The headteacher column with Alex Reppold

Alex Reppold, headteacher at Pocklington Community Junior School.
Alex Reppold, headteacher at Pocklington Community Junior School.

London 2012. The Great Britain cycling team absolutely demolishes the rest of the world in the velodrome. 7 Golds. 1 Silver. 1 Bronze. It’s not quite enough to make me lyrca-up and get on my bike, but it’s close.

Behind the success was one man, Sir David Brailsford, and his philosophy of marginal gains.

Sir David Brailsford steered the Great Britain cycling team to success.

Sir David Brailsford steered the Great Britain cycling team to success.

Marginal gains isn’t a new concept, but it is one which makes a difference when it’s applied rigorously and consistently. Essentially, if you want to do something better, or more efficiently, you should look at every single factor which relates to the performance and try to improve everything – even if this is only a tiny improvement.

For the cycling team, this included taking their own mattresses and pillows with them when they stayed in different hotels as they could guarantee that each rider would be as comfortable as possible .

If you can manage to keep finding these small improvements – or marginal gains – they’ll soon add up to something more considerable.

If you look at a year, the percentage of time that pupils are actually in lessons is astonishingly small – 191 school days with 320 minutes of learning time a day equates to only 11.6% of the total time in a year.

Now, there’s a couple of things which can be taken from this.

Firstly, and perhaps this is the most important thing I can say as a headteacher, schools can provide excellent education but it works best when the messages we are giving to the children are reinforced and supported at home; if 11% of your time you’re getting one message, and 89% of your time you’re getting another message, it’s easy to see which one will win.

Schools need parents to value education and reinforce what we’re teaching through homework and encouragement. But secondly, time matters. Our school gates open at 8.40am, and our school day officially begins at 8.55am. If children are coming to school late – or missing too many days – that 11.6% begins to rapidly shrink.

If you don’t work in the sector, you wouldn’t believe what needs to be crammed into one school year.

Literacy, numeracy, science, the arts, the humanities are all obvious ones, but swimming, pedestrian skills, cycling proficiency, sex and relationship education are less evident but equally important for a healthy life, and then we try and develop each child’s resilience, independence, respect for their community, behaviour, ability to question... the list goes on.

Marginal gains works both ways. Continuous improvement, step by step, can have huge impact. Conversely, little negative changes will make a similarly large difference over time.

Attendance and punctuality are vital for schools, because with 11.6% being our maximum teaching time, we need to make the most of every moment.