“Schools are fascinating and complex places.”

So state Jen Barker and Tom Rees in the opening chapter to The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership (2020, p.23). In the closing chapter, Matthew Evans returns to this idea and describes schools as complex systems that are “constantly evolving,” (p.216) and feature problems that are “interconnected and embedded within bigger problems” (p.217). 

The complexity of schools and education is explored in detail in this blog, which is a transcript of an excellent talk given by Becky Allen and Ben White in 2019. Within it, the writers point to the impossibility of solving the problems thrown up by such complexity, precisely because the interconnectedness and changing nature of the problems makes agreement as to their “essence” unlikely, which in turn leads to multiple solutions appearing plausible to those attempting to solve them, depending on their beliefs and biases.

In “normal” times, the job of school leaders and teachers is complex enough. Nuthall’s work, The Hidden Lives of Learners (2007) provides a detailed analysis of the challenges faced by teachers on a daily basis as they attempt to navigate thirty diverse pupil minds towards a common goal in the face of multiple variables and the unavoidable yet inconvenient truth that the very thing they seek to achieve – learning – is invisible. School leaders face this issue scaled up to institutional proportions, their job being to design effective systems which must take into account the diverse needs of staff as well as pupils, whilst dealing with external disruption stemming from government, local authority or trust policy.

What should school leaders do when faced with such complexity?

Evans argues that a crucial step is to acknowledge and accept the complexity in the first place (2020, p.216). Berliner’s paper, Describing the Behaviour and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers (2004) asserts that expert teachers are more “sensitive to the task demands and social situation” than novices (p.2), and that they resultantly take longer to solve problems than their less experienced counterparts. Berliner also argues for taking time to build expertise, citing an Australian study (Turner, 1995) that found exemplary teachers “developed a far more complex view of their working worlds than did the non-exemplary teachers.”

Acknowledging complexity shouldn’t cause leaders to rush towards complicated solutions. That may sound counter-intuitive, but answers are more likely to be found in creating clarity. Where problems are so complex as to be unsolvable, Evans argues we work towards reducing complexity through “structure, stability and simplification” (2020, p.217).

As a teacher, I often had to remind myself: don’t overestimate what pupils know; don’t underestimate what pupils can do.

As a leader I have a new mantra: don’t oversimplify the problems; don’t overcomplicate the response.  

If you haven’t yet had the chance, I strongly recommend any current or aspiring school leader spend some time catching up with Dixons OpenSource – a series of brief, soundbites in the form of YouTube Videos, put together by Dixons Academies Trust in an attempt to codify an area in which they rightly enjoy a reputation for excellence: school culture. As Luke Sparkes and Jenny Thompson talk us through what makes Dixons unique, their message is clear, refreshing, and teaches much about the value of simplicity.

Throughout the videos, they emphasise how leaders are responsible for creating and moreover sustaining school culture, arguing that effective leadership is not about overseeing exciting new initiatives, but rather is a process of reiterating the mundane. Schools aren’t well served by over-complication – you only need to look at the unintended consequences of unwieldy data tracking processes or confusingly multi-layered behaviour policies to see where that leads. Instead, Sparkes and Thompson urge doing a few things exceptionally well.  The essence is that the job of leaders is to play implementation on repeat, every single day.

Demanding the highest of standards and making sure they are there to see it through, day after day, is something I’m proud to say our school leaders at Advantage Schools do brilliantly. But there is no avoiding the fact it is hard work. No wonder Sparkes and Thompson refer to this as a Sisyphean endeavour, alluding to the character from Greek mythology who was tasked by Zeus to roll a boulder uphill for eternity.

What does this look like in a school?

The videos on Dixons OpenSource, as well as the chapter co-authored by Sparkes and Thompson in The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership, provide exemplification of Evans’s “structure, stability and simplification.”  At Advantage Schools we have our own systems in place that work towards this goal – clear, consistent routines that are followed every day: morning line up and a senior leader’s whole school address; structured tutor times that are the same across the whole school; expectations of staff around supervising pupil transition between classrooms; micro-scripts that are followed at the start and end of each lesson; high levels of SLT presence around the school systematised by a rota of lesson wanders and duties.

The daily embedded routines of our schools set out to achieve what Evans describes as the leaders’ duty to create a “positive, productive environment […] where the disorder and unpredictability of children’s lives […] is met with simplicity, order and calm” (2020, p.219).

How does this relate to remote learning?

This brings us to the most recent evolution in schooling: dealing with the challenge of sustaining pupil learning during a time when schools are closed to the majority of pupils. Acknowledging the complexity normally faced by teachers and school leaders, outlined above, the removal of staff and pupils from the familiar classroom environment and routines, in addition to the distancing effect of remote teaching and learning, only serves to further problematise what schools are attempting to achieve. Indeed, Berliner’s work would suggest that the more expertise leaders and teachers possess, the more awareness they will have of the difficulty of transferring that expertise to an online context. Perhaps this explains why so many of us were so frustrated by the narrative non-experts were pushing that to solve the problem of school closures teachers just needed to teach live lessons via Zoom – a good example of an overly simplistic view of a problem leading to an ill-thought out, one-size fits all solution influenced by personal views and biases. 

Accepting the difficulty of measuring the quality of pupil learning during a time of remote education, our school leaders have proceeded with caution and worked, as they would in school, to exert influence and reduce complexity where they can. Their focus has been on what, for the purpose of simple communication, I will call “engagement” – a slippery and unsatisfactory term by which I mean remotely attending to their learning, behaving well, and participating. The work, therefore, of leaders was to build on a culture already established in our schools: partnering with parents, establishing pupil buy-in with regard to the importance of attendance and hard work, implementing systems that would encourage, nudge, insist pupils turn up to the lessons, behave well, and attempt to complete the work set.

Their methods were matched to their in-school approach – create tight routines that are followed and checked every day, ensuring expectations of pupils are clear, consistent and followed up on as necessary.

During the last weeks of term, my conversations with our school principals and senior leadership teams emphasised the staggeringly Sisyphean effort of this work. Most days, I drop into SLT meetings and briefings – this is a system I agreed on with our Principals to save them time in having to update me as it means I am hearing first-hand what our schools are dealing with and how they are responding. Each time I join a meeting I am struck by the dogged perseverance of the leadership teams in our schools, supported by teams of equally determined teachers, pastoral and family support workers and office staff to ensure pupils are in touch and accessing the remote learning provided to them. The systems both our schools put in place relied on the following five principles:

  1. Daily check in

Both schools have a system to check in with pupils remotely every day – Elstow school has chosen to do this through a morning Zoom register, Bedford Free School through a Google form which students should complete each morning. Both systems require pupils to be up, ready and online by a set time each day, sustaining a school routine and expectation of readiness, whilst also enabling pupils or families to flag up if they have any worries and would like someone from school to contact them.  The registers are checked by SLT daily and follow up is immediately agreed for pupils expressing concerns or failing to register.

2. Monitoring lesson attendance

In both schools, class or subject teachers then keep a contact register – if there is a live lesson, a register is taken and pupil attendance logged. If there is work to be submitted, submission is logged as attendance.  If a pupil has not been seen or heard from by mid-morning there will be some form of follow up. This differs by school – at Bedford Free School a text message is sent to parents letting them know their child has not started work yet. If this nudge is unsuccessful, there will be a follow up phone call. At Elstow, depending on the circumstance, the class teacher, a member of the office staff or SLT will contact home.  In both schools, if the calls and texts don’t result in attendance, SLT discuss pupils and identify individual actions – who needs a supportive call, who may need a home visit, who would be better attending on site provision. In each case the most appropriate person is assigned to liaise with the pupil or family.  

3. Monitoring behaviour

SLT also discuss behaviour, which teachers are asked to always flag, for example by adding a comment to their SIMs register.  SLT discuss all behaviour issues raised in the last 24 hours, such as a pupil deliberately failing to mute their microphone, inappropriate use of the chat function, or not participating/submitting work. Every incident is discussed, with members of SLT adding phone calls home to the list of shared out work to complete that afternoon. Again, where measures to address these problems are ineffective, it may be decided a pupil would be better off attending on site provision.

4. Pastoral and IT support

This is in addition to the pastoral teams who spend most of their days calling families, providing remote support and responding to safeguarding concerns, and the office staff, who have worked tirelessly to prepare and distribute paper packs and laptops to families in need, and provide ongoing IT support (which of course is the bedrock of the effectiveness or our daily check ins). At Bedford Free School, requests for help can be communicated by families using the Google register, and at Elstow School not only do SLT follow up if pupils have not accessed the morning register, teachers also run a Zoom story time for pupils at the end of each day followed by a 15 minute open forum for parents to ask any questions they may have or ask for support. Of course, pupils and families can also email or call if they need to.

