Northern Rocks 2014

Today saw the inaugural Northern Rocks event in Leeds and although I will be the first to admit that amongst the pressures of exam season it snuck upon us out of the blue, my excitement for the event this morning was palpable.

The event kicked off with a Question Time style panel with an illustrious guest list who exchanged opinions, facts and, occasionally, blows with enthusiasm and honesty and it was an excellent opening to the day’s proceedings. Dominic Cummings was the main antagonist but he was ably engaged with by Kev Courtney (NUT) and MP Ian Mearns. The two journalists were fairly bland in their offerings and Mick Waters provided sufficient wit and wisdom that I intend on re-visiting his book in the not too distant future having been underwhelmed the first time round. The session provided food for though on the impact that PRP is having across the education landscape as well as an eye opener into the challenges ahead for the profession to gain any consensus as to our core purpose and where real challenges lie. Despite a panel of heavyweights, the event’s matriarch, Debra Kidd, chaired the panel skilfully and without fear or favour.

Workshop One I went to see Dave Whittaker, a colleague who I have had the fortune to have as my NPQH mentor and that remains firmly one of the wisest decisions I have made. Dave gave a 45 minute tour de force to whet anybody’s appetite for beliefs around behaviour management in a session entitled ” Do Sanctions Work?” It was a real pleasure to hear his perspective on a question we wrestle with on a regular basis. Dave is the epitome of a professional who can talk the talk as well as walk the walk and he provided powerful messages, challenging questions and a tweak to the moral compass of anyone who was listening. The only regret being that there wasn’t enough time for questions or discussion.

Workshop Two was run by Tom Sherrington who focussed on how to become a research engaged learning community. Tom started by examining the universally key ingredient i.e. what makes a great teacher and gave a whistle-stop tour of his excellent blog series on great lessons. He went on to talk about intelligent accountability and this gave me the first of what would be a series of roller coaster emotions for the day. I believe that at TLC we have developed an intelligent accountability structure underpinned by my explicit understanding around every member of staff. I know and understand the strengths, weaknesses, learning journey, CPD record and willingness to develop for every member of staff and this has been the bedrock on which we have built staff development over the last two years. However, come September, I will be moving back to mainstream and will be starting again. How will I be able to develop such a thorough understanding in such a big setting? Will it even be my role when I move back to deputy head? These are questions I need to wrestle with in my first few weeks. Tom also talked about developing a professional learning culture and, although I reflected with some pride on how far we have come in this respect, and while I was pleased with how many common features TLC North shared with KEGS, there was also plenty to take away. In honesty, there was also some frustration at how this year’s uncertainty & changes has led to the stalling of last year’s excellent work.
A theme that ran throughout Tom’s session, which for me summed up the sensible and engaging theme of the day, was the symbiosis between traditional and progressive pedagogy and Tom spoke very elegantly around this. Being a frequent reader of Tom’s blogs, the real learning for me within his session was around the specifics of engaging with action research. This further contributed to my roller coaster of emotions as i become excited and optimistic about the opportunities my new post will present in this regard.

It is tradition in my school to report back on the quality of lunch at any external events so I will just add a quick paragraph to acknowledge that lunch was reasonable quality, of excellent size and incredibly good value so catering receives a very reasonable 7/10. The facilities are also significantly better than in my day at LMU which is just as well or my waistline would not have survived Uni.

I had a last minute change of heart for workshop 3 and chose to go and see Tait Cole’s presentation on challenging inequality through education. Tait is clearly a very broadly read man who doesn’t subscribe to the traditional orthodoxies around education and I went in hoping to have my thinking challenged and challenged it was. Throughout, Tait kept reminding us that we determine our moral purpose and ultimately that should be to give our young people the skills and the knowledge to think freely, critically and constructively so they are equipped to secure their own destinies.
I took away two big things from this. Firstly, it re-enforced to me that I will face personal challenges upon my return to mainstream. I am joining a school with a very traditional behaviour policy and incredibly high expectations of the students in terms of rules that could be considered conformist and promoting subservience. I have some real thinking to do about how I am going to set the behaviour policy in my new school to ensure that it not only underpins world class learning and supports staff in becoming the best teachers they can, but also ensures that all our young people become thoughtful, independent, effective citizens.
Secondly, as Tate talked about the principles of Punk Learning, and the necessity of supporting genuine student led learning, the need for agile teaching responding to student needs and interests, and the emphasis on truly creative solutions to learning problems, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much mainstream schools could learn from great PRUs and Special schools. Engagement, responding to need and breaking down barriers is our bread and butter. Agility and flexibility are our middle names. I believe that there has never been a better time to recruit to the special and alternative provision sectors due to the exodus of teaching colleagues looking to escape the uniform approach of some MATs and academies and this gave me some real food for thought around the underlying reasons and how I can uphold my core pedagogy values in going back to mainstream.

Finally, Workshop Four was John Tomsett. John firmly falls into the category of Head-teachers I think I would love to work for. Intelligent, compassionate, engaged and with an exceptionally strong moral compass. His session was based on why Heads and senior leaders should be the best teachers on the block and he talked heavily about the influence of Deming’s principles in developing a culture of quality, productivity and effectiveness. As would seem to be John Tomsett’s way, when these principles are combined with experience, compassion and humility, it makes for an enticing and exciting school culture with learning at it’s heart.
My roller-coaster of emotions pretty much peaked throughout this session. I began to feel huge waves of sadness that I will soon be moving away from the school I have helped to build and the team I am privileged to lead. I reflected on the culture we have begun to develop and how we are a million miles ahead of where we were, but it may not yet be truly embedded. Similarly, the notion of “sustained human learning”, which was consistent throughout the presentation, has been at the heart of my work at TLC North. We have relaunched and reinvigorated CPD on a number of occasions and every time it has become increasingly personalised and staff-driven. Again, I felt a wave of sadness about moving away from this and the colleagues I have seen grow and thrive through these systems.
John also showed a number of IRIS clips of his teaching and talked about CPD model within his school which focuses on video lessons, coaching and, often, marginal gains. It was fascinating viewing and my momentary sadness was replaced by waves of excitement about the opportunities my new school will present and the journey we have ahead of us.

The conference then reconvened in the sports hall and we were treated to a two man show from Mick Waters and the irrepressible Hywel Roberts. Amongst the humour, poetry, music and props there were some incredibly wise words and deep questions. None more poignant for me that “what will be your legacy?”. Then, surreally, and completely out of the blue, we were treated to a truly outstanding aria from Rachel Orr which was well and truly ORRsome and was an incredibly fitting end to what was an awesome day. Around this time I think my hay-fever must have kicked in as I had a tear in my eye at such a spectacular finale.

The sign of a great day is when, half way through, you are reluctant for it to end and find yourself already contemplating whether there will be another next year. There were twenty four genuinely high quality speakers, no political agenda, no overwhelming ideologies and what felt like a real shared purpose. The weather did what it often does Opp North and absolutely belted it down but that did nothing to dampen the spirits or optimism of the delegates who all left with a real spring in their step. Debra Kidd and Emma Hardy, it was great, your were great and I really hope you do it all again.

Thriving, or Surviving?

Some people are built to work with challenging behaviour, many would cross the street (or corridor) to avoid going near individuals or settings who display such behaviours. Below are ten strategies to help colleagues thrive, rather than survive, in settings that deal with challenging or extreme behaviour.

Values & vision – I have blogged before about the importance of a synergy between your core values, both as a person and as a professional, alongside those of your school and I think this is truer around extreme behaviours than anywhere else. Every day will present challenges and both you and your colleagues will be faced with difficult decisions. If you are clear about the direction of the school, understand the bigger picture and share the values that underpin the decisions, actions and behaviours of colleagues, then you will find yourself not only trusting your colleagues more, but also empowered to make the difficult decisions for yourself.

Hard work – Once upon a time, colleagues used to see PRUs or special education as a place to let your career die! Little marking, low expectations, ready made excuses for low achievement and questionable curriculum meant a welcome relief from the pressures of mainstream and I speak as someone who used to claim MPS4 supply rates for little more than playing table-tennis. I am pleased to say that times have changed significantly and anyone who comes into specialist settings should come in with their eyes wide open that they will have to be excellent teachers, aspirant social workers, entry level therapists and occasionally parents (in loco parentis, of course). The job requires huge amounts of time & effort both in and out of the classroom and can leave staff exhausted in a way few jobs can.

