Remote Leadership

Leadership has become more challenging for sure in the last year, as we often find ourselves swimming against a tide of government policy, and changes to policy, and revisions to changes to policy. By necessity, leadership has become a fast, not slow pursuit. If we agree that building a strong and positive culture is one of the core purposes of leadership, then what does the remote expression of culture look like? The context has changed but how do we articulate the principles? 

“Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It is not something you are. It is something you do.” Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code

I like to think of the expression of culture as the coherence that comes from knowing why you chose one direction, behaviour or attitude over another and the way in which you approach it. The interplay between the how and the why. In all the great schools I know, the way that things are done matters. There is a deliberate thoughtfulness about decision making and execution. There are clearly established cultural norms that are part of the fabric of the organisation, evident in relationships, the curriculum and within the accountability measures. When these aspects are in sync, the team moves together. 

“For the team to move forward, everyone within must forward in the same direction. This is the essence of team – working hard for each other, in harmony, without dissent, submerging individual ego for greater cause.”  James Kerr, Legacy

Language and behaviour may be the more noticeable articulation of culture; for example, we made the decision early on that we would use the language of learning resilience rather than learning loss. This spoke not only to our sense of optimism but also to the trust we have placed in our teachers, the curriculum and its  implementation.  We have a curriculum designed to build resilience through content and through the work we have done to understand how learning and memory works best. We had faith that once children returned to school in September, we would work on the assumption that learning is resilient and wait for it to bounce back…and joyfully, slowly and steadily, where we were able to keep children in school, it did. 

“If learning has been truly lost, it must be regained, which may be slow and painful. On the other hand, if it is merely rusty, it may be quickly regained with a small amount of practice.” EEf Impact of school closures on the attainment gap 2020

There are great bodies of work that provide really helpful and well evidenced approaches to teaching and learning that have been distilled through meta analysis of classroom practice over time and taking account of context. There is no need to take shots in the dark, go with personal preferences or whatever is fashionable because there is evidence and research, lots of it. We can make informed decisions about approaches to teaching and learning. There is also great expertise in the area of professional learning and well evidenced frameworks from which to approach teacher development.. Whilst it would certainly make logical sense to “ transfer into remote education what we already know about effective teaching in the live classroom” do we risk making a lot of assumptions in doing this and perhaps miss the more particular effect of context in these circumstances. 

The variables in the online curriculum are considerably greater than the classroom. The means and environment in which pupils learn and we teach are much more fluid than the classroom. Teachers are juggling from the menu of live and pre recorded teaching, with their access to technology, platforms and training, working from home whilst managing their own children and the likelihood of staff absences and illness meaning that cover and inconsistencies are more likely than ever. The variables affecting pupil learning are as diverse and disparate; the unequal access to technology, parental support, stable learning environments, prior ability, before we add the impact of possible food poverty and a complicated set of factors around social disadvantage. We don’t yet know the impact of remote learning in the medium term (the next year or two) or beyond. 

Can we make assumptions about what effective online teaching and learning looks like? There are some very interesting studies into pupil engagement (NFER, Schools’ responses to Covid-19: pupil engagement in remote learning, June 2020) and the EEF have published their study last April which highlighted “the quality of teaching as the predominant factor and the importance of pedagogy. There is no evidence that remote learning should be of a particular style, structure or organisation. 

“Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered Pupils can learn through remote teaching. Ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when they are provided. There was no clear difference between teaching in real time (synchronous teaching) and alternatives (asynchronous teaching).” EEF Remote L:earning Rapid Evidence Review April, 2020

In the rush to replicate the classroom environment, many schools and leaders moved instinctively to live lessons. When we were considering how best to structure online learning, the text that helped us explore the relative merits of live (synchronous) learning vs prerecorded (asynchronous) learning in depth and from a position of expertise was Doug Lemov, Teaching in the Online Classroom,2020. The chapter on synchronous and asynchronous learning is excellent and considers the factors that affect both learning and teaching including scalability, time economy, connectedness, control, pacing as well as the context of the learning within a sequence and children’s overall ability and experience in this area. The idea of a synergistic model which acknowledges the complexity of remote learning and context and where there is a balance of synchronous and asynchronous is perhaps the salient point here. “Both types of learning have benefits and limitations. The trick is finding a way to get the most out of both and exploit the natural synergies between the two.” Doug Lemov, Teaching in the Online Classroom.

