A guide to this blog

I write about teaching, research, the curriculum and assessment, as well as teacher training, leadership and the wider education system.


Here’s what I think would improve our teaching:

















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Which knowledge?

I often ask pupils at family lunch at Michaela what their favourite subject is. Many of them reply, ‘I love every subject, sir!’ What we choose to teach plays a big part in how much our pupils love learning. 

At Michaela, we decide which knowledge to teach based on three principles: schemata, challenge, and coherence.


Our aim is to help pupils remember everything they are learning, and master the most important content. To this end, subject content knowledge is best organised into the most memorable schemata. So we organise history and English literature chronologically. We start in Year 7 with classical antiquity: in History we study Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Roman Britain; in Religion, we study polytheism, The Old and New Testament, Judaism and Christianity; in English, we study Greek mythology, The Odyssey, Roman Rhetoric, epic poetry and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; in Art, we study Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, sculpture and architecture. Chronological, cumulative schemata help pupils remember subject knowledge in the long-term: not for ten weeks or ten months, but for ten years and beyond.

EngHums Dovetailing hidden bodies of knowledge in 5 hours of English and 5 hours of Humanities


The subject knowledge we choose to teach our pupils to master is the most vital and the most challenging content. The pupils we teach often arrive at school far behind, unable to read fluently or multiply. Many have a vocabulary of under 6,000 words, while wealthier pupils often have over 12,000. So the opportunity cost of anything other than the most challenging subject content is high. Only the most challenging topics with the most stretching vocabulary, combined with high support so all pupils understand and use it accurately, will allow them to compete academically with the 96% of private school pupils who reach University. We dedicate extended teaching time for mastery of grammar, spelling and vocabulary, the hidden bodies of knowledge that make for accurate writing. Our pupils will have vivid memories of reading some of the most complex and beautiful texts ever written: Shakespeare’s Othello, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Orwell’s 1984, Malcolm X’s autobiography, Duffy’s The Worlds’ Wife, and Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom.


Subject knowledge we select dovetails cohesively across and between subjects. At Michaela, our pupils will remember Year 7 as the year they learnt about classical civilisation. Across subjects, they are making exciting connections. Sacrifice, for instance, recurs in the stories of Abraham and Isaac in religion, with Agamemnon and Iphigenia or Minos and Theseus in Greek mythology. Across English and Science, the planet Mercury is named after the swift Greco-Roman messenger god as it is the fastest-moving planet, taking 88 days to orbit the sun. A dovetailed knowledge curriculum allows pupils to make these fascinating connections for themselves, and understand the ideas of democracy, dictatorship, hubris, nemesis, tragedy and monotheism from their early origins.

In short, we select challenging, sequenced, coherent schemata within and across subjects, so that our pupils remember what they’ve learned for years to come.

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A Knowledge-led School

A knowledge curriculum can be a powerful force in combating educational inequality.

One of our ambitions at Michaela Community School, which opened this year in Wembley, is to place knowledge at the heart of education.

We believe, as Francis Bacon did in 1597, that knowledge is power: it empowers all children to achieve, choose their future and decide what legacy they’d like to leave.

We believe that broad cultural and historical knowledge improves all pupils’ academic achievement, especially poorer pupils. Even the very weakest pupils can study the greatest books ever written, such as Frankenstein, Oliver Twist and Animal Farm. All pupils deserve the chance to see Shakespearean theatre, fine art and classical music as accessible to them, not alien to them: access which richer pupils take for granted. Knowing about democracy, its origins, evolution and discontents empowers pupils to make their own minds up as citizens in politics, referenda and elections.

We believe that powerful mathematical and scientific knowledge empowers pupils to choose among the most competitive and selective vocations, such as (to name just a few) medicine, finance, engineering, technology and law, as well as to appreciate how the world works, in all its wonder.

Science backs these beliefs. Over a century of research into memory, learning and the mind has produced conclusions that are not scientifically challengeable:

WillinghamKnowledge   LongTermMemory

As cognitive scientist John Anderson says, ‘All there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produce complex cognition.’ Our logic is as follows:

The more knowledge you remember, the more curious you become.

The more knowledge you remember, the more intelligent you become.

The more knowledge you remember, the more you achieve academically.

