Larkrise 365

Our governing body has started using Office 365 improve collaboration and improve the way we work with school staff. Although we are right at the beginning of our journey,  we have started to find paths through the forest of our school communications, and the light is beginning to get through. Here is our story so far.

Photo by Alex Chen – CC by-nc-nd

Larkrise Primary School is a smallish, maintained school in a diverse part of Oxford. There is more about our school on our website (awaiting a major refresh!). The governing body has a huge range of technical competence in the use of digital tools, though, crucially, we also have a willing and very able clerk!

None of us are/were 365 experts, and only one person uses it regularly for work. We have no extra support, no funds for training, and we could not find many stories of governing bodies doing this before!

Why do it?

The main driver for the Larkrise governors moving to Microsoft’s Office 365, for the work and administration of the governing body, was to draw together the work we were doing with staff (SLT) onto a common platform.

The SLT and office staff all use MS Office on their desktops, and an initial foray into using Google Drive for governor work last year had meant that staff were having to shift between platforms to work with the governing body. Quite a few of the governors (including me) are Google fans, but this enthusiasm did not translate to everyone. Something had to give.

It was a simple matter of making a choice of forcing the school to move towards Google Apps for Education and changing the whole school technology profile  – or adapting and enhancing the way they used the powerful technology they already had.

Oh, and 365 is free and already set up to work. The 1TB of data for each user, plus the ability to access MS Office tools, was also kinda tempting.

As mentioned in earlier posts, we had already identified communication as an area for development, and we had tried to improve it through other aspects of school life (such as improving our use of Parentmail) but we kept hitting issues. For example, shaping the use of a new tool to fit with strategic objectives is hard to do without it is tricky to cue up and organise feedback via emails, without crossing into ‘operational’ instructions; eg “Change this. Do that”. We wanted to stay ‘strategic’ and allow SLT to find solutions to management issues. We needed a way to cue up and organise feedback and ideas – into a Trello like system, rather than overwhelm SLT with requests and suggestions.

It is also a matter of safety. By giving all governors our own accounts on the school system, we can keep all emails about school matters confidential and within the domain. It also modelled to the staff how serious we were (as governors) about personal emails not being used for school business and professionalising their use of IT systems.

What happened?

All governors were given a login to 365 (with varying success in getting going) and, to begin with, chairs of committees and SLT experimented with how to use it. As none of the governors or staff have had proper training in using 365 fully, and we knew that this shift was going to be a matter of learning together, through making mistakes! And boy, did we make a few!

Step One- Moving folders from Google Drive into 365

Google Takeout made the first part of this pretty easy (thanks to Doug Belshaw for the pointer!). I had an archive of all the folders, but no clear idea how to organise them in 365. I placed them in Sharepoint, and started to organise them there. Mistake #1!

Step Two – Setting up Groups.

We started playing with Groups in 365, and set one up for all the workstream that had been going on in the governing body, to try to organise and draw people in. Some were private, some were open. Worst of all, files in the sharepoint folders were not accessible from the Groups. At all! It was infuriating. Mistake #2!!

Step Three – Emails

Moving from emailing from our personal emails took a while, and as we explored what 365 could do, we tried posting to ‘Conversations’, comments to docs, and responding to threads in OneNote notebooks. This created a LOT of notifications, the biggest impact being on the headteacher, who hadn’t explored how to change settings for this aspect of the system. Mistake #3!!!

Where are we now?

Group focus

We have decided, after a few months of experimentation, to focus our work around 3 Groups. The governors have one for the Full Governing Body (FGB), for Accounting for Resources, and for Performance and Outcomes committees.  That’s it.

Collaborative docs

We are starting collaborating through one simple feature in having a place for all our documents online, within each group: to comment and edit via the cloud.

Building up from committee meeting pre-reading towards drawing some of the ‘back and forth’ out of the face-to-face sessions and into comment threads in docs: we hope to make much better use of our meetings to hold the school to account, develop the strategic aspects of our work, and get home home on time more often after governor meetings.

Although there is a LOT more we could be doing (and a few of us are quietly experimenting with the Planner (an almost direct copy of Trello) we felt this was the lowest common denominator for everyone to be able to make use of a familiar system in a new way; that would have the maximum impact on the working practices of both the governing body and staff.

No surprises

As the committee meetings roll around next term, we will build up agenda using the collaborative docs and social features, perhaps via the Planner. Crucially, SLT will be able to see what we are interested in before the meeting, so that they can prepare. We’ll have time to interrogate the data, and SLT can plan to take feedback on when it suits them, and not be overwhelmed by notifications.

That’s all folks

As I type this post on my lovely Chromebook, I still find myself surprised at how we have come to use 365 rather than Google. There have been lots of moments that I am amazed that I am working in the MS ecosystem again. However, it is really important to remember how varied the skill levels are in the school and governing body, so even getting everyone on one system is a huge step in the right direction.

