Research School Network: A blog about Horses and Water By Caroline Lowing, School Improvement Lead at HISP MAT and HISP Research School ELE


A blog about Horses and Water

By Caroline Lowing, School Improvement Lead at HISP MAT and HISP Research School ELE

by HISP Research School
on the

As we all know, teaching is the most fantastic, maddeningly frustrating, bonkers profession. When we reflect on what we actually do in a day it is hard to really put into words the multitude of things that we do and the speed at which we do them.

My partner, who is not in education, quite simply does not believe me when I say that I haven’t been to the toilet all day. What kind of job wouldn’t allow you 2 minutes to go to the toilet?

Teaching is also frustrating because it often doesn’t go to plan and we take it very personally when it that happens. There are so many moving parts in a lesson that it can often be overwhelming.

As a profession we have been called on more and more to fix society’s ills and we really cannot make any more space in our curriculum for this. In addition, shifting accountability measures and a lack of stability in leadership in some schools has created foundations of sand for some teachers. I often read stories on Twitter about teachers, often at the start of their careers, that are left to deal with poor behaviour, who have students who have sworn at them brought back to their classes, who have been physically assaulted, who are at the end of their tether.

So, let me explain. This is all background to what occurred this Wednesday. Marc Rowland, renowned expert on the disadvantaged agenda (he says he is a one trick pony … but what a trick!) visited HISP MAT to speak to an audience on this topic. If you haven’t heard him speak then please seek opportunities out to do so, in person or remotely. There are no silver bullets with this and the key message was that every young person at every school needs to feel that they belong and can learn. I won’t just summarise what he said but one phrase really struck a chord with me:

Desktop Truancy”

In other words, students who are there in person but who opt out in lessons, who have developed coasting strategies – like copying others, like letting others take a lead, like not answering questions by saying I don’t know” or not putting their hands up. These may or may not be disadvantaged students but all teachers know them.

I tweeted this phrase as it seemed to sum up the issue so powerfully for me and many agreed but a group of teachers felt that:

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”

Full disclosure: I hate this phrase and I really hate this phrase with relation to education. For all of the reasons that I started with, I completely understand why teachers feel under pressure and why they feel that the onus should not be on them to ensure that all children and young people participate in class.

In fact, I agree with them. It should not be down to individual teachers to make this happen in their classroom. Schools
should be responsible for creating a climate and culture where everyone takes part, everyone learns, everyone answers questions, everyone makes mistakes and don’t feel rubbish about it when they get things wrong.

This should be a collective responsibility and not an individual one, but let me be clear –


So, how can it be achieved? Well, not overnight and not without clear structures, routines and processes. The EEF’s Improving Behaviour in Schools guidance report states that consistency and coherence at whole school level are paramount, with four of the recommendations focusing on proactive strategies:

  1. Know and understand your pupils and their influences
  2. Teach learning behaviours alongside managing behaviour
  3. Use classroom management strategies to support good classroom behaviour
  4. Use simple approaches as part of your regular routine

One approach to increase the chances of all pupils thinking in lessons is to focus on the ratio of participation in each classroom. Here I am going to lean completely on the work of Adam Boxer, who himself leans on the work of Doug Lemov, because they explain it so much better than me.

HISP MAT Webinar

I watched Adam’s video again after having watched it last year and was still blown away by how effectively these small tweaks to our practice can impact on the numbers of students taking part and thinking in lessons. If you haven’t seen it then please do take a look. Even experienced teachers will find something in here that they haven’t tried or haven’t used to full effect yet.

Of course, back to my original point – if you are one teacher doing this in your classroom whilst others are not it is so much harder to create a culture. Not impossible, just a whole lot harder. School leaders need to create this culture across a school – by developing specific and clear CPD, by supporting teachers during learning time, by having slick systems that deal with disruptive behaviour and by having the same high expectations of all students in all areas of the school.

I’m a product of an education system that believed that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. I did alright out of it but one of my closest friends came away with F and G grades in a handful of GCSEs. He made a decision, as a teenager, to not drink’ – on that has affected his whole life.

Are we really OK with that?

I don’t work with horses, I work with young people. As educators it is not enough to say I’ve done my bit, it is their choice as to whether they do it or not”. We have to be relentless for our young people, particularly our disadvantaged young people, but we can and should do this together.

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