How do we get them reading?

This post is intended to help teachers who are at a complete loss as to why their pupils can’t read. I’m not saying I have all the answers- what I am proposing is not a definitive solution to the problem of reading, but it outlines some of the things I wish someone had told me when I started teaching. There is a range of things you could do, of course. These are just some of the things I have learnt over the past few years that I have seen work well.


Countless secondary schools across the country are faced with this problem. It is an absolute travesty that many children start secondary school unable to read. It means they will struggle to access a KS3 curriculum, and because many secondary schools lack the time, funding and frankly, the expertise to teach children how to read, they can often slip through the net and make very limited progress in reading over 5 years. I felt compelled to write this post because I have had to spend hours and hours researching, reading and trying to understand what on earth we can do to solve this problem. It is my hope that a few secondary teachers will read this and feel empowered to do something about a problem that likely does exist in their schools.


Step 1: Assessment.

You cannot begin to teach children to read if you don’t know where they are to begin with. Lots of schools use the Accelerated Reader reading test. This is okay, but it won’t give you much of a breakdown of their ability. So you won’t know whether their strengths lie in vocabulary or comprehension, which can make it more difficult to determine what support they need. I would recommend the New Group Reading Test by GL assessment. They do an online version and it generates very easy to understand reports.


Once you have your reading age results, get all the pupils with a reading age below their chronological age to do a decoding test. I would recommend the WRAT test. It takes about 3 minutes per child (done individually) and anyone can administer it. All they have to do is read a list of words until they can’t read anymore. It’s simple.


Step 2: Placement.

The WRAT test contains instructions for converting their score into a Standardised Age Score (SAS). If they have an SAS below 80, they need to do a phonics programme. If they are between 81 and 100, they need some fluency work, and usually some support with spelling (but this may vary, depending on the child).


Step 3: Phonics.

Badger your SLT and make them invest in a good phonics programme. I would highly recommend Ruth Miskin’s Fresh Start for any pupils in year 7 with a low decode score. It could be taught to kids in higher years, but some of the resources are a bit young. I haven’t found a better programme that is more age appropriate, however, so I’d still recommend this one. They’ll need 3 sessions of 45 minutes a week. It will take about 6 – 8 months, depending on how weak they are when they start. Find the money and the time in the timetable. It’s worth it. If you or members of your school’s SLT have ideological reservations surrounding phonics, get over it. A phonics programme WILL work if it is delivered properly, and not doing it because you don’t believe in it is borderline immoral. #justsayin.


Step 4: Fluency

Lots of pupils can decode, but still read in a very stilted, awkward way, without expression or much of an understanding of emphasis, tone or intonation in reading. It is important that all children can read fluently, as it frees up space in working memory to focus on comprehension. If all you are thinking about is how to pronounce the words, you aren’t concentrating on the content.


There are lots of ways to solve this. Firstly, they need to be reading aloud often- at least once a day, if possible. A simple way to do this is to read aloud in class. At Michaela, our pupils read aloud in all subjects. I’m very lucky to work with excellent humanities, maths, science, art and French teachers who recognise the importance of reading, and will happily ask pupils to read aloud in their lessons. You could also get them into the habit of reading aloud when they read at home, but this is obviously harder to monitor.


Secondly, if you have the time, you could try to do some timed repeated reading practice with the pupils concerned. Here is a good video outlining what this looks like.


Step 5: Comprehension

There isn’t a magic bullet for this one, unfortunately. It takes a very long time to build, and the poorer kids’ comprehension is to start with, the slower it improves. But there are important points to note here. Firstly, comprehension is heavily underpinned by knowledge. A 1988 study by Rechts and Leslie tested the comprehension of weak and strong readers with the same text. They found that poor readers with a good knowledge of the content (baseball) outperformed the strong readers with poor knowledge of baseball. Read more about this here, or there’s a nice video you can watch here. So the first step is to cram them with as much knowledge as possible.


Another option is to use these resources by McGraw Hill. They are expensive, but are completely scripted and extremely well sequenced. A teaching assistant can deliver these sessions, and each one takes about 20-25 minutes. Again, time would need to be built into the day for this, as you wouldn’t want to take them out of mainstream lessons and therefore give them less access to the knowledge they need to get better at reading.


A few more points

Finally, if you have exceptionally weak readers, I would recommend getting in touch with Dianne Murphy (@thinkreadtweet), whose reading programme has enormous impact on weak readers. Definitely worth a look.


Of course, to make any of this work, reading must be a central part of the school culture. Pupils must have access to a range of texts, and must learn to love reading. Next week, I will blog about building a culture of reading in a school, and motivating pupils to read. I think these two aspects of reading are so vital that they merit their own post. The five steps above are intended to help literacy leads or English teachers who don’t know where to begin with reading, as I didn’t a few years ago. Of course, I am still no expert- far from it! I’m just passing on some of the wisdom I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon over the last few years.



Happy reading!

Tabula Rasa

This much I know about…the workload debate

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 workload debate.

I’ve just completed a 63 hour week; by the time I get to Sunday bed time that figure will be 70 hours plus. I write that as a fact, not a complaint. From doing my bus duty to leading an eight hour strategy meeting with Headteacher colleagues to teaching Economics A level, I love my job.

None of us working in schools goes underground to dig coal. In relative terms, our working conditions are pretty good. We have long holidays. As Shakespeare said, working with young people, Physics the subject, makes old hearts fresh. Our teaching always has the potential to be joyous.

