Closing the Gap, Raising the Bar

On Thursday the 3rd and Friday the 4th of December I attended @SSAT‘s (Schools, Students and Teachers Network) annual two day conference in Manchester. This year the theme was; Closing the gaps while raising the bar; Quality and Equity.

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When my Head Teacher sent round an email to all members of SLT asking who would like to attend, I felt this was a no brainer, in my role as Director of Inclusion, I instantly replied saying, ‘Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ I was delighted that I was the first to respond and was allowed to attend.

However, what was even better was that my Head Teacher didn’t expect this to be automatically something for me only. Out of our SLT, two other members wanted to attend too and saw the value of Closing the Gap within their directed responsibilities. One, in charge of English and Literacy and the other in charge of Year 11 Attainment and Data.


In this short blog post, I would like to share some of my takeaways from the amazing two day conference.


(I did try to Storify the tweets, but it crashed twice, so I have given up, over the two days over 1,300 tweets were sent! It is still trending today, as I write this post on a Saturday morning!)

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Firstly, what a choice!

In regards to the speakers, there were 11 women out of a total of 28 speakers and workshop hosts. Not quite an equal split in gender; but still working towards adequate representation of women in education- see #WomenED. However, there was only 1 Black, Minority, Ethnic speaker/leader advertised on the website. There was actually another who incidentally spoke about the lack of BME representation in educational leadership- Marva Rollins. The irony.

(Read about my views on #BMeInED.)

Now, I am not suggesting the speakers chosen were not the ‘best’ for their particular areas of expertise and not being BME did not detract from their message either. However, I think it is the responsibility of all conference/educational event organisers to seek out a good representation of our educational sector. If you are need of a speaker who is BME, contact me, I am gathering a database here-

Day 1- Programme:

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Day 2- Programme:

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The contributions throughout the conference came as far as America to Netherlands. The views of Grammar schools to state comprehensives, from Teachers to Professors, from adults to children and from consultants to students. It was simply mind blowing how there did not seem like an over representation of any particular area. It did not feel like a primary, or secondary or further/higher education conference. It just felt like it was for educators. Brilliant!

Throughout the conference whilst listening to the speakers and attending the workshops, I kept thinking about the same questions I pose to audiences when I am delivering INSET/CPD/Workshops…

  • What can I do with this information?
  • Should I do something differently in my current practice as a teacher? As a leader?
  • Why am I doing what I am currently doing?
  • Should I not be doing what I am doing because of..?
  • What can I try? And why?

So, the day began and we began to listen, learn and most importantly reflect. Here are some of my key learning points, a little garbled, a little unorganised, but they are going to appear here on this blog post, as I look back through my tweets. I have found this is almost entirely my new form of note taking? Others can also live critique your views/views of others as you tweet them out.

Day one:

Opening keynote: Three Head Teachers.

Joan Deslandes

We need to all be agents of change to avoid educational apartheids.

An interesting way to consider the educational landscape at the moment. Are we fully aware of this hidden complexity? Are you as an educator privy to all of the stark data displaying the massive inequalities and differences in attainment and ultimately life chances of students?

What do we do with our data as a school? Do we share it in easy to understand ways? Do we pull out the ‘bright spots’ the ‘good news stories’ and then uplift our teams? Or do we have frank conversations about how, despite X, this is still not acceptable? Is acceptable too strong a word.

Are you an agent for change?

Up next… the legend- @LeadingLearner!

Stephen Tierney

  • How are you connecting your teachers with the wider contexts?
  • Great professional development is what you think is effective teaching!
  • Would it be good enough for my child?
  • Avoid the silver bullets!

Stephen speaks so much sense. It was such a privilege to tag alongside Stephen during the two days, I learnt so much from him. (More than he will ever know, I am sure.) I often sit back and wonder, if I do become a Head Teacher, what will I be like. If I could be like Stephen, calm, cool, measured, friendly, warm, knowledgeable and personable. I will be very happy.

His words above resonated with me strongly.

Stephen stated that if a meeting does not talk about students, their learning, their attainment, their progression then is it a useful meeting? Do we sit in meetings and leave thinking what was the point? Do you?

Do businesses talk about anything other than productivity leading to profit? Our profit is the children? How much profit are we trying to make?

