That feeling of deep dread


If you don’t know what I’m talking about then I’m very pleased for you. However, you may want to carry on reading, especially if you’re a leader in a school.

I’m talking about the feeling that many teachers have experienced when trying to sleep at night or when they first wake up or when travelling to school; or all three. A deep, sicky feeling of dread. An inner sadness that won’t be resolved by a cup of coffee or a smile from a kind colleague. In the ‘best’ cases it may last a few days, at worst months and years.

I know this feeling because I have felt it during my career. I am also very ashamed to admit that I know that I have caused (at least) one colleague to have this feeling; they were brave enough to tell me.

It isn’t just being fed-up or not looking forward to a particular class or not getting on with someone or first day nerves. It’s more than that. It usually occurs when a person really cares, maybe too much about teaching and their school. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t feel this if you didn’t really care.

It rarely stems from bad relationships or poor behaviour from students. Yes, they can be challenging and upsetting but most teachers have an invisible barrier like a protective halo around them for this. This deep feeling usually comes from other adults.

The feeling is often created when someone feels or has been told in some way that what they’re doing, isn’t good enough. Whether it be their lesson is ‘inadequate’ or they aren’t fulfilling their leadership role; they haven’t met the necessary requirements.

It is particularly wretched when you know that whatever the issue is, isn’t really an issue. I was once told that my lesson was ‘inadequate’ because I didn’t prove that all students had made progress in 20 minutes to the person that was watching my lesson. I knew it was all nonsense but I suddenly lost all sense of worth and self confidence. I was an experienced teacher with good outcomes and this person suddenly told me I wasn’t good enough. That weekend I seriously considered if I wanted to carry on being a teacher. It wasn’t just me. A few other, excellent teachers, were told the same. I felt sick with dread all weekend. Myself and my colleague texted each other in our dark hours over that long weekend. We had been made to feel failures. We had that deep feeling of failure and dread.

Whilst I believe in that case, that person was seriously misguided, there are times when tough conversations need to be had. There are colleagues who may well need to be told that teaching isn’t for them or a particular aspect of their role isn’t working out. It would be really dangerous to believe that everyone can make it as a teacher, meanwhile allowing students in their care to miss out on decent teaching.

So how can we avoid this feeling? I suspect that schools that have clear systems, expectations and accountability have less chance of someone feeling like this. These systems use structure to take out personalities. There’s less chance of personality clash or nastiness if a process is being followed. If you make stuff up as you go along, it’s bound to have these awful side effects.

It also occurs when something is sprung unexpectedly onto a colleague; they didn’t know it was going to happen. We hadn’t been told that the rules of our observation was to show progress for each student in 20 minutes. If we’d known the rules, we may have played the game and met the criteria. We didn’t know until it was too late. We hadn’t met the grade. Don’t spring things on people and certainly don’t let them hear things from someone else or in an email. Jill Berry coined the phrase at #SLTCamp East in 2014, “Eat the frog”. Don’t avoid telling someone something important. Do it face to face.

Finally, if someone tells you that they’re upset, then have the emotional intelligence to deal with it sensibly. They’ve probably taken a huge leap of faith to say it. They’re trying to resolve the horrible feeling sitting in their stomach. If you don’t care how they feel or have no ability to respond in a humane manner, you need to seriously question your role.

Remember, you will never know how much you’ve affected people you work with and this sort of stuff scars, real deep. Try and make it as humane as possible, even when things are tough.

Thoughts on the implications of research on transfer (David Didau’s ResearchED session)


David has kindly shared his presentation from the session here. It was a thought provoking session that referenced research on transfer and comes from his, and Nick Rose’s  recently published book here.

I came from David’s sessions pondering 3 main things.

