Sifting through the essentials and the non-essentials

Over the last term my career has taken a change of direction which, a year ago, I did not envisage. Ten years as Headteacher at one Lancashire LA school has been a privilege and, like all posts of this kind, hard work. I have been fortunate to recruit many brilliant colleagues and promote an equal number into posts of influence helping carry the school ever forward meeting the challenges laid out before us.

The call to step in and support another Lancashire LA school was unexpected; I had not noticed that, in the passage of time, I had slipped into the company of the greybeards-hastened no doubt by the quickening pace of Headteacher turnover across all schools.

The planned 3 day a week contract (full time practically) was a notional estimate of time required for the new post with my team back at base organised and ready for the opportunity to open the windows, let in some air and prove that claims to outstanding capacity for leadership really were true.

I hope that I have made an impact at my new school. The new and very different experience has certainly broadened my outlook and given me scope to open and put to use the leadership toolkit acquired over time in previous senior roles. I had never worked in a school classed as “Inadequate” before and it was something of a shock to witness at first hand the psychological effect that such a grade has on the confidence of a staff. I wasn’t prepared for the deferential positions adopted by colleagues who clearly saw me as someone with the directions out of the ‘inadequate maze’. Reflecting on this experience I can now see that it is an instinctive human reaction; when confidence is at a low ebb the sure footedness leaders would want to see in colleagues is missing. Caution takes over and the sense of mistrust creeps in as individuals shut down in order to protect themselves. Such a scenario needs breaking with, in my book, open & straight talk something appreciated by all. Touching base with individuals on a human level has been a significant factor in regenerating things. In particular, this has made me appreciate, once again, the importance of leaders making colleagues feel good about themselves. It is possible to do this whilst maintaining the difficult conversations a leader has to have with colleagues and which are part & parcel of school improvement.

Anyone who has worked in a school which is ‘in a category’ will appreciate the pace life expected and it would be fair to say that this has been a characteristic of my leadership throughout my career. It may be an exaggeration but it has felt at times as if a whole year’s work is being squeezed into one term. Unsustainable? Yes-although it depends on who is shouldering the burden and if there is a willingness among colleagues to change. I have to say that my new colleagues have been fantastic in accepting the challenges laid before them with the natural focus being a transformation of Teaching & Learning; it was imperative that lesson-by-lesson experiences of the pupils would not only be positive but that they would report higher expectations in every way. With behaviour not being a particular problem it has been easy to focus on very obvious classroom tools familiar to all skilled classroom practitioners.

In a number of ways there has been a rekindling of focus on questioning, effective feedback, prompt lesson starts and ends, classroom climate, relationships & pupil attitudes. There is nothing that is unrecognisable in such basic toolkit skills in the organisation of effective learning. Staff who have shown a particular enthusiasm have developed and shared an interest in flipped learning and a necessary focus on work scrutiny has helped to develop the concept and use of DIRT (e.g. Alex Quigley at What I didn’t appreciate in my and others’ enthusiasm for sharing these skills was that for many staff there was some confusion as to what was important. Should they be seriously planning questions (YES!) or building a resource bank of QR codes so that they could flip their classroom (NO!)? What then was essential and what was non-essential?

plPaddi Lund’s excellent ‘The Absolutely Critical Non-Essentials‘ (CNEs) was another guide to fall back on. Readers familiar with the Australian Dentist’s work will know that in Paddi’s business it is the the little things make all the difference. The actual quality of dentistry  had much less of an impact on customer satisfaction than he had thought. Paddi Lund discovered that he could do his dentistry in a variety of ways and most people wouldn’t really know what quality of care they’d had. And yet, Paddi’s customers maintained the perception that the quality of his dentistry was high, extremely high. Why was this?

Because the tea was served impeccably; because their names and their photographs were actually on the door of their personal lounges; because they were greeted by name by their own Care Nurse when they rang the doorbell; because these and a myriad of other little things were all done with great care and consideration like, the Dental Buns, the cappuccino machine, the fresh flowers, and the array of dried fruits and nuts.

Sir Clive Woodward made rich capital out of Lund’s ideas when transforming English Rugby in the late 90’s. Woodward applied the concept of CNEs to all aspects of the English game and the results of his endeavours are there to see.

blinkAmerican Psychologist Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘Blink‘ (I cannot recommend it highly enough) gives further insight into this idea. Essentially focussing on the value of ‘snap judgements’ and how these are usually more effective than cautious decision, Gladwell extends Lund’s ideas to doctors and their vulnerability to being sued over malpractice. Apparently their ability as a physician makes little difference. What is apparent is that “patients don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care AND something else happens to them.”

Gladwell continues “What is that something else? It’s how they were teated, on a personal level, by their doctor.” The book explains this in a more detail.

HSo, back to the pressing issue in school. What is important for your team of teachers when there is a united desire to move forwards and improve things? I’m sure some will disagree with the lists but what is important is the concept. What are the essentials, non-essentials and critical non-essentials when changing the culture of Teaching & Learning in a school?


Focussing, for a second, on the essentials, it is hard to move beyond this list of effective tools and factors which all teachers need to ensure that pupils are getting a good deal. The purpose of this blog is certainly not to knock, for example, Flipped Learning & Solo Taxonomy (non-essentials) for I have colleagues who use both extremely effectively as additional tools to drive motivation and achievement in their classrooms. I also work with teachers who have never used these (and never will) and yet are brilliant practitioners delivering consistently high quality learning experiences to children.

For the CNEs, I’m sure it would be possible to list more. I’ve deliberately not produced a longer list to encourage others to think about what they would include.

main thingDelivering this to my new colleagues should have helped remind them about the fundamentals of their work in the classroom. Sifting through this has helped maintain a focus on what is important.  In Covey’s words “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing…”

PMO April 2015