Improving the basics: Inspired by Austin

Here’s a very short post to report on some fabulous work my Year 8s did this week.   I marked their first few pieces of work and then devoted a double lesson this week to redrafting: a slice of Directed Improvement and Reflection Time.

We started the lesson by watching the Ron Berger Austin’s Butterfly video:

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

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

The students immediately got the message: the boy who made the first and final drafts was the same boy.  He just needed to know what the standards were and how to reach them.

Then I gave out their books and asked them to redraft as much of their work as they could in the time focusing on two main themes:

Presentation: pencil and ruler, underlining, diagrams, handwriting.

Science content:  adding explanations, correct use of terminology, adding ideas about forces between molecules.

The examples that stood out the most were from two boys who I thought had serious difficulties with writing.  Turns out, they just needed to aim a bit higher.  Through the redrafting process and the praise they received for their improvements, their attitudes shifted significantly; their self-believe grew and they left the lessons beaming.  I didn’t expect quite such a big effect.  Here’s a sample of what they did:


Student 1.

This student engaged in a fantastic discussion with me about molecules and forces. He came up with this idea (illustrated with his fingers) about molecules in ice being like balls with sticks giving the solid structure. Still plenty of room to improve but even he couldn’t believe he could do work like this.


Student 2

This student responded superbly.  Once he realised that excellence was in his grasp, he just made a decision to produce something really good – instead of the slap-dash effort he’d defaulted to first time around. That applied to his presentation and his thinking.

I’ll be doing this again.


Marking wars

There’s a battle inside every English teacher. It’s not a fight between Austen and Bronte. It’s not a war between Dickens and Poe. It is instead a marking battle. The battle between accuracy and creativity.

When I mark, it is often with the focus of accuracy and technical improvement. I will circle a mistake and make a student identify what the mistake is, with the hope they learn from this and never do it again. My mind is always set on accuracy. Targets will be driven by errors and I might spot spelling, punctuation or grammar mistakes. However, my marking doesn’t focus on creativity. I am chained to accuracy and I never seem to escape it. The beast is far stronger than creativity. If I am honest, it is only with creative writing does my marking address the creative aspect. I then might say: I like how you have developed the character and how you end the story. The rest of the time the marking focuses on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

This week I did something different. For a few years, I have discussed and blogged about how we neglect the effect of writing in lessons. An insistence on the purpose of writing has led to some dire writing and some boring efforts in class. I have explored in Sexy Sprouts how students should be taught to change the effect of their writing and for me this has really helped my students. This week I thought about this writing for effect in more detail and applied it to my marking. What if the drive behind my marking was focusing on the effect? What if I solely focused on the effect and left the accuracy alone?

As a result of this thought, I asked a group of students to describe a setting for a ghost story. After teaching students the difference between ghost and horror stories (which amounts to one going Ahhhh! and the other going Oh!), the students set off to write their settings.

Enter the red pen from stage right.  

I marked the work with a very different approach. Instead of the boring ‘two wishes and a star’ approach, I simply put the word atmosphere and a number out of ten next to it. The effort was ‘draining’. Most students scored a two or a three out of ten. Then, I got them to revise their setting without any direct teaching. They got underway with the task. Next, I got the students to assess each other’s work. Again, they only marked it out of ten for atmosphere. Finally, the students wrote a third version. At no point did I actually teach the children how to produce an effective setting during this process. I even refrained from providing them with good examples. I only said to them to avoid the most obvious words.

The result: brilliant examples of progress for very little work and marking on my part.

The difference between version one and three was startling. Students had produced clichéd settings in the first version and by the time they got to version three I was reading atmospheric and detailed, original writing.  My only advice / marking was a word and a number. Prior to this experiment, I have listed to students what would make their writing better. And, they have typically selected to follow or ignore my advice.

I think this approach was more successful than others, for me, was due to the way students were writing and I was responding. There was sense of cohesive focus rather than a disjointed list of features to include. All too often improving writing concentrates on adding things. This approach focused on developing and linking things together. Students were improving the whole text and not tiny aspects. Does this mean that a lot of my marking focuses on the small tiny aspects? Yes, I do. After all, God is in the detail. However, maybe this approach is something that needs weaving into the way I teach. Of course, I can’t possibly do it all the time, but maybe I could do it occasionally.

Along with this approach maybe I have to adapt the language I use in task setting. Persuade. Advise. Review. Comment. This terms used to describe types of writing are so plain and we are expecting students to come up with creative ideas based on these vague, beige types of writing. Perhaps, I should be asking students to make a letter about the dangers of smoking that makes me laugh. Or, they should write a description of a beach that makes me worry.

When you look at the mark schemes for the exams, the writing always refers to technical accuracy and the effect. Yet, we tend to focus on one and neglect the other. I will rarely say that a piece of non-fiction needs a funnier start.

Now don’t get me wrong: I value accuracy but I tend to think that our overriding focus on it has slightly overshadowed some elements of creativity.

There’s a battle in my head, but this time creativity won and surprisingly accuracy was injured.

