Repetition – not always the answer

‘If at first you don’t succeed, try try again’. We’ve all heard that mantra many a time especially while at school. After all what is homework if not repetition till you crack it? ‘Practice makes perfect’ is another .

However in some instances it clearly doesn’t work to keep doing more of the same. I can’t get out of my mind that awful statistic – only 30% of 16 year olds who fail GCSE maths and English in Year 11 (that is after 11 years of education) let’s face it, pass after retaking two years later! Clearly the repeat process however good the teaching may be is not working. More of the same is not the answer. Obviously maths and English are core skills essential for jobs and careers and productivity post Brexit. So as a country we must resolve this. We need our young people confident in their literacy and numeracy skills.

Why does it matter a lot? Well the self esteem for the young people for a start . To keep failing is definitely not good for you. More to the point they need these qualifications to secure a job. So what is the answer? We need to do something different. Try again yes but in a different way.

Teaching intensively in small groups maybe. Making functional skills exams count in League Tables maybe. Teaching through doing as the UTCs do in collaboration with business and industry. I’ve seen the latter work well. Youngsters who are not suited to classroom teaching do flourish and learn when the numeracy or literacy skill is required to make a product or complete a practical task. They are most certainly not unintelligent.

So while I applaud the recent emphasis on more students doing maths at A level, let’s focus as well on how we can ensure at least 90% of our young people leave full time education with a grade 4 or better still a 5 in maths and English. Then they can have choice in the labour market and everyone will benefit.

We need to be creative in our approaching of the problem. We need to be ambitious for our young people. They will repay the country big time.

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No going back to the Drawing Board for UTC programme

Definitely not!  We need to make high quality technical education work in the U.K.  We already have a model which is far and away better than anything we have ever given young people before.  That is the University Technical Colleges (UTC) programme. There are now 40+ of these Colleges open.  Yes, some are struggling which is what prompted Michael Gove recently to suggest starting again.  However there are seeds of success emerging and some real successful flowering,  preeminent amongst them Reading UTC which is rated Ofsted outstanding.  

This morning I was privileged to visit the London Design & Engineering UTC (LDEUTC) now in its first year and situated adjacent to The University of East London (UEL) in Docklands.  Still in temporary accommodation however both year 10 and 12 are full,  girls are well represented and applications for next year are more than 4:1 oversubscribed.  I met two students,  one in year 12 and one in year 10,  who travelled 90 minutes to LDE daily for the opportunities on offer and they all do a 9-5 day as with all UTCs.   LDE partnerships include the UEL of course, also LEGO, Fujitsu, Thames Water and others.  Opportunities abound for the students from these links.  Each student has a business mentor.  We saw students involved in their Extended Project Qualifications (EPQs) which are half an A Level all practical projects ranging from work with local primary school children in the Lego lab to working robotic arms to deliver products.  There was a bank of 3D printers nothing unusual there but never before have I been told they were made by the students!  This is fast becoming the most highly technical school in the country and they do not neglect the Arts.  Creativity is fundamental to design and engineering.  Students showed us a series of published novels produced in a week by year 10.  See more on National Book Day.  We are a nation of thinkers and designers so STEM must include the A for sustainable success. 

STEM initiatives need to bring in the girls and I suspect the inclusion of the Arts to make STEAM would help here.  Another initiative I came across recently from the Girls School Association (GSA) will take their physics teachers into local state schools to fill a vacuum that sadly exists.  Partnerships between schools whether state or independent are essential if we are to close the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged;  the town and coastal areas.  

As one of the Senior Education Advisers on UTCs from 2013-15,  I am well aware of the difficulties the model faces.  Recruitment at Year 10 is fraught.  It takes a lot to make a move at that age and local heads are naturally against.  I gather Year 9 entry is now being seriously considered.  It is easier to move schools after just two secondary years and gives enough time to adapt into a three year GCSE programme including industry wide projects.  This is sensible news.  The other issue was UTCs’  isolation.  To enable them to join Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) which contain a variety of schools would give the UTC a place for children from any of the MAT schools who would benefit.  Partnerships are essential for UTCs to blossom further and find their place as a valued pathway for our budding engineers.  

