PART 6 – Building Trust in a Culture of Skepticism – EQ

This piece is part of a leadership archive from one of the most authentic school leaders I have met, Jeremy Hannay. Jeremy is currently headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School, and his work can also be found here.

This article aims to explore HOW we lead – what resources we draw upon – if we aim to build a culture of trust.

I recently read an article about the meal replacement company, Huel, one of the fastest growing companies in the UK.  In their office, in giant black letters on the pearl white wall, is their key slogan: ‘Don’t be a dick.’  When I’m asked how we lead differently at Three Bridges, I often simply reply – ‘I try not to be an asshole.’  Not being an asshole can be one of the trickiest parts of leading an organisation (even for this happy headteacher!) – but it can make all the difference (and I don’t always get it right).


It’s a Tuesday morning – I have just walked through the door and sat down at my desk after my 40 mile drive to work.  I have a million and one things on my mind, have opened up my long list of things to do and just started crafting a reply to a difficult email I received, attempting to avoid an escalation.  Then there is an inevitable knock at my door.
First – I am THINKING – ‘this better be really f*&^*(& important’
But my response is: ‘Morning 🙂 How are you? :)’
This conversation goes a number of ways, but often is something like: 
‘I’m wondering if you had a chance to look at the email I sent you?’ (The one they sent me 5 minutes ago or last night at 11pm).
Now – I am THINKING – ‘You know I have just arrived – and I haven’t even been here 5 minutes :|’
But my response is: ‘I’m really sorry, I haven’t had a chance yet.  What’s up?’
‘It’s just that I’m not sure everyone knows what’s happening for book day – and maybe you could send an email to everyone reminding them of the day, etc.’
Now – I am THINKING – ‘You have got to be f$%^& joking. You have fingers, a keyboard and a computer – if you think that people don’t know, YOU SEND THE F$%^&* EMAIL! You had time to send me one!’
But my response is: ‘Oh Dear! Let me do that with you right now.  It completely slipped my mind.  Thanks for bringing this up.  And – hey – next time, if communication seems light, please do feel free to send it for me.’

Obviously – this is a slight exaggeration of my inner voice.  I am not always a complete monster.  But – when I am not under the gun, it’s easy to be nice.  When you’re under pressure – which as HTs in England, we are almost 99% of the time – it is much harder to perceive emotions, manage emotions and act in emotionally appropriate ways.  Our responses, appropriate or otherwise, define the relationship with our staff and the smooth running of the school (or not!).

EQ: Our Emotional Quotient

Our Emotional Quotient is our ability to recognise our own emotions and those of other people.  It means being aware of body language, tone, background, strengths and struggles.  It involves having a cultural awareness (ex: how we express our dissatisfaction in Canada is actually quite different that in England). Having a well developed emotional intelligence is another piece of the puzzle, when trying to build a culture of trust.

Perceiving Emotions
How in tune are we to our own emotions – how mindful are we?  In the example above, I was conscious of the fact that the email I was sending initially was of a very sensitive nature and my response was important.  This meant that I needed to be hyper-vigilant when interacting with others so that my stress and anxiety did not become theirs.  Perceiving emotions means being aware of your own emotional state and discerning the state of others through their own verbal and non-verbal queues. If someone comes in angry or frustrated, I meet them with compassion and care.  Everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about – and I always hope that when I am angry or frustrated, I am met with the same care and compassion I give out.

Managing Emotions
Reflection is a large part of leadership.  Managing emotions is really about reflecting on our own emotional responses and their potential consequences – both positive and negative.  Sometimes I want to scream – sometimes I want to hug.  Both have consequences.  Knowing when and where those responses are best – beginning with the end in mind (as Covey would say!) is as important with our emotions as it is with our operational decisions.  In addition to this, managing emotions is also about how we support others to do the same.  As school leaders, we recognise student behaviour as something that needs to be modelled and taught – however, often with adults, we lose that thought.
We ran a staff meeting last year where one of the exercises was to do some mindful tasting – to take a raisin and roll it around in your mouth for a minute.  What texture did it have?  What did we notice about it?  Did it have a taste? Did it change at all over the minute?  The point was to be reflective and appreciative of the moment. How often do we just shove food in our mouths so we can get on to the next thing?  When was the last time we actually mindfully tasted our meals?  It was about living in the moment and appreciating life.  It was also about managing our emotions – that everything changes when we take a minute to pause – reflect – respond.

Acting in Emotionally Appropriate Ways
You are a weather maker.  In our buildings, when we are low – when we are stressed, anxious, panicked – the staff reflect that.  Acting in emotionally appropriate ways is about exercising control over which emotions guide our actions.  Are you in control?  When you are responding to a person or situation, who is it about? Is it about you?  Is it about them?  Is it about the children?  Something else?  This is EXCEPTIONALLY IMPORTANT to unpick.  Our default answer is almost always ‘it is whats best for the children.’  I challenge that.  I challenge both that we always act in the best interests of the children (we can’t be mother Theresa all the time!) and the notion that children must always come first.  We are soil people.  Often, to take care of the children, we need to take care of someone or something else.  We need to take care of the people that take care of our people.

When Ofsted called a few weeks ago, I was out doing some work in another school.  A member of staff anxiously asked if I was coming back NOW.  I said no.  I’ll be back in time for lunch, talk with the staff and we’ll go about our day as usual.  The school I was at graciously offered me a swift departure – I said no thank you.  What was most important to me in those moments was that my response was not a reaction to the situation but a response that has been practiced 1000x over in my mind.  I have seen schools and leaders go in to complete panic-mode after ‘the call’.  Staff get wound up, miss their lunch, stay until midnight to re-back boards or mark book or plan flawless lessons.  I did not want that in my school.  I wanted staff to enjoy their lunch, go home early and rest, and the school to not be ‘on show’.  The two days Ofsted was due to visit also weren’t going to be changed either – it would send the wrong message to staff. I had pre-planned visits with HTs from Wiltshire and then further abroad from Germany and Belgium.  They went ahead.  If the staff saw me cancelling visits, stopping the school show, not supporting other schools – they would also change.  That is not what I wanted.

