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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 

English

Reading

 

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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.

Reach 2017

On Monday 23rd October, the first day of the October half term, hundreds of keen educators made their way to Feltham for Reach’s annual conference. The standard is always high, but I felt this year was a particular cracker.

 

NYC after No Excuses: Taylor Delhagen and Mark Lehain

There were two ‘no excuses’ sessions in the first slot: one from Peter Jones, the head of Paddington Academy, on how employing no excuses discipline turned behaviour around in his school, and the other from Delhagen on how he turned his back on no excuses towards a more restorative approach. My overwhelming take away from this was Lehain’s respectful challenge to some of Delhagen’s remarks. Delhagen was a Teach for America whiz kid who was made a Head early on, but grew disenchanted with ‘no excuses’ after seeing the number of children ‘lost’ by that system. Delhagen is a man with a clear mission and morality: he repeatedly asked us ‘where do those children go?’ and reminded us that ‘those children are someone’s problem.’ I don’t think any proponents of ‘no excuses’ discipline I know would disagree. He described as ‘utilitarian’ the challenge that if you do not exclude one child for bringing in a weapon to school, other children will receive the message that this is acceptable, and shared the story of one child at his school, who, after bringing in a weapon, was subject to restorative justice. The child, her parents, parents from the community and other children sat in a circle, and the child could hear the impact her actions had on others. Following this, the child remained in school and succeeded in attending a top university.

A lovely story, of course. And of course schools should not be blindly excluding children. But I don’t think they are. Exclusion is always a difficult call, and the schools that I know do everything they can to ensure all children are included in their communities. But there have to be red lines, and I suspect even Delhagen has them. The child in the story brought in a weapon for her own safety; had she used it on a pupil or member of staff, I suspect the ending would have been very different.

Exclusion does not exclude the possibility of the child understanding the impact their actions have had, and tough sanctions do not prevent conversations and explanations of why their behaviour is unacceptable.

 

The School Improvement Conundrum: Chris Fairbairn, Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs and Clare Sealy

I am ever in awe of Headteachers, and this panel was simply 45 minutes of inspiration. Chris spoke of his experience at Burlington Danes in West London, detailing how seeing first hand the extraordinary transformation executed by Dame Sally Coates had made him believe that ‘change is possible.’ He also spoke of working in two schools prior to headship as helping him to be able to work out what his values were: at Burlington Danes, they did not just focus on results, but also serving the community and creating a great culture for children to learn in. He spoke of challenging entrenched low expectations at his school, Totteridge Academy, a theme he picked up in more depth in his later session.

I had never heard Clare Sealy speak, but her honesty and no-nonsense approach immediately endeared her to me. She outlined being ‘thrown into headship’ with humility, playing down her personal strengths and insisting people liked her ‘because the head before had been mad.’ She was honest about her evolution, saying she had been a phonics sceptic before visiting another school and seeing the impact, and subsequently changing her mind, and suggested that the best headteachers are open-minded to change.

Lydia agreed with Clare, and said the best CPD she had organised was to take a bus-load of her MAT’s headteachers to an excellent school so everyone could see first hand what was possible. She spoke about school improvement ‘beginning and ending with the head’, who needs a strong vision shared by the whole team – including the children.

 

Reach Academy’s First GCSE results – Rebecca Cramer

I always love hearing Rebecca speak – she is the epitome of honesty and humility. This summer, the education world watched in awe as Reach’s first class received extraordinary results, with all but one child achieving a 4 or above in English and Maths. They prioritise academic subjects: 95% of children were entered for the EBacc. Yet Cramer’s speech was focused almost entirely on the mistakes they had made, and what Reach had learned from those mistakes – there is no room for complacency here. Rebecca noted that the new exams had been an advantage, as teachers avoided complacency: they knew it would be tougher, and so did the children. Reach’s small cohort lends itself to mixed ability teaching, and the team are focused on how to stretch top achievers as a result, laying on ‘master classes’ (‘dine for a nine’) and working on injecting more challenge into their Key Stage 3 curriculum (‘teaching excellence beats teaching to the test’).

