Headteacher, John Bryant finds a book full of practical take-aways and expert commentary that will inform any leader’s interventions to close attainment gaps

As an Essex headteacher, saying this book is a gem opens me up to accusations of bias. But anyone who’s met me knows that endorsing my local education authority is far from a given. So having said that, this book – put together by Essex County Council and Unity Schools Partnership – is precisely that: a gem.

For a start, it couldn’t be timelier. Its aim is to “support efforts to address the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on learning”. Given the impact of Covid and the very limited recovery package on offer from government, there’s a desperate need for good advice for how to achieve that. Then, its overall message is powerfully positive; no reader will be left in any doubt that what happens in our schools and classrooms really matters.  

But most importantly, The Essex Way really delivers. It’s full of excellent examples from schools doing great things, and a wealth of practical take-aways for busy school leaders. The overarching message is “do fewer things well”, and it is perfectly complemented by a clear, succinct format that breaks interventions down into small, manageable steps.

And whatever it is you’re thinking about tackling as a leader in your school, there’s something here for you. I struggle to think of a single aspect of a child’s educational journey that isn’t covered by it, all driven throughout by best practice by real teachers and leaders in real schools who are having real impact. It’s a curated list of learning experiences that have brought about significant improvements in long-term opportunity for disadvantaged learners (and their better-off peers), coupled with insightful commentary on how others might adapt them for their settings and contexts.  

Throughout, the book’s focus is relentlessly on equity. But while the contributors are unequivocal that supporting disadvantaged learners is everybody’s responsibility, they are also very clear that doing so will, in fact, improve outcomes for all learners.

The strategies and ideas explored here really aren’t rocket science

It is important to note that the strategies and ideas explored here really aren’t rocket science. In fact, it’s likely many won’t be new to you at all. But in our age of evidence-based education, there is real power in presenting these schools’ experiences so clearly. Examples of implementation have their own value as an evidence base, which we shouldn’t underestimate. So while I found that the book supported a lot of what I already knew, I was delighted by how much it made me think about what we already do.

The reason it did that so well is that all of the strategies therein are presented by people currently working in schools. So not only are they tried-and-tested, but the comments from the staff who implemented them really give a sense of the context, the challenges and the key questions to consider before following in their footsteps.  

Refreshingly, in fact, every contributor offers an honest reflection of their specific improvement experience, and none shies away from those factors with the potential to hinder a positive impact. And because each chapter consistently refers back to the teaching and learning experience with a refrain of visible consistency, it’s clear that the intention is always to ensure that the positive impact is felt by all, disadvantaged or not.

Another theme that runs through the book is the need for the whole community to be at the heart of any implementation plans. Any strategy or intervention can work anywhere. Equally, it can fail anywhere. The key to success is buy-in from parents and other stakeholders, and there are plenty of examples here of how that can be achieved, and the importance of flexibility, adaptation and a listening ear.  

The book had me reflecting that it’s one thing to know what gaps need to be closed, but that closing them very much depends on understanding how they appeared in the first place.

So while our focus is on the national recovery we need, the answers will be local. In that regard, the only way isn’t Essex – the book’s authors would agree – but The Essex Way can certainly be an inspiration.