The more knowledge you remember, the more choices you have for your future.

That is why we place the liberating force of knowledge at the heart of our school. Only a cohesive, cumulative, carefully sequenced knowledge curriculum will close the 10,000 word vocabulary gap between the poorest and wealthier pupils aged 11, narrow the 28% gap in GCSE attainment between poorest and wealthier pupils aged 16, and reduce the 80% gap between poorest and private school pupils attending University aged 18. The reason we want all pupils to have secure subject knowledge is because we think it is the best route to social justice.

A knowledge curriculum can be a powerful force in combating educational inequality. We hope that in time, knowledge-led schools will win the hearts and minds of the teaching profession.


Next blogpost, I’ll turn to the question: which knowledge?

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The Signal and The Noise: The Blogosphere in 2014


It felt like the blogosphere increased in ‘noise’ in 2014. The Echo Chamber went from under 2,000 blogposts in 2013 to over 6,000 in 2014. Teacher voice online is proliferating, spurred on by the astonishing energy of the edubloggers’ commander-in-chief, Andrew Old (who unmasked himself in 2014).

Here is my small effort to tune into to the ‘signal’ of some of the best blogposts and bloggers over the year.

My Top 14 bloggers of 2014

  • Andrew Smith
  • Cazzy
  • Daisy Christodoulou
  • David Didau
  • David Thomas
  • Harry Fletcher Wood
  • Harry Webb
  • Heather F
  • Jo Facer
  • Kev Bartle
  • Kris Boulton
  • Phil Stock
  • Sam Freedman
  • Tom Sherrington

Top 14 posts of 2014 on this blog

Top 14 books I read in 2014

Moonwalking    RobertPeal


I’ll end with 3 of my highlights of the year, 3 trends I see, and 3 of my hopes for 2015:

3 Highlights of 2014

Starting a free school with an amazing team – Katharine, Katie, Bodil, Jonny, Olivia, Barry, I am so lucky to work with you!

Visiting Trinity Dixons Academy with its inspiring leadership – thank you so much Dani, Wes and Luke!

Meeting Doug Lemov and his wonderful family with Bodil and Jo – thank you Doug!

3 Trends in 2014

The Rise and Rise of ResearchED: amazing energy from Tom, Helene and the team

OFSTED Reach Out: edubloggers have been holding their feet to the fire

Core Knowledge gains influence: Daisy Christodoulou, the tide is with you!

3 Hopes for 2015

OFSTED stop grading teaching

Research(ED) Leads forge a network to lead the teaching profession

Michaela develops a powerful knowledge-led curriculum, pioneering mastery assessment system, unprecedentedly effective CPD, unusually low-burnout staff culture and habitually kind, motivated pupils!

Here’s to finding the signal amid the noise in 2015!

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Educating Bradford: Dixons Trinity Academy


‘Mastery, autonomy and purpose are part of everything we do.’  

Blaine, Guide, Year 8


‘I’d like my legacy to be: she was a world-leading anthropologist’  

Saleka, Guide, Year 9


‘It’s not revolutionary; the difference is, if we say it, we mean it and it happens’  

Luke Sparkes, Headteacher


‘We [teachers] don’t want to go home at half-term. And we’re so excited to see our pupils again at the end of the holidays- I love them!’

 Dani Quinn, Head of Maths


‘Would it affect my 100% attendance, if I left for a doctor’s appointment and then came back, Miss?’  

Kamile, Year 8


“We’re running a poetry slam? Who wants to go to the hall?”

Year 9 pupil, followed by a hundred Year 9s to watch the poetry slam they’d organised.


‘The pupils and teachers are so happy here!’  

Katie Ashford, visitor


In a city known as a tinderbox after riots in 2001, you don’t necessarily expect to find an inspiring school. But that is what inspectors found in 2014, and what I found when I visited this week for the first day of their third year.



Dixons Trinity Academy were the first secondary free school to be rated outstanding by Ofsted. Students make 19 months reading progress in 9 months. 100% of staff and students strongly agree that behaviour is good. 100% of students agree that adults in the school care about them. 100% of parents agree that the school is well-led and managed. The inspection report says: “The academy’s core values of hard work, trust and fairness are fundamental in securing students’ outstanding achievement and behaviour”.


