Processes, outcomes and measuring what we value.

Processes and Outputs

I produced this diagram as part of a paper ‘Measuring Success and Securing Accountability’ for my governors and SLT.  One reason for writing it is that, along with everyone else, we face a very turbulent period in our examination system.  Over the next few years, there are so many changes to the measures we’ve been using to gauge success, phased in gradually, that year-on-year comparisons will be difficult to make; predictions will be based on unreliable assumptions of linearity in the baseline-to-outcome trajectory and targets will be hard to set.  I want my governors to have some tools to use that go beyond the data so that we can have realistic and meaningful discussions about success and improvement.

A second reason for writing the paper is to fuel a wider discussion about ‘measuring what we value’ – rather than ‘valuing what can be measured’.  I don’t want Highbury Grove to be a school where the headline GCSE figures dominate our thinking at the expense of broader notions of quality and success.  With recent (necessary) changes to exams, that bubble has burst – and we can’t go back.  The data outcomes matter a great deal to the students as passports to progression; they matter as proxy records of the knowledge they have gained – but they don’t tell the full story of the richness and depth of the learning experience – the Real Learning Outcomes.  My view is that focusing on Data Outcomes is a self-limiting process; if the results matter too much, we don’t care enough about the underlying learning.  We prioritise Y11 intervention over support for deep learning at KS3 and get caught in a never-ending cycle of 11th-hour scrambling to patch things up.   Conversely, if we focus on Real Learning Outcomes, students receive a deeper, broader education and the results will take care of themselves.

However, the main reason for making this diagram is to consider the process of improvement and the nature and value of feedback.  If I know that our Progress 8 score is 0.3 (farcically, 0.3 +/- 0.2), how useful is that in terms of improvement?  Does that piece of data tell me anything helpful? Answer: No.  It might do if the teachers in my school had low expectations of students and a low Progress 8 score helped to challenge that.  But, if we’re already aiming high, most of the aggregated whole-school data gives us no information that can be used to inform an improvement plan. Over time we might see if we’re getting better or worse in terms of a particular data set but that’s not enough to tell us what to do to improve.  For teachers, leaders and governors, this is problematic.  If our results are disappointing, I don’t think it is good enough to simply say ‘do better’.  Generalised striving to ‘do better’ is dangerous groping in the dark; it is hopeless.  We must always ask “what specific actions should we take in order to do better?” and have some idea of the answer.  I think governors should be able to have this discussion just as teachers and leaders should.

For this to happen, we need to focus less on interrogating the Hard Cycle data and more on understanding the processes.  In truth, we don’t need much data of the aggregated kind.  If we’re all working flat-out, the data that really matters is the micro formative data that tells a teacher which bits of knowledge and skill each individual child needs to improve on; this in turn informs how and what they teach.  Even when exam results come out, the micro post-results data is the most useful: question by question feedback that gives clues about where to change emphasis in planning subsequent teaching sequences. Governors can’t know all of this detail – but they should know how it works and learn to ask questions about it.   What other data might be useful in providing actionable feedback? I’d say that there is rich material in student and parental feedback via focus groups and ad hoc communication as well as feedback from teacher-led lesson observation processes.  These are all aspects of what I’ve called the Soft Cycle.  For example, I know three or four parents at my school who give me very sharp feedback about their child’s experience; they provide more actionable feedback than any number of sets of data.  Soft Cycle data has many forms and we should gather it up where it can tell us something useful.

If we focus more on processes, the accountability role of a Governing Body and an SLT shifts away from at-distance requests for data – sucking up precious time and energy collecting information that can’t change anything – and moves towards the close-up process that builds up a detailed picture of the activities that actually make a difference.  We start to focus on questions such as:

  • What does a teacher do in Maths if a student doesn’t understand a concept or performs poorly on a test?
  • How are pastoral leaders supposed to respond to report grades that say ‘Poor attitude to learning’?
  • What is the optimal topic sequence in History at KS3 to provide a coherent preparation for GCSE and A level?
  • How do French teachers use grammar test scores to inform next steps?
  • Do the ‘Growth Mindset’ assemblies have resonance in the classroom or is there a fundamental contradiction in the way we give value to performance goals over mastery goals?
  • What are the features of an effective feedback and marking policy that secures improvement over time without creating unsustainable workload pressure?
  • Do our very most able students have a positive experience in Geography? How do we know? What does that actually look like? Is there a teacher CPD issue to address in this specific area?
  • Have we got our setting policy right and how would we know?

This transition is a gradual one.  It requires a degree of trust on  all sides. You need to let people get closer to the details if you want them to understand them; if you keep scrutiny at a distance, then you have to accept that flawed Hard Cycle data will dominate – because that’s all there is.  This is a live discussion at Highbury Grove.  It’s challenging, not just in terms of the principles but also in practice.  Do governors have time to really get in amongst the details? Certainly school leaders do but working governors can’t rely on attending meetings to understand the schools they govern.  Not any more.  And that’s a challenge.

