Magic in the hinterland

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

At TNA all classes begin with some form of retrieval practice. This is usually a short low-stakes quiz, self-assessed by pupils as their teacher goes through the answers once it is finished.

The benefits of this are now widely accepted. The testing effect makes children more likely to remember things they are regularly quizzed on.

Done well, there are other benefits too.

This week I was in a lesson in which one of our art teachers turned retrieval practice into an opportunity to teach new, inspiring hinterland knowledge so well it left me a little giddy.

Tej’s quiz was on impressionism, with one question on the purpose of the techniques Turner used. The correct answer, which all pupils got, was to give a sense of feeling and emotion. Tej could have stopped there but didn’t. Off the back of it he stepped gracefully into a developed exposition, telling the probably apocryphal old story of Turner lashing himself to the mast of a ship in a storm at sea, and finished with an overview of method acting so vivid it drew gasps from his class.

None of this was core knowledge.

All of it was important and inspiring.

The hinterland perfectly framed the core, adding magic, colour and wonder, shoving us out of our stuffy rainy-day classroom and connecting us to the great mystery of human creative endeavour.

Earlier this week I saw someone tweet something about being worried if we kept challenging teaching techniques soon all we’d have left would be dry knowledge organisers and boring tests.

I’m not worried about this in my school.


P8 pits schools against their pupils: A GPA might fix this.

dog pulled two directions

“I’m not going to revise for French. I don’t need it for college.”

For teachers of non-core subjects, there are few phrases more worrying than ones like this and, infuriatingly, there are often no satisfactory replies. Usually we gape, stutter and babble, at last arriving at arguments it is far too late for; ‘exams aren’t everything’, ‘you never know what you might need in the future’, or ‘jobs look at all your GCSE results’.

All these arguments ring hollow. Nearing the end of Year 11 with less and less time available for revision, the problem is pupils choosing to focus on some subjects over others are actually behaving quite rationally.

As we all now know well, Progress 8, our dominant measure of school effectiveness, draws on eight subjects. Few colleges or sixth forms care about this, especially those selecting pupils for non-academic qualifications. Instead their offers typically ask for Maths and English at grade 4 or above (which can be resat at the college), plus a varying number of other qualifications relevant to the specific post-16 course the pupil wants a place on.

The problem is our accountability measures often pit the interests of individual pupils against those of their teachers and schools because if a pupil chooses to spread their study time evenly they may drop grades in the subjects they personally need for post 16 courses. Those schools serving pupils in areas in which academic success is rarer are disproportionally affected because there is less slack than in areas in which children perform well.

Right now, what is of benefit to the school may actually be detrimental to its individual children.

This mismatch in priorities may well be a reason, in the past, some schools have chosen to gameplay with low value qualifications that are easy and can be taught quickly. It is far easier to get pupils who don’t care about RE or Resistant Materials to spend three days on an intensive European Computer Driving License course than is to get them to work hard at courses they don’t like and that they will never think about again once they finish their exams.

Of course, the most significant issue here is our competitive and consequentialist examination system, which implies the point of the subjects we teach is found only in grades. I’ve written about this here. Fixing this will require systemic and attitudinal change, and will be very hard.

Far easier, in the meantime, would be to change the way in which pupils are held accountable for their exam results to bring them in line with the measures we use to assess school effectiveness.

A simple way to do this would be introducing an American-style Grade Point Average (GPA), taken across eight subjects, which post 16 providers could use alongside grades required for specific courses. For a course such as ‘A’ Level history, an offer might say ‘Grade 7 or above in history, at least a 5 in English and an overall GPA of 6.7’. For a course such as Uniformed Services, a college may make an offer of “Grades 4 and above in English and Maths with a GPA of 3.8”.

A GPA system would also provide parents with a very simple, easy way to see how well pupils at a school perform over the wider curriculum and would also allow school leaders and inspectorates a simple measure of how well a school is performing over time. Such a measure would also be more consistent with Ofsted’s recent and laudable focus on curriculum, because an average GPA would draw on performance in all subjects.

