Revising, revision and the long game

It is a universal truth that a student wanting to succeed in exams will often lean towards one subject rather than another, because it is easier to revise. The Science exam will take precedent over the English exam, because it is easier to retain the information due to its factual, concrete nature.


For me, the English exams start tomorrow. English Literature. The first of many for my students. As with most things, I get a bit reflective. Did we do enough? Did I do enough? Did the students revise enough? Are they revising while I type this?  Crucially, have we trained students to revise in English?

The recent discussions on skills and knowledge have changed the way I think about curriculum planning, but, like most people, I am starting to think of the new GCSEs and how they will pan out. I am not daunted by the fact that students will have to deal with a closed book exam. Nor am I bothered about the choice of texts. Nor am I bothered about the questions. I am, in all honesty, not that bothered about much. It is business as usual as far as I see it. No, the thing I am thinking about is how we can prepare students over time. The long game.  

Do we prepare students for the long game? Because we see English as predominately a skills based subject, we often focus on the present and the short game. If they can do it now, they will be able to do it in the future. Our curriculums seem to be focused on a jigsaw approach to learning. Students build the jigsaw. Then, they move on to the next jigsaw. Next year we will ask them to make the same jigsaw again, and hope they have remembered how to assemble the pieces to make the picture again. Finally, in Year 11 we insist that they revise how they made the jigsaw.

I think other subjects benefit from their knowledge content. They can have an end of topic test. They can have an end of term test. They can have an end of year test. They can even build in tests at the end of a lesson or a key stage. In the DNA of their subject is revising. Listening to students talk about other subjects is interesting. I have a French test tomorrow. Have you revised for the Geography test? When have I heard a student mention the word test in association with English?  Maybe, I have heard the phrase spelling test, but not anything else. A test in English is usually an assessment.   But, for me, and I think for others, an assessment is something much bigger than a test. A test is a quick indicator of knowledge retention. And, an assessment is an indicator of a student’s ability to use a collection of skills.   

I think in English we are too subtle with things. We hope that the essay the students are writing will imply that the student knows what a concrete noun is or the difference between personification and a simile. We hope the knowledge will be bubbling under the surface for all English teachers to see. We will tick off the skills as they use them in their writing and make inferences about the knowledge the student has gained. Yes, they have used the name of the characters. That shows they know something about the story. But, does it truly reflect the sum of the student’s knowledge?

Let’s take the humble noun and all its different forms, such as proper, common, collective and abstract. When do we test students about the differences? Do we test them on it? The majority of students will know the difference between them at the end of Year 6. What do we do with that knowledge? Do we check to see if it is there a year later, a key stage later or even at the end of Year 11?

I’d say most of us would refer to the different types of nouns several times in the course of teaching. What do we call these kinds of noun? We revise the term, but we don’t make the students revise it. We revise, but they don’t. And, I think that is what I am trying to get at. Collective revision is nice in principle, but it isn’t getting students to revise. We are not preparing them for a future where we want them to revise if there is a single point where we say, ‘Learn this on your own.’ We are never building them for retention of knowledge if we don’t build it in to what we do day-by-day.

How many English departments have an end of year test? Some. A few. How many of those end of year tests are assessing skills developed across the year? How many of those tests actually test what knowledge the students had learnt over the year?   

What is a sonnet?

What is the purpose of a sonnet?

What is the volta in a sonnet?

Before people start throwing exam papers and staplers at me for undermining the complex nature of learning and spoiling the fun of learning, listen to this:

What if, in addition to our usual assessments, we had only one end of year test (yes, only one) at the end of each year? That test would be mixture of the basics (grammar terminology) and topic specific knowledge. The students would have a list of terms and aspects to revise a week before the test. Then test.

We have repeated the learning process. We have consolidated the learning.  We put at the front core knowledge. We have modelled revision.

Let’s stop assuming that just because a student learnt what a noun is in primary school it stays in their brain forever.  Let’s stop assuming that mentioning what a noun is occasionally will not keep that definition for a noun lodged in their heads. Let’s assume that we have to do something annually that anchors that knowledge. Let’s assert the role students play in the learning. They have to actively revise in English. We have to teach them to revise. Otherwise we get to Year 11 and students look at us bemused and confused about how to revise for the exam next week.

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Planning for the UK’s exit from the …. Controlled Conditions Assessment.

Like most people, I am planning my contingency plan for when the UK leaves the EU. I am thinking of how it will affect the classroom. You can never be too careful. Okay, I’ll be honest, I am not planning anything to do with the EU exit. But what I am planning is teaching Shakespeare for a new exam. In a way, this is a whole new ball game for us. We have all taught the whole play in some form or manner. But, this time, it is about preparing for an exam, which could test a student on any scene in the play.

The assessment of Shakespeare in an exam isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, several exam boards are just behind the times in changing to this approach in the exam.  Some people, for decades, have been teaching in this particular way. Here’s an extract. Answer a question about the language. Now, link the extract to its place in the whole text. Simple.

The question I am concerned about is: how do you teach a Shakespeare effectively over two years for the extract based question? Not a short question, but a question nonetheless that teachers and heads of department are thinking at the moment. How do I fit in Shakespeare in the plans? A Shakespeare play isn’t a nice discreet unit of work.  It is a titan! A gorgon. In fact, it is probably closer to Medusa. It fixes people to stone. It is massive. Sometimes, it is akin to being snowed-in for six months of the year. Don’t get me wrong: the experience is enjoyable, but it takes so long. Just set aside two or more months for it to be done.

