sharing more risks with each other to reduce the worries we all face while optimising the use of talent across our sectorand enabling individuals to contribute as much as they can. It also means caring about the well-being not just of our own children, but of others’ too, since they will all occupy the same world in future.” (Minouche Shafik, 2020)
Through the lens of disadvantage | the sobering truth of the reality of disadvantage
“How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity.” (Matthew Rycroft)
Once you apply the disadvantage lens and seek to see through their eyes all provision and teaching is thrown into a different light; a sobering light, one that reflects the built in tilt towards advantaged children. What if we considered performance and the quality of provision only in terms of the attendance, attainment and progress of disadvantaged learners (remembering that it is attainment that trumps progress for unlocking future opportunity for disadvantaged learners)?
When we apply the lens of disadvantage we may well see the wood for the trees. This is something as educators and as a system we are not strong at; we see averages, big cohort numbers, we hide groups in plain sight and amalgamate – when what we need to do is seek to understand. When we apply our disadvantage lens we might actually be measuring the true efficacy and impact of our provision. Only strong provision reaches through to disadvantaged learners and closes gaps; it is a strong litmus test for effectiveness.
What if we committed to disadvantage even over… other groups, not that other groups are not important, but even over? Without this focus any push to shift provision, improve teaching and tackle the omnipresent forces that widen the gap between the have and have nots, will fail. If we are to deliver any sense of equity through education, then we must be unswerving; we may need to strive for something else, something much harder to achieve, something that is not predetermined through previous opportunity and experience.
“This is Vanity Fair a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”
Accumulated advantage versus accumulated disadvantage over time
To understand what it is to be disadvantaged (previously or presently) we need to understand the forces within society, culture and within our schools that accumulate advantage and disadvantage over time. To do this we need to see pupils and students as the outcome of everything they have interacted with; we tell stories to ourselves about who we are and these are a result of our (positive) interactions, (supported) opportunities and (rich) experiences over time. The result is that only an equitable approach has a chance of offering individual children what they (actually) need.
“…who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era – all of it.” (David Eagleman, 2020)
How far do you recognise the two journeys below? Disadvantaged journey on the left and an advantaged journey on the right, considering their past and their future…
How do we shift the narrative our children tell themselves through life (a life within which we are one of the (important) narrators)? Understanding that we need to focus as much on the future for disadvantaged learners and giving them what they need to thrive as well as addressing their key gaps from their lack of opportunity and support in the past.
70 plays 30
What if, in general terms, advantaged children already carry much of what they need into our schools? An advantage that allows them to make sense of even weak provision. What if…
Advantaged children bring 70% of what they need through the school gates?
Those previously or presently experiencing disadvantage may only bring 30% of what they need?
If this is true then schools and provision should be evaluated on their ability to support those that bring the least from outside and to not over-evaluate or exaggerate our impact on advantaged children. After all the quality of teaching matters much more to a disadvantaged child than an advantaged child, who can make sense of poor provision…
Hunt don’t Fish
To fish is to cast out and seek any fish; to hunt is to purposefully track and find a specific quarry. To achieve equity through education we need to hunt not fish. Those presently or previously experiencing disadvantage do not need equality where we hope class-wide teaching or cohort opportunity will level-up and provide the equity needed; it will not. To hunt is to understand the needs of each child, to have high expectations and be tenacious about ensuring disadvantaged learners are making more progress so that their attainment has a chance of making a difference; one that opens doors (good doors) in their future.
Equity through Education
What is clear is that we should seek equity over equality to support disadvantaged learners to have the (supported) opportunity and (leveraging) experiences that will allow them to feel success. How far do we actually give what every disadvantaged child needs?
“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)
“Enabling children to attain higher than would be expected based on their starting points.”
Attainment Mobility is the reversing of delayed attainment, linguistic under-privilege andlack of early opportunity, so that children self select (not self de-select) and accumulate advantage (not disadvantage) through life.
Having the highest of expectations of all pupils, irrespective of background. Remembering that disadvantaged pupils don’t lack talent or ability, but can lack opportunity and support over time. Prior attainment should not set limits on our ambitions for all pupils.
…And it is attainment that matters
To be clear, progress may well not be enough; it is attainment that counts, it is attainment that opens doors and provides the future opportunity and the empowerment and agency to make decisions.