This would not mean all pupils would stop prioritising completely, but it would mean there would be a cost to them of not bothering with a subject at all – a 0 in geography would have meaningful impact on their average and make giving up much higher stakes than it is now.

Such a system might well mean grades in core subjects falling, but if we are genuine in our commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum, then this may well be a price worth paying.


The best that has been thought and said?


I am going to be a little smug. A couple of years ago I said arguments about the most effective way to teach would die down and would be replaced by a much more useful debate on what we should be teaching our children.

I think I was right. Debates, at least on twitter, around pedagogy are collapsing quickly. Fewer snazzy activities designed primarily to be engaging in a reductive sense are being shared. While methodology is still discussed the discussions are cleverer and more nuanced. While an ideological schism still exists, there seems to be far fewer people using lines like ‘and the kids loved it’ as a supposedly clinching argument.

There is now an emerging consensus that the most important of our aims is for pupils to acquire new knowledge, with our methodological disagreements being on the best way to accomplish this.

Not too long ago, I jokingly said to Mark Lehain that when we got to this point we’d fall out over what pupils should learn. We haven’t (so far at least), but people have done. Robust and serious disagreement over this, the most important of issues, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness it might be helpful for those of us in this debate to have a think about the terms of engagement.

Matthew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said” continues to act as something of a lightening rod for disagreement. I genuinely get why lots of people have issues with it. It is a clunky phrase. It isn’t clear how this applies to lots of subjects we teach in schools, even before we get into exactly how we decide what we mean by ‘best’.

If we are to talk about ‘the best that has been thought and said’, then it would be helpful to begin working out some criteria to use when talking about it.

The absence of agreed criteria might be one reason the whole Stormzy Vs Mozart thing has run and run. If we leave ‘best’ unproblematised then debates similar to this, always circular, will recur again and again. I think The Verve’s Urban Hymns is better than Blur’s Parklife. Some of my friends disagree. I believe Alex Garland’s The Beach to be an important piece of fiction. One of my friends thinks it is superficial twaddle. Without a framework to have discussions about ‘best’ then all that can really happen is the swapping of opinions.

I’m proposing that a good starting point for this might be ‘that which has endured’ – work that has been appreciated by many people over a long time. This is, of course, only a starting point to begin talking. There will be disagreements over what ‘many people’ and a ‘long’ period of time are, but these discussions make us move beyond our own biases, because it necessitates the consideration of views other than our own.

If we did this, it means we have a framework within which to ask questions like “which people think this is important and why?”, and “has it been long enough for us to be sure this is a significant piece of work?”

For this reason, for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have Stormzy in a curriculum, not because he isn’t great (I don’t know enough of his work to make a call either way), but because it just hasn’t been long enough for us to know whether his music will still be considered influential in twenty years. For the same reason I would not have Anna Burns’ The Milkman, or even Donna Tartt’s “ The Goldfinch”.

Allowing a stretch of time between something’s creation and its inclusion on a school curriculum also makes it more likely to be new to children, whose interests are often confined to what they already know about. If the curriculum is to fulfil its true purpose and connect our young people to the richness of the infinity of human experience then surely it is a waste of time to teach them about things with which they are already familiar?

This, emphatically, is not an argument for the teaching of only supposedly ‘highbrow’ knowledge. While the sorts of knowledge, regrettably deemed elite by many often has a natural advantage due to age, as time goes on other ideas, works and topics should gain traction. While I’m reasonably confident I do think teaching Mozart is more important than teaching Stormzy, I am much less sure Mozart is a more appropriate choice than Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke or the Beatles.

As new ideas or new scholarship on old ideas develops what we teach should change, but curriculum should move more like a glacier than a river. To know whether what is happening right now will become worthy of inclusion is something I suspect we have to be patient and wait for.


Thank you, Tom

first light

The loneliest I ever felt was in a school assembly, the day after my wife and I were told our daughter had Williams’ Syndrome.