So look out for LDE on National Book Day and all UTCs in National Apprenticeship Week in March.  Let’s adapt an excellent initiative that is already benefiting our youngsters and British industry.  No going back to square one again.  


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Careers education for 4year olds

Well why not?  Children cannot aspire to something they don’t know about.  Careers education is after all about expanding horizons,  inspiring, exciting, explaining possibilities.  We need to remember young children form ideas and absorb stereotypes early,  apparently from 4 years old. So careers education needs to figure early too. 

Many a governors meeting I’ve attended has involved a presentation by the Careers Coordinator.  Excellent practice is explained but the focus is always on Post 16 and perhaps KS 4 if your lucky.  There is very little exposure for Year 7 and primary schools don’t even have a careers coordinator in the main.  So Richard Vaughan’s piece in the TES this week ‘Gender split fixed before school’ struck a chord with me.  

This is also something that was highlighted in my time at the Baker Dearing Trust (BDT)working with University Technical Colleges (UTCs) which provide high level education in technical and vocational subjects for 14-18 year olds, many specialising in engineering.    The latter a field in which we are seriously adrift in terms of recruiting in general and especially girls.  Certainly we found problems recruiting girls aged 14 to UTCs.  It was at best 80:20 male female ratio.  I recall a presentation on research showing girls in particular had fixed ideas by age 7  about gender specific careers that might be open to them.  These did not include engineering or construction for a start.  STEM subjects certainly were less attractive.  So no surprise that at aged 14 these ideas are firmly embedded and they do not consider such careers. Yet girls are equally good at these disciplines.  There is a real lack of understanding that engineering includes project management,  teamwork,  leadership skills,  creativity,  design as well as actual practical skills involving hard hats, high vis jackets and scaffolding (George Osbourne please note). 

Careers education involves at its heart bringing speakers into schools to meet young people of whatever age to tell them at first hand what their job, their career, their profession involves.  They need to know what apprenticeships are as well as HE progression.   I have never forgotten Julie White, CEO of DDrill a successful cement construction company .  She is a role model if ever there was one.  Get her and her ilk into primary schools and start to turn the tide away from gender stereotyping. Whether it be nurses or technicians,  pilots or architects, no one person, let alone a teacher who may never worked outside of education,  can guide on the proliferation of possibilities now available and these are growing with every technological innovation.  I liked the reference I heard recently of a group of 20-30 year olds who might be called the ‘precariats’.  They do menial jobs to keep bread on the table while they discover and create new careers not yet seen. 

Parents too are critical in careers education,   they do hold prejudices about what careers are suitable and for whom.  They of course are also a vital resource for talks as they themselves will represent a range of careers at least in some areas. Organisations like WISE and WES and others focusing on women in the STEM world bring vital resources into schools but please they need to extend their remit 4-14.  If they go into KS1,  they may find their jobs immeasurably easier in KS4. 

However we provide it for our children,  careers education must be all embracing of professions and jobs and reach down to our 4 year olds who will then grow equipped to make reasoned choices because they have the widest possible menu of opportunities in their experience.   Industry is crying out for apprentices and, as we have seen in UTCs, big and small businesses are prepared to come into schools and train young people and then give them a step up into their area of employment.  Young people cannot afford to be NEET and the country cannot afford to have NEETs. 

 We have not done well enough to date,  as the data shows stereotyping is as bad in the very young as it is in the teenage years.  Let’s give our 4 year olds the chance to learn and never think they are too young to start to hear about all the exciting options open to them. 


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School Governance – keep an eye on ethos and values. 

I’ve always believed in collaboration,  why wouldn’t you.  We can all learn from others and they from us.  That’s why I can never understand why successful schools are often reluctant to work with those facing greater challenges.  There is clear evidence that working together makes us better.  