Take pleasure from small wins – the quintessential quality to working with extreme behaviour. The classic example is a student returning your ‘good morning’ with something other that “f**k you” but it runs far deeper. A student staying engaged for a whole lesson, a grumpy teen moving from the corridor on first request, a punctual arrival or maybe just a simple unprompted apology. If you can spot these things and allow your soul to be nourished through such marginal gains, then chances are you will also cope with just about most other things the job could throw at you.

Listen to your students – talking is cathartic. Not being able to finish a sentence is frustrating even for the most balanced and rational of minds. Listening is simply the key skill for any classroom practitioner or behaviour manager. No matter how ridiculous the young person might sound, no matter how certain you are they are lying, no matter how obscure their argument; having the courtesy to listen properly and respond accordingly will ensure that relationships remain strong and the student feels part of any solution that may be reached. I also believe allowing a student to speak is the most effective de-escalation tool available for 90% of situations. Skilled practitioners will also use this opportunity to truly unpick what is going on under the surface of poor behaviour.

Be flexible – sometimes a lesson on shakespeare or a test on algebra is going to have to wait. Occasionally, just when you think you have planned the perfect lesson, something a million miles out of your sphere of influence might upset the apple cart. It could even be that the curriculum’s demand for multiplying algebra is just going to have to settle on multiplication today as little Bobby doesn’t actually know his timetables yet! You should have known, but he only arrived in your class last week. Similarly, the learner who arrived with a c/d borderline prediction from Ks2 might not actually know the months of the year or how to tell the time. Huge, vacuous learning gaps are common, may often underpin some of the low level behaviours in class and the skilful teacher must be agile enough to identify and respond accordingly, without it becoming a huge issue.

Leave your ego at the door – there is no way you will win every battle, there is no way every lesson will go to plan, and there will be very few days you count as an unmitigated success. The best advice I can give colleagues new to my setting is to treat success and failure as the same imposter and take nothing personally. There are so many variables going on in the lives of your pupil population that your professional lives may prove equally as unpredictable. Take nothing personally, keep a balanced perspective of the bigger picture and you should be able to maintain your enthusiasm in the face of most adversities.

Practice and practise UPR – be prepared to treat each incident in isolation and on its own merits. Ensure your own ‘personal consistency’ is underpinned with unconditional positive regard at it’s heart and don’t ever pay lip service to it as a value. Your patience, your resilience and your commitment to these young people will be tested and it is vital that every lesson, every day is a new beginning. Generally speaking, young people who have statements for BESD or have arrived in PRUs will have extremely short term emotional memories and when they return to your classroom, they may not remember what they did, why they did it, how they felt or how you might have felt. There are obviously implications for a schools behaviour management system in this but as a professional in this setting, UPR will underpin high quality, trusting and secure relationships which are an absolutely key ingredient to your success and their’s!

High expectations – Ensure that your expectations remain high and that you challenge any sign that your students, colleagues and maybe even leaders are lowering expectations. Don’t ever settle for any sentence starting with the words “these kids” and don’t accept excuses for laziness, sloppiness or underperformance. It is important you understand the bigger picture, but use this information to plan for how you will support the student, rather than allowing it to excuse poor behaviour. Students often arrive with us brainwashed that they have ‘behaviour problems’ and expecting to hide behind them as an excuse to underperform. Fixed mindsets can be prevalent and it is a huge challenge to undo them but a culture of consistently high expectation is as good a starting point as any to begin to tackle this issue. That culture can start with you!

Don’t ever lie to a student – distrust of adults and professionals can also be prevalent in students with extreme behaviour and when you have lived a school life crossing swords with what can be an incredibly wide range of professionals (multi-agency meetings anyone!?!) this is perfectly rational. Students will often ask questions you cannot answer, or will ask for something you cannot possibly deliver. Invariably, they may also hope for something you know is incredibly unlikely (i.e. the ‘C’ they have been brainwashed into expecting since the end of Ks2 despite missing the majority of years 9,10 and 11!!). You cannot afford to be caught in a lie as a trusting relationship is a key ingredient for any professional in school whether teacher, mentor, coach or crisis manager. It goes without saying, the trust built up over months can be undone with one careless conversation and can take even longer to re-establish.

Humour – finally, have fun! There is no CPD to become funny, and Hywel Robert’s genius concept of ‘banter for learning’ can’t really be taught (can it?) but the absence of these characteristics does not prevent you from just enjoying your role. Working with young people in settings such as PRUs, special schools and alternative provision affords you freedoms, conditions and opportunities that are an absolute privilege to be a part of. The small classes, the holistic role, the intensity of relationships for example provide an incredibly fertile opportunity for you to make a genuine difference. With that as a starting point, just enjoy it! As a teacher in specialist settings, I always worked on the premise that if you can make a class smile you can teach them. Make them laugh and you can teach them just about anything. Making a student laugh or smile makes them feel good and allows you to accumulate a ‘social capital’ which a skilled professional then invests by pushing them as learners; setting good routines, challenging work, asking difficult questions, upping their work output and managing any behaviours. There are, of course, other strategies to do this, but humour is unequivocally the most efficient way.

Ironically, just as I am leaving the sector, and despite a perfect storm of challenges including funding, statementing, education, health and care plans and national trials around exclusions, alternative provision still feels like a wonderful place to be. As a school leader, I have given great consideration to what makes our most effective staff so bloody good and the list above is about as close as I have come to identifying the perfect person spec to secure those all too rare colleagues who are consistently able to thrive in the face of adversity and excel in roles where 90% of the profession might struggle to survive.

Affecting Early Behavioural Interventions

Having worked in behavioural ‘special ed’ for approaching a decade, it has always frustrated me that the system is invariably, and inevitably, top heavy. It feels like a real flaw in the system that so many young people lose their place in mainstream education so late in their school lives and the ‘specialist’ end of the sector is left with an incredibly short time to ‘fix’ that which is perceived to be wrong.

Invariably, when young people are referred to my current school, a KS4 PRU, they have been through a raft of interventions, some of which may have a chance of having some impact, some of which amount to little more than exclusion by any other name. I have also sat through innumerable meetings of seemingly very competent professionals who talk at length about their desire for effective early intervention, but as it stands, I am not convinced that anyone really knows what that looks like and, as a system, I don’t know we are strategic enough in our implementation around behaviour to be certain that we have clear and consistent answers around what works.

Before I go on, I am very aware that working at the end of the continuum that I do, there may very well be a “filing drawer effect” happening which means that many interventions do actually work, it’s just that I wouldn’t hear as much about them as I only work with students for whom these strategies have failed.

So, as a school, we are considering a piece of work which I will describe here in the hope that any subsequent discussion may offer some new perspectives or areas for us to consider. The end game is clear; we want to develop a system that allows us to identify students early enough in their school lives that appropriate, targeted interventions can be affected before negative behaviour becomes ingrained or bad habits irreversibly formed. If these interventions are unsuccessful, then appropriate alternative provision can be considered without bouncing students around mainstream settings, LSUs, inclusion units, alternative providers, PRUs and then possibly special schools. The young people we are talking about desperately need stability, they are unlikely to cope well with transitions and almost certainly rely on high quality relationships to survive. Unequivocally, they deserve a provision that can meet their needs as early as possible in their school lives.

What is required to make a difference to these young people is often a long piece of work and cannot be achieved in eighteen months while manoeuvring between attempts to change behaviour, cover curriculum and possibly chasing what could be counter-intuitive or perverse incentives & accountability measures.

We are proposing to conduct a case study of all students who have been through our doors in the last four years and consider what it was these students had in common? What looks to be the causal factors behind their failure to thrive in mainstream education and eventual arrival in specialist provision? Furthermore, what can we learn from the common variables and how might they inform our future decision making and the shape of our provision?

The next step will be to arrive at a stage where we can analyse the variables (or risk indicators) within a student’s home and school narrative and allocate some sort of risk rating that tells a school how closely a student should be monitored, or what level of support they may require to pro-actively ensure behaviour or engagement doesn’t dip below desirable levels.

To avoid pigeon-holing students, or risking another label that could lead to low expectations, any risk rating should cross reference with agreed performance measures which, combined, would offer an appropriately informed system which will flag up when support may need to be increased but at a stage where negative behaviours are not part of a sustained or habitual decline in performance.