Looking back it seems weird I even went to school. Having not slept at all the night before and nauseous with worry, I probably should have phoned in. But I was new and didn’t know anyone, and the thought of having to explain why I needed time off just seemed unimaginably difficult. So I got up, showered and drove in.

Of course I left my phone on all day, and in an assembly it rang. Everyone laughed as I scrabbled around in my pockets. I couldn’t even just turn it off because I had to look at the screen to see if it was my wife or a doctor.

It wasn’t actually. It was an 0800 number so I just hung up.

As everyone carried on laughing I twisted my face into some sort of smile and apologised, terrified all the time that I was about to break down into the sort of sobs that don’t stop whatever you do. I remember thinking “I want my wife.” “I want my mum and dad.” “I want to be with my old department.”

Although I didn’t know many of them well the teachers at the school were nice people. Nobody came to tell me off. Nobody was horrible. They were light-hearted and jovial about my assembly faux pas but somehow that made me feel even more alone. The oddity of us being in the same physical space but yet in so completely different universes struck me as being almost unbearably grotesque.

How dark those times were.

Things stayed scary for a good while after that. Every appointment seemed to bring more bad news. It felt like every time we met someone we were told more negative things and given more to worry about.

Sleepless nights and days that dragged and dragged and dragged.

I got some hope back the first time we met our paediatrician, Tom.

I don’t know whether or not Tom had any idea how low we were, how acutely we were feeling the pinch of life’s jaws, just how precarious the tight-rope felt. I don’t know whether he suspected I was hardly sleeping, or that my wife was sleeping even less. I don’t know what he knew and didn’t about us, as he sat opposite in his rumpled shirt and slightly scuffed brown shoes, sitting folded up in a way that made him look just a bit too big for his chair and desk. But I do know he’d spent hours reading about Williams Syndrome and that he was open about what he didn’t know and how he was going to find out. I do know that he was warm and that he tickled my daughter, and looked at her in a way that made me sure he didn’t see her as a problem. I do know he seemed excited by Williams’ Syndrome, which was important to me because I was going through a conscious process in which I was making myself see it the same way.

My wife and I felt comfortable calling him Tom the second he introduced himself. We got to know him well. He was the one who shared the good news with us when tests came back positively, and the one who told us we’d need to spend time in hospital when the news was bad. While we were there he phoned the ward every day to check how she was, which we found out from a nurse who made a point of telling us this was unusual.

As time has gone on and my daughter has thrived, we’ve seen less of Tom, which is why the emotional punch I felt when I heard he probably wouldn’t be our paediatrician in the future surprised me a bit. And this news did hit hard, making my want to call and beg and beg and beg for him to stay working with us forever and ever.

I didn’t. That would have been silly. We’re fine now and we know he never belonged to us. We can cope without him. But there was a time when it felt like we couldn’t, when it felt for a bit as if we were alone.

Thank you, Tom. We wish you well. You’re a professional doctor with hundreds of patients. You’ll probably roll your eyes when you read this.

That’s fine, but it won’t stop us thanking you publicly. It won’t stop us remembering you as first light at the end of the darkest of nights.

We’ll never forget you.


TES Education Resources: An Open Letter of Concern


This post has been agreed by several teachers and is shared across several blog sites.
In the last couple of years, we have openly expressed concern at the approaches taken by Tes Education Resources to plagiarism and copyright violation, theft of resources, and the selling of resources that violate copyright. This is not a blogpost intended to cast disapproval on those who sell resources. It is a simply an open expression of concern at the approach taken by Tes Education Resources, when these incidents are uncovered. We also wish to make clear that this is not about an individual or anybody working for Tes Education Resources. We believe that this is a systemic problem that should not fall on one person to solve.
We feel that the following issues need to be properly addressed by Tes Education Resources:

  • The fact that people upload and sell plagiarised resources, which have been clearly copied from free shares on Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes from colleagues.
  • The fact that although Tes Education Resources offer ‘goodwill’ gestures to those who give public challenge, and offer compensation when they recognise plagiarism, the onus is on the victim of theft to report and prove the theft.
  • The fact that customers are being advised to buy resources to check the content if they suspect a theft has occurred, and then claim the money back.