I am thinking of how to plan for the new GCSEs and the role that Shakespeare will take over the next few years. But in my planning, I want to make it effective and designed to increase understanding and secure knowledge, so I am looking at possible ways to teach it, and, in particular, ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

The format for the Shakespeare question follows this pattern:

[1] Close analysis of the extract

[2] Link extract to the rest of the play

[3] Explore how the writer has presented things (a character, a theme or an emotion) across the whole text.

Simply put: the students zoom out at each stage. They need to be able to explore aspects across the whole text. Step one can be easily drilled into students. They are taught to spot typical features of the language, but the next stages are probably a little more complex. The teaching of the whole play and not segments is what I am interested in today. So, how can we teach these aspects?  

Approach 1:  - The Traditional

Description: Teach the play from start to finish.

We could teach the play scene by scene. It works at A-Level so why not in Year 10 and Year 11. Scene by scene you build up the knowledge and understanding. Students get to see the whole text as it was intended, including the padding and minor scenes.   

The benefit of this approach is the guarantee that the whole text is covered and no stone or character is left unturned. Once taught there shouldn’t be any need, hopefully, or re-teaching of certain aspects.  

The problem with this method is the pace. Able student can handle the slow methodical pace, but less able students tend to struggle with constant ‘translation’ in their eyes.

Approach 2:  - Main plot followed by subplot  

Description: Teach the main plot and then revisit the play later and focus on the subplots.

The beauty of a Shakespeare play is its complexity. The main plot drives the story, but the subplot often adds texture and another layer to the original story. The love story between Romeo and Juliet is in the foreground of the family feud. What if we separated the two when teaching? Obviously, you cannot completely separate the two aspects. You would have to acknowledge the existence of the other. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. However, you could build the knowledge of the play in layers.

First, you analyse the story between Romeo and Juliet. Focus on their scenes and analyse those in detail. Then, after a period of time, you return to the play and then focus on the warring families. Focus on how Shakespeare presents those scenes. The whole is treated as a jigsaw.

Ask students to recall the plot of a Shakespeare plot and students will struggle. It is hard for an English teacher, because there are numerous threads and strands of the plot. However, breaking the story down into plots helps develop the whole understanding of the play. Ask students to explain the purpose of a plot and subplot when studying a play is hard. The problem often being that the student is too close to the text and the story telling. It is hard to see the machinations and working of the subplot when you just see it as a linear plot.

This way would hopefully keep a level of freshness to the story. The second time of reading allows for a deeper level of understanding as students start to see what the links are. Revising the play becomes a little bit easier as you are not repeating the same experience, but adding to the existing one.  Plus, it helps to move the students from the personal / character driven story to the social  story / context and how it drives the events.

Approach 3:  - Following a character’s journey

Description: Teach the play through a character, focusing on the scenes only that character features in

This is probably more of a variation on a theme, but it is an interesting one. If I wanted to explore a play in great depth, this would be the way I’d choose. The play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is structurally different to plays like ‘An Inspector Calls’ because there isn’t one story for the characters. Shakespeare shows us several stories linking all the character’s together. We see it on stage. Priestly has all his character’s stories occur off stage. Everything about the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ is about learning and putting together the information to build the final story. Shakespeare takes all his characters on a journey. We see them start at one point and end on a totally different one.  The play shows us what happens between the two points.

Imagine reading ‘Othello’ from mainly Othello’s perspective. Miss out Iago’s soliloquys in a first reading of the play and you have an interesting story. Yes, you miss out a key part of the whole, but you understand the character better. It is like ‘Big Brother’ you only get to know the characters well when they are whittled down to a number you can count on one hand. (I don’t watch ‘Big Brother’; I have just heard of it in passing.)

When studying ‘Romeo and Juliet’, you could look at so many different stories. Romeo’s. Juliet’s. The parent’s.  Reading the play that way would give you three readings of the play. Spaced over the years, this could help build up the layers of the play quickly and easily.

The questions on the exam papers often focus on the presentation of a character. What better way to build the understanding of presentation is exploring precisely the presentation of things across the whole play from the start? Shakespeare’s plays are cluttered. Cluttered with characters. Cluttered with plot. Cluttered with ideas. We love them for the different levels of lots of disparate things, but the presentation of one aspect is drowned out because of the abundance of so many other things.  Look at the presentation of Shylock in the play. First you have to screen out the Portia stuff and a lot of the men’s scenes at the start of the play to see Shylock.

Approach 4:  - Start with the drama

Description: Every Shakespeare play has a killer scene. Start with that and then go to the beginning

The killing of Julius Caesar. The trial scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The death of Juliet and Romeo. The first wedding of Hero and Claudio. There is a scene in all Shakespeare plays where the machinations of the plot build and lead to. It is the main cog by which everything else revolves. The opening of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is especially slow and takes a bit of time to…. ummm…get going. Knowing the end point can be helpful to students so that they can see things fitting together. The complexity of the story can be daunting to students without an anchor. Starting with a dramatic moment helps to ground the plot. Oh, this links to this and that links to that. All too often, you have had a student who is on the back row of the train in terms of plot. Who is that? What just happened? Providing students  with an end or middle point gives a narrative direction. Shakespeare plays, as a genre for students, are enigmatic things. They don’t know what to expect because their frame of reference is poor. I wouldn’t have a Scooby Doo of could happen in the plot if I watched a Peruvian love story, because I haven’t experience a Peruvian love story.

