The pasteurization of France

As a profession we’re in the midst of a quiet, but definite evolution in becoming more confident when handling research information, more informed about what research is already out there and more prepared to engage in our own classroom-based action research. This is welcome, but also necessary if we are to regard ourselves as a high status profession, get our policies right and use our precious CPD time as efficiently and effectively as we can.

My particular area of interest, which is rapidly becoming an obsession, is in behaviour, especially around improving behaviour in schools where it has been poor. This means I get to learn from studies looking at, for example, the effectiveness, or otherwise, of policies labelled ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’, and of longitudinal studies on exclusion.

What strikes me most about almost everything I read is a conspicuous absence of any discussion about values that underpin such policy decisions on behaviour.

For example, there may exist utterly compelling and overwhelming research from multiple sources which shows, irrespective of context, phase or sector, that corporal punishment is the swiftest, most effective way to improve behaviour in individuals. Even if this research existed, there is nothing anyone can ever do to convince me that we should implement beating children as a behaviour improvement strategy in our school. I am making a value-based judgement that rests on my belief that inflicting violence on a child is a perverse way of teaching them that whatever they did was wrong, and this also underpins my smack-free parenting. “You have hit someone, which is wrong. In order to teach you that this is wrong, I shall hit you to make you understand.” It’s an extreme example, but the principle stands. (Extreme, but not every teacher in the UK is against corporal punishment and it is still legal and practiced in a number of states in the USA.)

My experiences as a novice Headteacher have been documented before – in short, behaviour nosedived, we had to radically rethink how we did things, behaviour improved and remained much better. Never perfect, you understand, but much better. The journey is neatly captured by the four Ofsted reports, which you can read, that punctuated my six years as Headteacher. During the course of my early days as a Headteacher I had to grapple with the obvious fact that our values as a school were being undermined by my actions in response to poor behaviour. I was using exclusion heavily and without effect. The use of exclusion as a response to poor behaviour was contradictory to our values as a school. We were committed to working with each child to meet their complex needs and providing support in whatever form was needed. Excluding children plainly failed to live up to that and, in some cases, was making things worse. It was a blunt behaviourist response that placed all responsibility on the child to sort their life out by sitting at home for a time and thinking about what they did. Further, it did nothing to support my colleagues as children came back unchanged or with resentment entrenched. This was compounded by them missing school and falling even further behind academically.

I decided to stop using exclusion as a response to poor behaviour. It was a decision consistent with our values, and one which brought me significant criticism. A governor at the time insisted that the only way to improve behaviour was to exclude more children; I disagreed. I received some grief on social media, memorably “People like you are responsible for thousands of teachers leaving the profession. Moron.” People immediately jumped in with both feet, assuming that instead I simply did nothing. What I did do was to focus on action to improve behaviour that was consistent with our values. (The only external commentary I have are the Ofsted reports, so you can read for yourself how it went.) Had I (we, in reality, for it is always a team effort, but the accountability rested with me) not been effective in improving behaviour I would have had to admit that my strategies were wrong, but my values would remain intact.

This period in my life, and in the lives of the colleagues, children and parents who went through it with me, came flooding back recently when I read ‘Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education’ by Professor Gert Biesta1.

Biesta powerfully examines the ‘What works’ movement and the role it should play – “if evidence were the only base for educational practice, educational practice would be entirely without direction” and that “questions about ‘what works’ — that is questions about the effectiveness of educational actions — are always secondary to questions of purpose”

He defines three issues with the evidence-based approach, namely the knowledge deficit, the efficacy deficit and the application deficit, but it when discussing complexity reduction where things get interesting.

