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.
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 still have an urgent, deeper problem; one that may already be irreversibly entrenched by a pandemic whose impact has not been felt evenly. It is more important than ever for us to work together to deliberately and systematically address deep-seated inequality and act now to slow the growing gulf between advantaged and disadvantaged children; so that children are not permanently defined by the pandemic, because they have the tools to choose what they become…
To give the power of choice is deeply embedded in our values as educators, but we will require the bravery to step into the light of the new normal and be the change that is needed, if only we’re brave enough to be it…
“When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” (Amanda Gorman, 2021)
Ten months after writing Urgent Action Required | addressing disadvantage we find ourselves still in the midst of a Pandemic, one which has touched our lives. The sad truth is that the stark asymmetry of society, education and opportunity, embarrassingly revealed by the pandemic, still dominates, condemns and limits the lives of disadvantaged children. It is very hard to under-play the steepness of the challenge that we as educators face.
“We must have a bold and comprehensive plan … a long-term strategy, fully funded, planned by educationalists with cross party consensus, that looks forward for the next five years to support those most impacted by COVID-19 over their educational lifetime.” (Sammy Wright, Social Mobility Commissioner, 2021)
There is increasing hope as we extricate ourselves from the pandemic, but the sickening reality remains, the impact of the pandemic and the deep economic and social cost will burden communities and individuals into the middle of this century. This piece of writing, however, is born out of optimism not pessimism, hope not futility. It offers a framework for understanding how we can support all individual disadvantaged children to thrive in our increasingly asymmetric society and acceleratingly complex future.
Accumulating disadvantage, the past, present and future | the asymmetry of life
“…what future?” (Enola Holmes) “There are two paths that you can take Enola, yours or the path others choose for you…” (Eudoria Holmes) “Our future is up to us!” (Enola Holmes, Film, 2020)
Accumulating disadvantage and advantage is founded in early life and is perpetuated through education to fundamentally influence and determine the opportunities that are available through adulthood. This accumulation cements and calcifies the asymmetries that are hard wired into our society and education system. The interaction and compounding impact of the factors that accumulate disadvantage and advantage are detailed below: (the table contrasts key factors that influence disadvantaged and advantaged children in the past and into their future)
“…with each new thing you learn, the better you’re able to absorb the next related fact.” (David Eagleman, 2020)
Life as a series of opportunities | those that we take and those we miss
Between life and death there are opportunities that we play going forwards through childhood and adulthood. For some this is a a joyous stroll through a land full of possibility for others it is a world that happens to them, a life that limits their opportunity to try another life…
“Between life and death there is a library,” she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices. Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?” (Matt Haig, The Midnight Library, 2020)
Considering life as a one way journey along routes punctuated by opportunities helps our understanding of disadvantage by pushing us to look forward and not just backwards to support disadvantaged children.
“…you possess only a single life, what you devote yourself to (or the experiences you have) send you down a particular roads, while the other paths will forever remain untrodden by you.” (David Eagleman, 2020)
Early experience and opportunity lay the ground (load the deck, build the foundation) for the future. Some individuals accumulate knowledge, understanding, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-belief, a set of tools that open doors and routes in their future (not initially foreseeable); the foundation for self-agency; picking and choosing and playing with opportunities as they present themselves.
The reverse is also true, if we consider life as a set of opportunities, disadvantaged children and individuals have had fewer opportunities in the past, now and in their future. Disadvantaged are, therefore, more likely to…
… have fewer opportunities (recognised or not) now and in the future, those that appear and those that are self-created.
… are far less likely to step forward when opportunities present; more likely to self-de-select themselves and step back.
… and have fewer tools to use, previous experiences or self-belief to exploit each opportunity.
Tackling our disadvantaged problem forwards (as well as backwards)
We remain very uncomfortable with the truth that…. however effective we believe our present education system is, it fails, year after year to address the disadvantaged gap; there is very limited evidence of attainment mobility in our schools; disadvantaged children at age 16 are 18.1 months behind their more affluent peers, and worse still “…we could be at a turning point .. we could soon enter a period where the gap starts to widen.” (EPI, 2019)
Whilst we need to assess the deficits in learning of disadvantaged children by looking back at what is missed or insecure (literacy, language being key levers), we should also look forward into their future and consider how we can load their dice and increase their (life) chances. Increasing the child’s chance of recognising, creating, stepping into opportunities in their future with a set of personal and academic tools and keys that will exploit the opportunities that life throws up.
How far do we consider the future and the specific tools that individuals need to thrive and make the most of 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 to be competitive?
A personalised approach that may also consider how best we build specialisms, areas of competence to accumulate advantage so that they are competitive with their more advantaged peers may prove a useful enablers for individuals. 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)
Present level of attainment, delayed attainment and attainment mobility
We must work harder to recognise a child’s present level of attainment as just that the present levelof attainment. This understanding of attainment removes assumptions, language (either conscious or unconscious) that attainment or ability is fixed. It usefully opens the door to discussions about delayed attainment (particularly pertinent now) and to attainment mobility the ability for children to progress from low to high attaining compared to peers (something that education does not achieve well). In this sense learning is a way of creating abilities; how far can we support disadvantaged to create their own potential...