We are not yet using Office 365 in an exemplary way,… In fact, I think we are probably missing lots of tricks. That said, I’m proud to say that we are clear in why we are using it, what problems we want to fix and how we will know if we are getting it right. We are working and learning hand-in-hand with the SLT and there is (at the moment) a lot of positive feedback to encourage us.

We’d welcome any suggestions, advice and free training (if you don’t ask…) as we continue our journey. Please get in touch or comment below.

I will update on how we are doing later in 2017 – but for now, to governors, teachers and parents, …Have a great break! We all deserve it.

Message in a bottle – Assessing what matters



CC Brett Jordan

I am part of an exciting project to measure what matters in a primary school. We think others might be interested in working with us, or have already started this journey. This blog post is a ‘message in a bottle’ because we’d love to hear from you if you think you we can help each other. This post explains our rationale to gather information to help our children, beyond literacy and maths attainment.

I am a parent governor at Larkrise Primary School in Oxford. As a governing body, we are increasing our commitment to making the values that underpin our school more explicit. Like many happy schools, we know that there is a culture at the school which adds more than warm fuzzies to the life of our community, and that has tangible educational benefits.  Some years before Guy Claxton and Bill Lucus came up with their 7Cs, Larkrise developed the 5Cs.

Our 5Cs are:  Caring, Confident, Curious, Creative, and Celebrating.

The governors want to support all staff to focus on what matters to us all – balanced children who have a love of learning; who are able to use a fronted adverbial at the right time, but can also sing the right song to cheer up a friend; or cheer when a peer asks a fantastic question and presents possible answers. We feel this is proving harder as the weight of workload and data forces teachers to focus on a narrow view of what education is for.

We believe professionals should use a wealth of evidence to enable depth and richness in learning – and, alongside the SLT, have decided to support the staff to focus their teaching, informed by greater knowledge of each child and their capacities/capabilities/character.  Quality relationships are the beating heart of education.

In collaboration with the truly amazing Ed Finch, Deputy Head, I am trying to coalesce this into more strategic and actionable work. As I mentioned, we want your help. But we have already started a project to create a 5Cs Dashboard – so we can check the ‘pulse’ of our school. 

Here is what we know, so far:

  • The 5Cs dashboard will be an assessment tool, not a tracking system.
  • It will be a mechanism to raise the profile of the 5Cs in the teaching and learning.
  • We are not trying to prove kids are making progress in ‘caring’ (for eg)
  • It will be a personalised analysis tool for the adults to support the children better.

This is an assessment experiment. We expect to make mistakes over the first few years, and adapt and evolve this dashboard. Initially, we expect less robust data – but we expect to see it develop and be more useful as time goes on.

We have started creating a Minimum Viable Product  –  which we hope to use this term – and which will be reviewed and iterated on a termly basis.

If you’d like to learn more, have a similar project going on, or can help us – please get in touch with me at , tweet, or comment on this post.

We’d love to hear your views on this and genuinely appreciate challenge or helpful critique.

What do you think?

Be Upstanding

This is a post about our failure to tackle bullying. We are locked in an ongoing story, predictably and painfully continuing to blame victims, and normalise anti-social behaviour, often through exclusion. I want to move towards a positive narrative, especially in schools; and share a few useful sources of support for those who want to ‘flip the script’, and move from being bystanders to being upstanders.

Photo by Malcolm Madders

The quotes in bold in this post are from parents sharing experiences to help each other with bullying and are included, in full, at the end of the post. Like these parents, I only have my experiences to guide my views and cannot claim any expertise – so feel free to ignore or dismiss any assertions herein.

“Whilst being wrong, unfortunately bullying exists throughout life.”

Most of us believe that bullying is a fact of a life; one that most kids will experience.  You’d probably never say this out loud at work, especially if you’ve recently had safeguarding training! However, when teachers talk in the staffroom, or parents huddle under umbrellas in the playground; there is a sad shake of the head and a sigh that goes with the admission that ‘It’s inevitable – but it will prepare kids for adult life’.

This is the problem. Bullying, or rather the state of being bullied, leads the victim to feel powerless, degraded and doomed to remain in a situation that has no escape doors; and which everyone around them seems to accept.

Those teachers in the staffroom are failing the kids in their classes who are being broken by bullying, and those parents in the playground are turning away from the responsibility to help their offspring be good citizens and know how to develop positive relationships.

We tell kids to go and talk to a teacher; or employees to go to HR: and explain what they have seen or what is happening to them. Which is often nearly impossible, right?  Schools and employers wait for an employee, child or a parent to come and report ‘bullying’. It is only then that a bullying policy would be activated. So, it is up to the victims to say that the environment is not as protective as it might seem.