The work is very much in it’s formative stages but below is a series of variables which either directly effect, or perhaps just offer an insight, into underlying contributory factors behind why students may require specialist alternative provision. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it is difficult to ascertain at this point what might be the primary causes but I will indicate approximate percentages of pupils who we either know, or suspect, to have each factor from our cohort of around 200 students (where appropriate):

1) Broken home (~95%)
2) Attachment disorders (~75%)
3) Low Literacy (~70%)
4) FSM (~65%)
5) Absent father (~40%)
6) Refusal to engage with professional support i.e. CAMHs or TAMHs (~35%)
7) Specific SEN diagnosis i.e. ADHD / dyslexia (~30%)
8) Unresolved bereavement issues (~20%)

Then there are other influences which can be quite significant indicators and are very easily captured, for example:
i) Maternal education or
ii) Post code (and associated deprivation indicators)

A reminder at this stage, I am not suggesting for a moment that any one of these factors mean a young person should be sent straight to the closest PRU or EBD provision without passing go or collecting £200, rather, a combination of factors such as these could offer an insight into the likelihood of a student disengaging from educational provision and a subsequent risk rating. Once established, this would be cross-referenced to performance indicators such as:

a) Attendance
b) Behaviour reports
c) Exclusions
d) Engagement
e) Reading age
f) Academic progress
g) Anti-social behaviour
h) Criminalised behaviour(s)
i) Drug use

Again, not an exhaustive list, but you get the picture.

As it stands, the model doesn’t so much have strengths as hopes attached to it. Currently, rather than wasting an incredible amount of time, money and efficiency talking about early intervention, we could develop a framework on which to build it. Schools could begin to focus their thinking around children’s needs before their primary needs become behaviour based. The behaviours we see daily are the outcomes, outputs and symptoms of the underlying needs and the challenge is that for schools to address this. Once we begin to be more forensic in our understanding of underlying needs, schools and associated professionals will become more effective at putting programmes, strategies and interventions in place to secure sustainable improvement. One of the few universal truths with behaviour is that the earlier it is tackled, the more chance there is for sustained change.

There are, inevitably, a number of limitations as well. Firstly, this is a hugely complex piece of work. Who is appropriately qualified to assess risk? This kind of work is open to significant subjective bias which could render many conclusions invalid. All schools have different tracking systems for behaviour, different thresholds for what might be acceptable and different methods for responding to behaviour. I believe all these problems can be worked through, but possibly the biggest challenge, will be to develop a system that can effectively add weighting to each risk indicator and try to balance this up in conjunction with other mitigating factors. Someone, somewhere is going to have to do a PHD level bit of analysis or programming to overcome that issue but, if we can build a sufficiently robust evidence base, we may be able to secure buy in from another industry or sector to support with this.

The final piece of the puzzle will be to develop a supporting infrastructure around curriculum or specialist delivery to be put in place once there is sufficient evidence that a child’s performance is in such a decline that a targeted intervention is required, however, that will be for another blog. All the talk of developing agency within our young people, focussing on resilience, grit, mindfulness and all the other building blocks of good learners and productive citizens could be refined and implemented for the young people who need it the most. If universal or targeted curriculum solutions are not the answer, then further assessment may be required as to what is an appropriate next step and specialist support may need to be commissioned. There will also be times when some young people are just better off in high quality alternative provision and this will become even more evident when organisations such as PRUs, EBD schools and alternative providers stop being reactive and top-heavy provisions for kids approaching the end of their school lives who, often, have just become too big / angry / aggressive to manage.

Sceptics, and especially head teachers, may be thinking “well yes, but how the hell can we afford this?”. Well. The truth is, you are already paying for it. Failed alternative provision placements, High Needs Funding, money top sliced by the LA from the DSG, the work of mentors / inclusions officers / project directors and all the costs of the specialists who support schools are all coming from the same pot ultimately, it is just often deployed at a time when it is too late to realistically hope for improvements that can be sustained into later school years and eventually adult life. This is without even beginning to talk out the later costs of welfare, criminal justice and social care!

Some colleagues may be reading this and thinking that it is not that different to what we do now, and if so, that is credit to your school. However, what I am advocating is a system that allows us to act early enough that the students are more willing to cash in the support that is made available to them while in an environment they still feel a functional part of. Students on the end of innumerable parental meetings, exclusions and periods in isolation will be more likely to refuse or sabotage the help if they perceive themselves as being singled out, punished or rejected.

Many behaviour experts and psychologists talk about behaviour being a form of communication and I think most colleagues in education understand this to some degree. What is required is greater understanding about how we can respond to what might be being communicated before it is too late. It is difficult to argue that a greater level of clarity, more consistent and accurate information and a more coherent underlying narrative, won’t allow professionals to intervene earlier and work in such a way that sustainable improvements can be made before it becomes too late.

Nurture 2013 – 2014: 2013’s Highlights & 2014’s Wishes

2013 These are my highlights for the last twelve months, a combination of professional and personal and far harder to do than I would have imagined!

1) William & Sam: Life regained a hint of normality this year as my two boys moved from baby & toddler to toddler and little boy. Life is still a crazy hive or learning, gaming, nurturing and inconsistent / unstable emotions but we are now managing each of these on a full night’s sleep and with confidence that they are phases and we probably are good parents after all. It was also hugely reassuring to find the “reasons why my child is crying” website!
2) Ofsted – In June we had the inspection we had been expecting for most of 2013. It was good. Although I talked a brave game beforehand and said I didn’t care what the result was because I truly believed in what we were doing and could see the huge progress the school had made since I joined at the start of the Special Measures process , it was a huge relief to get the external validation of our hard work and added a real sense of credibility to our claims.
3) Headship – It didn’t come about as I would have hoped, and it is proving more difficult than I would have expected, but I am pleased that 2013 has thrown up an opportunity for my first Headship even if it is under difficult circumstances and only in an ‘Acting’ capacity. It is a privilege to have the opportunity at a school where I cut my teeth both as a HoD and a senior leader and I hope to make the most of the opportunity, however long it lasts.
4) First holiday – 2013 saw our first holiday as a family and we went to the west of Ireland. It was a lovely week and I think will provide some of William & Sam’s earliest memories as time goes on. I remember how magical life used to feel at my Grandparent’s houses as a kid and I hope my boys feel the same way.


5) NPQH – Although no one moment of the course would constitute a highlight for me, it has proved a valuable learning journey and a helpful resource even in this early transition into temporary headship. I would also mention, as part of the first cohort of the new NPQH, that some of the most valuable learning hasn’t always come about in ways that the NCTL intended!
6) Professional Network – On reflection, one of my unintended wins for this year has been a massively improved, high quality professional network of colleagues who are willing to share, help and support. From Head-teachers & NLEs who I have had the pleasure to meet or work alongside, to colleagues who are just happy to chew the fat on twitter, there are few problems that present themselves where I cant think where to turn!
7) Teacher Training – when I first came into post as a Deputy Head, one of my greatest frustrations was our inability to take control of key frustrations for the school and the greatest example of this was teacher training. We lost a generation of well qualified and committed professionals due to our inability to access or offer teacher training. This year has seen us overcome that barrier through accessing, and supporting, School Direct and this has to go down as one of my biggest work related achievements over the last five years. It has also been a pleasure to support the process both as a mentor but also in delivering the behaviour related aspects of the professional studies training.
8) Collaboration – As a combined result of the OFSTED, the increasing professional network and the changing educational landscape, there is increasing scope and necessity to work in genuinely collaborative ways and these have opportunities have provided exciting and innovating, or simply just pleasant escapism for a few hours. It is tremendous to have schools and bigger organisations seeking out our expertise and, whether it is just a frank exchange of ideas and some blue sky thinking, or some in depth strategic thinking and action planning, it is great to be able to contribute to changing the landscape in these ways.
9) Changing landscapes at / within / around school – Although the last twelve months have been nigh on impossible to plan for in terms of local & national funding and a lack of clarity over what our provision will be or who will lead it, I am exceptionally proud of how our staff have worked to ensure the offer is better than over and the outcomes for young people are as good as, if not better than they have ever been and this has been reflected in the feedback from schools and other partners since the start if the academic year.
10) Summer gym & fitness – For about two months in the summer, I went hard. I was at the gym almost daily, lost almost a stone, ate sensibly and posted some of my best times in years on the cardio equipment. Predictably, this stalled hugely once I went back to school but I did prove to myself that I can not only do it, but enjoy it as well.
11) Blood-count – It was one of my aims for 2013 that I would get my ferratin levels back down to under 100 and I was able to do that by August. Although I suffer from Heamochromotosis, I am blessed to be completely asymptomatic and now that my readings are back at a sensible level, it should be easy to manage in the future.
12) Resilience to challenge – on a personal level, I have never known so much bad news in such a short period of time. It could be a sign of my age but time and again throughout 2013, bad news and ill fortune have fallen upon those closest to me. One of the few positives from this exceptionally challenging period is that it has made me reflect on the strength I draw from those closest to me, especially my good lady and our two beautiful children.


