Keeping the Most Important thing the Most Important Thing.


The thing I’ve found most exhilarating and terrifying about becoming a Vice Principal is just how what happens in the school is, whether directly or indirectly, my job. Whereas in the past I could despair at a policy or way of doing things, now anything that isn’t working as well as it should is evidence I could be doing my job better.

A short walk down any corridor can present SLT members with a to-do-list as long as their arm. A walk around the whole school can make the to-do-list seem like a skyscraper, ranging from the coaching of a new teacher, to a discussion with a colleague about how well a new curriculum is being received by pupils, to a chat with the school’s SENCO about how one particular boy is being helped in PE.

The problem is that the number of hours in the school day doesn’t change. While SLTs are ultimately responsible and accountable for a wider range of things, the volume of work is pretty much the same, as is the time in which it can be done. Making things tougher is that many schools work in what I’m calling an “everything urgent, everything important” culture in which documents and policies are almost invariably more numerous and longer than they need to be, and written in solemn legalese that makes everything seem like it is of life-or-death importance. In such contexts to show they are taken seriously all tasks, of course, must take ages. This culture, mercifully not the one in the school at which I currently work, has bitten deep into teacher psyche and identity. In her excellent talk on making teaching sustainable at ResearchED a week ago, Jo Facer spoke on exhausted rank-and-file teachers telling her that every task they did was essential and that there simply wasn’t any fat that could be cut.

Whether we are in SLT or in an unpromoted post, it simply isn’t possible to spend ages and ages doing everything, especially if we want to spend our whole working lives in school and not burn out. We must prioritise.

We must keep the most important things the most important things.

This doesn’t mean just doing less. It means identifying what is genuinely most impactful and doing these things well.

Over the years I’ve been teaching, in different roles and in different contexts, I’ve seen a few bear traps that those failing to prioritise well (and of course I’ve been one of these people) fall into.

The first of these is a retreat into minutia. In my years as a VSO in Ethiopia I was astonished by the sheer number of handbooks, policies, guides and even whole books volunteers had written. These, often professionally bound, could be found in a dusty room at the head office in Addis Ababa and often had titles like “Pedagogical Guide to Active Learning at X University” and “Handbook for Teaching English as a Foreign Language at Y College.” Nobody ever read them. My hunch, at least partially borne out by the answers to questions I asked my local colleagues, was that these were usually written by those in failing placements; lacking the ability to effect real change, often for circumstances that felt out of their control, the volunteers had locked themselves away and written reams and reams about how they thought things should be because they’d lost faith in their ability to deal with the chaotic, complex reality of education in a developing world setting. I think this can happen to SLTs too. When the world feels flawed and imperfect it can be easy to convince yourself that if you create a perfect reality on pristine paper and then simply disseminate it, things will get better. This, of course, isn’t true. More often this just results in an even more unwieldy, bureaucratic system that soon collapses under its own weight.

This sort of behaviour isn’t prioritisation at all; it’s rabbit-in-the-headlights paralysis.

Another trap is lack of knowledge or expertise, which leads to hobby-horse prioritisation in which whatever an individual happens to be most interested in at the time assumes an importance it really doesn’t warrant. This is most obviously manifest in examples in which someone, SLT or not, attends a course, is blown away by what they’ve learned and then sets about making whole-scale changes that affect everyone in the school, right up to the point they either lose interest because it doesn’t work immediately, or find their idea swept away by something even snazzier and more fashionable.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the day-to-day reality of running a school can cloud and muddy really sensible priorities. This is really hard to avoid when things get tough; the best laid plans can go awry in November when it seems quarter of your teachers are off poorly and it’s a struggle just to keep the tanker afloat let alone steer it.

So prioritising is hard. So how can we do it well? Here’s a few suggestions, which I’m hoping will invite more from others. It would be remiss of me to imply that I’ve come up with any of these myself, and unforgivable for me not to say that the team I’m lucky enough to have recently joined does just about all of these already. Thanks team TNA and the Midland Academies Trust; I’ve learned so much already.

  1. Have a proper vision.

It’s easier to prioritise well when your school has a proper vision because it make it clear and explicit what you are trying to achieve. Without one or, arguably worse, having a reductive vision like “all pupils to get a positive progress 8 score” makes it much harder because it isn’t clear what the school should actually be doing, which means there just isn’t a road to follow. This makes it almost impossible to work out which tasks are more important than others.

  1. Prioritise systems and make them work.

Anyone working without a system for behaviour, or homework, or how pupils get from PE to maths in five minutes, will find themselves behaving reactively a lot of the time. Reactive behaviour and habits are a threat to prioritisation because they create unpredictability and stress, which makes it harder to find time and to use time effectively when it does exist. Systems also make it clearer what work can be delegated and what can’t; without one it may soon feel as if the only person who can deal with who spat in Bilal’s sandwiches is the Head, which will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it seem as if there can never be enough time.

