I want to put on record that transformation of student learning does not happen in schools where the headteacher is preoccupied with raising attainment scores or meeting the expectations of Ofsted as goals in themselves. Rather, transformed attainment and outstanding Ofsted judgments are bi-products of a school culture in which students and teachers are passionate about their work, are excited, engaged and empowered by their learning, and where they (both staff and students) profoundly believe that their role is to liberate the learning potential of each and every learner.

Because the embedded implementation of REAL Projects takes 3-5 years, the task requires leaders who create the conditions for this long-term development work; who engage with the work themselves; who learn alongside their teachers; and who model and use the PBL processes in school-wide adult learning.

Leaders with a PBL mind-set understand that focusing on achievement and scores comes with a low ceiling – and that ‘getting an Ofsted outstanding’ is not a compelling vision. Instead, they realize that growth potential lies in transforming students’ learning experiences through trusting teachers and equipping them with the tools that allow collective critique and refinement of their craft. Leaders have to inspire about what is possible, set a context for success, and then to let go and empower their teachers, in the same way that teachers have to do that for their students in the REAL Projects classrooms.          

(Adapted and developed from a Drew Perkins 2015 blog post.)


In 2008 the Paul Hamlyn Foundation partnered with Innovation Unit to launch what was to be a four-year programme entitled Learning Futures. It drew inspiration from a predecessor PHF innovation, Musical Futures, which has demonstrated that radically alternative approaches to pedagogy – ones that emphasise student engagement, collaborative working, peer tutoring, real-world relevance, student agency, project orientation, valuing learning both within and beyond school and minimally invasive teaching – can have transformative effect on both achievement and participation in music learning. The task in 2008 was to embark upon a systemic enquiry, with a group of schools inspired by these features, to develop ‘grounded theory’ about what learning might look like across the curriculum if it had similar features. What might be the implications for the design of schools and the design of pedagogy?

That all now seems a long time ago.[2] It is so long ago that Project-Based Learning (PBL) was for many of us still viewed as an approach that had been extensively tried and found wanting in the seventies and the eighties. So long ago that few of us had at that point heard of High Tech High, or Expeditionary Learning, or New Tech Network, or Big Picture Schools, or of their school designs, or their approach to pedagogy, or their astonishing evidence of success.

More to the point, it is worth saying two further things. The first is that we never set out in 2008 to introduce PBL into schools or to develop REAL Projects. We set out to find models of schooling and learning that would profoundly engage all students and that could liberate the potential and the achievement of all learners.   Put simply, we believed then (and know now) that all learners can be successful, but we also knew that could never happen within the existing paradigm. We set out to find alternative paradigms.

As that suggests, we also couldn’t in 2008 have known (but might have guessed) that there would be significant implications for the design of school, and the learning of teachers, and the role of parents, and the involvement of community. We certainly couldn’t have then known that evolving the new models of practice, or supporting the work well, or developing new materials, or finding practitioners eager to make the changes would be only small parts of our challenge.

The real challenge was finding schools and school leaders with what proved to be a unique combination of features – ambition for the work, an evolving vision of how it could be achieved, the courage to make big changes in the face of what feel to be hostile external accountabilities, and the leadership capabilities to fashion and steward and inspire and advocate for the work as it evolved.

In the pogrammes we have supported since 2008 we have partnered with more than 70 schools eager to undertake this work – all of which were up for it and, we believe, have drawn benefit from the experience. Of these, however, we would classify fewer than 50% as being more than marginally (a word chosen carefully) successful, and about 10% as becoming (or on the road to becoming) outstandingly successful – potential exemplars for the system.

The main variable has probably been headteacher leadership.

So, this is the first of two posts that focus specifically on leadership. There will be two think-pieces:

  1. The first, The Struggle to Lead looks at what lessons we have learned from the relative failure and frustrations of so many of the schools to achieve and to sustain what they set out to achieve.
  2. The second is a provocation drawn from the leadership perspectives of some of our most successful school leaders. These materials are supported by video conversations which can be accessed on the Leadership Case Studies section of the REAL Projects site.


Let’s be clear, it isn’t headteachers who are critical to the design of great projects, or to the leadership of PBL teams, or to the capacity-building of teaching teams, or to igniting student passions and producing exhilarating exhibitions. That is what PBL Leads and their teams of teachers do.

However, what is consistently evident from our work with REAL Projects in UK schools over the last half dozen years is that the active advocacy, stewardship and enablement of the headteacher – and other senior leaders – is critical to success.

This reflective piece has arisen from those leadership struggles and learnings. It derives from the experiences and insights of four Leadership Coaches who worked in schools across the country supporting school leaders to support the work. Most struggled.  `This piece answers the question: What do we now know about how school leaders can best support REAL Projects implementation in their schools?


  1. The leader locates PBL (REAL Projects) and the work at the centre of the future vision for the school
  • The leader is eloquent in articulating a case for change and a compelling future vision to the entire staff and community.

This happens, of course, in multiple ways, but common features tend to be about aspirations for students’ success that far transcend historical achievement patterns. Compelling visions tend to have a social justice element – a belief that all students can succeed and that historical approaches to learning and assessment have patently failed to liberate this potential for all students. The vision is likely to involve progressively re-designing ‘school’ so that it is more relevant and appropriate to the second decade of the 21st Century. It will embrace a curriculum and pedagogy that can better prepare learners for their lives as citizens, workers and family members in the modern world. In the most successful schools, this is a vision that is co-constructed with the entire community, so that all staff, students, parents and community members are invited to share the commitment and the sense of optimism and possibility it creates – and can find their ways to contribute. Whilst all this might seem to be stating the obvious, an inspiring and inclusive vision that located REAL Projects for all staff was not something that we were able to take for granted.

