Stalham Academy, What Went Right? Lesson#1: Getting your Head straight.

Even in a Formula One racing car, it all comes down to the driver. If they weren’t so skilled, Stalham Academy’s senior leadership should be wearing fireproof suits and crash helmets.

This is the first in a series of articles discussing how Stalham Academy used Cooperative Learning to get from special measures to top 500 with nothing but the 6-hour Skills & Mastery course.

Cooperative Learning will always generate very, very good teaching if you follow a few basic rules in your classrooms. However, before we get to what these are, there is the issue of Senior Leadership.

(For schools in the  Norfolk Better to Best network especially – given the increased focus on leadership in relation to teaching and learning – this first article is a must).

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What to do with something that can do everything?

As an external visitor to schools, I don’t walk in and tell teachers what to do. I believe they know their strengths, styles, learners, subjects and resources far better than I. Rather, I give a hands-on demonstration of how a set of content-free Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns (CLIPs) generate instant outstanding student-centred learning. I then hammer home that they are not required to – and indeed should not – use Cooperative Learning all the time in every lesson. I do everything to avoid delivering a straitjacket system. Cooperative Learning will only, in fact, do what you want it to when you want.

But precisely this “what you want” may be the head’s Achilles heel; what Senior Leadership chooses to do with Cooperative Learning after the training will in most cases determine what your school gets out of it. This holds true for Cooperative Learning as much as for any other CPD. We all know about bad habits and the gravity pull towards default. So what did Stalham Academy do right to avoid the black hole of bad habits?

Getting to grips with gravity

Andrew Howard, then acting head of Stalham Academy, decided to bring the school out of special measures virtually overnight, and so he did. But certain other schools have not achieved lesser goals in spite of running more CPD.

The advice that follows is based on certain assumptions that I hold:

First, I assume you want to work with me because you have some recognition of what Cooperative Learning can do. On the surface, it is true Cooperative Learning is “simply another strategy among many to get students talking.” But in fact, this is similar the now-famous 1943 statement by the then Director of IBM, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” That was not one of IBMs finer moments.

Second, I assume that Senior Leadership is to be held entirely responsible for the school – its ethos, results, staff retention, materials, the lot. If anything goes wrong, it is on them. Not poor teachers, not misbehaved children, not the lack of an IT-guy. At the very end, it’s all on the head.

Have you got a head on your shoulders?

If the school is the body, SLT is the nervous system. But what is the nervous system without, precisely, the head.

If yours is like most schools, the head navigates the complex role of soul doctor, mediator, and visionary, while constantly risking having its higher level thinking side-tracked by tasks it should really not be doing. When you drive, you do not consciously give commands to your foot to press the clutch or to your hand to shift gears. Bits of the nervous system do that for you. Rather, your head has the overview of the direction and potential traffic jams – It makes the life-and-death choices at the wheel.

Thus the first condition of Stalham’s success is the front line leadership of Andrew Howard.

From our first conversation, even without understanding in detail what Cooperative Learning was, he knew what he wanted it to do. Once we had outlined and delivered the first 2-hour slot of CPD, he followed it up with stick and carrot, guiding, nurturing, and challenging his teachers, observing them and coaching them, refining their use of the CLIPs, identifying lesson plan objectives, producing and organising targeted resources, etc.

Parent meeting Andrew Howard lesson presentation
Mr Howard in action, Stalham Academy, 2015.

Right for Success Trust hit the jackpot when they secured Glenn Russell to head the school. I know many an incumbent headteacher who would have walked in and made his mark by undoing all current programmes to make way for his own ideas. Not so with Glenn; for him, the children came first, and he correctly assessed, as he said in an interview “…the teaching is very, very good.” He simply brought his superior education and experience to bear, further refining and integrating data tracking and assessment, complementing and strengthening Andrew Howard’s in-class initiatives.

Problems & Solutions

In summary, this is Lesson One for schools wanting to copy Stalham’s success:

  1. Know what you want to achieve and tell me.
  2. Follow up the deployment of the CPD in the classroom.

As for number one, aside from the initial meeting, which is part and parcel of any budding relationship, I have begun to offer headteachers help to turn vision into flesh and bones. Not necessarily because they are not good heads, but because they are busy, swamped, and I should make their life easier. One of the brilliant things about Cooperative Learning is that once experienced, its application is so practical and its outcomes so delineated it’s almost like working with lego brick (or just “legos” as they say here in Norfolk). It very quickly gives SLT and governors a roadmap, with clear signposts to guide direction and measure the progress of roll-out.

As for number two, I assume that observing and coaching the men and women directly responsible for teaching is an embedded routine, and if not, it should be. Because the CLIPs are all about practical application, it is very easy for an observer to check they are being deployed in classrooms.  Remember that delivery is usually in short twilights so you can focus on one or at most two CLIPs per time. However, because of the incredible versatility of CLIPs, you need to break up the first couple into manageable chunks. Each one is a Swiss Army Knife in its own right. You need to distinguish all the tools, to pull them out at the right time and in the right order for the job. Are you looking for assessment? Do this. Formative or summative? Do that. Do you want written evidence? Do this. Etc.

So, in response to the needs of specific schools, I have spent time developing a “Deployment Plan” to further help SLT secure successful deployment of Cooperative Learning without having to do extra work. Rather than doing everything at once all over the place, this plan presents objectives with crystal clear success criteria which allows SLT to track each teacher and give him or her the support needed. By making sure teachers experience success, the element of empowerment is sufficient motivation for the teacher and the students to fuel success.

Small successful steps where everyone feels on board are preferable to arm-waving ambitions with big failures. But even the greatest journey starts with small steps.

So if you choose Cooperative Learning, trust you have made the right decision, work with people to feel safe getting onboard and press the speeder – gently, but firmly.

For next instalment follow on twitter. is the business end of

For video interviews with SLT and staff, visit the Gallery.



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