5. And Repeat

The next day, the leadership teams come together again to repeat the whole process.

I am in awe of our own and other school leaders who are doggedly repeating such processes each and every day. I have no doubt it is exhausting and feels relentless, sometimes even thankless. I also have no doubt their persistence is rooted in their belief that the work they do is important, and that at a time where the unpredictability in children’s lives is so pronounced they will do all they can to re-create a familiar school world of simple, consistent expectations.

And the pupils are responding. Over time, the number of pupils not attending has reduced. At Bedford Free School 100% of pupils are engaged in remote learning on some level, although the leadership team continue to working intensively with 1% of pupils to sustain persistent engagement. At Elstow School the leadership team are working determinedly with 2%.

Where do we go from here?

I know plenty of other schools are doing what ours are doing – in fact the point is none of this is rocket science. But I also know not all schools are. I recently attended some training that suggested all kinds of initiatives to promote engagement – competitions, WOW days, challenges, passports,  celebrations – all lovely things that have value in their own right, but are likely to appeal most to the pupils motivated or supported enough to be engaging with school work already (in fact, I’d argue that, for some, these activities may even be a distraction from the core learning schools want pupils to prioritise). Too many parents are not finding out until parents’ evening that their children are not doing any work – and what about the children of parents who can’t or don’t attend parents’ evening?

I also know many schools are likely to be doing different but equally effective things to sustain attendance, and I would love to hear what they are. But moreover, hopefully with school returning in the near future, we will find ourselves facing up to the complexity of supporting pupils whose experiences of home learning will have varied significantly. School leaders must resist a rush to simplify the problems and initiate complicated solutions. Rather we must return to our mission, acknowledge the complexity of the problems we face, collaborate effectively, and make our best bets to reduce complexity and establish calm, safe and largely predictable schools where children can thrive.

That means turning up tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and continuing to roll that boulder up that hill.


Allen, R. and White, B. (2019) ‘Careering Towards a Curriculum Crash?” Becky Allen: Musings on Education Policy Online Blog dated 4th December 2019 accessed 17/02/21  https://rebeccaallen.co.uk/2019/12/04/careering-towards-a-curriculum-crash/

Barker, J. and Rees, T. (2020) ‘What is school leadership?’ in Lock, S. (ed.) The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Berliner, D. C. (2004) ‘Describing the Behaviour and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers’, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 24(3), pp. 200–212. doi: 10.1177/0270467604265535.

Evans, M (2002) ‘Surviving and thriving in uncertainty’ in Lock, S. (ed.) The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Nuthall, G. (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Sparkes, L and Thompson, J. (2020) ‘School culture’ in Lock, S. (ed.) The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Dixons OpenSource videos can be accessed on YouTube here


How should we review our curriculum and why should we even try?

When school buildings were repurposed to provide care for the children of keyworkers and learning moved online, teachers had scant chance to prepare for the transition. The profession’s approach to this challenge was, to say the least, impressive. I have been in awe of the dedication and motivation of my colleagues in responding to ensure children in our schools were safe, families were supported, and pupils could continue learning.

The conditions are far from ideal. Even though across our trust the vast majority of our pupils are accessing some form of home learning, we know there will be huge variations in the quality of that learning from pupil to pupil. Summer Turner has written brilliantly on the problem of remote learning disrupting of the relationship between pupil and knowledge, where the teacher usually acts to bridge the gap.  When we are in a classroom with students, we are constantly assessing, questioning, responding, elaborating, simplifying, explaining, and breathing life into the learning, and we have had to accept that even the best technology in the world cannot enable us to reach into homes in the same way.

As Director of Education for Advantage Schools trust, my role is to oversee the educational provision for pupils in our schools. In considering what that provision needed to look like in a locked down world, it immediately struck me that curriculum was more important than ever.  As a trust, we place a strong bet that effective curriculum planning is crucial in our goal of providing an excellent education.  Believing that students who have significant gaps in their learning find the learning of new material much more difficult, made it hard to envisage how it would be possible to continue ploughing through our planned curriculum remotely without expecting this to create disparity between students.

Therefore, I didn’t want too much of our teachers’ energy diverted into huge amounts of learning about new technology and teaching online lessons that attempted to deliver that planned curriculum as if we had still been in school. We had no expectation that staff teach live lessons. We accepted this was an area in which most of us lacked expertise and we should consider the gains of using new technology carefully against the time it would spend us to get up and running. Of course, those teachers who wanted to provide a level of live support were able to as soon as we had shared guidance around safeguarding.

All teachers were ensuring their pupils had work to complete at home, and there was an array of technology platforms that were proving helpful with remote learning. In communicating with staff, I urged caution around introducing pupils to too many different things which could end up overwhelming and alienating them. I’ve blogged before about the risk of pupils remembering fun activities rather than lesson content, and asking students to grapple with new tech every time they accessed work felt like it would divert from the actual learning in a similar way.  Staff across the trust volunteered to form a working group, which quickly enabled us to curate an approved list of learning platforms, each with a named contact who agreed to help others.

This was published in a Remote Learning Handbook, which also focused on how we can apply what we know about effective teaching practice to remote learning. It dealt with motivation, effective instruction techniques and the use of cognitive science to help students learn when we are not together and was informed by a weekend of me watching ResearchEd Durrington videos on Loom, blog reading, and going over all my old professional learning notes.  I’ve listed the blogs I found most useful at the end of this post.

The most important part of this handbook focused on what I hoped most teachers could turn their attention to next: curriculum development. We needed to be realistic and understand we simply could not deliver the curriculum as we had intended whilst schools were closed – if this were possible we would have no need for schools. In particular, students who have difficulty accessing technology at home, were struggling to motivate themselves, need additional support, or didn’t have adults that were in a position to help them were likely to fall further behind than their peers. We will have this work to pick up over the coming months and years and any capacity we have over the summer term is best spent preparing for this. As a trust, our efforts over the summer term are on creating the optimal curriculum for each year group.

Over the past three to four years our schools have dedicated a huge amount of thought and consideration to curriculum, but we know curriculum is not a project to be finished or a journey that reaches an end, as this blog from Ruth Walker beautifully conveys.  In some ways the lockdown has given us an opportunity to look at our curriculum with fresh eyes, and in some ways has made us more free to do this work. We have always wanted to create vibrant subject communities, but so often our size, geography and teaching commitments made this difficult. Now our subject leads and senior curriculum leaders from across the trust can meet via Teams, and take the opportunity to think about a pupil’s experience of a discipline from their earliest encounters in reception to the time they leave us as young adults.

As always, I want to support our brilliant subject leaders and teachers as much as I can with these conversations. I don’t want them to fill in a document, make change for change’s sake, or feel the need to appease me with the surface features of curriculum planning such as shiny new knowledge map or booklet. I want them to discuss, debate, and professionally challenge one another. I want to know what the contentious issues are in their discipline. I want to hear about where they disagree as well as where they concur.

So where should they start in reviewing their curriculum plans? I’ve been puzzling this out with the support of the senior leaders in our schools and a lot of guidance from Stuart Lock. We think the questions below might be a decent starting point:


Aim 1: To share an understanding of the long term aims of the curriculum in your subject. This will mean you can answer the questions below:

  1. What do students need to know by the age of 14, accepting that some will “drop” a subject at this age, and for the rest we allow the specification to dictate the curriculum to an extent?
  2. What do they need to know to be well prepared for the next stage in their education, e.g by the end of year 6 (primary) and year 11 (secondary)?
  3. What do they already know by the time they reach your stage of education? I.e. if you are secondary, do you know what they are coming from KS2 with; if you are KS2 what do you know about their KS1 curriculum?

If we know the answers to the questions above, we can move to Aim 2 below. If we don’t, the above must be the focus of discussion and planning.

Aim 2: To break down and sequence your aims into a coherent curriculum

  1. Have we broken the long-term curricular aims down into what pupils will know, have experienced and can do each year that we teach them?
  2. Have we broken this down into aims for what pupils will be taught each term?
  3. Do we know why we have rejected or moved things? If we haven’t rejected anything, we might take this as an indication we may not have wrestled with the curriculum sufficiently
  4. In this subject is *how* pupils do things important (e.g. method in maths) and have we selected our method that everyone will use?
  5. Are we able to identify what knowledge pupils will use week-by-week?
  6. Stepping back, does the week-by-week schedule convince you we are addressing what we think we want to achieve in the long term?
  7. Is there a debate around the pedagogy necessary to teach this subject, i.e the balance of practical v theoretical in PE or science, or the enquiry-based v DI balance in history?

If we are comfortable above, we should turn our attention to resourcing lessons 

Aim 3: To resource your curriculum effectively

  1. What resources do we need to deliver this curriculum? For example, knowledge organisers, vocabulary lists, booklets, PowerPoints, scripted explanations, other? Why do we need them and how will they help pupil learning?
  2. What development do teachers need to develop their subject knowledge in order to teach their lessons effectively?
  3. What preparation is expected of teachers in order to use the resources effectively?
  4. Who is responsible for each aspect of curriculum resourcing and who is responsible for quality assuring the components and the cohesive whole?