Atmosphere: 2  

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

What I learned in my visit to King Solomon Academy Part 2 – The Lemov lecture

When I reported my observations about King Solomon Academy, a number of commentators pointed out the similarities to some of the Charter Schools in the US. Any similarity is the Charter model, particularly the KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Programme) share many of the same aims, values and structures as KSA. Although I’ve never visited one of these schools I was aware of the influence they’ve had on a number of English Free Schools and Academies.

How synchronous then Doug Lemov, managing director of the Uncommon Schools network in New York state and author of the highly influential, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College was also at KSA to deliver the inaugural Policy Exchange education lecture. Loved and reviled in roughly equal parts, Doug has done his level best to find a way to replicate what the very best teachers seem to do. Whatever your ideological bent and however misguided an attempt you might believe this to be, there’s little doubt that he’s an impassioned advocate for teachers and is tireless in his belief we can all be a little bit better.

The audience was packed with Twitter cognoscenti all eager to hear Doug’s words of wisdom, but before that we heard from Brett Wigdortz, CEO of Teach First. He told an interesting story of his time at management consultants McKinsey some years ago – for reasons about which I’m unclear they decided to involve themselves in education in the UK and Brett apparently asked a flunky to find him an example of a school in London with a socially disadvantaged intake whose results were comparable to a school with a privileged intake. They were unable to find one. The prevailing attitude at the time was that one couldn’t expect academic success from “kids like these” and that the best that could be hoped for was to keep them off the streets and out of prison! He pointed out that we don’t know what’s possible until we do it. This anchoring belief that poor, working class children are incapable of success still exists but is fast becoming an antiquated and shameful relic of our misbegotten past.

Where are all the superheroes?

This neatly segued into Doug’s presentation. He told the story of Zenaida Tan, a remarkable teacher in Los Angeles who, when the LA Times decided to print a league table of individual teacher’s test scores came top. And apparently had been consistently top for many years. But despite her remarkable success, she had never been recognised or rewarded in any way. Her principal’s main concern was that she’d been late taking her class register twice that year. A system that fails to recognise the achievements of its top performing teachers, only a single class of pupils can benefit. The tendency to view our classrooms as a mysterious black box into which it’s impossible to peer is a system failure. But in a system which seeks out and attempts to replicate great practice thousands more pupils might be able to benefit.

Some problems teachers have to face are exotic – they’re so rare as to be valueless in terms of sharing experiences – it’s no one’s fault that I was never trained how to deal a pupil who believed (seriously) he possessed a tail and need therefore to sit on a special cushion. But most problems teachers face are endemic and totally predictable. We know every teacher will be confronted by pupils deciding to be disrespectful or refusing to participate, but do we adequately prepare teachers for these eventualities? And, in light of Doug’s difficulties in getting video clips to play, the absolute certainty anything technological that can go wrong, will go wrong – especially when you’re being observed!

The state of teacher education in the US (and very probably the UK as well) emphasises theoretical solutions to practical problems; schools of education won’t “stoop” to teach teachers how to instil routines. Telling teachers to be nicer or plan their lessons better as a behaviour management strategy is just pernicious nonsense. As a result Doug reckons great teaching is, by and large, accidental – it’s largely a matter of the right person being in the right place at the right time, and as such is pretty much left to chance. But if the system is to improve we cannot afford this to continue. Everyone needs to be a little bit better at everything because, “the inverse correlation between wealth and attainment is immoral.”

So Doug’s solution was to look for the schools that defied that correlation, to actively search for the Zenaida Tan’s and learn from them. He suggested that there is no ‘gap’ in attainment that some teacher somewhere hasn’t closed and we need to be figuring out how they do it because replication is the key to system improvement. We should be much more concerned about the fates of our best teachers instead of constantly wringing our hands about the worst. Borrowing from the Heath brothers, he spoke about the need to grow bright spots and ask what happens to our most successful teachers? Because if we just leave them in their classrooms we only benefit 30 rather than a potential 30,000 children.

Some of the questions asked shed light on what I’d seen earlier at KSA. One of the most pressing had been rattling around in my brain: What about the accusation that these types of school turn out robots who only know how to follow routines? Doug suggested that just because we can get children to comply, doesn’t mean we must; the fact that clear routines are established means that no one has to think about how to answer questions, where to sit or how to hand out books. Independence relies on routines and structure breeds freedom. This sounds about right to me. The institutional philosophy at KSA is clear: we instil routines in Years 7-9, start to relax them in Year 10-11 and systematical dismantle in 6th Form so that as undergraduates (or whatever else pupils go on to do) there are effective habits of mind built up but an understanding and experience of how to cope without direction.

For me, one of the most interesting things Doug said about his work is that the only thing he knows  for sure about what he’s written is that at least some of it is wrong. This is exactly the sort of humility we should all seek to emulate, but the most interesting consideration is, if we know we’re almost certainly wrong about something, what is our error checking system?

Anyway – what KSA and many of the US Charter schools do is great. The most pressing question for policy makers and school leaders is about whether we could or should try to scale what they’re doing. We all want KSA’s results but are we a bit squeamish about their methods? How far are we prepared to let prejudice, bias and ideology get in the way of children’s life chances?

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David Didau: The Learning Spy

Forget about assessing learning after lessons

Today I not only have my first ever article published by the TES, it’s made the front page!

