6 min read
19 Sep

One of the first tasks that needs to be done when taking on a special measures school is to recalibrate the compass. They are heading in the wrong direction. It’s not that teachers aren’t working incredibly hard or lack the pedagogical know-how. It’s simply a question of them doing the wrong things. And because they are the wrong things, they inevitably don’t work. As a result, the frustrated teacher has to work even harder to overcompensate the loss, and so the cycle continues. It’s no surprise therefore to find that morale is low and burn-out high.

A Road to Nowhere is a ride that no one wants to take. So instead, re-set the Sat Nav. Let people re-discover their moral compass. To quote the author John Maxwell “The pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects the wind to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” It’s not quite as simple as sailing off into the sunset together but at least the point has been made as to the key difference between leadership and management. The over-riding culture that tends to dominate special measures schools is one of micro-management – a tick-list approach that requires compliance in order to appear to look as if we know what we are doing. It’s all about inputs with little regard to outputs, teaching and not learning, cause and not effect. The school may be awash with all sorts of initiatives, new systems and procedures but so what? Is it making a difference? Probably not, because they are the wrong things. And therein lies the difference between leadership and management: The latter is more to do with doing things right, whereas leadership concerns itself with doing the right things.

I’ve found myself having to adjust the sails in two of our schools at the start of this term, one outstanding and the other our new sponsored academy currently in special measures. What was interesting in the outstanding school was that when it was in SM, I didn’t need to adjust the sails because we didn’t even have a boat. Despite the two schools being at opposite ends of the inspection spectrum, the two are remarkably similar. Both schools share a passion for immersive and creative learning; both schools are driven by a set of core beliefs and values that demand success. And in both academies, staff work incredibly hard.

All well and good of course until you sit down with a blank piece of paper and try to decide what these right things are. So to help us with this, we got out our golf balls. Not perhaps the first thing that comes to mind, but nevertheless a powerful metaphor for illustrating the point. We used the golf balls in both schools to help us re-calibrate the moral compass. It’s often said – and quite rightly – that the main thing is to make sure that the main thing remains the main thing. Or something like that. The point is – decide what you want to do and stick with it. In this particular context, we used the golf ball analogy (and I will get on to explaining it shortly) to help us decide what the non-negotiables would be for each and every lesson. This was necessary in order to refocus our lesson observations to bring it in line with the new inspection framework: “School leaders and teachers should decide for themselves how best to teach, and be given the opportunity…to explain why they have made the decisions they have made and provide evidence of the effectiveness of their choices.” (Paragraph 179, School Inspection Handbook, July 2014).

So we came up with ten, each represented by a golf ball. What was remarkable was that both sets of staff, from two very different schools, came up with pretty much the same ten. I like to think that the golf ball story – shared with both sets of staff in their schools – made the difference. I have our deputy @matt_Wynne1 to thank for bringing the idea back to school having seen it himself on a course. When he first started sharing it with us on the opening training day I wasn’t entirely convinced of the point he was trying to make. But it worked, and as a result I repeated it the following day with our SM school. This is how it goes:

You’ll need a large straight-sided glass vase, some golf balls, sand, salt and gravel. Fill the vase about two-thirds of the way up with sand, salt and then the gravel – in that order. These represent certain elements of a lesson but not the important ones that are going to secure effective learning, Examples of sand might include dealing with petty behaviour, underlining the date, insisting on a plenary, drawing a one inch margin and so on. Then take the golf balls and place them on top of the gravel and you will see that they don’t all fit into the vase. Explain that the golf balls are the crucial elements of the teaching process – in this case the non-negotiables  – that need to be evident in every single lesson. The point that is being made here is that because the teacher has been dealing with the wrong things (albeit very effectively), the things that matter are left out.

Now, empty the entire vase, taking care to separate the materials into their component parts (a sieve is handy at this point as is an assistant). Fill the vase again, only this time put the golf balls in first, filling the vase to the top. Reinforce the fact that these are the non-negotiables. Then pour in the gravel and give it a good shake. Repeat with the sand and then the salt. As you shake it, the gaps between the golf balls fill up. There and then before your very eyes you now see that everything fits into the vase. The unworkable lesson now becomes the workable because the important things take priority. In fact, in a lesson, if the non-negotiables are effectively in place, there might not even be any need for the sand.

Our revised teaching and learning policy is now based around the 10 golf balls. We’ve agreed an approximate teaching sequence as well based around the order of the golf balls (particularly helpful to NQTs). The children will know them and will be expected to review how effectively they have learnt relevant to each golf ball, (e.g. opportunities for self and peer assessment or Directed Improvement and Review Time (DIRT)). During the year we shall collect evidence that justifies why each golf ball leads to effective learning and the impact it is having on closing the attainment gap. Teachers will refer to the golf balls as part of their performance management to demonstrate how effective they are at applying them across the full range of the curriculum. We are even going to use the golf balls with our Board of Directors at a Strategy day where we aim to develop a self-review tool to evaluate the effectiveness of the Trust’s capacity to bring about improvement. Each golf ball will represent a KPI or milestone that will help us self-evaluate.

You might think that the golf ball demonstration is a bit of a chore (and I probably wouldn’t disagree with you). So instead, you may simply wish to share the story with staff. You could even use it in an assembly – but do remember to leave out the final ingredient below. A quick search on the internet and the original version can soon be found. Originally, it was told to remind us about the important things in life. This is how it goes:

A professor of philosophy stood before his class and picked up a large empty jar and without saying anything began to fill it with golf balls. He asked the students if the jar was full and they agreed it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. The pebbles rolled into the spaces between the golf balls, filling it to the brim. The students agreed that it was full.

The professor then repeated the procedure with sand, which of course filled up any remaining spaces. Again, the students confirmed it was full. 

The professor then produced two beers from under the table and poured them into the jar. The liquid soaked into the sand and somehow managed to fit into the full jar. The students laughed.

The professor then spoke. ‘Now,’ he said as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to imagine that the jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things – your family, friends, your health. If everything else was lost and all you had were the golf balls, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter such as your house, car and job. All the rest is sand – the small stuff. 

‘If you fill your jar with just sand, then there is no room for the golf balls or pebbles. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time on the wrong things then you will never have time for the important things in life. Pay attention to these, such as spending time with your family. There will always be time for cleaning the house or washing the car. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.’

One of the students then raised her hand and asked what the beer was about. The professor smiled and said, ‘Well isn’t it obvious? The beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a few beers with a friend.’

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