Our Emerging KS3 Assessment Framework.

Booklet under construction.

Booklet under construction.

Having explored different ideas about assessment at KS3 during the last year, we’re about to move forward with our approach.

So far, we’ve been seeking a focus on authentic assessment within subjects, breaking free from all the illusions and falsehoods of NC levels; the ladder of progress that never was.  This has generated lots of great discussion in departments about standards and how we assess them. This has included reflections on the problem with ‘can do’ statements and the absolute importance of internal and external moderation of standards based around samples of work. We’ve embraced the idea that standards are relative, not absolute, in most contexts. (See Assessment, Standards and the Bell-Curve).

Meanwhile, in order to give information to parents, we’ve been using an interim Progress Grade using a simple four point scale: Excellent, Good, Some concerns, Poor: EGSP.  This has been based on teacher judgements and subject specific test data.

Inevitably,  we’ve seen a strong tendency to impose a bell-curve.  Across all subjects and all years, we find that about 20% of grades are E, 60% are G and 20% are S/P, with relatively minor fluctuations. Essentially, we’re simply comparing each student’s progress to the cohort.  This year we will be putting significant substance behind our measures of progress in two ways:

  1. The introduction of assignments.
  2. The introduction of an attainment scale; bell-curve markers linked to GCSE grading.

I explained the concept behind assignments in a previous post.  We have now developed them in all subjects for all years 7-13.  They are being rolled out this term. Here are some examples from History, Geography and Maths.  Each one sets out the knowledge required, the tasks to be completed and the key assessments within a unit. These are stuck in students’ books, annotated by students and teachers as the units progress.

(It’s important to stress that each assignment summarises a huge amount of other detail located within departments – schemes of work, texts, marking criteria, vocabulary lists, exam specifications and so on. Also, the nature of assessment is completely determined within each department; no centralised assessment regime has been imposed.)

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Maths assignmentAssignments spell out the content behind our assessments at KS3 – as well as at KS4 and KS5.  They are entering the everyday discourse around standards and work completion across the school.

After some data experiments, we are now about to introduce a level of rigour to underpin our intuitive bell-curve.  This is set out in a paper I’ve issued to staff as part of a consultation.  We’ll be tweaking this before sharing with parents in the next week or so. We’ve defined five starting-point ranges to set up five Progress Paths. Within each Progress Path, attainment grades 1-9 are linked to progress grades.  We’ve tried to pitch it to be aspirational for all students; ‘Good Progress’ isn’t an easy win for anyone.

Here’s the draft.  Let me know your thoughts via the comments.

Assessment at KS3: 

Authentic Assessment:  Basic Principles 

 Formative assessment processes should be as authentic as possible in each subject. This means we use tests, assessments against criteria and moderation against bench-marked exemplar work to determine the standards each student is reaching as appropriate for the learning in the subject.

Austin's Butterfly. The final draft was always within him. It just needed to find a way out.

Austin’s Butterfly. The final draft was always within him. It just needed to find a way out.

 The key to assessment is to define the standards expected in terms that make sense within a subject discipline with reference to actual pieces of work and specific problems. The Austin’s Butterfly metaphor is very powerful. We should identify ambitious goals and give precise feedback about improvements each student can make. We should not accept mediocrity.

 Assignments should be a way of signposting the key assessments that will inform teacher judgements of student attainment.

 Importantly, whilst standards may be fixed by criteria, test scores and other fixed reference points, progress is judged relative to each student’s starting point. This gives all students scope to make excellent progress regardless of where they start.

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 In order to give parents, students and teachers an external framework to reference to, we will use the language of the new GCSE grades to mark out the bell-curve of standards in every year.

 Progress grades are given to signal progress from the starting point to the current attainment, projecting onto probable future attainment at GCSE.

The Process 

We have allocated each student in KS3 to a Progress Path based on their KS2 Outcomes. Five Progress Paths cover our cohort effectively. P1 and P5 are small at the extremes; P2, P3 and P4 are our core cohorts.

Allocation to a Progress Path is determined by KS2 outcomes as shown. Where no KS2 data is available, we will use CATS scores and Reading Ages to make a best-fit allocation. (We’ve analysed CATS and Reading Age data to create a matching formula of sorts.)  Each year Progress Path allocation would be reviewed so that students can move up to a higher path if their progress suggests they need greater challenge – if they are repeatedly ‘Exceeding Target’ across multiple subjects. In 2016, when we receive KS2 scores centred around 100, we’ll align P1-P5 accordingly.

On SIMS, teachers will enter the Attainment 1-9 grades, based on their assessments. These will automatically generate the EGSP grades following the pattern in the table. Eg P3, Grade 6 is always Good Progress

As 1-9 grades have not been used to-date at KS3, it will take a while to align assessments to fit the model neatly in each subject. They should be viewed as approximate markers; not absolute measures. This will be communicated to parents. Initially, in practice, teachers can enter the number 1-9 that generates the EGSP grade that seems most appropriate.

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For reference to old GCSE grades: 9~A**, 8 ~A*, 7~A, 6~B, 5~C/B, 4~C, 3~D, 2~EFG

It is expected that the Good Progress G grade is the default grade for students routinely completing the work to a good standard. E indicates pushing to the top edge of the progress path and should be reserved for genuine excellence. P1/Grade 9 generating E (Excellent Progress) should be rare. This is A**- truly exceptional.

S meaning ‘Slow’ suggests that, whilst progress is being made, it needs to improve to achieve excellence. This sets a high bar which may be challenging for some students and parents. (Is there a better word than Slow? Ideally meaning ‘not as good as we’d like’ beginning with S! )

At KS4, Grades 1-9 should be referenced to criteria and standards related to actual GCSE Grades. However, at KS3 even though we are using discrete numbers, each number on the scale is indicative of a range with a large margin of error. That needs to be communicated repeatedly. These grades will be much more approximate in some subjects than in others.

