BPL Study Visit to The Met in Providence: 10 things we learned

BPL Study Visit to The Met in Providence:          10 things we learned


We – that is the newly formed charity Big Picture Learning (BPL) UK, supported by Innovation Unit – are officially opening the UK’s first Big Picture Learning school in April 2019, commissioned by Doncaster Council.

There is lots to share about BPL and not much space.  It is an astonishingly successful new school design.  It is also radically different from the paradigm of ‘school’ that has become institutionalised in the UK.  It was founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor about 20 years ago as a contribution to the impetus in the US to explore new school models.  They started by asking: “If we didn’t know that there was such a thing as ‘school’, what set of experiences would we design, starting with a blank sheet?”  There are now 150+ BPL schools around the world and the results are extraordinary – they have been endorsed by multiple research reports and findings, by the Gates Foundation, by President Obama and by the recent XQ nation-wide school design competition.

For example, BPL schools overall have 98% graduation levels, even though they often work with students who have dropped out of mainstream education.

However, despite their astonishing success, even more astonishing is the fact that until now there are no BPL schools in the UK.  All this concern about school improvement; about transforming outcomes for students; about school exclusions; about disengagement; about stress and mental health concerns – and no-one has thought to try what is quite possibly the most radically different and evidentially successful new school model.  If you want to know more, this recent article from Australia (which only introduced BPL about five years ago) will give some indication of its potential: “There is a better way of teaching bored Australian students”.

Our visit to The Met

That is a bit of context.  This post is about our visit to The Met.  One of the things that BPL insists upon is that those involved in starting up a BPL school undertake an immersion experience, often in their original (and now iconically successful) school, The Met.  It is in fact a suite of six small schools, each of about 300 students, mainly on one campus – and recently incorporating also College Unbound, a provision for adults who were failed by the education system, many recruited from the criminal justice system.

So, for a week in late October 2018 the principal designate and Practice Lead of BP Doncaster, the CEO of BPL UK and two Board trustees (both steeped in education),one senior Doncaster LA official and I (an Innovation Unit Senior Associate supporting implementation) headed off to Providence near Boston for our week’s facilitated immersion experience.  Elliot Washor hosted us, Dennis Littky engaged with us, all their staff opened up their practice to us, every classroom was open to us and, above all, to be truthful, each and every student we engaged with articulated their individual narratives, their personal learning plans, their exhibitions and their aspirations for the future.

Enough preamble.  You can find out more about BPL here: https://www.bigpicture.org/.  This post is about what we learned.

10 things I think we learned

1. Engagement precedes content learning – it doesn’t happen the other way around

Who might ever imagine it being other than this?  The deferred gratification model of engagement – “You will need good results to get a good job in the real world” – has never worked for most of those from socio-economically challenging backgrounds, or those without strong support systems, or those without a successful family educational history, or those without a sense of who they might become.  Why might we think that it would?  Schools consistently say that a key problem is low aspirations – from students and/or parents.  Well, let’s guess whose role it might be to help every student to have meaningful personal goals and aspirations!  Might it be the school?  That is exactly where BPL starts.

2. Relationships, relationships, relationships

Truth: in UK secondary schools, young people are not well known.  They have perhaps 12 or more teachers a week, none of whom have more than three hours contact in a class of 25+ (and these are teachers who will teach 200+ students a week).  Students are not well known.  At The Met there are two key relationships: the Teacher Advisor (up to 21 hours a week) and the Internship mentor (up to 15 hours).  There may be a number of mentors over time, but only one Teacher Advisor for the time in school.  What was profoundly evident at The Met is that these deep and responsible relationships really, really matter.

3. The conventional paradigm of schooling constrains student engagement,          initiative and learning.  Not so The Met.

Most people working in the school system instinctively know this.  All the research on student engagement says that it declines significantly as young people travel through the system.  Engagement in learning at secondary level is low and even amongst those who appear engaged, passive disengagement is endemic.  Ask young people to name one word that characterises their experience of school and most will say ‘boring’.  Not, though, at The Met.  None would say that.  Why?  Because their whole study programme derives from their passions.  Their entire personal learning plan is shaped by and generates purposeful engagement.

4. Schools don’t have to be configured around subjects and lessons and timetables

It sometimes seems that we know no other way (although not in primary schools).  In fact, the historical classification of knowledge into ‘subjects’ is an anachronism. It is perpetuated by the UK exam structure and by the university tradition of preparing subject specialists. And the ubiquitous ‘one hour lesson’ is a design to fit in all the 10 or more subjects and teachers that a young person will see each week.  In primary school this pattern doesn’t exist to the same extent and it doesn’t need to in secondary.  At The Met students have whole day ‘learning designs’ – advisory sessions designed by their Teacher Adviser and shaped by their personal learning plan.

5. There are better ways to assess students’ learning and skills than tests and exams

This is such a truism that we hardly needed to travel to Providence to learn it.  However, seeing the combination of exhibition, portfolio, presentation and artefact generation to represent and demonstrate learning and skills was like entering a world of tranquil sanity. In a PBL phrase, exhibition rocks.

6. Culture – and students owning the school’s culture – really, really matters

Every school has a culture.  In BPL it is explicit, pervasive, articulated in multiple words and deeds and is self-consciously owned and espoused by the students.  A trivial but potent example is that in September, when litter starts appearing on The Met site from the new freshmen they just get the juniors and seniors together and ask them to sort it out – and it happens.  Any tough question from us that had a cultural dimension, they just let the students answer for them.

7. It’s a religion, and belief matters. It’s a cult

BPL schools tend to be populated by staff who profoundly believe in the humanity of the approach and its power to transform.  It is a form of collective belief system.  Faced with scepticism they will say: “Everyone thinks it won’t work.  You have to believe that it will – and it does.”  That belief includes students, too.  It is so pervasive that The Met (like High Tech High when we visited) comes across on day one of the visit as cultish – it can feel esoteric, everyone using the same vocabulary.  They talk it up together and you feel on the outside, critiquing.  By day three you understand that the cultishness is just a verbal and behavioural manifestation of everyone’s shared belief in the approach – the symbols and rituals of a tight-loose environment.

