Pass it on…keep it simple, stupid


I am not sure what prompted @HeyMissSmith to tweet:

I am coming to the conclusion the more complicated people try to make teaching the worse it gets.

But I am inclined to agree. In fact I would go further. The more complicated people try to make ‘the entire world of education’ the worse it gets. It is a deceptively tricky thing to manage however. Education is a tangled mass of issues (chopped and divided up into sub-issues each with their own mind-map of interconnecting categories, reference points and progress measures) that impact on the day to day practitioner who is just trying to make it to the school bell with their sanity intact. One can often be forgiven that education is essentially about: teaching children stuff.

It sounds so simple don’t it?

Children don’t know things…We do…Pass it on.

The problem, I think, is that somewhere along the line we began to worry that it was too simple a premise. You know when you ask a child a question that you know they know the answer to and they really struggle with it. Then they eventually, squint up at you and slowly vocalize the answer (remembering to cleverly lilt their voice upwards at the end as if to suggest it was ‘only a question’ should they get it wrong) and you say ‘Yes, that is the answer, it’s easy isn’t it! I think you were expecting it to be harder but there, you see, you did know it.’ That’s what education is like. It is as simple as you think it is.

But lots of people haven’t been satisfied with this and they’ve slightly tweaked the formula:

Children don’t know things…We do…Pass it on…In a special way that only I know about…Here, I’ll write it down for you.

Suddenly we are swamped with everyone’s simple way of passing it on that couldn’t possibly fail. And that would be fine. But education is a broad church. There are lots of subjects. And each one comes with expert opinion on how to pass it on the best. Before you know it, you are carrying around multiple approaches for multiple subjects and, due to the fact that they each consider themselves to be the most important thing to pass on, you become overwhelmed as you try and compress all of them into a single day of lessons. Not to mention the other areas of education that soon became passed on by the experts: behaviour, teaching styles, assessment strategies, feedback strategies, etc.

Multiple ideas for every facet of education have wormed their way into school culture. None of them necessarily bad, when explored on an individual basis, but when viewed collectively, they muddy the water, like some weird educational homeopathy.

It is, or course, the job of leaders to ensure that teachers are not forced to work in a complicated mess. But it is often these school leaders who zealously create over-complicated blue-prints that must be obeyed, distorting the formula thus:

Professionals don’t know things…we do…follow this plan.

At best, leaders are enablers: defining a vision and supporting individual teachers to be effective for their individual class. At worst, they are short-sighted architects: building their empire upon quicksand and distorting ideas for improvements into self-serving goals.

We need to reclaim the simplicity and subtlety of education.

So, in an extraordinary display of arrogance that seemingly feeds into everything I claim is wrong with education, let me present you with my own formula that will help you:

You know what is needed…Keep it simple…Make it work.

This can be applied to every stratum in every school. What’s more, I’ll prove it to you in less than one
two, okay, three sentences.


Know the school, the people in it and what needs to be done. Don’t just know the school through meetings and minutes: visit, observe, listen and learn, in short: add value. Support and challenge because you’re behind the school and you know the context.

Senior Leaders

Don’t have any long-winded or stupid ideas that are more work for everyone else than for you. Be clear about the school’s goals and allow everyone to care as much as you. Be respectful and loyal to your team and help people become better.

Middle Leaders

Know what else is going on in the school to help put your priorities in perspective. Listen to people and, if necessary, adapt your every-day expectations whilst keeping your overall expectations and your chin up. Help other leaders secure their goals – it’s not a competition.


Understand that many facets of teaching (marking, planning, data analysis) are tactics that you can use to help children learn more effectively than if you don’t use them. You can always get better so let those around you help you. Most of all, keep it simple: kids don’t know stuff…you do…pass it on.

Support staff

Believe that you can make a difference to a teacher’s effectiveness by the role you play in their lives – look out for them and they’ll look out for you. Remember that your role is to support learning, not prop it up. You deserve to be invested in too, so, if you haven’t been on training for years or if all you do on insets is take down displays, make some noise.


The whole school is in your hands but remember, you’re a head teacher; you’re not God or Chuck Norris, so tread carefully, be nice and know it’s not really all down to you. And try teaching once in a while. All of the above and oh, stop writing bloody blogs.

So there you are…pass it on.

5 thoughts on “Pass it on…keep it simple, stupid

  1. jfb57 September 20, 2015 / 6:16 pm

    When I was a girl school was simple! Good to see you back at the keyboard Sir!

  2. julietgreen September 20, 2015 / 7:00 pm

    Know your subject. Teach them what you want them to know. Get them to have a go. Identify and address what they didn’t get.

    We may be able to refine that yet further.

  3. London City Mum September 21, 2015 / 8:00 am

    I would only add one thing: if you are a governor, then add value, don’t just warm the seat.
    As a governor in my 4th year (and 2nd as chair) I have already rid the GB of two individuals who were merely a dead weight for the HT and the school as a whole. Either non-committal or pure critics with nothing positive or constructive to offer.
    Agree – keep it simple. My motto in life.

    • theprimaryhead September 21, 2015 / 8:17 am

      I love that… Add value. I think I’ll add that now. Thanks.

  4. Mrs P October 2, 2015 / 8:40 pm

    Absolutely! We want them to know something they didn’t before, feel something they never have, do something they thought they couldn’t do or, best yet, ask a question they hadn’t thought to ask before. If you can do that for a child every day, consider it a job well done!

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