Can it really be this simple?

What really sets a school apart?

Although this is another in a very infrequent series of posts based on lists, it highlights the simple message at the heart of a successful school.  Colin Harris, writing the TES last November, recognises that it is love – for and of school – that lies at the heart of a successful school.

Paraphrasing Mr Harris, below is a distillation of the seven things that he feels make a good school and underpin the sense of love that pervades successful schools.

  1. Positive relationships throughout the whole community – teacher-pupil, pupil-pupil, teacher-parent, etc.
  2. Key values can be seen all around
  3. High expectations are pervasive, from the quality of the building to the quality of work being presented
  4. Teachers are dedicated to those in their care
  5. Behaviour is excellent, because the structures are understood by everyone.
  6. Staff are allowed to take risks to get the best from the pupils
  7. Strong leadership is present – in the literal sense as well as the figurative


A question of questions

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 09.41.39Baselines don’t lead to predictions.  They guide the next steps.  A map has a scale and a key but you have to be on the path to understand the terrain.  Each half term in the classroom, for example, you take way markers to keep you on the right path.  Regular, reasonable, manageable assessment of progress shapes a child’s learning.  Without establishing how far or how fast progress is being made, the next steps cannot readily be planned.

An article in the TES last week points to the consultation that is starting in the UK over baseline testing at Reception (4 years old).  That this debate has never gone away, is telling, so to is the fact that despite numerous attempts no agreed solution has been found.  Providers of assessment materials have themselves  pointed to the steep challenges that are presented in finding a meaningful way of assessing progress – and predicting future outcomes – in children so young.

All the same, working out where children are and where they are going is essential.  It is necessary in informing parents and carers of how well a child is progressing in, and engaging with, the school environment.  It is necessary for accountability, whether for the quality of teaching and professional development (appraisal or performance) or the success or otherwise of curriculum planning and resource management, i.e. budget allocation.

Collecting data is fine; let’s get over it.  It’s obviously not the be all and end all but an important tool in our kit for creating a dialogue with parents and colleagues about a child.   However the tool must be manageable and managed well; agreed by the team as a whole school policy and it must be discussed and the ramifications for subsequent provision understood.  Because this is part of the narrative, the story of a child’s journey through their life in school.  And that journey, like following a map could take them anywhere!


I forgot I wrote this.  Twelve years ago I was Deputy Head at Berkhamsted Collegiate Prep School (now Berkhamsted Prep School).  I was writing a blogpost on a site I created for a group of us who had met at an IAPS Aspiring Heads conference.

The post was written at the time when “Citizenship Education” was being discussed as the next thing to introduce to young people; aiming to develop character and values that would provide them with firm foundations in their lives ahead.  It was this point – the impact on the children’s lives in the future along with the need to develop whole school culture that lead me to ask the questions:…/civilising-subject

How are we to educate for future responsibility? My Year 6 classes or my 1W RE form are not simply the 6- or 11-year-olds in front of me now. They are the voting 20-somethings or parents with purchasing power in 10 or 20 years time. So these future-adults must be able to participate in an environment which instills core values of kindness, care, humility and self-confidence. Surely school management issues and not merely to be stuffed away as a subject within the curriculum?

Throughout my career, from Environmental Education in Florida to Prep School Headship, I have sought ways to manifest a social and environmental responsibility in school curriculum and culture.  Having established the principles of Education for Social Responsibility in IAPS 5 years ago, I was delighted to find this post.  I was equally delighted to realise that I have remained consistent in the intervening dozen years or so with this from January 2017…

What we are aiming to do is to equip children – or perhaps more accurately the future adults who these children will become – with the mental tools to feel confident, capable and unafraid.  Happy to learn to cope with and overcome any challenge that they face; to enjoy, and above all relish, the opportunity to try something easy as well as hard.

