2017: a review

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.‘”

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Here’s some of my favourite reading this year…

Tom Sherrington is always worth reading and rightly influential in the wider educational debate. His School Leadership in 12 Slides post summarised the important features of top level functions in schools wonderfully for me, and as I move into the higher echelons of senior leadership, a lot to learn from.

Apparently I was the first ‘Twitterati’ Jo Morgan met! Resourceaholic should be the first place you go to if you’re a Maths teacher looking for inspiration in your planning. Her more ‘activist’-style posts like this one are brilliant.

Craig Barton is working through interviewing the key players in current educational thinking at a rate of knots, and his podcasts continue to be informative. My particular favourite is the one with Dylan William, but they’re all pretty spectacular. I hold out hope to be an interviewee one day. I’ll have to do something important first…

Cal Newport has been an idol of mine for a while but 2017 was the year in which I started to intensely analyse and process his ideas. His blog is brilliant.

Finally, Aidan Severs makes relevant and useful blog writing look easy. If the outcome of events were slightly different I understand some collaboration might have been on the cards, but otherwise I can just sit and enjoy reading posts like this.

So yes, farewell 2017. You were stressful, but I’ve come through a stronger and fitter person (literally!) as a result. A new, more senior role (though much closer to home!) means I’ll need to dedicate my focus even more on ‘core business’ (more on that below) but I’m hoping to reignite The Lean Department (AGAIN) – you could say I’ve ‘pivoted’ from what I talked about at ResearchEd in the Autumn – thanks to Tom and the team for the invite by the way!

If there’s a lesson I’ve learned this year it’s to focus one’s attention on what really matters – my health, my family, and living a quality life – and I’ve already started that process off as the year began to turn. I’m really looking forward to continuing that as 2018 comes over the (ahem) horizon.

See you on the flipside.



The Power of Collaborative Planning

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

Michael Jordan

There’s a been a lot of talk again recently about collaborative planning – or as John Hattie might call it, collective teacher efficacy. I’ve done some work in this area recently, and I’m going to share what I discovered.

The problem of individual planning

A main scale teacher – roughly – has to plan about 20 lessons a week, give or take. If a teacher takes 15 minutes per lesson to do so, that’s 5 hours of planning time needed. Now, 15 minutes is a short amount of time to plan the right questions, make any slides, choose retrieval and checking activities and select resources for practice. This 15 minutes can grow quickly if things aren’t quite right. Suddenly it’s not out of the question for planning a lesson to take half an hour or longer, and the total amount of time spent planning to go over 10 hours a week – a significant amount of time given time needed for marking, feedback, meetings, duties, etc.

Allied to this are the eternal problems a subject leader faces – are lessons being planned well enough? Are students being given opportunity to develop their knowledge? Does the member of staff have the subject knowledge and experience to plan the right questions? After 13-14 years of being in the Maths teaching game I know I’ve still got areas that I need to work on – one is forever learning – so just think about the needs of an NQT/RQT!

These two areas were at the forefront of my mind 12 months ago when Maths department was a team of extremely enthusiastic and hard working staff, but who I felt were exceeding what was a sustainable workload. With over half of the department being NQTs/RQTs and members of the department having roles beyond the classroom, the amount of time that staff could dedicate to developing subject knowledge, planning questions, putting lesson resources together and still have something of a life struck me as being problematic.

So, I resolved to do something about it. Our department meetings had always been subject focused – agreed ways of modelling, developing topic specific knowledge, formative assessment practice, etc – but something more structured needed to take place. Despite being after school, staff were always happy to go past the allotted hour, and as such, the stage was set. It was time to collaboratively plan lessons.

Objectives and rationale

The objective was simple. Reduce the amount of time planning by spending 90 minutes creating outline lesson plans and resources for each year group, for each week.

How would this objective be achieved?