I think it is this ‘fixed mindset’ that perpetuates bullying. Though it is partly caused by the depersonalisation of care – as we attempt to systematise all our societal problems, it is this poisonous belief that we all deserve bullying in our lives that makes it so hard to remove .

As a meme, bullying has embedded itself as a hidden sickness within the body of our institutions and society.  We tell ourselves bullying is inevitable because we carry the virus inside us: transmitting the tacit acceptance of bullying to the next generation.

Flipping the script is hard, and takes effort, trust and some cooperation. Firstly, we should be good bystanders. Anyone can stop bullying. No policy or complex intervention is required. We should expect anyone; child or adult – at school or the workplace,  to be ethical and caring, and say “No! That is not ok. I will not stand by. Please stop this now.” This simple video sums this up pretty well.

For more information on elementary education visit

We should more directly praise ‘pro-social’ behaviour and let those who feel bullied know, from the get go, that it is a failure of the environment – not the people in it.

That means not claiming that your organisation has no, or very little, bullying. Yes, Ofsted, and employment tribunals will be confused by your honesty – but they are also likely to impressed by your commitment to depriving bullying of the oxygen of deceit that it needs

“My advice would be avoid the use of the word bullying if at all possible as it is a very inflammatory term.”

Even as you try to report bullying you run up against the first of many challenges. We know this is a label that we can use – but are too often afraid to use it.  We are afraid of the power of this simple term and the admission it points to: that we are largely failing ourselves and our children.

Labels are painful and often unhelpful. Bullies are often victims too and people can feel bullied without there being a bully/bullies.  We are so often searching for the simple binary dynamic of aggressor and victim that we miss the more complex problems that really corrode character and resilience.

We should be focused on the environment and the values of the people in that place. So what can you do to make a more healthy environment?

Make a clear statement of inclusion. All the time. Every day. Invite openness – bring conflict out of the shadows, and manage your people, yourself and your spaces – to ensure that no one feels damaged by their place of work or learning.

Society is held together by bonds between people. If you don’t actively make bonds stick, and actively create a caring environment where exclusion (selection) is part of the norm, you are (de facto) being anti-social. This is true of workplaces, classrooms, and whole systems (see the debate over Grammars/Independent schools).

I believe that in schools, we become complicit with the ‘looking away, and that children believe that bullying is something that they have to accept and that their weaknesses are real and are something to be on constant guard for.

Of course, some find alternative remedies and thrive – yet others stay fractured; either perpetuating the problem or turning in on themselves and self-harming.

Bullying is not just about disruptive or visible abuse. All too often, schools and workplaces focus on the bullying that impacts others apart from the victim. To reach for a lazy stereotype, teachers will arrange classes so that boys stop fighting, but are happy to leave the girls because however much pain they might be causing one of their number through exclusion and subtle cruelty, it is rarely disruptive to learning.

Finally, I have ‘skin in the game’. I was bullied from nine till fifteen years old. It shaped me, creating social callouses where the daily abuse rubbed away at my trust – and leaving fractures in my confidence, protected by habits of self-deprecation and avoidance. My recent brush with depression quickly uncovered the painful scars hidden beneath. After thirty years, I am shocked to find that despite all the increased knowledge and work to reduce bullying, I am seeing children being broken in the same way that I was.

We all deserve better. So, let’s do better. 

There is, of course, wonderful help and great advice out there – but I really liked what I found here:


Parental quotes – Thanks to those who gave permission for me to use their words.

“… bottom line: if it doesn’t work change schools. From the experiences of friends with girls this kind of toxic queen bee shit is very difficult to stop simply because the “rewards” for the queen and her acolytes are so great”

“My M suffered with ‘queen bee’ rubbish in primary. I talked to one of the parents and although she reacted appropriately it didn’t change in the long run. This issue whilst being wrong unfortunately exists throughout life. My tactic was to empower M to have the resilience to cope. It took time. Now there are new queen bees and she seems to be able to see them for what they are And get on with things.”

“We went through this with E. She was on the receiving end for a while, and we did deal with it via the school. Not always satisfactory and ultimately ended up with girl being removed by her parents”

“I think almost anyone can become a bully, and conversely almost anyone can be bullied, so it is not anything ‘wrong’ with the bullied person, just the circumstances, mix of children, etc. Therefore once bullied, NOT always bullied thereafter. We’ve done talking plus giving them some tools for their toolbox when the bullying occasions arise. Including a bit of humour (eg “if all else fails, deck ’em!”, which they know is a joke but lightens things…)”

“I was bullied by girls. Solidarity (not sympathy) is what is needed. (It was the 70s, no one dealt with it properly, sorry no suggestions of what to do right)”

“Try and make sure that they continue to confide in you, and doesn’t try to deal with it alone. It’s probably not the right message, but when it was one of ours, after months of dealing with the school, standing up to the bully was the only thing that worked. Not being afraid to not tolerate their behaviour. And maybe sympathy isn’t such a bad thing: knowing that others widely recognises that the behaviour is awful, having support, is understanding not pity, & stops that feeling that you are in some way to blame.”