Those of you familiar with my output will recognise the arguments and be familiar with the thinking that’s led to these conclusions. But for anyone new to the blog, a little background wouldn’t go amiss.

The first and perhaps most important brick in the teetering edifice I’ve been constructing over the past couple of years is the idea that learning and performance are not the same thing. Maybe this sounds obvious, but it rocked my world to its rotten foundations. Read this post if you want to find out more.

Then, I started trying to get my head around the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ and Robert Bjork’s work on memory, learning and forgetting. Again, maybe this all sounds a bit trite now but when I first encountered the ideas they took my breath away. This is the first post I wrote on the subject.

And so, with no further ado, here’s my TES piece: Classroom practice – Forget about assessing learning after lessons.

Naturally it’s undergone the brutal process of sub-editing, but it still retains a solid kernel of what I think. And if you’re interested in Dylan Wiliam’s response, he very kindly went to the trouble of commenting on my blog here.

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David Didau: The Learning Spy

This much I know about…the challenge of target setting in schools

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 challenge of target setting in schools.

These are testing times. Amidst the chaos of life without National Curriculum levels, 5 A*-C GCSE grades with English & mathematics, Average Total Points Score, Average Capped Total Points Score (best 8), the Ebacc percentage, First Entry, Best Entry, Attainment 8, Performance 8, new Post 16 Accountability Measures, ALPS, average UCAS points, (the other A level points score thing I’ve never got my head around), class-by-class residuals, Performance Related Pay,  etc., etc. I thought it best to turn to Stuart Simmonds, Headteacher at King Edward VII Comprehensive School in Ashford, Kent, for some wisdom…


Do we know what we’re talking about when it comes to assessment? At #TLT14 I’ll be talking about Assessment without NC levels in a Growth Mindset school. How does a school wholly committed to developing a Carol Dweck-inspired Growth Mindset culture shape a new assessment policy? I’ll be exploring the complexities of the language of assessment & effort and asking (rather than answering) the question, How can we be sure we all know what we’re talking about?

Target Setting with Stuart Simmonds


Challengers and Champions. Are we ready to listen?

The role of a challenger?

The role of a challenger?


Following all the discussions at the ResearchEd conference last weekend, I’ve been thinking about the balance we need to strike when presented with new ideas or when we’re presenting them ourselves.  We need to be open to the possibility that a strategy might be a good one whilst remaining confident that, as professionals, we’ll be able to discuss the evidence and challenge the idea if necessary.

As I describe in my talk and blog about barriers to effective CPD, the two ends of the spectrum are equally problematic. The hyper-puppy evangelists often put up defenses that are difficult to deal with.  They can take it personally if you burst their bubble of wild enthusiasm with any suggestion that you’re not entirely on-board.  Similarly the jaded eye-rollers of doom can kill the spirit of any number of exploratory initiatives before they’ve had a chance to have any impact.   Somewhere in the middle lies the territory of intelligent, professional discourse.

Champions are important because, without them, we’d be stuck with the status quo for all time.  At some point, someone has to have the courage to take a lead and suggest a new plan of action.  The truth is that, for all the research evidence and theory that we have amassed in any given area, there remains uncertainty about the efficacy of almost any strategy.  People still need to be persuaded that something is worth trying – especially if they have long-held beliefs and practices that are being challenged.   Not only do you need champions to get ideas off the ground, you need them to keep things going for long enough for them to have a chance of working.  It’s all too easy for the doom-mongers to claim victory at the first sign of trouble – when, actually, it may just require some collective perseverance to effect the change needed.

I’ve seen this apply to all kinds of ideas:  approaches to pedagogy or assessment, the profile of issues such as global awareness or health in the curriculum, a whole-school behaviour strategy, adopting a new structure of setting within a subject department… and the list could go on and on.   The more radical the idea and the greater the number of people involved, the stronger the Champion needs to be to overcome the inertia.

However, as well as Champions, we need Challengers.   It depends on the school culture but I’ve known of various situations where teachers and leaders have found it very difficult to challenge ideas. There can be a weird taboo about publicly challenging an idea.  To some extent this is about hierarchies but it is often simply a matter of social awkwardness.   I’ve been at TeachMeets and conferences where someone has said something that I thought was absolute nonsense – dangerously so – but the situation didn’t allow for challenge.  In fact, everyone is usually too busy saying ‘well done’ and giving them a big clap for anyone to dare to say a doubting word.  It seems almost rude.

One of these was a senior leader who went around his school giving out slips praising staff when they were seen using a high effect-size strategy from Hattie’s Visible Learning.  ‘Well done James. You were using Reciprocal Teaching. This has an effect size of 0.67 which makes it an effective strategy….’ . Bonkers. and So Very Wrong!  I was desperate to stand up to offer a challenge but I baulked at the idea of causing a scene and embarrassing the presenter.   When he also said that teaching and learning in his school was 84.62% Good or Better, I nearly had a heart-attack suppressing my itch to challenge.  A friend of mine recently endured a whole-staff presentation by her Assistant Head responsible for teaching and learning who trotted out Daisy C’s Myth 4:  Kids don’t need to know things, they can just google it.  She could barely believe it was happening. There was wide-spread cringing around the room – but no-one stood up to say ‘Er…you do realise that’s total rubbish‘ – or something more polite.