1. If we struggle to naturally transfer between contexts, why do schools bother with discrete lessons on learning. A few years ago I was part of a team that was timetabled to teach what was called ‘learning to learn’. We spent hours planning how we could get students to understand how they learnt (lots of thinking hats and learning styles) that followed a tried and tested programme established by another school; I forget the name of it. However, it was really obvious that if they didn’t get to use some of these tools in their actual subject classes then the skills weren’t going to transfer. We ditched the lessons and went to drop down days. We ditched the drop down days and it was obvious some of this needed to be done in subject lessons. That was too big an ask for teachers so it stopped.

Whilst not all of what we did was reliably research based, we did do some stuff that research has suggested is good for learning, so are schools wasting their time having discrete lessons or tutor times/assemblies on learning/revision strategies? Should it all be done by subject teachers to ensure transfer into ther subject?

2. I used to teach A level critical thinking. It was probably one of the best things I’ve agreed to teach outside my subject specialism. It changed the way I think, teach and understand logic and reasoning. I apply it across many contexts and use it regularly in my teaching in RE, however, did the students manage to transfer the skills learnt into their other subjects? I think many did. I once received an email from an ex student that told me that her A level Critical thinking had essentially been retaught in her Law degree and she had a huge advantage over other students that hadn’t studied it at ks5. She could easily transfer those skills into Law. However, there were times when students came out with horrific ‘sweeping generalisations’ or ‘ ad homines’ even though they knew what they were, why they were weak logic but couldn’t transfer them to another context, particularly a personal one e.g ‘All year 7s are annoying’. 

If I, and some others could transfer the skills but others not so much, what was different between us?

3. Finally, David mentioned getting students to move seats or rooms to encourage students to vary the physical context of learning. I have alsways tried to get as many mock exams in the real exam hall, in the real exam conditions as possible but it’s obviously limited (PE/Drama generally lose a teaching room). So, I’ve decided that now, whenever students do a test in my room, they have to move table. I told them this week that research suggests it may help them. They nodded and agreed. Nothing to lose, maybe something to gain.

Start of year baseline tests; why bother?


Both my year 11 classes had a test for their first lesson this year, however it wasn’t a baseline test. It was a test on their last topic before the holiday and was done for the benefit of learning (recall & long-term memory) rather than diagnosis (although they always complete an analysis sheet after any test).

I have no issues giving students tests in their first lessons, however there are teachers around the country that are giving students a ‘baseline’ test. I haven’t seen them all however if similar to those I’ve seen they have the following purpose/s:

  • To find out what students know
  • To find out what students can do
  • To fulfil the school’s requirement to do a baseline test, usually to generate a predicted grade/level.

However I question the usefulness of baseline tests like this.

The problems with these tests

1. There is no way they can test ‘everything’. Which skills do you choose to test? Which knowledge? Do you test what you hope they already know or what you plan to teach them? Whatever you do, you won’t get a full view of a child’s capabilities. If you test their skills they may be hindered by their lack of knowledge on the topic and vice verse.

2. Generating a target grade from these without any other data seems risky. First day in class is tense, a bad week, feeling ill, may all contribute to poor performance and consequently an inaccurate starting point.

3. Following ‘life without levels’ many schools are going to a 5 year GCSE. In doing this they are only using GCSE style questions with students. These do not cover all the possible skills that can be developed in subjects. It also is mostly testing them on an unknown GCSE mark scheme. If you spent a couple of lessons teaching them the ‘game’ they may achieve much more.

4. If I have a class of 30 students and they take the baseline test, I have the potential of 30 different starting points. Is it then an expectation to teach 30 different lessons within a lesson? How will you bring them all to them same stage? That seems an impossible task and lends itself to the ridiculous expectation of extreme differentiation.

5. Once the test is done, many just allocate a grade or level. How is that going to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses? The only way to do effectively this would be to record for each student how they performed in each skill, which if a test of several pages, could be an immense job to organise and record. You then have the same issue as above. You will have lots of data, which would take a long time to use in planning.