“In his book on Pasteur, Latour argues that the success of Pasteur’s approach was not the result of the application of this particular technique across all farms in the French countryside. Pasteur’s technique could only work because significant dimensions of French farms were first transformed to get them closer to the laboratory conditions under which the technique was developed. As Latour argues, it is ‘‘only on the conditions that you respect a limited set of laboratory practices [that] you can extend to every French farm a laboratory practice made at Pasteur’s lab’’ (Latour 1983, p. 152). The ‘pasteurization of France’ (Latour 1988) is but one example of how the modern world has changed as a result of modern science, and again and again Latour argues that this is not the result of bringing facts and machines into the world ‘outside’ but of the transformation of the world outside so that it becomes part of the laboratory conditions under which things can work and can be true. Latour refers to ‘‘this gigantic enterprise to make of the outside a world inside of which facts and machines can survive’’ as metrology” and that it “only tends to work under very specific conditions.”

I wonder how many value-free policies and practices result from attempts at complexity reduction. Off-rolling certain students, illegally excluding others, a grammar school kicking certain students out halfway through their A-Levels being just a few examples. ‘Success’ then can become a matter of getting as close as possible to the laboratory conditions by getting the right kids in the door, and keeping the wrong ones out. Children who do not fit the prescription are the collateral damage in this enterprise and you don’t need me to tell you who those children are do you?

 

1 Biesta GJJ (2010) Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education, Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29 (5), pp. 491-503.

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I don’t know where you are

I have worked in special education for twelve years and in that time I have known two sets of parents who have not only never visited the special school their child attended, they didn’t even know where it was. Reflect on how astounding that is for a minute. I shall return to it later, but consider how it is possible for that to happen.

Much time and effort, rightly, is made of the transition from primary to secondary school for children. It has been a focus for a good number of years now and many schools are very skilled in ensuring a smooth transfer from one type of school to another. How much of this time and effort is given over to the emotional demands that this transition places on parents?

Time spent as a parent with my daughter in the care of some health professionals has seen me ruminating on how we as school leaders fare in that regard.

I regularly spend time at Moorfields Eye Hospital so that my daughter can undergo the regular series of tests and check-ups that her congenital condition demand. Whilst in the waiting room recently I saw a few parents of babies who are on the beginning of a journey we’ve been on as a family for nearly a decade now. Two mothers were sat next to me; one with a baby with one eye and one with a baby with no eyes at all. A number of other children present had obvious difficulties.

I’m a good listener but the consultant who was informing us of our daughter’s diagnosis all those years ago must have thought me very rude as I constantly interrupted him with questions. The first one, “Does this condition have any learning difficulties associated with it?” left my mouth almost before he had started talking.

Mr Moore was exceptional: sensitive, a clear communicator and a good listener. He advised us brilliantly. “It’s your choice. In five minutes you’ll meet with the surgeon. He is going to persuade you to operate. Surgeons love to operate, but the decision is yours. You’ve heard all the facts so make your own mind up and stick to it.” He remains the model to which I aspire when I meet with prospective parents at school.

When I was the Headteacher of a single school parents would typically visit our school when their child was in Year 5. Sometimes they would arrive a year earlier if they felt there were a lot of schools to visit or that there would be a battle with the local authority so they need time to gather evidence for a possible tribunal. Sometimes they visited when their child was in Year 6 and they were in a tight corner as they had been turned away by a string of secondary schools. In all cases I regarded this meeting as the beginning of the transition process.

We didn’t do group tours. All parents received individual tours as they needed the space and privacy to discuss their child. I made it clear to parents that I’m not a salesman. I obviously wanted to show our school in its best light, but I’ve never met their child so had no idea if we will fit the bill. We, not they, crucially. Too often parents told me that they felt that they and their child were being subtly selected or rejected by the Headteacher. “We only do GCSEs here”, or “The school down the road more children with autism and are much better at it [sic] than we are” were common remarks for parents to hear.

Parents are naturally inquisitive, but our students made a far better impression than I. Parents were always struck by their social confidence and their articulate nature. If your child is not developing in line with normal milestones it can be tough to imagine what your child may be like in five to ten years’ time. This chance to talk to students a few years down the track in some depth was vital. As was seeing a peer group, children their son or daughter could be friends with, work they can succeed at, a curriculum that focused on maximising their chances of success as adults.

