Back On Track – Fewer Things, Greater Depth with Mary Myatt

Maddie Kilminster - 31 March, 2021

Category : Blog

Back On Track – Fewer Things, Greater Depth with Mary Myatt

We were honoured to welcome education advisor, writer and speaker, Mary Myatt, to give the keynote speech at this term’s ArborFest – our two-day virtual festival exploring innovative ways of working with Arbor MIS.  Mary gave a brilliant talk about how schools can carve out time for satisfying work on the curriculum by focusing on

We were honoured to welcome education advisor, writer and speaker, Mary Myatt, to give the keynote speech at this term’s ArborFest – our two-day virtual festival exploring innovative ways of working with Arbor MIS. 

Mary gave a brilliant talk about how schools can carve out time for satisfying work on the curriculum by focusing on fewer things in greater depth. You can read her talk below – or catch the recording here.

Taking care of ourselves first

You don’t need me to tell you how demanding, exhilarating, exciting and exhausting it is in schools, even in normal times (and it has been that to the power of ten recently). So while there’s nothing we can do about what’s happening in the wider world, I think there are some things we do have control over.

I often hear staff in schools complaining that they’re not as far ahead as they’d like to be in certain areas such as curriculum or school improvement. But what I encourage them to recognise is that they only have so much bandwidth. Sometimes we must accept how things are and not beat ourselves up.

On flights when they give out the health and safety instructions, they say that in the case of an emergency, if we’re travelling with someone vulnerable or a young child, we must put our own masks on first. Why is that? Because we can’t look after other people unless we’re safe and sound ourselves.

Greg McKeown talks about rest as a responsibility. It’s not a luxury. It’s really important, for example, that we eat proper food on a regular basis, that we get a bit of fresh air every day and that we go to bed at a reasonable time.

The disciplined pursuit of less

Trying to do everything is a problem for us as a sector. We want the best for our children and our communities, but we simply can’t do everything. 

A real mantra of Greg McKeown’s work is the need to cut back in order to set clearer prioritie that are likely to make the biggest difference. And in the context of education, priorities need to be framed around a focus on what is likely to make the greatest difference to children’s learning. As McKeown says, if we have too many priorities, we’re simply not going to do anything really well. 

Pareto’s 80/20 rule is also worth remembering. In Italy in the 1890s, Pareto found that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. What has emerged from this insight is that across many sectors, a relatively small amount of input has a disproportionate impact. And this broad 80/20 rule also applies to schools. If we cut out some of the processes and resources we use, for example in the curriculum, that have less impact, we’ll be able to focus on the things that make the greatest difference.  

How do you ensure quality in the curriculum?

There is overwhelming evidence from all quarters, not just my own work, that it’s the quality of the curriculum that makes the greatest difference for the greatest number of children. The quality of the curriculum has certainly gone up the agenda recently  since the addition of the “quality of education” judgement to the latest Ofsted framework in 2019. 

There are eight main things we need to get right when thinking about quality education:

1. Realign priorities

Both my work and Ofsted’s research have found that in some schools, priorities have become distorted. In some primaries, for example, in order for children to do well in their SATs, they are given a diet of SATs in the mistaken belief that that will produce better results. But if you look at the scores for the children who didn’t do so well in the reading papers for 2019, it was because of a lack of vocabulary. So how do we develop children’s vocabulary? Through a broad and balanced curriculum, not just a list of spelling. 

2. Address curriculum misconceptions

I notice some misconceptions around the curriculum, such as focusing on skills and thinking of them as “cross transferable”. Just because a child can evaluate and dissect something really well in geography doesn’t mean to say they can do the same in history if they don’t know any history. We need to think of skills and knowledge as being like conjoined twins; through rich exposure to and engagement with the curriculum, skills develop. 

3. Remember children’s entitlement

It’s also important to consider the idea of entitlement. What I’ve found is that some children who need additional support get so many interventions that they actually miss out on the wider curriculum with their peers. Interventions are important but they need to be bespoke and have impact as quickly as possible, so that children can rejoin their peers. 

4. Be more ambitious

For the first time, the Ofsted framework now has a discussion of ambition. We should be asking to what extent the curriculum is ambitious for all our pupils, regardless of their starting points, and what the children themselves are saying about it. Pupil voice is a strong thread in my research, and I’ve found that at the heart of it, children want more demanding work.

5. High challenge, low threat

According to Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, “human beings are curious, but thinking is hard”. If we make things too easy, then the learning is likely not to be so secure. We should therefore not dumb things down for our children. 

About 18 months ago I was working in a school in London with some students who were identified as high priority but underachieving. They said the only lesson they engaged with was geography because the teacher gave them really difficult, demanding stuff to do, such as articles from National Geographic. The teacher would say “You’re not going to understand it all, but that’s alright.”

When I looked at the results for geography in that school, these students were the highest by a margin. The teacher wasn’t giving those students work that was above their “pay grade” in order to get great results; the great results followed from the students relishing the high challenge that was accompanied by low threat. 

6. Be prepared to be surprised

One of the most worrying results of our current system is the reading deficit. In 2019, over a quarter of our children did not reach the expected standard. Research a few years ago found that only about 30% of children are read to on a daily basis, and in 2018 Teacher Tapp found that only 15% of all children are read to in class every day.

Research from Sussex University found that simply reading challenging, complex novels aloud at a fast pace in each lesson repositions poorer readers as good readers, giving them a more engaged, uninterrupted reading experience over a sustained period. The teachers were actually surprised at what the students achieved. 

7. Underpin learning with high quality texts

When introducing new units over time, we should underpin them with high quality texts. Why? Books contain complex ideas and sentences of greater lexical depth and complexity which enrich children’s vocabulary. Through rich resources we’re able to draw out the important vocabulary we want our children to be fluent in by the end of the unit.

For example, a high quality text to support the Year 6 science unit about the theory of evolution and inheritance could be Sabina Radeva’s “The Origin of Species”. Sabina trained as a scientist and then she retrained as an artist, which gives the book two threads: high quality information and beautiful imagery. 

For more examples of high quality texts to use across the curriculum, see the recording of Mary’s talk here

8. Use meeting time to talk about books

So what should we be cutting in order to find time for these marvellous resources? Firstly, we should think about how we use staff meetings. There are plenty that could be handled in an email or just a brief summary. Instead we should turn our meeting time into opportunities to discuss the books and reading we’re going to do with children. 

Six keys to success

Harvard professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter talks about the six keys to doing good work in any organisation. I think these are useful when thinking about curriculum work:

  1. Show up – Ask, are you bringing your complete self to work? 
  2. Speak up – We all have the right to have our voices and ideas heard
  3. Look up – Remind yourself why you’re doing this work
  4. Team up – Remember that greater outcomes come when we’re in it together
  5. Never give up – Even if it doesn’t always feel like you’re succeeding
  6. Lift others up – One of the greatest gifts we can give to one another is to encourage them

As a final note, let’s remember that we’re human beings first and we’re professionals second. The young people we work with are human beings first and they’re learners second. 

If you enjoyed Mary’s talk, make sure you download her further reading list to learn more.

Want to learn more about Arbor MIS? 

We’d love to show your school or MAT how Arbor could help you work faster, smarter and collaborate more. Arrange a free demo here, get in touch at, or call 0208 050 1028. 

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