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Crucially, the numbers do not form a ladder; students making steady progress at the same rate relative to the cohort, will retain the same grades throughout, every year.

NOTE: Attitude to Learning grades EGSP are more subjective. A student with Progress S may well have E for AtL. This would indicate that they are working very hard but are still finding it difficult to progress, given their starting point.


This much I know about…finding golden nuggets to help improve your teaching

I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about finding golden nuggets to help improve your teaching.


Matt Smith is a truly great teacher. Matt leads our Mathematics department. I had an illuminating conversation with him this week about his students’ recent GCSE results as part of his Appraisal (aka Performance Development at Huntington) meeting.

The Discipline of Noticing is a brilliant book by John Mason. Its title is something I work hard to instil into the professional learning culture at Huntington. I’ve said it before, but your students’ outcomes hold a great deal of information about the effectiveness of your teaching. Sifting through your classes’ examination results is like panning for gold. A shining knowledge nugget can suddenly appear when and where you least expect which will help you improve your practice. And so it was with Matt…

Embrace the data. Matt had two GCSE classes, set 1 out of 5 and set 3 out of 5. In terms of Levels of Progress, the stats were truly great – set 1: 100% 3 LPs and 89% 4 LPs and set 3: 80% 3 LPs and 45% 4 LPs. In his first year at Huntington, and in his first year as a Subject Leader, it would have been totally understandable had Matt basked in the glow of that data; instead he began a forensic analysis of his set 1 results. You see, he also taught set 1 the Further Mathematics GCSE, with similar success. One girl’s results threw up an easily ignored anomaly which Matt noticed – she attained an A* for the Further Mathematics GCSE, but only a grade A for the basic Mathematics GCSE.

Dig into the detail. Matt’s approach to teaching the class had been to teach to the Further Mathematics specification, his logic being that if they can learn the hard stuff, the easier basic GCSE Mathematics will look after itself. The girl’s odd results seemed to question the effectiveness of that tactic. When he then scrutinised his students’ performance in the basic Mathematics GCSE at question level he found that they had completed the A/A* grade questions brilliantly, but many had dropped marks on the C/B grade questions such as transformations and rotations. He had assumed the students were so competent that they would have no trouble with the early questions on the paper; his investigation proved he was wrong.

We can always get better. Matt’s learning from a set of results which appeared, on the face of it, truly great, is already influencing his teaching this year. He is being doubly diligent about checking what students know and can apply. He now assumes nothing. Matt’s story seems to me to exemplify the culture we are creating, one where we are never complacent, where we relentlessly review our practice and where we all want to be better teachers.


Let’s talk about effect

This is a continuation of my blog on structure. I have an unhealthy obsession with the structure question on the AQA exam paper at the moment; I can’t think of anything else. Worryingly, I feel, at the moment, I could write several blogs on it.   

It was interesting to note that the recent GCSE exams highlighted another issue. It seems that our students’ ability to comment on the effect of a text is problematic. They struggle to do it with questions two and four of the current specification. Question four is particularly an issue for most students because it is pure unadulterated effect-fest. There is no time for meanings and multiple meanings. It is all effect, effect and effect. Students have to explain how the words are affecting the reader and, boy, do they struggle with it. Very few of our students, and other students nationally, struggle to get even close to high marks. I have yet to see a student even scrape full marks on this question.   Lots of bright students are stumped by it. And, it seems, reading the latest AQA examiner’s report, a lot of teacher could be too – I include myself in that category too.  

I think effect is an issue for us English teachers as it is strangely complex. We are talking about how the reader is affected by a technique or word. What is a typical reader’s reaction? What does it make them feel? What does it make them think?  How does the reader’s feelings or thoughts change as a result of this?

Effect and meaning are sometimes woven together in sophisticated textual analysis, but the average student struggles to do this blending of the two. They tend to instead favour meaning. In fact, a lot of what I have seen over the last few years has pushed for multiple meanings. It could mean the character is evil. Or, it could mean that he is insecure. The focus of meaning tends to focus on story and a student’s understanding of meaning. Students can spend ages on ‘Of Mice and Men’ and explore the subtle nuances of the colour red or Candy’s dog, but ask them to talk about the effect of these devices and they fudge it up. How many times have we see the following phrase ‘the writer uses X to make it stand out’? Too many, in my opinion.  The meaning is easy in comparison with commenting on the effect of a text. It is all about recalling the story and unpicking clues and following trails.

But, the problem with effect stems deeper. Ask students to write a film review and all too often it is dire. Ask them to describe the plot and comment on the meaning behind choices, they are great. Ask them to review the best and worst bits of a film it is dire. You’d think that the Facebook and Twitter generation wouldn’t have a problem with expressing their opinion on a film. They do. It could all stem from lovely Bloom’s taxonomy. Describing meaning is so much easier than evaluating things. They are on opposite ends of the taxonomy. However, an opinion or a feeling are natural parts of human experience, yet students struggle to articulate this in their writing.

Effect in non-fiction is probably easier for students to comment on. Why did the writer use a picture of a tiny kitten on this charity letter? Easy: to make us feel sorry for the animal and part with our hard-earned cash. Non-fiction often has its intent worn on its sleeve. It is trying to persuade me.

Effect in fiction is harder because its intent is usually hidden. Fiction writers trick, tease and lie to readers. Plus, with fiction we have longer texts with lots of connections across numerous pages. The effect of a device isn’t immediate, transparent and blindingly obvious. It is like chess. The steps the writer makes at the start payoff in the end, but you can’t see how they will impact at that initial moment.  Of course, the more students read, the more they will understand the effects of devices.

All these ideas made me think about how I teach effect in lessons. I usually pick out an aspect of a novel and ask students to comment on the effect of that particular device. What is the effect of a third person perspective in ‘The Lord of the Flies’? To be honest, my references to effect are limited and taught in isolation. It is usually when I feel it is necessary, or relevant. What if I changed the way I referred to the effect of a text? What if I did something dramatic?