13) Family – My final one is perhaps the most obvious. My family. I am exceptionally proud of Lauren for being the best parent I have ever come across and I am blessed to have her raising my children. I am proud of my two little men, who continue to entertain, astound and inspire me on an almost daily basis, are developing strong values and loving to learn how to survive and thrive in the world around them. I am also proud of my family for the way they have handled difficulty this year, nothing more challenging than my grandma’s illness and eventual passing in May.


So with an up & down 2013 almost in the bag, these are my hopes for 2014. I think if I was to achieve half of these it would be a pretty good year.

1) Career – the last twelve months have been turbulent and the lack of certainty would have unsettled the most robust of professionals. I hope that 2014 brings great clarity to the purpose and direction of both my school and my career. If TLC North is doing well and has a clear purpose, I hope I will be considered for the substantive headship, however, should we remain in purgatory for another year, I may need to give some real consideration to appropriate next steps. It is my greatest professional fear to lose motivation and / or effectiveness and I am determined to work within an organisation that is unashamed in it’s pursuit of excellence.
2) Headship – Things still feel very new to me and, occasionally, I feel a little insecure. I hope that 2014 will see me grow in to the role and feel as though I am making a noticeable difference.
3) NPQH – as valuable as the process has been, it has stalled massively in Autumn term. I will need to be disciplined if I am to complete the work required but I feel it is important I do so both to continue my learning but also to ensure the investment of time up to this point is worthwhile.
4) Reading & application – One of the great things about moving into senior leadership has been the time, opportunity and necessity to read, learn & apply. Unfortunately, this also stalled in late 2013 but I do appreciate I have extraordinary amounts to learn and it will become a priority again in 2014.
5) Blogging – when I do it, I enjoy it but I know I am not very good at it. I am too wordy, too first-persony & don’t always get across what I want to say, That being said, I want to do it more often, be more succinct and have absolute clarity about what I am trying to say and why.
6) Attend a TeachMeet: this should be the simplest one to achieve, although I don’t think the TeachMeet scene is as prominent in West Yorkshire as in other parts of the country but I am determined to get to at least one this year
7) William will start school at the end of the year and I am both incredibly excited and petrified at the same time. We have worked so hard to protect our boys from the real world and are so proud of the way they have flourished and thrived but as of September, we will lose control (something I always struggle with) of the who, what and when of his day to day life. I pray that he thrives, and I am confident he will, and I just hope that the school, the teachers and the new friends he makes reinforce and add to the values we have worked so hard to instil. There are two things in life that can make me feel vulnerable; parenting and relinquishing control and this feels like the two worlds colliding. Fingers crossed!
8) Sam, my youngest, is wearing exceptionally cute glasses and having to wear a patch on his eye for 2-3 hours a day in order to build up his use of his bad eye, We will find out this year whether he needs surgery to be able to see properly and I pray that it won’t be necessary.
9) Gym / fitness: Last summer reminded me of what I can still do when i put my mind to it in terms of physical fitness. I knew it would slow down once I went back to school but it stalled completely so it is one of my aims for 2014 to do more over a longer period.
10) Reciprocate support to family / friends: As I mentioned earlier, in 2013 I have relied upon the support of my immediate family and, even if they don’t know it, my friends. On 2014 I simply want to be able to provide the same support to my friends, if required, that has helped me in 2013.
11) Boys playing sport – I think this is the year they will begin to take sport (semi) seriously. William will join me at the driving range, Sam will learn to kick, throw & catch and the challenge for me is to help them progress but not take the fun out of it.
12) Xbox One – this might be indulgent, but what the hell? I want one!
13) Golf – I think I include something golf related in every new year list and rarely realise it but never mind. My aim for this year is simple… Play often enough to break into the low 90s on three or more occasions.
14) My final wish is (almost) completely altruistic but I simply hope that my friends and family start to get some good breaks. I hope that people are able to call me to share good news, I hope that when I meet up with old friends that we talk about the positives and the fruits that time has borne since we last spoke, and I hope that conversations are full of optimism and further hope. I simply want to see people who deserve to be happy, be happy.

Here’s to 2014… Cheers!

Alternative Provision & the Inclusion Agenda

In a week which will see Children In Need hit our screens once again, and on the day the Michael Gove delivered one of his more universally agreeable speeches to the NSPCC, I have attended a number of meetings that aim to develop the Alternative Provision landscape within Leeds. Both events provide a timely reminder around what Alternative Provision should really be about; meeting the needs of young people who cannot thrive in mainstream education and, as a result, see their life-chances significantly diminish.


In 2011 eleven Local Authorities were chosen to be part of an exclusions trial which was designed to explore alternatives to permanent exclusion by devolving money reserved for provision such as Education Other Than At School (EOTAS) to schools and, eventually, devolving accountability for the students even after permanent exclusion. Leeds was one of the authorities who signed up to the trial and as such the PRUs, as a part of the EOTAS service, were thrust into a period of uncertainty over what the future would hold. The trial ends next year, with a report to be published in Spring 2015. It is almost certain that the devolution of money & accountability to schools will happen and, frankly, that in itself is no bad thing.

However, no matter what the political appetite for inclusion is, either locally or nationally, there are some very simple facts of life; some kids will misbehave and some will be worse than others. In fact, some of the young people these schools serve will be unable to behave in a way that can support their education, or that of those around them, and as such they will need an alternative. Although not quite as black and white, it is also fair to say that during a time of increased autonomy, many Head-teachers will also retain some strict liability offences that ultimately end in a student being unable to return to the school site. Drugs, violence, physical intimidation and criminalised, anti-social behaviour are all, sadly, relatively common place in some British schools and usually end in the assailant facing exclusion from accessing mainstream schooling.

So at a time when PRUs will be gradually phased out (Mr Gove’s aim is 2017) schools, rather than Local Authorities,will become the commissioners of Alternative Provision designed to meet the needs of their pupil population. Schools will be able to do this independently, within their sponsored chains or as part of a family of schools and, once established, they will form part of the free market for schooling the most vulnerable young people within our education system.


You cannot do Inclusion on the cheap:

The notion of the free market for AP is a double edged sword; on the bright side, sub-standard providers will not last and during a period of hugely increased focus and accountability, it will take little longer than 12 months to really figure out the poor ones.

However, there will be an enormous pressure from commissioners (schools, sponsors & head-teachers) to do things as cheaply as possible. At one end of the continuum, this is feasible. Somewhat disinterested, low-ability learners who have become disenchanted with a traditional curriculum offer can be taught in bulk and can be successfully re-engaged with a vocational curriculum that is taught well, has tangible outcomes and leads to a clear post-16 vocation and / or industry. However, as you move further along the continuum of need, the needs of the learners become more specific, more complex and, most likely, more expensive to cater for. A low-ability, disenfranchised, persistent absentee with a complex home-life and “interesting” social life, will require a completely different environment, smaller grouping, more intense relationships some behaviour support and, most likely, some pastoral input. The pursestrings just got a little tighter!

Lets jump a couple of steps forward and consider a really difficult case. On top of learning needs, there is a long history of risk taking behaviour, externalising behaviour leading to isolation and persistent absence from school. S/he cannot build nor sustain relationships with professionals or peers and as a result of these difficulties, the learning chasm stretches across most of key stage three. What now? What needs to be commissioned so that this young person can access enough of an education that they will be able to avoid the inevitable evils that used to follow permanent exclusion (crime, jail, life expectancy!). There is probably three blogs worth of answer to that question but a tweet-worthy response would be high quality teaching, small groups, effective transition, some specialist input and multi-agency support for a start. That, however, is not cheap and becomes far more difficult to make competitive in an open market.

Assessment v Range of Provision:

Assessment for young people requiring educational alternatives is generally the domain of the SENCOs and Educational Psychologists but often leads to action once schools or young people are approaching crisis point and bridges are being burned. For all that there is scope to improve processes around needs assessment, there is little point in having nuanced assessment if appropriate or adaptable provision does not exist. Similarly, there is little sense in having a continuum of provision if the assessment is not appropriate nor the gatekeeping robust. The students requiring Alternative Provision are those who have fallen through the one size fits all approach to schooling or maybe even personalised curriculum pathways. Generic provision will not provide the answers we are looking for. We have to develop the ability to do in-depth assessment of need that makes use of qualitative & quantitative data and do it early enough that poor behaviour and bad habits have yet to become ingrained. It may also be possible, albeit difficult, to look at risk indicators and, combined with performance data develop a system to action early intervention. However, even if we can provide the most nuanced of assessments, which pinpoint need, cause and remedy, if the Alternative Provision market continues to be vocationally focussed and there is not a willingness to invest in expertise, then the systems and assessment will prove futile. The scope for innovation here is significant but it requires strong leadership, real expertise and joint thinking that is currently all too rare.