Some parents needed to walk out after the visit knowing that we could keep their child alive whilst they were in our care. The reassurance required here is impossible to underestimate. We were not health professionals, yet they must be confident that we could manage epilepsy, a tracheostomy, tube-feeding or insulin pumps. Failure to manage these health needs properly could result in the death of their child, so this concern overrides all others.

Given our hard work on admission processes, how is it possible then for those parents mentioned above to be unaware of where their child went to school?

Occasionally a parent has told me that it can be difficult to accept that their child goes to a special school. I fully understand this. In a small number of cases I find that parents haven’t visited prior to admission, haven’t attended parents’ evening, annual reviews or any other opportunities to visit. The fact that transport is normally provided and the distance to school can be significant makes this gulf far harder to bridge.

When I took up that headship I was warned about two parents who, the story went, would make my life hell. Labelled as “pushy” I braced myself for a battle with them. No need. I found them engaging, intelligent and committed. They’d had to fight for their children’s basic entitlement and had a reputation for being prepared to advocate strongly for their child.

This is my kind of parent. School leaders are missing a golden opportunity to use this kind of emotional energy and these two parents in time became the Vice-Chairs of the governing body and two of our best advocates. One said after a time that she felt our school was unique. I asked her to expand on this with the staff and she explained that we were open-minded, honest with parents and very welcoming. This obviously pleased us greatly but whilst there are parents out there who don’t even know where their child’s school is, we have much more to do.

What’s in your schema for SEN?

I really enjoyed reading ‘Mindware’ by the American psychologist Richard Nisbett and it made me think very hard about thinking, inference and reasoning amongst other things.

Early on in the book there’s an arresting section on the schema concept. Nisbett describes the term schema as referring ‘to cognitive frameworks, templates or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it’. We have them for all sorts of things: “basketball” (indoors, five-a-side, holding the ball in your hands) and “football” (outdoors, eleven-a-side, kicking the ball with your foot), for example, or “packed lunch” (sandwiches, fruit, crisps) and “school dinners” (hot meal, meat, vegetables).

Object schemas are used routinely in many special schools to help students with significant learning difficulties understand and prepare for what is coming next. A pair of goggles might signify that swimming is coming up, or a piece of Numicon will be used to indicate that the next session will be maths. You can see how object schemas are used to positively influence the behaviour of children for whom a regular timetable or verbal instruction in isolation is inaccessible. The child is more likely to understand what is happening next and is therefore more likely to be settled and comfortable as opposed to anxious and worried.

Schemas affect our judgement and how we behave and help us to select the appropriate behaviours for different locations and events such as visits to the dentist, job interviews or queuing in the supermarket.

Nisbett explains this influence is also true of our use of stereotypes – schemas about particular types of people and this set me thinking about learning difficulties and the people who have learning difficulties. Schemas are clearly working away in the subconscious, amongst a lot of other things as I am learning from Nisbett, and have developed and evolved throughout the courses of our lives.

What schemas do you have for the following words?

ADHD

Down syndrome

Autism

Pupil premium

Looked-after

Bottom set

SEN

Are the schemas that we have for these words negative in nature? Do they subconsciously suggest lower expectations for any children we teach who happen to be described using some of these terms? I’ll give you a word that’s specific to me.

Fitzgerald

I’m forced to admit that this word immediately brings forth some negative thoughts and words. I wish it weren’t so, but they’re there. I have to consciously put them away and refocus. The word does this because I worked with a number of children from the Fitzgerald family* when I first became a teacher in a comprehensive who all had some behavioural difficulties. Getting my class lists one late July for the next year, my eyes rested on another Fitzgerald. Within a fraction of a second I had judged this child without ever meeting them. Later on I was to learn a salutary lesson as it turned out that this particular Fitzgerald did not experience any behavioural difficulties, nor were they actually a member of that family at all (although that should have been irrelevant). I learnt the lesson, but my subconscious still drags up thoughts that, unchallenged, would unacceptably see me prejudge a child before meeting them.

