The VNET Curriculum Conference beyond the What & the How #1

Ofsted’s lead researcher. A unicorn in red. An inclusion specialist off his meds. A flute playing chemistry professor. A grand old man. Some philosopher-CEOs. And a teacher with digital traction in New York, Tyne & Wear. What do they have in common?

Well, aside from the fact that they spoke at Friday’s VNET Curriculum Conference?

I personally felt that all of my experiences as a Danish Cooperative Learning consultant in the United Kingdom came together beautifully in this conference. To my joyful amazement, the question of why was a prominent feature throughout the conference, rather than the what and how I was somehow expecting to be lectured on.

This new series of articles ties together the narrative that unfolded as each speaker progressively shared their work and vision for the future of education. These articles are also intended as permanent reference points to stay inspired in the daily hubbub. I am indebted to the many colleagues who motivated me at the conference. Please find links to videos interviews with some of them further down.

Because these articles connect Cooperative Learning seamlessly to all three areas of focus in the new framework, it will be of special interest to the many schools which have worked with me, or are considering doing so.

Thank you to the speakers – and again to VNET’s hardworking team. You have outdone yourselves this time.

[VNET – 2 minutes to read; Ofsted – 6 minutes to read; Clare Fletcher – 3 minutes to read]


vnet is for victory

VNET – V is for Victory

Denise Walker, VNET’s indomitable Director, opened at 8.45 am with the good news of Norfolk’s impressive improvements since Sir Michael’s unhelpful comments some years back. With around 85% of schools now judged “good” or better, it’s clear the county didn’t take his remarks lying down.

However, Denise was not about to let anyone rest on their laurels. Rather, VNET’s impressive lineup of speakers indicated that we are now ready to move to the next stage which lies beyond mere statistical achievement. While VNET will continue the relentless drive to put quality teaching first (pun intended), Denise reminded us that leadership development on all levels is absolutely crucial to provide the relevant context, content and long-range vision for that good classroom practice.

And then she asked, “Why can’t our curriculum be the best in the country?” Was it microphone feedback, or was it the proverbial gauntlet being thrown?

Why not, indeed?


Image result for speed bumps ahead sign

Ofsted – another new framework

Enter Ofsted’s head of research, Professor Daniel Muijs.

I’m assuming all readers have at this point at least skimmed through the draft framework. In simple terms, three things are in focus:

  1. Intent – WHAT is taught.
  2. Implementation – HOW is taught.
  3. Impact – Measuring the effect of 1 & 2.

Implementation has already been demonstrated by hundreds of teachers in local schools using Cooperative Learning with the current curriculum, so there’s no point in stating the obvious here. For example (thanks not least to the hard work of my co-author and fellow Cooperative Learning aficionado Drew Howard) RightforSuccess Trust’s formerly disintegrating schools are now following  Stalham Academy to the top of the charts, especially in reading where they come in at 6th place out of 240 MATs. As for the framework’s supposed impact on fixed term exclusions, come to the Banish Exclusions event with Adam Mason of Fakenham on February 7. “All done fo’ya!” as we say in these parts.

But how Cooperative Learning addresses the question of Intent is less self-explanatory. Until, that is, we follow Denise and her speakers upwards towards the next level by going down the rabbit hole. I will use Ofsted’s research behind the 2019 framework to elaborate.

First a quick digression: At its core, Cooperative Learning is a tool to organise, drive and monitor dialogical encounters within groups. It is not a linear one-way conversation. It also does not assume shared starting points. (As teachers, we have stepped confidently into our classroom with the best-laid plan only to find that Catherine in the back row thinks the enumerator is the denominator, Bobby and Carol were not present in the last maths lesson and have no clue what we are talking about and Ryan (remember him?) thinks this is a history lesson and is cutting out Celtic warriors from your colour-printed handouts. Sunday afternoon’s planning down the toilet. Been there, done that. Flush).

Cooperative Learning takes this mishmash into account and integrates it into a differentiated learning process without a whole lot of teacher work because any direct instruction from the teacher is followed by an opportunity to negotiate understanding with the (potentially) “more knowledgeable other.” This, of course, assumes we are in the school which has already decided on a curriculum in which we can instruct the children.

This brings us full circle back to Ofsted who now tells us the curriculum is up for grabs, along with free reign on how to teach it, because, as Professor Muijs revealed, the organisation’s researchers have discovered that the “measurement ethos” has unhappily served to create a “narrow curriculum.” Yes, who would have thought it?

But Ofsted did not need even one PhD researcher to work that out. They only had to ask the teachers. That’s all. £2.4 million saved, and a couple of more million worth of wasted time, emotional strain and staff meetings with too much coffee and sleepless nights, as this atrophies into another hoop for schools to jump through.

To really hammer it home: Instead of asking, Ofsted based the new framework draft on “researchers and inspectors” “inspecting” 23 hand-picked schools. (It was originally 30, but snowstorms prevented inspectors from reaching the rest because the only opportunity to involve schools as partners was crammed into two winter months only. No, this is apparently not a joke. If proper conversations had been the norm, delegates would not have responded to speaker Robert Cambell’s  (@robcampbe11) impromptu voxpop on Ofsted with the word “fear” and suggestions Ofsted be closed. (I do really have the greatest respect for the professor for showing up).