Aim 4: To make preparations for the assessment of your curriculum

  1. What knowledge do we need to assess at which point of our curriculum delivery?
  2. How will we assess what has been covered is retained long term?
  3. What are the best methods to use to assess our curriculum content?
  4. Who will take responsibility for writing assessments? How will we ensure they are cohesive and meet our curricular Aims?

I see this review as the starting point in much more developed curricular thinking in our schools over the coming months. We are doing a lot of work with our senior leaders to enhance the curriculum leadership in our schools, which I’ll reflect on at researchEd Northampton in October.  Part of curriculum leadership is effective quality assurance – something I’ll be talking about in this We Are In Beta webinar this Tuesday.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear constructive feedback on what we could do to do this better.



Doug Lemov interview in which he outlines the key principals he feels create effective remote teaching practice:


Videos and field notes from the TLAC blog focusing on remote teaching:

Mastering remote teaching– intro: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/mastering-remote-teaching-intro-two-types-of-learning/

Connecting and communicating through video: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/our-first-round-of-videos-of-online-teaching/

Introducing “pause points” in video/remote teaching: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/pause-points-a-clip-from-sara-sherrs-online-classroom/

Example of a planned, live online lesson: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/alex-barbas-bio-class-an-example-of-a-synchronous-online-lesson/

Feedback and accountability loops: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/feedback-and-accountability-loops-for-online-classes/

Example of a planned, pre-recorded video lesson: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/online-lessons-george-bramley-wins-the-battle-of-hastings/

Accountability and feedback online: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/accountability-and-feedback-online-one-big-questions-is-when/

Using Cold Call in a live online lesson: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/knikki-hernandez-engages-students-online-with-three-types-of-cold-call/

Reading aloud in online lessons: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/is-reading-aloud-relevant-in-an-online-classroom-yes-these-videos-prove-it/



Daisy Christodoulou: Why remote learning hasn’t worked before and what we can do to change that


Daisy Christodoulou: The challenge of remote teaching is the challenge of all teaching


Professor Daniel Muijs and Dr. Dominique Sluijsmans: Why this is not the time for large-scale educational experiments




Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash


Gloves off: School leadership in uncertain times.

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Today began with tears.

In my wisdom, I had decided it was necessary to disinfect the kitchen. In her wisdom, my daughter had decided to log on to Purple Mash to complete some maths homework.

Every few seconds she was calling me to help her. One moment it was rubber gloves on, the next minute, rubber gloves off.

She was attempting to add fractions together with different denominators. She doesn’t think she has done this in school, and was adding both the numerators and denominators.  I explained she was getting it wrong, and talked her through what she needed to do.

She seemed to get it, but then she didn’t.  Every time I left her to work on her own she would get lost and call me back. Gloves on. Gloves off.  At last, I thought she really understood, so I left her to complete the questions. Gloves on. Back to my disinfecting.

Next thing I hear is her panicky voice calling me again. Gloves off, I return and she is crying. She only got 3 out of 10 correct. Looking at what she’d done, she had managed to get the correct denominator each time but had focused so hard on that process that she’d messed up by adding in every question, missing that some tasks were subtractions, and in some cases she had worked the answer out correctly on paper but typed the wrong answer online.

My daughter very rarely cries. Like all of us this week, I’ve seen my job as a parent primarily to protect the children from fear, panic and sadness as their little lives have been upturned. Confronted by her distress I felt angry and like a complete failure. In my desperation to find a target for my anger, a few thoughts flashed through my head.

This is her school’s fault! Why are they setting her work she hasn’t done yet? Don’t they realise this is getting in the way of me disinfecting the kitchen!?

This is her fault! Why is she doing this on a SATURDAY? Isn’t it enough I’ve been trying to home school her all week and now she expects me to help her all weekend as well? When on earth am I meant to disinfect the kitchen!?

This is my fault! I am an absolute failure as a parent. I explained badly, rushed it and prioritised something else over her at a time when she needs me most. Why on earth am I disinfecting the kitchen anyway?

Of course, the blame game is daft. Just because she doesn’t remember doing it at school, doesn’t mean she hasn’t done it at school. She’s doing it on a Saturday because she’s in the habit of doing her homework on a Saturday, and is hanging on to the precious moments of normality that are available to her. And maybe I am a failure as a parent, or maybe I’m not, but that one moment in my child’s life won’t be the deciding factor in that.

Right now, it is natural to look for somebody to blame: the situation we are all in and the difficulties we are currently experiencing are caused by an enemy without a face.  It’s really hard to be angry with a virus that we can’t see and much easier to find a person or group of people to target with our completely understandable anxiety, distress and anger.  They become the bad guys.

None of us want to be the bad guys, but at the moment it is really hard to know who is right and who is wrong. In schools we are all making decisions in a situation that is completely new – not only to us, leaving us without a well of experience to draw on, but to everyone else as well, leaving us exposed and vulnerable as we cast around looking for experts that simply do not exist.

My cousin once commented to me that whenever I am faced with a problem or crisis I read a book about it.  The problem here is, the book I need hasn’t been written yet.

So accepting that, currently, we are trying to run schools in a situation that is unknown, under huge amounts of anxiety and stress, what should we be doing?

Should we be monitoring what staff do? Should we be monitoring pupil completion of work? Or should we be leaving everyone alone, slow down, and let them be as they come to terms with this new normality? Should we be taking the chance to get everyone completing some CPD? Should we be piloting new remote learning platforms? Or should we just stick to what we already know and avoid complications?

Quite frankly, nobody knows. We have more questions than answers, and anyone offering an answer can only offer their opinion. In time, we will begin to get a sense of what has worked, what decisions were right, and which were wrong, but right now it is too soon to judge. So if we make a wrong call, does that make us the bad guys?

Thinking like that will lead to paralysis. We are all going to make mistakes at the moment, especially as different colleagues and families will respond differently to the crisis unfolding around us. What support should I be offering teachers when some of them are just about getting by, some are extremely anxious about being exposed in school, others are anxious about being isolated at home, others want to experiment with the possibilities of remote learning, and a few want to get their teeth into some professional learning? How much work should we be setting when some pupils and parents will be craving a sense of routine, staying occupied and desiring regular contact with their teachers and classmates, but others are struggling and feeling overwhelmed and want us to back off? It seems unlikely there is a way through this that won’t rub someone up the wrong way – especially in this initial period when we are all coming to terms with what is happening at our own pace.

It’s early days, and my bet is this isn’t going away any time soon. Personally, I’m struggling to balance the urgent desire to do what I can whilst I can, with an instinct that I must take more time to consider the best course of action, especially as the world around us is changing so rapidly.

Accepting this is just my opinion, and that I may well change my mind, this is what I think we should prioritise right now.


As all school leaders are agreed, the foremost focus must be safeguarding. Those calls are essential right now, and long term we need to stay in touch with students we worry about and ensure they are okay. We also need to remember that we may start to worry about children we never worried about before, so thinking about long term systems that will help us stay in touch with everyone will help to ensure nobody slips through the net. Make sure school sites are safe for those coming in. Make sure families know how to access support if they need it. Make sure staff and students know what is acceptable as they contact each other remotely.


I do think we should be setting students work and I do think we should be keeping an eye on who is engaging with it and following up when they are not. Not to chastise or cause anxiety but, honestly, I think engagement is a form of safeguarding right now. I am reassured that whenever students are working they are at home, staying safe. Is the child that isn’t submitting work actually okay? If I haven’t heard from a pupil for a week now, where have they been and what have they been doing? With plenty of work to do and a sense of being held accountable for it, the temptation to go out is surely lessened. Equally, as a parent I know I am grateful to my children’s school for giving me plenty of work to how to keep them occupied. I know not everyone will agree with me, but I think work is essential for our mental health, and I don’t want to risk promoting the idea that if students disengage, nobody will notice or care. But of course, any follow up needs to be supportive rather than punitive, and right now, we probably do need to be flexible in the level of engagement we expect.


This goes for staff and students. Keep talking to your colleagues and encourage them to set up times when they can still meet remotely, chat and support one another. Accept that this will look different for different colleagues. Likewise, with students. How can we communicate with them and what messages do we want to send? Should we set up online assemblies and regular updates that are reassuring and give them a sense of contact? What can we do to maintain a sense of a school being a community when we are not all in the same building?


We’ve all experienced the email that is misinterpreted, or the text message that offends because it is so hard to read tone without facial expression or body language clarify our intent. This week, I’ve witnessed a few heated responses to things that I think would have been dealt with differently in any other circumstance.  The combination of missing face to face contact, the exhaustion and worry of the last couple of weeks and the tension we all feel is getting in the way.

