Back to School

It’s now two days until school starts again so half of me is extremely excited about getting back to work and half of me is anxious about the craziness that is about to ensue! The holiday has been absolutely wonderful (a trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar being the highlight) but when the weather is rubbish and you’re at home on your own all day, the prospect of human interaction again becomes very appealing!

This summer was my first experience of a GCSE results day when I’d taught a Year 11 class. I now know what it must be like for parents awaiting their children’s results: petrifying! When I realised that I was still going to be in Africa on results day, I was secretly relieved as it meant I wouldn’t have to see the children’s disappointed faces when they hadn’t got the grades they wanted. Instead, I asked the Vice Principal (who’s also an English teacher) to text me. Thankfully my actual nightmare that they all got Ds didn’t come true and the results were as good as I could have hoped for.

This time last year I’d just found out that I was going to take a bottom set Y11 Literature class. Due to timetabling issues, their Language teacher couldn’t take them for Literature as well, so it was down to me. I was apprehensive about this task. Taking on a class at the start of Y11 is renowned for being difficult (usually teachers take their students all the way from Y10 to the end of their GCSE course). Adding to my apprehension was the fact I’d never taught the course before and to top it off, I knew there were some extremely tricky characters in 11D. Nevertheless, something I’ve learnt from working at my school is the importance of rising to challenges – you can surprise yourself by what you can achieve.


Despite fretting for most of the year that my students were going to fail, their results were brilliant. Out of a bottom set of fifteen students, nine passed with C grades and one achieved a B grade. Two students’ results stood out to me in particular. One girl, who was not expected to pass any of her subjects, scraped a C. In fact, Literature and Art were the only subjects she did pass. She is now my hero. Another girl I was over the moon for was a student who had spent her whole time answering Section B on paper 2 and left no time for Section A. As both sections are weighted equally, I thought her chance of a C was gone but having now seen a breakdown of their scores, it turns out her answer for Section B was A* quality…she obviously knew what she was doing all along!

a level results celebrations

She wasn’t the only one to write an A* response to Section B either, which I think shows just how important it is to believe in the potential of every child, even if they’re in the bottom set. In fact in most schools, bottom set students are written off (they’re not targeted to get Cs so not as much attention is given to them). At Charter it’s different. Most bottom set students are targeted to pass, which may account for our exceptional results (81% of students get 5 GCSEs at A*-C compared to a national average of 68%). I’m also chuffed to say that all three boys in that class who are in care passed with C grades, even if at certain points of the year they made me want to tear my hair out!

Looking forward, I’ve got lots to be excited about. As well as a bottom set Y7 class and a second set Y8 class, for the first time ever, I’ve been given a top set. What’s more, they’re all girls. I’m hoping it’s going to be a delight. I’ve got so much experience of teaching low ability groups that I think it’s going to be refreshing to work with high ability students. As it’s a Y10 class, I’ll have to get my head around the brand new GCSE specification as well.

I’ve also got another bottom set Y11 class but I’ll be taking them for Language as well as Literature so double the pressure! I’ve taught most of them since they were in Y9 so I know them very well. Unfortunately, most of them flunked their mock exam at the end of Y10, which left me in despair, however in light of the recent results, my faith in my ability to get bottom set students through has been restored.

On top of my teaching and tutoring responsibilities, I’m taking on some wider-school ones too. I’m going to be a mentor for an English NQT, which will mean doing a weekly observation of her teaching and then meeting to discuss the observation, but also anything else she needs support with. I always found my mentor meetings extremely helpful so I hope I can give the same support I received. It will be weird being the one observing rather than the one being observed!

I’ve also now got the unusual job title of Staff Social Event and Well-being Lead. As part of the academy’s effort to reduce staff turn-over, especially amongst newer members of staff, we want to start enhancing the social side of school life. It will be my job to make sure new members of staff are properly introduced and inducted into the city as well as organising social events for the whole staff. I’ll also be responsible for creating a strategy for improving staff well-being because, as in any business/organisation, the happier the staff, the better the results.