Grammars, Faith and Pedagogy

It's a dead end baby

The debate about opening the doors to new grammar schools is being well covered in the news media. There is a battle of ideologies and the tried and tested weapons of that argument have been wheeled out and fired across the battlements. But there are fundamental fractures that are being overlooks and threaten the best of Britain.

I’m against grammars, and the planned changes.  I think there are two additional problems that are not getting the attention they deserve – the fixation on academic pedagogy and faith.

That said, I do also accept that the current offering for many families is not offering the social mobility promised by the comprehensive ideal. We do have selection by postcode and most of our children do not get the education they deserve.

However,  grammars are not the solution, or are they about adding choice or improving outcomes for more of our kids. They will, once again kill off choice and progressive shifts in our society. But all this is being well covered elsewhere.

Firstly – the grammar ideal – of an academic education for the smartest kids, contains the pernicious view that the most able are best suited to an ‘academic’ pedagogy. Academia is great and an essential part of the picture – but all corners of our society deserve and need leadership and excellence.

We are also still only using a single measure (examination results) to judge success for children and across the system, which doesn’t capture the range and breadth of human talent and experience. Grammar schools double down on this narrow measure – like going ‘all in’ in poker.

Grammars, and the academic model of pedagogy they perpetuate, are wrong and dangerous for our economy and society – as they take those most likely to transform our world away from the modes of learning with connect most to the ‘real world’.

If there were choices of selective schools that offered Project Based Learning, or work-based learning models – with different accreditation or qualification routes … for the brightest and most able… and our society valued those as much as business does… then we would have choice.

We have an unspoken agreement that politicians and society will not tell teachers how to teach – and that the modes of teaching are not to be politicised. However, we know that exams and structural aspects of schools are being  shaped to an academic ideal ill suited to our society. This is not just my opinion – but also one shared by the CBI.

So, when we talk about choice – maybe it is time to offer real choice in terms of what happens inside the classrooms. I think much of the promise of the free schools policy was in the model of what has happened in the US – where charter schools have grown highly successful groups of schools offering a range of pedagogies – including the wonderful Expeditionary Learning and High Tech High schools.

Worse than this, the plans to allow faith schools to select based on religious belief (or professed beliefs) will further divide our society into smaller cultural ghettos.

The faith school system is the basis of our mass education and we have many reasons to grateful to the Church for creating a model of education embraced our children and communities in learning. However the history of our school system also shows that church attendance was more important than coin in children attending school.

Faith schools are the reason that we still have selection in our school system – as they have grasped this principle jealously – and we have allowed the idea of schools ‘choosing’ which children to teach to remain.  

The exclusivity is not only divisive, it is unfair and should be illegal. In Oxford City, we are overwhelmed with faith provision, where only a handful of community schools provide an non-faith ‘choice’ for parents. In a hugely divided city, where a there are more children attending private schools than average we also have the destabilising impact of selection by wealth as well as academic ability.

The implied growth of new grammars comes with the promise of new faith schools (as the old free school policy has failed) to answer the pupil place crisis.

If there was an opposition worth lobbying, (sigh!) we should not only be urging them to fight grammar schools.

If we want better and appropriate education for our children, to fuel our economy, and enrich our society, then we must also take on the white elephants of academic learning and faith.

  • We must, once and for all, take academic learning off the pedestal it is wobbling atop.
  • We must remove all faith provision from our state funded sector.

Until these things happen, the logic of grammar schools, high stakes testing, ignoring the well-being of our children and teachers,  and increasing workload for teachers, will continue unchecked.

What I know about Edtech. #3 – Bikes without Wheels

With 15 years of experience in the edtech sector, I’ve seen great examples and things go wrong. This is the third in a series, sharing suggestions for how to make great edtech.

Don’t see users.          See Teachers and Children.  

Don’t talk amongst yourselves.                Create in the open.

Don’t wait for a community to come to you.                      Close the loop.

If you know anything about Lean/Agile, or have heard about the Open movement (eg, Open Source, or Open Data), then the statements above will seem self-evident. However, they are far too often misunderstood or ignored by Edtech creators.

Photo by Craig Whisenhunt

Photo by Craig Whisenhunt

I have watched the Agile and Open movements grow and evolve over the years, and seen how they have transformed some parts of our digital infrastructure.  There is plenty of evidence that lean/agile leads to ‘better’ projects. While Open is more of an ideological approach that has transformative benefits for social groups, it matches the

I am not an evangelist for agile or open, though I think they are awesome. I am an evangelist for great learning experiences, and that is why I want leaner and more open edtech.

