Leadership approaches, support and ideas from Bristol Brunel Academy

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Tribal influence on achievement | The role of Tribes

Tribal influence on achievement | The role of TribesInspire be inspired

Why thinking in tribes raises achievement of students…

Students do not immediately see themselves as part of a year or class within the Academy; they have a stronger identity with their social/peer or friendship group. We could describe these as tribes. These are relatively stable groups that have a set of values (not planned or imposed) that dictate what is the accepted behaviour, attitude and approach for that tribe. What is valued happens more often, what is not valued is seen less – hence tribes create an identity. If we think back to our time within school we can immediately relate to the tribes that existed within our Year group. There is real influential power on the individual exerted by these tribes. Parents often speak about their concern that their child would find the “right” friends – this was seen as more important than which Academy they attended – I think they are right.

Godin identifies that tribes form when there are…”connections between people, leaders, and ideas that are centered around a common goal or interest.”


Our peer group analysis of Year 11 identifies that student tribes range typically from around 6 to 15 students – almost all students can be identified as belonging to a peer group or tribe – collections of like and like-minded students who, through time, have acquired a collective identity. These groups are not purposefully constructed, but they are likely formed by a range of forces like social pressures, sport, appearance, historic proximity, chance, ability, primary school, geographic location, gender, ethnicity; all seem to combine to create fairly uniform groups. Individuals seek out and find similar individuals in a wider cohort.

How strong is the tribe on academic achievement? The present Year 11 tribes certainly appear to be linked to progress – in broad terms, the students in each tribe share similar progress/achievement rates, motivation and desire to learn – all influenced by the core values of the tribe. All of this is meaningless unless we use this identification and understanding of the power of tribes to work with this social structure, to influence and redirect the key drivers for each of our Year 11 tribes. Each tribe has a leader(s) – they are not voted in – they connect and link students together – they occupy alpha-roles developed over time. These are our levers are key influencers; who if we are able to re-direct have the influence to change what is valued by the tribe. These are the sneezers: those who spread ideas (contagiously) – who consistently reinforce the values of the tribe. At Brunel we have the:

  • Academically-positive tribes: value “doing well at school” see it as the key to the future. It is socially acceptable to do homework, revise, put you hand up in class. Progress actively reinforces and binds the tribe.
  • Academically-apathetic tribes: value a range of things one of which may be doing well at school. Often a range of abilities in the tribe – no overall social benefit to being good in class, or completing homework – the future will happen – apathy is ok. I suspect some do well and other do not – probably the key groups for Academy achievement and attainment.
  • Academically-negative tribes: do not attach a social value in being good or working hard within school. This is not a value supported by the tribe – no social cost to low effort in school – in fact the reverse is likely to be true.

Understanding and using the social dynamic is important for Brunel Culture, to raise achievement, build better relationships and create an academically-positive ethos, shared by the majority.

Here is a link to our raising achievement worksheet we use during our year 11 peer group intervention sessions:-  Year 11 RA Worksheet

Dr Dan Nicholls

Principal – Bristol Brunel Academy


Oct 2013


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Simplicity, complexity, DNA and dark matter

Simplicity, complexity, DNA and dark matter

It’s easier to complicate than to simplify. Simple ideas enter the brain quicker and stay there longer. (Saatchi)Steve Jobs

Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains. (Steve Jobs)

A really important principle at Brunel is the need to have and use simple systems – nothing more complicated than it needs to be. It is this simplicity that secures understanding and buy-in. Academies require consistency and a collaborative determination to improve. Dark clouds of complexity reduce consistency and hold back improvement. In this blog we investigate simplicity, how it must triumph over complexity and become part of our DNA. It is this simplicity that will enable the focus on what is important and allow us to find that Dark Matter that really makes the difference – those bright spots that generate social epidemics and trigger tipping points of improvement.


Ken Segall wrote “Insanely Simple” a great book that distils how Apple embraced simplicity to go from near death in 1997 to the most valuable company on the planet by 2011. “Given the option, any sane person will choose the simple path over one that’s more complicated – we should never underestimate the degree to which people crave this kind of clarity and respond positively to it.”  The problem is that there is a dark cloud called complexity. Complexity can be powerful and seductive, so it should never be underestimated. Why do we happen upon complex solutions? People have a natural tendency to assume problems are solved with greater complexity –ingenious solutions must be complex.