How have they done it? How have they made being smart and hard work cool? How come their pupils, parents and teachers are so happy? How does the school create so much buy-in?


The strong culture and powerful intrinsic motivation works wonders. Strong, caring, trusting relationships at all levels are invest the pupils in their school. Pupils internalise the culture because they know staff genuinely care. Pupils are explicitly taught good habits, with constant modelling, daily reminders and continual reinforcement of the benefits, rationale and purpose of these, until they can articulate it themselves.


Thanks to the initiative of Dani Quinn and Bodil Isaksen, I visited with Katie Ashford, and here are just some of the lessons I learned:



Family Dining

Legacy Sentences

Reward Events

Parental Outreach





For Dixons Trinity, what motivates them is Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. What they value is Trust, Hard Work and Fairness. These are reinforced all the time, and explicitly twice every day in assemblies and advisories (tutor time) and. Because these are the same for both pupils and staff, it makes it very genuine and heart-felt when communicating the value of them to pupils. All the teachers and pupils I spoke to say these drivers permeate everything. They reinforce the vital importance of them continually. Everything is explained and purposely ‘over-rationalised’: four or five reasons are given for every decision, to show it’s about purpose not power. They also teach their pupils explicitly about how their minds work: for instance, system 1 and system 2. You hear snippets of conversation in advisory where pupils are saying things like: ‘that’s system 2, right, miss?’ Pupils visit Universities and climb ‘mountains’ like Helvellyn in induction, to help them see that the ‘hard work’ of climbing the (real) mountain can be an joyful and happy process, albeit a challenging one, where they learn about themselves and the world. Once back in school, teachers can link this back to seeing climbing metaphorical mountains as hard work, but also enjoyable.



Family Dining

Family dining is where pupils and teachers sit together to serve each other a nutritious meal, and parents are invited too. Every pupil takes a responsible role. *Appreciations* are volunteered from pupils afterwards to show gratitude to others. All their pupils have adult interactions every lunchtime, so that when they go out into the world they are used to having professional conversations. Instead of a slop-service canteen, where pushing and excluding might affect vulnerable pupils, this creates a lovely family atmosphere.




Legacy Sentences

These capture the story of the school in 1 sentence:

‘The academy ensured that all students succeeded at University or a real alternative, thrived in a top job, and great life.’


Pupils in the pioneer year groups are reminded regularly that the school is what they make it:

“You’re creating our school. You are creating a legacy. You set the example for future years.”


Pupils draft their aspirational life legacy in the past tense. They consider what they want to have achieved by the end of their lives, and write it in a single sentence to make it memorable:

“He was a world-leading doctor” 

“She was a inspirational teacher”

This can evolve over the years or stay constant. 


Reward Events

These are not necessarily reward trips, and are privileges rather than entitlements. Only those with 100% attendance and 0 detentions go; around 50% of pupils make the four reward events a year. This makes all of them very, very motivated to always, always attend school. Examples are going to the Magna Science Adventure Centre, a cinema film with popcorn, or a graffiti artist in for the day.


Parental Outreach

Before parents sign to confirm their child’s place, they all come in to school for an assembly and a smaller meeting with a member of SLT in groups of ten. During this meeting, the expectations of the school are clarified and the home-academy agreement is signed.


Teachers visit all 40 of the feeder primary schools between May and July to understand more about the new intake. They clear the timetables of certain teachers for six weeks to make this happen.


Here are some snippets of senior leader conversations with parents:

“We know you want the same things as we do.

We have a no grudges culture.

We are unhappy if you are unhappy.

This is unacceptable and we know you will think this is unacceptable too.

I’ll be hardline, and you support me.”


They build trust by getting parents in as soon as there’s a confrontation, and by returning phone calls as soon as possible.



The school has academy reps who design and deliver their own tours around the school and write their own scripts. These are often the most highly motivated and articulate pupils. However, the headteacher Luke Sparkes has asked the two most challenging pupils in year 7 to conduct the tour, and the feedback from visitors was just as positive as for other reps. Other teachers said that any pupil could lead this.



Neither observations nor teacher are graded – instead, teachers are trusted to be autonomous. Effective formative assessment is expected to be seen in all lessons, but beyond this priority there is no enforced rubric and no numerical judgements. Instead, there’s a coaching culture of CPD based on personalised, twice-weekly practice.