Nisbett describes an experiment carried out by psychologists at Princeton University[1] in which students made stereotypical judgements about a child based on their judgement of her social class. The experiment contended that “[p]eople will expect and demand less of [working-class Hannah], and they will perceive her performance as being worse than if she were upper middle class”.

Reading that chapter a number of times and thinking deeply and honestly about the subconscious schemas that are operating in my head I am concerned that the adverse judgements made by the students in the Princeton study are more than likely to be replicated or, I fear, magnified, by society when they hear or see the words

ADHD

Down syndrome

Autism

Pupil premium

Looked-after

Bottom set

SEN

I fear this because I have seen first-hand how society in general (there I go with the broadest stereotype imaginable) has low expectations of people with Down syndrome. I see very little expectation that children with Down syndrome will go on to paid work or live independently. Why?

I am going to challenge you to confront your schemas and your stereotypes. Be brutally honest with yourself and dig deep to uncover what your subconscious mind is saying to you about those words in bold above and about the people you work with now, or have in the past, who have been described by those labels or others like them. It’s going to take some serious effort (I haven’t taught a Fitzgerald for eleven years) before each of us individually, and then society more broadly, replaces deficit schemas with ambitious schemas.

*Fitzgerald is a pseudonym

[1] Darley and Gross, “A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labelling Effects”

Vectoring assets to kinetic situations

I spend a lot of my time, especially at this time of year, reading paperwork about students, existing or prospective, from a range of professionals such as teachers, therapists and social workers.

Every profession has its own jargon and vocabulary, much of it unnecessary. My closest friend is a senior officer in the Royal Marines. He taught me a cracker recently: ‘vectoring assets to kinetic situations’ which translates as ‘sending our guys to help out their mates as some bad guys are shooting at them’. We can sanitise and depersonalise by using such language and perhaps, in situations such as that, it is part of the point.

In the reports that I read there’s a style and language, deliberate or not, that turns the mundane, normal aspects of life for children with learning difficulties into technical, inhuman operations. I decided to note down some of the things that I’ve done over the last few days as if they were written about the children I work with.

Jarlath accessed his local leisure facilities with some adult support. At times he lay on the floor and was unresponsive to adult prompts.
When feeding himself independently, Jarlath made some poor food choices and needed adults to intervene.
Jarlath displayed high-level obsessional behaviour by playing the same music repeatedly in order to avoid doing the task he’d been set.
Jarlath uses social media excessively to communicate with people he has never met. Safeguarding concern form completed.
Jarlath seeks to control and micromanage everyone on his work placement. He displays challenging behaviour when we try to discuss this.
Jarlath’s bedtime routine is poor. He can often be found playing on his phone long after he should be asleep.
Jarlath rarely communicates what he actually wants. We often have to infer his wishes from body language and other aspects of his non-verbal communication.
Jarlath’s perseverance is poor. He will often leave important tasks half-finished, preferring to avoid them by completing routine tasks instead.
Jarlath does not have sufficient discipline to control his personal budget. For instance, he recently bought a pair of shoes, despite the fact that he already owns a pair.
Jarlath retreats to safe behaviours such as wandering around the school site or litter picking at times of stress and anxiety.
Jarlath is hyposensitive first thing in the morning. As a result he has cut himself when shaving independently a number of times. Occupational therapy referral completed.
Jarlath’s behaviour becomes oppositional and he becomes introverted if his favourite rugby team loses. He has an incomplete understanding of perspective as he fails to realise that it is just a leisure activity.
Perhaps we’d do better at meeting the needs of these young people if we stopped writing as if they were inhuman robots and started writing about their lives the same way we talk about our own.

