Ofsted’s 2019 curriculum focus: the real opportunity for schools

We Are In Beta
Feb 26, 2019 · 30 min read

By Niall Alcock — Founder, We Are In Beta

When I asked Rob Carpenter about his thoughts on Ofsted’s greater focus on curriculum from 2019 he was optimistic.

“Amanda’s [Spielman] tone is refreshing, and I think for somebody like me, who’s been quite critical of Ofsted in the past, I think that’s a positive step,” he said.

But he also issues some words of warning on the first episode of the We Are In Beta Podcast.

“Let’s not forget that within that new framework or the proposed framework or in the consultation, outcomes will still be there. Ofsted are still keen to focus on what they can measure.”

“I hope what we [schools] don’t do is just concentrate on learning or curriculum being something that relates to the easy to measure stuff”.

He also warns “there’s still going to be a focus on justifying through a measurement framework, what it is a school is doing”.

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Rob Carpenter CEO Inspire Partnership. Image credit: @carpenter_rob

Despite his caution, he sees the change as a great “opportunity for schools to reconnect or to go deeper in terms of really being clear about the curriculum vision or their curriculum intent”.

He uses that word ‘opportunity’ again and again in his interview that really celebrates the importance of curriculum design and the impact it can have.

He says schools can now go back to important questions like, “What it is we believe the function of education should be for? What do we think our key principles for learning design are? And how do we bring that to life in a classroom context?”

So how has he approached curriculum design?

He says his partnership has used reference groups and built in time for collaboration to improve teacher agency so that they can relaunch their curriculum with a greater focus on Global Citizenship that helps their students connect more deeply with the world and their local community.

He says they have also paid particular attention to the “language of learning” to avoid what he describes as a transactional “milkman approach to learning”.

To learn more about his thoughts on curriculum design, professional development, how agency and storytelling can improve retention, the one question he says he would ask every head if he could and how an Ofsted inspection left him in his hands and knees, listen to his interview in full below, on Lybsyn here, Spotify here, iTunes here or download the file here.

Listen to Episode 1 of the We Are In Beta Podcast here

(For full transcript please head to the bottom of this post)

Who are we?

I’ve been working in partnership Teach First, the Young Foundation and Super Being Labs to build a community of teachers and senior leaders who are solving big challenges in their schools.

You can read more about We Are In Beta and how you can get involved here.

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Below, I’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of my conversation with Rob. All the resources, people and organisations he mentions are hyperlinked too. I hope you find them useful.

Rob Carpenter: [00:00:00] My journey as a learner in school wasn’t particularly straightforward. I struggled a bit in school if I’m honest with you. But I came across two inspirational teachers in year six who believed in me.

Funnily enough, they used to read my stories out in class and then I put my English books away and then came across them years later thinking they were going to be full of masterpieces and future novels. I got them out of the cupboard and read them. Oh, my goodness! My skills as a Year 6 student weren’t as good as the kids in our own schools at the moment.

What I realised was that actually, the reason those two teachers in Year 6 had such a big impact on me was that they weren’t necessarily developing my English skills, although they were, they were helping me feel good about myself. They were building confidence in me they were giving me affirmation and I suppose it made me realise that it’s the relationships that we forge with people and those connections that make the biggest difference.

So, I suppose throughout my life, my journey to being a teacher was one of wanting to make a difference and feeling compelled to engage in those in those relationships.

I think the other thing for me about being a teacher was that it always felt safe in school. So, growing up, my safest place with school. It wasn’t home, it was school. So, it was a natural place for me to come and work because school’s always for me in my experience symbolised a place of safety and belonging, which again reflects my values. But I hope the values of our school partnership as well.

Niall Alcock: [00:01:36] I’m fascinated to hear how that story developed from being a teacher and your inspiration to become a head teacher and what motivates you every day.

Rob Carpenter: [00:01:42] I don’t think I ever stopped loving learning. For me, there’s something really exciting about being a learner. So being positive about learning, being curious, all of those things helped me find roles, pathways, opportunities to engage with stuff.

