‘I’ve been to a land where teachers teach and students learn, free of the pressure of high-stakes exams’

This is my first blog on teaching at Riverdale School in New York City.


The Zagat Global Fellowship

This term I was awarded the Zagat Global Fellowship by Riverdale Country School in New York.  This is a new initiative created to encourage educators to visit other schools around the world triverdale imageo exchange ideas, create conversations, teach…and learn. It’s a huge honour to be its first recipient, and to be given the opportunity to join, albeit temporarily, a world-class school in the USA.

Over the next couple of weeks I hope to blog about the differences I experience between two schools in two very different educational systems.  I will post them first on the TES website; I will also tweet here

Riverdale is a world class school, but it’s a very different school from the school I currently work in, and adjusting to the different context will have to be swift. Moving from here to there is a challenge, and after a hard term’s work it might have been safer, and saner, to have taken some time off.  In my own eyes, and going by my standards, I might even ‘fail’…but if I do then I hope to gain something because I have always believed that intrinsic to this profession is the teacher’s ability to expose him or herself to new ideas and new experiences, and be open to the possibility of failing.  But risk taking is becoming increasingly undesirable in today’s high-stakes, over-controlled system.

And yet in my experience, as someone who has visited a lot of schools, as an inspector, advisor, teacher, and parent,  the best schools are forward looking and confident enough to make brave changes. At every level they embody strategic, calculated risk,  and are prepared to introduce new initiatives even when the final outcomes are uncertain. They in turn attract and retain staff who find this atmosphere the most conducive to effective teaching and learning; and ideally, this produces young people who are willing to embrace constructive change, seeing it as part of their own growth. Much of this ongoing process is dependent on a profound trust in the school’s leadership, but in time it becomes a virtuous circle. Scaling such things up is, as Sir Michael Barber has so convincingly argued, essential to the complex process of creating a school-led improvement programme.Conversely, of course, the worst schools I have been to avoid change (including those that are academically very successful) believing that any adjustments might endanger what they have carefully protected over many years. They are managed, not led; they have development plans, but no vision.

Many teachers on both sides of the Atlantic (including Riverdale) are actively discussing grit and resilience, and the focus, quite rightly, is on how we can inculcate it in the young people we teach.  But surely the debate should be widened so that it includes resilience among teachers (who are often characterised by commentators as a group of miserablists who talk only about the negatives of the profession, rather than its privileges), as well as an institutional grit that embodies the robust strength of character that can only come with self-confidence. But such things might only come when the school is itself prepared to learn from failure, resembling an adult in charge of his own destiny: the physical embodiment, if you like, of the qualities it wishes everyone who works in the school to share.  But that’s another debate.  I’m off to pack for New York.



Keep talking, keep listening, keep learning

Excellent teaching is not just about the outcomes for pupils, it is also about how teachers themselves learn and develop. Just as we encourage pupils to reflect on their strengths and on the areas of weakness they could improve, it is important that we, as teachers, do the same. Lesson observations, whether by an inspector or a colleague, provide a vital part in this process and, if approached in the right way, could be seen as the teacher’s equivalent of a Bryanston correction period, helping both the observer and the observed deepen their understanding of their own teaching styles and subject.

When inspectors go into schools a core part of the process is lesson observation: typically, when I inspect a school, I will see about 10-15 lessons and assess whether they are a 1 (excellent), 2 (good), 3 (sound), 4 (unsatisfactory). For a school to gain an excellent in quality of teaching (which is what Bryanston recently achieved) they must have a high proportion of lessons graded as excellent. Putting all those lesson observation forms together at the end of the inspection is an illuminating experience: it reveals, quite clearly and categorically, whether the school puts teaching and learning right at the heart of everything it does. It might surprise you to learn that some schools do not: without clear leadership they have drifted away from this core duty. Inspections are a necessary corrective, a vital part of a process that, hopefully, can help schools to rediscover the transformative impact inspiring teaching can have on young people. Inspections are dangerous when the fear of being inspected leads school policy (this is perhaps more evident in the maintained sector, which is inspected by Ofsted).