I don’t take care of children anymore.  Teachers take care of children.  We take care of the teachers so that they can take care of our children.  How is it that you would want your teachers to be supporting our pupils – when they misbehave, when they are struggling with learning, when they don’t understand, when they need more or different or special – when things in their life stink? We don’t want them to be a dick.  Show them what that looks like.

I recently read a blog by a new HT after their first year that said one of the things they had learnt was the courage to call out poor practice – when they saw it.  While I am sure this has the best of intentions about raising standards and supporting development, I see it as inherently flawed. There are times that staff come to me with gripes about other staff – someone is not pulling their weight, they’re not doing what’s right or they feel frustrated with their level of commitment to something.  The easy thing for me to do is call them on it.  But the easy thing and the right thing are often not the same.  This is where I like to go deeper – ask WHY.  See things from that teacher’s perspective.  What is causing the performance issue – what is causing the complaining teacher to be dissatisfied?  Alignment, balance and harmony come from a series of complex relationships within and between staff and their lives outside of work. The worst thing I can do is respond immediately (unless it is VERY serious).  The best thing I can do is listen – pause & reflect – and respond later.  Acting in an emotionally controlled and appropriate way – this is not situational.  It is a constant. It means pausing your thoughts in the now for a better, more nuanced response later.  This is the essence of not being an asshole.

The next blogs will look at other resources we draw upon, including Pathfinding & Problem Solving as well as delving more deeply in to Creating the Weather.

PART 5 – Building Trust in a Culture of Skepticism – ALIGNMENT

This piece is part of a leadership archive from one of the most authentic school leaders I have met, Jeremy Hannay. Jeremy is currently headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School, and his work can also be found here.

By now, it’s likely you’ve read the beginning of my series on Building Trust in a Culture of Skepticism.


This word is attributable in my leadership journey to Kevin Graham, a high school Principal with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board in Ontario, Canada.  He was one of my facilitators on the Canadian version of the NPQH, known as the PQP (Principals Qualification Program).

Kevin used this term frequently.  At the time, I understood it one way – today, as a Headteacher, I see it in a new light.  Really – my ability to lead others is based primarily on trust, and this trust is founded a a number of factors – with the largest, arguably, being alignment: are what I say and what I do congruent?  Am I being authentic, genuine and honest?

There’s no sense walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.

It is one of the reasons I host so many people at Three Bridges each year – my voice should be a whisper – my school – my practice – is the amplifier.


Alignment is first and foremost about your ‘why’.  Articulating this is often a very complex piece of work.  Simon Sinek writes and speaks about this.  We can all describe what we do, and many of us can talk about how we do it – but recruitment and retention, performance and standards, people going the extra mile or giving up before the job is done – is most often linked to the compelling and honest WHY.  Why are we doing what we’re doing – and how is it linked to what we believe about ourselves, our people, our community, the purpose of education and our vision of the future?


When staff morale is low, performance is poor, people are leaving – it can often be traced back to a misalignment with our WHY (and theirs!).  Have you compellingly articulated your WHY – so well that it becomes a common language in your school?  Other staff speak it and live it – not because it has been drilled in to them, but because they share it?  When you hire people, is your interview set up to find the alignments between your school and the person you’re hiring?

Let’s take marking as a practical example.

I am someone that talks a lot about my belief in staff agency and autonomy.  I believe that professionals can only truly flourish in an environment that encourages reflection and self-direction, coupled with development and research opportunities.  Having a marking policy that prescribes code, colours, frequency, and content is misaligned with agency and autonomy.  So I don’t have one.  The policy says:
‘Written feedback will only be used when the teacher determines that it is the most effective and relevant type of feedback for the subject/lesson/pupil or context.’
In other words, when a teacher thinks written feedback is the best form of feedback, they’ll use it.  When they don’t, they won’t.  That is alignment.


Unpicking your beliefs – your WHYs – is an important leadership task.  If you haven’t done it, do it.  It is important that we know ourselves before we try to lead others.  This helps us define our why.

What are your core beliefs about education? About humans?
What gets you out of bed in the morning – what excites you, inspires you?
What is your story – how did you get here?
What phrase will define your life?
How will people describe you at your 80th birthday?
What makes you come alive?
What are your strengths?  Where do you add the greatest value?
How will you measure you life?
What will your legacy be?


I didn’t need to survey other schools, talk to the LEA, or see what Ofsted wanted.  None of that matters.  I believe in agency and autonomy – I believe in trust – I believe that people are fundamentally good and want to do their best – so I write a policy that says that.  We got rid of marking when most people were still debating what colour to highlight mark in – not because I was trying to be controversial or a dissident – because I believe in alignment.  What I believe, what I say and how I act must be aligned.

This goes for everything in the school.


If I say that I value family and work life balance and a member of staff comes in to my office and asks for a day to go to their child’s graduation – and I say no – people don’t get upset with the rules – they get upset because what I say and what I do are incongruent.

If I say that I trust them, and then ask them to submit planning, evidence everything, scrutinise their books – even if I call it something nicer – like a ‘book celebration’ or ‘learning look’ – if what I say and what I do (and really, how they FEEL based on what I do!!) are misaligned, things will never run smoothly.  Being a values-led school is equal parts what you believe, how you behave and how people feel.  Often, the last part gets left out.  Lots of fancy words on walls – but as Mary Myatt says, these values need to be lived, not laminated.  Alignment.