6. In many cases where schools use setting, these sets are determined before the baseline. If the baseline determines ‘ability’ in a subject which is set, surely they need to be set afterwards.

So what are the alternatives?

Don’t bother. Many schools/subjects don’t bother and students seem to still achieve. Use other standardised data I.e CATS

Stagger the baselines. Give students the tests before they study the knowledge/skill to see what they already know. This might be every term or more frequently.

Separate knowledge and skills testing. This is easier for knowledge. Test students on what you plan to teach them to see what they already know. We give them 30 multiple choice questions at the start/middle/end of every topic. Testing skills without knowledge could be incredibly complex.


Why I use folders for GCSE


I’ve had some discussions online about this so I thought I’d share my rationale and systems.

Since my first ever option group of GCSE I have used lever arch folders with students. At the time, the whole cohort did short course so I felt it made the full course students have something different for the full course aspect. I have continued to use level arch folders for option groups ever since.

3 groups worth of folders (some have taken theirs over the holidays)

Why I use folders

  • I think GCSE should be a preparation for further study. At key stage 5 most providers do not give students exercise books. Students are suddenly expected to use folders and a4 paperwork without having been taught how to do it. Using them at KS4 helps them to learn how to organise.
  • It stops wasting time gluing things in to books
  • Work can be organised by course structure rather than by a linear time model. I think this is better for revision and reference.
  • Work can be thrown away without having to tear things out or have unsightly crossings out (drafting is different)
  • Paperwork such as exams, worksheets, course outlines are easily available and can be referenced quickly in lessons.
  • It gives students a sense of ownership. It’s their folder. Many are very proud of it in a different way from when they had books.
  • They can use a book or A4 paper for notes. This year I’m going to buy a refill pad each. This prevents time wasted giving out paper every lesson. Those that choose to use a book can have a folder at the back (see below). Interestingly most that initially opted for a book ditched it after a while.


  • All marked work is on paper so I have a small pile to mark rather than a large pile of books or folders. It’s a psychological benefit.
  • It saves time. Before the lesson starts they all go to the cupboard and get their folders. I don’t have to tell them to. They take turns on their table.
  • In student surveys and classroom visits, they have reported that they like them and are proud of them.
  • Life lessons. I’m teaching them how to organise paperwork in a logical, easily accessible manner. One day it might help them with their own paperwork.

Possible issues

  • Any external person who wants to turn page after page to see ‘progress‘ won’t have an easy job. (I don’t care, their work is about them, not showing progress to someone else)
  • Taking them home. They’re big and bulky. I generally don’t recommend them taking the whole file.
  • Storage. You need some decent space for them (see above).
  • Hole punching – they need several lessons on how to do this. They have no idea how to use them properly. Life lessons.
  • The new GCSE is going to be a challenge. We’ll go to two folders. One religions and one themes.


  • Use of dividers and polypockets helps with organisation
  • I do folder checks every half term-ish. This isn’t marking but checking on organisation and note making. I compete a very simple sheet at the front. The next lesson they all do their improvements.
  • I also track self reflections on these (see below) which makes it easy when report writing.
  • You have to teach students how to use them. They won’t have a natural ability to do it. Step by step. “These are called dividers. They separate your work. You write the title of the topic on the tab. You file the work BEHIND the tab”. I’ve seen folders fail. Why? Because the teacher hasn’t taught the students how to use them.


Must do better


A relevant meme 

How many conversations were there this week about doing better this year?

How many conversations were there about HOW things would be done better?

How are teachers meant to know how to do things better if they tried everything last year to make things better?

What does ‘better’ mean?

Based on the assumption that you tried being better last year, what are you going to do differently this year?

If you’re writing a whole school development plan, a department plan or your own development plan, what will you put in the ‘how’ box, if we know that the ‘what’ box is ‘Must do better’?