There is no conclusive evidence that either approach works best, as explained by the EEF’s recent blog Live teaching and pre-recorded video lessons – how can we best navigate the evidence?  The studies that did examine differences between live teaching and pre-recorded lessons on student outcomes found mixed and inconclusive results, with no evidence that one was better than the other in terms of student outcomes.” 

However the EEF blog does go on to argue the case for greater professional support for delivering remote learning. There was evidence that quality of implementation did impact learning outcomes; and the importance, therefore, of providing professional support for practitioners who are delivering remote teaching, is noted in the review. This is referred to also by the NFER survey of schools and practitioners teaching remotely last year. “In an open question, we asked teachers what would help them to provide remote learning more effectively in future.” Unsurprisingly teachers widely requested better support to develop their expertise

 “Teachers feel that they need training and development in remote learning approaches to improve their skills and abilities to teach in this way. Specific topics identified for training include: video recording and editing, using virtual learning environments (VLEs) effectively, and effective remote learning strategies.” 

We are very much  operating in a new and complex context. Maybe it would be helpful to think about how we as leaders engage in the process of learning about remote learning, and not necessarily just from a monitoring perspective. I know that there will be schools doing an excellent job of this using the best expertise they have available to support teachers with the complexity of remote learning. There will also be those who have missed this part of the “active ingredients”.  To go back to the importance of culture, schools with a well designed and researched approach to professional learning will perhaps be best placed to address the challenges of professional learning.

One of my favourite and guiding pieces of research is: School leadership and student outcomes: identifying what works and why, Best evidence synthesis, Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd Dec 2009. Based on 134 studies that were identified for positive links between student learning and leadership, the evidence review argues that “Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development is the leadership behaviour that has the largest effect size when looking at impact on pupil learning.” This really raises the question about how well we are supporting teachers with what feels like a huge mountain to climb, new pedagogy to master, complex technology and challenging contextual factors. How well are we promoting and participating in  teacher learning on the remote curriculum? How effective is our remote staff learning offer? How well are we modelling this in our own leadership behaviours? If we go back to the principles of normalising culture, how well have we normalised a culture of learning and supporting remotely, through leadership actions? 

I think that sadly the monitoring expectations have not always translated well, perhaps understandably due to the language of accountability. Have we mixed up compliance with quality? In a school environment we work on the principle that unless teaching  is consistently below an acceptable standard, we start from the belief that teaching is developmental and that the craft of teaching requires deliberate practice over time with appropriate support and guidance. 

And yet it would appear that accountability measures have been generously applied in some contexts as teachers begin to share experiences through social media and other networks of virtual lesson observations, online marking scrutinies, deep dives into writing outcomes online, clocking in systems to prove the amount of time staff are online with pupils. I understand that leaders are nervous about pupil learning, but we risk making what is already a very challenging learning experience for teachers so high stakes that it has an adverse effect on teacher performance rather than the intended focus on developing expertise over time.  

In terms of professional relationships, we must start from a  position of trust and work actively to build a culture of professional learning and professional conversations which impact on learning at all levels. Helen Timperley’s work on professional learning conversations is very much our template and the framework we have used for  reviewing and planning performance development systems. Professional learning conversations have become a cultural norm and have helped build teacher motivation, buy in and trust. 

Perhaps if we applied these enablers to the persistent and complex problems of remote learning and to maximizing the quality of remote learning, we would be assuming that teachers deserve our trust and want to do what is best for their pupils. An approach based on inquiry and problem solving might therefore seek to identify the most persistent problems experienced by teachers in regard to remote learning and consider the driving questions that we are genuinely curious about.

