Professor Sir Tim comes to Scotland.

It has been a long week; full of the usual strains that come with leadership in times of austerity.
A couple of unsettled nights caused by irrational worry and a poorly child.
So, on Thursday morning when I woke up tired and snow was forecast, I almost gave up on the idea of driving to Glasgow after work to hear Professor Sir Tim Brighouse speak.
But I am so glad I did not give up. Two things gave me the impetus to go: the memory of living in the Outer Hebrides and feeling frustrated that I could not access events such as this without a 2 day round trip and the knowledge that Sir Tim is a partner in crime of David Cameron (the real one) who is a virtual mentor and inspiration to me.
So off I went. Initially I nearly ended up lost in the Clyde Tunnel but rerouted, got parked and made my way to one of Glasgow University’s finest old buildings.
In a wood-panelled lecture theatre I came across other colleagues who had made the trek from Argyll, albeit via ferry and train and not over the Rest and Be Thankful. After a brief much needed catch up over drinks and nibbles we took our front row seats.

The event started with a wonderful introduction and homage to Sir Tim by Professor Chris Chapman. Chris explained the inspiration that Tim provided in his role as Chief Education Officer in Birmingham in the late 90s; inspiration given to both NQTs like Chris but also to the head teachers in the authority like the transformational
Chris Owen at Barclay Green who was fully supported in her mission to appoint good people and ensure succession planning.

Sir Tim lived and modelled the idea that educational leadership is a team pursuit, not an individual approach. He knew staff and his colleagues well – and often gave personal touches that helped grow loyal teams, such as a case of wine after an inspection! He was determined to get the ‘energy-sappers’ out of Birmingham
Tim believed in defining the fundamental rights to which every child was entitled.
Chris explained with huge fondness and respect the massive impact that Tim had made in leading improvement in the most deprived schools in Birmingham and then in London with the London Challenge….and thus the scene was set for the main man.

No sharp suit or PowerPoint here. A man with a pile of notes to which he referred on occasions and said that he would email to us, (as long as the shop had fixed his laptop), sharing his email address with us all.

And no PowerPoint was needed. I have rarely heard such a natural and engaging speaker and was transfixed by his gentle tone, humour, anecdotal exemplification and sharp intelligence and honesty.

He started with a nugget for the far-travelled of Argyll, in the hope that we might get at least one useful piece of information before returning home. It was this:

Red dot marking
Put dots in margin when the pupils are working in class
Explain what the dot means

Could mean:
I have spotted where you could have used a better word….
Go away and find out how
Can consult with others/ phone a friend.

(I have since learned that this is to be credited to the amazing Amjad Ali.)

He then went on to speak of chaos theory, butterfly theory, his family and context-related learning with added intoxication: the relevance to schools is that doing revision in the place where kids will sit exam can be really useful.

He went on to suggest that we plot elements of work in school on a graph:

Effort across one access and impact across other

Low effort high impact and high effort low impact are most interesting to look at
Get schools to rate/ put tasks on the graph.

Some tasks could go in both eg marking can be low effort and high impact or high effort and low impact.

Words to put in the axes:

He then moved on to the title of his talk:
“Post brexit, should there be a nationally agreed set of schooling purposes, policies and practices across this (dis)United Kingdom?”

He explained that there had been 3 key drivers for his speech:

1. Fascination with school improvement and learning

2. Mistrust of isolationist nationalism

3. Fascination for finding gaps in hedges
The answer to the question in the title was a categoric ‘yes’ and that our different systems should learn from one another, pool their best initiatives and make good ideas work within individual contexts.
He suggested that there needs to be a meeting of the first ministers of the 4 nations where they address the following:

1. What are overall purposes of education?
One idea may be that children think for themselves and act for others?

Sir Tim stressed that a broad brush agreement is needed.

2. Give an analysis of:
Governance and finance
How we treat and train teachers
Assessment (maybe British bac aged 18 marked by unis)

3. Preschool/early years and college

Written like this, the ideas and recommendations seem as if they could have been written in an essay or paper, presented in black and white and simply stated.