Importantly,  accountability informed by Soft Cycle feedback isn’t actually soft.  In combination with the hard data it’s more rigorous and, hopefully, it is more accurate, more meaningful and more productive.  It’s just a bit messy and rough around the edges.  I think we can live with that.  Especially if we’re serious about measuring what we value.


How to Have Difficult Conversations

Like all professions, education is full of terrible leaders. There are lots of good ones out there, but a cursory glance at the odd teacher blog, or a tiptoe into the average staff room, would tell you that there are a lot of teachers who don’t really rate the people who lead them.


In the past, I have written about what I termed the ‘Bowling Ball’ approach to leadership. This particular leadership style is embodied by those leaders who take no responsibility for the failings of the school, but instead pass blame down the ranks towards the teachers, bashing them to smithereens on the way. This is not good for lots of reasons. Staff feel disempowered and less invested in the school; they lose confidence and are less likely to want to work hard; they sometimes become negative and complain. People need to feel like the people who lead them have got their backs. A metaphorical bowling ball to the face doesn’t really achieve that, funnily enough.


Of course, the nature of school life is such that, unfortunately, awkward conversations are unavoidable and inevitable. Even in the best schools with the best leaders, there will be times when difficult situations arise and need to be dealt with. Every time someone gets observation feedback, every time a conversation about progress has to happen, and every time something big has to change: every one of these instances, as well as countless others, have the potential to become awkward or difficult for staff.


This doesn’t mean we have to be arseholes about it. In fact, I reckon that if you get these conversations right, they can actually be a really positive thing and can help to build- rather than destroy- professional relationships and trust.


I see myself as somewhat of a veteran of the awkward conversation, having been on the receiving end of many, and more recently, leading some. Although I am fully aware of my lack of experience and expertise in this respect, I have picked up a few nuggets of wisdom that have helped me, and that I thought I would share here.


Pre-emption: Have Their Back.


God, I cannot emphasise this enough. The culture of the school must be such that teachers feel that middle and senior leaders care about their welfare and want to help them do a great job. It’s harder to achieve this than you might think, and I believe that, on the whole, it comes down to the individual interactions people have in the organisation, and how honest and open everyone is. If the Head is quite happy to listen to people and receive feedback, etc., and if senior and middle leaders follow suit, and do it with a smile, there will be more trust floating about the place, and people will be more likely to interpret any potentially ‘difficult’ situations more generously. For this to happen, you need a school lead by people who care about building trust. If you don’t have that, it will be harder to cultivate such a culture.


Having the Conversation.


Okay, so let’s imagine that your school has a lovely warm culture where everyone is pretty happy on the whole (hard, but not impossible to achieve). Then something happens that means a middle or senior leader has to have an awkward conversation with a member of staff. Here are my thoughts on how to go about having such a conversation without destroying trust and disempowering the poor person you are having it with.


  1. Expectation vs. Reality


You must go in to these conversations with a very, very clear understanding of what went wrong. What was the expectation, and what actually happened? For example, the expectation might be that the teacher marks their books twice a half term, and the reality is that they haven’t marked them for a whole term. Once you have established this gap in your mind, you must share it with the person involved. Gently help them to see this gap in expectation. Never refer to your own feelings about the situation: as when managing kids’ behaviour, try to separate the person from the action as much as possible. It should never be about blame or fault. You don’t want to say anything that might make the person feel guilty or like they have let you or the kids down. That will do nothing but destroy their self-esteem, and you are unlikely to get the result that you want that way.


Instead, be warm; couch the conversation in the language of support and working together. Refer to your own experiences and show that you are also a human and have fallen behind work in the past. Empathise. Appreciate that it may not be that easy to mark 200 books a fortnight when you are snowed under with planning, have 3 kids and a partner, are moving house and have God knows what else to think about. Don’t judge.


But clarity is still important. Remember their strengths, and think of the current issue as something to work on to make that person even better than they already are. They’ve failed to meet an expectation: that’s it. As their line manager, it is your job to support them to meet it next time.


  1. The Responsibility Spectrum


I don’t think many situations are ever the sole responsibility of one individual. As a leader, you must think carefully about where the responsibility lies, and use the incident as an opportunity to learn something new about managing people. What could you have done differently? Could you have supported them more? Could you have clarified or managed expectations differently? Are you asking or expecting too much of them?

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 14.03.46

I tend to think about this as a spectrum. At one end, the responsibility belongs 100% to the line manager or leader; at the other, it stays 100% with the member of staff involved. Think carefully about where the incident sits on that spectrum and explain that to them in the meeting. Perhaps you could have spoken to them about marking sooner to avoid it becoming an issue; perhaps you could have clarified the expectations surrounding marking; perhaps the marking policy is too onerous and needs to be readdressed. Have the humility to see that, on some level, you could have done something to reduce the severity of the issue.


