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Our model of schooling is more than 100 years old and it is way out of date.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.

“Most Likely To Succeed”

“Most Likely To Succeed”

Innovation Unit has recently hosted a number of screenings of the documentary film “Most Likely to Succeed”. It is impossible to overstate the profound impact that it has had on each audience.  You can watch a trailer here:

It is worth sharing some of the concept and content of the film.

Over 120 years ago, education underwent a dramatic transformation as the iconic one-room schoolhouse evolved into an effective universal system that produced an unmatched workforce tailored for the demands of the 20th Century. Astonishingly, despite seismic changes to society, including changes to employment patterns, the world economy, and information systems, education remains substantially the same – classrooms, lessons, subjects, age-cohorts, age-related tests, etc etc.  As traditional white-collar jobs begin to disappear, the film suggests that this same system is potentially producing chronic levels of unemployment among graduates in the 21st Century.  It has failed to tackle the 21st Century equity challenge and it has failed to adapt to the dramatically transformed life and work needs of today’s young people.

The film follows students into the classrooms of High Tech High, an innovative all-age group of 13 schools in San Diego which has evolved a dramatically different model of schooling and learning. There, over the course of a school year, two groups of ninth graders are followed taking on ambitious, project-based learning challenges that develop a range of personal and applied skills as well as offering access to deep content knowledge. “Most Likely to Succeed” points to a transformation in learning that may hold a key to success for millions of young people – and our nation – as we grapple with the ramifications of rapid advances in technology, automation and growing levels of economic inequality.  More profoundly, it powerfully reveals the transformative potential of this project-based approach to the lives and self-image of the students and to the professional efficacy of the staff.

After the viewings, the people who attended engage in informal conversation or workshop activity – dependent on the nature of the event.  And here’s the thing.  No-one wants to depart or to end the conversation.  There is, time after time, a level of animation and involvement and energy and passion for action that is utterly unique (in my experience).  It isn’t that everyone agrees with all aspects of the film.  They don’t.  In fact, some of the film’s propositions are extremely challenging – depth of learning not breadth of coverage; none-interventionist teaching; projects that endure for months; interdisciplinary rather than subject-based approaches; teachers free to teach whatever they wish, inspired by their passions….and many more.  However, the drift of the film, its central proposition, its compelling message, seems to be universally accepted.

That compelling message is that the model of schooling 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 (which, despite more than 100 years of trying, the current model has patently failed to do).

This second theme, the one about equity and social justice,  matters – and it matters in the UK even more than is exposed in ‘MLTS’.  School remains the only entity in our modern world that has institutionalised the notion of ‘ability’.  We talk about ‘able’ and ‘less able’ children in a way that would be utterly unacceptable in the adult world.  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 determinants!

High Tech High only has one grade – grade A.  They expect every learner to achieve an A, and it is the responsibility of every other student to support them to get it. Their ‘classrooms’ are interdependent communities of learners.  If this sounds glib, the principle success indicator they set themselves 12 years ago when the first school opened (with the same fully comprehensive intake they still have) is that every student – that is 100% of student, regardless of background or prior achievement history – should be able to progress to college and university.  A dozen years later 98% of their students fulfil this – and 85% of their free school meals students complete degrees.

By any standard these are astonishing results – and they don’t even begin to represent the breadth and depth of achievement of students at High Tech High.  But they will give some insight into why there is such energy at the end of each showing.  People agree with the proposition: our models of schooling and learning need to change, and they were awed by the evidence of what has already been achieved at High Tech High.

This, then, is both the scale of the challenge and the essence of a solution.  School has to change and we have clear evidence that this is possible – possible, even, beyond our UK imaginings. We are locked into a time warp, with a mental model of ‘school’ that is debilitating, but we can also do something about it.  We can redesign ‘school’.  And the ‘we’ starts with the people in the room minded to do so after each showing, and then the people that they gather on the way afterwards.

As Margaret Mead so tellingly said: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

So, Innovation Unit is endeavouring to build some energy across our system around these ideas.  And if you are reading this and are enthused, then you can contact us to host a screening, together with a workshop or debate.  Afterwards, all you then have to do is join with some other thoughtful and committed enthusiasts, and we might together change the school experience for our young people.

Grammar schools and the myth of social mobility

Grammar schools and the myth of social mobility

Introduction – two quick stories to start this piece.

I was watching the Rio Olympics when I first wrote this, struck by the success of some of the South African representatives – the athletes, the rugby team – the majority of whom were black.  I worked in South Africa immediately post-apartheid.  At the time, liberal paternalists would have said then that talented young black sports players were spotted and helped to break through in the old system.  And, of course, the odd one or two did. However, 20+ years on and there is a torrent of talent coming through.  That potential talent was always there, of course, but without equality of opportunity (and it still isn’t perfect, of course) only the selected and favoured minority made it through.