  1. Work as part of a team.

In an SLT, or indeed in a department, working as separate individuals is a mistake because it means people pulling in different directions and tripping each other up as they do so. For a school or department to move rapidly and meaningfully it isn’t possible for it to have loads of different priorities because, inevitably, all of them will be eroded. Better for a team to decide what they’re working on together and do fewer things better. This means working with everyone; from teachers to the kitchen staff, to the site team, to technical services; while this can seem time consuming to begin with, anyone who’s worked in a school where a policy has collapsed because nobody bothered to check with those applying it for holes will know it’s worth the effort.

  1. Work out priorities in times of quiet and calm.

Times of stress and fatigue are not times to make big, strategic decisions. A disappointing, frustrating afternoon should not automatically become the moment an SLT decide to rethink everything and make wholescale changes to systems and policies. This, of course, is better done when everything is less raw and time has given useful perspective. My wonderful old Head Teacher in Ethiopia taught me that almost everything, bar safeguarding issues, can wait until the next day and there’s usually more time to make a decision than you think.




There’s an episode in Peep Show in which Jeremy does Jury Service. Excited about the opportunity to redress societal injustice he blurts out “It’s probably some young black kid who’s been accused of stealing a bun, and I’m going to set him free.”

The trial is, of course, about something entirely different. The defendant, with which Jeremy predictably becomes romantically involved, is a violent serial fraudster who steals from his friends at a party. Jeremy’s assumptions about the reasons for and impacts of serious crime results in him making awful mistakes.

Sensationalist media coverage about fixed-term and permanent exclusions often make the same mistake Jeremy did; those writing such stories, who typically have little experience of working in a school bring their own assumptions about the reasons for and the impact of exclusions. We also see this in political acts like this one, which in confusing correlation with causation creates the impression that exclusion in itself is a driver of criminality.

Schools shamed by stories regarding exclusion rates find themselves in something of a bind. While the raw rates are publicly available schools, quite rightly, cannot release records showing the specific reasons they excluded pupils so cannot defend themselves. I suspect such records would be revealing reading. Having worked in a number of schools in challenging areas I have found exclusions usually fall into one of two types; the first is persistent, defiant refusal to follow rules despite being given lots of opportunities to. For example, a boy openly using his mobile phone in a classroom who then refuses to give it to their teacher or any adult, or a girl who won’t go to her English lesson. Some may ask what the fuss is about, but those doing this miss the wider point; if we think it desirable that schools be allowed to make rules for the children attending them then we must also respect their right to enforce these rules. If a child is allowed to remain in a school building after defying every adult in it then the school as a whole becomes impossible to manage, to the detriment of everyone.

The second category is much more upsetting and I suspect some of those writing outraged articles about levels of school exclusion would be pretty shocked if they knew the levels of barbarity children can sink to when rules aren’t enforced. Some exclusions are for criminal acts such as violence, theft or vandalism. Others are for quite shocking emotional abuse and bullying. A few years ago a boy at a school I worked at was, quite rightly, excluded for telling a girl he planned to dig up and abuse the remains of her recently deceased mother. I challenge anyone to explain why this shouldn’t have resulted in an exclusion before work began with both pupils. I am really sad to say that this kind of thing isn’t actually that rare. I don’t want to get into a blow-by-blow narration of all the shocking acts I’ve witnessed but think it important we accept that when such terrible stuff happens schools must have the right to exclude the perpetrator in order to protect the community as a whole and to send out a message that such behaviour is never acceptable.

We are not well served by societal clichés and tropes around the role of teachers. Silly films such as “Dangerous Minds”, and teaching awards that reward social work over the mechanics of instruction have created the impression that a great teacher (and by association schools) should put up with anything to help the vulnerable, casting schools who don’t exclude as good and those that do as wicked. I worry this lazy thinking has created a context in which we implicitly expect schools and the teachers in them to endure behaviour we’d expect few other professions to tolerate. This, if true, is particularly worrying in the context of concerns around recruitment and retention.

It isn’t nice to talk about the specifics of why children may be excluded but it is important to. When we don’t we create the space for well-meaning ignorant journalists who, just like Jeremy, apply their inaccurate, dangerous assumptions to areas they know nothing about. If schools were regularly excluding children for accidentally shouting out now and again, disagreeing with their teacher or fiddling with a pen, then they’d be right to be outraged.

But we all know this isn’t why schools are excluding.


What is a professional teacher?