Re-inclusion could be a Myth:

Depending on the commission, and the desired end game, it could very well prove impossible to re-integrate students. If the AP has been commissioned as a short term or turn-around provision, there has to be a professional trust and willingness to adapt practice once a student is due to return. There is no sense in providing a service to re-engage, break habits & find what works for a young person unless there is a genuine appetite on the behalf of the home school to start again, provide unconditional positive regard and adapt practice in the classroom to ensure every young person can succeed. Sometimes, what is required to be successful is simply not replicable in mainstream school, there is no shame to this, it just requires honesty, integrity and high quality alternatives to ensure the young person isn’t the one who misses out as a result of an inflexible system.

Collegiate Economics will be King

A simple rule of thumb around the economics of alternative provision is that the more complex the need, the more expensive it will be to provide for the young person. There is no way that schools will be able to provide a good range of alternative provision without significant investment and for this to be efficient, there has to be bums on seats. By working together, to commission provision in response to local need, there is a greater chance that a continuum of provision can be developed to ensure no child is left behind.

Honesty Required:

The greatest risks to Alternative Provision are if the purpose of the commission is not clear or, more so, if head-teachers begin to access the provision as a means to a different end. There has to be absolute clarity over entry and exit criteria for any young person and colleagues presenting referrals to each provision have to be open and honest about what has gone before. If there is a nuanced assessment of need, by an independent professional, prior to referral then all the better, but realistically, we may just have to settle for clarity, honesty and faith that all decisions will be taken with a young persons best interests at heart.

In Summary:

Despite the uncertainty that PRUs find themselves in, I actually support the intended changes to Alternative Provision. With a real commitment to investing time, money and expertise, the current landscape could provide real opportunities for creativity, innovation and a driving up of standards of alternative provision that truly ensures the needs of every child is met, genuinely moving the Inclusion agenda forward. However, the risks posed through weak systems, doing things on the cheap or unscrupulous school leaders could also do untold damage and lead to a generation of vulnerable young people becoming lost in a system that is supposed to protect them. The cost of this happening to the UK will be far, far greater in the long term.

Aggregation of Marginal Behavioural Gains

I have two passions in my professional life; learning and behaviour. The first is shared by many, many colleagues across the country and indeed the world. Representatives across every sphere of education talk, meet, share and inspire both traditional, tried and tested means of learning and progressive, creative strategies that they hope could all the difference whether in a classroom down the corridor or across the country. Learning is the core business of education and at the heart of everything we do.

But what of behaviour? Is it the elephant in the room? How many people truly feel passionate about managing or improving behaviour? If the twittersphere, blogs & the media are to be believed, poor behaviour is the scourge of teaching and is the most influential factor in colleagues leaving the profession.

It is not my place to pass comment on how prevalent the pandemic has become as I have only worked across two specialist settings in the last seven years and so have a fairly parochial view. I was designated an SLE for behaviour last year, but have yet to be deployed outside of Alliance business which might suggest, at least as far as Leeds is concerned, that the problem is not as wide as we think and this is further reinforced by the fact that no school in the city currently has a grade 4 for behaviour. Despite my not having received a call to arms as yet, I have continued to keep abreast of the national picture, up to date reading and research and regularly visit schools as part of the day job.

The interesting thing for me is that the more I read, the more I reflect, and the more I discuss behaviour, the more I realise how little I know. Now I don’t mean in a “how the hell did I get here?” kind of a way, more of a socratic “I know that I know nothing’ kind of thing. I think the same applies to many, many professionals working in and around education. Everyone has the very best of intentions, but many people work very differently and it often comes down to a leap of faith and the determination to see things through. Despite this, I do know one thing for certain; there is no universal panacea to change behaviour.

So with this one universal truth regarding behaviour in hand, and in considering how to move our own school forward, we have begun to develop a model based on Dave Brailsford’s Aggregation of Marginal Gains – Ladies & Gentlemen, I present to you, the Aggregation of Marginal Behavioural Gains.


Before going any further, although my target market here is specialist settings (PRU / EBD) I am confident this applies across a much broader field. A common feature of the frustration around behaviour is the inertia of senior colleagues in responding to problems in the classroom, but if the marginal gains are being pursued effectively, then colleagues should feel empowered to manage their challenges and affect their own changes. It might be that some schools don’t require quite as many marginal gains (but my guess is they really do!) and the real beauty of the model is that each gain will change from school to school and setting to setting.

Now, in the absence of a panacea, or indeed anything remotely approaching a panacea, we need to being to look at the whole school, and provide a context that will allow all young people to thrive. Not most young people, and not those students who have the tools to do well but can’t be bothered, but all our young people, and in order to do this, we must think much more broadly than behaviour in the moment. Behaviour management is what happens in the moment, behaviour change is what occurs as a result of pro-active, thoughtful, targeted strategies and conditioning that is the result of deliberate actions, causal successes, effective reflection and consistent application.

So what about these margins? Well, I have shared the 16 we have started with above, but broadly speaking, they fall into four categories; values, systems, curriculum & pedagogy. The values are the guiding light. They should provide the foundation for all aspects of behaviour inputs and it is a challenge for any school’s leadership team to ensure all colleagues across the school accept and / or support these values in order to achieve the holy grail; consistency. Most importantly, when faced with the toughest decisions, or thrust into the inevitable grey areas that accompany challenging behaviour, having a strong set of underpinning values to fall back on should ensure that all colleagues work within a consistent framework but can exercise the all important flexibility.

Systems and policies must reflect these values if you are to create a consistent and predictable world for young people whose lives are often characterised by instability and turmoil. There is no good boasting unconditional positive regard as a core value and then creating a system which demands exclusion unless a student apologises. Similarly, there is no value in claiming ‘restorative practice’ as a driving principle and then demanding escalated sanctions and draconian action because they a child swore in front of the Head.

Curriculum & pedagogy are inextricably linked, and are really in place to emphasise two things; there is no such thing as a one size fits all curriculum and this is a core building block in developing any excellent behaviour practice. There is no more surefire way to disengage a learner from school life than a curriculum that is not fit for purpose. The inclusion of pedagogy is a reminder, as if one were needed, that we are the professionals and are clients are children. Very often, they are damaged, vulnerable and / or emotionally unstable, and it is our job to provide that stability through excellence in the classroom and across the school. This will likely include, but in no way be limited to, effective differentiation, engaging teaching & appropriate challenge.

The final category is the lazy man’s answer to behaviour – targeted support. These are the one stop panaceas which, while they might not fix the whole school, should make the difference to the individual. “He told me to f-off then tipped his chair – he needs anger management”, “I think she might be depressed, can we refer her for counselling?”. Unfortunately, targeted support, no matter how well done, can only achieve so much and, as with everything on the wheel, will only provide the small steps that make up part of the journey.

So they are the categories, but it is the role of the leaders to determine which gains will work together best to affect a sustainable changes to behaviour. It is vital that each gain is considered thoroughly, treated professionally and embraced by all staff as providing a consistent, coherent, predictable world for these young people is crucial if behaviour is going to change.

Over the next few weeks, I may blog about some of the more unusual gains, exploring why they are important for us in our setting and what we plan to do to ensure that it has both a standalone impact, and supports the other marginal gains to contribute to sustainable behaviour change.

From 140 Characters to SEF, School Improvement & OFSTED

I first came across twitter in a New York subway in 2009 when I saw an advert for teaching in Manhattan accompanied by a twitter handle where I could obtain more information. When I logged on, and saw the 140 character limit, I instantly dismissed it as a glorified collection of Facebook statuses without the pictures, banter (0 followers & nothing interesting to say) or games. I soon gave up my pipe-dream of moving to Manhattan to teach and forgot about Twitter for a few years.

So it was interesting to sit through our OFSTED final de-brief yesterday afternoon and identify Twitter’s fingerprints all over our feedback.

We got the call at midday on Monday. Just five hours earlier I had been eating my porridge and reading @trueenglish365’s very informative blog on her OFSTED experience and had emailed it to a couple of colleagues in our English department. I made a note to myself to follow her advice about lists knowing we could expect the call any minute. Unfortunately, it was too late.

