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I’ve worked in education since 2010, as an English teacher, Head of Department and Assistant Head in four schools. I’m currently Head of English at Michaela Community School. I write about curriculum, teaching, leadership, English and reading. You can read about what education means to me and why I do what I do here.

Curriculum

Teaching

Leadership 

Schools

English

Reading

 

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What should school CPD focus on?

We’ve all sat through some real shockers of school CPD sessions at one time or another. Thinking about the elements of what I think makes great teaching, here are the school-based CPD sessions I think every school should be running:

Behaviour

The most important thing in a school is that the children behave. Managing behaviour should be returned to again and again to ensure all teachers have clarity, and that the systems are applied consistently by all. It is also worth thinking about when behaviour slips – is it in the canteen, at the beginnings of lessons, during the fire drill – and addressing those specific moments with a new approach.

Reading

Children read in every single lesson, but it’s not always obvious how to get them to the point where they will read aloud confidently.


Writing

Children write in every single lesson, but is their writing always accurate and coherent? There are lots of small tweaks we can make to out practise to help children write more effectively.


Questioning

I think questioning is the absolute most important thing a teacher can do. The best teachers I have seen pepper their explanations with multiple questions asked of as many students as possible to check they understand, and then to see if the students can apply their understanding to new scenarios and begin to think more deeply about the content.


Explanation

Subject departments should be talking in their CPD time about the best way to explain tricky concepts, and thinking about the common misconceptions children have.


Booklets

Rather than using Powerpoints or photocopying multiple sheets, departments should focus on pre-producing booklets and then planning how to deliver them. Those responsible for resourcing should be trained in the best and fastest way to produce booklets under the inevitable time pressures of any school.


Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge organisers force teams to consider what they want students to learn for the long term. CPD on making them as effective and clear as possible would be helpful, especially in the early days of adopting them.


Recaps and quizzing

Understanding the science of memory, the power of overlearning, and the simplicity of recapping prior knowledge would go a long way to helping children retain knowledge for the long term.


Deliberate practice

Not all practice is as helpful as it could be. Helping teachers discern the most important skills for children to practice and then supporting them to make activities that ensure children are undertaking deliberate practice is invaluable.


Feedback

Rather than laboriously marking every book, teachers can give whole-class feedback. But it is not always obvious which aspects to focus on to make the feedback as effective as possible.

 

All of the above aspects could easily be covered in short 20 or 30 minute slots, and focused on key aspects or resources, but I think that all the elements are crucial to good teaching. In terms of pedagogy, I don’t think we can do better than implementing coaching observations, as advocated in Leverage Leadership, with frequent low-stakes observations focused on one minor tweak each time to improve teaching. 

The Writing Revolution

I have always been convinced that children need to read texts with high cultural capital. It is only in the last five or so years that I have begun to think more carefully about reading, and why it is so vital every child reads in every lesson, and how we can go about checking children’s reading. But I have really neglected to think about writing. In my early years as a teacher, I would get children to do ‘extended writing’ for fifteen to twenty minutes every lesson. More recently, I began to see the merit of using short-answer comprehension questions to check children’s understanding.

What The Writing Revolution provides is both a revolutionary rethink on how we teach writing across a school, and some really easy-to-integrate, sensible activities to help hone students’ writing skills. Below are some key take-aways for me.

 

The content drives the rigour

Just like reading, the more rigorous the content studied, the more challenging the writing required. Writing about a very simple text is much simpler than synthesising the key elements in a very complex one.

 

The stem of writing is a short, simple statement…

…but children need to be able to expand on that statement in a variety of ways. The authors use the connectives because, but and so. Using these, you can really see how much children have really understood of the teacher instruction and the text read. In his foreword, Doug Lemov gives an example to illustrate this: if the sentence stem is: ‘the Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city,’ the three sentences the student writes might be: ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, because at the time, citizens didn’t have the knowledge to stop the fire before it spread;’ ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, but London survived and thrived;’ ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, so the city was rebuilt as a result.’ After reading a complex text, we can give students a sentence stem and get them to finish it in these three ways to encourage them to apply their knowledge, as well as focusing on creating a grammatically accurate sentence before they are ready to write long paragraphs.