Help your colleague see this. Be honest and open about what you could have done differently, and give them the opportunity to do the same. If they are particularly tricky customer and don’t reciprocate, clarify what you think they could have done differently.


  1. Have their back


The last part of the conversation needs to be about action and next steps. Make the next steps crystal clear, and outline exactly what you will do to improve the situation, and what you expect them to do. Again, this must be underpinned by a message of support and assistance, or they will feel like they are being told what to do and may not buy into it. Ask for their input: “Is there anything else I could do differently/better? I want to get better at x so that I can be more useful to you.” “Do you agree with what we’ve discussed today? I’m open to pushback.”… etc.


Overall, remember that it isn’t about egos or power or winning. Keep the big end goal in sight: that you all want the school to be brilliant so that you can do the best by the kids. You simply won’t reach that goal if it’s all about you, or if they don’t see you as someone who wants to work with them to improve things.


See the episode as a learning opportunity and a chance to invest in your colleague. There is always more we can do to build trust with others. Paradoxically, difficult conversations (done well) are one of the best opportunities we have for improving the relationships within an organisation.


Tabula Rasa

This much I know about…a good game of pool

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about a good game of pool.

Play me pool all night…
Stay Free, The Clash


Whiling away the hours. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many games of pool I’ve played in my life, but I imagine I have comfortably clocked up Gladwell’s 10,000 hours trying to pot the 8 ball. And I’m still rubbish.

Playing pool is a staple of a boy’s university life. When we were at York, my mate Pete and I would keep termly tallies. At 10p a game it was cheap entertainment and we played literally hundreds of games of pool a term. I love it now that my son Joe’s at the age when he will ask me to go for a game of pool of an evening.


A game of pool once cost me seeing the Clash live for free. Early evening on 9 May 1985 I was playing pool in Vanbrugh College common room when Graeme from my seminar group walked by. I’m off to see the Clash in St John’s College car park he said, matter-of-factly. I dismissed him as a fantasist and focused on the cue ball. I was still playing pool when he returned, full of how Strummer and Simonon played an acoustic version of White Riot. It is impossible to explain how I felt.

Youngsters can’t believe grey-haired middle-aged men know how to play pool. When I was Director of Sixth Form we had a pool table in the middle of the common room. I sidled out of my office once and casually asked one of the lads about the game, feigning complete ignorance. So, you pot the black first and then a spot, then a stripe… Amir kindly offered to give me a game so he could explain how it’s played. I’m not sure he’d even potted a ball before I’d cleared up.

This is possibly my favourite day of the year, bar none. Whilst Louise and Jane go to church, my mate Huw and I go with our five sons to the Dornie Hotel, overlooking Eilean Donan Castle, for lunch and play our own World Pool Championship. We drink beer, eat ham and cheese toasties and whack the cue ball round the table for a couple of hours. Even though Sky Sports don’t cover it, the World Pool Championship live from the Dornie Hotel is a fine event; last year Huw went down in sporting history when he managed an eight ball clearance from the break.



Is differentiation a zero-sum game?

Opportunity makes a thief.

Francis Bacon

A zero-sum game is one in which there is a winner and a loser; if you haven’t won, you’ve lost. The term derives from game theory and economics and describes a situation in which one person’s gain utility (the ability to satisfy his or wants) is exactly balanced by another’s loss of utility.

In The Uses of Pessimism, Scruton points out that much wrong-heading thinking and behaviour derives from what he calls the ‘zero-sum fallacy’ where all gains are paid for by the losers.

Society therefore is a zero-sum game, in which costs and benefits balance out, and in which the winners’ winnings cause the losers’ losses. (p.81)

This kind of dichotomous thinking was the basis for Marx’s theories of economics, but is a bit unfashionable now. Most economists would agree that it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Most transactions are mutually beneficial to some degree; although one participant might do better than the other, profit making is not necessarily rapacious. Scruton argues this is a potent cognitive trap whereby idealistic, utopian thinkers fail to acknowledge reality; it’s not there their schemes are unworkable, it’s that they’ve been thwarted by an enemy. He then goes on to argue that the move to replace grammar schools with comprehensive schools was because of a belief in this zero-sum fallacy:

But clearly a procedure that enables some pupils to succeed must cause others to fail: so the zero-sum fallacy maintains. Such a procedure generates a ‘two-tier’ education system, with the successful enjoying all the opportunities, and the failures left by the wayside to be ‘marked for life’. In other words, the success of some is paid for by the failure of others. And thus was born the movement for comprehensive education, together with the hostility to streaming and the downgrading of examinations, in order to prevent the state education system from producing and reproducing ‘inequalities’. (p.95)

Equality is easy to achieve, Scruton argues, all you have to do is put a lid of achievement and ensure no child gets ahead. This is the kind of silliness that results in a lot of the closing the gap narrative: if the gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged is too wide then a school is failing. This creates a perverse incentive; it’s easier to reduce some students’ performance than it is to increase others’, therefore the most effective way to narrow the gap is to limit the ‘winnings’ of those at the top end to ensure the losses incurred by Pupil Premium students are less severe.