We might then consider the tools and resources we have available that address the most persistent problems and consider how we might gather evidence and identify where practice is more effective. We might test out identified approaches and possible solutions over time,  collectively, in different contexts, and think about how we gather evidence of impact on pupil learning and hopefully on teacher learning. 

It is the culture of collective responsibility, problem solving and professional conversations that matters here, rather than compliance and top down feedback. We need to build a supportive culture in which we can grow expertise in this area. I also feel that until you have spent a few weeks planning and delivering online learning, it is difficult to make authentic judgements, from a position of expertise, on the quality of teaching or to make assumptions about this that should be improved. 

Or as Brene Brown puts it “If you are not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I am not interested in your feedback” 

Let’s not underestimate how hard it is right now to be in the arena. Let’s not forget culture matters and let’s not get lost in accountability measures with this one. One of the few silver linings to the pandemic has been the conversations around the feasibility of accountability measures such as comparative published data, the inspection framework and the national testing program. It would seem that we have an opportunity to review (not wildly abandon) our accountability approaches and to consider what we have learned about how to get the best from people. 

Perhaps we should consider this before we drop into a virtual lesson unannounced with a clipboard and a checklist. 

Knowledge and Knowing


A few months ago, I wrote a blog about the principles of our curriculum, how it was constructed and how it works across the two schools in the Trust. One of the aspects I discussed was the concept of design principles, e.g the fundamental principles that sit underneath the curriculum, shape its  construction and provide coherence across different subjects and key stages. These design principles act as the golden threads which reflect our Trust ethos and culture and help us to ensure that the curriculum “how” and “what” are linked meaningfully to the “why”. This concept of linking the how, what and why through underlying principles was also championed by Dylan William in his 2007 paper “Tight but Loose” which discusses the tension between the flexibility required by individual contexts and classrooms and the need to stay true to the core design principles which identify an approach, or in the case, the curriculum. 

“The Tight but Loose formulation combines an obsessive adherence to central design principles (the “tight” part) with accommodations to the needs, resources, constraints, and particularities that occur in any school (the “loose” part), but only where these do not conflict with the theory of action of the intervention.” 

curiulum map

Since then I have been asked by many educational professionals to elaborate upon the concept of the design principles and how they work in context and how they sit within the curriculum (our model seen above). In this blog I will explore the concept of how a knowledge rich curriculum sits alongside the design principle of enquiry and exploration so that they are mutually supportive, not mutually exclusive. Neither is king.

It is through understanding the value of knowledge and being able to critique its relevance, by being able to apply the heart as well as the head, that we develop children who are learners in the true sense of the word, and we help to build a generation that can apply knowledge critically and thoughtfully. We aim to develop children who are wise, not just knowledgeable and if there was ever an argument against an education system that produces graduates who are solely knowledgeable but not wise, consider the conduct of some of the people currently running the country. 

Or as the great T.S. Elliot stated so beautifully, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” 

Whilst there are agreed freedoms to our curriculum; there are also core theoretical frameworks on which the curriculum is built, which provide strong foundations and direction for our work. One key example is the work of Psychologist Vygotsky, who stressed the role of interaction and engagement in learning and the role of the Zone of Proximal Development (the space between existing knowledge and skills and that which is not yet known or not yet achievable without scaffolds). These scaffolds may include a more knowledgeable “other” person, interactions with a teacher or other skilled adult, or other scaffolded activities (teaching interventions) which helps to move the child through the zone and share much common ground with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. There is a clear emphasis on the way that social interaction, collaboration and dialogue are crucial in helping children to actively engage with knowledge and make meaning. Across all aspects of our curriculum, there is a shared understanding that children need meaningful opportunities to actively engage with knowledge and the importance of dialogue and social interaction as scaffolds in the learning process. 