It’s a year this weekend since I wrote about how my job has impacted upon my relationship with my eldest son. That single post has had over 100,000 views. The comments it engendered were remarkable and some of the private email responses were both sad and humbling. It is no exaggeration to claim that the post changed some people’s lives. And things are still good between me and Joe. At 9.30 pm on Monday evening this week he asked me if I wanted to go play pool; I had more work to do than I’d care to admit, but I went, of course I went…


Headteachers don’t get paid more for the weight of work, but for the responsibility. I tried to explain my job to my youngest son this week and I told him it was like being a parent to 1,500 children for eight hours a day. Parents entrust me with their most precious thing in the whole world and my first priority is to return their children to them at the end of the day safe and happy. It’s not worth thinking too hard about the responsibility the job entails.

Classroom teaching is exhausting. Tom Bennett says that when you teach you should present the very best version of yourself all the time. A full teaching day will leave you exhausted; I compare it to being on stage for five hours a day. And after all that there’s the evening performance too. 

I am still thinking about Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. Chapter two is called Things Fall Apart; the following passage resonates more strongly than I would wish…

hand decline 1

Hand decline 2

Here’s a health up-date: my left thumb’s joints have seized up; my two biggest toes on my right foot have permanent pins and needles; I’ve had a proper bad back  and an aching hip for over a month; I’ve had a phlegmy chesty cough since August; my pacemaker needs a new lead; I’ll need a new knee when I’m sixty; and there are a couple of other ailments you don’t need to know about!

The 2010 spending cuts are beginning to bite. One of the funniest things to happen this week was my first physiotherapy appointment for my creaking back…by telephone! We were mid-lesson, with us discussing how both major parties were going to balance the budget after the next election, when I had to take a diagnostic call from a physiotherapist. My students were highly amused.


Where are you in your teaching staff’s age rank order? Over the Christmas break I calculated that out of 114 teachers at Huntington, only six are older than me.  How the hell did that happen?! I still feel about 24 years old, max. Like everyone who has ever lived, I never thought I would age. In 2004 I ran the London Marathon in 3 hours 50 minutes and 33 seconds for goodness’ sake!

Teachers who retire at sixty-five have a life expectancy of 18 months. I have cited that line many a time, but it’s not true. As we all live longer, the evidence shows that teachers should live for decades once they retire. And yet…as evidenced in our school, few teachers make it into their late 50s before retiring, let alone to 62, the age at which I can access my Teachers’ Pension, or 67 when I’ll receive my state pension.

At home we have a principle of having high quality bath towels for our everyday use. I know that sounds odd, but for years we used to save our best towels for guests whilst we made do with old, threadbare beach towels. Somehow we realised the folly of our ways. Kate Gross’ parting advice, in her book Late Fragments, is essentially the same principle: always always eat from your very best crockery, because where can we live but days? Gross’ book is not mawkish. Late Fragments is a sunlit celebration of what it is to be alive and how to manage your world when your body falters fatally; it’s well worth a peek.




I heart punctuation

I’d like to think that there are magical pixies in my head responsible for my punctuation choices in my writing. Most of the time they are making magic dust to feed the unicorns of my imagination, but every so often, when I am writing, they pop up and use their magic and help me use punctuation.

Ok, maybe this isn’t the case. But, I am becoming increasingly interested in how we use punctuation and, more importantly, what makes us use those funny little marks that some use with glee abandon and others use like they are some form of anthrax. We have all sat before a piece of work that is drowning in commas, but is a desert for full stops. What makes a student write pages and pages of writing and not use one single full stop? Ask that same student: ‘What do you need to do to improve your writing?’ They simply say: ‘Add full stops.’ Yes, add. But maybe the problem really is they should ‘think’ in full stops.

My last teaching blog was about punctuation and exploring how we teach punctuation. In that specific blog, I wrote about how we could help students with their punctuation before the writing process. This blog is about how we could help students use punctuation when writing.


Often the case with students’ writing is that they are so concerned with getting ideas on the page that the casualty of speed is punctuation. Students often know how to use punctuation. We get it in our heads as teachers that they know diddlysquat about using it. They do; they just haven’t applied the rules or they have forgotten them. I am in essence talking about full stops, commas, exclamation marks and question marks. I have endlessly circled errors and the students have always been able to say ‘oh, yeah I missed a full stop’. When writing, they are in the eye of the storm. Everything looks fine to them.

The race to capture a set of decent ideas means that communication of these ideas is neglected. The simple manta is often used: As long as I have it on the page, I am fine. Teachers know the value of crafting writing. We plan the appropriate time for students to write effectively. We make them plan. We make them proofread. We do everything we can to help them craft, but still I am left with one student finishing thirty minutes before the allocated time and one student always needs an extra day to get the best piece of work.  Possibly, we need to get them to use punctuation in more of a functional way. I alluded to being explicit with the purpose of punctuation in my last blog, but what if we were explicit with the function of a piece of punctuation.

The cat sat on the mat.

The cat sat on the mat, but it was cold.

The cat sat on the mat; it was dead.

The cat (a flea ridden orange thing) sat on the mat.  

The cat sat on the mat, waiting for its food: a plate of fish.

The cat sat on the mat – like it usually does.  