Seth Godin talks of “the inevitable decline due to clutter.” The reverse, Simplicity, is power. Siegel et al. states, “It’s never been more critical for companies to simplify – to do so requires a commitment from the top, clarity of purpose, and a ‘culture of simplicity’ that permeates the entire organisation.” (Siege and Etzkorm, “Simple”, 2013)

Siegel challenges, “can a company transform itself so that simplicity becomes part of its DNA?” This sounds like a challenge – but there is a problem – simplicity requires greater thought not less, greater analysis, wider views, stripping back to what matters and going upstream to consider the likely outcomes – what the Heath brothers would call – “Zooming out to zoom in.” In so many ways achieving simplicity is not simple – Da Vinci once said that simplicity was the ultimate sophistication.

The dark cloud of complexity definitely hung around Brunel. The Fog is clearing, and the evidence of the impact of more simplicity is having unintended (and intended) positive consequences. This is really important for us – it is gaining buy-in and enabling focus on what matters; after all people crave this kind of clarity and respond positively to it. From the timings of the day, lunchtimes, phones, curriculum, A3 pages, transition, destinations, uniform, 1-4, SEFs, Reviews, CPD to meeting structures there is increasing simplicity in our DNA – it is this that allows us to focus on our core business – to travel toward our destination undistracted and what enables greater consistency and collegiality in shifting Brunel to Outstanding.

It is this thinking that will enable us to understand the Dark Matter* (the things that Academies do, teachers do, students do that get grades) – the levers that will secure our red dots (> 100 Year 11 students to achieve their 5 ACEM). It is the simplicity now in place (the Macro) that enables us to focus on the Micro – those practices and approaches that make a difference, have leverage and get students the progress and grades they need to enrich their lives and give them a chance in their future. It is our simplicity and structure that allows us to seek Consistent tactical excellence (and) not frenetic innovation (Collins) – to focus on our bright spots, to measure them, share them and distil them to the simple approaches that achieve 80% of the difference.

“Just understand that Simplicity is more than a goal – it’s a skill. To successfully leverage its power, you need to get good at it – simplicity isn’t simple.” (Ken Segall, 2012)

Our journey to outstanding is using the leveraging impact of simplicity – realising organisational and systemic simplicity requires a depth of thought that sees through the fog of complexity – we realise this simplicity by supporting those closest to (and effected greatest by) complexity to find and lead us to simple solutions.

Dark Mattergives out no light, but it’s gravitational footprints are everywhere – it is this force that may not be written in OFSTED criteria, but is the set of approaches that successful teachers use to secure greater than expected results from students – our quest is to find, measure and concentrate this dark matter in our practice. Interestingly Dark Matter and Energy makes up >90% of the universe – I wonder if our Dark Matter practices will also have a similar impact on student performance and up-grading?

Dr Dan Nicholls

Principal – Bristol Brunel Academy


8 Sept 2013

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Closing the gaps and creating GRIT – smarter feedback and a culture of redrafting

 Closing the gaps and creating GRIT – smarter feedback and a culture of redrafting

Formative marking is the buzz term of the decade but what does it actually look like in good practice? It’s taken me a long process of refinement to finally reach a point where I feel sure that my marking is truly formative and enables students to make the most progress in their learning. In the highly discursive subjects of English and Sociology, this truly matters.

I’ve come a long way from comments such as ‘You need to write in more detail’ and ‘Improve your spellings’ to where my marking is today. My marking of any extended piece of writing or essay centres on three rules:

1. Highlighting something very specific that the student has done well

2. Setting a first target for improvement that’s specific to the topic

3. Setting a second target for improvement that’s a transferable skill for future essays/extended writing, no matter what the topic.

For example, in recent feedback to a Year 12 Sociology student on an essay assessing government policies implemented to create an education market and raise standards, I set her two clear targets :

AO1 (knowledge and understanding of this specific topic): To include two more recent policies created to raise standards.

AO2 (interpretation, application, analysis and evaluation skills transferable to any essay topic): To ensure that each point of your argument is evaluated for both strengths and weaknesses where possible, and that evaluation occurs throughout your essay, not just at the end.