But the magic of Sir Tim’s talk came in the storytelling that accompanied the statement of these ideas:

  • The story of the sad school phobic pupil (him) from 67 years ago who changed schools and moved from a black and white world to one in colour because of a skilled and empathic teacher.
  • The story of Harry Rée, English educationalist, teacher and pacifist who undertook extraordinary feats behind enemy lines in World War One, even as a pacifist, by finding gaps in hedges: good leaders at any level try and dive through gaps in hedges of difficulty.
  • The history of the the decline of English education caused by over politicisation, a market-force mentality, parental choice and competition and Thatcherism – all leading to a distancing by the other nations.

Learn from one another. Play close attention to context. Decide what matters. Realise that Scotland, without academies and competitive league tables but with a strong focus on mental health and week being is ahead of England in PISA ratings.

I can’t begin to recreate the magic that Sir Tim created last night in this post. All I can say is that if you haven’t heard him speak and get a chance to do, seize it. Drive through snow. Skip dinner and fill up on drinks and nibbles. But do it.

So many thanks go to Sir Tim and all who helped to bring him to Scotland.



So I did a poll about mental health…

“If a member of staff in a school admits to stress/mental health issues they might as well be signing their resignation.”

This is a quote that I put on Twitter the weekend as a poll, asking people to say whether they agree or not.


  • A friend who is a teacher in England and whom I really trust said that to me.
  • I heard of a school leader who recently said that she had concerns over a prospective employee because she knows that she had suffered depression in the past.
  • I think that the virtual community of which I am a part is something of an echo chamber. The amazing, positive, empathic, wonderful people whom I engage with through #teacher5day, “HealthyTeacherToolkit” and other forums do not represent the whole of our profession. And that bothers me.I have written a lot on this matter and about how I think it SHOULD be. Rather than say the same things again I have copied some of my blogposts below.

Of course the poll was somewhat unscientific and I am sure that the wonderful researchEd crew and Tom Bennett may be pretty unimpressed:

  •  For a start there was no definition of what I meant by mental health.
  • I did not specify whether I wanted people with a medical diagnosis or the self-diagnosed to respond
  • And I did not ask the same question relating to physical health in order to make a comparison.I am hugely thankful to those who engaged with this and showed a shared passion to make things better. In order to protect confidentiality, I will not mention any names but you know who you are.

Here is the final result:



Unscientific or not, there is a message here. Thank goodness for that 65%. But 35% agreeing?

Many people also tweeted thoughts and several sent me longer direct messages.

And the  real value of this exercise was in these responses and stories:

  • Some teachers and leaders answered with a definitive “I do not agree” and talked about schools where the mental wellbeing of staff is prioritised.
  • Others talked of having experienced terrible treatment in one school only to find a sympathetic approach in another so that they could continue successfully in their careers.
  • Some teachers talked of having been dismissed in defiance of equalities legislation but without the resilience or support to challenge this; the law is one thing but invisible prejudice that cannot be proven is another.
  • Others spoke of being  forced into early retirement having shown vulnerability or having asked for support or reasonable adaptations.

And so on.

It seems clear that there are some amazing schools out there doing an amazing job. There is a lot to be learnt from them. But there are schools where there is room for improvement.

Some observations

The education of our children is not something to be taken lightly.

Having someone who is able to be nurturing, calm, positive, realistically optimistic and caring for children is vital.If you aren’t those things, you probably need to do some reflection on whether now is the right time for you to be working with young people.

But that is not to say that you can’t be all of those things and suffering from mental health issues. There are teachers who put on the act during the day but struggle out of school with stress. There are functioning, thriving depressives. There are those who experience anxiety but manage it.

Let’s be honest. If someone is suffering from a bout of severe depression, they will probably be incapable of putting everything needed into teaching a class of thirty adolescents.

But then again, so would someone suffering severe back pain.

Teaching is stressful and maybe those who are not mentally resilient are not best suited to be in a classroom under intense pressures.

But there are other options. Teaching adults. Teaching part time. A career break for recovery.

Absence in school through any type of illness is hard to manage. Getting quality supply can be difficult and absence can impact on teaching and learning. But school leaders can minimise absence through awareness of their staff members’ wellbeing, early intervention and by creating a culture where it is ok to ask for help.

The individual school context and ethos are key. If ethos is not right, it is this in itself that may lead to a person suffering mental ill health even if they had no issues previously.

If you hit me with a stick, I will suffer physical injury and distress. If you shout at me, bully me, exclude me, undermine me, I will suffer mental injury and distress.