There is no greater influence on leading a culture of trust than alignment.  Exploring how your values intersect is also complex.  You might believe in trust, but also believe in putting children first.  How do you negotiate this?  I want to trust teachers, but also want the children to have a world class experience.  If I just let teachers do anything, standards will drop and pupils will suffer.  At the intersection of trust and pupils is support and development of staff.  Brining your beliefs to life often lies in support, development, research and collaboration.  This takes time.  Alignment doesn’t need to be overnight.

Remember the cathedral?  If we say that we want to eliminate the marking-in-books nonsense because we believe in teacher agency, it is important we are transparent with the process.  This is where we’re going (cathedral) – and this is how we’re going to get there (the plan) – but we won’t be there tomorrow.  But know, that when we do get there, it will be together.


If you want to build a culture of trust – it starts with alignment.  How aligned is your walking to your talking?

PART 4 – Building Trust in a Culture of Skepticism – DEVELOPING SOCIAL CAPITAL

This piece is part of a leadership archive from one of the most authentic school leaders I have met, Jeremy Hannay. Jeremy is currently headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School, and his work can also be found here.

This post is to unpick some of the ‘replacements’ for traditional school inspection (branded as improvement) after having explored PART 1, 2 and 3 of my series on Building Trust in a Culture of Skepticism.

Collaborative design of the instructional program is a pivotal piece.  However, complacency with an approach and a rigidness to change is a great way to destroy trust in any school.  In addition to this, we know that teachers learn incredibly well when they are dialogic – supported to use their social nature to discuss, dissect and debate learners and learning, pedagogy and practice.  So – what frameworks or systems do you have in place in your school to facilitate this type of focused conversation.  How are teachers connecting about your instructional programme?  Do they have a voice in refining it?  Improving it?  Changing it?  What about the impact of your instructional programmes on learners/learner groups?  Is there a mechanism for teachers to lead on that process?  How are teachers encouraged to contribute to the improvement of the school?

Building frameworks of social capital is another way to build trust in your school.  You’re already hiring the very best people, growing and developing them in meaningful ways, designing your instructional program with them.  Now it is time to support their growth through social networks – collaborative learning. And while I think spaces like Twitter have scope for this, it isn’t really what I am referring to.  I am talking about practices like:

a – Learning & Lesson Study
b – Teacher Research Groups
c – Open Lessons

Learning & Lesson Study is a model of collaborative development and social capital that comes from Japan.  It involves a team of teachers (usually 3) creating a wave of research lessons (usually 3) that have research questions, case pupils, a knowledgeable other (often a person, journal article, or resource), and teachers directly focussed on the learners and learning rather than the teachers and teaching.  It allows teachers to have a view into the learning they don’t often get.  When the research lesson is complete, teachers interview the case pupils for their views and then retire to a review and planning session for the next lesson. This is a brilliant way to focus conversations on learning, allow new teachers to have a surgical view of a teaching approach/program, refine accepted instructional practice, and try out new ideas based on their experience or research.

Teacher Research Groups (TRG) are often a group of teachers involved in a collaborative learning team.  They are usually from different schools (but don’t have to be) and contexts, exploring an instructional approach or strategy together through dialogic facilitation.  The facilitator is a knowledgeable other – or very experienced in the subject matter being discussed.  This supports facilitating and managing the conversations.  There will typically be ‘gap tasks’ for each group member to be exploring in their own setting, some form of observation, a debrief by the teacher, a facilitated conversation about the learning and the collaborative planning for the subsequent ‘gap task’.  There would usually be 6 meetings per year (sometimes more, if it is within your own school).  Another great way to expose teachers to thinking, reflectivity, the instructional programme, and help them defend against misconceptions or common ‘malpractice’.

An Open Lesson is very similar to a TRG, but as a ‘one-off’.  There would be a pre-lesson discussion hosted by a knowledgeable other, where they may be outlining a focus of study for the observers or the particular approach the observers will be seeing today.  Then an observation – often in the classroom, but other times through video feed or recorded lesson – followed by a facilitated talk and plan for action afterwords.  THe teacher of the observed lesson will often discuss their own views on the learning and research before participants can engage them in discussion about next steps and learning.  This is not a critique of the teacher or their teaching.  This is an open opportunity for learning.

There are many other forms of social capital (collaborative development).  Learning Rounds and Spirals of Inquiry are examples of evidence-based practices that are collaborative and developmental rather than evaluative.

The key questions here are which frameworks of social capital do you have?  And how do they facilitate cultures of trust?  You can also see how lesson observation becomes to school improvement as marking is to feedback – it’s a way…but probably the least effective in comparison.

True school improvement is a social enterprise – when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s called synergy.  One of the most powerful catalysts in a school.  If we want our classrooms to be filled with enquiry, collaboration, discovery, courage and creativity, we must put our professional people in those same conditions.

PART 2 – Building Trust in a Culture of Skepticism – MONITORING & SCRUTINY

This piece is part of a leadership archive from one of the most authentic school leaders I have met, Jeremy Hannay. Jeremy is currently headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School, and his work can also be found here.


Even typing those words makes me feel ill.

Lets first think about the sorts of things we monitor and scrutinise:  books, planning, learning environments, displays? Road traffic? Lots of things, I’m sure.

How do we typically do this: collect in books, have planning collected in folders, complete the ever-popular learning walk.  Sometimes with colleagues, sometimes without.  All of this takes a great deal of time – for teachers and senior staff.  Someone asked me last week how I have time to fit in everything – because I got rid of the BS.

Now, let’s think about WHY we feel the need to monitor and scrutinise our professional people – all of which I understand and can think of times it would be useful.

a – its about performance.  I feel that if I don’t have my eye on what’s happening, performance will decline or derail.

b – its about consistency.  I feel that if we are not checking up on teachers, they’ll deviate from the ‘game plan’

c – its about standards.  I feel that while they may be doing their very best and following our instructional programme, it still may not be good enough.

d – its about cpd.  I feel that when I intimately know what teachers are doing, I can plan better cpd for them.