The problem with this approach is that you take away the dramatic mystery of the plot. You are simply giving an ultimate spoiler and hoping that keeps them going. Recently, a colleague handed me a copy of ‘Of Mice and Men’. It said on the front page in a scribble: George kills his best friend Lennie. Thankfully, the spoiler was prevented from spoiling a person’s enjoyment. But, the killer scene doesn’t always happen at the end. Plus, the audience of Shakespeare’s plays would know what usually is going to happen in a story. What Julius Caesar dies? Really? He even tells us in the opening of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that they die. He wanted us to experience the inevitable. Fate is written and we are inactive observers. True drama comes from our inability to stop things unfold. There is sense of inevitability in storytelling; we know the general events, we just want to enjoy the experience of getting to those events.   


There is no one way to do things. Like most teachers out there, I like exploring the different avenues for teaching something. Aside from the mugs of coffee, free pens and teaching aspect, the planning process is one I enjoy with relish. I just know there are different ways of doing things. Some better. Some worse. Like all of us, I want to do it well and do it justice.

We are preparing for a new exam and GCSE structure and we are intrigued to see what others do. Let me know if there is an approach I have missed out.


Thanks for reading,



Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

This much I know about…what REALLY WORKS when preparing students for their examinations!

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about what REALLY WORKS when preparing students for their examinations!

I am keener than ever to spend as much time as possible in classrooms. As I wrote in a post last October, leading our teachers’ own learning about teaching, is, I feel, the most important thing I do in my role as a Headteacher.

It’s not often you innovate in your teaching and the impact on students’ learning is so clearly significant. My recent post about meta-cognition and self-regulation described an obvious tactic for helping students perform better in examinations. Thing is, whilst it now seems obvious, it took me 26 years to discover. It’s probably worth quickly reading my meta-cognition and self-regulation post here before looking at what follows.

Lead teacher learning by sharing. My meta-cognition and self-regulation post was picked up by some of the teachers at Huntington. Tim, a truly great teacher of Music, annotated an A level paper just as I had done and then explained his thinking to his A level class during their mock debrief.

View this document on Scribd

He then sent me this email:

Tim Burnage email

Reading from the bottom up, here is my reply and then Tim’s response, which I feel is the fruit of sharing as a Headteacher.

Tim email 2

Observing lessons judgementally, or leading teacher learning? I try really hard to make lesson observations a developmental experience for colleagues I performance develop. I cannot see the point of spending time observing a lesson if I am not actively helping teachers to improve their practice. We co-plan, I play an active, helpful role in the lesson and then we spend time reflecting upon how the lesson could have been better. Quite often we wait a week or two to meet so that the teacher can bring along work completed in the interim period by the students so that we can see whether the teaching has resulted in improved student progress – the Golden Thread!


This particular meta-cognition technique is spreading. In the following lesson another truly great teacher, Lisa, uses a visualiser to demonstrate her thinking when completing a particular simultaneous equation question from the mathematics GCSE mock paper the students sat recently. Everyone has a fresh blank copy of the question sheet. She describes her thinking and the students are directed to copy down verbatim, on their own copies of the question sheet, what she writes as she writes it in real time. This helps ingrain the teacher’s meta-cognitive processes in the students’ memories, with the physical action of the writing playing some role in making the teacher’s meta-cognitive processes more tangible for the students. As well as the video, Lisa’s completed answer is below so that you can follow what she says, as well as the staged approach to answering questions which we are training the students to master.

Lisa worksheet

maths sequence

Practice makes perfect. Once Lisa has modelled the meta-cognitive process for completing the question the students are given a similar question to complete on their own, with the brief to mimic the meta-cognitive processes learnt from Lisa’s modelling. Once the students have attempted the process themselves on the similar question she asks one of the students – whom she has seen complete the question well – to use the visualiser and explain his meta-cognitive processes when completing the question. The video of Kallan’s visualiser monologue is below as is his completed question. Listen for the round of applause from his peers at the end…


An evidence-based profession? All this work is rooted in the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation  Teaching & Learning Toolkit. Think about it…meta-cognition; effective feedback; peer tutoring all combined in the one lesson…and then look at the Toolkit’s now ubiquitous evaluation of high-impact/cost effective activities to improve student progress:

EEF top 3

When I asked the students about the usefulness of Lisa’s meta-cognition lesson they gave it anywhere between 9 and 10 out of 10.

Modelling meta-cognition
S to S modelling of meta-cognition


This much I know about…revising on 8 May 2015

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50 this much I know about revising on 8 May 2015.

Stick with this…

Comment on whether a cut in tax rates will always result in a budget deficit. This is the OCR AS Economics question my students asked me to revise yesterday, 8 May 2015. Here’s the answer, beginning, for the first three marks, with some Analysis

Always begin with your definitions. A budget deficit is the difference between the Government’s income in terms of revenue from taxation and Government spending on things like the NHS, the Police, the Army, Welfare for the poor & disadvantaged and Education. If the Government’s income revenue from taxation is more than the Government’s spending then there is a budget surplus. If the Government’s revenue from taxation is less than the Government’s spending there will be a budget deficit. If the rate of tax is cut, it is likely that, if everything else in the economy remains the same (ceteris paribus) there will be a budget deficit, because there will be a reduction in the Government’s income in terms of revenue from taxation but no change in its spending. The pie chart below shows the current budget deficit in red.

