By Niall Alcock — Founder, We Are In Beta
When I asked Elroy Cahill, the new headteacher at Kingsley Academy, Hounslow, how schools can improve teacher retention, he was quick to highlight the importance of strong leadership and providing development opportunities and support.
“It’s important that we are encouraging morally-driven leadership, leadership of schools, headteachers, senior leaders, who are supportive of staff and understand that schools, they’re only as good as people within them, and we’re able to encourage our staff and talent, and spot talent, and develop and nurture staff, and not drive them out of the profession”
He said that [leadership] coaching is a key lever in providing that support and has benefitted from it himself.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have been coached, I would say, for the last four or five years by two very strong coaches and they’ve seen me through the dark moments on a winter night where it all gets a bit too much but have also been there in the positive moments to help me go forward with my own practice as well.”
Aside from leadership coaching, he also said that we need to coach teachers to “become better practitioners, and stronger practitioners, and stronger professionals”.
When his interview for the We Are In Beta Podcast was recorded, he was working as a School Improvement Associate at Aldridge Education. He was piloting a live lesson coaching programme in schools using earpieces.
He says, despite being sceptical at first, he has seen remarkable progress from a range of teachers.
So how did they set up the live coaching to be effective?
He said that that feedback needs to be kept to a minimum, but is provided on the spot and has to be very precise and targeted.
He also stressed the importance of establishing a good relationship between the observing lesson coach.
(For full transcript please head to the bottom of this post. There’s also a collection of useful links about live lesson coaching.)
In his interview, Elroy also shares his thoughts on:
- How one teacher transformed his view on education when he was going down the wrong road,
- What he thinks would be a grave error in relation to the new Ofsted framework,
- What Ofsted should do in circumstances of inappropriate off-rolling,
- Why he thinks morally driven leadership is important,
- Why is he thinks coaching is so important and where best to access it, often for free,
- His initial scepticism about a pilot project that has been having a huge impact on teacher development
- How to set up live lesson coaching effectively,
- The one question he would ask every headteacher is he could,
- How the worlds of Lego and Ofsted can collide,
- How recent education documentaries could influence the electorate and shape the future of education.
Since publishing this article I’ve had a number of schools get in touch to ask if I can put them in touch with other schools trialing live lesson coaching.
If you’d like to hear how other schools are doing it, or if you’d like to share what your school has learned, let me know here. The aim is to put together some case studies and connect people together.
Who are we?
You can read more about We Are In Beta and how you can get involved here.
To stay up to date with interviews from the community when we release them, sign up here.
Below, I’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of my conversation with Elroy. All the resources, people and organisations he mentions are hyperlinked too. I hope you find them useful.
It’s worth noting that at the time of recording Elroy was working for Aldridge Education. He has since been appointed as headteacher at Kingsley Academy in Hounslow, which is part of the Academies Enterprise Trust.
Niall Alcock: [00:00:12] It’s lovely to have you here today. Before we get into talking about policy, practice, teacher retention, and CPD, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your journey into education, and what inspired you to be a teacher, and how you became a headteacher. Just a little bit about your background.
Elroy Cahill: [00:00:27] Yes, certainly. So, I grew up in Ireland. And we didn’t necessarily have a huge amount of value placed on education and what education can do for young people. And so, I was lucky enough to have one teacher who transformed my view on education and really turned me around. I was kind of going down the wrong road. And that inspired me to go into teaching myself.
Getting to being a headteacher was very much by accident. It wasn’t necessarily a plan. I was very fortunate to have a very inspirational head when I was first appointed as a senior leader. So, little by little, I progressed upwards to become a headteacher. And more recently, obviously having a more wider system role as School Improvement Associate.
Niall Alcock: [00:01:20] And tell us a bit more about your role as a School Improvement Associate.
