Nicky Morgan vs The Bell Curve.

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Dear Nicky, let me introduce you to the bell curve.

Dear Nicky…

I’ve just read this:

In there it says this:

Schools eligible for intervention will be those which fall below a new ‘coasting’ level for 3 years.  In 2014 and 2015 that level will be set at 60% of pupils achieving 5 good GCSEs or an above-average proportion of pupils making acceptable progress.

I am now worried that you haven’t been briefed about the word ‘average’ or the new (laudable) determination by OfQual to ensure GCSE grade inflation is halted. The thing is this: by definition there are only a limited number of places on the bell-curve that can be called ‘Good GCSEs’.  You’ve decided to give a pejorative label (implicitly ‘Bad GCSEs’) to about 50% of all grades.  Now, instead of Grades 1-4 at GCSE representing any sort of achievement, they’ve been killed stone dead. Nice work. That didn’t take you long.  I have many students who by definition are unlikely to get ‘Good GCSEs’ given their starting point.  Don’t get me wrong; we’re slogging our guts out here, but the thing is this: by definition, it’s a zero sum game.  More or less. We can only get more Grade 5s and above if, on average, other students somewhere get fewer.  This is how things work now.  You may know about the reference tests being introduced to track progress between cohorts but realistically we’d only expect a slow incremental change year on year.  That’s how standards are maintained.  For this to be fair, it is imperative that grades 1-4 actually matter. However, rather than accepting this (understanding it?) you’ve decided that only the top grades count.  You appear not to appreciate – or care- that, by definition, not everyone can get them.  Do you want Glenys Stacey’s number? I suggest you give her a call.  This isn’t some kind of ‘enemy of promise’ excuse-making thing; it’s a hard-wired technicality derived from grade-setting across the examination system. You get that, right?

Once you aggregate up to whole-school data, it is then obvious that not every school can have ‘an above-average proportion of students making acceptable progress’ AND/OR above 60% of students with 5 good GCSEs. Why? Because, by definition of ‘average’ and the laws of the bell-curve, that isn’t statistically likely, especially given the link between progress and attainment.  It’s the Matthew effect – check the stats.  The ‘intervention’ concept implies that by the voodoo of academisation you will eliminate schools that are both below average for attainment and not above average for progress.  Let me explain…..?  As long as we’re holding standards to the bell curve to break the inflationary cycle, you’re on a hiding to nothing.  Actually, that’s WE are on a hiding to nothing. You’ll be fine! You’ll ‘transform’ some schools…(regression to the mean will see to that) .. but only if other schools take their place.  Do the Maths.

I know that Tough Talk is all the rage down at the DfE, but you are the Secretary of State, not the editor of the Daily Mail.  You do realise that we’re reasonably intelligent folk and we expect certain standards.  Do you really want some of my students to be told that GCSE grades that might have mattered to them are ‘Bad GCSEs’?   Do you realise how ludicrous it is to batter schools for not meeting certain standards when not everyone can reach them….by definition?  Do you ?

Seriously…. This isn’t good enough.



RSA Occupy The Curriculum: The Case for a National Baccalaureate

From 2 mins 30, here is my talk at the RSA’s Occupy the Curriculum event. The rationale for the National Baccalaureate for England. Huge thanks to Joe Hallgarten for inviting me and to my fellow panelists for a great discussion. Related links: The National Baccalaureate Convention  The English Baccalaureate: Coming Soon!  NBT Logo Colour Centred   If you would like your school or college to get involved, please contact


Knowledge is Power

When I began blogging in 2013, the argument that knowledge should be at the heart of the curriculum was readily rejected. The most common counter-argument was that rote learning of lists of facts was a waste of time as it would not lead to ‘deep learning’ (whatever that means) or understanding. Since that time, the debate seems to have shifted somewhat. Fewer people now argue that knowledge is irrelevant. Instead, critics argue that knowledge is just the beginning, or that we should somehow teach knowledge and skills simultaneously, or that a distinction between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy (yawn).

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I joined Michaela– where our motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’. Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge- rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school. Over the past year, I have come to see the impact that knowledge can have on a child’s ability to make interesting connections and links, and to analyse and evaluate ideas. At Michaela, all our children are expected to learn lists of facts by rote. This is still very unusual and there are many out there who criticise us for it.

But time and time again, I have seen the value of learning such lists of facts. Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, this rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with ‘Poseidon’- one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs.

On this particular occasion, we were preparing to study Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was.

In this instance, a lack of relevant knowledge rendered me incapable of grasping an accurate understanding of the facts. I consider myself to be a relatively good ‘critical thinker’ (although I’m sure many readers may disagree!), but my ability to think critically was useless in this instance because of the gaps in my knowledge. My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Tabula Rasa

The End of ‘Of Mice and Men’

I write this blog with tears in my eyes. Big fat tears are streaming down my cheeks as I contemplate teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ for the … last…time. Compose yourself, Chris. You can do it. In fact, you can do it!  Again. Next year. Just with Year 9. The lorry that is ‘Of Mice and Men’ is going to be delivered a year or two early for most people.

When I think back to the furore last year about the sudden demise of the novel from the curriculum, I am confused. Part of me adores the book and its subtleties and nuances. Another part of me despises the book because of the exam focus that surrounds it. Then another part of me, because I am a man made of many parts, thinks it is so important that people read the book’s ideas on friendship, disability and outsiders. Finally, a part of me is frustrated that this is the general ‘go to’ book for most teachers when there are others next to it in the stock cupboard. The fact that I have so many conflicting parts is probably one of the reasons I walk funny.