However,  be that as it may,  I’m thinking about governance of schools and what is happening there. I was at a talk recently on governance across the business sector and the participants from big companies were exercised about emphasising culture and ethos from the top and not just the bottom line.  There seems parallels for those of us on school boards now especially as we are in the new academy/MAT world of independent trusts and governance.  Their message was clearly to be aware of the importance first and foremost of the ethos and values of the organisation.  In schools we know this instinctively but it does no harm to be reminded.  There are many a school that finds it hard to articulate succinctly what is is unique ethos and its values.

Time was when I would have made no such link between business and education.  When I first came into teaching all schools had a governing body probably 15 or so people from the community, teaching staff and parents. Committees were common place (note now being replaced by lead individuals) .  These governors made up and still do the largest volunteer force in the country.  Now wherever we look there is diversity certainly of structure as governance adapts to its new accountability but we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of our distinct culture. 

When I was at the Dfe we spent much time compiling a guide on best practise and I am sure the fundamentals remain the same.  No more than 12 governors is seen as optimum.  Staff governors are less in evidence but parents have recently been reprieved and rightly so.  One of the questions from ‘Tomorrow’s Company’ guidance asks ‘How are the changing expectations of key stakeholders being monitored to inform purpose and goals?’ Well parents are key and it is noticeable that their concerns focus today on safety and care and breadth for their children even before pure attainment. 

Things are changing in school governance. There is no harm in reminding ourselves as this happens and, as business is having to do,  that purpose and values and the culture they inspire needs to be at the heart of every school or MAT and the lead must be seen at the top.  MATs are devising differing models of governance often depending on the size of their groups.  Many have the Trust Board of say 6 or 7 trustees and each school has a local governing body (LGB). These latter may not have all the legal responsibilities of trustees but they still have to assure that the values and culture are being embedded and to embody it themselves.  Another question from the TC guide is as relevant to us as is to business: ‘What are the board behaviours we wish to encourage? ‘  In schools this can be visits to school to observe,  responsibility for certain areas of school life,  attendance at meetings,  also to question as much as possible.  Finally it is of course important to have a variety of skills at the disposal of the Chair and Principal/ CEO.  I leant so much from my governors. 

One MAT I know is putting in place regional governing bodies (RGBs) which sit under the main Trust.  Here the members have oversight of a number of schools in a given region.  It is no wonder that there is some talk now of paying members of local/regional governing bodies.  Being a governor requires expertise, time and effort.  It is a very rewarding role and must be valued and understood.  The expectations and responsibilities are great.  It is to be hoped that more individuals come forward from every walk of life to serve on school boards and bring breadth and challenge to the benefit of our youngsters in school. 

Education is not separate from any walk of life but it is central.  It behoves us to keep an eye out for any way we can raise standards and learn from others. 


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Languages – why ever not? 

‘As a nation we are poor at languages’. How often have we heard that and for how long?  We deplore it and want to be better but it seems that despite our good intentions and many initiatives we make little or no progress.   Are we lazy because generally other nations speak our language or simply poor at teaching languages or even genetically non linguists? Surely none of these. 

It has long been a hobby horse of mine that we should improve and indeed it is an embarrassment to me that I am no role model here.   

We see sports stars being interviewed on TV and wherever they hail from they make a good stab at answering in English whereas we …   I am full of admiration for Andy Murray for example.  He is a super star but I cringed when he was interviewed after the French Open earlier this year and he could utter not one word of French,  no not even ‘Merci’ while Novak  Djokovic spoke happily in French and English neither of course his native tongue.  

This week we reached our nadir with reports that A Level results showed the number of pupils taking languages at a record low. This included Spanish, Madarin and Russian,  never mind French and German which have been in long term decline.  We can hope GCSE results this week will be more positive as a result of languages being a core subject in the Ebacc.  However it is clear that even if there is a rising trend it is not feeding through to A level and beyond.  

Our lack of language proficiency is not for want of trying,  we have schools that teach some or even all of their curriculum through a modern foreign language.  Primary schools now all teach at least one foreign language.  It is to be hoped that these initiatives are just taking time to bear fruit.  I sometimes think it is the multiplicity of languages that confuses us!  If a primary school teaches Spanish and then feeds into the secondary school focusing on Spanish,  progress seems to get lost.  Apparently there is not a most useful language for us to focus upon sadly.  It used to be German for business,  then Spanish because it is spoken widely across the world and of course French because they are nearby.  Secondary schools frequently offer a carousel in Year 7 to give a taster before pupils specialise but this rarely delivers large classes when choices are made.  I gather that whatever language one learns is beneficial because it stretches our brains in a different way to other disciplines.  For this reason alone we should redouble our efforts.  This is also probably why those good at one language seem to learn others more easily.  

