At Trinity, we like to keep things simple. For many of us, however, the terms simple and literacy just will not seem compatible – yet, in order for us to fulfil our mission, of every child going to university and succeeding in a top job, improving literacy must be our priority. So how do we address this challenge? Simply put: by keeping it simple.
Like everything else at Trinity, we accept that there are no quick fixes; we strive to do the simple things well every single day. To keep things simple, we like to break things down – we ask the basic questions: what does ‘literacy’ mean? What would a student with good literacy skills sound like, and what should they be able to do? How should our understanding of developing literacy shape the academy day and week? Literacy underpins our practice – it is not a bolt on; it is a critical component in fulfilling our purpose.
Our aim is simple: we want to develop students’ reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. We want a Trinity student to be able to confidently manipulate language in any given context. We want them to have a love of reading and to have better lives because of the reading that they have done, and will do. Like the acquisition of knowledge, we know that the ability to use and ‘read’ language alters life opportunities. To help our students to climb their mountain to university, or a real alternative, we put developing student literacy skills at the heart of our academy day, and firmly at the heart of what we expect from our students.
Our three key literacy strategies help our students grasp language, command it and enjoy it.
1. Speaking in full sentences using Standard English
At Trinity, it is an expectation that students speak in full sentences using Standard English. Thinking through a response, formulating it into a full sentence and then saying it aloud helps students to make a cohesive point which, in turn, helps them when they need to write their ideas down. Not only, therefore, does it promote student confidence to speak in more than one-word answers in front of their peers, but it also allows students to practise articulating their ideas before they write them down; it becomes part of the drafting process. Of course, there may be times when a one-word response is required which would be signalled by the teacher, but the natural state and expectation is that student responses are developed into full sentences.
Through our English curriculum, we teach about levels of formality. We do not advocate the sole use of Standard English throughout life in all circumstances, but we do educate students to be able to make decisions about the language they choose to use. We teach that Standard English is used in formal situations. We view our lessons and interaction with teachers as a formal setting, as such, we expect students to use Standard English. This does mean that teachers must model the way in their own speech.
2. Track the speaker
Simply put, tracking the speaker means looking at the person speaking. The speaker may be the teacher in the lesson or a student responding to a question. Tracking the speaker is important on many levels: not only does it signal how important is to listen to the speaker, but it also iterates how important it is to give the speaker your full attention. Tracking does not guarantee active listening but it offers keen support. Building tracking into the academy day and into lesson expectations helps to make for smoother transitions from one activity to another; it facilitates student talk and discussion in lessons. Finally, it signals that what is being said is important.
3. Carrying a DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) book at all times
The consistent execution of our routines and expectations is important to the development of students’ literacy skills, but we also recognise that we need to go deeper. We construct and shape the academy day around our belief that reading is vital to the development of being able to manipulate and command language. As such, an important part of our academy day is DEAR.
Each day, every student spends 30 minutes with their Advisory (form group) reading. (I will write another blog explicitly about DEAR). As an overview, during DEAR, students may be reading in silence, reading with their Advisor, discussing a book with a peer or presenting to the Advisory. Students are also given the opportunity to read newspapers which are differentiated by reading age. Advisors are variously expected to model reading their own DEAR book, facilitate student discussions and listen to each member of the Advisory read.
The key to the success of our three key literacy strategies is consistency; no matter which lesson a student experiences or what day it is, at Trinity, the same expectations apply. At Trinity, we believe that team always beats individual and that is exactly how we approach the development of literacy skills; we do it together.
The use of double staffing to ensure a high-quality learning experience for all students
Double Staffing: the timetabling of two qualified, subject specialist teachers to a single class, giving them joint and equal responsibility for the students’ outcomes.
At Dixons Trinity, perhaps one of our most unique and impactful distinctive features is the use of double staffing to support our most vulnerable learners. In order to be able to each climb their mountain to university, or a real alternative, so they can thrive in a top job and have a great life, every student must have consistent access to the same high-quality input and support as one another, and the use of double staffing enables us to provide this. Double staffing is, in essence, a replacement provision for the use of teaching assistants (of which we have none) to facilitate support and intervention for vulnerable students. The possible comparisons between the two approaches, however, end there; the key strengths of the double staffing approach – its flexibility, responsiveness, quality, and reach – render any further comparisons difficult to find. For group four, our lowest attaining students in each year group and the natural base for the timetabled double staffing, the presence of two qualified, subject specialist teachers in their core subject lessons provides the opportunity for support and intervention without the need for segregation or compromising of the quality of education they receive; but the reach of the benefits of double staffing goes far beyond group four. Any student can become vulnerable and require support either short or long term; a fluid approach to the implementation of double staffing in response to timely and accurate data to provide high-quality intervention and support applies equally to all Dixons Trinity students.
Double staffing is flexible and responsive, adapting to the needs of the students, the strengths of the teachers, and the available resources. It is crucial that it is implemented in response to up-to-date and accurate information that is available about the students – assessment data, individual needs (SEND) information, and knowledge of the children – and that its implementation is planned for in advance in order to ensure maximum efficacy. There are a number of different ways in which double staffing can be carried out in practice, each being made available by different sets of circumstances and carrying with it a unique combination of benefits to the students in the class.