I have been thinking about what it is that makes a teacher ‘professional’ in a meaningful sense. The answer isn’t anywhere near as clear as it should be. In most contexts in which I’ve worked discussion about professionalism has been almost exclusively limited to superficial, obvious visible behaviours like punctuality, meeting deadlines and wearing smart clothes to work. While stuff like this is, of course, important and necessary, I don’t think it is anywhere near sufficient for teaching to be regarded as profession in the way say medicine, dentistry or law are. After all, if we limit the criteria for professionalism to the sort of examples I’ve given, what separates us from our pupils who are also expected to turn up on time, hand in homework regularly and wear a uniform?

I think that limiting professionalism to compliant behaviour is dangerous. If we do this we inevitably create cultures obstructive to staff development. In systems like this, those with decision making power can (and sometimes do) shout down opposition to nonsensical policies with the accusation of ‘being unprofessional’. For example, a school may decide to adopt ‘all work must be marked every two weeks, pupils should respond to marking and this should be checked by the teacher” as a non-negotiable directive.

While this may be an unrealistic and perhaps even, given the workload implications, an unethical policy, limiting definitions of professionalism to receptive compliance means that teachers must break their backs trying to follow it whether or not it has any positive contribution to learning. Should they fail, for whatever reason, they open themselves to the charge of being unprofessional because they’ve failed to meet a deadline. Of course, schools should allow teachers meaningful opportunities to feedback any sensible objections, but some do not and some, unfortunately, may actually view any criticism as an unprofessional act in itself. If this happens, things such as reading, attending conferences to get new ideas and even free thought are disincentivised and those who insist on doing them may come to be seen, wrongly, as subversives.

Definitions of professionalism should not be limited to following orders, whether these are reasonable ones or not. Instead, I think true professionalism also means having a store of theoretical and practical knowledge, and that the practical should be rooted in the theoretical. By this, I mean there should be intentionality behind what professional teachers do, and that they should be able to explain, with reference to evidence, research and scholarship, the reasons for the techniques and strategies they employ in their classrooms. This is not to say that all teachers who do cannot do this are ineffective; just as wise women throughout medical history have known certain herbs can help with certain ailments without knowing why, many (indeed perhaps most) teachers in England base practice on what has or hasn’t worked in the past, which they have typically worked out through trial and error, or picked up word-of-mouth from other practitioners they are lucky (or unlucky if advice is unhelpful) enough to encounter. While understandable, the problem with this is that it makes discussion and consequent improvement very difficult and it forces every novice teacher to start at year zero, cutting them off from everything that has happened in the past.

There will be many reading this who will quite understandably feel I have set up a straw man. Nobody walks into a classroom with no training or support and is then expected to begin teaching; all routes involve some theory. But this issue here is how patchy it is. I will go as far as to way in some cases, what is achieved in training, a sort of quasi-pseudo professionalism is no better, perhaps worse, than no theoretical training at all. A good example of this can be seen in the old VAK learning styles chestnut; those of us unfortunate enough to be taught this (and there are many of us), were given nonsense wrapped up in a cloak of legitimacy which made challenging it feel, ironically, unprofessional. Such idiocy was then consolidated by the sorts of cultures I described at the beginning of this post, which value and reward compliance for its own sake.

The result of this has been an educational landscape in which too many teachers know as little about the psychology of learning and the disciplinary history of their subjects as those whose only experience of school is as pupils. This has created a playground for the journalist, technology entrepreneur and ideology led politician, in which teachers lack the knowledge or even shared language to resist silly and sometimes perhaps even immoral intervention. Years of professional dialogue, journals and a reservoir of shared knowledge means we would be rightly wary to offer an uninformed opinion to a doctor on the best way to treat epilepsy or brain tumour. In education this happens all the time with, it seems at times, every Tom, Dick and Harry thinking they have a right to dictate how schools should operate and teachers should teach. The PTE has sourced, from stories in the media, an exhaustive and exhausting list of all the things that people think schools should do. And the list they’ve curated doesn’t even include opinions on how teachers should be delivering their curriculum.

We should, as a moral responsibility, be doing all we can to fight the ill-informed directives of the ignorant but we can only do this if we are well-informed and knowledgeable ourselves. If we are not, even if we have developed a good understanding of what works through our own trial-and-error experiences, we can’t resist effectively because all we have is an opinion, which doesn’t trump anybody else’s, especially when we lack a shared professional language to communicate it.