It’s fair to say it’s going to be a jam packed year juggling Y11, the new GCSE spec and the new responsibilities, not to mention my other classes and tutor group. I definitely won’t get bored.

Finally, I recently found this incredible TED Talk. Entitled ‘How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard’, it is by a principal of a school in Philadelphia once labelled ‘low-performing and persistently dangerous’. It had so many echoes of the journey that Charter has been on that I was completely gripped. One message from Linda Cliatt-Wayman that stood out to me was that if we are serious about addressing poverty, we MUST have good schools in our poorest neighbourhoods. I’m sure remembering that will make getting out of bed at 6am in the depths of winter that little bit easier!







The Knowledge v Skills Debate

Hello and happy half term. This month’s blog post is going to be based around the knowledge v skills debate in education. In a nut shell it is as follows: a greater emphasis on building students’ body of knowledge verses a greater emphasis on equipping students with transferable skills. Those in the knowledge camp believe that the teaching of facts has been denigrated and consequently led to detrimental gaps in students’ knowledge. Those in the skills camp believe that it is much more worthwhile to focus on the teaching of transferable skills; the ability to analyse, evaluate and synthesise being the holy grail. In this blog post I am going to explain my position on this subject, using anecdotal evidence from my own teaching as well as sources including Daisy Christodoulou‘s ‘Seven Myths of Education’, Daniel Willingham‘s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ and Joe Kirby‘s ‘Pragmatic Education‘ blog.

I became an English teacher around 18 months ago having changed from a career in the media. Many things surprised me when I moved into this world, one of them being the style in which I was expected to teach. Gone were the days of text books (that’s a different, though related, debate), teacher-led instruction and repetitive practice. In it’s place were the creation of lots of powerpoints, student-led learning and self and peer assessment. For example, the first unit I taught my year 8 class was ‘Private Peaceful’. I had assumed that the study of a novel would involve a significant portion of time ensuring they had a solid knowledge of World War 1 and the societal mores of the time, so that they could understand the plot and characters on a deeper level. But at Key Stage 3 English isn’t divided into language and literature, it’s all in one, so rather than this unit being purely literary, it was also designed to improve students’ literacy: their reading and writing skills. So during a writing week, for example, parts of the text would be read but the main focus would be on teaching them how to use certain pieces of punctuation, certain sentence structures and the conventions of descriptive writing in order for them to achieve their target levels in their writing assessment. With no text books, this meant designing activities, with a Private Peaceful theme, from scratch or using the slides in the scheme of work if they fitted your class’ ability. In a way it felt like they could have been studying any novel, the content wasn’t particularly important, what was important was whether they improved their writing/reading skills and levels. Interestingly, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that “teaching content is teaching reading.” In this video, he shows and explains how once a child has learnt to decode, they can decode anything. However, that doesn’t always mean they always understand what they’re reading – that comes from making sure they have a background knowledge to what they’re reading and by activating their prior knowledge. Willingham claims that teaching other subjects such as science, history, music etc is also teaching reading because the knowledge students gain will enhance their comprehension skills.


The reason for this approach to the teaching of English is, in my opinion, to do with the pervasion of the idea that we must teach our children transferable skills. The idea of acquiring facts through rote learning and repetitive practice went out of fashion. In it’s place came the idea that children must discover new learning and the teacher should be playing a facilitating role in that learning, ie not doing too much instruction from the front. Indeed, Daisy Christodoulou’s research into Ofsted lesson reports (she studied 228) for her book ‘Seven Myths About Education’ found that of the lessons that are praised, very few involve the teacher teaching facts. In the lessons that are criticised, they are so for the teacher talking too much, imparting facts or students doing activities that involve factual recall. As Daisy states in her book: “I remember one teacher trainer telling me that if I was talking, the pupils were not learning.” Is it any wonder then that teaching has become massively focussed on children discovering new skills if that is what Ofsted are seeking?