All this detailed formative marking is pointless unless we can cultivate a culture of redrafting and redoing; a climate where it is okay, and in fact beneficial, to make mistakes. I say to my older students ‘You will never do a piece of work for me just once unless you get full, or almost full, marks. You wouldn’t hand in a letter of application for a job after just writing what comes out of your head the first time, would you? You’d redraft it and let other people give you feedback on it before submitting it. Your work is the same.’ I repeat this mantra regularly to them to remind them of why we need these high expectations in our class.
Then comes the hard bit: if I’ve asked them to redraft/redo something then I commit to remarking it for them (as promptly as possible). Although that is hard going for me, in the long run it isn’t because it is what wins them over. When they can visibly see how their work improves from one draft to the next, they feel such a sense of success that it motivates them enormously.
Thankfully, I’ve reached a point where I don’t need to ask them to redraft anymore; they will do it of their own accord because they want to feel more success. For example, one of my students this year turned a corner for me; he recently redrafted an essay three times for me (more than I’d asked him to) moving his grade from an E to a B. He sustained a B grade in his next essay too, this time after just one redraft. All of last year he was working at an E/D grade.

There are also a host of ways in which I could make the marking quicker, for example, having a bank of statements ready for the second target (the transferable skill one) which I can select from and stick on their work. Or a feedback sheet which has a checklist of all the knowledge for that topic, as well as a list of the transferable skills, that I can tick/cross as appropriate. In fact, with my A level classes I have begun attaching a copy of the mark scheme for the essay question to the back of the essay, highlighting in green the areas they met and in orange the areas they didn’t. This, along with my written targets, gives them the clearest idea of how to improve in their redraft.

To build GRIT like this we need to start young. I have the exact same expectations of my Year 7 class; they know that I expect any extended piece of writing to be redrafted after a first marking.  I’m hoping that by the time they get anywhere near their GCSEs, this climate will be embedded.
Finally, a culture of redrafting leads to GRIT in other aspects of the lesson because students know that your expectations of the standard of their work is very high and shoddy work will not be accepted. Also, if they can get top marks for a piece of work then they won’t have to redraft it! This climate extends to verbal responses too; not accepting a poor quality verbal answer from a student and being tenacious in digging further with questioning.
Daniel Coyle presents the concept of GRIT well in his book The Talent Code:
“reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains…” is what leads to success, thus emphasising the importance of quality feedback that shows students exactly how to right their mistakes (and how it can become a springboard for tenacity in students’ learning). Despite living in a society that elevates immediate gratification and overnight celebrity status, I’m finally beginning to think that my students are embracing, and ingraining, the idea that it is the amount of determined effort they put into their work that will equal their success.
Click here for a great blog that further explores this concept within education.

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Part Three: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

Part Three: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

All organisations Start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year.”  Simon Sinek


Simon Sinek has been very influential in our approach to leadership at Brunel (the 20min TED talk is excellent). His golden circle has framed our approach, language and strategic focus. How can a set of simple circles have such a pervasive influence? Sinek identifies that human motivation is emotionally linked, meaning that when people start with why (the moral purpose) this secures early emotional buy in. This buy-in secures interest and enables greater success of a sale, proposal or to secure change. Apple uses why well – they have grown an Apple identity “think differently” around the why, the lifestyle and that is why it is compelling. At Brunel we start from the WHY – it is linked to our Destinations. Here are examples of our WHYs.

Destination Two – the WHY: Teaching is the most important aspect of the Academy; it is what makes teachers professionals and what unlocks incredible futures for students. Teachers have amazing moral purpose which, allied with increasing autonomy and an unshakable desire to achieve mastery, create experiences that will enable a generation to feel more success. Through teaching we release the potential of young people to follow their dreams. There can be no better profession than Teaching.

Destination One – the WHY: After the quality of teaching, leadership has the biggest influence on the success of schools. By improving leadership, colleagues become more effective and have a greater influence on the life chances of students. Through the leadership of high performing teams, individuals create opportunities for others to be more successful and to take more responsibility. Leadership increases the capacity of the Academy to become outstanding, thereby increasing the opportunities of all students and staff to be more successful.

