This much I know about…Michael Gove’s departure

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about Michael Gove’s departure.

Michael Gove could have won me over. Back in early 2013 he was asked at a National College event whether he had won over the hearts and minds of Headteachers and he replied something like, Well, I’ve made some progress, but I don’t think I’ve won over Heads like John Tomsett… He was only partially right.

For all his renowned intellect, Michael Gove didn’t seem to have the nouse to understand that people can hold contradictory views simultaneously: I am co-leading an EEF Randomised Controlled Trial into the efficacy of research in schools, but I have also authorised the teaching of a new Happiness course to Year 10 from this September which has no evidence base supporting it whatsoever. The thing is, there are a number of key educational issues upon which Michael Gove and I agree. His problem was that I didn’t agree with him upon every educational issue. And as I wasn’t entirely with him, I must have been, in his eyes, against him. I was an Enemy of Promise. I was a paid up member of The Blob. I was a bad Headteacher, as he implied in an interview with Allegra Stratton recently…

I have quietly bemoaned the decline in academic rigour of the English Literature A level examination over the last thirty years. In 1982 I studied, amongst others, these challenging texts from the English literary canon: Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Hardy’s Return of the Native, Chaucer’s The General Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems 1965-1975, all examined in closed book, three hour, terminal examinations, sans coursework. I still recite the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra to anyone who will listen. Heaney himself loved my annotations when he signed my A level copy of his poems last year.


When I began teaching A level literature my aim was to teach my students to be active readers of literary texts and to understand the delicate but essential relationship between form and content. Somehow, the study of literature at A level has morphed into a formulaic exercise best exemplified by the quite appalling  Aspects of Narrative unit of the current AQA course. It’s not our current students’ fault; they can only study what they are presented with. No, the decline in rigour is down to a whole range of factors, including the dire consequences for all of us should our students fail. You see? Michael Gove and I both know things aren’t like they used to be!

Michael Gove and I love international education systems. For the past four years we have offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma whose English syllabus is as close as you’ll find to my A level of three decades ago. Trouble is, as post 16 funding cuts have begun to hurt school sixth forms, we have just seen our last, very successful, cohort of IBD students finish the course; from September, for purely financial reasons, we’re back to A levels only. (Since I published this post ten minutes ago, it has been announced by the DfE that funding for the IBD will be enhanced by £800 per student…too late for the state school students in the north east corner of York. A cynical move with electoral motivations? I could weep.)

I admired Michael Gove’s courage to oversee the first fall in GCSE and A level pass rates for two generations. I remember being in a Local Authority Headteachers’ meeting in 2009, when Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, had declared that on the twenty-odd KPIs he had defined for schools to measure our performance, we were not allowed to set targets for next year which were lower than the previous year’s targets. I exploded, to the discomfort of all present, exclaiming, We don’t work with wood and steel, we work with human beings! When did we start living in a Stalinist state?!

Whenever I have met Michael Gove, he has been politeness itself. The thing is, I’ve never been convinced of his sincerity or that he ever really listened to anything I, or my colleagues, have said. And I’m probably in the minority when I say I have never been entirely convinced that his championing of the deprived children of this land is wholly authentic. Remember, for the last four years he has been an influential minister in a government which was criticised recently by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in a report which concluded that, The statutory goal of ending child poverty by 2020 will in all likelihood be missed by a considerable margin, perhaps by as many as 2 million children. Furthermore, as Vic Goddard wrote, His dismissal of vocational qualifications was also extremely damaging to young people: I absolutely deplore his message that it’s better to be a doctor than a plumber and that you’re only valuable if you go to university. Sometimes he speaks as though he has no real sense of what faces the poorest families in our country today.

Michael Gove is a Shakespearean tragic hero in that his greatest strength was his undoing. His passion for education sometimes manifested itself as ideological arrogance. This one-time B-movie actor, comedian and journalist thought he knew better than thousands of experienced practitioners. In the end it was the ideologue, rather than the committed educationalist, who seems to have got him the sack.

Teaching is a mass employment profession. This is something Michael Gove forgot. There are 451,000 FTE teachers in the UK. You can only improve an education system by improving the quality of teaching, something difficult to do if, as the ultimate leader of those 451,000 teachers, you lose their trust.

If you want to achieve something significant, on a large scale, you have to take people with you, something Michael Gove just did not understand. In one of my earlier posts about preparing for an OFSTED inspection, I make this point about trusting my teacher colleagues: Headteachers need to trust their colleagues more than ever. At our school we deliver over 2,000 lessons each week; I cannot teach them all, so what I have to do is develop my colleagues in a safe school environment which allows them to thrive professionally and personally. It’s the only way to a decent OFSTED inspection. It’s the only way I will keep my job. If he’d followed my advice, Michael Gove might have kept his job too.


Lessons from KEGS: Ideas I’m taking with me.

New surroundings await me....

New surroundings await ….but I”m bringing some ideas with me.


As I gear up to leaving KEGS at the end of term, I’ve been thinking about ideas I’ll be taking with me when I move to Highbury Grove. Many of these things are aspects of the school that struck me when I arrived; it was during that time that I developed the ‘plantation to rainforest‘ analogy. That’s how it felt. Several other ideas have developed since – aspects of school life that I’d like to see in any school. Clearly, many of these things will be in place already; in fact I know that they are. I’m also under no illusions that any of these ideas will transfer easily where the context is so different.  However,  this post is an attempt to capture the essence of the aspects of life at KEGS that I think are important and are also potentially transferable to other non-selective contexts over time.

The virtuous circle of High Expectations.