These meaningful opportunities are provided by projects based on “driving questions” which seek to create a genuine and authentic context for children to engage with knowledge and to use that knowledge to solve semi structured problems. The project rubric sets out the subject specific knowledge that children will need in order to access the problem to be solved and identifies the skills that children will need to apply.  Children are given opportunities to discuss and interrogate knowledge, to work with experts, to assess the relevance and reliability and to consider the context of knowledge and its wider implications. In short, they are encouraged to become wise as well as knowledgeable. For Example, our year 4’s are considering why we explore space. They have a good understanding of the Scientific knowledge of the solar system and the planets but also are thinking deeply about the ethics of space travel, what can be learned from space travel and who should learn it? The ethics of this project will build on prior learning about both conservation and the planet and on colonisation and imperialism. Our children consistently demonstrate that they are not only able to understand challenging concepts but that they thrive on this level of debate. They are able to “respectfully disagree” with each others’ views in a way that puts many adults to shame. 

As experts in the field of English and winners of the UK Literacy Association School of the year, we have given deep consideration to the design principles of exploration and enquiry within the English curriculum through Reader Response Theory and in particular the work of Wolfgang Iser. In The Implied Reader he explains reading as a “dynamic process”  and describes the way the reader brings his imagination and predispositions to the text so that the process is a two way interaction between reader and text. “The reader sets the work in motion and this very process results ultimately in the awakening of responses within himself. Thus, reading causes the literary work to unfold its inherently dynamic character.”

In practice, this design principle applied to our Novel Study Curriculum means that there is an emphasis on children’s personal responses to text and the skill of teaching children how to construct a wider sense of meaning through exploring the component parts of text. The analysis of text is challenging and dialogic in nature from an early age and children are taught the skills they need in order to substantiate their views, how to quote from text meaningfully, how to identify theme, how to make links within a text and across their wider reading. Of course there is also a fundamental need for children to have a secure knowledge of the language and context of their reading as well as a deep knowledge of how texts work and literary devices, all of which are taught expertly and systematically across a challenging, wide ranging and progressive text based scheme of work.  Each text is meticulously planned through the vehicle of a learning journey which makes clear the subject specific knowledge, context and language alongside the specific reading and writing skills to be taught and developed. 

But… what is really exciting, is to hear the children engage in dialogue around the “big questions” brought into existence by the text and to watch the world open up before them as the text becomes the springboard into something magical and far beyond the scope of any objective. For example, our children can trace a theme like “magic” and “otherworldliness” across texts such as Skellig, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Mid Summers Nights Dream and can talk eloquently and meaningfully about, the questions and content this technique allows the author to explore and the overall impact of a theme upon the reader. 

This design principle shapes both the direction and pace of our curriculum maps as we seek to move children towards a place of deep or embedded learning. As children move from novice to mastery (or move through their zone of proximal development) they become more able to apply and manipulate their knowledge, to test their knowledge based theories with their peers and therefore scaffolds are reduced. This is also the space where enquiry and exploration play a crucial role in deepening learning. Our curriculum aims to provide opportunity for children to interrogate knowledge, ask questions, challenge commonly held beliefs and to therefore become active agents in their own learning, or “co constructors of knowledge” as suggested by Vygotsky. 

Robin Alexander exemplifies this design principle expertly in his book Towards Dialogic Teaching in which he advocates the role of language and communication in scaffolding understanding. E.g the Vygotskian belief that we learn through talking. He suggests that reliance on purely expository styles of teaching is playing safe and “reduces the risk that the limits of our subject knowledge will be tested, still less exposed. It makes it unlikely that awkward questions about evidence truth and opinion will interrupt the flow of information from teacher to taught.” I like to think that our curriculum gives space to explore and embrace the “awkward questions” about knowledge and life and for children to come to a place of their own understanding. 

In education and in life, I feel that we often  gravitate towards polarised arguments which present us with an either this or that decision to make. We are either traditional or progressive, knowledge rich or skills based. This is unhelpful on many levels. It simplifies the complex process of learning and curriculum  and strips us of our wisdom. In my last blog I talked about the process of supporting curriculum development with other schools and organisations and how important it is to start with WHY? (For those of you who haven’t read the Simon Sinek book on this I highly recommend it). In considering this WHY we are forced to consider the purpose of the curriculum as a reflection of our organisational values. Do we want our children to be knowledgeable as an end game? Do we want them to be able to apply their knowledge? Or do we want children who can “locate themselves within the unending conversations of culture and history” (Robin Alexander) 

There is power in knowledge, that is true but ultimately it is our humanity which will turn knowledge into wisdom. 