So – my feeling is that we need to do better to create spaces for Challengers to inhabit.  Let’s bring Challenging out of Cynics’ Corner – the murky recesses of the staffroom with the wing-backed chairs.  Let’s give Challengers a role alongside Champions so that we can have proper debates without people’s feelings getting hurt.   It should be normal at a staff meeting or a TeachMeet for someone to offer a bit of challenge.  What’s the evidence? Has any research been done on that? How many other people have found the same results? What examples of student work have you got? Is this just  your hunch, a bit of confirmation bias or do you have something more concrete to base your enthusiasm on?  Wouldn’t it be better to have a discussion like that after any presentation – in a staff meeting, around the SLT table or at a conference – rather than allowing weak or bad ideas to gain traction?  If that became normal, presenters would anticipate the challenge and think more deeply about what they were saying.  Also, if the challenging is all done face-to-face, it allows for an exchange of views within the usual parameters of respect and courtesy.

Perhaps, better still, it should become a routine part of the process of Championing ideas in the first place.  In conversation with Prof Coe at ResearchEd, he suggested that there’s evidence that people with higher IQs are more likely to be persuaded by an idea if they are presented with all the counter-arguments alongside the sales pitch.  That makes sense to me.  Perhaps the lesson there is to build the Challenger role into the thinking of Champions.  Don’t go for the hard-sell; present a balanced case with all the counter arguments.  Give room to the Challengers to voice their reservations.  It may prevent you from making a horrible mistake or it may have the effect of persuading more people that your idea is worth a try.

This kind of thinking is particularly important when you are asking everyone to do the same thing.  As I’ve argued in my post describing Plantation Thinking, it is all too common for a ‘good idea’ to be elevated to the status of an absolute rule for everyone.  Why is it necessary for everyone to do the same thing? I”ve heard strategy X is great; so we’re all doing strategy X. I’d say you need a very good reason with plenty of evidence before you go down that road.  Your inner-challenger should be screaming at you:  Why? On what evidence? – before you go out to champion a universal law.  Far better to suggest: I”ve heard strategy X is great; I’d be interested to find out if it works in our context. Who is interested in engaging with a process to explore the possibilities’?.  






A letter to an English teacher on results day

One of my most popular posts on the blog has been my letter to an NOT. It is here, if you haven’t read it yet. Given the current state of play with the English exams, I felt it necessary to blog about it as we await the forthcoming results.

Dear English teacher,

At the moment, I can’t predict how the exam results will go for my class, my department, my school, my county or even the rest of the country. I can guess, I know that, but it isn’t a secure guess. Some people have given me the look of doom, usually associated with someone awaiting an execution. Other people have given me a positive ‘thumbs up’. Yet, still I don’t know what the outcome will be. Positive. Negative. In the middle. All I know is that some action will take place based on the results.

Never before in my umpteen years of teaching have I faced such uncertainty or such doubt. Even Twitter is torn. I have seen tweets predicting low grade boundaries, whilst other tweets have highlighted the letter from OFQUAL, suggesting wide variations nationwide. Some people predict a positive outcome because of the General Election next year. Other people predict that Gove’s raising the bar will mean that we are in for another frugal year of high grades.

Whatever will happen, there will be something that always occurs: the personalisation of the results. We, as teachers, will always see that the results are a direct result of our work and our ability to teach. We can’t help but see the results as our own child – our responsibility, our lifeblood. The sad thing is that some teachers will see the results of affirmation that they are the best teacher in the world. For others they will see the results as confirmation that they are the worst teacher in the world. The sad thing is that education isn’t so clear cut. The teacher facilitates the learning, but there are other factors that inhibit success that suddenly are forgotten about when results day arrives and we ponder and procrastinate on what has happened.

Three years ago it was me when there was the furore over the grading boundaries changing. I had a set that was predominately C/D grade students. A slight change in the grade boundaries and a class like that suffers incredibly. For the last two years, I have seen what it has done to a teacher’s confidence and their faith in the system with other colleagues in different schools. Therefore, I think it is handy to remember the following points:

[1] The GCSEs and A-levels represent the teaching over the years and not just the last two years

I have seen people get endlessly stressed before the exams over not fitting everything in to the course. There is a ‘do or die’ fear over teaching. What we have sadly forgotten is that GCSE results reflect teaching over time. The teaching they had in Year 7 is just as vital as the teaching they had in Year 11. In fact, in some cases, I think the teaching in Year 7 is more important than the teaching in Year 11.

From an English point of view, if they were taught something well in Year 7, then I am only revising it in Years 10 and 11, and securing that knowledge. Year 10 and Year 11 is not a blank slate. Students come to us knowing some stuff and having some skills already for they step through the door. Think about the journey they have been on to get to the exam. Has it been a consistent, focused journey? Or, has it been a journey with many odd bits to it? Or, has it been two years of damage control?

The GCSE result reflects on 5 different teachers and the primary teachers too. Not one sole teacher that picked them up after Christmas because a teacher went on maternity leave.

[2]  There are far more things in the world than are dreamt of in your philosophy!

