This much I know about…what I learnt at the Sutton Trust-Gates Summit this week

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about what I learnt at the Sutton Trust-Gates Summit this week.

I still get excited like a child. On 8 January 1980 the Clash played The Brighton Top Rank and my 15 year old self was there.


Two decades later, when the venue was dubbed The Event II and hosted discos, I made a point of dancing on stage at the very spot where Strummer had belted out London’s Calling all those years before. At the Omni-Shoreham hotel in Washington DC below, venue for the Sutton Trust-Gates Teacher Improvement Summit, I delivered my talk from the Blue Room stage, the very same stage on which the The Beatles warmed up for their first ever concert in the US.


The Omni-Shoreham even had the set-list on display, written in biro by John Lennon on hotel notepaper. Legend has it JFK would take Jackie to the Blue Room on dance dates. It was a very special event. I do know how lucky I am.


How do we improve teaching? Rob Coe has co-authored the Sutton Trust’s What is great teaching? which proved a touchstone for the conference. Tom Sherrington has written a superb and extensive post on what he learnt from participating in the Summit, which I cannot begin to rival; I’ve already written a short post about what I learnt on the first day. What became obvious, however, from our discussions with colleagues from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, the Netherlands, France and the UK is that the strategies we discussed to improve the quality of teaching can only be implemented effectively if the school culture is right. We didn’t need evidence-based research to tell us; it was a global truth we all knew.

Dr Paul D Browning was the star of the Summit. I’ve already mentioned him in my first summit post; Tom wrote about him too. His extensive work on Trust in schools led him to produce the Rubric for assessing trust and transformational leadership practices below:

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The potential uses of Paul’s rubric are numerous. I think, in time, we will use it at Huntington to gauge the leadership effectiveness of the SLT. Beyond that, who knows?

So, how do you measure school culture? Today I hosted a consultation event on the new OFSTED Framework, led by Nick Hudson, our Regional Director, and his colleagues. The weather was foul. The fire alarm sounded and the OFSTED team and the participants – all successful Heads – stood there whilst 1,700 Huntington students and staff evacuated the building. The students and staff stood in impeccable silence for seven or eight minutes. All you could hear was the consultation event attendees chattering away! When we resumed the consultation, I received compliments aplenty for the school’s conduct during the evacuation. That was a measure of school culture, I think, but not measurable.

What is worth measuring is often hard to measure. Ani Magill made an insightful comment on the second day of the summit when she said, The level of discretionary effort is a great indicator of school culture; it may be a great indicator, but it’s damned hard to measure! This issue particularly struck Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation. Within the UK delegation we pursued it further. Professor Rob Coe suggested that a research project which evaluated the effectiveness of all the tools which exist which purport to measure school culture would be worthwhile. He wanted to establish a set of tools which were mirrors which Headteachers could hold up and see a true reflection of their schools. Ani said that she wanted to know whether the culture of the school as she intended was embedded throughout the school like the letters in a stick of rock. Furthermore, when she had helped other schools improve, many times she would be told that all the cultural features of successful schools were already established, despite the student outcome evidence pointing starkly to the contrary. An objective tool for measuring school culture in those circumstances would be invaluable.

Sometimes when you work with great people the energy is infectious. As a result of our discussions I went on to co-host with Tom Sherrington an impromptu session entitled Taking the Cultural Temperature of Your School. In 30 minutes we gathered a number of ideas from our international colleagues. The Principal of Stonefields School, Sarah Martin, suggested several established processes which measured culture, some home grown, but most commercial products costing thousands of Pounds/Dollars/Euros. If Rob Coe’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) or the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) or The Institute for Effective Education (IEE), or the Institute of Education (IoE) could commission research into the most effective way of measuring school culture, wouldn’t that prove useful. The most effective of Rob Coe’s mirror-tools could be identified. We could gain, in a cost effective way, a measure of the environmental health of the schools we lead. Then we could take steps to make improvements based on good evidence. Then we could implement the great ideas we had for improving the quality of teaching in our schools more effectively, because, as we all agreed, the practitioners are the intervention. If colleagues are committed to what they are charged with doing, the greater the chance they will be doing what they are doing with fidelity to its intention.

