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

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about  the challenge of target setting in schools.

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


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

Target Setting with Stuart Simmonds


Challengers and Champions. Are we ready to listen?

The role of a challenger?

The role of a challenger?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






A letter to an English teacher on results day

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

Dear English teacher,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] They are TEENAGERS who think they know best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I teach English, but I get students to think.

[8] The demands of other subjects

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

[9] The position of English in the school

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

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

[10] The drive of the students

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

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

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

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

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

[11] The Exam System

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Whack-a-mole results analysis!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What went wrong? Why did it go badly?  

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


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Diet Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s bin the diet drama scripts!

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Every child still matters; Communities still need cohesion

Colorful  solidarity design tree

Every Child Still Matters; The Community Still Needs Cohesion


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


This much I know about…why ResearchED 2014 made me a little more doubtful than ever


Below are the slides and video clips from our ResearchED 2014 talk yesterday. You can watch the video of our talk here.

If you are interested in our EEF project then please contact Alex Quigley at


View this document on Scribd




I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about why ResearchED 2014 made me a little more doubtful than ever.

Perpetual self-doubt is a relatively healthy condition in which to exist. At an event like yesterday’s I look to take away some learning and what I took away yesterday made me doubt myself and our developmental priorities just a little bit. Here’s why…

I have learnt more about my English subject specialism since I have been a teacher than at any other time in my life. I think I learnt my core texts at A level in some depth. I came across a huge range of literature at a surface level during my degree at York and was inspired by the English Department, 1984-87, which comprised, amongst others: Jacques Berthoud; Derek Pearsall; David Moody; Nicole  Ward-Jouve; Pippa Tristram; Geoff Wall; Hugh Haughton; Sid Bradley; Bob Jones; Michael Cordner; Tony Ward; RC Hood; Stephen Minta; Hermione Lee and Alan Charity – the Golden Generation, a kind of academic Premiership Select XI with a cracking subs bench to boot! But it wasn’t until I began my career at Eastbourne Sixth Form College and taught five A level classes in my first year that I began to comprehend fully the fundamental relationship between form and content which underpins the analysis of literary texts.

What matters most: pedagogy or subject specialism? I’ve always thought the former, largely because when I teach English, even at A level, in terms of subject knowledge I call upon a small corner of what I know about English literature. And when I have taught photography, PE, Travel & Tourism, mathematics, Media Studies, ICT and Economics over the years I have learnt the relevant core knowledge of those subjects and then called upon my experience and pedagogic skills to teach. But Philippa Cordingley surprised me yesterday when she discussed her research paper for Teach First, co-authored with Miranda Bell, entitled Characteristics of High Performing Schools and explained how subject knowledge appeared to be a higher priority within exceptional schools. The research paper claims that in at least four of the exceptional schools, subject knowledge was regarded as very important across the school – and the schools consistently used subject specialists to support subject knowledge development, whereas in strong schools Teachers…put subject knowledge fairly low down their list of Professional Learning priorities…leaders [of strong schools] said they felt that they tended to take subject knowledge for granted. This evidence contradicted my long-held belief, based upon experience, that, whilst both were crucially important to truly great teaching, pedagogy just about trumped subject knowledge.

With apologies to Seamus Heaney, but when it comes to the current educational debates I am neither internee nor informer; /An inner émigré, grown grey-haired /And thoughtful. The more I read and hear and think and talk about education, the more doubtful I become, but I guess that is a natural process. I certainly heard many people express similar views yesterday, including such luminaries as Professors Coe and Wiliam. Despite what Philippa Cordingley’s paper says, I’ll continue to teach Economics; however, I’m not ignoring the evidence and stubbornly sticking with what I know because that would be foolish. I’ll ask Alex, our Director of Research, to look again at our CPD offer and review the development priorities of each subject area to ensure that we have the subject specialism/pedagogy balance spot on and what I’ll do, personally, is work even harder at planning lessons and developing my subject knowledge. As Brecht said, The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn when teachers themselves are taught to learn.