In the long term, I (and others) would like to see the following implemented in order to ensure that moving forward, all schools are happy, healthy environments:

  • The inclusion in all leadership and headship development courses of modules on staff wellbeing management.
  • The inclusion in all initial teacher training courses of modules on managing emotional health and wellbeing in a high-challenge profession.
  • Awareness raising around equalities legislation that tells us that it is illegal to discriminate against someone who has mental health issues (current or past).
  • The development of education-specific occupational health teams.


In the short term, here’s what you can do, today, whether you are a head teacher or a dinner lady:

  •  Be reflective about your own assumptions and prejudices and learn about mental health, what it is and what it is not. Do a mental health first aid course or look at website like this:
  • Engage in all those behaviours and kindnesses that you teach your pupils about.
  • Challenge gossip and rumour about others.
  • Challenge bullying behaviour and cliques.
  • Avoid repeating certain clichéd phrases – for example “she’s off her head”, “he’s a psychopath”.
  • Watch out for each other and ask people how they are. Listen to the answer.
  • Challenge stigma.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Celebrate the wonderful diversity of your colleagues and embrace them for all they are, vulnerabilities and strengths.
  • Love the ones you’re with. You never know when they may not be there.


Just my ramblings, but based on some amazing interactions over the weekend…..

Thank you all.


Previous relevant blog posts:

Wellbeing update

Update: I have continued to write on a weekly basis, both on staffrm where I am now doing the #44week challenge and here on my blog. A while back, a mentor of mine raised the question of whether my honesty within my blogs may work against me in terms of one day securing a headship. He suggested that if potential employers read that I have a ‘tendency to overdo it’ and that I ‘push myself to exhaustion’, they may put my application onto the ‘no pile’ and look for someone who is less driven.

I have thought long and hard about this. I appreciate what my friend is saying and also still wonder whether there is a sense of solipsistic self-indulgence in my writing. But I am also committed to the idea that as teachers and leaders we have to be honest and self-aware and acknowledge that life has its challenges and ups and downs. If I were to write a blog with just the positives and perpetuate the myth that life is easy then I would buy into the deceit that I believe contributes to a cultural sense of unease and mental ill-health. There is more on this here and here.

The leaders I admire have acknowledged that leadership and success are hard-earned and that there is often rough with the smooth. Certainly the choice of speakers for the Scottish ‘Into Headship’ Spring Conference gave delegates the impression that Scotland is looking for educational leaders who are driven and passionate but also human, reflective and fallible.

And the words allegedly spoken by Tom Hanks are always a guiding force in my life: “The only way you can truly control how you are seen is being honest all the time.”

Don’t get me wrong. My blog is not all of me. There are things you don’t and won’t ever know about me if you read it. And that is as it should be.

But we need to understand ourselves and our motivations if we are to take on the hugely responsible job of teaching children and young people. And still more so if we are to take on positions of power and leadership.

We need to acknowledge that life is about both dark and light, yin and yang, positive and negative feelings. We are animals and have it within us to act with fear, anger, jealousy and hate. But the human in us means that we can consciously acknowledge those impulses and find ways to address them so that they do not cause destruction and harm. Honesty around this is the key to the wellbeing of our society. Perhaps if we had allowed more honest and open debate around the fears and doubts related to membership of the EU, we would have reduced the numbers of those who felt the need to grasp a stubby pencil in an anonymous polling booth and write an angry X in the wrong box. Maybe Boris and David need to reflect on this.

So for now, I will continue to be honest and human.

Because I don’t think I can be anything else.

Recovery and Rainbows

This week I was lucky enough to attend training to become a mental health first aider for young people. It was a hugely informative and inspiring piece of training and chimed a lot with my thinking on optimism, love and solution focused approaches. Some of my previous ramblings can be found here:

We touched on the issue of stigma and discussed how important it is to help children and young people understand that periods of difficulty, mental distress and even mental illness are far more common than they may think. Recovery is very much about recognising that wellbeing can be achieved after and even within such periods.

As the World Health Organisation says: “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

When I first applied for teaching jobs, the stigma around mental ill health was huge, largely (as I believe) in the wake of the Beverly Allitt case. She had been a state registered nurse who had committed a series of attacks and four murders involving children and babies and was believed to be suffering from the psychiatric illness Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Understandably, medical and criminal checks were tightened up hugely in the wake of this case but it meant that anyone applying to work with children had to give information about any mental ill health dating back 10 years. Ticking a box and confessing to mild depression while at school resulted in a friend of mine almost being refused a permanent teaching contract.