The lasting impression that I left with is that this is a school with a lot of love. You come away feeling inspired, buzzing with the positivity that everyone there inspires you with. Dixons Trinity is changing the life chances of their children, and transforming their Bradford community.

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On observation rubrics


‘the dark irony and cruelty of hegemony is that teachers take pride in acting on the very assumptions that work to enslave them’

Graded observations must go. I’ve argued before that they are this year’s brain gym; I’ve shown the damaging impact on teachers in around 50 anecdotes; and I set out several alternative solutions other than grading. Now I want to compare some observation rubrics that schools use.


Matt O Leary asked me a while back to review his book Classroom Observation. Here is his argument:

The high-stakes nature of performance management-driven observation for monitoring and measuring militates against professional development; school leaders must challenge the hegemony of graded observations and redesign observation as a tool for reciprocal learning, decoupled from summative high-stakes grading.

‘Good teaching is a contested area and cannot be easily defined … any search for a simple model of good teaching is ultimately doomed to failure.’ 

‘There’s a mismatch between teachers’ work and the means used to evaluate it – managerial models fail to capture the complexity – they fail because they are flawed.’

‘Some of the key qualities of the good teacher are often not observable – humour, compassion, enthusiasm, determination…’

‘Why do we insist on grading teachers against this arbitrary Ofsted 4-point scale?’

‘There is no published research which shows that meaningful grading is possible.’

‘Other professions such as medicine and law are not subjected to this arbitrary system of measurement. Why can’t the same apply to teachers?’

‘The failure of the teaching profession to reach any agreed consensus on what constituted best practice meant that it was at the mercy of whichever political wind was blowing.’

While I completely agree with Matt O Leary’s diagnosis, I’m uneasy with this prescription:


The jargon of ‘maximising potential’ ’hypothesis-building’ ‘inclusivity’ and ‘resilience’ makes me feel uneasy. And here lies the rub: any selective list of what makes good teaching will never be agreed upon.

Let’s look at some examples. One school uses these observation criteria:


It seems suspiciously designed to fit the acronym BRAD PIT.

Another school uses this apparatus:


What these two and many other observation rubrics have in common is the 1-4 numerical grading judgements. But how are the criteria decided on? The first neglects subject knowledge; the second is more exhaustive but demands an extraordinary 20 numerical judgements per lesson observation.

As an experiment, school leaders were asked to write down what they thought was necessary to be a good teacher:




Such lists are endless; combining and prioritising them into a selective list of 10 or 20 is intractable and interminable. Itemising and quantifying things like tenacity, creativity and idiosyncrasies (undoubtedly important parts of being a teacher) is a fool’s errand.

The problem is, we are asking the wrong question. Debates over ‘what makes a good teacher?’ and ‘what makes an outstanding teacher?’ or even ‘what makes good teaching?’ are circular. There are as many possible answers as there are teachers in the world.

Instead, we should be asking: how can observations most help improve our teaching? Not by grading or quantifying or judging. Observations most improve teaching when they are disconnected from performance management, appraisal and pay, and only formative. Observations most help when they are low-stakes, frequent and give one clear, prioritised, next-step piece of feedback. As Paul Bambrick Santayo argues:

‘By receiving weekly observations and feedback, a teacher develops as much in one year as most teachers do in twenty.’

He proposes this rubric:


One colleague I trust says he can’t find any way to improve on this. I think it’s missing two vital components: planning and assessment. So here is the rubric I propose:


The vital difference is not the criteria. The vital difference is that it is only used formatively. Numerical judgement must not take place at all if teachers are to get the best out of observations for their professional development. Beyond that, the criteria are only used as guidance, a tool for focusing rather than judging.

In a world without graded observations, these two ideas might have an impact on CPD:

Video allows teachers to reflect on their teaching and analyse their pupils’ behaviour, concentration and effort beyond their lessons. Matt O Leary makes the case for them in his book, and says that in the best schools, teachers ask for their worst classes to be observed. Why? Because of the culture of trust and learning.