Every cloud and all that…for the last few weeks of the holiday I was laid low by a lung infection. Not feeling up to much, at a car-boot sale I happened upon an antique fly fishing rod made of split cane. It was in a poorly state so I decided to renovate it. Several Youtube videos and a lot of gentle graft later (for days on end I sneaked out of bed at 6 am and, once, when my wife asked why I was getting up so early, my whispered response was I’m off to varnish my rod…) I took my resurrected piece of craftsmanship to a local fishery and third cast, on a small black gnat, here’s the outcome…

trout on split cane

I’m sure there’s a learning-ethic of excellence-Berger blog post there somewhere, but not everyone wants to know what a typical 50 year old bloke gets up to…luckily there’s not enough space in our back yard to build a shed.




Stuart Simmonds on Recruitment
Stuart Simmonds on Teaching


10 Things To Avoid in INSET

At the start of a new year teachers face at least a day of CPD. Here is my attempt to identify the worst possibilities (with thanks to all those who suggested things on Twitter or told me what hadn’t yet died out).

  1. Anti-education videos. In the old days it used to be “Shift Happens“. Now it is more likely to be Ken Robinson’s Animate. Both are quire explicitly arguing that kids should learn less.
  2. Teaching programmes. These are a mix of theories and activities that are meant to indicate a different way to teach. Some are expensive, others largely in the public domain. The ratio of bullshit to insight provided by the methods is remarkably high but they tend to have a cult following that will throw money at them and force them on other teachers. The biggest one is Building Learning Power. Others include TEEP, Kagan Structures and Mantle of the Expert. The most ridiculous programme of the lot, not even deserving the name “teaching”, was the (still not completely dead) Brain Gym.
  3. Taxonomies. This can be a way to subdivide learning. If so this is usually Bloom’s (in either original or revised versions) or its close relative SOLO. The idea is that there is a generic structure to learning that can be applied across disciplines to understand one’s subject better. Perhaps they fit some subjects better than others, but, inevitably, they are no substitute for actually knowing your subject and its structure properly in the first place. Far worse is where it is a way to subdivide thinking, like Thinking Hats (below) or teaching methods (like the learning pyramid/Dale’s Cone of experience). And the absolute worst of the lot is when it is a way to subdivide learners by “learning style” (again, something which is still not dead despite being utterly discredited) or “left and right brain”. 
  4. Pre-determined discussions. Often in groups with somebody senior monitoring each table, this is a way of manufacturing “buy-in”. The idea is to have a discussion where ambitious people just repeat what those in charge wanted to hear. Flip charts and post-it notes feature heavily. The big craze a few years ago was having to write answers about what students should be like around an outline of a person. The correct answers were “independent”, “resilient”, and “motivated”. Any attempt to say “clever” or “good at maths” was considered a joke.
  5. OFSTED training. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times they claim that they don’t want to see a particular teaching style, or even that they won’t grade teaching, nobody believes them. So schools are still telling teachers how to game inspection.

    A list of “what OFSTED want”

  6. Sensible things made into gimmicks. I really don’t have a problem with Carol Dweck’s concept of a “Growth Mindset” if it means kids are encouraged to work hard by telling them they will get smarter. I do have a problem with the “weaponised” versions involving stickers and questionnaires. This seems like a rerun of AfL, where perfectly sensible ideas about feedback turned into compulsory mini-whiteboards and insane levels of differentiation.
  7. Objective Mania. I don’t have a problem with learning objectives. I really don’t. A few words clarifying what kids need to know or practice can only help with my planning, and is unlikely to hinder their learning. However, multiple objectives to be copied down are a pain. These include “WALT and WILF”, “All/Most/Some” and “Must/Should/Could”. This is not differentiation, it is obstruction. And the worst of all is having to put levels or grades on objectives.
  8. Behaviour Training that blames teachers. Teachers need to be taught how to use the procedures and where to get help. Also useful to tell them a few tricks appropriate to the school, and warnings about what won’t work. However, too much behaviour INSET, particularly from outsiders, is about making teachers feel they are to blame when they face bad behaviour. Planning well, being nice, making lessons fun, will not sort out behaviour problems. Being told to keep them to yourself (“swallow your own smoke”) will make them worse. And don’t get me started on anything with “restorative” in the name.
  9. Bad SEN. Don’t know why but nothing seems to attract nonsense like SEN. The most common types of nonsense are in the descriptions of the conditions. Claims are made about the causes and characteristics of conditions that have nothing to do with how they are diagnosed (like claiming dyslexics have better spatial awareness, or we know which part of the brain causes ADHD). Worse, is when bogus treatments are publicised, like changing the colour of paper or ink for those who can’t read.
  10. New marking policies. If your marking policy is so complicated people have to be trained in it, then it is too complicated. And I include in this (in fact I make a special effort to include this) those policies that are introduced that will “save everyone time”. They won’t. Set a minimum standard. Don’t expect everyone to be able to keep to it.