8. Parents are embraced as primary educators and significant partners

Every school I know would talk up its commitment to parents.  For most schools that I know it is an arms’ length, occasional, patronising relationship held on the school’s terms.  In BPL schools parents are active, co-creating, engaged and involved partners. The belief is that BPL doesn’t recruit students to the school, it recruits families.

9. Growing the number of meaningful adult relationships creates opportunity, engagement and learning pathways

One of the abiding successes of the UK’s public (i.e. private, privileged) schooling system has been the strength of its old boys’ network (gender, unfortunately, apt). Put more generically, people frequently succeed because of their social capital – the number of people that they know who can help them.  BPL recognises this and builds relational capital into the design.  One of the intentional features of the internship mentor element is “to increase the number of significant adult relationships in each young person’s life”.  That level of purposefulness is built into the explicit social contract with mentors.  In turn they get to be meaningfully involved in the work of the school and they get to contribute to real world success in the lives of students.  They change lives.

10. Peer-to-peer support is a massive multiplier

Advisory is family.  Students spend most of their three days in school together in advisory.  Teacher advisers stay with their crew year on year.  It is 15 students and 1 adviser.  It is 16 learners and 16 teachers; 16 people who look out for one another and support each other to success.  What’s not to like?


There are, of course, great and not-so-good BPL schools.  There is a danger of over-hyping, over-glorifying The Met and other BPL schools.  Dennis Littky is the first to say that there are exemplar BPL schools and there are those just not so good.  There is a spectrum, just as with all schools.  But the best are very, very good and those less good are still doing a fine job and striving to do it better.  The same is true within any BPL school.  There are astonishing teachers and there are those still struggling to acquire the craft knowledge.  Of course there are; they are human systems.

That having been said, it is hard to spend a week at The Met and not to come back to the UK changed.  It offers a paradigm shift in how to do school, which is transformative enough.  It also, though, demonstrates a visible and tangible and inspiring step change in what students are able to achieve within such a context when given agency and supported with rigour.




Why we’re opening a Big Picture Learning school in the UK

Why we’re opening a Big Picture Learning school in the UK

The UK system has a problem

It isn’t very much discussed, but the UK schooling system has a big problem.

There is a huge amount of talk about raising attainment levels and improving schools; about better teacher recruitment and retention, or richer preparation and induction; about wellbeing and resilience programmes for those with mental health challenges or the disaffected and disenfranchised; about tougher tests (more tests, too) and better test preparation.  And that’s the problem. Right there.

What we don’t talk about is the fact that our model of schooling and learning is now more than a hundred years old and way out of date.  It is inappropriate for our times in that it doesn’t prepare young people well for their future life and work and citizenship roles. It is also, particularly in secondary schools, extremely  dull – research statistics on student disengagement tell a stark tale. But most of all, it is profoundly wasteful. The model doesn’t optimise achievement and it is now obvious that it never will.  Put more bluntly, it has had more than a hundred years to stake its claim that it can succeed with all students and it has failed miserably for all those hundred plus years. (Yet it took the Open University, by the way, about a decade to demonstrate that all engaged learners could succeed at degree level study – most of whom had been written off by their schooling experience.)

It didn’t so much matter when we thought it was a part of social destiny that most of the well-off succeeded and most of the poor failed.  When the schooling system fed our class system and we had public (private) schools, grammar schools and secondary modern schools, just in case anybody had missed the point.  But now it does matter, and it matters hugely. Partly because the world needs all our educated young to become economically and socially contributing citizens; partly because equality of opportunity and socially just outcomes are now seen as a human right.  Mostly, though, because there is now evidence and there are examples that show success for all can be achieved.

So that’s the big problem.  We are hell-bent on trying to squeeze a bit more performance out of a model that is inappropriate to the times and inappropriate to the task we have set it – to achieve success with all students; to tackle the equity issue; to generate socially aware and contributing citizens; to save the planet, even.  Instead, we need mindful and intentional endeavours to redesign the model of schooling and learning.

Believe it or not, the US is better

This should be interesting to American readers, because in many ways our systems share similar problems.  However, since the late 1980s, academics, policy-makers, corporate entities and philanthropists have all – with varied levels of alignment and success, it is true – combined in an effort to do something about it.   Put another way, there is an innovation history in the US of supporting new school designs.

The first stake in the ground was arguably the  Coalition of Essential Schools, set up in the wake of Ted Sizer’s book ‘Horace’s Compromise’.  It was an initiative led by academics and educationalists, a genuinely groundswell movement.  CES grew to be a steady-state voice for change, still functioning with more than 600 schools identifying and connecting under the banner of ‘common principles for uncommon schools’.

The coalition’s core principles haven’t changed much.  They still hold up, and they still don’t feature very prominently in most of our schools!  However, in one form or another they have informed the design principles of most new school models.  For example, take these four:

  • Less is more – depth over coverage
  • Personalisation – built on profound knowledge of learners
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Assessment based on demonstration of mastery and real tasks (not tests).

The genesis for the New American Schools initiative in the early 1990s was different.  Informed by policy it was taken up by corporate finance. In response to President Bush’s major education initiative, CEOs from a number of large corporations established New American Schools, or NAS, as a privately funded, non-profit organization devoted to supporting the design and dissemination of “whole school reform” models. The New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC) founders envisioned a complete overhaul of American education stimulated by the spread of these innovative designs.  It was intended to break free of that mindset mentioned earlier of simply improving the existing model, or bolting onto it new programmes, or of innovation being merely seen as new ways of delivering subject-based one hour lessons!  NAS supported school design teams (educators, business people, researchers) to create potentially transformative new school designs with the potential to be scaled. Were all of them successful? Of course not. But the best have proved to be powerfully influential.  

By the early 2000s it was to be philanthropic funding driving the agenda.  Most notably, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation resolved to break up large high schools and turn them into ‘small schools’ – small learning communities of around 350 students – frequently incorporating design principles inherited from the Coalition and designs from NAS.  Improved graduation-rates and achievement levels, especially among minority students, would be achieved through learners being profoundly well known. Relationships mattered.

More than 2,500 small schools were created across the US.  New York City alone has more than 200, with high schools devoted to such themes as leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice.  Bill Gates believed that small schools could also make everything more ‘relevant’, through hands-on activities and new pedagogical approaches.