If your knees aren’t dirty you haven’t been working hard enough

When I was in junior school I used to play for the football team. Our Headteacher, Mr Jeffrey, was our coach and he’d learned his trade the old school way. Mr Jeffrey was always keen to impress upon us his one rule – if you turned up at half time without mud on your knees you hadn’t been working hard enough. The score seemed to be of secondary importance. Maybe it wasn’t to him, but the message about the cleanliness or otherwise of my knees stuck with me.

It was a thought never far from my mind as the first half went on and resulted in me once sliding for a ball that had long since left the field of play in order to pass Mr Jeffrey’s ‘dirty knees’ test. For him, this was the ‘key performance indicator’ by which to measure me as a player so it influenced my behaviour to ensure that I escaped the public censure that would surely follow if I ever showed up for my half-time oranges with clean knees.

And so it is with school leaders now.

We operate within a culture of ‘performativity’ where the end-point narrative rules. If the accountability framework demands muddy knees (or certain test scores or British Values, for pity’s sake) then my colleagues and I are going to ensure our knees are caked in the thickest, gloopiest mud we can find. This wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for the fact that the decisions we as Headteachers make as a result can directly affect children in a negative way.

In my position as a special school head I know the following statement to be true:

Some children are riskier to have on the roll of a school than others.

For example, the student who ended up on a part-time timetable after just three weeks of Year 7 before coming to us. ‘He cannot keep up at the pace we teach’, said the school. ‘They are petrified of losing their Teaching School status’ said the LA officer with a great deal more honesty.

Some children are definitely riskier to have on the roll of a school than others.

There are two groups in particular who present such a ‘risk’ to schools chasing their place in the league tables and status stakes and school leaders (understandably maybe) scared for their jobs:

– Children with special educational needs and children who live in poverty.

What’s more, to compound the situation, it is clear these two groups are inextricably linked. Children who live in poverty are far more likely to also have special educational needs. (See my book ‘Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow’ for more on this topic.)

How the hell did we end up in a situation like this? What does it say about us as a society that we’ve allowed a system to develop where a child can be deemed a risk to the so-called success of the school? What does it say about us as professionals that we play along with these new ‘rules’?

Timo Hannay, Founder of School Dash, has produced a compelling analysis of ‘how different types of schools either enable or hinder opportunities for those from poorer families’. The conclusions are clear:

• A family living next to a school rated ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted is over 60% more likely to be poor than one living next to an ‘Outstanding’ school.

• Just as importantly, this well-known ‘house price’ effect is far from the only factor keeping poorer children out of good schools. Even those poorer children who do live close to a high-performing school are less likely to end up going there. Indeed, the data suggest that school selection is an even bigger driver of social sorting than the locations of family homes.

School types in which poorer pupils are under-represented after taking into account the level of poverty in their local areas include:

Grammar schools and single-sex secondary schools.

Certain faith schools, particularly non-Christian faith schools and Roman Catholic schools.

Schools rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.

Secondary converter academies and primary free schools.

And so it follows that the demographic profile of your school has a direct influence on how likely your school is to be deemed good or better.

Any policy maker who is serious about equity would level the playing field without delay (and by level the playing field, I don’t mean re-introduce grammar schools). There are a number of things that should be done to make this happen. Removing admissions from schools and replacing them with a form of admissions lottery is the obvious one, although this has some undesirable side-effects. Another is to compel schools to publish the following key information annually:

– Turnover of students (i.e. the proportion of students who joined the school at the beginning of Year 7 and who are still there at the end of Year 11)

– The proportion of the students in that turnover who have an EHCP or are SEN Support

– The number of students on part-time timetables and, of those, how many have an EHCP or are SEN Support;

– The percentage of children who are entitled to free school meals (FSM) compared to the school’s local community.

There may well be perfectly valid reasons for all of the above, but schools should be able to provide this information in the interests of transparency and be confident in explaining the reasons behind the information with integrity.

And this confidence will only happen when perverse performance incentives are removed from the accountability framework. After all, it is the overall game that is important, not how dirty you make your knees by half time.