The grids provide an overview of the different ways in which double staffing is being implemented at Dixons Trinity but, in reality, it is most impactful when a combination of these approaches is used with each class. For example, the hub model provides an ideal natural base, within the classroom, for a second teacher to provide consistent and ongoing support for a group of students. Whether the students have been identified on the basis of an individual need (SEND), recent data, or a behavioural need, the hub model could lead to them developing learnt dependency or missing out on the socio-emotional developmental opportunities of the classroom environment. That same second teacher is also available to provide breakout intervention, tutorials, or to lead the class or section of a lesson, thus making full use of the opportunities made available by the double staffing and giving students based in the hub area the opportunity of independence.
The benefits brought about by the flexibility and responsiveness of double staffing is not, however, limited to the models identified here. It is, as said, crucial that double staffing is planned for in advance; however, there can also, as with all teaching, arise situations where even the best lesson plan is voided by an unexpected difficulty or knowledge gap, and the teacher must think on their feet. Not only does double staffing allow for a timely and responsive intervention to take place without interrupting the smooth continuation of the lesson for the students for whom this is appropriate, the second teacher has the authority and autonomy to implement this intervention without disturbing the lesson at all. The students benefit from the knowledge, expertise and interaction between two qualified, subject specialist teachers and also benefit from greater consistency and, therefore, stability in their learning experience. Occasional absence is an inevitability and can have a significant negative impact on any learner, particularly those who are more vulnerable for any reason. A double staffed lesson is likely to always have at least one member of staff present who knows the students well and can provide continuity despite the absence of the other teacher. The use of 1:1 and small group support, interventions, and additional adults is not unique to the double staffing approach, however, the quality of pedagogical and subject specialist input, and the authority and autonomy of the individuals involved, most likely is. Every student, including those selected for intervention and support, receive an equally high-quality input as one another and remain within the academic hubs of the academy e.g. maths intervention takes place with maths teachers, on the maths corridor, during maths lessons.
The provisions that double staffing replaces, teaching assistants and withdrawal interventions, give the most vulnerable learners in a school an inferior quality input and an experience of segregation, both of which can impact on their academic and socio-emotional development and opportunity for future success. Furthermore, segregating provision designed for low ability students and those with additional needs limits the responsive and highly individualised approach it affords to a very small group of students, denying those benefits to the wider student body. It teaches the students to whom it does apply that they are a subgroup of the school community who sit slightly outside of the systems, and it teaches the rest of the children this same thing too; those with disabilities are ‘other’. Double staffing is one example of a number of distinctive features that ensure our most vulnerable learners have an equally high-quality and inclusive experience as their more able and more resilient peers, and ensures that all of our students are afforded the same opportunities for support and individualisation as our least able and most vulnerable.
The natural base for all double staffing – the lessons the teachers are timetabled to be in – is with group four; this is, naturally, where many of the most vulnerable learners can be found. The reach of the double staffing approach, however, is not limited to the lower sets. At Dixons Trinity, our protocol for assessing and reporting data identifies both attainment and progress, and it is the latter that gives the greatest indication of a student’s journey to success. Any student, including the highest attaining, can plateau or make less than expected progress. Any student can become vulnerable for any reason or for any length of time and a fluid approach to the implementation of double staffing ensures that any student who needs it can benefit from it. Our data has consistently shown our lowest ability and individual needs (SEND) students to be amongst the fastest progressing sub-groups of students and, as such, this enables the double staffing to be free to move to other ability groups, as directed by the department heads, in order to provide the same benefits to an even greater range of students.
Finally, it is clear to me that the full potential of the use of double staffing has not yet been reached and, as it develops and evolves, more opportunities and benefits become apparent. An identifying feature of the double staffing, in its current form, is the stipulation to use subject specialist teachers. There are, however, clear benefits to using teachers with different subject specialisms. Both science and geography, for example, could benefit from fluid double staffing from a mathematician when teaching a topic that includes complex equations and numeric skill. The literacy demands of the extended writing requirements of a GCSE history assessment could justify the presence of an English teacher in lessons where students are working on that specific skill. And the understanding and experience of students in all of the humanities could benefit from collaboration between their subject teacher and teachers of the arts – music, art, drama – when introducing eras and areas a student may never experience in reality. Fluid double staffing between academic departments seems a logical next step for the approach, ensuring that it continues to evolve and provide greater and greater opportunities for the students at the academy.
Head of Mountain Rescue
‘Grammar is what gives sense to language… Sentences make words yield up their meanings.’ (The National Literacy Strategy.)
As the GCSE overhaul of 2017 fast approaches, and with students facing unprecedented changes to examinations in order for expectations to match and exceed high performing internal jurisdictions, one thing we do know is this: students will be faced with ‘high-quality assessment’ with more emphasis placed on written communication and technical accuracy. Therefore, in order to ensure our students fulfil the academy’s mission of “succeeding at university, thriving in a top job and having a great life”, we need to prepare students for life beyond exams; if they are to realise their full potential, they need to be able to communicate effectively in the work place and in life. Yet, how do we adequately prepare students for such challenges ahead? The answer: by raising standards of writing across the curriculum through a shared grammatical metalanguage.
