The tweeting headteacher who took over the world

Francis Gilbert's picture
GILBERT: Are there any sane headteachers out there? The longer I teach, the more I ask this question because I think, possibly like becoming Prime Minister, it’s a role which is both stressful, lonely and can create a massively over-inflated ego. I really liked Tom Sherrington because he appeared to be both sane, reasonable and pretty humble. He enjoys the job for the right reasons. Being a head for him isn’t about self-aggrandizement. This is possibly because he can nourish his ego online where he has a growing and large following both on Twitter and on his blog, Headguruteacher, which gained over a million hits recently. In this post-Gove era, due to his dual role as head and popular education blogger, he has become a powerful figure: he is regularly consulted by the Labour Party, the DfE, Ofqual and Ofsted about a number of issues, he is a leading member of the Headteachers’s Roundtable and is in the process of helping set up a new National Baccalaureate qualification for secondary school students.

Melissa Benn and I interviewed him on a Friday in late November 2014 at his school, Highbury Grove, which he has been in charge of since September. He seemed remarkably unfrazzled considering that he is not only consistently blogging and tweeting, heavily involved with numerous educational initiatives as well running a pretty tough inner-city school which, while doing well, still has some problems.

Sherrington’s education and career

GILBERT: Having grown up in Farnham, Surrey, Sherrington attended a mixed comprehensive, attained a 1st in Physics at Manchester University and then taught in Wigan, after which he took a year out to go back-packing. A seven year stint at Holland Park School followed in the 1990s where he was a teacher, a Head of Year and Assistant Head. It was Holland Park which made him realize that his vocation was to be a teacher. After being a Deputy Head at Alexandra Park School, where he worked with Ross McGill, a.k.a. TeacherToolkit, he worked abroad at the British International School in Jakarta and returned to England to become headteacher of King Edward VI Grammar School (a.k.a. KEGS) Chelmsford from 2008-2014. While Holland Park “made” the teacher, his experiences at KEGS seem to have shaped his pedagogical expectations. In our interview he compared working with the top classes at KEGS to driving a very fast car to its limit; he saw just how independent, imaginative and analytical pupils can be given the right circumstances.

BENN: I was particularly interested in his experiences of working at Holland Park in the 1990s. Holland Park is my old school so I naturally feel quite protective of it; more importantly, Tom was there during a period of the school’s life when, according to Michael Gove, employing his usual conciliatory language, Holland Park was a ‘ basket case.’ When I asked Tom about how he saw HP during his time there, he gave a much more human and nuanced answer. In effect, he said, it depended on what teachers you got. If you got the right teachers, there was no place better. Get the wrong ones, and the experience was less than satisfactory.  I was also interested in Tom’s views of academic selection, given that he worked for several years at a grammar.  I already knew that he was a great fan of his old school, having had some robust correspondence with him on this same issue a couple of years ago. He didn’t really surprise me in his answers in this interview. He believes that selection as a system is wrong but having the odd grammar school dotted about, catering for highly able children, is acceptable. I pressed him on this, and particularly on the question of whether draining local schools of high achieving students really doesn’t have an impact on their culture and results. He was pretty adamant that it doesn’t. Something we don’t agree about, I think.

Dealing with bad behavior

GILBERT: I get the impression that taking over Highbury Grove has been a culture shock for Sherrington in that issues that just weren’t prevalent at KEGS dominate the day-to-day at HG. Reading between the lines, there’s a sense that poor behavior has meant that teachers can’t nurture the sorts of independent learning that he believes is the marker of “high-end” learning. He’s written eloquently about students co-constructing lessons with teachers at KEGS but I have an intuition that this isn’t possible at the moment at Highbury Grove. As a result, he’s instituted a new behavior policy which is much less forgiving than the previous one: disruption in lessons isn’t tolerated. This said, it’s interesting to hear him being sympathetic towards the vulnerable students. Frequently, heads with a “zero-tolerance” approach can be very inflexible, excluding, for example, children for having the wrong haircut. I don’t think Sherrington is like this at all. However, I think you have to be a bit of a maniac to get zero-tolerance approaches really working; the devil is in the detail. Sherrington will need a very energetic staff if he’s going to get it working.