Recently, I sent ‘Of Mice and Men’ off on holiday. For a year, I cleansed my palate with Harper Lees’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Then, I came back to the little old novella I have been teaching for what seems years and I discovered a few things. I don’t think they are mind blowing, but for me, they were gaps in the curtains of something deeper in the novel.

‘those Western magazinesranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe’

When looking at the description of the bunkhouse, one student piped up, looking for a way to avoid doing work, ‘Can we watch a Western?’ Usually, I skim over this, but this time, looking for an opportunity to do some more work, I said: ‘Yeah.’ Now, I am not a big fan of Westerns and, to be honest, I have never read one or seen one. Therefore, I got researching.

These points I discovered:

·         There is very little moral ambiguity in the story. The villains and heroes are clear from the start. Often the hero wears a ‘star’. The purpose of the story is to purge the bad elements from the community or story.

·         There is an ongoing battle with nature. The Western tends to set in physically harsh environments. Men try to live in barren and inhospitable places and if they succeed they have beaten nature.

·         They tend set in the furthest reaches of humanity. The further away from mankind you are the closer you are to discovering something new.

·         There is usually a power struggle at the heart of the story. Let’s call it a showdown. Two people have to meet at midday in the centre of town to shoot it out. Only one person can win.

·         There is a big contrast between the barren external environment and the exciting places inside – brothels and bars.

·         Oh yeah. They always feature horses, hats, guns and nice boots.

The simple throwaway comment from a student made me see the novel in a new light. What is the novel’s link to pulp Westerns? They were incredibly common and popular at the time, so people reading the books would have known the reference and the allusions that maybe fly straight over my head.

It is interesting to note that, in way, John Steinbeck’s story can be seen as an ‘anti-Western’ story. The characters aren’t clearly defined as heroes and villains. We are made to feel sympathy for Curley’s wife, and in some ways, Curley. They show unpleasant characteristics in their behaviour, but these usually stem from an insecurity or a fear and not out of pure hared or greed. The heroes commit bad deeds, but for good or misguided reasons.

Then, look at the way that nature is used in the book. Mankind rules nature throughout the story. It farms it and controls it, but the start and opening contain dominant images of nature in control. The world is beautiful yet man is dangerous. Compare this view of nature to that of a Western. The world is ugly and dangerous and man has to fix things and make it habitable.   

We even have a showdown in the form of Curley and Lennie. It isn’t a gun and quickness that defeats the other person. It is pure physical strength. In a Western, the fastest gunslinger is the winner in society. In Soledad, the strongest and smartest is the winner in society. Lennie sadly learns this lesson.

In fact, if you look at the book from a ‘Western’ perspective, you see how the novel is an inversion of the typical cowboy story. It is often commented that Steinbeck worked hard to be realistic with his storytelling. However, I’d suggest that he isn’t being realistic, but writing a Western with humanity. Or, a modern Western.  

There are usually seven types of Western stories.

  1. The Union Pacific story. The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon train stories probably fall into this category.
  2. The ranch story. The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners.  – Curley clearly fears this happening.
  3. The empire story. The plot might involve building up a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot.  – The dream of the farm
  4. The revenge story. The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story. – Curley search for Lennie  / the death of Curley’s wife   
  5. The cavalry and Indian story. The plot revolves around taming the wilderness for white settlers. – There is the constant farming on the ranch, but also the taming of characters such as Lennie and Curley; they make the ranch inhospitable
  6. The outlaw story. The outlaw gangs dominate the action. – Curley’s actions go against the natural law of the ranch  
  7. The marshal story. The lawman and his challenges drive the plot. – George


The characters make an interesting point of comparison too. I think that we can safely establish that Slim is the typical cowboy. He is a foil for the other characters. We see how Curley fails to meet the typical view of a cowboy. Look at some of the adjectives Steinbeck used to describe his and Slim’s physical appearance:

Slim: tall, long, black, damp, hatchet, ageless, slow, large, lean, delicate, calm

Curley: young, thin, young, brown, brown, tightly curled

Our image of a cowboy does not feature a tight perm. The curly hair of Curley highlights how biologically he is on the losing path already. (I suggest he invests in a pair of GHDs.) Then, there is the body. One is ‘lean’ while the other one is ‘thin’. Then there is experience. One is ‘young’ whereas the other one is ‘ageless’. I could go on with the comparison between Curley and Slim. In fact, all the characters contrast with the typical view of a cowboy. Even, George is short. They show how the ‘normal’ man cannot ever match up to this idealised view of cowboys. Look at how Slim is presented as a divine being. He represents what the others want to be. It is quite telling how the character of Slim is never really developed beyond being the nice guy that calms the situation down. Yes, he is the Sherriff of the set up, and, isn’t…. he ….dull. That is the problem with Westerns: they don’t make interesting characters. They make great cardboard cut outs, but very limited characters. Does Slim have a wife? Does Slim have a hobby? Does Slim have an interesting backstory? He doesn’t. He fixes things and that is it.

So, if Slim represents the typical Western character, the position he holds in the story is to highlight how real the other people are in the story. He also symbolises the idea that Westerns are something to ‘scoff’ at. Slim is too good to be true, yet all the characters ‘believe’ in him. This blind acceptance is at the heart of the story. We accept things when we know that they can’t possibly be real, true or possible. Nobody can be like Slim. He is just too good to be true, but nobody can blame a man for trying. That’s what society does. It puts images of things that look attainable and achievable, but the reality is that nobody can attain to that level of perfection. We can try, but we will never get there.  

