The tweeting headteacher who took over the world

4 December 2014
Local Schools Network

GILBERT: Are there any sane headteachers out there? The longer I teach, the more I ask this question because I think, possibly like becoming Prime Minister, it’s a role which is both stressful, lonely and can create a massively over-inflated ego. I really liked Tom Sherrington because he appeared to be both sane, reasonable and pretty humble. He enjoys the job for the right reasons. Being a head for him isn’t about self-aggrandizement. This is possibly because he can nourish his ego online where he has a growing and large following both on Twitter and on his blog, Headguruteacher, which gained over a million hits recently. In this post-Gove era, due to his dual role as head and popular education blogger, he has become a powerful figure: he is regularly consulted by the Labour Party, the DfE, Ofqual and Ofsted about a number of issues, he is a leading member of the Headteachers’s Roundtable and is in the process of helping set up a new National Baccalaureate qualification for secondary school students.

Melissa Benn and I interviewed him on a Friday in late November 2014 at his school, Highbury Grove, which he has been in charge of since September. He seemed remarkably unfrazzled considering that he is not only consistently blogging and tweeting, heavily involved with numerous educational initiatives as well running a pretty tough inner-city school which, while doing well, still has some problems.

Sherrington’s education and career

GILBERT: Having grown up in Farnham, Surrey, Sherrington attended a mixed comprehensive, attained a 1st in Physics at Manchester University and then taught in Wigan, after which he took a year out to go back-packing. A seven year stint at Holland Park School followed in the 1990s where he was a teacher, a Head of Year and Assistant Head. It was Holland Park which made him realize that his vocation was to be a teacher. After being a Deputy Head at Alexandra Park School, where he worked with Ross McGill, a.k.a. TeacherToolkit, he worked abroad at the British International School in Jakarta and returned to England to become headteacher of King Edward VI Grammar School (a.k.a. KEGS) Chelmsford from 2008-2014. While Holland Park “made” the teacher, his experiences at KEGS seem to have shaped his pedagogical expectations. In our interview he compared working with the top classes at KEGS to driving a very fast car to its limit; he saw just how independent, imaginative and analytical pupils can be given the right circumstances.

BENN: I was particularly interested in his experiences of working at Holland Park in the 1990s. Holland Park is my old school so I naturally feel quite protective of it; more importantly, Tom was there during a period of the school’s life when, according to Michael Gove, employing his usual conciliatory language, Holland Park was a ‘ basket case.’ When I asked Tom about how he saw HP during his time there, he gave a much more human and nuanced answer. In effect, he said, it depended on what teachers you got. If you got the right teachers, there was no place better. Get the wrong ones, and the experience was less than satisfactory.  I was also interested in Tom’s views of academic selection, given that he worked for several years at a grammar.  I already knew that he was a great fan of his old school, having had some robust correspondence with him on this same issue a couple of years ago. He didn’t really surprise me in his answers in this interview. He believes that selection as a system is wrong but having the odd grammar school dotted about, catering for highly able children, is acceptable. I pressed him on this, and particularly on the question of whether draining local schools of high achieving students really doesn’t have an impact on their culture and results. He was pretty adamant that it doesn’t. Something we don’t agree about, I think.

Dealing with bad behavior

GILBERT: I get the impression that taking over Highbury Grove has been a culture shock for Sherrington in that issues that just weren’t prevalent at KEGS dominate the day-to-day at HG. Reading between the lines, there’s a sense that poor behavior has meant that teachers can’t nurture the sorts of independent learning that he believes is the marker of “high-end” learning. He’s written eloquently about students co-constructing lessons with teachers at KEGS but I have an intuition that this isn’t possible at the moment at Highbury Grove. As a result, he’s instituted a new behavior policy which is much less forgiving than the previous one: disruption in lessons isn’t tolerated. This said, it’s interesting to hear him being sympathetic towards the vulnerable students. Frequently, heads with a “zero-tolerance” approach can be very inflexible, excluding, for example, children for having the wrong haircut. I don’t think Sherrington is like this at all. However, I think you have to be a bit of a maniac to get zero-tolerance approaches really working; the devil is in the detail. Sherrington will need a very energetic staff if he’s going to get it working.

BENN: Sherrington has clearly come into Highbury Grove determined to raise everyone’s game but without resorting to the kind of military discipline and punishing routines that have become so fashionable in recent years. I think a lot of would-be leaders, parents and supporters of comprehensives will be watching what he does at Highbury Grove with great interest over the next few years. I feel that if Mossbourne represented the high point of a particular model of post seventies comprehensive – so praised by Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove – then Highbury Grove could become a model for the post Govian era:  less concerned with relentlessly driving pupils and staff in pursuit of top results above all else,  and more of an institution with more authentic ambition and taking the long view : that is, concerned with good human relationships, the assumption of responsibility by all in the school and, most important of all, the cultivation of education for education’s sake.

On the knowledge versus skills debate

GILBERT: As with a number of divisive topics, Sherrington is very good at “squaring the circle”. I can see how he might win over “hardline” teachers like Tom Bennett who believe that content is king in lessons because he’s quite insistent that teachers teach facts and, where appropriate, provide direct instruction by telling kids stuff. However, he clearly believes that the acquisition of facts and content is only the starting point and that the so-called “soft skills” need to be taught as well. He enthused in the interview about Martin Robinson’s book Trivium which advocates “grammar” (knowledge), “dialectic” (argument) and “rhetoric” (communication) being taught across all subjects in much the same way that it was in Ancient Greece. Robinson is now an adviser at Highbury Grove and is helping re-shape the curriculum. I like to think I was one of the first to spot the importance of Robinson’s work with my interview on LSN here.