“Learning now becomes a new way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones … 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 Eriksson)
… it is also helpful not to be fooled into believing disadvantaged children are less ambitious and aspirational. This maybe how they present, but often the opposite is true, not having the means and being deeply influenced by our lived experience may tell a different story.
Talent identified in hindsight as the consequence of effort and practice over time
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?
Life chances turn on small things, moments and chance | an opportunity to sow seeds and load the dice for the future
“..we are each made up of numerous possibilities.. “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” (Herminia Ibarra, quoted by David Epstein, 2019)
The thing with disadvantage is that regardless of the present level of disadvantage we can accumulate advantage over time, at anytime, it is not something that starts when disadvantage is removed and it may well turn on small things as well as complex things, in seconds or years. How do we support children to fall helplessly in love with their future passion, perhaps in brief powerful encounters?
“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion. … Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that)” (Dan Coyle)
The path we take through life is influenced in complex ways as a journey of loadedchance and opportunity. How accessible the opportunities are depends on the level of advantage or disadvantage. The way that opportunities playout over a lifetime, in often unpredictable ways, means that increasing the future chances of success and accumulating advantage can arise in even the smallest conversation, some praise, meeting them there, asking how things went, building confidence, knowledge and understanding all have the ability to build a can-do identity and increase agency that unlocks opportunities. As educators we cannot see the future, but we can increase the chances of disadvantaged by creating a broader toolbox for these future opportunities and experimentation:
“… mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.” (David Epstein , 2019)
We are all responsible, there is no opt out | It is everyone’s problem
As educators we have significant influence on all individuals that we interact with; we leak our expectations and attitudes. Some of these will be inconsequential, but others may be life changing.
“Every day, we make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower. We can’t help leakingexpectations, through our gazes, our bodylanguage and our voices. My expectationsabout you define my attitude towards you.” (Rutger Bregman, 2020)
The good and the bad news is that every interaction along life’s journey has an impact on us and informs our sense of self and our self identity. The good is that everyday there are multiple ways to influence those around us. The impact can be fundamental and is likely to bear little relation to the amount of time or investment it takes. Because we live life forwards there is no telling the impact the educators have on children on their journey through childhood into adulthood. Applying this underlines the importance of culture, the importance that it is everyone’s job, that we should not partition our disadvantaged work into time-limited strategies – it is an all the time thing. And we are all responsible.
“…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)
The bad is that everyday in every interaction between educator and child we will consciously or unconsciously do one (or a mix) of the following. Underlining the complexity of addressing disadvantage we need to consider how far our culture, curriculum, teaching, culture, rules, routines, language, our assumptions, bias – condemns, confers, colludes, mitigates, or removes disadvantage?
Condemn: to assume fixed attainment and capability making disadvantage the defining feature of an individual. “That child’s disadvantage is permanent.”
Confer: to give someone the identity of disadvantaged. Applying all of the damaging stereotypes and generalities of disadvantage. “Yes, you are disadvantaged”
Collude: to act together in order to deceive through agreeing the extent and on going impact of disadvantage. “Yes, life is difficult because you are disadvantaged”
Mitigate: to support and reduce the impact of disadvantage “No, you have agency over what you do and where you go”
Remove: to undo disadvantage by accumulating advantage “This does not define you or pre-determine your future.” (could have been ‘reverse‘, but this does not fit with choices made going forward, and may inadvertently suggest unpicking the past, rather than adding to a character and competence toolbox that takes advantage of opportunities in the future, further this might be better termed as ‘adding advantage or accumulating advantage‘
Educators are not consciously the creators of disadvantage, but we do make choices, minute by minute, that can limit the impact of disadvantage on a child’s future, so that collectively, consciously, together, we enable our disadvantaged children to write their own stories, to grasp, shape and wrestle with their own future. Giving them access to the game and the rules and the tactics and the confidence and self-identity to have agency.
“It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future … believing the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart …and that will make all the difference.” (Steve Jobs)
Keeping the main thing the main thing | Teaching as the key lever for accumulating advantage
One of the biggest levers for accumulating advantage for disadvantaged is to invest deeply in supporting and developing professionals to teach well; professional development that focuses on:
the key spine of what matters most in the curriculum, delivered with purpose and passion; making it unavoidable and compelling. Build curiosity and questioning in all children to secure their ability to make decisions, take chances and have agency now and in the future.
direct instruction, explanation, modelling. Investing deeply in explanation so that we scaffold understanding, based on a progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of the most relevant and compelling knowledge. Building schema that provides the foundation and touch points that will come easier to advantaged children.
deliberate practice. To build confidence and success on meaningful and challenging tasks.
diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback. The biggest advantage that advantaged children have had and have are rapid, high quality feedback loops. From a young age advantaged children are corrected and encouraged; this matures into a self-directed search for feedback as a positive mechanism for growth and improvement. For disadvantaged it can be something that exposes, humiliates or offers confirmation that the world happens to them. Feedback has the potential to be transformational and comes in all forms, a glance, a smile, a comment, conversation, caring, valuing the person, simply repeating what has been said, questioning, pausing, motivating, (written feedback), comparison, modelling… again revealing the importance of human connection
Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage. All teachers and wider colleagues have a role in both literacy (all aspects) and language (including vocabulary). Particular focus on oracy is leveraging for disadvantaged; again this is precisely what happens in the homes of the advantaged from an early age.