At DTA, a common language permeates everything we do: it is alive in corridors, in the Heart Space and in every lesson, every day, so it only seems natural that a common language – a grammatical metalanguage – should exist for students’ written communication.
Step 1: A ‘Grammar for Writing’ approach
In 2014-2015, the English Department implemented the ‘Grammar for Writing’ approach influenced by Debra Myhill’s pedagogical model. The approach focuses on demystifying grammar for students, providing them with a sound understanding of the mechanics of grammar so that they can confidently experiment with the nuances of writing. In order for students to write in a sustained, coherent and effective way, they need to understand the rules of linguistics in an explicit yet contextualised manner, so that their reading becomes meaningful and their writing has purpose. The purpose of teaching grammar in this way is not so that students can correctly label the different parts of speech; it is about making children aware of the grammatical principles to increase the range of choices open to them when they write. Students explore the use of grammar for effect, see how texts are shaped and play with grammatical structures to enable them to apply the principles to their own writing.
To assess the impact of such a model, and to successfully embed a grammatical metalanguage, it was necessary to go back to basics – the key principles learnt in KS2 had to be re-taught; Y7 and Y8 received one whole-year group lecture per week for the duration of the academic year, focusing on contextualised metalanguage with models and worked examples to support. To ensure consistency, lectures were delivered by our Head of Department focusing on the effects of grammatical choices at first, such as the effect of noun phrases, progressing to manipulating coordinating and subordinating conjunctions by the end of the year.
Step 2: Scheme of work design
Whilst the lectures were having notable impact, consistency was key. Reading and writing assessment objectives – from the new KS4 specification – were mapped across every scheme of work to allow students the opportunity to practise what they had learnt in the lectures; importantly, this gave them time to experiment with writing (using the shared metalanguage) and develop their analytical skills through knowledge of how and why a writer uses particular words, phrases and sentence constructions. Gradually, this approach began to produce results: by the time students sat their end of year exams, students in Y7 could confidently craft a piece of discursive writing, experimenting with a range of subordinating conjunctions to create dependent clauses and were able to identify and explore a noun phrase in an assured and sophisticated way. Writing had improved; students had developed more confident and versatile language use and were using grammatical structures with considerable complexity. Yet the problem remained: how could we replicate this success across the curriculum?
Step 3: Create consistency
It became clear, through a number of quality assurance measures, that students were not transferring the rules, or stylistics of writing, learnt in English to other subjects, in part because these particular mechanics were not being reinforced before students completed a piece of writing or during the redrafting process; therefore, we set about crafting a common language for all staff to use with students – a language that students were already familiar with from their daily English lessons. We wanted students to know that to improve their eight mark response in PE they needed to use more adding connectives, or to write more succinctly, yet fluently or that, in RE, they needed to avoid the comma splice. As this grammatical approach had led to noticeable gains in the quality of both reading and writing in English, we began to devise a way in which a common approach to writing across all subject areas could form part of our culture, and so came the dawn of our writing surgery…
Step 4: The Writing Surgery
Before we could insist on particular writing expectations to be adhered to by all departments, it was our duty to ensure that all staff were comfortable with the terminology taught in English; we had to play fair; we had to teach our staff how to use this language so they could, in turn, improve the writing of our students in their own specialism. In September 2015, The Writing Surgery commenced. During Staff Morning Practice, staff attend a 25 minute session led by the English HoD which simply follows the same principles as the whole-year group lessons delivered to students: staff are taught, in a supportive manner, the grammatical metalanguage so that they feel confident when teaching and marking writing. To avoid staff becoming anxious about the sessions, pre-reading material is distributed at the beginning of each week and all tasks are completed collaboratively. Our staff are incredibly grateful to learn what sadly some were denied during their education; they demonstrate a thirst for understanding the mechanics of grammar – whether that is how to create an embedded clause or what constitutes a complex sentence. Initially, what started out as a 13 week programme is now – due to its popularity and impact – going to run all year as we support staff to improve their literacy which will provide them with the confidence to address misconceptions in their students’ writing. Comments such as: “This is the highlight of my week” and “I used the term embedded clause with my group and they knew what I meant” give the practice a real sense of purpose – it now finally feels that we have addressed a key piece of the puzzle: improving staff literacy confidence in order to improve student writing.
We know this is just the beginning of a lengthy process, but one which we undoubtedly know will have great impact in helping us achieve our mission. Even though we are still in the early stages of climbing this mountain, our grammatical metalanguage is now firmly alive in our staff, in our students and in our classrooms; a language that will enable our students to succeed no matter what writing challenges they are faced with in 2017, at university or in their lives beyond the classroom.
Assistant Vice Principal
The main body of our enrichment offer is delivered through co-curricular electives; made up of an array of arts and games disciplines designed to allow our students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their own life experience. We settled on ‘co-curricular’ as the name for the provision as we wanted it to stand alongside the more traditional suite of subjects, both in terms of status as well as quality. Students in Years 7 to 9 participate in four hours a week of timetabled co-curricular lessons (two hours of games and two hours of arts), while Year 10 do just two hours, choosing either games or the arts as their focus. It should be noted that although we offer elements of PE, music, DT and art as part of the co-curricular offer, we also deliver these as discrete subjects as part of the traditional subjects on offer to all students.
