The Special Schools’ Curriculum Question By Lara Hughes

With the removal of National Curriculum Levels and the impending demise of P Scales many Special Schools are feeling worried about what they are going to replace them with. For some, the anxiety is even greater because these assessment materials have formed the basis of their whole curriculum. This is the unintended consequence of any assessment; teaching to the test.  Assessment criteria can also act as a crutch, so when a teacher thinks, “I don’t know what to do next for this student” they refer to the criteria for the next stage and so become intellectually disengaged with what learning looks like for that student. Whilst the P scales may offer some guidance, they do not and were not intended to show the nuanced progress that a child can make, either vertically or more often laterally and were certainly not formed to be used as the backbone of any curriculum framework.

But that does not answer the question, “What is a school to do?” As with all complex decisions and processes there is no one solution and in a recent conference held jointly by Swiss Cottage School, Camden and Frank Wise School, Banbury, it was clear that many Special Schools are indeed being brave enough to create their own, confident in the knowledge that theirs is the right curriculum for their students. No child is the same as another and so by extrapolation, no school of students will be the same, so it is up to the headteacher, senior leaders, teachers and teaching assistants in collaboration with parents to create a curriculum that promotes the aims and aspirations they have for those children and young adults. Once you have the “Why?” you can begin to formulate the “What?” and the “How?”

So all schools must begin with their vision and this should not just be some polished beautifully sounding epithet. It must be what is truly aspired for in relation to their whole community. What does the school believe? Is it all about individuality and functionality or is this interwoven with being part of many communities and having exposure to a breadth of experience? No answer is right or indeed wrong, but it has to be believed and supported by all stakeholders including the students themselves.

Once the vision is secure, the process of identifying what this will look like in practice can begin. Will the curriculum be broad and balanced or will it be tightly focussed on those skills that are needed for life beyond school; be that college, work or independent living? Will students be given the opportunity to find and develop interests and passions? Will the curriculum be internally driven and outward facing? Will the learning provide students for the lives they can lead in the future whilst also being expansive and aspirational? Will time be given to enable students to be fully immersed in the world that is presented to them through school?

From the broad categories of “What?” comes the intellectual demands of working out ‘How?’ this learning can be delivered. Schemes of work are not called for as this provides another ‘off-the-peg’ model for teachers which assume they cannot work out what their students need and hampers their innate creativity. Guidance documents however, prove very effective and if these are created in working parties in which teachers have an intellectual investment in the process, their understanding of underpinning skills for each area is rigorous.

The curriculum framework and guidance documents must also give thought to the thread that connects learning from a child’s first exposure to school through to post 16, post 19 and beyond. How can we make transition points smooth and ease students through the tangled web of getting older whilst developing cognitively at their own pace?

And beyond the curriculum, schools must consider the learning that happens throughout the day at other points. How do we notice and promote those? How can we capture the interactions between students at lunch times for example? Are the spontaneous decisions students make to solve a problem such as feeling thirsty recorded too?

So, in summary, here are some key questions a school should consider when embarking on this process:

  • What is the vision for our students? How does this relate to our aims and objectives?
  • Within the already segregated environment of a special school (segregated from their mainstream peers), do we want to be truly inclusive?
  • How can we encourage inclusion in the local community?
  • Are we making decisions in the best interests of the students or in the best interests of the staff? For example, is mixed ability just too hard?
  • Are we challenging our formally held beliefs? Do they stand a rigorous critique?
  • The process of preparing for adulthood does not begin in post 16 provision. Are we planning for it early enough?
  • Have we asked our students what their aspirations for the future are?
  • Is what we offer fun and engaging?

And once you have created the ‘perfect’ curriculum for your students, one that is like opening a box of wonder for each student, remember that is just the beginning. It should be ever-evolving; dynamic rather than static and robust rather than rigid. Any curriculum, if grown in this way also bears well under the scrutiny and sway of national policy change; external guidance act as a mirror by which to reflect upon what a school has. It should not rock the foundations but make them all the more secure. Questioning and challenge serve to make stronger the beliefs we all hold.

Lara Hughes is a Deputy Headteacher at Frank Wise School

A dog owner’s guide to grammar schools by Harmer Parr

As Teresa May tossed the juicy bone of grammar schools to the right wing of her party, I was reminded of a request to buy dog food for my daughter.