Now, more than ever, we need compassionate candour. We need to be honest and direct in asking ourselves and others whether we are getting things wrong. Most of the conversations I have had with colleagues this revolved around the questions, “Have we got this right? What might we be getting wrong?”

When we think we see something that is wrong, we need to hold back on the blame, take a deep breath, and be compassionate in how we tackle it. To the student not engaging with work: let’s ask them why and what we can do to support. Maybe they don’t understand the work or how to submit it? Maybe they haven’t got access to a device at the time we expect them to log on? Maybe they are really struggling with worry and just can’t focus? To the teacher sending stroppy emails to students not engaging with work: let’s ask them why, and how we can support them. Maybe they are stressed and frazzled, living alone and this is the only thing they feel they can have any control over? Or maybe they are struggling to look after their own children whilst setting work and are frustrated because it feels like a total waste of their time. To the SLT member being unreasonable in applying heavy-handed accountability: maybe they are dreadfully worried about the skeleton staff in school, and are concerned about there being a sense of unfairness or resentment brewing if those at home are not held to account?

Crisis management

This is the really unpleasant one, but we must consider what we can do now to prepare for the virus peak. If things develop here as they did in Italy, we have a week or two before we really see the devastating impact of Covid-19. There will be serious illness in families. Staff will fall ill. Some will be very ill. Families will be bereaved. School leaders won’t be immune. This is likely to happen over the Easter holidays. What can we do now, if anything, to ready ourselves for this? What do we need in place that will help us respond when it happens? I don’t have the answer to this, but it is what I will be talking to my colleagues about on Monday.


Throughout all this we need to be kinder and more compassionate than ever. We are all going to get angry, frustrated and devastated, and we are all going to have moments when we make mistakes, jump to poor conclusions and respond badly. When that happens, we can take a moment to stop, think and breathe before we react. Vilifying others who have made a bad call isn’t going to help in the long run.

For now, metaphorically speaking, it’s more important than ever to keep the gloves off.



Curriculum conversations: art



As part of my role, I am fortunate enough to have curriculum conversations with many exceptional colleagues who possess incredible expertise in, and passion for, their subject. One of the ongoing conversations I enjoy most is with the art teacher at Bedford Free School, whose thoughtful approach to curriculum design in art is impressive to say the least.

From our conversations I have managed to persuade her to allow me to blog about her art curriculum, mainly because I am sure other people will find it as fascinating as I have. What follows is drawn from her own notes and words about the thinking and decision making that went into her KS3 curriculum design, which I have merely edited.



Before discussing the curriculum, it is important to understand our art teacher’s position on art. At secondary school, she experienced a classical art education, with an emphasis on art history. During her foundation course she clashed with tutors because she admired Henry Moore, who wasn’t considered fashionable. She then went to one of the oldest art schools in the world, where teaching methods and an emphasis on traditional skills had barely changed since the early 1800s. This is what has influenced her as an artist, and she believes in the power of her art education, which stems from a tradition that prevailed for well over 500 years, and combines the development of practical skills with an understanding of the history of art.

When designing the art curriculum at Bedford Free School, she began by considering two areas:

  1. Knowledge and history (theory)
  2. Skills and application (practical)

Although both feed into each other, as we teach ‘Art’ and not ‘Art History’ the practical side took precedent in her decisions on what to teach.


What practical art do we want the students to learn?

What practical art should everybody be offered the opportunity to master?

What are the main areas of practical art?


From these questions, she came up with areas to focus practical art upon:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Sculpture
  • Printmaking

The next question was, in what order should they be taught?

Logically, and historically, in art teaching, drawing is the absolute foundation of all art forms.  It is the first and most important skill as it is the skill that underpins all others. This is why she came to the decision that the students should be taught drawing first.  Painting is the next logical step:  when most people thinks of art they think of great paintings by Picasso, Dali, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt.

Painting is split in to two areas: brush skill and techniques, and use of colour. Can (or should) you teach how to paint and hold a brush if you can’t use or control colour? No, so colour theory comes first, and using a medium that requires little emphasis on skill.

With regards to sculpture and painting, should students learn how to manipulate 3D forms before learning how to describe them adequately in 2D? Probably not, so sculpture must be last.

Even after developing some sense of focus and order, there were still many questions to consider. Where does printmaking fit? Should year 7 be entirely drawing, Y8 colour and painting and Y9 sculpture? Possibly, but that would have sectioned off each area too much, and ignored the interdependent nature of art: you can’t have one without the other; you can’t have painting without drawing.

These thoughts led to the first major decision slotting into place. There are three terms per year and three main interdependent practices. Each year at KS3 would follow the same basic pattern: term 1 drawing; term 2 colour and painting; term 3 sculpture.


  Term 1 Term 2 Term 3
Year 7 Drawing Painting & colour sculpture
Year 8 Drawing Painting & colour sculpture
Year 9 Drawing Painting & colour sculpture



What subject to use to teach drawing?

What subject to teach painting?

What subject to teach sculpture?

Should all the drawing sections be the same subject, just getting more complex and relying on differentiation by outcome? If students draw a banana in year 7 then again in year 8 and yet again in year 9, they will obviously be better at it. What would progress look like across each year – from drawing to sculpture – if they are different themes/topics?  And is this still missing the interconnectivity, interdisciplinary nature of the subject? Could you take one subject and use it for drawing, painting and sculpture?  If you do that, what progress do you build in from year to year? In year 7 the subject needs to be basic, in year 8 slightly trickier and by year 9 should be very complex.



What are the main subjects/ themes that link all areas of Art?

  • Still life
  • Portraiture
  • Religion
  • Literature/story telling
  • Drapery
  • Animals
  • Landscapes

How do you choose 3 from the whole gamut of the history of humanity?

In the end, as far as our art curriculum is concerned, the decision as to which are the most important areas to know about has been made based on personal preference and professional experience and judgement. You can argue that they all are equally important, and this is what makes planning a cumulative curriculum so tricky.

Our art teacher’s decisions were:

  • Still life for Y7, as these can be simplified into basic shapes, and easier to construct to good effect.
  • Portraiture for Y8, which offers far more complex forms to decipher, and moving subject matter.
  • Wanting to teach every aspect of art not covered by the above, she combined the remaining areas together into ‘History of western art’ which explain the development of art from the Greeks to now and everything in-between.


So now there was a very basic plan:


  Term 1 Term 2 Term 3
Year 7 Still life
  Drawing Painting & colour sculpture
Year 8 Portraiture
  Drawing Painting & colour sculpture
Year 9 Art history
  Drawing Painting & colour sculpture


Unlike most other subjects, the national curriculum guidelines for teaching art are almost non-existent. There is no requirement to teach particular movements, artists’ styles, or techniques.  It is an almost completely teacher/school led choice. Whatever is taught however has to cover the ‘formal elements’:

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Tone
  • Texture
  • Pattern
  • Colour


Most of these can be addressed through the areas of practical art already selected: drawing covers line, shape, tone and can cover texture; painting covers line, shape, tone, colour and can cover texture; sculpture covers shape, form, texture and can cover line and tone.

The only one not covered was the element of pattern. This became a crucial adaptation to the plan, where to fit in pattern? Printmaking had also not found its place in the structure yet was something the art teacher felt must be taught somewhere. One of the earlier decisions was that 3D should not be taught until 2D was secure, so she decided rather than study sculpture at the end of year 7, they could explore printmaking and pattern? Term 3 of year 7 is now fixed as printmaking and pattern.

Practical elements sorted? Well no. Still no idea of what to actually do… but this could wait.



Now there was a logical progression to the curriculum, theory could be hung on it. Once again, professional judgement came into play as, as long as formal elements are covered, everything is fair game.



  • Who to teach?
  • What art to expose students to?
  • Should works of art be selected in isolation because they link to the practical skill being taught? Or should you choose an artist’s body of work?
  • Who do you choose?

How do you choose?  The most famous? The most important? The most revered? The most influential? The most appropriate?

At this stage, the art teacher selected an artist who works within both the area and subject being taught. The though process ran something like, who draws lots of still life? Who paints still life and exemplifies use of colour? Who uses still life and printmaking and pattern?

Chronology also became important at this stage. Art is most akin to history as a theoretical subject, so theory should be dealt with in a similar way. Art history studied chronologically makes logical sense. Art only exists because it was shaped by the thing that came before it and the whole of the western art world is completely dependent on and formed by the things that happen before it and around it. This is its Context. It is terribly hard to understand anything outside of its context, and it’s the same in art.

So, thinking about chronology, would the whole of KS3 need to be in chronological order from Y7- Y9? Or just across each year?