Were all these successful?  Of course they weren’t. However, the small high schools programme funded the growth of Expeditionary Learning, where Ron Berger is the CEO, and Big Picture high schools, founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor.  These small, personalised high schools, for example, started for school drop-outs, graduate 92 percent of their students on time.

The high schools in these two design networks – and others – have evidenced that they work.  Students in these schools consistently outperform teenagers in conventionally sized, conventionally structured high schools with comparable demographics.  And the system is learning to learn from them. The networks create their own scaling energy (note the ELC National Conference and The Big Bang), and diffusion organisations are growing around the work.

Circling back for a moment to where it all started – the Coalition of Essential Schools – there are some common design features across all these models which echo the founding beliefs:

  • All include project-based or real-world learning approaches, an engaging and empowering pedagogical model requiring teachers to collaborate as designers of learning
  • All focus on the centrality of relationships – have ‘advisory’ (where advisory is the soul of the school, symbolising support of students before teaching curriculum)
  • All have powerful and sustained collegial adult learning norms
  • All have pervasive cultural identity and school-level ownership of what matters, including what is assessed and how and by whom it is assessed.

So, we have a strategy!

For the UK, the point of fixing on this range of US examples is simple.  Healthy systems have to have innovation capacity – a self-conscious attempt to design, implement and evaluate potentially paradigm-shifting new models of practice. It’s either that or we stagnate – or (it seems) instead policy-makers focus on disruptive and energy-sapping structural changes that shake up the administration and governance of the system whilst leaving the educational core substantially unchanged.

A few years ago, Innovation Unit supported the iZone 360 initiative in New York, led at that time by John White.  It was a privilege. There we worked alongside some great schools with inspirational leaders – City As School, NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, iSchool, Hudson High, Young Women’s Leadership School, Bronx Compass and many more.  Each was seeking to redesign school on behalf of the system (or, as Joel Klein put it: “What might happen if we allowed our most renegade school leaders – those who normally keep their heads below the parapet, break all our regulations, and get the best outcomes – to come out in the open and to innovate on behalf of the system?”).  Each 360 school also had a design partner – New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, Apple, CSSR etc. There we experienced – worked alongside – the power and potential and liberating energy of new school designs.

So, we plan to introduce one of those designs into the UK system.  XP Trust in Doncaster has already created XP School (and opened a second this year) based on Expeditionary Learning design principles.  We propose to open (in January 2019) the UK’s first Big Picture Learning school in Doncaster. Big Picture Learning UK has been established through a partnership with Innovation Unit and, over time, we hope there will be many schools across the UK adopting the Big Picture Learning approach.

…and there is a burning platform

It is not as though we don’t know that things need to change.  Increasingly in the UK patterns of disengagement and disaffection are not well hidden. This summer has seen something of an awakening to the problem of exclusion from school in England, with story after story revealing the vast difference in fixed term and permanent exclusions between different localities and different education providers. The number of permanent exclusions nationally rose by 1,000 between 2016 and 2017, now equating to 40 young people expelled from school each day.  You don’t have to be a Foucauldian to recognize that poor behaviour in schools is just the most visible manifestation of disengagement and an unwillingness or inability to conform to the embedded norms of schooling. Many of these students end up in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs): locally run institutions for students who have been excluded from mainstream schools. One PRU told us that 100% of the children coming to them from local schools had an undiagnosed learning or speech and language or mental health need – most had a combination.  It seems they have to behave poorly in order to qualify for a personalised education.

That is one trend.  Another is that homeschooling numbers have risen 40% in the last three years. This is not because vast numbers of parents have caught the home-schooling bug. It is because they are despairing about their children’s experience in schools. Many more, of course, don’t present in exclusion or opt-out statistics.  They endure. Many more still, the passively disengaged, comply. And all the while the learning outcomes from our schooling system continue to under-serve those, the historically under-served, for whom we should most want to succeed.

So, we have a choice: we can fund intensive treatment centres for poorly behaved kids, or we can provide a real alternative: schools in which knowing young people deeply is core to the professional roles of staff, in which the interests, aspirations and dreams of young people are the building blocks of curriculum, where learning and the application of that learning has tangible relevance to the real world, and where assessment recognises the knowledge, skills and capabilities that our modern world (and education) should value.

Those are the hallmarks of the school designs we have mentioned in this post, and it is why we will be opening the UK’s first Big Picture Learning school in January.

School Leadership Without Fear (Part 2)

School Leadership Without Fear (Part 2)

Turning vision into action

The leader as re-imaginer and re-designer – the moral purpose                                                                                              
There is a legitimate image of the education system as being a form of UK Education PLC. Effectively, then, a corporately run enterprise with 24,000 local branches, much like a major bank, or supermarket chain, or Starbucks; each school compliant to the corporate design, values and operational procedures. In such a vision of the world, national policy dictats, Ofsted inspections and the public accountability expectations are the means to keep the system compliant and relatively standardized.

In such a world, school leaders are primarily the intermediate managers ensuring the ship runs efficiently and effectively within these corporate parameters. Managers first, leaders second.

Yet there is another view. This one says that there is no desire to standardize the system. In fact, it says, the whole thrust of policy has been to liberate schools to create their own unique ethos and design consistent with the local context and the ambitions of the school leader and the community (school and local). It says that UK headteachers have been given unprecedented freedoms and autonomy and that the only checks and balances (other than fiscal probity) sit with the public accountability expectations applied to all schools, and the Ofsted framework – and that these are as constraining or as liberating as each leader chooses to fashion them.

It will be obvious which of these world views I favour. But this second scenario doesn’t go far enough. There are two further dimensions of this leadership freedom beyond having the creative opportunity to lead as we might wish.

The first involves reimagining the school; the second reimagining the system.

Reimagining ‘school’

‘School leader as moral agent and organisational architect’ (metaphors from Part 1 of this blog post) obviously means shaper of the design, creator of enabling conditions, entrepreneur of time and space. But there is a broader and bolder sense in which this is true.

Our model of schooling is more than 100 years old and it is way out of date. The rest of society – our industrial practices, technology, the media we use, our leisure activities, communication systems – has undergone a revolution. There has been a similar revolution in our approaches to adult education. For example, since the 1960s, the Open University has demonstrated that virtually every adult is capable of degree level study, given the right learning approaches and modes of assessment. More than 3 million people, most failed by their schooling, have now passed OU degrees. By contrast, our schools have hardly changed at all.