At 1210 our office manager informed me that the call had been transferred upstairs so I proceeded to run around like a headless chicken for five minutes before regaining my composure, pulling together all the students & staff and letting them know we were expecting some visitors over the next 48 hours.

I knew the school was prepared and, although maybe not in peak condition thanks to our year eleven having stood down and there being a maths exam for 21 candidates the next morning across eleven rooms and requiring 19 staff to invigilate, read & scribe, we were facing a busy few days so I proceeded to work on all the paperwork that I had been putting off for the last few months in the hope that they would leave us until September.

The night before an inspection is an interesting time as colleagues pull together like at no other time. The camaraderie was exceptional and even the banter stayed pretty good. People made sure they were ready but also that others were ready as well, there was a real team ethic in preparing and everyone made sure no-one would be left behind.

The two days passed in a blur and were a true roller-coaster of emotions with highs and lows around every corner. Two categories were pretty much ruled out at the end of day one and we were crystal clear what was required for day two. We were brave, where lessons hadn’t been graded as we felt they should have been staff stood up to be counted, took their feedback and invited the inspectors back in in day two to see what we knew the colleagues were capable of. Our confidence in our staff team is unwavering and we encouraged the inspectors to take up these offers knowing what they would see. The problem, of course, was that if they saw under-performance for a second time, we knew there would be implications for both the teaching judgement, leadership and possibly even achievement.

The learning walk took place first thing on wednesday morning and my heart was in my mouth throughout. I used all my poker playing experience to try and pick up a read either from the lead inspector or the Head but to no avail. When Lesley finally came into my office to deliver the news about what had been seen, I momentarily lost composure as relief overtook me knowing that colleagues who had been so deflated the night before could again hold their heads high and that the school was again on the front foot. The pressure on those colleagues to perform was enormous, but they showed exceptional bravery and a willingness to stand up and be counted, as well as the excellence in the classroom that we have come to expect.

The afternoon’s meetings became much easier at that point. Colleagues had worked into the small hours of the morning on everything we needed to secure the achievement judgement and I knew the work scrutiny would only secure our position. What started as a very formal and somewhat intense meeting on T&L turned into an almost enjoyable conversation about what works, what could work and the journey we have been on for the last three years. It was about this stage where, for the first time, the inspector was commenting or passing judgement on things which triggered the realisation around what an impact Twitter has had on not only my career, but also my school.

About an hour later we sat around the table and listened to the final judgements. As I made my notes it slowly became a to-do list of colleagues to acknowledge over Twitter. I knew early in the day that the decision to meet the OFSTED colleagues head on and challenge them to re-inspect something if we disagreed had been inspired by a blog encouraging senior leaders to take control of inspections and not just allow it to be done unto us, but sadly I cannot find that link. Then, as we were discussing the strengths of our teaching staff, the questioning was praised and @teachertoolkit popped into my mind; it was his Pose Pause Pounce Bounce article that had started my fascination with questioning and, supported by Hattie’s favourable effect size, pre-empted our decision to put it at the heart of the school’s CPD for the term.

A number of lessons used the recent training from @hywelroberts to develop engaging, context building starters which developed a framework on which to build the learning and by the time visitors arrived in the room, students were elbow deep in projects, challenges or just good old fashioned learning. Furthermore, in the work scrutinies the creative evidencing of projects from the last couple of months brought a fresh, lively dimension to learner portfolios.

The school’s CPD programme was praised as effective and impactful in the classroom and for this I must raise a glass to @springwellcpd whose programme I have dipped in an out of over the last year in pursuit of learning from the best and it was while in one of their training sessions that I realised how much more we needed to do at TLC North and began to re-model our teacher development inputs. Furthermore, an idea lifted straight from Twitter but unforgivably I have lost the source, was our Teacher Development Plans which are inextricably linked to the CPD programme and helped to secure both our Teaching & L&M judgements.

It is crazy what a difference twitter has made both to me and my school over the last twelve months. Initially, it was a source of stimulation and when I felt inspired, it would lead to further research and possible CPD for other colleagues. However, as time has progressed, the developments in school that have emanated from Twitter have become more and more central to our school life. Ideas are shared, evaluated, tweaked and applied, sometimes with little success, sometimes with huge impact. Where recommendations are made or colleagues name dropped, there is now an instant line of communication with colleagues who are only too willing to help. The generosity & philanthropy of professionals across the country means that perfect strangers have had an impact on my school and the education of some of Leeds’ most disaffected young people and they may never know what a difference they have made. Who would have thought five short years ago that twitter would become a central part of my professional life?

There is so much I would like to write about the last two days but OFSTED protocols and professional discretion prohibit most of it so I will settle with five things I have learned over the last fourty eight hours.

1) There is such a thing as reasonable, sensible, considered OFSTED inspectors. Both colleagues were willing to listen and understood the context they were inspecting which made an enormous difference. They were also willing to accept challenge which I felt made a huge difference in the productivity of the relationship between inspectors and senior leaders and ultimately helped us to shape our own destiny.

2) It paid to be helpful and honest. A car parking space, lunches, drinks, timetables & staff lists etc were all made available and as easy to access as possible. Documentation was kept concise and salient and should they want further information, it was available, we just made a conscious decision not to drown them in paper. We agreed on a no bullshit policy, if we didn’t know, we would find out and if we recognised an area to develop, we would not try and hide it. Nothing ground breaking here, but all contributed to positive and fruitful relationships and conversations throughout the process and, ultimately, I think the inspectors trusted who they were dealing with.

3) When dealing with flexible entry points (Special & PRU) its more valuable to focus on rates of progress than actual progress made. This is probably obvious to most data-heads but I have to thank @thefinalturtle both for his sterling work pre & mid-inspection but also for re-educating me mid-inspection. There was a heap of pressure on one meeting in particular but he sent me in armed with every detail I could possibly have needed and really focussed me on what was important.

4) It really is all about the Teaching & Learning. We are a PRU. You could argue our focus should be on behaviour, social skills and citizenship but, ultimately, as far as OfSTED are concerned, there remains an unrelenting focus on teaching and learning and it truly permeates all four judgements. Every school’s focus should be on high quality teaching which creates high quality learning opportunities and systems and structures must support this. Ultimately, just about every conversation that was held came back to one focus, learning, and long may this continue.

5) The development of basic skills truly remains a whole school priority. Numeracy, and particularly literacy, was a focus throughout many conversations and rightly so. We have made significant strides in developing literacy throughout our curriculum but we are still not quite there. You could make lots of arguments in our defence, none more compelling than the average student spends on 18 months with us, but ultimately this just means that we have to push harder, work smarter and demand the very best in every lesson. I have, at times, been swayed that we shouldn’t risk the integrity of subjects by insisting on implementing literacy initiatives but this process has reminded me that we must work even harder to get this right and ensure that every young person can access the breadth of the curriculum. In order to do this, they have to be able to read and write and the only way this will be achieved in such a short space of time is if it is supported skilfully and thoroughly by every subject area.

I feel as though there is a lot I am missing out here and if, on reflection, I can either source the blogs I have referred to or at least their authors then I will update this. I have done two sixteen hour days and right about now just want to publish this and go to bed. I am exceptionally proud of my school, the team of colleagues who do an incredible job and the young people who put up with the teacher’s frayed nerves and excited tension for two and a half days, plus, they were brutally honest and refreshingly reflective with inspectors giving far more powerful evidence in their Pupil Voice session than anything myself or our data manager could produce. TLC North, we did a hell of a job and will continue to do so.

The Case for PRUs

On wednesday morning, The Telegraph’s Graeme Paton reported on a number of soundbites from Chris Skidmore, of the Educational Select Committee, which claimed that PRU’s were failing young people and a part of the problem in the lives of these young people.

If you wish to read it, the full article can be found here: PRUs failing young people

It is important to address a couple of key issues before we move on, firstly, the constitution of PRUs vary hugely from city to city and Authority to Authority. A PRU could be a small room full of pregnant schoolgirls, could be a small setting for anxious / phobic learners who cannot contemplate being one of 30 in lessons or one of 2500 during social times. A PRU may provide short term behavioural interventions and re-inclusion for learners at risk of exclusion, could be the last stop for young people who have been excluded and, in some instances, may provide education to all of the above as part of a service for over 100 young people. Tom Bennett, the TES behaviour guru, appropriately likened the worst examples of this to “a hospital ward with obstetrics, geriatrics and A&E all in one room”.