It is hard to pick out the most useful advice without running to a thousand words on this talk alone, so I will briefly summarise some key take-aways:

  • Don’t run revision until January of Year 11, after their mocks have scared them into working harder. Otherwise, they will burn out and so will you
  • Set grade boundaries in mock exams higher than you think to avoid complacency
  • Relationships are the most important thing – invest in those
  • Focus on every child – not just the loud ones

I loved the idea of a parent and child assembly after the mock exams, after which children are handed their results in an envelope and they ‘feel really sad.’ What Reach do with parents is unparalleled in the state sector, and I look forward to hearing more about how they have engaged them so effectively.

 

In at the deep end: Chris Fairbairn

I was lucky enough to visit Chris at Totteridge Academy in Barnet before half term. It was the day after open evening, and most staff had been at the school late. Yet that morning there was a feeling of elation in the school. As Chris took me around, teachers would stop him to gush: ‘that was the best open evening ever. I can’t believe how different the school is.’ This is after only one year in post. In 2016, 50 parents attended their open evening. This year, it was 450. News is spreading, and a huge amount is down to Chris’s leadership. The school’s progress 8 score improved from -0.45 to +0.32 this year, and the old measure of 5 A*-C including English and Maths was up by 27%.

Chris said the turn-around was down to three main aspects: the power of high expectations, building a reputation, and hard work. He spoke of a staff turnover of 43% and 13 fixed term exclusions in the first week as really setting the tone for higher expectations for both staff and students, all set in the context of a school that had significantly underperformed for decades in the community. The quotation: ‘worry about your character, not your reputation. Character is who your are, and your reputation is who people think you are’ spoke to the core of what Chris does: he draws on deep integrity to make people follow him into battle. This sense of moral purpose is combined with savvy know-how, as he shared some top tips for maximising results with his first year 11 cohort, as he knew they would be a big driver of the school’s success. Chris mentioned two pieces advice from his aforementioned mentor, Dame Sally Coates, which are well worth repeating: ‘surround yourself with amazing people’ (he has done) and, when tough choices need to be made, ‘always go back to what is best for the children.’ I can’t wait to see what happens at Totteridge next.

 

How we approach primary curriculum design – Jon Brunskill

I always love hearing Jon speak – he is full of self-deprecating humour and intelligence in almost equal measure. For every unit at Reach primary, teachers must think: ‘what do I want every single child to know by the end of the unit?’ I can think of no better place to start. Jon says this normally consists of a timeline, key tier 3 vocabulary and key concepts. A guiding principle is also ‘what would I expect intelligent adults to know?’ He uses this to create knowledge organisers that the children quiz on.

Jon drew on Kirschner’s work on long term memory, along with Hirsch’s assertion that background knowledge is the key to reading comprehension, to make a forthright argument about a knowledge-rich primary curriculum that is, frankly, inspirational. Noting that it was impossible to expect primary teachers to be experts in every subject, he recommended the Civitas books as a good place to start, along with the advice that primary teachers be honest about their subject knowledge, and read books to improve it.

Touching briefly on pedagogy, he noted: ‘we don’t do the carousel thing’ (where children teach each other in small groups having been given resources) – ‘if they don’t need a teacher to learn, what are they learning?’ All children end the unit by writing an end of unit essay, and the year 2 work Jon shared was really extraordinary. I can’t wait to see what the children taught his curriculum can do by the end of key stage 2.

 

What can the UK education system learn from other countries? – Lucy Crehan, Alex Beard, Taylor Delhagen, John Rendel

I charged my phone during the last two sessions, so my notes are far more limited. Overall, the message from this panel seemed to be: depressingly little. The consensus was that countries were more different than the same, and that politicians needed to be wary of bringing over whole-sale practices from other countries.