KEGS is highly selective and the outcomes are extremely high – as you’d hope and expect. But the link from inputs to outputs isn’t an inevitable path we cruise along. From day one, expectations all round are fiercely high. Teachers  have high expectations of the students; the students have high expectations of the teachers; parents have high expectations of teachers and their own children. There is a virtuous circle that is continually reinforced, deliberately and consistently. New teachers arriving into the school buy into the culture: they set high volumes of homework; they pitch their lessons very high; they expect students to meet high standards and insist that they do. Similarly, the students work incredibly hard; it’s part of the culture. I’d say that of all that follows below, the mindset around high expectations is the most important aspect of KEGS I want to export. It applies to student work, to the curriculum, uniform, behaviour, attitudes to learning and relationships.

SLT Practices

As I’ve described in various posts, I like the way we do business at KEGS, from the way we conduct our meetings to the way we quality assure what goes on in classrooms:

  • Rotating the chair at SLT meetings; a rotating Associate SLT member: See Leadership Lessons from Geese
  • The Departmental Review system: a longitudinal view of teaching, learning and CPD including not grading lessons
  • An intelligent pay and performance policy where there are safeguards and clear markers if significant concerns arise.
  • A rigorous examination review focusing on specific curriculum factors. Our review isn’t build around outcome targets – it’s built on identifying specific actions in curriculum planning and pedagogy that will lead to improved outcomes; it’s that way around.

The CPD culture

The research-engaged culture at KEGS isn’t perfect by any means, but it permeates the school in lots of ways providing a strong vehicle for moving the school forward and motivating staff. There are lots of features to it I’d like to take with me:

  • A shared teaching and learning statement – the KEGS Jigsaw, regenerated from scratch
  • Every teacher involved in a research project of some form with allocated time to explore and share
  • Some more in-depth studies as with the CamSTAR projects.
  • A journal in paper or blog form. The KEGS Learning Lessons publication creates a superb focus of sharing our ideas about teaching.
  • Involvement with the National Teacher Enquiry Network and development of Lesson Study
  • An annual showcase of the enquiries teachers have been involved with.
  • A CPD library and culture of sharing ideas from blogs, books and twitter.
  • The general approach of tailored CPD, a culture of enquiry and systems to support it.

Student leadership

This is a defining feature of life at KEGS. We take it seriously and it helps to fuel the general culture of high expectations and aspirations.

  • Multiple leadership opportunities. Leadership takes many forms: House officials, prefects, student council, subject mentors, leadership of clubs and societies, sports captains, orchestra leaders – and so on. There are lots of opportunities so that leadership is not confined to an elite.
  • Vertical Modelling of aspirations standards: Through whole-school assemblies, as described in this post, House activities and mentoring, younger students learn from older students about values and standards. We make sure we model diversity and excellence for younger students to aspire to.
  • Independent student newspaper: the KEGS Ambassador is totally student run, without censorship. This requires a strong trust culture but it gives a powerful message; the outcomes are great too.
  • Culture of student run clubs and societies: KEGS students are continually setting up their own activities – they know that this is something they can do. This has included debating, philosophy, multi-gym, student-run choirs, chess, boxercise – all kinds of things. And, of course, KEGS Eggs – although I’m not suggesting that specific thing would translate!
  • House Music and House Drama are two of the best school events I’ve ever seen – all student run. House Music involves each house putting on a programme of five acts including choirs, bands and ensembles – it’s a wonderful event as I describe in this post.
  • Project 9 is one of my favourite KEGS initiatives. Students in Year 9 are taught modules in IT by students in Years 10-13. The spirit of this is fantastic- a small part of the curriculum entirely devised and delivered by students in an area of genuine expertise. Can we export this? I’d like to try.

Pedagogy and Curriculum

At KEGS, teaching and learning is characterised by a healthy blend of traditional knowledge-led rigour and scholarship with a range of student-led inputs, group tasks and creative activities. I’ve tried to capture this in my pedagogy tree analogy. We also try to view the curriculum in broad terms, with a high value placed on trips and visits. In terms of exporting ideas, here are some things I’d like to take with me:

  • A Teach to the Top philosophy – as in the ‘total philosophy of G&T’ post.
  • Emphasis on subject knowledge and teacher expertise; acceleration through depth, not speed.
  • Emphasis on securing basic skills to support further development. In History, Art, Geography, English, DT, there is a strong trajectory leading from a focus on learning prescribed key skills in a rigorous manner early on, moving towards more open, synoptic or creative approaches branching out as students progress.
  • We value students’ input into the process. If you have high expectations and allow the possibility, students from Y7 onwards can bring amazing insights into lessons. Even at KEGS co-construction is a niche activity but the spirit of it is powerful and aspects of this are used across the curriculum.
  • A celebration of reading aloud and learning by heart in different curriculum areas.
  • The idea of dialogic teaching
  • A celebration of exceptional work through various means. The G&T Exhibition is one and the Foundation Prize is another. Students are given opportunities to engage in extended learning projects from the very start as in the British Museum transition project. The Foundation Prize winners last year were breath-taking – from poetry anthologies to musical compositions. They had the talent but needed an opportunity to express it.
  • The languages curriculum at KEGS has several exciting features that I’d like to export. It is based on immersion and intensity through a focus on one language, generous curriculum time and very strong target language use. There is also the use of literature with Y7 units based on Candide and Faust and a superb ‘grammar detectives’ concept.
  • I like the KEGS Sixth Form offer with EPQ and Pre-U Global Perspectives alongside a standard four A Level. It’s a match for the IB. We use a ’3+1′ model to promote choices. 3 to fit typical combinations linked to UCAS offers and careers and 1 to give breadth and diversity. It’s a good model for the top end, if we can afford to sustain it.
  • I like the fact that languages and history are prominent at KEGS. Cultural transmission is given plenty of room. EBacc for all? It’s a given at KEGS- I wonder if that can or should be exported and imposed? It’s a question at this stage.
  • Trips and visits and residential experiences are integral to the curriculum. DofE, World challenge, overseas tours, field work and day trips are highly valued; every subject area supports this and we accept the trade-off with the impact on regular lessons.