Yep, I have ditched the question mark and the exclamation mark as those pieces of punctuation are set in stone. I mean: you commit to a sentence being an exclamation or question from the start. You might change to a question or exclamation afterwards, but usually you think of them at the time of writing the sentence.
Over the years, I have taught students explicit sentence structures to help them learn automatically where the punctuation should go. It works, but to develop more sophisticated writing my students need to know how to develop and extend an idea. After all, that’s the purpose of punctuation. It isn’t to make the English teacher happy. It is about how we take one idea and shape and form it. In the past, I have discussed our reliance on discourse markers to shape ideas. The sad drawback of this is that students don’t really develop an idea; they just play table tennis with an idea. Additionally… this. Furthermore… this. However…this. In contrast…this. Writing is about communicating an idea effectively. That means developing and exploring it. Not endless listing of things.
I have an idea  - It is about a cat!  

The cat sat on the mat.
I want to explain more about the idea

Comma + another sentence

The cat sat on the mat, but it was cold.

I want to carry on discussing the topic but I want to add an idea that only partly related to the original one

Semicolon + another sentence

The cat sat on the mat; it was dead.

I want to give more information about one particular thing in the sentence

Thing, bracket, phrase, bracket, sentence

The cat (a flea ridden orange thing) sat on the mat.

I want to introduce something new to the idea.

Colon + phrase  

 The cat sat on the mat, waiting for its food: a plate of fish.

I want to interrupt the original train of thought by adding an idea. I could use the word ‘therefore’ instead of a dash in this situation.

Dash + phrase

The cat sat on the mat – like it usually does.  

At every stage, the punctuation helps add detail to the original subject/idea. The sentences are pants, but they give you an idea of how the sentence (original idea) can be developed. Students tend to list ideas rather than develop them. Looking at exam board specs, it is all about the depth of ideas and not the quantity of ideas. Maybe, just maybe, we need to look at punctuation as a way to develop those ideas. All too often we get students to write more in the vain hope they will develop their ideas.

We often focus on accuracy with punctuation. Or, we focus on there not being a variety of punctuation in a piece of work. What if we concentrated on how students use punctuation to develop and extend ideas?

Look at the writing of Charles Dickens and you see what ‘the cat on the mat’ does. He plays with ideas like a cat plays with a ball of wool. He pushes it one way really far. He pushes it another just as far. He will also focus on a strand for ages. Or, he will go for the whole ball and pounce.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog. Maybe a few pixies died trying to get the punctuation right in this blog.
Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

This much I know about…my students’ cultural lives (and being the same age as Nigel Farage…)

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about my students’ cultural lives (and being the same age as Nigel Farage…)


I discovered yesterday that not one of my Economics A level students listens to PM, the news programme hosted by Eddie Mair on Radio 4. I was using a snippet from last Tuesday’s programme on the threat of deflation; when I suggested that they should listen to PM because it would help them with their studies, they were aghast. “Is it all, just, like, all talking? Is there not even the odd bit of music?” asked Jack. It was a skirmish I was never going to win.


The trouble is, if my students aspire to greatness, occasionally they really should listen to PM. Now, I know that, at 50 years old, I am younger than the average PM listener; I know that I am almost exactly the same age as Nigel Farage (holds his head and weeps openly); I know much about the cultural lives of 18 year olds, as I cohabit with a prime example of one myself, but I just wonder how we can motivate our youngsters to aspire to find out more about how our world works, so they can play a greater role in shaping its future.

UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage reacts during a media interview outside the Marquis of Granby, Westminster in central London

Or perhaps they just find out about the world on the latest App…



Post script punctuation

Over the last few weeks I have been exploring punctuation on the blog. But, probably, more importantly, I have been focusing on how we teach it. Do we focus our teaching of punctuation skills before writing? Or, do we focus on supporting its use when students write? Or, is it a post-production special effect? The CGI of writing. Everything is green screen until we add the wizardry of punctuation.  

Don’t forget to check your punctuation. That’s probably the sentence that most teachers use in the conversations with students at the end of the writing process. Have you checked it? Have you proofread your writing? Often, the student’s response to this kind of comment is a nodding of heads and a lack of proofreading. We all know that some people cannot nod their head and rub their belly effectively. So when a student nods their head to proofreading, I know in the back of my head they haven’t really done it.  You can’t possibly nod your head and proofread at the same time.

In my experience, if a student hasn’t used full stops securely during the writing process, then it is unlikely that that student will have an epiphany afterwards and add full stops to their diet-punctuation-paragraph.  If you don’t think in sentences, it is then hard to turn that thinking into blocks of meaning.

Assuming that students have a certain level of proficiency, how can we help students use punctuation after the writing process? Step forward the speech writer. All too often, our students see punctuation as an issue at the point of use. It isn’t something to reflect on. It isn’t something that you look back on. Like buying a house, you don’t look closely at the mortar between bricks when you are deciding if this is your dream home. You are thinking if you can fit a bookcase in that space. Those of us that love writing adore looking back at a piece of writing and thinking about how to make it better. For students, it is purely a tick boxing exercise. Like spellings, I have to check my work or miss will ‘ave a go at me.  

Speech writers know the importance of a comma, full stop and a dash to transform as speech and clarify meaning. Edward in Year 10 knows that all writing must have full stops in it and if he wants miss to praise him then he’ll add one of those other marks that he hardly ever uses. The different levels of understanding is miles apart. One to make meaning. The other to satisfy an expectation. For teachers, I think the hard job we have is making punctuation a natural process, a priority and meaningful. Will students ever understand the purpose of a semi colon if all they do is equate it to something clever people do in their writing and only Level 6 students use? It simply becomes something that a student crams in to show off and not something that is used to develop and improve the communication.