To support the co-curricular electives we have extra-curricular sessions before and after school to allow students to develop their abilities. Indeed, a key part of the enrichment offer – extra and co-curricular – is to facilitate and nurture the ‘grassroots’ for our sports teams and academy performances.
To ensure that the co-curricular sessions are of high quality we felt it was important that the variety of electives all adhered to a set standard and are rooted firmly in the intention of working towards meaningful and measurable outcomes for the students. In order to facilitate this, we took inspiration from Dan Pink’s Drive and his belief in mastery as a motivating driver behind getting good at something. More specifically, we have attempted to ensure that each elective fulfils the three key ingredients of mastery – pain, flow and growth…
“The path to mastery is not lined with rainbows” (Drive by Dan Pink)
Although not always physically painful, acquiring new skills and developing new understandings brings with it challenges that students must overcome to achieve their goals. When learning anything complex for the first time there will be a period of repetition, drudge, potential boredom and maybe even despair. The heuristic nature of the co-curricular provision means that it should not be simple to access in the first instance; it should not simply be a case of turning up, doing and then leaving without the sense that challenge was very much central to the activities that students have taken part in.
There’s no doubt that the repetitive nature of learning a new song with its rhythms, key changes and precise cues can become boring and staid. Similarly, acting out a scene repeatedly to get lines and timings accurate can test the patience of the student who begins to feel that they will never get it right! However, these processes are essential in achieving anything of worth. Without the pain of the repetition or the drudge of “going again from the top” the end product would be half-baked. This is the mundanity of excellence in action.
“The oxygen of the soul” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)
Grittiness is key to success in achieving mastery and accomplishment – it’s only at this point that the notion of ‘flow’ can enter the process. Without going through the hard yards first the student cannot achieve a state of flow. A student ‘in the flow’ is experiencing joy in their work – as W. H. Auden states, it’s about “forgetting yourself in a function”.
Only once the student has studiously learned the key apparatus necessary for accomplished public speaking can they become immersed in their newly developed craft. What may once have been a daunting and seemingly impossible feat now appears as a fulfilling and enjoyable activity with consistently impressive outcomes.
All co-curricular options must offer the initial pain of learning something new but this then shifts onto students being able to access the work in such a way that they are experiencing a genuine sense of joy from what they are doing.
“Mastery is a mindset” (Carol Dweck)
The varied nature of the co-curricular offer is to provide choice to the students as they elect to be part of a particular discipline. However, it is also designed to challenge the students’ sense of security in terms of what they ‘can and cannot do’. Dweck points out that we are responsible for the boundaries we set for ourselves. As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” With a growth mindset, students can embrace the many colours of the co-curricular electives and take on new challenges that do not necessarily feel comfortable in the first instance.
Pain: the grit and mundanity of excellence in action.
Flow: forgetting yourself in a function of suitable rigour.
Growth: effort and persistence in developing talents and abilities.
Co-curricular and the House System
Outcomes are key in the co-curricular provision, which is further facilitated by allowing staff to award House points based on students’ individual and collective performances in their weekly sessions. This raises the stakes and further ensures that staff and students fully engage in the electives across all year groups.
Planning for mastery
At the development stage of each co-curricular elective, we require all staff to complete a planning document that ensures that the three key ingredients of mastery are immersed in each respective discipline. Staff are also required to stipulate the intended outcomes, many of which result in externally recognised accreditations; the more theatrical-based electives work towards the Showcase, of which we have three a year. This planning document is available here.
Crafting school culture begins with the mission of the school; it is the sky that generates the daily climate, it should be what we can all see and feel no matter where we are in the organisation or who we are talking to. Families and visitors should feel its warmth every time they are with us. It is our mission, it is our sky; we decide that the sun should always shine.
Beneath the mission, the values sit; they should form the absolute predisposition of the school. Each value should support the mission and be purposefully tied to the culture of the organisation transcending any structures or roles within it. Leaders, staff and students should adhere to the same values and thus, the same behaviours. At Trinity, we have three core values; we understand the power of three and use this across our organisation: three core values; three features of a lesson; three cycles every year.
The values are defined with razor-sharp clarity and we return to these words every day. Recently, we filmed our students talking about what our values mean to them – without scripts. Even though they were talking about wholly personal experiences of the values in action, we were fascinated to hear them return, unprompted, to the exact language of the definitions, casually dropping the phrases into their conversational speech. This language is alive in our school because we live it.
The values are made real through our daily actions – on the middle floor of the building a whole wall is dedicated to a sign that states: actions speak louder than words. For this to be more than decoration, we have to ensure our values are made manifest through daily artefacts. These are the rituals and routines, the language, stories and heroes of our organisation.
An example of this mapping would be going from our mission…
“The academy ensured that all students succeeded at university, or a real alternative, thrived in a top job and had a great life.”