Attempting to teach 3 years in chronological order would mean that by the time you were trying to teach painting or colour work in Y9 you might be in the mid C20th chronologically, and would have to use any artist that fitted the time, rather than the best example of an artist for that media. It was most pertinent to use the most appropriate artist for each area and subject being taught, so the KS3 curriculum is chronological within each year, rather than across the three years.

The only year that is not in chronological order is Year 7, for the reason outlined above and due to reasoning about appropriateness. Unquestionably, the most appropriate artists for colour and still life is Van Gogh, but our Year 7s learn about Picasso and cubism first, before anything else we do, as this the epitome of still life studies. Additionally, if you want the outcomes to be obtainable and for all levels of skill, cubism is easily accessible for y7 drawing. Outcomes in cubism do not have to look like the thing they are supposed to be, this gives a sense of achievement to less able students and stops them being put off immediately, it changes the ‘I can’t draw’ mentality to ‘If Picasso is famous, I can do it too.’ This gives the students confidence to attempt more complex subjects, styles and artists later.

In Y9 chronology became an important factor, alongside the opportunity to study in depth the largest number of artists and movements.

Now the plan looks like this:


  Term 1 Term 2 Term 3
Year 7 Still life
  Drawing Painting & colour Printmaking
  Picasso Van Gogh Bawden
Year 8 Portraiture
  Drawing Painting & colour Sculpture
  Da Vinci Gauguin Emin
Year 9 Art history
  Drawing Painting & colour Sculpture
  Van Eyck Michelangelo Velazquez Turner Moore Hockney



Throughout the history of teaching and studying art, there are two main ways of working and learning: working from life (drawing or painting something in front of you) and studying the techniques, style, practices of other artists (copying famous works). Both of these elements must be taught and should have equal importance.

Michelangelo in the Medici sculpture garden in Florence was doing both at the same time – drawing, from life, hugely important examples of classical sculpture that would then go on to influence his work for years to come. Hinterland.


  Term 1 Term 2 Term 3
Year 7 Still life
  Drawing Painting & colour Printmaking
  Picasso Van Gogh Bawden
  From life From the artist From the artist From life From life From the artist
Year 8 Portraiture
  Drawing Painting & colour Sculpture
  Da Vinci Gauguin Emin
  From life From the artist From the artist From life From life
Year 9 Art history
  Drawing Painting & colour Sculpture
  Van Eyck Michelangelo Velazquez Turner Moore Hockney
  From life & the artist From life & the artist From the artist From life & the artist From life & the artist From life & the artist


Year 9 is less definable. Students are creating work based on something from life, but in the style of the artist we are looking at, in preparation for GCSE.



You may notice a perceived lack of creativity in the KS3 curriculum, in that nothing is drawn from imagination or is an abstract concept to be visually recorded. This is a very deliberate choice.

Let’s, for a moment, think about English and writing. Children learn from the beginning of their education how to form the correct letter shapes. Then how to put different letter shapes together to form words, the structures of grammar; full stops, capital letters, punctuation, joining words. Then words into sentences and sentences in to coherent prose and verse.  Now think about art. Sometimes, in art, students are told ‘off you go, draw something’ with no guidance, no structure, no rules.  Much art taught in schools is hugely explorative, about developing a sense of self, mark making, draw a thing you’ve seen once or draw from memory. But if you’ve not been given the skills of visual recording or formerly taught visual language you can’t be fluent and will always struggle with putting ideas down. As in English, we first must learn the rules, define the parameters and build our cage, before we have enough skill to master and then bend the rules, finally breaking free from them. This can be saved for KS4. Let the students learn the basics first. Otherwise it’s like trying to fly a supersonic jet before you can walk.

That is the basis of our KS3 art curriculum and the progression from year 7 to 9. Developing in complexity of projects/topics, developing from basic skills to mastery of skills, and of understanding art history and the context and sequencing of art, whilst covering the required formal elements of art and aspects of that will feed into and be built on and developed at KS4.


As well as our art teacher’s own experience of art education, the design of our art curriculum drew on several books: Lectures on Sculpture, John Flaxman (1865), The Handbook of Sculpture, Richard Wesmacott (1864) Art, Eric Gill, (1934),  Education through Art, Herbert Read (1958)



What about skills? Teaching English in a Knowledge Rich School

I have recently presented at a couple of conferences on how the English department at Bedford Free School approaches curriculum planning. At Educating Northants I focused on how we put KS3 at the heart of our curriculum and at ResearchEd Durrington I explored what it means to teach a knowledge rich English curriculum. Here I have attempted to combine both talks.

What happened to skills?

Below is an extract from an application I made to be KS4 co-ordinator of English in 2010:

Skills based

I don’t think the ideas I have expressed above are particularly unusual amongst English teachers, although of course not all English teachers share them, but many of us feel English is all about skills – skills that can and should be practised as much as possible so that children and young people become competent and can think independently.

Now I think I was wrong in assuming that by practising skills, students could transfer their learning across the curriculum. To demonstrate this I asked my audience, largely made up of English teachers, to participate in an experiment. Half the room looked away whilst I showed the rest the following text:

How easy 1

I asked them to remember the number that signified how well they understood the text (0 being not at all, and 10 being perfectly well thank you).

Then we swapped and I did the same thing, but to this half of the room I showed the following text:

How easy 2

Even though the readability stats provided by Word on these two extracts rate the second extract as the more difficult of the two, those who had seen the first text rated their understanding between around 3 and 6, whereas those who read the second text were clustered between 7 and 9. Considering most people in the room would consider themselves competent readers, if reading is a skill that we can transfer across domains, how can we explain why one text was so much more difficult to understand than the other?

The reason is that most participants didn’t have the necessary background knowledge (of physics) to understand the first text, but they did have the knowledge necessary to understand the second (about Macbeth). This is, as Willingham pointed out (around the same time I merrily teaching my skills based curriculum) in Why Students Don’t Like School, and as Christodoulou convincingly asserted in 2014 in Seven Myths About Education and as Didau is still explaining in Making Kids Cleverer this year, because reading comprehension depends upon background knowledge. You can’t teach transferable skills because the knowledge needed in different areas of the curriculum is, well… different.

Reading rope

Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Why knowledge matters in English

I then discussed another skill important in English: inference. Inference is the ability to combine what we know with clues and cues in a text. I shared a story about my young son, who was once outraged to have been scratched by a cat that lives on our street. When he told me about it, part of his distress stemmed from being “tricked” by the cat, who was “wagging its tail!” My poor son had experience of dogs in the family but not cats. This had led him to misapply his understanding of dogs to a cat, mistaking a sign of irritation for friendliness and resulting in a life-lesson. I also shared a story about a friend who was a volunteer reader in a primary school. She had been reading a story with a student about a family going to the beach, then going home when the sand began to annoy them. She questioned the child as to why they though the sand might annoy them, but the child couldn’t answer. So she asked what sand felt like, and could they imagine why it could be annoying? They said they didn’t know what sand felt like. She asked if they had ever been to a sandy beach. No. She asked if they had ever been to a park with sand. No. She asked if they had ever played in a sand pit. They didn’t think so. She reminded them of the sandpits at school. The child answered they were for the children in reception and year 1 and that they joined the school in year 2. They had never felt sand.

This is an example of how a deficit in knowledge impacts on our ability to understand something or make inferences. As teachers, I think we often assume students know more than they do and this can lead to real problems. Bedford Free School is part of Advantage Schools, and, as a trust, we are influenced by the writings of Hirsch and the idea that deficits in knowledge make it very difficult for children to learn. We are fairly convinced that the more children know, the easier it is for them to pick up and retain new knowledge, and most importantly we believe it is our role to provide an education based on what Young identifies as “powerful knowledge” that is transformational and takes students beyond their own experiences and ideas.


Some of the reading and research that influences our curriculum planning.

Knowledge is more than facts

One of the criticisms often aimed at knowledge rich teaching is that it results in a pub-quiz curriculum and nothing more than children reciting facts with no understanding. Whilst there is a need for children to know key facts, in terms of a knowledge rich curriculum these are only part of the jigsaw. Yes, there will certainly be core and substantive knowledge as part of the curriculum, but there is also disciplinary and procedural knowledge that students need to be guided towards and through. Below is a slide, much influenced by Christine Counsell, outlining some of the concepts we consider important when designing our subject curricula.


Not just what, but what order?

If you’re still reading, hopefully you can see how crucial sequencing knowledge is to the curriculum. If we want new knowledge to stick to old knowledge, we need to make sure that old knowledge is secure and relevant in the first place. So, in the English department we have taken a backwards approach to curriculum planning by asking ourselves the following questions:

Backwards planning

And yes, the final bullet point is really, really important to us. I want my students to consider further study of an English subject at A level and beyond – and if they don’t I want them to have a love of great literature and be able to take great satisfaction in turning a beautifully crafted phrase.