Let’s have a look at a speech by Elizabeth I.

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

This is probably treason: But, what if I looked at the punctuation and tried to improve on things.
What if I added sarcastic inverted commas?

I know I have the body of a ‘weak’, ‘feeble’woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.

She scorns what others think of her rather than admit her weaknesses. Put sarcastic inverted commas around ‘prince’ and she is questioning their nobility and royal claim in Europe.

What if I played around with the use of comas?

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble, woman; but I have the heart, and stomach, of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain,or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.

The relevance of things changes. The heart is more important than the stomach and Parma seems more important than Spain.

What if I tried to use other tricks in my arsenal of punctuation?

I know: I have the body of a weak, feeble…woman. But, I have: the heart; and stomach of a king – and of a king of England too! Think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should ‘dare’ to invade the borders of my realm.

The punctuation can transform the writing and add a new level of the original meaning. Speech writers know this. A comma in the wrong place will probably do more damage than a single word.

If we get students to see that the punctuation can be modified post production, they will be able to make more meaningful writing.

CGI can be used subtlety. One use it has is to digitally hide satellite dishes on houses in a period drama. You don’t notice it has been done. It adds to the whole experience. It makes it seem more realistic. We need to get students to digitally improve their writing with punctuation. We don’t need any big bangs and flashes associated with CGI, just a comma moved about here or there.

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Why There Should Only Be Teachers In The College Of Teaching

I wrote a few posts some weeks back about plans for a College of Teaching:

  • Why I’m Deeply Sceptical About A College Of Teaching
  • Why Evidence and Research Won’t Resolve Ideological Disputes Around The College of Teaching
  • What Would Make Me Join A College Of Teaching?

I pretty much moved from outright hostility to setting out my terms for involvement. I’ve been pleasantly surprised though, at how many people currently involved responded by encouraging me to get stuck in. So much so that I now feel I’m almost a (very) cautious advocate than a sceptic now, telling people who think it will inevitably be terrible that they should try to influence it towards being good.

But, the key thing I want, remains as controversial as ever and that’s the College’s exclusive domination by teachers. My main concern when I expressed it previously, it that if it isn’t teacher dominated it will be run by the education establishment. They will push for the sort of agenda that the establishment figures, particularly in the universities, usually push for (there’s 100 of the buggers describing what they want here), and they will use the fact that their organisation is “The College Of Teachers” to present their views as that of the teaching profession.

In my nightmare scenario, five years from now, news stories about education will feature some retired headteacher or former lecturer from a university education department, with “College Of Teachers” under their name explaining that everything is fine in education, and all we need are fewer exams and more teachers who can manage behaviour by showing enthusiasm and not talking too much. You know the kind of people who used to claim inclusion was working, exams weren’t getting easier or that academic subjects weren’t suitable for working class kids? The sort of people, who even now, declare any attempt to debate their orthodoxies to be “an attack on teachers”. That’s what I don’t want to happen in my name.

However, I realise that my distaste for the education establishment is not universal, so let me address the reasons I want only teachers in the College of Teaching that go beyond avoiding an education establishment takeover.

While some people seem confused by the name (“College of Teachers” was taken) the plan is for a professional body for teachers. While there’s a lot to be decided about exactly what the College of Teaching will do, that was the plan for what it should be. Whatever things the College of Teaching does must be things that help establish teachers as professionals. This key purpose is utterly undermined if many of the members are not what would normally be called “teachers”. There were a number of educationalists on Twitter last night, utterly furious that because they are not employed to teach children, I wouldn’t recognise them as teachers. Yet, amazingly, none of them actually claimed to be a teacher in their Twitter bio. You cannot have a professional body for teachers where the rank and file are not people who would say “teacher” when asked to describe what they do, who would not join a teaching union, and do not teach anyone below undergraduate level. Part of what teachers need to be a profession, is a professional identity. Dilute that and you dilute, rather than develop, our professionalism. If you wish to speak for teachers, then for pity’s sake, be a teacher.

Another strand of this argument is that, even if they were not let into full membership, then ex-teachers have a lot of expertise to contribute. They could be associate members, or advisors. That they have expertise may well be true, but it is missing some of the the key points of a profession. A profession has expertise and its members exercise autonomy. We can all learn a lot from ex-teachers, even from some of those who have become consultants or university lecturers, but if we need that expertise we are not a profession. We are not, in ourselves, a body of experts in teaching. Worse, not only would we be declaring that those who teach now are so lacking in expertise that they need the help of outside experts in teaching, but a large proportion of those experts would already be employed to tell teachers what to do. Far from developing our professional autonomy, we would actually be replicating our lack of autonomy. Instead of saying “we are a profession, we don’t need anyone to tell us what to do” we would be inviting the people who tell us what to do in to do it some more. A professional body for teachers needs to be organised on the basis of advancing professional autonomy and professional expertise.

Now, to me, a large part of this was obvious from the beginning. The assumption that we needed a new professional body, along with the acceptance that it could not be a regulator or a government quango and that it needed to be teacher led, all seemed to imply a shared vision of what teachers needed. Teachers lacked a professional identity; they were not confident in exercising professional autonomy, and there was a lack of recognition of their professional expertise. Perhaps I was mistaken, perhaps what people really wanted was a club for anyone working in education to network with the education establishment and (if they are teachers) learn from their betters. But if it is genuinely to be about teachers acting as a profession, then they need to act as autonomous experts with a clear professional identity. None of that can happen in a organisation where eligibility for membership, decision-making power, or the expertise about teaching don’t lie exclusively with teachers.