BENN: Sherrington has clearly come into Highbury Grove determined to raise everyone’s game but without resorting to the kind of military discipline and punishing routines that have become so fashionable in recent years. I think a lot of would-be leaders, parents and supporters of comprehensives will be watching what he does at Highbury Grove with great interest over the next few years. I feel that if Mossbourne represented the high point of a particular model of post seventies comprehensive - so praised by Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove - then Highbury Grove could become a model for the post Govian era:  less concerned with relentlessly driving pupils and staff in pursuit of top results above all else,  and more of an institution with more authentic ambition and taking the long view : that is, concerned with good human relationships, the assumption of responsibility by all in the school and, most important of all, the cultivation of education for education’s sake.

On the knowledge versus skills debate

GILBERT: As with a number of divisive topics, Sherrington is very good at “squaring the circle”. I can see how he might win over “hardline” teachers like Tom Bennett who believe that content is king in lessons because he’s quite insistent that teachers teach facts and, where appropriate, provide direct instruction by telling kids stuff. However, he clearly believes that the acquisition of facts and content is only the starting point and that the so-called “soft skills” need to be taught as well. He enthused in the interview about Martin Robinson’s book Trivium which advocates “grammar” (knowledge), “dialectic” (argument) and “rhetoric” (communication) being taught across all subjects in much the same way that it was in Ancient Greece. Robinson is now an adviser at Highbury Grove and is helping re-shape the curriculum. I like to think I was one of the first to spot the importance of Robinson’s work with my interview on LSN here.

BENN: Seeing the distinctive cover of Martin Robinson’s book on ‘The Trivium’ on Sherrington’s desk, and hearing the passion with which Sherrington talks about the ideas expressed in the book, was intriguing and rather cheering. Another experiment that I will be following with close interest.  I agree with Francis; Sherrington seems to side step the polarising elements in the knowledge/skills debate. I particularly liked his argument that poor teaching is not about professionals unduly preoccupied with skills but about teachers who are unable, for whatever reason, to get across core knowledge.

On stability in staffing, PRP and why the unions want to clone him

GILBERT: So while Sherrington might warm the cockles of right-wingers like Nick Gibb with his championing of a knowledge-based curriculum, he also has won over the unions with his approach to a number of very divisive issues: the Ofsted grading of lessons, Performance Related Pay (PRP) and holding individual teachers to account for their results. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that together with bloggers like David Didau, Sherrington has been instrumental in Ofsted re-thinking the grading of lessons. He also basically rejects the fundamental principles of the new PRP system that has been introduced this year and is not aiming to give any teacher a higher salary based on their results or superior teaching. In this sense, he is a “collectivist”: he holds whole departments to account for their results rather than individual teachers. One could term him a “new managerialist” in the sense that he has ditched the “old managerialism” in education which made senior leaders focus upon ranking individual teachers by grading lessons and tracking their results. His “new managerialist” style is to look at groups of teachers and think about methods for motivating teams. As he says himself, this is quite selfishly a much more effective way of getting the best out of people. This said, he seems very much in favour of a licensing system for teachers which many teachers, like me, are not convinced by: this will hold individual teachers to account and will be, I suspect, very bureaucratic.

On the need for pushy parents

GILBERT: Sherrington is a pretty unflappable headteacher; he’s not that brittle and clearly sees the views of parents as an important way of holding teachers to account. He agreed with me that parents shouldn’t be telling teachers how to teach (which is my experience!) but felt that they should be encouraged to voice their concerns if they had any.