Making matters worse is the complicated nature of deep professional knowledge, which is often inherently counterintuitive and hard to explain. Education is such fertile ground for opinionated commentary by amateurs because so many solutions appear superficially so obvious. People work in teams at work so they should work in groups in school. People work hardest on things they’re interested in so lessons should be on things children are interested in. People use computers in most jobs so children should use computers in most lessons. It’s important to explain in detail so pupils should add more detail to their explanations. All simple common sense, right? Of course none of this is true but explaining why such obvious conclusions are flawed is really tough and even tougher if we lack the language and evidence base to refute them. But we have to if we are to do right by our pupils, which is why we need professionalism to mean so much more than mindlessly following the rules of our superiors. Furthermore, such capacity is necessary if we are to build trust with pupils and parents. This became clear to me on a recent trip to the hospital with my daughter when she had elevated calcium levels but was asymptomatic. Looking at her playing and laughing, common sense would say we should leave her alone and not subject to her unpleasant treatment, but we did because I trusted the professional judgement, based on deep knowledge, of the wonderful doctors charged with her care; professionalism often means going against superficial intuition.

The development of a true professional teaching identity is hamstrung by the regrettably short training period in England, a plethora of training options, the hugely variable quality of these and historically very poor CPD. Such huge variation in quality has made it really hard to separate wheat from chaff and, I think, helped create and then maintain limited compliance based definitions; when we don’t know and so can’t communicate our explanations and reasons we leave room for shallow opinions and poor policy.

To get past this we need to adopt a different approach. In a recent twitter conversation I was inspired by Ed Podesta who runs a PGCE in history in Leeds. Ed advocated a way of thinking more than a set of answers. Aware that evidence changes and that it just isn’t possible to cover everything in a year (actually more like nine months), he suggests that as much as we should provide the most up-to-date theories based on the most up-to-date evidence, we should also promote critique and continued reflection and adaption. This seems to me entirely in keeping with true professionalism in other disciplines. My father and mother are doctors and quite rightly feel no shame treating diabetes differently now than they did in the early part of their careers; the evidence changed and in response so did their practice. They know why they treated people in one way in the past, they know

why they would treat it differently now and they can explain reasons for the change. As my favourite philosopher Hume has said, we can’t be certain of anything but we live in the world so must act; being professional means acting on the evidence we have but also holding this evidence lightly. If things change, so should we, but we also need to be explain the reasons for why we held our original view and why we have altered position.

For school leaders, this means creating and maintaining a context in which this sort of thinking is encouraged. While this is no argument for ‘no best way’ free-for-fall practice, and a recognition that consistency and direction, especially for those who have not yet developed professional knowledge, is important, we should know why we have our policies, and should be able to explain the reasons we have adopted them. It means being comfortable with being made to feel uncomfortable if this is the price paid for allowing free thought and it means deliberately creating a culture in which this free thought is valued. It means having the courage of our evidence based convictions but also means not holding onto our truths too tightly and being ready to move position if convincing evidence emerges that suggests we are standing on shifting sand and not solid rock. It means recognising that being further up in a hierarchy does not automatically make us right and that strength is found not in unwavering tribute to an ideological ideal but in our ability to move gracefully and nimbly when we recognise that we’ve been wrong.

By doing this we act professionally and, even more importantly, create contexts in which our teachers can be true professionals too.



Nothing new, just a review Part 2: From good to great: How to improve retrieval practice.


A few months ago, I wrote a blog post called “Why I Killed My Starters”, in which I explained my reasons for moving from whizzbangy opening activities to low stakes quizzes which draw on content from previous lessons. The post, which was featured on TeacherTapp (thanks for that!), quickly became one of my most read.

The school and MAT I now work for is, hearteningly, ahead of me; all lessons already begin with short tests. Teachers are skilled at planning these and pupils now accept and appreciate them as helpful and necessary parts of teaching-learning sequences.

Such an approach is of course already very familiar to teachers both today and in the past. Cognitive psychology offers compelling and convincing explanations for why generations of teachers have found retrieval practice effective. Very briefly, we now know that the effortful retrieval of previously covered content re-enforces memories, so building and then strengthening schemas. These strong schemas then make it easier for pupils to learn new material, because we learn by integrating what is new with what we already understand; this is why pupils with an in depth understanding of the French Revolution will almost certainly find it easier to access the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia than those who’ve never encountered rapid political upheaval before.

Graham Nuthall’s seminal “The Hidden Lives of Learners” offers further support for regular retrieval practice, with his work in New Zealand suggesting that in order for a pupil to have really learned something they need to encounter it a number (he says three) times. Retrieval practice, planned properly and thoughtfully, provides pupils with more opportunities to encounter previously covered material and increases the probability that they will remember what they have been taught.

But, while I’d go as far as to say that any retrieval practice is almost always better than none at all, some examples are more effective than others. As with any teaching technique or strategy, retrieval practise can be done well and it can be done poorly.

In this post I’d like to explain what I think makes retrieval practice most effective in history, and the bear-traps that can limit its impact.