The following shows an approach I am going to trial with my new Year 8 English class. They are working on horror writing and we will be studying some great extracts along the way. At the start of the unit, I usually get them to identify the differences between the horror and ghost genre. Then, they will list some of the generic features of a text. I will then introduce this document:

Talking about the effect: Horror Stories

Content Choices

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
A handful of characters
Get to know the characters well
Start to like the characters so you are shocked when bad things happen to them
So you can follow a lot of action
Young, naïve characters
We can identify more with young, naïve characters as we have all been young once
They are more likely to make mistakes
They often think they are stronger than they actually are
Set at night
The characters can’t see what is out there so they are more likely to not notice danger
We expect bad things to happen at night
The monster / creature is hidden 
An isolated location
There is no chance of escape
The problem cannot be easily fixed and people cannot be saved quickly
There is a greater chance of the monster and the other characters meeting 
A hidden monster
A hidden threat is more scary than a visible one because of the reader’s imagination
The characters cannot see what it is so they become more scared as a result
Raises the tension as the monster could attack at any moment and could surprise the reader and the characters
Violence limited to one or two events
This makes them more shocking, dramatic and unpredictable
More realistic for the reader are violence is rare, but shocking in life 
Often use a legend or piece of historical knowledge in the story
This makes the events believable and add a touch of credibility
Makes the story more epic and wider reaching
Adds a backstory and a sense of mystery 
Setting is described in more detail than the characters and the action
So the reader feels as if they are there and they can identify with what the characters are feeling and thinking
Helps to create the atmosphere and suggest something bad is going to happen

Structural Choices 

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
Characters are happy at the start of the story
Makes the reader predict how this will change and when it will change
Sudden scares
Shows the reader that the story is unpredictable
Events are often repeated three times
To prepare the reader for what is going to happen
To build tension and awareness of what is inevitably going to happen
Things get worse and worse
Makes the reader start to predict how things will get worse
Monster revealed at the end of the story
Keeps the mystery ongoing and the reader reading until the mystery is revealed
Makes the danger hard to predict and define
Red herrings used
Makes the reader think they know what is really going on
To hide the real mystery in the story
To frustrate the reader so that they want to find the answer
Characters are separated from each other
Allows for more drama as more chances for the characters to meet the monster
Means that the characters are more vulnerable and so reader fears something is more likely to happen
Increases the level of unpredictability
Poses lots of questions at the start
Keeps the mystery ongoing and the reader reading until the mystery is revealed
Hooks the reader from the start
Slowly answers once question at a time
Makes the reader identify with the characters
The reader learns things as the characters do

Writing Choices

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
Short sentences
Speeds up the rate a reader reads the story
On its own it can have a shock value
Highlights an important piece of information
Long sentences
Slows the rate at which the reader reads the story
Allows the writer to build up a description
Allows the writer to create a sudden shock
Stops the reader’s flow of though
Shows when the writer / narrator can’t describe events for some reason
Uses pronoun ‘it’ to describe creature
Hides the identity of the monster so the reader isn’t clear as to what it is
Creates tension as the reader imagines what it could be
Senses used in description
Helps the reader to identify with events in the story
Only describes parts of the monster
Hides the identity of the monster so the reader isn’t clear as to what it is
Helps to focus the reader’s attention on the monster’s actions
Creates tension as the reader imagines what it could be
Dialogue limited to a few lines every so often
Allows for the pace of the action to be quicker
Makes the relationships between characters secondary to the action
One sentence paragraphs
Highlights an important piece of information
Verbs are listed in a sentence
Increases the pace of the action
Shows the reader the importance of the action
Third person perspective
Makes the reader feel that no character is safe
Allows the reader to see all aspects of the story
Allows the reader to see things that other characters can’t see – increases chances of dramatic irony
Present tense
Helps create a sense of immediacy
Allows the reader to position themselves in the story as it is happening now
Action is not described in great detail
Makes the action seem fast and quick – increases the pace
The reader shares the confusion that the characters experience in the story
Violence is implied
Allows the reader to imagine what actually happened
Often far more shocking for a reader than a description

It isn’t perfect by any means, but it does show you how I am working on effect. I may get them to match up some of the effects to the techniques, but mainly I want students to have a framework for discussion. This allows them to see what the effect of an aspect is. Plus, it provides them with a bank of phrases for analysis. And, it could even be something to test students on. Obviously, I would have a disclaimer that these only apply for horror stories.

Students struggle to make the comments about effect, but if I am explicit with the effects of one genre it should, in theory, be easier for them to understand the effects of another text / genre.

If students are talking about effect and structure at KS3, then they will be confident readers by the time they get to GCSE. However, I think at the moment students do not have the language or the background reading to be able to make the leap from meaning to effect. That’s why we will always have reductive statements when talking about effect.

We need to get students to think about effect and write about the effect of a device effectively. The structure question on the new AQA English Language paper has got an element of this effect aspect and I think we need more work at KS3 to address the structure and the effect issue.

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Deconstructing writing – settings

For me, one of the things that has changed the way I teach writing is the ‘deconstruction’ approach used by Alan Peat. I suppose it is quite a masculine thing, pulling things apart and putting back together. Right, let’s open the bonnet and see how things tick. My childhood was full of obsessive detail. I could tell you all the different manufacturers for monsters, locations for episodes and technical wizardry associated with each episode of Doctor Who. I would read endless articles about how an episode was made. I still do it to this day. I know how one of the sets used in Saturday’s episode was reused in another episode, but with the angle of the roof changed. Like a watchmaker, I like knowing how things tick. Pull it apart and see how each cog links and connects to another. I promise: I never did this to any of my pets.  