Lucy Crehan spoke of timetabling to allow teachers to specialise in particular year groups and to reduce workload, which I partially agree with – though I think, in the absence of a KS3 curriculum, if you don’t know where they need to be by A-levels or GCSEs this may be sub-optimal for pupils. She noted that part of a practice’s success or failure was also down to implementation, meaning we ought not to dismiss an idea which works well in another country just because we have failed to do it very well ourselves.

There seemed to be some concern about exporting ideas from the UK and USA to other countries for fear of ‘cultural imperialism.’ PISA was seen as a good measurement in general, but policy makers were criticised for over-extrapolating from PISA and using that data to sanction rather than support school systems. John Rendell, speaking about the unions, made the point that the public perception is that they put teachers before students: ‘teachers won’t be respected until they are seen as the protector of student learning and not teacher rights.’

 

New schools – success and failure – Oli de Botton, Max Haimendorf, Rebecca Cramer, Jenny Thompson, Charlie Kennard

As the leaders of these new schools stressed the challenges they had faced along with the successes they had enjoyed, I was amazed by the variation between schools even within one city. Rebecca spoke about undervaluing ‘operations’ early on, and recognising now how vital it is that, for example, the school photocopier works smoothly.

Listening to Max speak was a particular highlight. KSA opened in 2009, and it really was on its own then, doing something completely different. Max travelled to the US for inspiration, stealing the best of what he saw in Uncommon Schools and KIPP. He has stuck with his school for eight years, and despite consistently excellent results was keen to stress the mistakes he felt he had made. (‘Don’t start a school day at 7:55 and end it at 5pm. Some people will burn out.’) His reflections on staff wellbeing and retention, and his honesty in sharing with the room where he had got it wrong, was really extraordinary.

Rebecca started on the original KSA team, but decided for Reach to ‘go it alone’ without a Multi-Academy Trust to back them, and shared the benefits and the challenges this had brought, while Jenny Thompson talked about recruitment issues in Bradford and having to grow staff.

 

Coupled with these incredible talks were plenty of opportunities to catch up with education folk and meet new people. I’m not sure this short post can do the day justice – I will be thinking about what I learned at Reach for a long time to come.

What Makes Us Happy

At Michaela, we aren’t only focused on our kids working hard, learning loads and achieving great grades. We also want them to be happy. We think long and hard about how we can foster our kids’ happiness, and, having read wisdom literature, there are three strands to building a happier life that we focus on: gratitude, personal responsibility and duty.

Gratitude

In a TED talk, David Steindel-Rast says: ‘It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.’ As adults, we have come to find that it is better to give than to receive. Wisdom literature tells us that the more grateful we are, the happier we are; that is why all religions set aside prayers to thank God for what we are given. In secular life, we know that counting our blessings helps us to focus on what we have rather than what we lack, something an increasingly materialistic society wishes us to dwell on.

At Michaela, we know that kids are not naturally grateful – in fact, it is often the opposite. They are surrounded by images of acquisition with constant advertising and MTV-style programmes of the rich and famous, not to mention social media allowing the kids to see the extraordinarily luxurious lives of their idols.

To foster gratitude, we have daily appreciations at lunchtime. The kids take it in turns to say who they are grateful to that day, and for what. We choose ten to twenty children each day to stand up and say, in front of the whole lunchroom (some 180 children and adults) who they are grateful to and why. You can see an example of this in action in this video at around 1:20.

A couple of times a term, tutors also allow pupils the opportunity to write postcards. The pupils are encouraged to write their thanks to a teacher or member of staff who has really helped them. For teachers, there is nothing better than finding a handful of postcards in our pigeon holes with messages of gratitude. We teachers also remember to be grateful to our wonderful kids: every week, every teacher writes three to ten postcards to members of their classes who have made a real effort or really impressed us that week.

 

Personal responsibility

When we believe events to be outside our control, we find life endlessly frustrating. We are stymied in our efforts by continually thinking: if only this wasn’t the case! If only this had happened instead! It is a frustrating way to live, because we cannot control the actions of others. If we focus on how others behave, we will often find ourselves at a dead end, unable to reach our goals.