I’m a firm believer that ethos is a key factor in school success and, therefore, needs to be nurtured explicitly and deliberately. At KEGS this takes many forms.

  • Strong traditions are reinforced and celebrated. The routines and special moments that make up our traditions are held in high regard. Singing Jerusalem at the end of term and the School Captain’s speeches; gowns in assembly and ‘banging the book’ have meaning to the school community, building loyalty and fuelling the sense of belonging. Referencing history and tradition in the rituals also helps; it’s powerful to create a sense that the school is bigger than all of us – we are just the custodians with the privilege of being there.
  • Developing “Principled global citizens” is my favourite element of the KEGS mission statement. We give prominence to MUN events in Y8, Y10 and Y12. We also seek out strong international partnerships. These things have significant symbolic value.
  • We celebrate a wide range of achievements publicly and vertically in assemblies so that younger students witness successes being valued from the start: in academic achievement and progress, sport, music exams, Olympiads and competitions of various kinds.. The aspiration reinforcement is strong. Vertical assemblies also help to share what is going on and what is possible. When Y7s hear Sixth Form notices about the MedSoc meeting or the Philosophy Society debate, seeds are sown.
  • Independent learning and personal responsibility are given high value. The volume of homework is high and we talk about not spoon-feeding. This has pitfalls but our most able students are expected to be highly self-managing. It sets them up really well for university life.
  • We’ve recently set up an Equalities Group and have started to tackle homophobia head-on using excellent Stonewall resources.
  • There is a lovely warm spirit of humour and camaraderie at KEGS. This is communicated through things like the witty match reports in assemblies, the annual charity Rag Week magazine (eg the hilarious assembly bingo), numerous assembly presentations, the student newspaper and their gentle mocking of school policy as well as many teacher-student interactions. Of course the boundaries need to be managed but I’d like to export the culture where students feel confident in expressing themselves in this way.

I’m very excited about the move to Highbury Grove but KEGS will always have a place in my heart; it’s a truly remarkable state school that I hope continues to thrive for centuries to come.  It’s a genuine beacon and I’m happy to have played a part in its history.



Unleashing Greatness? Education Reform in Action

” You can mandate adequacy … greatness has to be unleashed”  Joel Klein - via Sir Michael Barber

Ever since I attended the London Festival of Education at the IoE in November 2012, I’ve had a sense that education reform was there for the taking – it’s just a case of people getting organised and learning to express ideas coherently.  Although it is possible to feel powerless in the system – especially one in which the Secretary of State and OfSTED have so much individual and institutional power respectively – there are lots of channels for making direct contact with policy makers.   Through all the conferences and festivals and the connecting power of social media and blogs, the path towards a profession-led system is getting clearer; the policy makers are less remote and it is possible to make them listen – even if they don’t often do what you want them to.

In my post after the IoE event, ‘Building a Trust Culture; It’s not all hugs‘, I suggested that we already have more freedom than we know what to do with’. I believe that’s true for teachers and Headteachers. The problem is that the accountability regime has held us back. The tension between autonomy and accountability has been the theme of a lot of recent policy talk that I’ve been engaged with; finding the moment when we stop mandating and start unleashing.

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Education Reform Summit launch at Lancaster House.

On July 9th-10th, the Education Foundation, run by co-founders Ty Goddard & Ian Fordham, hosted a fascinating event in partnership with the DFE. Billed as the first Education Reform Summit, the event was an attempt to orchestrate a gathering of significance; some kind of marker signalling that we’re entering a new era, building capacity and consensus as we shift towards a profession-led system. It was quite a coup to secure the support of the DFE and the main parties for an event like this. The line-up included a range of international contributors, school leaders, teachers, union leaders, politicians and the Mayor of London.

Those invited were people the Education Foundation consider to be contributing to the reform process; all of my colleagues in the Headteachers’ Roundtable were asked to attend and we were delighted to be there. I’d like to have seen Chris Husbands, David Weston,  Sue Williamson and Mike Cladingbowl there to complete the line-up but I was impressed by EF’s cross-phase, cross-sector guest list with a healthy presence of bloggers and twitter-folk.

On his @tes blog, Tom Bennett has done a superb job capturing the spirit of both parts of the summit – witty and wise as always.  I’d recommend both parts:   Part 1  and Part 2 

For me, there were a few key highlights:

Sir Michael Barber.

Sir Michael Barber at #EdReform14

Sir Michael Barber at #EdReform14

His presentation was hugely impressive. The slides are here.  I think we miss his intelligent, principled drive in the current policy machinery. Using this slide he talked about the profession and government developing a principled strategic partnership, with the government allowing greater autonomy in return for greater, evidence-driven consistency in outcomes.  He suggested that 2014 should mark a bringing together of provision, accountability, standards  and autonomy that have taken their turn as the focus of different key regimes since 1944.  Essentially he was urging school leaders to seize the opportunity they have to make the system great – and not to wait for someone else to do it.

Dutch Minister: Sander Dekker

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The International Panel. The theme was that autonomy and liberalisation within a clear assessment framework lead to strong performance

Mr Dekker provided an analysis of the Dutch system which continues to underperform in terms of PISA rankings relative to the investment that is made in education in the Netherlands.  He suggested that they had successfully tackled a range of equity issues but that their best fell short of the best elsewhere. He called this ‘tall poppy syndrome’; the system doesn’t allow for variation that exceeds the average – it holds it back.  The challenge for Holland is to allow greater autonomy in the system so that real excellence could emerge – for tall poppies to thrive.  I like the analogy.  Are we comfortable with beacons of excellence – or do we shrink back because of equity concerns?