Elroy Cahill: [00:01:24] Yes, certainly. So, I worked with two different schools on the south coast, both coaching them and working with newly appointed headteachers to support them and their leadership team to drive forward practice within the school. And it is very much a hands-on role. So, it’s not really being locked away in an office. It’s interacting with staff, interacting with students, and there is a huge amount of coaching, and a huge amount of staff involvement in the creation of the school improvement plans at the Trust.
Niall Alcock: [00:01:55] So, thanks for sharing that insight into your journey, Elroy. It has been fascinating.
And, now, coming out of your journey and looking a little bit at the national picture. You all have seen the headlines and messages from Ofsted, and the changes to curriculum, and a greater focus on curriculum, and moving away from using data and assessments to judge the performance of schools.
Do you think this is the right way to go? And if not, what do you think the solutions are?
Elroy Cahill: [00:02:21] I think, there’s always a huge amount of debate around the role of Ofsted. And we know that the Ofsted framework is ever changing and that I think is part and parcel of the reality of education. I don’t know if it’s going to go away anytime soon. And I certainly welcome the focus more on curriculum, and the depth that curriculum offer, and how rich the tapestry of experiences of students have and is.
But, I think, it would be really an error on our behalf to not also say there is a need to be mindful that education is there to serve a purpose - to educate - but, ultimately, we’re also expecting young people to get the grades that they need to go on to university or into the world of work. And I think that there does need to be a focus on the outcomes of schools.
I think it’s very difficult to say you can have an excellent school with a really rich curriculum and it’s a great school if the outcomes aren’t strong. And I think that it would be a grave error if we completely disregard the outcomes of schools. It’s a balancing act. So, I think it needs to continue to be one.
Niall Alcock: [00:03:32] And does that mean that there should be a dual focus on data and data and assessment, as well as curriculum? And do you think, potentially, they’ve gone a little bit too far towards the curriculum side for now?
Elroy Cahill: [00:03:42] I believe there does need to be a balance, certainly. I haven’t experienced any headteacher who’s been inspected in recent months in their school who has had focused only on the curriculum. There, certainly, has been a greater emphasis on curriculum, but they have, also, of course, looked at the outcomes of schools as well. So, I think that it is right and proper that they are looking at both sides.
Niall Alcock: [00:04:07] You mentioned earlier in your answer about securing good outcomes for all students, and you’ll notice the headlines recently around exclusion rates, and questionable off-rolling of students, and, potentially, the disappearance of SEND students.
What do you think the secret to reaching those students and ensuring that students with special education needs do achieve the outcomes so that such eventualities don’t arise in the headlines?
Elroy Cahill: [00:04:34] I suppose two things. I think we need to be mindful that our schools, we have a moral and legal obligation to be inclusive places. You’ve seen, certainly, if you’re on Twitter, if you’ve followed some newspaper articles, this focus on this #banthebooths, the banning of the isolation booths.
I think that the issue is because everybody has obviously been in a school at some point in their life, they all feel that they have a tuppence worth to add even if they’ve not been in a school in decades.
And I think the best decisions are made by the headteachers in the school, which they work in for their particular context. I think it’s important to remember that the vast, vast majority, thankfully, of people who are in education, are in it for the right reasons. And therefore, we want to work with students who are challenging. We want to help them turn their lives around. We want to help them change their behaviour.
There will always be, unfortunately, one or two schools who don’t play by the rules and who are not inclusive. I think it’s important - we talked about the role of Ofsted - I think it’s important Ofsted is sufficiently probing into that, and makes sure that schools who are not inclusive and who don’t support those who have challenging behaviours and are rightly brought to task over that.
Niall Alcock: [00:05:53] I think you’re absolutely right, Elroy.
Moving on slightly to another issue, which comes up time and time again in the press at the moment, and one of the main reasons that we decided to start this podcast was the issue around teacher retention.
The message is that teachers are leaving, and it’s all a big problem, but it seems to be an absence of strategies as to how we could help improve teacher retention.