My question isn’t: are these ‘whys’ important – I don’t think there is anyone that would argue that performance, consistencies, standards and development are bad goals – what I am hoping we can begin to ask ourselves through this series is: is there a better way/a less invasive way/a way that emits trust rather than strength/a way that puts our professionals at the centre rather than the edge?

In virtually every situation, the answer to those are YES.

An important factor in leadership is where you look first.  I have heard lots of leaders look outward – performance is poor because the teacher has poor subject knowledge (I know there is a good argument for this in secondary, but this is a primary HT remember!).  Or the ever-popular ‘pace.’  Things are just too slow.  I am sure we could all think of a million other reasons why a lesson has gone awry.  However, its rare that I hear introspection.  This isn’t going well because we missed some opportunities for support.  This seems less strong because they haven’t been inducted well, haven’t been involved in lesson study, open lessons, team teaching.  You see where I am going.  When we point fingers at teachers, teachers learn to point fingers at children.  It is the worst kind of culture.  A ‘within someone else’ culture.  Now – sometimes the teacher stunk.  It happens. Sometimes I stink.  However, when things are off the first thing we should be doing if we want to build a culture of trust is assume that the teacher is doing everything they can to be great.  So when its less so, the only finger pointing that should happen is back at ourselves.  Is there a way we could support better?  Develop them more sustainably? How can we #LeanIn to this teacher to help them soar?  Performance is about hiring the right people (intelligent, passionate, committed, aligned professionals) and then placing them in the very best soil to grow – which means surrounding them with experienced, selfless, supportive educators that understand adult learning.  This requires some modelling and training, too.  But far more often than, teachers flourish when they’re in the right soil.

Consistency is less an issue when the instructional programme is clear.  As an example, we have anchor charts in our school – A1 paper hanging on washing lines that are co-constructed with the children during the lesson that hold the key learning.  It would be impossible to come to Three Bridges and not be immediately struck by this consistency.  However, we don’t have an ‘Anchor Chart Policy’.  I have never conducted a learning walk and fed back to teachers about them.  At first, it was a collaboratively designed, intentional instructional approach.  (I use that work on purpose – intentional – nothing happens by accident at Three Bridges!) But now – even staff that weren’t around for that decision years ago – they all do it.  Often the things we’re looking at for consistency – don’t need a policy or playbook.  How do they know where the staffroom is – they follow the crowd.  It’s important to them that they eat collectively – so they watch closely and follow the lead of others.  When it doesn’t take hold – ask WHY.  Don’t enforce – seek first to understand.  Is your expectation meaningful?  Do they feel its meaningful?  Has it been explained to them?  Typically, when things aren’t consistent its because (and it means its likely us that needs to change, not them!):

a – the teachers find it a waste of time

b – its never been clearly explained and agreed

c – it was a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist anymore

d – its time:impact ratio is off (marking is a great example of this…something you can spend hours on and get very little return from)

Leading an #IncredibleSchool means being open to change – yourself.  It’s hard to lead change in a school if people feel you are unwilling to change your views.  When you show them the blueprint of the cathedral you’re building – and the extension in the third year is on the kitchen, but they think it should be on the living room – be OK with that.

When thinking about standards, the key question is often about skill or will.  Skill we can often fix with the right supports.  Will is harder. I often imagine myself in a scenario where they have tenure – and no matter what, cannot be fired.  It changes things.  I have to think about push and pull – how can I get them to come with us?  My default setting is that we rise together. Instead of observation, consider micro-views.  2 minute lesson looks.  If the instructional program is clear, you’ll know immediately upon entering a lesson what success looks like.  In 2 mins, you can listen to teaching, talk to a child quickly, take a look at a table of books.  Doesn’t take much more than that.  No notepad, no clipboard, no laptop.  Just a friendly visit.  And if things are problematic, a behind the scenes document that supports the development of the teacher – at pace, with humanity and humility.

CPD should rarely be reactionary.  Strong leaders know their staff and can anticipate where new things will be a struggle and where struggle will be for people that are new.  If we are constantly responding to what’s wrong, we’re never moving forward – always stuck chasing our tails.  Expect that some concepts, strategies or approaches are going to be more challenging and plan it in.  Don’t wait for things to go wrong and try to recover.  Have streams of development – streams for new staff and those for more experienced staff.  Involve as many people as you can in school and staff support – doesn’t just need to be those with titles.  Know your strengths and develop areas of struggle.  In race car driving, when you see a crash you don’t slow down – you hit the gas.  Middle level leaders can support and broker CPD for today’s challenges – we need to keep our hand on the heart of the school and our eyes to the sky.

Books: is there a way that books could be consistent and high quality without collecting them in and feeding back?  Is there room in your school for a walk-in clinic, where teachers can self-refer?  Teachers are often their harshest critics.  Do teachers feel threatened by the scrutiny/do they do extra prep for it/is it a true reflection?  What if teachers all brought their worst example to a team meeting and then brought their most improved back a few weeks later, so everyone could have a laugh, time to collaboratively think/reflect/plan for success and then share it?  Perhaps this improves consistency and standards without being at gunpoint. Everyone wants to succeed – have we given them the chance?

Planning: how clear is the instructional programme?  Who are they planning for?  What if the plan is great but the lesson is not?  Are teachers getting time to plan together? Are they able to rehearse questions with each other and anticipate common questions/misconceptions?  If the school has a clear instructional programme, the sequence of the lesson and its components should be clear – and time is best spent thinking about deeper questions, like: what is it I want them to learn (responsive teaching), how will I know if they have learnt it, what will I do if they already know it, what will I do if they struggle to learn it?