BENN: Seeing the distinctive cover of Martin Robinson’s book on ‘The Trivium’ on Sherrington’s desk, and hearing the passion with which Sherrington talks about the ideas expressed in the book, was intriguing and rather cheering. Another experiment that I will be following with close interest.  I agree with Francis; Sherrington seems to side step the polarising elements in the knowledge/skills debate. I particularly liked his argument that poor teaching is not about professionals unduly preoccupied with skills but about teachers who are unable, for whatever reason, to get across core knowledge.

On stability in staffing, PRP and why the unions want to clone him

GILBERT: So while Sherrington might warm the cockles of right-wingers like Nick Gibb with his championing of a knowledge-based curriculum, he also has won over the unions with his approach to a number of very divisive issues: the Ofsted grading of lessons, Performance Related Pay (PRP) and holding individual teachers to account for their results. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that together with bloggers like David Didau, Sherrington has been instrumental in Ofsted re-thinking the grading of lessons. He also basically rejects the fundamental principles of the new PRP system that has been introduced this year and is not aiming to give any teacher a higher salary based on their results or superior teaching. In this sense, he is a “collectivist”: he holds whole departments to account for their results rather than individual teachers. One could term him a “new managerialist” in the sense that he has ditched the “old managerialism” in education which made senior leaders focus upon ranking individual teachers by grading lessons and tracking their results. His “new managerialist” style is to look at groups of teachers and think about methods for motivating teams. As he says himself, this is quite selfishly a much more effective way of getting the best out of people. This said, he seems very much in favour of a licensing system for teachers which many teachers, like me, are not convinced by: this will hold individual teachers to account and will be, I suspect, very bureaucratic.

On the need for pushy parents

GILBERT: Sherrington is a pretty unflappable headteacher; he’s not that brittle and clearly sees the views of parents as an important way of holding teachers to account. He agreed with me that parents shouldn’t be telling teachers how to teach (which is my experience!) but felt that they should be encouraged to voice their concerns if they had any.

BENN: In fact, Sherrington seems to see even the pushiest of parents as a valuable resource, helping him to see where there may be general weaknesses in the school and using their discontent to ‘up’ everyone’s game. What really struck me was the healthy impersonality of his approach. He won’t take a PP personally, as a head, and he clearly has no intention of letting PPs influence or shape the education of their child only.  Here, as in several areas, Sherrington operates from a refreshing ‘big picture’ perspective.

Assessment and accountability

GILBERT: Sherrington is generally quite positive about the new forms of assessment that are being introduced by the government: Progress 8 and the ditching of coursework at A Level and GCSE. He agrees with many commentators that the exam system that is in its dying days right now is basically broken because it was, and still is, too open to abuse. It’s clear that he’s stopped the mass re-writing of controlled conditions coursework at Highbury Grove; this is something that many heads insist upon if grades are not sufficiently high. As a result, he admits that the schools’ results the schools’ results will take two years to bounce back to the level they had before all of the exam reforms. It’s lucky that he’s got the support of the local authority because you could imagine that many heads in similar positions simply would feel too frightened to do this. In 2013, the school scored 64% of students scored 5 A*-C grades or more, including English and Maths, well above the floor target of 45% set by the DfE. However, only three years previously it was 44%. What happens if the school dips below the floor target? Sherrington doesn’t seem too worried. Added to which, the school should do better with the Progress 8 measure which provides a figure for the value the school adds to pupils across 8 accredited GCSE subjects.

Academies and local authorities

GILBERT: Sherrington is nuanced in his analysis of what structures work best in education. KEGS was an academy and he doesn’t seem that opposed to the concept of them, seeing that independence from the local authority can have its advantages. However, now that he’s part of a LA school, he can see the benefits of schools in a local area sharing best practice and resources. He seems a little skeptical of the LA officers in Islington who are telling heads that they have to sort out the gang problems in their areas as well as educate. Sherrington is clearly no fan of the “social work” approach to education, although he’s well aware that students’ home-life has a profound effect on their achievements at school. As with the knowledge-versus-skills debate, he deftly sits in a middle ground with school structure questions: he’s opposed to LAs running grammar school systems but not to isolated grammars, he can see the advantages of academies but he’s enjoying being part of a LA.

BENN: Once again, if it works, Sherrington’s approach could become emblematic of a post Gove-ian approach to both school autonomy and collaboration.

On the teaching tweetocracy

GILBERT: Sherrington enjoys blogging and tweeting in his spare time; he doesn’t see it as work. He’s aware though that in recent years that a “tweetocracy” amongst teachers has emerged; a number of tweeting and blogging teachers like him, many of him are listed on the homepage of his blog, have assumed  dominance power over the educational debate. This Tweetocracy get invited to all the prestigious educational events – conferences, launches, policy discussions etc – while others are left out. My worry here is that educational academics have become so marginalized. However, Sherrington is, for my money, one of the best read of the Tweetocracy, regularly referencing academics which have laid the foundation for sound pedagogical approaches. The depth of his pedagogical knowledge is really impressive.


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