In your experience, what do you think are the ideas that work, and what would your suggestions be to schools and education more widely to try and improve the retention of teachers?
Elroy Cahill: [00:06:24] I think, nobody gets into teaching that it’s going to be an easy job. Let’s be mindful of that. I think that teachers want to work in places that they feel valued. It is difficult enough to get people attracted to the profession given the bad publicity, which is out there. And I think it’s important that we are developing positive environments that teachers can work in.
There is a need for leaders in schools to address workloads. Absolutely, they need to be mindful that it needs to be a sustainable job. And I feel really saddened when I hear or see of really talented teachers moving out of the profession because they feel that the sacrifices that they make for their job are too great on their personal life. And I don’t believe that that is the way it has to be.
I’m really fortunate to have worked for an academy trust, and I currently work for a different academy trust in a range of schools that do value staff. And it’s important that we are encouraging morally-driven leadership, leadership of schools, headteachers, senior leaders who are supportive of staff and understand that schools, they’re only as good as people within them, and we’re able to encourage our staff and talent, and spot talent, and develop and nurture staff, and not drive them out of the profession.
Niall Alcock: [00:07:52] You mentioned just a moment ago that the academy trust that you work with values staff, and you thought of how important it was to develop and support staff.
What are the most accessible strategies you’ve seen in developing staff, and supporting staff, and making sure those staff do feel valued so that they aren’t leaving the profession?
Elroy Cahill: [00:08:10] I would say the few key things in my experience have been coaching and understanding of the need to balance autonomy with, obviously, as a teacher, being accountable for your class, and the outcomes of your class, and how well the students do; and as a senior leader, this success is your remit within the senior leadership.
I think coaching is really important. I think, if you look at the best organisations and companies outside of education, they employ experts in their fields to tell them what to do. It is important that we are mindful of that within education.
We are appointing great teachers. We need to coach them and support them so they arrive at the answers themselves. We’re not dictating to them what to do, but that we’re helping them to become better practitioners, and stronger practitioners, and stronger professionals.
And that’s linked into what I said earlier on about the idea of a morally-bond system. We need to be able to develop teachers, and support them, and coach them through difficult periods. The good times and the bad, I suppose.
Niall Alcock: [00:09:15] I’ve been lucky enough to be coached for almost six or seven years now by the same coach. And I have to thank her for almost every professional progression that I’ve made in my career. It makes me sad to think that, sometimes, coaching isn’t done particularly well in schools.
What do you think the answer is to helping school leaders access coaching opportunities?
Elroy Cahill: [00:09:38] I think a lot of it is about the signposting of where coaching is available. I think people will have seen, particularly in the recent BBC documentaries about education, there is greater pressure on funding than ever before. So, schools are having to be more creative with finding solutions, but there are free opportunities for coaching out there. And there are really strong networks, places like WomenEd, places like BAMEed for leaders from ethnic minorities, LGBTEd for leaders from the gay and transgender community. There are opportunities for leaders and, indeed, teachers to access free coaching.
Elroy Cahill: [00:10:17] And I would echo the sentiments that you had a moment ago. I’ve been really fortunate to have been coached, I would say, for the last four or five years by two very strong coaches [Carol Jones and Dame Joan McVitte]. And they’ve seen me through the dark moment on a winter night where it all gets a bit too much but has also been there in the positive moments to help me go forward with my own practice as well.
So, I think, an answer to that is about signposting opportunities for teachers. And I think that’s where something like CPDBee is really powerful as well. Obviously, you can establish quite clearly where they can access coaching, and mentoring, and other opportunities of that like.
Niall Alcock: [00:11:00] Thank you for signposting those things. Thanks for sharing such a personal insight into your coaching experience.
I wonder if you could share a project with us that either you ran within E-Act or whether you are running it at Aldridge, and what’s unique about that project, and a little bit about the impact it’s making.