I realise that this is, no doubt, terribly negative. But it shouldn’t be difficult to get INSET right. Just do the following:

  • Give teachers plenty of time for their own preparation during the day. Preparation is training.
  • Let departments have time to help those with deficits in subject knowledge.
  • Make some things optional.
  • Concentrate on essential information.
  • Make sure any training on how to teach is evidence-based and relevant to your school.

and most of all

  • Don’t make anybody sit through something you wouldn’t sit through.

Scenes From The Battleground

Do your homework: Acting on evidence from educational research #rED14

These are the slides from my talk at ResearchEd 2014.

The aim of the talk is to look at four different kinds of research and to consider the extent to which teachers might accept the findings and then allow them to influence their practice.

I’ve chosen four contrasting forms of research.

1. John Hattie’s meta-analysis of research into homework.  I’ve written about the detail in this blog post.  Here 160+ studies are compiled to generate a relative effect size but, if you engage with the detail, there is actually no neat conclusion.  The effect depends on numerous variables; to make simple statements about homework in general is lazy.

John Hattie made the following comment on the blog:

John Hattie's comment.

John Hattie’s comment.

2. Robert Bjork’s research into memory is fascinating but what kind of evidence does he have?  Many of his ideas derive from experiments where people (often university students) are engaged in controlled trials where they are asked to learn and recall material in various formats.  This paper ( Birnbaum_Kornell_EBjork_RBjork_inpress)  sets out one example where information about  birds and butterflies is presented in a blocked sequence and then in an interleaved sequence and the subjects’ capacity to use that information at a later time is assessed.

Here the findings are analysed for statistical significance and give grounds for suggesting that, on average, people learn more effectively when material is either interleaved or spaced, even if they perceive that they’ve learned better through learning material in a block.  It provides evidence that the human brain functions in a particular way. Even though the sample sizes seem small – 100 or so  and sometimes less –  the experiments are repeated with similar results.  There are grounds for considering the results as indicating some truths about how we learn.  Should we take this on board in our pedagogy and planning? It seems sensible to look at interleaving and spacing in course planning if there are clear advantages in terms of longer term memory.  However, are there issues around the transferability of these findings from learning specific sets of discrete information (as in these studies) to more complex synoptic learning tasks such as those students encounter in many curriculum areas.?

3. The third example is taken from a book by Mary James et al about Learning to Learning ( 2007).  There is a whole section dedicated to the research evidence.  In one study reported by Bethan Marshall (Kings) et al,  37 teachers were interviewed of whom 27 had lessons recorded on video and analysed.  From this evidence, numerous conclusions were drawn including the idea that a few (20%) showed ‘the spirit of AfL’ in their lessons whilst the others modelled a more rigid ‘letter of AfL’ approach.  This is linked to various other attitudes and beliefs; those showing ‘the spirit of AfL’ not only are judged to have delivered more effective lessons but, on interview, are seen to be more likely to accept their responsibility for overcoming external pressures; they see themselves as the source of the solutions – referred to as holding ‘incremental views of learning’.