Too many Academies start with the WHAT – they write a homework policy in SLT and dispatch it below – starting with ‘what’ staff need to do – remember people do not do what they are told. As Sinek says, “people do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” It is the WHY that has driven our improvement journey – it is securing the WHY first that generates the wide emotional buy-in; it sets the importance of what the Academy is for and our place within it – our moral purpose; it exploits the human instinct to want to do purposeful and meaningful work that enables the power of the WHY. Our Teaching Destination (Delivery Team) cannot failed to be compelled to drive toward the destination against this background,


“It is those that start with WHY that have the ability to inspire those around them.” Simon Sinek

Academies need to cement and secure the WHY before the HOW we do things and WHAT specifically happens. The SLT at Brunel understand their place in the Golden Circle. It is not for them to determine the WHAT ( why would we have the arrogance to know exactly what is required?);  as leaders we do not have the time to be quite so operational. That is the beauty of the circles – they provide a structure and exemplification of the difference between being strategic and operational in Academy improvement.

Senior Leaders should secure the WHY – it is not that  they own it, but that with the wider view they secure the moral purpose of an organisation, the key to secure emotional buy-in and build the purpose to improve.

At Brunel we have added a fourth circle that runs around the middle of HOW. Who owns the HOW? Who is best placed to understand how best to do things? How best to secure impact? Where schools are in categories that require redirection or quick improvement, the proportion of HOW owned by the leadership may extend into the WHAT to direct organisations – Chip and Dan Heath would describe this as ‘scripting the moves.’ At Brunel our philosophy is that leaders own part of the HOW (the fourth circle) in helping to set direction and destinations, but that a good proportion of the HOW needs to be owned by middle leaders and at depth in the whole organisation. It is this distribution of the ownership of the HOW that secures wider ownership and sustains change, by those closest to the action. The WHAT specifically happens in the classroom, in departments and in all areas; it is for others to decide – they are the experts in their area. This is not directionless or risky, it is quite the reverse; the strength and power of our Destinations direct toward our preferred futures – we can let go and trust others to secure our improvement – a journey that becomes increasingly owned at depth in the organisation. Leaders that let go of the WHAT (operational aspects) and increasing amounts of HOW release potential, build trust and the capacity to improve. If the leader-owned HOW is evidenced, distilled and evolves, we free professionals across Academies to innovate, share and develop around the key levers for improvement.

Three words, WHY, HOW and WHAT, that have changed the way we talk, act and seek change enabling strategic leadership and empowering others to own and sustain improvement. We recognise when we are strategic (WHY and half the HOW), when we are being operational (other half of the HOW and the WHAT), when to let go, to trust and to realise when we are not the best to decide. When SLT meetings slip into the WHAT we immediately recognise it, because we have the language and model to recognise how we lead. This forces us to think differently and to lead through others…and we are back to the previous blog that challenges us to have an influence of 1.8…2.3. In top-down, leader:follower or command-and-control organisations the ownership of the HOW and WHAT stifles sustained and owned change and often shows a complete absence of the WHY – or the wrong why (compliance and threat). The title of Sinek’s book “Start with Why” is spot on and has been a significant and guiding aspect of our journey this year. (Next blog: David Marquet, Leader:Leader organisations and the importance of language.)

“Make it about them, not you.” (Simon Sinek)

Dr Dan Nicholls


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Part Two: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

Part Two: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

“The first rule of Leadership is that it is shared.” (Brighouse)

The previous blog considered the importance of leading through others to have personal impact of at least 1.8. There was also consideration of the importance of structure and connectivity within a distributed leadership approach that enable vertical influence and opportunity. The following diagram provides our summary of our leadership influences; taken together they provide the principles of the Brunel approach to Leadership, and are the focus of this series of blogs. (click to enlarge)


In this second part we explore the importance of setting clear destinations for the organisation and why, in a distributed, leader-leader system, this creates the space and ability for staff to find their way toward each destination. Such ownership allows change and strategic improvement to be owned at a greater depth within the organisation; increasing the sustainability and consistency of new approaches. Tim Brighouse was partly responsible for us considering the Destination model for our Academy improvement planning. His sense that schools are on journeys and that the best schools ask where they want to be and take small steps on a journey toward that goal is a compelling approach. It is surprising how the use of Destinations has supported not just the vision and ambition, but also enabled and provided the space to distribute leadership and release potential at Brunel.