 

Note-taking is crucial

Taking notes by pen consolidates understanding. Children putting ideas into their own words is invaluable in helping them to process what they are learning. We need to explicitly teach children how to take notes, and explicitly teach them the signs and symbols associated with note taking.

 

Teach sentence types and transition words

We need to teach children: topic sentences, sentences of supporting detail and concluding sentences. Using this language across subjects will help to ensure student paragraphs are more coherent. Likewise, teaching the three ‘transition’ types and the associated words (time and sequence transitions like ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘finally’; conclusion transitions like ‘in closing’, ‘consequently’, ‘in the end’ and illustration transitions like ‘for example’, ‘such as’, ‘particularly’) will help to add coherence to student writing.

 

A cheat for quotations

We need to explicitly teach children some helpful words to introduce quotations and drill them so they practise this – getting students to embed quotations is notoriously tricky. I think almost all English teachers already do this, but perhaps some feel like they shouldn’t. I think we should feel happier about drilling ‘Shakespeare writes’ and ‘Romeo states’ because this is the crucial first step to accuracy, without which children can never move on to use their own insight and creativity to express their ideas more originally. After quoting, we need to teach children to paraphrase the quotation to display their understanding immediately after using it, again by teaching some useful fragments like: ‘in other words…’, ‘therefore, according to the author…’ ‘Romeo’s point is that…’ With my intervention group of year 11s, I’ve simply introduced ‘this means…’ which has really revealed to me who understands the quotation and who does not.

 

Summarising is vital

One of the best tasks the iGCSE English required, in my view, was that students write ten bullet points (not in full sentences) about a text and then made these into a short summary. Summarising is a helpful skill in and of itself, but it is also a great activity to consolidate learning in the acquisition phase, and one that is easily incorporated into lessons. The authors provide some incredibly useful scaffolds in their book to develop summary writing even further.

 

Explicitly teach them how to craft essays

The authors break down the art of the essay into really manageable steps, including writing a thesis statement and then supporting it with paragraphs that are developed using a very clear and simple scaffolded plan, relying on student knowledge of the sentence types outlined above. If we teach the individual elements of writing, crafting the essay draws on this explicit knowledge and helps students to form cogent arguments.

 

 

There is a lot more to The Writing Revolution that I haven’t covered. Every school’s current situation will be different, and for me the aspects above are the most pressing ones for us to address now. Yet all of the above seems, to me, entirely manageable with a few tweaks. The beauty of The Writing Revolution is that a few tweaks will lead to a lot of gains in learning.

 

 

 

Starting at a new school: SLT edition

Let me start by saying: I think I’ve started at enough schools for a lifetime now. Starting at a new job – any job – is mind-bogglingly tough. In my first week, I have basically stumbled around the school, finding myself in cupboards as I have managed to repeatedly get lost in what is probably the simplest layout of any school building I have ever been in. Still, having read Ben Newmark’s excellent and useful blog on starting at a new school, I thought I might add my two pence on beginning at a new school as a member of the leadership team.

It is basically impossible to lead when you’re not sure where the pens are (true story: I did not think to bring a pen on my first day and had to be bailed out by my incredible Head of Department), but nonetheless I set down some of my learning below.

 

  1. Teaching is the first thing

The first time I was a Head of Department, my line manager said: ‘focus on your teaching first. That is always the most important thing.’ Earlier this week, I was in the middle of dealing with an incident ten minutes before teaching, when my Headteacher told me to ‘leave it – teaching is more important.’ Teaching is the heart of every school, and every lesson taught matters. This week I have gone for ‘strict, very strict’ and hope I can ease off a bit as soon as I can trust my classes.