  1. Plan retrieval quizzes to test the most important elements

When I first began planning retrieval quizzes the content I tested was often drawn pretty randomly from the curriculum. This was because while I knew I wanted my pupils to remember what they’d been taught I hadn’t given enough thought to what the most important elements were. This meant that, for example, while the pupils in one of my Y8 classes came out of a unit on the Industrial Revolution with an embedded understanding that railways made fish and chips a popular food in inland cities, they did not remember the reasons national government was largely uninterested in improving working and living conditions in them anywhere near as well. The danger of this scattergun approach is creating gaps in knowledge that then makes the introduction of new material more difficult.

To avoid my mistake it is important to spend time thinking about the curriculum and identifying key elements of knowledge, and then planning quizzes that test and reinforce these. Sometimes this will be obvious and relatively intuitive, but at other times deeper thought is required. A good example of this is the death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings; while popular history and culture may suggest that Harold supposedly being killed by an arrow in the eye is the most important aspect of this story, tempting teachers to test this, in actual fact feigned flight is almost certainly a historically more important piece of knowledge to embed.

Those seeking to go further may even want to keep a record of these key concepts and ideas and when they are taught and revisited through retrieval practise or other tasks in order to ensure that pupils are exposed to them enough times to learn them properly.

  1. Plan retrieval practice to link to the content of the lesson.

Accepting cognitive psychology and the work of thinkers such as D T Willingham and E D Hirsch means accepting that learning happens when new material is incorporated into existing schemata. This means that if we are to use retrieval practise most effectively the quizzes and tasks we plan should be informed by the new material we plan to teach, because this will make the formation of new links more straightforward and obvious. For example, if we are to teach a lesson on the causes of World War Two, it would probably be sensible to write a retrieval quiz that incorporates the causes of previously covered wars rather than, say, symbolism in Tudor portraits.

  1. Test the disciplinary as well as the substantive.

Very often when I’ve planned retrieval practice in the past I think I have not devoted sufficient attention to disciplinary knowledge. There is no reason why, so long as concepts have been modelled and explicitly taught before (as of course they should have been), pupils should not practise beginning an essay, incorporating evidence into an argument or refuting a statement. This might result in a task in which pupils are asked to “write the opening sentence to the following essay question”, or “improve this sentence by introducing evidence that support it.” Such an approach is likely to result in more fluent, confident writing and help move pupils beyond generic and limiting writing frames such as PEE, which I had a good old moan about in this post.

  1. Vary the style of retrieval practice. 

Questions in my early attempts at retrieval practice invariably followed exactly the same structure, being short, closed questions requiring one or two word answers. This approach has, of course, lots of advantages; such tasks are quick to plan and easy for pupils to self-assess. While I still use this form of task more often than any other, influenced by the reading on dual-coding and the advantages of presenting information in more than one style, I’ve now introduced greater variation. Multiple choice questions, labelling of maps and diagrams and even short sketching tasks (e. g quickly draw and label the Tudor Rose) all demand that pupils recall previously covered material and might have the added advantage of further strengthening knowledge because variation may require more effortful retrieval.

  1. Use retrieval practise tasks as prompts for further explanation.

Short observations of and chats with other history teachers have made me pretty sure most of us naturally do this already. Simply barking out answers at the end of a quiz and then moving straight on to the next task is to miss an opportunity. It is far better to provide explanation and context, which gives meaning and significance to retrieved knowledge. For example, rather than just saying “Fish and Chips” when giving an answer to a question on foods that became available in industrial cities, it would be far better to say something along the lines of “The answer is fish and chips, because the new railways were able to move perishable products such as seafood quickly before they went bad. This was especially important as widespread refrigeration and industrialised freezing had not yet been developed.” This approach builds a bridge between assessment and teaching.

I am sure there are good suggestions beyond the five I’ve made here, and I’d really like to hear from anyone who has ideas about making retrieval practice more effective. I really do think it is important we have such discussions if, as has happened so many times before, we are to avoid the sort of checklist thinking that has turned so many great ideas into fossils of themselves.


The Point of It all


When I was a younger teacher I believed that my work would have a direct, immediately clear link to positive future outcomes. For example, I thought that if I worked hard at my job and was good at it, poorer pupils in my classes would get better exam grades. This would lead to them studying at better universities, which meant they would get better jobs, earn more money and become more economically, socially and politically influential than they would otherwise have been. This would, of course, make them happier people. Eventually, the world would become a better, fairer and happier place because of my work. While perhaps naïve, I was no fool for believing this; the narrative is familiar and to many of us, a reason we chose teaching as a profession.