And yet this highly durable school model has singularly failed to achieve equitable outcomes, or to address socio-economic disadvantage, or to fully engage most learners. More profoundly, it has failed to equip all learners with a graduation entitlement of positive self-esteem, an affirming portfolio and a desire to continue learning throughout life – what Mick Waters calls “a narrative of success for every learner”. It has also notably failed to provide teachers with an intellectually and emotionally challenging and fulfilling professional context, or actively involved parents in the learning experiences of their children. And all this should not be a big ask – it should be the purpose of school; a moral entitlement for all.

The original purpose of school – designed to sort and sift, to separate sheep and goats – is now redundant. We need 100% of students to be skilled and capable citizens able to contribute positive agency to both their economic and social world.

Our UK government (and others around the world) are still flogging the dead horse of the out of date school model, when it is patently incapable of responding to the challenges set out above. And it isn’t the fault of the students (many of whom go on in adulthood to achieve remarkably beyond their schools’ predictions). It is the fault of the model of schooling – and no amount of Ofsted inspection, or examination rigour and reform, or teacher performance management, can make an out-of-date model fit for our times.

So what exactly is so wrong with this particular dead horse? Well, we have lived with the badly-functioning model of schooling for so long that we rarely ask ourselves obvious, glaring questions, like:

  • Why have we retained so exclusively the subject-based curriculum, when no tasks in the real world segregate knowledge or its applications in that way?
  • Why do we assess all students at the same time, rather when they are ready to demonstrate mastery (think music grades, or driving test, or sports coaching awards, or Open University modules, or PhD dissertations)?
  • Why do we still have rigid age-cohorting? It certainly isn’t because we believe that all students mature and progress at the same rates. Watch rehearsals for a school production or a concert if you wonder about mixed-age learning.
  • Why are schools designed into corridors and classroom spaces – such that it makes teaching the most isolated and un-stimulating of professional practices?
  • Why do most schools set ‘homework’, when they already have students in school for 35 hours a week – and when the world outside school is rich in opportunities for self-initiated learning?
  • Why do most schools have 25 one-hour lessons – when nobody can believe that it is a unit that is enabling of deep or applied learning?
  • Why is the assessment outcome that matters still an exam written by pen on paper and marked by anonymous paid markers – when teachers know students and their capabilities from five years of engagement with them?
  • Does speaking matter? Do so-called hard skills matter? Do so-called soft skills? Does making and doing matter? If so, why are none of these things given higher currency?
  • Why do we persist with the corrosive language and practice of ‘ability’ groupings? Schools are the only places where it is deemed appropriate to classify people as ‘low ability’ or ‘less able’.
  • And… given that schools are centres of learning, why are the adult learning norms and practices in many of our schools so poor?

Some of the most innovative, future-focused schools in the US – including High Tech High, Big Picture Learning and New Tech Network – asked themselves these questions and created alternative school models that share the following characteristics:

All include interdisciplinary and applied learning (project-based learning; ‘maker’ assignments; real world tasks; internships) – some engaging and empowering pedagogical model which, not incidentally, requires teachers to collaborate as designers and facilitators.

All focus on the centrality of relationships – they have ‘advisory’, where advisory is viewed as ‘the soul of the school’, embodying support for students as higher order than teaching curriculum.

All have powerful and sustained and participative adult learning norms that model the learning practices undertaken with students.

All have pervasive cultural identity and school-level ownership of what matters – including what is assessed, and how and by whom it is assessed.

Reimagining ‘system’ – educational above institutional leadership

A few years ago, I presented at a headteachers’ workshop in a challenging northern city. They were frustrated about perceived imperfections in the Local Authority and the subsequently contracted private sector delivery organisation. I presented to them an outline of how a system might function collaboratively and collegially; could unite around some shared principles; agree policy and strategy together; deploy expertise across schools; differentiate resources and personnel to places of most need; learn from, with and on behalf of one another. We walked through the dynamics of a collegiate and collaborative system aligned around collective responsibility for all children.

When I asked whether they wanted their system to be more like that they were confounded. They would, of course, but they couldn’t imagine how it could be made to happen – from where the leadership would come. My response was to point out that the educational leadership in that city was gathered in the room. Where else was the leadership to come? It just needed to be translated from institutional concerns to higher order collegial educational concerns – a shared commitment to the success of every child in the city.

It just needed, in fact, some leaders to step up with a bold and compelling vision of what was possible and an invitational offer for others to engage in active and participatory and collectively courageous followership. And some of them did just that.

The UK system is in flux. There has never been such a rich opportunity for school leaders to take hold of the agenda and reimagine what is possible across a local system of schools.

It starts, of course, with those of us privileged to lead getting in touch again with our true passions as our first priority – to be “engaged at the heart level” as Margaret Wheatley says – so that we can lead without fear.

School Leadership Without Fear (Part 1)

School Leadership Without Fear (Part 1)

“Leaders have to be engaged at the heart level in order to be courageous champions.”    Margaret Wheatley

There are many definitions of leadership and maxims about it, so for this blog post I’m going to appropriate one or two. Why? Because what we perceive leadership to be, inevitably conditions how we believe it should be enacted.

What does it mean to lead?

For those of us who lead in the professional context of education, I see it as being a pretty high calling. It is not a position or a status; it is a role bestowed upon us by those who entrust their custodianship (trustees or governors) and followership (staff and parents) upon us. Ultimately, therefore, it is something earned by the quality and integrity of our enacted leadership. It’s not a role thing or a position thing. It’s a lived thing.

What that means, in practice, is that a group of professionals, whose values have called them to work in school (because they are passionate to be in the changing lives business), entrust their experience to the leadership of the headteacher. The fulfilment of their mission is largely dependent upon the degree to which it is enabled by the leader of their school.

So far so good?

My belief is that we have largely lost the boldness of that calling. That leadership in schools is often too much about managing the public accountability context. That we have sidelined our values. That too many leaders have such fear for their jobs that they compromise on what they truly believe. That we are selling short those professionals who passionately care – and in so doing diminishing ourselves and the educational mission.

That we need more courageous leadership.