Things seem to be different now, thank goodness. We still vet those who work with children and the most vulnerable carefully and sensibly. There appears to be widespread understanding today, however, that you can suffer from depression, anxiety or even more serious conditions but still cope with life, hold down a job and make a positive contribution. And there. is also recognition that you can feel happy in between the dark periods….and maybe even overcome them completely. Broken for a while is not broken for ever.

I heard the wonderful John Timpson on Desert Island Discs this week, talking about his own experiences of stress and how talking about its debilitating effects has helped both him and others. What an inspiration.

I am sure that stigma still exists in some areas but progress has been huge since my early days as a teacher. Follow the right people on social media and you will know you are not alone.

From rain there can come rainbows. Save a picture of a rainbow…. literally or in your mind… remind you of the beauty that has existed and can exist again.

 Generation Leisure?

I few things have got me thinking this week and have resulted in me writing this post. I recently wrote a wellbeing update ( and received some very helpful feedback from @jillberry which included a suggestion that I watch this by @jasonramasami: I also read a very thought provoking post by Susan Ward ( ) and it all got me thinking about a lesson that my dad once taught me. It wasn’t one of those life lessons that takes place over a camp fire and stays etched in your memory for ever but rather a literal lesson; my dad served a double purpose in my life for a while as father and economics teacher. I had a brief flirtation with economics in sixth form. I started off doing A Level EPA (economic and political affairs) but being hopeless at maths sent the economics the same way as both physics and a career in medicine had gone a year previously. I decided to settle with an O level in economics and went on to do straight A level politics. However, I remember that dad …or rather Mr Bell…talked in an economics lesson about the fact that within our lifetime we would experience a shift in working patterns as technology created efficiencies that would result in more leisure time. The leisure industry would grow and people would work less because tech and IT would make it possible to achieve tasks in less time.

I do remember wondering about the subtle difference between having more leisure time and being unemployed…..however, there was clearly an economic model underpinning the ideas.

So, where has that Generation Leisure gone? It sadly seems to have become what the Guardian this week referred to as Generation K? What on earth is going on here? The article cites: “Life for us is hard. A struggle,” says Jake, 16, “I think we’ve got it much tougher than our parents’ generation. But we can’t give up.” Seemingly “British teenagers are among the most troubled in the world”: of the 42 nationalities surveyed, only Macedonian and Polish teens are less happy with their lot.” It reports that we have teenagers crippled by anxiety; about debt, about terrorism, about social relationships. But in fact the article does go on to give some hope, pointing out that teenagers generally value authenticity, connection and friendship.

There is no doubt that we live in a society that should have more free-time and where technology has created efficiency. Take a practical example. I am studying for the Scottish ‘Into Headship’ course which requires me to read a lot of academic literature. Twenty years ago, this would have probably required me driving to Glasgow (2 hours each way), going to a library, checking out each and every book and article (because they would have been the type that you could not take home), sitting and reading each one and taking copious notes. I cannot begin to calculate the time that this would have taken; time away from family, dead time travelling, time finding parking, time stuck in traffic. Today, I can click on a link in a virtual library and the book is here, on my laptop. I can read parts of it, go and put on a load of washing, come back to it, add notes electronically, spend an hour on a family walk, come back to it again.

Hours of my life have been saved in this way. I have hours more time that I can spend on leisure, with my friends and family, relaxing, meditating, right?

But actually, no. Because those hours that I have gained have somehow been hi-jacked by other things; learning Spanish, exercising, cleaning the house, trying once again to sort the finances. Doing, doing, doing……worrying, worrying, worrying.

Because the reality is that free time is SCARY. And space and quietness are times where the mind can ask those disturbing questions:

Who am I?

What is life all about?

Who do I want to be?

I would argue (and I know that others have done it more eloquently) that these questions are particularly disturbing in our now largely secular society where God, the church and the state no longer provide the majority with answers to questions about the meaning of life.

And so instead of trying to provide secular answers to the meaning of life and self, we have created a religion of busyness.