BENN: In fact, Sherrington seems to see even the pushiest of parents as a valuable resource, helping him to see where there may be general weaknesses in the school and using their discontent to ‘up’ everyone’s game. What really struck me was the healthy impersonality of his approach. He won’t take a PP personally, as a head, and he clearly has no intention of letting PPs influence or shape the education of their child only.  Here, as in several areas, Sherrington operates from a refreshing ‘big picture’ perspective.

Assessment and accountability

GILBERT: Sherrington is generally quite positive about the new forms of assessment that are being introduced by the government: Progress 8 and the ditching of coursework at A Level and GCSE. He agrees with many commentators that the exam system that is in its dying days right now is basically broken because it was, and still is, too open to abuse. It’s clear that he’s stopped the mass re-writing of controlled conditions coursework at Highbury Grove; this is something that many heads insist upon if grades are not sufficiently high. As a result, he admits that the schools’ results will take two years to bounce back to the level they had before all of the exam reforms. It’s lucky that he’s got the support of the local authority because you could imagine that many heads in similar positions simply would feel too frightened to do this. In 2013, the school scored 64% of students scored 5 A*-C grades or more, including English and Maths, well above the floor target of 45% set by the DfE. However, only three years previously it was 44%. What happens if the school dips below the floor target? Sherrington doesn’t seem too worried. Added to which, the school should do better with the Progress 8 measure which provides a figure for the value the school adds to pupils across 8 accredited GCSE subjects.

Academies and local authorities

GILBERT: Sherrington is nuanced in his analysis of what structures work best in education. KEGS was an academy and he doesn’t seem that opposed to the concept of them, seeing that independence from the local authority can have its advantages. However, now that he’s part of a LA school, he can see the benefits of schools in a local area sharing best practice and resources. He seems a little skeptical of the LA officers in Islington who are telling heads that they have to sort out the gang problems in their areas as well as educate. Sherrington is clearly no fan of the “social work” approach to education, although he’s well aware that students’ home-life has a profound effect on their achievements at school. As with the knowledge-versus-skills debate, he deftly sits in a middle ground with school structure questions: he’s opposed to LAs running grammar school systems but not to isolated grammars, he can see the advantages of academies but he’s enjoying being part of a LA.

BENN: Once again, if it works, Sherrington’s approach could become emblematic of a post Gove-ian approach to both school autonomy and collaboration.

On the teaching tweetocracy

GILBERT: Sherrington enjoys blogging and tweeting in his spare time; he doesn’t see it as work. He’s aware though that in recent years that a “tweetocracy” amongst teachers has emerged; a number of tweeting and blogging teachers like him, many of him are listed on the homepage of his blog, have assumed  dominance power over the educational debate. This Tweetocracy get invited to all the prestigious educational events – conferences, launches, policy discussions etc – while others are left out. My worry here is that educational academics have become so marginalized. However, Sherrington is, for my money, one of the best read of the Tweetocracy, regularly referencing academics which have laid the foundation for sound pedagogical approaches. The depth of his pedagogical knowledge is really impressive.
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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 04/12/2014 - 16:53

My favourite Sherrington quote is about what he calls the Pedagogy Tree:

“The tree canopy is a matrix of progressive and traditional forms that make up our learning in all its glory.”

In other words, pupils need knowledge and they need to have the skills to do something with that knowledge.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 05/12/2014 - 16:06

Quite so, but that is still a long way from the position of developmentalists like Michael Shayer , Philip Adey and a long list of others whose work I describe in my forthcoming book.

Our position, put crudely, is that all learners and especially children at key developmental stages, become cleverer through a process of learning in which cognitive dissonance arises from the mental struggle of trying to assimilate new knowledge onto personal conceptual frameworks into which it does not fit. This cognitive dissonance can be the driver for the modification and upgrading of said personal concept structures. Where such upgrading is qualitative as well as quantitative, then kids get cleverer and can understand harder stuff in all subject contexts, not just the one that they struggled with (in a good way).