The answer must be  to learn languages young.  Look at youngsters who have bilingual parents who can swop bewtween languages with confidence.  Immersion has got to help so school exchanges should be encouraged.  Language teachers should be made especially welcome in our schools.  Latin provides a basis for understanding language and grammar and should not be discarded as ‘dead’.  Expectation that we can and will show respect to our neighbours across the world and learn to converse with them in their mother tongue as they do with us should be a given.   

Let us not lose heart.  Hopefully we will see  a rise  in the number of pupils taking GCSE languages this week.  I shall watch with interest and even enrol in a course myself.  Never too late but would have been better early!!! 


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Women- it’s time again! 

Three times this week I have seen the evidence highlighted that it is still a man’s world and that’s too many times to ignore. All my working life, some 40 years, I’ve been aware of gender inequality but felt the playing field must be levelling.   Apparently not,  50% of the population are still not properly represented in leadership roles and therefore not in ultimate decision making. 

In my own field of education where two thirds of teachers are female and in the very week we have seen Amanda Spielman appointed as Chief Inspector,  never mind Nicky Morgan being our Secretary of State,  it seems there is still a glass ceiling. There are the numbers in the TES this week:  there are a miniscule number of female CEOs and only 38% of secondary heads are women.  

Apparently it’s the same if not worse in business circles.  Very few women occupy executive positions on top FTSE 100 Boards despite all sorts of quotas, threats and cajoling to improve the situation.  Also depressingly there is a dearth of women at the level just below so the pipeline is not there.  There may be all sorts of reasons such as women preferring the flexibility of Non Executive positions or that their career paths tend to be less traditional, more ‘zigzag’ was the phrase I heard but it will not do.  We need the skills and attributes of all the population in the very top jobs. 

In my time as one of the few women CEOs in education,  I was regularly outnumbered in meetings and conferences.  It is sad that things have not moved on since then. Only recently at a round table discussion there were three of us to a dozen men.  

What to do apart from obviously more women putting themselves forward for top jobs?  I don’t favour quotas.  Role models and mentors are clearly critical. We need to encourage younger women.   Business also needs to be more flexible about pathways followed and embrace ‘zigzag’ routes.   Education to be more positive about the experience and importance of headship,  it’s a great and rewarding role.  We shouldn’t fear the responsibility.   There is hope with our new HMCI setting the tone that the climate will be more encouraging.  In schools we need to ensure girls as well as boys have pathways that open doors,  give leadership opportunities at every level,  do more leadership training as in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the CCF. 

Across the board we must redouble our efforts to reboot momentum and ensure gender equality at every level and walk of life shines through.  Together we do make the best kind of difference.  


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MATs – friend or foe

My experience is overwhelmingly friend.  So why the deep concern.  Here are a few of my reflections.

With the Secretary of State’s announcement yesterday there is time to stand back.  Since the Budget speech so much hype and news has been devoted to  academies and MATs and misconceptions do arise among the facts.  Let me say firstly I am not on the side of forced conversion.  That is unless the school is failing its children and then action should be taken and academy status in a MAT has frequently been shown to provide the answer.  We know children cannot wait.  Their education is immediate and every one of them deserves the best we can provide.
So what is good about MATs.   MATs are about collaboration not about structures;  they are a formal partnership between schools that believe by working together they can improve standards for all their youngsters.  They are invariably local groups of schools.  Even where the MAT may be national,  and there are only a handful,  they form into local hubs to work together.  The Chief Executive is more ore often than not an educationalist from an outstanding school in the group,  not a distant bureaucrat.  So accountability is local and firmly embedded in relevant experience. 