Scenes From The Battleground

Cor blimey, we’re in Tatler. Darling.

FullSizeRender (8)

I woke up on New Year’s Day to be greeted by various tweets alerting me to the news that Highbury Grove was featured in a new guide to state schools published in Tatler. Here’s one from Alice Woolley, Editor of Education Guardian:

Screen shot 2015-01-02 at 14.07.09

And then came the Daily Mail link:

According to the Daily Mail, Highbury Grove is one ‘Tatler’s top 5 state schools’ in its new guide. That’s not strictly true  – because, as far as I can see, they are not listed in a hierarchical order – but, hey, why spoil the story? The DM went for the rags to riches angle – see above – focusing on the significant transformation that Highbury Grove underwent under my predecessor Truda White before her retirement in 2012, which included one of the last BSF re-builds.

I have broken my normal vows of abstinence and have purchased the Daily Mail and the Tatler to see what they said.  The Tatler, in what appears to be the January Self-Parody Issue, includes a free 2015 Yacht Guide, a feature on ‘Labour’s Top Toffs’ and a classic ‘at home’ feature on Viscount Cowdray and his family.


The State Schools Guide is presented like this:


and the Highbury Grove bit is here:

Screen shot 2015-01-02 at 13.37.17

So, what to make of all of this?

There are obviously huge risks in attaching significance to a guide that is based on dinner party gossip, reports from ‘spies’ and a loose collection of anecdotes from people spoken to by the Tatler Team; this isn’t an objective survey – it’s directly positioned to serve the interests of Tatler Toffs who live in very specific pockets: London, North Oxford and a smattering of country towns.  Another view is that, despite the attempt to tell a good news story, there remains a depressing undertone throughout both the Daily Mail and Tatler pieces reinforcing the idea that most state schools aren’t good enough for Toffs. (Tatler freely refers to its readers as Toffs, Posh etc…).  The Tatler approach seems to be to focus on the money-saving aspect: (why go private if there are schools this good for free?) whilst the DM can’t resist dragging up an old (disgraceful) undercover film that sold my school down the river.  To be fair, to Tatler’s credit, they do refer to research that children from comprehensives with the same A levels as peers from private schools, ultimately do better at university; it’s not just about the money.

However, it is definitely interesting and possibly significant that the message about the quality of state education is reaching these people.  One of my guiding principles is that we should never fear competition from selective schools or private schools.  I don’t want people to choose Highbury Grove because they are roughing it or hitting hard times; if they are lucky enough to live near enough, I want people to choose us because we offer as good an education as they will get anywhere else bar none. That means we focus on very broad curriculum provision, top-end challenge, great extra-curricular opportunities, rigour, discipline and fiercely high expectations without a chip on our shoulders or any excuses.  Despite what some commenters seem to believe (as justification for our inclusion in this list), Highbury Grove has well over 70% of students on FSM in all years with over 50% of students speaking English as an additional language.  However, we are now also fully comprehensive – possibly one of the most socially diverse schools anywhere.  Our idea of inclusion is that we have fiercely high expectations of every student – and that would include the Tatler Toffs if they fancy it.  But, if you are one of them, please don’t think you’d be doing us a favour: you probably need us more than we need you! Darling.


Update: I found the Mail story linked via this Singapore News website under ‘World’. We’re World News now. Totes amazeballs!

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 22.29.05





Overloaded? Out of Control? Press the Reset Button.

Screen shot 2015-01-11 at 09.03.51

Out of control? Time to reset.

When things get out of control, work is very stressful.  The solution is to take control.  In numerous school scenarios, I’ve found that it helps enormously to seize control out of the chaos by pressing the Reset Button: clearing it all away and starting again.  This applies to marking, behaviour management, emails, reports and general planning – every situation where things feel that they are running away from you.  When talking to teachers who are feeling that things aren’t going as well as they’d like, I find that giving them the confidence and permission to do this goes a long way. Hopefully, they then learn to give themselves the permission!


Sometimes it gets out of hand.  If you routinely set a good volume of challenging work to all of your classes, the amount of work that accumulates can be very significant.  But, as I outline in this post Marking in Perspective, you can’t mark it all.  Not just because it is impossible, but because that isn’t a productive use of your time or necessary or desirable for the students, especially when some time has passed since they did it.  Ideally, you have a workable routine, with a good balance of in-class checking and selective marking.  But, even with a sensible marking plan, it can still spiral if you don’t manage to keep to your routine.  I had this problem myself recently. Several times over I collected books in, took them home and found myself too tired or too busy to mark them.  Each week that went by, the problem grew because the students’ work kept coming – work I’d promised to mark. I calculated that I’d need 8 hours to mark all the work properly.  Just from one class! Time for a reset!


A strategy I have used before is the ‘fess-up’ method.  You need to acknowledge the issue with the class and write-off a whole chunk of marking:  “I’m really sorry guys, there’s just too much here to mark but we’ll focus on the most recent piece which should give you the pointers you need.”  Or, set a test and tell the class that you’ll focus on that instead of going over everything in their books.