Govt spending and taxation

Commentary follows Analysis in a six marker. The last three marks are awarded for commentary on the basic analysis, or, in other words, the analysis is correct but it all depends… The first thing I point out to the students is that the question is asking about a reduction in the tax rate, not tax revenue. The income tax rate may fall, for instance, but if more people are working then the tax revenue might actually increase and we would have a budget surplus, rather than a budget deficit. But, if there has been an 8% reduction in wage levels, or a huge increase in workers with zero hour contracts, then even if more people are employed it might not mean that income tax revenues increase. Then there is the other half of the pie chart, Government spending, which could be cut. If spending on the NHS, the Police, the Army, Welfare for the poor & disadvantaged and Education is cut by more than the reduction in tax revenue, then there will be a budget surplus, even if there is a cut in the tax rate. The government could choose, for instance, to privatise more elements of the NHS, or allow profit-making companies to run schools so that Government spending on Health and Education would be reduced. Furthermore, if the manufacturing and construction industries are shrinking, there will be less income from corporation tax and so, in order for there to be a budget surplus the cuts in Government spending on things like the NHS, the Police, the Army, Welfare for the poor & disadvantaged and Education will have to be greater. I could have explained to the students the implications of a housing price boom which will surely implode, flat-lining business investment, negative inflation and slow economic growth of 0.3% in the first quarter, but by this point we had done enough to be awarded all the six marks available.

Explaining this on 8 May 2015 made me wonder if basic Economics should be a mandatory element of our national curriculum.



Floating Voters Wanted

I do apologise for neglecting my blog recently. It has been getting used more and more infrequently. It is mainly because I have a habit of agreeing to do other things, then getting overwhelmed. Hopefully I will catch up in the half-term holiday.

However, before I do, I thought I’d draw attention to one of those other things. As you may know, I am now editor of the Labour Teachers Blog. I am often asking around for Labour supporting teachers to write for it (please get in touch if you are interested) but I haven’t tended to ask here because I know this blog has a wider and less partisan audience. However, in half term I intend to be running “Floating Voters Week” on Labour Teachers and actively seeking out a wider range of writers. Basically, if you are a teacher who didn’t vote Labour this year (or even if you did but didn’t in 2010) but could be persuaded to in the future with a change of education policy then I’d like to hear from you and publish your views. Full details are here (and you really must read this beforehand, otherwise you might be wasting your time).

I hope to hear from you.

Also, please share this post to help me reach everyone who might be interested. Thanks.

Scenes From The Battleground

How should we read texts in lessons?

At Michaela, our pupils read thousands of words every day. A typical day for a pupil (of any ability) might look a bit like this:


7.55am: Silent reading in form time.

8.15am: English lesson: read 1000 words of the Odyssey.

9.15am: Maths lesson: read 200 words about a new mathematical concept.

10.30am: Science lesson: read 500 words about the International Space Centre.

11.30am: Humanities lesson: read 800 words about ancient Mesopotamia.

1.30pm: French lesson: read 500 words in English, translated into French.

2.30pm: Silent reading in form time.


Pupils in our reading club would read for half an hour after school with me.

All pupils read at home for 30 minutes each night.


Assuming that pupils read about 1000 words in morning tutor time, another 2000 in afternoon tutor time, and around 2000 in the evening at home, I would estimate that our pupils are reading around 8000 words a day. The weakest readers- those with the lowest reading ages, and who attend reading club- would read closer to 10,000 per day.


This amount of reading practice is essential for improving reading ability and motivation. I can already see the difference in the weakest readers. Kids regularly grab me at lunch and tell me about the book they are reading- something that I could only have dreamed of in my last school. There is a buzz about reading at Michaela. The library is always packed with kids after school, and many of them regularly ask their teachers for book recommendations.


Some of our teachers read books aloud to the pupils during tutor time. These books aren’t on the curriculum, but are read purely for a lovely afternoon treat. Olivia Dyer, our wonderful Head of Science, has her form in stitches reading Adrian Mole, which was the talk of the school for a long time: “PLEEEEEEASE can we read Adrian Mole like Miss Dyer’s class, Miss!?” was a common refrain. Jonny Porter, our tremendous Head of Humanities, reads Gombrich’s ‘A Little History of the World’ to his form, which is also a lovely treat for them in the afternoon.


In this post, I want to outline how we structure reading lessons at Michaela. Our pupils are so fortunate in that every one of our teachers and senior leaders- regardless of subject- cares deeply about reading and sees it as a vital part of the curriculum. As a SENCo, I really couldn’t ask my colleagues to do any more. They make my job so easy!


A good reading lesson should take the following principles into account:

  1. In any lesson, reading should primarily be for comprehension. Pupils need to understand what they are reading, and so the teacher should pause at appropriate moments and check for understanding.
  2. Reading is an opportunity to improve pupils’ fluency and ability to read with expression. Teachers should therefore model good reading and ask pupils to read aloud (year 7s love this, so get them into that habit then- it’s harder as you go up the school, in my experience).
  3. Reading is an excellent opportunity to improve pupils’ vocabulary. Teachers should pause to explain the meaning of key words, and may want to give further examples of new words used in context.