Very significant conclusions are drawn from the research; there are some bold claims made based on a relatively small number of interviews and observations; these are discussed in the analysis as if they hold true for many more teachers than the data set allows.   The values of the researchers are clear – their belief in the superiority of ‘the spirit of AfL’ is evident throughout.  However, although there is a potential credibility gap, their conclusion that, in teacher development, “beliefs and practices need to be developed together” sounds sensible.   It’s worth thinking about.  The more specific analysis regarding AfL really depends on whether you belief that ‘the spirit of AfL’ is inherently a positive attribute.  There’s a strong values component required to accept the findings.

4. The fourth example is an MA Thesis written by a former colleague at KEGS (a selective boys school).  The subject of the research was the impact of extended dialogue as the precursor to writing.  The process was to engage students in  extended dialogues with the teacher regarding the text they were analysing and their plans for a piece of writing.  The writing that was produced was considered to be superior than previous pieces. The teacher interviewed three students about the process  seeking their insight into how the dialogues has helped them with their writing.  The conclusions were insightful – especially to colleagues in the same school teaching similar students.  Above all, the findings were useful to the teacher herself;  the process told her something about her own practice and her students.

With a sample of three students in a specific context, is there any hope that this work could yield conclusions of general significance or are the insights only valid within the very specific situation from which they were obtained?

Each of these pieces of research has value and limitations and different people will absorb them in different ways. The large-scale study with averaged out findings is set against very small-scale studies with detailed findings relating to one context.

In order to engage with any research it seems that numerous questions need to be asked. There are no easy answers. The purpose of the talk is to encourage teachers to get behind any research findings to examine the details rather than taking headlines at face value:

  • Is the initial research valid enough to base decisions on? How specific were the conditions? How well-defined were the parameters of the measures? Has the nuance been averaged out?
  • Is there a specific values-system at work that informs of dominates the measured outcomes?
  • Does the outcome have general significance suggesting specific actions that should be taken because of the universal insight into human brain function and behaviour?
  • Does the outcome provide insights and/or raise questions that practitioners should ask about the learning in their context, even if the origin is from a small sample or specific context?



This much I know about…why I’m excited about the new school year

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about why I’m excited about the new school year.


I’m stuck. I’ve been writing a book called, HEAD Teacher: Why headteachers should be the HEAD teacher in their schools, and I can’t finish it because it all seems so bleedin’ obvious. What else should Headteachers be doing than being actively involved in improving teaching in their schools? By writing this short post, I’m hoping that I’ll unstuck myself!


How do students learn? At the moment I’m struggling with the sense that, until now, I’ve never properly understood the cognitive processes which occur when students learn. And if that is true, how can I have been planning lessons which create the best conditions for learning? I’m excited about returning to school because I think I can become a much better teacher this year.

Real student learning isn’t anything very exciting to watch; so said one of my most experienced colleagues recently during her Performance Management review. And after reading books by Willingham, Nuthall and Berger I reckon she’s about right.

I think it is good to live in a constant state of uncertainty. Chris Husbands warns that whatever one piece of research claims, there will be another piece of research making contradictory claims. There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the role of memory in students’ learning: Willingham claims that, Memory is the residue of thought; according to Eric R. Kandel, M.D. recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the molecular basis of memory, There is no memory without learning but there is learning without memory; and the School of Public Health & Health Professions, University of Buffalo claims that, Without memory, there can be no learning.  I’ve always subscribed to the view that there is no learning without memory, but, as you can see, it’s all so much more complex than that!

If I do something new this year, then it will be to challenge students to improve their memories. Combining all I’ve read with all I have learnt about learning after 26 years of teaching, I think we can all develop our memories; it just takes some effort. The University of Buffalo link gives some great tips about improving memory and Willingham’s book is good on the implications of all this for pedagogy.

Method of loci works for me. I know the Electro-magnetic spectrum through attaching its elements in the correct sequence to locations on the journey from my bed to my car, beginning with the radio which wakes me up (Radio Waves) the Microwave oven which cooks my porridge (Microwaves) etc. I love this short clip from Sherlock as he secures key information in his memory using his Mind Palace:

My priority for this year is nailing the day job. And that starts with becoming a better teacher myself.


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)