On this most recent occasion, I went for ‘catch-up’ instead. I dedicated two back-to-back lessons (about three hours in all) to one-to-one feedback.  I set the class some written work and called them up one by one to talk through their work.  With each five-minute chat, I could communicate so much more than I could in 20 minutes of marking, scanning through multiple pieces of work: strengths, areas to improve, general words of encouragement, some explanations of tricky concepts.  Once they’d seen me, their task shifted to a DIRT session – acting on the advice I’d just given.  It cleared the decks for me and worked OK for them.  Phew.  It wouldn’t work as a routine practice – but actually I found it really useful and interesting to talk to them all one by one anyway.    Once you’ve reset the marking, you feel SO much better and everyone benefits from that.


For some teachers, from time to time, a particular class is the key source of stress: the behaviour isn’t right; it feels like a perpetual cycle of negativity: they don’t do what you want; you have to be the arch-enforcer and the atmosphere is horrible. This can happen if you weren’t firm enough early on or when you get ‘sanction fatigue’  in relation to issues (eg persistent talking or calling out) that ought to seem minor.   Resetting is really powerful in this situation.  You can do this at the start of a term or at any time you choose.   I’d recommend being very explicit with the class about how you feel (or a selected sub-group if that is more appropriate) :

“Right – tools down – before we go on, we’re going to re-establish our basic expectations.  I’m not enjoying these lessons as much as I’d like because the persistent low-level disruption is spoiling the atmosphere; you are lovely people but there is just too much talking and I want that to change. I need you listening and when I say ‘silent working’ that’s exactly what I mean; from today, I want you to respond to that and I will go as far as ..(insert sanction)… if you can’t manage it.  OK?” 

You re-claim the territory; re-establish your expectations and give yourself a clean slate; a chance to be on the front-foot and to be positive.  When you get the atmosphere you want – tell them. “Thank you. This is lovely. This is what I’ve been asking for.”  From then on you can follow-up on the sanctions more consistently and assertively, setting higher standards than you’d managed before. It’s a huge relief.  It will last for a period and you may need to reset repeatedly before it is fully embedded.


Sometimes, lesson planning gets out of hand, especially if you are new to a scheme of work or a class and lessons throw up learning issues that require a change in approach or if, for any reason, you lose time.  The feeling of falling behind is stressful – so you need to get back on track.  For me, the reset mode in this situation is to do two things:

a) Go Long: I sketch out a plan for the next few weeks with some kind of end point in mind: a target date for finishing this particular set of lessons. It’s useful to share this with the students. By doing this you can compress certain teaching phases, eliminate non-essential content and deliver lessons with a bit of additional verve to get through things and back on course.  You and the class are on a mission – and it can have a really positive effect.   As a science teacher, I like to accompany this with a sketched long-term plan for my technicians: this is what I need for the next four weeks.  Boy – does that feel good; so much better than grasping around at the last-minute during the out-of-control moments.

b) Use stuff that is already there: Teachers waste a lot of time reinventing materials and planning lessons from scratch. The office shelves and the shared area on the network are packed with resources; the scheme of work actually gives great starting points to use and adapt – I need to use them!  And, if there are text-books – bonanza! Look no further.  Most importantly, the people in my team have probably done this all before.  Some teams have shared planning embedded in their weekly routine; others seem to involve everyone doing their own thing in parallel.  Collaboration is a life-saver: sometimes I need to remind myself. We are not alone!

Emails and Paper work: 

The reset solution to the pile-up in this area is simple: Let it go.  If things feel out of control, then a bit of ‘bin therapy’ is perhaps what you need. I do this at the end of every half-term with all the paper on my desk. 90% goes in the bin and I almost never file anything.  It feels great.  With email, anything more than a couple of weeks old is Dead.  When I’m trying to reset my email backlog, I usually trawl for emails from parents and ignore the rest – it will all come back again if it matters. (Apologies if I have ignored your email….but there’s only so much time in the week and, genuinely, I do my best. That’s fair isn’t it?) I think we should be forgiving of each other in this area; if you get cross over an answered email, you’re not helping! Try again – be patient.


Report-writing, if done well, can be time-consuming, even with fancy statement banks and so on.  However, for people with multiple classes in one year group, the task can be overwhelming. Here, the obvious answer is to see this coming and to plan ahead, getting in as early as you can leading up to the deadline.  But, if you haven’t managed that and the deadline is looming with too many reports to write, the reset button needs to be a conversation with someone – the sooner the better. You just need to acknowledge the problem and tell someone.  In the past I’ve helped people in crisis in different ways: sharing the reports out; accepting more generic reports (rather than have none) or giving cover to allow a teacher to finish them.  None of the answers is ideal – but if a colleague is in a hole, you need to help them out – not bury them deeper.

Ultimately, we’re all human; the most professional and committed teachers have moments where they feel things slipping out of control, especially if they have a sensible attitude to work-life balance.  So, give yourself permission: take a breath and start fresh.


Related Posts: I wrote this for the Guardian Teacher Network:

This recent post from Alex Quigley is excellent:





The Unit of Education

If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.

Lord Kelvin

A lot of education research is an attempt to measure the effects of teaching (or teachers) on learning (or pupils.) But is this actually possible?

Let’s first think about measurement in a very practical sense. Schools limit admission based on a sometimes very strict catchment area – if you want to make sure that your children attend a particular school you need to live within the catchment. For some very oversubscribed schools this area can be as little as the mile from the school. If I measure the distance between my front door and the school I would like my daughter to attend I need some agreed unit of measurement for my reckoning to mean anything; the local authority won’t be interested in, “It’s quite close.”

