If not now, when? Raising Achievement

‘Garry was brilliant,’ …. ‘He told us exactly where the Italians were and he really motivated us with things like: ‘If not now, when? If not you, who? How much do you want this?’ We knew then that we wanted it more than them.’ (Greg Searle, Gold, Barcelona Olympics)

In the Barcelona Olympics the Searle brothers trailed the Italians by two lengths at 1250m…with 15 stokes remaining it was still more than a length…rising to the if not now, when? and the if not you, who? challenge…the brothers showed extraordinary courage and determination to overhaul the Italians in the last stroke to win Gold. (Click picture to view the race)

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It is probably true that when it comes to raising achievement (RA) a whatever it takes” mindset and culture is key and Term 4/5 is the engine room of opportunity to ensure that students perform. Where there is a focus on quality first teaching and a balance of being deliberate, precise and rigorous on strategies and approaches that matter… there are no limits to what can be achieved.


This begs the question: How do Academies/schools raise achievement most effectively ahead of summer exams? After all, “If not now, when?” … “If not you, who?”

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


What if we always kept central that it is quality first teaching that matters? – what students receive every lesson, every day is what raises achievement and this is best achieved through strong, precise and deliberate teaching over time. – This is the “flywheel” (Collins), the “One Thing” (Keller). Keep the main thing, the main thing…

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What if we also understood that RA approaches have much to inform us about everyday teaching, assessment and practices? So that RA is not about a sticking plaster or a bolt-on (panic) approach, but is built into effective progress-focussed teaching across all Year groups.


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What if we realised that urgency is important when raising achievement and that it is crucial that this is communicated to encourage and insist on a move to action for both students and staff? We need to “amplify a need” to secure action that makes the difference.

What if it was the superheroes in our midst that led RA – each teacher, tutor, mentor, leader taking responsibility for RA and believing that anything is possible and being the change and impetus to move students to action? …the deliberate action that enables students to achieve. Blog: Connected Collaboration and Deliberate Altruism

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What if we are very clear about who is responsible for student performance? Class-level responsibility is key to RA – teachers being accountable for students – where there is quality conversation (support and challenge) around what can be achieved with a group of students – teaching becomes more focused on RA.


What if we reward teaching that is outcome-orientated? We value and reward teachers who achieve progress over time; placing more weight on outcomes and progress achieved than performance in observations. And what if we support and reward teaching that is more deliberate and grounded in formative assessment, so that it enables planning to close gaps and secure greater progress. (blog: progress over time)

What if we show a boldness of leadership that reshuffles students, alters groupings and changes staffing to ensure students get the best opportunity to perform? (they only get one shot) And What if where behaviour limits progress teachers and leaders are tenacious and quick to remove this barrier?

What if we fully recognised that Raising Achievement is not about doing more and stacking strategy on strategy … in the push to raise achievement… “not everything matters equally?” (Keller) see Strategic leadership | fanatical discipline and deliberate delivery. We should deliberately seek “marginal gains” (David Brailsford) but resist the temptation just to add strategy on top of strategy – such approaches are high energy, spread impact thinly and are often counter productive.


What if we embedded deliberate practice within teaching and RA? Deliberate Practice occurs when students…

1. …are be motivated and exert effort to improve their performance.

2. …engage in tasks that take into account their pre-existing knowledge.

3. …receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of their performance.

4. …repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

What if based on sound formative and summative assessment that allowed a deep understanding of what students are able to do and not do we used DTT and DDI to close gaps in understanding?…

  • DTT – Diagnosis, Therapy, Test, Diagnosis, Therapy, Test….
  • DDI – Data Driven Instruction.

What if using DDI allows for greater professional conversation around how to secure concepts with students? Why are there gaps shared by students in their understanding? If we focus on understanding how effective our instruction is then teaching will more quickly RA of students.


What if, like the Oakland As, RA is consistently Data Driven? If we ask the right questions and measure the most important performance indicators (the gaps) we get a sense of impact/performance and we direct teaching, planning and intervention to efficiently and effectively close gaps. See blog: Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. Coyle What if we borrow and use more of Dan Coyle’s ideas on learning and performance? He identifies three important conditions that support learning:

  • Maximise reachfulness in the presence of an expert
  • Embrace the struggle – “You will become clever through your mistakes.”
  • Encourage theft – use feedback and copy others.