Observing to learn: one obligatory, unscheduled weekly observation to learn from another teacher would create an open-door culture. I rarely found enough time to observe other teachers, but when I did they were some of the most valuable experiences I had in teaching. If I’d been forced to make this into a regular habit, a bit like practicing a musical instrument, I would have learned far more.

The research that shows grading is ineffective is out there. School leaders now have a responsibility to replace graded observations with an alternative that works.

You can already hear the pleas of panic: but how will we manage performance and underperforming teachers without graded observations? How will appraisal and capability work? What will we tell OFSTED when they arrive? Those are questions I take up in my next blogposts.

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Secular Pantheon: what can schools learn from religions?

‘Spirituality is nothing more than the ancient and abiding quest

for something greater than ourselves – something greater than our own egos.’

Crucible Court 

JUDGE DANFORTH: A person is either with this court or against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time – we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world.


PROCTOR, his mind wild, breathless: I say — I say — God is dead!

Watching The Crucible at the Old Vic theatre in London this week, the parallels with English education were striking. Arthur Miller’s indictment of the lunacy of the 17th century Salem Witch Trials is an allegory of 20th century America’s anti-communist interrogations. But it also speaks to a modern fear of theology, and it could have been written as an allegory of an Islamaphobic inquisition in 21st century England, as Lee Donaghy and Park View school, defiant in the face of unevidenced accusations, will attest.


Propaganda Posters

I do not practise a religion, but fundamentalist atheist crusades against religion strike me as hypocritical.

Alain de Botton is changing the way many atheists and agnostics think about religion – in his own words, ‘we have secularized badly’ – instead, he looks to ‘inaugurate a new way of being an atheist’.

In a sentence, his argument is this:

“Religions are repositories of myriad lessons which can be useful for secular organisations like schools, but which have been over-hastily sacrificed and unfairly forgotten by secular minds repelled by theological doctrines.“

His TED talk is well worth a watch whenever you have 19 spare minutes:

A core idea for education that resonated with me is akrasia:a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a persistent reluctance to actually do it, through weakness of will or absent-mindedness. We all possess wisdom that we lack the strength to properly enact in our lives.’  

“We tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it. Religions are cultures of repetition. They circle the great truths again and again and again. Religions arrange time. All the major religions give us calendars. We need to structure time, we need to synchronize encounters.”

My friend and colleague Jonathan Porter, who studied Theology at Cambridge, says this line is the crux of it for him: We need institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be too undisciplined to make time for.”

Many schools, especially the best non-secular schools, already apply some of the lessons from religions, such as values, didacticism, calendars, assemblies, meals, trips and ceremonies.

What lessons can schools learn from religions more broadly? What religions provide is wisdom and guidance.


“We need reminding about what matters because we are so forgetful – many of our most important ideas get overlooked in everyday life. We know intellectually that we should be kind and empathetic – things which are easiest to forget and most life-enhancing to remember.”

“The secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude: we no longer offer up thanks for harvests, meals, sunsets, bees.”

“To be human is to partake in the dilemmas of childhood, family, work, love, ageing and dying; a common vulnerability to misfortune, disease, violence and suffering, anxiety and self-pity, disappointment, troubles, disasters and eventual annihilation, the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails. Spirituality consoles us that existence is inherently frustrating.”

Religions teach, honour and remind us of the virtues of patience, generosity, gratitude, courage, temperance, hope, forgiveness and charity; and of the vices of envy, anger, pride, vanity, greed and lust.


I asked a friend and colleague, Imad Ahmed, who is a Muslim, what he thought schools could learn from religions. He distilled it beautifully: ‘the single thing that schools can learn from religions is the teachings of values: selflessness in an egocentric world, generosity in an age where the differences between rich and poor are so stark, and to be clear-minded, courageous and just in the face of injustice, when it is hard to tell right from wrong, as it is in Trojan Horse”. The five pillars of Islam form a foundation of values for living.

Exploring the wisdom literature of Buddhism has been a revelation for me. The ideas of impermanence and transience put egotism in perspective. The four truths that our minds are agitated; that this stems from the delusions of the ego; that agitation can be cleared, and that the path to clear this agitation is mindfulness, struck me as very clear-sighted.

As De Botton says, wisdom ‘reminds us what matters for our souls – why love lies at the core of our humanity’.