Suggestions that might make a difference:

  1. Engage with research. What can research tell us that might change how we do things? Keep it light. Don’t give staff whole research papers. Give them headlines.
  2. Focus on learning and how we learn. The team of Learning Scientists provide great blogs and resources that are accessible.
  3. Listen to/Ask what others are doing. Within your school/MAT/LA and beyond. Social media such as Twitter is the quickest and easiest way to do this.
  4. List possibilities and consider which might be useful in your context. My generous Twitter colleague Fiona, @FKRitson has published and shared many ideas for intervention strategies in English.
  5. Change your use of time. What did you spend time on last year that probably had no/little impact? Leaders need to do this too. Did that meeting have any impact? Did the marking policy make any difference?
  6. Focus on PPD (personal professional development). What will you as an individual do to tweak or develop a skill or knowledge? As a leader, how will you enable your staff to access personalised PD?
  7. Ask people around you. Ask ex-students, LSAs, current students, other staff. What might make learning ‘better’ in my classroom? I’m not convinced that students always know what’s best for them but they might suggest something useful or point out something that you didn’t realise.
  8. Read. For subject knowledge, for pedagogy, for leadership; read something. A book, an article, a blog, a research paper. Ask on social media for advice on what might be good to read for your own PPD.
  9. Learn how to play the game. Teach the game. If you teach GCSE or A level, the exam game is so important. It would be lovely to ignore it; it’s would be  potentially disastrous.


And the results are in….. Reflections on two years of GCSE


I’ve blogged several times on specific strategies I’ve used with the outgoing year 11 including an evaluation blog. Now the results are out its time to reflect on the impact these strategies may have made. The links to the blogs are hyperlinked where referenced.

The results were pretty much as expected, which I think were good. What makes results good results? Also there were some nice surprises that I’d really hoped would happen but weren’t 100%. I was going to publish their LOPs but then deleted. If you’re interested I ‘m happy to share privately.

Attitude matters

One of the students that achieved 6 LOPs is an interesting case. From day 1 she was keen to learn but struggled. She reflected all the time, many times being disappointed and frustrated. She was always the first with her hand up with the correct answer in class but when it came to writing, she struggled to get it down.

At parents evening, her mum told me their house was covered in post it notes. She always asked for more index cards for revision. She cared, she was bothered and she struggled.

In my opinion the reasons she did so well are:

  • Positive attitude (true growth mindset in action), self motivation, independence and organisation – I didn’t nag. She did so much work by herself. I encouraged and praised.
  • Simple AfL. She knew what she’d got wrong, she knew what she needed to do to make it better. I don’t mark endlessly at GCSE; just exam questions once in a while.
  • Determination – I continuously told her she can do it and she wanted it.
  • Early repetition of content – using the post its and index cards
  • I taught to the top, not to her ‘expected grade’. Giving out differentiated worksheets that are aimed at a grade is the biggest mistake a teacher can make.

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it

That’s not strictly true but it matters a lot in exams.

One student started in year 10 with what I call big ‘bubble writing’. You know the type; 4 words to the line in large curvy letters (not with hearts as the dots of ‘i’s). Whilst handwriting doesn’t matter as long as it’s legible, I could see that it was limiting her ability to use the space for her answer in the best way. There was lots of ‘I can’t’ in year 10; whether it was a topic she didn’t like or writing in the time limit. I told her exactly what she needed to do to get her target grade. Year 11 could have gone either way.

With lots of practice and some more nagging, the handwriting started to shrink and the quality of the writing improved. She seemed to shift mindset. She started to show signs of becoming more motivated and focused. She was proud of her work. She kept her folder meticulously organised (using the majority of my poly-pockets!). I think that using folders at GCSE is so important, not necessarily for learning but for attitude. I’ll blog on this another time.

Test test test

When I emailed the second student to ask permission to write about her,she said, unprompted, “Tell your gcse students now that your key word tests do help lots”. I’ve blogged about these and the testing that I do with students. This group asked for more and established the current structure of weekly keyword testing that alternates between current and previous content.