These issues need addressing because:
Plagiarism can constitute copyright violation, which is covered by legislation in both UK and EU law, as well as being a feature of international treaties and agreements. We believe that this is not being taken seriously by Tes Education Resources, who provide a platform for the sale of resources which have been taken, copied, and presented as original resources by the thief. Tes Education Resources describe themselves as ‘one of the world’s largest peer-to-peer platforms for teachers to trade and share digital teaching resources’ (Tes Education Resources Ltd: Annual Report and Financial Statements – Directors’ Report 2017). We feel that a company of this scale, regardless of financial status, should not be placing the onus on individuals to identify instances of copyright violation.
A goodwill gesture is something given on a case-by-case basis. It means that those with the time and tenacity to challenge instances of copyright infringement are being offered compensation, but there are victims who are unaware of the issue, or perhaps who do not have the time and resources to prove the provenance of the resource. We believe that the Tes Education Resources could and should ensure there is parity here.
Tes Education Resources have conceded that only 5% of their resource downloads are purchased. The rest are free downloads. We appreciate this valuable resource, but feel that the 5% are being prioritised over the 95%. It is understood that the 5% is the download, rather than the upload, figure – but the point still stands – 95% of people downloading from Tes Education Resources are downloading free resources.
We also believe that asking people to buy resources to check for copyright issues, in order to then claim a refund, is an unfair and illogical request. Perhaps most pertinent is the fact that all of these issues are contributing to our workload. The Tes recognise this too. In fact, they have an entire section of their website dedicated to this issue – you can read this here: In refusing to adapt their practice, either by demonetising the site or by taking further steps to prevent these incidents, teachers are being forced to spend time searching the site for their own resources. When teachers locate stolen resources, the expectation that they buy their own work and prove its provenance is onerous and frustrating.

What Tes Education Resources Can Do:
– Have a long-term aim to demonetise the site and subsidise it, to enable an entirely free sharing platform for those working in education.
In the meantime:
– Improve checks on resources to identify plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.
– Allow for full download with retrospective payment, rather than asking people to buy resources simply to check for copyright infringement.
– Enable reviews of paid content without purchasing – so that copyright infringement which is clearly evident in the preview pane can be challenged in a review.
What you can do:
– Avoid downloading from Tes Education Resources until the long-term aim (above) is fulfilled.
– Use your Social Media account to inform your followers that you are doing this.
– Share your resources through Dropbox and any other suitable medium.


Attacking the Death Star: Getting Y11 ready for exams.


Exam season is upon us. We are all anxious, on the behalf of our pupils because we know their results will change their lives, and ourselves because we know the figures will mark out the beat to which we will dance next year. Twitter and Facebook are ablaze with creative ideas for revision techniques and lessons.

But there is little point worrying now. With the exams days or weeks away it is illogical to believe that much we do as the candle begins to sputter and gutter will make a huge difference to what will appear in the August results envelopes of our Year 11s. Any radical changes are more likely to be destabilising than impactful.

By now we’ve made our bets.

Like Luke on the final Death Star Run, we are locked in and committed.

Even if tinkering at the last minute does lead to some improvement, this is dwarfed into insignificance by the attitude of our young people. Either they’re at a point where they are ready to put in the revision hours or they are not, and if they are not it is almost always too late to do anything about it.

The truth, as frightening as it may be, is that the work should already have been done. Ideally it would have started in Year 7. Failing that, when GCSE course began. Failing that the beginning of Year 11. Hoping everything will be OK and only recognising it won’t be at Christmas, or worse Easter, is to invite all the wrong sort of tears on results day.

This post is not about what can be done at the last minute because I’m not sure much can be.