MATs increasingly have secondary and primary schools in their federation.  What could be better for students than a pathway option that is seamless from 3-18?  Thus avoiding the transition dip after year 6.   Having been Principal and CEO of such a Trust with 6 schools,  I know there is benefit for children and staff working across and smoothing this divide.

Good and Outstanding schools have been questionning what benefit there is for them to become academies and join Trusts.   Research has shown that good schools get even better when they share expertise.  There are more promotion opportunities working across a group for staff so retention is better.  Sharing of expertise from a good school supports the schools who are still on the journey and in so supporting staff gain very valuable CPD.  There is never a one way street either,   even schools in challenging circumstances have gems to offer their more successful partners.  It is all about the profession supporting itself through formal collaboration.  The formality gives sustainability,  the partnership in a Trust is not just there in the good times or in the short term.  You stand together. Successful MATs link their schools in as many ways and at as many levels as possible. 

Small schools in rural and coastal areas have nothing to fear from MATs.  I have seen small schools working together and enjoying mutual advantage from sharing of resources and staff.  Small schools are stronger in Trusts than standing alone.  You can have a local hub where schools are half an hours drive away or more.  See examples in the SW and in East Anglia. 

The future now is clearer and less contentious.  Academies in MATs are the preferred way forward but is up to the leaders in the profession now as it should be.  I hope more schools will consider setting up MATs of their own within and across their LA areas.  I hope more good and outstanding schools,  more small schools,  more grammar schools will grasp the opportunity and develop creative partnerships of their own that focus on bringing their combined expertise to the benefit of even more children.  They have so much to give. 

Every child deserves a good school.  How else shall we do it but through schools working together and leading the system. 

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Academies by the seaside. 

‘All academies by 2020’ – the debate on structures is already in full swing.  The question is can academies rise to the challenge and do the job education in this country needs?  That is not single academies but academies in groups or hard federations – Multi Academy Trusts (MATs).  The job we need them to do is to raise standards for those children still left behind.  The children in our largely coastal and rural areas and these are predominantly children on Free School Meals (FSM) or the Pupil Premium(PP) children and usually white British.  To a large extent the job is done in London and even in the other major cities but not everywhere. 

This issue was raised by me certainly four years ago and has had prominence since.  As a result there are initiatives attracting the best teachers and leaders to these more remote schools.  Organisations like Teach First and Future Leaders are also changing their focus to the coast.  These moves are all critical in bringing successful outcomes.  However children cannot wait.  We need multiple initiatives that together will impact in a major way to support coastal and rural schools and compete with London.  The problems they suffer from are a mix of disadvantages :  isolation,  lack of easy transport links.  Also lack of job opportunities which give youngsters something to aim for and also bring employees to the area who may have partners who want to teach ( let’s hope).  It is a different set of problems from inner city schools. 

So back to my initial question can MATs do the job better than Local Authorities (LAs)  have fared thus far?   In my view we need MATs that specialise in the schools on the coast or in rural England.   We need to build up such expertise just as we have done with successful academies in cities.  

One such MAT is the Bright Tribe Trust (BTT)head office based in Stockport ( neither rural or coastal) however it has taken up the challenge to transform rural and coastal schools and to do it at scale.  They have academy hubs developing in all four corners of England: from Cornwall in the South West,  to Suffolk in the East,  to Cumbria in the North West and now most recently in the North East.  Their model is school to school,  finding Executive Principals from nearby Outstanding schools to lead improvement. This way the solutions are tailored to the needs of the community and best practice is followed.  Local Governance in area hubs is being developed.  The curriculum model is skills based to ensure progression is inbuilt. Links to University Technical a Colleges (UTCs) and Career Colleges (CCs) bring STEM and career pathways to the fore.  Adventure learning is a specialism in the SW. Breadth through the co-curriculum encouraged.  At the heart is a ground breaking Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programme being developed as we speak.  This to value the staff in the Trust who are central to the aspirations and success of the youngsters.  It is relatively early days but the schools are moving forward.

Let’s build on this start,  see more Trusts wholly committed to disadvantaged children in remote areas and so give the youngsters wherever they live an equal chance of a great education and a career of which they can be proud.