Now, after 12 years, it is a pleasure to be working in schools that fully embrace the development of virtues, values and character and its impact on outcomes.  ‘Twas ever thus, of course, yet the time for antipathy and derision is over.  We understand instinctively that focusing on behaviours and attitudes to learning leads to improvement.  I am delighted that we can now give full vent to our passions and create schools and school systems that grow stronger and more successful communities.

Is it all a question of balance?

Since September, every Wednesday evening bar the holidays, we hold Dads’ football in the Sports Hall.  From 8.00pm to 9.00pm, all are welcome.  We even have a couple of friends of Pennthorpe dads who enjoy the opportunity to run around (and out of breath) for an hour or so basically kicking a ball into a goal – or relishing the attempt.  We have had as many as 15 and so encouraged are we that now actual fixtures against other prep school dads’ football teams are being mooted!

Now, I do not wish to fall into stereotypical characterization of gender roles or deride either gender for its perceived foibles or idiosyncrasies.  Quite the opposite.   It is not for me  to explain why, or even demystify such significant and ancient rituals such as watching live sport or having hobbies involving things with engines or collections of shoes, hats or models of real life objects.

Last Friday’s item on the BBC concerning girls perception of self-worth highlights the importance we must place on balance for all children at Pennthorpe and recognition of the sense of self that each person has.

As schools we are a families, and as such we aim to provide the right pastoral care for all of its members.   And this doesn’t mean ballet for girls or rugger for boys; human beings are far more subtle and nuanced than that.  We understand that gender, personality and personal well-being all contribute to who you are as a learner – or indeed adult.   Therefore our approach to provision in the classroom, needs to recognise that need and interest vary from child-to-child, from week-to-week, day-to-day and even lesson-to-lesson.

Planning for this nuanced, tailored approach to learning is challenging yet is achievable.  It lies at the heart of how we can redefine prep school education and it is one of the keys to the excellence, academic and pastoral, that is our commitment as schools.  We do this through:

Thorough knowledge of the children and their families

Tracking and record keeping of progress both pastorally and academically

Reporting back at regular intervals

This cycle – or upward spiral – of preparation, experience and reflection propels each child forward.  As I discussed last week, the focus on happiness, coupled with the expectation to try your best in all aspects of school life and a desire to focus on the identity of each child, is what leads to successful outcomes.  We recognise shared purpose and understand that you are celebrated for who you are.  Not a lazy stereotype, but a complex, unique individual who has a great deal of potential and much to offer.

We are all learners here…

I have written about the “equipment” that we need to take with us on our journey through life. Whichever metaphor we choose, ensuring that we have the best personal, mental and physical tools enables us to face and overcome challenges now and in the future.

Schools can get locked into rigid thinking through systems that are introduced as whole school initiatives. However, greater value is found in exploring the variety of ways that we can get children to think and behave more intelligently. This flexibility of thinking as a staff team, itself an intelligent behaviour (we model for the children!), leads to varied opportunities for them to tackle learning more effectively and successfully in the classroom, in PE and in the playground – and life in general.

Here are some of the techniques used throughout my school:

  • 3B4Me. In the Early Years this is called Stop, Think, Act. Before you go to the teacher for help, there are three steps you can take: Have you thought carefully about the problem? If you are still stuck, have you looked in a book for help or clues? If you are still stuck, have you asked a friend? If you are still stuck after these three steps, then you can ask the teacher. And even then, they may not tell you the answer…
  • Open Questions. They may not tell you the answer because they will use open questions: how, what, when, where, who and why. A question with any of these words at the start immediately engages any of us, children included, in deeper thinking and encourages wider use of language to describe what we know and therefore construct our learning – and that bit of educational psychology I’ll save for another day!
  • Positive Psychology. Not fluffy psycho-babble, but a contemporary branch of research that has brought about success for people by developing high positive emotion, engagement, meaning and good relationships. By focusing on strengths and what can be done to improve what needs developing we will all flourish.
  • WWW and EBI. “What Went Well” and “Even Better If”. Using positive psychology in the classroom is straightforward. Asking children these two questions about their learning allows them to identify strengths and areas for development in their own and, in peer assessment, other’s work. It leads to far more rapid progress and much better understanding.
  • The power of “yet”. “I can’t draw…yet”. “I can’t do take-away sums…yet.” By establishing a growth mindset, regcognising that challenges can be overcome eventually, enables staff and children to work on the steps to reach any goal. These steps may be few or many, but by setting achievable goals and knowing how to get there, learning becomes far more secure.

