Value Led Leadership: Swimming Against the Tide in a Competitive Culture of Education 

Heading down for our visit to The Duston School, to be shown around by the affable Mr Sam Strickland, we were buzzing with questions. Our agenda was pretty clearly defined in our minds. We’re interested in how schools can support wellbeing and the mental health of staff and students, not as a tokenistic one-off or tick box gesture, but by weaving it through the fabric of the school culture and the stitching of the curriculum.  

We wanted to know how this head could bring about such a massive change while simultaneously looking after staff wellbeing (in a school that just prior to his tenure had been moved from Outstanding to Requiring Improvement because of variation in teaching quality, outcomes, and the behaviour and welfare of students). Most of all, we wondered how you could balance wellbeing and rigour. Ultimately, education is about providing opportunity and equality and these things happen at the point of that balance. So how is it done at Duston? 

Sam Strickland is a historian through and through. We didn’t just pick this up when he referenced ‘fiefdoms’ (although this was a clue!), it was clear from the off that he wants inquiry-based decision making and evidence for everything he implements. Sam was doing the knowledge curriculum before it was a ‘thing’. He recalled how as a new teacher (already getting exceptional results) an Ofsted inspector tore strips from his lesson because it wasn’t entertaining enough. Perhaps this is what drives Sam to champion teaching in its purest form and to insist that schools as institutions manage everything else to allow teachers to teach. He was quick to point out that even though he fears he might come across as a ‘raving trad’ on Twitter, his approach is more pragmatic than ideological – he simply likes to go with what works. 

To enable this unfettered focus on teaching, Sam has ditched the data-centric approach, which in his words is a ‘false proxy’. At Duston the curriculum is king.  As Dylan Wiliam said, if you want staff to do something new, you need to decide what they are going to stop doing to make time for it! The word curriculum runs through this school like a stick of rock; every question we asked Sam, he linked back to knowledge and the education the school is providing to its students. 

For us, hearing Sam talk about lessons at Duston was reminiscent of Andy Tharby’s ‘Principles of Instruction’[1] (based on research by Rosenshine). In terms of wellbeing, there are several benefits to this approach: firstly, so many of the skills relied upon in education assume the existence of a shared foundation of common knowledge. If you don’t have access to that knowledge, there’s evidence to suggest you can feel an outsider at worst, marginalized at best.[2] Secondly, resilience is fundamental to wellbeing, but pupils can’t just conjure this from thin air! They need to be given the tools with which to build it, and one of the most important of these tools is the self-efficacy which emerges from small steps, taken successfully. To achieve this, mastery needs to be emphasised over performance (ditching the data!).[3]

We’ll admit though, we weren’t completely convinced that the ‘teach-to-the-top-one-size-fits-all’ approach would work for the most vulnerable students. We wanted to know how a knowledge-focused curriculum where everyone does the same work could support all pupils. All our research tells us that the neocortex (where learning happens) relies on pupils’ limbic brains not triggering a flight/flight/freeze response, meaning that anything that is perceived a ‘threat’ – such as work that is too difficult – can inhibit learning. So, what we saw at The Duston School really did get us thinking and questioning.  

We realised fairly quickly that the rigid routine and the crystal-clear expectations actually seemed to produce a sense of wellbeing for staff and students alike. The whole school uniformity of approach affords a feeling of safe predictability, which levels the playing field for so many children. For the vulnerable students we had wondered about, this rigidity is proving reassuring and even empowering for those who would find the chaos and variation of some secondary schools taxing. This makes sense when you consider that for teens with attachment issues, streamlined, consistent approaches that help to avoid overload become even more important [4]. The face of this uniformity isn’t cold either. A group culture and a sense of belonging has been thoughtfully fostered: all students are given a laptop bag for equipment, a pencil case and a locker on the first day (disadvantaged students are also given toiletries), and every morning, students are welcomed at the doors by the senior team who shake their hands as they come in.

So, in the middle of our visit, we looked at each other – ‘where are the smoke and mirrors?!’. The behaviour was pretty impeccable; teachers were… well, teaching; and the kids seemed happy and engaged. So, were the ‘trouble-makers’, the disadvantaged, disaffected or disengaged, simply voting with their feet and staying away?  

Apparently not. Attendance was marked out as a concern in the last Ofsted, just prior to Sam taking over the reins at Duston, but since his new regime it has been steadily improving. There are no plans to complacently sit back though. The next step is for Sam and his team to go out and start knocking on doors to collect those persistent non-attenders. Children aren’t allowed to fall by the wayside here. It became abundantly clear that this is a head who is deeply empathetic and understands people and the challenges they face. He knows that to get those children to school, those families need to trust the school, and that’s his next task. The value of fostering this trust cannot really be understated either, considering that research suggests that social trust can lead to higher levels of resilience and subjective wellbeing.[5]

On the whole then, pupils are present and engaged and it hasn’t happened by magic. Duston is not a small school and it does not have a catchment intake from a fairy-tale-like alternate reality. There is a carefully thought out structure in place and a lot going on behind the scenes. When you pull back the curtain and look into the classrooms, study rooms and student support rooms, there is an intricate piece of machinery at work which creates an optimal environment for learning. It’s still under construction, but crucially it is not rushed. There are no missing nuts or bolts. The lack of a feeling of rushed or panicked urgency adds to the reassuring ethos of the school. Tellingly, the school improvement plan is written in the spring term each year (not, as would be the standard, in response to exam results published in August). Not only does this give staff plenty of time to digest and contribute to school priorities, it also speaks volumes about the measured pace with which things are implemented in the school, not as reactions to outcomes but as part of a larger, clear overview about what is working and what isn’t.  