No teacher wants to hear that they are anything less than brilliant: in fact, rather a lot of teachers would like to see themselves as a combination of Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society and Mr Chips (perhaps there are some chemistry teachers who rather like Walter White from Breaking Bad, but they won’t own up to it). An excellent school encourages debate about teaching and learning. In such schools, teachers talk about pedagogy, rather than complain about the children they teach; a significant proportion of staff are actively interested in learning about their own profession: they read (and write blogs), they try new things, they are open-minded about new strategies, they reflect on the lessons they have taught, and plan future lessons accordingly; and they like sharing ideas. Crucially, they want to learn.

And they like learning from each other. Bryanston is currently involved in a process of lesson study: we have agreed on key areas upon which we want to improve, and we try to focus on these areas when we watch other colleagues teach. We encourage each other to visit unfamiliar subjects, so that we can really learn something new. Such lesson studies need only be for 10 or 15 minutes, and the conversations afterwards can be very focused, or part of a wider discussion. This can be exhilarating: English teachers need to be reminded about the poetry of mathematics; science teachers need to lose themselves in the intensity of Shakespeare’s language; history teachers can only benefit from understanding a little more about economics, but it is also fascinating to hear why a teacher taught that subject in that way.

The aim is to embed an ongoing culture of professional dialogue so that all teachers learn from each other. If we can do that, then inspections, vital though they are, will also become an opportunity for learning, rather than something to be tolerated (or feared). The ultimate aim of all schools, and all school systems, is to view inspections – and inspectors – as critical friends, professional equals who engage in discussion. That happens when a school really is excellent (it happened to us in Bryanston), and when inspectors do not seek to reduce a school to something utilitarian and measurable, but instead treat a school as a complex organisation that needs to be understood on its own terms. The challenge for all those involved in running schools, and to those who want to see them get better, is simple: keep talking, keep listening, keep learning.


Academic Bryanston: a new boy’s first impressions

Every independent school in the UK likes to see themselves as unique: they might market themselves as distinctive, but the language used on websites, or in glossy brochures, often has the same buzzwords and phrases (‘holistic education’, ‘well rounded individuals’, ‘self-confident’ and so on, as if there are any schools in the country who would not endorse these). The reality is that most schools have more in common than they would care to admit (and I would include state schools in that): teachers teach their pupils, mark their work, enter examinations, and then send them out into the real world. Bryanston, however, really is different: the modified Dalton Plan, upon which Bryanston’s academic system is based, puts it into a tiny minority of schools worldwide. When I worked at Dauntsey’s I knew of Bryanston from afar, and ever since then have wanted to know more about it: did it really work in practice, rather than in theory? What results did it get? And so after nearly a term of being here I think I’m beginning to get a sense of the school’s academic system. It’s been an education!

We know from the recent ISI inspection that Bryanston is officially ‘excellent’ in every category. And I know from conversations with the inspection team that one of the (many) things that impressed them about the school is our academic system: it was seen as a unique and integral part of the school’s identity, and something which clearly added real value to the quality of our pupils’ learning. The inspectors noted that:

In line with the school’s original founding aims, teaching is effective in promoting pupils’ progress through learning to work independently, guided by individual tutoring.

It was Bryanston’s ‘one-to-one’ support that was singled out as a means of ‘promoting the pupils’ personal development’. This progress is at the core of every pupil’s experience of Bryanston: there is an emphasis placed on individualised care and support, so that everyone, regardless of their ability, is able to meet with an adult (either a tutor or their subject teacher) to discuss their studies, as well as their extracurricular commitments. It is this ‘close connection’ that, the inspectors said, contributed to the ‘rapid progress’ they make in their subjects, and it also explains why so many OBs retain such a strong bond with the school.

Key to this is the tutor. In most schools tutoring is unevenly delivered: in boarding schools tutors usually have a group of about 10 pupils whom they see once a week; usually, they give this group up after one year. It could not be more different at Bryanston: here, a tutor has individual tutorial pupils whom they meet, one-to-one, every week. There is no group because we view everyone as an individual. And this selection of tutorial pupils is governed not by house, but by a careful process of selection. Crucially, the tutor remains with their tutorial pupils throughout their school career, ensuring a mutual, and deep, form of understanding and trust.