Teaching that has a strong narrative that is conceptually strong, relevant and feels important so that learning is irresistible supports the likelihood that we will accumulate advantage in disadvantaged students. Particularly where we are able to cumulatively support and expect individuals to complete meaningful and challenging work; building self-belief, self esteem and igniting the curiosity present in us all.
“This change-only-when-relevant feature reminds us that the brain is not simply a blank slate upon which the world scrawls all its stories. .. Experiences turn into memories when they are germane (to our lives).” (David Eagleman, 2020)
Teachers who, “foster rethinking cycles by instilling intellectual humility, disseminating doubt and cultivating curiosity,” (Adam Grant, 2021) are more likely to equip students for their future; to know what to do when they do not know what to do.
“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)
What if our connection with Education is elasticated to the point of failure?
In middle and long distance races athletes describe the rubber band that exists between themselves and the runner(s) in front. Once this extends too far there is a point of no return, the band snaps and it is impossible to catch-up.
Sadly this may also be true for disadvantaged children over time (and accelerated during the pandemic). There is a point when disadvantaged children increasingly self-deselect themselves from engaging, attending and trying; they become disenfranchised from education. The elastic snapping and the checking-out of education may sadly be the case for an eye-wateringly high number of disadvantaged children. Our challenge, for these individuals, will not be simply to close gaps, but to prove to those who are no longer in the game that education, itself, is worthwhile.
What you have (or have not) in your locker counts (you in or counts you out)
When advantaged children get good at something they stack their internal locker with evidence of success (their sense of identity or self). Numerous affirmations build up in their locker to reaffirm their ability and alter, enhance their self belief and agency. The number of affirmations and the amount of evidence is not compromised by odd failures or negative comments; their sense of self (worth) is unwounded and their agency undiminished.
For disadvantage, their lived experience can leave their locker for a range of aspects of their life sparse. This leads to a propensity to not try again and risk further weakening the locker that may lower self-agency and give a suffocating sense that the world happens to them. The downward spiral of which leads to on-going self de-selection from trying, risking failure, (that their locker will not resist). New opportunities are not seen as such (in fact the opposite) and the disadvantaged step back, not forward, further accumulating disadvantage.
The disproportionate impact of achieving meaningful and challenging work
Disadvantaged individuals (and all children) need to have the opportunity to wrestle with and succeed at meaningful and challenging work. This speaks directly to their identity as a learner. It gives a new sense of achievement, alters the self identity, contributes to their self-belief locker, accumulates advantage, loads the dice for the future, decreases the likelihood of self de-selection and strengthens agency. Bit by bit the more we, as educators, build these opportunities the more we mitigate disadvantage and accumulate advantage.
“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)
For a disadvantaged strategy, look within as much as out for answers, think in years not terms, reject initiatives, think systemic change, build culture not working groups
The scale of our disadvantaged problem is too big for short term strategy, initiative and short term interventions, it requires something deeper and systemic; our approach needs to become what we do (without trying), because it is in the culture, in the approach, owned by all. So…
… do look outside for inspiration, but build your approach on what you learn about disadvantage in your context; the answers and approach lie within you and your community; strategies do not travel well. Thinking deeply about disadvantage and context and ownership with strong execution matters.
… do not seek initiatives and short term interventions. Systemic change is required that is irreversible (not least because disadvantage holds on to individuals over time).
… plan to address disadvantage in the long term, think 3 to 5 to 10 years in terms of timeline. Resist the one year plan punctuated by short term interventions.
… do not think of disadvantage as one homogenous group; this issue is only understood by fully understanding each individual disadvantaged child and how best to accumulate advantage for them.
… do not just fixate on the past and gaps that exist, also consider the future for disadvantaged students, what do they need to thrive?
… do invest in teaching (the every lesson, everyday lever) and culture to accumulate advantage through the lens of competence and character (particularly self-belief and self-esteem) to give self-agency.
“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.”(Malcolm Gladwell)
This is personal | the need for human to human contact | post-pandemic rocket fuel
Children typically think in the now. Emphasising human contact and quality interaction between and adult and learner in the magical places we call schools may well be the best recovery from the pandemic. Dwelling and colluding on the impact may not serve children well; keeping the Main Event, every lesson, everyday as the focus will likely best serve disadvantaged children.
“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)
Human connection is perhaps the most important contributor to accumulating advantage; it is perhaps the key ingredient in early advantage before the age of 4. The pandemic significantly reduced socialisation and human connection; reducing the staggering amount of information that is socially transmitted. We all bear this responsibility, that young people watch, imitate and learn from us and that this shapes them over time. This human connection may be the biggest loss during the pandemic, but may well prove our greatest super power in the post pandemic.