The Intentional Curriculum


The Intentional Curriculum

The new Ofsted draft framework has put the curriculum back at the core of the inspection process, which will inevitably act as leverage on the priority curriculum takes within schools. In a recent blog for Innovate My School,  I wrote about the pressure on leaders to improve schools rapidly, league tables, budget challenges and the high stakes inspection culture of Ofsted, which can result in leaders outsourcing curriculum design in favour of off the shelf schemes of work and resources. Not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with off the shelf products! In fact, both my schools use a handwriting scheme and phonics scheme as I’m sure do many other primary schools. The issue for me is more that an over reliance on the flat pack curriculum has caused a lack of leadership confidence in the  self build process. Yesterday The Times published an article about the lack of impact the Singapore maths style curriculum has had on British pupils performance. I sincerely hope this is not true as many schools I know have spent thousands on textbooks and training to resource this approach. It is however, an example of what can happen what schools abdicate ownership of curriculum design. Mary Myatt describes this so beautifully in her book The Curriculum and specifically within the chapter on curriculum coherence. “The curriculum is more than the timetable. It is about having thoughtful conversations with colleagues about the curriculum map for the pupils in their school.” The danger however is when there are no clear design principles or approaches acting as the foundations for the curriculum and not enough leadership expertise in how to go about the process of curriculum design or enough diverse models of curriculum design to act as worked models. We have in many ways, deskilled ourselves in the process of curriculum building.

It seems to me that we could begin by asking the right questions about our curriculum intent. For example… What is the purpose of our curriculum? How does this connect with the bigger picture of our school and organisation? How does it align with our ethos our values and our moral purpose? I think, simply put, we need to go back to our WHY? Whilst I’ve always believed in starting the design process by looking at the bigger picture and connecting back to purpose and values, Simon Sinek absolutely nailed it in his book Start with Why where he references the importance of starting from the inside out. How clearly can we articulate the purpose of our curriculum? Why is it constructed as it is? If we can get clear on this it makes it easier to move outwards, towards what we want the curriculum to deliver and how this works. 


The recent RSA article “Education for Enlightenment” speaks eloquently to this question of the higher purpose of the curriculum.

“That means inducting them into the great conversation of mankind – the unending dialogue between the living, the dead and the yet-to-be-born. It means introducing them to the best that has been thought, said and done, and equipping them to appreciate it, interrogate it, apply it and build on it. It means providing them with a more complete and generous education – an education in academics, aesthetics and ethics, or, as we refer to it at the RSA, an education of the ‘head, hand and heart”. Now THAT is an ambitious intent!

A wise old head that has since retired gave me some great advice when I first stepped into headship. He said “Get the provision right, be clear about what you want to teach them and why and everything else will follow”. In my career as a headteacher and NLE, I have been lucky enough to support many diverse schools in the process of curriculum design.  In my current role, I have been head teacher and then Exec Head for 11 years and during that time, slowly built, from the foundations up, a curriculum which is successful, reflects our school vision and is founded upon key design principles which we have shaped and honed over the years. I think it is the self built nature of what we do that attracts visitors and requests for support. We essential teach three things really well, Novel Study,  maths and Project Based Learning. It is through this core that the schools values, well being curriculum and design principles consistently flow.

curiulum map

Communication has been centrally placed within our model as it is the foundation that allows children to both demonstrate and develop their knowledge as well as being fundamental to learning, self expression and to enhanced life chances for all our children.

We recently reviewed our design principles with all the staff across the trust as part of our professional learning day in January. As a leader, I hoped that there was a shared understanding of our curriculum and its foundations and it was a joy to hear that there was not only a common understanding, belief and commitment to the principles but that there was a deeper sense that this is who we are as an organisation, it is part of our DNA.