And so, I think I’d been teaching in the classroom for 10 years and then I made the leap into headship. I saw how if I can make a difference in a classroom, or in a phase team, or in a key stage I saw how, actually, if we could transfer that across a whole school, wouldn’t it be really exciting across a whole community? So, I was really keen to work at whole school level to impact that change at that level. And I took the plunge.

I actually do think, looking back, that I was lucky. I think the calibre of leadership in schools now is so high that I don’t think I would have found a headship as soon as I did and I’m full of admiration for heads coming into the profession.

What I see around me — the quality of leadership in schools — I think is phenomenal, and I think the quality of training at leadership level, we know so much more about the leadership of learning now than we did when I was a class-based teacher.

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A Manifesto for Excellence in Schools. Image Credit: Rob Carpenter

Niall Alcock: [00:03:05] I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about particular projects you’re working on within the trust and how you’re developing those and then after that maybe we can look at what you think the secrets are teacher retention.

Rob Carpenter: [00:03:18] So I think we’ve got good retention records in our schools because we give teachers opportunities to work with other teachers, to collaborate, to make a difference, to develop teacher agency and professional autonomy.

Again, it links back to trust based accountability, so our teachers know that if they see gaps in provision or gaps in things, that can be done better. They have a voice and an opportunity to do something about that. So, if that then allows them to be storytellers when they leave our schools eventually, when they eventually move into a leadership role or professional development progression, they will be able to tell a story because they’ve been a change maker.

So, I think that it’s really important in terms of retention to give teachers opportunities to make a difference. Yes, they want strong leadership. Yes, they want to work in organisations where they know where they stand, what are the boundaries and parameters that make them feel safe. But more than that they want to be able to give back and make a difference.

Niall Alcock: [00:04:25] You shared a great quote, I don’t know if it was yours or someone else’s but you said that teachers should be the agents of change rather than the subjects of change. And I think that’s a great quote and I think you’re spot on in that teachers are the people who are best placed to improve retention by telling great stories about what it’s like to be a teacher.

Rob Carpenter: [00:04:44] Can I just add to that? There’s another quote that I got from Ken Robinson, which is ‘revolutions start in classrooms’ not in head teachers’ offices and certainly not DfE or policymaking level. So, I really believe that — when I walk past schools the best innovation I see is bottom up not top down. Let us also tell the stories of the teachers that are making the difference and leading through innovation at classroom level. That’s really powerful.

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Image credit: Inspire Partnership

Niall Alcock: [00:05:13] Thanks for adding that. Tell us a little bit about particular areas of professional development you’re working on within the Inspire Partnership and how you’re going about it.

Rob Carpenter:[00:05:19] Again it links to retention. I really do believe that we have a responsibility to offer great professional development to teachers at every level.

One thing I want to talk about is leadership development in that we’re really proud that we run a program called the Primary Leadership program, which is an eight-session program which develops leadership competencies in terms of knowledge and skills, but more importantly the relational aspects of leadership, which again I think sometimes get a little bit forgotten.

So, how do leaders influence? How do they how do they develop persuasion or leadership through relationships? So, it’s a coaching program but also embedded within that, they lead a leadership project, which I think is really important. They become research-based or evidence-informed. So, the program allows them to develop the knowledge and skills but also is embedded in an opportunity to lead a school improvement project that relates to their own school improvement focus.

At the end of the program, everybody comes back together. We share the learning. We share the useful learning mistakes. We share what went well, what we would do differently. It’s fantastic when we did the evaluation days — it’s a fantastic day — because you just see everybody learning from one another.

Also interestingly, it’s a great policy development tool as well because often those leadership projects inform what we do next. So, over the last few years, we’ve run the program. Some of the projects, for example, developing strategies for engaging boys in reading or developing scientific knowledge and vocabulary. Those projects have really changed the way we do things that partnership level because the leaders have had opportunities to trial stuff, to develop their thinking to go out and practice it, come back, refine, share and reflect within a safe space. And at the end of the program, what we learn is that these are great, great projects that could be scaled up into partnership thinking or could be used in different ways in different schools.

Niall Alcock: [00:07:26] It’s great to hear that you talk about as relationship issues. I think I’m a big proponent of coaching. I’ve been coached for the last seven years and it’s helped my professional relationships and I think if every teacher could have access to that toolbox of skills I think education would be a great place to work. I think it’s great to hear about the action-based research approach and also to see how those projects are actually changing policy. So, it’s great to see that impact as well.