Whilst Destinations show vision and ambition, importantly they provide the space to distribute leadership and release potential because they do not describe how or what is to be achieved; it starts with the end in mind (Covey), allows the construction of stories (powerful human motivator) and charts our journey. As we will consider in the next blog this opens the How and the What areas of the Sinek golden circle to depth in an organisation. It is the enforcement of the How (you do things like this) and What (you do that) linked to a witch-hunt, high stakes accountability that compromises Command and Control, top-down and leader-follower organisationsPeople do not do what you tell them to do (or at best they do for a short time and without passion); there is no intrinsic motivation. But the idea of Destinations in this context actually emerged from the Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Switch”; this is an excellent book – very insightful on supporting change through motivating appropriately and levelling up. The following ideas are extremely relevant to our approach of leadership, with our use of Destinations coming from their discussion on how organisations should point to the destination. It is true that a simple list of words, like those presented below (whilst they link to talk of aspects required for change) is often all that is required to prompt powerful reflection on leadership and leading change. We particularly like the power of Point to the direction – Follow the bright spots – Grow your people – Build Habits. In four statements we have a philosophy of leadership that travels and builds capacity and ownership for improvement.


John West-Burnham describes the importance of describing preferred futures.

Successful and credible leaders are able to tell compelling and credible stories about the future – they are leaders to the extent that people accept and value the future they describe. – In the 1970s Shell developed an approach that required identification of preferred scenarios…that are essentially descriptions of a preferred future.” (John West-Burnham, 2012)

Our preferred futures and stories of the future; our Destinations are: (click to enlarge)


Having five destinations does not secure improvement on their own. It is the delivery, the leadership ethos and the structure that enables the journey, owned by many that triggers the owenership and improvement component to our model of leadership. The Destination (Delivery) Groups lead our journeys. led by a VP or AP who lead through others (1.8…2.3). Each group has 6-8 members taken from across the Academy, a Councillor (Governor), at least one Head of Year and Curriculum Leader, and meet fortnightly. This is a great opportunity for any staff to gain strategic experience and influence beyond their area: to make a whole-academy difference and realise their ability and influence. Taken together over 30 members of staff lead toward our strategic destinations. The remit of each Destination (Delivery) Group:

  • Own and work toward the Destination
  • Have c. 10 levers (actions) that will be delivered within 50 and 100 day cycles. Two and a bit of which exist in any one year…toward a 250 days. The levers are those that have impact (20:80 and Tipping Point sought – Gladwell)
  • The group leads through others and supports innovation around each of the levers, at the same time driving ever-greater consistency – communicated and secured across the Academy (through the group and not SLT)
  • The Group evidences improvement and uses data to confirm and show impact.
  • Progress is communicated to Staff Briefings, Curriculum Leaders, Year Team and SLT meetings.

The benefits of this distribution and ownership are amazingly numerous and powerful; we keep finding unexpected, unintended impact. The destination sets direction, expectation and ambition without stating How and What to achieve the destination; this is owned at depth through each Delivery Group (>30 staff involved), regular connectivity of individuals (and their knowledge and thoughts) who are often closer to the action and better able to understand and simplify complexity, improvement and new approaches are owned and communicated through the middle and to depth, enabling change to be owned and sustained. Even better, the groups build consistency whilst being freed to innovate around these key levers with anyone in the organisation – proper distributed leadership. Every individual works closely with at least one other individual working in these groups, easing communication and ability to influence change. The Academy works equally toward all areas of improvement, not reliant on the energy or ability of the senior leaders in an organisation. Momentum and pace is achieved through 50 and 100 days plans and the collective desire to (compete) deliver a greater impact than other Delivery groups (units? Barber). This creates the following structure (see diagram below) with the dots representing individuals, D1.1 a key lever and the bars at the top taken from the diagram above. Again the power of this visual representation is important for improvement (as is the need to present on A3 paper!) – people read and engage with well-presented A3 and struggle to engage in stapled A4 handouts (great way to bury good ideas!)


Before departing from part two of our influences, the Heaths also highlight the importance of “bright spots” and share a great example around Jerry Sternin and how, through finding bright spots within villages, where children were unexpectedly bigger than other children, he enabled sharing of feeding approaches that reduced malnutrition rates – growing bright spots to have a disproportionate impact. At Brunel we know that within the Academy there are very good/outstanding practices and approaches, and that where we find these “positive deviant practices” we connect it, share it and give it high profile – a key part of the work of the Delivery groups. This levels staff-up around leveraging approaches. Where these “bright spots are shared across the staff there is peer-learning and reflection, and adoption. This happens in a way that SLT will always struggle to achieve, because people do not do what they are told. This is a key element of our distribution at Brunel where CPD, teaching briefings, delivery groups, middle leader meetings etc. connect staff and enable sharing of practice around the bright spots and accelerate toward our destinations by balancing innovation around shared bright spots that generate a consistency of approach that leverage improvement.