…to the value of Hard Work. It is indisputable that the mission will only be realisable with the value of hard work applied every day. Just telling our students to work hard (even with the razor-sharp definition) would be ineffective – maybe even cruel. Our students deserve to be supported through our artefacts, we design them; we show them exactly what we mean by hard work so they are facilitated to succeed. We tell them what the right thing to do is and we show them how to do it. One artefact that exists in the school as a daily routine is our No Hands Up policy. This means that questions at Trinity are directed by the teacher to a specific student – but the routine is key. As a staff, we practise this regularly to make sure we get it right. Ask the question, pause; allow all students time to think, then direct the question to a student by name. If the teacher wants to litmus test the class by asking a student by random selection, the name can be drawn from the class set of named lollipop sticks.
This routine ensures every student knows that every question is their responsibility, they can be called upon at any point. At Trinity, there is no slackening off, learning opportunities are maximised for every student. Committing to an artefact means seeing it through, in this case, that means staff training, coaching, practice; it means administrative support to ensure the class sets of lollipop sticks are ready for the teachers; it means everyone doing it all of the time.
A question being directed, a lollipop stick, these are mission made manifest.
At Dixons Trinity Academy, we live by the three core values of Hard Work, Trust and Fairness, which pervade everything that we do. To guarantee that these values are lived and underpin our behaviour we have further installed three drivers: MASTERY, AUTONOMY and PURPOSE, outlined by Dan Pink in ‘Drive’. We would go as far as to say that the living presence of these Drivers have led many to regard our school as ‘revolutionary’ in its approach as they ensure that everyone associated with Trinity is inspired to succeed.
While the values safeguard a certain code of conduct, it is the Drivers that motivate us all to meet these high expectations with determination and rigour. In essence, the drivers are what get us up in the morning. They are the fuel to our fire. Without them we would not have the wherewithal to meet the demands set by our core values. Let me explain!
In MASTERY, we seek to achieve great things; refining our practice and investing in what matters. By hanging this Driver around the three core values we ensure that we focus on the right things and seek mastery in an environment aligned to a deep-rooted set of principles. For example, upholding the value of Trust with authenticity must be underpinned by a desire to see AUTONOMY develop in all corners of the academy – with autonomy comes an inherent trust and where there is genuine trust, there exists the sovereignty of autonomy.
At Trinity, we believe core values cannot simply live within a vacuum in and of themselves. The Driver of PURPOSE is integral to ensuring that there is a reason for doing what we do. Our individual and collective purpose clarifies what we are working towards and what each and all will take from their academy experience:
The Academy Sentence
“The academy ensured that all students succeeded at university, thrived in a top job and had a great life.”
The retrospective nature of our sentence obligates us to strive towards a successful future – with clear goals set out in no uncertain terms.
As the school has developed and matured, so have the Drivers become increasingly the imperatives for understanding and working within the remit of our core values. They are, in a sense, the ‘slow burners’, and it has taken us a period of time to truly work out how they give us all real meaning – a raison d’être.
At Dixons Trinity, how do we define Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose and so make them our own?
Mastery is the urge to get better at things that matter made manifest through our commitment to Practice (Doug Lemov, ‘Teach Like a Champion’). We practise key techniques collectively as a staff twice every week during Morning Meetings and engineer more tailored practice during one to one coaching sessions. We have also adapted ‘the cycle of highly effective teaching’ developed by Achievement First and introduced ‘data days’ to ensure that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs.
Autonomy is the drive to direct our own lives; at Trinity 100% of students present an exhibition of their Stretch Project at the end of each assessment cycle. In addition to their more traditional curriculum, Stretch Projects allow students to explore an area of interest within a given theme. We aim to develop students’ autonomy and grow their love of learning. Teachers are free to teach as they want as long as students learn and make progress.
Purpose is the drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves. Those who have visited the school have recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn – because students know why we do things, they buy into them. To keep motivation that lasts, we focus on two important questions. First, we ask a big question to orient our life toward greater purpose – what’s my sentence? In one sentence we state what lasting impression we want to leave on the world. Then we keep asking a small question for day to day motivation – was I better today than yesterday?
With these Drivers to push us forward, our core values permeate all that we do to realise our mission (our Academy Sentence); giving us direction with absolute clarity. In effect, the Drivers are our quality assurance.
Hard work, trust and fairness
Our values permeate all that we do; they are not a gimmick and so much more than a strapline. They form the strategy to deliver our mission and are the backbone of every conversation we have with students. Our culture is mission-mapped (we will talk through this in a future blog), the values support the mission and the behaviour is derived from the values. At Trinity, our values are the same for the leadership, for all staff and for all students; we are all held accountable for upholding our values at all times, whether through our behaviour routines or our performance management. Our values are underpinned by the growth mindset we foster across the school which, again, we will come back to in a future blog.