Secondly, there will be some truth to the article. Once upon a time, in some authorities, a PRU was somewhere a teacher could go to allow their career to die. I have seen and heard about PRUs that are not fit for purpose and have staff who are both unable and unwilling to do what is required to make a difference to the lives of exceptionally challenging and exceptionally vulnerable young people. However, this is both extremely rare and is equally as true of all school settings.

One of Mr Skidmore’s key arguments is based on the statistic that “fewer than 25 per cent of pupils gained five GCSEs at more than half of PRUs” and he goes on to say that “If PRUs are not part of the solution in these pupils lives, then they are likely to be part of the problem and need reform”. The naivety of this assumption, and the lack of critical thought from someone who sits on the Select Committee for Education is absolutely staggering and completely disheartening.

Should I have the pleasure to meet Mr Skidmore, my first question would be a simple one, and unfortunately, I think it is a question that some Local Authority’s still need to wrestle with – what is this solution of which you speak? Once we have established what the solution might look like, we can begin to discuss some success criteria against which PRUs can be judged, then, and only then, can these small organisations stop trying to be teachers, counsellors, parents, therapists and social workers (usually in the same morning).


Once the constitution of PRUs has been considered, and some thought given to an intelligent accountability, then perhaps we can begin to consider how to make the changes to these young people’s lives, and despite the fact my school offers GCSEs with some considerable success, you will never convince me that this is the most important measure by which you can judge the effectiveness of a PRU.

We consistently have around 80% of our young people achieve 5 GCSEs and can show good progress across all subject areas, but why, when I pick up the Yorkshire Evening Post, does it feel as though there is a 50-50 chance that we will see a former student? In the last month or so, I have seen one murder, one stabbing, the burglary of an 87 year old man and a complex (and highly successful) drug running ring, all involving students I have worked with in the past.

Of the students involved in these crimes, all except one achieved a minimum of five GCSEs, but did we find “the solution”?

Then of course there is the notion of agency and character. Every student leaves us with a pre-determined destination whether college, employment,training or apprenticeships. However, by November this changes hugely. EET usually registers at around 70% (which in this day and age is no mean feat) but by January it is often markedly lower. The young people find it exceptionally difficult to adapt to increased independence and their grit, determination and resilience is not quite developed enough to thrive in independent learning or employment. We got the grades, we did what we were supposed to do, but did we find the solution?

What about the 20% or so we can’t reach? They arrive every year, we try every trick in the book, we just can’t budge them. These are the names I think about last thing at night, on the tee at the golf course or while being inspired by my latest read. They are kids I feel like I know intimately but may have only met once. The reasons we are unable to find the solution are exceptionally varied and can range from complex / discrete mental health issues (which may or may not have been diagnosed), cultural barriers (travellers) and, very often, social issues (family, youth offending). Every single case requires real expertise and, unfortunately, its rare that we have access to that expertise and so the staff have to adapt. Some of these students will have been out of education for years, and be unable to read or write. Although I am realistic enough to say we don’t always find a solution, I am not convinced that GCSEs are the only way.

And while we are on the subject of staff, let me take this opportunity to pass on my thanks to all the colleagues who put their heart and soul into one of the most difficult jobs going. I have already touched upon the variety of roles we have to embrace, but then consider that we may have to perform them in the face of challenging, volatile and disruptive behaviour which can verge on anti-social. Consider then that the only way to thrive in a PRU setting is by fostering excellent relationships and therefore you have to do all of this with integrity, honesty, humour and an unconditional positive regard. This is all before we have even mentioned learning! Ok, we may not have the same levels of marking as mainstream colleagues, but to be effective, the levels of personalisation and differentiation have to be exemplary. Plus, creativity, resilience and engagement have to come as standard.

There are no easy jobs in a PRU. Every piece of the puzzle is as important a the next and it is notoriously difficult to recruit talented, enthusiastic colleagues and yet these are the students who need the best teachers. Recruitment of high quality colleagues could be part of the solution, but is already hugely difficult, and half-hearted, lazy articles like this do not help our cause.

The challenge of working in pupil referral units is already a huge one, it always has been and probably always will be. Unfortunately, with changes to funding formulas and students being capped around £8000 a head, the challenge will only get tougher. Front line staff (teachers & support) will be essential as funding will depend on bums on seats, and so it is cruelly inevitable that the support structures will be reduced. Economics is a cruel mistress, but she is also a deceptive one. Some youth custodial places can cost as much as £200000 which would fund a teacher, a YOS worker, a CAMHs worker, a social worker and a therapist. If, conservatively, 40% of our young people are in the criminal justice system by the time they are 25, and around 70% a part of the welfare state, then what price better funded PRUs, increased expertise and intelligent accountability?

Finally, in amongst all the hullabaloo of inclusion, economics, accountability and the rest there is one simply factor that Mr Skidmore seems to have failed to consider; cause & effect. Students are in PRUs for a reason. A cynic would also suggest that some schools will rarely exclude students who are settled learners and show good grade potential. Every PRU & BESD setting I have ever visited has been top heavy in terms of age and so PRU colleagues have a limited time to build the all important relationships, to engage the disengaged, to begin to undo the damage and bridge the inevitable gaps from time out of education prior to exclusion. We begin on the basic skills, then the curriculum and all the while trying to effect behaviour change, develop agency and provide holistic pastoral support. In the relatively rare case that a student in key stage four is behaving well, emotionally settled and working towards good GCSE’s, then re-inclusion to mainstream is much more feasible. If PRUs are to be judged on such narrow performance measures, then achieving re-inclusions will be counter-productive for the school. No good can possibly come from our accountability measures being at odds with our moral purpose.

As a result of the nationwide furore around assessment over recent months, I have seen the (oft misattributed) quote “if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing he is stupid” ad infinitum but never has it rung more true. Mr Skidmore, if you wish us to be judged on such performance measures, fine, please tell us this is so. But before you make such a decision, or declare us to be failing our young people, please consider the damage it could do. There is so much more to PRUs than examination results. I am very proud to be a part of an exceptional group of dedicated, altruistic professionals who work exceptionally hard to make a difference in the lives of young people for whom most others have given up. We try to secure brighter futures for all our young people and, despite our best efforts, this is not always possible. In order to reach the unreachable, we need support, expertise and dedicated professionals, not shortsighted, naive and inaccurate damnation.

Mr Skidmore, if you truly want to be part of the solution, then come and see some PRUs at work, look at the breadth, and the depth, of the challenges we , and especially our young people, face daily and consider the super-human efforts of colleagues who work in what can feel like near impossible circumstances. Please reflect on what has been said and, if there is constructive dialogue to be had, I have no doubt that colleagues up and down the country would greatly appreciate the opportunity to engage with you. GCSE’s are important, they open the door to post-16 learning but there are times where GCSEs don’t even register on the scale of what is important and the reality is that the majority of these students will be found in PRUs & BESD settings. We must avoid creating perverse incentives to keep hold of students just to boost our headline figures and ensure that accountability reflects the strong moral purpose I know runs through PRUs up and down the country.

Ethos, Values & Vision: There could be something to this after all!

I have worked in four schools across twelve years moving from teacher, to HoD (and latterly Leader of Learning) and onto a Deputy Headship. I have always been at the very least reasonably conscientious and eager to please and have always watched, analysed and learned from the leaders in each school. I tried to follow each school’s direction of travel and as I matured into my roles, tried to understand what it was the school was trying to achieve (beyond the obvious exam results & NEET figures). Never, until recently, did I begin to get my teeth into vision, values or ethos.

Every school has had an ethos and every Headteacher a vision, indeed, I have heard them referenced in passing when a decision required justification or a little marketing was required, but it was always a little too convenient and much too ethereal for me to draw any substance from. Consequently, there was little for me to believe in.

In the last year or so, I became far more conscientious of myself as a leader and, most recently, started my NPQH. Central to a lot of the associated reading and throughout all the shiny accounts of practice, the hand picked, cream of the crop head teachers all share a similar formula; start with the vision, establish the values, develop the ethos.

When I first read it I thought ‘ok, makes sense, but lets get to the important stuff’. Then, after the fifth, sixth and seventh think pieces, I really began to wrestle with it and unpick my experiences. Why, through the hundreds of staff meetings I have attended have vision & values never received more than a passing reference? Through the hundreds of departmental meetings, they never got a mention. Through the thousands of informal discussions, they rarely raised their head! Was this a fault with me, or with the schools & my leaders?

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between the two. As a young teacher, maybe the school direction of travel was followed far more unquestioningly and absorbed subliminally. It also stands to reason that the school’s vision or ethos becomes increasingly paramount as you become progressively responsible for making and implementing decisions. Indeed, the most difficult decisions, which leaders can face on a daily basis, are made infinitely easier when there is a strong set of values underpinning what it is you want to do. To paraphrase Simon Sinek’s excellent TED presentation, it’s not what you do, its why you do it.