Conversely, just because that’s what Ofsted seem to be looking for, despite Sir Michael Wilshaw stating the contrary, it doesn’t necessarily mean that is what is best for students’ learning. This might sound counter-intuitive – how can the opposite of what Ofsted is looking for be best for the students? Well, that depends on how you believe children learn.

A useful analogy I find is to compare learning to write proficiently to learning to play tennis to a decent standard. No one can just pick up a racket and play tennis well; it takes time and practice. In fact, in order to be able to hit a good forehand every time you step onto the court, you have to hit hundreds and hundreds of forehands over and over again. It is only when your arm muscles develop an automatic memory of how to hit a forehand that you can do it without thinking. When Andy Murray is playing on Centre Court he is not thinking about how to hit a forehand, he’s using his brain to think about tactics. This links to the idea behind our memory, which is divided between long-term and working. Our working memory is easily overloaded, this is where we’re processing new knowledge. Overloading the working memory is fatal, we can only learn a finite amount of new things at once, a maximum of around seven. The long-term memory, however, is infinite and can be relied upon. This is where we keep our times tables, our knowledge of what a verb is, what an adjective is, key historical dates, capital cities, symbols of the periodic table etc. Just like Andy Murray needs to be able to serve well under pressure, we want our students to write well under pressure (in exams). It’s no good if under the stress of an exam, they forget all their capital letters. The way to do this is to make a change in their long-term memory so that using punctuation correctly becomes second-nature – then students can devote their working memory to the actual content of their answers, just like Murray devotes his brain power to his tactics rather than his technique. In Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ he claims that “nothing has been learnt if nothing has been changed in long-term memory.”

Andy Murray of Britain hits a forehand r

From my own experience, I have found it extremely frustrating that no matter how many times I give certain students feedback about their missing punctuation, or give them unpunctuated pieces of writing to punctuate or go over the rules of when to use a full stop, comma etc they still can’t use them in their own writing. Of course this isn’t every student, but it’s enough for it to be a concern, especially when they’re age 14+. How is it that this basic and fundamental aspect of English has not been mastered? How can they hope to produce a cogent piece of writing without the mastery of the full stop? It’s not just low ability students either. I did a placement during my training year at a very expensive boarding school and found myself inserting commas into an A* student’s essay when looking over it.

It is my belief that favouring skills over knowledge has been detrimental to the progress of students. What is the point of being able to write persuasively if you can’t use capitals correctly? I agree that using skills of analysis and evaluation is more advanced than factual recall, but surely certain facts need to be memorised and certain tasks drilled, in order to be able to access these higher-order skills effectively. You can’t analyse the character of Bill Sikes before understanding the society and world he lived in. You can’t write a soaring piece of rhetoric before being able to construct grammatically correct sentences. Moreover, you can’t master the fundamentals of the English language without constant repetition and practice, the type of thing Ofsted frown upon in the classroom.


You may be thinking so far so good, but how do you teach students to commit facts to memory without making the lessons boring? How do you make learning fun? Are you expecting sixth formers to learn by rote? In response to this, I think that practice and repetition is necessary for the novice. The student who hasn’t grasped what comprises a sentence. The student who can’t do their 8 times table. The student who can’t read without stumbling on every other word. Unfortunately, this can be the case for students as old as 15. Learning facts doesn’t have to be boring either: it’s a teacher’s job to bring their subject to life and there are tonnes of fun things you can do with technology and props to make even the dullest content interesting. Now at sixth form, you wouldn’t be there unless you had a certain level of mastery. However, that’s not to say facts should be neglected. In the introduction to Daisy’s book, she cites the example of a history professor who asked his first-year history undergraduates five fairly basic questions about British history: 89% of them could not name a nineteenth-century British prime minister while 70% of them did not know where the Boer Wars took place. As Daisy puts it, “If that is what Russell Group undergraduates do not know, then what can we assume that the 40% of school-leavers who fail to get five A*-Cs at GCSE do know?”