Dan Coyle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq0pHpNy6bs (17 mins)

What if RA is based on the assumption that anyone can learn anything? That the physical development of myelin to secure pathways in the brain enables learning – it is practice that counts and that Dweck’s Growth Mindset ideas are central to highlighting what is possible?

“We all have the ability to profoundly change our levels of talent, our level of skill. Where clusters of great talent emerge there has been a culture created where individuals are constantly reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains, faster more fluent brains…inside the brain myelin acts like insulation on the pathways and connections in the brain – each time we reach and repeat we earn another layer – signal speeds in the brain start to increase from 2 mph to 200 mph – neuro broadband – (or the difference between normal and great).” (Dan Coyle)


What if Mock exams were regular and deliberately delivered, perhaps in this sequence? Quality teaching…Walking Talking Mock…Visualisation/deliberate instruction/preparation…Mock Exam…question-level feedback…moderation…diagnosis…DDI/DDT…deliberate results day…quality first teaching/intervention that precisely closes gaps.

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What if these Mocks are externally marked or moderated? such that a accurate “Actual Performance” is measured? …completed in exam halls, under full exam conditions, with full exam papers? …including all access arrangements?

What if Mock performance precisely informed what is taught and better still how it is taught (DDI)? What if Covey tables or similar identified specifically the gaps and opportunities for marks and that this is owned in subjects and at class-level? (remembering that some marks are easier than others)

What if fine grading was used across all subjects and that the criteria for each fine grade is consistently applied? And what if feedback from each exam provided question-level analysis and specifically directed students to when and how they can close gaps in understanding?

What if parents evenings were also results evenings where students receive results and specific question/area-level feedback on what is known and where the gaps…and how, where and when the gaps can/will be closed?


What if we meticulously had a plan for the seconds, minutes, hours and days prior to am and pm exams – that this tapered preparations, supported students and was consistent, dependable and reassuringly routine?

What if the period before and during the exams was precisely timetabled to make the very best use of the time available, such that quality teaching input existed up to each exam and that lessons and teachers whose courses had completed made an Academy contribution to support the preparation for other exams?

What if we also focused on student well-being, praise and reward? Cohort performance is often linked to cohort ethos and approach, such that there is a collective and wide-held value placed on performing and achieving? This can often be tangible and obvious – where cohorts tip outcomes improve. What approaches can be used to create a sense of belonging, a Year group sense of we are in this together and “your success is also my success?”

What if RA is a whole Academy drive such that a 100 day plan (to… 50 day plans) leading up to and through the summer exams is owned by all? And even better if this is translated into subject plans…that are very specific, deliberate and precise. What if there is a clear focus on the key students that make the difference the “key 34” the “critical 25” the “golden 28”?


Maybe then we would exploit a “whatever it takes” and “if not now, when” mindset that assumes everything is possible and ensures students perform and achieve. That we never let up on improving the quality of teaching as this is the most effective way of raising student achievement of students – what happens in every lesson really matters.

Maybe also we would be precise and deliberate about Raising Achievement, squeezing out the most from the strategies and approaches that matter the most.

…enabling students to perform unusually well.

March 2015

Life without levels | With opportunity comes responsibility

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It is probably true that: “The removal of levels from the curriculum creates an amazing opportunity to redefine success and progress for children…and to reshape teaching (and assessment)” It is also true that poor thinking or planning of a new curriculum could lead to the promotion of mediocrity and the inching over thresholds or jumping through false hoops that hang in the air… and ultimately results in slower progress that has a detrimental impact on learning and progress.

From September 2014 levels have been removed from the curriculum (except Y2 and Y6). Tim Oates provides a good case fro their removal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-q5vrBXFpm0  Whilst a number of schools have chosen not to jump and retain levels, a brave few have jumped to new approaches. It would be fair to say that Primaries are ahead of the game in their thinking in this new world (the compulsion to act has been greater).


Which begs the question what should be considered in the new world without levels?

The following attempts to offer a set of What if… comments that underline the new opportunities that are presenting themselves and how a set of key principles can be applied to seize this opportunity. It is clear that this will play out differently across 3-19 (we must however anchor our approaches around the same principles).