So, when I read the 37Signals manifesto their way of working seemed radical but resonant with my values and experiences working with schools. The first item in the manifesto reads:

Sounds like a bunch of junkies or gigolos, doesn’t it?

The people who visit web sites aren’t “users,” click-throughs, hits, numbers on a spreadsheet, or some other form of dehumanizing jargon. They’re your husband, your mom, your friend, the guy who sits in the cube next to you. They’re real PEOPLE, just like you and me.

That’s why we think a successful site is one that makes real people’s lives easier; One that makes them say, “This site worked for me.” So we’ve made it our mission to ensure this kind of experience at the sites we build. At 37signals we don’t see users, we see people.”

If you forget this basic and simple principle, your project will be a bike without wheels. OK, you might create something that is successful in some ways, but it will not go as far as it could. It might even be commercially successful in the short term, but you won’t be able to shift with the people it is for. This does not mean that you build one huge solution that seeks to please everyone, for all their needs.

Build for where teachers teach and children learn. Pick a point in that relationship and make it better.  The only way to find out where these places are is to be there too. Don’t just have an engagement strategy or marketing plan: be there, now. You should have decided whether you are a step ahead of the majority of teacher, clearing the way to new pastures, or following the crowd, helping them along.

If you don’t have anyone who spends time there in your team, then you need to work even harder to build in classrooms, staffrooms, playgrounds, bedrooms, or the places that your edtech will be used, with the people who will use it.

By creating in the open, you demonstrate your commitment to the work that educators do, and to the learning that children value. You will also get feedback, when you need it, in the iterative and informed development of the edtech that you are working so hard on.

Don’t tell them you have the solution. If you get this right, they will see that it is better than the competition and shout about it because it works, and because they trust you. Be really clear about why you are doing it – answer the 5 ways – and discuss it with them

When this happens, close the loop, and make it a conversation. Don’t leave your community once you’ve got what you think you needed – talk with them.  Not as a customer service activity – but because it is polite and respectful. Say ‘Thank you’, ask them how they are doing, listen to the answers, show you understand that life is complex, and respond honestly. If you can help them because it fits with your purpose and their needs, do so. But if you have to say no, don’t be afraid. If you don’t know, say so, and explain what it is you need help understanding.

How do you build better edtech?

  • See people
  • Create in the open
  • Close the loop

I’ve helped organisations create awesome edtech, but also learned a lot of lessons from my mistakes. If you’d like to learn more from my experiences (rather than find the bear traps on your own) then let’s talk about what you are trying to achieve and how these simple principles can be applied to your context.


What I know about Edtech. #2 – Lead or Follow

With 15 years of experience in the edtech sector, I’ve seen great examples and things go wrong. This post is the second in a series, giving tips for your next edtech endeavour.

It is possible to follow the majority of professionals or to lead (with the support of inspiring teachers) towards new practice.

But it is (all but) impossible to do both.

Photo by Cristian Bortes

Photo by Cristian Bortes

As I wrote in my first post, The 5xWhys, far too much edtech is created without clear reasoning behind it. One of the hardest conversations to have with a client or programme lead, once the 5xWhys have been worked through, is: Where do you want to be; leading or following?

Let’s say you’ve cleared up ‘Why?’ you want to create edtech and are set on your path. You’ve probably also told yourselves :

  • You want to create something that has the ‘Wow’ factor.
  • You want to be associated with innovation and creativity.
  • You want to be connected to (and with) those award-winning teachers and inspire more.

Except, these statements are also true:

  • You also want mass adoption / sales
  • You’d like resubscriptions / regular visits
  • You want to offer easy integration with current practice
  • You’d hope for support from policy makers
  • You’re secretly dreaming of awards and recognition from key stakeholders

Can you see the problem? The dream of aligning both these goals misunderstands the nature of the education sector. Being part of the formal institutions of learning, most teachers work in places that move very slowly. Innovation struggles at the edges, only breaking through to the mainstream despite (not because of) the ‘wisdom’ of that crowd.

The children might need and want more exciting edtech – but they do not get to select or pay for it. And highly innovative teachers rarely make it into SLT/Administrative roles.

Of course, notable exceptions exist, in terms of people (Dawn Hallybone, Dan Roberts, Nick Dennis, for example), and organisations (NightZooKeeper).