So, our backwards planning led us to make the following decisions about what to include in our English curriculum:


Within our KS3 curriculum we have tried to give students access to the knowledge they will need to enrich their understanding of the subject. We teach Greek mythology so they can hopefully understand the allusions common in English literature. We hope our study of literary eras helps them understand how ideas explored in literature have changed across time and had long-term influence.

Resourcing our curriculum

As a department we have been influenced by the following books, which we use to inform the planning of our lessons and resources:

English reading

We use knowledge organisers and booklets, examples of which are below. If you are familiar with some of the books above you will see their influence in these extracts. Generally lessons begin with a quick retrieval practice quiz drawn from prior learning, followed by reading and writing. Hopefully you can see from the examples how the different strands of knowledge are drawn together:

Bklt 1

Bklt 2

Bklt 3

Bklt 4


Aside from ongoing formative assessment and responsive teaching within and across lessons, most units end with some form of extended writing. We don’t give any form of grade or mark on these – they are to assess for gaps or misconceptions.

At KS3 we also have mid-year and end of year assessments. These draw on everything students have learned across the entirety of KS3. We report this as a percentage, and focus the assessment on the following areas:

  • Vocabulary
  • Genre
  • Grammar
  • Elizabethan language
  • Writing (assessed through comparative judgement)


Examples of KS3 assessments

In years 10 and 11 we assess using past exam papers. These are marked using the GCSE mark schemes and reported as GCSE grades.

To reduce the workload associated with assessment in English, at KS3 we use closed questions – one mark per question, ask students to write guided sentences (which make it easier to assess for specifics) and use comparative judgement for extended writing. At KS4 we are not expected to write extended feedback on papers (although some teachers choose to). Many of us use whole class written or verbal feedback and respond to student needs through next teaching.

More on workload

We think carefully about workload, but the creation of high quality curriculum resources takes a lot of time and effort. To reduce this as much as possible we work together as a department and with other English teachers wherever possible. We plan collaboratively – meaning we take a unit each and take responsibility for collating resources, writing the booklets and knowledge organisers. We are looking at having specialists within the department, for example a language lead or Shakespeare lead, who can focus on reading around the subject and bringing useful ideas to the rest of the team.

We also want to work in wider subject communities – for example when I was writing the Greek mythology booklet a group of English teachers all planning similar units had a DM group on twitter where we shared ideas, book finds and resources we had made. At ResearchEd Durrington one member of this group sought me out after the session to introduce herself as we had never met face to face! I’ve also worked collaboratively with other teachers through Twitter to collate vocabulary tables for all the GCSE set texts.

Sharing resources and seeking out feedback helps too. Often others give helpful advice or improvements if you share resources, or are willing to share back.

Final Thoughts

We know we still have lots to do to further improve, and we are constantly reviewing our provision. We haven’t invented any of this and we know we know plenty of other English departments are doing different, brilliant things. I hope for some of you this is useful and would welcome any questions or comments!

Our Head of English is fabulous and extremely knowledgeable but is not on Twitter, but I can pass any feedback on.

I will leave you with some examples of student work (all students have given permission for their work to be shared and are from a range of classes in Year 7). The final two are examples of students who have improved their work by using single paragraph outlines from The Writing Revolution combined with the what/how/why paragraph structure blogged about by Becky Wood (@shadylady222) which you can read about here: https://justateacherstandinginfrontofaclass.wordpress.com/2018/10/28/why-i-no-longer-pee/





Direct Instruction and Literature: A series of DI lesson on An Inspector Calls

This year, the English department at Bedford Free School have been using Direct Instruction (DI) resources to provide reading intervention. After researching a range of options, we settled on Engelmann’s Corrective Reading programme and ran one group for those who needed decoding instruction, and a second group for those whose difficulties stemmed from comprehension. You can find out more about these programmes here https://www.nifdi.org/programs/reading/corrective-reading.

I do not intend this blog to be an overview of the evidence supporting DI or to give a detailed outline as to how DI works. Other people have already done this far more effectively than I could and if that is what you are looking for then I recommend this collection of links from Kris Boulton: https://tothereal.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/where-to-learn-about-direct-instruction/

As a school we were fortunate enough to have had two days of professional learning from Kris in September, which gave us a great grounding in understanding how DI lessons work.  As a department we are also looking forward to Chloe Sanders (Assistant Principal at St Martin’s Catholic Academy and Director of @DITrainingHub) coming to deliver a further days training to help us refine our use of DI in English lessons in the summer.

Using DI to teach literature

What I wish to focus on here is what happened when our students completed the programme: how I have attempted to retain the principles of DI and the format of Engelmann’s resources to plan a series of lessons introducing the students to An Inspector Calls (at the end of Year 9 we introduce students to this text with a view to them gaining a basic understanding of plot and character before they read it more analytically in Year 10).

Before I begin, I heartily recommend Tom Needham’s series of blogs “Insights From Direct Intruction” which, along with about everything else Tom has ever written, has been a constant reference to me in this journey:


Planning and decision making

With the Corrective Reading programme each lesson had a script. Questions were asked in a very specific way, and definitions and explanations were consistent. I had seen the benefit of this for my students so I decided that I wanted to script each lesson so that I could maintain this consistency and stay on track myself. I also hope the scripts will be useful to others in our department in future.

Example lesson script

Example lesson script


Crucially, with DI, new information is introduced very gradually and the vast majority of the lesson is spent in extended practice and going over previously introduced material. In fact, new information should only account for 10-15% of the lesson.  Aside from the benefit to students, a bonus of this is that what seems to be a huge task – writing a script for four 50 minute lessons a week – is not as onerous as it seems, because you are re-using and re-exposing students to the same material many times. Once the first lesson was written I found it much easier to get the subsequent scripts done.

However, another concern I had with this was how on earth we could read a literature text using this principle. I struggled to get over the thought that reading is so information dense that surely we would never get through the book if we have to spend 85% of every lesson reviewing and only 15% reading on. I can’t be fully confident I have got around this problem, but what I chose to do is focus on a couple of key areas and to ensure that, although we will have plenty of reading and discussion about the book, the DI elements of the lessons will focus on secure knowledge of key vocabulary (pre-taught so they understand it when they need it) and plot.

Writing and resourcing

Vocab Table

Example Vocabulary Table

As recommended by Tom Needham I created vocabulary tables, and informed by ideas in Bringing Words to Life (Beck, 2013) I included explanations and example sentences. Extended practice then involves application of this vocabulary knowledge. The vocabulary came from the text itself, but also covered concepts necessary to understanding the play, such as capitalism and socialism. For these big concepts I acknowledge I have presented a very simplified version of what they mean, but it is very difficult to sum up these concepts with a succinct explanation! My hope is that use of increasingly complex examples and non-examples will help students work towards a more profound understanding of these concepts. I have also attempted to support their understanding of these words with dual coding.

Dual Coding

Example of dual coding and vocabulary. The images are carefully matched to the explanation they learn so that I can point at each image to prompt them with the full explanation.

To support my key focus of supporting students in remembering the plot, I am using plot summary tables for each Act. These were informed by the plot summaries shared by Anthony Radice in his GCSE literature guides: https://thetraditionalteacher.wordpress.com/english-resources/


Plot table

Example plot summary table

Most lessons are supported by a worksheet that gives the students opportunities to practice and apply their learning. They work independently on these. I have tried to retain the layout of the Corrective Reading workbooks so that it is familiar to them, as well as the point scoring system.


Example of a lesson worksheet

Every fifth lesson is a “fact game” which they play in groups, rolling two dice to generate a knowledge question to answer, and scoring points as they go. There is a vocabulary test every eight lessons, and I’ve also added a spelling test in.

Fact game

Example fact game

Finally, every tenth lessons there is a Mastery Test of the material learned so far. This is sorted into sections so it is easy for me to mark and ascertain their specific areas of weakness. If the whole class (or the majority) are insecure in a particular area I just go back and re-teach it. If an individual has missed something we have timetabled intervention slots where I can re-teach them one to one or in small groups. Then we re-test.


Example mastery test

Very early, very tentative conclusions

So far, it seems the lessons have gone well. I enjoy planning them and love teaching them, possibly because the students are enthusiastic and committed to mastering the material in every lesson.  On the last mastery test the students’ average percentage was 99.3%.

I am attaching a link to the resources for the first ten lessons. This includes the scripts, powerpoints (where needed), worksheets, fact game and tests.


My colleague @MerolaNatasha is embarking on a similar venture in teaching her Year 7s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and we are loving learning more about this approach! I know other teachers are working on this too, such as Sam Hall who has been scripting Geography lessons as shared on his “How To” guide here: https://shallteach.wordpress.com/

This is still new to us, so I would really appreciate feedback on the resources and advice on how we are doing. Equally, if you want to find out more and would like to speak to me abbout this or visit us, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

4/5/19 ETA I should have said, the images I use for dual coding generally come from The Noun Project website, although a Google search with the word “icon” added often bears fruit!