If you are unfamiliar with Alan Peat’s stuff, do have a look at it. The approach simply breaks down writing into a number of set structures. From the stuff I have seen, it includes sentences and frameworks. Writing is translated, for students, into concrete structures for them to use and adapt. It is very helpful in getting students to vary the content and style of writing. His approach follows the lift up the bonnet and take it apart approach. Boys, especially, in my experience find it useful as it involves learning knowledge and lists, yet developing skills at the same time.

With the new GCSEs being quite open-ended, I feel that there is some potential in this idea of deconstructing writing. At the moment, I foresee departments chucking endless extracts at student, hoping that there will be some understanding of how writers create a setting. Look at how the writer describes the setting here. How does it compare with the setting in this extract? By osmosis we expect students to pick up on the subtle differences. Here is where the problem lies: to understand how writers use settings, you need to have read lots of settings. Our most able students can do it, because they have read lots of books, but the rest struggle and will struggle, unless they read more. The more I teach the new GCSE, the more I feel that reading is the key to success. The exam is designed to make competent readers succeed. I don’t think it is easy to teach the exam. Look at the complex structure question, the effect question and the critical opinion question. These three aspects aren’t things you can teach. It is something that is learnt over time.

Worryingly, I have seen departments ramp up the reading material so student are to read difficult in lessons. But, all importantly, the amount of reading has probably decreased. Yes, give students harder texts, but also keep the class readers going. Wouldn’t it be good if there was a challenge to read as many books with a class as you can? Yes, I will teach the curriculum, but I will also, when there is some down time, look at reading several novels during the year. Not because I have to. But, because I need them to. I worry departments are getting rid of books, because they are not to be perceived to be ‘high-brow’ enough or they lack challenge.  The collective reading of a book is so important to English lessons and if we are not careful it will disappear and we will have death by extracts.

Sorry, I have digressed. Back to the deconstructing writing bit. This week, I am helping Year 8s write settings for a horror story and so far in the drafting things have not been so good. Their writing is clichéd written, and, like most students, the focus is on the plot and not on the setting. They will list endless items in a setting, but none of it hangs together. It is all a bit flat. Therefore, I have decided to deconstruct a setting for them. Look at the nuts and bolts of it.

We have already looked at structuring a setting and looked at these approaches:

  • Left to right
  • Right to left
  • Up and down
  • Down and up
  • Start in the centre and zoom out
  • Start with a panoramic view and zoom in
  • Diagonally
  • In layers
  • Follow an object or thing
  • The most noticeable items first
  • Things that are closest first

What is in their setting is up to them, but I want them to think about how they present their setting. Therefore, I have created these aspects for them to play around with and experiment.

Describe a sound and then reveal what is causing the sound.

Describe something being normal and then spot something about it that isn’t normal.

Describe something that isn’t there and is just imagined by the narrator.

Describe the feeling of the place. Don’t describe anything, but just the feeling. It feels like a day … It feels like when a …  

Describe an object but make it sound like something else. Then, reveal what it is.

Describe the movement of an object or part of the object. Give a list of verbs describing the action.

Something is blocking your view of something. Describe the object blocking the view and describe the tiny glimpse of the other object you want to see.

Describe how an object’s appearance changes the closer you get to it.

Describe the lack of something in the room. There isn’t a — or — or —

Describe the texture of an object before revealing it.

Describe a nice object and then an unpleasant object.

Describe a change in the room.

Describe the main source of light and how it touches things in the room.

Describe a moment of silence.

Describe an object and then comment on how it links / reflects the owner of the room.

Describe a change in temperature and the narrator’s exploration of the source of the change.

Describe the light and how it falls. Then describe it on an object.

Describe an object through colours. Then, reveal what it is.

Describe three objectives with the same phrase.

Describe an object as if it was a person.  

Describe how an object links, or not links, to another item next to it.

Describe how an object reminds the narrator of something that happened to them.

Describe how an object reminds the narrator of a similar object in their past.  

I am going to give students these on a sheet of paper and they are going to decide how they are going to describe the setting using these. They are going use these to plan and construct their setting. They might even come up with their own. There’s more than one way to skin a cat – honestly, I haven’t ‘deconstructed’ any of my pets.

Writers make a choice when writing and without the experience of reading many texts it is hard for students to comment on the choices without having an inclination of the other twenty possible. This way, hopefully, students will see the choices they make as writers and this, in time, will pay when they see what other writers have done.

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Those Backing the College Of Teaching Still Don’t Get It

You may recall that some time back I expressed concern that an attempt to set up a new professional body for teachers (the College Of Teaching) was being hijacked by non-teachers, vested interests and in one case a private company (SSAT) who sell consultancy services to schools. Particularly scandalous was the proposal to let anyone with an interest in education join the College Of Teaching, regardless of whether they were a teacher. Every so often they cross my radar again, although it’s been ages since I blogged about it, so I’ll catch up now.

The first bit of news (now somewhat out of date), is that the Claim Your College Coalition held an event last June to inform people about the College Of Teaching. Again SSAT were heavily involved. More surprising though was that, despite previous bad publicity, they decided to hold it on a school day. To be fair, they didn’t pretend this event was for teachers, and listed the intended audience as:

Those who work closely with local networks of teachers and schools, and who are keen to facilitate teacher and leader engagement with the College of Teaching discussions. For example, Chairs of Headteacher Associations and School Partnerships, Strategic Alliances, CEOs of MATs.

I suppose this could be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps we teachers love our bosses so much that they are the first people you would contact if you wanted to reach out to us. Or perhaps the intended audience of the College Of Teaching are those who control schools rather than those who teach in them. Or perhaps if you are a private company selling consultancy services to schools there are going to be much greater commercial opportunities in talking to headteachers and CEOs of MATs than talking to somebody who would spend their Wednesday in a classroom with children. Please feel free to suggest other explanations.