Dame Sally Coates

Sally spoke at the launch event.  I don’t agree with everything she says – (for example we disagree about PRP and the inherent value of academies over maintained schools) but I admire her drive and the spirit of doing things the way she thinks they should be done.  She’s principled about equality issues and achievement and has delivered the goods in her school(s).  If every Head was as effective as Sally Coates, we’d be in a much better place; sadly that’s not the case.  It was fascinating to hear her set out her view of the system in a serious and robust way  – especially after hearing BoJo do his bluff and bluster act.

Doug Lemov

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Teach Like A Champion. Doug Lemov with Charlie Taylor

Doug Lemov was also hugely impressive. (I’ve used that phrase twice now -  there were some big hitters at this event!) He speaks with conviction about his moral purpose and makes huge sense talking about the way to engage teachers in improving their practice.  In particular I liked his reference to sportspeople and surgeons who practise their skills away from the theatre of performance, before they ‘go out into the game’.  He suggested that this was how teacher CPD should be – not just expecting people to hone their skills as they use them for real, but giving them opportunities to practise in the safety of teacher meetings and workshops beforehand.   I like this idea a lot.  I’m going to re-read Teach Like A Champion now I know what Doug sounds like – very humble, intelligent and grounded in experience.

Contributing to the Workshops

The discussions that move things on.

The discussions that move things on.

As Tom Bennett describes in his post, there’s a lot of time pressure on these sessions but we managed to have our say.  Tom set out the ResearchEd stall and its origins as the educational antidote to the Bad Science of too many initiatives in the past.  He’s a brilliant advocate for this mission and I’m excited to learn that the whole enterprise is set to develop significantly in the next year.

When I got my three minutes, I tried to give a feel for the Heads Roundtable manifesto . There were three things I wanted to stress.  1) The fact that we’d formed a think tank spontaneously and voluntarily and were getting our ideas listened to. 2) That we’re trying to put ideas forward, not just critique the policies we’re presented with  – our Manifesto has 10 proposals and I read them all out; 3) That we’re also trying to put one key idea into action regardless of  policy with our Baccalaureate model.

The Heads Roundtable Education Manifesto Proposals

The Heads Roundtable Education Manifesto Proposals

ResearchEd and Heads’ Roundtable are good examples of system leadership; people proactively seeking to change things rather than sit back waiting for it to happen.  The table discussions gave us time to explore some of these issues.  On our table we found ourselves focused on the microcosm of school level accountability versus the autonomy of teachers.  Grading lessons and the SLT-teacher relationship has parallels with the system level relationship between DFE/OfSTED and schools.  Can we set people free – to unleash greatness? Can we do the same for schools? And if so, how do we manage the problems with underperformance and variation at each level?

As an aside, it’s worth reflecting on just how difficult people can find it to turn ideas into policies.  Working with the Labour Skills Task Force and Heads’ Roundtable, I’ve had the experience of trying to think of solutions to problems and then trying to articulate them in policy terms. You can’t simply wish schools to behave in certain ways – you have to force them or incentivise them. You can’t wish for a policy that takes decisions in a certain area away from government and simultaneously expect the government to sort out the problems in that area for you.  It’s also important to consider costs and the likelihood of ideas gaining support – otherwise, you’re wasting your time.  Often people have a sense of the change they’d like to see but can’t work through the policy steps needed.  If you don’t like how things are, you need better ideas – but it’s harder than people think.  There are no easy answers.

The Networking

Of course,  a key aspect to an event like this is the networking.  It’s a horrible word and often people characterise this as some kind of dark art – insider palm-greasing for mutual gain.  But actually, it is the conversations and relationships formed in between all the formal speech making that allow people to shape their ideas and to influence others.  I’ve often felt that events are over-full with input; you always wish you had more of the in-between time.  Personally I found the networking at the summit very useful.  Amongst many quick chats, I grabbed two minutes with Tristram Hunt for a conversation about the National Bacc and Labour’s policy timeline;  I met Vicky Beer, Chair of the Teaching Schools Council and I had the briefest of exchanges with Russell Hobby from the NAHT – a chance to commit to working together in the future.  These things are very informal but better than an email exchange by miles.

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AQA Policy  Workshop

Assessment and Accountability. An AQA Gathering

Assessment and Accountability. An AQA Gathering

The day before the Reform Summit, I had a chance to attend a policy-forming event organised by AQA’s Dale Bassett. It was another evening of talking that, for me, blended with the Reform Summit completely.  We are discussing how public exams could serve as meaningful assessments of students’ learning as well as contributing to the accountability framework for schools.  It’s a tough nut to crack.  We explored issues around different modes of assessment for different subjects, the new Scottish system and the potential benefits of a Bacc model ( hence the reason I was invited).    There were no firm conclusions but the discussions were all part of the dialogue that we are now having across the system.  I was glad to see Brian Lightman from ASCL at both of these events.  We’re all trying to move the agenda forward.


Taking Education Reform Forward

Events like these are excellent opportunities for bringing the profession together with policy makers. I’m grateful to the Education Foundation and AQA for inviting me.   It’s exciting to be able to contribute and everyone involved seemed to feel the same.  However, the key to making these things significant is for them to gain traction beyond the events themselves.  However wide the net is cast, the participants are a tiny sample of people who are active in the system.  For too long schools have looked to OfSTED and the DFE as the sources of authority to guide how they function;  if we’re going to guide ourselves and aspire to unleash greatness as Michael Barber was suggesting, we need to engage a lot more people in this dialogue.  It’s a real challenge.  Any gathering is self-selecting or selective and there are lots of school leaders who are disengaged from the discourse of system-leadership; they’re too busy keeping their school going day-to-day and are often content to reside within local networks that provide them with the support they need.