Well, more accurately, for my daughter’s dog, as we left the ranks of the urban poor when we became one of those eponymous hardworking families. She was very specific about which kind it had to be, so I set off down the relevant isle in ‘Pets ‘r Us’, a phrase I certainly wouldn’t have got away with in my 1960s grammar school, in search of the correct product.

And there, thanks to freedom of choice, the problem started.

Not a choice of four or five products, but seemingly four or five hundred, all beautifully packaged, redolent with pictures of gambolling, happy dogs, and presumably differing from each other in ways that were too subtle for my human eye. With the help of an assistant, I eventually located the right one, wondering as I did so how our 1960s dog had managed to survive on a diet of leftovers. My primary school friends, who got their academic leftovers at the secondary modern schools in the town, were not always so lucky.

To think that we are about to recreate the binary system is apparently to misread the situation completely. Yes, there will be lots of grammar schools, but there will be lots of other kinds of school as well, possibly one for every day of the week. Independent schools and grammar schools will be sharing their expertise, providing a welcome respite for those teaching Year 9 set 6 on a Friday afternoon. Parents will have unlimited choice and are expected in droves to choose a grammar school. Let’s hope the feeling is mutual, and it chooses them as well.

Parliament, of course, is located in the middle of London, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the ideas emanating from it are located in the same place. Fifty-seven varieties may have some traction in Islington, but it is less clear how the idea can be applied to rural areas like Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Several years ago, I was able to admire the latter’s binary system at close quarters as I inspected the runt of a three-school litter in a small town.

The grammar school gobbled up the academic cream, leaving two secondary moderns to fight for the leftovers. The one I inspected was at the rougher end of town, and had strangely emerged as the school of choice for its local population. The staff at Hobson’s Academy (no, not it’s real name!) deserved a medal for the degree of damage limitation they achieved. I’ve not been back, but if anyone has opened a Free School in the area specialising in Latin and Greek my guess is that it’s not over-subscribed.

In the early 1980s Sir Keith Joseph became Education Secretary. He was not always an enlightened man. Once, on an interviewing panel, he allegedly told a black candidate to go back where he came from and grow bananas, obtaining the response that ‘that would be rather difficult in Haringey’. However, his analysis of the country’s education problems was more perceptive and more accurate.  We failed to educate the bottom 40 per cent of the ability range. The tripartite system envisaged by Butler’s 1944 Education Act had never materialised because of our antipathy to technical schools, and the binary system that had emerged had been singularly unsuccessful in reaching the parts that grammar schools could not reach.

When compared to the vocational education offered by our European neighbours, the criticism still holds good today. We’ve never managed to escape the feeling that vocational qualifications are a booby prize, and we’ve always managed to escape investing in them properly.

At the other end of the scale, our academic achievements compare reasonably well with those of Europe, except, of course that students emerging from the French and German systems usually speak two foreign languages as well. That may matter less in a post-Brexit world, where the default position of shouting loudly in English is likely to be more acceptable.

Teresa May presented her ideas under the banner of inclusion: better education for all. Experts are not to be trusted, so the current fashion seems to be to commission research and then do the opposite of what it tells you. As Keith Joseph noted, the major problem with the British Bulldog is its extraordinarily long tail. So the less obvious solution is to devote all our attention to feeding its front end, in the hope that some of the juice will drip down to those who’ve exercised their choice for a secondary modern.

Research also appears to show that overall academic standards are weaker in areas with grammar schools, so the answer there is to create more of them. Although, of course, standards will rise automatically when every school is a grammar school, just as they did when every school was required to be above average.

I’m sure Teresa May would not welcome a comparison to Mao’s cultural revolution, and his wish to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. But the Tories’ plans for education have a similarly experimental feel, and could produce a similar crop of weeds.

Let’s open lots of different sorts of schools, let’s have lots of grammar schools, and, not on the script, let’s have lots of unintended consequences. Schools who lose their critical mass of able students to surrounding poachers, schools who use their sharp elbows to acquire the ‘best students’, schools left with spare places so they can mop up the waifs and strays that no-one else wants. Will this, in fact, be ‘a better deal for all’?

So why did she do it? Evidence-free, counter-intuitive, potentially destructive of a system producing, arguably, better results than ever before. Well, the clue is in the term: ‘grammar schools’. It’s up there with motherhood, apple pie, warm beer and cricket on the village green. And given its ability to induce prolonged salivation amongst ‘traditional’ Conservatives, the shires will be drooling and dribbling for some time to come.