Have unswerving expectations – it is the background music of advantaged children
What stands out in an advantaged upbringing is the level of expectation from birth. It is an upbringing that is full of rules, routines, structure, boundaries, etiquette, expectation and self-fulfilling achievement. It permeates language, attitudes and mindset. It establishes the locus of control to be with the child and not the environment, it gives the power of control to each child to be the commander of their destiny; it is an advantage that is demanding, but liberating.
Our disadvantaged children need us to be unswerving in our expectations of what they can do, they do not need us to collude and lower our expectations.
Keep it simple | What matters is Great Teaching and (really) Knowing each child
How far do we focus on the main thing being the main thing for accumulating advantage: teaching well? How far is this focused on:
what matters most, having high expectations of what all learners can do. Provokes interest and curiosity by making learning compelling and important.
direct instruction, explanation, modelling; progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of compelling knowledge. In particular building strong narratives and schema that create the structure for knowledge and understanding that many advantaged children bring to the school.
deliberate practice, building success on meaningful and challenging tasks. Enabling children to achieve meaningful work that allows them to see themselves in a new light, forever changed.
diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback: rapid, high quality feedback loops.
Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage.
Future thinking | less about what has been missed, more about what could be…
How far do we consider the future and what individuals need to thrive and make the most of the opportunities that present themselves within the enigmatic variation of life (Michael Blastland, 2020)? Whilst academic qualifications act as a passport through future doorways, what else allows individuals to thrive? What is the balance of competence and character that supports progression? What secures a good quality of life? To be able to make their own choices? To be able to influence the world around them (directly and distantly)? How do we best support disadvantaged individuals to be competitive… going forward in their future?
Essentially accumulating advantage for disadvantaged children (and in specific areas), to create character and competence so that their, “Childhood is not a destiny.” (Robert Sampson)
“… lives are lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Though life is shaped by various forces, as we know, it is also shaped by living, by particular experience as it unfolds.” (Michael Blastland, 2019)
It is not ability or talent, it is the combination of opportunity, support and experiences over time that put advantaged ahead
Creating the opportunity to bring innate talent to the surface for all individuals. Creating the opportunity for individuals to be inspired by, experience and persist long enough with something so that they become better than average; triggering something in their self identity that allows them to continue to develop confidence and competence in something over time that then in hindsight appears to be talent.
What we see as talent is almost always the product of practice (deliberate) over time. How then do we support disadvantage to develop competence that might in the future be deemed to be a talent?
Our use of language around this is really important; and our reference to talent and ability is ubiquitous. We should take all reference to natural talent, x factor, ability etc. and talk about present level of attainment; so our language does not limit learners and we do not infer attainment as pre-determined.
“It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted. because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)
“Don’t give me abstract, disconnected facts/knowledge to recall over time | build schema, the framework for me to understand.”
“The importance of knowledge is not in question, but knowledge alone is not enough.” (Mick Waters)
We need to tread carefully around knowledge/retrieval and ensure that this is also about understanding/explanation, and not in that order. We need teaching to be about concepts, threads, big ideas, narrative that has a much greater chance of developing and deepening schema so that learning is much more about being memorable, structured and connected. So that knowledge is judiciously selected to deepen understanding beyond memory and abstract recall. This is particularly important for disadvantaged who will make no sense of abstract compilation of knowledge – they need the narrative and schema that advantaged learners have accumulated through time as part of their enhanced access to cultural capital.
“…stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain… beliefs about (information) are held entirely in the form of stories. 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)
“Collecting a teacher’s knowledge may help us solve the challenges of the day, but understanding how a teacher thinks can help us navigate the challenges of a lifetime. Ultimately education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads.” (Adam Grant, 2021)
Beware strategies that make us feel good | the seating plan fallacy
When seeking to reverse disadvantage, as a sector, we are prone to gimmicks and good intentions that can do the reverse of what we intend. For example, labels are dangerous, they can confer, define and condemn. Labels give us excuses, they deepen stereotypes and generalisations and worse they give us reasons to normalise disadvantage or excuse (explain) lower attainment.
“…don’t label me, place me in a seat, or put a dot or code next to my face on an A4 page and do nothing different. You are conferring disadvantage on me; it is delayed attainment not ability and I need you to really know me and know what I need.”