 

  1. Make time for everyone

Despite constantly being lost and running late as a result, I’ve really wanted to try and make time for everyone who has taken the time to stop by for a chat. As a member of a leadership team, you want to work well with every single person at the school. That first conversation sets the tone, so you have to welcome it. I’ve already had so many fascinating conversations, and hope to have many more.

 

  1. Ask the stupid questions

‘How do I leave the building?’

‘Where is room “Hu1”?’

‘What’s my username?’

‘Where do I stand for playground duty?’

Honestly, the list of stupid questions I have asked has no end. But I think you have to ask them, because sooner or later people will look to you, and you need to be doing things right. I’ve tried my best to find a few different people to lean on, so I’m not bombarding one person with all of these.

 

  1. Think about what you would change

As a senior leader, you have a massive opportunity to set the direction of the school, and the start is a great opportunity to seize those ‘fresh eyes’ (that don’t last all that long). As the week went on, I kept a ‘wish list’ of things I would change if I could and added to it every time I thought of something. This will be useful for strategizing when I’ve found my feet a little more, and also ensures thinking is more ‘solutions focused’ in terms of ‘what do I want this to look like?’, which is helpful, and not ‘what doesn’t work?’, which is less helpful.

 

  1. …But don’t push it

You’re not going to change anything if everyone hates you and feels alienated, so I’m in no rush to stomp around changing things. The school already works really well, but we all know there are lots of areas for improvements. Anything I know will be a longer-term structural change will need a lot of planning, starting with building up positive working relationships with all teachers and staff.

 

  1. Escalate like a newbie

I’ve leaned really heavily on the SLT and pastoral leads this week because they have the relationships and credibility with the hardest kids. I haven’t let anything go, but I’ve had to knock on a few doors and ask for help more than a few times. I think that’s ok, but I’d love to know what I could have done differently if people have tips!

 

One quick word about commuting, which I have never done in a serious way. The server in the St Pancras Pret a Manger has given me three free coffees this week (and on Tuesday I think also gave me a free lunch somehow), not to mention a huge smile and friendly chat every day. They are the best part of the commute. Yes, that is a formal endorsement of Pret.

Overall, the week has been hard – trying to learn loads of kids’ names, loads of adults’ names, and loads of rules, but I’ve absolutely loved it. I’m so excited to be at the Ebbsfleet Academy, working with a group of inspirational teachers and leaders from whom I have so much to learn. The very vast majority of the kids have been warm, polite and welcoming; all of the adults have given generously of their time to help me settle in. Being a comprehensive school in Kent’s grammar system brings some challenges I have never faced, and I’ll try and write about it as much as possible! I have such a good feeling about 2018.

Top Reads of 2017

Fiction

William Sutcliffe – Bad Influence

My prize for ‘person of 2017’ goes to Sarah Cullen: colleague, friend, flatmate and so much more. She recommended about half of the below selection for me to read. This one is aimed at KS3 readers, and I’ve told every teacher I know about it. Told from the perspective of a year 6 boy, it evokes the way children can do bad things just to be in with the ‘cool kids.’ A wonderful cautionary tale that every year 7 should have read.

Ali Smith – Artful

I’m so lucky to be surrounded by reading colleagues. Dani Quinn has to be the best-read Head of Maths in the country (contenders on a postcard please), and this was a very thoughtful birthday present from her. I adored it: it reads like a university lecture made accessible; a contemplation of literature and art which feels both gritty and realist while at the same time intellectual and whimsical.

Liane Moriarty – What Alice Forgot

Another recommendation from Sarah, this is most definitely the reading equivalent of Ready Brek – warming, unchallenging, but somehow with a grain of good in there too. It is about a woman who loses her memory, and is learning how she has changed over the past 10 years. It’s a great one to prompt reflection. I read it partly on a train packed with hammered football supporters, one of whom said: ‘what’s that? Oh – hardly great fiction is it love?’ Well, perhaps no; but it was a really comforting read. And sometimes that is exactly what we need.