Teresa May can rightly say: ‘après moi, le déluge’. Let’s just hope the flood defences work. If not, the resulting torrent could drown the dog’s dinner.

Harmer Parr is a former HMI.

Social Mobility | A View from the foothills By Marc Rowland

Grammar Schools are the mountebank of social mobility. But we will have no impact if we leap into an entrenched position and stay there. Placard waving rallies make people feel good, but they rarely change policy. We need to be in the uncomfortable chair of decision making, rather than wrapped in the cosy duvet of vocal opposition.

If grammars do have any positive impact on social mobility, that impact will be most welcome. More disadvantaged pupils attending Cambridge is undoubtedly a good thing, but it will do little to tackle the deep-rooted issues our society faces. A genuine plan for social mobility needs to be bold, politically savvy, values driven and evidence based.

So I propose the following priorities:

Tackling the language gap we see in our disadvantaged pupils at risk of underachievement. This gives virtually every other education policy a better chance of success. The language gap and the evidence for it can be described below.

‘The landmark Hart and Risley study in 1995 identified “remarkable differences” in the early vocabulary experiences of young children. Researcher and author Betty Hart described the results of their observations: “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour)” (Hart & Risley 2003, 8). This is important because vocabulary development during the preschool years is related to later reading skills and school success in general.’

In all my experience, school-led solutions are best placed to help tackle this issue. Reading hubs, where schools are responsible for working with children and their families to make a better start to early reading.. The hubs should work with families in the summer term prior to year R. Schools would be expected to reach a fixed proportion of disadvantaged and vulnerable children as part of the hubs.

Maximising the Impact of Early Years.

Kathy Sylva’s EPPSE 3-16 project shows that 2-3 years of high quality pre-school impacts on outcomes at least to 16, particularly for disadvantaged learners.

A quick glance online shows that Early Years professionals, who need to be educated to degree level, can expect to be paid between £22,000 and £33,000 (about the same as a bus driver). A well-known recruitment website lists the requirements for an Early Years professional as follows:

  • excellent communication skills;
  • good listening skills;
  • the capacity to learn quickly;
  • excellent organisational skills;
  • the ability to inspire and enthuse young children;
  • energy, resourcefulness, responsibility, patience and a caring nature;
  • an understanding of the needs and feelings of children;
  • ability to work independently, as well as being able to work in a team;
  • a sense of humour and the ability to keep things in perspective.

I’d argue that subject knowledge, a fundamental understanding of research and how to apply it are the gaping omissions here, along with the highest ambitions for all, regardless of background or barrier to learning.

Better opportunities for young people with learning difficulties

6% of adults aged 16-64 with learning difficulties are in paid employment. Of those surveyed, 65% want to work. The Social Mobility challenge is at its most glaring where the people concerned are the least likely to be heard.



Maximising the Curriculum.

In too many cases, the Key Stage 3 curriculum remains a rather desolate place. A few weeks back, I was told about pupils with excellent reading outcomes at KS2 going into year seven and been given a recommended reading list with Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl. These suggestions sadly lack challenge and imagination.

A chasm in the DfE’s business plan is the lack of a challenging, high esteem technical education pathway. This should have literacy and numeracy at its heart which doesn’t narrow opportunity. We should learn from other countries about how we could do better. It remains an afterthought.

Oracy as standard  

If it were measurable, I suspect that one of the greatest achievement gaps we see in our schools is oracy and articulacy. Peter Hyman’s work at School21 is an exemplar of how we can improve the life chances and life choices of disadvantaged and vulnerable learners.

Good oracy, coupled with cultural literacy should be at the heart of the social mobility agenda.

The Power of Multi Academy Trusts.

We are only starting to see the potential with Multi Academy Trusts. With support, I believe we will see some diverse and innovative models evolving that produce excellent, long term outcomes for pupils of all backgrounds.

One of the true drivers for genuine, sustainable collaboration is shared accountability. Through MATs, we can create an education system which enables the very best teachers and expert support staff to work with the most disadvantaged pupils.

The quality of teaching has a significantly disproportionate effect on disadvantaged pupils. Pupils in the poorest communities are more likely to be taught by unqualified or inexperienced teachers. They are more likely to experience high teacher turnover. They are more likely to be taught by a teacher without a degree in the subject they teach. High quality teachers are more likely to move out of the most disadvantaged communities.

In some communities, such as rural North Yorkshire and Northumberland, Local Authorities need to be empowered to support this agenda too.

The Pupil Premium.

This has also been a very powerful vehicle for improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.