Here are five guiding ideas that might help both children and adults in schools connect with the enduring wisdom of the ages. ‘Many of these methods, though remote from contemporary notions of education, could to render ideas more effective in our porous minds,’ says de Botton.

1. Paragons

A pantheon compendium would be scheduled of the lives of great role models, their virtues and a calendar of deathdays of those like William Shakespeare, William Wilberforce, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Emmeline Pankhurst, Abraham Lincoln, Sophie Scholl, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Benazir Bhutto, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

2. Parables

The greatest secular and non-secular texts and their morals would be revisited with scheduled sermons and re-readings, such as the Testing of Job, the Good Samaritan, Aesop’s Fables, Confucius’ Analects, the teachings of the Buddha, Cicero’s On The Republic, Shakespeare on power or The Seven Ages of Man, Mills’ On Liberty, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Hesse’s Siddartha, The Dalai Lama’s Art of Living, Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and many, many others.

3. Service

Communal meals with predefined thoughts for the day would have choreographed rotas and thanksgiving mechanisms: 

“We have no mechanisms for the expression of gratitude, shifting us fractionally off our accustomed egocentric axes. Meals would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths on predefined topics: what do you regret? Who can you not forgive? What do you fear?

“To ensure that profound and dignified personal bonds can be forged, a tightly choreographed agenda of activities may be more effective than leaving a group to mingle aimlessly on its own and the arrangements into which we commonly segregate ourselves.”

4. Sermons

Enduring truths and redemptive or consoling images would be on permanent display in themed galleries, and assemblies would be less like lectures and more like sermons:

“We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. What’s the difference between a sermon and our modern, secular mode of delivery, the lecture? Well a sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable, because we are in need of guidance, morality and consolation — and religions know that.”

5. Pilgrimages

‘Architecture places us for a time in thoughtfully structured space to educate and rebalance our souls’. Trips would be structured encounters with and thoughtful journeys to monuments, memorials, museums, theatres, architecture and art galleries, as well as spiritual trips such as star-gazing or an annual Zen nightfall moon-watching ceremony, or to places of worship like churches, cathedrals, temples, synagogues and mosques.


There is much that De Botton omits from his book. Shockingly, a digital search for the word ‘Muslim’ shows ‘no results’; for an American and English audience, a search for the word ‘christian’ produces ‘108 results’. Counterposed with Simon Sebag Montefiure’s book Jerusalem, which I’ve just read, an anthology of fundamentalist crusades and atrocities, and juxtaposed with religious conflict in Ireland, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, silence on the violent schismatic divisiveness of religion seems surprising. But atheist regimes in Germany, Russia and China turned brutally murderous. Violence is not the monopoly of religion. Nor is social change the preserve of atheists: Wilberforce, King, Teresa and countless other reformers were preachers. Neither is wisdom the monopoly of religion: atheist writers like Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and countless others have much to offer. But let’s not let the wisdom and guidance of the religions get lost in the evangelical atheist zeitgeist.

As de Botton says, “the wisdom of the faiths belongs to all humankind.”

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England, Champions of the World


I was 18 when England won the Rugby World Cup. Watching Jonny Wilkinson’s tournament-winning drop goal in extra time in the final at the Telstra Stadium, Sydney, Australia, from 4am in the morning in London, with 50 school friends leaving school that year, was one of the most exciting and memorable moments of my life.

Recently, my Dad gave me Sir Clive Woodward’s autobiography, Winning. It tells the story of England Rugby’s long-suffering underachievement and historic World Cup victory in 2003: 

“England hadn’t managed to field a consistently world-beating team in more than a century. England hadn’t managed to win any significant team sporting challenge for thirty-seven years. In the players’ lifetimes, England rugby had never won a major series against the southern hemisphere teams…


“By 2003, England had won the World Cup, and put together a run of twenty-one consecutive home victories and ten straight wins over southern hemisphere teams, a feat never before accomplished by any England team.”

How did they do it?


Why We Were Losing

“Why was rugby so far behind? Why were we so ridiculously amateur? Why couldn’t the European teams pull it together to convincingly beat the Antipodeans?

“The England set up was more about maintaining the status quo than anything else.