This links in to the previous point, but it is one that needs commenting on. What is the overview for the teaching of the subject? I have witnessed many different models in many different schools of teaching English. Some have been effective. Some sadly have not be as effective as others. The problem is, and I mean this to not be patronising, the overview. There is much more to the teaching of English than a classroom teacher might see. What is the direction that students go on? Is there a clear direction?

Has the teaching prior to the GCSE exams been focused on ticking boxes? Or has the teaching be focused on developing and refining skills? The transition from one year group to another is so important. The differentiation between year groups is vital. Get this wrong and you could be repeating things for the sake of things. Classroom teachers might see bits of this, but is the Head of Department that should have this overview. I recall one HOD stating (correctly in my opinion) that the novel should have a different focus for each year – character / setting / theme.  The overview is important.    
 [3] They are TEENAGERS!

Teachers are expected, at times, to work miracles. Teenagers don’t always do what you tell them to do – FACT! We are expected to help them to secure a high grade, yet they will not include quotes in every answer. I have said that until I am blue in the face this year. The one time the student listened; they did really well. Yet, times that by thirty and you are doing quite a lot of nagging over the simplest of things.

And, a lot of parents struggle to get teenagers to tidy their room, so is it any wonder that we struggle, as teachers, to get them to read the question carefully before answering it. Reading a question carefully is a doodle compared to tidying their bedroom. Still they don’t do it.

[4] They are TEENAGERS who think they know best

The joy of being a teenager – Oh I remember the days – is that you feel invincible and strong. You also feel that you know best. Everything is in the present. The future is something only adults think about   - note: that doesn’t apply to everyone. The number of teenagers that leave revision or preparation for the final exams to the week before an exam is monumental. Why? Because, everything is about the here and now.

One of the funniest things (or saddest things) I heard a student say was:

‘I am not going to revise ‘cos I’ll see what result I get in the mock exam. That will tell me how much work I’ve got to do’.

Of course, there is some logic in there. Whereas, most of us are cautious and try to do our best and prepare and play the ‘long-game’, the average teenager will prioritise in terms of time. The number of students I have seen dramatically improve their effort because the exam is a month away! By then, it is often too late.
[5] We are teaching human beings

Predicted grades are hilarious. They are based on probability a student achieved a level in KS2 is likely to produce this grade. One school I worked in decided to go for aspirational grades, which basically meant everyone was down for getting an A. Interestingly, they didn’t all get A grades.

A prediction for a student is generally based on a student working consistently well or consistently improving over the years. There’s something big and fat that gets in the way of this: Life! What predicted grades do not consider is that life changes things for people. The things in an average teenager’s life can affect how they work. Something bad happens at home and this has a direct impact on learning. This doesn’t really equate to predicted grades. Maybe we need to have predicted grades based on different scenarios: predicted grades based on a divorce in the family; predicted grades based on parents being made redundant; predicted grades based on everything in their lives being hunky dory.

The majority might get their target grades, but there is a hefty number that will not get their predicted grades and that is through no fault of our own as teachers. Unless it is your own child. We never know what is going on in a child’s life and it does have serious repercussions for teaching and learning.
[6] Life can be pants

Thanks to the death of the modular system this thing will occur more often. A student could work really hard and do really well all year and then when it gets to the final exam they fail – and they fail badly. It happens. They might have misread the question. They may have missed a question.

Life does that. You prepare for everything and then something goes wrong. Sadly, this doesn’t always factor in with discussions in schools, but students can have a bad day.
[7] English is more than the subject you teach in the lessons

The growing concern I have is that English has been made, thanks to APP and other aspects, to be a clear, neat subject. In fact, it is a messy and complex blob of great stuff. The things we teach in lessons only touch the surface of what students need to succeed or become great in the subject.

I always say to students that they need to read and write at home on a regular basis to become better writers. Yet, how many do that? The A* students generally will do that and… ummm that is usually what makes them an A* student.

Students often see the subject as the cramming of knowledge. The mad panic to remember silly acronyms or names of key themes in a text are always the things student panic about close to the exam. What they rarely do is think, and ponder things. Instead, it is cram, cram and cram knowledge. That knowledge is good, but it is what you do with that makes it so important. Did the student think outside your lesson?

I teach English, but I get students to think.

[8] The demands of other subjects

I love all the subjects that are taught in schools – yes, I am buttering things up. But, students prioritise subjects. Their revision timetable can be governed by their future options, but it is often governed instead by the subjects they favour, or they perceive as an easy win. English, sadly, for some lads can be neglected, because they see it as a done deal. They can read. They can write. So, what have they got to learn or revise?  

[9] The position of English in the school

Let’s be honest about things. English can and does get a rough deal in schools. I was sat at a meeting and we all agreed that usually Year 11 or Year 10 English lessons often occur last thing in day. It was unanimous that this happened in several schools. The thing I would raise is what is the school doing to raise the importance of Maths, English and Science. The Core subjects are the ones that reflect most in a school’s performance. So, what is the school doing to support this? Too many times things are directed to lessons and to teachers, but there needs to be a whole school culture towards these subject areas.

Do well in English and you are more likely to do well in other subject areas.

[10] The drive of the students

English matters to schools as it could affect Ofsted’s decision to come in and harass a school, but what does English matter to a particular student?

What does it matter to the student that has been offered a place in college without a grade C in English?