If this part is about vision, setting the destinations and finding the structures to liberate individuals through bright spots, part three of this blog looks at the role of Simon Sinek, who has dramatically influenced our thinking and approach – supporting how we work and our principles of engagement within this structure. “Poor leaders push us towards the goal. Great leaders guide us through the journey.” (Simon Sinek) It is amazing how linked these authors are on what drives great leadership in organisations; unfortunately it usually contrasts with the default, first instinct view of leadership in schools and across education.

Dr Dan Nicholls


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Part One: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

Part One: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership


“You can get to Good by pointing and telling, but to get to outstanding you require wide ownership for improvement.”

 “You have to tighten up to be good. You loosen to become outstanding.” (Dougill et al. 2011 – Getting to the next level…)

So…how do you sustain improvement through wide ownership…so that the system self-improves…and a legacy of achievement and wide community impact is secured?

leadership words2

(Click to enlarge our leadership words) The collection of words represent a range of thoughts and prompts around developing an approach to distributed leadership  and encapsulate a number of the guiding principles that we use at Bristol Brunel Academy. In truth you set and gather a view of how to lead and develop leadership within an Academy, apply the approach and be amazed at the potential released within the staff. It quickly becomes evident that to consider returning to a top-down, command and control, leader-follower model of leadership (the default model of public sector leadership) would be significantly retrogressive. I accept this where Academies are in a category that Command and Control is absolutely the only approach to drive and compel change quickly; Michael Barber would describe this as necessary to shift from awful to adequate – useful but no cause for celebration.

In this first blog on our leadership approach we intend to develop and record the influences that have shaped the leadership approach at Brunel. Early in our journey the work of Seth Godin provided an early challenge. His Tribes and Linchpin books provide excellent descriptions of developing individuals to bring Art to work, to be creative and develop into a linchpin that link and connect widely (Gladwell would describe these as people as Connectors – Tipping Point). This question became our leadership challenge…


Godin has much to contribute to leadership within education: “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to become a tribe: a shared interest (vision) and a way to connect and communicate.” (Godin, Tribes) Increasingly important within our leadership is the need to connect staff often, meaning that boring meeting structures become central to enabling a learning community to connect. “Leaders lead when they take positions, when they connect with their tribes, and when they help the tribe to connect with itself.” (Godin, Tribes) Malcolm Gladwell has identified 150 as an ideal group/tribe size – for connecting people around an idea and for the community to feel that they know and feel a part of the movement. Interesting to consider 150 in term of staff size, year group size, Academy chain size. Our final input from Godin is great, “Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” What is particularly powerful at Brunel is the idea that all leaders “Lead through others.” Why? because it builds capacity to depth within the organisation and it is exactly that capacity that is required to move through good to outstanding. Command and control will not do it – are we asking the right questions/have the right criteria about what outstanding leadership in schools should be?

So we know that we need to distribute our leadership, and that if we expect a lot and trust the people we work with, we can allow them to bring Art to work, own and sustain improvement and release their potential to secure a legacy. It is also important that Academy structures facilitate connectivity and that leaders “lead through others.” So at Brunel we talk about leaders having a1.8 influence. An example: if you take an Assistant Principal and tell them to ‘do’ Assessment and Reporting and that is what they do, any development in that area is limited to their energy, ability and desire; they instigate 1/2/3 projects each year that involve them in the ‘doing’; or if you are the timetabler who locks themselves away for 3 months; or you manage curriculum, but simply tell people what they can and can’t do; or you’re in charge of behaviour, but spend everyday firefighting issues; or you’re a Vice Principal who self evaluates and spends the year observing and running reviews, coercing staff involvement without input – then your impact is 1.0. However, if leading through others is the ethos and the expectation is that as a leader you should havean influence of 1.8 growing to 2.3…2.5 requiring a strategic approach and the ability to trust others to deliver across a wide area, then we begin to facilitate change and see sustainable improvement.