“Over the years, I’ve encountered many different version of inherited thinking, in business, sport and government. The symptoms are always the same: blind faith in ‘the way’, a culture that heavily discourages, even punishes, any questioning of authority, and where change is anathema; a diseased organizational culture.

“Over 130 years, the Corinthian spirit of talented amateurism prevailed, and the social aspects of participating in the game came first and foremost, rather than winning.”


Why We Won

“England won the World Cup in 2003 because for the first time in our history we had the most intense preparation, the most exhaustive analysis, the strongest process for nurturing a powerful team spirit and a strong, dynamic organizational culture. My aim was to set up the most professional coaching team in ANY sport.

“The confrontation of new and old, radical and conventional was pivotal to our success. By having to fight so hard for the smallest of changes, we were forced to question, scrutinize and vigorously defend everything we did. Although seemingly not helpful at the time, it was actually the greatest catalyst for innovation we could have had.

“We have had devastating setbacks, trials and tribulations; how these are handled is the mark of a great team. The first rule of coaching is that it really helps to have the raw material: quality players. No matter how tough things would get over the next couple of years, there was always someone to keep everything in perspective and keep enjoyment high.

“The training in business was second-to-none. They employed *video analysis* as a daily training tool, which is becoming commonplace in professional sport, but still in its infancy in business. In our daily meetings managers would video role-play exercises right in front of our team. Then they’d instantly play it back with instant feedback. The sales calls in real life were nowhere near as intimidating.

“Ok, I’ve got to get these boys thinking differently. Thinking like winners. How am I going to do that? One of the toughest skills to teach any athlete is how to think. How do we build on our strengths when we win and learn from our mistakes when we lose? How do I get my team’s commitment to doing what it takes to win? We’ll leave no stone unturned in our search for excellence.


What Woodward told the team


“Nothing you’ve ever done before can prepare you for what lies ahead. From this day on, it’s vital that we all start to think differently about how we train.

“We’ve got to rebuild all that we’ve ever done from the ground up with a new way of thinking. My job is to create a world-class team. My objective is to play the fastest rugby in the world. It will demand the utmost fitness and skill levels. It won’t be easy. You’ll be driven harder than you ever dreamed possible. But I can tell you this: it will be fun. If we are successful in dominating world rugby, you will consider your time with England as the pinnacle of your careers, the most exciting days of your lives.

“The All Blacks and Wallabies have fundamental flaws. If we’re to be the best, we have to learn to think and plan better than anyone else. From now on, we’ll spend more time thinking and planning than we will on the pitch.”

“What makes the difference between the winning team and the team that comes fifth? I believe that the team that wins the World Cup will be the team that has the best mindset and that encompasses new ideas and change. So we will spend a lot of time thinking and talking about what it will take to forge a winning side. The only way we are going to be successful as a team is if we all completely understand what we’re trying to achieve and our roles in making it happen.


How Woodward got England winning

“I examined my scarce resources. First, time with the players. I had 51 days in the next year – one a week – to train and prepare the best rugby players in the country to play against the best teams in the world. The pressure was to win, with one year to prove myself. The pressures of time meant there was considerable motivation to achieve more with less. For that we had to think differently.

Seven Elements of Winning

  • More points on the scoreboard
  • World-class performance standards in core areas of the game, all measurable.
  • A team that clicks in the heat of the match – not measurable
  • Enjoyable, inspiring off-the-pitch experience
  • Beating teams you know can beat you
  • 75,000 supporters going wild
  • Knowing you can do it consistently

I began to prepare a planning document for how I would achieve our long-term goals. I believe England subsequently became the best team in the world because of one critical factor: we asked the right questions. Instead of asking: ‘how can we be victorious with what we’ve got?’ I asked: ‘’what would our organization need to have in place in order to succeed consistently?’

Seven Core Components:

  • Coaching the basic skills
  • Fitness/Nutrition
  • Psychology
  • Medical/Recovery
  • Analysis/IT
  • Management
  • Leadership

“They weren’t thinking like elite rugby players yet. I had to come up with a way to get them thinking differently. But how?


Thinking differently, thinking detail

“We have to change the way we do things. We have to learn to think differently about every aspect of what we do, and look at it in a way others fail to notice.