  • Regular feedback and assessment for learning. Thorough engagement occurs between pupil and staff through marking books, tutorials, parent-teacher meetings, transparency and our professional authority. This granular approach to understanding pupil progress coupled with more objective measures of progress means that we can know the children exceptionally well.

And before you think we have entered the rabbit hole, there are more techniques at our disposal and sometimes those well-used, traditional methods, like actually telling children what to do, work very well indeed.

We are equipping children with an intellectual toolbox which requires something for every eventuality, from thinking independently to listening to someone more wise teach, and everything in between.

We are excited about these and many other ideas that find their way into the classroom to enhance learning experiences. Because we are all learners here.

Can you have your cake and eat it too? 


Joy and friendship: at the heart of learning

Do you know that happy children learn?  Of course you do.  You are probably a parent, teacher, grandparent, uncle, aunt, sports coach or other adult in the privileged position to witness the progress that children can and do make when they are enjoying themselves.  It is well documented that the hormones dopamine and serotonin are both involved with executive function, memory and learning.  Both hormones are also linked with pleasure, mood and gratification.  It is no wonder then that the oft-used, and perhaps over used, notion that “happy children learn”, holds some truth.  Yet as is often the case with aphorisms the truth lies deep within the words.

Paradoxically, learning also takes place fairly effectively when you are under stress.  However, the stress hormone, cortisol, creates memories of short term events and can impede their retrieval.  You can recall those more stressful lessons at school or in life, you know that the experience wasn’t pleasant and you will probably struggle to recall the details clearly.  But whether it was long division, conjugating Latin verbs or driving a car, there is something that we have retained, under conditions of high stress, in our memories that have proved valuable later in life.

What, then, is the best way to encourage learning to take place, to make this effective and to ensure that it lasts?  Looking to the classroom, or the experiences that our children are exposed to in life, we have spent much ink, digital and otherwise, exploring the ideas of risk and resilience; asking questions of our practice as teachers or our skills as parents: are we protecting our children too much?  are we exposing them to too little risk?  will they be emotionally and psychologically tough enough to cope with the “real” world? will they have “grit” and will we be culpable if they fall apart later in life?

Certainly it is more widely reported that the Millennial generation (young people generally in their late teens to late twenties) have a changing approach to work and life, different value sets and life goal aspirations.  But this difference is beyond the remit of this article and has been explored extensively elsewhere.  By Simon Sinek, for instance:  However, what is important to bear in mind is that we are working in real time with real young minds who have very real futures ahead of them.  And this future will be as a citizen of a rapidly changing and changeable world, with a degree of uncertainty that will require the “grit” and determination that we all understand will help to reinforce them when the going gets tough in their future.

It is not merely a fanciful notion that we can make children happy all the time and they will learn what they are presented with.  At Pennthorpe we use a combination of tools to ensure that pupils recognise the possibilities in front of them.  These offer a platform for intellectual and emotional growth through initiatives such as Learning to Learn, Philosophy for Children, teacher and peer mentoring and a growth mindset approach to both teaching and learning.  What we are aiming to do is to equip children – or perhaps more accurately the future adults who these children will become – with the mental tools to feel confident, capable and unafraid.  Happy to learn to cope with and overcome any challenge that they face; to enjoy, and above all relish, the opportunity to try something easy as well as hard.  Ultimately we want children to embrace in the real world what Kipling wrote in ‘If’: to “meet Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same…”.