What if we saw the move away from levels as an opportunity not to just re-do/rethink assessment and how we track progress?, but instead asked the question what should teaching look like in a post level world? This initially shifts debate toward pedagogy and away from how do we replace numbers/levels/labels. It is proving very easy to shift to a system that simply reframes levels and replaces with grades for example.

What if we considered the age related standard that children should reach each year. What if this is clearly located around what would be the expected standard of a child in terms of knowledge, skills, understanding, application, conceptual awareness and mis-conceptions?

What if the age related standards are clearly communicated on single sheets that show the specific areas – not dissimilar to PiXL Covey table or PLC grids…a DTT approach. What if deliberate practice approach is then used in lessons and intervention to close gaps.

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 know or be able to do?)…and that this provides the framework for depth, teaching, questioning etc. as it already does in many classrooms.

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What if the achievement of these age related standards were delivered through a Mastery approach – such that teaching was given the time and focus (and teachers the permission) to secure the age related standards…and that this was non-negotiable.

What if we were able to teach to depth around these age related standards 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 achieve age related standards.

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

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What if we did not seek breadth and reduced the burden on teachers; freeing them from the need to skim and teach at pace.

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What if we made a far greater investment in developing (continuing to develop) teacher subject, conceptual (and mis-conceptual) and pedagogical understanding.

What if instead of using KS3 as the basis for performing in GCSE exams that we asked what do we need student to be able to do and know, so that they are set up to perform well at GCSE and in the rest of their lives?

What if this is firmly located around a growth mindset model (Dweck) – where an anything is possible  – what if it was the absolute expectation that children had to meet the standards. …ensuring, of course, that we do not set the bar too low.

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“People with Growth Mindsets and who show GRIT achieve more when they engage in deliberative practice … it is this practice that achieve marginal gains (Steve Peters), inching toward excellence.”

In Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong, students, parents, teachers and the public at large tend to share the belief that all students are capable of achieving high standards. (BBC news)

And yet, results from Pisa tests show that the 10% most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai have better maths skills than the 10% most privileged students in the United States and several European countries. (BBC news)

What if we focused more on the journey; on the “near win” (Sarah Evans)

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” … “Grit is not just simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.”(Sarah Evans)

What if that when children achieved the standard for their age the focus shifted to greater depth (not breadth) moving to the top of Blooms and across SOLO taxonomy and not moving to the set of age-related targets.

What if all of this also sought the ethic of excellence, because… https://dannicholls1.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/the-ethic-of-excellence-powerful-lever/

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“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)

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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.

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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 we described progress not in terms of levels but is terms of a child’s progress in line with age related standards. Perhaps the conversation at parents evening becomes much more powerful and useful: compare “your child is below what would be expected at this age, we need to focus on…” “with your child is a 4a to move to a 4b we need to focus on…” Levels can mean little to (parents and students).

What if we are very aware that there is a real danger that we could teach to the middle and even bottom with this approach and that we should embed from the beginning the ability to challenge children to depth to ensure that those on steep progress trajectories continue to accelerate improvement.

What if parents evening was a discussion not about a series of letter or numbers, but real clarity about what is expected by this age and a rich discussion around the students work (in books), oracy, knowledge and practical skill.

What if summative assessment remained a key part of preparing and testing students. That this could test against age related standards and also indicate present GCSE grade and given professional judgement and trajectory the most likely grade at end of KS4. Keeping an end in mind.

What if the curriculum was interleaved so that the age related standards are re-visited to embed and secure new knowledge and understanding?

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Maybe then we would have a curriculum and teaching that:

  • was purposeful, deliberate, formative, to depth…
  • sought to move all children through age-related standards… and these raised the bar…
  • used a mastery approach, a growth mindset and an ethic of excellence focus to expect much from every child…
  • is really focused to depth on the things that mattered…
  • enabled teachers to not race or skim content, but to focus on quality outcomes…
  • invested heavily in formative assessment…
  • measured progress on security of the age related standards…
  • used evidence to show progress not movement between random numbers…
  • reported formatively to secure next steps…
  • was not hung up on numbers or grades…
  • used summative benchmarking to quality assure and formatively develop teaching and children.