I do wonder about the is it good enough for my children cliche. I do not have children yet- but God willing, (I will one day. in Arabic, the word is InshAllah.) However, what do I feel about posing changes to my school context against those of my children, does every decision have to be underpinned by whether you as a parent would accept that from the school, or what would my child, as a student, a young person feel about it? Personally, I think both are vital!

Avoiding the silver bullets, the fads, the gimmicks, the progressive? Innovation? Creativity? I know they are not all interconnected as one is not the cause of another but how do we do something different, new, ground breaking if we avoid what others say could/might work, or simply prove to be popular? Just because it is popular it does not mean it is not good? The reality is, because we have so many different personalities in the classroom, teaching so many different personalities, all of them will be different and should be different!

A key phrase to remember is…

Dylan William

Everything works somewhere, but not everything works everywhere. Teaching is all about knowing the conditions under which a particular technique is likely to work.

I try my best to spread this message via my tweets and other blog posts. The simply way to avoid fads, gimmicks and silver bullets is to truly know your students, not just students. If it will work in your context then do not avoid it either, because you think it is only a quick win, because that could be the tipping point for many other changes?


After Stephen displayed exactly how to interact with an audience and make them feel empowered to make a difference, up came Ani Magill, a Head Teacher of St John the Baptist a 6 times outstanding Secondary School.

She spoke frankly, clearly and confidently about her approach.

Ani Magill

Many schools have replaced the words pupils/students/learners with OFSTED

Have you? Do you say, we are doing this for Ofsted? Or we are doing this because it is best for our students. I personally, have never said that we are trying to raise the attainment of our disadvantaged students so Ofsted will grade us Outstanding, or so they can see we are doing what we should be. I have said it is is our moral duty, it is something I feel strongly about. It is the very reason I came into education.

Ani Magill then listed her top 5 tips to provide effective schooling for students:

1.Positive, visible and effective leadership team

She told us to smile as leaders, be emotionally literate, be caring, walk the walk, talk the talk. Ani reminded us all, that being a leader did not mean you are at the top, it means you are at the top of the list to serve others. We are there to serve our teachers.

2. Unrelenting focus on teaching and learning

Are our teachers ending the year as better teachers than the start? Are we always actually learning? If so, how do we know? What does professional development actually look like? Or is it simply a professional knowledge update. To simply keep up with the changes? Is that development? Or is that continually rebranding/remoulding. I do wonder and despair that despite the fact that EVERYBODY in the conference and the education sector knows that the single most important factor to raising standards, closing the gap and increasing attainment is effective, quality teaching.

Yet, how much of our professional development programmes reflect that single statement? How many INSETs are just about sharing good practice, allowing departments to sit and talk to one another about their mutual students? How many upskill the subject and pedagogical knowledge of our educators?

Who is in charge of teaching and learning in your school? Is it their only role? If not, why not?

How much time do senior leaders spend in lessons with teachers, developing their teaching and learning? How much time do you observe compared to coach? Do you view compared to plan and prepare?

I am reflecting on these points strongly.

3. Are you a 100%er?

Do you seek 100% from everything? From your site, the food, the classrooms, the teaching, the students. Do you know everybody’s name, do you know who every child is? Do you have 100% knowledge on 100% of the things? Ani, asked us to consider being 100%ers. Because, striving for perfection helps us reach excellence.

4. Cherish all

Ani spoke of great leaders valuing, cherishing and knowing all the staff. She gave the example, the best head knows the cleaners childrens names. I wonder whether this principle shouldnt be negated simply because we work in larger secondary schools? Cherishing, valuing and letting staff know they are important is paramount to effective leadership.

I am providing all the support staff in my school with a Christmas lunch, on me. I am also giving all colleagues I line manage a personalised present. I always remember to thank the ICT network team, the admin team and so on. Do you?

5. Drive to do better

Are you continually striving to make everything better. Do not wait until the new term, new year, new students, start now. Tomorrow. Next week. Try, refine, ditch.

The next speaker- Dr Russ Quagglia spoke a lot about student voice and student participation in decision making, I could not read the slides clearly enough as the writing was too small, however, some of his message did ring true with me quiet fiercely.