Having clarity over the design principles of our curriculum has helped enormously in developing a sense of coherence and teacher self efficacy that leads clearly into what we teach and how we teach and assess it. For example the principle of teacher as designer is one that we hold dear to both curriculum and ethos. It is a design principle rooted in respect for the craft of teaching, the belief in the professional skills of teachers and their first hand knowledge of the children and their ability to plan and sequence learning effectively. It is because of this design principle that projects are constructed, tuned and evaluated by teaching staff each term. Do they pluck content out of the air? Of course not, projects are largely based on the national curriculum but designed to reflect the big and authentic questions about life that we want children to engage with, the specific subject knowledge we want them to acquire, and the context specific and generic skills which will lead to a deeper understanding. This also reflects one of our six design principles of PBL – authenticity. We want the children to engage in a meaningful and rich dialogue about the world in which they live.

The design principle of deeper learning is one that echoes throughout all areas of the curriculum and is a reflection of the thinking on curriculum by many experts whose thinking we admire. Tim Oats compelling reason for removing levels as part of the national curriculum review expressed “The new national curriculum really does focus on fewer things in greater depth,” it emphasizes key concepts, key ideas and is full of skills.”




This is also beautifully explained by Ron Berger in his book “An Ethic of Excellence” which is one the core texts underpinning our PBL curriculum. This means we place high value on children really demonstrating a deeper understanding of what is being learned and how they expresses their knowledge and thinking carefully about our ongoing assessment of this. We use a system of teacher designed rubrics which make both the sequencing of knowledge and skills clear and how this project connects to prior learning.

pbl 2

The rubric also makes clear the overarching skills that the children will be learning that are relevant within the knowledge base and context of this project.

The knowledge and skills are connected by the driving questions that we want children to answer. These driving questions are important in that they reflect our curriculum “Why” and the belief that all children are capable of engaging in authentic and challenging questions about life that light the fire of motivation and drives their acquisition of knowledge and their spirit of curiosity. Careful thought is given to the layering of skills and subject specific knowledge and how this should be sequenced for each project so that children have the tools they need to move towards a deeper and more independent consideration and application of the material as part of their final project outcome.

Of course there are implications for leadership here. How well developed are our approaches to instructional leadership? How much time as leaders have we made to consider engaging staff in the dialogue on curriculum intent? How much professional learning do we need to do in this area?

Some of the questions that have been helpful in reflecting on curriculum at leadership level: 

  • What is our vision, our why for the curriculum? Does our current what and how reflect this?
  • What would our overarching design principles be? Does everyone understand these?
  • How is the material going to be structured and sequenced with a clear rationale?
  • How well do we identify the subject knowledge and relevant skills to be developed?
  • How well is learning connected – how do projects, units of work or program of study build on prior learning?

I don’t believe in advocating PBL, Novel Study or in fact any curriculum approach as an off the shelf package for other schools, who will have to consider their community context and needs of their pupils at the very least. What I am passionate about though is making sure that all schools and leaders have the confidence, capacity and freedom to become the architects of their own intentional curriculum choices. If this is the opportunity that arises out of the current educational landscape and proposed Ofsted framework, it may in fact turn out to be the shift in mindset away from curriculum narrowing, that will ultimately benefit all our children.

21st Century learning Through Courageous Leadership

First published on the Innovate My School Blog

We live in age where there is unprecedented pressure on schools and school leaders. The pressure of a challenging and ever changing ofsted framework, budgets which are paper thin, progress measures which force us to compare our pupils with other children nationally and some of the most academically stretching testing expectations ever. It’s enough to make the most experienced of school leaders crumble. Set against this context, it is easy to see why many school leaders are turning to formulaic and rigid schemes of works and practices that promise to drive up pupil outcomes and produce the goods in terms of pupil attainment. And yet against this backdrop of scrutiny and testing what know about the world our children will be entering, is that not only is it rapidly changing, but that it may be unrecognisable from the world that many of us started our careers in. It would seem obvious that a forward thinking mindset and a culture of innovation and creativity will best prepare our children for the future.

The World Economic Forum recently published “The Future of Jobs” outlining the skills that will be most needed by 2020, and guess what? Social skills are leading the way. In a world where technology seems to be king and the power of social media is ever growing, it is our human connectivity and ability to build relationships, will decide who is ready for the new world. “Overall, social skills such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills.”