 

The pasteurization of France

As a profession we’re in the midst of a quiet, but definite evolution in becoming more confident when handling research information, more informed about what research is already out there and more prepared to engage in our own classroom-based action research. This is welcome, but also necessary if we are to regard ourselves as a high status profession, get our policies right and use our precious CPD time as efficiently and effectively as we can.

My particular area of interest, which is rapidly becoming an obsession, is in behaviour, especially around improving behaviour in schools where it has been poor. This means I get to learn from studies looking at, for example, the effectiveness, or otherwise, of policies labelled ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’, and of longitudinal studies on exclusion.

What strikes me most about almost everything I read is a conspicuous absence of any discussion about values that underpin such policy decisions on behaviour.

For example, there may exist utterly compelling and overwhelming research from multiple sources which shows, irrespective of context, phase or sector, that corporal punishment is the swiftest, most effective way to improve behaviour in individuals. Even if this research existed, there is nothing anyone can ever do to convince me that we should implement beating children as a behaviour improvement strategy in our school. I am making a value-based judgement that rests on my belief that inflicting violence on a child is a perverse way of teaching them that whatever they did was wrong, and this also underpins my smack-free parenting. “You have hit someone, which is wrong. In order to teach you that this is wrong, I shall hit you to make you understand.” It’s an extreme example, but the principle stands. (Extreme, but not every teacher in the UK is against corporal punishment and it is still legal and practiced in a number of states in the USA.)

My experiences as a novice Headteacher have been documented before – in short, behaviour nosedived, we had to radically rethink how we did things, behaviour improved and remained much better. Never perfect, you understand, but much better. The journey is neatly captured by the four Ofsted reports, which you can read, that punctuated my six years as Headteacher. During the course of my early days as a Headteacher I had to grapple with the obvious fact that our values as a school were being undermined by my actions in response to poor behaviour. I was using exclusion heavily and without effect. The use of exclusion as a response to poor behaviour was contradictory to our values as a school. We were committed to working with each child to meet their complex needs and providing support in whatever form was needed. Excluding children plainly failed to live up to that and, in some cases, was making things worse. It was a blunt behaviourist response that placed all responsibility on the child to sort their life out by sitting at home for a time and thinking about what they did. Further, it did nothing to support my colleagues as children came back unchanged or with resentment entrenched. This was compounded by them missing school and falling even further behind academically.

I decided to stop using exclusion as a response to poor behaviour. It was a decision consistent with our values, and one which brought me significant criticism. A governor at the time insisted that the only way to improve behaviour was to exclude more children; I disagreed. I received some grief on social media, memorably “People like you are responsible for thousands of teachers leaving the profession. Moron.” People immediately jumped in with both feet, assuming that instead I simply did nothing. What I did do was to focus on action to improve behaviour that was consistent with our values. (The only external commentary I have are the Ofsted reports, so you can read for yourself how it went.) Had I (we, in reality, for it is always a team effort, but the accountability rested with me) not been effective in improving behaviour I would have had to admit that my strategies were wrong, but my values would remain intact.

This period in my life, and in the lives of the colleagues, children and parents who went through it with me, came flooding back recently when I read ‘Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education’ by Professor Gert Biesta1.

Biesta powerfully examines the ‘What works’ movement and the role it should play – “if evidence were the only base for educational practice, educational practice would be entirely without direction” and that “questions about ‘what works’ — that is questions about the effectiveness of educational actions — are always secondary to questions of purpose”

He defines three issues with the evidence-based approach, namely the knowledge deficit, the efficacy deficit and the application deficit, but it when discussing complexity reduction where things get interesting.

