Research evidence, keeping the main thing, the main thing – but what is the main thing?

I started my tenth year at St Mary’s this year and my fourth as Head teacher. During this time we have always been focused on innovation and much of our work is based on literature and evidence from across the globe. Over the past 12 months St Mary’s was understandably distracted by two successful inspections and at the start of this year I have been able to shift my focus and the Academy’s back to evidence based approaches. Our work with Curee and research champions; and our recent research school status has certainly sharpened our focus so it was time to dust off Hattie -Visible learning (2008), follow the link to the EEF website and dive back into the evidence.

At a recent SLT meeting we were discussing our forthcoming futures day arrangements; a chance for students to consider their future aspirations and look at some of the possibilities out there. Assistant Head, Phil Brown (@listenleadlearn), reminded us of the EEF research into aspirational education, it has little or no effect on attainment.


Credit: EEF website

This is mirrored in Hattie (2008) as well, with careers education producing a d of 0.38, less than the 0.4 required to be considered in the zone of desired effects:

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Credit: Hattie (2008) Page 152.

This was one of the most useful challenges of the year so far, resulting in a huge amount of thinking that night. I could see how research evidence was weak in this area, but it felt completely wrong to write off an opportunity for some future aspirational planning for students. Then it occurred to me, Hattie’s work and that of the EEF are focused completely on gains in attainment. Whilst that is certainly our most important measure; is it the main thing?

I wrote my first and only blog (find it here) over a year ago now (interestingly before two inspections loomed on the horizon) about eulogy values versus cv values. Since then we have focused on “Who do people say I am?” This has helped to remind us that our mission as a school is to educate the whole child. This is the main thing and learning and attainment are a huge part of it, but not the only part. Attainment is of huge importance because our students need these cv values as a passport to their future, our role as a catholic academy lies in developing those eulogy values as well. The challenge in our position in Blackpool lies in finding the answer to the Holy Grail, how do you shift attainment in a predominantly white, working class coastal town. We have had some success here, but our attainment remains stuck at around national average, pretty good in a local context but we need to serve our pupils better.

Our focus for the year ahead lies in developing our expertise, through our work as a research school, in adopting an evidence based approach in our decision making; literacy, resilience and knowledge recall are three areas of interest. As a school leader I find myself searching for the levers we haven’t tried pulling yet, that will have the biggest impact, not just on attainment but the development of the whole child. This is followed by the challenge of deciding which things we are we going to stop doing in order to allow the capacity for them to happen. Our research school status will certainly help us to search out the answers it is definitely shaping up to be a thought provoking, research journey for the years to come!


Hattie, J. (2009)   Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.


CV or Eulogy? The power of reflective time…

When I took over the reins from my current Executive Director: Stephen Tierney, (@LeadingLearner) to become Headteacher at St Mary’s Catholic Academy nearly two years ago, I set out some simple targets for myself (more on this in a later post). A number of serving Heads I met on the various courses I attended were great advocates of keeping a journal, or writing a blog, as a way of reflecting on the learning journey of headship. When I have managed very sporadically to keep a journal of reflections, it has helped me to learn from my successes and mistakes. The challenge of a new job and the addition of our fourth bundle of joy, James Michael, 11 months ago has meant that I have struggled to always make available daily reflection time. Encouraged by the success of Stephen to venture into the world of blogging, and having experienced a moment of precious reflective time recently, I have finally constructed my first post and hopefully with it a vehicle to help me clarify my thoughts and reflect on my work more regularly. So here it is…

A recent visit by  @johntomsett to our Academy helped to affirm for me my belief that head teachers should look after their most precious resource well- I am a firm believer that a happy and fulfilled staff will result in happy fulfilled pupils. One of my continuing crusades is in refining our calendar, streamlining our processes and controlling the pace of change to allow staff to attempt a work life balance whilst focusing on the main thing… developing our pupils. My staff would be the first point out that there is still so much to do in this regard; but by happy coincidence one initiative that I introduced – a voluntary retreat for staff from across our trust- gave me a precious moment of time for reflection with colleagues and from it this post was born.

Our retreat explored the rich scripture story of the raising of Lazarus. In the story, Jesus on hearing of Lazarus’ illness, chooses to remain  where he is completing his work for two days, before travelling to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead. In our afternoon session we started to explore how Jesus had remained focused on finishing his work before allowing himself to be distracted and attend to his dear friend Lazarus. This made us reflect: What are the core purposes of our work as teachers that we shouldn’t get distracted from? A very thought provoking video clip, provided by Dave Gibson one of our Chaplaincy team, of New York Times political commentator David Brooks (@nytdavidbrooks) really gave us food for thought, and happily the retreat allowed me some very precious reflection time of my own to think this through.

Struck by a meeting with the Dalai Lama and the depth of his character, Brooks discusses the idea that in life there are two very distinct sets of virtues: the CV virtues and the Eulogy virtues. CV virtues are the things that make you good at your job: Maths skills, communication skills and so on. Eulogy virtues are the things that you would like people to say about you after you have died: whether you were honest, caring or capable of great love. The glowing tributes to the murdered MP Jo Cox not only invite our compassion and prayers, they also remind us of the virtues that make a person’s life important. I share Brooks’ concern that we live in a society focused largely on the CV virtues and less on the Eulogy virtues. A world where people pursue happiness through likes on social media; where a worryingly large proportion of young people have an ambition to be famous; a world where people have forgotten that true happiness and contentment is found in our inner-selves through our Eulogy virtues, and where success is measured too often through the accumulation of riches or power.

As I approach the start of a third year as Headteacher, this has really got me thinking . There has been much discussion in the twitter-sphere about a skills versus knowledge curriculum, and recent changes to exams and the national curriculum have reflected this discourse. I think this is a better framed question for discussion: ‘How do we make sure that our pupils leave us with the right balance of virtues?’ CV virtues which will allow them a passport to their future: numeracy, literacy 5A*-C at GCSE etc. Eulogy virtues which will make them into positive, balanced and rounded individuals: grit, character, love, generosity and so on. A good starting point to consider this balance will be to change our focus for students from “What do you want to be when you leave St Mary’s?” to “Who do you want to be when you leave St Mary’s?” We often talk at St Mary’s about providing our students with the best possible passport for their future – CV virtues. We are also deeply committed to our idea of “The St Mary’s way”: a set of ideals and protocols for how we should treat one another based on Jesus teachings – Eulogy virtues. Our challenge for next year will be to reflect as a staff on how we get the balance right; both for ourselves and for our students. As I plan next year’s calendar with my senior and middle leaders we are keeping this challenge at the forefront of our minds.

A final reflection on reflecting: it is amazing what comes out of allowing some dedicated reflection time!