Correction periods build on this: at Bryanston each sixth form pupil will see their subject teachers one-to-one once a week to discuss key areas of their course. This can be transformative for the pupil who can quickly go from a sense of uncertainty about a topic, to one of insight and understanding. Again, the key here is that personalised care. Compare and contrast that with the increasingly depersonalised, screen-driven ‘interactions’ that dominate our digital lives. Little wonder that the system is so valued, and felt by many to be authentic, have academic rigour, and the pupils’ interests at its heart.

I have visited a lot of schools in my career, both as an inspector, and as someone interested in different school systems. Among those that have impressed me most are the fully IB schools in the Netherlands and Germany, the Harkness schools in New England (such as Philips Andover and Philips Exeter), and the Core Knowledge schools in New York. These are very different, but equally world class, institutions. But Bryanston’s academic system is equal to them because, like them, we have an academic philosophy that works and an ethos that supports it. More importantly, we know that the academic system we have works for us, rather than because a new government initiative says it should. That’s not to say it cannot improve: it can and will, but I hope that the school continues to remain true to its founding principles, adapting its approach on its own terms. That is the value, and measure, of true independence.

On being inspected…

My name is David and I’m a school inspector.

There, I’ve said it.  I should add that I inspect for ISI (the Independent Schools Inspectorate), not Ofsted; I should also add that I not only enjoy inspecting schools (I really do think it is the best professional development around) but I also value the process of being inspected. Done well and inspections can be mutually beneficial experiences; done badly and the damage done to those involved can be incalculable.

I used to be a governor in a state school which was long overdue a visit from Ofsted.  When I was there I think it is true to say that ‘being Ofsteded’ featured in so many conversations among staff and the Senior Leadership Team that it bordered on an obsession.  And yet I sympathised with the school: the inspection hung over the staff daily, sometimes distorting perspectives, but ensuring that the school was not only ready, and also able to gain outstanding in each of the grade descriptors, was of fundamental importance to everyone attached to the school.  Even as a governor I spent hours in meetings and going on training to ensure that I was ‘Ofsted ready’.

It’s different in the independent sector.

Schools are inspected, on average, every five years (although there are interim inspections between full inspections) and they are given a little under a week’s notice of the inspectors calling. Because of these timescales staff do not spend much of their working week worrying about inspection; instead, they can focus on teaching.  If it is a ‘full, integrated inspection’ it means that every aspect of the school is inspected.  Imagine how important, and how thorough, preparation has to be when you are not only dealing with rules and regulations governing a school, as well as the quality of teaching and learning, but also the wellbeing of hundreds of young people boarding in the school.

We were recently inspected and we had a team of 12 inspectors here for the best part of a week.  They can, in theory, ask for anything at all, ranging from the minutes of a meeting dating back years, to access to any part of the school site. It can be an exhausting experience. But, driving the whole process, is the desire of each inspector to leave the school in a better place, with a stronger understanding of itself, than it had before the inspection.  Throughout the preparation period, and during the inspection itself, there should be a sense of mutual respect and, importantly, reciprocal learning.  Inspectors (many of whom are serving Heads or members of SLT)  should leave the inspected school with new ideas about how to improve their own schools: if they don’t then they will undoubtedly question why they continue to give up so much valuable time.

When the final inspection report is published the school should recognise itself in its pages: each member of staff, each parent and each student, should be able to say: ‘yes, they understood us’.  There may be disagreements, and frank discussions, but acrimony only really begins to colour judgements when the teachers feel the inspectors did not take the time to understand how the school works.  That requires preparation on the part of the school, and time and patience on the part of the inspectors.  We hear a lot, these days, about what the independent sector can learn from the state sector, and much of that is justified.  But in the key area of inspection I believe that the state sector could learn from the independent sector, thus making the whole process more constructive, and less stressful.