However, those networks are unlikely to influence National policy in the way that we need.  No doubt ASCL,  NAHT , SSAT and other national organisations  have a significant role to play  in reaching out beyond the social media bubble but even with their help, there’s massive system inertia to overcome.  The Stockholm Syndrome that keeps leaders and teachers from expressing themselves fully is strong and it will take a while to dissipate. If the next Government is serious about unleashing greatness, they’d do well to spread the message that it’s OK to come out of the cage!  (As an example, it‘s ironic that some schools will continue grading lessons with ‘OfSTED criteria’ long after this practice has been totally debunked, perhaps until OfSTED itself makes the practice of grading a trigger for failing an inspection on the basis of weak leadership! ).  

Despite the challenges, I think things are moving forward.  Hopefully the Education Reform Summit and other events like it will be catalysts for a genuine profession-led Reform Movement that governments and government agencies follow rather than lead; that’s the greatness we could unleash in time if we stick at it and join in wherever we can.





This much I know about…finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools.

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Do you want to find out what really works?

At a time of shifting tectonic plates in the educational landscape, the evidence provided by high quality research could prove to be a defining factor for school improvement and student success. Our research focus is to train outstanding internally-appointed Research-leads in schools to support the improvement of students’ attainment in English and mathematics GCSE.

Can research provide us with the crucial golden thread that connects school leadership decisions through to successful student outcomes? We think it can and this trial can help prove it.

Do you want to be part of a hugely exciting, and nationally prestigious Randomised Controlled Trial that could shift the landscape of school improvement and benefit the life-chances of students in our schools?

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View this document on Scribd



100% Concentration

Planning lessons is great. It was one of my favourite tasks of teaching. It usually follows the pattern of me going: oh, I could do this; oh, I could read this with the class; oh, I could get them to; and, oh, wouldn’t it be great if…? I become engrossed in the exploration of thoughts and ideas. Time speeds up as I waste hours making a booklet, a resource or a ‘whizzy’ PowerPoint. Then, the opposite occurs when marking. Time slows down. I am interrupted by everything in the world: my stomach; my interest to learn the current market value of bananas; my desire to see a cute kitten; and a speck of dust that has landed on the desk. In fact, I put everything I can in the way of preventing the job.

My level of concentration varies depending on the task. I am much better with my marking than I once was. In my NQT year, I’d spend days marking one set of book. Now, I plough through and mark them in half that time, but it is all down to concentration. I have trained myself to concentrate better on the things I don’t enjoy. But, that is sadly what we haven’t done in teaching? We haven’t always taught students to concentrate better. In fact, if I am honest, we have only supported our students’ inability to focus on one thing for any long time.

We live in a busy world – bear with… just checking my phone. We live in a busy world and there are constant drains on our attention. You are probably nodding off now as you read this, because I haven’t included a picture of something relevant. My lessons, of old, used to feature tonnes of things designed to entertain students. I was made to feel, as a younger teacher, your lessons needed to take the shape and look of a Blue Peter lesson. Here’s a sonnet I made earlier! My only real concern was making sure students were entertained, I mean engaged. Lessons used to be filled to the brim with activities to entertain students. A card sort. A quick quiz. A video. But, this was how I was led to believe that lessons should be. I should be doing ‘fun stuff’ and the students should be entertained.

Frankly, all this way of teaching only supported the fact that students didn’t have to do much in the learning. They just had to respond. Not be engaged. They just had to wave a card at me and I was convinced they had learnt something. They just had to not be doodling an obscene image of a book for me to be proud that they were engaged in the learning. As long as their response was positive, I was happy.

There’s been a lot of talk about resilience and grit – and other things that resemble the names of aftershaves. Grit for Men – You’re Tough Enough!   There have been comments like ‘we must make them more resilient’ and similar things that wouldn’t sound out of place in line from the Borg in ‘Star Trek’. For me, I think concentration is the key thing that underwrites all of this malarkey. In fact, do we consider, plan or factor concentration levels in lessons? I used to have the inbuilt timer of: 5 minutes – Year 7; 10 minutes –Year 8; 15 minutes – Year 9; 20 minutes – Year 10; and 25 minutes Year 11.    

The change of the curriculum suggests that there is a shift in expectation from students. Things are getting tougher and harder. Yet, I think amongst all the talk of change, we might be missing one thing: developing the concentration levels of students. The main difference between a modern novel and a classic text is the amount of concentration needed. The thought and effort needed to follow things in ‘Jane Eyre’ is twice the amount of ‘Of Mice and Men’ (based on a ‘real’ fact).  ‘Of Mice and Men’ is instantly engaging and enjoyable, yet ‘Jane Eyre’ is a grower, as they say. It takes time to enjoy.

Do we need to work harder on developing the concentration levels of the students? Do we need to factor that in our planning? Or, have we manufactured the bitesize generation? They can only read small texts. They can only really write effect short paragraphs. They can only deal with things for 10 or less minutes.

Look at proofreading. Effective proofreading is a product of concentration. You concentrate hard to spot errors. (I apologise if there are any on this blog.) Watching students proofread is hilarious. It suddenly becomes an Olympic sport. A three paged essay is checked within 2 minutes. Amazing.

This week I worked on proofreading with a group of students. To be honest, I made them spend a whole hour proofreading one piece of their work. They did it well, and, I managed to make it engaging.

I told them that they were going to make money. The more mistakes they found, the more money they would make. I told them afterwards how much each mistake cost so that they wouldn’t be tactical. Then, they read the text several times, but each time they focused on a different aspect.

Reading one: The Basics – full stops and capital letters

Reading two: Spellings – homophones and regular words

Reading three: Commas

Reading four: Grammar – missing words or incorrect phrases

Reading five: Apostrophes

In pairs, the scoured the text for mistakes. At this stage they didn’t correct them, simply highlighted the mistake. When they had completed the different readings they had a table to fill out, highlighting all the different mistakes.
Finally, I told them how much each mistake cost.