What does it matter to the student that will work for his uncle’s firm when he leaves school?

What does it matter to the student that know he will redo GCSE English in college next year as it is offered as part of the incentive to join the course?  

What does it matter to the student whose parents will be happy with whatever they get as long as they behave?
In our hearts, we want the student to fulfil their potential, but that can fall on deaf ears if the student isn’t driven. Consequences and action form part of this drive. No drive and we are struggling.

[11] The Exam System

I have more faith in the existence aliens on other planets than the current, and future, exam systems. I have had to tell students half-way through the course the weighting of an exam had increased by 20%. Every school that teaches AQA will be in the same boat. Just when we are getting our head around the new regime, we are dealt this blow. As with most things in the exam system, you look at the past and try to build on what has happened before. This year we don’t have a Scooby Doo what the grading criteria will look like, as there never has been a weighting like this. Yes, we can predict and we can guess.

This year we can’t securely say what students might achieve, because we don’t know because things were changed half-way through the GCSE course.

If students did everything you asked them to, then I’d be happy about performance related pay. But, they don’t. They are individuals with their own minds, dreams, issues and anxieties. Like spaghetti, you can’t separate things, you can only be the sauce on top that hopeful infuses everything together.

This blog could be seen as a teacher’s way of getting out of a bad set of results; it isn’t. It is an exploration of how one set of results doesn’t show the true picture of what is really going. Students are just numbers to some people and this blog, hopefully, shows you that there is much more to that number. Before anybody judges you or you teaching based on results, give them the full picture.

I didn’t spend the last year with my feet up showing video after video. I taught my students the best I could. But, do you know what? Whatever the results next week, there will be one thing I will be thinking of, and it is something every good teacher will be thinking of: what do I need to do to make things better next year?  

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Whack-a-mole results analysis!

So, the results are in and the number crunching begins. As I said in my last blog, whatever the results some action will take place. But, what action should take place? There are so many actions that could be done in reaction to a set of results. That’s it, we are never being examined with that board again. That’s it, we are never doing that again. That’s it, we will definitely do that thing again. Inaction is bad. Action is good. Everything is about the action-plan. Do you have an action-plan? What is you action-plan? What are you doing about such and such?

I am in the process of developing an action-plan for improving results. I was happy with them, but there are still things to improve. My brain is formulating ideas and thoughts to improve things. I am scrutinising the exam paper and looking at things question by question. But, here’s the rub (as in me rubbing my head): the peaks and troughs of the exam marks reflects only one cohort. The analysis of results would help the current year group immensely if they knew the issues on the paper. Yet, in a form of alchemy we apply the issues and problems with the next year group to go through the exam system. It is as if they are and exact match. Supposedly Timmy in Year 11 is like Johnny in Year 10. It is as if we are dealing with the same student, but we have changed the name.

We are also trying to infer the teaching quality from an exam paper. We know Ofsted do it. Bad results (not accurately) reflect ineffective teaching. We look at what teaching worked and what didn’t. To be honest, that can be like me deciding the colour of the paintbrush a painter used in a masterpiece. We can guess. We can interpret. But, can we really know the truth? 

Of course, a lot of this is looking at patterns. We are looking for ‘trends’ or ‘patterns of behaviour’ like someone looks at tea leaves. I see that you are going to marry a man with a beard who looks after ducks – no, I mean, your results will improve if you read more newspaper articles. However, isn’t the problem endemic in English. The problem-fix issue. We look at the problems and then we look for solutions.  

If I am honest, a lot of my teaching revolves around this. I take work in and look for patterns in the mistakes. I then teach the students how to avoid those mistakes. I build the problem-fixing into every part of my teaching. Hell, I even name the blog after it. But, doesn’t this ‘mind set’ actually hinder progress.  If our focus is always on the problems, then aren’t we likely to neglect the bigger things. If I obsess over the use of apostrophes for a whole lesson, I could be missing out on developing the students’ use of cohesion in a text. One thing gets selected over another. Its priority changes. It moves to the top of the peaking order. You might think: the problems are very important or students will not know how to improve. However, isn’t our teaching primarily concentrated on this aspect?

This week, I was reminded of a conversation with Jill Berry at the fantastic Pedagoo event organised this year in London. Our discussion led to, strangely, problem solving. I assure you I wasn’t using Jill as an agony aunt – which I think she would be good at, if the need arose.  For the life of me, I cannot remember the book cited by Jill, but she discussed this idea of how we deal with problems. It was simply: start with the successes and look at those first and identify what worked well there and then apply that to the issues.

For me, it is a great way to look. It avoids that pessimism that often occurs when looking at work. These students can’t possible do blah and blah. How do they expect us to get them to do X when they can’t event do Y? But it also prevents that rose-eyed optimism that follows some work. These students are just so naturally gifted. Instead, it gives you a wider picture of what could be done.

One of our successes has been our Literature results. So, instead of looking at the issues I am analysing what made the Literature results so successful. What worked so well for the students? Was it the texts we used? Was it the approaches in teaching we used? Was it how we taught Literature over time? Was it the teacher’s enjoyment of the topics? Was it the students’ understanding or enjoyment of the topics?

