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What underpins great teaching and learning?

Last week, I wrote about how leadership is like whack-a-mole: how leaders at all levels have to be aware of many different variables of an organisation. A good example of this is how schools keep the main focus on teaching and learning. From the outset, I'd agree with Covey that keeping the main thing the main thing is vital in schools and that main thing is what happens during sequences of lessons (I've never seen the point of a narrow focus on individual lessons). In other words teaching and learning.  I also believe that:
The purpose of this post is to attempt to clarify my own perspectives and ideas and I acknowledge the work of many others. It may feel like you've been shouting at the rain, however your ideas do infiltrate.

I'm a positive person who believes that simple and effective ideas work and that teaching is creative and allows for serendipitous moments. Ofsted does not kill serendipity.  However, over the past three years is has become clear to me that schools need to do something else other than relentlessly focus on teaching and learning if all students are to change their lives.  Perhaps it's the schools I've worked in (I am unapologetic about using my personal experience and never aim to generalise. It's why I'm a teacher). From growing up, I know that the school gave me qualifications, but they didn't set my world on fire and schools outright failed my siblings.  Perhaps you disagree with me that school must do much more than simply teach and that we aren't social workers. I would argue that ensuring that every child in known and that schools do everything possible to ensure the progress of every single individual is the moral purpose of education.

I remember as a Head of Geography we focused heavily upon Teaching and Learning, including what to teach as well as how to teach it.  We were curriculum makers. We ensured that feedback, planning and differentiation were as good as they could be and the outcomes in the department became the best in the school.  (We also did a shed load of enrichment and exciting mad stuff)  However, there were still students that didn't make the progress that they should have and these tended to cluster into categories such as free school meals and those with low attendance.  As an assistant headteacher with the pupil premium accountability, although the progress and attainment of this group improve year on year, it's clear that it could be even more rapid. Attendance remains the biggest hurdle and barrier to changing the life chances of this group.  Having a fantastic, consistently delivered feedback policy, for example, doesn't help the students who don't turn up. I know from speaking to students and families. They rarely (if ever) state 'crap lessons' as a major factor in their decision not to come in to school.  Furthermore, on analysing the safeguarding register it's clear that the vast majority are students from pupil premium or SEND.

The more I think about this, the more important it seems to focus on those aspects of the school that underpin teaching and learning. Don't get me wrong, as stated, I think that the focus on teaching and learning is paramount. What happens in teaching spaces and the outcomes that are achieved are the core purpose of a school.  Sequences of lessons should be sacrosanct and nothing should distract from learning.  However, just as a tree growing in poor soil and roots will see its growth stunted, if the factors that underpin teaching and learning aren't paid attention, then teaching and learning will never be the best for all students.  Just as looking good in the Progress 8 measures is highly dependent on how successful the 'fun bucket' is.

Some will argue that great teaching and learning will magically sort behaviour, attendance and a whole raft of other factors, but this is too simplistic a view.  Whilst I agree that great teaching can develop and excellent classroom culture where behaviour for learning is effortlessly brilliant and great teachers can encourage young people in to school, we don't work in institutions where one size fits all.  Indeed, planning for every pupil is a key driver of better teaching and learning, so therefore so is using a bespoke approach to every student. Sometimes that's a brutal slog as in the case with attendance.

Therefore, whilst the main focus on the school should of course be on teaching and learning, we also need to understand how other facets of the school play a fundamental part in ensuring that young people can focus on learning.  Schools also need to ensure that everything is in place so that teachers can teach. 

The diagram above reflects my thoughts around this, and the 'roots and nutrients' are derived from the #sltchat on Sunday. Every person in the organisation should understand how their role leads to better teaching and learning which, and this is the main goal, changes the lives of young people. After all, they aren't my results, they are for the young people. Every decision within a school should have a focus on the young person and changing their life.  School shouldn't be preoccupied with looking great in league tables which leads to poor decisions being made.  I have no problem with accountability and welcome recent reforms that stop young people from taking rigorous qualifications. 

For me, what underpins the whole thing is ensuring that staff, students, parents and governors have the belief that the young people can de extraordinary things. That they can meet the raised bar. That they can achieve excellence. What we need to prevent is the leeching and weathering of the factors that underpin brilliant teaching and learning. If we take our eye off them they will limit outcomes and the quality of sequences of lessons. We must also remember what gets us out of bed in the morning. For me, that's not a relentless focus upon results and examinations but doing a bunch of mad, crazy and inspiring stuff that encourages learning in the wider sense of the word.

If you've reached this part, thank you for persevering. The purpose of me writing this is to reflect upon my own thoughts and to clarify my philosophy. If it helps others, that's a bonus.

Thank you to Jill and Leah and other members of #sltchat for providing feedback on the diagram.


  1. Really like this post, David. Thanks for sharing. (Think we're in loud agreement!)

  2. Thank you Jill - I think that we are.


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