And it is not just an issue in the world of education. Read Ariana Huffington’s book ‘Thrive’. Read or watch ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ by Allison Pearson. And listen to John Lennon’ s ‘Beautiful Boy, written as long ago as 1981, where he said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

It is time to fight back. Because as educators, parents and people, we need to encourage Generation Leisure to learn how to live and be happy in the life they have. To know themselves and their minds. To self-regulate. To live with uncertainty and understand the things they can be certain of. To embrace the best in social media and to reject the rubbish.

There is a growing movement who are working hard to take this forward. They include the ‘#teacher5aday group, the #optimisticEd group, those who are fighting to raise the profile of PSHE (including Dr Pooky Knighstsmith @PookyH) and of course the man who now goes by the title ‘my favourite Doctor’, Dr Tim O’Brien and his book ‘Inner Story’; you can read my review here:

Back to Mr Bell and economics. Another lesson led me to the work ‘Leviathan’, written by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 which referred to state of mankind when unregulated as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Over 300 hundred years later and our lives (at least in the Western world) are far from this. Yet, reading about Generation K, we might be led to believe that they are.

Let’s stop and see the wood amongst the trees. And let’s hold on to Jake’s optimism:

“…we can’t give up.”

Happy International Happiness Day.





It can be done. Inspiration from Karin Chenoweth.

Yesterday I had the tremendous good fortune to attend a lecture and masterclass with Karin Chenoweth ( The event had been organised by SCEL and I had been invited on the basis of having done ‘Into Headship’ last year.

 As Gillian Hamilton, CEO said in her welcome, Karin is a writer/author whose titles say it all:

  • Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools
  • How It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools
  • And (due in 2017) It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools


I was initially a little suspicious; how can someone who is not a teacher tell us teachers about what works in schools? And what can learning from schools in the USA tell us as educators in Scotland?

I soon realised that my suspicion was naïve and unfounded. As Karin explained, she has worked for over twenty years with the leaders of schools in a large range of schools where all children have been able to learn and succeed. She explained that she has encouraged those leaders to write themselves but that they have been largely reluctant; thus she has been their mouthpiece. She is eloquent, passionate, human, funny and research and evidence-based. And everything she said about what works in America could equally work in Scotland.

As those who know me and read this blog will know, I have felt doubtful of late about whether I can or want to lead a school. I have written about whether I am too idealistic ( and how I sometime seem to be at odds with those with whom who I work ( and (

But Karin yesterday and the colleagues I was with made me feel validated. Maybe we were in some sense in an echo-chamber and hearing what we wanted to hear? However, Karin’s messages had an international perspective and were developed from her observations in such a range of settings that I would conclude that we were not.

 This blog post is as much a summary (in note form) of what Karin said. This is partly for my online friend Christine who wanted to be there but could not attend. It is also an admittedly self-indulgent opportunity for me to reflect that my beliefs and values largely correlate with what Karin said.

 Largely ….but not completely. There are a couple of things that made me think, question and realise that some of my beliefs need re-examining.

This is what I heard Karin say: others may have heard or interpreted differently and I sure there will be other posts about the day. If you want to know more, look at Karin’s website and read her books.

Karin began by asking us about our thoughts on how many children as a percentage can read at an expected standard in our school. She also asked us to think about how many pupils in our school are living in poverty. I had a terrible moment of realising that I don’t know the answers! (First note to self – find out!)

As the morning went on, I realised that actually the answer to the first question (with certain provisos around pupils with complex additional support needs) should be “they all can”.

Karin’s presentation was based on real life case studies in schools where that answer has been the driving force in the transformational leadership approach. These are the schools that have bucked the trend in terms of the expected correlation between poverty and success.

We heard about real schools and real people. We saw photos, watched videos and heard voices and ideas.

We heard about George Hall Elementary in Alabama where Terry Tomlinson turned things around and achieved extra-ordinary things.

We heard about Artesia high school. Los Angeles where Sergio Garcia took over and results went up from 600 points (way below average) to 800 (up there with the wealthiest schools.)

We heard that when Karin had asked Sergio to say what he had done over ten years to make changes, he had answered: “No one has ever asked me that before.”

For Karin, this was a clear indication of how insular education can be and she encouraged us to consider:

Do we have a system in Scotland for learning from the outliers?

