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School leadership is about limitless and often unjustifiable optimism

7th June 2021

The keynote speaker was unassuming but assured. Each word was carefully chosen. Measured. The audience – a collection of care-worn, end-of-term-exhausted school leaders – sat entranced: some were frantically scribbling notes. Occasionally there was a well-chosen, brief anecdote grounded in the speaker’s own classroom practice. A neat quip, a ripple of audience laughter. “So,” said the speaker, Sir Kevan Collins, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). “If iPads are the answer, what is the educational question we’ve just asked ourselves?” A number of us looked at the floor: the expensive purchase made to satisfy a fad or in response to a clever sales pitch. Or, thinking further back to the weird world of “Brain Gym”, to satisfy what turned out to be little more than fakery.

It was such a simple yet powerful message that Sir Kevan was making. Base your educational decisions on the evidence. Focus your effort on where it will make the most difference. Capture the maximum possible benefit from spending. And, above all, resist fads and fakery. It was easy to see why, in 2011, he had been appointed as CEO to lead this new independent charity, set up by the Sutton Trust and supported by a DfE grant of £125 million. A charity that – much like President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative in the States - sought to break the link between family income and educational achievement.

Visit the EEF website (EEF - Education Endowment Foundation | EEF) – as I know many of you will have - and you will see the legacy of Sir Kevan’s achievements. There is a Teaching and Learning Toolkit that offers an accessible summary of the international evidence on teaching 5-16 year olds, evidence based guidance reports on areas such as literacy and a “promising projects” feature that measures the success of a project by comparing its cost with its impact. My one criticism is that there is a heck of a lot to navigate in the frantic world of school leadership where often “urgency” trumps “importance”!

Given all this, you will not be surprised to hear me say how sad I am that Sir Kevan has resigned from his role as Education Recovery Commissioner – a position he has held since February this year. Personally, I can think of no-one better qualified to work with the government, school leaders and teachers to deliver the necessary measures to support our young people’s futures as they recover from the disruption of the last fifteen months.

But I don’t want to end this piece on such a gloomy note. As Tim Brighouse, the former Chief Commissioner for Schools once put it, school leadership is about limitless and often unjustifiable optimism. So, with apologies to Ian Dury, here, perhaps, are three reasons to be (a little bit more) cheerful.

  1. In 2014, when I first heard Sir Kevan speak, there was no true alignment between an evidence-based approach to pedagogy and the curriculum and the requirements of the Ofsted inspection framework. Indeed, the framework then was almost silent about the curriculum and the Ofsted orthodoxy was that there was “no right way to teach”. Now we have an inspection framework that very much emphasises the importance of educational research and evidence. What is more, as a Trust and particularly through our Curriculum Statement of Intent and Implementation, we are committed to resourcing such an approach. One manifestation of this will be the appointment of our Trust Lead Practitioners that I hope to update colleagues on in the next couple of weeks.
  2. Receiving far less coverage than Sir Kevan’s resignation, an All-Party Parliamentary Group, chaired by Emma Hardy MP, has published a report titled “Speak for Change” emphasising the part that Oracy needs to play in the curriculum, particularly post-pandemic. In her foreword, Emma Hardy notes that “talk is the currency of learning – how we develop and grow our ideas, understanding, thoughts and feelings and share them with others”. Under the section dealing with academic outcomes, the report notes that from research carried out by the EEF, effective oral language interventions in schools enable pupils to make five months additional academic progress over a year: in the case of disadvantaged pupils, this increases to six months. Colleagues can find both a summary of the report and the full report here: Speak for Change Inquiry - report launched April 2021 | Oracy APPG (
  3. As part of his approach to his then new role as Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan talked of the importance of allowing children in school to enjoy each other’s company again, to play and to socialise. He also emphasised the importance of activities such as music and sport and drama. In addition to academic projects, the EEF website also includes work that schools have undertaken to develop pupils’ attitudes, skills and behaviours – such as self-control, confidence, social skills, motivation, and resilience. In a recent weekly briefing to school leaders, Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, included this thought-provoking piece from William Martin:


Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

Graham Tuck, Director of Secondary Education  Athena Schools Trust

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