If we are to use tools like seating plans, then it must move to direct action or it has the danger of widening not closing the gap.
What if this is the challenge of our time, and we fail?
We have the capability, the expertise and shared understanding to do better by the families and children that need us most. We are not yet meeting this challenge, but we can. We also have the opportunity and obligation to do so. It has never been more challenging to grow up in our world and our record in the South West is not yet one we can be proud of.
How then, do we privilege those presently and previously experiencing disadvantage – let us open that debate and move to action. Apply the disadvantaged lens and 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.
“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?” ..in each subject? (and across the full curriculum?)
“Our task is to educate their whole being so they can face the future. We may not see the future, but they will and our job is to help them make something of it.” (Ken Robinson)
What if.. it is much more about developing successful individuals, historians, geographers, musicians, artist, sportspeople, scientist, writers, innovators, dreamers, mothers, fathers, positive citizens.. and that KS3 is about this grounding across all of these areas within a broad, balanced, inspiring, motivating curriculum … Then the question is what do we, as professional teachers, subject specialist and leaders, want our Year 7 (8, 9) children to know, understand and do? Ensuring that we set our expectations high enough.. (and on from Expectations at KS2)..
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” (Michelangelo)
What if.. we also realised that there should be only one set of expectations – the Year 7 Age-related standard – And we avoided describing any sort of level on the way to this standard or beyond. We became comfortable that the Age Related Expectation is just that. And in a similar way to Ofsted who provide no descriptors for Requiring Improvement (it is not yet good) .. students are “working towards age related expectations” (Of course it may well be helpful to use departing levels, KS2 Age Related Expectations and even GCSE descriptors to inform and support shared construction of the Year 7 Age Related Expectations and the Year 8 AREs … BUT we should resist on-going comparisons and remove levels and grades from assessment – there is no life after levels if levels or grades or a proxy still exist – AREs are single statements of what is expected by age, no ladder through them just distance from ARE and deepening within ARE)
What if.. it is also unhelpful to try to align the Age Related Expectations to GCSE grades or numbers. Whilst you would expect a child working at Age Related Expectations to go on and achieve at least a “good pass” (at least a 5 (1-9)) and that through deepening and pursuing excellence will access 6-9 at GCSE, we should resist placing age related expectations on a graduated scale or flight path across 7-11. Not least because KS3 should be about progress and preparation for life across a broad and balanced curriculum, that learning should spiral and interleave and that assigning a child as an F, G, H in Year 7 is a non-sensical descriptor of their attainment that ignores progression in learning. We should tread carefully if we try to force-fit summative GCSE grading down through to Year 7, even if there is a level of convenience in drawing on GCSE descriptors, questions, mark schemes etc. What if.. a better fit is to base all types of assessment to percentages or standardised scores of 100 and then determine percentage of performance that relates to working at Age Related Expectations? – (banding that can to planned into tests or derived through moderation post-assessment).
What if.. Knowledge is Power and that this should be a key focus for a Age Related Curriculum? What if.. the acquisition of knowledge allows the proximal zone of development to widen so that progress accelerates as students are more able to assimilate new information/understanding/skill with their existing ability. What if.. this is more important from disadvantaged students who age 3 have half the words of children from professional families? (553 words v 1100 words) What if.. therefore, our KS3 curriculum and Age Related Expectations emphasised the required knowledge and this was made accessible, transparent and secured through quality first teaching .. so that effort (motivation) was the only barrier to acquiring the required age related knowledge?
What if..instead of levels or grades we were only interested in children working towards Age Related Expectations at KS3 (following the primary model), achieving the AREs and importantly being given the freedom to deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills within these Age Related Expectations? We might describe a child as..
Deepening (D): child has reached the year group expectation and is now taking this deeper into more abstract work – following their passion within a broad curriculum that inspires the full range of talent and interest.
On track (O) / Working At current age related expectation. Child is working at the age related expectation for the Year group.
Yet to be on track (Y): the child shows some working at age related expectations but is not on track to achieve them.
At an earlier stage (A) in their learning journey. The child is short of the age related expectation.
(…and we resisted trying to describe any stages before or beyond age related expectations, which would recreate levels)
What if.. these tracked onto the national criteria at KS2?..
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.
“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 – limitingdiscussion 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.. wewould 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.
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.
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.
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.