Scruton’s point is this:

Zero-sum thinking, which sees the educational success of one child as paid for by the failure of another, forces education into a mould that is alien to it. The child who fails at Latin might succeed at music or metalwork; the one who fails to get to university might succeed as an army officer.

And to a degree he’s right – children have a diversity of ability and an education system which fails to acknowledge this diversity in one in which excellence cannot exist. But something seems not quite right with this picture. Here are some of the objections I have:

  1. It’s all very well for Scruton to equate metalwork with Latin, but that doesn’t really square with the perceptions of society; few middle-class parents are content for their children to fail academically but “find the skill, expertise or vocation that suits their abilities.” As long as our children ‘win’, what happens to ‘kids like these’ is by the by.
  2. If a grammar school has a limited number of places, one child’s success at the 11+ exam really does result another child with perhaps one less mark being unable to attend.
  3. Whilst grammar schools might have existed to offer to “children from poor families an opportunity to advance by talent and industry alone” but in practice, children from wealthier backgrounds are routinely coached and tutored to pass the 11+.  The less socially advantaged your family background, the less likely you are to get in.
  4. Comprehensive education does not have to lead, ipso facto, to dumbing down. Excellence is surely possible without a two-tier school system, isn’t it?

Obviously the 11+ is a very extreme form of differentiation, but as Scruton says, we’ve become equally hostile to the concept of streaming and setting too is increasingly under attack. I not certain about this by instinct tells me that any attempt to differentiate be ability leads, inexorably, to students being treated differently – how could it not? It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – those that are perceived as less able remain less able.

If we divide children into ‘more able’ and ‘less able’ then it follows that we will treat them differently. Alex Quigley posted this morning about teacher expectations and the pygmalion effect. Our beliefs about pupils have a tremendous impact on their progress and attainment. In 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobson ran a landmark experiment which demonstrated that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then their performance was indeed enhanced. Pupils were given a disguised IQ test at the beginning of the study. Teachers were told that some of their students (about 20% of the school chosen at random) would likely be ‘spurters’ that year, doing better than expected in comparison to their classmates. At the end of the study, all pupils were retested and showed statistically significant gains favouring the experimental group.

Making these kinds of distinctions and them acting on them really does seem a zero-sum game and one subject to the Matthew Effect – the more able get more able, the less able get, comparatively, less able because they just don’t access to same resources, opportunities and support. They’re treated differently. My favourite way of thinking about differentiation is that everyone should struggle no matter their ability. This doesn’t mean everyone should be treated the same, but it does suggest we shouldn’t make school easy for anyone.

This is not to say that any form of differentiation is bad – expert teachers should be encouraged to act of their professional instincts and treat their students as they think befits their personalities. Challenge students to do things they’re not currently able to do and then, perhaps, differentiate by support. But differentiation by ability is, I think, pernicious.

I’ve written before about both my concerns with differentiation and also some of the critique of the growth mindset trope – these to me seem almost like competing, opposing forces in education – on the one hand, children should be treated differently depending on their ability and on the other, everyone can improve if they have the right set of beliefs. I’m not sure of the truth of these statements, but I do know that no one rises to low expectations.

I’d be grateful for any views offered below – my thoughts aren’t settled on this and I’m more than willing to listen to reasoned and thoughtful counter-arguments.

The post Is differentiation a zero-sum game? appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Nurture 2014 /2015

It’s that time again when people on Twitter go mad for post Turkey dinner reflections. I have crammed my face full of After Eight chocolates, and, to cope with the sugar rush, I have sat at a computer and typed these words. I am hoping that my typing will not wake my aunty up.


This year….

1.       My daughters learnt to read fluently. This has been a real joy for me this year as I have played a big part in it. I have endured tonnes of ‘Biff and Chip’ books, but they now read with joy and aplomb. In fact, as I type this, they are reading all the Christmas cards on the wall. I just need to work on their handwriting now.

2.       The family. They are all healthy and they are my rock.  

3.       I still have a full head of hair – just. See the entry below.

4.       I have made it through one year as a HOD. I have survived. There have been ups and there have also been downs, but for the most of it I have enjoyed the experience. I won’t dwell on it too much as I am saving it all for my autobiographical novel ‘Carry on Head of Department’. It is still in draft form at the moment, but it does contain a lot of slapstick moments.

5.       Putting things into perspective. I think this year I have got better at taking one challenge at a time. Teaching is full of problems. In fact, one of the key descriptors of any teaching job should have ‘ must be good at solving problems’ at the top. This year, I think I have limited the phrase ‘We are all doomed’ to just a few times.

6.       I got published in three books this year. I suppose it is everyone’s dream to be published and I am no different. I’d to publicly thank Lisa, David and Alex for including me. It made me endlessly happy this year and provided colleagues lots of amusement. Chris, I need some INSET on Literacy! Me: ‘Shall I just pass the book around?’