Re-reading ‘The Craft of the Classroom’ by Michael Marland

I have recently moved house.  What should be a pleasant event is, in reality, truly hideous; in fact if there was a fifth horseman of the apocalypse I think he would be called ‘Moving house’.  However, even the most draining, exhausting experience can throw up some unexpected pleasures.  Old photographs, postcards sent by long-lost friends, items of clothing worn by children when they were babies…such things stop you in your tracks, transporting you, for a moment, into your past and projecting you into your future, just as Eliot wrote about in ‘Burnt Norton’ (‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.’)

And then there are the books.  Why do we cling to old books that we will never re-read? What unique power is contained in those yellowing pages that makes us hesitate before putting it back on the shelf?  Other objects do not maintain such a hold over us, but throwing that collection of poems away, or binning that broken-spined novel, seems like a conscious fragmenting of the self.  It weakens us, removing a past from our own identities.  And so we continue to break our backs as we carry hundreds of books from place to place.  Such things used to make some sort of sense before Kindles and the internet, but now?  I’m not so sure.

craft-of-the-classroomEvery so often a book slips from a box that makes you think again about how you teach because, years ago, it made you think for the first time about what it means to be a teacher.  One such book is ‘The Craft of the Classroom’ by Michael Marland, first published in 1975 (another one would be ‘The Learning Game’ by Jonathan Smith).  Marland’s book was hugely influential when it came out, changing the lives of many people (teachers and students alike).  When I picked it up again for the first time in perhaps 15 years I did so cautiously: what could it tell me now I don’t know? Do teachers still think of themselves as possessing a craft?

Its subtitle (‘A Survival Guide’) seems to place it in a particular sub-genre wearily familiar to many teachers (let’s call it the ‘us and them’ school which includes titles such as ‘Getting the buggers to behave’ and deploys lots of imagery of attrition, conflict and battle zones).  That approach, or rather that tone, seems rather old fashioned.

But Marland knew what he was writing about (this affectionate obituary from The Guardian shows just how much experience he had in London state schools, and gives a real flavour of this charismatic headteacher).  As I browsed it again my eye was drawn to pages with whole paragraphs underlined, and my (neater) handwriting asking questions of the text and author, somehow expecting answers, and finding them, eventually, in the classroom.

The 70s are now characterised as a brutal time when even the teachers not only dressed like Regan and Carter from ‘The Sweeney’ but acted like them too (and they were the good guys).  Marland’s book is humane and fair, and contains advice that seems, in retrospect, remarkably far-sighted and modern:

Never refer to a pupil’s family in front of other pupils. Never use the ill fame of other brothers and sisters, perhaps because they were at the school, to criticize a pupil.  Never make invidious comparisons with other members of the family.  Never say anything to wound.  Never refer to physical or racial characteristics.

I wish my teachers had read this.

Of course, much is outdated (advice on the right sort of equipment a teacher should have makes alarmingly little mention of mobile devices, unless you count a board rubber , mark book and chalk).  But Marland reminds us that good teachers share the same qualities, regardless of the period, or even the sector, they find themselves in.  One section caught my eye, and again, I could not argue with much of it:

It is important…that in searching for improved motivation we do not overlook the very basic point that in fact almost the best motivation is simply achievement.  On the whole, we want to do the things we can do, and don’t want to do the things we can’t do.  In classroom terms this means that it is not practical to put too much emphasis on motivation, nor to wait until pupils ‘are motivated’ to do something.  Vigorous teaching of the skills will often lead on to motivation.  ‘Being able’ to do is very close to ‘wanting’ to do.  Not being able to do is distressingly off-putting.

But he was no soft liberal who had the soft prejudice of low expectations.  Quite the opposite.  And he placed particular emphasis on the teacher as the leader of the group of pupils being taught: ‘you have to be able to dominate the group’ he writes.  And this section on classroom management goes further, and is written from real experience:

There is nothing so pathetic as the sight of the desperately anxious teacher casting away more and more of his standards as frantic sops to rapid popularity and sacrificing the elements essential to a good long-term relationship to the empty hopes of immediate success.

We have all seen those teachers who want to be friends with their difficult students, allowing what were once clear lines to become blurred.  It never works, and new teachers should know this, as should their mentors. Some schools publish reading lists for teachers new to the school to read (they  invariably include Dweck and Hattie). But they could do worse than include extracts from The Craft of the Classroom.  