Integrity, vision and hope

So, let’s take a few loosely attributed quotes about leadership:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity”

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way”

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality”

“Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration”

“A leader is a dealer in hope. Where there is no vision, there is no hope”

These are variously from Warren Bennis, Dwight Eisenhower, John Maxwell, Robin Sharma, Peter Drucker and Napoleon Bonaparte. The point is that great leadership has both a moral compass – it stands for something that really matters – and it has vision. The two are linked.  People get inspired by the moral foundation of leadership as it forms itself into narratives and images that cohere into a vision of what is possible. Good leaders are storytellers and vision shapers.

It is not the task here to portray a vision for schools – that’s what leaders do. A vision is categorically, though, not “outstanding in our next Ofsted”, or “improving our Key Stage 2 or Key Stage 4 results”, or “getting the borderline candidates over the bar”, or “managing our admissions so that we protect our results”.

It is much more likely to be housed in an ambition for the role of the school in enriching and deepening the experience for the local community; or in transforming the life chances for all learners (but in particular the most vulnerable and underserved); or in liberating the agency of all in the school – adults and young people – around serving one another and the world. These are higher order ambitions than Ofsted grades, and they are examples of the stuff of leadership.

And too many of our school leaders seem to have lost their way, their nerve or their perspective of the leader they really want to be.

Inspiring and leading through others

Time for a few quotes again…

“Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better”

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers”

“Leadership is infinite. Great leaders draw from a seemingly bottomless well”

And, differently…

“We have been assigned this mountain to show others that it can be moved”

These are variously from Stephen Covey, Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and ‘anonymous’. The bottom line is that what they all say, in one form or another, is that great leaders in pursuit of bold goals create shared enterprise, liberate potential, ignite the flame of passion in others and build leadership capacity – the irresistible capacity to move mountains together.

Some years ago a school leader friend, Chris Cotton, and I wrote a published piece together that we called “The Spaces Between the Pebbles in a Jar”. Basically, he provided the metaphor and I wrote the piece, but his was the more profound contribution. Chris’ thesis was that leadership is not enshrined in structure, position or power relationships. Instead, it is a variable and fluid capacity, and it flows within and beyond an organization – it fills the spaces between the pebbles.

For the leader, this is a creative challenge. For example, one of the myths of what we have come to call ‘distributed leadership’ is that it equates with delegation and is bestowed ‘down’ an organisation. It doesn’t. Delegation is a manifestation of power relationships. Expanding the flow of leadership is about empowerment – opportunity, space, support, capacity and growth. Jobs and tasks are ‘delegated’ (passed down a managerial structure) but leadership is liberated and allowed to find its own space.

Such fluid opportunities not only liberate leadership, they are emancipatory for the person in the professional. Those who work in schools give of who they are as well as what they do. The release and expression of potential through leadership creates the context for both personal and professional fulfilment. Leading the growth of leadership capacity is thus intensely human and social, an emotionally fulfilling activity.

Leadership as described above, then, is an infinite, not a finite thing. Leaders can grow it within their organisations and they do so by inviting people into the spaces so they can achieve great things. As Linda Lambert says, ‘everyone has both the potential and the entitlement to contribute towards leadership’. In so doing we ennoble the educational enterprise and fulfil those we work with. And boy does our profession need some of that currently!

But there is another essential piece to this section. How the hell, in the current context, do you create schools that feel and function like this? It may sound good, but heads have to live in the real world. True. But we live in the real world that we create. We can be victims of the wider context or we can be the creative designers of our own reality.

Some years ago, in the 1990s, Joseph Murphy acted as an evaluator in the States for some of the country’s most ambitious schools – those within the New American Schools programme. As one outcome of that, he wrote a book on the modern principalship in which he constructed a set of alternative contemporary metaphors for school leadership. They have been adapted a little for this piece, but the essence of Murphy’s metaphors survive:

New Metaphors for School Leadership

School leader as shaper of culture

…. as moral agent

…. as organisational architect

…. as social architect

…. as educator

…. as advocate for children

…. as community builder

…. as servant

…. as leadership capacity creator

For me these metaphors offer a profound insight into just how leaders might begin to re- prioritise their role.  All of which – holding onto a bold vision;  liberating the capacity to achieve it; and creating values driven metaphors for the enactment of leadership – takes us to the second of this pair of blog posts.  It looks at turning all this into action.

This post, and the second instalment, are adapted from a chapter in “Education Forward” (available here) which can also be accessed on the Education Forward website here.



UK schools – the inequality machine

UK schools – the inequality machine

A few months ago there was a lot of noise in the educational world about the Harvard Business Review’s publication of UK research into types of school leadership. It featured on BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ and there was a flurry of debate on twitter and in Schools Week. People identified with the call for more ‘architect leaders’ — those who invest in the sustained improvement of learning and school culture, and who look beyond their school walls to have an impact in the wider community served by schools.

For Innovation Unit there is a deeper significance to the research. We are convinced that there are multiple imperatives — global, economic, social and equity imperatives — to go beyond the improvement rhetoric and to begin the process of reimagining and redesigning what we mean by ‘school’. And, for that to happen, a certain kind of leadership will be required. We will need the qualities, capabilities and characteristics of architect leaders who can go beyond school turnaround and take on fundamental school redesign.

The research

The research says that currently we are recognising the wrong qualities in leaders — with that recognition being signalled by salary levels and public approbation in the form of knighthoods and gongs. The researchers (Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard) generated five archetypes from their study of 411 Academy leaders. They are:

  • Surgeons — who focus on test scores and cauterise underachievement
  • Soldiers — who are task-focused and cost-cutting
  • Accountants — who grow revenue, increasing students and income sources
  • Philosophers — who focus on values and the debate about good teaching
  • Architects — who progressively redesign school and the community it serves.

Using financial savings and student results on test scores as the two primary dimensions of achievement, the research suggests that only the ‘architects’ create long-term and sustainable improvement. They are more strategic and their effects are more enduring, yet they are by far the least recognised group, in salary terms and in public recognition.

The conclusion, of course, is that we need to appoint more architects to our schools.

