‘Seven Things That Made The Difference At Saint Martin’s’ – Part 2

Clive Wright is Headteacher of St Martin’s Catholic Academy in Stoke Golding. In recent years St Martin’s has changed lots – not only in terms of age-range and size, but also its “what” and “how”. We’re delighted that Clive has written for PTE about the journey the school has been on, and the things that he thinks have made a real difference along the way…

The second part of Clive’s article describing some important elements that enabled Saint Martin’s to manage all the changes as the school converted from an 11-14 school of fewer than 300 pupils, to an 11-16 school of over 800, and at the same time become one of the top performing schools in Leicestershire.

You can read Part 1 here:

4. Curriculum

I used to think that the quality of teaching and learning was everything. And then, through the ideas of Siegfried Engelmann and blogs like Michael Fordham’s ‘Curriculum as progress’, it dawned that the diet is as important as the way it is imparted.

In other words, the same skilled teacher in English following a curriculum in Year 7 of Harry Potter, Michael Morpurgo and general topics like writing newspapers articles or Biography will produce very different outcomes and rates of progress if the diet is Homer, Ovid, Rhetoric and Renaissance literature.

Our teachers think very deeply about their curriculum. In a practical subject like art, instead of pupils dabbling in a number of different art-based activities like painting, pottery, screen printing and generally letting their creativity flow, we focus on very specific and practiced skill development. Art at Saint Martin’s is essentially a course that teaches all pupils to become proficient portrait artists. Drawing techniques are methodically taught, pupils are explicitly and systematically taught how to draw various facial features with a focus on practice, accumulating in portrait drawing and painting. The outcomes, even after just 5 or 6 hours of teaching, are extraordinary.

5. Memory

‘If nothing has been retained in long term memory, nothing has been learned’ Kirschner, Sweller & Clarke.

This was another one of those revelations that now seems blindly obvious.

In a previous school I was being observed in a ‘mocksted’ and teaching a lesson to a group of 6th formers on some aspect of A level Philosophy. The students lapped up ideas about the Verification Principle or some such thing. The lesson was judged to be outstanding but merely a week later, when I asked a fairly straight forward question like “What is the Verification Principle?”, I had bemused faces looking back at me as if this was an entirely new concept. The lesson clearly wasn’t that outstanding.

Therefore, pupils remembering what you have taught them is fundamental. Daniel Willingham and Joe Kirby explain this better than I ever could, but in essence teaching pupils must have at its heart memorisation. Hence, we introduced Knowledge Organisers, a five-year revision programme, self-quizzing, low stakes, and high stakes quizzing and so on – all ideas stolen from Michaela, thank you very much!

By the way, none of the ideas we have developed are original. We are magpies; we borrow and steal everything that seems to work from other schools or very clever people.

So, at Saint Martin’s, getting pupils to remember what they learn is central to what we do in every lesson. Day in, day out. It’s not sexy, and it requires lots of bread-and-butter teaching and practice, but it works. Pupils develop an extraordinary tapestry of facts that knit together to give them a deep foundation for their understanding.

And they enjoy it! If you’re a Year 7 pupil previously with lower attainment, there is real joy in being able to quote Aristotle in order to underpin your point about Renaissance literature that no multi-media interactive kinaesthetic card sort could ever match.

And that’s another thing: “Visual Auditory and Kinaesthetic” learning was made up. OMG.  That revelation made me angry. Tom Bennett angry. No, actually worse than that – Andrew Old angry!

6. Butterflies and Hornets

One of Joe Kirby’s best blogs was “Hornets and Butterflies”. Originally an idea Tim Brighouse developed, it uses the analogy of hornets as high-effort, low-impact activities, and butterflies as low-effort, high-impact activities. As a whole school we looked at what were the least productive things we did and what were the simplest but most effective. We asked what it is that causes a teacher stress and is time consuming that could be eradicated or minimised, and what it is that actually impacts on pupil learning. As a result, the following are some of the things we consider to not be worth the effort:

Lesson observations – stressful for teachers, contrived, and do not help a teacher develop. Instead, we have low stakes coaching where the coaches ask teachers for their worst lessons, weakest practice, most desired development point. If a teacher struggles more, the coaching is more intensive.

Marking – we have turned instead to ‘Feedback’, and teachers read through key tasks in books, note on a sheet the common issues and give whole class feedback for pupils to then annotate their work in green. Visualizers are used to illustrate issues, common misconceptions, and good examples.

Lesson planning – we keep it really simple. No multimedia PowerPoints, card sorts, group work activities or ‘engaging activities’. The expectation is that a lesson will be simple and founded upon the expertise of the teacher. So, a typical lesson will be a combination of low-stake or occasionally high stakes quizzes, teacher talk, challenging reading, extended writing, or an aspect of writing practice plus lots of questioning. Doug Lemov and ‘Teach like a Champion’ is our classroom Bible.

7. Challenge everything, be outward looking

One thing I have learnt is that common practices should not be considered sacred; there is often a better way of doing something. Some of the things we have done for years are a waste of time. Some things considered outdated or rejected are actually effective. Learning facts off by heart, for example, has been done for millennia. There was a reason for that and just because we now have Google does not take away the need for pupils to have knowledge in their heads in order to access information.

Again, far greater minds than mine explain this so much more eloquently, but, in a nutshell, we now accept that to think intelligently and creatively, we need facts and information about a particular area of expertise at our fingertips.

Children who write the most eloquently and beautifully also read the most; they absorb the prose of their reading and creatively reimagine it in new and interesting ways. This is why the tracts of rhetoric that Shakespeare learnt (by rote, off by heart, drilled and killed) are reflected in his writing. It’s the whole ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ thing.

In other words – and I still find it difficult to say out loud to teachers, let alone write it – learning by rote is beneficial, indeed it is necessary. And the thing is, it’s what bright children do anyway to develop expertise in a field and pass exams. The children who miss out are those that don’t do this, and the knowledge gap grows exponentially. These children are often the least advantaged.

There is often a better way to do what we do, more efficiently and more effectively. A great head teacher I once worked for used to say, ‘work smarter not harder’. Us head teachers can be guilty of telling staff to ‘work harder not smarter’.

This is perhaps one of the most important things I’ve learnt as a school leader: we need to make good teaching sustainable for the sanity and welfare of staff. Discipline needs to not be an issue for teachers. SLT needs to sort it. Lesson expectations need to be very straightforward: convey your expertise and love of subject and make sure pupils remember it.  Forget multimedia, singing and dancing lessons. Get rid of anything that is unhelpful, inefficient, or peripheral to this core purpose.

Oh, and finally – ensure a culture is created where a school is a harmonious and happy place to be.