We should further improve the use and impact of the funding by ensuring schools have the highest of expectations, high quality teaching and cultural literacy. The policy itself should not change. The expectations of its impact should continue. Better designations data would help inform the use of funding. Good GCSE results only open a door for disadvantaged pupils. They need to have the expectations of themselves to step through it.

The Progress Problem.

Progress is one reasonable accountability measure for schools. But for individual pupils it is attainment that matters. ‘Expected Progress’ has been one of the most limiting factors for disadvantaged Pupils. As George Mallory said: ‘We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.’

Aiming for the bare minimum means missed opportunity and wasted talent.

Leading the way.

I have yet to hear any argument for additional grammar schools that stands up to scrutiny.

But we need to be proactive too. If we let it, this gloomy green paper could become the Gavrilo Princip of a new and completely unnecessary education divide. The School-led system should be at the forefront of the alternative.

Marc Rowland, September 2016

*Pseudonym used

Vacuum at the top? by Dr Bernard Trafford

I fear that, whenever anyone sees my name at the top of a blog nowadays, they’ll assume I’m about to embark on a rant about the latest government initiative or policy. To be fair, I do it a lot.

But here I want to raise a slightly philosophical question about school leadership and, more specifically, headship: not about its nature, but about what happens when it becomes remote. The question concerns me, because we all too easily become so entangled in discussing structures and rationalisations that we risk overlooking an intensely human aspect of leadership.

The current government thrust is towards creating Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). A powerful driver behind the Academies programme was successive governments’ suspicion of Local Authorities: many ministers found them unresponsive to Westminster’s agenda for school improvement:  hence the move to so-called independent academies (not a description I like, since I run a private – genuinely independent – school).

Successive governments have quickly realised that single stand-alone academies can find themselves isolated and that schools tend to fare better when collaborating. Moreover, they were also swift to appreciate that academy chains – in effect, MATs – bring with them not only mutual support but economies of scale: administrative functions can be centralised, both streamlining the staffing and arguably giving them more muscle in keenly-priced procurement.

Critics of the growth of MATs might suggest wryly that they now resemble Local Authorities, but without the democratic accountability. Simultaneously the enormous salaries commanded by top executives in some large academy chains, whether they are called chief executives or executive principals, have attracted media opprobrium.

The economies of scale are undeniable. With an executive principal at the top (however highly paid), there’s no obvious need to pay heads’ salaries to those running the individual institutions: they receive support from the centre, and don’t carry the ultimate burden.

Many functions related to improvement, quality assurance, even recruitment and marketing that might have been taken by deputy heads are now handled at the centre, so Senior Leadership Teams in each academy can be slimmer – and thus cheaper.

I’m not questioning the logic of all this. But, as I said at the start, it leaves me with a philosophical dilemma about the nature of headship.

It’s always seemed to me that parents must have access to the head, the final arbiter, the person who has the last say (pace the Governing Body) and sets the tone in the school. In practice, I can’t claim that, in my fairly large independent school (1300 pupils), parents beat a path to my door. If they did, I couldn’t cope: but they can (and do) get to me almost immediately if they need to.

Moreover, in (you might say) the traditional style of education’s private sector, they know the head’s there, not out running a couple more schools. They like to see the head in the old-fashioned way – at the school gate, taking assembly, just being around. The head is supposed to articulate the vision of the school, to walk the talk: it’s a rare independent head who runs more than a single institution or site.

Parents relish that visible leader-figure. They know the head cannot possibly know the name of every child, nor personally guide his or her development, protecting each individual from whatever storms that may come. Nonetheless they enjoy a sense of reassurance: not promised by the school, certainly – but, well, assumed.

I’m not seeking to denigrate the excellent work done by heads in MATs where there is an executive principal above them. But in my traditional world, parents and students like to know where the buck stops: I wonder how the lack of clarity in multi-institution structures really sits with those vital constituencies.

Accountants won’t justify the expense of a highly-paid head in each constituent unit of a MAT. Yet as a model it has worked for a long time: Tony Blair insisted he could judge how good a school was just from meeting the head.

I’m not having a go at MATs: nor at those highly effective professionals running individual academies; nor at their bosses, the executive principals. But if my kids were starting school again, I suspect I’d want to know that the head really ran the school, and to be able to see him/her in their office if I needed to.