Elroy Cahill: [00:11:33] So, I’m really fortunate, at the moment, to work with a senior leader who is trialing live coaching and with teachers who are new to the profession. And these are people who are currently undertaking pathways through QTS. So, it’s a school-based pathway to achieving QTS. And what I think is really quite positive is, you know, it is something I’ve not necessarily seen used before, but it’s live feedback through an earpiece to the teacher once they are carrying out their lesson.
I have to say I was a little bit sceptical at the beginning. I thought that was maybe slightly invasive. The trainees, after the first go, they find it a bit overwhelming, but it is incredibly useful because the feedback is kept to a minimum, but it is on the spot, and it is precise and targeted.
So, quite quickly, they’re able to adapt parts of their lessons that the observer, who is obviously an experienced teacher, can see that potentially might cause the lesson to go awry in advance of it actually happening. And I’ve seen some remarkable progress from a range of teachers and through the live coaching method.
So, it’s something certainly that I feel really excited about. It’s a small-scale trial that we’re conducting at the moment but certainly, something that I’m quite excited to roll out on a larger scale with our trainees across the network.
Niall Alcock: [00:13:05] That sounds very exciting. It’s actually something I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in but never had the pleasure of having an earpiece. I think one of the challenges that I faced was setting up the expectations and standards for how you communicate with someone through signals, or post-it notes, or pre-prepared signs.
So, what’s the secret to setting up those kinds of communications with the teacher before and the observation or the live feedback starts?
Elroy Cahill: [00:13:34] I think it’s about making sure that the feedback is relatively minimal. Nobody wants to have a 60-minute lesson where, for a good 45 minutes, there’s someone talking into their ear. So, it’s making sure that the parameters are quite accurate to begin with.
And I think, what’s really pleasing is, currently, in the trial that we’re running, we have only done it with somebody who already has an established relationship with the trainee. So, it’s not someone they’ve never met before. It’s their NQT mentor. They’ve seen them a number of times without the earpiece and who is mindful that the feedback needs to be very limited.
I think it’s always difficult, as you rightly said, to be able to create non-verbal reminders to the teacher when they’re in the act of teaching. They’re not always successful, and, sometimes, they’re misconstrued. So, it’s only when you have that nailed, but it’s certainly something we are still working on refining.
Niall Alcock: [00:14:30] A work in progress. It sounds like a great project.
Taking a step back slightly from the more specific aspects of retention and CPD and looking at the wider picture, I’m asking all the school leaders that come on the podcast this question, which is if you could ask every headteacher or school leader in the country one question, what would that question be and why?
Elroy Cahill: [00:14:56] Yeah. It’s a bold question. I would ask, how do they manage to keep their morals and principles strong? And that is quite a loaded question deliberately because I think, often times, particularly if you’re a non-teaching headteacher or principal, you can sometimes lose sight of what it’s like to be in the classroom and what is sustainable.
I think if we want to have a school, which is the school where teachers are happy to work in, then we need to be able to ask our headteachers across the country, how do they manage to stay grounded? How do they manage to stick by their principles? Around the thing on exclusions earlier on, and how do we remain inclusive, it’s important that headteachers stick to their principles, and they don’t opt for the easy way out, which might be to move a very challenging child on if they actually haven’t exhausted every avenue to support that child to be successful in the mainstream setting.
Niall Alcock: [00:15:54] Headteachers and school leaders that I speak to often answer that question in two different ways. One is to ask the question to learn the answer from fellow professionals but also to ask the question to challenge fellow professionals as well.
Am I right in thinking that you’re asking that in a challenging way or are you seeking to find answers as well to try and help school leaders to keep sight of their moral leadership?
Elroy Cahill: [00:16:18] I would say it’s both actually. I think it’s challenging in a sense that, unfortunately, I’ve come across people who’ve not been driven by what I feel are particularly strong moral principles, and who don’t value teachers, and don’t value all students, just the high-ability ones.