7.       I talked a bit. This year I attended numerous teach meets and spoke at the brilliant TLT14 and the fantastic Pedagoo in London.  Finally, I spoke at a conference in London. All events were a fantastic experience and I am indebted to the people who offered me the opportunity to speak. At every event I was incredibly nervous. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be doing this sort of thing when I started teaching. I still have to pinch myself.

8.       I have blogged moderately. I think in previous years I had blogged too much so this year I have tried to balance things out. I blog for myself really. That’s why my entries are so diverse. However, this year I tried to reduce the amount I blog so I can relax more at the weekend.

9.       I have reduced the time I spend on Twitter. I haven’t fallen out with anybody. Nor, have I been insulted or blocked – I think. I found that I was spending too much time on things on Twitter and avoiding things like putting the rubbish out and brushing my hair. I now have brushed hair and the rubbish is outside.

10.    I said last year that I wanted to read lots of books about education. I failed big time on that dream. I read a lot of blogs and a lot of the ideas of said education books are filtered down to me that way. This year, instead, I read lots of books about writing. Crazy or what! My particular favourite is Roy Peter Clark. I have picked up one of his books and it contains about a hundred separate English lessons.

11.    People have been very nice to me.  I write in isolation; therefore, I don’t test the ideas out on my daughters, or my wife. So, it is very nice to have people come up to me at events and say nice things to me. It makes me want to keep blogging and talking about things.



This year, I want to…

1.       Crack the new GCSE specs. Still getting my head round them.

2.       Stop looking at emails. Teaching has become a twenty-four-seven thing. People can and will contact us at all times of the day. I long for the days when teachers would only be contacted during school hours. Now, I am being contacted all times of the day. This year: I am going to stop looking and responding to emails at 7pm. Any email after that then can wait for the next day.

3.       Get the ‘Slow Writing’ ebook finished and out there. It is slowly taking shape and I hope to share some news about it soon.

4.       Read some more non-fiction. I admit that I am a bit phobic when it comes to non-fiction texts. Give me a novel any day. Give me a non-fiction text and I will run a mile. I think this year I am going to start reading other types of text for pleasure. In the past, I have dipped into the odd autobiography, but this year I want to start reading other types, especially travel writing.

5.       Get through ‘Breaking Bad’. I have missed the boat on this one a long time ago. I have seen all of ‘The Killing’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and various ‘boxset shows’ TM. I feel it is time to get on the bandwagon for this one.  

6.        Get another English Teachmeet of the ground. I keep threatening it, but something always lands on my plate.

7.       Learn the art of delegation. I’ll get you to teach me that skill.

8.       Work on developing the culture of learning in students. Fight the endless war on apathy in students.  

9.       Clean the cupboard / draw I keep meaning to tidy.  

10.    Oh, and I want to stop chewing pens.

TThanks for reading and I wish you and your family a happy and prosperous New Year,



Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

This much I know about…the need to put humanity back into the centre of the ring

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about the need to put humanity back into the centre of the ring.

I’ve just despatched the copy editor’s draft of my forthcoming book to the publisher. In the end, it’s not the book I thought I was writing. I began thinking that I would write a book about why Headteachers should be truly great teachers but it’s morphed into a book about how to create the conditions for growing truly great teaching in our schools. It explores the passage of time and how I failed at the one thing I wanted to do most in life. And it’s also ended up being about my dad.

It’s amazing how little of our lives we remember. Whilst constructing the book, I discovered this long-forgotten piece I had written, some 16 years ago, about time, Joe my son, photography and my dad. It explores many of the themes which forced their way into my book.

A Chemical Trick Performed on Magic Paper


Life came full circle for me on the first Saturday in February, fourteen years to the day since my dad died. Back in 1985, when mother telephoned through our news, I was in York as an undergraduate; fourteen years on I was back in York, not as a newly orphaned son, but as a father.

I went to Betty’s tea shop with my two year old son Joe for breakfast. It was splendid. Joe scoffed a caramel slice whilst we coloured in the menu with the sugar cubes. As the sun streamed through the windows and Joe made the waitresses laugh, things seemed complete again.

I have few reminders of my dad: this photograph, his alarm clock, and, obliquely, Joe. And Joe beats the memorabilia hands down. Although dad is there in the photograph, it’s not him; it’s just a chemical trick performed on magic paper. Don’t get me wrong, I love photography; ultimately, however, life always trumps art despite the claims of many an artist to the contrary.

In this poem I tried to convey the disappointment of artistic representation. The sentiments of the last line are ironic; as one golden February morning in Betty’s attested, nothing comes close to life, the here and now.

Customer original

I’ve got the Customer original
A portrait, circa 1975,
Of dad dressed up all smart but casual
In dog-tooth Harris Tweed and kipper tie.
With eyebrows Healeyesque and flashbulbed eyes,
His shaven face looks freshly polished clean;
His smile’s all cheeks and jowls, and, no surprise,
The ’70s hair’s swept back with thick Brylcreem.