One of the huge challenges in my fairly unique sector of education is the conflict of values in staff that are attracted to work in either PRUs or BESD. You need only look at colleagues attracted to recruitment processes for non-teaching posts to see that two ‘types’ of colleague are interested in our setting; a contrast best summed up through educational v youth work. Although there is unquestionably a common ground between these two approaches, if not united by a very strong vision, they can become counter-productive and, potentially, a divisive combination.

As I will explore more as I get into the blogging habit, I do not believe there to be too many true behaviour specialists in our line of work. There is certainly no panacea for the most challenging of behaviour and, consequently, it can very much be a journey of faith when setting up curriculum, a provision or a school. However, the underpinning feature of all the best establishments is a corporate set of values that is genuinely accepted at all levels of the organisation.

One such school that is immersed in a shared vision is the very special ‘Springwell School’ in Barnsley. I have had the pleasure of working with the organisation on a number of occasions over the past twelve months and have always been struck by the values of the school that run through every facet of the school. This is a school that deals with a district’s most challenging and most vulnerable young people and who have built their considerable success around shared values that I both admire and respect. Recently I have begun my NPQH placement there and the Executive Head, Dave Whitaker, has given me carte blanche to scratch beneath the ever-so-shiny surface and, with an open invitation to act as a critical friend, I have sought to establish what it is that allows the school to thrive in an area of education where so many fail to have a sustained impact. The school’s guiding philosophy is unequivocally and unashamedly child-centred and is upheld by their core values of honesty, tolerance and respect.

All good so far, but the real strength of this school is that these values are embraced by every single colleague. There is a hunger that only the best will be good enough for the students and, when something isn’t working, which will happen often with the pupil population they serve, the school will reflect, learn and adapt. The vision for moving beyond outstanding is embraced by all and colleagues throughout the school understand their role within this challenge. No-one on the team will settle for second best and the result is a level of ‘authentic care’ where the sum is far exceeded by the total of the parts.

If I am to embark on the headship journey at any time in the next couple of years, I think the most important piece of professional development I can do is to firm up my vision. It is is my vision that will shape the organisation and illuminate the direction of travel for the school. My values are already well established but the trick will be to market them in such a way that will determine the right colleagues are with me on the journey and to ensure they will be there for the whole trip. Finally, the ethos we establish will determine just how pleasant of a trip it will be, both for my colleagues and the young people whom we are trying to start on a journey of their own. It feels like a long road ahead, so I had better start the car!

Flexibility V Consistency – Combining Contrasting Values

Everyone knows that consistency is the key to behaviour management, right? Consistency of expectations, consistently enforcing school rules or applying sanctions and consistency in rewarding students getting it right. But what happens when a student, or a group of students,are incapable of operating within these consistent boundaries?

Consistency is good. It provides stability and certainty in a young person’s world that can often be unpredictable and filled with turmoil. Consistency, from staff, systems and structures, provides a firm foundation on which to develop relationships, manage expectations and, ultimately, allow good learning to flourish.

However, in many settings, consistency can provide as many problems as it does solutions. When faced with a child arriving at school hungry, do we enforce the rule about breakfast club closing at 0900? When faced with a child falling asleep in period 2 English, knowing they didn’t go home last night, do we sanction or support? If a student turns up to school clearly hungover or on a comedown, do we send them home knowing they will be even more vulnerable at home or keep them where we know they are safe? Unfortunately, these are daily dilemmas for staff in schools, PRUs and alternative provision up and down the country and, unfortunately, these problems will get worse before they get better thanks to the changes in the Welfare System imposed by the current Government.

There is a huge frustration amongst teachers across all settings around behaviour, and this can range from ‘constant, low-level disruption’ to serious violent or threatening behaviour. Ultimately, many of these frustrations boil down to one of two things, either perceived inaction or inconsistency. The feeling from mainstream colleagues and the twittersphere is one of inertia from senior colleagues who fail to act swiftly or decisively against students who disrupt or threaten the learning of others. In specialist settings (PRU, SILC or Alternative Provider), where there tends to be a greater frequency of behaviours from a core of offenders, the challenge tends to be one of consistency and applying the same sanctions to the actions regardless of context.

So we know what consistency looks like, and no-one has disagreed yet that it’s the key ingredient in both behaviour management, and most importantly, behaviour change, but what of it’s arch-nemesis, flexibility?

Flexibility is a risk. If done badly, it can undermine any notion of consistency and lead to unjust outcomes. This is especially true in the eyes of young people who may lack empathy or the ability to rationalise problems through the eyes of another. Building a flexible system also leaves open the very real possibility that decision making becomes subjective and value driven which creates the uncertainty we mentioned earlier. Fundamentally, by encouraging flexibility, or accepting a flexible approach to behaviour management, one can be vulnerable to an impossible set of circumstances in which both colleagues and students will struggle to understand what is ‘acceptable’ or what is expected.

However, despite this, we need to be flexible. A school needs rules and all staff must apply them consistently. All young people require boundaries and no matter how much they push against them, in truth, they are happier knowing where they stand. Once a behaviour does present itself, a skilled practitioner needs to dip into their toolbox and react; is this something to ignore? A gentle reminder? A subtle re-direction? A swift reprimand? If this doesn’t work, we enter dynamic risk assessment territory. We know what we are dealing with, but do we know why? In the moment, we are facing down the symptoms of a problem, but a skilled practitioner is going for a fuller diagnosis and looking to do something about the cause of the problem.


This is where things get tricky. “Johnny called me “cocknose” then tipped his chair and stormed out”. “He chose to call me cocknose”, “I didn’t make him tip his chair”, “no-one else made him walk out” Well, it’s all true isn’t it?

Well, maybe. But before we fill out that detention slip, behaviour is a form of communication and sometimes we need to scratch beneath the surface a bit more and establish what is being communicated. Rules are rules and expectations should always remain aspirational, but the flexibility comes in our response to behaviour. Don’t look at the action or the behaviour, look at child and try to piece together the provenance of the behaviour. It could be school based (literacy, frustration, comprehension), it could be personal (esteem, emotion, resilience) it could be social (neglect, bullying or relationships) but there will always be an underlying cause.

So how should we respond? The essential pre-requisite for anyone working in a school should be to support young people and this can often mean social and emotional support as well as the academic. A response to a poor behaviour comes in one of two forms, a challenge, i.e. a proportional admonishment and a request to improve behaviour, or a sanction. Unfortunately, some children have spent their young lives in a state of emotional or physical abuse or neglect and as such have become de-sensitised to sanctions. There will be plenty opportunity to impose an appropriate recourse in due time (sanction, contact home, restorative actions), but in order for the sanction to have any impact, the cause must be addressed.

Effectively, what we are doing here is creating a grey area, and although this can be a recipe for disaster, the most effective behaviour practitioners are comfortable operating within these grey areas, in fact, I would go a step further and suggest there is real skill in achieving this. Behaviour has been bad and it must be challenged in order to reinforce what is right, but it is vital that challenge doesn’t further complicate the issue. You need to be able to apply that flexibility without undermining school’s policy or other staff. Communication is also key here as it is important that the child understands why things might be slightly different here and if there will be implications for other colleagues, this also has to be communicated.

There is also a huge challenge for leaders here. It starts with articulating a vision for inclusion that promotes opportunity for all but requires systems that don’t allow inclusive practice to become prohibitive to the majority of pupils. Furthermore, I have described the ability to operate effectively and flexibly as a skill and this doesn’t happen accidentally. Staff need development opportunities that improve their behaviour management strategies and need to develop their knowledge around drivers and causes of poor behaviour. There also has to be a professional respect that allows colleagued to veer from central policy if it is in the best interests of the young people.

I can already hear some teachers screaming in frustration here, how can we explore the root causes of behaviours for thirty kids at a time? I am a teacher, not a therapist! Absolutely right and this is not intended solely for classroom teachers but will hopefully provide some food for thought for those working in specialist settings, those working around behaviour and, occasionally classroom teachers.

The challenge for schools and educators is as simple as it is complicated. Leadership teams must provide policies and systems which demand a high expectations and a consistent approach to behaviour management. However, those systems must be flexible enough, and the staff operating in them must be sufficiently skilled, that we are able to support students in tackling the route causes of their behaviour. Then, and only then, will we be able to begin to affect a sustainable change in behaviour. Flexibility within a consistent framework, its the only way!