Tell us a little bit about the safety programs that you run a classroom a teacher level.

Rob Carpenter: [00:07:56] We run an NQT program. We run a program for teachers in their second year of teaching. We run specific programs to develop knowledge and skills for around English and maths and we use hub network meetings, opportunities for teachers to engage in moderation, SEND training for developing teacher and teaching assistant level. Professional development around autism awareness, stuff around memory and working to long term memory. So that we’re kind of, we’re building, continuously building a kind of a suite of programs and tools and resources to enable teachers to work more deeply.

We also run a great middle leadership program as well, which is again based around an impact project that teachers engage in that allows middle leaders to come together and share practice and then go back and work in their teams.

The other program I think is really, really important is we run Lesson Study. So, teachers have opportunities to work in trios, where they’ll observe each other, they’ll plan lessons together. The focus is on the learning and the planning and on the impact of that on young people rather than on watching the teacher perform. And I think again that’s an important message to the profession around if we’re going to use lesson observation in any way of evaluating the work of schools, is that around the performance of the teacher? Or is that around the impact of planning on learning in terms of young people’s thinking?

So, our Lesson Study group that we have has been a fantastic resource. And again, research or evidence-informed in that what we’ve learned from that is that, you know, in lots of different in lots of different lesson studies we’ve led, it has informed the work that we do in our partnership. So, for example, one learning is that our most able students have been the least likely to take risks, most likely to hide their useful learning mistakes rather than embrace them as learning opportunities linking back into the mindset thinking. So, it’s helped us reflect and refine our own thinking at partnership level.

I think that schools are getting better at creating teacher pathways and deepening professional development in their schools and I think as we look into the future where they are going to be fewer resources I think it will necessitate schools working more collaboratively beyond their traditional borders so that others have access to those teacher training and professional development programs that are crucial to the pipeline for our education future.

Niall Alcock: [00:10:37] We live in an increasingly fragmented system, within education. You have lots of organisations that are offering lots of different kinds of support and services. Charities, unions, teaching schools, companies, individual providers, pupil level intervention, teacher level intervention. What’s the secret to looking at that landscape, finding the support services you need and brokering those support services in.

Rob Carpenter: [00:11:00] There’s a great book by Nicholas Nassim Taleb called ‘Skin in The Game’ and his argument is that those that haven’t lived or suffered or made mistakes or wear their scars well or have what he refers to as ‘skin in the game’. I call them policy wonks. He might call them something else. Unless you’ve got skin in the game it’s very difficult to demonstrate, justify or be credible within your role, within this fragmented landscape and I agree with you, it’s a real issue.

We read a lot. I read a lot. Also, I tried to stay network focused. With organisations that I’ve got skin in the game. Other people who have experience of success but also experience of navigating that landscape. I will listen to those people. I tend to ignore stuff that I think is generated by policy wonks. DfE folk, civil servant folk, people that have not got the skin in the game. So, I tend to delete a lot of emails that come through from people or organisations that I think have not got the credibility or are not bottom-up or profession focused. So, there is something about the credibility of an organisation is truly values-led, profession-led or has the experience and track record. That isn’t to say that we see ourselves as above other organisations. Absolutely not. I think we’re just a little bit cautious.

Niall Alcock: [00:12:49] I think those are really interesting indicators. You talked about the credibility and the values basis of what they do. What’s the secret to assessing an organisation in terms of those indicators that you look for?

Rob Carpenter: [00:13:02] I think that’s a really good question. I suppose the other response to this debate is that it’s also made more complicated by the fact that so much endorsement comes through from the education VIPs. Those with the biggest Twitter following and I think they’ve tended, if I’m honest with you I think that there are people in that in that network, who have become self-serving and it’s become an echo chamber, or it becomes a representation of one viewpoint rather than a diverse viewpoint. So again, perhaps not healthily, I tend to ignore that group.