Karin explained that in 2007 she had produced her book about 15 high performing schools and had summarised the 25 common characteristics of those schools. Above all, she had discovered that the most important factor for making a school a success was that it was a nice place to work (even in tough schools). In the US teachers are paid according to the wealth of their individual area but teachers would stay on low salaries to be in a nice school rather than go to a higher paid job in a school with a less pleasant working environment.

Feedback from teachers to Karin after her book was that they needed more on how to make the changes

So, in 2009, she brought out her book on HOW it is being done

In this, she outlines the 5 key processes that inform the HOW:

  1. What pupils need to know is clearly defined

She said that often, there is too much too much confusion around this- teachers teaching what they want to teach and what they are comfortable with.


For example – often elementary teachers like reading and skip maths! This is not ok. Flow from 1 stage to another is key; knowing prior learning and building on it.The establishment of state standards key to excellence. (Here I had an internal groan. CfE? The latest benchmarks? How do they fit with this idea? )

 “You can teach anything but we are teaching for excellence” said one leader in a video that Karin showed.

Poor students may have limited vocabulary and experience and this impacts on learning and knowledge; we need to build a knowledge base and vocabulary in a systematic way.

She spoke of the Matthew effect: “To those who have much, much is given”.

If kids have vocab they can build more and read with more understanding. If they don’t…

Ricardo LeBlanc Esparza on children in poverty:

Children living in poverty often have a small world: local neighbourhood, aunts and uncles are only experience. Their holiday is the feed lot and they have limited access to vocab and experience.

(Internal thoughts here and question which I never got to ask: How do we work with the parents and families to explain this thinking without coming across as judgemental and dismissive? Or do we just assume that anyone living in poverty wants better for their children? The very wise Chris Kilkenny may have thoughts on this:

  1. Teachers collaborate on what they need to know

Most important factor in learning is class teacher but paradox is that no one teacher can do it all. C.f. the world of medicine- no one surgeon can do all surgery. He may be able to do heart surgery but not knee surgery.


Karin suggested that medicine needs to move from an ‘isolated cowboy’ to ‘pit stop team’ approach and so does education. Teachers must pool knowledge and pedagogy and leaders must make time to allow for this.

(Lots of resonance with this:

  1. Assess frequently- not to grade but to get feedback.

Did they learn what I taught? If 50% did not get it, you are not a bad teacher, you just need to try again. The “I am a bad teacher” approach allows excuses. We need to constantly reflect and learn – mistakes are ok.

Assess via feedback forms, surveys etc. Not always just testing.

(Much resonance here with Assessment is for learning and intelligent use of relevant data:

  1. Use data to inform instruction.

Do not stick with what is easy / convenient. If it is not working, do something different.

  1. Relationships are key.

Teacher to teacher. Teacher to pupil.


Expose your vulnerability.

“I’m not perfect”. Ask someone else “what are you doing?” (Resonates with:

Ways to build relationships include:

Morning meetings

Hugging (Resonates with:

 Pupils need to know that teachers care. They do have relationships with families but need them with teachers too. (Resonates with

Karin showed us a powerful clip of a teacher who went to the school he now teaches in. He came from a background of poverty but has gone into education to make a difference and show that it can be done: he spoke of how a “relationship of expectations” is needed.

Karin then went to point out that you can’t JUST do the relationships. The hard work on the learning and pedagogy is crucial too.

She advised us to look at research that backs these ideas up from: Daniel Willingham and John Hattie in particular.


Hattie talks about picking interventions that have impact and a significant effect size.

Someone in the audience asked a question about ASN and benchmarks. Karin spoke of the need for tiered intervention

80% should get it with basic intervention. 20% may need a targeted intervention in a specific period.

5 to 10% get even greater targeted intervention.

(Here I nudged my friend Jay and whispered ‘Staged Intervention’. During my secondment I revised and re-launched our authority policy on staged intervention and am committed to this approach. I am convinced, however, that for pupils with very complex needs (who perhaps do not attend mainstream schools in the US?) we do need different benchmarks, as advocated by Doran et al (Right help, right place, right time)).

She then went on to say that differentiation can lead to inequity. (Sharp intake of breath!)

If you say it is a different curriculum rather than different interventions to access same curriculum, it can lead to problems –   are we saying that certain students are less worthy of learning to a standard than others?

