The benefits of getting engaged in research

I like to think i’ve got a critical eye, i’m certainly not one of those that jumps on any old initiative without at least a healthy degree of cynicism and yet I really do love changing stuff to make it better. I’m one of those who suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night realising that my fondant fancy tree diagram lesson isn’t going to work because it’s Ramadan, that our new appraisal system needs this tweak to bring it in line with our target setting or even (most disturbingly) that everything tends towards e including all our student exam results. This latest (woefully inaccurate) revelation comes as a direct result of reading the excellent “Alex Through the Looking Glass” by Alex Bellos. In short, i’m one of those “always on” type of people. The problem with this is that I have a stack of ideas and yet the cynic and mathematician in me wants to know if they’re going to work before I make them happen.

Now this wasn’t such a problem when I was at the level of trying out stuff in my maths lessons with 30 students. I like to think my tube-map-vector creation lesson was an absolute triumph but i’m willing to admit that my water torture inverse proportion attempt was torture for everyone in the room. Now i’ve managed to find a position of some responsibility however, the initiatives I espouse have to be backed with something. So i’ve been diligent enough to do my own bits of research and reading  before I present anything and i’ve encouraged others to do the same but that isn’t the same as having a whole school like this founded on what works and challenging of what doesn’t.

So the epiphany (of sorts) came whilst stood at the urinal at Durrington High School which I know is a strange place for this to occur. On April 13th myself and Vice Principal Jason Bridges ( were lucky enough to be hosted by Shaun Allison ( and Andy Tharby ( for our whole school “visit another school” inset day. We saw loads of awesome things at Durrington but the one that really struck a chord with me was the engagement of key staff members and therefore the wider staff in current education research. Andy has whole school responsibility for making this happen and is the reason I was stood at a urinal reading a summary of recent research. Shaun is one of those people we’ve probably all seen on twitter who writes something and is instantly engaged with the views of another few thousand people and their knowledge of education. Suffice to say I left the day thoroughly inspired by both of them.

I determined that I wanted to tell people all about the fantastic work that happens at Ninestiles (, I’m incredibly proud of my school and want people to know. However, I don’t intend my blog and my twitter to just be a fanfare for Ninestiles Multi Academy Trust. I want it to serve as a vehicle for improvement and change as well as a tool for staff engagement. So myself and Jason worked  on our twitter accounts, persuaded others to sign up and now have a growing community of acolytes. Coincidently twitter paid dividends on my first night. A guy I’d never spoken to before saw my first blog post on my twitter feed, got in touch and helped me enormously with my work on my blog and life after levels (thanks again

The next step is for us to be more involved in research properly. As the Ninestiles twitter group has grown people have just seen more stuff and this has increased the level of conversation around school. As part of our teaching school alliance improvement strategy our Associate Vice Principal Elizabeth Ford has now put together a research and development sub group to look at how we kick-start a more comprehensive approach to research and provide staff with the necessary knowledge and guidance to begin some small scale work. We had our first meeting last night, it was great. Being always on,  I instantly went home and scribbled down a host of ideas for research projects and then this morning had a chat with a couple of staff members who could also consider some of these and be involved.

I’m so excited by the prospect of doing some research that I know my personal challenge will be reigning that in to be meaningful and lead to improvements. Most of all I’m excited by the prospect of our staff conducting research and sharing their work with our local community and a wider audience through twitter and the blogosphere to lead to change and better outcomes for our students.

If you’ve got any tips on the best ways to make this happen then please  get in touch either through here, at my twitter ( or by email

If you’d like to be involved or could help us please contact either myself or Lizzy Ford (, we would love to hear from you…

How to build a high A*ttainer

So we have the classic problem, we work incredibly hard to get our 5 A* to C in English and Maths. We put our best teachers in these groups from the start of year 11 (every year we plan to move this provision down the years but it never quite pans out), we provide intervention, PIXL PLC tracking, homework resources, pre learning, post learning, past papers, targeted homework and so on. We feel the guilt that our higher attainers don’t always get the glare of the spotlight and that they deserve the same attention but at the same time we share the moral imperative to give the greatest number of our students the best possible life chance  by gaining that critical 5 grades. So it was that a couple of years ago we launched a project (one of three working on weaknesses we had identified internally) to specifically target the students with the greatest potential, across all subjects and across all years.

