School culture: is there another way?

Henry Stewart's picture
In England we have become so used to a regime of endless grading of students, focus on the data, monitoring of teachers and always being ready for Ofsted that it feels normal. Going to the Oppi festival of education in Finland, and getting a different perspective, it felt as though we are all trapped in a giant hamster wheel.

Finns certainly find our approach incomprehensible, with their focus on enabling students to find their talent and their passion. There is only one test, at 18, and very little grading. But it isn't only Finland. One of the most inspiring talks I went to was actually from an English school: Chris Holmwood, a believer in Whole Education.

An alternative approach from Milton Keynes

Chris Holmwood, Senior Deputy Headteacher of Shenley Brook End School, started by asking what words would come out most prominently if you put your staff handbook into a Wordle? Would it be "behaviour" and "control" or "learning" and "enjoyment"?

When he asked his teachers what held them back, every answer started with the same word, "Fear". He asked Year 13 what they wished they had more of. They said "Choice", "Challenge", "Enjoyment", "Independence".

"So we have teachers held back by a range of fears and students longing to take charge of their learning. "Why don't we let them?""

Chris' reaction was radical. He abolished the use of levels and grades (until just before GCSEs), as well as removing grades from teacher observations. Instead students are assessed on "curiosity", "creativity", "co-operation", "commitment" and "consistency". He never uses the word Ofsted or focuses on getting ready for them.

Shenley Brook End does have lesson monitoring but the teachers get to decide which of the 9 staff-created feedback forms are used (depending on what aspect of their teaching they want evaluated) and there is dialogic feedback, rather than a mark.

Choice quote: "If you bore the teachers, you will bore the children"

Is your school red or blue?

Chris set out two opposite pictures of school culture. On the red side, it is autocratic and based on teaching and direction. On the blue side, it is democratic, based on learning and reflection.

Last year he got the opportunity to present to those involved in Teach First. He asked them whether the school they were working in was more "red" or "blue". Sadly he reported that, of 2,000 Teach First teachers, all reported that they were working in schools that were on the left of this sheet, more on the autocratic than democratic.

Is this really the culture that will get the best out of our young people?

McKinsey Report: innovation and creativity

In his presentation Chris quoted from the 2010 McKinsey report "How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better". McKinsey found that school systems that go from good to excellent focus on unleashing creativity and innovation. Great schools have loose guidelines on teaching, peer-led creativity, innovation are core drivers

This remind me of a talk a the  Association of Colleges HR conference by Jat Sharma, Principal of Walsall College, on how his college got to be Outstanding. "We dropped the tick box forms and the proscribed lesson format and trusted the professionals."

A key conclusion of the McKinsey report was that what was needed to get form Poor to Fair, Fair to Good and Good to Excellent was different. Some level of prescription may be needed to get the basics in place. But you can't tick box your way to being an Outstanding school. As McKinsey found, that where you need a culture of trust and creativity

Do we need to escape the hamster wheel?

As Chair of Governors of an inner London comprehensive I have been as involved as anybody in making sure our teachers (and parents and students) have regular colour-coded data on student progress and keeping very careful track of how every student is moving through the levels towards their GCSE grade.

But the Oppi conference, and Chris' talk in particular, made me wonder if there is another way. What would your school look like if it aimed to be on the blue side of the above digram, more than the red?


Note on correction: Chris Holmwood was originally described as headteacher of Shenley Brook End school. When he read the post, he pointed his position was actually "Senior Deputy Headteacher".
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Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 03/05/2014 - 17:22

Great piece Henry. I have met Chris Holmwood several times and found him inspiring. He helped to change the way I think about school development and Ofsted in particular and I have taken those thoughts back to both governing bodies of which I am a member. Maybe we should go and visit his school?

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 03/05/2014 - 21:18

I am about to step down as a community governor at my grandson’s small primary school for reasons that are hard to explain to governor colleagues. This is because they have been told by others what the school should be doing. They are hard-working dedicated individuals, some of them new to governorship, and Ofsted told them just last autumn that the school required improvement so that is what they are engaged in doing. Two HMI visits later and some ‘input’ from one of the few remaining LA advisors and we have targets in abundance. How can anyone dare to question, in the face of such unflinching certainty, whether the whole picture is as we are told?

I do not blame colleagues, teachers and governors, for their reactions. People under the kind of pressure that is building to a crescendo in our schools are looking for clarity. But, never have we been so devoid of moral leadership in education and I fear where this may yet lead. Apart from all the damage done by successive Secretaries of State for Education resulting in the kind of responses from teachers and young people that you write about, Henry, there is a resistance to the need to prioritise the child’s needs over the needs of the market and the whim of governments. Ideally, the drive to build a system fit for the future should come from local communities led by professionals working collaboratively for ALL our young people to help them achieve full personhood.

Chris Holmwood seems as if he doesn't just have an understanding of what is needed to help establish a more wholesome culture in his school, but the courage and confidence in leadership to help bring it into being.

Wonder no longer, Henry. There is another way. My decision to step down from governorship was a difficult one to make. It is my belief that I can be more effective from the outside and only time will tell if this is possible. I regard my time spent in keeping up with the views and comments on LSN invaluable in this context.

Thanks for this, Henry, and for your comments about the Oppi conference in other posts.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 04/05/2014 - 07:27

The Government says it wants to raise the quality of education but its focus is on standards that can easily be measured (eg results, number of pupils going to Oxbridge etc). This shifts the focus of education from children and young people (where it should be) to the type of regime that Henry eloquently describes above.

At the same time, ministers and their supporters criticise "child-centred" education but don't make it clear who, or what, is at the centre of education if it isn't the child.

Phil Taylor's picture
Tue, 06/05/2014 - 11:41

It's great to read about a head and a school that are bravely going their own way. It requires a lot of confidence.

The tragic thing is that there used to be more schools like this before education became such a political football and politicians were not brainwashed into thinking that they had to outdo each other in regressive policies.

The principles that Chris Holmwood espouses are not new, as I'm sure he would accept, but great credit is due to him for putting them into practice in the Gove era.

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