Clearly, there is a moral and professional imperative here to make sure that children leave our schools prepared to enter this job market. There is a huge temptation to concentrate on knowledge and rote understanding of process rather than what is commonly referred to as 21st century learning skills such as communication skills, critical thinking and creativity which match much more closely what employers are saying they are looking for in their employees. The challenge for leaders is not to succumb to whatever currently fashionable maths textbooks or phonics drill schemes that are currently being pushed by MAT’s and LA’s, particularly for schools where rapid improvement is needed.

In this climate we need courageous leadership more than ever. We need leaders who will show up, lead with their values and ensure that they fly the flag for pedagogy, innovation and the craft of teaching and learning. It requires us to take risks, in the name of genuine learning and growth and when the stakes are high, this is a lot to ask of leaders. I understand this pressure. We set out on a journey towards project based learning, creative novel study and immersive learning practices 9 years ago. We have stood by our belief in 21st century learning skills and a curriculum in which the principles of teacher design, innovation, mobile technology and Oracy are our drivers. We were the first stand-alone academy in a Labour stronghold authority. A decision that was made in order to create more freedom and facilitate more curriculum innovation. In 2016 we faced the challenge of explaining this less conventional curriculum to an OFSTED Team (and came out with outstanding).

As a result, our children are confident and well rounded. They articulate their views with clarity and appreciate that others will not always agree with them. Through project based learning, they have wrestled with some challenging questions that I think many adults would struggle with and done so articulately and with confidence. What is a refugee? What defines me? Why do we explore space? How does my behaviour affect myself and others? If ever I was unsure of the path we have taken it only takes a visit to an end of project exhibition, often held in art galleries, theaters, libraries, farms, shopping centres and any other authentic location, to reassure me that we have done the right thing for the children. Brene Brown states in her epic text Rising Strong,  Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.”

If this makes me a disruptor, so be it. Perhaps this is also a 21st century learning attitude to be celebrated.

So what advice would I give to other leaders in the courageous pursuit of their vision?

  1. Find your tribe. Somewhere out there will be someone on the same journey as you, perhaps further down the line. Find them and learn from them. Most leaders will be receptive to this conversation and realise that is is in the interest of their own development also.
  2. Social media is a double edged sword but there are golden nuggets of information on twitter, pinterest and some blogs that have literally changed my thinking over night.
  3. Take risks, when we first started on the project based learning journey we made huge mistakes,projects that didn’t work and setbacks that felt like failures at the time. They weren’t failure,s they were just valuable steps on the path
  4. Challenge your thinking about traditional school structures and timetables. We hold a peer coaching project tuning meeting before school for all teams which is our key driver in monitoring and shaping projects as they develop. It is a short, sharp, learning focused coaching session, held when staff are fresh and at their best first thing in the morning.
  5. Visiting other schools and reading about others curriculums can be inspiring but remember that they will need to be carefully shaped and adapted and may not work with your children. We have many visitors during the year from other schools and leaders, some of whom just want to replicate what we do in their own schools. What I tell people is that our curriculum works because of the deep understanding we have of the pedagogy that are the foundations for it. It takes time and commitment.
  6. Visit the places where you are likely to find inspiration and meet inspiring practitioners. Shows like BETT, research and learning focused conferences, microsoft roadshows and of course Innovate My School are great places to start.
  7. Put innovation into context, what is that your area has to offer, what is that will inspire the children in tour context, what great organisations are right on your doorstep?
  8. Ask for help from outside of the traditional educational sources and don’t be afraid to approach the big players. Our children have worked with Microsoft, Apple and John Lewis to name a few!
  9. Create opportunities for all those involved in the organisation to share the great ideas that they have had in the shower that morning! Maybe you have a suggestions box, creative brainstorming meetings, future thinking planning sessions or other ways to listen to your teams. Someone in your organisation might have a the seed of an idea that will be your next great innovation.
  10. Disruptors get a bad press sometimes. Try and remember that the pursuit of change is the pursuit of growth and channel the energy of your disruptors into creative projects and research that will drive your organisation forward. The world needs disruptors as much as they need those that thrive on order and towing the line.  