The challenges of choice…

So, farewell then General Studies A-level, that much-mocked qualification beloved of too-busy-to-prepare-for-lessons headteachers who wanted to stay in touch with the classroom. It seems that offering this subject actually narrowed choices for our students beyond school because universities rated it (along with anthropology, engineering and performing arts) so badly.  Sometimes less can mean more in education.

Last Summer I had the privilege of editing a small collection of mini-essays by leading educationalists entitled ‘If I were Secretary of State for Education’.  You can read them online here. The responses from the contributors ranged from the idealistic to the pragmatic, from the worthy to the wise, and from the sensible to the impossible.  I will leave you to decide which fall into which category.  Ever since I finished reading these mini-manifestoes I have thought about what works, and what does not work, in schools.  And what struck me was how many perceived difficulties come with such choice.

Working in education today is exciting: I cannot recall a time when there was a comparable number of original thinkers working in every sector.  And, crucially, they are easily connected via social media and email.  Schools doing transformative things in the US (such as those implementing ideas promulgated by, among others, Doug Lemov, Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck) see these ideas being rapidly adapted  successfully by schools around the world.  In the not-too-distant past such ideas would have taken years to cross the Atlantic.

In the UK we have one of the most complex educational landscapes in the world: private and maintained schools are only a part of a fragmented picture that now includes academies, free schools, studio schools, sixth form colleges and, as announced this month, the first new grammar school in fifty years. We live in a Wal-Mart of educational options.  We are spoilt for choice.

And so it might seem odd that enough parents feel that the solution to perceived academic underachievement is to reach back half a century to a model that has been out of favour with Prime Ministers ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair.  Or, perhaps more likely, they probably both felt that re-introducing greater selection through the 11+ was too toxic, and too costly among floating voters, for even their very secure administrations.  David Cameron, in the final four years of his Premiership, clearly feels no such inhibitions.

Such a decision, predictably, provoked a twitter storm of puffed-up indignation and virtue-signalling. This should be no surprise because, than most things in this country, education is something which everyone is an expert on (probably because everyone has experienced it). Furthermore,  it creates a visceral response unlike any other subject I know of:  Daisy Christodolou is right when she writes:

If you want to make yourself enemies in education, probably the best way to do so is to have a decided opinion about grammar schools. They are a litmus test for a whole range of other political and educational beliefs, particularly those to do with equality and elitism.

Personally, I celebrate diversity: a rich rainforest of schools meeting the different needs of a highly developed society is far better than a monochrome plantation that fits one model. In educational terms Britain’s school system differentiates, rather than aiming squarely at the middle.  And if you don’t like what you see then set up a free school and see if you can do better.  But what all schools need if they are to be real engines for social mobility are the resources to attract and retain good teachers.  It doesn’t really matter if those schools are called academies or grammar schools; indeed, such arguments are a distraction or, worse, a deception used to hide system-wide underfunding.

Very often those who scramble for the high moral ground often do so from different degrees of privilege: their local schools might be outstanding or, if they are not, they might be able to ‘game’ the system to ensure their children get into the best schools (as Giles Coren comments on provocatively here) and have access to private tutors to help boost grades. Either way, they are doing so from a relative position of power.  But for those without such power, who have no choice, and who cannot afford to pay for their children to go to a private school, having a good state school nearby is of profound importance.  

I have friends, both real and online, who are opposed to selection and elitism in education (although, strangely, they don’t mind either in areas such as sport, or business).  And when they opposed the new grammar school in Sevenoaks I asked them one simple question: if your child had the choice between going to a failing school in special measures, or an outstanding grammar school, which would you choose?  The choice, suddenly, becomes no choice at all.

Real choice, rather than the false choices offered by indistinguishable school models, or selection by postcode, matters.  Choice is deeply embedded into our everyday life, and it seems perverse to accept it at every opportunity except when it comes to our children’s futures.  The choices we make as adults involved in education should, at every step, put the life chances of our young people at their heart.  Too often, however, we play politics with their lives, choosing our preferences over theirs.