When decisions are made collectively about the basic expectations in the school between teachers and leaders, you’ll find that compliance monitoring and scrutiny becomes obsolete.  Books, planning, environments, displays all start to become routine.  I know at Three Bridges, despite my intervention, it actually becomes quite competitive and collaborative.  A display needs changing – teachers from across the team swoop in and get it done in 45 mins (with the mind of out doing the one down the corridor!)  Most follow the crowd – if its meaningful use of time.  If expectations are not being met, its often better to ask WHY first – chances are if you’ve been doing something the same way for a long time, it needs to change – not them.

If you have created a culture where teachers have a true voice, you’ll see commitment soar. No need to monitor as closely or corporately.  Teachers are their own biggest critic – give them a low (or no!) stakes opportunity to learn, improve, grow – and watch them take off.  Self-referral, professional growth partners, coaching conversations, research lessons, lesson study, teacher research groups – these are all more powerful mechanisms for standards, consistency, performance and development.  I’ll talk more about them later in the series.

PART 1 – Building Trust in a Culture of Skepticism – Intro & The Instructional Program

This piece is part of a leadership archive from one of the most authentic school leaders I have met, Jeremy Hannay. Jeremy is currently headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School and his work can also be found here.


After my post about our recent Ofsted visit and how we have done away with the traditional monitoring, scrutiny and accountabilities culture, I have had a number of requests to visit – and even more genuine questions about what we do instead.  It seems like an obvious question – but the answer is quite complex.

twitter post

If the question is: what do we do instead of all of that?
The answer is: a bunch of stuff and nothing at all

I realise that this isn’t what people are hoping for.  ‘Take away observation – fine.  Get rid of scrutiny – ok.  Remove data targets – alright.  We’ve always felt a bit off doing that.  But how do we ensure that learning and teaching are strong?  Ultimately, as HTs, we are responsible.’  Right?  Right.

So this blog is going to be a series – which looks at some of the building blocks necessary to get rid of (or minimise) the stuff driving teachers out of our profession – and develop a culture of trust, development, collaboration, support, agency and challenge.  If you’re looking for a quick fix, stop reading. It is not as simple as ‘stop observing, start xyz’.

This is cathedral building, not stone shifting.  It is complex and organic.  It will take time. It is less convenient.  It will make you uncomfortable.  It will be risky, challenging, and scary (at times).  You will need to be vulnerable.  But – this is the important bit – as the great Brene Brown says, ‘nothing is more risky, scary or dangerous than getting to the end of your year, role, or career and have the lingering question: what if I had actually shown up? What if I had done what I always believed was right?  Would things be different?’

I should say at this point that I know it is possible to get results and Ofsted grades doing what we’ve always done.  That is certain.  What we also know is that we can no longer recruit enough teachers for the jobs we have, are haemorrhaging teachers out of the job en masse, and morale in schools is at all time lows.  Our people feel micromanaged, controlled and confined.  Worst of all – they feel like we don’t trust them.  The beautifully intelligent Maya Angelou once said, ‘when you know better, you do better.’  So, this is not a series to make values judgements on schools or school leaders – 7 years ago, Three Bridges was no different to your average school: a written marking conversation for every lesson in every book, planning scrutinies, book scrutinies, 3-6 graded lesson obs per year,  planning scrutiny, mandatory planning proformas, etc. It is a school that in any given year has 40-50% pupil premium, 80% EAL, 35% transience between Y1-6, 96% BAME, 30% SEND, double digit EHCPs – its a challenging demographic.  When I arrived in 2012, 58-65% of children met L4 by the end of Y6 (the 3 years prior to my arrival).  40% staff turnover was normal.  We changed because what we were doing was glaringly ineffective – and better was possible.  So, we were there, too.  I should also note a this point that this is a process – Rome wasn’t built in a day.  But to build Rome, the vision of its beauty and brilliance needed to be shared from the start. Stopping what you’re currently doing tomorrow is probably the worst thing you can do – show them the cathedral – and build it together.  Nothing is worse in a school than rushing to succeed.  There is no rush – this isn’t a sprint, its a marathon.

Wherever you are, start there.  Maybe your results are fine and Ofsted is happy.  Maybe not.  This is about something deeper than results and Ofsted grades – its about revolutionising and reclaiming our profession. And the fact that you’re even reading this means you probably feel like I did – better is possible.

The best place to begin is at the beginning.

PART 1: Collaboratively Building a Coherent, Clear and Compelling Instructional Programme (especially in English and maths)

This sounds like a pretty basic idea.  But the reality is – having visited hundreds of schools, hosted thousands of school leaders and teachers from across the country – this is often a glaringly absent cornerstone in many schools.  Here are some simple questions: What does the instructional program for __________  in your school?  What constitutes incredible learning?  Is there a clear framework for teaching? Does this framework differ based on age or stage? Is there a resource base/scheme of work?

Can everyone in the school articulate this?

My experience is that most schools are unable to coherently and clearly articulate their compelling frameworks of instruction.  Teachers are unclear.  There’s a big gap between what we hold as leaders and what they know as teachers.  Phrases like Quality First Teaching or Inclusive Practice get thrown around – but when you dig beneath the surface, everyone is on a different hymn sheet.  No one seems to be able to agree.  This isn’t to say that we should have robot teachers – but collaboratively designing and agreeing what incredible instruction looks like is a vital first step in removing uncertainty and creating clarity and ownership amongst staff.  This should be based on a healthy mixture of experience and research.

If we cannot agree what effective instruction looks like, everyone by default is ‘doing their own thing.’  Some successfully – many less so.  Observation is crucial and necessary here – as we need to provide feedback to teachers about their effectiveness in order for them to improve.  We haven’t made the instructional programme clear, so they will learn it through observation successes and failures – feedback.  Those that don’t pick it up need to go/be replaced, and those that are quickly adaptable are successful and often get promoted quickly – without complete clarity regarding what it was that made wah they did great.  Saying their results are good just isn’t clear enough.