By having trust and giving ownership for change our influence increases. Do this and capacity grows; staff suddenly have vertical opportunity and influence to lead the Academy and have wider influence. You push the decision making to the action, creating leader: leader relationships (more in a later blog).The system is not reliant on the energy, knowledge, ability or desire of an individual to flog their 1.0 influence. This is about increasing and developing linchpins and connectors within schools whose influence through others releases potential and secures improvement. The difference between making a small bang and a big bang. In this model you see your success through others….which leads us to the importance of conversation over to-do-lists, building trust and humility, but that is also for later.

Dr Dan Nicholls


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PISA – So what?

PISA – so what?

December saw the publication of the PISA tables comparing the performance of 15 year olds in over 60 countries/areas in maths, reading and science. The UK ranked in the 20s and is very close to the overall average. What can we learn? … a few things…(largely based on Michael Barber’s essay, Oceans of Innovation)
Why do Pacific Asian Nations fill the top 5 positions?…
  • They perform well in PISA designed tests – on average students in Singapore are 3 years ahead of UK students (further ahead of the US).
  • These nations have a strong cultural commitment not just to education, but also to the belief that effort will be rewarded. The focus on hard work over talent is one reason they lead the way. The UK and US are held back by the talent myth, a belief that “you are born clever, or not.”
  • High Floor, education needs to get everyone onto a platform of high minimum standards. “Some Pacific Asian societies have been more successful at providing a high floor under every student’s feet.” Impressively, weaker students as well as the more able do well in these Pacific Asian nations.
  • Education and teaching is highly regarded: “Education is the most important investment one can make to prepare for the future. It unlocks human potential, equips people with the knowledge to thrive and enables them to achieve their aspirations” Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister, Singapore
  • There is a high level of uniformity in these nations; it is this that enables a high floor of performance and a strong acquisition of knowledge and application. It is this that supports high performance in PISA tests that reward both knowledge and application of knowledge. Students put in the hours.
  • The strong cultural bias toward education reinforces that all students are seen as…” responsible to his family, community and nation.” Builds high compliance and uniformity, as well as high development of knowledge and thought.
“The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system…has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future.”  Ministry of Education, Singapore
However, if we look at where innovation and creativity exist in the world we look to America and London. Michael Barber points to the depth of diversity in these areas that enable skills of leadership, collaboration and entrepreneurial talent. Where Asian Pacific nations deliver in uniformity and equity (high floor) they struggle to deliver the diversity and opportunity to be innovative and to lead (no ceiling).  (short Barber video)
“Pacific Asian systems have much to learn from some Atlantic systems, especially perhaps Sweden, England and parts of the US. As Arne Duncan, US secretary of education explains, ‘the US is still ahead in experimentation … our decentralised system has its pros and cons, but one of the biggest pros is that it can generate great ideas.” (Michael Barber, Oceans of Innovation) 
For the UK the challenge is to create equity in the system (a higher floor) where all students achieve a minimum expected level of knowledge and application (like the Pacific Asian nations), so that the diversity that, in part, exists, encourages leadership and innovation  – at present a wide range of students lack core skills and knowledge to take advantage of the diversity and opportunities available in the Atlantic countries and cultures. There are also needs around valuing, recruiting and training quality teachers and shifting cultural attitudes toward education and learning.
And the Academy level this may indicate that
  • Building knowledge and application of knowledge is important.
  • Creating a work ethic in students – that confirms that anything is possible with effort.  Dispel the talent myth.
  • Continue our high expectations and go further to secure abnormal attitudes and behaviours based on our context.
  • Focus on equity; tracking, teaching and intervening to secure a high floor for students. (greater equity and uniformity) – an academy of outliers
  • To build on this high floor to secure the opportunities and approaches that remove the ceiling; supporting students and providing the opportunities to think, develop leadership and be innovative.
Will the Pacific create the diversity necessary to build on their high-floor, uniformity, strong knowledge and application base to take a lead in the world? (The Ministry of Education, Singapore website suggests that developing this diversity is planned) Or will the Atlantic nations remove the talent myth, generate a higher (equitable) floor of knowledge and application, re-value education – to enable the diversity, the opportunity and innovation that will take a lead in this century?
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” Albert Einstein
Dr Dan Nicholls
Principal – Bristol Brunel Academy