Now, there may well be some dodgy dimensions to this research, despite its peer-reviewed status. For example, the sample of 411 leaders is inevitably skewed — those 2012 early academy converter heads were, by definition, an a-typical sample, having been relatively early adopters of an aggressive system restructuring policy. Another is the association of school subjects with the archetypes — PE and RE for surgeons; IT and Technology for Soldiers; Mathematics for Accountants; English and Languages for Philosophers; and History and Economics for Architects. (We can assume that this has an empirical validity in the sample, but it doesn’t hold a ring of truth in reality. Many of us will know some stunning long-term leaders and team builders with a PE background, for example, and where on earth are the geographers — a subject that throws up some excellent leaders?)

The truth

However, reservations aside, there is undoubtedly truth in this — truth at two extremes.

At one extreme short-term improvement in results is all too often achieved by leadership ruthlessness — restructuring the organisation; getting rid of a proportion of staff; focusing on Key Stage 4 pupils to the detriment of younger learners; annexing or excluding unwanted students; disproportionately targeting those near the C-D borderline; being tactical about exam entries; putting the most successful staff with high stakes groups; arranging holiday exam-prep sessions…and a range of other similar short-term and ultimately culturally damaging strategies. They shout out to everyone that what matters in this school is ‘our league table position and my career as a leader’. Culturally, this tends to create threat, fear, compliance and internal competition, along with cynicism, disillusionment and resentment.

At the other extreme, we know that long-term growth requires deeper change strategies. Unification around a long-term vision and optimism about its feasibility tend to be supported by capacity-building and enabling strategies; by a culture that liberates the creativity of staff; by  unleashing discretionary energy, and developing collaborative learning norms, both between both teachers and students. Such a culture isn’t focused disproportionately on one type of achievement or particular target groups, but recognises diverse success and values and celebrates all learners equally.

So, whilst there may be some reservations about the characterisations within the research, it is essentially true. We are encouraging, lauding and publicly valuing and rewarding the wrong kinds of leadership for sustainable growth in our schools and system.

From leadership for sustainability to leadership for school redesign

It makes sense that organisational architects, those that build for the medium term and grow for the long-term, will create sustainable improvement cultures. This is welcome. The truth is, though, that we need even more than this.

Our system needs leader architects who can redesign schools for the future.

Ken Robinson has a message, said repeatedly and in multiple compelling ways: “Education doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed”. Those who have seen the case for change made in the award-winning film “Most Likely to Succeed” will know what this means. The stark message of the film is that our 100+ year-old model of schooling and learning needs to change, and change dramatically, if we are to serve young people well for the future and if we are to tackle the equity and achievement gap. (Despite more than 100 years of trying, the existing model has patently failed to get even close to doing this.  If you doubt that, just note the linear relationship between family income and educational outcomes shown by the image for this blog post!)


And let’s be clear, this equity and social justice dimension really matters — and it matters in the UK particularly because we have some of the most dramatic equity gaps in the world. It is an irresistible priority morally, of course, but it also matters socially and economically, too. Our schools still remain the only entity in our modern world that has institutionalised a fixed notion of ‘ability’. We talk about ‘able’ and ‘less able’ children in a way that would be utterly unacceptable in the adult world and which is wrong.  We even group learning by spurious notions of ‘ability’ — notions which are, in effect, little more than socio-economic pre-determinants, but ones which then go on to become institutionalised determinants. As Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High recently said: “The more narrowly we define intelligence, the more broadly we define what is not deemed intelligent”.

One last perspective on this theme. More than 3 million adults have successfully graduated from the Open University since it enrolled its first students in 1971.  Most of these new graduates had been failed by their school experience.  Many of them previously thought they were ‘less able’ learners. And what is more, not one established university believed it could work  – not a university for which you required no prior qualification levels, or where you could personalise your own unitary pathways and modalities, or be assessed when you were ready. But it did work, and it has liberated the potential of millions.  And yet the schooling system has learned nothing from this precedent.

So, the simple message of this piece is that our schools need to be reimagined and redesigned —  and, if this is to happen, we need architect leaders who can both reinvent and sustain the model.

Why do we need leader architects in this context?

Such a learning transformation will of course require significant changes to the way we conventionally structure the curriculum, the way teachers teach, and the way students are assessed. However, for a school leader trying to redesign their school, these are secondary effects. There have been many experiments, projects and pilots over the years that have developed new approaches, and many have benefitted students and convinced teachers. What is remarkable is that most of these new ideas have not been sustained.  They have not spread within schools or between schools; the practice hasn’t deepened with time; and the ownership of the practice hasn’t transferred beyond the innovators or transformed the deep structures of school.

The fact is that the impact of these new ideas was limited because they didn’t go hand in hand with a systematic redesign of the school as an organisation. When we learn that at High Tech High there is an hour of collaborative adult learning every morning before students arrive; or that teachers do not teach 28 students on their own, but 56 students together, in half-day units; or that all projects (Project Based Learning is the dominant norm) are critiqued by other teachers before being introduced to students …. then we know that something significant in the organisational norms is different. And it is changes to organisational architecture — the culture, the structure, and the organisation of time across the whole school — that make possible the design, delivery and refinement of more engaging learning opportunities for students.

Change of this depth requires strong and bold and committed and sustained leadership. It requires school leaders prepared to rethink some of the conventional norms in school culture, who are prepared to reimagine the structures that staff, students and parents have grown used to, and are prepared to change the way the timetable and the school year has governed people’s lives for many generations.

This kind of change requires what the research calls ‘architect leaders’.

A moral from this tale

The research on leadership styles is welcome and has a resonance of truth. If we want sustainable school improvement, the qualities of the organisational architect need to be held in higher regard. That much is obvious.

However, as stated at the outset — and as as set out in the case for change in “Most Likely to Succeed” — there are utterly compelling reasons for taking seriously the need to reimagine and redesign schools. Indeed there are multiple examples around the world where this is already happening. If it is truly to happen here, in the UK, then we will need bold and ambitious leader architects to pave the way.

This research is both timely and relevant. And it may also be more profound and more prophetic than the writers imagined.

Flogging Dead Horses

Flogging Dead Horses

The system needs new school models.

Those who have now seen “Most Likely to Succeed”, or read the blog post about it here, will understand the dramatic tone of the title to this post.