To demonstrate what this might look like, I’ve written an example lesson script below. This is a lesson reading Pullman’s beautiful ‘Northern Lights’, but the principles could be applied in any subject, with any text.



Step 1: Story Version 1

A ‘story version 1’ is an introduction to the text in which the teacher outlines some of the things that will happen in the story. This enables and deepens comprehension because, whilst reading the story, pupils have something to ‘hook’ the new text onto. I tend to make quite a big deal out of it, making a few jokes, ALWAYS showing them how excited I am to read it, and using dramatic voices and over-the-top gesticulation to bring it to life a bit. By the time I’ve finished, they are usually desperate to get started.

Teacher: I’m so excited about this chapter, because everything that happens feels so intense! So, in this chapter, Lyra sees what Lord Asriel shows on the projector. What she sees is very strange: for the first time, Lyra learns about something very important: dust. We are going to find out what this ‘dust’ is, and the adventure it might take Lyra on. Are you ready?


Step 2: Modelled/Shared/Guided reading


This can be done in a number of ways: the teacher may wish to read aloud, or nominate pupils to read. Depending on the nature of the class, the teacher may decide to split the group up: perhaps lower attainers work with the teacher, middle with the teaching assistant, and higher independently. I prefer to start by modelling some reading aloud, then handing over to pupils to read.


“Lord Asriel”, said the Master heavily, and came forward to shake his hand. From her hiding-place Lyra watched the Master’s eyes, and indeed, they flicked towards the table for a second, where the Tokay had been.

Teacher: Jason, why do the Master’s eyes flick towards the table?

Jason: His eyes flicked to the table because that’s where the poisoned drink was.

Teacher: That’s spot on! Now, let’s pause for a second. Who can show me what the master did with his eyes? Who can deliver an Oscar-winning performance to the class? [Call on student]

Let’s continue reading:

“Master,” said Lord Asriel. “I came too late to disturb your dinner, so I made myself at home here. Hello, Sub-Rector.

Teacher: A ‘subrector’ is a person in charge of certain universities or schools.

Glad to see you looking so well. Excuse my rough appearance; I’ve only just landed.

[Continue reading in the same manner until end of chapter,]


Step 3: Post-reading Vocabulary

Teacher: In this chapter, we saw the word ‘Scholar’. A scholar is a person who has very special, detailed knowledge of something because they spend a long time reading and studying about it. When I was at university, I was a scholar of philosophy. In this class, we are scholars of English.

So, Jamie, is a person who studies history a scholar? Why?

Kate, is a person who reads books, but doesn’t study them a scholar? Why?

Darren: True or False? I don’t know anything about poetry; I am a scholar of poetry.

Pete: true or false? I spend a long time reading about and studying chemistry, and I know a lot about it; I am a scholar of chemistry.

Who can finish this sentence for me? To become a bible scholar she had to….


The key thing with vocabulary is that you get pupils thinking about the words in different contexts. There is much to say on this, so I will write about this in more detail soon, but the above is just a little taster for now.


Further reading


I would highly recommend taking a look at the books/articles on the list below. In my next post, I will address the teaching and assessment of vocabulary in more detail.


Applegate, A and Applegate, M.D. (2004) The Peter Effect: Reading habits and attitudes of preservice teachers The Reading Teacher: Vol. 57, No. 6

Bambrick-Santoyo, B. , Settels, A., Worrell, J. (2013) Great Habits, Great Readers San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Beck, I., McKeown, M., Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction New York: Guildford Press

Fenlon, A., McNabb, J., & Pidlypchak, H. (2010). Developing meaningful literacy routines for students with multiple disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 43(1), 42-48.

Hasbrouck, J. (2006) Drop Everything and Read- but How? American Educator: Accessed online at [] 24.4.2014

Hirsch, E.D. (2003) Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge- of Words and the World. American Educator. Accessed online at [] 24.4.14

Kameenui, E. and Simmons, D. (1990) Designing Instructional Strategies: The Prevention of Academic Learning Problems. New Jersey: Macmillan

Lemov, D. (2010) Teach Like a Champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Morrison, T. G., Jacobs, J. S., Swinyard, W. R. (1999). Do teachers who read personally use recommended literacy practices in their classrooms? Reading Research and Instruction, 38 (2), 81-100.

Tabula Rasa

This much I know about…an unlikely literary lesson for the next Labour leader

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about an unlikely literary lesson for the next Labour leader.

Jane Austen knew her stuff. Thematically, Pride and Prejudice is about finding the middle way between two extremes. The novel’s two main characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr (Fitzwilliam) Darcy are polar opposites. Elizabeth represents Nature – she is impetuous, liberal and unfettered; Mr Darcy represents Art – he is deliberate, conservative and overly-mannered. She is “Natural”; he is “Artificial”.

Opposites attract. As literary tradition decrees, for the first half of the novel Elizabeth and Mr Darcy appear to be completely unsuited. At precisely the very centre of the novel Jane Austen contrives to have Elizabeth visit Mr Darcy’s Derbyshire estate, Pemberley. We see his estate through Elizabeth’s eyes:

ELIZABETH, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter.

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent.

Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road, with some abruptness, wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; — and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. The second half of the novel sees Elizabeth and Mr Darcy unite, each tempering the other’s extremes.