  1. Staff would work in pairs, trying to mix experience and subject knowledge where possible.
  2. Each pair would focus on a particular year group. How it worked out was that I ended up planning Year 7 alone, but this was fine. I would try and match the pair to who they taught the most – thus they felt greater ownership of the planning.
  3. The pair would plan a series of ‘I do (teaching modelling), We do (formative assessment), You Do (independent practice)’ cycles for a particular learning intention – see Tom Sherrington’s Silver Arrows for the rationale of the cycle structure. How many cycles this was would depend on what the learning intention was. What was important that each cycle did not necessarily correspond to a lesson; instead, the cycle was specific to an elemental step in the development of the overall learning intention. For example if the learning intention is adding and subtracting fractions, one cycle would focus on finding equivalent fractions with common denominators.
  4. The Do Now activities were purely retrieval practice – questions taken from Mr Carter Maths, MathsBox or Corbett Maths that went over what had been covered in the previous scheme of work unit. This meant that staff didn’t have to come up with their own lesson starter, and thus time was saved.
  5. As with point 4, assessments were already selected by me for each learning intention, so staff didn’t have to come up them. This had a two fold outcome – more time saved for staff, but also staff had a sense of what they needed to work to in order for students to have some level of confidence in the summative assessment. This sounds like teaching to the test, but I think this is different in the sense that each learning intention was part of a wider unit of learning focusing on a particular theme, rather than prepping students for a final exam. By breaking down the unit of learning into a series of skills that can be assessed, one can get a picture of if the theme as a whole has been understood. Masking these skills in exam questions tells you nothing about if the skills themselves are understood – see Daisy Christodolou’s Making Good Progress for more on this.
  6. I tried to limit the sources of independent practice. CGP and Elmwood Press textbooks, the CIMT, Corbett Maths and Median websites were the main sources. If we were really struggling, Jo Morgan’s Resourceaholic or Ed Southall’s Solve My Maths worksheets were the next port of call. It was rare we had to make something ourselves.
  7. Exit tickets to check students had understood usually came in the form of a straightforward exam question – a classic AO1 type – or something from Diagnostic Questions – this goes back being able to identify if the skill had been understood in the first instance. I’ll go into more detail about how we checked learning, rather than teaching, at DTA at another point.
  8. Each learning cycle had a premise. This was all about linking the learning to the bigger picture, reminding students of why this element of learning was important, and identifying where in the syllabus this fitted. Saves a whole load of ‘whats the point’ questions from darling students.
  9. Each week’s set of plans for a year group were planned for the middle to higher end of the ability spectrum. We wanted to show high expectations for all classes, and if lower attaining students were making rapid progress through the content, then they weren’t being held back. Likewise if a higher attaining group had some gaps in assumed knowledge, we weren’t papering over the cracks. More on that below.

What this meant for individual teachers

The result for teachers wasn’t a set of complete lesson plans where all that member of staff had to do was blithely rattle through a set of slides, without ownership of the material or care in checking the resources before hand. I made it absolutely clear that whilst this would save a huge amount of time in planning, there was still a need for tailoring – which for a week’s of lessons for a class would only take between 30 minutes and an hour. This might involve adding in extra questions and checking for understanding for lower attaining groups, or adding in more challenging tasks and problem solving for higher attaining/rapidly progressing groups. But staff were guaranteed a core set of lesson plans that they could develop through the week to suit the needs of their learners, and a lot more time to do so.

What this meant for me

I knew that the Maths department were planning quality lessons, rapidly, and having more time to think about teaching and learning. There was less stress, more clarity and tighter integration as a team to achieve a shared mission. It did take a while at first, but by the 3rd or 4th week in, a pair could have a week’s learning planned in the space of 90 minutes, all the while having proper conversations about the syllabus, developing their subject knowledge and winding up the ‘opposition’ (as Usman and Saila would call the rest of us).

What this meant for students

I’ll keep this simple. In September, using the June 2017 grade boundaries, I could compare outcomes for the Class of 2019 (Y11 in 2017) with the Class of 2020 (Y10 in 2017). The Class of 2020 were already markedly above their peers in the year above by 5-8% at grades 4+, 5+ and 7+, and most notably, this was a term ahead of their peers too (I compared the Secure Mocks for purposes of standardisation, which was used for the first time in November of Y11 for the Class of 2019, if that makes sense!). In other words, Y10 were not only performing significantly better, this was a term ahead too.

Does this justify collaborative planning?

Of course, this is not a double-blind RCT with replication studies built in. You could claim that the quality of staff on Y10 might be better than those in Y11, but the same teachers taught both year groups. There’s an element of knowing the syllabus and assessment criteria better, but to be 5-8% better at key measures, and a term ahead of the previous year isn’t something I think can be purely attributable to this.

Even if you worked purely on the fact that all students were ensured a consistent diet of modelling, questioning, checking, practice and assessment, planned in a shorter space of time and delivered by a less stressed, more focused and confident teacher, collaborative planning can’t be argued against. Just look at Hattie’s effect size if you don’t believe me.