‘those Western magazinesranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe’

Every Year 10 / 11 student remembers what magazines were in Crooks’ ‘room’, but interestingly he doesn’t have a Western magazine. Why? Maybe Crooks doesn’t ‘secretly believe’ in the Western stories. He is constantly reminded by others of his non-conformity in a world. Crook is the complete opposite of Slim and so has to travel the most to become like him.  However, his routes of escapism is probably more realistic than any of the other characters. And, that is a tough thing to say given the historical context. I always teach my classes to see that Crook’s is the most intelligent character in the book. He reads books to improve himself and escape from the world he finds himself in. The classic Western story is a world not populated by black people, so not only is the world not accepting of black people in those days, but the dreams and ideals are also not accepting of Crooks.

Then, we get to Bill Tenner.

“’Dear Editor,’” Slim read slowly. “’I read your mag for six years and I think it is the best on the market. I like stories by Peter Rand. I think he is a whingding. Give us more like the Dark Rider. I don’t write many letters. Just thought I would tell you I think your mag is the best dime’s worth I ever spent.’”

This is always one of the oddest things in the book and don’t get me on to the talking rabbit. One day I will solve that ‘elephant in the room’ or ‘talking bunny in a dream sequence’. The men see this letter as a sign of success. There is one person that has made it. But, what has he made. He has written a letter. That’s all. Bill has not made a family. Bill has not started his own ranch. Bill has not won a million pounds. No, the sign of success is a letter that has been published. Not a farm. Not a ranch.

It is interesting to see that success is closely linked to the Western again. He is successful because his name is printed next to a Western story. The closest thing to being in the story.  He has achieved his dream by being linked to a Western story in a magazine. Bill hasn’t become a cowboy, but he has become the next best thing. So is that what John Steinbeck is teaching us in the book: You cannot achieve your dreams, but if you can settle for the next best thing, you will be happy.

I am sad that I will not be teaching at GCSE ‘Of Mice and Men’, but I am happy because I can teach this rich text with another year group. But, do you know what? There are benefits to having a break from studying a text for a bit. You get to see things again in a new light….

The saloon bar doors swung open. A girl was standing there looking in. The piano stopped. Heads looked up from their table. The sunlight silhouetted the girl.  

She had full, rouged lips and widespaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers. “I’m lookin’ for Curley,” she said. Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.

Nobody answered her.

The two new strangers to town held their heads down, avoiding any contact. The larger of the two men couldn’t help but look up. The other man punched him hard in the arm.

She looked around again. ‘Any of you?’ An old man with his lame dog hidden at his feet by the bar continued wiping the bar down, ignoring her.

The Sherriff was at the back of the room. His head was down covered by his Stetson. His ageless face obscured by the hat. His hand gently went to gun on the table. He sensed trouble. It always walked into his town, his way, his life. This time it wore red.

The sunlight held dust in the air and painted the room with like a thin layer of gauze.   


Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

20 psychological principles for teachers #17 Classroom management

This is #17 in my series on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning and is the second of two posts examining how classrooms should be managed: “Effective class- room management is based on (a) setting and communicating high expectations, (b) consistently nurturing positive relationships, and (c) providing a high level of student support.”

It’s an oft-repeated truism that nobody rises to low expectations and this is as true of standards of behaviour as it is for academic achievement; the more you expect, the higher you place the bar, the less children will expect to get away with. What we accept becomes acceptable. It’s up to us to determine what will be permitted in schools and classrooms.

Classrooms are microcosms of a school. While in-school variation can be immense, the values reflected in classrooms tend to aggregate towards the values espoused by the school. I’ve argued before that the climate for effective classroom management is set by school leaders. Students’ behaviour, whether in the classroom or the corridors, is the responsibility of the head teacher.Of course teachers share in this responsibility and, of course the way teachers behave affects students’ behaviour, but blaming teachers for the way students choose to behave is a sure sign of poor leadership. Students choose how to behave and they quickly learn which teachers can be safely ignored. Teachers, especially new teachers need to know the school has their back, that they’re genuinely supported. Teachers end of the deal is to follow the school’s rules to the letter. Failing to follow the behaviour policy – whatever it is – undermines every other teacher and those most in need of support go to the wall. As the Top 20 report puts it, “students need to have a clear understanding of the behavioral rules and expectations of the classroom, and these expectations must be communicated directly and frequently and consistently enforced.” This needs to be done at the macro as well as the micro level.

Rather clumsily, I’m sure, I’m equating the three aspects of this principle with three different body parts:

  • Balls: setting and communicating high expectations
  • Heart: consistently nurturing positive relationships
  • Mind: providing a high level of student support.

