Learning from Educating Yorkshire

A colleague's chance encounter with Jonny Mitchell, headteacher of Thornhill Community Academy of Educating Yorkshire fame, on Twitter resulted in an invitation to visit the school. I leapt at the chance. Mitchell has been lauded for the rapport he has with his pupils, and for his leadership style. I wanted to see for myself what life was like at the sharp end of the educational system and what made the school tick. This is what I learnt:

1. Good leaders remain calm. During our visit several incidents occurred any one of which might have derailed it and resulted in embarrassed apologies that we should come back on another day. Jonny Mitchell handled each masterfully, diffusing each, reassuring staff and delegating responsibilities quickly and calmly. The self confessed 'responsible adult' in the school was very much in charge.

2. Target setting used badly can result in nebulous goal setting of the 'will teach better' kind. At Thornhill they have set up a system for each target to have a clear focus:

The first target set after each appraisal is data driven and must include what Jerry O'Hara referred to as a 'basket of measures' - a range of stretching but achievable targets that are quantifiable and measurable.

The second is directly linked to the Teacher Standards. Teachers must run down the list of standards and identify areas where they would like to improve. These areas then form the basis of what they set themselves as a second target.

The final target is one set by the school that marries in with the weaknesses the school has identified as part of it self-evaluation. In Thornhill's case this year there is a school-wide focus on differentiation, so targets based around differentiation are set for all staff as their third area of focus.

3. Constant, direct referral to the teacher standards is a useful way to get teachers thinking critically about their own practice. At Thornhill teachers run through a tick-list based on the Teacher Standards each year immediately prior to their appraisal to self-evaluate and identify areas for further development.

4. INSET - many teachers come to dread school INSET sessions. Senior leaders drone on in their own idiosyncratic styles, everyone else switches off. To get around this problem at Thornhill they build in teacher-led INSET at every opportunity. Teachers who have something they are proud of that they would like to pass on, or who have been identified by the SLT as having something interesting or engaging to say are encouraged to lead INSET sessions. This keeps INSET interesting and varied and teachers never know what might be coming next. Practitioners are also empowered to pass on their expertise and feel valued for being given the opportunity to do so.

5. Learning walks. At Thornhill the SLT have adopted the practice of walking around the school and popping in on lessons for a short while. These drop-ins are not formal observations but are a way for school leaders to identify good practice and help it spread. Each week there is a specific focus of these learning walks and leaders use a card like this to record their findings. Staff identified as doing well for a particular focus are encouraged to share pass on what they do to others either at a weekly briefing meeting or at an INSET session. Conversely staff found to be weak in a particular area are picked up in a light-touch way and revisited the following week to check that their practice has improved. Here's the proforma they use.

6. Systems. Much of what goes on in good schools relies on robust, clearly understood systems. But such systems invariably generate new administrative tasks which can, if not controlled, pin leaders down in their offices as they wade through routine clerical tasks. This is particularly true if any new innovation generates an idiosyncratic workflow which only the originator understands. Workflows in schools need to be regularly revisited to ensure that they are not necessarily cumbersome and that they do not place such burdens on leaders that they loose the time or inclination to think strategically.

7. Curriculum area self evaluations. By clumping departments together into faculties or curriculum areas staff can be encouraged to assess and monitor each other's practice, make suggestions for improvement and remain sharp and innovative. At Thornhill departmental faculty areas scrutinized each other's work, assessed themselves against meeting the needs of the school's own development plan and set each other targets. By devolving responsibility for mutual evaluation down to departments in this way teachers were given ownership of the process. This was seen as much more effective than the top-down departmental evaluations practised in some schools.

8. Lightening bolt moments. Matthew Burton was endearingly modest about his transformation of Musharaf's stammer, captured so movingly by the cameras. Such moments, he said, happen relatively frequently in teachers' lives. Not all may be as spectacular, but we should savour them. They are what makes teaching the best job in the world.

9. What makes for good discipline in a school is extremely hard to pin down. As we wandered around I could see that Jonny Mitchell enjoys excellent relations with his pupils. He seems to particularly warm to the more recalcitrant. In one fascinating exchange a surly young lad was slouching as we came into the room with his hands in his pockets. Mitchell asked him to remove them. 'Why should I?' he replied. 'Er let me think about that....,' said Mitchell, 'because I told you to!' The hands were quickly removed. Mitchell's got it. This is how he advises his staff to manage pupil behaviour.

As we left the school a teenaged girl came up and hugged him. It's not the sort of thing you'd see happen in more stuffy schools and, I must admit, I would have felt uneasy about it myself. But Mitchell's approach is different. He has some desperately troubled children to deal with in his school and gets the balance just right - warm approachability, allied to a firm sense of control. He runs a steady ship; I came away most impressed.

Huge thanks to him and his staff for accommodating us and being so generous with their time and expertise.

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