So – here are some hard truths for those creating edtech:

  • If you aim at the cutting edge, then you’ll likely only draw the very brave early adopters.
  • If you go for mass market, then you’ll not be cool or exciting.
  • If you are fresh and using the newest tech, you put off the majority of teachers who struggle with change and who do not have control over the tech they use.
  • If you create more of the same, then it’ll be harder to stand out from your competition.
  • If you try to match to current practice in classrooms, you will end up confined by static objectives, data driven activities, and .
  • If you try to share new pedagogies, assessment practices or try to change the culture in schools, as brilliant as it might be, it will be be pulled back by the inertia endemic in a fear filled profession, crushed by policy (*NB I make no apologies for polemic or broad brush strokes).

Of course, there are other compromises that can be made, and although you cannot lead and  follow at the same time, you can find other ways to reach a mass market without creating lumpen, but nutritious stodge; or open new doors in learning without scaring the horses. How might that be possible?

You need to be really clear about why you doing this (see the previous post), decide whether you want to lead or follow, read the rest of my posts in this series, and…

If you’d like to consider which route is right for you, I can help you understand where your work could fit in the education sector. It starts with a chat, so get in touch to begin your journey to better edtech.

What I know about Edtech. #1 – The 5xWhys

With 15 years of experience in the edtech sector, I’ve seen great examples and things go wrong. This post is the first in a series, giving tips for your next edtech endeavour.

What I know about Edtech. #1 – The 5xWhys

I know that most edtech does not align the needs of learners with the purpose of those who make it.

The 5xWhys are one of the most valuable and well honed tools in my edtech toolbox. I use them at for researching, commissioning, building, and evaluating edtech projects and programmes. But they are most useful at the very beginning of thinking about edtech programmes / projects.

Image from

Image from

Why are you creating an edtech solution? To help raise standards and help teachers? That’s what you tell the world. But what are the real reasons?

There are far too many unsuccessful projects out there (including some of mine) where enthusiasm, bells & whistles, great content, etc, were not enough to see them over the line.

All too often, I think it is because those driving it fail to be honest, be clear and be open about why they are doing it.

Why does this matter? Because education is contested and challenging enough without more poorly built edtech filling the market. Children and teachers deserve better. It will also stop you wasting money and enable you to spend it on more of what matters!

Depending on the purpose of your organisation, (charity, awarding body, for-profit, or cultural institution) there are always strategic goals that edtech work can appear to be the answer to. I’ve read many briefs, specifications and project documents that read well, seem comprehensive, and get the ‘green light’ – but skirt around the most important question. Why do this?

Too often, organisations tell their development partners (those who are helping make this edtech a reality) that they want something that is going to be innovative; is going to change the education paradigm; to transform the perception of a subject; or to save teachers time. Though these goals are lofty and make for compelling copy, they are rarely the whole story.

What they really want is to drive more traffic to their website – or raise brand awareness – or stop their competition getting somewhere first. Or, most commonly, they have not really thought hard enough about it. It seemed like a good idea – and the logic of why to do it was added later. Without this key information driving the decision making, the design of edtech (and many aspects of work) can be flabby and lack clear focus.

An example of the 5 Whys relating to healthy eating

In the creation of user stories and making hard development decisions a lack of honesty about what’s in it for the organisation making the edtech can fatally undermine all the hard work of the rest of the team.

I now use the 5xWhys to drill down past the fluff, and to get to the nitty gritty. If you haven’t see this approach in action, the simple example in the picture often helps clients ‘get it’.

Obviously, it is about framing and reframing the questions in a way to provoke deeper thinking, and not just asking ‘Why?’ repeatedly.




Here is an example from a recent client, who are a national arts organisation:

Why enter into education work?

To broaden reach.

Why broad reach (not narrow, local)?

Because we are a national organisation.

Why be national (instead of local)?

It is in our remit which we set ourselves.

Why did you make that remit?

Because that’s how the funding works.

Why go after the funding?

Because funding equals clout and respect which enables us to put (insert arts focus here) into the national conversation.

This conversation meant we could look at options that might increase the respect that they sought – rather than try to transform classroom practice or inform curriculum design.

So, how else might this work?

If you are commercial – you might see a funding opportunity or a failing in the competition to deliver an effective solution, where you can steal market share.

  • If taking market share is your goal, then creating something really innovative is a poor choice. Instead, take the elements your competitor is doing, but do it better!

If you are a non-profit, it might be about raising awareness, engaging new stakeholders, or changing the terms of a debate.

  • Teachers don’t need to spend money on a new edtech service to lean more about the work you do. Spend the money on a series of events that create ambassadors for your message.

If you are a museum, it might be about increasing footfall at a new exhibit, or gathering evidence for new funding or giving an education team meaningful work for when they are not taking school groups around.

  • If you have an expert and enthusiastic team, instead of creating pdfs and videos that few will see – why not allow them to immerse themselves in to Social Media spaces and draw attention through authentic relationships.

Whatever the real reasons for creating edtech, how you engage with teachers, children, parents and those engaged in the business of formal education matters because if they waste time on something that isn’t as good as it could be, that is time taken from children.