In order to work out how close we agree on a measurement system and measuring devices which enable us to define the criterion of being within or outside the catchment area. However, when it comes to measuring concepts such as progress, or learning, or teacher effectiveness, it then becomes much more difficult. We still feel the urge to convert things into numbers, but often there is little agreement. We think we’re being precise when bandying about such numbers, but really they’re entirely arbitrary

Remember the scene from the film Spinal Tap where guitarist Nigel Tufnel proudly demonstrates a custom-made amplifier whose volume control is marked from zero to eleven, instead of the usual zero to ten? Nigel is convinced the numbering increases the volume of the amp, “It’s one louder”. When asked why the ten setting is not simply set to be louder, Nigel is clearly confused. Patiently he explains, “These go to eleven.”

And how often have you heard an over-enthusiastic school leader exhort teachers to give 110%?

In order to answer this question, we need to know what an ES actually corresponds to i.e. What is the unit of education? An ES of 0 means that the average treatment participant outperformed 50% of the control participants. An effect size of 0.7 means that the average participant will have outperformed the average control group member by 70%. The baseline is that a year’s teaching should translate into a year’s progress and that any intervention that produces an ES of 0.4 is worthy of consideration.[i]

Australian education professor, John Hattie went about aggregating the effects of thousands of research studies to tell us how great an impact we could attribute to the various interventions and factors at play in classrooms.

This is what he found:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 08.51.52So now we know. Giving feedback is ace, questioning is barely worth it, and adjusting class size is pointless. You might well have a problem with some of those findings but let’s accept them for the time being.

Hattie then goes on to make this claim:

An effect-size of d=1.0 indicates an increase of one standard deviation… A one standard deviation increase is typically associated with advancing children’s achievement by two to three years, improving the rate of learning by 50%, or a correlation between some variable (e.g., amount of homework) and achievement of approximately r=0.50. When implementing a new program, an effect-size of 1.0 would mean that, on average, students receiving that treatment would exceed 84% of students not receiving that treatment.[ii]

Really? So if ‘feedback is given an effect size of 1.13 are we really supposed to believe that pupils given feedback would learn over 50% more than those who are not? Is that controlled against groups of pupils who were given no feedback at all? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? And what does the finding that Direct Instruction has an ES of .82 mean? I doubt forcing passionate advocates of discovery learning to use DI would have any such effect.

At this point it might be worth unpicking what we mean by meta-analysis. The term refers to statistical methods for contrasting and combining results from different studies, in the hope of identifying patterns, sources of disagreement, or other interesting relationships that may come to light from poring over the entrails of qualitative research.

The way meta-analyses are conducted in education has been nicked from clinicians. But in medicine it’s a lot easier to agree on what’s being measured: are you still alive a year after being discharge from hospital? Lumping the results from different education studies together tricks us into assuming different outcome measures are equally sensitive to what teachers do. Or to put it another way, that there is a standard unit of education. Now, if we don’t even agree what education is for, being unable to measure the success of different interventions in a meaningful way is a bit of stumbling block.

And then to make matters worse, it turns out the concept of the ‘effect size’ itself may be wrong. There are at least three problems with effect sizes. Dylan Wiliam points to two problems: the range of children studies and the issue of ‘sensitivity to instruction’ and Ollie Orange suggests another: the problem of time.

Firstly, the range of achievement of pupils studied influences effect sizes.

An increase of 5 points on a test where the population standard deviation is 10 points would result in an effect size of 0.5 standard deviations. However, the same intervention when administered only to the upper half of the same population, provided that it was equally effective for all students, would result in an effect size of over 0.8 standard deviations, due to the reduced variance of the subsample.[iii]

Older children will show less improvement than younger children because they’ve already done a lot of learning and improvements are now much more incremental. If studies are comparing the effects of inventions with six year olds and sixteen year olds and are claiming to measure a common impact, their findings will be garbage.

The second problem is how do we know there’s any impact at all? To see any kind of effect we usually rely on measuring pupils’ performance in some kind of test. But assessments vary greatly in the extent to which they measure the things that educational processes change. Those who design standardized tests put a lot of effort into ensuring their sensitivity to instruction is minimised. A test can be made more reliable by getting rid of questions which don’t differentiate between pupils – so if all pupils tend to get particular questions right or wrong then they’re of limited use. But this process changes the nature of tests: it may be that questions which teachers are good at teaching are replaced with those they’re not so good at teaching. This might be fair enough except how then can we possibly hope to measure the extent to which pupils’ performance is influenced by particular teacher interventions?

The effects of sensitivity to instruction are a big deal. For instance, it’s been claimed that one-to-one tutorial instruction is more effective than average group-based instruction by two standard deviations.[iv] This is hardly credible. In standardised tests one year’s progress for an average student is equivalent to one-fourth of a standard deviation, so one year’s individual tuition would have to equal 9 years of average group-based instruction! Hmm? The point is, the time lag between teaching and testing appears to the biggest factor in determining sensitivity to instruction. Outcome measures used in different studies are unlikely to have the same view of sensitivity to instruction.