The first principle of effective classroom management is a whole-school policy which is clear, fair, predictable and proportionate. With this in place teachers have the authority to take their classroom, metaphorically, by the balls. This is about setting boundaries, establishing routines and pissing in the corners of your classroom (Again, not something to be taken literally!) Students need to smell your pheromones when they enter your room. Here are 5 suggestions for establishing routines:

  1. Know the school rules and stick to them
  2. Never let pupils sit where they want
  3. Use agreed consequences fairly and consistently
  4. Never let pupils work off punishments
  5. Contact parents at the start of the year, just to say hello

When this work is done, we can then embark on forming relationships which we focussed on in Principle 14. The report says, “The most effective teachers, schools, and programs also emphasize the development of supportive and nurturing relationships with students.” It’s often said that teaching is ‘all about relationships’ and to a large extent this is true. If kids like you, trust you and respect you they will, by and large, learn from you. There will always be some students who don’t click or whose lives take them down dark paths, but there’s a tipping point at which a majority are on-side and you have their hearts. If you’ve won their hearts, then you can begin the serious business of changing their minds.

Changing minds is two-fold. It’s about teaching the academic curriculum, but it’s also about supporting students in developing the self-regulation they need to be successful. How best to achieve these aims?

The report proposes two school-side suggestions which are, I think, less sound. The first suggestion is restorative justice. The theory goes that programmes which “enable students to gain an understanding of how to restore relationships damaged by disruption and violence” will be beneficial. But to who? The biggest problem with restorative justice is that it often becomes a blunt and clumsy stick. The culprit’s needs are often placed over those of the victim. A victim may not want a relationship to be restored and this should never be imposed.

The second suggestion is social-emotional learning strategies. Time spent trying to explicitly teach students to manage emotions, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions is time that could be spent of teaching an academic curriculum. For this time to be worthwhile it would have to be both successful and necessary. There’s little evidence that such programmes do teach the skills they intend students to learn. What’s more, teaching an academic curriculum might be a better way to incidentally model and practise the skills we want students to possess.

But arguing about the efficacy of these programmes misses the point. What’s really important is that the structure imposed by schools is balanced with support. If students are just punished, they may well end up feeling oppressed and disenfranchised. We can take a zero-tolerance approach, but the evidence seems to suggest this doesn’t have the effect we want and unruly students just end up as someone else’s problem. An effect behaviour policy seeks to help students make better choices. The report concludes by stating that schools which strive to balance structure and support are likely to have lower levels of suspension and bullying. And that’s go to be worth aiming for.

References cited by the report

  • Evertson, C. M., & Emmer, E. T. (2009) Classroom Management for Elementary Teachers
  • Rothstein-Fisch, C., & Trumball, E. (2008) Managing Diverse Classrooms: How to Build on Students’ Cultural Strengths.
  • Skiba, R., & Peterson, R. (2003). Teaching the social curriculum: School discipline as instruction
  • Weinstein, C., Tomlinson-Clarke, S., & Curran, M. (2004). Toward a conception of culturally responsive classroom management. Journal of Teacher Education

The post 20 psychological principles for teachers #17 Classroom management appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Notes on a scandal. I mean: Notes on a new GCSE spec!

In my head, everybody is working on their new GCSE specifications. I am sure my local butcher is busy working on it. And, the car mechanic. Even the florist down the road is thinking about how it will impact on lilies.  The whole world is changing and everybody is dealing with it. Okay, maybe not everybody. Okay, maybe not every subjects. Okay, may be not every teacher. Well, the English teachers are.

Changing GCSE specifications is the metaphorical equivalent of redecorating your house. You pick the paint, move the furniture, prepare the room, and then you paint. But, then you decide a few years later that you picked the wrong colour and you do it all over again.  In my short time teaching, I will have taught eight different English GCSEs. I have gone through the process several times and there hasn’t been many changes between specs. This new specification, however, has a slightly different texture to it. I can cope with the closed book aspect. I can cope with the pre1914 text aspect. I can cope with older non-fiction texts. The exam papers are a different thing.

 This blog is about my first thoughts on Paper 1 on the GCSE English Language exam. As a department, we set Year 9 students a paper based on an extract from ‘Oliver Twist’. We used similar question to those used in the specimen paper provided and we marked using the mark scheme provided.  We didn’t prepare students for the paper, because we wanted to see how they dealt with the paper and see what the major problems were. The paper will be a baseline assessment for teachers in Year 10. I wanted us to engage with the new format and look at the nuts and bolts of the paper, rather than spend six meetings deciding on the name of units of work instead of dealing with how to teach things.


Question 1: List four things from this part of the text about X.

This was a pretty straightforward question. Most students did well on this, but the most able struggled with it as, at times, they felt that something more complex was needed. Therefore, they overdid it. We all know examiners like to build students up with the questioning on papers, but with most able students they want to impress from the word go. Every question is an important question in their eyes. So it is no surprise that some students wrote a whole page, squeezing every last idea out for four small marks.


Question2: How does the writer use language here to describe X?

This is probably the one question that has changed things for us. Looking at the examples provided, I am worried. Because: simply this question seems to be about technique vomiting. Chuck everything at the reader and hope some of it makes sense. We have always spent time trying to build students up to make detailed and developed interpretations of a text and explore multiple meanings and ideas. We have always wanted students to explore choices made by referring to the wider meaning of the text. But, now the subject terminology is at the forefront of the analysis. In fact, it is the driver of the thinking. Whereas before the technique used to be an indicator of the writer’s ideas and thoughts, the new questioning focuses on the techniques and a brief explanation of the feeling it creates. Yes, there may be some implicit meaning, but the focus is clearly on the technique and its effect and not the whole text and the writer’s purpose.

I’d say that this question could possibly be the worst going by the full mark example. It goes a bit like this:

The verb ‘vomiting’ reflects the disgust of process and the use of colon highlights the importance of things as the writer is introducing a new idea. The writer also uses complex sentences which show the complexity of the process. The pronoun ‘us’ is used in a collect sense and then changes to ‘we’ in the second sentences, highlighting the different people out there.  