“We have to see to be able to do. … You play a role in passing on cultural norms and nuances. …people who we connect with, who we trust and who we are exposed to. These are the three fundamental factors that underpin who we learn from or imitate … shaping us at each and every moment of our lives.” (Fiona Murden, 2020)
Seeking equity | giving disadvantaged what they need
“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)
We should not consider disadvantaged as a single homogenous group; considering them as a group has significant negative consequences and troublesome stereotypes that will mis-serve disadvantaged children. We must maintain the view that disadvantaged children are individuals and as such we should not confer or label as disadvantage, but understand each child and give them what they need; seek equity give individuals what they need.
But what about the post-pandemic? | gifts for disadvantage from the pandemic?
The advancement of and use of technology to support learning has the opportunity to supplement the main event (every lesson, everyday) to support learning and to deepen learning. There is also significant opportunity to democratise learning and increase accessibility to teaching and learning 24/7. Securing accessibility to technology needs to remain a key priority post pandemic.
Starker understanding of the role of assessment in leaning and the need for feedback to support progress; the significantly weakened or limited in distance learning.
Disadvantaged individuals are likely to have weakened their present level of attainment relative to more affluent, advantaged peers. We should avoid demoting disadvantaged down set or to allow the new attainment level to limit our expectation of them. Before our situational blindness kicks in and the new level becomes defining; we need to seek equity alongside teaching the Main Event (every lesson, everyday)
We need to understand the impact of the pandemic on the self-identity/self-esteem locker of each child. Actively encourage and secure early success on meaningful and challenging work; building self-esteem, filling their lockers and ensuring they increasingly step forward, not back.
The deeper connections with family that have developed through the pandemic provide a significant opportunity to support disadvantaged children: whilst children spend c.950 hours in classroom and well over c.1200 hours in school each year, accounting for sleeping, they spend closer to 4000 hours per year with parents and carers.
The So What? | How far are we meeting the following challenges?
The following is offered as a set of challenging questions for us to consider how we are accumulating advantage for individual disadvantaged children, so that they feel and are more successful now and in adulthood; how best do we gift each child with the self-agency that allow them to make choices, seize opportunities and thrive in life.
How far do we know, at an individual level, the nature of disadvantage in our context: how it accumulates over time to limit opportunity generally and specifically in our community?
How far are we able to recognise “present level of attainment” and “delayed attainment” so that we do not inadvertently assume fixed ability and reduce attainment mobility?
How far is addressing our disadvantaged problem everyone’s business? Understanding that we are all responsible and leak our expectations all of the time.
do we condemn, confer, collude, mitigate or remove disadvantage?
do we focus on our language, actual and body language?
How far do we believe and invest in human connection as the key to accumulating advantage. The lack of human connection may have done the most damage in the pandemic, by contrast it is likely to be our superpower to influence and gift choice to our disadvantaged children in the post-pandemic.
How far do we know that this needs to be an investment over the longer term, aimed at system change (teaching and culture). Initiatives and intervention are poor substitutes for systemic, irreversible change that influences how we educate over time to accumulate advantage?
How far do we focus on the main thing as the main thing for accumulating advantage: teaching well? How far is this focused on:
what matters most, building curiosity and questioning in all children,
direct instruction, explanation, modelling; progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of compelling knowledge.
deliberate practice, building success on meaningful and challenging tasks.
diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback: rapid, high quality feedback loops.
Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage.
How far are we looking not to just to fill the past gaps for disadvantaged, but equally seek to load the dice for disadvantaged children by looking into the future and equipping them with the tools required to recognise and step forward for opportunities with competence and character that allow them to thrive and influence their world (building self agency)?
How well do we prepare disadvantaged students to:
recognise and create opportunities for themselves? (including being curious and asking question)
have the agency to step forward for opportunities?
have the tools to be able to exploit their opportunities?
How far have we really considered what it is that allows individuals to thrive now and in the future? How far does the present education system set individuals up for success? How do we tip the balance, load the dice to give disadvantaged access to life and the rules?
How far do we understand that an individual’s self identity and motivation to continue is determined by their sense of self and what they have in the locker? How far do we build in affirmations and evidence of success for children to actively build this confidence?
How far are we exploiting the opportunities afforded by our deeper connection with families and communities and our use of technology to democratise learning?
How far would addressing the above make everything else in education either less important or not required?
We should remain optimistic and hopeful for the future; we have remarkable educators in all areas of our sector; with the right focus we can help all children to make something of their lives in a future that is unlikely to be dull.
“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)
“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)
As educationalists we have an urgent problem. A problem that has always been there, one which we have struggled to address and now this problem threatens to disenfranchise and damage an ever increasing number of children. However effective we believe our present education system is, it fails year after year to address the disadvantaged gap; there is very limited evidence of attainment mobility in our schools; disadvantaged children at age 16 are 18.1 months behind their more affluent peers (EPI, 2019) and more than half a GCSE grade behind per subject (Progress 8 -0.45 to +0.13).
“Over recent years, there has been a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap (at the end of Year 11), … the five-year rolling average now suggests that it would take 560 years to close the gap. … an increase in the gap in 2018 suggest(s) … that we could be at a turning point and that we could soon enter a period where the gap starts to widen.” (EPI, 2019)
This is now an urgent issue, the impact of the present pandemic will not be felt equally; our asymmetric society will become more so. As you read this the disadvantaged gap is widening quicker than ever. The inconvenient truth is that the legacy of the pandemic will be far reaching, will extend into the future, and for an increasing number of children the impact will be irreversible. It may well threaten the fabric of society, but it is the fortune of individual children that should motivate our action now and as we emerge into a post-pandemic world.