As part of Daisy’s role at Ark as Head of Research and Development, she has been instrumental in designing a new mastery English curriculum for year 7 that is knowledge-led. I am an English teacher at one of the pilot schools so have been lucky enough to teach this curriculum. The course is split into 6 hours of English teaching: 3 hours of literature, 2 hours of grammar and one hour of reading for pleasure. The literature is challenging (we did Oliver Twist in the first term and are now studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and there is a big focus on context before moving onto skills such as textual analysis. The grammar units mean that grammar is taught explicitly and the lessons are teacher led. Students complete activities that involve rigorous practice as well as repetition to ensure they are mastering how to use the English language, and they get immediate feedback in class. The reading for pleasure lesson takes place in our library and aims to instil a love of reading in children so they don’t just associate reading with exams and assessments, but something they can get life-long enjoyment from.

So far I have found this new curriculum to be outstanding. The amount of time devoted to context in the literature lessons means the students are able to have a much fuller understanding of Dickens’ and Shakespeare’s writing. The explicit teaching of grammar means students are cementing their knowledge of how the English language works. The reading for pleasure lesson means we’ve been able to read childhood favourites of mine such as ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘The Hobbit’, two novels that definitely shaped my imagination as a child. By focussing on mastery at Key Stage 3, I hope that by Key Stage 4 the students will be in a position to write accurately under pressure, understand how context influences literature and possess a real love of reading. And that’s a minimum expectation. Using this foundation of knowledge and facts, I want the high ability students to be able to write thought-provoking and perceptive literary criticism essays, compose beautiful prose and get top grades.

I would like to end with a note on cultural capital. Children who come to my school are some of the most deprived in the country – that is no exaggeration. However, it’s not just financial deprivation that they face but cultural as well. Many students have grown up in houses without books, where knowledge and learning isn’t necessarily valued. This can result in some scary situations: students not knowing that Portsmouth is in Hampshire, students not knowing the capital of England, students not knowing the points on a compass, students not being able to tell the time. They are the extreme cases and tend to come from low ability students. However, if I think about our gifted and talented students, I wonder how many of them have seen a play on stage, how many have been to the West End, how many have been to art galleries, how many have seen breath-taking architecture? If we really want to bridge the gap between privileged and underprivileged students, we need to empower them with cultural capital as well as good grades. You can be sure that their middle class contemporaries are benefiting from exposure to such experiences, and it’s not just about impressing an admissions tutor with your knowledge of post-modernist theatre either. In a recent lecture on cultural literacy, Dr Catherine Alexander, former fellow of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, talked about the importance of “knowing stuff” when reading Shakespeare. She said that we need to know the dates in which he was writing; we need to know about Queen Elizabeth I and King James I; we need to understand the role of an actor; we need to know the names of his plays and how theatres worked; we need to know that his company had 12-14 actors; we need to know that young men played women’s roles; we need to know about iambic pentameter; we need to know what a sonnet is. In essence, to be culturally literate, we need knowledge.

Please leave any comments you may have about the knowledge v skills debate, I’d love to hear your opinions.

The Journey To Outstanding

It has been a good six months since I last posted on here so I would forgive you for thinking I’d given up on this blog. The truth is that I meant to post last half term but somehow time just got away from me, you know how it does sometimes. I guess, therefore, it’s also not a surprise that I’m doing this post on the last night of the Christmas holidays!

A lot has happened over the last six months in terms of my teaching career and I’m happy to say it’s been hugely positive. I’m now a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) and if you remember, last year I blogged about the ups and downs of being a trainee teacher in an inner city school. You’ll be glad to know that it does get easier and in this post I’ll try to explain why.

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but by the end of the summer holidays I was actually bored! The last two weeks of August were dull and grey so I couldn’t even spend the time topping up my tan. With my husband and friends at work, my family miles away and no children or pets for company, I started to get itchy feet. So, like a good NQT, I set about doing some prep for the new school year.