Our students fell down because they didn’t list techniques. They logically, as we have always taught them to, worked through a point and explored it. They highlighted a feature and then developed it in several sentences. The example provided suggested that sentences in response to the question need to combine the technique and effect in one sentence. The X has the effect of this. The context of the writing is lost when the development is limited to a sentence.

The terminology wasn’t so much as an issue for our students (thanks to KS2); however, there is clearly a need to make sure every student knows a noun, verb, adjective, adverb and pronoun. I think the speed at which students have to list this terms is a problem too. Students get to them in the end, but they are not used to the parrot fashion of looking at a sentence and spotting noun, verb and adjective. I see across the land hundred of teachers making PowerPoint getting students to spot a noun, a verb and an adjective in an extract.

Plus, some of the technique spotting is dodgy. A complex sentence is referred to in the example and I’d say it is clutching at straws. How could you explain the use of a compound, complex or simple sentence and its effect?

A complex sentence highlights how complex the issue is.

A complex sentence highlights how there are two things and one cannot function without the other.
A simple sentence highlights how simple the man’s thoughts are.
A simple sentence reinforces how there is just one person in the room.
A compound sentence highlights how there are two things joined together.  

Now, don’t even get me on the indefinite and definite article. I don’t give an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ about it. Seriously, we are going to be having students clutching at straws to interpret meaning. Tenuous is the term that springs to mind.  I also seem to recall that exam boards stating that technical terminology wasn’t necessary for success in the exam. It seems that that is the opposite now.

I think from now on my classroom conversation will centre on using phrases like ‘ the noun highlights….’ and ‘the preposition shows’. I do think this question is a game changer. Repeat after me students……

A verb shows action

A list of verbs show a continuous action

A present tense verb shows it is immediate.

Furthermore, I think the model of point and develop will have to change. Paper 2 has more of the old style PEE potential, but this question will change the way we analyse a text.


Question 3: How has the writer structured the text to interest you as a reader?

This question I enjoyed. It is fairly straightforward. Students did better when they approached the text in a logical fashion and then made links back to the rest of the text. They were also able to explain things in depth with this question, so they did better because they were able to talk about writing, which is what we want our students to do. Talk and discuss it. Not list things.

It is again an interesting point that ‘subject terminology’ is plastered all over the mark scheme, yet I am struggling to find such terminology in the examples. I am convinced that there are none. But, this is the problem: there is very little terminology for describing the structure of a text. I can think of a handful and I studied English at university. So this aspect of the exam paper confused me.  

Aside from all this stuff, I have noticed a new word in the mark scheme: judicious. We are now expecting students use quotes judiciously but not conservatively or liberally.   

Question 4: A student said this: …… To what extent do you agree?

This is, I think, a dramatic shift in the textual analysis at GCSE. We have had elements of criticism implied in the tasks and the top band has always been marked as ‘critically evaluating’ the text, but I in all my minutes of teaching I have not had to teach this kind of critical discussion at GCSE. Boy, do I love the idea! We do explore the text when teaching, but we don’t make the critical aspect an explicit assessment aspect. And, I am, relishing the thought of it. However, it is a difficult aspect. When students are struggling to recall the key points of a text, they then have to work out if they think the portrayal of  Y is realistic.

 It is true that with the papers I marked the students struggled with this immensely. Yes, it is the last question and worth the most marks so it should be harder, but there has been very little in the past curriculum signalling students to this point. I can see that KS2 is preparing them with a terminology splurge. There hasn’t been an emphasis on critical viewpoints. Looking at documents given, a lot of the emphasis is criticism of the text, but not arguing a defined view. Now this might be a picky point, but, in my book being critical about a text and exploring criticisms by others are two different things. Words like ‘evaluate’ and ‘critical’ are thrown around in English without a thought about what they actually amount to. We struggle to teach these aspects as sometimes, as some people might argue, they are hard to teach as students develop these skills through their breadth of reading. I cannot agree or disagree with the statement that my local restaurant produces the best curries in Derbyshire. Why? Because, I have only eaten curries in a few places in Derbyshire.

Obviously, the quantity of texts students read is important, but also offering critical viewpoints is just as important too. Our KS3 curriculum does include some of these in essays. How courageous is … ?  But now, I think we have to look at embedding this further. Rather than spot and explain a text, we are making a point and challenging it. Read this poem. Frank read it in the pub and he said it isn’t an effective way to show the reality of life. Do you agree with Frank or not?   

Overall, I am happy with the new specifications. I like the shift back to fiction and non-fiction texts and not just non-fiction texts. This now seems to be a happy compromise. It means we can increase the breadth of texts we can use. As long as it is an effective description, setting or character, then you can use it. Looking at the wider impact on our teaching, I think these are the key points we need to build or make explicit in our teaching:

·         Students must have a concrete knowledge of the key parts of a sentence.

·         Students must be able to quickly spot parts of a sentence under pressure.

·         Students must change the way they write analysis so it is concise and follows the identify + effect pattern in one single sentence.

·         Students must be concise with their explanations.

·         Students must have clear terminology for describing the structure of a text.

·         Students must be familiar with different opinions about a text

·         Students must be able to formulate a response to an opinion about a text or aspect.