We share our values like a common language, it is a way of being on the team. Lots of organisations get this wrong maybe because of the confusion that can emerge from the different types of values that exist within any structure. In ‘The Advantage’, Lencioni defines the range of possible values to generate clarity around what a core value really is. Core values are the two or three traits absolutely inherent to an organisation; they do not change over time and, in the hiring process, we should not be looking for employees who agree with the core values, but those with a predisposition for them. Aspirational values are what an organisation wishes it had; they require what Lencioni surgically calls ‘purposeful insertion’. Permission to play values are the minimum standard of behaviour expectations; they are generic things that are likely to be needed in any organisation. In other words, the core values should be more apparent in your organisation than a different organisation with different core values. If not, they aren’t your real core values.
Ours set a very high bar:
We never give up. We remain positive so that we have the strength to persevere with even the hardest work. We do what it takes for as long as it takes.
We are honest. We do what we say we’ll do and do not make excuses. We are loyal and have the courage to do the right thing.
We play by the rules. We are respectful, polite and courteous at all times. We don’t take advantage of others and helping a member of our team is helping ourselves.
Our students need to work hard to overcome the disadvantages society will try to impose upon them; we need to make explicit to them just what hard work means. We use the metaphor of climbing a mountain to share this value with our students; we tell them that university is the top of the mountain they are climbing every day. To help this vision come off the walls and be more than rhetoric, before our students even start at Trinity, we take them to Leeds University to show them their future. Then, we take them to the Lake District in the first term of Y7 and climb a real mountain – every one of us. Hard work permeates so many of our decisions at Trinity, our no-hands-up expectation ensures all students work hard at all times, everyone ready to answer, no one opting out. We use DIRT to ensure that feedback is acted upon, there can be no lazy response if we each are going to climb our own mountain. If any student requires intervention, Morning Mastery sessions are scheduled from 7.30-8.00 am every day; we all work hard, we do whatever it takes.
At Trinity, we do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; part of being able to trust each other is being able to take responsibility when we make mistakes. Trust comes in the growth mindset of seeing mistakes as part of future success, in committing to this, we commit to a no grudges culture. Students can trust staff to deliver recurring forgiveness and staff can trust students to learn from mistakes. We have a no excuses culture.
To enable every one of us to live our mission, we must be rigorously fair, that means we must all commit to being on task each and every day. If we do this, we are playing by the rules which means students can learn and teachers can teach. Every student knows that team beats individual and that it is never fair to disrupt the learning of others. We over-rationalise everything to staff, to students and to our families – this is not a carrot and stick environment, we expect so much more than that. It is only fair that, given our high expectations, everyone understands the purpose to all actions. We have silent corridors to ensure our transitions are safe and orderly, conducted with pace and purpose. This means that all students can get to lesson on time and support one another; we know how to be fair.
Our values make real our mission – without them, we would still be struggling to basecamp.
Head of Secondary
“The academy ensured that all students succeeded at university, or a real alternative, thrived in a top job and had a great life.”
At Dixons Trinity Academy, our mission is ambitious; so ambitious, we will not be able to measure our success until long into the future – until our students come back and tell us they are living truly great lives. Our mission is our fundamental reason for getting up in the morning, it is our core belief. Everyone who works at Trinity is compellingly committed to this mission – but we didn’t come up with it by committee. As a start-up, our mission came directly from our Principal, Luke Sparkes; it is the pure, undiluted, crisp vision of one person whose moral purpose sets the highest expectations every day. When Ofsted came to inspect the school in January 2014, they could see the impact of such clarity, “the vision of the headteacher combined with the unrelenting commitment of other leaders and teachers, are crucial elements in the academy’s success.” It is because of Luke’s clarity that others are able to wholly commit.
Some may raise an eyebrow at the vow to ensure all students succeed at university, or a real alternative, – but this is a vision; this is where it is absolutely imperative to be brave. Ultimately, the only people who have ever taken issue with us setting such high expectations are those who have been privileged enough to go to university themselves. We will not make apology for believing in our students and their families are 100% in support. University is a tangible goal, higher level apprenticeships are tangible goals; this is about raising aspirations. Our mission is clear and unpretentious – grounded in really, really hard work.
Lots of organisations agonise over the exact wording of a mission statement culminating in big thinking squashed into academic language. At Trinity, we say it simply – but we spend a lot of time saying it. The best organisations concentrate on alignment to the mission not the constant drafting of the mission.
The big thinking needs to be made real by the clarity of the language. Our mission is about what we honestly want for our students, put simply. And we are willing to be punished for it. A truly inspiring mission should make it worth doing whatever it takes.
We have no doubt that the achievement-oriented culture at Trinity is the main driver of our success. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Of course, no school is better than the quality of its teachers; however, there is only so much that even the best teacher can do with students who have low aspirations and poor learning habits. Conversely, create a truly aspirational culture with extremely high expectations and all teachers can secure exceptional outcomes for all students. What we have learnt from the best schools is the power of a vision-led culture – it is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
Being wholly committed to our mission is not that intellectually sophisticated, it is just common sense and we, as a team, need to have the persistence and humility to return to it every day; to sustain our routines and live our values over and over – the humility to commit is critical. As a team, we return frequently to the work of Patrick Lencioni; this year, we were talking with a group of American visitors about our systems and they made reference to ‘The Advantage’. The visitors thought we had based some of our systems on the logic laid out in the text. We hadn’t. We hadn’t, at that stage, even read it – but, when we did, it felt like a better explanation of what we strive for than we could ever have articulated. Indeed, the commentary on clarity felt written for us:
“alignment and clarity cannot be achieved in one fell swoop with a series of generic buzzwords and aspirational phrases crammed together… Clarity requires a much more rigorous and unpretentious approach.”