If, on the other hand, we focus on our own locus of control, we feel much more content. If we are unhappy with how something has gone, instead of blaming the wider world, we instead focus our attention on the things we could have done differently.

So, for example, if a pupil finds themself in a detention they perceive as unfair, we have a conversation with them to talk them through to taking responsibility.

‘But I was whispering because the boy next to me was whispering to me first! Why did I get the detention but he didn’t?’ This reaction leads to anger and resentment. The children feel unhappy that a punishment seems to have been given unfairly. It is hard for kids to understand that teachers are never omniscient, and we can’t catch every infraction. We turn this conversation around by first emphasising that we have strict rules and detentions so that the children can have a peaceful and calm environment to learn in. We then refocus the child on what they can do differently. What can they do next time to change their consequences? Not talk back. If someone whispers to them, they cannot control that person’s actions but they can control their own, and how they respond. Taking responsibility is always better than blaming others. As adults, we know that the best people take the blame and are honest when they get something wrong. As adults, we feel happier when we know we can change things for the future. We want our kids to learn that lesson too.

 

Duty

Modern Western society encourages us to think about our dreams: what do we dream of doing with our lives? What do we dream of achieving? What do we dream of having? Yet focusing on ourselves and what we hope to get, acquire, achieve is not the route to happiness. Inevitably, things will happen in all of our lives to prevent us from ever enjoying the ideal life.

If, instead, we focus on our duty, we can find a surer route to happiness. Duty means finding your contribution. It is not what you can get from society that we should focus on, but what you can give to society.

This was a lesson I learned over many years. I was always very ambitious and very self-focused, never satisfied with what I was achieving, and never just enjoying life for what it was. In taking a demotion to join Michaela, I hugely struggled with my ambitious side. Yet over time I realised that if I focused on my duty instead of my ego, I would be happier. My ego wanted to feel important; but my duty was to contribute to what I firmly believe is a ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting school. To focus on position is frustrating; to focus on what you can contribute to a movement is exciting.

Similarly, we often talk to our kids about legacy: what legacy do you want to leave in the world? What will your contribution be? It can’t be about how much money they want to earn, or how many accolades they wish to be given. Instead, if they focus on what they can give and contribute they will lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Teach Knowledge

What can you do when you inherit a clueless year 10 or 11 class? Teach them the test. It’s something that teachers who join struggling schools know well. Principals who are drafted in to turn around failing schools are not fools to throw their resources at year 11 intervention, a.k.a., teaching to the test. What is the alternative?

But kids at private schools and grammar schools don’t do better on these tests because they were drilled better in exam technique. They don’t even do better because their teachers are better paid, or better qualified, or their schools have bigger, better buildings. They do better on the tests because they have deep subject knowledge, built up incrementally over a great number of years, often beginning in the cradle with a loving parent’s reading aloud each night.

In state schools, we have, for too long, been teaching skills and neglecting knowledge. In English, we have taught any novel, or any poem, thinking that the thing that is important is the ‘skill’: of reading, of inferring, of analysing. And yet, novel finished, what have the children learned? Daniel Willingham says that memory is ‘the residue of thought.’ The problem with skills-based lessons is that they don’t require thinking about anything you can commit to memory. Nothing is learned because nothing is being remembered. Over years and years of skills-based teaching, children aren’t actually learning anything. They are simply practising some skills in a near vacuum.

And yet, when it comes to the exams, we all know what to do: we teach them the test. We don’t like knowledge, but we’ll drill children in quotations and PEE and techniques used in key poems. We’ll drill kids in how long to spend on each question and how many marks are available. We’ll drill kids on the key words in each question (‘bafflingly, when AQA says “structure”, what they actually mean is…’). And then we will complain that we have to teach to the test.