Zadie Smith – Swing Time

I’ve loved everything Zadie Smith has written, and this was no exception. I especially loved the trajectories of two friends and how their lives went in such wildly different directions. It was uncomfortably familiar to read the way you want to preserve that friendship for the sake of how long it has gone on, but still find it almost painful to persevere in it. The ending was surprisingly philosophical.

Julian Barnes – The Noise of Time

My favourite book of 2017, Barnes’ novel follows the fictional life of Shostakovich, drawing on real examples of his life dogged by the Soviet authorities. A horrifying sense of what life in an authoritarian state looks like, combined with beautiful observations about classical music.

Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square

An old line manager of mine told me to read Hamilton’s ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky,’ and so I knew I would love ‘Hangover Square.’ The two books are quite unlike one another, however; ‘Hangover Square’ is a comedy of indecision and inaction. It is worth reading this entire book for the final two or three lines which are just superb (do not skip to the end, though – they make no sense out of context!).

Melissa Bank – The Wonder Spot

Another Cullen read: I adored this tale of a young woman trying to make her way in a new city, new career, and with new loves. Melissa Bank has a wonderful way of making you feel like you know every character of her books intimately, including the ones who are barely in the book at all. Bank has this marvellous way of dropping in the perfectly chosen detail to make you feel like you’re reading a true story.

Wallace Stegner – Angle of Repose

Stegner’s style is like Steinbeck meets Walt Whitman: a roaring story told in beautiful prose. This book felt like a dreamscape, but it had moments of harsh clarity. This book also felt enduring, like the best classics do – it contained eternal truths beautifully phrased. I’m not sure why modern books don’t usually do this.

Katherine Taylor – Rules for Saying Goodbye

A familiar-feeling account of modern life for a girl, following her from school to adult life, and full of astute observations and ‘this is so me’ moments for female readers. A fun read, but one which stays with you.

E.L. Doctorow – Ragtime

Set in New York at the turn of the century, fact and fiction collide in this gorgeous account of all of human life. Doctorow draws the central characters with such depth and emotion, and the novel feels so realistic I looked up pretty much every character after reading to be absolutely sure which were drawn from real life, as they all seemed so believable.

 

Non-Fiction

Paul Kalanithi – When Breath Becomes Air

My colleague Lia Martin told me to read this when I was feeling low, and it absolutely restored my mind. The story of a (very well-read) surgeon who is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour doesn’t sound very uplifting, but I promise you, through the tears comes a sense of hope, joy and purpose.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen – Thanks for the Feedback

Receiving feedback is one of the hardest things about being human, whether it is from friends, colleagues, or partners. This fantastic book considers the best way to deliver feedback, and the best way to accept from it and learn from it. All leaders in all organisations would benefit from reading this.

Patrick Lencioni – The Advantage

A colleague from a past school recommended this, and Chris Fairbairn, Head at Totteridge Academy, has used this with his leadership team to create an astonishing pace of change in his school. The simple message at the heart of this book is to build a great team, create clarity around aims, and communicate (and over-communicate) that clarity; but the book is worth reading for the fine grain detail.

 

Reading resolution re-boot

In 2017 I went off the rails a bit reading-wise. Before, I was very strict with myself in reading one children’s book, one adult fiction book, and one non-fiction book. In 2017, I pretty much ‘comfort read’ for the entire year. Let 2018 be the year of getting back to a more healthy regime!

West London Free School: Knowledge Rules

West London Free School is well known as the flagship free school. Opened in 2011 by a parent group and spearheaded by the indomitable Toby Young, it has championed a knowledge-rich curriculum, and attracted a number of luminaries of traditional education to work there.

I arrived for my visit at lunch break, and was met with the very usual sound of a playground full of excited children. The outdoor space, as with so many London schools, is limited, which does have the benefit of ensuring the children are really looked after by teachers. As the children merrily chatted, teachers weaved in and out of friendship groups, chatting with their charges.

West London Free School’s corridors are not silent, but I did note a marked difference between volume on the playground and the volume as the kids filed into lessons after the bell rang. There was a low whisper between some as they made their way into their classrooms, and behaviour expectations were rigorously reinforced. Expectations of pupils’ behaviour were high, with the result that across the school the worst behaviour I saw was some covert whispering, generally spotted quickly by teachers, who dealt with it with meaningful pauses or ‘the teacher stare’ rather than sanctions.