The role was opened up to any staff interested on a TLR 3 to be a two year project with regular feedback to Vice principals and interim/final feedback to the Academy Councillors. We had in mind that it was an excellent opportunity to grow our future leadership and as it happened two of our 2nd year (NQT) teach firsts were the successful candidates. One of my former mentees (Chris Guerin, @guerinmaths) and our English teacher (Hannah Roberts) and so were born the A*ttainers group.

They set about targeting all students who had prior assessment data that suggested they were capable of reaching grade A or A* in at least five subject. They launched the group with assemblies, a prominent notice board and meetings with key groups. One of the great things about Ninestiles is its level of equality and inclusivity so they had to be careful not to create an elitist group with any sense of entitlement so they were sensitive about how they managed this process and instilled the belief that having this potential had not earned you anything. Where students not immediately included in the group were shown to be capable in given subjects they were added to it ensuring that the fluidity of the group meant membership was seen as something to be earned.

Hannah has since moved on and her role has been taken by Steph Block (another of our teach first gang) and she has continued the great work. Steph and Chris have held assemblies with the A*ttainers to let them know where they are in their journey, celebrate their successes, show them possible opportunities and show them the paths taken by our first ever cohort of students within this group. They’ve also organised visits to grammar schools and post-16 colleges to develop the students aspirations.

All of this culminated in our A*ttainers evening last Thursday (4th June). Alongside our outstanding work related coordinator Jayne Talbot (@jayne_talbot), Chris and Steph  organised visits from a large number of the top universities around the country. I really can’t stress enough just how valuable Jayne’s work is in this area. She has a wealth of expertise which has allowed her to build long term relationships with a huge range of employers, further education institutions and work related training providers. The universities invited not only set up information points around the central point of the night but also offered workshops on topics identified by the attendees of last years events. The information and guidance they were able to offer students on courses, admissions, accommodation and university life general was invaluable. Added to this was a wealth of knowledge and experience from career guidance experts, apprenticeship offering groups, the fabulous Challenge Network (@TheChallengePO) which loads of our students attended last year, national employers like the NHS and larger local employers who may provide potential career paths for some of our brightest students. The evening ended with a moving and inspirational speech and performance from former Birmingham Young Poet Laureate Matt Windle (@mattwindlepoet) speaking of his own journey to a career which he loves and uses to motivate others. The audience of parents and students were completely absorbed by his work, I can’t recommend him highly enough.

My personal highlight was seeing former student Cameron Kigonya (one of my first ever KS4 students and one of the first I ever helped get an A*) return to talk about his journey to Oxford University. It was so inspirational to hear a former student speak of his journey through Ninestiles, the help and guidance he received and his path through post-16 education. It was also fantastic for him to be able to relate just how well he has made the progression into Oxford University, how much he is enjoying it and how comfortable he is there. We spend huge amounts of time telling students they can make it to this sort of place but hearing it from one of their own, who has actually done it removes another layer of fear and mystique. Cameron was also able to talk about all the practicalities of moving on to university in the current climate. Although i’m not that old, I did leave university about the time our current year 11 were being born. It means that my picture is definitely out of date and Cameron was able to really bring it up to date.

Our evaluation of the evening has shown that parents and students alike valued the evening extremely highly with the overwhelming majority of the 150 replies stating that they agreed or strongly agreed with the fact they were better informed, more aware and had received useful information, advice and guidance. Perhaps the most pleasing aspects have been the fact that this is now part of our regular calendar, embedded in the way the school works and also that we have grown leadership skills in two outstanding young teachers.

Many thanks to all our fantastic visitors on the night Aston University, Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust,Birmingham City University, Brilliant Careers, Cardiff University and Cardiff Met,Careers Guidance Solihull ,Dental Smiles Adademy, HealthTec at Baverstock Academy, IBM, NatWest Bank, Newcastle University, Newman University, Newnham College Cambridge, Solihull College, SAE, STEMNET, The Challenge/NCS, University of Birmingham, University of Law Birmingham, University of Southampton, University of Wolverhampton, University of York, Carillion plc,Birmingham Public Health and of course, Matt Windle – Poet.

Thank you always sounds better when it’s from someone you care about…

Pretty much every teacher I know came into the profession to help young people achieve their potential. There are loads of things that leadership groups can do to say thanks to staff for all their effort but it always feels so much better when a student says a heartfelt thank you for your efforts.