And finally all of this requires time, thought and professionalism. Teacher and team ownership is crucial and particularly the setting of appropriately challenging and well communicated age related standards the detail really matters, because this is worth getting right.

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Judge teaching over time not over 20 minutes

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Whilst Ofsted highlight …”120. The judgement on the quality of teaching must take account of evidence of pupils’ learning and progress over time,” many schools rely heavily on brief 20 minute observations to judge the quality of teaching. This emphasises performance over systematic long term teaching impact on progress. The former encourages observation tricks and hoop-jumping the latter focuses on habits and approaches that sustain progress for each child over time.

Supporting teachers to move from Requiring Improvement to Good is often achieved by insisting on a number of non-negotiables. Teachers seek and are supported to tick-off a series of aspects of teaching and learning; they perform a 20 minute section of a lesson by tumbling and jumping between different teaching and learning strategies and approaches to ensure that they tick enough of the criteria to get them over the Good line. The consequence is that observations are high-stakes with Teachers performing a range of tricks that often hamper learning and rarely support the conditions required for students to make good or better progress over time. Teachers then carry the label of their last 20 min observation. Improving teaching needs to move much more toward rewarding teaching that has strong habits that typically create learning conditions that enable students to consistently make good progress.

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Student progress is not linear over time. Students make progress when the conditions are right and when they make breakthroughs in their learning (progress is more catastrophic than uniform). The blue line highlights a better description of progress over time (accepting that there will also be ‘dips’ in learning along this blue line). When teaching is good/outstanding it secures jumps in students progress because the teacher habits and typicality of approach maintains conditions for learning that promote and provoke students to make progress more often. The vertical line provides a representation of a lesson observation, scaled larger than reality, but nevertheless highlighting the tiny sample of a students journey measured by observation. We also then extrapolate the judgements made in this lesson and make the assumption that this represents a teachers performance across all of their classes all of the time … it doesn’t.

The bar below highlights how small a sample the 20 minute observation represents compared the learning over time. This sample is very likely to be unrepresentative and  hide the typicality and actual quality and effectiveness of teaching. This also only shows one class; if we place 6-8 more blue bars alongside then the sample size becomes even more unrepresentative (or ridiculous). We can be guilty of placing far to much emphasis on the 20min observed sample and place too little weight on the evidence of progress over time or use the conditions, habits and practices to extrapolate progress into the future. If we agree that what matters is the typical quality of teaching and the ability of that teaching to genererate good progress or better over time then we should look beyond the 20 minute observation to seek evidence of progress over time. We should also consider how the conditions for learning in the observation can be extrapolated (with care) to assess the likely progress of students into the future.

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We have made too much of progress in a lesson or part lesson. We have not helped ourselves at times by using phrases like, “do the students know or can they do something that they could not at the start of the observation.” In feedback we are often susceptible to making it clear to teachers that we are judging the lesson (20mins) and not them as a teacher. The reality is that measurable progress for students is unlikely in 20 minutes, but that it is possible to examine and judge the conditions present in the lesson that give us reassurance that students have, are and will make at least good progress over time…are they getting a good deal?

The first bar below shows how dominant the sample observation can be on grading a lesson and by extension the teacher that delivered the lesson. Where we weight the judgement heavily on what is observed it tempts a teacher performance; a mad rush to run through a range of strategies that are often detailed on the observation form. The consequence is the teachers teach a lot, students are busy and often bewildered, moved-on, and asked to show how much progress they think they have made. The punctuation in the lesson through questioning, AFL, modeling, peer assessment, paired work, group work, four minutes of writing…. Tick boxes on the form, but in quick combination reduce the conditions required to secure progress over time. Far better to judge the typicality of teaching and therefore the effectiveness of teaching by considering a range of evidence.

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If we are to reward typicality of teaching and teaching that generates good or better progress over time then the weighting of our evidence should use a range of sources. The evidence from the observation of the teaching should provide an insight into the conditions that are typical for the students over time. Much more emphasis should be placed on evidence from students, their books, evidence from panning (backwards and forwards) and the data/outcomes for this class.