Thankfully, those individuals in my experience have been few and far between. But I think it needs to be both a challenging question to headteachers but also a reminder question and supporting them when they do feel under pressure to perhaps have a quick fix, particularly if the school is in challenging circumstance to move out one or two very difficult students into a different setting rather supporting them to get them right in their home school environment.
Niall Alcock: [00:17:08] Another big question for you, Elroy, what does the future of education hold, and what does it look like, and what do we need to get in place to make sure that it happens?
Elroy Cahill: [00:17:19] That’s a very good question. I think, at the moment, there is very much a strong focus on curriculum, as you said, with the Ofsted and changes to the Ofsted framework. And there is quite a large drive around knowledge of curriculum, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad focus. And I think there is a need for young people in this country, however, to have a balance of having a great store of knowledge but also knowing how to be able to apply knowledge in a correct way or correct manner.
I would say that I think, the future of education holds far more debates around knowledge-based curriculum. There are some people who are fiercely opposed to this. I think we’re probably set for choppy water with regards to funding, but I think that schools need to be more creative and work in networks and groups to find creative solutions to perhaps lessen what we’ve had in the past.
I would feel optimistic that the future of education is going to go in the right direction. There is, now, I think, a growing sense of a grassroots of support from people who are not in education for school teachers, for school leaders, for skilled professionals. And documentaries like the BBC, the series ‘School’, and the Educating Essex, and Educating the East End series have shone a spotlight on how demanding and challenging but, ultimately, really rewarding an education can be.
So, I think that we are going to see greater support from the electorate, I suppose, in the next election and around the support for funding for schools, fair funding for schools to allow teachers and leaders to do their job.
Niall Alcock: [00:19:19] I love the fact that you’ve managed to highlight some of the challenges that we face but also be able to bring it back to an optimistic outlook.
And so, have you got a story that will make you smile or laugh?
Elroy Cahill: [00:19:30] I’ve got an embarrassing education story. So, when I finished my NQT year, I worked in London on supply, as a long-term supply teacher for two terms. But I had a placement in the school, which was four days a week rather than five days a week.
So, we had a Red Nose Day. I think it was a Red Nose Day. We had to dress up. I lived with some of the workers at Legoland Windsor, and they get me a full-on Lego man body suits with like the Lego man head, sort of Lego man head. And I didn’t check my emails. So, I went to work and thought this was fine. And I hadn’t checked my e-mail and Ofsted were in!
So, I had to teach my lessons as Lego man for the entirety of the day. And the inspectors came to see me teach a lesson on Of Mice and Men, dressed like a Lego man. Obviously, nobody else is dressed up because they canceled the dress-up.
Niall Alcock: [00:20:30] What happened? Did Ofsted drop into your lessons?
Elroy Cahill: [00:20:36] They did. They had to see me teach Of Mice and Men, I taught a lesson on Curley’s wife dressed as Lego man.
Niall Alcock: [00:20:45] How did kids and the Ofsted inspectors react?
Elroy Cahill: [00:20:51] I can’t necessarily remember. I think I’ve blocked it out. I think, the inspectors definitely have a smile on their faces, I can’t remember much beyond that except for being incredibly embarrassed.
Niall Alcock: [00:21:05] What an amazing story. I love it.
Elroy Cahill: [00:21:07] Yeah.
Niall Alcock: [00:21:08] And Elroy, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. Thank you very much for giving up your time and sharing your insight and expertise on some of the big issues that we’re facing today. So, thank you much for your time, Elroy.
Elroy Cahill: [00:21:19] Likewise. Thank you.
Who are we?
You can read more about We Are In Beta and how you can get involved here.
To stay up to date with interviews from the community when we release them, sign up here.
Here’s a growing list of links about live lesson coaching. If you come across some other good one let me know. If you are school doing this well, get in touch to share your story on an upcoming episode of the We Are In Beta Podcast.