I am Not a Slave Girl

At every moment, a woman makes a choice: between the state of the queen and the state of the slavegirl. In our natural state, we are glorious beings. In the world of illusion, we are lost and imprisoned, slaves to our appetites and our will to false power. Our jailer is a three-headed monster: one head our past, one our insecurity, and one our popular culture. Marianne Williamson.”  (A Woman’s Worth)

My wonderful friend and coach, Nikki Armytage, introduced me to this quote recently and there has scarcely been a day since then that it has not been brought to my mind. Obviously the quote itself is just words, but the reflection, discussion and soul searching that these words have prompted run deeply with me, both as a woman and as a leader.  

For me there are two lenses through which I have thought about these magical words. Williamson implies that as a woman, our natural state is is to be in our power, be present in the moment and be free from limiting beliefs and stereotypes. We become ‘slaves’ when we lose sight of this truth and allow ourselves to be caught up in the limiting beliefs of ourselves and others, when our light becomes dulled by fear and insecurity, living in the past and the future, worrying about of what has and might go wrong. We are, in essence, enslaved by the thoughts and beliefs of others and even more worrying, our own.

And then there is the prison of our own slave girl behaviour…stop and think about this for five minutes. How many ways have you served others at the expense of yourself? How much running around, worrying about what other people are thinking, trying to fix things, trying to be all things to all people in all areas of your life. It is exhausting. As women we are socialized to care, to serve, to nurture, but what is the cost of this for our own souls? How much time and energy are wasted and how much stress is caused by the prison of slave girl thinking.

As a leader I know I have fallen prey to salve girl thinking. The process of leadership is for me very closely intertwined with the desire to make a difference and the human relationships that surround that. The concept of servant leadership is one that is both seductive and dangerous. The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.

I’m sure that there are very few of us in leadership roles who would disagree with that. We joined the profession with the desire to make a difference and to be connected to and part of something bigger, we followed our values into a values led profession and from there found leadership as a calling to live and serve those values on a bigger scale.

Servant leaders focus on the needs of the organisation and the communities they serve first and foremost and on developing the people within the organisation for the greater good of the whole community. This resonates strongly with me, and I am sure with the majority of leaders and teachers within the profession at all levels. However, if we think about the concept of servant leadership as a spectrum, there is a danger zone in the crossover between ‘servant’ and ‘slave’ which leads to the  unsustainable, damaging and limiting set of beliefs described above.

I see the women around me running themselves ragged with their slave girl thinking and slave girl behaviours in the mistaken belief that they either doing what is required for the role and the profession or that they are just trying to make everything work and keep the their worlds in some kind of order. I have taken to asking my Heads of School the question “Are you a slave girl?” When I can see and sense their desire to do too much for others and take responsibility for issues that are not theirs to fix. I have taken to asking myself the same question when I catch myself running around the country, trying to be in all places at once, to solve all problems that present within the organisation , to make things work that are essentially broken and to make sure that that everyone is happy, growing, thriving even. The cost of this is  almost too deep to explain.

When we try to take the responsibility for fixing people, problems and things, then we deny others the powerful opportunities learned from failure, we deny others the growth that occurs when things go wrong and we deny others the learning experiences of managing their own lives, mistakes and responsibilities. A very wise woman once said to me, “Annemarie, if you lie down on the floor, even the most loving person in the world will walk over you.” So I would like to redefine servant leadership as that which serves the best interests of all, but not at the expense of some. And I would like to challenge anyone who feel weighed down by the invisible burden of their own self limiting slave girl beliefs and behaviors to just stop, re evaluate the areas in your life in which you feel enslaved and the teach yourself the mantra. I am NOT a slave girl.

The most important and profound part of what Marraine Williams says, for me,  is  that at EACH MOMENT, we all have the CHOICE between the state of the slave girl and the state of the queen.

I know which I will be embracing in 2018.