Across the school – across year groups, subject areas, and ability groups – the pupils’ focus was superb. The atmosphere in classes was one of concentration, but also energy. I firmly believe that this is because the children at West London Free School know they are learning. In every classroom I visited, the teacher’s style was traditional. Desks were in rows, and teachers were at the front, often sitting and commanding the class with their (clearly expert) subject knowledge.

In year 11 English, the teacher led a whole-class discussion as pupils annotated the poem. The only resources being used were the GCSE anthology and a pen. The teacher’s own copy had been annotated in huge detail, showing her lesson preparation and own subject knowledge. In year 10 History, pupils were learning about the suffragettes, using the textbook with teacher guidance, additional information and questioning to extend their learning. In year 8 Classics, the pupils listened to a reading of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ while taking notes about what they were hearing.

Lesson changeover was tricky, as the school is served by one narrow staircase, and moving that many children up and down is always going to be a challenge. Yet the trainee science teacher I saw moved from entry to beginning the pupils’ learning in under two minutes, with every child focused. The Head of Science played a large role in her corridor, popping into every science classroom to support with settling pupils rapidly.

I can’t finish this post without mentioning the children of WLFS. I know children are always lovely, but I was really struck by the politeness of every pupil I encountered. In every lesson, they moved their books so I could see them, often whispering to me to explain what they were learning. In every room I went into, pupils stood ‘for the visitor’ and were unfailingly polite and welcoming and happy. They are an absolute credit to their teachers and their community.

Visiting West London Free School gave me great hope for the knowledge community. It is clear to see that when children behave, and teachers know their subject and prepare well for their lessons, a really lovely atmosphere of focus and achievement can be created. I am very excited to see what the next chapter for West London Free School holds.

Bedford Free School: knowledge and discipline

‘We believe that, given the right circumstances, all children are capable of extraordinary things.’

So reads the wall in the reception of Bedford Free School. The school was established in 2012, and has been working out exactly what those ‘right circumstances’ are. Last year, for example, under the previous Principal, Mark Lehain, the school introduced silent corridors. It is hard to imagine the peaceful halls of the school otherwise, but the children have taken to them well, and are grateful for the ‘calm’ atmosphere. One year 10 who showed me around said: ‘it’s great, because we get 50 minutes of learning in every 50 minute lesson with the silent entry.’

Across the school, and including in cover lessons, behaviour is exemplary. One class’s teacher employed Doug Lemov’s ‘do it again’ technique to line up her class anew outside when there was ‘some silliness’ on the stairs (standing in the stairwell, I heard nothing). Standards are very high here. Executive Principal Stuart Lock tours the school, asking of teachers his trademark: ‘is everything to your satisfaction, sir/miss?’ to provide a supportive climate for teachers.

Bedford’s context is unusual: a commuter town to London in part, it is said that a larger than average number of children attend long-established private schools. The intake of state schools in Bedford, therefore, doesn’t always reflect the full demographics of the area.

Apart from behaviour, I was struck by the knowledge focus of the school. All children carry ‘100% books’, which contain knowledge maps collating the core knowledge of each subject. These are referred to, used, and tested across subject lessons. In History, pupils began their lesson by filling in a partially blanked-out knowledge map, allowing the teacher to assess their recall. In Art, pupils completed a knowledge-based end of unit exam, where they were asked to identify paintings and techniques, among other aspects. In Science, I saw a teacher going over a recent exam practice paper, re-teaching questions the class had struggled with.

The school is increasingly using booklets like these in English to ensure pupils’ focus is on the text and linked questions, and this has led to remarkable consistency across classrooms. The writing in these booklets is supplemented by work in their books.

Bedford Free School have a generous approach to guests, offering for me to take away any booklets I saw. (‘All we ask is that you send them back to us if you make any improvements so we can all improve!’)