Reading one: The Basics – full stops and capital letters 2p

Reading two: Spellings – homophones and regular words 2p

Reading three: Commas 5p

Reading four: Grammar – missing words or incorrect phrases 10p  

Reading five: Apostrophes 5p

It worked well for the class and it saved me a lot of effort circling their work for obvious mistakes, but it proved a point: they could do proofreading well if they concentrated on it. Proofreading is all about concentration. To be experts, students need to realise the slow pace that is necessary to build to expertise.  Our students want to be experts without the necessary work. Let’s teach them to concentrate first and then things will follow.

The A grade students in the class are the ones that can concentrate.  The rest want to be like the As secretly, but they can’t yet because they can’t concentrate enough.
Thanks for reading,

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Juggling the Curriculum – Part 1

For the past few months I have been thinking about the curriculum. The new curriculum for English. I have been pondering, thinking, procrastinating and, finally, I have started to solidify my thoughts and ideas. I commend all my colleagues and friends who have their curriculum planned, typed and photocopied for next year. I am impressed. But, for me, I haven’t been able to make my thoughts concrete, because so much has changed since September. At the moment, I am on draft four. I am happy with it and its shape. It does, however, look a little bit different to other things I have seen.  Now, there’s more than one way to crack a nut, but this blog is going to talk about some of the things my department’s new curriculum includes and how it differs to other departments. Rather than do a lovely ‘tah dah!’ I will just walk you through some of the things we are intending to do. Warning: some things might disappear completely by the time I get to draft fifteen.
How does our curriculum link to the work done in primary school?

One of the main problems I think with curriculums in Key Stage 3 is that they duplicate work done in primary schools. I am surprised at how much things have changed in primary schools and how English skills are changed. It used to be a gentle grumble about how they have stolen ‘Holes’ or ‘Skellig’ from us by teaching it to classes, but I realise that fundamentally what they teach is a mirror image of what we do. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. English is recursive. You do the same things again and again. However, there’s no step up in terms of work. We expect the same things and there’s no ‘step up’ and challenge. The writing triplets (I hate them), I would say, are common place in the primary school.  Writing in the style of a particular text is a common process.
Stepping back from things, there’s no wonder that schools have problems with Year 8s. By the end of Year 7, students have twigged that it is Groundhog Day for them. The promise that secondary school was going to be a rite of passage for them turns into a lie. It is all the same thing – just with different teachers.

Decision 1: Start with the topic of essay writing.

In the past we have done ‘nice’ activities with the purpose of engaging students. Sadly, the sole purpose was engaging them. One example of this was when I got students to write their first day in secondary school as an entry to ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’. We looked at Americanisms and the style of the writing, but sadly the thinking was to engage and get a benchmark piece of writing from them, and not about development.  

We are now going to step up the writing. Working with the Geography department, we intend to set the framework for writing essays. We are going to start by explicitly teaching the essay. Set our expectations from the start and then build up the skill of writing an essay over the year, and years. Obviously, we will try to engage students and develop enthusiasm for the subject, but we want to set the message to students: English is needed for other subjects and it is challenging.
How does our curriculum develop the work done at primary school?

Primary schools are grammar hothouses now. You can’t move without bumping into a grammar aspect in the corridor. Yet, at secondary school we often teach it when it crops up, or when we feel it is relevant. Or, if it has been enforced on us.

I have noticed a big different in students’ use of the grammar metalanguage in lessons. I can freely mention an adverb without being greeted with a sea of blank faces, resulting in me spending ten minutes explaining again what an adverb is. Students are prepared to explore language, but are we hindering this in secondary schools? What is going to happen to all the grammar concepts and grammar terms? Are we hoping that they will appear by magic in a lesson? Or are we going to plan lessons in mind?

Decision 2: Have a grammar test at the end of Years 7, 8, 9 and possibly 10.

What are we doing with the knowledge learnt at primary school? We are not explicitly embedding the knowledge successfully. We are just hoping it all works together. The core knowledge is there for most students, but we are not embedding it.
We are going to have the grammar test as an end point. Staff will revisit key grammar terms and revise concepts throughout the year with idea that students will be tested on this at the end of the year. We are going to model the test on the KS2 grammar paper and use that as the basis of teaching. Boo hiss, Chris! You are teaching to a test. Yes – I am, but the purpose of the test is to revisit core knowledge to embed and secure that knowledge. Whether you agree with it or a not: it will be helpful if a student can name an adverb or adjective by the time they get to GCSE. Yet, the current ‘rainbow’ principle doesn’t help to embed and secure things.  [The rainbow principle: abstract noun – you never see a rainbow every time it rains – only occasionally and for no rhyme or reason in my book].   

We want there to be some consistency in how grammar is taught and students’ relationship with grammar. The test results will be shared with the parents and key areas for improvement will be identified. The problem we have is that grammar is a big ball of timey-wimey stuff. It is HUGE! Too often things are reduced and simplified or rounded-up. Hopefully, this approach will give us a clear direction to the way the grammar is used. If we use the KS2 grammar test as the benchmark of consistency, we can ensure and maintain levels of knowledge, or we can develop it.


How are we ensuring progression of skills over the key stage?

The good, old National Curriculum had a set of progressive skills across the different years. They were great but they were often very vague or too proscriptive (starting to sound like Goldilocks).  In a nutshell, things boiled down to harder texts over the years. The development of skills often happened through some kind of English teacher sixth sense. I taught them this and that in Year 8 so they need to know this and that for Year 9.


We all developed the students, but did we develop them in the same way or in the same direction? One teacher might take one angle, while another takes the opposite.
Decision 3: Track the progression of skills across the years.