Thoughts and questions welcome via Twitter and the comments section, as always.

Mathsconf #13 – Now That The Dust Is Settling…

Short post to say that if you missed my session and want the slides and handout, or you attended and would like electronic copies, you can click here for the slides, and here for the handout.

I will be reprising this talk at LIME Oldham on 17th November at The Radclyffe School in Oldham (well, of course), so if you want to see it live (and who could blame you), then come along. It’d be great to see you.


The problem of school expectations in a society of individuals.

I’m Loving It.


Barry Smith’s recent letter to parents in regards to the expectations he has of the parents of students in his (recently attributed) care has caused somewhat of a storm.

I personally, have no problem with this letter. It’s absolutely right and fair. Barry will never truly succeed in this argument – and here’s why (get ready for some political discourse and critical theory).

In the early 20th century, large public systems were considered paternal/maternal. A doctor told you what they thought was wrong with you, and what the best course of action was, because they had done several years of medical training. A politician decided on the best course of action, because they had a mandate from the people, who believed in the power of government to assert their authority and affect change. A school headteacher laid the rules that they felt were in the interests of their students and teachers, because the society and government expected them to do so.

As the 20th century progressed, a problem happened. The public services didn’t appear to be functioning properly. Institutions failed to adapt to, and recognise, the shifting needs of society. As such, there was a growing alienation between people and the institutions meant to serve them, and instead of being seen as paternal/maternal and caring, instead as patronising, archaic and disinterested.

This coincided with a counter-cultural idea that the way to improve your lot was not to look to systems and organisations to solve your problems but to look to within yourself, define your authentic self and deal with the strengths, weaknesses, interests and personal demons that contribute to who you are. By maximising your strengths and personal interests, and tackling your weaknesses and personal demons, you would become a self-actualised, better person.

This was the rise of the individualistic populace. I, and therefore my contribution to society, will get better by helping and improving myself. This is not in itself a problematic notion, but as the counter-cultural hope of the 1960s shifted to the cold reality of the 1970s and the discord of the 1980s, the potential for individual improvement contributing to societal growth was lost. Quickly.

The reason for this is that true self-actualisation is bloody hard to do. The notion of the self, independent of the physical and mental environment in which one exists is practically impossible to manifest. We are born and raised with notions in childhood that hold significant sway over our understanding of the world as adults. Stripping away those notions was a challenge taken up by the radical therapies of R.D. Laing and Arthur Janov, but they failed. So something else happened. Marketing.

Marketing superficially facilitiated the self-actualisation movement by promoting products that would realise your feelings and attitudes – ‘Just Do It’, ‘You’re Worth It’, ‘Work, Rest, and Play’. Rather than our actions becoming the manifestations of self-actualisation, instead the things we own became the artefacts of our individual personality.

Now, this causes a problem for schools. Schools require students and parents to submit responsibility to the greater good – the school. Things like uniform, behaviour, punctuality, motivation, effort – these are not just methods through which we expect students to comply with but are designed to help the school function as a whole; to be respectful of the needs for all in a shared environment. Take uniform for example. There are endless press clippings around about “HEADTEACHER SENDS STUDENTS HOME FOR HAVING THE WRONG SHOES”. There are two aspects to this. The “SENDS STUDENTS HOME” bit implies that school is a vast childcare repository. This is fallacious, schools are to help students learn ideas about the world and become active citizens in their society. Interestingly in learning how to become an active citizen in society, one appreciates the ideas of social norms, and the social norm of schooling is to have a uniform. One of the main reasons that we have a uniform beyond representing what we are a part of is the idea that it is the great leveller – no matter your income or fashion sense, a uniform cuts through that and allows you to be part of a group on a level playing field. The “HAVING THE WRONG SHOES” bit is linked to this. How hard is it to buy shoes? How hard is it to get the right information about uniform? Not only this, the “WRONG SHOES” element trivialises the whole thing: “Shoes are not a big deal, let them off”. Well in some respects they’re not (just wear the right ones), and others they are (because it’s the social norm, and challenging that undermines the shared reality of a school environment).

But this goes back to individuality. By challenging the right for an individual to wear what they want, you are challenging their self-actualisation. By challenging a parent to comply with the expectations that THEY CHOSE TO SIGN UP FOR WHEN THEY AGREED TO TAKE A PLACE UP AT THAT SCHOOL is a challenge to their self-actualisation. Additonally, perhaps the parent sees the opportunity cost of not quite complying with a school uniform as less than that of having to put up with a teenager moaning (for a bit) about how crap their shoes are, and that they hate them as a result (note – teenagers hate anything and everything at varying points, and I should know, because I was a complete emotional hurricane as a teenager. Probably still am. Anyway…).