It will be hard to describe the challenge that our disadvantage children and families now face. In a World that acts explicitly and implicitly against the disadvantaged, the present hiatus in their education and the impact of school closure will have a deep pastoral and educational legacy exacerbated by a deep economic downturn; the level of disadvantage across the country will deepen and grow. The already strong propensity for disadvantaged children to self-deselect will grow significantly.
Of all of the problems that our sector now faces this is the most urgent; we must act now; not in isolation, but as a sector to address the expanding disadvantage gap. Not just because it is right for individual children growing up in uncertain times, but because our very society may depend on it.
“Education and organisations should be judged by how well it supports its most vulnerable and disadvantaged to achieve and feel success.”
Disadvantaging the disadvantaged | Distance Learning
For all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew Effect)
If we wanted to design a curriculum and a mode of delivery that would disadvantage the disadvantaged then distance learning during closure would be it. Overlay a challenging unemployment and economic climate, the disadvantaged and newly disadvantaged will haveeven less ability to focus on education; will have even less opportunity and control over their lives.
The following table identifies the reasons for the widening disadvantaged gap through the lens of distance learning during the pandemic, … something that is also true during normal times.
During the time of closure there will be increasing numbers of children who are curriculum negative (accumulating disadvantage) and are falling behind; a group that will expand over time. At the same time there will also be curriculum and learning positive pupils (accumulating advantage), those who thrive in the home, making greater progress than if they had to contend with the noise of school. The result is a stretch in present attainment profile that is now widening the disadvantaged gap and significantly growing the number of children who will have delayed attainment; from those who have little, more will be taken away.
Again the impact of this will not be felt equally across schools and academies, those serving high disadvantage in highly deprived areas will have the greatest challenge; where the full impact of the pandemic and economic downturn will play out. It is in these areas and schools that we will need to work the hardest to maintain a child’s focus on education, secure attainment mobility and give them the opportunities to be be more than they thought they could be.
The impact of Distance Learning for disadvantaged (and other) children
The following chart identifies the impact of poor versus highly effective teaching on an average student and a disadvantaged student. Whilst this is true when children are in school it is also true, probably more so, when children are distance learning. This should focus us to view distance learning through the eyes of the disadvantaged learner, taking into account the barriers identified above and the suggested criteria for distance learning below.
If we are in any doubt that attendance is linked to progress, then the following graph identifies the Progress 8 score achieved by children whose attendance fall below 90% and where attendance is between 90-95% for disadvantaged (blue) and non-disadvantaged (grey). Again the disproportionate impact on disadvantaged reduces progress 8 by a further 0.36 compared to non-disadvantaged for children with less than 90% attendance. (sample data, not national data)
We will soon have the vast majority of children with attendance <90% for this academic year, but as with the pandemic, the impact is never felt equally across society; the asymmetry will deepen, the disadvantaged (and others) will fall further, loosing their foothold in education.
So what? how do we tackle this enormous challenge?
This is a question for the sector and it will need to evolve over time. The following is not exhaustive, but is a starter for 10, a plan for action based on some key periods of time:
During the pandemic | Now
Feed the disadvantaged and vulnerable children; prioritise the feeding of families during the pandemic, working with community groups to meet this basic need.
Keep disadvantaged and vulnerable children safe; do everything we can to keep children safe through the pandemic, maintaining contact and support to build their sense of psychological safety.
Get disadvantaged online (now and in the long term); we need to do more to tackle the digital divide, now more than ever with the current jump in technology and on-line learning.
Create effective Distance learning through the eyes of disadvantaged children through the pandemic; based on the following principles:
Accessible: High clarity, specific instructions, dependable in format, encourages routine. – limit all barriers to accessing and completing learning.
Sequenced: Ordered and progressive, does not assume high levels of inference or cultural context. – random content in the wrong order does not support learning and progression.
Proportionate amount: Is achievable, meaningful, and encourages completion – too much work will encourage opt-out.
Engaging and compelling: Build in hooks and engaging tasks that encourage return and continuation of learning. – reducing disadvantaged propensity to self-deselect.
Human interaction: The more we can give a sense of human interaction and narrative with the more likely it will generate motivation.
Validation and feedback: Encourage further working by validating and acknowledging completed work.
Expect and prepare for the reduced quality and coherence of distance learning as fatigue sets in and where there is a lack of long term vision for distance learning; consider key leveraging learning, lessons, resourcing that are focused on the most important key concepts and learning for the next phase of education.
Make this everyone’s challenge; unswerving focus and high ambition for disadvantaged children; lifting the ceiling of what we believe is possible; shifting culture and ambition will underpin all efforts to address this challenge; start now, build momentum with colleagues now – share the challenge, call for innovation.
Convert and recruit all Raising Standards Leaders to the cause; to focus entirely on the attainment and progress of disadvantaged children in every year group; championing and building the plan through others.