So, why is our mission in the past tense? In ‘Drive’, Dan Pink talks about how we generate intrinsic motivation; our mission is expressed as a single sentence; it is the lasting impression we want to leave on the world and it orients each one of us towards a greater purpose. Our mission is our motivation for every student, every day.
Head of Secondary
Dixons Trinity Academy opened with 112 Year 7 students on 4th September 2012 and will rise to its full capacity of 720 students by September 2018. As a start-up, we had to do everything from scratch. Every staff member, system and policy had to be recruited or written. But it was also a chance to craft a school culture that has the highest standards.
Our core values of hard work, trust and fairness permeate all that we do. From the moment a student arrives at Dixons Trinity, we ask them to live these values. We also focus on three key drivers: Mastery, which is the drive to get better at things that matter; Autonomy, or the drive to direct our own lives; and Purpose, which is the drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves (Dan Pink, ‘Drive‘).
I welcome the emerging cross-party consensus on a school-led system. It is our greater Autonomy as teachers and leaders which has allowed me and my staff to establish our own unique school. But as professionals we probably have only a five- to ten-year time frame in which to prove that a school-led system results in a better education for more students, and in closing the gap for the disadvantaged. Without Mastery and Purpose, our Autonomy will mean nothing, and our school-led system will not be secure.
Our proportion of disadvantaged students is above average, and over 50% of students live in the five most deprived wards in Bradford, one of the UK’s most significant areas of socio-economic challenge. Our priority is to raise aspirations, encourage young people to have a growth mindset, and to progress onto higher education. The message at Trinity is that ALL students are going to university. Teachers talk to students about ‘climbing the mountain to university’ by working hard and taking steps towards the goal each day. We continuously expose students to university. Before they join, Year 6 students visit the University of Leeds so their first experience with Dixons Trinity is at a Russell Group university. In Year 8, every student visits Oxford University. All students need a tangible goal to motivate them to do well and I couldn’t think of a better goal than higher education – it certainly motivated me at school. We won’t force our students to go to university, but we do want them to be able to make an informed decision at the end of Year 13 rather than having no decision to make because they haven’t got the required exam results. If students decide not to go to university, we will expect them to follow a ‘real alternative’ such as a higher-level apprenticeship.
Our academy is already heavily oversubscribed with over 9 applications for every place and 100% of our parents would recommend the school to another parent. Last year, students made an average of 19 months of reading progress in a 9 month period and almost all students made expected progress across the curriculum with the majority making more than expected progress. In January 2014, we became the first secondary free school to be judged Outstanding by Ofsted. Indeed, my key motivation in writing this blog, or in encouraging visitors into our academy, is to honour our will to provide aspiration for our students – and to ensure they are given the credit they deserve for building a community in which they take such pride. Anyone who has come to spend time with us cannot fail to enjoy the company of our students who buzz with energy and enthusiasm for a school they love.
Starting a school is hard work and there are many unique challenges; however, growing a school is not as demanding as trying to turn a school around. For example, it is much easier to establish a strong school culture with just one year group and a small, newly appointed staff. We have made a strong start, but fully acknowledge that we are a young school with a lot to learn and that our first set of exam results will be the real measure of our success.
At Trinity, we have tried to take the best ideas from academies, schools, the independent sector and abroad. No individual element of our practice is revolutionary. Others have said that it is the way in which those ideas have been combined and embedded with rigour and simplicity that has allowed us to make such a strong start. We don’t believe in off-the-shelf strategies or practices; there is no silver bullet. It is really about being values driven, having clear vision, focusing relentlessly on results, operating strict routines, doing the simple things well every day, and building strong relationships at all levels.
Like many independent schools, we have a longer teaching week. In addition to our 27 55-minute lessons, we run five half hour Morning Meetings, five half hour reading sessions mid-morning, and four hours of electives in sport and the arts over the course of the week. A significant number of students are also expected to attend morning intervention from 7.30am. With an extended academy day, students have more time in the classroom to acquire knowledge, skills and understanding, as well as more opportunities to broaden their education. At Trinity, we believe that there are no shortcuts to success and our students would not make the progress they do without more time in school.
Much of this incurs additional cost. Staff do not teach any more than they would in another school because we believe they need time to mark and time to plan. We double-staff one class-set in each of the EBacc subjects in each year group throughout the week: the second teacher usually works with the lower sets, but can also be deployed to support students (who are not on track) in higher sets. We also spend around £250 per student on bought-in curriculum.
We save money by cutting out approaches that are not value for money, taking our cue from the Sutton Trust and the EEF. We do not employ classroom assistants, cover or lunchtime supervisors. Inspired by SE Asia and higher education, 20% of our weekly provision is in larger groups, including almost 10% of our teaching. Our staff work more flexibly and do have more directed time than is usual. Our EBacc-focused curriculum also saves money.