Sometimes one has to compromise for the common good. In 1997, Tony Blair, who, according to Neil Kinnock, was always impressed by wealth, aided by Peter Mandelson, the man who famously said that he was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, ensured that in the right-of-centre conservative United Kingdom, Labour gained power through finding a middle way between two extremes. He then allowed his socialist Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to redistribute income from the rich to the poor, haul 700,000 children out of poverty and provide some of the best public services this country has ever enjoyed. Working conditions for teachers, for instance, were improved immeasurably between 1997 and 2003. Anyone who has been teaching for 12 years has never known having to check the daily cover board. Who knows what kind of country we might be living in now if the Iraq war hadn’t got in the way?

Subject: the bleedin’ obvious. It is very difficult for political parties to help the disadvantaged in society if they are not in government. The first thing the next Labour leader might do is read Pride and Prejudice again.



Michaela School: Route One Schooling

I learned two very important principles from my visit to Michaela:

  1. You can do whatever you want as long as you hold your nerve and accept the consequences.
  2. You can always go a lot further than you first think is possible.

The first principle is embodied in Head Teacher, Katherine Birbalsingh’s explanation of how to get the behaviour you want: you just don’t compromise. If a teacher sees or hears a phone at Michaela it’s confiscated until the following term. It doesn’t matter whether the phone accidentally slipped out of a pocket, and it doesn’t matter whether the parent is going in to hospital and really really needs to ring their child. There are no excuses. When parents have inevitably come in to explain why their circumstances are unique and why and an exception needs to be made in their case, they’re given a choice: you either abide by our decisions and support our rules or you find another school for your child.

Bear in mind, the school is in Brent, right next to Wembley Park tube. This is not a leafy, affluent suburb. But is no shortage of other schools for disgruntled parents to send their children.

As Birbalsingh explains, maybe Michaela isn’t right for every child. Maybe some children would be happier elsewhere. But being at Michaela means following the rules. There are no exceptions.

Unsurprisingly, behaviour is immaculate. Children are polite, orderly and enthusiastic. Over lunch I was quizzed articulately about what I did for a living, how I voted, whether I thought nuclear weapons were a good thing and what I was currently reading. The children served each other, cleared the table and went about the serious business of eating a meal which was so much more than merely consuming food. When asked about the differences between Michaela and their primary schools they were unanimous: “You can learn here.” “No one pushes you out of the way.” “Teachers really care.”

They’re also refused to compromise on ‘what Ofsted want’. They’ve come to terms with the fact that inspectors will almost certainly hate what they do. They’re supported by founding governors who are fully expecting a negative verdict next year. But as Birbalsingh says, how you could meet their children and see the progress they’ve made and not admit that something must be working? I have hope that Ofsted have evolved sufficiently to get over residual biases, but of course it’s a risk.

The second principle was evident in Michaela’s approach to marking. I’ve written about marking being a meaningless fetish, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how far you could take this idea. At Michaela teachers do not mark books. Ever. Marking, Assistant Head, Joe Kirby explained, is not the same as feedback.

Although their books go unmarked, children get plenty of feedback. Classwork is regularly quizzed using a very slick bespoke system which allows teachers to immediately see where children have weaknesses and allows them to intervene. On top of that, children complete an extended assignment four times a year which is summatively assessed. Good examples are dissected under the visualiser and whole class feedback is delivered from the front. I long railed about the time teachers are expected to spend marking but I’d always assumed that there was a point at the heart of it. Apparently not. As Kirby explains, individual written feedback isn’t renewable; the time spent giving it could be spent on designing renewable resources which could not just benefit the whole class, but benefit every child who might ever attend the school. When compared to the paltry effects of a bit of red pen in your book, this is pretty sobering.

Because behaviour is perfect and because teaching sequences have all been planned out in advance, teachers just need to teach. Imagine it: no lesson planning, no marking. What might life be like? Teaching at Michaela is all about telling children stuff they don’t know and they checking to see whether they know it. Put aside whether or not you’re ideologically comfortable with this for a moment and consider the advantages just in terms of teaching rather than learning. There is no variance in lesson quality. They may well be variance in teacher quality but this is largely irrelevant: children’s experience of lessons is consistent, predictable and coordinated. There are no weak links. Or if there are, pupils are unaware of them.

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There’s no getting away from the fact that Michaela’s style is direct. They’re unapologetic about the knowledge building mission. Creating a rich, memorable knowledge base is definitely the top priority. Everything they do revolves around this central aim. This results in a very coherent school experience but to those us who’ve always worked in ‘normal’ schools it can seem extreme. It’s route one schooling: direct, effective, but not pretty. But maybe that just takes some geeting used to.

We can argue endlessly about whether or not you think the Michaela approach will result in learning. For what it’s worth I think they’ve got a lot – although not everything – right. But if you disagree there’s very little chance I’ll be able to persuade you otherwise.

What they have indisputably got right is putting teaching well-being at the heart of every decision they make. Although Birbalsingh thinks “display work is lovely,” the time it takes for students to make it and teachers to put it up just isn’t worth the cost. So there’s no student work on display. She talked about the US Charter School method of employing 23-year-old teachers, burning them for four years and then spitting them out, exhausted and broken. This she says is unsustainable and makes a school a miserable place to work. I’d go further: the expectation that teacher should give up evenings and weekends in order to meet minimum standards is immoral. If you are happy to do things their way, Michaela would be an idyllic place to work.