Once identified, I can then explore the use of this in relation to the issues or weaknesses on other parts of the exams. Rather than say, a lot of students did not do so well on Question 8, so we need lots of practice and more focus on Question 8, I am saying: The way students explore poetry in lessons reflects well in the exams, so let’s get us exploring non-fiction texts in the same way. Ultimately, this could avoid the infamous ‘whack-a-mole’ that happens in education. Here’s problem. Here’s a strategy. It is fixed. Here’s another problem….

Results time can be a bit like the dodgy wine stain on the carpet you can’t wash out. You might put a lovely rug over it or move the coffee table to disguise it. Nonetheless, it is still there. We might phrase things like: ‘I know that this happened, but look at X – isn’t it brilliant?’ We become our very own spin doctors. What if the lovely rug could teach us something about the dodgy wine stain? Ok, you have to admit some analogies don’t work. No matter how much you try.

Ultimately, it boils down to the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, but changing them to the successful elements.

What went wrong? Why did it go badly?  

What went well? Why did it go so well?  How can we repeat this with other areas?
The last three questions are the ones I will discuss with my department and form the basis of any action-plan.
Failure often is the driving force for change in education. What if success was the driving force for change? This works well, so let’s apply it to something that isn’t working so well.  
 Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Diet Drama

Out of all the different texts studied in the English classroom, drama, I feel, is always the one that is undervalued. I have poetry coming out if my ears. I enthuse with passion about the novels we study. I continually shove articles I have found in newspapers under students’ noses. Yet, drama is one thing that I really struggle with.

Why do I struggle so much with drama? In theory, I shouldn’t have that much of a problem, given that my degree is an English and Drama degree. Yet, I do have a problem. The latest version of the New Curriculum has made this problem surface again. In the ‘lovely’ new curriculum, it states that students should study drama. That’s it. Nothing else. The previous curriculum stated some stipulations, but now we have nothing. Nada. Zilch. Just the word ‘drama’.

The problem I have is that KS3 drama texts are so insipid and boring. I have searched endlessly with colleagues for a text to study with Year 7, 8 and 9. I have read endless scripts and all have left me cold. There are hundreds of play adaptions of texts, which are simply a dumbing down of the original prose text with the hope of saving a student from actually reading some really difficult prose. I have taught them nonetheless and still have found no joy. The issue I think is that all the scripts I have read lack drama. I know, the irony of it all. The scripts have become a way for students to read a play with a plot but the drama has been sanitised. Diet drama plays.

GCSE is when drama gets interesting in English and the students love it. I have seen weak students engaged in ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller and they are angry with the resolution. I have had classes curious over the ending of ‘An Inspector Calls’. Last year, I read Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’ with a set of students and they were transfixed for the whole time. The plot, the events, the ideas and the characters were all sparks to the students’ interest. Could we lift a chair up with one hand? What is Beatrice and Eddie’s relationship? It was a full sugar play. Photocopy one page and it is rich with ideas and techniques. Photocopy a page of a diet drama script and you’ll be left scratching your head.

One of the most powerful performances I saw in a theatre was ‘The Crucible’. It was performed in the round by a group of university students and it was brilliant. But, for me, the defining moment of it was the minute where I felt I needed to get out my chair and get involved in sorting out John Proctor at the end of the play. I was part of events and I was compelled to act. I was thoroughly engaged. Do students get this similar level of experience when they read drama at school? They might with some of the GCSE texts, but I would struggle to engage with some of the dross that exists out there.

This year I am studying William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ with a class and for the first time I am treating it like a play. We are studying it for GCSE and we are watching it like a play. I have found a stage version and we are experiencing the drama as a real audience. We are in the moment. So far so good.

The students have engaged in the plot and the discussion is mainly about the stagecraft rather than spotting language features. All too often when our students write about Shakespeare it is always about characterisation and language features, but rarely do they talk about the staging of the play or the decisions made to affect the audience’s feelings. Yes, they will mention dramatic irony because you taught to them and they feel, like something akin to guilt, they must mention it. However, I have noticed students making astute points about the staging of the play that you just don’t get from a mixture of easy Shakespeare version, original texts and scenes from a film version of the play. They are starting to see the tone changes, the shifts in pace and the manipulation of the audience’s thoughts and feelings.  

It goes without saying: to get students to talk about a play effectively they have to see it as a play. The analysis of a play is very different to the analysis of a novel. Sadly, all too often we treat them in the same way.  I am not one of those teachers that insists on acting all plays out. I don’t – I feel for the quiet and shy students in class. I think students should see it as a play, or the nearest equivalent, like a filmed version of a play and not a film version of the story.

Let’s bin the diet drama scripts!

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Every child still matters; Communities still need cohesion

Colorful  solidarity design tree

Every Child Still Matters; The Community Still Needs Cohesion


As most readers will know, until Michael Gove came along, government policy was to make schools more explicitly responsible for tackling a range of social issues under the two umbrella strategies of Every Child Matters and Community Cohesion.

As a reminder, the five strands of Every Child Matters were:

Be healthy; Stay safe; Enjoy and achieve; Make a positive contribution; Achieve economic well-being

This was a policy that aimed to co-ordinate activities across all the relevant services to prevent cases such as the Victoria Climbié case in 2000. It forced schools to initiate a range of activities and generate channels of communication to tackle each strand in partnership with local agencies.