So we gave some of our students the chance to do just that, you can see it here:

The reaction from staff was fantastic and gave them a great boost at this challenging time of the academic year, but that may have been the danish pastry we gave them too….

My first blog – I want to be a Headteacher….

I want to be a headteacher….

Well at least I think I do, who can really be sure until they’re there? It was this question that was really bothering my boss (and co-author of this blog, Vice Principal Jason Bridges) and I when we were discussing staff CPD. We have worked tirelessly within our SLG to change the focus of our appraisal process and whole staff CPD, driving towards a position where we give staff opportunity after opportunity to decide the focus of their CPD and engage in the most meaningful session for them. Within this we have allowed staff to offer strengths as workshops with all staff then given a free choice of which session to attend and implemented a system of supportive learning triads with staff at similar career stages (watch out for future blogs on how this has gone). Additionally, all staff have been given a key educational text and offered opportunities to discuss this with their peers, staged our own Teachmeet and facilitated every member of staff visiting a secondary school of their choice to focus on an area of their interest or development targets.

Across our staff we have SLE’s, AST’s, teach first participants, numerous staff completing a masters, future leader participants and staff completing NPQML, NPQSL, NPQH and anything else you can think of that is a training program with a not particularly memorable acronym. Having participated in a number of these courses, gained a few qualifications professionally and considered the theory of my current and potentially future leadership roles I felt particularly frustrated at the lack of opportunity to work with “the chosen ones”. It was during one of these low moments that i challenged Jason (holder of pretty much every title listed above and others to boot) on the CPD currently being offered to him. “Well i learn on the job, that’s the best CPD isn’t it?” was his earnest and truthful response.

So I wondered whether there was something else? Ninestiles is a great school, rated outstanding for a very long time with a magnificent leadership team and huge wealth of experience in being at the forefront of education in Birmingham. Of course Jason benefits from working with and seeing the daily practices  of Gaetano (our principal), Chris Quinn (our executive principal) and previously Sir Dexter Hutt (the man that practically made Ninestiles) but surely this isn’t the same as living through the process that got them to and then kept them at the top of their game?

And so it was that we struck on the idea of the “I want to be a Headteacher” sessions. As is so often the case, Jason made it happen. The first session was with Martin Collins (Director oF Primary Education in the Ninestiles Academy Trust). Prompted by just 3 short questions as shown below, Martin kicked us off in style.

Martin Collins - I want to be a headteacher

The audience, all there by choice from across the Trust, numbered around 30 and contained a number of senior and middle leaders as well as some younger aspiring leaders. Martin was fascinating and inspiring in equal measure. Not just the “Primary guy from Erdington Hall” anymore, he told us about the full range of jobs he had fulfilled, the luck involved in some of his appointments and the heads he had learned from both good and bad.

Chris Quinn was next with her session, the latter part of which i knew but the early days in the challenging, politicised education climate and sideways moves was all news to me. Then came Sir Dexter, a man you could listen to all night and still laugh when he dropped another bombshell of taking on the local authority, leafletting the parent population and establishing the first hard federation with 4 schools at the distance of 150 miles! Lastly (for now) we’ve had Tim Boyes of Queensbridge fame. Another fascinating story of opportunities in Pakistan, knocking on headteachers doors for a job and building a theatre with National Lottery funding that was off limits to the Deputy Head!!!

So what I have learned? Well firstly and perhaps completely unsurprisingly there is more than one way to become a Headteacher. Martin talked of the richness of different experiences and teaching in different contexts which made me think I should move. Then along came Tim with his thought that you should build up a high quality body of work in one school. Between the four they have taught in different continents, different types of school, different subjects and with different outcomes but there was one theme that shone through. The need to have a purpose and commit to it fully. To be unshakeable in your progress towards this goal and to have the conviction to stand by your beliefs no matter who comes knocking on the door. All four shared a passion for social change driven by enabling the most deprived students to thrive and prosper through education. They were bold and resolute in their decisions, they certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly and they were prepared to take the tough decisions when needed.

The sessions were very different from normal CPD, I don’t think I heard anything I didn’t already know about education or leadership other than maybe some historical context. But I benefitted immensely from hearing the human side of the journey and sharing in the tips and tricks they may have gathered along the way. My advice is that if you have one of these luminaries in your network, find them and hear their story.

If you’ve heard similar stories or have a recommendation for a speaker for our future sessions get in touch!!!!

Alex Hughes – Assistant Principal, Essentials