Build on-line and deliver Professional Development sessions during closure that focus on:
“Teaching through the lens of disadvantaged learners.”
“Leading through the lens of disadvantaged learners.”
Preparing to re-join the new normal | Next and in addition to the above
Review deeply the curriculum:
Map clearly what has been lost, not covered … assume universal coverage is low.
Debate then define the core spine of the curriculum; that which is now the key concepts, knowledge and skills that are most leveraging for the future.
Look to remove noise out of the curriculum; more than ever we need to take the shortest route to learning.
Plan how you will assess each child, when we re-join, to understand that key curricular and learning gaps; not to allocate a number to each child, but to understand the needs of each learner to inform the curriculum, planning and teaching.
Maximise and plan for the greater use of technology; exploit the recent jump in on-line learning – sift out the good and package it to supplement the curriculum for disadvantaged learners over time.
Plan for the deeper involvement and collaboration with families as co-educators of children. Plan how this can be directed to add resource to closing the attainment gaps.
Post-pandemic world | Academic Year 2020 – 2021
Do not drop disadvantaged children down sets.
Do give disadvantaged children the very best teachers and teaching, promoting disadvantaged up sets to get to the best teacher.
Invest deeply in quality teaching; the greatest determinant on disadvantage progress, ensure all professional development activity improves the quality of teaching. Be highly specific on the key spine of the curriculum, direct instruction, modelling, deliberate practice, interleaving, review, revisit. Sequence curriculum to have a strong narrative and a level of purpose that motivates and makes learning irresistible.
Teach disadvantaged more; this is about equity not equality. Consider extending the school day and holidays to address the widening gap.
Get every disadvantaged child on-line and with a suitable device; reduce competition for the device within the home. Direct learners to highly specific learning on the core spine of learning that will be most leveraging for closing the gap.
Do not just focus on the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge – without context, understanding, meaning and purpose this will not stick in the long term, to support understanding of the world, so that disadvantaged children have self agency in childhood and adulthood.
Long term change to education
We need to judge the quality of provision through those that most need it and keep disadvantaged attainment (and progress) as a defining measure of the quality of the provision.Measuring an academies ability to secure attainment mobility over time. Rewarding those who genuinely reverse disadvantage.
Do not create a national assessment and examination structure in 2021 that only serves to measure the impact of the pandemic and the deep inequalities in this country.
Adapt the present framework to address the deep needs of disadvantaged children in a post-pandemic world; one that will be harder not easier for disadvantaged children
“The question is, ‘What will normal look like?’ While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years.”(McKinsey, March 2020, a quote from 11 years ago during the global financial crisis)
Whilst there are many things that are uncertain in a post-pandemic world, we already know that the impact of the pandemic and the economic downturn will hit those who will be least able to cope. We need to act now; if not now, when, if not you, who?
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” (C.S. Lewis)
We are coping, working and leading in extraordinary times. We are in the midst of a high magnitude, low frequency event; a global pandemic that has significantly shunted and disrupted life as we know it. An event that is more disruptive to education than any other in our living (working) memory. Considering how we lead in this pandemic era and in a post pandemic world provides a framework for us to seize opportunities and to imagine how education could be. (the pandemic, at the very least, demonstrates that anything is possible).
Under times of stress we are conditioned to focus on surviving and coping; our horizon is near, our perspective is narrow. Whilst this is a necessary phase of crisis management if we step back and look into the future we can start to take control, rationalise and address the challenges and prepare to exploit the opportunities that this hiatus to normal provides, so that we increase the chance of an extraordinary destiny.
Hiatus: a pause or break in continuity in a sequence or activity.
If we name it, perhaps we can manage it. … and as educators we must manage it; children and communities rely on us to make sense of this hiatus and to lead beyond it, into a post pandemic world. Indeed the way schools have responded to the pandemic has elevated their role as a civic actor; there has never been a greater opportunity to rethink, evolve and establish an education system, led by and developed by our sector.
The following diagram provides a representation of the pre-pandemic phase, the pandemic and the post pandemic world; providing a framework for discussion and greater situational awareness.
The framework identifies how we moved from sensing the change that might be caused by the pandemic to the reality of the high magnitude event; an external shunt to the system that forced educators into crisis management. The traumatic change, in mid-March, closed schools across the country with educators leading from one hour to the next. This then shifted to a period of stabilisation, in the present pandemic era. A new normal, characterised by distance learning under lock-down.
At some point in the future, in a post pandemic future, we will prepare to re-join normal. This is where educators will need to show strong and deliberate leadership that addresses, among other issues, significant challenges related to societal and cultural cohesion and the urgent need to address the hiatus in the education of disadvantaged children as well as key year groups, 5, 10 and 12. The flip side is a significant opportunity, using this hiatus in normal to trigger a new paradigm; perhaps a once in a generation opportunity to understand how education could be. A release from our organisational (sector) blindness.
“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.” Marianne Williamson
Paradigm shifting | our system has been externally shunted
As humans we live by accepted norms; cultural, societal and educational; taken together these create the present paradigm; one which has been thrown into chaos. How we see the world and perhaps what is possible has shifted..