At Three Bridges, we started over.  No one could clearly describe what great reading instruction looked like – so we flipped the script.  Rather than disseminating what great teaching and learning looked like through post observation feedback session, we collaboratively designed the instructional programme together.  We looked at research and talked about our experiences of what was ‘sticky’ for the kids and tried our best to align research to practice.  We identified that which we were already doing and the things that we weren’t – and practiced.  Then we came back together a few weeks later to discuss our strengths and struggles.  After a term of collaborative development, we designed our framework together.  Everyone got it – had tried it – had succeeded and struggled – and worked with other teachers.  We applied the same approach to writing and mathematics (and later our entire curriculum).  One of the blogs in this series will explore how we continually refine and improve our instructional programme – but , suffice it to say, we constantly refine and improve it.  What maths looked like 4 years ago and what it looks like today have a similar core – but its wildly different in practice.  More refined, more nuanced, laced with the experience of failure and success.

This is the beginning of regular observation becoming obsolete.  When the instructional programme is collaboratively designed, you don’t need to monitor for best practice, compliance or consistency.  Everyone is wholeheartedly trying their best and actively seeking out those that they believe can support them.  They are seeing immediate impact in their lessons – children more actively engaged, learning visible, what the children are producing has dramatically improved, less low-level behaviour – and most importantly – a new, shared discussion about learning that wasn’t possible when there wasn’t a common language.  This isn’t to say there is NO place for observation – but the frequency and stakes can really change.  I am in and out of lessons all the time – about as often as they are in and out of each others lessons – but never with a laptop or notepad.

Teachers want to do well.  They want their children to learn.  They deeply believe in teaching as a transformational profession.  It is our responsibility as leaders to create the conditions under which they can truly flourish – and collaboratively designing the instructional program is a crucial first step.  When all teachers can answer: What does the instructional program in ________ look like/sound like in the school?  What constitutes incredible learning?  What is the clear framework for teaching? Does this framework differ based on age or stage? Is there a resource base/scheme of work? Where does what I’m doing fit in the sequence – last year they _____ and next year they’ll ______.  When this is consistent across the school through a collaborative design and refine process, the traditional observations, feedback, grading all become redundant.

PART 1B: And What If I Need To Move Them On?

Many of you might be thinking – ‘OK, we can do that – sounds exciting.  But – what about poor performance?  How do we move someone on if they just aren’t cutting the mustard?  We have done everything we can – but its not working out?  Observation is one of the only tools we have to move on struggling teachers.’

Having a document base that sits in the background – of everything happening in the school – is important.  If I am in and out of lessons, and have concerns about what I am seeing (it does happen!), I record it.  But not everyone needs to see it.  One of the greatest attributes we can have as leaders is ‘pause’.  Not every difficulty needs to be addressed immediately (unless it is VERY serious) and its likely that it doesn’t need to be me that supports it (or you!).  When something appears ‘off’, I log it, speak to the team leader, and they take an informal look.  If it was a one off, they report back and say its nothing to be concerned about.  If it is something that needs addressing, it is often addressed at the team level first – no finger pointing or anyone on the line.  A general discussion about a particular standard with everyone bringing a great example – keep things positive.  Then collaboratively design the standard together.  A couple of weeks later, lets look at our most improved example.  Again – no threats.  Just collaborative development – growth from the middle.  95% of the time, this sorts out most instructional/standards issues.  In the 5% of time when it doesn’t work, we have an evidence base of what been done to support and develop (team meeting, co teaching and planning, open lessons, obs another teacher, etc) and now they have a more formal meeting and support plan with all the normal timelines and expectations.  But, if I am honest – this rarely happens anymore.  When someone has decided what excellent looks like – they feel a part of the process (done with, not to) – then we know its not will, its skill.  And that is often fixable.  If its not, they improve or they go.  The kids deserve nothing less.

That is step 1 in moving away from the BS – collaboratively designing the instructional program so that everyone can coherently, clearly and compellingly discuss what learning and teaching looks like in each subject.  Observation as we know it begins to become obsolete.  And believe it or not, teachers start requesting observation – from colleagues and management – to reflect on and improve their practice.  Go figure.  🙂

Do you Possess a Protected Characteristic?

In the last academic year, I have supported people into,

1 CEO role

2 Executive Headteachers

4 Headteachers


12 AHT

Too many middle leaders

I love you all.

If you have a protected characteristic I will initially coach you for free.

If you don’t I’ll happily send you my rate card.


A Different Way

July 11th 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the mass murder of 8000 Bosniak men and boys in Srebrenica and January 27th 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. 2020 is a critical year for remembrance, but equally, it has to be a year of action.

We must resist hate from the global to the local level. Together with the amazing @behaviourleader, I am collecting words, your words, stories, academic literature and views. These contributions will culminate in a book, which will include proposal from all over the world. If you feel you have something to share please do fill in the form below:

How to Stop Marking from Taking Over Your Life

This piece is part of a leadership archive from one of the most authentic school leaders I have met, Jeremy Hannay. Jeremy is currently headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School and his work can also be found here.

The idea that written feedback is the best and only kind needs to be put to rest. Not only will this help children learn, it’ll reduce teacher workload, says Jeremy Hannay…

It’s the end of the match. The underdogs are in a tough battle to the finish. The players are tired. Can they hold on?

All of a sudden, the coach calls for a time-out. He’s spotted a potential weakness in the other team. There is a tactical advantage they could exploit, a move that could change the game. Can they cause a late upset…?

The team hustles round, kneeling in anticipation. A confused look comes over their faces. The coach is writing down what he’d like to say. “I’m almost done!” he shouts, “This is going to be great!”.