Education ministers in the Blair government used to talk about sectors of society that were “hard to reach”. Though we might easily picture who they had in mind, I loved the riposte from someone speaking for the dispossessed: “It’s not us who are hard to reach: it’s the b*ggers at the top!”

Whatever the prevailing structures and systems, schools are essentially neighbourhood institutions, located within and serving a community. They are all about people, reaching out to, and working with them.

If the real power in the school/academy is elsewhere – at the MAT’s offices, with the executive principal directing at arm’s-length and making periodic, if regular, visits – I wonder how the institution can claim really to operate on a human scale, to be immediately approachable, truly at the service of parents and children.

I’m sure some MATs manage it. I doubt whether all do. I fear that the question is rarely, if ever, asked.

Yet humanity must, surely, always come before efficiency. Or it should do.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School, a NET Leading Thinker and a former Chairman of HMC.


What’s in your schema for SEN? By Jarlath O’Brien

I’m currently enjoying ‘Mindware’ by the American psychologist Richard Nisbett and it’s making 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?


Down syndrome


Pupil premium


Bottom set


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.


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


Down syndrome


Pupil premium


Bottom set


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.

Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School. His book ‘Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow’ is published by Independent Thinking Press.


* Fitzgerald is a pseudonym

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

‘Why challenging high performers is important and what we can do’ By Deborah Eyre

Providing challenge for top performers in the classroom is one of the most difficult and long standing problems in British education. Whilst some schools do really well, they remain the minority.

When it comes to gifted/more able your school is likely to be in one of the following categories:

  • Don’t believe in it and hence make no special provision as a result
  • Have a cohort of students identified as gifted or more able – or a similar term – and offer them special opportunities
  • Systematically and purposefully make advanced learning opportunities available in class and in enrichment, and offer them regularly to all or most students.

Generally most schools in England are in the first or second categories, whilst most of the top performing countries in the OECD league tables are in the third. Interesting!

We know that it is important to society, to the economy and to the individual that we challenge those who find learning easy rather than allow them to underachieve, and mark time whilst others catch up. Yet – we don’t do it because (a) we don’t think it is a priority or (b) we don’t really know how to. Systematically reviewing the literature in 2009[1] it became clear that these are universal problems and found in many countries.

So if we want to do better we have to change how we approach this.

Traditionally, work on the more able/gifted has involved identifying a cohort and making special provision for it, but the research shows this is increasingly problematic.

  • Definitions of giftedness have fragmented over time and vary widely, so when you try to identify students to create a cohort it’s hard to know what you are identifying and hence no reliable identification methods have emerged.
  • Those who are identified are given access to special opportunities and generally benefit. Those who are not in the identified cohort do equally well if given the same opportunities. So why are they not getting them?
  • Gifted cohorts across the world have been found to be biased in favour of the affluent middle class. No matter how hard people try this remains the case. Just like in England.

So if opportunities are the important factor, then creating them is the priority. What do good advanced learning opportunities look like? How can we make them widely available? Key players in this field alongside my own writings are Jo Renzulli, Bruce Shore, Joyce Van Tassel Baska and Albert Zeigler. Look out for their work.

Many teachers use Bloom’s taxonomy yet this is over 50 years old. Fresh approaches have bettered and superseded it. My new organisation High Performance Learning[2] ( makes use of these. It focuses on advanced learning and systematically building intelligence using 30 research derived competencies that all successful people demonstrate. These relate to developing cognition and also developing the values, attitudes and attributes that top performers need.

If your school wants to do better, then ask yourself these questions:

  • Are we confident about what advanced learning looks like?
  • Do we offer it in our school?
  • How regularly and to whom?
  • Could we improve the frequency with which we offer this or even make it part of our DNA?

Recently Sir Michael Wishaw painted a familiar picture of underachievement for the most able in secondary schools – especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. He is getting bullish in his final months as HMCI – suggesting sanctions be applied to schools that consistently fail their brightest children.

Maybe now is the time to focus more directly on advanced learning in your classroom and your school and stop leaving the creation of advanced performers to chance.

Professor Deborah Eyre is Founder, High Performance Learning, and a NET Leading Thinker

[1] Eyre, D. (Ed.) (2009) Major Themes in Gifted Education (4 Volumes). Routledge: London

[2] Eyre, D. (2016) High Performance Learning: How To Become A World Class School. Routledge: London

“Your feet will not touch the ground.” By Siobhan Horisk

Hackney New Primary School opened in September 2015 with our first two classes of Reception aged children. I secured the job as headteacher in December 2014, and 18 months later we are coming to the end of our first year.