I say ‘we,’ because I am equally culpable. Before joining Michaela, I could not see an alternative way of teaching English. Surely it was all about the skills! Who cared when Oliver Twist was written or what the characters’ names were? The kids could look that stuff up! What mattered was their ideas about the text!

We hugely underestimate how vital knowledge is. Skills-teachers across the land cannot work out why their kids cannot improve their inferences, cannot improve their analysis. Why can’t their ideas about the text just be a bit, well, better?

The kids’ ideas can’t be better because they don’t know enough. We don’t think it matters whether they learn chronology, but we forget that it is not obvious to children that Dickens is a Victorian. It is not obvious to children that Shakespeare is an Elizabethan. It is not obvious to children that the Elizabethans pre-date the Victorians. They simply do not know this.

The children who grow up being taught facts and knowledge will thrive in their national exams. They will use all their background knowledge and cultural literacy to deliver deft insights in glorious prose, and sweep up the top grades with ease. The children taught through skills will improve slowly, painfully, and nowhere near fast enough to compete. They will endure two years of teaching to the test and lose any love of learning they might have gleaned in the previous years.

Is there another way? Of course: teach a knowledge-based curriculum from the very start. Stop giving the rich kids a head start.

Assessment in a Knowledge Curriculum

I have written and spoken at length about simplification. In short, I have come to believe that a knowledge curriculum simplifies everything we do as teachers. Rather than considering engagement, entertainment, or pupil interest, a knowledge curriculum relentlessly and ruthlessly prioritises kids learning stuff in the most effective way: that is, reading it, writing about it, and being quizzed on it.

In my past life, here are some ways I assessed pupil learning:

  • Painstakingly marked their books with lengthy written targets for improvement that pupils responded to
  • As above, but for essays and assessments
  • Used spurious National Curriculum levels to denote the level the child appeared to be writing at
  • Developed an assessment ladder based on vague descriptors provided by GCSE exam boards to denote how far a child was from the GCSE expectations
  • Had pupils complete multiple choice exams which, having sweated over making, I would then have to mark
  • Had pupils swap books with one another to write insightful comments such as: ‘good work. Next time, write more’
  • Asked pupils to tell their partner what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to write a mind-map of what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to make a presentation of what they know about a topic

Not only are the above techniques unnecessarily complicated, they almost never gave me any useful information about what my kids could do.

At Michaela, we ask the kids questions constantly. Every lesson begins with two to five practice drills. In English, this would consist of two or more of the following:

  • A spelling test
  • A vocabulary test
  • A grammar drill
  • A gap-fill on a poem the pupils are memorizing
  • Knowledge questions on a previous unit
  • Knowledge questions on the current unit

We then read some material, and ask the pupils questions to ensure they have understood. The pupils then answer some questions about the material. We then go over the questions as a whole class, and pupils edit their responses using the whole-class feedback. For a lengthier piece of writing, I would use a half-page of feedback as outlined in my post ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way.’

For our bi-annual exams, pupils write an essay or, in subjects like Science or Maths, complete an exam paper that tests their ability to apply their knowledge. They also complete two to five ‘knowledge exams,’ which are simply open answer questions about everything they have learned that year. (Example questions from English could be: ‘What is a simile? When did Queen Elizabeth die? When was Macbeth first performed and where?’) We don’t painstakingly mark every paper – instead we sort them swiftly into three piles: A, B and C. A quick glance can tell us how a pupil has done – lots of gaps is a C, a sample glance at a number of correct answers and all questions attempted with a well-worked extension an A; everything in the middle a B.

The reason we can assess so simply is that in a knowledge curriculum there is a correct answer. There are, though we love to deny it, right and wrong things to say about literature. At Michaela, we are explicit about this. When I asked for pupil inferences about Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men in my previous school, I remember asking them what the colour red could symbolise. Their answer, ‘jam,’ was simply wrong. What we do at Michaela is to codify the knowledge we want the pupils to learn, teach that knowledge, and then relentlessly test that knowledge.

Simple.