This implies not only that general intelligence is meaningful, an important pedagogic concept and is plastic in nature, but that the process of developing such general intelligence is more important than loading knowledge content onto underdeveloped conceptual frameworks, which is ultimately counter-productive for teachers and learners alike.

While all this is founded on the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, modern proponents of the same principles like Guy Claxton, use terms like 'building learning capacity' instead of 'developing plastic intelligence'. This has crucial relevance to the issues that Francis and Melissa explore in this thread. This is because 'developing learning capacity' requires the parallel development of attitudes to the personal struggle to understand and make sense of new knowledge in a world which science teaches us is profoundly counter-intuitive in its deep nature. This is where Daniel Kahneman is making an important modern contribution.

Guy Claxton emphasises the need for students to become 'resilient learners', who expect to get things wrong and get 'mentally knocked back' in the process of 'building learning capacity'. Claxton regards 'learning resilience' as a desirable 'habit of mind' - a kind of mental 'good character' in the Victorian sense, but applied to personal attitudes to learning.

Such positive attitudes to learning on the part of students are only likely to arise in schools that have reciprocally positive attitudes towards learners, recognising their need for very high quality student-teacher and just as important, student - student communication in developing plastic intelligence/capacity for learning.

Such high quality relationships are unlikely to be found in schools that base their pedagogy on disciplining pupils through punishments and rewards (behaviourism) to sit still, keep quiet, pay attention, do as you are told and remember the facts that the teacher tells you.

However the tragedy of the marketised English education system is that those very methods may be the surest route to maximising C grade GCSE passes in a corrupted exam system, and the attainment of 'performance bonuses' by PRP incentivised teachers and Executive Principals.

Where Tom Sherrington fits into all this is not readily discernible despite the admirable efforts of Francis and Melissa to find out.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 06/12/2014 - 11:30

This is a link to the 'Mathematical Resilience' website run by Clare Lee and Sue Johnston-Wilder

This is from the 'welcome' page.

"What is Mathematical Resilience?

Mathematical resilience describes a positive stance to learning that enables learners to engage successfully in what can be a difficult endeavour, that of learning mathematics. It is a pragmatic, mathematised understanding of the well-established concept of resilience.

In order to be resilient mathematically a learner must: understand the need to STRUGGLE mathematically; resilience is the opposite of path smoothing, learning mathematics can be difficult, but struggling and overcoming those obstacles brings satisfaction with success;

hold a GROWTH theory of learning; the prevailing fixed theory of learning (Dweck 2000) where students are led to believe that they have a ceiling to what they can do mitigates against the idea that with effort and the right sort of help, learning can grow;

and have RESOURCES available to them to support their learning; this means resources such as friends and teachers, textbooks and the wider community of mathematicians such as those available through the internet."

The view that is argued in my book, and not just by me, is that this is an approach that has general application to all learning including non-academic learning. It is is counter intuitive and therefore not understood by those that think good schooling is just 'common sense'.

The main counter intuitive principle is that teachers should not always be making their subject easier to comprehend by chopping it up into discrete, readily mentally digestible bits, because this does not facilitate the growth of plastic intelligence/capacity for learning.

They should often be doing the opposite. This means developing the resilience of pupils to struggle with different concepts, because, properly supported, this process facilitates growth in general, transferable cognitive ability.

What does 'proper supporting'mean. This is a big, although long established and well-researched subject that has been sidelined in the thrust to marketise our school system. A key concept is metacognition. Put simply this means encouraging and teaching learners to hold mental conversations with themselves about their struggle to understand. This develops into shared conversations about the same thing - sharing between peers being particularly productive. The best conversations that teachers can have with pupils either individually or in groups are also about that same thing - the struggle to understand. This puts talk, not silent individual study, at the heart of developmental learning.

Last week the Daily Mail heaped praise on a disciplinarian 'superhead' whose school was now being run on completely contrary lines. Pupils not only have to sit in rows, in silence, absorbing the knowledge given to them by the teacher, but even their posture is dictated by the school - facing forward, straight back and with specific placing of the feet.