In parallel with ECM, the Community Cohesion agenda was also developed.  OfSTED had a responsibility to inspect schools on:

the extent to which the school has developed an understanding of the religious, ethnic and socio-economic characteristics of its community in a local, national and global context

This three-by-three matrix presented schools with a challenge to reach out to the community in a pro-active fashion, educating students explicitly about a range of issues.  Isn’t this what ‘teaching British values’ should look like, at least in part?

When Michael Gove came to power, he decided to dispense with these strategies.  There was an attempt to slim down OfSTED’s remit but also these ‘nanny state’ initiatives ran counter to his philosophy.   Some schools would have been relieved.   Some Heads argued that it took up time and energy; it felt like a lot of hoops to jump through to satisfy the criteria and it was a distraction from the main agenda of improving standards of teaching and learning.   I had mixed feelings when they were scrapped. We’d just undertaken a major community cohesion audit and felt that it helped to identify areas of activity where we were lacking.  We’d done a great deal of work on the ECM agenda and it meant something to us.  However, for sure, the scrutiny and inspection aspect was intimidating and overwhelming; we’d question whether we were doing things because we believed in them or because we had to.  In some ways, removing the frameworks allowed to focus more fully on Child Protection procedures and training – the single most important aspect of ECM.

As I’m looking ahead to my new job at Highbury Grove, I’ve been thinking about these issues a great deal.  As an educationalist, my expertise lies in my knowledge of teaching and learning and in working with teachers, students and parents on the core business of raising standards. But I am deeply aware that my responsibility as a Head goes far beyond that.  Community Cohesion is still critical and my school has a vital role to play in serving a phenomenally diverse community in holistic manner.  And, of course, Every Child Still Matters!  We’ve got a student body that encompasses every conceivable issue – health, economic deprivation, social fragmentation – and my school is the focal point for much of what goes on in their lives; we have a role to play.

I understand the argument that the best thing schools can do is to simply ensure that every child is as well educated as possible; a strong education with a broad curriculum is what every child needs most and, perhaps, if schools just focused on that, the rest would follow.  In fact, if there is one single priority, it is literacy.  Above all else, I want to establish what ever is the state-of-the-art practice in this area, whatever it takes.  However, even exemplary work on literacy won’t be quite enough.  There is still plenty more we can and should be doing. Without the frameworks of ECM and Community Cohesion to work with, beyond the imperative to put Child Protection front and centre, we have plenty of freedom to select our other priorities (arguably too much freedom).  Here are some of mine:

Equalities:  Despite legislation designed to protect staff and students from a range of minority groups from prejudice and discrimination, there remains a major challenge in changing attitudes at a fundamental level.  Racism, sexism and homophobia need to be tackled continually.  I’m going to be raising the profile of LGBT rights very early on, following some of the advice from Stonewall as profiled in this post.

Sex and Relationships:  I don’t know how well this is delivered at my new school but I’m aware that, in general, SRE is delivered badly across the country. I want to explore this and make sure that all SRE is delivered by people with the confidence and skill to do it well; it should be a strength of what we do.  We need to look at behaviours around internet pornography, peer pressure and consent as well as the routine business of answering young people’s questions about how it all works and what is appropriate and normal at any given stage in their lives. I’m keen to find out how different cultural sensitivities play out in this area – but I’m not one to go easy on the opt-out clause.

Health:  Healthy Schools is another of the strategies that helped to make things happen; now we need to do this more or less under our own steam.  Headline issues are around obesity and mental health – both of which can be addressed to an extent through school ethos and provision, working with families and other agencies. I want to explore participation in sport, curriculum provision for PE and the food we serve in the canteen.  I also want to look at the PSHE programme to see what the content is and how well we deliver it.  There are other areas that concern me; the whole issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) is one I know we need to be pro-active about but, as yet, I don’t know what we can or should do in practice.

Special Needs: In July the new SEND Code of Practice was published.  I’ve got a 280 page document to absorb and act on – and of course this isn’t optional; it is statutory. It’s a big issue that will take some time to fully implement across the school as we put new Education, Health and Care plans in place. The question is how big a profile this gets relative to other agenda issues and to what extent we can take it in our stride.

International Dimension:  I’ll be looking to insert a very explicit ethos statement around  developing students as Principled Global Citizens just as we did at KEGS. In practice this means looking at things like Model United Nations and the British Council International Schools Award alongside assemblies and other activities that give international current affairs and global poverty issues a high profile. It’s a long haul to really embed this kind of thinking but we’ll need to persist, building on what has been successful in the school already.

Information, Advice and Guidance. This is another important area that can be given low or high priority, and done well or badly depending on how a school functions. With a mixed cohort, universal messages won’t work so the trick will be to give multiple messages about opportunities for college, university and employment that combine raising aspirations with realism and practicality. No easy task. Again, it’s got to be on the agenda.


I’ll stop there. If it didn’t make it onto that list, we are unlike to go far with it early on. The fact remains that Every Child Matters and Community Cohesion are still important aspects of school life. Even if the frameworks have fallen away, the issues remain as important as ever.


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)