I have total and utter respect for families who suffer from poverty, but the truly economically disadvantaged are rare (and I should know, because I was one of them – thanks to Sheffield City Council for that lovely lemon yellow nylon sweater that gave me static shocks every time I wore it). You can get a cheap pair of shoes readily these days, and 90% of people can afford them readily. Put it this way, if you are willing to place a burden on your child’s opportunity to elevate themselves out of their socio-economic situation because you don’t see the point in a school uniform, then who’s in the wrong?

If you want to learn about the problem of self-actualisation and how it has pretty much alienated public services from the population as a whole, then I suggest you look into the work of Adam Curtis and Brad Davis.


An At The Edge of Chaos Election Special


Reading all the conflab to do with the snap election, I have a few things that would get my vote. Here we go:

  1. Invest in the renewable energy sector and do it now. Stop being a slave to fuel exports and tariffs, and be self-sufficient in renewable energy by 2050. Why we are still reliant on 19th century sources of energy to fuel 21st century infrastructure is beyond me. You’d open up the job market, create a need for highly skilled individuals – and thus well paid and well taxed contributors to the state – to participate and cut carbon production. What’s wrong with that?
  2. Up the tax rate by 1p in the pound – across the board – and invest that directly into the NHS and Education system. You should not put a value on the health and education of a nation. The most stable and fastest growing economies in the world have the best health care and the best education. Scrap tuition fees whilst you’re at it.
  3. Cancel HS2. Invest in more capacity on the rail network, and re-open the Woodhead line between Sheffield and Manchester. It’s criminal that two of the biggest cities in the UK, and most economically important in Europe, are connected by a railway line that is like something from The Railway Children.
  4. Sugar tax. Just do it properly. The best way to stop people doing something is hitting them in the pocket. Why have people switched from cigarettes to vaping? It’s cheaper. None of that ‘health’ rubbish. People can get more nicotine for their money. You can improve the health of a nation simply by removing the incentive to eat crap. We eat high starch, high sugar, high salt foods because they are cheap.
  5. Provide every home with access to the internet. A state-funded minimum access that allows everyone to make use of the technological revolution. The freedom of knowledge and information deserves to be a right shared by all, and there are still people in the UK who for whatever reason don’t have access to it.
  6. Go cap in hand back to the EU and say ‘we’re sorry, we had a bit of a blip there’, and knock Brexit on the head. It never ceases to amaze me how many different areas and services we use in the UK that are reliant on EU funding. Just sit and watch CBeebies for an hour and see how many EU flags are in the credits of the programmes. Go to your local park and notice how the upkeep is subsidised by EU funding. It appears in some of the least expected places, yet we’re careering into a future that we neither know nor understand. Scary.

So, that’s it. I’d never stand for parliament because a) I wouldn’t want to do it and b) I’d not last two minutes – I’m too nice. But someone, somewhere, must agree with some if not all of these ideas, eh?


Hi all.

Since January, there have been a host of significant events in my family life that have placed a lot of things in perspective for me.

For the last 3-4 years I’ve been delighted to be part of a movement that has made real change in the way Mathematics is taught in schools. I’ve been lucky to work with and learn from some amazing individuals and groups, and I hope I’ve been able to pay some of that back in my own work.

However, for some time now, I’ve felt ready to move things forward with implementing my research and learning to a wider school leadership basis. I tried launching this with The Next Step theme on this site, but felt it was lacking something in terms of adding value to what is already a fertile environment.

So, instead, I’ve decided to focus the attention I have beyond family and my role at DTA to a new project. The perspective that the aforementioned events have given me has driven me to get fitter and healthier (nearly 2 stone lost since mid-January), appreciate family time more and go ahead with a project that I’ve had in mind for some time now.

It’s something I’m really excited about and I’m confident it’ll make a positive impact on a wider basis than on Mathematics teaching and leadership alone.

You can find out more at The Lean Department. You can follow me on Twitter @theleandept.

My blog, At The Edge Of Chaos, and the Twitter account @workedgechaos will continue to exist, but don’t expect much from there other than a few DMs and occasional updates from time to time.

Here’s to the future!