The pastoral system is robust: there is a team of counsellors; staff have been given training to be effective form tutors; pupils see their tutors at the start and end of each day; there are non-teaching deputy heads of year; TAs are trained to deliver fast learning as an intervention; staff shouting at students is not approved of and the behaviour system is centralised – staff do not have to chase students for detentions. Isolation booths, in Sam’s opinion, do not work. In ones that he’s experienced, pupils graffiti on desks and are frequently abusive to the teacher in charge. At Duston, pupils are isolated either in Sam’s office or with a member of the senior team. 

Each department has a workbook for each child. This means that every worksheet, every PowerPoint, every poem, everything they’ve written is there, in a folder, ready to be annotated, revised from and cross-referenced. No text books. No exercise books. From the pupils’ perspective the advantages are clear: they know what’s behind them, they know what’s coming, there’s a clear sense of progression and if a student is absent, catching up on the work is not like staring into a foggy abyss: it’s apparent what they have to do to get back up to speed with the rest of their class. The cohesion of this is incredibly reassuring for pupils. The implications for self-esteem are also significant: every pupil has something to be proud of.  

But what about the teachers? Every teacher leads from the front, using a visualiser. All students are taught the same thing – a contentious idea when you think of teaching as an art. So how is this accomplished without completely alienating staff?  

Well, it’s not for all staff, but those who were prepared to take the leap with Mr Strickland were given ownership and, as the HSE cite lack of control as one of the major factors influencing levels of stress in the workplace, perhaps this is the key. Subject leaders were given control of what their department teaches (collectively and in collaboration) – and that holy grail for all teachers: TIME. The majority of directed time has been given over to faculties this year, there are two off-timetable days for each faculty that are devoted to planning, and each member of staff is entitled to a number of CPD days on an area which they choose to develop.  

The pressure of producing resources and having to continually create and plan is taken off the staff. Creativity (a central component of a sense of wellbeing) is given value through the dedicated planning time; this frees teachers to focus on and respond to the learning needs of the children during term-time – a creative endeavour in of itself. This is high order teaching, and it’s even cheaper apparently than conventional exercise books and text books! Staff are further afforded a sense of control through the school’s action research group, which informs new pedagogical practice in the school: ‘tried and tested’ does not mean clinging to the old, new methods are tried and evaluated. This group offers staff access to a funded MA and coaching within the school is being developed by new appointment Kat Howard, known for her commitment to supporting staff’s access to CPD and collaborative working.  

The earlier noted empathy and understanding of this headteacher applies equally to his staff. Sam began his headship with 1:1 chats with each member of staff; he established a wellbeing group, who feed back to him three times a year; there is a clear wellbeing charter evident and equally prominent to the behaviour and curriculum charters in the head’s office; and the compassionate way in which he talks about the individual nature of grief and the subsequent period of absence that might entail, all point to the fact that although curriculum might be king here, people are at the heart of the place. 

All of this begs the question – what comes next? According to Sam, the school needs much the same as any other: money, space, and training for staff. At the moment, teaching students about  mental health is done discretely as part of the whole school ‘drop down’ PHSE approach, in a school where SEAL is still a term used by the head (more evidence that fads are not a thing here – what works is kept!). Learning about mental health has been shown to have a positive impact on wellbeing[6]… but from our perspective, in a knowledge focused school where curriculum is king, there is a golden opportunity to weave the discussion of the human experience through everything that’s taught. After all, the mental and emotional processes that govern us are not an add-on or discrete unit in our lives, they are integral to everything – including what we learn and how we learn it.

If you’re interested in hearing Sam speak about creating a climate for change, tackling a toxic legacy and supporting staff workload, join us for our free conference on ‘Reframing Wellbeing’ in March by reserving your place here:


[1] Tharby, A. (2016), Research Bulletin 5 [pdf]. Available at:

[2] Bourdieu, P. and Passerson, J. C. (1990), Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, 2nd Edition, London: Sage.

[3] Wery, J. and Thomson, M.M. (2013), Motivational Strategies to Enhance Effective Learning in Teaching Struggling Students, British Journal of Learning Support, 28:3, 103-108

[4] Bomber, L.M. (2009) Survival of the Fittest. In: A. Perry (Ed.) Teenagers and Attachment: Helping Adolescents Engage with Life and Learning. Derby: Worth Publishing

[5] Helliwell, J.F. et al (2016), New Evidence on Trust and Wellbeing [pdf], Cambridge MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Available at:

[6] Wellbeing Policy and Analysis (2013), An Update of Wellbeing Work across Whitehall [pdf]. Available at:



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We wholly believe in the potential of young people and their ability to soar through life and make a success of the path in which they choose to go down. But we also recognise that whilst modern life is bursting with opportunity, it’s also a bit scary and complicated.
We know first-hand that some children are dealing with some big issues. We’ve found that they often need an outlet, a listening ear, a chat, a different perspective. And the people that look after them – their families, their carers and their teachers – sometimes need a little help too. That’s where we come in.
Through bespoke one-to-one sessions, workshops, presentations, training, talks and programmes - our ambition is simple: to create a world where our children are emotionally healthy, with the tools to successfully steer through modern life.