The whistle blows and the time-out is over. The team, bewildered by their coach’s odd behaviour, makes its way back onto the pitch. They haven’t been given the information in time. The other team rallies and scores again. The game ends with a devastating loss.

Back in the changing room, the weary, dejected players find a note with ‘Feedback’ written on it. The team captain opens it up. It was the strategy to win the game. Frustrated, they question the coach about his behaviour.

“Keep calm,” he says. “We can work on it tomorrow.”

The team, understandably annoyed, tell the coach that they needed to know right away, not the next day.

Feedback myths

The school bell may not have the same immediacy as a final whistle, but this sort of thing happens every day, to the detriment of children’s learning. Somehow, stemming from a bad combination of old Ofsted policy and poorly interpreted research, schools have been driven to adopt widely unsubstantiated (and sometimes outright wrong) ideas:

1. That written feedback is the most valuable type
2. That the best written feedback is a conversation between pupil and teacher
3. That feedback must be evidenced in a book to ‘count’

Let’s be clear – written is not always the best, or most appropriate way of critically commenting on children’s work.

Coming from Ontario, Canada, I was immediately shocked by the inordinate amount of marking that was taking place here. When I asked why everyone was spending so much time putting comments in books, I was received a range of answers –‘That’s the policy here’; ‘How else will they know what to fix or how to improve?’; ‘We need evidence in the books’, ‘It’s what we do’; and sometimes, ‘I have no idea’. Once in a while I would also hear something like, “It’s what research says is best practice”.

When people mention this ‘research’, they are often referring to one of two documents – The Teaching and Learning Toolkit, originally commissioned by the Sutton Trust, and John Hattie’s Visible Learning, which places feedback in the top five teaching influences on student achievement.

Neither publication, however, suggests that written feedback is crucial. In fact, in both reports specifically mention other modalities (pupil-to-teacher feedback or metacognitive strategies, such as Assessment for Learning).

Cut it out

At my school we have drastically reduced the amount of written feedback we expect of our teachers. All told, however, feedback is sharply on the rise (over 20%). More importantly, the decrease in the marking and extensive pro forma-based planning we do has been mirrored by an increase in attainment.

So what does our approach include?

• We’ve developed an ethos in which teachers can focus on both their own professional learning and that of the pupils
• We’ve created an environment where teachers can spend their working time dedicated to developing technological feedback strategies and pedagogical practices that promote pupil-to-pupil feedback
• We’ve introduced approaches that foster targeted talk about process and that promote self-regulation
• We encourage pupils to think about where they’re going, how well they are getting on and what’s next

Having read Alex Quigley’s work on Hunting English and a review of international research and practice, we decided that oral formative feedback and questioning would form the basis for our pedagogical advancements and teaching and learning strategy.

We started by implementing the new system into our English programme in 2013, and then our maths programme in 2014. They are built upon high levels of focused discussion and explicit modelling of thinking and learning, by both the adults and children. We have since introduced the use of technology as a valued approach to enhancing more traditional methods.

In our English programme we’ve combined Talk for Writing – which involves pupils learning extensively about a genre of writing in order to increase their capacity to self-reflect, co-construct and feedback on their own and each other’s work – with Transactional Strategies Instruction. Our reading programme involves teachers modelling their use of comprehension strategies to demonstrate when and how to apply those strategies in different problem-solving situations. Teachers share the responsibility of conducting a thoughtful discussion about a common text with pupils, who are also expected to explain their use of strategies and to communicate reflective responses to what they have read.

In maths, our adopted approach is similar to the Singaporean style, and includes thoughtful questioning of the pupils by the teacher, of the teacher by the pupils and the pupils of each other. The feedback and questioning are based on quality-first methods, framed using formative assessment and lots of talk about process, encouraging high levels of self-regulation.

Last year we introduced iPads, and focused on the use of ‘animated thinking’. The pupils are able to explain themselves using video, voice-over animations and photography. It allows them to access the feedback of the teacher and other experts, including classmates, at their own pace.

This means every child can confidently integrate technology into his or her learning in a meaningful and engaging way. When the feedback is visible, it is exceptional.

Speak openly

In addition to programme and pedagogical changes, we also support the use of oral formative feedback strategies and targeted questioning embedded across the curriculum, such as these:

Our Accountability-Heavy Education System is NOT Leading to School Improvement

This piece is part of a leadership archive from one of the most authentic school leaders I have met, Jeremy Hannay. Jeremy is currently headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School and his work can also be found here.

When I was younger I used to work in a video store. I loved how busy the store would get on Friday and Saturday nights, the relationships we developed with people in the local community, the free bags of out-of-date crisps we’d get when the stock was changed – but, most of all, I enjoyed recommending movies to customers who weren’t sure what they wanted to watch.

Back then, one of my go-to recommendations was The Matrix. I was very taken with the film’s premise, and still think of it often when leading my little school in London and working with other teachers and leaders across the country. The premise in question is that the everyday world we perceive as real is, in fact, an all-encompassing simulation created by a race of sentient machines that have subdued the human race.

In one of the film’s best scenes, our protagonist Neo is offered a stark choice by Morpeheus, leader of a small group of human resistance fighters who know what’s actually going on:

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember; all I’m offering is the truth.”

Why do I bring this up? It’s because we school leaders in England have been living in our own simulated reality for years. One we’ve always known was somehow ‘off’, and one we shouldn’t have to live with any more.

The Blue Pill

This is the world we’ve always known. It’s a world where recruitment and retention crises are commonplace, where strategies aimed at addressing them merely fumble with the symptoms rather than fix any underlying problem.

In this world we’ve been led to believe that an ‘inspection culture’ is synonymous with a ‘development culture’; that in order for schools, leaders, teachers and pupils to improve, they must be constantly measured and monitored. This surveillance takes many forms – frequent high stakes observation, regular and robust scrutiny, coupled with top-down accountability regimes.