Dr Russ Quagglia

  • Do NOT think about where the students are from, think about where they are going

There are a many number of gaps:

  • Student voice gap
  • Self worth gap
  • Engagement gap and
  • Purpose gap

The from and going line reminds me of Sir Tim Brighouse’s viewpoint, which I share everyone…


How interesting would it be to plan lessons with the above gaps in mind? Imagine, if we removed all other labels, would those factors be enough for us to deliver effective, quality teaching and therefore learning?

Dr Russ spoke about something that I get asked a lot, and @HeadGuruTeacher also got asked this at the end of his insightful presentation too.

‘How do you find the time?’

My response has been… rather controversially.

Tom Sherrington’s response was, rather amusingly that, he has a fantastically high tolerance for chaos and he is not very effective or productive in other areas of his life! We can all understand those words.

Here is Tom’s presentation, which had so many key points to consider, it is better you read through it!


Dr Russ’ response was, simple, powerful and true.

You do not have time  NOT to.

Day 1 ended with many discussions and highlights with my two new friends! Ha- @Gary_S_King, @Aimeee2611 and a consolidation of a friendship with @leadinglearner. (Check out his amazing blog here- It was also nice to bump into the original northerner @teamtait!

Day 2:

This started with Marva Rollins whose message I want to shout from the roof tops.

Maria Rollins

My job was seen as tokenism, but I represented

Marva was the first female black headteacher in Newham in london. Her school is incredibly successful and her students thrive there despite the absolute and relative poverty engulfing their lives.

If we do not address these challenges of the lack of BME leaders in education then we are wasting talent. Talent comes in all shades.

How true is this? Talent does indeed come in all shades, colour here isn’t important, its the accessibility to students of bright, affective, responsible individuals. I will say it again, being a young, asian, muslim, male in school right now is not easy. (Here is why I think that…)

Commitment to children is why we teach, diversity of who is teaching them should not stop that.

I took this to mean, we should not hinder diversity of educators to our students. For me this means, we do not put all BME teachers in BME areas and vice versa. Diversity is what is needed.

Up next…

Professor Tanya Byron spoke next about the lack of mental health awareness, knowledge or support in secondary schools. She was a flamboyant, confident speaker who clearly had issues in her education as a child, but strived forward to overcome those demons and is now at the pinnacle of her field. Hats off to her. One thing she said, resonated with me more than any other, despite her mentioning our lack of understanding and knowledge of cognitive development along with our ability to comprehend how the brain functions, it was when she said…

Tanya Byron

Being anxious results in less productivity, which results in more anxiety.

I began to worry, wonder and reflect on my classroom, my teaching, should I MAKE every student answer a question, every lesson, should I give grades to them all. I beat the drum of equity, but does consistency drive forward equality right over the edge of that very notion, ideal and rationale?

Up next came Professor Becky Francis. She ran through the facts and figures in regards to attainment. Stephen, Amy- @aaimeee2611 (A soon to be HeadTeacher) then had a really interesting discussion.

I spoke about the notion of whether progress alone is acceptable? I mean, we can find out exactly whether our disadvantaged students were ever going to get 5 A*s-C via tracking their attainment on entry to Ks3. We can ‘figure’ out whether they were ever going to achieve what society deems acceptable. However, is simply working out whether we have added value to their grades good enough? Is it acceptable for them to have many of lifes doors shut on them because they have not reached that middle point of acceptability? (Maybe, more to the point, should we have what society deems as the basics, C grades?)

The analogy I consider is, when students have to pass their driving test, no mediocrity will be allowed, they will be expected to pass by the same standards of others. So, do we by insisting on progress, rather than achieving the pinnacle reduce their ability to be a part of society?


I can look at my school’s attainment here and come up with all kinds of ways to explain it. I know our Raise online data also shows a sea of green, a number of good news stories. But, what it does not say is that there were 74 students who sat their exams in my School last year, they were categorised as disadvantaged. Out of those 74, only 35% of them achieved a grade C or above in English and Maths and 3 other subjects. We continually say that you can not label all PP students are underperforming, or a weaker cohort. However, the generalisations ring true, time in time out, of course there are exceptions.