I want to hear an alternative voice. I think it would be really good, I know this has started, to form a network or to be part of a network where those that are not part of the education VIP group, those are not part of that network are working more closely together. I know there was a conference provided or delivered fairly recently exactly with the aim in mind.

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Putting the voice of experience into the heart of the debate. Image credit @NewVoices3

You know, and to exemplify that if you look at the people that are on the reference groups for DfE or even Ofsted reference groups, there the same people. It’s always the same people. Actually, people are getting tired of that. And ministers, who are involved in some of this work around reference groups. They are getting tired of having certain people imposed upon them.

I mean I was asked to be part of a DfE reference group. I was told what to say to the civil servant during my interview. I was then still kicked off the reference group because what I said wasn’t politically, or what I felt, or my views weren’t politically in line with what they wanted. I then got on that reference group by the back door because the Teaching Schools Council managed to get me on the reference group.

So, this is really big stuff. You know, we have to embrace and welcome challenge. We have to welcome alternative viewpoints. We have to welcome doing things differently. I do have to say, I know I’m biased but being part of Challenge Partners for me in terms of professional development is a big thing.

Niall Alcock: [00:15:15] You’ve begun to answer my next question. If there was an experience of professional development that you think every other teacher, leader, headteacher should be part of, what would that be? And why would it be?

Rob Carpenter: [00:15:26] Yeah, I mean I would say Challenge Partners, because the network that it provides and also the way that Challenge Partners, as a network, absolutely listens to every voice and listens to different voices. We actively seek to look for diversity and actively look to hear the voices and hear from those that might not otherwise be the ones that are listened to. And I think as well, the framework around their kind of their ‘Four Capitals’, you know, their values base, their ethical leadership, the way that they want to actively champion that. That’s really powerful. It fits with my values.

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Challenge Partners. Image credit: @ChallengePartnr

Niall Alcock: [00:16:03] If there were any other formative learning experiences you’ve had, what are the learning experiences that you’ve had that spring to mind that have been part of a formal professional development program?

Rob Carpenter: [00:16:12] We’re part of a program called Getting Ahead London, which is a coaching program, which is sponsored by the GLA and also Challenge Partners were also supporting that.

Getting Ahead London, as a program, is fantastic. So, we have a group of experienced leadership coaches, senior headteachers, executive headteachers that work together, and they coach aspirant headteachers and as a network it’s fantastic because at multiple levels: one, the coaches learn from the aspirant heads; two, the aspirant heads learn from each other but also the coaches. But also, you get this great cross-fertilisation of the coaches learning from one another and it’s a wonderful kind of diverse group of leaders that are continuously growing and developing.

Niall Alcock: [00:17:00] And it is something that you’re on or other leaders within Inspire?

[00:17:04] My role within that program, is I support the coordination and the delivery of the program but because I’m in the room, I’m also learning, and we have had some of our leaders on the program and, you know, they’ve just grown exponentially from being… Also, they’re visiting each other’s schools. We host the coaching in each other’s schools. And it’s pan-London and so they’re getting this great experience.

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Getting Ahead London event at the Museum of London. Image credit: London Assembly

Niall Alcock: [00:17:27] It sounds phenomenal. To what extent is budget restraint limiting your ability, your colleagues’ ability to access those of opportunities?

Rob Carpenter: [00:17:35] The secret to making sure you can facilitate what you want in terms of CPD is to work with other schools to make it affordable and work to a larger economy of scale. The other way to do that is to… We also deliver a lot of CPD. So, the income that we generate from the delivery of CPD funds what we can then also then reinvest back into other people’s professional development if that makes sense.

Niall Alcock: [00:18:03] Challenging question: to what extent does that internal view limit the influence of other schools or other organisations in and continually improving professional development within schools.

Rob Carpenter: [00:18:16] That’s a real challenge and it’s something that I’m personally conscious of. But I need to also challenge our other heads and leaders to make sure they’re also aware of. Again, we don’t want to become our own echo chamber, or we don’t want to become our own kind of inward facing group of schools that only do what we think is important. So, because we’re involved with Challenge Partners and ASCL and other networks that are local networks and networks that are… we visit lots of schools. We’re learning from other schools all the time. So, we’re quite outward facing as well as being inward facing too. So, I think that helps us navigate that particular challenge.