Eg her daughter was put into a middle set for maths as “it was the right set for her”. Karin said “fine” but asked that she should access the same curriculum and concepts as the top set- eg calculus.

In the end she was put in the top set and did fine!

According to Karin, differentiation should be about supports to access same curriculum, not a different curriculum.

(Big challenge to my thinking here an also perhaps to the thinking that allowed us to develop a system of National1 up to 5?). I have always considered that some children are National 4 ‘material’ for example, but what Karin says perhaps challenges this. I need to read more about this…..Note to self: get hold of Karin’s books and evidence!)

Next Karin went on to talk about how leadership matters.

Karen said this in early book and has since (with some embarrassment) found that several others had already said it and evidenced it.

She said that the Rutter study (schools in London) is still very readable and relevant.

What is a talented leader?

Leadership involves taking “islands of excellence”

(for example one fabulous class amongst others that are not) and joining them to creating fractal patterns – a landscape of excellence.

She showed the leader who took the worst school in Minnesota and turned it round. He said that all kids are as good as any other kids.

Belief is key – all children can learn.


Leaders need to believe that teachers can teach and pupils can learn.

They need to ensure:

  • Quality of interaction
  • Growth mindset
  • High expectations whatever
  • Aspiration
  • Urgency and equity
  • Social justice leadership

The road out of poverty is through us.

Carol Dweck provides a research base on this.

If teachers feel they cannot do it they blame the kids and parents

Eg “look at his mother”.

“He does not do homework”.

If teachers do not have the pedagogical skills to do it in their classroom, it is job of the leader to help teachers.

Dysfunctional schools exist where teachers do not have the support they need to be great teachers and understand what that means.

Leader needs to help teachers to understand how to get the best for 100 % of the pupils.

One headteacher said “We never blame the kids in the building. In fact we try not to place any blame.”

Look for solutions.

Belief is not enough but it gives you the energy to keep going when the hard work is needed.

This is hard work. If it was easy, we would have solved it by now.

For decades it has been enough to educate 70%. To assume that only 70% can read to an acceptable standard.

There is no magic wand. There is no place for tinker bell- belief is not enough.

Time is needed but there is also an urgency to it.

School processes need to be organised around beliefs but then need systems to support them. Children who need help don’t ask or look for it. You need to force them. It is hard if parents sue but in general they won’t!

Karin then gave us an example of a very poor school in Philadelphia. (I had a moment of memory here. I once lived in Philadelphia and one night got lost when driving. I pulled over to ask a policeman for directions and he said “Lady, you don’t wanna be driving round these parts in your car. It ain’t safe for you.” I had never in my life experienced such a moment of fear and disbelief that this was real and not just in the movies….)

99% black

99% poverty

New HT

Terrible school. Dirty, fights, chaos.


The head started with teacher data to see who was committed – she looked at attendance data for teachers. She saw that lots were taking off Mondays and Fridays

She looked at the committed ones first. Found good pockets – islands of excellence

She then built a master schedule (timetable) that was based on what needed to be taught and learnt by pupils and staff.

She created time for CPD – she began by leading it herself started but then handed over to others. It is important to develop the capacity of staff but we need schedules and systems to do it.

A leader needs a Master Schedule (timetable) that is based on what kids need to learn.

Eg if a school has a timetable that has been driven by the availability of a shared PE teacher, this is NO GOOD. (Eeek. Hard where we have staff shortages).

Teachers need time to meet together and collaborate

Leaders need to create time creatively- eg allow teachers to leave early one day a week and come in early at another time to meet.

Create powerful time- eg a really focused meeting for an hour can be key. (Here I thought of this powerful post by Susan Ward

Finding time can be problematic as schools can often be dictated to by buses/other schools in a community.

Eg one school wanted to set up a TLC but could not find time where the pupils were not in and could not change bus times!

In the end they had to work with canteen supervisors creatively.

School leaders will need courage and determination.

TLCs are about learning from data but often need discussion protocols so they don’t turn into moaning shops – eg look at data- say something positive, something negative and something you can learn from it.

Sometimes the leader needs to focus on the hard truths- eg if this child does not learn his letters now, he will end up in prison.

It can be easy for primary teachers to ignore these things as they just love kids!

Look at the challenges, get them on the table and cross out the ones you cannot control (attendance, parents) and then make an action plan with the ones you can.

Revisit the data and adjust the action plan after 2 weeks.