Instead, it is about what we, at TNA, have done from the beginning of the year to try and create a culture in which hard work and independent study are normalised. Early indicators that we’ve managed this are encouraging but this, of course, does not mean I am any less nervous about results. There’s a lot riding on them for all of us. But I can say, that if I were to rerun this year I wouldn’t change much. Annoyingly, this makes me even more anxious because if results aren’t better then we’ll have to question the bets we made back in September.

Here are the bets we made.

Bet 1: Decide on our key messages.

Back in September we thought hard about what our pupils needed to be clearest on. The first message we decided they needed to accept was that to be competitive in their summer exams they had to do at least two hours of work a day after school, and at least three hours at the weekend as a matter of routine. We also made sure they understood this was routine work, and that as the year rolled on more would be expected of them. This was something of a shock to some of our young people, but as we patiently and relentlessly repeated the message gradually it was accepted as true.

Our second message was our children should aim to feel proud of themselves for their hard work, not any specific grades they may or may not eventually achieve. Top grades aren’t realistic for everyone so talking about these is not an inclusive message. Target grades are flawed in too many ways to make these a fair way of judging whether pupils have been successful or not and the inherent unpredictability of exams means that there is no real way of knowing, certainly at an individual level, whether work will equate to a grade pupils are aiming for.

Finally, lots of talk about grades makes children of all abilities anxious, which makes it harder for them to focus on doing the things they need to do to improve.

By making the work the point, all our young people know they can be successful. Our hope is that good results will be a side effect of this, but we don’t want disappointed children who have worked hard to feel we aren’t proud of them.

Bet 2: Provide revision resources for all pupils.

One of the biggest issues caused by vanishing textbooks during the Great Stupidity, was that we took away resources pupils needed to revise from. As well-crafted and helpful as they may be, electronic copies of PowerPoints, online resources and summary sheets can never be adequate replacements. Our Trust has now written brilliant booklets for all subjects in the curriculum but many of these were produced too late for our Y11s.

To compensate for this we bought every pupil in Y11 a revision guide for every subject they study. These were handed out in a sort of formal ceremony, where the teachers who sourced them and the administrative staff who collated were thanked publicly, to make pupils aware of the investment we had made in them. We encouraged teachers to use these in lessons as much as appropriate as well as using them for homework, so that our young people were used to them a long time before they’d need to be really used in earnest. As far as possible without interfering with subject experts, we encouraged teachers to make sure that all revision or homework set should be tied to a specific resource the pupil already had. No ‘here’s a question, go away and google the answer’.

Every task is logged on MILK, our homework app, which means parents are able to see what needs to be done and by when. If work needs to be done on a computer (for example Hegarty Maths), and they don’t have one, then we provide it.

Bet 3: Overcommunicate

Everything we want Y11 to do is communicated again and again. And again. This starts at the school gates in the morning and after school when SLT, pastoral leaders and teachers stand at the gates and repeat, like a mantra, “tell me what revision you did last night?” or “What are your revision plans for this evening?” If pupils look shifty or admit they didn’t do anything, we, without anger (which never works) ask “why?” with pantomimed faces of confusion and concern. If there is a genuine reason they can’t work, we do all we can to fix it.

All expectations and notices are sent out to parents by letter, texted, put on the website and sent out via MILK. If we feel messages aren’t getting to the right places for whatever reason we call and give them face to face. If we find it hard to get hold of home by phone, well we pay a visit.

The aim is that no child, ever, can say “we don’t know what we are supposed to be doing.”

Bet 4: Deploy pastoral support to make sure work gets done.

If results this year are strong the two people who I’ll be hugging the hardest will be Jason and Andy, our dedicated “Year 11 Enforcers.” Working from a designated office, their job is simply to get pupils doing what their teachers say they need to do. The system is simple. If a teacher think a pupil isn’t doing enough outside school, then they email Jason and Andy.

Their job is then done.

Jason and Andy work through a hierarchy of actions. Although specifically what they do for each pupil is left up to them, this might involve mentoring sessions, contacting home or more creative strategies. Perhaps the most remarkable action this year involved inviting in a serving army officer to talk to pupils who wanted to join the military about the importance of working hard academically as well as going to the gym.

