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".