I remembered my first few lessons as a trainee in September 2013 and shuddered….I could not let that humiliation happen again and I could not make the same mistakes twice – that would be unforgivable. How could I do things differently? How was I going to make an impression on my new students so that they knew I meant business? How was I going to inspire and motivate them?

I thought hard about this and then remembered a video ARK’s Head of Teacher Training, Marie Hamer, had sent me this time last year. It was of a teacher, Tyler Hester, in California delivering his expectations lessons to his class. He taught in a deprived part of the state called Richmond, so not a dissimilar context to mine. I remember watching it a year ago and not really gaining too much from it. Watching it through the eyes of someone now with a year’s experience under their belt was like a revelation. I could see all the subtle but highly effective behaviour management techniques that Tyler was using, ones that I’d read about in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion. I could see them working and I could see how he was motivating the students too.

I meant to just watch the first video, but ended up watching two more of his lessons plus an interview with him. I was completely mesmerised with how in control he was of his class but also how warm he was towards the students. I was even more excited when I found out that he’d had a terrible first year in teaching but had been able to turn it around by being “obsessive” about implementing behaviour management techniques. His success made me feel even more confident about going into my second year and brought home just how important those first few lessons are with your classes. First impressions count.

For me, there were a few key things that I found especially effective in order to create the right classroom culture. With my new year 7 class I made sure I was constantly narrating the positive. Something I noticed Tyler doing was saying “Period 3, you are all meeting my expectations”. That verbalising of what they are doing right makes them feel great about themselves right from the off.

I also made sure I “sweated the small stuff” early too. There was one child who whispered to another, despite the fact I’d asked the class to do a task in silence. That resulted in me having a private word with the child and letting them know that was their first warning. By picking them up on the small stuff, it prevents bigger issues later down the line. Being crystal clear of expectations is another thing I noticed Tyler doing well. During independent tasks he often says “In complete silence, I want you to…..” By making your expectations explicit, there can’t be any doubt in the students’ minds how they’re supposed to be working; you cannot assume that children know when they should and should not be talking.

Another idea I borrowed was clapping a beat to get the students’ attention. If you’ve set the pupils on a paired task, getting them to draw their conversations to a close can be difficult without raising your voice. Rather, the clap signals that they need to stop their conversations and they show they’ve understood this by clapping the beat back. This works brilliantly with my Y7 class (there’s 31 of them) and saves your voice box! I wouldn’t use this with my older students but lower down the school, especially with big classes, it’s great.

For my Y10 class, I had to think about how to motivate them. This was a class who I’d taught for half of last year and, as a bottom set, really need that motivation to keep them going. The first tactic I borrowed from Tyler was getting them to realise the correlation between literacy and their future. By showing them the stats to do with literacy and prison and education and salaries, I wanted to give them that kick start in realising just how important their time in the classroom is. I also borrowed Tyler’s reward system, which I thought was genius. Every time a student does something merit worthy they get a ticket (I bought a book of raffle tickets from the pound shop). If they get one ticket that results in a glitter pound (like giving some skin but with a twist), five tickets results in a positive phone call home and ten tickets results in me buying them a book of their choice from Amazon. This slightly unconventional method of rewards shows them that their good behaviour and effort is noticed and gives them even more incentive to make the right decisions.

My first term as an NQT has had its challenges (namely the workload) but it has also been really enjoyable. Yes that’s right, teaching has been a JOY! In general I wake up and get excited about the lessons I’m going to deliver and get great pleasure from delivering them. It’s not about getting through them any more, it’s about enjoying them and seeing the students flourish. My mentors continue to be highly supportive and comments such as “I was really impressed with what I saw in your lesson today” from the Associate Principal after a walk-through have all really helped to build my confidence. I even got my first ever “Outstanding” lesson observation judgement at the end of term – what a way to finish, I couldn’t have been prouder!

I’m now looking forward to building on the progress I’ve made over the last term in 2015. I think momentum, consistency and confidence are key. Whether you’re in teaching or not, I wish you all a happy and healthy new year and the best of luck in all of your endeavours! Watch this space for more updates on life as an NQT.