The second piece of news is that the make up of the board of trustees of the College of Teaching has just been announced. Remember, this is the body governing an organisation that is supposed to represent teachers. 5 of the trustees are non-teaching “experts”. This means a management type, a surgeon (with experience of professional bodies) and 3 people from existing educational charities. While I’m sure the idea is that these three will have the expertise needed to govern a new educational charity, it essentially means that far from representing a shift in power from existing institutions to a profession-led body, existing institutions are well represented in the new structure. Worse though is the selection of teachers. Of the 8 “teachers”, 3 are heads, 3 hold management positions (that could well be SLT) and only 2 are classroom teachers without a promoted post. None, as far as I can tell, are known for challenging the existing power structures in education (although perhaps the fact that one works in a special school is a positive development). Again, some are heavily involved in existing quangos, educational bodies and sources of “expertise”. Far from being a shift in power, this seems to be an attempt to replicate existing power structures. Those who currently tell teachers what to do are to dominate an organisation that was meant to help teachers reclaim their autonomy.

Yes, I am aware of the counter-arguments. Sure, it looks like only one of the trustees is a teacher with a full teaching timetable, but where would such teacher find the time? Sure, the committee is a bit management heavy, but aren’t the trustees meant to be managers? Sure some of the non-teaching experts are familiar establishment figures, but don’t you want people who know how to run a large educational charity? However, the problem with all these arguments is that they are not only assuming that frontline teachers do not have the capacity to govern a professional body for teachers, but that the sort of body that frontline teachers could not govern is the sort of body teachers should have representing them. If teachers cannot govern the professional body that all those vested interests designed, those vested interests got it wrong. Let’s try a different model. Or not try at all. Anything would be better than the professional body for teachers being governed on the basis of teachers not being professional enough to govern their own professional body. This cannot empower us or improve our status as professionals.

What both these bits of news have in common is the flawed thinking behind the plans for the College Of Teaching. People are signing off on the idea of professionalisation without realising that any autonomy given to teachers, any power given to the profession, has to be taken from somewhere. For us to regain our professionalism we have to be able to tell consultants that their expertise is not required; micro-managing bosses have to be told that some decisions are best left with autonomous professionals, and a whole bunch of vested interests have to be told that they do not speak for the frontline of the teaching profession. Instead of claiming more power for teachers, the current plans for the College Of Teaching are based on building around those who already have power over education and making sure they keep it within the new structure. A so-called “professional body” that actually just replicates existing power structures, while keeping teachers in their place, has been tried before; it was called the GTCE and it didn’t work. Until those behind the College Of Teaching stop trying to repeat the same errors, they can add nothing to our professionalism.

Scenes From The Battleground

The Colour Rusty Purple and the Monochrome World

I am always amazed at how little students use colour in their writing. Something so simple, yet often absent in work. I have similes thrown at me with buckets and personification dribbled over work, but not one simple adjective is used to describe the colour of an object.

Recently, to prepare students for the new GCSE writing task, I asked students to describe a setting. They had to describe it in the style of CSI; they had to suggest what actually happened through their description of objects. Thankfully, I instructed them that they could only use one drop of blood. Every piece of description came back mentioning the red blood and no other colour. It must be a monochrome world my student live in. Either that, or they have new form of colour-blindness.  

I usually spend a whole lesson on colour with students, because there is an important need to. The following is just a simple overview of the kind of lesson I do.

Part 1:

What is the difference between these different kinds of the colour white?

Egg white

Paper white

Dirty white

Yellowy white

Faded white

Smudged white

Students have to explain the difference between these whites and, if possible, use something in the room to demonstrate its existence. Cue lots of pointing to walls, socks and light fittings.

Part 2:

Create new versions of these colours by simply adding a word before the adjective.








Once we have got past the bogey green and wee yellow we get some interesting efforts.  My recent favourites include shadow black, misty grey and feint blue.

Part 3:

Select the best three colours to describe a positive place.

Select the best three colours to describe a negative place.

This gets students to see how the colours have an impact on how the place is seen and how the reader feels when they read the text.

Part 4:

We then visit a Dulux website or paint charts stolen from a DIY store. We look at the names and select the best ones and build a bit of a colour chart.

clear cove blue

marine mist blue

Turkish tile blue

Sometimes, student spot that the names could be used for similes. Some of the names are great. There’s one blue that is called ‘Tears of joy’. Not a great name for a colour, but a good name for a comparison.

Part 5:

Students are given a picture and they have to describe it to a partner and explain / describe the colours. Note: the partner cannot see the picture.

Part 6:

Finally the students describe the setting in their books. Their version has to be different and unique. Plus, they must create a particular mood. It is also at this point that I mention the possible problems with using colours in their writing, such as describing every colour imaginable so that that the read is dazzled with a rainbow. Or, people forget the reader needs to think about the colour, so they list hundreds of colours. The following rules tend to apply:

[1] Keep the colours limited to three or four in your description. However, you can repeat one colour several times, but you must use a different phrase /name to describe it.

[2] Don’t list colours.

[3] Give the reader time to think about one colour before you introduce another. Leave a sentence between colours, if possible.

The results are very interesting and they are often refreshing. The use of colour adds a nice quality to their writing.       

For example:

The sun-baked brick orange sky casts shadows on the ground. A little man waits. His nails dig the rusty brown earth and amongst the crumbs of kidney bean soil he searches for life. A frosty green shoot is discovered.

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

This much I know about…the importance of reciprocal vulnerability

I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about the importance of reciprocal vulnerability.

To teach you need to feel worthy. Too many of us can lose our sense of self-worth when it comes to doing that incredibly complex thing called teaching. And changing our practice is something we don’t do because we hang onto what we know because trying and failing in a school climate where risk-taking is discouraged would diminish our self-worth even further. We are held back by our own deep-rooted sense of vulnerability. I discovered Brené Brown last weekend and I think you should meet her too. Here she is on what her research tells her about people who have a secure sense of self-worth.