The third problem is one of the time it takes to teach. Let’s say we decide to compare two teachers using identical teaching methods, teaching two classes of children of exactly the same age. We test both classes at the start of a unit of work and at the end to see what impact the teaching has had. If children in both classes made identical gains, what would such a comparison tell us? Superficially it appears we’re comparing like with like but if it takes the first class one week to learn the material and the second class two weeks to learn the material, then any such comparison is meaningless. The Effect Size would calculate both teachers as equally effective, but if the results are the same, one class learned twice as fast as the other. Any proper unit of eduction would need to account for the time it takes for students to learn a thing.

In Hattie’s meta analysis there’s little attempt to control for these problems. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust that those things he puts at the top of his list don’t have greater impact than those at the bottom, but it does mean we should think twice before bandying about effect sizes as evidence of potential impact.

When numerical values are assigned to teaching we’re very easily are taken in. The effects of teaching and learning are far too complex to be easily understood, but numbers are easily understood: this one’s bigger than that. This leads to pseudo-accuracy and makes us believe there are easy solutions to difficult problems. Few teachers (and I certainly include myself here) are statistically literate enough to properly interrogate this approach. The table of effect sizes with its beguilingly accurate seeming numbers has been a comfort: someone has relieved us of having to think. But can we rely on these figures? Do they really tell us anything useful about how we should adjust our classroom practice?


[i] Robert Coe, It’s the Effect Size, Stupid: What effect size is and why it is important

[ii] John Hattie, Visible Learning

[iii] Dylan Wiliam “An integrative summary of the research literature and implications for a new theory of formative assessment.” In H. L. Andrade & G. J. Cizek (Eds.), Handbook of formative assessment (2010)

[iv] Benjamin S Bloom, “The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring”, Educational Leadership (1984)

The post The Unit of Education appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

3 Things I Strongly Disagree With

Because progressive education is multi-faceted, and continually represented as something new, one of the most common techniques used to hide its influence is to claim that the disagreements in education do not really exist. There are two variants on this argument that are used frequently. One is to claim that the terms used to describe the positions (like “traditional”, “progressive”, “child-centred” etc.) are either meaningless or refer to something either nobody or everybody agrees with. The other version is to claim that in all facets of the debate there are compromise positions, rather than stark choices, making it possible for the debate denialist to claim that they (and very often the majority of teachers who are, it is assumed, unaffected by ideology) somehow transcend the debate.

For this reason, every so often I find it worthwhile to point out examples of things that I fundamentally disagree with. Not to debate them, or to criticise them, but to point out that there are some really quite clear cut differences where people need to choose sides. Particularly when those people do have, or have had, power and influence in the education system.Here’s three blogposts that have not won me over. As ever, I would recommend you follow the links to read the whole post, so we can avoid the accusation that I have misrepresented the views by quoting out of context. Also, I acknowledge that I am highlighting what it is I disagree with, so anyone who wants to find some uncontroversial sentence in the blogpost and say that this was, in fact, the true point of the post needn’t bother.

First from a well established educationalist whose blog gets far more hits than mine and whose power to influence future generations of teachers is far greater than mine, some views on the importance of knowledge:

No matter how clever or persuasive certain so called experts’ arguments appear to be about the need for children to memorise facts and receive their knowledge from teachers, we should not be taken in by such rhetoric. We need to see these people for what they actually are. They are dangerous individuals who are trying to prevent progress by perpetuating a restrictive method of schooling that ultimately, will rob our children of their futures. They are self acclaimed experts who wish to maintain control over our education system by perpetuating standardised testing, rote learning and whole class instruction, while demonising alternative approaches such as personalised learning, games playing and problem solving.

They wrap up their ideas in a cloak of respectability and present them exclusively as the answer to today’s education crisis. They snipe and sneer at those who advocate progressive approaches to education, as they fight desperately to preserve what control they have over schools. In so doing, they are depriving an entire generation of children the right to discover for themselves just how wonderful learning really is. They rob this generation of students of their human right to receive a good, dynamic and relevant education.

Next, another educationalist, internationally influential and involved in training teachers defends the inclusion fad of 10 years ago. While I disagree with that argument as a whole, as a result of having lived through that disaster (this blogpost from @Bigkid4 is a great description of what it was like), I’m particularly surprised at one of the obstacles to inclusion:

Sam’s mother lists a number of factors that she sees as having contributed to the failure of schools to meet the needs of many children. Inadequate training of teachers, poor resourcing and the over emphasis upon academic attainment and narrowly focused assessment and testing procedures are all seen as inhibiting progress. These are certainly contributors to the difficulties with moving the inclusion agenda forward that are recognised by many teachers and families. [my italics]

And finally, and this one from a politician (a former minister for schools, as it happens), on the non-academic aims of teaching where the third paragraph sums up the depressing views of so many politicians of all sides:

Today, Tristram Hunt is calling for schools to do more to develop character among young people. Quoting Winston Churchill and the idea of ‘British spirit’ was a clever way to ensure today’s speech got some good Sunday coverage.

As a former teacher I can also imagine that there will be a fair amount of resigned sighing or angry harrumphing in staffrooms this morning about this latest demand on the teaching profession as reports need writing, excited children need calming and the end of term seems just too far away.

But I think teachers should see this call as a massive vote of confidence. If anything demonstrates the power of education and teaching then it is the ongoing assumption that many social or economic problems could be solved if only they were included in the school curriculum or promoted in schools.

Anyone want to tell me I don’t disagree with these sentiments? Or that there are some convenient middle positions between my position and theirs?

Scenes From The Battleground

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)