And once he’d died we all received a print.
I’ve not much else. Sometimes I feel bereft
When given too much time to sit and think.
A photograph? The godless ones are left
Behind with ink arranged on glossy paper;
The age old trick – Art defeating Nature.

6 February 1999

Instead of being called HEADteacher, my book’s entitled, Love over Fear. The title came from a recent conversation with Fiona Millar and Leo Winkley about school culture. It seems to me that too many of our state schools have become scared, soulless places. We need to reassert our courageous leadership-wisdom which emphasises love over fear and puts humanity back into the centre of the ring.


Creative Writing – The Journey

Here’s an example piece of writing for Year 11 students. I used this to prepare students for a piece of creative writing entitled ‘The Journey’. I have also used it for travel writing too.

Twisted lines of ice snake across the windscreen, covering all sight. I scrape the silver slivers off. The early darkness smothers everything in sight. On the edges of my vision, I see the vacant houses’ eyes closed with curtains. There’s some life behind the ornate flowery curtains. Probably, cartoons for children. Probably, breakfast news for adults. Any minute now life will burst through the doors. Except at this ungodly hour it is me, a plastic ice scraper and a bag of work.

The car starts quickly without coughing or spluttering. The heater kicks on and steams up the window. It is as if the car doesn’t want us to move. Ice and fire combat to prevent me from going to school. The screen clears in patches like clouds of clarity. There are glimpses of the world outside like sunlight breaking through the rainy clouds. The irony being that there is no sun and I am waiting for the darkness to be seen. When the steamed up window clears, I drive the car off.

Cars, bikes and lorries all join the conveyor belt to work. Each one driving on to their place of work. Office. Shop. School. Hospital. Radios blare out different tunes: the misery of life punctuated by catchy songs sung by people that were born out of misery. The conveyor belt pulls me forward. The lights of the massive machine of life flash red, amber and, only occasionally, green.  The sky starts to lighten as my mood improves. At least, I have a few frees today. At least, I don’t have a parents’ evening tonight. At least, I don’t have to teach Tom today. Every cloud has a silver lining. 

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

How can we increase a child’s vocabulary?

It goes without saying that words are powerful things. Words are the difference between understanding and confusion; they deepen and enrich how we express ourselves; they allow us to communicate and connect with others. Without words, we are trapped, imprisoned, constrained within the confines of our own minds. Words allow us to escape ourselves. Words give us the power to reach out to others and share and understand the experience of being alive. Having fewer words at your disposal limits what you can say.


It is upsetting, therefore, that studies have shown that children from language-impoverished families may only hear as few as 13 million words before the age of 4. This is in stark contrast to children from language-rich homes, who are more likely to have heard nearly 45 million words by the same age.


If we do nothing to address this gap, it will only increase as children get older.


Teachers may feel startled and disempowered by such stats. How can we fill a 32 million-word gap in the short time we have them in school? Fortunately, children have a natural propensity for learning language. If we give them the right conditions and teach the right things, therefore, we can make a significant difference to a child’s vocabulary, and consequently, their ability to communicate.


As ever, I don’t propose to have all the answers. Below, however, are some thoughts on where we might begin to tackle this seemingly insurmountable problem.


Step 1: Assessment


As with a lot of things, it is vital to know where pupils are at when they come to you. There are a number of different vocabulary tests out there, such as and These have different strengths and weaknesses, but are based on relatively robust methodologies.


We decided to create our own assessment using the tests in this book by researcher Hunter Diack. We took sample tests and turned the words into simple multiple-choice questions. For example:


What is the best synonym for ‘appreciation’?

  1. Desire
  2. Disaster
  3. Gratitude
  4. Relationship
  5. Alleviate


Diack’s research is complex, but in his book he argues that the number of correct answers (out of 60) multiplied by 600 will give you an approximate vocabulary figure. A pupil with a score of 15/60, therefore, would have an approximate vocabulary of 9000 words. Whether or not this is 100% accurate is by the by. What it does give is an indication of a pupils’ vocabulary. At age 11, the average child should have a score of about 9000-10,000 words on this test. A well-educated graduate should have around 30,000. The words on the test range from very simple ones like ‘beside’ and ‘appreciate’ all the way up to pretty tough ones like ‘bibulous’ and ‘cenacle’.


When we did these tests in September, the results correlated well with reading age scores. Pupils with reading ages of 13 years or more usually had a vocabulary of around 12,000-15,000 words. Pupils with reading ages of 8 years or below usually had a vocabulary of around 2000-3000 words. Again, these are startling statistics, and reveal just how much catching up some pupils have to do.


[Of course, EAL pupils will begin the year with very low vocabulary scores. Depending on how quickly they learn new things, they will usually progress at a much speedier rate than their native peers. It is very exciting to see this!]


Step 2: Which words?