Use the data to identify the good, the bad and the ugly. Then work with the research to tackle it.

Teachers love some things but not others. Teaching is personal. But the scientific method means you have to challenge this.

Even if you love it, it may not be helping kids so you have to stop!!

We really need to look at what our Es and Os and what they mean. There is a lot of work in creating a coherent experience for pupils.

Sergio Garcia – schools are systems within systems within systems.

Leaders- Develop islands of excellence into patterns of excellence.

We can learn from the outliers in Scotland.


Summary messages:

  • Teaching and learning can change a society.
  • Keep trying and trying and trying.
  • Every child has a right to learn and be successful in life.

In the afternoon masterclass, we spent time looking at the tools that we might use to take forward this approach and discussing the challenges.

We talked about the need in many of our schools to look at not being satisfied with good (or perhaps ‘coasting’) when we could be excellent. We talked about issues of recruitment and a need sometimes to compromise on quality and perhaps avoid challenge in situations where staffing is fragile.

And we talked about the difficulties of creating a culture of reflection where staff may not believe in reflection (even if the professional standards laid down by the GTCS claim that they should!)

 I left the day feeling empowered, motivated and challenged.

For me, the next steps are to consider the following issues further:

  • Differentiation as the enemy of equity!! Where can I learn more?
  • Where can I find examples of the outliers in Scotland and learn from inspirational and aspirational leaders close to home? Lesley Whelan asked at the end of the day whether SCEL can help us with anything. This, maybe?
  • How do I challenge those around me who make me feel as if I am wrong and that they know best because they “know the family and she’s never going to do any better”(
  • How can I balance my impatience and sense of urgency with the need to allow time for things to embed?
  • How can I connect more with those from my authority who want to implement excellence? And how do we influence others around us?
  • Have I got what it takes?



Too idealistic?

This is a slightly edited repost of a previous post.

Some time back a colleague was upset by the way that we had handled an incident in school.  He quoted the idea that in the GP surgery there is a sign saying ‘we do not tolerate physical or verbal abuse’ and said that we should adopt the same zero tolerance approach to protect our staff and pupils.

I heard myself saying out loud the type of thing that I have only previously written in my blog posts (example here:; that much as the post office may like to create an illusion that people will never suffer meltdowns, get upset or shout on their premises, they are actually only helping to create a world that demonises those who struggle with self control or have a different  operating system. It did not go down too well.

Of course as a school leader I want school to be a place where staff and pupils feel safe, happy and where learning can take place I disturbed.
But I also want to lead a school where we all understand and accommodate the needs of others.
Where, when a meltdown has happened, we ensure that everyone gets a chance to debrief and learn; the staff and pupils who were present and the pupil who lost control. And I want staff to buy into that vision and approach and not see certain pupils as the responsibility of ‘the special needs’ department.
Is that asking too much? Am I too much idealist and too little realist? I have worried of late that I might be.

Recently we have been using a resource in school called “I Am Me” it looks to raise awareness of disability hate crime but also to explore general issues around inclusion and how we need to work together to allow all members of our communities to thrive. The resource consists of a brilliant film (originally a live play that toured schools) and associated workshop materials:

We have also looked at the teenage brain and ideas about peer pressure, the bystander effect and moral dilemmas.
But in spite of all the theorising and empathic discussion around the situation and character of Charlie, the autistic protagonist of I Am Me, we found out last week that a member of our community who has a learning disability and travels on the service bus that also serves as a school bus feels intimidated and harassed.
And so I talked to those pupils who take the bus. About Charlie and his community and then about this lady and us. I talked about the absolute need for us to see this as our challenge. And I think that the pupils took it on board.
Maybe just my idealism again…. But I do hope that things will change.
Paying lip service to inclusion is not enough. We need to help children to learn what inclusion really is by creating caring, comprehensive school communities where they can learn about each other’s strengths and needs. Where we don’t segregate pupils with additional needs and see them as someone else’s responsibility. Where we discuss challenges openly and honestly with all in the community and find solutions together.

In the eighties, Care in The Community became synonymous with austerity measures that were detrimental to the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our society.
I am absolutely committed to the idea, however, that schools can be at the heart of caring communities which are inclusive, compassionate and understanding.

If I am over-idealistic then I need to find another job. But I hope I’m not.