  • The leader is steadfast about the future place of the work within the school’s curriculum and the wider system – they see the long game; they hold the line.

Working alongside our schools over the last few years, we have seen initial visions for the work buffeted and blown away by the pressures of Ofsted and examinations. The kind of vision described in point one is both a moral imperative and a long-term task. It represents a leadership mission. The school leader is the one who has to hold this ground, to see the long game, to embody the belief.

  • The leader creates safe space for experimentation and risk – establishes a culture that nurtures the work, that is optimistic and celebratory.

The team developing REAL Projects knows that this work is not without risk. Not only is it new to the school and pedagogically different, but it also involves significant unlearning and re-learning for staff. They need to have confidence that their headteacher is ‘holding’ the risk on their behalf and that her/his advocacy is both secure and informed. When the pressure is on, whether from parents and community, governors, or external accountability demands, it is the headteacher who has to communicate confidence, authority and stability.

  1. The leader is proactive about enablement, problem-solving and empowering the team by actively sponsoring work.
  • The leader chooses the team wisely and appoints a charismatic, dynamic and optimistic adult learner to lead the work.

The introduction of REAL Projects represents both an expression of belief in a pedagogical model that can transform student engagement and achievement, and also a view about how school should be re-designed if it is also to be a creative environment for adult learning. When High Tech High say that ‘teacher as designer’ is one of their four founding design principles, they are saying that designing great pedagogy together is the essence of what teachers as professionals should do. In this way, the set-up phase involves identifying a passionate PBL Lead who can help grow others, and recruiting (not conscripting) an enthusiastic and committed team.

  • The leader ensures the REAL Projects team receives planning time, timetable prioritization, resources and funding to support the work.

Collaborative time for planning and reflection is not an optional extra, it is a foundational commitment of the work. When the REAL Projects team asks for longer learning units to allow for deep learning, that is not a marginal request – it is core to what is required for success. It also means the leadership team needs to be proactive in finding spaces that allow for collaborative and creative learning and making the timetable enabling, not restricting. While schools are always struggling with finances, it is important that the PBL team receive funding that is at minimum equal to that of departments within the school and that they have autonomy about its use. They also need resources to bring in external experts to the school to work alongside the students.

  • The leader empowers the PBL team and actively sponsors and promotes the work – communicating success, spreading optimism; offering challenge; seeking out opportunities for celebration and endorsement

Such active sponsorship derives both from the leader’s belief in the work and from close involvement. Leaders become celebrators and pollinators; affirmers and questioners. Through so doing they both validate the work on the ground and they learn alongside their teachers. Teachers have a right to see that their leaders value this core work; that they understand it.  Teachers and students are affirmed when the head is inspired by what they are doing.

  1. The leader mediates and mitigates external accountability pressures and constraints – they offer stewardship and guardianship by regularly engaging with the work.
  • The leader develops a strong narrative to work alongside Ofsted to help it understand the work and its place in the school.

Many heads passport pressures from external accountability onto their staff, but this is destructive for REAL Projects. All our evidence shows that Ofsted inspectors can recognise the value of student engagement. They are inspired by the use of real work and authentic tasks. They applaud the incorporation of real-world audience and they value exhibition and authentic assessment. They love student portfolios and the confidence of students in talking about them. (At one school the lead inspector hugged a student after her exhibition presentation!) Peer critique and multiple drafting have brought consistent praise from Ofsted inspectors, as have student-led conferences. In our most successful schools, the leaders fill the REAL Projects team with confidence about their work and celebrate it with external visitors. When students and teachers know that their heads care about and are inspired by the work; when heads model the relational approach with students; when they demonstrate comfort in the devolved learning environments of REAL Projects sessions – it ignites their work and draws yet further discretionary effort.

  • The leader visibly and regularly engages with REAL Projects – he/she leads by example

This is a real discriminator. There is no getting away from it that the leaders who most inspire and support their REAL Projects teams are those who engage actively with the work. This can be anything from practical involvement as a team member through to regularly visiting and celebrating project sessions, or being active at exhibition time and with parents in student-led conferences. It is also from such engagement that other leadership functions are informed. By getting close to the work, it is possible to be proactive about enabling, problem-solving and celebrating.

  1. The leader is informed and connected to the wider international knowledge-base and models that for the rest of the school

Just as the school is becoming rich in knowledge, tools and materials in support of REAL Projects, connecting with the practices of teachers across both UK schools and internationally, so the school leader should model this by connecting the school with national and international practice and the evidence from research. There is a growing body of practice in successful PBL design and delivery, and there is equally a growing range of school design models and features that are facilitative of engaged and impassioned learning. By connecting the school with advanced practices – and contributing to them – the leader is living out on a larger canvas the values that will help internal learning to thrive.

This is part one of a two part article….

[2] Some great publications exist from that work that can be found here and both Musical Futures and Language Futures, two subject-based manifestations of the work have thrived and have their own websites.

[3] Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems Around the Globe, Innovation Unit, 2013.

[4] In the model, there are four core ‘design principles’ supported by two ‘enabling principles’ related to teacher collaboration/learning and the enabling utilization of technology.


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