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Association of School and College Leaders. Image credit: ASCL

Niall Alcock: [00:18:58] A little bit around policy and frameworks at the moment you’ll have noticed that there has been a move away from using assessment data to judge schools towards judging the quality curriculum. I’d like to get your thoughts on whether you think that is the right way to go? And if not, what do you think the solutions would be to implementing that approach?

Rob Carpenter: [00:19:18] Sure. So, in the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to hear Amanda Spielman speak and have also attended a meeting with Sean Harford. And from those conversations, I think that there are some key points to tease out. One is that Amanda’s tone is refreshing, and I think for somebody like me, who’s been quite critical of Ofsted in the past, I think that’s a positive step. But it’s also important to understand that within that positive tone she speaks about evolution not revolution. So, I think the move away from an outcomes-driven Ofsted framework, for example, is a positive move.

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Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspector. Image credit: DfE
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Sean Harford, National Director of Education. Image credit: Ofsted

But let’s not forget that within that new framework or the proposed framework or in the consultation, outcomes will still be there. Ofsted are still keen to focus on what they can measure. Yes, there is a positive step to increase the status of curriculum within what inspectors are looking for. Previously, it was embedded in the leadership judgment. Now we can see that it forms a much higher priority and quite rightly too because in terms of teachers and headteachers ability to be curriculum designers, we’ve kind of lost that a bit I think within the profession.

However, what I really do think in terms of a note of caution for schools is that, let’s not forget there’s still going to be those judgments made, there’s still going to be a focus on outcomes, there’s still going to be a focus on justifying through a measurement framework, what it is a school is doing.

Now my argument is yes, there is an opportunity for schools to reconnect or to go deeper in terms of really being clear about the curriculum vision or their curriculum intent, but also I think it’s really important for schools to recognise that they’ve got to be able to justify within the context of their school, within the context of their setting, what it is they do and why they do it. What I hope we don’t do is just concentrate on learning or curriculum being something that relates to the easy to measure stuff. For example, measuring through tests or measuring through pages in books that have been completed.

I think that is an opportunity for schools to connect with what they view the purpose of school to truly be. So, if we view that as Gert Biesta says that ‘the function of education is to help young people find their place in the world to be in the world but not be at the centre of the world’, here’s an opportunity for schools to go deeper exploring ways to evaluate student attitudes to learning, how they’re using learning in school to connect with learning beyond school, contributing to society, contributing to decision making processes. So, we’re actively looking to get kids opinions.

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Gert Biesta, Professor of Education. Image credit: Gerst Biesta

Niall Alcock: [00:22:11] Offline, you mentioned a great solution will be to help schools and teachers understand what is learning. How will we come across that solution in schools?

Rob Carpenter: [00:22:20] I think we’ve been kind of tricked into thinking that learning is defined by American psychobabble or American psychology that introduces language like instruction or cognitive load theory. Let’s not be hoodwinked into thinking that what gets pushed out as it is what we should respond to.

Let’s go back to really understanding what we know learning to be. I think it’s important to make that connection between learning and assessment and conversations with teachers and students and giving students agency between the specific functions of knowledge and skills and then allow kids to be challenged through ‘Okay if I know this knowledge how do I apply in ways that helped me make sense of the world? How do I reason more deeply?’

So that means I think that teachers should be engaging with thinking around how do I use my knowledge of my students to give pupils opportunities to be challenged, to grapple with learning, to respond to specific open-ended questions? So, I think here’s an opportunity for schools to go back to: what it is we believe the function of education should be for? What do we think our key principles for learning design are? And how do we bring that to life in a classroom context?

Let me just give an example. In our partnership, we’ve spent a lot of time helping students develop the language of learning. ‘I partially agree with… I would like to challenge this… I agree with this point however I’d like to add…’ There’s a language of learning that if you’re not paying attention to… Learning isn’t a transaction between teacher and student. You know, the milkman approach to teachers being deliverers of curriculum isn’t something that I think leads to great outcomes or great learning. I think it’s about relationships. So, within that how we foster that language for learning and also empower students to use that language, how we model that language. I think those are essential things in terms of helping young people make sense of the world and learn more deeply.