If proper conversations had been the norm, delegates would not have responded to Robert Cambell’s impromptu voxpop on Ofsted with the word “fear.” 

I’m fully aware that the framework is only in a draft stage and that Ofsted is inviting all of us to participate in an online survey. But here we are back to the central problem of the teacher’s assumption we discussed above. Who says that framework is what schools want or need? This is exactly what happened to the Chartered College and their ambitious, and very noble, quality assurance initiative. The college essentially made whole host of unilateral decisions based on assumptions, and then ran a linear survey process which reflected these rather than involving stakeholders in a long-term co-creative conversation from the outset.

“…we don’t know the full impact of our own behaviour on others’ lives – think ripples in a pond.”

Vic Goddard, 5 unintended consequences of the new Ofsted framework, SchoolsWeek,  20 Jan 2019.

For example, if you really want to explore what relevant curriculum might look like, asking would have revealed that schools in Newcastle are 10 years ahead of the curve. And if you’d stretched that conversation to the rest of society, which is counting on schools for its future survival, you discover that lots and lots of businesses, big and small, are happy to take part and contribute to that process.

Because, as Robert (whom we will get to later) warned, we should not decide what should be taught and how it should be taught before we have asked why it should be taught. Why have education at all? To give the children life choices and agency? To make sure they can read and write? To inculcate fundamental British values? To make them responsible citizens? To connect and grow the local community directly? To provide factory workers? Knowledge workers? To overthrow or to strengthen current power structures? To do as they are told?

It’s that very first thing in the framework about Intent that Ofsted forgot to apply to themselves. I have already written about this previously in Ofsted & The Co-Creative conversation.

Now, enter Clare Fletcher, Director of Schools at the Yare Trust.



Clare Fletcher – A unicorn at the controls

With all that running through my mind, it was almost a surrealistic experience to have Clare Fletcher replace Professor Muijs on stage. As I remember it, she was wearing an extremely intense red to match the vitality of her message, which is summed up in the quote of the day: “It’s time for us to seize the agenda instead of waiting for others.”

For the past many years, I have been hammering MATs to engage in networked conversations. We have all heard schools complaining about the purchase of obscenely expensive one-size-fits all schemes, top-down decisions and attempts to reinvent wheels already spinning, sending schools further out of control.

“It’s time for us to seize the agenda instead of waiting for others.”

Clare Fletcher, Re-considering your curriculum: crazy cross-curricular or intelligent interdisciplinary, VNET Curriculum Conference, 18 January 2019.


So seeing Clare was like beholding a living unicorn: Here was a MAT which had actually allocated time and resources to run five organised afternoon sessions involving representatives from six schools, covering all phases and of wildly different sizes, and, in some cases, located miles apart. In the current environment, it takes guts to put your money where your mouth is. So hats off to Clare and her people.

And alas, this has been happening while I have been hard at work designing a new concept of such co-creative workshops for education networks to MATs and clusters to tackle this. If I had only known! (Follow on twitter for updates on my upcoming meeting on this with David Gurteen, one of the UKs leading experts on conversational leadership).

Here, I would like to make a vital point: that Co-Creative conversations contribute on every level. From huge organisations such as Ofsted and the Chartered College, to MATs and clusters , to parent meetings, to staff rooms in individual schools. For example, Ofsted’s research found a mismatch between leaders’ intentions and the actual implementation of the curriculum. Co-creative learning workshops would solve this, saving time, money and distress.

Leveraging the often silent knowledge of stakeholders and merging it into actionable intelligence simply makes sense in a world that is now so complex and so riddled with information-overloaded assumptions rather than exploration that no single leader alone, no matter his or her competence, can recognise what needs to be done.

I think that the Yare Trust and VNET have pointed the way: Networking effectively on the ground level is the only way forward for the education system.

But what do you think? This is not a world hospitable to unicorns. There is a whole set of issues about this notion of constructivism in the education system. As amazing a student-driven, child-centred, peer-to-peer project-based learning that involves the entire surrounding community sounds on paper, practice is something else. And very often, that practice is a destructive mess.

As amazing a student-driven, child-centred, peer-to-peer project-based learning that involves the entire surrounding community sounds on paper, practice is something else.

I have been invited onto the advisory board at what I see as the pinnacle of Newcastle University’s project-based learning initiative for one reason only: That the extremely tight structure of Cooperative Learning will put localised curriculum building and project-based learning within easy reach of any school without upsetting the apple cart (too much). You can read about their story so far their guide to schools.

That leaves us with Philosopher-CEO Robert Campbell of the Morris Education Trust, the inclusion specialist off his meds, the flute playing chemistry professor, the grand old man, the other philosopher-CEOs and the teacher with digital traction in New York, Tyne & Wear.

Stay tuned. It all comes together. Follow on Twitter or join the mailing list for updates.

(As always, views expressed on are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect the intentions of the speakers).


Some related links


Some related articles

On conversation, networking, Ofsted and Chartered College:





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