Beware of and share the dangers of group think (empowering groups to identify these dangers in meetings):
Amplifying errors through a lack of critical discussion.
Cascading initial or most forcfully delivered ideas
becoming polarized based on allegance instead of the ideas
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.
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.
Beware theHijacker – generate cultures that champion group as opposed to individual success – counter act dominant individuals – make it about the groups/teams success not individual success.
Provoke wider views and perspective through end-of-spectrum questions and scenario creation to test the impact and likely success of strategies.
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.
Promote an ethos and culture of active listening and deep buy-in – enhance where meetings or team interaction are meaningful, effective and efficient.
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.
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)
How can Multi Academy Trusts realise their potential in a rapidly changing educational landscape so that they become more than the sum of their parts and make a contribution to system leadership that transforms education as we know it?
1 + 1 = 3
It is probably true that education is going through rapid change through Academisation and the growth of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs); the temporarily weak academies get sponsored, the perceived stronger ones seek to form and grow their MATs. What happens within MATs and in particular their effectiveness at driving and sustaining academy improvement will determine the success of this educational transformation. Will the system become self-improving?
It is also probably true that there are key strategies and opportunities afforded by the scale and connection within MATs that have real potential to transform leadership, teaching, professional development, assessment, learning, outcomes and ultimately the life chances of children in our communities.
What if.. the following provides a useful framework and description of the key approaches, mindsets and strategies that will enable MATs to add value and raise standards beyond what was possible when the individual partners in a MAT stood alone…
In a changing educational landscape stand-alone Academies can become increasingly isolated, organisationally blind and vulnerable to dips in performance. At the same time there is increasing evidence of the significant benefits and security that comes with being part of a group of Academies within a Multi Academy Trust. The last half-decade has seen an acceleration in the establishment of new MATs as well as the rapid expansion of the pioneer MATs. Whilst this has fundamentally altered the educational landscape, most MATs are presently immature and rapidly exploring the potential benefits of deep collaboration and collegiality. Additionally, maturing MATs are beginning to exploit system leadership to secure a wider impact and are seeking MAT to MAT collaboration to secure greater provision, opportunity and outcomes for our young people.
“The new generation of campaigners must be collaborative in a way their predecessors were not, and had far less need to be.” (Hayman and Giles, 2015)
There is an urgent need to understand this new dynamic and exploit the opportunities that this evolving landscape is providing. This considers eight areas and approaches that have the potential to add significant value to Academies within a MAT and ensure MATs secure greater impact and improvement.
“System leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and that can eventually cause change to be self-sustaining.” (Senge et al., 2015)
What if.. there is a deepening of moral purpose and the motivating notion of improving the system, with other Academies; influencing and improving the educational provision for a greater number of individuals. Reinforcing this shared purpose, collective goal and deeper ambition provides the fuel for collaboration and system-focused altruism required to add greater value to the system.
The attraction of joint initiative and collaboration, carefully fostered within a MAT, exploits the useful tension between co-operation and competition. Supported through regular connection and transparent performance data, academies push and pull each other to achieve greater success against this shared purpose to uplift communities and have an impact and this generation and those that follow.
“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 et al., 2014)
What if.. the development and use of data across a MAT provides a unique opportunity to compare and contrast performance?
Matthew Syed considers Black Box Thinking (2015) and the benefit of deeply understanding and investigating performance. Where quantitative and qualitative data across all functions of Academies within a MAT are compared there is an opportunity to identify bright spots and positively deviant behaviours that have impact (Dan and Chip Heath, 2010). Centralised, shared and transparent data trawling, scrutiny and analysis allows greater focus on what matters as well as deepening accountability. As Jim Collins (2001) states, you cannot do anything without first confronting the brutal facts of your reality. For MATs this is the basis of a self-improving system and for the identification of trails, both at MAT and individual Academy level. Black box thinking and transparency of key indicators is a key advantage of collaboration for individual Academies within MATs, particularly where they…
“…have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins, 2001)
What if.. well-connected Academies within MATs have a unique opportunity to reduce organisational blindness and to bust silos? Gillian Tett, considers the impact of working in Silos, suggesting that:
“If we become blind creatures of habit our lives are poorer as a result.” (Tett, 2015)
There is significant value gained from leaders, teachers and wider staff moving between Academies within a MAT (permanently, seconded, temporarily or for reviews) that supports improvement and is a tangible element of deep collaboration. Importantly this supports Academies to learn from, evaluate, assimilate and adopt practices that are shown to have had impact in other Academies. Where fluidity of movement is high there is increasing alignment of practices across the MAT that can reduce the need for direct standardisation or imposition of practices. As MATs mature, this movement is increasingly strategic and increasingly extends through the organisation to balance resources and intervene to accelerate improvement. In a fragmented educational landscape this connection and collaboration afforded within a MAT allows for the removal of organisational blindness and a widened view that better informs improvement.