In this article, Daisy Christodoulou outlines very clearly how we should choose which words to teach. In a nutshell, the words that will have the biggest impact on a child’s vocabulary are words that you see often in books, but hear rarely in speech. Words such as: derive, evoke, surreptitious, capricious, incredulous and eradicate all fall into this category. Focus on these sorts of words and pupils’ vocabularies will increase over time. This works because in order to learn new words, you need to know other words. The more of these words you are taught, the easier it is to learn other words. It’s a lovely, virtuous cycle. Combine a robust vocabulary strategy with high motivation and a school-wide reading culture, and your pupils will go far.


Step 3: Inflexible Knowledge


As cognitive science reveals, the brain tends to remember new information in concrete, inflexible forms that are difficult to apply to new situations and contexts. With this in mind, we begin by giving pupils an inflexible definition for a large number of new words, and encourage them to learn them by rote. Combining tradition and innovation, we utilise Quizlet and knowledge organisers to support pupils’ memorisation.


Another aspect of our strategy for helping pupils to learn these new words is to link them to the units of work we have been teaching. For example, when teaching new words for describing people, we used lots of words that featured in our abridgement of ‘The Odyssey’. We have found that this helps pupils to remember new words as they have a point of reference for using them. It may be narrow at first, but our experience has shown that this is less overwhelming than introducing them to a wide range of contexts in the first instance.


Step 4: Flexible Knowledge


Once pupils have begun to learn the meanings of these new words in an inflexible way, we can now start to teach them the meaning of words in different contexts so that they have a flexible understanding of them. I highly recommend reading ‘Bringing Words to Life’ by Beck, Mckeown and Kucan for an excellent description of the challenges of vocabulary instruction, and the best ways to go about addressing them. If time isn’t on your side, though, I’ve included a brief PowerPoint summarising the book at the end of this blog post.


In a nutshell, pupils need to see and hear words being used in a variety of contexts. When learning the word ‘incredulous’ for example, pupils need to see it used to describe lots of different situations. They also need to begin using the word in a range of contexts too. Again, Beck’s book provides a wealth of different activities that could be used to do this. I have included an example lesson at the end of this post to give you an idea of what this might look like in practice.

If this post sounds a bit technical, that’s because vocabulary acquisition isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. It is simply not enough to point at a few new words on a word wall or ask pupils to use a thesaurus. In order to chip away at that 32 million word gap, we need a robust, systematic strategy that focuses on teaching pupils the most useful words in the clearest way. This isn’t an easy task, but it is certainly not impossible.


A PowerPoint Summarising ‘Bringing Words to Life‘ by Beck, McKeown and Kucan.

An example lesson teaching the word ‘Incredulous‘.


Tabula Rasa

The day Winnie the Pooh became my hero

I have just returned from a week at Disneyland Paris. A bizarre place of adults dressed in Goofy hats and employees always being happy. Oh, and there are endless queues. Queues that never end. A bit like Alton Towers, but with bigger and longer queues.

One of the things I am impressed with Disney is its attitude towards disability. One of my daughters has Cerebral Palsy. Something, I am quite open and honest about. She is diplegic, so her legs don’t function as do yours or mine. In fact, she can only walk for short periods of time and even then those short bursts of walking are fraught with danger and much destruction as she can’t walk in a straight line. Anyway, Disney helped her by having special access for each ride and allowing her to wait less than others. They even had a dedicated space for her and other disabled children to watch the parades. I cannot fault their attitude. They understood her needs and they helped.

So where is Winnie the Pooh in all of this? Well, one day there was a special parade for Mickey and friends. They drove around in a circle, waving to everyone. My wife, daughters, wheelchair and I waited to see this happen. As usual, the general scrum descended. We made our way to the two metres of a hundred metres strip dedicated to disabled children and waited our turn. A row of characters pranced around before us and talked with the able children and they signed their autograph books and took pictures. We waited and then towards the end some of the characters made it to the allotted space where we were stood.

Princess Jasmine arrived and signed my daughters’s autograph books. Then, Winnie the Pooh appeared on the scene. He was dancing along to the music blaring out of the speakers. He was two metres away signing autographs for children. They were loving it. He was too. We were right at the end of the section allocated for disabled children. A rope separated the two groups of people. One child, pushed on by his mother, was trying to get Winnie’s (I’ll shorten his name for ease) attention. He was pushing and shoving and elbowing his way. Behind him was his mother egging him on. The mother was helping him get under the rope and his was edging his way across to the disabled side near my daughter in her wheelchair. Thrust at the front of him was his autograph book and behind him his mother. We, as family, ignored what was happening. Winnie didn’t. He interacted with everyone apart from the pushing boy.

The boy started to push his autograph into my daughter’s face, covering her from sight. The boy’s mother watching and not doing anything about it; her inaction a sign of her acceptance of this behaviour. My daughter, being her usual self, didn’t mention a thing. More shoving and pushing ensued.  Had my daughter not been in a robust wheelchair, she would clearly have been pushed aside or on to the floor by this action. Everything that my daughter did, the boy pushed himself before her.