“Unfortunately, inherited thinking is a curse. It’s the biggest impediment to innovation in any organisation. So before we do anything, we have to change the way we think. There are two parts to this: thinking differently, and thinking detail.

“What do you think we might be missing about the way we play, coach and manage rugby? What are we taking for granted in the way we play our game that might actually be the one thing that could give us an advantage on the pitch?”

“Our fitness coach had a simple brief: we must be the fittest and most powerful team in world rugby. Bringing good people and new ideas together with spectacular results is incredibly satisfying, yet I’m sure there was more opportunity for innovation than we had time to explore.


“Success can be attributed to how the team worked under pressure, how they understood the importance of teamwork and loyalty, and how they were willing to do a hundred things just 1 percent better.

“We’ll identify every aspect of the player experience, provide an elite environment and involve the players themselves in the process.

“We’re going to rebuild the England squad from the ground up with a new way of thinking. Imagine if you were to empty all your possessions, your entire house, onto the front lawn, then question the need for everything as you brought it back in the door. We have before us a unique opportunity to reinvent completely what it means to be a part of the England international rugby side.

“I wanted them to free their thinking.


The Black Book

“We began writing a book detailing everything a player would need to know about the England set up. We started canvassing the players for their ideas about playing for England, a living document that evolved over eight months and several versions to come together in its final form, known as our Black Book. We’d created the blueprint for the elite professional sports experience that would support our overarching goal of winning.

“That tour, we lost 76-0 in Brisbane, 64-22 in New Zealand, England’s worst ever defeat to these sides, and my father passed away.

“The struggle for every innovation forced us to be even more resourceful and creative in our thinking. Our Black Book is fundamental to leadership: if I started again in business or sport, it’s the first thing I’d create with a new team.


“New players didn’t know how things worked, and having to spend so much time telling everyone was causing serious problems. A black book would sort that out. It became a cornerstone of the elite culture, with months of work on design, layout and artwork. The very first page summarised everything we wanted the players to take to heart. Set out in print, my hope was that these words would be imprinted on everyone’s mind. It became their bible.”

This is England


Welcome to the Elite England Squad

“We are in the business of inspiration. Our goal is to inspire all those we work with and all those who support us: to inspire the whole country. This document sets outs what we need to aspire to in the build up to the World Cup.

Our vision: to transform England rugby into the world leader by 2003

Our philosophy: to be the best in everything we do

Our goal: to win the World Cup in 2003

How do you want to be remembered?

How does this team want to be remembered?”


“By the World Cup in 2003, it covered every aspect of what it meant to be a player in the England squad. It had 7 categories, 35 sections, 240 rules and 10,000 words of text. New squad players spent a long time digesting every fact so they wouldn’t let anyone down. It was a powerful tool to reset standards.


Set the standard


“England won the World Cup partly because we had the best defence in the tournament. We had been exhaustively analysing performance in all areas, setting standards for world-class performance behaviours broken down into 135 measurable key performance indicators. We expanded this list into posters and they form the basis of our coaching.

  • Defence
  • Contact
  • Pressure
  • Kicking
  • Attack
  • Self-Control
  • Tactics
  • Leadership

“The posters comprise a full and flexible summary of England’s approach to the game. When combined with our Black Book, it makes a simple yet formidable coaching combination. Although there is a complex level of detail contained within each poster, they are simple and easy coaching tools to understand, which makes communicating with new players far simpler than it ever was before.

“Prozone was one of the most advanced sorting analysis programs in the world. We had to install twenty specialised cameras around Twickenham stadium. When you look at the game through Prozone, it completely changes how you think about rugby.


Steps to Success


“In summary, there are seven steps we followed:

  1. Set the vision to inspire the team
  2. Design the experience that supports your goal
  3. Build the infrastructure of effective systems
  4. Cultivate a strong elite team culture
  5. Shape the mindset by thinking different and in detail
  6. Implement new ideas and initiatives carefully and drop them if they don’t support your aims
  7. Coach and analyse to achieve world-class standards of measurable performance

“I’ve always believed that the most important job of any elite coach is to provide his players with every chance of being successful – nothing else.”


Daily video analysis, elite team culture, thinking differently and thinking detail: I think there’s a lot that school leaders and teachers can learn from the success of England Rugby.

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