Reciprocal vulnerability matters. Metacognition is the Sutton Trust-EEF’s Teaching & Learning Toolkit’s best bet to increase student progress. I have written at length about it here, here and here. I have demonstrated how to teach aspects of metacognition to several colleagues across our school. One of the highlights of my week was co-teaching a jointly planned Year 11 mathematics lesson with a young teacher, where we used my visualiser/verbalising-my-thinking technique. Teachers learn from teachers. Teachers trust what other teachers have to say about what works in the classroom because the teacher-to-teacher relationship is founded upon reciprocal vulnerability and its close partner, authenticity. If we are going to begin to get anywhere near setting up the basic foundations of an evidence-based teaching profession, we need structures for disseminating the evidence, teacher-to-teacher so that it impacts on student outcomes. Philippa Cordingley’s research found that reciprocal vulnerability is crucial for teacher professional learning: [a core characteristic of effective professional learning is] the enabling of sustained peer support and reciprocal vulnerability which increases ownership, commitment and a willingness to take risks and to unlearn established assumptions and habits and to develop new understandings and practices. Teacher-to-teacher is where this research/evidence thing needs to be heading…



What makes people feel worthy


Novel settings as poetry

This week I have been working on teaching students how writers structure a setting in a novel. At the same time, I have been also teaching how Steinbeck uses setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. And, in the interest of making my workload lighter, I discovered a nice, easy approach.

A few years ago, people started making blacked-out poetry. A nice simple idea whereby students remove large chunks of a text and boil it down to what, the student thinks, are the most important words.  

This time around I decided to work backwards and I must say I am pleased with result. I produced setting poems for the different places in ‘Of Mice and Men’. I selected the key parts of a setting and binned the rest. The result was a messy bit of poetry. Nonetheless, it did fit together.

Students analysed the setting as a poem. This made for some interesting comments about the writer’s choice of words. The bunkhouse provoked questions about the use of paint and the size of the windows. But, importantly, it helped students to spot patterns in the text and explore the structure of the descriptions (again, a link to the new GCSEs) in relation to the text’s meaning.

I suppose in terms of the new exams we need to help train student to search for links, connection and ideas across a text, yet they are often dealing with large blocks of text in the exam. This approach of boiling the text down and analysing it will be an approach I will be using with Year 10s so they can build their confidence at looking at larger texts. All too often, the questioning we use in lessons is directing students to particular idea in the text. This approach allows students to be precise yet also concentrate on the whole text at the same time. The poems kept the structure and order of things as well as the language choices.  

After student had analysed a setting poem they compared it with others. They discussed the use of windows in the novel – something I have never given a second thought to. One student suggested the window represented freedom or, interestingly, intelligence. Another, student explored the use of the word shed for Crook’s setting. A shed being something where you store machines or tools. Others spotted the use of cleanliness in Old Suzy’s Place and how this contrasted with the other settings. One student thought the use of the word ‘clean’ was actually sarcasm.    

I suppose the beauty of this approach is it declutters the text for student. Sometimes, it is too hard to find points of interest when they are so many things and points in a text. This helps narrow the little grey cells and see the wood for the tree. Plus, I am comparing texts and analysing ‘poems’ all at the same time.

Thanks for reading,


Here are some examples:


long, rectangular building



small, square windows,

eight bunks

showing their burlap ticking

shelves were loaded

Western magazines

a big square table littered with playing cards

flies shot like rushing stars

Crook’s Bunk

a little shed

square four-paned window

leather-working tools

a range of medicine bottles

both for himself and for the horses

scattered about the floor were a number of personal possessions

several pairs of shoes

a big alarm clock

a single-barreled shotgun.

a mauled copy of the California civil code for 1905

battered magazines

a few dirty books on a special shelf over his bunk

a proud, aloof man

sound of moving horses, of feet stirring, of teeth champing on hay, of the rattle

of halter chains

threw a meagre yellow light

The Barn

 the great barn

piled high with new hay

hay came down like a mountain slope to the other end of the barn

the feeding racks were visible

between the slats the heads of horses could be seen

Sunday afternoon

resting horses nibbled the remaining wisps of


afternoon sun sliced in through the cracks of the

barn walls

bright lines on the hay

buzz of flies

outside came the clang of horseshoes on the playing peg

shouts of men, playing, encouraging, jeering

quiet and humming

lazy and warm

Old Susy’s Place

old Susy’s place

a nice place

a laugh

always crackin’ jokes

never talks dirty

get a shot for two bits

nice chairs

Susy don’t give a damn

ain’t rushin’ guys through and kickin’ ‘em

a hell of a lot of fun

crackin’ jokes all the time

My girls is clean

no water in my whisky

clean and she got nice chairs

no goo-goos

The Dream Farm

An’ live off the fatta the lan

the garden

the rabbits

in the cages

the rain in the winter

the stove

how thick the

cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it

a big vegetable patch

up a fire in the stove and set around it an’ listen to the

rain comin’ down on the roof

a little house an’ a room to ourself

Little fat iron stove

We’d belong there

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

When should we stop making students redraft work?

I managed to catch a bit of #Engchatuk today and was interested to see that the discussion was on how to get students to redraft their work. Redrafting is something I advocate when travelling round different schools and I’ve spent a fair bit of time training teachers in how to get students to proofread their work and subject it to critical scrutiny.

There were lots of useful ideas, some of which I recognised and other which I may well pinch, but I was particularly intrigued by this contribution:

It struck me that this was something I’d never been asked before. I really do think teaching students that work needs to be drafted and redrafted is crucial, but it does have to end somewhere. If we’re not working towards students being able to write independently in an exam then we’re failing them.