But God help you if you want to do some group work.

Michaela have assembled a fiercely passionate team committed to making a difference in the lives of the children they teach. The amount of thought and care put into their school will surely make it a success.

The post Michaela School: Route One Schooling appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Dear Nicky…. An Open Letter

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Dear Nicky

Congratulations on your re-appointment as Secretary of State for Education.  Education Policy had rather a low profile in the General Election, but I’m sure  you’ll be returning to the DFE with renewed determination to put Education at the centre of the agenda for the new Government.  To some extent, you and your predecessor put enough changes in place to keep us busy for five years so don’t go crazy looking for things to do!

The examination and curriculum changes take up a lot of institutional energy and, above all else, we simply need time to get those things right. I’m actually quite happy about the move to terminal exams and the removal of the less robust elements of GCSEs: the ‘discourse of gaming’, as Brian Lightman has called it, never did us any good.  I’m looking forward to 2018 when all the GCSEs have converted and we’re not dealing with year-on-year tinkering to performance measures.  I hope you’ve been briefed on the statistical limits of Progress 8 and understand that it is not a measure of school effectiveness per se.  (I’ve got quite strong views on this.)

As the Head of a complex inner-London comprehensive, I’m hoping you’ll help me to address some of these issues  – or at least accept a degree of responsibility when ‘difficult choices’ have to be made:

  • My budget is shrinking in real terms. I accept that reality but already I’m plotting out how we’ll manage.  Take a look at our exciting curriculum model here.  Is there a better one anywhere? Note how we support the Arts and how it makes the Ebacc seem comparatively limited.  This is what comprehensive education can deliver – for all young people.  The only question is ‘can we sustain it?’ If not, which bits should we cut? Are we sincere about all young people developing character, gaining rich cultural capital….? I hope so.
  • There’s a constant ‘gun to the head’ feeling that I could really do without.  I was very concerned with the rhetoric being used in relation to primary Heads and times tables.  I’m sure you have a sense that this job is difficult enough without thinking you’ll be sacked if the data doesn’t pan out as you’d hope?  Personally, I feel quite secure at the moment. I’m new in post; I’ve got time and I’m experienced enough not to jump left and right every time a new tweak is made to the OfSTED framework.  Actually, I feel Heads can and should step up to lead change with more confidence.  But, as Secretary of State, you have so much influence in creating the climate where more Heads could express that confidence – not just hide within the safety zone of compliance. Please do all you can to set us free to unleash greatness.   Putting the guns down would be a start. Take a look at OfSTED and let’s move forward on the intelligent accountability agenda.
  • Teacher recruitment and retention is challenging.  It would be great if there was more affordable housing in our area but I know that’s a big ask.  You could go a long way simply resolving never to return to the dark days of the ‘enemies of promise’ rhetoric.  More pragmatically, giving some shape to teacher training routes would be helpful and, if I were you, I’d have an early conversation with David Weston from the Teacher Development Trust and pretty much do everything he suggests.   I’m glad that you take workload seriously although, in truth, I think that’s really an operational matter, especially when money is tight.  What we need is a more active, more effective leadership development body that could promote good practice; we don’t need new rules.  Can we have the NCSL back please?

Finally, I’d like to make sure you are aware of what we’re doing to develop a grass-roots National Baccalaureate.  You don’t have to do much except perhaps promote it and let us get on with it but I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the details with you.  It’s a very cost-effective, aspirational and inclusive concept that could address a range of issues in our fragmented system.  I’m actually going to send you a formal invitation to attend our very first Baccalaureate Awards Ceremony in 2017.  If you can make it you’ll see my A level and BTEC students alongside their peers from the special school next door receiving their National Baccalaureate certificates and transcripts side by side; all them achievers; none more important than the other, all having received a broad, challenging education. You’ll love it.

Good Luck. Work with us and, for sure, we’ll work with you.  Remember that new types of schools might give the sense of a quick fix – but they don’t really solve the fundamental problems; they don’t stay new for long!

Yours sincerely

Tom Sherrington

Headteacher, Highbury Grove School


Assignments: Assessment and Achievement. Is this the answer?

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DRAFT Assignments. These are mock-ups of what an assignment might look like. The idea is still at the embryonic stage.

This week I pitched the idea of Assignments to the staff at Highbury Grove during a CPD session.  I’ve had positive feedback from several curriculum areas so far and I’m optimistic that this is an idea that, after an evolutionary process over the next year or so, will help us to tackle lots of issues.  I’m sharing it as this early stage in the hope that we’ll get feedback that might help.  Add comments and suggestions below.

I hit upon this idea when wrestling with two major problems:

1. Assessment without Levels

Having ditched NC Levels at KS3, we’re using a simple Progress Grade as an interim –  Excelling, Good, Some concerns, Poor. This is based on teachers’ assessment of progress from each student’s starting point.  We’ve been working on the idea of producing subject rubrics that will help students, teachers and parents to make sense of these grades within each subject, linking them to standards.  The problem has been one of simplicity vs depth.  It’s actually really hard to write a summary rubric that doesn’t lose all the meaningful detail.  So – what to do?  There is also the ongoing difficulty with GCSE grades changing and the danger of talking in terms of trajectories that can be self-limiting. Using GCSE grades is too macro and leads us into the fixed mindset ‘performance goal’ trap – rather than focusing on the micro details of learning and mastery.