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Research led by schools 

At last we are seeing an emphasis on research coming out of the profession for use by the profession.  It is the practising teachers after all who know what works and what is worth trying as well as what needs to go!

The TES this week had a double spread on the excellent Primary Space Camps initiated by Amanda Poole at Shrubland Street Primary School.  Goodness knows we need to inspire young scientists so they go on to further their interest in STEM careers.  Then there is the astonishing success of Hegarty Maths the brain child of Colin Hegarty an advanced skills teacher who has put his lessons on line and flipped his teaching to great success.

The idea of schools being research bodies is not new but has been very slow catching taking hold.  The original 15 City Technology Colleges (CTCs ) were each given a research and development brief as part of their remit in 1990.  We tried and tested a variety of initiatives from no staff rooms to 1 hour lessons.   At Haberdashers’  one initiative was to encourage staff to write up their ideas in brief research papers which we published internally;  among these were ‘all through schools’ (unique in the state sector at that time) and ‘diamond schools’ a structure which served us well but seems more common in the private sector now. We also had termly lunches with teachers in their first 5 years of teaching where they could propose initiatives and be given the authority to try them out, one was to do away with nightly HW as we knew it then and replace with weekly projects. 

The Education Endowment Foundation( EEF) grants programme seeks to encourage research projects for its target audience of Pupil Premium children led by schools perhaps in conjunction with HIgher Education.  The EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit comes highly recommended.  There are initiatives there to develop further.  The idea of having a Research Lead in schools is explored in the TES this week. Then there is the notion of a Think Tank in schools coming forward not just with ideas as the Student Council might do but with data to back it up. 

The problem is time I know but busy people do find time.  I believe we need to free up teachers to think and develop their ideas and their enthusiasm will carry them and their projects through.  Children’s success and enthusiasm is a marvellous motivator.  Our profession must be one constantly reviewing and renewing how we teach and how we can do that even better.  My heroes are people like Hegarty and Poole. Let’s encourage more of them.

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What’s in a name? 

‘Pobble’ …  initially it meant nothing to me,  this being partly due to my being a geographer and secondary teacher. Then I remembered of course ‘ he had no toes’  yes,  Edward Lear’s nonsense rhyme came back to me courtesy of being a child myself once and a parent.  The Pobble I refer to here is an online literacy writing resource formerly called LendMeYour Literacy.  Well you can see the latter hardly trips off the tongue or catches your attention while Pobble … You can’t forget it.

As a Executive Principal over a group of schools which included primaries I knew ‘writing’ was the poor relation in skills terms for our young children.  Read they could and indeed add up but write was a challenge both in terms of the physical skill, and let’s not get into when cursive should begin to be taught if ever,  and the content.  Descriptive , creative it was all hard.  Yet children love to tell you about their experiences or stories.  These days I visit schools and every primary classroom without fail is full of storytellers keen to engage you and reluctant to let you go. So why are one in eight 11 year olds leaving primary school unable to write to their expected level and what can we do to teach, inspire, support and motivate.

When I heard about Pobble I confess I was a bit sceptical.  Not another initiative to introduce to our teachers.  However,  I keep coming back to it.  If it works then we have to try.   Pobble is the brain child of a group of teachers and they have developed it from their own practice and  it’s simple as are all the best initiatives.   Basically it’s an on line classroom wall where you up load children’s work.  Suddenly they know that if they do good work carefully presented and with good vocabulary then they can become published authors.  What pride and self esteem that brings and  indeed motivation to reluctant writers.    It’s has a global audience too with users they boast already in 100 countries.   The children give feedback to each other and so learn via the on line wall. Different levels are grouped for comparison. So Pobble becomes a global interactive library of children’s writing.    Success is great for learning and for teaching. 

Surely this is the kind of innovation we all want to see in education.  Teachers,  the classroom professionals,  coming up with ways to help children and colleagues raise standards.  The professionals know best for sure and this it seems to me is a great example of teachers taking the initiative into their own brilliant hands.  Well done.  Let’s see more Pobbles.  Good luck to them.


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