The Pillars of Great Leadership, Part One: Self Esteem

Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.
Marylin Monroe (attrib.)

This post is part of a series on my reflections on senior leadership. To read the rest click here, otherwise, read on! 

As I reflected recently on how I wanted to develop this series on The Next Level, I felt that rather than going into the actions of senior leadership, instead I should look to further explore the qualities of great leaders, and how this can improve my practice at this level. My reasoning is akin to Stephen Covey’s approach of ‘Sharpening the Saw’; I know I have the capacity and qualities to succeed at this level, but am I making the most of them and in what areas can I make the greatest gains?

I talk of pillars because I wanted to focus on what great leadership rests on; what foundations are needed for a leader to be truly effective in their work. Again this is an opportunity for self reflection, but also to give others a framework to go through the same process. Let’s begin with what my research has shown me to be the core quality: self esteem.


I thought long and hard about how to go about this. See, from a very young age, self esteem has been somewhat of an slippery issue. I was brought up to be modest, not flashy and never to over play one’s achievements. There is obviously some merit in this: no one likes a show off, and it’s a way of keeping your feet on the ground. That said, one has to be careful not to cross over from modesty into meekness and lack of surety; no leader ever succeeded by being submissive.

That said, being submissive and modest are understandable traps to fall into when being eager to please, wanting to avoid over confidence. So how can one carry self esteem without it slipping into over assurity and arrogance?


Self esteem comes from two main values: self-acceptance and self-responsibility. Let’s explore.


To accept oneself, to value yourself for who you are, without judging yourself is self-acceptance. It’s about not comparing yourself to others and appreciating the merits of what you’ve achieved. Now, if you’re anything like me this is something that hasn’t come readily. For example, I used to balk when people called me a geek – but I am a geek! There’s no actual shame in being a geek; it’s about taking an more than superficial interest in a wide range of things (I’ve recently learned of the term philomath which literally means lover of knowledge: I think I’ll start using that). Yet for years it was something I was ashamed of.

Part of the reason for this was down to comparing myself with my friends, for whom studying was akin to pulling teeth; but in reality those friends were temporary and now I move in circles where knowledge is truly valued. The lesson, then, with self acceptance is to not compare who you are with who others are, and instead realise what you have to offer to the world and make the most of those attributes.

Importantly a lack of self acceptance is incredibly easy for others to pick up on. People can smell it, particularly if it results in a submissive nature. Lack of acceptance in oneself means one can become overly willing to please, unassertive or worse, both. Having a sidekick attitude is unlikely to be becoming in a leadership role. People look to leaders to stand for their vision, not to question their goals relative to others’ opinions.


One thing I learned from an early age: you create your own luck. When you accept yourself, you accept your situation and you take responsibility for it too. Once this happens you take control. A person with self esteem understands that the outcomes in their lives are their responsibility. This means that when they want things to happen they make decisions and live by them, whether they made the right decision or otherwise.

Recently I’ve learned that the trick to this is to become 100% solution orientated. Don’t complain about a situation, and blame others; instead immediately ask what can I do about it? This may not mean having answers to problems right away, but what it might mean is knowing where to look and/or finding the time to put solutions together. This is an easy lesson to forget. I can’t be the only one who has done so. But when you’ve got an attitude of leadership like mine – helping people to be the best they can – then solutions are your bread and butter. Self-responsibility allows you to thrive in any circumstance.


I went into detail about integrity in an earlier post, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but it’s obvious to me that if your actions aren’t congruent with your value system or your words then you’ll never hold confidence in who you are: you’ll have too many questions in yourself to ever carry oneself with assurity and self belief.

Takeaway Questions

  1. What makes you, you?
  2. What qualities do you possess that set you apart from others?
  3. What benefit do those qualities provide?
  4. Think about two or three problems you currently face: what can you do to make a difference right away?
  5. Why is blaming others destructive to your self esteem?
  6. How can you act in the future to ensure your leadership fits with your value system?


Self-esteem centres on three principles:

  • Self-acceptance: valuing who you are without comparison to the qualities and achievements of others;
  • Self-responsibility: understanding that life’s outcomes are a result of one’s actions;
  • Integrity: being true to your core values in each aspect of your role.

Senior leaders need self-esteem because it communicates assurity and solidity: if the one steering the ship has confidence in the course, then the rest of the crew can enjoy the journey…

Thanks for reading. I always welcome feedback, so hit me with a reply or retweet!