As a cohort our PP students rates of progress increased compared to last year and are well above the national average. So what? Who cares? I care about them achieving enough for the doors of deprivation, the scaffolds of depression and the bricks and mortar of inequality to be broken down into ashes and dust. I can be be happy about being above what quite frankly is a horrible national average for disadvantaged students.

(SEND students overlap within the PP bracket too. Their performance as a whole is another area to consider too.)

After all,

Becky Francis

Benefits of Pupil Premium:

  • Redistributive
  • Autonomy
  • Bespoke
  • Ring fenced

Problems with Pupil Premium:

  • Society
  • Not enough money
  • Identification
  • Understanding
  • Autonomy
  • Research

As you can see some of the benefits are also the draw backs. Becky Francis mentioned that in order for us to address the barrier of poverty, the money would need to be in the region of around £25,000 a child.

I have a feeling that our practices, our ideals, our teaching and learning should always attempt to bridge the parental/carer void. We should aim to get students out of the situation, almost by themselves. We know that parenting, social class and postcodes play a major factor in attainment and life chances, so how do we overcome those barriers without trying to address them ourselves as schools. We can spend PP money putting on classes for parents, we can get them more literate, more digitally savvy, we can even get our PP students to teach their parents. However, how will this help? Will it help the young person? Or will the educational attainment and the future planning, their next steps help more?

I guess, what I am saying is, will helping them get out be better than helping those that are already in, stuck? I am stuck with this one. What I do know is our schools NEET figure this year is only 1& again, which is 2 students out of 240. The national average is 8%.

I know without parental reinforcement, support and encouragement things become even harder. However, you did it? Others did it? Lets make it happen for those that need to do it?

I wonder; if it would be more beneficial getting parents in to demonstrate their own skills, rather than us trying to teach them things they possiblly did not want to learn then and potentially do not want to learn now. In a session I attended about a school in Widness, Wade Decon school’s vice principal spoke about simply getting the parents through the door, I think this is fundamental.

What is your PP students attendance compared to the non PP students? What is the attendance to parents evenings? To subject information evenings? To Trips? Have you considered rather than being chuffed with an 80% Year 11 turnout to assembly, what percentage of those were PP, or SEND? We do… Work to be done, still.


Stephen and I then had another discussion about whether it was fair for Becky Francis to say that the majority of students who do not achieve society’s measure of acceptable grades were ‘in weaker schools.’ We will continue to discuss this; I have another blog about this I feel.

I then attended a session about Integration not Segregation for SEND students. This was so refreshing to know that I am indeed doing what some really successful schools are doing. I left the session thinking, yes! I wrote about that notion about attending a conference and leaving with nothing here.

The final session I attended was the man himself @TeacherToolkit, he spoke with clarity, ease and comfort about his journey directing teaching and learning as deputy headteacher in a large secondary school in London.

He will be sharing his PowerPoint with us all too via his blog. He also got us to do an activity, he demonstrated with us effective teaching. He showed us, why he is the most followed teacher on Twitter!

I think it is sometimes easy to be critical over other leaders and assume the way they are doing things is wrong. However, I guess I would feel to hold judgement and disdain until they know the context, know the staff, the students and have done something similar before?


Final messages were rounded up by former Pupil Premium champion- Sir John Dunford: He spoke a lot about what I hope I have summarised here in my post about Pupil Premium.

Some of my favourite phrases:

Give the advantage back to the disadvantaged

Equity over equality

Level the playing field of life

So remember, always, always, always…

Image from-

Something I must apologise for, was my attire! I took full advantage of the fact that I was away from school for two days and that I did not have to wear a three piece suit, I attended the conference in jeans, trainers and a hooded jacket. I was reminded of this section in the ‘Delegates’ area of the website several times throughout the day by colleagues/friends!

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Thanks for reading.






  1. Think this is a brilliant reflection Amjad.

    Particularly liked what Ani Magill said and how you have reflected on it.

    Thanks for writing up so folks like me who couldn’t attend could find out a bit about what was said!

  2. […] Closing the Gap, Raising the Bar – an in-depth summary of the SSAT National Conference 2015 written by Amjad Ali (@ASTsupportAAli). Not only was the conference relevant, with some excellent speakers, it also offered a plethora of opportunities to network and share ideas with colleagues in schools up and down the country.  […]

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