“Collaboration occurs when people work with others … to achieve a clearly understood and mutually beneficial, shared set of goals and outcomes that they could not achieve working by themselves.” (Sanaghan and Lohndorf, 2015)
What if.. Collaboration with purpose within MATs, particularly within networks is a key element for driving improvement? Collaboration is often only effective where it achieves a clear commitment and triggers action. Whilst it is typical for Principals to meet regularly within a MAT, deeper networks have a greater impact on middle leadership, teaching and the wider work of Academies. This is supported by John Kotter who describes the need to create duel operating systems, that maintain the hierarchy, whilst maintaining, cross-organisation groups that connect and innovate.
“The real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management and use each to balance each other.” (Kotter, 2014)
Subject networks provide a good example, particularly where these go beyond the sharing of effective practice, which can ultimately either be adopted, or otherwise admired and left behind in the room. In a MAT scenario such networks develop a profundity that lead to staff sharing best practice and also syllabi, planning and resources, as well as having Mock Exams that are marked, moderated and followed with examiner style feedback. Adam Grant (2014) highlighted the advantages of propagating and rewarding strategic-altruism within these networks that need to support and generate a culture that rewards strategic givers and giving.
“If you share your best ideas with your competition, it will stimulate you to keep inventing new ones in order to stay on the leading edge of innovation.” (Hargreaves, 2014)
What if.. growing Leadership Capital is a key catalyst for Academy improvement and central to deriving impact within a MAT and across the system? Whilst getting the right leaders on the bus is key, either internally or externally sourced, it is also important that leaders are in the right seats, at the right time. MATs enable the strategic movement, training and development of leaders that support accelerated improvement. The ability to develop, promote and second leaders and middle leaders between Academies provides the opportunity to balance skills and experience to intervene for the good of the wider community. As Fullan (2010) describes these leaders become influential change agents within the MAT.
“The fact is, most effective leaders want to make a contribution beyond their own borders….they are humble. But they want to learn more, and they want to think that they have something to offer that will benefit others…they make perfect change agents, because they push upwards and laterally.” (Fullan, 2010)
What if.. securing a deep and unswerving focus on effective Pedagogical leadership as central to turning the key educational flywheel of Academy improvement? It is this aspect that Academies and MATs need to be the “best in the world (at)” (Collins, 2001). This is an unswerving mission and drive that has the greatest leverage on outcomes and increasing the life chances of children. This is the standing item for all cross-MAT networks and groups.
What if.. strategic system leadership needs to intervene to secure improvement? In any MAT each Academy performs differently and will be progressing on their own improvement journey. Where performance is strong a level of earned autonomy provides a level of freedom to an Academy. However, where performance dips or where an Academy underperforms there is a need to impose strategies and approaches that are shown to be effective. With high trust within a MAT there is an opportunity for executive leadership, scrutiny, review and peer challenge to disrupt and provoke improvement. The best MATs use this to seek a self-improving system that delivers discernible difference.
“(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.. for the system to become self-improving there is a need to scrutinise, evaluate and to pursue discernible difference on the things that matter? This type of leadership seeks to execute change and tell narratives of improvement that propagate the shared moral purpose, grows bright spots and secures alignment and improvement that raises standards across the MAT.
Maybe then.. Taken together the eight areas interact to provide a description of system leadership within a MAT; a system that seeks to be self-improving and to add more value than its constituent parts. The Educational landscape has shifted through system-wide academisation to a point where MATs are forming and growing rapidly and with few parameters. Whilst this may require some rationalisation in the future there is presently a growing movement where MATs are collaborating and taking responsibility for their wider communities; forging MAT to MAT relationships which need to grow if we are to realise the potential of system leadership and to create a self-improving and self-regulating education system.