I have broken down English, crudely, into several key strands: Shakespeare, the novel (pre and post 1914), poetry, plays, non-fiction, writing and speaking and listening. As a department, we have discussed what a student should be able to do by the time they reach Year 11. We tracked back those skills over the years and made clear points as to what should be developed at a particular time. The complexity of English is that you could do all skills in one lesson or unit of work, but we felt that if these skills were explicitly developed at one particular time, then our vision of the progress is clear, the students’ vision of the progression is clear and we can make links and promote links across the years. Hopefully we will avoid that awful conversation: Remember you did Shakespeare in Year 7? The time when you acted it out? The lesson when Tom fell of the chair? Right, well in Year 7 you did a bit of Shakespeare.


Now, our list of skills isn’t finalised and they are open to debate.


Year 7
Year 8
Year 9
Year 10
Year 11
·         Context of Shakespeare’s world
·         Opening scene
·         Staging a scene
·         Shakespeare’s language
·         Anatomy of a scene
·         Characterisation through language
·         Audience’s reaction to a scene
·         Comparing two scenes
·         The structure of a whole play
·         Development of a character over the play
·         Role of characters
·         Characterisation
·         Different perspectives



Novel (pre 1914 and 1914) 
·         Presentation of a character
·         Heroes and villains
·         Victorian life /education  
·         Presentation of a setting
·         Genre
·         Tension
·         Victorian law and rules
·         Presentation of a theme
·         Structure of the novel
·         Narrative voice
·         Use of dialogue
·         Linking the writing to the context
·         Making connections across a text
·         Revision of basic terms (metaphor, simile, personification, etc)
·         Exploring word choices
·         Explaining how the reader feels
·         Deeper meaning
·         Learn the various forms of poetry
·         Use of imagery in poetry
·         Mood / atmosphere
·         Tone
·         Writer’s opinion
·         Ambiguity
·         Punctuation use 
·         Structure
·         Enjambment/ caesura
·         Sound effects (syllables, consonance, assonance)
·         Patterns 
·         Comparing and connecting poems


I will continue this blog with a look at the texts studied, development of knowledge as well as skills,  covering the breadth of texts in a year and exploring how we plan to assess things.   

Thank you for reading,



Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

The problem with SatNavs, or how feedback can prevent learning

I’m not an especially good driver, but I’m a truly terrible navigator. This used to mean that I would get lost. A lot. When I first moved to Bristol in 2001 I bought an A-Z of the city and when driving somewhere new I would have to stop the car periodically and try to align the map to the streets around me. Needless to say, I found this pretty stressful. Luckily, I’m a lot better at recognising landmarks than I am at reading maps. Slowly, through a process of trial and error, I started to learn how to find my way around. I’ve got to the point where I know the city fairly well.

Then, a few years ago I bought a SatNav. It was a boon. For the first time in my life I could set out on a journey with a fair degree of confidence that I would be able to make it to a new destination without getting horribly lost. I felt so happy following my arrow-shaped avatar along the purple path unfolding before me.

garmin_satnavAs you know, SatNavs are not perfect. Sometimes they suggest bizarre routes and sometimes they seem to freeze just when you need them most. I hate those moments of uncertainty; that helplessness as I flounder without the feedback I have become so accustomed to. The relief when the arrow pops back is palpable. Even when I make a mistake I can stay calm; the SatNav simply reroutes or points me back the way I came. I can safely say that my experience of driving has been revolutionised. SatNavs are just about perfect at giving feedback.

But I don’t learn any new routes. Why is that?

John Hattie says the following:

Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?) These questions correspond to notions of feed up, feed back, and feed forward. How effectively answers to these questions serve to reduce the gap is partly dependent on the level at which the feedback operates.

Well, my SatNav answers these questions very effectively;  the gap has been reduced, but I still don’t learn. The problem is I get too much feedback. I know where I am, where I’m going and what I need to do next all the time. I never have to struggle. And because I never struggle, I never learn. My contention is that this is a situation enacted all too often in schools. In our well-intentioned efforts to let pupils know exactly what they should be doing next we might be short-circuiting learning.

The ‘gap’ between where I am and what I should do next might be important. If someone fills the gap, I don’t have to think. And if I don’t have to think, I won’t learn.So maybe reducing the gap isn’t so overwhelmingly important? Hattie acknowledges this:

Simply providing more feedback is not the answer, because it is necessary to consider the nature of the feedback, the timing, and how the student ‘receives’ this feedback (or, better, actively seeks the feedback.)

As you may be aware, reducing feedback is also one of the ‘desirable difficulties’ advocated by Robert Bjork:

Empirical evidence suggests that delaying, reducing, and summarizing feedback can be better for long-term learning than providing immediate, trial-by-trial feedback… Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.

Maybe this doesn’t sound quite so counter-intuitive when we think about the SatNav problem? The next time you’re considering giving a pupil feedback, maybe it’s worth letting struggle for just a little bit longer? It could be that immediate feedback negates the need for memorisation. Just as we outsource our memory of phone numbers and appointments to diaries and gadgets, we might be allowing pupils to outsource their knowledge of ‘what to do next’ to their teachers.

Of course the type of feedback also has a major effect. Giving pupils answers or complete solutions might be efficient, but it means they won’t have to think. It could be a lot more useful to offer hints or partial solutions – a nudge in the right direction rather than an arrow on a purple road.

But even the best feedback comes with baggage:

  • Providing feedback of success is a waste of effort
  • Students can become dependent
  • Slows down pace of learning

It is always worth considering the opportunity cost. What else could teachers do with all that time devoted to fetishising feedback?

Or maybe it’s all about practice? Maybe the reason I’ve stopped learning new routes is back I don’t practise them enough? Maybe if I moved to another new town I would, eventually, start to learn my way around? Maybe not. I suspect the problem is that the constant feedback I get from my SatNav means that all I would be practising is following the SatNav. The kind of practice I’d need to be engaged in would have to be deliberate; it would have to get progressively harder; at some point I’d have to try driving all on my own.