Winnie the Pooh then stopped. He made a clear point. He told the boy to go back to the space allocated to abled bodied children – all ninety-eight metres of it. Then, gently Winnie held the boy’s hand, which had been shoved into my daughter’s general area, and pushed him away and said no. Winnie then kneeled down to her level and cuddled her.

This all happened in a short space of time. So, quickly, my wife and I had little time to react or say something, but the whole experience had a bit of a profound experience on me. I am not angry with the boy, or even the mother, but proud and impressed with what one man in a furry suit did. There in that suit was a fantastic human being. I don’t know how much he or she is paid, but I’d like to thank them personally. Someone that dealt with a small injustice in such a brilliant way.

So what is the relevance of this to my teaching? Don’t worry: I haven’t decided to share my holiday memories and photographs. No, I felt this episode reflects what happens daily in the classroom. We all have needs. We all need support. We can all be a little bit selfish. We can all put our needs above others. I am not angry with the parent in this episode; she was focused on her needs so much she didn’t consider the needs of others. I don’t think the mother purposefully lets down the wheels on wheelchairs so that her child can be better than others. I genuinely think she and the boy did not consider how people around them have needs that are different to their own needs.

We, teachers, have to deal with thirty individuals with thirty different sets of needs. Everybody wants the best. Everybody will push and shove to get the best. Everybody needs support. However, it is the balancing act of these needs that is something that we need to be aware of. With too much support a student becomes too dependent that they cannot work on their own. With too little support a student lacks confidence and therefore will struggle to work. Our job is to be the Winnie the Pooh in the classroom. Allocating those that need support and those that don’t. We are the guides in the learning.

My daughter will pretend she can’t do things to get extra support from people, when she is more than capable of doing something. She knows how to play on her needs. That’s why dealing with SEN in the classroom is such a difficult thing. These are children and they don’t always know how to deal with things. Therefore, they opt for default approaches either ‘play weak and feeble’ or ‘push and shove’. That’s why I think it also important that we push SEN students. It is too easy to wrap SEN children in ‘cotton wool’, because they have something diagnosed or written in a folder somewhere. It is the sympathy factor. I see it all too often with my daughter. She is underestimated because she has the label of Cerebral Palsy. In fact, I would go to say, in a way, she needs pushing twice as hard as an able bodied student as life is twice as hard for her. All the sympathy in the world will not do her the world of good if she doesn’t do things for herself.  That’s why I think we need to work harder to make them more independent, because there will be a time when they will have grown out of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and there will not be a Winnie to help them.

Winnie reminded me it isn’t sympathy that children with disabilities need; it is an understanding of how they function and interact with the world around them. It is an understanding when they need help and when they can do it themselves.

Thanks for reading,



P.S. If you ever see Winnie the Pooh, thank him for me.

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Back to school

In December 2013 I left the classroom for a life of swashbuckling and adventure. There were as many push factors as there were pull and I was very nervous about whether I’d be able to make a living – after all, I’m just a teacher with a big gob. I needn’t have worried. It’s been the most marvellous adventure. I’ve been able to travel the length and breadth of the country (and even get in a few visits overseas) visiting schools, talking to teachers and casting my pearls of wisdom before all comers.

I’ve also had the luxury of time to read and think and write. The fruits of all this time will be available for you to read in June.

Every now and then someone asks, But don’t you miss teaching? Don’t you miss the kids? Well, yes and no. I’m usually asked these questions after if they’re two sides of the same coin, but I really don’t think they are. I miss working with children, but I don’t really miss teaching them. Or rather I should say, I don’t miss everything contained in the reality of being a teacher. I don’t miss marking. I don’t miss report writing. I don’t miss sacrificing every evening and most weekends on the altar of teaching. And I certainly don’t miss being treated as a technician whose job it is to implement directives from on high. I love the freedom, the unpredictability and the variety of what I do now. But, yes, I do miss the kids. And I miss the challenge of making good ideas fit with the often surprising reality of the classroom.

So I’m proud and excited to announce that from September, for two days a week, I’ll be back in school. Swindon Academy have offered me an amazing opportunity to work with them over the coming year to support their young, enthusiastic and wonderfully talented English department, and to continue the hard work of embedding literacy across the curriculum. And on that note, we’re looking for an assistant English curriculum leader to join the team. If you fancy working in a school which is trying to shape its curriculum and structures to fit with the way children really learn (rather than how we wish they did) then this could be the job for you. Add to that the fact that Principal Ruth Robinson has the dubious privilege of being the only headteacher irascible edublogger Old Andrew has ever worked for and respected.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 11.36.19

See here for details of the job and here to have a look at Vice Principal, Nick Wells’ blog for a taste of the work we’re doing at Swindon Academy.

As far as I’m concerned, this really is having your cake and eating it. I looking forward to sharing what we come up with.

The post Back to school 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)