That said, my favourite part of the week is probably watching them standing on the school gate at the end of the day and literally turning back pupils who may have ‘forgotten’ they had a revision session or study club.

This only works becausethey are relentlessly warm and positive. Our key message, that it is hard work we value, is repeated again and again and again.

Bet 5: Make hard work high stakes.

Many of our Y11s began talking about prom almost as soon as they walked through the school gates back in September. We know just how important this is to them and we harnessed this by setting very clear criteria, not only around behaviour as is I think quite common, but around specific volumes of work. While we do accept that volume in itself isn’t a perfect measure, it does fit with our key messages and makes the process fair and inclusive to everyone. Volumes of work are overseen and decided upon by our Directors of Learning.

Bet 6: Acknowledge but do not overpraise increased work.

As the year has gone on our Y11 cohort has stepped up and at times it has been thrilling to see.

It has been really hard to find the right line between acknowledgement and praise, but we’ve been careful. However excited we have become, we have purposely and effortfully remembered the aim is that hard work becomes regarded as normal and routine. Shouting at a whole year group they aren’t doing enough doesn’t do this, and nor does telling pupils that you are blown away by what they’ve done when all that’s really happening is basic expectations are being met. Instead, when we talk to our pupils we go for measured, calm and truthful.

In our last assembly, for the first time, I let slip a smile and told them that by and large they were doing enough now. And I think it went down well precisely because it was true.

Bet Seven: Know when to leave well alone.

We’ve done all we can now. Whether we’ve got them wrong or right, we’ve made our bets. We’re locked in our final death star run and anything else we do or say runs the risk of knocking our pilots off course, because it will make us look like we’re second guessing ourselves at the time we need them to trust us the most.

We’re standing back now, hoping and praying that the young people we love so much have done enough for their proton torpedo to land in just the right spot.


Waiting for Chloe


A couple of weeks ago I dropped in on my parents. They weren’t there.  With a couple of hours to kill I ended up poking around stuff that had been salvaged from my old room when they’d moved. By the guest bed I found a stack of Calvin and Hobbes comic books. During our teens my parents had given my brother and I these as rewards and the reasons were always written neatly in the front of each. It was these comments, not the books themselves, I found myself most interested in.

“To Ben on the completion of his brilliant Xanadu English project.”

“To Tom on his great 1994 school report.”

I was struck but just how many of these books there were. It seemed that every time my brother or I did well at anything my parents noticed and made a fuss. We were lucky to have them and it’s impossible to know how we’d have turned out if it hadn’t been for their  encouragement.

Many young people don’t have what my brother and I had at home. Nobody really cares how they do and when they do well nobody celebrates with them.  I find it difficult to get my head round the extent this must restrict some young people.

Two days ago at 3.30pm one such child appeared at my classroom door. Her name’s Chloe and she’d just finished an exam. She hovered around, smiling. I looked up and asked how I could help. Chloe shrugged and said nothing. Her class teacher, who was with me in the room, asked “how did your exam go Chloe?”

Chloe grinned so wide I thought her foundation might crack. “Really well! I answered all the questions!”

As she sat down and began to babble happily away about how hard she’d studied and everything she’d written my heart broke a little. She’d been waiting outside because she needed us to do for her what my parents did for me and my brother. She needed adults to make a fuss because when she got home there would be no Calvin and Hobbes book with her name on it. I’m not sure if anyone even knew she’d had an exam at all.

After she’d gone her teacher and I had a sad chat about the unfairness of it all. Then, after agreeing that we wouldn’t have done half as well in our lives had it not been for our parents we realised there was really only one option. So, for a while, Chloe we’ll be your parents. You tell us about how well that exam went. Whatever we’re doing isn’t as important as you are. We’ll be waiting for you so make sure you drop by. Sit down. Drink your coke, eat your biscuits and tell us all about it. We promise we’ll listen. We promise that when there’s nobody else to do it, we’ll make a fuss of you.