Lightbulb Moments with The Learning Scientists

This weekend, we at Advantage Schools ran our first educational conference.  It was a collaborative piece of work, with Bedford School providing the venue, and the amazing presenters being The Learning Scientists: Megan Sumeracki, PhD; Cindy Nebel, PhD; Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel, PhD; and Althea Need Kaminske, PhD.  Over two hundred teachers joined us for two days of fascinating learning about the insights of cognitive science, and how these can help our students to remember what they have studied more successfully.


I had some familiarity with most of the strategies discussed. A few years ago, I had read about the benefits of retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving and had worked to incorporate them into my planning (at least, I thought I had).  As part of induction at Bedford Free School, all staff attend a series of student assemblies run by the Head of History (@JamesRawlins90), in which he talks through the learning strategies and how students can use them best to study. I have also, more recently, become more interested in dual coding, and wanted to leave the conference with some ideas as to how I could develop my use of this.

Despite familiarity with the content I was absolutely fascinated by all The Learning Scientists had to say, and as I listened I had a few lightbulb moments. I use this term to refer to those moments in the classroom when students just seem to get something. They move beyond surface level understanding of something to make a deeper connection or develop an idea. I love these moments and there are lots of metaphors for it – the penny dropping, the scales falling away – and I think it is something all teacher readers will have witnessed. But it was great to feel like a student again and have a few lightbulb moments of my own!

Throughout the course of the two days The Learning Scientists warned against two things: one, don’t feel you have to make big changes or change everything. Rather, make little tweaks. Doing something is better than nothing. Two, don’t see the strategies as a tick-list that will lead to A Good Lesson. My view is, we should use the strategies to overcome learning problems rather than for the sake of it: students aren’t remembering content? Let’s try some retrieval practice. Students are struggling with an abstract concept? Let’s give them some concrete examples.

So here is a summary of my lightbulb moments and the tweaks I think I am going to make in my English lessons as a result over the coming days, weeks and months. These will probably only be useful if you have some familiarity with the concepts already, as I won’t be re-explaining the concept in detail. If this is all new to you, I would suggest heading over to The Learning Scientists website (http://www.learningscientists.org/) where there is plenty of information to get you started. You may also find this blog interesting, written by another delegate at the conference who was coming to the ideas with fresh eyes: https://adastrapermundum.wordpress.com/2019/01/12/discovering-some-cognitive-psychology/.


Lightbulb moment 1: When using spaced practice, don’t use the same materials to re-activate learning.

Humans are really good at recognising things they’ve seen before, but that isn’t the same as remembering them. If I showed you a £5 note, you would recognise it instantly so could easily think “I know this well.” However, if I asked you to draw a £5 note without looking at one I bet you wouldn’t get many details right at all. If you don’t believe me, try it. Or, ask yourself (without looking) what colour each of the letters on the Google logo is. Now consider what will happen if you show students the same information they’ve studied before in the same format – perhaps the same ppt slide or page in a textbook.  The risk is that if we just show students the same materials when we try to “re-activate” the learning, we will create over confidence, a feeling of “I’ve seen this before, I don’t need to pay too much attention here.”

Tweak: When re-activating, provide it in a different form. Ask a question or questions that cover the content and re-teach if they struggle. Perhaps combine with retrieval practice or dual coding?

Lightbulb moment 2: When interleaving, the concepts need to be related

This was a significant one for me, as I had not realised the importance of this and I thought interleaving was just about teaching different topics side by side. By ensuring the concepts are related, students can be asked “How are these similar? How are they different?” leading to deeper learning. On reflection I think this is something that happens fairly naturally in English classrooms, for example if you were reading a text you probably would interleave some writing practice that would draw on related conventions. However, I think the explicit nature of the links could be developed.

Tweak: One tweak for me is a mental one. For a while now I fretted that we should review KS4 English Lit and teach a different text every day, but now I think this was a very simplified understanding of what interleaving is. This would have the benefits of spacing, but not interleaving. I feel more reassured now that we don’t have to rush towards that outcome as I am conscious it would involve a huge amount of planning. However, I do think that after a first reading of texts, we could interleave the deeper study of character and themes.  I’m also wondering if there would be a benefit to interleaving quotation learning with creative writing, for example after analysing quotations asking students to write creatively using some of the key vocabulary from the quotation. By making the link between reading and writing more explicit here, I would hope to encourage students to call on their literature studies more to develop their own writing in language. After interleaving, remember to ask students how the underlying concepts were related!

Lightbulb moment 3: Retrieval practice can be more than just quizzing and re-writing without notes

Tests are great, but there are ways to scaffold retrieval practice and combine with the other techniques.

Tweak: Recall in mind-maps or ask students to produce a drawing to summarise what they remember. Use hints or prompts at first then get them to work towards relying on memory alone.

Lightbulb moment 4: SLOW DOWN if you are using dual coding

Providing information in visual and verbal formats requires the students to switch between the two. Although this may be helpful it will also slow down their ability to process the information. This seems obvious now and is simple to apply. I’m just not sure I had thought about it much.

Lightbulb moment 5: Use elaboration by getting students to generate their own questions

I have asked students to come up with questions before, but I haven’t done it for a while. After listening to the concept underlying this, and how it helps students self-explain content to themselves, I think it is something I want to return to. I am wary of students asking surface level questions, so I asked whether, as a form of scaffolding, it would be helpful to give students an answer and get them to generate the questions that would lead to the given response. In this way I could explore their questions with them and discuss which were the best questions to ask to aid learning. The Learning Scientists suggested this could be a useful strategy and I think it will be simple to put in place.

Lightbulb moment 6: Get students to generate their own text from images

I’ve done this the other way round – asked students to turn a text into an image – but I’m excited at the idea of strengthening memory and utilising retrieval practice by asking students to turn images into text. Maybe I can provide an image of a scene from a play and ask students to write down the stage directions or dialogue. Or an image of a character and ask students to write a character description. There are lots of options here to try out.

The best thing is, I think these tweaks will be easy for me to apply as I go about my usual day to day planning. Interleaving is probably the one that would take most thought at first, but I am confident the others will be straightforward to implement.


There are so many more thoughts than this buzzing around my head, but they have not crystallised yet into ideas and will continue to give me plenty to think about! I am really looking forward to discussing it all with colleagues when I get into our schools next week. I am hugely grateful to The Learning Scientists for their work and to everyone who made the conference happen.

If you were there, or were following from afar, what tweaks would you like to make in your classrooms?



Curriculum Matters

You can read Part One of this blog post here: Curriculum Matters

Part Two

Imagine you have an infinite number of pieces of paper in front of you. On each sheet is either a full stop or a hyphen, the building blocks of Morse Code.

You now have the capability to write any text in the world.

Assuming you have no knowledge of Morse Code, if I were to give you some time to test out different combinations of dots and dashes, you would accidentally create some letters and words. If I gave you enough time to randomly play about with dots and dashes, you would eventually produce not only words, but sentences. And if I gave you infinite time, all the time in the universe, you would eventually stumble across combinations that encompassed every book ever written. Hamlet would be in there somewhere. The complete works of Dickens. Every bestseller by writers as yet unborn.

Of course, most – the vast, vast majority – of what you produced would be completely meaningless gibberish. If you don’t know which combinations of dots and dashes create words, how can you be expected to reliably construct grammatically comprehensible sentences, link them into a coherent text, and produce something beautiful? I suggest it’s a good job I gave you eternity, because quite frankly, you would need it. And the sad thing is, that because you would randomly arrive at these points, you would have no idea which of your combinations were any good. You couldn’t enjoy Shakespeare because you couldn’t tell the difference between Richard III and Riders.

To you, it is just a series of dots and dashes with no coherence. What a waste of time and energy.

Whilst this is an extremely unlikely scenario to find yourself in (but then, who knows what the afterlife will bring?) it seems to me that this is the problem with a curriculum that hasn’t been thought about carefully enough. We cannot expect children to leave school equipped to enter the world of educated adults if we merely furnish them with disconnected dots and dashes. We need to consider how these bright spots are connected to enable them to make sense of the beautifully complex world around them.

A knowledge rich curriculum is based on the premise that knowledge is both valuable in its own right, and powerful. Such a curriculum is unashamedly challenging, academic and sophisticated in order to take advantage of the special place schooling has in introducing children to a world of ideas distinct from those of their everyday lives, yet crucial to their ability to both interpret and interact in that world.

A curriculum that is to take advantage of this power demands that curriculum designers have a clear sense of the limited time educationalists have in transmitting crucial knowledge to children and young people. Unlike your imaginary self, playing with the dots and dashes, in reality we do not have eternity and therefore we have to consider the opportunity cost of each and every decision we make by asking why one thing should be taught over another before moving beyond “what” we should teach, to consider “what order” is best.