And here the metaphor breaks down. I don’t care about being an independent driver and am very happy relying on the wonders of technology. But this, surely, is not the fate we want for our pupils. We want them to flourish independently in the world. Of course we do. And just as we can never ride a bike until the stabilisers are taken off, maybe pupils will never learn to be independent until teachers stop giving them so much damn feedback?

Related posts

Force-fed feedback: is less more?
Why AfL might be wrong
Getting feedback right

The post The problem with SatNavs, or how feedback can prevent learning appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Now we are three

In a pleasingly synchronous turn of events this post marking the end of the third year of writing The Learning Spy is also the 300th post I’ve published on the site. That’s about a blog every 4 days. I knew I’d written a lot, but this smacks of some sort of worrying compulsion.

This last year has been by far the busiest yet with over 600,000 views but I’m sure that has more to do with the explosion of high quality education blogging that’s taken place in the past year or so than it has to do with anything special about me. And it is an explosion. Headteacher and all round good guy, John Tomsett has dubbed our times a “New Education Spring’. For the first time ordinary teachers have the ability to reach an audience beyond their own schools and classrooms and the impact this is having is unprecedented. The fact that people responsible for government policy are reading what we have to say is at once terrifying, humbling and kinda cool. I’ve been contacted by people at Ofsted, Ofqual and the DfE who seem keen to engage in productive and ongoing discussion.

The most exciting outcome of writing the blog has been the small amount of influence it’s had on the lesson observation debate. The fact that Ofsted have been prepared to move so far and so visibly from the idea that individual lessons can be graded is cause for real celebration. I’m not so arrogant as to claim that this is down to my influence but I’d like to think I’ve played a small part in the changes that are being played out.

For those of you who are interested in such things, here are some stats:

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 19.49.51

And here are the most read posts from the past year:

  1. Why do so many teachers leave teaching? 27th February 2013 – 45,862
  2. Marking is an act of love 6th October 2013 – 12,805
  3. Where lesson observations go wrong 12th July 2013 – 11,820
  4. Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? 26th January 2013 – 11,199
  5. The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons 16th January 2014 – 10, 584
  6. The shocking mediation of Ofsted criteria by ‘rogue’ inspectors 10th November 2013 – 10, 008
  7. Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works 19th January 2013 -  8,486
  8. What is good behaviour? 1st January 2012 – 8,147
  9. Slow Writing: how slowing down can improve your writing 12th May 2012 – 7,570
  10. Why AfL might be wrong, and what to do about it 12th March 2014 – 6,732

Curiously, 5 of these posts weren’t actually written this year which suggests something about their enduring appeal. By far my most popular post is about teachers leaving the profession – this gets about 130 hits per day, mostly through Google. It’s had 172 comments so far and has become something of a forum for disenchanted teachers. Some of the stories on there are heartbreaking.

The blog gets an average of 1700 visits a day. Interestingly, February was a high point with over 75,000 views and 2600 daily visits. This coincided with my visit to Ofsted but the post I wrote about that hasn’t even made the top ten. Go figure.

So much for blog metrics.

This year has also been one of real change for me personally as I’ve taken the plunge into working freelance. This can be terrifying at times but has been wonderfully rewarding and exciting. I feel a bit guilty saying so, but it’s also been far less stressful than teaching. Ultimately, I want to be back in a school at some point but at the moment I’m having too much fun.

Thank you so much for continuing to read – your feedback and contributions are what keep me going. As long as you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

The post Now we are three appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Employment figures for 2014 in the UK

Employment is the most basic requirement for the development and growth of an economy and United Kingdom is not an exception in this regard. From the past few decades, the world economy is in the grip of unemployment and even the economically developed country like UK had to face the brunt of this situation. However with the arrival of the year 2014, there seems to be a lot of improvement in the employment situation of UK. In the recent report drawn by the Statistical Authority, it was found that the unemployment rate in UK has reached its all time low of 7.1%. It is pertinent to know that this rate was 7.4% in the last three months of 2013 and economists around the world had anticipated for a decline of merely 0.1% which is very low as compared to the current reports.

According to office of National Statistics(ONS), there is a fall of 167000 people who’ve been affected by unemployment in the current year. Now there are just 2.32 million people in UK that are devoid of employment. The decrease in unemployment rates in the present year even indicate that now maximum number of people in the UK are having work and are capable of supporting their families. This value even indicates the biggest ever quarterly increase in the employment levels of UK. Despite of all the predications made by labor markets around the world, today Britain is experiencing an economic revolution that certainly needs more fuelling from the government.

This rate of unemployment at 7.1% is the best so far, ever since the economy of UK has started recovering from economic depression. According to ONS, following statistics relating to employment in UK in the year 2014 have been generated so far:

  • The rate of unemployment among the active population in UK is around 7.1% in January, 2014.
  • The total number of people that have a job and are actually working comprise of the 30.15 million of the total population.
  • UK government grants certain allowances to the unemployed population and it is astonishing to know that the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s allowance in January 2014 fell by 27600 people. So now the total number of people claiming such allowance is just 1.22 million.
  • The ONS conducts employment and unemployment survey every month but compares between data of three months i.e. quarterly comparisons are made.
  • In 2014, the economy of UK experienced a major change because the employment rate jumped by 280000 points to reach the biggest quarterly high of all times to record a number of 30.15 million. An important thing to note down is that such an increase in employment was last seen in Britain in the year 1971. The employment though increased well, it was the wage growth of people that drew attention of various governmental agencies. The wage growth in UK is going flat at 0.9% from the past 5-6 months which is not even at par with the current inflation rate of 2% here. Thus much of work is required to be done in this regard and a lot of major policy changes could improve the same numbers.

    There are many learning based employment apprenticeships schemes in Birmingham available for young people (aged 16 - 19 etc) - one provider of apprenticeships (Gordon Franks)