I might blog about the other paper when I get to it. Nonetheless, I have tomorrow’s lesson sorted out:

Year 10:

One student said: ”Of Mice and Men’ is the biggest waste of time and it is too predictable.’  

How far do you agree with that statement?

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Festival of Education 2015: Ideas, people, emotions. #PassOut.


I had a great day at Wellington.  It’s been a super-tough week at work and this event has become my annual headspace day.  Thanks so much to David James for organising it for inviting me – again. It’s a magnificent festival.

With Tinie Tempah in the house this year I was pleased to have two talks (gigs!) given that one was in direct competition with him. (“I’ve got so many clothes I keep some in my Aunt’s house “- Pass Out)

1.  The Trivium comes to Highbury Grove. 

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It was a thrill to present this with Martin Robinson, telling the story of our work together this year. Here are the slides.

Related posts include:

  • Trivium 21st C Could this be the Answer
  • The Trivium and the Baccalaureate: The flesh and the bones of a great education.
  • Our emerging framework for teaching and learning

Thanks to everyone who came along to support and for the lovely feedback.

2.  Comprehensive Ideals in the Curriculum. 

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This was meant to be my main slot – and I’m grateful for all the people who came in out of the sun and away from the Tempah vibes to listen to me walk through my views on what the curriculum should include for all students in a truly comprehensive school: Academic learning, arts, outdoor education, cultural capital, personal development –  everything.  It was a bit of a broad sweep linking the details of our curriculum to the bigger mission – with a big plug for the emerging National Baccalaureate.

At the every end, when I showed the last slide, I was overwhelmed with emotion; there were tears. On the stage. I guess it all means a lot to me… more than I know.   Our students matter; they need us to deliver for them; the National Bacc will deliver if we get behind it. It’s  not just a job ….it really isn’t.  Here are the slides – but I don’t know how much sense they make without the talk.  (Can I stress that the Historical Hundred image is just for illustration – these are not the actual things)

Related posts include:

  • The National Baccalaureate Convention June 25th
  • Our Comprehensive Curriculum for All
  • Ebacc for All. Shackles on or off?

3. My Professional Learning from the day 

I attended various panels and discussion sessions that had lots of very healthy overlap, reinforcing some key themes.  These included inputs from a host of big-hitters: Prof Rob Coe, Daisy Christodoulou, Tom Bennett (twice), David Weston, Philippa Cordingley, David Didau, Dylan Wiliam.  And of course the mighty Carol Dweck. ‘The themes that emerge for me are:

1. We need to drive school improvement through improving teaching and do this by focusing on better CPD and very simply, more CPD – so that teachers have time to learn, deliberately practice and reflect.  CPD needs to build on or generate alignment with teachers’ values  and pedagogical biases if it is to succeed in changing practice.  A Head’s job is therefore crucial in building consensus around values and biases rather than imposing or forcing things.  Teacher differences are bigger than school differences – and teachers have a role in supporting each other through open professional discourse, facilitated through school structures and open doors.

2.  Teachers need to engage with research and evidence in a way that gives them a more profound understanding of how their students learn and behave so that, in the flow of the teaching process, their instincts and judgements are built around solid foundations of pedagogical wisdom – some of which may have originated in distant research trials, some of which will be built on their own experience.  This is as close as we’ll get to a meaningful analogy with medical research and practice. It’s necessary and wise to strike a balance between thinking of students as individuals with different needs and learning preferences – and thinking of them as the same with a great deal in common.

3.  Changing mindsets through interventions is possible and powerful but we need to acknowledge our own fixed mindset tendencies; false Growth Mindset is real; we can kid ourselves, talking the talk but not walking the walk.  Teachers need to embrace growth mindset thinking before we have a chance of effecting significant change through psychological interventions with our students.

4.  Dylan Wiliam has some issues with Lesson Study; I’m a huge fan – it’s such rich professional learning – but if DW raises a flag, it pays to listen so I’m going to explore this further.

4.   The People

The best part of any festival is always talking to people in between the events.  There are too many to list here but  it was lovely to see you all. It was particularly good to meet Tom Starkey (@tstarkey1212) who has a refreshing groundedness about teaching and parenthood.  Of course it all matters a lot – but we are all human; Tom is good at keeping it real.


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How can we motivate reluctant readers?

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending my first ever ‘Spinning’ class at my local gym. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Spinning is exercise for people who hate themselves. The indoor cycling phenomenon, which became trendy a few years ago, is still the calorie-burning activity of choice for those who enjoy pain and sweat-soaked, arse-cramping humiliation.


About five minutes in to the session, I thought I was either going to have to stumble out, throw up all over the bike, or cry. I looked to my left to see that one guy had already managed to escape. He looked back over his shoulder as he exited the room; I caught his eyes and, without saying a word, begged him to take me with him. But there was no chance of escape. The coach was crouched in front of me, screaming in my face, shouting at me to go faster. In that hour, I experienced new levels of pain and left feeling that Spinning should most definitely come with a warning label saying “Not for the physically and/or mentally feeble” or something like that.


Landing back on my couch an hour or so later, I limply whimpered and hugged my legs to remind them that they still existed. As I recovered, I thought about the parallels between the horror of spinning, and what it must feel like for a struggling reader every time they are asked to pick up a book.


