A review of Naylor’s Natter by Phil Naylor


Phil Naylor knows that colleagues who teach in areas of significant economic and social challenge get used to initiatives landing from afar that appear good on paper – but don’t work out so well in their context. They are also familiar with their effectiveness being judged from afar without first-hand evidence. On top of that, they often contend with the lazy assumption that they are not open to evaluating research to improve their practice.

Naylor’s Natter dispels this narrative. The book has its origins in the podcast of the same name, which started in early 2019 to extend the reach of the work of the Blackpool Research School. During the pandemic, the podcast began to take on greater importance as teachers downloaded episodes that included eminent guests such as Dame Alison Peacock, E. D. Hirsch and Professors Becky Allen, Michael Young and Guy Claxton, as well as local experts such as Stephen Tierney and Simon Cox.

What Naylor has done here is to corral these hundreds of hours of conversations with over 150 guests into key themes such as leadership, behaviour and professional development. And he has done so with a direct and engaging style that stays grounded in the reality of working in a challenging area and never under-estimates the importance of context in evaluating a way forward.

In some instances, the examples are pretty obvious. That professional development ‘should be sustained over time’ is a particular no-brainer. But when you delve into the detail, there are always astute observations, such as David Weston’s warning that ‘learning is not the same as listening to people sharing great ideas’ – a clear invitation to question the easy allure of keynote speakers and consider whether a CPD book club might not be a more effective way of driving change.

Each chapter focuses on broad recommendations that act as an operational guide for senior leaders and those aspiring to such roles. And in a novel approach that has been revelatory for me, each is complemented with a QR code linking to a relevant podcast episode – a clever way for the author to keep the book succinct and focus on the practical, while giving readers quick access to exploring each one in greater depth.

Sadly, Phil Naylor hasn’t been able to resist some over-simplification. Each chapter ends on Naylor’s Nuggets’, pithy summaries that are too narrow in focus and lack the nuance that comes through strongly in other parts of the book. For example, his preferred practice around the use of mobile phones is clearly to ban them, and schools that don’t share that preference won’t find any help for adopting alternative approaches and managing them with staff and the wider community.

But this book doesn’t profess to be an academic study, and taken together with the podcast, it is more than a set of recommendations from and for school and system leaders; it is also a fascinating record of a transformative time for educational leadership itself. The author and guests identified these changes in real time – from the old normal to ‘the Blitz spirit of the early months’, to ‘last-minute adaptations during partial closures’ and beyond.

No one better captures that shift in mindset than Aziza Ajak, a vice-principal in East London, who describes how she managed to protect the most important elements of her role, which were largely the face-to-face ones.

What sets this book apart is its accessibility. Being able to hear directly from an eminent researcher or local headteacher about an issue adds greatly to what are often complex matters. For my part, I’ve found myself clicking repeatedly on the QR code to Prof Becky Allen’s talk about ‘mechanisms within schools that are quite probabilistic rather than deterministic’ and how this leads to projects being destined to over-promise and under-deliver.

Whatever the issue that’s relevant to you, you’re likely to find an equally thought-provoking podcast to listen to in a book that flows easily and avoids over-complication as a result. It’s a formatting tour de force. And best of all, it is rooted in real experiences throughout. I would welcome a second volume – albeit with fewer nuggets and a little more contrast.


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