Niall Alcock: [00:24:35] You’ll have seen in the news lately headlines around exclusion rates and the disappearance of special educational needs students and off-rolling etc. I want to ask a little bit about your thoughts on that and how do you avoid situations like that within your trust.

Rob Carpenter: [00:24:50] I think the last 20–25 years with a heavy-handed accountability structure within our English education system, probably more so than we see anywhere else in the world, I think we as a as a profession — I’m not saying this is our fault, I’m not saying it’s teachers’ fault at all — I think, we as a profession, have lost sight that actually our core function is to serve children. And we should be asking our schools and asking ourselves: how do we ensure that schools are places that are best suited for students rather than how we use students to leverage change for ourselves? I think we lost sight of that a little bit.

Increasingly in the last 5–10 years, and it’s borne out by evidence as well, so last year we’ve had the highest number of key stage two results annulled because of unethical practice. We’ve seen an increase, as you allude to, of off-rolling. But we’ve seen these changes partly because of the accountability pressures that schools are under.

How do we reframe our focus so that our schools are asking the question ‘how do we serve children?’ How do we then look at the relationships that we foster in our schools? So how do we greet students at the gate? How do we welcome them into classrooms? How do we make sure that we know are people’s likes, dislikes, needs?

And then at leadership level, how do we start to look for the interaction and engagement between teachers and students as being the prime driver for change or the prime driver for improvement rather than just using an outcome of an assessment or a test? Because if we only view the performance rather than the multiple dress rehearsals we’re really missing something.

In our partnership, we’ve invested, particularly this year, actually, but I would like to think in previous years this has been a journey for us, we’ve invested in using performance management, in using coaching strategies, in using our meeting structures and our professional development to focus more deeply on the relationships and the well-being for students and for staff as the biggest priority rather than just teaching kids to pass tests. That for me is short term, that for me tells a narrative of school improvement that is about instruction rather than a deeper more compelling story which is about relational trust, relational change.

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Image credit: Inspire Partnership

Niall Alcock: [00:27:34] I think your point around ethical leadership, I think is what you’re getting at, is an important one I think to ask those questions is fascinating.

I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the Inspire Partnership and a couple of projects or maybe one project in particular you’re are working on that you’re particularly proud of is having a good impact and what you’re doing and how you know it’s working.

Rob Carpenter: [00:27:55] Within our partnership, we’re five schools. We’re fairly close together. I think the key to our partnership work is about collaboration and building trust-based accountability rather than test-based accountability. So, we have a lot of working parties, a lot of reference groups and we’re really proud of that. Because it gives autonomy to teachers and leaders to work together. We plan for that collaboration we make time for it and we value it.

And as an example of something we’re especially proud of in the last 18 months we’ve had a group of teacher leaders working to redesign our curriculum. They’ve developed some core principles they’ve trialed stuff, they’ve worked with teachers across the partnership. And this year we relaunched our curriculum, so our new curriculum is focused and centred around Global Citizenship to help our students feel connected more deeply to the world, to be in the world and also to want to contribute to changing the world within the context of our primary partnership.

And so, our curriculum design focus has all been about finding topics and themes and issues that allow students to question, probe, challenge, think more deeply about, change perceptions within the community and then embark on learning journeys that allow students to develop the knowledge and skills in an interdisciplinary way. We will absolutely teach students the knowledge that they need but we’ll embed that in in a broader theme or a broader context, which allows them to explore issues.

So, for example, you know the obvious one that I’ve referenced a lot is the Syrian refugee crisis our schools are in the communities where there’s been a lot of change and a lot of polarisation, if you like, of community. So, we tackle that head on. We teach students about the misconceptions around what it’s like to be a refugee or a migrant and the challenges that young people face. We weave across the curriculum. We’ve had authors come in and talk students, we’ve had refugees that have that have made the challenging journeys from one part of the world to another or spoken in the news.

And it’s been phenomenal in terms of the impacts. You know we’ve had students that have been out campaigning, we’ve had students visiting soup kitchens. We’ve had students that have written to businesses. The feedback we’ve had from the community about our curriculum work has just been phenomenal in terms of how our kids are able to impact on more vulnerable groups, how our kids are changing perceptions, how our students are forging these deeper connections with different community stakeholders. It ensures our students are able to leave primary school making a mark within their school but also in their community. It’s raised aspiration.