Reading is incredibly hard work for some children. It’s so hard that they want to give up before they have even really begun- just like I felt after a few minutes of the spinning class. It was my first time, so I went in thinking that I was going to fail. For a struggling reader, merely picking up a book can bring all sorts of anxieties and fears. Some kids even give up and decide that there is little point in trying right from the off. They are afraid to give reading a chance. It’s hard, it’s arduous; frankly, it’s a task that is easier to avoid than to confront.


So what can we do to motivate reluctant readers? It’s something that teachers across the land have pondered for decades. In some schools, I have seen teachers industriously searching for texts that appeal to kids’ interests. In other schools, I have seen teachers redefine reading completely, asking pupils to use iPads rather than books (Indeed, I once visited a school where the library had been replaced entirely by Apple products- not a single book remained- a fact that the Head was most proud of; she assured me this strategy had dramatically improved reading motivation across the school.)


Like thousands of other educators, I have mulled this over for ages. I’ve picked up lots of ideas over the last few years, but here are a few that work well. None of this is revolutionary- quite the opposite!


  1. Get them into the right habits


We must help children to form the right reading habits. If we allow them not to read, they will never learn to do it. And if they never learn to do it, they won’t learn to love it. It’s a nasty, vicious spiral that we should endeavour to snap them out of as soon as possible. Like going to an exercise class, it will be painful at first, but if you don’t even bother going, how will you ever get fit?


Daily reading is something I have seen work excellently in Primary schools. Secondary teachers, I implore you to visit your local primary right now and see how much those kids are reading every day. For some reason, not all Secondary schools keep this up. Often, we just give them a library card, tell them to go and find something they like, and then leave them to it. NEWSFLASH: this is not enough.


I’m not advocating a military regime where we chain them to a desk and force them to read, but is it wrong to insist that pupils read every single day for an extended period of time? Yes, this will mean that you have to make space for it in the timetable. Yes, it will mean that you might not be able to use tutor time for endless announcements and pupil voice surveys. But it will make a difference- trust me.


Of course, for the most reluctant readers, silent reading time can simply be an opportunity to stare out the window. To avoid this, use these chunks of time to run small group reading sessions with the weakest readers. If a teaching assistant can cover the rest of class whilst they are reading in silence, the teacher can take out the few who need the most support and read with them.


Daily reading practice is vital for habit change and motivation. If every Secondary Head teacher in the country could prioritise this, we’d be a lot further along in solving the problems of literacy in the UK.



  1. Help them to experience success


Believe it or not, I did in fact survive my first Spinning session. As somewhat of a glutton for punishment, I have since been back a few times, not just because I enjoy public humiliation, but because I really want to get better at Spinning. (Currently, my aim in life is to go once a week and not die.) Surviving my first session made me realise that I absolutely can do it if I keep going. If I throw in the towel, I’ll never get there. But the taste of success has persuaded me to keep trying.


The same is true of struggling readers. They must feel that they are learning and improving every time they pick up a book. First, ensure that they are on the right reading programme (more information on this here). This will enable them to succeed and feel that they are making progress. Secondly, help them to track their progress. Visual trackers and displays make success more visceral and appealing for struggling readers. A simple star chart will suffice. Again, I’m not advocating anything revolutionary here.


  1. Increase the challenge


By far the most frightening moment in Spinning was when the coach came over and increased the level of resistance on my bike. At that point, I thought I was about to leave this mortal coil for good. But then I looked around the room and noticed that he was only increasing the resistance for the people who looked like they were dying the least. It gave me such a confidence boost (‘Check me out! I’m winning at this! I’m ready to go up a level! I am awesome! I’m winning at life! I love Spinning!’), that I felt so motivated to keep going.


I thought about this whilst I was recovering later on. Maybe it was the dopamine talking, but an increased level of challenge really gave me a buzz. It stopped me from feeling like a complete failure and made me realise that I was totally capable of doing it. There was nothing physically preventing me from carrying on- as per usual, my stubborn head had been the only thing getting in my way.


I’ve applied this to our reading motivation strategy at Michaela. I’ve seen struggling readers patronised with graphic novels, magazines, comics and all sorts of nonsense in the past. It’s an approach that aligns well with that old adage “It matters not what they read, as long as they read something” – a line that I wholeheartedly disagree with. If you only ever eat KFC, you won’t be very healthy; if you only read picture books, you won’t get better at reading.


We have an after-school reading club at Michaela. The 15 weakest readers come every day after school and we read great books together. At the moment, we are chomping our way through the Classic Starts series: so far, they have devoured Frankenstein, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Sherlock Holmes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roman Myths and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They absolutely loved reading them. This is partly because they are great stories with brilliant characters, but it is also a consequence of increased levels of challenge. We don’t patronise them with nonsense that intends to appeal to their interests; we want to expand their horizons, not limit them. It has given them an enormous sense of achievement to sit and read all of these books, to understand them and have an opinion of them.


It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that weak readers should read more challenging books, but the paradox of reading is that we must be challenged in order to improve.


Tabula Rasa

One Hundred Classics for Every Child

“Miss! I learnt about the Blue Carbunceruncle, Miss!” The excited shriek comes from a tiny, wide-eyed boy in my tutor group. The knot of his tie is inexplicable; his folder bulges out from under his skinny little arm; the Velcro on one of his shoes is stuck to his trousers. He pauses briefly and looks up, beaming and panting slightly after his hasty trot up the stairs.


I can’t help but grin back. “Oh! You’ve discovered the secret of the Blue Carbuncle, have you? Quite the Detective!” I reply. My voice is filled with genuine glee as I emphasise the correct pronunciation of what is – to be fair- a surprising and confounding word at first greeting. My response is animated, possibly a touch over-egged, but I’m enjoying myself and am getting swept away by the enthusiasm, so I keep going with it.