That previous minority reminds me of the few working class kids who used to get into grammar schools in the UK (and still do where grammars persist), or the even smaller number granted assisted places to independent and direct grant schools.  They represented a ‘privileged’ minority rather than any belief system about the potential amongst the many that all could succeed.

Which leads to the second story, from those same years working in Cape Town.  On one occasion a colleague and I were driving to a primary school in Khayelitsha, the largest settlement or township in the Western Cape (below).  It is a complete paradox – an ocean of poverty and limited opportunity, and at the same time it can be one of the most vibrant and inspiring of places. Anyway, we got lost.  Three times we stopped to ask the way from children who were playing on the dirt roads – and who should almost certainly have been in school.  Three times we were directed in English by delighted children aged maybe 8, 9 or 10 years old.  As we moved on, my colleague, Philippa, said to me: “You realise, don’t you, that they were all directing us in their third language?”

We were in one of the poorest places in the world and the children are able to speak three languages fluently.  The first epiphany is this.  Can every child be a successful learner?  Of course they can.  The second insight relates to HOW they learn three languages – in their community; with and from their peers; for real purposes; in order to do things that matter.

Grammar schools and social mobility

My parents both had unfulfilled educational histories.

My father left school at the age of 14.  He attended a grammar school in York, but the tedium of a 7 mile cycle ride each way couldn’t compete with the attraction of work on the farm.  So that was that.  My mother attended Leeds Girls High School, but her mother was a widow and couldn’t afford university fees, so a job as a secretary followed school.

Married just before the war, by the time my sister and I were young children my father had a corner shop on a back-to-back estate in Kirkstall, Leeds.  He wanted to work for himself and provide a better life for his family.  My mother wanted her children to have the opportunities that she missed out on.  Standard stuff, really, and my sister predictably breezed the 11+ and went on to Leeds Girls High School and became a teacher.  I was much less academically inclined and so, faced with the prospect of one child in a grammar and the other a secondary modern, I was sent for private tuition in the evenings.  Lots and lots of it – that I, of course, resented because I wanted to be playing touch rugby or football on the recreation ground with my mates.

Anyway, I passed.  Probably grudging about not transferring to secondary school with my mates. I definitely hated the school. Later became the first in my family ever to graduate. We were one of only two families on the estate whose children attended grammars. But that’s not the story. The story is the 1960s UK equivalent of the Khayelitsha experience.

Once I had donned my blazer and cap and travelled the two bus journeys each way to the grammar school (they didn’t build grammars near back-to-back estates) my mates from primary school dissolved away.  Why not?  I went to a posh school – and my parents didn’t really want me contaminated by low aspirations.

But I knew something.  I was no brighter, smarter, more intelligent, or more talented than my former mates who went off to the secondary modern and who probably still think now that they ‘weren’t very clever’.  The schooling system said I was brighter, but it wasn’t true.  I knew that.  And that same knowledge, that sense of the waste of human potential, has informed the rest of my working life, really.

There are those who would say that this story exemplifies social mobility through the grammar school system.  But it doesn’t, and I was witness to that.  It’s the total opposite of that.  It shows that one random family was able to be offered a pathway to opportunity, but that (and this is the thing) the mass of others, the other 95+% of youngsters with just as much human and intellectual and practical potential were left behind, just like the hundreds of South African athletes in the old SA mentioned earlier.

Post graduation I became a teacher in a comprehensive school (a former grammar school that ‘banded’ the children!) and, ultimately, a comprehensive school headteacher.  The joy of the work has always been about transforming life chances for young people – trying to demonstrate tangibly that every student can achieve the metaphorical equivalent of speaking three languages.  Teachers are in the saving lives business.

And a reflection from all this? We have changed from a selective to a comprehensive school system and, in doing so, literally millions of children have had their life chances and self-esteem and social mobility and image of themselves as learners transformed.  But we still haven’t shaken off the legacy of those old grammar school days. There is still a widespread belief about ‘able’ and ‘less able’, and that some schools are better equipped to transform life chances and social mobility than others.

And that mindset leads to this.  School remains the only entity in our modern world that has institutionalised such a one-dimensional notion of ‘ability’.  We talk about ‘able’ and ‘less able’ children in a way that would be utterly unacceptable in the adult world.  And there are luddites who still want to promote a false educational apartheid, to partition schools by this spurious notion of ‘ability’ – a fallacy which is, in effect, little more than a socio-economic determinant.  Schools just should not be about labelling and limiting potential.

It takes me back to the South African athletes now liberated to express a talent that was previously suppressed by partitioned opportunity, and to the children in Khayelitsha who all spoke three languages because they learned them together in the real world for real purposes and not behind a desk in a classroom.  And it leaves me with two conclusions:

  1. Any suggestions of reverting to a system of educational apartheid is morally unacceptable in a liberal democracy.  It is nothing less than a denial of human potential.
  2. Our comprehensive school system still needs a massive overhaul (a school redesign imperative) in order to create learning contexts within which all youngsters are able to express their talents and leave fit for the 21st century.