So, if you really care about education, ask yourself why you want to be in it, and why your digital solution is really worth creating. If you have solid answers, then, proceed when ready! But, read the next few posts in this mini-series first.

If you’d like help with developing your edtech proposals, asking the 5xWhys or talking with the education sector; I’ll help you to get you laser-focused on aligning your needs with children and teachers. Get in touch and let’s start a conversation.

The space in Pre-Tween


My daughter set off to her first transition day at secondary school this morning. As she pivots between her ‘primary’ and proto ‘secondary’ selves –  all that has been great about her education, so far, seems at risk. If I had to boil it down to one distinctive feature, it is the space to grow in her own direction.

The space to make mistakes. The space to find your voice. The space to dream. The space to create something new. The space to learn something unexpected. The space to play with identity. The space to be, not an infant, not a child, not a teenager. The space to be pure potential.

At primary, partly because of the generalist staff and the need to nurture the youngest, there is a wide acceptance of identity, expression and rates of growth. My kids have attended Larkrise Primary all their school lives, and know no other. They have been loved, cared for, scolded, shaped and taken through a range of learning experiences.

Photo by Frank Fox CC Licence

Photo by Frank Fox CC Licence

My eldest, let’s call her LittleZeek, has found the social side of school life easy, but has at times bumped along the middle, sometimes struggling to match the excellence of her friends and peers. By the metrics we use in schools, she is above average, but not exceptional. Given her advantages, this is not a surprise.

However, Larkrise has allowed her to find her sense of success in the broadest senses, across the five characteristics that underlies the school vision: Confident, Caring, Creative, Celebrating, and Curious. And (thankfully) she has blossomed.

There have been years when the ‘teacher’ in me worried that both LittleZeek and LittlestZeek were falling behind or not heading in the ‘right’ direction. Staff were great in managing our concerns and responding in ways that helped us all.

Best of all, was the phrase that an experienced and wise  Yr3 teacher used to describe one of my girls. She said:

Don’t worry. LittlestZeek is a Popcorn child. She’ll pop in her own time… but not if we turn the heat up, or jiggle her too much. Let’s all be patient and give her some space.” She was, of course, by theirl

I do not know whether LittleZeek’s secondary school life will include teachers who can do this, but it seems that it will be less likely. Everything I have read, heard and seen of secondary school life seems to leave little room for children to find their own space to grow. Even lunchtimes are compressed into 30mins – and rushing to lessons where domains of knowledge are taught discreetly leaves little room for discovering spaces to grow.

I am not going to assert a load of neuroscience to prove my point, or generalise on anecdotes. I realise that a lot of this is just parental neurosis. Of course, LittleZeek had a wonderful first day at Oxford Spires Academy, and many thanks to Sue Croft and her staff for their welcome to our children and us as parents. I’m sure they will do a great job, within the terms of the secondary education model.

I wish we brought more of aspects of what is great about our primary model of education into the secondary phase – and gave our young people the space to blossom.

To all the Year 6s enjoying transition days this week, excited as you are for the changes and opportunities in Year 7- hold on to that space, and the expectation you need it, as you head into the Summer. Good luck to them all.

Lessons for schools from oil rigs

It may seem unlikely, but the social norms of school staffrooms could learn something from the rough, masculine world of huge oil rigs. Inspired by wonderful story telling, I’ve been thinking that if oil men can transform their social norms, then surely teachers can too.

Vulnerability, (when shared and supported) is far from a weakness, it is a strength. Not only should teachers do this to make their working lives better, but also to model better mental health to the children they work with.

The Ursa Platform

The joyous Invisibilia Podcast returned this month, with two stories about changing social norms; including one on the unintended consequences of McDonald’s teaching Russians how to smile, which I will return to later, exploring the dark side of emotional labour!

The central tale at the heart of the podcast, however, is the story of the hard-bitten Rick Fox, charged with setting up Shell’s new rig in the Gulf of Mexico. We follow the unlikely twist of what happens when macho men in an extremely dangerous workplace get in touch with their feelings.

Surprisingly, accidents decreased by 89% and productivity increased beyond any of industry expectations. Teamwork was transformed from thoughtless procedural clocking in, to a collaborative, safety conscious where people cared for each other.

To find out more about how this happened, I’d strongly suggest listening to the always entertaining and informative podcast from NPR. This incredible project was studied and reported by researchers, and their findings were initially applied to corporate life.

There are lessons for school here too. I’d urge teachers, especially SLT and middle leaders, to listen to this podcast episode and make the connections for themselves. Of course there are a few differences between schools and oil rigs, but people are more similar and our responses to fear and pressure are often the same.