My analysis of their papers shows that the majority of the students got 100% of these answers correct (out of 120 questions they answered on keywords, 4 answers got 0 marks). It’s impossible to analyse the impact that these had on other questions, but without an understanding of the keywords, they won’t have known what the questions were asking.

There is no doubt that this long-term strategy from day 1 made a significant difference. You must keep testing students. In my opinion, this no/low stakes testing was the difference in grades for most of the students. I also let them ‘cheat’ in tests taken in class.

We also did lots of topic testing, interleaving the topics throughout the course. They experienced several ‘full time’ exam practice papers, not just the one mock that the school calendared.  I believe this had a significant impact on knowledge retention.

I also interleaved the units (instead of teaching all of one paper and then all of the other paper). I can’t evaluate how they would have done if I’d taught paper by paper. This is the issue with in class trials; if you believe they might have impact is it right to have a control group that may not benefit?

We don’t learn without effort

So many teachers seem to think that children should ‘just learn’. That they’re some sort of sponge that will suck in knowledge and retain it. It just doesn’t work. If anyone ever says ‘but I’ve taught this to them’ without any sort of further action, they don’t understand how learning works.

In lessons, I planned this for them. Repetition of topics and structured revision lessons took some of the effort out for them. My aim for the next couple of years is to ensure that those that do not put effort in out of school have the structure given to them. They will be quizzed throughout the course.Homework will be the same from day 1 to the day before the exam; quizzing.  ‘Revision’ will be ditched.

What about those that have no effort? Whilst this post wasn’t supposed to be about mindset, it keeps cropping up. I’m not convinced that a teenager, that couldn’t care less about school will be changed by a whole school ‘Growth Mindset’ campaign. My strategies are: endless positivity, “You will do well if you bother to try” and peer pressure, “Your mate X is doing work”.

Know your enemy

It’s true to say that I was brutally honest with them. There’s no point sugar-coating things. I knew the grade boundaries would be ridiculously high (They were. C=76% and A*=96%. God help us next year). I taught them how to play the exam game and make sure they are all aware of what is required but also the possible hazards. Being an examiner helps. I made them do things that weren’t part of the exam assessment but I know had the potential to make a difference e.g developing reasons as two separate sentences, instead of one long punctuated sentence. I highly recommend examining for your exam board at least once and recommend negotiating with your school on how you might do this efficiently.

Of course, we can never really attribute specific things to results. For all I know, they had private tutors and learnt nothing in my lessons.

Overall, it seems that mindset and structured learning (simple AfL, memory techniques, interleaving, spacing) are the two keys to success; nothing too fancy in my lessons. For this class anyway.

Why I think that setting students is a good thing & where it’s gone wrong


I think that in many cases in secondary, students should be taught in groups with others that have demonstrated, through rigorous assessment (formal & informal) similar gaps in their learning. I believe that the arguments against setting are based on issues that are preventable by high expectations, clear systems and the professional behaviour of teachers.

The arguments against setting

It labels children and bottom sets are stigmatised

This only happens if it is allowed to happen. If the language used when referring to different sets is judgmental or in any way different then labels begin to stick. Don’t allow this language from teachers and students and it won’t be a problem. If necessary write it into a policy and always pull people up on it.

It seems that many schools have been very happy to relabel students with new key stage 3 models using terms like ‘master’,’developing’ ‘gold’ or ‘ beginner’ but are against setting. We need to ditch all labels and teach all students at the stage they’re at.

High ability students ‘pull up’ low ability students

This is awful. Truly awful. It is a teacher’s job to teach and ensure that all children achieve, not that of other students. Students are individuals in terms of progress, not a collective. I experienced this as a student and hated it; it was horrific. I wanted to learn and be stretched as an individual not have to help others that might not have the same level of understanding.