So, you know we spoke to our students recently about what has it meant for you to be involved in these curriculum projects? And they’re saying things like, you know, ‘I now realise I want to be a doctor, or I want to be a social worker. I want to make a difference in people’s lives.’ And for me, that should be what the focus of education is for. I just can’t be prouder of what it’s meant, and I really believe it’s something that has transformed the way we think and feel about education.

Niall Alcock: [00:31:29] I could listen to you for hours, Rob. I’ve been asking head teachers what questions they’d like to ask people. And in preparation for the for this podcast a question that’s head teachers have been asking quite often is ‘how are schools tackling budget reduction? How are they generating more revenue to support that? And what learning can you share with us in that sense from your work at Inspire?

Rob Carpenter: [00:31:55] So the budget reduction challenge is a huge one. And yet it’s real for us too. I think it’s a really good question. Our strategy for tackling that is to, where possible, ensure that when we lose staff, we look to redeploy or promote or reassign roles internally. So that when positions become available what we do is we try to look within our own skill set.

Now again, that creates a challenge because you could become an inward facing partnership and you do need outward influence to grow and develop. But, to be quite honest with you, if we didn’t do what we were doing, if we just replaced like for like every time we lost a member of staff, we wouldn’t be a sustainable partnership.

We also look to we look to combine roles within our partnership too. So, if there’s great practice in one school we look to see how that might be developed in other schools. And then as I said because we deliver and provide lots of training that also makes our CPD model more affordable.

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Rob Carpenter. Image Credit: Rob Carpenter

Niall Alcock: [00:33:04] If we lift our heads a little bit we’ve talked a little bit about the curriculum context. We’ve talked a little bit about how you do things in your trust. Let’s look at the bigger picture again. And I’m asking all of our interviewees this question. If you could ask every headteacher in the country one question, what would that question be and why would you ask it?

Rob Carpenter: [00:33:26] The question I would ask headteachers and leaders is: can you articulate your vision for learning or your theory of learning? Do you have one? I know that’s a strange question in the sense that you’d think it’s an obvious thing to ask but from my experience over the years, certainly when I first came into the teaching profession, 1995, I don’t necessarily think that schools were always learning-centred organisations or places where you felt that schools were learning centred.

So, my question would be: can you articulate that theory of learning? And I’d go further than that I’d say: is it visible? Where are the places you most want to take visitors to articulate that vision or to see that vision? Where would you least likely want to go? That’s a good question. And I think those questions are important because I think that if leaders cannot articulate their theory of learning or cannot articulate their vision for learning, there’s a problem. Because the best leaders are storytellers. They make that story compelling they make that story visible. You feel it when you walk into a school. You sense it. There’s something exciting about it.

Schools that have that and leaders that have that, they’re places you want to be. You want to spend time in those spaces. And also, if you’re going to evaluate other people’s work and other people’s learning, how can you do that if you’re not a leader of learning too.

Niall Alcock: [00:35:01] I find myself smiling all the way through. You’re incredibly passionate and articulate and questions you ask, and I think that’s a very challenging question for other listeners to mull over again.

Niall Alcock: Another big picture question for you. What does the future of education hold what is there that’s optimistic to be feeling about?

Rob Carpenter: [00:35:22] I am optimistic. I do think that the changes that are being proposed within the Ofsted framework or Ofsted handbook are positive ones. But again, within the context of it’s an evolution or revolution. What really excites me is knowing that we have an opportunity to go back to or to reclaim being designers of learning. So, if schools can be optimistic about that and see this as an opportunity to go back and ask those questions at school-based level.

What do we really believe in? What do you think is most important for our community? Why do we think that? What’s that going to look like? How do we connect our theory of learning into a curriculum vision that allows students to transform or change their thinking and hopefully influence others thinking too? How do we ensure that within this space that our curriculum allows students to see the importance of learning beyond school?