The bottom line is THIS:

Our model of schooling is more than 100 years old and has barely changed in that time…

The rest of society – our industrial practices, technology, the media we use, our leisure activities, the global scope of our world, communication systems – has undergone a revolution…

There has been a similar revolution of opportunities for and modalities of adult education.  Since the 1960s, the Open University has demonstrated that virtually every adult is capable of degree level study, given the right modalities of learning and modes of assessment.  More than 3 million people, most failed by their schooling have passed OU degrees…

The original purpose of school – designed to sort and sift; to separate sheep and goats – is now redundant.  We need 100% of students to be skilled and capable citizens able to contribute positive agency to both their economic and social world…

Our UK government (and others around the world) are flogging the dead horse of the out of date school model, when it is patently incapable of responding to the challenges set out above.

So what is wrong with this particular dead horse? 

How much space do you have?

The worst of it is that there are some arguably redundant, or even debilitating features that just don’t get questioned. So let’s ask just 10 of those questions.

  1. Why, for example, do we still have age-cohorting?  It certainly isn’t because we believe that all students mature and progress at the same rates.  Watch rehearsals for a school production or a concert if you wonder about mixed-age learning
  2. Why have we retained so exclusively the subject-based curriculum, when no tasks in the real world segregate knowledge or its applications in that way?
  3. Why are schools designed into corridors and classroom spaces – such that it makes teaching the most isolated and un-stimulating professional practice?
  4. Why do we assess all students at the same time, rather when they are ready to demonstrate mastery (think music grades, or driving test, or sports coaching awards, or Open University modules, or PhD dissertations)?
  5. Why do schools set homework, when they already have students in school for 35 hours a week – and when the world outside school is rich in opportunities for self-initiated learning?
  6. Why do most schools have 25 one-hour lessons – when nobody believes that it is a unit that is enabling of deep or applied learning?
  7. Why is the assessment outcome that matters still an exam written on pen and paper and marked by anonymous paid markers – when teachers know students and their capabilities from five years of engagement with them?
  8. Does speaking matter?  Do so-called hard skills matter? Do so-called soft skills? Does making and doing matter?  If so, why are none of these things given high currency?
  9. Why do we persist with the corrosive language and practice of ‘ability’ groupings.  Schools are the only places where it is deemed appropriate to name people ‘low ability or ‘less able’.
  10. A contentious one.  Given that schools are centres of learning, why are the adult learning norms  and practices in most of our school so abysmally poor?

You don’t have to agree with everything

Of course, a few of these questions may confront expectations.  There may be some that seem outrageous – although they don’t, of course, to me!  However, there is a simple truth.  We know that capability is multi-faceted and that human potential is such that virtually all adults are capable of high-level learning and complex task accomplishment.  We also know that the existing model of school has consistently failed to enable all students to be successful, or to close the equity gap between those from advantaged backgrounds and those who are not.

And it isn’t the fault of the students (many of whom go on in adulthood to achieve remarkably beyond their schools’ predictions).  It is the fault of the model of schooling – and no amount of Ofsted inspection, or examination rigour, or teacher performance management, or academisation can make a model that is out-of-date fit for our times.

It is flogging a dead horse.

So, what seems to be desperately needed in our system is an innovation strategy that will encourage the design and establishment of some new school models.  They have had this in the States since the New American Schools initiative in the early 1990s, as described here (and as represented in Grant Lichtman and Jolina Clément’s graphic that heads up this post).  Where is the UK’s new school model innovation strategy?

Rethinking MATs – Reimagining School

Rethinking MATs – Reimagining School

The focus of this MAT piece is High Tech High, case study school in “Most Likely to Succeed”. If you have seen the film, you will almost certainly want to read more….

Reimagining school

Before getting started, it is worth stressing one key way in which all the highly successful, collectively governed ‘new school model’ groups in the States differ profoundly from the prevalent UK MAT models. (Accepting that they are not technically MATs at all!) It is that they all began with an ambitious and successful new school design – a serious attempt to realise in practice an aspirational set of design principles; to create a model of school different from the past and suitable for the current century; to major on learner engagement, passion and agency; to aspire to beautiful work, learning of service to the world; to have as a non-negotiable focus success for all students.

Then they grew the ‘MAT’ and created a community of practice around their model – a professional learning community of schools, adults and young people united by values, aspirations and purposes based on their shared design principles

This is quintessentially how High Tech High was formed and grew.

High Tech High viewed as a MAT

So, High Tech High in San Diego is our MAT of choice – even though ‘MAT’ is not at all how it perceives itself. It is currently a coalition of 13 small charter schools (think academies or free schools) in San Diego administered under one governance arrangement, led by a Chief Executive, one of the co-founders, Larry Rosenstock, with Rob Riordan as Director of Learning (Emperor of Rigour is his official title). Collectively, HTH offers a K-12 (all-through) locality provision, completely comprehensive of San Diego. This is how it describes itself:

High Tech High operates thirteen schools in San Diego County: four elementary schools, four middle schools, and five high schools. All of these schools serve a diverse, lottery-selected student population; all embody the High Tech High design principles:

  • Personalization
  • Adult world connection
  • Common intellectual mission
  • Teacher as designer.

It is the world’s best MAT not because of its measurable outcomes (which are astonishing), but for the depth and originality and consistency of its practices. However, to make the point, three measurable features would be: (i) its collective ambition (non-negotiable success for all students, defined as 100% College and University entrance entitlement);   (ii) the extent of achievement in this ambition, 98%, plus 85% of all free school meal students completing  university degrees; and (iii) its levels of student engagement and teacher learning – if you have watched “MLTS”, you will know what this means.

There are a number of central architectural features (things that hold all 13 schools together) that are each significant in their own right, but which are even more powerful in combination. They are grouped below in a relatively arbitrary but hopefully helpful way.

Shared beliefs and expectations

HTH schools are all bound together by the four design principles – which act as a common cultural and organisational architecture and as a shared form of mutual accountability. There is much that could be written about each of these, but this is not the place.

Staff across the 13 schools buy in to what they call a ‘shared intellectual mission’. Think of this as a MAT-wide sustained action enquiry: a collective commitment to learning their way forward towards success with their school design and with the achievement of equitable outcomes for all students. This shared intellectual mission is a collaborative, challenging and sustained endeavour, and it leads to the accumulation and refinement of a publicly available body of practice – just as happens in medecine.