“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)
It is probably true that Middle Leadership is the key role in an Academy for driving improvement. At its best it inspires children and staff to bring new light to what might be, improves quality of teaching, champions an enabling curriculum, drives up outcomes to deliver improved life chances for all (including the team members).
It is also probably true that Middle Leadership is most effective when those concerned can be considered to be true experts in their field, when they lead by example with an ethic of excellence, and when they act in concert with their senior colleagues, supporting whole school improvement through highly effective day to day management…owning their curriculum, championing knowledge and learning, actively improving teaching and being clinical about improving outcomes.
Which begs the question: what are the key elements of middle leadership that makes the difference? The following What ifs… are inspired by the strong middle leadership that exist across the Federation.
What if middle leaders consistently created a culture within their team where risks could be taken and individual talents recognised, without losing the ability to challenge, to support, to direct and to critique? …a culture that creates the conditions where team members inspire and are inspired by their colleagues.
What if middle leaders were respected and trusted in equal measure, so that their team members knew beyond all doubt that they would be receiving the best possible coaching and support to achieve outstanding outcomes through effective lessons? …where middle leaders are the champion of their teamand subject/area.
What if middle leaders were the first people in the organisation to offer feedback to their staff members, and the first to offer coaching to ensure the craft of teaching was honed and nurtured for each individual in their team? They are the agents of change who shift the quality of teaching.
What if middle leaders fully understood the crucial nature of their role in an Ofsted inspection, where the question on the Inspector’s lips might be ‘how is teaching more effective because of what this leader knows about achievement in this school?’
What if middle leaders championed the one chancethat children have. Understanding the deep moral purpose that exists and generating urgency so that all children fulfil and reach their potential…taking seriously the need to reverse accumulated disadvantage for our disadvantaged children.
What if Middle Leaders understood that the key strategy for accelerating a child’s progress and enhancing life chances was the consistent delivery of quality first teaching every lesson, every day.
What if middle leaders secured delivery of key elements of the signature pedagogy; where a depth of knowledge, an ethos of excellence, along with teaching that stretches and challenges, that questions to unlock understanding and delivers effective feedback, accelerates learning?
What if Middle Leaders were champions of their curriculum; understanding the need to develop a layered/spiralled curriculum that explores and revisits areas to depth and assesses knowledge, skills and understanding against age related expectations?
What if Middle Leaders were champions of their subject and pedagogy? Understanding the need to ensure a depth of knowledge inspires, understands the key concepts and mis-concepts and how pedagogy can be applied to accelerate knowledge, skills and understanding?
What if middle leaders knew about the performance of different student groups not only over the course of the year, but building on previous years in the same school, charting their progress and matching it to departmental interventions and foci over time? …targeting those children that fall behind and accelerating progress to close gaps in attainment.
What if middle leaders walked the line between the ‘statesman-like’ approach of the senior leader and that of a supportive family member to those in their team? …supporting and challenging improvements in performance overtime, both deliberately and compassionately.
What if middle leaders prepared each meeting as they might a lesson, taking into account the learning experience for their colleagues, their diverse needs, the best way to structure the experience, to have seamless transitions, and a judicious mix of action, discussion, reflection, and imparting of information?
What if middle leaders had the confidence and competence to highlight areas of strength and weakness within the course of a school year or term, without waiting for external validation but seeking to collaborate with others to improve at an accelerated rate?
What if middle leaders sought to achieve a discernible difference in areas that they identify for improvement?
What if middle leaders were at once confident enough to deal with emerging issues, and humble enough to ask for perspective, support, even validation from their senior colleagues?
What if middle leaders understood that they start to become organisationally blind after six weeks? What if because of this understanding middle leaders connected and collaborated deeply within and beyond their own Academy?
What if middle leaders were able to ask for feedback not only from their line managers but from their own team and from their peers, knowing that feedback enables growth?
Maybe then individual subjects would develop at a fast pace, with outcomes for all students exceeding national expectations, and reducing achievement gaps between groups.
Maybe then teaching, our core business, would be consistently outstanding within each department and across each school. Set within an owned and inspiring curriculum.
Maybe then a generation of leaders would emerge that would have impact and influence well beyond their role.
…and Maybe then we would have the deepest job satisfaction, knowing we have performed unusually well and that our students are the real winners.