Paradigm shift: a time when the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely.
The following diagram, which represents the same time span as above, identifies the former paradigm, the new temporary paradigm during the present pandemic era and the new paradigm that will establish in the post-pandemic world.
Whilst we have shifted into the pandemic era we necessarily play a finite game where the immediacy of the situation necessitates coping, supporting and crisis management. As we stabilise in the pandemic era we need to extend our time horizon and think with a more infinite mindset necessary to plan for and realise what we can build as the next educational paradigm. (influenced by Sinek, 2020)
This requires us as a sector and educationalists to have a purposeful awareness of the opportunities that can shape education in the new world. This requires us to seed and occupy an Innovation space, created and stimulated by the hiatus and the paradigm shift forced by the global pandemic… a unique opportunity to seize.
Our challenge | pandemic, post pandemic and beyond
The following is some initial thinking in broad terms (and far from exhaustive) of the challenges and opportunities we have a sector in these three phases…
Within the pandemic era…
Secure provision, defined by distance learning, that is sequenced, efficient, consistent and accessibleand one that has (at least a sense of) human interaction and narrative. To maintain our curriculum, learning and a sense of normality to our children.
Understand the impact of distance learning on disadvantaged children; an urgent concern, one that could have an irreversible legacy. (if there was ever a strategy to further disadvantage disadvantaged children then distance learning would be it.)
Supporting and maintaining societal cohesion; acting with community agencies to support families in these challenging times.
Supporting and maintaining contact with our most vulnerable children and families and those that become so.
Preparing for a post-pandemic world
Planning and preparing for children to re-join their education. A pastoral and curricular challenge.
Planning specifically to rationalise and empower children, particularly those in Years 5, 10 and 12 to experience a curriculum and assessment structure that does not compound the hiatus in their education.
Planning specifically to support disadvantaged children; deliberately and rigorously seeking to tackle the growing disadvantaged gap, which will be exasperated, not supported by distance learning; a challenge that will be measured in years not months.
Paradigm shifting into a new education era
Understanding what we need from the national assessment and examination structure. Not just for Year 5, 10 and 12 in 2021 (whose gap and random curriculum coverage is already undermining the fairness of 2021 exams and assessment, particularly if you are disadvantaged), but in the long term. There has never been a better opportunity to rationalise this structure and understand how we could better prepare all children for adulthood and to be economically and personally successful.
Building on the role of schools, academies and Trusts as community partners; how far does this pandemic re-shape and re-articulate the position of schools and Trusts at the heart of their communities?
Capitalising on the role of parents and families as co-partners in educating their children; building on the deep investments being made by parents/carers in their child’s education.
Re-imagining therole of technology in supporting learning in and beyond school. We are already seeing a significant jump in the use of technology; a foothold in the virtual space that will not recede.
Deeply considering and understanding thekey/leveraging curricular elements that enable children to transition to adulthood (or secondary, or Post-16); something that is required in the planning of Year 5, 10 and 12 , 2020-21 curriculum.
Exploiting the depth of altruism and support between Trusts and the wider sector evident through this crisis, to build a self-supporting, self-improving system.
The future of school inspection in a post-pandemic world; and the opposite opportunity to build sector-led quality assurance, based around a greater understanding of what matters. What does education look like with limited performance tables and a hiatus in curriculum continuity?
“Always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity.” Og Mandino
Into the Innovation Space | Don’t go into hibernation
So from adversity may come opportunity, perhaps one that is rich enough to bring significant good from the present struggle. One that may transform education and support our children to thrive in this uncertain world.
So go into the innovation space, avoid hibernation and dare to dream of an education system at the heart of the community, working in deep partnerships and focusing on the right things for our children and the future generations.
This hiatus may well be the jolt to the system that allows educationalists and the sector to create a new paradigm; one that will better serve our young people… but only if we seek it.
The following is an update that details the development of the Cabot Learning Federation’s Key Stage 3 Curriculum 3.0; it is the third iteration of the curriculum that has been in place for the last two years. It is the result of the work and insight of curriculum curators from across the Trust who have been charged with the deep responsibility of curating the curriculum for our children. A curriculum that allow children to dance across disciplines…
Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines… modern life requires range, making connections across far-flung domains and ideas. ( Range, David Epstein, 2019)
We choose to curate our own CLF curriculum across the Trust not because it is easy, but because it is hard… and because it is a challenge that we are willing accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win (for our children).
We take on this challenge fully aware of the weighty ethical responsibility that it brings; knowing that what we choose to teach confers or denies power… there is nothing more important than what we choose to pass on to the next generation.
We choose to empower experts across the Trust to own and curate our Curriculum. A shared curriculum that builds a platform on which experts can perform (teach and inspire). The shared curriculum frees professionals to follow the learning to meet the needs of all children. On the platform of the curriculum we believe colleagues should be empowered to “red dance“… to realise the promise of the curriculum and its loftier goals
We choose to empower curators in an ever-onward curation to provide the best possible curriculum for our children.
The curators are charged to fulfill the ambition of the Curriculum.To deliver the promise of the curriculum and its loftier goals.