Every pupil reads for 30 minutes a day in what the school calls ‘DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time’, but which is improved immeasurably by having the whole class read a text together with a teacher, thus ensuring all pupils are held accountable to be reading during this time, and no child can just stare into space. This also ensures the pupils are constantly being exposed to high quality texts, improving both their literacy and their cultural literacy.

In addition to academics, the school day is structured using ‘electives’ built into the timetable, so every child enjoys extra-curricular activities. Incredibly, last year 92% of pupils at the school participated competitively in a school sports team, despite the fact that the school cannot host matches due to its lack of facilities.

As with all the best schools I have visited, the focus is on relentless improvement, and there is no complacency. Stuart and his team are working hard each day to tweak the conditions to ensure every pupil at Bedford Free School can achieve their full potential.

Great Yarmouth Charter Academy: Hotspot of Hope

About twenty minutes walk from Great Yarmouth train station is a school where every child will greet a visitor with a smile and a ‘good morning miss!’ It is a school where children will merrily chat about their learning. Where they are relentlessly polite, happy and friendly. Where they are proud of their school.

At the same school, teachers are encouraged to ‘lecture’ while children listen. They are unfrazzled. No one is racing anywhere. They are relentlessly happy and excited about what is happening to their school.

And so they should be. Because last year, 21 of every 30 children who attended the school did not get even a 4 in English and Maths. Behaviour was out of control. ‘Last year nearly broke me,’ said one teacher.

It is the last week of November. How on earth has new Headteacher Barry Smith managed to put in place this much change in less than two half terms?

‘It had transformed within two weeks,’ one teacher tells me. Barry spent the inset days modelling exactly what he wanted all teachers to do: I would have loved to see the teachers, filed into rows in the dining hall, being taught to SLANT by him. They worked through their own distinct ‘Being Charter’ booklet on behaviour expectations just as the children would when they arrived later in the week.

Barry roams the school during lessons. Even children on their way to isolation are polite, making eye-contact and calling him ‘sir.’ There are three children in isolation when I visit that afternoon.

Teachers are effusive in their praise of his leadership. They explain to me something I saw a lot when I worked with Barry at Michaela: he ‘bigs teachers up’ in front of the kids (‘sir, where did you go to university again? Cambridge? Wow – lucky kids!’) He is the heart and soul of the school.

But it’s not personality that has transformed Great Yarmouth Charter – it is systems. Barry has introduced a simple behaviour system, and works tirelessly to ensure all teachers follow it consistently. As a result, children across year groups and subjects are listening, focusing, learning. Their books are consistently beautifully presented, and work is always neat. They are silent, or very close to it, at every transition, even when no teacher is present. In the lunch hall, when one member of staff puts their hand up, 300 year 10 and 11 students put their hands up and are silent, including midway through eating lunch for an important announcement.

The best thing about great behaviour is that it frees children up to be excited about learning. Over lunch, a year 11 buzzed as she told me her favourite Shakespeare play (Much Ado About Nothing), and she and her friends spontaneously debated culpability in An Inspector Calls. Outside Miss Rizvi’s Maths classroom, year 8s beamed that they ‘knew all the squared numbers off by heart,’ and proceeded to chant them with their teacher’s blessing.

At the centre of all this marches Barry Smith, flanked by a host of other Barry Smith sound-alikes (teachers encourage kids continually using classic Smith-isms: ‘looking smart,’ ‘looking sharp’, ‘smart as a dart’). Teachers are unremittingly positive: ‘we can see the effects of the behaviour systems,’ one told me, ‘we can actually teach here now.’ Yet there is no complacency – several times during the day, several teachers and leaders said: ‘this is just the beginning. There is so much to do.’

One Teach Firster in his second year was glowing; in his element after a tough first year battling behaviour. I asked what his plans were – would he stay in teaching?

‘Yes,’ came the reply, without hesitation. And then, unprompted: ‘I want to stay here. Something really special is happening here right now.’ It would be madness to disagree.