“Bottom” sets are poorly taught. Everyone wants the “top” set

Really? For a start that’s unprofessional. It’s also untrue. If the same systems for monitoring are used across the board then no classes should be poorly taught. It’s unacceptable for anyone to allow a class teacher not to have high expectations of every and any class. It is the role of leaders to ensure this happens. If we focus on progress, not behaviour, not attainment, then there is no difference in teaching any set; all teachers are working towards the same thing.

All students can achieve the top grade, setting limits this

Firstly, if you think that all students can achieve the top grade you’re deluded. That doesn’t mean we can’t teach to the top but if you genuinely believe that by setting you are stopping children achieve top grades you have some serious flaws in the teaching at your school. This is conflating high expectations with high attainment.

The students know what set they’re in and what it means

Even if you re-label groups, kids aren’t stupid, they know what set they’re in. So what? What does it ‘mean’? It doesn’t mean anything. The stigma comes from us. Why don’t we teach students to accept that we all have different abilities in different things? If our schools have a broad and balanced curriculum and extra curricular opportunities then all children should have the opportunity to excel. Pretending everyone is the “same” may not work in real life.

The arguments for setting

It makes teacher exposition simpler

Note it doesn’t change planning as such but when it comes to explanations and questioning, it is much easier to do this with a group of students with a similar level of understanding. It reduces the confusion there may be from those that don’t have the same level of understanding.

It stops students ‘switching off’

I once had a ski-ing lesson. I had never skied in my life before. In the group were people who had skied before and could clearly ski down the baby slope. I could barely stand up. As soon as the instructor went beyond my comprehension I switched off; I was bored and fed up. I just wanted to know how to start and stop. I didn’t learn this and fell over. I didn’t want or need to know about skiing on the higher slopes at that point. I now hate skiing and will never go again. You may argue that the instructor didn’t differentiate enough but how were they supposed to with a group of people that were all at different stages of understanding and experience?

It is unreasonable to expect a teacher to teach such variation in ability. If we insist on wide mixed ability grouping, how does it make students feel? Those that don’t understand and those that do understand and want to move forward quickly?

It makes individual targeting simpler

If I have a group of students that range from targeted grades G-A*, the combination of different areas for support are huge. Expecting a teacher to do this during a lesson is unrealistic. It promotes the nonsense of differentiating the lesson 30 ways for 30 different students.  A set is a micro version of a mixed bailout class; it doesn’t negate the need for differentiation but it reduces the complexity.

Using data to set ensures fairness

If we only use clearly defined and agreed data to set, it eradicates potential issues with certain groups. Research has shown that some schools (unconsciously?) set on factors that should never feature as criteria for setting: social class, behaviour, FSM, gender, attitude etc this is where setting goes badly wrong. Focussing  on progress using data is the simplest way to avoid these biases.

Where setting has gone wrong

  • Teaching quality
  • Setting for the wrong thing (behaviour, SEN, attitude, teacher’s preference)
  • The language used
  • Difference in expectations
  • Focus on attainment instead of progress

What needs to happen to ensure setting works

  • As soon as it is clear that a student needs to change groups, it should happen
  • Students should NEVER be moved set for anything other than their learning
  • Teacher language must always be positive and be based on high expectations for all. Certain phrases should be banned.
  • Teachers should teach to the top but with the correct support that the students/group need to access the top e.g no students should ever be told, you are targeting a ‘D’ and therefore you only need to get half marks.
  • Achievement should focus on progress not attainment.
  • Clear, agreed criteria should be used to determine the sets

I’m not anti-mixed ability. I think both options have issues and benefits. I don’t think that setting is appropriate for all classes in school. However the majority of the arguments I have heard against setting could be equally used against mixed ability and  some of the arguments I’ve heard for mixed ability can equally be applied to setting.

In my opinion the issues with setting probably take more of a shift to eradicate but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it. Good teaching is good teaching but I think setting gives the teacher a bit more of a chance for supporting students as individuals.