What this looks like will vary between more hierarchical subjects, such as science and maths, where there is a logical order to a students’ learning whereby one concept depends directly on another, and cumulative subjects, such as history or art, which offer a vast array of choices and therefore require careful consideration. Then there is the complicated nature of a subject such as English, which for years I argued was a “skills-based” subject. Now, I consider it as a complex combination of hierarchical knowledge underpinning the mechanics of reading, balanced alongside the cumulative nature of the study of great literature.

Such a considered curriculum relies on teaching that results in learning. Coherent and carefully sequenced learning creates children with “sticky” brains – learners who have been equipped with the schemata necessary to enable them to learn in an efficient and sustainable manner. If students are not only able to learn but are also able to think, educators must consider the knowledge students need at their disposal to enable this.

A curriculum cannot be reduced to a list of facts children must learn, chant, and self-quiz their way through. These may be valid teaching and learning methods, but they are not the final, desired goal of either the teacher or the student. Rather, a curriculum is the consideration of the fundamental and complex relationships between knowledge necessary to enable today’s children to one day take their place in the world of educated citizens.
I will be talking about how we approach the English curriculum at Bedford Free School at Educating Northants on Saturday 30th March. See https://educatingnorthants.wordpress.com/ for more information.

If you want to read more about curriculum, there are some very smart and knowledgeable people whose work I recommend:

Recommended reading:

Curriculum Matters

Part One

In a past life, before I was a teacher, I worked for an NHS prescribing service as a key worker for adults and young people who were dependent on heroin and/or crack. This work was rewarding, frustrating, uplifting, frightening, and everything in between. The reasons a person ends up dependent on drugs or alcohol are myriad and complex, and if I learned anything it was that it could happen to any of us. However, whilst no two clients were the same, there were certain elements of their stories that came up time and time again.

During this time I attended some training run by the Reverend Eric Blakebrough, a genuinely inspiring man who responded with great resourcefulness to the needs of the diverse community of young people in Kingston by creating the Kaleidoscope Project, which evolved into a pioneering harm-reduction service for drug users. In speaking about his understanding of drug dependence, he talked about “blocked futures” being a major risk factor. This hit a chord with me in terms of the clients I was trying to support. All too often they felt their future was blocked. There were no options, no choices. With no options, how can you follow a different pathway?

Soon afterwards, I started to think about training to teach. I saw, and still see, education as one of the most empowering things you can offer someone, and for me an important goal of education is to offer people choices – not just career choices, important as they are, but also the choice to be the kind of person you want to be, with interests and beliefs of your own. So, around eleven years ago, I completed my PGCE. I was lucky enough to have that choice and took a new pathway.

My next decision centred on what kind of teacher I wanted to be. The answer was obvious: I wanted to be the best teacher. At the time, how to go about that also seemed obvious. I would just do what I was told outstanding teachers did. I tried everything and anything that anyone suggested would make me a great teacher. I was told that engaging my students was at the heart of learning, and one of the best ways to do that was with fun lessons. In my endeavours to create ‘fun’ I’ve made ‘chimneys’ out of desks laid on the floor and got students to crawl through them to teach Blake’s poetry*. I’ve spent my lunch hour hiding clues and information under students’ chairs to be discovered at key moments in lessons. I’ve arranged for student runners to interrupt my lessons in a manner that would make it appear I could predict the future (one poor boy was genuinely freaked out by my apparently supernatural powers and was probably too terrified of me to learn anything in my classroom ever again). I’ve spent hours editing Shakespeare and creating bespoke question cards so that every student could piece together their understanding without me actually having to tell them anything. I’ve even forced my poor husband to spend a weekend colouring in ball pool balls black with a Sharpie, so that they would look like miniature bombs. I tried it all, and all with the best of intentions.

In my enthusiasm to become the best teacher I could be, I would regularly peruse the “staff” section of the school library. At one point, a colleague recommended a particular book to me. The book itself didn’t change much in itself, but it did lead me to a blog, which led to other blogs, which led to other books. There is no doubt in my mind that reading has been the best CPD I’ve ever had. Based on this reading, I began to question what I had been doing and, instead, started to view the subject as the thing that should engage the students, rather than the funfair I had been building around it. I started to feel like it was okay to just talk to the students, tell them stuff, and ask them questions about it. In fact, based on the evidence I was now reading, this might even be the A Good Thing. This gave me time to focus more on building my own subject knowledge, and as my fascination with the texts I was teaching grew, so too (it seemed) did my students’ enthusiasm for them. One of my favourite teaching moments was when a student asked, “Miss, how do you know all this stuff?” I remember asking exactly the same question to my sixth form English Literature teacher, and it was gratifying to be able to give the exactly the same answer as her, “From reading.”

So what does all this have to do with curriculum? Well, if the “how” is no longer primary in your planning, (how to engage? How to excite?), you are free to focus on the “what” to a greater degree. You place your subject and your subject knowledge at the heart of what you do in the classroom because you realise the “what” of your teaching must come first. In my next blog I will explain how I now think about the curriculum, the “what” and “what order”, and how this then informs the “how.”

*My nephew was in this class. He is now nineteen. Yesterday, I texted him to ask if he could remember what we were meant to be learning about in the lesson where we all crawled through the desks laid on the floor. This was his response:


My favourite things: best reads of 2018

I haven’t blogged much this year, mainly because I’ve been reading as much as possible and, more recently, getting stuck into a new role at work. I’ve been really picky about what I choose to spend time on and, as a result, I have loved so many of the books I have read that choosing my favourites felt a bit like picking a favourite child. But pick I did, so if you are looking for some good reads for the year ahead, here are my recommendations from the education, fiction and non-fiction genres.

WritingRevolutionCoverBest education read: The Writing Revolution by Judith C Hochman and Natalie Wexler

I have read a pile of fantastic books about education this year, including Tom Rees’s Wholesome Leadership, James and Dianne Murphy’s Thinking Reading and Harry-Fletcher Wood’s Responsive Teaching, but when I think of the book that has had the most direct impact on my day to day classroom practice, it has to be The Writing Revolution (so much so that I can’t even take a picture of it because it lives at work for regular reference). You don’t need anything other than the book to get started in applying the principles in the classroom and I have seen an immediate improvement in the quality of my students’ planning and writing, from sentence to whole text level, in children and young people of all abilities. Our English department have begun to incorporate the strategies into our lesson booklets to support students in note-making and writing, and we are planning some whole-school training so that other departments can benefit. It is simply written, easy to read through then dip into as needed, with a helpful section at the back on sequencing instruction for student of all years.

Best non-fiction read: Happy by Derren BrownHappy book

Last year I caught up with an old school friend who had just moved, with her husband and two young children, into what could be described as her dream home. Except, shortly after moving in, she discovered they had brought a house under a flight path used by Heathrow airport, but only in certain weather conditions. This means that some days or nights, without warning, the peace of her home is shattered by low flying aircraft: her description was reminiscent of the scenes in Mary Poppins when Admiral Boom marks the hour. We then talked about how this could either be a total disaster, turning her dream home into a home from hell, or just an occasional inconvenience in her otherwise very lovely life. It really depended on how she decided to respond. She explained she was reading a book about how we create the narrative of our own lives and that the story we tell ourselves about what happens to us has far more impact on our wellbeing than the events themselves. The book was Happy. As Derren Brown himself says the book absolutely is not a self-help book, but it is a powerful read that could change lives for the better. Admittedly, my positive response to it was probably helped along by my belief that happiness is not an entitlement but something that takes hard work to maintain, but Brown’s tour through the history and philosophy of happiness, from the Stoics to the modern day, is so fascinating and insightful that I found this book hard to put down. What’s more, it is well written with great humour, covering everything from banal annoyances like putting up with a fellow train passenger’s annoying cough, to dealing with relationship breakdown and death. One of the things I loved most was how well-read Brown is. Throughout the book, I scribbled down a wish list of future reads that includes Borges, Tolstoy, Karpf, Marcus Aurelius, Aristotle, Plutarch and Rilke. So, a book that might make you happy and offer you a great reading list – what more do you want?

Rabbit, run bookBest fiction read: Rabbit, Run by John Updike

It’s a good job Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom didn’t read Happy as, if he had, we would not have this incredible book centring on his restless discontent. I read it on the recommendation of another friend and, despite its status as a classic, I really did not know what to expect. Thoroughly depressing as the content is, the combination of wonderfully crafted prose and compassion at its heart make this one of the one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. My emotional response to this book was so strong that even now, nine months later, I react physically whenever I think about it. You can’t live in a world where this book exists and squander the opportunity to read it.

Happy New Year to you. May it be filled with great reads!

book pile