For far too long students have felt that disconnect between learning in school and learning beyond school. What we know from research from Varkey Foundation Generation Z from the AITSL report the global horizon scans report is that a large percentage of students don’t locate agency between learning in school and learning beyond.

We have an opportunity to change that. Young people and in a challenging world where networks matter far more than traditional structures. Young people seek fulfilment, seek alignment with making sense of a world where they can contribute. I think we have a big opportunity to redesign a curriculum that links knowledge and skills to making sense of a complex world. And I think we should be doing that.

Niall Alcock: [00:37:17] Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s is a fascinating insight. What I enjoy listening to is how you tie the big picture of your vision for education but also how we couch that within the specifics of curriculum design and delivery. To finish off, tell us a little story that you will never forget that always makes you laugh.

Rob Carpenter: [00:37:37] Okay, so back to being a leader of owning those useful learning mistakes and don’t know about making me laugh but it made other people laugh, that’s true.

It’s a story about when Foxfield Primary School went in Special Measures. It was Day Two of the inspection and I’d concocted a story whereby we were going to try to manipulate the inspector so that… we wanted the inspector to come to see some Year 6 teaching because the inspection took place string SATs week and they hadn’t seen any teaching in Year 6 at all that week. And there were some good teaching happening there.

So, my focus was on how to get the inspector out of meetings and into the Year 6 classrooms, which I didn’t manage too well because I burst into the meeting and demanded that the inspector follow me down the corridor and upstairs Year 6. Unceremoniously, she marched out of the room and walked along the corridor and turned left into Year Three.

The worst moment probably my career was in panic, knowing the school was heading for Special Measures, I decided to sneak into the classroom without her realising — the lead inspector realising — and I crawled in on my hands and knees and crawled in the front of the classroom. She was flicking through books at the back of the classroom and she couldn’t see me.

And in the classroom, there was chaos and panic and all sorts were happening and I knew that the teacher needed to recalibrate the lesson. The children weren’t clear what the focus was, and the teacher was carrying on regardless.

So, I decided to whisper to the teacher to lead a mini plenary. So, I kept whispering “Mini plenary. Mini plenary!” and the teacher didn’t even know I was in the room. She didn’t know I was there shouldn’t hear me. So, I got louder and louder with my plea, to the point where I kind of shouted it out.

So, I shouted out “MINI PLENARY!!” by which point the class teacher and 30 kids turn around and saw me on the floor, literally. I promise this is true. And as the teacher did this she knocked over the flip chart, a metal flip chart and it fell over and luckily avoided kids. But landed on her foot and she completely stopped the lesson complained about her foot in front of the lead inspector, who then stood up and saw me on my hands and knees at the front of the classroom and in an absolute state of panic. Do you know what I just stood up, put my hands up and walked out of the room. I knew the game was up. I knew the game was up.

Niall Alcock: [00:40:06] How did the inspector respond?

Rob Carpenter: [00:40:08] I think, if I’m honest with you, there wasn’t much humour in the room but there was a lot of humour after it when I told everybody about what happened in my desperation. But then I said to her, I said, I was almost crying. I said, “You’re just going to nail the coffin down, now aren’t you?” And she just looked at me and to be fair she nodded. I mean we all knew that was it. Game up! And that was it.

Niall Alcock: [00:40:30] I have to say it from talking about modelling good leadership to telling that story. A brilliant Segway by saying ‘owning your learning mistakes’. Thank you for sharing that hilarious story.

Niall Alcock: [00:40:43] Rob you’ve been inspiring. You’ve been articulate you’ve been solutions focused. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on this podcast. Perhaps we can we can talk again in six to twelve months’ time and see whether your predictions for the future for education come true.

Rob Carpenter: [00:41:00] Thank you very much.

Who are we?

I’ve been working in partnership Teach First, the Young Foundation and Super Being Labs to build a community of teachers and senior leaders who are solving big challenges in their schools.

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.

If you enjoyed this interview, check out Episode 2 of the We Are In Beta Podcast with Elroy Cahill, headteacher at Kingsley Academy, Hounslow. Lybsyn here, Spotify here, iTunes here, or download the file here.

Listen to Episode 2 of the We Are In Beta Podcast here

We — the education community — are in beta: always learning.

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