Prior to the school opening I had a glorious period from April to September of planning what was essentially an imaginary school. We had a big blank canvas and could discuss, design and dream about every aspect with a level of uninterrupted care and focus impossible to achieve in a ‘real’ school. I met prospective parents and staff members and my skills of persuasion developed tremendously.

That time was invaluable, not least for reinforcing my absolute respect for class teachers and how exhausting their job is. Being outside of a school for the first time in my career and yet still working long days, I have never had so much energy or head space for other things as I did between April and September last year. Good teachers are giving thousands of feedback points every day, and multi-tasking beyond belief. The learning and wellbeing of the children they teach occupies their headspace until last thing and night and from the get-go in the morning.

“Good Luck!” said my pre-opening OFSTED inspector, “Your feet will not touch the ground.” I smiled to myself, wondering what on earth there could be to do for just two classes – it’s just one year group, right?

“Ha!” I think to myself now. Getting the considerable machine that is a school moving is much more than just managing teaching and learning for two classes.

Simple things like our dishwasher didn’t work. The bicycle storage didn’t come for several weeks which meant carrying 25 little bikes in and out of the playground at the start and end of every day. Builders lingered for about six weeks, and whilst all schools have experienced the trauma of this, to have several of these things not working for us every day was a lot to handle.

In a new, small school, there are few supernumerary people. I found myself doing everything from mopping up urine puddles, hauling deliveries of paper upstairs, lesson observations and staff training to doing school tours and press interviews. In a half an hour I could go from assembling flat pack furniture to presenting to LA or DfE colleagues.

As a new headteacher, of a new school, with a new team, you are completely unproven. Everyone is watching you and tuning in to your every move. You have no sooner reassured them when external bodies are in to scrutinise what you have achieved.

Although our team has some brilliant people on board, in an entirely new team individuals need time to figure out their place in the team – and the joy and trouble with 50 little children starting school for the first time is that they don’t really allow you that time. We needed the best and the brave to take the plunge and put themselves forward to promote their planning ideas, initiate solutions to logistics, and continue to persuade parents that they had made the right choice.

Thankfully they did. Finding great teachers is increasingly like panning for gold; you need to gently agitate the gravel in the pan to get your gold.

Similarly, new parents don’t have other parents to induct them to school life and as nearly all our children are first born there was a much greater amount of communication required.

Like childbirth, I think the memory of these challenges will fade with time. The life of the school has been and continues to be glittered with wonderful moments and the school is blossoming.

My cherished memories are many and so far include our first assembly when I looked at 50 children, from 50 families, and a team of people who, with me, have jumped on board this crazy train and together we were gathered as a vibrant school family. There the children all were in their new school uniforms, and it hit me once more what a privilege it is to have their education and this school in my care. Our teachers are remarkable; and it is my further privilege to witness their heartfelt pride in the progress and achievements of the children they teach.

At the heart of my personal ambition here is being part of something distinctive and something better. More than excellent provision of the core primary curriculum, children have daily, specialist music input and the first year has been pre-instrumental development of their musicality. You should see our music lessons… really! In September the children begin on string instruments including violins, violas, cellos and mini bass.

We believe passionately that time in the outdoors facilitates a different kind of learning and development and makes a tremendous contribution to children’s wellbeing. Children go to a real forest for a real ‘Forest School’ experience once a week, all year round. The daily anecdotes of their forest school adventures sing about the strong contribution this is making to their development and wellbeing. And they love learning.

A colleague visited recently and described the children as ‘so happy and so spirited’ and this was the ultimate compliment for our curious, excited, wondrous bunch and the best acknowledgement of all that our teaching team have done with them at school over this year. Of course, there are always the ‘even better ifs’ and as a living thing the school has great days, good days and some of ‘those days.’

I have been very fortunate to have met a group of visionary and committed founders. It is this vision and unparalleled commitment that has led Hackney New Primary School to be something distinctive. The school was conceived by them; together we have brought it to life and are nurturing its development closely.

As a wise man advised me when I considered this post: if you have ideas about what makes great teaching and if you are passionate about the contribution education makes then surely this is the ultimate job. He was right. ‘Put your hat in the ring’ he said. I did, and 18 months later I would recommend it to anyone else passionate about the contribution education makes.

Do it. Find a great team of governors or founders and with them, create something great.

Siobhan Horisk is founding headteacher of Hackney New Primary School and a NET Associate.