You must read Being Mortal. Anul Gawande’s latest book is revelatory. It should be depressing but I am finding it uplifting. Earlier this year, two hospital appointments on the same Spring morning left me facing a new knee at sixty and requiring a replacement lead for my pacemaker! Thing is, I feel more energised than ever. Despite falling to bits and feeling horribly jet-lagged, I’ve been doing some work on collating these culture tools. And I haven’t had to look very far. Below is the fruit of my initial labours. The first five are my own, adapted from a talk by Ani at a Leading Edge conference some years ago.

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These two are home grown by us at Huntington – the student version derived from some work we did years ago with John Corrigan from the Australian firm Group 8 Education. The staff version is yet untried, but designed to help evaluate us as Performance Development Reviewers.

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I have used the Student 360 and was disappointed at some of the disparity between my perception of myself as a teacher and my students’ perception of me as their teacher. It has  helped me tweak aspects of my practice since.

The next batch derive from my initial web-search.

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And here’s a review of the efficacy of culture tools for measuring Principal impact by the American Institutes for Research.

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Contribute! I’ll be widening my search. If you know of a mechanism for measuring school culture please leave a comment.

It’s all about the culture, stupid! I have always said, to anyone who’ll listen, that my job as Headteacher is to get the conditions for growth right for staff and students. Truly great schools are grown oak tree-like over years, not overnight like mushrooms.


Postscript: When I was waiting at Newark for the flight back to Manchester I had an idea, inspired by the need to support our weakest readers and Gawande’s book. I sat in Departures at Gate 128 and wrote the Elevator Pitch and the Rationale:

The Elevator Pitch: We train a number of our Link Group Senior Citizens how to become experts in teaching phonics and delivering the on-line Accelerate Reader programme, and then set up a systematic intervention programme for our weakest Year 7 readers where the Senior Citizens use their training to teach them how to read.

The Rationale: There is good evidence that senior citizens enjoy a better quality of life if they have a reason for living which is focused upon helping others. Our cohorts of Year 7 students are coming to us with increasingly unequal academic prior attainment; the literacy gap is wider than it has ever been. We have no-one trained either to teach phonics or to use Accelerate Reader which the EEF think is emerging as one of the most effective tools for improving students’ reading skills. It makes logical sense to enrich the lives of both our Senior Citizens and our weakest youngest learners through the Inter-generational Reading Initiative.

I read it again when I landed in Manchester and have run it by a few people, including our Chair of Governors and a Professor of ICT. It still stands up. Watch this space!


This much I know about…improving both my teaching and my students’ learning, the sequel!

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about improving both my teaching and my students’ learning…the sequel!

There is no universal panacea to cure all teaching and learning ills. I find that teachers will sometimes adopt any new teaching tip which promises instant improvement of their students’ learning. I remember five years ago watching the following recording of Dylan Wiliam espousing the effectiveness of tasking students to design their own test questions. The next morning I walked the school and found three different teachers following Wiliam’s advice…with no improvement in learning whatsoever because the students had not been taught the complexities of constructing questions.


To construct test questions requires a deep understanding of how questions are structured. Back in October I posted a piece on how I had changed the way I taught the OCR Economics AS level, which you can find here. My students’ progress has been significantly better than their predecessors and I showed in that post how teaching them explicitly how questions are designed has been central in improving their understanding of both the subject content and how to answer examination questions. Today I sprung upon them the task of taking this case study based upon a BBC website article and designing a full Unit 1 examination paper.

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Dylan Wiliam was right about the efficacy of asking students to construct test questions. If you compare the students’ paper with the real thing, it reveals both their clear understanding of the shape of the content of the OCR AS Economics Unit 1 and how the questions are constructed. Their homework for Thursday is to construct the mark scheme, the final piece of this term’s learning jigsaw. Watch this space…

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Students constructing their own test questions


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.

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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:

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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:

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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!

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Overloaded? Out of Control? Press the Reset Button.

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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:





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)