“In his book on Pasteur, Latour argues that the success of Pasteur’s approach was not the result of the application of this particular technique across all farms in the French countryside. Pasteur’s technique could only work because significant dimensions of French farms were first transformed to get them closer to the laboratory conditions under which the technique was developed. As Latour argues, it is ‘‘only on the conditions that you respect a limited set of laboratory practices [that] you can extend to every French farm a laboratory practice made at Pasteur’s lab’’ (Latour 1983, p. 152). The ‘pasteurization of France’ (Latour 1988) is but one example of how the modern world has changed as a result of modern science, and again and again Latour argues that this is not the result of bringing facts and machines into the world ‘outside’ but of the transformation of the world outside so that it becomes part of the laboratory conditions under which things can work and can be true. Latour refers to ‘‘this gigantic enterprise to make of the outside a world inside of which facts and machines can survive’’ as metrology” and that it “only tends to work under very specific conditions.”

I wonder how many value-free policies and practices result from attempts at complexity reduction. Off-rolling certain students, illegally excluding others, a grammar school kicking certain students out halfway through their A-Levels being just a few examples. ‘Success’ then can become a matter of getting as close as possible to the laboratory conditions by getting the right kids in the door, and keeping the wrong ones out. Children who do not fit the prescription are the collateral damage in this enterprise and you don’t need me to tell you who those children are do you?

 

1 Biesta GJJ (2010) Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education, Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29 (5), pp. 491-503.

Are you a piano mover or a piano player?

I’ve been a Headteacher for five years now and I’m just starting to figure out how it works. Maybe this surprises you. Maybe you expect Headteachers to hit the ground running and, mixing my metaphors, take to the role like a duck to water. Maybe others do (a colleague of mine who I aspire to be like said recently that after seven years he was just getting into his stride), but that never happened for me. The treadmill has always been set to a swift pace with an added gradient that makes the calves burn.

I have a very strong feeling that now, after five years, I have to change how I lead our school. Our school has changed markedly in that time and I haven’t kept pace with that change. I think I’m still trying to lead the way I did when our school was judged, by us before Ofsted got there, by the way, to require improvement.

I took up rowing at university and one of our squad’s favourite phrases was

Are you a piano mover or a piano player?

In other words, are you just a grunt with a big pair of quads who can pull hard or do you have finesse, rhythm, timing? I’m six feet tall which makes me short in oarsman terms. I was never going to be in the meat wagon, the middle four oarsmen or women in an eight where, traditionally, the biggest and strongest rowers found themselves. I was always in the bow or stern pair, the front or rear two, where technique and timing ruled and helped the boat flow through the water. I had some finesse, good timing, and a degree of balance. In an eight the size of the boat, the weight of the crew and the sheer number of oarsmen could hide a multitude of sins in the technique of an oarsman. There was no such hiding place in a pair. With just the two of you timing and balance was everything. You could turn a pair over and end up in the water just trying to break wind. You had to be a piano player.

That’s why my favourite drill in an eight was rowing with our eyes shut. You had to rely on feel only and you knew when you got it right as a crew. The boat glided. It was a thing of beauty.

For my first few years as a Headteacher I had to be a piano mover. We needed to improve rapidly, partly because I was on my own steep learning curve, and this required plenty of grunt and muscle from all of us. The school is in a very different place now and is performing very well. The school doesn’t need a piano mover now, it needs a piano player.

Jon Chaloner, the CEO of GLF Schools, said to me a couple of years ago that taking a school from a position of underperformance to performing well was nothing like the leadership required to go from performing well to becoming exceptional. He was, of course, right. It’s just taken me two years to listen to him and learn.

I have Sir David Carter’s words ringing in my ears. To paraphrase him, a school is probably either improving or declining. If I don’t learn how to play this particular piano quickly my school will start to decline. Self-evidently I cannot allow that to happen.

I am reminded of the time I bought a road bike. I took some good advice from the staff in the bike shop. When I explained what I wanted he said, “You can spend as much money as you want, but you won’t get any faster with a more expensive bike. You are the limiting factor in this equation, not the bike. Lance Armstrong you are not.” If I don’t evolve as a leader and change how I work, how I lead my school, then I will very quickly become the limiting factor in this particular equation. And there’s only one outcome from that.

It’s time for me to change. I can move a piano. Now it’s time for me to learn how to play the piano.