So when should drafting stop? When it’s ingrained. If students are in the habit of writing carelessly they need to get out of that habit. Practice does not, as my mother told me, make perfect; it makes permanent. What we repeatedly do we get good at. When the habit of drafting has been internalised and students have stopped being dependent on you checking their work, then you can stop pestering them to redraft. The point is for them to be able to do it without you.

But this is, of course, easier said than done. Students may have spent so many years practised not using capital letters, misspelling high-frequency words and festooning their writing with extraneous commas that these habits have become automated routines. While I can write my name in lower case it would be a distinct effort, but not for them; they don’t even have to think about it. The trick, in as much as there is any trickery involved, is create working conditions where the pressure on making mistakes is  great that it becomes easier to do the right thing. We need to make sure that what they’re practising is as close to perfect as possible.

To that end, my advice is to stop making students’ work for accuracy. It just doesn’t work. We spend all this time pointing errors they already know about and allow them to outsource their ability to think critically about their writing to us. I have almost never met a secondary age student that doesn’t conceptually understand how and why to use a capital letter, but you’d never know it from looking at their work. When we point out that there are some missing capitals they thank us, but then make exactly the same mistake next time! If we refuse to mark students work until they have proofread – and visibly annotated – their work; if we refuse to accept that the same errors are made over and over again and force students to rewrite shoddy work then most students quickly realise that it’s far easier to get it right first time. And from that point they start practising perfect.

Because I’ve been training teachers about the need to implicitly teaching students how to write I’ve become much more aware of the metacognition of writing than I ever used to be. But I still almost never go through a formal drafting process when writing these blogs; my editing is internalised. I tend to write very quickly and while typos do slip through, I spot most errors as I go. I have a pretty good of idea of the things I’m likely to get wrong (e.g. I always misspell believe!) Then, I read over when I’m done and change phrasing, tweak sentence structure and massage grammar as the mood takes me.

If you’re keen to teach students how to draft and proofread, these posts might be useful:

  • Do we value pupils’ writing?
  • The art of beautifully crafted sentences
  • Black space: improving writing by increasing lexical density
  • Thinking like a writer
  • How to get students to value writing
  • Back to school Part 3: Literacy

The post When should we stop making students redraft work? appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Should we learn to love our shackles?

“Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better.” Albert Camus

There’s already been some pretty scathing reactions to the master plan to introduce a common curriculum and assessment system into UK schools Dame Sally Coates lays out in Schools Week. Carl Hendrick describes her ideas as a dystopian nightmare and Pedro De Bruyckere sees it as a surefire way to turn education into the caricature that Ken Robinson paints it.

But is there any merit in her ideas? Some gold we can pan for? Well, maybe. Coates says she wants to liberate teachers  “from the pressures of curriculum planning” so they “could focus on perfecting delivery in the classroom”. And let’s face it, the current hodgepodge of schools doing whatever the hell they want (whether they want to or not) is hardly a way of ensuring the best education for our children. As Dame Sally says, “I find it incredible that schools are grappling with their own solutions to recent curriculum and assessment reform. What I see is a patchwork of alternatives, some of which are inferior versions of the previous system.” Anyone who’s seen some of the more outlandish ideas being implemented by some schools will share these concerns.

Most of the critique is focussing on the idea that in schools across the land children will be following exactly the same lessons at exactly the same time from a centrally dictated curriculum organised by a panel of experts. I’m not sure how much of this is what she actually thinks and how much is the product of over-excited reportage. It certainly appears to be true that she wants a new National Curriculum to mandate content but how could that ever result in children learning in identical ways? Even if we did decide to do all she urges the only way we could ever have teachers teaching exactly the same lesson at exactly the same time is if we didn’t give a toss about whether children were learning. It seems unlikely that even the most draconian , the most doctrinaire of policy wonks could ever make such a blunder… Doesn’t it?

But what of her plan for a logical, sequential curriculum where children “would study the same content and their success in grasping this content would be tracked. It would set out the exact content that students would cover in each subject and the exact order in which they would cover it.” This seems more sensible and workable. But why? What are the reasons beyond the ability to track progress?

Coates’ reasons appear to be these:

  1. Social mobility would be improved
  2. Teacher workload would be reduced
  3. Uniformity would unleash creativity

The first is by far the most persuasive. The national agenda for school improvement is currently all about ‘closing the gap’ caused by social and economic disadvantage. The least advantaged children need to be given the opportunities and experiences of the most advantaged and, hey presto, the gap will close. All children will achieve the same high results and all will go on to careers in law, medicine, engineering and museum curation. Except there are a few problems with this narrative, aren’t there? First, if social mobility leads to some people rising through the social strata, others will have to make way as there isn’t an unlimited supply of or demand for top grades, university places or jobs. Some children will have to be downwardly mobile. But which children? Will the sharp-elbowed middle-classes ever allow that we create a meritocracy in which their kids risk being at the bottom of the heap? And, unless we drastically change our views about economic migrants, we will have engineered a utopia with no plumbers, retail assistants, window cleaners or bus drivers. These things have value; we need them. But if everyone is educated into sneering at such worthy work as beneath them, then what? The other unacknowledged problem with the closing the gap narrative, is that there will always be a normal distribution of ability. We can work on moving the bell curve to the right, but we can’t defy it utterly. As long as intelligence and every other human characteristic is normally distributed in a population we have to accept that there will always be a gap. And the unfashionable, inconvenient truth is that these differences are caused as much by genetic heritability as they are by environmental shaping. By having an identical curriculum for all, maybe we could seek to hold back the advantaged and create a system in which merit is recognised, but it won’t be the shiny, comforting Happyland it’s often painted.