2.  Early Intervention and learning support.

I was struck by the phenomenon of the English GCSE controlled assessment catch-up sessions during the Easter holidays. Here were Y11 students who, having ducked and dived for years, were spending eight intense hours during the holidays locked-down in the process of producing extended pieces of writing.  The absolute necessity for them to complete the work (now or never) finally delivered the response they needed to give. I thought ‘why can’t we get them to do this earlier’? What if we created a completion deadline structure throughout their time at school that produced this intensity on a regular basis? This echoed a discussion I’d had with members of our Behaviour Team where we agreed there was a ‘Murphy’s Law’ of intervention: the moment you decide a student needs an intervention, you feel you should have done it sooner.

Related to this is the problem with supporting students with learning beyond the classroom. Parents and pastoral staff have ridiculously nebulous conversations with students about their school work.  How is anyone supposed to know what constitutes ‘being up to date with the work’?  If a student falls behind, how do we know exactly what they need to do to catch up – at home, in the tutor room or in the study support centre? Usually, there is a shrug of uncertainty or a sweeping brush-off – ‘I’ve done all my work’. Really?  Students can drift through school, rarely properly keeping on top of what is required to achieve; it overwhelms us and we become desensitised too readily.

The solution? Assignments. 

An Assignment is basically an outline of the key pieces of work that need to be completed within a specified period of time.  The idea is to have the whole curriculum – every subject in every year – described via Assignments.  They don’t have to capture every detail – just the main elements of the work.  ‘Being up to date’ means finishing all of the tasks within an assignment by the deadline at the standard required.  The idea here is that ‘completion’ is the most basic level at which to engage students in a discussion about progress and standards. This then leads into the concept of quality, improvement, mastery and so on.  But, first, do the work ! All of it.

Assignment sheets can provide information to inform decisions about progress grades, defining the standards within the completion criteria.  Also, given our work on the Trivium as a structure for exploring our curriculum, we could use Assignments to embed ideas about Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric into everything we do.  Knowledge, Exploration and Communication seem to be useful terms to use to express these ideas to students and parents.

Students will be set assignments of different lengths in different subjects. They could represent a half-term’s work or a term for subjects with fewer lessons on the curriculum.  We could use shorter assignments at the start of GCSE and AS courses to make sure students are fully into gear, working at the right level from day one.  Crucially, we will gear our intervention and study support provision around assignment completion. Students who have not completed assignments will be required to do so by attending catch-up clinics. They’ll need to generate the intensity needed throughout the school year.  The goal is to engender a culture of routine hard work as students realise that lots of desperate dashes to complete assignments just in time isn’t a healthy way to live!

With all of this in mind some SLT colleagues and I knocked together some mock-up Assignments to inform the discussion alongside a rationale:

Assignments are: 

A Planning tool –

  • embeds Trivium thinking: knowledge, exploration communication – ensuring that these ideas are woven into the fabric of everything we do.
  • provides students with a guide to the work that must be done by a certain time. This can link to pre-learning material, making notes, catching up work after any absences or preparing for an assessment.
  • gives parents and staff an overview of the content and the assessment in every subject at any given time. This is far more detailed than current curriculum overview guidance and would facilitate far more meaningful discussion.

An Assessment tool –

  • defines standards at different levels:  completion of minimum requirements, quality, extension. Completion can be gauged by the class teacher, the student, parents and other staff.
  • allows for different modes of assessment to be blended into overall assessment eg speaking, writing, practical work, oral presentation, test . Authentic subject specific assessments can be defined as needed within any given assignment.
  • gives parents very clear guidance about requirements for any given unit of work against which Excellent, Good, Some Concerns, Poor progress are measured.
  • provides opportunity for different tiers of work to be assigned, within classes or between sets, so that progress is relative to the expectations implicit in the work set.

An Intervention tool –

  • provides a common language for discussing the nebulous notion of ‘being up to date’; the completion of an assignment.
  • students can be set short-term deadlines and completion targets in all year groups; these will provide achievable short-term goals for all students and a focus for pastoral guidance instead of referring to far-off goals that seem too distant to matter now.
  • provides a reference point for selecting students who need support to complete the work set. Non-completion of assignments would trigger requirements to attend compulsory catch-up clinics where the assignments can be finished.

Example 1

Science mock-up.

Science mock-up.  Defines content, a range of assessment processes and the Trivium elements.

Example 2

This example includes a summary section.  The exploration-communication  division felt a bit artificial; this could be merged.

This example includes a summary section. The exploration-communication division felt a bit artificial; this could be merged.

The work involved in producing Assignments that really work in an authentic, efficient way in every subject is significant.  We’re not going to get this right first time or overnight.  I found it easier to write an assignment (the Sound example) having just finished teaching the topic.  It may be that we produce the first generation of Assignments retrospectively, just before the end of each unit.   Some will incorporate multiple units so we’re not chasing too many deadlines; we’re hoping that the deadlines are spread over time more or less organically but that remains to be seen.  Ideally, they will be designed to make marking easier – not create massive new folders of records to keep.  Again, that will take some doing. There are lots of other questions about designing challenging assignments for students with different starting points building in growth mindset thinking and top-end challenge. No small task but we’ll be taking our time.

So – there you have it.  Assignments! What do you think?


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)