Like oil rig workers of the recent past, teachers watch their colleagues getting hurt all the time, but have to keep going. There is a cost to seeing peers getting torn to pieces by misplaced accountability measures, deluged by workload pressures, and being powerless to express or improve their work environment. Under the tectonic pressures that (often) crush the management in schools staffrooms have become places where teachers are often able to admit that they are struggling.

If you make a mistake, hide it. If you don’t know something, pretend that you do. …never appear weak. if , for some God forsaken reason, you feel an emotion rising, swallow hard. Quote from Invisibilia episode

OK, we all hear complaints from colleagues. But, when was the last time you heard a colleague admit that they don’t understand how to spot progress in letter formation, or that they need your help with behaviour, or told you their real feelings. Not ‘I hate this job’ or ‘Yr9 are horrible’ but the honest internal struggles of people doing a hard job? Would you listen? Would you know what to do?

I know we think we are all very in touch with our emotion in schools, in touch with how the kids are doing but in a profession where ‘getting too close’ can seem dangerous. Perhaps the truth is that most teachers cover real emotions and function within a mask of toughness, only moaning through to let off steam, once in a while.

Like the millions of shop workers expected to smile and accept crappy behaviour from shoppers, described in the same podcast episode, there are many teachers putting on a brave professional face everyday. One they learned to copy from colleagues. The one they are told they need to wear to survive and to inspire children to learn

There is a growing research field in organisational psychology, and Invisibilia interviews Dr Alicia Grandey who explains that if social norms of false cheer, while it has some benefits, leads to health problems and an increase in mistakes in the workplace.

School leaders have a lot of responsibilities, that many wear as a badge or a shield. However, their primary role as a manager is the wellbeing and efficiency of their staff.

If an oil man, charged with exploiting natural and limited resources, can do this — then surely those leading schools can find time and commitment to do it too.

If you’d like to change the norms in your school or organisation, and want to replicate the sort of transformation that happened on those rigs…I am not a psychologist and for the sort of change described in the podcast, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

My experience at the intersection of education, technology and business is what clients are interested in, as I help make richer learning experiences, better edtech, and healthier ways of working.

If you’d like that kind of help, get in touch

(Please note — just because this post references a podcast that has Shell Oil and McDonald’s as reference points, I should make it clear that I in no way support either of those organisations or the work they do! Both are multinationals that are responsible for a lot of evil. However, good lessons can come from bad places.)

A Dynamic Duet

When do you sing? I’ve always preferred singing with others (partly as my voice can disappear into a broader sound). There is a simple joy in combining our individual differences to make music.

When you find someone you like singing with, it feels easy to find your voice. Well, I’ve found someone to duet with in my professional work, Maria Brosnan and I have teamed up to bring a new service to the world of education and technology.

As a freelance consultant, I’ve been fortunate to build great relationships with clients. I have been called back to help as an occasional board member for new edtech companies, a digital trustee for charities and a critical friend to well established organisations. Singing solo in these settings can be daunting, as my voice is in the spotlight.

My experience in founding an edtech company, creating products and services for schools, and communicating with the education sector is grounded by my passion and expertise as a teacher. The tone/timbre/register that I offer is in demand with organisations when they are about to start something new, when they want to change tack, or when they just need an outside eye on their work.

So, when I recently  found myself across the table from another freelance advisor to a client, as another critical friend to this edtech company, I was a little worried how it might work. Having been in this position before, I wondered if we’d work well together and if the client had made the right choice bringing us together. Would it throw me off? WouId my voice get lost (and would I lose the client)? What would happen if we disagreed with each other?

But it was great! Maria Brosnan is hugely knowledgeable and has valuable experience in founding edtech firms. In a series of meetings, Maria and I seemed to fall into an easy duet, taking different parts, encouraging and supporting each other to help our client in more ways than either of us could have done alone.

If you don’t know the film this pic is from, or get the reference, I don’t want to spoil it for you by explaining it. Just go and watch Casablanca as soon as possible.

Inspired by working alongside the growing choir that is weareopen: the cooperative set up by the dream team that is Laura Hilliger, John Bevan, Doug Belshaw, and the visual thinkerer Bryan Mathers;  I suggested to Maria that we team up and a new service.

Not only did Maria jump at it, but the feedback from our network of clients has been very supportive. It turns out that not only did we enjoy singing together, but other people liked hearing it!

As these are early days, we have an MVP in terms of sharing our new offering. We know we will need to adapt our message for the charity and arts sector, for startups, and other potential clients. We’d both love your feedback on this one page summary of our offering.

If you offer digital services or products to schools we believe we can offer considerable value as a duet. We will both continue to work as solo artists, and you can chose to take on one of us, but if you’d like to know more about what we could do for you as a team, please get in touch with either of us. 

You can contact us at     

Maria Brosnan at