The ultimate aim of the Curriculum is to ensure all children have self-agency so that become active participants in their own lives, because each child has a strong sense of self and an understanding of their place in the world. This is the result of children seeking meaning and making connections as they build understanding from a foundation of knowledge and skills (expertise). Where knowledge and skills are the foundation and servant of the loftier goals of the curriculum.
The aims can be represented in a hierarchy that move from knowing some stuff, to disciplinary thinking to being able to transfer and connect to wider subjects areas and ideas, interdisciplinary knowledge…
or linked to cognitive science…
And that the nature of cognitive challenge varies. From low cognitive challenge for new knowledge and skills to high cognitive challenge for the loftier ambition of the curriculum that requires a level of assimilation into present schema. To build our sense of self and place we need to alter what we already believe to be true. Whilst it is far harder to secure these curricular goals they are necessarily built on a strong foundation of understanding made possible by a deep foundation of knowledge and skills.
The loftier goals of the CLF Curriculum are to support our young people to develop a sense of self; so that teaching and the wider curriculum support the positive development of behaviours, perceptions, dispositions and character traits that create a sense of self.
Understanding who we are can only be in relation to the world in which we live. Closely allied to the supporting children to have a sense of self is to secure a sense of place in the world. Not that this is directly taught, of course, because as with a sense of self every child is unique and at the centre of many networks of social relations, and nobody else occupies that particular position…
These loftier goals of the curriculum have the ultimate aim of giving all children self-agency both now and into adulthood. Self-agency: the ability to take decisions that give us control over our lives… so that we know what to do when we do not know what to do.
It is the loftier goals of the curriculum that live on into adulthood, far more than the specific knowledge or skills that we acquire in the detail of the curriculum that fall away. Perhaps in the same way that far after the knowledge of the rose garden have gone, the underlying meaning and pattern of that learning that changed our view of self and place remains deeply in the soil, waiting for a time to be useful (or appear in a dry spell)…
The CLF KS3 Curriculum is part of the CLF 3-19 curriculum…
Against aims of the curriculum and within the above spiral there are a set of guiding principles for the CLF KS3 Curriculum:
The aim of the curriculum is to secure self-agency for all children now and into adulthood, through a developed sense of self and place that is built on seeking meaning based on understanding secured on a strong foundation of knowledge and skills (expertise). The curriculum is based on age related expectations that are progressive and built across the 3-19 curriculum. It focuses on securing the disciplinary knowledge required to support children to be mathematicians, authors, historians, artists… It is built by Curriculum Curators and the entitlement for all children is protected by Curriculum Guardians across the Trust.
It purposefully builds up from Primary to support breadth and depth of curriculum that seeks broader curricular than that stifled by drawing GCSE of flightpaths down from KS4.
In addition the following are key principles:
The curriculum is intended to be taught to depth, stretching, demanding and expecting opinions from children. Based on a shard curriculum teachers evaluate and reflect on the learnt curriculum to follow the learning and meet needs. There are vertical strands in the 3-19 curriculum of oracy, writing, reasoning and reading. Assessment is principally through DOYA, with knowledge acquisition assessed through MCQs.
Whilst the shared curriculum is important … what really matters is how it is enacted (taught) … and then what matters is what is learnt …. and then what is long-term learnt…
The curriculum is divided into four cycles of teaching, assessment and re-teaching … repeat:
Each subject in the KS3 Curriculum is defined by a set of Age Related Expectations; starting with KS2 prior learning, knowledge and skills, Understanding and Application and then Meaning … the loftier goals cannot be directly taught.
For each cycle there are medium term plans; sets direction without stifling teachers to follow the learning to meet needs; to red dance on the platform of the shared curriculum…
All of this demands a deep focus on pedagogy and the quality of teaching. The loftier goals of the curriculum in particular are likely to require something like this:
Make explicit how the whole curriculum links and connects together; giving opportunity to explore direct and indirect connections between schema to piece together how they fit in the world.
Bounce up through the future curriculum to spark awe and wonder and set-up future learning, a sense of progression and to see the bigger picture early.
Build in space in the curriculum to support children to seek meaning and develop their sense of self and place in the world. 10% eureka time where the only output is speculation.
Explore the sense of self agency: the notion that social, political and other change can be triggered by individuals and groups. Developing skills and competences that build self-agency and the ability to trigger and sustain change.
“Empowering students to create social change and solve problems that will improve living conditions and increase well-being.” (Nathan, 2017 in Fullan, 2019)
Promote the he role of teacher: we learn by paying attention to others; it is staggering how much information is socially transmitted. What if it is significant others in our lives that actually make the difference; shaping who we are and who we become?
Understand the key importance of disciplinary knowledge (how to think like a… (historian for example) for deepening understanding, exploring meaning and enabling children to understand how to think and to conceptualise the world.
Contextualise learning in the present and future challenges that children face. We only attend to things that we belie/e or are made to believe are important; to these things that are directly relevant to us – make it important.
Dr Dan Nicholls | Cabot Learning Federation | July 2019
“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.
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.
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.
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.
What if we did not seek breadth and reduced the burden on teachers; freeing them from the need to skim and teach at pace.
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.
“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.
“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 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 ifsummative 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?
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.