“Yes, Miss!” He offers a bashful grin and giggle, wipes his nose on the cuff of his shirt, and turns and walks to his desk.


A hand shoots up from the front row. It’s a tall girl with a pristine shirt and ponytails. Her pens, ruler and exercise book are already laid out perfectly on her desk.


“It was hidden inside the duck, Miss!” she yelps.


Another hand “Miss, ‘ow do you say that word of that blue thing, Miss?”


“Mr. Holmes is so clever, Miss!”


“He’s sick, Miss!”


Two days before, I presented my after-school Reading Club kids with the newest addition to our repertoire. We’d already ripped through abridgements of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, among others. I’d been saving Sherlock for a while. I wasn’t sure if they’d get into it, to be completely honest. I wasn’t sure if the stories might be a bit too obscure and complicated. But fortunately, my instincts were spectacularly incorrect. Contrary to my predictions, Holmes was quite the hit. They couldn’t get enough of him and his sharp-witted, crime-solving ways. I’m pretty sure that two or three kids have decided they want to become detectives since reading about the famous sleuth. I’m sure the HR department at the Metropolitan Police will be delighted.


Reading Club is the highlight of my day. At 4pm, the bell goes and I open my classroom door. Fifteen smiling faces wait in the corridor, books clasped in their clammy paws and a thousand questions on their lips.


“Is Esmeralda going to die, Miss?”


“Does Shmuel go back to Berlin with Bruno, Miss?”


“Was it the monster that did it, Miss?”


“Can I read first, Miss?”


We settle in to our current tome after a quick recap of what we read the day before. We take it in turns to read sections aloud and we discuss what we’ve read. That’s it. We read. We enjoy it. We talk about it. It’s not complicated at all.


I’ve written before about how to get kids reading. I should note that all the kids in Reading Club can decode well enough to access texts aimed at 11 year-olds. The content and vocabulary may be challenging in places, but that’s the beauty of reading in a group with an adult: I can do my teacher thing and support them through the tricky bits.


Katharine, our Headmistress, regularly pops in to Reading Club to see what’s happening (and to soak up its general awesomeness, of course). She is unbelievably supportive and champions reading around the school. We were chatting about our whole-school reading strategy recently when she pointed out that our weakest readers are now the kids that have read the most classic novels. We have a lovely school library, and all pupils have been reading plenty from there. This is, of course, wonderful, and I’m never going to tell a child they can’t read something if they really want to read it, but there are lots of books that they may fall in love with, but might never pick up off the shelf. Let’s be honest: if you were eleven, would you rather read The Diary of A Wimpy Kid or Wuthering Heights?


Whether you’re a Wutherer or a Wimp, it’s important to be exposed to as broad a range of texts as possible. Additionally, there is something fabulous about having read and engaged with the classics. They are the books that have shaped our society and have influenced our collective thinking throughout the ages. Not only should we want to keep the flame of these favourites alive, we should want to empower all children with the cultural knowledge these stories bring.


Inspired by Reading Club, therefore, we have recently introduced a new reading goal for every child. Over five years, every single Michaela pupil will read at least 100 classic novels during tutor time. Some of these will be abridgements, but many won’t be. This does not include any subject lesson reading or independent reading. Many kids, therefore, will read a lot more than this. But the absolute minimum entitlement for every kid is 100 books. Why should we settle for any less?


How the programme works


  1. All pupils read the same book every day during tutor time. Every child has a copy. The tutor reads along with the pupils and will read aloud occasionally, too. (We buy one class set of each text and rotate. Expensive: yes. WHAT ELSE IS WORTH SPENDING THE MONEY ON?!??!?)
  2. All pupils take their copy home each evening and read the next section.
  3. The next day, the tutor gives the class a multiple choice question based on what they read the night before. These are created centrally and provided to the tutor on a PowerPoint.
  4. Pupils may read ahead or re-read sections if they wish.
  5. Pupils are expected to carry their own book from the library, which they are welcome to read at their leisure after class-reading time is finished. This equates to about twenty minutes a day.


At this rate, we get through one short book every two or three weeks. Some longer novels can take anywhere up to about seven or eight weeks. In future years, when they are in the habit of reading at home, they’ll read longer sections independently so they can get through weightier tomes in less time.


If you are keen to learn more, here is the briefing document I wrote for tutors, which outlines the strategy in more detail: New Reading Strategy Tutors


Here is an example PowerPoint with multiple choice questions for tutors: Dracula PowerPoint

*Note: ‘Blue’ is the name of our in-house ICT system, which we use to create and assign multiple choice quizzes.

Tabula Rasa

This much I know about…Northern Rocks 2015

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about Northern Rocks 2015.

I had the pleasure of presenting at Northern Rocks 2015 yesterday. Huge thanks to Debra Kidd and Emma Hardy for putting together such a treat. After a tough week, it was a delight to be a small part of such a huge celebratory educational community. Here are my slides and accompanying videos, for anyone who is interested…

View this document on Scribd


Video 1: Lisa modelling her thinking


Video 2: Kallan modelling his thinking


Video 3: Sir Ken Robinson on the conditions for growth


Video 4: Rita Pierson – every child deserves a champion


Video 5: Joe Strummer, Without people you’re nothing…


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


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)