They have a framework of non-negotiable values. For example, no ’tracking’ (grouping by presumptions of ability) is one example. Others would be: ‘teaching is a team sport’; build from teacher and student passions; leadership comes from the classroom; expect everyone to be exceptional, and have processes that enable everyone to be exceptional.

They take collective responsibility for the success of all students – and are collectively accountable for the totality of the MAT’s achievements.  They pool outcomes across the schools, for example – 13 schools, but one High Tech High data set.

A community of teachers working together as a community of practice

One of the features oh High Tech High schools is that they share common adult learning time. School begins at 9.00 am for students but 8.00 am for staff. That hour before school is dedicated to collaborative planning, the study of lessons, critique of work and collaborative professional enquiry and learning of a variety of forms.

Teachers teach colloboratively (50+ students shared between two teachers) because ‘teaching is a team sport’, and this happens in collaborative settings (spaces that facilitate fluidity of movement). They plan in their cross-disciplinary pairs and all projects are additionally reviewed and critiqued collaboratively by a wider group of staff. This is very powerful and serves multiple functions. For example, it quality assures all project designs; it adds value by drawing on the ideas of a wider group of staff; it makes the designs explicit and shared more widely.

All all staff have their own digital portfolio, and are expected to make their project designs and resources visible and open source, so ideas and practices travel – both within the HTH community of schools and also more widely with the profession at large. Professional knowledge and artefacts at HTH are also public materials.

The teachers develop and apply common learning protocols to their work, both in their own learning and in their teaching. These learning protocols are founded on the assumption that quality learning does not happen by accident, but that it has to be scaffolded by defined processes and behaviours. They support collaborative work, create shared learning expectations, ensure parity of contribution and act as a form of mutual accountability. Across the MAT, teachers would all be familiar with the use of these protocols.

HTH within the wider local ecosystem

The language associated with learning at HTH would include aspirations to be ‘authentic’, to source ‘real-world’ applications and to give students ‘agency’ in the world. It is unsurprising, therefore that it is deeply integrated into (and permeable to) its local community in multiple ways. Larry Rosenstock has long railed against school as ‘the citadel on the hill’. This permeability works two ways:

  • Incoming – they use external expertise to critique and refine their practice; they are wide open to researchers and documentary film-makers; parents are active partners and attend all exhibitions and student learning conferences; the projects students do usually involve community experts, both in the process and the assessment of the exhibitions
  • Outgoing – from an early age, the projects that students undertake are designed to make contributions to the wider San Diego community – campaigns to increase blood donorship; exhibitions in public spaces; published environmental studies of the local coastline; campaigns to improve local amenities; studies of immigration patterns – always with a civic audience and purpose. Students also undertake extensive internships (which is community located learning, not work experience).

As indicated above, the MAT is highly permeable to learning from outside. They have more than 2,000 visitors a year coming in to critique their work – visitors are expected to do so. They make the network of HTH schools a site of study in multiple ways. They deploy their staff to work in places from which they will learn, both within the States and internationally. (Innovation Unit has had six HTH staff secondees working on programmes in UK schools, including two new schools: School 21 and XP School.)

Features that can only be achieved as a MAT

The 13 schools create a large canvas for teacher learning – one large professional learning community; one community of practice.  HTH also moves or deploys teachers between schools – utilising capability and expertise in the collective interests of all students, rather than the narrow interests of the individual school.

They have publication streams, celebrating and sharing across the MAT, but also for use within their programmes (they run MOOCs, for example) and in service of their commitment to making professional knowledge public. ‘Unboxed’ is a professional journal that ‘reifies’ the practices of teachers from across the schools.

Leadership is deployed similarly. You cannot be the principal of a HTH school unless you have been a teacher there.  They grow their own leadership capability and manage their own leadership succession.  

High Tech High has established a Graduate School of Education – the only school-based graduate school in the States, and something that would simply not be feasible without the scale of the operation. It can deliver both beginning teacher credentials (managing their own supply of philosophically committed recruits) and their own Masters degrees, for which teachers engage in action research on behalf of the MAT community.  The Grad school also acts as a knowledge management hub because:

  • It enables their practices to be codified within teacher learning and leadership development programmes for adult learning purposes
  • It allows them to train and induct and quality assure most of their own beginning teachers
  • By encouraging all their staff to undertake action research Masters there, they ensure reconnection with the knowledge base; they constantly interrogate their practices through research activity; and they are constantly adding to the MATs leadership quotient
  • Action research as part of these Masters programmes feeds back into the collective knowledge-base
  • The graduate school accepts none-HTH participants from San Diego, requiring the induction of new people (a key feature of COP theory) and to be externally challenged by them (a key feature of HTH’s commitment to peer critique).


Three thoughts. The first is that not very much here has been made of some of the distinctive features of pedagogical practice and student learning at HTH – interdisciplinary learning; project-based designs; public exhibition of work; peer critique and multiple drafting; digital portfolios; internships; student-led conferences. These are some of the more innovative characteristics of a HTH school, but this article is about the MAT-ness of their work together not pedagogy. Another set of MAT schools, implementing most of the MAT features above, could focus on a different set of pedagogical practices.

The second is this. Hopefully, this article might be of interest to those whose mental model of MAT has been informed by the dominant prevailing orthodoxies, yet who have more progressive aspirations. If that sounds a bit patronising, what is meant is that the current debate has locked us into a perception of MATs as a structural innovation. This short piece is making the point that progressive school-to-school collaboration is a process thing; a design-led thing; an ambition thing; a learning thing. Above and beyond anything else, a MAT can be a potential context for collaborative professional learning around high ambitions.

The third is potentially even more exciting. Few can (except in rare cases) build up a MAT from a single new school model as HTH did. School 21 can. XP School can. Most of us, though, have to start with our already established schools. However, this government has committed to 500 new Free Schools during this parliament.

What ambitious MATs are able to do is to create together a new Free School, informed by their shared design principles and aspirations for future schooling and learning.

This can be a laboratory for MAT learning; a prototype for all the schools; a subject of collective study and activity – a concrete operational illustration of what is possible – such that it begins to inform and inspire developments across the entire MAT.  If anyone is interested, the Innovation Unit would love to help.