I now accept that life just isn’t as simple as this. It’s very difficult, probably impossible, to separate out any contribution a teacher makes to a pupil from the sound and fury of the rest of their life. Even, for whatever reason, poor pupils do achieve better exam grades, financial and cultural barriers may well prevent them taking up any offer from any university. For those that do, a degree is no guarantee of success, and even those who make it this far down the road might, as has been really well written about by Michael Merrick, find themselves no happier for having walked it than their friends who did not. Or they might. We just don’t know enough about how happiness works to be able to say.

My error, as revealed to me by my unpaid philosophy tutor Bernard Andrews, was that I was deriving my professional (and self) worth from a belief in consequentialism. I could only be successful and fulfilled if my work had definite and certain outcomes that were caused by the things I did. If these outcomes did not happen then I was a failure. As convenient as this is for recruitment campaigns and to unimaginative and ill-informed decision makers with views of success and failure based around numbers, it is a fallacy.

When this brutal message finally sank in I found myself somewhat disillusioned. If we cannot be certain the education we provide our pupils will benefit them then why bother at all?

The realisation of my error cast me, for a short period, into a sort of existentialist funk, which I got through by recognising the inherent worth in learning and education regardless of any concrete, measurable outcome. This was actually hugely freeing, because it allowed me to guiltlessly appreciate the learning of all my pupils regardless of the exam grade they might or might not eventually achieve.

But I’ve found it hard to shake consequentialism completely. It’s difficult not to have hopes and dreams for our pupils even when we recognise that we may have a very limited role in helping our pupils achieve them, or indeed even whether it is our place for us to have them at all.

I’ve thought about this hard and I’ve decided having hopes and dreams for my pupils is OK, and that it’s also OK for these to play into the decisions I make at work.

We all have hopes and dreams, for ourselves and those we love. Most of us are wise enough to know that there is no guarantee we’ll ever achieve them and that circumstances outside our control are probably more significant than anything we can do, but this does not mean that we are foolish or misguided to take steps to maximise our chances. Of course, having dreams for others is more morally problematic, but it is also inevitable; we cannot educate a child while wilfully failing to think about what will happen to them when they step blinkingly out of their final exam and walk away from us for the last time.  As adults in charge of children I think the bedrock of our role is to decide what we want for them and then to create a conducive context, and that avoiding thinking about this is actually a failure to meet one of our key responsibilities.

So if it’s OK and perhaps even desirable to have hopes and dreams for our pupils, what should these be?

While we all want our pupils to go as far as they can, it would be illogical to look out on a whole school assembly and hope for all pupils to get top grades in every subject, go to top class universities and then go on to have influential and high paid jobs. As Martin Robinson has explained well, our system is set up deliberately to preclude this; there are a limited number of top grades just as there are a finite amount of high-flying careers. To wish for this would be to wish for the impossible. Still worse, to hope for this would inevitably mean being disappointed by some pupils, and probably most in some schools. Given that pupils do, regardless of how unwilling some are to accept it, have varying levels of aptitude, this seems to me a cruel hope to have, because it condemns the most vulnerable to failure and means we inevitably end up devaluing the contributions of those who don’t soar to such obvious heights.

Instead of this sort of thing, I hope that the children for which I am responsible become open, curious people able to take satisfaction from many different places in their lives. What I want for my pupils is perhaps, to me at least, best articulated in the poem Ithaka by CP Cavafy, which I heard read on Radio 4 many years ago now. It’s a beautiful poem, and you should read it, but for those who haven’t the time the gist is that while we may have an ultimate destination in mind we should aim to appreciate the journey, because we might never get to where we want to go and even if we do, we may find it less satisfying than we’d thought it would be.

This is why a knowledge rich curriculum, based on the best that has been thought and said (and painted, composed, sculpted, danced and so on), is so important. It’s the canon, rightfully contested, debated and argued over, that has the best chance of giving pupils the keys that unlock life’s richest treasures, the things most likely to give them satisfaction and pleasure on whatever walk of life they find themselves. Some of life’s greatest rewards are counterintuitive and hard to begin with which is why, just as most of us have to work at appreciating olives or coffee, we must sometimes teach children things they initially find boring or irrelevant. Of course, and as I have already acknowledged, nothing is certain; pupils may choose not to engage with school for a myriad of reasons outside our control, or their lives may take really tragic turns that mean they never get the chance to properly open the gifts we give them. But all that said, a good curriculum offers all children their best shot at fulfilment because it gives them at least a fighting chance of joining the Great Conversation.

This is why we should teach Frankenstein and not Holes. It is why Shakespeare belongs to everyone just as the Beatles and Maya Angelou do.

By teaching all our children their cultural entitlement we also give them the best chance of seeing themselves as being entitled in the most proper, fair sense. Entitled to respect. Entitled to attention. Entitled to proper healthcare. Entitled to a place at an opera house, concert, museum or exhibition should they choose to go. Entitled to laws that protect them at work and entitled to pensions for a dignified old age regardless of their station in life.

