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Can all schools be amazing?


Can a school really be ‘amazing’?

If so – how? Martin Skelton turns over some unsettling ideas on his way to the coffee shop.

 An argument with myself

A few weeks ago, walking along a street, I realised I was having an argument with myself. One version of me was saying:

Am I the only one who finds the educational posts on LinkedIn (and other social media) slightly odd? Every school seems to be ‘amazing’, every group of teachers seem to be amazing, every visitor to a school seems to be amazing and every building seems to be amazing.

It’s odd for two reasons.

First, in my career, I have seen one truly amazing teacher, (step forward Kay Mussard), but almost no-one else could compare. I’ve seen very good teachers and lots of good teachers, too (I think I might have been one of those) but ‘amazing’? Not so many.

I have seen one or two schools that I think have been amazing (take a bow, right now, Newton School in Spain) but, truthfully, I’ve seen mostly very good and good schools. I have also, in the spirit of transparency, seen some schools and teachers that were a long, long way from amazing.

Second, if all these schools are as amazing as they say, I worry where they go from here. When they produce their Improvement Plans, what on earth do they put in them? What do you get better at, if everything is amazing?

A better amazing?

I then went for a coffee. As I left the coffee shop, a second version of me said:

Perhaps you have misunderstood the use of the word ‘amazing’’. Perhaps all those social media posts might be using ‘amazing’ to mean that these schools have lots they can be better at, and they are unified in their determination and ability to improve. Perhaps they are amazing because they are so much better than other schools at being able to get better.

I breathed easier. I don’t much like the first version of amazing (‘All is good here’) but I like this second version much more. (‘We have lots we can improve in our school, and we are all committed to improving.’) Getting better is what I have spent my entire career in education trying to do and trying to help others do. Because getting better is a process and not a single activity, it makes sense to describe success (or even partial success) as ‘amazing’ at each stage of that process without a pretence that everything is already as good as it could possibly be.

But it still leaves a question for schools. What are the most important things we should work amazingly hard to achieve? What are the things, or the thing, that we want to be truly amazing at?

What makes things amazing?

In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins reported how he and his research team set out to see if organisations that had clearly moved from ‘good’ to ‘great’ in their development, had anything in common. One of the common elements the team found, he called the Hedgehog Concept. He reported that:

All the good to great companies attained a very simple concept they could use as a frame of reference for all their decisions, and this understanding coincided with breakthrough results.

For Collins a hedgehog has a single, simple line of defence that frustrates all its would be enemies. It rolls up into a ball. It’s easy, elegant and defining.

In my first teaching post, Fred Tiramani was my mentor long before ‘mentoring’ was invented. From my very first day, before school and after and many times during lessons, on the concrete landing between our classrooms, Fred gave me advice.

Half-way through my second year, the quick conversations during lesson time had reduced to no more than two or three a week. At the end of one of them, as we turned away from each other to go back to our classes, I heard Fred say, ‘There’s something I want to tell you.’ ‘What is it?’ I asked, turning back to face him. Fred says, ‘You’re not a very good teacher.’

He has never once spoken to me like this before. He goes back into his own classroom, leaving me on my own on the concrete landing. Three weeks later when I finally have the courage to ask him what he meant. He says, ‘The truth is, they aren’t learning anything in your class.’

It was another four years in another school, before I looked up at my class, quietly working, and realised that my students weren’t learning. They were busy, they were on task, they liked me (most of them) and I liked them, too. Their parents were mostly pleased that I taught them. Not-with-standing all of that, the truth was, they weren’t learning anything.

This was the moment that changed my professional and personal life. Slowly, over the next few years as a Deputy Head and Head of two schools, I began to realise that the ‘very simple concept’ that was ‘a frame of reference for all my decisions’ was learning. Or, to put it differently, the thing that I wanted to be amazing at, the thing I wanted the schools I worked in to be amazing at, was learning.

Looking for learning


It changed me because I started to look at everything through a learning lens. The not-very-good quality swimming pool we took our students to became better because I saw through the cracked tiles to realise that our students were learning to swim much better than they might have done somewhere else. I realised that the expensive and fashionable math programme the school had introduced and of which we were proud, was poorly structured and poorly written, confusing teachers and students alike, slowing down our students’ ability to get better at maths as much as they were capable. I realised so many things I hadn’t realised before.

All of this, of course, was a process that continues to this day. It has affected the way I have helped design curricula, the way I have started and reviewed schools, the way I work with schools, the presentation I have given to teachers and school leaders around the world and the questions I ask now at our regular Governors’ meetings in East London.

I am still learning about learning and want to help as many schools as possible to have the learning lens as the very simple concept they use as the frame of reference for all their decisions. Like Jim Collins’, I have realised that it is this that leads to breakthrough results.

My most recent attempt to learn from and with others, is a weekly email called Looking for Learning. It is delivered through Substack every Monday at 14.00. UK time. It is free. It is focused on what learning is, how it happens, what helps it happen better and what gets in the way. You can download the Substack app from the Apple or Google App Stores or you can access it online at www.substack.com. Just search for Looking for Learning. I hope it might help you and your colleagues in your schools and I hope I can continue to learn from you and them.


Martin Skelton, teacher, school leader and advisor to schools around the world was the founder of the groundbreaking Fieldwork Education and co-designer of the IPC.  He is now Special Advisor to the International Schools Partnership




FEATURE IMAGE: by Thomas Schütze on Unsplash

Support Images: by Siora Photography on Unsplash & by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay


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