Reducing teacher workload is a small, meaner aim in comparison, but all the more achievable for that. If there’s a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention then workload must be tackled – there’s no point sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting, “La la la long summer holidays! I can’t hear you!” This is not an issue that’s going to go away. The expectation that teachers ought to sacrifice every evening and weekend in order to be competent at their job is immoral. I’ve argued before that the role of school leadership is to strip out every extraneous demand on teachers except that they teach as well as they can. The question is, is the demand for planning extraneous? I see lesson planning as a straightjacket leading to more mediocre teaching – understanding how to design sequences of lessons – to have insight into planning a curriculum – is liberating. Yes, it’s hard work, but so is much that is valuable. The may be areas of the curriculum which lend themselves to centrally organised structures: maybe subjects like science, maths and grammar could benefit from being sequenced logically by boffins, but to do the same thing to humanities curricula will never be uncontroversial. The narrowing of choice enforced by examination boards already dictates that only some history and some literature is studied in schools and the pressures of accountability reduce this choice further to the content considered easiest rather than best. If I were in charge, say, of determining which literary texts must be studied I would, of course, be a thoroughly benign dictator. Sadly though, few are as clear-sighted and altruistic as I.

And finally, does uniformity reduce creativity? This is very much an examined assertion within the context of Dame Sally’s think piece, so let’s have a look at it. Superficially, uniformity is the opposite of creativity, but Sally goes on to say, “A common curriculum would encourage teachers, school groups and publishers to generate supplementary resources and expertise, safe in the knowledge that all schools would be following the new curriculum for years to come.” Does she mean that safety unleashes creativity? Or perhaps that comfort and ease unleash creativity? I’m pretty sure they don’t. Our history most often appears to one of innovation through threat which necessity being the mother of invention. We’re driven to create new systems because the old ones aren’t up to snuff. Maybe instead she’s talking about the idea I’ve written about here that creativity is forced through constraints? If you give someone, anyone, a constraint, they are driven to overcome it and fight a way through. Possibly there’s an anarchic heart at the centre of this plan which secretly intends uniformity to be a constraint which teachers will seek to overthrow and subvert? I’d like to believe this, but being the sceptic I am, I doubt that’s the hope.

I completely understand the worries and concerns Dame Sally articulates about the freedoms schools have been given. Freedom always has consequences and some of these can be brutal. When Lincoln emancipated black American slaves many starved and suffered, but no one would now seriously argue that this means slavery was a good thing or that freedom is a curse.Coates says that she takes “the view that government should only do for schools those things that schools can’t do better for themselves, and nothing passes this rule better than the design of curriculum and assessment.” Does it though? We can rail against the bumbling incompetence of the way in which National Curriculum levels were abolished but we must remember that this centrally imposed, common assessment framework was abolished because it had been misused and perverted. Mandating a centrally imposed curriculum still has to run the gauntlet of interpretation and bias which every single teacher in every single school will bring to bear.

Freedom may not turn out to be nearly as much fun as we might want or have expected, but it’s good for us. As Dylan Wiliam has written,

Developing an assessment system will be challenging, to be sure, but … schools now have an opportunity to develop assessment systems that fit their curriculums, rather than trying to shoehorn their curriculum to fit a predetermined assessment system. And because every school’s curriculum is different, the best assessment system for one school may be useless for another. Ultimately, each school will need to find an assessment system that meets its needs.

Teaching will only ever be a mature profession when we stop trying to dumb down the task expected of teachers. Less paperwork and data analysis, more curriculum and assessment design would be a healthy start. The trick, is there is a trick to it, is intelligent accountability: give schools freedom to make whatever decisions they feel fit and then hold them to account for the consequences of those decisions.

The post Should we learn to love our shackles? appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Employment figures for 2014 in the UK

Employment is the most basic requirement for the development and growth of an economy and United Kingdom is not an exception in this regard. From the past few decades, the world economy is in the grip of unemployment and even the economically developed country like UK had to face the brunt of this situation. However with the arrival of the year 2014, there seems to be a lot of improvement in the employment situation of UK. In the recent report drawn by the Statistical Authority, it was found that the unemployment rate in UK has reached its all time low of 7.1%. It is pertinent to know that this rate was 7.4% in the last three months of 2013 and economists around the world had anticipated for a decline of merely 0.1% which is very low as compared to the current reports.

According to office of National Statistics(ONS), there is a fall of 167000 people who’ve been affected by unemployment in the current year. Now there are just 2.32 million people in UK that are devoid of employment. The decrease in unemployment rates in the present year even indicate that now maximum number of people in the UK are having work and are capable of supporting their families. This value even indicates the biggest ever quarterly increase in the employment levels of UK. Despite of all the predications made by labor markets around the world, today Britain is experiencing an economic revolution that certainly needs more fuelling from the government.

This rate of unemployment at 7.1% is the best so far, ever since the economy of UK has started recovering from economic depression. According to ONS, following statistics relating to employment in UK in the year 2014 have been generated so far:

  • The rate of unemployment among the active population in UK is around 7.1% in January, 2014.
  • The total number of people that have a job and are actually working comprise of the 30.15 million of the total population.
  • UK government grants certain allowances to the unemployed population and it is astonishing to know that the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s allowance in January 2014 fell by 27600 people. So now the total number of people claiming such allowance is just 1.22 million.
  • The ONS conducts employment and unemployment survey every month but compares between data of three months i.e. quarterly comparisons are made.
  • In 2014, the economy of UK experienced a major change because the employment rate jumped by 280000 points to reach the biggest quarterly high of all times to record a number of 30.15 million. An important thing to note down is that such an increase in employment was last seen in Britain in the year 1971. The employment though increased well, it was the wage growth of people that drew attention of various governmental agencies. The wage growth in UK is going flat at 0.9% from the past 5-6 months which is not even at par with the current inflation rate of 2% here. Thus much of work is required to be done in this regard and a lot of major policy changes could improve the same numbers.

    There are many learning based employment apprenticeships schemes in Birmingham available for young people (aged 16 - 19 etc) - one provider of apprenticeships (Gordon Franks)