All our students study a fairly traditional curriculum with those needing additional support spending more time in English and mathematics. A strong core for students needing the most support ensures that basic skills are embedded so that everyone is able to access high-value qualifications by the end of Key Stage 4. As a result, they do less humanities and technology than the rest of the school and no computing or art. However, all students have at least four hours of co-curricular electives in a wide variety of sports and arts. Stretch projects also allow students to explore an area of interest within a given theme. We aim to foster students’ autonomy and grow their love of learning.
All students present their stretch exhibition to their advisory group three times a year and the best from each advisory presents to the whole year group and an invited audience. Every day we engineer opportunities for students to address the whole school or their year group: in large group lessons, Morning Meetings and appreciations of staff (or other students) at the end of lunch. We insist that students use full sentences and speak in Standard English at all times. It is particularly important for our students to develop strong and confident oracy if they are to fulfil our ambition for them of succeeding at university and thriving in the workplace. Again, our success is not derived from anything particularly innovative, it is rooted in constant reinforcement and a variety of daily opportunities to develop the skills and attitudes we (and many before us) have identified as crucial to success.
The biggest advantage of starting a new school is the opportunity to establish, and absolutely insist on, good learning habits with the highest of expectations and no excuses. We have very clear rules about homework and equipment because students have to be ready to learn. Our uniform is very practical and offers students elements of choice, but students are expected to wear it with pride and there is a strong attention to detail. During lessons, students are expected to track the speaker, teacher or student, and remain focused at all times. If a teacher raises their hand, students fall silent whether in a classroom or a whole-school context. In a tall building originally designed for educating adults rather than children, students line-up at the end of every break and walk in silence to every lesson. Some people have labelled our same-day detentions as draconian and the fact we ‘sweat the small stuff’ as petty; however, those who have visited the school have quickly recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn – because students know why we do things this way, they buy into it.
Following Achievement First in the US, Dixons Trinity has adopted sociologist James Q. Wilson’s ‘broken windows’ theory that even the small details can have a significant effect on overall culture. We believe that students will rise to the level of expectations placed upon them. We have worked hard to establish a school culture that is both disciplined and joyful. Daily school-wide celebrations are opportunities to strengthen school culture, ensure consistency of message and reset expectations. Family dining is another example of this: students and staff share a meal; everyone has a role in helping; everyone has a place to sit.
I have no doubt that our achievement-orientated culture is the main driver of our success. Of course, no school is better than the quality of its teachers. However, there is only so much that even the best teacher can do with students who have low aspirations and poor learning habits. Conversely, create a truly aspirational school culture with extremely high expectations and all teachers can secure strong outcomes for every student. What I have learnt more than anything else from the best schools is the power of school culture, and that a strong school culture is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
Although creating a disciplined and joyful school culture has been a top priority at Trinity, learning always comes first. As one of our key drivers is Autonomy, teachers are free to teach as they want as long as students learn and make progress. However, we do expect a few core strategies to be embraced by every teacher in every lesson; for example, a No Hands Up rule to ensure all questions are targeted and all students are engaged. We have also adapted ‘the cycle of highly effective teaching’ developed by Achievement First and introduced Data Days to ensure that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs. We have taken ideas from Uncommon Schools and Doug Lemov’s work, particularly around questioning, which was identified as a major strength by Ofsted. We have developed teacher talent through disciplined, deliberate and intelligent practice and coaching. For example, we practise key techniques collectively as a staff twice every week during Morning Meetings and engineer more tailored practice during one-to-one coaching sessions.
In the words of Stephen Covey, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing – and the main thing at Dixons Trinity is progress. The best way to ensure students make progress is to provide effective feedback. On top of establishing a common approach and minimum requirements, staff work hard to harness the power of feedback. For example, there are student appraisals every 13 weeks after school and every half term parents receive either a highly personalised written report, a face to face meeting or a telephone call home. Students are actively encouraged to contact their teachers for support and feedback in the evenings and at weekends via the academy email system or through twitter.
Moreover, our whole culture is built on feedback. At every Morning Meeting, after every lunch and at every line-up we reflect back on how the day has gone and the key highlights in learning. Everything we do is rooted in our three core values. Our teachers are fair and have real respect for their learners as people with ideas of their own. Their expertise earns the trust of learners and allows them to read their classroom and to be more responsive to needs. They are extremely hard-working, flexible and take every opportunity to maximise learning.
Starting a brand new school has taught me about the importance of keeping things simple. We established the school around a few concrete ideas that were not that radical and everything we have done since has built on those first principles. It’s not the strategies that matter, but the way they fit together and the fact that everybody does them. We all share a common drive to make our school the best that it can be. We keep things simple, we do what we say we do, and, as a result, staff and students are happy, successful and determined to get even better: ‘In this academy, only excellence will do’. (Ofsted, 2014)
Over the coming year, we would like to share our ongoing work through this blog – whether talking through our systems, our mission or our growth. Although we hope to select things to talk about that might prove useful to others, we would be very happy to take direction on this. Please feel free to leave comments below to which we can respond if there is a specific area we could address.