I hope that by teaching pupils the things that matter most they will come to see they matter too.

Although I can’t be certain of any of this I will allow myself my hopes and and dreams, and make the decisions I think most likely to make my dreams come true.

This is why I am proud to be part of a Trust that sees things this way too, and proud that this Trust is part of the newly formed Midland Knowledge Hub, which aims to help those who dream our dreams too. Get in touch.

Have a good summer everyone.


Wearing the colours


I have felt like an outsider for too long. Up until quite recently I have been, inwardly at least, cynical and pessimistic about education and elements of my roles in it.

I don’t blame myself or any one individual. I think if we’re honest, many of us would admit some complicity in creating or upholding the depressing reductive audit and accountability culture which made us all victims of league tables and forced us to focus on numbers we couldn’t control at the expense of education in its richest, most meaningful sense. Even those of us with serious misgivings felt powerless and many of us learned, out of self-preservation, to keep quiet, to never question the numbers, to never object publicly when given nonsensical or even ludicrous suggestions and to break our backs and sometimes hearts doing work that was of no benefit to our pupils.

Still worse, negative cultures turned us, all us teachers, against each other. In the all-consuming blind drive to push meaningless numbers up we were made to believe that we could only be defined as being good at our jobs if others were worse. We were made to be political in the most ugly sense. We became defensive, surrounding ourselves in a pathetic armour made of badly formatted spreadsheets and rambling analysis documents, all designed to prove that however bad things were it was not our fault, and that if we had more we must be doing a better job than a teacher with less. We hid mistakes, coming to believe these to be damning indictments of our competence, often rightfully certain that should these come to light we’d be stamped with the mark of Cain and railroaded out of our roles. We stopped learning. We stopped smiling.

Twitter saved my professional life but also, initially at least, made things worse in some respects. Twitter showed me the world did not have to be this way, that there were great schools where pupils were taught to behave well and where management did care more about pupils than it did about external validation. But it seemed there were few of these and the idea I would ever work at one felt like a hazy, sepia tinged dream.

But now I do and, so far, it’s even better than I could ever have imagined.

Today I finished my first full week working at The Nuneaton Academy, part of the Midland Academies Trust run by Ros McMullen. It’s felt longer than a week because there’s been so much to take in and digest. So many people to meet, so much to learn, so much to absorb. At times I’ve found it difficult to comprehend how right the school has already got things. Pupil behaviour is better than I’ve ever seen and the few that struggle are supported by a no nonsense, centralised discipline system that tolerates no disruption and cares for all pupils on an acutely personal level.

To me, it’s a demonstration of the old truism that love is a verb not a noun.

The children I’ve spoken to, almost unfailingly polite, and I’ve gone out of my way to speak to as many as I can, seem almost as awestruck as me. When you ask one how the school feels compared to even a year ago they look at you as if you’ve gone slightly mad, and then stumble over their words, trying to articulate just how pleased and proud they are.

The focus on knowledge and the teacher as an expert is relentless and unashamed. And for those prone to criticising this approach as a right wing one might be interested to know that it’s the words of Maya Angelou and Robert Tressell that dictate the culture and direction of travel.

I’ve been genuinely humbled by the staff I’m going to have the privilege to work closely with. Some have been at the school years and years, having never left even when they might have been understandably tempted to do so because of their deep, deep commitment to their pupils and community. I find this quite daunting and am already thinking really deeply about how I can raise my performance to be the calibre of leader, it that’s even possible, that they deserve.

The sense of freedom and openness, clearly deliberately and expertly cultivated by TNA’s driven head Simon Lomax is palpable. Nobody cares who’s fault a mistake is. Nobody is trying to catch anyone else out. If something goes wrong, however minor or major, all staff seem to want to know is how they can help to fix it. I’ve felt completely comfortable admitting what I don’t know and asking for help. Every single adult I’ve had the pleasure of meeting has been unbendingly focused on how to ensure pupils know and understand they are equal heirs to the inheritance of all history and have the right to access it.

If it isn’t already clear enough, I’ve never been more inspired, happy, hopeful or committed.

Today, the final INSET day of the year for the whole MAT trust, I realised that this success story isn’t limited to TNA. I watched a presentation in which the success of all four schools (The Nuneaton Academy, George Eliot, Hartshill and Heath Lane) were highlighted and saw wild applause from everyone in the room. I saw meaningful, purposeful and powerful collaboration in subject specialist sessions and found myself almost exhausted by the number of people who went out of their way to shake my hand and welcome me to the family.