We see this culture at every level. It’s there between the system and schools in the form of Ofsted ratings and league tables. It’s manifested between one school and the next via audits, reviews and mocksteds. You can even see it in leaders’ interactions with their teachers and between fellow colleagues during lesson observations and ‘routine’ book planning, subject scrutiny and miscellaneous monitoring.

This is the world we’ve been told is real. Most schools you’ll visit and talk to will likely be operating in this way, and chances are your local authority or MAT will be actively promoting all of the above as the sure-fire route to gaining an ‘Outstanding’ rating. Except there’s just one problem.

It’s not real.

Oh, it all seems real enough – but just like the simulated reality of The Matrix, it’s a system built on a fallacious understanding of what education actually is, and what we can do to get better at it. It’s a system that benefits impersonal ‘machines’ – data-crunching software, private companies, financial markets, accountancy firms – while subduing our growth, development, creativity and innovation.

There is another way.

The Red Pill

In terms of what will actively help us as leaders and educators, here’s what’s real. Schools where there are no shortfalls in recruitment or retention, Teachers who are able to grow professionally over time, and help others to do the same. Everyone in a given setting aligned to a deep moral purpose.

In these schools, development isn’t centred on professional inspections, but rather professional collaboration. These schools won’t perform regular observations and monitoring, or fire out overly prescriptive performance policies. Instead, they’ll discuss and design pedagogy, engage in action research and regularly perform learning and lesson study.

Under this system, teacher development is seen as an important leadership responsibility. To that end, school leaders care deeply about their staff, and understand that growing great educators involves both moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem.

These are schools that build in time for reflection, research and collaboration – both within the school itself and with partnering settings elsewhere. Moreover, these are schools that consistently achieve top results. How? Through collective efficacy and well-developed core programmes. The teachers have autonomy and are trusted to make decisions concerning their classroom instruction. There’s little need for marking policies or planning scrutinies, because their learning programmes are collaboratively designed and collectively refined.

Nor is workload an issue. Why would it be? Under this system, the work teachers carry out at their schools is meaningful for them, and impacts directly and clearly upon their pupils.

And yet, in England right now, this type of thinking is distinctly unconventional. Taking the red pill isn’t easy – it takes courage and conviction. It requires us to rethink what we’ve always been told is true, and ask deeper questions about our own roles in the system’s broader failures.

Defy the machines

When looking at some of the most acclaimed education systems across the world, it’s easy to pick up on surface-level reasons as to why they’re more effective than ours. In Singapore, we point to the parental culture there around education. In Canada, we flag up the relative lack of income inequality. In Finland, some point to the lower levels of immigration.

The truth, however, is that it’s the culture around professionals, learning and development that allow those nations to succeed. Schools in Ontario only perform teacher observations once every five years, but make a point of organising and maintaining mutually supportive communities focussed on learners and learning. Singapore schools regularly perform lesson study to develop professional skills in lesson design and learning. In Finland, research and reflection is prioritised over basic practice.

What these nations don’t do is overburden their teachers with prescription and policy. They instead create conditions under which every teacher is able to flourish.

As school leaders, we face a choice – take the blue pill or the red pill. We can take the blue pill and continue to live in the world created by machines. That’s the easy way, the way we’ve always known. Some of us might even feel that we’re prospering under the system we have.

Alternatively, we can take the red pill and start designing our own future. It will be difficult. We’ll need to think unconventionally and be ready to embrace a series of tough challenges.

But if we succeed, that world will be real. And it’ll be ours.

Nourish to Flourish

This piece is part of a leadership archive from one of the most authentic school leaders I have met, Jeremy Hannay. Jeremy is currently headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School and his work can also be found here.

In October last year I spent some time in Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of Canada’s leading wine regions. One of the processes I was interested in finding out about was that of making ice wine. The grapes, having already reached full ripeness in October, are left untouched on the vines under a cloak of protective netting until the first deep freeze of the Canadian winter. The harvest then takes place between December and January, when temperatures are between -9 to -13°C. This is where my inspiration for school improvement comes from.

After harvesting, the grapes are pressed while still frozen. The water in the juice remains as ice crystals during the pressing, and only a few drops of sweet concentrated juice are obtained from each grape. What’s important to note here is that specific conditions are required for ice wine to flourish – and incredible schools are no different. The conditions we create as school leaders in a climate of change is critical to how the school moves forward and sustains that forward momentum.

Case studies of exceptional schools indicate that school leaders primarily influence learning by galvanising effort around ambitious goals, and by establishing conditions that support teachers and help pupils succeed. At our school, Three Bridges Primary, we’ve focussed our energies on developing a culture built upon collaborative processes, intellectual stimulation, individualised support and leading by example.


Successful school leaders will actively facilitate the participation of staff in school development. We make use of targeted professional learning communities, research-driven lesson study, teacher-led open lessons and other processes to interrogate learning, support teaching practices, achieve shared goals and develop key priorities. These are characterised by hightrust and honest, open feedback from all participants in a relatively flat leadership structure.


Stimulate the conversation with readings or visuals that promote reflection and support teachers in examining their assumptions about pedagogy and practice. Allow teachers to identify current areas of excellent practice, and shape the path towards new ones through facilitated group discourse. Allocate time for trying out new ideas without management interference.


It’s critical that we show our teachers respect by providing appropriate incentives, and structure opportunities for individual and small group development outside of larger staff development meetings. Learning opportunities for staff must support the development of teacher skill; our own optimism, evidence base and enthusiasm should be aimed at encouraging their will.


As school leaders, we must be living examples of our values and ethos. Our own personal leadership resources permeate every area of the school, from the classroom to the playground. When we smile and acknowledge how lucky we are to have the best job in the world, our teachers, pupils, parents and school community do the same.