Thresholds, Guillotines, and Mentoring in Schools

The book is pink and doesn’t accessorise very well with my Carling T-shirt. Nevertheless, as George Orwell once put it, ‘good prose is like a window pane.’[1] If the same holds for educational research, then Mentoring in Schools is fiber optic.

I haven’t read many edubooks with a higher footnote-per-paragraph count. How was this done? I’m asking for a friend, of course. My own book, ASBO Teacher, sits proudly atop the wintry pinnacles of educational research. In fact, several months ago, Dylan Wiliam said he’d Tweet about it if he liked it – I keep refreshing my feed and it ought to appear any day now.  So… for someone as steeped in the research as myself – snowed under, practically – I cannot help but remark that Mentoring in Schools is a high-bandwidth guide to obtaining the best possible outcomes for pupils and practitioners.

Haili recognises what David Didau has stated elsewhere, that ‘the best is the enemy of the good’, and that ‘by striving for unrealistic goals we’re more likely to miss being good enough.’ [2] To improve teacher retention, trainees and NQTs need to work ‘smarter, not harder,’ and I agree that ‘the pressure put on teachers to work 60-plus hours a week is a factor in the poor retention rates.’[3]

She also understands that there’s a sweet spot between benign neglect and overbearing supervision. I’ll never forget those double history lessons from training year. ‘Just popping out for 5 minutes, Sam,’ says the mentor. She’d return an hour and 45 minutes later to find a pupil standing outside with purple ink all over his hands, twelve pupils sharpening pencils by the bin, and a small tin of Kopparberg Mixed Fruits at the back of the room.

On the other hands, we have the HELI-copter mentors. High Effort, Low Impact. These are the ones who email you at 9 o’clock in the evening to get your ‘Have-a-Go Hero’ nomination on the spreadsheet or be put on a support plan. One of these mentors used to sit very close to me and observe my computer screen while I was working, giving me helpful tips such as ‘use the PowerPoint on the system’ – GDPR, anyone?

Haili’s advice on instruction is carefully disseminated, addressing the ‘why?’ in addition to the ‘how?’ Here’s an example: NQTs ‘should also be given the opportunity to practise live modelling with a visualizer or on the whiteboard – as, unlike preprepared model answers, this demonstrates how the information should be analysed, evaluated and presented.’[4] This shows a refined understanding of the ‘craft of the classroom’. Having an NQT equipped with techniques of this kind will allow them to improvise, develop, and thereby improve. It’s the opposite of saying, ‘do a card sort,’ or, as I was told as a trainee, to ‘buy a model German stick grenade on eBay’ for a lesson on the Weapons of World War One.  

I can tell Haili knows what she’s talking about. Especially when she concedes that, ‘although planning is important, teaching is a dynamic profession and there is a need to be flexible and sometimes change or deviate from what you are teaching in reaction to things that happen in your classroom.’ This is the key to giving trainees and NQTs both a growth mindset and a sense of autonomy. The alternative is for them to spend every evening on PowerPoint and every weekend at Hobbycraft, telling themselves that their unsustainable workload really will become manageable over time, if only they can ‘build relationships’ or ‘generate more buy-in’.

Much of what I can see in the book aligns with what I would call ‘the threshold principle’: encourage trainee and NQT teachers to work on those techniques and strategies that only come into play once they have entered the classroom. She endorses elaborative questioning techniques,[5] short homeworks,[6] simple scaffolding,[7] while eschewing that darkest of dark arts, differentiation by task.[8]

The problem is that when you frontload lesson prep, you place trainees in a developmental cul-de-sac. How does one get better at card sorts, for example? Well, you learn never to put more than seven sheets of paper into the ‘heavy duty’ guillotine – its grunting squeals serving as the closest equivalent to ‘nails on a chalkboard’ in the age of the IWB. You also learn to pretend to chop your finger off with those machete paper cutters and thereby frighten little Reagan, in isolation with you for the day, out of his McDonald’s haircut. Other than this, there is precious little value to coaching trainees and NQTs in approaches that violate the threshold principle.

So, what is my overall verdict on this book? And do I agree with everything in it? Well, I want this to be a real review. Who’s going to pay attention to the unremittingly gushing review of an author who ‘just happens’ to be on the same publisher? For instance, I’m not a fan of Red, Amber, Green for subject knowledge audits.[9] The reason many SLT are so in thrall to RAG is because conditional formatting is one of the few Excel functions they understand. And while it should be noted that Haili is only suggesting this, it is nevertheless something I take exception to. I also disagree that collaborative approaches to CPD are what’s required, but that is more a personal quirk since I’m not a team player and can’t be arsed for collaborative CPD. I am a bit of a lazy arsehole in this respect but for most practitioners, collaborative CPD seems like a perfectly sensible suggestion.

For mentors, the book is impeccably researched, guided by firm principles,[10] and aligns with the current guidance. Like an Uber Bossman with an aux cable, it gets a five star from me.[11]


[1] The actual phrasing was rather clunkier than this, and no, I can’t be bothered to reproduce it here. Sorry.

[2] He was quoting the Voltaire maxim but applying it to an accountability context – Intelligent Accountability [Kindle Edn.], loc. 971

[3] Mentoring in Schools, p. 178

[4] Mentoring in Schools, p. 58

[5] Mentoring in Schools, p. 73

[6] Mentoring in Schools, p. 77

[7] Mentoring in Schools, p. 72

[8] Mentoring in Schools, p. 96 & David Didau, What if everything you knew about education was wrong?, p. 319

[9] Mentoring in Schools, p. 54

[10] In the phrasing of Mary Myatt, ‘fewer things, greater depth’.

[11] Please note, this is not my own coining. It’s a paraphrase of a lyric from AJ Tracey’s ‘Blacked Out’.

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