Sherrington's co-constructing of lessons does indeed have progressive connotations, but as a 1970s teacher in a school strongly influenced by A S Neil, I am not sure that this leads very far in terms of helping pupils understand difficult stuff. Developmental learning is about pupils sharing their cognitive difficulties rather than the order in which they are approached.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 08/12/2014 - 17:37

Sorry if this thread is becoming an exercise in metacognition (talking to oneself) on my part.

However just as I post a comment about the need for learners to develop resilient mental 'character', up pops Nicky Morgan with another proposal to achieve this by drafting army personnel into our classrooms.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is calling on ex-armed services personnel to develop values such as self-confidence, respect and leadership amongst the next generation of young people.

The former troops will attend both schools and pupil referral units for disruptive pupils excluded from school to instil a military-style ethos amongst pupils, under a £4.8m expansion of pilot projects first initiated under her predecessor Michael Gove.

“For pupils who may have faced challenges or difficulties in their personal life, these initiatives run by former armed services personnel can offer a sense of greater aspiration and can help build the skills and confidence they need to go on to good jobs and successful futures,” Ms Morgan said.

We have been here many times before on LSN. Tom Burkard and the ill-fated Phoenix Free School come to mind.

This, of course, is not the sort of mental character building I am talking about. I am advocating the encouragement of pupils to actively interrogate their own understanding, that of their peers and also that of the teacher. This sounds more like insurrection in the ranks (in a good way) than military discipline to me.

Tristram Hunt also appears to be dipping into similar territory, but I am not at all clear what he is advocating in practice.

For me it is just more evidence of our educational leaders thrashing about wildly without having much idea of what they are talking about.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 10/12/2014 - 12:35

While I too might also question the rationale for focusing on character, resilience and GRIT (a key aspect I will refer to later) through drawing on the military ethos delivered by former - not former not current - military personnel, I prefer to stick to consistency of reporting. That is to say, even the independent and SoS Educ got it right in referring to "former" military personnel, so can we please not introduce misreporting by stating:

"up pops Nicky Morgan with another proposal to achieve this by drafting army personnel into our classrooms."

A closer reading of the materials will also reveal that this character, resilience, GRIT is not about "military discipline". The "ethos" that permeates life and service in the armed forces is about rather more than that.

This is also yet another example of quick fire sloppy journalism lacking in even the flimsiest research. Has anyone followed the story far enough the find the underlying links:

The evidence provided at the executive summary of the 'Review of military ethos alternative provision projects: research report" (Dec 14), makes for interesting reading. This can be found embedded at para 8 of the above link.

I am not surprised by this initiative because there has been a recent fad for GRIT bouncing around the corridors of US education thinking, which indicates to me once again our politicians are importing the latest whiz bang idea from America.

It also comes as no surprise to me that the Conservatives would want to ignore - or even are genuinely ignorant of - the previous governments strategies that embraced this American version of GRIT. What does surprise me is that TH and Labour have forgotten their own strategies that the last SoS Educ killed off. To what am I referring? None other than Every Child Matters (ECM) and Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS). Yes, I know there will be people clamouring to distance themselves from what some characterised as social engineering but the simple fact is that the key skill sets at the heart of ECM and PLTS were those that FE/HE and employers alike were and still are clamouring for and criticising schools for not delivering.

So there are alternatives to the latest strategy and there is every chance that Mr Gove flushed this 'baby' away with the bathwater in his rush to make everything in education measurable and about academia without the balance of skills required for the next steps in life.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 10/12/2014 - 14:43

Roger - I also read the Mail's puff piece about the 'toughest and most inspirational' head in Britain. They'd written almost the same piece about the same head in 2011 when Dr Fox was head at Basildon (he didn't stay long). I suspect the latest is damage limitation by AET chain which has been criticised by Ofsted twice and just told to get its finances in order.

… Link: Interview with Melissa Benn and Francis Gilbert for Local Schools Network.  …

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