With the emphasis on rewarding and promoting teaching that secures progress over time then perhaps feedback and judgements should highlight typically good or typically outstanding or typically requiring improvement or typically inadequate as more appropriate judgements on the quality of teaching. The importance of progress over time to a judgement is highlighted in this table…

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This rewards those teachers that work hard, have good habits and the professional ability to generate that conditions in a classroom that secure good or better progress over time. This means that we should have stickier judgements for individual teachers. The first bar below highlights the range of grades that could be achieved in an academic year by a single teacher due to the high stakes nature of 20 minute observations (the observation providing a label to be carried by that teacher until the next observation). Where the emphasis is more around typicality then judgements are stickier and more reflective of the typical quality of teaching (shown by bar two). This will have the effect of polarising teaching judgements. Where teaching uses effective approaches and habits that secure progress over time the evidence will always be in books, in the planning, in the student voice, the routines, shown in the quality of feedback, in the purpose and meaningfulness of the learning journey…where this happens good and outstanding teaching becomes securer over time. Where the opposite is true, where teachers rely on the performance, mark less, plan less, have less purpose and less focus on the journey and the outcomes the typicality of teaching will require improvement…and that is likely to be true for all classes … and we are back to the importance of habits that sustain student progress over time.judgements

What would observation criteria that emphasised the importance of progress over time look like? Here is an example that places progress over time as the key determinant on the typical quality of teaching. Below this are an indication of the approaches that would contribute towards securing the conditions required for securing progress over time…

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The form, therefore, indicates areas that may be observed that are more likely to support good progress over time. These are not prescribed or essential, neither are they a set of tick boxes to be checked to determine the grade. When the key determining judgement is progress over time, the 20 minute lesson observation is no longer a performance or does it necessitate the teacher jumping through hoops. Whilst the lesson could be all singing and all dancing it could also be students sat silently redrafting a piece of work for 20 minutes or performing or engaged in a piece of art etc. This approach frees teachers to not change practice under observation; secure in the knowledge that the observer is measuring progress secured over time not the number of tricks and hoops-jumped in 20 minutes.

Prescribe adequacy, unleash greatness…

All of which links to the trendy ideas around moving from tight to loose. To get to good it is often about being tight; using non-negotiables to raise the bar. To move through typically good to typically outstanding it is about loosening or unleashing greatness. You do this because teaching is a craft not a science; the ability to facilitate 30 teenagers often of mixed ability to make good progress requires an awareness, a professionalism and ability to keep all students progressing. Sometimes that is about engaging, inspiring, provoking responses and sometimes that is learning vocabulary, a spelling test, redrafting, testing, feeding back, being diagnostic and closing gaps. The best person to judge this interplay is the teacher. We need to recognise this and use observation to judge teaching impact over time and not on how many boxes a performer ticked in 20 minutes. This should empower teachers who then have greater freedom and…

  • Purpose (secure student progress to give them a better chance in life)
  • Autonomy (you decide how you secure student progress)
  • Mastery (it is a craft not a science, be creative and innovative – seek mastery in teaching to drive progress) (Dan Pink)

Where a teacher has taken on a class, from another teacher or at the start of the year there needs to be a shift in the emphasis placed on the different parts of the evidence. An early judgement on typicality would extrapolate the observed conditions, judge the likely impact of habits, use teacher planning and dialogue to consider the likely typicality and impact of teaching over time…and re-visit later to judge impact. The longer the teacher has a class the more the emphasis will shift to actual measurable progress over time from their starting point with the class.

As we reward progress over time (making it a determining judgement)  we need to increasingly compare actual (external) outcomes with our typical gradings of teaching. There has been a poor relationship between the quality of teaching judged through lesson observation compared to actual outcomes of the students; class performance often does not stack up well against observation data. A focus on progress over time should generate a greater link between the judgements on typicality teaching and student outcome. 

So ticking tricks in 20 minutes is mis-leading and does not focus on what matters. What matters is that students receive typically good and outstanding teaching every lesson so that they make progress over time. Those teachers that create the conditions for progress more often should be rewarded, for it is the impact of this teaching that supports students to make progress over time that counts. The freeing/loosening nature of this view on teaching and rationalising the part that observation has to play in judging teaching releases professionals to teach anyway they choose, without ticking any prescribed boxes, so long as students make progress over time and this is reflected in a triangulation of evidence then teaching is typically good and outstanding and these judgements are stickier….and that feels right.

April, 2014