Then, after a proper (hog-roast) lunch we were all directed to one of what seemed dozens of well-being activities. This, ordinarily for me, would have been a prime opportunity for inward sneering, but today it just didn’t feel like that. This wasn’t an employer providing mindfulness sessions while piling on more and more work. These were genuine opportunities to do something fun and nice at the end of an academic year, curated with skill, care and consideration.

And it was I sat playing a board game with colleagues from all four schools, on a bench under a tree that I realised something in me had shifted. In previous jobs, I always gave everything for my pupils, but rarely felt really part of the team. I felt vaguely uncomfortable if I even accidentally found myself wearing a shirt and tie in school colours because somehow, it always seemed a bit fraudulent, as if I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t really.

This weekend I’m buying a shirt and tie in TNA purple and blue. Nobody has asked me to. I want to.

If you’re interested in being part of this, let me know. And if not, have a quick read of this before you decide for sure.


Stop PEEing!


A side-effect and hangover of generic skills based curricula has been the rise of transferrable sentence starters. In history examples are ‘one the one hand’, ‘furthermore’ and ‘moreover’.

Teachers  who use these, of which I have been one, typically deliver substantive content and then provide these generic phrases and words to help pupils structure their writing.

This is worrying. At best such an approach results in functional, workmanlike answers and at worst it results in a tick box approach in which pupils are led to believe they should always follow the same formula regardless of what they are writing about. I think this is also true of formulas such as PEE, PEA and PEEL, on which many pupils have become completely dependent, with a really depressing question I’ve been asked far too many times being “how many PEE paragraphs should we write?”

Perhaps this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if such genericisms were disciplinarily authentic but , of course, they are not. Marc Morris does not begin arguments with ‘on the one hand I believe’ and I’m sure Mary Beard’s editor does not send back her manuscripts annotated with comments like ‘this does not follow PEE, please rewrite.’ While Daisy Christodoulou has convinced me that stages of learning should not resemble the desired end result, I remain worried because for many pupils such generic frames have actually become the ends rather than the means.

This sort of practice is not solely the fault of teachers. In a context in which exam results have come to be seen as the absolute aim and purpose of all education, it is quite logical to look for the most efficient methods of maximising marks. Generic sentence starters and connective phrases are often drawn from exam board mark schemes, which then cascade down through the years until every pupil in every class, at whatever stage they are at, is aiming to write to meet the requirements of the schools chosen exam board.

Generic formulas are also, I think, reassuring to non-specialist SLT who are able to grasp them more easily than they can do substantive or disciplinary material outside their own area of expertise. An SLT member with a Mathematics background is much more easily able to absorb and understand the formula PEEL than they can historical disagreement around the severity of the Treaty of Versailles or literary controversy around the meaning of Lord of the Flies. This can lead to a disproportionate emphasis on generic writing tools, frames or phrases in lesson observation, book scrutiny or other accountability measures, which can cause specialist teachers to adopt such approaches even when they don’t really want to.

To free ourselves and our pupils from the chains of genercism we must first accept that good writing is contingent on what is being written about. They are not separable. The shape and structure of our argument should be influenced by the content we are concerned with to avoid creating unhelpful and misleading distortions. An argument about the extent of change and continuity after the Norman Invasion should be structured differently to an analysis of King John’s failings as a king.

If we are to accept this, and we should, then we must also accept that sentence starters and other phrases should vary according to the material pupils are writing about. This open up rather exciting avenues to explore. In history, Rachel Foster and Jim Carroll have, for a long time, been advocating the use of more historical scholarship in schools. We should all be doing this because by doing so we show pupils that the substantive content they have been studying has been interpreted differently by very clever people and expose them to the specific phrasing they use to form their arguments. This is in keeping with the vision that all pupils have an entitlement to learn ‘the best that has been thought and said’, because for this to be more than an empty catchphrase pupils must learn and understand the disciplinary as well as the substantive.

Perhaps even more importantly, crafting sentence starters and other phrases that are informed by the content pupils are writing about creates greater opportunity for really beautiful writing. This became clear to me yesterday at a Doug Lemov workshop on writing, in which the examples of sentence starters he and his colleague Colleen Driggs shared were tailored specifically to the material. In the videos used to support the examples I as struck by how often the teachers used directions such as “write a beautiful, artful sentence” and how disingenuous such an inspiring instruction would be if a teacher followed it with “remember to write in a PEA paragraph!”

Instead of asking pupils to begin an argument on the Treaty of Versailles with “On one hand..”, how much more inspiring would it be to begin with “The severity of the Treaty has been the subject of ongoing, profound historical disagreement because..”?

This is something I will continue to think more about and trying to incorporate more into my own planning and teaching.

Other people’s thoughts are, as always, very welcome.